Monday, July 26, 2010

Day 29: Flying Home

After checking out of our marvelous hotel room at 7 p.m. we went to happy hour and hung out with Marv's former colleague until we left for the airport at 9:30.

Since we hadn't spent barely any money in Bangkok we had some Thai bhat to burn so we decided to take a taxi to the airport instead of navigating the sky train system. After hearing we'd need to make 2 train changes I wasn't willing to put forth the effort anyways.

We got to the airport with plenty of time to spare, and took off pretty much on time. Marv found out that there is a camera on the nose of the plane that shows live footage to your personal screen so he was like a kid on Christmas watching the plane take off from the pilot's view.

Usually I drug myself to sleep on long haul flights with Dramamine (motion sickness tablets) and red wine. After the wine soakage I have put myself through the last few days I was in no mood for wine so I stuck to my trusty airplane drink, ginger ale. I was super sleepy, too, so didn't feel the need to drug myself.

And I was able to sleep 7 hours of the 11 hour flight! This is a first for a non-drugged up me. My body tried to wake up after 4 hours, over Afghanistan, but I forced it back to sleep longer. I woke up for good just east of Moscow with a semi-decent nights sleep.

We got to Oslo 15 minutes ahead of schedule and were so very, very pleased to see that fall had already arrived in Norway. It was 55°F (13°C) - and it felt AMAZING! I am built for cold weather. If you haven't noticed already I melt in the heat.

As we were boarding the bus to take us back home I noticed that my debit card was not where it should be in my wallet. Um...not good. I'll go through my bag when we get home to see if it's there.

Bags thoroughly checked, no debit card in sight. The last time I used it was Wednesday night at the hotel restaurant. They gave it back, along with our receipt and borrowed Hilton premium membership card - in a little paper sleeve. And I know that paper sleeve was in our hotel room the last time we were.

Smart traveler me had copied all my credit cards and left a copy with my dad in the U.S. and Marv's dad in Norway, to be used in emergency situations such as this. We got to Marv's parents house, the only home we have right now, at 9:45 a.m. and called to cancel the card. As of Friday afternoon there were no fraudulent charges made to the card - fingers crossed!

Day 21: Kuala Lumpur Day 1

Our flight for Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (from here on out called KL) departed at 9:20 a.m. and 4 other people flew elsewhere at 9:15 so we shared 2 taxis to the airport. Hanoi traffic being the insane gong show that it is we had to leave at 6:30 to budget for traffic jams during the 40 minute ride. There was no major traffic so we got there in plenty of time.

My visa to Vietnam was on a loose piece of paper, which I had glued into my passport, since that's what I had to do with the Cambodia one. Turns out when you exit the country they need to keep the visa - the very same one that was glued WELL into my passport. The emigration official looked at me like a child, not knowing what to do about the conundrum so I told him "well let's rip it out then". I pried it out as best I could, shredding the visa and 2 of my passport pages in the process. Which, if I am not mistaken, is destroying federal property and considered a federal offence.

Arrest me if you will, America, I just wanted to get the hell away from places that hassle me about my visa at every single turn. At every border crossing we've made it has taken me minimum 3 times longer than everybody else to make it through. And I followed all the directions, so it's not me! I know America isn't the most popular country in the world but, c'mon people, Bush has been out of office for almost 2 years now. Give me a freaking break!

We both crashed hard on the 3 hour flight to KL, and I was pleased to sail right through customs as if I were Canadian. I can already tell: This is a place I'm going to like.

Not that I was planning on it, but I got a friendly reminder NOT to smuggle drugs into the country. Strict, much?!

Instead of springing for a taxi, the easiest but most expensive solution, we transversed the public transportation system for a fraction of the cost. We had to take a bus and 2 trains and had really bad luck with departure times. As soon as we'd get to a station the would just be pulling away so we spent an extra 40 or so minutes of travel time waiting around for the next ones. Ohh well, the whole trip from airport to hotel cost us 13.90 ringgit per person, and where we were headed it's good to have a little extra moolah in your pocket.

We got to the Mandarin Oriental - 5 star hotel - and immediately felt out of place with our backpacks and cargo shorts. This place is top of the line! Five stars, did I mention that? KL is quite cheap, which brings such a nice hotel within (the upper reaches of) our price range. It's safe to say we've never been to a nicer hotel before, and very well could be the second to last time we ever stay in a 5 star hotel (we have another one booked for Bangkok). One thing is quite clear: I look good in luxury.

Before we departed for Asia we realized that Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of daytime fasting, would be in full swing by the time we got to the very Muslim country of Malaysia. We were worried for about 2 seconds that food would be hard to come by during daytime hours, but after some quick Googling we found out that there are tons of non-Muslims, and it is a very Western country so we knew we wouldn't starve to death (since we are dangerously thin to begin with).

Street food stalls are culinary tradition here but can be a gastrointestinal nightmare for Westerners. KL has come up with the perfect solution, by moving food stalls into mall food courts so they can be more regulated and hygienic. This means good, traditional, clean (and cheap) food for us. So for dinner we headed to the mall next door to dine on a selection of street food favorites, without fear of heinous stomach viruses.

Marv ate not one, not two, but three different dinners. I only made it through 2.5. They were all quite cheap and pretty much as authentic as anything we'd get from a street bazaar. We're going to do mostly mall food court eating here, since we can get perfectly good food for a really good price.

Our hotel room is too sweet to be away from for long periods of time, so we checked in for the night after dinner. We have a birds eye view of the Petronas Towers, which were the tallest buildings in the world from 1998 to 2004. We enjoyed this view before going to sleep in our awesome bed, which I am convinced is made out of clouds.

Day 28: Bangkok Day 3

Another day, another buffet breakfast. Another sleep until noon, another happy hour. Nothing exciting for you to hear.

This is our check-out day but since our flight doesn't leave until after midnight (00:55) Friday morning we paid extra to keep our room until 7 p.m.

I will keep this post short and confess my sins to the world: With all our free time We did not go visit the Grand Palace or Reclining Buddah. We didn't even leave to eat at a restaurant or breathe fresh air.

WE DID NOT LEAVE ONCE! We lazed about that hotel for two and a half days!

A full 55.5 hours, from Tuesday at 2 p.m. until Thursday at 9:30 p.m.

I can say I have been to Bangkok but certainely can't say I've "done" Bangkok. My apologies to the city for choosing relaxation and red wine over everything it has to offer.

Day 27: Bangkok Day 2

Since a breakfast buffet is something we consider worthy of getting up for we set the alarm for 8:30 so we could get up, eat, then go right back to bed. And that's just what we did. In case you were wondering it was totally worth it.

We got up for real about noon, and showered and putzed around until we decided to utilize the executive lounge, and its free wifi access, again.

It's been 24 hours since we've been outside the hotel.

Marv has a colleague (former colleague, I keep forgetting we're both unemployed) who stays in Bangkok a lot and recommended this hotel to us. He happened to be in town so we met him in the lounge and hung out for a few hours. He is a very frequent Hilton flyer so has a fancy premium membership card which gives him 50% off restaurants at all Hilton hotels.

Since the chances of our leaving the Hilton walls were looking slimmer and slimmer he lent us his card so we could get a proper dinner in us without having to spend a ton or - the horrors - actually leave the premises. Our motivation to venture out into the city and search for the awesome Lebanese restaurant we've read about completely evaporated.

28 hours since we were last outside the hotel.

There are 2 sights we'd like to see in Bangkok, which happen to be right next to each
other:The Grand Palace and gigantic golden Reclining Buddha. We're not doing any sight seeing today so luckily we have all of tomorrow to be tourists, since our flight leaves just after midnight early Friday morning.

Happy hour was fabulous like yesterday, with the red wine even more free flowing. They were even more generous by walking around with full bottles topping people off. So we stayed right where we were until happy hour ended at 8:30.

31 hours since we were last outside the hotel.

Even thought we weren't super hungry we decided to hit the buffet restaurant anyways. It was good but, not being very hungry, wasn't quite the experience I was hoping for. I tried my first ever oyster, which was the most disgusting thing I have ever eaten. Eeew.

After dinner we hit the hay.

Man have we/this blog gotten boring! I don't even have any pictures to ease your boredom. But rest assured, I still look good in luxury.

35 hours since we were last outside the hotel.

Day 26: Bangkok Day 1

Our flight leaves for Bangkok at 11 and we need to take the metro, during rush hour, to get there so we left the hostel at 8. Unlike yesterday we stopped for the included breakfast, which was sufficient but underwhelming. I am over cheap-o hotel breakfasts at this point!

The metro ride for both of us only cost $4.60 SGD ($3.39 USD) which is an unbeatable price. It is my belief that the hallmark of an awesome city is one that has direct metro access to the international airport. I'm skeptical of cities that require you to take a taxi between the airport and city. Shoutout to Singapore for being easy and cheap, and surprisingly not that crowded at rush hour (once we got out of the city center, of course).

As we were making a train change I saw a sign on the train tracks that said "Respect Life, Act Responsibly". It was telling people not to jump in front of the train to kill themselves! Marv refused to whip out the camera and take a picture of it, damn him. I wonder if they have a problem with people throwing themselves in front of trains and, in turn, disrupting train service? God help me if I had a plane to catch and the train was delayed because someone jumped in front of it. I would resurrect them just so I could kill them a second time - I do not do well with airport delays!

Air Asia, the RyanAir (but infinitely better) of Asia, was more on time this trip and we left the gate only 10 minutes later than scheduled. We got (back) to Bangkok right on time.

The day before this Bangkok started their "sky train" service between the airport and city. As much as I appreciate quick and cheap airport transit, we were in no mood to navigate this brand spankin' new service when a pretty cheap taxi could get us to our destination much quicker. Especially when they were predicting kinks that needed to be ironed out. No thanks...maybe we'll brave this on the way back to the airport on Thursday night.

We got to our hotel, even more fabulous than our last fabulous one, the Millennium Hilton. And, since it was available, we got upgraded to the Executive King Plus suite! You can forget all the raving I did about our last hotel room because this one is 110% better. It's gigantic - even bigger than our (former) apartment in Norway!

We were treated like royalty at check-in. Since we are on an "executive floor" got had to go up to the 31st floor, the "executive lounge" to check-in. We didn't have to check-in like all the regular chumps, we were special.

We admired our fabulous new home and I was in bed the second the luggage porter dropped off our super fancy backpacks. Somehow the world has been able to produce a bed even more awesome than the one at the Mandarin Oriental. Sleep came heavenly hard and fast.

As executive suite dwellers we have free range of the executive lounge, which offers a complimentary happy hour from 6 - 8:30 p.m. If you know anything about me you will know that happy hour is my FAVORITE THING EVER. There's something about getting tipsy and being in bed by 8 p.m. that appeals to my lazy arse. So we planned to hit up this fabulous event before heading out for a proper dinner.

My long lost friend red wine was ready and waiting for me at happy hour, so I dove in along with some snacks like bread, fruit/veg and cheese - glorious cheese. Asian food (still in the 'barf' category for us both) uses no cheese whatsoever, and I didn't realize until I ate some how much I missed it. I am convinced that cheese is like air: You don't realize its importance to your life until it's gone. I ate all the cheese I could get my hands on. It was heavenly.

A few more glasses in (Thai beer for Marv) we realized that we were pretty darn full from the 'light refreshments' and might not need to venture out for dinner after all. We were pretty happy and full by this point, plus it would be a great cost cutting measure. Again, if you know anything about me, you will know that cutting costs is easily one of my favorite things to do.

We hemmed and hawed about it for a while - would it be cheap of us? Would we really survive the night without a full meal? Would we be pathetic for doing this? We went for one more plate of food and declared ourselves fed for the evening. Cost to us (beyond the hotel room): $0.00 USD. I have come to call this event our Ghetto Dinner - the best ghetto dinner we will ever have!

At the end of happy hour we planned to come back again tomorrow (we'd be foolish not to!) and went to check out the jacuzzi/pool area, which they call The Beach. The jacuzzi had closed for the evening but the pool was open a while longer so we put on our suits to go for a swim under the stars. The infinity pool is outdoors on the 4th floor, with an awesome skyline view, and even has beach chairs in the water. The water was a bit chilly but during a 100 degree Bangkok day I bet it feels awfully nice.

After our swim we turned in for the night. Tomorrow morning holds a buffet breakfast in the executive lounge which we HAVE to get up for. I'm not missing that for the world!

You know how anti-logging environmentalists chain themselves to trees so loggers can't cut them down? I'm going to chain myself to this hotel. Please don't ever make me leave!

Day 25: Singapore Day 2

We didn't bother to set our alarm this morning, as we know ourselves well enough to know we wouldn't get up early anyways. So we missed breakfast and slept until housekeeping came a knockin' at 10 a.m. Note to self: Actually use the Do Not Disturb door hang in the future. At any rate it kept us from sleeping until noon, which we have been known to do on occasion.

It was closer to lunch time than breakfast and we had a major hankering for Middle Eastern food. I think our sickness of Asian food is manifesting itself as cravings for every other type of food on Earth. We are lovers of all food, we don't discriminate!

Arab Street was within easy walking distance of our hostel so we hoofed it there and planned to go to the first decent looking restaurant we saw. And did we hit the jackpot! The first Middle Eastern restaurant we found was completely empty - Ramadan remember - so we got immediate and good service.

We made our own meze with hummus, baba ghanoush, tabbouleh and chicken kebabs with fragrant Arabic rice, which surprisingly and deliciously came with a brown gravy. It was all amazing and we ate ourselves silly. It's lucky the waitress sat us down at a table for 4, since our food would NOT have fit on a table for 2. How embarrassing is that?!

The restaurant service in both KL and Singapore have been a welcomed change from the horrendous, crap service in Cambodia and Vietnam. I love these cities - they get stuff DONE!

We set off into the city to see some sights and walked by the Raffles Hotel, which apparently is THE hotel in Singapore. It's a very swank place, and I think invented the Singapore Sling drink. At the very least ordering one there is a big tourist thing to do, but at $26 SGD ($19 USD) I could not bring myself to stop for one. It is a personal rule not to drink alcohol that costs less in ridiculously overpriced Norway. I will order one somewhere more reasonable in honor of our time in Singapore later.

By this time we had walked through a lot of the city and Marv was dying from the heat. So we took ourselves underground to the metro to get to our next stop, the banks of the Singapore River. It was magnificently cooler there so we could actually spend some time hanging out. This sign is at one of the river bridges, which I think is funny. It's the original sign, too.

The official "animal" of Singapore is the merlion (think mermaid), half-fish, half-lion and there's a big statue of one at the waters edge spitting a stream into the river. The cool spray from the merlion felt amazing, and we enjoyed a fruity Starbucks drink near it. Singapore has Starbucks! This place just keeps getting better.

The heat was unbearable by this point so we went back to the hostel to relax and cool off until our next tourist event of the day, the night safari. As you can gather from the name this is an animal viewing safari that's held after dark. There are all sorts of huge Asian and African animals, which can be viewed both from a trolley and from walking trails.

It was raining quite heavily most of the time we were there but that actually turned out to be a good thing. We first took the 40-minute trolley ride to see the (not free roaming) animals. We couldn't use flash photography, which was blatantly ignored by several asshole tourists who were told REPEATEDLY told not to use flash, so we didn't get any usable shots from that distance.

After the trolley ride we set out on the walking trails, which were pretty much deserted because of the rain. I have read really mixed reviews about the night safari, with most gripes coming from the fact that the trails are wildly overcrowded with tourists. I had my trusty $5 Old Navy raincoat and an umbrella so we were happy and dry on the trails, with some really cool close-up views of animals.

There was a tiger who had just eaten laying right on the other side of the barrier glass, who was so stuffed that all he could do was lay there and pant. Which is how I like to live my life; He was a tiger of my own heart. Because he was so close we did get a half decent shot of him (no flash, of course). This is the only decent shot we got from the entire evening at the safari. It was really fun and cool to see all the animals (some were quite close up), and I think the key to an enjoyable night safari visit is to go when it's raining - fewer asshole tourists clogging everything up!

We hadn't eaten dinner before our 6:30 p.m. departure for the safari so we gritted our teeth and paid the ridiculous price for a burger, fries and beer there. It was all surprisingly tasty, though I was perplexed by the cup of salsa served with the fries - no ketchup in sight. I will file that one under "unique cultural dining experience".

Day 24: Singapore Day 1

Our flight for Singapore departed at 10 a.m. and this being 1) Sunday 2) early morning and 3) Ramadan we didn't know how frequently the metro would be running to get us to the airport. So we were up at the ungodly hour of 6 a.m. just to be safe.

KL is an amazing, wonderful place. There's designer stores everywhere you look, the weather is cool by Asian standards, A/C is powerful and abundant, and I am nowhere near the fattest person around. These are all important factors for me. But one thing that sucks horribly about KL is signage. They can't properly display a sign to save their lives. I'd take a piece of notebook paper with crayon written on it, as long as it was a sign! Because of this we had to sit around and wait for the airport train, as there is NO SIGNAGE stating if you, traveling the cheap-o airlines at the Low Cost Carrier Terminal, are going in the right direction. But finally we got on the train we were reasonably sure we needed to be on.

It's a good thing we got there so early so we could warm the seats, since our flight was delayed by an hour - BOO! We were still sitting in KL when we should have already landed in Singapore. But the wifi was free flowing so I can't complain too loudly. Plus, once we were able to depart, the flight took only 40 minutes from take off to landing, instead of the scheduled 1 hour. For you Midwestern folk, that's less than a Minneapolis to Fargo flight. Nice!

Singapore runs a tight ship. Like Malaysia, they carry a mandatory death sentence for anyone smuggling drugs. I was surprised that we weren't checked for drugs at all, we just waltzed through the Nothing to Declare door like any other place. Another thing Singapore doesn't allow is chewing gum. Yes, CHEWING GUM. You have to declare it if you bring it in, and it's only available for purchase at a pharmacy. I think you even have to fill out paperwork, much like buying a firearm in the U.S. They will also cane you if you commit a crime. Like I said, tight ship!

Once we got to Singapore airport we headed into the city on the metro. This being a Sunday afternoon you'd think that it would be relatively empty and uncrowded. Singapore has 5 million inhabitants, more than the entire kingdom of Norway, on an island city 1.5x the size of Oslo. This means people everywhere, all the time. Rush hour never stops.

It took us an hour to get through the metro system and to our hostel. Singapore is super expensive so we had to knock our luxury level down a few notches. At least we got our own private room and bathroom.

Marv thinks Singapore is the hottest place we've been. I still reserve that title for Hoi An, Vietnam but I will agree that Singapore is the most humid. And humid = miserable. So once we checked in we immediately hit the hay. We had been up since 6 with no nap, and our room had no windows making it black as night in there. We slept like the dead for a few hours, in really awesome A/C. It was way, WAY too hot to be outside anyways. It felt marvelous and by this time in our travels, over 3 weeks in, we're pretty well beat. Any chance to relax and sleep WILL be seized by us.

When we got up it was time to find dinner, and we were wildly craving Indian food. We happened to be staying in the Little India section of town, so we went on TripAdvisor to find the nearest Indian restaurant. Shoutout to hangout@mt.emily hostel for free wifi (ahem, Mandarin Oriental)! The highest rated Indian restaurant was only a 10 minute walk from our hotel so we made a beeline for the place.

TripAdvisor doesn't lie, this place was AWESOME! It's been far too long since I've had Indian food and we had a feast. We didn't even get any pictures of it because we were too busy FEEDING (that is the correct word for what we were doing). I have never had naan bread stuffed with cheese before, but let me tell you, I am a new woman now that I've had it. Absolutely amazing!

Our time in Singapore is very limited, Sunday afternoon to Tuesday morning only. We already pissed away most of our first day sleeping so we had to get in at least one tourist attraction after dinner. So we navigated our way to the Singapore Flyer, the largest observation wheel in the world. From what I can tell it's exactly like the London Eye, which is a huge, slow moving ferris wheel that lets you see the city from high above. The highest point is 165 meters (541 feet) and we could see city lights and sky scrapers as far as the eye could see in every direction. I would have liked to see the view from daytime but at $30 SGD ($22 USD) per person, ride this was a 1-time ride only for us.

It was still ridiculously hot, long after the sun went down, so we headed back to the hostel after our half hour jaunt on the Singapore Flyer. The bulk of our Singapore sightseeing needs to get done tomorrow so we need to rest up!

Day 23: Kuala Lumpur Day 3

Again the cloud bed sucked us in and wouldn't allow us to get up when our alarm went off at 7:45 a.m. Damn you, awesome bed!

We got showered and had grand plans to go to another food court of "street" food stalls for lunch, but just as we were headed out the door Marv threw his hands up in the air and declared, "I can't take any more of this Asian food!" I thought he was kidding but he most certainly was not. The thought of more Asian was majorly unappetizing, for both of us.

So, we went to the mall next door and went to Burger King.

Yes people, I flew 13 time zones from home to eat at Burger King.

And it felt SO good! I have eaten about 5 Western meals since we've been on this journey, but Marv has only had 1. A Whopper with onion rings was just what the doctor ordered. Plus, they had free wifi! The Mandarin Oriental makes you pay for internet access (5 stars my eye) but Burger King is free. That's points off my hotel awesomeness-o-meter. Our laptop battery was all but dead so I didn't get to enjoy too much free wifi, but I would like to shout out to BK for being in the 21st century, and ask the Mandarin Oriental to get a clue.

As Marv is a bird nerd some might consider me a shark nerd. Ergo, the nearby aquarium was a must-see for us. The place was swarming with school children (BOO) but there were some super cool fish and sharks to see. Places like this make me sad for my grandchildren, who might not have ANY fish or aquatic life to see, much less exotic ones like this.

The Petronas Towers, the largest twin towers in the world at 88 stories, have an
observation deck that you can look out from onto the city. Tickets to get up there are free but the catch is you have to get there early to snag them. Since we weren't out of bed anywhere near "early" we didn't even try to get tickets for this. Which is fine, since our hotel room has a near identical view (though not panoramic). This is the view from our hotel of their observation deck.

So we saved our panoramic viewing for the KL Tower, the 4th largest telecommunications tower in the world. I suspect this view was better, anyways, since it was higher and had a guided audio tour that showed you what you were looking at through each window. I don't know if I've ever been so high up anywhere before, and it was a clear enough day to see for miles and miles around.

Once we got out of the KL Tower (by elevator, thank God) we decided to skip the nonsensical public transit system and walk to Merdeka Square instead. This is a little park that was erected to celebrate Malaysian independence from Britain in the late 50's. There were nifty old colonial buildings all around it and a giant mosque next door. The loudspeaker was calling out for prayers while we were there. Allahu akbar!

We had had enough touristing for the day so we headed back to the hotel and stopped at a grocery store for some snacks along the way. One thing I love about grocery stores here is their abundance of ready made sushi. So we got some sushi snacks and brought them back to the hotel room for some hardcore eating. This is the first sushi I've had in a month so I can't say I'm sick of ALL Asian food.

Marv has read a lot about different Ramadan bazaars that set up shop after sunset to allow Muslims to break their daily fast and do some hardcore binge eating. We enjoy hardcore binge eating so we thought we'd go to one and join in the fun.

Um...not so much.

The food was way, way, WAY too "authentic" for us, with miles of unrefrigerated food lined out on folding tables. Rice was served in a big beverage cooler and people served themselves by scooping it out with the bowl they were using. For the sake of not getting amoebic dysentery we took a look around and headed right back where we came from to eat. I can't imagine what would have happened to our intestines had we decided to eat that stuff. It was NOT sanitary.

Back at our go-to mall we ate at Nando's, an "upscale" chicken joint that our new British friends had raved about. We were more than happy to eat 2 Western meals in one day.

Just the thought of Asian food right now = BARF!

Day 22: Kuala Lumpur Day 2

We set our alarm for 7:45 a.m. but the cloud bed conspired against us and wouldn't allow us to leave until 11. This bed is glorious! Every minute spent in it is a minute NOT wasted.

A touristy hop-on, hop-off bus conveniently had a stop right outside our hotel, and having luck with these in the past, thought it would be a wise investment to drop 38 ringget (12 USD) per person for a day of transport and touristing. What we didn't know is that one of their buses was broken down so there was a grand total of 2 tourist buses circling the entire city. We had to wait ridiculous amounts of time for the next bus to pick us up. Boo!

One of the first stops on the tour dropped us off at another mall food court, or "heritage food village" as they call it. This time we each made it through 2.5 meals before throwing in the towel. Trust me, there ain't no Panda Express at these food courts. The place was absolutely packed with locals eating different types of cuisine around lunch time.

We visited a grocery store which was disproportionately fun for me. They had so much American stuff! Campbell's soup, Keebler cookies and Ruffles chips to name a few. I saw stuff that I had forgotten even existed. I could really see myself living here someday, in part because of the availability of all these sweet American goods!

Our next stop on the bus was Chinatown, which had stalls and stalls of counterfeit designer goods, mostly handbags. We didn't stay long because we knew we had to make the next bus otherwise we'd be waiting quite a while for the next one. We stopped at the royal palace, but tourists aren't allowed onto the grounds so we could only look at it through the gates.

This isn't common knowledge but Marv is a huge bird nerd. Meaning his interest in birds is borderline unhealthy. Thus, when I saw that the KL Bird Park was one of the bus stops I knew I had no choice but to go to the "open air aviary". That means it's a giant open park with nets high above it, which allows the birds to fly around freely. We even made one of the twice-daily bird shows, where birds did tricks to entertain the crowd. This is a cool picture of a bird flying through a hoop, dangerously close to us. I was terrified I'd get crapped on at some point, luckily all the pooping I saw was done on the ground.

At this point we were ready to get back on the tour bus and go back to our hotel but traffic was at an absolute stand still, it would have taken us well over an hour to get back to the area of town where we needed to be. So the minute we saw a public transit station we jumped ship and got on there instead. It was packed in there because people were heading for Friday evening prayers but at least we got back in a reasonable amount of time. That tourist bus was a gigantic bust for the amount we paid.

Marv had read about a very popular-with-the-locals-and-tourists alike restaurant, Madam Kwans, that happened to be next to our hotel so we stopped by there on the way home to make reservations for later that evening. With all the cheap, good "street" stall food available we figure we'll hit up only one real restaurant during our stay.

By the time dinner rolled around I was going through major red wine withdrawals. It's been at least 3 weeks since I've had any, and I love my red wine (all wine, really) passionately. When we got to the restaurant and saw only beer on the menu, and no wine on any tables, I was ready to suck the alcohol out of my stick of deodorant. I've had tons of beer on this holiday but it's just not cutting it anymore. I was BEYOND thrilled when they did have a wine menu, and immediately cracked into my bottle of Cabernet Merlot as soon as it hit the table. It was SO GOOD!

Marv insisted we order the fish head curry, which is a main course to be shared between 2-3 people. And let's be honest, we have the appetite of at least 4 people. I am a fish lover but was leery about the "head" part. Thankfully it came with a lot more fish meat than just a creepy head. It was really good, as were the chicken and beef satay with peanut sauce, which is another popular local delicacy we had to try. But the shining star of the meal for me was the wine. I drank 3/4 of it and would have easily drank double that given the chance. I love my wine!

After dinner we went back to the cloud bed in our hotel room to rest up for an early start tomorrow. Hopefully for real this time.

Day 20: Hanoi Day 2

Since last night was a late one, and we didn't care to get up and see the body of Ho Chi Minh, we slept until 11 a.m. I don't feel the slightest bit guilty about this, as leisurely days like this have made it possible for me to NOT be an exhausted mess by this point - nearly 3 weeks into the tour.

After lunch Marv and several guys set out on a mission: To buy the ugliest shirt money could buy. Clothes are readily available in tons of small stores and markets and MAN are some of them hedious. I don't know who buys these heinous clothes since people on the street are dressed perfectly normal. Everybody was encouraged to participate in the ugly shirt competition, and the winner would get free drinks for the night.

Marv ran in to one very large obstacle when searching for a shirt to wear: He is roughly 3x larger than the average Vietnamese man. Their clothes are TINY so his pickin's were slim. This is the reason that I didn't participate in the competition. Clothes for women are even smaller than mens, so there's not a chance in hell I could find a single shirt to fit me in all of Hanoi (much less an ugly one).

Marv was finding little success and the closing time was nearing for the only tourist attraction I wanted to visit, Hao Lo prison, a.k.a. the "Hanoi Hilton". So he paused his quest and we set off for the prison. We asked the tourist information office how to get there and had to explain that, no, we were not looking for the actual Hilton hotel. Having learned our lesson last night about taxis we haggled with the driver, who initially wanted more than double what was reasonable. It seems that the most effective tactic is to name the price you're willing to pay and, if they don't accept it, move on to the next one. Usually they'll fold and accept what you offer.

The Hao Lo prison had been used since the 19th century to house Vietnamese people who fought against France's invasion. Of course I didn't know this, and only knew that it had been used to house American POW's during the Vietnam war.

The propaganda machine was back in full force, as you can see here this placard says that the American prisoners were treated amazingly well and had a super awesome time during their incarceration. Yeah, and the name Hanoi Hilton is literal, not ironic.

A face that kept popping up in pictures was a young John McCain, who, I would like to declare, was totally hot back in the day. They even had his jumpsuit and parachute on display that he was wearing when he was captured. He was in his 20's when he was at this prison and his hair turned white during his time tere. Also, he can't raise his arms up since they were broken there and he didn't receive proper medical attention.

I learned that most, if not all, American POW's were pilots that were shot down over North Vietnam. I'm glad I took the time to go and, in a way, pay respects to those who served (voluntarily or not). I really haven't done too much war tourism, but Vietnam isn't all about the "American war" so I think I've seen a decent amount.

After the museum I was ready for some A/C and relaxation but Marv was still on the war path for an ugly shirt to enter into the competition. I took a taxi alone back to the hotel (price determined in advance, of course) while Marv went back out shopping. And, amazingly, he found one that fit! Here is a group picture of all the competition entries:

This picture doesn't do the ugliness of his shirt justice, as there are various patches with nonsensical English phrases on it, and actual textured paint splatters. This thing cost $5 - not really cheap by any standards.

On our way to dinner (our last as an entire group - boo hoo) we saw a pretty fierce motorbike accident. A cute little dog was trying to cross the street and was playing Frogger to get through the oncoming traffic. A motorbike slammed on its brakes, hard, so it didn't hit the dog and both people riding on it fell off and went flying. Marv swears he saw the motorbike hit the dog but it was nowhere in sight, so it was well enough to run off. The people got up and got back on but we could see one had a bloody face, despite his dinky little helmet. Once again: Traffic in Hanoi is insane!

At dinner we held a secret ballot vote to see who had succeeded in finding the ugliest shirt. The title was neck and neck, with Ass-Tight-Pink-Spandex (on Stefan, 2nd from the right) versus Floral-Mesh-Cut-Outs (on Phil, 4th from the right). The competition was intense, but Phil won by 1 on the very last vote. I think the deal breaker was the fact that one of the floral mesh cut-outs on his shirt perfectly revealed a nipple. Now that's fashion forward!

Here is a picture of me feeling up the spandex "Dolce & Gabbna" shirt, which I'm posting just because it was so obscenely gross yet sexy at the same time. And, for the record, it WAS a mans shirt.

After dinner we went to a so-typically-Asian private karaoke room, which we actually had to book in advance. We only spent an hour there since the beer was so expensive ($2 - we ain't paying that!) but we did have a gay old time singing to the Spice Girls, Britney Spears and ABBA with our very own personal sound system.

Marv & I had to depart for the airport at 6:30 a.m. the next day so it couldn't be a late night for us. The piss warm beers just weren't going down as smooth as they have - refrigeration is not a huge priority here - so after hanging out for a while we said our goodbyes and went to bed.

I am absolutely crushed to say goodbye to these people, a few in particular. I have made some lifelong friends who I cannot wait to see again soon. It hasn't been 24 hours since I last saw them and I miss them terribly.

It's a very sad day for me.

Day 19: Hanoi Day 1

We got to Hanoi about 12:30 and as we headed to lunch Marv and I had to drop off yet another load of laundry. Lucky for us our tour guide knows where it's cheapest (hint: not usually the hotel) so we paid 74,000 dong for 2.5 kilos of laundry. I'd estimate we've spent $15 on laundry so far, and we have been very merciful on our bank muscles. We packed way, way lighter than everybody else so every time we're in a town for more than one night we need to do a load. Let me tell you, nothing is more humbling than hand washing a pair of your own underwear in a sink.

Our group split up for lunch and we followed our tour leader to a very local soup place. The soup, it sounds like it's pronounced "fur ball", was really good since this had the added flavorings of pork wantons, chicken and pieces of liver (which I ate, because I'm a culinary rock star). A huge bowl of filling soup cost just over $1. Again, hot soup on a hot day is insanity to me, but the stuff is tasty.

We met back up with everyone to do the one main touristy thing everybody must do in Hanoi: a water puppet show. We decided to be frugal tourists for once and didn't spring the extra dollar for VIP seats. This wasn't a great idea when we realized the comical amount of legroom provided to the non-VIP audience. Seeing a 6' man crammed into a chair designed for a 4' person is truly a sight to see. The show was nifty but I can't say I understood what story they were trying to tell.

That evening we cabbed it to our restaurant for dinner, and being 16 people we couldn't all fit into one. The taxis were instructed to drop us off at a specific corner, and 2 of the 3 followed each other and let us off (unbeknownst to us) a block away from where we should be. So we spent the next hour running around like chickens with our heads cut off trying to figure out where the hell we were and where the hell the rest of our party was. Finally we were reunited, but this is not our last run in with a taxi that evening.

We had the option of getting up early the next day to view the body of Ho Chi Minh, which is only on display from 8 - 11 a.m. Nobody was particularly interested, so our tour guide was able to come out and par-tay with us for once. We found a club that catered mostly to wealthy Vietnamese and partied well past the official closing time of midnight. Once we left the club we were shushed and shooed away from the door, so I'm sure the club owners have a delicate relationship with the government that wants to shut them for the night at ridiculously early hour.

We hopped in a few cabs back to the hotel, and made the stupid (drunken) mistake of not agreeing on a price beforehand or requesting the driver use the meter. For comparison, our cab ride earlier that night cost 32,000 dong. Once we got back to the hotel the driver wanted over 150,000 dong for the short ride. Two out of the three cabs were trying to swindle us.

Thank God for Amy, our Thai tour leader. No way was she going to let us get blatantly ripped off like that so she made a HUGE stink. She got the front desk staff involved and, at 1:30 a.m. on a quiet street, was screaming at the drivers that people like them make Vietnam look bad and threatened to call the police. In the end we paid each driver 40,000 dong (a perfectly fair price) and told them if they wanted to complain about that - the thieving bastards of course did not - they could wait for the police to come.

A Vietnamese-born friend of mine told me "Don't let people rip you off just because you're white." I'd like to think we white people stood up for ourselves quite well!

Day 18: Halong Bay

We arrived to our destination of Halong Bay at 8:30 a.m. amazingly well rested. We had nothing to do but sleep (and sweat) on the train the night before and the 3 hour pre-dawn bus ride, so we were ready to dive into breakfast.

God smiled upon us and our rooms were available for us shortly after we stuffed our faces. Then came the sweetest moment of my life up to this point: A SHOWER. I am not a long shower taker but I must have scrubbed myself from head to toe for 20 straight minutes. I learned an interesting thing about how human skin works: when you mix sunblock and sweat with dirt and dust it turns into an invisible layer of mud, so when you scratch the skin your fingernails get filled with mud. My God that shower felt glorious. I will never forget it.

We had a few hours of down time before our highlight adventure of the day: A boat trip through Halong Bay. If you don't know what Halong Bay is or looks like, Google it. It's absolutely breathtaking. There are thousands and thousands of little islands within 6 kilometers of the coast and they are a crazy sight to see. The islands are uninhabited by people, and are so tall and jungle-y that humans probably couldn't walk through them if they wanted to.

Our tour included this trip on the "junk boat" (funny name, I don't know where it comes from) along with a seafood lunch on board. Usually the food on this kind of floating tourist trap is serious crap and likely to give you dysentery, but holy man was this food good! We had several courses of seafood, including freshly cooked, unpeeled shrimp, fried calamari and these awesome different-kinds-of-seafood-stuffed crabs. I was wildly impressed.

Selling stuff to tourists is a way of life as we've learned, but while on the junk boat we witnessed something beyond our wildest hawking imaginations. A small boat pulled right up next to our much larger boat, and a young girl (I'd say about 8) jumped from that boat onto ours with a bunch of fruit that she was trying to sell us through the window - in the rain! She was really nimble on her feet so I bet she does that jump 100 times a day. Craziness!

A few hours into our boat journey we stopped at an island that had a cave, where we got off the boat and walked through the stalagmites and stalactites. They had jazzed it up with neon lights, which really robbed the place of any authentication, but it was really cool to see what nature had done all by itself. Had it not been filled with tourists and neon lights it would have been reminded of the movie The Descent, where cave monsters pick off a group of cave explorers by eating them.

We got back on land about 4 p.m. and quickly realized that the only thing to do in the town of Halong Bay is see the islands. We don't have a travelers Bible, a.k.a. Lonely Planet guide, but the books other people brought made it clear that Halong Bay is not a place to spend much time in. See the islands, then move on. So we bathed in the glory of the A/C until we met some friends on their balcony (lucky ducks, we didn't get a balcony) for a few drinks before dinner.

The restaurant we went to, like many other restaurants in town, had their available seafood on display, right out on the sidewalk. I was sad to see the fish and crabs awaiting their deaths in small aquariums, but if they didn't want to die they shouldn't have been born so delicious.

Marv was a culinary adventurer and tried sea mantis, which we both had never heard of before. He even watched the little fellas get scooped out of the aquarium and hauled back to the kitchen. Here's what they looked like alive:

And a short time later, not so alive:

He said it was like a big shrimp, with a lot less meat and taste. Boo for the most expensive thing on the menu not equalling a lot of yummy food.

I was ready for home after dinner so I went back while Marv and a few others hit up a bona fide locals club, called Club 18. As soon as they walked in Marv & Co. were surrounded by locals who wanted to talk to and dance with them. The people are so friendly here! Someone wrote on their cell phone "Welcome to Halong Bay, you are my friend" (aww!) and Marv even got a phone number - from a guy.

Friendly indeed!