More from Bangkok

Woke up early and we were contemplating getting a massage at Wat Pho before breakfast in the guest house cafe – just a nice leisurely morning. But then we both said, “Eff that – let’s get the luggage into a taxi and get over to Le Méridien, with its delightfully cool and pleasantly scented lobby and its large rooms outfitted with luxurious bed linens and Toto Washlets and fancy shampoo.” And so we did!

And you know what? Returning to the Le Meridien was even better than I expected. As soon as we walked into the lobby, several of the staff recognized us and welcomed us back as if they’d just seen us yesterday, not six months prior. This is why I love to come to this hotel – the service is both impeccable and effortless.

Anyway, once we were checked in and bags were upstairs, we had time for breakfast in the neighborhood at my favorite place for moo dang noodles – having a favorite local place for breakfasts is really one of the things I love about returning to any city I’ve visited before. I had a little time to wander around Silom and get settled into the room – and then it was time for lunch, obviously.

Ak was at work, so I met him near his office – conveniently located about a 15 minute walk from our hotel. I had a quick look around the Mariamman Temple, but I was too lazy to take off my shoes and explore inside, so I just enjoyed the exterior views.

Lunch was at a local hole-in-the-wall serving excellent massaman curry (along with some fish cakes). I’m really lucky to have Ak acting as my local guide every time I visit Bangkok – I get to eat the best food, most of which I’d never find on my own.

I spent the afternoon mall-hopping – and once again scoring some great local t-shirts at Terminal 21. As satisfying as my shopping expedition was, let’s be honest – I was really just killing time until my next meal. And tonight’s meal was at my favorite local place in Bangkok, Jae Koi. And I’d never have learned about this place on my own, so thanks again Ak!

Since my last visit, Jae Koy has really upped their ambiance game: AC to go along with the glaring fluorescent lights and metal tables and stools! Frankly, the addition of AC was great – but the food here is so good, who cares? Ak’s friends Koi and Jesse joined us for dinner – another boon since it meant ordering even more food. We had BBQ chicken, larb, tom yum, clams, grilled beef and som tum – and maybe a few beers to wash it all down. The damage for this feast? THB830 – which is about USD25. Amazing.

Thursday I visited the Museum of Contemporary Art. It was rather a schlep to get there, as it’s located out toward Chatuchak Market and involves taking both the subway AND a taxi. The building itself is rather impressive – though the galleries inside were mostly bereft of natural light.

As for the collection? Well, let’s just they could easily re-christen this place the Museum of Contemporary Bewbz. There A LOT of boobs on display! Don’t get me wrong – I have no issues with boobs. But they really seemed to be over-represented in this large collection. This made a bit more sense, I guess, when I learned later that the museum was created by a local billionaire as a place to show off his large collection of art – and his particular aesthetic was quite clearly on display in this museum.

Back into town for lunch with Ak, which was unmemorable despite going to a well-reputed place for khao moo dang. Lucky for me though, I had time for a quick snack beforehand: a street cart serving up potato slices deep-fried to order, then covered with the two flavor mixes of your choice. I got larb and spicy and it was awesome.

Spent the afternoon at Dahra Spa and got an amazing massage at a great price – and for three hours! It’s just a short walk from Le Méridien, so I’ll definitely be visiting them again next time I’m in Bangkok.

That evening, Ak and I headed out the Rot Fai Night Market. SO MUCH FOOD! It was pretty difficult to decide what to get – plus it was a little confusing to me how things worked. For example, there are lots of little sitting areas, but apparently one is only allowed to sit in them when eating food from that particular vendor – but it was never quite clear to me which one went with what. And somebody who shall remain nameless (but whose name rhymes with Wak…) grew tired of all my questions and got a bit snippy. But we managed to work things out in the traditional manner – by eating more food…

While it already felt like I’d been on vacation a long time, the weekend was fast approaching. Just a few more days (by which I mean meals) until I’d be winging my way back home. I’d better make the most of it!

I’m in Bangkok Again!

The trip from Koh Lipe and Pak Bara back to Hat Yai airport passed rather slowly, but uneventfully. Had some decent moo dang noodles at the airport while we waited for our flight to Bangkok – and then followed it up with some Dairy Queen. I try to keep things real and local, so I got a Matcha Blizzard…

Upon landing at Don Mueang International, we had important business to address once we’d collected our luggage: locating the airport’s branch of Cha Tra Mue, purveyors of Thailand’s most famous tea and one of only two locations serving their newly-introduced Thai iced tea soft serve ice cream! The other location is at Terminal 21 shopping mall in Bangkok – and is apparently so busy, the ice cream machine regularly conks out – so sampling this rare new delicacy in the uncrowded DMK location was quite a treat!

Soon on our way to the Hansar Guest House, across from Wat Pho. I’d gotten an email about this little guest house after staying at the fancy Hansar Hotel last year and I really liked the idea of spending my first few days in the old part of Bangkok, near the river and Grand Palace. The Hansar Guest House was not easy to find – it seemed to have three different names and also no sign, plus the entrance was through a coffee shop. A little exasperating.

As for the place? WELL. It was actually fine – for an inexpensive guest house. However, as it turns out, inexpensive guest houses are not really my thing… The place was very clean and the beds comfortable – but it was simply a room with two beds. No closet, no dresser, no fancy soap. The bathroom was OK, though small and basic. So, there was not a single thing wrong with the place, especially for less than US$40 per night – but I learned that I prefer a bit more in the way of both space and furnishings than was on offer here.

The location was great though. On Monday, I walked to the Grand Palace and visited the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles. I’d been here once before on my first visit to Thailand – and it was just as impressive a second time, showing a different cross-section of the Queen’s lovely wardrobe. As beautiful as the evening gowns were, I was most fascinated by the day wear – simply cut suits and dresses that were perfectly constructed from gorgeous fabrics, many designed by Pierre Balmain just for the Queen. It’s so fascinating to see work like this up close. No photos allowed – so make sure to stop by when you’re in Bangkok!

The other place in Old Town I was looking forward to re-visiting was Pai Spa, home of my first ever Thai massage. I was able to make an appointment with Jin, my therapist from my first visit – and she remains as skilled I remembered. This remains one of my favorite spas in Bangkok – and price-to-value ratio is unbelievably good.

Dinner with Ak that night at Inn-A-Day, another old favorite and just as tasty as always.

I wasn’t sure what to do with myself on Tuesday, but I found an interesting sounding walking tour of Chinatown with Co Van Kessel. Sadly, no one else had signed up for the tour that day – but they had a bike tour instead. So, off I went!

It was an OK tour. The ride through Chinatown’s maze of tiny streets was a lot of fun – though it was also a bit frustrating that we didn’t get to stop and look more often (one of the nice things about walking tours!). We had a crossed Chao Phraya on a boat and toured one of the city’s many wats – and I saw plenty of temple kitties, which was obviously a highlight!

Probably my main complaint about the tour was its size – any more than six to eight people starts to feel a bit much and I think we had 14? There were also three young men on the tour whose behavior served to remind me that straight white male privilege is not a uniquely American attribute. But I digress…

I enjoyed a wander back through Chinatown and Little India after the ride And I even managed to squeeze in two hours of massage at Wat Pho before heading back to the guest house and having shower.

Drinks that evening with Ak at Bamboo Bar at The Oriental, followed by a very yummy dinner at a starkly-lit neighborhood place near Chinatown. I also managed to impress Ak with my ability to discern exactly what was happening in the scene of Thai soap opera playing on the TV in the restaurant. Every time I’d make some observation about a character’s motives or background, he’d ask, “How on earth did you know that? You can’t understand what they’re saying!” Soap operas – the international language, apparently.

Our last night in Old Town. We were both looking forward to returning the next morning to Le Meridien, my home-away-from-home in Bangkok.

A Few Days in Koh Lipe

Our flight from Singapore to Hat Yai went relatively smoothly, other than my snapping at one of the Tiger Air staffers telling me my bag couldn’t be carried on board as it was “too big.” I snapped back that I had paid to board early and that it would fit in the overhead – which of course it did because I’m not an idiot.

We landed at Hat Yai and in the short time it took us to collect my checked bag and get to the taxi stand, it started pouring – like crazy, biblical pouring. The airport was mobbed and getting a taxi arranged was surprisingly easy despite the pandemonium surrounding us. The rain quickly passed and we were soon at Red Planet, our home for the night before heading onto Koh Lipe.

I’d booked the place ages ago, apparently while feeling parsimonious and unwilling to spring for the extra US$40 to stay at the fancy place down the road. There was nothing really wrong with the place at all – though it was rather barebones and the room was quite a bit less soundproofed than one might have hoped. The room held two beds, a TV and a safe, along with a bathroom stocked with two towels and a soap dispenser mounted to the wall of the shower. Eh, it was fine.

And, as is typically my experience in Thailand, the staff were lovely. The young woman who checked us in was kind enough to bend the rules for me and store one of my bags for the four days we’d be in Koh Lipe – made schlepping to and from the boat so much easier. And our broken safe was fixed within about five minutes of calling to report the problem.

Once we settled in, it seemed like a good idea to get a massage – and so we did! Happily, Thai Odyssey is just next door to our hotel and it was a very nice little place with excellent service and great prices. Our therapists were very good – though as is often the case when I travel with Ak, they assumed Ak was farang as well and were quite shocked when he spoke to them in Thai. It certainly makes things easier for me having Ak around to translate my instructions – though the Thai word for “sciatica” proved to be a stumper.

For dinner, we went to a dim sum place Ak knew about called Kor Nang Tae Tiem, which was conveniently right behind our hotel. I was a bit confused at first: out front was a big display of little dishes on ice of all sorts of stuff that didn’t look much like dim sum, as there were no dumplings – but then right behind that were stacks and stacks of bamboo steamer baskets, reassuringly filled with dumplings. Rather than ordering from the table or a pushcart, we just picked out everything we wanted and it was steamed to order! I even recognized the word “moo dang” (that’s Thai for barbecued pork) when the proprietor was describing the dumplings and yelled, “Chai, krab! Chai, krab!” (“Yes, please! Yes, please!). I’m so Thai…

As we waited for our large variety of selections to finish steaming, I wondered aloud to Ak about the prices. Given how reasonable prices were, I figured it’d be THB70 to 100 per dish – that’s about US$2 to $3. I was astonished when he told me everything was THB16 each. In other words, about fifty cents a plate!

Everything was delicious, too. It’d been a long day, what with sitting around the lounge at Changi Airport and getting those long massages – we’d really worked up an appetite. So much so that a Round 2 of plates was clearly in order. This was one of my favorite meals of this whole trip.

In fact, we loved it so much, we were back the next morning for breakfast! Happily they open early and we were able to stuff ourselves with more dim sum before we were picked up for the two-hour drive to Pak Bara, where we’d take a boat to Koh Lipe. The drive and the boat trip were both uneventful, save for the rather chaotic atmosphere of the ferry terminal in Pak Bara. I was convinced our bags would not wind up on the same boat as we did – but I’m happy to report not only did they make it, they were not dropped in the water when being unloaded.

The arrival on Koh Lipe is a decidedly low-tech affair: all of the boats from the mainland back up to Pattaya Beach and passengers jump off into knee deep water and wade ashore. Let’s just say I was glad I knew this was the drill before boarding the boat, so I was well-prepared wearing my Keen lesbian sandals.

A scooter with a sidecar took us and our bags on the short trip to our hotel, the Idyllic Concept Resort. There were a couple of small hills to drive over – which required to our driver to gun it and really get up some speed so that the tiny scooter could get all three of us plus luggage to the crest. It was rather exhilarating…

As for the hotel? Well, let’s just say all my research had paid off. Ak and I both loved it. It was really on the nicest stretch of Sunrise Beach – the views in the morning were spectacular. We had an “iSky” room, which meant we were beachfront. Everything was really comfortable – lovely service from all of the friendly and gracious staff, but still a laidback feel.

And the food! I figured the food would be fine – as it turned out, it was excellent. Not like “oh, this is pretty good for hotel food” but “if this were in Bangkok, it would be on my list of favorite restaurants.” Their larb moo may have been my favorite that I’ve had anywhere. The breakfast was probably the weakest link – but it’s a buffet and leaned a bit more Western, which was not their strongest suit. But we wound up eating all of our meals here, thanks not just to the great food, but the beautiful setting, with plenty of outdoor tables, some directly on the beach.

I think it was on our last evening that we were seated near a group of tourists who’d just arrived. They were being very particular about what they ordered – and by “particular,” I mean “annoying.” And they were ordering PASTA! Like fettucine alfredo or something! I mean, who flies halfway around the world to sit on a beautiful beach in Thailand and then orders Western food? Then they made ordering ice cream for dessert into a confusing ordeal, again addressing their server with condescension. Surprisingly, they were not Americans…

Anyway, we did wander into “town” one day for a bit of exploring and had a few drinks at a place over on Sunset Beach to compare and contrast (verdict: sunrise is better) – but mostly we just hung out on the beach every day, reading, swimming and making friends with a handful of beach dogs (including an adorable young ‘un we christened “Sandy”) who call this section home. It was, for lack of a better word, idyllic and I could not have asked for a better spot to get in some serious relaxing time.

We did venture out for a snorkel trip I’d booked long before our visit with an outfit called Paradise Tours. Unfortunately, I would not recommend them. They contacted me two days before I left U.S., asking for my deposit which I’d made months earlier. I was engaged in a back-and-forth in the middle of the night via email with them. They did find the payment, but it was irritating and their initial tone was tinged with accusation. Once in Koh Lipe, when we presented ourselves at their office in town the morning of our tour, a surly woman told me how much I still owed in addition to my deposit – no “hello” or “thank you” or even any eye contact.

And to top everything off? After all of that agita and my reservation made ages in advance, they did not take us on the tour I’d chosen and paid for – a longer tour with stops at Monkey Island and several other locations a bit farther from Koh Lipe. They did refund part of my payment when I complained – but it didn’t really make up for the fact that I didn’t get what I thought I’d planned out so carefully in advance.

At any rate, the trip was quite nice once we got going. It seems the tour company just acts as a middleman for the locals piloting the boats, so off we went with our guide and captain for the day, along with a Japanese couple and their adorable 4-year-old daughter, Miko. She was quite taken with me and insisted on holding my hand on the walk to the beach, where we all piled into a traditional long tailed boat. She also practiced her very competent English and demonstrated particular facility with, “Hello! Nice to meet you.”

It appeared that our various snorkel destinations were the standard Koh Lipe spots, judging from all the other boats and tourists on the various little islands we stopped near. But the water was clear and we got to see a good variety of fish and do a bit of shoreline exploration at a couple of places. Had a simple boxed lunch on a beach – and meals really do taste better after a morning of snorkeling while sitting on the beach… I think our trip could have been just as easily (and frankly, more conveniently and competently) been arranged through our hotel. My advice would be to give Paradise Tours a pass.

Other than the snorkel trip, we spent a very leisurely four days on Koh Lipe. I was certainly sad to head back to the mainland on Sunday – but this being my fourth trip to Thailand, I was really looking forward to getting to Bangkok. As much as I enjoy exploring new parts of the country, there is certainly something to be said for getting back to a city that feels a bit like home to me now.

 

Our Last Few Days in Singapore

We adopted a two-pronged approach for our visit to Gardens by the Bay: get there early to see the Flower Dome and Cloud Forest while they were still uncrowded, then return that evening for the Supertrees light show. This turned out to be a great plan!

We got to the gardens without issue – even my discount tickets from Klook worked perfectly (unlike last year’s super-stressful visit to Big Buddha in Hong Kong, after which I rashly declared I’d not be using Klook again – but my love of discounts was the siren call that made me reinstall the app). And it was quite uncrowded at this early hour on a Monday.

First stop was the Flower Dome, which was in the midst of celebrating “Tulip Mania!” – I love tulips, so this was a real treat. (Q: What’s better than carnations on a piano? A: Tulips on an organ). The dome itself was massive – and surprisingly chilly. We wandered through the various zones and gardens representing different climates and parts of the world, including a Californian Garden, which included some delightful smelling citrus trees.

We probably spent most of our time gazing at the tulips – they were gorgeous and plentiful. Of course, by “gazing” I mean “taking photos” – me with my hefty DSLR, Ak with his Android. And let’s face it – his mad Instagram skillz mean his photos are usually better than mine. Kids these days! But I managed to get some nice shots.

Next up was the Cloud Forest. Now, I’ll be honest – I thought, “Oh, another giant greenhouse but with trees instead of flowers. Zzzzzzzzz.” Well, I could not have been more wrong. Walking into the place, you’re first greeted by a giant waterfall. The air is chilly and damp and there are clouds of swirling mist. Having actually visited a cloud forest once in Hawaii, this is a pretty good simulacrum – plus I didn’t have to wear a ridiculous rain poncho and there was an elevator to the top.

Once out of the elevator, there are various catwalks that wend their way through the clouds and forest – and also brought us to the top of the waterfall we’d seen on the way in. We made our way down, encountering ferns and mosses, flesh-eating plants and colorful blooms along the way. It was all pretty great, frankly.

Back out into the hot Singapore day, we only had one thing on our mind: food! “What should we eat?” is perhaps the most wonderful and most difficult questions to ask here, given that there is so much food and it’s all so damn good. We decided to head over to Little India to check out hawker centre at Tekka Market. I had some very tasty chicken tikka along with nice chewy naan and some merely adequate daal. We had a walk around Little India and I picked up some burfi from one of the sweet shops.

Next stop: the mall! Because malls in Asia are both ubiquitous and great. I found a cute shirt at Giordano’s – a brand that Ak advised me was very “basic” after I’d purchased it (the shirt also shrank despite the salesman’s assurances to the contrary and now doesn’t fit me properly, i.e. can fit over my belly. Basic indeed!). We also happened upon another Tokyu Hands, which was a delight.

Also at the mall was the Gudetama Cafe. I frankly wasn’t all that keen on visiting (the menu didn’t offer much hope with the rather overwrought offerings), but the decor was certainly on-point and ripe for Instagram (of course). Had a diabetes-inducing spot of tea along with a quite adorable Gudetama cookie.

Headed back to the hotel for a bit of a lie-down (and we did manage to stop in Chinatown for another helping of char siu…) before making our way back to Gardens by the Bay for the nightly light show in the Supertree Grove. It was pretty great and we’d found a nice spot looking up at the trees to enjoy the show.

Next stop: Lau Pa Sat hawker center. The main attraction here is the the street abutting the center which every evening becomes “Satay Street.” I’d read about this place and heard that stalls 7, 8 and 10 were the best. As far as I could tell, stalls 7 & 8 had merged – and we needed to save room for more treats from Lau Pa Sat itself, so we didn’t get to try stall 10 – and I can say with 100% confidence this was the best satay I’ve ever tasted. Combine that with a lovely warm night and a couple of ice cold beers and this was pretty close to a perfect meal (despite someone being a bit cranky – and no, this time it wasn’t me!) – and a really excellent last night in Singapore.

Headed to Changi International Airport the next morning for our flight to Hat Yai, Thailand – our jumping-off point for Koh Lipe. The biggest disappointment at the airport was my inability to locate the Staff Canteen – another hawker center that is for airport workers, but also open to the public. I was hoping for one last plate of char siu… We did manage to find some OK food – as well as the Dnata Lounge, to which my trusty Priority Pass provided access. Comfy, quiet and with free beer and decent food. A nice spot to chill before boarding Tiger Air for Hat Yai. So long, Singapore! It was a fantastic first visit for me and I can’t wait to come back.

Singapore Sightseeing

Up and at ‘em early on Saturday morning to beat the crowds at Red Star for dim sum. Happily they open at 8, so we were there before 9 and had no problems getting a table. It’s a pretty old school Chinese restaurant in terms of both decor and service, which for dim sum was push carts just like back home at Yank Sing. Food was tasty, though not out of this world – my favorite was the wonton soup, a Saturday-only offering according to our server.

Next up was ArtScience Center in Marina Bay. I was a little confused by the whole thing, since I thought it was science museum, but really it’s just a kind of kid-friendly tech show-off space. We visited the Future World exhibit and took lots of really cool photos in the wave room and then acted like gleeful 6-year-olds when we discovered the interactive video display wall, where tapping floating shapes would reveal mountains, elephants, cows and the like.

Next, we went off in search of The Panic Room, a groovy barber shop I’d stumbled across online. Mostly we went to check out their large selection of beard grooming products and were not disappointed. We also discovered we were not far from the Old Airport Road hawker center, which shows up with regularity on every list of best food in Singapore. I had a more char siu (because duh) Ah Yee Hong Kong and this was the best char siu I had during my visit. Ak had congee from another stall which he declared OK. We also shared a plate of stir-fried noodles, veg and seafood which I wanted solely because of the long line to get it – and it was pretty darn good! There was also another char siu place which looked great and also had a long line – but by the time I decided I could eat more, they’d sold out! So, lesson learned: if you see food you want, get in right away.

Back to our neighborhood of Tiong Bahru, where Ak got to meet my feline friend I’d met on my first day. We took an amble around and checked out all the adorable little cafes and bakeries, taking note of where we’d get breakfast the next morning.

Dinner that night was also in the ‘hood, just around the corner from our hotel at House of Peranakan Petit. We didn’t have a reservation – which meant sitting out on the quiet street on a warm night. It was wonderful – and we loved the food. Peranakan food definitely had some similarities with Indonesian food – we ate beef rendang, long beans, crab served with broth and a really yummy variation on tapioca for dessert.

Sunday morning breakfast at 40 Hands, one of Tiong Bahru’s many darling little cafes. Then, off to the National Gallery to look at some art. We explored a bit of a quite fascinating exhibition of SE Asian art from 19th century to the present. I especially liked seeing the adaptations of Western style paintings that were made by self-taught local artists.

We also took the guided tour of the buildings that house the collection, the former Supreme Court and City Hall built in the early 20th century. They’ve done a rather amazing job of repurposing the buildings and joining them as one cohesive structure without completely sacrificing the most historic components of both.

Next up was obviously food – it had been over four hours since our last meal! Given that it was Sunday and we were near the Central Business District, no nearby hawker centers were open – so we hit up the next best choice for food in just about any Asian city, the mall! We headed over to Raffles City Shopping Center and, after a brief flirtation with a noodle place, we decided on more dim sum at Din Tai Fung. It was all pretty tasty, including their apparently world-famous xiao long bao, a.k.a. soup dumplings and some nice dan dan noodles.

Did a bit more exploring, including a stop at The Arts House to look at an installation by a local artist. We were underwhelmed.

Speaking of underwhelmed, after resting up at bit back at our hotel, we had dinner at Tandoor. I’d looked online for a nice Indian place and this one seemed to fit the bill and was well reviewed. The food was pretty good – though nothing to write home, especially given the high prices. Service was tentative and on the slow side. And something about the whole ambience seemed off – like they were trying to be fancy, but just not hitting the right notes, with clumsily matched plates and poorly executed cocktails. They only had one Indian beer on the menu – and were out of it!

Of course, the weirdest part was the clientele, which I can’t really blame the restaurant for. One family sat around chatting obliviously while their toddler wandered the restaurant on her own – which would’ve been merely irksome, save for the fact that she was emitting high-pitched and sustained shriek the entire time. Then there was the guy a few tables down from us who got into an argument with the waiter about tandoori chicken. Now, there were several preparations of chicken from tandoor – though they had different names and presentations, which apparently threw this diner for a loop. “This is an Indian restaurant! You have to have tandoori chicken and that’s what I want! Tandoori chicken! Why is this so difficult?” It was very strange…

Anyway, we decided not to stay for dessert and wandered around looking for something to wrap up the evening – and found something even better: Tokyu Hands! My favorite Japanese store that I didn’t even know existed in Singapore! Granted, it was a mere shadow of the giant Shinjuku location that I first visited eight years ago, with this branch showing all their wares on one floor and no weird cos-play section – but it was still pretty great, with lots of strange beauty treatments and cute toys. It was a fine way to wrap up our day, especially after a disappointing dinner. Tomorrow: Gardens by the Bay!

Some fun at ArtScience:

SFO to Singapore

Arrived at SFO and checked in at the Business Class counter at Singapore Airlines. I was super excited to fly with SQ in business, given their sterling reputation for service and comfort. And? I was a just a bit underwhelmed. Their lounge in SFO, while certainly better than the hellmouth that is the United lounge, was nothing to write home about in terms of decor. It was kinda cramped and rather tired looking decor. Selection of food and wine was fairly meager. Now, I get that complaining about sitting around in a lounge at the airport is grade A dickish behavior – but having visited the Cathay Pacific lounge at SFO, with their huge modern and comfortable lounge, offering tasty food, lots of wine – and champagne! – plus made-to-order noodle soup, Singapore’s lounge was a big letdown, particularly in light of how great an airline they’re reputed to be.

It was a very different story on board! The business class section is gorgeous and the seat huge and comfortable, with a giant monitor and a great selection of recent movies. Dinner – which I’d ordered ahead via SQ’s “Book the Cook” service was tasty: a decent steak with potatoes. The appetizer wasn’t great – a couple of past-their-prime scallops. I’d’ve rather just had something less “luxurious” that was a bit fresher. On the other hand, the champagne was tasty and free-flowing.

Once it was time for bed (I was on SQ1 which leaves SFO at 1:15AM), the seat flips forward and converts to a bed. Sadly, the seat which was great for sitting was not all that comfortable for sleeping. A hard, uneven surface and a somewhat awkward sleeping position. Again, though, it’s a bed and way better than sitting upright for 14 hours. I did manage to get a solid 7 hours of sleep, though it was a bit fitful thanks to a bumpy jetstream. And kudos to SQ for taking note of my request for extra pillows that I’d emailed them a couple of days before flying.

I had a two-and-a-half hour layover in Hong Kong and it was a much nicer wait. Took a shower and put on some fresh panties before getting a glass of champagne, in spite of it being 7AM locally (that’s 4PM back in SF, so it’s totes OK!). Food selection was pretty good and the place was modern and comfortable with a friendly group of folks working there.

Flight to Singapore was on another 777 – though this one was quite a bit older and equipped for regional flights, meaning just a big comfy chair, no luxurious pod. With that being said, the flight crew on this leg were a delight. Engaging, friendly, helpful – one of them even asking me about my back injury (the reason I’d asked for extra pillows). They were probably about the nicest crew I’ve ever had – and a marked contrast from the crew on the first leg, who were nice enough, but seemed a bit more standoffish. Maybe because it was an overnight flight and they knew people just want to get to sleep?

Anyway, it was a very nice flight and soon enough I was at Changi International Airport. After nearly 24 hours en route, I wasn’t especially interested in exploring what is considered the best airport in the world – I’ll have time enough for that next week on my way to Thailand. Getting through immigration was slow and there was sadly no VIP lane for business class assholes such as myself. But I made it through and soon enough was ensconced in a comfortable room at my home for the next five days, WANGZ Hotel – which I chose thanks to it’s excellent reviews, reasonable price and, obviously, the fact that it is called “WANGZ Hotel.” And now to explore Singapore!

Well, let’s be honest – despite the pleasant experience of flying business class, it was still a long trip and I was kinda pooped. But I did manage to walk up to Chinatown, in search of a char siu place I’d read about online at a hawker center. I didn’t have any luck finding this particular place, but found a place with char siu that turned out to be very tasty. Frankly, I was lucky to find anything at all, given Singapore’s practice of giving nearly identical names to places right next to one another – in this instance, I got somewhat lost in People’s Park Complex before realizing it was not the same thing as the People’s Park Center, a separate and equally confusing to navigate place right behind it.

I also did a bit of reconnoitering in my neighborhood of Tiong Bahru. It’s a quite lovely area, much more residential in feel than Singapore’s center. The older section is mostly low rise art deco style apartment buildings, with a nice selection of shops and little cafes. And most important of all, I met two cats, one of whom appears to be the unofficial mayor of Tiong Bahru, given his extremely friendly welcome.

Back to the hotel and did my best to adjust to local time. Got started early the next morning and got to do some sightseeing on my own at the National Museum of Singapore – and I must say it provided a fascinating introduction to this young country’s long history. I wandered a bit on my own and joined up with a guided tour offered by the museum. The guide was great and, as a San Franciscan whose city is in the midst of a housing crisis, I was particularly interested in learning just a bit about how the housing market works here. Fully 80% of the population lives in government-built and subsidized housing – and residents come from across nearly the entire economic spectrum. As it was described to me, workers and employers both pay into the system, so one’s starter apartment is modest but affordable. Within a few years, the value has appreciated sufficiently, that one can sell and move into a bigger place – and this continues, potentially resulting one day in sufficient proceeds to buy a condo on the free market, then re-sell that for a fortune, downsize back into a small government place after retirement and use the money you’ve made to travel and enjoy life.

While I’m sure not everyone follows this exact path, it certainly seems as though housing policy here is doing something right. And frankly, I’m ready to move! Though I don’t think the system is set up to benefit grizzled old foreigners such as myself.

There was also a cool video display in a sort of spiraled rotunda. I entered at the top and was treated to an immersive projection of flowers above, around and below me. After this, I walked down a spiral ramp and through a video forest with birds and animals frolicking about. I really enjoyed my visit – not just for the exhibits but also exploring this amazing old building, constructed as a museum and library at the end of the 19th century.

Headed back to the hotel to meet my friend Ak who was arriving from Thailand that afternoon. I did manage to squeeze in a pit stop to the hawker center I’d visited yesterday for a plate of char siu at the place I’d tried and failed to find yesterday. While it was tasty enough, the random char siu stall I’d chosen the day before was better, in my opinion.

After Ak got to the hotel, we spent some time catching up before we headed out for cocktails at Jigger & Pony. Really great drinks, though the vibe was a bit too “loud-mouthed Westerners” thanks to a large birthday party occupying a large table up front. However, our bartender was extraordinarily skillful and prepared me an excellent French 75 – plus he was genial and gregarious.

Now, this is the point where I have to point out my one real issue with my visit it to Singapore – the cost of booze here. Prices are ridiculous. This is apparently intentional, with alcohol imports taxed heavily in an effort to drive the socially desirable behavior of teetotaling. But seriously, prices are breathtaking: a can of Tiger at a local shop is nearly SG$2 and you’d be hard-pressed to find anything less than SG$11 on a menu – and that’s likely to be cheap beer. A glass of wine is likely to be SG$16 minimum, cocktails at least that much. And that French 75 I enjoyed so much? SG$22! That’s nearly US$16.

Anyway, that’s how they roll here, so it’s not really any of my business – but I guess if nothing else it ensure that I was able to wake up early every morning completely free of even the mildest of hangovers…

Dinner that evening was at Wild Rocket, a “modern Singaporean” place I’d discovered online. We liked our dinner here – though as I’ve learned in my several visits to Bangkok, as much as I enjoy going to a nice restaurant, I really do wind up preferring simpler local places and street food. But Ak and I ate a tasty meal in a nice atmosphere (and drank a bottle of wine!) while we discussed what sights we wanted to see (and, more importantly, what hawker stands we wanted to visit) over the next several days here in Singapore. First up tomorrow: dim sum and the Science Centre.

Our Last Couple of Days in Hanoi

Up early to hit the road to Trang An! Our guide showed up in a super-deluxe luxury van, since we’d originally scheduled a tour for three people – but Mom was still battling her stomach ailment, so it was just Ak and me.

The ride out was fine – I think we both dozed – and a couple of hours later we arrived at Trang An. The pictures I’d seen were lovely and it was quite a pretty spot, with lush green hills surrounding the lakes and grottoes. Our guide led us down to the small paddle boats and I made a major error. He asked if we minded sharing our boat – and I responded “Sure, that’s fine!” But it really wasn’t – not least because we’d already shelled out a good chunk of change for this excursion, which to me means we shouldn’t have even been asked to share a boat frankly. Of course, I should’ve just said no, but it was too late for that.

So, Ak and I squeezed into the second row behind an older Vietnamese couple, who were there with their adult children, son-in-law and little toddler grandbaby who were all on the boat in front of us. There was a lot of shouting back and forth between the boats, presumably encouraging granddaughter to do something adorable – but it wore thin.

The other thing that wore thing was the boat ride itself. Sure, the scenery is lovely and paddling through the low-ceilinged caves was pretty cool – the first couple of times. But the boat ride goes on for a solid two hours. It was really hot out, the views all start to look the same, the bench we were sitting on was really uncomfortable, especially since we had to sit far forward so the lady paddling our boat wouldn’t yell at us again. I’d read some of the write-ups on Trang An and many of them mentioned that the boat ladies were a pretty surly bunch – and this proved to be pretty accurate. Granted, I’d be hard-pressed to object to their surliness – I’d be the same way if I were paddling a bunch of fat-assed tourists everyday – but I will say that it didn’t really enhance the experience.

After the ride was finally over, it was time for lunch nearby. It was a buffet-style deal catering to busloads of tourists. The food was mediocre at best. It was a real disappointment, especially given how delicious Vietnamese food is. Afterwards, though, while we were waiting to get going again, Ak and I happened upon a local fellow shepherding his herd of goats down the hill and across the road. They were noisy and hilarious.

Back into the van to visit Bái Đính Temple. It was fine. The grounds were pretty and there were some impressive statues and carvings. Overall though? This was not my favorite day trip. It was a long way to go to visit sights I didn’t find all that interesting. Ak and I agreed we’d’ve been happier spending the day exploring more of Hanoi. Oh, well, guess we’ll have to go back then!

At the hotel, Mom was much improved but decided to stay in while Ak and I had dinner at a place called Home. He’d been the one to find it before our trip and it looked nice – and it was! Located in a charming old house behind a large iron gate, it’s a lovely little oasis in the midst of the intensity of Hanoi.

We were seated in the cozy back room. It was an intimate setting and nice view of the patio outside. Refreshing cocktails started things off and our apps were really tasty – bún chả and fresh rolls – while our main course was OK. Honestly, I probably should’ve ordered something different.

The service was a bit unpolished, though it was so genuinely friendly and accommodating, it’s hard to really find fault with it. I’d say this if our meal had just wrapped up ordinarily – but it didn’t. When I’d reserved our table before my trip, I mentioned that the dinner was to celebrate Ak’s birthday (which was actually a couple of weeks prior), hoping they’d put a candle in his dessert or something.

Anyway, as we were waiting for dessert menus, several of the staff members came into the room with a birthday cake, singing “Happy Birthday.” I wasn’t actually sure what was happening and assumed one of the other patrons had ordered a cake. WELL. This was for Ak! I think he was a little embarrassed by the attention (though I think he liked it a bit too!), but it was such a wonderful and unexpected treat. The other diners all joined in singing and there was a great round of applause when Ak blew out the candle. It was really just delightful and an extraordinary surprise for both of us – not least because Ak had mentioned when we chatted on his birthday that he’d never had an actual cake on his birthday! A great big thank you to everyone at Home for making this night so special.

We adjourned to the terrace for a couple of after dinner drinks (and maybe a bit more cake) to enjoy the warm evening, then headed off in search of Unicorn Pub, recommended by Tu, our guide from Sunday’s food tour. Found the place with no problem. Didn’t seem particularly fancy or anything – but the cocktail menu was pretty interesting.

Ak got a pho cocktail – IKR? – while I ordered one that included chili and fish sauce – IKR? Honestly, this could’ve gone either way – I was a little worried that the drinks would be gimmicky and weird. Instead, they were amazing! Ak’s even got set on fire and poured through some kind of triple-decker contraption on the bar. And it tasted like boozy pho – in a totally yummy way, with hints of star anise, cinnamon, coriander and other spices. Mine was tart and citrusy with a kick from the chilis and a nice roundness, thanks to the umami from the fish sauce.

Someone (I think a staff member or their significant other) came in with a baby, who was adorable. Ak and I were waving and making faces – but I think being faced with two tipsy bearded tourists was a bit much, since his initial expression of concern slowly morphed into terror and tears. Sorry, kid! Just trying to be nice – but I know we’re kinda crazy looking.

Woke up Tuesday morning and Mom had recovered from her bout with some type of food-borne illness. It was good to see her back up and about. She was still taking things easy, so she stayed behind while Ak and I headed out in search of the chicken wings our food tour guide had told us about. We actually found the place, but it was closed. Curses!

We wandered the streets for a bit – Hanoi is an amazing place to do exactly that, with gorgeous old buildings, shops and stalls selling everything from banh mi to stuffed animals, some teeming and noisy while little alleys are quiet and shadowy. It’s an amazing city.

We eventually made our way to Phở10, an apparently rather famous place for (what else?) phở. Yes, there was a line, but it moved quickly. And the phở? It was pretty darn good.

Back to the hotel, gathered our belongings – and Mom! – and headed to the airport for the short flight to Bangkok. Happily, I’d had a few thousand old British Airways points lying about (as one does) and booked all three of us in business class on Qatar Airways – and it was pretty deluxe! The flight attendants were especially nice – a short flight like this doesn’t usually include the fancy amenity kit, but when I asked for one for Ak, they were happy to provide it. Honestly, the one disappointing thing about the flight was how short it was – but I still managed to quaff my share of champagne.

Soon enough, Mom and I were ensconced in Le Meridien Patpong. I’ve gotten to stay at a handful of really nice hotels in my visits to Bangkok. Le Meridien is not the fanciest – though it’s extraordinarily comfortable and well-located. What makes this my first choice for hotels in Bangkok is the service – not just top-notch, but delivered with with both authenticity and discretion, along with a genuine focus on making their guest feel at home.

And so, the next chapter begins! I was very excited to show my mom around this city that I fell in love with so quickly on my first visit just a year ago.