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Cambodia and Laos, Angkor and Luang Prabang - Part 1
Essential Reading - Get the feel of the place
Angkor and Luang Prabang.
I live in Bangkok and my son and I decided to visit the Angkor Wat complex in Cambodia and Luang Prabang in Laos to celebrate his birthday in April 2010. We chose the 12 days prior to the Songkran, otherwise known as Thai/Cambodian/Lao New Year or more simply 'water throwing' festival.
Travel arrangements were left up to me to find the best value flights and accomodation.I duly contacted my reliable local travel agent here in Bangkok to find the cheapest flights to Siem Reap, the airport for Angkor, and then on to Luang Prabang and back to Bangkok. Because I was booking in Thailand I noticed that even my Agent kept pushing me to use Bangkok Airways which would have resulted in two round trips from Bangkok but when I pushed them for a direct flight from Siem Reap to Luang Prabang they came up with Lao Air which had a convenient schedule leaving around 2.00 p.m.(or so we believed!). The total cost for the flights was about Baht 14,000 per person.
For accomodation I used the Agoda online booking site. I selected a budget guest house which had good reviews, Kazna Hotel. This proved to be an excellent choice as I will relate later but initially because it offered a variety of guide options for seeing the Angkor complex and was close to Pub Street, the area where all the foreigners gather for eating and drinking either during the day or after visiting the temples. There are also a number of market stalls selling all variety of goods, travel agaents, banks and pharmacies.
To get the most out of a visit to both these wonderful places I would suggest some reading BEFORE going so that you actually have an idea of where you are going, what period of world history you are comparing with and general background information. Personal guides when you actually get there are essential (maybe less so in Luang Prabang) but I found their information a little bit 'fenced in'. I can recommend the following:
Angkor - Geroge Coedes
Angkor and the Khmers - Malcolm MacDonald
Travels in Siam, Cambodia and Laos 1858-1860 - Henri Mouhot
Old Luang Prabang - Betty Gosling
Arrival in Siem Reap
The journey by road to Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi International Airport (pronounced a bit like Suwanaboom) can be a bit of a hit or miss affair depending upon what day, what time of day you are traveling and where you are actually coming from as Bangkok's roads are all so notorious for their jams and hold ups. Accordingly we left home about 3 hours before the flight and had an incident-free journey which only took 40 minutes, c'est la vie as they say but better waiting at the airport stress free than being stuck in a traffic jam wondering if you are ever going to make it! Check-in procedure was straight forward and, due I suspect to the few people travelling because of the political turmoil in Bangkok, baggage weights for our carry on were not checked although I would suggest be careful on this point normally.
The Bangkok Airways prop-jet left on time for the roughly one hour flight and we touched down around 3.00 p.m. at Siem Reap. We were first off the plane and so were also first for the Visa and Immigration formalities. As well as the normal passport validity requirement (4 to 6 months before expiry and at least 2 clear pages) you need the filled-in Visa on arrival application form, one passport sized photograph and the fee which was US$20 per person. (On a general note it is worth noting here that US$ is the preferred currency and is used by everyone. Change is given both in US$ and Cambodian Riel but be aware that basically it has no use other than in Cambodia so don't accumulate it! Also in Cambodia US$ notes that are damaged in any way are not acceptable, crispy clean new ones please!! Conversely in Luang Prabang they didn't seem to care a damn.). There is also an exit fee when you leave the country of US$ 25 per person which can be paid by credit card. After the Visa on arrival process Immigration was literally a rubber stamp formality. We had arrived!
Because we were first through our pick up from the hotel was a bit late but just 10 minutes or so. He apologised profusely saying that typically people took at least 30 mins to get through and collect their luggage but since we had had hand carry we were all the more quick. He told us that he was to be our driver for the next three days around the Angkor complex and dropped us off at the hotel about a 30 minute drive from the airport, traffic permitting. The road in from the airport seems to be predominated by hotels of all sorts and lots of Korean and Japanese language signs for food and night clubs! On arrival at the Kazna we filled in the normal hotel registration forms and were shown up to our room which was basic but functional with two beds, bathroom, aircon and fridge. We got ourselves sorted out, washing gear, camera etc and then set off for Pub street to slake our thirst from the journey.
Pub Street is an easy 10 minutes walk from Kazna down a few dusty roads and across a main intersection. Basically it is unmissable. Once there you will find an area thronging with fellow travellers of all varieties and budgets all come to see the wonderful Angkor complex. Pub Street and the surrounding area is THE place to be mainly at night time but also during the day if you are templed-out!!
Pub Street itself is a collection of restaurants and bars offering mainly Cambodian (Khmer) food but there is also Western, Chinese and Indian food on offer. The surrounding streets offer much the same at avrying price levels and we would recommend that visitors take time to check out the various establishments to see what suits their budget and taste buds. Guides like Lonely Planet etc make their recommendations as to which ones are 'best' but better to find out for yourself.
On this our first evening we first had a few 50c beers at one of the pubs and discussed what we would eat and finally settled for Khmer food although sorely tempted by the various Indian food on offer. We chose a restaurant on Pub Street, The Banana Leaf, and sat at a table by the road side the better to watch the world go by. We ordered a couple of beers and the menu and chose some local fish and chicken dishes together with some spring rolls for starters. The service was efficient and the starter arrived for us to share ahead of the two mains just a few minutes after placing our order. Spring rolls can be a pretty hit or miss affair depending on whether they are freshly made and their contents, basically determining whether they are going to turn out crisp or soggy. These vegetarian ones, we both agreed, were excellent and put us in fine spirits for the next course. Both the fish and chicken dishes were so-called Khmer curry, using the basic ingrediaents of lemongrass, red curry paste and coriander to produce that distinctive Khmer/Thai taste and both were execellent both of us being previous converts, Rice is served separately and can be as much as you want. After the mains we forwent any dessert, paid the bill, about $15 including beers, and then continued on for a little more exploring to get the hang of the place before returning to our guest house for a good night's sleep before our first full day in Angkor.
All around the Pub Street area restaurants of infinite variety abound together with bars and an assortment of stalls and shops selling basically everything one could think of. There are also plenty of banks, ATMs and money exchangers but 'travellers' tales' warn you about using credit cards in any but the most reliable places like the up market hotels. There are souvenir shops by the bucket load selling anything from trinkets, to fine cloth, 'antiques' both old and new (but be aware the good stuff went ages ago), most being of the repro variety but still good value if you bargain well. Cambodians like bargaining so be prepared. In my opinion there is no hard and fast rule on bargaining other than 'Is the price you are being asked to pay acceptable to you?' If not then bargain lower and if they wont budge then fine but bear in mind that these people have to make a living too. Sure there are rip off merchants so it is caveat emptor at all times and generally speaking stay away from expensive stuff, most things only cost a few dollars!!