A Travellerspoint blog

October 2012

We didn't have a Laosy time in Vientaine & Luang Prabang

by Kt

We ended up planning our trip to Laos partly because of course we wanted to go there but also because we needed to fly back into Thailand from somewhere to get the month's tourist visa. That was proving trickier than I'd predicted, I really should have looked in more detail about how few international flights went from Chiang Mai before we made our way up there. At a 10 or 12 hour bus or train ride or a pricey flight back down to Bangkok it's not easy to get down there to fly in and out somewhere. And the visa runs to the border which, because you're coming in overland means you only get 14 days visa anyhow, didn't seem worth it as they were gonna take up a good chunk of a day with unpleasant travelling. So in the end we decided to fly to Luang Prabang which is the destination we most wanted to go to in Laos. However, as time went on, we realised it would make more sense to get a 'proper' 2 month Thai visa which you can only get in a few destinations, outside of Thailand of course. So, for Laos, you could only get these in the capital, Vientiane. This is a 10 hour bus ride from Luang Prabang so in the short time we were booked to be in Laos didn't seem very feasible so I went against my usual rule of not booking connecting flights on the same day and booked flight down to Vientiane from Luang Prabang a couple of hours after our first plane was due to arrive. We then had to get to the Thai embassy between 8.30 and midday the next morning to then pickup our passports/visas the next day between 1 and 3pm before then getting a 5pm flight back up to Luang Prabang. What could go wrong? Well, lot's but happy days, not one thing did but the potential disaster and loss of money gave for some worrying moments! We only took hand luggage, so that baggage reclaim couldn't cause any potential delays, leaving nearly all our worldly possessions in a room in a country we only hoped would let us back in! So, that explains our slightly strange Laos itinerary but I'm actually really pleased we took the detour, staying in a capital city I think is good for an understanding of a place.

So, we flew with Laos airlines - this is a fairly new airline and it being from the developing country of Laos I think it's tended to have a bad rep of beaten up old planes and disorganisation. I felt it was best not to mention this to Mark as he's not the happiest flyer at the best of times. But it's all nonsense anyhow, Laos airlines were excellent - I can heartily recommend them. I did all the booking online which was fine. I even emailed them to ask about moving a flight to a day later and they just did if for me - NO CHARGE - can you imagine?

Luang Prabang airport is the quaintest little airport - it's like coming into a small, remote island. The added bonus of this is that everything is really simple. We got our visas really quickly and had plenty of time to spare between our connecting flight. My favourite thing about Laos airlines - our plane left early. We were on, all sorted, and off we went. That's definitely a first!!

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Vientiane
It was dark by the time we got to Vientiane and the trip from the airport to our hotel was made delightful by the reams of fairylights that were up everywhere. There was a festival period going on and I'm still not sure now if they were because of that or if it's just a thing they like in Laos.

Our hotel was not in a great place as I'd picked it for the practical reason that it was smack bang opposite the Thai embassy.
There were some places to eat around there but not much and it was late so to my horror we went to a pizza place - not ideal but it did the job.
Something that was a little bit odd about an otherwise nice and simple hotel, was the 3d pictures they had in our room and the dining room. Check this bad boy out:

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Next morning we were up early to get in line for our visas. It was super hot queuing outside the embassy, even though it was only 8.30am. We'd heard it was a bit of a pushy/shovey situation but although there was a fair amount of people there and some did indeed queue jump, the whole thing was all pretty easy and much quicker than we had expected. So with that all done we headed off into the centre of the city.

We got dropped at the museum which was in a nice colonial style old building and just headed off from there to find something to eat.
We couldn't find the place I was looking for so we carried on and went to another suggestion - Makphet which was a charity restaurant employing street kids. This was the best decision that we could have made. This place was utterly fantastic. I have to admit, Mark was not as happy with his meal as I was with mine but he conceded he hadn't ordered that well and he devoured any titbits of mine I sent his way.

I got to try buffalo for the first time with the buffalo fillet rolls, stuffed with pumpkin and herbs with a fruity dip. It was soooo good. I kind of expected buffalo to be tough and certainly not great for chomping into but it really did melt in your mouth and worked gorgeously with the other flavours.
My pudding was Coconut & Lime cake with hibiscus syrup and coconut ice cream. This was sublime. Not sure I've ever used that word before but this was the kind of dish which has you staring off into the distance dreamily just reliving eating it. Sent down from Angels - that's the only answer. And remember I'm not a dessert person!!!

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We headed on down to our old friend the Mekong river, who we'd met in Vietnam and Cambodia - blimey that's a long river isn't it? The first part of it was a bit bland. Nice to see our old friend the cauldron, as we'd found in Cambodia, though. As we headed up to the park area we found an interesting statue set in a nice parkland area. It's pretty quiet in the day but comes into it's own late evening - more of that later. We did notice, though it was still light that there were fairy lights everywhere in this park, even on the smaller bushes.

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In the centre of town we found a young soldier or policeman with a machine gun sat at a quiet crossroads. As we crossed the road, our heads were in direct line with the barrel (is it still called that on a machine gun). Do they not teach the young lads to point the guns down when not in use. I'd much prefer it if they did. We were a little surprised as Vientiane is very quite and pretty small and it seemed overkill for a road with so few cars on but we soon learned that there were big things going on in town. The 7th Asia-Europe Parliamentary Partnership Meeting was taking place and there were lots of important diplomats in town to protect. In fact they were just up the road and we enjoyed, while sitting in a cafe, watching all the diplomatic cars driving off with their police escorts. FYI Vietnam left early - not sure if they had a falling out :) This was also why, when we took a taxi back to the airport, they checked the boot of the taxi and looked under the car with mirrors on sticks. Not the most sophisticated security but I'm not going to be condescending about this proud, developing country. It was a big thing that they are able to hold this kind of thing.

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We went back to the park as the sun started to set and it became, as parks so often do in South East Asia, a hive of activity. The open air aerobics, which again we have seen elsewhere, were really popular here. There were two sections of the park where tons of people could join in/stop as they liked. I think with the one session we were watching there must have been a couple of hundred people doing it at one point.

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The fairylights had now kicked in and with the music from the aerobics and the groups of families and friends enjoying themselves, this turned into a really great place to chill-out and people watch.

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Highlights and oddities

Tuk Tuks
Different again from where we've been before. Similar but different.

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Architecture
I thought this building was an interesting mix. A Laos building of a Chinese institution with the sign written in French.
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The next day we picked up our passports and Thai visas (yey!) and caught our flight back up to Luang Prabang. We hadn't spent a lot of time in Vientiane but despite being a charming place and a nice introduction to Laos, there isn't a lot going on there so I think the couple of days were just fine.

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We were super early for the flight but luckily the international airport terminal is pretty good. The domestic terminal next door (if you are there it is not sign posted anywhere you just have to get out and find it) is not quite as sophisticated. I likened it to a tube station for an outer London suburb (the one's that haven't been done up). A one-eyed kitten playing under the waiting area seats in the hot waiting area with the flight numbers and times are up on a hand labelled board. It's air conditioned when you go through thank god. Laos is pretty god damned hot!

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Luang Prabang
Flying into Luang Prabang, we had this time, a clear view beneath us. The jungle was just amazing and the areas around Luang Prabang are a patchwork of greens - like the green character in the annoying Comfort Fabric Softener ads.
At the little airport they don't mind anyone snapping away so Mark took some picks of or plane and the guy bringing over a new wheel.

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They needed a new tyre so the man wheeled it out all the way across the tarmac!!

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Our taxi ride to our hotel, by now getting dark, was lovely due to ..... oh happy, happy me... more fairy lights. All the restaurants and cafe's seemed to have pretty lighting and just drew you in. We dumped our stuff in the hotel and headed out to explore as much in the dark as we could.
The first thing that strikes you is the peace. There is the predominant one sound - a bird or a frog, and not an annoying one at that. It's a Unesco world heritage site so traffic is restricted - there are lots of people on bikes. There are beautiful shop houses and colonial buildings. The old town has two rivers flowing on either side with places to eat and drink down the sides that are open air, not buildings, keeping the ascetic - and of course with pretty lighting. It really is ridiculously idyllic. Add to that the beautiful, orange clad monks which are pottering about everywhere.

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The next day was hot, hot, hot. We did some exploring, stopping often for shade and a drink. We went to the former royal palace from which the royals were kicked out by the communists in 1975. Luang Prabang was one of the few places not bombed in the Vietnam war because the royals kept on good terms with the US - as you can tell by the couple of huge, Lincoln cars they were gifted and are on display. I can't imagine these ginormous vehicles rolling down the quiet streets of Luang Prabang but then saying that, I've seen an even bigger Hummer in the streets of Ubud, Bali, which I presumed could only be one of their still existing, known to be flash and lavish, young Royals. Had a bit of a nose around the palace, I was mainly interested as they'd been kicked out in the mid 70s, thought there might be some interesting decor. I rather liked the description of this artefact, that it was created to be puzzling!

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We weren't allowed to photograph the royal cars but next to the garage was this old banger, which looked like it had been there from about the time the royals were kicked out.

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We watched a boat that would take customers (in this case monks) over to a restaurant on the other side of the river and were amazed at how strong the current looked.

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We then watched some kids playing noisily over on a sandback on that side of the river. Seemed to like some kind of youth club. They were having a blast. Then we notice a lone kid in the water, seemingly swimming across the river. This is the river with the really strong current remember. This kid can't have been older than 9. My heart was in my throat - he seemed to be heading for some boats and but had gone a little past them. He slowed down a little. Was he getting tired?
What the hell would I do if he was? Then he reached the boat, popped up and started playing with a cage next to it and was quickly joined by another boy who also swam across the river. So I'm having kitten's but it's clearly all in a days work for these tough little ones to swim across this strong current.

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The beautiful weather broke that night and was replaced by a feisty lightening storm which went on for ages. In the end we had to venture out in it (I'd forgotten to bring the ponchos!). We were going to a river restaurant close by and we were pretty lucky to get a table as it proved to be crazy popular. This is because they do a great Laos food taster menu that's good value and recommended in a few guide books. We got a table at the front that due to the intense rain was being dripped on somewhat but we were happy enough.

The menu was really quite amazing with some unique ingredients including some more buffalo, river weed and sweet sticky purple rice with tamarind. We also had some biscuity sweets known as 'cat's droppings'.

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Next day with the rain finally stopped we took a boat up the river Mekong (yep, that one again!) to some caves.
It was a good 2 hours there in a rickety long boat (it's ok, there were 4 life jackets for a boat of 8). I'm not a water lover but pretty quickly I realised that it was a fairly busy stretch of river so we had plenty of people who could pick us up if it all went awry. The seats in our longboat were old car seats which were actually lovely and comfy. I particularly liked the floating petrol station!

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There were quite a lot of plots on the muddy banks of the river where they were growing something. I can't imagine how much hard work goes into that and how often it simply just slips away.
We stopped off at a village on the way which sold silks and special Laos whiskey. Didn't quite fancy trying that so early in the morning before getting on a boat. It broke the journey up nicely and meant a fun obstacle course of wooden planks up a muddy slope.

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We saw goats on the riverside - one was balanced on a branch to get some tasty higher leaves. I realised I shouldn't worry about the wobbly planks we had to cross. We also saw a dog walking along practically vertical rocks. Amazing how all animals adapt to their environment.
As we neared the caves the scenery got more stunning with some craggy mountains in the distance and some elephants bathing on the river shore.
Not to shabby for Katie!

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The caves themselves were set just off the river and are famous for not only being impressive caves but because have been used for centuries for religious purposes. They are full of Buddha figurines. Some incomprehensibly ancient and others, to my delight, brand new, sparkly and kitsch!! It was a real sight and quite fascinating.

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The upper cave was up a heck of a lot of steep stairs. I felt better about the fact it nearly killed me by the fact that a group of teenage visitors also ended up dead on their feet. The steps crept up through the jungle and there were so many butterflies about which was happily distracting.
The journey back only took an hour and a bit. The sun had come out fighting, the sky was a beautiful blue and it was the most relaxing trip back ever. I may have had an old lady snooze - sshhh.

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The next morning I woke up crazy early, 5.30ish, as I wanted to see something of the morning alms. Locals giving food as alms to the monks goes on all over South East Asia, but for some reason it's a big thing in Luang Prabang. I think because the place is small and quiet and there are a lot of monks who walk the streets each morning. I'd heard some real horror stories about the baddie tourists behaviour. You're asked that if you watch you abide by some simple rules such as women sitting and being careful not to touch the monks, staying quiet, no flash photography, if you must take photos then do so at a discreet distance and BE discreet. Apparently though some tourist either don't get the memo or if they do, they choose to ignore it. I've seen photos online of people posing right in front of the monks (my god, the Asian tourist obsession with having your photo taken in front of ANYTHING is really beginning to grate!). I've even heard about the monks being jostled. To be honest I didn't much fancy seeing that going on and even being a part of it. Kind of thinking that being there is being a part of it no matter how innocent. This kind of thing is becoming a real tourism quandry. There are things you want to see but the nature of everyone wanting to see them is ruining it. There is talk about stopping the alms giving on the street in Luang Prabang, an age old tradition, as there are these disrespectful incidents.
So I cheated. There was a Wat opposite us and more up the road so as our room was at the front of the hotel I figured I'd just watch the monks, in their glowing orange lines, making their way up the street. After almost an hour of quietly watching them appear in bunches, I realised a couple of ladies were sat opposite the hotel with their rice. So I was then able to witness the giving itself too. Mark was asleep for much of it but woke up at about 6.15 with enough time to watch a little bit of it going and then persuaded me to get the camera out. So we did take some photos but unseen from behind a half opened window. It was all very simple but special and I can understand the appeal of watching it and why it is recommended but it is one of those things that's just grown bigger than it can handle I guess.

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We had to leave at lunchtime but we managed to squeeze in a lovely breakfast at the french cafe down the road.

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Highlights and oddities

Ovaltine
No idea where this came from historically but in Vientiane, Ovaltine is big - hot or iced - they sell it everywhere. Old fella Mark was happy about that obviously!

The quiet
Laos people as an obviously sweeping generalisation tended to be a little quiet and reserved. I say this as a good thing. No-one was ever in your face. It added to the laid back vibe of the place.

Vintage cars
There were some great vintage cars in Luang Prabang, attached I think to some of the swankier, restored hotels. I'm a sucker for a vintage ride!

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Monks playing hide and seek
On our way back from dinner one night Mark was on the edge of one of the Wats trying to capture on video the quietness - if that makes sense. He'd just switched off the camera and was walking back towards me when a god almighty (no pun intended) ruckus broke out and some young monks appeared from around the corner and crouched in various hiding positions, only to be caught pretty quickly by an older, probably only teenage himself, monk. Lots of giggling ensued. It was a surprisingly and sweet sight to see.

Ice cream, you scream
There is an ice cream shop in town which does the most amazing coconut sherbet ice-cream.
Their artwork was a little disturbing though:

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Posted by KtandMark 00:46 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Thailand - Chiang Mai - We're back & this time it's personal

by Kt

After getting back to Thailand from Singapore we headed straight up to Chiang Mai with the intention of settling for a bit in an apartment to get stuff sorted, have a break from the intensive travel and get organised.

It was nice to go back to somewhere we knew well - knowing where best to go to eat and shop. But we knew we didn't want to live around the old city area as we'd been before. The prices are often a little higher and just wanted to go somewhere where people live, not just tourists. So after a few days in our old favourite, the Na Inn, we moved to a room hostel in the Nimmanhaemin Road area to help us better with our search. This is an area we really wanted to move to. A modern area, created only in the last 20 years, it's near the university so has lots of young people and quirky cafes and restaurants and has a network of wide, quiet, leafy sois (lanes). There are also a lot of Japanese and Korean expats so lots of my fave food!

Finding an apartment however was not an easy task. Biggest problem is wanting something on a per month basis - that really ruled out the majority of properties. Then there was our must have list - walking distance to Nimmanhaemin Road, a kitchen, a separate bedroom, a swimming pool, a balcony and somewhere for us both to sit to work. You'd be amazed that so many places are just lacking any kind of furniture. Or you get somewhere that has a kitchen but no crockery etc - bit odd for a serviced apartment to be rented monthly!
After days of pounding the streets and going to all corners we ended up, as you do on most property searches, compromising big style and paying way more than we wanted!
Our new temporary 'home' was not a 1 bed apartment but a studio. There was a kitchen but no cooker (this was true of everywhere we looked though), no hob but there was a kitchen sink (you'd not believe how rare!), a microwave, hot water machine and plenty of crockery. The nice thing about the place was that it felt homely. The place rents rooms like a hotel but they are privately owned so each one is different. Some we had seen were sparse on the furniture side and especially for the kitchen. This place had plenty of space to work and even a little sofa area to sit which was a real bonus. Table and chairs on the balcony - I can't tell you how rare this is. In all but 1 places we have stayed in South East Asia that has had a balcony, only 1 had somewhere to sit. This balcony was also massive, was covered by the balcony above so sheltered from rain and really private - making it like another room almost. Oh and it does have a rather amazing mountain view too!

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This place is opposite our building...

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.... nope, we've got no idea either - unusual combo and one I'm not sure I will likely be investigating further.

Much as I was annoyed by Mark's insistence at a pool, which was definitely quite limiting, it is a really nice pool. Nice size, enough loungers (usually you get about 2 in a place where 100 people are staying - go figure!). But it's generally quiet down there in the day and it's def worth having for a cool down seeing as our room's aircon is practically useless.

When we moved in we went to Tesco Lotus to stock up on some bits - including a plug in saucepan type thing to do some cooking. Took some thinking about but eventually go used to what works cooking with it - had to get a bit experimental. I personalised the place an incy bit with things I had bought & stored in Chiang Mai while away. There was also some blue tack so I decorated the huge dressing table mirror with things cut out of magazines (I've only bought about 5 mags in 9 months so I have sadly carried these things about for a long time) plus a postcard of Brighton my lovely Rachel sent me & a painting Aurnia (aged 3) did so that helped my modern art withdrawal! I even put up a world map inside an empty frame (not in a cool / designer way) on the wall behind the bed. This very much clashes with the chintzy decor of the room but I kinda like that. There's some pleasingly kitsch clocks in here too.

The building itself is just plain weird. It was obviously built some time ago as a flash, top end complex, but they haven't quite been as busy as they could be to maintain the luxury. There's a long foyer area down to the reception which is really dark no matter the time of day. There are shop units, many of which are empty while some have huge antiques and chandeliers in but are never open. It's kind of like a Vegas hotel that has seen better days, with the not so great taste of the Trump tower (also a strangely dark place inside I find). We are not unconvinced that it is kept dark to save on electricity. The corridors on the floors themselves are even dark and you rarely see a soul. It can be a little creepy actually. Biggest pain is that we have 2 keys but only one slot key to get in from the elevator to the room area. So we can't really go out separately without some co-ordination. Mark turned into an urban tourist version of Bear Grylls and tried to fashion a slot key out of a plastic store card and a knife. I thought he was being beyond ridiculous but have to say with the tools he (didn't) have he didn't do a bad job - it didn't work, naturally, but bless, eh?

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Our other issue is the aircon didn't work. They sent some guys in to fix it and Mark and I went quite pale as the guy climbed over the balcony railings and balanced himself - with no ties - on the ledge the air con is on and started tampering - it is the 11th floor!!!!!!!!!!

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An entertaining interlude of our day is when the black bag goes up and down the side of the building. This seems to be a sliced up black bin bag. It shuffles down the side past our balcony and then back up on a bit of thread. We think it may be on a pulley or fishing rod but we have no idea if this is someone doing it, if it's automated and what the heck it is for!!!

So not having to eat out every night is a real joy but at the same time we have some great little eateries on our doorstep. We discovered a Vietnamese restaurant to my eternal joy which turns out to be super cheap too.

Other places we have enjoyed are the Why Not? Italian which has a nice garden to sit out in and the Smile Milk Bar - Rose Panacota - divine!

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The Librarista cafe's iced cocoa was a revelation!

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On my birthday we went for a roast at the Pub which is now within walking distance of us. Then we went to iBerry which is an ice-cream cafe in a fabulous garden setting with a huge character sculpture in the gardens and lots of quirky features.

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There's loads of cute little cafes with interesting arty decor that you come across while wondering the streets - dinosaurs et al!

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It's nice being settled and to have a little domesticity. The downside of course is that Mark is a messy bugger and I am reminded that housework sucks, but it is minimal so I really mustn't grumble.
So, we'll be here for a while with a brief trip to Laos in the middle. We'll be leaving most of our stuff back in Chiang Mai so we'd better hope nothing goes wrong with visas etc and we're not allowed back into Thailand where all our stuff will be!

Posted by KtandMark 07:53 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Cambodia to Bangkok & onto the garden city - Singa-poor us!!

by Kt

Escape from Cambodia
So we had, unusually for us a deadline for a place to be - we had a flight booked to Singapore so we had to make it from Siem Reap to Bangkok. Flying, although our usual choice of wimping out, was out of the question as is super expensive. Bangkok airways has a monopoly apparently so keep the flight prices high. So there were buses and mini buses and lots of horror stories to contend with. The thing I find hardest with the budget travel options is that they take sooo long. So for about £20 more we could get a car taking less than 3 hours or we get a bus which could easily be changed for a mini bus half way on the trip from what we'd heard, that took about 6 or 7 hours (or worse, I'd heard). We then had to find transport on the other side of the border but we're used to Thai buses so we thought we'd get a government one - another good 6 hours - hence the reticence to do it the Cambodian side too.

The drive was nice, the Cambodian countryside is lovely. We made a brief stop when the driver stopped to buy some meat from someone on the side of the road. There was a big old wooden table laid out with what seemed to be the whole cow - a big toothy, cow skull smiling out at us was an early morning treat I can tell you ;)

We kept getting someone phone us via the driver to arrange transport on the other-side. We didn't want to do this as we wanted to see what kind of transport we'd be getting but he kept up and what we assume was him appeared when we were dropped off at the border and started hassling us again. We sussed out leaving Cambodia and then walked into a rather bleak no mans land, complete with hotel/casino place. The towns on both sides of the border were really rather grim and I would not suggest to anyone bedding down no matter how convenient it might seem.
While queuing for Thai customs we got chatting to a young guy from Amsterdam. We were only westerners around that early in the morning and decided to look into splitting cost of a taxi. We got stuck at 'customs' for a while waiting for him. I say customs, there is just an ancient old scanning machine where they just get the odd person to put their stuff through. He had a bunch of stuff taken off him and we were a bit confused as to what it was about but have since realised that you can't take images of the Buddha out of Cambodia (I think this is true of Laos also and poss Thailand, though not sure it's enforced much).
Somehow on the other side of the border the guy who'd been hassling us on the Cambodia side appeared. Not quite sure how that happened but we just gave in and said if we agreed with the car we'd go with him - after haggling and telling him we would pay half the money up front and half when arrived in Bangkok we were on our way. It was not the fanciest car in the world. It had aircon.. just. It also seemed to have a spitfire in the boot. There were many points I wasn't sure if we'd make it. Mark and our new Dutch friend bonded over a love of diving while our driver dodged impending death a few times.

The highlight of the trip was the guy on a moped who was riding along his moped CROSS LEGGED...... ON THE PHONE...... ON THE DUAL CARRIAGEWAY!!!

We made it to Bangkok in just a few hours - taking taxis both side of the border had proved a tremendously good idea. I would highly recommend it and it doesn't even work out expensive if you can find a few people to travel with.

We had problems trying to get the driver to understand where our hotel was. The map on the phone, though in Thai was too small for him to read apparently. It concerned me slightly that he had such poor eyesight but had driven us such a distance - may have accounted for some of those near misses perhaps. If you start out highly strung when you go traveling, you really have to let it go. Just don't look is my main motto these days.

So, Bangkok.....

We were staying in the shopping district of Bangkok as we really needed to restock some clothes so we didn't go to Singapore looking like complete hobos.
This part of Bangkok was a bit of a culture shock, in a good way. It was like freakin Vegas - big, bright with anything you could wish to do, buy, eat! The nice thing about it was that it was side by side with the market stalls and the street food. The sky train as public transport was cheap and super easy. Was a real treat to get about in such a straightforward manner.

One of the things I loved about Bangkok was the bright coloured taxis. There were lots of bright pink one's which just made the traffic look cheerful.
There was also lots of sculptures, colour and interesting decor - a vibrant modern place.

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Food could be pretty pricey around where we were staying - the bagel shop I tracked down wasn't cheap but was really good. Always nice when you have something you haven't had for so long. We did find a fab little place that was decent value down the road from our hotel - the Pisces. And look they did their rice in a star shape - how can you not love that?

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I, to Mark's utter boredom, was delighted by the bath in our hotel room, though far from swanky, was exactly the Tiffany colour. This pleased me greatly. I still don't really know what to do with this information - felt I had to share it somewhere. Some of you understand, surely?

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Managed to get some shopping done, which was a very boring use of our time in Bangkok but it definitely showed me I'd like to spend more time there to explore.

Singapore

I had very much been looking forward to going to Singapore as, though a place I was interested to see, my friend Elena, who we'd hooked up in with in Phuket, lives there and so I couldn't wait to get together and have some fun. It was the week before my birthday so I considered this my birthday treat to myself.
And treated I was, emotionally and physically!! It's so nice to spend time with a friend you don't see very often and doubly nice when you've barely seen any friends for so long. It's also nice to be in a place where someone can guide you and knows how everything works. It takes all the stress out of everything. You don't have to make decisions and work stuff out and find things - it was utter bliss!!! I won't go into much detail to protect the innocent (or not so innocent) but give a quick rundown of where we went and what we ate.

On our first night we went to a private members club called the Tanglin club. Well let's start in style eh? I was glad that we'd invested in a few new clothes so they at least let us through the door! We had a very nice catch up and laugh, some champagne (oh happy day Veuve my fave!) and tried some Singapore food before heading off to a bar called Harry's, as Mark had expressed his desire to see a band. Not eloquently expressed as he'd had a few by then but 'I wanna see a band' was enough for fairy godmother Elena to make his wish come true.

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Harry's has been around for years and is a Singapore institution. It is opposite a place known as the '4 floors of whores'. Charming, oui? Well this place by night offers gentleman.. lady friends.. and depending on how high up the floors of the building you go, the quality of goods (for want of a better expression) improves. In Harry's, the band was very cool and also an institution. The charismatic, former singer, who lost his voice many years ago, still hangs around and joins them on stage. A sad but nice story of an interesting figure. As the evening went on there was definitely some negotiations going on with some of the clientele. By this time Mark was pretty merry and as his volume levels rose and appreciation of appropriate behaviour lowered, we managed to bundle him into a taxi home.

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The next day I started with a pot of teapigs tea. It is sad how disproportionately happy this made me. As we'd had a late night, our breakfast was so late that it was way past lunch but as I ended up having the best burger of my life, it was worth the wait. It was seemingly quite simple, a Wagyu beef burger (which I've had before and is always a bit special), sweet bread (not as in the offal of course) roll, pickle and just every bit was utter deliciousness. At this early point I was thinking it was going to be difficult to get me to leave this island.

That evening we went to a party at some friends of Elena's family which was lovely. Partly as the hosts family had cooked some amazing mutton biriani which was to die for, but mostly because it was just a very, warm, friendly, fun evening. It was so nice to be welcomed into someone's home and meet so many interesting people. By the nature of Singapore, it's population are so multi-national. Everything is a blend of styles, it really creates an interesting mix.

On Sunday I was able to tick off something that was on my bucket list. Climb Kilimanjaro? Bungee jump off a New Zealand ravine? Naaah - Champagne buffet in Singapore thank you very much!!! From the moment I'd heard about this Sunday brunch buffet where you get free flow, I repeat FREE FLOW champagne for the duration, it has been on my round the world bucket list. Shallow maybe - worth it? Definitely!
So this was at the St Regis. Elena is a regular so nabbed the best seats and talked us through it works. You have a menu of courses which you can order and is cooked in the kitchen, then you also have table after table of amazing food laid out that you can scoop up anytime you like. It is a french restaurant essentially which meant for amazing, fall on the floor with joy, stenchy, gooey cheese, amazing meats and seafood. Of course, it being Singapore there was plenty to cover all international tastes too. And did I mention the champagne?

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My favourite things from the things you ordered were: Crab Tartar & Avocado, Lobster Tartar with Black Pear Puree, Lobster Bisque, Sauteed Snail with Parsley & Garlic, Mushroom Risotto, Parmesan Cheese, Pan Seared Duck Breast, Pan Seared Scallops. They were all pretty tiny and incredibly tasty.

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Mark was a kid in a candy store/typical bloke at a buffet - he kept going back to the cooking station and had the same thing 3 time and seemed to feel the need to try one of anything he can get his hands on. I could see this was not going to end well. I was working on a much longer term strategy, making sure I wouldn't fill up on things I wasn't that bothered about so I couldn't appreciate the really special things (this theory was wasted on Mark). The nice thing about the whole thing is it's over a few hours (so for normal people - i.e not Mark - you have time to sit and let food digest) and is just luxurious and laid back affair. Did I mention the champagne?

I'm not a major desert person but the sweets were truly impressive. It was like they'd put Willy Wonka's factory through the Honey I Shrunk the Kids zapper.

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One thing I do adore is a rum baba and I think you can agree this is a great little number:

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Cheese & meats..... you have no idea how exciting this was for me. Proper cheese and meats are rare in Asia, well you can of course get them so it comes at a price and I've really missed it. Parmesan and Parma or Serrano hams are the one staple you will always find in my fridge back home. I could have just eat that and been happy.

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There was a bit in the salad section where you could kind of build your own ramen but as I often do with too much choice, got overwhelmed and came back with about 3 strands of noodle, a carrot and a cherry tomato. Elena who is half Japanese was appalled by my pathetic attempt and marched me back over to do it properly. There was a ceramic kettle which had hot miso which you poor on the noodles and then you top with the sliced bits and pieces. Here is my failure:

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And here is the correct version:

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That night we were pretty stuffed and tired so we all slobbed out and watched the strange mixture of the modern remake of Western 'True Grit', where we didn't understand a word they said and then 'Tangled' which was perfect! Elena's mum had supplied some left over bit and pieces which I didn't touch as was still too full which I was delighted about when her dad then turned up with left overs from the Japanese club which I happily wolfed down. It was a day, happily full of champagne, as I'd expected but it was also a day very happily full of some divine food. That is a happy tick on my bucket list, although I'm thinking about changing it to 'Have Singapore Champagne brunch once a year' :)

Next morning, a little sight seeing and some more food. We went to Little India which was way nicer than Little India in Kuala Lumpur. This was a nice heritage area, full of character and colour.

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We breakfasted on Dosa which is something I'd never tried before and loved.

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Next we went off to fairly new, super hotel Marina Bay Sands. This is a large hotel made up of 3 towers with a huge, cruise ship shaped (see what I did there) structure on the top. We went to the upstairs bar to have a few drinks (guess what) and check out the view. The swimming pool area is quite amazing, curving around the side of the hotel and with an infinity edge - very cool. Only problem, I thought, if I was staying there, I wouldn't be so keen to hang out there as you've got a whole bunch of tourists coming up to stare at the views and at you basically. Perfect for posers of course but not the greatest chill out going.

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I was particularly keen to see the 'Super Trees'. These are basically vertical gardens which have only just opened and I'd seen pictures of and they really are quite stunning. The whole area is kind of similar to the Eden project looking at eco botanical projects.

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One of the amazing things I learned was how much of the beachfront area was reclaimed. As in .. from the sea!!! Raffles is on beach road but isn't near the beach - that is because over the years Singapore has added to it's land by going out into the sea. This was a fact that, when on the top of an incredibly tall building on the edge of that land, made me feel a little bit wobbly.

We'd timed our trip quite badly as the Grand Prix was only due a couple of weeks after and the preparations had very much begun. From the top of the Marina Bay Sands you can see areas of the track. I can see how great it would be to be in Singapore for F1 because there are so many tall buildings you have lots of opportunity to get great places to watch.

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Then onto the infamous Raffles. It really is a gorgeous building and the thing that strikes me is how well built to be cooling it is.

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The long bar is actually not in it's original place - it was down in the hotel by the pool, but the for the sake of the guest's privacy it was moved up to the first floor on the outer corner. Pretty much all the features have moved but Elena says it doesn't have quite the same feel it used to, I guess that's to be expected. There are several factors the Long Bar is famous for:
- the mechanical fans, glamorously swishing above you

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- the Singapore sling, obviously we had one and it's actually quite nice - couldn't have much as it's too sweet for my tastes but pretty good!
- the peanuts in their shells are brought up from their big hessian sacks and you break em open and chuck the shells on the floor. It's tradition, but I tell you, it's quite hard - it goes against every grain. I tended to pile up the mess neatly then realising there was nowhere to go, just swept it all off onto the floor. Mark of course loved it and just flung it all over is shoulder.

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A new addition is the pigeons - all the peanut shell has made it attract some pretty bright pigeons who literally sneak in through the front door. Some customers who were in their eating were a little perturbed with the birds flying over when the staff try to shoo them out. We just found it funny and added to the character. I think this might be a battle they have on their hands for the foreseeable future.

I personally was just very excited about the hessian sacks - seriously - think back, when was the last time you saw one of those?

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The last thing we did (yep, more food, more champagne) was get some Chilli crab which Singapore is famous for.
We had the most amazing two starters. One was a sticky black squid dish, the other was a garlicy razor clam type thing.
Then came the crab! Wow, there was a lot of crab and it was messy. You really had to just get in and prepare to get yucky. And that I did! I liked the pepper crab more than the chilli crab I think.

As for what the parsnip shaped things in the top tanks were - your guest is as good as mine:

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And this meal I think pretty much took us to the point where we were so full of food we were walking like the Ghostbuster dough boy. Elena is well known for breaking people on a night out but she managed on more than one occasion to break Mark (Mark!) with food.

So Singapore was mainly about friendship, fun and food. I've talked mainly about the food of course here ... and the champagne, let's not forget about the champagne!!! I certainly won't. It was a fantastic break from the norms of budget traveling. I conceded that we may have to skip a few central American countries to make up for the cost but it was so worth it.

So what about Singapore as a destination - it is so different from the rest of Asia we've been to so far. It's so efficient and pretty and clean. That probably sounds weird but it's kind of a shock when you get there. It's in such juxtaposition to everywhere else. You notice it from the second you arrive to the second you leave. It's a remarkable country and has much to be proud of. It does it's own thing. It takes no crap. You do wrong you're in trouble. I respect that. You want to be there or live there, you gotta pay for the privilege - fair enough! And it's small. There's no where to hide that's for sure!!
It's a great place for getting your head together I think. That probably goes against the grain as you would assume that going to somewhere spiritual like Thailand would be better for that, but actually going somewhere where everything just works as it should and isn't crazy and contrary and time consuming... you have more time to think.

Posted by KtandMark 07:37 Archived in Singapore Comments (0)

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