Barefoot Escalators

Sadly, our time in Bangkok had to end. I got up early, packed, obtained coffee (and a waffle) at Holly’s, and rejoined the others to take a cab to the airport. We were all booked for Royal Silk (Business) Class and therefore invited to visit Thai Airways International’s Royal Silk Lounge, where we enjoyed pork and chicken buns prior to boarding.

On the A320, Royal Silk Class has four rows in a 3×3 configuration, with extended leg and shoulder room. The travel agency sat us all at window seats and thankfully nobody sat next to any of us, so we had plenty of space to sprawl out for the 1:20 flight to Mandalay, Myanmar. Surprisingly, most of the people on the flight appeared to be Caucasian tourists. Even more surprising was the chicken and noodles meal we were fed on such a short flight.

The landing was smooth, though the runway was not. We were unloaded on the Tarmac and bussed to the terminal. Not knowing what to expect, we were greeted with a fairly clean, relatively modern (built in 2000) terminal, where we made our way through customs and retrieved our bags from the baggage claim. Our guide, Mr. Win, a native of Mandalay, showed us to the large van and went over the itinerary and basic Myanmar facts as the driver took us into town.

Looking out the window on our ride to the restaurant, I noticed what seemed to be a fairly dry, but green, climate, numerous mopeds, small shacks along the rivers and streams, and a fair amount of garbage in the streets. It was obvious that we were in a developing country and it reminded me of the Dominican Republic, but with wider streets. It turns out that, since the Myanmar military released control to the civil government in 2010, the country has experienced rapid economic growth. The country is fairly financially stable for the first time in decades.

Our guide ordered us some outstanding dishes at Renaissance Cafe and Restaurant, an outdoor roadside establishmen that seemed to be very popular with bus-loads of other tourists leaving the airport. We enjoyed roasted pork in a black bean sauce, yellow curry chicken with potatoes and onions, vegetables, rice, lentil soup, fruit, and Mandalay beer. Very delicious.

Afterwards, we stopped at U Bein bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world and over 100 years old. Though humid, it was a nice day to enjoy the lake, take pictures, and conquer fears of falling through tall, railing-less, rickety bridges. Before getting back in the van to continue our way to the hotel, Mr. Win walked us through a local monastery, explaining the ways of the monks.

Eventually the streets became wider and busier as we made our way into Mandalay proper. Adam and I checked into our room at the Mandalay Hill Resort and Hotel and enjoyed some WiFi before we met back up with the group in the lobby. Mr. Win brought us to the Shwe Nandaw Kyaung temple of the Golden Palace Monastery, which required shoe removal to explore. Continuing on, we walked barefoot through the Kuthodaw Pagoda grounds, also home of 729 stupas. These Buddhist monuments each contain a stone tablet transcribed by monks with a page of text from the Tipitaka, a book of Buddha’s teachings. It took them only 8 years to complete the transcriptions and they are considered the world’s largest book. Having been recently made a World Heritage Site, it was very full of tourists from a variety of countries.

When we finally escaped the sea of tour buses, Mr. Win took us up to the top of Mandalay Hill, where we battled even more tourists to take the escalator (barefoot!) to the top of the temple to enjoy a mild sunset. Tired from our journey and the day’s activities, we returned to the hotel for a few more beers before collapsing for the evening.

Siam and Sweaty Shirts

My phone’s WiFi disconnected while I was sleeping, so I didn’t hear the early-morning conversation over WhatsApp. The room’s cave-like darkness helped me to sleep in until 7:30am. I hurried to eat breakfast and get ready for the day because we had planned to play tourist.

We started by taking BTS over to the Chao Phraya River, where we hopped aboard a river ferry upstream. From there, we crossed the river and explored Wat Arun, a Buddhist temple from around the 17th century. I ascended the first set of stairs without difficulty, though they were fairly steep. Not thinking, I scaled up the second, much steeper set. Upon reaching the top, I crawled on my hands and knees away from the edge and immediately realized my folly. After taking a few deep breaths, a few photos and talking myself into it, I decided to follow the rest of the group back down to Earth. It was hot! This was the first day we had really spent outside in the humidity. I had never sweat entirely through a shirt before.

Crossing the river again, we made our way to the Museum of Siam, where a delightful ladyboy mistook Chris for a senior citizen, setting us up for an ongoing joke, and played us a short, entertaining introductory movie. Upon it’s completion, we wandered around in the air conditioning, through the various rooms and floors of the museum. To our surprise, it was well done and provided an interesting insight to Siam/Thailand’s history and culture. We concluded our visit with Thai ice teas and WiFi in the coffee shop.

image

Feeling refreshed, but hungry, we took a taxi to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, where we boarded another ferry to cross the river once again to enjoy the famous lunch buffet at Sala Rim Naam. We were seated at a low table with what looked like floor seating, but to our surprise, there was a recess under the table where we had to slide our legs into. Basically, we sat on the floor, though the amount of effort it took to extract ourselves from the table was probably in our best interest because the buffet was incredible! There were so many amazingly tasty Thai dishes and desserts to try; it really was a treat.

When we finally settled the tab, we cabbed it back to the hotel for naps and a second shower before we met up with Mike, a friend of Adam’s from California now living in Bangkok as an English teacher. We all walked a few blocks away from the hotel to Craft, a small bar that served a handful of interesting imports from the States, as well as some local brews. Underwhelmed, we made our way to Beer Lounge for more tasty drinks and good conversation. After a long day in the heat, we parted ways with Mike and called it an early night.

Bangkok is a fascinating place – friendly, laid-back people, perfectly-spiced dishes, and an abundance of Thai culture to explore put this city high on my list of places to return to.

Concrete and Chaos

We decided to use WhatsApp for group communication while on the trip and around 4:30am, I was awakened by its distinctive chime; It was Dan announcing that he was awake. We all messaged back and forth for the next hour or so before deciding to go downstairs for breakfast. It was an impressive spread. Besides the typical breakfast options, there were a variety of noodles, buns, soups, meats, meat replicas, breads, pastries, beans, and, thankfully, plenty of espresso.

Afterwards, Adam and I checked out of our rooms and we reconvened in Chris and Dan’s to forumlate a plan of attack and to charge devices. My room, which was three times the size of my Japanese hotel room but with the decor of a grandmother, seemed to have every type of power outlet except for the two that I planned for. Since most nearby tourist attractions were closed on Mondays (apparently due to a recent schedule change), our options were limited. We suited up and headed out into the 30-degree streets on our way to Tiananmen Square.

Everything seemed bigger here. And made of concrete. The gray mid-century apartments loomed over the streets for vast stretches and the government buildings were all over-the-top immense. It makes me wonder if the use of concrete was thought to help aid in appearing strong and grandiose, as if post-war construction attempted to create a sense of nationalism.

We rounded a corner a few blocks away from the hotel and suddenly the massive square came into view. Near the national museum we crossed the street and entered the square, passing Chairman Mao’s (closed) mausoleum. There were speakers and security cameras on poles everywhere. We continued past the Monument to the People’s Heroes and the Great Hall of the People before passing an amusingly large bouquet of flowers. Behind it stood the first gate of the Forbidden City, adorned with a immense portrait of Mao. We crossed yet another street to go inside.

The city itself is behind a series of similar gates, with large tree-lined courtyards in between. Unfortunately, the last gate was closed, so we turned around and stumbled upon a way to view inside the hall of one of the gates (for a nominal fee, of course). The pre- and post-war photographs of the city, formal seating and art on display were fascinating and the view of the square from the top of the hall was fairly impressive.

Once completed, we found ourselves back inside the first courtyard, unaware of how to exit the premises. Hoping to find an egress, we headed back towards the last gate, opting to explore a park alongside the moat. While viewing a temple, we managed to lose track of Dan and simultaneously learn that we had a tail – what we assumed was an undercover police officer had been following us around every turn. Chris went scouting for Dan as Adam and I watched the cadets practice marching in the park.

Eventually Dan resurfaced and the cop got bored and left, so we all walked to the hall of sacrifice. Again, massive, and amazingly ornate. Built in the 1400s, the details on it’s very tall ceilings were just incredible. From there, we worked our way through more parks until we were greeted by the now-spouting fountains just outside the first gate.

Having managed to escape, we took the subway over to the Temple of Heaven. So many stairs! I noticed that the Chinese don’t always have a sense of order, particularly when a line is involved. They just work their way to the front, pushing if necessary, to get where they want to go. Fascinating, but it can be fairly chaotic. We worked our way through the crowd, weaving in and out of various tour groups through what seemed to be the Beijing equivalent of Balboa Park and enjoying the wonderful fall day. The temple was settled up on a hill and from the top you could see much of the city in any given direction. Tired from walking, we agreed it was time to find a brewery.

Another few subway rides and many staircases later, we found ourselves at Great Leap Brewing. The creative mixture of concrete, brick, wood, and white subway tiles was a refreshing change of pace from the surrounding sea of gray. It may have been because I was jetlagged and dehydrated, but the burger and beer easily rivaled any of Denver’s hipster hotspots. It seemed to draw a lot of Americans as well, perhaps to watch the Bears-Packers game on TV. Sadly, we were a week too early to enjoy the brewery hosting it’s first beer festival.

Refreshed, we meandered back to the hotel via the subway and more stairs. We packed up and took a cab to the airport, enjoying the odd cars on the road and more of the decidedly Soviet-era construction along the way. Dan and Chris snuck Adam and I into the Air China first class lounge, where we stocked up on refreshments, snacks, and wifi. On the way to the gate, Adam pointed out Air Force One and a smaller sibling, a UAE plane, and three of Putin’s fleet. We assume they were in town for the leadership summit that the city had altered the traffic patterns for, hoping to reduce pollution. Additionally, we saw an aircraft of a rare airline from North Korea. I couldn’t get over how massive the airport is.


image imageI made my way to economy to find my seat on the Thai Airways International 747–400, which ended up being a bulkhead. The small seats were made even smaller by the non-existent in-flight infotainment unit’s remote control on the inside of the armrest; I cursed myself for having the ticket agent change my reservation to an aisle seat. They served us beer and a chicken stir-fry meal on the 4+ hour-long flight and we arrived in Bangkok around 9:00pm.

We all piled into a limo to get to the hotel, checked into the Westin and passed out.

Cleanliness and Kit Kats

imageAfter close to 9 hours of rest, I awoke early to beat the breakfast rush. Despite my best efforts, the line was already out the door, which gave me plenty of time to consider my buffet options. Besides the obvious potato and hot dog products, I was fairly unsure of what I had chosen. The mystery items had a fishy taste, save for the not-so-obvious egg pocket. The texture was satisfactory. For practice, I used chopsticks to eat a bowl of sticky, white rice.

image

Breakfast consumed, I returned to the room to get organized for the day. When my father flew the 747–400, he would frequent The Jetlag Club on his NRT layovers and supposedly a photo of him is hung up in the establishment. A quick Google search revealed the path: only a 10-minute walk from the hotel. Feeling adventurous, I hit the streets.

imageThe first thing I noticed was how clean the city is, which is strange because I had trouble locating garbage bins. After a block or two, I noticed that people weren’t walking on just the sidewalk; I had stumbled upon a street fair. Many of the side streets were lined with booths selling all kinds of souvenirs, from pencil sharpeners to backpacks, each adorned with various, Japanese-style cartoon characters. Most of them were of cats. So many cats…
In my amusement, I had forgotten about the Club only until I turned around to notice the sign. Unfortunately, they were closed.

image

I kept walking until I saw a crowd forming near a split in the road. There was an odd carriage filled with musicians stationed in front of a temple and two lines of dancers performing. People were taking photos with performers dressed as cartoon characters in mascot-style costumes. Everyone was friendly and jovial. For fun, I picked up green tea Kit Kats and a coffee milk drink from Family Mart.

I made my way back to the hotel to eat more mystery buffet foods and to grab the shuttle bus back to the airport. The agents at the Air China check-in counter made me sweat for 45 minutes while struggling to get my reservation squared away. I scrambled to find the gate and arrived just in time to board the 777. Thankfully, I had aisle seat and nobody sat at the window, so the row was mine for the 3+ hour flight to Beijing.

Upon our arrival, I went through customs and met up with Dan, Chris, and Adam, who had arrived from San Francisco an hour earlier, at the baggage claim. We took the train to the hotel, dodging the puffy-coated prostitutes, checked-in and collapsed for the night.

Dreamlining to Narita

In the days leading up to my departure, it seemed like I had more and more to get done. More things to procure, more errands to run – somehow I ended up with three different banks in the span of a month – but I finally pulled it all together.

I rode the RTD SkyRide from Union Station to DIA, checked my bag, made my way through security, and arrived at the gate just as people were starting to board. Shortly after, gate agents announced a mechanical delay of 25 minutes, so I took the opportunity to charge my phone. Sitting on the floor next to an outlet, I struck up a conversation with a fellow passenger, sharing travel anecdotes and plans. After another delay, we decided to grab a beer at the bar next door, but 3 sips in and they announced boarding again. Thirst only partially quenched, we parted ways and made our way to our seats.

I was seated in the 3x3x3 economy, grateful to aboard. Despite my preference for aisle seats (especially on longer flights), I was surprised by the amount of shoulder and leg room I had at the window. Each seat had a power outlet under the chair and an audio auxiliary and USB port coming from the the 6-inch LCD panel on the facing seatback.

Takeoff was surprisingly turbulence-free; the plane has a very lofty feel. The inevitable bumps we did encounter going over the Front Range were fairly disconcerting, as the cabin seemed to rock opposite the wings. Almost immediately, the windows dimmed and changed colors. Despite it being a sunny afternoon, it was almost impossible to tell inside the cabin. Eventually, it was as dark as if it were the middle of the night. The changes in atmosphere were slow enough not to be jarring. The seatbelt announcements were not, however. Each time the captain illuminated to the sign, a loud, sudden ding accompanied by a computer voice politely, but sternly, asked passengers to sit down. When awakened by it during a sound sleep, it was fairly unnerving!

I watched 3 movies and enjoyed 2 meals and a snack, sporadic naps, plenty of water, and occasional walks around the cabin. Around hour 9 I started getting antsy and had a hard time staying seated. Overall, the Dreamliner was a pleasant and refreshing flying experience.

We arrived in Narita around 5pm and it was already dark. Taxiing to the gate seemed to take almost as long as the flight itself. I collected my things and made my way to the arrivals area, quickly getting through customs and finding the baggage claim. After grabbing my bag, I visited the Air China ticket counter to inquire about a 72-hour Chinese visa, though it was determined I didn’t need one. I quickly found a Citi ATM, struggling to interpret the prompts. Sheer luck got me the money I wanted and I made my way outside to wait for the hotel shuttle.

On the way there, I reflected on my brief impression of Japan so far. Everyone is very helpful and polite; it seems like a happy place. Many signs are accompanied by English translations, so it’s fairly Westernized and makes a nice introduction to this Asian excursion.

The hotel room is… efficient. There’s hardly enough room to turn around and I kind of like its coziness. I showered and collapsed in bed around 8pm.

image

image

It’s been over 15 years since I last left the continent and I was initially very anxious about traveling alone to a foreign country, but even moreso about navigating my way to the hotel 20 minutes from the airport. I’m so grateful for Chris’ planning and advice; I look forward to seeing Chris, Dan, and Adam in Beijing tomorrow.

Out of the country, be back tomorrow

On July 24th, 2009, Phil and I packed up the car and drove to Toronto for a 18-hour adventure. I bought the Depeche Mode tickets for his birthday, he paid for the accommodations for mine. We left around noon and traffic was terrible on the QEW, though the border crossing was relatively painless.
Depeche Mode, originally uploaded by CFree.We got to the Molsen Amphitheater at 6:30p and found a good spot on the lawn to sit. I brought a tarp to sit on because it had been raining and the ground was wet, other people weren’t so lucky to stay dry. Peter Bjorn and John opened for Depeche Mode at 7pm. They were alright, I only recognized the “Kids” song and the whistling song.


Concert, originally uploaded by CFree.

Concert
Setting Up, originally uploaded by CFree.

Concert
Wrong, originally uploaded by CFree.

  1. In Chains
  2. Wrong
  3. Hole to Feed
  4. Walking in My Shoes
  5. It’s No Good
  6. A Question of Time
  7. Precious
  8. Fly on the Windscreen
  9. Little Soul
  10. Home
  11. Come Back
  12. Fragile Tension
  13. In Your Room
  14. I Feel You
  15. Policy of Truth
  16. Enjoy the Silence
  17. Never Let Me Down Again

Encore:

  1. Stripped
  2. Master and Servant
  3. Strangelove

Encore 2:

  1. Personal Jesus
  2. Waiting for the Night

The visuals were outstanding. There were a few large screens where they showed some pretty cool live shots of the band using some filters. There was also a giant LCD ball that had some visuals displayed on it as well. My favorite use of the ball was during Precious, where it looked like a typewriter ball spinning around. Despite having the tarp to sit down on, NOBODY sat down once the band came on. Everybody was dancing. I tried, but it looked more like a twitch. Whatever.

Concert
Tranquility, originally uploaded by CFree.

After two encores, the band finished with Waiting for the Night. We all sang Happy Birthday to Martin Gore and that was it. I wish I knew more of the songs before the concert. Phil gave me CD’s of the setlist so I could hear them on the drive up, but I didn’t recognize half of them.

We walked back to the car and (of course) got lost trying to find the Delta Chelsea hotel. New cities driving at night Craig != a good time.

Toronto
Downtown Toronto, originally uploaded by CFree.

The view from our hotel balcony was pretty cool. We changed and headed out for a drink before the bars closed. We tried O’Grady’s but it looked dead, so we ended up on the roof of the Black Eagle, mingling among it’s regulars. It was fun to be in a different city’s Forum-equivalent. Everything was so orderly, though. There was a nice line to get a drink (which I think we completely cut), a nice line to get upstairs to the second floor, and a nice line for the bathroom. Orderly.

Cien Tower
Cien Tower, originally uploaded by CFree.

Another reason for going to Toronto was for Phil to go to IKEA. It was fun for about 10 minutes, then I was ready for meatballs.

Obligatory stop
Obligatory Stop, originally uploaded by CFree.

What a bargain
What a bargain, originally uploaded by CFree.

I could have done without the loganberry sauce, but they are pretty tasty. We ate lunch, cashed out and drove back to Rochester.

Loganberry....
Loganberry…, originally uploaded by CFree.

Overall it was a fun trip, a much-needed break from a stressful quarter at RIT.

Hong Kong Day 7

Slept good. Rushed to pack up, take a shower and, say goodbye and thank you. Uncle Todd drove us to the airport and we got on the plane in coach. Wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Watched The First Wives Club. 5 hours later, we arrive in Tokyo. We got in the upstairs first class again, but Dad got booted off into buisiness class. I watched Randsom and The Mirror Has Two Faces. I slept for two hours. I ate a Pina Colada bar, grilled chicken, lots of fruit, and an ice cream sundate.

We arrived at Kennedy at 3:45 pm, the time we left Tokyo. We got to relive Friday, April 18 all over again because we few back into time. We went through customs and got our bags and took the bus to the parking lot. We drove to our home.

Hong Kong Day 6

Not a good sleep again. Ate cereal and played Hover! . Uncle Todd, Aunt Nikki, Mom, Dad, and I walked up the steep hill and caught a cab to the Jet Foil gate. Took the JetFoil ferry to Macau. Took a cab to the fortress cemetary. Took a cab to a restaurant across the Pearl River. Ate mashed potatoes and bread. Took a cab back to a Portugese temple. Ate mashed potatoes and bread. Took a cab back to Macau and walked around the Cine and the Square. We bought a few things and took a cab to the JetFoil ferry gate. Took the ferry home and went to bed. I think we were taxied out for the day.

Hong Kong Day 5

Great sleep! Ate breakfast and played on the computer. Mom, Dad, and I walked to the bus stop. We got on doubledecker bus # 15. We got off at the turn-around and got on doubledecker bus # 6 to Stanley market. Ate lunch at Lord Stanley’s Restaurant. I ate potato w/ cheese. Walked to the market. Bought a few things. Took a cab to the tram. Took the tram to the Peak. Walked ‘home’ with gifts and groceries in hand.

Went to play tennis for two hours at their club. Ate dinner at the water front restaurant. I ordered a cheeseburger and fies. Went to bed.

Hong Kong Day 4

Woke up to the sound of a loud fax machine. I read The Andromeda Strain until mostly everyone was up. Ate toast and cereal and played Hover! again. Drove to German school and took a taxi to the Satr Ferry. Took the ferry across to Kowloon. We took a bus to the jade market. We bought a few necklaces. Walked to the bird market and saw many grasshoppers, tiny birds, big birds, and baby parrots. Aunt Nikki left and we went to the bargain streets where we walked around. Bought a few things. Very humid. We stopped for many drinks. I stopped in many electronic stores looking for the price of Nintendo 64, which ranged from $1100-$1800(Hong Kong money). We stopped in Toys R Us but found nothing. I got a pizza from Pizza Hut and we took the ferry back to the island of Hong Kong and took a taxi to their house. I ate my pizza while Aunt Nikki, Mom, and Dad changed their clothes and met Uncle Todd at the Chica Club restaurant. I WENT TO SLEEP.