Here’s what a recently returned client, Debbi, had to say about her experience on a Journeys Within trip to Cambodia and Myanmar:
Thank you all so much for everything you did to make our Cambodia/Myanmar vacation wonderful. We had a great time, and learned a lot about Cambodia and Myanmar, but also about ourselves. It was a great adventure.
I wanted to tell you about some of the things that we particularly loved about our trip, and we have a couple of suggestions for you as well.
First, some of you (April!) spent a lot of time with me on the phone and via email prior to the trip, which I really appreciate. I think it was April who answered my panicked phone call from the plane when United delayed the flight by 3 hours, first for mechanical reasons, then for paperwork, and finally, they had to reboot the plane (yes, they had to call the IT guy to come reboot the plane!) As I watched our once comfortable 5 hour layover in Seoul vanish, I had visions of my whole trip getting pushed out. April, thanks for checking options, for reminding me that trip insurance would take care of it if we missed our Seoul-Siem Reap flight, and generally keeping me sane. As it turned out, with the use of “airline math” we were only 90 minutes late when we landed, plenty of time to catch our Korean Air flight to Siem Reap.
Thank you Narla for picking us up at Siem Reap airport. It’s always a little disconcerting to be in a strange place late at night wondering if your ride will be there, and you were!
Thank you Dar Le for the longyi and the thongs. I used mine at the temples, much easier than my shoes to get off. George is still working on figuring out just how to get his longyi tucked in. We will send pictures!
Alex, I know you are the behind the scenes miracle worker, so thank you.
We LOVED our hotels (with one exception). The staff at the Shinta Mani was amazing, made us feel right at home and of course the hotel itself is just beautiful. It was a great base for our visits to temples, villages, more temples, and we loved having dinner walking distance…although after a couple of tries to cross streets without getting killed, we discovered the great value of tuk-tuks.
La Villa, in Battambang, was a lovely choice. Corrinne the manager is a sweetheart and we loved her little dog too (gave us our dog fix). There was a huge festival going on, which music blasting from several stages from about 10 am to 10 pm … it literally rattled the windows. Fortunately we were not in the hotel most of that time, and it was fun to watch the locals from the upstairs balcony of the Kitchen restaurant, but our first suggestion would be: check to see if there are any festivals happening when booking. If the music hadn’t stopped at 10 it would have really been a problem, and of course the craziness and masses of people directly across from La Villa created a very different impression that what I assume one would normally get.
La Villa Paradiso in Phnom Penh was another hit. The room was huge, and segmented by a screen so we had a very comfortable sitting area. The food was very good and the staff super helpful. It was a peaceful oasis in the middle of the madness that is Phnom Penh and we greatly appreciated it’s serenity. Their welcome drink was great; I have to get the recipe!
And then there was the 4 Rivers Floating Eco Lodge; what an amazing place. Very romantic tents, and we loved the towel elephants on the bed. The setting has to be the most beautiful of anywhere (well, Ngapali Beach is pretty spectacular too!) The staff was wonderful, and we loved our trip to Tatai Waterfall. Unfortunately it was a full moon and also very overcast, so the fireflies were a bit shy, but we did manage to see a few, and we had one special sunset. We also took their first Jungle Hike of the season, where George managed to acquire a leech (a big one!) while walking through the rice paddy. How close to nature can you get! Our biggest challenge that it was more relaxation than we could handle (one of our learnings … 3 days relaxing is about 1 1/2 days too many!). Four Rivers is a very special place, and I can see that those who like hanging out would be quite happy doing so there.
On to Kandawgyi Palace Hotel in Yangon. Another beautiful property, and we took advantage of the wooden bridge to get out and take a walk (which was hard to do in some of the other locations. We got a giggle out of the tourist guidebook in the room with rules for visiting Myanmar, and experienced our first power outage. It only lasted a couple of minutes before the generators kicked in, and the hotel had left information in the room about what to do in case of a power outage, so we added it to the list of “what til they hear about this back home” stories. When we had a very early departure, the hotel provided a box breakfast that can only be called lavish. We certainly didn’t starve and it was better than anyone else had on the plane. The only complaint (minor) is that the room was very humid. We asked for (and received) a dehumidifier, and in the first 30 minutes George emptied a gallon of water from it. He emptied it a few more times that evening and it really helped. Unfortunately, they took it back the next day in spite of his note on it asking them to leave it, but they did bring it back when requested.
Our home away from home in Bagan was the Oasis Hotel, and the only disappointment on the trip. While the staff was wonderful (I think all the people we met were wonderful) the room was very spartan, and there was no place to sit other than the bed. A couple of chairs in the room would have made a big difference, and the room was large enough to accommodate them. To add to the atmosphere, a few blocks away was a temple with large speakers blaring songs, chants and political chatter from about 6 am to 9 pm every day. When George walked over to see where the music was coming from, he saw the temple, and not a single person was there! So the noise seemed to be for no one. The morning we left for Inle Lake, the staff told us they would have coffee and bread we could take, since we were leaving too early for breakfast, but they forgot. On the plus side, the Oasis had the best water pressure and hot water, and, it was easy walking distance from lots of restaurants. Still, its not one I would stay at again.
Viewpoint Lodge on Inle Lake, on the other hand, was a place I didn’t want to leave! The cottage was gorgeous, we loved the Shan mini bar, having a deck to sit on and watch the ducks was wonderful, and the restaurant was great. I had planned to use the natural shampoo bark and fixings, but ran out of time (you have to let the bark sit in water for 15 minutes, which requires planning!)
The last hotel was Amazing Ngapali Beach Resort. This is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Again we loved the staff, the view from our deck, the soft sand beach that was like powder … just a lovely place. We were there for the weekend, and the staff showed off the purple mark on their finger from voting (those who voted).
I’m not sure who organized the travel within and between Cambodia and Myanmar, but the flights were great (early!), so thank you. Flying in Myanmar was an adventure we’ll dine out on for months! Boarding passes without our names on it, seat assignment noted by sticking stickers on it, a bus that takes you 20 meters from the terminal to the plane (guess they thought we couldn’t walk that far), a flight notice board that said “please reboot,” the gate agent with his sign like a tour guide, only with a flight number … just an adventure. When we left Yangon to come home, there was a power outage at the airport just as we were checking in … I felt sorry for the airline staff, but the computers had battery backup, and by that time we were old hands at power outages (glad I brought a flashlight). Besides, it was part of Myanmar charm.
Guides and Drivers
I had wondered why flew from place to place in Myanmar, particularly when the cities weren’t that far apart. Now I know! Our wonderful (and fearless) drivers, got us safely and comfortably from place to place, in cars without seatbelts, and where people don’t use their headlights in the dark, don’t stop at stop signs, and there are few lane lines. Oh yes, and in cars with right hand drive where you also drive on the right, which makes passing on the left a heart stopping event. And then there are the moto’s, ox carts, bicycles, horse drawn carts, oh yes and other cars to contend with. I no longer worry about getting on a plane with just a sticker on my shirt and a boarding pass without my name!
Our drivers in Cambodia were just as wonderful, and with more crowded and crazier circumstances: Chinese water buffalo (those ubiquitous devices that look like they belong on a farm, but can drag behind it any kind of flatbed) , tuk tuks, motos, bikes, cars, overly laden trucks, SUV’s, and people driving in both directions on both sides of the road. At least no one was going very fast, and everyone was very polite when overtaking someone on the shoulder of the road with a truck coming up fast the other direction …Wow! Did you know that a motorbike can transport a family of 5 at one time? And that a tuk tuk made to carry 4 to 6 people can actually fit 13? Well we saw that and more! How many Cambodians can travel by Chinese Water Buffalo? Depends on how high you want to stack them! Need to bring a couple of pigs somewhere? No problem, tie them on the back of the motorbike! Every ride was an adventure, but our drivers always kept us safe.
Our guides were all wonderful too, and very accommodating. Seti, our guide on our first day, took us to his local village … what an eye opener, and a great way to start our tour. It was also an immediate introduction to the warmth and generosity of the Cambodians. We heard that there was one winery in Cambodia, and Bat knew where it was, so after seeing the rice paper factory, the water jar factory, the fish paste factory (eeewwww, smelly!) and the terra cotta factory, we swung by the winery for a tasting. I KNOW that no one else we know who’s gone to Cambodia has done wine tasting! In Inle Lake, we went to Red Mountain winery for tasting, a big thank you to our guide EE for making that happen. I think it was an adventure for her too. Lin, our guide in Bagan who substituted at the last minute for another guide, did a wonder job of showing us at least 2000 temples. Ok, it couldn’t really have been 2000 but it felt like it! His passion and enthusiasm kept us going, and he really know what he was talking about. Mr. Santhou, our guide to Siem Reap, helped us understand the historical and political realities of what we saw, as well as teaching us more about Cambodian life. Lily, in Phnom Penh, had the difficult task of taking us to the killing fields and the Choeung Ek Memorial and Tuol Sleng Prison. Wow. And the guide who met us briefly in the Myanmar Life Hotel (I didn’t catch his name, although he gave it to us) even though he was getting married! That’s devotion! (I gave him the Myanmar feedback forms and the Balloons over Bagan tickets, hopefully they have made their way to you).
Other things we enjoyed were the bamboo train (not at all what I expected), the village and factory tours, and the sunset activities. For the most part, the bugs were kind enough not to bite us! We were disappointed at not being able to do Balloons Over Bagan, but do understand; they were cancelled three days in a row, and you can’t control the weather!
This is getting way too long, so I’ll get to the important stuff. Things that we thought worked very well, and would encourage you to continue with include:
- The arrival kits and cheat sheets. We received one of these each time we entered a new city in Cambodia, and they were very handy. The cheat sheets in particular were handy especially in finding places to eat (one of my favorite things). In most cases, the guides also gave us a card with their name and the driver’s name, and contact information. While we never needed to actually contact a guide, as we were getting used to names, the cards were a handy reference. In Myanmar, we didn’t get the arrival kits until our last day at Inle Lake, which was really to late to be useful, unfortunately. And our guide changed in Bagan, so we didn’t know his name, and still aren’t convinced we got it right (but we think it’s Lin!).
- Assistance checking in at the airport – This was a great service! Without our guides checking us in at the airport, I an convinced we would have ended up on at least one wrong plane or missed a flight.
- Pr-departure kit and final departure kit – these were both very helpful, and in fact we brought them along with us. The heads up about things like power outages, what not to do, and having perfect money for Myanmar were all right on. I also appreciated having all the contact info, flight info, hotel info, and itinerary all together, and ahead of time.
- Having a sense of humor – I think I saw something about this in some of materials, but if not, making sure travelers know they need to have a sense of humor is very helpful. Instead of getting frustrated because the power goes out, or it takes 3 days to figure out why the hot water isn’t hot, adding it to the list of adventures with a laugh makes it something to write home about, a part of the experience, rather than a frustration.
A couple of things you might think of doing:
- Having the arrival kits on the first day of each city in all countries would be helpful
- Checking to see if there are festivals, elections, etc. around the time of the trip would help travelers know what to watch out for. Although the State Department said avoid Myanmar around the election, we were happy to be there, and hear from Myannar’ans about what they hoped would happen (and it did!). George even got an NLD tee shirt! And knowing about the festival in Battambang would have helped us be prepared.
- Providing the guide and driver’s contact info on a card along with the welcome kit.
Sorry this is so long, but it was a wonderful trip and there was a lot to say! But now I think I need to get back to figuring out which of my 1500+ photos are going to make it into my photo book.
Thank you again for all the effort you put into making our visit to Cambodia and Myanmar so wonderful, and please pass my thanks on to the guides and drivers. You have a stellar team!