July 11, 2016

LAOS DIARIES PART 2: Hotel Khamvongsa in Vientiane

In February of 2015, we went on a quick side trip to Vientiane - the capital of Laos from its neighbor country Thailand. A 12-hour overnight train ride beginning from Bangkok bridged the gap between the two countries.

The French colonial villa mixed with the rich pattern of Lao architecture of Hotel Khamvongsa was an excellent base. The 26-room boutique hotel is conveniently situated just meters away from the Mekong River, the night market and within walking distance from other Vientiane landmarks. The hotel’s fa├žade opens to Khun Bu Lom Street and several eating options are in the area. A bank is a few steps away if you need to change currency. Bring your passport.  Baht is also accepted for trade. Across is a small temple of Wat Inpeng with its orange robed resident monks.


For $45, it is an excellent value boutique hotel. Our comfortably furnished air-conditioned room is beautiful with its high ceilings and dark wood floors. A chaise placed by the tall window oriented towards the river is perfect for lounging or reading a novel. The lamps are not suitable for reading but you can draw the shade to let light flood in. The TV and mini-fridge is discreetly tucked in a handsome armoire. Writing desk is also provided. Ensuite bathroom is spotless and has good pressure of cold and hot water.  There’s free WIFI in room and in the common areas.




It is worth to note that the 4-story building has no lift but since our room was at the second floor and we were assisted with our luggage, we didn’t mind the stairs.

A delicious breakfast sourced mostly from fresh local ingredient was included in the room rate and was served at the airy central courtyard or the elegant lounge.





Service was excellent all through out. The staff even helped us negotiate and communicate with our tuktuk driver for the tour and extended our check out time.

This is what I love about boutique hotels, there’s more warmth with the service and more character in the building. It maybe small but doesn’t lack on creature and sometimes even luxurious comforts.


June 27, 2016

LAOS DIARIES PART 1: Train Travel from Bangkok to Vientiane and Back

Train travel from Bangkok to Vientiane is comfortable, cheap and pretty straightforward. We love train travels and would take it over other forms of transport if it’s a viable option and time allows. For our train travel planning, we always refer to the man in www.seat61.com.



We bought our train tickets at Bangkok Railway Station also known as Hua Lamphong Train Station the morning of our travel. We had no problem getting our preferred lower and upper berths at a 2nd class overnight sleeper carriage leaving that night at 8 PM but pre-book if you can. Ticket cost was only $23 per person and you get your own lie-flat bed, freshly laundered blanket and pillows, and a curtain for privacy. There’s also a restaurant car and waiters move around to take your food order and bring it to your compartment.

We were at the station an hour before the scheduled departure and found our car in train 69 with no difficulty. The place is clearly sign posted in Thai and English and stewards abound and are eager to assist. The station has several stores selling food and drinks, a waiting area with plastic seats cooled by fans and a bookstore and restrooms.



We boarded at Platform 5 and settled in our seats and a few minutes after 8, we began moving along. Before 10 PM, our seats were converted into beds and I climbed into my upper bunk while Kim occupied the lower bunk. If you plan on sleeping early, it may be possible to request the on board attendant to set-up the sleeper beds immediately after getting on.


There were toilets and sinks at the end of each car. We always have our own toilet paper stash and hand soap but they were also provided. There’s a space for your luggage under the bed or at the luggage rack. For our peace of mind, our bags were secured with locks and chained into the metal post.

We woke up with the sun and breakfasted on sandwich, coffee and fruit juice on board, preordered the night before. After 12 hours, at 8 in the morning we slowed down to a stop at Nong Khai train station, still in Thailand.


After getting our Thailand exit stamps, we waited a few minutes at Nong Khai station to transfer to a shuttle to cross the Friendship Bridge and bring us to Thanaleng on the Laos side of the Bridge some 13 km from Vientiane, the city center and capital of Laos. Shuttle ride was 40 baht per person.



Philippine passport holders can enter Laos visa free for a 30 day stay but an entry and exit fee of 40 baht is required. After getting our passports stamped in, we took a 45-minute mini van ride for 600 baht to deliver us to our hotel.

Going back to Bangkok is basically the same process just done on reverse. This time, we took the first class sleeper train.


We were held up at the long immigration line and showed up at the ticket window in Nong Khai station already minutes late before the scheduled departure of 710 PM but it was just our luck that our desired first class sleeper cabins are still available.


We purchased our train tickets for 1,250 baht per person, paid for in Baht and in cash. Expected time of arrival in Thailand’s capital is at 6 am the next day.

For a negligible total difference cost of about $30 for 2, our cabin came with more privacy with a solid door that we could lock and our own in room sink. There’s a dedicated light switch that we can turn on and off at will and aircon controls to adjust the cabin temperature. The toilet at the end of our car has a shower and cleaner compared to the one at the 2nd class.




June 6, 2016

Bangkok

Between Kim and I, we’ve been to Bangkok 6 times but we want to keep coming back for more because we don’t run out of things to see and do. And eat! Food is plentiful and delicious, shopping is abundant and cheap and the culture rich if you venture out of the uber touristy Khao San.


It’s good to revisit places because then you are not too focused and rushing on the must see sights and can just absorb, really experience and appreciate the real nuisance of the place.

On this trip, aside from stuffing our faces with glorious Thai food (more on that later), we even get to participate in their custom.



Tak bat or monk's alms collection is a tradition where monks walk barefoot around the village to collect food donation for their daily meal.


A monk does not openly ask. They quietly walk the streets awaiting a donor to come to them which allows the donor to give freely and only what they can afford to provide. In return for the people's generosity, the monk blesses them. Although there’s a language barrier, I had goosies during the chant!


I also got to try my hand at this 200 year old tradition of crafting monk's bowls for tak bat at the Baan Bat or Monks bowl village. A bowl is constructed from metal slabs, hammered by hand and heated to take shape. A small bowl takes 3 long and laborious days to make. The polished bowls are purchased by the faithful and donated to monks.



Located at 71 Soi Baan Bat, this place is not on the usual tourist trail and a bit tricky to find but is a highlight and worth a visit in my book.  There were lots of pantomime mimicking pounding and begging before our tuktuk driver understood where we wanted to go.

We brought home a souvenir to remember this hundreds of years old tradition by and it now sits prettily on our coffee table to coral our remote controls.


But no matter how many times we visit Bangkok, the trip would not be complete without seeing at least a couple of its temples.

Gilded in gold, glittering in the sun with awe-inspiring architecture. These temples are not just tourist attractions but also places of worship so dress appropriately with shoulders and knees covered and footwear off. Most temples are open only until 6 PM. 

This time, aside from going back to the ever popular Wat Pho, we visited the smaller and lesser frequented temples we missed from our previous trips.

Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha). Located at 2 Sanamchai Road at he Rattanakosin district directly adjacent to the Grand Palace. Admission:  100 baht.




Wat Benchamabophit (Marble Temple). Located at 69 Nakornpathom Road at the corner of  Th Si Ayuthaya & Th Phra Ram V in Dusit district. Admission: 20 Baht.




Wat Indrawiharn (Temple of the Standing Buddha). Located at 114 Wisut Kasat Road on the northern edge of Banglamphu in Nakhon district. Free admission.



Wat Saket (Temple of the Golden Mount). Built on a man made hill located at 1344 Ban Bat in Pom Prap Sattru Phai district. Admission: 20 baht.




Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn) was under rehabilitation at the time of our travel (February 2015) so we did not cross Chao Praya river anymore. Instead we had a delicious gourmet dinner with wine and cocktails on a restaurant deck by the river fronting Wat Arun as the sun was setting on the horizon. Best to reserve in advance at your chosen riverdeck restaurant so you are guaranteed a table as the place gets packed at sunset.


That dinner was a bit pricey by local standards but it was worth it and just too romantic. It was the perfect way to cap off a day of temple hopping and sightseeing.




Bangkok ultimately is a cheap place to visit and indulge in the local cuisine even if you are on a budget. You can just walk on the streets sampling the most flavorful treats and eat until you burst without paying too much.



If you have sensitive tummy and or intimidated by street food, you can ease your way in by eating at mall food courts. They are one of the best places to sample a wide variety of tasty cheap eats but in a more hygienic air-conditioned setting. It is also often packed and patronized by locals and not just tourists so you're not missing out on the authenticity. You pick up a cash card or voucher from the cashier loaded with the value you want and then use it to pay at the food stalls. Any unused value can be redeemed when you return the card.


Bangkok, and most part of Thailand is well versed in the art of tourism and perhaps over caters to tourists but that makes it an easy country to travel to and a great value for your travel dollars.

Transport tip: The BTS sky train is an excellent way to travel around Bangkok. With 36 stations along 2 lines, it can get you to temples, food and shopping meccas, local markets and tourist places.

Another tip: Upon check in when traveling overseas especially in non-English speaking countries, I always grab a hotel's business card so that if ever we get lost, which happens all the time, we have the hotel name and address in the local language to show the driver. 

April 18, 2016

MEXICO DIARIES PART 3: Chichen Itza

Emboldened by the success of my first drive overseas on a Mexican freeway, we wanted to take on the 243 kilometer route to Chichen Itza next, the most important archaeological zone in Yucatan and declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. The concierge, all 4 of them, weren’t as confident and did their charming best to encourage us to take the tour bus instead for the 3 hour ride.

We conceded as the route isn’t as straightforward as Tulum. Joining the bus tour is also cheaper and more convenient as we could do away with the navigation which we aren’t particularly good at anyway and just enjoy the pretty sights speeding past as soon as my bonamine has taken effect.

The bus, already half filled with tourists, picked us up at our hotel in the morning of our 4th day and whisked us along scenic well paved back roads with heavy greenery on either side. At some point, we passed some agave plantations, the plant from which the tequila is made.

Our guide, alternating between Spanish and excellent English with a charming accent is passionate about the Mayan history and culture. I planned to sleep on the way but he was entertaining and shared just the right amount of interesting facts and information delivered with a great sense of humor that kept me awake all through the drive.



The only downside of the tour for me is the blatant commercialism. We stopped at a center that sells, I must admit, good quality Mexican trinkets. The sellers weren’t persistent actually and doesn’t really bother you with hard sell but I guess my disappointment stemmed from the fact that the place was hyped to be a community of descendant of the Mayan tribe and we even took the longer 4 hour course to see them. I might have expected a still slightly ancient village, an unrealistic expectation, maybe, but the area was already too modern and too commercial. Note that sellers were also present within the grounds of Chichen Itza itself and are a bit determined. This might be the only time where I didn’t enjoy shopping.



A buffet lunch was included in the tour and we were further entertained by a folk dance and local music. Drinks are not included though and kind of compulsory. This is where we had the most expensive soda, $7 for 2 bottles of Pepsi. Kind of highway robbery ha ha.


When we finally got to Chichen Itza, we separated from the group and toured it on our own. The place is huge and be prepared for throngs of tourists! It is the largest of the archaeological cities of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization in the Yucatan Peninsula and one of Mexico's most visited destinations. It was also hailed as one of the new seven wonders of the world, and rightly so.





And because it was already past 2 PM when we got there, it was HOT and shade was an issue. We bought $5 sombreros and slathered up on high SPF sunscreen and mosquito repellent. We are from the tropics and used to warm weather but we learned quickly not to underestimate the Mexican sun. Kimbee had weird tan lines on her face from her shades to show for weeks after.





You can no longer climb the pyramid but it is breathtaking! A physics marvel and an engineering genius. We probably spent a couple of hours exploring and admiring the ruins but you can easily spend a full day here particularly with the help of a guide.
I don’t have the words to even begin to describe its magnificence and it really is far more imposing than what the photos can capture although we couldn’t stop snapping them. You have to see Chichen Itza at least once in your life! The Mayans are credited to have made significant advances in mathematics and astronomy, including the use of the zero and developed a complex calendar system based on 365 days and were able to predict eclipses.




After Chitchen, we drove to the nearby Ik-kil cenote and the cool shady temps in the area is glorious after the intense midday heat. Cenotes are natural sinkholes resulting from the collapse of the limestone bedrock exposing the groundwater underneath that has formed over time. It has a wide cavern that is open to the sky letting in a beautiful spotlight on the water and vines that drops down from the opening.

I wanted to jump in but it was said to be 130 feet and my 5 foot couldn’t swim frame kind of chickened out so we contentedly watched on the sidelines. Big fat drops of rain soon begun to drop in sheets and we took that as a sign to end the long full day and sprinted back on the bus.



On our last day, we earned ourselves a few more hours at the beach until before lunch time and before going to the airport. Our flight back to the US was at 4 PM. The ride was eventful as the driver kept circling the zona and letting passengers on before dropping them to the bus station. I worried that we will miss our flight. The American couple with us were far more vocal about their annoyance because the trip was cutting it too close for them to miss their flight. I felt bad for the driver at the receiving end of some quite harsh dialogues because he was just following orders and his clip board but I also understand the stress that the couple are going through. We breathed a sigh of relief when we see the aeroporto sign looming in front of us but still blocked by a slow moving thick traffic. So near yet so far!


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