What to do: Siem Reap, Cambodia

Who plans to stay 22 days in Siem Reap, Cambodia? We envisioned seeing as many archaeological sites as we could take in and thought more leisure time would be a bonus – but would that fill up 22 days? We decided to find out.

Our last visit to Siem Reap was 4 years ago. The 15 days we stayed on that visit turned out not to be long enough.

As soon as we arrived with our friends, Cliff and Ruth, we scheduled a driver to take us to Beng Mealea, some distance from Siem Reap. Why not add stops to a few sites on the way back?

That’s how we discovered Preah Ko, built in the late 9th century, over 200 years before Angkor Wat.

Another logical pairing combined Banteay Srey, one of the most beautiful temples, with stops just down the road at the Butterfly Centre and the Cambodia Landmine Museum.

The excellent tour at the Banteay Srey Butterly Centre made the stop worthwhile. We thought the exotic flowers might almost have stolen the show from the leopard lacewing.

A group of folks gathered around to hear Bill Morse’s retelling the tragedy resulting from extensive bombing and land mining of Southeast Asia, which is still affecting people today.

Our friend, Anita, joined us for a week. She’s new to bird watching so we three banded together for a one-day trip with Cambodia Bird Guide Association out to Ang Trapaing Thmor, a large reservoir in a remote rural area a few hours drive away. It was built by forced labor during the 1970’s when the Khmer Rouge were in power and is now a reserve for the threatened eastern sarus crane.

What a memorable trip into the countryside! We saw 50 species of birds that day, including 4 different owl species spotted in less than an hour! It helped having a local guide join us for this part of the trip along with our CBGA guide.

That night we celebrated seeing so many amazing birds with another celebration at one of our favorite restaurants, Olive Cuisine de Saison.

Any mention of Siem Reap has to include shopping. We planned our excursions to see specific shops. We were happy to find a number of fair trade shops and others that encouraged the development of Khmer arts and crafts.   We bought a piece of silk at IKTT, a bag at SuSu, lacquer ware at Cambolac in the Made in Cambodia Market. Kandal Village was our favorite shopping area.

One object of desire was fine silk made in Cambodia.

Take it from us – there was more than enough to do in Siem Reap for the 22 days. On our last day, we discovered we had missed seeing some of the reliefs at Angkor Wat. So maybe our visit should have been longer?

 

March 2017

 

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Visiting Angkor? (Lesson 4 for a major site.)

A visit to Angkor Wat is the trip of a lifetime. There aren’t too many other destinations in the world that rank as highly, and for many of us, it takes considerable resources to get there.

If you’re lucky enough to be going – we suggest taking four factors into consideration as you make your plans. On our first visit, we put together three valuable lessons:

Lesson One. Avoid the crowds.

Ta Prohm

Lesson Two. Take your time.

Bayon

Lesson Three. Seek out the extraordinary for you.

Banteay Srei

Now we have returned for our second visit, and we can see that we missed an important fourth lesson: mind the weather.

A macaque monkey trying to stay hydrated at Angkor Wat

No matter when you visit Angkor Wat you cannot avoid the heat. We did remember that it was hot when we last visited in the month of December (average high is 86 F/30 C) – which happens to be their coolest month of the year. Now it is even hotter in March (average high is 93 F and the weather app every day says “feels like 103 F/40 C”. Imagine touring Angkor Wat in the blazing sun in the hottest month, April (average high is 95 F/35 C)?  Our tuktuk driver told us it feels like 113 F/45 C.

The best strategy to see Angkor Wat requires adjusting your outings to the cooler mornings. Once it gets too hot, it’s time to wisely retreat. For us – to escape the oppressive heat that usually meant heading back to our air-conditioned lodging between noon and 1pm. If it fits your budget – a pool is a welcome place to spend the afternoon.

Know that working with the heat means that time each day at the Angkor Archaeological Park might be limited to the morning hours. It’s a smart traveler who understands the restrictions of touring in the high heat and humidity.  Plan accordingly!

 

March 2018

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Ruins in the jungle

When we visited 4 years ago, we told each other we had to return. The great complex of the Angkor Archaeological Park extended far beyond what we were able to see on our first trip. We wanted to see more.

This time we traveled to Cambodia from Laos with our friends, Cliff and Ruth, and the highest priority on Cliff’s list was Beng Mealea.

Beng Mealea is far removed from Angkor (40 km east) and not formally part of the Angkor Archaeological Park (requiring a $5 fee).

It’s a huge ruined complex built 900 years ago, one of the largest temples in the Khmer empire. When we arrived in the early morning it was very quiet, with only a few people sweeping up the falling leaves.

Very little is known about its history, but it’s presumed to have been built during the 11th Century by Suryavarman II and has many similarities to Angkor Wat in style and layout.

The location of Beng Mealea was only 7 km from the limestone quarries at Phnom Kulen (Koulen Mountain) where stonework was quarried for both Angkor Wat and Beng Mealea.

We had just visited Wat Phou in Laos, built before Angkor Wat, and when we studied the map, we wondered if the ancient road leading from Wat Phou to Angkor Wat passed by Beng Mealea? We read somewhere that pilgrimages were made from Angkor Wat back to Wat Phou, to the sacred mountain and waters found there. Also on an ancient road (maybe the same or different?) is Preah Khan Kompong Svay, another 60 km east of Beng Mealea. How tempting it would be to take the long journey there to see Preah Khan Kompong Svay which was the largest temple complex – 11 times the size of Angkor Wat!

That awaits another day, another trip….

The familiar windows at Beng Mealea are seen at all the Angkor ruins as well as in contemporary buildings in Cambodia.

The carvings reflected the Hindu origins of the complex. By the 14th century the Khmer complexes had been converted to Buddhist temples.

A raised wooden walkway gave us a good overview….

….and kept us from doing any further destruction to the ruins. We understand that past visitors scrambled over the toppled stones to get a better view.

We wondered about the future of Beng Mealea. Will it be restored some day in the future with what can still be salvaged with the piles and piles of stone? Or will the jungle creep in and swallow what is still remaining?

We had arrived early and saw only a few other visitors as we made our way through the site. As we left, an endless stream of visitors poured out from a long line of tour buses. The quiet jungle ruins of Beng Mealea have been discovered.

One last look at the nagas near the entry/exit.

 

 

February 2018

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Our two travel mistakes (you also won’t want to make)

We travel 365 days/year, year after year, and even we might have thought rookie travel mistakes were all in our past. But no, we went halfway around the world to a little island tucked far away in the Mekong River to discover not one but two new travel mistakes we’d made. Read on…to learn from us what not to do, so you don’t make the same mistakes.

We stayed 9 days at a very little restaurant and guesthouse in the village of Ban Hang Khone on Don Khon Island (Laos). Every single review on Tripadvisor had given it their highest marks.

We looked forward to an idyllic time at a remote location on a far away island. Then we arrived and discovered: it wasn’t quite what we’d been led to believe.

OK – we now realize that our preconceptions of “peaceful” and “relaxing” may not be the same as those of everyone else. During the hottest part of the day, life in the village and around the guesthouse quieted down nicely….that is, until darkness fell and the action began. The night sounds were never all identified. We did figure out the frog croaks as it called from various places around our suite (and we did finally see it gazing at us from its position on the bathroom door). The frog didn’t keep us awake.

The dogfights every single night were unmistakable as were the cats that screeched bloody-murder. (Who would have thought it looking at these two?)

We watched a number of boats during the day, but we didn’t expect the sound of boat engines revving up at 3 or 4 am.

We wondered – why did the roosters crow some nights at 3:30am and not start up till 5am on other nights? And there were other clanking sounds we never could figure out or stop.   We’d wake up every morning exhausted.

A few weeks earlier, we stayed at another guesthouse in Laos that was up front about noise created from a nearby bar. Prepared for the worse, we found it easier to deal with that than the Ban Hang Khone village noises.

Travel Mistake #1: Reviews describing a lodging as “peaceful” and “relaxing” are not the same as QUIET. Rural and isolated also wouldn’t guarantee the quiet we hoped for in the middle of the night.

The next travel mistake became apparent on our first night when we dined in the guesthouse restaurant. A little board posted the one main item served for the evening. There were no appetizers, or desserts served by the restaurant and only occasionally a side dish. This is when we discovered that our version and the cook’s version of “mild” differed greatly. We explained our problem to the owner. We wanted no chilis. On the 2nd night the chilis were still all we could taste.

Clearly we were desperate to eat a soothing meal and one with vegetables or tofu (too expensive to bring over from the mainland, said the owner).

The temporary solution was to get on the bicycles and ride 45 minutes over the rough road to the main village on the island in search of another restaurant for dinner. (Photo credit: Cliff Mail)

We sat down at a table overlooking the water and started with a large salad, then dined on asparagus and tofu with coconut rice. Delicious and perfect! And the cost was less than we’d paid at the guesthouse.

Travel Mistake #2: Proceed with caution if the place you plan to stay is the only good option for your meals.

If we had the chance to go back to alter our plans, we would have stayed in the main village on the island and dined at one of many restaurants there.

Finally, we had to wonder about the reviews for this guesthouse. Every one gave it a superlative rating. Were we four out of step with everyone else or did reviewers just want to be “nice” and “supportive” since we all know a string of bad reviews can sink a business? We hope folks are always honest in their reviews and wish we’d been spared from the evening meals at the guesthouse, which turned out to be one of the more mediocre experiences of our trip.

Those new travel lessons we learned came with a little pain and suffering. We learned our lessons and won’t forget them anytime soon.

 

 

February 2018

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Passing time on an island

In every review of Don Khon Island the potential visitor is warned that there is not much to do but lie in a hammock and relax. We thought that certainly there must be more to do than that, and we set out to find out for ourselves.

Don Khon Island (spelled both as Don Khon and Done Khone) is part of the 4,000 Island chain in the Mekong River of southern Laos. The island is about 3 miles long.

As the Mekong River flows around the island there are a number of waterfalls. The waterfall to the southeast, Khone Falls (also known as Khone Phapheng), is the largest in Southeast Asia and reputed to be the widest waterfall in the world.

The waterfalls seemed to attract little attention from the few visitors who make it down to this area.

The island’s history became caught up in the French plan to dominate Indochina. The plan included shipping goods down the Mekong River. With waterfalls on both sides of the island, the French planned a railroad to carry goods down the length of the island to a port. From there the French boats could continue to transport the goods down the Mekong. The railroad operated from 1893 until the 1940’s.

On our first day to explore Don Khon Island, we walked a long footpath to observe any birds we might see along the way. Our best sighting was a green-billed malkhoa.

Birds stayed high in the trees, but butterflies flew so close by that they became a obvious subject for many photos.

We love to walk, but it was just too hot and too time consuming. The rough gravel roads gave us pause, but ultimately we rented solid Chinese cruiser bikes for 10,000 kip a day ($1.20 US).

Another day, we headed for a distant waterfall that required a long bike ride clockwise around the island to the east. The waterfall was not as interesting as the goats using a nearby bridge to get themselves to greener pastures.

Passing time on this island wasn’t really a problem. We spotted a few of the functionally extinct Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong River; we hiked trails to see old French bridges that long ago caved in; and took note of trees and flowers we’d never seen before.

We had read repeatedly there was nothing to do on this island. Clearly we proved this to be not at all the case. Given that we were there for nine days either means they were wrong or that we are masters of finding any number of ways to amuse ourselves.

 

February 2018

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Travel days call for patience and flexibility

Some complicated travel days weigh on us. Will we have enough patience and flexibility to get to our destination? We tell ourselves it’s just a matter of passing time, and we WILL get there. This is the tale of one of those kinds of days….

We celebrated our last night – and the gorgeous sunset – at The Panorama Restaurant on top of the Pakse Hotel.

This particular travel day was filled with more than the usual uncertainty. We had one sheet of blue paper that said we’d paid for 4 tickets on a VIP bus from Pakse, Laos. While the curtains were over the top, a lot of the seats were broken.

When we arrived in the tiny village of Nakasang, we tried to understand the driver’s directions for where to go to catch the ferry. We picked up only an occasional English word but, in the end, just followed the crowd. We expected the ferryboat to look more like our idea of a ferry.

Luggage was piled high in the front, and passengers sat on the wooden planks behind.

There was a moment of confusion as the ferry stopped at an island. Where were we? Don Det, we were told, but we figured out on our own that was just a quick stop and the ferry quickly took off again. Using iPhones to check where we were, all were reassured as we headed for the little dock at Don Khone Island, our destination.

Six hours had passed since we left the hotel in Pakse, and we are very hot, tired and hungry. Still, we needed to get tuktuks to take the 4 of us – and our luggage – about 3 miles across the island to the southern tip where we’d be staying.

Cliff and Ruth were in the tuktuk ahead of us, laying a nice cloud of dust for us to pass through.

We made it! It was a sweet moment to look out the window in our room. The Mekong River flowed below us, and we looked out to Cambodia across the water.

We headed down to the river right before sunset.

 

When sunset came, we happily took lots of photos.

The day was bookended with a sunset in Pakse the night before, and, now, a sunset on Don Khone. With a little patience and some flexibility on our parts, we had made it to the 4,000 Islands.

 

February 2018

 

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Bolaven without the motorbikes

We read the many accounts of travelers hopping on rented motorbikes and touring the high plateau of Bolaven in Laos. We decided to pass on that one, but Bolaven popped up as an afternoon option to tag on to our morning at Wat Phou. Oh, why not, we thought. It could be interesting. Well, it wasn’t the romantic and adventurous ride on a motorbike we’d read so much about, but a very nice van with a driver and guide for the 4 of us.

We drove north from Wat Phou to the Bolaven Plateau. While others napped in the car, Beth snapped photos of the passing scenery.

We stopped at the Tad Yuang Waterfall and watched a string of monks make their way down to the base of the falls. As we got ready to snap the photo, a rainbow appeared. We’re not making this up.

As we climbed back up from the falls, our guide pointed out a bush on the side of the path: a coffee plant in bloom.

Next stop was to sample the coffee and tea grown in Bolaven. Our friend, Cliff, described to one of the staff the fine distinction between a flat white coffee made in Australia and one made in New Zealand (his own country). We were just surprised to even see flat white on the menu at all.

We had to wonder about those motorbike trips in Bolaven we had been reading about. The road stretching for many miles was totally torn up for a massive widening project.

The dust choked us even in the closed van. We couldn’t imagine how people on motorbikes do it.

We enjoyed the day immensely and had not worried about the time. When we glanced at our watches, we knew we were already past time to be back, but the guide announced one more stop. Really? We almost said not to bother when the driver pulled over to the side of the road.

The last stop was to see a blacksmith shop in Laos, which proved the most interesting of all. All the tools on display were handmade and cost 35,000 kip ($4.25 US). They demonstrated one that was used like a scythe to cut grass.

The master blacksmith held a sharp piece of metal over the red hot metal which would become the tool. It was placed where he wanted to shape the metal. The man on the right drove his sledgehammer on to the sharp piece of metal time and time again.

The tool sharpener at work.

Bolaven was not exactly what we’d expected, but it proved to be a very interesting afternoon outing in southern Laos.

 

February 2018

 

 

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