Monday, January 9, 2017

Day 4: Giving Alms and Flower Market

Day 4 on our Affordable Asia itinerary read:
Enjoy the day free at leisure or join the optional "Landmark of Bangkok Tour & Boat Ride along the River of the King". During the tour we visit and admire the royal splendor of the Grand Palace and the Emerald Buddha Temple. Board a motorboat and make our way along the Chaopraya River to the restaurant where we will enjoy our lunch. Continue on to visit the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall (Marble Hall) where we will admire the "Art of the Kingdom" exhibition which contains exotic and unique Thai art created by local artisans. This modern palace blends Western Renaissance architecture with ancient Thai design. (For the Marble Hall visit, sleeveless tops and short skirts are not allowed for women. Men are required to wear pants and shirts with sleeves.)

We decided to plan our own day. I really wanted to get a chance to interact with the Buddhist Monks, so I started by reading about giving alms to monks in Thailand. There is a lot of information out there, but one thing that I was concerned about was the situation where tourists interfere with the monks' rituals and act disrespectfully. (See Alex in Wanderland: Tourists Behaving Badly.)

But, then, also on Alex in Wanderland, I found this great review for a Viator tour that included almsgiving. That got me searching on Viator, where I found a great itinerary that included a few other stops we would want to see, like the flower market and the Grand Palace! Viator Exclusive: Morning Buddhist Almsgiving, Grand Palace and Flower Market Tour in Bangkok

So, that was the plan. We got up early in the morning and dressed conservatively, covering our shoulders and knees. Our tour guide for the day, Sun, picked us up in our hotel lobby. There were already two young ladies in the van, and that was our group for the day - the four of us. 

After being on big buses with large groups, it was nice to be in a smaller group. On the way to the temple, Sun told us a bit about the lives of Buddhist monks and how to behave respectfully to the monks when we gave alms. For example, we would take off our shoes to symbolize being "lower" than the monks.  (The monks are barefoot, so if you're wearing shoes, you're higher or taller than the monks, at least in theory.) The women also had to be careful not to touch the monks in any way. Sun had also already picked up bags of food offerings for us to give to the monks. Soon, we were at the temple and climbed out into the parking lot where there were monks waiting and other locals giving alms as well. (We were the only tourists at this spot.) 

Our next stop was the flower market. I was blown away by the large selection of flowers at incredibly low prices. I wanted to buy them all! But, we were only staying in Bangkok one more night, and I didn't know how well a bouquet of flowers would move around Thailand.  

Flowers for Sale

Flowers Strung into Garland

25-35 Thai Baht = 70-98 cents
The market was not just flowers, though! There were also fruits and vegetables and even prepared foods.

Red and Green Chili Peppers

Sun treated us to Thai Iced Coffee. This is the little garland I bought.

The next stop was the Grand Palace. The fact that the King had passed away about a month earlier meant that things were a little different at the Grand Palace. First, we would not be able to go inside the Palace. Only Thai citizens were allowed in, and there were very long lines to see the King lying in state. Second, the palace grounds were very crowded. I don't know if there is always a line to get in, but mourners had traveled from throughout Thailand and even from other countries to pay their respects. There were even food and drink tents where people were giving nourishment to the mourners. Sun explained, "Many people spent everything they had to come to Bangkok, so they can't just buy food."  Finally, nearly everyone was wearing black, long sleeves and long dresses, despite the heat.

Stroll around the grounds until you feel at home.

Sun was not only an excellent tour guide, but he was also our photographer! 

Very ornate! Phra Mondop, the library.

After we saw the Emerald Buddha (no photos allowed, sorry), Sun showed us how to make a donation for a small piece of gold leaf to apply to a Buddha statue.  

The guards at the Grand Palace
At the Grand Palace, we could see long lines of mourners waiting for their turn to see the King.  And lots of guards.

Our tour was done by noon. (Remember, we started early in the morning.)  We decided to stop at a McDonalds by our hotel before returning "home" for a nap because Jon wanted to see what they had.

There is so much good stuff going on here.  Notice Ronald McDonald is wearing the black ribbon in honor of the late King and doing the wai.  Unusual foods include McWings and corn pie (kind of tastes like a corn fritter, I guess.)  Chili sauce, American Ketchup, and tomato sauce.  
We took a nap, made it to Happy Hour in the Executive Lounge, and then went out exploring a little bit before bed.
Bangkok Traffic

One thing that we found while we were exploring was this Llaollao Frozen Yogurt across the street from our hotel.  It's a Spanish chain, but there are no locations in the U.S.  We split this dessert which was basically something like a fruity slushee with tart frozen yogurt, drizzled with cookie butter.  I thought it was delicious (especially the cookie butter!), Jon thought it was too sweet.

That's okay, more for me!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Day 3: Waking Up in Bangkok

Day 3 and we were ready to start our adventure. Step one: Open up the curtains and get a look outside.

This is the view from our room. A little hard to tell, but that is a long line of monks in their saffron (orange) robes, collecting their morning alms.

Next we grabbed a quick breakfast before meeting our tour.  I didn't take any photos of the breakfast spread, but let me say that it was quite a spread: American breakfast foods, Chinese, Thai, even Indian foods.  We were allowed to go into the executive lounge for breakfast, but, honestly, we never made it there in the morning.  

Time to tour! We met our tour group down in the lobby. This first day there was a little bit of chaos - people couldn't remember which tour guide they were with (P.A., Kitty, or Audi), and people arrived late. I guess that's to be expected on the first morning, on only a few hours of sleep. 

Either way, we were off! 

There were 3 tour groups (each with their own guide) with about 30 guests in each group, so we were 3 buses and 90 tourists total.

Our itinerary (received before the trip) for the day read: 
Bangkok is a city of gleaming modernity firmly rooted in ancient Buddhist tradition and beliefs. After breakfast, we visit the Temple of Golden Buddha which is home to the world’s largest solid gold Buddha statue. A magnificent piece of history not to be missed, the seated Buddha measures 10 feet high, weighs over 5 tons, and is worth an estimated $14m. Stroll through one of Bangkok's largest Flower Markets at Paklong Talat. Continue on to visit the oldest temple, the Temple of Reclining Buddha (Wat Pho). After enjoying a local Thai buffet lunch, we have the chance to visit the Gem's Factory & Thai silk. Spend the evening free at leisure or join our optional "Thai Classical Dance Show with Dinner".
This bus ride was our first look at Thailand in the daylight. 

First tuk-tuk sighting! I also loved the bright pink cabs!

Many buildings had large billboards commemorating the King.

Look at this crazy truck! The Thais may still be wearing dark colors to show their respect to the King, but this truck shows that Thais love color! 

First stop, Temple of Golden Buddha!

The outside of the temple.

A memorial to the late King on the outside of the temple.

First look at the Golden Buddha!

Selfie with the Golden Buddha. It was a little hard to get one without people in the background!

Our tour guide pointed out that this is the area where the monks for this temple live.
Then we had a really cool experience, which I believe could only come from having a really awesome guide. P.A. directed us to an area where the monks were giving blessings. This isn't us, because we couldn't get a picture while we were getting blessed, but these are the people who were blessed before us. People bring gifts of food (those are food baskets next to the monks) or money and receive a short chant from the monks, holy water splashed from a small bundle of reeds, and if you're really patient at kneeling in a hot room for a long time, you can receive a prayer and a small string bracelet.  

Jon got the prayer and the bracelet, I had to bail from the hot room after a little while.  But I thought it was really cool how P.A. showed us where and how to sit, how to make the donations, etc. It was a much more personal moment than taking our photo in front of statue. 

If I remember right, I don't think we went to the Flower Market that day, and our next stop was Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha).

Again, P.A. was great about giving us tips about where there were less crowds and better photo opportunities. For example, he said, don't get stuck right at the door where it's crowded and the view isn't that great. Instead, there are little areas where the railing is inset, go to the first and fourth one for a better photo.  

The entrance for foreigners. There were signs like this at most of the places we visited.
The grounds around the temple were beautiful. I loved the little statutes hidden among the trees.

Here's our guide, P.A., telling us about chedis and stupas. 

I love all of the Buddhas in a row.

Hey! My shirt is the color of the Buddha's robes! Must be very auspicious!

One of the many temples on the grounds. 

Another homage to the late King. They were everywhere. The King was very well respected.

Finally, the reclining Buddha! It was huge! Almost impossible to get a picture of the whole thing, but we tried!

When I look at this picture, I'm reminded of how HOT it was in there. And outside. But even moreso in the temple. 

As I wrote, it was super hot. One little boy in our group vomited, I think because of the heat. When we came out of the temple and regrouped, P.A. had bottles of cold water for us which was very appreciated! 

Sunshine on the temple's gilded ornamentation. 

From there we went to lunch, and had the rest of the day on our own. Luckily, we did not go to the "Gem factory and Thai silk" on this day either, but I'll talk more about the gem factory in a future post. We skipped the dinner cruise. I think we ended up sleeping most of the evening, only waking up for happy hour in the executive lounge. 

It was a fabulous (and tiring) first day in Thailand! 

Friday, December 23, 2016

Days 1 and 2: Travel to Thailand

Our adventure began early in the morning with a short flight from Seattle to San Francisco on Alaska Airline at 6:50 a.m. I can't say much about that flight, I think I slept through most of it.

Upon arriving in San Fran, we rushed to the Air China desk because we wanted to see if there were any upgrades available for our long flight from San Francisco to Beijing. When we got to the window, it was closed, with a sign that it would open about an hour later. We decided to camp out and be at the front of the line when it opened. I'm glad we did - the line grew longer and longer behind us!

When the Air China window finally opened (a little while after the time posted on the sign), we asked for an upgrade and were told that there were two seats available in economy plus (I think they may have called it "Super Economy"?).  Even better, our seats would have an empty seat between them. Sold! This upgrade was only for the San Francisco-Beijing leg of the flight, we'd be in regular economy for the Beijing-Bangkok leg of the flight.

By the time we got through the line we still had a couple of hours so we went looking for a lounge to relax in. We chose the United lounge, which I think cost about $50 per person. At least it included food, drinks, wi-fi and comfy chairs. If you have a pass, do it. If not, you may want to check out The Points Guy who has some great pointers for passing time at the SFO.

After a couple of mimosas, we were ready to rejoin the masses and head to our gate. Off to Beijing!

A few notes about the flight on Air China. First, economy plus was well worth it. We had a little more room, especially with the empty seat between us. Second, they had a decent entertainment system. For example, I watched "The Secret Life of Pets" which had just come out on iTunes a day or two before we left.

Things we worried about for the flight: power at the seat and wi-fi.  Good news: There is a USB port at the seats in super economy.  Bad news: There was no power at the seats in regular economy. And there was no wi-fi anywhere to be found.

More importantly, you were not allowed to use an iPhone on the flight! Not even in airplane mode! This was really disappointing because I had researched ahead of time how to entertain myself and had come up with the plan of listening to podcasts because it wouldn't use much battery power. Now I had a USB charging port, and wasn't allowed to use my iPhone. I ended up watching a few movies on my iPad, which, strangely, was allowed, and taking a few short naps.

For more info on the flight, I found, once again, the Points Guy to be helpful and accurate: especially when it came to reviews of the food.  My tip: skip the soup!

In Beijing, we had a fairly quick layover before our flight to Bangkok (less than 2 hours), so we zoomed through the airport. We had to go through security in Beijing, and I would note that we saw them taking away a lot of people's portable battery packs.  For more info, see this advisory: Air Travel: Power Banks without Clear Product Identification are Prohibited I also found them to be extremely picky on what they considered a "liquid," for example, I did not take my solid deodorant out of my bag but then the guard made a big deal out of taking it out and pointing to the sign about taking liquids out of your bag.

Also note that the Beijing airport was freezing. I mean, brrr.... freezing.  We had almost an hour to wait at the gate and we weren't the only ones shivering. Some people had their Air China blankets with them, others were bundled in coats. I'm not sure if it's worth bringing a coat just to be comfortable for that hour, but taking the blanket from the Air China flight seemed like a great idea.

The flight to Bangkok was a little less enjoyable because we sat in Economy like commoners: no entertainment and no room to stretch out. Thankfully, this flight was a lot shorter than the first leg (5 hours rather than 12 hours).

When you're close to landing in Bangkok, the flight attendants will hand out arrival cards for you to fill out. Definitely have a pen on hand, and definitely fill it out on the plane. When we arrived the lines were very long, and they were taking people out of line who didn't have their cards filled out.

When we landed in Bangkok, we knew we needed to get cash. We passed the first ATMs and money exchange windows because there were long times. Thankfully, as we got closer to customs and baggage claim (it was a long walk!), we found ATMs and money exchange windows without any line.

There was a long line, however, for customs. This was also where we got out first feel for the heat in Thailand, as there was no air conditioning in this part of the airport.  We made it through and picked up our luggage.  By that point, we had noticed a few other people with "Affordable Asia" pins on their shirts, so we were starting to see who would be in our tour group.

We had one weird hiccup in the Bangkok airport. The directions from Affordable Asia read:
Please go through Customs and Immigrations on your own.  After you pick up your luggage, exit the baggage claim area from exit C and look for the Affordable Asia representative holding an Affordable Asia flag or sign.  Please wear your Affordable Asia badge for easy identification.   

We picked up our luggage and then lugged it all the way to one end to go through Exit C, only to go through the Exit and find out that the meeting point was closer to where we picked up our luggage, back in the direction we had come from.

By the time we met up it was well past midnight.  We got to meet Kitty, and P.A., who would be our (excellent!) guide.  Kitty got us boarded on the bus to our hotel (the Amari Watergate Bangkok) and welcomed us with her funny jokes, keeping us entertained and awake for the ride to the hotel, which was about a half hour.

We got into the airport well after 1 a.m., and knew we would only have a few hours to sleep before meeting up with the tour in the morning.  But that didn't stop us from marveling at the beauty of our corner suite.  We were thankful that we had opted for the upgrade and would have 3 nights to enjoy this beautiful room.

Jon in the office area of our hotel suite.

Sofa for lounging, and the doorway to the dressing area.

One of the bathrooms in our suite.

The big bed and the dressing area. 
We showered to get the germs of travel off of us and then we hit the hay. The next day was a big day -- our first day in Thailand!

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Thailand: Booking and Planning

Back in January, almost a full year ago, on a whim, I bought a Groupon tour of Thailand. What was I thinking? Who buys their travel on Groupon, especially on something as big as a trip to Thailand? This wasn't like booking a hotel room for a night, this was a full-fledged 12 day tour. Like I said, what was I thinking?

The tour was through Affordable Asia, and was their 12 day itinerary including Bangkok, River Kwai, Ayuthaya, Pattaya, Bangkok, and Chiang Mai.

In the months that followed, I did as much research as I could on our destinations, our itinerary, and Affordable Asia. While I found a lot of great information about the places we would visit, I couldn't find many reviews of Affordable Asia. So, here I am to add mine to the internet for the next adventure-seeker who considers an Affordable Asia vacation. 

Short version: It was fantastic. If you're on the fence, go for it. Especially if it's your first trip to Asia, I think it's a great way to get a perfect introduction.  

And below, and in the posts that I think will follow in the next few days, is a much longer version of my memories and photos and thoughts on our tour. I hope you enjoy traveling with me and I hope that this info is helpful to someone considering this or a similar tour.

First let me say that when you get to Thailand, it's not actually Affordable Asia running your tour. Our guides, for example, were through "Perfect Tours." I can't really tell you what the division is between the two companies, who was responsible for which part of the tour, etc. I'd guess that if you went on an Affordable Asia tour in another country (they have tours in Japan and China, for example), your tour would be through another company. Therefore, I can't speak to the quality of the tours in every country, but at this point I would trust that Affordable Asia is dealing with responsible and proficient tour companies.  

Throughout the process, our communication with Affordable Asia was good. For example, I knew I wanted to book our tour for trip for the week around Thanksgiving. I also figured that we wanted to leave out of San Francisco. (The other choice was Los Angeles.) When I bought the Groupon, that week was available. When I had the Groupon and took the code into Affordable Asia to book, that week was gone. I immediately had regrets. Did I just fall for a $3,000 scam? I emailed Groupon, worried. Groupon responded that I should call Affordable Asia directly to see if we could work it out before going any further. I called Affordable Asia and told the woman what happened. She said "Oh, I see what the problem is... try it now." And, instantly, the problem was fixed. And my faith in Affordable Asia was already growing.

Leading up to our vacation, I checked more often. There were a number of optional tours to choose from, but I decided I wanted to do some more research before booking any of them. As it was, our schedule was pretty full without any optional tours. 

One of the things that I did see pop up on our reservation website, in addition to the optional tours, was an optional hotel upgrade. For $189 a person, we could upgrade to a corner suite at the Amari Watergate, where we were staying for 3 nights.  At first I wasn't sure. But then we read that the suite came with access to an executive lounge which had a happy hour every night... and a 24-hour butler... and we were sold.  

Complementary drinks in the executive lounge at the Amari Watergate - Bankok.

Most of the optional tours could be booked while we were in Thailand (for a slightly higher price), but I figured booking a hotel needed a little pre-planning if we wanted our room to be guaranteed.  So, we booked that. 

The other thing that we booked was a day trip to "Chiang Rai and Golden Triangle and Don Sao Island of Laos." I read the description of that side trip, along with the fact that it came with a boat ride into Laos, and I was sold. 

What I can say, if you're unsure about whether to book the optional tours, is that there is definitely an opportunity to book each of them while you're in Thailand. And, on average, the difference is about $10 more. But it's not like any of the optional tours sold out or filled up, and our guide always asked us if we wanted to join the optional experiences as they came up. 

As far as packing, I'd say that these were the most helpful and indispensable items we picked up before we left: packing cubes, power converters, and power strips with USB outlets and converters.

I was not compensated in any way for my review of Affordable Asia, but my shopping links provide Amazon referrals for which I receive a small compensation at no extra cost to you.  

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Georgetown Carnival

Yesterday, we went to check out the Georgetown Carnival with our friend Jess.  We left Olive at daycare because we thought it might be too loud and crowded and hot for her (and I think we were right), although there were many dogs there.

Georgetown is a neighborhood down in the south end of Seattle. It's known as being "artistic" and "hipster."  Those aren't my words, I took that directly from  (At this point, you might be wondering, how do they describe every other neighborhood, if they just used their two best adjectives on Georgetown?  Funny you should ask - they didn't even bother to describe my new neighborhood! Either way, here's their neighborhood guide if you want to check it out.)

As for me, I first knew Georgetown by their beers! If you've been to Seattle, you've probably tried a Manny's or a Roger's or a Lucille, all made by Georgetown Brewery.  (My Georgetown beer of choice is Chopper's Red, but, looking at their website, I'd like to try the Johnny Utah!)

But as far as the neighborhood, I had only ever driven through when I-5 was backed up and thought, "This is cute, we should come down here one day." And that was that.

Well, until now.  Until the Georgetown Carnival.

You can't make it very far into the event poster without wondering, what the heck are power tool races?  I mean, obviously, they're world famous, but maybe I missed them somehow? Well, I've got photos for you.  

Basically, they're racing small belt sander machines, dressed up... down a wooden (obviously, because they're sanding) track about 60 feet long.  With points for creativity, speed, and style?  At least, that's what I got out of it.

There were also food trucks, beer (it's Georgetown, remember?), artist vendors, belly dancers, stilt walkers, aerial acts, a hella funny magician, games for the kids, an arcade, some classic cars, oh, and great music!

This band doing The Beastie Boys' Sabotage killed it.  

Overall, it was a fabulous day out.  We definitely had a great afternoon.  Good suggestion Jess!