Archive | July, 2013

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

27 Jul

As I mentioned in my previous post, Zest airways is not not very reliable. I made sure to get to the airport well ahead of my 645am departure, even though my updated booking said the flight was 10 minutes later. I was a little nervous for this trip as well because it was my first time traveling alone to an Asian city, let alone a primarily Muslim city. Not that it means anything bad, but I always try to make sure I’m respectful and following the rules of other cultures. I had a general idea of what I wanted to do, but nothing booked in advance. However, I was fortunate enough to book the Renaissance hotel, which would give me all my Marriott perks, including a hotel concierge that could help me call local businesses.

The Kuala Lumpur LCCT, low cost carrier terminal, does not connect to the commuter train which runs straight to the KL Sentral train station, so a taxi was pretty much the easiest option. Right outside the baggage claim I paid 75r for a one way to the hotel, which took about an hour. After freshening up, I bee lined to the concierge in order to plan my stay. While the Petronas towers are great to look at, I didn’t feel the need to queue up at 6:30am to get one of the 1,200 tickets that are available everyday but Monday. Although I now know that tickets are available online, or for a small fee the hotel will buy the tickets for you. I had a laundry list of other options, such as, the Batu Caves, Melaka, Kuala Gandah elephant sanctuary, and the Malaysia Heritage walking tour. I decided to head to the Batu caves via public transport. The MRT subway was comparable to Hong Kong, cheap and clean. The KTM komuter has train cars reserved specifically for women. I rode in these cars to and from the Batu Caves.

Many people on trip advisor say the caves are unimpressive. As you can see from my pictures, I tend to disagree. I’m also guessing many of those people don’t understand how important the caves are to the Hindu culture.

On my way back from the caves, two men, and when I say men I mean man-babies, were in the women’s car on the way back to Sentral. One of them gathered the courage to come over and ask me if I knew where Sentral was, I said “no”, then he asked what my name was and I turned away. He obviously didn’t get the hint, because he asked “Hello?” to which I informed him that he was in the women’s car and not allowed to be here. Clearly non-understanding, he asked if I wanted some nuts, to which I responded, “no, there’s no eating or drinking allowed on the train.” Thus the term man-baby, because he may be a grown ass man, but he certainly can’t think or act like one.

On my way back to the hotel I stopped at the Central Market. This is also where my Eat, Pray, Love walking tour with Be Tourist left from the following day. It’s touted as the oldest market in KL, but according to my tour it was actually relocated from its original spot a block or so away. However, buyer beware, the prices are not very cheap and not all the vendors are willing to negotiate. Now I’m obsessed with negotiating, so I really took my time to troll the area. The first night I met a great couple from Australia. They were truly genuine people and, as always, great travelers. I say great travelers because Aussies have the passion to travel and include everyone around in conversation. Hopefully their next trip will be to NY.

The Malaysian Heritage walking tour ended up being way more than I ever expected. Not only did we eat South Indian food with our hands in honor of the first money lenders in KL, but we also had local fruits, two kinds of roti and coconut pancakes, stingray and clay pot chicken with rice. We walked just as much as we ate, which was perfect because I wasn’t too full, but I also could not digest another food particle. Our guide also took us to three of the oldest and therefore important places of worship in KL culture, Masjid Jamek, a Hindu temple, Sri Mahamariamman, and the oldest Taoist temple Sin Sze Si Ya Temple. Since its still Ramadan, and therefore prayer is now 7 times a day, we did not enter Masjid Jamek, but the two temples we did enter both had fabulous history and very unique teachings. To cap off the evening, we went to a local pub to get to know each other better as a group. It was great. Together we represented, USA, Canada, Turkey, UK, Norway, Germany, and China. What a great environment to meet new friends. Before I went to KL it was represented to me as a boring city, but I beg to differ. I definitely hope to return and spend more time in Malaysia.

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Boracay

22 Jul

When I say I’m living in Manila, Filippinos tend to get really excited to know where else in the Philippines I’ve been to. One of the most popular and easily accessible being Boracay. My awesome coworkers decided we should all go together, as a couple members of the team had never been before either. We booked our tickets on Air Asia’s website and put three of the tickets on my credit card. Side note: when I saw the credit card charge it was only $131 USD…yes, for three people round trip. I mean jesus, I can barely fly myself from NY to Boston for less than $400 USD!

After finagling our work schedules, and literally pushing our one coworker out the door, we were off to NAIA Terminal 4. Turns out we were flying Zest Air, who is apparently a codeshare with Air Asia who we had booked through. Shockingly, there is a Seattle’s Best Coffee in this low cost carrier terminal, which has pretty darn good panini’s. I was so excited. Our flight landed in Kalibo and from there we needed to take a shuttle bus to the ferry dock in Caticlan, to Boracay. Originally, we were planning to stay overnight in Kalibo, since we would miss the last ferry. However, it was our lucky day. We landed on time and booked the bus and ferry at the airport. The bus took roughly an hour and a half to the dock at which we had to pay an environmental fee and a terminal fee and call a resort to book a one nights stay. We were booked into the Eco village even before we boarded the ferry, which took less than 15 minutes to get to the island. There is a much closer airport that does not require the bus ride, however the fares are typically more expensive.

Our transportation from the dock to Eco village consisted of 7 of us, and our luggage, piling on a tricycle. There were a couple questionable moments going up the hills and through some street flooding, but we made it in one piece with all seven luggage bags.

Boracay has become a very popular resort and party-going island, with restaurants and bars right on the white sand beach. Eco village is located north of white beach and tucked into the mountain. We spent the first half of the day at Puka beach, which was quiet and relaxing with coral sand. Going from Puka to strolling White beach in the afternoon with all its activity, was a different change of pace. One place off the beach I absolutely loved was Jonas fruit shake and snack bar. The banana chocolate peanut shake and the mocha rhum shakes, were fabulous. That night we had the best Italian food I’ve had since leaving NY. Restaurant Aria had great pastas and wood fired pizzas. But the night wouldn’t be complete without some beachside dancing at some of the popular beach bars.

The following day we set off on a relaxing sail around followed by watching multiple groups of Koreans wearing child’s swimmies, water jackets, and pearl necklaces in the water. (?) Don’t worry I definitely took photos. My coworker told me the swimmies are apparently a fashion trend, when I pointed out that the women using them were actually swimming and not just floating. Hmm. Certainly a bizarre fashion statement. Our final dinner was spent at the regency buffet, (my friends really like buffets). I’m usually not a huge buffet person except for the fact that this buffet had medium rare NY strip, garlic mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables. Sold. I had no idea how much I missed it. They also had three lovely ladies who, of course, sang cover songs new and old beautifully…damn them…and a fire show, that happened to have a lady boy flame thrower. To cap the evening, we had masseurs waiting for us at the hotel for the whopping price of 350P, $9 USD, and a bottle of wine. None of us wanted to leave.

Zest Air is a low cost carrier partnered with Air Asia. On Sunday evening one of my coworkers received an email that her was flight was cancelled and she was rebooked on a flight which was over an hour earlier. We thought it was suspicious that the other two reservation holders hadn’t received an email. Sure enough, in the spam folder, there were notifications, however some of our flights were rescheduled to over an hour later than originally scheduled. What happened to picking up a phone? Four of us left at 230am and the three of us intended on leaving around 7am. But, 7am turned into 8am after we finished with breakfast, and we ended up missing our flight. My first time ever. Fortunately, there are many flights to/from Manila, and we were able to get the next flight at no cost, but I was a little concerned since I booked with Zest for my flights the following weekend to Kuala Lumpur. Out of curiosity, I did a search on Air Asia and saw that the flight times were different then originally scheduled. Hmmm. I tweeted at both Air Asia and Zest, but only Air Asia responded and had me direct message my booking number. They then took 2 days to respond telling me to email them. Ugh! They finally sent me an updated itinerary the day before my flight. Moral of the story… You get what you pay for when flying budget airlines. The cheaper the ticket, the greater the risk.

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Koh Samui

8 Jul

Escaping the rains of Phuket, we landed in paradise, otherwise known as Koh Samui. A couple years ago I read an article about Koh Samui and knew I had to go. Once we landed we were bused in open air shuttles that looked like they drove off the Disney lot to the main terminal. We took a shuttle bus to the hotel, Buri Rasa Village. I found this hotel using Trip Advisor and Amex travel. While of course there were some negative reviews, the key reasons I chose it was A) it was right on Chaweng beach and the main strip B) the same people had been going back for years C) it was described as peaceful and romantic with a good buffet breakfast and hotel prices that weren’t as overpriced as say the JW Marriott Phuket. Our expectations were fully met. The hotel staff brought us coconut water while they checked us in, showed us to our room and even helped us book our excursion for the following day. To top it off, every evening there was a local treat, such as flowers made from leaves, or homemade carmel candy waiting for us next to the bed.

Taxi cabs in Samui need to be negotiated in advance as they have no meter like the cabs in Bangkok (even though the taxis in Bangkok don’t want to use the meter). The hotel receptionist helped us to negotiate reasonable rates. Our first dinner in Samui was a place called the Larder. While pricy, the food did not disappoint, especially the peanut butter martini I got for desert.

Chaweng beach is full of many typical beach activities such as parasailing and jet skiing. However, there are also $12usd massages with tiger balm and vendors selling everything from bracelets to Japanese corn. Of course our trip would not be complete without a ride on an elephant. Lucky for us, we were the only people on our excursion at Island Safari. We rode an elephant, watched an elephant show, a monkey show, learned how to make papaya salad, had our feet cleaned in a fish spa and had a private jeep safari tour of the mummified monk and Na Muang waterfall. After our adventure we went to Fishermans village. On Fridays you can pick up a 50/60baht cocktail while browsing the vendors and restaurants on the water. (Yes once again we’re shopping!)

Our last order of business on the island was to get suits made. Many of the websites suggested a tailor near the Centara hotel, and said that anyone standing outside the store was probably a “fake”. The suit guy next to Centara got the job done in 4 hours. We walked in the store for measurements at 5pm and came back at 9pm for a fitting. Talk about professional! For our last dinner on Koh Samui we ate at our hotel, and once again, had the whole place to ourselves. Wow. The food was great and the atmosphere relaxing.

The following morning we made our way back to the open air airport that is Samui international. Once again we were shocked at how relaxed and easy it was to walk around to the shops, go through security and be treated to a Bangkok Airways “coffee bar” with free wifi. The only downside were the flies, the fact that we were leaving and the absolutely horrendous outfits some people wear to get on a plane. We were fed on the 50 minute flight to Bangkok and serviced by no less than 5 airline stewards (also did I mention that none of these flights were full?).

Samui is definitely some place I would go back to simply for the fantastic service, peaceful atmosphere and good shopping. Maybe next time I would stay on Koh pha ngan … Full moon party anyone?

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Phuket

7 Jul

The Thai airways flight from Bangkok to Phuket was one of the most seamless flights I’ve ever taken. No disrobing was required at security, no one bum-rushed the gate to board the plane, and whether the flight is 40 min or 4 hours, the airline serves a drink and a snack. We gathered our checked luggage in Phuket and made our way to the Marriott booth. We had not prearranged transportation since it’s usually outrageously expensive, but we asked the guy working the desk how much a taxi was and if he could help us arrange one. 20 minutes later we were checked into the JW Marriott Phuket resort and spa and wasted no time settling in at the bar with a couple of Lychee martinis and deciding what activities we should plan. Phuket is a lot larger than we originally thought, so we had to plan our two full days carefully.

The following night we took the hotel shuttle to Patong beach, where the booze is cheap and the sex shows abound. Regardless if you’re a woman or man, every hawker on the street tries to hustle you into a ping pong show. (Ill let you look it up). We did not partake, but we did catch some really good live bands. (There goes the singing again).

Early the next morning we took off on an excursion to Maya Bay, the secluded island where the movie The Beach was filmed. Given the rainy season weather, the sea swells, clouds and rain can be unpredictable. Our guide must have warned us at least 3 times that we might not be able to make some of the scheduled stops due to the choppiness of the water. He said it so many times as though he was trying to talk us out of going. But we kept thinking positive thoughts and our prayers were answered with stops at Maya Bay, Phi Phi Island, Monkey Beach etc. The boat ride was rough and a couple people lost their breakfast, but the sun was out and the water was gorgeous. At times it was as warm as bath water. Apparently, capturing and selling swallows nests is a big business out here. It’s supposedly healthy and gives that nice white glow that symbolizes Asian affluence. Our stop for lunch included a nice noodle soup, some Chang beers and a full buffet. We left in a bit of a hurry because we could see the sky turning dark and what looked like rains heading our way. Just when we thought we were in the clear, we made one last stop on a small island beach 10 min from the marina. The downpour finally caught up with us and we all had to pile into the boat and make a run for it. Despite being soaked, we arrived at our hotel just in time for the firelighting ceremony! To cap off our last evening in Phuket, we journeyed out to the Thai restaurant in the hotel, running through puddles and frogs to enjoy a last Phuket dinner. The following day we were leaving on Bangkok Air for Koh samui!20130708-114937.jpg

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Bangkok

5 Jul

Bangkok

Our first couple days in Thailand were naturally in Bangkok, which apparently beat out Paris to be the most visited destination of the year. The morning was spent taking in the Grand Palace with the Emerald Buddha, along with Wat Pho, the reclining Buddha. The excellent concierges at the St. Regis Bangkok helped us plan our day and before we got into a taxi the doormen cautioned us against getting into taxis without a meter running and not to believe anyone that told us the sites were closed. We had no trouble getting into the Grand Palace especially since we were both wearing pants and had covered shoes and shoulders. Being seasoned temple goers from our experience India, we were prepared to take off our shoes, put away our cameras and resist the urge to roll up our pants.The palace was magnificent. Every building had attention to detail. The only place we could not take photos was inside the Emerald Buddha.

Going from the Grand Palace to Wat Pho, the reclining Buddha, required some google mapping, given the high walls of the palace and surrounding side streets, not to mention that everyone we talked to wanted to take us to big buddha or somewhere of their choosing. When we finally made it to the walls of Wat pho, the outside vendors kept pointing in different directions for the entrance and saying it was closed until 4pm. False. The key is to not listen to anyone. We eventually found the entrance and thus the giant reclining gold buddha.

We could have spent all day going from temple to temple and Buddha to Buddha, but it was hot as hell and the infamous chatuchak weekend market was in full swing. We opted for pad Thai and shopping in the afternoon. A cab driver outside wat pho told us there was too much traffic to the chatuchak weekend market so it would be… 500 baht! No way, we told him to run the meter. He countered saying 200baht and we’d make one other stop. Gee I wonder where he was planning to take us? We walked away. The cab drivers definitely do not want to run the meter. The second cab said 200baht “because of the traffic” we agreed. We knew we were probably overpaying a bit, but at 30baht to 1usd we weren’t going to argue, plus this cab driver sang old school American tunes the entire way. What more could we ask for?

Side note: I noticed in the Philippines as well… Asians love to sing. And by sing I mean randomly bust out in song with really good singing voices. I wish this was as socially acceptable in the US as it is in Asia.

The weekend market was huge! After some shrimp pad Thai ($1 usd), we bought silks, spices, t shirts, and leisure pants, which everyone seemed to be wearing at the temples. We could have spend all weekend there. They sold everything from souvenirs to furniture to puppies. Instead of going back to the hotel via taxi, we wanted to experience taking a tuk tuk. We’d taken one before in India, but wanted to see what was different. This tuk tuk was more like a motorcycle with a back seat. After negotiating the fare, we hopped for a high speed ride back to the hotel. Our goal for the evening involved finding a rooftop bar for drinks and pictures. The concierge of course recommended the four seasons restaurant. Apparently our dishelved sweating faces somehow gave the impression that we can afford the best Thai restaurant in the country. Unfortunately one thing we did not count on was the dress code at some of these rooftop bars, especially Vertigo where the hangover II was filmed. Instead we went for thang long, a very cute and reasonably priced Vietnamese restaurant and the rooftop of Hotel Muse called the Speakeasy. Mai Thai’s came in mason jars and the view was exactly what we had hoped for.

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