Bangkok, Cambodia & Laos Trip Report: Reflections

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Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaew—C.Helbig

I am tempted to launch right into my favourite day of our month-long trip that included Bangkok and a sampling of Cambodia and Laos. But, I feel a stronger need to put chronological order and reflection into this first of a series of posts. I’ve tried to find one photo and write one paragraph that summarize my (and usually Mike’s) overriding, totally subjective takeaway on each of the places we visited. If you want to find out about my favourite day, you can scroll down to the end. If you can hang in there, please follow our journey. There’ll be lots more to come about the exotic attractions of these friendly, great value travel destinations.

Bangkok, Thailand:  Give it time

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Bangkok’s Chinatown gearing up for Chinese New Year—C.Helbig

I remember visiting Bangkok for the first time in 1991, as a budget backpacker. I was completely overwhelmed by the heat, noise, pollution, and general chaos, but seduced by its temples, street food, and energy. Despite moving up the travel budget hierarchy, I felt much the same during our recent visit. Bangkok is an enigma—a city that is easy to love and hate at the same time. We learned that Bangkok can’t be rushed —our bodies and the traffic wouldn’t let us. By the time our four and a half days in Bangkok were coming to a close, we were just starting to get a handle on stimulus overload and an appreciation for this marvelous, crazy city. Stay tuned for activities/attractions in Bangkok including our favourite: a night bike ride through the city’s back alleys.

Angkor Temples, Cambodia: Beyond the Big-3

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Traffic jam at the Bayon south entrance—C.Helbig

Our timing may have been off—Chinese New Year holidays and just days before a significant price hike at the Angkor temple complex. The big-3 temples—Angkor Wat, Bayon, Ta Prohm—were sheer madness with throngs of selfie-stick-wielding, matching-hat-wearing visitors (I include us in the mayhem). As magnificent as these temples are, the crowds took away from our experience. During the next two days we hired a tuk-tuk driver to take us to a few of the lesser-visited temples and those further afield. Even just slightly off the beaten path, the crowds thinned significantly. Despite some of these temples being regarded as less noteworthy or beautiful, our experience there was spectacular. I’ll be posting about our favourites like Banteay Samre, Banteay Srei, Ta Som, Preah Khan, and East Mebon

Battambang, Cambodia: City..meh, countryside…yay

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Wonderful market in the Battambang countryside—C.Helbig

I held romantic images of lovely colonial architecture and charming French shophouses after reading Lonely Planet’s description of Battambang. While the city is a nice change from crowded Siem Reap, we felt that much of the once beautiful architecture has fallen into major disrepair. What the city lacks in charm, the surrounding countryside makes up for. We loved our bike tour—run by local students—through villages and vibrant markets. An upcoming post will feature Mike and I clumsily making rice paper and learning about local livelihoods like production of banana chips, rice wine, rice noodles, and oh-so-stinky fish paste.

Phenom Penh, Cambodia: Rising from a dark past

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Monument at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum—C.Helbig

I read the book The Killing Fields more than 25 years ago. It was my introduction to the horrific Cambodian genocide inflicted by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. The book knocked the wind out of me. I was both eager and apprehensive about finally visiting the place that had been devastated by unthinkable atrocities. Phenom Penh has risen from its grisly past. We stayed in a gorgeous boutique hotel, ate at a trendy French bistro, and were struck by the city’s vibrance. But my enduring memory of Phenom Penh will undoubtedly be our visits to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek where the horrors of that era are conveyed with uncensored directness. It was a sad, sobering, and educational highlight of our trip. Phenom Penh ranks as Mike’s overall favourite stop on our itinerary.

Kampot, Cambodia: Sunsets and smiles

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Kampot’s soothing riverside setting—C.Helbig

Kampot, a small riverside town in southern Cambodia, has incredible sunsets, and our guesthouse there (Rikitikitavi) wins the prize for best value/friendly accommodations of our travels. Every evening, we sat on Rikitiki’s restaurant/bar patio and watched a parade of fishing boats, cast in a sunset glow, head out to the ocean for their nightly work.  It’s a mesmerizing sight. Although friendliness and great service abound in this part of the world, the local staff at Rikitikitavi took it to another level. Their smiles and enthusiasm made our stay in Kampot particularly memorable. While the town itself wasn’t Mike’s favourite, I enjoyed its quirky, dilapidated charm. You have to love a place that has a roundabout with a giant durian as its centerpiece. Photos to come.

Vientiane, Laos: Our biggest surprise

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Nightly food market on the banks of the Mekong—C.Helbig

Before researching for this trip, we had never heard of Vientiane. We read lots of mixed reviews about the diminutive capital of Laos—”it’s boring”, “there are no major sights”…I’m so glad we ignored these comments. We had an amazing time exploring the easy-to-get-around-in city on bike and foot. We loved the nightly merchandise market, geared mostly to locals, and the mile-long evening food market that stretches along the banks of the Mekong. We enjoyed the abundant restaurants and bakeries, interesting French-period monuments and glittering temples. Most of all we relished the low-key vibe of this city and not worrying about how we were going to cross the street (Phenom Penh is a pedestrian nightmare). I plan to do a post on a great one-day bike itinerary in Vientiane.

Luang Prabang, Laos: Where monks, beer, and spas meet

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Monks crossing the Nam Khan in Luang Prabang—C.Helbig

Although it’s a tad touristy, it’s hard not to fall in love with this Unesco-protected town. Luang Prabang has a wonderful mix of spiritual, hedonistic, and natural allure. Saffron-clad monks walk amidst chic restaurants, fun bars, and blissful spas; serene temples rise above a bustling night market filled with silk scarves, Beerlao T-shirts and every possible souvenir; dramatic waterfalls and caves are only a short boat ride or tuk-tuk drive away. The setting at the conflux of the Mekong River and Nam Khan is glorious. I’ll be posting about four days of incredible temple-visting, shopping for local artwork, eating, biking, and “spaaing”. It went by way too quickly.

Nong Khiaw: We should have stayed longer

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Outstanding hike/view above Nong Khiaw—C.Helbig

Nong Khiaw is a 4-hour bumpy, curvy minibus ride from Luang Prabang. We were ready for a dose of dramatic nature away from the crowds and Nong Khiaw delivered. The small village sits on the banks of the Nam Ou and is surrounded by steep-sided mountains drenched in jungle vegetation. It was tempting to just hang-out on our guesthouse patio soaking up the scenery, but there’s tons to do in and around Nong Khiaw—hiking, biking, kayaking, caving, village-visits. Sadly, we only got to sample a tiny bit in our day-and-a-half visit.  My favourite was an early morning hike to a spectacular viewpoint. Sitting on a rocky bluff with 360 degree views of towering karsts and clouds slowly lifting from the valley floor was pure happiness for me. I can’t wait to share more about this place!

Muang Ngoi: Where we had our favourite day of the trip

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Water accessible only Muang Ngoi—C.Helbig

An hour on a jam-packed boat from Nong Khiaw took us to Muang Ngoi. This village is still primarily river accessible only and consists of one 500m-long dirt road. Like Nong Khiaw, it is stunningly situated but even more low-key. Our favourite day of the entire trip (we agree on this one) was in Muang Ngoi. We started with a morning hike to an amazing local cave and viewpoint. In the afternoon, we hired a boat to taxi us, and a kayak, up river where we first visited a weaving village. We were the only visitors there and I was in heaven, surrounded by beautiful fabrics and friendly, non-pushy local ladies. After buying about a dozen scarves we got in our kayak for a leisurely two hour paddle through breath-taking scenery  back to Muang Ngoi. It was the perfect day and you’ll be reading more about it soon.

Itinerary

For those of you interested, I’ve included our itinerary and map below. With limited time we elected to take some flights, but long-distance bus travel is readily available and cheap.

  • 5 nights Bangkok
  • 4 nights Siem Reap ( one hour flight from Bangkok)
  • 3 nights Battambang (4 hour bus ride from Siem Reap)
  • 3 nights Phenom Penh (6 hour bus ride from Battambang)
  • 3 nights Kampot (4 hour bus ride from Phenom Penh)
  • 3 nights Vientiane (1.5 hour flight via Phenom Penh)
  • 4 nights Luang Prabang (45 minute flight from Vientiane)
  • 2 nights Nong Khiaw (4 hour minibus ride from Luang Prabang)
  • 2 nights Muang Ngoi (1 hour boat ride from Nong Khiaw)
  • 1 night Luang Prabang (via boat/minibus from Muang Ngoi/Nong Khiaw) before catching 1.75 hour flight back to Bangkok and home.

 

 

Categories: Cambodia, Laos, Thailand | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 41 Comments

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41 thoughts on “Bangkok, Cambodia & Laos Trip Report: Reflections

  1. I’m going to all these places in a months time.. thanks for the info 😊😊

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for sharing this Article

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Caroline, As you know I was excitedly waiting for your posts for this trip and when they started appearing in my reader I was a bit overwhelmed with life and blogging had to take a back seat.So here I am taking my time to read them.
    I really like this first post overview drawing people in. I have never actually been to Bangkok except for the airport. An i imaging it would be crazy – try Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) for size sometime too. As you would know South East Asian is a very popular holiday destination for Aussies, being so close. So you will seeing us there right across the age spectrum including lots of families, We can be such a noisy lot too 😦
    It’s a great post up to your usual standard, you never falter. I love that you include a map in posts, I need to work how to do that one. I like how you have chosen a diverse range of photos to describe the overall experience. Now for the detailed posts … Louise

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Louise, I can totally relate to being overwhelmed with life. Thanks for taking the time to read my posts. There are so many interesting blogs out there I wish I had an extra 24 hours each day just to read and comment on all the great stuff.
      I have heard from others that Ho Chi Minh may actually have a leg up on Bangkok for craziness…I can’t imagine. You guys are lucky to be relatively close to very different and interesting countries.
      I’m a map person, but as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, I’m not great with technology and can get quite frustrated when I create and embed these maps (still a work in progress).
      I noticed you’ve commented on my other posts and have one or two new ones out yourself. I look forward to reading, but will have to wait until tomorrow. Bye for now, Caroline

      Liked by 1 person

  4. That is a great trip. You are right – Bangkok takes time. 4.5 days is about what you need to start to get comfortable in the city and sadly, most people don’t give it enough time.

    I need to check out Muang Ngoi and Nong Khiaw. They look like my kind of places.

    I went to Luang Prabang 10 years ago and loved it, but you could feel the tide of tourism rushing in. I want to go back, but I’m a little afraid to see what has happened!

    I look forward to reading more about your trip.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Jeff. Ya, I feel we short changed Bangkok and would love to be back there right now; the continuous rain and cold in Vancouver are killing me. I’m sure you would see some unwelcome change in Luang Prabang. It is a totally lovely place but busy busy (at least in high season) and sadly the morning alms procession has turned into a gong show. Definitely visit Muang Ngoi and Nong Khiaw.

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      • Too bad about the alms. We were in LP during peak high season in 2006 – from Christmas Eve to New Years Eve – and I remember a few people taking photos of the alms at close range, but for the most park everyone gave a respectful distance. The main street was a bit touristy, and along the Mekong there were a few restaurants but nothing bad.

        I’ve had several friends visit lately who were disappointed in it, which saddens me. We have a tendency do love places to death.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. At the beginning of this year, I spent several afternoons researching a trip to this part of Asia and literally fell down a rabbit hole as the cities and culture are so fascinating. Your post sums up all the excitement and your pictures bring it to life. Still planning this trip with many of the same cities (maybe in the fall?) but I can tell already that I’ll want more than a month to to alternate both the sight-seeing as well as just taking the time to absorb the experience. I’ll be bookmarking your itinerary! Anita

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Anita! I think taking as much time as you can is wise. These places are so different from our part of the world that they take time to “digest”. With temple visits, busy cities, fascinating (and scary) historical sites, heat…it can get overwhelming (for me at least). I loved the experience, but a little more “downtime” would have been even better. We were initially going to go in the fall but then other stuff got in the way. It is a good time to visit. If you have any questions as you do your planning, I’d be happy to lend my 2 cents worth. Cheers, Caroline

      Liked by 1 person

  6. What an amazing journey Caroline. I’ve been to Asia a few times but it was Bangkok that had the most effect on me. Like you mention it’s quit overwhelming the first time. The second time was with friends who lived there so that was a whole other perspective. Everyone should go to Asia at some point in their lives (if they can) it gives a whole new view of the world. I loved your post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much Myra! I totally agree that traveling in SE Asia is a unique and fascinating experience. There’s something very alluring about Bangkok despite the heat, crowds, traffic…I think it would be awesome to visit the city with friends who live there.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Loved reading this as we spent about 6 weeks living in Luang Prabang and were lucky to be there in off season, so that we really could enjoy daily life there and we did indeed! The waterfalls nearby in the mountains are incredible ~ turquoise, clear waters. Did you go there? I am impressed woth how much you seem to have seen and done!

    Another fascinating heart breaking but filled with relevant history book, which I read on a bus from Phnom Penh all the way to Siem Reap, is “First they killed my father.” I believe it will be made into a movie soon. Again at Angkor Watt we went in off season and I agree that the smaller temples are actually more interesting! Love the photo of Nong Khiaw as we never made it there… terrific descriptions and photos…

    Looking forward to more…

    Peta

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are lucky to have spent that much time in Luang Prabang. I would love to return there and to Angkor Wat in the low season. Aside from the fewer number of visitors I think it would probably be much prettier seeing everything green and fresh. We did visit the waterfalls near LP and I’ll definitely be doing a post. They are absolutely glorious.

      Thank you for the book suggestion. I would like to read it before I see the movie. We watched the Killing Fields at our guesthouse in Kampot. I could never quite bring myself to seeing it after reading the book so many years ago, but it felt like the thing to do while we were in Cambodia. I’m glad we were in the privacy of our little room where I could ball my eyes out. Yes, heartbreaking, but I’m so glad that we learned more about the history that really only sinks in properly (at least for me) when I travel.

      Thanks Peta! Cheers, Caroline

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  8. Caroline, I loved reading about your travels to SE Asia and look forward to more posts about it!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Brian Foster

    Brings back memories of this part of the world and makes us want to return again. Haven’t done Cambodia or Laos yet. Look forward to the detailed posts to follow.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Brian, yes, you guys must visit Cambodia and Laos. They are great places. I’d love to hear more about Cuba. I’m trying to convince Mike to go there soon.

      Like

  10. Oh, it must be interesting articles about your journey! These three countries are so unusual and exotic. In every country there is a lot of attractive. I really want to read your impressions.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for reading and leaving your comments. Yes, these countries are very exotic and so different from what I experience here in Canada. I look forward to sharing more of my travel stories.

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  11. AWESOME!! I can’t wait to read your posts on this trip!! Especially your day in Muang Ngoi and your time in Nong Khiaw – what stunning vistas.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Steven Hunt

    Simply – Outstanding! I so want to do this trip. Incredible. Glorious photos and descriptions—you have a gift C! I would have posted something on your site, but can’t seem to recover my password as yet.

    T

    P.s. I was reminded from your writing of this film again that I think I mentioned to you. Not sure if on Netflix or Youtube, but do check it out if you can.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swimming_to_Cambodia

    ppss So I gather Steve dropped the bomb on you guys yesterday….an unforgettable Monday (morning of your BD!) and week.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Oh Caroline you make me want to go back to see all the places I missed, and to ride bikes all over the place! We loved Luang Prabang so much that we changes out original itinerary of 7 days to 12. The bottom two photos and the one of the night food market are my faves – wonderful!
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know what you mean Alison. There are so many places we would have loved to explore further, and lots we completely missed out on (I know you guys enjoyed Vang Vieng and I’m disappointed we didn’t have time). What a treat spending 12 days in Luang Prabang!!! We were rushing around to fit in as much as we could and didn’t have enough “downtime”. No complaints, I’m just glad we got to see these places. Cheers, Caroline PS: Very excited about the sun today!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you for sharing this incredible journey Caroline–dream like images and your narrative is so enticing…can’t wait to take this trip some day!
        Trish

        Liked by 1 person

  14. Mike Hohmann

    Wonderful writing and photography. I look forward to upcoming posts on this exceptional journey through some beautiful places. Thanks!!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Jackie Frioud

    Wow Caroline, what a wonderful trip – I look forward to more details!!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Wow, sounds like you had an amazing trip! I can’t wait to read more about each place.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. That is so comprehensive and well written, Caroline. The lead photo of the dried red chillies is so apt for that part of the world 🙂 I identify with it. Kampot and Phnom Penh make me curious but the last two steal the show for me. Cheers.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. This sounds like an incredible trip – one in which you really immersed yourselves in the experiences. I’m looking forward to all your posts (when you feel like blogging!).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lately it hasn’t been about “not feeling like blogging”, I’ve just been too busy with other stuff. Hopefully the coming weeks will bring more time for writing/photo sorting. Cheers!

      Liked by 2 people

  19. I’ve been eagerly awaiting this series of posts and can already see that we’re in for such a treat! Bangkok looks and sounds like a wild kaleidoscope of sensory overload; I love that you chose to see the beauty in the chaos. Perspective is everything–so much wisdom to be gleaned from your tip. What a breathtaking view in Nong Khiaw! I’ve not read about many hikes in this part of the world and can see from your beautiful photo why you loved it so. I passed up an opportunity to backpack Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos after college (out of fear, sad but true) and have been kicking myself ever since. Believe me, I’m kicking myself even harder now! This series is already rekindling that flame. I’m especially looking forward to reading your take on Luang Prabang; it was my favorite read in Lonely Planet, and you know how sketchy that Lonely Planet is–leading us astray with those romantic descriptions, lol. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • What lovely and kind comments, thank you! It’s not too late to see this part of the world! I’m already stoked to return (fellow travellers got us very excited about Myanmar and we haven’t been to Vietnam…plus I’d like to see more of Laos, and….) As I mentioned briefly in the post, these countries are such great value making travel quite affordable. Lonely Planet does paint a romantic picture of Luang Prabang and it is wonderful place though suffering a bit from too much tourism (I’ll touch more on this in another post). So you memorize/absorb LP passages too! I’ve bought many guides and know all about places that are still on my list…fun!

      Liked by 1 person

  20. Anonymous

    Ok I cheated and fast forwarded to your favourite day! So happy you enjoyed this part of the world!

    Liked by 1 person

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