27 February 2014

Angkor Wat (with a little Seoul)

Last fall, the idea of moving up in priority a trip to Angkor Wat, Cambodia became stuck in my head.  So, i decided to to figure out a way to fit such a journey into a 5-day holiday weekend.  I wanted to do this efficiently but with enough time on the ground to feel like I've experienced enough.

I started with the flight arrangements.  After researching the various United and Star Alliance ways to get to Siem Reap (closest airport to Angkor Wat, which keeps things simple and saves transit time), the best way to fly seemed to be SFO to Seoul, connecting with a flight on Asiana Airlines to Siem Reap after a 3-hour layover.  The return would be the same, except there would be a 10-hour layover in Seoul.  I would leave on Thursday morning, land in Cambodia at 10:50 pm on a Friday night.  I would depart on Sunday night, just before midnight and get to Seoul early Monday morning.  The flight on United back to SFO would leave at 6:10 pm on Monday and I would land at 11:30 am also on Monday.  This would fit perfectly into my desired time frame and give me 48 hours on the ground.

With that tentative routing in mind, I began looking at hotel arrangements.  There were a few chain hotels to look at.  One option was a newly-designated Park Hyatt in the town of Siem Reap.  Another option would be the Amansara resort, located just outside the main part of town on the way to Angkor Wat.  A major consideration for me was how to make this as easy a trip to pull off, given I knew nothing of the area or the country.  The Park Hyatt seemed nice, but I would have to make all my other arrangements.  The Aman resorts have a reputation of taking good care of their clients and further research revealed that the Amansara would handle my airport transfers, cover most meals and provide for two excursions a day to the temple sites.  Reviews were generally outstanding, including how excellent the tours were in seeing the sites and avoiding the crush of tourists..  However, the prices were very different between the two hotels. Given what I thought my daily schedule would be and the kind of experiences I wanted to have over the two days, I decided on the splurge stay at Amansara, especially since I was holding the length of stay down to two nights.

Now came the booking part.  I started with the hotel.  The Amansara only has two kinds of rooms and the only type still available was the more expensive pool suites.  I will have to admit, they looked really nice and probably would work well given the expected heat of the season.  But more details on pricing showed there would be a board charge for the food and tours, as well as service charge and taxes to add on to the total. As exorbitant as it all sounded, I decided I could make it work because it meant that from the time i landed in Cambodia until the time I departed, most everything would be planned out.   I saw that as very appealing since I really had no idea what to expect.

I would try to make it work through the flights.  My initial pricing showed that I could get a nice discounted business fare on United from SFO to Seoul.  However, I encountered a couple of obstacles. First, there were no coach seats available on the Asiana flights I wanted to take.  I had to book in their business class, which was roughly twice the cost.  Second, I could not book the entire flight itinerary through United, either online or with an agent.  Combing the two flight segments yielded an astronomically high price.  In discussing this with the agent, I learned that there are fare booking codes that cannot be combined across airlines, even if they are both Star Alliance members.  So, what I ended up having to do was to book the two sets of flights independently -- SFO-ICN-SFO with United and ICN-REP-ICN with Asiana. Since I had no lower-cost options with Asiana, I cut costs with United and just purchased a coach ticket but confirmed my upgrades immediately.

The last bit of logistics was the tourist visa.  What most people do is get a visa at landing.  You have to show up with 2 photos and $20 and they will process it right there.  The Amansara people would even help walk you through the process.  But given the late-night arrival, I wanted to get through the formalities of entering Cambodia as quickly as possible.  I went with the newly-offered option of taking care of the visa beforehand.  This involved going online, filling out the travel details, uploading a photo, and paying the fee by credit card (which included processing fees totaling  an additional $8).  In less than 3 days, I was emailed my visa and instructed to print out two copies and to head to the special e-visa lanes in immigration upon arrival.

I also paid a pre-trip visit to the San Francisco Travel and Immunization Clinic.  After a consultation, I acquired prescriptions for typhoid fever vaccination (oral), anti-malaria drugs, tetanus and whooping cough booster (I was almost due anyway), one treatment set of antibiotics (just in case), anti-mosquito cream, and a bottle to treat clothing to be mosquito repellent.  Even though I was going during the dry season, and even though Angkor Wat and Siem Reap town are not at risk places for malaria during the day, I was advised to take precautions if I was going to be touring around at daybreak.  I was glad I took the precautions, as there were mosquitoes around even at the hotel (the repellent-treated clothing and 33% DEET cream seemed to work perfectly).

The day before my departure, I logged into the Asiana site so that I could check in and print out my boarding pass.  I was pretty sure I would need it to get though transit security at Incheon Airport (I was right).  I also thought it would simplify things in case I was going to run late (it did not).

My departing flight was delayed about a half hour due to a mechanical issue.  The estimated flight time seemed a little longer than usual as well, but well within my time cushion.  But even with the late departure and strong headwinds, we landed at Incheon Airport right about on time.  In a prior trip to Seoul, I checked out where the flights to Siem Reap depart from.  I knew that I had to head to the lower numbered gates in the main terminal via the shuttle train.  I had plenty of time to get through security, take the train (lots of people so I had to wait for a second train), and find the closest lounge.  In the main terminal, the First Class Lounge is in a totally separate area from the Business Lounge.  Unfortunately, the Business Lounge was in the opposite direction form my departure gate, so I decided to rest for just a little bit in the lounge, and then I headed to my gate early.

When they announced boarding for Business Class, I went up and handed them by boarding pass and passport.  For some reason, the computer did not find me right away.  They asked me how I traveled to Incheon Airport, suggesting perhaps I used Korean Air.  I said I came in on United and showed them my boarding pass.  After the agent spoke with someone on the phone for several minutes, I finally was cleared to board.  There weren't many people seated in Business Class, so there was plenty of room for my carry-on items (and no questions about exact size or weight).  While the 5+ hour flight was only on an Airbus A-321 narrow body plane (no flatbeds!), it was still much nicer than most domestic premier sections.  The seats were wide, comfortable, and had a video screen.  The meal menu listed two options for dinner -- a Korean meal or a Western meal.  even though I was in the second row in a cabin that was less than half full, I did not get my first choice of the Western meal.  I guess that's what happens when you have not status on an airline, although I'm not sure why they didn't have a few more Western meals available.

We landed at the Siem Reap Airport only a few minutes late.  There were no jetbridges, so we had to take the stairs down and walk on the tarmac into the terminal.  Just inside, there was a person with my name on a card.  He greeted me and said he was going to take me through the immigration and customs formalities.  We headed directly to a free immigration official and I handed over my passport and e-visa.  My passport was stamped and departure card stapled in.  I was then pretty much walked straight out of the terminal (I did not hand in my customs declaration form) and met up with one of the hotel staff who would be driving me to the hotel in the hotel's 1963 Mercedes Benz. A cold bottle of water and a cold towel were waiting for me in the car.

Our route from the airport to the Amansara Resort took us by the main part of Angkor Wat (which was not lit up, so I could not see very much) along some very nice roads.

At the hotel, my assigned personal assistant greeted me and we walked from the outdoor lobby to my room to handle the check-in formalities.  He asked if I wanted to have dinner (it was after 11:30 pm local time).  I said I was fine.  I knew there would be a little snack in the room.  he asked if I wanted some sandwiches and I said sure.  He said since it was late and dark, we wouldn't do the resort tour (we actually never did one even later on).  He took my credit card and passport and said I could get them back in the morning.  He handed over a bunch of reading material, including a summary of my planned tour itineraries for the 4 touring sessions.  He said my start time would be 6:30 am and did I need a wake-up call (I said no) or a light pre-breakfast of a croissant and fruit (yes) at 6:00 am.

Here's what the pool suite looks like:
My arrival snacks

Looking down from the bed, there were sinks on either side of the room by the windows.  The shower (which looked out on the pool courtyard) and toilet were off on the left.

From the far end of the courtyard looking back toward the room, the shower area is behind the glass on the right and the bathtub is located just inside the doors to the courtyard.  The pool was only heated by the sun.  The average daytime temperature was around 90 degrees, but cooled to 70 degrees at night, so the pool was still cool enough to be refreshing.

At 6:30 am the next morning, I met my driver and guide and saw my principle means of transport -- the remork.

This morning, my tour would take me to some smaller older temples for an introduction to the culture and ruins.  It took about a half-hour to drive to the general area, where we made different stops and explored without anyone else around.  The weather was a little cool and dry, so it was pleasant walking around, through and even up some of the ruins.


I was particularly careful climbing up, as I had read about some tourists who were not so careful and took a fall, resulting in a visit to a local hospital. Fortunately, I was dressed appropriately.  And upon return to the remork, there was always a cold towel and water ready and waiting for me.

After a couple of hours of touring around, we headed back to the hotel so I could have a full breakfast.  On the roads back, it was amazing to see all the buses and remorks heading towards the temple and ruins sites.  I was glad I was headed away from all of that.

Back at the hotel, I headed directly to breakfast (ordered off a menu) and then rested a little back at the room.  I toured around the property by myself and then booked a spa session for later in the afternoon.
I also spent some time enjoying my private pool.

For the afternoon tour, we headed out at 3:30 pm to Angkor Thom, which was a former royal area.  There were definitely more people out and it was warmer.  The ruins I saw were bigger and more elaborate than the morning temples.

After a couple of hours, we headed back to the hotel.  I found this waiting for me:

I had plenty of time to freshen up before heading over to dinner.  I wanted to have dinner on the early side so I could watch a planned theatrical dance performance being offered outside at around 7:00 pm.

For dinner, I could order a Khmer meal or a Western meal.

I went with the Western meal.  They have house wine that is included in the board charge, but the selection didn't appeal to me.  The food was fine, although not quite as elaborate as I might have expected for the reputation of the resort.

I chose the green pea soup, the salmon entree, and they let me choose either dessert, so I selected the coconut jelly with the fruit.

During the dance performance, they took drink orders and also brought by a small snack to enjoy.

While the performance was free, when I checked out, there was a donation to the dance company included on my bill.

The next day was my sunrise at Angkor Wat trip, so I had to be ready to go at 5:30 am, with the light breakfast to be brought at 5:00 am.

It was dark and the roads relatively deserted as we made our way to the East gate of Angkor Wat (most everyone else gathers at the West gate to watch the sunrise from behind the temple complex).  We were let off at a road gate and walked for about 10 minutes in the dark through the forest, with the dirt trail dimly lit by the low light of coming daybreak and an almost full moon.  I'm glad the guide knew where we were going, because I certainly did not, especially in the almost-dark).

Once we got to the temple, we ran into just a few others who made the trek to this side of the temple.  Otherwise we had the quiet of the place just about to ourselves to wander around and enjoy.  It wasn't the best time to take pictures because of the low light, but I managed to get some decent ones as the light slowly increased.

As the lighting increased, we entered the heart of the temple and walked around the interior before heading out to the East gate, where I saw the "masses" of people waiting for the traditional view.  It was a hazy day, with the smell of burning leaves hanging in the air, so it wasn't a great photo-op.

Almost like being at a concert

I didn't really need to stick around too much for this, so we continued on.  Normally, after this tour segment, we would be heading back to the hotel.  However, my guide suggested that since it was still early, we could cover the other major site that we would normally do in the afternoon.  The advantage would be that it would still be relatively uncrowded and also still not too hot.  that sounded like a great plan to me.  So, we headed over to Ta Prohm, made famous by the Angelina Jolie movie "Lara Croft -- Tomb Raider."

It really was an amazing place and much bigger than one initially thinks.  The tree roots grow around the temple stones when the seedling germinates on a bit of soil on top and then sends roots down to to ground so it can access a better supply of nutrients and water.

And it was great to come when the crowds had not yet arrived.  It would have been a very different experience with crowds of people, as there is a certain path you are supposed to walk as you make your way through the  temple grounds.

We then headed back to the hotel.  And at that point, I was done with touring with the guide (early) and would have the afternoon free. I first went for a big leisurely breakfast.  Afterwards, I kind of started to pack, as this was my departure day.  But I didn't need to vacate the room until 6 pm.  After resting a bit, I crossed the street to the Angkor National Museum and spent about an hour or so viewing their collection o artifacts and learning about the history of the Khmer Kingdom and Cambodia.  It's a large, modern museum, but they don't allow picture-taking inside.

I retreated back to my room and cooled off in my pool.  I also tried to take a nap since I wouldn't have much time for sleeping overnight, but I was not too successful.  So, I just relaxed, read, and enjoyed my space until it was time to leave the room.  I dropped off my luggage at the front desk and then headed to dinner after checking out the Library Room.

I chose the Western menu again, except choosing the Khmer dessert offering.  This time, for a beverage, I decided to order a glass of watermelon juice.  It was freshly prepared and was probably the most expensive glass of juice I've ever had (i.e., it was not part of the board charge):

Seafood bisque with crabmeat


Banana fritters

After dinner, I stayed in the dining area, as the center was arranged as a lounge with couches and tables.  It was much cooler in there than the library.  I wasn't scheduled to check out until around 9:30 pm for a flight that departs at 11:50 pm.

When time came, they brought the bill to me for review I signed for it and then I went to the front to pick up my luggage and board a van (the Mercedes was already sent to the airport to pick up incoming passengers).

It was an easy drive back to the airport, retracing the same route we took when I arrived.  They dropped me off at the front of the terminal, and I was on my own after that.

The airport was pretty busy both inside and out.  The check-in desks were deep with people.  But I soon discovered they were all lined up for Korean Air.  When I found the Asiana counter, there was no line for either the Business Class or Coach class passengers.  After a check-in without any incident, I went through immigration and then briefly scanned the duty free shopping.  I didn't see anything I wanted and I did a benchmark check of prices and discovered things were not cheaper than elsewhere.  I medium-size bag of Toblerone chocolate minis ran $16.  I can get the same bag at London Heathrow duty free for about $7.

I eventually found the Business Class Lounge, which serviced multiple airlines.  It was small, with several chairs and tables arranged close together.  There were selections of both hot and cold food snacks available.  My flight looked to be departing on time, so about an hour before my scheduled departure I headed for the gate.  With no jetbridges, there were just lanes to line up in before they lead you out onto the tarmac. When it was time to board, they asked the Business Class passengers to go out first to the plane.

The flight was going to be even shorter than the flight out.  We departed on time and they promptly served dinner.  As there was again no one sitting next to me, I found a relatively comfortable position to lean over and fall asleep for a couple of hours.

Upon landing at Incheon Airport, I had to decide what to do for the day.  The weather was going to be cold, but not bitterly so.  I could either stay at the airport the whole 10 hours, head out into Seoul on my own for a museum and lunch, or take one of several free transit passenger tours offered by the airport.  Since I would have to pass through security anyway for my next flight and it would be easy enough for me to pass though immigration with my electronic gate access, I decided to sign up for one of the transit tours.  It would take me to a couple of things I hadn't seen before, I wouldn't have to stow my luggage as I could keep it on the bus, and I would get back to the airport in plenty of time to freshen up in the lounge before departure.

While the tour is free, I did have to pay for the included lunch stop and entrance fee for the palace we were to visit.  We had a full-size bus and there were about 20 or so people on it.  I found it a very nice way to spend my layover time.  We headed first to the Gyeongbokgung, the most recent palace used by the last emperor.

The weather was sunny and almost spring-like, so it was nice enough to walk around without feeling too chilled.  Afterwards, we boarded the bus and drove a short way to the next stop, which was a temple in the Insadong area called Jogyesa.  From there, it was an even shorter bus ride to Insadong St where we walked up a small alley to a small restaurant for a traditional lunch of either beebimbop, a spicy seafood soup, or a sweet beef stew.

After lunch, we had a little shopping time and then it was back on the bus for the hour-long ride back to the airport to be back by 2 pm.  It turned out that United does not staff the check-in desk until 2:20 pm so I had to wait a bit to check-in.  Once they opened, it did not take long to get through security (no priority lines) and immigration.  then, it was back onto the shuttle train and to the Asiana Lounge.  Unlike my last trip, I only had access to the Business Class side of the lounge.  It was bigger than the First Class side but still not crowded.  It seemed like they had better food selections (except for no ice cream).  Since I was so early, I had time to shower, eat, and relax before heading to the gate.

I had been monitoring the seat map for my flight, as it looked to be a light flight, even in business class.  No one had been assigned the seat next to me.  And as it turned out, my whole row of four adjacent seats was going to be mine.  I thought I might be able to use the two center seats as a kind of double bed, as this was going to be a sleeping flight.  But, I discovered there is a short partition between those two seats, so there was no way to use both seats for sleeping.  However, it was good enough for me that I could move in away from the aisle and sleep one seat in and not have anyone on either side.

We departed the gate on time, but we had to return to the gate because the auxiliary power unit gave an indication that it was not shut down.  We left about an hour or so late, and after a relatively quick flight (during which I slept well for the first time in a couple of days because it was the right time to sleep by West Coast time), we landed about 45 minutes late at about 12:15 pm the same day (Monday).  Unfortunately, it was too late to visit the Arrivals Lounge, so I headed straight home, concluding a quick and compact visit to Siem Reap.

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