Monday, May 17, 2010

With a layover of about nine hours before our flight to Vancouver, we decided to go and check out Seoul. We discovered that they offer tours for passengers in transit right at Incheon Airport so we signed up for a five hour tour. It took an hour to reach downtown Seoul and our first stop was the 6 km long man-made Cheonggyecheon stream. A great waterway running through the city with walks and waterfalls. Very peaceful. Next up was the Gyeongbokgung Palace. Interesting architecture and lots of wide open courtyards but very busy with tourists. We then visited the National Folk Museum of Korea on the palace grounds. This gave us some good insight into traditional Korean life. After the museum, we got to wander Insadong Street for about half an hour. A really eclectic shopping district. We picked up two Korean hand painted scrolls and visited the coolest tea shop ever with amazing wooden lanterns hanging in the windows. We have to get a lantern like that one day. The shopping walk was followed by a traditional Korean lunch with bbq beef and stir fried vegetables with rice, then back to Incheon to check-in for our flight to Vancouver. Just writing this in the business class lounge as some annoying fellow is trying to play the piano! He just gets the tune right, then runs out of notes. A very impressive lounge but the piano has to go. Downloaded the Amazing Race finale to watch on the flight home but will have to wait until we are back in Calgary to see who won Survivor! Next stop, Vancouver.

The flight to Vancouver seemed to go by fairly quickly and we were particularly impressed to see all our bags arrive from Phuket in one piece. In fact, they were among the first bags to show up on the carousel. This allowed us to run over to WestJet to see if we could get on an earlier flight to Calgary. We were successful in making the change and left Vancouver two hours earlier than scheduled. We arrived home to some very excited little boys and were able to say that we were back home before we had left Seoul!

This has been the best trip we have taken so far and Cambodia is our all- time favourite destination. We have such fond memories of the people, the food, the temples and Amansara. All four countries we visited on this trip truly impressed us. It’s time to start planning a return to Asia!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

A lazy last day in Thailand. Late breakfast of pancakes, bacon and rosti potatoes. Tour of the villas for future travel plans. Packed up the bags and then some pool time with a late lunch of spring rolls and a hamburger. We really enjoyed our time at Amanpuri. The beginning of the low season is a good time to visit. We felt for the most part that we had the whole resort to ourselves. We were very impressed with the Amanpuri departure process. Nice ride to the airport in an air conditioned BMW and then we were met by an Amanpuri staff member who grabbed our bags, checked us in and led us to the immigration hall. The only problem is that our flight to Bangkok is delayed and our connection time to Seoul is eroding as I type this. Our bags are checked through to Vancouver so who knows when we’ll see them again. At least we are in the business class lounge in Phuket so things are comfortable pending the arrival of our plane from Bangkok.

Finally left Phuket after a two and a quarter hour delay. That pretty much used up all of our transit time in Bangkok. Arrived with an hour to spare before our flight left for Seoul. Very impressed with Thai Airlines. They were waiting for us at the gate and took us away in a private vehicle to get our boarding passes. This was a tremendous help. In fact, it was so good we ended up being the first passengers on the flight to Seoul! Asiana Airlines flight to Seoul was good. Only a five hour flight and we both slept pretty well. Just landed in Seoul and ready to go exploring. Once again, a fantastic airport. Very clean, spacious, modern and organized.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

After a fun breakfast with Kathy and Fletcher, the world travellers from North Carolina, we headed off to board Aman 1, Amanpuri’s 60 foot cruise boat, for a day trip out to Phang Nga Bay. What a fabulous day - amazing scenery combined with great service. We shared this adventure with a newly-wed couple from Turkey who were staying at Amanpuri. As we reached the first set of limestone cliffs at Phang Nga Bay, we saw numerous stalactites, limestone caves and caverns. The dinghy from Aman 1 took us ashore and we were able to enter one of the caves which opened up into a beautiful green lagoon. Once we were back on board, we headed off to see James Bond Island, a limestone rock made famous by Roger Moore in the movie, The Man with the Golden Gun. The tiny island was heaving with tourists and we were surprised to see numerous souvenir stalls on the beach which was miles from anywhere! After the obligatory photo, we headed back to Aman 1 and some more cave exploring with the dinghy. We then made our way to Hong Island, where we found a secluded beach and took some time to swim in the amazingly warm water. This was followed by a superb lunch on-board the boat, after which we headed back to the mainland. We lazed around for the rest of the afternoon and just before dinner, the hotel gave us each AmanJunkie t-shirt gifts recognizing that we have now stayed at two Aman properties. As we walked over to have dinner in the Italian restaurant on the pool terrace, a small snake crossed our path. This was enough to scare the hell out of me! Another good meal and then off to bed in anticipation of our departure late tomorrow.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Today was a lazy day. We had a late breakfast by the pool and then went to the Amanpuri library to start planning our 2011 adventure. It’s looking like Bagan in Myanmar together with Amantaka in Laos. We met a couple here at Amanpuri who have been travelling the world and their faces lit up when they spoke about their recent visit to Bagan. That’s a good enough endorsement for me! We took a run into Phuket town about 40 minutes away and stopped at a souvenir shop where we bought a lovely Thai hand painted porcelain, gold leaf tea set. Very unique. Hopefully, it travels well. We then made our way into the town and purchased more luggage. We have accumulated quite a bit of stuff over the last week or so! This was followed by a Thai waffle treat - we tried the almond waffle and the maple waffle. Delicious! A quick stroll along the streets where we decided to hire a driver to show us a few more sights. We went to Phuket Bay. There was not much to see here as the tide was out. We made our way to Old Phuket. A charming area of old run down Portuguese style buildings some of which have been renovated into hip looking boutiques and cafes. We stopped at the China Inn Cafe for a late lunch. The springrolls were wonderful and the Thai red curry was superb. Catherine’s penne looked good too! After our meal, we headed back to Amanpuri. Tomorrow we are on the water for most the day, so an early night looks good. Might have time to watch the latest episode of Survivor!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Time to leave Amansara and visit Amanpuri. We woke to an email from Thai Airlines advising us that they had cancelled our flight from Bangkok to Phuket and rebooked us later in the day. This meant more airport time and less beach time so we decided to look at other options to preserve our time at Amanpuri. We quickly ate breakfast and checked out of Amansara. As we were leaving, we looked back and saw a group of the staff members waving goodbye. This brought a tear to our eyes! The driver then gave us a wonderful parting gift - it was a print of Bayon temple. What a great place! We loved every minute of our time at Amansara. We arrived at the Siem Reap airport and managed to book an earlier connecting flight on Bangkok Airways from Bangkok to Phuket. This was perfect and allowed us to get to Amanpuri just after lunch instead of late afternoon. We were met at the Phuket airport by a driver from Amanpuri and whisked off to the resort. Another wonderful Aman property. The setting is absolutely stunning. This is probably the best hotel setting we have ever seen. Our room has a fabulous ocean view and we have our own private sala from which to enjoy it. We spent some time on the beach before going exploring. The water here is so warm. As we came up from the beach, we had a traditional Thai tea by the pool. The coconut pancakes were exceptional. We took a quick walk down to the local shops to check the place out. Found a fantastic shop selling ancient artifacts. Bit too pricey for us! Arrived back at Amanpuri for dinner. I had a wonderful Thai curry and Catherine enjoyed a beef dish cooked on hot rocks. Once again, we are off to bed early. Too much fresh air!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Quick breakfast of french toast, bacon and potato rosti and we were on the road by 6.30 am. First stop - Banteay Srei: The Citadel of Women. On the way, Me-an watched the Siem Reap episode of the Amazing Race on the iPad. He recognized some of the cab drivers! The Banteay Srei temple has the most intricate stone carvings we have seen so far and is the only temple ruin where tourist commercialism is starting to take hold. A formal souvenir area, pay parking and roped off areas in the temple are a sign of things to come. It won’t be long before all of the temples at Angkor will have some tourist access limitations. We made candy friends with two little girls and bought a souvenir Buddha head from the market before heading for the car. Next stop was the temple ruins at Pre Rup. The views from the top of this temple were outstanding and you could just see the towers of Angkor Wat in the distance. On the way back to Amansara, we saw some school kids playing soccer during their recess at Srasrang School. We stopped the car and went to visit them and their school. The teachers gave us an interesting tour and explained what the kids were learning. A number of the students spoke very good english and they hone their skills selling goods to tourists in the evenings. One of the kids even knew that Stephen Harper was the prime minister of Canada! The school is in desperate need of some financial assistance to buy books and supplies so we made a small donation and will see how we can help them when we get back to Canada. A quick swim at the hotel followed by a snack-based lunch and its time to head out to the floating village on Tonle Sap Lake.

We stopped along the way to buy more crayons, books, balls and lollipops for the kids at the floating village school and we handed them out as we got to the lake. The kids were so appreciative of the gifts they all received. We bought tickets at the Siem Reap harbour and headed out to the floating village in Tonle Sap Lake. The ride out was eye-opening and unlike anything we’ve seen before. Poverty at the highest levels all around as people live in houses on the lake trying to support themselves with fish from the muddy water. At one point a smaller boat zoomed up alongside and a young girl jumped on-board our boat trying to sell us drinks. She startled us! As she jumped back on to her own boat, another boat pulled alongside containing a kid with a python around his neck. I just about jumped into the drink vendors boat! The living conditions of the boat people are pitiful. It’s hard to imagine living your whole life like this. We moored up to a floating restaurant and market and got off our boat to walk around. I couldn’t believe that there were crocodiles for sale on the market boat! The sun was starting to set and we headed back to Siem Reap harbour, passing out the remaining books and pencils to kids along the river bank. As we pulled in to the dock, we were greeted by a vendor who had discreetly taken our picture when we first arrived earlier in the afternoon and was now trying to sell us our photo in the middle of a souvenir dish! We headed back to Amansara where we said our goodbyes to our wonderful guide, Me-an. Me-an was fantastic. We learned so much from him and shared many laughs and special moments. You rock, Me-an! We had another tasty dinner and now it’s time to pack for tomorrow’s  trip to Amanpuri in Phuket, Thailand. We will miss Cambodia and the wonderful people here - they hold a very special place in our hearts!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Up at 4.30 am and ready to go. We met up with Me-an, our guide, and Bo, our remork driver and we were off. It had rained overnight - thunder and lightning. The monsoons are coming but for now, the rain cooled things off. Bo dropped us at the east entrance to Angkor Wat in the dark. It was deserted. Everyone else approaches Angkor Wat from the west. We entered the temple complex and picked our way down a jungle path. As we made our way along the path, our eyes adjusted to the light and the temple started to come into view. Magnificent feeling to see the grandest of the Khmer temples all alone in the soft light of the dawn. We entered the gate and made our way to the third level. We had the whole place to ourselves but could see the throngs of tourists gathering on the west side to watch the sun come up over the temple from the east. We had the temple to ourselves for about an hour and it was surreal to be in such a magnificent place watching the dawn light up different areas of the temple in brilliant golds and yellows. As the sun rose higher, we made our way out of the west entrance to view the amazing bas reliefs on the west wall. The detail of the sculptures was incredible. We headed past the west pools and across the western moat to meet up with Bo. This was truly the experience of a lifetime. Big thanks to Me-an for making this happen. 

We left Angkor Wat and went to see some souvenir shops. We came across a fabulous wooden Buddha head but must now decide whether the outrageous shipping charges are worth it! As we shopped for souvenirs, we visited the Artisans of Angkor marketplace in Siem Reap where Cambodians with disabilities are employed in art-making endeavours. Fabulous pieces but too heavy to bring home. After this, it was back to Amansara for breakfast and a nap as we prepare to head out again later this afternoon.

A light snack of vegetable tempura with rice-paper springrolls, coupled with fries and coffee meringues, and we were set to head out for the afternoon. First stop, Prasat Kravan, ancient temple ruins from the early 10th century. The interior chambers of these ruins contain wonderful bas reliefs that are in outstanding condition. A quick shopping stop after the temple tour and then it was off to Ta Prohm, famous for a number of  scenes involving Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider. We entered Ta Prohm through the remote northern gate and hiked a short distance through the jungle to the main temple ruins. These ruins have been taken over by jungle growth which makes them enchanting and teeming with mystique. The late afternoon light added to the ambience. We headed back to Amansara for dinner. Before dinner we were treated to an amazing show of Khmer dance by several children from an orphanage close by. The children were wonderful, very happy and proud. Another great meal and it was time for bed, but not before a quick viewing of the Amazing Race when they were in Siem Reap a few seasons ago. We tracked this episode down on iTunes so we could show it to Me-an, our guide, in the morning. He remembers the show coming to town but never saw the final product on tv.

Monday, May 10, 2010

What a day! Up at the crack of dawn for a quick breakfast before heading out with our guide, Me-an, and our remork driver, Bo, to our first set of ruins east of Angkor Thom. Bought our three day ticket for US$40 each and made our way to our first temple ruins in the jungle at Ta Nei. Next up was the spectacular, but unfinished, ruins of the temple at Ta Keo and the nearby hospital chapel. We met up with a super little 10-year old, who was selling post cards. He was pretty clever - when Catherine said she had no money with her to buy his postcards, he told her to go get some from her husband! After Ta Keo, we went to the King’s East Gate entrance to Angkor Thom. This was spectacular with 54 statues holding a giant serpant on each side of the road leading into the walled city. After this it was time for a break from the heat and we made our way back to Amansara. After a swim in the pool and some lying in the sun, we had a remork take us to have lunch at the Hotel de la Paix. I had a traditional Kymer meal - beef curry, bbq pork ribs and sour chicken soup. One of the best meals I have ever had! Following lunch, we went to the local bookstore to buy books, pencils and crayons for under-privileged kids in a floating village we plan to visit sometime in the next few days. We got back to Amansara just in time to meet up with Me-an for our late afternoon trip back to Angkor Thom. By this time, the temperature had reached about 40 degrees celcius! We entered Angkor Thom by the south gate this time and paid a visit to the temple ruins of Preah Palilay. This was followed by a visit to the royal pond and then the ruins of Bapuon, where some major restoration work is taking place. To end the afternoon, we walked over to Bayon. This was incredible! Large smiling buddhas are the big feature at this temple as are the wall murals which depict Kymer life over 800 years ago. We ended the day with a wonderful dinner at Amansara and now its time for early bed as we plan to be on our way tomorrow morning at 5.00 am to watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mother’s Day in Hong Kong and travel day to Cambodia. Cadbury’s mini-eggs and swedish berry candies for my beautiful wife and the wonderful mother of my two little guys! Also, Happy Mother’s Day Mom, if you are reading this! Final breakfast in the Club lounge at the Inter-Continental - only four pieces of toast and peanut butter today compared to the six I had yesterday! Love the bread and pastries here. We sadly checked out of one of the greatest hotels we have ever stayed in. The service was top notch. Traffic was light to the Hong Kong airport and the airport itself was virtually empty. Managed to change one of our flights for later this week. Just one to go. The Hong Kong airport is truly amazing. It is wonderfully spacious, organized and quiet. The security screening process was a pleasure. North Americans could learn a lot from their Asian counterparts. Spent a few moments in the Royal Thai lounge where we checked in with the boys back home before getting onto the plane. Sat on the top deck of the 747 to Bangkok. Only a two and a half hour flight so very civilized. We watched Survivor on iTunes - Go Russell! Go Parvati! Landed in Bangkok and checked in for Siem Reap. Managed to make the final flight change we were hoping to make, so all revised travel arrangements have been finalized. Bangkok Airways have been a pleasure to deal with. We successfully changed two hotel arrival/departures and two flights at no cost. I can’t imagine how much this would have cost in Canada! Sitting in the lounge at the Bangkok airport typing this blog. Yet another wonderfully modern, spacious airport - what’s up with the rest of the world? Will check back in again when we are settled in Cambodia later tonight.

The flight to Cambodia was quick - 55 minutes by propellor plane. Super hot on arrival and it was nighttime! I love it! We went to the visa counter and got our visa applications processed. Very interesting system. About 10 visa officers sitting in a row. Each one passes your passport down the line to the last guy who gives it back to you with a visa in it. We then  made our way through immigration and customs and were done. Amansara had arranged transportation for us to the hotel. They picked us up in an antique Mercedes limosine. The car is over 50 years old and apparently belonged to the king of Cambodia years ago. The drive to Siem Reap and the Amansara hotel was about 20 minutes. The drivers and staff were very welcoming on arrival and we were checked in quickly and off to our room. Beautiful place. Very peaceful. Used to be the king of Cambodia’s summer home when it was built in the sixties. We have our own private pool but it is hard to see in the dark so will have to check it out in the morning. The hotel arranged some beautiful lilies as a Mother’s Day surprise for Catherine and they brought us some wonderful freshly squeezed lime juice and pork and vegetable rice paper springrolls as a welcome snack. We had a light dinner in the restaurant with a refreshing cup of tea and then called it a day to rest up for some temple touring in the morning. I believe we are going to see Angkor Thom first.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Saturday in Hong Kong. Another great breakfast in the hotel Club lounge. British corned beef hash for me, American corned beef hash for Catherine - I won! Headed back to the room to catch the Calgary Hitmen in their WHL championship-winning game on the Slingbox. They were up 4-1 when I turned it on and that’s how it finished. Well done, guys! Now go get the Memorial Cup! Found out there was a flight change to the Cambodia leg of our trip which will reduce our time there. Have now decided to spend an extra day in Siem Reap and one less in Phuket to maximize our visit. Hotels changed, transportation pending. Will try and sort flights out when we get to Bangkok. Today’s plan is to explore Kowloon. We took the subway to the gold fish market. Most impressive subway system we have ever used. Very clean and well organized. The gold fish market was fascinating. Hundreds of bags of fish ready to be sold as pets. Aquariums are popular as the apartments are too small for dogs and cats. As we made our way to the gold fish market, we passed through the home renovation shop district. Amazing to see so many shops side by side selling tiles, faucets, door handles and the like. Incredible selection - we have a long way to go to catch up in Canada. The shops are organized in districts where every shop in the area sells similar products. Great for comparison shopping and getting the best price. The various markets were heaving with people - Saturday seems to be shopping day. This was particularly true in the ladies district where knock-off designer bags were all the rage. After exploring the various shopping districts, it was time for afternoon tea at the Peninsula Hotel - one of the things to do in Hong Kong. A 40 minute wait and we were seated in the grandiose lobby. Overall, a pleasant experience but the scones did not make our top five list! We went back to the Inter-Continental Hotel to check out the afternoon tea selection in the Club lounge, only to find they had better scones and clotted cream and these guys were included in our daily room rate! After a second round of tea and scones, we went to sit by the pool for a while before heading off to the nearby Harbour City Mall for some last minute shopping. This is the largest mall in Hong Kong and the biggest one we have ever been in. Teeming with shoppers and back to back designer shops. Every name brand imaginable. A paradise for lady shoppers! We walked around a bit and then headed back for our nightly ritual of evening snacks at the hotel. A quick walk up and down the neon light spectacle of Nathan Road dodging the fake watch and bag dealers before heading back to pack for Cambodia and turn in for the night.