A dear friend of mine was kind enough to connect me with his son who has been to Cambodia a couple times. His son shared some great details on my impending destination. He’s delightfully energetic and articulate about Cambodia so allow me to share his thoughts:
Sounds like a great trip.
In general, Thais and Cambodians are friendly and very non-confrontational. I’d be surprised if you had any issues with locals at all (although some European tourists seem bent on expressing their displeasure with some aspects of the United States.) In Thailand, just watch out for Tuk Tuk drivers offering free rides (not dangerous, but they’ll take you on a 2 hour trip, stopping at various shops whom pay drivers to bring in tourists) and Thais around tourist spots offering free or discounted rides and such. They are always there to scam you out of something. Otherwise, it’s safe and easy to get around (especially now that they have the MRT subway.)
I’m not sure what your itinerary looks like, but in Thailand I much prefer Chiang Mai over Bangkok. BKK is really muggy, crowded and a bit dingy. Obviously, though, in BKK there is action of all sorts, so I guess it depends what you’re interested in experiencing. Easy to get around using the MRT, BTS, Tuk Tuks, and regular cabs. (For Tuk Tuks and cabs, agree on the fare before hand.) One thing I enjoyed was an overnight train ride from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. The sleeping cabin was clean and a good value, and I woke up to the sun rising outside my train window just outside of Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai has much better weather and its Old Town is much more picturesque. Lovely restaurants on the river. Beautiful old buildings. Plus, just outside of Chiang Mai, there are some majestic temples and even Hmong villages you might stumble into. One day I rented a scooter to zip around, but often just wandered or rented a car and driver for a day to get up to the mountains and out to the countryside.
Regarding what you must see, I really don’t know what you’re interested in so it’s tough to say. I tend to randomly walk for most of the day (around town), stumbling upon things by happenstance. I met a couple Buddhist monks who are were very engaging and inquisitive (you may already know, but just remember not to touch them and when they turn to leave, drop them a few coins in their open hand behind their backs). Also, I stumbled upon a Thai boxing training camp and temples too numerous to count. Generally, I ate at food stands along the street. Usually good and really inexpensive.
Siem Reap is small (although when was there ten years ago, it’s was beginning to boom). Easy to get around and safe. The Cambodians I met were delightful, especially the girls and young women who seemed more confident and spunky. They seem to really like Americans. Of course you’ll visit Angkor Wat. I’d see it early in the morning before all the tourist buses arrive, otherwise it could be quite crowded. The big draw for me were the smaller outlying temple ruins which were stunning and quite peaceful. There were a couple ruins where nobody else was even around, save for a local guide who would offer you a tour for a small donation. I rented a car and driver for the day, so getting out further was much easier. I did wander beyond a temple and through some fields towards a village, but that may not have been the wisest thing to do since land mines still litter the country side. I also enjoyed walking on side roads just outside the main part of Siem Reap, seeing how the locals live. Music, aromas, stilt houses., and a river which doesn’t seem to flow in any direction. For me, a good day or two in Siem Reap seemed more than sufficent.
I didn’t visit Laos….wish I did though!
Well Linda, I could go on and on, but feel free to pick my brain for more advice and ideas. Oh, BTW, I’m not sure what you’re doing for cell phone service, but there are kiosks at the airport where you can get SIM cards and data packages for any of the local carriers.