Day 69 | Celebrating Songkran in Bangkok aka the world’s biggest water fight

Day 69 | Celebrating Songkran in Bangkok aka the world’s biggest water fight

We spent our last night in Southeast Asia in Bangkok during Thai New Year (Songkran). Coming from Hanoi this was our one night stopover before leaving Bangkok for Paro, Bhutan the next morning.

For the second night in a row, we were woken up by the Vietnam Railway staff members knocking on our sleeper cabin door. We said goodbye to the Australian retiree couple we shared our cabin with and then left the train. This was our third and last time transiting through the Hanoi railway station. We walked through the streets of Hanoi to the Holiday Gold Hotel, repeating the same path we had tread just three days earlier coming from Hue. The town was almost empty at this early hour of the morning (5am).

We got to the Holiday Gold Hotel, woke up the staff once again and picked up our luggage. The very friendly staff member called a taxi for us and we were able to pay him using a mix of VND that we had left and USD that we had brought with us from New York.

The taxi ride was as expected without traffic. Once at the airport, we repacked everything so it would fit in our two pieces of carry-on luggage and two backpacks and then checked in. But when we arrived at the Air Asia check in booth, we were told that carry on items were limited to 7 kg per bag and that it would cost us $72 to check in our two rolling suitcases which were both around 11 kg. We were outraged by the prices especially because paying in advance was much cheaper at $10 per bag up to 15 kg. There was no way we were going to pay that much. Seeing we were visibly upset, the lady was nice and told we could repack our stuff so that we would only have to check in one of the two suitcases. We did exactly that and ended up paying only $36. Still an exorbitant fee for a single bag but we had no other option.

Hanoi airport

We went through immigration and security without trouble before reaching our gate. It was 7am then: despite our two rounds of playing Tetris with our luggage, we were still super early for our 9am Air Asia flight. We used that time to catch up on writing the latest yolomimo blog post.

The flight duration was about two hours and we landed in Bangkok for the second time. Maurice was anxious to go through the Thai immigration for the third time of our trip after his weird experience of being questioned by an immigration officer in Chiang Mai a few weeks ago. Luckily, he didn’t encounter any issues. We picked up our luggage, changed some dollars to THB and hopped on an airport bus to the BTS Skytrain station. As we walked from the bus stop to the Skytrain station, we started seeing many people selling water guns on the street.

Bangkok's skytrain

We realized the water guns were for the celebrations of Thai New Year aka Songkran. Tons of young people were on the train ready for the most epic water battle of the year. Once we got off the Skytrain, it took us a while to find our hotel. We had to go through the maze of two large connected shopping malls before finally getting to the Grand Hyatt Erawan Bangkok. The hotel itself is very luxurious, probably on par with the Park Hyatt Saigon we stayed at while in Ho Chi Minh City. We were assigned to a corner room.

After taking the obligatory walkthrough video, our first priority was to finally take a shower. We had been unable to bathe ourselves for close to 72 hours by that point! It felt truly amazing! We later took a few pictures of the hotel’s premises. We checked out the outdoor pool which we swam in later that night.

Pool at the Hyatt in Bangkok

The spacious lobby tastefully decorated with trees.

Spacious lobby at the Hyatt

We left the hotel around 2:45pm, searching for Inter, a very well reviewed restaurant serving Thai cuisine in our area. However due to the festivities for Songkran we were unable to walk through the overcrowded streets to our destination. There were tons of people having fun in the streets. We did get splashed a few times on our way.

First we stopped at the Erawan Shrine next to the hotel.

Erawan shrine

Crowds were forming at every overpass over major intersections. It was a long traffic jam getting to the other side of the street.

Crowds forming for Songkran

We were not prepared for the water fight, for example, we didn’t even carry a bag to protect our camera. So we tried to keep a safe distance from getting soaked.

Revelers on line for the festival

We did take some picture of the young people excited to splash others.

Supersoakers ready

This was the core part of the festivities in the Siam Square area of Bangkok. This animation captures the revelers marching down the street.

Water fight

We eventually gave up looking for the restaurant and ended up eating at Peppery Thai Bistro, a Thai restaurant located inside the food court of the Siam Paragon shopping mall. It was great to be able to enjoy true authentic Thai food again! We finished our lunch pretty late, shortly before 5pm.

Pad thai again finally

Since we had to go to bed early tonight we agreed to skip dinner and instead have a lot of desserts! We started with bubble tea from Coco.

Bubble tea

Then we walked to nearby Siam Center mall. We saw Tom Cruise on our way. (Who I don’t particularly like but why not pose for a photo anyway #BeingAsian).

I don't even like Tom Cruise

At Siam Center mall, we grabbed ice cream at Gelate.

Gelato next

Alas our dessert binge ended early as we weren’t hungry anymore. We did pass by Annette I Tim Tuk Tuk, a gelato on a stick food stand built into a tuk tuk.

The walk back to our hotel took a long time as the area was still super crowded with people coming to spray everyone with water.

Never far from the super soakers

We stopped at an overpass to record this animation of the infamous Bangkok traffic in the early evening with cars, tuk tuks and motorbikes.

Infamous Bangkok traffic

At the hotel, we used the business center to print necessary immigration documents for entering Bhutan tomorrow. While I worked with the staff to print out our documents, Maurice sat down on one of the two provided massage chairs in the relaxation area of the business center. That machine, an OSIM ulnfinity, was amazing (we later found out it retails for about $11,000). I joined Maurice and we both stayed there getting a full body massage for a good half hour.

Next we left for the hotel’s swimming pool. The water in the pool was pleasantly warm and for a while we were the only ones there. We also tried the hot jacuzzi which we were lucky to have for ourselves before returning to our room. A second shower and an hour of repacking optimization aka Tetris later, we were ready to fall asleep in the super comfortable King bed. But only to wake again at 4 AM for our 6 AM flight to Bhutan.

Day 57 | Catching the sunrise at Angkor Wat then off to Saigon

Day 57 | Catching the sunrise at Angkor Wat then off to Saigon

For our last morning in Cambodia, we biked to Angkor Wat in total darkness to capture the iconic sunrise over its central towers. Back at the hotel, we lingered over a long breakfast and relaxed in our room until it was ready to fly to Saigon, Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh City to be politically correct) where we met up with our friend Luc visiting from Hong Kong.

Reluctantly, we rolled out of bed at 4 am, picked up our bikes from the hotel’s parking area and sped through Siem Reap for the dark and quiet 8 km ride to the west entrance of Angkor Wat.

When we finally got there, we were disappointed that it was already light outside.

Although the road was pretty much flat and the temperature invitingly cool, my short legs could not pedal fast enough. When it comes to two things biking and eating, I am always the bottleneck in this couple.

We speed-walked through the bridge over the moat to the best photo spot, just over the reflecting pool on the left side of the Angkor Wat entrance. We held the camera up high over the crowd in order to get this silhouetted shot.

Angkor Wat sunrise

Now, for the behind-the-scenes photo of what went into getting the above shot. We had to gently nudge our way through at least three rows of other tourists who waited here longer than we did in order to take serene unobstructed photos of Angkor Wat.

Crowds at sunrise

The right reflecting pool has less people taking photos since there is less water, the water looks dirtier and the sun rises off-center.

Sunrise part 2

We took the opportunity for a photo with both of us.

Mimo at Angkor

Other than humans, savvy monkeys descend down to this area in droves to get their free morning meals. Some monkeys crawl into trash cans, even opening them from the bottom to scavenge for food.

Monkey eating garbage

Other monkeys are more daring. Many tourists grab a packed breakfast from their hotels before coming to Angkor Wat for the sunrise. These shameless monkeys snatch tourists’ breakfasts straight out of their hands. And don’t even try to take your breakfast back. In this video, the girl with the scarf standing in the back had her food stolen soon after. She tried to grab the styrofoam container back and in retaliation the monkey ripped her beautiful scarf in two. It could definitely have been worse.

This monkey basking in the glory of his edible conquest.

Monkeys and temples

By 7 am, we left Angkor Wat and biked back to our hotel where we had our last breakfast at the Sarai.

Latte at Sarai

We went back to our comfy room to make reservations for our Saigon hotel and caught up on yolomimo blog work. Then it was time to check out and ride a tuk tuk to the Siem Reap International Airport, which is less than 10 km away. On the highway, my straw hat blew right off my head onto the street. We told the driver to stop and I dashed 50 m behind to grab the hat. I had déjà vu from the last time we took a tuk tuk to the airport in Chiang Mai, where my hat also blew straight off my head.

When we got to the airport to check in to our flight to Saigon, we had to present our passports. As an American citizen, I had to get a 90-day Vietnam visa in advance (at the sky high price of $160 in New York). Maurice, as a French citizen, did not need a visa but his stay was limited to 15 days. My paperwork checked out however the lady at the check in desk demanded to see proof of our departure flight. We did not book our departure flight. So on the spot using my phone’s 3G internet, I had to navigate AirAsia’s slow and nonintuitive mobile website to book a flight from Hanoi to Bangkok. The whole time we stressed that we would miss our flight. Finally getting through the mobile payment portal, my reservation was made but my credit card payment did not go through.

I showed the check in attendant my phone screen which showed the flight reservation details marked in huge letters NEEDS PAYMENT. She said this was acceptable but first we would have to go to Cambodia Angkor Air’s office and print out a copy of this. We both ran outside the terminal, through the airport’s airline offices to find the door leading to Cambodia Angkor Air. The two ladies working in the office looked extremely unenthused as they directed us to a vacant computer. We hurried to log into Gmail, “Please update your Google Chrome browser to the latest version.” Are you serious? I switched to Internet Explorer, “Gmail is not supported on this version of Internet Explorer.” Grrr! I went to the AirAsia website directly and typed in my booking number. I immediately printed out the confirmation still saying NEEDS PAYMENT. I tinkered with the payment portal to see if I could enter in my payment details again, as expected, it did not work.

One of the office ladies handed us the printout and told us “What are you doing? You’re going to miss your flight.” We grabbed the copy and ran out of there, she was probably right. We ran back to the departure area and handed the paper over, finally we were given our boarding passes and our luggage was checked in. We went through immigration and security and ran to our gate, it was completely empty of people. We ran to the desk at the gate, turns out our gate was moved. We ran to the new gate, huffing and puffing. The attendant told us boarding had not begun yet and told us to take a seat. Ok it wasn’t so bad after all.

Here’s the plane we finally boarded.

Boarding plane to Saigon

And the takeoff video.

Of course, the landing video in Saigon, which is marked by the endless sprawl of white buildings.

We took a taxi from Saigon airport to our hotel the Park Hyatt Saigon. Taxis in the queue refuse to use the meter and quote prices up to 300,000 VND ($14), we shopped around the private taxi services and chose the cheapest option 200,000 ($9) which is still more expensive than using the meter.

As expected the Park Hyatt Saigon was extremely luxurious. Room rates start at $360/night, we used our Chase points converted into Hyatt points to pay for the upscale accommodations. Here’s our walkthrough of the most expensive room of our trip.

We were even welcomed with pitaya, which we’ve acquired a taste for in Southeast Asia.

Pitaya in Saigon

We then explored the area in Saigon from late afternoon till past sunset. Our hotel is close to this large walking street. Now this is a real, modern city. More developed than either Phnom Penh or Vientiane. Perhaps comparable to Bangkok, but smaller.

Saigon walking street

The Ho Chi Minh City Hall building at dusk.

City Hall building

The opera house near our hotel.

Opera house

We later met up with our friend Luc who lives in Hong Kong. He traveled down to Saigon for a five day vacation. We went to an upscale vegetarian restaurant called Hum.

Hum Vegetarian Restaurant

The boys are back together.

Luc and Maurice

We shared dishes from their overwhelming menu of creative vegetarian food.

Mushrooms in a coconut shell

We picked up some dessert at Mochi Sweets, then headed to a rooftop bar called Broma Not A Bar. We ordered cocktails and enjoyed the view of this splashy building with its continuous light show. Only in Asia will we find such excessive light displays, in the US this would be considered tacky. Here it fits in well with the pulsing energy of the city.

We both enjoy urban travel partly because you see how real people live. Here it’s not about the Western restaurants, tour agencies and other services catering to tourists in Siem Reap, but a real glimpse of Saigon families and friends skateboarding, picnicking and strolling on Nguyen Hue walking street. We found it to be surprisingly busy on a Sunday night.

Nguyen Hue walking street

Day 48 | Leaving Laos for Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s busy capital

Day 48 | Leaving Laos for Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s busy capital

Today was our first full day of traveling of our trip. We were on the road for almost 11 hours, from 9:30 AM to around 8 PM, traveling from the 4000 islands area to Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh.

We started the day with a quick breakfast at 7 AM. After checking out, we walked on the main street with a small group of people to get to the longtail boat that would take us back to the mainland. This time we went straight to Nakasong without stopping by Don Det.

On our way, we saw some fishermen but also monks on other longtail boats.

Monks riding a longtail boat on the Mekong River

We disembarked and walked to the travel agency to get our bus tickets. One of the guys working there was trying a passport scam on customers. He pretended that if we gave him our passport together with $40 in cash, he would take care of all the immigration process for us at the border and that it would be much faster. He claimed he was not taking any commission even though we knew he was lying.

Travel agency for the bus to Cambodia

We boarded the bus around 9:30 AM. It did not look anything like the pictures we saw when we purchased our tickets at the agency. Yet another scam to add to our collection. The bus arrived to the Nongnokkheane international border check point at 10:45 AM.

Nongnokkheane international border check point

There all passengers were asked to leave the bus to go through the immigration. The first step was to exit Laos, easy once we each accepted to pay the $2 “mandatory” processing fee, a well known scam taking place in this and other land borders between Laos and some of its neighbors. While we knew the two dollars were directly going into the officials pockets, we also knew that it was a waste of time to try arguing against it. After that we walked for a few meters and were officially outside of Laos. However, we were not in Cambodia just yet!

The actual border was marked by a simple barrier on the road with a very rundown shack next to it.

Border between Laos and Cambodia

This is Mimi posing and excited to cross the international border. I really should have taken a picture of Mimi in Cambodia while I was still standing in Laos.

Border between Laos and Cambodia

Confusion was total when we arrived to the Cambodian passport control building. Most travelers were backpackers though there was also one couple of French retirees that I talked with. We were told we needed to get our visa first (at another nearby building) before getting our passports stamped for entry.

Complete confusion in front of the Cambodian passport control building

At the tiny visa service office, the line was pretty short and the process quite smooth. Nothing to do with the nightmare the guy from the bus agency depicted for us. He literally said that if we didn’t hand him our passports together with the money, it would take us four hours to get through the immigration and that the bus may even decide to leave without us. We got our Cambodian visas in minutes…

Cambodian visa office

We then walked back to the passport control building where our passports were stamped and our visa marked as used (since it was a single entry visa). As we walked back, we noticed this tent on the side of the road where fake Cambodian officials pretended to test travelers for malaria for a modest $1 fee. We knew about this other scam ahead of time so just walked past it. Seeing this did however make me wonder why the authorities tolerate these guys to stand right there in front of their eyes!

Malaria testing scam at the Cambodian border

We waited a little longer for everyone to be done with immigration. On the side of the road, some tourists were having a quick lunch at street restaurants serving cheap food prepared in dubious sanitary conditions. We passed. Less than an hour after getting off the bus to cross the border, we resumed our journey through Cambodia. Some people that were headed to other destinations than Phnom Penh were directed to minivans. We stayed on the same bus.

Our supposedly VIP bus to Phnom Penh

For the next four hours, we traveled south through Cambodia. We alternated between writing yolomimo posts and napping. Around 3:30 PM, the driver stopped at a local restaurant in the middle of nowhere for passengers to have lunch. I don’t think this place even had a name. It definitely did not have a menu. Customers would order by pointing finger at one of the many pots filled with cooked food. There was no precooked vegetarian option but one of the ladies there told us she could cook something without meat in just a few minutes. We ate and boarded the bus again for a few more hours of the same.

Working on the Yolomimo blog while traveling through Cambodia countryside

Finally we were dropped in the middle of the capital city around 8 PM after witnessing a pretty violent fight between two tuk tuk drivers from our windows. As we exited the bus, other tuk tuk drivers immediately offered their services. I successfully bargained with one of them to get a reasonable price. We arrived at our hotel, The 252, named after the street it was on. We chose a small boutique hotel that had a swimming pool so we would have the option to cool down at night after a long day of sightseeing. Our room was clean, spacious and with elegant design elements.

We dropped our bags and immediately went for dinner. It was late to have dinner by Cambodian standards so the hotel receptionist recommended we check out restaurants on Street 278, an area with more upscale restaurants popular with expats and tourists. We picked Anise Restaurant, one of the few restaurants that was still opened when we got there after 10 PM.

Anise Restaurant

We were hungry so in addition to our main entrée we ordered fresh summer rolls and fruit shakes.

Food and drinks at Anise Restaurant

We were literally the last two guests having dinner there and the staff was actively cleaning behind us, perhaps hinting that we should finish quickly so they could close. I was too obsessed with the latest video of Lulu to notice anything. But seriously now, isn’t she the cutest?

We walked back to our hotel and did some planning for our first full day in the city before going to sleep.