It was time to leave Luang Prabang and time for the biggest question mark of this long trip. Months ago, I’d booked us on a 2-day Mekong river cruise to Thailand in a big, open-air traditional wooden river boat. At $130 each, this was big money in Laos, but substantially cheaper and way more interesting than some sleep-aboard river boats I’d seen. These same type boats do a much, much cheaper “slow boat” between Luang Prabang and Huay Xai, Laos, but with frequent crowds, unreserved seats (so if the boat is full, you may have to wait a day) and a bus-like atmosphere, they sounded way less comfortable than I was willing to do. The company I chose, Mekong Smile Cruises, got good reviews and sounded like just the level of adventure I was up for. Lunch onboard was included, we stopped at a cave filled with Buddha statues and a local village en route. The overnight happened in Pakbeng, Laos, a village or small town that Google Images led me to believe was no great shakes…but online posts indicated that guest rooms were easy to come by and ridiculously cheap. I scanned Tripadvisor, seeing a few guesthouses listed and one “upscale” hotel at around $100. After his initial impulse that I should “throw money at it” and get the hotel, David came around to my way of thinking that we should try one of the guest houses. I made note of a few recommended names and posts saying that prices doubled if you book in advance, so why bother. Alright, we’d wing it. God, I hope I’m not getting us into a mess! I say this in present tense because I’m onboard the boat as I write this.
We were up bright and early for the monks, aided by the local rooster as well as my phone alarm. Sure enough our friend at the front desk had procured a large straw basket of sticky rice, a bowl of packaged crackers and rice cakes and a straw mat for us to kneel on. We crossed the street in front of the hotel, laid out the mat and set out our offerings. Several yards down the road, the ladies running a nearby store laid out their own mat and offerings.
Soon, we glimpsed the first monks, clad in bright orange robes, appear to our left at the far end of the road. They chanted as they walked single file, but stopped as they neared us, filing by in silence. Each carried a metal pot on their right hip, held by a rope holder slung over a shoulder and a bag on the opposite hip. As they passed us, each paused and removed the lid from his pot for us to add our offering. David pulled off small balls of sticky rice and deposited them in the bowl while I dropped a packet of crackers or rice cake in the same bowl.
It’s always kind of fun to wake up in a place you’ve only seen in the dark. A Christmas morning kind of surprise-gift (I-hope-its-not-a-dud) feeling. Waking up in My Dream Boutique Resort in Luang Prabang Laos was definitely exciting. Our welcome the night before boded well: very friendly and efficient, check-in accompanied by chilled ginger water and honeyed mango. The room itself was charmingly styled with woven Lao mats, mosquito net-draped bed, stained-stone shower, generous balcony (albeit sans view–We didn’t figure we’d spend much time in the room.) and mahogany furnishings.
Roberto booked us another $6 taxi ride back to the Siem Reap airport for our evening flight to Luang Prabang, Laos. All went smoothly on exit, even though the passport control people were once again the crabbiest of any Cambodians we met. They did their job, just with an unfriendly attitude and lots of barked directions. Oh well.
Although the Siem Reap airport is relatively small, it’s modern and very nice. We wandered past lots of upscale duty free shops to find the Plaza Premium Club, a lounge covered by our Priority Pass “Select” memberships. Priority Pass “Select” is a perk of some of our premium cards that we’ve found to be almost useless in the U.S. (The “Select” version of this paid lounge membership is often excluded by American airline and airport lounges.), only moderately useful in Europe, but really great in Asia. Siem Reap was no exception.
I’ve not had time to review restaurants, lodging, etc. much, wanting to experience the trip rather than spend too much time writing. But, since I’ve got a day on the river, I thought I’d take some time to write up 1 or 2 of my favorites. Besides, it’s fun to sit at my little “desk” with David on a daybed in front of me, watching the banks of the Mekong slip by.
Since we had an evening flight out of Siem Reap, David was eager to use that time to try the new brewpub Eddie (the founder of Kompangkhleang.org and the Bridge to Life School) had told us about. With its combination of good beers with local flair, lovely atmosphere, friendly service and fantastic food, the Siem Reap Brewpub may be my favorite brewpub yet!
We’d heard about the “floating” fishing villages outside of Siem Reap from an Australian couple we met on Mariner. When we asked our first driver in Siem Reap about them, he’d said there were 3, but that the first 2 were touristy and crowded and the furthest one, Kompong Khleang, was the one to see. Roberto suggested Chantrea, who offered to drive us for $50, then we’d pay $20 separately for a tour boat. Hmm. $90 for a day with Chantrea again (I hadn’t quite gotten over that hour in the heat.) and it didn’t sound like he really knew much about the village. David took on a little research and soon found a couple of tour companies, but one tour really stood out. It was $35 apiece and promised that the money would remain local and much of it would go to support a local school which we’d get to visit. As an additional bonus, the tour didn’t begin until 2pm and lasted through sunset on the lake. Other tours started early in the morning, something we’d just as soon not do on vacation. There was a minimum of 2 guests for the tour to “make” and since we were 2, it sounded perfect. David emailed and we got a quick reply. We were on for Monday.
With a better understanding of Angkor and our own preferences for touring (and tolerance for heat), we decided to do without Chantrea on our second day. Instead, we negotiated with Sawat, one of the cluster of tuk tuk drivers and their families who seemed permanently ensconced in a sort of open-air living room just across from our apartment building. [We used these tuk tuks almost exclusively during our stay, paying $2-3 to be driven to restaurants, stores, etc. Usually, we’d text them using the phone Roberto loaned us when we wanted to be picked up or arrange a time in advance. If that didn’t work, we used tuk tuks obtained by the restaurants to avoid the occasional price-change scam.]
Visiting Angkor Wat had been a dream of mine for decades. The mystical ruins hold allure for many travelers, but Cambodia can seem remote and intimidating to navigate. Nevertheless, when I’d first hit on the idea of extending our trip from northern Asia to SE Asia via cruise ship, Angkor Wat was in my sights. And now, after all these years, I’d see it for myself.
We arrived at the modern Siem Reap airport via an AirAsia flight from Kuala Lumpur. Cambodia has a visa-on-arrival policy for Americans and many other travelers, payment due in cash only. The amount varies by country, but there’s a handy-dandy ATM machine that dispenses dollars (the preferred currency) just as you enter the terminal from the tarmac. (There’s no skywalk into the terminal; a guide leads debarking passenger on a walk across the tarmac from the plane to the terminal.) AirAsia is a classic low-budget airline where you choose and pay for each amenity, more cheaply if you do so in advance. Prices are cheap, so it’s worth the extra dollars to get a front seat (and a basic meal) just so you can be ahead of the crowd at the visa application line. The visa is $35pp, for Americans, plus an extra $2 apiece if you don’t have a passport photo for the application. (The fee varies by country ranging from $20-42pp.) After paying and handing in the application, you walk around the corner of the L-shaped counter and wait until yet another official holds up your passport, now sporting an official visa and exit card.
I’d really just planned a peek at Kuala Lumpur en route to Cambodia, but we ended up loving this city and packing in more than I’d dreamed. I can’t start this travelogue without a nod to our spectacular AirBnB apartment. Located in central Kuala Lumpur, near 2 light rail stations and a monorail station, this brand new building is ultramodern, staffed with lots of helpful people, sporting a great view from the floor-to-ceiling windows in the 2-bedroom/2-bath apartment, a spectacular rooftop pool and more. All this for $65, all-in. We loved it!
Now totally enchanted by Singapore, we were determined to fit in as much as possible in our second, full day. First up, Little India. Our hotel, the beautiful Intercontinental Singapore, sits conveniently by the Bugis subway stop on the Downtown Line, which runs directly to Bayfront (the Marina Bay area) and Little India (in opposite directions). Two stops, and we hopped off in another world. A huge covered market teemed with vendors hawking every imaginable dry and wet good, women in saris, tourists, locals…all in a sweltering Mubai-like heat. The main street was decorated with peacock lights, ready for the upcoming Deepavali Festival which celebrates the victory of light/good over dark/evil.