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Travels in Tumultuous Thailand, languid Luang Prabang & Smiling Siem Reap

Travels in Tumultuous Thailand, languid Luang Prabang & Smiling Siem Reap

Old Feb 16th, 2014, 12:12 PM
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Travels in Tumultuous Thailand, languid Luang Prabang & Smiling Siem Reap

Preparation and planning:

We had a wonderful 3-week trip to Southeast Asia, going to Bangkok/northern Thailand; Luang Prabang; and Siem Reap and taking the 2-day slow boat down the Mekong to Luang Prabang. Without the many members of this board whose trip reports I devoured, and who gave advice, suggestions and recommendations, I never could’ve come up with such a plan, which went almost completely without a hitch. I took to heart many of the comments I read on these boards in my planning.

After returning from our trip one year ago from India, I was smitten with the East, and I convinced my husband, M, that another trip was essential, this time to Southeast Asia. While a 3-week vacation is a generous amount of time when working, it meant making difficult choices about what to include and what not to include. Reading the many travel reports on this board made it difficult to eliminate places, but I reminded myself that we will (!) get back some day!

The suggestion to include the 2-day boat ride down the Mekong had me going back and forth for quite a while before I decided to do it, and we both were very pleased that we did. Although it was 2 full days out of our “touring time”, there was something wonderful about viewing the landscape and river life in a slow, leisurely way. We also enjoyed the people we met on the boat (more later).

I generally consider myself a “value” traveler – a former budget traveler, now as I get older, I do like my comforts and indulgences, particularly when it comes to hotels, so we generally do a mix of places.
Of course, my “indulgence” is a boutique-style hotel that costs $130-or $140/night; the low end places were about $25/night!

Transportation:
International airline was a no-brainer for me – I chose Korean Airlines because of the option to fly into Bangkok and out of Siem Reap. While not the least expensive flight, it remained one of the lower-cost flights I researched for the months leading up to the ticket purchase.

I loved Korean Airlines and Seoul/Incheon Airport. JFK (my home airport) should be on the bottom of anyone’s airport list, and Incheon is near the top of mine now. There is amazingly quick, free WiFi, and on the return trip, I discovered the sleeping lounges. Love it.

The long flight from JFK to Seoul definitely had more legroom in the economy than other flights. The food was fair. The only disappointment we had was the limited movie selection. For a long flight, it could make a difference, although this was not a problem for us. Overall, we were very happy with the airline.

Hotels:
Bangkok (4 nights) – Centre Point Silom – Very good hotel, great location. Recommend.
Chiang Mai (4 nights) – Baan Orapin – beautiful oasis in great location. Highly recommend.
Chiang Rai (2 nights) – Baan Malai – great little guesthouse in convenient location. Recommend.
Chiang Rai/Maesalong (1 nite) – Little Home guesthouse – Simple but warm and welcoming. Recommend.
Chiang Khong/Teak Garden Hotel (1 nite) – unexpectedly good for transfer town. Recommend.
Houi Xai, Laos/ Phetsokxai Hotel (1 nite)– basic, adequate hotel (part of Nagi of Mekong boat trip).
Luang Prabang/Apsara (3 nights) – Elegant small hotel, great location and view. Highly recommend.
Siem Reap/Golden Temple Hotel (4 nites) – Wonderful small hotel, warm and welcoming staff. Highly recommend.

All hotels are reviewed with more detail on Trip Advisor.



Bangkok

Despite all the planning, of course, it turned out we were traveling to Bangkok just as the political situation had been heating up, and my husband and I were arriving shortly after the planned Bangkok shutdown. For weeks before our planned departure, I was scouring the blogs (Richard Barrow and others) and trying to decide whether or not we would be safe to travel to Bangkok. As we got closer to the date, it became more unclear, and there was a great deal of uncertainty as to whether or not we would actually go to Bangkok. There were weeks of planning for “Plan B”.

I’d been in touch with Fodorites yestravel and Hanuman, as we were planning a mini-GTG in Bangkok. I’m truly appreciative of all the feedback Hanuman gave us, and also of the ongoing contact yestravel and I had before we left. It was great to have someone to share the uncertainty and to communicate with someone who was also trying to make a decision about the trip. This made the period leading up to the trip more anxiety-provoking than usual, and until a few days before we actually left, I really didn’t know whether we would go to Bangkok or not. It wasn’t until yestravel sent me a brief reassuring email me that I was certain we were going.

So the trip, at last!

We left Saturday, Jan. 18 at 00:50AM and arrived on Sunday, Jan. 19 in the early afternoon. Arrival at the airport was uneventful and surprisingly quick. We picked up SIM cards (AIS) at the airport for our i-Phones. We didn’t really end up using the phones much except in Bangkok, but it was still nice to have. Somehow, my phone couldn’t connect to the internet, but M had no problem with his phone. It was frustrating to see these texts in Thai and not be able to make sense of them! We did travel with an iPad (WiFi only), so this really was no problem, as all hotels had WiFi, so I generally had as much access as I needed.

We got a taxi from the airport to our hotel, Centre Point Silom, which has a great location near the Chao Phraya River and the BTS. Staying by the river made all the difference – the protest areas were mostly along Sukhumvit, but we had no awareness of them where we were staying. There was no traffic coming in, either, and we got in quickly (30 minutes or so).

We had gotten the taxi from the line at the airport where there are notices explicitly stating that cabdrivers must use the meter. However, once we were in the cab, our driver essentially demanded something like 400 baht, and we felt somehow trapped. It was an unpleasant initiation.

We arrived at Centre Point Silom, but my requested room was not ready yet. I had gotten the hotel with miles, but requested an upgrade, which they were charging me a nominal fee. The manager then kindly eliminated the fee since the room was not yet ready.

Finally settling in, with a (partial) view of the Chao Phraya river from our room, we at last felt that we had arrived! The evening was hazy, but we arrived during an unusual cold wave in Bangkok, so the first few days were downright cool, requiring a light jacket or sweater.

First adventure – we found the Sathorn (Central pier) ferry terminal and took the free ferry to Asiatique, the riverfront market and restaurant complex. We walked around a bit, but mostly loved the experience of getting on the ferry and getting oriented to the river. We are really in Bangkok!

From there, we hopped one of the tourist ferries, and was truly pleased to realize we could take it one stop further to the Oriental hotel, where we were able to find the wonderful restaurant, Tongue Thai (thanks, Bob, this was on my “must” list for months!).

We had a lovely dinner and were actually able to walk “home” to our hotel – a perfect “first” day!
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Old Feb 16th, 2014, 12:55 PM
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Monday Jan. 20: Our first full day in Bangkok

I debated for a long time whether or not to hire a guide in Bangkok; I definitely did not want the typical guide to provide hours of tedious oration at the major sites. I also went back and forth as to whether or not to hire a driver to take us around. I contacted Ratt, who is highly recommended on this board, but she took so long to get back to me that by the time she did, I’d decided against a driver.

I did, however, decide to hire a guide for the first day to give us a tour of the secondary sites and activities. By focusing on some of the smaller sites in different areas around the city, we hoped to capture a sense of some of local life and get a brief overview of the city.

After much research, I found a wonderful guide, Natt Opasanon, of Your Thai Guide. We loved her – she was not only knowledgeable, but extremely personable with a wonderfully wicked sense of humor, and we felt very much as if we spent the day with a friend sharing her love for the city.

What we did:

-Strolling by local temples and getting a feeling for the neighborhood around our hotel
-Ferry to Wat Arun
-A blessing by a monk at the Ordination hall at Wat Aurn
-Canal ride through Khlong – wonderful!
-Chinatown: Lunch and walk through markets
-tuk-tuk to Wat Suthet, a less-touristed temple
-Walk through crafts streets (including bowl-making street)
-Golden Mount
-wild tuk-tuk ride through back streets, including flower market, back to the hotel

We had a wonderful day with Natt, and the idea of covering the secondary sites accomplished exactly what we wanted.

Dinner that night was at one of the Chinese “Duck noodle” restaurants a few blocks from our hotel; not bad, not great.
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Old Feb 16th, 2014, 12:59 PM
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Welcome home! It sounds like you had a wonderful trip. I look forward for easing all about it.

I'm one of those people who loves staying on the river even after 30 years of visiting Bangkok.
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Old Feb 16th, 2014, 01:03 PM
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Many thanks, Kathie, it was terrific. And I have to thank you, too, for all the advice and recommendations you made!

Paule
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Old Feb 16th, 2014, 01:57 PM
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I've been looking forward to this.
Currently in Chiang Khong at 6.00 am getting ready to board that slow boat.

More please !
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Old Feb 16th, 2014, 02:18 PM
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great start...hope you had cashew chicken at TT....

I love the idea of just a guide like you did on 1/20, esp. with the cooler weather...

ratt is a hoot, too bad you missed her..

anxious to read more
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Old Feb 16th, 2014, 03:08 PM
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sartoric - Have a great trip! Which cruise boat are you taking? I just posted a review of Nagi of Mekong on TripAdvisor - it's listed under "Mekong River".

We really, really enjoyed the boat trip -- the stops were fine, but there is something very special about traveling the river. I thought I'd be bored, but I wasn't at all - never had time to be!

Bob -- yes, of course I had cashew chicken! I didn't write down what we had (first night, what do you expect?) but we did have a wonderful mango salad -- didn't do pomelo because M. is not a grapefruit person. Loved the place.

More to come -- I will do my best to stay on top of this, but life (and work) may slow my entries down a bit!

Paule
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Old Feb 16th, 2014, 03:49 PM
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Great start! Looking forward to hearing more. Hard to believe that a month ago both of us were so unsure about BKK.
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Old Feb 16th, 2014, 04:15 PM
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So glad you decided to include Bangkok! Anxious to read more of your trip report.
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Old Feb 16th, 2014, 04:39 PM
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Yestravel, it's not only hard to believe that a month ago, we were uncertain about BKK, but it's even harder to believe that I'm back now! Time to plan another trip!

Thanks, Simpsonc, I really loved Bangkok and am glad we got there, too, I would've been very sorry to have missed it.

More tomorrow!
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Old Feb 16th, 2014, 04:51 PM
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Nice start progol and looking forward to more!
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Old Feb 16th, 2014, 11:47 PM
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So pleased to see your report after meeting in Bangkok and like everyone else I'm looking forward to hearing more
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Old Feb 17th, 2014, 12:22 AM
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So nice to hear from you, welltraveledbrit!

I have high expectations for both you and yestravel writing about our dinner at Gaggan!
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Old Feb 17th, 2014, 01:32 AM
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Yes, but progol, you get to go first writing it up since that's your reward for already being home��
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Old Feb 17th, 2014, 02:02 AM
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yestravel, what kind of reward is that?!

I'll do my best, but those who go after have the burden to improve on the earlier ones, no?
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Old Feb 17th, 2014, 02:37 AM
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You ladies might not know this but Gaggan have recently named a cocktail after me!
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Old Feb 17th, 2014, 02:49 AM
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Oh Hanuman, I will have to go back now! What's it called and what's in it?
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Old Feb 17th, 2014, 02:50 AM
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Tuesday, Jan 21

We are slowly acclimating to the time change, but we are definitely not moving fast today! Breakfast at the Centre Point Silom is good – large buffet, selection of both Thai, Chinese and western foods, as well as the requisite chef making made-to-order eggs. I do like the large & airy dining room.

Today is the Big Day, where we cover most of the major tourist sites. I’m glad we saw all the sights, though in many ways, we loved the first day, and the feeling of getting the ‘lay of the land’. The sights are hard work; we are very fortunate that the weather was so pleasant! I’m really glad we didn’t have to deal with the heat and humidity.

First stop is the Jim Thompson house and our first time on the BTS skytrain. Wonderfully easy to use and a great way to get around. We did pass through some of the protest areas as we got off the train, but the crowds were few. We were well aware, however, that this seeming quiet could change if there was a crowd, so we were very careful to avoid any area where the protests gathered.

The Jim Thompson house is a short walk from the train station. This is a lovely, peaceful oasis, an elegant home with tasteful antiques, making a nice counterpoint to the elaborate and ornate decoration of the temples. Jim Thompson was an American businessman, architect, former spy, and designer, who settled in Bangkok in the late 40s and was instrumental in revitalizing the cottage silk industry in Thailand. The house, which he designed based on traditional Thai-syle teak houses, sits on a klong on beautifully landscaped grounds. A great respite from the city.

Unless, of course, there is a noisy drunk falling into the khlong during the tour you are on! While listening to the excellent guide giving Thompson’s fascinating history, we were distracted by the real-life scene taking place across the canal, with a half dozen people trying to pull the man out of the water!

Of course I had to check out the retail shop! The silk scarves, shirts and jackets were stunning, but way above my budget. There’s also a great little restaurant, although we didn’t get a chance to eat there.

We ended up taking the BTS back to the Central Pier and taking the ferry north the Grand Palace. We probably could’ve gotten a tuk-tuk eventually, but there weren’t a lot going by while we were leaving the Jim Thompson House, and since the traffic was impacted by the protest areas, we just went back to the train. It was easy and relatively quick.

The Grand Palace – wow! I had been unprepared for this experience and was overwhelmed as we entered the site. This looks like the Land of Oz on steroids! I’m half-expecting to see the Disney logo here! It is spectacular, but so over-the-top ornate, that it’s simply dizzy-making. You’d never know, either, that there were protests in the city, given the numbers of tourists.

Within the complex is the Wat Phra Kaew, where the Emerald Buddha is housed. There is a long line to see the Buddha, but it moves quickly. This tiny jade Buddha is one of the most revered in the land, and sits high up on a very tall stand.

The standout for us was the Ramakien murals, the series of paintings encircling the temple. This is the Thai version of the Ramayana, and the paintings are stunning in their detail. We spent quite a long time viewing them.

From here, we walked to Wat Pho, to see the reclining Buddha. Thanks to Fodors, I was prepared when someone tried the scam telling us that the temple was closed at 3:00pm. I knew better, and ignored him.

Wat Pho was much calmer than the Grand Palace, although this, too, is a huge complex, with many more beautifully ornate structures. And many more Buddhas! The main reason to be here, however, is to see the Reclining Buddha – an enormous, serene figure – 46 meters, or 150+ feet – and I was quite taken by this figure. The temple, with 108 brass bowls lining the walls, is calming and surprisingly moving, despite the numbers of tourists here.

At last, we are done with the Day of Sightseeing, and take the ferry back to the hotel.

To be continued....
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Old Feb 17th, 2014, 02:52 AM
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The mini-Fodors GTG at Gaggan, or, the event that almost didn’t happen

This was planned months ago, long before Bangkok Shutdown became a popular T-shirt. I was actually very surprised – but pleased - that we were going ahead with the dinner, given the fact that many of the protest sites were around the area of the restaurant. Our mini-GTG consisted of the gracious Bangkok resident, Pook (“Hanuman”); yestravel & her husband, gotravel; and welltraveledbrit and her husband; and M & I.

Getting there was the first order of business. As it turned out, there were demonstrations that were impacting traffic that evening, so what should’ve taken us a half hour, took twice that. Here was the singlemost important reason to have the phone, as I called Pook several times for directions, and gave the phone to the driver. The rest of the group arrived a while later.

What can I say about this evening? It was absolutely the best! We talked, we laughed, and we ate and ate. We were the first to arrive and the last to leave – it was simply a great group in a fabulous place, and the evening will go down as one of the highlights of our trip. I know some of you know Pook for many years, but for those of us who met him for the first time, I can’t tell you how touched I was to be part of this community of people which Pook, as The Bangkok resident, has so frequently hosted. So again, my thanks to you, Pook. It’s greatly appreciated.

Okay, I know you want to hear about Gaggan. We sat in a private room with a window overlooking the kitchen. Looking in, you see high tech equipment – liquid nitrogen, water tanks, condensers - not just your traditional cooking range, This is called “molecular Indian cuisine”; food is “deconstructed”. It is not simply a restaurant, but a post-modern culinary experience, and presentation and taste are really key. We each had one of the tasting menus, with about 10 different (small) dishes, flavors bursting from many of them. I can’t say that every dish worked, but some were amazing, and the overall experience was incredible. I didn’t take notes, so don’t remember the specific dishes, so can’t tell you exactly what we ate – I’ll leave it to the others to do that. But for a culinary experience, Gaggan was unique. And this was the most fun group!
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Old Feb 17th, 2014, 05:01 AM
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Great start to your report. Bangkok is one of my favorite cities and I'd love to return one day. We also stayed at the center point silom. Great location and a great breakfast buffet. Waiting for more.
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