Singapore Night Festival 2015

This annual event seems to be getting bigger and more crowded:

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SG50 Jubilee Weekend

There was free entry to all the exhibitions in the ArtScience Museum for Singaporeans during the first three days of the SG50 Jubilee Weekend, so I took the opportunity to take a look inside one of Singapore’s iconic buildings. I spent more than an hour queueing, but that’s hardly the longest I’ve queued before. The two current exhibitions of note are “Dreamworks Animation: The Exhibition” and “The Deep”, which would have cost me $20 on a normal day.

DreamWorks Animation: The Exhibition, ArtScience Museum  [2015]

I also went to Gardens By The Bay to watch the SG50 Special Edition of the nightly Garden Rhapsody light and sound show. This edition is currently still showing after the SG50 Jubilee Weekend so you might still be able to catch it if you haven’t. The show is free for everyone.

Supertree Grove, Gardens By The Bay  [2015]

Travel on buses and trains was free on National Day. The crowds were crazy as a result, and with many dressed in red, I felt like I was being swarmed by fire ants… I wonder when we will next see the following ticket machine cover being used, if ever again…

National Day Free Public Transport, Singapore  [2015]

As for the National Day Parade itself, I managed to get a standing spot beside NTUC Centre at One Marina Boulevard despite arriving at about 6.45pm. There were no screens nearby showing the live feed of the parade conducted at the Padang, so I had to contend myself with just the aerial display and fireworks, and lots of waiting in between. The mobile network was jammed, crowd control was non-existent, and there was a moment when this extremely tall guy, whom I thought was just trying to squeeze past in front of me, suddenly stopped right in front of me, blocking my view of the sky entirely. Needless to say, I was underwhelmed by the fireworks finale from where I was standing, but I wouldn’t have camped out early for a better spot elsewhere anyway.

National Day Parade, Singapore  [2015]

For more photos and videos taken during the SG50 Jubilee Weekend, click on the album below:

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Greece & Italy 2012

Four new photo albums have just been added:

Greece
Corfu
Mykonos & Environs
Santorini

Italy
Venice

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North Thailand & Vientiane Trip

Number of days: 11
Cost of trip: S$456.32

Photo albums are ready for viewing:
Thailand – Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Northeastern Thailand, Sukhothai
Laos – Vientiane

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Bangkok

Accommodation: I stayed at Thrive The Hostel for my first night in Bangkok, using Hotels.com portal to pre-book (and pre-pay) a bed in a 4-bed air-conditioned mixed dormitory at a cost of S$7.82 (~196 baht). The hostel is well-located within walking distance to Sam Yan / Si Lom MRT stations and Sala Daeng BTS station, although I ended up using the city buses as my main mode of transport for this trip. Check-in was smooth as my arrival was already expected, the dormitory room I was assigned to was clean enough, and the bed was surprisingly comfortable. Each bed also has two power sockets and a bed light, there is free usable wifi throughout the hostel, and there are large lockers available for use outside the room (bring your own lock). However, the shared bathrooms (with hot water) were below expectations, as many of the sliding door locks were spoilt, and some of the toilets could not be flushed. My second night in Bangkok was spent at Don Mueang Airport due to an early flight back to Singapore.

Sights: I was able to cover Bangkok’s “biggest attractions” in one day, namely What Phra Kaew & Grand Palace (500 baht), Wat Pho (100 baht), Wat Arun (50 baht), and Wat Traimit (40 baht). Interestingly, the number of tourists visiting each of the four places is directly proportional to the cost of the entrance ticket. I would have liked Wat Arun best if it had not been partly under restoration.

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Transport: To get to the hostel from Mo Chit Bus Terminal, I took Bus 77 and got off at Th Silom (I was puzzled that no one collected any money from me on this bus, and I found out later from hostel staff that this does happen from time to time). To get to the Grand Palace from the hostel, I took Bus 47 (non air-con) and was charged 6.25 baht. To get to Wat Arun, I took the ferry at Tha Tien pier near the Wat Pho entrance for 3 baht each way. To get to Wat Traimit from the Grand Palace, I took Bus 1 (non-air-con) and was charged 8 baht. To get to Don Muang airport, I took the 10.25pm train (last one for the day) from Hua Lamphong Train Station at a cost of 20 baht. To get to Singapore from Bangkok, I flew AirAsia at a cost of S$68.38.

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Khorat

Khorat is hardly a foreign tourist destination in Thailand, but I had some time in hand and decided to stopover for a night to see what the city had to offer. I first went to Sri Ratna Hotel to get a room, but its 200 baht single room with private bathroom was rather dingy and had no hot water. I could see several kinds of insects crawling/flying around, and the “shower” was just a pipe hole flushed with the wall. There was also no free wifi, and the receptionist could barely speak a word of English. Only if I could find nothing else in the price range, I guess. So I wandered around the vicinity, and managed to find a more acceptable (but still slightly dingy) single room at Chumphol Hotel for 270 baht. Located on Th Phoklang, the room had private bathroom with hot water, and when I asked if there was free wifi (yes, and it was usable), I was given a room just beside the router.

There are a few interesting sights in the city: Thao Suranari Monument turned shrine with its endless stream of devotees burning incense and making offerings; Wat Salaloi with its b√≤ht resembling a Chinese junk; Wat Phayap with a “cave” shrine complete with stalactites and stalagmites. However, what I will remember most about Khorat are (1) the Night Bazaar along Th Manat and (2) my foot massage experience. The small Night Bazaar is definitely catered to locals. I did not see a single “souvenir” for sale, and I was probably the only foreigner on the street. I had a full portion of vegetarian Pad Mee Khorat (the local pad thai) for 20 baht, and I also bought 2 deep fried glutinous rice cakes with vegetable fillings for 5 baht each. The glutinous rice cake store owner even gave me one steamed rice cake to try for free! As for my foot massage, I was walking around looking for a cheaper alternative to the 200 baht/hour shop near my hotel, when I chanced upon this large open-air pavilion at the junction of Th Chumphon and Th Mahat Thai (just south of the Thao Suranari Monument), where there were four makeshift outdoor massage “shops” side-by-side giving Thai massage and foot massage for 120 baht/hour. Many locals were getting their massages done there, and my foot massage was excellent with just the right amount of pressure applied.

Chumphol Hotel is just a 10-min walking distance away from Bus Terminal 1, where there are buses to Bangkok. When I arrived at the terminal at noon, there was a bus just about to leave, and I immediately paid 220 baht for a seat so I didn’t have to wait further, despite the cost being slightly higher than I expected. It turned out that the bus was a First Class air-con bus, and I was given a snack and bottle of water upon departing Khorat, and a wet tissue towel just before arriving Bangkok. The bus felt newer and cleaner than the usual Second Class air-con buses I had been taking, and there was also more leg room (due to fewer seats) and a toilet in the bus. Few stops were made along the way (unlike the Second Class which makes frequent stops), and I arrived at Bangkok’s Mo Chit Bus Terminal at 3.30pm. By the way, VIP Class is even more expensive than First Class, with buses having 3 seats per row instead of the usual 4.

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Phanom Rung & Muang Tam

The whole reason why I had made my way to Nang Rong, was to visit the nearby Prasat Hin Phanom Rung. According to Lonely Planet 2012 edition, “getting to Phanum Rung without your own vehicle seems complicated, but it’s not.” Unfortunately, that might only apply on weekdays, as my personal experience on a Sunday wasn’t quite as uncomplicated, particularly for the journey back to Nang Rong.

At about 8.15am, I arrived at the morning market near P.California Inter Hostel, where I was to take a song taew to Ban Tapek (a very small village). There was nobody asking if I wanted to go anywhere, and nobody standing around idly for me to ask either, but there was a song taew in the middle of the market with an old lady and a teenage girl inside. With no other options I approached the teenage girl, pointed to the song taew, and asked, “Ban Tapek?”, to which the teenager nodded. So I got on and sat waiting as well. Finally at 8.40am, the driver appeared and drove off, not asking me where I was going till after all the other passengers had disembarked (I knew we were going in the right direction and had not yet arrived due to a map provided by the hostel). The driver acknowledged my request and continued on, making a few delivery stops enroute. It was 9.15am when I arrived at Ban Tapek, and the fare turned out to be 25 baht.

A motorcycle taxi rider immediately approached me asking if I wanted to go to Phanom Rung, and I negotiated a fare of 350 baht for round-trip transport (and waiting time) to Phanom Rung (~7 km from Ban Tapek) and Prasat Hin Muang Tam (a further 8 km from Phanom Rung). The combination ticket for both sites cost 150 baht, and the entire trip lasted almost 3 hours: Phanom Rung – 75 min; Muang Tam – 45 min; total transit time – 45 min. You don’t actually need that much time for each site, I just took longer waiting for people to clear out of my photos. ūüėČ Besides, I had taken all the effort to get there, I might as well take my time. Between Phanom Rung and Muang Tam, the former is definitely the better site to visit, with its forested setting atop a hill and the long promenade approach to the temple ruins helping to take me back to the past away from modern civilisation. Muang Tam can be missed if you can’t spare the time, and have already seen enough of temple ruins in the region. Both are best viewed in the morning when the sunlight bathes the east-facing main entrances.

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At 12.20pm, I was back at Ban Tapek, and was paying the motorcycle taxi rider when a Japanese man who spoke a bit of Thai and English came up to ask about transport to just Phanom Rung. The two agreed on a fare of 200 baht, and before leaving, the Japanese man found out I would be waiting for a bus (or song taew) back to Nang Rong, and said maybe he would see me when he got back, since he was going in that direction too. Hoping that I didn’t have to wait that long for transport, I just smiled and said he might take awhile at Phanom Rung, so maybe I would be gone by then. Boy was I wrong…

The unsigned stop for the bus back to Nang Rong is at a T-junction just outside a police post. After I had stood in the sun for about 10 min, the policeman on duty gestured for me to take a shaded seat in front of his outdoor desk to wait for the bus. He spoke little English, but I soon gathered that I might have to wait for a long time. At 1.10pm, the Japanese man had returned to Ban Tapek, and there was still no sign of any bus. He was heading to Buriram via Nang Rong, so we waited for the bus together, and made casual conversation about travelling in Thailand and other parts of the world. I found out he was 63, retired with a pension, and had taken up long-term residence in a Bangkok hotel (which apparently is a cheaper retirement plan than buying a condominium, and has daily cleaning service to boot). He had a cheerful demeanour, could speak sufficient English (he had studied in an Australian university) to talk to easily, and could also speak basic Thai to act as an interpretor for me. 2pm came, and there was still no sign of a bus.

Then out of the blue, the Japanese man went up to the road to stop a mother with young daughter riding by on a motorbike-cart, and managed to get her to take us back to Nang Rong as she happened to be heading that way! According to her, we would have been waiting in vain as there were no buses between Nang Rong and Ban Tapek on Sunday. I could not thank her enough for her act of goodwill as she dropped me off near P.California Inter Hostel at about 2.40pm (she refused any form of payment for the 30 min ride), and I also said a grateful goodbye to the Japanese man, without whom I might have had serious problems getting back to Nang Rong. After picking up my big bag at the hostel, I walked to the main road to catch a bus to Khorat, where I had planned to spend the night. This time, I waited for *only* half an hour before a bus came, but to my dismay it was not heading for Khorat. The bus driver, however, allowed me to get on the bus for free, and dropped me off at the bus terminal which was on the other side of the town. There, I was finally able to take a 4pm van to Khorat (66 baht, 1.5 hours).

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Phimai

From Khon Kaen’s Ordinary Bus Terminal, I took a 8.20am bus heading to Khorat, stating that I wanted to stop at Talat Khae, in order to transfer to Phimai. The journey took about 2 hours, ticket was 105 baht. Talat Khae does not have a bus terminal, so the bus just stops at a main junction along the main highway from Khon Kaen to Khorat. In order not to miss the stop, I started paying close attention to the names of places the bus attendant was calling out nearing the 2-hour mark, as well as looked out for road signs indicating the “exit” for Phimai, which is where I was to stop.

After getting off the south-bound bus, I crossed the main highway and waited for the bus to Phimai at a sheltered bus stop where many others (all locals) were already waiting. Within 10 minutes, I was on a non-air-conditioned bus originating from Khorat heading to Phimai. This leg of the journey took about 15 min and cost 15 baht.

Prasat Hin Phimai (100 baht) is right smack in the centre of the small town of Phimai, so the bus practically stops right by it. I left my big bag at the ticket counter, as I did not intend to stay the night in Phimai but push on to Nang Rong instead. Considered by some to be the model for the much grander Angkor Wat, Prasat Hin Phimai is best viewed around noon as the main entrance faces south.

I rented a bicycle from Boonsiri Guesthouse at 20 baht for an hour, in order to cycle to Sai Ngam, which has Thailand’s largest and oldest (>350 years old) banyan tree. As I was leaving Boonsiri Guesthouse after the rental, the elderly lady owner (who spoke little English) kindly gave me two bananas, and I asked her where I could eat Pad Phimai, the town’s specialty. She said she would prepare the dish for me which I gladly accepted. At 35 baht, it contained egg and meat (not always the case), and was at just the right level of spiciness for me. Delicious!

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To get to Nang Rong, I first took a bus to Khorat from the bus stop opposite the Phimai National Museum (100 baht; I was the only visitor during my visit). The bus was air-conditioned this time and the 75 minute journey cost 50 baht. It was 5pm by the time I arrived in Khorat, and the next bus to Nang Rong left at 5.40pm, arriving at Nang Rong’s bus terminal just before 8pm.

It was already dark but I quickly got my bearings and walked to my first choice for accommodation: Nang Rong Hotel. Unfortunately, the 250 baht single room with fan and private bathroom did not have hot water, and I did not feel like paying 100 baht more for an air-conditioned room which had hot water. So I walked on to P.California Inter Hostel, where there was a comfortable single room (in the carpeted main house) with fan and private bathroom (with hot water) for 300 baht. There was also free usable wifi which I could access in the room.

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Udon Thani & Khon Kaen

I headed back to Thailand on the 8am Vientiane – Udon Thani International Bus (22000 kip, S$3.52), the journey taking about 2 hours including the border-crossing. This time, there were no fees at the border, even though at the Laos side I still had to get a “one-way ticket” for free by showing my passport at the customs counter. Also, I had to bring down my big bag from the bus at the Thailand side to be put through the X-ray machine. Do note that there may be additional fees if crossing the border outside of normal working hours, but those didn’t apply to me.

I decided to do a short stopover at Udon Thani, walking with my big bag in the area around Bus Terminal 1. The Prince Prajak Monument could definitely have been skipped, but Sanjao Pu-Ya had a rather picturesque setting beside the Nong Bua lake. I also popped into TESCO Lotus in UD Town to top up on drinks, before going back to the bus terminal to catch the 12.20pm bus to Khon Kaen (84 baht, 2 hours), where I had decided to spend the night.

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At Khon Kaen, I first checked out Saen Samran Hotel, but its 220 baht single room with fan and private bathroom (no hot water) was dinghy and did not appeal to me. There was also no free wifi. Thankfully, Roma Hotel (a business hotel with rooms on both ends of the budget) was just across the street, and I was able to get a single room with fan, private bathroom (with hot water), and free wifi for 230 baht. Unfortunately, the wifi was only usable in the afternoon and not at night. Wifi aside, I still would choose Roma Hotel over Saen Samran Hotel.

Two attractions to highlight in Khon Kaen are the Hong Moon Mung Khon Kaen City Museum and the Phra Mahathat Kaen Nakhon in Wat Nong Wang. The former has good displays with explanations in English celebrating the city’s culture and achievements, while the latter (a multi-tiered stupa) is simply a sight to behold. These two attractions (along with several others) are situated around the Bueng Kaen Nakhon lake, which has a park encircling it. In the evening, I saw many locals jogging and making use of the park’s exercise facilities.

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Vientiane

I took the 7.30am Nong Khai – Vientiane International Bus from the Nong Khai bus station. You need to already have your visa to Laos to take this bus if you require one, which wasn’t an issue for me since I didn’t require one. The ticket cost 55 baht, but there was an additional 5 baht fee for “Thai immigration” which was paid through the bus company. No further fees were required at the Thailand side of the border, but at the Laos side, there was a 5 baht / 1000 kip customs fee. This was paid for by buying a “one way ticket” at separate counters from immigration clearance. The instructions for this were not clearly indicated, but I eventually figured it out when I could not pass a gantry and had to backtrack for the “one way ticket”. Overall, the border crossing was smooth, and the bus driver did ensure everyone was back onboard before moving off. There was no baggage check at all for the crossing, and I left my big bag on the bus when I got down at both sides of the border. At about 9am, the bus arrived in Vientiane’s Talat Sao Bus Station which is located within Central Vientiane.

Prices in Vientiane feel generally higher than across the Thai-Laos border, and most budget accommodation only has shared bathrooms. There are several hostels offering a bed in air-con dormitories for 40000 kip (S$6.40), but I got a single room with fan for the same price at Douang Deuane 2, located just beside Mixay Guest House and opposite Douang Deuane Hotel on Th Nokèokoummane. There are shared bathrooms with hot water on every level in the same building (apparently not the case for others), and free wifi and drinking water at the lobby. The exchange rate is currently about 1 baht to 250 kip; changing at the banks or money changers generally give 247-248 kip per baht. The day receptionist at Douang Deuane 2 was quite happy to exchange between kip and baht at 250 kip per baht both ways.

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Vientiane is supposed to be one of the best places in the region for French dining, so I decided to spoil myself with a set lunch at Le Vend√īme. For 46000 kip (S$7.36), I had a Cream of Wild Asparagus soup, a main course of Grilled Beef Cubes with Fries, and a slice of Flan for dessert. The meal was truly satisfying, with the Flan deserving special mention because it was not too sweet and done at just the right consistency for me. I also “splurged” on a butter croissant (9000 kip, S$1.44) at Le Banneton, which reportedly has the best croissants in Laos. Not quite sure about the competition in Laos, but it certainly rivals Tiong Bahru Bakery’s on the palette, and wins hands down on the price.

Apart from the food, Vientiane has a handful of attractions, the most notable being the shiny gold Pha That Luang (5000 kip, S$0.80). It is about 40 min walking distance away from the heart of Central Vientiane, but most of the other sights are generally in between anyway. I also tried a herbal steam sauna at Herbal Sauna for 15000 kip (S$2.40). The steam is generated by boiling (or burning) an assortment of plants; the herbal smell is definitely present and not unpleasant. Wonder if it really does anything for the body though. Apart from towels, I was also given a metal mug to drink free-flow hot tea as I cooled off outside the steam/sauna room.

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