Sunday, 28 May 2017

London Guide - for tourists

As I am often involved in advising friends and family on what to do and what to see, here's a quick handy guide on some of the must-sees and must-dos.


Get Oyster cards for each member of the family (see below *).

You can either buy a season ticket (I'd suggest weekly travel card initially), or just put money on the card and use it for 'pay as you go'. Pay as you go capping allows you to make a number of journeys in a single day or week, but limits the amount you pay for your travel. It is calculated automatically based on the zones you travel in and the type of transport you use (rail, bus, and tram).

*Children under 11 travel free on buses and trams, Tube, DLR, London Overground, TfL Rail and some National Rail services when they are with a fare-paying adult. If you’re travelling with children aged 11-15, you can ask a member of staff to set a Young Visitor discount on an Oyster card, allowing them to pay as you go at half-adult rate for up to 14 days. Staff can do this at most Tube stations, TfL Rail ticket offices, Visitor Centres (excluding Gatwick) or Victoria National Rail station ticket office.

More information here:

This includes a London attraction bus map, which can be useful to get a handle on the city. Grab a free tube map from the first station you come to, as it can be useful to map out your transport every day.

Where to eat

Pret a Manger is your best bet for a coffee and a decent sandwich. If you're looking for a quick lunch on the go, or a snack, find a Pret. They're everywhere and are much better than a Starbucks or Costa or Caffe Nero or Eat.

Paul is better for a slightly upscale version of coffee and a snack on the go. Their chocolate beignets are to die for.

In terms of affordable chain restaurants that are scattered all over London, these are some I can swear by:

American: The Diner
British: Canteen
Dim Sum (Chinese Dumplings): Ping Pong
French: Le Pain Quotidien or Cafe Rouge
Greek: The Real Greek
Italian: Vapiano or Caffe Vergnano 1881 or Carluccio's
Mexican: Wahaca
Pan-Asian: Wagamama
Spanish: La Tasca
Turkish: Tas

Then there are interesting places like:

Roti Chai (off Oxford Street) or Chai Ki (Canary Wharf) for Indian street food,
Red Fort (Dean Street) for the best biryani I've ever had,
Drunch (Woodstock Street) for an eclectic menu and good shisha,
Addis (Caledonian Road) for Ethiopian food,
Pham (Whitecross Street) for excellent and affordable sushi,
Yauatcha (Broadwick Street) for possibly the best Chinese meal in town,
Big Easy for a good surf and turf menu, inspired by the 'South' (as in, the southern states in the US).

For desserts and the like, I can suggest:

Amorino, where you get the best accessible and affordable gelato,
Laduree, which has the best macarons in the world, freshly made and transported from Paris everyday,
The Orangery at Kensignton Gardens is the best option for afternoon tea if you can't get a booking at the Ritz or Savoy or Dorchester. It is far more affordable and is also far more likely to have a table available. Otherwise, try Fortnum & Mason, but again getting a table may be difficult. If no one has a table available, then Richoux is always an option - it's cheap and yet delivers a bit of the old school ambience.

Must-see Shops

Hamleys -Founded in 1760, it has been at its present Regent Street location since 1881. 257 years of history and 7 storeys of toys and games for all ages.
Nearest underground stations: Oxford Circus, Piccadilly Circus

Fortnum & Mason at Piccadilly was founded in 1707 and is the classiest of all departmental stores in London. It's very close to the Ritz. The teas, coffees, jams, biscuits and confectionery at F&M makes for excellent gifts.
Nearest underground stations: Green Park, Piccadilly Circus

Liberty at Regent Street is another luxury goods store, opened in 1875. They used to be famed for their upholstery and fabric, which they used to design and only have very limited prints for. Princess Di was sometimes clothed in dresses made from Liberty prints. Worth a peek.
Nearest underground stations: Oxford Circus

Selfridges is a famous departmental store that opened in 1909. Favoured by Indians and Pakistanis alike, most celebrity sightings of Bollywood stars seem to take place there. I really don't know why people love it so much, but it's on Oxford Street so easy to access.
Nearest underground stations: Bond Street, Marble Arch

Harrods is my least recommended departmental store, but no tourist's trip to London is complete without it, it seems. Opened in 1834 in Knightsbridge it has a huge shoe floor, a Godiva cafe, 'Egyptian escalators' etc that people have to go and see. Please note, I hate it.
Nearest underground stations: Knightsbridge

Must-do Markets

Camden Town - This is absolutely my favourite market in London. There are 6 market places in there, but the best is Camden Lock Market and Stables Market. Everything from leather to silver to handmade crafts and bric-a-brac, to prints and records, nothing compares to the feel of this place. A couple of decades back it used to feel way edgier, a hub for goths and punks, and is now definitely more hipster, and kinda touristy, but it's still very cool. You can get lost in those stalls for hours. Must take cash, as most places don't take cards. Definitely visit Tribu, the coolest silver/stone/wood/bone ethnic jewellery shop. Best time to visit is the weekend.
Nearest underground stations: Camden Town, Mornington Crescent.

Borough Market - Very popular with tourists for its associations with Bridget Jones's Diary and Harry Potter but is essentially a fresh food market selling breads, olives, cheeses, meats, fish etc. I've never understood the fascination, but there you go. If you do make it there, stop by at Rabot 1745 (Bedale Street) for the richest cup of hot chocolate ever.
Nearest underground stations: London Bridge, Borough

Portobello Market - I personally don't get the attraction of this place, but it's known to be the best place for antiques, vintage items and art. It got super popular after the film Notting Hill, because Hugh Grant's shop was in this area.
Nearest underground stations: Notting Hill

Must-do Museums

British Museum - Opened to the public in 1759. Make sure to enter from the main huge entrance, admire the main hall (award winning, glass ceiling opened in 2000), Rosetta Stone (Room 4a), Mummies (Rooms 61-63), Islamic World (Room 34), and Japan gallery (Rooms 92-94).
For a full list of galleries, check here:
Nearest underground stations: Russell Square

Victoria & Albert Museum - Established in 1852. Make sure you see Tipu's Tiger (Room 41), the Asia / India / Islam galleries, the Cast Courts (and Sculpture Gallery) plus the Fashion Gallery, Ceramics & Glass Gallery, Jewellery Gallery, as per your interests.
Nearest underground stations: South Kensington

Natural History Museum - Established in 1881. The building itself is one of the most beautiful structures in London. Walk in from the side entrance on Exhibition Road to avoid the huge queues at the main entrance. Take the escalator up to the Earth Galleries (goes through a model of earth and makes for great pictures), make your way quickly to the Central Hall (you'll pass through various galleries of volcanoes / earthquakes, reptiles, birds, creepy crawlies etc.) to get to the Diplodocus skeleton in all its glory in the Central Hall. This is where the ceilings and floors are also worth full admiration. Visit the dinosaurs and mammals in the Life Galleries. Make sure you see the Giant Sequoia on the 2nd floor staircase wall.
For a full list of galleries, check here:
Nearest underground stations: South Kensington

Science Museum - Established in 1857. For adults and kids interested in science. Explores innovation from earlier days (air / road / rail and water vessels), but also has 3D technology exhibits and always simulations of something interesting and also a motion-enhanced 3D film of the moon landing.
Nearest underground stations: South Kensington

Must-do Galleries

National Gallery - Founded in 1824. It houses a huge collection of art and sculptures from 13th century to the 20th century. Pick your sections by artist or era, otherwise it may be a bit overwhelming.
Nearest underground stations: Charing Cross, Leicester Square

National Portrait Gallery - Opened in 1856 (and was the first portrait gallery in the world). It's laid out chronologically. Take the escalator to the 2nd floor, and work your way downstairs, from the 16th century to present day of British luminaries, in paintings, prints and sculptures.
Nearest underground stations: Charing Cross, Leicester Square

Tate Modern - Founded in 2000, it is housed in a former power station that was in use from the 1940s to the 1980s. It mainly holds paintings from the 1900 onwards. Often has massive installations and exhibitions by living artists.
Nearest underground stations: London Bridge, Southwark, Blackfriars

Must-do Attractions

Buckingham Palace Change of Guard Mostly taking place at 11am, lasts 45 minutes, get there at least 45-60minutes before start time before it gets so crowded you won't be able to see anything if you're late and at the back of the crowds. Check schedule here before heading out:
Nearest underground stations: Green Park, St James's Park or Victoria.

Tower of London To do this fully, you need at least four hours. It is of interest for all ages - has swords and artillery, Crown Jewels, prison cells, dark and mysterious stories, etc.
Nearest underground stations: Tower Hill

Westminster Abbey is the location where all major royal events take place, from coronations to christenings to weddings.
Nearest underground stations: Westminster

St Paul's Cathedral is possibly the most beautiful church in London. It is where Princess Diana and Prince Charles got married and it is considered one of the greatest works by architect Christopher Wren. Make sure you go up to the dome; it's hard work but the views are a fair reward.
Nearest underground stations: St Pauls

Shakespeare's Globe Theatre is a unique open-air theatre, just a few hundred yards from where the actual theatre stood where Shakespeare wrote and staged his major plays. This is the closest possible replica of the original, and was conceived by an American philanthropist Sam Wanamaker, opened in 1997. The season takes place mainly in spring in summer (May to October) and the audience is exposed to all weather elements. From its opening 20 years back, it has always sold roughly 700 yard (standing) tickets per performance for £5, while 700 seated tickets cost from £15-40. Inside the complex is also Sam Wanamaker Theatre, based on the indoor Jacobean theatres, and is entirely lit by candles.
Nearest underground stations: London Bridge

London Tombs is the place to be if you want a real scare in the middle of the day. Half of it goes by and you think it's the lamest place you've been to. Then the scares begin - and you just want it all to end. Not recommended for the faint of heart.
Nearest underground stations: London Bridge

London Eye the huge ferris wheel that completes a circle in 30minutes and gives a good view over London at the very top.
Nearest underground stations: Waterloo

London Dungeon takes you through the horrible and scary stories of London. Good for kids who want a light scare.
Nearest underground stations: Waterloo

Ripley's Believe It or Not is suitable for all ages and is quite a fun couple of hours, with its never-ending array of weird facts and displays at every corner.
Nearest underground stations: Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square

Madame Tussaud's is very popular for tourists and houses a large number of wax figures, some good and some terrible, of celebrities from all over the world.
Nearest underground stations: Baker Street

London Zoo is one of the best kept zoos I have been to. With lions, tigers, bears and the usual fare plus penguins and butterflies, it is quite special.
Nearest underground stations: Mornington Crescent, Great Portland Street

Sunday, 17 August 2014

New York - June 2014

My general rule is to NOT go back to a city for purely tourism reasons, because there are so many other places in the world to see and enjoy.

I'd been to New York before. And this year I decided to go back. I guess it's one of those rare cities worth breaking the rules for.

There's a lot to see and do, just in Manhattan, and I have a bit of a formula now, so I am sharing it with anyone who plans to visit for a short 3or4-day-break.

Day 1 - Sightseeing in Midtown to Lower Manhattan
A day of walking, seeing and taking pictures of those famous sights that we have always heard of. 

You could start from the corner of Park Avenue and E50th and walk down Park Avenue to Grand Central Station, an iconic spot for anyone interested in cinema. So many, many films have been shot here and you have to pay your respects. It's a pretty impressive building anyway, so well worth the trip.

From here, turn left on E42nd to catch a glimpse of the Chrysler Building, which was completed in 1930 and was the tallest structure in the world for less than a year. It's still one of my absolute favourite buildings in Manhattan.

Hopping between Lexington Avenue and Park Avenue, turn right on E34th to have a look at Empire State Building, which was completed in 1931 and for many years ruled the roost as New York's (and the world's) tallest building. King Kong and many other celebrities and films are associated with it.

Now take a right and start walking back up on Fifth Avenue, walking into the New York Public Library first. It's quite an imposing building from outside, but its interior is really something else. Ceilings and stairs and lamps and paintings - it's like a European mansion, but just made to an American scale.

Stop by Bryant Park too, again because it's an oft-used spot for films.

Walk further up on Fifth Avenue and stop at Rockefeller Centre, to admire the Statue of Prometheus, the Atlas Statue, the GE Building and various fountains.

Just a bit further up is St Patrick's Cathedral (which was getting renovated so I haven't seen it in all its glory). It is a pretty old church in the middle of one of the most consumerist streets in the world!

A quick peek at MoMA and the Apple Store still on Fifth Avenue, and Carnegie Hall on the corner of Seventh Avenue and W57th - and then take the train south to Lower Manhattan and the Financial District.

First stop could be Zuccotti Park to see the restored 'Double Check' sculpture, followed by a walk to the 9/11 Memorial site, where there is a newly opened museum, two massive fountains at the base of the fallen buildings and the new World Trade Center building. Closeby is also The Winter Garden at the Brookfield Place (formerly World Financial Center).

Walk through Wall Street, see the NYSE, the Federal Hall and the infamous Bull.

From there, walk to Battery Park, to see the many memorial statues around the area and the Statue of Liberty lit up at night.

This is the best time to see Times Square in all its glory, so take a cab up there. Maybe have a gorgeous seafood dinner at Blue Fin, before heading back to your hotel.

Day 2 - Aimless Roaming in and around Manhattan
This is also a day of walking around, but a lot less hectic, and a lot more scenic than the previous day.

Start with breakfast at Metro Diner, on the corner of Broadway and W100th. I believe in having diner pancakes and coffee as many times as possible whenever I'm in the US, but this place serves great fried breakfasts as well, so I ended up having both! 

Then go to Central Park and see Bethesda Terrace for the iconic 'Angel' fountain and then walk down The Mall, which is the beautiful promenade in the park. It's a massive piece of land and I've never been able to do the entire park, so my advice is to get a cab to W72nd, enter the park from there, see the fountain, walk down the promenade and come out on W59th.

Then admire the very expensive hotels lined up next to each other on W59th, before heading to Penn Station by cab or train.

The intention is to get to W33rd, where the High Line begins. This is a 1-mile aerial greenway, built on a disused railroad. A very calm, scenic way to walk southwards and see the city and its manic streets below. A great place to have a picnic lunch (if you haven't already done that at the park), or just sit and relax, while looking at tall buildings, mad traffic and beautiful art on walls around you.

The High Line ends at the Meatpacking District and close to Greenwich Village, both well-known in pop culture.

The next activity for this day could be a free ride back and forth on the Staten Island Ferry, which passes close enough to the State of Liberty to get a good view, without needing to pay the fare to get to Liberty Island and see the statue up, close and personal.

Grab dinner and a drink at 230 Fifth Lounge & Rooftop Garden Restaurant. It has the best views in town, is open till 4am and is strangely affordable.

At around midnight, walk up another 6 streets and get a midnight entrance to the 86th Floor Observation Deck at the Empire State Building. The queues are very light at this time and the city looks gorgeous, all lit up like a jewel. There is another observation deck at the top floor, but it costs a bit more and from all reviews I have read so far, it's a bit too high and doesn't actually add to the experience.

If you want to grab another drink at a quiet bar, then try Play on E27th (between Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue). Open till very late/early.

Day 3 and beyond - Bar-hopping, Museum-hopping, Broadway, Views from Brooklyn, Shopping 
I've crammed all the things to do in Manhattan in two days - and I have been able to achieve all I have listed by starting quite early and staying out quite late. These activities can of course be spread out over multiple days, but I think if you are there for a short trip, make the most of your first couple of days by seeing as many things as possible, and if you have more days, then spend them just walking around Fifth Avenue, Broadway, Madison Avenue and so many, many other streets, because there is no dearth of amazing skyscrapers, gorgeous architecture, highly-reputed museums, relaxing parks, famous theatres and activities galore all over the island. 

If you can cross over Brooklyn Bridge, then you are rewarded by the gorgeous Manhattan skyline views from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade (best seen at sunset). Of course Brooklyn is known for its food, amongst other things, so worth exploring this island too.

I think I can keep going back to New York, very much against my rule, and finding things to enjoy every time...

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

BKK, City of Angels or...

Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Yuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Phiman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit

That's the full name of the city of Bangkok. No joke there. It's the longest place name in the world. They even have a song where the lyrics are made up of just this name!

It's unlikely I will ever remember the full name, but I will surely remember the city, its people and its individuality.

I will remember...

...that every pavement seems to have settlements of food vendors at regular intervals. Eating out is a way of life here, not a leisurely activity - everyone does it all the time - so there is less ceremony and more practicality involved. The kitchen is generally operating from a small cubbyhole, or even a cart, and the restaurant is a bunch of small tables and plastic chairs. Customers stop by as they are walking to get to their destinations and decide to have a meal. The order is placed and the food served within minutes; the bill is paid and the customer gone, soon after. It's a quick turnaround.

...that beautiful skyscrapers stand all over the city; they're not restricted to any one modern area but are spread all around. So much so, that the landscape, when viewed from a high level, looks similar on all four corners. Although walking isn't a favoured activity here, it is a pleasure to look up and see some pretty spectacular architecture (that is, if you like modern buildings).

...that an easy mode of transport (if you don't want to take a bright pink cab and be stuck in traffic; if you don't want to take a tuk-tuk and inhale fumes while being stuck in traffic; and if you don't want to or simply can't take the fantastic BTS Skytrain from point A to B) is the 'motor-cy' or the motorbike. A bunch of guys are usually lounging on their bikes at every street corner - they look like they're chilling - but if they're wearing a bright orange visibility vest on top of their clothes, you could stop and ask them to take you wherever you need to go. They immediately spring into action and get you to your destination for a nominal price.

...that women walk around on the streets and pavements, in thin high-heeled shoes, with the utmost ease. They are better at carrying themselves in heels than the women in London - and the streets here are just a little bit worse than the ones in the Big Smoke. So, RESPECT for Thai women.

...that everyone walks at a languid pace, whether they're at a mall, in an office or on the streets. For someone used to the fast pace of a London or a New York, this is unusual and almost disturbing. In fact, the pace is so relaxed here that one has to remember not to be annoyed when Thai waiters take the order at a restaurant and then go away to have a joke with the other staff and just 'hang around'. This is just the way it is - no disrespect is intended. Even 'fast food' comes at a 'slow pace' here!

...that Thai hospitality is a mix of Indian and Pakistani mehmaan-nawazi and then some. Thai people will go out of their way to ensure that your life is simplified, that you are kept safe from trouble and that you enjoy your time in their country. Every conversation is speckled with them trying to initiate you into their culture, give you an understanding of their language and basically invite you 'in'.

...that Thais attach a lot of importance to showing 'respect'. Their language is full of words that show respect to the addressee like 'khwap' and 'kha' and they will refer to themselves with their first name for the same reason. Even their wai gesture incorporates different 'positions' for new acquaintances, elders / superiors, monks and royalty. They spend a lot of time saying 'sorry', 'thank you' and 'please'. They are a very polite people.

...that the King and the royal family is absolutely sacrosanct. To say or do ANYTHING disrespectful towards the Thai royal family is worse than abusing their own family members. The 'King's Song' is played before every single film in the cinemas and everyone must stand to show respect, while it plays. There is a genuine feeling of love and awe for the King - it's not a sham. Along with this, is a fierce sense of national pride, accompanied by extreme humility.

...that this truly is the Land of a Thousand Smiles. Everyone sports a smile with abandon. This is not something you forget easily.

Monday, 31 January 2011

Bangkok January 2011

The past month in Bangkok has been extremely enjoyable and educational. After my South East Asia tour ended, I had to quickly find myself a place to stay and, upon my friend Philip's recommendation, I booked a room at SK Tower. 

Building next to mine
on Sukhumvit Road
The building is spitting distance from UNESCO on Sukhumvit Road and the room, which was pretty much like any basic hotel room (double bed with en suite bathroom, balcony, TV, fridge, AC, dressing table and wardrobe), cost me 700B for the first night. I spent that evening frantically walking up and down Sukhumvit Road trying to get to the addresses I had looked up for the cheaper and better accommodation I was hoping to have in Bangkok. A couple of the addresses were so far down on Soi 63 that I never reached them and another one on Soi 71 was on such a suspect small, dark alley that I didn't bother checking it out. The next morning, I continued with the motions and searched for an address on Soi 55, but after walking for 90 odd minutes and having lost my way thoroughly with no luck, I decided to go with what fate was trying to tell me and asked for the monthly rate at SK Tower.

My room
After slight negotiations we settled on 7,800B on rent, with an additional 500B for a fridge, 750B for unlimited wifi access and additional charges for electricity and water usage. This brings it up to roughly £185 of fixed charges with a suspected £10 for bills - a bargain in London, but considering that the room does not come with a kitchenette, it's not the cheapest place in Bangkok.

View from my balcony

Nevertheless its crazy proximity to the UNESCO office and a BTS Skytrain station (2 minutes walk in either direction) and the fact that it's bang on the high-flying Sukhumvit Road, makes this a very cheap option. I have the famous new Major Cineplex 5 minutes away from my doorstep and there's little else I need! And the view's pretty cool!

I joined UNESCO Bangkok in the HIV, Adolescent Reproductive and School Health (HARSH) Unit as an intern on 10th January and have been working mainly on a website (editing, updating and copywriting) and on marketing plans. The work's simple but the office environment is to die for. For 8 weeks, I get to spend time with Philip, my former teacher, and friend of 19 years, which is an opportunity I never suspected possible after I left Turkey in 1992. Also, I have made friends with two very bright and frankly quite amazing Thai girls, who've taken it upon themselves to not only educate me in Thai traditions, teach me pointless random phrases and generally take care of my well-being, but have also made the effort to take me out to experience the city of Bangkok. They bring me something different to eat almost every day, explain local etiquette and have included me in their lives in a way I did not dream of. It's only been 3 weeks since I have known them and they felt like family from the end of the very 1st week. I'm amazed, humbled and very grateful for their attention and affection.

The Thai Ronald
With the UNESCO crew (interns, past and present, along with Philip), I have been to Los Cabos, a Mexican restaurant with good food and an electric atmosphere; with my new Thai friends (Poon and Yu), I have been to Shabushi, a remarkable Thai-Japanese all-you-can-eat buffet at Siam Square, which is a packed entertainment and shopping area that reminds me of Khadda Market in Karachi or Lahore's Liberty Market; I have also had lunch at the fantastically organised Food Loft at Central Chit Lom, where we were given an entry card as we walked in and we could walk around pointing at the food and drinks we wanted, have it entered electronically on the card, and pay for it all as we walked out by submitting our cards at the till - the most well-stocked and yet simplest food hall I have ever seen!
Sukhumvit's Soi 38
On my own, I've sampled Soi 38's Night Food Street and various cafes, including Au Bon Pain in J Avenue Mall (good coffee and sandwiches) and The Cheesecake House at the Major Cineplex complex (to-die-for cheesecakes). Also, I have discovered, through a fellow intern, a fantastic 'cupcakery' called Sparkles, where the cakes not only look heavenly, they taste absolutely out of this world. The owner, Sophie, makes sure she reminds her customers as often as possible that her cakes are not made with any sort of artificial products, that she does not mess around with gelatines etc and in fact uses the true baking techniques (which means 'no artificial flavours, no preservatives, and no's only pure butter' for her!!). After having consumed some extraordinary chocolate cupcakes, I tried the lavender one recently and it melted in my mouth. Yum!
Long Live Sophie!
One of the most fun things I have done in Bangkok is walking around. I keep hearing how Bangkok is not a 'walking city' and it's quite true considering how most pavements have bikes, food stalls, stray animals and all manner of madness thriving despite the loose concrete tiles, which will inevitably move as you walk over them and some strange, dirty fluid will squirt at you from underneath. And yet, I love walking around, looking at the pleasantly dressed shop windows, the fairly artistic building design and the general languid attitude of the pavement dwellers.
An artistic staircase on a
perfectly ordinary building

A shop window with piano and keys
A bar I haven't seen the inside of just yet... 

The Emporium
I have been to a few malls and department stores that I have enjoyed as well. The Emporium is slowly becoming one of my favourite weekend haunts. It has 7 floors, full of the usual designer stores and the international brands that every large metropolis seems to have (Zara, Espirit and all their cousins), but along with a vibrant food hall and the requisite cineplex, it also has an excellent grocery store with French cheese counters, a salad bar, deli and the works. Food looks good, just by being there!

Dasa, 1st Floor
One of my other cravings that is being wholly satisfied here, in terms of the prices and the fact that I have a lot of free time, is reading. I have found a perfect second-hand bookstore, which accepts books back for store-credit and they don't cost too much to start off with. So, after having finished Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (bought for 120B or £2.50), and having returned a couple of books, I paid only 50B (£1) for The Girl Who Played with Fire, which is in almost mint condition! Dasa Bookstore is my dream come true!

The adventure continues...

Thursday, 20 January 2011

29 Days in Southeast Asia: Dec2010-Jan2011

I started my Indochina Encompassed tour of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia from Bangkok on 9th December 2010 and it ended after 29 days on 6th January 2011. Read on for some of my thoughts, images and experiences from the tour...


Bangkok (Dec 9th/10th)

I met the tour group on the 9th (this included 1 Belgian, 2 South Africans, 3 Canadians and the Irish tour leader) and had dinner off Khao San Road (tourist central area), followed by some bonding time at roadside bars.

Wat Pho
Next morning, we had a boat ride down Chao Phraya River (this city was once called Venice of the East) that took us to the huge Wat Pho (Bangkok’s oldest and largest temple, known for the largest Reclining Buddha in Thailand and also for being the most prestigious traditional medicine and massage school for centuries). We followed this up with another temple, The Golden Mount, before taking a night train to Chiang Mai.
Bells at Golden Mount

Chiang Mai (Dec 11th)
Equipped with a map, I promptly went and visited all the temples I could and was later taken on a guided tour of Doi Suthep atop a hill. Legend has it that in 1596, the king sent off an elephant carrying Buddha’s relics and where the elephant finally rested, he built the Doi Suthep temple. I got blessed by a monk here and also got some fabulous fortune telling done via the precise method of numbered straws! Later we had dinner at a riverside restaurant and explored the colourful night market.
Me at Doi Suthep

Chiang Khong (Dec 12th)
After another half day in Chiang Mai (more temples for me!), we drove to this border town, where we had dinner by the Mekong River (across which we could see lights in Laos) and then we went to bed.


Pakbeng (Dec 13th)
Apocalypse Now?

Board says it all...
Bright and early, we crossed the river and the border to enter into Laos. We then continued down the Mekong River on a slow boat till late afternoon and stopped at a village of rice farmers, where we happened to see the locals helping a friend build his house. Finally we arrived at a small town called Pakbeng in the evening, had dinner and then went to the ‘one bar in town’.

Luang Prabang (Dec 14th/15th/16th)

Going to Pak Ou
Yes, these are real snakes/scorpions
in whiskey bottles!
Back on the slow boat down the Mekong in the morning, we stopped at Pak Ou Caves, famous for housing thousands of Buddha figures – many of which are broken and have simply been dumped here for centuries. There was yet another stop at a village – this time of whiskey brewers. We reached Luang Prabang, the UNESCO World Heritage-protected town, by late afternoon, had dinner outside at a very cool restaurant with a bonfire and explored the night market.

Kuang Si Falls
Next morning we went to the Royal Palace Museum and heard stories from our local guide about how the royalty lived here and how they were killed or exiled after the revolution in 1975. Then we proceeded to the very famous Kuang Si Falls (which also has a small rescued-bear-sanctuary).
Me at the Falls

Sunset at Phu Si

We followed this up by heading to the Phu Si temple atop a hill, to watch the sun set as per recommendations. As part of our tour package, we were to have dinner with a local Lao family, which turned out to be an interesting experience as all the ladies of the house (there were four from different generations) ‘blessed’ us before the meal and tied some threads around our wrists. The food was good too!
Blessings from a Lao family

The next day was ‘free’ so I did what I do best – got a map and went to see seven temples! En route we stopped to speak to some school kids, who practised their French with Louis, the Belgian on tour, and while we were just sitting somewhere, a young boy came to talk to us and we found out loads of interesting stories about his life. Also, this is the day when I had three brownies from different bakeries as I wanted to test which one was the best out of the ones listed in my guidebook. JoMa won (what a brownie!!!). There was more eating and night market shopping later.

First batch of monks
Very early the next morning (at 5am) we headed out to see the locals giving alms to the monks – this happens every morning: monks from all the different temples walk down various streets and the locals sit there with freshly cooked rice and other food to give away. This is the only form of sustenance the monks have and this happens 365 days a year! Amazing.
More monks join from the other side

Vang Vieng (Dec 17th/18th)

View from guest house in Vang Vieng
Later the same day we drove down to Vang Vieng, a town that has little to offer in the name of culture, but is a tourist haven because of the umpteen bars and the opportunities to do kayaking, river rafting, tubing, mountain climbing etc. I made use of the two nights there to relax, sleep and enjoy the sun at our very beautiful resort. Also, I had the most amazing stir-fried noodles with vegetables and the best mixed fruit shake, at two different restaurants in this town - and my opinion should not be taken lightly as I had these two things in every single city we visited!

The best food I had on the trip
Vientiane (Dec 19th)

We reached the capital after another long drive and immediately set to checking the city out as we had less than 24 hours here. Having seen the communist flag in every city in Laos, despite the vehemence with which they deny being officially communist, it was interesting to see that even in Vientiane, the flags were everywhere, including official government buildings! I was very impressed by the wide boulevards and the beautiful buildings in this city, including their Arc de Triomphe-like Victory Gate (Patuxay), which they think looks like a ‘monster of concrete’ (it was made out of US aid for a new airport and is also referred to as the ‘vertical runway’), whereas I thought it was gorgeous. 

Buddha Park
I then disengaged from the group and, walking past the Presidential Palace, I hopped on a rickety bus to go to Buddha Park 25km outside the city. This was the crazy dream of an eccentric yogi/shaman who wanted to merge Hindu and Buddhist mythology and iconography and so created a park with all kinds of almost-gothic figures that do not completely belong to either religion! 

I returned to Vientiane and saw That Luang, the official symbol of the city, in the light of the late afternoon sun.
That Luang - symbol of Vientiane

The next morning, on my insistence, Shane (the tour leader) offered to take the interested parties to COPE. As I learnt on this trip, Laos is the most bombed country in the world per capita. During the Vietnam War, between 1964 and1973, the US Air Force dropped roughly 260 million cluster bombs here (some say they did it because they didn’t want to carry the entire load back home). Not only did that create havoc and destruction 40 years ago, the 30% of the unexploded bombs (roughly 78 million) continue to kill and, worse still, maim the Lao people today. COPE is an NGO that is spreading awareness and providing prosthetic limbs as well as physical and psychological support to the victims and their families. Check it out:
Model of cluster bombs falling
The COPE Centre


Hanoi (Dec 20th/21st)
Motorbike jungle
The same afternoon, right after COPE, we headed to the airport and flew to Hanoi. After the serene beauty of an under-populated capital, the mad, MAD motorbike traffic of Hanoi hit me hard! Traffic lights mean nothing here and the guide to survival is that you cross the street, at whichever point you wish, by walking straight into the traffic, at tortoise-speed (DO NOT RUN) and the motorbikes will swerve inches away from you. This may sound like we had a death-wish, but trust me, this is what the guide books say, this is what the locals say and this is what our tour leader said and demonstrated. I thought I was going to die at least 4-5 times when two bikes would suddenly swerve in front of and behind me, leaving me with just enough space to stand.

Drinking on a street kerb
The first night in Hanoi I had ‘roll your own’ fresh spring rolls (not fried), which was an interesting experience. Later we sat on plastic stools, on the kerb, at a junction and the group had Bia Hoi (local beer), which cost them 3,000 dong (15 cents) per glass. While we sat there, a ‘waiter’ pointed to Louis’ trainers, which were getting a bit torn and offered to fix each for a dollar. So, while he drank, Louis’ shoes got stitched, cleaned and returned within 10 minutes. It was bizarre watching all this unfold, but so much fun.

Around the Presidential Palace
The next day, we went to see Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, where his embalmed body is kept (sceptics say that it’s a wax figure from Madame Tussaud’s, but I find it far more fascinating to know that the body travels to Russia for three months every year for ‘maintenance’). HCM is a bit of a God here, so we had to show extreme reverence as we paid our respects to him, and then went to see his lodgings (in and around the Presidential Palace), while hordes of school kids on their field trip shouted ‘Hello!’ and ‘Where are you from?’ at us – obviously they decided to practise their newly acquired language skills on us. 

A couple of us then went to see more of the city – my favourite bits include a Hogwarts-style staircase in the Temple of Literature (the site of the country’s first national university built in the 11th century) and the electronics’ market that was operating straight out of a shipping container. That evening the group was booked to attend a water puppetry show, a historical Vietnamese art. Accompanied by live music the puppets, which were being operated by under-water mechanisms rather than strings, did all sorts of crazy things for the next hour and we were mesmerised. We then went to KOTO (Know One, Teach One), a restaurant with a heart that gets kids off the streets and gives them vocational training, as well as, some schooling and helps them build a life for themselves. Here we met our next tour group (3 Austrians, 1 Swiss-Moroccan, 1 Scot, 1 American, 1 Dane and 1 French) and prepared to bid adieu to some from our first group (2 Canadians and 1 Belgian). The old group went to yet another Bia Hoi plastic stool bar on the pavement of a small road and had cheap beer. 
Walking around Hanoi

Water Puppetry Show with fire and all!

Halong Bay (Dec 22nd/23rd)

This was the most amazing day and night I had on tour – and yet it wasn’t like we did all that much. I was told we’ll be on a junk boat and, having no concept of what means, I was shocked to see the beautiful, small boat, with wood-panelled cabins and en suite bathrooms, two decks and a gorgeous little dining room. Why they’re called ‘junk’ boats, I will never know.

We spent the day relaxing on the decks and eating the most amazing seafood (roughly 10 courses of it each time) for lunch and dinner and brunch the next day. Also, we got off the boat to see the Sung Sot Caves, got into another small paddleboat to see a blue lagoon and another time the next morning to catch the misty view of Halong Bay from atop a hill. During the night, some of us tried their hand at squid-fishing and the rest of us chatted till 3am under the stars in the most peaceful surroundings possible.

Hanoi (Dec 23rd)
We returned to Hanoi for a few hours, to pick up our belongings (as we only took a day bag for the boat) and do some quick sightseeing before we boarded the worst overnight train in the world to Hue (it wasn’t the worst – we had air-conditioning – but it wasn’t very clean and was a far cry from our last overnight train between Bangkok and Chiang Mai).

Hue (Dec 24th) 
My fabulous bike ride
Ms Thuy's hats
As if to make up for the train ride, we checked into an excellent hotel and went to have brunch at Mandarin CafĂ© run by an eccentric, but brilliant photographer. And then as an optional activity, we went on a motorbike tour of the city and surrounding villages. Having had trusted cousins and close friends, who have all unsuccessfully tried to convince me to ride a bike with them, it’s ironic that my first bike ride was with an ageing stranger, on a locally-made bike (with a broken speedometer and a broken mirror), on bumpy dirt roads, through the woods, in a foreign city! I loved it though! We saw the countryside and visited a rice-farming village, an incense-making shop and a famous one-armed woman who makes traditional conical hats. Later in the afternoon, our bus took us to some royal tombs and a pagoda. Dinner was at a roadside restaurant run by a deaf family that our tour leader supports. As it was Christmas eve, all the 40 to 60+ people on tour went to drink and party with our tour leader, while all of us under 35 were too tired, so we went to bed.

The next day, after the most unbelievable breakfast (5 kinds of cakes included – seriously, I’ve never seen anything like it), we visited the Imperial Citadel and then drove to Hoi An.

Hoi An (Dec 25th/26th/27th)
My first impression of this city was that ‘this is what Cuba must be like’! From our hotel room balcony, I could see the palm-lined beach 4km away and beautiful old buildings dotted all over the place. Alas, it was misty all the time we stayed here so we never went to the beach – in fact, one night there was a rain and thunderstorm apparently, which I blissfully slept through.

Cargo Club - favourite cake place
Hoi An is the tailoring capital of Vietnam, with at least a 100 shops ready to put together any imaginable outfit within 24 hours, along with another 100 shops offering to create custom-made shoes. As I wasn’t very interested in either service, I spent the 3 days and nights there just relaxing at various cafes (they have the most unbelievable cakes there) and generally sleeping till early afternoon. Two of the girls on tour had their birthdays in Hoi An, so we had even more cake to consume and loads of time to bond and have fun together.
More birthday cake please!
Ho Chi Minh City (Dec 28th/29th/30th)
We flew to HCMC, also known as Saigon. Our tour leader, Shane, took us on a walking tour of the sights and we passed Pho 2000 (where Bill Clinton once stopped to have dinner), the Opera House, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Reunification Palace besides various large departmental stores and lavish hotels. I fell in love with the city pretty instantly. I think this was my favourite place in Vietnam. The traffic is wild, but not as bad as Hanoi’s and the tree-lined streets combined with beautiful colonial architecture, made it all a very pretty place.
Wild traffic!
Just a pretty government building

The next day we went to see the Cu Chi Tunnels, a 250km network of underground pathways and rooms, used by the North Vietnamese guerrilla soldiers to fight American armed forces in the US ‘War of Aggression’. It was amazing to see how these people burrowed themselves and cooked, lived and planned in tiny spaces infested with snakes and scorpions, and managed to keep fighting till the Americans finally left them alone. The tunnels have been turned into a major tourist experience, with a propagandist documentary to initiate the tour, displays of the homemade booby traps, opportunities to enter and crawl through the very tight tunnels and, of course, the weird possibility of firing an AK-47 or an M16 for a dollar a bullet. Visitors even get offered warm tapioca and hot root tea, the staple of the Viet Cong soldiers – I liked it but am not sure if I could eat that day and night for years. 

Our guide Bruce ("like Bruce Lee, but without the Kung Fu") told us some interesting stories about the life and times of the soldiers – apparently they all wore cross-strap flip-flops made out of old tires and when the Americans searched the villages for Viet Cong fighters, they would look at their feet for cross-strap tan lines!
Bruce shows us one of the tunnel openings at Cu Chi
After the tunnels, the group got dropped off at the War Remnants Museum to explore it at our own pace. This was one of the most depressing places on tour (I hadn’t hit Cambodia yet). Often described as propagandist, I thought it was just a very hard, long look at a war, which can never be justified; the display was one-sided maybe, but not propagandist. The museum describes with medical, environmental and political evidence, how the US systematically committed genocide in Vietnam. There is an entire gallery of photographs, taken by very famous war-time photojournalists, that makes one wonder at the depravity of mankind. Quite a few people seemed to be walking around like zombies after two floors of painful exhibits and by the third floor, I actually saw people coming out of the rooms and weeping. I completely understand.
Shocking photograph on entrance wall
Just one of the many historic statements

After this, I went to see a few other sights in Saigon, none of which cleared my head, and ended up at the Reunification Palace, which stands as a symbol of the victory of North Vietnam in 1975, when it captured Saigon and therefore, South Vietnam. After having witnessed the horrors of the war earlier in the day, I quietly cheered for the victory of the communists.

Later in the evening, we had dinner at a classy restaurant, and it was time to bid adieu to our Vietnam tour group – so we lost the 3 Austrians, 1 Swiss-Moroccan, 1 Scot and 1 American, while 2 South Africans, 1 Canadian, 1 Dane, 1 French and I continued on for the last leg of the tour.
The entire group on our last night out

Traditional Vietnamese performance
The next day, this group boarded a boat and travelled to the Mekong Delta, where we saw some ‘floating markets’, stopped at candy-making and rice-paper-making small industries and then had lunch in a village where the owner family sang and performed with traditional Vietnamese music, as part of our Mekong Delta experience.


Phnom Penh (Dec 31st / Jan 1st)

Cyclo tour!
 Boarding a public bus (the only one throughout this tour) early in the morning, we travelled quite a few hours to cross the border into Cambodia and then some more to reach Phnom Penh. We got dropped outside our hotel, checked in and soon after we got on cyclos for a scheduled city tour. A cyclo is a bit like a rickshaw – the difference is that the cyclist is behind you pedalling away and you have a clear view of your route. Also, it’s an only-one-person-ride. We went past some markets and temples, various beautiful French colonial buildings, the Victory Monument and the Royal Palace and stopped at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC), which is located just by the river, so we had a beautiful view. We had the best spring rolls there, before moving to our restaurant-with-a-conscience called Friends, which runs on the same principle as Hanoi’s KOTO – they take street children and give them vocational training and teach them to live with dignity. After dinner, we went to another bar and amidst laughs and loud music, we brought in the new year.

Barbed wire to prevent escape or suicide at S21 Prison
The next morning, with little sleep, we went to one of the most gruesome historical sites on tour. We visited the S21 Prison (Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum), where Cambodia’s maniacal leader Pol Pot, held and tortured 17,000 prisoners, before having them killed mercilessly at the nearby Choeung Ek Killing Fields. During his regime (1976-1979), a whopping 1.7 to 2.5 million people were tortured and killed; a case of mass genocide within my lifetime that I was not at all aware of. He and his Khmer Rouge party killed everyone who had any sort of foreign blood, or could speak a second language, or was an artist or an intellectual. He even killed anyone who wore glasses, as it was a sign of education. He did all this and continued as the Cambodian representative to the UN till 1992, even when he was no longer in power in his own country. We followed the trip to S21, by visiting the Killing Fields, where our local guide continued with stories about how men, women and children were killed, often by battery rather than shooting, as the Khmer Rouge didn’t want to waste precious bullets. This was a difficult and painful start to the new year. 

Yard of National Museum
I went to the National Museum after this, but the day had started with the bleakest thoughts and so the rest of the day was fairly sombre too. It ended with dinner at a restaurant, where they serve fried tarantulas, and as one of the guys sitting at a table close to us wanted to see what his food looked like when alive, I got to see two live tarantulas crawling around on a platter, before the waiters took it away. Eek! This was our last night in Phnom Penh and I ended it by torturing my Canadian roommate with The Twilight Saga: Eclipse alternated with Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na. She fell asleep.

Siem Reap (Jan 2nd/3rd/4th)
We flew to Siem Reap on the morning of the 2nd and on reaching the hotel I got terribly excited by the touch-button light controls by our bed – yes, I can be a child at times: ‘Buttons’!

Cambodian Batmobile
As usual, tour leader Shane took us on a walk around town and introduced us to Pub Street right next to the Night Market. The ‘downtown’ is cramped with cafes and restaurants, smiling people and funny tuk-tuks (there was a Batmobile that I especially wanted). I loved the general Cambodian temperament and the hustle bustle of this city and was dismayed a couple of days later when I realised I had never gotten to see the other end of town, which was full of beautiful buildings allocated to posh hotels and museums. Anyhow, that night we had dinner at the Temple Club (on Pub Street), where we watched an apsara dance routine – the kind that was once only reserved for royalty. It was fascinating.

Angkor Wat after the sun rose...
The 'library' where we had
the BEST view
The next morning, we were out at 4.45am to make it for sunrise at Angkor Wat. Our seasoned tour guide marched us in pitch darkness, but under a starlit sky, to what he told us was the library building where we were to have the best view. Soon we weren’t the only ones there. In the creeping light, we witnessed the entire ground in front of us filling up with people and slowly the world’s eighth wonder appeared as a silhouette. By 6.30 the sun was up and we clicked pictures from all angles - but really none can do this place justice. At 7 we drove back to the hotel for breakfast and by 8.30 we packed into the bus again to visit other 12th-13th century temple ruins before the sun started blazing. In succession we visited Ta Prohm and Angkor Wat (we went in this time), which took up 4 hours in all. 
Back at Angkor Wat in the early afternoon

Sunset watching at Phnom Bakheng
After a lunch break back at Pub Street, we went to see the bizarre and creepy Bayon (the one where the king had erected 54 gothic towers, each with his face on 4 sides – so there are 216 enormous images of his in the temple), the Terrace of the Elephants, the Terrace of the Leper King (legend has it that when it was re-discovered hundreds of years later the local people thought the broken statue was of a leper king, when in fact it was just a ruined statue – the name has stuck despite better knowledge of the truth) and we ended the day with a sunset, by climbing the extremely precarious steps of Phnom Bakheng atop a hill. Exhilarated, but exhausted, we returned to the hotel after the sunset, then went out for dinner at the local FCC and then hit the night market yet again.

The next morning, we went to a few more temples, as that is what you do in Siem Reap. By lunch, we were all but templed-out and so we went back to Pub Street for lunch, rested at our hotel and then once again went to Pub Street for dinner.
Me in front of yet another crazy tree

After dinner, we watched Bettina, our Danish friend, get a fish massage/pedicure, which was basically her dangling her feet in a tank of water, while the fish nibbled at her dead skin. Creepy but interesting and Bettina cussed away for a few minutes before she actually relaxed and started enjoying the bizarre experience. After some actual shopping at the night market, we headed back to the hotel and packed up before going to bed.

What amazing marketing!
The fish do like dead skin!


Bangkok (Jan 5th/6th)
De' Moc's unique style of
presenting towels!
After a long bus journey and time spent at border crossings, we made it back to Bangkok and the hotel we started the tour from – De Moc. After dinner at a riverside restaurant, we spent some time at a blues bar called Adhere the 13th, and then a few hours at the tourist hub, Khao San Road, where the weird and weirder is absolutely normal.

The next morning, which was officially the end of the tour, I joined my Canadian roommate Kate and the Danish Bettina on a tour of the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha. By 2pm, we said our final goodbyes and thus ended my Indochina Encompassed Tour with Gap Adventures.