Sunday, December 17, 2017

Thailand & Cambodia Travel Series: Siem Reap, Cambodia

This is Part 2 of the Thailand & Cambodia Travel Series.  Read Part 1 Here.

WE WOKE UP early to catch our international flight from Bangkok to Siem Reap, Cambodia. There are two airports in Bangkok: Suvarnabhumi International Airport, which is the newer airport into which the majority of international flights go. However, there is also the older Don Mueang Airport, which is about an hour apart from Suvarnabhumi, which is used now for domestic flights and many Air Asia flights. I’d made the mistake of thinking they were much closer together, but Don Mueang was definitely a good 40 minutes away from our hotel.

We called an Uber to take us there. There were a couple toll roads along the way, but the Uber price accounts for those.

Don Mueang was also an easy airport to navigate around. Make sure you collect your immigration departure card from check in before you go toward security; our agent forgot to give us one and we had to go all the way back.

The Air Asia flight worked well; do keep in mind their weight requirements if you’re traveling with just carry-ons. They didn't check on the way over but on the way back, they were weighing carry on bags. At the time of this article, your two carry-ons couldn't exceed 7kg or 15.4 lbs ( which is difficult if you're trying to travel exclusively with carry-ons. 

The Siem Reap Airport was just an hour flight away. The airport was small with a single room. We had filled out our Cambodian visas online on the government website ahead of time, but it didn’t seem to take that much time for those who applied on arrival.

We had messaged our hotel, The Golden Gecko, ahead of time using Expedia’s messaging feature, and so a tuk-tuk driver “Sam” from the hotel was waiting. Sam would be our driver for the rest of our stay in Siem Reap. The tuk-tuks were great; they were shaded but open-air carts so you stayed quite cool and protected from the rain.

We selected The Golden Gecko Villa after noting its proximity to Angkor Wat, which was the main site we had planned to visit during our three day stay in Cambodia. Our tuk-tuk took about 30 minutes from the airport to the hotel. There were three highway strips, with the center lane being used for passing cars. Along the sides of the roads were hoards of mopeds with whole families aboard, one of the most popular means of travel.

Wealth and poverty were visible in equal extremes. For every lavishly gated hotel, next door there would be dozens of stalls stitched together with tarp roofs and scattered trash. Our hotel was located off a sandy road that turned into puddles when it rained, the color of Thai iced tea. Two dogs ran up to greet us upon arrival.

The Golden Gecko was owned by an Australian couple, we learned. Their friend assisted to check us in. He shared additional tips including that the riel, Cambodian currency, was less in demand than US dollars. They would still accept riel if offered, but at that point the exchange rate was about 4,000 riel to 1 US dollar, so both were equally accepted.

It was a great family atmosphere at The Golden Gecko. One of the dogs, we learned, had been adopted by the owners after being hit by a car and left in the middle of the road. There was an island-style bar, a pool, and a little shaded area for complimentary breakfasts. They also offered tours of Angkor Wat, either a small tour that focused on the main temples, a larger loop that could easily take 1-2 days to see all temples along the main path, and then a separate tour that would take you to some of the off-the-beaten track temples, such as the waterfall ruin. They offered a tour guide or could set you up with one of their tuk-tuk drivers.

Power outages were common across the city, the front desk coordinator “Mr. Kay” told us. It was already midday, and the humid air was sweltering, as if a thunderstorm was brewing. Also, Mr. Kay told us, looking a bit sheepish, they had just learned of a Khmer wedding that would be held next door. It was expected to last for a couple days at least.

We ventured out on the streets to find a bite to eat just as it began to rain. Our friend had told us of a delicious French restaurant, and we tracked it down not a ten minute walk away using Google Maps, “Paris Saigon”. There we enjoyed the most amazing French onion soup and a light, flavorful pasta carbonara dish, as well as some absinthe, which was sold legally in the country. We met the owner who had been a French architect in Vietnam for a while where he met his wife, and when he retired, they moved to Siem Reap to open their restaurant. Half the menu offered French delicacies, and the other half Vietnamese classics.

In the evening, a power outage rolled through and the hotel lost power, making the rooms sticky with heat. We headed out to Pub Street, the major tourist road in Siem Reap. Decked out in neon lights and tons of English-speaking services from restaurants to massages, Pub Street was lively and brimming with tons of foreigners, as well as an equal number of tuk-tuk drivers looking to offer rides. The massage parlors were also very actively recruiting foreigners to enjoy the bargain massages or to try the fish skin treatment, where you dip your feet into a tank where a school of tiny fish can eat off all the dead skin.  

We ate at the Red Piano on the second floor, which provided a great view to people watch. We ordered to delicious Cambodian curries there, and I gave into try the Angelina Jolie cocktail that was featured. Every 10th one they give away free, and I was pretty surprised when we heard the staff cheer and present one for free to our table.

When roaming Pub Street, have your game face on and make your heart stone, because you will be bombarded left and right to come shop or to take a tuk-tuk ride somewhere. The best way to be sensitive to their time (and your own!) is to blatantly ignore them, or give a firm “No, thanks” and keep walking. Don’t engage any more than that or you will earn yourself a relentless shadow. The competition is fierce for business and the vendors need to be persistent or they will lose their sale to the other guy. In our hotel room, there was a pamphlet explicitly warning against giving kids who are begging money, as it encourages them to keep begging instead of attending school. It is difficult, all the same, and you will realize everything you have taken for granted.

My favorite shock value stall was the one offering fried snakes, frogs, scorpions, maggots, and large plump black spiders, all neatly speared on a stick for sale. We asked the vendor which one was the best, and he said the frog. We should have listened to him. We bought a scorpion since I just couldn’t bring myself to try the spider (deathly afraid of those things) and it tasted like leathery dry charcoal with the consistency of licorice. Not much meat on the bone at all. Should have gone with the frog. (If you do ignore these warnings and try the scorpion, make sure to take the stinger off!) 

When we were ready to head back, we literally just had to turn around to have three tuk-tuk drivers vying for our business. As a rule of thumb, Mr. Kay had told us, $3 USD will get you anywhere in Siem Reap general area by tuk tuk, and the driver we found accepted this as well.

The Khmer wedding was in full swing when we got back. Portraits of the bride and groom were set up at the entrance, and we could see a lavish ballroom with plenty of dinner guests inside. We headed in, needing to wake up early the next morning for Angkor Wat.

The power had come back as well. In our room, conditions were similar to our hotel in Bangkok: all toilet paper goes in the waste basket, and stay stocked on bottled water. There was a grocery around the corner as well to find great prices on beer and other amenities. The TV worked well as did the air conditioning, and the bed was supremely comfortable. We fell asleep in our room that night listening to the rise and swell of chanting next door, startled back awake every now and again at the crash of a cymbal.  

Upcoming Post: Angkor Wat

Disclaimer: The above content is depicted as fiction, not fact. 

Saturday, December 2, 2017

December 2017 Book Review: Glimmerglass

By Jenna Black
~Book Review~

AVALON has a mesmerizing allure to it, a mysterious city in Britain where magic comes to life. For teenage Dana who has an embittered relationship with her alcoholic mother, she is willing to travel behind the curtain with her fey father and enter the court of faerie.

However, she soon discovers that she is a Faeriewalker who can bring magic into the human world and technology into Avalon. Her rare ability makes her a target, but luckily she befriends fey siblings Ethan and Kimber to help uncover the mystery of who is behind the attacks on her life.

The story is fairly predictable but the core characters are amusing and memorable. I like that Dana and Kimber team up and develop a close friendship, Dana’s bodyguard Finn was the typical close-mouthed serious warrior which I’m always a sucker for, and Dana’s teacher Keane was entertaining with his I-love-you/I-hate-you routine with Dana. Tragically, he’s not the main love interest – that falls to Ethan, Kimber’s brother, who is pretty banal, irritates Dana (but makes her swoon as well!), leaving just the reader still sorely irritated. He didn’t seem to have much going on besides his abs.

The world-building in Glimmerglass reminded me of Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series. It felt college-age, contemporary, with faerie student dorm houses, modern references name dropped here and there, and a focus on hormones over plot. However, it was a neat concept to explore magic v. technology and what would happen if Dana brought over guns into the faerie land?

Overall, a swift and entertaining read, but for fantasy fans who want more in-depth faerie world building, check out Julie Kagawa’s Iron Fey series.

Recommended for fans of: Carrie Jones, Alexandra Adornetto, Lauren Kate

Upcoming Book Review: The Cursed Child by J. K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Thailand Travel Series: Bangkok

~Welcome to the Thailand Travel Series~

This visit briefly covers Bangkok, features Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and then focuses on Southern Thailand: Phuket; Phrang Nga Bay; Railay Beach; Ao Nang. Happy Traveling!

MY HOMETOWN had entered a terribly cold season newspapers started calling “the Great Dark,” so you can imagine how happy I was to touch down in hot, humid Thailand for two weeks.

We chose to travel at the end of October through early November in Bangkok. It was a bit of a gamble. We knew some folks who had gone at this time a couple years earlier, and the Bangkok airport was flooded. As such, they had to reroute their trip to Singapore and travel up through Malaysia to Southern Thailand by train. November marks the start of the dry season. We did experience quite a few thunderstorms that rolled in around 4 PM like clockwork, but otherwise, the weather was remarkably beautiful.

We arrived on the streets of Bangkok at midnight, bleary-eyed and disoriented after our fourteen hour flight from the States. It was a hard toss-up between Korean Air and Asiana, but we eventually went with Korean Air since they had a better deal at the time. We flew from Honolulu to Incheon, South Korea (approximately 9 hours) and then from Incheon to Bangkok (approximately 5 hours). Korean Air excels at customer service and our flight over even had a second level on the plane. Also, it had been so long since we could take advantage of a free entertainment system (and free checked bags for the way back), I had been looking forward to going on a movie-watching binge. But I think the effect wore off after six hours or so. I find it notoriously difficult to sleep on planes, so I had no sense of time whatsoever when we landed.

Both Incheon International Airport in Seoul, South Korea and Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok, Thailand are ultramodern, sleek, open airports. Everything is meticulously labeled and includes English translations, and we did not experience any difficulties transferring to our next flight. I had missed this part of the world, but I felt the familiarity rise as gradually, English was overtaken with Korean and then Thai, the smoggy humidity settled into my skin, and a sense of being other invaded my perceptions. We had both feverishly studied to pick up common Thai phrases and spent countless commuting hours listening to audio books, but Thai is a tonal language, so that in itself was a new challenge. However, we experienced a warm greeting and appreciation toward our willingness to try and speak Thai. Many in the hospitality industry spoke basic English as well, so we navigated down to the second floor where our shuttle came for us.

Since we were spending two weeks in Thailand, we packed light with only carry-ons: two backpacks and then one roller board and a duffel bag. We had a detour to Siem Reap, Cambodia planned, so we didn’t want to waste time dealing with checked luggage. We booked all of our hotels ahead of time by researching online and through Lonely Planet. We ended up booking everything on Expedia, which worked out well overall, except for our Air Asia flight we booked through them to get to Siem Reap. Air Asia ended up canceling our departure flight and notified us. However, we were suspicious that it might be a fraudulent email and called both Expedia and contacted Air Asia to confirm. Expedia told us there were no delays, but just to make sure, we utilized Air Asia’s online chat since we didn’t have an international phone plan at the time, and they said that it had changed. We were able to book on a different flight through the online chat, but even up until the day of our departure, Expedia didn’t get the memo. Goes to show, make sure you go by whatever your airline says! However, Expedia was helpful for us to message our hotels a couple weeks out to arrange airport shuttle pick-ups and all the reservations went through. 

The only other ticket we bought ahead of time was the train ticket from Surat Thani to Bangkok ( or Other things like excursions we waited to book through travel agencies once we arrived in Thailand, since a) you never know how the weather might turn out and b) the travel agencies will discount whatever price the brochures and media posts a couple times, or work to find you a trip you’re looking for at the price you want. Tour agencies are about a time a dozen, especially in the touristy areas. But more on that later!

Bangkok was still abuzz with activity at midnight. We stayed at the Phoenix Hotel on the outskirts of Bangkok near Suvarnabhumi Airport (20 minute drive approximately). It was about $52 USD for 2 nights for a small room with basic amenities and free airport shuttle pick up and drop off. On the second floor was a large row of  different hotel pick up and drop off people. We spoke to the gentleman with a clipboard and he okayed that someone would be by soon in The Phoenix shuttle to grab us. We later learned the Phoenix Hotel’s shuttle left every hour. We kept the man in close view as we slumped over our luggage on the floor nearby, but sure enough, he soon gestured for us to go out and catch our shuttle that had pulled upon the curb outside.

In hindsight, we would recommend a hotel even closer to the airport (10 minutes or less), or you can arrange to stay in the airport itself, if you are just using it as a rest stop as we were. There weren’t many good flights to Siem Reap without going through Bangkok, so we thought we would spend a day there to adjust to the time zone and see the palace. We did spot a Novotel nearby, which we would learn is a premier hotel chain that has locations throughout Thailand and has top-notch service.

The Phoenix Hotel staff was courteous and the rooms were clean; the airport shuttle for free was definitely a perk. The TV sputtered and gave you about two channels, and the breakfast wasn’t free but had a decent porridge for about 80 baht (at the time of this article, the exchange rate was approximately 33 baht to 1 USD). Bed was comfortable and the bathroom came with shampoo and conditioner. For the toilets, remember to throw toilet paper in the trash can and don’t flush it to avoid clogs.

Curiously enough, the exchange rate was the best at the airport, which I've never seen happen. But we were able to get 33 baht for 1 USD - at other banks further away from the airport, the highest it would get would be 32.8, and some were only offering 31. I would familiarize yourself as much as possible with the exchange rate and if you see it, even if close to the airport, go for that deal. You might not necessarily find that rate somewhere else. Also, bring a lot of US cash (as much as you feel comfortable with and keep it close!) - that way you don't have to pay as much in ATM fees by card later. Traveler's checks is another option. 

We bought soap from a 7-11 on the corner nearby. Always keep an eye out for those convenience stores – they carry everything that the hotels will up-charge on like soap, sunscreen, bug spray, quick snacks ect. The biggest thing we went there for was bottled water, since it’s advised not to drink tap water in Thailand. Also, you can stock up on Chang beer :). 

Likewise at 7-11, the cashier gave us what looked like Hello Kitty stamps upon receipt every time. We soon had a massive collection of them. Save these stamps – you can use them to trade for certain items or just take a discount off your bill. We had no idea what to do with them for half our time in Thailand, so on our last day, we got a good 50 baht off our bill!

If you’re planning to spend a couple days in Bangkok, definitely grab a spot deep in the heart of the city. Minimize your travel to walking as much as possible. Bangkok was huge, sprawling. We woke in the morning (strangely awake for all the traveling we’d been doing!) and ventured out to the downtown. We caught the free shuttle to the airport again and from there, went down to the bottom floor of Suvarnabhumi Airport where the Airport Rail Link was, ready to venture into the heart of Bangkok.

Hot unfolding maze
All mourn King Bhumi in black
City gifts the stranger

*Above is one of the many haikus my tired and numb brain conjured after sitting on a train for 9 hours from Surat Thani Station up to Bangkok. I thought I would share them sporadically so you can experience my slow mental shutdown from the all-day train ride to a full day of flying back to the States the day after.

Upon arriving at the Airport Link, all of the coin slot machines were out of order. We quickly learned that we had arrived during the remembrance of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. As such, all public transportation like trains and buses were free. From what I could see, it looked like typically for using the Rail Links, you could either purchase tickets or get a pre-paid card that you swiped each time when you entered and swiped again when you left. They had an information booth set up as well. The Airport Link is one of several that serve Bangkok, which starts at Suvarabhumi and ends at Phayathai Station (about 30 -40 minute journey). There were a couple places you could transfer to other Rail Links as well. As such, there was probably an easier way to get to The Grand Palace, but our plan was basically to get as far into the city as we could and then Uber the rest of the way.

Ah, yes. Uber serves Bangkok! It was very convenient. We had paid for a limited international phone plan, so I put in our location and could quickly see the price. We hadn’t quite gotten into our haggling mode yet, so it was preferable to going straight to the tuk-tuks. I found out later the Uber price also factors in tolls (there were quite a few toll booths on major roads in Bangkok) and drivers don’t expect tips in Thailand. Uber would also message me codes to get baht discounts on future Uber rides.

The driver got us as close to the palace as could but explained that due to the remembrance ceremony, we couldn’t enter the Grand Palace today. We walked alongside the river encircling the palace sight-seeing until the crowds wearing black grew so thick that cars couldn’t get through. Hundreds had turned out to line up for the parade that would be happening later and lined the alleys and bridges. One large courtyard had a screen replaying the life of King Bhumi while the military saluted.

At this point, we felt very conspicuous since we were pretty much the only ones not wearing black, so we wanted to duck out and not cause disrespect. However, we ran into a line of what looked to be a grade school association of some kind. One man tried to hand me a water bottle, and I thought he must have wanted me to pay for it, so I declined. But the next few groups of people all had gifts they pressed into our hands: different pastries, small noodle dishes, and the best-tasting coconut ice cream ever given it was such a sweltering day. We finally caught on that it was all part of the remembrance ceremony and gratefully accepted – by that point, I was wondering where the water bottle guy had gone.

We found a complex of temples to duck into that led us to a stream, and suddenly all the noise of the city fell away. Tucked away in the heart of Bangkok along the stream was a hodgepodge of tin roofed homes cluttered together with cats perched on top and an odd assortment of items sprinkled from porch to porch. A family clustered together on a bridge to watch an old TV broadcast of the event. Then we tumbled out of that alley back into rows of concrete apartments. We finally wound up at the Democracy Monument around sunset.

We had a flight to catch the next morning to Siem Reap so we retraced our footsteps from there, since it took us a good 1.5 hours away to get back via train/airport shuttle (see how big Bangkok is?). My phone was dead, so we haggled with a tuk tuk driver. He wanted 400 baht to take us back to Phayathai Station, but we said 300. He said he could do 300 if we agreed to meet with his “sponsor” for a stop, which we definitely weren’t interested in, so we settled on 350 baht. Still more hefty than if we’d done Uber, but we were tired. The ride certainly woke us up!  

I am glad we got to be in Bangkok for the ceremony. If we’d had more time, I would have liked to see the Grand Palace and other sights around Bangkok like one of the nearby Floating Markets or Ayutthaya, Thailand’s former capital full of sprawling temples and jungle a day trip north of Bangkok.

We would have to save a trip to the north of Thailand (and include Chiang Mai!) another time. For now, we were jetting off to Siem Reap, Cambodia to explore the vastness of Angkor Wat.

Disclaimer: The above content is depicted as fiction, not fact.