Tuesday, August 29, 2017

SE Asia 2017 - Day 15 (8/28/2017) - Stopover in Seoul on the way home

The flight from Bangkok to Seoul departed at 12:10am and lasted about 5 hours.  After arriving at the Incheon Airport I bumbled my way to a Korea Transit Tour stand, where the kind lady informed me that I could join the 9am tour to Seoul.  This tour had shown as full when I tried to make a reservation online (which is why I had reserved the Incheon Temple Tour instead), but I thought that I could check if there were any openings on the morning tours to Seoul.  Apparently, and happily for me, they allocate half the slots for reservations and half for in-person first-come.  Anyway, she helped me fill out the form for going through immigration and pointed me toward the main transit tour desk.

I made it to the transit tour desk at 8:45am and was able to make a quick stop at the ATM before the group departed.  The bus ride into Seoul lasted a little more than an hour, where we headed to Bukchon Hanok Village to walk around for about 40 minutes.  After that we headed to Gwangjang Market, where we had over an hour to walk around and grab lunch.  I had some gimbap (basically, the Korean version of sushi) and bean curd soup for a measly 3000 Won (less than USD $3) from one of the many stands.  After the market we took the bus back to the airport, making it there right at the scheduled 2pm end time.

Bukchon Hanok Village

After going back through security I found the nap room in the transfer lounge and napped for about 90 minutes.  I should point out that Incheon Airport is very nice and has a ton of amenities.  The flight to Atlanta left a little later than the scheduled 6:35pm departure time, but only lasted a little more than 13 hours instead of the scheduled 14, so we arrived a little early.  I had requested vegetarian meals through the Delta website for this flight, so I had no dietary issues - they actually brought out a special item for me for each of the two meals and the mid-flight snack.  I almost made it the whole time without going to the restroom again, but both of the guys next to me (I had the window seat, as usual) went at the same time a couple of hours before we arrived so I took the opportunity as well.  I took advantage of my Global Entry status to quickly get through immigration, and then had about 3 hours before my flight to St. Louis.  I made it back to the Lou before 11:30pm, ending a long day of traveling.

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Pictures: https://goo.gl/photos/GBb3cDWVzQCR9oyFA

SE Asia 2017 - Day 14 (8/27/2017) - Grand Palace and National Museum; heading home

The pants and shirt that I had made a couple of days prior were delivered to the hotel this morning, instead of last night.  I picked up a light later morning snack from Starbucks when I went to go pick up the clothes at the concierge.  I left the hotel around 11:30am and took a tuk-tuk to the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew.  Although not required in any way for tourists, I dressed in black pants and a black shirt today, matching the black outfits worn by the legion of Thai people who came to the palace each day to mourn their king who had died last year.

Wat Phra Kaew

The visit at the palace was not very long, as I was done by 12:30pm.  Most of that time was spent at Wat Phra Kaeo (though pictures were not allowed in the main chapel), with only a walk-by of the palace itself.  After visiting the palace I took my time walking over to the National Museum, even exploring shops on side streets, as I had a whole afternoon to kill.  The museum itself (which is actually spread over a bunch of buildings within the complex) was mostly underwhelming, though the ongoing restoration in the royal carriage garage was pretty cool.

Grand Palace

After the museum I walked back toward the palace, and found a random small restaurant to have a late lunch.  The Pad See Ew from the vegetarian menu (once again, ordering vegetarian was not super straightforward) was a bit dry and somewhat small, but not bad.  After that I killed more time by wandering back to the hotel in Chinatown; I wasn't really interested in trying to see any more temples/sights, and I wasn't super concerned with getting sweaty.  During all my walking, I did try a bottle each of the orange and mango juice that street vendors were selling - both were delicious, and I wish the bottles were bigger.

National Museum - royal carriage garage

I will also voice my displeasure with the guys who hang out around tourist spots, claiming to be "tourist information".  While usually friendly and somewhat informative, they often mislead (and sometimes lie to) you about entry times and requirements; e.g., one told me two days ago that I needed a passport to enter the Grand Palace, and another told me today that visiting was closed at the time due to ongoing prayers.  They recommend other sites for you to visit in the meantime, seemingly in an attempt to increase both the tuk-tuk business and the fashion business.  My advice for someone visiting Bangkok would be to do a bit of research ahead of time and know what places you want to visit, as well as the entry times and requirements (e.g., clothing); then you can pretty much ignore everyone (drivers, touts, hotel concierges, etc.) who tries to give you recommendations.

Back at the hotel I took a shower and relaxed until 8:45pm, at which point I checked out and hailed an Uber to the airport to begin the journey back home.  I almost had a bit of a scare when the Korea Air agent told me that my seat was not confirmed for the 12:10am flight to Seoul, but she resolved the situation and I was on my way without further issue.  Another noteworthy (and perhaps unfortunate, but not really) happening was that I had probably my favorite meal in Thailand at the airport on the way out - Tom Yum Fried Rice at a place called Silom Village; though I will mildly complain that their pineapple juice was quite watered down.

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Pictures: https://goo.gl/photos/GBb3cDWVzQCR9oyFA

Saturday, August 26, 2017

SE Asia 2017 - Day 13 (8/26/2017) - Ayutthaya Temples and River Cruise

The bulk of today was the Ayutthaya Temples and River Cruise day tour (arranged via Viator), with a 7am pick-up at the hotel.  The van took us to a bus/coach, which departed around 7:45 on an hour-long ride to our first stop at the Bang Pa-In Palace.  Shorts were not allowed at this site, so I had to buy some pants at the store near the entrance; this only cost 100 baht ($3), though.  Our guide Donna spent about 30 minutes walking us through and then gave us about 35 more minutes to explore on our own before meeting to board the bus.  Over the course of the morning and afternoon I met a few other solo travelers, some from the States and some not.

Bang Pa-In Palace - rocking the pants I had to buy to enter because I was wearing shorts

Our next stop was Wat Maha That, which was a 30 minute drive from the first one.  We spent about half an hour there, with Donna again leading us for most of that time before some free time.  The most interesting thing about this site was a tree that had grown around a stone Buddha head.  I also tried durian ice cream at this stop - I am not a fan.

Wat Maha That

The third stop, Wat Naphrameru-Rajikaram, was 10 minutes away, and we spent 25 minutes there.  It was then another 10 minutes to Wat Lokayasutharam, where we spent another 20 minutes.  After the fourth stop we drove an hour to get to the river pier, where we boarded a (larger than expected) boat for a cruise back to Bangkok along the Chao Phraya River.

Wat Naphrameru-Rajikaram

The cruise lasted about 2 hours and 20 minutes, during which we were fed a buffet lunch and later given some afternoon tea/coffee.  We arrived in Bangkok a bit before 4pm, at which point our van driver from the morning took us back to our respective hotels.

Chao Phraya River cruise

Back at the hotel I cleaned up and then arranged to keep my room until 9pm the following evening (due to my midnight flight) for an additional 1500 baht charge.  I then headed out by tuk-tuk to meet up with Chelyn (from the river cruise) for dinner at the Siam Paragon shopping mall.  We chose a place called Peppery Thai Bistro, which lived up to the name.  My red curry and her green curry were both a little too spicy for our tastes.  I also partook in a Thai Iced Tea as well as a Chrysanthemum (I think they spelled it "Khrysanthemum" on the menu) drink.  To top it off I ordered the Mango & Sticky Rice for dessert, which was quite yummy.  We discovered that a steady rain had been falling when we left around 10pm.  I took a tuk-tuk back to my hotel, and was surprised that I didn't really get wet at all riding in the open cabin.

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Pictures: https://goo.gl/photos/GBb3cDWVzQCR9oyFA

SE Asia 2017 - Day 12 (8/25/2017) - Temples of Bangkok

Today was a day of temples.  It started around 11am with a quick pop into the Starbucks in the building before leaving the hotel.  I took a tuk-tuk (what they call an auto rickshaw in Thailand) to Wat Traimit (Golden Buddha Temple).  Throughout the day, I tried to not haggle with the tuk-tuk drivers (knowing that most were probably initially asking for much more than they would be willing to accept) - I kinda wanted to just make someone's day, since the fares were pretty cheap anyway from my privileged point of view.  This worked out alright for the most part, but not always.  In any case, the first trip cost 100 baht, or about USD $3.

Wat Traimit (Golden Buddha Temple)

The next temple on the agenda was Wat Arun.  My first attempt to get there was an utter failure, and a bit of a lesson (though I'm not sure I completely learned it) in how to deal with the tuk tuk drivers.  I did learn later on that the government-sanctioned tuk-tuks are the yellow ones, and should generally provide better service.  This guy led me to believe, or maybe I actually misunderstood him, that the trip would cost 100 baht total, including a boat ride on the Chao Phraya River to get there.  He also asked that I do him a favor stop in a tailor store so that he could get a coupon for free gas - I obliged.  I know now for certain that he (and the tuk-tuk drivers in general) get a commission when customers visit (gas coupon) and buy (monetary commission) stuff from the tailors; which is fine.  I suspect that there is a similar arrangement for the long-tail boat company, but I am less certain of that.  I didn't buy anything from the tailor despite their forceful persistence.  And I voiced my displeasure with the driver when he dropped me off, though I paid him the agreed fare anyway.  I stormed out when I found out that the boat ride would be 1500 baht, which I didn't even have in cash on me anyway.

Wat Arun

I hired another tuk-tuk driver to take me to Wat Arun, this time costing me 300 baht as it was even farther away.  After seeing that temple I took the ferry (for a measly 4 baht) across the river to go to Wat Pho.  I found out there, though, that I wouldn't be able to enter in my shorts until 3pm due to ongoing prayers.  The guy who told me this then recommended that I go to a couple of other temples where attire wouldn't be an issue in the meantime, and helped explain the plan to another tuk-tuk driver.

Wat Suthat

This new driver was a young man (of 22 years) named Savin Meesang, though he apparently goes by Golf to Westerners.  He first took me to an ATM so that I could get some cash, then to Wat Suthat, which is open to the public only one day a month (and this day happened to be it for August).  This is also the temple fronted by the Giant Swing, so we swung by that for a quick pic as well.  Of course, he also had to take me to a tailor, though a guy who worked at the temple (but was actually on holiday after recently being married) suggested that I go to PD Mahanakorn Fashion instead of the Thai Export Center that was suggested by the first guy.  Savin took me to PDs, and I actually did end up buying something there - not any custom-made suits like most people usually get, but a pair of paints with a custom design and a shirt (they would deliver it to the hotel the next day).  The next stop was Wat Saket (Golden Mount).  After that we headed for Wat Pho, but his tuk-tuk broke down on the way.  He heartily apologized and handed me off to another tuk-tuk driver.  He wasn't going to charge me anything, especially after the commission from the clothes, but I gave him 200 baht total anyway; he was one of the good ones.

View from Wat Saket

I didn't get off to a great start with the new driver, as he began strongly recommending additional places and boat trips right off the bat.  I sternly let him know that I just wanted to go to Wat Pho, so he relented and took me there.  After Wat Pho I walked over to the Grand Palace, but it was too late enter - it was around 4:30 by this time.  I walked around the palace walls, then went in search of a Thai restaurant for an early dinner.

Wat Pho

I found a place called Ros'niyom, though I actually entered it by accident thinking it was the neighboring restaurant.  This place was more about Thai street food served in a restaurant setting.  As a standard, I tried the Pad Thai (with tofu, though this didn't look like a standard menu option for this dish) - it was decent, but quite small.  I also tried some Longan juice, which was pretty good.  Based on their menu (and my experience thus far in general), it seems more difficult to get vegetarian Thai food in Thailand than in the States.

After dinner I stopped at Creamery next door to try one of their Cookie & Ice Cream combos (a scoop of ice cream on a freshly baked cookie or bakery treat).  After that I took one more tuk-tuk back to the hotel.

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Pictures: https://goo.gl/photos/GBb3cDWVzQCR9oyFA

Thursday, August 24, 2017

SE Asia 2017 - Day 11 (8/24/2017) - Petronas Twin Towers then to Bangkok

After a quick workout and shower, I made it to the Petronas Twin Towers by the requested 8:45am for my 9am reservation.  The visit process was pretty efficient - they organize the time groups by color so that they can call them over together even when in common areas with other groups.  We spent about 10 minutes at the Skybridge and 15 minutes at the Observation deck.  We were back down to street level at 9:50, at which point I walked back to the hotel, checked out, and took an Uber to the airport.

View from Petronas Twin Towers Observation Deck

Some notes from the drive to KLIA...  Thirai mentioned this the day before as well, but each state and federal territory has a highway toll at its boundary (the drive to KLIA took us from Kuala Lumpur through Selangor, Putrajaya, and then back into Selangor).  Putrajaya and nearby Cyberjaya are new planned cities, and both have *a ton* of development underway.

At the airport I grabbed lunch at The Coffee Bean and then caught my 1:20pm flight to Bangkok.  The flight time was about 1:45, and I skipped the in-flight meal - it was a chicken dish.  Upon arrival and doing the standard arrival things, I took an Uber to the Grand China Hotel.  I should point out that it has been very helpful having free WiFi in all the airports that I've been through in SE Asia, as I have been able to either look up public transit directions or call an Uber using that service.  The one partial exception was Singapore, where you needed to receive a verification text to activate your WiFi session - which I couldn't do because I didn't have international cell service and wasn't yet on WiFi (a Catch-22 of sorts).

View from balcony at Grand China Hotel, Bangkok

It began raining soon after I arrived at the hotel, so that delayed my going out for about an hour.  After the rain stopped, I walked out in search of some dinner.  I walked around Chinatown for a while, but found things on the whole inscrutable.  I also tried to find a vegetarian restaurant from Happy Cow, but it looked like the place didn't exist on the dark street specified.  I gave up and walked over to Little India instead.  I once again couldn't locate the couple of places I had mapped from Happy Cow, but did find a nearby restaurant called Royal India that was open.  I had the Shahi Korma (it was just OK) there before walking back to the hotel.  The Internet connection was down when I returned and I was pretty tired, so I called it an early night around 9pm.

Bangkok Chinatown at dusk

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Pictures: https://goo.gl/photos/GBb3cDWVzQCR9oyFA

SE Asia 2017 - Day 10 (8/23/2017) - Failing at Kuala Lumpur

I left the hotel at 11:45 this morning, intending to sneak in a quick visit to Masjid Jamek before they closed at 12:20 for the early afternoon prayers.  I took the took Kelana Jaya line one stop from Dang Wangi (KJ12) to Masjid Jamek (KJ13), thinking that it would be easy to get to the mosque from there since the train stop is named after it.  It's possible that it is indeed easy under normal circumstances, but it was impossible on this day.  All paths to the mosque appeared to be blocked off by construction (I tried from pretty much all possible angles), and there didn't appear to be any activity at the mosque itself.  I'm not sure if it this was due to renovations or had anything to do with the SEA Games.  The Sultan Abdul Samad Building was similarly blocked off, though in this case there was clearly SEA Games related activity going on in front.

Sultan Abdul Samad Building taken over for the SEA Games

Giving up, I headed off to find lunch at Water Lily Vegetarian Restaurant nearby.  The lunch setup there was pseudo buffet like - they gave you a plate with rice to start, then you could pile on as much of the various stews and dishes that you wanted.  The single plate and a bottle of mineral water cost me only 12 Ringgit, or about $3 USD - quite a value.

After eating I took the Kelana Jaya line in the other direction to KLCC (KJ10).  After a stop by H&M in the shopping center, I tried to buy a ticket for the Petronas Twin Towers observation decks, but they were sold out for the day.  I knew this was a possibility based on my pre-trip research, and even attempted to buy a ticket online ahead of time, only to find the booking site broken; I should have bought a ticket in person in advance two days prior on my first morning in KL.  In any case, I was able to buy a ticket for 9am the next day, which should barely allow me to squeeze in a visit before skipping town.

Petronas Twin Towers during the day

Having not succeeded in any endeavors (save eating on the cheap) on the day, I returned to the hotel to rest for a couple of hours.  I then got the brilliant idea to ride the KL Hop-On Hop-Off bus to see a bit more of the city while killing off the rest of the day - the first stop on the route was the Malaysia Tourism Centre (MaTiC), right across the street from my hotel.  But even this involved a fair amount of failure.  First I had trouble finding the right ticket counter to buy a ticket.  Then I found out that they only accepted cash - I didn't have 55 Ringgit in cash remaining.  Then I tried returning to my hotel to buy the ticket online, but that failed as well.  Then I walked back to MaTiC to use their ATM, only to find that they didn't have one in the building, so I had to go find one at a nearby bank.

I did eventually get some cash and buy the ticket and get on a bus, sometime around 5:45pm.  But then the bus was slow-going due to rush hour traffic.  At 7:15 the driver cut the trip short (I think they normally run until about 8) at the 9th (of 23) stop, and asked me where I wanted to go.  He then took me to KL Sentral so that I could catch the (very crowded) Monorail to Bukit Bintang - I had seen an Iranian restaurant as we drove through there, and wanted to give that a shot for dinner.

The name of the restaurant was Naab.  Unfortunately, their vegetarian options were somewhat lacking - none of their main courses were vegetarian.  So I selected a few appetizers instead.  The waitress suggested the Mirza Ghasemi (I requested it without the egg on top), and it was quite good.  She also suggested the Lentil Soup, and I found that to just be OK.  The Felafel was not the best, but it was also fine.  To drink I ordered a Sekanjebin, which is an apple cider and cucumber drink - it had a very interesting flavor, and was as refreshing as they had advertised.

SEA Games display in Bukit Bintang

After eating I walked down Bukit Bintang a bit, then popped into the Pavilion shopping center.  I found the Famous Amos stand and had a chocolate chip cookie for a bit of dessert.  Finding that a bit unsatisfying, I also grabbed a mango-pineapple juice from Juicy Fresh Juice Bar across the street.  I then took the Monorail to Bukit Nanas and walked back to the hotel.

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Pictures: https://goo.gl/photos/GBb3cDWVzQCR9oyFA

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

SE Asia 2017 - Day 9 (8/22/2017) - Batu Caves and Taman Negara

Today was all about a day trip to Taman Negara (literally, National Park) arranged through (shocking!) Taman Negara Day Tour.  Pick-up was at 7am, with a friendly phone call from the driver when he arrived to remind me to pack extra clothes and flip-flops if I had them.  There was a couple from Boston already in the van when I got in - I later found out that they both went to UIUC as well, though graduated a good 7 or 8 years after I did.

Entrance to Batu Caves

Our first stop was the Batu Caves, where we arrived around 7:20am.  There were only a handful of people there, which was nice (it apparently starts getting crowded after 9am).  The three of us walked up the stairs, explored the cave, and then came back down.  During the descent I ran into a couple of guys that I had seen at Menara KL the night before - they were from Spain, and were only in town for about 24 hours.  We were back in the car and headed out at 8am.

Batu Caves

We made a quick stop at Starbucks (my choice, unfortunately) so that we could grab breakfast to go, and then continued on the 250 km journey to Taman Negara.  Half of the drive was on a highway, and the other was on a two-lane road.  The roads were pretty well maintained the whole way.  In the park we stopped at a hotel for quick toilet break and then Thirai (our driver and general guide) handed us over to DJ (our nature guide) a little after 11:30am.

Cruising along the Tembeling River in Taman Negara

DJ took us by boat over to a nature trail that had been boarded over within the last few years to help the mass of tourists that had become interested in the park in recent years.  We connected to an uncovered trail that had a couple of nice viewpoints overlooking the river and the forest.  The approximately 1-hour trek was of moderate difficulty, but the high humidity results in some (or in my case, a lot of) sweating.  Part of the return journey was made on a canopy walk, roped platforms secured high up on some tree trunks.  Thankfully there weren't many people around today (maybe because it was a Tuesday?), so we didn't have to wait in line for the canopy walk.

Taman Negara canopy walk

We took the boat back to the starting point, where we had lunch at a "floating restaurant".  Thirai had kindly arranged for a vegetarian meal for me, which consisted for rice and veggies wrapped in an egg omelet of sorts (the others also had chicken in theirs), and a tofu and veggie concoction in some sauce (the others had beef instead).  They also brought out some pineapple and watermelon to finish things off.

After lunch DJ took us by boat to see a village of the Orang Asli (the native people of Malaysia).  This particular village (unlike others) didn't mind tourists around, and a couple of them demonstrated fire-making as well as the construction and use of blow darts for us.  This particular tribe was nomadic (they move when they run out of food in the area or someone dies in the settlement), and received some monetary compensation for the tourism.  I have conflicted feelings about the exploitation of native peoples for the purposes of tourism, but I will not bore the reader with my thoughts here.

We shot through a couple of rapids on the return boat ride, resulting in us getting thoroughly soaked (this was expected).  After arriving Thirai took us to the hotel so that we could change and use the toilets, and then we began the drive back to Kuala Lumpur at 4:30pm.  I was back at Hotel Maya around 7:45.

The Petronas Twin Towers in all their evening glory

A little later I walked over to the shopping center at the base of the nearby Petronas Twin Towers to get lunch in the food court.  I ate at a place called Simple Life Healthy Vegetarian, having the Mixed Mushroom Paste with Multi Grain Rice (without egg) - the accompanying soup was bland but fine, and the main dish was pretty good.  Side note: I would have been able to see the Twin Towers from my room if the Hotel W under construction was not in the way.

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Pictures: https://goo.gl/photos/GBb3cDWVzQCR9oyFA