Trains, planes and automobiles

14 June 2014

We started our day with the breakfast of champions, a beef and pork congee and some Vitasoy chocolate milk. Even Adam is amazed that he enjoys congee for breakfast. I guess it has been so long since he has had cereal and the two western style breakfast we had here were just horrible.

Today we were heading to Japan, and it was a long travel day for us which included the bus to the airport, an almost four hour plane ride (one of the longest if you exclude our long haul SFO to Auckland; only the flight to Bali was longer) and a train ride from KIX airport (I think Adam got a little excited when he saw the airports initials spelled out a breakfast cereal) to Osaka. But this was the first time in a long time where we flew and it felt like we were traveling in the states. Here they actually made you remove your laptop from your bag and when we landed everyone actually stayed seated until the seat belt sign went off. It was beyond weird and we have been flying about 3 times per month!

While at Hong Kong Airport our gate was just a few down from a flight that was on its way to Chicago. As we were walking by to our gate the flight was boarding and I was once again mesmerized by the group and as Adam said you ‘look so enthralled.’ Americans in large groups just look so damn foreign to me.

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After our flight landed we grabbed our baggage and found our way to the train station to head to downtown Osaka. We had a good laugh as there isn’t just one train that goes from the airport to downtown, there are a total of three different options. We can’t even get a trolley to go a few miles to the airport in San Diego, yet here they have 3 different trains that go downtown. The best introduction to the efficiency of Japan had to be us watching the clock as our train, scheduled to leave at 5:55, and the doors of the train were closing at 5:54 and 55 seconds so that we could depart at the correct time down to the second. We looked at each other and had a Wizard of Oz “we’re not in Kansas” anymore moment except it was “we’re not in SE Asia anymore.”

Oh yeah, there was this sign in the airport bathroom as well

These signs always make me laugh

Once we got downtown we checked into our hotel, dropped off our bags and dove into the neon lights and street food around Dotombori Arcade. We found a tako-yaki stall (battered octopus balls) that had a long line which we quickly jumped into and quickly we were burning our mouths on the delicious little puffs of goodness. After that satisfied our immediate hunger we wandered through the arcade for a while before of course sitting down to grab some ramen.

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Today’s Travel: Hong Kong to Kansai (KIX) Japan on Peach Airlines

Accommodations: Nest Hotel Osaka Shinsaibashi. While I was expecting a tiny room, it turns out this room was bigger than what we had in Hong Kong. In the bathroom there was a separate space for the toilet and shower (and there is even Shiseido face wash) and the entry way had a small closet too. The double bed was comfy and adjacent to it was a small desk and just behind the bed was a shelf which allowed for some additional storage. With the metro stop literally at the hotel front door and restaurants and shops lining the side streets leading to the main arcade in town just across the street, this was an excellent location for our short stay in Osaka. Plus we had a very fancy liquor store/western food shop and of course across the street a seven eleven which provide a quick, tasty and easy breakfast.

More congee please

13 June 2014

Did you know there is a breakfast congee menu? Well we learned so today. After heading back to the congee place a we ate at a few nights ago for breakfast we walked in and after the waitress started speaking to us in Cantonese only to get blank stares we asked for ‘English’ while holding up the menu. I guess not too many tourists come here in the first place, let alone for breakfast so I think she just assumed we must be locals. Needless to say the congee was delicious again and in case you were wondering the difference between the breakfast congee and the evening congee is the choice of meat toppings that are available. In the morning they serve up cuts of meat that are quicker to cook up, while in the evening they serve up cuts of meat that take a few hours to roast or simmer.

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After enjoying our delicious breakfast we had to head back to our hotel to check out. Unfortunately they didn’t have availability for our last night there so we ended up moving to a cheap tiny place across the street for our last night. We got checked in and quickly dropped off our bags before heading out to explore some more.

This was posted in one of the underground walkways and we happened to find it quite fitting

This was posted in one of the underground walkways and we happened to find it quite fitting

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Because we have serious problem we were back at Tim Ho Wan for linner (clearly we haven’t figured out a normal schedule with just an hour time change). The food was delicious again and it’s probably a good thing these aren’t around in San Diego otherwise we’d both easily weigh a few hundred pounds from the pork buns alone.

After wiping the crumbs from the pork buns off our lips we made our way to the mid-level escalators. The escalators are the largest system of outdoor escalators in the world and provide a quick and easy way to get from central Hong Kong up to the hill to the mid-levels. The entire series of escalators goes for half a mile with stops along the way to explore the neighborhoods it goes through.

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After our failed attempt to Victoria Peak for sunset last night we made sure to get to the bus station with plenty of time to spare. Once we reached the peak we hiked down the road a bit to a nice quiet lookout spot to enjoy the view and relax for an hour or so before sunset.

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Once the sun had set we made our way up to a lookout with a clearer view of the skyline below to see the perspective of the buildings all lit up at night and capture some nice photos.  All in all not a bad way to end our time in Hong Kong.

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Today’s Travel: The ferry to central, took the mid-level escalators to SoHo. Took the bus up to Victoria Peak for Sunset.

Accommodations:  Mira Inn. I didn’t think rooms in HK could be any smaller, but this place wins. Unfortunately our last hotel didn’t have availability for our last night so we just found a cheap place across the street for one night. After finding the hotel and checking in at reception, we were walked down the street to a new building where we were taken to the seventh floor and to another hotel which looked exactly like the one we just left. The room was just big enough to fit a double bed, where you had to walk sideways to walk the length of the bed and the bathroom was even tinier then our last room, with the shower head right over the toilet. Luckily it was $20 cheaper than our last room and we were only there for one night as the 9 hours we spent in the room is about all I could take. On the ground floor there were many shops and more touts trying to selling tourists’ watches, fake bags and tailor made clothes than I could count.

Finding an escape within the city

12 June 2014

After not getting back from the horse races until later in the night, we had a late wake up today and didn’t get going until about 10am. We decided to skip breakfast (bad idea) and make our way to the Chi Lin Nunnery where we had heard there was a great quit garden to wander around as well as a delicious vegetarian menu we could try for our brunch. After taking longer than we through to get there we arrived at the gardens famished and quickly found our way to Chi Lin Vegetarian where we thankfully were quickly seated and each ordered up their set menu of four different dishes.

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The restaurant

As they brought out the dishes we quickly dug in, but unfortunately most of the dishes left a lot to be desired. We’ve found when traveling around that vegetarian restaurants tend to be very hit or miss in the flavor of their dishes. Some restaurants unfortunately mistake the term vegetarian for ‘no flavor’ and this unfortunately was one of those places. The congee we were served here, which unlike the dish we had the other night which contained ginger, garlic and lemongrass (along with some delicious meat), was essentially just boiled rice. The other dishes weren’t that much better, but at least at the end we had a somewhat full stomach which allowed us to head back out into the garden and enjoy the tranquility and peacefulness located right in the middle of hectic Hong Kong.

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Later in the evening we tried to make our way up to Victoria Peak for sunset, but unfortunately our timing was completely off. First we made our way to the tram station to attempt and take the tram up to the peak, but quickly realized us and 500 other people had the same idea as the line was worse than a ride at Disneyland. So we decided to go with option b and head to the bus to take that to the peak. As we got to the bus stop we were just in time to see the bus we wanted take off, but no need to worry we thought, they usually come every 10-15 minutes (the schedule confirmed this as well). About 45 minutes later and with very little daylight left, we were still waiting at the bus station before calling it quits on our plan to catch sunset and instead we made our way to dinner. When all else fails there’s always good food right?

For dinner we headed down to Tung Po Seafood which is a plastic table and chair type of restaurant located above a wet market. As we walked in we were quickly transformed back to SE Asia with the smells and seating arrangements and settled in for dinner. We ordered up squid ink spaghetti with cuttlefish balls as well as a fried fish with a spicy salt dipping sauce. Both were fantastic with the squid ink spaghetti being especially delicious.

Look how black that is, they had to scare a lot of squid to get all that ink

Look how black that is, they had to scare a lot of squid to get all that ink

Today’s Travel: Chi Lin Nunnery

Accommodations:  Just as Inn

Putting all my HKD on the ponies

11 June 2014

We decided to give another local breakfast place a shot this morning and headed out to Hokkaido Dairy Farm Milk for breakfast. There I made the bad decision of getting French Toast, which in case the normal version isn’t rich enough, they decided it would be better to serve it deep fried. Adam made a much better choice with his waffle covered with peanut butter and sweetened condensed milk, but all in all it was just an ok breakfast. I think we’re starting to find out that the breakfast places here are really not good, it’s just that everyone has grown up eating these crappy breakfasts so they don’t know better. After somehow walking out with our hearts still pumping we were off on our next adventure for the day.

No trip to HK would be complete without a view from the top of Victoria Peak. Being the savvy travelers we decided to take the bus from the ferry station to save a few dollars on the tram. As we arrived at the top of the peak and looked out we were greeted with what has to be one of the best skyline views anywhere in the world. One of the odd things about Hong Kong’s skyline is that as you’re down in the buildings, or looking across the harbor it’s hard to truly appreciate the scale of what you’re looking at. With every building being a massive skyscraper it’s tough to get any sort of scale to be really impressed. Up on Victoria Peak though you have a different experience as you look down on all the skyscrapers and are finally able to take in the true scale of the skyline that just goes on as far as the eyes can see.

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After walking around the peak for an hour or two taking in the skyline from several different locations we made our way back down to the city on the tram. At this point we were getting close to dinner and we decided that we had such a great meal at Tim Ho Wan for lunch yesterday why not head back there again for dinner to try some of their other Dim Sum, and of course some more pork buns.

Delicious, delicious pork buns

Delicious, delicious pork buns

While eating our dinner we ended up chatting with two guys from Copenhagen who were in Hong Kong for a conference and we offered up some recommendations on what they should order. They were happy with our recommendation of the pork buns, but turned out they weren’t big fans of the chicken feet. Go figure? After talking with them for a while it turned out that they were heading to the same place we were after dinner the horse races at Sha Tin Racetrack. Normally Hong Kong has horse races every Wednesday night at Happy Valley Racetrack (with a name like that how can it not be a good time) but as apparently they started construction out there they moved the Wednesday night races out to Sha Tin. The four of us headed to the metro to take the train out to the racetrack and see if we can have any luck betting on the ponies.

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It took us a while to figure out what betting options were even available but after figuring everything out after the first race or two it wasn’t too long before we were losing our hong kong dollars.

Where the serious gambling takes place

Where the serious gambling takes place

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We had a great time yelling at our horses to go faster, but there must have been a language barrier or something as they didn’t listen to us in any of the races. No need to fear though, with the minimum bet being just over $1 US dollar we only walked out down 6 bucks for a night of great entertainment.

Amy with Christian and Claus

Amy with Christian and Claus

Definitely not our horse in the lead there...

Definitely not our horse in the lead there…

Today’s Travel: Ferry to Hong Kong Island, bus up to Victoria Peak, then the metro to the racecourse in the New Territories

Accommodations:  Just as Inn

Happy birthday to me!

10 June 2014

We started my birthday, after a quick trip to Starbucks, by hopping on the local star ferry to ride across the harbor to Hong Kong Island to spend the day exploring the fancier part of Hong Kong.

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Our first stop once we reached the central ferry pier was to make our way to Tim Ho Wan for a meal at a Michelin Star rated restaurant for my birthday. And just in case you’ve thought Adam has gone soft and is all of sudden willing to spend all this money because it’s my birthday don’t worry. Tim Ho Wan is actually the cheapest Michelin Starred restaurant in the world so our timing worked out quite well.

The lunch at Tim Ho Wan turned out to be everything you could have asked for and then some. It’s essentially really fancy high quality dim sum served in a food court setting.

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If you ever find yourself in Hong Kong we’d highly recommend coming here just for their Pork Buns (we may or may not have ended up ordering multiple plates of these).

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Delicious delicious pork buns

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We ended up ordering 7 different dishes and every one was fantastic, even the chicken feet which once you got past the fact that you were eating chicken feet were actually quite tasty if not a little fatty.

Chicken feet, tastes like chicken

Chicken feet, tastes like chicken

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And the grand total for all this amazing food, a whopping $148 Hong Kong dollars or less than $20.

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After eating our fill at Tim Ho Wan and struggling to waddle around due to our full stomachs we decided it would be a good idea to hop on the local tram that runs up and down the coast of Hong Kong island to get a good overview of the city and its high skyline.

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We rode the tram up and down checking everything out before hopping off in the Wan Chai neighborhood to wander around for a few hours before grabbing some dinner. This neighborhood provided plenty of multi colored sky high apartment complexes that just wanted to be photographed!

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Really this is how you label your dumpsters?!?! Lost in translation?

Really this is how you label your dumpsters?!?! Lost in translation?

Dinner took place at a very western place, The Coffee Academics, which caught our attention with their buy one get one free glass of wine. I of course saw fish tacos on the menu and had to have them. While the fish and mango chutney were tasty the hard corn shell taco just threw me off. But it was interesting to be back in a restaurant where we everyone at the table was speaking English. And I say interesting as the couple next to us was on a first date and on our left were two guys who worked at CBS. From the snippets we could hear, I know that the transition back to a western lifestyle is going to be a rough one. The guy on the first date was talking about how he recently changed jobs to make more money and the two guys who just got off work were complaining about the corporate phone plan. We both really just wanted to scream and tell these people just how trivial and pointless there conversations were. It was to the point where I was thinking that it would be so nice to just hop back on a plane to Laos or Cambodia where the people are so friendly and happy and even though they don’t have much in terms of material possessions they would never sit and gripe/brag like these people are and you could sense that they are so much happier than those sitting at the table with us.

After taking full advantage of the 2 for 1 wine special we made our way to the Wan Chai ferry pier to head back over to Kowloon and our hotel. But on our way I saw a sign for the San Francisco club in shiny neon lights. I wanted to go and when I made this announcement Adam stated that it was probably a strip club, but not believing him we made our way to the door where it turns out Adam was right, I joked that we should go in but we ended up skipping out on the SF club.

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On our way we of course had to stop for a birthday ‘cake’ so we went to Hui Lau Shan for one of their mango desserts to cap off a good night and a great start to what will be an awesome 31st year.

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Today’s Travel: The Ferry from Tsim Sha Tsui to Central, took the trams exploring the coastline of Hong Kong Island, and finally took the ferry from Wan Chai to Tsim Sha Tsui.

Accommodations:  Just as Inn

Getting to know Hong Kong

9 June 2014

We wondered out of our hotel in the morning in search of a breakfast place close by and unfortunately stumbled across Café de Coral. While there was a long line and it seemed promising (I mean how can you mess up breakfast, even Denny’s is not all that bad) it just ended up being pretty disappointing. I’m not sure if it’s just due to the local preference here or not, but the scrambled eggs which we later found out were a ‘specialty’ were runny and the ‘sausage’ was really just a fancy name for a hot dog. After finishing up breakfast we made our way back to our hotel room to get some FaceTime in with the family.

We made our way out to try and get a Hong Kong specialty, Roasted Duck. We ended up going to Spring Deer which was a very old school restaurant where the gentlemen at the table next to us had covers over their sports coats which they had placed on their chairs. Unfortunately the only option they had was to purchase the whole duck which was a little excessive for the two of us so we just ordered up some other dishes.

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Afterwards we spent some time wandering around our neighborhood taking in the sights and taking some photos.

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In the evening we took metro a few stops north to Mong Kong to have congee at Fuk Kee Congee. While I wasn’t expecting too much from what’s basically rice soup it was absolutely phenomenal and had some great flavors on ginger and garlic. We ordered up a roasted duck congee and a chicken congee. We then started to walk back to our hotel wandering through the streets on our way back.

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We passed through a local night market selling some cheap trinkets and other crap, before we eventually made our way to a pastry shop to get a pineapple bun and an egg tart for dessert.

Today’s Travel: Subway to Mong Kong and a walk back to our hotel

Accommodations:  Just as Inn

Six months, nine countries

8 June 2014

We started our last morning in Bangkok by taking a visit to the local market around the corner from our hotel to savor some delicious tropical fruit for what may be the last time in a while. We picked up a small service of jackfruit and a ½ kilo of mangosteens to enjoy before our flight early in the afternoon. With the more pressing matters of the day taken care of we started our wandering to find a good spot for lunch. We had seen a noodle soup stall set in a small alley the other day that we had wanted to try, but unfortunately when we walked up it was closed due to it being Sunday so we continued our wandering to see what we could stumble across and were we ever lucky that place ended up being closed. We ended up stumbling across a small stand (the guy had 3 tables max tucked inside a small gap between buildings, alley would be too generous of a description) selling a noodle soup we had never heard of before. We’re still amazed that after all this time in SE Asia, there are so many different varieties of what are essentially the same main ingredients of noodles, broth and meat. This stall specialized in a pork soup that had the most tender pork (I’m guessing it was tender due to the fact that it was just sitting out in the warm temperatures) combined with a delicious broth and some wide thick rice noodles that all came together to make a perfect last meal for Bangkok and SE Asia. It truly is a testament to the food in this amazing city that you can just pull up to a small cart in the middle of an alley and have what is one of the better soups of your life. After slurping up the last of our lunch we made our way to the Siam Center dessert center for one last batch of mango sticky rice before heading back to our hotel to pick up our luggage and head to the airport.

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It is hard to believe that we are entering our ninth country. We had a good laugh as when we touched down in Hong Kong and started to walk thru the terminal some culture shock immediately snuck in. First we saw a plane that had just arrived from the US and we simply stopped and stared as we watched all the Americans deplane. It was one of the oddest feelings to see so many Americans after what seems like months only seeing a handful. I’m sure we must have looked like crazy people as we were staring at all the deplaning passengers like they were the most foreign thing we could imagine. And then I walked into the bathroom where the toilets flushed automatically, the paper towels were dispensed with the wave of a hand (they have paper towels?!?!?) and there was a warning sign next to the soap dispenser (wow, there is soap) about it containing antibacterial components that may not be suitable for people with allergies and to so see the toilet attendant if you have issues. We’ve spent the last few months carrying around a pocket size Kleenex as backup for toilet paper, so this was all a little much to take in.

After snapping back to reality we made our way to immigration control and they simply handed us a movie size ticket stub. No stamp! So lame! Soon thereafter we boarded the bus and we were on the open road where we were again taken aback by the guard rails, fairly empty roads and the speed at which we were traveling, a frantic 60 mph. After spending so long in countries where getting up to 30 mph is traveling quickly it will take a while to adjust back to this speed of travel. We arrived at our hotel after about a 40 minute bus ride and soon we were heading out the door to find dinner at a local restaurant.

Today’s Travel: Bangkok to Hong Kong via Air Asia from DMK airport

Accommodations:  Just as Inn. Situated just past he A21 bus stop and near the Tsim Sha Tsui metro we easily got here on the bus from the airport and just had to brave a few steps in the pouring rain. Up on the 8th floor of a very unassuming apartment building the rooms are small but nice and very clean. I thought we had stayed in some small rooms on this trip but this one is by far the smallest, but with a few well-placed storage spots our stuff takes up just a small portion of the room and there is enough living space, plus a small desk for writing.  There are also many good restaurants within easy walking distance and public transportation at our doorstep to easily get around.