Singapore, Northern Thailand, Laos, January-February, 2020
At the Singapore airport we went to the transportation desk and each purchased a 3 day unlimited bus and metro pass for Singapore $38—or US $28. Turns out we really got gypped. He sold us the plus card which comes with a pack of 4 ugly postcards as a bonus. Anywhere else we could have gotten the 3 day pass for US $19. I think the 3 day pass would be a good value if you are only in Singapore for 3 or 4 days and will be traveling around a lot. It turned out that with 5 full days we were able to concentrate in one area each day and buying individual bus and metro tickets would have been lots cheaper. The cabs were charging a night fee from the airport, so we took the hotel shuttle bus for $7 pp to our Holiday Inn Express on Orchard Road. That turned out fine.
Orchard Road is a great place to stay as it is the premier shopping district. We weren't there to buy anything, but we especially enjoyed the Japanese department store Takashimaya for browsing and their great, stupendous food hall. There's also a big Marks and Spencers where they had real English clotted cream. Then there is Gucci, etc. etc. Anyone care for a $2,000 pair of silk Disney logo Gucci pajamas? Obviously Holiday Inn Express got in early before this area became uber expensive. We stayed on points, but the rooms were about $125 or so with a free good breakfast everyday. Again way better than the US Holiday Inn Express.
We were lucky enough to be in Singapore over the Chinese New Year period. Singapore is about 75% ethnically Chinese, 15% Malay, and 7% Indian, so Chinese New Year is a really big deal, but I never really understood what it was all about before. It is not about Dragon Parades or fireworks, but about family and prosperity for the New Year. Everyone tries very hard to be reunited with their extended family for a big dinner at home or in a restaurant. Gifts involve Prosperity Baskets, mostly filled with food, and especially oranges and delicacies. All the stores outside the most touristy area close early on New Years Eve and all the next day as do the restaurants that aren't doing traditional Chinese family dinners. There were fireworks at midnight over the bay but they do fireworks there nearly every night anyway—only more like 8 or 9 pm. But the real kicker is that English is the main official language in Singapore and everyone learns it in school, so even the street hawkers have their signs in English!! This is even better than visiting China Town in San Francisco where lots of things are Chinese only.
Highlights of the visit were our tours of Chinatown and Little India with Monster free tours. (Thanks to Joyce Space of WWT for the tip.) Each lasted 2.5 hours and were some of the best we have ever been on—even free durian fruit tasting. We tried to be very generous with our tips. The free Botanical Garden is worth several hours. It is shady but still best to go as early as you can. We did not do the heavily hyped night zoo, as once you have been to Africa, zoos aren't that exciting. We also loved the Gardens at Marina Bay. Pricey to get into the Cloud Dome and Flower Dome but worth the money and air conditioned so great in the afternoon. Absolutely don't miss the evening music and lighted artificial tree show—free and you may want to go more than once. Once it is over everyone heads to the terraces at Marina Bay Sands Hotel to the light and fireworks show. Again free and we went twice—much less crowded on a weeknight.
Speaking of Marina Bay Sands Hotel—it is spectacular and a focal point from almost anywhere downtown. The shops at Marina Bay Sands is again for the uber rich—we counted 15 watch stores alone and Rolex and Omega were some of the cheapest. Care for a purse at $8,000 made from sea crocodile? We did take the elevator to the roof just before dusk and stayed to see the tree light show from above. We paid a lot extra for the tickets as they raised the price for Chinese New Year's weekend—this was not noted at their website. You can't see the famous pool from the observatory, but the rest of the view is good. Just be prepared for a long wait to get the elevator back down. Obviously, after the evening light shows the metro is packed. Be sure to have your ticket in advance or walk the few extra blocks to get the bus where you can pay on board.
One big word about navigating. Google Maps led us astray nearly every day. In the botanical garden it thought the park boundary was a walking path—added a full kilometer to our exit. (There is LOTS of walking required to see this park as there are only 3 entrances and exits.) Going to Gardens by the Bay it routed us to get off the metro at the end of the line—sure there's an entrance to the park near there but it's over a mile to the main area. More than once we'd stand in a metro station, knowing our stop was four stations down the line, and Google would recommend thus! Etc. Etc. Do use a map as well as your smart phone. Public transportation in Singapore, both metro and buses, must be the cleanest, coolest, most efficient in the world.
Singapore has a reputation for being very expensive. It isn't. Your hotel will be more expensive than anywhere else in Southeast Asia (well, except for resorts). But still not that different from a medium size city in the US. You can eat very cheaply and not be afraid of getting food poisoning at the food halls, as all are inspected regularly and the water is safe to drink. In fact our guide said hardly anyone cooks at home because it is cheaper to eat out. My kind of place! Western goods are all only slightly cheaper than in the States but then not many of WWT travelers are probably there to shop. I doubt if we will make a return trip, but it absolutely should be on your bucket list.
Central and Northern Thailand
Back to Bangkok and then North. We had heard so much hype about the Singapore Airport and its special terminal 1 shopping center, Jewel, that we planned to have about 4 hours there. Cost for taxi to airport was about $14. Our hotel called the shuttle service but it was “unavailable.” Online it said we could check our bags at Jewel—turned out we could check in there but not check bags as we had to have our documents checked in Terminal 1 before checking bags. So we waited in two long lines for nothing. Terminal 1 is right next door, so we finally got documents checked and the bags, then went back to Jewel. The waterfall was pretty, but to go on the maze, ropes, etc. you pay a fee and that was more designed for kids and maybe 20 somethings. There was a ton of shopping. We went to grocery store to spend the rest of our Singapore dollars. The food court was huge but we knew we could eat for free in a Priority Pass lounge. So all in all Jewel is impressive for an airport, but no big deal really. On line the SARS Lounge was said to be the best in Asia. Nice, but the Fiji lounge was way better. In particular, all the food was Asian. Mark had lunch. I had a donut and fruit and a Bloody Mary!
We flew Scoot Airlines again, paying using the last of our Citipoints, so checked luggage of 20kg each was included. Two hour flight. Our assigned-by-them seats were window and middle. No free food or drinks. We spent the night again at At Residence Suvarnabhumi, 10 minutes from airport for $5 shuttle ride. Room was $46 and this time larger with 1 queen, 1 single, fridge, and even a microwave. Slippers, ramen cups, but no robes. Grab Taxi next morning cost about $12 including tolls for the 1 hour (lots of stopped traffic) to Chatuchuk Northern Bus Terminal. I tried to get info on getting bus tickets north but only 1 online site, Asia2Go, listed advance tickets. Thorn Tree inquiries (Lonely Planet forum) said just show up. So we did. Turns out no buses were express, but air conditioned first class left about every couple of hours. Information booth said to go to any ticket window 25-29. We picked 28 at random and paid $22 for two tickets leaving at about noon. The tickets and everything else--booth signs, etc—were only in Thai. Evidently not that many tourists travel by bus!
The bus was fairly new. More room than economy seats in airplanes. The trip is straight north so we sat on the east side. There was room overhead for small backpacks. Hostess passed out water and brownie like plastic wrapped snacks. The trip was 7 hours. Several stops to pick up passengers. One stop after about 3.5 hours of about 15 minutes for toilet (squat) and lunch. Lunch was free but too many flies for us in open air “buffet”. We bought additional snacks at a large bus terminal convenience store. There was a toilet on bus with a curtain door but we did not investigate. I had a “travel john” with me if things got really freaky. By the way, after dark the bus was chilly. I was glad I had my polartec available. We arrived at New Sukhothai at 7, after dark. A tuk-tuk driver showed us printed booklet with our hotel listed for 300 Baht transportation. Seemed really high as that was $10 for 20 minutes and we had just come 7 hours for $11 each with lunch. When we checked into Legendha Sukhothai Resort they said we should only have paid 200 Baht. Oh well, if you are going to be ripped off as a tourist $3 isn't much.
Our resort was exceptionally nice. Low teak buildings spread out over lovely landscaped grounds with stream running through. We were assigned an oversize room with queen and single bed right outside the lovely pool. The only weird thing was there was no hot water at the bathroom sink, only in large shower. Turns out this is fairly common in Thai accommodations except for western hotel chains. We had booked through Hotels.com for $67 a night with all taxes and breakfast. Breakfast was exceptional—we are in northern Thailand so no more chicken ham and turkey bacon; we got the real stuff and made to order egg station plus Asian if you wanted it. In the evening we had a nice dinner at their restaurant and saw the good, free, but not exceptional, Thai dance show. The hotel is 1 km from entrance to the Historical Park. Only $2 to tuk-tuk, but we wanted the exercise so we walked. Bad plan—no sidewalks and though it has been a lovely 60 degrees at 8 am it heated up fast. Entrance to the park was only $3 and the hop-on/hop-off tram $2. However we only alighted three times at the main sites. At one place we were done in 15 minutes but the tram was running late and we waited about 25 minutes. Some shade but no where to sit except on the ground. You can hire a tuk-tuk and driver for an hour, but I don't remember the price. We thought an hour might be too short, but having been there an hour or an hour and a half would be enough for most Westerners unless you are Buddhist. This is not Angor Wat. In fact, on our trip in 2008 we did a day trip from Bangkok to another ancient Thai capital like Sukhothai. I am not sure either are worth the time unless you are looking to slow down your trip. In retrospect we could have just flown from Singapore to Chang Mai.
Leaving Sukhothai was interesting. Our hotel said we could leave from the bus station just outside the historical park rather than going all the way back to New Sukhathai. We tried twice to buy the tickets from WinTour there and twice the ticket seller insisted he had only 8:30 am and 6 pm tickets. So we tuk-tuk'd to the main bus station, bought WinTour tickets to Chang Mai (no credit cards) for $7.50 each and waited 90 minutes for the 11:50 bus. It immediately retraced our route, stopping to pick up about 8 passengers at the bus station where we were told no tickets were available. These folks did not fill up the bus and it didn't ever fill. Have no idea why he wouldn't sell us the tickets! Travel is full of weird stuff. This bus was much older and not as nice, but still air conditioned. The trip was 6 hours again with an even worse free lunch and toilet break for 20 minutes. No free water, no toilet on bus. This time there were about 8 Western passengers—most of which bought cokes and chips instead of the free Thai lunch.
We arrived just at sunset and took a tuk-tuk to The Common Hostel for $5. This hostel had a 3 star rating in our guidebook and super excellent reviews and is located in the old town. We had reserved back in November to have a private room with bath and king size bed with free breakfast for $40 with taxes. Our room was on the 4th floor. Given my knee problems this wasn't going to work. Though full, the receptionist somehow managed to call someone and we got the only room on the second floor. This turned out to be great because it also meant no one else was staying on our floor at all. Since it was a hostel it was noisier than anywhere else we have stayed but quiet after 11 pm or so (except 1am on Saturday night). Breakfast was okay—fruit, lots of carbs, hard boiled eggs. Perks included a common kitchen, laundry, and unlimited all day bottled water and coffee. Our room had a giant tv, phone, hair dryer, but only a tiny place to hang clothes and no drawers at all. We use a suitcase insert for our clothes so it came in handy to just hang it and be able to get to all our clothes at once.
We had decided to stay in Chang Mai a week so Mark could go to all 5 days of Thai cooking school—cost $40 a day with hotel pick up and, of course, you got to eat what you cooked. I only went to one day as I don't eat fish or seafood, so I went to duck and chicken day. The cooking school was absolutely terrific. They will also substitute ingredients so I could have gone more days had I wanted to. But we only had planned our trip as far as the flight to Hanoi, so I needed to do a bunch of work for what we might do in Vietnam.
On Sunday evening we did the Walking Market on Rachadamnoen Road. Mark and I really like markets and this one will be one of our favorites. The hawkers obviously knew people did not have much room in their luggage, so lots of small items, most hand made and clothing. Most things priced at 100 baht or less--$3. I bought some earrings, a hand carved wood panda bear pen, clay magnets of Thai food dishes, and a hand carved flower soap—all for $12. I even got to watch one of the soap carvers. Fascinating. There was surprising diversity among the stalls and it literally went on for a mile or more—sometimes spilling down side streets. Well worth planning for if you like that kind of thing. It was really, really crowded by 8 so best to start at 6 or so. Plenty of food hawkers but my tummy just can't do that.
Mark, of course, ate 6 Thai dishes a day so didn't want supper. I indulged in KFC, Burger King, and Pizza Hut—sigh. Not as cheap as Thai--$6 for double cheeseburger, fries and drink, on special. Besides our late afternoon and evening walks, we had one full day for sight seeing when cooking school was done. But Chiang Mai is the adventure capital of Thailand—zip lines, jungle treks, hill treks, bamboo rafting, elephant rescue parks. We had already done the elephant thing in India and Nepal in 2008—nothing else really appealed. So we spent the morning taking advantage of the laundry equipment and the afternoon visiting a couple of the better known Wats—there are 700 here. Twelve years ago all you heard in Thailand was head north to Chiang Mai, so much better than Bangkok. It is easier, smaller, but other than the cooking school it didn't have a lot of appeal for us. The old city is fairly small within the walls and pretty walkable. We wouldn't stay at the hostel again but there looked to be several nice guest houses and immediately outside the old walls, larger hotels.
A $3 grab cab ride got us to terminal 3 for the bus to Chiang Rai. No real need to reserve ahead as there is a bus nearly every hour. Bus was air conditioned with a toilet, and they handed out bottles of water. Journey was 3½ hours as lots of road construction as they are making the first half over the hills four lane. We stopped once for less than 10 minutes for toilet, snack break. Two downsides to bus travel in Thailand—there is no armrest between the double seats so not so good if traveling solo and the awful squatty potties—ladies, don't wear ankle length pants. On the other hand the fare was $6.
We stayed at the Hi Chiangrai Hotel only two blocks or so from bus terminal 1—terminal 2 is in the suburbs, so don't get off there. Nice hotel with indoor swimming pool for $46 a night through Hotels.com. The first night we ate at the Acchua Fusion Indian restaurant near the Clock Tower. Very good meal for two for $24. We did pretty much nothing the second day except out for dinner at the night market. The room had a large fridge and electric kettle. Lunch was simple Ritz crackers and peanut butter and various flavors of noodles in a cup. We didn't purchase the $6 breakfast and after looking it over decided we had made the right choice to just pick up yogurt etc. at 7-11. By the way there are thousands of 7-11s in Thailand and Singapore.
The main reason folks visit Chiang Rai is for the White Temple and for trips into the Golden Triangle where Myranmar, Thailand and Laos meet. For various reasons we decided not to do the Golden Triangle. We caught the local bus for less than a dollar to the Temple. Bus was completely full. We were glad to get there in the am before the temps hit the upper 80s. I won't go in to touring the Temple—definitely worth seeing though the inside is bland. We caught a songthaew for the same 20 Baht at the bus stop for the 15 minute or so trip back to the city.
We really liked the night market—Mark ate dinner there twice. There were also some nice crafts for sale and it was never as frenetic as Chiang Mai. We thought about taking the public bus to Chiang Khrong where we were to be picked up for are Mekong River Cruise. It was very cheap but not air conditioned and no place to stow luggage. Instead we used Grab to order a taxi for $45. When the driver arrived he wanted us to cancel the order, he would then lower the price to $40 and he wouldn't have to pay the commission to Grab. He was quite insistent, but we hate doing under the table stuff, so wouldn't budge. After he decided to take us anyway, I told him we would give him a generous tip. I almost wished we had taken the bus as he drove very fast—how about 60 in a 35 mph zone and was constantly passing slower vehicles. But we did arrive safely. We spent the night at Baan Sakuna Resort for $40 through Hotels.com. Breakfast wasn't included—but they said since we booked online it was—weird. It was a short walk to a big Tesco market and a KFC for dinner. Even Mark was ready for a non-Thai meal.
(We got the Visa at the border. $35, Thai, or Laos cash accepted, but your US bills better be pristine. There are two ATMs there so you can get the millions of Kip that you will need—9,000 kip to the dollar.)
The two day boat tour we decided on was Nagi Mekong River Cruise. It was used by a blog I had read for planning our trip—Earth Trekkers. They were a family traveling throughout Southeast Asia for 3 months. Our tour cost $360 including pick up, drop off, help with Laos visa, cruise, two lunches, snacks, bottled water, and we selected the most expensive hotel option in Pak Nang—the overnight stop. We had about 40 folks on the cruise so it wasn't crowded and most had their own table. We made three sightseeing stops—a very rural village (too many steps for me), the Pak Ou cave, and the “whiskey village.” None of them were particularly memorable. The river was running pretty fast and had lots of unusual rock formations, but overall it was pretty boring. It is basically uninhabited with small groups of houses but very spread out and up the steep banks. We saw occasional folks panning for gold, washing clothes at riverside, and fishing. We stayed the night at the Grand Hotel—lovely spot, resort quality for $90 (as part of our fare.) It is too far to walk back to the town, so we ate a pretty good dinner for $30; breakfast was included. There were again lots of steps involved getting up the bank to minivan for the hotel and at the resort itself. Actually the best part of the trip was having a chance to talk with such an international group of independent travelers—U.S., England, France, Netherlands, Sweden—young and old. It is possible to take the public slow boat for way less money—about $80 for two without hotel, meals, or stops. But they carry about a hundred passengers and are said to have extremely gross toilet facilities. You can also take boats in the opposite direction where there will be far fewer folks aboard and an even slower pace since you are going upstream.
Arriving in Luang Prabang the shuttle van dropped us at our hotel—My Lao Home. I choose it because it was a great location, air conditioned, breakfast, and only $35 a night. Turns out I hadn't paid attention to the size of the room, 12 sq meters—barely larger than the king size bed. After one night, we requested a move to a much nicer, spacious room with fridge, tub and shower, desk, etc. Normally $65 but they only charged us $55. The rooms are in a series of French colonial buildings that are UNESCO protected but have been remodeled from family homes into hotel rooms. Breakfast did include made to order eggs but a rather sparser selection of fruits and breads—as well as Asian choices. For five days it was somewhat monotonous. We had booked a longer time as we had heard so many good things about the town. It is far more easy going than Thailand (though dirtier), and many more restaurant choices with lots of emphasis on French choices. However many of the activities were designed for adventure travelers such as rafting, ziplining, bathing elephants, climbing the 325 steps to the Wat on the mountain. We did love the trip outside of town to Kuang Si waterfalls. They were a whole series of falls from 300 ft. on down over limestone formations. There were even three pools between and among the falls where swimming was allowed. If you want to avoid crowds go in the morning. We took a van tour for about $5 plus $2 entrance fee. Really it was like a miniature Plitvic Falls in Croatia, plus lovely, older forest and an area where rescued Asian moon bears were protected.
The night market specialized in lots of real handmade and fake Laotian items—lots of textiles, clothing, lacquerware, jewelry. I bought a few small items like earrings for family gifts. I swear we are the only folks who aren't walking around in elephant pants. They are hard to resist. Mark broke down and bought an elephant shirt for $4. On our first day here we went to the Vietnamese consulate to get our visas. We had tried on line but our pictures wouldn't download correctly, etc. We paid $55 for 2 day service—which seemed higher than it should have been, but now we don't have to worry about trying to do it on arrival Saturday night. We could pay in dollars or Laotian kip. They were very picky about our US bills—no folds, slight markings etc. allowed. This was the case at the Laotian border also. Using kip here is a hoot—9,000 to the dollar. Our first ATM withdrawal was 1,500,000 kip or $166. They have no coins needless to say. We have been very happy using our Schwab account as all the machines have low limits and high charges. We saved $29 in fees for the 3 weeks of January. Most hotels and restaurants have a surcharge for credit card usage so using cash is best.
The city is very walkable and I have particularly enjoyed the French colonial architecture. However, it is really hot now in the afternoons--mid 90s—so we stay at the hotel in the afternoons. I especially enjoyed my Thai/Lao 60 minute massage at our hotel—a $10 bonus with our room. Lord, $10 for a massage, makes me want to move here. I know, I could have had dozens by now on our trip, but looking in the massage parlors I was not attracted. This was in a private room at the hotel. Other notable things we did was visit the former Royal Palace now a museum for $3. Closed at lunch (lots of French influence here) you must remove your shoes, so have socks. Not Versailles, but interesting. Also I went to the public library (which includes an American room) to donate money to buy books for village schools and support the book boat, (former school librarian that I am). We did spring for one expensive dinner at the French/Thai l'Elephant Restaurant. Super baquette but the rest—duck, onion soup, beef medallions—was good but certainly not great—about $58 for two without the wine. We also ate at the Coconut Garden—good, and at Khaiphaen. This is part of a chain of training restaurants to help disadvantaged kids learn skills. The food was very, very good and inexpensive. All Thai though with no Western choices. $20 for dinner for two with an appetizer and dessert to split—and we were stuffed.
We liked Luang Prabang but could have easily seen it all in 3 full days. It is very touristy—the only folks in the old town are tourists and those waiting on them. Nearly every building is a guest house, hotel or eatery. To us, it is a country we could have skipped if short on time.
We flew to Hanoi on $122 pp Vietnam Airlines tickets for the 1 hour flight. I watched these tickets for over a month and the price hardly fluctuated. The Vietnamese government just quarantined an area 24 miles north of Hanoi as they reported their 6th corona virus case. We are glad they are watching where the virus is, but of course concerned that we may get caught in a quarantine or worse. I think I'll go wash my hands. Next month Vietnam.