Below is a brief summary of our 2018-2019 family trip to Thailand and Cambodia. Each year on Christmas we pick a new place to explore and spend time together. As the kids get older and we see them less often, Trish and I really look forward to sharing these quality experiences with them.
Christmas is high season for SE Asia and so we knew there would be crowds. We are a very active family and prefer that most of our activities include getting out and moving, exploring and adventuring. We prefer to have a private adventure with a knowledgeable guide, rather than a group tour where there is a need to cater to the least active of the group. With that caveat, here is the report:
Day 1 – Arrival into Bangkok
The lines at Immigration in Thailand can take over an hour to get processed, we paid for a Fast Track service which was well worth it. After 24 hours of travel, the last thing you want to do is wait in an extended queue. A guide with our name placard met us as we got off the plane and led us directly to the immigration officer with no wait, and then immediately to the baggage claim. VIP service indeed.
We arrived late in the afternoon and went directly to the hotel where we had Two Bedroom Suite and a Grand Deluxe Room for the six of us. Highly recommend the hotel. Great service, city views, comfortable beds, and an amazing breakfast buffet.
Day 2 –Bangkok Biking
Most of us woke really early (the effects of jetlag) and I went for a 5:30 AM run in Lumphini Park. I was shocked to see hundreds of joggers out getting their morning exercise, running circles around a 1.5 km loop surrounding the park. It was impressive.
At 8:30 AM we were taken from the hotel to our private tour of the city and countryside on bicycles. Our guide, Aon, spent a few minutes getting to know us, and we were off. The traffic on the streets of Bangkok is madness. Motorcycles, tuk-tuks, autos, buses, and pedestrians all vying for a finite amount of tarmac. Add seven bicycles to the mix and the scene is comical with the weaving and bobbing of bodies and machines. Miraculously, we survived thanks in large part to Aon’s deft guidance.
First stop was the Farmer’s Market. The hustle and bustle of commerce were fun to see. Every type of fresh produce was available, as was live, dying, or butchered livestock and fishes. Not a place for the animal lovers and the smell was a bit horrific as the day’s juices covered the concrete streets.
Leaving the market, we boarded longtail boats with our bikes, crossed the Chao Prava river, and biked country trails which were elevated above the jungle floor. We had a good Thai meal at a local restaurant, returned to the boats and biked back.
Highly recommend this tour company. Ohn was delightful, knowledgeable, and a charismatic hostess- She got the most family votes for the best guide of the trip.
We stayed at the hotel the second night.
Day 3 – Travel to Chiang Mai
We were picked up for our short flight to Chiang Mai, which is an hour flight north on Bangkok. Upon arrival, we were met by our guide for the day, Nancy. The itinerary was seeing the Thai temples of Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Pra Sing, and Wat Prathat Doi Suthep. Lots of ornate buildings, old architecture, tons of Buddhas, history, and symbolism. At every stop, there were street food stalls and local merchants catering to the crowds. We found the coveted “elephant pants” for Bridget and Camdyn and a pretty neat high-end jade store where Trish picked out a belated birthday necklace.
By the end of the day, we had seen our fair share of Thai temples and were dropped off at a beautiful resort for the night. The resort was cottage style with cabana rooms that were nestled next to pools that weaved throughout the resort. The service here was also excellent- less refined than the last hotel but more genuine. Most of the breakfasts and dinners during our stay in Chaing Mai were here, as the hotel was a bit remote from downtown.
Day 4 – Elephants!
The next day we were picked up and taken to the Elephant Sanctuary. We spent the morning feeding them sugar cane, bananas, and protein balls for dessert. We learned about their lifestyles and behaviors and Gavin, Tegan and Camdyn ended the afternoon joining them in the mud for a good scrub down. The ability to interact directly with the animals in their natural habitat was a real treat. They truly are amazing creatures – big and beautiful. One of them was pregnant and we could see the baby move like some wild alien in her belly.
We returned to the hotel, where everyone got a massage- except for me. I went for a run.
That night, Tegan, Bridget and I went to the Sunday Night Street Market. Absolute mayhem, which was part of the fun. Part food market, part street fair, part circus, all in an open air and festive environment, the play was humming! There were times when it was hard to push through the crowds as space was defined by all of the merchant stalls that lined the streets. We ate, shopped and people watched. It was a fun evening.
Day 5 – Ah, Nature?
Nancy was once again our host for the day and she and her driver picked us up for what I thought would be a great hike up some mountain where we could stretch our legs and enjoy some wild. After all, it was described as “one of the most fertile troves of natural treasure in Chiang Mai, DoiIntanon National Park. The invigorating mountain air, the fresh, cool climate, makes it a rejuvenating break from the city.” We did get to Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s tallest peak at 2,565 meters, but it was slow-go as it was December 31and half of Chaing Mai had the same idea. Once at the top, the destination was a street food market and a couple of .5 km loops through the forest. And it was swarming with bodies. We actually couldn’t get off the hill fast enough.
We stopped briefly at the Twin Chedi - built by the Thai Airforce to honor King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit, and at the summit - the shrine of Chao Inthawitchayanon, the former prince of Chiang Mai.
On the way back, we stopped at the impressive Wachiratharn Waterfall which was probably the best part of the day, as we were left to explore it on our own and we were able to climb to the top where the crowds preferred to remain below.
We’d skip this day again. Even without the crowds, the trip didn’t warrant the time.
Back to the resort.
Day 6 – Travel to Phuket
After a private shuttle and a quick two-hour flight south, we landed in Phuket. Phuket is an island province of Thailand known for its beautiful beaches and iconic pinnacle rock islands off its coast. We had Googled pictures of the resort online and were excited to be right on the beach in a resort with many pools and water slides for Camdyn- The Centara Grand Resort. Upon arriving, however, we were dropped off at the Centara Karon Resort- a third rate sister facility which was a 5-10 minute walk to the beach and which overlooked a crowded and unkempt street. Rooms were extremely dated, plumbing questionable, service and attitudes were poor. It was such a contrast to what we had experienced in the first two locations that I thought that it must be a mistake. There were two "Centara" hotels close to each other. The issue turned out to be the word GRAND in our itinerary, which despite also having the word Karon in it, would show up as the nice beachfront property when we Googled it when previewing the itinerary. The "Karon" had no Grand it it’s name and we now know why.
I placed a call to our trip planner at the travel company to try and remedy it. To his credit, he found a place an hour north, but that would cost us another $3,200. We were told that it was a four-bedroom house on the beach. We booked it- not willing to spend more than the single night at the “Karon”.
Day 7 – More Phuket
We arrived the next morning to the four-bedroom house with its own pool as part of the resort. It wasn’t “on the beach” as there was another house between it and the sand, but it wasn’t far and the facilities were so much better.
The beaches in Phuket are gorgeous- clear water, blond sand, and almost empty, but the waves (at least in the two places where we stayed) are small or non-existent and any swimming exposed you to painful (but not debilitating) jellyfish stings. So unless your idea of fun is laying on the beach, there wasn’t a lot to do.
Day 8 – Island Exploring, Kayaking, Swimming- Phuket area
We were excited to explore the islands today as the trip thus far was at a slower pace than we are used to. We were to “explore, kayak and swim in the area of Phga Nga Bay and James Bond Island”.
We were dropped off at the boat harbor to join the canoeing company for our tour. After waiting for everyone to arrive (how many people are on this trip!?!), we were divided into four groups of around 40-50 and herded onto four boats. Honestly, sardines have more room than we did on the boat. Fortunately, there was no smoking allowed while on the boat, so all of the chain smokers who previously puffed away while waiting to board didn’t expose us to their toxins while on the water.
“Explore” consisted of landing on a small island, walking it and viewing a unique looking rock that shoots from the sea like a construction piling and is famous for being featured in the 1974 Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun. The problem was that there were at least 300-400 others doing the same thing, reminiscent of Disneyland on Independence Day weekend. What a cluster!
“Kayak” consisted of getting into a two-man inflatable and having a “guide” paddle you through a cave- lasting around 10 minutes. If there were a hundred strokes during the trip, I’d be surprised. Oh, the adventure!
Finally, the “Swim” was at an island overrun with food and “activity” vendors where you had to remain in an area cordoned off with buoys to avoid all of the boat traffic, jet skis, and “other dangers”. It wasn’t much larger than the local public pool.
Each island stop required 15-30 minutes of sardine boating. Mercifully, we were done early afternoon and could get back to our room to create our own adventures.
This is a MUST MISS tour.
Day 9 – More Phuket
Free day. We made the most of it spending the morning reading, walking the beach along the far tarmac of the airport to see the planes take off and land up close, and watching for the storm remnants of Cyclone Pabuk (which never arrived). At the end of the day, Camdyn and I made use of the slide park at the resort and had the place to ourselves. I guess no one likes sliding in the rain??
Honestly, any return trip to Thailand would not include a stop in Phuket. Super touristy, overpriced, and a mecca for the uninspired sand kickers and urban whales.
Day 10 –Siem Reap
We flew to Siem Reap the next morning and got a shuttle to our hotel. While the Thailand traffic was crazy, the Cambodia traffic was chaos. It was amazing that we never saw a collision between the tens of thousands of vehicles and pedestrian traffic during our stay. Tuk-tuks and mopeds and motorcycles were the preferred mode of travel. We heard that the tax on vehicles was 120% of the sale price, which meant only the really wealthy could afford to drive a car.
We settled into the hotel, which was very nice for the area. The service was excellent and the staff hooked us up with dinner reservations and transportation. In the evening we visited the famous Circus Show, which was a mix between a musical, comedy, and acrobatics, with fantastic feats of strength and flexibility- all under a tent. Old school carnival style. Highly recommend.
Day 11 –Siem Reap Temples
The next day we toured the “big three” temples of Cambodia. Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Ta Phrom. These were reminiscent of South American temples of the Aztecs. They were built in the 12th and 13th centuries by the kings of the day as a capital city (Angkor Thom), a monastery, university, and a temple of worship. Volcanic and limestone rock was hauled by boat, man, and elephant from 70 kms away to build the stunning architecture that has survived the centuries.
This area has a rich history so a knowledgeable guide who is able to speak English well will make the day really enjoyable. Fortunately for us, our guide Tola was every bit the knowledgeable and articulate host.
Day 12 –Siem Reap- Jeeps, Bicycles and a Boat
Our guide Chili picked us up the next morning in a couple of 1960s Jeeps, which were the spoils of the Vietnam War. Spartan and seasoned, they were every bit the “General Purpose” vehicles you’d expect to see in the jungle of Cambodia. We drove about an hour on very dusty roads to a small village where we jumped on single-speed cruiser bikes and rode to the local market. The market was an open-air version of capitalist commerce. Each stall specialized in a specific sector- produce and meats (by far the largest), electronics, house and garden, toys, clothing, hardware, etc. The place had it all.
After the bike ride, we continued by Jeep to a village on the bank of Tonle Sap Lake where we climbed the stairs of a home on stilts, 30 feet in the air, and had the best local meal of our whole trip.
Once lunch was finished, we boarded a local fishing boat and toured the floating village of Kompong Khleang. The Vietnamese Village homes of Kompong Khleang are built on objects that keep them afloat on Tonle Sap. The village moves along the river and sometimes up to the lake depending on the season. There was a floating school, a hospital, local shops, and even a hairdresser.
We finished with an open-air jeep ride back to the hotel where we all looked three shades darker with the layer of red dirt caked to every part of exposed skin. Quick showers and the rest of the afternoon and evening was spent relaxing poolside. And I went for a city “trail” run.
Day 13 – Back to Bangkok
The next morning was a short return flight to Bangkok for our final day. We were met by our guide Willow who took us to lunch and then boarded a private long tail boat for a tour of the canals of the Chao Prava River. The tour gave us a glimpse of the underbelly of Thailand- away from the tourism and commerce. The different angles of life exposed via the backyards of the neighborhoods was a cool perspective.
That evening we went to Chinatown, which is famous for its variety of food in an open-market environment. While it had received high ratings, we were mostly disappointed, although Trish and Gavin were able to find some good ramen.
Day 14 – Departure
We flew out the next morning to San Francisco via Taipei for the 20-hour trip back home.
With our trips, so much of what we get out of them is our family time together- regardless of the specific sights or activities. We can make a great adventure out of a deluge in the middle of an ocean (done that). We are privileged to have four amazing kids who get along great, regardless of the circumstances. Sure, there are times when we each need some space, but those times are solved with a book, a walk, or a run. We’ll chalk this trip up as another success. Not necessarily as one that amazed us with specific adventures, but one that nourished us with the richness of being together, for two weeks, meeting great people in new lands.
Spending time together as a family.
Seek more adventurous areas and activities.
Make sure that all of the hotels were adequate for our needs
Skip the trip to Phuket
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