Riga, Latvia: Highlights, beer, ballet and practical things

View of Riga from St. Peter’s Church tower

Taking the Airport Bus to Old Town: We arrived in Riga via a 1-hour Belavia flight from Minsk, Belarus. There are two terminals at the Riga Airport and if you arrive, as we did, at the one with no Tourist Info office, walk out the main door and turn right to reach the main terminal. Inside this second terminal you’ll find the Tourist Info office. With the main terminal to your back, walk across the parking lot and in the far right corner, you’ll find the bus stop where Bus 22 and Minibus 222 provide cheap, efficient service to Old Town, the Riga Bus Station, covered markets, etc. Tickets are cheaper (€1.15) via a machine at the stand, but a 222 Minibus arrived just as we walked up and we paid the still-cheap €2 fare to the driver and were on our way. The bus was crowded to the point of standing room only and you’re on your own as far as getting your luggage on and off. It’s about a 30 minute ride to Old Town. [If you prefer a taxi, I read but can’t confirm that they are a fixed €14 and require the purchase of a voucher at the airport.] Read more about bus tickets and other public transportation here.

A bit crowded on Airport Minibus 222

Although the driver spoke little English, he tried to help people search for their stops. Our AirBnB host (a quick substitute after our original hostess canceled) had told me to get off at “Griezinieku station,” but little else. With no bus stop signs in sight, I was lucky when a fellow passenger offered that we were at that very stop, which wasn’t any sort of station. Anyway, for anyone wanting to take Bus 22 or Minibus 222 from the airport to Old Town, get off at the first stop just over the river bridge. (The bus turns right after crossing the bridge.) Walk back in the direction of the bridge and you’ll find a pedestrian underpass to Old Town that crosses under the wide, multi-lane boulevard that separates Old Town from the Daugava River. There’s currently construction going on, but it is open. It’s a very short walk (less than 5 minutes) from the bus stop to Old Town. Using Google Maps, we were at our apartment in no time. When it came time to pick up a rent car at the airport, we took the same pedestrian underpass, just popping up in the middle of the boulevard instead of walking all the way back to the riverside stop.

St. Peter’s Church; the €9 fee to climb to the top of the tower was ridiculous…but we paid it.
Old Town Riga

Old Town: Riga has a pretty, but small Old Town. Both a cruise ship port-of-call and a budget airline destination, it’s become very touristy with lots of souvenir shops, cafés, bars and restaurants. It caters to a younger, drinking crowd, too, and it’s common for bars to be open until 4am or even 6am! I pity the locals who live near the noisy, drunken throngs and pounding music. Cigarette butts and trash are frequently scattered across the sidewalks near bars. Choose your lodging location carefully.

The entrance to our AirBnB apartment was next door to such a dive-y bar, but fortunately faced an interior courtyard. With a fan for white noise, we didn’t have a problem sleeping, but certain neighbors must have. On the bright side, two doors down was a cavernous beer bar and restaurant, Folkklubs ALA, that topped David’s list of places to try local beer. We enjoyed a hearty and reasonably-priced meal of local fare there, too.

Prices have risen with the tourist trade, but we found the Latvian War Museum which encompasses the 14th century Powder Tower in the far NW corner of Old Town to be both surprisingly good and surprisingly free.

Old Town Riga square facing the beautiful House of the Blackheads with the somber Museum of the Occupation of Latvia to the right

We had rain on our first day in Riga, so headed to the famous covered market which is housed in four huge, side-by-side hangars (visible in the top photo of this blog post). This turned out to be one of our favorite stops. Products vary from building to building: produce, pickled goods, meat and cheese, fish, clothing and jewelry, etc. We bought honey and propolis, sausage, jerky and dark sausage bread. Vendors were friendly and quick to offer samples.

A line for the sausage lady’s goods. She also sold cheese, dark sausage bread, and kvass a fermented rye bread-based drink popular throughout the Slavic and Baltic countries and Russia

Beer!: The biggest hit at the market with our beer-loving selves was the Labietis craft beer bar set up near a main entrance (the one facing Old Town) to the produce hall. This bar is a small outpost of their much larger bar across town. We enjoyed visiting with the knowledgeable young woman serving beer that day and the other patrons who’d settled into the seating provided behind the bar. The beers were interesting and based on local ingredients. A particularly unusual brew was a “braggot” (a Welsh term for a honey brewed beverage related to mead) which they claim dates back to bronze age brewing techniques and ingredients. It’s a hazy golden drink with a small white head and fine bubbles. Its nose and taste is spicy with honey and meadow flowers. Sweet red berries and slight caramel round out the taste. We liked Labietis so much we made a point of a return visit when we came back to Riga some weeks later.

Lots on tap at the Labietis bar at the Riga Market
Enjoying a Labietis brew

Back in Old Town on another day, we tried local beers at Beer House No. 1, which boasts 70 beers on tap, both local and international. They’ve got a wide selection of Belgian beers, but having just spent 6 weeks in Belgium, we weren’t interested in that. I tried a Mežpils Saules EILS, a deep gold ale with a strong aroma and taste of butterscotch, rich, but with something crisper than expected that cuts through at the end. It was unusual, but I liked it at first. As it warmed, though, it developed a fake butterscotch taste that really put me off. I found myself unable/unwilling to finish it.

Beer House No. 1 in Old Town Riga
An odd butterscotch-y ale

Beyond Old Town: A short walk from Old Town Riga took us to the golden-domed Nativity of Christ Cathedral, a local icon. Just behind it across a small park sits the Latvian National Museum of Art. Walking from the cathedral past the museum a couple of blocks, we arrived at the famous Art Nouveau district of Riga. It’s a pleasant place to stroll, but it didn’t hold our attention for too long. For those more interested, the Riga Art Nouveau Museum is a long block further on.

Riga Nativity of Christ Cathedral
Art Nouveau buildings in Riga

Beautiful Ballet in a gorgeous Opera House: Some months before our arrival in Riga, I’d bought two of the few remaining tickets online to “On the Blue Danube,” a ballet I’d never heard of based on Johann Strauss music. The ballet turned out to be the true highlight of our stay in Riga. The Latvian National Opera House is a gorgeous gem of a venue and the ballet was spectacular. Mikhail Baryshnikov began dancing in his hometown of Riga and the tradition of fine ballet lives on with the Latvian National Ballet. In addition, the costuming was beautiful, mixing ballgowns and a formal menswear on waltzing, supporting dancers with classic ballet costumes on the ballet dancers in their midst…and all of this to Strauss music. Wonderful!

The Latvian National Opera House
Inside the Latvian National Opera House
Post-performance

At €10 each, our box seats were a steal even though they were not front row.  (See view from our seats above.) By the time we got to Riga, the performance was sold out for the coming 4 months, so book early if you’re interested. A pretty café offers drinks, hors d’oeuvres and desserts.

Café in the Latvian National Opera House

 

Minsk Airport Business Lounge review: a Priority Pass lounge

Flying Belavia, the national airline of Belarus, means arriving at the airport two hours before your flight. They’re firm about that no matter how short the flight. We arrived two-and-a-half hours early at the Minsk International Airport and found all Belavia desks closed, but sure enough, promptly two hours before our flight, a Belavia agent arrived and opened a counter. A line quickly formed. Since we were first in line, we were checked in and sans checked luggage in no time. With time to spare, we passed through security and headed upstairs to the Minsk Airport Business Lounge to which we have access via our Priority Pass Select cards (perks of both Chase Sapphire Reserve and AmEx Platinum).

We found an intriguing lounge, empty save for a single agent early on a Friday afternoon. Two massage chairs sat on an expanse of artificial turf spread just beyond two large, canopied daybeds of the kind you might expect to find in the beach area of a resort. Lounge chairs lined the faux lawn. Metal walls in this area and sleek lines on furniture and counters throughout give the lounge a futuristic look. I planted myself in one of the massage chairs for a goodly portion of our stay, but David thought they were too rough and opted for a lounge chair.

A buffet was set out in another wing of the L-shaped lounge just beyond the check in counter. Food tended toward local dishes, of cafeteria quality: sausage, fried meat and vegetables, soup, breakfast cereals and sweets. OK, but not great. Complementary coffee, soft drinks and water were also provided.

Free alcohol was limited to two kinds of Bobrov (a mass-produced Heineken beer) and local wine. Upgraded beer and wine were kept in a separate refrigerator near the check-in counter and cost extra. There were magazines and newspapers, but none in English.

View from a massage chair

We couldn’t access the free wi-fi with the directions provided on various signs because we had no way to receive the text message used to send a PIN code. The nice lady at the front counter solved the problem with access codes provided on scratch-off cards kept behind the front counter.

The Business Lounge was spotless, stylish and a good place to wait on a flight, if not exactly lavish. Just outside the Business Lounge, small 24-hour sleeping cubicles are available for rent. The Business Lounge is open 24-hours/day.

Sleeping cubicles at the Minsk Airport

Review: Travsim cross-border SIM card

Rural Lithuania: Crossing borders near places like this doesn’t lend itself to a quick stop in a phone shop to buy a local SIM card

When we decided to add a few weeks in the Baltics at the end of our Antwerp stay, I started pondering Internet service. The Baltic countries are small, and we had plans to drive back and forth across borders and to cross borders in some fairly rural places. That kind of trip doesn’t lend itself to making a quick stop in a phone store to buy a local SIM card, something I often do when traveling. I also didn’t want to have to buy–and change every time we crossed a border–3 SIM cards, one each for Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. (I’d already decided we could do without for the relatively short time we’d be in Belarus.)

Not quite as rural as the above pic of Lithuania, but finding a phone shop with SIM (and English-speaking help) wouldn’t be likely at this small-Latvian-town border crossing either

When I’m home in the U.S., my cell provider is AT&T, a necessary evil because of its superior coverage where I spend most of my time. But, AT&T is horrible for international travel and I would never consider using its exorbitant international data “plans.” There are more and more international plans these days, but most didn’t suit my needs. However, my research finally led me to Travsim, a German-based company offering multi-country SIM cards at interesting prices and with a decent active period. After exploring their options, I settled on their DATA SIM card for Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania). They offered data SIM cards from 3-12G, lasting 30-60 days, and a 12G, 30 day data-and-international-calls card. I chose a card offering “3 GB – fast mobile internet with a speed of up to 7,2 Mbit/s for 60 days for +$21.44.” I wasn’t interested in getting phone service since we seldom need to make calls locally and can always use Internet calling if we do. We use WhatsApp and Internet calling for texts and calls home, too.

Travsim offers free international shipping and expedited shipping for a fee. The estimated shipping time to the U.S. is 3-5 days (to cities), but I opted to wait and have it sent to us in Belgium. Mailed from Germany, the SIM card arrived 2 days after I placed my order.

The “Baltic” data SIM card I ordered turned out to include data service in many countries. In addition to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, the card covered:  Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Germany, Finland, France, Gibraltar, Greece, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Iceland, Isle of Man, Israel, Italy, Channel Islands, Croatia, Litchenstein, Luxembourg, Macau, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Ireland, Romania, Sweden, Switzerland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sri Lanka, Czech Republic, Hungary, United States, United Kingdom, Cyprus (EU Member state). Wow! The card also came with a UK phone number at which I could apparently receive calls although I never had occasion to try that out.

Letter that came with Travsim SIM card with instructions and list of included countries
Reverse side of the above letter from Travsim

All I had to do to activate the card was install it in my phone and reboot. Since Belgium was included, I was able to try out the card a couple of days before we left Antwerp and found it working fine. When we landed in Vilnius, it instantly connected as well. I was able to email our AirBnB hostess from the airport to schedule our key hand-off. [Unfortunately, this is the only point at which I had any troubles with this SIM card and I have some doubts that the problem had anything at all to do with the SIM card:  I was unable to email or receive emails from our hostess’ mother’s Lithuania email account which caused some hassles as I had to contact our hostess who was in Paris via WhatsApp and AirBnB so that she could relay info to her mother who was waiting on us with the key. All other emails went through fine. I have had a similar problem in Asia and elsewhere when using other SIM cards. My email servers seem to block certain local emails. If anyone knows what this is about, I’d love to know.] The Travsim card also worked fine during our London layover when we flew home from Brussels.

Despite the one glitch in Vilnius, the Travsim SIM card worked seamlessly as we drove across the Baltic borders. The only active step I ever had to take was to reboot when we returned from Belarus, a country not covered by Travsim.

I loved that our Travsim had a 60-day active period. So often, tourist SIM cards last only 7-15 days and I’ve had times when the time limit is just short of what I need. I’d much rather have way too much time than not enough. I still had plenty of data left at the end of my 3-weeks use. At $21.44, I was happy with the price, too. I’m sure local SIM cards are available at much cheaper prices, but given the logistics of our trip and the strong likelihood of language issues, Travsim was the way to go. Given that they offer SIM cards covering many countries on five continents, I’ll definitely keep them in mind for future travels.

Note: Unfortunately, Travsim does not allow hotspotting.

 

Taking advantage of Belarus’ new 5-day visa waiver

Victory Circle in Minsk

Just this year, Belarus enacted a waiver of their visa requirement for certain travelers. Now, travelers from 80 countries (including the USA, UK, EU, Canada & Australia) can stay up to five days in Belarus without having to get a visa. There are some catches, though: The visa waiver only applies to travelers arriving and departing from Minsk International Airport (MSQ) and the waiver does not apply to flights originating or ending in Russia or territories controlled by the Russian Federation.

When I read about the new waiver, I knew we had to detour to Belarus sometime during our Baltic explore. A call to British Airways confirmed we could move back our originally-scheduled departure from Brussels so we were good to go. (I actually got a refund from BA since taxes and fees were substantially lower for the identical flight on a later day. That’s only happened to me once before when changing an award booking on BA, but I like it!) The cheapest routes and most logical routes to Minsk for us entailed flights on Belavia, the Belarusian Airline. We flew from Vilnius, Lithuania, 30 minutes to Minsk and then from Minsk to Riga, Latvia, a 1-hour flight.

Belavia airplane ready for the 30-minute flight from Vilnius, Lithuania, to Minsk, Belarus. No jet bridges for these flights.

Belavia has an excellent on-time record. They’re a basic airline; everything costs extra, including water, but they’re efficient and friendly. Check-in is a firm 2-hours before boarding. Planes are relatively small on the flights we took, so expect to walk onto the tarmac to a bus then be shuttled to outdoor boarding. Overhead bins are small, so a small carry-on like my trusty Travelon* is in order, ideally one that will fit under the seat. Carry-on was not weighed, but checked luggage was and the limit is 20 kg, less than a standard US flight allowance.

[*I love my Travelon carry-on so much I have two variations, one even smaller than the other and perfect for when I’m taking the netbook and not the bigger (15″) laptop. A strap on the back lets me attach it to the handle of my 360-wheel checked luggage so maneuvering even a heavy load is easy. David liked my system so much he bought the same thing in black rather than my nifty eggplant purple.]

Cosy, but our carry-ons fit under the seat of this smaller plane

The waiver system worked very simply and smoothly. We filled out the landing card required of arriving visitors and simply indicated our departure date which was within the 5-day limit.

Welcome to Belarus! The mandatory health insurance counter is just to the left inside this door.

We still had to get the mandatory local insurance so joined the rush to queue up at the counter just inside the terminal entrance to the left. The insurance is very cheap and they accept dollars and euros (at an equal exchange rate), rubles and credit cards. The cost for a 1-2 day stay is $2 (or €2)/ person, for 3-4 days it’s $4 (or €4)/person, 5-6 days is $6 (or €6)/person. We showed our passports, paid the fee and were handed an insurance policy. Standing in line took more time than getting the policy.

With policy in hand, we then headed to passport control. The wait at passport control was longer than at the insurance desk because each passport is very thoroughly examined with a lighted viewing glass. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Several people were asked to step aside and at least one was sent back to the insurance desk to talk to some officials. It seemed that everyone got through; it was just slow although not that many people were queued up.

When I did get to an official, I showed her my passport, insurance and boarding card. She asked me if we had a visa. I said “no,” then she verified  that we were leaving within the 5-day limit and all was well. (The only “verification” was a simple question. I wasn’t required to show my return ticket as I was in China when using a visa waiver there.) She asked the purpose of our visit and when I said I was curious about Belarus, she smiled and asked “Tourism?” I nodded and she stamped me into the country. (David went through the same methodical process. There’s no stepping up as a couple traveling together, only individuals, one-at-a-time.)

We went through the same methodical inspection of our passports when we left Belarus, but there was absolutely no problem. The visa waiver system works smoothly. We heard several Belarusians mention that there’s hope the waiver will be extended to 10-days. They recognize the potential for increased tourism and are looking forward to it.

Nesvizh Castle, an easy daytrip from Minsk

I’ll write more on our stay in Minsk and our daytrip to Nesvizh and Mir, but am enjoying our travels rather than blogging right now. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay and saw tourist areas being expanded and renovated in addition to an apparent general construction boom in Minsk. Departure from Belarus was as hassle-free as arrival. With cheap airlines bound to start pouring in, go sooner rather than later. I worry that the Ryanair/drunken-stag-party crowd will do to Minsk what it’s done to other Eastern European cities.

 

Rent car anomalies; snagging a deal

Our spiffy Skoda Fabia cost us a lot less than if I’d chosen a different code on Avis’ web site

We booked a rent car this week for a daytrip from Antwerp to see the tulip fields and gardens of Keukenhof in the Netherlands. We’ve rented cars several times now in Antwerp that we pick up at Antwerp’s gorgeous Centraal train station. There are several rental companies there: Avis, Hertz, Budget and Europcar. Avis and Budget share a small office as do Hertz and Europcar. I think we’ve used all four companies now, but Avis seems to offer the best deal for short rentals. It also presents a classic rent car anomaly that I thought was worth pointing out.

Often different rental car locations for the same company within the same city will offer wildly different prices for the same car and rental dates. Sometimes this is the result of extra fees charged for airport, train or bus station locations. Sometimes fees are higher for a mid-city pick-up at a downtown office or hotel. It just depends. (Also, it’s nearly always more expensive to pick up and drop off at a different location, even if those locations are within the same city.) So, once you’ve narrowed your rent car search down to the best-priced company, there’s still some checking to be done if you want to snag the best deal. Sadly, comparing the different total prices creates extra work for the travel planner, but it also creates opportunities to save a lot of money.

Avis in Antwerp offers one of the clearest examples of the quirks of the car rental industry: In Antwerp, Avis’ web site offers two choices at “Antwerpen Central Railway Station.” (Known locally as Antwerpen Centraal, this is the main train station in Antwerp, and the most likely place to rent a car since it’s not only central to Antwerp itself, but also the terminus of frequent and direct trains that run from underneath the international airport in Brussels, a mere 30 minutes away.) The address given for both rental locations is identical. The only difference is a two-letter code at the end of each. But, when you click on these links and check the prices, you’ll find that the final price (including all taxes and fees) for second choice (“TW9”) is much cheaper for the identical car, dates, extras, everything. The reason is that the first option (“AN2”) is considered at the train station so you’re charged $70.76 extra for station fees, while the second option (“TW9”) is simply considered as downtown, so you’re only charged $5.13. For the identical rental from the identical counter in the identical office. Go figure.

Screenshot of a sample one-day rental using the AN2 train station code
Screenshot of a sample search using the TW9 train station code (considered “downtown” rather than in the train station, although it is in the train station. 40%+ cheaper than the identical rental using the AN2 code!

I usually find that the Avis quoted car price is cheaper for the AN2 train station rental (sometimes much cheaper–a ploy that could easily lead the unwary to choose an ultimately more expensive rental). But, when the $65 difference is factored in ON A SHORT RENTAL, the TW9 becomes the much cheaper deal. (In the above example, the TW9 rental is 40%+ cheaper than the identical rental using the AN2 code. For us this week, I think it was an even bigger discrepancy. And, other companies were wanting 2-2.5x what we paid for our car for similar vehicles!) For longer rentals, the pricing advantage can actually switch back to the AN2 train station rental if the base price is really low, although not by much since the train station fee is not a straight per day fee while the $5.13 fee is. Oh joy, more work for the travel planner.

On our most recent rental, I mentioned this anomaly to the agent checking us out and he confirmed. He then informed me that the “airport” location for Avis in Antwerp is also really at the train station. Avis just taxis customers in from the small local airport which is only about 10 minutes away. Cars have never been available from the airport when I’ve checked, so I don’t have any personal knowledge of those prices, but would expect them to be higher.

I do also check other online travel services, rent car search engines and the like. Sometimes they offer better deals, but surprisingly often I find a better deal direct with the rental company. Also, when booking via a third party I have been hit with unforeseen location fees by the actual rental car company. There’s usually some small print about that being a possibility, so when it’s impossible to check in advance, I sometimes go with the guaranteed final price from the rental company itself. With regards to Avis in Antwerp, they’ve been cheaper when booked directly than via an online travel company like economycarrentals.com, Priceline, etc. Finally, I always use cards that give miles or points for car rentals, check for discount and bonus codes, and check to see if I can use Topcashback for a little extra cash rebate. Most car rental companies and several major travel search companies are on Topcashback.

Pet and Housesitting: See the world like a local

Antwerp’s beautiful Grote Markt

David and I did our first pet and housesitting gig two and half years ago, in September 2014. We loved it and have done quite a few more, often for the same people (and pets). We’re about to return to Antwerp, Belgium, for our fourth cat and housesit for a wonderful couple who have become friends over the past couple of years. We’ll be in Antwerp for six weeks in a great Dutch-style house with two terrific cats in a neighborhood we love in a city and country we love and love exploring. We know and like the neighbors, as well as our favorite local shops, restaurants and beer bars. Pet and housesitting is a great way to temporarily step into another life and lifestyle and really get to know a place, to be something more than a tourist. You take on responsibilities (that we take very seriously), but you also get a free place to stay and a truly special experience. We love interspersing our own travels with these stays whenever a tempting opportunity presents itself. We often use a housesit to kick off other travels in the region, too. After our upcoming Antwerp stay, we’ll spend a few weeks tooling around the Baltics before flying home. It’s a much easier and cheaper flight from Brussels to Lithuania than anything I could find from the U.S.!

For the pet owner, it’s a great way to let your pets stay in their own familiar surroundings and not subject them to the stress (and potential exposure to illness) of outside boarding. It’s cheaper, too! A home is safer as well when it’s not left vacant. Sometimes housesits are offered even when no pets are involved.

Coming “home” to pets is a bonus to us
These two are sweethearts!

House- and Pet-sitting sites we’ve tried and our conclusions:
There are several sites out there to connect house- and pet-sitters with people looking for them. We’ve subscribed to three: Caretaker Gazette, Housecarers and Trustedhousesitters. (You’ll find a 20% discount for our favorite below.) I received one positive response from Caretaker Gazette–our first foray into this world–, but found most of their listings to be for true caretakers: b&b, small inn, or farm managers or long-term live-in caretakers. [I had major doubts about the Caretaker Gazette after I received an email from a homeowner saying he hadn’t authorized the posting of his ad which he’d placed with another publication. We no longer subscribe and will not again.] Housecarers seems to be a reputable site, but is very heavily Australia-weighted, and I found its web site awkward to use and let the membership lapse.

We have been most happy with Trustedhousesitters.com, based out of England. It has worldwide listings, but the most numerous countries on the site are UK, USA, Canada, France, Australia and New Zealand. While there is still some room for improvement, overall their web site is well thought-out and easy to use. You can search openings without joining, but you’ll only see the newest postings if you join. This is important as competition is fierce for appealing locations. Owners are often swamped with applications. (The woman in Antwerp for whom we pet and housesit told me she got 30-something responses in the first day or so. Your vacation house in the south of France or on a Caribbean beach or your posh flat in London will be swamped with people wanting to pamper your house and pets.)

Creating your pet and housesitting profile:
Once you’ve paid your dues, create a profile introducing yourself and your relevant experience. Even if you’ve never been a house- and/or pet-sitter before, you’ve got experience if you’ve owned or cared for pets (or farm animals), been a homeowner, gardener, tended a swimming pool, etc. Be sure to post photos and any references. If you’re just starting out as a pet and housesitter, use other character references. We used the Executive Director of a charitable board I served on and a former law partner of David’s. We’d already had background checks done for our French resident visas, but you can get them done via Trustedhousesitters for added reassurance.

View of the Willamette River from the balcony of our first pet and housesit in Oregon

Getting your first gig:
Because it can be so competitive, you may want to start with something that might not be so high-demand. It doesn’t hurt to shoot for a week in Paris your first time out, but you might have more luck with something closer to home. Once you get a housesit under your belt and a (hopefully) positive review, you’ve got experience to bring to your next housesit and a budding resumé. Look, too, for listings where you might have an edge up. Our first pet and housesit was for a wonderful Oregon professor who was heading to an annual stay in Paris. My years as a Paris ex-pat caught her eye and our love of Paris is something we have in common. It didn’t hurt that she has two cats and David did years of cat rescue. People with horses will look for people with horse experience. Foreign language skills can come in handy; so can gardening and horticulture skills. I once saw a couple looking for someone with aquaculture experience. You get the idea. It also pays to scan the site frequently and jump on any new listings that appeal to you. If you’re the first to respond, you’re ahead of the game. The site has recently upgraded so you can see how many people have applied already. That’s a useful tool.

Owners will email and call to get to know you. Usually, they want to Skype, FaceTime, etc. It’s normal for them to interview several candidates before making a selection, although we’ve had them just say “yes” on the spot.

David cooking with cat in Oregon
…and cooking with cats in Belgium. He’s a popular guy!

Your responsibilities as a pet and housesitter:
Being a pet and housesitter isn’t just a free hotel somewhere. You’re staying in someone’s home and caring for a beloved pet. You’re there to take care of both. You should provide not only the basics for the pet(s)–food, water, exercise and “bathroom” needs–but also companionship and affection. If a medical issue arises, be prepared to take the animal to the vet. If unsure whether the condition merits veterinary attention, contact the owner if possible to find out their preference.

We pride ourselves on leaving the house as clean or cleaner than when we arrive. I like to keep any flower beds or flower boxes weeded and tidy, too, and will happily plant a few things, as well. Usually, the owner invites us to eat anything perishable in the fridge, but clarify that along with what spices, etc. are up for grabs. If we finish off something that would otherwise have been usable on the owners’ return, we replace it. Often, I set aside things that might get broken or spilled on (especially in the kitchen). I take photos of where items are when we arrive and try to put everything back just as it was when we leave. If there’s time prior to departure, we launder the sheets and towels. If there’s no time because of a quick hand-off (due to flights, etc.), we ask what the owners would like done. We offer to pick up groceries for the owners’ arrival and have cooked a welcome-home dinner on occasion. Just imagine what you’d expect and appreciate if it were your home and pet and do that. Get emergency contact numbers: for family, neighbors, vets, plumbers. Find out where the fuse box is and ask about any appliance quirks, etc.

Sharing my morning routine with one of our charges

Who usually pays for what:
For most pet and housesits, the lodging and utilities are free to the sitter. For some longer-term (multi-month) sits, the owner might ask the sitter to pay something towards utilities. Travel expenses are borne by the sitter. If private transportation is required, some owners offer the use of a car, but many do not so a rent car may be necessary in some locations. Factor in the costs before you commit to a housesit.

Staying long-term creates more opportunities to see local events

Things to think about:
We’ve only dealt with very nice, easy-to-work-with homeowners. Still, it’s only smart to do a little research. Read reviews. (They work both ways: owners review sitters and vice versa.) Use Google Earth to check out neighborhoods. Ask questions. You don’t necessarily need a contract (and I was an attorney by profession), but it never hurts to spell out your understanding in an email. At the very least talk about anything that might give rise to a misunderstanding before you accept the housesit. Trustedhousesitter does offer a housesitter agreement form, but it’s not intended to be a legal document.

When pets are involved, be sure you’re really up to the task. If you’re not comfortable with big dogs or horses, for example, don’t let a luxurious house or a dreamed-of locale tempt you beyond your capacity. Some pets require a lot more in-person time than others; think of a goldfish vs. a puppy. Be sure you can make the time commitment, and don’t expect to be as free as you would be on a self-paid vacation.

We fell in love with this big sweetie!

Once you commit to being a housesitter, nothing short of serious medical problems or death should keep you from showing up. Someone else is now counting on you to make their travel plans work, so don’t accept a housesit unless you’re 100% committed. The same applies if you’re an owner; your housesitter may be out pricey plane tickets and other expenses if you back out. The relationship depends on trust.

A 20% discount!
If you’re interested in giving Trustedhousesitters a try, you can use my referral link for a 20% discount: https://www.trustedhousesitters.com/su/mumUxnIK I’d really appreciate it since I’ll get an extension on my membership, too. Thank you in advance to anyone who uses the link!

More points!: Chase Sapphire Reserve…and thinking of cancelling AmEx Platinum

The day David and I landed from our 2.5 months in Asia, we headed to our local Chase branch and each applied for the new Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card. The Chase Sapphire has lots of perks, including a huge 100,000 point initial bonus, a $300/calendar year travel rebate, and 3x Ultimate Reward points for all travel expenses and dining. We’d really wanted to get the Sapphire Reserve card before we left on our Asia trip, but it had just launched and was so popular that there was a delay that made it impossible to get before we left. Getting these cards was high on our to-do list when we got back to the States. Happily, Chase had worked through the backlog while we were gone. We were both approved on Thursday and received our new cards the next Tuesday (November 22,2016). [Chase has recently announced a 5-card limit on applications within a 2 year period. When rumors of a new Chase premium card surfaced online, we were careful to hold a spot open for Reserve. I’m so glad. It would have been excruciating to miss this offer!]

The Sapphire Reserve is a premium card with a high annual fee ($450), but its perks more than make up the cost. One of the most enticing aspects for those of us who travel a lot is an annual $300 credit on ANY travel. (A bigger and much more useful credit than the $200 I get on my AmEx Platinum that is limited to certain expenses–not tickets–on one airline of my choice.) Given that we easily spend $300 a year on travel, the annual fee is instantly reduced for us to $150. Moreover, the travel rebate is per calendar year (which means the travel charges must show on the December statement to be included in that calendar year) so we could get $600 in travel rebates apiece in the first 13 months if we moved quickly.

Since we wanted to get maximum travel rebates by spending $300 each in the rapidly-dwindling 2016 calendar year, we knew timing would be tricky. I called to confirm when our first statement closed in December and found mine was December 7th. David’s was even earlier. Not much time! We got busy (and creative*) and charged enough to get the full $300 each before our statements closed in December…meaning we’ll have yet another $300 credit in 2017. ‘Not bad at all for a card that comes with a whopping 100,000 point bonus after $4000 spend in the first 3 months.

Ultimate Reward points are one of the most useful and valuable points out there and I regularly see them valued at 1.7 to 2.1 cents, which gives the bonus points a value of $1700-$2100 if redeemed for travel. If you’ll remember, we used 95,000 points each for our Korean Air First Class tickets from Bangkok to Seoul to Dallas. By that measure, the points are worth substantially more ($6500+ apiece for those tickets). Chase also offers cash redemption at a rate of 1 cent/point so you could get $1000 cash for your points if you’re not into travel. Alternatively, the Sapphire Reserve card lets you redeem through the Ultimate Rewards travel portal at a 1.5 multiplier, giving you $1500 to spend on travel. This can make sense over transferring miles when things like timing (e.g., when award flights aren’t available) or earning more miles via an airline are an issue. [If we didn’t want to keep our Sapphire Reserve cards, we could conceivably cancel after receiving and using or transferring our bonus points and be paid a not-insubstantial amount for using the card! I’m not a fan of this kind of bonus chasing, though, and you risk getting flagged and closed out by the credit card company.]

I know $4000 is a lot of spend, but there are ways to do it if that’s beyond your normal: prepaying things like insurance is one easy way. (Unfortunately, a veterinary medical crisis followed by an expensive car repair made my spend much “easier” and quicker than I’d planned. Happily, my dog made a full and speedy recovery!)

Other benefits of the Sapphire Reserve include Priority Pass Select (which we already get via AmEx Platinum) and Global Entry (which we also already have as a benefit of both AmEx Platinum and Citi Aadvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard). These overlapping benefits are yet another reason I’m considering cancelling my AmEx Platinum after all these years. When Platinum lost Admiral’s Club access, its major benefit was gone as far as I’m concerned. I’ve never found a “free” partner plane ticket that worked out cheaper than what I could find two tickets for on my own for. Hotel chain upgrades are nice, but just not something we use much. We did have a fantastic getaway to The Plaza in NYC and enjoyed the many perks of Platinum Fine Hotels & Resorts (free breakfast, bar and spa credit, room upgrade, late check-out), but it was still an expensive short trip and it’s just not something we do often enough to care…and there are similar benefits with Sapphire Reserve. The AmEx card offers I load onto our cards haven’t been of much use to us recently either. (Valuable offers like an awesome $50 per card deal on AirBnB a year or so ago, cash back on spends at small businesses, and cash rebates at Whole Foods have given way to 2x points offers and rebates requiring large spends at stores we don’t frequent.) Just recently, AmEx Platinum has offered 5x points on flights and related expenses booked directly with airlines or through their travel company. That’s more interesting, but not decisive standing alone. The main benefit to Platinum that I would seriously miss is the Centurion Club. Not $450 worth, but damn, Centurion is a nice lounge. Unfortunately, there just aren’t that many Centurion Clubs. We’re lucky to have a Centurion Club at DFW’s Terminal D which we usually fly out of for our not-infrequent overseas flights. The Admiral’s Club full membership (also available to authorized cardholders for free, i.e., my sons) that comes with the Citi MasterCard is more often useful to us.

NOTE: (1) I got the Chase Sapphire Preferred card this past summer and was really happy with it until the Reserve came out. I was able to apply for the Reserve as a new card, so I get not only the 55,000 point bonus for the Preferred (50k + 5k for adding my college-age son), but am also eligible for the 100,000 point bonus for the Reserve. DO NOT upgrade your Preferred. Apply for a new card or you’ll miss the 100,000 point bonus. (2) It’s fine to cancel or downgrade the Preferred once you get the Reserve, if you have it, but you MUST TRANSFER your Ultimate Rewards points from your Preferred to your Reserve card before you cancel the Preferred or you will lose your points. It’s easy to transfer online; just click on the Ultimate Rewards box, then follow the links to transfer.

__________

*About that being creative with the travel spending: With so little time and no plans to travel prior to the first week in December (We did just get back, after all!), we needed to find some way to get that $300 travel rebate we each had coming. We have reservations on British Airways to Belgium and back in March and May (for which I’d used BA miles and a free companion pass I earned with my BA AmEx). I could only find Business Class availability on the trip over, so we were booked Economy on the way back. We did want exit row seats on that flight, but I’d not yet ponied up the (ridiculously-high) charge. Voila! I charged the exit row seat selections to my Sapphire Reserve. For the balance, I found I was able to gift David with an American Airlines electronic gift card and an AirBnB gift card, both of which were instantly rebated when the charges posted. (Charges take about 3 days to move from “pending” to posted.) American is the airline we use most, so we’ll have no problem using that gift card. The AirBnB gift card will be easy to use as well, probably in April or May in France. We are avid AirBnBers, having stayed in AirBnB apartments in 11 countries on 3 continents in this year alone. By happy coincidence, my mother needed to make a quick trip to Corpus Christi for a friend’s birthday. She let David charge her plane ticket to his card. She paid him back, and his $300 spend was done for the calendar year, too. As an extra perk, these travel expenditures count towards our $4000 initial spend and also garner us 3x the points as well. Thank you, Chase!

The above reflects my personal experience and understanding. If you’re interested in learning more, read the details of the benefits and restrictions of the Chase Sapphire Reserve card and/or apply at: https://creditcards.chase.com/a1/sapphire/reserve

 

 

 

 

Up to 50,000 AAdvantage miles for depositing with Fidelity

If you’ve got some money to move around, Fidelity has a great American Airlines AAdvantage mile offer for both new and existing customers that’s good through December 31, 2016. To qualify, you need to deposit funds into a non-retirement account. A maximum bonus of 50,000 miles is offered for deposits of $100,000 or more. A bonus of 25,000 miles is offered for deposits of $50,000-$100,000, and a bonus of 15,000 miles is offered for deposits of $25,000 or more. You MUST REGISTER BEFORE making the deposit to qualify.

I’ve gotten his bonus before, so there’s a good chance it will repeat in the future as well. I’ve also seen Delta miles offered, so keep an eye out for those if they suit you better. There’s a minimum time you need to keep the funds (or stocks) in the account.

Read details of this offer and follow the link to register at: https://rewards.fidelity.com/offers/aa

Korean Air First Class with credit card points: Bangkok to Dallas via Seoul

20161116_210129
Setting up for dinner service on the Seoul to Dallas leg of our journey home via Korean Air first class

We love playing the credit card miles and points game and are always on the lookout for an exceptional bonus or a great redemption deal. We charge everything to credit cards–every little bit adds up, but we ALWAYS pay in full at the end of the month. I emphasize the “always” because I encourage everyone to take advantage of the great freebies to be had by using credit cards, but only so long as you never charge more than you can pay at the end of the month. If you can’t afford to pay in cash, don’t charge it to a card. Period. Interest rates eat people alive and can cost way more than any perk you might get from accumulated points. That warning aside, here’s how we paid for two first class flights (one 5 hours long and one 12 hours long) with credit card points.

For 190,000 Korean Air miles plus $409.54 in taxes and fees (95,000 points and $204.77 each), I booked our two one-way first class flights from Bangkok via Seoul to Dallas. I booked the flights as one trip, Bangkok to Dallas, even though Korean Air does not offer a direct flight for this route. This saved 60,000 miles over booking the trip as two separate flights (Bangkok-to-Seoul and Seoul-to-Dallas). Given the 1.5-hour taxi ride during rush hour in Bangkok, security at both Bangkok and Seoul and a 6-hour layover in Seoul, we traveled 27 hours to get home. First class elevated the experience from excruciating to pleasurable and was a great use of our points.

When I’d first decided that Bangkok would be our departure city for our final flight home, I did an initial search to determine which airlines flew out of there to Dallas. I preferred an Asian airline to wind up our extended Asian trip so focused on those. With a working knowledge of which airlines I could book with points we had and which airline had the best redemption rates, it was easy to choose Korean Air, an airline whose first class product I’d had my eye on for a while anyway. Korean Air is known for good award availability and decent redemption rates. A quick search on their website confirmed that reputation.

The first step, after finding available award flights that fit our plans (and creating Korean Air Skypass accounts), was to link David’s and my Skypass accounts. Korean Air allows families to pool miles, but they do require husbands and wives to provide a marriage certificate. We scanned ours and emailed it and soon we could see on the Korean Air website that our accounts were linked. In addition to great award availability, Korean Air has very generous free hold options, so I put our chosen flights on hold while David and I moved the necessary miles. I put in 60,000 Starwood points which, with their standard 25% transfer bonus, credited as 75,000 Korean Air miles. 30,000 of those points went to purchase two one-way economy class tickets from Seoul to Shanghai in October. The remaining 45,000 was applied to the first class tickets from Bangkok home. For years now American Express Starwood card has been my go-to card, although others get primary usage for awhile if I’m trying to meet a spend for a specific bonus, get extra points or benefits at a hotel or airline linked to a card, etc. I find Starwood points to be very useful and versatile, much more so than AmEx’s Membership Miles which I’ve found decreasingly good value for over the twenty years or so I’ve had my formerly-preferred Platinum AmEx. [With the benefits greatly reduced in recent years and other premium cards offering more, I’m seriously considering cancelling my Platinum card. More about that in a future post.]

David transferred 145,000 Ultimate Rewards points that he’d accumulated with his Chase Ink business card. Those points came from a sign-up bonus and from using bonus points offers on that card wisely: The card pays 3x points for purchases at Office Depot/OfficeMax and we buy fee-free gift cards there for gas, groceries, Amazon and much more to take advantage of the extra points.

Once the miles were in our Korean Air account, we had to print out an award redemption form, sign it and email the form and copies of our driver’s licenses to Korean Air. Korean Air is a little different to deal with than other airlines in things like this and and requiring a copy of marriage licenses. They also frequently ask to call you back when you telephone them rather than just take your call. But, they do call back as promised, and I’ve found them to be helpful and easy to deal with. There may be some slight language issues from time to time, but speaking slowly and clearly usually solves any problem.

20161116_201632
Lounges are less than impressive at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. With our Korean Air first class tickets, we got access to the “first class” upper floor of Louis’ Tavern CIP First Class Lounge. Nothing to write home about. (We also had access to the main floor via our Priority Passes.)

We had a slight disappointment on our 5-hour flight from Bangkok to Seoul several weeks before departure when I received an email saying the plane had been downgraded so that our first class seats were now “Sleeper” seats rather than the Kosmo Suites we’d originally booked. On board, this turned out not to be a problem. The seats reclined to a virtually flat state, were wide and comfortable and David and I liked being able to sit next to each other. (The contained pod configuration of many first class seats leaves us isolated, especially since we both like window seats.)

20161116_224319
Appetizer on the Bangkok to Seoul leg of our trip home: mango and smoked salmon with seared ahi tuna

We were the only first class passengers on the 9:45pm flight, so received extra-attentive service. The food turned out to be excellent as well. I was impressed that they managed to turn out moist, perfectly-cooked shrimp with airplane facilities. After dinner, we stretched out and slept well for a couple of hours or so before landing.

20161116_232421
Pan-seared prawns with saffron sauce served with mashed potato and vegetables

Surprisingly, our flight attendants knew nothing about Korean Air’s first class lounge in its home base, Seoul. They checked on the Internet when we landed at 5am and informed us that the lounge was closed until 5am. So, we headed to the Asiana Lounge, the only Priority Pass lounge open at that hour. Although the Asiana Lounge is nice, the closest it has to sleeper chairs are 4 or 5 chairs with ottomans in semi-private, slat-walled cubicles. David and I staked out a couple of those. The food laid out looked good and varied, but I wasn’t hungry. I wandered down to the Korean Air first class lounge when it opened, but finding no better chairs than what we had and less of a food choice, we opted to stay at the Asiana lounge. I’d read mediocre reviews of the Korean Air lounge online–and lots of calls for them to up their game–so wasn’t surprised. The only perk that I’d meant to take advantage of but didn’t was a free engraved metal luggage tag that the Korean Air first class lounge will do while you wait. Oh well.

Time actually passed relatively quickly in Seoul before we were on our final flight. Our plane was equipped with Korean Air’s Kosmo Suites. They’ve got a newer, even more private, product called Kosmo Suites 2.0 that I’d like to try sometime although, if anything, I was feeling a little too isolated from David. The first class cabin was set up in two rows of a 1-2-1 configuration and we’d chosen the two window seats on the left side. Two other first class passengers took the two window seats on the far side. The four seats in the middle were empty. Our flight attendants were more than happy to set up my meals in the aisle seat across from David, so that solved my lonely dinner issues.

20161117_124002
Happy as a clam with my dinner set up across the aisle from David

Dinner was a truly enjoyable 8-course affair. I won’t bore you with too much detail, but will hit on some highlights just to emphasize the pay-off for playing the miles and points game: We chose Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque 2007 (a $160-170 bottle) to accompany the first courses. The Perrier-Jouët pink champagne served on our earlier flight was good; this was something special! A tiny goblet of prawns and berry gelée served as an amuse bouche, followed by lobster medallion, king crab salad and roquefort in roasted pepper.

20161116_210232
King crab salad, lobster medallion & roquefort in roasted pepper

Other courses included a salad made table-side and a roasted red pepper soup.

20161116_213027
Salad made table-side…a far cry from the limp, peel-back-the-plastic-wrap type served in back!

I don’t usually choose beef as a main course, but the red wine selections were so good, I based my dinner around the wine. A Vosne-Romanée, one of my favorite Burgundian wines caught my eye immediately. The Korean Air offering was delicious…but then there was that $100 bottle of 2007 St-Emilion Grand Cru. I had to have both. Of course!

20161116_213958
My main course: grilled beef tenderloin with meaux mustard sauce served with baby pumpkin mash, bell pepper timbale, oven-dried onion rings and dried cherry tomato

David opted for the seared black cod which was beautifully presented, wrapped in thin slices of white yam.

20161117_124243
David’s main course: Seared black cod covered with yam served with yellow paprika sauce, potato tower with ginko nut, fava beans and dried cherry tomato

Dessert included both a delightfully tart lemon tarte and excellent cheeses, with quality aged port and cognac.

20161116_223826
Lemon tart with ultra-rich vanilla ice cream

Full and sleepy after our feast, I returned to my original seat where the attendants had made up my bed with a thick feather-bed-style “mattress,” duvet and nearly full-sized pillow. Comfy in the soft cotton jammies provided by Korean Air, I snuggled under the duvet, stretched at full length with one arm flung over my head and still not touching either end of my pod. Heaven!

I slept well, but was awakened when I became too warm. A word to an attendant, and things were cooled off again. My only criticism would be that the usual dryness of air travel seemed magnified. I wish airlines would do more to try to humidify their cabins, although I confess to total ignorance as to what that might entail in the way of equipment, extra water weight, etc. Korean Air did give us small misting bottles of water just prior to take-off and I did make use of that, gratefully breathing in the refreshing mist. We also received Davi amenity kits with wine and grape-based products from a California company founded by one of the Mondavi family.

koreanairdavikit
Davi amenity kit

Another light meal was served before landing. We opted for the free range chicken from South Korea’s Jeju Island, fruit and cappuccino. I can’t say we weren’t tired and jet-lagged when we landed, but it wasn’t bad at all, especially given the 11-hour time difference between Bangkok and Dallas. We’d had a fantastic experience and Korean Air provided a great end to our 2 1/2 month Asian adventure. I can’t imagine the misery we would have been in if we’d flown sitting up in the back…and the money we’d have spent if we’d paid cash for first class luxury. Hooray for miles and points!

Kanchanaburi: Bridge on the River Kwai, Death Railway, Hellfire Pass

 

20161112_171555
Bridge on the River Kwai

David and I rewatched the 1957 movie classic “Bridge on the River Kwai” before coming to Kanchanaburi to help with the mood change from beautiful, tranquil Tup Kaek Beach to the infamous “Death Railway.” The movie, like the novel it’s based on, is fiction, but it’s based on a real bridge (or bridges) and a real railway constructed at great misery and cost of life by POW’s and conscripted civilians forced into labor by the Japanese during World War II. Over 100,000 people died building the 250 miles of railway, also known as the Thailand-Burma Railway which connected Bangkok to Rangoon. Most of the dead were Asian civilians (“romusha”) and roughly 16,000 were Allied prisoners of war, the majority of whom were Australian, British and Dutch.

Conditions were much worse than depicted in the movie for the POW’s and even worse for the romusha who had no medical personnel among them. The Japanese deliberately underfed and overworked their prisoners, even hording Red Cross rations rather than distributing them or using them themselves. The result was widespread disease. Other prisoners died of beatings, torture and executions. Many of the camp commanders were convicted of war crimes after the war.

Today, a train makes several runs on Saturdays and Sundays along the historic railway. At one section, the train runs along a wooden viaduct that clings to the face of a 30m deep “cutting” or man-made cliff/gorge, a stretch where nearly every man who worked on it died. It’s a peaceful area now, with a nearby resort and floating bungalows available to rent. I was struck, as I was in Auschwitz and other places of past horror, by how a place where great evil was done can be beautiful and peaceful years later. Some people claim to feel a lingering malevolence in such places, but I don’t don’t feel it; just a sadness for those who suffered and that humanity can lower itself to such cruelty. It doesn’t seem to me that the birds that sing in such places now or the natural beauty that has reasserted itself are tainted by what people did there long ago, but I believe it’s important not to avoid such places, to remember and mark evil events in hope that they are never repeated.

The train starts in Kanchanaburi and runs to Nam Tok, some two hours away. (Actually, you can take a train from Bangkok, too, but I had no interest in that. Too hot and too long for me.) The train is old and rattling and un-air-conditioned and everything I’d read said the real views and interesting part happened just after the rural train stop at Tha Kilen. If we started our train ride there, we’d shorten the trip by an hour and miss the initial, hot ride that many described as “boring.” By car, the distance to Tha Kilen is only 30 minutes…and in private, air-conditioned comfort. Our decision was made!

There’s frustratingly little info on how to start your trip anywhere other than at the main Kanchanaburi station or the nearby Bridge on the River Kwai station. The internet yielded no details. We tried asking at our hotel, but they just wanted to sell us a tour (as did any number or tour touts on every block of Kanchanaburi) and tried to discourage us from driving on our own. So, we got up early and drove the five minutes to the main Kanchanaburi station to see if we could buy a ticket from Tha Kilen there. No, we were told in no uncertain terms that we had to buy the ticket at Tha Kilen. They were friendly about it, though, and showed us the schedule which indicated that the train would stop in Tha Kilen at 11:30am. This train had the added benefit of being the only train of the day with a “special carriage” where we were guaranteed a seat. I didn’t feel like standing up for an hour in a hot, crowded train and it was only 150 baht, one-way for the “special carriage” (50 baht more than the 3rd class fare). We could buy a ticket at Tha Kilen 30 minutes before departure or 11am. We had a plan.

Tha Kilen had the extra enticement of Khmer ruins in the nearby Muang Sing Historical Park. I was worried that the train might be full as I read that sometimes it is packed, so wanted to get to Tha Kilen early on the chance that someone might be there to sell us a ticket before 11am, with ticket safely in hand, we could go check out Muang Sing until it was time to catch the train. We arrived at 9:30am to find a few people around the Tha Kilen station, but we were told again that we could buy a ticket at 11am. Alrighty then, it was Muang Sing for us.

20161112_111025
Tha Kilen Station

Muang Sing turned out to be a very nicely set-up historical park. Very few people were at the park at this hour and we were able to visit most of the ruins in peace before a tour bus showed up. Even at that hour, the heat was oppressive. The ruins are partially rebuilt and worth a look (especially if you’re killing time until you can catch the train), but it’s a relatively minor site and not a big loss if you miss it.

20161112_100409
Ruins at Muang Sing

Back at the Tha Kilen station, things were starting to pick up. Vendors laid out food for lunch and we bought sticky rice and pork wrapped in banana leaves, salty banana chips and sour-sweet karonda (or corunda) berries with chili powder. Other people started to arrive, but still the ticket seller was not open for business. I watched him through the open door and window of his office as he worked ancient-looking brass machines which clanged as he turned a shining handle. This apparently had something to do with incoming trains. A regular train came through and the station master handed off a lunch to the engineer as he went by. At exactly 11am, the station master took his seat behind the sales window and we were able to buy our tickets (which had the departure time printed on them as 11:45, not 11:30). We pointed to the sign about the “special carriage” and got the correct tickets. Our request for the left side (best view going towards Nam Tok), met with a nod of his head, but we had no faith that he understood us. [Note: There’s a red sign next to the ticket window stating that you have to show your passport to get a ticket. This is not true and no one asked for a passport. Since we weren’t crossing a border, I have no idea why the sign is there unless maybe some trains are going on to Burma/Myanmar.]

20161112_110713
Food vendors setting up at the Tha Kilen station

With a little time before the train was due to arrive, I bought food from the vendors: sticky rice with pork wrapped in banana leaves, salty banana chips and sour-sweet pink karonda berries with chili salt for dipping. We dug into the chips on the spot, but saved the rest for the train.

20161112_121338
Unwrapped banana leaf packet of sticky rice and pork. Yum!
20161112_112831
Carunda berries

Some tour groups and individuals began to arrive and at 11:45am, the train pulled in. Since our tickets showed no specific seat assignment, we asked a guide we overheard speaking English. She told us the green cars were the “special carriages” that we had tickets for and asked the station master about our seats and said he said he’d show us to our seats. He made no move though, so we’re not sure where the translation went wrong. Not wanting to miss the train, we climbed onto one of the two front green cars and I staked out a left-hand seat. A uniformed attendant approached and said he’d lead us to our seat, then proceeded to lead us to another car and direct us to a right-hand seat. When I stated our preference for the left-hand seat (relying mostly on gestures), he took us back to the seat I’d originally claimed. Oh well.

20161112_114904
The “Death Train” arrives; the 2 green cars in the front are the “special carriages”

The special carriages are “special” because you get a guaranteed seat plus a cushion on the wooden bench that comprises that seat, a sealed plastic cup of water and a cold moist towelette to start the journey, and your choice of a tea or coffee. Pretty swank, huh? We were grateful for the water and the cool cloth, but wanted no part of hot tea or coffee in the tropical weather. All the windows on the car were open and the train made a nice breeze as we chugged and clanked along.

20161112_124415
Inside a “special car”; the ticket is 150 baht each way.

Shortly out of Tha Kilen, we came to the most dramatic scenery of the trip, the portion along the 30m “cutting” where so many died. Now, though, a resort and floating bungalow hotel rooms occupy the first portion of opposite bank. Tourists clustered along the way taking photos of our train as we passed. People on the train leaned out, taking photos of the resort and the people photographing them. Just beyond, the opposite bank peels away, opening up a lovely vista with the mountains beyond. Throughout this stretch, the sheer rock wall of the man-made cliff is all you can see our the right-hand windows…save for a flash of a Buddha statue in its cave at Kraesae.

20161112_121003
Looking back on the floating bungalows we’d just passed
20161112_121027
The River Kwai with mountains in the background

The view was beautiful, but both David and I were a little underwhelmed by this stretch, only because the descriptions we’d read tended towards the hyperbolic. We didn’t really have the sense of clinging to some precarious perch on a cliff. No doubt we were, but you don’t get that perspective much from the train itself because you’re so close to the cliff on the right (nothing but rock just outside the window) and there’s a lot of vegetation hiding much of the drop to the left.

When we arrived at the Nam Tok terminus, a swarm of songtaew, cars and buses awaited. An old lady near a songtaew with its modified pick-up bed crammed full of passengers approached me. David was aghast that I’d even consider joining that throng, but the lady was offering us a ride up front in the air-conditioning, for a premium, of course. She borrowed a laminated sign from a neighboring driver indicating the charge would be 800 baht ($22.86) for a round-trip ride. This is a fortune around these parts, but it was a 20+-minute ride to Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum, a total 2-hour commitment for her since she had to wait on us, and we didn’t have time to waste since we needed to be back to catch the last train back to Tha Kilen which left Nam Tok at 3:15pm. We made the deal. David rode in front with our lady driver while I sat in the rear seat of the club cab with her middle school-age grandson. A couple kilometers away, we dropped off the throng in the rear of the songtaew at the local Tok Sai Yok waterfall/swimming hole before going on to the museum.

We had to pass through a military checkpoint to enter the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum grounds. The museum itself is small, but very well done and modern. It’s also free, but donations are encouraged. It didn’t take long to walk through and watch the 5-minute movie of prisoner recollections that runs regularly.

20161112_131847
Entrance to the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum with the ramp just below the name on the building leading down to the walkway to the pass

Stepping out the back of the museum, there’s an overlook with a “peace vessel” created by an Australian former prisoner and a view over the path to Hellfire Pass, the deepest of the many prisoner-made cuttings through the mountains.

20161112_132108
“Peace Vessel” at the museum overlook
20161112_134303
Looking down on the wooden walkway that descends to the bottom of Hellfire Pass

The entrance to the Hellfire Pass walkway is just outside the front doors of the museum, to the left as you exit. At the base of the initial descent, you can choose to walk left down a wooden walkway or right. The lady at the Information Desk inside had suggested we go left, then return along the other path to make a full loop, so that’s what we did. It’s not a bad walk, but not for the mobility challenged. It’s a lot of walking and a lot of stairs going both directions. It’s hot, but much less so that we’d feared given the elevation and the shade.

The scale and magnitude of the work done here under such horrible conditions is really brought home as you walk along the base. You can’t help but be impressed by what the prisoners accomplished in this rocky jungle with basic tools and dynamite, especially while in such weakened physical states. Makeshift memorials along the way bring home the human suffering and loss.

20161112_135210
Makeshift memorials in Hellfire Pass
20161112_1352360
Poignant memorial
20161112_135400
The scale of the cutting here is brought home as you walk along the old railroad ties along the bottom.

At the far end of the pass by a permanent veterans’ memorial, I was stopped by a group of Thai students wanting to interview me. Their questions had to do with where I was from, whether I liked Thailand and would want to return and why I chose to come to Hellfire Pass. As always in southeast Asia, “United States” was met with puzzled looks which brightened to understanding when I amended to “America.” Their English was pretty functional, though, and I enjoyed the lightness their young enthusiasm brought after the solemnity of my walk through Hellfire Pass. They insisted on photos together after the interview, so I got David to snap a couple for us, too.

20161112_135911
Mimicking the cheerful “thumbs-up” of my lead interviewer
20161112_140212
Veteran’s memorial at the end of Hellfire Pass with stylized railroad ties in the foreground and railroad ties of the actual railroad visible on the continuing path beyond.

The return path to the museum through humid jungle proved to be longer and a bit more arduous (and hot and mosquito-y) than the wooden path and steps on the descent. Mid-way through, I was wondering if we wouldn’t have been better off retracing our steps through the pass and back up the wooden walkway. [It’s also usually possible to hike much more of the railway line than the 40-minute loop Hellfire Pass loop that we walked. However, segments were closed when we were there. We felt we’d seen enough, though, and weren’t interested in hiking hours more anyway.] We made it back ten minutes earlier than we’d estimated to our driver, but she was waiting and we headed off back to the Nam Tok train station.

Once again, no tickets were available until 30 minutes prior to departure. This seems to be a hard and fast rule. So, we ordered a couple of Chang beers at an open-air restaurant across the dirt parking area. The train was ready to go early, but we were delayed a warm ten minutes as they waited for a tour bus full of German tourists. I think we understand now why the train is notoriously late. Ten minutes wasn’t bad, but I could see it compounding over the length of the journey to Kanchanaburi.

20161112_153335
Red flag until the German tour bus showed up

There were no “special carriages” on this train, so we got to try out 3rd class. The main difference was no cushion on the seat (and of course no drinks and cool cloth). Fans mounted on the ceiling and the open windows made for a nice breeze, though, and David and I spent most of the return trip hanging out the window, always careful to ease out and dodge any plants or rocks too close to the track. The lowering sun now on the right side of the train made it hot whenever we stopped at a way-station, but that was nothing new to our SE Asia experience.

20161112_153052
Inside a 3rd class train car

More passengers boarded as we went along so that most seats were filled by the time we reached Tha Kilen where we’d left the car. It was a shock to see the parking area at the Tha Kilen station filled with motor coaches and cars. We sprinted off the train and to our car to beat that mob scene and were soon rolling through the countryside back to Kanchanaburi.

20161112_102840
Tapioca fields by the road to Kanchanaburi

We got back into Kanchanaburi late in the afternoon with enough time for a visit to the famous Bridge on the River Kwai. There were two bridges in the area during World War II, a concrete and steel one that the present one replaces and a wooden bridge built by prisoners. Both of the original bridges were destroyed by Allied bombing. The present bridge, pictured in the top photo above, was built shortly after the war.