Sunday, April 30, 2017

European Adventure 1 - Introduction

I had always wanted to go to Europe and while planning my India trip, this fell into my lap. As I was making my booking I was asked by my travel agent if I wanted to stop over in Europe (Munich or Frankfurt) - it would cost less than a direct flight to Delhi from Newark. Oh Great!! I started searching and found that most people made a trip of Munich, Vienna and Salzburg all together. Well then....My trip was made. I would fly out of Delhi stop over in Munich for 9 days and fly back to Newark.

It would be 3 days in Munich, 3 days in Salzburg and 2 days in Vienna. The rest of the 1 day here and there would be for traveling. I still had not decided whether I would do Munich first or last. Well, I have time to plan that.

The next few blogs are kind of my diary of all my travels. I hope you enjoy reading them. I really had a great time, saw so many things and met great people.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Thailand - Final Thoughts

Thailand is a great country to visit. Even though people don’t speak English, they are still willing to help a foreigner. Bangkok is definitely a must visit. I can easily spend five days there without getting bored. There is always one more temple to visit or shopping to do. Out of town excursions are great too. We did our excursions on our own because Prachi was in Thailand and she could find out what to do. Otherwise, it may have been a little bit of a challenge for me. I would have looked all over the internet and still not be happy with my decision.

I would have stayed one more day in Phuket to enjoy it more. Or I could have skipped Similan island in lieu of seeing Phuket. Phi Phi island was much more enjoyable and also closer to Phuket so it gave us more time to rest in the evening.

Hotels are plenty and affordable. One has to ask about breakfast and transportation. In Phuket, the airport is about one hour from the town, so one has to take taxi, van or hotel transportation to get there. Same goes for Bangkok, the downtown, more touristy area is about 40 mins from the airport. That is why I wanted to get the hotel on a metro line. I could have selected a hotel more on the local line instead of the airport metro line, because we had to keep changing stations every single time we went out touring. And then we could have just taken the airport line once to visit the Baiyoke tower. Although I did like staying at the Baiyoke hotel :-)

The food everywhere was amazing! I love Thai food and in it's original place Thailand, it was just too good. The flavors, the aromas were just too good. And we were able to get vegetarian food. If I was going on my own, I would learn to say “vegetarian” or “no meat” in Thai! 

Shopping was the best all over. Prices are low and quality is good. If anyone loves T-shirts then they would be in heaven. I had a little hard time buying clothes because most of the clothes for females are for skinny women. I was happy with other stuff. There are a LOT of places to shop and one can shop only one shopping area in one day - hehe. One does have to bargain a little bit to get good prices.

I always felt safe in the places we went to. I did not feel anyone was cheating me. Even at 11:30 pm we could walk from the metro to our hotel. Although it's possible that we were in good locations also. And the places were all touristy, which in general are crowded and safe.

I feel there is still more to see for me in Thailand, the northern part is quite different than the southern. I would probably advice anyone visiting to make a 10-12 day plan to completely enjoy the country.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Thailand - Day 8 Bangkok

Today Prachi is going to go to her place to bring the stuff she wants to send to her parents, so it’s a late morning for me. While she was gone (and she was gone early as her place is about one hour away). I took it easy. I could not also pack because I don’t know how much she is bringing. After she came back around 12 pm, I packed it all up.  We checked out. I left my luggage with the concierge and we went to visit one last temple – the marble temple.

This one was a little bit of a miss. First it took us a long time to get there, with the train and bus and all, then we could not find it and had to take a cab to get to it because I was so exhausted of walking and it was so hot at 1 pm. The temple was just okay. Nothing special.
We came back to the hotel and from there I had to take the train to the airport. I had selected that hotel because the train went directly to the airport. It was bittersweet leaving Prachi at the station. I so enjoyed our trip together and I felt like I was not quite done. And I know she felt the same way.

After about 40 mins ride, I was at the airport. I still had plenty of time to the flight. Check in etc was all easy enough. The airport was quite beautiful.
The flight was fine, however Air Asia has the worst chefs cooking for them. The food during both legs was inedible.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Thailand - Day 7 Ayuthaya


Today was an excursion to Ayuthaya. So again, went to our breakfast buffet as usual. Today I think it was vegetarian noodles. All tasty stuff.

Went to the local bus/van station to take the van to Ayuthaya. It turns out that it goes to the main bus station, where we will have to change vans. It was little confusing but we made it.  The drive was about 40 mins. The roads were all great and Ayuthaya was also a very pretty city. There were many tourists in the city. Once we reached the city stop, we would have to take a tuk tuk and see how many temples we could see.  There are many ancient temples here.  I let Prachi decide which temples to visit as she had a better idea. We negotiated with the tuk tuk to take us to all these temples below and the driver and guide decided the order according to the locations. It would take about 4-5 hours to see all these. Which was great, we would get back to Bangkok in time to enjoy our last night in the city.

Our ancient temple tour was as below, with some stops here and there….

1 – wat yai chaimonkhon (sleeping buddha) – beautiful old temple. It had these steep stairs to go up and then we could walk around and see the whole compound around. Very pretty. We walked to the very large Buddha statue at the back. Then as we were walking to the exit, we came to the sleeping Buddha.
 
After this first temple, all other temples started looking the same. They had similar architecture, huge compounds and very systematic layout. There was usually a line of sitting Buddhas around the compound, some so old that they were broken.  It was a very hot and humid day. There was a lot of walking. We did get some fruit in the middle but otherwise, no lunch. There was not many tourist shops either – which is good. It was nice just to walk in these old compounds and wonder how it would have looked back in its glory days.

The only temple that was a little unique was Wat Mahatat where there was a Buddha head trapped in a tree. Reminded me of one of the temples of Cambodia.
For some of the temples it was interesting to see how the buildings were tilting or curving into the ground from years of change in the earth’s surface. It was interesting. I think next time, I would do maybe four temples.

2 - Wat chai watthana ram
3 - wat lokayasutharan
4 – wat phrasisanphet
5 – wat phra ram
6 – wat mahatat (bhddha in tree)

The tuk tuk dropped us off near the van and we came back to Bangkok.  We were very near the Chatuchak market, so we walked there to see if more shops were open, and they were not. So then we decided to come back to our hotel and go up the Baiyoke tower. 
Baiyoke Tower
And today was the day for the massage! Finally we got in time to spare one hour for massage. We both got one hour massages, mine was just the foot massage and it was good! Highly recommend.

As we came into our street, we saw the Indira market mall!! We had not seen it before because we never came at time it was open. We went in and wow! What a market!! We were totally engrossed in it. So many shop owners knew Hindi and there were so many Indians around. It turns out that Delhi shopkeepers come here to shop for bulk goods. It was really good, watches, belts, t-shirts, jewelry, suitcases, phones….whatever one wanted, it was there! We left at around 8 pm otherwise we would be late for our tower trip….and we still had to eat dinner.

Right across were all Indian restaurants, so we decided to have dosa for dinner. Awesome! Went back to our rooms, go cleaned up to go to the Baiyoke tower. We were thinking since it is part of our hotel, we would get up there for free, but no, we had to pay a 600 bhat (a discount for us because we were at the sister hotel). The ticket includes the ride up and a free drink at the bar. The Baiyoke tower is indeed beautiful inside. We were first at the 83th level and then took the stairs up to the 84th, which is the rotating rooftop deck. It was glorious to be so high up. And the view was just something else! Stayed out in the open for a nice long time. It was of course windy, but not cold. The rotating deck was a little noisy, but it did not matter. We made 2-3 rounds and then came down for our drink.
 
The bar was very nice. There were different kinds of chairs and places to sit. There was enough room for a lot of people.  There was live music. All the seats were by the wall to wall glass windows. Very nice! Came back around 11 pm. Was totally exhausted.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Thailand - Day 6 Bangkok

Went for breakfast around 9 am. The hotel was okay. I selected it because of it’s proximity to the tallest tower in Bangkok, Baiyoke tower, which is also a hotel. I wanted to go to the deck on one of the nights we were there. So this hotel is one of the more affordable of the three hotels Baiyoke has.

The breakfast buffet was good. there was plenty to eat (continental and Thai) and drink. Enjoyed breakfast and then also the view from the top.
Then it was time to visit Lebua tower, the second tallest hotel of Bangkok. It is also the site where movie, Hangover Part III, was shot.  It was a little bit of a walk from the station but we got there.  Went up to the 63rd floor. The top floor opens only after 7 pm, so we will have to suffice with this level. That’s fine! The concierge there was nice enough to show us the deck and leave us to our photography. Oh my God! What a beautiful view of the city.  Could see miles of the crowded city. Really cool!! Saw the river, saw Asiatic – just beautiful to spend some time there.
After that it was time to see some temples.  Prachi, very smartly, got us the public ferry to the temples. 7 bhat vs 100 bhat (for the tourist taxi) is some difference!! It was a 20 min ride to the first temple, Wat Arun. It was a huge temple.  There was some maintenance going on, but otherwise it was easily accessible and a number of areas were open to visit. It took more than an hour to see. As we were walking to find the ferry, we crossed through some food and tourist shops. And then came another temple. Spent some time there also.

Walked back to the ferry and boarded to go to our next stop, Pra Vihara (the temple of lying Buddha). This temple is the biggest I have visited! It took over 2 hours to see the huge compound. First we paid respect to the lying Buddha and from there we went to see all the little temples around the campus. All were unique in their own ways and all beautiful. We had some good lunch also – vegetable noodles.
Then it was time to see if we could see the palace near the Pra Vihara. It was a long walk to the palace and by this time, we were just beat! It turns out the palace was closed as it was 6 pm now. It was quite a bummer since we had to walk all the way back to the ferry which is about a mile walk again.

Once we got on the ferry, it was time to see the flower market in the Yodpiman Riverwalk. They probably created the Riverwalk to have a nice entrance to the flower market. I think our timing was not very good. the flower market is the busiest at night, and of course its not possible to come at that time for us. But we still got an idea of how great it must be. Flowers were really cheap and plentiful. Sad that we did not need any. The Riverwalk itself was quite nice too.
Then it was time to move on the Asiatique. That is also accessible from the ferry. Now it is about 8 pm. Getting late and I am super tired from walking but not tired of touring. Asiatique is lit up like Diwali and crowded like a party place! There is a little area where there are rides and shows going on. The other side has the shops and restaurants. Of course we were not going to a restaurant.  I am all about street food! So we walked through the rides and got to where street food. And we had good stuffed parantha kind of dish. Mine was egg stuffed and Prachi’s was chocolate – both were tasty.
Then it was time to walk around. Again, there were a lot of shops. It was great to be in such a lively place. Then we got in the line to get the ferry to the metro. The ferry is free to the metro! Marketing strategy of Asiatique. From the metro we went to the Siam mall.  It was one of the most expensive and huge mall I have seen! Oh lord! Just the shoe section went on and on and on. The food courts were huge and had such a variety of foods and the ambience was just super. It seems that below the mall is a huge aquarium, sadly closed at this time of the day.
It was time to go back around 11 pm. Every time we walked back to our hotel, we saw this massage place and promised ourselves, tomorrow!

Today was extremely tiring, but really a great day.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Thailand - Day 5 Bangkok

The flight out of Phuket was in the morning. Did not have time for breakfast also. The scenery out of the plane was beautiful. And then came Bangkok – oh what a huge city! Really good view from the plane.
 After a bit of walking around the airport, Prachi figured out the bus to take to the metro. Once at the metro, we had to change the train once to get on the airport line on which our Baiyoke hotel was. In retrospect, I should have just taken a cab from there.  Some of the metro stations did not have elevators and carrying one large suitcase was not really fun! The metro is really good though.
The hotel was just about a block from the station from the back side, but we learned later that at night we would have to take the longer route which would be about 3 blocks.  Oh well, you cannot tell all things at one time. The check in at the hotel was delayed because they were quite busy. So we left our luggage there and had lunch at their cafĂ©. Oh wow, most awesome lunch!! Have never had such flavors in foods before. Really enjoyed it.
Decided to go to the big market, Chatuchak, since the check in was not available yet and it was the weekend! We took the metro again to the market. Thanks to Prachi, I had a very good guide in her. The market was not as busy as I was expecting. There were a lot of shops that were closed. And then there were a lot of shops that opened up at 8 pm. We were there from around 5 pm to 11 pm.  Really enjoyed walking around and shopping. I could not buy a lot of stuff for myself since I could not be sure if dresses would fit me. But I bought for everyone I needed to.  Had coconut ice cream on the way. All was great.
Bangkok really looks great at night also.  Its amazing that it is such a hugely populated city but it is so clean and has no crime. We were walking back to our hotel at 11 pm but had no fear. We had to take the long way, but all was good. I decided to take the buffet breakfast for the two days we were there.

Was really tired that night and tomorrow will be another long day!

Friday, April 14, 2017

Thailand - Day 4 Phi Phi Island


Another boat tour today. The pickup for this one was a little later at 9 am, so had a little sleep in time. The drive this time to the docks was about 30 mins. We were going south this time. There were snacks and tea for us. We could walk around until it was time to go, which was about 40 mins later.

The boat ride today was still the power boat, but the tour today was very good. our guide was a nice funny guy, good for tourists. The scenery today from the boat is much nicer than yesterday, so I was on all photo alert. The water again was just beautiful blue green and clear. Our first stop was a lagoon inside a bunch of mountains in the ocean. The lagoon was deep, but everyone can swim there since there were no waves or dangers. I of course still need a life jacket, I am just not that comfortable in open waters like that. And then I jumped!! Lovely! The water was great. There were no fishes, but the swim was nice. We were there for about 20-30 mins.
From there it was time to snorkel in another location. We could not go far because the fish was right there. Cool!! 
After another 30 mins or so, our boat took us near the monkey beach (part of Phi Phi island), which really has monkeys on it! We all took photos and then we moved on to the main Phi Phi island for lunch. 
The lunch was quite professional buffet. All very good! I really liked the vegetarian curries. Too good! We left the island for another island, Khai.
We were at Khai island for about an hour and a half. It was not very big, more touristy than ecological. There was a huge open bar, little shopping. Of course the beaches are there. This beach was not as sandy. There were many small stones, I was thankful to have my slippers. There was one area at the side of the island where there was a school of yellow fish just swimming around. It was great to sit in the water and let the fish swim around me! So cool!! So much cooler than snorkeling.
Enjoyed the waters and then walked back to the boat. There was still some fruit and water left at our table (boat arranges the snacks).  Then it was time to come back to Phuket. It was nice to come back by 6 pm. It gave us some time to explore Phuket. We showered and went to the Jungceylon mall to do some shopping. On the way we enjoyed some rolled ice cream….awesome!! 
The mall was fun. Lots of great shops. Could have spent more time there. But we were hungry. Decided to have pizza. Interestingly the place also served quesedillas!
After that we still had some time, and energy, to walk down to Patong Beach. The night life was basically all bars with girls dancing on the bars. Pretty sad. There was plenty of activity on the road – magicians and other individual showmen.
Slept well!!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Thailand - Day 3 Similan Island

As usual, I got up early and got my stuff ready. After both of us were ready, we went downstairs to wait for the tour guy to pick us up. It was getting to be 20 mins later than the pickup time. Good thing we called the tour company from the hotel because there were two hotels of almost the same name and the bus guy went to pick us up there. But he came by 15 mins later. We still had plenty of time to get to our location.

The location was about 2 hrs away north of Phuket. The drive was nice, good to see country side. Once we reached the place we had breakfast there and got time to change. There were so many people there! There were about 7-8 bathroom for women to change/shower. We then looked into underwater camera rental – which was not available, so we bought a waterproof case. Prachi used it – good! because I could not think about taking my phone under water, case or no case.

After about 30-40 mins, we all got into our group boats, identified by our wrist bands. Each boat had about 25 tourists.  The fast boat then left the harbor and it took another 1 hour to reach our first island. This tour has about 4 islands. Our first stop in the middle of the sea was for snorkeling. Prachi had never snorkeled before, yet she was so adventurous about it. I was highly impressed! I jumped in also and snorkeled around. Got so lost in the underwater scene that I drifted far away from the boat. Uhg! The boat guys had to come and take both Prachi and I back to the boat, it was so far away and all the boats looked the same! Not good. I was a little embarrassed but…who cares!

Next stop was a pretty island where we had lunch. They had the most tasty vegetarian curry for us. The arrangement was not fancy, but food was great! We walked around the little beach for a while until it was time to go to Similan Island. This is the main tourist place. It was gorgeous! The color of the water is something else. Have never seen such blue water. We walked up the main rock to see the view from there. The walk was nice and the view from up there was spectacular.

We walked around the island taking pictures and then played a while in the ocean. It was just too pretty and I was in complete vacation mode.
On the way back, we stopped once more for snorkeling. This time, I did not venture far from the boat. 
The ride back was quite boring. Not much to look at. Once back to the dock, we all rushed to stand in line for showers. I wanted to get all the salt water off me. They had some nice snacks and drinks for us and ice cream! Then it was the two hour drive back to Phuket. Again, watched the beautiful country side. Got back around 9 pm or so. Could not do much that day.  I was tired!

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Thailand - Day 2 Phuket

Got up early to leave for Don Meaung airport. There was not much to do except take a shower and go. This is when I started realizing that my companion took a little time to do stuff. Or maybe I am just too damn efficient! In any case, we checked out of the hotel and hailed a metered taxi. A taxi from the hotel would have cost us about 800 bhat. The driver did not know English – no problem – it was just the airport. After about 40 mins of driving, I was a little worried, as I was expecting the airport to come in that time, but it takes about one hour of constant driving. The roads were great and looking at my first view of Bangkok, it seemed like an organized, clean city.

Since we had a little bit of communication issue with the driver, we got dropped off at the domestic airport, so we took a little walk to the international side, all inside the same building.  Check in was super easy. The Air Asia counter was organized and efficient.  We had to just check in my one luggage. We had some time, so went upstairs to the wonderful food court. Prachi wanted to have a burger, so I also had some omelette at the Burger King. The food was a little more expensive at the airport than out of it. 

The boarding and flight was all good. One thing I noted about this aircraft was that all the seat backs and luggage compartments had ads on them of the same company. In other countries, these are usually all void of any writing.  The flight was okay. Did not have a window seat but could tell from peaking over that Phuket would be a pretty location.
Our luggage came almost as soon we reached the carousel. We got some tourist material (which we never had time to look once we reached the hotel). There were plenty of tour desks outside, we enquired about hotel transportation and tickets for FantaSea show.  We got it from one of the desks and also got a discount (180->150 each) on our hotel transportation – which was a van.  Taxi would have cost us a lot. The drive to the hotel took over one hour. Most of the drive was scenic, especially when we saw the coast. Phuket city is also very clean. The roads were all good.

Once we entered the touristy part of Phuket things were different. It was more crowded. And also because of the New year festival there was a lot of water throwing everywhere.  The streets were full of people, markets were all open. Everything seemed so alive. Our hotel was kind of inside a street – not easily accessible by a van. We dragged our luggage to the Inn Patong hotel and checked in. The receptionist mentioned that the credit card machine was broken, so I would have to pay by PayPal. Okay. And then she wanted either a 3000 Bhat/$100/passport deposit for the incidentals in the room. I gave the bhat. She could not understand why I would not give my passport.

The room was fine, but the bathroom was the tiniest I have seen ever. It was one seventh in proportion to the room. We had 3 hours to buy a swimsuit and sarong for me before the van for Fantasea would arrive to take us. Walking out was quite fun. We started off with a fruit shake each (found later that it should have been cheaper!).  I could see that not buying “stuff” would be hard. But self control helps! We walked up to the Bangla street and of course Prachi wanted to walk it…okay! The street is just bars on both sides and shopping. And because of Songkrat festival, lots of water! we got entirely soaked by the time with walked the street. It was fun. There was also the soap bubble dance going on…interesting. All in good fun – no rude behavior. We reached the beach – but no point going in the water, I would have felt worst in terms of my jeans getting wet.
Walked the Patong Beach road looking for swimsuit, finally found one – but not that great. It was a compromise. Found a sarong and a nice summer dress also.  All good (sort of). Walked back to the hotel and showered and got ready for Fantasea.
The drive was about 30 mins – so arrived about 6 pm. It just seemed a whole other place – so beautiful but alas artificial.  But really, I felt I was on vacation.  Got our tickets and then it was time for pictures of the outside decorations. There was music playing and of course there were so many people there. Prachi is totally into talking photos! She enjoys it. And she took some great videos.  There was a place to walk inside – all lit up! Went inside and that brought up another place – kind of like a theme park (no rides) – lots of places to get local art work and games for kids. So much going on.  As we wound down to the buffet, we crossed the “palace of the elephants” – really gorgeous building of elephant carvings.  We walked through all that to reach the buffet place. There was elephant riding possible. It was well lit place.
Dinner buffet place was huge! So much seating yet it was only half full.  There was food everywhere. They seated us next to Indian food – which was not that great, but there was some vegetarian Thai food which was much better. The desert was not that great. We enjoyed there for about an hour or more until it was time to go for the show at 9pm. They have a systematic way to taking phones away. Of course its all honor system – how would they know you still have it? As soon as we go through the entrance there were sets where people can take photos (which are sold for 300 bhat later). There were sets, elephants and people dressed up traditionally.
Our seating was not the best – it was on the 3rd tier – we could barely see the stage – don’t know why they even have that seating. Good for Prachi that she went to ask for a change of seating and we did get a much better seating – same pricing but much ahead. Don’t know why they did not give us that in the first place.

The show was amazing – all sorts of little pieces of shows and animals and so much theatrics. It was about an hour and fifteen minutes and essentially about how elephants are important in the Thai culture. Really great!

Even after the show was over, all the way back to the entry point, there were entertainers keeping people feeling good. At the exit, there were people there to help us get into the right bus to get us back to the right hotel. Really good organization and entertainment.

Got back to the hotel after 11 pm. Had to make sure we had stuff ready for the island trip tomorrow. And we have to also get up around 5 am to leave at 6am.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Thailand - Day 1 Arrival

Left India on 11th morning to go come to Bangkok. It seems little weird since it’s a short flight and I am not traveling within USA. I was little tight on time in Delhi – bought some mithai for Prachi and of course had to have idli while I was at the airport. The check in of luggage and immigration actually took a lot of time.

Flight was okay.  After a long time, the seats next to me were vacant. The food was the worst I have eaten on a plane. Thank god I ate idli before.  I slept a little bit and listened to music and Bangkok arrived quite soon.

The airport is quite big. Immigration went smoothly and so did the luggage arrival. All very comfortable. I decided to take the hotel bus to the hotel instead of taxi. I could have taken the taxi. It took about 20 mins to get to the hotel. All went smooth at the Golden Jade. Room was lovely. I waited a bit and then went down to wait for Prachi to arrive and she came as soon as I reached the lobby.  Good to see her. Although it does not seem like we have not seen each other for five years because we talk so much regularly.

We really had nothing much to catch up on so we went out for a walk – got some snacks from 7-eleven and Tesco. 7-eleven is just basics but Tesco was larger and more variety.

Went to bed as early as we could as we had to get up early to go to the other airport.