Thursday, June 27, 2013

Back Home---SE Asia Odds & Ends

On June 14th I took the Delta flight that left at 6AM from Bangkok with a stopover in Japan. I arrived in Seattle on the same June 14th at 8 AM. It was not a 2 hour flight through a teleporter, but rather the crossing of the international date line that took over 18 hours. From the Seattle airport, I caught the light rail to the University St. stop, just 3 blocks from home.

Cost of Trip

In 42 days I traveled to Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam and my total cost was $3,756 or about $89 per day.

My hotel costs totaled $882 for an average of $21 per night. Thailand was the most expensive averaging $28 per night and both Laos and Vietnam averaged just $11 per night----in Vietnam two nights were spent on the train to and from Sapa---so the real average cost in Vietnam was $16 per night. Most of the rooms had A/C, were very clean and neat, had in-room bathrooms with hot water showers, TV with mostly BBC or a fair and balanced showing of Fox along with Al Jeezra---only two places with CNN.

My food costs, including beer, was $1,161 for an average of $28 per day with Vietnam the most expensive at $40---love the French food influence---and Laos the cheapest at $22 per day. By comparison, my Brazil trip averaged $38 per day.

My total transportation costs were $756:

  • The Delta air fare round trip from SEA to Bangkok cost 80,000 miles and $81.30. If I would have paid for this flight, it would have cost me $2,000. The travel time from SEA to BKK is 18 hours 5 minutes and is 7,652 miles.

  • The Vietnam Visa cost $80.

  • The Laos Visa cost $48.

    Royal Palace in Luang Prabang.
    Golden Shower and Tamarind trees in bloom along the Mekong.
  • The AirAsia air flight from Bangkok to Hanoi cost $62.79. This flight took 2 hours and is 618 miles. The return flight cost $132.

  • The round trip cost of the soft sleeper train from Hanoi to Lo Cai was $65 plus another $23 for mini buses to and from Sapa. Almost less than a two night stay in a hotel room.

  • The two day boat ride on the Mekong River from Luang Prabang to Huay Kai cost $29.

  • The remainder of the costs were for the buses, sky train, ferry boats, taxis, and mototaxis.

    ATM Worries

    I was a bit concerned when none of the ATMs in Laos would give me money, and I was glad that I had $200 USD and another 10,000 Thai Baht going into Laos. Otherwise I would have had to use my Visa or AMEX to buy cash at a 3% -5% fee plus 19% to 24% APR on the unpaid balance from the day of the advance.

    Frequent Flyer Miles

    Since 2000, I've made 16 international trips to Asia and Latin America using frequent flyer miles; plus another 14 to Mexico using a combination of frequent flyer miles or companion tickets (Alaska Air). We use our credit cards for almost all purchases to rack up a lot of miles. I do what is called "churning" my credit cards. To learn more about "churning" and how to maximize the frequent flyer programs go to the Frugal Travel Guy website. There, you will learn about some extreme "churners", how to get to your destinations, and see some current credit card offers.

    After I got home, I ordered another Alaska Mileage Visa card from Bank of America which gives me 25,000 miles along with a companion ticket, and an American Air Citi Visa card which will give me 40,000 miles once I spend $3,000 on the card. As soon as I get my next bill from my United Visa card, which I used on this trip, I will cancel it and then open up another one. Last time I got a United Visa card they gave me 65,000 miles---good for another trip to SE Asia. The trick is you pay off the entire balance or it is not worth it.

    My mini iPad--32GB and WiFi Only

    I enjoyed carrying my iPad2 on my Brazil trip, but this trip with my mini iPad was even better. For one thing is is much smaller and lighter by 3/4 lb. It weighs in at .68 lb.

    The three Lonely Planet travel guides I downloaded to my mini iPad iBooks, saved me carrying over 2 1/2 pounds of guide books. The search features, table of contents, bookmarks, cross references, color maps that I could magnify made this an invaluable and light weight resource. The Kindle version of the Lonely Planet guides were much too difficult to navigate, and were in black and white. I have an app on my mini iPad for my stored Kindle books so I do not have to carry my old Kindle ver. 1.

    The camera and video features have improved considerably over my old iPad2 with a 5 mp for photos and 1080p HD video on the mini iPad compared to a 1 mp photo and 720 VGA video. I was able to use video clips from the mini iPad that were as good as my Panasonic HD video camera. The uploaded photos are almost as good as those taken with my Fuji 14 mp compact camera. Other travelers and the locals enjoyed seeing the photos and videos I had on the mini iPad, especially when they were in the picture.

    WiFi spots at hotels, guesthouses, restaurants, airports, and other locations are much more available throughout the tourist areas of SE Asia than that found in the Seattle area. It is now hard to find the internet cafes with computers and printers that were so popular just a few years ago. I had to email my boarding pass to the hotel staff to get a printout since I could not find any internet cafes in Bangkok.

    The battery life was generally not a problem except for the overseas flights of 18 hours since the battery was only good for 10 hours. The lightening plug was much better than the old plug because I bent the iPad2 socket and had to pry it open to recharge.

    Medical Issues

    At the beginning of my trip, I got a sore throat which went away after a few days, but then I continued to have a cough and congestion in my lungs for the duration of my trips which lessened over time---Fisherman’s Friend was my friend.

    I carried a 20 day supply of anti-malaria medicine (Atovaquone-Proguanil), but I did not use it because there were not many mosquitos, and I generally wore long pants and a windbreaker in the early mornings and evenings when they came out.

    I got a slight attack from some bedbugs that were lurking at the Happy House Guesthouse in Sokothai. At first I thought the bumps on my chest were from heat rash, but then I spotted the little buggers. The guesthouse staff gave me a free breakfast for pointing that out to them.

    I had no intestinal problems, and used Aqua Mira purifying drops in the tap water I drank from throughout SE Asia. I do not buy plastic filled water bottles in my travels, but carry my own one liter bottle wrapped with some duct tape.

    My Luggage

    My total pack weight including my Golite Breeze Pack weighed in at 7.8 lb. The 2 Hawaiian silk shirts both got ripped as I moved around when they were saturated with my sweat so I replaced them with two cotton polo shirts I bought from a street vendor for $10. I eliminated carrying the waist camera bag and the money belt which weighed 13 oz.

    I wore another 8.2 lb. of clothing, camera gear, mini iPad in my shoulder bag along with sunglasses, handiwipes, shoes, travel documents, and iPad charger.

    If I was just staying one night in a guesthouse or hotel, I would wash out my shirt, underwear, and socks and hang them so the fan or A/C would blow on them to speed drying. If I was staying longer, I would give the hotel staff my dirty shirt, underwear, and socks to launder. For my pants, right before I went to bed, I would generally wash them out when they got rank, and use the same drying technique as with the other items. By morning everything was dry and clean.

    Travel Issues

    I am now thinking that this time of year is not the best time to be in SE Asia. It was very hot and humid with temperatures on several days reaching above 100 degrees and then there were the frequent downpours while they cooled things off for a bit, they limited travel activities and got my shoes soaked as the streets flooded.

    I continue to find few individual Americans are traveling in SE Asia except in tour groups. Most travelers I met were from Europe, and Australia along with some from other Asian countries. My hope is that more and more Americans resume traveling overseas.

    At this time, I do not know where my next travels will take me just like I don't know where this bamboo bridge leads to across the Nam Kan River in Luang Prabang, Laos.

Goodbye until my next travel adventures.


Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Last Stop----Bangkok

The AirAsia flight from Hanoi landed at the old international airport, Don Mueang, around 11 AM. As I cleared immigration and customs, I remembered that I could take the train into Hua Lamphong Rail Station and then on to the subway to my Dynasty Hotel near the Nana Sky Train. After a 5 minute walk to the airport train station, I learned that the train no longer ran every half hour, but rather it would be about three hours before one would come. I then pulled out my mini iPad and checked the Thailand Lonely Planet guide and it listed about 4 buses that would take me into town for about 13 Baht rather than 400 baht for a taxi. As soon as I got to the bus stop, an air conditioned number 29 that would take me to Victory Monument and the Sky Train to my Nana stop pulled up. it was pretty slow going in the heavy Bangkok traffic, but I had a front seat in an air conditioned bus. Instead of riding it in the heavy traffic, I jumped off so I could catch the Sky Train at the Mo Chit Stop. This would cost me 42 Baht to ride to the Nana stop, but it was so much faster as it glided on the tracks above the huge traffic jam to the Nana stop in just 10 minutes in air conditioned comfort. All cities should have such great public transit systems.

It continues to rain in front of my hotel as evening approaches.

The rain seems to have followed me from Hanoi as I headed out for lunch to my favorite food court on Soi 6


After the rains dropped off, I began to take a bunch of pictures of some of the many food carts and vendors that fill the sidewalks and streets of Bangkok. On Mondays the streets are clear of these vendors so the sanitation crews can wash down the sidewalks and streets. Thais really value cleanliness personally, in their foods, and their homes and businesses.


Shown below are a sampling of the street vendors.









The key to finding good street food is to buy from vendors who have lots of local customers and to select the most recently cooked item.

As I get ready to return to Seattle, I continue to be amazed by the apparent wealth I see in the many enclosed malls that can be found at almost every Sky Train Stop. This one is at the Asoke Sky Train Stop and is called Terminal 21.

There are six levels of high end shops to select from with one floor devoted to high end restaurants with an emphasis on Japanese cuisine.

More rain at the Sky Train station.

Finally a farewell song from one of the oldest restaurants/ bars in Bangkok: Check Inn 99 is where Mamasan Noi continues to host visitors for the past 28 years. Some of her visitors included Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. She is now 72 and appears daily to welcome both old and new guests like they are family.

For me, SE Asia continues to be a most welcoming place to visit with friendly folks, delicious food---I blew my food budget in Vietnam because of the French influence--- and beautiful scenery.

Return to Hanoi

I was so relieved that the night train from Sapa down to Hanoi was much smoother than the jarring night ride I experienced when I went to Sapa. I suppose when trains go down hill, the herky jerky action is less. I arrived in Hanoi at daybreak and quickly found a cafe that served some of that delicious Vietnamese coffee along with a delicious egg and vegetable sandwich.

After breakfast and second cup of coffee, I started walking from the train station area to the old Quarter looking for the Rising Dragon Hotel on Hang Be Street. It was one of the Lonely Planet recommended hotels in the old Quarter. I found the Rising Dragon Hotel, but it turned out it was part of a chain of hotels and not the one I was looking for. The manager of this hotel asked her bellhop to give me a ride on his motorbike over to the Rising Dragon Hotel that I was looking for. That was a pretty exciting ride through the weaving traffic of Hanoi. Too bad I didn't have my video camera going, but I was hanging on for dear life.

It was still early morning and as I was checking in, the staff asked me if I wanted to have breakfast since it was included in the price of the room---about $19/ night. Too bad I had already had a big breakfast, but I did have another cup of delicious coffee.

After freshening up I headed to Lake Hoan Kiem and the Jade Island there that has the Temple of the Jade Mountain. The red Huc Bridge is the one I crossed over to get to the temple.

Just past the bridge is this Ngoc Son Pagoda where this fellow is burning up fake money as an offering. I wonder if it is better to burn real money. This fire keeps going so the fake money must be acceptable. I can recall seeing some of the stores in the Old Quarter that were selling this money---US dollars seemed popular---along with toy cars, animals, houses, etc.

This is the pagoda with lots of incense sticks burning that worshipers had left behind.

Here is the view of Hoan Kiem Lake from the pagoda area.

By now the temperature here is about 100 degrees and I am drenched with sweat. I was thinking of two choices: return to the hotel for a shower and some A/C, or find a great Bia spot to sip a cold beer and people watch. I chose the beer.


While I was cooling off, the Bia parlor across the street was busy with resupplying the kegs of beer. No Budweiser Clydesdale or beer trucks for this guy. He has loaded up his motorbike with five kegs---empties at that. I would have loved to see how many full ones he could carry.

After cooling off a bit, I headed up the night market street to check out the wholesale market of Hanoi. there were all sorts of items for sale primarily to retail store owners.

Here is the hat section I found rather colorful.

As night fell, the nearby street was closed to traffic and the night market began getting set up.


After leaving the night market, I decided to eat at one of the many rooftop restaurants that were found around Hoan Kiem Lake.

It seems like there are a lot more people out in the evening as the weather cools off from a high of 102 today to a more pleasant 85 degrees around 8PM.

On Sunday, I decided to explore the park surrounding the Presidential Building and the Ho Chi Minh Tomb. Again, the weather was in the 100s. There were lots of families, young people and old as well that converged on this park area. Sales of cold drinks and ice cream soared.

Here is a family of four heading to the park with the Tomb in the distant background.

This is the golden Presidential residence which is on the park grounds and near the Tomb.



I posed with each of these girls with the guard and the Ho Chi Minh Tomb behind us. This happens a lot as I travel throughout SE Asia and China. I must be in hundreds of photo albums and cell phone photo libraries. We couldn't convince the good looking guard to pose with us though.


Here is the One Pillar Pagoda which has been rebuilt after the French destroyed it when they left Hanoi in defeat in the mid 1950s. It is a very popular spot and one that I found very welcoming on this very hot day because of the many shade trees and ice cream vendors.


On Sunday there was a big line to go through Ho Chi Minh's Stilt House.


I passed by the Flag tower of Imperial Citadel of Thang Long complex on my way back to the Old Quarter. it was built in 1812 and is 41 meters high with the flag. The complex now houses the Vietnam Military Museum.


I looked around Hanoi for a snake restaurant like the one I went to in Hue in 2002, but could not find one. Here is a picture of me back in 2002, when I was playing with my food. The bottles behind me contain a snake and are filled with rice whisky. If you drink this whisky, you are suppose to gain strength and virility. they say it also helps alleviate arthritis.


On the morning of my AirAsia flight from Hanoi to Bangkok, the weather dramatically changed. The rain was just pouring down as I left the hotel. it was a good thing I was not taking a motoTaxi out to the airport. Instead the hotel staff arranged for me to share a taxi with a fellow from the Netherlands. His mother was Indonesian and his father Dutch, and when he was young, his family moved from Indonesia to the Netherlands. He, his brothers and family run a very successful Indonesian restaurant in Holland. This was his first trip to Hanoi, but he makes frequent trips back to Indonesia.

On to Bangkok.


Saturday, June 8, 2013

More Sapa and the Hmong Cat Cat Village


It was a good thing I had a big lunch because at darkness came so did the deluge that lasted for hours.

In the morning it was very foggy so that I could not even see the overhead wires just outside my balcony. After just a few hours, the fog cleared and the rain became just a drizzle with temperatures in the 70s F.

I then headed to the Hmong village, Cat Cat.

Instead of getting a guided tour, I just started walking down to the nearest village, Cat Cat which was also in a national park. It was a 6 km round trip tour. I walked by a number on typical homes as well as tourist offerings ranging from crafts, embroidered pictures to apple wine.

I picked the apple wine which was more like brandy than wine which the golden butterfly found very attractive. These butterfly were taking sips from my glass as well as directly from my hand. You can see these golden butterflys everywhere.


Here is where two rivers meet in Cat Cat village.

My new "best friend" lets me know that there will be a Hmong dance performance in the power plant as she stands befor the Flower waterfall.










Several Vietnamese groups wanted to take pictures of me with their friends---kind of like me taking pictures of the ethnic people. I am their ethnic American. I must be in over 100s of their photos. Told this couple I also wanted to take their picture as well at the power plant in Cat Cat.


Here is the high bridge as we leave the Cat Cat village with about an hour more of climbing back up to Sapa.

Here are the freshly planted rice terraces as I am returning to Sapa.


It seems like the little kids are in charge of taking care of the water buffalo after they are used to plow the rice terraces. Some walk behind and some ride aboard these huge animals.
Here is my little buddy entertaining me at a rest stop on the way up to Sapa.

Another buffalo tender.




More views of rice terraces.




Funeral carriage returning from ceremony.
More "best friends" helping tourists in the rain.