After an 18 year absence from Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand, I visited all four countries a few months ago over a two week period with my family.  The sublime delight of their local cuisines was always a highlight of many trips I had made to those Southeast Asian destinations in the past.  To name a few: Hong Kong’s noodles, Singapore’s Indian district fish head curry, Malaysia’s Muslim staple char kuey teow (rice noodles) with prawns (never with pork), and Thailand’s incomparable red and green curries (with anything).

Just typing the names of these dishes makes my mouth water!  Eighteen years is far too long to be away from such scrumptious food.

Of course I welcomed the internationalization of food choices coming to my area that have made it easier to find all those and more in local restaurants specializing in SE Asian gastronomy.  Though I still don’t know where to find Malaysian char kuey teow (and still can’t pronounce it correctly) or fish head curry (the best in my book is served up at Muthu’s Curry House in Singapore), fine examples of Chinese noodle soups and delicious Thai curries are thankfully plentiful in the Research Triangle area.  I’d put up the delectable Duck Red Curry from the modest Thai House Restaurant in Raleigh against any I’ve enjoyed in Thailand, for instance.

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Our kids enthusiastically enjoying noodles prepared at a local noodle shops on Hong Kong island.  No Western food was on the menu, a refreshing discovery! 

While in Asia, we did tuck into some good eats, such as perfect noodles in Hong Kong and to-die-for Peking Duck at the chic (and expensive) Empire City Roasted Duck in the upscale Kowloon K-11 Mall.  But I was dismayed to find that the internationalization of cuisine has gone from West to East, not just from Asia to America!  It was actually a challenge to find really good native food in all four countries.

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McDonald’s in the Mongkok (Hong Kong) next to the freeway. Not an attractive streetscape, but patrons streamed in day and night anyway, chowing down on Western fast food.

In Hong Kong McDonald’s Restaurants seem to be serving the needs of the masses of busy people and their kids like never before.  We frequented McDonald’s to sate the hunger of our two kids and can attest that every store was doing a land-rush business, with customers across the demographic spectrum.  The breakfast menu is an East-meets-West hybrid, but definitely not Cantonese cuisine.  Not that I credit (or blame) McDonald’s for what seems to be a trend towards more international food choices, but except in outlying areas, we found traditional breakfast noodle shops harder to find than I recall.

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McDonald’s in the Mongkok area of Hong Kong was always busy, a 24/7 operation.

In multicultural Singapore it was always my experience that several Asian fares co-existed but did not collide.  If you wanted Indian food, one headed for the Indian district.  On this trip, time did not permit us a sojourn there to sip Tiger beer while eating fish head curry off a banana leaf with our fingers (the traditional method).

But we did have some almost tasty but mostly bland samplings of several Asian cultures at a Food Republic near our hotel. Food Republic is a chain of stand-alone food courts with common seating areas surrounded by fast-food-looking counters where orders are taken for whatever suits your fancy: Korean, Chinese, Indian, Thai, and so on.  And Chinese choices are many: traditional Dongbei, rice and noodles, hot pot, Szechuan, and so on.

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Food Republic in Singapore offered a wide variety of rather bland Asian dishes.  Not even the Szechuan food was something I’d go back for.

We tried a number of Food Republic dishes, and all were wholesome and good, but it just didn’t feel like real Singapore.  We could have been in any mall in America.

We passed through Malaysia from the bottom to the top of the peninsula aboard a train, but we grabbed what morsels we could at the Johor Bahru Central Station and in the train’s snack bar car.

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Johor Bahru (Malaysia) Central Train Station, spiffy and clean, but with rather Spartan food choices and no good local cuisine.

After recovering from the shock of modernity that is the Johor Bahru Central Station, I browsed through the stalls selling victuals that might work for breakfast.  Again I was disappointed to find just a few tasteless halal doughnuts amidst an even more tasteless array of Western-style breads and things made to look like pastries.

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Western-style breads and cakes for sale in a shop at the Johor Bahru Central Train Station.  There were some weird hybrid breads, but no purely Malaysian choices, and it all tasted like sawdust.

At the end of the station’s concourse sits an American fast food tradition: a bright, shiny KFC.  I couldn’t find traditional Malaysian fare on sale there, but the menu sure bragged about its Italian desserts!

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The KFC dessert menu board at the Johor Bahru Central Station. These don’t look like native Malaysian food choices to me.

On board the train that sped across the Malaysian peninsula, we were delighted to find a snack bar car.

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The snack bar car on the Malaysian cross-country train – modest, clean, but with an extremely limited food selection for a 14 hour trip, and they ran out of noodles long before reaching our destination.

While it wasn’t haute cuisine by any stretch of the imagination, our kids loved the cheap cup noodles, and the more Styrofoam plates of noodles heated in a microwave were even better by comparison.  It was still essentially fast food, though, and wasn’t going to win any prices at the state fair.

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Cup noodles on the Malaysian cross-country train were typical of those found worldwide.

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Microwaved pre-cooked noodles on the Malaysian train were edible, but not something to brag about.

A superb breakfast was included at our fabulous boutique hotel in Georgetown, on the Malaysian island of Penang, yet once again it was a Western-style assortment of breads and fruits. No local foods.

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Really delicious Western-style breakfast at our Georgetown hotel on Penang Island (Malaysia) 

En route to Thailand by ferry, we changed boats on the Malaysian island of Lantau.  There the ferry terminal is a very busy tourist crossroads, and I hoped to run into some local comestibles from a hole-in-the-wall place that would tickle my taste buds.  Instead, all we could find was a Lantau food court reminiscent of those sometimes seen at middle-sized American airports.

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The food court at the Lantau ferry terminal (Malaysia)

It was set up on the Food Republic model of central tables surrounded by various merchants selling Muslim, Chinese, Thai, Indian, and Malaysian food.  After sampling a smorgasbord of small dishes from several nationalities, I couldn’t decide which was more mediocre.

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Very average and unimaginative food court on Lantau Island (Malaysia) at the ferry terminal

Finally in Thailand on Koh Lipe Island, we were optimistic that the Thais took great pride in their native cuisine and could not possibly offer up a second-rate curry.

I was wrong.  Although we enjoyed some pretty good dishes over four days, none was outstanding.  We couldn’t understand it until we chatted up an American restaurateur married to a Thai fellow.  She was disgusted that all the Thai places on Koh Lipe had let their standards slip because they figured that international tourists couldn’t tell the difference, and tourists were anyway satisfied with non-Thai food.

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A pretty good Thai dish on Koh Lipe

Back on the mainland at Hat Yai central train station waiting hours for our overnight sleeper to Bangkok, we wiled away the time in the station restaurant.  The kind Thai owner had learned Western baking techniques and had delicious breads and pastries on offer.  But his Thai selections were not much better than average.  This was particularly surprising to me because Hat Yai is not a place tourists usually hang out, and I expected the memorable Thai food of my past visits.

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Quite the selection of Western-style foods and beverages at the Hat Yai (Thailand) central train station, but where are the Thai foods?

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Delicious western-style breads, cakes and buns and puddings in Hat Yai made by the Thai owner, but his native dishes were just okay.

En route to Bangkok that night on board the comfortable sleeper train, we were delighted to find a real dining car, and festively decorated for Christmas (it was the season, after all).

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The diner on the Hat Yai-Bangkok overnight train was festively decorated for Christmas.

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The rail diner menu on the Hat Yai-Bangkok overnight train.

The menu looked pretty good, and the actual plates were certainly better than on the Malaysian train.  Too bad the flavors were on par with the so-so Thai meals we had on Koh Lipe.

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The curry served in the diner aboard the train looks better in this photo than it tasted.  It was good, but not memorable.

The biggest letdown of all came in Bangkok itself where we tried a number of curries (red, green, massaman).  All were markedly better than the rail diner food or that on Koh Lipe, but none was a home run.   All the Thai restaurants had dual language Thai-English menus, which we expected from past experience, but we had to struggle to find the Thai selections.

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The Thai owner of the best Thai cafe we found in Bangkok brings hot tea for breakfast.  He baked his own bagels every morning.

One favorite small, locally-owned cafes happened to be directly across the street from our hotel, and its menu was a good representation of the trend: page 1 was American food (hamburgers, French fries); page 2 was Italian-American (pastas and such); page 3 was Mexican-American (Tacos, nachos—shocking!); page 4—at last—was Thai dishes, and not very many of them.  The Thai owner also served good bagels and cream cheese for breakfast!

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That’s a live Ronald McDonald in Bangkok, and he speaks Thai, of course.

Sure, we found some good local food, but not one traditional place was unforgettable. The dumbing down of the exquisite Asian cuisines that we have known and loved is well under way.  How long, I wonder, before real noodle shops and mom-and-pop curry cafes in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand will become anachronisms given to snarky comments by Millennials scurrying by while munching on trendy Chik-fil-A waffle fries, their native palates completely shot?

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Roasted scorpions on a  stick in Bangkok.  They had big spiders, too.  I didn’t eat either.

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Cafe cycle on Koh Lipe

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Cafe cycle chef whips up a Thai dish on Koh Lipe – maybe we should have tried it.

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Street food on Koh Lipe – authentic as it got

When I booked hotel accommodations for my family of four for a mad dash of college tours across America’s vast landscape over Spring Break (our son is a high school Junior), I did not intentionally select five different hotel brands, but that’s the way it worked out.

We were away more than five nights; however, thanks to relatives in the Los Angeles area and friends in New Hampshire who hosted us, I was able to limit our out-of-pocket costs to just five nights in hotels. It was a marathon run to one university and college after another, so exhausting that even our seventh grade daughter grew weary.  Given our breakneck pace trying to cover so much ground, we needed our hotels to give us shelter and peace for at least a few hours each night.  They all delivered.  Here’s how they stacked up.

ROOM RATES: AS EXPECTED

Five nights, five hotel groups: Springhill Suites (Marriott group); Holiday Inn (IHG); Hyatt Regency (Hyatt); Travelodge (Wyndham); and Embassy Suites (Hilton). I was frankly amazed that all proved very good places to stay by a number of standards, while the cost differentials matched up predictably to each brand and  location:

Springhill Suites (Marriott group), Hagerstown, MD – $127 (all room rates stated before taxes)

Holiday Inn (IHG), Middletown, NY – $94

Hyatt Regency (Hyatt), Cambridge, MA – $239

Travelodge (Wyndham), LAX Airport, CA – $119

Embassy Suites (Hilton), SFO Airport, CA – $171

All rates were the lowest I could find online testing several booking services and using a variety of possible discounts, such as AAA, AARP, etc.

PARKING: TO BE (FREE), OR NOT TO BE (FREE)

Parking was (still) free at the Springhill Suites, Holiday Inn, and the Travelodge LAX, though spots were scarce at the Travelodge.  The Hyatt Regency Cambridge charged $38/day for self-parking in an adjacent and very tight structured parking garage, a rate to be expected in such a major and densely-crowded urban environment as central Boston.

The big parking surprise was the Embassy Suites SFO, sited on the bay at Burlingame.  The property has the usual acres of surface lots surrounding the typical blocky hotel building, and it does not sit in a major urban area.  One has to squint to see the most distant lot, and many of the spaces were vacant.  Yet the Embassy wanted $22 per day to park and issued special mirror hangers to thwart cheaters, threatening to tow vehicles that were not so validated.  I managed to talk them out of my one night charge because we didn’t arrive to check in until 10:30 PM, and I had to turn the Hertz car in at SFO before eight o’clock the following morning.  So the staff took pity on me and comped the parking.

Though I appreciated the gesture, I had to beg and whine and chew my lip to avoid what is essentially an extra room rate charge, much like the a la carte pricing model the airlines have so well perfected.  The way of the future, I’m sure.  Maybe next time even the humble Holiday Inn in dinky Middeltown, NY will want a fin or a ten for overnight parking.

BREAKFAST: COMPLIMENTARY, BUT VARIED

The modest brands of Holiday Inn, Travelodge, and Springhill Suites all offered the same tired breakfast buffet we’ve become inured to; that is, bad coffee; sugary cereals and skim milk; penitentiary-quality muffins frozen for 6 months before being  served with freezer burns ice cold and tasteless; stale bread and bagel-shaped wannabees; tiny packets of grape jelly impossible to scour out; cook-your-own waffles and insipid corn syrup flavored vaguely suggestive of maple; and a few containers of pretty good yogurt swimming in melted ice.  Sometimes some institutional eggs and bad sausage links are also on display.  You know what I mean.  Gives me heartburn just describing it.

But my kids loved it every place we went, so who’s complaining?

The Embassy served up its usual cooked-to-order breakfast, which was very good, except that several hundred (no exaggeration) high school kids had beat me to the breakfast lines at 7:00 AM, forcing me to gobble what I could when finally I got my omelette before splitting for SFO to return the rental car to Hertz before the deadline.

Saving the best for last, the Hyatt Regency Cambridge had a magnificent breakfast buffet set out to the tune of some twenty-odd dollars per person, and our rate included the full buffet breakfast for four.  We pigged out because the choices were so many and so good: fresh-cooked eggs; mounds of applewood bacon and savory sausage; huge trays of fresh fruit; bottomless juice glasses; fresh-baked cakes, muffins, breads, and bagels; cold meats and cheeses; and any hot tea one could think of.  Unlike most hotel breakfasts, the Hyatt Regency Cambridge was memorable, made more so by the gracious and ever-helpful wait staff and attendants watching to instantly replenish any food item that was running low.  No patron was rushed, either.  We were encouraged to linger, which was easy to do since the Hyatt Cambridge restaurant is perfectly positioned for a grand view of crews out sculling on the Charles River with downtown Boston in the distance. The entire breakfast experience justified the higher Hyatt room rate in my mind.

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Hyatt Regency Cambridge iconic indoor glass elevators

 

ROOM APPEARANCE, COMFORT & AMENITIES

Once again the Hyatt Regency Cambridge was several steps above the rest in style and comfort.  Our room was not a suite, but was plenty large, amply commodious for four, with the Hyatt’s usual Frank Lloyd Wright-ish look about its decor and furnishings, which is ageless and in good taste.  I admit to a strong bias for Hyatt properties for that reason alone, though in this case we had chosen the location for its proximity to MIT, where we had a tour and info session lined up the next morning. I was happy that our seventeen year old son noticed the stylish modern touches and appreciated them.

Beyond that, of course the Hyatt had bath amenities far superior to the other four hotels, though, truth be told, even the Travelodge and Holiday Inn boasted much better soaps and other stuff nestled by the wash basin than my memory of the plebeian brand of accommodation joints they have always represented in my mind.

Towels in the five hotels were roughly equivalent and measured up well: big and thirsty.  Water pressure was good everywhere as well.  That can be a problem in some hotels, as we all know.  No vacillation of water temps, either, was experienced. Thus all the properties got high marks for decent showers.

The biggest eye-opener for me, in retrospect, was that all five hotels provided extremely comfortable beds that aided in a good night’s rest.  All five rooms were quiet, too, which I grant could have been luck–I have stayed in some pretty snazzy places, like the Waldorf, where noisy neighbors were a problem..

The HVAC systems in four of the rooms were not obtrusive and kept the temperature in a narrow range according to our settings, the sole exception being the Travelodge LAX.  There an archaic A/C window unit blasted sounds akin to a DC-3 taking off (for those who remember that far back).  The arrangement seemed a throwback to a 1960s notion of environmental comfort.

Lighting in hotel rooms has become a carp of some travel writers recently because hotel chains are dimming down their room interior illumination.  God knows why they would be so stupid and insensitive, but it is, I read, a growing trend.  Perhaps a dumbing down of hotel executives out of touch with the reality of what it means to actually be a guest has led to the dimming down of guest room lights.  I am happy to report none of the five hotel rooms we occupied suffered from this new phenomenon; all were sufficiently bright for our purposes.

STAFF: “PRACTICALLY PERFECT IN EVERY WAY” (WITH APOLOGIES TO MARY POPPINS)

No discernible contrast can be drawn among the staff qualities we encountered at any of the five properties.  Not that I expected the cheaper Holiday Inn front desk folks to be rude or stupid just because I paid the least amount to stay there, any more than I expected a haughty arrogance to be exuded among the staff at the Hyatt Regency Cambridge just because it’s the premier hotel nearest MIT.  All front desk, restaurant, and housekeeping employees we ran into were friendly, kind, genuinely interested in ensuring our stay was pleasant and enjoyable, and competent.  We liked all the people at every hotel, which amazes me as much as the uniform room comfort.

Some examples of going above and beyond:

The Springhill Suites front desk staff insisted that we take breakfast items with us on the road, even though we had already eaten our fill.

The Holiday Inn front desk clerk when we checked in late on a rainy night went out of her way to locate a luggage trolley for us that was inside and therefore dry.

The Hyatt Regency front desk clerk who checked me out adjusted several items off the bill on the basis of my word even though I didn’t have the written proof with me (my wife had taken that bag to the car already).

The Travelodge LAX courtesy bus driver insisted on following me to Hertz after I checked in to bring me back to the hotel to avoid a long walk or doubling back to the airport for a ride.  He gave me his number and instructed me to call once I had closed out my contract.  I did, and he was there to pick me on the street by the massive Hertz facility at LAX in 8 minutes.

The Embassy Suites front desk clerk who checked me in at 10:30 PM apologized for not having a bayview room available and deducted $50 from the room rate, which dropped it to $121.  He then gave us a room on a high floor (which Hilton now charges extra for) “so it will be quiet for you,” he said.  As mentioned above, I was able to negotiate off the parking charge as well, saving another $22 plus tax.

WRAPPING UP

The four of us did not anticipate how tough the college visit trips would be.  Our days started very early, sometimes at 5:00 AM, and often went until 11:00 PM.  It was altogether exhausting, mentally and physically.  We were all very glad that the five hotels provided us with just exactly what we needed each of the five nights: tranquility and comfort.  Each of the five very different hotels, operated by five competing hotel chains, met our expectations and often exceeded them.  How often does that happen?

Fortune has smiled on me twice in recent months, allowing me to sample a couple of the best long-haul business class cabins in the sky: Qatar Airways and Cathay Pacific Airways.  Both are superb alternatives to the premium classes offered by the Big Three U.S. carriers (United, Delta, and American, in case you need reminding).

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Why not compare Qatar or Cathay business class to the sharp end services of DL, UA, or AA? The better question is, Why bother?  I won’t trash our homegrown carriers for their premium offerings, but a number of foreign carriers, including Qatar and Cathay Pacific, offer international business and first class services far superior to what’s available on made-in-America airlines.

The word to describe Qatar and Cathay business class is “sublime.”  I will say up front (no pun intended) that it isn’t a matter of which is better because each has its merits.  But the services are not identical in every respect, making the differences worth noting.

Airlines and hub airports

Cathay serves 190 destinations from its mega-hub in Hong Kong, while Qatar serves over 150 places around the globe from its mega-hub in Doha.  The global reach of both, combined with a good connecting network to, and within, the USA, makes them competitive from the States to just about anywhere.

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One of the tastefully furnished and beautiful Cathay Pacific business class lounges

Both hub airports are eye-popping gorgeous, not to mention modern, sleek, and bright-shiny clean, the opposite of, say, dingy, shopworn JFK or ORD.  Added to which, Hong Kong and Doha airports boast big and spectacular home airline business class lounges with all the services, food, and drink one could ask for.

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One half of the stupendous Qatar Airways business class lounge at Doha Airport, so large that I could not get it all in one shot.  The upstairs restaurant in the distance is also part of the lounge.

I would be hard-pressed to say that either Cathay’s classy and luxurious business class lounges at HKG (four, or five if you count the Arrival Lounge) or Qatar’s single but mind-blowingly big business class lounge at DOH is better than the other. Both air carriers’ business class lounges offer five-star comestibles and libation, along with a full array of creature comforts and business accoutrements for ease of work.  Experiencing the home airport lounges of both airlines is unforgettable.

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Looking back from the photo above to see the other half of the Qatar business lounge in Doha.

Aircraft and time

I flew from Hong Kong to Chicago in Cathay’s business cabin on one of their standard 777-300 aircraft, about 15 hours.

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Cathay Pacific 777-300 being prepped at Hong Kong for the flight to Chicago.

On Qatar Airways I flew on a brand new A350 from Philly to Doha and back, about 12 hours going and 14 hours returning.

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Qatar Airways brand new A350 ready for boarding in Philadelphia

I also flew in business via Qatar A330s to and from Kilimanjaro Airport in Tanzania, but I will stick with the long-haul flights in this post.

All flights on both carriers were on time or early.  Okay, that has nothing to do with business class since one class doesn’t arrive sooner than another.  But what good is comfort and luxe if the basic operation stinks?  Qatar and Cathay pay close attention to schedule-keeping and therefore achieve consistently reliable operations, which makes a discussion of class merits relevant.

Cabin look and feel

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Cathay Pacific 777 business class privacy pods. The flight attendant reprimanded me for taking this photo. I appreciated the airline’s commitment to individual seclusion.

Cathay Pacific’s business class cabin is configured 1-2-1 in the Dilbert office cubicle style, which is to say, each business class unit is walled off from every other by tall partitions that emphasize privacy and solitude.  Looking down the cabin at the lines of tall panels, one cannot easily tell which seats are occupied.

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Cathay business class privacy pods

To me, the effect shouts: “Do not disturb!”—which isn’t a bad thing.  About midway to Chicago, though, I wondered if anyone would even notice should a passenger cocooned in a business class pod die.  I also felt occasionally claustrophobic amid the high walls and was glad to have access to a window seat.

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Cathay business class seats are ultra-comfortable and have a plethora of storage compartments, the one open here for shoes.

I guess you can tell that I am no fan of the complete isolation generated by the cube farm design, but as many of my trusted frequent flyers have impressed upon me, this type of private cabin configuration is exactly what the majority of business travelers want these days.  Thus Cathay is, as usual, ahead of the curve. I respect and applaud the airline emphatically responding to statistically valid data:  My nits are negated by market research.

Cathay’s 777s are equipped with the newest mood lighting of different color variations for encouraging sleep and easy transitions through multiple time zones.  The effect was not limited to business class, of course, but I perceived that the effect was somehow heightened within the walls of my cubicle and aided in sleeping.

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Qatar A350 business class cabin radiates full mood light when boarding in Philly

Qatar’s spit-polished brand new A350 on the Philadelphia-Doha is, with the Boeing 787, the newest airplane technology flying.  The interior looks and feels ultra-modern.  PHL/DOH is a morning departure that flies east into darkness to the Middle East half a day later.  The pink-orange mood lighting gave the cabin a sci-fi glow designed to begin the body’s transition to the abrupt time change.  The weird hues took a few minutes to adjust to, after which they seemed strangely normal.

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Qatar A350 business class seats have a lower profile than Cathay’s, making the cabin feel more open, but at a sacrifice to individual privacy.

The Qatar 1-2-1 business class cabin on its newest aircraft contrasts sharply with Cathay in the absence of the cube farm dividers around seats.  The medium high partitions give the fuselage cross-section a welcoming open sensation that appealed to me as I settled in, though research shows that I am in the minority.  Most business class patrons want the higher wall seats that Cathay uses.

Business class on the Qatar A350 is divided into two sections by a boarding door.  Between the sections is a kind of foyer with attractive low curving cabinets made to look like mahogany on which flowers and Champagne normally are placed.  The curves and low cabinet design combine with the low seat dividers to effect a mood of spaciousness to the overall business cabin.

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Qatar A350 mid-cabin cabinet in business class. Champagne and flutes are kept on the shelf throughout the flight. Note blue mood lighting for westbound flight from Doha to PHL.

The A350 (and the 787) are designed to feel more natural in flight, maintaining, for instance, higher levels of humidity than older planes.  I couldn’t discern the difference; I found both the Cathay 777 and the Qatar A350 to be equally comfortable.  I suspect being in the lap of luxury of business class on both flights had something to do with my sense of ease and well-being.

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One of the many small storage compartments in Qatar’s business class seats.

Both Cathay and Qatar business class seats are marvelously comfortable, with infinite seat and recline positions, including lie-flat, and with all kinds of storage compartments and lights and privacy panels.  Both have huge LCD screens fueled by muscular entertainment systems with more than 500 movies, TV, and other video choices.  Qatar and Cathay Pacific both provide their own brand of noise-canceling headphones to use as well.  I found the sets acceptable and comfortable enough not to dig out my own Bose headphones.  I admit to watching a bunch of movies that I’d missed as theatrical releases, such as Mr. Holmes and Bridge of Spies.  I have come to realize that on-demand entertainment airplane systems loaded with great content tied to a large hi-res screen and used with good noise-canceling headphones make the long hours fly by (pun intended).  That and sleep, of course, which the business class lie-flat seats are designed to ensure.

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The A350 has new-fangled window shades with two layers, one transluscent and the other the usual black-out, that operate electrically, like this one on Qatar.

Service on board

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The never-empty Champagne flutes on Cathay Pacific in business class. Thank you, Cathay!

Cathay Pacific and Qatar excel equally in top-notch in-flight service as soon as one steps off the jetway all the way to opening the doors at destination: a bottomless glass of welcome Champagne (real French bubbly, not the cheap swill served by some carriers) followed by endless gifts of pillows, blankets, menus, amenity kits, hot towels, cold towels, chocolate, food, more food, even more food, more drink, pajamas, and on and on—and all offered with a genuine smile and eagerness I have not seen among U.S. cabin crews in a very long time.

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Qatar offers two Champagne choices, even for boarding.

Taken together with the splendid integrated entertainment systems provided by both Qatar and Cathay, the on-board service was, well, as I said, sublime!  Overall, compared against forty-five years of experience on most global airlines’ very long routes in first, business, premium economy, and economy classes, I reconfirmed that I am better rested and much more alert leaving a long-haul business class experience than when flying in the back of the plane on ultra-long-haul flights, regardless of carrier.

Yes, again, please!

Flying business class on either Qatar or Cathay Pacific is an experience several pegs above the rest of the world’s pack of airlines, not just better than the U.S. carriers.  Whenever I can afford it, I’ll be doing it again on very long-haul flights.

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Business class on a Qatar A350 in Doha

 

Tolerable.  That’s the word to describe it.  Sometimes just barely tolerable, sometimes better than tolerable, but never sheer agony.  Emirates Airways’ nonstop flights between the U.S. and its huge Dubai hub are always more than twelve hours and can seem even longer if the boarding pass has the word “Economy” on it, as mine did. Of five recent legs aboard Emirates 777 and A380 planes, one was 15 hours in the air.  That can feel like a lifetime confined to a coach seat.

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Ten seats across (3-4-3) is the Emirates standard coach configuration on 777s and A380s

One version of Emirates A380 aircraft crams in 557 economy seats in a total of 88 rows, with a 3-4-3 (ten-across) configuration, some of which are just 17.5 inches wide.

But at least the fuselage of the A380 is wider than the shell of the ubiquitous Emirates 777 airplanes, also configured with ten seats across in sardine class. Somehow Emirates has squeezed in as many as 385 seats on their 777s, each one a hip-crunching 17 inches wide.

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Ten seats across on Emirates looks and feels crowded, here seen on an A380

That’s pretty darn narrow.  I’m not sure, but I think the legal standard for Kindergarten chair width in some school systems probably exceeds seventeen inches.

That was the worst of it: the tiny seats, both too narrow and too close to one’s neighbors. Had that been the beginning and end of the story, I could hardly describe the experiences of five flights in such circumstances as “tolerable.”

With that said up front, though, Emirates did a good job of mitigating the harsh reality of the dinky seats in many value-adding ways that soothed my ego and tended in the general direction of civilized comfort.  Altogether, Emirates’ balms to battle agony raised the experience to tolerable.

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Connections at Dubai airport between Emirates flights were easy and painless

Backing up a step, I took this dive into the deep end of Emirates’ class offerings because of the enticement of spending just $1100 (taxes included) to fly halfway around the world from Raleigh to Sri Lanka and back, with a free stopover in The Maldives.  I couldn’t resist the bargain and threw caution to the wind.  For such a pittance, I figured I could suck it up and endure the long flights in cattle class.

I was right, too.  The flying experiences didn’t give me nightmares or send me to the E.R.  Emirates’ partner JetBlue took me to Boston from RDU, where the connection to Dubai was a 777-300ER. From there another 777 took me to Male’ (Maldives), and later yet another 777 from Male’ to Colombo (Sri Lanka). Going home, a fourth Emirates 777 jetted from Colombo to Dubai.  The connection there was to an A380 to JFK, from whence JetBlue transported me to Raleigh.

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Emirates flight attendants in coach universally smile , and their attitudes towards us hapless economy passengers were always genuine and positive

So what moved the needle from horrible to tolerable on those five flights?  The many small Emirates spiffs that consistently rained down upon coach passengers on every flight:

  • I’ve already mentioned the seats were slightly—but noticeably—wider on the A380 than on the 777s. Ten seats across are too many, but better when the seat is a little wider
  • Despite the narrow confines of each seat, recline was pretty good for coach, possibly because the seats seemed designed and contoured better for the human body than coach seats of the past
  • In the same vein, seat pitch (distance between rows) was not claustrophobic, leaving room for seats to recline without terribly invading personal space
  • Hot towels were religiously handed out after boarding and just before landing
  • Big screens on 380s and most 777s made watching easier, more inviting
  • The ICE (Info, Communications, Entertainment) systems worked well (except on the Colombo to Dubai 777, which kept crashing)
  • Ditto for handheld ICE controls: Most worked well
  • ICE content was outstanding, with enormous variety of movies, TV programs, games, entertainment, and even live TV
  • Cheap non-noise-cancelling headset were free and worked okay, though definitely the weakest link in the ICE package; I brought my own Bose noise-cancelling, around-the-ear headphones
  • Menus were handed out on all flights in coach
  • A small but adequate amenity kit was provided on all flights in economy (eyeshade, toothbrush and paste, socks, but no earplugs); I cannot imagine getting a coach amenity kit from a U.S. carrier, ever
  • Pillows and blankets were provided for every coach seat
  • A well-designed, adjustable headrest made sleeping easier
  • Decent meals, some really good, others mediocre, though breakfasts were always pretty good
  • Mid-cabin snacks, fruit, water, booze, wine, beer, fruit juices, etc. out through entire flight for anyone to take in coach
  • Alcohol flowed at seats, too. All you had to do was ring the call button, though I did observe some drunks finally get cut off Colombo to Dubai
  • Emirates staffs plenty of FAs on duty at all times in economy, and they were always always friendly, responsive, willing to help with anything; I was happily surprised to see the consistently good attitude of cabin crews
  • Emirates flight attendants are like the United Nations of the skies: so many ethnic and cultural groups represented; on our last flight, the cabin crew came from 18 different countries and spoke 16 different languages
  • Special stuff for kids was handed out, and FAs were very helpful with bassinets for infants
  • Adequate lavs on 777s, though just 5 lavs in forward 3 sections of coach on 380 lower decks, and those were often full, creating lines. 3 on the 380 were on the pedestal deck, of which 2 were unusually roomy, while the 3rd was extremely tight (could not easily get in or out when opening door, as it barely cleared the toilet lid). Remaining 2 on main deck average size; nonetheless, I never had to wait more than 8 minutes for a lav
  • Lav cleaning by the cabin crew was frequent and adequate, especially considering the nonstop use
  • Emirates provided a meal voucher good for about $15 credit in many Dubai airport restaurants to help ease the pain of a long layover coming home
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Emirates meal voucher good for airport restaurants in Dubai given to economy passengers with long layovers

No, the spiffs couldn’t make up for the narrow seats, proving once again that air travel comfort is first and foremost about the seat.

Despite that unwavering reality, Emirates won me over with their multitude of small efforts to take the edge off the seat discomfort, combined with the positive, friendly attitudes of their flight attendants.  I came away knowing I could do it again for 15 hours in coach on Emirates without dread and probably will.

However, if Emirates introduced a premium economy product similar to Cathay Pacific’s, then I’d pay extra for it in a heartbeat.

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Dubai airport gate

In early February, 2016, I joined a week-long safari in Tanzania to see the well-known two million-strong wildebeest and zebra migration in the Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.  It was my first time in East Africa, and though I have a lot of experience in southern African national parks and wilderness areas, I did not know exactly what to expect of Tanzania’s parks.

Things didn’t go exactly as I’d hoped, for several reasons, and, to make matters worse,  I came down with food poisoning or an amoebic parasite infection at the end of the week.  Here is my report on the total experience, one I penned to an old friend who is the owner of the South African-based safari company that made the booking for me with the local Tanzanian company, Ranger Safaris.  Based in Arusha, the center of the Tanzanian tourist safari business, and owned by a parent company in the UK, Ranger is a large operator said to have some 70-odd safari trucks at its disposal and had the reputation of being experienced in operating safaris like mine.

This report is over 6,700 words, ten times the length of a normal blog post.  I am interrupting a series of topics on Southeast Asia, which I will get back to in two weeks.

Here starts the report, which, as I said, was addressed to my friend:

BACKGROUND & BRIEF

As you know, I have 26 years of highly varied and frequent safari experience in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia before this first trip to Tanzania.  I have led small group trips to places like Hwange in Zimbabwe; Chobe and Moremi in Botswana; Etosha, Skeleton Coast, and Kaokoland in Namibia; and countless times in the Kruger. I have also joined camping safaris in those countries like the ones Afro-Ventures offered for many years in Botswana and Zimbabwe.

Except for the last day of this Ranger Safaris trip, which was a textbook screw-up, Ranger did not fail to execute its itinerary, strictly speaking.  My criticisms are not anything Ranger did overtly wrong; Ranger myopically hit all the bases, save utterly botching the final day, which was Thursday, 11 February 2016.

However, Ranger did not focus on the big picture, which is that every traveler on safari in Tanzania has come for one reason: to see the native wildlife, especially the famous migration.  That’s why you did not hear from me until Thursday, Feb 11.  I saw no reason to complain until last Thursday when I was sick and stranded because I could tell that up until then, within legal bounds, Ranger was technically doing what it promised to do, even though it wasn’t providing the experience that any person on safari to the Serengeti expects, which is to maximize game viewing, and especially of the big migration of wildebeests, zebras, and associated predators for which Tanzania is so world-famous.

Driver/guide Sylvester M. did a very fine job overall in every respect on this safari, save the morning of Feb 8.

  • On that day, as we were trying to leave the Serengeti Sopa Lodge to desperately locate the big migrations somewhere (we hoped) in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area where they were believed to be, we encountered a Leopard Tours truck stuck in the mud, and Sylvester stopped to help out his fellow driver/guide.  This cost us over two hours of lost time.
  • We had left the lodge early at 0730 in order to make for the Ngorongoro Conservation Area as fast as possible, a challenge for any driver given the extremely muddy road conditions, and we ourselves came very close several times to becoming mired in the muds.  Sylvester made a poor judgment call in the estimation of his three clients when he stopped, and then stayed for a very long while, to assist the Leopard Tours driver (see photos).
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The stuck Leopard Tours Toyota Land Crusier

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Still could not dislodge the truck even after more than 2 hours of trying

  • There were many other Leopard Tours vehicles and drivers about, and it certainly seemed that that company should have provided the assistance.  We were unable to dislodge the stuck truck in the end, anyway, and that vehicle’s two clients opted not to be rescued, but instead to stay with their driver/guide and truck until help arrived.  Thus the effort to assist, however nobly-motivated, was ultimately futile.
  • That was the only complaint that I personally have against Sylvester.  Despite the several hours of lost time, he did ultimately locate the big herds of wildebeests and zebra in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.  Thus the delay cost us at least two hours of time we would have spent with the migration, and that was our sole glimpse of the big herds over the entire week.
  • Sylvester pleaded on my behalf on Thursday, Feb 11 to his bosses in Arusha when I was sick and about to miss my flight that I would pay for a private air charter to get us out.  His management dragged their heels on my request, which I was forced to make through Sylvester since my own cell phone signal was mostly nonexistent and his phone was mostly functional.  Sylvester’s insistence that I was sick, would miss my flight, and was guaranteeing to pay for the charter saved the day, as eventually his superiors in Arusha agreed, and they contacted you about it.

DAY BY DAY ACCOUNT OF THE PROBLEM WITH THIS SAFARI AND ONES LIKE IT: EMPHASIS ON LODGE LIFE RATHER THAN WILDLIFE

Day 1 – 04 Feb – ARRIVAL – NO GAME VIEWING

Arrived Kilimanjaro airport and was picked up by Ranger Safaris staffer who transported me to the Arusha Coffee Lodge as advertised.  Trip took just under two hours due to heavy road congestion and construction. Overnight Arusha Coffee Lodge, perfectly fine as a jumping-off place for a safari.

Great dinner and breakfast the following morning at Arusha Coffee Lodge.

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Arusha Coffee Lodge was lovely–if you prefer lodge life over wildlife

Wonderful, friendly staff at the Coffee Lodge, too.

Day 2 – 05 Feb – NO GAME VIEWING

Did not leave Arusha Coffee Lodge until after 1330, as scheduled in the itinerary.  Why?  We (party of three on this safari) were all rested and could have left at 0730.  We were all ready and anxious to go.

Thus, half the day was wasted waiting to leave, when we could have been on the go early and been on a game drive in Lake Manyara National Park by midday.  Instead, arrived Lake Manyara Serena Lodge late afternoon with no game drive (as scheduled).

The Serena Lodge was perfectly fine for me, though far more luxurious than I require.  I say again that I went to Tanzania for the wildlife, not the lodge life.

Food was very good; staff was superb; but we were not seeing wildlife.  My trip was focused on seeing wildlife, not enjoying friendly staff and good food.

Day 3 – 06 Feb – HALF DAY GAME VIEWING

Left the Serena Lodge around 0800 after breakfast & had a morning game drive through the heavily-wooded Lake Manyara National Park.  Saw very few animals because the terrain did not favor game viewing.  I kept wondering why the park was even on the itinerary, as it was ill-suited to see game and short of many species anyway.  Roads were very bad, which slowed us down.  Returned to the Serena Lodge late morning for lunch.

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Lake Manyara National Park was heavily-wooded, which made spotting the few animals there difficult

Leaving after lunch, we drove as fast as possible to Ngorongoro Conservation Area to check in at gate, then around the crater rim through the Maasai area, then Ngorongoro Conservation Area, and finally to check in at Serengeti National Park.

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Expect long waits to check in at the busy Tanzanian park entrances, including this one

It is certainly true that en route we came across wildlife occasionally, but we had to make fast time to get to the lodge by dinner and thus had scant opportunities to enjoy what we were seeing. This was not Sylvester’s fault.  We were being driven by the itinerary requirements that we make the Serengeti Sopa Lodge by dinner rather than driven by a more flexible schedule focused on seeing wildlife.  It was a tiresome long drive not punctuated by any real game viewing.

After leaving the main Serengeti road to head for the lodge, the road deteriorated immediately into a muddy swamp, an endless morass of slick muck that at times was barely passable.  Sylvester explained that the rains had come 6-8 weeks earlier than usual and left all the roads in bad shape like this one.  He also explained that the Tanzanian government had done nothing whatsoever to repair the roads to drivable condition.

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Rivers of mud were the rule once off the main Serengeti road

Sylvester was right:  Over the next several days, and indeed until our final day, the roads everywhere were in terrible shape even for a 4WD safari truck.  Thus the drive from the main road to the lodge was very, very long and difficult, and proved to be a precursor of the days of muddy game driving ahead.  He could not explain, however, why neither the lodge, nor Ranger Safaris, nor the government would allow safari vehicles to bring tourists into the area given the atrocious road conditions.

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Though masterful at getting through mud, our driver had to turn around in some places like this one

We also noticed on the way that the grasses were very tall—man-high in many places—and were absolutely devoid of the herds we had expected. On the way to the lodge, we saw a few giraffe, a pair of Dik-diks, a small elephant family herd, and some warthogs.  But no wildebeest, zebra, or other antelope, and no predators.

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“Where the grass eats the sky” – The Serengeti Plains were grown up in tall grass and completely devoid of the big wildebeest herds which avoid such long grass because it obscures approaching predators

Reached Serengeti Sopa Lodge at dusk.  Had dinner. Overnight at Sopa Lodge.

Sopa lodges are not as well-kept as the Serena Lodge; we all found many small but telling defects in the Sopa Lodge maintenance, and no hot water except 3 hours AM & 3 hours PM.  I laughed at the irony of the fact that, though I did not WANT a luxury lodge experience—instead preferring an experience that tracked with the wildlife—I was nonetheless PAYING for a luxury lodge experience, yet one with limited hot water for showers, and in a place with very little wildlife in the heart of the Serengeti.  I kept asking myself, How could this be?

Although I didn’t come to critique the food, I didn’t think the food at any of the Sopa lodges was particularly good, and I am pretty sure I got sick from either food poisoning or a parasite through ingestion of food served at the final Sopa lodge in Tarangire.

That said, the staff at the Serengeti and Tarangire Sopa Lodges was outstanding, while the staff at the Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge was not particularly friendly or helpful.  Once again, however, I recognize the irony of my complaints since I did not spend all this money or travel all that distance to critique the staff at lodges.  I say one more time that the fault in this and similar safari programs is the emphasis on lodge life rather than wildlife.

In that vein, I take this opportunity to note that the rigid nature of such an itinerary has clients hopping from one lodge to the next with no emphasis on going where the animals actually are.  It is true that I signed up for what I got; I do not aver otherwise. But I did so in innocence and ignorance of the fact that by agreeing to such a rigid lodge-based schedule, seeing wildlife perforce becomes an incidental outcome rather than an imperative.  Sure, there are “game drives” scheduled into the itinerary, but because the trip forces clients into one specific lodge after another, the driver/guide is robbed of his discretion to flex the game drive routes to take clients to where the wildlife actually is located at any given time based on weather, seasons, and other environmental factors.  This is the key criticism I have of the nature of this trip and ones like it, regardless of whether conducted by Ranger Safaris or other service providers.  As this was my very first trip to Tanzania, I could not know that when I signed up.  But I know it now.

Day 4 – 07 Feb – FULL DAY GAME DRIVE

All-day game drive in the Serengeti, punctuated by a tasteless picnic box lunch provided by the lodge which we consumed at an airfield at midday.

Saw no wildebeests or zebras at all, let alone any herds, as they were thought to be still in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

Came across some distant lions in a tree, and later another pride on a closer, but not near, rock.

Mostly we encountered just a lot of mud and running rivers of water everywhere on the terrible roads, and very tall grass everywhere, like this, so that game viewing was restricted for what few animals were there:

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Another Serengeti road turned into a veritable swamp

Sylvester had a plan mapped out to take us near the edge of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area where he thought some of the herds might be, but several safari trucks ahead of us turned back due to deep, impassable mud, forcing us to do the same.  We therefore retraced our steps along the roads where the mud was only barely passable rather than not passable at all.

About 25 safari trucks in the area converged in mid-afternoon some distance from a tree where a leopard’s tail could be seen flicking down from a branch while it slept, but neither we nor anyone else actually saw the leopard’s body. One positive aspect of the location was the good condition of the road (not muddy slush), probably because it was just off the main road.

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Some of the 20-odd safari vehicles straining to see a sleeping leopard’s tail flicking in a tree

Second overnight at the Serengeti Sopa Lodge.  By the time we reached the lodge, we three clients were imploring Sylvester to please leave as early as possible the following morning so that we could be done with the mud and tall grass devoid of wildlife, and instead make as fast as possible for the Ngorongoro Conservation Area where the great migration of herds were thought to be.  Thus we agreed to be ready to depart by 0730 the following morning.

Day 5 – 08 Feb – HALF DAY (NET) GAME VIEWING

Did leave as planned right at 0730 and tortuously made our way along the awful muddy road that leads out of the lodge area back to the main road.  Less than one kilometer from the intersection with the main road we encountered the worst mud we had yet seen, and though  Sylvester expertly (somehow) got us through it, the Leopard Tours truck following ours became stuck as described and depicted above.  Sylvester managed to turn around, and we backtracked to help, where, as described, we wasted more than two hours, without success.  Eventually we left them stuck there and continued on, but by then we had lost our time advantage.

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More and more mud in the Serengeti, deep and so slick that not even 4WD Toyota Land Cruisers in low range could always get through

Came across a pride of lions on rocks very near the main road, and a young male lying in the road, which were the best lion sightings we would have on the entire safari.  However, since we had lost over two hours, we could not dally watching those lions and had to hurry onwards as fast as possible, hoping still to find the migrating herds in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

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A few quick shots of these lions were all we had time for since we had already lost more than two hours

After several long and very muddy detours off the main Serengeti Park road in the general south-southwestern direction of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area without seeing anything except a few Grant’s Gazelles and Thompson’s Gazelles, we entreated Sylvester to query other drivers in the area via the radio to see if we could locate the big herds.  Sylvester did indeed talk to a fellow driver/guide, and headed off in the direction within the Ngorongoro Conservation Area where he had been told a big herd was located.  Within 15 minutes we came across a huge herd of wildebeest, zebra, and white storks.  By then it was past midday, and we paused briefly for yet another bad picnic box lunch which Sylvester had collected from the lodge early that morning.

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Finally had an hour or so to view part of the big wildebeest migration, which we found in the safe short grass Ngorongoro Conservation Area rather than in the long grass Serengeti

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Seeing the big herd was breathtaking, but amounted to only one hour out of a week on safari because of the emphasis on lodge life over wildlife on such trips

Seeing the big herd was awe-inspiring, and yet by then we had lost so much of the day with the stuck truck and driving all over looking for the herds that we spent less than an hour driving around and in the herd before having to push on because of the tyranny of the unyielding fixed schedule of this safari.  We had yet to stop at a Maasai village, and then we had to reach the Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge by dinnertime.

Kudos to Sylvester for at last finding the migration, but the three of us could not help thinking that we had just about one hour out of the entire week to see the very thing that had attracted us to Tanzania to begin with and for which we had paid many thousands of dollars.  I left the Ngorongoro Conservation Area with a heavy heart, feeling that I had been very foolish to have spent all that money for such a fleeting experience.

It’s important to understand here that I did not blame your company or Ranger Safaris for this.  I blamed myself for being so stupid, and I vowed to warn others before they did the same.  In good conscience I could never recommend a fixed-schedule, lodge-based Tanzanian safari after what I learned on this one.  I could only recommend that people book a mobile safari within the Ngorongoro Conservation Area  and Serengeti Park, one nimble enough to keep up with the migration, just as I imagined that we would.  Foolish me, I thought, and still do.

Our remaining afternoon was spent regaining the main road across more muddy tracks and then visiting a Maasai village.  That was quite interesting, but it again wasn’t focused on wildlife, and the need to make the stop—whether we wanted to or not—forced us to leave the one place we had been able to see the big herds.

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The chief’s son shows us the Maasai village 

Arrived Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge perched on the crater rim at dusk and found it to be very much like the others: many small defects hiding beneath a glitzy exterior and with mediocre foods ironically served up in a grand dining area that promised much more than it delivered.  I have already mentioned that the staff at this location was cool and not nearly as helpful as at the other lodges.

Despite the long, tiring, and frustrating day, we were all keen to leave early again the following morning to spend time in the Ngorongoro Crater, and we agreed to depart again at 0730.

Day 6 – 09 Feb – FULL DAY OF GAME VIEWING IN THE CRATER, BUT THE LIMITED AREA OF THE CRATER IS NOT WORTH SPENDING A FULL DAY THERE

Left as planned at 0730 and descended into the crater, immediately seeing elephants and black rhinos in the distance.

Actually saw quite a range of birdlife and mammals, though much of it was a long distance from us.

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Birds and wildlife mostly keeps its distance from the few roads in the Ngorongoro Crater

While the crater is a unique place, the vast open expanses there provide a good deal of range for animals to avoid the limited road network, which indeed is what happened.  We saw the same animals again and again because of the limited roads.  By the time we stopped for yet another bad picnic lunch box, we were bored and reflecting that this time could have been spent in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area with the big herds and their predators rather than in this natural, uninspiring zoo.  Those big herds were, of course, too far away by then, and once again we were trapped by the tyranny of the fixed lodge-based schedule that defined our “safari.”  We made the best of it and enjoyed being there, but I could not help once again feeling that we had been short-changed of the grand experience that we all came for.  That feeling has persisted and continues to nag at me.

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The Ngorongoro Crater is beautiful, but most wildlife keeps its distance, and roads are few

Late afternoon we headed back to the Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge for our second night there, and we came across a small family of elephants as we ascended the crater rim.  In many ways stopping there for a few minutes was the most satisfying experience of the day.

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Elephants by the road ascending from the Ngorongoro Crater were our closest sighting

The Sopa Lodge was no better the second night, nor was the food, and we were all anxious to depart the next morning as soon as possible.

Day 7 – 10 Feb – HALF DAY GAME DRIVE (NET)

Said goodbye to the Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge after breakfast and hightailed it to the gate to check out of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and to take the road back towards the main Arusha-Dodoma road for our turn south to Tarangire.  We stopped once en route to buy diesel and reached the Tarangire gate in the early afternoon.

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A helpful warning sign at the entrance to the Tarangire National Park

As we were scheduled (again, the fixed schedule) to have lunch at the Tarangire Sopa Lodge, we didn’t dally in the park, but I did enjoy the ride in despite the already muddy roads.  The Baobab trees there are magnificent, as you know.  Except for elephants and a few giraffe, though, we did not see much game.  We did come across a young male lion sleeping in a tree, but we only stopped briefly, as we were already late for lunch at the lodge.  Again, the tyranny of the fixed lodge schedule put lodge life over wildlife.

The Tarangire Sopa Lodge is in a gorgeous setting and looks magnificent on the outside.  Inside the rooms, we found the same defects (e.g., lights out or malfunctioning, broken wardrobes, unfinished walls hidden by bed stands, etc.) as at the other Sopa lodges.  The rooms were especially dark even by day, grim, and poorly lit after dark.  As at the other Sopa lodges, no hot water except 5-8 pm and 5-8 am, which once again made me laugh, given how expensive this trip had been.  Even though I eschew the lodge life, the Sopa couldn’t even get that right.

I am pretty sure something I ate at the mid-afternoon lunch by the pool is what sickened me overnight (and is with me still).  There were several food items that I consumed which my companions did not partake of.  I drank only bottled water, and I never eat fresh fruits or vegetables in Africa or Asia.  Again the irony: The food wasn’t that good, yet I ate it because I was hungry, and because it was there and had been paid for quite handsomely.  And got sick.  Foolish, foolish me.

The staff at the Tarangire lodge was superb, notwithstanding the other defects.

After lunch we rested for about an hour and then set out on an afternoon game drive.  Since we had seen so little coming in, or on the day before, all three of us were anxious to keep trying.  We had no idea what to expect other than Sylvester’s excellent ongoing commentary, which was pretty realistic:  Don’t expect to see much, he said, because the grass was high here, too, just like the Serengeti, and the prey animals would have migrated out of the tall grass to avoid predators, just as they had in the Serengeti.

Sylvester was dead right.  We drove for miles without seeing more than a few elephants and another pair of Dik-diks.  We tried to ford a streambed that fed the permanent river without success: too muddy and dangerous.

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Pair of Dik-diks in the Tarangire National Park, one of our very few animal sightings there

Sylvester had also taken a very circuitous route to reach the lodge when we first entered Tarangire because, he said, the main river bridge had been damaged by recent floods and was impassable.  Nor had it been repaired, he said.  Our detour route in had therefore been long and muddy.  That should have been my first clue that we were already in trouble and might not be able to get out the next day.  The long gameless game drive that afternoon also demonstrated how poor many segments of the road system were within the Tarangire.  We had trouble traversing some of the muddiest places, as did other safari trucks.

We finally arrived back at the tree we had passed earlier on the way in with the sleeping male lion, and it was just waking up.  We were lucky in being able to see the lion climb down from the tree, after which it disappeared quickly and without a trace into the tall grass.  That was the last sighting we had of game that afternoon, and we shortly returned to the lodge.

Just before dinnertime (around 1900) I began to experience cramping in my gut, followed soon by diarrhea.  The discomfort dissuaded me from eating more than a bowl of yogurt for dinner before retiring.

We had all agreed to leave early again at 0730 to get out and back to Arusha ASAP.  By then I was certainly disappointed in my decision to take the trip and felt it was mainly a waste of money.  This conclusion had nothing to do with feeling sick.

Day 8 – 11 Feb – DEPARTURE – NO GAME VIEWING

I heard it rain quite a bit overnight (thunderstorms) because I was up a lot running to the lav.  Because I was losing a lot of fluids through diarrhea, I made myself drink a total of 3 bottles of water during the night.  I also began taking Pepto-Bismal for my stomach, though it produced no discernible benefit.

I finally got up about 0530 and took a shower, since I knew that I would have hot water starting at 0500.  It was in the shower that I suddenly became nauseous for the first time.  Since there was nothing but water in my system. I was soon heaving and unable to stop.  The uncontrollable vomiting reflex convinced me I might be in serious trouble.  After managing to dress (I had packed the night before in case I became sicker than I had been), I asked a staff member to help me with my luggage and made it to the lodge lobby just as it began to pour rain again.  I informed the desk clerk that I was ill and asked if there was a doctor or nurse on staff.  Apparently she misunderstood, because she said no.

After sitting quietly in the lobby to regain some strength, I shuffled into breakfast at 0630 and tried to eat some yogurt and drink some water.  But within a few minutes of getting anything down, it would come up again when I ran to the men’s room.

At 0730 I loaded my luggage in the Toyota Land Cruiser and crawled into the front seat.  Sylvester by then knew I was sick, and he wanted me to see a doctor, but I told him that no doc was available, and that we needed to get to Arusha quickly so that I could find medical help there.  No sooner had I said that than I was overcome again with nausea and had to open the truck door and run to the fence to vomit.  Sylvester helped me back inside the lodge, and it was there that he spoke in Swahili to the desk staff and discovered that a nurse or doctor (I was never sure which because she didn’t speak much English) was indeed available and could come over from the staff quarters to see me.

The Tanzanian woman who came within 15 minutes was very helpful.  Sylvester translated for her, as her English was poor.  She gave me 3 meds: one to stop the nausea, one to stop the diarrhea, and one for protozoan parasite infections.  She made me take them all, beginning with the anti-vomit med, and I drank a couple of bottles of water, which I was able to keep down on account of the effectiveness of the drugs.  Through Sylvester’s translation she told me that I would feel sleepy and tired from the pharmaceuticals, which she said was normal.  As I had not slept much the previous night, I was looking forward to napping as we drove to Arusha.

The rain was steady and strong, and we set out, leaving finally about 0815 on account of the delay seeing the medical professional.  For the next three hours we went up and down many very muddy roads in the Tarangire, trying to find a bridge or causeway that was passable enough to get out of the park.  We were not successful, as you know, and by late morning I was coming out of my drug-induced comatose state.  I knew we were in trouble.  No truck could get out or in, as the bridges were out from previous damage which had never been repaired, and the very muddy causeway we had managed to get across the day before to come in was now a raging torrent of water.

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Stopping at a high spot in the flooded Tarangire Park to try to get a cell signal

Sylvester and many other driver/guides were stopped nearest the one causeway they thought offered the best chance of eventually being passable, and they all said they would “wait for an hour” to see if the water would go down enough to pass.  I grew up hunting and fishing and camping in eastern North Carolina in low-lying, swampy areas prone to flooding from our annual hurricanes and tropical storms which look just like Africa in many ways, and I could tell in an instant that the water wasn’t going to recede that day.

As I said, I knew we were in trouble, and I stopped taking the meds to regain my wits.  I told Sylvester that we would need a charter plane and asked how close the Tarangire airfield was.  An hour away on those roads, he said.  Call your bosses in Arusha and tell them I’ll pay for it, I told Sylvester emphatically.  Give them my AmEx credit card to guarantee it, and get the plane here.  Then let us leave this area at once to make for the airfield, I insisted.  As we had already confirmed that Qatar Airways had no seats on any flights out of Kilimanjaro Airport for a week, I knew I had to make my flight that afternoon or be stranded in Tanzania while very ill, and that was a non-starter.

My safari companions, the Englishman and his wife, fully supported my decision that the only way we were going to get out was by plane.  They agreed to share the cost, though I was not then interested in doing more than getting the charter set up.  They had prepaid for 4 nights for a beachfront cabana at Anna of Zanzibar Resort, and their flight from Arusha to Zanzibar was scheduled well before mine from Kilimanjaro.  The Englishman was as anxious as I was to get out of the Tarangire by chartered plane.

Well, you know what happened then:  The idiots who run Ranger Safaris balked at ordering the plane even with my financial assurances, and the arguments went on for several hours about it, eventually involving you.  I could never understand why they phoned you except that they were so bloody stupid and incompetent.  They sure couldn’t make a decision, a common sense decision, and it was only because of my insistence that an airplane was finally dispatched.

Once notified, we set off as fast as we could through the muddy river that was once a road for the airfield, arriving just after 1500.  I was very worried that the airplane wasn’t there and quite relieved when I heard its reassuring buzz about 1515.  As you know, we three got out quick after that and landed after 30 minutes at Kili (KRO airport) around 1600 or just past.  I had left the Air Excel pilot my AmEx number, full name, address, phone number, and email address, just as he had asked me to.  He and I believed that would cover my liability of some $1610 for the total charter.

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The Air Excel plane I chartered for $1610 to rescue us from flooded Tarangire Park

With the help of a Kilimanjaro airport ramp staff person, I walked briskly from the runway all the way around the terminal building to the entrance.  I still felt very ill, but I was determined to make the 1740 Qatar flight.  When I saw the long queue snaking out of the terminal door, though, I had a moment of panic thinking I wouldn’t make it after all.  The Qatar A320 and an Ethiopian Air 777 departed at roughly the same time, both full, of course, which briefly overwhelmed the meager staff and security machine resources at the airport.

It was while waiting in line that a big African man approached me and identified himself as an employee of Ranger Safaris.  He said he was there to help, and I remember thinking in my somewhat delirious state at that point what a bad joke his offer to help was.  Ranger had fought me every step of the way—even sick and stranded—when I promised to pay for the air charter, and no one from Ranger had helped me get my luggage all the way around the airport building.  So how, I wondered, did he intend to help me now?

I never found out, as suddenly my erstwhile safari companion, the Englishman, showed up trying to run the gauntlet of the queue.  He was uncharacteristically rattled and determined to get inside the airport to buy tickets for him and his wife to get to Zanzibar that day.  The Ranger Safaris man abandoned me at that point and locked onto the other guy to try to help him fulfill his wish.  They both disappeared into the crowd trying to enter the terminal, and to this day I do not know whether the English couple made it to Zanzibar that night.

I subsequently discovered when I got back to the USA that the Englishman had paid for two-thirds of the charter after I left the plane, because my share of the cost had dropped from $1610 to $538.  For that I am very grateful, for one never knows whether others will shoulder their share of a financial burden.  I hope the two of them made it to Anna of Zanzibar and had a better experience than we did that miserable Thursday last week.

As I told you, I saw the Ranger Safaris man one more time for 5 minutes in the tiny Kili business class lounge  He came in and nodded to me, and shortly afterwards my flight was called for boarding, and I left.  He did not help me get to the plane.

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My Qatar Airways A320 flight KRO/DOH in the runway at Kilimanjaro, with my finger in the frame as I hurried to snap a shot while lumbering sick across the tarmac to board

You can probably imagine the great wave of relief that washed over me when the Qatar A320 was finally airborne (on schedule) and headed to Doha.  I began to think then that indeed I would get home on time.  Except for a three hour delay in Philadelphia on account of a canceled American Airlines flight PHL/RDU, I did, too.

Went directly to my physician upon landing at RDU; he was waiting for me.  We still don’t know what was (is?) ailing me, but my doc approved of the African treatment regimen and only put me on a 7-day Cipro prescription after the other meds were used up.  I am slowly feeling better, but am not yet over this sickness even a week later.

SUMMARY

I think you get the picture and understand my meaning now about what went right and what didn’t on this safari.  Safari companies can’t be held responsible for animals not being where you’d like them to be, but on the other hand, that’s why people spend thousands on safaris.  Locking clients into a lodge-based, irrevocable schedule is very risky business.  Even the English couple, who enjoyed the lodges more than I did, did not prefer lodge life to wildlife.  They, like me, felt cheated that the inflexible schedule of lodges prevented us from being where most of the animals were—and certainly not where the world-famous migratory herds of 2 million wildebeest and zebras were.

From a legal point of view, we got what we paid for and signed contracts for.  But the experience we thought we bought was missing.  It doesn’t speak well of the safari industry in Tanzania to hew to such rigid schedules not focused on the reality of animal movements.  Ranger Safaris doesn’t seem to care about that very important point so long as they robotically deliver clients along the fixed path of their agreed-upon schedule.  No nuances for them, certainly no thought involved.

However, last Thursday was a different kettle of fish.  Ranger should have quickly discerned the irresolvable problem on their hands and weighed the costs of stranding three clients in the Tarangire, possibly for several days, versus the cost of an air charter to evacuate us to our appointed flights and onward reservations.  Did they calculate the daily cost per person of just being in the park (4 X US$50/day) they would have to pay in addition to the lodge accommodation and food cost (several hundred dollars daily)?  No, they did not make those analyses, nor even, apparently, consider the possibility.  They just carried on with the unrealistic assumption that the river would ebb sufficiently for trucks to pass. Of course it did not ebb at all that day.

This is especially surprising since they live there and are supposed to be experienced in such circumstances.  I had never before been there and knew at once based on my experience in similar circumstances in the world’s outdoors that the only way we’d get out that day was by plane.  Ranger’s muddled-headed resistance to my guarantee of payment for such a charter makes it clear they haven’t a clue how to make common sense decisions based on changing real-world circumstances.

If I was in your position, I’d be looking for another partner in Tanzania.  I will certainly take every opportunity to tell the facts about Ranger Safaris.  It was a terrible experience, one that Ranger owners should be ashamed of.  Instead, on top of their failure to protect their clients, they tried to bill me for the credit card fees on top of the air charter cost.  I am happy to have their email as a documented record of that greed, as I will use it in my travel blog:

  • “Please assist me to complete the attached Credit Card Transaction Form [for the charter flight] so that we can process the payment due during office hours today.  As soon as the transaction has gone through successfully I will email you confirming receipt of payment.  …  For clarity please note that payment via American Express cards would incur a card processing fee of US $ 32.28.”  [direct quote from email from Ranger Safaris to me the very next morning after they stranded me and forced me to pay for my own rescue]

 

Thank you again for your intercession last week when they phoned you.  I appreciate that you made the right call, even knowing I might stiff you.  I won’t forget that.  It was the right thing to do for any client in such circumstances.

All that said, the emphasis on lodge life over wildlife meant that we spent a total of 3.5 days on game drives out of 8 days in country as recorded above and only one hour in the midst of the great migration of wildebeests and zebras that we came to see.  That is not acceptable by anyone’s standards at any price.

 

I’ve always loved Hong Kong, a wild mixture of ultra-modernity and ancient Chinese mysteries and intrigue in a fairy tale setting of unsurpassed natural beauty. Despite being very densely populated (throngs of people are everywhere, impossible to avoid), it is a highly desirable place to live and work.

In Hong Kong recently with my family, my first visit there in 18 years, I noted with satisfaction some of the changes. From the 1980s through the 1990s I traveled on business to Hong Kong and never tired of its unceasing march to modernity, so I can’t say that I was surprised to see the city continue to vigorously renew itself.

For instance, the “new” Hong Kong International Airport (new to me, at least) opened in 1998 not long after my last flight out of the venerable Kai Tak Airport in Kowloon, now transformed into a cruise ship terminal.  Though a long way away from Central and Kowloon, the new Chek Lap Kok Airport is sleek, typically Hong Kong modern, easy to use, and has good rail and road services to connect to town.

After our arrival via Cathay Pacific’s morning nonstop from JFK, we opted to take the train into town.  The MTR (http://www.mtr.com.hk/en/customer/tickets/tf_index.html) is not cheap at HK$90 and HK$100 one way to Kowloon and Central respectively (just under US$12-13), especially times four tickets, but we wanted the experience and desired, too, to become familiar with the stops in Kowloon for future reference.  We found the Airport Express to be easy to find, pay for, and use, and it was fast to boot: about 20 minutes to Kowloon.  The MTR website says that the Airport Express runs every 10 minutes from 05:50 to 01:15 daily, so there is little waiting.  The rate of six express trains per hour is better than most cities’ frequent bus service.

Once at Kowloon station, we found the right free shuttle bus to board that would drop us at our hotel.  MTR provides courtesy circulator services on several routes within Kowloon to make it easy to get to and from the metro stations, a “last mile” service that is brilliant and works well, although by chance our hotel was the last stop on our particular route.  The ride on city streets anywhere in Kowloon or Central, whether in a taxi, bus, or fancy Daimler limo, is excruciatingly slow because of traffic congestion.  The shuttle bus ride took 25 minutes to reach our hotel from the Kowloon MTR stop—a relatively short distance—though the long train ride into town from the airport was just 20 minutes.  This comparison illustrates why most savvy business people book hotels within easy walking distance of an MTR stop when in Hong Kong.

Over the next few days the four of us traipsed over a good bit of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, including Central, and all the way to lovely and still-quaint Stanley Market on the south side of the island.  We spent a great deal of our time in motor vehicles, public and private, just trying to get to and from our hotel. Traffic was outrageous. Even on Sunday it took almost 40 minutes to get from our hotel in Mongkok (Kowloon) to the bus terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui, not a long distance. Sitting in unmoving taxis or buses drove home the fact that location is everything in Hong Kong.  I am not sure why anyone bothers to own a fancy fast car except as a status symbol because every vehicle moves at the same crawl.

However, driving can have its little moments of wonder.  Our Hong Kong taxi driver the first morning had a carnivorous pitcher plant thriving on his dashboard, no doubt devouring flies.  Since these rare plants are being smuggled from the bogs and pocosins of my native eastern North Carolina, I couldn’t help wondering if I’d stumbled upon the market for the illegal trade.

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Hong Kong Central features cute and colorful bi-level trams, a tourist novelty more than a serious mobility option. We didn’t ride one anywhere.

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We found walking to be the least stressful and most enjoyable way to get around, and we consequently walked a great deal within Central and Kowloon to reach destinations such as the bird, fish, and flower markets.

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Besides, a pedestrian in Kong Kong is liable to stroll upon a unique street-level scene which would be missed by passing motorists:

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On foot I never tire of studying the ingenious bamboo scaffolding used all over Southeast Asia and omnipresent at Hong Kong construction sites, even around traffic signals, as here:

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Central is literally made for walking, with inter-connected pedestrian bridges suspended over traffic almost everywhere. We also visited the Night Market in Kowloon by foot, the optimal means of mobility to experience it.

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The Star Ferry remains a cheap and charming way to cross Victoria Harbour between Kowloon and Central.  We mastered the ticket machines and boarding procedures, never tiring of the trip on the water, one of the few unchanged experiences in Hong Kong.

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This night photo from the ferry shows Hong Kong lit up like, well, a Christmas tree on the ride over to Central from Tsim Sha Sui (Kowloon):

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And the morning view is just as breathtaking.  At the Central ferry landing we walked up the ramp to the sounds of Chinese choirs singing Christmas songs like “Joy to the World”.

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By getting to the Victoria Peak Tram station at seven one early morning, we were able to avoid the long queues that build up later in the day, and we also had an invigorating 5 kms walk around the hill at the top with spectacular views of the city.

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Going down, however, we chose one of the many city’s double-decker buses, and it was quite cheap to get back to Central.  We found similar bus service available to just about everywhere from Central.  As in London, the expansive views from the front of the top deck provide great orientation to city streets and byways, true whether one’s visit is for business or leisure.

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Considering the population density and teeming multitudes of people that define the city, I was surprised one evening to peer down an alley and capture the image below.

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I noted several interesting takeaways from this creepy photo taken on Tai Kok Tsui Road, one of the main drags of the Mongkok district of Kowloon (Hong Kong):

  1. All around me (just behind where I stood to take this picture) was a veritable sea of humanity so crowded on this busy thoroughfare that my wife and I could hardly move, even on this Sunday night, but you’d never know it from this perspective.
  1. Despite the fact that Hong Kong has one of the highest population densities on earth, there is not a soul to be seen in this gritty scene (though the lit windows in the flats in the distance speak of human activity).
  1. Since it was taken in mid-December, I liked the suggestion of Christmas in the red bucket and the green dumpster, however bleak, in an otherwise mostly monochromatic tableau.
  1. This is, to me, a balancing contrast to the flash and glitz of Hong Kong, replete as the city is with Rolls Royces, Bentleys, Ferraris, and Aston Martins. I’d guess no Patek Philippe wristwatches have ever been seen in this dismal alley.
  1. The reality of pipes, wires, machinery, and odd wrought metal, not to mention the pervasive grime and dirt, all stuff that speaks to keeping the world operating, is captured in this scene.
  1. The Chinese characters on the near dumpster place us unmistakably in Asia.
  1. If I’d arranged the items myself, I couldn’t have done it better for effect: the detritus of city life strewn out along the alley for our consideration.
  1. The delicious irony of the prosperous denizens of the expensive, fancy flats in the background peering out onto this harsh urban streetscape makes me smile.

Returning to the airport a few days later—reluctantly, as I wasn’t ready to leave Hong Kong—we opted for a taxi, as it was morning and a reverse commute.  I thought we’d beat the worst of the traffic, and we did.  The trip from hotel to departure terminal took 45 minutes and cost HK$280 with tip (about US$36.75), about the same time as the inbound trip by MTR train and shuttle bus, and for less money since we were four. Of course if I’d been alone and traveling on business, the MTR would have been more economical.

My overall impressions of the city after so many years of absence?  Hong Kong has lost some of its Old China sense of intrigue, but its unceasing urban energy, economic vitality, youthful outlook, and modern architecture continue to make it irresistible. Traffic, always bad, is maddening now.  Better to avoid all means of rubber-tired conveyance, sticking to the MTR and one’s own two feet wherever possible. Choosing a hotel close to an MTR station or within easy walking distance of one’s work place therefore becomes critically important.

I traveled over the latter half of December, 2015 with my family to Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand.  Starting in the 1980s I worked off and on in Hong Kong and Singapore, and I used to visit Malaysia and Thailand with my wife.  We grew to love those places.  Though we regularly travel the world with our kids, somehow we had not been back to those four SE Asian nations in 18 years.

Over the next few posts I’ll provide observations of our impressions of those cities and countries that we knew so well from the perspective of an 18-year absence. This first narrative, a long one, starts in the middle, documenting my family’s journey from Singapore across Malaysia to Koh Lipe, Thailand.  I composed this in real time while it was happening or just after so that I would not forget the details.  This story captures the allure of travel to me: the exotic, the unexpected surprises (good and not-so-good), elements of uncertainty, all-in-all a challenge to one’s ability to adapt to changing situations.

For those who care, the mobility sequence is walk, taxi, walk, bus, walk, train, walk, car/pedestrian ferry, walk, taxi, walk, sleep, walk, taxi, walk, speed boat ferry, walk, speed boat ferry, walk, long-tailed boat taxi, wade, walk, motorbike taxi, walk.

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View of the Singapore subway extension from our Bayview Hotel window. Luckily they stopped work by 6pm daily.

We left the Bayview Hotel, Singapore on Dec 23 at 500am by taxi, exactly as planned, to give us lots of buffer to get across the busy causeway from Singapore to Johor Bahru, Malaysia to catch our 830am train from J.B. to Butterworth in far NW Malaysia.

The taxi arrived Woodlands (where the causeway is located to Johor Bahru) at 530am. Driver charged SGD32 (about $22); I paid him SGD50 in gratitude for being reliable and coming so early (I’d coordinated the early pickup with him the previous day). It was a huge gratuity, but what goes around comes around. I put my remaining Singapore dollars in my wallet to be changed later (about US$100 equivalent) to Malaysian Ringgits.

We had hoped to take the 730am shuttle train across the causeway to Johor Bahru Central Train Station (which in Malay is called JB Sentral), but the rail ticket office didn’t open until 800am, making it impossible to take the train (??), forcing us to the only remaining option across the causeway from Singapore to Johor Bahru: bus.

Confusion reigned with poor signs as we tried to figure out where and how to find the causeway bus because hordes of Malaysians were streaming into Singapore for work.  As I said, it wasn’t signed well and seemed wrong, so we backtracked, and I asked some Singaporean immigration officials. They smiled and agreed it looked wrong, but said to go against the tide of foot traffic anyway.

So we did and followed a baffling labyrinth of dimly lit stairways and overhead corridors that appeared endless. A tropical downpour suddenly dropped buckets on us and everyone going the other way, leaking through the flimsy overhead palm leaf canopy covering the long skyway or blowing in on us laterally, adding to the confusion.

Of course at that hour it was also dark. The heat and humidity were suffocating, and I was laden with 2 heavy shoulder bags because I’d decided against a wimpy roller bag. Overweight and 67 with a bad Achilles heel, I realized how foolish that decision had been. Though I was sweating like a galley slave, I had no strength problem carrying the load. Thank God for thrice weekly sessions with my trainer.

A Dr. Seuss narrative of nutty pathways pales by comparison to the dim and grim florescent corridors, hallways, stairs, and pedestrian bridges we traipsed. At some point we cleared Singapore immigration, but we never saw Malaysian immigration.

Following the pedestrian pathways down to the ground again, we crossed several roadways and medians and came to a line of buses. I boarded the nearest one. It was full, but where was it going? The driver looked at me like I was an idiot when I asked him if it was the bus to Johor Bahru. He just glared and demanded SGD1 each. Sweat was pouring off me, and I had bags and family in tow; no wonder the driver took me for an imbecile, or possibly just a madman. I paid up and found seats in the back of the bus, hoping for the best.

We were not sure where the bus was going, and it was still raining cats and dogs. The driver ground the gears and lurched forward, soon joining a busy line of traffic, but to where? We had no idea where we were driving to and couldn’t see much through the misty windows except blackness and wetness. It seemed like the bus was crossing the causeway, but in the dark and heavy rain and against a sea of headlights coming at us, I couldn’t tell a damn thing about where we were headed.

The bus suddenly halted, and the door opened. We had utterly lost our bearings, but we followed the crowd ahead of us who had left the bus through more ups and downs and corridors and bridges until finally reaching what appeared to the Malaysian immigration screen.

Or I hoped so, anyway. The sterile hall had all the charm of a North Korean prison, a somber mood amplified by the darkness, 100% humidity, and rain. After getting our passports stamped, we followed our noses through more twists and turns and long walkways reminiscent of a bad dream after eating too much fiery curry.

We never had the slightest idea where we were going, and no signs helped because there were none. We finally saw one that read JB SENTRAL, our destination, which gave us hope. After crossing an elevated roadway, we entered a strange, high-ceiling building filled with vendors selling food. Walking around disoriented, I turned to Ruth and said I thought this might be JB Sentral train station simply because of the absurdity that it might actually be that.

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Johor Bahru (Malaysia) Central Train Station, which we reached…somehow.

Pretty soon I saw a sign for rail tickets, and we realized we had indeed somehow reached our goal. It WAS the train station, and I asked at the ticket counter where our train #2 to Butterworth would board. A nice ticket lady garbed in an Islamic Hajib pointed me to Gate B across a wide concourse.

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JB Sentral ticket counter.  Last time I was at the Johor Bahru train station (18 years ago) it didn’t look anywhere near this modern.

I squinted up at two huge flatscreen train information signs, one for arrivals and one for departures. Each displayed nothing more than the time, which was at least accurate.  Had I not inquired, I would have had no idea where the train boarded.

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The large information screens at JB Sentral (Johor Bahru train station) with, well, no information.

It was by then almost 730am, and our train departed at 830, so I set off to find a money changer and buy breakfast.

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Advertisement for our Malaysian Railways train 2 from Johor Bahru to Butterworth.

There were no open foreign exchange offices in the station for me to acquire more Malaysian Ringgits; good thing I had ordered $100 in each of four currencies before we left as a hedge against just this sort of problem (Hong Kong dollars, Singapore dollars, Malaysian Ringgits, and Thai Baht). My modest supply of Ringgits allowed us to purchase breakfast.

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Malaysian Railways ad with map of the country and the rail line Johor Bahru to Kuala Lumpur to Hat Yai, Thailand.

Food was plentiful, if unfamiliar (small homemade halal donuts, for example, with the consistency of rubber and no flavor whatsoever). We eventually bought what would have to pass for breakfast at the station’s KFC, which was doing a land rush business selling desserts imported from Italy at eight in the morning.  I decided to go with the surreal nature of it all, and we sat to munch and wait for our train.

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Italian halal-certified desserts for sale at KFC in the Johor Bahru (Malaysia) train station.

At last we boarded just before 830: Car S4, Seats 11ABCD.

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Malaysian Railways train 2 waits for us to board at Johor Bahru station.

Unfortunately, this was a row with NO WINDOWS, so we moved back to row 10 and begged for people to trade with us. They did because most passengers wanted to sleep and avoid the sun coming in the windows. The conductor was polite but unwilling to assist in relocating us.

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Our seats on the Malaysia Railways train with no windows (we traded for the row behind).

Most of the train was freezing cold, our car less so because the A/C was wonky.  While other cars were frigid, ours was merely very cool.  Every car had two unisex lavs, one with a traditional Asian squat toilet and the other with a Western sit-down toilet.  I was surprised to get a choice.

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Instructions on how to use Western sitting toilets.

The dining car lady had caked-on eye shadow, an Adam’s apple, and a very deep voice. She didn’t strike me as the usual modest Muslim woman. She didn’t wear a scarf, either, unlike all of the Malaysian women aboard. She kept undesirable music playing at a loud volume all day.

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The strange and uncomfortable fold-up seats in the stark dining car aboard Malaysia Railways train 2 Johor Bahru to Butterworth.

People kept closing blinds on their windows which made viewing impossible except at our row.  At one one I walked to the rear of the train for a better view of the passing scenery.  I was happy to see the excellent condition of the one-meter gauge rail corridor with its concrete ties and well-maintained roadbed.

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Malaysia Railways keeps the rail corridor in good condition, which makes for a smooth, comfortable, and safe ride.

The dining car had good visibility but uncomfortable seats that folded up plus that loud and troubling music already mentioned. It was a long 13-hour adventure riding to Butterworth, during which time we bought the dining car lady out of ice and instant noodles.

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The delicious instant noodles for sale in the dining car of Malaysia Railways train 2 Johor Bahru to Butterworth.

We had hoped that traversing Kuala Lumpur by train would provide us with interesting views of the capital and largest Malaysian city, but most of the rail journey through K.L. was underground or in trenches. We caught a fleeting glimpse of the famous Petronas twin towers, but little else.

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Kuala Lumpur Central train station: busy, modern, impressive.

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Kuala Lumpur Central train station.

Mostly from South to North across the entire Malay Peninsula we saw a lot of jungle punctuated by endless palm oil plantations. Malaysia produces a good deal of rubber, papaya, and other agricultural products, but palm oil is king.

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Malaysia palm oil plantations, as far as the eye can see, line much of the rail corridor.

We arrived at Butterworth’s new train station an hour late in the dark just past 10pm. Exhausted, we endured another long walk up many steps and across more circuitous pedestrian bridges to reach the ferry to George Town on Penang Island. The ferry required archaic silver Malaysia coins no longer in regular circulation, which were dispensed at a special machine. We’d hoarded old Malaysian coins all day on the train in anticipation of this ridiculous ferry fare. It was just a pittance of a fare, too. The ferry folks had an employee monitoring the coin slot turnstiles instead of just taking money and letting people through. Would-be passengers with the wrong or incorrect change were admonished to return to the special machine to acquire the correct change in the outmoded coins. It was an incredibly stupid procedure.

After enduring the late train, long walk, and tortured fare process, we missed the ferry and had to wait. Ferries to George Town only run every 40 minutes after 10pm.

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Aboard the dismal 11:15 pm ferry from Butterworth to George Town on Penang Island.

We finally reached George Town, Penang island well past 11pm. I approached the “Teksi” stand and found an Indian version of Sydney Greenstreet from Casablanca who charged us 12 Ringgits (about $3) to drive us at 10mph to the Muntri Mews hotel. As we glided at a snail’s pace along the old streets of George Town, our driver regaled us with stories of Penang island and assured us that, though the British claimed to have founded the place, Malay fishermen and their families had resided on Penang for centuries before the Brits arrived. His own family had moved there from India 6 generations ago.

George Town is in Malaysia, of course, but Muntri Street definitely had an exotic Arab or Indian feel to it. Reading up on it we found that the street had indeed been the center of upper caste Indian life in earlier times. The Muntri Mews Hotel is a gorgeously restored property true to that era and bills itself as a “flashpacker boutique” that blends luxury of today with the grandeur of yesterday. Ruth and I fell in love with it immediately. I am certain it will be the premier property of this trip.

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Muntri Mews Hotel, George Town, Penang Island, Malaysia in daylight (it looked much different at midnight the previous evening).

We put the kids to bed at once and went out to explore George Town since we had only a few hours in the town. We soon came upon a weird open-air Chinese nightclub just before midnight and enjoyed two large Tiger Beers in another surreal experience until closing time at 1230am. Two alternating Chinese chanteuses belted out Chinese rock songs while garbed in Christmas getup amidst gaudy Christmas lights. You just can’t make this stuff up! We left laughing at the absurdity of it all.

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Our beautiful room at the Muntri Mews Hotel, George Town, Penang Island, Malaysia.

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The modernized bath room with luxury features galore at the Muntri Mews Hotel.

Next morning Ruth went out early just before 7am and tracked down ferry tickets to Langkawi for cash (paid in dollars, about $66, because we never found a money changer to get Malaysian Ringgits). Turns out we were very lucky to have gotten any tickets on the 830am ferry on Christmas eve, as it was almost sold out.

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Breakfast is included and unexpectedly delicious at the Muntri Mews Hotel, George Town, Penang Island, Malaysia.

We showered, repacked, woke the kids, and had a quick breakfast at the Muntri Mews Hotel (delicious), and then another Indian taxi to the ferry dock. there we followed yet another labyrinth of walkways to board a claustrophobic ferry which was freezing cold for the entire 3 hour trip. It did not appear to have sufficient life jackets for the couple of hundred passengers even though heading out into the open ocean. I identified the nearest exits in case of sinking and instructed the kids where to grab life jackets, just in case.

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Our speed boat ferry from George Town (Penang Island) to Langkawi with not enough life jackets but super-charged air-conditioning.

The ferry left George Town very late and didn’t arrive Langkawi until nearly noon. Despite the ninety-plus outside temps, we were bundled up like Eskimos on the ferry and shivering.

By positioning myself close to the main ferry hatch before we docked, I managed to snag my bags in the arrival chaos and get off first. By the time Ruth and the kids joined me, I had located a man who claimed to be selling ferry tickets to Koh Lipe island (R118, about $27 each). First, though, I had to stop at a money exchange business to convert my remaining Singapore dollars to Malaysian Ringgits to pay for the next ferry.

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The Langkawi (Malaysia) ferry terminal is as busy as any good-sized airport because boats are the primary means of transport to and from the island.

It was reportedly a Muslim holiday (now Christmas eve), and we had been warned that no money changers would be open, but the Langkawi ferry dock was a madhouse of people going places, so every business was open, Islamic holiday or not.  The man who claimed to have ferry tickets then took us to a strange outdoor travel office across from the main ferry dock entrance where an old Muslim lady sold us the ferry tickets. That used up most of my Ringgits. She told us to be back there at 100pm sharp to be escorted to the dock for the 230pm ferry. It was 1230pm already, so we rushed to find something to eat.

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The very busy food court with many Asian cuisines (and some Western) for sale, none good, but all adequate, and with extremely friendly staffs.

We spent our remaining Ringgits on lunch at the ferry dock food court (all local cuisines and absolute bedlam) and afterwards to buy six batik scarfs at bargain prices. We rushed back to the ferry ticket lady at 110pm, who turned us over to an old Indian man with a sour disposition. Grunting and complaining, he walked us back across the busy ferry terminal arrival street to the back of the very same food court we’d so hurriedly left 15 minutes before!. There we handed over our passports to some ferry people to copy details and just waited. At just past 2pm, one of the ferry staff people told the (by then) huge crowd of us to follow him to Malaysian immigration and the ferry.

More madness and long queues ensued at a woefully under-staffed, two-person Malaysian immigration desk to have our passports properly stamped for leaving Malaysia and then to follow a queue to the dock. Once there, however, no boat! The ferry arrived at 235 (due in at 130p) and unloaded its passengers. We then boarded and had to give up our passports again into a canvas bag to be given back on Koh Lipe. I strenuously objected and was scolded. I reluctantly threw in our four. I still didn’t like surrendering our passports, something we NEVER do.

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Speed boat ferry from Langkawi Island (Malaysia) to Koh Lipe Island (Thailand) was similar to the speed boat from George Town to Langkawi, but not as cold, and again spare of life jackets.

The ferry from Langkawi to Koh Lipe left late sometime after 300pm (another claustrophobic boat, this one with almost no life jackets at all and a rudimentary dip-and-pour toilet). We arrived Koh Lipe to an offshore dock around 4pm Thai time (an hour earlier than Malaysia) after a 2 hour ride.

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Long-tailed taxi boats to transport speed boat passengers to Koh Lipe from the offshore floating dock to shore where one must leap over the side onto a rocky bottom and wade to the beach.

Following long delays and lots more confusion on the crowded floating offshore dock, we transferred to Thai long-tailed boats to get to shore, but the 10 meter boats were too big to make it all the way to the beach. We therefore had to jump over the side onto the uneven rocky bottom and painfully (for me) walk to shore. I was indignant, but sucked it up. We grabbed our luggage which had been haphazardly tossed onto the hot sand and next waited in another chaotic queue to retrieve our passports from the ferry staff.

We were then instructed to fill out Thai arrival forms and wait in yet another long queue for Thai immigration processing at a makeshift beachfront facility. This took 90 minutes, characterized by more mass confusion and world class inefficiency. As I fumed and cursed under my breath in the blazing tropical sun, I could hear and see revelers at a bar next door enjoying cold beer and air conditioning.

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The beachfront Thai immigration facility on Koh Lipe Island where everyone endures an agonizingly long and very hot wait to legally enter Thailand.

Why the ferry people held our passports between Langkawi and Koh Lipe is a mystery. Anyone wishing to skulk off after getting his or her passport back without waiting for Thai immigration could easily have done so. I thought about doing it myself.

While waiting, I bought ferry and van tickets back to the mainland and to Hat Yai (Thailand) train station for our overnight train trip to Bangkok Dec 27 (this was a Dec 24). They took US dollars in payment at a decent $/Baht rate.

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Typical 3-wheel motorbike taxi on Koh Lipe.

Finally we cleared immigration and took motorbike taxis to the Zanom Sunrise Resort, arriving before 6pm on Christmas eve, our two day odyssey finally over. We’ve been relaxing ever since.

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View from the beachfront bar at the Zanom Sunrise “resort” on Koh Lipe island, Thailand, “resort” being a relative term, about which more later.

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