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Bangkok, Siem Reap and Luang Prabang--Notes from the Road

Bangkok, Siem Reap and Luang Prabang--Notes from the Road

Jan 13th, 2012, 06:53 AM
Join Date: Jul 2003
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(aussiedreamer, I'm very generous! I'll trade places with you for a few days, just so you can have a look and experience cold/snow/ice etc)

Yestravel, ms-go, I hope you can manage a GTG. Putting names and faces together is one of the neatest things to do, thanks to fodors. I've met lots of really interesting (and very nice) people from this forum.
simpsonc510 is offline  
Jan 13th, 2012, 08:36 AM
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Ms-go, loving your trip report. We leave to BKK and Siem Reap March 8TH.... can't wait
kikiv is offline  
Jan 13th, 2012, 04:57 PM
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Day 2: Believe the hype!

Today’s report isn’t going to be too long. We visited Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm and Angkor Wat, in that order—and whatever number of words we could put down here simply wouldn’t do them justice.

Some places aren’t quite what they’re cracked up to be. We found the temples of Angkor to be everything advertised…and more! Each of the three was a very different experience. Angkor Thom, the massive and fascinating complex that just continued and continued to reveal new elements (we could have spent all day here and not seen it all). Ta Prohm, mysterious, beautiful and half ruined. Angkor Wat…simply majestic. And every step of the way, we kept asking ourselves, how could people craft this volume of structures, in the jungle, with just stone and simple carving tools?

The temples we saw were not just impressive in terms of their size, scale and architectural foundation, but also on a small scale in terms of decorative detail and sculpture (e.g., the bas relief that runs a mile-and-a-half around the interior arcade of Angkor Wat depicting epic stories and battles in mind-blowing detail).

Oh, yes…we saw a REAL monkey today at Angkor Wat, and a few along the side of the road somewhere.

We’ve seen some pretty impressive things in our travels, and this ranks right up there at the top—and, we’re not done! We have 2.5 more days to go.

On the logistical side, we bought three-day tickets to the monuments at $40 per.

As mentioned yesterday, our room comes with a tuk-tuk driver for the day. We met Vesna at about 9 am, and he provided helpful, courteous, punctual service through the day, until our return to the hotel at about 4 pm. He also met us back at the hotel at 7 pm and took us into town for dinner and then brought us back at 9:30.

We’re here in the “cooler,” drier season and found it pretty pleasant yesterday, for the most part. It got a little warm for us when we were in the sun for prolonged periods, but there were usually some shady parts in striking distance if we needed to cool off. We didn’t find it uncomfortable at all traveling around by tuk-tuk, as opposed to air conditioned car (although be aware it is a little bumpy, and a little dusty, and a just little heart-stopping on a few occasions when you see a bus or large truck approaching head on).

Our hotel has a pool, and it was nice to be able to come back and cool off for a bit before heading out to dinner.

Meals…well, we’re eating pretty well and definitely too much. Our hotel has wonderful breakfasts. Lunch was somewhere near Ta Prohm, selected by Vesna, and it was fine (if not a little expensive for this neck of the woods). We had dinner at Khmer Kitchen, in an alley off Pub Street, and quite enjoyed it—particular the amok (DD’s new Cambodian fave), but also lab, a fish dish with garlic and basil (can’t remember name), banana blossom salad, and dumplings (all for $15).

Today, we are off to Banteay Srei and to do a food distribution at the Knar School!
ms_go is online now  
Jan 13th, 2012, 05:00 PM
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Yestravel, we're staying at Le Bel Air Hotel, which I believe is just a little further away from the town but still an easy walk in for us. Monday night would be great. I'll think about a way to connect off line to work out details.
ms_go is online now  
Jan 13th, 2012, 05:57 PM
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Ms_go, r u on Trip Advisor? If so we could pm.
yestravel is offline  
Jan 13th, 2012, 10:12 PM
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Knar school? If you meet Chenda or Souvanny (both English teachers), Please tell them Lucy from Hawaii really misses them and can't wait to come back!
lcuy is offline  
Jan 13th, 2012, 10:27 PM
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This is so much fun to read, thanks so much ms_go. I'm following along intently. Love to hear about any standout dining experiences in Siem Reap.

Really enjoyed your take on the Temples.

(simpsonc510 we're planning to have xmas in Germany this year, so hopefully I'll experience some 'real' snow.)
aussiedreamer is offline  
Jan 14th, 2012, 01:12 AM
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yestravel, I am (same user name), but I've never PM'd on there before. If you send me one, I'll try to access it. I also am on Flyertalk with the same user name, and I have done private messages there.

lcuy, I didn't see your post until after we were there, sorry. We enjoyed passing out food to the students today and visiting the school.

Thanks, aussiedreamer. We're having a great time here!

And we're not missing the snow at home at all!
ms_go is online now  
Jan 14th, 2012, 03:08 AM
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I think I successfully sent u a Message from flyertalk with my direct email it. We'll c!
yestravel is offline  
Jan 14th, 2012, 03:22 AM
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Thanks! We are out for dinner but I'll check later when I get back to my computer.
ms_go is online now  
Jan 15th, 2012, 04:38 PM
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Day 3: Back to school—A lesson in perspective

One thing that was on our wish list for this trip, from the start, was some sort of activity to support Ponheary Ly’s work with the schools in this area of Cambodia. We have been reading about—and inspired by—this on Fodor’s for the past few years. It was one of the few things we planned in advance, albeit not too far in advance due to too many things going on lately (thanks, offwego, for helping put this together in the last couple of weeks).

The Knar school is about 25-30km from Siem Reap, in the direction of Banteay Srei, which was also on our “must” list of temples for the trip. Given the longer distance and the fact that we were carrying some “goodies” for the foundation, we opted to hire a car (rather than tuk tuk) for the day. The hotel arranged this for a $15 surcharge. Our driver was great, spoke excellent English and gave us a lot of information along the way. He also knows someone connected with the school, so he knew exactly where to go.

We arrived at the school after a 40-minute drive from the hotel, and met up with Fodorite offwego immediately (and it is always so nice to place a face with the name when we meet our fellow Fodoites!) After brief introductions, it was off to the classrooms where we helped to distribute food to all the students at the school. Every kid received some canned fish, soy milk, and instant noodles to take home. We did our best to hand them all out in as fast and efficient a manner as possible, but it was hard not to stop and interact with each of these adorable kids!

Believe us… even the hardest heart would be instantly melted by the smiles of these children. And that is especially true when you understand the circumstances of their upbringing. They aren’t just “economically disadvantaged” or “opportunity-challenged.” They are dirt poor. But here, at this school, they have a chance to learn basic academic skills and vital life lessons as well; for example, on this day, the importance of cleanliness in their environment.

Our visit to the school was on a Saturday, which meant that students participated for only half a day in either a morning or afternoon session. That meant we could visit Bantaey Srei in between the morning and afternoon sessions. (We’ll come back to that in a sec). If anything, the afternoon session was even more spirited than the morning session, and the children could not have been any more appreciative and engaging. They sang songs for us in unison, and we lavished them with applause in return.

We were, of course, very happy to donate all the food for this event, plus some supplies for the school. We are not stranger to donating to worthy causes all over the world, but there is something substantially different about taking part and seeing firsthand the benefit associated with this endeavor. We are not naïve enough to believe that every kid will go on to a great academic career; that’s not what it’s there for. It’s there to give kids a chance. A chance to learn how to write, even if it’s nothing more than their own name. A chance to learn some basic math, even if enough to hold down a shop-keeping job. This and the other PLF schools are doing great work and doing the right thing. We’re happy to have had the opportunity to help out, however small.


Banteay Srei offered yet another completely different temple experience. It isn’t on the scale of the ones we’d seen the day before, but it has remarkable, intricate sculpture work that is surprisingly well preserved for a monument that old. It doesn’t take long to see the whole thing, but there is quite a bit there to see—well worth the trip out there.

We also made a quick stop on the way home at Prasat Kravan, which is notable for its brickwork and bas relief carvings inside the towers.

We were intrigued by Cambodian barbeque after walking by several places downtown the night before. We knew from talking with the driver and some others that the more authentic experience would be near Wat Damnak, but we wanted to combine dinner with shopping, so we headed back downtown and settled in for a dinner of grill-your-own beef, chicken and squid at Cambodian BBQ on Pub Street. We enjoyed it; it was fun! Dessert was ice cream from Blue Pumpkin—and we are still arguing about “the best” flavors. I vote for the cinnamon, but mr_go’s ginger and black sesame was awfully good, too!

After dinner, we walked around the night market and some of the streets in the area. One of the notable activities, available on most every block, is the opportunity to stick your feet in a fish tank and have swarms of hungry fish exfoliate and massage your feet. While it seemed a strange idea, the price was right at $2. Mr_go and DD decided to give it a try and reported that the experience was odd (definitely not for the ticklish) but somewhat effective—feet felt pretty good afterward.

We are running a day behind now. Yesterday we visited the fishing village on Tonle Sap and then several more temples in the afternoon--will try to get that posted later today. We are off to Luang Prabang this afternoon.
ms_go is online now  
Jan 15th, 2012, 05:22 PM
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What a wonderful time you are having!!! Keep the report coming.
simpsonc510 is offline  
Jan 15th, 2012, 07:05 PM
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I'm enjoying your trip. Thanks for posting.
Kathie is offline  
Jan 16th, 2012, 08:54 AM
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Ms_go, re the monkeys at Angkor Wat - they were there when we pulled away, and our first thought was to wonder whether they're "planted".
sf7307 is offline  
Jan 16th, 2012, 09:02 AM
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Great report. We too delivered a meal to the Knar school. We don't usually return to places, but I long to return...and probably spend some time volunteering. Looking forward to your LP posts (another destination on our wish list).
crosscheck is offline  
Jan 16th, 2012, 03:35 PM
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Day 4: “Apparently there’s something famous over here”

This was the last day of our three-day temple pass, and we still had many we wanted to see—but given the heat and humidity, we didn’t really want to spend the entire day trekking over the ruins. We decide to start the day with a trip to the “floating” village of Chong Khneas, although at this time of year it really isn’t floating; the houses are a good eight to ten feet over the surface of the water, and some aren’t even over water at all.

First, we take a 30-minute tuk-tuk ride from Siem Reap to the river basin/inlet. The journey out passes small villages of wood and thatched huts, many on stilts, and the occasional newer construction house that dwarfed the others. Some homes have a cow or three or four in the front yard. They all seem to have a smiling, waving child.

From there, the trip out to the actual fishing village is somewhat of a journey in itself. First, you buy tickets and then keep driving down a bumpy dirt path lined with fields. Eventually, a small waterway appears along one side, and then a bunch of small, flat-bottomed boats. After some prolonged and animated discussion in Khmer between our driver and a small group of men, one with a shirt that said “Glock” and had pictures of guns on it, we board a small boat (note, that each party gets its own boat and driver; it’s not a “group” thing).

For a while, we motor down a narrow waterway that eventually becomes wider, and after about 20 minutes the buildings of the village begin to appear—first, the school, and then houses lining both sides of the now fairly wide inlet. The village is abuzz with activity—everything from people doing their laundry in the water to rowing from one house to the next to preparing food to repairing boats. And everywhere, the children eagerly return our smiles and waves.

We pass on the optional rowboat tour through the mangroves (after our trip through a mangrove swamp with Tong a few years ago, how could anything possibly compare ? ), and our driver continues on out onto hazy Tonle Sap. On the way back in, he stops at a dock that consists of a very tenuous plank and ushers us off the boat in into a narrow walkway between two houses. The first sight that greets us was a small child playing in a pile of rubbish. We get the sense that we were supposed to stroll through this village, but glancing left and right, we feel very out of place (we were the only tourists—most of the boats were stopping elsewhere). Straight ahead is a small café, so we buy a couple of drinks and sit down to watch the children playing all around us, including a spirited game of marbles. The young woman working at the café, who was 22 but looked younger than DD, introduces herself and tells us how she is teaching herself to speak English. She even brings out her “Conversational English” book to show us.

As we return toward the starting point, the narrow waterway is now clogged with boats, some of them unattended. Our driver rather skillfully pushes his way past them, even going so far as to ram into them at slow speed. We hit an impasse that looks like it will offer no way forward or back, and we wonder how we (or the driver, that is) would get out of the mess. Suddenly….we look to one bank, and there is Vesna, our intrepid tuk-tuk driver, motioning us to follow. We exit on to the deck of another boat and then launch ourselves off that one on to another and then on to dry land, and we never look back.

Bakong, part of the Rolous group (which is actually older than the Angkor sites), is near the fishing village, so Vesna suggests we stop there on the way back. It’s not a large site, and certainly not a crowded one. Despite its age (it dates from the 9th Century), it still has some interesting carvings and a wealth of character.

After a little rest at the hotel, we head out for our last set of Angkor-area temples.

First up is Preah Khan, which is laid out in a grid-like pattern on perpendicular axes. It has a very long central corridor, through a series of doorways, through which we pass on our quest to find the famous hall of the dancers, or apsara (which has something to do with the title of today’s report). The layout seems a paradise for fans of first-person video games—spooky intersecting corridors where some monster might jump out at any second (although there were a few too many people around for monsters to be lurking today). It rained shortly before our visit, so it is very warm and humid, and puddles make the trekking a bit treacherous.

Preah Neak Pean is a quick visit, relatively speaking. It is a shrine on a small round island, and access to the area is via a long walkway over a mangrove swamp. We can only see the shrine from a viewing area across the water.

Ta Son is a somewhat similar in style to but smaller than Preah Kahn. On the far side is an entry gate that has become almost completely swallowed by an old strangler fig.

Finally, East Mebon. Vesna stops here on the way back to the hotel and asks if we’d like to take a look. It hadn’t been on our planned “list” but looks a little different than the others, so in we go. We pass one person leaving as we enter, and it turns out he was the last visitor of the day prior to us. We have the entire temple—and it isn’t a small one—all to ourselves (in fact, the attendant at the entrance packed up and left for the day while we were there). It has a big, square, almost pyramid-like base. Several of the lower levels are notable for the very large stone elephants at the corners. We climb to the top level, which has a nice view over the fields around it. The sun is starting to go down. We linger longer than we expected to—just soaking in the fact that we were alone on this thousand-year-old monument. It is a great finish to our temple exploration at Angkor. Vesna suggests one other stop on the way back, but we decline. It is almost sunset now, and we decide to end this part of our trip on that high note. We ask Vesna to take us home, and he jokes, “Okay, on to Chicago.”

Dinner tonight is at the hotel. Its restaurant is good, and the nice, quiet, relaxing environment is welcome after a long day.
ms_go is online now  
Jan 16th, 2012, 03:48 PM
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Thanks for the nice comments, everyone. Glad you're enjoying the report! We're really enjoying the trip! We arrived in Luang Prabang yesterday after dark, so we are looking forward to seeing it in the daylight today. We definitely liked what we saw last night! It is refreshingly cooler here--particularly this morning (sweater weather!).

We had a nice dinner and visit with the yestravels last night before they move on today.
ms_go is online now  
Jan 16th, 2012, 03:54 PM
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And apologies for any typos and such above. I just noticed that the verb tenses above are all over the place. We've written a lot of this pretty quickly, and the internet is a bit spotty here this morning, so I didn't proof carefully.
ms_go is online now  
Jan 16th, 2012, 03:59 PM
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Good stuff---certainly not Kansas, Dorthy.
Did I miss the pics or is that a treat I can look forwrd to?
bobthenavigator is offline  
Jan 16th, 2012, 04:06 PM
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Pictures are going to have to come later (maybe much later). We'll send you some links that you might be able to see on Facebook when we get a chance.
ms_go is online now  

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