Tourist First

Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Welcome to Steve Bailey's Tourist First. You can use the search function in the upper left corner of this screen to look for particular destinations. You can also simply scroll through the more than 100 postings. Or you can click on one of the terms below to find postings on a variety of topics and destinations.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Southeast Asia: From One Hotel to Another

     Jane and I started planning our Southeast Asia trip in summer 2012.  We bought Rough Guide travel books, we looked at articles and websites, and we spoke with people who travel there frequently or had been there recently.  We started out with one goal: Angkor Wat, the great temple in northern Cambodia.  Then a New York Times Travel section article alerted us to Kep, a crab-eating community on the coast in Cambodia.  And since it costs so much to get there, we might as well see another country -- how about Vietnam?  Then, why not Laos?  Bangkok was added because it's less expensive to fly from the U.S. to Bangkok than to Hanoi.  Finally, we had to pick hotels.  For that, we largely turned to TripAdvisor.  Every place we stayed was among TripAdvisor's top five picks for that destination.  We mostly kept our rooms below $200 a night, sometimes below $100, and all included breakfasts and some included massages.
      For someone else's Asian hotel stories, click HERE to read Susan Stellin's article in The New York Times March 17, 2013, Travel section.  Her trip was to Tokyo and Hong Kong.
      Here are how our hotel selections worked out:

In Bangkok, we stayed at the Ariyasomvilla Hotel  (click HERE for its website), a boutique hotel at the end of a deadend street  off  Sukhumvit, a major shopping street.  A sky train stop was nearby.  Two trains  and a  river ferry took us to the Grand Palace area. We stayed here at the start of our vacation, arriving at midnight after a Washington-Tokyo-Bangkok flight. We had a second-floor room with a balcony overlooking the hotel's very very quiet entrance. The photo is of our room's bathroom. The hotel's staff had the most fluency in English of any place we stayed. The rooms come with Thai-style massages (you wear something akin to pajamas for it) that involved a lot of pounding and stretching and were done on an open-air deck above the pool. This is a really pleasant and beautiful little hotel and we'd recommend it to anyone visiting Bangkok.  A lot of good street food vendors are in the neighborhood, and the hotel's health-conscious restaurant itself is quite good.  We returned here  at the end of our trip when we had a 12-hour layover in Bangkok. We had lunch and spent an afternoon at the hotel's pool.  Much better than killing time at the airport. 

In Luang Prabang, Laos, we stayed at the Bellerive Hotel with views of the Mekong River (click HERE for its website). One of its decks, which are actually across the street from the hotel, is shown at left. Our second-floor room in the old (main) building had a small balcony overlooking the street and the river. The room's odd layout might not appeal to everyone.  The bathroom, a sitting area and the balcony were on one level, with the bed itself up a flight of stairs in an open loft. Breakfast is served on the decks across the street.  Luang Prabang's old quarter, which is where tourists will spend most of their time, can be quite bustling, but the Bellerive's immediate neighborhood is quiet, even though it's only a block or two from the heart of the action.

In Hanoi, we stayed in three different rooms at the Hotel Elegance Ruby. It's on a street so narrow that cars not only are not allowed, they wouldn't fit. 
    Our first night was in an eighth-floor room with small high windows. Then we left for a two-night junk cruise on Ha Long Bay. When we returned, we had this room (at right) on the 7th floor with a balcony.  The laptop computer is one of the room's amenities.  We could get this lovely and large room for only two nights, so our last night in Hanoi was spent in a very inexpensive and very small room on the second floor. The Elegance Ruby is one of several Elegance hotels in Hanoi (click HERE for website).  They're all small and all in the old quarter, which is where I think most tourists would want to be, though its jumble of crooked streets and narrow alleyways is very confusing.  Our first night, having just arrived from Laos, we needed to find an ATM to get some dong, the Vietnamese currency.   A hotel bellman walked with us two blocks or so to an ATM.  Even though we had a map, we would not have found it on our own. Then we asked how to start out to a restaurant (Highway 4, famous for its catfish spring rolls) , which was on our map. He simply walked all the way with us.   And he told the restaurant to call the hotel when we left, so that someone would go looking for us if we didn't make it back promptly (we did). 
In choosing this hotel, we read one reviewer's story on TripAdvisor. He said that he was staying here  and came in from shopping and complained that he had been cheated. The desk clerk got up and went with him to the offending merchant and got the guest's money back. Now that's service. 
Can you imagine anyone at an American hotel doing that? Or even walking guests to an ATM machine?


In Hoi An, Vietnam,  we stayed at the cozy Ha An Hotel, shown at left.  Our room was on the second floor,  hidden by a tree in the photo. The hotel (click HERE for its website) and its restaurant form a "U" around the grassy courtyard. A wall at the open end has a gate to the street.  Hoi An is a small town less than an hour south of Da Nang and within a bicycle ride (if you're willing to risk your life on the busy narrow road) of very nice beaches.  Again, this is a place that's easy to recommend: very clean, well designed, and a very pleasant staff.  One morning we asked about getting a car to take us to My Son, and it was instantly arranged, complete with snacks and bottles of water. The room had a large balcony and an unusual stone bathtub.  The breakfast buffet was probably the best of our trip, with everything from cooked-to-order omelets to pancakes to traditional noodle soups.  And several kinds of cereal.  The hotel is at the eastern end of the town's central district, but all the restaurants, bars (this town even has a good wine bar), and shops are within easy walking distance.


Our next stop was the Pavilion Hotel in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. We stayed two nights, departed for Elephant Valley (see earlier post below) and returned for a night before departing for Kep. 
The hotel (click HERE) consists of several buildings, one of them a French colonial mansion, in a lushly planted and walled garden. Four of the rooms have private pools, including ours for the first part of our visit. The pool, shown here, was too shady for winter use (this was in January, which is winter even in Cambodia). However, the hotel's main pool was in the sun and we enjoyed it -- as we did the massages that came with the room. However, despite having a room with a private patio and pool, this was not a great hotel experience.  All the flower petals carefully placed on our bed couldn't disguise that the room  and the entire hotel were in need of refurbishing.  The bathroom was small and the shower so tiny that it was hard to avoid bumping the controls and accidentally switching from hot to cold water. For our one-night stay before leaving for Kep, we had a different room with a  better-designed shower. 
The staff, though very friendly, was not terribly fluent in English, so any unusual request would be met with a blank stare or an entirely inappropriate response. We  asked the desk to make us dinner reservations  days in advance at a very popular restaurant. The  clerk called on a Sunday, when the restaurant was closed, and noted that she was unable to make the reservation. Though we were asking for a Wednesday night, she didn't try again on Monday. We never made it to the restaurant. That said, my wife was happy when, upon  arriving for the second part of our stay, a pair of shoes she had left behind  were returned to her. And when we were leaving for the last time, a maid chased us  with a jacket that my wife had left in the room. 
The best thing about this hotel is its location, very close to Phnom Penh's version of Restaurant Row and very close to the Royal Palace.  We were able to walk out and see much of the best that the city has to offer.   There are even two wine bars just down the street. The city's Raffles hotel, by contrast, is near the U.S. Embassy but quite a walk from everything else. 



 In Kep, Cambodia, our reservations, made months in advance were at a hillside place called Le Bout de Monde, which had been TripAdvisor's top-rated hotel in Kep.  We got there and discovered that our "ocean-view" room overlooked a parking court and that the room was very dark and depressing. We left, going first across the street to look at the Veranda, another high-rated hillside hotel. It's a large and sprawling place and its pool was full of noisy children.  So we called a tuk-tuk and went down the hill to yet another high-rated hotel, Knai Bang Chatt, considerably more expensive than Le Bout de Monde and considerably more acceptable (click HERE for its website). It's right on the beach, as you can see in the photo, with great amenities like canopied lawn beds, a beautiful pool, a good restaurant and a nice spa space for massage. It's also a short walk from the Crab Market (see the earlier posting on Kep, below), which was why we were there in the first place. A Belgian man created the hotel from a mid-20th-century complex of vacation homes owned by the nation's elite in the relatively peaceful period before the country was destabilized during the Vietnam War. The hotel supports Hand in Hand Cambodia, which trains young people in the hospitality industry.
The modern, minimalist architecture is a nice change from the ornate temples of Cambodia and the nondescript boxes with odd ornamentation that seem to be the new norm.  Our bedroom, shown in photo, had a very large bathroom with a huge shower, a long wooden bench for our luggage, a good-size closet and a vanity with loads of counter space for toiletries. Best bathroom of our trip.  The thatch-roofed restaurant, the pool and one of the buildings are shown below.



























The last hotel of our trip -- and we spent four nights here -- was in Siem Reap, the city that is the gateway to both Tonle Sap Lake and the temple-filled Angkor region.  Like Le Bout de Monde in Kep, it was the top-rated hotel in TripAdvisor.  We've decided that at least some of the top-rated hotels get the rating because they appeal to a lot of bargain-hunters or because they offer a lot of amenities. 
The Golden Temple (click HERE for website) is a lively hotel, bustling with Chinese, Australian and other international visitors.  It has a nice pool, shown at right, but not enough places to sit or lounge in the afternoons when everyone returns from their temple tours or other outings. The decor is over-the-top Hindu-Buddhist kitsch, sort of a Trader Vic's on steroids. Among the negatives were a guest getting a poolside pedicure, with the technician  dipping her pedicure implements in the pool.  Another guest was smoking in the pool and tapping his ashes into water that would be returned to the pool. We had a fifth-floor room with a balcony overlooking the pool. Rooms that don't overlook the pool look at the wall of a neighboring building. As we found at every hotel on this trip, the staff was very pleasant and tried hard to accommodate every request and made a particular point of greeting guests by name. They were able to get us English-speaking guides for the temples at the last minute when a tour company couldn't, but the guides were only adequate at best. 
We think all the amenities this place offers is why so many TripAdvisor reviewers like it: a lunch or dinner in the restaurant, breakfast every day, massages, airport pickup and dropoff, souvenir T-shirts on departure, etc.  Its location, across the river from the busiest part of town but  within walking distance, is OK, but the rooms need to be redecorated and the bathrooms are quite small, with open "wet room" showers that  can get the entire floor wet.
 The manager told us that renovations were scheduled that would include the bathrooms. The breakfast  buffet was the worst hotel breakfast of our trip. 
Going to Siem Reap?  There are better places to stay, though  a T-shirt might not be included.