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Monkeys, Som Tam, Ladyboys & Loi Kratong - A Thailand trip report

Monkeys, Som Tam, Ladyboys & Loi Kratong - A Thailand trip report

Jan 18th, 2010, 11:15 AM
  #1  
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Join Date: Jul 2008
Posts: 85
Monkeys, Som Tam, Ladyboys & Loi Kratong - A Thailand trip report

First - much gratitude and thanks to the Fodorites whose advice helped me immensely. My teenage daughter thought that I was acting like a creepy stalker with the amount of time I spent on the forum!

To give some brief background - we are a well traveled family of 4 - dad, mom, 18yo daughter and 15 yo son. Prior trips to Costa Rica, New Zealand, Peru, Korea, Spain. For this trip, I had a travel agent (personal friend) help with the actual transportation/transfers and some of the hotels and he hooked us up with a guide in Cambodia who took care of us completely. Most of the activities I picked out and arranged - especially our time with Tong - lucky us!

Our itinerary ran like this:
Starting Dec 20, Sun - midnight flight from SFO-TPE-BKK on EVA
Mon-arrive BKK, 2 nights at the JW Marriott
Wed-leave for Siem Reap, 3 nights at the Soma Devi Hotel
Sat-leave for Phuket (via BKK), 3 nights at the Kata Beach Resort
Tues- transfer to Krabi, 3 nights at the AoNang Villa
Fri- fly from Krabi to BKK, 2 nights at the Sofitel Centara
Jan 3, 2010, Sun evening flight from BKK-TPE-SFO
So as you can see, we didn't even make it to Chiang Mai (so we will definitely have to come back to Thailand again!)

Basically I am pulling from my trip journal, so here goes -
Monday, Dec 21, 2009
Sitting in the airport in Taipei, Taiwan. It is kind of cold and the blue tinted windows make it seem even colder. The waiting area is filling up with passengers who are making the connection to Bangkok on EVA Air. We started out from SFO, leaving our car at SkyPark for long term parking just after 8PM. There isn’t much to it with regards to dropping off your car. they make it very easy for you. We got to the EVA counter practically just as they opened (8:20PM). The first thing the ticket agent asked us was if we were interested in giving up our seats and going tomorrow. I said “no” immediately. We would have had $1200 back + flight credits. I think they must have overbooked, but I told her we didn’t have that kind of time since our kids were on holiday.
So we were in Row 65 – A-D (with a 3-3-3 seat layout). Not too bad. I was against the window and then my daughter and son. DH was across the aisle and I thought it was comfortable without anyone climbing over him to get to the bathroom. Though I found out later that in the end he was not that happy that he didn’t have anybody that he could lean against. We were in the back section of the plane, but not the absolute last row. We had a bathroom in front and one in back to choose from and we weren’t near either one. The meals were a little weird – for dinner choice of fish sandwich vs pork/noodles. I went with the pork and it kind of looked suspicious, but it ended up being okay. A little bland. After landing in Taipei, we went directly through security without any kind of passport control though I did fill out the forms. It is kind of weird being back in Asia. I feel like it is very obvious that we are Americans, but the flight attendants would initially assume that we were Chinese (we are Korean). It was hilarious, one time we heard the flight attendant speaking to a Caucasian women in the row in front of us to give her the choice of omelette vs porridge for breakfast. Then when she came to our row she asked us in Chinese and we just kind of looked at her totally spaced out because we just assumed she would speak to us in English and we couldn’t figure out what she had just said because we were trying to fit it into something that made sense in the English language. Then she laughed and switched to English – I am sure we looked totally idiotic.
Walking down the terminals to wait for the Bangkok flight is pretty interesting. It is relatively early in the AM so it still has that kind of empty feeling of the day about to start. They have a giant “Hello Kitty” play area. Only apparently it isn’t just a play area, but also an actual gate area. When DH went with the kids to get some snacks, they stopped and took pictures and my daughter said that there were adults sitting there waiting to board a flight who looked kind of embarrassed to be sitting there. Next stop Bangkok – this will be interesting.
Saturday, Dec 26, 2009
Sitting in Suvarnabhumi Airport waiting to make our connection to Phuket so will pick up with the trip details. We arrived in Bangkok on Monday (Dec 21)at about 11:35 – the pilot apologized for being about 20 min late, but it didn’t seem that big of a deal. Passport control and picking up luggage wasn’t too bad, though everybody looks at my son funny because his passport picture was taken when he was 10 years old and he has grown 8 inches and gained 50 lbs and looks so different now. We withdrew money from the ATM near the baggage claim. Kind of high fees for using the ATM. Why is it that the money in other countries is always so much prettier with their different colors than our money? We made our way down just like all of the guidebooks tell you to do and found the taxi line. It was really easy, we didn’t have to wait at all and we had a taxi immediately. I totally forgot to look at the meter to make sure that he had it running, but after I remembered I was relieved to see that it was in fact running. DH told me later that he checked right from the beginning. We were in a pretty comfortable sized Toyota. However, when the driver went to open the trunk we could only get 2 of our suitcases inside the trunk since the rest of it is filled with the propane tank. We just put the other suitcase on the floor of the back and my son sat with his legs uncomfortably cramped around it and I had the other suitcase on my lap with my backpack. Though it was definitely tight, I have to say that the back seat was surprisingly comfortable for the 3 of us with DH in the front on the passenger right. It was so weird with the driving on the left hand side of the road. It is really unnerving. I keep feeling as if I am going to die when we pull out onto the road because it feels like we are getting on the wrong side and the traffic is going to come straight head on into us. It is kind of interesting how much it is ingrained into you which side of the road you are used to driving on. From knowing which way to look when crossing the street on foot, to making right turns, it always makes you second guess yourself because you can’t do it mechanically. You have to think about it the whole time. Also, Bangkok (and much of Asia) has those pesky motor scooters which are like flies coming out of nowhere to mow you down.
The ride into the JW Marriott was actually surprisingly smooth. On the highway, we saw huge billboards and what seemed for the most part just like any other big city with skyscrapers and smog. Arriving at the JW was very nice. I had booked it using points. The taxi ride was less than 400B. The lobby was cool and elegant inside. They had us in adjoining rooms with a connecting door so that was very convenient. Overall, the facilities were nice – clean and comfortable rooms though we didn’t spend much time in our rooms except to sleep. I just have 2 complaints – one which is becoming generic to Asia hotel rooms is the way the showers are built. They are in a corner, glassed in and the door has a small open bottom which leaks like mad when you use the shower. So afterward, the floor is totally wet and whichever towel you are using for your feet is totally soaked and can’t be reused. The second complaint directed toward the Marriott is that the service was just okay. For a JW I kind of expected more (obsequious?) service. I wanted to send one email and as Internet service is fairly expensive, I asked if the concierge could do it for me to confirm a tour. But no, they suggested that I go to the Business Center, where I am sure that for a fee, I could use a computer. I actually brought a netbook that I am using which would have been more convenient. In the end, I needed to get in touch with Tong so I spent something like $6 for 1 measly hour of internet. What a rip-off.
Right after we checked in, my daughter showed me her ankles which were terribly swollen. DH and I were somewhat taken aback. Immediately he was concerned that she might have some kind of DVT from sleeping the whole trip and not getting up or moving her legs around enough. He made me start her on some daily ASA. It took almost 10 days for them to go down – mostly because we were running around so much she didn’t have time to elevate her legs enough. They would get a little better by each morning after she had slept, but by the end of the day they would get swollen again. It was unsettling.
We had some of the fruit which the JW left each morning (very yummy, I might add – banana, apple, mandarin orange). Then we ran across the street to the Siam Paragon Mall and had lunch at a Lebanese restaurant that I had read about on Fodors. The food was good, not too expensive and served pretty quickly. We ate it all. When we got back to the room I received a call from “Amar the Boss” which is the tailoring outfit that our travel agent referred us to use. He gave me directions on how to get to their shop and said it would only take about 3 min of walking from our hotel. They offered to pick us up, but I thought that seemed silly if it was only 3 min of walking. Once we cleaned up with showers, we walked over to the tailor shop. At first we couldn’t figure out where it was. We were on Sukhumvit Soi 2 and we needed to go to Soi 4. Once we started down that street we went a fair ways but didn’t see it. We turned into this one courtyard and it was kind of like a bar area (this is the Nana district - my daughter even commented that she noticed a lot of older white guys, “creepers,” with younger Thai girls). We reversed, came out to Sukhumvit and then went a little further down Sukhumvit itself and DH saw it right there. It was a small shop and everyone but me got measured for clothes. I didn’t really want to get anything since I am hoping to lose more weight. We ended up ordering a tuxedo for my son, plus a ton of the other clothes. DH keeps trying to convince himself that this is a good deal since these are tailored clothes, but we’ll see how well it all fits.
Afterward, we were picked up by a driver to go to the Siam Niramit show. Okay, I did want to see it, but overall I don’t think it was worth the amount of money that we paid for it ($100/person). It would have been better if we had just bought tickets for the show and not the dinner and then we could have rested at the hotel a little longer and then just taken a cab to the show. We get to the place by 5:30-5:45 via an arranged transfer. We start to tour around the various exhibits they have – kind of interesting – weaving, making shadow puppets, some food samples, some sample homes from different regions of Thailand. But…I don’t know if it is that the people there are not as inspired because the tourist numbers are down or what, but they seemed for the most part pretty unenthusiastic. We went to get dinner at the buffet and the food was pretty typical tourist buffet, i.e, bland and not that good. Then we went back to the outdoor square and watched a few music/dance performances. Finally, by 8 PM it was time to go into the theater for the performance. The costumes were really beautiful, but by this time we were all really tired. We all took turns sleeping as well as simultaneously sleeping through a lot of the performance. It didn’t help that the music was very rhythmic and that the dancing was kind of slow paced. The performers were very enthusiastic and there were definitely some exciting parts, but Cirque d’Soleil doesn’t need to worry about the competition yet. Some of the scenes had lightening and another one had “flames” shooting out of vents right in front of us – that certainly woke us up from our naps. Overall, I think that I saw the most, especially compared to the rest of my family. In fact, talking to DH later he doesn’t remember the show at all, not even the part of the flames shooting up right in front of him! We had to hand in the cameras and then pick them up afterward. After the show was over our driver picked us up right away (they are very efficient in how they gave us little numbered tags so that we could identify each other without difficulty) and brought us back to the hotel. I paid for my Internet time, but then figured out from Tong that she was having problems with her email. I felt bad, but I called her late and I think I woke her up – but she laughed and just asked again if we ate seafood so that she could have that ready for our tour with her the next day. She also asked if my kids were small and I told her that they were bigger than I was so practically adults. We slept well that night – DH was really happy with this hotel. It was a great way to start the trip – centrally located, comfortable beds. I just noticed that it made the top 500 Hotels in the World for T&L magazine.

Enough for now. Will post round 2 later.
61luv2travel is offline  
Jan 18th, 2010, 11:37 AM
  #2  
 
Join Date: Mar 2003
Posts: 6,664
Thanks for the start. It whets our appetites.
The hotels is asia re split 50/50 onwhether they have correctly deduced the engineering of showers. Some leak everywhere and some, like the Phuket yacht Club are wonderful. Prompt report, no penalty.
Gpanda is offline  
Jan 18th, 2010, 02:45 PM
  #3  
 
Join Date: Mar 2003
Posts: 1,007
Great Report...Love all the detail. Seems like you have caught the Thai bug, glad to see you will go back.
shanek is offline  
Jan 18th, 2010, 02:47 PM
  #4  
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Okay Part 2 of this trip report:
Tuesday, Dec 22, 2009
Because I thought that we would get to eat quickly once we started our tour (since we had to meet up with Tong in the lobby by 7AM), I rushed the kids down without any breakfast. Tong and I didn’t recognize each other right away because she looked so young and I was only with Steph (my daughter) and she was looking for a family of 4. Anyway, we got acquainted and she put us in the van (it seems like a standard size for us) which was very comfortable with air conditioning. She sat up front and would kneel there facing backward to look at us and talk to us as the driver took us from point to point. This of course would never be allowed in the US and it was totally dangerous, but it works for her.

I know there has been another thread going “debating” the merits of Tong, but we found her to be incredibly enthusiastic and a lot of fun. She had non-stop conversation. She noted that she actually hadn’t gotten much sleep because she was having problems with her Yahoo! email and was switching to Outlook Express. She couldn’t search her emails and for instance couldn’t find mine to go over the details. Since this is a really busy time of the year for her that of course makes for disaster. When she wasn’t talking to us, she was on her cell phone trying to keep everything organized and running. She was even getting calls from potential clients who were asking if she had any availability for “tomorrow.” Lily, one of her fellow tour guides (she came along to see where the fishing village is) told me that they are booking a year in advance now – especially for the high season like now. I feel really lucky that I got her. But now I realize why she wouldn’t answer back sometimes. She told us that she gets thousands of emails a day. On the other hand she doesn’t want to expand into becoming a big outfit because she wants to keep a good reputation. She told us that she used to be a crime reporter and that she loved it because it was so fascinating. Then she was “promoted” to foreign news which she said was completely boring. She sat in the office, took the world news stories and then translated into Thai (from English) as she has good English skills. She couldn’t stand it and then left to start her own business. I think that she is one of those people that is kind of restless and needs to keep moving or she becomes bored. She has been in business about 7 years now and has a husband and a young daughter.

We stopped at the Railroad Market – or as Tong calls it “the SCARY place”. We had the little coconut pancakes – very hot, but also yummy, yummy, yummy. Then we got out and walked down the tracks to see the market. OMG – really overcrowded, but really interesting to see all of the fish (still alive), the shellfish (still alive), the little tiny turtles (still alive, but that‘s because people buy them to release them, not to eat them). Also, saw all kinds of parts of animals – organs, pig parts, etc. Lots of produce and fruits and veggies that I have never seen before. Then at one point, Tong starts making us run towards the direction that the train is coming from. She finds an opening and then we all pile in with her and wait for the train. Okay, we weren’t that close to being run over, but it was kind of disconcerting during the running part.

It was very interesting how the train goes down the track. People have their produce right up to the track and have it spread low enough on the ground so that the train goes right over it. They pull their awnings back and then put them right back up when the train has passed by. After the Railroad Market, we got back into the car, stopped at the Benjarong place. This place makes the china, etc for the Royal family. We watched them free hand paint the designs on the porcelain which was amazing. We bought a few inexpensive items (if you want to put in an order you will probably wait at least 6 months) and then went on our way to the floating market.

Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that we weren’t going to the Damnoen Saduak floating market since that one is in Kanchanburi which is the opposite direction (north) from where we needed to go for the fishing village. When we got there it was horribly packed with zillions of tourists. But Tong got us into the boat and off we went tryng not to get burned by the outboard motors that some of the boats use. Our boat was paddled only, not motored, and Tong just picked out our food – iced coffee in a bag, coconut water still in the coconut, grilled chicken on a stick, papaya salad, some kind of fruit (kind of like grapefruit, but sweeter), noodles in broth and probably some other stuff that I can’t remember anymore. Later on my daughter told me that eating all of this food was her favorite meal of the entire trip. Her only regret is that as she was in the front of the boat and Tong was buying everything in back, she had to wait at the end of the line. If she had known she would have insisted on sitting right next to Tong so that she could get first dibs on all of the food. Anyway, we travelled further away from the crowds and then went up and down where the people really live. Tong had saved all of our bones from the chicken and then gave them out to the dogs that we saw along the way. She really loves animals and she has a route that she takes while she hands out the bones. It was very quiet back behind the market once we got away from the crowd. DH couldn’t help himself and bought the stupid plates with pictures of all of our faces as we are getting onto the boat. I thought it was ridiculous and of course he didn’t buy his picture plate!

We went back to the van and then stopped briefly at the carving place – Tong told us right from the start that it was a very touristy place and way overpriced. She cautioned us not to buy anything, but also pointed out that it was interesting to see how they made the elaborate carvings. You could watch them work and it was amazing how they formed leaves and all kinds of scenes in the wood. It takes them a long time to make these pieces and many of them had labels with names and addresses from all over the world as to where they would be shipped when finished. After that we got back in the van and went off to the fishing village. It was interesting driving around in the countryside. If you didn’t know, you might almost think you are in Kauai. It really has that same kind of tropical feeling.

Once we arrived in what felt like the middle of nowhere, we all got into the motor boat and off we went. This was an interesting experience. We went up and down this inland area off the ocean which had mangroves and then open areas with stakes to delineate the boundaries of a “farm” for each family. Then we motored into the mangrove areas to feed the monkeys. Okay – now I have to admit that I was somewhat traumatized by this part of the trip. Before we started, Tong had bought bananas to feed the monkeys – a lot of bananas. I didn’t realize how many we bought until we kept having this endless supply to give to them. Tong explained that we should either throw the bananas to the monkeys or if they came to the boat, we should hand them the banana and not jerk away. She also said that you just needed to keep giving them bananas until they couldn’t hold anymore and then they would leave the boat. She also said not to wave them away as they might bite you. So what did I do when the first monkey came near me? I freaked out as it was quite grabby (it turned out that she was pregnant so that probably made her more driven to get food) and I tried to pull away. In the end I think I just gave her the whole bunch so that she would go away.

As we entered the first area (we ended up doing 3 separate areas), Tong would call to them by yelling out, “OW, OW, OW.” The first time she did this I thought she had hurt herself and it really startled me. Then the monkeys started coming, and coming, and coming. It was really unnerving to me. I kept thinking to myself that this was a totally uncontrolled situation and that the monkeys had really big teeth and that there were a LOT of them. At least most of the monkeys would stay on the “shore” of the inlets. Some of the monkeys were bolder and would jump onto the boat to get more bananas. At one point, DH turned around and there was a big monkey sitting on his lap. This monkey would eat a banana and then grab some more from him and go sit up at the front of the boat. He finally left. Every time I had a bag of bananas I would tear and throw them as fast as I could as I really wanted them to not come near me as much as possible. I would throw them like a machine gun. I think the kids enjoyed it more than I did. We have seen monkeys in Costa Rica and Peru. They were shy. These were not and I think that I am done with the monkey thing. When we went to Cambodia, a few monkeys started coming out of the jungle near Angkor Wat. I freaked out again and turned to the kids and told them, “No eye contact with the monkeys!” I really didn’t want them running up to us thinking that they were going to get food. Especially when our Cambodian guide told us how he turned his head away once and the next thing he knew a monkey was biting him on the neck.

After we finished feeding the monkeys we came to one of the little wooden houses that are set up on this inland fishing village and had this very elaborate seafood meal. The only problem was that even though it was delicious, some of it was so spicy hot! I could only eat one bite of the soup and that was it. DH had 3 bowls and was sweating like mad. There was fish and a seafood dish which featured some type of prawn. Steph told me later that she felt like she was eating something out of the movie, District 9 (if you’ve seen the movie you will remember that they call the aliens “prawns.”) After the meal we hung out at this house. They had set up hammocks and we just relaxed. It was really peaceful. The people who live here have a home on the river, but they have to sleep in these little houses in the middle of what feels like a cross between a large lake and a mini ocean in order to protect their plots. Otherwise, people can come and steal from them in the middle of the night. They fish and gather shellfish. We passed a few of the farmers and when we stopped we would see the fish they had caught or touch the open shellfish on their pink inner parts and they would just snap shut! After we got back in the car, we were pretty tired and slept on the way back to the hotel. We had arranged to come back to the tailors for another fitting and Tong had sold us half price tickets for a ladyboy show. After we said “goodbye” we went upstairs.

Everyone took a quick nap, but then I had to get them all up so that we could go back to the tailor’s and then on to the ladyboy show. DH was horribly crabby. We finally managed to get ourselves out the door and everyone tried on what was completed so far. While we were there another customer was getting fitted for clothes – pants and shirts. Step said that even though she didn’t want to be rude she could not help listening in to his negotiations. She was fascinated by how much bargaining he was trying to do. In the end, DH didn’t think that he got that much of a deal compared to what we were getting for all of our clothes. But it is interesting to observe someone who obviously was quite comfortable with hardball negotiation.

Then we hurried off to use the Skytrain to get to the Asia Hotel for the “Cabaret” ladyboy show. The Skytrain was so easy to use. You just have to climb a huge staircase and then you tell them how far you are going and they tell you how much the fare is and give you change. Basically, it was 100B for the 4 of us to go. They have little TVs in the train which have fun ads to watch. The TVs also let you know which station you are currently in and then what the next station is going to be. Once we got to the Ratchachewi (it sounds like a stop for Chewbaca in Star Wars) stop it was easy to get to the Asia Hotel as they have signs and walkways that take you directly there. DH was still crabby from being out for another show when he was so tired. But once the show got going, he was not that upset anymore. These guys were amazing. The show was kind of cheesy, but some of the ladyboys were absolutely gorgeous. They would lipsynch to Madonna songs, Korean and Chinese songs, etc. There was this one guy who would do comic relief in between the big acts. He definitely wasn’t that pretty and he really looked like a drag queen – I don’t know if that is purposeful or not. He did this one act to a Japanese song in which he was dressed as a geisha. He was hilarious what with waggling his eyebrows and suggestive leering. He picked one guy in the front row to direct his attention. After the show, you could take pictures with them. ( I have to admit that we felt somewhat conflicted about the ladyboy show. On the one hand, it was incredibly entertaining – DH did not fall asleep even though he was exhausted. On the other hand, if you read the sidebar in the Lonely Planet handbook you realize that they lead a hard life without many options for work. Buying tickets to the show feels somewhat exploitative.)

Afterward we went to a nearby restaurant for dinner – food was not bad and not too expensive. We had kind of wanted to just get food from the street vendors but didn’t have the energy. Once we got back to the hotel we fell into bed to get ready for our flight to Cambodia the next day. Oh yeah, we also started our malarone for anti-malaria prophylaxis.

So you can see we tried to really pack it in to do as much as possible. I took the advice of the expert Thailand Fodorites and chose to do the fishing village tour with Tong. Even though I also was a little worried from time to time when it was difficult to get into contact with Tong, she always eventually replied. Sometimes I would give it a few days and then email her again with apologies. She was always very gracious. Was she worth it? From our families perspective – we would say a resounding, “YES!!” We had a great time and she was so much fun to be with. For the amount of money that you spend on the airfare and the hotels, her services actually come relatively cheap. If we had tons of time then we probably would want to try more on our own, but we didn’t . To quote the Mastercard ad – “Time with Tong – priceless.”
61luv2travel is offline  
Jan 18th, 2010, 03:58 PM
  #5  
 
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Another great addition. I am sooo happy that you enjoyed your time with Tong. She does everything in her power to make your time special. It sounds like you have a pretty packed schedule. Hopefully you will get time to relax.
shanek is offline  
Jan 18th, 2010, 04:00 PM
  #6  
 
Join Date: Mar 2003
Posts: 6,664
Glad to hear you had a great time with Tong. She is a true delight. I'm well aware that one does not need a guide in Thailand, but a day with Tong is really super.
Gpanda is offline  
Jan 18th, 2010, 08:02 PM
  #7  
 
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i think the mall you went to across from the jw marriott is the plenochit mall not paragon.....paragon is up the road a bit and huge

thanks for the report
rhkkmk is offline  
Jan 20th, 2010, 06:14 AM
  #8  
 
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Looking forward to hearing more!
Debbiekep2 is offline  
Jan 20th, 2010, 06:52 PM
  #9  
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Wednesday, Dec 23, 2009 -Well, I’m never quite sure about adding an entry about another country, but DH (and I) were pretty excited that we could also fit in a trip to Cambodia. So I will post it here – if you don’t want to read about this, then skip it and in a few days I will get back to Thailand.

We took a van to the airport (arranged via the Marriott) – cost 800B (so twice as much), but didn’t have to sit with the luggage on our laps. At the airport, relatively simple to check in to Bangkok Airways. Then we walked and walked and walked to get to our gate. This airport is huge and gates are really far apart. The other weird thing is that they have these undulating walkways. They had the standard moving walkways for relatively long distances between gates, but they also had some which take you from one level to another but not as a straight escalator. When you walk on with your suitcase, you have to be careful because the roller suitcases start to pick up speed when there is a downward slope. At least we had plenty of time to spare. No free Internet at the airport either Once we boarded I couldn’t figure out if Cambodia was in the same time zone – it turns out that it is and the flight is only an hour. Bangkok Air hands out these little snack trays and the food was pretty good – some fruit, a pastry, a sandwich, little sealed cups – one with water and one with juice. We ate fairly quickly, which was a good thing. Practically as soon as we finished they came back around and picked up our trays. It was amazingly efficient.

Once we landed it was also actually not that bad about getting the visas. It was hot and humid – again not as bad as I had thought it would be. You enter by deplaning onto the tarmac and then walking into this fairly small open air airport. There is this large counter kind of in the shape of a semi-circle which has a bunch of men all sitting there. But you only can go up to one of the first 3 people on the left. You hand them your passport, your fee for the tourist visa and your passport photo. Then you go mill around over to the right side of the semicircle until they call out your name. I think somewhere in the line of people they hand over your passport and stuff and process your paperwork, but it was seemingly low tech and kind of 3 Stooges like. Anyway, they call your name you pick up your passport with the visa inside and then of course they looked at Spencer funny again since he does NOT look like his passport at all. Then you go through actual passport control. I had not finished the paperwork because they handed additional forms out on the plane and it looked almost the same as the form we filled out for the visa. So we had to go back out for a brief second to fill that form out. Then we went through as a family, but DH got stuck for a little bit. The officer was asking for a bribe! DH doesn’t listen too well and he didn’t get it at first why the guy wouldn’t give him all of our passports back. He finally figured it out and gave the guy $5 and got the passports. We got our luggage and for a second I was a little bit worried when we didn’t see our guide right away. But soon enough as we exited the building I saw KimTay’s sign for us and he got the van over so that we could get our luggage in.

Briefly, about Cambodia – it is such an impoverished country. Pol Pot’s actions didn’t just destroy the people, but almost their spirit, their country and their land. What a horrible legacy. If anyone should burn in hell, it should be him. This is definitely a 3rd world country, but its tourism infrastructure is not bad, which is kind of very weird and very disconcerting. You are amazed at the complexity of Angkor Wat, yet you have to drive by these hovels where people scratch out a living. It is also still pretty corrupt. The soldiers are everywhere and often need a bribe – for example, when we were leaving the parking lot, I saw the soldier at the exit get up from his chair and the driver of our van had to rather surreptitiously hand over some money.

Checked into the hotel Soma Devi which wasn’t bad - clean, comfortable and excellent service. We had rooms next to each other but at the end of the hall so Steph and I stayed together and DH and Spencer shared the next door room. Oh, one other note about the hotel rooms. They only give you 1 key per room. Once you open the door, you have to slot the key into a little box on the wall next to the light switch. It is the only way that you will have power to run your lights and A/C. Pretty clever, as it prevents crass and ecologically unaware Western tourists from leaving the A/C on full blast all day while they are out and wasting energy. You have to take the key out when you leave if you want to get back into the room again. The only problem for us is that it made it tough after the JW (which had adjoining rooms in which we left the door open) to enter the next door room. You always had to knock or leave your own room door slightly open.

After checking in, off we raced: first to Artisan d’Angkor. We had a guide who showed us how the students were being taught to do the various crafts to imitate the art seen at Angkor Wat. They were learning silk painting, wood carving, stone carving. It was interesting, but the guide was a little hard to hear and understand. Also, the students were using patterns to learn how to do it and then the teacher would make pencil marks to show them where they needed to improve. I don’t think they get to a point where they create their own art. I am not sure if that is important, but somehow it seems kind of paint by numbers. Afterward, we went into the shop which of course had beautiful products which were totally expensive. We had wanted to go to Angkor Wat that afternoon, but Kimtay told us that a temple pass came either as a 1 day, 3 day or 1 week. If we got the pass that afternoon, we wouldn’t be able to do as much and it would still count as a day. So instead we went to the Old Market and then Lake Tonle Sap.

At the market, Kimtay gave us some basic instructions in how to bargain and then let us off. Stephanie tried to bargain with this one woman for a silver bracelet. The women started out with $16 and we were both shocked and said “no.” Stephanie countered with something like $5? And then the woman came back with something lower. At one point, Stephanie said $10 and the woman glommed onto her immediately. I had read that once you offer a price and they agree you should buy as otherwise it is kind of rude. So I kept telling her that she was stuck with buying it at that price even though she didn’t think it was a good deal. Spencer came up at that moment and added his 2 cents that he thought it was a terrible deal. In the end, I kind of forced Steph to buy the bracelet for $10 and Spencer proceeded to berate her for about 5-10 min on her poor bargaining skills. Poor Stephanie, by that point she wasn’t interested in the bracelet anymore as we made her feel like she had been totally gypped. In the end, even though it wasn’t good value at least the people in Siem Reap need the money badly. Then Stephanie still wanted to buy some handstitched coin purses decorated like elephants – they were really cute and she initially saw some in packages of 4. Then we came across a stall in which you could pick them out individually. So she told Spencer to bargain for them to prove how good he was. He ended up being a softie too. While Stephanie was picking out which colors she liked, Spencer asked how much for 4 and they said $4 dollars. I think he was taken aback at how cheap it was and he felt guilty for trying to start at 1/3 of their initial offer (which would have been like $1) the way that Kimtay had suggested. He hesitated and looked around at me and I just said how about $2 for 4 and they jumped right on that. So I knew that we hadn’t bargained that hard, but really can you get yourself worked up over a $1? Stephanie tried to point out to Spencer that he couldn’t bargain either (and when it really came down to it, he couldn’t bring himself to do it out of pity.) Then DH took a turn and bought sunglasses for himself, Steph and Spencer (I was the only one who remembered to bring sunglasses on this trip) – 3 pairs for $10. Again probably not a great deal, but not that bad for us either. Anyway, you can see that we aren’t really big shoppers.

It is such a relative thing – the Cambodians did not want anything but US dollars. In fact, we paid everyone in cash. I suspect it makes it hard for the government to keep track to get any kind of taxation structure set up. At one point, when DH was paying Kimtay at the very end at the airport, he was so oblivious still. He pulls out this large envelope of cash and starts to try to count it for Kimtay who kind of hurriedly says he trusts him and puts it away. There were all of these soldiers around at the airport (which is the norm) and I tried to stand between DH and Kimtay and the line of sight of the nearest soldier. I know that if someone sees the cash, especially a soldier, Kimtay could lose a large part of his hard earned money in a shakedown.
Getting back to the trip, after finishing the market we went off to Lake Tonle Sap, Kimtay got us a boat and driver and off we went on another longtail boat. (We ended up spending quite a bit of time on the water on this trip.) Driving to the lake we could see the makeshift homes on stilts along the Tonle Sap River. Apparently it is illegal for people to live there, but the government doesn’t do anything about it for now and will eventually kick them out when they want the land. There was a ton of development going on (and I am glad to visit now before it gets even more crowded). But a lot of the ongoing development has just ground to a halt because of the “economic crisis.” Tourism is down, but there are still a lot of tourists visiting! Many more Europeans than Americans. Looking at the homes along the river and also the homes on the boats along the inlets of the lake made me feel so guilty. It is really their poverty that is the show and you are definitely not in Disneyland. I can see why Angelina Jolie adopted a child once she shot Tomb Raider in Cambodia. One boat we passed by we saw a mom slap her little girl full on the face and she turned away crying. DH and Stephanie were very sad when they witnessed this. I was kind of shocked as I think the people who live here are so used to the tourists coming that they just live their lives without trying to “spiff up” for the tourists. And why should they?
Once we got out on the lake, we made for a central area and then tried to entertain ourselves while we waited for sunset. Kimtay caught some fish. We went up top of this kind of floating “visitor center” after looking at the crocodiles and the boa constrictor and other various displays down below. It took an hour and the lake was kind of quiet and peaceful though all of us were just hanging out. Once the sun started to set it went down really quickly and was kind of pretty. We went back to the hotel to clean up and then we were taken to another hotel for a “buffet” dinner and a Cambodian cultural show. The food was not that good (as usual for a buffet) and the show was interesting for a few minutes and then fatigue set in yet again. The costumes, the music and the dancing were beautiful, but again we were too tired and the music/show was just too slow paced. I think we all just slept through it. At the end, Kimtay picked us up immediately and took us back to the hotel. We went to bed right away. Angkor Wat tomorrow!
61luv2travel is offline  
Jan 20th, 2010, 07:57 PM
  #10  
 
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all very interesting
rhkkmk is offline  
Jan 21st, 2010, 02:32 AM
  #11  
 
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I absolutely understand your "bargaining" concerns. Why should one agonize over not getting the total cheapest price when the difference in money is so small in relative terms?
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Jan 22nd, 2010, 10:51 AM
  #12  
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Thursday, Dec 24 -We went straight to the hotel buffet breakfast. I have to say, the hotel breakfasts are pretty good deals. The one at the Soma Devi was good – fruit, cereal, croissants, all types of cooked foods from Chinese, to Thai, to American to Japanese. We pigged out and then met up with Kimtay and our official Angkor guide, Ronny. We drove off to Angkor Wat and stopped at the check-in point to buy our tickets - $40/person for a 3 day pass. Then we had to show them at every site. Drove past Angkor Wat, surrounded by its moat which was amazing to see and kept on going. I was a little puzzled, but we went on to Angkor Thom instead. We got out in front of the causeway to Angkor Thom. It has the best preserved causeway (though its moat is empty right now during the dry season) with each side having 52(?) statues of the gods (on one side) and the monsters (on the other) holding the Naga on each of their respective sides. Ronny explained to us in great detail about the statues. After walking through the gateway, our van picked us up on the other side and drove us to the Bayon temple. The Bayon is really cool (not temperature wise, it was starting to get hot) from an artistic perspective. All of the 4 sided towers with the 4 sided faces and then all of the bas relief carving were amazing. Afterward, I think this is where the kids went toward the back with Kimtay and saw a guy making music by playing just a leaf. They were pretty impressed. I have to admit that I was surprised by how few mosquitoes there were. Again, the dry season I guess. I cannot imagine coming during the rainy season – ugh.

After the Bayon, we made the standard stops, including the Phimeanakas (“Aerial Palace) which was a narrow tower like structure that the king would use to worship. We all climbed up partway and then I was the only one who wanted to climb the pretty narrow steps to the top. I had a great view. After we finished with the Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King we headed back for the van. After every stop, Kimtay would give us these pre-packaged towels out of the ice coolers. OMG, they felt so good to wipe your face and hands. He would also give us each a bottle of water – either before we would start the next tour or after coming back to the van. At the last minute, I remembered to bring my little blue backpack bag and it was perfect. I would bring all of the hats, the sunscreen/insect repellent and “to go” meds and then I would also put a few of the water bottles in there. I am really glad I brought it since it isn’t as big as a conventional backpack which really makes your back grossly sweaty.

After seeing the Bayon, we toured the rest of the complex at Angkor Thom which was rapidly becoming pretty crowded. It is fascinating how it was all built. I thought it was interesting to compare this “architectural” marvel with Machu Picchu. MP was built on a mountain – definitely a stretch getting the stones in position. Also, their methods of construction were more architecturally sound – they had many features to protect the building from earthquakes and in fact the Incan buildings were more likely to survive than the Spanish built structures. But the walls were relatively unadorned. I know that some of them were covered with gold, but the decoration was different. I have read that Angkor Wat and the other surrounding shrines were not as well built and you can see that in the crumbling walls. Many countries from all over the world have sent teams to work on restoration. It seems like they pick a site and with Cambodia’s permission and the ASPARA authority (which started with the French) they work to improve the sites. That was one thing that was kind of a bummer for us. Angkor Wat itself, its main central tower had all of this green scaffolding on it since they are working on restoration there. It doesn’t do much for the overall look or for the pictures. On the other hand, if they don’t do all of this, it will eventually tumble down. You can see a lot of pretty big stones on the ground that have just fallen down by themselves. I am actually surprised that people don’t really talk about injuries or deaths from rock falls. I can’t imagine that it doesn’t ever happen (like what happened at Yosemite – though that was from a natural feature). Anyway, getting back to my comparisons – the amount of elaborate bas reliefs in the temples was amazing. It was also sad to see how much defacement has occurred over time. From the Hindus who came through and removed every single Buddha from the walls that they could find, to the gunshot marks from Pol Pot’s army when they camped out – not all of the changes are the result of just the jungle taking over. Standing at any height in the midst of the Angkor temples I kept feeling like the “Ride of the Valkyries” as played during Apocalypse Now was going to start and that helicopters would start to fly over the tree tops. I know the kids are too young to remember the Vietnam War, but I imagine it must be weird for veterans to visit now. In fact, our guide did talk a little about the “American War.” The kids did realize that he was referring to the same conflict that we label the “Vietnam War.” It was an unsettling idea to think about. Also, the kids could not remember Tomb Raider and I noted that we probably should watch it when we got back home.

After Angkor Thom, Kimtay took us back to town (not that far away) and we stopped for lunch at a local Khmer restaurant. It was almost empty but the food was very good. It was similar to Thai but much less spicy so you could enjoy it more. We ordered a lot and ended up eating it all. I am sure the wait staff thought we were absolute pigs. After lunch it was back to the hotel for a break. Steph and I took a nap and Spencer and DH went to the pool for a swim and then nap.

Soon enough it was time to get up again for Round 2 – the Real Deal – Angkor Wat. We did the checkpoint again of course and then finally! we were walking along the causeway across the moat filled with water. It used to have crocodiles, but no more. You could see sporadic water lilies, but most of them were closed up in the heat of the day. Apparently there are leeches in the water – ugh! Angkor Wat – I don’t think I can say anything about it that others have not already said. It is amazing – I particularly like its symmetry and balance. As I noted before – the only detraction was the scaffolding and we also couldn’t go to the top level as access was blocked off because of ongoing restoration. I was kind of disappointed as I always like going to the top of everything we visit. The rest of the family can kind of take it or leave it I think. Then we did kind of a strange thing. We hung out inside of Angkor Wat until near sunset. I am not sure why Ronny didn’t have us come outside so that we could see the west face as the sun lights it up as it sets (Angkor Wat faces the west as it was thought to be a mausoleum).

Afterwards, I wanted to get a massage so Kimtay took us back to the hotel so that we could cleaned up with a shower. Then he took us to his favorite place – Healthy Hands. For $40 we all had a massage together. They take you into this large communal room. One side has these comfortable recliner chairs which are probably used for foot massages. The other side has a raised platform with curtains which can be pulled shut or open. We each changed into a clean robe (they pulled the curtain shut between me and Steph and DH and Spencer. Then they opened all of the divider curtains and it was like being in a giant tent. We each lay down on the mat and they started the hourlong massage. Okay – it was not the best massage I have ever had. It was pretty painful. I had twisted my ankle semi-badly earlier in the day stepping off and I had to stop my masseuse from manipulating that ankle. DH fell asleep and was snoring so I guess he was comfortable until they got to his knee. All of a sudden he woke up in pain when his masseuse tried to manipulate at that area. Afterward, anytime the kids tried to tap me on the shoulder or lean on my shoulders I would yelp in pain for a good 4-5 days afterward. I am not sure, but DH and I suspect that Thai massage is similar. I have to say that I did not take advantage of cheap massages because it took so long to recover from the soreness of that Cambodian massage. Oh well. We were brought back to the hotel where the mandatory Christmas Eve party was taking place at the hotel. It was outdoors by the pool and there was – you guessed it - another buffet dinner. I didn’t think it was too bad, but Stephanie really didn’t like it all. The entertainment was kind of lame – a couple who sang “pop” songs. We left kind of early (we were tired anyway).
61luv2travel is offline  
Jan 23rd, 2010, 09:45 AM
  #13  
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Christmas Day - The next morning woke up not too early, had breakfast and then off we went for a very long day of temple touring. First, we drove all the way to Banteay Srei. We all agreed afterward that this was our favorite – it was very cute, petite and with wonderfully detailed carvings in pink sandstone. It was very beautiful. Afterward, we were taken to Banteay Samre which didn’t seem to be one of the more well known temples. I was glad that we were able to visit it though. It was pretty deserted – we were practically the only ones there and that was really a neat feeling to have this temple to ourselves. We just hung out there and relaxed after walking through it. I really enjoyed this temple as it had such a symmetrical layout which was somehow very pleasing. According to Dawn Rooney’s book, this is one of the temples that has seen significant restoration.

Afterward, we were taken to a local restaurant for lunch. It was a fairly slow moving affair as it was pretty hot by this point. We stayed there for quite some time which provided a good break. Around 3PM we took off for Ta Prohm – better known as the “Tomb Raider” temple. It was pretty cool to see all of the roots of the trees and how they had taken hold of the walls. After we got home, we watched the movie and the kids were pretty interested in that part since now they had already seen it in real life. It is interesting to note that they can’t do that much to stabilize this temple as the tree roots have insinuated themselves so thoroughly that even though they weaken the walls, they can’t be removed without bringing the walls down completely. After we finished at Ta Prohm, we went on to our final temple for the day – Pre Rup. It was relatively quiet and we climbed up high (of course) and waited for the sunset. As it got closer and closer, more and more people began to show up trying to find a place to sit on the western face. It was very peaceful and beautiful watching the sunset.

Afterward, Kimtay brought us back to the hotel to clean up and then picked us up again to take us to his home for dinner. He lives in a relatively nice neighborhood, though you have to go down a dirt road to get to his home. He has a very neat front yard though he still has plans to work on the landscaping. We all went into the house and were greeted by his very cute children – a son and a younger daughter. They were very friendly. We ate in the front part of the house. There were a couple of little geckoes running around on the ceiling. The table was set with just 2 main dishes so I ate a lot of the fish and the curry. But then his wife began to bring out more and more dishes. It turns out that he likes his food hot so his wife cooks them quickly at the time of the meal. I didn’t know this so then I was too full to eat more of everything that she brought out. This was probably the best meal we had for the entire trip. Everything was very yummy! Afterwards I was so incredibly sleepy I was practically falling into the plate. I felt badly about that. Anyway, we went back to the hotel to go to bed relatively early.

We had to wake up the next morning at 4AM to leave for Angkor Wat by 5AM to see the sunrise. More and more people started to arrive and we had a decent spot by the water lily pond. It was pretty crowded, but the sunrise was very beautiful. Then we went over back to the Bayon so that DH could take some more pictures. (These photos of the Bayon in the early AM light were probably the most beautiful photos of the entire trip.) We realized that visiting the temples very early in the morning was actually a great time to go – the light is better for photos, there are way less people and the temperature is just so much more comfortable. Then we finished up and went back to the hotel for breakfast.

The kids took it easy in the room and DH and I went over to the Children’s Hospital which was just down the street. It was somewhat unfortunate, but I think we didn’t make it quite clear to Kimtay that we wanted to tour. He said that he knew someone there, but he never set up anything specific. When we arrived, we were told that we could just watch a video and tour around in the visitor center (which was very nice and had A/C), but that because of patient privacy issues, the board had recently decided that they weren’t allowing any more tours. As we are both physicians (and I am a pediatric cardiologist) we had really wanted to tour from a professional viewpoint. Oh well, we had just enough time to visit, go back to the hotel to get ready for our flight back to Bangkok/Phuket.

It was interesting that DH was trying to pay Kimtay a little bit earlier, but he really didn’t want to take the money until the very end. I was kind of uncomfortable that Tom was giving him such a large amount of cash and I tried to stand between him and a policeman that was standing at the entrance of the airport. It just seemed like an instant bribe opportunity. More at the next post once we arrived back in Thailand.
61luv2travel is offline  
Jan 23rd, 2010, 10:03 AM
  #14  
 
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great visit...and great story
rhkkmk is offline  
Jan 25th, 2010, 09:29 AM
  #15  
 
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Best part - in Bangkok, "I think that I am done with the monkey thing."
tarquin is offline  
Jan 25th, 2010, 04:18 PM
  #16  
 
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Extremely interesting trip report...thanks so much! Your account reinforced our initial impression that we didn't want to do the "monkeys" and the fishing village....especially for my husband....he's always concerned that some animal is going to have a "bad hair day!" And, we don't want to have to get rabies shots.
barefootbeach is offline  
Jan 25th, 2010, 05:22 PM
  #17  
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I realized that I have been so busy trying to get this trip report posted that I haven't been replying to anyone else's comments. Thanks to all who have managed to stick it out - I know that it is kind of long.

To Gpanda (I must do a search sometime as I can not for the life of me figure out how you chose this name! I do love all of the panda jokes though) - I consider myself really fortunate that we were able to book Tong. She was just so much fun and she also worked so hard to respond to all of our requests. I find all of the other discussion/arguments/name calling about the subject of Tong kind of weird. She probably isn't "perfect" for everyone - no one is, but I felt very happy and secure as I knew what to expect. You can't say that most of the time about your guide. Maybe instead of Tong bashing, other posters should just talk up their own experience- especially if it is a good one. Most of us really value having that personal review to help them decide. There isn't enough of Tong to go around anyway. She is just "crazy" busy.

To barefootbeach - Even though I wouldn't choose to visit the monkeys again, I am glad that we "survived" the experience. I have some great pictures.

And finally to rhmkkmk - first of all - I want to go to South Africa next (future back to Thailand trip also on my list) and who is the first person I run across on that site but you. I couldn't believe it - all I could think is "is he everywhere?" Second - my husband doesn't want to go on safari and unfortunately, he now has no confidence that I would be a good candidate to go since I couldn't even handle the monkey experience. Oh well, I haven't finished your report, but I will be sure to read all of it. Thanks for posting it!
61luv2travel is offline  
Jan 25th, 2010, 05:30 PM
  #18  
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And now picking up from when we left Cambodia - Once we arrived in Bangkok, we were a little concerned about our connection time to catch our AirAsia flight to Phuket. But that flight actually got pushed back by an hour, so we ended up sitting around for a while. Overall, I would rather do that then be running through the airport – especially since it is so big. Anyway, we all hated AirAsia – especially the kids. AirAsia is like the Southwest Airlines of Asia, except even more inconvenient. When you are ready to board, you have to get on these shuttle buses which take you onto the tarmac. They really herd you into these buses. The plane looks incredibly small and they still manage a 3-3 seating arrangement. I didn’t pre-order any food or drinks (the flight wasn’t that long), but the kids were disappointed that they didn’t get anything at all on the flight.

Once we arrived in Phuket, it took forever for the luggage to come off. Our transfer was patiently waiting for us and then we had about an hour drive to our hotel. I enjoyed looking at Phuket as we were driving down, but I was kind of taken aback by how developed it was. It was almost like Hawaii gone bad – much more developed then I had thought it would be. We arrived at the Kata Beach Resort. We had rooms separated by one room in between. Both rooms had kind of a funny smell – almost a burnt smell in the kids room and a slightly moldy smell in our room. It wasn’t terrible, just something you noticed when you first came in the room, but then got better as you got used to it. The beds were really hard/firm. The breakfast at this hotel was really good with a great deal of variety.

After checking in, we just went out and had dinner at a local restaurant. It was okay, nothing exciting, but they kept letting off fireworks just about 50 yards away which was kind of startling and loud. I’m not talking about little fireworks either. After we finished and walked away, we realized that we were setting off full-fledged fireworks up into the sky. I’m surprised that nobody got hurt as they were doing these in one of the small alleyways lined on both sides with restaurants and shops. It was too close for my taste.

As we walked back to the hotel, Spencer was really happy to get some of the crepes at the roadside cart – we all liked them – either cinnamon and sugar or with chocolate drizzled over them. They were so good! Afterward, we went by the 7-11 to pick up some extra water. That was another thing that surprised me - the ubiquitous 7-11's. It was like the huge number of Dunkin' Donuts that you find in Boston.

Next, we went to the beach and watched these really cool floating candles. People would buy them from vendors on the beach. They seemed to be something like a plastic bag with a candle or some kind of burner which was lit. I think the warm air would act something like a mini-hot air balloon and the whole contraption would lift up into the air and float off over the ocean into the night. They were really beautiful as they floated away – like stars in the sky. I do think though they were probably not very ecologically sound. When the flame goes out, the plastic must fall back into the sea and probably strangles some poor marine animal. Since we didn't actually buy one to let go I never saw one close up. Does anyone know what they are actually made of? We got a bunch of mosquito bites, but it was very relaxing to sit there at the beach. Went to bed for our big day of sea kayaking with John Gray the next day.
61luv2travel is offline  
Jan 25th, 2010, 06:38 PM
  #19  
 
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write me any time about south africa: [email protected]

and btw we have been to the baltic and argentina in 2009 as well if you want that info..

i am a 'fodorite mosquito'
rhkkmk is offline  
Jan 25th, 2010, 06:38 PM
  #20  
 
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take the hubby to elephant plains in SA
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