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Bruce and Marija go to Southeast Asia


Feb 11th, 2013, 07:57 AM
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Bruce and Marija go to Southeast Asia

This was, I believe, the fifth time we planned a winter trip to Southeast Asia, if you don't count the elaborate preparations for the sailing of the mythical Love Boat. Previous trips vaporized but this one actually came to pass. Our itinerary was:

Bangkok (1 night at the Novotel Suvarnabhumi)
Siem Reap (4 nights at the Grand Hotel d'Angkor/Raffles)
Luang Prabang (3 nights at Maison Souvannaphoum Hotel)
Hanoi (4 nights at the Metropole)
Hue (2 nights at La Residence)
Hoi An (2 nights at Life Heritage Resort)
Saigon/HCMC (3 nights at the Majestic)
Bangkok (5 nights at the Peninsula)

Arrangements: :

We bought Bangkok Airlines Discovery Passes to fly between Bangkok and Siem Reap (Bangkok Air), Siem Reap and Luang Prabang (Lao Airlines) and Luang Prabang and Hanoi (Lao Airlines). The cost of the pass was about $500 per person (15,270 THB). Getting the pass was incredibly easy. I emailed [email protected], outlined the flights we wanted and then once they responded (within a day), I sent the credit card info. No phone calls, no hassle. Vietnam Air is not part of the Bangkok Airlines pass so we couldn't use it for Vietnam. We returned from HCMC to Bangkok's Don Mueang Airport with Air Asia which we booked on our own. The Air Asia tickets were about $100 pp. including taxes and other fees.

The Vietnam segment of our trip was booked through Tonkin Travel. Tonkin booked hotels, air, pickups and transfers, a driver and guide for Hue and an all day trip to the Mekong Delta from HCMC. They were easy to work with and the only problem we encountered was that the pickup to the airport in Hanoi was late, probably because traffic around the Metropole was worse than usual due to the visit of the Argentinean president. I'm sure we could have gotten back and forth from the airports on our own cheaper but it was worth it to us not to have to negotiate with taxis at each airport. Tonkin accepts credit cards with a 3% penalty which we preferred to carrying a large amount of cash.
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Feb 11th, 2013, 08:24 AM
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Hi Marija - glad you actually made it, and looking forward to more.
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Feb 11th, 2013, 08:35 AM
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Welcome home! I'm eager to hear all about your trip.
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Feb 11th, 2013, 10:35 AM
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looking forward to the report...good start
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Feb 11th, 2013, 11:28 AM
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Waiting patiently for more...

Welcome home!
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Feb 11th, 2013, 11:51 AM
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Looking forward with anticipation to hearing how it all went, make sure you add all the details ! Glad you got home safe.
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Feb 11th, 2013, 02:33 PM
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At the Novotel Suvarnabhumi

It was close to one in the morning when we finally reached Bangkok. Wasn't much of a surprise that both of our United flights were delayed for several hours due to "technical problems." In Narita we sat on the ground for close to two hours while an electrical problem which wiped out part of the lights was solved. The fix broke the seatbelt and lavatory occupied lights, or they were already broken, but I guess they aren't essential.

Before leaving I made sure I knew how to get to the Novotel Suvarnabhumi from the airport--take the shuttle bus from Door 4. My mistake was trying to confirm my information with an official looking person at baggage control who directed us to an escalator and told us to go down. And down we went following the signs for Airport Hotel. Unfortunately, the signs lead you to the tunnel for the hotel, not to the shuttle bus which takes off from Level 2. It's not simple to talk your way back up to Level 2 from the bowels of the airport, especially when the escalators up are guarded by fierce men who pretend to not speak Lithuanian or English. Once we found Door Number 4 on Level 2 we saw the big sign identifying it as the launching point for the Novotel shuttle. Do NOT follow the signs for Airport Hotel if you want to take the shuttle to the Airport Hotel.

I made it a point to enter our Accor Hotel loyalty number (or some such) when making the hotel reservations in the hope that it might lead to an upgrade. It did. Too bad we only had 6 hours or so in our very comfortable upgraded room. The Novotel has a very sensible policy of renting you the room for 24 hours from the time of check in, regardless of when that is. The upgrade brought its own set of problems. The room I reserved included internet and breakfast, two perks which didn't transfer to the upgraded room. I didn't understand why I could get WiFi in the room until I was told that it was not included with the room. By that point we had already eaten an unexpectedly fine breakfast and were about to head to the airport for our flight to Siem Reap so I abandoned the WiFi issue.

Several days later when checking our credit card charges to see if we were sharing our credit with anyone, I noticed a $68 charge from the Novotel. We had a prepaid rate for the hotel so I wasn't expecting additional charges. I figured I would deal with it once we got home. Soon we received an e-mail from the hotel asking us to complete a survey. I usually ignore these intrusions but thought this might be a quick way to find out about the errant charge. In reply I received some gibberish about out how we were charged what we should pay. This annoyed me so I found the hotel manager's email and repeated my complaint. In a couple of days I received an email (copied to a bunch of people at the Novotel) informing me that the charge I saw never existed. Mysteriously, without a trace, the charge was gone from the credit card. Is that called saving face?!
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Feb 11th, 2013, 03:56 PM
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Warm greetings Marija, and many thanks for your delightful writing. Warms my heart on this warm, early Singapore morning. One more day of CNY holiday for yours truly and others before flying ex-SIN later on for work.

Your description of initial arrival at BKK makes me smile; welcome to the Land of Smiles, indeed. Somehow, someway, reminds me of early Bangkok business trips, arriving late via UA at Don Mueang and on more than a few occasions, walking over and checking in at that fine Amari Airport hotel. (Almost always the 'executive' fifth floor and the rather adjacent 'After Flight Centre' massage centre with the sweetest manager and masseuses; sweet dreams.)

Keep up the brilliant writing Marija; it's right up there with the unmatched and missed dogster, along with the lovely crosscheck (and others). Hope your stay at 'our' cherished Peninsula, Bangkok proved satisfactory -- perhaps even our special suite. And, as always, would be honoured to offer completely unbiased counsel concerning ('our') sensational Singapore Airlines for your future flying endeavours.

All the best to you Marija, and all -- and warm Gong Xi Fa Cai greetings. The past several days in our fine home of Singapore have been most festive, and graced by the presence of cherished family, from rather near and rather far (Scotland; those winter escapees).

macintosh (robert)

... Singapore Girl, You're a Great Way to Fly ...
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Feb 11th, 2013, 09:17 PM
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Just about everyone we met in Bangkok pretended not to speak Lithuanian!
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Feb 12th, 2013, 09:59 AM
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Looking forward to reading this -- expect it will help us decided between India or SE Asia.
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Feb 13th, 2013, 10:04 AM
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Siem Reap

Our flight to Siem Reap on Bangkok Airways was problem free. The only glitch was that I didn't know that departure cards, which had to be completed in order to leave Bangkok, had been put in our passports when we went through passport control at entry. Fortunately there was no line at passport control leaving Bangkok so it wasn't a problem to go to one of the little tables and fill out the departure forms.

The problem was in Siem Reap. Thinking I could save time and not have to fight forms on planes, I had downloaded both the Cambodian and Laotian entry visas forms and filled them out, including attaching photos, at home. When the VOA forms were passed out on the plane I compared them to mine and the information and layout were identical. The only difference was that the size of the sheet of paper. I thought I was good to go but that turned out to be an overly optimistic evaluation of the situation. We were first in the VOA line and when I presented the forms the agent wordlessly threw them back at me. I got the hint and went to a table and filled out the same info in the same format on a smaller sheet of paper. Lesson learned. Don't bother downloading visa forms. If you do, make sure they are identical in every respect, including size, to those given to you on the plane.

There must have been at least ten agents, all sitting in a row, processing the VOAs. That's not ten agents each processing different forms. No. For some mysterious reason, each passport and VOA form was tenderly passed from agent to agent, none of whom actually did anything, except for the last one who called out the name and returned the well caressed passports. (The first money handling agent theatrically rejected any currency which was not in perfect health.) I definitely got the idea that we had worn out our welcome before leaving the airport, though it was a nice touch that at customs we were told to keep the custom forms which no one had even glanced at.

Based on previous trip reports, it looked like Hotel de La Paix was a great place to stay. My attempts at reserving it were thwarted since the hotel closed down at the beginning of July 2012 and would only be reopening in early 2013 as the Park Hyatt Siem Reap. After much hand wringing (googling, really), we decided to stay at the Grand Hotel d'Angkor, aka Raffles. I did agonize over whether the hotel would be overrun by precious American tourists. Fortunately I stumbled upon dogster's contribution to a Raffle's discussion in which he admitted to staying there and even just possibly liking it. That was enough.

We really enjoyed our four night stay at Raffles. The hotel and rooms were tasteful and comfortable; the staff was solicitous without being obsequious; the breakfasts were the best of the entire trip, (though the lunches were pricy, unimaginative and underflavored). And to our relief it was not inhabited by obnoxious arrogant tourists. We were all there to see the wonders of Angkor, a rather dusty and tiring mission, which didn't seem to attract aging starlets and their entourages. The hotel is well located, a ten minute or so tuk tuk ride ($2) from Pub Street.
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Feb 13th, 2013, 01:24 PM
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"the staff was solicitous without being obsequious" - You have a way with words, Marija. Too bad you missed the Hotel DLP/Park Hyatt but Raffles sounds nice...
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Feb 13th, 2013, 01:39 PM
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We did the Visa online for Cambodia through their government website including attaching a scanned photo,printed them out, cut the actual Visas out of the paper and then stappled them into our passports.It was fine.It took 24 hours for them to email our Visas to us.
I am confused why they refused yours.
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Feb 13th, 2013, 02:05 PM
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HT--they refused ours because I had a visa application, not a visa. I debated applying for an actual visa through the government website but I was concerned about credit card security. I read that the site has been repeatedly hacked and I didn't want to deal with that.
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Feb 13th, 2013, 02:48 PM
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Loving this. Sounds as if VOA situation in fact might have improved since we were there. I remember spending the entire BKK-SR flight filling out TWELVE landing documents (3 for each of us) as the rest of the family feigned sleep.
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Feb 13th, 2013, 08:14 PM
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My best advice if you want to get through immigration quickly at REP?

1) Bring a visa photo and a clean $20 bill with you.
2) Fly Bangkok Airways and sit in one of the very last seats.
3) The FAs will give you the entry forms. Fill them out on the plane. It is less than an hour flight, so don't put it away for "later."
4) When everyone else is exiting forward, the attendants will open the back exit. Go down the steps and walk briskly to the entry hall.
5) Look for the row of agents on the left and hand your papers, etc to the first guy. You will likely be first in line.
6) Go to the end of the row of men and wait till they call your name.

I am always one of the first to finish, even ahead of the "pre-arranged visa" people.
NOTE**I do not run on the tarmac, nor do I push anyone to the side in crossing!
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Feb 15th, 2013, 07:06 PM
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Hi, Marija--
I've loved your reports across so many of the boards over the years, and, of course, this one is also great--and looking forward to the rest of it. A question, though. Your name has always intrigued me. Is it you who is Lithuanian? If so, is Marija the equivilent of Maria? Pronounced the same?
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Feb 17th, 2013, 04:15 PM
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Thanks for reading and for the comments (Yes, Bo, I am the Lithuanian with the silent J embedded in the simple Maria. Try explaining that to your teachers!)

Visiting the temples

Swayed by all of the positive reviews here for Ponheary Ly, we engaged her as our guide for four days of temple visiting. (Unless you've done lots of homework, you won't regret hiring a guide.) On the remote chance that anyone reading this is unaware of the Ponheary Ly foundation and its mission, here's the link:


Although it was difficult to abandon the vision of us as intrepid 30 year olds who would delight in bouncing around in tuk tuks inhaling dust, we bowed to reality and also hired an airconditioned car and driver. Depressing, but an excellent decision. It's hot and dusty out there and the temples are scattered over a large area. If you're an "experienced " traveler, don't underestimate the benefits of a cool car, refeshing drinks, and saved steps.

As you would expect, Ponheary knows lots about the temples and will tell you all the details you may want to know. She'll also position you and your camera for the best shots. What's unique about spending time with her is the opportunity to catch a glimpse of life in Cambodia for the Cambodians both now and during the Khmer Rouge years. We talked about the girls in the local high school who didn't get enough to eat and her plans to take them all to dinner at a nice restaurant so they would aspire to a better life for themselves, about the school children who pass out from hunger in the classroom, the orphaned college student without rent money....

Based on how many temples organized tour groups claim to cover in a day, we were definitely underachievers. The first afternoon after arrival we headed for Angkor Wat, stopping to buy three-day passes ($40 cash). The days don't have to be sequential but they must be within a week of purchase. The pass is punched each day you enter. No need to bring photos since digital photos are taken at the time of purchase and included on the pass. If you enter after 5 PM the day doesn't count and the pass isn't punched.

We generally started touring at 8:00 AM, took a midday break and then resumed after lunch at 3:00. An earlier start time would have been better but we did enjoy having a leisurely breakfast before setting out. Unlike an African safari where you miss out on animal viewing if you don't spring out of bed before dawn, a later start for temple visiting just means that you'll be warmer and have more company. Unfortunately some of your companions will be climbing in forbidden areas, smoking despite the signs, dislodging stones for souvenirs, stepping not only on your toes but also in front of your camera. But then if you're planning to see 20 temples in a day you can't dawdle.

We visited the star attractions: Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, Angkor Thom and the Bayon, as well as the nearby Banteay Kdei and Preah Khan, and the more distant Banteay Srei, including a stop at the Knar school that the Ponheary Ly Foundation supports. The many smaller temples we saw, including those of the Roluos group, were as fascinating as the big ones, (thanks to Ponheary) and much less crowded. There was agressive tree extraction taking place at Ta Prohm, in hopes of stopping all those mighty roots from dismantling the massive temples of Angkor. Though the goal is noble, it was alarming to see.

We learned to recognize nagas (seven-headed snakes that turn up everywhere as rails on balconies and bridges) and garudas (heavily muscled bird-men, eternal enemies of the nagas, typically enlisted for holding up the sky), even when their heads were missing. Photographing the site-information signage upon entering a site helped us identify the copious images that burdened our cameras' memory card.

We certainly didn't get "templed out" and were glad we spent four nights in Siem Reap. I think we would have been unhappy with a shorter stay.
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Feb 17th, 2013, 06:37 PM
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How lucky you were to have Ponheary as your guide - one of the most memorable people we've met in our travels. She picked us up at the airport and had tea with her, but were guided by one of her minions (who was fine). I wish she could have taken us to the temples, but she was otherwise engaged on our dates. Did you get to visit one of the schools?
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Feb 19th, 2013, 08:33 AM
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Yes, crosscheck, we stopped at the Knar school. Ponheary wanted to meet with the principal so we just poked around. We made a donation to the foundation before arriving, instead of trying to arrange something at a school.

Eating in Siem Reap

We are devoted eaters and stick to local dishes, though on this trip our definition of "local" was somewhat broader than usual. In particular, French in Vietnam was deemed acceptable. I diligently studied Lori's (offwego's) list of places to eat in Siem Reap and was relieved to read that:

"You can eat anything at these places without gastrointestinal consequences. Eat the meat, eat the vegetables even if they are raw, try the frogs, have a shake, chomp the ice, it’s all good. Most of the food in Siem Reap is pretty safe these days; the days of amoebic dysentery for lunch are almost behind us. Your own dirty hands are probably your biggest threat."

Did I believe her? Well, kindda. I'm willing to take my chances with fake saffron, broken taxi meters, and rigged ATMs but the laid back attitude doesn't extend to food. In more exotic places we don't eat street food (except for food blessed by street food tour mavens) and we prefer eating at establishments that have documented survivors, instead of making our own discoveries which may be memorable for the wrong reasons. Complicating all of this is our aversion to bland touristy hotel food.

Breakfast was included in our room rate at Raffles so no worries there. These were the best breakfasts of our trips, eaten outdoors overlooking the lovely grounds. We particularly enjoyed a mysterious green juice blend that the staff concocted on request. The first morning they asked if we'd like some and subsequent mornings we were clever enough to ask for it. The only drawback to breakfast was the smell of insect repellant and sunscreen which hovered over us. Perhaps we applied it too diligently and liberally every morning? I think we protected everyone within a mile radius of us. Although Siem Reap isn't malarial, I had become dengue-phobic from too much reading about health hazards of SE Asia.

The first two afternoons we ate lunch at the hotel since we didn't want to waste time taking tuk tuks into the city. (Raffles is about a 10 minute ride from Pub Street.) The lunches were dismal enough to dissuade us from trying the "fancy" Cambodian restaurant at the hotel. The third afternoon we walked over to the Victoria Angkor which is on the same square as Raffles. The lunch menu was much more appealing and extensive than that at Raffles. We ordered an excellent pomelo salad and red snapper with noodles in a claypot. Too bad we gave Raffles two chances before we walked.
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