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Cambodia Archives

With certain exceptions, our travel style involves cheap and cheerful hostels, cozy apartments and hotels at the inexpensive end of the scale. (Our Tripadvisor reviews tend to be biased toward our more expensive experiences, as I haven't reviewed many of the cheaper places.) Yet we've wandered through a few fairly nice hotels, either because they were attractions in themselves or out of pure curiousity. In the unlikely event that I one day try to re-experience this trip with a budget two orders of magnitude greater, these are the places that I'd love to book.

I should note that these are not necessarily the nicest hotels that we know of in any given city, but the best that we've seen on this trip. For example, if I could stay for free at any hotel in London, I'd rather see what the Savoy is like than the Metropolitan. On the other hand, I don't think I've ever been amazed by any hotel so much as I was by the Taj Falaknuma in Hyderabad, where you can quite literally sleep like a prince. For reference, I've included some prices of the nicer, lottery-winner level rooms.

La Mamounia, Marrakech, Morocco (Churchill Suite, ~$2,200/night): Located near the medina (and only a few blocks away from our current apartment), La Mamounia looks less Moroccan and more European than its website suggests. Wandering through its halls, the colonial influence is easy to discern, but this is classic colonial, not a cookie-cutter continenal hotel. In the evening, when the hurrying throngs have whipped up enough dust in the market to inspire previously unknown allergies, La Mamounia is a clear, quiet and clean oasis. We dropped by to try a drink at the Churchill Bar, which was both overpriced and somewhat disappointing: despite displaying several nicer brands of alcohol, a Manhattan with a price tag over $20 was mixed with Four Roses. Setting aside the mediocre drinks, the Churchill and Italian bars are both elegant and comfortable, and I was impressed by the attentiveness and professionalism of the staff. If you're looking for a "low-cost" way to enjoy this location, the Sunday brunch is only about $150. If you try it, tell me how it goes. (That said, we encountered a first for a high-class hotel on this trip: free wifi in public areas.)

The Metropolitan, London, England (Park Suite, ~$1,000): We stopped for a drink at the sister of the Bangkok Metropolitan after picking up our Tanzanian visas from the nearby embassy. Far from the most extravagant hotel in Mayfair, let alone London, it nonetheless has a top-class bar which continues the Metropolitan tradition of knowledgeable and skilled bartenders. Worth it just for a tipple.

The Taj Falaknuma Palace, Hyderabad, India (Grand Presidential Suite, price on request, upwards of $4,350): Pity Nawab Vikar-ul-Umra, who had this palace built in the shape of a scorpion (for astrological reasons), only to realize that he had gone over budget. He ended up giving the palace to Nizam VI, the then-ruler of Hyderabad. The Nizam thoughtfully gave Vikar-ul-Umra the entire amount spent on its construction, saving him from financial catastrophe.

Taj Hotels have leased the palace and converted it into an extravagant fantasy. When we dined here one evening at a family gathering, we were able to watch as one of the guests arrived. A horse-drawn carriage drove him from the gates to the front courtyard. At this point an employee--although courtier seems more accurate--hoisted a gold mace and escorted the new tenant as if he were royalty up the marble steps to reception, as another attendant dropped rose petals before him from an upper balcony. Kitschy, yes, and perhaps they only do this for certain guests, but it fits with the setting. The Grand Presidential Suite, "once the sanctum sanctorum of the Nizam himself," is the most opulent option in a hotel filled with extravagant choices, and features a private pool.

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Photo by friends J & J

The Oberoi, Agra, India (Kohinoor Suite, ~$5500): The bar at the Oberoi possesses a unique alchemical secret: it can transform the most staid and ordinary cocktail into one of the best of your life. The Manhattan recipe? Take a standard combination of rye, vermouth and bitters, and serve suffused with scarlet light filtered through tall, ornate windows that frame the sunset-pinked marble of the Taj Mahal. The Oberoi's view of Agra's unquestioned wonder of the world must be seen to be believed, and only hotel guests are allowed to have their drinks served on the balcony.

Unlike La Mamounia, the Oberoi's style speaks more to Agra's mughal heritage than colonial refinement, lightly reminding the visitor that he is elsewhere rather than giving hints of the comforts of home. We didn't get much further than the bar and the opulent lobby, itself an orgy of marble and stone, but supposedly each room has its own view of the Taj Mahal.

My earlier entry on the Siem Reap temples focused mostly on our morning and evening excursions to Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm (the "Tomb Raider" temple). Those are probably the most famous of the sites around Angkor Wat, but we managed to make it to a few more temples over our three days. My favorite was Banteay Srei.

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Carving over archway at Banteay Srei

I should probably warn you that this is a long post.

Vietnam, after a brief stay in Thailand

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Greetings from Hanoi. We've arrived as the city prepares for Tet, the celebration of the lunar new year.

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There's much to catch up on since our last entry.

This trip has taught me the value of a good camera. We made our way through the Galapagos photographically outclassed by our fellow travelers, our little Canon Powershot the plucky younger brothers of the digital SLRs carried by our shipmates. By the time we got to New Zealand, we figured that it was time to invest in a better camera. We snagged a Canon Rebel XS, as Amazon was having a sale that scored us a free telephoto lens. It's an older model, but we felt that there was no sense in paying top dollar for something that we didn't know how to use.

Indeed, despite the plethora of features, buttons, knobs and dials, I hadn't taken the camera out of automatic until I got to Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples of Siem Reap. These locations overflow with beautiful imagery, but much of it eludes capture by our SLRs automatic settings. More detail after the break.

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A carving at Ta Prohm, the "Tomb Raider" temple

New Year Change of Pace

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It's been a bit more than six months since we left our apartment and hit the road. More importantly, we've flipped over to a new tax year, which drops us from a high tax bracket to the bottom. I'd always planned to shift gears at this point: traveling a little less, focusing into things that I wanted to finish while on the road, and picking up some projects here and there to make money. Of course, there's also the minor matter of finding a job for our return, and figuring out to which city we'll return.

Thus, we're likely to slow down some over the next few months, spending more time in front of a computer screen getting job applications prepared. The good news is that the new schedule is likely to make us more productive authors, and allow us to fill this blog with some of our earlier adventures. As I think I've said a few times, it's hard to live life and write about it at the same time.

Nest: Great Restaurant in Siem Reap

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As a celebration of my ability to escape the hotel, yesterday evening we dined at Nest, a well-reviewed establishment in the heart of Siem Reap. I was genuinely impressed by the layout: the dining area sprawls underneath a series of interlinked canopies such that it feels outdoors without being open-air. A curved stone walkway meanders through the middle of the restaurant, dividing the lounge area and bar on the left from the dining area on the right.

We didn't sit in the lounge, but I'd like to go back and try it: some of the seats are practically beds made from wicker frames, and couples were cuddled up on them drinking. It looked like a cozy, comfortable place to have a cocktail.

On the other side of the stone path, dark wood dining tables are covered in white linen, while dark-stained wicker decorations carry over the motif from the bar. The overall effect is one of relative luxury and comfort.

And for Siem Reap, this is certainly luxury: even the set menu will run you $20 or upwards, which sounds like a good snack to a Manhattanite, but extravagant for a meal here. The food is fantastic, however, and I highly recommend the set menu. The salads were fresh, well-presented and spicy. The meat dishes--Pallavi had a finely flavored pork shank, while I had a nicely peppered cubed-steak dish--show signs of a French/Cambodian influence.

Hopefully Pallavi will say a little more about the food--I'm not much of a gourmet [1], and so I lack the vocabulary to really do Nest justice. I'll stick to my strengths and note that I'm very impressed by their cocktail list, which shows a delicacy that I haven't seen since we left Hong Kong. Most Cambodian bars have your standard fare--mojitos, caiparinhas, cosmos--and a few "tropical specialities" that are mainly fruit juices and spirits. These don't take much skill to mix and aren't very ambitious. Ordering a Manhattan will show the weakness of such places: the result will be pedestrian, usually poorly mixed and with a too-strong flavor of vermouth.

Nest's menu, on the other hand, respects the classics while holding some true modern gems. One sign of sophistication: the menu asks you to "please order your Manhattan dry, sweet, or perfect," and has similar instructions for variations of martinis and other classics. On the other hand, the bartender challenges you to try modern innovations like the Occidental Blazer (see the last page of the PDF, the only recipe I could find online), a strongly aromatic rye-and-brandy mix. Served warm in brandy snifter, this cocktails doesn't so much tickle the nose as assault it prior to the first sip, but then settles to a spicy thick syrup as it cools. They have a few more drinks (including a curious stout/vanilla ice cream mix) that I hope to try before we hit the road. Preferably in one of those lounge beds.

[1] My sibling has informed me that he hates the word "foodie," so I'm avoiding it, but I'm not much of one of those, either.

We're in Siem Reap, probably the most tourist-friendly city in Cambodia, and I think we're going to be here for a week more. We arrived on the fourth, but we have had no chance to get to the temples yet as I've been ill ever since we arrived. Indeed, I didn't even leave our initial hotel until last night.

Any extended travel plans need to have enough slack to account for getting ill, so that if you end up bedridden for a day or two you don't feel like you're missing out on a great cultural experience. Face it: if you spend a year going through countless airports and staying in hotel after hotel, you're going to pick up a germ or two. We have flexibility at the moment, so in all honesty I'm kind of glad that it happened here rather than Phnom Penh. For one thing our hotel, while as nice as our Phnom Penh abode, was much cheaper: three nights with every meal that I was able to eat (and all of Pallavi's food) came to less than $65.

Nor am I feeling much time pressure, because Southeast Asia is probably the least-scheduled part of our international trip thus far. Our last ticket was from Hong Kong to Phnom Penh, but our next ticket is from Bangkok to Dehli. How we get from here to Bangkok is up to us, meandering at our own schedule. So a day or two doesn't matter much: we'll still see the temple.

We've now changed hotels into something only slightly more expensive, but much nicer and more central. Now that I'm finally able to leave the hotel, I think I'm going to like Siem Reap.

I've mostly wandered around the Old Market area downtown, which is a hodgepodge of tourist restaurants, bars and massage parlors, each surrounding several marketplaces. These sell everything from gaudy t-shirts and flashy dresses to an IP litigator's paradise of knock-off watches, sunglasses and fashion items. Bargain hard: dealers will relent to far less than their original offer, and the knockoffs are normally such poor quality that they're not worth the discounted price. (I ruined the "waterproof" Wal-Mart watch I purchased before we left Texas while diving in Gili Trawangan, and tried to replace it with a "Vacheron Constantin" [1] here. It ceased to work overnight, though the vendor did replace it when I came back. The replacement "Patek Phillipe" has already broken.)

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This is not a Patek. Nor anywhere near the correct time.

In any event, Siem Reap is tropically warm, the weather has favored us so far, and I look forward to three to five days of viewing Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples.

[1] Yes, the watch almost certainly violates VC's intellectual property rights, and given that I love what VC makes, I don't take that lightly. That said, if there ever was an argument for a parody exception to trademark, this watch was it. A glance at the metal casing, the asymmetrical bezel, and the poor work on the watch face suggested that the strap, which appeared to be authentically leather, was the most expensive part of the entire contraption. Anyone vaguely familiar with the VC brand would not suspect for a minute that this watch had been on the same continent as a Swiss watchmaker. Besides, since arriving in Cambodia and trying to purchase a watch, I've found it impossible to find anything that isn't impinging on someone's IP.

Dollar Dollar Bills Y'all

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When you hear that the majority of U.S. currency in circulation is held outside the United States, you may be envisioning piles of dollars in a Beijing treasury or under a Russian billionaire's mattress. But I've been discovering during this trip how much the U.S. dollar has become either the actual or de facto currency of various developing countries.

For example, if you've ever puzzled over the rarity of the Sacagawea coins, wonder no more: they mostly seem to have ended up in Ecuador, which retired its sucre several years ago and now uses U.S. dollars as official currency. Ecuador still mints some centavo coins for amounts less than $1, and the $1 bill is far less common than $1 coins. This change aroused the contempt of other South American countries, which at various times may have pegged their currency to that of the U.S. to minimize inflation, but hung onto their power to print bills. When we excused our clumsiness in dealing with Peruvian money to a guide by explaining that we'd been spoiled by our home currency in Ecuador, he laughed and said that the Ecuadoreans were the joke of the continent for giving up their own money and having foreigners' faces on all their bills and most of their coins.

And indeed in Peru and Argentina, people generally expect travelers to use the local currency. The one time I saw something denominated solely in dollars in Argentina was the $140 visa fee charged only to Americans. (The small town of Colonia, Uruguay, which gets hordes of day-tripping tourists on the boat from Buenos Aires, is less picky and accepts Argentinean pesos.) The same is true in Indonesia -- even when you were given a price in dollars, you were expected to pay in rupiah -- and of course in Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand. Until recently, the only country we'd visited that wasn't on the U.S. dollar but where vendors were willing to accept it in lieu of local currency was Canada.

Cambodia is the first instance we've encountered of a country that nominally retains its own currency (riels), but operates almost entirely on American money. When we arrived at Phnom Penh airport on December 29 with only Hong Kong dollars in hand, the airport taxi tout directed us to an exchange service that listed various currencies, including Hong Kong's, but seemed to have bizarre prices for them. The Hong Kong dollar was at almost 8 to the U.S. dollar, and the U.S. dollar was worth more than 4000 riel, so I expected to see Hong Kong at something like 500. Yet HKD was listed as 7 and change. It took me a moment to realize that the exchange was of various foreign currencies not to riels, but to U.S. dollars.

Travel advisories on making the trip to Cambodia by crossing overland from Thailand all emphasize that one should not be fooled into exchanging money for riels at the border, despite the scam artists insisting that you'll need riels once you enter Cambodia. Visa fees and everything else can be paid in dollars.

Maybe if you aren't a tourist, you can get someone to deal with you in riels, but everything we've done in Cambodia thus far -- riding tuk-tuks and buses, visiting the Royal Palace and National Museum, buying a book in a foreign-language bookstore, getting a massage, even ordering tickets to a New Year's celebration where 95% of those attending were Khmer -- has been denominated and transacted in dollars. Occasionally a vendor will give us riels in change, because they don't have U.S. coins in circulation, so anything less than $1 will involve Cambodian bills. However, I haven't seen Sacagawea here yet.

Things We've Seen


Things We Like