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Part 2 Trip Report on Thailand, Laos, Cambodia

Part 2 Trip Report on Thailand, Laos, Cambodia

Aug 17th, 2004, 11:35 PM
  #1  
GBL
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Join Date: Jan 2004
Posts: 30
Part 2 Trip Report on Thailand, Laos, Cambodia

I've included Part 1 below, for those who missed the first installment. For Part 2, scroll below...

As a thank you to all those regulars who provided me with such generous and thoughtful information, I offer this trip report.

My family (myself, my husband and my son (15) and daughter (13) spent 5 1/2 weeks in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. We had travelled to Thailand and Malaysia four years ago, so this time we went a bit off the beaten track. Here's how it played out.

1. Bangkok. The more I visit this city, the more I enjoy it. Love the metered taxis, the skytrain and the ferries. For such a large, polluted city, it's easy to get around. We visited the sites at the beginning of the trip and saved the shopping for the end.

We stayed at the Royal Orchid Sheraton and enjoyed the executive suites. We enjoyed the charming 26th floor lounge with great views of the river. We sipped coffee and ate croissants while the kids sent emails on the internet. The cocktail hour in the lounge is also a nice touch.
A trip to the Mandara Spa takes the edge off 15 hours of flying! After the sports massage I smelled of cinnamon, lemongrass and cloves for days...

2. Siem Reap/Angkor. We used the Bangkok Airways pass to make the trip to Siem Reap more reasonable (see airline site for details). The Bangkok Air propeller plane looks like it's dressed for a Hawaiian party.

A quick note on airfares: there are now three discount airlines worth checking out: Orient-Thai, Asia Air and Nok Air. We noted that a flight on Orient-Thai, from Bkk to Chaing Rai, was half the price of our Thai Air ticket, but the timing just didn't work out for us. Lots of new flight options...

In Siem Reap we stayed at a relatively new hotel: the Shinta Mani. It's an 18 room boutique hotel with a small pool, great little spa and friendly staff, but the main reason we chose it is because profits from the hotel go to support an "Institue of Hospitality" located beside the hotel, where at risk young people are being given a free education in the hospitality trade. The program had just begun the month we visited. We visited the school and found the students very sweet and eager to learn. The school is looking for equipment (computers, cooking school equipment, etc. if anyone can help...). They seem to be focusing on the culinary arts at this point, but the program will expand. The students do not work at the hotel; the hotel has its own very charming staff. I was quite taken with the friendly personality of this little hotel. See their web site.

Our family took the advice of some of the Fodor experts and booked Dara Ly as a guide. We found him extremely knowledgable and kind. He has a very subtle, dry sense of humour and we enjoyed his company. The heat was a bit oppressive but the temples were outstanding. My children learned so much about both the temples and the more recent, sad history of Cambodia. We wanted to visit a rural school and Dara accommodated our request. My children were touched by the warm reception we got, and shocked at the basic conditions of the school -- a good lesson for them. They were also shocked by the poverty in town: beggars, amputees, little naked boys tugging at their arms. We soon carried riel notes everywhere so that we had money to give away. At first my son found all this hard to take, but after three days he was bargaining in the marketplace.

Dara's insight into the changes around town (the rising property prices, the poverty that still exists) was fascinating. It is for this reason alone that a guide is worthwhile: you learn as much about the present as about the past.

The manager at the Shinta Mani told me that of all the Asian people he has worked with, he finds the Cambodians the most open, kind and eager to please.

Note: the departure tax from Siem Reap Airport is now $25! I have to say, I think it's a rip off -- especially considering the fact that the airport is not even owned by Cambodia (I'd feel better if the $ was funnelled back into the country). The airport and Angkor Wat are both run by foreign countries/corporations. There's a lot of money being spent on tourism in Siem Reap, but is it reaching those in need?

3. Laos. We flew from Siem Reap to Bkk and then right to Chaing Rai. We didn't get to explore the area because we were using Chaing Rai as a launching spot for Laos. The Chaing Rai night market is small and friendly -- not the same high end shopping that Chaing Mai offers. Can't beat Chaing Mai's shopping.

We took a rickety bus from Chaing Rai to the Thai/Laos border of Chong Hong/HouieSay. The bus ride is just over 2 hours. I have been on one worse bus in China, in 1985. The windows and doors in this Thai bus didn't work, but the driver drove at a safe speed and it was an easy ride.

We took a short tuk-tuk from the bus stop to the border crossing and then, after the usual endless paperwork, we took a one-minute longtail boat across the Mekong River to the Lao town of HouieSai. It's just a one-street town with a few guesthouses and restaurants. The Tasweesin Guesthouse had air-con, and my husband actually mangaed to catch the Federer/Roddick Wimbleton finals from our little hotel room.

The reason we were in HouieSay was to catch the 2-day LuangSay cruise down the Mekong River. But you will have to wait for this next installment because I'm visiting family in Toronto now and everyone wants to get going...

If I don't get back to this for a few days or week, don't worry... I will continue!


Part 2

The LuangSay Cruise is a 2-day trip that takes you from HouieSay to Luang Prabang. Just getting to HouieSay is a bit of a shlep (BKK - Chaing Rai - Chong Hong (Thai border) - HouieSay. And if the word cruise conjures up large boats with several dining rooms, think again. The boat can hold about 30 passengers (we went in the rainy season, and there were only 13 of us plus crew) in coach-like seats and on the deck. It's not fancy. Meals (tasty), tea/coffee/water and one night accommodation at the LuangSay Lodge in Pakbeng are included in the price ($199 US). The payoff is the adventure of exploring the Mekong. Travelling along this muddy river, with its hypnotizing eddies and whirlpools is like a trip into another world. You feel very, very far away from civilization. Indeed, there are no roads along this route; the Mekong is the only means of transportation. From the boat you see small villages, steep hills draped in dense jungle, some rice and corn fields carved into the mountains, fishermen tossing nets into the water, working elephants, and a few other boats including speedboats (8 bone-jarring hours) and slow boats on their way to Luang Prabang.

I was entranced by the river. Thank goodness the pilot has 30 years experience because the Mekong can be dangerous. Rocks jut out and currents tug at the boat.

The lodge is great -- in the middle of the jungle you arrive to a cool drink and delicious dinner. The bungalows are teak. Fresh fruit, hot showers and great views await. Marigolds below my windows grew 5 ft. tall.

The cruise stops at a couple of villages and the Pak Ou Cave where statues of Buddhas are huddled together. You can buy weaving in the villages -- a prelude of great textiles to come.

It rained on our second day, but the mist and rain only added to the atmosphere of the cruise.

I should mention that although this trip was a great adventure for my family, it wouldn't have suited my parents. You have to walk across a narrow, sometimes slippery plank to board the boat. One poor woman in flip-flops kept getting stuck in the mud on shore. I'm sure it's not as mucky in the dry season.

Luang Prabang
is a terrific, laid-back, very cool place to hang out. We stayed at the Sala Prabang. They were in the process of renovating and building a restaurant across the street. The rooms with Mekong views are lovely. Picture Laotian hacienda: hardwood beams, earth tones, tiled floors and potted tropical plants. I think it's charming, well-priced and well-located (around the corner from the Palace). I highly recommend it.

I loved the mix of glittering temples, laid-back atmosphere, friendly people, small village feeling. My kids loved the fruit shakes at the Phousi Guesthouse restaurant (2,000 kip = $25 CDN).

My husband and I found a book exchange (there's a small sign on the block just west of the main drag) where an Australian woman, Ruth, exchanges books one for one, in the living room of the house she lives in with a Laotian family. Ruth is a wealth of information about Luang Prabang (she's has been there since '95). She told us about the changes she has seen (there were only 2 trucks, a few cars and about 50 motos when she first arrived), the useless NGO projects as well as some really great projects, the way property is passed through matrimonial lines, etc. etc. I loved chatting with her. When we asked her what projects she thinks are worth supporting, she told us about an orphanage that is supposed to house 200 kids but has 300, and is given 3,000 kip per child, per day (less than .50 CDN). Lots of landmine victims, of course. There is also an American woman who is teaching English to Laotians for free. It's great to get this kind of information.

Ruth also told us about a massage/steam place ($3) where the locals go -- great place -- I'll have to dig up the name. We were the only westerners there.

I loved the night market. I bought scarves and lovely textile. The prices are terrific. You'll pay 4 times as much back in Bangkok. I never made it to the weaving village, having just visited other villages on the cruise.

It's defintely worth getting up at 6 to see the morning process of monks collecting alms. My favorite time of day to visit the wats was around 6 pm when the monks are chanting. You can just sit on the steps and get lost in their voices while staring at gorgious temples. Ahh...

The JoMa Bakery & Cafe has great coffee, cinnamon buns and waffles. We celebrated my son's 15th birthday with breakfast waffles and returned later for more.

For those of you who remember Chaing Mai 25 years ago, go to Luang Prabang and, as my kids would say, just chill.

Mae Hong Son.
We flew from Luang Prabang to to Chaing Mai, and connected to a flight to Mae Hong Son (this is where good planning pays off). We arrived in the monsoon rain. I'm surprised the plane could land. We flew out of a cloud onto the landing strip. It was rather depressing to see the town so socked in.

Fern Resort's van was waiting for us. The resort is beautiful: landscaped
jungle. Water lilies, tropical plants, rice paddies, a pool, trees with
jungle vines, all on a hillside surrounded by jungle. Fortunately, the rain stopped, so we explored the town and set up two day tours: a one day trip to Lod cave )with a river running through it), and then, a trip to ride elephants in the jungle for an hour, to make my daughter happy. We used the Sunflower Cafe tour because it was much cheaper than the Fern Resort tour, for the same trip. The guide was great. The Cave was a real adventure: we had to take boats through many sections because of the rains. Great stalagmites/tites, columns, etc. The third section smells of bat poop.

Mae Hong Son is pleasant, but following on the heels of Luang Prabang, it seemed a bit dull. LP is a hard act to follow.

We flew back to Chaing Mai and took the first class sleeper train to BKK airport. My kids loved the train; we all did. From the airport we flew Bangkok Air to Samui (I must brag about my great planning, once again -- not having to go into the city!). From Samui we caught the ferry to...

Koh Pha Ngan.

I had not booked a place on Koh Pha Ngan but fate was kind and we ended up at the Salad Beach Resort. Bungalows are 1,200 bt. Large rooms are complete with TV, mini-bar and safe. The stone showers are huge. The large verandas face a landscaped garden or pool. It's the only place with a pool on Salad Beach. The pool is a bonus because the beach odd: shallow waters until you hit the reef, and it's not easy to get over the reef into the deeper water. You have to follow the boat access. The coral is great. We saw schools of small fish, including parrot fish. Still, it wasn't the snorkelling heaven we found at the Perhentians (Malaysia) 4 years ago.

Loved the banana pancakes at Dubble Dukes (that's how they spell it) at the end of the beach. Jim, the woman owner at DD's, also does a great Pad Thai and curry. Slow service worth waiting for.

One night there was an amazing storm. The thunder and lightening lasted for hours -- intense, loud and bright. I've never seen a storm like that before. The flood of rain brought out the loudest chorus of frogs I have ever heard. Rather entertaining.

I'm glad we didn't stay on Samui. My husband and I were there in '85 when it was very simple and clean. We didn't want crowds or a fancy resort. Salad Beach Resort (unlike Hat Rin) is a good place for a family vacation.

Bangkok.
Our remaining time in BKK was spent shopping. My husband had ordered shirts at Siam Tailors in Siam Centre and they did a great job. The kids went wild at MBK: purses, skate-boarding T-shirts, soccer shirts, sunglasses, etc. We had to buy a suitcase to fit in all the goodies. We also hit Pratunum (did better on the street just outside), and Central Department store. We went to the Jim Thompson outlet and later wished we had bought more. We wished we had left more than 2 days for shopping (husband disagrees -- he endured).

One of my parting memories is of a woman washing the grungy steps of MBK as the crowds rushed in to shop. I will never forget the beaten down look in her eyes.

And that is Asia, everything from River City Antiques at thousands of dollars to rip-off Gucci bags at MBK. We squeezed in beaches, a cruise, elephants and cave tours, shopping and sight-seeing. What a terrific trip.

I hope this will be of help to those lucky people planning their next holiday in SE Asia.

Cheers.

GBL is offline  
Aug 18th, 2004, 02:34 AM
  #2  
 
Join Date: Feb 2003
Posts: 280
Thank you GBL. It sounds wonderful and keeps me motivated in my planning stage. Many of your comments are helpful. thanks for posting
Cosmo is offline  
Aug 18th, 2004, 04:24 AM
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A superb trip report. Your description of Luang Prabang was enchanting. It made me want to include it in our next trip. Thanks.
Gpanda is offline  
Aug 18th, 2004, 08:58 AM
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Thankyou GBL for writing such a lovely report. I feel like following your footsteps. One question: how safe or unsafe is the cruise down the Mekong river? my husband does not swim.
mohan is offline  
Aug 18th, 2004, 10:28 AM
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great report...can't wait for a visit to LP on my next trip
rhkkmk is offline  
Aug 18th, 2004, 11:30 AM
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Do they have a Marriott in LP?
Gpanda is offline  
Aug 18th, 2004, 01:56 PM
  #7  
GBL
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In response to Mohan: the LuangSay Cruise is very safe. Aside from that slippery plank (they hold a bamboo pole to help you on) everything was easy. The crew consists of a pilot, a mechanic (good idea!), a cruise director (in white jacket and all, our director was a charming and informative man), and two cooks/servers/helpers. You will be well looked after. At the LuangSay Lodge, a very strong man carrried all our luggage (three bags -- I couldn't lift them) into the rooms. If you book in the high season (Oct. to Feb.) the cruise fills up quickly.

Re: Marriott for Gpanda... no, there wasn't a Marriott to my knowlege. In any case, part of the charm is staying in the restored French Colonial guesthouses. I've heard consistently good reports about the Auberge Calao, but it's more expensive and a bit farther down the street from the main strip. Mind you, nothing is really "far" in LP.

Cheers.
GBL is offline  
Aug 18th, 2004, 04:59 PM
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I was actually asking for Bob.
Gpanda is offline  
Aug 18th, 2004, 06:34 PM
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NO MARRIOTT!!!!! THAT'S IT I'M NOT GOING...is there a ROS? hope not...how about a peninsula??
rhkkmk is offline  
Aug 18th, 2004, 07:11 PM
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Very informative trip report GBL, it sounds like a fantastic trip for you and your family. Glad to hear there are yet more travelers discovering the joys of Laos and Luang Prabang!
Spygirl is offline  
Aug 19th, 2004, 08:41 AM
  #11  
ccc
 
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Did your kids enjoy the Mekong cruise? We're considering doing the same thing, but I'm concerned about whether our children would like it (they are 14,12,11, and 5).
ccc is offline  
Aug 19th, 2004, 05:25 PM
  #12  
CFW
 
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Beautiful trip report. You brought it all to life. Thank you.
CFW is offline  
Aug 21st, 2004, 10:54 PM
  #13  
GBL
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Thanks for the comments about the trip report. Glad you enjoyed it.

To ccc re: kids and Mekong Cruise

My kids, ages 15 and 13, loved the cruise even though they were the only kids on board. There is always something to catch your eye: elephants, water buffalo, speedboats zipping by, etc. There are village stops, lunch, the stop at the cave of Buddha's and the overnight at the lodge where you get to sleep under your cone of mosquito netting, listening to the noises of the jungle. What a thrill for city types like us. Perhaps your 5 year old might get restless, but the others should enjoy it.

GBL is offline  

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