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Trip Report: Bkk, LP, Hanoi, Nha Trang and Siem Reap

Trip Report: Bkk, LP, Hanoi, Nha Trang and Siem Reap

Old May 31st, 2006, 09:57 AM
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Trip Report: Bkk, LP, Hanoi, Nha Trang and Siem Reap

Here is are some brief trip highlights, and then the trip report from our 2 weeks in Bangkok, Luang Prabang, Hanoi, Nha Trang and Siem Reap.

Best hotel room: Peninsula Bangkok
Best hotel service: the Oriental
Most relaxing, totally vegatative hotel experience: the Evason Hideaway in Nha Trang Vietnam
Best massage: Face Spa in Bangkok
Best breakfast: Hotel Paix in Siem Reap
Best lunch: thai restaurant at Face and Cha Ca La Vong in Hanoi
Best dinner: birthday dinner on the beach in front of our villa at Evason Hideaway
Least favorite dinner: Khmer food at Hotel Paix
Best cocktails: Bobbby Chin's in Hanoi
Favorite shopping experience: Jim Thompson outlet
Favorite temple: Ta Prohm
Favorite experiences on, over or under water: river trip in Luang Prabang, crossing river on elephants in Luang Prabang and scuba diving in Nha Trang
Favorite trip experience: school visit with Ponheary



Our trip started as we drove ourselves to JFK from our home in Connecticut. Smooth sailing, no traffic on a Saturday morning….only miscalculation/mishap was when we found out that the price of long term parking had gone up to $15 per day….which for 15 days would make it about the same price as a limo to the airport both way. Oh well…now we know for next time. Easy check-in on Thai Air, as it seemed we were the only flight departing from the whole terminal at that time. I inquired about upgrading to premium economy, thinking I might splurge, but was told the flight was sold out.

We were pleasantly surprised to discover that the regular economy seats on the non-stop flight were definitely larger than regular economy on other airlines. I am 5’ 10” and I could cross my legs. I was able to sleep on and off through-out the 17 hour flight, but my husband was not so lucky. We watched several movies and the service from the cabin crew was very good, but there is no way around the fact that it is a loooong flight.

Upon arriving in Bangkok we were of course too excited to be tired. After clearing customs, we were relieved to meet smiling Tong waiting for us with a sign. It was great to have her meet us, but we did get a bit antsy as we had to wait about 20 minutes for her to pull her car around to pick us up. When we got in the car she offered us cold drinks and, very sweetly, told us she had some Chiang Mai style curry chicken for us to bring to the hotel for dinner, which her Mom had made.

Upon checking-in at the Pen, we were told we were being upgraded to the next category (from deluxe to grand deluxe I think)….I am not sure if this was because I booked directly via their website or just because they were not fully booked. I had high expectations about the room, based on all the rave reviews from other Fodorites, and I was not disappointed. The room was even bigger than I expected; the luggage/closet area was great, and it was really nice to have the sofa/coffee table area at which to sit. After admiring the view, we showered and went down to the pool….by this point it was about 6:30pm. We swam, had cocktails in the poolside sala and generally just chilled and soaked in the riverview. When we checked in, I had arranged to have 2 thai masseurs come to our room….this was a great idea. The massages were great and really loosened us up after the flight. We ordered Thai from room service; the price was very reasonable I thought, and then finally crashed into bed.

After a light breakfast from room service (can you tell I really love room service??) we met Tong in the lobby, along with her husband who was the driver for the day. We did all the usual first-time-in-Bangkok sights. While I am sure we could have done the Grand Palace, Wat Po and klong tour on our own it was just much easier and more convenient to have Tong (with cool clothes and cold drinks), especially on our very first day. We had lunch at a small local joint which just serves pad thai…it was soooo good and only about 40 baht per person. (Not to restart the debate regarding eating local vs. exercising caution, but we did start taking a pro-biotic for gastro-intestinal health about a month before we left. We were observant about what/where we ate, but did not go crazy about it. ie. we had ice and salad in places other than 5 star hotels if we thought the place looked clean, etc…..and we had no major tummy upsets during the trip).

Upon returning to the Pen, we hung out by the pool, and then had more Thai massages in our room. We had reservations for Bed that evening, but slept through the 8pm reservation after our wonderful massages…opps. I suggested that we skip dinner and we instead took the hotel boat across the river and walked to the Dome bar at the State Tower. The view was lovely and the drinks were NYC pricey, which we expected, but the 2 little appetizer things we ordered were not great at all. We passed the dress code test, but the staff/security people were really uptight about people taking photos, which was a bit odd. An interesting evening with a great view, but I don’t think we would return.

Off to Luang Prabang in the morning……
cruisinred is offline  
Old May 31st, 2006, 10:11 AM
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sounds like a fantastic start....you did a lot in the first couple of days...it must have been the ice that made you so enduring....haha

looking forward to more installments...

bob

missed you at the GTG in CT but hope you will come to boston in october...
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Old May 31st, 2006, 11:12 AM
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Cruisin - as you probably know, we also live in Connecticut. We used Avistar parking at the airport and prepaid at $12/day. I just checked the rate and it has not changed. We took the limo once but will never do it again - it is much more comfortable (and faster) to take your own car. The limo, in our case, was actually a bus (coming from the Hartford area) - very cramped, too many stops along the way and arrived only an hour before our flight, even though we had plenty of time - not a good way to travel before or after all that time on a plane.
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Old May 31st, 2006, 12:28 PM
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Great start! I'm looking forward to the rest of your report!
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Old May 31st, 2006, 06:05 PM
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Yes, more, more! Can't wait to hear about Luang Prabang.
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Old May 31st, 2006, 06:15 PM
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Been checking daily for your report. Good start!
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Old Jun 2nd, 2006, 03:45 AM
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Great beginning to your report. We knew we could count on you. How did you arrange the in room massages?
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Old Jun 5th, 2006, 07:23 AM
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Looking forward to more of your report. Too bad you missed Bed, it's quite the experience. Next time.
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Old Jun 9th, 2006, 11:42 AM
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OK, Laurieco has put me to shame ….survived an earthquake and still finished her trip report before me. Truth be told, I have been in the midst of planning a somewhat last minute trip to Morocco with my college girlfriends. Of course, based the wealth of my Fodor’s knowledge, I somehow got stuck/volunteered to plan the whole thing…anyway, back to my Southeast Asia report:

Tuesday May 16---3 days in Luang Prabang

With our discovery air passes in hand, we set out from Bangkok to Laos. The flight was very quick and we met an interesting couple who we would spend time with in the next few days….he was an Aussie working in the Salomon Islands and she was a Scottish doctor working in Nepal (How is that for a long distance romance….when Luang Prabang is your meeting point for a weekend rendevous?)

Immigration at the tiny Luang Prabang airport gave us a small taste of Communist bureaucracy, having to pass through 4 different official for different stamps.
A van from the Pansea Phou Vao was waiting for outside the airport to take us to the hotel. The hotel was as attractive as it looked on the website, but I think the rooms themselves are starting to look a bit tired around the edges. After checking into our room, I tried to lie down for a quick nap, only to discover that the hotel had the world’s hardest mattresses! I can normally fall asleep anywhere (planes, trains, etc.) but my 3 nights at the Phou Vao were rather sleepless. We headed out to the pool for some lounge time. The view across the forested valley to the temple on Mount Phousi was very pretty, but the weather was a bit overcast…perfect for not getting too burnt actually. We ordered a small lunch by the pool: a French style onion tart with salad (tasty) and a small plate of tapas-style toasts (they should stick to French food). We also enjoyed our first Beer Lao, which after extensive testing/tasting we are happy to award “the best beer in Southeast Asia”.

We then headed down to the hotel’s new spa. The obviously put a lot of time and money into building the spa….it was very nicely designed. We had a small, traditional style wooden building all to ourselves for a couples’ spa treatment. I am not sure if I have started to develop ADD at a late age, or the treatments were just not well done….but I was ready to hop of the table after about an hour….and it was 2.5 hour treatment…foot massage, body scrub, body massage and then a “romantic” bath for 2 in a wooden tub filled with fresh flowers. Perhaps I was in a grumpy mood, but it was just not as nice as I was expecting, especially since the only thing separating the tub from the road leading up to the hotel was a heavy curtain. My husband got several other treatments during the following 2 days, but I passed.

We tried the hotel’s Lao tasting menu for dinner. The food was much better than the lunch we had earlier and the view of the hotel grounds in evening, surrounded by small oil lanterns everywhere was enchanting. I particularly liked the stir-fried noodles with greens, distinct from both a pad thai or a Chinese style fried noodle dish. We had an early (but rather sleepless night) and woke up early the next morning to head into town.

The hotel’s driver arranged a longtail boat for us to go up river to see the caves. It was a pleasant ride, actually a bit cool in the morning breeze. I think we were the first tourists to the caves that morning…so it was nice to enjoy them in semi-solitude. On our ride back upriver to Luang Prabang, we made the requisite stop at the whiskey village and bought some of the local hooch (although I had to tell my husband that the bottle with the snake was not coming home with us). We also bought a few of the new weavings and considered buying some of the older “antique” pieces, but we could not agree on one…probably for the best.

Back in town we strolled down to L’Elephant for lunch. We had a tasty but artery clogging lunch of baked camembert salad, escargot, along with French bread and a decent house white wine. We sat on the terrace of the restaurant and really started to soak in the Luang Prabang experience, as we sipped our wine and watched the monks at the wats next door. While we waited for our food, I went next door to check out OckPopTok, which I had read has contemporary Lao textiles in modern, western fashions. The selection was rather small. I found once blouse/jacket I was interested in buying, but it was only displayed in an extra-small, and the girl at the store did not seem interested in finding a size more suitable for a woman who has camembert and escargot for lunch.

After our way-too filling lunch, we headed back to the hotel for some swimming (me) and spa-ing (huband…who’s name is Scott…guess I could have mentioned that before now.) No dinner for us, after our lunch. But we enjoyed a few cocktails with the Aussie/Scottish couple we had met on the plane. The hotel bar actually made the best margaritas I have had this side of Acapulco….the fresh lime juice perhaps?


The next morning we had breakfast at the hotel, good pain au chocolat and strong coffee.
We were picked up at the hotel by TigerTrail tours to go elephant riding! I thought, initially, that it was a bit of a touristo thing to do but it ended up being a fun day. We drove about 30 minutes outside town, squished into the back of old landrover. We passed markers for the grave of Henri Mahout (the “discoverer” of Angkor Wat) but no one but me was interested in stopping. From the Tiger Trail eco-lodge, we used a longtail boat to cross a small river to the elephant camp. The elephants were said to have been rescued from a logging camp about 2 years ago, and are now enjoying their comparatively easy work of schlepping tourists around for a few hours each morning. There were 8 people and only 3 elephants, so we walked with a guide to the meeting point, while the others rode elephants. The guide was a Hmong from northern Laos. It was very interesting to hear his stories about life in his tribe and the way he met his wife in a traditional large group ceremony. (It sounded a bit like the Hmong version of speed dating----all the single people who want to get married that year dress up in traditional garb and then move around a circle, spending several minutes dancing and chatting with each member of the opposite sex. If they are interested in a particular person after the initial chat, they pursue it from there.) While we waited for the elephants to arrive at the meeting point in the village, we visited the local school. Although the school facilities looked quite limited, and I mentioned wanting to make a donation, our guide said this school was considered to be in “suburban” Luang Prabang and was much better equipped than schools in the Hmong areas. I also asked our guide some questions about native animals and ecology in Laos. He said there are still wild tigers in Laos and that his brother, who is a farmer, had actual killed one recently after a tiger raided his cattle. I did not really know what to say when he told me that……
The elephant ride was very pleasant for 30 minutes….the mahouts sang soft, melodic songs in Lao as we crossed the river on the elephants, looking at the mist covered mountains in the distance. Definitely a memorable “this is why I choose to come all the way to Southeast Asia” moment.

One our last full day in Luang Prabang we were finally getting into the “chill” mood people mention when talking about the town. We strolled around to the wats, had coffee in a sidewalk café and spoke to some monks. I asked one young monk (about 11 years old) if I could take a picture of him as he stood in the carved wooden doorway of a monastery building. As I readied my camera, he swiftly slipped off the headphones he had on his head….I thought that would have been a great picture, but perhaps he thought it would not be dignified to be photographed with his head phones on.

In the evening, we came back into town to see the night market. We had an enjoyable time shopping, bargaining, chatting with the salespeople and cooing over adorable babies. We strolled down the main street and stopped for cocktails at the Villa Santi hotel, as they had a pleasant outside bar area right near the street, for people watching. We were the only guests there and got plenty of attention from the staff, particularly when Scott ordered a mojito and was instead give a mosquito coil. The real mojito never materialized, but had some beer and enjoyed just relaxing and admiring the architecture of the building and the others on the street. We continued our stroll and considered dinner at the 3 Nagas, but I was ready to crash and we headed back to the hotel instead. Magically, the driver from the hotel, who we had the first morning, appeared out of nowhere. (I know he made some commission from us by arranging our river boat the first day…but it turned out to be worth it for us, as I think we got more personal chauffeur service than we would have otherwise)

On our last morning in Luang Prabang we did the requisite morning monk procession viewing. It was nice to see that in the hotel and several restaurants and stores there were informational posters asking people to dress respectfully for the monk the procession. As it was low season, there were only a few other tourists there that morning (and no one was scandalously clad). We got some great photos and then tried to find someplace for coffee, but it was too early. On our way back to the hotel I went to a small antiques store next to the TigerTrails tour office. I bought about $100 worth of various wooden and metal offering bowls, an opium scale and other Lao tschoke (sp?), as my husband referred to it.

This afternoon, off to Hanoi…....

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Old Jun 9th, 2006, 12:00 PM
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cruisin - glad to see you are back at it. Nice to hear about your time in LP - just a wonderful place. Looking forward to hearing more.
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Old Jun 9th, 2006, 02:20 PM
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Ms Red

Thanks for this installment. Did you arrange your elephant trek when you arrived or before hand?

I have had mixed thoughts about riding on elephants... As you said, it seems so touristy and I can't bear the thought of the exploitation of animals in general, but it's somehow enticing.
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Old Jun 9th, 2006, 08:11 PM
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nice installment, thanks...
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Old Jun 22nd, 2006, 06:12 AM
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Cruisinred

You'd better be in Morocco right now; otherwise there is no good excuse for you to leave us hanging on this great trip report!



Lori
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Old Aug 9th, 2006, 01:15 PM
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Ok, after a loooong pause, I will try to finish up this report so that I can avoid hanging my head in shame at the Boston GTG.


Hanoi

We arrived on what happened to be Ho Chin Minh’s birthday. There were many kitschy style communist propaganda posters with Uncle Ho’s image hanging on buildings, but it was immediately clear that Vietnam was communist in name only. Motorbikes and industrious people selling things everywhere!

We checked into the Metropole in the evening, after our flight from Luang Prabang via Vientiane. The Metropole was much nicer and more polished than I had imagined. The lobby and guest rooms were recently redone and looked very chic. That evening we enjoyed a light al fresco dinner at the Spice Garden restaurant at the hotel, accompanied by musicians playing traditional Vietnamese instruments. The menu was interesting because for every dish they offered two versions: a traditional Vietnamese version and a more nouvelle cuisine/fusion interpretation. We stuck to the traditional dishes and were very pleased with our meal.

The next morning, after an abundant breakfast at the buffet (included in our rate with Vietnamstay.com) we set off on foot to explore. One of the main reasons we really enjoyed Hanoi was that it was much more accessible as a pedestrian than a larger city like Bangkok, and we found it easier to stop and interact with people in stores and along the street. I am usually not a major shopper but the variety of unique and inexpensive housewares, crafts and decorative accessories were very tempting and I was soon loaded down with purchases. The most interesting street we found for shopping was leading to the cathedral in old quarter. In particular, I was pleased to find several boutiques with western sizes and wonderfully stylish, originally designed clothes (for example, a very trendy top that would sell in Soho in NY for $80+ was about $8).

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped into a silk tailoring store to avoid the pestering of some cyclo drivers. My husband ended up ordering a custom silk robe. (after the robe was delivered we discovered it was way too big. Even after taking it back to the store for alterations it is still huge. Enough said about getting things tailored at someplace, without a good recommendation).

That evening we had drinks at the famous Bobby Chin’s restaurant and bar overlooking the lake. It was definitely more western and trendy than Vietnamese but the drinks and crowd were fun. I had tried to do extensive research on where to dine in Hanoi as I love Vietnamese food. Unfortunately, our dinner that evening at the Emperor restaurant (that gets positive reviews in many guidebooks) did not live up to expectations. The food was not flavorful and was smothered in strange gelatinous, starchy sauces. We would definitely not recommend.

The next day was our most fun in Hanoi. We picked up two cyclo drivers from the hotel and asked them to take us around to Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and other sites. They did not speak much English, but shared many laughs and they really seemed to enjoy sharing their city with two Americans. We stopped in the old quarter for lunch at Cha Ca La Vong. I thought this would be another over-hyped restaurant as it is also mentioned in many guide books, but the one dish they serve of fish cooked in saffron oil with dill and noodles is an unforgettable flavor combination. And, although were a few other tourists, we enjoyed chatting with the Vietnamese families dining there, and practicing English with some adorable kids.

That evening we dined at Green Tangerine, a restaurant in an old villa serving French-Vietnamese fusion cuisine. Not cheap by Hanoi standards, but definitely a great, interesting meal that I would highly recommend.

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Old Aug 9th, 2006, 01:50 PM
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I was also underwhelmed by Emperor...

I was stunned to hear that the Phou Vao in LP now has a spa...

Great report, I'm glad you are writing more for us.
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Old Aug 9th, 2006, 02:36 PM
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I am really enjoying your report, especially since you went to four of the five places I will be going to this winter. Thanks!
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Old Aug 9th, 2006, 09:27 PM
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ok, now you can come to cambridge and not have to avoid us....any more??
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Old Aug 10th, 2006, 07:38 PM
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Thank you for your report.....It reminds me of how much I miss Asia! (and am anticipating our return next March.) Any thoughts on where to stay in Luang Prabang?
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