Friday, August 25, 2017


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

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.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Indonesia (Bali, Yogyakarta, Gili Air)

While picking countries for our trip this time, weather was the deciding factor. It looked like Indonesia was one of the few countries that doesn't have much rains during this time(August) of the year. So, Bali it was. Here is our itinerary for Bali. 

Day 0: Fly in
Day 1: Pool dive in Seminyak -> Sunset at Tanah Lot
Day 2: Day trip to Yogyakarta
Day 3: USS Liberty shipwreck dive in Tulamben
Day 4: Ferry to Gili Air
Day 5: Free/dive day in Gili air 
Day 6: Ferry back to Bali -> Temple visits -> Ubud
Day 7: Sightseeing in Ubud
Day 8: Sightseeing in Ubud
Day 9: Fly out

Where to fly

We were flying in from China and most of the connections were via Kuala Lumpur. The Denpasar(DPS) airport in Bali is located south of the island. That's the only international airport catering to many international flight. Since the visa was on arrival, we hadn't applied for anything earlier. We had to stand in the queues, but they were very fast moving. It didn't take us long to clear immigration.

When to go

Our travel dates were fixed, so we searched for non-rainy places in August in south east Asia and it turned out that Bali has good weather conditions in August. But definitely check for weather conditions before you plan. If it rains, it will not be fun.

Where to stay in Bali

This was a big question. You got to choose from plenty of options like Seminyak (an upscale town with lots of traffic), Kuta (more posh than Seminyak), Ubud (a very touristy part of the island, with crazy traffic) and Nusa Dua (private beach resorts in south of the island). We decided to stay in Seminyak for a few days and then Ubud. We were also heading out to Yogyakarta and Gili islands in between. 

Day 0

Our incoming flight from Kuala Lumpur was delayed by 4 hours. So we reached around midnight. Luckily, the hotel we were staying at provided airport pickup, so it worked out pretty well. Else, we figured that the taxis from airport don't charge you a fair amount. They charge exorbitantly over the metered price and there is no other mode of transportation into the city. Once we reached our hotel (Ossotel Legian Bali), I was so happy to find out they had 24 hour room service and I ordered a bowl of soup as I was super hungry. The weather was just perfect and the rooms in the hotel were nice. There was door on the backside to lead you to the beach. But this day was over and we had something exciting to do the next day.

Day 1

We had to head out to the Scuba Diving office for a pool dive before our scuba dive session. Luckily breakfast was included and the hotel had a pretty decent restaurant where we had breakfast and then headed out to the office of Adventure Scuba Diving which wasn't very far away. The office and the pool are located in a very well built house/office building. Our instructor was very nice and very calm. He gave us all the instructions and we were ready for Scuba diving in the pool. Since the instructor was holding my hand all through the dives to the pool bottom, I felt very comfortable and felt that I will be ready for the real dive day after. Once we were done with the pool dives, Sumit and I started walking back to our hotel as there were no cabs nearby. Plus, walking was faster as the cabs were all stuck in a traffic jam. 
Butterfly tattoo
While walking back to the hotel, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant, Kopi-O. All through the island, cold coffee was just awesome. We also ordered some fried rice and some chips. Everything was good. Then we walked back to our hotel through the streets lined with shops  and did some shopping too. Bargain hard. Don't be shy to quote as low at 20-30% of the asking price. On our walk back, we realized that for our evening trip to Tanah Lot, cab will be a bad idea, we should just rent a scooter. Luckily we had a scooter rental right across our hotel, but it was  2 day rental, we somehow convinced him for 2 days and got the deal. Also, the laundry service was right across the hotel and they charged per kg. Very cheap to get laundry done in Bali.  
We snaked through the heavy traffic on our way to Tanah Lot. Directions on Google maps are very accurate. We made it just before sunset. But by the time we reached from the parking lot to the temple, we couldn't go in, as they close the entryway sharp at 5 or 6 pm I believe. So check before you go. But we got some beautiful shots. The weather was just too good. While walking back to our scooter, I decided to get a henna tattoo from one of the shops and then we headed straight to Seminyak Square.  
Plenty of options here to drink, dine and party. We ate vegetarian burger at Nirvana restaurant -burger bar. Then we headed to Gelato shack for some awesome gelato. One of the best gelatos I have had. After this we were headed to the scooter rental and our hotel as we had an early morning the next day.

Day 2


We had booked a 10 am flight to Yogyakarta. There is one hour time difference and its an hour long flight. So we reached around the same time. We had already booked a driver for our tour. We had booked him after looking at a lot of tripadvisor reviews. Here is the link to our Yogyakarta driver. We drove straight to Borobudur, where we got a guide with the ticket purchase. It lived up to its expectations. Then we headed straight to Parambanan. Here we didn't hire any guide, just the tickets. Spent an hour here and also took some clicks during sunset. I was thoroughly impressed by the scale of these temples. I have never been to Hindu temples outside India, so I found this quite fascinating. Both Borobudur and Parambanan are worth a visit I'd say. We grabbed our lunch and dinner at an Indian restaurant close to the airport, Taj Indian Kitchen. Traffic here wasn't as bad as Bali. Also, while driving and from the top level of Borobudur, you can see some of the active volcanoes. And of course, our return flight at 9 pm was delayed by an hour or so. So we reached around midnight again. This time since our hotel wasn't picking us up, we had to pay that extra surcharge to the taxi drivers.

Day 3

Today was our big scuba diving day. We were picked up bright and early in a mini van from our hotel and we were headed to the north of the island, for Tulamben shipwreck dive. Our hotel gave us packed breakfast since we were leaving before the regular breakfast time. It took us about 3 hours to reach there. 
Once we reached, our instructor gave us some more instructions and got our gear ready. We had 2 dives to go to. We  were located at a restaurant by the beach. While our instructor got our gear ready, we changed into our swim wear and diving suits. And headed out to the beach. Here we dived about 10 meters. The fish were exquisite. We had no trouble equalizing and it was a whole different world. Diving was so much more comfortable than the pool dive. We took a few pictures, a video and spent about 30 minutes under water. But I couldn't let go off my instructor's hand. I was nervous being all by myself. The best thing our instructor had said was, "There is nothing that can go wrong, which I can't fix". After we got done with our first dive, we came back to the restaurant and our lunch was ready. We took about an hour long break and then walked to the shipwreck dive site. It was a few meter away and was super crowded being a popular dive spot.  
Happy Divers
We dived in, but I had trouble equalizing, so we went only till about 7 meters instead of 12 meters we could ave. But looking at the ship wreck was a new experience. I wish we could have gone a bit deeper to experience it more up close. 
Once done, we headed back to the hotel and it was another 3 hour long drive and we slept through it mostly. Once back, we freshened up and headed straight o Queen's Tandoor in Seminyak, an India restaurant. There was wait, so we strolled the streets and went to the shops nearby to kill time. Didn't buy anything in particular. Food here was decent enough, but costlier than other places we had been to. Once done, we thought we'll Uber. But the Uber cancelled on us, since there was a lot of traffic. This we realized later, was a norm. We somehow managed a taxi and got back to our hotel.

Day 4

Manta Dive Gili Air resort
Today we were leaving for Gili Air island. We had picked Gili Air as the reviews said it was more of a laid back place and that's what we were looking for. Gili Trawangan is a party island and Gili Meno is very laid back as well, but has fewer resources than Gili Air. So Gili Air it was. The way to get to the islands is either via ferry or by air. Make sure you book your ferries timely, because only a few providers have good ferry boats with good reviews and the frequency isn't as much as you'd like. We had booked Gili getaway one way and Blue Water Express for our return. Both had good services.  Here is the link to book the ferries. Make sure to book a "fast boat". And don't hesitate to look at other ports in Bali if your best option isn't available, as the transportation from your hotel is included. 
So, we were picked up at the given time, bright and early from our Seminyak hotel and driven to the Serangan port. Everything was smooth, check-in, bag tags and then we had to wait. They were giving a sea-sickness tablet, which I took as I knew I get sea sick. I am glad I did as the waters were really choppy and I slept through most of my ride. Also, make sure to pick the side of the boat where you won't get any sun. It took us about 90 minutes to the get to the Gili Air port. Since there are no motorized vehicles on the island, you can hire a horse cart. But, remember, everyone is trying to rip you off for some money. We were asked for some horrendous amount for 0.5 mile distance. So, we decided to walk. Good call. There are no paved roads here, btw. 
All meals by the beach

Our resort, Manta Dive Gili Air was located by the beach, like all the resorts. There was check in cabin where we checked in and were walked to our cottage. There were a couple of pools and across the road was a restaurant by the beach and some hammocks. This was the perfect place for a vacation. Once we got a bit settled, we got some food from the restaurant by the beach. The weather was perfect. Not too hot, not too humid. Then we rented a couple of bikes to go around the island. It would take only an hour on the bike. But we were 20 minutes into the ride, and I tried to ride in sand and bang, I fell. I had a huge cut in my ankle and I wasn't a happy kid. So, we cut short and walked the bike back to our hotel. Rest of the evening was all about a grumpy kid who fell off the bike. But, I wish we had continued further. The bikes were rusty and old, so we didn't. So rent better bikes and complete the loop, at least view the sunset on the other side :)

Day 5

Right way to vacay
It was what I call, "free vacation day". Sumit had plans to go diving, his briefing was happening in the same restaurant where I was killing time. So, I just sat close by and observed what was going on. Once he left, I knew he would be back only late afternoon. So, I decided to go get a massage. I looked up online and decided to go to H2O Yoga and meditation centre and I didn't like it much. Now mind you, I get sports massage done mostly, so unless the masseuse is working on the knots, I am not too impressed. But after the massage, I walked back to hotel and on my way stopped for a Crepe. Again, everything here is by the beach. Nothing happens inland! Then stopped by a few shops, but they were so much more expensive than the Bali island.
We snorkeled here a bit
I spent rest of the day on the hammock, reading a travel guide, drinking cold coffees, eating and browsing facebook. Perfecto! 
Once Sumit got back, we went to Cabalito De Mar for dinner. Really good location. Beautiful beach views, lovely weather and good food. I could just eat and eat. Then we got back and it was movie night. It was our last day on the island and next time I am going to stay here for a few more days.
Btw, Sumit had a great dive and saw many fish. He dived independently and was super excited to have done it all by himself, of course under the supervision of his dive master.

Day 6

Ditched plans to go for a run and see the other side of the island. I was on a vacation! Packed up, had breakfast and checked out. Glad I had booked this resort, Manta Dive Gili Air. Everything was smooth. Even before we had arrived, we had made a few calls to ask which fast boats would work best and about booking dives, etc. and the lady on the phone was super polite and super helpful. Except for a patchy wifi connection in our cottage, everything was just great. 
Pura Besakih with Mount Agung in the background

Again, a horse cart was horrendously expensive, so we just walked. We had booked Blue Water Express and they were pretty good too. I took the sea sickness tablet and it got me through the choppy water ride for the next 90 minutes. We had booked our return to Padang Bai as we wanted to visit a couple of temples on this side of the island and it made sense to land here. We had booked our driver for the day and he was picking us up. 

We were headed straight to Tirta Ganga first. I am glad we came to this side of the island. Beautiful lush green scenery. The temple wasn't too big. It had stepping stones in the water ponds. Lot of fish in the ponds. Was fun hopping on those stones. After a few pictures we were headed to Pura Besakih. It is the biggest temple on the island, with Mount Agung in the background. The tickets include a guide. But you need to buy some flowers, incense, etc. to actually enter the temple, else you can roam around in the complex. It was a very different architecture for temples. But then if you have seen one temple on the island, I guess you have seen them all. It was nice to see separate temples for Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh. Once we got done, drive to Ubud was another two hours. So we drove back to Ubud and there was just crazy traffic. Ubud is so much more crowded than Seminyak. Anyhow, we reached Ubud and checked in to our hotel, Komaneka Rasa Sayang. Not the most high end hotel, but a luxury hotel as per my standards. Great location, great staff, a balcony and a spacious room with a cookie jar.

Once we settled in, we headed to Ganesha for dinner. It was walking distance from our hotel and excellent food. Crispy chili potatoes were too goo. Highly recommended. We landed here for dinner the next two days as well. A very popular street and had everything you'd want. Then we asked our hotel staff to arrange a scooter for next two days the next morning and called it a day. 
Tirta Ganga

Day 7

Goa Gajah
After a late morning, we picked our scooter from the hotel lobby and headed straight to a laundry shop across the hotel. Then we went to the monkey forest. Everything was neatly inside our bags. The monkeys were too aggressive and I felt scared. Plus, I have seen quite a few monkeys in India, so I was okay doing this quickly. There were a lot of tourists, but I possibly wouldn't have kept calm if a monkey would have tried to snatch something from me. So, we quickly went around and I just wanted to get out. We stepped out and I felt so relieved. Whew! 
Then we headed to Queens in Ubud for lunch. Not that great food. Then, we drove to Goa Gajah. Paid entry tickets for this small cave temple. The cave entrance is pretty, but that's about it. Inside is a small dingy cave set up a temple and that's about it. A bit underwhelming I felt. Next, we drove to Tenguengen falls. Hiked all the 150-200 steps to the falls and back up. Too crowded, but I love waterfalls. Weather was good and the coconut water at the end of our hikes was the best. It was fun driving around the city on our scooter. We then headed straight to the Ganesha for dinner. Ordered chowmien and hara bhara kabab today. All good. Once we got back to our hotel, we looked up online for massage parlours and booked an appointment for the following day.   

Too many monkeys for my comfort

Day 8

Today we were headed to the rice terrace fields. It was hot and humid, so we ditched the hike around the fields. Just took a couple of pictures and spent time souvenir shopping around the area. Then, we drove back and went to Buda bar for some snacks. Decent snacks. After this we spent some time at the pool hotel and  headed for our massage at Shambalaya. Great pick. Good experience. Then we headed for dinner, straight to Ganesha for a simple dinner of dal and rice. 
Rice fields

Day 9

Our flight was early morning so we had booked a taxi to the hotel and we were ready to go. But Bali is one of the best vacation places to go to as everything is made convenient for tourists.

Where else could you go?

  • Komodo islands for Komodo dragons. But the reviews were so bad, that we dropped the idea
  • Jakarta for urban Indonesia
  • Lombok islands 

Other pointers

Renting a scooter is the best option

  • Rent a scooter. Cab is a bad idea. Scooter will take half the time.
  • If you are booking a cab for the day, make sure you do that before you land in Bali. Drivers here are very busy so you need an advance booking.
  • Food is good here and options are plenty. 
  • While shopping, bargain, bargain, bargain. Go down to 20-30% of the asking price.
  • Uber also works here, but during rush hours, drivers cancel their rides. Its a norm. So they aren't reliable.
  • In case you are planning to book fast boats to any of the nearby islands, book them in advance too. There is a very high demand and only a limited options. We had to book our hotel reservations according to availability of the fast boats.
  • If you are planning to get massages in one of the better places, book them a couple of days in advance as these are mostly booked too. 

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Malaysia ( Kuala Lumpur - A day tour)

Initially we had no plans of going to Malaysia, but we figured that since we were travelling with Air Asia, we got a free stop over in Kuala Lumpur. Having been to Malaysia about ten years ago, I knew we could tour Kuala Lumpur in a day and Sumit didn't want to miss a chance to visit KL. So, we booked our flights in such a manner that we arrive in the morning around 7 am and our return flight was around 6 pm.

Visa on arrival:

Sumit and I had applied for e-visa online. We had our printed copies of the visas and we just had to get the passport stamped. But the queues for immigration were so long and so slow that it really dampened our spirits. We were standing in those queues for a little over an hour to get our passports stamped, even after procuring the visa before arriving in the country. So be prepared for these slow moving long queues.

Getting around:

We used KLEkspress, which a fast train service from the airport to the city centre. It was quick, convenient and had a frequent service. It took about 45 minutes to get to the city centre from here.
Other option is to Uber. We didn't realize at first, but Uber is very cheap here and cars are usually, neat and clean. So, we mostly ubered for rest of our day.

Our day:

From the skydeck
We got out of the airplane with our day packs. Got our visas stamped and took the fast train to the city centre. Here there was a tourist office where we consulted on what to do and how far it was. We had two things as top priority, KL tower and Petronas Towers.
Petting Zoo
We first grabbed breakfast at Starbucks and then ubered to the KL Tower. The uber driver dropped us right in front of the entrance. Here we got our tickets, which gave us access to the observation deck plus one extra activity. There was a wide range of options to choose from and we chose the Mini Zoo. Since it was still early in the morning, around 10 am, we didn't run into any long queues to get into the elevator the observation deck. After getting some great 360 degree views of the city and taking some pictures on the glass floor (it took us about 20-30 minutes in all), we headed for lunch at the Indian restaurant located in the shopping complex at the base of the tower. Average food, but it was good to grab something as the next meal would be after a while. Now was the turn to visit the Mini Zoo which was a free add-on to our skydeck ticket.
Surprisingly this mini zoo was quite fun. Parrots, iguanas, rabbits, python, tortoise, monkey, birds, this place had every animal I could think of. The moment I thought we were done, they led to another part of the zoo. I really enjoyed this place. It was so much fun! And a learning experience ;)
At the mini zoo
From here we ubered again to the Petronas Towers. We took some pictures at the base of the tower. I clearly remember that I came with my parents to KL about 10 years ago, it was not possible to fit the Petronas Towers in one frame with my digital camera and there was no concept of panoramas then. So, our guide took us to some far away park from where we could get a picture of tall, but tiny Petronas towers in a single frame. Thanks to the new phone cameras, we got some good clicks here.
Next option was to either go to the botanical gardens, aquarium, etc within the city, or head out to see the Batu caves. I had been there earlier with my parents a decade ago and I clearly remember that it wasn't much impressive. So, I researched for reviews and figured it was a clear no-no. So, Sumit and I stepped into a nearby mall - KLCC Suria and spent our time at a coffee shop in this huge air conditioned mall.
Petrona towers - 2007
Petrona towers - 2017
Next up, we had to head back to the airport and we had bought our return ticket through KL Ekspress, so we ubered back to the city centre railway station and got on to the train to head back to the airport. Once we reached the airport, we realized, it was another long queue and long wait to get inside the airport. After about an hour, we got in and head to our gates. We still had about 2 hours before our flight, so we went to the airport lounge. Luckily, our credit cards give us free access to premier lounges, which came as a blessing in this trip where flights are regularly delayed. We relaxed in one of the lounges. Got some food, took a break and relaxed. Then, we headed to our gate through another set of checkins, which took longer than expected and made us anxious tat we will miss our flight, only to find out that the flight was delayed. And, of course the monitors were not updated. The flight was delayed by three hours, which was the same time as the flight duration itself!
We were super hungry it was hard to find vegetarian options at the airport, but we luckily found Maggi cup-o-noodles. It was a long long wait before we got to board our plane.
Once we boarded, there was more confusion. We were sitting on the last seat, row 31, and we figured, the boarding passes were issued up til row 32. So, the passengers with row 32, had to de-board and wait for the next flight to Bali. Whew! Thank God we were row 31!
Nevermind, the flight took off and we were on our way to Bali. It was a short day trip to Kuala Lumpur, but well worth the stop over I think.

What we skipped:

Batu Caves from our 2007 visit
  • Batu Caves: Can be covered in a single day, but I didn't have that many fond memories and reviews changed our may-be to a no.
  • There are a few temples, mosques , Chinatown and famous flea market that you could go to during a day trip. But given that we had no enthu and it was super hot, we skipped it. Here is the walking map I had created. 
  • There is much more to do in Malaysia, for instance Langkawi, Genting Highlands. Having been to Genting Highlands in my last trip, I thought it was just a mini version of Las Vegas, so was not at all interested.

Monday, August 7, 2017

China (Beijing, Xian, Shanghai)

For about two years, China had been on my list, just because I wanted to go see The Great Wall, the only wonder of the world left on my bucket list! But for some reason or the other, it didn't happen. So when it was time to plan for our next vacation, the decision was simple. We gotta go to China, and any other place would be a bonus. Here is our brief itinerary:
Day 0: Arrive in Beijing
Day 1: Tour of Great Wall of China -> half a day in Beijing
Day 2: Forbidden City -> Train to Xian
Day 3: Xian tour -> Terracotta warriors -> Fly to Shanghai
Day 4: Suzhou day tour
Day 5: Hangzhou day tour
Day 6: Shanghai day tour -> Fly out around midnight
This is a part of a much longer three week itinerary where we traveled to Indonesia, Cambodia and Singapore with a one day stop over at Kuala Lumpur

What to expect:

Let us get the expectations right. There are plenty of similarities between India and China, both being overpopulated, modern developing countries. I felt in many ways, China was more developed than India. But here are some observations and pointers to keep in mind:

Comfortable high speed trains
  • There is no concept of a queue. It is mostly a funnel. After a couple of days, I was in that mode as well, "hum jahan khare hote hain, line wahin se shuru hoti hai". And it took me a while to unwind from that mode after getting back. Glad I grew up in India and knew how to deal with it.
  • Hailing a cab is an art. But it isn't important that the person who hailed the cab, would be the one to get in. Person closest to where the cab stops, usually gets in. And the cabs can outrightly refuse to take you.
  • Traffic is crazy. But, no matter how crowded it is, honking was way less than what I hear in India, close to nil. I was super impressed.
  • Delayed flights are a norm. Be surprised if your flight is on time. And this is in general for east and south east Asia. No one will update the monitors or make announcements about the delay.
  • China is surprisingly clean, with no garbage on the roads.
  • People do not speak English. Use google translate even for address translations. And carry taxi cards for your cab drivers. they are life savers.
  • Always take cabs from taxi queues outside your train stations or airports. Some drivers might offer you out of line service and you may be enticed to skip the queue, but it is not legit and they will ask for twice or thrice the amount. And always go by meter.
  • People won't keep their phone on silent. There is no concept of personal space (remember we are in an overpopulated area), so in trains, buses, queues, no one leaves a gap. Just like home, India.
  • Carry cash. Credit cards are not widely accepted. People mostly use phones to pay using their Wechat app. And you cannot link your cards to this app, as you don't have Chinese bank accounts. So, this is really tedious for travelers. So always remember to carry cash.
  • I was able to use my cell phone through VPN and we had cell reception in most of the places.
  • China has their own version of an app for every app in the US. And mostly, its a better version. they have their own, Google (Baidu), Uber, Whatsapp, etc. 
  • Most resourceful website was: Travel China Guide

When to go:

Super crowded Forbidden City entrance
We travelled in the hot and humid month of August. It was pretty much like Indian summers when we were feeling super hot and sweating the entire day. Good thing was we knew what to expect and planned our visit in such a way that we would be go out after breakfast and get back around noon and then step out in the evening again. Or we would travel in the air conditioned vehicles/public transportation.
One thing to remember is that all touristy places are super crowded during summer break (June-July-August) and during Chinese New Year. August is comparatively less crowded for summer vacation travels, but I thought it was still quite crowded. 

Where to fly:

Depend on what route you are planning. We intended to travel further to south east Asia and hence decided to fly into Beijing first. Luckily, the flight options were also plenty from this airport and hence we picked Beijing. Also, if you intend to visit only the great wall, their is a 72-hour visa on arrival for many countries. You could easily see a few landmarks in that time around Beijing.

Transportation between cities:

China is very well connected with high speed trains and flights. Of course both the options are pretty convenient. Pick the one that's available and suits your time and budget goals.
  • Trains are on time, neat and clean. Getting to the station and designated waiting room is pretty straightforward and language isn't an issue. Only thing is that you have to book them in advance through a third party and they need to send you paper tickets. We booked all our tickets from the travel china website and we received them at our hotel. Simple and easy.
  • Air tickets can be bought online, but we booked ours through an agent. The main difficulty with the air travel is that all the announcements are in Chinese at the airport. None of the staff speaks English and they do not update the screens with flight changes or gate changes. We were lucky enough to find someone who told us about the gate change and we ran to the right gate. And all the flights are mostly always delayed by an hour or two. Its the widely accepted norm.

Our detailed itinerary

Day 0

We landed at the Beijing airport around 2:30 pm. After we got off the plane, we went straight to the immigration counter and got in the queue. Then, another plane landed and a whole bunch of passengers came in and formed another parallel queue out of nowhere. New passengers were casually coming in and joining the queue anywhere. Well, welcome to China. It took us good 2-3 hours to get done with immigration and then we picked our bags and headed straight to the hotel via cab.  We were so tired, we didn't consider the public transportation option. We had booked Hilton Beijing Wangfujing and it was an excellent choice. Perfect location and very helpful staff.
For dinner, we looked for an Indian restaurant and chose to go to Ganges for dinner. It was located in a very upscale mall "The Place". Good Indian food and very posh mall to spend the evening at. We picked up the cab cards from our hotel and had earlier printed the cab card for our restaurant to help the cab drivers and they were life-savers. We used cabs for all our transport needs in Beijing.

Day 1

We had booked a day tour to the Great Wall of China for the day through Catherine Lu Tours. Usually we prefer DIY tours, but we booked a private tour after reading and hearing about group bus tours and how they stop are unreliable and take longer than expected and stop at fraudy chinese shops. So, we had a private car and a guide to take us to the great wall. Now the great wall has various sections to visit. primary choice is Badaling, but it is so damn crowded by the locals, that it is tough to find space on the wall. Foreigners usually pick Mutiyanu section or Jinshaling section. We figured that Jinshaling had better views, but was under renovation and was a little further away, so we visited Mutianyu section. This link will help you pick the section!
Hiking the steep section of Great Wall
The whole set up is pretty well done. And our guide, Robert Ren was super helpful and on top of things. You take a bus to the base of the wall and then you can take the cable car up. But for coming down you have an option to take the cable car or the toboggan slide. We picked the cable car both ways and we figured toboggan won't be scenic and the wall was more scenic near the cable car stop.
Once up on the wall, we hiked till the next open tower. I don't exactly remember the tower numbers, but the wall was well maintained and had really steep sections towards the end. The guide requested to stay back and we both climbed the steep section. What views!! Plus all the stories from our guide were a lot of fun and added to the experience. Once we got down, we walked through the street shops selling souvenirs. And as our guide said, "Everything in China is negotiable, except the authority", so please haggle. And he was right, haggle, haggle, haggle! I picked a nice model of the great wall to complete my collection of the seven wonders. Yayy!
Live scorpions ready to fry
From here we headed to a Chinese restaurant close by for lunch. Here, we ordered veg fried rice. Good food. Then we headed back to the hotel. After resting for a few hours, we decided to go to Wangfujing street, which is a posh walk-only area lined up on either side by malls and big brand showrooms. We walked through the souvenir street, where we saw live scorpions perched on the skewers ready to be fried and served fresh to the customers. If you don't eat stuff like that, the smell can make you sick. Once out of here, we strolled on the Wangfujing street for a bit and then headed for dinner in the apm mall next to our hotel. We picked Lime Thai restaurant. The vegetarian rice also smelled of fish oil and I had to leave the food and walk out. Wish we had picked an Indian restaurant nearby. But we went back to the hotel and gorged on theplas we had packed for such situations.
And this is a video of what we saw earlier at the great wall. A cart ride with some background Indian score for entertainment. Enjoy!

Day 2

Thanks to jet lag, we were up early. We grabbed croissants from our hotel cafeteria and took a cab to the Forbidden City. Our guide from the previous day had told us all about the emperor and his stories, so we understood the historical and cultural significance of this place and we were looking forward to it. The guide dropped us pretty far off as the area is cordoned off to regular traffic. We walked across the Tiannmen Square to the entrance of the Forbidden City. 
Inside the Forbidden City
We had bought our tickets online as the number of tickets sold daily are limited. But we had to collect them here. It took us a lot of effort and sign language to figure out where to collect them from. No one was able to help or guide us. After being throw around from one window to other, we finally figure what one of the guard was trying to say. Once we got our tickets we were in. It is for sure very huge and magnanimous. But, I was tired of all the ticket hunting and heat and humidity and wanted to just reach the exit located at the other end. It is a long walk, as it truly is a huge city built inside the wall. Long corridors, beautiful rooms, small gardens. Very charming and very crowded.
Once we exited, we went to a garden located right across the city. Another tip from our guide, Robert from previous day. Its called Jingshan Park. Its a short walk to the top of the hill and it offers a good view of the entire Forbidden City. It is much less crowded, had shade and is worth the effort. I enjoyed this short hike and got a 360 degree view of the entire city. 
Then we got down and started looking for a cab back to our hotel. Most of the cabs refused to take us as it was a very short ride and not worth their time. So we walked back, all tired and sweaty to our hotel. We freshened up, packed our bags and headed straight for lunch, to the Ganges restaurant again. We didn't know when would we get to Indian food next, so it was time to gobble up. Hailing cabs isn't easy here in China. Because, even if you hail and stop it, someone else might get it and second, they may refuse to take you. Nevertheless, we reached our hotel and hurried up to load our bags into the cab for a ride to the Beijing West railway station. Btw, cabs weren't available, so our hotel staff called for their local replacement of Uber. 
At the station, we couldn't figure out which gate to enter from, it was all in Chinese. But after a couple of tries, we were let in through one of the gates. Once inside, it was easy. Everything was in English too. Platforms or Waiting Room numbers. We went to our designated waiting room and got a couple of seats. 20 minutes before the departure, the gates opened and we walked to our assigned seats. Simple and easy. We were off to Xian now.
But but but, an hour away from the destination, our train was halted.  We wondered why, and looked around to see if someone may know English and luckily found someone. He explained there was an earthquake in Chengdu and they are checking the lines. All announcements are only in Chinese, btw. And we had no cell reception. Hence our need for a translator. We were halted for 4 hours. And people here watched videos on cell phones on full volume, didn't have their ringers on silent and I had a running fever. And giving dirts to the people doesn't help, they will still have their constantly pinging phones on full volume. Well, we finally reached at 2 am instead of scheduled 10 pm. Took another hour in the long taxi queue to get a taxi and we reached our hotel at around 3:30 am. We were staying at Hilton Xian. Again, a great choice. Good rooms and very courteous staff. 

Day 3

Since we were super tired and I had fever, we had texted our guide that we would start our tour at noon instead of 8 am. So, we decided to skip the pagoda temple visit and cycling on top of the city wall. They are highly rated activities in Xian, but, oh well, next time!
Each warrior looks different from the other
I felt better after having caught up on sleep and feeding on theplas to my heart's content. At noon, we were all packed and ready as the plan was to go directly to the airport from our Terracotta visit. A cab and our guide was ready and waiting for us. Again, we booked through Catherine Lu tours and it was great experience overall. Our guide, Sally was great and told us stories about the Terracotta Warriors and the city on our drive to the museum. After an hour, we were here and decided to go get lunch first. She had picked a great restaurant for lunch. Had excellent lychee tea here, was so refreshing as I was feeling under the weather and vegetarian chow mien were just like Indian street noodles. Do not know the name of the restaurant as they were all noodle restaurants in that area.
From here we went to the museum. We went from pit 3 to pit 2 to pit 1. Hence, it kept getting better. Pit 1 will simply take your breath away. It feels overwhelming to see these artifacts and think that someone built an entire city for their after life. It was great for sure, but didn't live upto the hype I felt, or may be, may be it was my fever and the heat. 
Kneeling warrior
Having checked this off my bucket list, we bought a souvenir warrior from the shop owned by one of the farmers who discovered these wile digging in his farm. How nice to see him right there. Then, we headed back to the airport and our guide informed us that the flight was late. Not surprising at all. She helped us through all the checking and everything and we were on our own. Our priority pass got us free access to the vip lounge and we spent our time on a couch eating free snacks. Well, we headed to the gate for our flight, but figured the monitors are never accurate. Our flight was further delayed and this wasn't the gate. With no one speaking English, we tried looking for other foreigners around us to help us out. Luckily found a family who guided us to the right gate. We got here and waited to board. As per the monitors, our flight had left 3 hours ago. I wonder why are they even wasting electricity on these. No one updates them or even looks at them for reference. Our flights were with China
Eastern airlines. Like any other regular airlines, they were comfortable and we didn't face any issues.
Well, once in Shanghai, we took a cab to our hotel, Radisson Blu. Time to rest up and recover now.

Day 4

We had initially planned and booked tickets for Suzhou today. But, we decided the previous night that I needed another day to recover. So, we cancelled our trip. And I had to deal with this whole laptop issue. 
Talking about the laptop issue, while checking in for our flight to Shanghai at the Xian airport, I realised I didn't have my laptop and then it struck, after full 24 hours, that I had left my laptop on the hotel in Beijing. #facepalm. When I called Hilton Beijing, they confirmed that they had found my laptop and were more than happy to ship it to my hotel in Shanghai. But later they called that they can't send it by air due to shipping restrictions, hence the laptop wont reach in time. Then after a lot of back and forth, their concierge chief offered to come to Shanghai himself and give the laptop to me in person, procided I pay for his ticket. Well, I felt quite guilty and even if it was my work laptop, I decided to pay for his trip and get my laptop. But shout out to Hilton Beijing folks for being so helpful and prompt in their communication.
Juan temple
And also, we were planning to visit Suzhou, the Venice of the East. We thought of taking a train to the city, a quick 30 minute ride on the fast trains. Also, we were considering booking a day tour with a private tour company, but it never materialized given I got sick and we cancelled our plan. You could consider them if you'd like to go to Suzhou.
So, we had a day in Shanghai. Metropoliton city to the core. We had planned on sticking to the public transportation here and hence gotten our hotel right outside a famous metro stop - People's Square. We started our day around noon and headed straight to an Indian restaurant, Masala Art. Good food. And after refueling ourselves, we decided to do some touristy stuff. Again, hailing a cab is some talent here in China. So, we preferred sticking to metros as much as possible. At a metro station we were looking to buy day passes, but the customer service attendant mis-directed us as she didn't know English. Sometimes, even using the google translate app wasn't helpful. Then while we were struggling with a ticket machine, a young guy in early twenties, offered to help and helped us communicate with the same customer attendant who had initially turned us away. 
We first went to the Jade Buddha Temple which was a-okay and under renovation. Next stop was Juan temple. This was nice and right in the middle of the city. Has a huge coutyard and a flight of stairs leading to the main worship area. This was worth the visit. Next to this was a mall, and we just went in to get away from the heat and luckily the metro station was also located inside this mall.
Shanghai - Across the river from The Bund
We took a break at our hotel and then in the evening, headed out to Hongyi Plaza, a pedestrian mall, very lively and full of hig end shops. From here we walked down to the Bund. We could see the Shanghai pearl distrcit across the Huangpu river. Beautiful skyline views of Shanghai and super duper crowded. After we took a few pictures, we walked around the area and then decided to head out to Kebabs on the grille for dinner and call it a day. 

Day 5

West lake
We had planned to visit Hangzhou today and I was feeling well enough to take the trip. We used public transport to get to the Hongqiao railway station. It was easy to navigate and get to the waiting room looking at the monitors. It was quiet 90 minute journey on the fast train.
After reaching Hangzhou, we took a cab from the station and headed out to the Lingyin temple. There is a walking path here that takes you around the carved caves. Really well done carvings and makes for some good pictures. From here, we headed out to the famous West Lake. This place is huge and it is unlikely that you will be able to walk around the entire lake in a day. So pick the spots you want to visit. For us, we were headed for lunch first, at Omar, Indian Kitchen. The food was below average. but we somehow ate and headed out to the lake. We took a short stroll and then, I came across this costume shop. Sumit didn't believe that I did want to take a picture in the empress costume. But hell yeah, I did. While clicking pictures, a couple of locals were amused enough to take my pictures and I graciously obliged ;)
So we weren't interested in a boat ride, or going to the lily pond or the pagoda. We just wanted a quite stroll. After a while, we figured we had sometime before our train back to Shanghai, so we looked for a mall and headed to a mall for some air conditioned time. Literally. Btw, Hangzhou also has metro, which is super convenient but the metro network isn't as widespread. So, we had to mix and match cabs and metros. After whiling away our time in a cafeteria in a mall, we headed to the station for our return to Shanghai. And we chose Tandoor for dinner. Excellent Indian restaurant. Very upscale and the best Indian food in China so far. More expensive than the ones we had been to, but the food was all worth it. It is located in the premises of a very upscale hotel and in a very posh area. After we had dinner, we headed back to our hotel.
Now at hotel, when I switched on the TV, I couldn't hear anything and the maximum volume was not enough. So I called the room service and they came over to check and said, we fix the maximum value to 20, so that negibours dont get bothered. I was so amused and I told them, if I can't hear, how can the neighbor hear? At least raise the volume enough for me to hear? It was fun to watch Chinese soap operas though. I didn't understand the language but I think I could figure out what was going on. And then I fell asleep.
Lingyin Temple

Day 6

Last day in Shanghai before we fly out to Malaysia and to Indonesia. So, for brunch, we headed up to the 45th floor revolving restaurant of our hotel. Such beautiful 360 degree views and they had some Indian items in the menu too! We had to wait until around noon so that I could collect my laptop from Dennis, who was a staff member at the Hilton Beijing hotel. Once I received my laptop, we headed to the East Nanjing road, to walk around the busy posh streets. After sometime, we decided to have lunch at Din Tai Fung close by, They did have some vegetarian options btw and Sumit was having dumplings for the first time and I am glad he liked them.
Yuyuan Gardens
Then we headed straight to the Yuyan gardens. A maze of narrow streets outside the gardens, filled with souvenir shops. Was like walking around Chandni Chowk in Delhi, We bought some souvenirs and took some pictures in the garden and then headed to the Tanzifang area. This is an upscale neighborhood with some classy shops and restaurants. We got dinner here and then headed back to the hotel. We again went up to the 45th floor to get some night time views of the Beijing city before heading out.
We packed our bags and now were ready to head out. Best way to get to the airport, outside of metro hours would be a cab. And always always, go by the meter. So long China, until next time :)


Food was not an issue in China at all. There are plenty of restaurants of various cuisines. We were able to communicate regarding our vegetarian needs in non-Indian restaurants using google translate and it worked out just fine. We did have theplas for backup and they were helpful in case of delayed flights or trains or late night hunger pangs.


Visa instructions on the website of Chinese consulate, San Francisco were pretty straightforward. There is no appointment system. You just show up as early as possible on a given day and wait after taking a token number. Think of this as your "welcome to china" orientation. Its crowded, there are random queues. And there is this person checking documentation, who will ask you to retake a picture, or make a photocopy of your passport using their photocopy machines and photo booths. And you have to pay for it. You have to make another trip to collect your passport as well. But, overall it was pretty seamless process.

What more to see/do

  • Beijing: Temple of Heaven, Other sections of Great Wall
  • Xian: Bike on top of the city wall, pagoda temple, Muslim quarters. Going to Terracotta warriors by yourself is totally do-able by bus too, if you have time.
  • Shanghai: River cruise at night on the Hangpu river, French concession area and other day trips to canal cities. Zhujiajiao is pretty popular. Take the hop on hop off bus
  • Chengdu for Pandas
  • Guilian for countryside
  • Other national parks