10 Tips for Angkor Visit

  1. Have Enough Cash for Angkor Tickets- The Government of Cambodia recently took over ticket sales for the Angkor Archeological Park which is great news as there is no longer a need to come super early to avoid waiting in line for tickets . This resulted in a new ticket sale place with many counters, making this process fast and painless. The price has slightly increased- a one day pass to all Angkor temples is now $37, while the the most popular three-day pass is $62. There is one catch- it is CASH ONLY, they DO NOT ACCEPT CREDIT CARDS. So a family of four interested in tree-day passes better have $248 cash on them when going to buy these tickets.
  2. Don't loose Angkor Tickets- You will need to show them all the time, every time you are entering a different temple over the course of your stay. Keep them handy, preferably in a bag or pocket not next to your body-- because of heat and humidity the tickets can become all wet if in a pocket next to your overheating body. 
  3. Angkor Visit - Take it Easy. If you are going during the hot and humid season, you should really pace yourself.  The heat and humidity will drain all energy out of you after few hours and you will stop caring what temple you are seeing.  You will need a driver and maybe a guide. Guide books provide a rather good explanation of what you are seeing, but you can also hire a guide, usually through a hotel, for app. $25-$30 per day. Whether you need a guide will depend on how interested you are in knowing the history of these temples. Our favorite must-see temples that we would like to see again one day are Bayon, Ta Prohm, Banteay Srei, Ta Som and Preah Khan. You have to see Angkor Wat of course, as it is really fascinating, but there is no need to stay there too long.
  4. Tuk-Tuk or Private Car- Many people took tuk-tuks while others opted for a private car. If you are traveling alone, hiring a tuk-tuk driver for the whole day may be more cost effective ($15 per day). It will also depend on the time of year you are there and whether it is unbearably hot and humid, in which case we really recommend hiring a nice car with the air-conditioning ($40 per day). We organized our temple visit through the driver who picked us up from the airport - he took us around during our stay for $40 a day. You can go through the hotel as well, but then they may give you another driver. Our driver (Mr. Perom, tel: +855(0)11343632) spoke very good English and was very nice, and it meant a lot to us to have short break from the heat in a car with AC.  There are many Lexus vehicles in Siem Reap, none of them owned by the drivers, so tip these drivers generously, they mainly live off tips.
  5. Temple Attire: Visitors must wear long pants/skirts and T-shirts. Tank tops are not allowed, although in most places you can just cover your shoulders with a scarf when asked. However, to climb up the main tower inside the Angkor Wat complex, tank top with a scarf combination is not allowed, and if you really insist on going up they may give you a very sweaty and dirty T-shirt to wear.  Try to avoid this shirt at all cost. 
  6. Angkor - Day One: The first day tour usually takes you to Angkor Wat, Ankgor Thom, lunch and then Ta Prohm.  Most people start with the sunrise an Angkor Wat, and then go inside and see the temple. Next stop is usually Angkor Thom, which consists of Bayon temple (the one with numerous stone faces), Baphuon (which we think you can skip), and Terrace of Elephants which sounds better than it really is.  In our opinion, to avoid heat exhaustion, only Bayon warrants your time and attention.  If you have the strength to skip lunch at the time when all the tourists eat (1pm-3pm), you can go to Ta Prohm, the jungle temple made famous by the "Tomb Raider" movie. If not, get some food and then see this amazing temple that is being taken over the by trees. If too tired, leave the last temple for the second day as it merits your time and attention.  
  7. Angkor - Day Two: Visit Benteay Srei (the pink sandstone temple) early and get the place all to your self. It's really wonderful and one of our favorite temples. Then you can visit Pre Rup which is nearby. The view from the top is great, but the stairs are very high and steep, so keep that in mind when deciding whether to go all the way up. After templing, we went to the Tonle Sap lake to see the floating villages. 
  8. Angkor -  Day Three: We left the not so popular temples for the end, and were very glad we did as we loved them. We started with Ta Som, another jungle type of temple, which we really liked. There is lovely gate with a fig tree taking over the gate that is difficult to find. Then we went to Neak Pean, which we remember because of a long causeway and a cute little lake around it. The last stop was the temple we loved the most - Preah Khan. There was just something magical about it. 
  9. Tonle Sap Lake: Everyone said we would need a break from all the temples, and that we should visit the lake, and the Kampong Pluhk Village to see how people really live in these floating villages. ,The ticket for a boat that takes you around the lake is $25 per person, and although not cheap it is worth seeing. If you have been to Thailand floating markets, you will be shocked- this is nothing like it. It is a boat tour where you really see how the local population lives and it is at times heartbreaking. Then you reach the open lake which is really fascinating. Lastly, you will stop for lunch at some make-shift raft/restaurant where you are at first afraid to eat, but then you will relax. The food was delicious and the view of the vast emptiness of the lake is unforgettable.  
  10. Shopping and Bargaining: If you want to buy cotton T-shirt/skirts/pants that Cambodia is famous for, and don't need to try them on, best purchases are in front of the not so popular temples. You should bargain, but not to the point of preventing the seller from making any profit.  If you do need to try things on, go to the Siem Reap's Old Market (Psar Chaa)- T-shirts are app. $3-6, pants $5-$10, dresses $10-$20, bronze statues of apsara dancers $12-$18, wooden masks and wooden apsara dancer wall art $18-$25, and so on. For fancier and rather expensive things, visit Artisans Angkor workshop and the silk farm. 

10 Tips for Cambodia Travel

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  1. Visa- You will need a visa.  Start by visiting the website of Cambodia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs for useful tourist information, including a link for the E-Visa application. E-Visa site sometimes crashes but eventually is up and running again. The visa costs $37 per person. 
  2. Immunization- The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends receiving Hepatitis A and Typhoid vaccines, and making sure your Tetanus shot is up to date. Since anti-typhoid medication is often cheaper than the vaccine, consult with your doctor whether that is a better option for you. As this is seldom covered by the insurance,  those living in the U.S. may find it to be cheaper to get these vaccines in the CVS Minute Clinic. 
  3. Don't Exchange Any Money-  Cambodia predominately uses U.S. Dollar (USD) instead of Cambodian Riel.  All the prices for tours, tickets, food, and souvenirs/clothing, as well as all bargaining, is all in USD. Cambodians seem to prefer using dollars and are almost confused when you want to pay with Cambodian Riel.   Don't make the mistake we made when we exchanged $200 at the airport- that was money wasted as the exchange rate that the sellers used to calculate the price of an item quoted in USD was always lower than the one we paid. 
  4. Bring Lots of $1 Bills- This will be so useful and convenient for you. From tipping the staff and paying for cotton T-shirts in front of the temples, to taking the tuk-tuks and buying water and fruit, having small bills ($1 and $5) will make your life easier and will be much appreciated by all the sellers. Plus having small bills helps during price negotiations. 
  5. Have Enough Cash for Angkor Tickets- Believe it or not, this is CASH ONLY, they DO NOT ACCEPT CREDIT CARDS.  One day pass is $37, while the popular three-day pass is $62 per person. 
  6. Internet- If you have T-Mobile from the U.S. visiting Cambodia is super easy internet wise as  Cambodia is one of the countries covered by T-Mobile One Plan, which means unlimited 2G data (just be sure to Disable LTE roaming on your phone). Otherwise, many cafes and restaurants that cater to foreigners have free wifi. 
  7. Electricity- Europeans and Americans will both be very happy with electrical outlets in Cambodia, as they are designed to accept both types of plugs. The electricity however is 230V, so if your devices only accept 110V, you will need a voltage converter/transformer. 
  8. Safety- Based on the warnings we got, Siem Reap seems to be safer than Phnom Penh. Either way, use common sense- don't talk on the phone while in tuk-tuk if it can be easily snatched, keep your purse close to you, lock your valuables, etc. As for food and drinks, we avoided ice and unpeeled fruits and vegetables, but ate in numerous restaurants, some very modest, and have never gotten sick. We did not taste any street food though.
  9. Transportation- Contact your hotel ahead of time and ask them to organize airport pick up. In Siem Reap transportation from and to the airport was free of charge, while in Phnom Penh it cost around $18 each way. For local transportation, tuk-tuks are the best way to go- they should be between $2-$4 around Siem Reap, little more in Phnom Penh. We didn't bargain with them (as we heard how hard of a job it is), but we did ask about the price before getting in to avoid any disputes later on. 
  10. Shopping- Those who love bargaining will have a blast. Just remember that the sellers live from the sales of these goods, so don't let your desire to hone your bargaining skills put the sellers desperate to sell out of business. You can buy cheap souvenirs in local markets everywhere. You can also visit Artisans Angkor stores in Siem Reap and at all airports in Cambodia for beautiful Cambodian arts and crafts- everything is hand-made, and it is rather pricey as the proceeds from sales help pay decent wages and help local communities.  
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One Day in New York City

This week we are hosting an exchange student from France whose one wish was to see NYC.  Since we love the city as well, we decided to go up for a one day excursion. Given how often our guests want to go and see NYC, we decided to create this useful reference for first time visitors. 

We left Bethesda at 5:45am, got to Jersey City around 9:30, and parked at the Park One Garage, 10 Exchange Pl, Jersey City, NJ 07302 (tel 201-432-7380). During the weekend the price is $15 if you stay less than 10 hours. It's a great place to park as you can quickly get to the city, either by taking Path trains ($2.75 per person per ride) or the ferry ($4 per person per ride on weekends). The beauty of parking in Jersey City is that the Hudson River Waterfront Walkaway provides you with an amazing view of New York, and it is a great photo op for your guest.  

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We took the ferry that takes you near the World Trade Center, and our first stop was the One World Observatory . As we didn't plan this stop in advance, we  paid the regular $39 per person ticket, but if you book it online, it is $34. There is an option for priority admission, but there was no line when we got there around 10:45, so no need for it. I am usually not crazy about these towers with the view, but this one is really exceptional and definitively worth the visit. It gives an excellent overview of what you will see later during the day, and it allows your guest to see things they will not have time to explore, like the Statue of Liberty or Ellis Island.

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When you leave the observatory you will pass by the 9/11 Memorial Plaza . No matter how many times you have seen this, it is always heartbreaking. If you haven't seen it, please visit. 

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Then we continued walking down the Vesey Street to the Brooklyn Bridge. There is really no need to go across it- you can just go up to the first tower, or not even that far if you have enough of good photos. 

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By this time it was already 1pm, and everyone was starving. We recommend doing your research and deciding what you want to eat before you get tired and hungry, and then just ubering to the restaurant, otherwise you will spend precious time just looking at restaurant reviews. Uber is not cheap, but it beats the subway when you are exhausted. We opted for Buenos Aires, an Argentinian restaurant in the East Village, where we ate excellent milanesa and of course panqueques con dulce de leche (caramel crepes). Malbec is a must. 

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After lunch we took Uber to the Flat Iron Building (Fifth Avenue and the 23rd Street) for more photo ops. Then we strolled up the Fifth Avenue and Broadway, peaked into Macy's on the 34th Street, and finally reached the inevitable Times Square.  

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Few hundred photos later we took Broadway to Central Park, and as it was slowly getting dark around 5:30pm, we entered the park for a very quick glance.  Completely tired and exhausted we started walking, looking for a coffee place where you can sit and relax. We recommend that you decide before the 40-block-walk where you want to rest in the afternoon, and then just take a taxi or uber to that place, preferably far away from tourists.

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On the way back to our car we took the famous subway (so that our guest can experience it) and then Path train back to Jersey. The Hudson River Walkaway didn't disappoint us at night either- the view of the city was even more beautiful than during the day.  We made it back to the garage before 8pm. Short and Sweet. 

15 Tips for Iceland Travel

  1. Decide what you want to get out of the trip- Northern Lights are fascinating but that usually means visiting Iceland in the winter.  Going in winter on the other hand may limit some glacier adventures- glacier hike is more challenging and glacier lagoon is closed.
  2. Compare prices, miles earned, and extra charges between low budget WOW airlines  and Icelandair for the dates of your travel.  Icelandair may be more expensive at times, but if you are collecting Alaska airlines miles, you will get some miles. Furthermore, WOW baggage fees can be very high. 
  3. If you plan to drive, reserve a car ahead of time. We used PROCAR Car Rental and their representative picked us up from the airport and took us to the lot. We opted for all possible insurance they offered, based on numerous trip advisors reviews (super CDW, sand storm insurance, etc.).  Total cost of one week car rental in August, with all the insurance, was app. $1,300. If you decide to rent a camper and save on the hotel cost, a week rental with insurance costs app. $1,800. It is a cheaper option, but less comfortable. 
  4. For U.S. drivers no international driver's license is necessary, you can rent the car with your regular license only. 
  5. Reserve hotel ahead of time, at least for the first few days. If you plan to go to Blue Lagoon first, find an apartment that has a washer/dryer so that you can dry your swimsuits. 
  6. Weather/season permitting book the Glacier Walk and Glacier Lagoon tours ahead of time. They go fast. The glacier lagoon tour is only open May to October. 
  7. Pack waterproof/warm clothes, hiking shoes/boots, warm hiking socks, etc. Most of these items you can buy in REI (being dry is worth every penny). They carry plus size as well.
  8. Chances are it will rain a lot. Forget about the umbrella and focus on waterproof jacket. You will also need a rain cover for your backpack
  9. Pack swimsuits and hair conditioner (many hotels have shampoos but not conditioner). If you are going to volcanoes in Myvatn region, bring a fly net- you will need it. The annoying flies aim for your nose and eyes as you climb up.
  10. Dress in layers. Dress in layers. Dress in layers. Did I mention to dress in layers?
  11. Iceland is very expensive and most of Reykjavik hotels do not offer free breakfast. If possible pack food (ramen noodles, instant oatmeal, energy bars, peanut butter, etc.). 
  12. If you are on the road, buy food in supermarkets and make sandwiches for the next day.
  13. No need to bring lots of cash, they accept credit cards almost everywhere. Even in the bathroom stalls.
  14. The water in Reykjavik slightly smells of sulfur but it's not horrible. It's nothing compared to Myvatn in the north. 
  15. Pay attention when driving, the signs on the road are very small and inconspicuous. The bridges are often one-lane bridges, so adjust and watch the road ahead before deciding to cross the bridge. Most bridges are short enough so that you clearly see if there is incoming traffic competing for the same lane. 

 

ON THE INCA TRAIL

Peru. Home to the Inca’s one of the worlds largest empire in Central & South America, in Pre-Columbian America. The Incas capital, Cusco, happened to contain the highest point in Peru, Machu Picchu, to be closer to the Gods, and remains of the civilization still are here. I guess the Spaniards weren’t completely able to destroy EVERYTHING they conquered. The Inca’s had a strong military, and hard-core religion. Sacrifices were made, with their prisoners that they captured during war. They had complex farming systems, and supplied surplus’ of food in stone warehouses, so if there was ever a famine, they would be able to survive. Also, the Inca’s had a complex communication system in which they tied certain strings called quipu, to send messages around the empire. Their language was called Quechua. In Machu Picchu, they didn’t have roofs, since earthquakes were often, considering the Nazca Plate and South American plate kept converging into one another, earthquakes happened to be the result of this plate movement. Now, because Machu Picchu is really high in elevation, the sun is stronger, because it is closer, and the air is thin, making it harder to breathe. It was fascinating to see how advanced the Inca’s were.

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When we visited Cusco, the city was filled with cobblestones, donkeys, and food. We visited it’s plaza, and had to climb some stairs, but took us a while considering the lack of oxygen. The city was filled with poor, wearing traditional clothing. The city had a few tourists, and you could tell because they had hiking backpacks, and gracefully climbed the steps, unlike us, in which, after every step we needed a breather. We woke up early the next day, and went to the train station, which would lead us to Machu Picchu.

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I was sitting, and just admiring Mother Nature. I saw farmers cursing at their livestock, kids pushing one another to get a scrappy soccer ball, and rivers flowing freely. We got to the top, and there with all its glory, was Machu Picchu. When we arrived, there was fog, but once we climbed to the top, just like it was out of a movie, the fog slowly lifted and the sun shined on one of seven modern wonders of the world. Machu Picchu’s use, is actually still unknown to us, it’s hard to tell what it could’ve been. 

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The high altitude meant it was really cold in the winter, and really hot in the summer. It was the beginning of April, so it should’ve been nice, but once that sun came out, it burned. The sun is dangerous, when you’re so up high, and you can get sunburned…very quickly. The Inca’s were tan, I guess genetically they had skin that could last in the sun all day. Anyhow, we walked amongst trails, and took pictures in front of the iconic mountain, with the remains of stone lying peacefully amongst it. We wandered through the terraces that had different crops, that would keep the Peruvian families alive, and we took selfies with llamas, that loved to take pictures with tourists. It was truly amazing, being “on top of the world”, well at least to the Inca’s.

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No matter how many pictures we took, it can never truly substitute actually being present in that moment. When time stops, and its only you and this peaceful place. No matter all those time you click the shutter button, its not even close to feeling the breeze, and watching the fog slowly lift, to reveal it’s hidden treasure. None of the descriptions from the Conquistadors, which blindly decided to  ruin something so beautiful, could match to actually being on top of the mountain, looking down at the creations of Mother Nature.