OUR SEASIA Odyssey

Old Apr 3rd, 2012, 12:50 PM
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OUR SEASIA Odyssey

Gottravel and I spent a fascinating nine weeks in SEAsia. We’ve been home a month and are finally getting it together to do a TR.

We left IAD on New Year’s Eve and returned on March 2. This was our first trip to this area and we tried to hit the main tourist sites. We visited Thailand, including, Bangkok, Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Pai, Mae Hong Son and Aonang Beach. We also went to Siem Reap, Cambodia and Luang Prabang, Laos. In Vietnam we were in Hanoi, Halong Bay, drove from Hanoi to Mai Chau to Sapa, Hoi An, Hue, Saigon and the Mekong Delta.

The planning of this trip was helped by so many posters on this board either thru their TR’s or direct responses to posts. I read lots of TR and posts and appreciate all who take the time to post. I especially appreciated the help people gave us as we were travelling and needed quick responses to such burning questions as the best place to eat? I would like to thank all who were so generous with their time.

Now to the boring stuff, logistics, flights and hotels. Gottravel will post on this thread the more interesting details of our long journey.

LOGISTICS – We used the various booking sights, Agoda, Asia Rooms etc to book rooms. Occasionally we found the rates on the hotels own web site to offer better rates. In Vietnam we worked with Nhung at Tonkin Travel and they booked all the hotels, internal VN air and a couple guides and drivers for us in VN. For hotels Nhung consistently got better rates than I could find. Sometimes by just $5 or so, but her rate was always less. Tonkin Travel was very easy to work with, responded quickly and made some great suggestions. She also took any recommendations that I made, researched them and came back with comments and prices for us to consider. I rarely work with a travel agent and found this experience to be easy and quite successful. I must say I enjoyed having the driver or guide walk into the hotel, talk to the reception, get us registered and arranged without having to say a word! I highly recommend Tonkin.

FLIGHTS – International: We were able to book roundtrip from IAD to BKK and rtn SGN to IAD with UA ff miles thanks to advice by mrwunrfl. We flew on UA from IAD to Rome and Thai Airways to BKK. These flights were in first class and really nice! The service on Thai Air was incredible.
Our flights home were on ANA in biz class and I was not impressed. In particular the flight from SGN to Narita on Air Japan had old-fashioned biz class seats and were not particularly comfortable. The flight from Narita to IAD was the newer style biz class seat and far better. Service on both flights was just ok.

Domestic: For internal flights we tried to use the discovery pass thru BKK Airways. I booked online for the Discovery Pass and had no trouble dealing with the agents via email. We flew BKK Airways from BKK to Siem Reap (SR), Lao Airlines from SR to Luang Prabang and Chiang Mai to BKK. We couldn’t get flights to Krabi (Aonang Beach) on the Discovery Pass so we flew Air Asia roundtrip from BKK to Aonang & BKK to Hanoi. We did have some difficulty with the Asia Air website, but finally were able to book our tickets. We also used the site while traveling and upped our baggage allowance. One word of caution when booking be careful NOT to get the travel insurance if you don’t want it. It seems to pop up automatically and is often hard to refuse by merely clicking. In terms of baggage on Air Asia, they did weigh our two bags and combined the weight for maximum weight allowed.
In Vietnam we flew Vietnam Airways from Hanoi to Danang and Hue to Saigon. All the flights were relatively on time and fine. BKK Air was probably the nicest of the three airlines.

HOTELS - I wrote reviews for many of our hotels on Trip Advisor as we travelled and you can find them under dl. Be happy to answer any specific questions about the hotels. I’ll list the cities, name, & a few comments below:
BKK – Adelphi Suites -- great location and comfortable room
Siem Reap – Kool Hotel – hated the room & location!
Luang Prabang, Laos – Apsara -- loved it!
Chiang Rai – La Luna – nicked named it mosquito Ville
Chiang Mai – Pak Chiang Mai B&B – really nice B&B with fabulous owner
Pai – Belle Rive – loved it & 7 PAi River Corner – just okay
Mae Hong Son – Fern Valley – lovely grounds
Aonang Beach – Phu Petra Resort – huge room and nice grounds
BKK Airport – Novotel – expensive, but convenient
Hanoi – Elegance Diamond – what can I say that hasn’t already been said?
Halong Bay – Dragon Pearl III – tiny, but nice quarters

The next 4 are on the drive from Hanoi to Sapa. There is really not much tourist infrastructure, so hotel choices were not great. I pretty much went by Tonkin’s recommendations on these four.
Mai Chau - Mai Chau Lodge – very nice, by far best of the lot on the trip to Sapa
Son La – Ha Noi Hotel – supposedly best in town, but could have fooled us
Dien Bien Phu – Him Lam – the pits
Lai Chau – Muong Thanh – not great

Sapa – Boutique Sapa – pleasant hotel
Hoi An – Vinh Hung Riverside Resort – good location and nice property
Hue – Best Western Indochine Premier Hotel – felt like we were back in the USA
Saigon – Liberty Central – disappointing as our final place, but ok
Can Tho – Kim Tho – fab views from our room
Chau Doc – Chau Pho – basic & boring

Coming Soon -- A Week in Bangkok and discovering the joys of real Thai Food
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Old Apr 3rd, 2012, 01:39 PM
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Can't wait to read this report. I'm especially interested in your drive to sapa and your comparison of lai chau to sapa. We took the train. Haven't heard of anyone else making the drive.

Have you been to guillin in china? If so, I'm also curious how you compare your sapa and Halong bay experiences.
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Old Apr 3rd, 2012, 03:52 PM
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You've been home a month already??!! I know we got to hear about part of this in person, but I'm looking forward to reading!
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Old Apr 3rd, 2012, 04:49 PM
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Here we go and I look forward to reading the rest!
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Old Apr 3rd, 2012, 07:27 PM
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what was wrong with liberty central?... we had a fab room and loved the location and the hotel
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Old Apr 3rd, 2012, 07:55 PM
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dgunbug - we have never been to China, so can't compare that for you.

rhkkmk -- re: Liberty Central. Location was good. The first room they showed us was on the 4th floor and we could hear the noise from the bar/cafe downstairs. We asked for a room on a higher floor which they took us to, but it was tiny with no reading lamp on one side of the bed which is important to us. Great view though. They had no other rooms except the executive level which was $50 a night additional. We went back to the 4th floor room and thankfully it quieted down around midnight or so. They promised us a better room on a high floor when we returned from the Mekong Delta. When we returned we were given a room that was a decent size on the 10th floor also with a fab view. Compared to many other places we had stayed, Liberty Central was just not as charming or interesting. It was fine, just not great and would have loved a wonderful hotel for the end to our nine weeks..
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Old Apr 3rd, 2012, 11:17 PM
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A good start to your much awaited report yestravel - looking forward to reading a lot more of your travels.
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Old Apr 5th, 2012, 06:38 AM
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One Night (and More) in Bangkok Well, it seemed like a good idea. And it was in concept: Leave New Year’s Eve and we’d have the first leg of our trip (from IAD to Rome) pretty much to ourselves. We’d planned to stay awake on this leg and then sleep on the longer Thai Airways Rome to Bangkok leg. Unfortunately, the concept broke down in Rome New Year’s Day. Our onward flight to Bangkok via Thai Airways had had a malfunction and the airline needed to replace a part. And all of Italy was on holiday. They had to fly the part in from Bangkok, where New Year’s is not celebrated to Italian excess. End result: We stayed awake across the Atlantic and then spent another four exhausted hours in the Rome airport only to be told that our flight was cancelled and that we’d be flown to Bangkok on a special flight the following day. Thus, we were delayed in Rome while the afore-mentioned part was found in Thailand and flown in. While we were given accommodations and meal tickets, we couldn’t really enjoy the layover. YT’s winter coat was in her baggage - which she’d checked through. As were all of my toiletries. (I ended up buying 10 Euro deodorant at the Rome airport.) Transportation to downtown Rome was unavailable due to the holiday – not that we would have ventured out in sub-freezing cold.

The Rome airport hotel is actually inside the airport. That is, if you count “inside” as about a kilometer away via a long walkway exposed to the elements. The hotel (Hilton) was nice – it met the basic requirements of having a clean warm room and a comfortable bed. The food was another matter. I’ve always maintained that it’s impossible to get a bad meal in Italy. I was proved wrong. Our first meal – lunch – consisted of some clotted and congealed macaroni with peas mixed in. (The accompanying bread was good.) Dinner was somewhat better: lamb chops, veal saltimbocca and more macaroni, this time not clotted and congealed but instead overcooked and hardened around the edges of the chafing dish. Again, good bread. Both meals were served buffet style in a heated tent full of a mini-United Nations stranded passengers from our flight. Exhausted – and not having any alternatives had we not been exhausted – we went to bed at 8:00 Rome time and slept straight through until 6:00 the next morning.

Our breakfast was pastries. (Tasty!) We headed over to the terminal to check our flight status and take advantage of the reduced rate wifi in the airline lounge. Our plane’s departure was on time as (re)scheduled – 23 hours after the original departure time. There was something of a comedy of errors and inefficiencies at the gate – lines we were formed, dissolved, reformed and moved without logic or explanation – but we eventually boarded the plane and were on our way.

We had first class accommodations for the first time on an International flight in our lives due to having redeemed our combined lifetime United and Continental miles for tickets. It was wonderful! We were the only people in first class and had the undivided attention of the flight attendants. Our meal was a delight – an assortment of canapés, then caviar with onions, chopped hard-boiled egg yolks and chilled vodka, and finally two (!) entrees apiece. First lobster, then Thai pork in green curry sauce. I finished with a cognac, toasting the 1% I had joined (at least temporarily). It more than compensated for the Roman macaroni. We then slept on and off (in our new Thai Air pajamas) much of the way to Bangkok. Shortly before our arrival, we had some noodle soup for “breakfast” – I’m not really sure what to call the meal since we were so out of sync with our internal clocks.

At Bangkok, we made it effortlessly through the Thai equivalents of customs and immigration via what amounted to a first-class fast-track - a uniformed guy on an airport golf cart with a sign with our names. He zipped us through the empty airport to retrieve our luggage and deposited us by the ground transportation area. There were no visible taxis so we awakened some napping employees at the limo counter and hired a car into town, making it effortlessly through the 4:00 a.m. (Bangkok time) traffic. We didn’t even have to set our watches as it was exactly twelve hours off DC time. We arrived at our lodgings, Adelphi Suites, found the front desk fully operational despite the hour, checked into our wonderful 6th floor room and tried unsuccessfully to sleep. We then walked around the neighborhood, then had our first of many hotel buffet breakfasts. We met up around noon with a fellow Fodorite, simpsonc510, who was staying in our hotel and went with her to a couple of Bangkok shopping malls.

Normally, I would have found the prospect of going to Thai shopping malls every bit as thrilling as that of going to their American equivalents. However, I tagged along hoping to get an overview of Bangkok and how the Sky Train system worked which simpson provided. (Adelphi Suites is two minutes from the Nana Sky Train station.) The Sky Train gives an elevated view of Bangkok - enormous, crowded and almost non-stop. Bangkok is so “on” that it makes NYC or Buenos Aires look like Omaha by comparison. We passed through traffic-choked canyons formed by high-rises and past multi-story video screens with advertising videos – the immense video screens reminded me a bit of those in the futuristic dystopian Los Angeles in “The Blade Runner.” Minus the flying cars of course.

We returned to the hotel and tried to nap in the late afternoon – YT had some success. I didn’t, perhaps because I was trying too hard. I went out around 7:00 p.m. and ate at the restaurant recommended by simpson, Kinnaree just down Sukhumvit Soi 8 from the Adelphi Suites. I had an order of pork in tamarind sauce there and brought back an order of chicken satay for YT, who was still asleep when I returned. (The satay later became a delicious 4:00 a.m. snack.) And, at last, I finally managed to sleep.

The next day I had jet lag so massive that we weren’t quite sure what day it was or even where we were when I awakened. Then I remembered – today was our guided tour day for the highlights of downtown Bangkok. We ate a hasty – and tasty – breakfast at Adelphi Suite’s well-stocked breakfast buffet then hurried to the neighboring lobby to meet our Tour with Tong guide. He arrived promptly at 8:00 (in the year-round tropical heat, it makes sense to begin touring as early ias possible). He called himself Chi, which was short for a polysyllabic name of such length that Westerners were unable to comprehend, much less pronounce, it. Or so he explained.

On our agenda were the Wat Traimit (I’ve also seen this spelled “Trimitr”) the flower market, the Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaeo (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) and Wat Po (Temple of the Reclining Buddha). Chi was a pleasant and energetic man, albeit with a heavy and almost incomprehensible accent. The driver spoke no English and smiled a lot. Once we arrived at Wat Traimit, the previously overcast skies seemed to partially clear. The ferocious sun, coupled with the jet lag, promised to make an exhausting day.

Wat Traimit is a recently-constructed temple on the edge of Chinatown well away from the river and other major Bangkok sights. The Wat itself is unimpressive except for the Golden Buddha housed in a side chapel on the temple grounds. We were told that this ancient Buddha weighs five metric tons and is made of solid gold. It had been covered in plaster to hide it from Burmese invaders centuries ago. It was only a relocation in 1955 that damaged the plaster and revealed the gold underneath. (I’d have thought the improbable weight for a plaster statue would have been something of a give-away.) Visually, it has an appealing stylistic elegance. From Wat Traimit, we walked to the nearby flower market, which was large but relatively empty in the mid-morning heat. (The busiest hours are in the cool of night.) We watched some ladies fold lotus flowers into compact blooms that are used in the temples.

We then drove to the area of the Grand Palace and What Phra Kaeo. My tastes tend towards the minimalist and modernist and I don’t find the excessive ornamentation of Bangkok architecture appealing. And, with the exception of the beautifully simple Sri Lankan style stupa, I found Wat Phra Kaeo nothing if not ornate. It was a maze of stupas, colored glass, shattered Chinese porcelain inlay and odd guardian figurines. Phra Kaeo is also home to the Emerald (actually jade) Buddha, which I didn’t find as attractive as Wat Traimit’s Golden Buddha. By the time we left Wat Phra, Kaeo, the sun and the jet-lag were taking their toll: We were getting templed-out. Fortunately, it was time for lunch, soup (YT) and noodles (GT) and Coca-Cola in a pleasant shaded restaurant.

Somewhat restored, we went to our final temple, Wat Po, the temple of the reclining Buddha. And reclining he was. All 45 meters of him. On his right side. I was told that is the appropriate side for sleeping – and I have since read that this indeed the healthful side on which to sleep. Although the statue itself was beautiful, I was again struck by the contrast between the simplicity of Buddhist doctrine and the ornate quality of Buddhist architecture in Bangkok. Afterwards, we slowly returned through the crowded streets to our hotel. We arrived with a sigh of relief, went to our room and promptly fell asleep for several hours.

A YT note about the guide: “We reserved the guide through Tour with Tong in advance. I found him to be overly-energetic and overly-detail oriented. I requested on several occasions that he slow down and try to focus on a higher level of information. At one point, I specifically told him that he was giving me way too much information for me to process. His answer : ‘There’s a lot you have to know.’ I shook my head in stunned disbelief. Out of all the guides we had in our nine weeks, Chi was the least responsive to our requests and, while clearly knowledgeable of the subject matter, incapable of providing information in a way that was comprehensible to me. This may, in part, have been due to the heat and the time difference.”

That evening, we took the Sky Train to Sukhumvit Soi 38 for a series of snacks in food stalls: Pad Thai, chicken sautéed with cashew nuts, sautéed morning glory, satay – all excellent. That night, we managed, for the first time, to sleep through the night until after dawn.

The next morning, our third day in Bangkok, we explored the breakfast buffet at length. We were impressed and occasionally puzzled (spaghetti carbonara for breakfast?) by the array of food available. Everything from Thai food – my preference – to omlettes, and Mexican salsa and chips. Incredible. After breakfast, we took the Sky Train to a station near the Jim Thompson House. Jim Thompson was a Princeton graduate who served as an OSS agent in World War Two. Having acquired a taste for adventure, he settled in Thailand, where he established a business as a silk exporter and pretty much single-handedly re-vitalized the Thai silk industry in the post-war period. His “house” actually comprises six 19th century traditional Thai homes that he had dismantled, shipped to Bangkok and reassembled into one large rambling structure along side a “klong” (canal). Jim himself vanished while on vacation in Malaysia in the 1960s. Rumors abound, but no one seems to know what his actual fate was.

The house and grounds are well maintained and are on oasis of peace in a very frentic city. We took the house/museum tour. I would recommend this to any visitor to Bangkok. In addition to the elegant houses, Thompson collected Thai art and antiquities. The house is maintained as Thompson left it and the overall feeling of the tour is that of visiting someone’s house rather than going to a museum. After the tour, we lingered on the grounds and perused the overpriced shop. (Beautiful silk scarves, clothing and weavings are readily available in northern Thailand and in Laos at far better prices.)

Then we returned to the Sky Train and took it to the Saphan Thisak stop. This stop is adjacent to the central pier for various long-tail (and other) boats that ply the Chao Phraya River and those few connected klongs that are still open to boat traffic. It also has boats that provide free shuttle service to nearby hotels. We were interested in going to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel (now known merely as the “Oriental,” perhaps due to the near extinct status of old-school mandarins). The Oriental dates back eighty or ninety years. The original hotel – now a set of suites known as “the Authors’ Residence – is encompassed within a larger hotel constructed more recently. At one point, the Oriental had been considered the world’s most luxurious hotel; it has since lost that status to newer hotels. Still, the entire hotel has an aura of refinement and elegance – and it’s not hard to imagine Somerset Maugham or Graham Greene strolling through the Authors’ Residence in white tropical-weight suits.

So…we took the hotel ferry from Saphan Thisak and strolled into the Oriental like we owned the place and ensconced ourselves in some comfy lobby chairs for some serious people watching. Half an hour later, armed with directions from the concierge desk, we headed to the nearby Tongue Thai restaurant for lunch. It was a fabulous meal: Green papaya salad and chicken with cashews and pineapple. From there we attempted to walk to the Jim Thompson outlet on Surawong Road. This wasn’t a well-planned walk – our maps were not to scale – and it descended into a miserable trek through the hot and humid afternoon on crowded and polluted streets. We eventually stopped at a Holiday Inn for directions.

Not only were our maps not to scale, but we had not yet learned to distinguish between a named main street and the numerous numbered sub-streets –sois – that ran off the main street and shared its name. (For example, Adelphi Suites is on Sukhumvit Soi 8; Sukhumvit is a large street that runs most of the length of Bangkok. Sukumvit Soi 8 is a short side street that runs off Sukhumvit. Sois on one side of a named street are even-numbered; those on the other side are odd-numbered. The numbers increase as you move away from the river and the city center. Moreover, there is no correspondence between the numbers on either side – Soi 38 can be across the street from Soi 25.)

A further complication is the general impassability of streets filled with motorized traffic; major intersections have traffic lights timed on four or five minute intervals, requiring the patience of a sun-baked and sweat-drenched Job. Crossing minor unsignaled intersections, on the other hand, required Moses’ skill set: You waded into the traffic and prayed that it would part. Our prayers worked as neither of us were struck by an errant motorscooter weaving its way through the jammed traffic. At one point, rather than wait out a protracted signal light that would have taken us to the Jim Thompson Outlet, we walked some distance down the road before cutting down the luridly infamous Patpong Street. The bars and clubs seemed sad in the daylight and dancers and sex workers sat outside sharing bowls of noodles. As it turned out, the Jim Thompson Outlet store was a disappointment. It primarily sold silk by the yard (which we weren’t interested in) and had very little of anything else. We returned, chastened, to our hotel and the comfort of our air-conditioned room via Sky Train – the Sala Daeng station was nearby. (Had we honed our in-country senses, we would have taken the Sky Train to the Jim Thompsin outlet in the first place…but it looked so close and walkable on the map!)

That night we went down the street to the Kinnaree for dinner - pomelo salad, Thai fried rice and lamb curry. (Pomelo is like a larger, milder version of a grapefruit.) The pomelo salad at Kinnaree was delicious and pomelo salad became a recurring favorite for the nine-week duration of our trip.

The next day, fortified by Thai noodles (GT) and an omlette (YT) at the breakfast buffet, we took the Sky Train to the Saphan Taksin stop to take part in a Bangkok food tour. We arrived half an hour early and wandered around the station waiting for the tour to assemble and embark. Our guides – Kit and Pat – showed up promptly at 9:50 and the other participants materialized over the next ten minutes until we had assembled a multi-national group - American, Australian, Hong Kong Chinese and Thai. We were on our way by 10:05. (On an amusing note, Kit continually pronounced “tasting” as “testing,” giving our expedition a bit of a scientific air.)

Over the course of the next three hours we sampled:
• Traditional Chinese roast duck served on rice in Chinatown.
• “Curry lava on egg” at a thai Muslim restaurant (I have no recollection what this was!).
• Crispy shredded catfish, green papaya salad and pork with mint at an Isan (NE Thailand) restaurant, Yum Rod Sab.
• Green custard and BBQ pork buns at Pan Lee Bakery
• Royal curry at Kallaprapruek restaurant, which had been established by a member of the royal family to serve healthy inexpensive food.
The food seemed to get better at each location we went to. We particularly enjoyed the superb food at Yum Rod Sab, as well as taking the ferry across the river and walking down a rickety wooden walkway to get there. The royal curry at Kallaprapueck was also great, a kind of minced beef on noodles with curry sauce. (I cannot recommend these guys enough; look for thailandfoodtours on Facebook or BangkokFoodTours on Trip Advisor.)

We returned by Sky Train to our room for a foot massage (YT) and a nap (GT), respectively. Then to the corner for coffee and people watching.. Later that evening we went out with a former DC native; she’s now living in the Bangkok suburbs and working as a researcher for Defense contractor. We ate (again) at Kinnaree: pomelo salad and duck with tamarind sauce. Superb. After dinner, the three of us walked down Sukhumvit to “Cowboy Soi” near the Asok Sky Train stop. Cowboy Soi revealed the Bangkok sex-for-hire scene in all its lurid glory: A neon-lit block or two of cowboy-themed sex clubs and bars and puzzled-looking Thai girls in abbreviated cowgirl outfits outside waving Western sex tourists – a mix of older retirees and loserly-looking younger men – inside the various establishments. The three of us returned to the Monsoon (the bar/restaurant at Adelphi Suites) for a final drink. At some point we discovered that we’d been talking for four hours and that it was past midnight. My jet lag was gone.

We slept in the next morning. Then we took the Sky Train to Saphan Taskin stop. We took a brief long boat Klong tour and got off at Wat Arun (on the far bank) instead of returning to the central pier. Wat Arun was our favorite wat. It’s a central stupa surrounded by four other stupas . All are very steep, almost vertical. The central stupa has stairs that are almost as steep as a ladder leaning against a wall. The entire structure is embedded with broken Chinese porcelain arranged in patterns. I climbed up for the views and took great photos of the Grand Palace and other buildings on the far side of the river. YT stayed earthbound. Then I slowly climbed down.

We took a ferry – 3 baht (about 10 cents) across the river, then an express boat down river to near the Oriental. Then we hit the concierge desk and got instructions to Restaurant Harmonique for a late lunch. We had chicken in pandanus leaves, crab curry, chicken in sesame sauce and pomelo salad. It was our best meal yet of our stay in Bangkok – and we’d had great food at every meal since we’d been here. On our departure, I was surrounded by several older ladies who inquired about the details of our lives. We talked for so long I thought I wasn’t ever going to make it out! Harmonique is a lovely place. Highly recommended. We took the Sky Train back to Nana Station. We both had foot massages and then finally used our free cocktail coupons at the Monsoon. We skipped dinner, stayed in, read and updated our trip notes.

The next day, Sunday, was our last day in Bangkok. We’d come to like the city over the course of our six-day stay and were a little saddened by the thought of leaving. We started our morning by going to the Chatuchack Market at the end of the Sky Train line. This market is reputed to have about15,000 stalls, covers the major part of a large city park and sells anything imaginable (and, I’m sure, some items that I cannot imagine). We sought out the Thai design clothing section, repeatedly going by the perpetually closed “loaddown me” stall in the hope that it would eventually open. We finally gave up and wandered around the clothing section, buying a few items that caught our eye. As the market got more crowded and the heat and claustrophobia set in, we headed back towards the Sky Train station, stopping off for some wonderful mango and sticky rice. Then we took the Sky Train back to Nana Station and Adelphi Suites and dropped off the few items we’d bought. We went out again later to Pan Lee Bakery and bought the BBQ pork buns we’d loved on the food tour. Then we returned to another food tour stop, Kallapruek, for the royal curry and another curry of pork in green curry sauce. The green curry sauce was the un-Westernized version and was too hot even for me. We fished a small mound of tiny but potent chili peppers out of the sauce.

Afterwards, we headed back to the Oriental Hotel and parked ourselves in the elegant lobby for some extended people watching and devoted ourselves to eavesdropping on the well-to-do clientele. Improbably, we ran into the one person we knew in a city of thirteen million. The woman we’d gone out with two nights earlier was escorting her aunt and uncle (in South East Asia for an extended tour) back to their room. After she’s dropped them off, she returned for a brief chat.

By then, it was after four. We left for the Central Pier under the Saphan Taksin Sky Train stop and capped our day of wandering by buying two tickets - $1 for the both of us – for the up-river “Express” boat. The boat was “express” in name only. It stopped at countless places on both banks as it wound its way up the river, giving us a fascinating view of river life: a parade of wats, grandiose high-rises and stilt houses. In some places, the damage from the recent flooding was apparent – lop-sided riverside houses and buckled decks and docks. We rode all the way to the end – an hour and fifteen minute journey that took us well off our Bangkok map although we never actually left the city. We disembarked at the end and promptly reboarded the down river boat (another $1) in the gathering dusk. The down river boat made better time going with the sluggish current but we were still way upriver when we watched the sun set on the starboard side. We’d hoped to catch Wat Arun in the twilight, but it was night by the time we passed. We disembarked at the Central Pier, took the Sky Train to the Nana station, then walked out for a dinner at the nearby Cabbages and Condoms restaurant. It was a large condom-themed restaurant that had fairly good food and was very touristy. There was a Christmas tree hung with unrolled – and hopefully unused – condoms as decorations and a wheel of misfortune that warned of the various consequences for protected/unprotected/no sex – HIV, syphilis, a real good time, etc. I know their reason for being is educating people, but I thought Cabbages and Condoms was bit like a joke that had been told too often and run into the ground. After dinner, we walked back to our room and started packing for the next day’s departure. Despite all its crowds, chaos and heat, we’d both come to appreciate and enjoy Bangkok.
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Old Apr 5th, 2012, 07:30 AM
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Yestravel and Gottravel thank you soooo much for this vivid and fascinating Trip Report.

We have never been to SE Asia; now I will say 'not yet'. This TR was so descriptive and useful - now I need to find a Thai restaurant for dinner tonight

And await the report on the rest of the story.
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Old Apr 5th, 2012, 07:43 AM
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Yes and Go, great report so far. I LIVED on pomelos during our trip, loved them so much that I've researched having some shipped to me from the one US grower -- alas, the pomelos are $18 a box and shipping is $18 a box, a little pricey even for a great piece of fruit!
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Old Apr 5th, 2012, 08:11 AM
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@sf7307 - Have you tried Asian grocery stores? I've seen pomelos there both times I've gone after we got back in early March. Also banana flowers and palm sugar and golden mangoes by the crate for $6.99. (I love Asian, Latin & Ethiopian groceries, never miss a chance to stop at them when I have a chance.)
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Old Apr 5th, 2012, 08:45 AM
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One report by two contributors - excellent!
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Old Apr 5th, 2012, 09:28 AM
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Excellent details. Now I want to return to Bangkok!
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Old Apr 5th, 2012, 09:34 AM
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We've never been to Bangkok -- Go's descriptions are great!
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Old Apr 5th, 2012, 11:14 AM
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note to first timers... use of taxis can cut down on your heat exhaustion, as does the skytrain which only covers part of the city..

the jim thompson outlet that has all the mixture of JT merchandise is located on soi 93, sukhumvit rd..

good reporting..
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Old Apr 5th, 2012, 02:30 PM
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I am about to go to SEA so enjoying this. Love the report.
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Old Apr 5th, 2012, 05:36 PM
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Thanks, all-glad it's interesting.

Hanuman-what could get interesting is when we have very different views on places. Stay tuned

Rhkkmk-BKK has great transportation. easy to use and get around. we tend to be walkers so really rarely think to use taxis. Maybe we should have when we got so hot. Wish we had known about the other JT outlet. I like their merchandise, not that I lacked for scarves and textiles by the end of the trip.

Marnie & Sf- maybe u should give BKK a try...great city with fantastic food.
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Old Apr 5th, 2012, 06:27 PM
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Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, the memories!

BKK was our last stop on our 9 week trip in Dec.2011 and we just couldn't really taste the food anymore.(sigh).That food tour sounds fabulous....wish we had done it. And HOW creative the two of you are to use the services of the Oriental concierge for those great restaurant recommendations. Way to go!!!!!!
We stayed at the Chatrium Suites for 5 nights.....on the Chao Phraya River and loved every moment. Would definitely stay there again. AND Yes and Go...we stayed at the Oriental in 1970: $45/night and upgraded to the Presidential Suite.
GO: Are you putting your 10 euro deodorant on display????????
And that first class food when you flew to BKK from Rome. WOW.

For dgunbug......how would I compare Halong Bay with Guilin? Guilin was home for us for 6 months, when DH and I taught English conversation at GXNU.....and in fact, we went back in Oct.2011 to visit. So, Halong Bay was 2005....Guilin teaching was 2006. Our Halong Bay experience was fabulous. We were on a junk for 2 nights, had fabulous weather, went kayaking in the Bay and met a young German couple who ARE our friends for life. Guilin and Yangshuo in 2004 AND 2006 were visually appealing. We took the Bamboo Raft down the river in Yangshuo and loved every moment.We were shocked to see how much more polluted the air was in these areas 5 years later.

Guess what? You need to do both!

Looking forward to the rest of your journey. Thanks SO much for taking the time.
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Old Apr 6th, 2012, 06:39 AM
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Holiday in Cambodia We awoke early our last morning in Bangkok, ate a hasty breakfast then caught a cab to the airport. We made good time and arrived early to find our flight to Siem Reap delayed – in this case for a mere half hour. We parked ourselves in a lounge and enjoyed some snacks and the last consistent wifi we would have for a while.

The flight to Siem Reap took only a little over half an hour. It seemed that no longer had we taken off than we were setting down. We made it quickly through immigration; found that customs was non-existent even though we’d filled out a form. We promptly found a cab and were on the way to our hotel.

My first impression of Cambodia and Siem Reap was of red dust, dirt roads, hordes of tuk-tuks (a generic term for small onomatopoetic motorized vehicles), motos, bicycles. (We hadn’t seen a single bicycle in Bangkok). Our hotel - the “Kool Hotel” - proved to be somewhat of a disappointment after Adelphi Suites. We’d made the mistake of switching to this hotel shortly before leaving on our trip. We’d mistakenly figured that a hotel with fewer rooms would be more pleasant. And we had not anticipated the difficulties involved in walking to downtown Siem Reap through congested, dusty unmarked streets. Our bed was hard, the furniture was uncomfortable, and the closet/storage space was next to non-existent. The air conditioner was oddly mounted in the wall above the bed and directed blasts of chill air at anyone attempting to sleep. On the plus side, the staff were pleasant, helpful and attentive. A request for a mango and a knife brought us a plate with what had to have been four luscious, ripe – and sliced - mangoes. After our arrival, I lounged by the pool while YT had a massage.

Later, we took a $2 tuk-tuk into town. This was a literal $2 ride; the Cambodian economy is totally dollarized. The only time we saw Cambodian currency (the riel) was when we received 1000 and 2000 riel notes as change for amounts less than $1; they approximated $.25 and $.50 respectively. We had dinner at Bopha Angkor, a boutique hotel/restaurant. We had a mild curry and chicken amok (amok in this case is a coconut sauce, not a state of murderous frenzy). Cambodian food tasted somewhat like Thai food minus the chili peppers. Before dinner we had wandered the beautiful grounds of the Bopha Angkor, peaking into some of the beautifully furnished rooms. The result was further regret in having booked the Kool Hotel. Bopha Angkor was much nicer for about the same price. Afterwards, we checked out the night market. (It’s not hard to miss given the “NIGHT MARKET” sign lit up in lights and strung over the small river that bisected Siem Reap.) The market was nice, if touristy, but the vendors tended to be persistent to the point of annoyance. After some wandering, we grabbed the Kool Hotel shuttle back to our room. We were touring various Khmer ruins the next day and wanted to be well rested.

Our next day’s tour was by tuk-tuk. Our driver was Suwan (pronounced "Suvan"), a very pleasant and helpful man who spoke excellent English and had been recommended to us by Moreweird. He showed up at eight and we were on our way. In retrospect, our itinerary that day comprised way too much for a single day. At some point, the multitude of sights, coupled with the stupefying heat, caused my note taking to taper off. Certainly it eroded my memory; everything became a mix of brick, stone, and bas relief. The scale of the Khmer ruins is simply immense. I knew they were large before we visited – but I still grossly underestimated the scale. This is not site to be seen in one day like Machu Picchu or even Teotihuacan. One could easily spend a week here touring various individual sites. I know what we saw, but I cannot assign specifics to individual sites with any certainty. It all began to run together. Further, the scale, particularly of Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat, means a lot of walking in brutal heat. I’ve done a partial reconstruction of what from my notes and photographs:
• Prasat Kravan (brick; relatively small area with five buildings; one of the oldest sites; some nice depictions of Vishnu in one building…they look almost Mayan art, except frontal rather than in profile.)
• Banteay Kdai (stone; large complex; much later period, very photogenic interiors…I did perspective shots down halls and of dancing apsara bas reliefs.)
• Ta Ked (no recollection; unless I’ve mixed these up with Ta Prohm, my photos reveal the interior of a stone building with some static bas relief figurines; my guess is that this predates Banteay Kdai.)
• Ta Prohm (memorable, still partially overgrown, I – and everyone else – made evocative photos of trees covering parts of this temple.)
• Angkor Thom, including
o Bayon (an incredible complex of a series of towers with huge stone faces facing cardinal points on each tower; fantastic bas reliefs; this was the highlight of the day and is worthy of a day of its own.)
o Baphuon (approached via a walkway; a somewhat pyramidal structure of large blocks of stone; I think interior was closed for restoration.)
o The Elephant Terrace (Just that, a very long terrace decorated with life-size carvings of elephants and other animals.)
o The Leper King Terrace (My notes – immediately pre lunch – indicate excellent bas reliefs in the process of being pieced together block by block.)
• Angkor Wat (Vast and crowded; too immense for the entire structure to be captured in one photograph. We entered via a long causeway and passed through two walls to get to the central structure. Our walks through the halls and buildings revealed numerous bas reliefs and apsara carvings as well as statues of Buddha that had been defaced or beheaded by the Khmer Rouge during those miserable years when they were in power. We climbed the steep central tower amid hordes of Japanese tourists. Angkor Wat, like Angkor Tom, is worth a day or two on its own: Start early and stay late.)
Other comments:
• We ate lunch in food market outside the Angkor Thom complex. The individual vendors are numbered rather than named and are housed in a large shaded open building. We had fairly good pork amok and so-so spring rolls, but regretted not getting the wonderful (we think) ginger chicken that we smelled at the next food stall.
• Several of the sites had government-sponsored amputee bands playing traditional music with their feet or what remained of other limbs. (They also sell CDs, which I regret not buying.) Khmer Rouge-planted landmines have taken an incredible toll on the Cambodian population; be prepared to see many amputees or otherwise disfigured people if you travel to Cambodia.

We returned to the Kool Hotel in the late afternoon dazed and exhausted. We later roused ourselves to take the hotel shuttle into Siem Reap for dinner. We ate at the Blue Pumpkin Restaurant (the upstairs is air-conditioned and popular with backpackers). YT had a salad; I ordered one of the few non-western items on the menu, eggplant stuffed with pork. We again briefly perused the Night Market before taking the regular shuttle back to the hotel.

The next morning, Suwan again picked us up at eight. This time we went in a car as we had a long (30 kilometer) ride over dusty roads to fantastic Banteay Srei. Banteay Srei was our favorite of all the Khmer ruins. It is both small enough to appreciate and filled with fantastically detailed stonework. Unlike every other place we visited it did not involve going up and down stairs – another reason we liked it. Perhaps it also benefited from not sharing the day with numerous other sites.

After Banteay Srei, Suwan took us to Pre Rup. Pre Rup is brick and was constructed in an earlier period than Banteay Srei. It comprised several large vertical towers. From the heights of the central temple you can glimpse the distant central spire of Angkor Wat eight kilometers away.

YT notes —AW had been a dream of mine to see. Like Machu Picchu, its existence was a feat that seemed incredible to me. However, I did not have nearly the reaction to it that I expected – I was not awestruck or even taken by it. The accomplishments of these ruins in the jungle so long ago—and their survival—is indeed incredible. But it did not compare to me with the majesty of Machu Picchu. As mentioned above, Banteay Srei impressed me the most. Perhaps it was the massive crowds that detracted from the structures themselves. I am glad I experienced the Khmer ruins, but they did not live up to my very high expectations. I also was disappointed in Siem Reap itself. I failed to see the charm that many others have written about.

On our drive out to Banteay Srei, it had quickly become obvious that Cambodia is a very poor country - much poorer than Bangkok (or, as we later discovered, any other part of Thailand). And Siem Reap, buoyed by tourism, was a relative oasis of affluence. In the countryside, housing was extremely primitive, sometimes little more than thatched huts. There were also some houses on stilts, a remainder from the era when livestock were sheltered under the houses for protection against tigers. In this relatively dry section of Cambodia, only one rice crop is harvested each year. The rest of the year was devoted to making palm sugar. Palm sugar is responsible for the nearly ubiquitous stickiness of food in Southeast Asia. It’s prepared from the fruit of the female flower of the palm tree. The people constructed bamboo ladders to reach the fruit; the ladders are literally a bamboo pole with inserted pegs. They’re leaned against the palms and they scramble up to harvest the fruit. The juice from the flowers is then reduced in large roadside vats until the liquid is evaporated. The resulting sugar, light brown in color, is delicious. We stopped by some reduction vats and bought three large packets of palm sugar for a dollar. Since returning to the USA, I’ve made a practice of hunting it down in Asian markets. It’s wonderful with coffee.

After our palm sugar stop, Suwan stopped at the Landmine Museum. Neither he nor YT would enter it. Understandably, because it was one of the most depressing places I’ve ever been. The Khmer Rouge had mined Cambodia extensively, both to keep the Vietnamese out and the native population in. The Vietnamese had also planted landmines. In addition, there remains a problem with unexploded American ordnance from the Vietnam War era. The museum displayed landmines from the USSR, Czechoslovakia, China, Vietnam and Thailand – and probably other countries as well that I missed. Suwan said that when he was young - he’s in his early 40s now - and his family lived in the countryside, he heard explosions almost every night from livestock or wildlife stepping on landmines. The founder of the museum had personally deactivated over 50,000 mines. However, they continue to be an issue and people continue to be killed or maimed, particularly since there’s a secondary market in scrap metal from the wars.

Suwan drove us back to Siem Reap by early afternoon. He recommended lunch at a traditional restaurant called Angkor Chey (sp?). It had a very pleasant atmosphere – a shady second story room on stilts above a courtyard with several crafts workshops. We had mango salad with fish and ginger chicken, all of it good although a tad bland compared to Thai food. After lunch, he took us to an artisan complex where all the craftspeople were deaf. They practiced traditional crafts – stone carving, wood carving, lacquer, painting. It had a nice gift shop and we bought some items for friends and offspring.

Then we went back to the hotel, where we bid farewell to Suwan. Our time with him had been a real eye-opener and we won;ld recommend him to anytraveller to the Siem Reap area ([email protected]) We went to our room, packed and rested. We went out later to Viroth Restaurant for a dinner of banana flower chicken salad, shrimp salad, and some leaden spring rolls. Viroth restaurant was very stylish, modern with a soundtrack of downtempo lounge music and an attached art gallery, not unlike something you would see in Los Angeles or Buenos Aires. (The latter comparison became particularly poignant when an old 1940s tango canción came improbably floating over the sound system.) We didn’t wait for the shuttle and instead took a cab back to the hotel after a spot of negotiation over the fare; the driver initially quoted twice the going rate.

The next morning we killed time at the Kool Hotel before our departure to the airport for our Luang Prabang flight. We had lunch at the hotel – what was termed “Cambodian BBQ” (satay) and mixed vegetables. Come our 1:00 p.m. departure, the hotel attempted to send us off to the airport via tuk-tuk. We immediately refused. The idea of bouncing through the dust with our suitcases on our knees was simply unacceptable. The hotel staff relented, loaded us into a van and off we went.

We cleared immigration promptly and soon were hanging in the tiny departure lounge. Our flight, perhaps a quarter full, was on a smallish prop plane. We left on time and soon found ourselves flying over Cambodia’s flat, tragic landscape on our way to the mountains of Laos.
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Old Apr 6th, 2012, 08:11 AM
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We hope to visit some of the same places next winter so I am following along very closely. Thanks! I love the detail.
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