Three Weeks in Cambodia and Thailand

Old Nov 21st, 2022, 07:19 AM
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Three Weeks in Cambodia and Thailand

Our end-of-year trip for 2022 takes us to Southeast Asia, a region we last visited in 2013. Our destinations are Cambodia and Thailand. Our choice is anchored by a much-desired visit to Angkor in advance of the post-pandemic rush, although, based upon some of the reports we've read. we may already be too late to have missed the returning crowds. We plan to stay in Cambodia for a total of eight nights, divided between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, and Thailand for 12, divided between Central and Northern Thailand and Bangkok.

We travelled by air from Washington, DC, to Phnom Penh via Doha and Bangkok on Qatar Airways and Bangkok Airways. The flights on Qatar were much more pleasant than our experiences on previous occasions. As expected, about half the DC to Doha flight was comprised of soccer fans and volunteers attending the World Cup.

We landed in Phnom Penh approximately 27 hours after we departed DC. Cambodia required American visitors to obtain visas, which we could purchase upon arrival. The process was very inefficient. There were about a couple of dozen people behind the counter, with each passport being handled by 5 or 6 of them. We waited about 30 minutes for them to do their thing. Most of them just sat there for most of the time, while others were on their phones or chatting. Immigration was slow moving as well. The agents wanted to inspect every passport page and the fingerprint collection machines had hiccups. We were out of the airport about 50 minutes after we landed, even though we didn't check luggage.

We traveled by taxi from the airport to our hotel, the Hyatt Regency. We put our bags down, freshened up, rested a bit, and went back out to explore Cambodia's capital city.
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Old Nov 21st, 2022, 03:45 PM
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Nov. 20 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Having landed in Phnom Penh at 9:45 AM, we had a good part of the day for sightseeing on our first day on the ground in spite of the airport and transportation logistics. Especially since it is so early in the day, as with most of our trips, we try to acclimate to local time as quickly as possible. We are scheduled to be in the Cambodian capital for three nights.

Our exploration of Phnom Penh began at the fantastic National Museum across the street from our hotel. Housed in a grand structure resembling a grand Khmer temple with its sloping roofs and decorative ornamentation, the museum housed a treasure trove of Buddhist and Hindu art and artifacts including many from the Angkor era. The objects are impressive but for us Buddhists also hold religious significance. The museum is somewhat dark with low lighting, but the layout makes it very pleasant to walk around. The atmosphere reminded me of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Also in the museum is a lovely interior landscaped courtyard for resting and contemplation.

Around the corner from the National Museum is the Royal Palace. Closed to visitors due to the COVID-19 pandemic (it is scheduled to reopen next week, on Dec.1 to be exact), we satisfied ourselves wandering around the perimeter. Between looking over the walls and through the iron fencing, we had a good look of the buildings and grounds inside. Much of it resembles the Grand Palace in Bangkok, which we visited back in 2009. Our favorite building in the complex is the Moonlight Pavilion, used for speeches and dance performances. It rained lightly during our stroll around the palace, but it was not enough to be uncomfortable without umbrellas. In fact, the shower helped make things cooler and generally more pleasant.

From the Royal Palace, we made our way to the Central Market, passing by several art galleries and Buddhist temples along the way. We peaked inside several. We enjoyed an afternoon coffee break at one of the nearby French-style bakeries before heading to the Central Market. While we enjoy visiting markets around the world, we were not impressed by Phnom Penh's Central Market. The crowded space is home to stall after stall of merchants selling the same tired cheap clothing, housewares, and souvenirs. We were there for maybe 15 minutes.

From the Central Market, we made our way to Wat Phnom, situated on a hill from where the city obtained its name, passing by several buildings in the style of the French Indochinese era. We also stumbled upon a public plaza where we stood watching several large hornbills playing and flying around. We were surprised by the large size of the hornbills, especially its beaks.

Wat Phnom was much more impressive than I expected. The many statues of Buddha and other gods and goddesses of the Buddhist pantheon are beautiful. And the atmosphere is quite spiritual, in spite of the tourists there (by and large, the tourists were very respectful, either staying in the back while those like us who are practicing lighted our incense sticks, said our prayers, etc.). We said our prayers and enjoyed the place for a bit before making our way back down to the hustle and bustle of the city.

Speaking of the hustle and bustle, the sights and sounds of the Cambodian capital feels very typical of an Asian city, both positive and negative. As with other urban centers throughout Asia, there is not much in the way of sidewalks. To the extent it exists, sidewalk spaces are blocked by tuk tuks, motorbikes, and cars. This means that pedestrians are forced to walk alongside traffic. And by and large, there are no stoplights. Walking in a big Asian city isn't something we miss about this part of the world, although it is a necessary evil given our desire to explore by foot and dig beyond the surface of a city. That said, Phnom Penh has a pleasant feel to it and easy way about it. The atmosphere is somewhat laid-back, especially along the city's front yard, Sisowath Quay, lining the bank of the Tonle Sap River.

We enjoyed a late-afternoon stroll along the riverfront, watching boats sail along the Tonle Sap River and its fast-flowing currents, admiring the different buildings lining its banks, and watching locals out on a pleasant Sunday. We walked just beyond the Royal Palace before turning around. Day turned to night. We witnessed the place just come alive all around us.

We made our way back to the top of Sisowath Quay and to Palais de la Poste, an international restaurant housed inside the former Bank of Indochina building. The food is standard fare but good. We walked back to our hotel after dinner.

Nov. 21 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia

We began our first full day in Phnom Penh with breakfast at our hotel. The buffet offering featured Western standards, Asian fare, and a selection of baked goods, cereals, cold cuts, cheeses, and fruit. There are also several made-to-order options, from the standard eggs to avocado toast and Asian noodle soup. The spread is more elaborate than most of the buffet offerings we've had. And the quality of the food is also among the best for hotel buffets.

Our first stop of the day is Wat Ounalom, the center of Cambodian Buddhism, where we said morning prayers. We try to start the day this way when visiting a Buddhist city. This was particularly important this morning as we spent most of it dedicated to Cambodia's modern gruesome history.

Cambodia made headlines throughout the 1970s, not only for the spillover of the war next door but for the harsh dictatorial regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, who were responsible for the genocide of their own people. Approximately 3 of its 8 million people died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979 through imprisonment, slave labor, torture, and execution. A couple of sites from these dark days of history stand today as witness to these events. The sites located in Phnom Penh are the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek and the S21 Prison, now known as the Tuol Sieng Genocide Museum.

We travelled by taxi to the Killing Fields. We used the Grab app, which functions much like Lyft and Uber. By selecting the destination, the type of vehicle we want, knowing the price upfront, and the ability to pay via credit card, we avoided some of the hassles of taxi hailing. The ride from Wat Ounalom to Choeung Ek took about 30 minutes factoring in Phnom Penh traffic.

Not much stands at Choeung Ek as most of the structures were dismantled long before anyone thought to preserve the site for education and memorial purposes. As such, we as tourists relied on audio guide narration to image and understand what stood here almost 50 years ago. The stories of what transpired on these grounds were indeed impactful but our emotions were somewhat muted given the lack of visual references.

Tuol Sieng Genocide Museum, on the other hand, hit us as we expected - hard. The former school turned prison for victims of Pol Pot's regime succeeded in bringing the history to life with its exhibits. We viewed rooms after rooms of photographs of thousands of average Cambodians who lost their lives to this reign of terror. Other pictures showed the violence and brutality of the regime in its aim to achieve its desired goal of total submission. Tools used for torture and execution were on display. Just walking through the prison floor with cell after cell also helped us imagine clearly what life here must have been like. Our emotions after visiting Tuol Sieng closely resembled our emotions visiting the Polen Museum in Warsaw, Poland, earlier this year.

We intentionally kept the rest of our day light knowing the weight of what we saw. Leaving S21 Prison, we made our way through the bustling city streets of Phnom Penh to the Russian Market. The items on sale at the Russian Market closely resembled what was on offer yesterday at the Central Market. And you guessed it, we were there for barely a few minutes.

From the Russian Market, located in the southern part of the city, we made our way on foot to the city center. While there wasn't anything of particular interest to a tourist, we enjoyed the opportunity to better understand how the locals lived, worked, played, and shopped. It took us about two hours to get from the Russian Market to the Independence Monument and this included an extended rest stop for coffee and pastries.

We enjoyed dinner tonight at Malis, an upscale restaurant serving Khmer cuisine near the Independence Monument. We ordered several different dishes to share, family style, as this is the first time we've tasted Khmer food and were eager to sample a range of tastes. Everything from the noodle salad to the meats and vegetables to the fried rice was flavorful, fresh, and beautifully presented. And the setting, outdoors next to a koi-filled pond surrounded by greenery, was perfect. It rained hard while we were dining; the sounds of the rain coming down from the awnings and hitting the pond in a steady beat was very soothing.

We walked back to our hotel following dinner, passing by some of the key landmarks and monuments we saw over the past day and a half.
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Old Nov 21st, 2022, 04:46 PM
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Iím enjoying your trip report and looking forward to more. We were in Cambodia in September 2000. We also went to the Genocide Museum and to the Killing Fields. Both were very moving. Do they not still have the plexiglass pyramid with all of the human skulls in it? I also remember seeing human bone fragments in the dirt on the pathway at the Killing Fields. We had a private guide there who lived through the horror. He was a kid at the time and was lucky to escape with his life. The rest of his family was not as lucky.
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Old Nov 22nd, 2022, 08:40 AM
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Laurieco, yes, the memorial stupa housing thousands of skulls as well as some of the tools used remains on display at the Killing Fields.

Nov. 22 - Oudong, Phnom Baset, and Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Today we ventured out of Phnom Penh to the nearby village of Oudong, the capital of Cambodia from the 17th to 19th centuries. As such, Oudong is home to several important Buddhist temples.

We met our tour guide and driver arranged by About Cambodia at our hotel at 8:30 for the 45 minutes to an hour drive northwest of Phnom Penh to Oudong. The highlights of our visit are a Buddhist meditation center and the temples that sit atop Oudong Mountain. We visited the meditation center at the base of the mountain first. There, our guide showed us around some of the wooden homes on stilts inhabited by the nuns who teach at the meditation center. We also visited a couple of prayer halls, including one featuring a large marble statue of the Buddha and surrounded by paintings depicting the life and teachings of the Buddha. We stayed for a while, enjoying the morning chanting by monks and nuns.

From the meditation center we travelled about one kilometer to the trail entrance leading to the temples on Oudong Mountain. Stone stairs lead the way up the mountain. We visited a couple of simple temples dedicated to the Buddha as well as Hindu gods and goddesses. At the top of Oudong Mountain are three magnificent stupa built in very different styles. The first, dedicated to King Monivong, is the most traditional, decorated with Hindu religious figures. The second, dedicated to Monivong's brother, King Ang Doung, replaces the Hindu imagery with flowers. The last, believed to house some remains of the Buddha brought from Sri Lanka, is the newest-looking and grandest. The gleaming white stupa is decorated with beautiful elephants and mythical nagas. From the stupas we could survey the surrounding landscape dotted with temples and farmland.

Following our visit to Oudong Mountain, we could have taken a break for lunch but we chose to continue on. We weren't very hungry given the large breakfast we had at the hotel this morning. And we weren't adventurous enough to sample the food lining the roadside at Oudong or even the nearby restaurants.

Phnom Baset was the destination for the afternoon portion of our itinerary. Also home to several Buddhist temples, we spent about 90 minutes at two stops. The first is home to a 7th century pre-Angkor temple built on top of a large rock that was partially destroyed due to weather and political violence. Near the temple is a large reclining Buddha carved into the side of the mountain. From here we continued onto a newer Buddhist temple built in 2009 in the Angkor style.

From here it was a return to Phnom Penh, which took just under an hour. We were back at our hotel at 3:00. After a quick shower in our rooms (we experienced close to 80% humidity), we headed back out to wander around the city some more. We went to our go-to Starbucks for our afternoon dose of caffeine. We decided to go back to Sisowath Quay for a gentle stroll along the breezy waterfront.

From here we slowly made our way to the Rosewood Hotel, where we held reservations at Cuts Restaurant for dinner. A true Western steakhouse, the food was superb. The steaks were phenomenal as well as the lobster pappadelle, crab cakes, salads, and soup. The decor is elegant and the atmosphere what you would expect from a classy steakhouse. The views of the city from the 38th floor were an added bonus.

All in all, we felt that three nights was the right amount of time for a first visit to Phnom Penh. Two nights would have felt more rushed, not to mention our missing out on the places to see in the city should our flights been delayed. Our decision to stay for three nights was thanks to the recommendation of crellston. Thank you, crellston!
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Old Nov 24th, 2022, 07:25 AM
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Nov. 23 - Sambor Prei Kuk and Siem Reap, Cambodia

Today is a travel day. We left Phnom Penh for Siem Reap, a trip that typically takes 5 to 6 hours by road depending on which route is taken. Our journey was scheduled to take six given our planned detour to Sambor Prei Kuk.

We left our hotel after breakfast at 7:00. Leaving the capital city, we mostly travelled along two lane roads lined with homes, small businesses, and agricultural farmland. The roadscape very much reminded us of our travels around Sri Lanka several years back. We arrived at Sambor Prei Kuk, about midway between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, at around 10:50.

Sambor Prei Kuk consists of several temples built in the 7th century at the site of what was the capital city of a pre-Angkorian kingdom. The central excavated part of Sambor Prei Kuk consists of three groups of buildings: north, south, and central. In each section, the sites are laid out in rectangles surrounded by brick walls with a central tower and smaller surrounding structures. Each of the buildings are largely made out of brick, although some sandstone is used. Many of the structures have been taken over by nature although some prominent ones remain. We took about 90 minutes exploring the site on foot.

From Sambor Prei Kuk, it was roughly another 3 hours to Siem Reap. We arrived at 3:30 and checked into our gorgeous open-air suites at the FCC Angkor next door to the Royal Palace.

We planned to spend the rest of our afternoon at the Angkor National Museum (it just reopened earlier this month after being closed for COVID). As we made our way to the museum, we saw the ground of the Royal Palace open to the public and took a stroll before going to the museum. The Angkor National Museum goes beyond Angkor to tell the history of Cambodia from approximately the 5th century to the fall of the Khmer Empire. The art and artifacts in this museum, especially all the statues of Buddha, are superb. Even though we're practicing Buddhists, we've not heard of the role of the Naga until we came to Cambodia. We spent about 90 minutes at the museum.

From here we made our way south to Tell Steak House on Wat Bo Road for dinner. Featuring Germanic cuisine, we enjoyed schnitzels and sausages along with a few beers.
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Old Nov 24th, 2022, 07:30 AM
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Nov. 24 - Angkor!

At long last. After much anticipation the day has come. Today is the day we visit Angkor - not just Angkor Wat, but Angkor Thom and other temples dating to Khmer Empire times. Considered one of the wonders of the world by many, this is the reason for our trip to Cambodia.

We made some arrangements prior to our arrival. We hired a tuk tuk driver for three of our four days in Siem Reap. We also took advantage of the new ability to purchase tickets to Angkor in advance. To purchase advance tickets, we entered our information, uploaded photos of ourselves, and paid by credit card. The only issue is some clunkiness with the photo uploads - it took a few tries and a couple of different photos. The tickets are emailed to us for printing.

We left our hotel at 4:30 for Angkor Wat, arriving about 5 minutes before the 5:00 opening time. We joined other tourists to witness the sunrise at Angkor Wat. However, given the weather conditions all week, we did not expect luck to be on our side - and we were right. Nonetheless we did enjoy our first glimpses of the temple.

Following the sunrise ritual, we enjoyed our breakfast packaged for us upon request by our hotel. Our morning was devoted to the Khmer city of Angkor Thom. At its heyday Angkor Thom was home to one million people. We arrived at the South Gate for some photos before continuing on to the Bayon Temple. We arrived about 10 minutes before the opening time and practically had the place to ourselves our entire 75 minutes there. Perhaps because this is our first Angkor temple. Or we were smitten by the plethora of stone faces. It was a joy to wander the complex, viewing the incredible bas-relief art all around the base, exploring the passageways on the second floor, saying prayers to the Buddha, and watching monkeys at play. The uppermost tier was not accessible due to restoration, but we were very happy with what we did see and experience.

From Bayon we walked over to the Bauphon, where we spent about an hour. The Bayon was all about Hindu and Buddhist art, while the Bauphon is not. Nonetheless we enjoyed walking around its passageways and climbing high for the joy of it.

We also visited the Terrace of the Elephants, the Terrace of the Leper King, and what remains - or lack thereof - of the former royal palace. We made our way out of Angkor Thom via the Victory Gate, but not before a climb to the remains of the city wall for awesome views and photos. All in all, we spent about 4 hours at Angkor Thom.

Ta Keo was next. As the Bauphon, Ta Keo is more about architecture and ambiance than art. The climb to the top is definitely not for the faint of heart.

A short tuk tuk ride away from Ta Keo is Ta Prohm, made famous by the movie The Tomb of the Lost Raiders. Left by French archeologists the way it was found, it is meant to show the world what Angkor look like when the French rediscovered it and the damage that Mother Nature could do throughout the complex. It was fun to get lost in this maze, and lost we were a couple of times.

Following a simple lunch of rice and noodles by Ta Prohm, we headed back to Angkor Wat for a proper visit. We spent about 2 hours at Angkor, enjoying the bas-relief facades, viewing images of Buddha with different poses, and scampering among the stones. Best known of all the buildings in this part of Cambodia, it was also the busiest of all.

I could provide a lot more narrative about Angkor, but I found the information in guidebooks accurate.

We capped our very successful day with a dinner of Khmer classics at Sugar Palm, not to far from where we ate last night. Specializing in Khmer home cooking, we loved everything we ordered. Particular knockouts were the pork stew with quail eggs, the grilled chicken, and the fried noodles. The only item we didn't enjoy was fish amok, the national dish.
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Old Nov 24th, 2022, 12:59 PM
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Great TR! I always love reading your TRs.
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Old Nov 25th, 2022, 07:03 AM
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Yestravel, thank you for the kind words and for your encouragement.

Nov. 25 - More of Angkor

Our second full day in Siem Reap was spent visiting more temples from the Khmer Empire as well as some of its precursors.

We again began our day with a 3:30 wake up and a 4:30 departure for Angkor Wat. As the forecasted weather conditions call for improvement, we wanted to try again for sunrise at the iconic temple. This morning was definitely busier than yesterday, which I assume was due to the clearer skies. Unforfunately, though, the results were the same - no sunrise.

From here we walked through Angkor Wat once more, taking a brief but closer look at some of the items we saw yesterday. From Angkor we headed about 30 minutes southeast - to three pre-Angkorian temples collectively known as the Roluos Group. The temples are Preah Ko, Bakong, and Lo Lei.

Constructed more than 200 years before Angkor Wat, Preah Ko is a Hindu temple. Easily visible at the site are six large buildings still largely intact. Unlike Angkor, Preah Ko is made of brick. The building is adorned with various Hindu iconography. Some of the carvings are very beautiful and advanced for its time. Nearby is Bakong, my favorite among the Roluos temples. At first glance at its structure, you immediately understand the influence its design may have had on the Bauphon and the Bayon at Angkor Thom. Lo Lei is somewhat similar to Preah Ko.

We then returned to the Angkor area and visited several temples along the so-called grand circuit. The first on our list is the Eastern Mebon Temple. The temple is very large, has three levels, with five towers similar to those of Angkor Wat. There are distinctive elephants adorning each of the four corners.

Next up is Ta Som, a top that shares many of the qualities of Ta Prohm. Parts of the temple are intact while others are collapsed and taken over by the jungle. Moss covers most of the structure, giving it a distinctive green hue; at times, it feels like I am wandering a forest, not a temple. Visiting this temple was pure joy. Ta Som may just be my favorite temple.

From Ta Som, we headed to Neak Poon. Home to a Buddhist temple on an island in a man-made lake, Neak Poon is a cool respite on a hot day. The temple is not accessible, however.

Preak Kean was our next to last temple of the day. Preak Kean is also a massive temple and pure joy to explore. It seems like in the Angkor area, temples just kept on getting better and better. Preak Kean could easily be my favorite too. Of particular note at Preak Kean are the bas-reliefs on the inside walls of the temple, the endless doorways in the central walk entrances, and what looks like Greek and Roman influences (unusual) in the architecture of the Hall of Dancers.

Our last stop of the day was Phnom Bakheng, a high point in the Angkor area atop which sits a Hindu temple dedicated to the ram. We stayed up at the top and waited for nature's show - sunset over the jungle below. Unfortunately, there was no sunset given the last-minute cloud cover.

We capped our day off with dinner at Il Forno, a good Italian joint on Pub Street, a Western hangout in Siem Reap filled with restaurants, bars, and souvenir shops. Pub Street was hopping this evening.
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Old Nov 26th, 2022, 08:45 AM
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Nov. 26 - Tonle Sap Lake and Siem Reap, Cambodia

Today took us away from the temples and onto the water to explore a different slice of Cambodia. Our destination - Tonle Sap Lake, the largest in Asia. Fed by the waters coming from tributaries of the Mekong, the size of Tonle Lap varies depending on the season. As we are here in November, the water is quite full from the monsoon as well as recent rains. Of interest to tourists are the various floating villages dotting the lake. We chose to visit Prek Toal village and its nearby bird sanctuary.

Picked up at our hotel by our driver and guide from About Cambodia, we travelled by van for about 20 minutes, to where the dock is located. There we took a medium-sized boat through the channels of the floodplain until we reached the lake itself. We sailed across the northwest part of Tonle Sap to Prek Toal village, which took about an hour and change. The ride itself was very comfortable. We enjoyed the cooler temperature and breezes coming from the water.

As we approached Prek Toal village, we saw the iconic floating homes and business along the shore. The buildings were simple but attractive with various colors visible from the water. Other than homes, some housed small grocery stores, repair shops, schools - you name it, it could be found in floating form here.

At the village, we transferred to an even smaller boat for a cruise through the bird sanctuary. We stopped at an observation tower contained on top of a large tree, and given the current climate patterns, is only accessible by water. We spent about two hours on the small boat and at the observation tower, viewing varies species of bird life. We saw egrets, hornbills, openbills, and a few species I couldn't identify.

After our tour, we sat down for lunch at one of the floating village homes. We were treated to a nice lunch of fish, soup, and rice. While the food was good, we appreciated obtaining a better understanding of village life on the water. We returned to the dock after lunch, enjoying another look at the lake and the surrounding ecosystem.

We were satisfied with the decision to take a break from temple hopping - not that we don't enjoy temples - get out on the water and see another aspect of Cambodia. The only critique was our tour guide, who was not very good, and in retrospect About Cambodia. We went with About Cambodia after researching on-the-ground tour operators that seem reputable and have positive feedback. We expected About Cambodia to upcharge us, so we were not surprised by it. But the not-so-good treatment of the people the agency hires bothers me. And I sensed after the fact that there's a bit of dishonesty from the sales staff from About Cambodia.

By 2:00, we were back at the heart of Siem Reap. We used the afternoon to explore the city that thrives largely on visitors coming to see Angkor. We took a stroll in Wat Bo Village, named as the coolest neighborhood in Asia in 2022 by Time Out. We wandered around the grounds of Wat Bo (the main hall was closed when we visited and a couple other buildings were under construction) and Wat Damnak, and took our afternoon coffee break at one of the French-style cafes along Wat Bo Road. We also had dinner in this area on a couple of nights. I didn't notice much by the way of shops and there is no foot traffic or outdoor culture to speak of. Cool? I'm not so sure. Perhaps I'm the uncool one.

We spent the remainder of our day browsing the various markets in the city. We didn't really purchase much, as it's mostly the cheap made-in-China stuff. It was more about strolling, people watching, and the general atmosphere of it all. I had wanted to stop by Artisans d'Angkor for a browse, but unfortunately it was closed by the time we arrived.

For dinner, we went to Abacus, a French restaurant off bustling Airport Road. Serving French classics such as boeuf bourgignon and coq au vin, the food is extraordinary - the best we've had on this trip.
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Old Nov 27th, 2022, 07:19 AM
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Nov. 27 - Angkor

It's back to the temples today. We started our day an hour outside of Siem Reap and away from Angkor's core archeological zone, at Banteay Srei. Also referred to as the Lady Temple, Banteay Srei is distinctive in its used of red sandstone for the construction of its temple complex. The Hindu temple is dedicated to Shiva although the three towers were built in recognition of Brahma and Vishnu as well. This temple may be small but fun to wander given the good condition of its carvings, which vary from representation of Hindu deities to scenes from Hindu mythology.

Not too far from Banteay Srei is Kbal Spean, the site of numerous Hindu gods and goddesses carved and lingas carved on the riverbed and along the riverbank. Situated on Kulen Mountain, it is a 1,500 meter hike to Kbal Spean. A mix of gravel pathways, stairways, and some boulders, it took us about an hour to reach the top and 40 minutes back. Also near the top is a beautiful waterfall.

We spent about 3.5 hours between the two sights. Given that it is an hour trip to and from these sights, it took the better part of the day. On the way back from Kulen Mountain, we visited Banteay Samre, an unfinished temple built in the style of Angkor Wat. We enjoyed wandering among the temple and admiring the various carvings one last time, as this would be the final temple we visit in the Angkor region. We had other temples on our list but we needed to be back at our hotel no later than 3 to freshen up before our evening activity for our final night in Siem Reap - dinner at Villa Chandara.

We were picked up at our hotel by staff from Villa Chandara at 4 for a 25-minute ride to the boat dock, from which we were transported 15 minutes across West Baray to the north shore. Sitting near the shore is a local community where Villa Chandara is located. There were 19 people dining at Villa Chandara, including the 4 of us. We were offered cocktails and a snack of banana chips upon arrival. Dinner was served in front of the rice fields in open air. The food consists of local Khmer cuisine, served in 5 courses. Each group sat at their own table and there was no interaction with other guests. Once dinner concluded, we were transferred back to our hotel. The setting for dinner was nice and the food was good, but the service could have been better. Given the price we paid, we could have had the same quality high-end Khmer dinner elsewhere.

Reflections of Angkor

As I've mentioned, the primary reason for our selection of Cambodia and Thailand for this trip is a chance to visit Angkor - not just Angkor Wat but the many temples that date back to Khmer Empire times in this region. What I am able to share is that the chance to visit this wonder of the world was totally worth it. Angkor well exceeded our expectations.

Even though Angkor Wat is the most well-known and visited temple in this part of Cambodia, it was not my favorite temple. What I enjoyed most about Angkor Wat is the bas-reliefs covering all of the interior walls of the first floor. The structure itself is impressive and I'm glad I visited it, but I felt underwhelmed by it. Perhaps my expectations were too high.

On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed some of the other temples I've visited. While I'm glad to have seen Angkor Wat firsthand, it is not a must-see temple should we have the opportunity to return. Instead, there are so many other temples that left deep impressions with me. Some of these are:

Bayon Temple - Located in the center of Angkor Thom and perhaps the most important building within the city walls, I found the bas-reliefs and carvings here equally compelling. What Bayon offered that Angkor Wat didn't was superb vistas and surprises at every turn. Wandering its corridors and its courtyard between the first and second levels brought so much joy to me. Unique and sealing the deal for me were the four-sided images of the then-Khmer king / bodhisattvas.

Ta Som - Similar in layout, ambiance, and condition as Ta Prohm, Ta Som was a joy to wander. I loved how moss seemed to cover the entire complex and the blend between building and nature gave it such character. Nowhere is this clearer than at the eastern gopura, in which the tree has nearby taken over the ornamental gate. We could easily have spent hours wandering this place.

Preah Khan - Another massive yet awe-inspiring temple, it was a joy wandering the complex and getting lost in it. I loved the unique features of Preah Khan such as the Greco-Roman-looking Hall of Dancers.

Banteay Srei - A small yet also unique temple due to its construction from red sandstone, the Lady Temple was another joy to explore. The well-preserved carvings of Hindu gods, goddess, and mythology had me thinking about visiting India to see more.

Bakong - Located in the Roluos Group about half an hour from Angkor's core, I loved climbing to the top of this temple more than any other.

Did we manage to beat the post-COVID crowds to Angkor? In large part, yes. We were so happy to have had the Bayon almost all to ourselves counting other visitors at roughly a dozen. This was also true of Ta Som and some of the other lesser-known and / or off-the-most-well-trodden path we visited. The only places we saw anything that resembled a crowd was at Angkor Wat and at Ta Prohm. And of course, the sunrises and sunsets attracted throngs of other visitors. We were disappointed that we did not witness nature's marvel and struck out three for three, but at the same time it did not take away from our impression of the temples and our visit to Angkor in general.

We were also so fortunate to have hired Kanada Morl as our tuk tuk driver. He was always punctual, took very good care of us, and is a wealth of knowledge. If this is not enough, he doubled as our photographer - an excellent one at that - on our visits to several temples. I would recommend him to anyone coming to Angkor and would happily use him again.

The weather at Angkor and throughout our time in Cambodia largely held up. However, perhaps due to global warming, we were getting weather that is much closer to the monsoon season than what we would typically this time of year. The skies opened up almost every afternoon, but the storms were all brief except for a light drizzle. Given the high temperatures, the humidity was very high and uncomfortable. We've put off a visit to Cambodia until we could find a time in November and December knowing that this would be high season; nonetheless, what we experienced over the past few days would be no different if we had visited in June, July, or August.
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Old Nov 28th, 2022, 03:30 PM
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Nice report. Glad you were able to see so many temples! Hearing about "About Cambodia" confirms my experience that in Cambodia, you're usually better off with the no-name tour guides, vs the fancy ones!
One thing that confused me is your final sentence... Are you referring to the number of visitors or the weather?
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Old Nov 29th, 2022, 06:36 AM
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lcuy, I was referring to the weather. I don't know what visitor numbers were like in the earlier months, but it was not bad at all when we were there.

Nov 28 and 29 - Sukhothai, Thailand

Monday was our travel day, from Siem Reap to Sukhothai. We travelled via Bangkok on Thai Smile, a subsidiary of Thai International, and then on Bangkok Airways. The flights were smooth and uneventful. The only downside was having had a 5-hour layover at Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport, mostly bored in the domestic terminal. Our camera was having issues last night so I had hoped to purchase one af Bangkok Airport, either in the international terminal or once we exited immigration and customs. There seemed to be nothing landside and we couldn't access airline international without an appropriate boarding pass. So we had lunch and largely waited. Sukhothai's airport is small but far away from the city itself, requiring a 45-minute transport. We arrived at our hotel, the beautiful Legendha Resort, just before 6, dropped our bags off in our hotels, and immediately went to the nearest camera store in search of a replacement. While the store didn't have what I wanted, I found an acceptable replacement. It was back to our hotel we went. We enjoyed a fabulous dinner at our hotel restaurant consisting of a variety of Thai dishes family-style ordered a la carte. I would highly recommend the restaurant.

We had one full day in Sukhothai, devoted to the ruins of the old capital city. The Kingdom of Sukhothai existed from the 13th to the 15th centuries, with its capital centered around the city of the same name. The old capital city is contained within city walls enclosed by a moat, although it expanded beyond its borders while the rulers of Sukhothai were in power. What remains today are extensive ruins of temples and temple complexes. Much of the temple structures are now gone, but a large number of stone Buddha statues, sculpted in the Sukhothai style, remain.

After a decent breakfast at our hotel, we walked to a Sukhothai Historical Park, about 20 minutes on foot. The park is divided into five zones, each with separate admissions. The highest concentration of ruins is in the central zone, with the others dispersed around it. We began our visit at the Ramkhamkaeng National Museum, named for the ruler who left a lasting impact on Sukhothai and the rest of Thailand as the one who instituted the modern Thai alphabet among other things. The museum houses several authentic statues and some replicas.

We spent three hours in the central zone and then another three hours in the other zones. We used the hop-on, hop-off tram system within the central zone, although other options include bicycle, tuk tuk, and good, old-fashioned walking. For the outer zones, we hired a tuk tuk driver outside of the ticket building.

The most notable ruins we visited were:

Wat Mahathat - The political and religious epicenter of Sukhothai, the site contains several large and some smaller Buddha statues in various poses. We enjoyed visiting each one and just taking in the significance of them. It was also a pleasure to wander among the stupas, chedis, and columns throughout the complex. We also played peek-a-boo with Buddha and and prayed some.

Wat Saphat Hin - Located on top of a hill, the fairly easy hike was well worth it for a chance to be at one with Buddha at the top. We took advantage of the opportunity to enjoy the moment among ourselves.

Wat Si Chum - Home to another massive Buddha statue, this one seated and almost entirely surrounded on four sides, this is also one of the most impressive in Sukhothai.

We went into New Sukhothai for a quick look and dinner. There's urban life but really nothing to speak of. We did have another good dinner, at Poo Restaurant, serving many of the same Thai dishes that we enjoyed last night. We also used Grab to and from, which made things really easy.
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Great stuff trip planner. Your report takes me back to all those places. Phnom Penh is one of my favourite Asian cities, love the food, love the people and the general vibe of the place. We have visited Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng several times over the years and they never fail to have huge impact. Sadly, with what is going on in the world at present, it seem that we never seem to learn from history...

Seems you had good time at Angkor with a reasonable level of visitors . Last time we were there was 4-5 years ago when took my in-law to celebrate their Golden Wedding Anniversary. Sadly it was overrun with Chinese tour groups and was really quite an unpleasant experience. I expect it may be a lot quieter now they are not allowed out of the country.

A shame Artisans de Angkor was closed. They have some great stuff and is run in a very good cause and it is fascinating to have a look around the workshops. A recently unpacked polychromic statues Ganesha that we bought there is currently taking pride of place on a shelf in our new home.

Looking forward to reading more.
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Old Nov 30th, 2022, 06:54 AM
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Crellston, you are so right about we not leatning from history. We're glad to have largely missed the crowds so far. I anticipate this will change when we reach Chiang Mai and Bangkok. You were spot on about Sukhothai after Angkor. We enjoyed seeing the Buddha statues at Sukhothai and having a more laid-back few days after the intense experience of Angkor, but I agree with you that it could easily be dropped if short on time and looking to hit the blockbusters.

Nov. 30 - Si Satchanalai and Lampang, Thailand

It was an early departure from Sukhothai for the journey ahead - destination: Lampang - but via a very much out of the way detour.

About an hour north of Sukhothai is the twin city of Si Satchanalai. The city is home to a significant collection of temples and Buddha statues from the same time period as Sukhothai. As in Sukhothai, the temples are contained within city walls surrounded by a moat. Before entering the ancient city, we visited the magnificent Phra Si Rattana Mahathat, built in the Khmer style. The central tower of Wat Phra Si bears resemblance to the central tower of Angkor Wat; it also reminded me of Wat Arun in Bangkok. There are several Buddha statues at the site including five very large ones.

After saying good morning to Buddha at Wat Phra Si, we visited the historical park inside city walls. As at Sukhothai, we took advantage of the hop-on, hop-off tram, visiting three temples:

Wat Chang Lom - This Sri Lankan-style stupa surrounded by elephants is similar to the one at Sukhothai.

Wat Chedi Jet Thaew - Built with a combination of Sri Lankan and Thai styles, the site is home to 33 stupas and chedis of different sizes, shapes, and designs.

Wat Nang Phaya - This is a small temple with a central stupa with some remains of the surrounding buildings.

There were no visitors but us during our two hours at Si Satchanalai.

From here it is typically another two hours to Lampang, our home for the next two nights. However, on our agenda for the afternoon is a much-anticipated visit to Wat Chalerm Phra Kiat, also known as the Sky Temple. Located in the hills of northern Thailand, it is a four-hour drive from Si Satchanalai. We arrived at the base of Wat Chalerm Phra Kiat at around 2:00.

Getting up to the Sky Temple requires a 15-minute ride in the back of a pickup truck and a climb of 840 meters via staircase. The truck ride was bumpy and not comfortable. The hike to the top was very easy. The entire way consists of metal stairs from bottom to top, with railings all the way up. Once st the top there are two viewpoints from where you could see stupas capping the mountain peaks all around the temple. The temple itself consists of several shrines to Buddha as well as a Hindu shrine. We apent about an hour at the site. The setting is definitely Instagram worthy. I am glad I came and was able to see it for myself but once is enough.

From the Sky Temple it was an hour descent into Lampang. Our home in Lampang would be the Riverside Guest House in the heat of the city. We opted for something different for dinner tonight - pizza at Long Jim New York Pizza. Very much a taste of home.
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Dec 1. - Lampang, Thailand

Located in northern Thailand along historic trade routes, Lampang was one of the most important cities of the Lanna Kingdom, ranking only after the royal capitals of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. Due to its political status and center as a commercial hub for teak transportation and trading and such, Lampang was a wealthy city and much of the wealth could be seen in its temples as well as some of the residential homes in town.

Virtually undiscovered by tourists (we saw maybe ten total throughout the day, not including the dozen or some at our hotel), Lampang is a delight for walkers and cyclists. The sleepy, laid-back vibe makes it a good place to slow down or take a break from some of the intensity of other destinations.

Without guidebooks to rely upon, we used what information we could find online supplemented by a conversation with the helpful staff of the Tourist Information Center. With the information, we constructed our own walking tour of Lampang covering several of the temples of interest.

We began our walking tour at the Clock Tower, from where we walked to Wat Si Rong Muang, a Buddhist temple constructed in the Burmese style. Having been ruled by neighboring Burma in various parts of its history, visitors are able to easily witness its influence here and at a couple other temples in town. At first, I was intrigued by the architecture, as I've never visited a Burmese-style temple before.

From Wat Si Rong we retraced our steps back to the Clock Tower and proceeded around the corner to our next destination, Wat Chiang Rai. A replica of the White Temple in Chiang Rai, the visual uniqueness of the temple, both in its color and its detail, awe-struck us. We enjoyed viewing the beautiful Buddha statues, the peacocks, signs of the Chinese zodiac, and ornamentation that adorned the complex. We were also very happy to come in front of the first statue of Guanyin, or the Goddess of Mercy, during our visits to various temples on this trip. We lingered in front of her and said a few extra prayers.

From here we continued down Suan Dok, passing a couple of Chinese Daoist temples. Throughout our walk through Lampang, we found remnants of Chinese influence everywhere. While we were aware of Chinese settlement in Thailand as well as various parts of Southeast Asia, we were surprised by their mark on Lampang.

Wat Si Chum, further away towards the south of the city, is another Burmese Buddhist temple. The temple comes complete with the main prayer hall, stupa, and other auxiliary worship facilities. This was probably, to me, the least impressive of the temples we visited today.

We then made our way back towards the river, to Kad Kong Ta Street, probably my favorite street in all of Lampang. Full of historic buildings dating back to the 19th or early 20th centuries, walking down the street is like a step back in time. Along the street are fun cafes as well as workshops and stores for everyday locals. Adorning what were once blank walls in several places are fun street art. This could also be found in different spots in Lampang.

After a tea and coffee break on Kad Kong Ta Street, we walked across the white Rassadapisek Bridge to Wat Pong Sanuk Nua. Combining Lanna and Shan temples, this is by far my favorite temple in Lampang. The Buddha statues are extraordinary and the walls covered in ceramic tile, glass, and other materials are just exquisite. Having had the fortune of visiting quite a few Buddhist temples in my lifetime, few left such a deep impression on me as Wat Pong Sanuk Nua.

We then strolled towards Wat Phra Kaeo Don Tao, passing by several historic homes and mansions constructed of teak in Lanna and Burmese styles. While I understand the historical significance of Wat Phra Kaeo Don Tao to Thais, I was not drawn to it. Perhaps its the construction going on throughout the site. A visit to this temple concluded our walking tour.

...But there is one more temple on our agenda - Wat Phra That Lampang Luang. Sitting on a previous settlement from which Lampang received its name, the temple is considered the "cathedral" of Lampang. Sitting on top of a hill, the main temple hall is massive. It is clear, upon first glance, that the temple was built to impress and make a statement of Lampang's political, religious, and economic power. The complex contains a main prayer hall, a stupa, and several smaller temples, similar to that of temples throughout Lampang. What is unique is the wood panels that tell the history of the city as well as the Buddhist imprint upon it. To reach Wat Phra That Lampang Luang, we took a taxi to and from, which is about 30 minutes away from the center of the city.

Lampang was a true surprise to us. We were so glad we included it on our itinerary. While we came to Lampang for the Sky Temple, it is the other temples that left its mark on us.
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Dec. 2 - Chiang Mai, Thailand

Today we left Lampang bound for the largest city in Northern Thailand, Chiang Mai. Once the capital of the independent Lanna Kingdom, Chiang Mai is also know for its distinctive architecture as well as arts and crafts. We attempted to book train tickets for the two-hour journey from Lampang to Chiang Mai, but failed each time. The booking tool on the Thailand Railways website was not function. We tried to book it at the train station the evening before and thar did not work either. We settled on a private transfer instead.

We left Lampang at 8:30 and arrived at our hotel, Rachamankha, at 10:30. We chose the Rachamankha for being in the Old City as we wanted to be able to walk to temples, museums, night street markets, and restaurant. We dropped our bags off at our hotel and began exploring the city.

Our focus were several temples in the Old City. These were:

Wat Phra Singh - Built in classic Lanna style with its tall wood columns, steep sloping roofs, and covered in ceramic and glass tiles, the temple houses a large Buddha statue. Around the main hall are smaller prayer halls and a large stupa with elephants around its base. There were beautiful flowering trees on the footpaths which made walking around even more pleasant. On the downside though, we encountered more tourists here than anywhere else on our trip with the exception of the sunrises and sunsets at Angkor. To the extent that tourists have returned to Southeast Asia, this is evident in Chiang Mai.

Wat Phan Tao - A smaller temple, I enjoyed the fact that the main hall is built entirely of wood with minimal ornamentation. The simple design makes it stand out from all the other temples we've visited on this trip and is elegant rather than trying to stand out. It reminded me of the temples in Japan, in a good way.

Wat Chedi Luang - Situated in the middle of the temple complex is the remains of an old temple from the 14th century. Surrounded it are several modern structures including a main prayer hall that was closed for major restoration.

Wat Chiang Man - Similar to Chedi Luang, Wat Chiang Man is home to an old Buddhist temple. This one happens to the oldest in all of Chiang Mai. Also here are two very old statues of Buddha, one going back 1,800 years and the other 2,500. We visited this temple after sunset so the evening colors gave it a very different quality and feel.

We visited a couple of other smaller temples and the Lanna Folklife Museum. The museum showcases the Lanna people, their way of life, traditions, food, clothing, etc. It helped us better understand and appreciate the local culture and sights that we are visiting.

We also checked out the night market and browsed what is on offer.

Dinner tonight was Thai, at the House by Ginger. We chose a combination of favorites and selected a couple of new items to try. It was a very satisfying meal.
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Old Dec 4th, 2022, 09:52 AM
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Dec. 3 - Chiang Mai, Thailand

On our itinerary today is, you guessed it, more temples. We started our day with a morning hike on the Monk's Trail linking the edge of the city with Wat Pha Lat. The hike is through forest and took about 45 minutes.

Wat Pha Lat is tucked in the middle of the forest about halfway up the mountain to Wat Pha That Doi Suthep. A stream runs past the edge of the temple with small waterfalls nearby. The temple complex itself consists of simpler structures that other temples we've visited in Thailand.

From here we had the option of continuing our hike to Wat Pha That Doi Suthep, which would have taken another twoish hours. We chose to utilize Grab instead given the heat and humidity. Doi Suthep was something, definitely a sensory overload. The gold everywhere shouted at us. The number of Buddhas of different styles and poses was staggering. And so were the number of visitors both foreign and domestic. The Naga staircase leading up to the temple is impressive, and so are the views of Chiang Mai. The downside - the number of souvenir stalls outside and the push by hustlers for photos. After all, this is a holy place of worship for folks like me, not Disneyland.

We continued by Grab to Bhuping Palace, the winter residence of the Thai king. While his palace was not open to visitors, his gardens were. The gardens weren't spectacular but made for a pleasant hour-long stroll in high humid weather. From here we headed back to our hotel for a little bit of rest and relaxation before checking out the Saturday night market. The Saturday market was much more crowded than the night market from last night.

For dinner we went to Baan Landai in the Old City. Serving Thai cuisine, the food was also very good. The rice and noodle dishes were better at Baan Landai than at House by Ginger although House did a better job with the seafood dishes we ordered.

Dec. 4 - Doi Inthanon National Park and Chiang Mai, Thailand

Today we had plans to venture out of the city. We looked at several options for a day trip. While visiting an elephant sanctuary is appealing, it was our understanding that the animals are mistreated and we didn't want to perpetuate it. The adventure options did not appeal to us. And some were simply too long, which meant a lot of wasted time on the road. After some back and forth, we decided to give Doi Inthanon a go.

Our driver picked us up at our hotel at 6:00 for the two-hour drive to Doi Inthanon National Park. We arrived a viewpoint of the mountain about half an hour later. The sight left us in horror - not of the mountain peeking through the clouds but the sea of vehicles in the parking lot and a line of people that stretched about three city blocks just to access the Kew Mae Pan Nature Trail. I cannot imagine such a walk, in which you are going in single file one by one along the way, to be enjoyable. We got out of there as fast as we could. Will this be what we experience all day? What did we get ourselves into?

We proceeded to the summit of Doi Inthanon. Luckily the number of people here was a small fraction of what we saw earlier. Perhaps we were able to get ahead of the crowds. At the top are a couple of short, very easy walking trails through a cloud forest and a swamp forest. I was surprised by the vegetation here, surely not what I would expect to find in the tropics. This looks more like what we would expect in the Pacific Northwest. The change of scenery and the much cooler temperatures were very welcome. For the first time on this trip we were not sweating buckets.

Next were the King and Queen Pagodas, Buddhist shrines built to commemorate the king's and queen's 60th birthdays. The interior of the Queen's Pagoda features a standing Buddha statue while the King's a seated Buddha. Carvings inside the Queen's Pagoda tells the story of the life of Buddha while the King's shows the four most important pilgrimage destinations for Buddhists. On the outside of the pagodas surrounding it are depictions of stories of significant to Buddhists. Encircling the two pagodas are landscaped gardens with beautiful flowers that cascade down the hillside. Part of our time was spent sitting by the flowers just gazing across to the mountains with a sea of clouds just below - a highlight!

We then proceeded to a local farmers' market for some locally grown fruit and nuts before heading to lunch. After lunch, we visited Royal Agricultural Station Inthanon, also known as the Royal Project. Conceived by the late king as an education program to teach local farmers on alternative agricultural sources of income than opium, it has greatly expanded over the years to incorporate growing flowers and produce to producing coffee to sustainable fish farming and aquaponics - all of it done in an environmentally friendly way. We enjoyed a good afternoon stroll among its gardens while also learning about some of these practices.

Our last stop at Doi Inthanon National Park was Wachirathan Falls. What I thought was just a stop to snap a couple of photos turned out to be a more engaging walk up to the falls and down to the riverbed. We enjoyed getting up close and personal to the impressive flow of water. And getting a little wet kept things cool, which was an added bonus.

What started as a oh-did-we-make-a-mistake day turned out to be a rather fine Sunday in the park. Except for crowds at the first stop, we didn't encounter much by the way of crowds for the rest of the day. Most memorable for us were the two pagodas and Wachirathan Falls. While we did not go on the nature hike in the morning due to overwhelming crowds, spending time at the Royal Project offered an appreciation for the national park that we otherwise may not have had.

We returned to our hotel at 5:00, for a full day. We had Japanese for dinner for a change of pace, at Gin Udon just south of Phae Gate. The made-to-order udon was delicious, as was the crispy tempura. Both before and after dinner, we strolled through the Sunday Night Market, by far our favorite. Running on Rachadamnoen Road between Wat Phra Singh and Phae Gate, it is the most atmospheric of the night markets - the market spilled into several temple courtyards, live musicians played every several blocks, and there were more items available here that we did not see anywhere else.
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a group of friends are preparing a trip to asia for the first time but we have not decided whether to vietnam or the philippines, i think vietnam is better, from everything i have been able to read here, let's see, i'll put more pressure on it and go Cambodia
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Dec. 5 - Chiang Mai and Bangkok, Thailand

We began our day with a gentle cruise along the Ping River on the eastern side of Chiang Mai. The ride was relaxing and the cool morning breeze from the water made it even more pleasant. The 45-minute ride took us to outside of the urban core to a farming area where we were given a tour of a local property growing a variety of herbs and spices. We were treated to juice and ice cream before the return trip to the city center.

We visited Wat Chai Mongkorn next to the dock for morning prayers. Because today is a Buddhist holy day, there were a good number of locals at the temple. We joined them in incense lighting and prayers before continuing on to Warorot Market for a look around. Before we knew it, it was time to head back to our hotel to fetch our belongings and go to the airport for our flight down to Bangkok, our final stop on this trip.

For our first meal in the City of Gods, we treated ourselves to dinner at Mezzaluna, a Michelin two-star restaurant located in Lebua at State Tower, our home for the next five nights. We began our evening with cocktails at the Sky Bar of Hangover 2 fame while we waited for our dinner table to be ready. The open-air views of Bangkok were amazing! Our dinner experience ' everything from presentation to taste to variety to service - was flawless from beginning to end. Hands down, it was one of the best meals we've ever had - anywhere! If this was not enough, we retired with drinks in hand to our spacious two-bedroom apartment complete with equally superb views overlooking the Bangkok skyline and the Chao Phraya River. Life is good - so good! We are so fortunate to be able to do this.

Dec. 6 - Bangkok

We spent the first of our five days in Bangkok visiting the city's most popular sights, all places we've previously visited and loved - the Grand Palace, Wat Po, and Wat Arun.
With crowds having already returned to Thailand, including Bangkok, how will our visit to the Grand Palace be? Will our experience be marred by the tour groups that could easily overwhelm the space? What about the tuk tuk drivers thar exclaim the palace is closed for some made-up holiday? For these reasons, we attempted an early start and planned to be at the Grand Palace when it opened at 8:30. Because of how much fun we had last night, the best we could do was 9:30. We travelled to the Grand Palace via ferry boat - what is a better way to reintroduce ourselves to the Bangkok cityscape?

We were pleasantly surprised by the spruce-up of the area around the Grand Palace. The streets were spiffy clean, almost new. Gone were the tuk tuk drivers. Signage directed visitors exactly where to go. We entered with one small tour group with another large group having just filed past the entrance. Here we go. To get away from the others, we walked into the corridor that held the beautiful mural of the Ramayana and spent a good 10 to 15 minutes enjoying the work in peace. By the time we returned towards the entrance, there were only a handful of people there. We wandered about the religious portion of the complex, moving around the gold pagoda and various stupas and other structures. We enjoyed the figures, animals, and mythical creatures. The incredible ceramic tilework that adorned the buidlings - just as we remembered it. The only building that was not visible and under restoration is the library hosting the Tripitaka manuscripts. To our surprise, the crowds we were concerned about never materialized. Even our visit to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha was relatively unscathed by crowds. Where were they? Perhaps Bangkok is still recovering from the pandemic more than I imagined. In any case, we really enjoyed our morning here. We spent about an hour and a half in the religious portion of the complex and an hour in the political portion. While the religious portion brought back old memories for us and helped create new ones, the political portion, especially the newer European-styled throne hall drew blanks. Large portions of the throne hall complex were also closed for restoration. There's also a nice cafe near the newer portion at where we rested our feet and enjoyed some cold beverages. It was already close to one - time flew.

From the Grand Palace, we walked across the street to the City Shrine for a quick look before heading to Wat Po. Home to the temple of the Reclining Buddha, there is so much more to see and do. We loved the large number of Buddha statues that line the interior corridors. And what felt like a sea of stupas of all sizes, colors, and decorations - what a delight. I didn't remember Wat Po to be so extensive. But we were all enjoyed our second visit more than the first. We spent two hours at Wat Po.

By now it was 3:30 and we had at least one more place to go - the magnificent Wat Arun. When we think of Bangkok, we often think of Wat Arun. Our first visit back in 2009 left us with many fond memories, especially the climb to the top. To our surprise and somewhat of a downer, all but the first level of the main stupa is closed to visitors. We could not repeat the fun climb that we enjoyed last time. On the other hand, we noticed how good of a job they did with the most recent restoration.

We anticipated hiring a long-tail boat for a tour of the Thonburi canals but, it was already 5:00, and we were ready to head back to our hotel for a little break. Easy decision.

For tonight's dinner, we chose Blue Elephant, a specialty Thai place a short walk from our hotel on Sathorn Road. We ordered and enjoyed a variety of curry dishes, grilled ribs, vegetables, and rice - all were unique but delicious. The pork ribs, lamb curry, and crab curry - OMG!
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Dec. 7 - Bangkok

Bellies full from an excellent breakfast at our hotel, we ventured out to explore more of the city. We stayed in the inner core, visiting Chinatown and the rest of the Old City. We made a list of a few temples we wanted to hit. Otherwise, we largely roamed the various markets and followed our eyes, ears, and noses.

The first stop of the day was Wat Traimit. We took a look at the world's largest gold Buddha, but spent most of our time at the wonderful Yaowarat Chinatown Heritage Center downstairs. The museum tells the history of Chinese immigration and settlement in Bangkok's Chinatown, their way of life, and the relationship between the Chinese and Thai peoples. This museum is similar to the ones about Chinese immigration in Singapore and in Melbourne.

We then made our way to Wat Tian Fah, dedicated to Guanyin or the Goddess of Mercy. We offered our prayers to our favorite member of the Buddhist pantheon before moving up Yaowarat Road, Chinatown's main thoroughfare. On this Wednesday morning just before noon, the streets were filled with locals and tourists alike out an about. We want through several of the narrow lanes and alleyways selling everything from fresh seafood to odds and ends household items. Along the way we visited Wat Mangkom Kamalawat, a Mahayana Buddhist temple. Filled with red lanterns hanging from the ceilings everywhere, I felt I was there to celebrate the Lunar New Year - more than a month early!

As we worked our way through and eventually out of the heart of Chinatown, we visited Wat Suthat, near the Giant Swing. We continued on to Wat Saket and the Golden Mountain Temple. We arrived at Wat Saket before 4:30 and stayed on top of Golden Mountain Temple for a beautiful sunset over Bangkok's famous landmarks and the Chao Phraya River. The 360 degree views over the city were simply breathtaking.

As day turned to night, we walked to the Democracy Monument and strolled along Khao San Road. More for street food than shopping, we didn't mind much that interested us. After a few minutes, we taxied to SBL back in Chinatown for a delicious Cantonese-style dinner of seafood, roast pig, and a few other favorites.

Dec. 8 - Ayutthaya

We left Bangkok via train this morning for Ayutthaya, formerly the capital of Thailand and today a popular day trip destination. We purchased second-class seats in an air-conditioned carriage, but even then, it was not very comfortable. The seats were small and the train quite slow. Fortunately the ride was only little more than an hour.

We arrived in Ayuttaya at 10:00 and walked about 40 minutes until we reached the historical center of the city. We visited the missable Ayutthaya Historical Study Center to learn more about the area. The Chao Sam Phraya Museum was closed for an extensive rebuild of the building.

We visited several temples in historic Ayutthaya. The notable ones are:

Vihara Phra Mongkorn Bophit - This is a modern-day working Temple next door to the remains of Wat Phra Sri Sanphet.

Wat Phra Sri Sanphet - Situated next to the royal palace, this temple was built for worship by the king and his family. The main complex consists of three very large stupas and three smaller ones. The three large stupas are fully intact today. Also found at the complex are smaller prayer halls and other buildings, all of which lie in ruins today. The visit allowed us to get a sense of the size and scale of the place.

Wat Phra Ram - The complex consists of a central prang and several smaller stupas. The prang is intact while some of the stupas are in better condition than others. The layout reminds me of the layout of the Khmer temples. Even though this and other Thai temples of Ayutthaya are distinctly Thai, it is interesting to see the lasting influence that Khmer architecture and planning had on its neighboring country centuries after their rule.

Wat Phra Mahathat - Like Wat Phra Sri Sanphet, Mahathat is a large complex consisting of a central prang, numerous chedis and stupas, and prayer halls, in varying conditions. Much of the central prang is gone. Some of the stupas and chedis are leaning. A large seated Buddha sits in the courtyard just outside the toppled prang. Also here is the famous head of the Buddha consumed by the roots of a bodhi tree. Among all the sites at Ayutthaya, this was the most crowded with tourists, even in the three o'clock hour

Wat Ratchaburana - Just beyond Mahathat is Ratchaburana. Its central prang rises tall into the sky and is visible throughout Mahathat. This is probably the most well-preserved central prang in Ayutthaya. The standing Buddha statues surrounding the central prang are in good condition. So are the characters of Hindu mythology that surround the structure about two-thirds of its way to the top. We could have climbed the stairs up the prang for a closer look and had very much wanted to do so, but we resisted. We would have risked missing the 4:30 train back to Bangkok and catching another one over two hours later.

Ayutthaya is often compared to Sukhothai and I am able to understand why after our visit. However, the two sites are not very similar. The places of interest at Ayutthaya occupies a much smaller geographic footprint than Sukhothai, which makes for easier exploration by foot or by bike. The ponds at Ayutthaya crisscrossed by bridges made it more pleasant for strolling than just expanses of grass and parkland in Sukhothai. Sukhothai delighted us with the number of Buddhas in open air while Ayutthaya did not; in fact, I was anticipating more than the one we saw at Wat Mahathat. The ruins at Ayutthaya seemed more impressive given its larger size and grandeur. With the exceptions of Wat Mahathat, the temples at Sukhothai don't take as long to see. We're glad we went to both.

The return train trip from Ayutthaya was worse than the outbound. There was no air conditioning at all. Even with the windows open and fans overhead, it was very hot and made for an unpleasant ride. Not looking forward to tomorrow's train trip.

We went to Silom for dinner tonight, at a fusion place called Eat Me. The restaurant serves a variety of seafood, meat, and vegetarian dishes, all of which were very good. We would have walked around Silom after our good dinner, but retired to our room given another early start tomorrow.
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