Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Back Down To Earth

Third day back in the office today so time I think for a little reflection.

Firstly, was our trip really as good as I was making out all the way round?  Well, yes, it most definitely was.  


Far too many to settle on a top 3.

Bangkok - a great introduction to S.E. Asia.  Very modern in so many aspects but with the noise, the heat, the crazyness of the streets both roads and pavements.  Also great history and peace in the temples.  Combine that with a fantastic cuisine (even if my poor choices came back to haunt me later) and interesting nightlife and you simply couldn't get off to a better start on a trip like this.

Ho Chi Minh City - what a place.  One of the most vibrant cities I've ever visited.  Watching the people of a rapidly developing country simply getting on with business was a privilege.  Replace cars for motorbikes too and you have a street level madness that makes Bangkok seem like a sleepy village, pure adrenaline.  

Mekong Delta - Cruising along such a massive river delta, watching the people who live their entire lives on the river, fascinating and extremely tranquil, a total contrast to the City elements of the trip.

Hoi An - An altogether too brief visit to a place of interesting narrow streets, a thriving tailoring trade, and the cheapest beer I've ever seen!  Any reticence on the approach from Da Nang quickly blown away by the old Hoi An town.  Unfortunately this area will be spoiled soon with a whole string of massive beach resorts, hopefully the UNESCO tag for the old town will be sufficient.

Hanoi - Another grower of a place.  I didn't think it possible that anywhere could be more manic than Ho Chi Minh, but a first venture out onto the streets of Hanoi proved an almost traumatic experience after the quiet of Hoi An.  However, a better selection of routes and a wider appreciation of the City and Hanoi showed itself to be every bit the capital of this up and coming country.

Hong Kong - Our visas lasted for 180 days.  Could've easily stayed for all of that.  OK, granted, we were staying in just about the best hotel we'd ever seen, but on top of that Hong Kong generates a very different type of energy than the other cities we'd visited.  It is of course an incredibly mature economy, back to cars instead of motorbikes for starters, and everyone appears to have a purpose and direction.  The architecture, while incredibly modern and not to everyone's taste, just simply can't be ignored and all perspective of size is lost.  I happen to love skyscrapers, so it all works for me!  At night, the spectacle of neon and the population taking to the streets (their appartments are all too small!) to simply live out their lives is just fantastic - TV, who needs it?

Length of Trip - 25 days is an amazing amount of time to travel when you're so used to a 14 day maximum and to spend 25 days in the uninterrupted company of my wife was, I say through crystal clear - not rose coloured - spectacles, a wonderful experience and one that I don't imagine will have the opportunity to be repeated for a very long time to come, which will be a great shame.  With no explanation as to why, because there isn't one, we both also felt that the trip felt like it lasted much longer.  Bangkok certainly seemed a whole world away from Hong Kong and even by Hoi An our illnesses were a dim and distant memory.


There must be something, surely...

Being Ill - I certainly played down our illnesses at the time knowing full well that there was literally nothing anyone could do and while I was perhaps the closer to needing actual medical attention, looking back I was actually only ill for about 12 hours.  It weakened me for about another 24 hours but after that was completely back to normal.  Sarah's illness lasted longer, a few days, but while feeling rubbish, her strength of character allowed us to still fly from Cambodia to Vietnam and get out sightseeing the next afternoon.

Cambodia - Could easily have gone in the highlights section, but as our illnesses bookended our trip I feel our time there will always be tainted by how we were feeling at the time which is an incredible shame as I suspect Siem Reap will have changed completely even in the next 12 months.  As expected Cambodia was the least developed nation we visited but of course that's what we were there for.  That said, our hotel was up there with any resort hotel around and we will always be able to say we spent New Year's Eve 2008 in Cambodia - a completely surreal experience.

Length of Trip - Eh, wasn't that covered above?  25 days is too long/not long enough.  I dunno, something like that.  Fact of the matter is I didn't want to come home!  For once I wasn't alone, even Sarah who's first to jump on the plane and can't wait to get home was hesitant and felt like we could've stayed longer.  The travelling itself becomes what you do, it's not all about sitting by pools and relaxing either, we pounded the streets all day most days.  Indeed when I normally return to work after, say, a week off I find the first couple of walks into work a little harder than I remember - this week the 2 miles have been completed without even breaking sweat.  I'm actually fitter coming back than I was going!


Anybody who loves to travel, to experience cultures which are very different to our own and isn't afraid of a bit of dust and heat get yourself to S.E. Asia.  Any of it, all of it, as much as you can.  We missed out on Laos which hopefully will be redressed before it's too late.   What you must do is go sooner rather than later.  While Bangkok and Hong Kong are fantastic in themselves, the rest will catch up and then it'll be simply like taking a city break tour of Europe - interesting, but not real travel.

And finally...  Another thank you to everyone who read this and sent so many positive comments both to myself and Sarah while I was away.  It was a joy to write especially knowing that people were actually reading it!   Sarah read every single word before any of it was published to comment and ensure I'd got things right and for that I thank her wholeheartedly.

I think that's it!

Where next?  Suggestions?

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Day 24/25 – Hong Kong to Manchester

January 17th / 18th 2009

Last day, and it's going to be a long one so we stay in bed as late as possible before packing for the final time.

Checking out bang on noon we take a walk around the electrical shops of Mong Kok before taking the MTR to Central and a trip up the Peak for one last look at the view. It's busy at the terminus, weekend of course which must make a difference but also it's a beautiful day weatherwise and the visibility from the top is even better than earlier in the week.

Back down the Peak and we stroll through Central to return to Kowloon on the Star Ferry, this brings us out on the front at Kowloon so we can once again admire the view as the sun goes down and lights come on Hong Kong side.

We return to our hotel for the final time, via a stop off at Sim City, an electricals bazarre in Mong Kok that I just can't resist, and get comfy in the lobby to wait for our transfer to the airport which arrives on time.

At Hong Kong airport, what a faff. Dropped off at Terminal 1, check in desks for Emirates are in Terminal 2 so we have to walk quite a way to get there only to find that once we have checked in we then have to get 2 internal trains to get back to Terminal 1 where our departure gate is situated.

Was cursing the Emirates check in staff as they put us in the middle 2 seats of the central 4 – which is about the worst place to be, however as it turns out I have nobody sitting next to me and while the armrests don't allow for genuine spreading out we're not quite so squashed in either. A genuine gripe though, we're boarded over an hour before the flight is due to leave. Now have been on a few flights previously where early boarding means early takeoff, but we actually take off late so we've been on the plane a good hour and a half before we actually move! Manage about 4 and a half hours sleep or so during the just short of 9 hour flight which is pretty good for me.

Sitting in Dubai airport, Emirates are at it again, our flight is 7:55am but they've started boarding at 6:30am. No chance this time, we leave it a bit.

Final flight passes without incident, not much sleep, an hour at the most so watched a couple of films and some TV.

Our final driver and guide waiting at the airport, father and mother-in-law, so amazingly not a single mishap from 7 destinations!

Home, sunny day, cold, back to the real world, unfortunately...

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Day 23 – Hong Kong

January 16th 2009

Day of rest and relaxation...

Dim Sum for breakfast (plus a whole lot more) followed by some lazy reading before finally, after a few false starts, we hit the gym. The gym's on the 41st floor with panoramic views across Kowloon, I'm sure you would get used to the view eventually but for our short time here it's worth savouring every minute. An hour or so later, without pushing it too hard after a 4 week break from the gym, we go back to our room for some more lazy reading and a little room service to tide us over as we're not eating until 8pm tonight.

Next on the power relaxation agenda is our salt scrub and harmony massage. My first time on a massage table but it definitely won't be my last. The whole experience is amazing, we're in a couples room, i.e. our tables are side by side but there's not exactly any talking, too busy relaxing and just staying on the awake side of comatose. Overall our treatment lasts 90 minutes and it has to be the quickest 90 minutes of my life! We're then invited to rest in a contemplation room drinking jasmine tea while again looking out over the view, this time merely from the 40th floor. To cap things off we head up to the roof and have a dip in the outdoor jacuzzi. To be honest it's pretty chilly so we don't stay outside long. Back in our respective changing rooms and there's just time to savour the steam room, udon shower, and steam bath – a scorching 42 degrees with a warning to not stay in more than 15 minutes, I'm out after 10 anyway, lightly poached!

As this is our last night in Hong Kong we've decided to push the boat out for dinner and are booked in at the Fook Lam Moon restaurant which we understand to be one of the top Cantonese restaurants in Kowloon and after getting over the initial shock of the menu – cheapest bottle of wine £50 – we find some more reasonably priced and absolutely excellent fayre. As with Seasons of Hanoi, which seems a world away now, we end on a very high note. Sarah is also finally, on our last night, able to wear the dress she's carried all round S.E. Asia, so the evening couldn't be better. We get a taxi back to the hotel – after the driver takes us to the other Langham that is – and complete our last night with wine and jazz in the hotel bar.

Day 22 – Hong Kong

January 15th 2009

So we're into our third week and I have to say the travel and pounding of the streets is beginning to put a bit of a strain on the old legs, mum was right (yes, it does happen) to suggest that we'd need a holiday when we got back, I'm feeling quite tired most of the time right now.

However, we've thought of that, and it is officially wind down time here in Hong Kong. We have our day of relaxation tomorrow and today we expect to do the last of the walking tours in the guide.

After a quick breakfast we MTR it down to Hong Kong Island for the Central & Western District walk.

Stopping briefly at the Western Market – which has had a number of roles including housing and a food market but is now a small arts and crafts centre – we head into an area dedicated to wholesale of various goods. This is a very real side of Hong Kong trading, no other westerners here, just people going about their business. The produce is very alien and we haven't got a clue what much of it is and to be honest am thankful of that lack of knowledge. There seems to be a heck of a scrummage at a shark products shop, must've had some sort of rare delivery or something. Sharks fins are something that can been identified and they're expensive, I see some at £400 each, which explains why Shark Fin soup is so pricey in a restaurant I suppose! Ingredients for herbal remedies, nuts, dried mussels, dried squid, dried just about everything are all available.

Leaving this area we pass the point where “modern” Hong Kong began. Possession Street is where the British landed in 1841. Again, this isn't actually on the waterfront anymore but it's a steep climb up to a road that you can imagine was the coast road many years ago, Hollywood Road, which we follow and eventually leads to Central.

As part of this walking tour we briefly go on the Mid Levels escalator, at 800 metres the longest covered escalator in the World. Only disappointment is the stretches of the escalator are actually very short. This wasn't here last time I came and I had pictured in my head standing on it for great distances, alas not, we don't see a bit that's any longer than a standard shopping centre escalator.

Having walked around Soho and its vast array of restaurants we come to Lan Kwai Fong which is where we had drinks and watched the United game on our first night so we decide to end the walking tour here and head down into Central as Sarah has run out of reading material – she's completed 5 books so far, but won't finish another as she now has Ken Follett's World Without End to wade through, all 1237 pages of it!

Back to the hotel for a bit, we're winding it down now remember, before we get changed into something more appropriate. Appropriate means smartening up as we're going for afternoon tea at the Peninsular Hotel which is a very pleasurable experience indeed. Not cheap, but then again comparable with back home when you'd actually expect it to be much dearer, I'm amazed at how filling the dainty sandwiches, scones and chocolate actually is. We of course finish everything that's put in front of us, but those with money to burn sitting around us seem to leave elements to be taken back – some people eh? Those who are fully aware of my decaf tea obsession will be shocked that I drank cup after cup of Peninsular Afternoon tea which, by the slight bitterness in there, definitely contained caffeine. All I can say is I'm completely wired at the moment!

To the hotel again for another change, we're winding it down remember(!), before we head back down to the Kowloon waterfront for the 8pm lightshow of which I'm expecting great things.

After getting a welcome second wind we get down to the waterfront, the Avenue of Stars (think Hollywood style stars and handprints just without many handprints), for the start of the lightshow which is crazy in a who on earth thought of putting this together but brilliant to watch as various buildings show different patterns of light all the way up and down the bay, many with laser light shining from the roof, the effect really has to be seen to be appreciated.
Carrying on we promenade along the front fully taking in the vista before turning back inland on the hunt for something to eat.

Having read about it in the book we seek out Knutsford Terrace (those who know we hope to move there one day will appreciate the “it's a sign” twitter comment) which is one of those tucked away places that you'd have no idea existed if a guide didn't show you exactly where to go. There's a string of restaurants with cuisine from all round the world. As we've decided to have what we hope will be a top notch Chinese meal for our last full night tomorrow it's time to take a break from all the Asian food we've been devouring so we stop at an Australian Bar and Grill. It's amazing what a difference having courses makes, everything coming in an expected order!

Back to the hotel and completing this blog entry in the hotel's main bar which has live jazz but unfortunately no free WiFi which we had inferred from the hotel directory, but sadly mistaken. With us unlikely to leave the hotel on Friday other than to go out for dinner this will therefore be severely delayed as have a number of postings while in Hong Kong. Oh, forgetting the jazz, the singer, an Australian girl is very good ably supported by Piano and Bass. All very civilised, as is the very nice Sauvignon Blanc I'm enjoying too...