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 55 | Admiring ancient Angkorian temples and a contemporary circus

Day 55 | Admiring ancient Angkorian temples and a contemporary circus

We took an all day minibus tour of Angkor’s Grand Circle which includes Banteay Srei, aka the woman’s temple, and other neighboring temples. Afterwards we saw an amazing performance of Phare The Cambodian Circus performed by former street kids trained in circus arts.

We started with breakfast at the Sarai then we got picked up by our tour service Siem Reap Shuttle Tours. There is an overwhelming number of tour services available in Siem Reap, our hotel concierge recommended a private tour that starts at $55 per car plus $55 for a certified tour guide to tell you about the sights. I looked through TripAdvisor and this was not such an inflated rate, $85 per day seemed reasonable across the board. By chance, I saw an ad for Siem Reap Shuttle Tours on a free map given to us by the hotel. They advertised a minibus tour for up to 11 people with a certified tour guide for $13 per person for Angkor Wat and its surrounding temples and $15 for Banteay Srei and its surrounding temples. Works for me, yesterday I booked the Banteay Srei tour online for today. And if today’s tour is enjoyable we planned to take the Angkor Wat tour tomorrow.

Through some slowness on our part and perhaps a misunderstanding on the tour staff’s part, all three of us sat in the lobby for 30 minutes not realizing we were all there ready to go. We apologized and got on the packed tour bus where other tourists looked at us disapprovingly for taking up 30 minutes of their time.

We first got dropped off at the tour company’s office, where we paid for the tour and switched buses, making sure we were on the one going to Banteay Srei. Since it’s the less popular option, we had a smaller van and only eight tourists including us onboard with the driver and guide.

The first stop of our tour was 10th century Pre Rup constructed as a temple mountain built with multiple terraces and stairs leading up to the central towers.

Pre Rup

Very close by was East Mebon which is located on an artificial island inside the East Baray reservoir (which has now dried up). Pre Rup and East Mebon are considered twin temples since they are similar in size and layout and are only 1200m apart. East Mebon has unique free-standing sculptures like these two lions guarding a gate at the top tier.

East Mebon

And this elephant. There is one elephant guarding each corner of the two lower tiers.

Elephant guarding East Mebon

Next we all got back on the van and drove to Ta Som, a small late 12th century temple. We liked the gate with its four calm, smiling faces pointed at each direction, very much like Bayon which we saw the next day.

Gate at Ta Som

The temple was left mostly unrestored until 1998 and many parts contain just piles of mismatched stones. Don’t worry, Maurice is here in the courtyard helping reassemble the stones.

Hide and seek at Ta Som

Our guide shown here is explaining one of the reliefs.

Our guide explaining a relief at Ta Som

The fourth stop on our Grand Circle tour was Preah Khan, like Ta Som, it’s another 12th century temple left to fall into disrepair until restoration efforts started in 1991. Unlike the other temples we saw today, this one had a moat.

Walkway across the moat to Preah Khan

Similar to Angkor Wat, the walkway is lined with gods and demons at their eternal tug of war game.

Gods and demons at their eternal tug of war game

Similar to Ta Prohm (aka the Tomb Raider temple), overgrown trees have climbed over and destroyed many parts of the temple and its gates.

Statue next to overgrown tree at Preah Khan

Dead tree trunk atop section of the wall.

Dead tree trunk atop section of Preah Khan

I like how this tree looks like a tall, elegant brontosaurus.

This tree looks like a dinosaur

Two trees attacked this section of Preah Khan. It’s sort of beautiful in a way to see nature fighting with man.

Two trees attacked this section of Preah Khan

Preah Khan has this unique two story structure that is unlike any other Angkorian temple. Its purpose is still a mystery.

Mysterious structure at Preah Khan

Looks like someone in the past did some “tomb raiding” here as the lintel and pediment are missing.

Stolen lintel and pediment from Preah Khan

We had lunch before visiting Banteay Srei at a restaurant chosen by the tour company. The restaurant unfortunately was very expensive for a casual restaurant in Cambodia. Each dish was at least $5 and our fried noodles and fried rice were only tolerable to mediocre. Maurice and I talked with two young solo travelers: a French-speaking Swiss guy and a British girl working in Hong Kong during our lunch break. The girl and I started talking about financial risk management since she also works in the field and this got tiring after ten minutes because I’m not in Cambodia on sabbatical to talk about work!

Our final stop was at 10th century Banteay Srei meaning “Citadel of Women.” The temple is constructed of red sandstone which gives it its unique reddish color.

Entrance of Banteay Srei

An example of the intricate carvings.

Intricate carvings Banteay Srei

Getting lost between towers at Banteay Srei.

Central towers at Banteay Srei

I love the texture of these different columns.

Detailed reliefs at Banteay Srei

Here we’re facing the central tower of Banteay Srei which is only 9.8m tall.

In the mini temple of Banteay Srei

More towers in the compound.

Banteay Srei towers

The guide pointed out the “Mona Lisa” of Banteay Srei. This carved relief shows a young woman with a mysterious, slightly mischievous smile like her Italian Renaissance namesake.

Mona Lisa of Banteay Srei

When we finished with the temple, we walked back to the bus. On the way we passed by this band of landmine victims playing traditional Khmer music.

The minibus dropped all of us off either at the center of town Pub Street or our hotels. We opted to return to our hotel. From there we relaxed for just about an hour, dining on crackers and wasabi nuts. I checked my email to see if Tepsavon, the English teacher from the school we visited yesterday, had confirmed he would pick us up from our hotel at 5pm today to see the class in session. He did not. As we feared, the village school was an incredibly elaborate scam preying on the kind hearts of foreigners, the worst kind of scam! We took it as a lesson to be much more cynical and wrote off the $40 as a very expensive slum tour.

We then hired a tuk tuk to take us 15 minutes out of town to the Phare circus tents.We bought the cheapest C tickets and since we arrived 30 minutes early (which wasn’t early enough) we had seats on the side somewhat obstructed by a pillar. The performance follows the story of a Cambodian village where a disabled boy is an outcast who is unable to join a group of cool kids.

Phare The Cambodian Circus was founded by Phare Ponleu Selpak, an organization first established in Battambang to train street kids in circus arts, music and other performing arts.

The acrobatics were intense and impressive. Here’s just a sample of what we saw.

Jumping over and rolling under a flag.

This guy climbs a faux coconut tree like I have never seen.

Climbing a coconut tree

The fire jump rope.

The epic seesaw.

After the show, we met up with our tuk tuk driver who drove us back to the hotel. We wanted to get a good night’s rest before our full day tour of Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm temples.