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Modes of travel part 1 Planes & trains

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

Have traveled on numerous variations of the usual planes, trains, buses & automobiles, horse drawn carriages, ships, ferries & other sorts of watercraft. To the not so usual hot air balloons, double decker buses, London black cabs, elephants, camels & dugouts.

When it comes to planes Greenland Air’s Airbus on the route from Greenland to Copenhagen is the economy class hands down winner, by a country mile over any airline I have flown. They haven’t heard of “cattle car” seating which is prevalent on most others. The food, which would put some restaurants to shame, is impressive, also an economy class winner in the industry with top notch service.

Their Dash 7’s on the local short hauls are also good with excellent flight crews. The only draw back is they’re a tad expensive but one normally gets what they pay for when it comes to airlines. The notable exceptions being Qantas & Air Canada both of which are on my, NO fly, avoid like the plague list.

JAL which still uses all female stewardesses instead of the other “politically correct” airlines with their mixed crew of “flight attendants” (at least on the NRT-DEL run) seems a touch above the other carriers I have flown this trip with AA, BA & LAN being in the middle rank with a tad more leg room, competent, courteous flight crews, airport check in & flight centre personnel. Then comes Cebu Pacific, Air China, Air Asia & Thai air who have good personal but whose seating falls into the “cattle car” class.

Finally down at the bottom you have Qantas whose SIN-PER flight was tolerable but the best thing that can be said about their “cattle car” affiliates, including Jetstar (who refused to check my bag through) is that by some miracle the planes didn’t fall out of the sky!

Could write a book about my train travels during the past 10 months but shall just give a quick overview here. As anyone following this blog knows, I have travelled by train in England from Newcastle to Birmingham, EXPENSIVE, then a cheap (tad under 20 GBP) from Birmingham to London & return, both trips fine.

I then traveled from Oslo to Vladivostok (except for a few miles on the Sweden/Finland border where there is no train but your ticket covers the bus), via St Petersburg (awesome city) & Moscow (hmmm) with a jog down to Ulan-Bator (wish I’d had 3 weeks instead of 3 days). An absolutely fantastic trip, I highly recommend, in full or any part.

Next was Lhasa to Beijing, a 2 day jaunt from the highest station in the world to a not so nice, heavily polluted city with very few redeeming features, on a train using sleeper cars, built by the Canadian firm Bombardier. The worst designed that I have traveled in but don’t if the Canadians or Chinese were responsible for that blunder, which took away from an otherwise fine experience.

Trip from Hue to HCMC (Saigon) full day + night in a coach seat was nice as was the day trip on “Railcar” from Bangkok to Chaing-Mai, also the hop from Bangkok to Surat Thani. All good trips, interesting with no problems & coach seat with the exception of the 2nd class non A/C sleeper from Bangkok to Surat Thani.

More interesting was the day time run from Yangon to Mandalay followed by the amazing hop, in the mountains, from Hspaw to Pyin U Lwin in Myanmar. The “Jungle Line” from Gemas to Kota Bharu Malaysia is also pretty cool, although not the “incredible” trip Lonely Planet makes it out to be. Also when they sell you the ticket in KL & tell you the train from Gemas doesn’t go all the way to Kota Bharu but you have to change, do NOT believe them as it merely stops for 20 min about 1/2 way, changes numbers, then carries on. Guess nobody told the KL ticket sellers that!

Now for the fun part. To get to Thailand by train from Kota Bharu Malaysia it is necessary to take a taxi to the border crossing at Sungai Kolok then a motorcycle taxi to the station. Of course if you had believed Lonely Planet or the Canadian governments web site you never would have taken the trip anyway as you would have been afraid of tripping over all the heads rolling down the street. Fortunately there is a voice of reason from “the man in seat 61” website that puts the problem in perspective, if you stay around long enough you might possibly see some violence but to just pass through it’s extremely unlikely. However it was interesting traveling on a train patrolled by soldiers in body armor & passing stations with sandbag bunkers.

At Hat Yai the soldiers faded away. Now I had spent the night in Hat Yai a week previously, not knowing how (supposedly) dangerous (at least according to our illustrious Canadian government), as the multitude of Chinese tourists there for the Chinese New Years holiday sure weren’t concerned & it actually seemed safer to me than south Oshawa in the evening. Oh well what do myself + a few thousand Chinese that were there know, compared to the Canadian simple serpent, that has likely never ventured away from his home province, that wrote the advisory?? Bottom line was that after an enjoyable, overnight train ride in coach (no sleepers when I checked in but 2 min before we left one became available for an extra 400 Baht, NO way Jose am I paying 400 Baht for a 2nd class sleeper berth), especially when coach was only 600 Baht, I arrived in Bangkok without incident!

Another fabulous train trip is the, 3rd class only trip from Bangkok’s Thonburri Station to Kanchanaburi, the home of The Bridge over the River Kwai. A 3 hr ride for a measly 100 Baht. If you go on to Namtok you actually cross the bridge, if not you can take a tourist train for 20 Baht on a 20 min ride across +  a couple miles down the line. Have been there 3 times & done it both ways on both trains + walked across. If you should find yourself in the area make sure to stop in at “The Red Neck” bar, on the tourist strip by the river & say Hi to Jimmy & the boys. Should really spend a night in Namtok but I didn’t know that at the time & had to get back to Bangkok. Oh yeah make sure to visit the Hell Fire Pass museum & monument, which was erected by the Australian government, on the old railway line in the area. Can also reach Hell Fire Pass via local bus  from town. Also there is a very good museum on the “Death Railway” in Kanchanaburi, right across from the war memorial cemetery.

Only one line in Borneo & it was closed for repairs when I was there. However traveled from Jakarta, where you can see locals with no money who can ride on the roof of the electric trains for free, free but scary, to Banyuwangi (Manyar  hotel good + cheap near ferry docks) & the ferry to Bali. It’s a 2 day trip with an overnight stop & train change in Surabaya. You also get an idea of just how poor the country is when you see the rice farmers harvesting the crop with sickles & threshing it by hand, hadn’t seen that since Myanmar. That said the railway & equipment are in good shape & had no problems other than the schedule is just there for looks & trains arrive when they arrive, no big deal for a traveler, don’t think locals pay much attention to the clock either. The second leg through the coastal hills was cool.

Took the Qantas (YECH) bird from Singapore to OZ & a cross continent (Island depending on who you listen to) on the Indian Pacific + north from Adelaide on the legendary (overrated) Ghan to Alice Springs, red seats full for the leg to Darwin & finally the Overland, Adelaide to Melbourne (where I had dealings with the Qantas rep from HELL!!

Bought a backpacker rail pass for the Great Southern network which was a great deal for coach seats but sleepers were out of the question at $300/night DUH talk about rip-off!!

Biggest scam I heard was the $3,000.00 cost of a platinum ticket on the Ghan for the 2 day trip from Adelaide to Darwin! That’s more than The Orient  Express charges for the 2 days from Singapore to Bangkok. Sorry OZ but the Ghan isn’t in the same league as The Orient Express, not by a country mile.

Trains were OK, service not bad but comes with a simple serpent attitude of not really caring, all in all not impressive. Glad I took the trips but they don’t measure up to 3rd world/emerging nation, standards!

New Zealand was another matter with my experience on the Overlander being bad from the get-go, when you had to wrestle your luggage down 2 escalators then walk the length of the platform to check it. NOT an impressive start to a trip fraught with problems brought on by poor maintenance. That said the train crew was great. Once on the south island the train performance was good & the crews still great, scenery was also much better.

The worst, by far, trip was on Euro rail from Copenhagen to Amsterdam! There was a night sleeper on the run but what’s the point of a train journey in a new country in the dark? So chose to do it during the day which meant 6 train changes with NO luggage check, have to keep it with you which really adds to the fun when there are no seats, chicken bus Euro style. Absolutely ridiculous in supposed  first world countries!

Have also traveled from Montreal to Edmonton, many snows ago when the line was still operated by CN & done a couple short jaunts on Amtrak in the US.

Some trips were more scenic, others like the Trans-Siberian were real eye openers into the countries visited & showed how we have been misled by our governments & media about how things really are. Never in my wildest dreams would have thought Siberia would be home to major cities & enormous tracts of farm land or  the entire 7 day trip would be on a dual track, electrified line or that Indonesia would be utilizing such antiquated farming practices.

With the exception of the day from hell on Euro rail, all were enjoyable, enlightening & well worth the money. Hard to pick a best but the run from Hspaw to Pyin U Lwin through the mountains of Myanmar tops my list!

Still to come is a rail trip from Anchorage to Fairbanks in Alaska.

Places I have slept

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

During my 11 month sojourn I have slept in all sorts of accommodations & on a variety of conveyances running the gamut from Hostel dorm rooms to 4* Hotels & even a Bangkok apartment, from train sleeper berths to economy class on Pelni ships, from the dreaded sleeper bus to seats in a variety of classes of planes, trains, buses & ferries.

Although I have stayed in some nice & expensive hotels like the Hotel Hans Egebe in Nuuk which only cost $352.00/night or the Beijing Novotel for a mere $118.00/night, they were not my favorites. Not sure what I will have to say about the Motel 6, I just booked in Anchorage for the insane price of $142.00/night but OMG $142 for a Motel 6 comes to mind!!

So from amongst the hodge-podge of hostels, hotels, motels, resorts, camps & bungalows, my trip favorite & cheapest at $5.00/night, is the Thoun Sunset Bungalows at Don Det, in the Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands) archipelago of the Mekong River, where I could relax, with a cool one, on the veranda overlooking the Mekong at sunset. Life was good there for 6 days & proved that one can be truly happy in a bungalow on stilts with a squat toilet, cold water shower & the generator was only turned on for about 4 hrs from dusk until 10-11 in the evening (depending on the customers in the restaurant/bar.

#2 was the Ger Camp Timari in a national park 2-3 hrs outside Ulan-Bator Mongolia, where for the 2nd time on the trip I experienced utter silence (1st was in the Illusiat Ice Fjord in Greenland). Here we stayed in a Mongolian Ger heated by a wood stove, so the evening was nice & toasty but a tad chilly in the morning getting dressed for the walk to the communal toilets. However looking out over the desert, at the star filled evening sky, in complete silence, was an awesome experience!

#3 was the couple days spent at the Chitawin Lodge just outside the Chitawin National Park in the Nepalese Jungle, yes Nepal is more than Mt Everest & highland trekking. Another basic accommodation but the early morning  was spent floating down the river in a dugout in search of crocodiles & other jungle critters, followed by a shore hike to an elephant breeding farm. The afternoon brought an elephant ride in search of the elusive rhino, which we did spot along with the unusual sighting of a sloth bear. Again a quiet evening listening to the noises of a jungle night.

#4 would be my home stay (2nd time) with same family in Antigua Guatemala, 500Q ($65)/week meals included, for an upstairs room at the back of the courtyard where I can see Volcan Fuego in the distance. Quiet, not bad food & only a short stroll to Parque Central, the market etc.

#5 is a toss up between 2 very different hostels, each with it’s own special charm. El Roble in El Salvador, only a 10 min walk from the deserted Playa Diego, run by a family that you become a part of for your stay & the Motherland Inn 2 in Yangon where there is a homey atmosphere, friendly staff & guests who congregate at the outside tables to compare notes where to go next & what to do. Again cheap rooms with a good free breakfast served from 5 am if you have an early plane, train or bus.

#6 the Luna Rossa beachfront hotel on Boracay Island Philippines where Mario, the Italian owner & his wife also treat you like one of the family. Free internet, Food a bit pricey but good, however there is a Mexican bar next door with a more or less permanent happy hour & cheap eats. Just off the beach, a bit is a nice local place with super cheap breakfast. Up the beach is the rowdy & expensive night life & overpriced restaurants.

#7 takes us down under to a more expensive motel on Australia’s Gold Coast, the Tower Court Motel in Hervey Bay. Priced at $85 it’s cheap for the area especially considering that’s for a kitchenette unit, there’s a pool with ocean front across  the street, restaurants not too far away. The owner is a super guy who picks you up at the bus station & the tour operator to Fraser Island picks you up at the door.

#8 is half way around the world, the Stadion Hostel in Helsinki Finland, while not cheap at $55/night is good, clean & you meet lots of travelers, it’s also on the tram line making for cheap access to trains, attractions etc

#9 the City Hostel in Reykjavik Iceland is a new, popular place & at $35 for a dorm a fairly normal price, also the bus goes past the door & town pool a 2 min walk away. They sell reasonable food or cook your own. Super friendly & helpful staff & free wifi.

#10 is the Hotel So in Christchurch NZ at $88 is a bargain for the area, has everything you need, central location & free internet.

#11 back to OZ & the Brisbane City Back Packers hostel, only hostel in OZ with free internet, or so they claim, only one I stayed at anyway but no free breakfast or even coffee. Dorms in the $30+ range but privates at $105 a tad dear. however a central location, walk able to downtown, the transit centre, hop-on-off bus etc.

#12 another toss up between 2 Indonesian bungalow style motels, the Manyar in Banyuwangi at $22 & the Pulestis in Kalibukbuk at $11 both with free breaky, nice rooms & in town. Pulestis only a 3 min walk from the beach while Manyar is about the same & only 5 min from the ferry dock to Bali.

#13 the Hotel Palomestari in Kemi Lapland could be anywhere in northern Canada if it wasn’t for the labels on the bottles at the bar. Similar structure, similar typical northern customers. Weird!! but cool.

#14 The Grand Kartika in Pontianak Indonesia, where the equator runs through town. At $41 not a bad deal for a safe Navy owned hotel on the river & a short walk from the ship dock where I boarded for Jakarta. Good restaurant & even had a couple staff that spoke some English.

#15 Finally Bangkok & the 13 Coins Airport hotel with free internet, good food, COLD Tiger beer. An American manager + a super Indian customer relations person.

#16 last but not least comes the Delta Floating Hotel on the Mekong in Vietnam where we stayed the last night of our 3 day boat trip from Saigon to Cambodia. Price was included with tour but was different & pretty neat!

When it comes to sleeping while traveling, top marks would have to go to ferry cabins, followed by train sleeper compartments, all pretty much the same for comfort. Then would have to come the Pelni ship economy class, a bit hot but at least you can lie down & renting a mattress was only 50 cents + could stay on deck where it was cool until the other passengers were mostly asleep & you were tired enough to sleep through most anything, also there was a shower, so not really to bad for $13/night food & transport included.

Guess next would be the Ocean Recliner seats on The Spirit of Tasmania followed by train seats, 2nd class recliners that is. Think would have to give bus recliners the edge over economy airline seats & that’s normal planes. Bus is definitely better than airline “cattle car” seats.

Then comes the Asian version of intercity buses with non reclining seats that are closer together than school bus seats & they can be a challenge to try to get sleep in but are still superior to the dreaded sleeper buses which have to be the worlds worst ever invention!!

All in all it’s been an enlightening 11 months & goes to show for happiness, the simpler the better + way cheaper. My $5.00 bungalow with it’s porch overlooking the Mekong in Laos was by far superior to the overpriced hotel in Nuuk & $347.00 cheaper. Go figure LOL

My 10 most impressive countries

Saturday, June 26th, 2010
1) Greenland 2) Iceland 3) Tibet 4) Nepal 5) Borneo  (including Brunei) 6) Guatemala 7) Myanmar 8) Laos 9) Malaysia 10) Indonesia Runner-up Thailand 2nd runner-up Mongolia No such list would be complete without the most disappointing, which were; 1) China 2) Costa Rica 3) Australia

Under $100.00 US/day

Saturday, June 26th, 2010

My travel style runs the gamut from hostel dorms through B&B’s, home stays to the occasional pampering at a 4* hotel with the odd night spent in a seat on planes, trains, buses, ferries, now & then a shared ferry ... [Continue reading this entry]


Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

hasn’t changed much in my 13 month absence.

Bounded by the government offices to the north, the cathedral to the east, the magnificent Palico de Captaines y Generals on the south & banks , shops the cafe Condesa ... [Continue reading this entry]

The day with two dawns

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

It seems strange looking at an airline ticket & seeing your flight arrives at it’s destination 4 hrs before it departs but that’s just on paper & the strangeness of the reality takes a while to sink in.

Monday ... [Continue reading this entry]

New Zealand

Saturday, June 12th, 2010

On the whole the New Zealanders that I have met both here & in OZ have been more open & friendlier than their Aussie counterparts. Only doing a brief sojourn through a bit of the country so not much to ... [Continue reading this entry]

Final thoughts on OZ

Saturday, June 12th, 2010
Been a while since my last entry but a combination of insane internet rates + not much new to add has kept me quiet. The overnight trip on the “Hound” down to Sydney was uneventful, turned out that the set down ... [Continue reading this entry]

Short update

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

Brisbane turned out to be an interesting place with excellent tourist services including the City Tour Hop-on-off bus with use of the City Cat service on the river which gives you unlimited rides from 9:00 am – 5:pm on the ... [Continue reading this entry]