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Dreaming's Trip Report: Bangkok, Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, HCMC & Narita

Dreaming's Trip Report: Bangkok, Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, HCMC & Narita

Oct 29th, 2009, 12:08 PM
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Dreaming's Trip Report: Bangkok, Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, HCMC & Narita

I’ve been sitting at my computer trying to kick off this trip report and am confounded by a case of writer’s block. As the details are leaving my mind as the days pass, I’m going to try to throw some information down on paper just to get this moving.

First, I’ll offer my apologies. The standard of writing is quite high on this board and I’ve been endlessly entertained over the past several months by this board’s writers. All of your information was quite helpful to me in trying to plan. My writing is definitely dry, closer to bland and I can carry on a bit. Feel free to skim or skip.

About us, we are two female friends in our early to mid (closer to mid, but why quibble?) 40s. We’ve travelled together yearly for the past 4 or 5 years. This was the longest trip that we’ve taken together. I can’t claim to be a great traveling companion – I used to travel alone and like a lot of things about it; but I also like being able to share a meal, a great sight or discuss a bargain in a market. We both have families (and kids) at home, so we end up spending a lot of time on vacation trying to find a phone, an internet connection or a gift to bring home.

The planning for this trip started in late 2008. Choosing destinations isn’t hard; it’s narrowing it down to THE destination that’s the challenge. I had started this trip planning to go it alone, but once I had settled on Siem Reap and Vietnam, TC (my travel companion) decided that it sounded too good to miss. TC was anxious to include Bangkok, even if it would just be for a day or two. So, after spending a good amount of time on the phone with the friendly AA miles awards folks, I was the proud owner of a business class ticket LAX/NRT/BKK, with a return SGN/NRT/LAX. I booked the ticket about 10 ½ months out, and had a little difficulty getting the exact dates I wanted, but I could get dates within a day or three. TC had miles, but decided to save them up and bought an economy ticket on the same flights.

We (really just me, TC is a big planner (i.e., control freak) but tries to let it all go when I’m planning (but still has lots of “input”)) played with a lot of ideas, including the Pandaw cruise from Saigon to Siem Reap. But, there were a whole lot more options for travelling from Siem Reap to Saigon on the river than the other way. So after tossing around a lot of ideas, we ended up with:

Day 1 Travel Day
Day 2 & 3 Bangkok
Day 4-6 Siem Reap
Day 7 & 8 Phnom Penh
Day 9 Saigon
Day 10 & 11 Mekong Delta
Day 12 & 13 Saigon
Day 14 Narita (8 Hour Layover)

There was some give and take in the schedule. I had wanted more days in Siem Reap, TC thought she’d be templed out after 2 days. We both knew we had too much time in Saigon, but TC was wanting to get some tailoring done somewhere on the trip so we tried to swing the itinerary to have extra time for appointments.

Coming up: Hotel, Flight and Guide details...
dreaming is offline  
Oct 29th, 2009, 12:18 PM
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Looking forward to hearing your report.
dgunbug is offline  
Oct 29th, 2009, 12:28 PM
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Good start. Keep it coming...
Craig is offline  
Oct 29th, 2009, 02:15 PM
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Thanks dgungub and Craig! It helps to know that someone is looking!

Hotel and Flight Booking Details:

Bangkok - the Peninsula. Booked on gtahotels.com for $186 –$220 with taxes and service charges and including breakfast.
BKK to REP was on Bangkok Air, booked on Expedia for $235 each.

Siem Reap - the Hotel Be Angkor, booked via e-mail (hotelbeangkor.com)

Phnom Penh – The Pavilion, booked via e-mail (thepavilion.asia)

PNH to SGN on Vietnam Airlines booked with Vietnamstay.com. $135, but there’s a story here.

Ho Chi Minh City – The Caravelle booked via e-mail (Caravellehotel.com) $169 ex tax/service/breakfast per night. $338 ex tax/service for two night weekend package inc. breakfast & 6 pm checkout.


Tong – tourwithtong.com - One day in Bangkok

Saron Soeun – Sarontours.com – 3 days in Siem Reap

Choosing a guide was tough. There’s just no way to know in advance how you’re going to get along with this person – regardless of how much positive or negative feedback is on the boards. So, I couldn’t wholly throw all of my eggs into the Fodor’s basket. I booked Tong and Saron way back in February via e-mail.
dreaming is offline  
Oct 29th, 2009, 02:22 PM
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Preparation and Packing:

I know there’s always a question on this board about immunizations. I get them. For this trip I needed a typhoid shot, malaria prescription and then the doc recommended I get a new MMR. That MMR hurt like a son of a gun.

We got the eVisa for Cambodia. For Vietnam, we got the Visa Approval letter through Vietnamstay.com. Both worked out great.

I usually pack carry-on only, but TC travels with a slightly bigger bag, so we planned to check. I went wild with the extra space and way overpacked. I took stacks of T-shirts thinking I’d be changing them all the time. As it turned out, I had one “magic shirt” that could stand up to the humidity and could be hand washed and dry over night. (I'm going back to the store this week to see if they have any more!) I probably wore it half the trip. I had some stacks of colored pencils and markers to leave in Siem Reap and I thought with those gone I’d have tons of extra space for anything I might buy. At the last minute I threw in an extra duffle – “just in case”.

Just before we let, Amazing Race showed episodes in Saigon, on the Bassac III on the Mekong Delta and in Phnom Penh. Saigon had just had monsoon rains and the streets were flooded – so I dashed out and got a pair of Keen water shoes. So, for shoes I had black walking shoes - nice enough for wearing out at night, tennis shoes, water shoes and a pair of flip flops.
dreaming is offline  
Oct 29th, 2009, 02:55 PM
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Please let me know what wonderful shirt you found that helped with the heat! We leave for Vietnam in May and it is sure to be steamy.
dgunbug is offline  
Oct 29th, 2009, 03:15 PM
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dgunbug - it was the Columbia Sportswear Floral Tease Tunic. You can see it here - http://www.backpackers.com/travel-ge...ase_Tunic.html The cut and color weren't the most flattering on me, but the ability to wick and hide sweat was fantastic.
dreaming is offline  
Oct 29th, 2009, 04:59 PM
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Outbound Flights

I was flying JAL 61 LAX to NRT; while TC was flying an AA flight at a similar time. DH gave us a ride to the airport and TC and I parted ways, as JAL is in the international terminal and AA is in the next terminal over. This worked out well for me, as I could go to the lounge. The JAL lounge in LAX was small, quiet and had a nice selection of beverages and food. The sushi seemed to go as quickly as they laid it out.

I was in a window seat on the upper deck. I love the upper deck, it’s always a touch quieter, less busy, not as much walking through. I heard later that there was a group in business class downstairs that were having a jolly time, so I was glad to be upstairs. JAL had a nice selection of amenities, including ear plugs, face mask, toothbrush & toothpaste and slippers. The slippers were wonderful for those trips to the bathroom. Although the bathroom floor never did seem to get covered with those liquid drops I usually expect. There were noise cancelling headphones for use on the flight.

My seat was slightly odd. Right in the middle of the seat bottom there seemed to be a slight incline. I scooted around trying to find a comfortable spot for the incline, but it just wasn’t comfortable. I poked around on the seat and couldn’t find anything odd about it – perhaps it’s me? Once we were able to recline our seats after take off, that issue went away. But, once I reclined the seat completely to nap, it was as though I was on a handtruck that had been tilted back. The footrest was out to keep me from sliding off, but I found that every time I dozed off, I crumpled up toward the bottom.

I had the Japanese meal for dinner and the Western meal for lunch. Both were good, but I can’t remember what they were. By the time we arrived in Tokyo, there was a distinct smell of fish in the cabin. Overall, service was terrific and thoughtful.

Transfer in Narita

Upon arrival in Narita, the airport was clearly sign-posted and I wasn’t confused about where to go. I did have to go through a security check point to transfer to a new international flight. The line for the security point was ½ hour long and was slightly unruly – some people loudly commenting on the inconvenience, others outright trying to jump the line. In looking at the lines for those entering Japan, they had to pass through a thermoscan and complete a health info form to enter Japan.

I met TC by the new gate and we milled around the terminal for a bit. TC got some Yen from an ATM and we sat in massage chairs and got 10 minute massages for 200 yen each… and it was fantastic after the flight.

Flight to BKK

We flew JAL 707 NRT to BKK, arriving BKK at 11:25 pm. All of the amenities were the same – still loved the slippers. Still good service. The seat was a business class seat without a full recline.

Arrival in BKK

Immigration went very quickly and TC and I met up again in baggage claim. No problems in getting our bags, but JAL had done a doozy on my suitcase. At the airport I noticed some scuff marks on the suitcase. It wasn’t until I was at the hotel that I found a razor like tear on one corner of the suitcase and the two main zipper pulls had been totally pulled off of the bag. This trip overall was rough on my suitcase and it had more trauma to come! (Remind me about carry on next time.)

Once we got through customs, we set about looking for the DTAC store to rent a mobile phone. Unfortunately, we walked for a bit after coming out of arrivals and then we funneled onto a down escalator. Oops. As soon as we went down to the 1st floor, we were out of the arrivals hall – and the arrivals hall is where there is a DTAC, AIS and True store – all of which rent cell phones. We tried elevators, stairs and escalators, but there’s no way back… We finally pleaded our case to a security guard who let us back in. And after all of that, DTAC was out of rental phones and we found that the deposit required for the phone, about 17000 Thai Baht or 500 USD was too high (what if we dropped it?!) One of these days I really will get an unlocked phone.

Finally, we got some baht from the ATM, made our way to the metered taxis and got a cab to the Peninsula. It was the middle of the night, so traffic was quite light, but we still had to come to a stop and wait for an escorted motorcade on the way in.

TC had wanted to stay at the Mandarin Oriental; despite watching their rates for months, I could never do any better than $300/night. I was really hankering for the Royal Orchid Sheraton at $94/night; but had some trouble convincing TC when her heart was on the Oriental. The Peninsula was an acceptable substitute at $186/night (including breakfast). I had booked for the first time with gtahotels.com, so I nervously presented my gta voucher at check-in. As it turned out, they didn’t need the voucher and we had a lovely twin bedded non-smoking room (just what I had asked for) on the 9th floor (with remote control curtains).

It was now about 2 am, so after a quick shower, we called it a night.

Coming Up – Day 1 in Bangkok
dreaming is offline  
Oct 29th, 2009, 07:23 PM
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Thanks Dreaming for your great report. We're not leaving home until Nov, so just keep sharing your experience.

scheps is offline  
Oct 29th, 2009, 07:36 PM
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I am enjoying this...
marya_ is offline  
Oct 30th, 2009, 06:17 AM
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Me too! Keep it coming!
Debbiekep2 is offline  
Oct 30th, 2009, 10:31 AM
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Thank you so much for the feedback! It's very motivational!

Before I forget, the taxi from the airport to the Peninsula with the meter on was 300 baht, plus tolls, which were about 90. When we got in the cab the meter wasn’t on, we asked for it and the driver turned it on – no problem at all.

I didn’t take notes on vacation, so I’ll be a bit vague about specific meals and prices. Where I remember the prices or general pricing, I’ll be sure to let you know.

T C and I are usually go-go-go on vacation… there’s no lying around by the pool when there are sites to be seen. Unusually for us, I have nothing planned for our first day in Bangkok. Partly because I was worried we would have flight delays, partly because of TC’s tailoring plans. Before we left home, TC said one of her primary goals on the trip was to buy silk in Bangkok and have some clothes made while we were in Vietnam. TC was going to do some research about where to buy silk, and came away with the impression that you could get silk all over the place. TC also wanted to buy a Buddha amulet as a gift.

In the morning, the view from the hotel was wonderful – the Oriental across the river with a great view up river. Water hyacinth drift down river and a number of long tail boats dash about. I made a stop to the business center to use one of their computers for internet access to send some e-mails. It was a few dollars for 15 minutes. Don’t you ever wonder why the lower range hotels offer free business services, but the upper range charge?

We had a late and leisurely breakfast buffet at the Peninsula. Lots of lovely fruit and a wide selection of breads and hot food. TC loves her pot of hot tea in the morning and after being poured a cup of lukewarm tea, she requested a pot of steaming hot tea. Afterwards they brought her a pot of hot tea when she came in – without being asked.

It was sporadically raining, so we ate inside with a window view of the river. We then bought a day pass for the sky train from the concierge (somehow they sell it for slightly less than the skytrain? About 10 baht less.) We also talked to the concierge about calling home and determined that getting a calling card from a mini mart such as 7/11 would be the way to go.

We took the Peninsula boat over to the skytrain, had our day passes validated at the ticket booth and headed over to Sukhumvit Road to wander. We stopped into a store here and there, not really being moved to buy anything, other than a 300 baht international calling card from a 7/11 (which turned out to be about 6 hours worth of calling the US), and then decided to pop over to the Jim Thompson main store to look at silk. Back on the skytrain to Saladaeng.

By this time, lunch was calling, so we ate in the café at the Jim Thompson store. I had fresh spring rolls and chicken in a soup with coconut milk. The soup was good, the spring rolls were very good. After lunch, we wandered through the fabrics, not finding anything compelling. TC is more a fan of raw silk, which they had, but with a limited color selection. The pricing varied, but for what she was looking for, it was in the $30/meter range.

Since we were now so close to Patpong, we walked through. At 2:30 pm everything was locked up tight and the area was quite quiet. We walked into a couple of the shops selling knock-off designer purses to browse. I’m a purse fan, but not a designer purse fan and these seemed to me to be obviously not the real thing. Remember how I didn’t plan anything for the day? Well, we then walked over to the Banyan Tree to check out Vertigo. Which was also closed.

Back to the Skytrain where we ended up at the Silom Complex hiding from the rain. We found a jeweler here for the Buddha amulet, an ATM, and a foot massage. We were walking past Massage for Health (4th floor) and looked in – it was busy, which seemed a good sign. We each had an incredible 1 hour foot massage for 250 baht. Did I mention it was incredible? OMG.

From here we headed to the Mandarin Oriental for drinks at the Elephant Bar. TC had wanted to stay here and couldn’t pass up the chance to look around. The public spaces were much more interesting and impressive than the Peninsula. From here we took the Oriental boat over to Sala Rim Naam for dinner. The service was impressive – a bit hovering. I believe our waiter stood at a spot about 6 feet from our table and simply stood there waiting in case we needed anything. I had chicken in a coconut curry sauce. It was good, but I think they toned down the spices for the foreign palate. There was a floor show while we were there – a Thai dancing performance – beautiful costumes.

Once we finished, the Oriental boats took us back across the river to the Oriental, then directly back to the Peninsula.

Up Next: Bangkok, Day 2, Day with Tong
dreaming is offline  
Oct 30th, 2009, 11:45 AM
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We never take notes either. Stream of consciousness is a good way to go. Timely report, no penalty.
Gpanda is offline  
Nov 2nd, 2009, 12:19 PM
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Panda - I'm hoping to continue to duck the penalty by finishing this in a timely manner. I have an unfinished Panama trip report in my history that occasionally weighs on my mind!

Bangkok Day Two

We had plans to meet with Tong at 7 am in the lobby of the Peninsula. Sure enough, she’s there bright and early waiting for us.

There are some strong feelings about Tong on the board, so I’ll just say right up front, we liked her. She was personable, chatty, engaging and a little goofy. Her English wasn’t quite as good as I had anticipated. Particularly when saying a historical name or place, she spoke really fast and I just couldn’t catch it. Didn’t bother me though, since I was more interested in getting a feel for Bangkok in the short time we were there, rather than the historical context.

Our general plan for the day was the Floating Market in the morning, then highlights of Bangkok in the afternoon. We drove out to the Floating Market and on the way we stopped at the Railway Market – where the market is set up right up to the railway tracks – buyers walk down the tracks through the middle of the market. When the train comes, the awnings get pulled in; rolling tables get pushed in – but quite a lot of produce is left on the group right up to the train tracks. When the train comes through, it passes over the remaining produce. Once it’s though, out come the rolling bins, out come the awnings and business starts again. The train comes by 8 times a day, so there’s a very efficient system in place for packing up and replacing. The market seemed to be a local market, selling produce, meats, seafood (and skewered frogs), but there were a ton of tourists there for the train event.

We got our first food treat with Tong driving into the Railway Market. Driving down the road, she pulled by a vendor and conducted a very quick transaction for coconut puffs. Little puffy hot treats. Arriving into the Railway, she got some popcorn with a sweet coating. I was already liking the food! TC, who doesn’t have a sweet tooth wasn’t quite as enthusiastic.

There was a decent “Happy Room” (Tong speak for the restroom) at the Railway, then we were off to the Floating Market. On the way we stopped at a local temple so we could get a feel for a non-touristy temple.

The Floating Market was also packed with tourists. We were on a small rowing boat, and for me, it was all about the food. I liked seeing the vendors cooking on their boats, maneuvering up to other boats to conduct a transaction. Tong filled us up with coconut water, fried bananas, iced sweet coffee (in a bag – which was fun). We pulled up to one boat and got our main lunch – noodles and pork with broth dish. So incredibly good, although I was using the metal spoon to get the last little bit of broth out of the bowl and cut my lip on the spoon. Once we got off the boat, we wandered through the vendors for a few minutes. I bought a couple of small purses with elephants in sequins (hmm, looks better than it sounds?) for about $2 each. There’s no bargaining from this vendor, the price is firm, but the price seems good so they’re mine.

After the market it was time for the ride back to Bangkok. On the way we stopped at a wood carving Handicrafts store to use the Happy Room.

Once in Bangkok it was off to a khlong tour in a long tailed boat. The river water level was apparently quite high and to get back to the residential canals we had to go through a lock. Waiting for the lock was a hot, sweaty business on both ends, which was a little disappointing as we had thought of the khlong tour as being relief from the worst heat of the day. The canals were intriguing. Dilapidated shacks all in a row, followed by a tidy mansion, followed by a small business. A few kids splash in the water. Outside of a temple a monk was throwing food to fish in the water and the fish were thrashing at the surface.

The boat dropped us off at by the Grand Palace (Tong having arranged for her car to be picked up and moved). Once at the Grand Palace, we were surrounded by incredible gorgeous craftsmanship of many kinds. The gold leaf is eye-catching, particularly in the sunlight, but the ceramics were astonishing as well. The Temple of the Emerald Buddha resounded with the chanting of monks- sitting off to one side. The Emerald Buddha is small and far away, but beautifully dressed.

The reclining Buddha at Wat Pho was partially hidden behind pillars, which made for interesting peek a boo views at the expanse of him. Now I can understand why all of the pictures are from his head toward his feet or at his feet toward his head. In the background, coins tink into prayer bowls. We deposited our own coins and hope that our own wishes come true.

Tong suggests a dinner stop before heading back to the hotel, but it’s a little early for dinner and we’re too tired for anything else. So, Tong drives us back to the hotel and we say goodbye, but not before getting her suggestions for a foot massage place. Once back at the hotel we collapse on the beds and before long our plans of going out and about are gone. We have a simple dinner of sandwiches and drinks in the lobby restaurant at the Peninsula. The bill is not quite as simple at 2400 baht.

We leave for Siem Reap tomorrow so it’s back to the room to try to pack our belongings back into our bags.

Up next: Knock, Knock. Bangkok’s nightlife comes calling?
dreaming is offline  
Nov 2nd, 2009, 12:28 PM
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Oh, good. Happy to still be along for the ride with you...
marya_ is offline  
Nov 2nd, 2009, 12:52 PM
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So off we went for our restless jet lagged sleep. In the middle of the night I vaguely hear a tap, tap. Can’t be our room, we’re tucked in tight for the night and it’s now 1:30 am. But the tapping continues so I haul myself out of bed and open the internal door to our entry foyer. Yes, it’s our door and it’s now pretty insistent tapping. I look out the peep hole and there are two young ladies outside of the door. I call out, “who is it” and they answer, but I don’t understand. Since they don’t look threatening, it’s 1:30 in the morning, and I’m not thinking, I open the door.

Outside of the door are two very nice looking young, but not too young, ladies. Nicely made up, dressed in tight small tops, short skirts, but classy, not tacky. Long, long hair, beautifully cut.

They take one look at me, wearing my Talbot’s PJs, my hair messy, my face imprinted with pillow wrinkles and they say, “oh, sorry”. They chatter back and forth, look at my room number, giggle and start tapping on the door opposite. The next morning the do not disturb is lit on the opposite room.

It may have been a couple of friends visiting their friend from out of town…. But that’s not where my mind went.
dreaming is offline  
Nov 2nd, 2009, 01:56 PM
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So these "young" women were not the foot massage recommendations of Tong?
Gpanda is offline  
Nov 2nd, 2009, 02:04 PM
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Ha! No, No. Tong had recommended Healthland for the foot massage. With the "young" I was trying to indicate that these weren't little girls, but were perhaps early 20s.
dreaming is offline  
Nov 2nd, 2009, 02:23 PM
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To many of us early 20's is very young. However, I do get your distinction. It's another example of a great story being generated by a small risk, i.e., answering your door at 1:30 am. You can live on this story for years.
Gpanda is offline  
Nov 2nd, 2009, 07:14 PM
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Panda - I got my first change to tell the story just a few hours later when TC woke up! TC was kicking herself the next morning for not having been the person to wake up and get the door in the night. She was appalled that I had no recollection at all of their shoes, but could describe their haircuts!
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