Cambodia and Bangkok Feb/March 2016
Bangkok 21st February – Time to adjust
After a 12 hour flight from the UK, it was worth a day to recover. We stayed in the Best Western Amaranth which is just outside Bangkok airport. It was clean, cheap and we only had to hop on the hotel minibus to get to and from the airport. There was a nice pool area to relax in and the food was quite decent. It was briefly raining lightly when we arrived. But at least it was warm rain.
Bangkok to Siem Reap 22nd Feb – Susaday Cambodia
We flew Bangkok Airways to Siem Reap and were surprised at how large and modern the airport was. We had done an e-visa from the UK so it was quite speedy.
We had booked 4 nights at Viroth’s hotel. Their vintage Mercedes was supposed to collect us but the driver explained that it was in for repairs. It was nice to be met at arrivals and brought swiftly to the gorgeous hotel. We would highly recommend it.
We explored the local area and had lunch at the ARTillery café. There were plenty of interesting small shops and alley ways, particularly around the Pub Street and Kandal Village areas. The Little Red Fox Espresso bar had excellent coffee.
Siem Reap is very well set up for tourists and their needs.
Pub Street came alive at dusk with food stalls and people milling around the shops and restaurants. Not too crowded, just pleasant .We went to Miss Wong’s for cocktails, 2 for $9 and made with style and skill. We might have stayed for a second round but suspected we may not have made it back for dinner had we done so.
We then walked back to Viroth’s original restaurant where we had a set menu meal included in the Lifestyle Package deal we had from the hotel. Over dinner we planned out the next few days.
February 23rd Tuesday – Angkor without the Wat
We had booked a private tour with Angkor Wat Photography tours. This was to maximize our time, hopefully get some good shots and give us a whistle-stop trip around the main temples. We were allocated Darren, an ex-pat British photographer now living in Cambodia. The plan was to start at 730am and to skip the main Angkor Wat complex as it was simply heaving with crowds of tourists. As the mornings were quite cloudy, we did not think a 4am start for sunrise would put us in much of a holiday mood.
First up was Ta Prohm where Tomb Raider was filmed and we saw the iconic tree roots though actually near by there were some better reliefs and carvings.
We then headed to Preah Khan entering through a row of columns very much like Luxor. The complex is large around 800x700m with many interesting passage ways. I got a little lost with the twists and turns looking for photo opportunities. Darren kept thinking I was pushing my luck using such slow shutter speeds and jamming myself up against walls and floors to act as a tripod.
Bayon next, famous for its hundreds of giant faces.
The temple circuit is unsurprisingly tough in the heat and I spent quite long periods waiting for the crowds to part long enough to get many of the shots. Darren said that the rainy season is an ideal time to go as the colours on the walls are much enhanced. The long dry period had dulled many of the greens and reds which occur from water penetration.
Just doing these three temples took the best part of 4 hours and by 1.30 pm we were back at Viroth’s for a rest and lunch by the pool. After this, we headed back out in the van to a local market. The people were very friendly and didn’t mind having pictures taken. It was the type of market that was not at all sanitized for tourism, the real Cambodian life was all there.
We also went to Preah Ko temple and then on to Bakong for sunset. This was our favourite temple as we watched the junior monks try to take down some of the decorations from Buddha’s birthday celebrations the day before. The crowds thinned out dramatically as 1730 approached when the temples nominally closed but we stayed at the top by ourselves to watch the sun go down and a hot air balloon take off. Pure magic.
Cocktails at Viroth’s before going to Square 24 for dinner which was only 5 minutes away.
February 24th Wednesday – The rabbit in the moon
We started our rural Siem Reap Butterfly bike tour at 0730. We were picked up promptly and taken to their office on the outskirts of town. After introductions and some background, we mounted our well-worn bikes and headed off down the busy road to get out into the countryside. Branching off the road onto dirt tracks, we stopped to experience a very local market, weaving demonstration, a family home and farm and a lotus farm.
We tried some locally made rice wine (quite nice and no blindness).
Our stops were punctuated by discussions about life for the people and the politics. We learnt a lot about the fear and corruption that still exists, although the young generation remain optimistic that real progressive change is possible.
We arrived back covered in red dust and with a feeling that we understood a little more about Siem Reap than what is obvious to most tourists.
Luckily for our dusty clothes, it was easy to get washing done in a local launderette at $4 for 2kg turned around in 3 hours.
We hit the Royal gardens at dusk to see the fruit bats. Lots of lazy and noisy bats in the trees but they didn’t really start flying until nearly 7pm when a few test flights took off.
We decided to move on to the Elephant Bar at Raffles for our cocktails. A very grand colonial hotel, all teak and history plus expensive boutiques. The staff were very good and spoke excellent English. The cocktails were very well made and snacks very moreish. Una wanted to put them in her bag. We were also asked if we wanted to dine at Raffles, so I suspect they aren’t that busy.
Dinner at Olive Cuisine de Saison. It was very modern and the food good and solidly French.
February 25th Thursday – Temples at our own pace
Our Lifestyle package deal from Viroth’s hotel included a half day shopping trip by tuk-tuk. Off we went for a morning around Siem Reap. The driver had a list of the shops on the package list, but was happy for us to refuse any or to suggest somewhere else instead. One of the best stops was Master Theam’s House where we purchased a Buddha statue from the atelier.
Coffee in Sister Srey on the way back and yet another good lunch at Viroth’s. It is really the best. Our morning tuk-tuk driver was very obliging so we booked him for a 3 o’clock trip to some of the less well travelled temples all for $15.
I have ended up having haircuts on nearly every holiday I go on. Just on the main road was a barber who was cutting two young boys’ hair in elaborate, pop star styles. He then gave me a standard Khmer cut for $2.
The temples last few temples we wanted to see were Banteay Samre and Banteay Kdei. The ride out was hot and rough in places and at one point we wondered whether he was heading to Banteay Srey 25 km out of town! Both of these temples are less visited and rather delightful.
We caught the setting sun at the latter temple and the light was a wonderful orange colour.
Kroya for cocktails and dinner along with the artisan market. Una thought this was the best dinner of the stay in terms of style and location.
February 26th Friday – Three sets of tickets and one flight
We needed to fly to Phnom Pehn but which airline????
We’ve been watching Cambodian Angkor Air cancelling or delaying flights for the last few weeks so have booked Bayon Air as well as a back up. Cambodia Angkor also allows unqualified pilots to fly apparently for a fee whilst Bayon uses Chinese planes no other airline in the world wants to buy due to safety concerns. So a choice needed to be made. A good site for tracking these is here.
The Viroth 1969 Mercedes was repaired by the time we needed to go to the airport so we travelled in old fashioned style through the streets of Siem Reap
We checked the screens and our two flights were both being shown as retimed. Cambodian for maybe. We spotted a 1050am flight by Bassaka which was checking in. With 45 minutes to go before take-off, we bought yet another set of tickets for $144 and managed to get through to the gate with 5 minute to spare. Not only that but the plane was a modern Airbus A320.
At the Pavilion hotel, our room wasn’t ready so we had a walk down Street 240 which was meant to be a key shopping street. We were disappointed as it was very much like Camden market in London in terms of content and pricing! We had lunch at The Shop. Simple but good fare.
We bought a bottle of wine at The Warehouse on 240 run by a French man who claimed the wine had been lovingly looked after in air conditioned comfort all the way from France to his warehouse. It was even covered in a blanket and cradled softly to avoid upsetting it. He was a little concerned our bottle was going to be hammered up and down mountain tracks over 5 hours to the Tatai river, but we reassured him that we would keep it cool.
We had cocktails at Chinese House which were so-so and a very nice dinner at Black Bambu.
Tuk tuk drivers were less friendly than in Siem Reap and one agreed a price and then dumped us several several blocks away which was annoying. We found that if a driver did not immediately know the destination, it was better to try another rather than use a map or Google maps on the phone.
February 27th Saturday – Moon River
Five hours by car to Tatai. After a couple of pit stops we reached the bridge and were met by our boat for the 15 minute trip to the Tatai Riverfront Resort.
We were met by Ann and Chet, the owners. This consists of four bamboo and wood water bungalows in the river on stilts around a central building. It is extremely tranquil with no wifi or street lights or cellular connectivity.
We settled in and Una had a swim in the river off our decking. We then took the Sunset Cruise up the river where we watched fish jump out of the water and the red orb of the sun sink below the horizon. We travelled back in pitch blackness with the occasional bird call and fireflies for company.
Dinner was excellent and cooked by Chet. Tomorrow we are off to the waterfalls and then the day after an all day jungle trek. Hope my flu/man cold is over by then. The leech socks have been prepared as well.
Sunday 28th February – Waterfalls and river life
Lovely breakfast by the tranquil river. We went to the Tatai waterfalls with the other couple staying at the lodges. Other boats had arrived and there were mats set up as picnic spots on the rocks. Some monks were also sunbathing on the opposite bank and it was very picturesque though a little shady and too far away for my lens.
We walked around the tiers of rock and then swam before lunch. Huge quantities of beef, pork, squid, prawns and fish plus a big box of beers and drinks.
Back at the lodges, we had a river swim and kayaked around the island opposite to have a look at the swankier 4 Rivers Resort. I have to say, we were much happier with our choice. Then drinks on the decking ( fresh coconut with added rum) before reading, games and dinner.
The dinner was excellent as usual, pork fried rice, beef Khmer curry, beef satay salad. Washed down with some of Chet’s own famous very smooth 45% home brew rice wine. We also discussed politics and women’s rights over dinner which was very interesting. However I did become covered in small flies even with 100% deet.
Post dinner, we set off firefly hunting in a narrow boat which rocked unnervingly every time someone moved. We did see two trees covered in them like a flashing Christmas tree. It was really magical to see.
Khmer Saying of the Day: If it rains in the dry season some Gods are getting married.
We have been trying to get a picture of the huge Tokay house gecko but he was hiding tonight.
Monday 29th February – Rumble in the jungle
A day long trek in the Cardamom Mountains starting at 8am. Bug spray – check, leech socks – check, rehydration salts – check, sun cream and swimming gear – check, anti-land mine kit – oh. Apparently these hills still have some landmines but our guide is an expert and an ex- poacher …..
The 10 year old son drove us to Tatai on the fast boat which was fun and we waited at the shop on the road for the others on the trek. The five of us then loaded up on the back of a pickup for the short drive to the trailhead (start). We were stocked up with water, Coke and beer. Each person was given 3 litres.
The narrow track wound its way around the chaotic growth, not a breath of air in the humid environment. We were told various medicinal properties of the trees and plants as well as having encounters with a yellow snake, weird fluffy white insects which ran up a tree and several huge, and I mean huge, spiders. We also saw red and green finches and a woodpecker. Lunch was local fare which we passed up on especially after Una found weevils in her rice.
The walk overall was 16km and took over 7.5 hours with the breaks. We drank 4.5 litres of the liquids and still needed a coconut when we got back. Well worth it but be prepared for the heat, a long day (10.5 hours) and what felt like a long step class going over many many fallen trees. Also the land mines apparently have been cleared.
March 1st – Phnom Penh again
A long drive back to the Plantation hotel in the capital. We eventually persuaded our driver to follow our directions with the help of Google as he didn’t know exactly where the hotel was and couldn’t understand the directions from the hotel over the phone. 20 minutes out of the car I had more mosquito bites than I had the entire rest of the holiday.
We had a quick lunch poolside then sorted out our unpacking and washing.
We walked through the park next to the Royal Palace and everyone was out with their children in front of a huge lit picture of the King. We continued on to cocktails at the rooftop bar of The Quay over-looking the junction of the Tonle and the Mekong rivers. We could watch all the people promenading and doing gymnastics requiring a lot of strength.
We then walked to Romdeng, but we chickened out of eating the spiders and stuck with red ants instead. A more adventurous couple next to us had them and found them quite tasty. They offered some of the worms which we took and gave them red any beef in exchange. Very good food and well deserved of the many reviews.
March 2nd – The King and I
Up early to explore the Royal Palace grounds before it got too hot. The temples are rather spectacular with Preah Tineang, Tevea Vinichhay and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha particularly fine. Don’t miss the solid gold statue in front of the Buddha with the 25 carat diamond and the silver tiled floor.
On exit we passed the Great White elephant. The white elephant was regarded as holy and required special food making it very expensive to keep. They were given to the Kings and the costs would ruin the person. Hence the expression about white elephants … Lots of cost but no value.
We visited the temple just down the street. We hoped to see lots of colourful monks given the size of the complex but only saw 5. We had a rest at Blue Pumpkin for some refreshment. The ice cream is amazing and intensely flavoured and the salon cool and over-looking the river.
We then did the shops on street 178 and picked up a few artisanal gifts before heading back to the hotel for lunch, a swim and massage.
One good bit of news. The Pavilion general manager had sent us an email whilst we were in the jungle offering a free night when we next stayed in one of the group hotels due to the noise from the pool renovating when we were staying. We asked about this offer yesterday and they confirmed a free night on the Plantation stay. Makes up for one of our three simultaneous airline tickets from Siem Reap.
Our 4 pm massage in the Spa used the same technique as the previous ones but with more emphasis on the bone joints. Well worth $20 for 60 minutes of relaxation. The post- massage ginger and lemongrass tea with honey was really delicious.
We tried to find the city’s fruit bats in the park, but no luck. We consoled ourselves with cocktails at the Raffles Elephant bar. The bar was much more refined than the one in Siem Reap. This had the smell of history and money. Both ex-pats and wealthy locals. Excellent and unusual cocktails of rare strength.
Mali’s was not our favourite dinner by a long way.The food was described in a picture book and the restaurant lacked any locals. So a Western take on local food.
March 3rd – Bangkok weekend
Bangkok Airlines to Bangkok. The last few days of our holiday. Feeling very relaxed now. The Cambodians are a lovely friendly people and I admire the way they make a living anyway they can. The roads are extremely crowded but people give way left right and centre to allow people through. The Vietnamese way of just walking slowly across works even on busy four lane main roads.
On arrival at Anantara Riverside Hotel, we tried to check into our room but we were escorted round to a special check in desk in the lounge.
We expected the worst but were upgraded to the Anantara riverfront suite (the largest) which consisted of entrance hall, seating area, toilet , corridor, lounge, bedroom and large bathroom in 108m2 with a wrap round balcony overlooking the river. Very nice.
We had a nice light lunch in the executive lounge.
Feeling rather tired, we decided we’d sit by the pool for an hour before the free cocktails and appetisers. Then across the river by hotel boat to Asiatique Night Market and the stalls. Una tried the fish foot massage that eat dead skin after carefully taking off the DEET otherwise we’d have had an incident…
Dinner was Japanese at Kacha which was fairly forgettable, likewise the shops at Asiatique.
March 4th – One day in Bangkok
Much to do today so an early start . Una took part in the weekly almsgiving that the hotel arranges for local monks.
Our first stop was Wat Pho which is amazing. A huge complex of buildings, columns, gateways, buddhas and, at last, monks.
The highlight is the reclining buddha. A huge statue covered in gold leaf and very popular. The other highlight for me were the rows of seated buddhas around the outer enclosure. You can easily spend 2hrs plus here.
We then hopped into a taxi, on the meter of course and headed through the thick traffic to Jim Thompson’s house. Tours here are timed and we had a 30 minute wait which we used to shop and walk around the beautiful gardens.
It is worth reading this story of the tale of Jim Thompson and his house. We did not get this version from the guides. http://www.francinemathews.com/secret-back.php
After the tour we went to Central Embassy shopping centre for lunch. The food court in the basement called Eat Thai was brilliant. Cuisine from all different parts of Thailand in very clean conditions and an easy card payment system. We found the central shopping centres rather too western but did not have time to go back to the old city.
We return via the skytrain to do a fast turnaround via a shower and free cocktails/nibbles before going to Scarlett Wine Bar at the Pullman Hotel on the 37th floor over-looking the city. Then a walk, train and boat back to our lovely suite and final preparations for going home.
March 5th – Long journey home
Goodbye Thailand. We will come back as there is so much we didn’t get the chance to see as much of Bangkok as we wanted. The food has been really good in both Cambodia and Bangkok and so much to see. This holiday really needed at least 2.5 weeks if not more.