In Transit days – Toronto – Kyiv, Ukraine – Istanbul, Turkey.
We started with a 9-hour flight with Ukraine Airlines from Toronto to Kyiv, Ukraine as our 3-hour stopover before making it to Istanbul, Turkey. We didn’t realize there was no entertainment unit or plugs available so that was a bummer. We were talking to each other about what seat preference we like and I said aisle and she said window – we got neither. The plane was an older model but it was 2 seats, 4 seats, 2 seats layout.
It was a long flight (9-10 hours) but at least we had a 3-hour layover in Kyiv, Ukraine. We did however find the mobile plug charging station and setup camp with my Mogics power bar and from there, we made friends sharing outlets. Lukas (from Mississauga) & Glenn (from Bradford) became our instant friends. And it turned out they were seated right behind us for our flight to Istanbul. Our flight to Istanbul got delayed about 30 minutes. Super foggy in Kyiv.
We arrived at 1130PM and our plan was to purchase a sim card at the airport because we wouldn’t have enough time to purchase one before we had to get back to the airport the following morning. The only place open at that time was Vodafone and we ended up purchasing 1 sim card that had 100 minutes, 100 SMS and 7GB data for 280TL ($70.50CAD) which was more expensive than we thought it would be. This was the cheapest option and all the other phone places were closed. We purchased one and would hotspot it. The only thing is we purchased it so late and we wanted to go to our hostel but activation took over an hour and half. We walked around and walked to the metro to see if we could purchase and Istanbulkart but also learned the metro closes at midnight. We finally caved and got into a cab where they guy wanted to charge us 40TL ($10CAD) but we talked him down to 30TL to later realize the ride should have cost around 19-25TL.
We stayed at Han Hostel North for the night. A very simple yet secure hostel about a 10 minute drive from the airport. We had a flight the following day around 115PM so we didn’t bother going further than we needed to for the one night.
We went to bed around 130AM and I thought I would sleep through the night but I was wide awake by 4AM and tried to sleep a bit longer. Woke up, showered, had breakfast at the hotel – continental breakfast – lots of cheeses, meats and dried fruit. We walked around a bit and stopped by Reisoğlu Börek and picked up something that resembled cheese and lasagna like sheets of pasta for 7TL. The person serving us didn’t speak English so they kept saying yedi which means 8. We should really know the numbers for pricing.
We walked back to the hostel to eat it and then walked around the hostel during the day to see what it offers. There is laundry, a fitness area and balconies on all floors. We took some photos on the 4th floor then packed up and called for a cab using the Bitaksi App. We made it to the airport where we had to line up to even get through the entrance where we had to go through security and then walk through again to domestic where we went through security 1-2 more times before making it to our gate. The line to even get into the airport entrance was out the door.
We flew with Turkish Airlines and the flight just felt so much better than it was with Ukraine Airlines. The flight lasted about 1.5 hours and we also got a meal on it. We arrived at Kayseri Airport where we had already arranged for a picked up by our airport transfer van that took us another hour to get to Göreme. We stayed at Heybe Hotel. It is not a cave hotel but it is still a wonderful hotel on the main street and because it was down season, we were able to reserve a suite room for only $70CAD/night. We really enjoyed having that extra space which technically could accommodate a third person. We spent majority of our time in the living room area as our hangout spot.
When we arrived, we met with Omer at the front desk and booked our Green Tour for 35 euro and Red Tour for 30 euro as well as booked our return airport transfer. . Our airport shuttles were booked paying in euros. 6 euros each way per person.
We put down our things and walked around. We didn’t get far when a gentleman named Ikrim stopped us on the street and asked us to come see his new store – Kervan Carpet which we agreed to see. He had just moved a few stores down and wanted to show us his work. You will notice that people will be inviting you into see their stores and they will offer free tea and whatnot. You are not obligated to purchase anything.
We continued walking around and ended up at Galerie Ikman – a Carpet shop that is a very famous spot for people to take their instagram photos with all the rugs. PLEASE PLEASE BE RESPECTFUL. This is a working establishment and you must pay to take photos inside (or purchase something). If you are alone and ask one of the staff to take your photos, please make sure you tip them – it is not their jobs to take your photos.
*Quick photo tip – If you come when the sun goes down, the no-roof carpet room will be all green coloured due to their lights and not optimal.
We ended up meeting Sergio who is 5th generation and his father Süleyman who introduced us to the rich history of carpets and the many techniques. Each carpet has a story behind it. The people who are looming or weaving the carpets put their emotions/feelings and all that energy into each carpet, which can take a short period of time to 5-6 months to make one carpet. In the end, Amanda ended up purchasing a lovely carpet. Since we went in down season, they lower their prices so they are still able to sell carpets to make ends meet and cover the electricity bill and employee wages.
Sergio had told us that the cafe beside called Pasha’s Cafe has a live band Friday-Sunday and we should check it out so we had dinner there. We got the Pasha’s Kebap – fries with beef, peppers and sour cream with some salad on the side (60TL) and some local wine (25TL). And I have to say; the staff there and the live band were all beautiful to look at. Turkish people just have amazing facial structures and very symmetrical. The food was good. The music was good with performers using electric drums, keyboard, violin and another instrument that looks like a zither.
It was this night that we realized that everywhere we went in Cappadocia and especially in this restaurant, all our clothing smelled like smoke and fumes.
Our hotel stay also included a Kaiseki (traditional Japanese breakfast filled with seasonal ingredients). It was wonderfully presented with a great view overlooking the city as you enter the room. They have the main portion of breakfast presented to you at your seat with hida beef on a personal hamachi clay grill that is cooking on a leaf. There is also a buffet style area where you can pick and choose other items such as grilled mackerel/salmon, salad, pork and potato croquette, cereal, croissants, porridge etc. There are also unlimited fountain drinks as well as coffee and tea. You should try the milk if possible – very fresh and different from Canadian milk.
After breakfast we used the relaxation room and worked the chairs – massaging chairs. Went back to the room and packed before taking the free shuttle to Takayama Station as we were heading to our next hotel but also trying to meet up with Karen & Chi who were arriving around 930AM. As we got to the station and alighted off the bus, perfect timing as we spotted them on the other side of the street. We walked over to Hida International Hotel(2-60 Hanaoka-cho, Takayama, Gifu Prefecture 506-0009, Japan) together however it was a 3PM check-in so we left our things for storage and wandered about.
Our main reason for visiting Takayama was because of the Takayama festival. It is the largest festival to celebrate the change of season to spring also known as the Sanno Matsuri. Its a 2 day festival hosted by the Hie Jinja Shrine. People from all over Japan and tourists alike congregate to celebrate this special festival. They have giant shelters that are spread across the city where they floats are held when they aren’t being used but once they are out, they are beautifully showcased with the sun glistening on them. There are beautiful carvings, dolls and elaborate textiles that cover each float. These floats also are suppose to showcase the craftsmanship of the carpenters of the Hida area. Inside each float, you will find children manning each float as a few of them also feature little dolls that move or the children play musical instruments. There are actually 25 festival floats scattered around Takayama however they are designated to different seasons. For spring, there are 12 floats, 11 for autumn and 2 for others.
Old town got turned into a pedestrian only zone with people walking everywhere and on maps, the bridges are colour coded so you can figure out where you are easier. The main area where the first performance with the floats was being held got incredibly crowded as we were trying to get through the crowd following others, we got stuck as both directions stopped moving. It got incredibly hot. After the morning ceremony, we decided it was time for food. Karen had a lunch place picked out in her little book however with such a large group (we had 7) it was near impossible to seat all of us. We went to Jakson(5-5 Tenmanmachi Takayama Gifu 岐阜県 高山市 天満町 5-5) for curry but we did a take away order. I ordered the Curry katsu (fried pork) – 1200y. We ended up walking in search of Takayama’s version of takoyaki (octopus balls) but instead of octopus filling, it was said to be hida beef as we waited our 20 minutes for our lunch to cook – we did not find these hidayaki…? and slowly made our return to Jakson for our takeaway order. We ate in a nearby area with stairs and a small cafe table. The curry was quite nice but flavourful. Once again, Karen had many bucket list foods in her book and once we finished our curries, she was on a mission to find the Hida beef steam buns from the specific stall that got grave reviews and she eventually did find it. Apparently it was really worth it but I was way too full to even try it.
We eventually crossed one of the bridges and found ourselves on the street where all the floats were equally spaced out and slowly being prepped where people could take photos of each individual float before all the mayhem ensued at night. Again, we walked through old town and just continued walking about. We got separated and in the end made it back to the hotel for 5PM to officially check in. Our hotel stay included a hida steak dinner however the timeframe for dinner got pushed to a smaller timeframe so we made sure dinner was priority before heading back out as the price of our hotel stay for 1 night (a little more expensive than we liked) also factored in this steak dinner. What we didn’t know is that it became this 4-5 course meal that was elegantly presented. The hida steak was absolutely a delicious addition to this leg of the trip. The steak could be cut so easily with just a fork. We finished out meal satisfied and ventured back out to see the night parade of the floats which at this point had already started their procession (multiple locations on the map where we could watch the floats go by) with the lanterns all lit up and children playing instruments in all of them. The adults controlled the floats from the outside. The most difficult part was turn the floats. Think of Howl’s Moving castle and how tall but narrow it was (before it full transformed) that’s what the floats looked like.
Since we are in the mountainside, when the sun is up, the sun is strong and we all got a little tanned and red that day but once that sun goes down or into the shade, it gets cold. The main old town strip got turned into a night market festival with stalls selling food galore. We watched for a bit standing on a bench but in the end, didn’t stay to the last float.
We went back to our hotel and went to the onsen. This one has 2 tier onsen on the 9th floor. Rooftop jacuzzi with 2 individual tubs to soak (this is the spot of the onsen personally) with a view of the city. The main floor has an outdoor pool with 1 inside and tons of shower stalls. It also featured a misting sauna. There apparently was one downstairs in the basement plus a swimming pool but we never made it down.
Woke up and took the train back to Kanazawa station to reserve our bullet train tickets for the next 2 days.
Morning reservations for the express trains were completely full so we had to take the local train which was an hour longer ride with 1 more transfer point than the express. We ended up roaming the mall beside the station for a bit before our train was departing. The ride was pretty smooth but broken up into 1 hour, 1 hour 1.5 hours. We purchased ekibens – I got this square one with 9 little samplers for 1000y but decided not to eat it right off the spot but regretted it because only our first train was a bullet train and had a tray to eat on but the other 2 local trains were just seats like a normal train but we were rebels and ate on it. The train went through the mountain side.
The Takayama station is absolutely stunning. Takayama is known for their furniture (high quality of timber), hida beef and sake as well as their well known mascot Sarubobo – Monkey Baby. The mothers and grandmothers would make these dolls for their child out of scrap materials and made them faceless. They are amulets bringing protection and happiness and in the future luck in marriage, fertility and childbirth.
The weather was significantly warmer than our pervious day in Kanazawa so we decided a 30 minute walk to our Hotel would be no problem. We didn’t realize our hotel – Takayama Kankou aka Hagi (Japan, 〒506-0852 Gifu Prefecture, Takayama, 八幡町２８０) is actually on the side of a mountain/hillside. The windy angular roads led to the perfect lookout point over the city. We took the route google maps had provided which was actually the longer way up that hugged the corner of the mountain. We got checked in and we had booked a 5 person room. Our entrance has a sliding wooden gate then you open the door and find yourself stepping on these tiles with pebbles between then leading you into the room. Its a tatami covered floor room with a little seating area and sliding doors everywhere to configure the room to what is necessary for the time.
The best part of this room – the view. Mind you, there are trees in the way for a clean view, the city behind it with its sun setting is absolutely stunning. The hotel provides a turn down service around 6PM where they come in and transform one of the rooms into a sleeping area with the futons and also provide you with yukatas to wear indoors, to the onsen, to dinner or wherever else you would like to go. BUT remember, the slippers and your shoes are not to touch the tatami mats.
We were waiting for Glenn & John to arrived but in the meantime we had to figure out dinner plans. There is an option for room service however they were sold out by the time we called and because we had reserved the room so long ago and thought nothing of it that we didn’t know we needed to make reservations for the dining hall and had to fend for ourselves. The man at front desk recommended this one cafe just down the street from us but it was closed so we had to venture down the hill to the main part of town to find food. Apparently stores and restaurants for the main part close incredibly early leaving those hungry needing to look for the flashing lights outside the stores to beckon them in their direction. It got extremely cold as temperatures dropped once the sun went down. Cold enough to see our breathes.
We made it back to Takayama station as there were a few stores open there. We have also been told that we need to try pasta at least once while we are here so that settled things. We arrived at Salute (サルーテ) for Italian and it was a nice change of pace from ramen. We ordered a hida cow pizza, a margarita and tomato crab pasta. Manwai kept eyeing the giant half wheel of cheese that was sitting under its own heat lamp ready to be scraped off onto the next order or broccoli, fries or pasta.
Back up the hillside we went to await Glenn and John. We tried to wait it out but they missed one of their connecting trains and we had to wait longer. We went to front desk to see if we could leave our key with them but the 2 men there didn’t speak english but with the help of our phones and translator, we were able to communicate. The onsen was nice but after visiting Oedo Onsen in Tokyo, this was just ok. The rooftop onsen is only available for the women in the afternoon to night while the morning is reserved for the males. We went to the rooftop one but it is just 1 giant tub. I think if we had gone earlier when we could’ve seen the scenery outside, it would’ve made it more worthwhile. We ended up transferring down to the main onsen but because it was so late at night, Manwai and myself had it all to ourselves. One giant tub inside with a nice rocky open air one outside.
We woke up at 445AM and had breakfast in the hotel (included) before catching a bus up to Machu Picchu. It takes about 30 minutes to get up there. We booked ourselves to do the Machu Picchu mountain hike that opens at 7AM. You need to show the permit as well as your passport to climb. You enter and sign in with your time. This is important because just a month or 2 prior to our climb, a German man had climbed Huayana Mountain (where you need to climb on your bum and hands at certain points) and he decided to do a jump photo and fell to his death. Back to Machu Picchu Mountain hike – so many steps and so steep at points. I would think at this point, after 4 days of climbing, this would be rather easy but I digress.
The beginning was very similar to our normal Inca trail hike but then it got really steep at points on the side of a cliff. The first flat stop showed us only clouds where Machu Picchu was located. As time went by and the higher we trekked, the clouds started to dissipate and we could see more below us getting glimpse of Machu Picchu and the mountains.
The Ranger had told us this hike would take about an hour to do each way – so much heavy breathing coming from me.
Just like previous days, you climb and think that that next pass is the end but then you turn the corner to find more steps spiralling upwards. Even without walking sticks Sofia is still a powerhouse leading the pack. Patrick joined shortly after with Ronan right behind.
After the landing with the giant rock and the small passageway, there are about 3 more spiral sets of steps which are steep before you make it to your final destination. I made it up to have my heads in the clouds but within minutes, the clouds shifted to expose the beauty that lies below surrounding Machu Picchu.
We stayed up there for a while and I would say about 20 minutes after we arrived, our group of 7 (Gayaanan stayed below) were all together at the top. Sofia, Ronan and myself were about to leave as Karen and Chi made it up but Andrew insisted I stay but not really saying much. Then Andrew also insisted Sofia and Ronan stay as well and that’s when it clicked in that something special was going to happen.
Karen was too busy taking photos and Chi was extremely nervous. He wanted to do it right at the corner where you have the best view of Machu Picchu but if was too crowded. He then typed in his phone that he wanted everyone minus myself to leave as it made him even more anxious so down they went. I lingered around taking photos and whatnot trying to entice Karen into walking over to certain areas but none were to her liking.
It finally got to a point where I was taking photos of them like I normally do then taking solo ones of Karen. Chi told her to turn around so I could get a shot of her from behind looking out at Machu Picchu and then that’s when it happened. Chi got down on one knee and Karen turned around then did a double take and Chi swung his arm out with a ring in his hand and stuttered asking her to marry him. A delayed reaction said it all and now Machu Picchu and this Peru trip hold a special meaning to Chi and Karen. Check out their story.
Once that happened, I packed up my camera and descended. I went backwards down the first 2 sets of stairs then it got a little bit better going down as the steps weren’t as steep and short. I bombed it down and made it out the gate just minutes after the rest had gotten down. We wandered a bit of Machu Picchu before heading back down in the bus. When we returned to Aguas Caliente, it started to rain. Grabbed food from Orquidea Grill but rushed them as we needed to catch our train. I got the ceviche 40 sol – it was tasty but a little too vingery for my liking.
After lunch, went back to the hotel to grab our things and to the train station we went. The train station is located within the market place up the stairs. Karen booked the Vistadome train for us which includes a little entertainment and snack as we ride for an hour back to Ollantaytambo.
From Ollantaytambo, we got picked up by the shuttle to take us all back to Cuzco. We arrived at the main square and we’re delivered our luggage to the van. We packed our luggage in the van then Sofia and Ronan got dropped off at their hotel then Karen, Chi and myself got dropped off at the airport before the boys got dropped off. The Cuzco airport is very simple and security check was the easiest with no line and right through we went. Our flight was with Latam to Lima for 2 hours. We booked a car with the same driver as our first day – George but this time we stayed in the nicer part of town Miraflores.
Girasoles Hotel (Ernesto Diez Canseco 696, Miraflores, Peru) with a triple bed room for $80USD. By the time we checked in, it was already 1030PM so we decided to order in for dinner. Chifa aka Chinese closed at 1030PM so we ordered Pardo’s Chicken instead. We got fries and Peruvian roasted whole chicken and ate with our hands on the bed. Chi and Karen’s engagement dinner.
Peru & Panama last half
We took our time to get up then downstairs for breakfast. We walked over to the nearest grocery store – metro to purchase some snacks to bring home. The Miraflores area is higher end city as oppose to the main area of Lima and has beautiful architecture. I absolutely love the doors and colours that exist here.
Next stop was Manolo (Av. Larco 608, Miraflores – Lima – Perú ) for a Dulce de Leche churro 5 sol. Our plan for this morning was to take the free walking tour but when we arrived at the square, we met with the tour guide but he wanted to wait until 11AM for more people. We needed to make our way to the airport for 2PM so we decided to explore on our own
We ended up walking down to the waterfront area (Circuito de Playas) that was above the beach line. With palm trees and the look of the area, it reminded me of California and Hawaii with a tropical feel. This is where all the fitness buffs come out especially runners and bikers. You can look down where the highway is and also the beach where surfers were ripping the waves.
We walked to the El Parque del Amor also known as the Love Park then to the lighthouse before taking an uber 45 minutes to the main square of Plaza Armas and walked around to see the beautiful area which was pedestrian only. We made it to the main square and watched a bit of the changing of guards. This is one of the countries I’ve seen with an abundance of female officers whether it be policia or traffic control.
We rushed back to our hotel as we asked for late check out for 1PM. Grabbed an uber and headed for the airport. Before going past the gate we stopped and had McDonald’s. We got the fried chicken but it wasn’t impressive. It tasted like KFC chicken. 20.50sol. Through security and had about 50 sol left so I bought small bottles of pisco and alfajores cookies.
We threw our stuff down and walked down the street to the right to Rey – 24 hour grocery store. There are so many products that are produced from the states that it wasn’t that fun to explore what different snacks from what we have back home. The currency in Panama is USD as legal tender. The lines to checkout were quite long even at 1030PM but I bought a bunch of items and it only cost me $12USD.
Since we arrived late, we went next door to Niko’s 24 hour restaurant that had sandwich deals and I think further down the line, some hot Panamanian dishes. I got the BLT with fries for $5.25USD. It took 20-25 minutes to get our food making it after 11PM when we ate. They asked me my name for the bill but not for Karen so when we looked at the receipts, they put her name as China and mine said my name. I guess I’m too dark they don’t now what I am unlike Karen who is pale lol.
We went back to the hotel and showered and it was such an amazing shower. Chi and myself bought Panama beer so we drank that and watched American TV game shows. Panama beer isn’t quite my taste of beer.
We stopped by Delta – (Road 13, Corner of Road 38 | Opposite Athena Hotel) for brunch before leaving for Siem Reap. I was able to grab coffee beans that they grow and roast at their plantation. You can also purchase beans that haven’t been roasted for those of you who want to roast your own beans. The dessert case looked really good. They give you a pencil and paper to write down your orders. I ordered the Skinny Minnies drink – lemon, orange, cantaloupe, basil seed and got baked eggs served in a little pan with ground beef, ham and cilantro on top with a fresh baguette and butter on the side (the baguette was so fresh!). It was a good meal and I wish I had more room to eat one of their cakes. Went to a convenient store and grabbed a few snacks and off we went.
Off to Siem Reap we went with Lao Airlines. Visa on arrival – $30USD not $20USD. Once you fill out the customs forms on the plane ride over, you fill out visa form on arrival then head to a line where you hand over the money, forms and passport then go to another line where you will get your passport returned to you. Then you continue to the security desk where you need to write in the visa number you just got and also scan your fingerprints on the pad. The airport is much more modernized and looks higher quality than the smaller ones of Luang Prabang and Siem Reap. So basically, the exchange is $1USD=4000 Riel. USD and/or Riel is used but most prices are in USD. Not much of a need to change USD to Riel but also they don’t use coins here. The lowest bill is 500 riel. We stayed at Secret Pavilion Boutique Hotel (120 Angkor Night Market St, Krong Siem Reap 17252, Cambodia) and they offer free airport transfer and we got Mr Dany who picked us up in his tuktuk with a carriage in the back different from the ones in Laos. Our hotel is located just a street away from the night market and within hidden streets with locals but we need to walk out and around to get anywhere but it’s still a nice facility. A little bumpy ride though as the street isn’t a normal paved street. The hotel is really nice and we were greeted by Surien, one of the ladies at front desk as they got us to sit down and she gave us information about the area and they gave us complimentary drinks as they got our room ready. Nate also works here who went to school in California so his accent is different. They helped us carry our bags in the stairs. We booked a 4 single bed room and ended up on the inside corner in room 53 that overlooks the inner courtyard and pool. They beds are memory foam and the bathroom is the asian style where the shower isn’t separate from the rest. It’s so hot outside that if you hang something, it will be dry in no time. Humid.
Our main goal once we settled in was to do laundry which we sent it off just next door where its 1KG=$1USD and we will receive it back tomorrow evening. We then went off to look for a pharmacy or optics store to purchase contact solution. My contact solution (Clear Care) does not exist over here! Amy at some point lost her glasses in the jungle as the bottom portion of her bag opened and it fell out so she needed to purchase a new pair. The prices were so cheap compared to prices back home that Adam and myself also grabbed ourselves a new pair each. We went to Royal Optic just outside the laneway that enters into the street that leads to our hotel. Amy is the bargainer in this group and got the guy to take off at least $10USD off. Her frames were $36USD + lenses $18USD or something ridiculous like that. I was trying them on for fun not intending to purchase but when I tried it on, I realize the market is geared towards asians and well I can smile and the glasses don’t touch my cheeks like the average ones back home do and I don’t even need to customize with added nose pieces! You have no idea how happy I was for this! I purchased a pair that fade off at the bottom and are thin on the side which make me look more hipster/nerdy. The frames were $21 + $18USD for the lenses and I got them for $38USD! That is a definite steal for sure! In the end, for 3 pairs total, we got it for $147USD and the turnaround service was only 30 minutes (minus Adam’s who’s style isn’t in stock until tomorrow). We decided to hop into Nice Cool (Tepvong St | Taphul, Siem Reap) nearby because there was wifi and cold drinks which after looking at the menu, we saw food that looked delicious so we decided to eat dinner around 530PM. I ordered a giant green tea with milk $.75USD and Beef Lok Lak with rice and a fried egg on top. The sauce on the beef was a little salty but It came with a citrus-pepper dipping that when the sauces mixed tasted amazing and it was only $3USD. We thoroughly enjoyed our meals. One of the employees or owner here is originally from Seattle. I absolutely love the kids here in Asia; they are so cute and big eyed and I got to play with a few today.
After we went back to the shop to pick up our glasses, we continued onward to the night market street. We went into the first little area where there were neon signs than looked like a small pavilion of little shops where we bargained and I purchased coffee beans ($5USD), a little ceramic buddha faces statue ($3) and elephant capris ($2USD). I ended up getting asked if I spoke Khmer by one lady who thought I was Cambodian and another asking if I was Japanese because of my eyes. They are little too aggressive already approaching and asking you “you want to buy something lady? souvenir? I give you good deal” but we will be back. There are also supermarkets here! Amy and Adam bought some Off! bug spray and a few other items. On our way back to the hotel, we bought a nutella crepe from a cart and also a shop that sold shakes for $0.75USD – I got the apple shake and also got to play with this little girl and interact with her two older brothers – they were all so adorable and the oldest served us. You can get 60 minute massages here for $1USD which to me is insane. Back to the hotel and went for a night swim and then settled back into the room and stayed awake until 1130PM as Andrew was flying in to join us for the remainder of this trip.
We got a decent deal on flights ($1024CAD) with United Airlines from Toronto to arrive in Ho Chi Minh / Saigon and fly home from Bangkok however for this trip to be slightly cheaper, there were multiple stopover: YYZ->IAD;IAD->EWR (really UA.. you can’t just fly us to New York instead of detouring out to Washington); EWR->HKG;HKG->SGN. Flight home will be BKK->NRT;NRT->DEN;DEN->ORD;ORD->YYZ.
The flights weren’t actually that bad and I think because it was so broken up in the beginning it didn’t feel as gruelling until we finally made it to Hong Kong and awaited to board one more flight. The airport in Ho Chi Minh is basic. We lined up at the visa counter and handed in our visa approval forms (that we already booked online -$19.99USD ($27.16CAD) – http://www.myvietnamvisa.com/) then had to complete another form with the same basic information (you can leave passport info blank as they take your passport) then fill in your address, profession, accommodation location etc. Then you line back up and hand in that completed form with a passport photo (1 only) then sit down until they call your name. When they call your name proceed to the counter and receive your passport with the visa ticket inside and give $45USD and you are all set. One final bag screening and then out the door you go.
I exchanged $20CAD right away for cab fare and Adam did $20USD. We got swindled off the bat – NOTE FOR FUTURE: STICK WITH MAI LINHS AND VINASUN taxis and negotiate fare before hopping in. There is a exit fee of 10.000 NOT 100.000 which our driver showed us who probably did a switcheroo. When we got to our destination, the meter read 83.0 which is 83.000 but he kept insisting it was 830.000 which we didn’t have enough of anyways but we did give him nearly 700.000. We got ripped off completely but it was also our fault in the beginning because we told him its our first time there… All in all, we are down about $35 already on one taxi ride. If you can arrange a airport transfer, it could be cheaper or same price but less hassle.
We stayed at Hosen 2 Hotel – 4A Thi Sach with a double and a single bed. We ended up falling asleep around 230-3AM and I had set my alarm for 10AM. I easily awoke to 530AM and the sun rises around that time. We started our day around 645AM with our hotel’s buffet breakfast. It wasn’t bad at all as it included normal western food such as omelette, sausage, potatoes, egg, cereal etc but also noodles in soup, custard steam bun, rice, noodles, DIY banh mi, fish, meatballs, squid etc.
After breakfast, we went out to exchange money while trying to spot certain places such as Nhu Lan Bakery and Ben Thanh market. We walked by the water and experienced our first traffic jam with motorbikes, cars, vans, taxis and humans crossing through. I learned how to cross the street by just literally watching an old lady cross the road. You go slowly and keep eye contact with one hand sort of out; this way you and the motorcyclists know whats happening and both can adjust. We found Nhu Lan Bakery but then remembered we didn’t have any cash on us at that point so we went nearby to exchange currency. They round up here in terms of money and also don’t use coins. They barely even use their small bills (500,1000,2000,5000).
After that, we explored Ben Thanh market area which is very similar to every other night market Ive been to selling souvenirs, food and clothing. We walked around some more in the vicinity and ended up at Trung Nguyen Coffee where we sat on the second floor and people watched below and enjoyed some cold beverages. I had the green tea latte with coffee jelly (49.000VND). We then walked around more and ended up going to the Independence Palace which is their version of the white house then continued our walk back to our hotel. We relaxed for a bit and it was perfect timing as it started to pour really hard outside. We watched a little television and re-cooped then off we went to the airport to pick up Amy. This time, the fee was correct with roughly 122.000VND going in and about 155.000VND coming back due to traffic. Amy has been in Asia for 10-12 days prior with family and other friends. Since Amy came in later, we were unfortunately too late to do the Cu Chi Tunnels tour and we didn’t want to spend $52USD/pp to do a private tour since it was only half day and our Mekong Delta (full day) was $50USD/pp.
We got back to the hotel to drop off her stuff then off we went to get lunch at Nhu Lan Bakery (50-64-68 Ham Nghi St. Dist.1,) Trip advisor had this place highly recommended for their Banh Mi and they were pretty good. If you like hot then keep the pepper in but if not, either ask them to leave it out or pull it out. It left a tingle going on inside my throat and on my lips but it was very good. 20.000VND which is $1USD. We grabbed it and continued on our way to Ben Thanh Market with Amy. After visiting Ben Thanh again, we walked around trying to figure out what we wanted to see next since Cu Chi Tunnels wasn’t going to happen. We walked towards the cathedral but it looked packed with tourists so we went across the street to the Saigon Central Post Office (2 Công xã Paris, Bến Nghé, tp.). From there, we ventured to Vincom Centre (70 – 72 Le Thanh Ton | District 1) where it is filled with UK brands and a store that sold some Canadian brands like Venque and Natives. We ate and drank at Mochi Sweets (72 Lê Thánh Tôn, Tầng B2 Vincom, Bến Nghé, Quận 1). I can’t turn down good japanese treats such as mochi! I got the Green tea ice cream drink – 49.000VND (started off just tasting like water until the ice cream melted. We also decided to get 2 mochis each. I got the durian (with real durian chunks) and peach cream – both were good! We also had green tea, chocolate mousse, apple and purple potato. 28.000 each.
We decided we should get pho for dinner and looked up the top 5 places; we settled for one of the top ones which was also one of the farthest. I suggested we go because it was getting dark so it was a little cooler out plus we wouldn’t be walking that far into that area otherwise and I wanted to walk unfamiliar streets to take in more. Pho Hoa Pasteur (p. 8, 260E Pasteur) where I had Tiger beer with a small Tripe pho bowl. Tastes different but nonetheless still really good! We then took our time to walk back and battled the traffic once again and made it back to our hotel for a good nights sleep as the following day we are to do a Mekong Delta tour which starts at 5AM.
Grabbed a quick breakfast at Caffe Belmondo by Zuid station and hopped on the train to Schiphol airport – 2,60 euro. Very quick subway ride. Icelandair offers 1 free check-in baggage on arrival; two on the departure flight. After we checked in, we had to walk 20-30 minutes to get to our gate. Along the way, they have little area such the forest park where there are charging stations that you physically bike in order to charge your phone as well as a huge comfy communal sofa seating area and an outdoor terrace. The weather was perfect the day we left Amsterdam which sucked but at least we missed the flash floods happening in Italy.
I used the bank machine when we arrived at the airport and got 20000kr which is equivalent to $186CAD. Our Airbnb host’s brother picked us up and brought us to our accommodations. 8000kr each way for all 4. We are renting their Lexus for $55CAD/day. Our Airbnb was about 10-15 minute drive outside of Reykjavik. Ricky is our driver this trip. For dinner we went to Snaps (horsgata 1 | Odinstorg, Reykjavik 101) for dinner. I got Kir Royal 1200kr and Baccala Provincial which is salted cod with tomato sauce and fingerling potatoes 4100kr. We then ventured to a nearby grocery store – Hagkaup to grab food for breakfast. The hotdog stand unfortunately was closed by the time we arrived. There aren’t any traffic lights but roundabouts instead.
Netto, Bonus and Hagkaup are the cheap grocery stores, a few stay opened late. Gas is expensive with the lowest being 95 octane at 227.9. No need to tip but if service is good then you can leave a tip of 5-10%. There aren’t many trees here as it’s very windy. The water is so good here that you can drink from the tap BUT if you use hot water, it will smell of sulphur. The staple vegetable here is the potato. After the collapse in 2009 when importing was too expensive and difficult to get, they had to live off the land and cultivate what naturally is provided such of lamb and potatoes which makes for great tasting dairy and lamb (all grass fed).
-To see the aurora borealis – You need it to be really cold and a crisp night where there are no clouds to catch the northern lights.
-When opening a car door; hold the door as the winds will pull it open
-DO NOT SPEED IN ICELAND – IF CAUGHT; WORLD’S MOST EXPENSIVE SPEEDING TICKET
I travelled to Seattle for a weekend trip (2 days, 1 night) with my friends Christian, Joanne, Yolande, Joseph & Stanley. We rented 2 cars and drove down from Vancouver.
We made it to the border by 9AM and first stop along the way was the Seattle Premium Outlet mall. Nike was on everyone’s mind and everyone left with a pair of shoes. When in the states, you can’t go wrong with McDonald’s for a meal. They had this deal called Feast Mode $10USD (2 cheeseburgers; in our case 3, 20 McNuggets, 2 med fries) that we got which fed 3 people. Seattle’s facade reminds me of Vancouver by the water but the highways and the actual downtown core like Toronto with a mix of New York. We stayed at the Paramount Hotel at 8th & Pine St (Paid parking across the street). Then straight to the Niketown and Nordstrom Rack (Designer goods at non-designer prices).
By the time we were finished shopping, it was already 8PM. We Yelp’ed a couple of places to eat and our first option that was open that late was Taylor Shellfish on Melrose. We walked up Pine St to Melrose St (this area is the Cap Hill neighbourhood) and walked into the establishment. It is not meant to hold big parties and is first come first serve on seating where you pick an item and they will grab it fresh from their selection. Unfortunately, it was already packed so we left and right beside it was Sitka & Spruce which was recommended that we check out. During the day, it’s a deli/butcher shop in the front and they serve coffee but in the back is the restaurant. The decor was very lovely and somewhat hipster looking. It was also very packed and they said they had multiple reservations however they did recommend other eats on the same street. We finally settled at the corner restaurant called Terraplata. It’s an earth to plate type of restaurant and is open late night. It is very cute corner restaurant with a solid oak door and windows on all sides with a huge bar and long communal table type of seating. I was fortunate enough for my dear high school friend Katrina to join us for dinner. For dinner I had the Quinault river steelhead (cauliflower, harissa, cilantro, pinenuts, salsa verde). Crispy skin and the combination with the cauliflower made the meal. Presentation wise, they plated on these long and somewhat narrow plates which was okay but also at the bottom of their menu, it mentions their meals are made to be shared family style which is not the case.
After dinner, Katrina wanted to take us to Molly Moon for ice cream but it had just closed when we finished paying the bill so next best option – Cheesecake Factory. Pineapple upside down cheesecake for me and I don’t regret a single bite of it. As we were walking along Pike St, we passed by another recommendation – Rumba which is Caribbean dining.
The rain never stopped falling during our visit. But it didn’t stop me from exploring. We walked over to Pike Place Market (Similar to Granville Island and St Lawrence Market) with the booths for fresh farmers market, meats, flowers, jewelry etc. We grabbed lunch at Pike Place Chowder for bread bowls – I grabbed the smoked salmon chowder and we all found a place to sit and eat where we were accompanied by a dog from one of the stalls. We also saw the first Starbucks that also had a huge line. Katrina recommended we try some Russian pastries at Piroshky Piroshky. I had the Cinnamon cardamom twist. A rainy Sunday but otherwise a fun little walk and great food.
Our last stopover before heading north of the border was to Trader Joes (2410 James St, Bellingham, WA 98225). I absolutely love this store and if I had one closer I would’ve bought so much more from this store. I loaded up on the Unsulfurated Dried Mangoes and the Dark Chocolate Edamame Beans because they are that good. We made it back in to for some good old volleyball and to the usualy spot for late night pho – Pho 99.
If we had time, we would have like to try these restaurants that were highly recommended:
Since we stayed at J-Hoppers for 5 days, we got a free bike day. After packing our things, Georgie and myself went biking for about 2 hours and made sure to be back by noon as we had to go meet Kayo at 1PM for a day trip to Nara. When we returned, Daniel showed us his bike that he had purchased for roughly 300CAD. It was a foldable bike called Yeah. We said our goodbyes as he went on his way enroute to Tokyo while we waited for Shela’s return. She had taken the train to Nando station for a 100¥ shop and found Japanese peaches. She had to wait for the bus which made her late, luckily we called Kayo to let her know we would be late. We arrived at the station to meet with Kayo quickly and purchased our ticket to Nara which was 480¥ (our most expensive one just yet for a single ride). To get through the ticket gate from our station, you had to combine the tickets into the ticket slot and then it spat back out the Nara ticket. The train went around the mountain and gave us a nice scenic view.
We went directly for the deer park and grabbed the deer crackers 150¥ a pack. The deers have been in Nara for thousands of years so they roam free. If you bow to them, they will bow to you for food. But be aware, the deers swarm when they see food. They are suppose to be polite but occasionally they will headbutt you in the butt or pull on your shirt for food so when you don’t have any crackers left you are to show them your hands to show them there is nothing left. It was very cute to see the kids make them bow. The Sika deer are free roaming especially in the park but they do go into town. The deer have become symbols of luck and have a slight deity status which makes them sacred and protected so killing one could be punishable by death. Even if you don’t have food, it is great to see that if you bow to a deer they will bow back to you.
We also went to see the Big Buddha in the temple which cost 500¥. Nothing too special but the courtyard was beautiful and the grass was pristine.
We ate near the train station where we had udon noodles. For only 680¥, I grabbed the egg soup udon noodles which was the perfect size and so delicious. We also found the Daiso (which is Japan’s 100¥ shop) selling pretty much anything and everything you could need for a home. On the train heading home, there were these 2 gentlemen sitting across from us – you could clearly tell they had been drinking. At one point they stood up but wasn’t fast enough to get off at their stop so they stayed on. One of the guys then decided to approach Kayo to tell her that he thought we are all beautiful ladies and gave us a box of special sushi. Fruits and sushi are given as gifts for any occasion. We aren’t sure as to what kind of sushi at this point but Kayo tells us that it is good. However, that man didn’t want to get off the train but his friend got too embarrassed and made both of them get off. As the train pushed away, the man kept waving frantically.
When we returned to J-Hoppers, Shela cut open the peaches she bought earlier and we ate them before we left. At first, the first piece I had wasn’t anything special but then I took a piece from the second peach and it was so good! The skin has a softer texture to what I’m used to and it is just so juicy. Those peaches were incredibly tasty and unlike the regular peaches back home.
We have had an amazing high of 28, low of 15 degree weather since we arrived in Japan so a light shower came down as we grabbed our things from J-hoppers and departed for our new home for the night – Capsule Hotel Asahi Plaza in Shinsaibashi. We really wanted to experience what it would be like to sleep overnight in a capsule. We arrived and tried to get settled. The thing is a capsule hotel is very simple and bare. You take off your shoes immediately and put them into a designated shoe locker, grab the key and give it to front desk (you should remember your number). There are lockers for charging and maybe 1 plug inside the capsule areas. You get a capsule key holder with a big key and a small key – the big one opens the main corridor for the women’s only section (there are single gendered & co-ed dorms as well) and the small one is for your locker where you can store things. Mind you, it is tiny – 88CMx24CMx44CM so you can throw things in there like your personal bag and things you would need from your luggage. If it is too large, the luggage gets stored at reception for 200¥ a night but the good thing is that 200¥ gives you 24 hours of storage.
The bathing area is an open area with 1 stand up shower and 5 sitting with a tub to soak in – very traditional Japanese style bathhouse arrangement. Shampoo, conditioner, body wash, body sponge and facial wash are provided for you. So the proper etiquette for taking a shower in this onsen is you go into the main room of the shower room where there are little lockers to store your clothes and lock it up. You strip down then go into the bath room and choose your spot. You want to rinse yourself first then go abouts with your personal hygienic business. There are mirrors but I would say try to avoid looking at them since the mirrors are placed in angles that you could potentially lock eyes with someone else in the room. After people wash and clean themselves, some opt to soak in the tub (I did not) and then you get out, dry off and dress. I’m not the biggest fan of communal shower but at least I can say I’ve stayed at a capsule hotel and I’ve also done the whole communal bath house that is part of Japanese culture.
The capsule is for sleeping. It’s not too small but I hit my head 3 times on the built-in television. If you are sitting straight up in your pod, there is still space around for those who feel claustrophobic. There are capsules where you need to crawl straight in and then there are some that you go sideways in. You also have either someone on top or under you as well. You have a bamboo type curtain that separates you from the rest of the pods with a light and air constantly being blown into your space.
We flew with Air Canada 14.5 hours direct to Hong Kong – very smooth.
Landed in Hong Kong and had to walk a distance to get to customs. The airport is it’s own island as Hong Kong acts as a giant hub for transfers. Once we cleared customs we purchased a sim card and a octopus card. Octopus card is a tap card you can refill and use for buses and convenience stores – It is very important to have one of these cards. $39HKD for the card with $10HKD already on the card.
We stayed at Caritas Oswald Cheung International House (rm2105) in Aberdeen for the week. We got a room with triple beds. We took the bus (A10) from the airport all the way to Tin Wan street (about an hour ride). It is humid outside however, in Hong Kong, they blast AC everywhere indoors (including the bus) – you can’t win. When we arrived at our hotel, our glasses fogged as we left the bus. We went to reception and they heard us speaking english so they started to converse with us in english and unknowingly, they spoke with a British accent. Hong Kong was once under British rule thus British schooling. After checking in, we passed out until dinner time. We joined Georgina’s parents for dinner at a small restaurant down the street. The rain started to come down really hard to the point that the streets were flooded and a heavy stream of water covered the streets. Good thing for flip flops.
The streets are so narrow and everything is pretty much on angles and slopes including schools. Since there isn’t much land, they build upwards. There are 7-Eleven’s everywhere. Well Come is their equivalent to our Loblaws, Shop n Park – Food Basic, K mart – Shoppers drugmart.
Since the weather called for rain, we decided the night before that we would make it a shopping day. In the morning, we went to Number 1 bakery and grabbed buns and egg tarts then some Vitasoy from the 7-Eleven for breakfast. We left around 930AM and arrived at Causeway Bay by bus at 10AM. Stores don’t open until 11AM (they stay open really late). The temperature started rising as we started to walk around. The sun came out and the rays were strong. Since Hong Kong is so jam-packed, they build department stores & malls upward. There are tons of shopping centres scattered around. Our biggest haul for shopping was from Uniqlo – we spent about 2 hours in there.
SOGO is the Hong Kong version of America’s Macy’s or Canada’s The Hudson Bay Company where brands are separated into sections in one big building. We all purchased a pair of Birkenstocks for 449HKD a pair ($65CAD). We went to Yoshinoya for lunch, which was basically a beef bowl with rice and onions.
It’s overwhelming to see so many people congested into one area. We grabbed beef jerky from Bee Cheng Hiang and also grabbed mango drinks at Hui Lau Shan (hoy lau saang). We returned home by the 72 bus and grabbed Mcdonalds for dinner – I got the big tasty. It’s weird to see people just leave their trash everywhere and on the tables but they have people that get paid to clean.
Adjusting to the time is difficult – Sleeping at 11PM but waking at 3AM. The time difference is 12 hours from Toronto.
I officially got up at 1030AM and went out to explore and shoot. I went left on the main street and kept going left thinking it would lead me back to my street instead it led me uphill and the road kept curving right. Back to Causeway Bay to take the subway line (MTR) – to Mong Kok – the Kowloon side of Causeway Bay. Their subway lines are very efficient in transporting thousands upon thousands of people each and everyday and are ahead of their time well, at least way ahead from Toronto. The subway line is incredibly easy to use and I highly recommend using it! The automated voice speaks in Cantonese, Mandarin and then English with a British accent. Also here on buses/subs etc there is absolutely no eating or drinking (all about efficiency). The subway also is slightly wider and only has seats going along the side instead of toronto’s seats that sit 2 forward/backwards and along the side. They also have metal seats so its easier to clean and just like Paris’ system, you can get cell service all the way underground. To enter the subway, there are already lanes for people to walk through and then arrows where people line up by glass doors which open when the subway arrives (also a good prevention of people jumping onto the tracks). As you exit you need to swipe your octopus card as the MTR charges by distance. There is absolutely no eating or drinking on the subway or else you might end up in a fight with locals.
It feels like it was 10-15 minutes just to get out of the subway station but Hong Kong is all about escalators at all lengths, angles and speeds.
When we arrived at Mong Kok station, we found ourselves at Langham Place which is a 12-storey shopping complex with a crazy long escalators and all about the astrology theme. It jumps from floor 3 to 8 and when you reach 8 there are stairs to either go up or down.
Just to get to each floor was a trek so we stopped by the food court for lunch. I grabbed the chicken beef with omurice from Curry House. It’s weird but they have food court security people who just watch you eat. I guess it’s for efficiency so they get you in and out in no time. I wanted to goto Tim Ho Wan – 2-8 kwong wah st which is the cheapest Michelin starred restaurant but we couldn’t wait to eat.
We walked shoe street and the ladies market. Ladies market street is quite long but is a great place to bargain for goods of all sorts there.
We finished shopping and decided to meet up with Georgina’s extended family for dinner on the west coast of Hong Kong island. We took the subway to the end then hopped onto the 5B bus. This city is busy all the time – think New York’s Times Square but everywhere. We finally made it to our destination after Sands St stop and had dinner in a food court type hot pot restaurant. We took a sprinter van/bus home.