It's clear to me now that my 2007 trip to Hong Kong and Bangkok was a gateway to exploring many new places in the world. It was the first time in over a decade that I'd added a new stamp to my passport instead of alternating favorite destinations in Europe with Japan. Upon returning home, I wanted to read more about Thailand which eventually led me to books on the nearby lands of Vietnam and Cambodia. I was particularly moved and inspired by the many accounts of those who survived the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1970's. As a youngster, I was raised with stories of the Holocaust along with the slogan of "Never Forget"; how ironic that at the very same time, there was a genocide going on in Cambodia of which I (along with adults at the time) was unaware.
Reading about a country is never sufficient for me; it merely whets my appetite to visit in person. So Cambodia has been at the top of my travel wish list- if I have one- for awhile. When I saw that the company I've traveled with to Africa was offering a trip that included Cambodia, I signed up immediately. As a bonus, it included a cruise on a luxury junk through Halong Bay which looked fabulous. I'd taken a huge cruise ship to Vietnam in 2010 but I hadn't chosen the option for an excursion to Halong Bay because I knew a half day tour wouldn't be adequate. I'd never anticipated being back so soon, but I was glad to now have a chance to see Halong Bay the right way.
Whenever I take a group tour, I like to bookend it with solo travel plans both to give myself some time alone as well as to do further exploration. Since the group tour ended in Siem Reap, Cambodia it was a no-brainer for me to add a couple days to the end to go to Phnom Penh so I could visit one of the killing fields. Pre-trip plans were less straightforward, but I ended up deciding on Beijing because I really wanted to see The Great Wall plus I wanted to visit an online friend. Due to connections, flight times and air fares, I also ended up with a day at Hong Kong Disneyland as well as an overnight in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
After doing much research on hotels in Beijing and Phnom Penh (primarily through TripAdvisor), I made reservations at small boutique hotels in both cities. I was a little hesitant about booking the Beijing hotel because I thought it might be more convenient staying at a larger hotel right by a subway stop. But in the end, I couldn't resist the charm of the small courtyard style hotel. Especially since it had resident cats; any hotel with cats has to be good.
Because I was going to Beijing for more than 3 days, I needed to obtain a Visa to enter China. I quickly determined that it would cost about the same and take less time if I ordered one through a third party service than if I took the train to NYC twice (to drop off the application and then to pick up the Visa) . I got a little nervous (OK, extremely freaked out!) when the delivery time for my passport ended up being extremely slow both going and coming. But it all worked out- and my passport was returned to me with a lovely Visa that included a picture of the Great Wall.
As the trip grew closer, I naturally got more excited with the realization that I was about to embark on a very diverse and epic set of experiences. This trip had a little of everything: outdoor adventures, history, culture… even Disney! Asia is perhaps my favorite continent to explore, and I couldn't wait for all the awesome that would be in store for me. As a bonus, I researched a number of cupcake establishments to include in my plans; I'd already crowned 2013 as my Year of the Cupcake. Somehow to me cupcakes symbolize beauty, love (since I've shared them with so many friends), and the childlike wonder with which I still view the world. So it definitely seemed appropriate to include cupcakes in my travel plans.
Since my flight was at 1:30 am and I didn't need to be at the airport until 11:30 pm, October 9 started out like a normal working day. I tried not to get too excited lest I be too distracted to focus on my work. When I left for home at about 5pm, it was like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders as I started to feel like I was starting to live the infinite possibilities of travel. It's like I had a coloring book with the outlines of some wonderful experiences; I looked forward to living each image and discovering just the right blend of brilliant colors and brush strokes that would fill in the details.
Fittingly enough, my journey started with a homemade S'mores Corn cupcake that my niece had her father deliver for the ride to the airport. It was definitely a yummy omen. We made terrific time getting to JFK: we left at 8:30pm and arrived just after 10pm. My friend Brian is absolutely awesome for offering to drive me to airports- and the bonus is that it's always great conversing with him about the Phillies, travel, and life in general.
Once I arrived at the airport, I found it oddly confusing to find my way around the terminal. I've been to many airports in the US and abroad without having any such issues so I will chalk it up to a confusing design for JFK terminal 7. In any event, the first check in counter I came across for Cathay Pacific was for priority customers. It was empty so they let me check in there, although they did not upgrade my seat (hey, a girl can hope!) When I later passed the economy check in, I saw that it had a long line; not that I was in any kind of a rush, but it's always sweet to avoid standing in a queue.
Making good time to the airport was great for Brian because it meant that he could get home earlier. For me? Not so much. JFK terminal 7 is absolutely dead that late at night. After a flight leaving for London at 11pm, my flight to Hong Kong was the only one yet to depart. So most of the few stores that had been open when I arrived were closing, and areas were getting roped off so that the floors could be cleaned. It was probably even less exciting than it sounds.
Upon taking a seat at the gate, I was overwhelmed with the number of Chinese people talking on cell phones. Loudly. Fortunately my new noise canceling headphones helped me zone out while I read some of my novel ("The Beauty of Humanity Movement"). I was disappointed to see on the TV that St Louis won their playoff game, although since the Phillies were out of it, I wasn't really following the post-season.
Finally, I was thrilled that it was time to actually board the plane that would take me away from the dead terminal. I prefer really long plane rides to having a connection; given the late hour, I was confident that I'd have no trouble getting some sleep on the plane even without medical intervention.
I really liked the seat design on Cathay Pacific- that might seem like a strange thing to say, but there were a lot of cool touches in their new economy seats. First of all, the seats contained both a USB port and a traditional outlet (although I had a hard time locating the outlet; it was underneath the seat and to the side) The food tray could fold in half, or you could just pull down a cupholder. But my favorite touch was the little tray just under the seat back video- it was just the right size to store my eyeglasses and headphones.
Dinner was served about an hour into the flight- 2:30am NYC time, 2:30pm Hong Kong time. So not really a "dinner" time anywhere relevant, but I just went with it. The chicken with rice entrée was pretty good. It came with a Haagen Daaz popsicle, but I was disappointed it had nuts. I was happy that the flight attendants came by promptly to collect the trays; I hate when I feel like I am being held hostage by a food tray that is sitting out for too long.
I don't remember most of the music I listened to because I easily fell asleep. My new noise canceling headphones definitely proved to be worth every penny! At about 10:30am NYC time and 10:30pm Hong Kong time, we were served "breakfast". I wasn't too thrilled with my omelet and wished I'd gotten the beef congee instead. But at least I enjoyed the strawberry yogurt. At about 2am Hong Kong time, I awoke from dozing to the smell of ramen noodles. I wanted some, too! I couldn't figure out how to page a flight attendant, but eventually I got one's attention (not easy to do from a window seat in a 3 seat arrangement!) It took awhile, but I got my ramen soup! That was another nice touch.
When I stepped onto the plane, the notion that I'd soon find myself in so many new and exciting places in Asia still seemed unreal. But the longer I was airborne, the more it sunk in that I would soon be disembarking into a wonderful Asian adventure.
When is it perhaps not-so-thrilling to land an hr early? When your flight is due to land at 5:20am; there is even less to do at 4:20am. I zipped through customs, skipped the bag claim, and emerged into an eerily peaceful Hong Kong International airport. After wandering a bit, getting money from an ATM (Yay! My card worked!), and noticing that of course McDonalds was open, I found my way to a pay lounge to rest up since Hong Kong Disneyland wouldn't open until 10:30am. I had decided to start my trip at HK Disneyland because I'd had great experiences in the past starting trips at Tokyo Disney- being at a theme park keeps me active and outdoors (the better to avoid naps that extend jet lag) and it's comfortable enough to ease any culture shock while still being different enough to feel exotic. Plus, there have been a lot of new attractions recently added to HK Disneyland.
Relaxing in a private room for 4 hrs proved to be an excellent idea. The room included a small bed, a shower, and even amenities like towels, toothpaste and bottled water. After posting the obligatory Facebook status update, I got a little sleep which I knew would serve me well in the long run. When my time was running out, I showered, changed into shorts, and grabbed some breakfast since it was included.
Although HK Disneyland didn't open until 10:30am, I left the airport at 9 and took a taxi to the park. I had plenty of time to sort out the purchase of my special in-transit ticket. I'd found the in-transit ticket option on the HK Disneyland site; for a price of about $40 (reduced from $60) you can visit the park if you are flying in and out of Hong Kong on the same day. The price also includes a free checked bag which I used for my backpack that was heavy with electronics. It took a little effort to get the cast members to understand the kind of ticket I wanted- they probably don't sell a ton of them.
It was quite hot waiting outside- definitely much warmer than it had been at home- and I tried to find a place that was somewhat shaded. At 10am, they let us in the park, but I soon discovered that only Main Street was open. Until the park opened, I browsed the shops and took photos of a castle that was devoid of crowds. It is my biggest regret that I didn't get my photo taken near the entrance with Mickey and Minnie in their Halloween costumes. I went back later but they had just closed off the line.
When we were let in at 10:30, I had a clear goal in mind: Mystic Manor which is located in Mystic Point, one of 3 new lands that were built on the left hand side of the park outside the circumference train tracks. As I walked there at a steady pace…, I realized that unlike the US parks and Tokyo, I don't have quite the same feel for the layout of the HK park. Especially with the new additions that don't exist anywhere else. But after only 1 or 2 wrong turns, I made it to my destination- and was elated to be one of the first on the ride for the day! Apparently it isn't quite as big a draw as I suspected, plus attraction crowds proved to be rather light in general.
Unique to the Hong Kong park, Mystic Manor is a brand new ride that just opened in May 2013. Since I'd read that its ride mechanics were similar to the excellent Pooh ride in Tokyo (which is NOT at all like the US parks), I'd been very intrigued to ride it. The story centers around Lord Henry Mystic and his adorable monkey sidekick, Albert. Lord Mystic has a music box that can bring inanimate objects to life if it is opened. You board a ride vehicle for what's meant to be a tour of Lord Mystic's collection. But when Lord Mystic isn't looking, Albert opens the box… and the rest of the ride guides you through the havoc that has ensues. Of course at the end of the ride, Albert is able to close the box without Lord Mystic becoming aware that it had ever been opened.
To be honest, I had hyped the ride up so much in my mind that I was slightly let down when I first rode it. But when I came back to ride a second time, I was able to appreciate it without the weight of my expectations; if you just sit back and enjoy, it's pretty damn awesome. And then I had to come back and ride a third time- which in itself is telling since I did not have very long at the park. Like the best Disney rides, there are so many details that Mystic Manor has a very high repeat value. It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who knows me that a plush Albert made his way into my suitcase and claimed a place of honor on my bed for the rest of the trip.
After my first visit to Mystic Manor, I found myself wandering around Toy Story Land- another of the 3 new lands. I really enjoyed the whimsy of the oversized decorations- such as benches that appeared to be made of popsicle sticks- which were designed to make the guest feel like they are toy sized. I rode the Toy Soldier Parachute drop, which provided a nice bird's eye view of the land.
On the way to Grizzly Gulch (the 3rd new land) to ride the Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars, I stopped off for my second visit to Mystic Manor since it was only a 5 minute wait. I've seen Big Grizzly Mountain described as a cross between WDW's Big Thunder Mountain and Expedition Everest and that description is pretty accurate. It was a lot of fun, and I loved the cute audio-animatronic bears that were part of the attraction.
Having now been on 2 of the 3 rides that were absolute "must do"'s for me, I headed across the park to the third: Space Mountain Ghost Galaxy. This is the classic Space Mountain ride but some new twists to the theme- for example, you encounter galactic ghosts as you travel instead of planets. I'd long wanted to see the Ghost Galaxy version of Space Mountain (which also exists seasonally in Disneyland, CA) and it didn't disappoint- not least because there was no line. I prefer the DL/ HKDL version of the ride in general because it has a soundtrack; when riding in WDW, it sometimes feels like something is missing.
By now it was almost noon, and I was definitely getting hungry and ready to take a break. I headed to the Royal Banquet Hall, a counter service restaurant where I'd dined on previous trips. Instead of the Dim Sum that I'd loved before, I decided to be adventurous and try the sushi. And I chose to go with the cute option of sushi in the shape of Mickey Mouse. That part was tasty but I didn't much care for the 3 other rolls that came with it, although I did enjoy the sides of soup and noodles.
As I walked in front of the castle, I encountered a band playing the "Grim Grinning Ghosts" theme from the Haunted Mansion (which does not exist in HKDL)- very cool! I also found a Monsters University display at the end of Main Street. After riding Space Mountain Ghost Galaxy again, it was finally time for English language performances of the Stitch Encounter show to begin. Stitch Encounter is a short interactive show with an animated Stitch that's very similar the Turtle Talk show at Epcot. The show is done in different languages (Cantonese, Mandarin and English) at different times of the day, and 1:30pm marked the start of the English version. I hadn't seen this attraction on previous trips because the English version never seemed to be at a convenient time. It was really cute, especially because my nieces and I have an affinity for Stitch.
After that, I wandered around the park enjoying a series of rides: It's a Small World, Mystic Manor (3rd time) and Grizzly Gulch (2nd time). At 2pm, some of the special Halloween attractions had opened and I found myself near the Revenge of the Headless Horseman so I got in line even though signs said there was a 30 minute wait (all the traditional rides hadn't had much of a wait) and I was starting to run low on time. I'd made my airplane reservations before I found out that most of the HKDL events were scheduled for later in the day. It seemed like a good idea to try at least one of them before I left. Right? Well. Let's just say that I was not impressed. The Headless Horseman thing felt a lot like any old dimly lit walk- through haunted house. I honestly had little idea what was going on (Jet lag? Language barrier? Lameness? All of the above?) and just was walking and following the people in front of me. I want those 40 minutes of my life back!
When I was finally able to break free, I encountered the daytime parade which featured a Stitch float. Once it was over, I indulged in a huge Jack Skellington cupcake; I'd been really excited when I first saw them for sale earlier because I hadn't thought I'd be able to find a cupcake at HKDL (that was the only one I saw). For some reason, I didn't expect it to taste good (maybe since cupcakes aren't a thing at HKDL?) but it was amazing. The vanilla cake was appropriately tasty, and it was topped with chocolate icing and sprinkles and then finally with a hardened sugar that formed Jack's face.
Once I was done eating, it was reluctantly time to start heading back to the airport for my 7pm flight to Beijing. I wish I could have been at the park at night for the glow in the dark parade and the character meets, but I'm mostly grateful that I was able to fit in a visit at all. At least I got to see enjoy the Halloween decorations, too. I was glad that there were some taxis waiting in the taxi area; I hadn't been sure if there would be.
I was quite exhausted and not amused that at 5:45pm they still hadn't listed a gate for my flight. Thanks to not being able to pack sunscreen in my carry on, I was also feeling a tad sunburned which didn't make me feel any better. But eventually there was a gate and I got on the plane; due to fatigue, I have little recollection of my time at the airport. I slept most of the flight even thought I'd downloaded a TV show to watch (premiere of "Once Upon a Time in Wonderland"). Before I knew it, we were landing.
My first observation of Beijing was that the airport was huge- and naturally we landed at the furthest gate possible. After a long walk, I had to take a monorail 2 stops to the terminal. And of course I ended up in the slowest moving immigration line. New lines would open and it seemed like everyone was getting processed more quickly than I was. But in the end it didn't matter as I still had to wait for my suitcase.
Finally, I exited the baggage claim area and brightened when I saw a man holding a card with my name and my hotel's name. It soon became apparent that he didn't speak English, which wouldn't have been an issue except that it was imperative for me to use an ATM before leaving the airport since I don't like not having local currency. I tried waving some Hong Kong cash and my wallet. But my meaning got lost- somehow, it seemed like he thought I was signaling that there was another person to wait for. Finally, he brought me to the tourist desk where someone was able to translate. Problem solved! We both smiled with relief as we walked to an ATM (which also worked with my card!).
I was excited to be in China for the first time, and tried to take everything in during the ride to the hotel. But for the most part, highways are… just highways. Even if the toll booth looks like something out of Chinatown. I also went online on my iPad and was able to use my work VPN to connect to sites like Facebook that are blocked in China.
When we finally got to the hotel at around midnight, I was handed a very nice personalized letter to inform me that the English speaking staff had left and that they'd do the official check in the next day; meanwhile someone who didn't speak English would show me to the room. It also contained useful information about breakfast and the password for the wifi. The gentleman who escorted me was quite nice, and I didn't feel at all put off by the fact that no English speakers were around.
My room seemed quite cute. But after taking a few requisite photos and unpacking my toiletries, all I was really interested in doing was getting to bed. It seemed like such a long time since I'd taken my early morning nap in the room at the airport- and even longer since I'd had a full night's sleep. I reflected on how wonderful my day had been, and on how my arrival in China marked the nascent start of the real adventure.
Although I woke up at around 7am, I lingered in bed for awhile enjoying the fact that I could just laze around. But eventually I got up and at about 9am I headed out.
It was easy to find the breakfast area at my hotel; when I walked out of my room into the courtyard, I walked through a gateway and spotted an open door with a staircase leading upstairs. Once I arrived in the breakfast room, I was thrilled to see one of the hotel's resident cats on the floor! I knelt down to pet him… and pretty soon I had a cat purring on my knees as I knelt on the floor. After I finally took my seat at the table, the cat came on my lap… and remained entrenched there throughout my meal. I loved that.
Breakfasts at my Beijing hotel were wonderful. Served with smiles by a female server and male chef, breakfasts consisted of a mixture of western and eastern foods: there was always yogurt, some variation of thick toast, egg and bacon as well as a Chinese dish like dumplings or pancake. The 2nd floor room was bright and comfortably decorated with cute Chinese touches. I felt quite at home eating- especially with a cat on my lap. After I finished eating, I enjoyed saying a few words to my fellow guests, and exploring the upper level deck outside of the breakfast room.
I hadn't made many concrete plans for my time in Beijing because I wasn't sure when my online friend, Anita, would be able to join me. It turned out that I was on my own for the first day so I scanned my wish list of sights and decided that that since it was so nice out, it would be a lovely day to visit the summer palace. Especially since I absolutely did not want to miss the giant rubber ducky currently on display there.
So at around 10:30, I excitedly left the quaint comfort of my hotel to explore Beijing. My hotel was in a hutong, which is a traditional Chinese neighborhood of narrow alleys. I was a bit concerned that I might not be able to easily find my way back later so I tried to pay attention to everything I passed. And when I'm traveling "pay attention" is almost synonymous with "take a photo"; I figured that taking photos would be a lot like creating an electronic trail of bread crumbs that I could follow later if necessary.
Once I made it to the subway, I made a point to photograph the sign that said I was entering at Exit C; that proved to be important since each subway station has many exits and you could easily lose your bearings getting off at the wrong one. (although I did have my iPad with its maps app so I could theoretically find my way from any exit)
Confident in my experience of having navigated through many varied international subway systems, I headed to one of the automated ticket machines. As I was trying to make sense of it, someone redirected me to a ticket window with a human attendant. To get there, I had to go through a security check which meant having my bag X-rayed. Surprisingly (especially given how crowded the subways could be), I found this check not to ever cause much of a delay or have a line. I did wonder what they were looking for; since I did not have to walk through a metal detector, I could easily have hidden all sorts of dangerous items in my pockets.
Beijing subways are dirt cheap: just 2 Yuan (roughly 33 cents) will take you wherever you want to go. They were also surprisingly clean and modern. The one downside was that they could be crowded to the point of exhaustion. No matter what time of day or where I was going, the subways were full of people- despite the fact that they seemed to run very frequently; There are just an enormous number of people to transport. The subway lines seem to be constantly expanding- a couple lines I took were so new that they weren't in some of the maps I'd found online, and there seemed to be even more lines slated to open in the near future.
Once I got off the subway, it was easy to find the summer palace. Like the other sights I'd be seeing, there was an electronic billboard next to the ticket office with English and Chinese prices and instructions. I chose to get an all inclusive ticket, even though I wasn't sure if I'd use all the extra options beyond the base admission; it just seemed easier.
The summer palace proved to be a great place to head on a clear day to experience that "wow I'm really in China!" feeling. I enjoyed the traditional architecture and the first of many climbs on the trip when I encountered Longevity Hill. After descending from the hill, I strolled on a delightful walk around Kumming Lake which revealed more sights.
But the duck. I'd been excited to see duck images when I first arrived- along with tons of vendors selling stuffed ducks (along with annoying noise makers). After walking up and down the hill, I was worried that I might have missed it because I was no longer seeing any conspicuous signs hinting to its presence. (How do you miss a giant duck? It would seem impossible but I wouldn't put it past myself when in unfamiliar terrain…) And I really didn't want to go up and down the hill again. When I finally caught sight of a large yellow object across Kumming Lake, I was so excited. I could relax now that I knew I was on the right path.
When I entered the Great Stage area of the Garden of Virtue and Harmony, I saw a lot of people seated on stairs opposite the stage as if anticipating a performance. When you see a lot of people waiting for something? You join them. Soon I saw some dancers come out for a performance. It was pretty interesting but after about 15-20 minutes, I joined the large numbers of people who were leaving. I didn't really understand what was going on. And, after all, I did have a duck to see.
Finally, I neared the large rubber ducky and it was all sorts of awesome. On its own merits, it was amazingly cute and cheerful. But there was something especially cool about having such a huge modern, familiar symbol juxtaposed against the historical, foreign surroundings of the summer palace. Some people might think it was heretical to destroy the landscape with it, but I (and apparently many others) reveled in the whimsy and in the way such different symbols came together.
As I was walking on the Seventeen Arch Bridge and trying to take everything in, I noticed some men who were flying kites. They were controlling them by holding spinning wheels, which is something I'd never seen- although admittedly I am not a kite connoisseur. All in all, it was a really nice and scenic area to spend the day.
When I was ready to leave the palace, I messaged my friend Anita about possibly meeting up for dinner. She wanted me to try vegetarian duck at a favorite restaurant of hers. Unfortunately, it would require taking a taxi… and I really didn't feel comfortable with that, especially with the language barrier and it being my first day in the country. Also, I'd read that most cabs wouldn't drive on Hutong streets so I wasn't entirely confident on finding my way back to my own hotel later. So I was on my own.
I used my iPad maps app to help me find the way to the nearest subway stop (which was a different one from where I'd entered). On the way, a cyclo driver pulled over and offered to drive me there, but I prefer to use my own 2 feet whenever possible. Once I found the subway, I had to figure out where I wanted to go. I hadn't done much research on where to eat and I somewhat randomly decided on Wangfujing since I thought I'd read it was a shopping area. There has to be food near shopping.
I was excited that the subway exit I chose in Wangfujing let me off in a mall. I soon found myself in awe of a display case of the cutest looking pastries at a place called Bread Talk. I couldn't resist one of the Hello Kitty pastries so I bought it for later. Unfortunately, by the time I got around to eating it later, it was no longer quite as perfectly formed. (in other words, it was a bit of a mess) It was, however, quite yummy!
As I often do when I travel, I found myself walking up and down streets trying to decide where to eat- and finding something wrong with everywhere I pass. I enjoyed taking in all the sights, and was amused to see a huge electronic billboard that was Epic Fail with a blue screen of death showing an English error message.
I walked past a duck restaurant a few times; it seemed like a lot of people were going in there so I poked my head into the lobby. A young woman smiled and directed me to take the elevator to the 4th floor- I shrugged to myself and my dining decision was made.
Once I got to the 4th floor, a woman gave me a slip of paper with a number and directed me to take a seat. Most US restaurants have seating areas with comfortable sofas or chairs facing each other that facilitate conversation (if they have waiting areas at all); this seating area had rows of chairs lined up facing one direction almost like in a school room. Part of me still wasn't sure if I wanted to eat there, but I thought it would at least be an experience and that I really ought to eat duck at some point in Beijing anyway. Plus, it seemed like a nice synergy to continue my duck motif from earlier in the day.
After a short wait, my number was called and someone escorted me to a table in a huge, rather gaudily decorated room. I wasn't sure what to order but I'm surely not the first clueless Westerner to wander in there and the waitress suggested that I order pancakes, sauce and scallions with my duck.
After a ceremonial carving an aisle or 2 away (which I would have paid more attention to if I'd known it included my duck), my food was brought to me. First someone gave me some random parts of duck- which I guess I was supposed to eat separately? Then they put a plate full of carved duck on a burner at the center of the table and showed me how to dip it in sauce and roll it up with scallions in the pancake. Although it was quite tasty (I'd never had duck before and wasn't entirely sure I'd like it), after getting through about ½ of the meat, I simply could not eat another bite; it may have been because it was fattier meat than I am used to.
The restaurant seemed fabulously tacky and touristy; most of the patrons were Chinese but I assumed they were tourists from other parts of the country. However, Anita told me later that it was probably the most famous duck restaurant chain in Beijing. So I guess when I randomly wander into places, I do a good job choosing them. She also commented that the Chinese aesthetic valued things Westerners would consider over-the-top.
After dinner, I took the subway back to my hotel. The iPad maps app helped me confirm I was going in the right direction; even after ensuring that I took the correct exit, I'd been momentarily disoriented.
I relaxed in my room for awhile, uploading photos and such, and went to bed at around 10pm. Despite not having a plan, I'd had a wonderful duck filled day and had successfully navigated my way through the maze of crowded Beijing subways. Jet lag- what jet lag?
Although I started out sleeping soundly, I woke up at about 4:30am and couldn't fall back to sleep until I took a couple of Advil. When I arrived at breakfast at 9, I was disappointed not to see my feline friend. However, it is definitely quicker to eat when you do not have a cat on your lap. Once again, the food was delicious and it was really a pleasant environment for starting one's day.
I decided to head first to the Temple of Heaven which I found to be an interesting combination of a historic sight as well as a community park. The temples were amazing, and on an epic scale that can't even be described: walking along vast passageways, it almost takes your breath away when you see your destination approaching. The architecture was gorgeous and the Disney freak within me was excited to see the temple that served as a model for the China pavilion in Epcot. (The original was of course way more impressive than the theme park version.)
But what that struck me the most was that I felt surrounded by an energy that made the area seem more vibrant than a typical historic site. Starting from the groups of people I saw exercising near the entrance, the park was full of clusters of music and activity. And yet there were also quiet nooks that were slightly off the main passageways.
At one point I was admiring a woman twirling a ribbon- she invited me to join in, so I did. She kept instructing me to move it in the motion of the number 8 and I think I finally got the hang of it. It was a bit of a magical moment to feel like I was sharing an activity with someone local and learning from them in spite of our very different languages. However, the magic was dulled when I realized that she probably just wanted to sell me one of the ribbons.
When a random person approached me and asked me to take a photo of him, I agreed with a smile and asked him to reciprocate. After asking where he was from, I found out that he was from Jordan. Throughout the rest of my trip, I was interested to see how many different nationalities I could meet. It truly feels like a small world when you can be standing admiring an epic sight in Beijing right alongside someone from a totally different part of the earth.
After the Temple of Heaven, I went to visit the Lama Temple which was on the same subway line. I try not to compare sights, but I couldn't help feeling that it was somewhat disappointing after the 2 larger-than-life attractions that had preceded it in my itinerary. Still, it was an active temple and I am always moved to see genuine acts of worship and faith. Although it almost makes me feel like I am intruding on them.
Finally, it was time to meet my online friend, Anita! And what else would we be doing but getting cupcakes? So I took a few subways… and then was so thrilled to finally meet her in person! I've long thought that Anita is an amazing person- if nothing else, you've got to admire someone who moved from Australia to China and managed to succeed setting up her own business in such a tightly restricted country. Especially when that business is working with special needs children- you've really got to have a ton of patience for that. And if that's not enough? She has a bunch of really adorable pets- 5 cats and 1 dog. Pet people rock. And she recently acquired the cutest tiny electronic car that was spray painted a wonderfully daring shade of purple.
Anita was just as stylish and friendly as her online persona. We had a bit of an issue finding the cupcake place, but no matter- I enjoyed seeing random statues and topiaries on the way. We were in a part of Beijing that, unlike the other places I'd seen, really could have been almost anywhere in the world. It was full of familiar stores inside Western style malls and shopping centers.
We split 4 cupcakes: mocha, double chocolate, green tea, and hazelnut. They were very cute and yummy… although the icing had a light whipped creamy texture of which I am not a fan. But more importantly, I enjoyed our conversation and getting to know her better. We talked about all sorts of things starting with our common interest in figure skating and expanding to various tangents.
While walking me back to the subway, Anita suggested that I get something to bring back to my hotel for dinner. She first suggested Subway (as in the chain restaurant) but I really didn't travel all the way to Beijing to eat somewhere that I wouldn't even choose to eat at home. Fortunately, we found a cute little place called Crepanini where I ordered a smoked salmon panini to go.
I enjoyed a quiet night at my hotel, which was good because I needed to get up early the next morning. After some time petting a purring feline, I showered and relaxed. The sandwich I'd brought back was a delicious dinner. After uploading some photos, I went to sleep full of excitement- tomorrow I'd be tackling the Great Wall! It doesn't get more epic Chinese than that!
I don't know if there has been any decision on any of my travels that I've agonized over more than trying to figure out where and how to plan my Great Wall visit. As soon as I planned my trip, it was a no brainer that I wanted to visit the Wall- but it's not quite so simple as that. There are various locations where you can tour the wall which range from crowded, touristy Badaling which is the closet to the city, to more remote areas which are more of a challenge to hike but which can be more scenic and which are certainly more authentic.
After seeing photos and reading more descriptions and TripAdvisor reviews than I could count, I felt drawn to Jinshanling. The photos (including the million or so my friend Kristen uploaded to entice me) were breathtaking. Parts of it were so unrestored that they looked like ruins, and I knew that could be a huge challenge for me. But would it be too much? That was my fear. I ended up paying a lot of money for a private guide just so I'd be sure not to panic like I had when I'd had some issues hiking in Kata Tjuta, Australia. (I can be a total klutz) Knowing that it may be my one and only chance to visit the Great Freaking Wall, I wanted to do it the best way possible for me, and money was of little consequence.
Although my alarm was set for 7, I was so excited that I got up earlier. I had another cozy and yummy breakfast. I was amused to see the same blond haired family I'd seen on the previous days when I'd been up later and wondered if they also got up early to see the wall or if there was some other reason. That family consisted of 2 parents and 3 children- a boy and 2 girls who were quite adorable. I wasn't sure where they were from, but I was slightly jealous that the children were able to travel someplace so exotic at their relatively young ages.
When I arrived at the hotel lobby at the designated time of 8am, my guide was already waiting. I took a deep breath, wondered what the hell I'd gotten myself into, and took a seat in the car. As we rode on the highway out of Beijing, my guide explained that the city was divided into rings and really tall buildings weren't allowed in the center ring. But he didn't really talk a lot, which allowed me to close my eyes and nap a bit; it is ridiculously easy for me to sleep in any moving vehicle which can be both a blessing and a curse.
We pulled off the road at what looked to be a vacant road stop and my guide said this was it. Wait, we're here already?! Actually, we weren't- it turned out that we had to drive a bit down the road to the next small road stop.
My guide told me there were 2 paths we could use to ascend the wall and I chose the one he said was more scenic, even though it would be a little longer. As we walked uphill, my mind could barely wrap itself around the fact that I was at the Great! Freaking! Wall! If you'd told me even 5 or 6 years ago that I'd ever make it there, I wouldn't have believed it. But there I was. Wow.
I have a bit of a phobia of stairs- which may or may not have anything to do with falling down (or being pushed?) some stairs at a playground when I was in first grade. Combined with some mental doubts about whether I'd chosen a route that was too difficult for me, it was slow moving at first since so much of the hike is up and down stairs. But eventually I got my groove on- going down was still a tad more difficult than up but it was all good.
And need I mention that the scenery was incredible? Although it was a cloudy day, visibility was quite good. I loved seeing the curves of the wall snaring through the early fall landscape as far as the eye could see, as well as the cascading mountain tops which faded to blue as they were further away. It was quite windy, but I'd dressed in layers so I was suitably protected; I felt even better after I eventually decided to put a scrunchie in my hair to keep it out of my face.
Just as I was getting more comfortable with the stairs, we came to the less restored sections of the wall where the steps (and other parts) were eroding. There were a number of times I looked ahead and thought "I have to go up/down that?" At these points, I felt that it had been a wise decision to spend the money for a private guide who could encourage me and also help me overcome my fears. There was only 1 time that I absolutely panicked; most of the time, I bravely soldiered forward, singing to myself to calm my nerves (my favorite song "Ich Gehor Nur Mir" which translated to "I belong to me"). I was determined to succeed- as I told my guide, I wasn't going to quit- and I couldn't quit even if I wanted to since it's not like a car could drive to the middle of the Great Wall to pick me up!
Despite my trepidation about actually hiking on them, the unrestored areas of the wall were quite dramatic looking and amazing to see. It was definitely a challenge outside my comfort zone to visit that area of the wall (even moreso mentally than physically), but I'm very glad I chose it. The only thing I regret is that I wish I'd taken some more time to just enjoy my surroundings- instead of stopping for a minute or 2, maybe stopping for 10-15 minutes or more and just soaking it all in. Although I suppose that such pausing might be more pleasant if one had a close friend to talk with instead of a stranger.
After about 3 hours on the wall, the guide informed me that we were going to descend back to the car. I was ready to not have any more challenging climbs to deal with, especially since my knee had been randomly aching. But in order to get down to the car, we had to go down (and maybe up) a lot of stairs. I jokingly wondered to myself if I was now tackling the "mediocre wall of China".
But soon I was back to the mundane reality of riding in a car, almost wondering if the previous 3 hours had been real. Before returning to the city, we stopped at a small, rather non-descript place for some lunch: me, the guide, and the driver. The guide asked me if I liked certain foods, and then we ended up with a bunch of plates served family style. There were a couple of main dishes: one of which I really liked, and one that was just ok (I think it may have been peppery or spicy?) I particularly liked the long strings of potatoes; I'd been a bit skeptical when they told me they were potatoes, but they were.
The ride back to the city was extremely boring. The guide fell asleep and there wasn't much to look at. The web page had mentioned seeing another section of the wall and the possibility of a photo stop at the Olympic stadium area, but the guide did not mention either. I was slightly disappointed but not too upset. I would have liked to have seen the Olympic stadiums but the Beijing city traffic was really annoying and that would have prolonged my misery.
When we finally got back to the hotel at around 5pm, I took a photo with my guide and then collapsed in my room and uploaded photos. I didn't want to think of moving a muscle for quite awhile!
After a couple hours, however, I was ready to start thinking about extricating myself from the bed. The previous day, Anita had strongly suggested that I come over after my Wall excursion since I really wanted to meet her pets. So I messaged her, even though I thought it was likely too late for that.
When I didn't get a response (it turned out she was out at a friend's), I decided to go to the front desk to ask for suggestions on places to eat. When I got there, I noticed a 3rd cat that I hadn't seen before! This one was all black and quite friendly. After the lady at the front desk mentioned a few places, she also said that I could get something upstairs- who knew my hotel served food other than breakfast?!? I went up to the breakfast room but couldn't find anyone so I went back to the front desk. (pausing a bit to pet the black cat who was following me) They called up to the chef and he was there when I went back.
I ended up ordering a big bowl of noodle soup, which was absolutely the perfect dinner after spending a brisk day hiking on the Great Wall. As I warmed my soul up with the delicious soup, I reflected on how I ended up liking Beijing more than I'd expected. I was sad that it was my last night, and knew I'd miss the lovely hotel which had quickly become a bit like a home away from home.
It felt nice not to set my alarm, but I still woke up around 7:30am. I couldn't believe it was my last day in China. I'd really started to feel at home at my cute little courtyard hotel and I was going to miss it. I was heartened to be able to spend some time petting my feline friend before another lovely breakfast served with a smile. I'm not a big foodie person- and definitely not a big breakfast eater- but those morning meals were really a great way to start off each day, mostly due to the friendly service as well as the great food and charming atmosphere.
I took a ton of pictures around the hotel because I wanted to always be able to remember as many details as possible. Finally at about 10, I checked out and left my luggage at the front desk since my flight to Kuala Lumpur wasn't until 1:30am. I'd already arranged for a private car to take me to the airport at 10:30pm.
Walking through the Hutong on this lovely morning to get to the subway, I reflected on how this once slightly scary path was now so familiar and comfortable. After navigating through the few bends in the narrow alley-like street, you reach the main street. From that point, there were actually 2 subway stations in approximately equal walking distance: which one I chose would depend on which direction I was headed. Either way was very easy. This time, I turned right to go to the more Southern of the 2 stations.
For a couple of stops, the subway car was crazy crowded even by Beijing standards. I came dangerously close to hurting this poor woman because of how my body was pushing her into a corner; I was able to rearrange myself slightly somehow, much to both of our reliefs. As nostalgic as I felt for much of Beijing, I knew I would not really miss being one among a huge mass of humanity in the subways.
My first destination was the National Center of Performing Arts (NCPA) because I wanted to get a ticket to see that evening's performance of the Ju Percussion Group's Mulan. It would be my only chance to attend a theatrical performance of any kind during the trip, and it would be a convenient way to occupy the evening before my late flight.
Finding the theatre was easy- it was connected to the subway. But once I got to the lobby I started to get nervous about communicating and I wasn't sure where to go. I got in a short line only to find out that the one I needed was across the room. Ooops. But I finally made it to the right place. Once I go to the window, the helpful lady let me use her computer mouse to choose the seat I wanted; I chose a spot about halfway back towards the center which ended up being about $50, quite reasonable. Fortunately I was able to pay by credit card.
Mission: Get Theatre Ticket had been achieved so I headed out to nearby Tiananmen Square. When I stepped outside, I took a few moments to admire the oval shaped architecture of the NCPA theatre building which some refer to as "The Egg"
It's impossible not to be somewhat awed as you approach Tiananmen and its iconic portrait of Mao Zedong. It may be just a crowded piece of street, but it's one of those places where I'd never imagined myself being able to see. After a few attempts, I was able to take a decent selfie at the sight.
One thing that surprised me about Tiananmen Square (which probably shows my lack of research) was that there is a huge avenue that bisects it. Before going through one of the arches below Mao's portrait to enter the Forbidden City, I crossed the avenue (via underpass) to walk around the other half of the Square because I was tempted by a large floral display. My attempts to take a selfie there were total disasters. However, when someone wanted a photo with me (are Westerners really that rare?), I had them take a solo shot of me with my camera as well.
I'd been warned from various travel sites about scams in which young Chinese talk to Westerners in English and eventually invite them to either tea houses or art places which result in the tourist being stuck with a surprisingly large bill (occasionally on the order of hundreds of dollars). But even if I hadn't been warned… it would have raised a huge red flag when I heard people speaking English sentences to me without even making eye contact- especially since they always sounded like they were reading from a teleprompter. Whenever I encountered this behavior, I put on my New York style stone face and marched straight ahead.
The visit to the Forbidden City includes an audio guide to wear around your neck which has a map and GPS; as you reach a building, it knows to start the playing the appropriate explanation. Very neat. As crowded as it was on a Monday, I can only imagine how bad it would have been on a weekend. It wasn't too bad just walking around since the area was designed on an epic scale. But if you wanted to look inside any buildings, you had to really push your way through the crowds. Eventually, I gave up on that and just enjoyed the architecture.
At one point, I noticed an earring fall out of the ear which had the audio guide headphone, but I couldn't find the backing. I retraced my steps and eventually was able to find it- which was rather amazing considering how many pairs of feet were walking through there all the time. It wouldn't have been a big deal to lose a backing, but it was awfully nice to still have it.
When I had about all I could take of the Forbidden City (about 2 hrs), I exited and crossed the street to Jingshan Park. It was such a relief to get away from the masses! The biggest draw of this park is that you can climb to a landing that boasts an incredible overhead view of the Forbidden City! I somehow managed to find the hardest way to get up, but boy was it still worth it. I took some photos of some people from Venezuela and one of them in turn took one of me.
I made my way to another park, Behai Park, which was also a refreshing change from the crowds around Tiananmen. It was a beautiful sunny day, and so it was quite pleasant to wander around the lake there, snapping photos.
Eventually I walked to the subway- having an International plan on my iPad was really useful for being able to pull up the maps app to be sure I hadn't inadvertently wandered in the wrong direction. I rode on what I'd consider to be a shockingly empty Beijing subway car: one where you have plenty of personal space to breathe even though many people are standing.
Unsure of where to go for dinner, I headed to the mall I'd passed through in Wangfujing on my first night. After driving myself crazy going back and forth among the many options, I timidly asked if I could eat at a small ramen place. I'd been craving spaghetti and meat sauce which was one of the items on the menu displayed outside; unfortunately, it was not available so I improvised and ordered a soup with noodles and wontons which ended up being delicious. I also ordered strawberry pomegranate juice because it seemed intriguing.
I had some time to kill so I decided to walk back to the NCPA theatre which took me back past Tiananmen Square. It was definitely more calm there than during the day, but that was probably because parts of it (like the huge section with the floral display) were closed to the public at this time.
I calmly got in line to get my bag x-rayed on my way into the theatre. The attendant said something about my camera and I responded matter-of-factly that I wouldn't use it. Unfortunately, that wasn't good enough- cameras were not permitted in the theatre so I had to check mine at the coat check. At least it wasn't my DSLR which I'd hate to let out of my sight unless it was locked up. After I handed in my little point and shoot and received a bracelet with the claim #, I wished I'd thought to take out the memory card just to be safe.
To say that I was not happy about having to check my camera would be an understatement. But once I saw that everyone and their brother were taking cell phone pictures, I was really annoyed. Stupidest. Rule. Ever. Especially since cell phones these days have better cameras than some point and shoots. As a matter of civil protest, I took some photos with my iPad even though I knew I wouldn't use them for anything. In all my years of theatre going, I've never had to surrender a camera. Only in China.
There were several theatres in the same building and at first I ended up at the wrong one, but eventually I found the correct place. I knew that the show wouldn't be the same as the Disney version of Mulan, but I wasn't prepared for how little I could follow the plot. I soon decided to just enjoy the music on its own merits. The show appeared to be a combination of traditional performance styles with modern percussion and movements; I particularly enjoyed the rhythms. Despite not following the storyline at all, 90 minutes flew right by.
The one odd thing to me (aside from the stupidity of having to check my camera) was that a lot of people left early; not just 1 or 2 but quite a number. I have no idea if this is typical in China or if it even has any connection with perceived quality of performance. It seemed rude to me, but the Western concept of rudeness often has no correlation to Chinese behavior.
After the show, I was relieved to be reunited with my camera; I would have been devastated if by chance I had lost the day's worth of photos. I took one last trip on the Beijing subways and then enjoyed the short walk to my hotel.
Once I arrived, I was shocked that my driver was already there- 30 minutes early! Fortunately they let me take a few minutes to wash up and take out my contact lenses. I also had some last snuggles with my favorite cat; I was glad to be able to say goodbye to him.
The 1:30am red eye flight seemed like a good idea at the time, but I was wicked exhausted when I got to the airport. After going through security (which entailed taking my cameras out of my carry on- what is it with Beijing and cameras?), there was nothing to do. The airport was dead, which robbed me of the chance to get any Beijing souvenirs to bring home. (I hadn't stumbled upon any good sources in the city and usually get last minute gifts at the airport) At least I was able to buy some M&M's; I bought 2 small bags and ate both of them. I'd been missing my chocolate so I definitely enjoyed them.
I wasn't surprised that boarding was not segmented by row number- it was just one massive free-for-all line for Economy seating, and fortunately I was toward the front of the queue. (since I wanted to get to be able to close my eyes in my seat) I was flying on Malaysian Air for the first time- although I was so tired that I would have been ok going on Air Madagascar. The only things that struck me about Malaysian was that the blankets were a lovely shade of purple and that the flight attendants had pretty uniforms.
Having a vacant seat next to me for most of the flight between Beijing and Kuala Lumpur was conducive to a peaceful flight. (a gentleman sat next to me only for take-off and landing) However, I still felt like I wasn't able to get enough sleep. The flight attendants came by with meal service at about 6am- I ordered the chicken and noodles but could only barely stomach some noodles. There's not much else to say about the flight, which is probably good. (ETA this was written before the tragic events of Malaysian Air flight 370 which was scheduled to fly the exact opposite of my route on 8 March 2014)
Kuala Lumpur airport is an amazing place to land- mainly because you don't even have to fill out any forms for immigration or customs. It didn't take long to claim my suitcase and make an ATM stop. I'd already purchased a ticket for the KLIA Ekspres train into town, and it was very easy to find my way to the boarding platform. After the overwhelming crowds of the Beijing subways, it was almost shocking to be on a train where half the seats were empty. The 30 minute ride into the city was pretty relaxing and I took advantage of the time to go online on my iPad.
Since I only had a quick overnight stay in Kuala Lumpur, I'd chosen to stay at a convenient hotel across from the Sentral station which was the end-point of the airport train. After getting in my room at about 9:15, I promptly collapsed onto the comfortable king size bed. I'd originally planned lofty goals of zipping around the city all day, but I was exhausted from the overnight flight not to mention the whirlwind of Beijing. Plus, it was a million degrees and humid outside. Or so it seemed.
Were it not for the alarm clock in the hotel room randomly going off at noon, I might have slept all day which would have been a waste. Feeling refreshed after taking an awesome hot shower, I headed back across the street to the train station to head to the Batu Caves on the outskirts of the city. At a convenience store in the station, I bought a yogurt and cheese bread for a light lunch.
I was surprised to see that there was a waiting area that was designated for ladies only. I don't recall encountering such a designation previously in my travels, but a quick Google search revealed that ladies only passenger cars exist in various countries around the world. At one point, I saw a man standing in the ladies only area and was slightly disappointed that the earth didn’t open to devour him or anything.
My train was scheduled to arrive at 1:24pm and when that time came and went, I started to wonder if it was not going to come, but eventually it showed up at 1:37. (there had been no announcements of a delay; but since the trains run every 30 minutes, I wasn't overly concerned) The train was comfortably uncrowded; after Chinese subways, I had definitely grown more appreciative of not traveling like a sardine.
I meant to take the day easy, but my idea of taking it easy is apparently not incompatible with climbing up and down 270 stairs in the heat and humidity to reach the Batu caves. Actually, the steps weren't too bad because there was a railing to hold onto. I think my issue with stairs is 90% mental, so having some stability helps a lot.
The Batu caves are the home to Hindu shrines. After climbing all the stairs and taking a moment or 2 to turn around and admire the view of Kuala Lumpur, you enter a cave like structure which is where the colorful shrines are located.
There are wild monkeys roaming around the Batu caves area. So naturally I had flashbacks to the klepto monkey who stole my memory card in Kenya. Fortunately, the monkeys I encountered were law abiding and I'm pleased to report that all of my possessions successfully remained with me.
After I had my fill of the caves, I headed toward the Petronas Towers area to get my bearings. I had already purchased a ticket online to ascend to the observation deck first thing the next morning, and I wanted to be sure I knew where I was going. Plus, I was tempted by an adjacent mall that included a cupcake shop that looked interesting.
When I changed trains, I had to get another ticket for my 2nd train since it was a different system. I was about to insert a bill into the automated ticket machine when a nice woman stopped me and told me it would have spit out a ton of coins in change. I often feel that people in other countries are kinder to foreign tourists than we are in my own country; I was very grateful to that anonymous lady for reaching out to help me in a small way.
When I emerged from the subway at about 4pm, I poked my head around a bit and there they were- the iconic twin Petronas towers stretching tall into the sky! I stopped to take the obligatory photo (or 12) and then headed inside to figure out exactly where I'd need to go in the morning. Noticing that they were already sold out for tickets for the current day, I was glad I'd bought mine in advance. A nice man asked me to take his photo, so of course I had him take mine and also asked him where he was from- Add Abu Dhabi to the list of locations of random travelers whose path crossed mine.
Once I was satisfied with scoping out the location and I'd purchased a few souvenirs for friends, I headed to the adjacent Suria KLCC mall. It was huge and rather upscale. As tempting as it was to shop (and find the cupcakes), my first order of business was to find a place to eat a proper meal. I was craving Italian food so I consulted the directory and was pleased to find a suitable restaurant.
The restaurant was actually an open air facility that overlooked the gardens and a fountain. In addition to filling my need for spaghetti, dinner provided me some time to relax and just revel in my surroundings. As the fans spun above me and delighted me with a gentle breeze, I felt profoundly lucky to be somewhere I never thought I'd be. As comfortable as I felt with my surroundings, it occurred to me that I'd probably never be in that spot again (or if I did, it wouldn't be for a very long time). So I just wanted to appreciate the moment, an idyllic oasis of a pause in the middle of an exciting adventure.
My meal did not quite meet the restaurant's minimum for credit cards, so I paid by cash. When I got my change, I noticed it was short by 1 ringgit (the Malaysian unit of currency which is equivalent to about $0.30; the minimum for credit card charges was 50 MYR or about $15). I mentioned this to the server- I was surprised that instead of just bringing me an additional 1 MYR, they took the whole bill back and brought it anew with the correct change. I think it was an honest mistake, and they apologized.
Next stop- cupcakes! When I found the kiosk, I was completely overwhelmed by how wonderfully delicious all the cupcakes looked. I circled around a few times trying to decide, and then headed to a nearby ATM to withdraw a little more cash. (fortunately, my bank- Charles Schwab- refunds all ATM fees so it's fine to get small amounts abroad). And then I walked around some more, taking in each beautifully tempting creation. Finally, I settled on 4 and made my purchase: Blonde Velvet (white rainbow cake with chocolate cream cheese frosting), Dark Secret (chocolate cake with chocolate frosting), Chocolate Dementia (chocolate cake with ganache topping) and a premium chocolate peanut butter one.
Protectively carrying my box of goodies, I started to make my way back to the hotel. On the way out of the mall, I stopped and bought a cute pair of purple floral earrings; I was debating the purchase way too much since they were so affordable. It turns out that I wear them all the time now, so I definitely made the right choice.
When I got back to the hotel at around 7pm, I wanted to check out the rooftop pool area to at least take some photos. Unfortunately the pool closed at 7. D'oh! So I took a shower which felt incredible after a sweaty day in the humidity.
My original plan had been to leave from Malaysia the same day I arrived which would have allowed me just enough time to at least see the Petronas Towers and grab some cupcakes. Sitting in my hotel room, I was really grateful I'd changed that plan- being able to stay overnight made the experience a lot less hectic. Since the wifi was free, I downloaded the latest episode of Amazing Race to watch on one of my future flights.
Finally- it was time to break out the cupcakes! They tasted as sensational as they looked. I may have devoured 3 of them over the course of relaxing the night away… I celebrated the fact that my solo travels were coming to a very successful end, and looked forward (with some slight anxiety) to joining my group tour the next evening.
After a satisfying night's sleep, I woke up at 7am. The remaining peanut butter cupcake proved to be a most excellent breakfast.
I headed back to the Petronas Towers for my 9am visit. The only way for a member of the public to go to the top of the Petronas Towers is to get a timed ticket and I'd already purchased mine online several weeks earlier. I arrived early and there was some confusion when I asked where to go since I knew I didn't have to get in the line for purchasing tickets. Eventually, I stood aside and had a lovely conversation with a woman from Australia which passed the time nicely before the kiosk was open at around 8:30; she tempted me with her raves for Chiang Mai, Thailand.
After the ticket offices opened, I got in line for the first tour. I met some nice people in my group including a man whose wife declined to join him due to her fear of heights. I don't personally love high places, but I'm ok when they're enclosed and I like to experience iconic sights. I had to check my backpack, but I was able to carry my camera around my neck and my small camera in my pocket. (I always prefer having multiple cameras available when I travel; plus, the small camera also had an extra memory card with it)
Our first stop was the 42nd floor skybridge between the 2 towers. While ascending, the elevator walls were animated with the view that you would be seeing if it were a glass elevator with an outside view. (it's not) Since I was in the very first group, I was able to photograph a rare sight: a skybridge that did not have any tourists in it. Our 2nd stop was the observation deck on the 86th floor. I was lucky to have a clear day and I took a bunch of photos.
The tour ended at 9:45 which gave me plenty of time to head back to my hotel and then make my way to the airport for my 1:45 flight to Hanoi. When I got back to the hotel, I was able to take a walk around at the pool area and get a few photos. There was no time to actually swim, but that was ok since I'm not a big pool person anyway.
A nice feature of the KLIA Ekspres train is that you can check in for your flight at the station across from my hotel, at least if you are on certain airlines. That was super convenient, especially since it meant that I wouldn't have to lug my large bag through the train.
KL International Airport proved to be one of those annoying airports with few food options once you pass security. This was disappointing since it was otherwise a very nice looking, modern, airy building. But it did have some nifty plane models on display- so at least there's that? And apparently the sign not to go in that area and touch the planes didn't apply to the kid of one guy I saw.
I made my way to my gate, which of course ended up being the very last gate at the very end of a corridor. I was super early so I just plopped myself down on one of the interesting looking seats to relax and read some of my book. The annoying person playing loud music behind me made that goal harder to achieve. And naturally, since I was early and the airport was not thrilling, the plane was a little late.
The most thrilling thing about my flight to Hanoi was that they served a meal; by then even the most questionable Air Madagascar food would have tempted me. The chicken curry was satisfying enough and my tray also had a yummy pastry.
The least thrilling thing about my flight to Hanoi was that the lady sitting next to me was reading her newspaper such that her elbow extended well into my personal space.
Once I arrived at Vietnam, I was a little nervous about the customs procedures. I needn't have been, though, because everything went smoothly and efficiently. I'd gotten a Visa On Arrival (VOA) letter in advance which is easier and cheaper to get than an actual Visa. It basically means that you are approved to get your Visa once you land. So I made my way to a queue for the VOA window to hand them my letter and passport (and I think there was also a form). Then I made my way to the other side of the VOA kiosk to wait for them to announce when my passport was ready, at which point I paid the designated fee in US$ and entered the general customs line (where people who had regular Visas had queued up). Although I was at the very end of that line, I had my luggage and was ready to leave the airport 35 minutes after landing. You can't really ask for more than that.
I'd arranged for a driver to take me to my hotel so that I wouldn't have to deal with any dodgy taxis. I always breathe a sigh of relief whenever I book a driver and I actually see him waiting for me. It was a rainy night in Hanoi and the ride to the hotel seemed to take forever. Especially when the streets became congested as we came closer to the city center. Fortunately, I was able to get online and see that someone from my group was asking if anyone wanted to meet up for dinner. Yes, please!
On the way to the hotel, the car stopped at a random street corner and someone handed a bag to my driver. No, that didn't seem fishy at all… I still have no idea what that was about and I'm thinking it's better that way.
When I arrived at my hotel, I went to the desk and asked for the key. I told them that my roommate had already checked in, since she was supposed to arrive the previous day. They handed me an envelope and told me that I was the first to check in for my room. Feeling confused, I opened the envelope to see if maybe it had some explanation. It was a letter from the woman I was supposed to room with (the travel company matches people up to split costs and tries to find someone compatible)- she said that since she and another woman had arrived the previous day, the hotel said it would be easier if they stayed in the same room. Basically, it meant I'd be rooming with someone I'd never even talked to online. I'm a big planner so this threw me for a bit of a loop! My assigned roommate said we could room together on the next segments if I wanted. (spoiler alert: we didn't) I know it obviously couldn't be personal since she'd never met me in person, but I am insecure (particularly at times when I need to meet a new group of people) so I can't say it didn't sting a little anyway.
I barely had time to drop my bags in the room and take in the situation before it was time to meet in the lobby for dinner. I'd looked up the restaurant (Bobby Chinn's) online and it was super gourmet which isn't usually my thing. But I was eager to meet some of the people from my trip and I always like to stretch my comfort zone.
There were 3 other women who wanted to meet up, and they were all fabulous dining companions. The meal was punctuated nicely with travel tales and there was never a lull in conversation. The stories I heard of some of the seedier places in Bangkok had us all laughing mightily, and left me wishing I'd been a little more adventurous (or maybe that I hadn't been there solo).
The restaurant was really cute and trendy looking. For dinner, I chose the crab corn soup, tuna tartar and blackened (barramundi?) fish. It also came with a dessert plate that included a decorative sampling of 4 mini desserts- and curiously enough, the slimy looking black thing was the most tasty; it was some sort of chocolate. I'd exchanged some US $ for Vietnamese dollars at the hotel desk before I left but there wasn't enough to pay for the meal so I used some of my US $ anyway. (most places in Vietnam accept US $) Finally it was time to take another taxi back to the hotel- but not before we all paused to photograph the front porch which was illuminated by a myriad of red lanterns.
When I got back to my hotel, I washed up and then met the woman I'd end up rooming with. She was really nice; I wish we'd been assigned originally so I wouldn't have had to deal with any drama or surprises.
The one interesting thing about our Hanoi hotel room was that the sleeping area had a glass wall separating the bathroom. Sure, there were blinds that could be closed to conceal the area (which we all closed immediately)- but really, who wants or needs a window there?
At breakfast, there were big hellos for a couple friends I hadn't seen since my Kenya trip in 2010. The buffet had a nice selection; I particularly liked the little donuts. I also finally met the woman who was serving as tour leader- her posts on Facebook had given me the impression that she was an enthusiastic person who would be an awesome person to travel with.
Since breakfast was informal and we ate at small tables, I didn't have a chance to meet anyone new. After meeting in the lobby, we had to divide into 2 buses for our morning touring activities. So there were a bunch of people I wouldn't even get to see all day.
Our first stop was at the Temple of Literature, which I'd seen on my 2010 trip. It was still nice to see it a second time, though our stop was once again very brief.
Next we headed to the Old Quarter where our group rode in a line of cyclos to get an overview of the area. It was a miserable day out, so most of us were shielded in plastic coverings by our drivers. I was starting to feel like I was coming down with a cold, so the chilly and somewhat wet conditions weren't ideal for me. But it was still a bit of a hoot to be zig-zagging through the charming Old Quarter streets in a line of about 40 cyclos! I later found out that some drivers were better than others at pointing things out; mine occasionally tapped me on the shoulder and pointed out things and made sure I took a photo of them- whether or not I felt a need to make them Kodak moments.
Back on the bus, we could choose to either be dropped off to explore the Old Quarter further on our own or to ride back to the hotel. Everyone I knew on my bus was doing a walking food tour which wasn't really my thing, and I wasn't able to ask anyone on the other bus what they were doing. Basically, I felt overwhelmed trying to figure out what to do. Had I been a more secure person, I might have cheerfully invited myself to tag along with someone I hadn't met yet.
It's probably for the best since, as I mentioned, I was coming down with a cold. Plus I was starting to feel a bit worn out after a week of whirlwind travel. There were still places I hadn’t seen in Hanoi, but at least I'd been there before. So I went back to the hotel room for some downtime. It felt good to snuggle in my warm bed, enveloping myself in the warm covers.
After taking a nap, I decided to try to find a cupcake place I'd identified on Facebook. It seemed to be only about a mile away. With the aid of Google maps, I was able to find the location… only to discover that it wasn't a retail store. I was able to peer in the window and see someone making cupcakes but it didn't appear to be open to customers.
Depressed with my failure, I headed back to my hotel. I wasn't really happy with the first day's programming for my tour- we had a lot of free time, but I wasn't able to meet everyone especially because we'd been split in half for the morning. I had been so busy planning my time in solo cities that I hadn't done any Hanoi research figuring I'd just go with the flow. In any event, I had a good cry back in my room before I eventually finished the book I'd been enjoying, "The Beauty of Humanity Movement". It's always a special feeling to be reading a book in the city where it takes place.
Our welcome dinner at the hotel's buffet restaurant had been postponed from the first night because the majority of the group was getting in late and would probably have been too exhausted with the time change from the US. As an ice-breaker, our tour leader had made out a sheet with various clues that we had to find fellow travelers to sign. These ranged from the common (someone who has a dog) to the more obscure (someone who is on their first overseas trip). I may have been the only one who qualified as "someone who had been to Vietnam before." It was a neat idea, but I felt a little overwhelmed by all the activity of the more assertive people running around to get signatures; I didn't care if I won a prize for being the first to getting the whole page signed. I was more appreciative of the little goody bags our tour leader had made up for us- she gave a sweet little speech about the meaning of each item.
Dinner was quite good. The fact that I didn't take a single photo of anything I ate indicates that I was clearly not feeling well. I recall having some local specialties, and that I couldn't resist the stand where they cooked pasta to order.
I was lingering after dinner because my afternoon nap left me wide awake. One of my friends from Kenya was trying to get people to join her at "The Rooftop", a bar that was supposed to be on the top of an adjacent building. I was still feeling a bit run down, but I figured it would be nice to salvage my day so I decided to join in. This turned out to be one of the smartest travel decisions I've made.
It would seem like it should be straightforward for 5 accomplished world travelers to find their way to a rooftop bar. And so we boarded the elevator full of confidence that we'd reach our destination in no time. The elevator went up- only to go back down before it had even come close to the top. After this happened a few times (including one time when we descended all the way down to the basement), we heard voices from the beyond speaking to us in Vietnamese that we obviously could not understand. We were dying of laughter because the situation was just so absurd. Eventually we realized that you had to push buttons outside of the elevator in order to select the correct destination floor.
I'm not sure how I would have imagined a Vietnamese hot spot, but it certainly wouldn't have been the small but elegant, crowded room we found. We decided to head outside, in spite of everyone trying to dissuade us by saying that it was too cold on the balcony. It was a little chilly to be sure, but not horrible. And at least it was quiet enough to have a conversation, which would have been difficult to do with the music playing inside. So we gathered chairs around a high top table and placed our orders. (still not feeling great, I stuck to water)
The view was striking, and gave us all a totally different perspective on Hanoi than the brightly crowded streets we'd seen earlier. I always love gazing at the infinite lights of a foreign city because it reminds me of how when I am traveling, anything is possible. And how despite how different a place and its people may be, we are all united under the same starry sky.
When any small group of travelers hangs out for the first time, conversation is lively. Indeed, the elevator giggles were only the prelude to much more hilarity to come. We noticed some guys speaking
English which led to the oh-so-observant and much repeated remark "They're from somewhere!" Eventually, we talked to one of them and found out that he was an essential government employee who was originally from San Antonio. (this was during the period of government furloughs)
At one point when we glanced inside, we were surprised to see what looked like ballerinas so a couple of the more curious of us went inside to investigate. Sure enough, there was a full fledged show going on the tiny stage. Men in white were dancing with women dressed like ballerinas or with giant feathers on their backs. It was amazingly surreal. After the show ended, we went back outside and they were shooting fireworks from the balcony not too far from us! (we happened to be there on the anniversary of the club) I'm not sure how safe that was, but there were no injuries so it's all good.
The night at The Rooftop was more wacky and crazy and wonderful than words can even begin to describe. It definitely more than made up for my earlier malaise. That's the great thing about travel- sometimes the best experiences happen where and when you least expect them.
Early mornings when traveling are best handled with a healthy dose of excitement. On this day, I was beyond excited to be heading to Halong Bay for what promised to be a scenic 2 night cruise. So 6 am wasn't too painful despite the late night.
But first things first. We had to deal with the basics of hotel life, including another morning at the buffet, last minute packing, and checking out of our room. Hi ho, the glamorous life.
You may recall that my assigned roommate had decided to room with someone else in Hanoi. While we were milling about the lobby waiting to leave, that "someone else" came up to me and asked if I'd mind if the 2 of them continued to room together for the rest of the trip. Well, what could I say- I certainly wouldn't want to be staying with someone who didn't want to be around me! Especially since the woman I ended up with had been so sweet. But I still think that it was classless for the would-be-roommate not to discuss this with me herself.
The 3.5 hour bus ride to the port didn't seem that long thanks to the entertaining commentary of our tour guide. He recommended the movie "Three Seasons" which I still haven't seen, but hopefully I will sometime. At the rest stop, I was thrilled to accomplish an important task that had eluded me during my 2010 trip: purchasing earrings from Vietnam.
As I kept my face pressed against the window, it was amazing to see a foggy Halong Bay grow ever closer. I tried to see if anything seemed familiar from my 2010 port call, but it really didn't; if anything, the road to the port seemed to have been built up much better than I'd remembered.
After getting off the bus and ensuring that our luggage had made it, we donned life vests and took tenders out to our ship. In all the older photos, the Halong Bay ships looked majestic in their brown wooden color. However, much to the chagrin of many tourists, the authorities had recently declared that ships needed to be white. So the gorgeous teak wood was now covered with white paint. The ship still looked inviting, but oh how amazing it would have been in the original, elegant color.
Our group had the ship to ourselves. After a briefing, we explored our rooms which were quite lovely. Mine had a little balcony- all the better to stand on and wave to friends! We didn't spend too long in the rooms because we were well overdue for lunch. There were a variety of foods on the lunch menu, and I tried at least a little of each of them- even ones that I wouldn't generally order. The caramel cake was particularly yummy. Meanwhile, I didn't know which way to look because I was surrounded by so much amazing!
Our first stop was Luon Cave, which was really more of a tunnel we passed through after we transferred into smaller boats rowed by locals. In the lake past the cave, we paused to admire the monkeys perched on the rocks above- notably too far away for them to make any mischief with my belongings! We also noticed a woman who rowed beside us in a boat that was overflowing with stacks of such Vietnamese treasures as Ritz crackers and Oreos which she peddled to tourists.
Later, we stopped at So Sim Island which featured a small beach and paths to hike. Since I'm not at all a beach person, I started cheerfully hiking up the path. I stopped when the climb ahead seemed too steep and decided that I was ok with the fabulous view at the level I achieved. I later saw some amazing photos from the higher landing, but I'm still good with my decision. The island was so serene, and I just tried to enjoy the moment of being one with the scenery.
After returning to our ship, I watched some of my fellow travelers take part in some demos of vegetable carving. It was actually way more interesting than I'd expected, and the resulting displays were really quite lovely.
Before dinner, one of our guides led a quiz in which the person with the correct answer could win a beer. In actuality, it was all puns. And really painful puns at that. The best part was seeing how amused the guide was with himself when he revealed the answers. It's definitely impressive that non-natives could talk in English puns, especially so amusingly. To give an example… (and don't say I didn't warn you) Q:Who is the strongest thief? A: A shoplifter... Because he lifts the whole shop. Ba dum chhh!
At the buffet dinner, I made a discovery: I love calamari! I don't know if it's just because it was more fresh, but the squid throughout the cruise tasted way better than what I remembered from local chain restaurants. I guess it's a little like shrimp for me- I used to like shrimp but then was convinced for a long time that I didn't like it only because most ordinary places just can't do it justice. The chocolate cake was also yummy- but I was really all about the squid.
As we ate, our tour leader came around and asked us to decide if we wanted to kayak the next morning and, if so, who we wanted to go with. One of my table mates and I had a moment- we looked at each other and decided we must go together! (I'm not sure if she ultimately regretted that… but I'm getting ahead of myself)
At night, I joined some others for an optional squid fishing activity off the side of the boat. It was a highlight for sure- but for all the wrong reasons! If our group had caught even 1/100 the number of squid as we had laughs, we could have feasted royally. But it seemed like the less we caught, the more we started laughing about it. People kept trying to foist their useless fishing rods on unsuspecting newcomers. It was a riot. But, alas, not a single tiny squid made its way onto our ship.
Before going to sleep, I hung out in the lounge and talked to some more people. I am not really one to stay in the same group, and I try to mix it up as long as people seem open to having others join them. Tonight's discussion continued the humorous tone from the squid fishing as someone decided that she should write a book entitled "The Dong Diaries" in honor of the Vietnamese unit of currency which is known as Dong. Yes, we were all 12.
I got up early because I didn't want to miss the unique opportunity to do Tai Chi in the middle of Halong Bay. By the time I arrived on deck, a large portion of our group had already burst into spontaneous yoga. Soon the leader of the Tai Chi exercises arrived and I joined in. For once, silence reigned over our normally boisterous group. 'Twas a beautiful thing- stretching my muscles while surrounded by a bay of serenity…
After breakfast, we made a stop at the Surprise Cave. Navigating the cave involved a lot of steps which caused me some panic, but it was all good. Walking inside amid the stalagmites and stalactites was really different than anything I'd experienced. Plus, we had an excellent view of Halong Bay, and it was actually sunny out! On the way back to the ship, we walked past some fishing boats.
I had some time to relax in my room and then it was time for kayaking. Having never kayaked before, I was nervous as we approached the side of the boat to climb down into the yellow kayaks. What had I gotten myself into this time? I reminded myself that I had a life vest on, and a plastic holder to protect my (small) camera. There were no strong currents, so nothing bad should happen.
The one thing we were told not to do was to bump into our ship. So what's the first thing I did? Yeah. I immediately felt sorry for my unsuspecting partner- my coordination was even worse than I had estimated.
But, amid my random flailing, something pretty amazing happened. I felt like I was doing the coolest thing ever- just coasting along in the middle of the still waters of Halong Bay, going nowhere in particular, not a care in the world (not counting my lame attempts at trying to steer, of course) Sometimes, it's really the simple times that are, quite unexpectedly, the most memorable.
Most of the group had been spending their time at a cozy beach, but my kayak-mate and I both agreed that kayaking was more special than beach time so we spent the full allotted time (about an hour) soaking in the atmosphere from our yellow kayak. During this time, we somehow managed to navigate our way through a small tunnel-like cave- in spite of my best efforts to help.
Another lunch had me sampling various dishes and particularly enjoying the squid. The food on the ship was terrific, and the service was great.
After lunch, we had the option of going by tender or by kayak to Cua Van fishing village. Nearly everyone chose the tender- and I'm quite glad I did because it turned out to be quite a bit further than I'd anticipated. Once we reached the dock, we transferred to smaller boats rowed by locals. Each of these boats fit about 4 people. Almost immediately, we were given Vietnamese straw hats to wear which definitely sparked some Kodak moments.
The fishing village consisted of a series of buildings that lined a curve of the bay. Families actually lived there, and you could see children running and playing. Our rower kept saying "camera" whenever there was something he deemed photo worthy.
The final stop of the day was at a pearl factory. I usually try to take advantage of every opportunity that presents itself in my travels, but I got the sense that this would be one of those touristy shops that wasn't worth seeing so I passed. When I noticed that the building to which my fellow travelers were headed said "Pearl Farm" in big English letters, my suspicions were pretty much confirmed. So instead of looking at pearls that I wouldn't want to buy, I blissed out relaxing on the ship deck. It was a perfect temperature- not too hot, not too cold. Although I didn't really need to, I covered myself in one of the blankets out on the lounge chairs; they were a brilliant shade of purple, so I kinda had to use them.
After showering and putting on the casual dress I'd brought with me, I headed back up to the common area. Tonight's pre-dinner entertainment consisted of videos put together by our guides highlighting Vietnam traffic as well as the difference between East and West. It was all very humorous- our tour guides were really great.
The dinner buffet had me pronouncing that squid was my new favorite food. I had absolutely never eaten so much squid in my entire life combined.
After dinner, our group leader gave us each a string of beads for use in a game: Whenever anyone said the word "no", you could claim all the beads they were wearing. The winner would be the person with the most beads at the end of the night. This appeared to be a raucously funny game for the extroverts in our group. But, for me, it was more of an excuse to stay to myself. So I claimed a tiny corner of the deck and spent the night practicing some night photography and posting on Facebook. The moon was gorgeous and it was a challenge to try to capture that in my photography- a challenge that I never quite mastered, despite my best efforts.
Before returning to reality from the idyllic waters of Halong Bay, we had one early morning stop at Titop Island. Due to the time of our flight to Cambodia, this stop was moved earlier to 6:30am. I woke up in time to make the stop… but it was cloudy so I figured the view would be suspect and I really didn't feel like climbing a million stairs. (I was still feeling the effects of having a cold) So instead, I stole a few extra moments of rest; only on vacation does sleeping past 7 feel like a luxury. My roommate was also still in bed.
Packing is always one of the least fun parts of any trip that involves changes of venue. But it has to be done. There wasn't a ton of room in our cabin, so I put my suitcase on the bed in order to get the job done. By 8am, I was on my way to breakfast.
After my ham and cheese omelet, it was time for more travel business: settling my account on the ship. I owed a whopping $7 (for beverages) and ended up stuffing a lot of my extra Vietnamese Dong into the tip jar. We got excellent service on the ship, so I didn't want to be stingy.
I hung out on the deck watching the Vietnamese coast grow ever closer. Part of me wished I could stay longer on the ship. But I was even more excited to find out what Cambodia had in store for me.
At about 9:45am, we loaded ourselves onto the buses for the long ride back to Hanoi airport. En route, our excellent guide entertained us with some history of Vietnam. I lucked out being on the bus with the better guide, although both of them were great.
The movement of everyone off the bus jostled me out of a snooze when we stopped for lunch. We walked through a souvenir shop to a room with long tables where we could await the orders we’d placed earlier. I feasted on a delicious bowl of noodle soup with chicken and a coke light- all for the bargain price of $6, which I paid in Vietnamese Dong.
After eating, I walked around the shop and used the rest of my Dong to purchase some cute little silk bags for me and my nieces; mine was purple of course. Some small, colorfully decorated boxes also caught my eye, but they seemed overpriced and a bit bulky to carry around.
We arrived quite early at the airport because we'd heard that the flight might be overbooked but (unlike in Madagascar), there were no problems. It seemed like 2 people were holding up the line because they wanted to sit together which would be a little ridiculous on such a short flight, but maybe there was a legitimate issue.
I searched high and low in the tiny Hanoi airport, but alas there were no cupcakes to be found anywhere… which meant that I wouldn't be able to add Vietnam to my world cupcake tour. *sniff* On the plus side, I found some M&M's- my "go to" candy of choice for this trip, especially at airports. I'd enjoyed a lot of delicious dishes while on the ship, but some good old fashioned American junk food hit the spot.
All the shops- which were really more like stalls- seemed to have similar items. Yet, the prices could vary among them as I found out when pricing a magnet for my mom. Complicating matters slightly was the fact that if I paid in US dollars, I'd get change in (useless) Vietnamese Dong.
Since we had such a long wait, it was only a matter of time before I ran out of places to browse… even though I rifled through the shelves of each store at least twice looking for something more special than the mostly ordinary clichéd souvenirs that I saw everywhere. After taking a seat, I found myself having a lovely conversation with someone in the group with whom I hadn't spoken much before- we had a lot in common, such as being more independent than clique-y. So that passed the time most pleasantly.
There seemed to be a big Korean group taking over our space and holding up boarding, but eventually we lined up to take a bus over to the Vietnam Airlines plane which we boarded from the back.
While seated next to a couple women from our group on the flight, there was much laughter about the mystery meat that was served as a snack. Although it was a very short flight (approximately 1 hr 45 minutes), I was weary from a long day full of getting from Point A to Point B and just wanted to be there already. My cold was still annoying me, which probably contributed to my fatigue.
Finally we landed at Siem Reap airport. As excited as I was to finally be visiting Cambodia, it was a tad bittersweet knowing that I'd arrived at the final country of my trip; where had the time gone? Obtaining our Cambodia Visas at the airport went quickly, although there seemed to be a smidge of confusion about the form that needed to be filled out.
After the long travels of the day, I was relieved to find out that our hotel was close to the airport. The bus ride was just long enough to tell that our Cambodian guide would be able to fill the shoes of our excellent guides in Vietnam. He was trying to tell us a little about the king- it's probably not politically correct, but we laughed when he said that the king seems to be gay and can do ballet and had studied abroad.
The hotel was amazing, and smelled minty in the halls. But after spending all day in transit, the last thing I wanted to do was to sit around doing nothing. It was night by now and when it Siem Reap that means one thing: a trip to Pub Street and the Night Market is in order!
I joined up with a couple ladies from the group and together we ventured outside the doors of the hotel for first tuk-tuk ride. Open air tuk-tuks are as common on Cambodian streets as yellow taxis are in NYC. For those who are not familiar with them, Cambodian tuk-tuks consist of a driver on a moped pulling an attached compartment that can seat 4 people- 2 facing front, 2 facing backwards. They are also exceedingly cheap- a couple dollars and you can get anywhere in town!
Since we didn't know enough to have a specific destination in mind, we had our driver leave us off at the entrance to Pub Street. We wandered around a bit looking at menus and 2 of us ended up at a tiny almost hole in the wall type joint which attracted us because it served Cambodian cuisine. (the other woman wanted to shop but we needed to eat something!) I decided to try the fried chicken with pumpkin, which turned out to differ quite a bit from my concept of fried. Despite the fact that it wasn't quite what I'd expected, it was definitely yummy- and a bargain at $6 (including soda)!
When walking around the market after dinner, we came upon a booth that offered one of the Dr. Fish foot massages that I'd heard so much about. My friends were a bit squeamish, but I had to try it! At $3 including a beer (or, alternately, a bottled water for those like me who don't care for beer), what did I have to lose? The guy running the booth seemed very friendly and before I knew it, I was shedding my shoes and socks.
This particular booth had 2 tanks to choose from for your foot immersing experience: one with small fish, and one with larger fish. I decided it would be prudent to start with the smaller fish. So I threw caution to the wind and dipped my feet into the waters of the front tank. Almost immediately my feet were covered with tiny fish tickling me while nipping away at the dead skin. I could not stop laughing- it was just the most delightfully absurd sensation, especially considering I've never had a traditional pedicure. Every time I looked down, I kept giggling at the sight of my ugly feet being swarmed with fish whose little mouths kept a steady, rapid pulse of opening and closing.
Soon some more women from my group saw me and decided they'd like to join me- they were a bit more squeamish than I'd been, but they eventually seemed to enjoy it. When they arrived, I made room for them by moving onto the tank with the larger fish. Whereas the smaller fish had been cute, some of the larger ones looked a bit creepy. All in all, the amusement alone was well worth the $3- but I think that my feet actually felt much smoother afterwards.
The booth I was it didn't seem to have a strict time limit, but I probably stayed there around 20 minutes or so until the novelty started to wear off and I wanted to walk around discover more of the Night Market. I was disappointed by the shopping- all the stores seemed to have the same cheap things (many of which I'd seen in other countries already). And if you even looked at an item, someone would descend upon you and ask you to buy. There were also plenty of tuk-tuk drivers around hawking their rides- so there was no need to worry about getting stranded at the market!
When we decided to go back, we went up to a tuk-tuk whose driver wasn't as aggressive as some others. We didn't notice at first, but it turned out to have a Batman design- too amusing! The driver seemed used to tourists wanting their photos taken with the Batman logo and happily obliged taking photos.
I collapsed when I got back to the hotel, but I was very happy that I'd at least finally had a chance to experience something new for the day. The shopping at the night market may not have been ideal, but I love the feeling of walking around a new city- especially at night amid the twinkling lights- and just reveling in my surroundings… new sights, sounds, and smells to stimulate my senses. It's such a feeling of freedom, one where everything in life seems possible and limitless.
Although I like to get an early start to my travels, I'm not a huge fan of getting up any earlier than necessary. So it was super annoying to wake up at 6am, a full half hour before my scheduled wake up call, because apparently neither the previous occupants of our hotel room nor housekeeping had turned the alarm off.
To make matters worse, I'd been coughing and unable to sleep well the previous night. I was so tired that I didn't have the energy to wait in the lines for soup or eggs at our hotel's breakfast buffer. Fortunately, there were plenty of options that didn't involve lines, so I was able to fill my plate with pancakes, cereal and bacon.
Despite my physical fatigue, I was mentally excited because we were headed to the ruins of the famous 12th century temple, Angkor Wat which is probably the most famous site in all of Cambodia. On our way, we had to stop obtain the photo passes that we'd need for the various temples we'd be visiting over the next 2 days.
Our first stop was the main temple of Angkor Wat. It was crazy hot (and we had to wear long pants), humid, there was some climbing involved, and I still felt sick … but none of that mattered because it was absolutely amazing and a dream come true! I'd gladly climb down a steep staircase in eleventy billion percent humidity if it means I have the privilege of visiting a spectacular place that is oozing with culture and history.
There was much to see, and it seemed like every corner revealed something new: architecture, sculptures, friezes. During our tour, we saw some young monks in saffron robes walking around which added an air of authenticity. There were also a number of monkeys- but fortunately all of my memory cards and other possessions survived intact. (Perhaps the holy setting influences its primate residents to be more law abiding.)
As alluded to above, at one point we had to climb (and later descend) a steep staircase which was a little nerve wracking for me. Fortunately, there were hand rails. It was well worth the effort to be able to look down on the grounds from above and to see additional treasures.
I've never been as happy to see a Coke Light as when I stepped back on the air conditioned bus. I feel like I seriously had a moment with that Coke Light because it satisfied a major craving. But first I drank some water- and by "some water", I mean that I chugged half the bottle in one gulp. My weary body clearly craved rehydration after being outside in the heat for a few hours.
Our next stop was Ta Prohm, which is famous for having trees growing out of the ruins since it was overrun by jungle before it was found and restored. It was a really unique and wondrous place. However, I felt like we were a little too rushed during our time there.
The Cambodian tour company we were using hired a photographer who followed us around the various temples. He took pictures for a CD that we all received and was also willing to take photos with our own cameras. He was such a trooper that at one point he was ankle deep in some water just to get an awesome group shot of us! In my ideal world, I'd have my own paparazzi following me around like this on all my travels.
At all the tourist spots, Cambodian women and children were very pushy about selling things to us- to the point of reaching into our minibus. I understand the poverty and it's always a struggle for me because I want to help, but I really don't like buying things I don't need especially when given a hard sell. Everyone has their own comfort zone- some people enjoyed buying from the children.
It started raining when we got back to the hotel, but fortunately it was clearing by the time 8 of us met in the lobby to head off to lunch. We decided to go to a place called Khmer Kitchen based on recommendations. It was a cute little place, and a fun group of people. I had fried fish which was quite tasty; it reminded me of tempura.
Afterwards, we walked around and I watched as some of my fellow travelers tried the fish pedicures that I'd experienced the previous night. I took a tuk tuk by myself to the hotel because I wanted to get back in time to return to Angkor Wat for sunset and the others with me were not interested. Most people shopped, got massages or lounged by the pool- which are all wonderful activities, but things that I felt could be enjoyed virtually anywhere. Since the sun had made an encore appearance, I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to see Angkor Wat at sunset, when it is supposed to change colors. 13 others joined me on the bus.
We weren't lucky enough to see the best sunset ever (due in part to some lingering clouds), but it was still magical to me. Some people scoffed at the fact that Angkor Wat wasn't as golden yellow as it's supposed to be, but I thought it was beautiful - and definitely a different tone than earlier in the day. The lighting was so much better than we'd been there in the morning, and much more conducive to taking photos. But mostly, I enjoyed the serenity of just gazing at the sky and the temple… and sometimes meandering about for a bit. It was a luxury to not feel like I was in a hurry to soak up as many new sights as possible. That short, peaceful time was one of the (many) highlights of a hectic trip.
As a bonus, I got a photography tip from another traveler and got to talk to someone I hadn't spent much time with. Of course, it wouldn't be Cambodia without an episode of someone trying to sell something- in this case, it was a book and my sweet friend was really nice (maybe too nice) about saying no.
Eventually, the sun went down and we headed back to the hotel. After a quick shower, I met a few people for dinner. Of course, we headed back to Pub Street, which is the place to go at night in Siem Reap. Wanting to stick to local dishes, we ended up at a little place called Cambodian Soup where we had another delicious meal. I enjoyed my dish of Khmer noodles with pork and egg. Despite my picky tendencies, I managed to try and enjoy a lot of local specialties in Sieam Reap. And of course it was all very affordable.
After dinner, we walked and shopped some more. It was more humid than the previous night. The highlight of my wanderings was discovering an ice cream shop where I sampled some mint chip ice cream which totally hit the spot! Finally we took a tuk tuk back to the hotel- by this time, the excitement of riding one had worn off and we were getting used to it as more of a mode of transit than a novelty.
We received our 6:30am wake up call at 7am- which would make up for being awakened early the previous day if I didn't have somewhere to be. Fortunately, I woke up before the wake up call. The big news of the morning was that my cold was finally better- yay! It was hard to believe this was the last full day of the organized tour- where does time go?
Our morning consisted of seeing more of the sites of Angkor Wat. First we stopped to walk around the Angkor Thom gate and then we headed to the nearby Bayon Temple, which is most famous for the large faces carved into its towers.
We made brief stop at the Terrace of Elephants, which was once used as a royal viewing area. Finally, we headed to Preah Khan which is another temple that was covered by jungle before it was rediscovered.
Although they slightly blur into each other in my memory, I enjoyed marveling at the beauty and fragility of all the places we visited. It's amazing to contemplate that these places, which are now glorious and photogenic ruins, were once the center of a thriving civilization. I would probably have enjoyed more time to meander and contemplate each place, but it's impossible to fit in all my travel dreams within the confines of budget and time. We saw what were generally acknowledged to be the highlights, although you could probably spend a week seeing all that there is to see in this wondrous area. I wouldn't mind returning sometime to spend more time in Siem Reap, if the opportunity arrives.
We stopped for lunch at a family style restaurant where we sat at long tables and passed around plates full of Cambodian specialties. I didn't enjoy these as much as the other places I'd dined, but it was still good.
During the bus ride, our guide told us that he was almost thrown to crocodiles by the Pol Pot regime. I was incredibly moved at the time, but in retrospect I can't be sure he wasn't exaggerating. He also told us that his wife insisted on making scarves to give out to us… and later we found out that the other guide told the story to his bus. Regardless of whether there were some personal exaggerations thrown in, the guides we had in Cambodia were both entertaining and knowledgeable.
In the afternoon, we visited Artisans Angkor where we observed Cambodians being trained in various art forms so they could learn a trade. We were able to see working on a variety of works ranging from painting to sculpture and metal work. I wanted to support them and their noble mission but I couldn't bring myself to pay for items I wouldn't use, such a gorgeous but expensive scarf that I knew would probably end up sitting in my closet. So I just bought a few small trinkets for presents.
I was running low on cash so after we were dropped off at the hotel, I walked around the neighborhood to find an ATM; Cambodian ATMs dispense US cash. That is, if they work and are stocked with funds. Unfortunately, this was not the case at either the bank or the convenience store I visited. I was amused that the traffic lights indicating "walk" showed an animated person.
Taking a few moments to walk around the hotel, I was able to see the lush pool though I didn't have time for a swim. Back in my hotel room, the phone rang and I was surprised to hear someone asking if I had an opening for a massage the next day! That has to be one of the more amusing wrong numbers I've ever received.
My flight out the next day was scheduled for around the same time as the group air flight. I thought it would be silly to take my own transport to the airport at the same time everyone else was leaving- it would just feel rather ridiculous. So I asked the local guides if it would be a problem if I hitched a ride with the group. Our tour leader seemed a bit taken aback that the guides arranged this without asking her and so I felt a little awkward. I'd have no problem paying and arranging for a private car if I needed to; it just didn't make sense to me especially since I wanted to say goodbye to everyone on the bus.
Almost everyone signed up for the farewell dinner which featured a buffet and Khmer dancing. Now I know not to judge foreign countries by US standards but, really, what kind of buffet does not have a single item of chocolate?!? OK, so maybe I was a tad bit homesick for some good old fashioned sweets.
The dancing show was ok- it was entertaining enough although it started to drag. Afterwards, some in our group took advantage of the opportunity to get their photo taken onstage with some of the dancers. I didn't bother, especially since the dancers all looked bored with the photo session. It seemed like a very touristy place, and not really the type of entertainment I'd choose for myself. But it was nice to be part of an official goodbye meal together with the group.
Take 3 guesses where we headed afterwards… if you guessed the Night Market, you win! (if you didn't… have you read the previous 2 days of reports?) Unfortunately your prize is one of the cheap souvenirs that are ubiquitous to all the stands so you may not want to claim it. I actually stumbled across some cute Hello Kitty Cambodia souvenirs but they were a little expensive (for Cambodia) so I just took a photo of them. I also came across some cheap Hello Kitty knockoff barrettes somewhere else, and didn't even bother taking a photo of them. All of us were successful in our quests for some last minute souvenirs; It was entertaining watching the process as 2 of my friends bargained with the locals for knockoff Kipling bags.
My travel companions all stopped for foot massages- the massages in Cambodia were apparently very cheap and quite good. However, I have serious issues with letting people see my bare feet, let alone touch them. So I did more shopping while they were relaxing- I was better able to focus on purchasing souvenirs for my friends when I didn't have anyone else around. Eventually, I said my final goodbyes to the Night Market as I headed back to the hotel feeling bittersweet- sad to be parting ways with new friends, but excited for my final travel destination of this journey.
When I'd decided to stop at Phnom Penh, there were 2 transport options available. Taking the bus might have been an interesting experience which would have let me see a bit more of the country. However, since I had no time to spare, I decided to fly via Cambodian Angkor Air, which was much more expedient. At less than $100, it wasn't that big of a splurge within the scheme of things.
After breakfast, I waited in the lobby for the bus with those who were doing group air since their flight left around the same time as mine. It turned out that the bus had to make a separate stop for me since I was on a domestic flight and they were flying international. I felt a little guilty about that, but I tipped generously and it was really only a few minutes extra for them.
I enjoy exploring airports, especially foreign ones. However, the Siem Reap airport domestic terminal was disappointingly tiny. Still, there was a little store to the side of the waiting area that was worth a visit. I was thrilled to find a very cute pair of crystal earrings which were much nicer than the ones I'd bought at the Night Market.
The flight from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh may be the shortest flight I've ever taken. I expected it to be on a miniature aircraft and, for some reason, I thought it would be empty- like taking a bus, except in the sky. I was therefore surprised to be boarding a decent size jetliner which was rather full. Cambodia Angkor Air was yet another Asian airliner which uses purple prominently in their design and I definitely approve. Considering that the flight was a mere 45 minutes, I was shocked to be served a box with cake and water; I somehow managed to find time to spill the aforementioned water. Not to worry, because there was still time to be served a replacement water.
Since the Phnom Penh airport was open to the outside, it probably had one of the most scenic bag claim areas I've ever seen. Unfortunately, a downside was the lack of air conditioning and abundance of humidity. It seemed to take awhile to get my bag but soon enough I was on my way to the hotel via a driver who was waiting for me. It never gets old to see someone waiting with a sign to whisk me off to my hotel.
The 30 minute drive gave me a chance to become acclimated to Phnom Penh, which I found to be much more urban and sprawling and much less tourist-centric when compared to Siem Reap. The ubiquitous Dairy Queens were a sign that I was back in territory that had been touched by Western capitalism.
The first of many signs that I'd made an excellent choice in choosing to stay at the small, lush aptly named Villa Paradiso hotel was when I was served a refreshing lemongrass and ginger welcome drink during the check in process. This was one of those quaint hotels where each room is a different theme; I had chosen to stay in a room called "La cite interdite" which was a Chinese themed room with bold red accents that symbolically brought my travels full circle. After being directed to a building a few steps away, I felt so elegant ascending the impressive stairwell to my luxuriously sized room. The only minor complaint I had was that the air conditioning only worked if the key card was inserted in an appropriate slot on the wall; I'm all for saving energy but, man, it was uncomfortably warm whenever I returned to the room (especially since it was on the 2nd floor) and it would seem to take forever to cool down. I wish there had been some happy medium whereby the air would still flow to a moderate temperature even if the room was unoccupied.
After taking a short time to relax and refresh, I was excited to head out to find the cupcake place that online maps showed to be about a block away. And, yes, the proximity to cupcakes was definitely a factor in my hotel choice! Even if you aren't a particular fan of cupcakes, you have to love a place that describes itself as a "cake art gallery and not-for-profit organisation that empowers and skills Cambodian women while providing you with a chic oasis in the city." And indeed, it was a lovely place to relax and enjoy the most adorable cupcakes. It was hard to select from so many beautiful creations but I chose the Rainbow Cake with Vanilla Cream Cheese for cuteness, and the Chocolate Chip Cake with Chocolate Cream Cheese to give into my inner chocoholic. Even with a diet coke, the total only came to $4!
After returning to the hotel for a bit, I decided to walk to the Royal Palace despite the heat and humidity because I love traveling by foot through new cities. It was less than a mile away, and I could also use try to pick up more cash on the way. The first ATM I tried canceled my transaction several times for some unknown reason, but I finally found one that worked and padded my wallet with some more US dollars. It was a relief to know I was no longer running low on cash.
The main negative to walking (aside from the heat) was that I was practically harassed constantly by well meaning Cambodians who were soliciting riders for their tuk tuks. If I never hear the question "Tuk tuk, lady?" again, I will be quite happy!
When I reached the palace, I noticed a little park in front which led to a pleasant palm tree lined river front area. I took a few moments to appreciate these areas before entering the palace complex.
The Royal Palace is a grand complex of buildings that were built in the 19th century. I took my time enjoying the mix of golden roofed pavilions and elaborate white stoned stupas, as well as the plentiful murals and sculptures. It was also interesting to see a model of Angkor Wat, which I'd just visited days earlier.
As I started looking for dinner, I stumbled across a little place called "Cupcake Café". How could I not
stop there for a snack even if I wasn't particularly in the mood for sweets? Like the café by my hotel, there were so many adorable creations that it was hard to choose. I finally decided on a smiley faced chocolate cupcake and an Italian cherry soda. The café was adorable, with chairs that were fashioned like cupcakes.
After surviving more tuk tuk solicitations as well as offers for massages, I decided to eat dinner at a place called The Pizza Company, where I ordered spaghetti carbonara; I'm definitely a less adventurous eater when I am on my own than when with a group. I enjoyed sitting by a window on the 2nd floor where I could gaze out at the Tonle Sap river and the river bank which was decorated with flags from a variety of nations.
I walked a short bit back to the royal palace so I could see it at sunset, and then decided to take a tuk tuk back to the hotel rather than walk alone in the dark. In order for the driver to understand where to take me, I had to show him the map on my iPad. It was very amusing to me when the vehicle seemed to randomly stop at the side of a road so a lady could fill his tank with petrol from a flask; that's definitely not the type of thing that happens at home!
Back at the hotel, I asked at the front desk for advice on my plans for the next day. Then I took a shower. Or at least I tried
to. I was so inept that I had to ask someone to show me how to work it- it was impressive that they sent someone quickly.
One of the most charming touches about the hotel was that each night, they would leave a one page print out of a fable on the bed. That night, my bedtime story was about "The Jackal and the Elephant"
The print-out also included some TV highlights, but I wasn't interested in them- especially since I was able to catch some live Skate Canada ice skating practices on the excellent hotel wifi.
What bliss to be able to go back to sleep for a couple hours after waking up at 6! Mornings when I am on my own with only vague plans can be so relaxing.
Breakfast was included in my stay, and it was served in a cozy area overlooking the lush pool. Secluded within the gates of my boutique hotel, I felt as far away from a poor urban area as you could get- bliss! Even better? I was excited to see nutella crepes on the menu- so delicious and decadent. It was a wondrous start to my last full day of vacation.
During breakfast, a woman started conversing with me- it turned out that she was the owner! She was very friendly and down to earth, and she helped me with planning my day. When she kindly advised me not to worry about the protests, I was all "ummm… what protests?!?" It turned out that there were going to be some demonstrations against the results of recent elections; it worked out well that I'd visited the royal palace area the previous day and they'd be in that area.
I was told that the best way for me to ensure that I could visit the sights I wanted to see, including one that was a bit of a drive, would be to hire one of the tuk tuk drivers that was lined up outside on the street. As a single woman, I had some trepidation about leaving my life in the hands of someone who could just drive off with me. (I tend to shy away from cabs for similar reasons) But I approached it like an adventure… with maybe just a hint of prayer. Fortunately, the driver I had was awesome and particularly good about waiting and looking for me. We agreed to a price of $16 for about a half a day, which was certainly a great deal.
So I was off for a long ride through the city of Phnom Penh in a tuk tuk, with the dust of the city blowing through my hair. It was really a unique and interesting perspective, and I kept my eyes wide to take in as much as possible.
I was headed the place that I'd originally felt calling me to Cambodia- the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, better known as one of the notorious Killing Fields. I am not exactly sure what compels me so strongly to visit places where unspeakable acts of human cruelty have occurred. But they move me tremendously, and motivate me even more strongly to live a life full of love and compassion. It's also so important to honor those who have suffered by remembering what happened and striving to prevent such hateful things from occurring again. The latter is very idealistic, as it unfortunately seems like as soon as one pocket of hatred is eradicated that another pops up in its place- but that doesn't mean that we should blindly accept the status quo and not at least strive for something better.
The area did not disappoint my expectations. Many of the original buildings of the death camps had been destroyed, but signs have been erected to commemorate where they'd been. As you walk from point to point, you can listen to an excellent audio tour which provides historical detail as well as personal stories. The juxtaposition between the lush green area surrounding me and the horrors that were narrated into my headphones was striking. As much as I've read about the Khmer Rouge regime, it meant more to actually be walking in the quiet shadows of so much violence and hatred. And yet, even when confronted with the sight piles of bones and skulls, I still could not fully wrap my head around the horrors that had happened.
Situated at the center of the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, the memorial stupa stands out as a focal point. But it's actually the final stop of the audio tour, after paths that include sites such as mass graves and a tree against which babies were beaten to death (all the better to save precious bullets). As you walk closer to the stupa, you can see that it contains level upon level of human skulls and bones. Knowing from my research that it housed over 8000 skulls, the stupa haunted me even before I drew close.
It was overcast but fortunately the rain held out until I'd seen most of the outdoor areas and I was able to duck into the museum. I stayed for about an hour and a half, retracing history and feeling incredibly moved. And I felt profoundly lucky- both by virtue of the fact that I had not personally lived through such a tumultuous era as well as because I was finally walking on ground that I had long wanted to visit. Of all the amazing adventures during the past 2 weeks, visiting the Killing Fields was perhaps the most meaningful and important to me. I can honestly say that once I got back in my tuk tuk, I was mentally ready to return home the next day; I'd accomplished all of my travel goals.
But I still had the rest of the day to fill with a few more activities, and I had my tuk tuk driver take me next to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. This museum was built in a school building that was converted into a jail during the brutal Pol Pot regime, where prisoners were kept and tortured. Some of these prisoners were ultimately taken to the killing field I'd seen earlier in the day. It was interesting to me that much like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge kept impeccable records of their crimes- there was one room displaying easels full of the official photos of many of the innocents who had suffered there. One of the most moving exhibits to me was a room showcasing a partnership with Okinawa for peace which contained pictures drawn by young children with a purity of heart that crosses cultural boundaries.
Because of the recommendation of the hotel owner and because it was nearby, I headed to the Russian Market. That may have been a mistake as it just seemed to have the same boring junk I'd seen in the Siem Reap Night Market and countless other places. It was hot, and annoying, and I actually got lost in the crowded maze of stalls in the market. I didn't panic because there was no chance I'd end up stranded since, this being Cambodia, I was constantly solicited by numerous other tuk tuk drivers. It would have been easy for me to accept a ride from one, stiffing my original driver (whom I hadn't paid yet) But I'd have to be really
desperate to resort to that. Eventually, I was relieved to find my way back to my loyal tuk tuk driver.
I'd seen enough, so I headed back to the hotel. One thing that you wouldn't expect to hear on the streets of Cambodia is the tune to "The Virginia Company" from Disney's Pocahontas- and yet, that melody seemed to emanate from the cell phone of someone on the street. After washing my face, I headed back to the friendly neighborhood cupcakery. This time, I chose to try the Hazelnut Sacher Torte with Chocolate Hazelnut Filling and the White Chocolate Cake with Caramel Sauce. Two cupcakes should have been enough- but hey, I was on vacation… and I was still tempted by a Vanilla Friand with Caramel Cream Cheese which was decorated with bright pink icing sprinkled with tiny blue-purple candy flowers. So I had to try it. That last cupcake may have been my favorite of all the yummy flavors I'd tried there.
Sometimes, even if you are not much of a swimmer, you just want to jump into a pool after a day slogging through heat and humidity. So that's exactly the way I spent the early evening back at my hotel. After swimming a few laps, I took a few moments to float on my back, gazing at the sky and reveling in the fact that I had not a single immediate care to worry me.
I decided to remain within my delightfully relaxing hotel to dine at the little area overlooking the pool where I'd had breakfast. With my Spaghetti Bolognese (one of my classic meal choices- insert standard warning about my non-adventurous eating), I ordered a glass of wine which was my first alcoholic beverage of the trip (partly since I was sick almost the entire time of being on the group tour) as well as my last. I also enjoyed munching on the peanuts that were served with the wine. It was the perfect last meal to celebrate a successful journey.
I spent a quiet night showering, packing, and reflecting on the amazing and diverse experiences of my Asian adventure; memories which are worth more to me than gold. Of course, I had another bedtime fable waiting for me- this time it was "The King and the Buffalo Boy"
Waking up before my alarm, I went down to have one last breakfast overlooking the pool. There was no point looking at the menu; if Nutella crepes are offered, then no other options need to be considered. I savored my last moments of vacation and tried to make them last.
When I was finally ready to wheel out my luggage to check out, there was a guy waiting outside my door to help. Talk about service! Needless to say, I gave the hotel glowing reviews on the guest satisfaction form they gave me. Everyone was so friendly there, and it was such a gem of an oasis.
I was driven to the airport by the same driver who'd picked me up. I remembered that it was just a couple days ago when I'd gone in the opposite direction- so eager with anticipation that every building made an impression. Now, I felt more laid back- ready to start the long journey back home.
The shopping at Phnom Penh airport was slightly better than Siem Reap. There weren't a lot of options, but there was one very cute store where I picked up a few last minute souvenirs. When it was time to board my plane, the sky had turned overcast and rainy. I felt bittersweet- it was sad to think that I was leaving the world of the extraordinary and headed back to everyday life; and yet, I was profoundly grateful for all the experiences I'd enjoyed over the past couple weeks.
On the relatively short flight to Hong Kong, I felt philosophical as I decreed that cupcakes symbolize peace, love, and childlike wonder. And then I fell asleep. After some mediocre chicken and rice and a short holding pattern, we landed at Hong Kong.
During my 3+ hour layover, my mission was to find the Hong Kong Disneyland store to grab some last minute souvenirs for myself and for friends; I hadn't bought a lot on my visit to the park because I didn't want to have to carry it around for the rest of the trip. It was actually a lot harder to find than I'd anticipated- but finally it was time for one last bit of fun as I kept tossing cute items into my basket. I felt like I practically bought out the store.
Despite my lingering at the Disneyland store, I still had plenty of time to do some more shopping to get rid of my Hong Kong dollars. Naturally, I got some M&M's- after all, that had been my airport snack of choice for the entire trip. But I was bummed not to be able to find any crispy M&M's for my friend back home who likes them.
While waiting at the gate, there was a kid running around screaming which didn't seem to bode well for the long haul back to NYC. When I boarded the flight, I was surprised that they were searching for liquids and glad I hadn't bought any bottled water to drink in flight. Although technically they didn't search my backpack since it was so stuffed with souvenirs that it was hard for them to open.
Takeoff gave me a chance to glimpse the amazing Hong Kong skyline; unfortunately, I didn't have a camera handy. Most of the flight was a blur of iPad entertainment (shows I'd missed on TV and music) and food service. It made me ridiculously happy to see Haagen Daaz ice cream and Coke Zero. Just like on the way over, I had some issues with getting served my ramen noodles- but, oh, I was determined- and I did eventually get them! My knees ached and it was hard to get comfortable, so I didn't get a lot of sleep though I did nap.
I always keep my eyes on the live flight path when I'm awake. At one point, we were over Alaska and I snarkily wondered if I could see Sarah Palin from my window. Yes, my mind was gradually returning to the reality of US politics and cynicism, at least.
Eventually, my plane landed at JFK and I was greeted by my friend Brian and my nieces, the oldest of whom was still in costume from the Haunted House at her high school. We, umm, took a bit of a scenic route getting on the highway home but it was all good- I was so glad to be able to share my experiences and find out what everyone at home had been up to.
At some point on the plane, I had jotted down the following: "The best part of going home is seeing friends and furricanes that I love."
When I try to visualize my 2013 Asian Adventure, I imagine a quilt made from contrasting brightly colored swatches of cloth: from the ultra-modern Petronas Towers to the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat; from a challenging hike of the Great Wall to kayaking through the tranquil blue waters of Halong Bay; from a whimsical stop at Hong Kong Disneyland to a somber walk through the Killing Fields of Phnom Penh. The tapestry is accentuated by scattered dots of delectable cupcakes from 4 different countries.
The only lingering memory that is less than positive is that I had a bad cold for almost the entire duration of my one week group tour. Although it didn't hinder my overall enjoyment, I know that I would have had an even better time if I'd been healthier. I definitely felt even more antisocial than is usual for me. And yet, I somehow managed to meet some awesome people with whom I am still in touch.
(Well, that and the fact that I never was able to find cupcakes in Vietnam…)
The hotels where I stayed to bookend my trip were both fabulous- I can't even imagine staying elsewhere in either city. All my research on tripadvisor and other websites definitely paid off. I sometimes shy away from smaller hotels because of a bad experience in the past, so I'm glad I took the risk of booking these 2 little gems.
I always love traveling to Asia- there is so much to see and, by and large, the people are incredibly friendly. I was well overdue for a visit to China and I hope to see more of the country in the future. While I'd been to Vietnam before, I'm glad I had the opportunity to return and spend some time lingering in Halong Bay. Cambodia absolutely exceeded my expectations and if the right opportunity presented itself, I'd definitely go back. Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong Disneyland were fabulous places to stop- and I made the right decision to overnight in Kuala Lumpur; I can't even imagine how exhausted I'd have been if I'd flown out the same day I'd arrived.
All in all, I had a fabulous couple of weeks feeding my seemingly insatiable travel addiction.