World Travel – First Month
Singapore | Malaysia | China | Vietnam
When we decided to start in Asia on our World trip we put in place an Asian food ban. About eight weeks out from our flight to Singapore, we decided to stop eating Asian food. The only exception was sushi because we weren’t going to Japan. We are a family that loves Asian food, Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, Indonesian and Nepalese. With a multitude of restaurants in our neighbourhood in Sydney ready to satisfy our international cuisine loving appetite, we strictly adhered to Portugese, Mexican, Spanish and Aussie food on the menu, either out or in. The ban was put in place and resulted in a desperate yearning for rice, noodles and saucy stir fry’s. Needless to say we have been very shocked by what is actually available in the country’s we have visited.
We have been travelling now for one month and have visited four countries. We deemed the first two weeks of our adventure as a true holiday and as such did the tourist things and spent like tourists, to a degree, as we need our money to last all year.
Singapore is a well-known expensive destination but one which the girls were fascinated with visiting. It is safe, tame, futuristic, fake, natural, brilliant, sanitised, expensive and at times very cheap. Our first surprise, when you book a one way ticket to Singapore, you need to have a visa; or you need to show your flight/transport plans out of the country. As we had not booked a flight, instead deciding to train it up to Kuala Lumpur, they wanted to see our train booking, but we had not made one yet. After a small chat they seemed satisfied that we were in fact heading out of the country, especially when they saw the many visa’s in our passports. That out of the way, the next big shock was the hostel we booked. Selection of this accommodation was based on cost, location to the city centre and to a train station. We have and will continue to avoid taxi’s at all cost and walk or take public transport wherever we can. Our family room was supposed to have two separate bed rooms but instead had two double beds side by side and only just enough room for our bags along the wall at the foot of both beds. This was not a great start but it did force us out the door first thing each morning just to avoid the cramped confines.
The hostel was on Tan Quee Lan St in Bugis, two fast train stops from the airport. Close to our Bugis accommodation is the large Bugis Junction shopping centre as well as the famous Bugis Street Market. We really enjoyed exploring our local area and was able to easily walk to the Raffles Long Bar for a Singapore Sling, to the Kampong Glam area (Little Istanbul) but chose to take the train to Little India, Chinatown and Marina Bay.
There’s so much to see and do on such a small island. The old and new blend but also contrast as you make your way through the streets. The outdoor eateries (no longer really hawker carts as they are built in and more sophisticated than the old days) make travel at night and eating out extremely easy as they seem to appear out of nowhere. From nearly every location you can see, hear or witness outdoor entertainment. The sense of excitement and constant anticipation is something that we all really enjoy. All together these made late night adventures a breeze.
Sentosa Island was always on the schedule but we knew it would be costly. We discussed all of the attractions with the girls and looked at cost. Unanimously, we chose the water park and ate an extra big breakfast before heading over for the day. We loved every minute and just laughed and relaxed the whole time. A visit to the Gardens by the Bay was intriguing and futuristic and luckily for us we were able to see the entire night light and sound show which made us all feel as though we were extras in Avatar. We also visited the Boat Quay, the Singapore flyer, Esplanade Park and Fort Canning Park, most within walking distance, albeit lengthy and exhausting at times. Luckily the weather was fantastic.
We spent five nights in Singapore and packed as much activity in as possible. We broke our taxi ban once again when we checked out, not nearly early enough, on our last day. We made it through customs but missed our train to Kuala Lumpur and had to take a bus. This unplanned change in our itinerary seems to have kicked off a relative flood gate of changes to our initial itinerary.
Our visit to Kuala Lumpur was made for two reasons, firstly, this was another selection by the girls and secondly it had direct flights to Beijing at a reasonable cost. It has been nine years since we visited this city, when I was pregnant with Spring and Autumn was only four years old. One thing we never got to do was visit the Batu Caves, because we believed a four month pregnant woman and four year old would not have enjoyed such a journey in the December heat. The visit to this Hindu place of worship was worth it but we also had a long overdue visit to Bukit Bintang to finalise. This well known shopping district is famous for its hawker food stalls and restaurants. Once you turn onto the street the smell is overwhelming, a mix of charcoal, sweet meats and seafood, and there is a lot to choose from. Like many eating streets around the world, negotiate the drinks and take your pick.
Our visit to Kuala Lumpur was pure luxury and in keeping with our holiday mode. We had a huge two bedroom apartment, infinity pool six stories above the busy streets and some delicious room service. Our hotel was just a short walk from Kuala Lumpur Central Station, called KL Sentral.
We only stayed in Kuala Lumpur for three nights, walked to KL Sentral and caught the KLIA (International Airport) train and then hopped on our flight to Beijing.
When we flew into Beijing, we had diligently studied the map and knew exactly which trains to catch to find our hostel, however, the first train from the International airport was not until 6am and we landed at 2am. As we boarded the flight it was nearly 30 degrees and when we landed it was minus 9 degrees. At Beijing International Airport, we spent the first hour collecting bags, getting through customs and then headed for the nearest toilets in order to apply the layers of clothing needed to brave the cold. While the train network was not difficult to navigate, we soon learned that the limited English would pose a problem for our planned train journey to Hanoi, so on check in we extend our stay for another two nights and begun the search for flights.
The vastness of this city surprised us and meant that we would walk many kilometres to get around but this was welcomed exercise and helped to ward off the freezing temperatures. With six nights and seven days to spend in Beijing, we began to scour travel sites and pick up free maps with tips on what to do. We covered all the big ticket items, the Great Wall, to save money we declined the cable car and ascended via a steep stair case and the result was almost exclusive access to a large section, Tian’anmen Square, The Imperial Palace, The Forbidden City and The Summer Palace. All of these locations are masterfully preserved cultural icons and their enormity is overwhelming. You could spend an entire day exploring each of them individually and then miss the rest of what the city has to offer.
In the rest of the city; Wangfujing Snack Street selling scorpions, snakes and bugs on sticks, intriguing but not mouth watering; Qianmen Snack Street and shopping street in our neighbourhood; Silk Street Market, a high rise shopping complex, not a market as you would imagine but with bargains to be had; Dashilar Street another shopping street only 400 metres from Qianmen where we were staying with many traditional and cultural items for sale; and while these were great to visit once, there was one area that we went back again and again; Qian Hai. This was largely a local holiday area with many ice skating rinks on one large lake and restaurants, shops and live music surrounding the entire lake. Very picturesque surrounds with unique and interesting little shops lining the lanes that lead to the lake as well as live music bars with rooftop terraces. We visited this quaint little area, walked the entire lake and ice skated twice because it was so charming and laid back.
As we prepared to leave we all felt a bit sad. Our stay in Beijing was such a different experience for all of us, skating on a frozen lake, eating authentic Chinese food, as challenging as that was and not seeing very many westerners, made us feel like we were visiting some uncharted tourist location. We managed to get a domestic flight to Guangzhou and an international flight to Hanoi. Our challenge came when we realised they were not connecting flights and we had to take our bags and race from the domestic to the international airport, but we made it.
We planned on exploring Vietnam for one month and wanted to do so by land transport as much as possible; but as all plans had changed so far, we were not banking on these being rock solid either. Our first destination, Hanoi, signified that our actual holiday was over and the girls needed to begin their schoolwork. Beginning schoolwork was a rude awakening in that it reminded us that we had actual responsibilities this year and not every day could be filled with site seeing and tours of landmarks.
Luckily we had booked into Old Hanoi and we were immediately greeted with the hectic street atmosphere that the city is famous for and so in effect we did not have to travel far to feel fully immersed. However, Hanoi is overflowing with Western tourists and as a result the cuisine is a blend of stripped back, authentic flavours of Vietnam and what I would call children’s food; pizzas, burgers and fries. On the one hand classic dishes from home are convenient if you have children that are not quite embracing the local cuisine, or you yourself would like to carb load, but on the other hand, we found it limited the number of restaurants that provided authentic local delicacies and in fact drove up the price on these dishes.
Our first week in Hanoi was highly organised inside our two bedroom apartment but utter chaos outside. We felt trapped by the burden of supervising the school workload and the congestion that awaited us at the end of our hotel laneway entrance. After one week, we felt as though we were at living our home life abroad and half way through the second week we began to plan an exit strategy. We booked a tour to Ha Long Bay and stayed one night on the boat and one night on Monkey Island. It was just what we needed. Prior to leaving we had booked the cheapest airflights of our lives; $170 AUD for the four of us to fly from Hanoi to Da Nang in the middle of Vietnam.
So in our first four weeks we have changed train travel into bus or flights, extended stays, shortened stays, toured world wonders, begun distance schooling and had some wonderful ‘first’ experiences.