Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Luxembourg City


For our summer trip to Europe, the cheapest flights were in and out of Paris. So, we decided to plan for our trip accordingly. The first destination we chose was Luxembourg. This tiny little land locked country in tucked in between France, Belgium and Germany. Since we were planning to go visit Germany this time, this was a perfect choice for a few days.

Places to visit in Luxembourg
However, since our flights were delayed (not a surprise- flights Gods haven't been happy with us for a while now!), we got to spent much less time than we had anticipated.

Here is the itinerary we had initially planned for:
Day 0: Arrive In Paris -> Train to Luxembourg city
Day 1: Day in Luxembourg city
Day 2: Drive to Echternach and Vianden -> Train to Tier

What really happened:

We arrived in Paris a day late. And hence had to reschedule the train to Luxembourg city. We had to cut short our trip and skip Echternach and Vianden from our itinerary to get to Trier on time. I will write about roaming around Luxembourg city and some pointers for Echternach and Vianden from our plans.

Getting in/out:

Luxembourg City station
Luxembourg City is very well connected by rail, like most of Europe. There are frequent direct trains from Paris to Luxembourg city and also from various other cities in Germany and Belgium. Its a short 2 hour train ride on TGV from Paris.

Getting around:

the city itself s very well connected with public transport. The buses are frequent and convenient. We took the bus to get form the train station to our AirBnB and also to get around the city for lunch and dinner. Pretty convenient and the Google maps are always there to guide you through public transport.

Day 0 in the city

Running aound to explore the city
We reached late at night, around 8 pm and wanted to grab dinner before heading out to our accommodation. We found an Indian restaurant close by, and not knowing the fate of our future dinner cuisines, we decided to grab a bite. I think it was Taj Mahal restaurant and food was a-okay. The city was very lively even at 9 pm in the night. There was quite a bit of hussle bussle and we felt safe walking alone. After dinner, we took a bus to our AirBnB which was located a little away from the city centre. The hosts were lovely and we had a room to ourselves on the top floor. Their pet dog was especially adorable. 

A day in the Luxermbourg City

Notre Dame Cathedral
We had until late afternoon in the city as we were supposed to get to Trier in time to rent our car for our Germany trip (my next blog!). So, we decided to go for a run and explore the city. Luxembourg isn't flat. It has varied elevation and levels, and following the google map directions can be tricky, which we discovered only once we stepped out for a jog. 

Palais Grand Ducal
We started off with navigating to the Notre Dame Cathedral first. On our way though, we stopped  for a cuppa joe and a croissant at a local coffee shop, which I can't remember. They had good strawberry yogurt too. Ahh! And most importantly, they told us, that instead of taking the zig zag uphill route, we could take the elevator upto the plaza level. Who needs a hilly run on a vacation anyway! ;)
Once at the plaza level, everything was right there. The cathedral of Notre Dame, Palais Grand Ducal, Casemates and the souvenir shops. Walk down Chemine de la Corniche to The Grund. A few other touristy spots to stop by if you are interested and have time. This level gives you good views of the city and is the centre for touristy and old-town stuff. Our rough walking route.

Central Plaza - Domfreihof
Coming back was easier as it was mostly downhill. You could also take the local bus if you want to get around via public transport. But the most exciting thing was yet to happen. Sumit decided to jog back and I waited for the bus. He reached home before I did and when I reached, I rang the doorbell. He was of course in the shower and only heard my doorbell after, umm, unbearable fifteen minutes or so. And in his quest to open the door asap, he accidentally opened the door without realizing that our host's pet dog was let out running on the street. They weren't at home and it was us running behind the dog in middle of Luxembourg. He was getting farther and farther away, while some good Samaritan got hold of him and picked him up to return him to the huffing and puffing folks running behind him, i.e. us. 

Whew! We now packed and took the bus to get to the train station for our bus to Trier. Would have been nice to go visit the other cities of Echternach and Vianden, that we had initially planned, but oh well, next time!

What we didn't do:


  • Echternach: Town on your way to Trier in Germany. A small town with old abbey, basilica, an old town area and a lake to boast of. 
  • Vianden: Boasts of a famous castle and Victor Hugo museum.
  • Beaufort: A small little town on your way from Vianden to Echternach. Boasts of cobbled streets and very famous chateau.

Tips:

One of the day trip itineraries that I liked.


Thursday, December 28, 2017

Egypt (Cairo, Alexandria, Abu Simbel, Aswan, Luxor)


Egypt had been our bucket-list destination forever. We had initially planned our trip in 2013 June end, but the protests broke out and we had to cancel our trip and  extend our Turkey stay that time. But it all turned out to be good. We spent an extra week in beautiful Turkey and this time we had a pre planned itinerary and we were going with our family! Here is our trip summary:
Day 0 - Arrive in Cairo
Day 1 - Day trip to Alexandria
Day 2 - Fly to Aswan - Drive to Abu Simbel and back to Aswan
Day 3 - Sightseeing in Aswan - Drive to Luxor
Day 4 - Day tour in Luxor
Day 5 - Fly to Cairo - Sightseeing in Cairo
Day 6 - Fly out

When to go

Our first trip in 2013 was planned for June and thank God, it got cancelled. Even in December the south is super hot and dry, so I can only imagine what the weather would be like in June. The temperatures in Cairo and Alexandria were mild, but Aswan and Luxor were super hot. So, do keep weather in mine when planning

Food

Traveling with vegetarian parents was concerning. Cairo had a few choices for vegetarian food, with Indian restaurants readily available. But, Aswan and Abu Simbel offered none. We had to make do with scavenging the buffet of our hotels for vegetarian food. But Abu Simbel was a nightmare for our parents who couldn't stand the smell of meat being cooked in a regular African restaurant. So stock up on snacks when traveling south. Luxor had an Indian restaurant but it was mostly always booked for the large tour groups and hence we had to work around their times. So yes, food is a bit of concern especially if you are keen on Indian vegetarian food. Also, if you are stepping out early for the day, most of the hotels provide packed breakfast boxes.

Trip logistics

Cities we visited
There is a lot to see in Egypt and it offers plenty of history. But its not possible to plan for things without a tour company. You can absolutely plan according to your preferences and comfort, but you can't do the trip as a DIY. Hence, pick the list of things you want to see and do and pick a travel agency that can weave it all into one itinerary. For us the hotels offered were 4 and 5 star rated and they were all excellent. None of the hotels we stayed at were disappointing. At this point, I must mention the our tour planners: Memphis Tours. Very responsive, prompt and had very good transportation and guides for us, given we had 8 adults and 1 child in our entourage.

Getting around

We flew in and out of Egypt from Cairo. Alexandria is a three hour drive from Cairo. For Abu Simbel, either you fly directly to the airport in Abu Simbel, or you can fly to Aswan and then take a three hour drive to Abu Simbel. Luxor is a three hour drive from Aswan and also has an airport to fly in and out of. Plan as you see fit. Some folks take an overnight cruise along from Aswan to Luxor as well. We chose to fly or take the road between various cities. Its a developing country so there aren't many rest stops along the way, road aren't that great and scenery isn't too exciting as well. So, if the cost doesn't hurt, flying may be the best option.

Cairo


My favorite from the trip
The Pyramids! Yes, the pyramids. Our first stop in the city was The Pyramids. There are three pyramids of different sizes and they are huge! Yes, they live up to your expectations. There is a special ticket and you can go inside the biggest pyramid and see the tomb. There is a narrow opening and a narrow passage to get to the tomb and come out. Of course we were doing that! Only that once we got in, and were half way through, the passage was so narrow that I suddenly started feeling claustrophobic, with my legs shivering and I was sweating profusely. Without a second thought, I turned around and came out. It was a strange feeling I had never experienced before but I think I am more considerate of people who say they feel claustrophobic. Its not pleasant. But the rest of the gang completed the trip and came out pretty happy about their accomplishment.

For the pyramids, the more important thing is to know where to take the pictures from. The guides know it the best. I had clearly stated I wanted pictures jumping over the pyramids and kissing the Sphinx. He made sure that we went to all these spots. There is also a camel ride around the pyramids, but its best to ask your guide to negotiate a price in case you are interested. Have heard enough instances of being cheated upon.
Entrance to the pyramid

Khan- El - Khalili
So after our awe-inspiring Pyramid and Sphinx darshan, we were headed to the the Egyptian Museum. It was undergoing renovation then, but I hear it is now ready and is well renovated. The guide gave us our own headsets so that he could communicate with us. This museum is loaded with historical significance, but our parents were super tired walking around in this museum. So, not a good idea if you aren't up for setting your fitbit on fire. For me, personally, the highlight was Tutankhamun mask and his chamber. Just pure gold, loads and loads of it. There is a mummies chamber too and there are plenty of them and the bodies are so well preserved that was scary I felt.

From the museum, our next stop was the Coptic Church. Cairo has a thriving Christian population also. And there was news of some shooting at a nearby church the previous week. But, funny enough, the guide compared it to the school shootings in the US and told us they were safe as we were still sending kids to school in America. I really had no answer to that. The church wasn't that great architecturally, but had more significance in terms of history and having a church in middle of a Muslim dominated city.

Next and final stop was the Khan El Khalili bazaar. I was looking to get a pendant in the hieroglyphs, but we were short on time, and the suggestions that the guide made were a little too expensive than I had imagined. So, I changed my mind. Family was very interested in buying some Egyptian cotton sheets and all, but this is where we felt being with a guide wasn't useful as they took us to the shops they knew and they were pretty expensive, I imagine they had a commission in the sales. So, we didn't buy those either.

This is the rendezvous city for Egypt. Cairo airport is well connected to Africa, Middle East and Europe. The tour agents are allowed to come into the airport before your immigration check and help you out through the immigration as well. Not that there is any help needed, its pretty straightforward like anywhere else. We stayed at two hotels in Cairo, one at our arrival and other for our departure. Fairmont Nile Hotel was luxurious hotel and we absolutely loved it. Second, we stayed at Fairmont Hotel Heliopolis as it was close to the airport and made our trip to the airport shorter.

Alexandria


Qaitbay Fort
A barely three hour drive from Cairo, it is a crowded old-town on the Mediterranean coast. Navigating through the town in a mini-bus reminded me of crowded streets of Delhi. Densely populated and not much order to the chaos. Our first stop was catacombs. I was quite excited as the first time I went to Catacombs, was in Peru and it left me in awe of the whole concept. Bit the catacombs here are quite underwhelming. First, they are in middle of a housing locality and there is just a tiny staircase leading to the underground catacombs. The facade isn't exciting, on going downstairs, you see the tiny, humid rooms with hieroglyphs and painting on the wall and you are reminded, you are in Egypt. The mecca of historians.
Next up, was the Qaitbay Fort. Perfectly located fortress at the Mediterranean shores. It gives you really pleasant views of the city. I loved taking pictures here. Next we went to Alexandria library and it had such a unique architecture. I here the new tech buildings in bay area are based on that architecture. The sunshine comes in through the roof at every floor. I thought this was definitely worth the visit.
That completed our Alexandria visit and we were on our way back to Cairo from here. We stopped at some Indian restaurant for dinner. Glad we found something that was tolerable for our parents tastes and we went home fully fed.

Qaitbay Fort

Abu Simbel


After pyramids, the next thing on my list was Abu Simbel. Its three hours one way from Aswan, but absolutely worth it. A very old temple, located at the bank of the river and just next to Sudan border. Its not just the history of Ramses II that makes this place highly significant, but how construction of the dam made relocation of Abu Simbel and international project. A marvellous engineering and archaeological feat. More so, the public access to Abu Simbel just started recently, as earlier due to threats from Sudanese terrorists, you had to be accompanied by security convoy in order to visit.

Abu Simbel
Abu Simbel does not disappoint. Its freaking awesome. The whole architecture, the history, the location, its simply mind blowing. I am so glad we made the trip all the way here. I won't write too much about the history of this place as you need a guide for that, plus I don't remember much of it anyway!

The drive from Abu Simbel to Aswan offers vast landscape full of dunes. I was so happy to see those that I requested the driver to stop around sunset so I could take some SRK pose pictures. But, there are no places for food. A couple of local restaurants didn't have vegetarian options and we barely got by with soup and rice. My mother in law refused to even taste it and didn't enter the restaurant because of the smell. So, be mindful to pack up your food bag when making this day trip.

Aswan


By the time we reached Aswan by night, we were dead tired and wanted to catch a break. So, we decided to start a little later the next day. The hotel we stayed in was by the bank of river Nile, Movenpick Aswan resort. Luxurious hotel, with excellent amenities. had to take a short boat ride to get to the hotel as there was no direct road to the hotel. So cool!

Temple of Philae
After a late start to our day, with our bellies full of buffet breakfast, we headed to the unfinished Obelisk. Initially uninterested, I quite liked it. And after that have been paying more attention to other obelisks in the world and where they are located. I didn't know that most them were quarried as a single stone and were stolen from Egypt during multiple wars and raids. It was a bit of a hike to get to this unfinished obelisk, so we left our parents at the market on the streets and made a quick trip with the guide.

Next was the Aswan dam, nothing too exciting about it in my opinion. Just like any other dam. The funding and the construction of the dam was a big deal at that time. And I was just happy to know that there are quite a few crocodiles out there in Lake Nasser 

Temple of Philae
Our final and most enjoyable stop in Aswan was the Temple of Philae on the Isis island. You can get here by boat. You walk through a local market of handicrafts and souvenirs. Good place to shop, but must haggle. Also not that once you engage any seller, they won't let you be. After a quick boat ride, we reached the Isis island. Beautiful, old Egyptian architecture with many many wall paintings and carvings with colors preserved till date. This place was crowded and why not. It was beautiful and that history lesson from our guide made it even more valuable. Excellent place to take pictures too! 

Luxor


I loved our hotel in Luxor too. Steigenberger Nile Palace Luxor was where we stayed and Luxor is the most touristy places of Abu Simbel and Aswan. It has more shops and is a bigger township. We were staying here for two nights.
Valley of Kings

Since we reached early, we decided to venture out, which turned out to be quite an experience! We decided to take horse carriage rides from our hotel to the local souvenir market. A well known tourist stop, now I don't remember what the exact name was, but ask your hotel people and they'll know. So, we fixed a price and got on their carriages, Two of them, of course, with 8 adults and a kid. They took us straight to some souvenir hop where they probably had a commission on sales. It was pricey, didn't have much stuff and not where we asked to go to in the first place. Hence, we got really pissed and asked the carriage guy to take us back. Now on our way back, they tell us the price was one-way price for the carriage ride. It was a nightmare to just sit tight as it wasn't your country, not the language you spoke, so just sit quietly and go to the hotel. Once back, we got off and asked the security folks of the hotel to deal with them. Apparently it is a well known scam run by these folks and if in any case you need to go somewhere, either by a carriage ride or by a taxi, ask your hotel staff to help you out. They will get reliable people.
Temple of Hatsheput



Hot air balloon ride over the valley
Okay so now for the good stuff. Luxor has hot-air balloon rides and Sumit and I skipped it, but we sent our parents for the balloon ride. We decided to sleep in for extra two hours and join them later. If you haven't done it before, you should do it at least once! Our first stop was Valley of Kings, this is the burial spot for Egyptian Kings. There are many tombs that are open and colors on the walls are still bright and painting clear. So, definitely go inside a tomb or two. King Tutankhamen's tombs has his mummy. All the other stuff from his tomb is in the Egyptian museum in Cairo though. It truly is the valley of kings. But it gets hot and dry hair, so take that and always carry a bottle of water.


Karnak Temple
Next up was Temple of Hatsheput, which has this grand facade and makes you think how did they manage to build such architecture back in those days. Behind the facade things aren't restored as well, but it is worth the trip. After this, we went to Colossi of Menmon. Final stop for the day were Luxor and Karnak templesOverpowering pillars and structures throughout this small sight. Lovely place to take pictures and soak in some Egyptian History. As the sun sets, the lights come out and light the pillars and the architecture in a very elegant manner making these historic masterpieces look even more magnanimous. 

Luxor by far had the most beautiful architecture and history to offer in Egypt. There was also a cute little marketplace to shop. We went here on the second day, after the carriage-ride adventure on the first evening. Best place to shop for some souvenirs. They have these painting on a piece of paper that they roll up and give it to you for you to frame on your own. Best souvenir you can take back, I think. There was also an India restaurant around to cater to the huge Indian tourist groups. The owner was a very sweet guy, who on request made space for u sin his tiny little restaurant during his off-peak hours.
Luxor Temple


What else to do in Egypt

View of river Nile and the city on the banks

  •  Cruise on Nile: This is super popular. Given Abu Simbel, Aswan and Luxor are all located on the banks of Nile, staying on a cruise make sure your travel time is covered overnight. Also, the view from Nile of lighted up cities across the banks must make for a pleasant view.
  •  Sharm-el Shaikh: A popular resirt area north of Egypt. We weren't interested much due to the unrest near Suez area. Also, diving here is a popular activity
  • Light and sound show: Both cairo pyramids and Luxor temples have evening light and sound shows. We skipped those, but something you might want to consider.


Wednesday, December 20, 2017

UAE (Dubai, Abu Dhabi)


Dubai had been on our list as a transit stop for quite sometime. And having a direct Emirates flight from bay area definitely helps to pick this as your next stop over. So when we decided to vacation with our families, Dubai was an obvious choice and for making the trip worth our while, we added Egypt to the mix as well. But our first stop over was Dubai for four days. More on Egypt later, lets focus on Dubai for now. Our brief itinerary:
Day 0: Arrive
Day 1: Dubai sightseeing
Day 2: Dubai sightseeing
Day 3: Day trip to Abu Dhabi + Evening cruise in Dubai
Day 4: Day at the beach + fly out

When to go?

Definitely not summer! We went during our Christmas holidays and the weather was pleasant. If the winters are so pleasant, I can only imagine how brutal summers would be. So, definitely keep weather in mind when you plan your travel to Dubai. Other driving factor is your trip to India or someplace and considering Dubai as a stop over. 2-3 days are good enough for short stop over and Emirates offers great deals on air tickets.

Where to stay?

The Walk- JBR
Lots of choices in terms of neighborhoods, affordability and accessibility. Being with Family, we opted for apartment rentals and we were lucky to find a luxury 4-bed/5-bath condo near Jumeirah beach. It was in JA Oasis Beach Tower and I couldn't be happier with the location, amenities and the overall experience.

What to do?

There is a lot to do in Dubai. The country has worked extraordinarily to make this a tourist destination of choice. Here is what we did along with what else is there to do in this country.

Day 0

Reunited with La Familia
We arrived late in the evening. The airport is pretty big and it took us a while to get to the visa on arrival area. Do check the visa regulations for visa on arrival before you book your travel as they keep changing frequently. We met our extended family travelling from India at the visa counter and by the time we chatted and caught up, the visas were done and we were walking out to pick up our luggage. We ubered to our rented apartment and were pleasantly surprised at the size of the apartment and the views offered from its glass walls in the living room.
Then we headed out for dinner and there were plenty of options in the area. That was such a relief, though we expected that as much. After dinner, we decided to take a stroll in the lively neighborhood. We were actually hunting for some good eggless cake options, but we could just manage regular cake as it was my father in law's birthday the following day. Then we had some cake were off to sleep.

Day 1

The bling!
We were up bright and early, thanks to a bit of jet lag! Our first stop was Gold Souk. It is amazing to see such a huge market full of gold shops. The jewellery designs are pretty close to what we get in India, I guess to suit the south asian taste, which contributes to the majority of buyers. However, I am not sure if the whole debate about gold being cheaper is valid or not. Go figure! We didn't end up buying anything and after a few hours, it was time for lunch. So we headed out to lunch  in Meena Bazar area. We picked Athithi which had thalis and turned out to be an excellent choice.
Our next stop for the day was The Dubai Mall, the most popular and the biggest mall in Dubai. They have a lot of options for entertainment. A rainforest cafe. A huge aquarium with walk through tunnel and innumerable shops. You name a brand and you have it. So, we went shopping here but got tired soon enough and grabbed a cup of coffee before heading out to Burj Khalifa where we had our pre purchased tickets for getting to the top. A wise decision to buy them beforehand and save us some time.
View from the top
Qutb Minar of Dubai?

We got in the queue and it was pretty swift and quick moving. Once we got to the top, it was all cloudy below us. And the patches where it cleared up, it was sure to give you some vertigo. pretty damn high. I was afraid to think what would happen in case of an earthquake (a thought bound to occur if you have lived in California for over a decade!) After taking some pictures and spending some time at the top, we headed downstairs to the waterfront. Lovely fountains, that remind you of Bellagio. Weather was perfect as sun had gone down and there were just people all around you.
Then I met an old roommate of mine from LA who now lives in Dubai. We walked around the Dubai Souk, which is just next to the mall, but and old architecture gives you that middle eastern feel. Perfect place to shop for souvenirs. Then we grabbed some dinner (plenty of options in the mall to suit your needs) and headed back home.



Day 2

The Jumeirah Beach
Today we planned to head out the beach next to Burj Al Arab. This gives you the best views of the building and the beach is just lovely. Warm waters and fine sand at Jumeirah public beach. Luckily usn wasn't too sharp and we spent some good time enjoying the water and taking pictures.
Next, we headed to Madinat Jumeriah Souk, which is an old architecture styled mall. Not too huge, but has a variety of shops. They were gearing up for Christmas celebrations and I loved navigating this mall. It reminded me of old malls in India.
For lunch we had delicious, sumptuous meal at Ushna. I highly recommend this place. From here we headed out to The Atlantis, Palm Jumeirah. We wanted our niece to go visit the aquarium here. And we just strolled about in their shopping arcade. Then we walked along the Crescent road for lovely views of the sea and the hotel itself. This is the perfect place to take pictures. The light, the ambience is just perfect. Next up, we went to the Miracle Gardens. Its a fancy garden where plants and bushes are manicured in various shapes and sizes. Its pretty nice and good for a short visit. Our family loved it.
Madinat Jumeirah Souk
After some rest, we all went from a stroll near our residence, in the promenade near Jumeirah, known as The Walk, JBR. You can spend all your time doing nothing but walking around in Dubai. It has such lively areas that you can just be here and do nothing. For dinner, we went to a mediterranean place, Operation falafal. It was decent enough, but didn't suit the palates of our Indian parents!

Miracle Gardens


Day 3

Grand Mosque
We had reserved a day long tour in a family vehicle to Abu Dhabi. Its a good 90 minute drive to the city. The city doesn't have much to offer, but the Grand Mosque is a must see. It is so intricate, beautiful and peaceful that I was totally awestruck. You have to stick to their dress code and the tour guides provide you free robes to wear for this. We spent about an hour here. Just walking around and admiring the royal carpets, ceiling, chandeliers, took some time. This is a must do if you are in Dubai. Its worth your drive.
There isn't much to do and explore in Abu Dhabi other than the mosque. But we made a customary stop at the palace and then at the Ferrari World. The entry to the circuit is paid, so we skipped that and just spent some time in their lobby outside.
Walk along the Ocean, Palm Jumeirah
Our tour guides took us to shop for dates in Abu Dhabi as that is what it is famous for. Our families went crazy shopping for dates, as expected. For lunch, we had stopped at Punjab Grill restaurant. A bit pricey, but food was finger-licking good. Then we were headed back to Dubai as we had planned a cruise for the evening.
We had to show up a designated pier for our cruise. A pretty standard cruise of the Marina, in a medium sized, two storey boat. They had an Indian buffet and dance performance for entertainment. The views from the boat are good as they navigate through the downtown. Food was good enough for us and we enjoyed our time here as a family.
Later in the evening, I caught with my undergrad friend, Shashank and his lovely wife Anamika. It was so good to meet up with old friends here in Dubai.

Day 4

Dates market- Abu Dhabi
Our final day in Dubai before heading out to Egypt in the afternoon. So, we went for a run in the Jumeirah promenade (The walk- JBR) in the morning and then went to the marina beach for a quick swim. The water was just perfect. I loved the beaches here in Dubai. Mom even made a Russian friend here at the beach. haha. Then we got back, packed our bags and headed out to the airport.


What else to do:

Dubai is a city created for tourists. There are plenty of options to pick from. You can visit their extravagant malls if you are one of those shopaholics, or if you like doing touristy stuff, they have quite a few parks to visit as well:

  • Dune Bashing: This is rated as a must-do for everyone visiting Dubai. The reason we skipped it was that I get motion sick and since we were with our niece and she was just 2 years old, we couldn't have taken her along. 
  • The Atlantis: You could stay at this resort and enjoy their facilities with amazing views. Their water park is rather well rated.
  • Global Village: This park has attractions from various countries and is like a mini world. It apparently takes almost a day to visit this and it gets very tiring, so we decided to skip it and it was anyway low on our priority list
  • They have a famous ski park inside one of the malls, if you are interested. We live in California and get plenty of snow in Tahoe so we weren't very eager.

Other Pointers


  • Visa: We were eligible for visa on arrival. Looking up online for visa requirements is pretty straightforward and simple. Do that before you plan.
  • Uber vs Cab: We learnt pretty late that in UAE cabs are much cheaper compared to Uber. So, make that comparison before you take your pick.
  • If you are interested in specific attractions that need tickets, like Burj Khalifa, or even if you want to book a Marina cruise or dune bashing, make reservations before you go. If it is a peak touristy season, you may end up waiting for long or not getting reservations at all.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Singapore

This would be my second visit to Singapore, after exactly ten years. Singapore is a perfect home base for a south east Asia trip. Its modern and well connected to other popular tourist cities. We chose Singapore as our final destination in this trip as we got a great deal on the direct flight from Singapore to San Francisco. Here is our brief itinerary. Note that this was my second visit and we weren't interested in typically touristy things that Singapore has to offer for first time visitors. Scroll down to "What else to do" for those options.
Day 0 - Arrive
Day 1 - City sightseeing
Day 2 - City sightseeing
Day 3 - Fly out

When to go

Singapore has perfect weather all year round. It is a multi cultural city and makes for a perfect stop over no matter what your destination is. Singapore does get some rain in the months of August- September, but they weren't too bad for us as we were visiting in August and weather for absolutely pleasant.

How to get around

Metro train or bus is the best option. But we didn't buy a day pass as the number of trips we were making were not as many and it wouldn't have been economical. So we decided to pay per trip. Also, it may be easier to get single trip passes from the ticket counter than the vending machines.

Day 0

We landed around 7 pm in the evening. And instead of taking Metro, we decided to Uber to our hotel. We were staying at Rendezvous Hotel and getting an Uber was pretty convenient for the airport had designated Uber waiting and pick up areas. Once we checked into our hotel and settled in, we decided to head out for dinner. Singapore being a food lover's paradise had plenty of options. Yelp is a good place to search. We ended up at the Anglo Indian Cafe in Chijmes. Chijmes was a popular place with many cafes offering many different cuisines. You can simply come here for food hopping! Food was about average and we then headed back to the hotel. The walk wasn't too long and we ended up walking through a park which had some kind of exhibit or a festival going on. It was lovely and it was energizing to see such a young crowd everywhere.

Day 1


Our first stop today would be a brunch place recommended by our very dear friend, Roohi who had lived in Singapore for good 5 years. So, we headed out to Marche. The place was an absolute delight. It had different counters with different foods and you could get everything added to your tab and pay later. And food was excellent, plus you could taste plenty of things without having to order full portions of everything. I loved this concept. I wonder why we don't have something similar here in US yet!
Marche @ Somerset

Gardens by the bay
Up next was the customary visit to the Merlion statue. We took a few touristy pictures and then headed to a nearby office, where another friend, Anu was working. After meeting her, we decided to walk down to Marina Bay sands. It was lovely to see how so many runners took to this area as the evening set it. Lovely walk to the Marina Bay Sands, but the malls here were too overwhelming. Nothing that I would buy from such high priced brands.
Next, we navigated our way to the elevator to take up to the connecting bridge to walk down to the Garden by bay.
Both Marina Bay sands and Gardens by the bay have evening shows. So, we headed to Garden by the bay first.
Marina Bay Sands
It was about 20 minutes of walk in all. But the views were very pretty from the connecting bridge. We took some pretty pictures. But we didn't get tickets to the elevator or to the bridge in the Garden because we had missed the last entry time. But we waited for the show to begin. There was a cloud forest nearby which also had good reviews, but having seen quite a few rainforests in real and at California Academy of Sciences, this didn't interest us much.
The crowd swelled up for the show and people started looking for places to sit and watch. We too found ourselves a spot and waited for the show to begin. It was typical music and lights show which was interesting at first bu then became monotonous. so we headed back to the Marina Bay Sands after a few minutes.
Here we found ourselves a spot to watch this show, which was a water, light and sound show. Similar to the other water and sound shows we had seen in the past. So, after spending some time here taking pictures, we headed out to some place for dinner. The mall also had a food court which had plenty of options btw. We had some snacks here but had some room for dinner.
We headed to Vatos which was a Korean-Mexican fusion, and it was excellent. Highly recommend this restaurant. After stuffing ourselves with good good food, we went back to our hotel and it was TV time!

Day 2

Chinatown
Today we started with breakfast as Toby's as were meeting Anu here. I had mini pancakes and this place was good. Then, we headed to Chinatown for some souvenir shopping. Chinatown is just the same,no matter which county you are in. It was so hot, that we headed to our hotel for an afternoon break and decided to head out a little later in the evening.
First stop was Bugis Mall, but I didn't get too enticed to shop. So, we headed to Clark Quay. Right across the Quay was mall, which had a food court. So we headed right to the NomVNom burger place. Best vegetarian burgers outside India. Loved there veggie potato croquette burgers. Then we headed to the Orchard street was some strolling around and shopping. After a few hours, it was time to head back to our hotel.
Clark Quay

Day 3

Our flight was scheduled for early morning. So, we figured it was best to get an Uber at that time. At the airport itself, there was an excellent south Indian restaurant and I stuffed myself full with delicious dosa and sambhar before boarding the flight.

What else to do


  • Sentosa Island is a full one day trip and a lot of fun with Dolphin show, museum and sound and light show to offer
  • Night Safari here is very popular. It starts at night, so it can be easily clubbed with another activity during the day
  • Singapore has its very own Universal Studios now. So, you don't have to head out to US for visiting one.
  • Singapore Zoo is also popular, if you are going with the kids, perhaps.
  • Jurong bird park is another popular pick with tourists


Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Cambodia (Siem Reap - Angkor Wat)



I had wanted to see Angkor Wat, ever since I had seen Lara Croft - Tomb Raider sometime in 2003-04. The entire sequence that was shot at the Ta Phrom temple had left me mesmerized with this location and I just added it to my bucket list. Finally, I could visit this place some 15 odd years later. Even though the forecast was that of rains, I wanted to take our chances. Hence, we added a two day itinerary for Cambodia to our trip. Here it is:

Day 1: Arrive -> Check in -> Buy tickets
Day 2: Angkor Wat  -> City sightseeing
Day 3: Depart



Angkor Wat Pointers



  • Plan ahead. You have the option of 1-day, 3-day and 7-day passes. You have to buy your pass yourself, as your picture is on it.
  • Ticket office is a few miles outside the Angkor Wat complex. So, factor in time for that.
  • You can buys the pass for next day beginning at 5 pm today. This gives you an extra evening entry into the complex a day before your pass is valid.
  • Carry cash, notes in good health. Else, you might be forced to use cards at the ATM.
  • Hire a cab to take you around inside the complex. Super convenient. You can hire a romrok too given the weather is pleasant.
  • Book a good hotel, the staff will help you for almost all your needs.

Where to fly:


If the plan is to visit Angkor Wat, then Siem Reap airport is your best choice. It is a tiny upscale airport catering mostly to Angkor Wat tourists. It has plenty of connections from other South east Asian countries. However, if you plan to visit Phnom Penh and other cities, you can explore other airports.
Also, when I was exploring options to visit from Thailand, there were trains and buses too. The reviews weren't that great, especially for the immigration check as apparently they are time consuming if you enter via road. But I didn't explore much.


Day 1:


We arrived around afternoon and our hotel had a airport pick up and airport drop included in our booking. We were flying via Kuala Lumpur again as we had our bookings via Air Asia. Immigration and baggage pick up were very quick and easy. We had gotten our e-visa online before we had left USA.  We however, got some local currency at the money exchange counter. You can totally avoid it as US dollar is the defacto currency here. But, they are very particular about the quality of your notes.
Dinner at Dakshin
View from top of Angkor Wat temples
We were greeted by hotel staff and taken to our hotel, The Privilege Floor, Lotus Blanc which was just 15 minutes away. Our check-in took sometime as they explained us all the options to go to nearby markets, Angkor Wat, etc. To be honest, my information on Angkor Wat was much more updated than theirs. They didn't know much about the tickets and times of visit. Our plan was to go get the tickets for the next day, which starts selling at 5:00 pm or so and then go see sunset.
So, we hired a romrok to take us to the ticket office, which is a little farther than Angkor Wat. Here, we had to wait for sometime for the ticket counter to open. Closer to the opening time, long queues started forming. So, we stood in the line and the ticket counter opened up. When we asked for our ticket, they refused to take credit card in spite of having big labels saying we accept visa and MasterCard. Then, we tried to scramble for cash. We found 20$ bills, but they refused to accept some of them saying they have a mild tear, they are folded, etc. Basically, they want you to use their ATM to withdraw cash and use that. We did have an argument with these folks about the mismanagement, but they were very non chalant and used to this everyday affair. 

Anyhow, after we were done getting our tickets, we headed straight to Bekhong hill for a sunset view. But they allow only a fixed number of people to enter the complex. And we were pretty late. For a sunset at 5:30 pm, the queues start forming at 3:30! So, we were pretty late and didn't get in. We walked back and got back to our hotel. 
After a brief rest, we decided to head out to the Siem Reap market for some dinner. There were a few Indian options and my spice buds were dying for some good desi food, so we headed to Dakshin and I ordered a south Indian thali and ate to my heart's content. Loved the food. Super authentic and super tasty. The area was lively, but we were tired and decided to go home and take rest for the early sunrise the next day.
Bayon Temple Complex


Day 2:


Angkor Wat temple
We had asked our hotel staff to give us boxed breakfast so that we could go watch the sunrise at Angkor Wat temple. We had hired a cab for the day to save ourselves from scorching heat and long walks with in the complex. Best decision ever. 
We got up early and headed to the complex while it was still dark. All the crowd were heading in one direction, so we couldn't get lost. Get there early to grab your spot next to the pond where you see the reflection. There are two of these, one on either side of the temple. The one on the left (while you face the temple), is the better choice. And, you cannot go wrong with this picture. It is magnificent. But all the street vendors trying to sell you all the stuff kind of get on to your nerves. Plus, wear mosquito repellents. Plenty of tiny little ones here.
Bayon temple
After the sunrise, we headed inside the complex. I loved it. It was my first time going to a Hindu complex that was so ancient and old. I was absolutely in love with it. Then, as you walk further in, there is another queue to get into the central, tallest complex. Luckily, we were on time and got in that queue. It was a steep staircase to get to the temple. This temple is layered vertically. This was the highest courtyard inside the temple. Good views and really high. After a few minutes we came down. Stairs were so steep that I had to sit on every step and come down. Just couldn't climb down the steps normally. 
Leper King
Once out, we were hassled by some vendors to have breakfast at their shop, but we managed to evade and get to our car. Here we had breakfast, breathed some cool air and headed to our next  temple, Bayon temple (the face temple). Another beautiful complex and we got some awesome pictures here. We did not hire any guide, as we wanted to spend less time and thought we'd read the history and details once we get to our hotel. It was just too hot and humid to have any patience for guides.
Once we were done, we headed to Ta Phrom temple via Terrace of Elephants. It makes for a few good shots.
Terrace of Elephants
I had wanted to visit Ta Phrom since so many years and finally here it was. This temple is currently under restoration in partnership with Archaeological Society with India. One of the guards here, was kind enough and led us through the temple and took pictures for us. He gave us a good "photo tour" here and Sumit and I were happy kids. We tipped him well after we were done. Half of this temple is in ruins and the other half is in roots, literally. Beautiful. Then we headed to New Delhi restaurant for lunch. Average food, but a decent Indian option. After this, we went to our hotel for some well deserved rest from the heat and humidity. Btw, while flipping channels I was happy to see some desi channels here, dubbed in their local language. Was hilarious.

After this break, we headed to Bekhong hill. We reached 3:30 pm and were able to get in. View was good, but just 30 minutes before the sunset, it started raining and we had to head back. So, in other words, we didn't see any sunset here.   

Later in the evening, we headed to the marketplace. Strolled on some streets, Pub street looked really lively. I got henna done at one of the shops. Picked up some souvenirs. I had wanted to get the fish pedicure, but since I had an open wound on my ankle, due to the bike fall in Bali, I decided not to take a chance.
Ta Phrom Complex

Pub Street

Day 3:

We had our flight in the evening. So we slept till late and then spent time at the hotel They had a great pool and a private restaurant for breakfast. Then we packed and headed to the airport for our final destination of this trip. Luckily it was a direct flight. We spent some time in the airport lounges, thanks to our priority pass form Chase! Cambodia was brief and sweet. 

Other pointer:


  • We didn't go to Tonle Sap Lake due to immensely horrid reviews online.
  • Make sure to carry US currency. Everything is one dollar here. No one uses local currency
  • You could visit other towns of Phnom Pheh  and some beach towns, but we skipped.
  • Make sure you plan keeping you flights in mind. Some airline fly only on certain days, so it can be tough to coordinate. Like, we had to shift our trip by a day to find a direct flight to Singapore.
  • Most of the people speak or understand English. But, bargain the hell out of everything. Most of the places, people are trying get the most money out of you.