Cambodia – Schedules, shopping, snoozing and sights.

This afternoon we’re welcoming Emma back, and picking up the travel tale of her trip to Cambodia. If you missed her first report about the essentials, do check it out: we Florence girls always like to be prepared and Emma has kindly covered everything you need to know!

Siem Reap – An insider’s guide
Speak to other visitors in Siem Reap and they usually have the same story – they’re sticking around for two or three days to see the essentials before moving on to Phnom Penh or hopping over to Thailand, Laos or Vietnam. Quite a lot of people were taken aback when we said how long we were staying there (Siem Reap is not a big place!) But to be honest, I think we would have been completely exhausted and too tired to appreciate it if we had any less time.

 Spread your visit out over a more leisurely 10 days or a couple of weeks and you can take things at a much slower pace, enjoy Siem Reap for much more than a ‘temple hopping’ destination and you can combat travel-weariness by spending lazy afternoons by your hotel pool, too. Guilt free.

Our time in Siem Reap was a real break from the norm. As it was so warm we often rose at crazy times (3.45am wake up call, anyone?) to see the sights at sunrise. It wasn’t too bad though, especially as we were jetlagged and our sleep patterns were shot anyway. This meant we were often back at our hotel (after a 7 hour morning trip) by 11.30, ready for a siesta. The Khmer people are really early risers; they like to make the most of daylight time. It’s a strange sight to see so many people up and getting on with their chores at 4am! 

US dollars are the most widely accepted form of currency. We didn’t stock up at all on any of the local currency (Riel) and to be honest, didn’t see any whilst we were there. I cannot emphasis enough how important it is to take small bills, especially $1 notes – these are perfect for tuk tuk rides and are really handy for tips. Food is far less expensive than we’re used to as well – e.g a two course meal with beers never set us back more than $12.

A bit about….Shopping
It seems obvious, but don’t go expecting a ‘high street’ in Cambodia. Instead, make the most of your chance to stumble on a market stall, which can be great for finding little bargains or keepsakes. We only ever found one well-stocked supermarket to cater to our Western whims (mainly mosquito spray, chilled Evian and biscuits) on the corner of Pokambor Avenue and Street 9 at the Angkor Trade Center.

Take the time to have a wander around Siem Reap’s Night Market which opens from 4pm-12 midnight. This is a chilled out area and vendors are friendly without being pushy. The authentic Night Market is always signed as “Angkor Night Market”. Don’t confuse this for general signs to a ‘night market’, as there are lots of copycat stalls around.

Taking in the temples…
Plan your trips to Angkor carefully. To see the temples thoroughly without rushing you will probably need three days. You will have to get yourself an Angkor pass before you travel to any of the temples, but make sure you take cash with you, as credit cards aren’t accepted (US dollars, Cambodian Riel, Thai Baht or Euro only). The fees are:
 US$20 for one day,
US$40 for three days
 or US$60 for one week.

As well as the consecutive three-day pass there is also an option for “any 3 days in one week” – andif this is the one you’re after, your main concern will be is finding the right booth for the pass you want to buy! This isn’t explained very well, but it doesn’t cost any more. 
The easiest place to pick up your pass is on the road from the airport to Angkor Wat. If traveling from Siem Reap you can just get your Tuk Tuk driver to make a quick stop (they will know the procedure!)

On Your Bike…
Don’t be afraid to hire a bike and make your own way to Angkor Wat. The roads do seem a little hectic in Siem Reap, but ride up Charles De Gaulle road towards the Angkor Heritage Centre and within 10 minutes the road is straight, flat and relatively quiet.

It’s an amazing way to get a feel of the place. There are lots of bike hire spots in Siem Reap or your hotel may have a couple to hire for a dollar or so. Be warned though, Cambodian bikes are all the same – a little bit rickety and don’t have lights (so you may want to time your cycle wisely). Cycle helmets are rare finds, but generally traffic is slow if a little erratic. Other temple sites are do-able by bike if you’re a more experienced cyclist but a bit too far for your average rider. 

On our first full day in Siem Reap we hit the ground running with a Sunrise Village Tour with Beyond Unique Escapes. For $22 each we had one of the best experiences of our lives, cycling in the pitch black, pot-holed roads through the local villages to view the sun rise over Tonlé Sap Lake. This trip gave us the confidence to cycle around on our own for the rest of our holiday and tuned us in to Siem Reap and the Khmer lifestyle. Generally though, it’s very easy to organise trips whilst you’re there and you’ll get lots of offers for Tuk Tuk drivers to take you around the temples. There really is no need to worry about booking tours in advance.

We stayed at:
Heritage Suites Hotel prices from $158p/n,
and the 

FCC Angkor, prices from $135p/n

Other chic and well-placed accommodation:

Hotel De La Paix, Viroth’s and Ombrelle y Kimono

Nice spots to eat and drink:
Great Coffee at Ca Ca Cappuchino – nr Sivatha Road
.
Cool ice creams and shakes at Blue Pumpkin – Hospital St.
Lovely Khmer cuisine at Le Tigre Du Papier.
Marvellous Gin Fizzes and great, eclectic music at Laundry Bar.


View Florence Finds Siem Reap in a larger map

Well, there doesn’t seem to be anything left to add! A huge thanks to Emma for sharing those stunning photos and her experiences. Who’s getting ready to book a Cambodian trip now? As always, we want to hear all about it!

Love,
Gemma C-S

Cambodia – Packing, preparation and planes.

Today I’m green with envy – Emma has written a post about going to Cambodia, somewhere I’ve never been but a place that my husband loved so much it was his computer password for everything for a while. (Don’t worry, I’m sure he’s changed it since, I expect it’s now something like gemmaiscompletelyawesome or somesuch)

Emma (you may already know her as one half of Big Bouquet Photography who we love here at Florence Finds) has so much advice and so many inspiring photos to go with her jealousy-inducing destination guide that we’ve decided to split it into two parts.  Over to Emma!


Cambodia – Photography by Emma Davenport @ Big Bouquet Photography

I’m a little obsessed with holidays. One of my guilty pleasures is to soak in a hot bath with a pile of travel magazines at my side. Being self-employed it’s harder than ever to get away. I don’t get any paid holiday, and if I’m not at home, hard at it, I’m losing out on business or freaking out I’m not getting my work done. 

But there are so many places I want to visit; places that are far away and do need a bit of time, effort and money to get to. My gap year days have been and gone and the chances of me donning a backpack ever again are slim; but I refuse to accept I can’t get to more off-the-beaten-track places without jacking work in altogether, or taking out a loan. So reasonably short visits it is!


Cambodia – Photography by Emma Davenport @ Big Bouquet Photography

Cambodia was one of those places that seemed like quite a distant goal. It doesn’t help matters the travel mags are filled with over-priced, grand tours, of which very few satisfy my desire for budget, yet characterful, accommodation.  
In full ‘travel operator’ mode I went on a mission to work out a way for us to take a trip to Cambodia on a budget of £2,500. We couldn’t be away from home for longer than two weeks. Since we’ve been together we’ve agreed (however painful and tiring it is) we’d much rather forgo a holiday for a year (or unfortunately, maybe more) and save our pennies to go somewhere we really want to go; somewhere to tick off the dream list.

The plane speaking bit…
Armed with an itinerary put together on Tripit.com we worked out the least gruelling, in-budget way to get from London to Siem Reap in Cambodia without a long stop-over. 
We flew from Heathrow to Bangkok (via Dubai) with Emirates and lucked out catching a flight on the new, mega huge Airbus A380 (I want all my plane journeys to come with ceiling stars and mood lighting from now on, please!)


Cambodia – Photography by Emma Davenport @ Big Bouquet Photography

Unfortunately, there are no direct flights from the UK to Siem Reap and getting there involved the crazy short 35-minute flight from Bangkok with Bangkok Airways. 

Here’s a top tip! If you’re traveling on separate airlines check their “through Check-in” information. Some airlines work together to offer either Baggage Through Check, or at the very least Boarding Pass Issuing. You may need to get in touch with the airline before you book. Unfortunately, or leg from Dubai to BKK was delayed and we ended up missing our last transfer. Because we hadn’t twigged about the Baggage Through Check-in before we booked we had to clear customs and collect our bags before we could get onto our last flight, meaning what was always going to be a tight transfer ended up being impossible. Asking before we booked would have saved us a lot of grief, a £70 transfer fee and a 7-hour extra wait… Oops!


Cambodia – Photography by Emma Davenport @ Big Bouquet Photography

The bit about packing properly…
Make sure you think carefully about what you pack to take to Asia. Lightweight clothing that keeps you covered will make sure you’re comfortable in the heat, protected from mozzies and feel modest as you travel around the temples and town. You will stand out a mile if you’re out in T-shirts and shorts and we found we weren’t as easily identified as targets for being hounded when we were covered up.


Cambodia – Photography by Emma Davenport @ Big Bouquet Photography

There are a few clothing shops in town but they are thin on the ground. I’d say use your ‘case space’ on comfy shoes (yes, really) must-have toiletries, medicines and insect repellents, and outfit staples. Then, if you’re so inclined, you can pick up hats and light cotton pieces at the markets. 

The sun is strong; especially when you’re travelling in open spaces or by the water, so a hat is the number one accessory. I bagged myself a very pretty wide-brim straw number for $2.

The bit about needing a visa…
You need to kit yourself out with a tourist Visa before being allowed to enter the Kingdom of Cambodia. Although it looks a bit slapdash, http://www.mfaic.gov.kh/evisa/ is the place to apply for an e-Visa. For $25 you can pre-order your Visa to save time at Siem Reap airport. This takes 3 business days and you’ll need to upload a passport-sized photo but once it’s processed you are emailed your visa to print out and staple to your passport.

Well, now that we’re all ready to go, we’re going to leave you at the edge of your seats ;) Part 2 is coming up later on, but for now, does anyone have any travel/packing/visa tips we’ve missed? 

Love,
Gemma C-S

Destination Guide: Istanbul

Good afternoon readers! Today we’re welcoming Victoria back who is sharing her recent holiday to Istanbul. As soon as I heard she had visited Istanbul I asked Victoria to write about it for Florence Finds as I have long wanted to visit – it’s the location where Europe meets the Middle East and is said to create a unique blend of cultures. After reading Victoria’s review I think you’ll be hard pressed not add it to your must-visit list, and as I said earlier in the month, January is a perfect time to sit down, do some research and plan something, which is what I’ll be focusing on this week.

Take it away Victoria!

We decided to visit Istanbul as part of a grand family trip around Istanbul, Athens and Santorini. The recommendation was to spend at least five nights in Turkey’s largest city to allow enough time to explore all it has to offer, unfortunately with the schedule we were working to, we only had time for four nights, but we did pack quite a lot in.

To start with I’ll give you some quick facts, and a bit of background so you can get an idea of the scale and layout of the city and its colourful history, then take you through my personal recommendations on sleeping, eating, drinking, sightseeing and shopping.

The City
Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey, and under its previous names of Byzantium and Constantinople, served as a capital of three ancient empires (the Roman, the Byzantine and the Latin Empires) and also a relatively recent Empire, in comparison (The Ottoman). However in October 1923 when the Republic of Turkey was established Ankara was proclaimed the state capital, leaving Istanbul to rake in a number of other superlatives in its descriptions including the third largest metropolitan area in Europe (after London and Moscow), the cultural, economic and financial centre of Turkey and, its most famous accolade, the only metropolis in the world to span two continents – Europe and Asia.

Sleeping
We stayed at the Klas hotel in the Old Town. I spent some time researching a few different options and came to this decision because of its proximity to the main areas, the price and the good reviews on Trip Advisor.

It’s situated about a ten minute walk from the Grand Bazaar and so we felt it was ideally located for sightseeing. The hotel itself was clean, tidy and reasonably modern. It wasn’t high-design by any means, but the roof terrace with tables, sunbeds, cushioned lounging area (complete with fake grass for that Big Brother Garden feel), cute little pool and a bar was perfect for a little bit of chill out time after pounding the streets of the city. The staff were friendly and helpful, the breakfast was fine, providing the usual Continental and American buffet items (just stay away from the orange “juice” – it’s actually concentrate, incorrectly labelled!) and there was free WiFi on each floor, which is always nice for your daily Florence Finds fix!

For the price we paid, the location, standards and service were great. I’d definitely recommend this hotel to friends and family.

Eating
On the first night we were tired and didn’t want to roam too far, so we wandered up the main road to the Grand Bazaar area and found Faros restaurant. It was on a side street with tables and banquettes in the open air. I was having a bit of a love affair with all-white décor at the time (you can imagine how much I loved Santorini, can’t you?) so it caught my eye with the white leather seats, white tables, chairs, candle holders and menus. It was also packed…. with a lot of non-tourists (including a local wedding party sitting a bit further up) – SCORE!

The cocktail menu was international (happy me!) but the food was most definitely local and we sampled a lovely few plates of assorted mezzes, and a few local main dishes, including one cooked in a pot over naked flames which the waiters bring to your table on a trolley, wrap in a cloth and hammer at it with a knife until it cracks and spills all over your plate. You can imagine that a few rounds of that with a flourish, a bit too far from the table (i.e. in the middle of the busy street) attracted a few tourists, but it all added to the atmosphere and the buzz.

We loved the buzz of that little street so much that we ate there on two more occasions at Mozaik and another restaurant I can’t remember the name of (and the characters in the picture of the sign are “un-Google-able” without a Turkish keyboard). Mozaik was another great experience though – again the waiter was fabulous, funny, helpful and great for some local banter. We accidentally bumped in to him a day later in a local nightspot, but I’ll come on to that shortly.

Other restaurants on this street include Sir Evi and Rumeli Café, both of which offer similar menus, service and prices.

Over in the new town (the above were all based in the Old Town) we spent a long leisurely lunch in the Flower Passage working our way through almost the entire list of fresh daily mezzes and some local wine. There’s a lot of history here and the surroundings are very impressive and although it’s quite a touristy area, still had an impressive number of locals stopping by for some food, drink and banter.

Of all that we visited I would say that Faros and Mozaik are the ones that stick in my mind the most.

Drinking
On the first night, after our dinner, we ventured in to the maze of streets around the Grand Bazaar and found a little area full of locals drinking tea and sucking on shisha pipes. Seeing as it seemed to be the thing to do, we thought we’d  settle in. The guide books will tell you that no local will touch the coffee, nor the flavoured shisha tobacco, so we weren’t surprised to be greeted with blank faces when we ordered two Turkish coffees, two mint teas and a sickly sweet “cappuccino” flavoured shisha pipe. Eventually I convinced them that I actually liked the Turkish coffee (lots of advanced sign language involved here – you’ve all seen the Joey and trifle “mmmmmm” sketch in Friends, right?)

The second time we ventured in here for our “authentic” Istanbul nightlife we actually bumped in to our waiter from Mozaik as he’d just finished his shift. He informed us that it was where all the waiters and business owners meet up to discuss the day’s trade and catch up over a lassi and a shisha. I couldn’t tell you how to actually find this place, but wander the little streets behind the Grand Bazaar and somehow you’ll find it. We did… twice!

We also tried out the cocktail menu at the top of the Hilton Double Tree on the roof terrace as the final call to prayer went out. It was very quiet, and quite windy so had very little buzz or atmosphere, but, as with everywhere we went, the staff were so attentive we felt we should stay for a second – it would have been rude not to! At sunset, in a slightly warmer season I would think that this would be a great place to have a few sundowners.

My absolute favourite place to stop for drinks, however, would have to be a little square we found whilst following a walking tour from the Lonely Planet guide. It was full of arty types, students and old men playing backgammon on low level tables and stools in the shade of twisted trees, decrepit buildings, antique shops, vintage book stores and handmade jewellery stores. They served a lovely list of coffees (not just of the Turkish variety) and the famous “elastic” Turkish ice cream. Follow the walk directions through the Flower Passage, through to the “Fish Passage” and walk across the road and down a quiet back street with a big Embassy building (I think it was the British) on the right. It’s through a little archway on the left… you won’t be disappointed.

Sightseeing
There is so much to see and do in the city centre that you forget how much is situated outside in the suburbs, along the Bosphorus and along the coast line of the Black Sea. From what I managed to see in my limited time I would recommend the following:
The Blue Mosque and opposite, the Hagia Sofia. Both are breathtaking in appearance and their history and would be a shame to miss them.

A walk around the New Town. We did this by following a walk from the Lonely Planet guide. It started in Taksim Square through a modern shopping area, where we enjoyed an impromptu feast of mezzes (see above), then on to some small backstreet areas (also mentioned above), ending up down at the Galata Tower.

I would definitely recommend that you spend some time on the Bosphorus taking in the views of the city on both the European and Asian sides. The Bosphorus Bridge, which allows you to cross from Europe in to Asia on foot, was pretty awesome. Sailing up and down on the river with a rather good audio guide and my little book made me realise quite how important this city was, and still is, in history.

One thing the guidebooks really gloss over is the Basilica Cisterns. They really were a hidden treasure and I’m so glad we found them. They were the water vaults for the buildings above the ground, for storing water in case of siege (or so I read) and generally to service the city. The columns that hold up the ceilings are all mismatched as they were plundered from various temples from across the Empire and so each one tells a story… except the Medusa one – you don’t hang around to hear her story!

Shopping
I didn’t do much shopping whilst in the city and to be honest that’s strange for me. I think I was pacing myself, but I did do a little bit though – I couldn’t resist the Turkish delight! If shopping is on the agenda, I’d visit the old town for the “genuine fakes” that Turkish market stalls are famous for, and the usual tourist bits and bobs. But for international brands, I’d head to the main Promenade in the New Town. I didn’t see much by way of a bargain though, in relation to the big names.

The Grand Bazaar is obviously a famous sightseeing location but also a must-see for shoppers. However, if I’m honest it was a little bit disappointing. I was expecting something like Khan el Khalili in Cairo, which was really like stepping back in time, or on to the set of Aladdin! In reality the Grand Bazaar was a little bit like a slightly old fashioned shopping mall. If you know what you’re looking for though, and you’re ready with a list and your haggling skills, then get involved. My friend was there a month before me and got some amazing leather goods at some great prices.

We also visited the Spice Bazaar, which was a bit more along the lines of what I was expecting, but still a teensy but still a bit of a let-down. My travelling companions got a little tutorial in purchasing saffron, and I spent some time sampling the most amazing Turkish delight I’ve ever tasted: pomegranate with pistachio. Amazeballs! I intended to bring some samples home but it didn’t last the day, let alone the two weeks.

Would I go back?
All in all I really, really liked Istanbul. I don’t think it makes it in to my list of ‘Top Five Fave Cities’, but to be fair I think we only briefly scratched the surface. So it’s not a question of would I go back but that I most definitely have to go back.

Two things will stay with me forever though.

Number one – the views of the city. One of the most memorable views was from the bridge across from the Old to the New Town. Looking ahead to the Old Town, with all the fishermen lined up in front of you and the trams rushing by, you can see what looks like a line of seven massive mosques along the skyline (maybe those from the seven hills on which Istanbul is fabled to have been built?). You don’t feel like the New Town is particularly “new” until you look at the old and realise that when “new” means 500-600 years old, “Old” means positively ancient!

Number two, and for me the embodiment of the city, were the sounds and smells and just walking around soaking up the “feel”. Sitting on a roof top bar wrapped in a blanket, with the wind off the river stirring our hair, amidst the sweet smell and smoke of the shisa pipes, sipping a cosmopolitan as the final call to prayer went out, it was very atmospheric indeed.

History and modernity all mashed up – that is what Istanbul is to me.

Restaurants
Faros
MozaiK
Rumeli
Sir Evi
Flower Passage

Hotels
Klas Hotel

Read Victorias other posts for Florence Finds here and find her at her blog Sugar Plum Slipper