A Travellerspoint blog

Chiang Mai

semi-overcast 30 °C

That infamous phrase... 'I need a holiday after the holiday'... that’s how we were feeling by the end of Hong Kong. China couldn’t have been better but with so much to see there hasn't been a lot of time for relaxation. Cue: world's smallest violin. We haven’t exactly been lazing by the pool every day but we’ve taken it down a gear since we arrived in Thailand. Alberto is a Thai virgin but this is my third visit, and second in Chiang Mai. There are so many reasons to visit this country. Great weather, food, people, culture, activities etc. the list goes on. And you can barely spend your money it’s so cheap. A one hour full body massage for five Euro? Oh my Buddha! Here's what we've been up to...

A night Safari… get up close and personal with giraffes, tigers, hippos, rhinos and so on as well as some unusual animals we haven’t seen before. It was difficult to get good photos as no flash is allowed, and rightly so. However, the night time setting makes it more fun, and the animal enclosures are much larger than any zoo.

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There's also a light and water show while you're there and randomly, two camp cabaret acts. It's not officially advertised as drag but the girls were only short of having a wind machine on stage. Answers on a postcard.

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Thai cooking class... we prepared four dishes each. Asian Jamie Oliver eat your heart out.

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Ziplining… we got the chance to be monkeys for an afternoon. Great views up here too.

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An obligatory temple. Rude not to.

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Aside from the above, we’ve been sleeping in, watching movies, indulging in cheap massages, visiting the night markets, playing cards and having a few drinkies. Stick Chiang Mai on your hit list the next time you're in Thailand. Today we take a bus three hours north to the neighbouring town of Chiang Rai.

Posted by mattld 09:16 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Hong Kong & Macau

sunny 31 °C

We were really tired from the fourteen hour trip from Guilin so we took our first day in Hong Kong handy. A quick wander around the town to orientate ourselves and a bite to eat was all we could manage. Impressions… if Shanghai is a mix between Vancouver and Tokyo, I would describe HK as the Asian version of New York. The city is filled with skyscrapers and narrow streets. And plenty of hills for good measure. HK itself is quite small so the only way to expand is to build up. There are bars, restaurants and shops everywhere. The locals are spoilt for choice. The quality of the food is top notch and as we anticipated you'll pay handsomely for it. There are more Western ex-pats floating around than anywhere else we’ve visited but unfortunately the two communities appear to be quite segregated. The humidity in September is something else. We were sweating within minutes of leaving John’s apartment every day. Air con is a must.

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We were very fortunate to be invited by John and a friend of his to a boat trip circling HK Island on Friday evening. There were more than twenty of us. We all brought our own drink and picked up pizza on the way. Unashamedly, the drinks came from Marks and Spencers and the pizza from Pizza Express! Britain’s colonial influence, you have to love it. Afterwards we took a taxi to Lan Kwai Fong (LKF), otherwise known as HK’s answer to Temple Bar. It’s mental and a must visit. It took Alberto two days to recover from his hangover.

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With John as our own personal tour guide we were able to pack in the sightseeing on Saturday. We visited a few public parks, a Buddhist nunnery in Diamond Hill and the bird, fish and flower markets in Mongkok. That evening we watched the Symphony of Lights show down near the harbour. It’s free of charge and on daily. We had dinner up near the peak and were brought off the beaten track to some of the best views of HK.

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The following day we took part in a small hike with John and his friends from Dragon’s Back to Deep Water Bay, followed by a trip to the beach and a night in town for a few drinks.

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On Monday John was back in work again so Alberto and I took a boat to neighbouring Macau for the day. It’s only a one hour boat ride away over the Pearl River Delta. Once a famous Portuguese shipping port it’s now best known as a gambling haven. We spent the early part of the day roaming through some of the old ruins (a temple, church, cemetery, fortress etc.). The most famous ruin is St. Paul’s Cathedral which was built in 1602 but mostly destroyed in a fire, save for the very front part of the church. We’ve never seen so many people taking trout lip selfies in front of a religious attraction before.

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[We take all our sightseeing very seriously]

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[Dried meat, a very popular snack in Macau. We tried some. I think we'll pass next time]

That evening we headed over to some of the hotels. There is certainly a feel of Las Vegas about it, but it lacks the fun factor. There’s no free alcohol when you gamble. Sorry I didn’t understand? And the Chinese take it all very seriously. Still, it would be rude not to play a couple of games. I won just over one hundred and fifty Euro in Black Jack and actually managed to walk away. I spent half the money on a posh seafood buffet. We could barely walk afterwards. A lot of people spend a few nights here. I think a day trip is spot on. You can book a late boat and always come back early by going on standby if you want.

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[The level of decadence is unreal. The above is taken from the MGM]

We weren't overly impressed with Macau. Much of the island is extremely run down while the ‘other side’, the lush hotels/casinos/jewellery stores etc. are as luxurious and pretentious as they come. The money generated by the gambling industry is not being invested back into the local community which is a real shame. The Portuguese influence is impossible to ignore, most of the signs are written in the language as well as Chinese. And you’ll see plenty of old colonial architecture. Alberto had a go at asking a few locals for directions in Portuguese but they looked at him as if he had ten heads. It’s meant to be their 2nd language. We spent a lot of time trying to find a Portuguese restaurant but to not avail. It’s disappointing they haven’t embraced this more as the cultural fusion is really interesting.

Our final day in HK was spent at Ocean Park, China’s answer to Sea World. Don’t judge, it can’t all be historical attractions and temples you know. It offered a nice change in scenery but it was no Alton Towers or Universal Studios.

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We’ve spent three weeks in China and it’s been awesome. The cultural challenges are there (mainly Beijing from our experience) but everywhere we visited had something special to offer. China is such a huge country you can’t see everything in one go, so it’s time for us to move on as we fly west to Thailand. We’re getting away from city life for a while as our next stop takes us to the mountainous region of Chiang Mai.

'To the Chinese, a great bunch of lads!'

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John - if you’re reading thank you for your hospitality over the past week. We owe you one.

Posted by mattld 01:32 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (0)

Guilin

28 °C

We originally intended to take the train from Shanghai to Guilin, but we soon found out that it would take twenty seven hours and the price was almost the same as a flight. Naturally we opted to fly. I’ll come back later on how easy (correction: not easy) it is to take the train. Our flight into Guilin on Monday was delayed by three hours. As a result we didn’t get to our hostel until after ten that night. There’s not a lot to do here, but it lies on the west bank of the Li river, which is billed as one of the best nature attractions in China. We booked ourselves on two tours. We spent Tuesday travelling to Yangshuo, initially by bus and then on a ninety minute bamboo raft which include some stunning scenery. It’s very similar to Halong Bay in Vietnam. The pictures below will give you an idea.

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Yangshuo is surrounded by some beautiful countryside, making it an attractive place for tourists to visit. Unfortunately it’s become a victim of its own success. The area is surrounded by western tourists and every Chinese person in the area is out to sell to you. One old lady caught me queuing for the toilet so I had to suffer ten minutes of saying 'no' to the two wooden ducks she wanted me to buy. We had a wander around the shops, ate a nice lunch, took a bike ride and indulged in a fish spa. Alberto found it a little bit tickly.

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On Wednesday we took a trip to the Longji rice fields. It’s a long day. We took one bus to a central station, changed for a second, got off shortly after and walked for thirty minutes and then took a third bus up to the fields. We were also the only western passengers which didn’t make the transfers easier but some of the Chinese tourists spoke English and were really kind to us, helping us order food, find our way etc. You take a gondola up to a look out point. The view is awesome. This tour felt a lot more authentic than the Li River and is one of the highlights of our trip so far.

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Yeah soz about that pic...

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The paps won't leave me alone over here. We also made a new friend.

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Three nights in Guilin was perfect. We stayed in the Ming Palace Hostel. You'd find more craic in a graveyard but it's still a good place to stay and relax after the long tours. I mentioned earlier about booking trains. To cut a long story short, you need to book everything as far in advance as you can. Every train journey seems to sell out fast. As we couldn’t take a train directly to HK we had to book a second that would take us close to the border. This second train was oversold and unfortunately we had to wait four hours for a later one. I was told many times about how you’d have to get to the train station a few hours in advance to pick up tickets etc. due to huge queues. I had heard it so many times I was starting to wonder if getting off the Titanic would be easier.

Well, there were long queues, it felt like fifty degree heat (no air con inside), nobody had a word of English and there was even a dramatic fight going on in the middle of the room. We could only find one Western man and he didn’t know where to go either, despite having what seemed like a Chinese aide to help him. After lots of hand gestures, question mark signals and pointing at our pieces of paper we managed to find our way. Two train rides later we crossed the border in Hong Kong, took two metro rides into HK Central and from there a taxi to my friend John's apartment (living here over a year now). Given how bad I am at following directions I'm actually quite proud of doing all of that! The whole journey took fourteen hours. John has very kindly put us up for the next six nights so we can't wait to explore HK with him.

Lost in Translation:

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Posted by mattld 00:57 Archived in China Comments (2)

Food Glorious Food

We're two weeks into trip at this point and we've had a few friends ask us about the food in China since we arrived. ‘Lost in translation’ aside I haven't referenced it much. Where to start... I would love to tell you it's the best thing since sliced bread, but I would be lying. A very large percentage of the options available to you are deep fried, with some veg thrown in for good measure. The Chinese love their oil. You can get good soup dishes with noodles and a meat of your choice, and thankfully it's cheap, healthy and filling. Unfortunately there isn't a huge amount of variety, unless you look at the western options which are generally average and expensive. We haven't spotted an Italian, Mexican, Japanese or a Thai restaurant. Don't get me wrong, we're up for trying the local cuisine but there are only so many of these dishes you can eat on a daily basis. That doesn't mean it's all been bad.

Cantonese style beef with peppers, onion and garlic. You can easily get this one at home but it somehow tastes better here.

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Dumplings are one of the most popular dishes in China. I'm not a huge fan but they're growing on me. Alberto loves them.

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We tried this one earlier today, sticky rice with bacon/mango and chicken cooked over a fire in bamboo. Best meal so far!

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We knew curry would be hard to find so we thought all our Christmases had come at once when we found a specialist curry house in Shanghai. You couldn't make a dent in the pool of curry that was served up. I won't comment on the 'chicken'. We wouldn't recommend it...

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Posted by mattld 07:56 Archived in China Comments (0)

Shanghai

overcast 24 °C

We arrived into Shanghai late afternoon on Thursday 11th and checked into a really nice hostel called The Phoenix. The city is undergoing one of the fastest economic expansions in the world right now and it’s obvious as soon as you arrive. A lavish airport greeted us, followed by a high speed bullet train that brought us into the city centre. The underground metro is even better than Beijing and we’ve been using it non-stop over the past few days. We bought a 3 day card for roughly €5 each which offers unlimited journeys throughout Shanghai’s extensive rail network.

Just a quick side note, be careful of scams if you’re visiting China. We’ve had a few different groups of girls approach us (in Beijing and Shanghai) asking to have their picture taken. They have then tried to engage in conversation before suggesting a drink somewhere close by. Two other girls told us they were university students and asked us to spend an hour with them over a drink so they could practice their English. We politely declined. Our guide book advised that they’ll soon disappear off and you’ll be left with a couple of heavies and an expensive bill you’ll have to foot. Like any other city, be cautious and sensible.

Culturally the city offers a stark contrast to Beijing. There are people still randomly asleep in public places and a little bit of spitting going on but other than that you may as well be in any other major western city. Tall skyscrapers, neon lights, endless brand promotion etc. are everywhere. Disappointingly, it’s difficult not to spot a KFC, Starbucks, McDonalds or Pizza Hut on most high streets. The Shanghainese almost appear Western (their clothing, behaviour, phone obsession etc.). The city is a little bit of a cross between Tokyo and Vancouver, and a really good example of East meets West. There’s not a single stand out attraction, it’s more a case of the city itself which is the attraction. Everything is a little bit more expensive but not as much as you might think. You can still find a good meal for two for €10.

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Shanghai is without a doubt an advanced and futuristic city. Even the telephone booths have wifi. However Alberto wasn’t able to get it working. Silly foreigner.

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After Xi’an we decided to take a break from the organised tours. Shanghai is relatively compact so it was easy to visit all the main attractions by metro. On Friday we took a trip to the Temple of Jade. It’s a small but beautiful temple boasting a number of ancient statues. We took part in a small ritual ceremony where you light a number of incense sticks, say a prayer or make a wish and then discard them into a burning pit.

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We then headed out to the World Financial Centre which has over 100 floors and an observatory deck at the top. The most famous building in Shanghai, known as the Oriental Pearl Radio and TV Tower is relatively close by but it’s not as tall. However it’s hard not to be impressed by a building that looks like a spaceship. We went to the top of the financial centre but unfortunately due to rain and cloud the view was really poor. It’s not a cheap attraction so a quick word with the manager resulted in free tickets to return the next day. Don’t ask don’t get!

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On Saturday we visited the general museum which was disappointing. There was a really interesting section on ancient Chinese currency and another on masks but aside from that it was mostly just pottery, furniture and clothing. However it was free of charge, so I shouldn’t complain too much. Afterwards we headed to the science and technology museum. It was a lot better, if a little dated. Later we returned to the financial centre, this time during daylight and with much better views on offer. Finally we took the metro across/underneath the Huangpu river to the Bund, an area where you can view the old colonial architecture. It also boasts the best ground view of Shanghai. It’s worth visiting just before dusk. Stay around for the lights to come on as it’s a really nice contrast.

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[Say cheese...]

We spent our last full day with a trip to Yu Yuan, a charming 16th century Chinese garden featuring pools, walkways, bridges and rockeries. It’s just a pity it’s so crowded.

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Our final attraction was the ancient town of Qiboa. The town is over one thousand years old and you can enjoy some shopping, food or a very cheap boat ride.

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That evening we met up with Jeanette and Raquel, two of the girls we met in Xi’an. They took us to K-TV, a karaoke experience I would highly recommend (of course).

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Shanghai has been great, the city has a lot to offer and we will definitely return. Today we continue south to Guilin, and we’re looking forward to visiting a smaller town in the hope of experiencing more of the traditional China.

Lost in Translation:

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Posted by mattld 08:33 Archived in China Comments (2)

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