More from Siem Reap

Our next day in Siem Reap was in many ways similar to our last: up early (though thankfully well after sunrise this time) and back to visit more of Angkor Wat, though this time focusing on temples along the “Grand Circuit” so we wouldn’t be visiting the same places as yesterday. And as much I as enjoyed exploring Angkor Wat by bicycle, there is certainly something to be said for touring via an automobile with AC!

Our guide, Kimthet, was great. Extremely well-versed in the history and construction of the various places we visited during the day, including the ruins of Neak Pean, a 12th century hospital made up of pools that were believed to have curative powers and Banteay Srei, an amazing temple from the 10th century carved largely from pink sandstone. The materials and motifs used to construct this temple were notably different than other temples in the Angkor Wat complex, so it was a particular highlight of our visit.

Now, with that being said, I rarely post about my travels without acknowledging my own philistinism, particularly when it comes to visiting ancient ruins. Don’t get me wrong – the temples here are fascinating! But after visiting several of them over the course of the day, they do start to feel rather similar (with the fairly notably exception of Banteay Srei) – and the 100° heat can make getting out of the car a positively Herculean effort. But Ak and I soldiered on and really enjoyed our day.

It certainly helped that we had a nice break for lunch. The tasty food was welcome of course, but even better was making some more new cat and dog friends during lunch. We ❤ cats!

As I said, Kimthet was a great guide, a real storehouse of knowledge about Angkor Wat. At one point during the day, we were talking about tourism’s impact on Siem Reap. Despite the huge influx of tourists and the money they bring, much of that money doesn’t stay in Cambodia. Many of the large resorts are foreign-owned and even the merchandise at the tourist markets tends to be made in China and Vietnam. Kimthet gave us some excellent recommendations when I asked what I could do to be a “good” tourist (or at least nominally less awful). One was to donate to the local children’s hospital (something I was happy to do); the other was to avoid shopping for trinkets and souvenirs at the tourist markets and instead visit Artisans Angkor, which trains young people in various Cambodian handicrafts and offers their works for sale.

Kimthet also told us a bit about his own quite harrowing experiences growing up in Cambodia. It was eye-opening, to put it mildly. He reminded us that fully half of Cambodia’s population today is under 22 – a sobering legacy of the millions killed during the Khmer Rouge and in the subsequent Cambodian-Vietnamese war. Should you find yourself visiting Siem Reap, I certainly encourage you to engage the guide services of Mr. Kimthet Lay – you’ll find him to be an excellent guide who’ll teach you many things about his country. You can email him at artisansangkor@yahoo.com.

After our long, sweaty day visiting temples, Ak and I were happy to get back to our little hotel and have a swim. We had a bit of time to waste before dinner – so I had the clever idea of returning to Bodia Spa, just for a quick hour of foot reflexology. Happily, they had room for us and sent a tuk-tuk over to ferry us back to the spa. I could def get used to this…

After the spa, we went out in search of Miss Wong Cocktail Bar, someplace Ak had read about in his research for our trip. We got a tiny bit lost but eventually found our way up a small alley to a cozy bar done up in Shanghai 1930s style. Had a couple of very tasty cocktails, posed for our lives for some selfies and then ambled off to dinner at Viroth’s Restaurant, located at our hotel’s sister establishment. Dinner was outside, the food was great, the waiter adorable – can’t ask for much more than that.

Saturday morning we headed over to the “real” (as opposed to tourist) market, Psha Leu. We wandered the aisles for a good hour or two, staring at all the things for sale: everything from freshly-caught fish to just-slaughtered pigs to umbrellas to ballgowns. One of the more fascinating sights was a lady selling corn. She had a large bowl of kernels that had been stripped from the corn and was scooping them up and dumping them out in front of an electric fan – thus blowing the silk remnants out and leaving just the kernels behind.

After our shopping excursion, we headed into town to visit Angkor Artisans, per Kimthet’s recommendation. It was great! Really beautiful silk ware, wood and stone carvings, some lovely jewelry. I got charming little carved pig to take home with me and Ak picked out a necklace with a soapstone pendant. We didn’t have time to take the tour of the workshops, but I was really impressed with the fine quality of all that was being sold in the shop.

Then, it was back to the hotel to collect our luggage and head to the airport. A relatively uneventful trip back to Bangkok – though I did have to perform some ridiculous charade of moving stuff between my suitcase and my backpack in order to meet Air Asia’s absurd weight limitation for carry-on bags. The end result was that I brought on the exact same two pieces of luggage I arrived with and put them in the exact same location in the overhead bin – but that some of my clothes were now in my backpack rather than my suitcase. Proving once again, I suppose, that you get what you pay for…

As much as I enjoyed Cambodia, I was also happy to be back in Bangkok. Sure, it’s only my second visit and I have much to learn still about this city, but there is already an element of “coming home” when I get here.

And here we are in our tuk-tuk, heading to the spa. Wheeeee!

 

 

First Day in Siem Reap

Off to Cambodia! Things started off well enough, with Ak and I managing to arrive at Don Mueang airport nearly simultaneously. This is Bangkok’s “old” airport and currently serves mostly low-cost carriers on short hops in and around SE Asia. It’s also really crowded and not the most modern of facilities… and the AC was mostly conked out. So, all in all, not the most glamorous introduction to air travel for Ak, who was making his first flight!

Our flight on Air Asia was delayed by about an hour. And, in a bit of “are you for real?” on my part, my “Premium Flex” ticket for which I paid extra and which included among other things pre-boarding of the aircraft was rather a misnomer. Our aircraft was out on the tarmac and we were transported by bus from the terminal to the plane. So, while I did indeed get to board that bus first, I schlepped up the stairs in the midst of all the hordes of people who’d crammed onto the bus after me. Yes, yes, first world problem, blah, blah, blah. But I did in fact pay for something which I didn’t get.

Anyway, the flight itself was pleasant enough and Ak didn’t flip out – though he may gone just a bit saucer-eyed at the landing, which was a bit of a jolt. The small Siem Reap airport seems very new and immigration was relatively painless, if not the friendliest. And even after such a short flight, it’s always a lovely thing to see a driver holding a sign with one’s name on it when entering the main terminal.

The first thing I noticed on the short trip to our hotel was how much calmer the traffic was compared to Bangkok. Granted, Siem Reap is quite a bit smaller – but the roads were populated with more bicycles than cars on the road from the airport and drivers seemed pretty mellow.

Arrived at our hotel for the next few days, Viroth’s Villa – a groovy little boutique place. TBH, I might’ve been happier with a room on the second floor, but I got the only room furnished with separate beds. The place was quite comfy, the staff extraordinarily kind and helpful throughout our stay and the pool provided a lovely way to spend the afternoon after visiting Angkor Wat during the day.

Our first evening we ate at Chanrey Tree. I think I stumbled across it online. It wound up being the perfect choice: a short walk from our hotel, a lovely outside table on a very warm evening, cocktails, tasty food, all in lush garden setting. We loved it!

Made an early night of it, since Thursday morning started early: our guide from Grasshopper Adventures was picking us up at 4:30AM for the short drive to Angkor Wat to watch the sun rise. This certainly seemed like a great idea when I was reserving this trip, though somewhat less so when faced with the prospect of actually piling into a van at 4:30AM…

But pile we did! And it was an ideal way to start our visit. One thing I hadn’t paid attention to, however, was that the tickets required to visit the Angkor Wat compound were not included in the price of this tour. NBD – we stopped to purchase them on our way in. The only little problem was that the tickets are cash only (and US dollars at that), so I was a little more tapped out than I’d anticipated once the trip was over and it came time to tip… Not that I had nothing mind you, but I wish I could’ve been a bit more generous.

Anyway, we got to the main temple of Angkor Wat and found our seats along the exterior moat waiting for the sun to rise. There were a lot of other tourists there – though my sense was that many of them actually walk into the central enclosure for a close-up view of the sun appearing behind the wat’s towers. However, I really enjoyed our vantage point along the moat – not just because it wasn’t too crowded but because the reflection of the ruins on the water was especially lovely as dawn crept up on us… Our guide was great, providing us with snacks to tide us over ‘til breakfast and helping us make friends with the local temple dogs who were hanging out with us.

Once daylight was upon us, we explored the interior structures and frescos. A hike up to the towers via some very steep staircases (to remind us of the difficulty of ascending to the kingdom of the gods) provided a splendid view of our surroundings. And, as if that was not already fantastic enough, we came upon a dozing mama cat and her three gamboling kittens! Really, is there anything better than temple kittehs?

Next we had a simple breakfast before starting the bike portion of our tour. It was a small group – just Ak and me; a fellow from South Africa; a nice woman from Singapore; and a Canadian who was a bit out to lunch: she didn’t realized she’d signed up for a bike trip…  It was kind of funny that it was all singled folks on the trip. When I’d been in Thailand last October, I was typically the only sad Mary-Ann-Singleton on the various tours I’d signed up for. Now, here I was with a traveling companion and everyone else is on their own. Anyway, it was a nice enough group, though no long-lasting friendships were forged.

Now, I do love riding, though I also forget that my urban bike riding experience doesn’t always translate very well to a more off-the-beaten path ride. Luckily, though, one of the fellows in our group looked pretty experienced so I did my best to follow his lead. And I did OK! No wipe-outs and no dropped chains – can’t ask for much more than that.

The rest of the day was spent biking around from temple to temple, with stops to explore on foot. Our guide was very knowledgeable and we had a really enjoyable visit. And I was very pleased that Ak – despite insisting dramatically a couple of times that he was very close to death – held his own on the bicycle, despite not being a daily rider like I am.

Of course, after ten miles of riding in 100° weather, one does get a bit exhausted. So, when we wrapped up our tour with a stop for lunch that include a couple of beers? We were all pretty delighted.

Back to hotel where we washed our stanky grimy selves off. No time to waste, since Bodia Spa was sending a tuk-tuk to collect us at 3:45PM for our our three-hour “Relaxation” package. WELL. This was a delight! Gentle therapeutic massage along with an invigorating body scrub. Really the perfect way to end a rather strenuous day.

Dinner at Cuisine Wat Danmak, listed as one of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. And it was OK – though TBH, neither of us were particularly bowled over by the meal. It was fine and the price was reasonable – but we actually enjoyed the previous night’s dinner more than this one.

A short tuk-tuk ride back to our place and an early night. Tomorrow: more temples!

And here’s a few shots from my helmet cam from our biking trip!

 

 

 

Monday and Tuesday in Bangkok

One of the best things about being on vacation is that Monday is just as delightful as every other day of the week… My agenda for the next couple of days was mostly re-visiting places I’d enjoyed last October or that I’d not had time to visit. But breakfast first, of course! Back to the little joint near my hotel that specializes in pork and noodles – and that’s exactly what I had (again): pork and noodles. Though this time I got barbecue pork and noodles rather than crispy pork belly. No lie, I’d be happy to eat this for breakfast every morning forever.

Next, on to Wat Pho! I’d actually been here a couple of times last visit to Bangkok, but I had foolishly neglected to avail myself of the massage services available from the students at their world-renowned massage school and the spiritual home of Thai massage. Ak and I each went for the full treatment: one hour foot massage followed by one hour Thai massage for the extremely reasonable price of ฿840 each. The surroundings are not fancy and the massage platforms and chairs are tightly-packed. No matter though – the services are, as one would expect, top-notch. I enjoyed my foot massage – but I loved my Thai massage! My therapist really seemed intuitive and by the time I left, my recurring hamstring injury felt nearly cured. Ak found the Thai massage a bit on the intense side for his taste, but really loved his foot massage. À chacun son goût…

Massage leaves one surprisingly hungry, so I was happy that our next destination was Krua Apsorn, where I could once again scarf down some of their amazing crab curry and crab omelet. We walked there – NBD under ordinary circumstances, but BKK’s temperatures that week had been referred to online as “face-meltingly hot” and that was not wrong. The high that day was something around 97° – so our half-hour walk left us rather worn out, despite popping into one of BKK’s ubiquitous 7-11s to ostensibly buy some water but really just to luxuriate in the chilly AC (and also for me to observe all manner of fascinating items for sale!).

But we made it and the meal at Krua Apsorn was as delicious as I remember. And good thing – someone was getting a bit hangry while we waited to be served…

After lunch, a rather short stroll to a place that had been on my list to visit last time, but that I coudn’t fit into my schedule: Nuttaporn Ice Cream, a tiny place that has been turning out coconut-milk-based ice cream for 60+ years. Ak and I each went traditional and ordered the coconut ice cream, me with corn and palm jelly, his with peanuts and palm jelly. It was really good! Deeply coconutty, though with a texture more like sorbet. And rather dainty portions too – which was frankly a relief, since it meant we could order a second round!

I went with coffee, Ak with the fresh mango – no toppings for either of us. OH. EM. GEE. I immediately declared without hyperbole that the coffee ice cream was the finest I’d ever had. The texture was creamy, though a bit less so than one made with cow’s milk. The flavor was intense and only barely sweet. Sublime. As for the mango? It was as if a mango had been plucked off a tree and magically transformed into ice cream. As my nephew accurately observed when he visited Nuttaporn (on my recommendation, natch) last November, “it was the bomb!”

And while Nuttaporn is clearly doing something right – they have been in business for longer than I’ve been alive (which frankly seems impossible, given my childhood spent along the Euphrates…) – it’s quite astonishing to me that the place doesn’t have a line around the block everyday. Bangkok is already a mecca for “foodies” (ugh) and this is place has all the hallmarks of a cult favorite: hole-in-the-wall, simple, inexpensive, delicious, a bit off-the-beaten path. Don’t get me wrong – I’m kinda glad they are just keeping on as they have in the past. Part of its charm is certainly that it’s a local place with a totally neighborhood vibe.

Anway, def go here while you’re in BKK – but don’t ruin it please!

After ice cream, we hopped on the canal boat and wound up, per usual, at Siam Paragon. I think we just passed through on the way to the Skytrain station – or maybe it’s because we can’t seem to avoid popping in at least once a day for whatever reason. Whatever the case, back to my hotel for a little downtime and then time to get ready for more eating – which, if I’m being totally honest, was probably one of the main reasons I returned to BKK so quickly after my last visit, i.e. I had waaaaaaay more food to eat!

This evening, Ak  was taking me to one of this favorite local spots. We met up with his friend Koi and headed to Jae Koy. Super-local, super-simple and not a place I’d likely to have wandered into on my own – in fact, I was the only farang in the place. I loved it! Food was all great – som tum, beef salad, tom yum and gai yang. I think the beef was my particular favorite, thanks to being spicy and tangy and fragrant. Just all of it so delicious…

Toward the end of our meal, I saw a Western couple come in and sit down, as I thought to myself, “Well, they must be really dialed in to the local food scene if they are here.” And then I noticed their Thai companions bright green shirt – it was Olive, the guide who’d taken me on a marvelous floating market tour last October! That’s one great thing about having my crazy beard, nerd glasses and septum piercing – when I started waving, she def remembered me. Anyway, she came over and we chatted a bit – and she pointed out that whoever took me here must really know their food, because the place is excellent. Nice job, Ak! Not that I expected anything less from him…

Had an early night since the plan was for us to meet up early and check out the Teak and Dusit Palaces on Tuesday morning. Met Ak at the BTS station and then we clambered onto a bus for a short-ish ride to the palace grounds.

First stop, the Teak Palace. Lovely both inside and out. And, while I would’ve loved to have taken some photos of the interiors, cameras and phones are strictly prohibited since this is still a royal residence. Visitors are required to store any and all gear in a locker before entering the building. Honestly? It’s kind of nice to just take in the surroundings without trying to get photos of everything – or, as is more often the case, being pushed and shoved by tourists who don’t look at anything that doesn’t appear on their iPhone screen.

Shoes are also not permitted, so off we padded after leaving our shoes in the rather fragrant repository. The palace itself was quite lovely inside. It’s a little disappointing that there’s not much in the way of information about what one is seeing, so it’s mostly just, “Oh! This place is lovely.” Though Ak was able to provide me with some of the history and context – one of the many benefits of having a Thai friend to squire me around!

After the Teak Palace, we schlepped (srsly, it was kind of a schlep – plus it was literally one million degrees out) over to the Dusit Palace. Wow! The palace is as impressive as the lines are long! Similar drill here, too – no cameras or phones allowed. We locked up our stuff and then joined the enormous line in the blazing hot sun with no shade anywhere. This was gonna be a challenge!

Now, one of the things I’ve learned in my travels is that it is very easy to slip into making broad generalizations about the relative lack of social grace possessed by various specific nationalities. However, I’ve learned that this is not primarily a product of varying social mores (though they play a role) but rather that when you get large tour groups of people from anywhere, they tend to behave like boors. And other than Ak and myself, every visitor at the Dusit Palace had just bussed in from whatever the version of Bumfuck is from their respective countries of origin.

Happily, though, this turned out to be a boon. As we waited amongst the loud and jostling crowd, one of the line wranglers saw us and waved us up to the front of the line for immediate entry. Not really sure why (I imagine because we were not part of the massive group that had descended), but quite sure I don’t care why – I was delighted to be inside not just to look at the quite marvelous collection of objets but to experience the blissfully frigid AC.

The various gold and jewel encrusted thrones, litters, boats and other objects were certainly impressive – as were the soaring ceilings and the various painted scenes upon them. But I must say, the huge carved wood panels were breathtaking. The intricacy of the work and the realism of the subjects was astonishing. There were also some silk embroidered panels that were just lovely.

So, enough with the local sights – it’s time for more food! Lunch was at Som Tum Nua, in the Siam Center shopping center. We had som tum (duh), wings and some kind of noodles that Ak chose and were (duh) abso-effing-lutely delicious. Dessert was across the way at Siam Paragon where I managed to eat an extremely dainty matcha-cream-filled pastry, since I myself am dainty AF.

That afternoon was pretty quiet. Had a lie-down and a swim, then grabbed some tasty katsu curry around the corner for dinner, before finishing up packing. Tomorrow would be a travel day – off to Siem Reap, Cambodia to visit the temples. More to come on that in my next post!