Monday, 21 December 2015

Older and Wiser? ( HKG to YVR )

Waking up as late as 6 am makes me cranky.  It's been 3 weeks of getting up at or before 5 and NOW, on the LAST day, I start sleeping properly, just to  have my  rhythm mixed up again tonight?

I try calling Grandma using Skype.  WOW. That  probably is the poorest WiFi connection in the last 3 weeks. She can't hear me at all.  Poor Hong Kong.  When I  try too call Grandma again, this time using the room telephone, I can't dial through to Canada but get the receptionist on the phone. I  have to leave them a deposit before I can make a phone call.  WHAT?  I've had rooms where they have to switch the line open, but NEVER have I been asked for a deposit.  It gets better though. The hotel has my credit card information from my internet book, but the receptionist insists that I have to come down to reception and make a CASH deposit before I can use the telephone.  OMG, POOR Hong Kong.

Used to being annoyed, nannied, patronized, and slowed down by ever-present rules and conventions in Vancouver, I have thought of Hong Kong for almost 4 years now as the place where things are made easy and obstacles are happily banned to hell.  My very recent experience in the other HK hotel makes me fear that this is a new general sad state of affairs.  Or maybe I have just been spoiled by the colonial-style kowtowing of hotel staff in Vietnam and Cambodia.  

Anyhoo, since my prime destination in Asia has moved East, it is likely that I will not much more of Hong Kong in the near future (I can see Alan lifting one or even TWO eyebrows).  The connection from Vancouver to Hanoi is both cheaper and more convenient (lay-over times and relative flight lengths) if the stop-over point is Seoul instead of Hong Kong.

Maybe it's the weather, but maybe it's the newly discovered different world that is responsible for another strange thing.  I've had breakfast and am WONDERING what to do. Every time before this one,  nothing could hold me in my HK room; I just needed to go explore.

But when I make it onto the streets, the feeling comes back. The musty smell of the air, the hustling and bustling of people working. Yes, that is a nice change from people aimlessly parading around in their LULU DEMON outfit with small dogs on their arm!

I head back to the Burnables Store to buy more incense and some Money to Burn.  It comes in all major currencies and most is issued by the Hell Bank, only a few bills are issued by the Bank of Heaven.

This raises several important questions:

1. Don't they have currency exchange in Hell?

2. Or is there a separate Hell for each country?
3. If you need money in Heaven, then maybe Heaven is overrated?
4. How much money do you need in Hell to buy your way out?
5. Is it wise to send money to people in Hell?   Is the triage system accurate?
6. Why ruin heaven by letting people who deserve to be in hell buy their way into heaven?
7. Wouldn't that just duplicate life as we know it?
8. So why did I buy Burn-Money for both Heaven and Hell?
9. Who said that you are allowed to ask questions?
Yes, 4 pictures of myself are overdoing it but I like my new colour ;-)
While I enjoy the view from the hotel's rooftop, an employee wants to see my room key.
They advertise the 'observation deck' at the front door.
My questioning the point of the room key check is answered by some awkward BS that so far I've only heard in Vancouver and Germany, something about following procedure but not being entirely clear about the real point of it.  POOR HK!

More evidence is provided by the simple steps to the water that I've used on every trip to dip my overheated feet into the harbour water.  NOT this time because NANNY has been here and installed a brand-new chain to protect myself from myself.  Please also note how the chain is installed.  Even my 97 year old grandmother could just step over it.  
On every trip I used to cool my feet in the water down there.  The CHAIN is NEW

my ride

The below-plane camera view somewhere over the Pacific.  Watching the landing on that screen is cool

The line-up for immigration at YVR is substantial. Most countries (ironically, Hong Kong is getting close) would be ashamed to have that many empty cubicles and such a long line-up.  Here come the usual questions.  Do you have friends or family over there? Nope.  A girlfriend?  Nope (A boyfriend would have remained undetected ;-).  What are you doing for a living?  When do you go back next time?  For Tet. What?  Chinese New Year.  How come you laundry lasted for 3 weeks.  Hasn’t anyone heard of sink laundry? I think immigration and customs personnel should rate BELOW used-car-salespeople in popular ranking.

I must have been believable because customs does not ask me for a secondary check and consequently does not discover the 2nd carton of cigarettes I'm carrying.  I think about deleting the above sentence for a second (smuggling admission and a portrait in the same post? Is that wise?  But then I swore not to live in fear and I leave it. No-one reads this blog anyway, and customs people strike me more as TV watchers ;-)

Skytrain. There is no train in the station when I get there but the Airport station has a total of 4 (four) Compass Vending machines.  In front of each of those is a line of foreigners trying to figure out the instructions that I as a resident of this city have often issues following.  The Help people that are supposed to help people through the process are chatting with each other.  If the trains doors chime without me having reached the machine, I am determined to just run the gate without ticket. Put up some more machines. This time I barely make it in time:

I walk through the train door the moment it chimes and the voice announces that the doors are about to close.
What can I say about being back in Vancouver?  I despise it.  Yes, I will get so see relatives and friends again, which will warm my heart, but the city itself will do its best to freeze it again.  Once I arrived here with Grandma in a plane high over YVR. We both looked out the plane's window and all I could say was "OMG, someone stole all the colours from the world overnight". I am forced to remember that when I look at these pictures.   There is something fundamentally wrong if the only COLOURS visible in a city are those of traffic lights and brake lights.  Even the friggin' cars are all shades of GREY!

If anyone ever wants to envision EMBODIED MISERY, they only have to look at the colours of Vancouver. And that's just the lack of colours.  Once you start adding the temperatures and traffic congestion, it is getting close to embodied HELL (IMHO; LOL).
Whoo, that was close. I manage to finish this post 5 weeks after the events depicted took place. About time too, I'm leaving for friendlier coasts again tomorrow ;-)

Sunday, 20 December 2015

HAN to HKG (20 hours in Hanoi on the way home)

I wake up at 5 again, full of excitement. But about what?  I just got here late last night, and in a few hours I have to check out again, kill 6 hours, and fly to Hong Kong

My mornings in Ha Noi are routine. Walk to Hoan Kiem Lake,  drop some postcards in the mailbox, eat some ice-cream (NOT this time, at 17 degrees the Vietnamese are wearing padded jackets and I'm wearing my hoodie), and look at some stuff in stores. I can't resist this bracelet. US$ 3 doesn't seem too much for a colour that accentuates my tan ;-)

Still no fabulous receptionist in one hotel, and when I ask in my hotel, I find out that she no longer works reception but in an office now. Darn.

11:30, I might as well check out after I have checked the room a few times for stuff I might forget otherwise.  What I find is one of those fold-up cards that another guest before me forgot on top of the safe.  Fabulous Card !  Grandma likes it too.

I eat at Chuon Chuon (Dragonfly, because I don't want to be roughed-up by limited food choices at the airport again.  Stir-fried chicken in curry, my usual in this place.

Today I have lots of time to kill, so it will be the city bus instead of a taxi for me. The price of 9000 Dong doesn't hurt either. That should get me to the airport at about 2pm with another 4 hours to kill and I'm thinking of trying out one of those Sleep boxes they rent by the hour in the terminal.  After schlepping my backpacks crammed full of stuff I didn't need but bought anyway all the way to the bus stop and from Terminal 1 to Terminal 2, I will definitely need a rest.

I nod off on the bus repeatedly and one time somehow save myself from tumbling sideways into the aisle.

I get to T2 at Noi Bai at 2:15 and march straight to the sleep pods. I have to wake the attendant because she fell asleep on her chair behind her desk. 

There are probably very few people using this service, so it doesn't hurt if she catches a few zzzs.  Good omen anyway ;-)

367,000  Dong gets me a sleep pod for two hours and I ask her to wake me at 4 pm.   

I sleep for 40 minutes and have the weirdest dreams (must be all the chemicals they use in  these cubicles). Then I have an idea.  If you rent the pod for 3 hours, you get the 4th free. DONE.  Being at an airport never has been this relaxed.  I go to the check-in counter with only my day pack, leaving the heavy backpack in the pod.  NICE. When  I have my  boarding pass, I get my notebook from the pod and head up to the restaurant inside the airport that has ashtrays on the tables. Time for a glass of Vangh Trang! Talk about wine for breakfast LOL.  Don't believe me?

Almost awake, slightly tipsy, and smoking in an inside airport restaurant. Imagine the UPROAR in Nanny-Town
Au  revoir, warm evening sun

Boarding time is 5:15, so I  grab my stuff out of the pod (Wow,  this  is heavy) and head to security at 4:45.

Not exactly sure what it means, but I can think of something suitable ;-)

What is it with evening planes ?  It's like BC Ferries accumulating delays all day long.  My plane ends up taking off more than 1/2 hour late.

The first thing I see of HK during my first out-of-plane cigarette

Friday, 18 December 2015

PNH to HAN (NOT, the FRIGGIN VISA DEMON strikes AGAIN; and an extra 24 hours in Phnom Penh)

I awake to the sound of the Aerobics/Tai-Chi crowd on the promenade outside and to an unexpected sunrise display over the Mekong.

As is the rule in unknown places for me,  I down a coffee, put my shoes on, and run out to observe how the city behaves before sunrise.

During these wanderings, I hear an unknown but somehow pleasant and calming sound, that actually accentuates the mood of the sky quite well. It takes me a while to realize that this must be the voice of the muezzin in the city's mosques calling the believers for morning prayer. By what I see on the news (I avoid it), some Americans would run to their panic room or get out their guns at the sound of this monotonic calm call to prayer,  while they would think nothing if hearing a hysterical evangelical preacher, and even start cheering when they hear the hatred-inciting speeches of the Fuehrer in spe of the 'free world' Daft Donald Trump, whose policies would actually put their lives in more danger than those of any 3rd world dictator.

6:30 am. It is time to head up to Skybar, located on the 8th floor of the hotel, and the site of breaking my fasting.  No Muslim under- or overtones in that sentence, that's what the word breakfast means ;-)

Enjoying a sunrise over the Mekong River while nibbling on an omelette accompanied by excellent coffee (Cambodia used to be a French colony) and almost being put to sleep again by the muezzin's droning call,I wonder how I can ever get used to the hectic life in Vancouver again.  It will be difficult to put it mildly.   

Sitting up here in short pants and sleeves, it feels a bit chilly. There is a slight breeze and temperatures have plummeted to 22 degrees Celsius overnight. 

Look closely at the above picture. This is the moment when it all becomes clear. I just closed my notebook, left a tip under the plate, and am moving my chair back to get up, when the waitress shows up again, carrying a plate with a freshly baked (NOT re-heated) croissant and something that I can only call a croissant mutant with raisins. NO, I'm not talking the crap they sell in clear plastic boxes in Canada, nor are these one of those Pillsbury bake-yourself-imitations. These things here are the offspring of a union of Heaven, Flour, and Butter. I haven not eaten a better croissant in my life. Not even in France! I bite into the mutant and what I mistook for raisins is actually the chocolate filling oozing out of rolling axis. I am in heaven.

It has become very clear, indeed.  If I have to grow old anywhere, I now  know what I will not put up with anymore.  Life is too short to put up with the Donalds of this world; they are just not worth our time.

Then I head back to the small store next door. When I asked for Cambodian cigarettes yesterday the elder husband recommended (he pointed at one in the display) one particular brand.  They are GOOD.  So today I buy a carton, i.e. 10 packs and pay US$ 6.  

This is it. I'm boarding a plane at Phnom Pen international airport.  
I have reached the end of the world.
From this point on, I will NOT visit any more cities never seen before. 
From this point on, temperatures will drop by a few degrees on every stop  en route. 
From this point on, I am on my way back to Vancouver.

But I shouldn't whine. I am fortunate to have been in Phnom Penh as my last stop of discovery, because the city has been an eye opener!

At 9 am I board the TukTuk of the driver who I told yesterday that he could drive me to the airport. I saw him sleeping in his TukTuk this morning at 6 am. Are fares that infrequent for them or doesn't he have a home????

I like my colour ;-)

All of a sudden we are passed by people on a truck banging metal instruments (noise-makers really).  A funeral I assume.

Advertisement on the back of a TukTuk.  I check out the website BUT it is in CAMBODIAN ;-)

I have arrived at the airport and FINALLY I hit the snag. I'm sitting on a bench in Phnom Penh International Airport and I can't board my plane. 

It's about time something goes wrong; the trip went WAY TOO SMOOTHLY so far ;-)

Holders of German passports don't need a visa to Vietnam.  But if they try to enter Vietnam more than once a month, they need a multiple entry visa.    ?????

At first I think the Cambodian airport employee is a nuisance but even his manager confirms that NO, I can't get on that plane. But they promise that if I apply for a multiple entry visa on-line, I might be able to board the 6pm flight.

So now I just applied for a Multiple Entry Visa online ($200 with URGENT EXPRESS processing. OUCH) and am waiting to hear back from them !

I have tons of time to kill at the airport and I discover a post office.  2 letters and 5 postcards and they want US$10 in postage?  Sounds funny. What also sounds funny is that I don't see them putting stamps on the items.  This better not be another one of those instances of Postal Employees going Postal and getting rich  on never-arriving postcards like happened to me in Cuba a few years ago. (Note added a month later: the mail has arrived ;-)

Now it's tine to wait forever.  At 12:10 I check my e-mail again. Nothing yet.  I think I also clicked on an unnecessary button when I ordered my visa.  Airport Fast-Track Service.  In Vancouver that just means that you're cattle that doesn't have to wait quite as long as the regular cattle.  But from my experience of the last 2 weeks, I suspect that someone will be waiting for me in Hanoi with my name written on a piece of cardboard, my visa already in hand, and will personally accompany to a special immigration counter without a line.  That's definitely not my style, too neo-colonialist in a way, but on the other hand it is a good deal better than paying for something and getting not really anything in return, which seems to be the treatment you get in Vancouver.

the actual letter, edited to protect the guilty

At 12:20 I get the e-mail.  

I am approved !!!! 

There is a fancy letter from immigration attached to the e-mail. 

But Hang ON...I need 2 passport pictures.  

Where the hell do I get them from ?  Airport information tells me where to tell the Tuk Tuk driver to go.   

$14 poorer and half an our later I have passport pictures.  Strange how the pictures on paper AND burned on a CD cost $2 and the TukTuk cost me $12. At first he even wanted $15 for the 5 minute ride, the 20 minute wait, and the 5 minutes back.  Ah well, he's getting double the Canadian minimum wage !

On the other hand: Why did I have to travel all the way to Phnom Penh and pay 2$US for 4 pictures and a digital one on DVD to have someone with a camera in the back of a copy shop take the FIRST EVER passport photo of me in which I don't look retarded or like a criminal?  I mean, I've been here for over 50 years and many passport photos have been made of me and this is BY FAR the BEST ONE EVER. And it was the cheapest ever and taken in the least fancily equipped store ever.  WHAT should I learn from that?

What else do I need?
2 printed and filled out copies of the approval letter AND some form.  Do they have Kinko's in Cambodia?  NOPE. Oh darn.

The Tourist information sends me on the main road outside the airport. "Go left and look for Copy store", she says.  I schlep along under the 30 degree 1 pm sun and all I see is car dealerships.  There are NO copy shops here.  

What is this?  China Guesthouse.  I just ask the receptionist! She's eating, interrupts her eating, and listens to my request of letting me e-mail her 2 documents for her to print.  She dials the phone and after 2 minutes hands her cell phone to me.  An English speaking man on the phone. "WHAT is it that you want from her?"  

Moral: Even if receptionists speak apparently great English and nod a lot, they might not have a clue what you are saying.

Long story kept short: She fights with her printer for half an hour while I play Tonka Toys with her 3 year old Grandson.  He at least is having a great time.  

The receptionist is getting a bit panicky "I have to go Airport"(she's picking up guests).  I offer to wait for her to return, since my flight is not for another 4 hours, but she keeps trying and finally succeeds in printing my pages, even in colour.  I try to hand her $5 but she refuses and only after I point at the child and the toy and say "Buy new one for him" does she accept.  She runs out and I thank the mother of the kid again, to which she says Orkun and gives me a heart-melting smile.

Back to the airport, I realize that i don't have 2 copies of the 2-page form to be filled out. I have 1 copy of page 1 and 3 copies of page 2.  OOOOOOHHH. It's one of those days!
Screw it, I'm not printing it and filling it out again. I'll just find a photo-copier!

I talk nicely to one of the woman in one of the money-exchanging stores and she photocopies my form. Arkun!  Back to the pseudo-tourist-info  lady  and tell her how she can do her job better.

3:30 pm. I've spent 6 hours at this friggin airport and I'm starving.  Let's see how Cambodians in a cheap airport restaurant do Pad Thai.

It looks mighty pale and limp, but packs a punch.  Best Pad Thai I've ever eaten!  And it costs US$ 5.50 ;-)

The  moment of truth approaches as I walk over to the check-in line up. I get to the front, and they tell me to go to a different counter.  I'm not even sure the man speaks English as I explain my request, but he is a strong and silent type like the Bus Man in Da Nang and only speaks if it makes sense to do so.  After a while of typing he says "The flight is full".

Ta Da.  Deep in my subconscious I wasn't really expecting to get on it anyway.  Tomorrow is Saturday, so there won't be a morning flight, but only the 6 pm flight but he can't check whether it's full or not (???; I can check one hour later in my hotel using the regular travel web-sites).

Ok, I'm not going anywhere.  I quickly book a room in the same hotel as last night from the Wifi zone  I'm not going to the TukTuks on the airport grounds but head towards the gate airport gate because I have an inkling that those will be cheaper.  Are they ever. Their first offer is $7 to my hotel (I paid $10 the other way) and I don't even haggle.  

He drives while I take pictures of Phnom Penh street life.

Traffic goes every which way. Which is a good thing, otherwise the kid in the blue jacket above would not have ended up next to me and I would never have shot the following picture. I didn't even know I had this shot until the evening when I downloaded the pics on the laptop

My driver looks like he's ill or at least in pain during the ride but gives me one of those heart-warming smiles when he finds the right street and tells me so. I had a rather large tip ready already before that and he thanks me profusely and smiles even brighter if that is possible.The Tuktuk drivers at the airport seem to be spending most of the day sleeping in their carts; the overwhelming majority of tourists take taxis.  He was just happy to finally get a fare and probably did not waste a thought at a tip. Nice guy!
I will encounter the exact opposite after I check in, and after paying my $56.19 bill with a hundred dollar bill wonder why the receptionist puts the change into an envelope without counting it to me first. Kinder garden math will tell you that I should have received $43.81 change. The envelope contains $42 and 1600 Riel. Not only did he keep a dollar bill, he even ripped me off with the Riels, which are used for fractional dollar amounts.  I  storm down to reception, and after loud protestations he hands me a dollar bill and a few hundred more Riels.  Either the kid is mathematically challenged or he really thinks this tourist can't figure out that there should be more than 3000 Riel in the change.

Tourists: 1) Count your change AND 2) know exactly how much local currency you should get back, otherwise you're both enabling and corrupting these people. they're really too nice to do that to them!  .It's the same as the train ticket scam of receptionists in Hanoi. It worked so often, it has become routine. 

I head to dinner,and not wanting to experiment any more after today, go to the EXPAT place with the good wine  and the good ice cream.  I down a Pizza Quattro Stagioni (OH YUM) and 3 glasses of wine.

Now I really only have 2 questions. Why do the vast majority of people here seem so much less screwed-up and why do the peanuts here taste sooo much better?

The next morning I wake up early and not quite right; if it wasn't for Vietnam's odd visa policies, the title of this post should be 'Hungover In Hanoi'. The loud booming bass of the aerobics people outside starts at 5:15 am.  

The 6:30 breakfast on the 8th floor with the freshly baked chocolate croissants, its Plumeria bushes, and its fabulous view of the Tonle Sap and the Mekong is a thing I will miss immensely ;-) 

So far the day seems a mirror image of yesterday. Wait a while, take a TukTuk to the airport, try to check-in, and hope for the best ;-)

Repetition is no good. Didn't I see a ferry crossing the Mekong from my breakfast viewpoint? I start walking towards the Royal  Palace and try to stay close to the banks of the Tonle Sap.. 

I've found the corner of town where live birds are for sale

There be elephant trunks
But not just trunks litter the landscape, there is some kind of monument with a charging elephant. STAMPEDE !

I walk for a while in roads that lead away from the river. Someone is constructing a promenade and the river bank path is closed for that.

Perspective distance shortening but no wonder he doesn't look happy

Not in operation, unfortunately!

pants for $2.50

Not only in Angkor. Every bridge in this country has two Naga heads. Something about bridges leading from one side to the other with a bit of the river Styx mixed in.

I  hope they get paid handsomely for that advertising

I get to the ferry at about 9 am and think "While I'm here, I might as well take a ferry across the Mekong ;-) ".

I wonder whether their very strange safety procedure works. Instead of a sufficient number of life preservers, just transport a few monks. It's probably NOT a coincidence that they're the same colour !

When we approach the other side, I am glad that I took the trip.  I got a glimpse of the Mekong's importance and the other side of Cambodia.  I only crossed a river and on the side I came from is the Royal Palace.  I didn't expect this other world on the other side.

At first the above looks like a regular fishing boat, but upon closer inspection (note the TV antenna) it is most likely also a home for a large family.

The ferry trip costs me less than US$ 0.25 return  (OK, maybe one way, I tell the ticket vendor "there and back" accompanied by the corresponding hand motion, but maybe she didn't  understand and I don't leave the ferry on the other side).

It strikes me again how I can NOT judge the age of younger Cambodians. If anyone had asked me to guess the age of that one particular person, I would have guessed 15.  Imagine my surprise when I see him at the helm of the ferry a few minutes later.  So he must be at least 16 LOL.

All on board

It's Just a sign

At 11:45 I ask yet another driver in fornot of the hotel how much the ride to the airport costs.

$8 he says and off we go.

To my horrow I realize that I have assumed the fat-tourist-with-spread-legs-in-rickshaw position
I enter the departure hall and THERE IT IS.   And earlier flight to my destination was cancelled and my flight suffers from RETIME, whatever that means.  Delayed?  or Re-scheduled? or Cancelled as well?  Who knows?  But the check-in counter is not open 2 hours prior to scheduled departure.  Not a good sign.

Phnom Penh International Airport (with xmas tree)

Hard to read but: I would agree with sharia-style chopping off of hands for this crime
But my worries are unfounded because shortly after we are checking in !!!!
Boarding pass is easy (the first leg is a domestic flight to Siem Reap, no Visa needed), security is a breeze, and I see that the Cambodians have discovered the idea of a forced-walk-through DutyFree store.  And it's Happy Hour ;-)
This  is why I'd rather not fly. Airports are identical all over the world

Very civilized: Apologizing because the smoking lounge is closed

How could I refuse?

Somehow I feel safer with an orange robe on board ;-)

No stewardesses here who prevent me from taking pictures, as happened at CDG

Can you say LEGROOM ?

Not only do the stewardesses greet the arriving passengers with a Namaste. They wear the best outfits I have ever seen.
The flight to Siem Reap is short and the lay-over almost 3 or 4 hours because of a delayed connecting flight. More than enough time to take pictures.

I'm hungry; there is NO food before security control, and this EMPTY shelf only adds to my torment

the EXTREMELY civilized smoking lounge of Siem Reap International
The  plane is one  hour late and lands at 9 pm instead of 7:40 pm

When we finally get to Hanoi, I have to go to the Visa counter, pay US$25 'stamping fee', and wait almost an hour for them to put a very flashy Visa into my passport. It's very flashy though and almost worth the price and wait.

It's almost 10 pm when I exit the terminal building and I'm not taking the city bus tonight but a taxi.  The driver wants me to show him on my laptop where I'm going. His English is pretty much non-existent, so we're back to sign language. The laptop battery is empty. My cellphone died weeks ago. Somehow I remember the fragment Kiem Lake, and he quickly says Hoan Kiem Lake, to which I vigorously agree, so at least he has a general direction, and I can always walk from the lake.
I'm not in the tropics anymore and even taxis have to fill up sometimes
He insists on stopping right in front of the hotel instead of in a side street, is instantly punished by aggravated honks sounding at him from all directions, and even prevents me from becoming road-kill to the scooters squeezing by on the right side of his cab.
He get's so excited at the tip I give him that he leans back over the driver's seat and grabs my hand with both of his and exclaims something in Vietnamese. Judging by his facial expression, I assume it is favourable.