Road Trip to Siem Reap / Angkor Wat

For the second week of our Songkran Holiday from school we decided to take the less expensive route of road-trippin’ to Siem Reap rather than purchasing 4 flight tickets.  We were curious about how well our children would cope with the upcoming 4 hour ride to the border, 1 hour for customs, and the 2 hours by taxi to Siem Reap.  Either way we packed our things after two restful days from our previous trip and set out for Siem Reap early one Wednesday morning.  We left at 7:30AM from Rayong and were at Aranyaprathet (Thai-side of the border) around 11:00AM.

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We parked our car at a border parking lot and walked our way to the departure gate to be stamped out of Thailand.

Once stamped out you walk across a bridge in “no mans land” to the arrival gate into Cambodia.

As we walked across the bridge we were surrounded by beggars, peddlers, young children, and lots of people trying to offer their help.  We knew we had everything sorted already so we ignored the chatter and made our way through.  There are a few casinos between the two countries to gamble in should you choose to.   This was my first experience land-crossing into another country and it was surprisingly not too bad.  We had already purchased and printed e-Visas’ so I believe that helped a little.  We were able to pass through customs in about 45 minutes.

Once we walked out into Cambodia at Poi Pet (Cambodia-side of border), we were mobbed by countless men trying to offer us a taxi ride to Siem Reap.  We walked as far as we could before striking a deal with a driver.  Prices quoted ranged from $30-$50 and they were quick to drop the price.  We got our ride in a Lexus SUV for $30.  My first impression around the Cambodian border was the amount of trash on the sides of the road.  I also noticed that the majority of vehicles driven are either Toyotas’ or Lexus’.  I’m serious, like every car!  Our trip from Poi Pet to Siem Reap was about 2 hours.

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It was a very intense ride into Siem Reap, which seems to be common.  There is only a two lane highway into Siem Reap and it is consistently traveled by taxi drivers moving tourists back and forth.  Our driver would fly down the road, passing people when it seemed dangerous, honking the horn relentlessly, and “playing chicken” with cars and motorbikes countless times.  We even had some cattle stop us a few times.  Luckily, we made it safely into Siem Reap and checked in to our hotel, Sonalong Boutique Village.

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Sonalong Boutique was an awesome accommodation set in central Siem Reap but enough outside of everything to have some peace.  It was surrounded by lush, tropical gardens and included a very nice pool.

The hotel manager immediately greeted us, checked us in, gave us a welcome drink, reviewed a city map, and helped to line up a tuk-tuk driver for the next few days to help with our travels around the city.  We knew that if we purchased our 1-day ticket for Angkor Wat after 5pm, we could see the sunset that night and then continue to use the ticket the following full day.  So, we placed our bags in our room and had the manager arrange a driver to pick us up at 4:30pm to ensure we could get the tickets after 5pm.  First of all though, we had to get lunch.

The tuk-tuk driver took us to an awesome Mexican Restaurant called “Viva” in Central Siem Reap near Pub Street.  As we drove in to the city center it was obvious how much more tourism was present.

 

It was a variety of cultures all mixed together!  We saw Americans, Italians, French, Chinese, Malaysian, Thai, Khmer, Russian, and many more.  There were even some guys from near where we used live in Atlanta staying at our hotel!! Crazy.  Anyways, I digress.  For $4 our driver waited until we were done eating at the Mexican restaurant.

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Afterwards, he then returned us to Sonalong to get ready for our trip out to see the sunset.

At 4:30pm we left to see the sunset.  We first purchased tickets at the Angkor ticket center.

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We then headed to what I believe is called Phnom Bakheng Hill.   This is a giant ruin that is somewhat treacherous to climb in places but is a hot-spot for people looking to watch a sunset.

We scaled up to the top and wandered around.  I’ll admit it was frightening at times because there are no ledges or railings so I was concerned about my children getting too close to the edge.  There had to be 100-200 people all sitting on top of the structure with us.  After spending a little time there we returned to the hotel to catch some rest as we were having an early start to see more of the archeological park in the morning.

At 7:30AM on Thursday we hopped back in to our tuk-tuk and made our way to the first stop, Angkor Wat.  Although early in the morning it was extremely hot!  The tuk-tuk driver (“Top”) parked and we made our way under a lane of hanging ribbons and then onto a plastic floating bridge.

The bridge extends across the moat surrounding Angkor Wat.  This was by far the most populated ruin we visited during the day (for good reason).  Everything was amazingly impressive.  The details and imagery carved into the stones, the height of some of the structures, the shear ingenuity was astounding.  I’m told that Angkor Wat is also one of the main religious sites still in use.  Due to this there were many monks and people in prayer throughout.  Words and pictures can’t describe it.

Our second stop was Angkor Thom.  This ruin was not as well preserved but very detailed.  It was surrounded by vendors selling fruit shakes, coconuts, grilled meats, etc.  After walking up into Angkor Thom I was amazed a the detail.  There were smiling faces everywhere carved and sculpted into the walls!  Inside the temple you find yourself in a labyrinth of passageways.  The temple was swarming with people but we were still able to walk through corners, nooks, and crannies to find ourselves alone, only hearing faint sounds of others talking.  Although it was hot you could find cool pockets in the shady areas throughout the temple.  I kept wondering what it must have been like when it was new and fully functioning! Wow.  I believe this was my favorite temple of the three I saw that day.

Our final stop was Ta Prohm Temple, often called “Tomb Raider Temple” because of the film featuring Angelina Jolie.  This temple was the least preserved of the three.  There was loose stone everywhere.  Wooden supports were built to hold walls, ceilings, etc. that were leaning or sinking.  The most impressive site, which is also the most photographed, is the giant tree growing over and into the temple complex.  The roots are overtaking an entire corner of the structure and have wrapped beautifully around it.  We were met with lines of people looking to take their photo in front of this ancient amazing melding of nature and human ingenuity.

After seeing this temple it was about 2:30pm and we were hot and exhausted.  We decided to make out way back to town to grab some lunch.

Very hungry, we had our tuk-tuk driver stop at one of the many happy pizza joints in the city.  Essentially, you order a pizza and then you can choose to make it happy should you desire.  We made ours ‘happy”.  It was indeed happy so we made our way back to the room to relax by the pool and take a rest for a while.  Haha!

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The next two days of our trip were spent simply enjoying all that Siem Reap had to offer. There are so many little markets, places to eat, spots to drink (Pub Street), and sites to see that we roamed with leisure and truly relaxed.  I’ll say we don’t normally relax on trips, it’s usually GO GO GO.  It was nice.  I highly encourage anyone considering a trip to Siem Reap to go for it.  It’s a beautiful place with lots of history and an interesting assortment of people!

 

Songkran in Hatyai and Koh Lipe

Once again we have approached the Songkran Holidays in Thailand.  This is essentially the spring break at our school, giving us two full weeks to travel.  We decided to make our way to the furthest southern parts of Thailand by flying in to Hatyai and then traveling to a small remote island located on the Andaman Sea called Koh Lipe.  This proved to be a fairly inexpensive and enjoyable holiday!

We flew out of Pattaya’s Utapao airport on a Wednesday afternoon and arrived in Hatyai around 6:30pm.

We checked into our hotel (Aloha Hatyai) located in Central Hatyai and were quite hungry so we walked outside in search of some food.  We often eat Thai food but were instead in search of something a little more Western like maybe some pizza, a sandwich, fish and chips, etc.  We walked around a few blocks only to find lots of Halal, Muslim, Malay, Thai, and Chinese foods but not what we were in search of.  We weren’t too keen on walking around much at night because of our slight paranoia due to the past turmoil that has occurred in Hatyai on occasion (look it up). We finally gave up and settled for a restaurant next to our hotel called Washington I believe.  This was a Chinese restaurant that was set up with banquet-style round tables each with their own lazy-suzan wheels in the center for sharing food.  There was also a revolving group of people who got up onto a stage in the corner to sing traditional Chinese karaoke songs. We got lots of stares and attention as we were the only western people in the place. At one point 7 or 8 servers gathered around our children, pinching their cheeks and rubbing their heads.  We got a quick dinner of stir-fried noodles and rice and made our way back to the hotel for the night.

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The next morning we were met in our hotel lobby by a gentleman from Dee Travels Hatyai to take us on a two hour shared-van ride west to Pak-Bara Pier.

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We left around 8:30AM and made our way towards Pak-Bara.  We had a brief scary moment along the way when we reached a police check-point.  The police let many cars go by but stopped our van and made us pull aside. He asked our driver to step outside and began talking to him.  Eventually he made the driver take a breath-a-lizer test.  Luckily the driver passed and we were on our way again but it was briefly scary.  It also made sense because we were driving during the first day of Song-kran and it is common to have many drunk drivers on the road.  By 11AM we arrived at Pak-Bara and walked towards the pier to check in.

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We boarded our large speedboat with about 30 others and departed for Koh Lipe at around 11:30AM.

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We arrived at Koh Lipe at about 1:00PM.  It was a beautiful island surrounded with soft white sand and clear, bluish water.  You could easily see the floor of the ocean from above in our boat.  Pockets of coral beds were everywhere.

We were dropped off at Pattaya Beach (there are three beaches; Pattaya, Sunrise, Sunset) and unloaded our bags to make way to our bungalow.  Pattaya Beach is the main beach that tourist are dropped off at so there are lots of long tail boats and speedboats parked out in the water at all times.  Also the beach has lots of people at most times of the day.

We checked in to a very chilled out, kind of hippie-style bungalow called Blue Tribes Resort.  We were given one of the best bungalows on the property which was literally steps from the water and had a wonderful view of the beach and ocean.

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Our only complaint eventually was that there was only two fans and no A/C which was difficult on the children at night, but not a deal breaker.  We placed buckets of ice in front of the fans at night to drop the temperature a little.

After checking in we walked a few meters from Blue Tribes to Walking Street which has lots of shops and restaurants.

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We had lunch at Elephant which is a very popular spot on the island. Great food!  Great ambiance!  Great music!

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We headed back to the bungalow to get some snorkel gear together and take a swim.  There were many beautiful multicolored fish and coral that could easily be seen through the ultra-clear water.  We did this for about an hour and then took a break from the sun inside the bungalow until dinner time.

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We found dinner at a place a couple of buildings up from Elephant called The Box which had Spanish tapas, good wine, pasta, and burgers.  Our waitress there had just moved to Koh Lipe the week prior from Spain.  She encouraged us to check out both Sunrise and Sunset Beach.  As it got darker it was time to head back to the bungalow to settle the kids down.  Blue Tribes was set up with beach mats out front in preparation of viewing the fire show happening in a few hours.  We hung out long enough to watch the show before crashing out for the night.

The next morning we took a tuk-tuk to the other side of the island on Sunrise Beach, next to the Andaman Resort (the tuk-tuk driver insisted it was the best view).  We immediately noticed how much less crowded this beach was.  It also sit closer to the mountains of a nearby island, Koh Adang.  We felt as if we had the beach all to ourselves.

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There none of the long tail boats or speedboats like on the Pattaya Beach side.  It was tranquil.  After about an hour we decided to make our way back towards Blue Tribes on the other side of the island to get our water guns, etc. for the Songkran festivities going on off of Walking Street.  After doing so we made our way up Walking Street greeted by the relentless onslaught of people dousing you with ice water, spraying you with supersoaker water guns, or simply smearing talcum paste on your face screaming, “Happy New Year, Happy Songkran!”  This was as exciting as we had remembered from last year’s Songkran in Ao Nang.  In front of a 7-11 people stood posted up ready to attack any tuk-tuk, motorbike, or passerby who was brave enough to walk through.  Very cool!

After a good hour or so of water wars and a quick lunch we decided we were ready for a second helping of the calmness of Sunrise Beach.  We eventually made our way back, around a small cove on Sunrise beach close to Mountain View Resort.  This vantage point was especially impressive and very secluded feeling.  It felt like a true paradise.

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This was an excellent location for snorkeling and the water in this cove never seemed to get very deep.  It is instantly awe-inspiring from the moment you see it.

The next day it was time to catch our speedboat back to Pak Bara Pier and then catch the van back to Hatyai for one more night.  We were slightly sad to leave this paradise but also welcomed the idea of our next night in an air-conditioned hotel room.  We arrived in Hatyai around 3:00PM and checked in to our hotel.  This time around we were able to find an Irish pub within walking distance to find dinner and swung by a Tops market or a couple bottles of wine.  It was a chill evening.

On our final day we had afternoon flights back to Pattaya so we decided to find somewhere to kill some time before heading back.  We made our way to Hatyai Municipal Park.  This was a nice little find that offered expansive views of Hatyai and some impressive Buddha sculptures. There was also a planetarium that had a very retro feel.

If we had more time, there was the option of taking a aerial cable car to another mountaintop across the way, where there was supposedly more temple complexes to see.   We instead caught our flight and were in route back home.  All in all, I loved Koh Lipe and Hatyai was OK.  Now, onto Siem Reap.