SE Asia trip 12/18 (Tue), 2012 �C 2/10 (Sun), 2013
12/18 (Tue) NYC departure
I usually am ready to take off on the long trip at least 2 days prior to my departure date.
This time, however was a totally different story. Due to a never ending process to renew my real estate contract with Jesus Luna which has been expired since September 1st, I was running around frantically trying to close it until around 5pm yesterday afternoon. (I was able to close it �C Thank heavens.)
Our house sitter, Joan Crowe was going to show up at 7pm last night, but we asked her to come at later time. When she knocked on our door at 9pm, I was in the middle of packing frenzy. Fortunately, Sue was just about done and had time to deal with her while I finished my packing.
Generally speaking, I am not a filthy slob, but I don’t like to clean my bathroom. I only do it when it absolutely needs to be done like when we expect a guest in our house. This time, because of my insanely busy schedule right up till today, I just did not have time to clean any of my personal area in the house including my bathroom on the top floor.
So, as I was leaving for the trip with Sue at 8:30am this morning, I apologized to Joan for not cleaning up our house (especially my bathroom which I haven’t cleaned as long as I can remember). She told me she was aware that we have been very busy and she did not want me to worry about it.
But what she didn’t know was what was really happening in my bathroom. It was not just dirty or disgustingly filthy. It was way beyond that. It was turning into be a new biological sphere and I actually saw new life species forming in the bathtub. Anyone who would venture a step in there needed to be armed. But did I say that to Joan?
I instead thanked her for her understanding and gave her a big Sayonara hug.
12/19 (Wed) Hanoi
After a 14.5 hour flight, we arrive in Narita airport in Tokyo for 1.5 hours lay-over. We have a snack at a coffee shop in spite of eating 3 meals on the plane.
Upon arrival in Hanoi at 10:30pm, we meet our local guide, Hiu and a driver.
The first impression of Hanoi - It’s freezing in here!
12/20 (Thu) Hanoi
Colorful City SS included Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum where super well preserved Ho chi Minh’s body was exhibited. Hiu told us that the people do not believe it’s actually his body because there were no sophisticated means of preserving bodies back then.
Then we visited his small and simple wooden 2 story house facing a pond.
The house was so unpretentious & serene it looked like belonged to a dedicated scholar or a monk. After seeing numerous castles, palaces & enormous mansions of kings & political leaders all over the world, it was rather refreshing.
We had previous experiences with horrifying city drivers from our global travel - notably China & Italy, but the drivers in this city ranked at the top along with them. There were lanes on the streets which I didn’t see why they bothered to paint them because nobody seemed to notice that they were there.
In the cross section where 3 �C 6 streets met from different directions, a heavy number of cars, motorcycles (hundreds of them), bicycles and pedestrians flowed into it continuously. The amazing thing is that most of these cross sections didn’t have traffic lights and nobody stopped for anybody.
They simply jump right into it almost colliding against each other but missing one another by hair (I am not exaggerating here), and for some miraculous reason, everyone came out on the other side unscratched. It was utterly incredible…
After lunch, we visit the office of Tonkin travel and met Ms. Huong who arranged the first 34 days of this trip. Then, we visit the Vietnam ethnology museum which showed quite interesting ethnic diversions in this country.
Along the way, we passed-by what Hiu called a statue of John McCain built at the location where his plane was shot down. It was a standing metal plate of a very sad looking guy with both arms held up high. I thought Hiu told me that he was coming down with his parachute, but Sue said it looked like he was hanging by chain. Later we clarified this issue with a local guide in Saigon. He told us that McCain was neither coming down with parachute nor chained, but was surrendering.
Anyway, I started to laugh because I have never seen a memorial statue so sad-looking and un-dignified. I wondered if McCain knew about this statue.
Today’s SS included 1 hour ride of Cyclone (bicycle Rickshaw) in the old quarter. The ride was fun for the first 15 minutes, and then it became too long and boring. Sue fumed over very unkind direct comments made by another Cyclone driver about her weight while she sat on hers.
We finish our tour with Water puppet show in the theater nearby our hotel. We found the touristy show of traditional farmer’s pastime “lame”.
We have pretty good dinner in local restaurant and have a nightcap at the rooftop lounge in the hotel.
12/21 (Fri) Hanoi / Ha Long Bay
At 8am, we take off with over-night bag for Ha Long bay 2 day cruise. Our guide’s name is Duc (pronounced Duke), and he takes us on a small bus filled with young couples for a 4 hour ride to the Ha Long Bay.
As we approach Ha Long Bay, the temperature climbs up. Our cruise company’s name is Treasure Junk Cruise. The 13 cabin boat is well maintained and very comfortable.
Scenery of Ha long Bay reminds me of Guiling in China and Matsushima in japan, but it is uniquely magnificent. Over 1 thousand rocky islands are scattered in this big quiet bay creating surreal scenery.
After a lunch on board, I take-off for kayaking with others for 2 hours excursion of this enchanting bay.
I am grateful that the temperature was higher here in this bay than Hanoi.
At night, Sue almost passes out during dinner from the lack of sleep last night + jet lag.
I try a bit of squid fishing on the deck before going to bed.
12/22 (Sat) Ha Long Bay / Hanoi / Hue
We wake up early and enjoy the passing scenery with a cup of coffee on the deck.
Then we take small row boats to a floating village. Village people didn’t seem to mind us intruders.
Children waved their hands and gave us big smiles when we aimed our lenses.
There was a small group of teachers on board. Sue be-friended some of them and found out that they are traveling teachers. They are registered in the organization which assigns them to teaching jobs all around the world. One guy told us that he & his wife are Canadians and they have been doing it for many years. They move around the world with their 2 children and they have been enjoying this rather eccentric life style tremendously. We thought that it is truly unique and wonderful.
After a brunch at 10am, our cruise boat arrives back to Ha Long City. We head back to Hanoi by bus around noon when the temperature dropped tremendously.
After a 4 hour of ride back to a freezing Hanoi, we say good-bye to Duc and have a light early dinner.
We pick up our luggage at the hotel and head to airport with a car arranged by the tour company.
After very slow check-in process, we find our flight and takes off on time.
We arrive in the ancient city of Hue in the dark rain, meet our driver and head down to our hotel.
12/23 (Sun) Hue City
We were awakened in the middle of last night by the sound of pouring rain, but it stopped in the morning. The sky however was dark and the wind blew like a major hurricane was on the way.
We meet our guide Huong at 8:30am, and start the half day city SS. We visit 2 old royal tombs, and ride a boat to a Buddhist temple. Rain starts lightly around noon, and it becomes a down fall after lunch. We finish SS of vast site of ancient Citadel and a local market in the pouring rain in our ponchos.
When we return to our hotel at 2:30pm, I go out again in treacherous rain to a nearby local market.
Outside the empty market, there were a dozen women sitting on the street with plastic covers and straw hats selling fruits and vegetables. I was walking around only 30 minutes and in spite of the rain gear I had on, I felt like I was wet to my bones with icy cold rain. I wondered how long these women were sitting there and how much longer they have to sit there in this weather.
I returned to our comfortable warm room and tried to connect my lap top un-successfully.
We sat around in the room the rest of day and had massage in the hotel before we went to sleep.
($7 USD for 30 min body rub)
12/24 (Mon) Hue City / Hoi An
We leave the hotel in drizzling rain with Huong & driver at 8am.
We head down south taking mountainous scenic road enjoying the view of the ocean.
We stop at the Cham ethnic museum at Da Nang. If you don’t know (like we didn’t) what “Cham” is - Cham is an Indian tribe who migrated in this area in the 2nd century building their own unique local culture along the coastline of Vietnam.
Then we visited an old giant cave with neon illuminated Buddhist altar which also was used as secret hospital by the Vietcong during the war. The cave was filled with the low yet deafening sound of bats flying high above in the dark ceiling. Sue freaks out (sweating profusely) in a few minutes of entering there and walks out.
We arrive in the tourist packed Hoi An at a little past noon and have a wonderful light lunch. (Pumpkin soup was simply phenomenal.)
A short walking tour included a stop at a Japanese bridge, temple, old private residence and 1 hr. boat ride. Then we check-in at river side resort hotel around 3pm. We say good bye to our driver and Huong.
Before we go to Christmas dinner in our hotel, we walk around the neighborhood a little. Hoi An was an old trading port town where foreign traders from France, Portugal, China and Japan visited.
They are also famous for their colorful lanterns they hang in front of the houses at night.
Tonight, our hotel had Christmas Gala dinner for guests. We go there and have a drink and buffet dinner. We retire early before the show started because I was falling sleep on the table.
12/25 (Tue) Hoi An
Sue gets sick & decides to stay in room for the whole day. (She thinks it’s from ice in the cocktail she had last night.)
Since today was a day for free activity, I rent bicycle in the morning to run around the area (3 hours for $.90 �C Yes, it’s 90 cents!). I go out of downtown area and ride among the rice field where people and buffalo worked.
In the afternoon, I walked around the town by myself. I stopped for local “fresh beer” (they had regular beer in bottle and fresh beer made in the premises. - 40 cents), 60 min massage ($10.) and Vietnamese drip coffee at the busy street corner.
As I was sipping the sweet strong coffee I noticed that many bicycles & motorcycles had kids sitting at the helm (on their parents’ laps) in Santa Clause outfits. Somehow, it looked so funny to me.
I might be in Vietnam, but it’s the Christmas day after all.
At night, Sue was feeling better. So, we went out for dinner. We entered a restaurant next door to the one where we had that fabulous lunch yesterday. Unfortunately, the food & service both were terrible. It started raining hard during dinner.
12/26 (Wed) Hoi An / Da Nang / Ho chi Minh City (Saigon)
We had another rain storm all night. If this is the dry season, I really hate to be here during the wet season. Sue seems to have no interest in seeing this town. So, while she sits at the poolside after breakfast, I go out to see more of Hoi An. The morning market is bustling with new catch from sea and field. People are eating noodle soup breakfast on the street and opening shops.
I walk into a small gallery and get caught by the artist / gallery owner named Mr. Tiang.
He enthusiastically explains to me the technique he uses with his fingers and the way his paintings should be viewed and appreciated. I thank him and promise him to be back with my wife later to see all of his works stored in the upstairs.
We leave the hotel at 11:30am with a driver to Da Nang and take a 1:30pm flight to Ho Chi Minh City.
We arrive in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and meet our driver to be taken to our hotel. Temperature kept rising as we left Hanoi toward the South for the last few days, but this was the first day we felt like we are in semi-tropical climate. It is hot & almost unbearably humid �C Fantastic!
After check-in at our hotel, we walk around the big market nearby, and have a dinner in an open street restaurant filled with local young people who seemed to enjoy beer and food after the day’s work.
Rain starts pouring down as we finish our dinner making the restaurant staff run around frantic to pull the awning over the tables, but it stops as we pay our bill and head back to our hotel.
Before going to bed, we had a foot/body massage at the hotel. The massage was $9 per person for 70 minutes.
12/27 (Thu) Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
We meet our guide, Randy at 8:30am, and start today’s tour.
We begin by visiting Cuchi tunnel which is a vast underground network built by Vietcong in the jungle during the war. It was amazing to see the ingenuity and determination of Vietcong fighters.
They really fought with everything they’ve got (or haven’t got). Our guide Randy thinks that U.S. had no chance of winning and that they are making the same mistake again in the Mid-East. Seeing this place, I thought he might have a point.
After lunch, we go back to Saigon and visit the crowded Chinese market and the famous post office designed by French architect Eiffel.
For dinner, we visit a restaurant Randy & hotel recommended. It was a very nice looking restaurant and we enjoyed the service & food. Problem was that we both had a stomach problem next morning.
After the dinner, I walked to the city square where they had a holiday celebration concert.
Area was packed with mostly young families and some foreign tourists. Judging from the very excited reaction of the audience, I assumed that there were some famous talents on the enormous stage.
I enjoyed the singing & dancing of Vietnam Pop show for about 20 minutes and returned to hotel.
12/28 (Fri) Ho Chi Minh City / Mekong Delta / Cantho
We left hotel at 7:30am to avoid morning traffic to Mekong Delta region where our guide Randy was born.
Randy is a very passionate man with full of self-assurance and opinions.
He has a major issue with the current communist government and the direction this country is taking, and he was going to share all of his grumbles with us. It is good to know the true feelings and characters of the local people where we visit, but I didn’t want to listen to a lengthy complaints from a tour guide in our sightseeing. We were going to ask him to come along for dinner tonight but after listening to one of his longer loud speeches, we decided to have dinner by ourselves.
- “Randy’s main complaint �C among many �C is the way the South has been treated by the North since the country was united under the communist party. His father was a translator for the U.S. military and he fled the country when the Saigon fell leaving all of his family behind. After Randy grew up, he has been exposed to various segregation policies by the Hanoi government against the southern people. He tells me that the South is unfairly taxed by the gov’t and the job opportunity in the government position for the people of southern born are practically non-existent.”
We visited a floating market where dozens of boats floated filled with local products.
On an island where we walked, I buy a bottle of rice wine with a black scorpion & baby king cobra in it while Sue bought some candies and rice cakes.
Then we visit a restaurant where they served local delicacy of fried “elephant ear fish” followed by a music performance in a beautiful garden room.
We switched from our motor boat to a smaller row boat to explore narrower fingers of this river. Our boat was rowed (or pushed by long pole) by a small woman standing aft. Problem was that the tide was very low and there was only about 6 inches of water beneath us.
Naturally, we get stuck a few times, but with my help (I must say), we manage to keep on going enjoying otherwise serene natural surroundings around us.
After returning to hotel, I walked along the river to the square where a waving statue of Hi Chi Minh stood. Then I walked along the food market where vender women masterfully dissected live and kicking snake fish with big scissors.
We weren’t very hungry, but we go out for dinner anyway. When we walk into a local restaurant and browse through a big English menu, Sue notices that their colorful menu included a field mouse as one of their main dishes. I lose my appetite completely and we walk out after finishing a beer and a juice.
We go up to a roof top lounge in our hotel and realize that they have the best view of this town.
I order a Dorian ice cream and enjoy the idiosyncratic taste of the fruit viewing panoramic river scenery under a red full moon.
12/29 (Sat) Cantho / Chaudoc
Leave hotel at 7am to the area’s biggest floating market by boat. It is a big wholesale market for local fruits and vegetables sold on the various sized boats gathered around on the Mekong River. It is chaotic but strangely peaceful at the same time.
We stop at an island where they make vermicelli noodles from rice. Randy wanted to have a breakfast at a café, so I decide to have the 2nd breakfast of noodle soup with him.
We return to hotel to pick up luggage, check out, and take off heading down south to Chaudoc.
We stop at a bird sanction area where hundreds of herons gather around in a small private forest.
We get out of our car at the highway and ride in a back of scooter running up a narrow winding road in order to get there.
After the visit, a sudden tropical rain holds us about 20 min in a small outside restaurant. We observe 2 girls (about 10 & 7 years old & obviously sisters) helping their parents’ restaurant working as waitresses. They were carrying plates and glasses back and forth between their kitchen and one of the huts where guests were eating. In spite of the pouring rain, the girls didn’t seem to mind helping their parents. Especially, the younger one was having a ball running around and doing things with her older sister in the rain.
When the rain slowed down, we hopped on the back of the scooter and run back to our car right before the rain started coming hard again. Luckily, as we approach Chaudoc, the rain stops.
We stop for lunch at 2pm in a local restaurant in Chaudoc. As we finish our local Chaudoc cuisine, the rain starts again. Randy asks us if we still want to go to the mountain top for the view (it was the last place of visit in today’s itinerary). We say yes.
As we leave the restaurant, the rain stops. We drive about 45 minutes to visit a half-finished Buddhist temple complex up on the top of a mountain. We are glad that the site is covered by thick fog today because everything is a newly built (or in the process of being built) offensively gaudy cement structures.
Fog limited view of the place including giant laughing cement Buddha and a pagoda which really belonged to Universal studio in Orlando.
We were going to walk up to this mountain but were enormously grateful that we didn’t have to do that. We took a park owned taxi service from the mountain bottom driving steep hills for a good 10 minutes to arrive in this tacky Buddhist paradise. We were scheduled to see sunset from the top of the mountain, but we gladly gave up that option and head back to Chaudoc.
We checked into a hotel and said bye to Randy.
As I mentioned before, Randy is an opinionated man. He is also a hustler who is not shy to repeat how important gratuity is as his main source of income to support his family and continue his all giving charity works. But Randy did his job as far as sightseeing went. We saw all of what we wanted to see, and he was good in adjusting the timing of our daily itinerary in order to avoid crash with big tour groups. So, we gave him and the driver a very good tip as we wish each other a happy new year.
We both were relieved that we are not seeing him tomorrow again.
We walk to a nearby night market after sunset. As we walk around narrow streets filled with the usual market stuff, we pass by a group of several women sitting on the street and yakking. Sue was walking in front of me and as she passed one of the women who were fanning herself, the woman suddenly slapped Sue’s butt with her fan. Sue turned around in shock, and didn’t know how to react to that. Women were all giggling and we realized that it’s just a silly childish act. I thought Sue was going to jump on that woman, but after a pause, she kept on walking.
We stopped at a café to spend the last Dong for a beer & water ($1.20), and returned to hotel.
12/30 (Sun) Chaudoc / Phnom Penh (Cambodia)
We have a slight problem about the transportation from our hotel to the pier in the morning. We expected to meet private transportation arranged by Tonkin travel, but the hotel staff tells us to take bicycle Rickshaw arranged by hotel or pay fare to take regular taxi. Since I didn’t have Vietnam Dong, we didn’t have choice but hopping on Rickshaw.
The ride is about 10 minutes to the pier where we boarded 20 seat jet boat to Cambodia.
One of my all-time favorite movies is “Apocalypse Now”. I remembered the almost whole movie took place on a patrol boat on Mekong River from Vietnam to Cambodia where we were going today.
After we stopped in Vietnam border first and Cambodia border the second for passport checks, I was looking around and recollected the movie.
We were passing around the area where the captain’s (played by Martin Sheen who was in the secret mission to assassinate US colonel) monologue played. My favorite monologue went like this:
“He was close. I couldn’t see him yet, but I could feel him, as if the boat were being sucked up river and the water was flowing back into the jungle… Part of me was afraid of what I would find, and what I would do when I got there… But the thing I felt the most, much stronger than fear, was the desire to confront him…
We arrive 40 minutes behind schedule at Phnom Penh, meet our driver at the pier and then were driven to our small but beautifully designed hotel.
A small problem we encounter is that our itinerary does not show pick up time tomorrow morning for SS, and our driver did not speak English. Luckily, very gentle mannered English speaking front desk staff calls Mrs. Huong in Vietnam to clarify it for us.
Since my sandals and Sue’s carry-on bag was broken, we head out to the nearest market for shopping.
Unable to find what we were looking for, we have some drinks in a café and Sue returns to hotel while I continue my search.
Not being able to find store within a walking distance, I venture a ride on a back of small scooter and head for the central market. I purchase the items in this huge market and take another scooter ride back to hotel.
For dinner, we go to a restaurant in the tourist jammed riverside street on the back of Rickshaw motorcycle. While we waited for our meal, a young female tourist walked in the place.
As she was walking to her table escorted by a hostess, a giant cockroach flies out from nowhere and crashes into her head almost knocking her down cold. Sue holds an urge to run out of the restaurant.
Numerous small children came to restaurant selling touristy items in tables while we dined.
12/31 (Mon) Phnom Penh
We meet our guide Veana in the hotel lobby at 8:30am. He seems to have got a message about confusion of pick-up time this morning, and apologized for it. He tells me that he was waiting for us since 7:30am this morning just in case we thought we were leaving earlier.
Cambodia is in mourning of old king (he died 2 months ago), and some of the official buildings were closed because of it. There are huge pictures of this beloved king all over the city.
Veana tells me that the new king (who is a gay judging from various pictures), does not have wife nor kids in spite of him being 59 years old and the future of royal throne is un-certain.
We visit a huge complex adjacent to the Royal palace to see emerald Buddha (that is what Veana insists but we think it’s a jade Buddha), National museum, Central market and temple at the top of hill where this city was started centuries ago.
Our tour was going to end there but Veana offers us additional service to visit infamous Khmer Rouge prison complex before lunch. His parents and his two siblings were arrested and killed by Khmer Rouge during the war nearby this complex. The old school building exhibited cells with blood stains still on the floors with photos and illustrations of daily tortures & murders that took place.
By the time we were coming out of there, I was sickened and depressed by the violence of perverse dark chapter in this country’s recent history.
Veana tells us that after all the suffering of the Cambodia people, their lives are not improved at all.
The rich keeps getting richer and poor stays poor no matter how hard they work. (Average monthly income for restaurant waiter is $60-80) He tells us that if you don’t have kids, even if you work hard all of your life, you will not have any other option but being a beggar at the old age.
One interesting thing about his resentment was that it was aimed against Vietnam. He whispers to us that Vietnam is controlling Cambodia now. It reminded us Randy in Vietnam who told us about his resentment about the segregation policy of North Vietnam government.
We were un-sure of what to do with our end-of-year celebration dinner, but eventually we decided to go to a restaurant recommended by hotel. It was owned by an organization who hires orphans to train them in restaurant and hospitality business so that they will have means to support themselves eventually.
I order very unusual dishes from their diverse menu while Sue stays with more traditional choice.
Mine �C Fried tarantula appetizer (It was like eating black soft shell crab with hairy body).
Stir fried tree ants & beef for the main dish (It was too spicy for me and couldn’t taste ants �Cif ants had any taste.).
Sue �C Mushroom pate appetizer. Grilled chicken main dish. (Boring choices but good tasting)
We finish our evening in a small bar next to our hotel with local beer and a shot of chocolate rum.
I thought we were ending this year in a very good note.
1/1 (Tue) Phnom Penh / Siem Reap
We take morning flight to Siem Reap, and proceed with the SS of the largest temple complex in the world upon arrival with a new guide & driver. (Pinyeng and Mr. Watts)
Pinyeng’s English was pretty bad and we struggled to figure out what he was saying, but the more serious issue with him was 3 very long hairs sticking out from a giant mole on his cheek.
Mole was a size of small black termite nest, and 3 hairs growing out of it were near 3 inches long each.
Fascinating thing about them was that they weren’t soft like hair should be. They moved exactly in the same manner as his jaw did when he spoke. There were areas that were windy when he spoke, but the hairs did not wave nor lay across his face. They simply stayed there and kept moving along with his jaw movement. It was quite distracting.
We check out smaller temples in the far end of the city including a small temple covered with Japanese tourists waiting to see the sunset at the top.
At night, we go to a gigantic restaurant next door to our hotel to enjoy a dinner show.
There were about 1000 seats there and there were 1000 tourists trying to grab food from a buffet table at the same time. The traditional dancing show lasted about 1 hour and we both enjoyed the show, but the food - what we could get of it…not so much!
1/2 (Wed) Siem Reap
We did SS of vastly spread-out temple complex of Angkor Watts & Angkor Thom under the punishing sun. There were a very large number of tourists everywhere (mostly Chinese, Korean & Japanese).
I expected the location of temples to be in the middle of jungles like ruins of Tikar in Guatemala.
I was surprised to see that they were in clean and well maintained natural park-like setting.
It reminded me the ruin of Copan in Honduras for its tidiness. We finish SS by 2pm.
Sue gets diarrhea and completely worn out at the end of SS. She decides to take the rest of day off at the hotel room.
During afternoon, I walk around the town center of Siem Reap visiting old market.
I stop at a massage place to get 1 hour full body massage for $5. It was neither the cleanest place nor the most private, but you can’t beat the price.
At night, I go back to the same area to visit the night market and pub street which are jammed with tourists. I get 10 minutes fish massage where you sit around the edge of fish tank with my feet dangling in the water. Hundreds of fish starts to eat whatever attached on my feet / legs.
It was a very unique sensation which I wouldn’t consider relaxing but for mere $1, it was okay.
1/3 (Thu) Siem Reap / Luang Prabang (Laos)
We check-out hotel in the morning and visit 3 more small temples. On the way to the temple, we find out from Pinyeng that Cambodia people eat dogs. He tells us that dog meat is not sold in markets, but farmers eat them. He didn’t tell us they eat cats or rats.
Because of a miscalculation by Pinyeng, we end up having too much time before our flight this afternoon. So, we visit the old market for shopping; have a cup of coffee and 30 minutes of foot massage. ($3 per person).
We say Adios to dog-eating Pinyeng & his hairy mole at the airport & hop on the flight to Luangprabang (Laos).
Upon arrival, we are transferred to our small boutique hotel owned by a Danish guy & his Lao wife. After we finish check-in, our guide for tomorrow (named Rim) visit us to make certain that we are okay. It was very nice of him to do that.
1/4 (Fri) Luang Prabang
We get up at 5:45am to join the people who give food to the monks on the street. (It’s a local custom.)
We were told that monks will march in front of our hotel, but at 6am, it was still dark and no one was in sight. Luckily, Sue finds a street vender who was heading toward the “monk marching” street. We buy plate of fruits to give to the monks and follow her. After 10 minutes of walk, we arrive at the street where locals & tourists sit on the curve waiting for the monks.
Just after sunrise, around 7am, monks come into our street in 1 column with wooden bowls hanging from their necks. Locals and tourists put what they have in each monk’s wooden bowls.
Monks gracefully accept them but pick out what they don’t like from the bowls and give them to the kids sitting on curve with their own baskets. We noticed that monks kept rice but gave away candies and fruits.
Luangprabang seemed like a laid back tourist town with old temples scattered around. Most of them are occupied by working monks and young disciples. After visiting about 5 of them, all the temples and stupas and pagodas start to look exactly the same.
We both had diarrhea for the last 2 days and we were running out of medicine. Luckily we find a pharmacy that carries generic version of Pepto-Bismol.
We visit Night market and Sue buys 2 pillow cases. Then, we stop at café for a dinner of ginger ale & garlic bread (Sue) & apple crepe & beer (me). We manage to keep the dinner in our system.
1/5 (Sat) Luang Prabang
I skip breakfast while Sue eats cereal and then pukes all of it up. (I don’t know why she thinks she MUST eat regardless of her health condition).
We take 2 hours boat ride heading up Mekong River to a cave with hundreds of Buddha statues. It’s freezing cold and the boat is open deck. We are grateful for the blankets the boat provided for us.
After very light lunch, we visit a beautiful waterfall outside of town. There is a bear cage with a few very sleepy bears. Rim tells me that there are tigers and bears in the region, and they are protected by government from the poachers.
On the way back to town, our conversation topic turned to food. Rim tells me that Laos people never used to eat strange meat but when Vietnamese came into Laos, they brought the custom of eating everything including dogs, cats, rats, snakes & bats. Now these days, when bunch of guys get drunk at home, get hungry, and finding that there is nothing to eat, they just kill a cat.
At the hotel, I give the bottle of snake/scorpion wine I purchased in Vietnam to Rim, and we wish him good-luck with his study in college and achieving the dream of traveling around the world someday.
We take tuk-tuk (Motorcycle Rickshaw) to a quiet local market, have afternoon beer & coffee at a riverside café and have massage again before dinner. (For $5 - $9 per hour, why not get it every day?)
We visit night market and take a huge risk of eating at the very crowded street food vender. Food tasted great but I pay the price later by staying in the bathroom half of the night.
1/6 (Sun) Luangprabang / Chiang Mai (Thailand)
We visit morning market behind our hotel where huge carps and catfish from the Mekong River are sold.
Then we are transferred to airport for the flight to Chiang Mai.
We meet our new guide, EK at the Chiang Mai airport. He tells me that he will be our driver & guide for the next 3 days.
On the flight, I noticed that my laptop computer was broken. So, after hotel check-in, I look for a computer repair shop. Fortunately, there is a building filled with electronic stores nearby our hotel, and I get it fixed for $80 right on the spot.
We take tuk-tuk to Sunday night market, then we go have a dinner in Japanese rotation sushi place where they serve all you can eat sushi, oden & shabu-shabu. ($11 /person, 1 hr. 10 min max stay)
In spite of our worries, food stays in our stomach. Maybe the water here is a bit more agreeable to our system.
1/7 (Mon) Chiang Mai
Full day tour begins at 7am from the hotel.
To our surprise, EK brings his girlfriend along with him. I thought it was unprofessional, but she seemed nice, so I didn’t say anything, and thus began one of the worst tours in my recent memory.
Instead of whining how much I disliked our tour, I itemize the itinerary and my feelings for it as follows:
Points of interest included in a tour:
- A hot spring.
- White temple
- Myanmar border town of Mae Sai. (Northernmost point of Thailand)
- Golden Triangle with a visit to the Opium Museum.
- Golden Buddha statue at the Mekong River.
- Archeological remains of Chiang Sean
My feelings about the above points:
- A hot spring is a toilet stop for tourists. It is a parking area with shops (and a man-made hot-spring you can soak your feet or boil an egg in).
- The White Temple looks great from a distance, but when you see it up close, it is a cheaply made theatrical stage prop. It might have been done by a famous artist but it belongs to an amusement park for children. (Sue couldn’t hide her disgust when we were shown murals of cartoons including the Angry Birds at Buddha’s alter.)
- Border town with Myanmar was a crowded shopping street for tourists, but why do I want to come here to buy Myanmar souvenirs when we will be in Myanmar in a few days?
- Golden Triangle was just a hilly field. I was asked to pay for the admission fee for the opium museum by the tour guide even though it was included on the itinerary. This would have been fine if the exhibition contained more interesting items.
- Golden Buddha statue at the Mekong River was built 8 years ago according to my guide, and it was nothing even remotely impressive about it. We stopped there only for 15 minutes because I just wanted to head back to hotel by then.
- A trip to the archeological remains of Chiang Sean was pushed as the last stop in our itinerary, and we only saw the temple for about 15 minutes around 5pm.
The tour was boring and laughably trite, but it would have been fine if it was done in 3 �C 4 hours. Instead, our tour took 14 hours. We left the hotel at 7am and did not return until 9:10pm.
Besides, we did not have any city SS of Chiang Mai while we were there. I don’t know why they planned this tour instead of city SS.
We go to the restaurant lounge in our hotel for dinner at 9:30pm and have a tasteless soggy cheese burger. Although we felt that today was a total waste, we felt okay after eating our bad cheese burgers and listening to bad lounge music on the stage.
1/8 (Tue) Chiang Mai
We visited an Elephant camp where we enjoyed an elephant show (I didn’t know that elephants can paint non-abstract paintings); we rode an elephant, an ox-cart and went down the stream on a bamboo raft.
We asked EK to drop us off at the old town after the elephant camp and we started our own sightseeing of Chiang Mai on a tuc-tuc visiting 3 of the most famous temples in Chiang Mai.
Later in the afternoon, when I was walking around a busy market alone, I saw a monk sitting in a back of pick-up truck and chanting loudly using an electric microphone. People were rushing to make donations in a little bowl in front of him in exchange for a sprinkle of holy water sprayed by the monk with a wooden spoon. The monk noticed that I was taking pictures of him, so I bowed to him. Then he pointed with the wooden spoon at a bag hanging in front of him filled with small bills. As I drop 20 Baht bill in it, he motions me to come closer, and when I do, he ties a little string around my wrist. I believe I bought a little charm with my 20 Baht. I thank him, give him a Thai style bow and head back to the hotel.
In the later afternoon, I meet a Christian missionary guy from Texas in the hotel gym. His name is Martin, and he reminded me of Sue’s brother Pete so much. He told me how he couldn’t fit in in Texas hometown’s life style after he returned from military duty in Asia, so he took a job as missionary in the U.S. military to come back to this area. He told me that he also studied Shorin style Karate in japan.
He seemed like a very nice guy. (Sue met him later in the lobby, and we had a nice small chat.)
For our evening activity, we buy ringside tickets at the hotel for a kick-boxing show, and take a tuk-tuk taxi to the outside market where the fight was going to take place.
After finishing a dinner at a food court, we view the fight right at the side of ring where you can’t get any closer without being in the ring. All of the fighters were very young and very small, and the fights were somewhat amateurish. But there were 2 KOs, and the excitement of loud betting audience was contagious. We tuk-tuk back to hotel after seeing 4 fights.
1/9 (Wed) Chiang Mai / Bangkok
We paid 1,500 Baht ($50) to EK to visit “Wat Prathat Doi Suthep” up on the mountain top in the outskirt of Chiang Mai. We leave 6:30am from the hotel and climb 300 steps (I did, Sue took a cable car) to get there. Although the temple was nothing special, the view was quite nice. I was glad I insisted on it.
We arrive at the airport, say bye to EK, and take a flight to Bangkok. (A very slow check-in due to system breakdown.)
There is a little problem meeting our driver at Bangkok airport, but after 2 calls to the local agency, we manage to find him.
Our hotel is part of a modern shopping mall close to one of the shopping street and Japan alley.
Sue gets diarrhea again and stays in hotel while I walk around the hotel. First thing I notice is that there are Japanese restaurants everywhere. So, I have a Bento box dinner with a bottle of sake.
It was good to have non-SE Asian food for change. (The cheese burger other night didn’t count.)
1/10 (Thu) Bangkok
We meet our 1st female guide Tik & a female driver, Ten. We start our city SS in unbearably hot & humid temperature.
Tik is a nice lady and we visit 3 temples, palatial palace, and ride a boat going through a narrow canal.
There are houses on both sides of small canal and fish are jumping all around us. Amazingly, we see several huge lizards swimming, walking and sun bathing around us. �C They were big enough to eat dogs!
We buy 3 night tours including Muay Thai kick boxing (tonight), Thai traditional show (tomorrow)
“Lady �C Boy” show (3rd night)
At night, we eat a fantastic ramen dinner in the restaurant next door quickly, and go see the Kickboxing fight. The Fighters were better than the ones in Chiang Mai, but not excellent. We saw 4 fights again.
1/11 (Fri) Bangkok
We have 2 days free in Bangkok and today is day 1 so Sue decided to take a day-off from sightseeing and have a day of not doing anything. I caught the flu last night somehow and feeling pretty sick, but I didn’t want to stay in bed, so I grab my camera and go out for more SS.
I take BTS train to a park and then MTR subway to the other side of town.
I was looking for the back-packer haven of Khaosan Road using a map I got from hotel, but I found myself totally lost. I ask several people for directions. One girl was so kind that she tried to help me by calling her friend with her cell phone. Realizing that I am way out of the way from where I wanted to go, I decide to take a taxi. I tried to find the right direction to catch a taxi, and ask a middle aged man about Khaosan Road. He tells me to come with him. He tells me that he is taking a bus to the same direction where I am going, and he can tell me where to get off. I follow him and ride a free city bus, (I don’t know why this bus was free) and arrive at a packed noisy Khaosan Road.
As I was walking a street by a small canal where street vendors sold food items, I saw a lady giving a wet towel bath to an old person laying buck naked on the street. I first saw the deformed naked human legs sticking out between tables and then saw a hip that challenged the definition of human anatomy.
I quickly turned away. We were just watching a TV program late last night on CNN about a man in Singapore with very un-usual skin disease. Around the main streets of Bangkok, I saw beggars with terrifying deformity in their faces. It seems like strange horrific disease is going around this neck of the world.
I re-unite with Sue and have another great Ramen dinner in Japan alley before going to see Thai traditional show.
Las Vegas style show of song and dance (without half naked women) are grand in scale and costumes with elephants and goats running among audience, yet the show itself is flat.
But, I might have enjoyed it more if I wasn’t dying from flu.
1/12 (Sat) Bangkok
I wake up feeling much better and we start our 2nd free day by visiting weekend market.
We take BTS train packed with tourists to the station named “Mo Chit”.
Sue asks me “Are we going to Mo Chit for mo chit?” �C Ha Ha!
Then we take a subway and a tuk-tuk to the National gallery (where we see a bit of children’s show), and the National museum. (All free for today being a special children’s day holiday).
By the end of day, thanks to walking around in sunny 95F temperature, I feel much better.
We go to a Thai restaurant recommended by hotel for dinner. Food, service, price are all very mediocre.
We noticed that we rarely had a good dinner by going to a restaurant recommended by hotel.
Afterward, we go to a “Lady-Boy” show. It’s a lip-synched drag show with about 40 boys in heavy make-up running around in various sexy garments on stage. Sue had very high expectations about this show because she saw so many beautiful feminine boys in town; she expected to encounter jaw-dropping beauties here. To her disappointment, so called ladies danced like they had big hairy balls between their legs and some boys were just too old for running around in a G-string and lip stick.
1/13 (Sun) Bangkok / Yangon (Rangoon)
We had a little problem with our laundry service at the hotel yesterday. It was scheduled to be back in our room by afternoon, but it didn’t which caused serious anxiety to Sue. We get them back at 9am this morning. (Cost $70 USDollar - Ouch!)
By Tonkin travel’s insistence, we leave the hotel at 1pm for a 5 o’clock flight. When I tell our flight time to our driver, he laughs and tells me that it only takes 45 minutes to the airport on Sunday. We arrive at airport 45 minutes later.
Upon arrival at the airport, we are told that our flight is cancelled. Bangkok Airways quickly switch us to Thai Air flight leaving 1 hour later than our original flight. We end up waiting 4 hours for our flight at the airport.
The problem was that we could not contact local agency in Yangon to tell them about our flight change. Bangkok Airways desk agent leaves a message in their Yangon counter about us.
Upon arrival in Yangon, I was glad to see office staff (Marla) from local travel agency waiting for us.
1/14 (Mon) Yangon (Rangoon) / Bagan
4:30am wake-up call. We go down to the empty lobby & realize that there is 30 min time difference between Bangkok & Yangon. (We have never had 30 minute time change before.)
Boarding is very chaotic with several flights taking off very much the same time for a few hundred foreign tourists packed in the waiting area. (No electric information board, no-audible announcement, just a guy walking around with a small sign board telling us which door to go.)
On board, it’s freezing, and no-blankets. I curse myself for wearing just T-shirts & short pants.
I tell myself I will be okay since it is just a bit over 1 hour flight, but I get off the plane with my cold coming back in full force.
We meet a lovely lady guide named Nu & driver Mya-tu and start the tour of the incredible Bagan.
Luckily, our hotel is on the way to our first SS destination. So, we stop at the hotel for 15 minutes to put on warmer clothes. (Temperature dropped considerably from Bangkok.)
We start the tour with a local market filled with beautiful artifacts, then visit temples, and climb to the top of one of the big temples for the out of this world panoramic view.
Sue & I agree that the most awesome place we have ever visited was Machupichu in Peru, followed by jungle ruin of Tikar in Guatemala. This one comes very close to them. There are 2230 temples, stupas & pagodas in the town of Bagan scattered around for miles among trees and sandy roads.
The view of the city is so beautiful that it almost doesn’t look real.
We return to the hotel after lunch and take a 2 hour of nap before we re-start the tour visiting more temples. Aside from the beauty of this city, we noticed 3 things that are interesting and peculiar about this country: One is that people have sunblock made from local vegetation smeared on their faces. (Mostly women & children) It is light brown colored and most of them put it on their cheeks (although some covers more). Against their darker skin, it looks strange and shocking. Sue tells me that it also is skin bleach. Whatever it is, I never got used to it during our stay here.
The second thing is a regulation in temples. In other countries, women with skirts or shorts (and sometimes men with short pants) had to cover their legs with some clothes to enter temples. In this country, we had to take-off our shoes & socks to enter the temples. The problem was that they make you take them off not when you go inside of the building but when you enter the temple properties which meant you had to walk on sandy roads and bird dropping covered walkways barefoot.
The 3rd thing was blatant sexism. No-women were allowed within 7 feet of the Buddha statues in some temples. There were signs stating “No ladies allowed from this point”. I am glad that Sue didn’t go up and kick the sign down.
We have a dinner in our beautiful golf resort hotel, and go to bed by 9:30pm hoping my flu will go away.
1/15 (Tue) Bagan
Terrible thing about Myanmar is that nobody takes credit cards nor US Dollars, and that included our resort hotel. I only have about $600 US dollars with me and that is for another whole month of traveling.
I start to fear that we might have a cash shortage.
There is something in the air that is making me sicker here. Every time when I come outside, I start to cough / sneeze and tears fill my eyes, but at least I don’t seem to have problem with their water.
Today’s tour included more temples, small village, elementary school, monastery with cave (for meditation).
We had lunch at a terrace restaurant by the beautiful big river seeing a large onion field and the mountains beyond. I felt I could live here. (Too bad their air is not more congenial.) During our siesta break today I rented a bicycle from the hotel and go out to explore the neighborhood.
For the late afternoon SS, we climb to the top of one of the biggest temples for a sunset view. Looking at the incredible view expanding into the horizon, I thought that all of this beauty is going to be lost soon. Myanmar loosened its visa regulations last year and that is why all the tourists started pouring in.
Nu tells us that all the foreign corporations purchased large sections of the town to build hotels and they are rushing to build an infrastructure in this country. In a few years, there will be hundreds of tour buses parked around here and we will be seeing this majestic view with big neon signs of Resort Hotels & restaurants. I suppose all the progress is good, but a selfish tourist like me wishes that there were some areas of the world left untouched so that I can visit to take great pictures and contemplate on the lost innocence and beauties of the simple life.
1/16 (Wed) Bagan / Mandalay
We say good bye to Nu & take a short flight to Mandalay. I wear my long underwear and winter jacket against overworked A/C and no-blanket situation I have experienced on board before.
Mandalay’s guide is Sensen and the driver is Joe. Sensen tells us that all of her previous customers who flew in from Bagan begged her, “No more temples”. So, we start a temple-light yet colorful tour of the 2nd biggest city in Myanmar. We visit a huge monastery where hundreds of monks live, a weaving factory, a wood carving shop, a gold leaf maker’s shop and yes, some more temples.
In the monastery, Sensen introduce us to an English speaking monk with whom Sue has a little nice chat.
While he is talking with her, he complains about some unruly behavior by visiting tourists, and then he sees a guy climbing on the wall to take a picture of the monks marching into the dining hall. He runs over there and angrily tells the tourist to stop acting like a monkey and get down on the ground. The tourist does what he was told to do.
Lunch at a local Myanmar restaurant is another delight. They serve 5-6 small side dishes with a bowl of soup and some curry dishes with meat. I loved a small vegetable side-dish with onion, peas, cilantro, & mango mixed with sour gravy.
After a short break at the hotel, we continue our afternoon tour including a visit to the world’s largest book (actually, it is a complex of small pagodas with a carved stone with pages of ancient Buddhist scriptures �C 1 page of scripture for 1 pagoda).
Sensen seemed to be totally over-worked for this being in the middle of tour season, but she was nice and sweet (and a pretty good photographer judging from the pictures she showed us of which she took around the city). She also made Sue very happy by saying that my wife looked like she was 37 years old.
During dinner at the hotel restaurant, Sue orders a BLTE sandwich which came with very rare soggy bacon. She hides bacon under fat soaked white bread and eats just Lettuce, Tomato, and Egg.
NOTE: No more western food at any hotel restaurants in this trip.
1/17 (Thu) Mandalay / Heho / Inle lake
Another early departure at 6:30am from the hotel for an early flight. Upon arrival in Heho, we meet our guide Tutu, and we drive down the mountain to Inle Lake where we switch to a boat and head to our hotel.
We arrive at a beautiful lakeside resort and check-into a huge bungalow room.
Afternoon SS is all done by boat visiting villages on the water, vegetable farms on water, craft shop, blacksmith shop, and monastery all on the water.
It is considerably cooler here than Mandalay or Bagan, but the air feels refreshing and the scenery is again quite beautiful. We go through small fishing boats with fishermen rowing boat with their legs as they cast various kinds of nets.
In our SS, we visit the holiest temple in the region. In the temple, there are 5 statuettes of Buddha in the altar covered by gold leaves. A folk tale tells us that long ago, during the transportation process of these Buddhas to another temple for the annual celebration, the boat toppled and all 5 statuettes fell into the water. By immediate search efforts, they retrieved 4 statuettes but the 5th one couldn’t be found anywhere. So, they gave up and brought the 4 recovered statuettes back to the temple only to discover the 5th statuette sitting right where it was. Since then, they transfer 4 statuettes for annual celebration to another temple, but the 5th one never left where it is.
This folk tale added to the holiness to these statuettes and people come from all over the place to pay respect and pray. They also are allowed to place a gold leaf on these statuettes like many other Buddha statues in this country (By placing gold leaf, you will be allowed a good karma in your next life).
The problem is that so many people have visited this place and tried to buy good real estate in heaven that the statuettes are turning into a round bowls of gold leaf without any semblance to the shape of the original carving. When we were there, several men & monk (No-women are allowed to even come near Buddha, so forget about good karma for women.) were placing gold leaves on these bowls with utmost seriousness and piety.
After the SS, we went to sit at the quiet tiki bar at the dock of the hotel with an intention of enjoying a cocktail and the sunset on the lake, but quickly abandon the idea when we get swarmed by mosquitos.
So, we decide to have an early dinner at the hotel’s grand dining room. Restaurant manager / chef who is an European (maybe French?) comes to our table to chat. When Sue refers to the fresh vegetables grown on the lake, he tells us that he grows his own vegetable for serving. He tells us that local farmers are using too much pesticide and poisoning vegetables and the eco-system in the lake.
1/18 (Fri) Inle lake / Heho / Yangon (Rangoon)
A little problem at hotel check-out because they want me to pay our incidental fees in undamaged US dollar bills. A girl at the front desk inspects every 20 dollar bills I give her and returns half of them to me. Fortunately, I have enough clean bills and we take-off on the boat at 6:45am.
We cover ourselves with all the clothes we have in order to endure the 30 minute boat ride in freezing temperature. (Tutu brought blankets which helped tremendously.)
We glide through the foggy lake and arrive at a town and switch to a car. On the way to airport, we see about 50 monks marching down the road barefoot (with bowls for food) toward the town.
Boarding the plane is as messy and confusing as usual, but we are used to it after the last few experiences. We board the right plane, but almost get off at the wrong stop. (Nobody told us that this plane makes any stops on the way to Yangon. There were 3 of us going to Yangon on board and all 3 of us got off the plane by mistake.)
The guide in Yangon is Mei. She is a mild mannered middle-aged lady who seems to be a very religious person who knows a lot about Buddhism. Also her English is understandable �C I thank Buddha for it.
We visit a couple of temples before we check into our hotel, and later on, we visit the biggest temple up on the hill. When we see the Buddha statue with a neon halo behind it, I had to ask the question which has been bugging me since I saw a Buddha statue in neon light for the first time in Vietnam. I ask Mei, “In western culture, neon light is associated with commercialism when someone tries to get attention to sell something. Are people here okay with the usage of neon light for sacred Buddha statues?” Mei looks at me like I asked the question: “Do people eat rice in Myanmar?”
She blinks her eyes a few times and answers in her sincere soft manner, “Yes, the halo means enlightenment of Buddha and it shows that he is sharing wisdom with people.” I realize that asking further questions on this subject would be a futile effort, so I say, “Okay.”
After returning to the hotel, I walk around a big lake nearby and see that there is not much around our hotel. (Probably not much in this town �C period.)
1/19 (Sat) Yangon (Rangoon)
We visit a huge reclining Buddha statue. The original one was destroyed and this new one was rebuilt recently. It is quite different from the picture of the original we see on the wall. The most striking difference is the face. The original one had a flat square face with a masculine flat nose while the new one has a feminine elongated face with full make-up on. After seeing numerous similar reconstructed Buddha statues during this trip, Sue & I agree that whoever was assigned to supervise these reconstruction projects were all “Lady-Boys”.
We visit a few spots in the downtown area, and ask to be dropped off at noon in front of the central market. Sue tells me that she found out that our guide Mei is a single woman with no family and she lives in a woman’s home. Sue thought it was kind of sad.
We do some shopping in the market, have lunch, and Sue returns to hotel with our car while I walk around the downtown area some more and later take a taxi back to hotel.
1/20 (Sun) Yangon (Rangoon)
We have a full day free today to explore the town by ourselves. We start the day by visiting the market and walking down many busy streets. The sun becomes pretty strong around noon, so we take a break at a café in a big western hotel downtown. Then we go back to the market to buy souvenir items.
There are ATM machines in this town but for some reason, I cannot get any money out of them.
We end up spending about $200 US Dollar from our cash supply, and return to hotel to pack.
After the packing, I take a walk to downtown again to see this city one last time. We go back to the same Thai restaurant we went last night for dinner nearby hotel.
1/21 (Mon) Yangon (Rangoon) / Kuala Lumpur
Marla from the local agency greets us to take us to the airport and we take a flight to Kuala Lumpur.
This airport transfer was the last service arranged by Tonkin Travel. From now on, we will be on our own for the most of remaining trip.
Kuala Lumpur airport is a very user friendly airport. We get all the information we need at the visitor information counter and take a taxi to the hotel. Unfortunately, the taxi takes us to the wrong hotel in spite of us confirming the address before we take off. We catch another taxi to the correct address.
(No big deal.)
Park Royal Suites is an apartment hotel designed for longer staying travelers. Other than the usual hotel facilities like a pool, gym & restaurant, there is coin laundry (which was the reason I picked this hotel in the middle of our travel.) It was a huge apartment style room with a full kitchen.
I go out to get some food at the nearby supermarket in a big mall. KL is a modern, big mega city and has huge shopping malls everywhere throughout the city.
We were tired of Asian food, so we go out to a touristy restaurant street nearby hotel and eat a fantastic steak dinner.
1/22 (Tue) Kuala Lumpur
We wash our clothes using their self-service laundry in the morning and repack things for the rest of trip.
Sue received an E-mail message from Joan last night something about our flight changing. When I checked our flight schedule, I find out that the flight from KL to Singapore was changed to a different airline. The great thing about it was that the flight departure time was delayed 2 hours from 7am to 9am. We were very happy to hear that we won’t have to get wake-up call at 3:30am.
We took the Hop On-Off city bus tour and find out that there isn’t much to see in this city.
In the afternoon, I go to a very clean but uninteresting central market and an equally boring China Town.
We then go to a nearby mega super-mall where they have Japanese alley and we have dinner at a rotation sushi restaurant. Their choice of sushi was limited to mostly salmon and shrimp mixed with lots of mayonnaise. (Sue thought it was gross.) After the dinner, we buy 3 cakes at a Japanese cake store, and have a night snack back in the hotel. (Sue thought they were excellent.)
1/23 (Wed) Kuala Lumpur
In the morning, I head out to National Art Museum. I was going to use the left over time on Hop-On-Off bus to get there, but as soon as I got on, I realized that it would take too long to get there by bus.
So, I got off at the next stop and caught a taxi in Chinatown. I showed my guide book with the picture & the name of museum to the driver who tells me that the fare is 20RM (about $7). I thought it was too high, so I negotiated it down to 15RM, and off we went. 15 minutes later, I find myself in front of the National Museum instead of the National Art Museum. The driver tells me that he misunderstood me.
I don’t know how he could misunderstand but, since it was his mistake, I insisted that he take me to the place where we agreed to go. His reply was that I pay him additional 5RM for it. After a few minutes of arguing, he started to drive back to Chinatown. I didn’t want to waste my time to go back there and head back to the Art Museum again, so I opened the door when he stopped for a light and got out. He shouted at me that I owed him 15RM. I replied, “Are you fucking crazy?” and slammed the door at his face.
Since I was at the National Museum, I decided to give it a visit to learn a bit about the history and culture of Malaysia. Afterward, I took another taxi (this time an honest driver) to the National Art Museum.
The Exhibition of local artists in the vast 3 story gallery was nice but not impressive. . I just wished to see better quality of art work in an art museum.
After having some trouble due to the bad traffic, I arrive back at the hotel to pick Sue up for the visit to the Hindu temple of Batu Cave in the outskirts of town. We find an old taxi driver in front of the hotel who tells us that he will wait for us for the return trip without extra charge. We take up on his offer, and since he looked nice, we make arrangements with him to pick us up tomorrow morning for the airport.
When we arrived at Batu Cave, I was shocked by the height of the staircase to the entrance of cave.
I read about it, but I completely forgot about it. Sue tells me that she can do it so we started to climb the staircase under the scorching sun. After about 15 minutes, we arrive at the top and take some pictures. Marla (Travel agent in Yangon) told us to be careful with the wild monkeys in this temple.
They are known to grab tourists’ sunglasses and cameras and run away. There were several monkeys along the staircase and around the temple. We took their pictures without losing any of our personal belongings.
Upon returning to the hotel, we go to a foot massage place where outside the sign said: “60 min foot rub + 10 min shoulder massage for 35 RM”. But, after only about 45 min of foot / shoulder rub, it was over. When I mention this to the owner at the cashier counter, she brings the girls back to give us more time. The rain poured down hard while we were getting the extra rub but it stopped as we came out.
We have dinner of grilled meats and noodles at a street restaurant and Sue gets sick immediately.
Back in hotel, I do laundry once more while she goes in and out of the bathroom for the rest of night.
1/24 (Thu) Kuala Lumpur / Singapore
At 6am, the driver who took us to Batu Cave yesterday was at the hotel to pick us up.
Our flight to Singapore was very short. We get travel information at the visitor’s desk at Singapore airport and take a taxi to the hotel.
Since the room was not ready, we go out to take the Hop On-Off bus. Singapore is a cleaner and more orderly mega city than Kuala Lumpur and there are ginormous shopping malls everywhere, but as far as sightseeing goes, not much to see here.
In the afternoon, we ride a huge ferris wheel at the marina. After paying $27/pax for 30 minutes of ride, (with SilkAir discount) we start to think that everything is very expensive here. Aside from the entrance fees, alcoholic items were ridiculously expensive. A bottle of wine which is sold for $8 in NYC was being sold for $20 here, and that was the cheapest wine! I believe it is this country’s policy to tax heavily for luxurious (non-essential) items. We found out from the bus tour that owning car in this country requires lots of money and patience. But the city is clean and safe and the people seemed to be well-off.
We had dinner at a restaurant in a shopping mall with huge portions of greasy fried seafood.
1/25 (Fri) Singapore
We use our remaining time on the tour bus to visit Little India. We find a street with interesting souvenir items and a crowded Hindu temple. Then we walked to a quiet Arab town to see the mosque, but it was closed. So, we take a taxi to the new landmark of this city “Sands Resort Hotel” at the marina.
The building consists of 3 towers for hotel guests topped with a huge ship-shaped skypark with the world’s longest infinity pool. The building is definitely unique and you cannot stop yourself from saying “Wow!” when you see it for the first time.
The entrance fee (which included a museum visit) however is not cheap at $38/pax. We see an exhibit of sculptures made by Logos which Sue seems to enjoy enormously, have a cheeseburger lunch, and go up to the Skypark.
We visit China Town afterward and visit the oldest mosque in Singapore. I don’t know why there is a mosque in Chinatown, but when we enter the empty place, a man comes out and tell me to wear Arabian robe to hide my bare legs. I respectfully obey his request, and put on a free rental robe.
For dinner we visit one of the many Japanese restaurants in our neighborhood.
We have yakitori appetizers in one restaurant, and have good but very oily Ramen in the other.
1/26 (Sat) Singapore
Sue was going to have a rest day, so I went out to have a walking tour of this city.
I started by visiting the Singapore Museum of Art (SAM), then the Merlion Park to take pictures of the marina and more of the Sands resort hotel.
I have a lunch in a place called Hawker which is a name given to food courts. Singapore government banned vendors from selling food on the street years ago which brought them inside of these big food courts named Hawker. There was a food which I wanted to try in Yangon but couldn’t because of a fear of having another gut twisting diarrhea attack. The dish is chopped intestines of some animals dipped in oil (it could have been hot water, but whatever the boiling liquid they were dipping hairy intestines in was pretty greasy looking.) I was excited to see the dish being sold in cleaner and safer environment here in this Hawker. The taste of this dish however was anti-climactic. It was rather bland with no gamey smell or taste of anything intestinally obnoxious. How disappointing…
After the lunch, I walk to a crowded temple in China town where the relic of Buddha’s tooth is exhibited.
Sue & I take a taxi to the modern and hopping restaurant quarter of Clarke Quay by the ferry depot.
There were variety of restaurants with all kinds of international cuisine with prices that were somewhere between outrageous to ridiculous. We find a seafood Italian restaurant with relatively reasonable prices and enjoy our last dinner in Singapore.
1/27 (Sun) Singapore / Jakarta
I knew that Jakarta was not going to be an interesting stop because of the lack of tourist attraction.
Plus, recent terrorist attacks to major American targets including some luxury hotels made me feel a bit nervous coming here, but I knew the country from famous novels and some old movies I liked. Besides, we were in the neighborhood, so why not check it out?
Although internet information told me that Japanese doesn’t need a visa to enter Indonesia, I ended up paying a visa fee of $60 ($30/pax) for Sue and myself. The Internet info also told me to be very careful with taxi drivers in this country. Luckily I find visitor’s information desk with a helpful female staff who takes me to currency exchange booth and puts us in a taxi for $220K Rupiah (About $22 USD).
Upon arrival at the entrance of the Intercontinental hotel, we are stopped at the gate. There are 3 guards and they opened the door to check us as well as the trunk and the bottom of car by mirror. In addition, there was airport style security check at the entrance to the lobby. We looked at each other and asked ourselves why did we have to come to this city?
The front desk clerk asked us if we would like to up-grade our room to the executive floor with $62/night extra fee. It came with free breakfast & free Wi-Fi. I didn’t need them, but I tell her that we’ll take it. As it turns out, the executive floor has its own lounge area that serves free cocktails at night and the room came with 1 free “laundry”. We thought this up-grade was pretty good deal.
View from our room showed about a half mile square of slum in front of the hotel and behind it were modern skyscrapers downtown. There also was a luxurious condo building next door (I bet they had their own security team).
We visit the lounge for free cocktails and find an excellent selection of finger foods with all you can drink alcohol. The food was better than most of the restaurants we went to on this trip so we end up saving money by finishing dinner here.
1/28 (Mon) Jakarta / Yogyakarta / Jakarta
3:30am wake-up call to catch 6am flight to Yogyakarta for one day trip of Borobudur temple.
Visiting Yogyakarta was an after-thought that came after I finished arranging this tour. I learned that one of the 3 biggest Buddhist monuments in the world were in Indonesia. Since we were going to see 2 of them on this trip (Angkor Watts & Temple field of Bagan), I had to include it to complete the list.
The local guide’s name was Noru and we could only understand half of what he was saying.
He was one of these guides who couldn’t give a concise version of anything. He had to elaborate and expand incomprehensible explanations on every subject and he also loved to mention the word “philosophical”. It is usually a drag when your guide wishes to share lengthy philosophical ideas without being able to speak English. Toward the end of day, my eyes started to cross every time when he opened his mouth.
We visited the beautifully symmetrical and elaborately carved Hindu temple of Prambanan, Royal Palace, and sultan’s harem with 3 swimming pools.
After lunch, we drove 1 hour to Borobudur. As soon as we arrived, the sky cracked and it started to pour. Sue gave up climbing the big, wet, steep staircase in the pouring rain. So, I go up to the top to see the view. Although what I could see was somewhat limited, it was nonetheless impressive.
I always believed that there is something magical about the power of repetitive image even if it is a boring group of 72 stupas.
We buy a doll/puppet at a roadside shop on the way back to the airport and say, “Bye �C or Selamat jalan” to Noru gladly. Upon arrival back to Jakarta airport late at night, we take a metered local taxi with a giggly young driver. The fare was only $10 to the hotel.
1/29 (Tue) Jakarta
I have a great Japanese breakfast at the executive lounge of the hotel, but later I am told that it costs me $25 extra for additional person charge. I thought it was strange but agreed to pay. We check with the front desk later that nothing else will cost us more than the $62 per night extra per room.
We go out by taxi to Kota station area through a horrific traffic jam resembling Bangkok.
We check out Jakarta museum which is a huge colonial house sparsely furnished with equally huge Dutch furniture. Then, we visit a Puppet museum where a guy shows us around and explain about Indonesian puppets and even sings to us a bit (he was also a puppeteer.)
Then we walked to a draw bridge through shanty houses along a VERY polluted garbage filled, sewage smelling river. I didn’t have any idea why this bridge was mentioned on the tourist map. I assumed that it must have some historical significance.
As we got close to the bridge, Sue gagged and almost passed out from the heat, carbon monoxide in the air, and strong stench from the river. We walked by a young man who was sitting on the sidewalk staring at us. When my eyes meet his, he asks me “Hello, How are you?” with emotionless steely voice. I replied “Okay, How are you?” His frosty facial expression didn’t change as his stare stayed with me.
Something told me that he was thinking of cutting off my balls and feeding them to dogs.
We walked to Kota station and took a tuk-tuk to the Art center. The drive on this tin matchbox with wheels was one of the most memorable rides I had lately. We rode tuk-tuks in other countries during this trip that were pretty hairy sometimes, but the sheer aggression of this driver made this ride a special one. I have never gotten so close to two running buses on both sides of my body ever in my life.
I was amazed to see that Sue was rather enjoying this ride.
After finding out that Art center was just a performance hall, we took another tuk-tuk to the National museum and later took a regular taxi back to hotel. We were convinced that there was absolutely nothing else to see in this city.
We have another free cocktail and appetizers at executive hotel lounge and then a hostess at the lounge desk tells Sue that the 2nd person must pay $42 for lounge use. I complain and have them cancel the charge.
1/30 (Wed) Jakarta / Denpasar Bali / Ubud
At the check-out, our bill showed $83 for laundry. The front desk clerk tells me that only 1 item is free.
(Evidently 1 free “laundry” to them meant one pair of underwear or one T-shirt.)
I complain about all the misleading explanations by the hotel about the up-grade of room and the misleading language in the letter, etc. I eventually agree to 20% less laundry charge in exchange for no additional charges for breakfast. This was a very strange new experience with hotel.
Upon arrival at Denpasar Bali, we take a taxi to the mountainside art community of Ubud.
I started to regret not staying at a beach resort by the water and we agree to cut our stay in Ubud 1 day and stay in some beach hotel on the last night.
Upon arrival in Ubud however, we find out that the town is more fun and lively than we expected.
After we check into a small restaurant Inn, we take a walk to the Central Market. As we arrive there, we notice that the market is closing, and then the rain started to pour down. We wait for it to stop in a restaurant drinking ice coffee (this ice coffee haunts me next 3 days.) and having a small appetizer but eventually we give up and start to run in the pouring rain back to hotel. (I was forgetting that we were in the region where it is the rain season now.)
As the rain subsides, we find dance concert taking place in a theater nearby our hotel. People at the front door tell us that it is a dinner party for the patrons for this dance troop. They invite us in and we enjoy a couple of dance numbers being performed with other guests who were finishing dinner.
We probably stayed longer if we were not so wet and cold with rain.
1/31 (Thu) Ubud
We take off at 9am with our driver named Kadet for a full day SS of Bali. We wanted to visit the beach area of Kuta and some other famous temples, but finding out that they are in the opposite direction, we choose to visit temples and postpone the visit to beach area until tomorrow.
We start by stopping to see Barong / Lelong Bali dance show in Ubud, then visit a Wood carving shop.
After driving up north through thick forests, we stop at a place where they serve “poopy coffee” which is coffee made from beans extracted from poops of “Coffee bean eating tree cats”. Coffee doesn’t tastes like cat poop and really tastes nothing different than any other coffee other than being very strong.
We visit a pretty “floating temple” on the lake and a Hindu temple in the Indian Ocean where the heat is unbearably strong. We were scheduled to stop at another temple complex where the royal family visits, but by then, we were totally templed-out so we tell Kadet to skip it. We drive through more rice fields and small villages and return early to Ubud to visit the monkey forest near our hotel.
There are hundreds of wild monkeys in the Monkey forest, but they don’t seem hostile. We walk to a temple inside this park taking photos of monkeys in various actions. As we come out of the forest, we notice a female tourist holding a monkey crying for help because the monkey in her arm was trying to rip pierced earring off her. I think any tourist try to hold wild monkeys deserve to have her ears ripped off and be devoured by an army of monkey flees & lice, but this is just my personal opinion.
I had fantastic diarrhea for the whole day, (I believe from the ice coffee last night) so I skip breakfast and lunch. The stomach pills I bought in Laos seemed to work okay. It kept me from running to the toilet every 10 minutes.
On the way back to the hotel, we buy 2 souvenir items. Then, we swim in a very private beautiful pool at the hotel. Afterward, we go out to have a massage (1 hour massage for $8 �C great price again.)
For dinner, I eat fried noodles (my only meal today) at a restaurant next to our hotel listening to live Reggae music. Sue has a mango stuffed chicken dish with curry sauce. My dinner comes out of me as soon as I return to our room.
2/1 (Fri) Ubud / Kuta Beach / Ubud
In the morning, we have Kadet’s brother Bobby drive us to Kuta Beach. As soon as we take-off, it starts to rain hard, but it turns to drizzle when we arrive in Kuta beach.
Kuta beach is a busy touristy resort area. The street is filled with beach shops and the beach is filled with surfers (mostly beginners trying to learn how to surf). We take some pictures of the beach and stop at the monument where terrorist attack killed 202 tourists in 2002.
We stop at a much quieter Sanur Beach on the way back and agree that it was good that we decided to stay in Ubud for the entire time in Bali. It is more charming and quaint and suitable for old geeks like us.
Upon returning to our hotel, I pack the newly acquired souvenir items and take the package to the post office. Then, we visit the central market and the shops along the way back to hotel to do more souvenir shopping.
We have so-so dinner at Balinese cooking school / restaurant and visit a temple to see Kecak dance & fire dance. Kacek dance was created by a German painter in 1930s for his movie and it became one of the stable dance numbers in Bali (usually combined with trance dance or fire dance).
We enjoyed the theatrical Kacek dance of 40 half naked men chanting & singing and the fire dance which a fat man on straw horse kicked around burning wood on a tile floor. But the great thing was my decision to take 2 diarrhea pills after the dinner. The performance was in an open old temple with no toilet around. If I didn’t take these pills, I would have shown some original dance moves to add to the variety of dance styles in Bali.
We return to the hotel restaurant and we try a dish of black rice /banana /coconut cream thinking that it is dessert dish, but we are told by waitress that it is popular local breakfast dish. Whatever it was, we liked it although it didn’t stay in me for long.
2/2 (Sat) Ubud / Denpasar Bali / Manila
I expected that security at the airport was going to be tight, but it was beyond what we expected.
First of all, the car could not come near the terminal. We had to walk quite a distance from the drop-off point to the check-in counter. At the counter, Sue noticed a sign stating that the gate closes 1 hour prior to the flight departure time. We checked-in and went through 3 security checks, immigration and a collection booth for departure tax ($20/pax). As we approached our gate, there was an announcement for the passengers to proceed to the gate immediately. It was 1.5 hours before the departure time.
The flight connection in Kuala Lumpur goes smoothly and upon arrival in Manila at 9pm, we take a yellow taxi to our hotel.
2/3 (Sun) Manila
We were going to take the Hop On-Off bus for SS, but finding out that it is no longer in operation, we decide to do our own tour of Manila. We walk to the Intramurals via Lisxxx park and take a taxi to the big market. Since there was nothing else worth seeing in this city, we return to our hotel.
When I was walking around by myself later in the afternoon, I walk into an Irish pub for a beer.
It was dark in there and some sport program was on TV that the guys at the counter were watching.
The A/C was full blast and it was nice & cool inside. I put my backpack down and turned around to look around the other side of the room. To my surprise, I find about 40 very young girls sitting there all quiet and looking at the guys at the bar. They all wore heavy make-up and some of them looked at me and smiled. I realized that this is not a regular sports bar, so I picked up my stuff and walked out of there without ordering anything. I knew that prostitution is illegal in the Philippines and there is a heavy penalty for violators. I didn’t know what this place was about but it was a very strange place.
Later we go out to get massage, but Sue gets turned off when a place we walked in tells us that they don’t do oil massage. She thinks that they just don’t want to deal with a big American women. So, we skip the massage, and have a pretty good Korean BBQ dinner in a restaurant across from the hotel.
2/4 (Mon) Manila
Sue wanted to stay in hotel and wash some of my dirty laundry for my extended stay in Japan, so I go out alone to the nearby Coconut Palace and then take a taxi to the gigi financial district where brand name shops and swanky restaurants are located.
As I come out of a shopping mall to a garden court, I hear a big cheer behind me. When I look up, I see bunch of Westerners on a bar veranda. Realizing that they are cheering for the super-ball on TV, I decided to run up there to join them. But when I turn, I see a small TV showing the game in an empty café.
So, instead of running up the staircase, I just sit there with mango juice and watch Baltimore Ravens beat San Francisco 49ers.
I wanted to see more of the downtown market area we visited yesterday, so I take another taxi there and visit a church filled with people for afternoon mass.
Then I take public train back to hotel to join Sue for lunch.
In the afternoon, I did more of walking around on the busy main street and I started to feel depressed. There is so much poverty in this city. Families with small children were sleeping on the street or in the park, and women and children begged for money. At the same time, in the other side of town, people were shopping for Gucci bags in a beautiful shopping mall and sipping iced cappuccino in a café.
We go to a nearby restaurant for a dinner show. The show was very standard touristy stuff, but dinner was pretty good (we had mixed grill of seafood & meat, sautéed morning glory, and fried noodles).
2/5 (Tue) Manila / Tokyo
We take taxi to airport, hop on JAL flight and after a little over 3 hours, we were in Tokyo.
Temperature dropped about 60F from Manila. They were expecting snow tonight in Tokyo area.
Nikko airport hotel was in the middle of nowhere, so I took a shuttle bus to the nearby Higashi Narita station (Sue didn’t want to go out in cold). About 30 minutes of ride took me to the station and very quiet downtown area. Realizing that nothing is there, I just stayed in bus and returned to the hotel.
Luckily, the hotel had a pretty decent Japanese restaurant on the top floor. So, we had a Sushi Kaiseki dinner with hot sake and talked about our trip. We were glad that our last dinner together in this grand trip was a very good one.
2/6 (Wed) Tokyo (Sue goes back to NYC while I stay 4 more nights in Tokyo)
Sue left with JAL flight in the morning to home (She had teaching class starting in CT).
After sending her out, I took a bus to Sunshine City Plaza Hotel in Ikebukuro for additional 4 night stay.
Rain we had in the morning turned to snow around noon but stopped shortly.
2/7 (Thu) �C 9 (Sat) Tokyo
During next few days, I visited my favorite places in Tokyo and other cities nearby. Among the places I visited were China town in Yokohama, Ramen Museum in Shin-Yokohama, Art Museums in Ueno, Skytree tower, Tokyo Edo museum in Ryogoku, and Sugamo Buddhist temple.
I also visited our old apartment I grew up in Otsuka one night. It was empty and the building entrance was blocked. The whole neighborhood was much darker and desolate than I remembered.
The old apartment building looked like a big old tomb stone in an empty cemetery.
During night, I walked around mostly Ikebukuro neighborhood drinking and eating in different snack bars, Yakitori bars, hormone BBQ restaurants and rotation Sushi places.
My favorite dinner was “raw codfish roe”, and grilled Sansho fish (Salamonder fish - I didn’t know how they can get away with serving government protected endangered species) in my favorite Asadachi restaurant in Shinjuku.
2/10 (Sun) Tokyo / NYC
I was worried about the snow storm in NY area, but my JAL flight takes off on time. (Same flight was cancelled yesterday because of airport shut-down in NY area.)
I couldn’t believe that this trip is really coming to end.
After about 12 hours of flight, I arrive at JFK, and meet Sue who was there to pick me up.
It was nice to be with her again.