Thursday, November 5, 2015

More Thailand, KL and Singapore

From Luang Prabang, I flew back to Bangkok where I stayed for one more night before leaving early the next morning for Ko Samui. Samui is an island in southern Thailand with nice beaches. The trip there was really an excuse to enjoy the beach and relax rather than run around seeing sights. I stayed in a cool bungalow just steps from the beach and really didn't roam far from there. I wandered around town a bit, but the place I was staying had some tasty food and jumbo beers on the beach, making it difficult to go far from there. One day during a brief rain storm I went ahead and got one of the famous Thai massages. It was cool because it was in an open-air shelter on the beach right by the hotel. The massage was good, but man I was sore the next day... My favorite part was when the little lady whispered in my ear, "I walk on your back now."

After a couple days of R & R in Samui I took one of the emptiest (maybe 15 people on a full-size plane) and bumpiest flights I have ever been on to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Originally I had planned to spend more time in Malaysia and hit a few different places, but I will have to save that for next time. KL was great, I had no idea what to expect (minus some good suggestions from Anthony, thanks!), but I was pleasantly surprised. When I arrived I was greeted by a torrential downpour. I rarely take a taxi, but decided paying a little extra to stay dry would be worth it this time. I got settled in my hotel and napped out the rain before venturing out. KL is a vibrant city. Luckily I was staying right in the middle of things. Two blocks from my hotel was Jln Alor, a ridiculous street of food and smells and people trying to coax you to eat at their restaurant. I was pretty worn out from the day and didn't plan on venturing far, but when I looked up from my dim sum and hot and sour soup, between two buildings was the KL Tower... I thought this was a sign I must go see it. So I walk to the tower (looks like the Space Needle) and I arrived just as it is closed. What luck?! Then from the base of the KL Tower I catch my first glimpse of the Petronas Towers... all I can think is awesome. So I throw away all my tired bones away and start trekking to the towers. After the rain the night was clear (aside from minor haze that was plaguing the area) to get an up-close glimpse. The towers are amazing. I found myself wandering around the base of the towers for quite some time taking random photos and selfies with a small throng of other tourists.

The next day I set out on foot to see as much of KL as possible. I started in Chinatown and Little India, where I visited some cool temples and Merdeka Square. From there I went to the KL Bird Park, a huge aviary for mostly tropical birds (and a few monkeys). From there I went to the Central Market for lunch and wandered around some of the other markets in the area. I closed out the day with a dip in a pool at the hotel before timing my nap with the late afternoon rain. Later I ventured back out to Jln Alor for another tasty meal and then found a rooftop bar to have a drink and see the city from up high. The next morning I got another early start and headed out to the Batu Caves and the National Mosque before leaving KL. The caves were a real trip with monkeys everywhere! The main Temple Cave is also guarded by this massive, gold statue in front of the 270+ stairs where you access it. It was really a lot to take in.

From KL I headed to my final stop, Singapore. When I was in Thailand I was lucky enough to meet another traveler who is living in Singapore that offered me a place to stay when I was there. That plan worked out well and it was really nice to have a local perspective/advice and guide for a short part of my time there. My first night there I wandered from the Orchard Road area to the Singapore River that I followed to Marina Bay. There are so many cool buildings in Singapore and just a lot going on. The next day I started the morning touring the Botanic Gardens before heading back down to the center of the city. Then I grabbed my one and only Singapore Sling at the Raffles Hotel, probably the most expensive, mediocre drink I have ever purchased ($36.50 Singapore dollars, about $28 US). From there I headed to Little India to wander a bit then Chinatown to visit some awesome temples and enjoy Tiger beers. That night my host Jin took me to some hawker stalls for a feast of local foods and then to Marina Bay and Gardens by the Bay for some awesome views of the city. The next day was mostly dedicated to visiting the zoo. It was a great zoo despite about an hour of crazy rain in the middle of the visit. I really enjoyed seeing the animals in well-done exhibits. That night we had an excellent dinner mostly of dim sum in Chinatown before heading out for some drinks.

Just some quick thoughts on Singapore... I'm really glad I got to see this city, it really is something. It reminded me a lot of DC, I don't like constantly comparing places when I am there, but I kept doing it with DC and Singapore... clean, fast-paced, expensive, driven people, good public transit, many sights, very international, etc. It was not ideal to end my trip in Singapore b/c it was so different than all of the rest of the places that I traveled to that month. It almost felt like I was already back in the USA when I was there. Kinda crazy.

Overall, an awesome trip... too fast... still much I want to see in many of the countries I visited, but very glad I took the time to see what I did one this adventure.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Vietnam (continued) and Luang Prabang

Military Museum
Hot Pot!
So leaving off from my last post... mom had one more full day with me before flying home from Hanoi around midnight on October 16. We continued to explore Hanoi that day, there was much to see and the weather was really mild compared to the other places I traveled. We visited the Vietnam Military History Museum, Ho Chi Minh House/Museum (his body was not in the Mausoleum that month, unfortunately) and the Temple of Literature. We capped off the day with more walking (of course), beer and spring rolls (yum) before putting mom in a taxi to the airport.
Temple of Literature

Moto Taxi selfie
Train View

The next day (flying solo) I hopped on a quick one-hour flight to Danang, where I immediately went to the train station to board a train to Hue. The train trip between Danang and Hue was pretty amazing. It followed the coast and provided some ridiculous views of the ocean and lush mountains near the water. Even locals peered out the window for most of the ride.

Tomb of Tu Duc

Hue was a neat city, much more manageable than Hanoi. The first thing I did when I arrived was hop on the back of a moto taxi to take me to my hotel, it was clear I was no longer traveling with mom! Moto taxi turned into my preferred method of transport for the short rest of my stay in Nam. I really enjoyed Hue, there was much to see and most of it was walkable. Hue has a massive citadel (moat and all) and then inside that is an Imperial Enclosure (with another moat!) where the Emperor used to live. The Enclosure was massive and featured some great temples, pavilions, gardens, palaces and other art. It took me much of the morning to tackle. After the Citadel I walked outside of town about 4km to see the Thien Mu Pagoda, which was really impressive. It provided a great view of the Perfume River (that flows right through Hue). From there I moto taxied to one of the royal tombs outside of the city. The Tomb of Tu Duc was mighty impressive, except it was under major restoration at the time. I got the idea though. With many sites, Hue definitely attracted lots of travelers which ensured there were also some tasty restaurants and fun bars at nighttime.
Hue view

Danang Beach

Asparagus/Mushroom wrapped in bacon
Dragon Bridge!
After a couple nights in Hue I trained back to Danang for a night. I knew Danang had a decent beach and I was attracted to the idea of lounging for a day. Bizarrely I arrived at the gorgeous, white sand beach and no one was there... who doesn't love a private beach?! That afternoon I enjoyed some great food, refreshing water and of course some local beer served ice cold in a bucket, all on my private beach! Later I learned the crowd arrives at the beach at the end of the day (when the sun goes down and I guess when it comes up too). That evening I roamed around Danang. What an awesome, electric city! It was a Monday night and there were so many people out and about. Danang is not a tourist destination (for Westerners), but I imagine it will be someday. My favorite was the dragon bridge stretching across the Han River right in the middle of the city. A great way to end my time in Vietnam...

From Danang I flew to Luang Prabang, Laos... this choice was on a whim and last minute, but I took the advice of friends and glad I did. I had no idea what to expect, but immediately loved it. In LPB I toured the many temples and monasteries (I guess there are over 30) as well as the Royal Palace Museum, Phu Si (big overlook hill in the middle of town), markets and ate some great food. One afternoon I also rented a moto and rode out to this awesome Kouang Si Waterfall for swimming. It was a spectacular ride through the countryside and the falls were beautiful, perfect for a dip on a hot day. LPB was one of the smallest towns I visited, but it was very lively and full of tourists from all over the world. I ended up hanging out with some fun Dutch travelers and shut down LPB one night with the help of a heavy dose of Beerlao!

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Siem Reap and Halong Bay

So the last week has gone by very quickly. So far 3 nights in Siem Reap, Cambodia and another 3 nights in Vietnam (2 in Hanoi and 1 on a cruise boat on Halong Bay)... lots to say! Firstly, mom has been a pretty good traveler. We have had some long days and seen a lot, with many of encounters with motos, but overall she has done very well and kept up with me.

So Cambodia... On our 45 min flight they managed to crank out a meal and beer, not sure why, but it was ridic! We arrived in the evening and had already arranged for a driver/guide to take care of us for our short time there (thanks Seth and Romi for the great recommendation, happy to share info about our guide with others headed that way). Mom was excited to see a "Fetterhoff" sign at the the small Siem Reap airport. We got to bed early anticipating a long couple days. Our first day we bypassed the main attraction, Angkor Wat, and hit six other temples... who knew?! The temples were amazing, dating back 900+ years, dedicated to mothers, fathers, common people, etc. A highlight was the temple used in the film Tomb Raider. I really don't think mom was sure why we were in Siem Reap until she saw the temples... and she was instantly impressed.

The temples really were like something just out of a movie and were better than what I was expecting. Our second day began with a 4:30am wake up, arriving at Angkor Wat for 5:30am sunrise. It was a bit of a tourist zoo, but once the sun rose it was obvious to see why hundreds of people had shown up for this awesome occasion. After touring Angkor Wat we visited a small monastery before visiting Angkor Thom. Angkow Thom is another nearby temple with 250+ faces. For those of you "Legends of the Hidden Temple" fans, this is where Omek had to have come from! It was another amazing temple and really capped of the temple visits nicely. After that we visited a floating village. This was a fun boat trip to basically see fisherman who live in floating houses. It was a bit touristy, but also very cool.

A bit about Siem Reap... It was a dusty town that is growing up quickly because of tourism. It reminded me a lot of Central American towns, but more developed. They have a hilarious "Pub Street," much like Bourbon Street, with all the bars. Siem Reap has a major advantage though b/c they sell beer for $.50-1.00... I can drink a lot of .50 beers! We stayed right near downtown Siem Reap and were accessible to many bars, restaurants and markets. We did some damage at all of them, but at very little expense. It is a backpacker haven and I think anyone could find some fun there.

From Siem Reap we hopped a flight to Hanoi, Vietnam. Arriving later in the evening we didn't have a good chance to see much of Hanoi on the first night. but were there long enough to know that this is a city of chaos... and I'm speaking mostly of the traffic. It was like nothing I had seen before... more on that...

We had a early wake up after our first night in Hanoi and were shuttled off to Halong Bay for a 24-hour cruise of the bay. It was a painful 4.5 hour shuttle from Hanoi, but worth it. Halong Bay was definitely one of the most picturesque places I have been (and seen many pictures of in the past). We had a fairly luxurious cruise with about 14 other awesome people from around the world, where they fed us like kings and treated us to some awesome sights and experiences. We had a couple very touristy excursions to a floating fishing village (yes, 2 in 72 hours) and a cave. I wasn't expecting much from either, but was pleasantly surprised by both. Also there was a bit of swimming, cooking lesson, happy houring and thai chi (which mom was really into). Great experience overall.


After an equally painful ride back to Hanoi, we checked into a hotel and relaxed before hitting the town. Hanoi is chalk-full of motos. It is almost too crazy to cross the street. I really have seen no place like it. In the old city there are no stop signs or traffic lights and hundreds of intersections... proceed with caution is the name of the game. I coaxed mom into eating dinner at a street stall about 6 blocks from our hotel. After one bia hoi (local .25 draft beer) and friendly staff and neighbors sitting around us, she was convinced this was a good idea. Once the tasty food arrived that helped! Also 6 beers and 2 meals for $6-7 seemed like a good deal.

Today, mom and I had a good wander around the city. During the day we probably dodged 500 motos, no joke. We visited the "Hanoi Hilton," the former prison in Hanoi for POWs and a beautiful lake Hoan Kiem, in addition to some other awesome sights. Despite the chaos that is Hanoi, it was relaxing day filled with more good food, beer and immersion into this fascinating way of life. Everywhere you looked it was easy to say "you're not in Colorado Springs