Another Visit to Hong Kong

Hong Kong, SAR China – 5 & 6 October 2017

Left SFO at 1:15AM on Wednesday, flying Singapore in business class. The 14 hours across the Pacific went by quickly. Got about six hours of somewhat restless sleep and watched a couple of movies before landing in Hong Kong, where I’ll be spending the next six days.

As soon as I passed through Immigration, I connected to the airport wifi and the first thing I see is an email in my personal account from my boss with a work question. Let’s just say that’s not my favorite thing to see on my first day of vacation – though my actual reaction may have been somewhat more pointed than that.

Visited the arrivals lounge, where I was able to shower and put on some fresh clothes before heading to my hotel in Sheung Wan. I had reserved at the well-reviewed Butterfly on Hollywood, an outpost of a small local group of hotels here in Hong Kong – but in the ensuing months since I’d made the reservation, the Butterfly had divested themselves of this particular location and it is now – tada! – a Travelodge. OK, OK, not the most glamorous brand, but the place seems pretty similar to what I’d reserved originally. But yes, Travelodge. Sigh…

I was too early to check in, so I decided to head down to the MTR for a quick ride over to Wan Chai and my favorite place for char siu. I got to the station, bought my Octopus card and was feeling right at home here in Hong Kong, given that I had some familiarity with the city and public transit from when I was here a year ago.

Pride goeth before the fall, though – I managed to not only get off one station too soon, but to not realize this until I’d actually left the paid area of the station. “Admiralty?” I said to myself as I looked at the neighborhood map outside the turnstiles, “Well, that’s not where I fucking wanted to go.”

Anyway, made it to Wan Chai soon enough and was able to quickly navigate a path to Joy Hing – only to discover that they are closed today, thanks to it being a local holiday (I think). So, hunger, fatigue and frustration were all combining to make this feel like a not-so-great first day of my travel.

But I soldiered on, made my way back to Central and found Yat Lok – which thankfully was not observing today’s local holiday. Had char siu and rice and it was pretty tasty (though I still prefer Joy Hing). Even better, getting some food in my belly did improve my mood a bit.

Decided to head over to Kowloon on the subway to kill some more time while I waited for my room to be ready. Between the teeming hordes of tourists and the seeming vagueness of Google Maps’ blue dot’s location, this was perhaps not the most relaxing choice. Happily, though, I received a call from the front desk at the hotel letting me know my room was ready – and it’s only 11AM!

Jumped on the Star Ferry and was soon back at the hotel, where I got settled into the very – how shall I say? – cozy room. But it’s perfectly serviceable and seems comfy enough. We’ll see if my opinion changes once my friend Ak shows up from Bangkok and the two of us are in here fighting over space in the one drawer.

After a lie-down, I decided a foot massage might be just the thing to take the edge off the day. Found a place in Central that was about a 20 minute walk away called Zhen Massage. It looked nice on their Facebook page and was perhaps just a tad less so in person – but the price was reasonable enough and I wasn’t looking for the Canyon Ranch.

The foot massage was decent if a bit perfunctory. The therapist answered her phone several times during the massage – though she’d at least keep massaging with her free hand. The calls were brief, so I really didn’t mind – I mean, I don’t know her life! Frankly, the only part that concerned me was the thought of her phone getting lotion all over it (not to mention gross tourist feet cooties).

There was a Western couple in there who were a delight. He was shouting across the place to the missus in their native language while he used an exasperated tone while negotiating with the lady managing bookings as to how long a manicure would take. And both mister and missus kept their faces buried in their phones throughout all of this. Oh, and there were also some kind of loud construction noises going on down the hall, which were eventually accompanied by the sound of the Ms. Western Couple getting her calluses sanded down. So, not exactly the most spa-like experience – but it was sort of so weird that it was kind of hilarious. And my feet sure felt better when I left!

Fortified myself with an iced matcha milk tea from one place and some wonton noodle soup from another on my way back to hotel. A nice way to wrap up what’s been a rather mixed bag of a day. This evening is likely to be quiet.

Had a fitful night of sleep, waking up about once every hour or two – but did manage to sleep ‘til about 7:00AM, so I feel like I’m about adjusted to local time (though I suspect I’ll be hitting the hay early most evenings…). After yesterday’s somewhat difficult first day, I was feeling a bit anxious about today’s tour that I’d booked with Wild Hong Kong. The meeting point was about an hour from HK Central on the train and required three transfers. I figured I’d get lost. Plus, I’d worried yesterday about my physical stamina. Despite a minimum of walking around, my feet were aching and my back was acting up. It’s really the first time that I’ve traveled and felt like my age was catching up with me.

As it turned out, though, I think yesterday’s ailments were primarily due to jetlag and too much sitting around. I felt pretty good when I woke and managed to get myself going with plenty of time to retrace my steps if I got lost on my way to Tai Po Market in the New Territories.

Stopped for breakfast at Morty’s Delicatessen at Jardine House. It was a more-than-decent Western breakfast of eggs, bacon and pastrami hash – plus it’s conveniently located a short walk from Central station.

My last train of the trip was the farthest I’d been from central Hong Kong and the difference was noticeable. While I certainly feel like a tourist in town, I felt much more like a foreigner on this leg of the journey – which was frankly kind of cool. It’s nice to feel I’m getting a bit off the beaten path.

Arrived at Tai Po Market station with time to spare and settled in at the rendezvous point, a Starbucks, naturally! I waited in line behind a white lady who’d decided using chopsticks in her hairdo was a wise choice. It wasn’t… But I got my iced chamomile tea with aloe and grapes – an unusual but refreshing combo and awaited the arrival of my guide, Rory.

He showed up right on time and it turned out I’d be his sole guidee today – lucky me! He’s a gregarious fellow who grew up in Hong Kong and has done quite a bit of traveling around the world, both on his own and as a guide. We drove over toward Plover Cove, picked up our bikes from a local rental shop and off we went!

Let me just say, being back on two wheels was great. I ride just about every day and everywhere back home in SF and it’s remarkable how much I miss it when I don’t do it. We rode out along the Plover Cove Reservoir, a nice long expanse of road with water an both sides and great views of the surrounding hills and city, then came back the same way as we started the ride a bit up the hills to do a bit of hiking. There was one section of uphill riding that was short but a bit intense – the rest was pretty smooth sailing.

Locked up our bikes at the parking lot (which was happily home to a bank of vending machines stocked with ice cold beverages) and then hiked not too far into the park to visit Mirror Pool, home to a beautiful waterfall. Rory and I sat and chewed the fat for a bit – but mostly just sat and enjoyed the solitude and the beautiful setting.

Next stop was Bride Pool Falls, another lovely spot where Rory got a chance to show off his rock skipping skills and I just happily watched. The falls were wonderful and I’m so glad I got to visit. I’d left my “big” camera back at the hotel, not wanting to schlep it all day – and honestly, I’m glad I did. Sure, not so many photos of the day, but I was glad to just enjoy the experience of seeing this new-to-me corner of Hong Kong.

Hiked back up to the bikes and had an easy ride back to where we’d started, including a couple of great downhill bits where we really got flying. Wrapped things up with a bit of lunch at a Thai place and then Rory dropped me off at the train for my ride back into the city. I was sweaty, kinda stinky and bit exhausted – and I could not have been happier. The whole day left me feeling great, both physically and mentally. And it was a real pleasure spending the afternoon with Rory, a knowledgeable guide and an all-around interesting fellow. If you find yourself in Hong Kong, I recommend his services unhesitatingly.

Back at the hotel, I had a nice long shower and then relaxed for a bit while I IM’d with my friend Ak, who was at Bangkok Airport, waiting to board his flight to Hong Kong. Flight was a bit late, so he probably won’t get into the city until after 11:00 this evening, but it’s going to be great to see him – and to introduce him to Hong Kong, as it’s his first visit.

Wrapped up the evening at Joy Hing Roasted Meats in Wan Chai. Tonight they were open, unlike yesterday’s ill-fated visit. There was a line, but it moved quickly and I enjoyed my absolute favorite “eat, pay and get out” meal of char siu and rice. A really perfect way to wrap up my second day in Hong Kong.

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My Last Few Days in Bangkok

Started the day off right with a bowl of barbecue pork and noodles at my favorite place in Silom. Next, I decided to make the schlep to the Jim Thompson outlet store, since I love a bargain. And, honestly, it wasn’t even that much of a schlep, just a bit of a ride on BTS, then a short walk to the store.

I was kind of disappointed when I first walked in and saw a whole floor of bolts of fabric for upholstery. I was thinking I’d see the same items from the regular Jim Thompson shops, but apparently the outlet is really for wholesale buyers. OR WAS IT? Thankfully, the fourth and fifth floors had all the usual silk pillow covers, apparel and accessories I was used to seeing in the regular shops. I scored big time on pillow covers and also got some lovely handkerchiefs. The prices aren’t dirt cheap, but were about 25% cheaper than if I’d shopped for the same things at the mall. I think it’s mostly last season’s patterns – but keep a close eye on the quality. When I got back to SF, I discovered a small hole in one of my pillow covers which may or may not have been there when I bought it.

Met Ak for lunch at Som Tam Nua at Siam Centre. Great som tum, natch, as was the the rice noodle dish. For dessert, I tried the place in the food court specializing in matcha flavored treats – and was kind of disappointed with overly-gelatinous match pudding. Sigh… My life is just one trial after another.

Did a bit more shopping before getting ready for an early night on the town. Since my first visit to Bangkok a year-and-a-half ago, Ak had been trying to get me to go to Tep Bar and Teens of Thailand, two bars that consistently show up on just about every list of BKK’s best. It wasn’t so much that I was reluctant to go on my previous visits as it was that it was hard to find time to go – and my worry that these bars were super scenester-y, which is really not my favorite.

WELL. I could not have been more mistaken. Granted, we were out early (since I am old), but I’m willing to declare Tep Bar one of the best bars I’ve ever been too. Small and intimate, with great drinks and an attentive and skilled staff – plus four musicians playing traditional Thai music. I really loved it and can’t believe I waited so long to visit!

As for Teens of Thailand, I liked it. It was low-key, again due to the early hour, but def had a more of a hipstery vibe – so perhaps not as much my cup of tea (well, cup of gin, actually, since that is the spirit in which they specialize) but an enjoyable visit.

Finally, we popped into Ba Hao, a trendy new spot that was very cool looking with a Shanghai 1930s vibe – but sadly the service was slow and the drinks unmemorable. Very much a beatiful people type of place, which really rules me out anyhow.

Dinner at a French crepe place nearby (I know, I know – not eating Thai food in Thailand is ridiculous) which was tasty. We also popped into a bar with live music, including a couple of very talented singers. It was great fun, despite my raising the average age in the place by about 20 years…

Spent the next day at Khlong Lat Mayom, a floating market outside Bangkok. The floating part is pretty small, but there was a really excellent assortment of food and we tried a bit of everything. The only downside was that our taxi driver on the way there ripped us off, with the meter about double what it should have been. Taxis aren’t terribly expensive to begin with, so I wasn’t out a lot of money but it made me feel like a rube.

After making it back into the city, doing a little shopping (because duh) and then freshening up for the evening, we had drinks at Vogue Lounge, in the shadow of the rather glorious MahaNakhon building, the just-built skyscraper that is now Thailand’s tallest. Cocktails were delicious (and 2-for-1 at happy hour!) and it was a lovely evening to be sitting out as the sun set.

Dinner at Suppaniga, an old favorite that Ak and I have been to several times. It’s a fairly easy walk from Le Meridien. This visit, we sat upstairs in a lovely room – though the lights were adjusted in such a way that they shone right in the faces of the diners. I felt like I was being interrogated – next time, I’ll request the first floor! Or maybe just confess my crimes… Happily, the food was delicious as always. We tried a beef dish with tomatoes and a luscious reduction. It had a bit of sweet-and-sour to it that was quite reminiscent of my Jewish grandmother’s cabbage soup.

The next day we visited Central Embassy, a mall so fancy that I had never heard of half the brands in there. But in addition to selling astronomically priced schmattas and ugly handbags, this mall has a really amazing food court in the basement called Eathai (get it?). “Food court? How dreadful!” you must be saying – but in fact food courts in Asia consistently offer an astonishing assortment of delicious food.

Eathai in particular has multiple stalls and carts offering just about every variety of Thai food, from noodles to larb to moo dang. And me being me, finding the moo dang (bbq pork) was the first order of business. It was sublime – as it should be, since Ak explained to me this stall is an outpost of one of Bangkok’s most famous places for moo dang in Chinatown.

We also shared some fishball soup, sausages and moo ping. It was all really great and my absolute favorite way to eat breakfast.

The rest of the day was spent wandering, allowing me to catch up on a few of my regular shopping stops. We also checked out the Jim Thompson Shop in Silom. It’s lovely and worth a visit – though I much preferred the prices at the JT outlet!

Before our last dinner, we stopped at Lucky Fish for a drink and I had a super-refreshing matcha mojito. Then, up the street to Soul Food Mahanakorn, one of our favorite restaurants in Bangkok. The food is always great – especially the mieng kham, the little DIY packets of pork, peanuts, ginger, lime, coconut and chiles. Also had some really tasty khao soi and northern style sausage. Oh, and maybe a cocktail or two. It was a great meal as always.

And that wraps up another trip! Headed to BKK airport for my long but luxurious ride home in Singapore business class, flying BKK to SIN to HKG to SFO. I was a little wiped out after the long day – but can’t wait to return. Next trip already in the works with stops in Hong Kong and Saigon before heading back to Bangkok. Can’t wait!

 

 

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 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 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: