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Sharon's trip report - 4th and final installment - Siem Reap/Phuket

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Sharon's trip report - 4th and final installment - Siem Reap/Phuket

Old May 1st, 2006, 12:12 PM
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Sharon's trip report - 4th and final installment - Siem Reap/Phuket

I’m sorry this has taken so long - it’s actually a month since we returned from our trip, and I’m finally finishing the last installment of my report. The last two segments of our trip are much shorter to describe, so I’m putting them together. We arrived in Siem Reap in the evening of March 16th. Dara, our guide, and his driver (I’m really sorry I can’t remember his name, but he didn’t talk very much, so the brain has dropped it), were there to pick us up. We had obtained our Cambodian visas ahead of time, and I’m glad we did. It wasn’t so much that there was a line, but there was a lot of confusion when we arrived, due to the two tour groups that arrived on the plane with us. We were able to move ahead, since it was just the two of us. Ponheary’s brother, Dara, is a delightful man, and I can’t say enough good things about him. We put ourselves into his able hands and, with few exceptions, he did all the planning for our four night, three day stay there. Through Ponheary, we had arranged our hotel, the Prince d’Angkor, and were not disappointed. The rate for us was $75 per night US, and the hotel and room were more than adequate for that price (the quoted prices at the hotel were quite a bit more). Prince d’Angkor is a new hotel, good location, lovely pool area, huge dining room serving very good food.

The temples at Angkor are just astounding, and there is no way for me to adequately describe the depth and breadth of what I felt in a message, so I will stick to general travel experiences, instead. And general they will be. First of all, it’s the hottest I’ve ever been in my life. David, who sweats a lot anyway, was described as “raining from the inside out”. To reduce exposure to the oppressive heat and humidity, Dara would pick us up at around 7:00 am, at which time we’d tour three or four of the temple ruins, and would drop us back at the hotel between 11:00 and 11:30 am. We’d spend the day either napping or at the pool, and then he’d pick us up again at 3:00 pm for another round of temple exploration. We’d go back to the hotel around 6 - 6:30 and freshen up for dinner. Having said that, we were still showering three times a day. And given the choice, I wouldn’t miss it for the world - I might have wanted to be there at a cooler part of the year, but we couldn’t swing it, so it was what it was. Twice we ate at the hotel, twice we ate elsewhere.

Most off-putting to us were the large number of tour groups, who were actually rather pushy and unconscious about consideration for others, or it seemed that way. Dara was an expert at knowing when to explore which temple ruin in order to minimize encountering crowds of people. He also is a photography expert in knowing exactly where to stand to get the best shot of some of the temples, right lighting, etc. He is a fount of information - we had a history lesson and Hindu/Buddist spiritual mythology teaching in each place he took us.

While David was most interested in the ruins and carvings, I would have OD’d on all this if not for Dara peppering our time at SR/Angkor with information and experiences that brought us the culture of the area. I’m more interested in that, actually, than the ruins. After reading about Lori and Monika’s experiences with the school children, I wanted to do something similar, so we arranged with Dara to pick up school supplies on our second evening. The following morning, on our way back from Bantay Srei, the ruin we visited furthest from Siem Reap, we stopped and visited a 3 room school of 4th, 5th, and 6th grade children, to meet them and deliver the supplies we’d bought. The kids were so beautiful and so excited to have attention paid to them. I was filled with feelings of warmth and incredible sadness that they had so little. We were there for about an hour, and then went on our way. It was a really moving experience and a highlight of our trip.

On that same morning, on the way back to SR, Dara took us to meet a family whose main form of income was to produce palm sugar and sell it as a drink and as solid candy by the side of the road. Dara explained that even the very poor, as these people certainly were, are not starving. They had land to grow things on and streams to fish, but anything that requires purchase is mostly out of the question. The family was a father, mother and 6 children. They were all, when we arrived, in various stages of helping their parents with work. We left them with a few dollars, and continued back to the hotel.

The amount of begging became oppressive. There are so many hands out to sell a trinket for a dollar, that if you buy something from one, 10 more show up. It was not the way I wanted to “donate” money, except I found myself giving money to a few of the landmine orchestras - people who are making money by playing music at the ruin sites because they had been dismembered, blinded, etc.and could not get regular work.

Our dining experiences were not memorable, but the food was very good pretty much wherever we ate. Strangely enough, our attention was focused more on our exploration of the temples - we were not as attentive to restaurant alternatives as usual. And I am usually very picky and very interested in where we’ll eat - I LOVE good food. Khmer food is somewhat similar to Thai, especially the curries, of which we are very fond, but not as spicy. Again, I wish I could remember the names of the restaurants we ate at - but there are enough postings and recommendations, that I am not going to pick my poor brain to try to remember. Of the four nights we were there - the first dinner was at the hotel, and was surprisingly good. We didn’t expect much from a menu that was both western and khmer, but we ate a duck curry and a seafood curry that were quite good. I bought a bottle of red wine (David doesn’t drink), had a few glasses, and brought the remainder up to our room. It was a nice way to relax before dinner each night.

The second night, we asked Dara to suggest a place that would be really traditional Khmer food, and he made the reservation and drove us there. I don’t know the name of the restaurant, and it was delicious. Not too far from our hotel, it had a long outdoor seating area before the indoor restaurant. It was air conditioned, and we needed that after the heat of the day. As we were seated, a couple of tour groups arrived and our antennae went up. We anticipated being ignored or having really mediocre food, but were delightfully surprised. The service was attentive and the food was delicious - also inexpensive. Those of you who have booked Dara can ask him for the name of the restaurant.

The third evening, we had asked Dara about a restaurant with traditional dancing, and he steered us to a venue that was just a few steps from the Prince d’Angkor. In a very large open area with many tables, there was a buffet with many choices and very good food - not great, but very good. There was traditional dance entertainment, and I think I would have enjoyed it more, if not for the oppressive heat that night. Also, there were many tour groups, and the feeding frenzy before the show was a turn-off for us. After eating, we stayed for about a half hour, but I just wasn’t up for sweating through more, so we left to go back to the hotel and relax.

I’m a pretty tolerant person, and heat doesn’t usually bother me, but after the third full day of touring, our fourth night was one in which we really wanted an air conditioned place, and we didn’t want to venture far from the hotel. It just didn’t feel relaxing to do differently. So, we started out to find ourselves a nearby restaurant that was on the fodor recommendation list, and we wanted to be able to walk there - riding so much got to us. We found a couple of very interesting possibilities, but they were all using fans and the windows were wide open. It was late enough that we decided to turn back and eat at our hotel again. The food was wonderful, and the service was almost too attentive. The dining room, which is huge at the Prince d’Angkor, was practically empty at the end of the evening, and the waiter didn’t know the art of being attentive but not apparent. He stood for most of our meal directly facing our table, about five feet away and watched us eat. The moment I took a sip of water, he refilled the glass, etc., etc. We thought it was very funny, and he was so sweet and nice, that I don’t think he would have understood our discomfort at such scrutiny. We had a great time imagining that this was probably the kind of service royalty expected and received.

I’m sorry to say that, of all the places we visited, Siem Reap was the one to which we’d probably never return. The temples at Angkor were phenomenal, and a once-in-a-lifetime, not-to-be-missed experience, but I wouldn’t return. Part of that is more than anywhere else, one is highly aware of a dual economy. The country is amazingly poor, and yet, the prices for tourists were higher than anywhere else we traveled - lodging, food, etc. I felt used in a way that I felt nowhere else.

So, now on to Phuket, our last leg of the journey. We were really, really tired of touring, and although we didn’t experience our five-leg trip as too many stops, I think our fatigue showed in our not wanting to explore for more interesting restaurants in Siem Reap, and certainly how our time in Phuket played out.

We booked the Katathani Beach Resort & Spa for 4 nights, 5 days. Our junior suite was beautiful, the grounds are gorgeous, and our plan was to do as little as possible. We succeeded! I am sure there were wonderful things to see in and around Phuket, but we weren’t interested. The only thing we wanted to see was the view of the beach and water, either from our room or our lounge chairs. It was a delightful end to an amazing trip. We didn’t even go off the premises but a few times. We walked up the road to check out Mom Tri’s establishment - another level of luxury above ours. It was just beautiful - a very small and exclusive inn with restaurant. It rests on many levels at the end of a peninsula that juts out into the water, and the natural beauty of the place is spectacular - certainly worth the walk to check it out. It would be too expensive for us to think about. The other times we went off the premises were to buy pineapple and mango for lunch at a stand across the street from our hotel. We wanted to go nowhere so we took the dining package offered by the resort and ate our dinners at one of the 5 restaurants on the premises. The restaurant we enjoyed the best was their upscale Thai restaurant, Chanadda. The food, from beginning to end, was a cut above all the others, and quite good even in comparison to some of the other really good Thai food we ate on our trip. It was too bad that we chose to go there the last night of our stay....had we known, we would have booked a meal there every evening.

During the day, we lounged, swam, were massaged by staff who strolled around the grounds giving massages to those on lounges who want their services. (as an example, 350 baht for an hour body massage). We were in heaven. The beach is a public beach, so there is an extra charge at a concession for a lounge chair on the sand. However, the same concession offered bottled water, soft drinks, and beer at a fraction of the cost of the hotel, so many of us used them to buy refreshments during the day. I must say, though, by the end of our trip, I was addicted to fruit shakes, so a shake, ordered from the resort bar and a mango became my lunch each day. It was wonderful. We had a perfect end to a wonderful 3 week trip.

Our trip home was uneventful but long. We awoke on Friday morning, checked out of our room but stayed at the resort for the whole day. They provided us with a room to shower and change before the car picked us up to take us to the airport. The flight from Phuket to BKK was at 8:00 pm, and the flight from BKK to JFK was at 1:00 am, Saturday. I’m not a napper, and the 17 hr. flight to JFK was full. We had leg room in the economy section, but we also had a fussy baby near us. By the time we arrived in NY at 6:00 am, NY time, we’d been up and traveling almost 2 days. We were home by 8 am, but tried to stay up so that we’d be on NY time and go to sleep when it was dark. The jet lag was hard on the mind and body. We had all day Sunday to rest, and we did, but I had clients on Monday, and by about 4:00 pm on Monday, I thought my head would explode. It took a good week for me to feel completely rested and back to normal.

I thank you all again and again for the help you gave that made our whole trip so fascinating and wonderful. That small and unselfish group of you who faithfully answer questions and stay in touch with what’s posted on the message board, regardless of how much fun it is for you, deserve a great amount of credit for the work it takes to do that,. You give a lot of service to the rest of us. We will probably not return to this part of the world anytime soon, but if any of you need help or information about NYC or Santa Fe, New Mexico, where we have a home, please contact me at [email protected].
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Old May 1st, 2006, 12:40 PM
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Sharon-super end to your report. Siem Riep really is a unique place. The duality between the tourist economy and the local economy is truly troubling. It seems like there is an impenetrable barrier keeping the tourist dollar from the local population.

We also stayed at the Prince D'Angkor, through Ponheary. We found it to be pleasant and relaxing. We loved the salt water pool.
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Old May 1st, 2006, 12:57 PM
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Sharon, thanks for your report. We visited a school with Ponheary. It was also a highlight. Interestingly, we feel the same way about Siem Reap - no need to return. But we will keep supporting the school children - I am in the process of putting together a proposal for our Rotary Club as well. I was still very jet-lagged on Monday after the 17 hour flight home on Saturday as you were.
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Old May 1st, 2006, 07:04 PM
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Thank you GPanda and Craig. I'm going to try my best to make it to the GTG in CT on the 21st, and I am really looking forward to meeting you all in person. Cheers, Sharon
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Old May 2nd, 2006, 04:40 AM
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Sharon
I, too, like the Kata Thani on Phuket. I also had a junior suite and I loved the view and the sound of the surf at night!

I've stayed at Mom Tri's two times, at the New Years time period. YES, it's very expensive at that time. But, you can get some great deals during the off season! You can get a room for just over $100, vs about $600 during the holiday peak season. But Mom Tri's is an amazing place!!
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Old May 2nd, 2006, 05:28 AM
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Sharon - we also look forward to meeting you. I have reserved a spot for you - please let me know if you can't make it. By the way, over half the attendees have used either Ponheary or Dara while in Siem Reap.
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Old May 2nd, 2006, 08:05 AM
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Sharon thanks for your candid report. I also am dismayed about way the money seems to move laterally (as in out of the country) and does nothing to help the local population.

Siem Reap is a sad place in more ways than you can count. It's redeeming quality is the overall kindness of the people, especially the children. Like everywhere, the future lies in their hands and so I thank you & David for taking time out of your agenda to address that.

I'm sorry I won't get to meet you at the GTG.

Welcome home!
Lori
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Old May 2nd, 2006, 09:52 AM
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Sharon,
Thanks for documenting your trip - it was an interesting reading. Wander if you could answer couple of my questions. We are planning to go on the Far East trip at the end of this year, and would like to spend a few days at one of the Phuket resorts. Same as you, we don't care much about any local attractions, just nice beach and sea. Would you recommend any specific resorts? From what I understood, the beach of your hotel/resort was public. I would prefer a private one. Do they exist there? What is the price range for a decent resort anyway? I would appreciate your reply.
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Old May 2nd, 2006, 02:53 PM
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I think there are many more people who have better information than I, but I'll try. My knowledge of Phuket is limited to the one resort, Katathani Beach Resort and Spa. We decided on it because of the recommendations on this message board. It sounded wonderful, and then I went to their website and checked it out there. The cost of the junior suite in the Thani wing came out to about $160.00 US per night for both of us (27,600 baht, through asiatravel.com). I can't answer about private beaches, but I think they're all public. To rent a beach chair on the sand would have cost a dollar, and the beach was practically deserted where we were.

If you have the money to spend, and Simpsonc510, thank you for sharing about the difference in price, I'd check out Mom Tri's. Apparently, there are much reduced rates to be had if you pick the right time to go, but we didn't have that choice.

We loved our time there. We certainly could have done more in the area....there are small towns to be explored, diving, snorkeling, etc., but we didn't want to do anything but read and swim and eat and relax. If you have more questions, I'd check the posts here for additional information about other resorts. I'm wishing I had the experience with this part of the world that so many others do. In the meantime, have a great trip. It's a wonderful place to visit.
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Old May 2nd, 2006, 05:56 PM
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Craig, I will most certainly let you know if I'm not going to make the GTG, but for now, it's a go.

Lori, thank you for the contribution you and Monika made to our trip..it was quite an experience. We never would have thought of it on our own.
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Old May 2nd, 2006, 06:38 PM
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Sharon - Your experiences in Siem Reap were almost the same that I recall of my recent trip (February 2006)to Cambodia. I posted my trip report last month. I share 100% your comments of Dara as a guide. Thanks for sharing. You can look at some of the pictures taken in Angkor Wat at: http://gtorres4.photosite.com
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Old May 8th, 2006, 07:38 PM
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Sharon,

Gtreat Report! My husband and I are also planning on a simialar trip Jan 07. How do you get hold of Dara ? Also, are there other hotels in Siem Reap that looked good to you ?
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Old May 9th, 2006, 07:44 AM
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Dara's email is the same as his sister's. They share the same account, [email protected]. Ponheary does the booking, I think, but ask for Dara specifically. We loved him. Also, we booked our hotel through Ponheary who has connections and offered us rates at far below the hotel's booking rate. If you ask, in your e-mail to her, she will send you a list of hotels and rates. I gave her an idea of price range and what kind of accommodations we were looking for. We decided on Prince d'Angkor because of it's price and location. There are certainly more and less luxurious hotels than the Prince d'Angkor, but for us, it worked fine, and it was a lovely hotel. The only drawback, if in fact it is one, is that you pay Ponheary or Dara directly for the hotel accommodation in cash - US currency. We had no problem with that.
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Old May 9th, 2006, 11:02 AM
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Sharon,

Thanks for your help, since we are coming from the US direct to Siem Reip, via BKK, how long do you think we should stay in SR ? We can get templed-out in probably 3 days, is there anything else we should not miss ? OR do spas ??? Also, my husband isn;t into sweating either. Our trip is mid-Jan 2007
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Old May 10th, 2006, 02:51 PM
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Diana,

Three days was just enough time for us to tour the temples and see the nearby countryside. Some stay longer, but we were "watted out", and were ready to move on after three full days of touring. Visiting Siem Reap is about visiting the temples. There are a few other places to visit - a crafts school for one, but with a good guide, you won't miss anything. I believe that January will be very different as far as heat is concerned - the reports are that it is much cooler and dryer. That will be wonderful.
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