Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Hong Kong & Macau 2014

For me, a trip to Asia is never complete without a weekend stopover in Hong Kong to indulge in my favourite past time: eating and hanging out with the niece! As per usual, we ate our weight in suckling duck, dim sum, Shanghai dumplings, sushi, and hot pot. 

 In between our eating extravangzana, we also did some shopping, mostly at my kid sister's request as she was on the market for new eyeglasses, perfume, and make-up from her favourite shop - the ubiquitous Sasa. On our shopping list was upgrading our iPads, picking up a Chinese TV pad for my father, iphone and camera accessories, and new eye glasses. Buying electronics in Hong Kong is fun and not to mention a bargain! 

My kid sister, Keenan, and I also took an excursion to Macau, a former Portuguese colony about an hour ferry ride from Hong Kong. Macau is often dubbed as the "Las Vegas of the East." Whilst the gaming industry in Macau is 7x larger than Vegas, thanks to visiting Chinese tourists who are serial gamblers,  however, it lacks the vibe and entertainment options of Vegas. I'm not a fan of gambling but Vegas has always kept me entertained with its shows, concerts, and celebrity sightings, whereas in Macau, it's all about gambling and high-end shopping for the growing middle class in China.  

With street signs in both Portuguese and Chinese and walls adorned with the classic Portuguese azulejos, the central parts of Macau can be easily covered in a few hours. The highlight of course is visiting the ruins of St. Paul Cathedral which was destroyed in a fire in 1835. Fortaleza do Monte, a fortress overlooking Macau's numerous casinos including the tacky Grand Lisboa, is worth visiting as is the nearby Museum of Macau. 

On Largo do Senado with the classic wave-black-and-white-patterned streets is flanked by baroques buildings and churches. Closer to the waterfront are all the casino hotels. We visited a few, including the Grand Lisboa and Hotel Lisboa, both were packed with Chinese tourists because of the week-long holiday period known as the "Golden Week" as well as the Wynn and ending at our final destination for MGM Grand where we had a Las Vegas style buffet lunch. All in all, it was great to finally visit Macau.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Thailand: Island-Hopping on the Andaman Sea

After Bangkok we took a short flight to Phuket where we met my family who flew in from Hong Kong. As the middle child with sisters both 7.5 years older and younger, growing up I never thought we would ever holiday together in our adult life, but we do and we have fun together.  Unlike our Greek holiday back in 2011, this year we have a tiny tot in tow -- my adorable niece. 

We rented a fantastic 3BR/2BA 2,400 sq. ft. villa with a pool on the west side of Phuket on Bangtao beach near the Laguna Complex which was perfect for us -- family-friendly, secluded, nearby amenities, powder white beach, and private:

We had no agenda and five days looked something like this:

Sunbathing on Bangtao and Surin beaches:

Alfresco drinks:

Beachside dining:

Gazing at sunset:

Pool time:

And repeat x 5 = pure bliss. 

It wasn't until my kid sister, Keenan, and I headed to Koh Phi Phi where we had a more active holiday. Koh Phi Phi is a car-free island made popular from the movie, "The Beach". It's a photogenic island with calm sparkling aquamarine and towering limestone cliffs. As we went during off season, Koh Phi Phi wasn't heaving with tourists but Maya Bay where The Beach was filmed was impossibly busy with day-trippers from Phuket. Be prepared to be disappointed if you are looking for a secluded sandy beach. 

We rented kayaks and even encouraged my kid sister to try out scuba diving with us! In between the fire shows and short walks around the island (OK, the island is so small, you can walk it in less than an hour), we found ample time for lounging on Long Beach and two hour back massages. 

It was a perfect way to round out our amazing two weeks in Thailand. But first, it was back to Hong Kong/Macau for eating and shopping before embarking our long-haul flights back to London and San Francisco.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Thailand: One Night in Bangkok

.... and the world's your oyster. OK, make that two nights in Bangkok. A big, polluted, and crowded metropolis, definitely not my favourite city in Asia but there are some lovely temples and Grand Palaces to keep you busy for 48 hours or so, and lots of parties if that's what you fancy. 

We opted to stay near the Chao Phraya River for close proximity to the river taxis and the metro system, which we never ended using as taxis are so cheap in Bangkok (you can get around town for less than 100 THB). The heat in Bangkok was stifling and unbearable. We knew it would be hot in Thailand, but I hadn't realised that April was the hottest month of the year! 

As Keenan had never been to Bangkok, we did the touristy circuit and spent one evening hanging around Khao San Road. We did what the locals did and feasted on street food on the adjoining streets of this famous backpackers haven, and enjoyed some live music at a low-key bar. 

The next day, bright and early (it was 28C by 10am!), we took the river taxi gliding past the elegant Wat Arun to Tian Pier for some temple-hopping starting with Wat Pho which is famous for the 43m long Reclining Buddha and contains over 90 chedis and 400 images of Buddha. 

Across the street from Wat Pho is the majestic Grand Palace which I failed to see on my last trip to Bangkok in 2006.  Built in the late 1700s, this beautiful palace was the official residence of the Kings of Siam until 1925. Today it is still used for official state events and royal ceremonies. Among the highlights are the Temple of the Emeard Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew) and the Golden Stupa. If you only have time to visit one attraction in Bangkok, make it the Grand Palace, definitely worth it even in the unforgiving heat. 

Next up: the Andaman islands. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Thailand: Ayutthaya in Photos

Approximately 80 miles north of Bangkok is the ancient Siam capital of Ayutthaya, also a UNESCO world heritage site. Most people bypass Ayutthaya in favour of Siem Riep which is spectacular and one of our favourite architectural marvels. But if you have time and need a dose of awe-inspiring architecture, it's worth taking a day trip from Bangkok (2 hour train ride) to visit these ancient temples. 

We stopped in Ayutthaya enroute to Bangkok on an overnight train journey from Chiang Mai. The bad news is that you arrive at the crack of dawn and none of the temples are open until 9 am, and as Ayutthaya is not really on the tourist circuit, the town is very quiet, even more so during off season. The temples and wats are spread around town so best to hire a tuk tuk or a bicycle for the day. 

Enjoy the photos: