This post is a long one, so I put some jump links in to help you find the parts you care about!
JFK-> ICN -> REP
- 3 nights in Siem Reap
- Temple Tours
REP -> CNX
- 3 nights in Chiang Mai
- Elephant Experience
CNX -> KBV
- 5 nights in Krabi
- Thai Cooking Class
- Railay Rock Climbing
- Day Trip to Phi Phi Islands
KBV -> BKK
- 1 night in Bangkok
My husband and I chose Thailand for our honeymoon because we wanted to go somewhere exotic while getting more bang for our buck. I wanted to explore and visit historical sites. My husband wanted to relax at a high end beach resort. Combining Cambodia with Thailand was the perfect compromise! Most of our family thought we were a little nuts opting for Southeast Asia for our honeymoon. While a little off the beaten path for Americans, it’s actually an extremely popular option for Europeans and Australians. We ran into plenty of other honeymooners!
A little pre-planning will go a long way on a trip like this. I made sure to pre-arrange transfers with nearly all of my hotels (the exception being Bangkok), to ensure we didn’t have to haggle with taxis or fear we were getting ripped off. English was widely spoken in the tourist areas, and by the front desk staff in all of our hotels, although other staff members did not. In restaurants, we always found English or picture menus, making it easy enough to order even if the staff only spoke a little English. In Thailand, power is 220 volts and the typical outlets accommodate both U.S. and European plugs. Cambodia’s power is 230 volts, and they have a range of outlets, so be sure to bring adaptors. The tap water is not safe to drink in either country, so stick to bottled. We live in the New York area, so we were looking at nearly 20 hours of flying. We flew direct to Seoul, then connected from there. Incheon is a wonderful airport to connect through. They cater to through fliers and offer great areas to rest, relax, and restore yourself before the next leg of your trip. They also offer excursions from the airport if you have a longer layover. Make sure you take care of yourself on a long-haul, stretching and walking, and talk to your doctor about if you should take an aspirin or wear compression socks. Here’s some helpful info from the CDC.
Cash is king in this part of the world. Be mindful of pickpockets and theft. We withdrew enough cash for a few days at a time, leaving anything we didn’t think we would need in the hotel safe. Many restaurants, especially in the bigger cities, took cards. Always keep an eye on your belongings, and keep zippers to the front. In reading about tipping, 5-10% seemed standard, and given the exchange rate, we tended to tip generously, especially for our tour guides. It’s easy to get around. Tuk Tuks – carts towed behind scooters, are plentiful, if not a little scary. There are also more traditional cabs. We traveled in the days before Uber/Lyft, but I imagine those are plentiful now too. Bangkok has good public transportation.
Be mindful and respect local culture. The dress codes for temples are long pants for men, pants or skirts below the knees for women, and no sleeveless shirts. Although only some temples enforce the rules (like the Grand Palace in Bangkok), be a good traveler and respect the rules. Remove your hat and shoes before entering temples (you will see the shoe racks at the main doors). Be respectful when taking pictures. Would you want people taking pictures of you while you are worshipping? Back away from the Buddha before turning. Most of these attractions are active houses of worship. Treat them as you would treat your own. If you want to know more about temple etiquette, check out this helpful guide.
It’s hot in southeast Asia. Combined with the dress code for temples, that made for sweaty days. We made a point to book hotels with pools for this entire trip. It was great to come back for a refreshing swim and beverage after a hot sweaty day seeing the sites. The heat and humidity are no joke in this part of the world! Drink plenty of water!
I could go on for hours about food in Thailand and Cambodia. Eat as much curry as you can. If you can’t handle the spice, just ask for a less spicy version. There were plenty of vegetarian options everywhere. Most curries are served with rice. Thailand is also known for their soups, and I took home a love of Tom Yung Gung. Here’s a nice summary of various dishes. Cambodian food is a variety of curries, noodle dishes, and barbecue. We ate some of each in our couple of days there. Also make sure to try congee, often served for breakfast. Noodle dishes also are popular for breakfast, particularly in Cambodia. That said, most hotels and nearby restaurants offer more American style breakfast options.
First Stop: Siem Reap, Cambodia
After a long day flying, we landed in Siem Reap a little after 10pm. I had prearranged with our hotel to send a tuk tuk to meet us at the airport and take us to the hotel. My husband was hesitant to go to Cambodia, not knowing a lot about the country but knowing it wasn’t a highly developed country. The airport was nice, but once we left, we descended into darkness, with no other vehicles on the road and no lights for miles. He was not so pleased with me as we cruised down the road towed behind a scooter bike. Just when I thought our marriage might be getting off to a rocky start, we arrived in the city and into the crowds. Our hotel was near Pub Street, which is closed to traffic at night. We had to circle around, allowing us to have a disorienting tour of the city.
We arrived at our hotel – Khmer Mansion – and began our favorite part of the trip. From the moment our driver picked us up at the airport until he brought us back, we were surrounded by the most amazing people. Everyone we encountered was helpful, friendly, and made sure our every needed was attended. I relied heavily on this guide to the temples to determine how much time we would need to see the highlights. We wanted to do a private temple tour the next morning but I hadn’t had a chance to book. The front desk attendant arranged everything then and there and we rested easy knowing we were taken care of the next day.
Our first full day in Cambodia was busy. Our private car and guide picked us up around 10am. We opted for a later start since we’d gotten in late the night before. We started at Ta Prohm, the temple where they filmed Tomb Raider. This was one of my favorites! Nature has overtaken more of this temple, and it’s an otherworldly feeling walking amongst the ruins. But even here we were reminded you are never too far from home – we bumped into a couple from two towns away while halfway around the world!
From there we checked out a few smaller temples nearby before heading to the main attractions. I liked the smaller temples since they felt a little more off the beaten path and were less crowded. I don’t remember the names of them though. I guess that’s how they remain off the beaten path…
Entering the complex of Angkor Thom was an experience in itself! The elaborately carved walls and entrances transport you back in time when the Khmer Empire ruled. From 802 to 1431 A.D., the Khmer empire covered what today we know as Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and Southern Vietnam. Hinduism and Buddism were both important religions during the Khmer Empire. Many of the temples in the Siem Reap area have roots in Hinduism even though most are Buddhist now.
The last capital city of the empire, Angkor Thom is a roughly three square kilometer complex containing a multitude of sites to see. These include the gates, the Terrace of the Elephants, Terrace of the Leper King, and the showstopper – Banyon Temple. One of my favorites here was the Terrace of the Leper King. We walked through narrow passageways and felt worlds away. The carvings were beautiful and our guide told us the stories and religious meanings behind them. Banyon temple did not disappoint either. It’s famous faces are huge, and photos do not capture their beauty.
We rounded out the day at Angkor Wat. Words and pictures do not do this place justice. Although it had always been on my bucket list, I was blown away by the scale and beauty of the temple. Built in the first half of the 12th century, roughly the same time as Notre Dame in Paris, the temple withstood empire, war, famine, and neglect. Although crowded, it is possible to find quiet corners and empty hallways to reflect on the history and spirituality of the temple. I found myself contemplating how no one can resist the march or time, and thinking about what causes empires to rise and fall. It all makes life seem so small and ephemeral.
Our guide was invaluable all day, but particularly at Angkor Wat. Not only did he tell us the legends, stories, and history of all the temples, at Angkor Wat he provided us with insider knowledge including the best ways to avoid the crowds in the morning at sunrise. His English was perfect and it was extremely convenient after a long flight and the rush of a wedding to let someone else deal with logistics! Our driver provided us with cold water, necessary in the sweltering heat and kept the air running when we were returning. It was extremely affordable to hire the car and guide for the day, less than $100 a person. We tipped like Rockefellers because we truly valued the services provided. Our guide wanted to start his own bike tour company. I hope he has. If so, I’ll be sure to check it out when I go back.
After touring temples all day we were wiped and headed back to the hotel for a happy hour swim. That night we checked out Pub Street. The area terms with bars and restaurants. We tried Cambodian BBQ and bar hopped for a bit. The people watching in this area is excellent. I enjoyed grabbing an outdoor table, a beer, and just taking it all in.
Walking back to the hotel, we ran into our tuk tuk driver from our first night and arranged for him to drive us around the next day. We left bright and early to get to Angkor Wat for sunrise. Our driver had pushed us to leave earlier than I planned and I’m glad he did! Angkor Wat at sunrise was one of the more crowded life experiences I’ve partaken in. We managed to find a good spot that our guide mentioned the day before. Even though it was a bit overcast and hazy, watching the temple come to life in the early hours of the day was everything I wanted it to be. Surrounded by fellow travelers, it was still a peaceful time and I loved appreciating the simple beauty of the moment. After sunrise, we stopped at a few spots out guide mentioned were lovely in the morning light before heading out to meet our driver.
A note: I cannot stress how happy we were that we could roll out after sunrise and not fight the post-sunrise crowds to tour the temple. If your schedule allows I highly recommend touring the temple in the afternoon and watching the sunrise on a different day.
After a quick breakfast, we headed out to Banteay Srey. This gem of a temple is a little ways outside the city. The drive allowed us to enjoy the scenery and see the Cambodian countryside. For my husband, who hasn’t spent a lot of time outside the developed world, it was a chance to see what life is like in a country with a gross national income (GNI) per capita of US$1,230, making it a middle income country per World Bank classifications.
Banteay Srey was worth the trip. The carvings here are exquisite. Since we left right after sunrise at Angkor Wat, we beat the tour buses and only shared the temple with a dozen or so others. It didn’t take long to explore this small complex. After the tour buses started rolling in we decided we’d seen enough and loaded up to head to our next stop.
I realize not everyone would put a land mine museum on their honeymoon activity list but it was important for me to take the time to learn more about the terrible cost of conflict. This museum tells the story of a man who learned how to disable landmines and clear land. It also gives context to the scope of the problem, and issues that continue today.
After the museum we headed back to the hotel for some beer and a swim before heading to the airport and onwards to our next stop.
Second Stop: Chiang Mai, Thailand
I’d heard great things about the city and surrounding area, but mostly, I went to Chiang Mai for the elephants! I absolutely loved the hotel we stayed at – the Yaang Come Village. I loved the quiet courtyards and small buildings, as well as the traditional Thai decor. The pool was the picture of tranquility. It was easy to forget we were in a bustling city as soon as we entered the hotel. The location was great as well, walking distance to lots of nearby attractions and restaurants. We got in late that night and went to nearby Whole Earth restaurant. It was one of the best meals of the trip!
Our first day, we headed to the jungle for a day of ziplining with Flight of the Gibbon. After gearing up and getting a safety overview, we headed into the jungle. There were several gibbon sightings as we headed to the course. This was my first time doing an actual zipline course, and both my husband and I had a great time. The course is pretty long, and you are on it for 2-3 hours. There were a few long runs, and one that you could clip in on your back to do a Superman dive. At the end, you free rappel down what felt like a 300 foot high platform, but my husband says it was closer to 100. They provided lunch in a nearby village before bringing us back to Chiang Mai.
That night, we checked out the nearby night markets and ate dinner there. The food was subpar, but the entertainment was world class. A Thai cover singer who looked eerily like John Lennon performed, and the entire bar sang along. The market shopping was great, and we picked up most of our souvenirs here.
The next day was a trip highlight. Before going to Thailand, I did a lot of research on the ethics around the elephant farms and elephant riding. I wasn’t sure if we wanted to ride elephants, or just spend time with them. In the end, I was comfortable with selecting a place that rescues elephants from circuses and work sites, but do offer an elephant riding experience. They partner elephants with a mahout, and ride no more than two people at the neck, where the elephants can better support the weight. It’s a personal choice if you are comfortable with riding elephants, but for me, I looked at it as a mutually beneficial relationship, similar to horses. Do your own research and go with what you are comfortable with. This Wall Street Journal article has some good information, as does this guide to various elephant camps. If you do decide to spend a day with elephants, pick a site that strives to do right by them.
We selected Patara Elephant Farm based on friend’s recommendations and reviews online. Our day started with a long bus ride from the city out into the countryside, enjoyable in itself! When we arrived, a mama elephant and her two babies greeted us. We feed and pet them before walking down to the main area to meet our charges for the day. Each of us was paired with an elephant. Since my elephant was still nursing, I tended to her and her baby. Our mahout guides taught us about their food, and how to properly scrub them. We all got soaked while washing the elephants and playing in the water. They told us to bring swimsuits, but I hadn’t taken off my pants before going in the water not expecting to get soaked! After drying off, we were given mahout outfits and received safety instructions including proper ways to mount and ride so as to no harm ourselves or our elephants. After that, we got the call to mount up, with assistance from out mahouts. Once everyone was up, we started our trek to the top of the hill where we had lunch.
Riding bareback behind the elephant’s neck was exciting, and very different from the circus rides of my childhood (side note: I would never ride on the back of an elephant circus style like that again after my Thai research). My elephant didn’t seem to mind me up there, stopping to eat and nurse and pretty much doing whatever she wanted while making slow progress to our destination. I didn’t mind, I was clearly just along for the ride. We finally made it to our lunch spot. We ate one of the best lunches we had in Thailand while taking in the idyllic countryside views, while the elephants frolicked in the nearby stream. After lunch we mounted back up and headed back to base camp. We said goodbye to our elephants, and after our final hugs and pats, loaded up to head back to Chiang Mai. all in all, I’m glad I did it, but think I would have been find not riding and just spending a day playing with elephants.
That night we wandered along the river looking for a place to eat dinner. We ended up on the other side, and found a place where we appeared to be the only out-of-towners. The food was incredible, and English picture menus made it easy to figure out what to get and to order. Sadly, I haven’t been able to find the name of the place but if you cross the Loi Kroh road bridge and wander to the right, you should run into it. After dinner we headed back across the river and found the coolest bar along the banks. Bus Bar is an outdoor seating area with a few converted buses serving drinks.
For our last day in Chiang Mai, we spent the day touring the cities many temples. We followed Lonely Planet’s Old City walking tour. It was a nice route that offered lots of sightseeing. I particularly enjoyed the Lanna architecture in Wat Phan Tao. After lunch, we headed back to our hotel for a swim before grabbing our bags and heading to the airport.
Third Stop: Krabi, Thailand
Almost halfway through the trip, we reached the relaxation part of the itinerary. We opted to stay at Centara Grand Beach Resort & Villas in Krabi. The hotel had deluxe suites with balcony hot tubs in our price range. The resort was lovely, even if the location wasn’t ideal. Cut off from the rest of the city by a jungle and hill, the resort can only be accessed by boat or the “monkey trail” – a path up a wooden ladder in the dark over a hill in the jungle. The resort did have lots of food options and things to do, so we only braved the monkey trail into town one night. There was a boat that went to the harbor from the resort during the day, and you could grab a longtail home for less than $10 a night. Other than this slight inconvenience, my only complaint was that it seemed most of the staff had just started and weren’t fully trained up yet. We were traveling during the shoulder season, a few weeks before the season truly got underway. I think that was a lot of the reason for the somewhat poor service we experienced. We opted to get the club benefits, and they were worth it for the breakfasts and happy hours it included!
The one hiccup we had on the whole trip involved a monkey and our balcony hot tub. While laying out and reading while I waited for the tub to fill, a monkey came and joined me. He tried to open the screen door and when I yelled (mostly because I was startled), he hissed at me, swiped my leg and took off. We called the front desk, but they only wanted to know if he got into the mini bar (we should have said he took the beers!). I went to the medical office, where oddly no one spoke English well, but got some iodine and a bandage. The internet assured me a scratch could not carry rabies, and I figured I was current on all other relevant vaccines. Alls well that ends well right?
While in Krabi we mostly relaxed, enjoying the hotels pools, beaches, catamarans and paddleboards. We did do a few activities though including a cooking class, snorkeling day trip, and a half day of rock climbing. Here’s a little more information on each:
Thai Cooking Class
I love Thai food and wanted to learn how to make it myself. In researching options in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, I found a company that had an outpost in Krabi. Given that we had limited time in the other two cities and more time in Krabi, this worked perfectly for us. One of the instructors picked us up at the dock to shuttle us to the class. We learned how to make our own curry paste, spring rolls from scratch, pad thai, and sweet desserts. Since you ate everything you cooked, this made a fun alternative to dinner at the resort.
Railay Rock Climbing
I couldn’t imagine traveling to Thailand and not getting in some rock climbing, so we did a day trip to Railay, one of the world’s greatest climbing areas. My husband isn’t as into climbing as I am, so we settled on a half day of climbing instead of a fell day. Sadly the tides weren’t in our favor to do the free climbing the area is known for, but we headed out with King’s Climbing to a nearby cliff wall and started the day. They subdivided the group into people with no climbing experience, and those that knew what they were doing. Since we were in the later group, we ended up with a guide to ourselves who taught us how to safely belay when lead climbing, and gave us free reign to climb our hearts out. The day left me with a new bucket list item – spend a week climbing in Railay.
Day Trip to Phi Phi Islands
Since we were in the area, we weren’t leaving without seeing Thailand’s Maya Beach. The internet and fellow travelers warned us of the crowds, so we booked a tour that included a few other stops and plenty of snorkeling opportunities. We set out from our hotel and enjoyed a day of sun and sea. The snorkeling at some of the stops was a bit of a let down, but we did make one good stop that teemed with colorful fish. The beach stops were all filled with what felt like hundreds of boats filled with groups doing the same thing we were. But most stops had a shack selling beer, so we couldn’t complain! Maya Beach did not disappoint, even with the crowds. It was truly a stunningly beautiful place. I hear it’s temporarily closed to tourism due to crowds and resulting damage to the areas natural habitat including its coral reefs. I’ll save my musing on how to be a better tourist for another post and will just say, let’s all do our part when we travel to be conscious of our footprint.
After five days of R&R we were ready to start the journey home, but not before we got in one night in Bangkok!
We caught a morning flight out to maximize out time in Bangkok. After checking into our hotel – the Eastin Grand Hotel Sathorn – we headed out to see the nearby sights. If you’ve read other posts here, you may realize one of my favorite things to do in a new city is to simply walk around and enjoy the sights. Bangkok was no different. At this point in the trip we were pretty exhausted, so we canceled our reservation at Thiptara and opted to check out the dining options in our hotel. We were delighted to find the Italian restaurant on the 14th floor could compete with some of the best in New York! I noticed they have since replaced it with a new restaurant by a Michelin starred chef, so I imagine it will continue to delight. After dinner we were feeling better and ventured over to enjoy some overpriced cocktails at Lebua’s Skybar. Made famous in The Hangover 2, the views are top notch, even if the bar is a bit crowded.
The next morning we headed downtown to check out the Grand Palace and several other sites. Our hotel had easy access to the BTS Skytrain, making it easy to get around the city. Unfortunately, our shoulder season luck ran out, and we got caught up in what were likely some of the last of the seasonal downpours. We pushed through though, given this was our only chance to see the sites.
Starting at the Grand Palace, we wandered around the complex, taking in the various architectural details and temples including the emerald buddha. Since we were a little tour guide-ed out by this point in the trip, we opted to go it alone. I relied on my trusty Lonely Planet for information about where to go and what to see inside the complex. From there, we walked over to Wat Pho aka the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. This massive Buddha is about 150 feet long and covered in gold leaf. After seeing these two sites, we were soaked to the bone and ready to call it a day. We grabbed a cab back to our hotel room, shed our wet clothes and pulled on swimsuits for one last afternoon swim. The Eastin Grand has a stunning infinity pool on the 14th floor, making you feel like you are floating above the city. Getting a day room allowed us to take advantage of our last day, including a chance to go for a swim, before showering and changing into our travel clothes. The hotel held our bags while we grabbed dinner, then headed to the airport to start our long journey back to the U.S.
What I would have done differently:
There isn’t a lot I would change about this trip. If I had more time, I would have added a few days in Cambodia. Also, in hindsight, we maybe should have gotten a simpler room at a nicer resort in Krabi. My husband would have cut Chiang Mai, but I loved it and would not have! We also somehow managed to never get Thai massages. We did a spa day at our resort, but didn’t take advantage of the plethora of options for quite massages at every stop.
What I would check out next time:
We didn’t get a lot of time in Bangkok, so I definitely want to go back. I hear great things about Koh Samui, but it was the wrong time of year for us to go there. I also want to spend more time in Cambodia, checking out Phnom Penh and the country’s beaches.
I love the way you organized your blog post!
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Thanks! I find it helpful to lay out my trips then note what I didn’t get to do and what I would do different. Glad you appreciated it!
Thanks! I’m trying to keep all of them organized like this!