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

Monday, August 21, 2017

SE Asia 2017 - Day 8 (8/21/2017) - Laundry, Masjid Negara, Menara KL

I guess my thing on this trip is getting a late start on the day - a benefit of traveling alone is that you decide your own schedule.  After a shower (finally, a hotel that provides washcloths on this trip; the rooms have improved each time), I left the hotel at noon to go find a laundromat.  My first attempt was a place I had seen on Google Maps (that was supposed to be) called Wash Studio - it was a little over a 1 km walk from the hotel.  However, when I arrived at the site I found that it (and the rest of the building) had been demolished, and something fancy-looking was being built in its place.  So I doubled back to the hotel (sweating pretty profusely by now) to ask the front desk for suggestions on where to go (I didn't want to pay the hotel's price-per-item rates for a full load).  One of the desk clerks suggested that the nearest self-service place would be in Bukit Bintang.

Taking his advice, I ordered an Uber to take me to Hello Laundry in that area.  I was able to find the place and do my laundry without much issue.  While my load dried, I walked over to the nearby Sungei Wang Plaza to find lunch.  I settled on a place called Pak Hailam Kopitiam after one of the workers said that they could provide vegetarian options, though I didn't really see any on the menu.  At his suggestion, I ordered the Curry Wantam Mee without the fish balls - it was kind of like a ramen with curry.  The food was OK (and spicy), and the apple juice that I ordered to accompany it was nice and fresh.  The service was quick (which I appreciated since I was in a hurry to get back to my laundry before the dryer timer expired), though that did mean that the food was hot when I got it.

After lunch and returning to the laundromat to gather my clothes, I took the monorail from Bukit Bintang (MR6) to Bukit Nanas (MR8), and then walked back to the hotel.  My laundered clothes were put away by 4:15pm, at which point I needed to decide how to spend the rest of the day.  I headed downstairs about 15 minutes later, intending to go to either the National Museum or National Mosque (Masjid Negara).  There was a light rain when I exited the hotel, but this didn't bother me too much, nor did it last terribly long.  I took the Kelana Jaya train from Dang Wangi (KJ12) to KL Sentral (KJ15).  There, I figured out why Google Maps had told me to take the Komuter train (Port Klang line in the direction of Tanjung Malim) back northeast to the Kuala Lumpur station - the streets around KL Sentral were pretty pedestrian-hostile.

Masjid Negara

The walking situation didn't really improve much after I went back in and took the Google Maps suggestion to get to the KL station - it took me a while to find places where I could legally, or at least safely, cross a couple of main roads.  I did eventually make it to Masjid Negara, where I donned a robe, set aside my shoes, and then entered to look around for about 20-30 minutes.

Menara Kuala Lumpur - view from Sky Deck

After the mosque I walked a ways over to Menara Kuala Lumpur (KL Tower).  Despite the cooler temperatures that the rain had brought, I was still sweaty when I arrived at Menara KL.  But the view from the Sky Deck was definitely worth it.  I also took a bit of time after sunset to snack on kiwi cake and lychee juice at the Sky Cafe.

Menara Kuala Lumpur

After I was done admiring the view, I skipped the Observation Deck (the indoor viewing area a level below that is included with the Sky Deck purchase) and headed down to the ground.  I didn't want to worry about finding food back around the hotel (even though there's a pretty big food court right across the street), so I got a small vegetarian pizza at Santino's Pizza in the complex at the base of the tower.  After eating I headed back to the hotel on foot.

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

Sunday, August 20, 2017

SE Asia 2017 - Day 7 (8/20/2017) - Singapore River Cruise then to Kuala Lumpur

I did something this morning that I've never done previously while on vacation before - worked out at a gym (the hotel gym, to be clear).  After the workout and a shower, I packed up and checked out of the hotel at noon.  I dropped my bags off then walked down the street to Gokul Vegetarian Restaurant for some Indian food.  My overall impression of the place is that it's a basic joint with basic food - my Palak Paneer was not terrible, but nothing to write home about either.  One thing to note - I used up the last of my cash there, as they (like most of the restaurants in that building, except for Herbivore, interestingly) only accepted cash; no complaints, though, as I needed a way to get rid of my cash anyway.  Shots & Scoops was cash-only as well, so it seems to be a pretty common thing in Singapore (which I wouldn't have guessed prior to the trip).

Approaching the Merlion

I had a couple of hours to kill before I needed to head to the airport, so I decided to go on the river cruise that I had abandoned the night before.  I took the MRT (the North East line this time) from Dhoby Ghaut (NE6) to Clarke Quay (NE5), then found the Singapore River Cruise booth.  A light drizzle had begun by this point, and it was on and off for the next hour or so.  The river cruise took about 40 minutes, dropping us off around 2pm.  The route took us down the river to Marina Bay and back, and provided some pretty great views of the city.

Passing in front of the Merlion

After the cruise I retraced my path back to the hotel, where I redeemed my drink coupon (which was provided at check-in) to cool off for a minute and then picked up my bags.  I walked over to the Bugis station (EW12) and then took the East West line to the Changi line to Changi airport - this required a change at Tanah Merah, EW4, where the Changi line spurs off.  I was a little hungry after checking in and going through the document check (note: this is one of those airports where the final security check happens at the gate entrance, so there are no amenities after that final security check), so I found a food court to get a little bite - a Kaya (jam) Butter Toast sandwich and fruit punch from Killiney Kopitiam (a local coffee shop chain).

The JetStar A320 rivaled that of Scoot Airlines in terms of minimizing knee room, so I was happy to have an even shorter flight this time around - it departed 15-20 minutes later than the scheduled 5:55pm, and took just over an hour.  After doing all the international arrival things in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia does passport scan, photo, and index fingerprints upon entry, but apparently not a customs declaration form), I took the KLIA Transit train into town (contrast with the more expensive but faster KLIA Express train; I didn't know that they were separate things until after I already bought the ticket).  At KL Sentral I bought a Touch 'n Go card (one of those transit cards that you can refill, just like I had used in Singapore; also, the transit office only accepted cash, so I had to make an ATM withdrawal first) and then took the Kelana Jaya line (5) to Dang Wangi (KJ12).  From there I walked to the Hotel Maya and checked in.

Petronas Towers on walk to Hotel Maya

I was hungry again after getting up to my room on the 16th floor, but I didn't want to go back out to get food; plus it was after 10pm.  So I made another travel first and ordered room service (technically only for the first time that *I* did the ordering) - a vegetable cheese sandwich (with fries) and a pineapple juice.

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

Saturday, August 19, 2017

SE Asia 2017 - Day 6 (8/19/2017) - Chinatown and Singapore Night Festival

Today got off to an even later start, as I took some time to catch up on my travelogue and pictures, as well as some other lingering matters from home.  I didn't leave the hotel until after 1pm.  My first stop was lunch at a restaurant around the corner called Herbivore.  It is a vegetarian restaurant with a fascinating menu of mostly Japanese food, but also has a few Western options.  Their menus are presented on iPads.  I ordered the Tonkatsu Bento and a Pink Fusion soda; the meal (not so much the drink) was the most satisfying that I have had in a long time.

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple

I then took the train from Bugis (DT14) to the Telok Ayer station (DT18) to go see a couple of Buddhist temples in Chinatown.  It had drizzling outside as I exited the subway.  I first went to Thian Hock Keng, then Budda Tooth Relic Temple; the latter was by far the more impressive of the two.  I then casually strolled to the Chinatown MRT station (NE4/DT19) and took the Downtown line in the opposite direction back to Rochor (DT13).  I was back in the room at 4:30pm for a bit of a rest.

Singapore Night Festival - Convolutions (NMS Fa├žade)

My rest turned into an accidental nap until 7:30pm.  I went back out a little later, walking to Shots & Scoops to get a little ice cream and chat with Zhihui a bit while she was on dinner break.  After leaving there I intended to take the bus down to the Singapore River area and hop on a late river cruise.  However, I noticed while walking to the bus stop that there was a cool light display going on the next street over.  I walked over there and found out that it was part of the Singapore Night Festival, so I decided to check that out instead.

Singapore Night Festival - The Standing Men

My festival exploration took me through the National Museum of Singapore and by the Singapore Art Museum before I decided to call it a night.  I arrived back at Hotel G sometime around 11pm.

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

Friday, August 18, 2017

SE Asia 2017 - Day 5 (8/18/2017) - Little India and Gardens by the Bay

I understandably got a late start this morning considering how tired I was the night before.  I left the hotel around 10am in search of a Western breakfast, as I was not in the mood to figure out Eastern menu options and didn't want to just eat at the hotel.  In retrospect, sticking with the hotel breakfast would probably have been the wisest decision, as finding the desired type of food turned out to be harder than expected (though, of course, I did discover later that there was a nearby Starbucks).  I eventually settled on a place in a random shopping center called Shots & Scoops (which was actually mostly an ice cream and sweets joint) that advertised a buttermilk pancake special - I also had a Matcha Latte (green tea with milk) to go with it, as the special included a warm drink.  The server was a young Chinese/Singaporean lady, Zhihui, who expressed some curiosity in my sightseeing plans and very kindly wrote down some suggestions for me.


After eating I walked north through Little India to Veerama-kaliamman Temple and then Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple (which was unfortunately being renovated).  After that I headed southeast to Masjid Sultan, but found the mosque closed for worship until 2:30pm when I arrived there at 1pm.  I then walked south to the Raffles Hotel, but by this time my clothes had become visibly drenched with sweat (the Singaporean humidity was not kind to my overactive sweat glands) so I headed back to my hotel to dry off for a while.



I headed back out around 4:30pm, planning to take the bus to Gardens by the Bay.  I hopped on a wrong bus going in the opposite direction, but this actually dropped me off right next to the Little India MRT subway station (DT12 - I like how they number their train stations).  I then took the Downtown line to Bayfront (DT16) and exited out to Gardens by the Bay.  I bought tickets for the Cloud Forest and Flower Dome climate controlled biodomes, as well as the shuttle.  Both biodomes were pretty cool (literally and figuratively - I greatly appreciated the respite from the heat and humidity), though I enjoyed Cloud Forest a little more.  After the biodomes and a quick snack on a corn cup (I had low-key become pretty hungry by then), I walked over to Supertree Grove but found the ticket queue for the OCBC Skyway to be prohibitively long.


From there I made my way over to the Marina Bay Sands hotel, where I had a ticket for the SkyPark observation deck that day.  It was dark out by the time I made it up to the top to enjoy the view.  I hung around long enough to catch the 8:00pm light and water show before queuing up to head back down.  I was too hungry to wait until I returned to the hotel area (where I had already noted a few vegetarian restaurants), so I took my chances in the food court of the shopping center near the Sands.  I found veg options at a counter serving Indian food, but ended up being disappointed by the food (except the naan).  On the plus side, I did get to converse a bit with a couple of hotel workers who were on break, as the seating area was overcrowded.


After eating I headed to the MRT station, took the train back to Rochor (DT13), and walked the few blocks back to the hotel.  I was ready to crash pretty soon after my return.

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

SE Asia 2017 - Day 4 (8/17/2017) - Mount Batur then Singapore

I had a hike up Mount Batur scheduled this morning with Batur Sunrise Trekking.  I expected to be picked up around 1:15am, but the driver arrived at 1am - I was still in the process of getting ready, so I delayed them by about 10 minutes.  There were two other passengers already in the van - 2 male friends from France.  We made another pick-up in Ubud - a couple (Gary/Govinda and Burpeet?) from the UK on their honeymoon.

We arrived at the company home base at 3:30am, where they served us some tea and coffee (I chose tea, obvy) and gave us each a bottle of water and a flashlight (which I didn't use because I brought along a headlamp).  There I also switched to my contact lenses, as my glasses have a nasty habit of falling down my face when I get sweaty - that was definitely a good call on my part (and thanks to Gary for backing me up on that choice).  We left for the trek around 4am.


The trail was a bit crowded since today was also Indonesian independence day (though I didn't realize quite how many people were going up until we got to the top).  It became progressively colder as we ascended, and it was quite cold by the time we made it to the top at 5:40.  It didn't help that I was then drenched in sweat and not moving around much (I had 3 top layers on, but 2 were soaked).  The guide gave us each a breakfast box that included some fruit and some bread - I only ate the bread.


Sunrise came around 6:25, though it was pretty light out for the 20 minutes prior.  Unfortunately, my phone shut down while I was taking pictures (that's a story for another time, but basically the power management subsystem loses its mind sometimes and thinks that there's no more power left in the battery when there still is), and I didn't bring my power pack to revive it (because I thought the chances of it getting down in the danger zone would be low during a hike of a few hours); so I didn't get any shots of the excellent views during the descent.

We made it back to home base around 8:15am, then hit the road a little after 8:30.  I was the last to be dropped off at 11:30.  I had arranged the day before to delay my check-out by an hour so I had until 1pm to vacate the room.  So I was able to fairly leisurely shower and pack before checking out right at 1pm.  I dropped my bag off with the bellboy then had lunch at the hotel restaurant.  The Nasi Goreng Vegetarian was not quite as good as the one I had a couple of days prior, but the krupuk (deep fried crackers) were better this time around.  Since I had time to kill I also ordered a dessert of banana fritters (an interesting concept, but the execution was perhaps a little lacking) and vanilla ice cream.

I took a taxi to the airport at 2:30pm, arriving 30 minutes later.  I had to wait about 75 minutes before I could check in for my 7:10 flight.  One observation about the flight - Scoot Airlines has possibly the least knee room on their A320s that I've experienced.  Thankfully, the flight to Singapore was only 2.5 hours.


After arriving in Singapore I was too tired to deal with the extra delay of taking public transport, nor with walking in the rain, so I took a taxi to town instead.  The taxi ride cost 30 SGD ($22 USD), which wasn't too bad.  My room at Hotel G was pretty small, but nicely appointed.  They also have this amenity where they give you a smart phone (Handy Phone is the maker) that you can use and take with you during your stay, which offers complimentary calling and Internet access - very handy indeed!

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

SE Asia 2017 - Day 3 (8/16/2017) - Uluwatu and Tanah Lot

Despite waking up a few hours before the scheduled meeting time (I had gone to bed early the night before and couldn't sleep any more), I was not quite ready to depart at 9am.  I asked for 15 more minutes so that I could grab a quick breakfast, and the driver graciously granted it.  It was only me and him today.  I also found out that his name was Ketut Karsa, not Wayan like I had previously thought I heard the hotel guide say the day before.  He apologized right off the bat for his supposedly bad English, but I understood pretty much everything that he said the whole day (plus I know zero Indonesian and Balinese, so I couldn't really complain).  He was pretty chatty throughout the day, which I liked because it helped give me more insight into Bali culture.


He knew that my primary destinations for the day were Pura Uluwatu and Pura Tanah Lot, and we pretty much stuck to that simple plan (the charge was Rp 900,000 for this transit plan).  We first went south to Uluwatu, arriving at 10:20am.  As he dropped me off he advised me to be careful around the monkeys on the temple grounds, as they have been known to steal tourists' hats and glasses.  I did see at least 2 monkeys with stolen sunglasses while exploring the grounds, so it was some pretty good advice.  I was on extra guard when I was near any monkeys, even taking my glasses off and holding them a couple of times (other guides provided kind warnings as well).  The monkeys were more of a nuisance than anything, though a couple of the males did provide some sketchy entertainment by "forcing themselves" on hapless female monkeys.  Besides that, the temple, cliffs, and surrounding grounds were pretty fantastic.  I walked around for a little under an hour before returning to the car to leave for Tanah Lot.


We braved the traffic back up north and arrived at Tanah Lot around 1pm, where I was pleased to find that this temple was even better.  The main temple itself is out in the water (though reachable by wading during low tide), but is still a treat to admire.  There are a couple of other smaller temples along the cliffs on the same grounds as well.  I spent about 75 minutes walking around, taking pictures, and (unsuccessfully) looking for a figurine souvenir to add to my collection.

When I eventually left and found the driver, he took me to get lunch at one of their affiliate restaurants (Warung Gueek) that looks out to some rice fields.  The view was nice, but the food I ordered was not; the Vegetable Red Thai Curry was both not very Thai and not very good.  The melon juice that I ordered to accompany it was thankfully much more palatable, though not quite stellar either.  After I ate lunch we fought through some more traffic and made it back to the hotel at 4:15pm.

I took a bit of a rest in the room, and then headed to the beach to take in the sunset on a short walk.  After that I attempted to find the restaurant that the driver had recommended to try some gado-gado.  I didn't find the place, but settled for a restaurant close to the hotel (Sendok Emas) after the greeter said that they could make me some gado-gado even though it wasn't on their menu.  The meal turned out to be pretty solid (but, then again, peanut sauce makes everything good), though the Coco Loco drink was forgettable despite being served in a young coconut.  After eating it was back to the hotel room to get ready for a super early morning trek.

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

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

SE Asia 2017 - Day 2 (8/15/2017) - Denpasar and Ubud

I got dressed and had breakfast at the hotel restaurant sometime around 8am.  During breakfast it began to rain fairly hard, which worried me that it could put a damper on the day's activities.  Luckily, it didn't last much more than 30 minutes.  During this time I went to the hotel tour desk to ask about transport to the sites.  The transport guide suggested that I go to Ubud today, as the temples that I was interested in were supposedly better for sunset viewing and the clouds would interfere with that.  I agreed to that plan, not knowing that he would actually tag along with me in the taxi (which was really a small unmarked van).

The cost of transport to and from Ubud was IDR 650,000 (a little under $50 USD).  Our first stop after leaving the hotel around 8:50am was an ATM so that I could withdraw some cash to pay this fee (they only accepted cash), but neither of my cards worked there.  I had much better luck at the second ATM that we tried.  I told the guide that I wanted to check out the Ubud Palace, but other than that he mostly ran the show - in retrospect I have mixed feelings about yielding so much autonomy.


He first took me to Sari Wisata Budaya, which was a Balinese dancing show.  I expected it to be a waste of an additional 100,000 Rupiah, but it ended up not being horrible; I do wish that they had more comfortable seating, though.  After the approximately hour long show we continued on our way through Denpasar toward Ubud.  At one point we got in a minor accident where our car clipped a motorcycle that suddenly stopped and turned.  Luckily, there was no noticeable damage and the only cost to us was pulling over for the rider to have a stern chat with our driver.  Speaking of motorcycles, there are a ton of them (and scooters) on the island.  There are also proportionally more Nissan Jukes (the model of car that I currently own) than I would have expected, but the compact size probably works well for the streets here.


In Ubud we made a couple of pretty worthless (to me) stops at a silver factory (for lack of a better word) and a painting gallery.  I had no interest in buying anything at these places, but I didn't want to be too disagreeable to the guide, so I went along with it (though went through the places pretty quickly).  I understand why they put these stops in for tourists, but I'm definitely not the ideal demographic for them.


We eventually made it to the Ubud Palace, which I found to be pretty underwhelming.  When they dropped me off I told them that I would be about an hour, but I didn't need more than 15 minutes to see the place.  It seemed that only the courtyard was open (I honestly don't know if there's supposed to be more to see than that), and much of it was under construction.  After walking through the courtyard I decided to walk down


Bebek Uma Sari Resto (but I can't seem to find it online) for lunch a little after 2pm.  The place is really nice, and I'm sure the guide gets some sort of commission for bringing tourists there, but the prices were also very reasonable.  My lunch of the Vegetarian Nasi Goreng (w/o the fried egg, of course) and ginger ale cost only 146,500 (about $11) Rupiah after the service charge and the credit card transaction fee.  The meal itself was pretty solid (well made and presented; rice was good; tofu & bean curd satay was meh; peanut sauce made everything better; casava chip snack was delicious, though the sauce a little too spicy for me), and the atmosphere and seating arrangements over the water were pretty fancy.  So it was a pretty good end to an overall disappointing tour.


After that we had a 1.5 hour drive back to the hotel (did I mention that traffic in Bali is pretty awful?), where I made arrangements to have the driver take me to the temples the next day.  After a brief respite in the room, I walked over to Kuta beach in time to catch the cloudy sunset.  I returned to the room and turned in early.

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

SE Asia 2017 - Day 1 (8/14/2017) - A Day of Rest

Most of today was spent in my room at the hotel, in bed.  After about 6 hours of sleep, I got up around 9:30am and went to the poolside restaurant to get some complimentary breakfast before it closed at 10.  The breakfast spread was pretty good, and I partook of pancakes, waffles, some fruit, and some juice.  After eating I walked across the narrow street on the back side of the hotel to Kuta Beach.  The weather was very pleasant as I took a walk perhaps a half mile down the beach and back.  After that I returned to my room, intending to rest just a little bit.  That turned into a bit of a nap, which then turned into full-on hibernation (well, I was in and out of sleep, but definitely in bed) for the rest of the day.


At some point in the afternoon a hotel worker slipped complimentary coupons to the Mexican & Grill event they were having at the restaurant that night.  I pulled myself out of bed around 8:30pm to go take advantage of the coupon and get some dinner.  The supposedly Mexican food was not very authentic, but the vegetarian "burrito" did taste pretty good.  The Mexican rice was not nearly as good.  They also had a cover band playing.

After dinner I returned to my hole for the night.

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

Monday, August 14, 2017

SE Asia 2017 - Day 0 (8/12-13/2017) - Transit to Bali

"Today" was all about getting from St. Louis to Bali.  My route was StL -> Atlanta -> Incheon/Seoul -> Denpasar (Bali).  Things started with a 4:15am wake-up on the morning of August 12, a Saturday.  I had scheduled an Uber for a pick-up for a ride to the airport in the 4:45-5:00 time window.  Things started off pretty smoothly, and I had no issue making my 7:10 flight.  I chose to check my big backpack as luggage (for free, since I had an international flight) instead of carrying it on as I normally would; this made the journey a lot more convenient, and my bag made it to Bali without issue.

The rest of the trip was (thankfully) mostly uneventful, as my biggest complaints would be a lack of vegetarian meal options on Korean Air and a sore butt from all that sitting.  I had a couple of hours in Atlanta before my 14 hour flight to Incheon/Seoul.  On that flight there was no vegetarian option for the first meal (I chose the bibimbap option and picked out the beef) nor the snack in the middle (the kind flight attendant brought me a couple of bananas to go with the peanuts).  The third meal had a vegetarian pasta option, though it wasn't very good.  I also managed to last the whole flight without going to the restroom, which is probably not the healthiest thing to do.  We flew up northwest through Canada/Alaska and back down southwest across eastern Siberia, chasing the sun the whole way (i.e., it was always light out), though landing on Sunday afternoon after crossing the date line. 

During my 2 hour layover in Seoul I found out that the airport offers free transit tours for passengers with long layovers - I was researching for my return trip, during which I would be there for about 11 hours.  Unfortunately, 3 of the 4 five-hour tours to Seoul were already fully booked for August 28, and the only one with spots open would return too late for me to make my flight.  Instead I reserved a spot on one of the 2-hour Incheon temple tours.

The flight to Bali took a little more than the scheduled 7 hours, as we had to go into a holding pattern for about 15-20 minutes.  Once again there was no vegetarian meal option on the Korean Air flight (I chose the fish one and picked out the fish), but the snack had a margherita pizza stick option.  I expected the airport to be pretty empty when we landed after midnight on August 14, but it was quite the opposite.  After making it through immigration and picking up my bag, I exited to find that there were plenty of taxi drivers clamoring for passengers.  After getting some cash at an ATM and playing hard-to-get with a few drivers, I eventually settled on one that offered what seemed to be a decent price (relative to the others) to get me to the Jayakarta Hotel Bali (I got him down to 220,000 IDR, or ~$16.50, but paid him the 250,000 he offered).

The winding drive to the hotel took a little longer than I expected, though was still probably less than 30 minutes.  The hotel clerk had a little, or maybe quite a bit of, trouble processing my credit card during check-in, but eventually his coworker figured it out.  It was close to 2:30am by the time I made it to my room.  I was pretty tired, so I didn't spend too much time settling in before crashing.

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