Angkor Wat

The main attraction of any trip to Cambodia is undoubtedly a trip to Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples of Angkor.  The impressive temples are not only profound because of the sheer size of how many temples are in the area, but because the detail on them is still remarkably intact.  The temples span across miles and miles and it no joke takes several days to see all of them if you’re so inclined.  Because of the popularity of the attraction, I highly recommend getting a personal guide and I would very highly recommend having your hotel reserve you one in advance.  We made the mistake of not planning ahead, so when we arrived in Cambodia, our hotel said that most of the guides were already booked, so we had to scramble to find someone for the next morning.  We did get a guide eventually, so all’s well that ends well, but don’t go through the stress we went through.  Book in advance.

I’m going to again let the pictures do the talking for this blog post, but I will mention a few tips/highlights:

  • A 3-Day pass is $40.  You’ll need to have it on you at all times to get in and around Angkor Wat.
  • It is an extraordinarily hot place, especially during the summer.  Bring a ton of water.
  • The early sunrise is worth seeing, but I don’t think the arrival time of 5 am is necessary.  You could probably leave a little later and still catch the best part of the sunrise over the temple.  For a good picture, take a spot at the edge of the pond in front of the temple so that you can see the reflection in the water.  It’s not a secret, so you’ll see plenty of people around that area.
  • Obviously Angkor Wat is huge, so there’s too much to get into in this one blog post, but my favorite parts were
    • the magnificently preserved Monkey vs. Demon carvings on the main Angkor Wat temple;
    • the tree wrapped temples at Ta Prohm with their giant roots where they filmed Tomb Raider (something they were proud to point out incessantly);
    • the Banteay Srei aka “Pink Temple, which was like a mini Angkor Wat made of pink stone with easily the most detailed carvings of all the temples that had been preserved; and
    • the 49 columns with Buddha/the King’s face at Angkor Thom.
  • One last note:  There are so many temples aside from the main Angkor Wat temple that aren’t as highly regarded or populated with tourists.  At those temples, be on the lookout for wildlife.  Even though the temples are marked off as tourist attractions, they’re still in the jungles of Cambodia.  As a case in point, when we went to Beng Malea, as I was taking a picture, my buddy and tour guide abruptly told me to get the hell out of the way fast.  I had no idea what they were talking about until I looked up and saw a giant green snake on the branch above me.  I promptly shit my pants and stepped away.  The guide told us that type of snake was actually quite poisonous and he used a branch to try and get it to slither back up the tree to at the very least give it some distance from the path.  Quite a scary moment indeed and one that should be a reminder to be vigilant.

Morning Alms Ceremony and the Royal Palace

Our last day in Luang Prabang was a short one since we were supposed to fly out for Cambodia in the afternoon (more on that later).  So we got ourselves up early in order to catch the morning tak bat alms ceremony in the center of town.  This ceremony is performed every morning at sunrise by the monks at the center of town.  I don’t know the actual count, but I’d say around 100 monks, dressed in their bright orange robes, ages ranging from young boys to grandpas, walk in a single file line down the street accepting sticky rice from worshipers.  This rice is not eaten by the monks, but offered to the Buddha when they return to the wat.  It’s a unique experience to see and one worth waking up before sunrise for.  If you do go to observe, don’t be a douche; respect the locals worshiping.  It’s poor taste to get in the way of the procession to take flash photos, and in my opinion if you’re not going to actually participate you should keep back a bit.

After the tak bat alms ceremony, we walked over to the Royal Palace Museum which is located where the Night Market is held.  The Royal Palace cost 30K kip to enter and houses an impressive display of royal thrones, garments, Buddhas, and swords.   Outside the palace, you can see the 83 cm-tall gold-alloy Buddha statue, which supposedly is what the city is named after.  Sadly, no photos are allowed once you get into the palace, so I’ll just need to describe to you some of the highlights.

The interior architecture is made up of a lavish Japanese glass mosaic that is truly impressive.  The bedrooms, throne halls, and reception rooms are all view-able throughout the palace.   Be sure to look at the paintings of the story of Prince Wetsantara as you walk down the hallways; its actually a very interesting fable and the story is broken up into a dozen paintings or so.  Also, one thing to check out is the reception room with all the gifts from other countries to the king.  Most countries gave a precious artifact or something that represented their country (for instance jade bowls, swords, jewelry, things of that nature).  Then you get to the US display.  What did they give Laos?  A shitty model of the lunar module that looked like a 12-year-old put together.  Now, that’s what we thought when we first saw it – my buddy and I were laughing in the museum about it.  It wasn’t until we looked it up after that we found out that the model itself wasn’t the gift.  Unlabeled was an actual piece of moon rock that was offered as a gift.  Well done US.

Heading off to Cambodia

After that, we made our way back to Le Bel Air to check out and headed to the airport.  On a trip as ambitious as ours, we would have been really lucky if we didn’t hit any travel snags, and in general we didn’t.  But inevitably, if you do do a trip like ours, something will come up and in our case it was a 6-hour delay at the Luang Prabang airport.   Annoyingly, our Vietnam Airlines flight was delayed due to mechanical issues coming out of Hanoi so we were stuck in the airport for half the day.  If we had known it was as delayed as it was, we would have just stayed in Luang Prabang for the afternoon.  But instead we were bored out of our minds in the tiny Luang Prabang airport and missed some valuable sightseeing time in Cambodia.  Vietnam Airlines did try to accommodate the passengers by providing food, but the “hamburger” they gave us was…well…pretty gross.  We did eventually make it to Siem Riep, Cambodia, although late at night, for the final leg of our journey.

River cruise to Pak Ou/Whiskey Village and Tamarind – the best meal in Laos

After our long day riding elephants and swimming in waterfalls, the last thing I wanted to deal with was the sound of banging drums at 4:30 am.  I failed to mention this earlier about Le Bel Air, but its proximity is close enough to a wat that you’ll be able to hear the beating of drums early in the morning.  It’s not obnoxiously loud, but if you’re a light sleeper bring your earplugs.

Our plan for the day was to take a relaxing river cruise down the Mehkong River to the Pak Ou caves and Whiskey Village.  We booked the cruise through the hotel, and for $35 (US) the cruise takes you to those two locations and includes lunch.  Our boat was the Nava Mekong.  It’s a little higher end than the cheaper cruises in that the boat was bigger and had table settings for meals.  The cheaper cruises were more like the traditional Lao long boats, but covered.

For obvious reasons, only do a river cruise if the weather is nice out.  I say this because the cruise itself was probably the best part of the tour since the two destinations weren’t exactly that amazing.  The Whiskey Village, which we had high hopes for, turned out to be nothing more than a few shacks with women selling bottles of whiskey.  Don’t get me wrong, seeing the jars of whiskey with giant scorpions and snakes was awesome, but we were hoping that there was a factory or something.  Instead, all the Whiskey Village was was a very poor moonshine outpost.  That being said, since we were there we did try some whiskey.  It tasted like very strong Saki, not bad but nothing to write home about.  We did purchase a few bottles however because they do make great display souvenirs.

From there the cruise headed to the Pak Ou caves, which was the cooler of the two stops.  The caves are split into an upper and lower cave and house several hundred mini Buddha statues.  The upper cave is a bit of a stair climb to get to and don’t forget to bring a flashlight (our iPhone flashlights worked perfectly well) because the upper cave is pitch black inside.  It definitely made the spectacle of seeing all the Buddhas a bit more exciting and mysterious.

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On the cruise back, the Nava Mekong offers a pretty delightful lunch made up of samples of Laotian cuisine and then you’re back in Luang Prabang by around 2.  We headed for a quick spa session at Hibiscus Spa, which provided a really good massage, but I wouldn’t recommend going there if you’re looking for friendly employees.  These people were polite and all, but definitely seemed exhausted and looked like they didn’t want to be there.  After that, we went to our favorite dinner experience of the whole trip.

Tamarind is one of the top restaurants to try in Luang Prabang.  They offer a cooking class that is recommended in several guidebooks and in hindsight we probably should have taken the class instead of going on the river cruise.  Regardless, we went there for dinner and it could arguably be the best meal we had the entire trip.  The employees and Tamarind obviously have a genuine interest in showing their patrons what real Laotian food is like.   The menu is very in depth; it’s part history lesson on Laos food, part FAQ on best practices for cooking and eating Laos food, and part course offerings.  What impressed us was the fact that although we took a good 20 minutes reading the history/FAQ in the menu, the wait staff didn’t disturb us the whole time. It was only when we clearly had finished reading that our waitress politely came by and asked us if we had any questions.

The food at Tamarind is authentic and excellent.  The tasters appetizer is like a Laos charcuterie with an assortment of sausages, veggies, sauces, spices, and other meats and is a must try.  The Buffalo Laap was also a highlight and that is a ground buffalo meat dish with Laos spices and tripe (apparently Laos style includes tripe).  The coolest part of the meal is how you eat all the dishes using the sticky rice.  Essentially what you do it take the sticky rice, roll it into a small patty with your hands, and use its stickiness to scoop up all the food.  It’s kind of like how you eat Ethiopian food with you hands, but instead of injera the Laotians use the sticky rice.  For desert, the Watermelon Chili sorbet is awesome; it’s cool and refreshing with a tiny bit of kick at the end as you swallow.  And the whole experience was cheap; it only cost $40 for two people.  A definite must-try meal in Luang Prabang, and I plan on returning sometime in the future for the cooking class they offer.

Wat Xieng Thong, Phu Si Hill, and the Night Market

After we decompressed for a little bit at Le Bel Air, we made our way across that freakin’ bridge and headed into town.  The walk to the main part of the town is about 15 minutes.  Our destination was Wat Xieng Thong, which is one of the key wats in the all of Laos.  It’s at the further end of the town, so don’t mistake one of the many wats you’ll pass by for it (we were fooled once and walked into the wrong wat).

Once we did find Wat Xieng Thong, the admission is 20K kip.  Unsurprisingly, the wat is a peaceful, zen-like monastery with several shrines featuring a multitude of gold Buddhas.  Monks, in the traditional orange attire, mill around and go about their day-to-day tasks.  It does feel a little strange as a tourist to essentially be wandering around their residence, but the monks we encountered seemed used to the scenario.

After Wat Xieng Thong, and a quick stop for a croissant at Le Banneton Cafe (Laos is known for their bakeries from their time as a French colony), we walked down along the Mehkong River and headed toward Phu (or Phou) Si Hill.  You should try and time this walk a little before sunset, the views along the river at that time are amazing.  It’s like something out of a movie set with the mountains, fisherman, and monks along the river’s sandy beach.

We reached Phu Si Hill along with everyone else a few minutes before sunset.  This is probably the only time Luang Prabang felt really touristy, but even then it wasn’t so bad because most people kept quiet at the top to enjoy the view.  The climb up is rather challenging, but doable, and it costs 20K kip to ascend to the top.

Once you get to the top, it’s inevitably going to be crowded, but people were pretty polite and quietly sidestepped all around to get out of the way of people taking pictures.  The sunset is a sight to see and is probably one of the must-do experiences of Luang Prabang.

 

When you’re done with the sunset, by the time you reach the bottom you’ll literally be right on top of the Night Market.  I cannot say enough about how impressed I was by this market and how enjoyable of an experience it was.  The market sold the typical touristy souvenirs and such, but the ambiance was like no other market I’ve been to (and I’ve been to quite a few).  It was so quiet; you couldn’t hear anything louder than whispers.  The vendors were all sitting politely, not in your face or loud, and their goods were all so neatly laid out we almost felt bad picking up the products and disturbing their presentation.  For the backpackers, the Night Market offers a 10K kip street buffet dinner (remember $1 = 8K kip) which was packed with hungry young people.  This market ended up being where we did the primary amount of shopping for folks back home based solely on the comfort at which we were able to shop.

For dinner I would recommend stopping in at Coconut Garden, located at the end of the Night Market (that is if you don’t do the street buffet).  Coconut Garden is a Lonely Planet selection and the guidebook lives up to their usual standards when it comes to food choices.  The restaurant offers both meat and vegetarian tasting dishes on top of their usual menu.  We orders a veggie tasting menu along with the Laos signature Steamed Mehkong Fish in Banana leaves and a Chicken/Vegetable Fried Rice w/ Fried Egg.  After that, we grabbed a beer across the street at a great little bar called Tangor to people watch before heading back to The Le Bel Air for some patio beers to finish up the day.

Bangkok: The Grand Palace, Wat Pho, and Wat Arun.

After a much needed night of rest, we set off early for The Grand Palace.  Outside the palace, there isn’t a lot of good English signage to direct you to the entrance, so just follow the ridiculous amount of crowds and you’ll eventually end up at the ticket office.  Be sure to get there early, one, to try and beat the rush a little and two, if you’re in Thailand during their summer months, it will get muggy as all hell.  Another reason to get there early is to be sure you’ll be able to rent a 200 baht audio guide, which was indispensable (when we returned them at noon, they had a sign up saying they were all out).  Keep in mind you’ll need to leave a passport or credit card with them.

The entrance fee to the palace is 500 baht, and when you walk in it’s pure chaos.  Any outdoor signs that say “No Picture”, you can completely disregard because everyone else is.  However, they do crack down on the picture taking inside certain temples, so this post won’t be able to show you some interiors.  Also, there are several places where you can’t wear shoes, so make sure to have socks on if you’re there in the summer because the stone ground does get very hot.  I was also surprised by one thing.  Generally in places with no shoe policies, like the Blue Mosque for instance, the smell is pretty bad.  Somehow, that wasn’t really an issue here and I’m not sure how they got away with that.

What you’ll notice immediately is how much gold there is and how tightly packed all the buildings are next to each other.  It almost feels like you’re in an Epcot Center showcase country, but in this case it’s the real deal.  The highlights:

  • The Temple of the Emerald Buddha with its beautiful illuminated blue Buddha statue atop a golden temple.  The Buddha has 3 robes that are changed each season by the King.  The walls of the room are lavish red, white and gold murals of the life of the Buddha including a Thai version of Michelangelo’s Judgement Day.  The floor is a beautiful Italian marble.
  • Amarin Winitchai Throne Hall inside the Grand Palace displays the impressive gold throne covered by the nine tiered umbrella representing the King.
  • Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall gives you a closer look at a different throne and there’s a weapons museum displaying a multitudes of swords, spears and other military relics.
  • Like the British Palace, you can take your photos with a royal guard who maintains his disciplinary pose.

 

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After our stop at The Grand Palace, and a quick 50 cent mango snack from a street cart, we walked down to Wat Pho.  We made the mistake of not looking at the map first before leaving the palace,  which made our walk there far longer because we left at the wrong exit.  So check to see which direction to leave from before walking out.  The entrance fee for Wat Pho is 100 baht, but it includes a bottle of water, which was very welcome in the 100 degree heat.  There are no audio guides sadly, but there are a good amount of English information signs throughout.

The main highlight of Wat Pho is the giant, and I mean giant, reclining Buddha.  It’s almost amusing to look at because you’re staring at this huge Buddha who’s laying there like he’s just chilling.  The Buddha even has a little smirk on his face I think.  The scene is far less chaotic, and it’s a bit more civilized in that they give you bags to hold your shoes in instead of having you leave them in a giant pile outside the monastery.  Keep your eye out for pickpockets.  Of all the places we went, I could see how this place is the easiest to fall victim to them because everyone is just staring up and there’s not a whole lot of space.  When you look at the Buddha, pay special attention to the feet with the 108 auspicious symbols of Buddha and you can pay 20 baht to drop coins into 108 bronze bowls in the corridor as a way to bring good fortune, and to help the monks maintain the monastery.

 

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From Wat Pho we headed to Wat Arun, but before we did we just happened to stumble upon a great place for lunch (and because we were lost).  Eat Sight Story deck/restaurant is located on the Chaophraya River across the way from Wat Arun.  From there you get a spectacular view of Wat Arun and the parts of Bangkok that you can see up and down the river.  To find it, look for Arun Residences on Soi Ta Tian alley.  The food is decent enough, but it’s priced higher than most places because they know people are going to come for the view.  And the view really is worth it.

From Eat Sight Story, we could see where to take the 3 baht ferry across the river (remember $1 = 30 baht) to Wat Arun.  Sadly, the wat was under renovation so a good portion of it was covered in scaffolding.  The entrance fee here is 50 baht and again there was no audio guide.  Compared to the Palace and Wat Pho, Wat Arun is relatively anti-climatic.  That being said, the pagoda at Wat Arun is one of the more picturesque ones and the surrounding gardens make it a very calming visit after the hysteria at the other sites.

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Tao Restaurant

Tao Restaurant
42 East 58th Street
New York, NY 10022-1910

Hours:

Sun 5pm–12am
Mon-Wed 11:30–12am
Thu-Fri 11:30–1am
Sat 5pm–1am

Recently, I took a little trip up to New York City to catch up with old friends and, quite honestly, just go for the hell of it because it had been a while.  The one thing that I had forgotten in the two and a half years since I was last in New York was the energy of the city that you don’t find in Washington, D.C. or most other metropolitan areas.  It practically hit me in the face the moment I walked out of Penn Station.

I spent the weekend doing mainly touristy things such as Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, checked out Ground Zero and the building of the Freedom Tower, and roamed around the East and West Villages.  But of course the highlight of any trip to NYC is the food – and there was plenty of it this weekend.

Since I hadn’t seen a bunch of New Yorker friends in a while, I organized a dinner for us all.  At the suggestion of my one college buddy, we made our way to Tao Restaurant in midtown Manhattan.  Tao, like New York City in general, is pretty much what you’d expect from a trendy NYC restaurant on a Friday night: noisy, busy, vibrant, pretentious, and super gaudy, but fun nonetheless.  As my one friend who has lived in NYC for the past five years put it – “This place is so New York” with a little tone of “I would probably never come here in general” thrown in, kind of like how I can’t remember the last time I was in a Smithsonian museum even though I’ve been in D.C. for years.

There are a few things you should know about places like Tao before I continue.  They’re expensive and regardless if you have a reservation, there will be a wait (especially on a Friday night).  And even more so at this place because of the popularity (sightings of Jay-Z, Madonna, etc and a feature in Sex and the City – a fact I found out AFTER I had left NYC, so don’t go thinking Sex and the City is any draw for me).  I should also note that I sadly was not able to get any good pictures because my new phone’s case was covering the flash so none of the pics would show up.  The website has plenty in its gallery however.

So yeah, we had a 9:15 reservation; we were seated around 9:45-10:00 with the maitre d’ telling me, “Just a couple more minutes” every time I asked how much longer.  And the bar waiting area is not nearly big enough to hold all of the people waiting to get a table along with the folks just trying to grab a drink.  So be prepared to do a little bumping.  Our buzzer went off just as we were contemplating going somewhere else.

The main dining area a Tao is pretty expansive, but still packed so that there was probably only a foot between chairs and tables for one to squeeze through.  And overlooking the entire place is a GIGANTIC (and I emphasis that word) Buddha, which I’ll have to admit was pretty impressive, despite being as Las Vegas showy as it was.

The Tao menu isn’t huge, but hits all the typical Asian food types from sushi to noodles. With a group our size we decided to do it sort of family style and order several things to share.  Our waitress was very helpful telling us her favorite recommendations, and her suggestions were excellent.  Considering the hysteria in the place, the service was remarkably quick with the food coming out within a few minutes of us ordering our first round of appetizers.

The food at Tao is excellent; no doubt about it.  I’m going to make your life easier and just list out what we ate and give a quick impression.

Peking Duck Spring Roll – I love Peking duck, so yes I loved this.  The order came with 3 large duck spring rolls and the duck was perfectly fatty and savory.  The one thing I wish was that the duck skin inside would have been a little crispier.  Same goes for the egg roll wrap itself – I suspect they were trying to make make the wrap like a Peking duck pancake, but it didn’t quite work.

Pork Potstickers – these also were excellent, and considered by most at the table the best appetizer of the bunch.  They were larger than your typical gyoza, stuffed with a generous portion of salty, tender pork inside.

Spicy Tuna Tartar on Crispy Rice – what makes this more than just what amounted to a tuna sushi roll was the rice.  It was toasted giving it a delicious flavor and crunch.

Shrimp Pad Thai noodles – Not too bad, but not anything that you couldn’t get anywhere else.

Crispy Orange Chicken – same with the Pad Thai.  If you order it, you won’t be disappointed, but it’s not anything that is stand out.

Satay of Chilean Sea Bass with Wok Asparagus – now THIS was standout – the fish was cooked to perfection, super-flavorful and melted in your mouth.  The side of asparagus that came with it was actually not needed, but I do like a little crunch with my dishes so it worked.

Wasabi-crusted Filet with Tempura Onion Rings – another standout.  The filet was very good, and in most cases I would have said it was excellent but nothing special.  What made it special?  That wasabi crust was awesome – totally different, and gave the meat a real kick.

So food wise, everything was pretty amazing.  The plates came out in very easily sharable portions; I’m not sure if that’s how they are normally served or if our waitress was savvy enough to have the kitchen make it that way knowing we were all sharing from the start.

The one thing I could have done without were the the guys walking around banging drums next to us while we ate.  Totally unnecessary, really annoying, and as my one friend put it “They’re not even beating the drum to the beat of the music!”.  Also, the bathroom was a little weird.  I’m putting this in writing because my other male friends disagree.  Personally I don’t like having to urinate into a trough that lights up when you walk up to it, with a waterfall raining in front of you into the trough, while a bathroom attendant stands two feet away from you ready to pounce for a tip.  Maybe my friends have been in NYC too long because one of them said “What about it?  It was just a urinal.”

All in all though, great place for an excellent meal, a fun vibe if you’re willing to deal with the noise and wait, and very good service amid the chaos in the venue.  Food: A- Overall: B+ (because of that drummer banging away)