Asia first timer trip report

Jan 18th, 2006, 03:58 AM
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Yes Tamara that was me. Go ahead and tell me where you're going after Thailand and I'll start making plans... : )

I was thinking about you as I strolled through the many markets in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Very cool beads and things for making jewelry all over the place. Great prices.
offwego is offline  
Jan 18th, 2006, 04:35 AM
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an absolutely brilliant post which makes us all aware of the possibilities and gives people a chance to consider before their trip.

While in Cambodia, we took cues from our guide as to what was appropriate with regard to buying and giving. He seemed to have a grasp of some individual circumstances. For example when we went to Kbal Spean it was at the weekend and the enterprising children were there because it wasn't a school day. The exchanges we had were so friendly and good-humoured.
As we understood it, the money collected by the disabled musicians at the temples went to a local charity for landmine victims. We were also made aware as to what were locally owned businesses and restaurants. It pleased us that our hotel, the Borei Angkor was also locally owned and run.

Your posting highlights so many issues about tourism generally and I appreciate your honesty with your musings. Your feelings of voyeurism is something I can relate to and striking an aware balance is something I strive for.

1 million tickets were sold at Angkor Wat last year between January and October. New hotels are opening at a fantastic rate. In the peak season there are not enough professional English speaking guides to go round, presumably the same for many languages. All this foreign currency, yet so little of it gets filtered down especially into the rural communities.
Education is so fundamental.

I was aware that Dara and Ponheary had involvement with local schools and things had been mulling through my head since being home. Thank you for bringing all the facts and figures to our attention.
Kippy is offline  
Jan 18th, 2006, 04:57 AM
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ofwego, it seems this time I am following you as my trip begins in 2 weeks!

I have a feeling That Thailand will be every bit as wonderful as Croatia but in a MUCH different way.

Was the balloon ride really only $15?!?! We did a balloon ride in Cappadocia, Turkey last year and paid about $120 a piece!! We may have to try to squeeze that into our 4 night trip to Siem Reap!

I do plan on stocking up on beads while in Thailand!

I think my next trip will also be to SE Asia, maybe Luang Prabang and Vietnam. Who knows?

Nice to hear from you over here!

eurotraveller is offline  
Jan 18th, 2006, 05:37 AM
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Tamara I should elaborate and say the balloon is attached to a rope and all it does is climb about 130 feet into the air where you stay up for maybe 10 minutes then they pull you back down again. It's not a balloon ride in the literal sense.

You do get a good sense of scale from up there and the surrounding countryside is beautiful.

offwego is offline  
Jan 18th, 2006, 06:08 AM
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I e mailed Ponheary and she has already replied. I also sent this thread to all my friends.... great responses. Divediva, one of my friends is an artist, and wants me to find the little girl you spoke of, and is giving me money for her art supplies. Offwego, see what you started?
jodo is offline  
Jan 18th, 2006, 07:13 AM
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that's why I love this board!

Jodo perhaps you can contact Ponheary again and ask her to look out for the artist at Angkor Wat (during her many trips there between now and when you go) and arrange a specific meeting time and place with her for your visit. Would be a bummer if you couldn't find her when you arrived with her stuff.

offwego is offline  
Jan 18th, 2006, 07:33 AM
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great idea...I'll do that tonight!
jodo is offline  
Jan 18th, 2006, 07:51 AM
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This is a lovely thread. There are so many ways we can have positive impacts on the places we visit.

It's worth remembering that as poor as we see the area around Siem Reap, it's the richest area of Cambodia. This is where the tourist dollars flow in, and it's where many donation dollars stay. For that reason, in addition to giving locally, I try to make sure to give to one or more NGOs that service the whole country.

I was thinking about ways we can have positive impact (in addition to giving money or supplies to schools or money to NGOs) after reading this thread, and thought of several.

I make sure to buy from fair-trade crafts stores such as the one in Siem Reap that trains land-mine victims to make traditional crafts (or Craftlink in Hanoi, or the craft villages near Doi Tung in the Golden Triangle). I do buy from individual craftspersons, as well as buying from places such as Artisans d'Angkor which is working to preserve the knowledge of old crafts in Cambodia.

(I know there are differences of opinion about some of these things...) I do talk with the from kids at the temples, and do buy from them. I also gave to maimed beggars in Siem Reap. Giving to beggars is considered an "obligation" in many of the countries we visit (unlike in the US where giving to beggars is perceived to encourage begging).

One of my favoriite charities is Heifer, International. Check out their website if you don't know about them.

By the way, offwego, I was fascinated by our differences in perception. I was amazed and delighted by the strength of the human spirit in a place where there has been so much suffering. The children at the temples, as poor as they were, played and laughed. They took pride in telling about the temples and knew they were built "by Cambodians!!" They also spoke with sadness about the carnage of the Khmer Rouge, the people they killed, the temples they desecrated.

This thread is a reminder that while we often attend to the minutae of travel on this board (where to eat, the services on airlines), we also hope to encourage each other to make real, human contact with the people in the places we visit.
Kathie is offline  
Jan 18th, 2006, 09:36 AM
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Kathie I couldn't agree more and our viewpoints are not all that different; I think I just failed to elaborate on the strength of these fine people. Thanks for bringing up that point.

The people in Siem Reap are resilient as all humans are. It's just a fact that humans cannot do anything else until their basic requirements for food and shelter are met. Humans can't move on to learning, literacy, friendship, betterment, enlightenment, or anything of the sort until basic survival needs are met.

It worries me to see a whole nation of people who are basically dysfunctional then, because so many of them have to struggle all day with the basics. I think that's the part that is so disheartening. How will they move on?

We also gave money to many adult beggars, both young mothers with children and landmine victims. I tried my best to steer the children toward school and away from "selling crap to tourists" as much as possible but there's also the knowing that many of the kids are indeed going to school and also have to work. The money they make helps support the family so we did the best we could in making those judgement calls.

The knee jerk reaction is to just run through the town littering the place with $5 bills. But in the long run what good does that do?

Also I keep remembering a quote I read somewhere that said 30 years of tourism is harder on a culture than 300 years of colonialism. Though Ponheary insists that tourism is good for Siem Reap as it increases the amount of money coming into the community, one wonders what the long-term effect will be.
offwego is offline  
Jan 18th, 2006, 10:57 AM
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offwego, yes, we are talking about two sides of the same coin.
Kathie is offline  
Jan 18th, 2006, 12:58 PM
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Bangkok oh my!

Flew from Austin to San Francisco and spent the night in the City before flying Evergreen Deluxe on Eva Air. The flight left at midnite and the seats were very comfortable, so we slept for about 7 hours straight without drugs and alcohol (a first). Layover in Taipei; had a decent bowl of noodles at the airport. Stretched our legs a bit and then loaded up to take the last 4 hours into Bangkok. Of interest to us were the nicely dressed touts at the duty free stores in the Taipei airport. We thought it was funny and a harbinger of what probably lay ahead.

We arrived in Bangkok at about 11:30 am. Got our bags and got past immigration by 12:30. A representative from the Peninsula was there to greet us, whisked us and our bags away to the car and off we went. So easy! Upon arrival at the hotel, another nice young lady met us at the door and took us to our room for check-in which was also nice. Was extremely smooth getting there and we hoped this trend would continue.

We felt pretty rested, all things considered and we were ready to eat so we freshened up and walked over to the Sala Rim Nam for lunch. We really enjoyed the lunch buffet there and the introduction to all the great food we would be having during our stay in Thailand. After lunch we went across the river and visited the Shangri-la and the Oriental. We felt we made the right choice hotel-wise, but really I think they are all very nice and would gladly stay in any one of them. Later in the trip, we went to the lunch buffet at Lord Jim’s and decided the Oriental is a bit “worn” restaurant-wise and the service just not quite on the same par as at the Pen, but really at this point we are splitting hairs. These big Asian luxury hotels are heavenly.

We had scheduled with Ratt and she was to pick us up at the hotel our second day. Late the afternoon of day one, we got a call from a woman named “Tong” to say that Ratt would not be able to be our guide as requested and that she (Tong) would be filling in. I thought, OK Whatever. She seemed very nice on the phone and her English was exceptional and so we told her our first item on the agenda was to go to Wat Ben at 6am and make merit by giving alms to the monks. Each day of our visit we wanted to make merit in different ways and asked her if she could help us with that. No problem says she, so we made plans to meet in the lobby at 5:30 am. We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening that first day in the shops around the Oriental and went to bed early.

The heat: I'm from South Texas and from about June to September we have the exact same weather as Bangkok, so I felt prepared. The big difference is that in Texas I go from my air conditioned car to my air conditioned office to my air conditioned home and am not really out in the heat as much. So yes, it took it's toll, but more than the heat I think it's the pollution that really wears you down. As I said before, staying off western food seems to help alot and then it's just water, water water. We poured sweat but it wasn't that bad.

We woke up extremely early the second day and decided to go downstairs and have some coffee and wait for Tong. We were downstairs by about 4:45 (couldn't sleep) and the only other people there were a Thai couple. Well it was Tong and her husband, already there….she said she was so nervous she couldn’t sleep! Tong’s husband Chang had come along to help with the merit making. We got out to their car and they had spent the evening before preparing enough food for us to each feed 9 monks. Food and lotus flowers. She instructed us in the way and we enjoyed our first Bangkok morning at Wat Ben hearing the monks chant and making merit. For us, it really helped put everything into perspective, calmed us down and got us in the right mindset. I will say that I've never spent so much time on my knees on the concrete and making merit certainly makes you feel your age!

Tong was very nervous about the fact that Ratt had scheduled her in at the last minute (so were we, frankly) but after the merit making and after talking with her a bit, we knew she was the perfect match for us. Ratt had emailed me a couple of times prior to the trip trying to get me to commit to a “program”. We don’t like to travel that way. We never know what we’ll be in the mood for from one day to the next and don’t like any sort of a schedule. We both live and die by it at home, so it’s the first thing we abandon on vacation.

The only thing I told Ratt was we definitely wanted to start each day with merit making and we wanted to eat about every hour on the hour. Street food and noodle stands; not tourist restaurants. We had about three places we absolutely did want to visit and beyond that, we wanted to let the day simply "unfold". Perhaps this is why she shucked us and hooked us up with Tong, a devout Buddhist, insatiable gourmand and one with an extremely carefree and flexible attitude. She was the absolute perfect match for us and I'm so glad we did not have to slog around with Ratt, being dragged through the streets of Bangkok like a herd of cows. Tong was certainly more of a tour guide than just a driver. Her knowledge of the temples, the history, the architecture, the religion and culture was superb and her English was very good. I wonder if any of you have any feedback on your experience with Ratt. Did it seem like she was being at all pushy about your "program" or is it just me? Maybe I just took it wrong. Maybe she just wants to make sure people see alot of things. And while I'm so grateful things turned out the way they did, I'm not sure it was appropriate for Ratt to just have Tong call us the evening of our arrival and announce there had been a change in who was to be our driver. Regardless, I feel so lucky that fate intervened and brought Tong to us. I think Ratt's incessant program would have wrecked our stay. As it was we enjoyed Bangkok immensely but it was all due to the efforts of Tong and her ability to understand what kind of travelers we are and suit the experience to us.

Anyway, if any of you feel like you might need less "Ratt-style" and more "Tong-style", I have her contact info.

After the merit making, we were of course all hungry so off we went on our first day of eating through Thailand. We went from one market to another, one food stall after another, trying all the local delicacies. Now let me say that we had both spent 3 months before this trip taking huge doses of acidophulus, bifidobacterium and stomach enzymes so by the time we hit the streets we were bulletproof and could see around corners, so we had no fear of street food. It was also extremely helpful having Tong around to guide us to some of her favorite noodle places and tell us what was what of the hundreds of kinds of weird delicacies at all the stands. A few of the things we tried were “spit-worthy” in other words, hard to get down but all in all we loved the food in Thailand, especially the simple food. Throughout the course of the trip we hated eating in restaurants that were doing any sort of Thai-Euro fusion. Thai food is so perfect in it’s simplicity and I love the eating style there-just grazing all day, munching around on this or that. Anytime, anywhere you can find amazing food. We never got sick once in three weeks eating street food.

We loved seeing the Grand Palace and Wat Pho. Those would be must-see sights for anyone going to Bangkok and well worth the visit. Of course having Tong with us to explain everything made it so much more satisfying. How else would we have known to throw the 108 coins in VERY LOUDLY so you'll be heard? Across the street from the Grand Palace was a cafe yen vendor. This was to become our favorite thing. Basically iced coffee with sweet condensed milk served in a long plastic bag full of ice with a straw. You certainly couldn't sit it down anywhere, but it was delicious and COLD and a good pick-me-up. We drank these incessantly. They cost 10 Baht.

After the palace excursions it was of course time to eat and Tong took us to a restaurant Ratt recommended and I'm sorry I didn't write the name down, probably because I wasn't all that impressed. It was definitely for tourists, the food toned down dramatically. I did have fluffy catfish there which was good. After that, we asked Tong to take us to only her favorite places and keep us off the "Ratt list of restaurants" and then we did get into some GOOD FOOD. We went to a place in Siam Square called Owe Dee Noodle (this is the phonetic pronunciation) that was incredible. What a dive! I would have never gone in there on my own.

We spent one evening at Suan Lum night market and that was a great time. Tong stayed along with us until very late at night which was really great. Technically I guess her "shift" should have ended quite a bit earlier in the day but she would keep on going as long as we did which we appreciated very much. We did quite alot of shopping there and bought some great handbags and lots of souvenirs. Tong was a ruthless bargainer. We joked with her that no one at the market would make any money as long as she was around! We once again had great fun sampling food at the food court and drinking german beer, (a hefeweisen and a bowl of khao soi somehow works!) listening to rather good covers of rather bad American pop music. It was quite a fun evening. It's a shame they will close it.

We also spent one afternoon shopping around at Siam Square, MBK, and went to the Paragon. We liked MBK but once we hit the malls, I felt like I was back in the US and didn't much care for it. The Paragon Mall was completely over the top and is a true testament to the sort of gross consumerism I personally detest. The aquarium downstairs looked nice, but we can see aquariums at home, so we passed. If I'd been bored, too hot or had kids along, it would have been a great stop.

We did go the Jim Thompson Outlet store and bought a few things. I found the quality to be great but with prices to match. I don't think it's that much different from what I can get at home so I'm not sure what all the fuss is about. Maybe I'm missing something?

Tong took us to a foundation where you buy coffins for unclaimed bodies. These bodies are cremated, but still there is a coffin required. They cost 500 Baht each. ($12.50 US) You walk in a big room and sit down and a lady takes your money and has you write your name and a prayer on a piece of paper. She gives you that, plus a certificate that says how many coffins you bought. You step into another room, put some rubber cement on the paper and affix it to one of the coffins there in a large stack, while praying for the deceased person. You then step into the next room which is a small temple, pray again for the person and burn the certificate. Tong explained that burning the proof you did the good deed gives more merit. What struck me the most was how many seemingly poor people were in there buying the coffins. Tong told us that it is a very pitiful thing indeed to die with no one to attend to your funeral and that these spirits will wander the earth unless someone shows them some kindness. There were many people there buying coffins. That was a cool thing.

While I'm thinking about it, one of the other merit making rituals we did was going to the fish market, buying fish and turtles and setting them free in the river. We did not do the birds for the obvious reasons. Of all the merit making, buying the coffins was my favorite for some reason. I also liked the visit to the Abbott to take him a tub full of essential items; umbrellas, toothpaste and other sundry items.

We went to the Amulet Market adjacent to Wat Mahathat and bought a selection of amulets. Some we saw were cheap. Others were in the hundreds of thousands of baht. It was good to have Tong along to explain what many of the amulets were for. Very few of the vendors spoke english. It was very interesting looking at all of them and gaining an understanding the deep superstitions of the people. After having been there, I then noticed many people in Bangkok wearing them. We brought home an interesting selection. My staff now has them all at their desks so we'll see what happens! There were again many good food stalls around the area of the amulet market, heading towards the pier.

Tong arranged a klong tour one afternoon. It was quite fun and in the heat of the afternoon was a good escape. I did my best to keep my mouth shut so as to not ingest any of that nasty water. Street food is one thing, but man that river water would be pushing the envelope. It was very relaxing and something I would recommend. About halfway, a man pulled up to the boat selling bread which we bought so we could feed the fish. These fish were HUGE, hungry and numbered in the hundreds. They practically leapt out of the water to snag the bread.

On New Year's Eve we made reservations on the Manohra Cruise. Because it was New Year's it was rather expensive but they served some great food for one of these type cruises. I'm not sure if it would always be that good; I think the New Year's Eve thing was something special they don't normally do. It was fun to cruise the river and see not only the festivities going on at the big hotels, but smaller restaurants along the way and people's homes with guests over and everyone waving back and forth. Going by seeing Wat Arun at night was a spectacle. It was just great. They deposited us back at the Peninsula Pier at 11:30 and we scurried to our room on the 34th floor and got out on the balcony. At midnite, the band played below while the most awesome fireworks went off all around the city. The Peninsula display was right in front of us, eye level. Very loud. Very plentiful. On and On. We squealed like little girls. It was just amazing and left us breathless.

On New Year's Day we went briefly to the Weekend Market. It was easy to get there on the Skytrain but wow was it ever hot and crowded. We stayed there for a few hours and did buy a few things. Bargaining was fun. More cafe yen. After drinking the coffee, it was good to have a bag of ice to cool your neck now and then. We ate some really bad grilled squid. It was the only thing I actually spit out. But we also had some very interesting fruit, some sweet rice cakes, some pork dumplings, On and on went the food. Tried to stay out of the "bird area". Nancy Chandler's map was very helpful. Later in the day we took our flight out to Siem Reap. We left some luggage containing our Bangkok purchases in the left luggage area in the international terminal, planning to pick them up again on our way out of the country. That worked well. It was 90 baht per day per bag.

We liked Bangkok very much. It's crowded, polluted and suffers from the usual list of urban ills but we thought it was a great intro to the country. Staying in the lap of luxury at the Peninsula didn't hurt, but the most valuable thing we had in Bangkok was the time we spent with Tong. There's no way the city would have opened up for us the way it did without her. I think anyone who goes to Bangkok without a guide is really missing out and I think this way of moving through the city without a "program" gets you more in touch with the people and the way of life there.

Sorry for the length of this. Rambling is in my nature.
Tomorrow I will conclude with Chiang Main and Koh Samui.

offwego is offline  
Jan 18th, 2006, 01:36 PM
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Please DO NOT stop rambling! I love the details! Thanks for taking the time out to write.
I'm beginning to think I should include works of charity on all my trips, and become more organised (as you were) about it.
Femi is offline  
Jan 18th, 2006, 01:56 PM
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offwego... i have really enjoyed your trip report...very vivid and interesting...

we spent 3 days with ratt in 2004 travelling around bangkok...maybe that is why she now likes to structure her days. we ran her ragged...constantly altering our plans....she was wonderful
but it sounds like things worked out for the best by your meeting tong...
next trip i will request her for our bkk days.

at the main temple angkor wat, my young artist friend usually was there in the afternoons because she goes to school (she was in her school uniform both times we saw her.) i believe her name is sonya, very pretty,long dark hair and she spoke very good english. if ponheary knows of her, i would love to figure out a way to sponsor her studies...can you please help with this , hopefully ponheary can find out more info for me. i could correspond with ponheary to set this up.

thanks again for the great report and your help
divediva is offline  
Jan 18th, 2006, 02:00 PM
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offwego, I am REALLY enjoying your report. It seounds like you had the most wonderful time and making me wish I was back in SEA right now!

I'm going to Java and Bangkok in May and plan on staying a week in BKK (at the Pen of course, my favorite hotel). This will be our 6th trip to BKK but I think for this trip, I want to do some diferent things and Tong sounds fantastic. I would love to do some of the things you did to make merit, the buying coffins sounds like a great idea. Can you post Tong's contact info? Thanks, Laurie
laurieco is online now  
Jan 18th, 2006, 02:05 PM
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Offwego-In light of your good works in Cambodia and Thailand, I am unilaterally waiving the late fee. This is a once in a lifetime occurrence and please do not expect any such dispensation in the future. The goodwill of Pandas is extremely limited.

Ponheary had E-mailed us and suggested that we bring school supplies with us. We did. She said that she would bring them to a school the day after we left. We were disappointed that we did not get to interact with the children the same way as you, but I'm reminded that anonymous giving is the most selfless.

As an aside, I note that you have a particularly enticing writing style. Your report reads very smooth.
Gpanda is offline  
Jan 18th, 2006, 02:21 PM
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i am really enjoying this trip report, its focus is very different. Keep it coming! - and could you post Tong's details, many thx
Bella_Bluebell is offline  
Jan 18th, 2006, 02:35 PM
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Excellent report, offwego.
Good point gpanda about anonymity in good deeds.Probably why the coffin receipts were burned. 0

I do wonder if Tong will continue to offer such service for long. I sense many of these drivers go all out at the start, then get tired after a while.

got2travel2 is offline  
Jan 18th, 2006, 02:59 PM
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Happy to Post Tong's Contact info:

Pornpitcha Kaewtrakulpong <[email protected]>

Thank Goodness thais go by their nicknames!

GPanda I appreciate the reprieve and yes, got2travel2, we all get burned out eventually! Tong has quite a fire in her. She may last longer than most!

offwego is offline  
Jan 18th, 2006, 03:13 PM
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I love all the details, too. Keep going! Lots of good ideas for our next trip. Thank you for taking the time to post your report!
KimJapan is offline  
Jan 18th, 2006, 04:38 PM
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Wow I just love your report. Thank you so much. It sure makes me want to return, and soon.
JohnH is offline  

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