Saturday, December 1, 2012

MY LOVE WITH TUK TUK'S - BANGKOK THAILAND

How lucky we were on our first trip to Bangkok. We had just visited the Royal Palace and were on the way to Wat Po, the awesome temple with the giant sleeping Buddha. We had our guide book and map ready and left the grounds of the Royal Palace when a friendly tuk tuk driver made fun of my short hair. He said I looked like a monk, which was funny, and we got into talking, still being happy that we even found such a helpful English-speaking guy. 

The conversation went something like this:

Tuk Tuk driver: where are you from?
Me: Germany
Tuk Tuk driver: from Munich?
Me: wow...how did you know?
Tuk Tuk driver: my wife lives in Munich
Me: oh really? what a coincidence ...where does she live?
Tuk Tuk driver: I don't know the part of the city, but she works in that ...big street...in the center...
Me: Leopold Street?
Tuk Tuk driver: YES YES...that is where she works as a hair dresser....I hope to visit her next year, but we are still saving money. 

Still amazed that we found a nice guy like him, we asked where Wat Po was...

Tuk Tuk driver: it is right over there...but...it is closed today.
Me: Really? Why?
Tuk Tuk driver: it is a Buddhist holiday, so it is only open for prayers...
Me: Oh man!!! bummer!!! can we look from outside?
Tuk Tuk driver: No, the street is closed...you know...police...
Me: hmmm...too bad, we really wanted to see it...
Tuk Tuk driver: I can show you a different temple, which is open today and it has a big Buddha too. 
Me: Oh really?.....hmmmm....how much does it cost?
Tuk Tuk driver: only 40 Baht, for you...because you are from the city where my wife lives. Maybe we can be friends and you can show me Munich when I visit...
Me: s...s....sure....yes...40 Baht? hmmm...ok but not more, right?
Tuk Tuk driver: No No...because today is a big promotion day from the government. If I drive you, I get free gasoline. You only have to stop quickly to say that you are a tourist. 40 Baht for you!!
Me: OK!

Off we went....into side streets and various directions with several U-turns. It seemed far, but we were not really that far from our initial place. However, it was too confusing to walk back He did show us a big temple, with a big standing Buddha. All happy, we took photos and were ready to go back. 

But we still had to stop at "the place" ...for the tourists...and he was going to show us another temple. Where his son is ordained as a monk. And we would be lucky because usually tourists would not see such detail....so, off we went. 

The temple where the son was supposed to be, was deserted. No monks and the driver was gone too. We looked around, rather lost and waited for him to come back. 

So the free gasoline promotion!!! Yes, we will do it...but quickly!!! Because we still had a long list of things to visit today. 

The quick stop turned out to be several shops...jewelry first...in and out in no time...we did not look like we were going to buy anything anyway. Next was an Indian tailor!!! Looky looky only...not buy...just look!! Sit down please. We made it pretty clear that we were not going to buy anything, so the owners got into an argument with the tuk tuk driver, who....looked more and more un-happy!

Finally we boarded the tuk tuk again and just said "Wat Po!!! NOW!!! and without another word, he drove us there. We got out and paid ...40 Baht...for .... 2 or 3 hours of wasted time and a bunch of experiences richer!

That was the last time I ever took a Tuk Tuk. Never trusted them again in Bangkok. Now, to put things into the right perspective: I love my tuk tuk drivers in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I took them in Phnom Penh and took them in Chiang Mai and other cities in Thailand. But Bangkok's tuk tuk drivers are all but a horrible experience in my memory. 

Oh...and Wat Po? Was open!!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

MY SMALLEST ROOM EVER - SINGAPORE

Booking the Santa Grand Chinatown Hotel in Singapore was a last minute option and I had initially imagined it to be in a totally different street. The location turned out to be even better, though the taxi driver did not know the name of the street, which is listed as Trengganu Street. It is actually Temple Street where the hotel and the entrance of it is located. 

Check-in was swift and no thrills. All the rooms are on the third floor which looks a bit unusual to the "western" eye - it is all decorated and furnished in a wine red satin design. Very unusual indeed and it gives us western customers an immediate strange feeling in the back of our heads! 

The room itself was the smallest room I have had in all my years of traveling around the world. Even smaller than rooms I have had in London and Madrid. My suite case only fit in if I moved around it and I struggled to close the door since the space between the bed and the door was the only option to store it. Mind you, that was the same space I needed to enter the bathroom and to get in and out of the room. It was not possible for me to open it on the floor though. 

The bed is filling the entire room. No chairs, no desk, no couch. Very practical because you can reach everything from the bed and you won't even bother to unpack. You basically live out of the suite case. 

I booked a room with a window which was kind of useless since all other rooms would have looked right into my bed if the curtains were opened. 

The bathroom was not really a room but a shower with a toilet and a sink. It was so tiny that you could not sit straight on the toilet without hitting the sink. 

The carpet of the room was not very clean. No wonder since the cleaning lady can't really get into the room with a vacuum cleaner unless she would move my luggage outside. The wall to the bathroom had mold and all kinds of stains on it. I stayed away from it! There is a small TV with a good selection of English channels on the wall and WiFi is free, though not a very good reception in my room. There are also a couple of monitors with free Internet access located at the public seating area, but you have to stand at the wall in order to use them. 

The already mentioned public area in red satin design had a bunch of couches available to use, but most of the time it was used by other guests who obviously also had no space in their rooms as they sat there for hours.  I was even offered a massage by two ladies including their room number while walking back to my room :-)

The hotel offers breakfast at another Santa Grand Hotel down the street. Just a few minutes away and located in their Hotel Bar/Cafe. The breakfast was included in the room price and was basic but good. Again, very crowded here too. By the time I came back with my toast, the friendly staff had already cleared my unused plates, silverware and full coffee cup and assigned the table to another guest .....:-)

I am looking for positives here...so give me a minute! 

Yes! The price is good for Singapore. Compared to Bangkok or K.L. it is outrageous though. It buys you two or three nights in those locations in a room 4 times the size! 

And location! That is actually really good. In the heart of Singapore's Chinatown. Minutes away from the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and the Chinatown Subway station. 

The Santa Grand Chinatown is frequently confused with the Santa Grand Hotel Lai Chun Yuen, where the breakfast is served. I was told that the rooms at the Lai Chun Yuen Hotel are even smaller and I will test it in a few weeks!!

So, location rocks. Price is acceptable. The room is not really my thing!













Thursday, November 8, 2012

MY SUPERTREES - SINGAPORE

After visiting the wonderful world of flowers and plants inside the domes of the Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, we went out to check out the Supertree Grove. While we had our S$ 28 ticket, the Supertree Grove can be visited for free. 

As I mentioned before, we missed the best light for a sunset and thus waited until it was completely dark. What we also missed because we had not properly planned our visit, was the OCBC Skywalk, which lets you walk 128 meters between two of the trees. We tried to get in, but ticket sales stops 30 minutes before they actually close for the day. So, another good reason to come back here. The only thing I missed was my professional DSLR camera, so I had to live with the somewhat mediocre quality of my compact camera.

It is still a great place to enjoy an evening out. The views are just awesome from every angle and with the backdrop of the city, the Marina Bay Sands Hotel and all the other highrises of Singapore it provides a great photographic project. The OCBC Garden Rhapsody show was nice, but I think I expected too much, after having been awed all afternoon and evening by the Gardens. But it gave a nice and relaxing touch to an already great visit.

The walk back to the MRT station was longer than anticipated, but offered more great views of the Gardens and the city. Getting a taxi back to the city was an impossible task, so we decided to go for the walk & MRT option.











Friday, November 2, 2012

MY GARDEN BY THE BAY - SINGAPORE

View from MBS
Every time I come back to Singapore, there is something new...a new building, a new mall, a new...something! And it is always exciting and awesome! 

For the Gardens by the Bay, I had to wait for a while...my friend there told me it would open soon, but I had to come back 3 times before it was actually open. I am not saying "finished" here, but "open" because it was still not totally finished and I am not even sure if it will ever be finished. It seems that it will be a constantly changing world in there. 
Flower Dome

I will for sure be back here many times because of it's changing exhibitions and because I am far from having seen everything on my first visit. We stayed for 5 hours during our first visit and in the end we hurried through it  because we were several people who all wanted to go their own ways.

The S$ 28 ticket was well invested and in order to avoid the long lines we had heard about, we reserved the tickets online. In the end, there was no line at all. Probably totally depends on the day and season. 
Flower Dome

The "Flower Dome" was the first place we visited inside the huge Gardens and I was a bit overwhelmed. I had not expected it to be so big and so spectacular. For photographers this means "bring lots of battery power with you"! 

The design, layout, and the plants/flowers of this cool-dry conservatory justifies even a visit by it's own. But nevertheless did we move on to the "Cloud Forest" when my first battery was already indicating that it was just about to die. 

Flower Dome
From outside the Cloud Forest, I imagined it to be hot and steamy for some reason. But since this is the cool-moist conservatory, it was actually much colder inside. By the end of our tour, I was freezing. So, it is a good idea to bring long pants and a sweater next time. Going all the way "up" inside the Could Forest was completely different from "coming down". Not only because there are different plants to see, but because the sun started to set and the lights went on inside the Cloud Forest Dome, which gave it a totally different atmosphere.

Cloud Forest
We visited the gardens at around 4pm and like they say on their web site, it is a good idea to plan your visit. We did miss the best light for the "Supertree Grove" outside because we were all cold and wanted dinner. By the time that was finished all the good photo opportunities for the setting sunlight were gone. Next time!! :-)

But we did stick around until it was completely dark and enjoyed the Supertree Grove nevertheless, which will be covered in a separate post. 

Cloud Forest
All in all, it is an awesome experience to visit the Gardens by the Bay and I am counting the weeks to my next opportunity to go back there.  Not only is it a beautiful place to visit, but it is also educational and shows you the impact the climate change will have to our planet. Mind you, most visitors I saw did just pass through that theater at the end of the visit, but it is worth to stay and watch. I also particularly liked all the information on the sustainability efforts of the Gardens and the energetics of the conservatories.




Flower Dome overview



+ 5 degree theater

Sustainability and Energetics




Tuesday, October 30, 2012

MY HEAVENLY SLEEPS - LE HOTEL SINGAPORE

Double room
Formula 1 times are crazy in Singapore. Hotel prices go through the roof. Unfortunately my wallet does not follow this upward movement, so I searched for an acceptable hotel during the Singapore GP. Price was one criteria. Free WiFi was the second criteria (as always!) and close proximity to the race circuit was the third criteria. 


A/C blows right into your bed
I found Le Hotel in Carpenter Street on the river front. Easy to walk to the river, to the F1 circuit, to Chinatown, to the MRT....just a really cool location. I did check out the hotel and it's rooms before I confirmed it on a previous trip, so there were no surprises when I checked in. 

The Superior Room was as expected. Unfortunately I was right next to the lift but the hotel was booked out, so I had no choice. Luckily there was almost no noise from the lift though. 

I had a double booked (which is another story for another blog) but the beds were really right next to each other. I tried to move them apart and there was a 10 cm gap between the beds. The guy who cleaned the rooms did not get it and kept moving the beds every day ...right back together ;P


Some space for storage
The room had an okay WiFi connection...at times it worked and at other times I had to connect to the level 3 or 4 or go to the lobby. The room service happened at times which i could not fully understand even though I stayed for 10 days. When I left the room in the morning with the cleaning staff right in front of my room, they did see me, but they did not clean the room for hours. When I got back in the late afternoon it was sometimes still not cleaned. That is something I totally dislike! That is no service in my mind!


Shower/toilet
The size of the room was fine for the price I paid. I could bring my "large" luggage inside and could open the suitcase. For two people with luggage it was tight though. I purposely booked a room with a window which was far more expensive than a room without a window. However the window was not offering a view, but rather faced the other sides of the hotel walls...and it faced the A/C units of the other rooms. So it was rather noisy and useless, because I had to keep the curtains closed all the times to avoid neighboring rooms to look right into my bed ;P
The Hotel did not offer ANY safety boxes or safes....that is a big disadvantage in my mind. 


Room with NO view
The bathroom was a large shower with a toilet. Everything got wet when I showered. There was no real space to store my belongings. I had to keep everything in a bag and keep it in the room. But again, this is something I would not expect for the price I paid. Amenities were merely a suspender attached to the wall. The towels were really thin and had holes in them.

The TV was attached to the wall and had ONE program in English which worked. Not much entertainment!

The hotel did not offer any breakfast options, though the offered a laundry service for 10S$ per load. That was great. However the laundry comes back in a big bundle, all wrinkled up, because they will not iron it. 


small and limited TV options
The staff of the hotel is again okay for the price I paid. The ladies were all friendly, and willing to have a chat. Some spoke even German!!! :-) while the men never even looked up when I walked into the lobby and while I waited for the elevator. Even when I initiated the "good evening" I barely got any answer. 

All in all it was an okay stay for a F1 race. The location totally rocks!! If the price is right, I will probably go back there again.

 





Sunday, October 21, 2012

MY SINGAPORE GP - SINGAPORE

Bright Singapura
OK - I admit it - I am a F1 fan! But even more than that, I am a total Singapore Fan too. So, F1 & Singapura is just the best combination there is!

This post is not going to be about the F1 race, it's drivers or even the results. There is plenty to read about that and it is more professional than I could ever write it. This post is about the awesome experience we had during the F1 activities in Singapore. 

On the race track
We are frequent travellers to Singapore, so we know the city pretty well. Singapore would not just host a F1 race but turn it into the biggest entertainment and party zone ever! I had been to other races in other countries and there is typically "the race" and that is it! Nothing much around it ...nothing before and nothing after! 

Birds eye view
Singapore's Marina Bay Street Circuit is already amazing and seeing the whole city turn normal streets into a race circuit was brilliant. Even two days before the start of the race we walked almost the entire race circuit to get familiar with all the turns. A lot of Singaporeans used the closed off streets as a jogging circuit.

The coolest thing is that you can walk from your hotel to the race. There is no delays and no expensive transportation. Well OK....Hotel prices in Singapore during the race compensate for that!  

Jay Chou
The Entertainment Programm is so intense that I had trouble deciding which venue and which event I can visit besides seeing the three days of F1 practise, qualifying and the actual race. I also got lucky because I was able to visit all three major concerts. Jay Chou, Asia's reigning R/B king was on my agenda on Friday besides visiting other entertainers in the area. 

Maroon 5
Standing in front of the stage for the Maroon 5 concert on Saturday required me to stand in line in the heat of the day, but it paid off with a free wrist band in prime location during the concert. 

The stage for the concerts and shows was the biggest one ever built in Singapore and a lucky draw ticket I had for Katy Perry on the last night proved that even the biggest stage is not enough to host all the thousands of people who want to come to the concert. Getting out of the park at the end of each concert was another matter though. 

Award ceremony
I also loved the wide variety of food and drink options during the activities and the smaller but still very interesting concerts, shows and performances were something I would not want to miss. 

So, take a guess where I will be next year! 




get close!
get educated!
get interested!
get wet!

 

      

Thursday, September 6, 2012

MY AYUTTHAYA - THAILAND


  

Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon
Ayutthaya is to Bangkok what the Grand Canyon is to Arizona...well, not quite. But when I lived in Arizona every visitor wanted me to show him the Grand Canyon. When in Bangkok, Ayutthaya seems to be the chosen location for all culturally interested tourists to visit. 

Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon
Ayutthaya was the capital of Thailand from 1350 to 1767, when it was virtually destroyed by Burmese invaders. In the mid 1600s is was a major power in Southeast Asia and an impressive site. It had 375 Temples and was larger than Paris or London.

I love visiting Ayutthaya and have been there countless times. It is all about temples. Ruined temples and monasteries and temples which are still functional and used by worshippers. I have spent single days here but also weeks at a piece with an opportunity to explore the old city on foot. This way I have literally been to every temple in the old district, which is a World Heritage Site. 

Wat Phananchoen
Most organized tours drag their visitors to Ayutthaya and most taxi drivers will offer it (though at total rip-off prices). I always had my own transportation and was more independent but for those who love to explore Thai history it is best to rent a car with a driver and spend a day there. The drivers usually know where to go and will all follow the same route, so you will be in the company of a lot of other tourists but there are places which are less known. Unfortunately the drivers will also not know how to go there. 

Wat Phananchoen
When I visit Ayutthaya with my guests, I usually try to give them a brief overview of the history, the different temples and the layout of the ancient city. I include some of the major historic sites as well as some temples which are still beautiful examples of Ayutthaya architectural style. I also include a lot of time to just wonder through the temples and ruins, so my guests will not just follow an umbrella and are being herded through the site like cattle. 

Wat Mahathat
A typical list of my temples and sites I like to visit when in Ayutthaya include the following:
Wat Ratchaburana
Wat Phra Mongkhon Bopit
  • Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon - still a monastery and was one of the oldest and most important temples of ancient Siam. 
Wat Phra Sri Sanphet
  • Wat Phananchoeng Worawihan - This temple along the Pasak river was built in 1324 A.D. and thus 26 years before the founding of Ayutthaya by King Ramathibodi.  It contains a palladium Buddha image of Ayutthaya, Luang Phor To, a huge U-thong-style statue.
  • Wat Mahathat - The most sacred part of the old capital. Buddha relics were enshrined in the Mahathat Chedi.
  • Wat Ratchaburana - A huge but ruined temple with a large Prang in the middle.
  • Wat Phra Mongkhon Bophit -  A huge building with a palladium Buddha image of Ayutthaya, Luang Phor Mongkhonbobhit, an U-thong and Sukhothai-style image which is entirely covered with gold leaf.
  • Wat Phra Sri Sanphet - The temple was the residence of the Ayutthaya monarchs. Wat Phra Sri Sanphet was the temple in the Grand Palace.
  • Wat Na Phra Meru - A temple, which is still in use today and the only one, which was not destroyed during the Burmese invasion.
  • Wat Na Phra Meru
  • Wat Suwandararam - Besides the beautiful temple buildings in late Ayutthaya-style, it is famous for it's murals which cover significant historical events. 

"Wat " being the Thai word for temple, it becomes clear that this visit here is really about temples, culture, Buddha images and Thai architecture. It is important to notice that proper dressing is important here. After all it is similar to visiting a Cathedral or a Mosque, though I have the impression sometimes that those historic Buddhist sites are visited as if it was a Disney Park. 

Tourist pay 5x what the locals pay
  
Proper behaviour please
Fun ride for tourists
Mural paintings of Wat Suwandararam