Cruising from the Middle East to Europe via the Suez Canal means going through the Gulf of Aden. Unfortunately, that also means passing through waters plagued by Somali pirates. After a relatively peaceful period, pirates have increased their activity in the area again. I knew this before we booked our cruise and knew there would be blackouts imposed for the nights we crossed, but still, it was strange to return from a day in Muscat, Oman, to find a letter in our cabin from the captain describing mandatory upcoming “pirate drills.”
Sure enough, the speakers soon blared, “Safe Haven, Safe Haven, Safe Haven…” and we exited our balcony cabin to join our outward-facing neighbors in the hall. For several nights, we made sure our curtains were drawn tight and the balcony light extinguished. Other than that and darkened, roped-off upper decks, there was not much to the pirate precautions.
The letter also warned that we might need to take evasive action if a smaller vessel pulled too close. We’d seen the same thing with Indian fishing vessels in the Laccadive Sea that came right along side our ship, shouting greetings, waving and taking photos while passengers on our ship did the same. Our captain hadn’t worried about those boats, but he’d have to be more wary in the Gulf of Aden. As it turned out, no vessels approached ours and we had an uneventful passage through the gulf… save for spotting whales breaching off the coast of Oman, an unexpected treat.
Our favorite guest relations officer had also told us there would be snipers brought on board during our time in the Gulf of Aden. Sure enough, we ended up on an elevator with one of these guys, a heavily-muscled man with buzz cut and skull tattoo wearing a black polo with the name of a security outfit stitched on his shoulder. Other than that, the snipers stayed out of sight until the day they left.
We came up on deck several days into this period to see people gathered at the port rails. Joining them, we saw an inflatable heading towards a small ship floating not far away. At first, we wondered whether this was security checking out out a suspicious boat, but that seemed improbable. Why get down there on the level of such a small vessel that we could easily outrun and avoid? It turned out, this was our some of our security taking the guns off the cruise ship to the smaller vessel which would then run the weapons back to another passenger ship about to begin its voyage across the Gulf of Aden. It was a neat way to avoid taking weapons through customs of the ports on either side of the gulf.
It was interesting to see how the cruise lines view and handle the pirate situation. We never really considered ourselves in any danger, but it was good to be out of the Gulf of Aden nonetheless. Next up, the Suez Canal!
I’d been longing to visit Petra for many years and at last we made it! Not wanting either a big group or to pay the cruise line’s exorbitant prices, I booked a private tour with Go Jordan, a company highly recommended on Tripadvisor. Using our Cruise Critic roll call message board, I found 4 other people to share the trip with us – another couple from Canada an a mother-daughter pair from Australia – which dropped the price from $185 to $149 per person. Not bad at all since the price included entry to Petra which costs 50 Jordanian dinar ($70.41) per person. [More practical info follows this post.]
Things got off a little slowly when Go Jordan was not among the many tour operators holding up signs when we debarked the ship at the port of Aqaba. They showed up within fifteen minutes, though, so it wasn’t a huge deal, just not ideal. The drive to Petra from the port is about 2 hours, and we sped along nice roads through desolate countryside much like we’d seen in Oman but with less imposing mountains in the background.
Around mid-way, we stopped at a shop with a terrace overlooking a magnificent canyon. I was tempted by the ornate knives on display, but put off by the triple digit prices for pocket knives, etc. Before getting back in the van, I asked our driver about water since none of us had brought any in reliance on Go Jordan’s promise to supply it. He went back into to buy bottled water without complaint, but I was surprised to find it wasn’t already stocked.
We drove through Wadi Musa, the town closest to Petra and our driver’s hometown. Our Australian companions had been to Petra nine years earlier and they noted that much had been built since then. Our guide asked us how long we wanted to spend in Petra asking if we wanted 3, 2, only 1 hour, maybe more? I expected more guidance from him and had no idea how long we might want. The Australian ladies were vague as well, possibly because neither of them was in good physical condition for much walking. In the end, we opted for 3 hours a choice I came to regret as we could have spent another hour or two and still gotten back to the ship in plenty of time.
Parking near the entrance, our driver walked us into the Petra welcome center, an open complex surrounded by shops, a small shaded amphitheater, a museum and public toilets. The Australians remarked that all of this was new, there having been only a small, remote hut when they last visited. Our driver confirmed that the welcome center had just opened last year.
Our driver went inside the visitor’s center to get us a guide and returned with Salim, someone he apparently knew as both are locals. Salim’s English was OK, but I wish we’d had another guide… or none at all!
Strike one for Salim came when he informed us that horses haltered near the entrance were free and included with our ticket to Petra. “Just tip them a dollar or two.” While being led on a horse a few hundred yards wasn’t particularly enticing, David and I decided to go for it as part of the experience. The ride was OK, but at the end we were beset by demands for much more than a dollar or two and we had to find Salim to deal with the angry horse handlers. Salim’s “solution” was to just pay them a couple of dollars and ignore them, but that really wouldn’t satisfy and we doubled that just to get away. Not exactly breaking the bank, but definitely not pleasant.
Strike two – a big one – came when Salim stopped our little group next to a trashcan by an ancient drainage tunnel just outside the enticing canyon walls of Petra to talk interminably about history, drainage, what we would see and on and on as our time slipped away. When we finally moved on, he quickly stopped us again to talk and talk.
While we did appreciate him pointing out some nearly invisible remains of large wall carvings, we found much of what he had to say superfluous, repetitive or of questionable scientific/historic accuracy. After a couple of more such long-winded stops, we called strike three and decided to leave the group. We left money for a tip just so the others wouldn’t feel obligated to make up our share and strode off to finally see the famous Treasury and explore the rest of Petra while we had time. Excellent decision. If only we’d done it from the start!
Petra itself is incredible. It bustled with people both local and western tourists like us. Horse-drawn caleche clattered along the stone pathway through the canyon. A camel lounged among a throng near the Treasury. Young locals hawked jewelry and other momentos. I couldn’t resist an exotic young woman dressed all in black with head scarf and eyes thickly lined with kohl. Ten US dollars bought me three necklaces, one she claimed was made of camel bone. Maybe. It didn’t really matter; the necklaces are pretty and will always remind me of Petra. A young boy among a flock of vendors that had gathered took heart when he saw my purchase and followed me for some time. I finally bought 3 “silver” bracelets from him for $5. Despite the steep entry fee to Petra, a little cash goes a very long way among most of the locals.
David and I took the canyon-like walkway to the right as you look at the Treasury, peeking into ancient doorways to find cave-like spaces offering no glimpse of their former function, now serving as dark makeshift stables, reeking of camel urine.
The walkway opened up into a wide space with a coliseum on the far side and ancient tombs carved into the steep hill to our right. We wandered, climbed and explored, passing a fascinating mix of people, camels and caleches.
Trinkets for sale on long tables; there were small cafés as well. We saw so much more ahead and were frustrated to know we had to turn back soon, to meet up with the others at our three hour deadline. Sadly, I had no way to contact them or our driver to beg for more time. Petra is one place I’d love to return to.
The ride back to Aqaba and the ship was uneventful save for one more stop at a tourist trap souvenir store of the spacious, “People’s Store” variety. We milled around browsing the wildly over-priced souvenirs while our driver had coffee, then were off.
We turned down an offer (for a price) to do a jeep tour through Wadi Rum at sunset. (We had that much time.) None of us were interested, thanks in no small part to a growing sandstorm in that direction visible from the road.
Back at the ship, we found our T-Mobile phones, while not yet offering service in Jordan, did allow us to connect to via Israel, a short distance across the harbor. (Jordan is now covered by T-Mobile. We’re super happy with our new T-Mobile plans and how well and easily service picked up from one country to another. I’ll write more about that later.)
Practical info: I wish I’d made note of the Celebrity excursion price for Petra, but it was considerably more expensive than Go Jordan Tours. Other Cruise Critic members booked larger buses which were cheaper than the cruise, but more expensive than what we paid. I booked Go Jordan via their website which has a page just for cruise excursions and found them to be quick to respond to my emails. My contacts were Haneen Al Helali and Fidaa Hlalatwho both responded to email@example.com. (Also, Tel: +962-3-215-5551| Fax: +962-3-215-9400)
I assured Go Jordan that I wanted this tour whether I found others to go with us or not. They required no prepayment. The pricing, inclusions and exclusions sent to me was: “Rate per persons: 2 persons 3 persons 4 persons 5 persons 6 persons 7 persons 185 USD PP 155 USD PP 149 USD PP 135 USD PP 128 USD PP 123 USD PP
Price includes: – Meet and assist upon arrival at the port in Aqaba – Transfer in modern air-conditioned vehicle – Entrance fee to Petra – Local tour guide in Petra for 3h – Mineral water in vehicle
Price excludes: – Tips – Personal expenses – any optional tours – Lunch”
Like everything else in Dubai, the port terminal is large and lavish with plenty of shopping available. Although the ship only told us about a shuttle to an out-of-the-way mall, the Information Desk in the terminal told us that Dubai Mall also offered a free shuttle from the port.
Dubai Mall is the city’s star mall and the location of the entrance to the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. The Dubai Mall shuttle is a black motor coach offering air conditioning and free wifi. Turn right after exiting the main doors of the cruise terminal; the Dubai Mall shuttle picks up at the first bus stop to your left. It runs every 30 minutes, returning from the mall to the port from the same spot it drops you off at, on the half hour. Our friendly driver even offered us free chilled water bottles on our return.
Tickets to the Burj Khalifa are for sale online 30 days prior to the visit date. I calendared that date and bought our tickets as soon as I could. It turned out to be a good idea as times were selling out when we got there. There are options to go to different levels and add-on experiences like snacks or a virtual reality experience. There’s a price break on the basic viewing deck ticket if you book an off-peak time. (Sunset is much in demand.) The Burj Khalifa is a huge tourist draw and extremely popular. There were 2 cruise ships in port when we were there, but the Dubai port reportedly can handle 6, so I can only imagine the crowds. The entry process was seemless; a woman scanned the QR code on my phone and handed me the paper tickets. I’d chosen a 3:30pm time slot, but when I showed up early to pick up the tickets, she told me we could go in any time until 3:30pm. (I think that may have been because the crowd was not overwhelming when we first got there.) There’s quite a line to go up with only 3 elevators running, and a substantial line to get back down, too, with only 2 elevators. We enjoyed our visit, but while it was slick and high-tech, we found it to be less-organized/slower and therefore less pleasant than the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. (Burj Khalifa s also much more expensive than the Petronas Towers.)
From the Burj Khalifa, we could see the famous “7 star” Burj Al Arab hotel with its distinctive sail shape in the distance as well as the manmade palm- and globe-shaped residential islands of which Dubai is so proud. For me the most impressive thing about the view was the desert wasteland beyond the skyscraper-filled, mega-everything fantasy city that is Dubai. The juxtaposition with the city was jarring. Everything in Dubai is new or in the process of being built. Everything is enormous and excessively glitzy. It seems to be a sea of high-end malls offering the usual international labels and brands (Gucci and Pottery Barn, Bloomingdale’s and Samsonite, along with Japanese, English and other international chains and stores offering elegant Arabic ladies’ wear) and huge office and apartment buildings.
Dubai is clean and the roads and everything else are very nice; it’s very international and cosmopolitan, but there’s not a breath of history to it; no sign of a “real” city that grew organically from where people settled long ago. It’s just my personal taste, but Dubai felt 100% fake and left me cold. It might be fun to live in for some people, and we met a couple who went to Dubai every year for Christmas, so to each their own. I’m glad I went, but can’t imagine wanting to go back, certainly never as a destination in and of itself.
Note: Tickets to the observation decks of the Burj Khalifa run to 135 to 370 AED ($36.75 to $100.71) per adult. The $36.75 is for off-peak hours which vary by season. Prime hours are 210 AED ($57.17) per adult; the 370 AED price is for the SKY deck which is even higher than the main observation deck. There are price breaks for children and substantial add-ons available. Check the Burj Khalifa ticket site for details.
As part of our 3-month around-the-world journey, we spent one month on the Celebrity ship Constellation. This was actually two 2-week, back-to-back (“B2B”) cruises. The first two weeks were more a traditional cruise with many stops: Phuket, Thailand; Colombo, Sri Lanka; Cochin, Goa and Mubai, India; Muscat, Oman; Dubai and Abu Dhabi, U.A.E. The second two weeks were more along the lines of a repositioning cruise, i.e., fewer stops and a bargain price as the ship moved from one region to another for a season. This cruise took us from Abu Dhabi back to Muscat, Oman, through the Suez Canal, to Piraeus (Athens) and Katakolon (ancient Olympia), Greece, and dropped us off at Civitavecchia, Italy (the port nearest Rome, although we did not go back to Rome on this trip, but rather picked up a rent car to spend a couple weeks in Umbria and Tuscany before flying from Florence to Belgium).
Upcoming posts covering the cruise period will have more information on ports, directed to cruisers, in addition to regular travelogues. [I’m not that into cruise ship activities and such, but tend to view ships as moving hotels and chose cruises based on itinerary, i.e., ports-of-call and transportation from one point to another. Click here for an earlier post on my philosophy on cruising as well as tips for finding the best deals.] I had some misgivings that a month might be too long on a ship, but we had an amazing time and my only regret is that I can’t do it all for the first time again!
With regards to Constellation, one of Celebrity’s Millennium class ships: I once again booked one of the “Sweet Sixteen” cabins about which I blogged when we sailed trans-Pacific on Constellation‘s sister ship Millennium. [Click here for that post.] These cabins offer a suite-type, double-sized balcony for the price of a regular balcony cabin. For some reason, the extra-large balconies do not appear on the ships’ diagrams and the cabins are categorized as regular balcony staterooms. I prefer the rear-most of these cabins because they offer extra privacy from the cabin just sternward and a more open view. (Both times I booked one of these staterooms, the booking agent had no idea that these cabins existed.)
It was time to leave Luang Prabang and time for the biggest question mark of this long trip. Months ago, I’d booked us on a 2-day Mekong river cruise to Thailand in a big, open-air traditional wooden river boat. At $130 each, this was big money in Laos, but substantially cheaper and way more interesting than some sleep-aboard river boats I’d seen. These same type boats do a much, much cheaper “slow boat” between Luang Prabang and Huay Xai, Laos, but with frequent crowds, unreserved seats (so if the boat is full, you may have to wait a day) and a bus-like atmosphere, they sounded way less comfortable than I was willing to do. The company I chose, Mekong Smile Cruises, got good reviews and sounded like just the level of adventure I was up for. Lunch onboard was included, we stopped at a cave filled with Buddha statues and a local village en route. The overnight happened in Pakbeng, Laos, a village or small town that Google Images led me to believe was no great shakes…but online posts indicated that guest rooms were easy to come by and ridiculously cheap. I scanned Tripadvisor, seeing a few guesthouses listed and one “upscale” hotel at around $100. After his initial impulse that I should “throw money at it” and get the hotel, David came around to my way of thinking that we should try one of the guest houses. I made note of a few recommended names and posts saying that prices doubled if you book in advance, so why bother. Alright, we’d wing it. God, I hope I’m not getting us into a mess! I say this in present tense because I’m onboard the boat as I write this.
“Mr. Joy” from Mekong Smile Cruises met us at My Dream last night to fill us in on details and tell us he’d be back this morning at 6:30am to pick us up. He put my mind at ease about leaving our luggage onboard overnight since the captain and his wife sleep aboard. So, we only need to take a small over night bag. One worry checked off. He also told us we’d be the only guests for the cruise. On a 40-seat boat. Wow.
True to his word, Mr. Joy was waiting when we got to the lobby. It turns out that his name is more like “Choy” (pronounced with a sound somewhere between a “j” and a “ch”), a nickname meaning “skinny.” Since “Mr. Joy” sounds kind of creepy, it’ll be “Choy” from here on out.
Our lovely hosts at My Dream had packed us breakfast to go and the friendly young man who’d helped us with alms-giving and the tuk tuk to the waterfall walked us to the minivan. As the morning parade of monks filed by, he stood and waved until we pulled away. Did I mention I really, really like My Dream?
A ten minute ride deposited us at a fair-sized navigation office building where we descended a long flight of stairs down the riverbank to where a small fleet of river boats were parked. Our captain came out to meet us and help with the luggage before ushering us aboard.
The boat is pretty, low-slung with a gently scooped roof, ornate carvings above and below its many open-air “windows,” curtains and 2 carved daybeds and 2 pillowed benches in the front section of the guest area. David and I immediately stretched out on the daybeds, and I felt like Cleopatra cruising down the Nile as we pulled away in the early light to glide past mountains thick with greenery, villages, beaches with wading water buffalo, low rapids and more. When the writing mood hit me, I left my daybed to set up a little office space and one of the many tables fronting pairs of chairs that looks as if they might have been lifted from a retired bus.
We reached the cave shrine an hour out of Luang Prabang. Our boat docked at a woven bamboo pier below the steps to the cave. The cave is filled with Buddha statues of all sizes dating back to the 1600’s. I made a 20,000 kip donation to get a flower cone offering with candles and incense. Choy instructed me in the details of presenting my offering as my Korean Buddhist teaching didn’t apply to Laotian customs. We’ve had lots of time to chat as our boat makes its 10-hour journey today. Choy tells me that while Laos is 68% Buddhist, it’s 28% animist and that most people worship and observe important events like weddings and births in a fashion that’s a blend of the two.
Lunch, cooked by the captain’s wife, was served buffet-style and we dined at 4-seater tables way to the back of our floating domain. We had thick-crusted fried chicken legs, stir-fried chicken and onions, stir-fried vegetables, vegetable soup in a thin broth, steamed rice and fresh pineapple. She went light on the spices, but served the meal with a sauce of chopped red chilies that could set your mouth afire.
So now, I’m actually caught up with this blog and the daybed is beckoning for an after-lunch nap. There are other past things I’ve been meaning to blog about, but the world can live without I’m sure and David shouldn’t have to nap alone. 🙂
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We’re back on our Mekong river boat after our night in Pakbeng so I can report on our overnight stay:
Choy walked with us to help negotiate a guest room for the night and to show us the local market. I really appreciated his helpfulness as this night had been a nagging worry. We got off to a poor start when the first few guesthouses we talked to were fully booked by Thai group tours that had yet to arrive. I started to wonder about all that online advice about lots of rooms being available. Also, music was blaring from one guesthouse and an outdoor party tent set up in the middle of the road. I’d heard noise could be a problem and had brought earplugs, but this wasn’t looking good…and it was hot despite the setting sun.
As we wandered uphill on the main street, a lady asked us to look at her small guesthouse, Vassana, just across from Phonesony (one of the guesthouses I’d read about, but that was booked). At first asking 150,000 kip, she dropped her price to 120,000 when I said I’d read the cost was usually 100,000 kip in the area. Clearly, things were busy, so we were happy with the price. (I actually felt a little sheepish when I focused later on how little money we were haggling over: Our room came out to $14.81, give or take a fraction of a cent.) The rooms turned out to be simple, but very clean. There was no ornamentation or artwork save pretty new gold brocade patterned curtains, clean and crisply pleated. One heavy wooden chair served as a bedside table, while a wall mirror with small wooden shelf and a row of knobs served as the hanging space. The proprietress showed us two similar ground-floor rooms and we opted for the one farthest from the road. The room was hot and stuffy, but had an a/c. We started the a/c and I wasn’t sure that it was cooling much, but we crossed our fingers and left it running and headed out to dinner at an Indian restaurant, Hasan, that got great reviews.
The food at Hasan was good save for the naan and roti which, as David put it, were the “saltine crackers of the naan world.” We had a corner table of their outdoor balcony with a pretty view overlooking the Mekong. Chicken tikka masala, aloo gobi and palak “paneer” (made with tofu rather than the usual paneer cheese) were all well-seasoned and spicy. A Beer Lao rounded out the meal.
Tired, with an early morning in our future and with David feeling a little under the weather, we called it an early night and headed back to our room, hoping the a/c had done its job, but feeling doubtful. I can’t describe the thrill of opening that door to a delightfully cool room.
We showered quickly in the tiny bathroom, with a handheld shower mounted on the wall and open to the room. Drains in the floor drained not only the shower water, but also water from the sink which ran directly onto the floor from an open pipe. Basic, but again, very clean and plenty of hot water (although I was happy with cool water). The bed was big and comfortable with good pillows (an uncertain thing in Asia). The room was dark, the music had stopped outside and the “turbo” feature of the wall-mounted a/c drowned out any remaining noise. Despite my earlier misgivings, I slept like a stone for nearly 9 hours. Awesome!
Up at 6am, we packed our meager belongs and bought a huge chocolate chip “croissant” to share and coffee at Monsovanh Bakery on the road to the boat. We chatted with several other travelers who’d arrived on other “slow boats” from both directions. I’d looked at these boats before I chose our boat with Mekong Smile Cruises. Veritable river buses, they run on a first come, first served basis and are often crowded. People’s description of the heat and crowds convinced me I’d been right to go with the booked cruise, although the price was just over 3x that of the regular slow boat. For our extra money, we got lots of space and the ability to move around as our whims and incoming sunshine dictated, personalized service, lunch and no hassles. Well worth the extra $80 apiece, in our opinion, to turn 2 days of misery into 2 extraordinary days on the Mekong. [There could have been more people on our boat (up to a max of 30, which would have been too many), but everyone I’ve read about or talked to who’s done it this way reports much smaller groups.]
As we pulled away from the dock this morning, we watched handlers bringing two elephants down to the riverbank opposite Pakbeng. Beautiful in the morning mist.
Five hours flew by as we lounged on our daybeds, watching the passing scenery (and drifting off to sleep from time to time). Clouds blocked the direct sun and a breeze kept us cool and comfortable. Our boat pulled in to a sandy beach around 12:30pm where a boy and girl were digging with long poles. Choy led us up the bank pointing out holes in the sandy earth where the children had been digging for crickets, a local delicacy.
Choy led us a bit further up the hill to their village which consisted mostly of woven bamboo homes interspersed with 1 or 2 wooden and cement block buildings. Piglets, ducks and chickens roamed freely while women washed clothes in a village well.
Electricity had recently been supplied to the village, which itself was only established there in 2009 when the government moved these ethnic Khmu people (one of the largest minority groups in Laos and related to the Khmer of Cambodia) down from the mountains to try to curb slash-and-burn practices. Unfortunately, along with electricity came techno music blaring from one house. About 300 people live in the village and we felt pretty sure there must be some complaints to the village chief about the noise. We might have thought the Khmu village abysmally poor and dirty if we hadn’t been to the floating village in Kompong Khleang which, while larger, won hands down in the lack-of-sanitation department. (And, according to Choy, this was a “5-star” village, displaying signs attesting to its superiority in development, access to health care, youth programs, gender equality and such.)
Children were friendly, waving and smiling. Three small boys clustered around David, laughing when he started a high-five routine with them. There was no village temple as these people are animist (like nearly 30% of Laotians), looking to a village shaman for spiritual matters and healing. While Mekong Smile Cruise boats stop here as part of the journey, there wasn’t anything to buy and no one asking for handouts.
Lunch was ready when we got back on the boat: fried fish; chicken curry soup; shredded bamboo, noodle and chicken salad; steamed rice; red chili salsa and fresh fruit.
Having just finished that moveable feast, I’m off to the daybed for my afternoon viewing and relaxation. Have I mentioned that I’m really enjoying this boat ride?
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After lunch, it was time for more reclining and river-watching as we listened to audiobooks or dozed in the fresh breeze. We came to a provincial border line and our boat had to stop to get a stamp. Another boat was also stopped and we got a glimpse, close-up of one of the crowded bus-like slow boats. This boat was heading downstream towards Luang Prabang, and we heard later that the boats going that faster route were often the most crowded. As we tried to pull away, the swift current caught the stern of our boat and pushed it into a small shoal. When our captain had trouble getting us off, two boatmen from yet another boat ran over to help, joining the captain on the roof to push off with long bamboo poles stored on every river boat while Choy and the captain’s wife tended to the bow. There seemed to be a real camraderie among the boatmen of the Mekong River, and we saw them calling greetings as they passed and springing to help each other and each other’s passengers when needed.
The landscape changed as we neared Thailand, with the mountains and hills flattening. On the Thai side of the river, stones had been hauled in to fight erosion.
Docking at our destination, Huay Xai (“hway sigh”) was a final adventure: We arrived to a mass of sister boats crammed together like…well, like sardines. There was nowhere in sight for our boat. After a few calls from our captain to his fellows, one of the boats fired up its engine and we assumed it was pulling out and we’d take its place, although it seemed thinner than our boat. Our captain did not back up, though, and we wondered why he wasn’t giving the other boat room. Then, a small wedge began to appear between the sterns of that boat and the one to its right. We were going to try to fit between the two!
There was literally no room whatsoever. Nevertheless, out came the long bamboo poles and the other boatmen began trying to make space as we kept creeping forward. Choy and the captain’s wife pushed with both hands and soon the captain abandoned his wheel and David joined in. We scraped against our neighbors, knocking two thick wooden poles loose. Boats creaked and groaned as we were squeezed on both sides. Boatmen called or yelled to each other as they scampered about, pushing and trying to restore the wooden poles to their original place. Eventually, by some miracle, we wedged ourselves in. Surprisingly, no one seemed upset about the potential damage to their vessels and there was laughter all around.
Now, we were faced with a nearly vertical wall of grass. How were we supposed to get up that with our luggage? No problem: walk across the bow of our neighbor, hop out onto some grass and let our captain and his friends shoulder our suitcases and climb up to a waiting minivan.
The 3-year old Friendship Bridge immigration point is lovely and modern, but a 15 to 20 minute van ride (included with our cruise) back from the dock. Choy rode with us, directing us through emigration (There’s an extra $1 charge for exiting Laos on weekends and after hours.) and buying our bus ticket to the other, Thai, side of the bridge. We bid him a very grateful farewell as he head off to an overnight bus back to Luang Prabang. There was a man who earned his tip!
We entered an almost empty Thai immigration building on the other side of the bridge at dusk. A super friendly immigration officer (a rarity on the trip) asked where we were staying, then left his post to take us to the tuk tuk taxi stand and make sure we were off to our hotel in Chiang Khong with no hassles. It was a nice end to our river cruise and an auspicious start to the Thai portion of our trip.
We’re off the RCL Mariner of the Seas tomorrow and back on our own. I haven’t written travelogues about the cruise portion of our 2.5 month odyssey just because I don’t know that I’ve got much new or useful to offer. It’s been fun and we loved the itinerary–both for the ports and for its transportation value as part of our overall trip, but the ship’s service has been a let-down, not nearly as good as we experienced on our trans-Pacific crossing on the Celebrity Millennium. It was my first time on RCL, and I’d heard good things, so maybe this is just a function of changes as the ship has been fairly-recently based out of China. Definitely, cultural and language aspects were a challenge, but food, service, efficiency of on- and off-boarding left a lot to be desired. Oh well, hardly a hardship, just a little disappointing. Still, it’s been nice to have this 10-night break with someone else in charge of our itinerary before we begin our last month of travel through southeast Asia.
In the spirit of completeness, I hit on a few highlights below from our ports-of-call with Mariner that might be of interest to someone doing this cruise or making these stops:
First up was Naha, Okinawa. It was good to be back in Japan, but while we avoided the forecast rain, the sunny day brought some pretty serious heat and humidity. The highlight was definitely the hatagashira parade on Kokusai street, part of an annual festival and prelude to world’s largest tug-of-war set to take place the following day. Groups of costumed young men performed amazing balancing acts with decorated 10m poles called hatagashira to the chanting of crowds:
I couldn’t find much information about the Naha cruise port itself, so am happy to report that we docked at the Wakasa Berth, much closer in than I’d feared. (Apparently, it is possible for a ship to dock in the “spare cruise ship berth” on the far side of the container port that lies behind Wakasa Berth.) The small cruise terminal offers ATM machines, free wi-fi, helpful information staff, and plenty of taxis. There’s a nice little beach (see photo above) not 10 minutes’ walk from the the dock (walk to the right out of the port, cross the street, and take the path on the side of, not over, the bridge), or you can skip the beach and shrine and walk directly to the monorail (to Shuri Castle) and main shopping street, Kokusai Street, in about 20 minutes. Stopping at lovely Fukushuen Garden along the way will slow you down, but is worth the delay. Just beyond the beach, and accessible from the beach by a flight of stairs, is a pretty Buddhist Shrine. The surprise gem of our visit came when we cut through a park just to our left as we descended the main shrine stairs. We were just planning to cut back to the street leading from the port to Kokusai Dori Street. The park turned out to be a memorial park adjacent to the Tsushima-Maru Memorial Museum to the mostly-children who lost their lives when the ship on which they were being evacuated was torpedoed by an American ship. Like the Peace Museum in Hiroshima, this little museum is dedicated to providing rest to the souls of those who died, to memorializing their lives, and to displaying the consequences of war. It’s a sad, but welcoming little tribute with children’s belonging and a recreated classroom. Everything save a video with English subtitles and the transcript of messages from the American warship (targeting the destroyers and military personnel accompanying the evacuation, and apparently unaware of the children) is in Japanese…so the nice lady at the desk refused to accept our payment for tickets and allowed us in free. The video alone was worth the stop. (And the air conditioning is welcome, too.)
Our next port-of-call was Hong Kong. I’d long wanted to visit, and had been disappointed when a schedule change left us with only 10 hours in port, rather than the two days initially planned. Still, we made the most of our time. The new cruise port is at the old airport and, while the terminal is huge and modern, it’s an inconvenient location and the massive size just makes for a lot of walking through empty spaces. (I measured .4 miles on my Fitbit from the shuttle bus to the ship on our return, 90% of that simply walking back and forth through the maze-like terminal.) Despite my misgivings about the location, free shuttles provided by local malls turned out to be a really convenient launch to our day. We chose a shuttle that dropped off at Hollywood Plaza mall, and after snaking through a Marks & Spencer (weird), we ended up in a mall by multiple ATM’s, grabbed some cash, then descended an escalator to the Diamond Hill subway station. We bought tickets at machines (that require bills of 50HKD or less) and give change. For less than a couple of US dollars apiece, we rode all the way to Central station on Hong Kong Island (starting on the green line, then changing at Mong Kok so that we just had to step across the platform and onto the red line). From Central station, we took Exit J and followed signs to the Peak Tram, rode ding ding double-decker trams along Bank Street, then caught the Star Ferry back to Kowloon. We checked out the famous high tea at The Peninsula, but opted for a drink at the Intercontinental with its spectacular view of Victoria Harbor as evening fell and the lights came on.
After Hong Kong, we had our first stop in Vietnam. The port at Chan May is a very industrial port, a long way from anything of interest to most travelers. The nearest tourist destinations: Danang, Hoi An and the former imperial city of Hue are all worth seeing, though. In fact, the hard part is choosing which to see since Hoi An and Hue are in opposite directions. There’s no cruise terminal. Knowing we needed to make plans (and not a fan of large cruise ship excursions), I’d signed us up for a private tour via Tommytours with people I’d met on Cruise Critic. [If you don’t know Cruise Critic and you cruise or plan to cruise, you need to get familiar with it. Join your ship’s “roll call,” sign up for the Meet & Greet on-board, read tips from your fellow cruisers, pool resources for tours. You’ll meet a lot of people who want to do nothing but cruise which may not be your thing, but they know the ropes of their chosen line and they’re good friends to have: We boarded with Diamond-Plus level friends, so were 5th and 6th on the ship, avoiding lines and getting to settle in early.] The Chan May port charged $25pp for a tour company to drive in to pick up, so we walked out of the port to meet our guide. I’d been leaning towards Hue, but David was taken with photos of Hoi An, a small group tour was available to Hoi An, so that’s what we did. Hoi An has the advantage of being a lovely city that was saved from destruction during the war. Heavily reliant on tourism, it’s still a beautiful glimpse at an older way of life and we really enjoyed our visit. Hue, site of the Tet Offensive, was destroyed and the former “forbidden city” is a reconstruction of the original. Our guide picked us up in a brand new, 16-seat van with great air conditioning and 2 fast wi-fi hotspots. Cold water and cold towels made the van a delightful refuge from the humidity and passing showers. On the way to Hoi An, we stopped at Danang Beach where some of our group bought live crabs to be cooked later for lunch. Our next stop en route was at the Marble Mountain area which actually consists of 5 holy mountains representing the 5 elements of local religion: metal, wood, fire, water and earth. We rode a free-standing elevator up to Water Mountain. A sudden downpour left only David and me with the guide to explore the pagoda, temple and cave shrines on the mountain. (We had rain gear while our companions did not. Although the guide handed out ponchos, the others were already wet and wearing shoes that couldn’t handle the sudden rushing water that cascaded down the steps and paths of the mountain. David and I wore made-for-fly-fishing Teva sandals–our faves for such travel–and just waded on until the cloudburst ended.) Hoi An turned out to be the kind of place where you just want to ramble. Our guide took us through a Buddhist Temple and classic long, narrow, two-story house with balcony overlooking the bustling street. We walked past river boats and through an ancient Japanese covered bridge before David and I ducked out for a little time on our own. Back with the group, we enjoyed at 7-course feast of Vietnamese food on an open-air veranda by the river. Back at the ship, our guide was able to drive into the port, bypass tour buses and drop us off right at the ship. This was a good thing, since a storm had rolled in. It was pouring raining and howling wind. David and I were fine in our rain gear, but a lot of people were drenched in the unsheltered line trying to get back on the boat.–The poor organization of Mariner striking again. [We used Tommy Tours for our Hoi An tour. You can find Tommy at: http://tommydaotours.com/. Ty (prounounced “Tee”) was our guide. They were very professional. The only slight negatives I’d point out are that lunch was very late in the day, 2pm, so we were hungry after our early start, and Ty’s accent sometimes left us guessing, but we’ve found that to be a very common problem in Asia. We paid $75 apiece and did tip.]
Our next port, Phuy My, Vietnam, was as industrial and remote as Chan May, also offering no cruise terminal, but at least a few vendors under tents. The place to see here is Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, the former Saigon. Knowing it was a nearly 2-hour drive, I debated whether we wanted to make the trip at all, but decided it made no sense not to. One again, we pooled with some Cruise Critic friends, walking out of the port to board another private van (booked through Tours By Locals). Another 16-seater, this van had great a/c, but only room temperature water and a non-functional wi-fi hotspot. Not as nice as the Hoi An set up, but our guide, Tam, turned out to be very interesting. The son and relative of many refugees (aunts and uncles escaping to Australia and his father imprisoned for 5 years after a failed attempt with the 6-year old Tam), his family suffered punishments in the past and job discrimination that continued. Still, he was upbeat and informative. Braced for the bustle of the big city, we were still blown away by the massive, chaotic crowds of scooters that swarmed the streets darting between trucks, buses and cars. Tam assured us traffic was actually light since it was a Saturday. Oh, good Lord, I could only imagine “rush hour!” We peered out the windows of the van, fascinated as we moved past the Saigon River from large roads to narrow, byzantine streets filled with shops offering nothing but scissors, others offered dragon costumes, medicinal herbs, and so much more. Stepping out of the van for the first time, I was hit by the smell of incense, but couldn’t tell where it was coming from. Tam let us down a narrow passage between buildings to arrive at the courtyard of a 300 year old Buddhist temple. The smell of incense definitely emanated from the building, growing to a cloud as we moved past a raging fire in a big free-standing “furnace” in the middle of a second courtyard. The temple bustled with activity, worshippers lighting 1 or 3 (never 2) sticks of incense and waving them before them before planting them before altars to bow and pray. Overhead, a myriad of spiral, cone-shaped incense burned, adding to the thick atmosphere. Ceramic statues crowded the roof of the temple, ornate and beautiful in a way completely unlike the temples we’d seen in Japan and Korea. After the temple, we visited the biggest, dirtiest market I’ve ever had the fascinating but dubious pleasure to visit. This place offered wholesale goods only and burst with hats, clothes, food, herbs, sugar and more, overflowing from an enormous covered area to sprawl into trash-strewn streets alive with pedestrians, porters with every imaginable bundle, and–of course–scooters. It was a relief to return to the sanctuary of the van for the drive to the War Remnants Museum. This museum, surrounded by captured American military vehicles, gives the (mostly-Northern) Vietnamese view of the Vietnam War. It’s uncomfortable to see, particularly the many photos of those injured by Agent Orange and the horrible birth defects suffered by multiple generations of those exposed. The famous “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” quote is displayed with jarring impact. The culpability of the North is glossed over (much like we saw in the Military Museum in Belgrade, Serbia, and unlike the more balanced approach of the Hiroshima Peace Museum), but it’s still worth seeing and acknowledging the horrible price of war. We moved from war to lunch, pushing away for a time thoughts of man’s inhumanity to man. We’d asked Tam for a local food lunch and he delivered with a noisy Vietnamese “pancake” restaurant. Crispy shrimp and pork “pancakes” cooked outside in iron skillets were served piping hot and folded over bean sprouts. We broke off pieces, rolled them in lettuce leaves and dipped in a special sauce. Delicious! Other courses included crab spring rolls and small beef rolls served with dry rice paper for rolling with various condiments and yet another sauce. We had pho and local beer and deep red watermelon, too. Messy, but fun, and lots of new things to try. We ended our day with visits to the French colonial-era Notre Dame cathedral, post office, opera house, city hall, and the classic Rex Hotel. It was a fascinating day and fun; I’m so glad we went…and I doubt I’ll need to do it again. [Tam a/k/a “Tony” can be reached at http://www.saigonmekongtours.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. Split 8 ways, we paid $75 apiece for all transportation, entries, and lunch and did tip afterwards. The tour lasted approximately 8 hours. Tony did a good job despite a few language/accent struggles for us, but again, we’ve found that to be the norm in Asia.]
So, now I’ve caught this blog up to date. We know that when we get off the ship tomorrow, we’re probably in for more travel uncertainty than in more-developed Japan and South Korea, but we’re excited…Besides, we definitely won’t be roughing it our first couple of nights in Singapore. We’ve booked the Intercontinental, courtesy of easy points via an IHG promotion and David’s IHG credit card. (The promotion ended before I started blogging or I would have definitely shared. I got over 60,000 IHG points for sending in some postcards, enough for a night at the Intercontinental. David racked up points with postcards, too, then scooped up the rest with a credit card signing bonus.) After Singapore, we’re off to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, before heading to Cambodia and beyond. Here’s hoping the adventures that lie ahead are good ones!
The “Sweet Sixteen” cabins on Celebrity’s Millennium-class ships are a little-known anomaly: 8 cabins on each side of Deck 6 offer double-deep balconies for the same price as their otherwise-identical neighbors. For some reason, the Sweet Sixteen don’t appear on the deck plans (which depict the cabins as having shallow balconies just like the others on that deck). In researching our trans-Pacific cruise, I came across mention of these cabins and, since we booked very early, I found that nearly all of them were still available. (My booking agent had never heard of these cabins, but secured my preferred cabin.)
I deliberately chose the aft-most cabin on the starboard side, 6030, as I was curious about the view toward the stern and liked the idea that one of our neighboring balconies would be set back from our own. I liked my choice and we did have an extra element of privacy and a more open view sternward.
While these cabins don’t come with lounge chairs, there is plenty of room for them and I did read of one cruiser who was able to have two delivered after tipping his steward. The primary negative of these balconies is that the people above you can look down on the front half of your balcony. I knew this going in, and it didn’t bother me at all, but it might be a consideration for some.
All of the Sweet Sixteen balconies are not identical. The first 3 have thick support columns that run from 3 levels above to the front of their balconies and a full roof at that level above them. (The smaller balconies above these Sweet Sixteen are in a recessed, cave-like setting that wouldn’t be at all to my liking.) The lowest numbered of the Sweet Sixteen on the starboard side (6016) has a solid wall on the left as you look off the balcony, rather than the usual opaque privacy walls. The front half of our balcony and those of most of the remaining 6 cabins on each side are shaded by a deck overhang 4 stories above. (The back half of each balcony is shaded by the 3 levels of balconies immediately above.) However, cabin 6026 on starboard and cabin 6031 on the port side fall within a gap in the above deck and might get more sun (and less protection from rain).
Celebrity has four Millennium-class ships: Summit, Constellation, Infinity and Millennium.
I’ve been on quite a few cruises over the years, but they’re the minority of my travels. Very occasionally we just want an easy getaway, but most often lately we use cruises as transport from one point to another. I’d eyed “repositioning” cruises with envy for years, but could never take advantage of them due to my sons’ school schedules. With my boys off on their own now and David and I both retired, I’m loving taking advantage of these seasonal moves of ships from one “theater of operation” to another. Prices on these cruises are usually much lower than comparably-long regional cruises. The lines are basically trying to make some money while relocating their ships. The trade-offs for the passengers are fewer ports and frequent time changes (albeit incremental–an hour a day or so–rather than the large time-changes you get with an overseas flight).
We meet lots of people who take repositioning cruises and then fly straight home, but for us they’re a way to launch travels on another continent. When it’s time to come home, we use miles and/or points to buy one-way tickets home. (While one-way plane tickets purchased with cash can be ludicrously expensive–often more than a roundtrip ticket–, most mileage programs allow one-way tickets at a simple and fair one-half of the roundtrip mileage cost.)
Not only are repositioning cruises one of the best travel values out there, they’re a great way, if you’ve got the time, to get somewhere far away, comfortably and with no jet-lag. A trans-ocean cruise can give you 2 weeks (or more) of room, board and entertainment for much less than a first class flight and sometimes for less than a business class flight. (Any cruise ship cabin is infinitely more comfortable than either a first or business class seat on a plane…and economy seats are hardly worth a mention in a discussion of “comfort.”) This is especially true if, like us, you don’t gamble, don’t drink much alcohol, don’t like soft drinks, don’t do the overpriced cruise excursions, aren’t tempted by “specialty” restaurants, spas, “duty free” shopping, onboard internet, or any of the other myriad ways cruise lines seek to pull more money out of you. For us, they’re primarily moving hotels where we enjoy our time alone together and meeting new people, reading and watching the water from our balcony, disconnected from the rest of the world for a while. We also plan our own time ashore. If you love all those cruise extras– and many do–your costs can be substantially higher. It’s a matter of choice and preference, of course, just be aware.
Cruise stops are, by their very nature, a quick peek at a location. Often no more than a classic “toe-touch”, say-I’ve-been-there, remain-in-a-protected-bubble kind of affair (usually a pet peeve of mine), they can be fun and they do have their place in my travel plans. The ports can be limited on a repositioning cruise, but we look at them as an added bonus. And, like Dutch Harbor, they can be unusual–and unusually remote–locations.
Visiting somewhere via cruise can also be a good option if it’s a place you’d like to see, but aren’t really sure you want to spend an extended amount of time there. Cruise ports of call also make for good reconnaissance; sometimes I find a place begs for a longer return visit. And, of course, if mobility is an issue, cruises can be perfect for people who would otherwise find their travel wings clipped.
Anyway, since they’re not my focus, I don’t plan to do too much in the way of cruise reviews. I will share, though, if I come across a particularly good deal or interesting angle. E.g., see my review of the “Sweet Sixteen” cabins on Celebrity’s Millennium-class ships: double-large balconies that don’t appear on the ship deck plans and for which there’s no extra charge. Since we prefer to avoid cruise ship excursions and do things on our own or in smaller tours, I’ll also document port details if the port of call is one (like Dutch Harbor) for which I had trouble finding information, pre-trip, on one of the many cruise-focused web sites.
There are lots of web sites out there that offer cruises, but I find vacationstogo.com to be one of the best sites for exploring cruise options and I always start there. They often have the best prices, too, but if not…well, I can be bought!
So we leave tomorrow on the trip that inspired me to start this blog: a 77-night ramble through Asia. This trip runs the gamut of lodging, transportation methods, and weather. It’s been a challenge to plan (and a challenge to pack for). We’re excited!
In a (large) nutshell, this trip includes:
Our first trans-Pacific cruise [the Aleutians, northern Japan, Yokohama/Tokyo]
2 weeks in Japan [Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Miyajima island (where we’ll stay in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn), Fukuoka]
a ferry to South Korea [Busan, a Buddhist temple stay, Seoul, the DMZ]
a cruise from Shanghai to Singapore [Okinawa, Hong Kong, Chan May/Hoi An and Phu My/Ho Chin Mihn City, Vietnam]
Singapore and Kuala Lumpur
Siem Reap, Cambodia, to see Angkor Wat
Luang Prabang, Laos
a 2-day open-boat trip up the Mekong with a stop at some to-be-determined-when-we-get-there guesthouse in tiny Pakbeng, Laos
2.5 weeks in Thailand: Chiang Khong, Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai (a day with elephants and a Thai cooking school), Krabi (scuba diving the Phi Phi islands), the Bridge on the River Kwai at Kanchanaburi, Bangkok
a 1st class mega-flight on Korean Air from Bangkok to Seoul to Dallas (courtesy of airline miles and credit card points, a favorite game of ours)
I’ve tried to anticipate the trickier bits and done an incredible amount of research, but I know there will be things I overlooked or had no way of knowing. There are liable to be things that don’t pan out as we’d hoped (or maybe don’t even pan out at all). It’s the nature of travel, and also part of what makes it exciting and interesting. And besides, I don’t want to plan every moment anyway. I intend to focus on experiencing the trip rather than documenting it, but I’ll blog about it when I can. Hopefully, there will be fun as well as useful info to share…and, no doubt, our portion of clueless-fools-in-a-strange-land moments. Wish us luck!
[We’ll be incommunicado for most of the 16-day Pacific crossing, so other than a possible post in the Aleutians 5 days out, we’ll be in Japan before I do any posting. I know going off-grid is a weird way to start a blog, but that’s the plan.]