Vietnam in December – Part 1 (synopsis)

December 2014: I decided to travel with friends this time, and guess who joined me! My Swiss friends, Patricia and Sabine. Got to know these two when they came to Sri Lanka some years back for their Masters degree researches. Had a great time with them, and when they went back, they kept in touch. Missing friends is never fun, and last year we decided we should meet again, and thought why not meet in a country none of us have been to. So Vietnam it was and in the midst of extra busy work times and general chaos, we managed to organize the trip. Met the girls in Thailand and it was like they had never left.

The first two hours in Hanoi were a weird experience. From the confusing hotel drivers who picked us up, bundled us into a van only to ask us to change vehicles just outside the airport parking lot, to the drive to the city, I was not pleased. We all thought we would die, the way the driver maneuvered the vehicle, and the drive was quite long. However, we came safely to the hotel, and the people there were extremely friendly. The room was quite good too, white and bright. The girls slept for most of the evening, given their longer flight. I decided to walk out a bit, but stuck to the immediate lanes in case the girls woke. When they did, we went out walking and discovered not just quaint food in little alleyways, but a beautiful cathedral with larger-than-life Christmas decor and a Vietnamese wedding, next to an international coffee house (architecture and posters were very European). Watching the lights come on on the Christmas decor, sitting with my two Swiss friends, in a coffee house serving an eclectic mix of international drinks was a moment of pure joy and wonder. This was the highlight for me for Hanoi. I did not feel entirely comfortable with the shops atmosphere. Somehow it felt like the proverbial concrete jungle, and I was not happy.

We went to Hoi An (I was sponsored by the girls, which I thought was extremely sweet and generous) and I really loved it. We had a private chalet-like room, very spacious and lovely. It had two bathrooms that were open to the sky, with wooden bamboo walls. I loved it, especially that the beds were super comfortable and large.

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The basics of the trip being covered, I feel that a more comprehensive and heart-felt post is required for the rest of the trip. Hence, this will be post 1, or the synopsis, while part 2 will cover the details. Until then!

Maze of malls (Thailand), again

This time, I decided to make this entry more detailed. I made notes as I went, to keep it useful for travelers. These are my notes from the trip, divided by day, and written mostly as the events took place. This trip was to attend a 3-day strategic planning meeting, but we (the lady who I was translating for and I) had a 5-day ticket, so I used every single free moment to explore previously-unseen areas. And I did a lot of free things. I had researched every area nearby and all the attractions, so I knew where I wanted to go, and I had planned out the directions. This made it superbly easy for me when I got there. Notes: Bht is Thai Bhat, a soi is the Thai name for a lane, MRT is the subway train, while the BTS is the sky train. 1mile is 1.60934km. There might be some area name issues, but I have tried to keep it as close to the original name as I remember.

 

Day 1 (June 8th 2014)

We were in Windsor Suites Hotel, in Sukhumvit Soi 20. So, we took the airport rail link to Makkasan from the airport, and from Makkasan, took the MRT to Sukhumvit. Bht51 per person for the entire journey. We walked the last bit, through alleys and “soi”s. Would not be able to find it again, without asking people! Weekend market: After settling in, I walked to Terminal 21 (read my review on Trip Advisor here), which had one level for one destination, i.e. Paris, Tokyo, London, San Francisco, and Hollywood.

San Francisco bridge, Terminal 21

San Francisco bridge, Terminal 21

San Francisco bridge

San Francisco bridge

The Hollywood section, Terminal 21

The Hollywood section, Terminal 21

Hollywood, Terminal 21

Hollywood, Terminal 21

London section, Terminal 21.

London section, Terminal 21.

Then went to Chatuchak weekend market (Review on Trip Advisor) in the MRT. Lovely smells all over. Coffee, food, and souvenirs jostling for attention, I didn’t know where to look first. At 6pm, they played the national anthem. After paying due respect, people went back to business as if nothing happened. Have no idea if this is a new addition (following the coup) or an old practice. Travel: Went from Sukhumvit to Kempheng Phet (Bht36) in about 20mins. After the market, I took the MRT to Lumphini (Bht40). Saw the ghost building (a giant 50-storey building that has apparently been abandoned for many years, except for a hoarding on the roof). Walked past one of the entrances to the Lumphini Park (right opposite the MRT entrance). Bought custard bread at Bht15 and a Sky classic (lovely drink) at Bht32 before walking back to hotel. Took me about an hour, but it was worth it. It helped me later on because I knew what lay in which direction.

 

Day 2 (June 9th 2014)

Bht30 to Siam on the BTS, and it connects to Siam Discovery Centre and is a short walk across the road from Siam Paragon. Walked through the Discovery Center, Madame Tussauds, (which I thought I will skip, at Bht800), then walked to the Ocean World under Siam Paragon (Bht950, so didn’t go to it either). However, I guess they would be good places to go to for most. I decided not to go because 1. I had seen Madame Tussauds in UK, and I didn’t want to go to a sister show, and 2. I had just seen great marine life in both Malaysia and Maldives in the last 3 months, both in the natural habitat and in a created environment, and so didn’t feel I needed to repeat the experience here.

At the Siam Discovery Center

At the Siam Discovery Center

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Siam Paragon

Siam Paragon

Siam Paragon

Siam Paragon

Ocean World

Ocean World

Ocean World

Ocean World

Walked out of Paragon, saw Central World looming ahead on my left, so I took two left turns, asked the guard, and was brought to the 2nd floor, corner of which was The Rink. This was one of the places I had jotted down for ice skating, so I strapped on skates at Bht210 for an hour of skating (500 extra for trainer, although I didn’t get one as they were all busy teaching little kids) and just wobbled over. I put one foot on the ice, held on to the railing for dear life, then put the other foot also on the ice, took one more step, and fell! 🙂 Ice guards needed to help me up, not only this time, but a few other times. Bht210 was good for 3 falls and 3 near falls. I took it laughing, although my arms and body hurt like mad with every fall! At least I can now stand and walk haltingly, letting go off the rail for 2 seconds at a time. 🙂 By the end, I was finishing the round in 3mins (started at 10 mins per round) and I went one entire round without falling! And at one point, I was standing completely by myself, about 3cm from the railing, stationary and without support. I was very proud of myself! 🙂

 

Day 3 (June 10th 2014)

Took a motorbike taxi to Asoke pier from my hotel (Bht30). Was scared out of my wits, kept pulling back limbs one by one because I was scared they will get torn away. The bike went through the smallest gaps at normal speed. Scary ride. Got the boat from the left. Changed boats at Pratunam which is the last stop for passengers for the first boat. Bought a ticket for 14bht, all the way from Asoke to Sapan Panfa (aka Panfa Leelard). First boat issues the ticket, in the second, you only need to show the ticket. (First boat goes past Nana Nua, Chidlom/Chit Lom and a few other stations). Just follow the crowd, or ask if not sure. Got off the boat and took the wrong turn. Went about 500m, turned right, walked back about 0.5km on all three roads till the right turn. Came past the massive monument in the middle of the road, past the traffic lights, turned right, and there was the tourist haven, Khaosan. WP_20140610_012

Khaosan, the beginning

Khaosan, the beginning

Walked all through the street, and on the way back stopped for a drink: Zombie for Bht80 at Kim Cocktails. Quite good, strong but tang of sweetness. Tipsy kind of drink, but watery within 10 mins. Sadly no view. Obscured by racks and carts. One thing to remember is that the boats stop at 8pm. So even though it only takes half an hour to get back, you must leave early to catch the last boats to Asoke. Given it was nearly 7.30pm, I took a boat to Pratunam, even though at Bht12, it was expensive. (But less risk).

The boat ride

The boat ride

Pratunam to Asoke was again Bht12. I decided to walk to the hotel from the pier. It was 1.23miles and took me about 27mins. Altogether, I had walked 0.75miles in Rattanakosin (Old City, where Khao San is) +1.2miles from Asoke to hotel.

 

Day 4 (June 11th 2014)

Took a taxi to MBK mall. Shared with two of my colleagues from the meeting. Went past Central World, Silom on one aide, Erawan, Siam Paragon, etc. Given we shared, it cost Bht30 per person (Bht81, but he had no change and we paid 90). Not being a shopper, I immediately took the BTS (Bht25 each way) to Lumphini Park. Beautiful place, so calm. So many things Sri Lanka can learn from Thailand. And best thing, everyone goes to the free aerobics class. And there were so many people running on the 2.5km track.

Entrance to Lumphini park

Entrance to Lumphini park

Free aerobics classes at 5pm everyday

Free aerobics classes at 5pm everyday

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Came back in time to catch a few Muay Thai matches, free live shows outside MBK every Wednesday from 6pm to about 8pm. There were male and female matches, and the female ones, after 7pm, were quite intense! WP_20140611_025

After a while of watching, I took the BTS back to the hotel, and then went to subway around the corner, got a veggie sub at Bht79. Somehow, these subs never live up to my memories!

 

Day 5 (June 12th 2014)

Had a free day, so around 9.10am, walked to Asoke pier (there was a market in the university grounds just before I reached the Asoke Pier, which might be a Thursday thing), paid Bht14, got down at Sapan Panfa (Panfa Leelard), (I was in the old city by about 10.20) and walked past the main section. Turned left after the lights, to get to the giant swing and the flower market.The giant swing was easy enough to find, placed smack in the center.

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The flower market was not so easy. Walked all the way to the memorial bridge, past about 3 intersections, a McDonalds, and various other markets. At the bridge, on your right, you should see a long road of flower sellers. It goes in different directions so this will take some time.

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Then to go to Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn), I walked towards the bridge, only to be told Tho Thian (the pier with the ferries to Wat Arun) is in the other direction (where I came from). So took a bike taxi at Bht30, got to the pier, walked through a quiet wooden market of memorabilia, to the ticket counter. Only Bht3. Ferry left within 3mins of my arrival. And the journey was about 2mins. No physical tickets are issued but you are allowed through only once paid. Same procedure when coming back. The Wat Arun itself was a tourist-friendly place, but calm and peaceful. It was under renovations. A priest was blessing persons inside. WP_20140612_032 WP_20140612_034

I decided to walk back to the pier. Took me 46mins, and was 2.2miles all the way to the pier. Ticket back cost only 14 because I could change at Pratunam. The walk back to the hotel was 33mins, and only 1mile from pier to hotel room. The 5 days over, I took the MRT from Sukhumvit, just across the road from the Exchange Tower (about 5mins from the hotel) to Makkasan for the airport rail link, and got to the airport within an hour and a quarter with all that walking.   General note: The most important thing to remember is to give yourself time to really enjoy things. I walked super slow, and looked around everything before I kept the next foot. My head was spinning around at all times. Also, the sun is bright and the atmosphere is a bit warm. So, carry an umbrella (advice too late for me!), wear sunscreen, put your hair up, and walk slowly. Your feet and soles will be tired, but you can drag yourself a bit more, especially if you stop for some juice or ice coffee (at McDonalds – Bht44, 7-Eleven – Bht14, although the former is more satisfying and longer lasting) on the way. Thailand can offer so much, if you just know where to look. And so many things are free, so don’t think you have to have a big budget. Just go, have fun. And if you are willing to walk, you will get more enjoyment, find new things, and save a whole heap of money. Trust me, there is nothing to beat it.

Maldives

Finally got around to a new country this year. Two friends and I went to Maldives on 14th May 2014, and great fun was had by all.

We went to Male – the main island, Villinghili – an adjoining island, Maafushi – the island we stayed at, and Hulhumale – the island that adjoins the island with the airport.

We had half a day in Male before we went to Maafushi, so we covered a bit of Male, then went to Villinghili. This beach was superb, but we only discovered it after quite a stay on a pavement under a tree. The island was very calm, with no tourists at all on the roads (except us, that is). When we finally discovered the beach, we ran to the water and then just kept walking along the beach. It just kept getting better at each stop. The shade was very welcome, because the heat was somewhat unbearable. And it was on the beach that we found the tourists. (note of caution: no bikinis allowed on the beach because it is a local island).

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After a relaxed morning spent in beautiful surroundings, we took the ferry back to Male, to have lunch with my friend’s uncle. This was at the artificial beach, all the way on the other side of the island from where we were, and where we needed to come back to. The lunch at Lemongrass sea view was wonderful, spicy and tasty, a pre-requisite for Sri Lankans.

The ferry to Maafushi was to leave at 3, and we sent decided to walk. We did manage it, which was a 3.9km walk, but just barely, and with a run at the end. Note of caution here is if you are going to walk, leave early! 🙂
The ferry ride was uneventful but seeing the island looming up 1.5hrs later, from the top of the ferry, was a good experience. We were picked up on arrival by staff of Holiday Lodge, and escorted to the hotel. The place was small but beautiful, and well kept. We were given a welcome drink, and the Guest Relations Manager explained the water activities. We got three bikes, and rode around the island that evening, and it was a joyous experience.

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The island is even smaller than Male, so it took us very little time to cover it. We had asked for dinner outside, and when we returned, we were pleasantly surprised at how much the staff had gone out of their way to make it pleasant for us. They had set it up on the edge of the road, overlooking the water, and right under a street light. This was the highlight of the trip for me.

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The next day we went snorkeling, and the others loved it. I struggled, because I have a horror of things in my mouth. I nearly gagged, and it took me a while to be comfortable. However, we all got to see sections of the reef, and it was a good experience. However, if you are intending to try this, get your gear right, get used to the gear, and then attempt it. We had problems with our gear at one point, and its not pleasant in the middle of the ocean!  The session left us jubilant but tired, so after lunch we napped – at least two of us did, while the third kept yelling at us to wake up! 🙂 It was straight to jet skis after the nap, so we were out of the hotel by 4, but the place we were renting from was closed, and so we decided to cycle around. Best decision, as we found a stretch of beach we had not found before. It was beautiful!

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We just got into the water in the clothes we were cycling in, and spent our evening there. It was just divine!

That night, we decided to eat out, and we found another restaurant with a beach area, and had pizza and burgers, and rice. Got caught to the rain and had to seek shelter in the enclosed area, but it was a great dinner. And the three of us were so well connected that it felt perfect. We ended the evening eating Belgian Chocolate ice cream.

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The next day, we left early to catch the 7.30am ferry back to Male, and took the top deck. Seeing the ferry plow through the water, and dolphins twirling mid-air in front of you is a beautiful experience, and one which I am glad I did not miss. We also went to Hulhumale in the evening, and were mesmerised by the beauty of the beach and waters. Like my friend Chaithri says, with Maldivian beaches, you are guaranteed a good picture wherever you point the camera, and no matter who points the camera.

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A lovely, lovely holiday it was!

Malaysia March 2014

Three friends and I went to Malaysia in March this year. I had already been there twice, so I had to be dragged, kicking and screaming :). But, my friends had not been there and it was fun discovering a new side to Malaysia with them. We landed quite late so my friend’s friend coming to pick us up was great. A late night dinner and a stroll was all we had time for that night.
The next day, one friend took off to spend some time with some of her family who were living in the city, while the others and I went off in search of adventure. We took every possible method of transportation, but the beloved method was walking. We covered the most famous sites, such as Berjaya Times Square, the Petronas Tower, the Minaret Tower, Bukit Bintang, the Aquaria, and the KLCC Park, as well as the equally important and popular shopping areas such as the China Town, Petaling Street, and the malls.

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The purpose had been seeing the country rather than shopping, so thankfully very little time was spent on the latter, and most on the former. The four days there were incredibly fun. The hotel was a three-star hotel, and breakfast was provided. So we would head out into the city after a leisurely breakfast, and then explore what took our fancy. The best thing was finding eating areas. We discovered Ice-Milo on the second day and we stuffed ourselves with it! Food was good too, we ate all sorts from Indian to Malaysian, to English. I don’t think there was a road that one of us had not covered.

The time in China Town was actually quite good in a different way. Chaithri and I sat down with drinks outside a shop to discuss the Sri Lankan development sector, while the other two shopped. We both work in the sector so we had varying degrees of insight into the two fields we work in. It was an illuminating hour for both. The others too had their fun, having their own time apart, and this is a great recipe for a good time together. A trip must always allow for people to enjoy their own separate pastimes.

We also managed to see and be part of the nightlife, as we decided to check out the clubs on the last night. We walked all over the city looking for a good place – I was in high heels, mind you – and after a long (maybe an hour’s) walk, we found Zouk, which we had decided to go to. Bad, bad choice! There were about a 1000 people there (I promise, that’s only a small exaggeration!) and there were so many queues, winding their way out to the road, that at about 11pm we decided to go somewhere else. Another walk down the two long roads that connect Zouk with the strip of night clubs on Jalan P.Ramlee, and an iced Milo later, we were back where we started, trying to decide where to go to. And of course, in our utter ignorance (and with no research available), at about midnight, we decided to go to the Beach Club! Horror of horrors, yes!

The music was fine, and at times great. The live band also reached some heights but the music changed quickly. The refreshments were quite mediocre, and frankly, I thought entrance was too pricey. Half an hour in, I kept getting hit on (not too bad, just a few words, a few smiles, very PG), and for the next half hour I just put this down to drinks and friendly foreigners. But then, I noticed people watching me, and some actively trying to get my attention, and also, by this time, I had noticed that 98%  of the women there were there for money. And then it dawned on me what the place was, and I was highly uncomfortable. Thankfully, we had been dancing within our group, and the four of us had enough of a shield to guard us. Also thankfully, a few other foreign women walked in at this point and started actually having fun, and I could calm down. But by about 2am I was uncomfortable, so we walked outside and found tables but all these old men were leering at me, and it was an incredibly bad experience for me. We managed to get out of there by about 2.30, and we got back to the hotel with enough time to pack and nap in. Of course, this meant that we were all like zombies when we got to the airport and into the flight. In fact, three of us just conked out the moment we strapped on the seat belts, and didn’t wake up till 5 minutes before we landed.

Apart from the last night, we had had so much fun. We had even had luck in finding good things to bring back home, at great rates – we found Milo (for iced Milo) and Nescafe in bulk (they taste different from what we have here, which should not be!), and I even got a great backpack for a fraction of what it normally costs. I was a happy camper! This trip has led to a tradition of sorts. Maldives (May 2014) is the second installment of this tradition.

Thailand, November 2013

Last year did not go completely as planned in terms of travel. I did not manage to get to Nepal for my godson’s birth, and now, it looks like I won’t in February either, and possibly not for a while. And Europe? That was a complete failure. My friend and I just could not coordinate our times, and ultimately did not see Europe.

However, I did go to Thailand. ICAAP 11 was fun, but the walks were even more fun. I spent more time exploring and sightseeing than at the conference, even after attending as many sessions as I wanted. Food, of course, was one of my biggest grievances, given I am a vegetarian. I had found excellent vegetarian food the first time around, but this time, I actually lost weight from the lack of food. Maybe it had something to do with the locale..

Language issues got all of us down, with us struggling to make everyone – from the organizers to the street hawkers – understand what we wanted. It is really surprising for me, and this was a sentiment shared by all my friends at ICAAP, that Thai people cannot understand/communicate in English. They have a booming business in tourism, and yet, English seems an alien tongue!

Thailand was made better for me through the friends I made, chief among them my roommate, a feisty and passionate Indian young woman, and a Pakistani we befriended, a gentle and funny young man. Both these people changed my life in ways neither understands as yet.

I came away with mixed feelings after one week. It definitely was not as good as my first trip there. But the hotel (Hotel Narai in Silom) was comfortable with good service, and a good (if repetitive) breakfast. The walks were beautiful, and even lengthy walks – which I am used to – were not tiring. Of course, one of the best things for me on any trip abroad away from the heat of South Asia is the cool climate, and Bangkok did not disappoint. The clashes did have some impact – especially on traffic, but I missed much of them.

All in all, a good experience, but could have been much much better.

On people and travelling

Why is it that you sometimes see potential in people and you give them chance after chance but they never step up to the plate? How long can you hold on in the hopes that they will make the move or take the next step? Most importantly how long can you keep excusing them?
People are so hard to decipher. They can be confusing and cute, and they can intrigue you and bore you at the same time. I find people too complicated sometimes.
Traveling, on the other hand, is simple. It’s pleasure and knowledge in one. It opens up a new world. The people I met on my journeys have shown me new facets of humanity as well as reminded me of the known.
My two trips to Nepal are my favorites because of this very reason. The people were friendly and concerned, welcoming my boss and me with open hearts and minds. They lavished attention upon us. They overfed us. In return all they wanted was our happiness.
We had done a crazy trip from Delhi to Agra in a cab, to the Sonauli border in a train at midnight and a cab, and crossed the border on a rickshaw, before being stranded for a few hours till the bus left to Kathmandu. Took us over 2 nights and 2 days and I had not seen the inside of a washroom in over 17hours. It was quite tiring. And we still had a bus ride of over 9hours that would take us to the city at 5 in the morning. Needless to say, we were wondering what we had got into.
In the beautiful hues of the dawn, I saw one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. With long shiny black straight hair cascading down her back and a classic face structure that equally heightened and was heightened by her ivory complexion, she remains to this day the most beautiful woman I have seen.

UK in March 2006

Coming out of my teens and looking for work, I came across an intriguing advertisement for a youth group named Beyond Borders, by the British Council in Sri Lanka. It was my first foray into a beautiful world of youth activism, and my introduction to young people  who were passionate about change and community issues. I was less vocal than the rest, and less ambitious. But, I did say yes to some opportunities that led me to UK in 2006. Lost in the murky ground of winter and spring, London was bleak and dreary, and I did not enjoy it so much, which is understandable I guess, given my own country of constant sunshine. Still, the meetings were energetic and eye-opening, as well as colorful, given the many Asians in the teams.

We were in London for a few days before we headed to Avon Tyrrel, where we had so much land to run in that it is a wonder we got any work done at all, and with the sun just beginning to shine, and the lovely accommodation, we were quite simply, happy.

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However, what I remember most  is running beside the Thames and across the bridge, to get to something with minutes to spare, and then halfway over the bridge deciding it was not happening. My friend and I were quite determined, but also realistic about our chances. Of course, I am quite happy about the dash, even though it speeded up an absolutely delicious meal on the sidewalk next to Thames, because the view from the bridge at 6pm is truly majestic.

No trip to London would be complete without Madam Tussaud and her wax figures, and we did make that pilgrimage and the three of us took turns posing with the stars as all tourists do. But again, as usual, it is not these famous attractions that stick in ones mind but things like having that amazing ice cream on a cold day in a sleepy little village, and a walk past the famous spots  that takes you to a bustling but out-of-the-way market on the streets.

And of course, that book you picked up at a bargain no one will believe, or the witches and goblins you and your friend stood next to…

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USA April and May 2001

I was 15, freshly vegetarian, and my family decided to go visit my cousins in Baltimore and Minneapolis. Chance of a lifetime, and things fell into place so easily and so beautifully. My parents and I were so organized in our packing, which is weird because this was the first international trip for both my mother and me.  April 18th dawned, and I remember sending out a prayer for a safe journey and a wonderful time in USA, the land of promises.

My cousin brother picked us up from the airport and and the first glimpse of Baltimore was breathtaking. It proved a good indication of how I would feel about Washington D.C, because all I remember from that first ride is how beautiful it was, and how liberating. I still cherish Baltimore as one of the most beautiful places I have gone to, and a place I had the most fun. Museums, aquariums, ice cream, the harbor, New York, and the food.. Bliss and a bit more.

Minneapolis was a little less interesting for me, because it was too much of the family environment for my taste. I am a solitary traveller in my preferences, and can manage at the most, two other people. This was my cousin, her family of three kids and husband, my two aunts, and my parents. I love them to bits, don’t get me wrong. But, I was  a little less comfortable. And the clash was way too much to bear. In Baltimore, I felt as if I was at the hub of  everything. In Minneapolis, the only thing that stuck in my head was the visit to Annapolis. I have a thing for men in uniform 🙂

A month and 5days in USA really taught me much. It opened up international travelling for me, brought me into contact with Starbucks, the ferry, and the metro, helped me understand my travel preferences, and gave me a love of new types of food. That last is of course what has brought me to the Travelling Bakeaholic blog.

One last thing before I wrap up this entry. New York was superb, because, it took me to the UN headquarters, which fueled my life-long desire to work there. I was just entering a development-related mindset, thanks to a beloved social worker at school, and had been thinking of UN as the potential destination in my career, and then to walk in that building and to feel the atmosphere was a dream come true, but also a dream-builder. I created my life around the goal of one day entering the UN. Have not reached it yet, but I have worked diligently towards it. Travelling is truly wonderful, if done right.