Category Archives: Travel Tips

First day in Bangkok

Riding in a tuktuk in Bangkok’s traffic-clogged roads
On our first day in Bangkok, we set off right after breakfast and took a taxi straight to the Grand Palace.  After a half hour ride, we were dropped off in front of the main entrance and were about to queue up for tickets when we were told that the palace was closed for a Buddhist ceremony and would only reopen at 1:30 p.m.  As it was only 11:30, we were at a loss as to what to do when an enterprising (or so we thought) tuktuk driver offered to take us to another minor temple that was open then bring us back to the grand palace right on time for when they open to the public.  It seemed like a good idea and offered a chance to ride a tuktuk, a motorized rickshaw that is typical transportation in Bangkok.  We agreed on a price of 20 Thai Baht (less than US$1) for the ride.  We set off and weaved in and out of traffic and were deposited in front of a nondescript entrance and told to have a look while he waited for us in the parking lot.
We walked through a small courtyard and saw several white structures topped with pointy roofs.  The entrance to the first one was up a small flight of stairs, at the top of which several shoe sand sandals were placed.  We sat down and removed our shoes (When visiting a temple in Thailand, one has to be dressed appropriately, meaning no shorts or short skirts, no sleeveless or see-through tops and no shoes in order to enter all temples or sacred places.  Travel tip#1 is to wear shoes easy to slip on and off.  I made the mistake of wearing gladiator sandals which had several straps and spent lots of time buckling  and unbuckling those stylish straps). This temple had a small front hall where a seated Buddha was then behind, a larger hall with a standing Buddha and several intricately carved gold wooden shutters.  There were several people praying and an orange-garbed Buddhist monk placing flower offerings and paper requests at the foot of the Buddha.
The next-door temple had a larger indoor courtyard where several monks were seated to one side washing metal bowls and had many seated Buddhas lining the three sides of the courtyard.  Through the main entrance was a larger temple whose walls and ceiling were completely painted with murals in red and gold with a seated golden Buddha at the center.  Again, there were several people seated on the ground at prayer so we walked quietly through and just had a look at the detailed murals.
After seeing this temple, the tuktuk driver asked if we would like to see a few shops for jewelry, silks and Thai handicrafts as the Grand Palace was still closed to the public.  Since it was only noon and getting quite hot and humid, we agreed to visit a few shops to kill time before heading back.  This shopping foray took forever as he proceeded to take us to several shops (at least seven), some filled with tourists and some completely empty but all selling the same stuff – jewelry, suits made-to-order, silk material.  As we had no intention to buy anything so at the first few places, we would walk around for a few minutes and leave.  When we asked him to take us back to the Grand Palace, he started to explain that he needed to bring us to all these places so he could get a stamp on this card and get a free full tank of petrol for his tuktuk.  At this point, we were hot, sweaty and grimy from having ridden in this rickshaw through Bangkok traffic for over an hour and insisted that he return to the Grand Palace, which he grudgingly did.  We got there, paid him and jumped out.  That was the first and last time we rode a tuktuk in Bangkok. (Travel tip#2: Get ready for the unexpected.  In this case, we got a fun ride on a tuktuk which was longer than we expected.)

We arrived at the Grand Palace almost at 2:00 p..m. and just didn’t have the energy to go through the whole palace grounds so we went straight to the royal monastery of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew), one of the most holy places in Thailand.  The entry was packed and to get into the main hall there was a constantly moving throng of tourists jostling for a look of the emerald Buddha which is amazingly carved from a single piece of green jade discovered in 1434.  It was initially covered in plaster until an abbot noticed the bit of green, which he though was emerald (hence the name), peeping out from underneath some chipped plaster.  It was worth it to have a peek and since photos aren’t allowed inside, I took one from outside the main window.  After that, we walked through the palace grounds a bit but decided that we would have to come back another time to meander through the 218,000 square meter walled area that makes up the grounds and buildings of the Grand Palace. From there, we took a taxi back to the central business district on Sukhumvit road where our hotel was located for a late lunch at a local cafe nearby.
The Grand Palace
Overlooking the Chao Phraya river

Telephone: +66 2 623 5500 Ext. 1124, 3100
Open daily from 8.30 a.m. to 16.30 p.m.
Tickets sold until 15.30 p.m.

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Filed under Bangkok, Sightseeing, Travel Tips

Unpleasant Surprises

All set for our trip to Las Vegas via London.  We left early Tuesday for London where we were going to spend one night before connecting onto our Wednesday morning flight to Las Vegas.  After landing in Gatwick’s north terminal, we headed over to the south terminal to the Virgin Atlantic counters for twilight check-in which allows us to check our baggage in 24 hours before our flight.

First surprise was that the monorail/train connecting both terminals was closed for repairs and will re-open only in August 2010.  With two children (seven and one) in tow, along with ten assorted pieces of luggage and hand-carry bags, we dragged ourselves on to the bus.  We head straight for the Virgin check-in counters and wait while Security asks us the standard questions about packing our bags ourselves while he scrutinizes our passports.  He starts asking us questions about our passports and whether they were electronic or not.  He seemed skeptical but allowed us to check-in anyway.  Right before we get our boarding passes, the same security person comes over and asks for our passports one more time.  This time he seemed more sure of himself.  After several more minutes of hemming and hawing, we were told to step aside to be told that three (mine and the kids) out of our five passports were not valid for travel to the united States as they weren’t biometric.  That was the second surprise of the day.  What’s a biometric passport? A passport issued post-2006 that includes an electronic chip embedded on the cover which has a persons’ personal information – fingerprints, photo etc.  On the other hand, my husband’s pre-2006 issued non-biometric passport was valid for travel and so was our nanny’s passport which had a valid U.S. visa.  When we insisted that we had used the same exact passports to travel to the U.S. in February of this year, we were told that we had somehow gotten through that one time and that we weren’t going to be allowed in this time around.  We were given two options so we could travel to the U.S. – get a U.S. visa (impossible as anyone who has ever been issued a US visa can tell you as it takes at least a week after calling a toll-free number for an appointment) or get a new biometric Swiss passport which takes 60 days and a personal appearance.

At this point, we had been up since 8 a.m. and had not had anything to eat since then and it was already 5 p.m.  So, once again, we dragged ourselves and the ten assorted pieces of luggage to the airport hotel where we checked-in and spent another three hours calling the Swiss embassies in Madrid and London, the American embassy in Madrid trying to sort the problem out.  We also had to make a fast decision regarding the tickets and change the flights for a later date or risk losing all of them.  Next, we changed our easyJet flights to Malaga to fly back home the next day.  We went to the restaurant for a quick dinner then started to email and call all the family and friends who were waiting for us to arrive in Las Vegas.  My sisters thought I was joking but realized that even I couldn’t make up a story like that.  After a sleepless night, we went to London for a few hours to have lunch and go to Selfridges but I just couldn’t get into the Christmas spirit and so we went back to Gatwick to get ready for the flight home.

That overnight stay in London was the shortest “holiday” I ever took with the most luggage and the most stressful travel experience I have ever had.  It’s been four days now and we’re still mired in administrative work – getting the paperwork for the US visas ready and trying to mail over most of the items we bought online that we were planning to take back with us, just to name a few.  It’s been a very tiring, frustrating and disappointing week.  Being (forcibly) kept away from family and friends makes this Christmas sad and depressing.  I just don’t have the energy for Christmas cheer this year.

P.S. For Swiss passport holders:  Remember that if you have a passport issued pre-2006, you will be allowed to enter the U.S. without a visa.  For all other Swiss passports issued post-2006, you will need to have either a valid U.S. visa or a biometric passport (not to be confused with an electronically readable passport).  If you intend to change your current non-biometric Swiss passport now, better to wait it out until March 2010 when all Swiss consulates will be able to issue biometric passports making the application process easier.


Filed under About me, Travel Tips

10 things I learned on my mini-break to Geneva

  1. The trains are on almost always on time and precise as in 8:36 so if you get there at 8:36 sharp, the train may already be pulling out of the station.  The good thing is that on the rare event that the train is late, they tell you exactly how late it’ll be (see photo above where it says that our train to Geneva was going to be 8 minutes late).
  2. Taxis are prohibitively expensive so if you can, take the tram or the bus or better yet, walk around (carefully so you don’t fall like I did) since the center of town is pretty small.
  3. The Swiss are polite and helpful and most speak English especially in Geneva where so many expats and foreigners reside.  So if you get lost (like we did), ask and they will point out the way.
  4. Eating out in Geneva is fairly expensive.  Restaurant main courses sometimes start at 49 CHF (about US $47) so order the prix-fixe menus which are usually better value or better yet, order a smaller portion (see #5).
  5. Restaurant menus usually have a petite faim or petite assiette portion for starters and main courses and works well for those who are gourmets rather than gourmands or for ladies who (don’t) lunch.
  6. Geneva is alive during the week so if you go there for pleasure, don’t go on a weekend as the city is very quiet with most restaurants and shops closed on Saturdays and Sundays.
  7. The famous shopping street rue du Rhone is where the expensive brand names are – jewelry and watches for the most part but fashion boutiques as well.  Start in the middle near rue Pierre Fatio where Hogans and Tods are then work your way down to Globus (department store).
  8. Almost all of the grande-dame Geneva hotels have been refurbished and now boast modern interiors – Jacques Garcia’s La Reserve, Tony Chi’s Intercontinental, Adam Tihany’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel du Rhone, Pierre-Yves Rochon’s Four Seasons Hotel des Bergues – which are breathing a new life to Geneva’s staid ambiance.
  9. The Swiss eat ten and a half kilos of chocolates per person per year so there are obviously lots of chocolate shops around town.  Each Swiss has his/her preferred chocolate brand.  To sample a few and find your own favorite – read this.
  10. Last but not least, it would be better not to mention the Swiss bank secrecy laws future as the outcome of all this controversy may change what Switzerland has been known for.

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AVE – Luxe Train Travel

I almost forgot to post about the AVE and how it’s our favorite way to travel to Madrid.  Quick, easy and super comfortable, its’ a pleasure to travel by train especially in these times of airport stress and flight delays.  It takes a mere 2.5 hours by fast train from Malaga to Madrid and you arrive right smack in the center of town at Atocha station.  The ride is quick and if you take either Preferente (Business) or Club (First), complimentary WiFi and refreshments are included in the fare.  There is already an AVE from Malaga to Barcelona (via Zaragoza) and another one to Sevilla very soon.  We choose train travel over air travel any day and hopefully, it will soon be possible to hop on a fast train to get around most of Europe.

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Mini break: Madrid

Half term started yesterday so I’m taking advantage of the days off to finish some paperwork that have been left sitting on my desk for almost a year, at the Philippine embassy in Madrid and making it into a mini-break too.  We’ll be taking the AVE (high-speed train) from Malaga which should get us to Madrid’s Atocha station in less than three hours.

At the top of my list is the Mercado San Miguel, Madrid’s renovated market near the Plaza Mayor which re-opened earlier this year after extensive renovations and now houses several stalls (fruits, vegetables, seafood, ham etc.) plus a few gourmet boutiques and a central area which serves food from the few bars/restaurants.  Also on my list are:  Isolee – the multi-brand boutique which has its’ own restaurant/bar and deli, some window shopping on Serrano to see the new collections, a meal at our favorite sushi place Ginza and this time hopefully, a visit to the Reina Sofia national museum of contemporary art.  That should just about fill up the two days we’re there before we return to Marbella.

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Going home

Our island holiday came to an end on Saturday when we packed our bags and drove back to the northern part of the island for flight back to Malaga. We arrived at the airport with lots of time to spare so we checked in our luggage, got our boarding passes then ate the picnic dinner (sandwiches, cookies and bananas) provided us by Abama.

Soon after, we went through security and were walking towards the gate, when suddenly we saw on the screens that our flight was cancelled. We were surprised so we headed back to the check-in counters to find out that indeed the flight was cancelled due to engine problems. There were seventeen of us on that evening direct flight to Malaga and we were all told that the only option available was to stay one more night in Tenerife then take a very early flight the next day to Gran Canaria, wait a few hours then connect on the flight to Malaga. Most, if not all the passengers were indignant that we were not being flown back on a direct flight but as we were not given any other option, we had no choice but to agree.
I went back to pick up our checked-in luggage and while I was there, my husband overheard one of the Iberia supervisors speaking about a direct flight to Malaga and so insisted the we be put on that flight as we were traveling with an infant. After about an hour to sort out all the new boarding passes issued, we all piled into a bus to go to Santa Cruz (Tenerife’s main town) and spend a night at the three-star Hotel Taburiente.
The next morning after breakfast, we took a taxi back to the airport and checked-in again for the Iberia direct flight to Malaga. Before boarding, I noticed this poster about passengers rights and decided to take a photo of it – if we had only known what our rights were the night before, we would have had a chance to either demand a refund of our ticket or asked for a compensation from 125 euros up to 600 euros per person because of a cancelled flight. Interesting to note that these passenger’s rights are for all of the European Union and that there is a Top Ten for passengers on the web page and a freephone number to contact – 0800 6 7 8 9 10 11. Good to know for our next flight.


Filed under Tenerife, Travel Tips

My Little Black Book: Buenos Aires

For leather goods -
  • Mayorano (Ave. Alvear 1824 in Recoleta, Tel: +5411 4804 2398) – for classic designs including a replica of the sought-after Hermes Birkin, this boutique is a must. trendy leather jackets, skirts and small items are also available.
  • Cappio (Ave. Alvear corner Callao in Recoleta) – two doors down from Mayorano, t.his boutique copies designs of the season’s IT bags. On my recent visit, they had the YSL Muse and Downtown and the Chanel slouchy bag
  • Humawaca (Posadas 1380 in Recoleta and El Salvador 4692 in Palermo Soho) – trendy leather goods accentuated by cowhide, best for chic laptop bags and funky designs.
  • De Maria (Libertad 1655 in Recoleta, Tel: +54 11 4815 5001) – Handmade trendy shoes
  • Lopez Taibo (Ave. Alvear cor. Ayacucho) – traditional styles but good-quality leather, great for men’s shoes and women’s jackets.
  • Guido (Quintana 333 in Recoleta, Tel:+54 11 4811 4567) – handmade leather shoes for men and women, the styles are very traditional but the quality is exceptional. The Quintana branch is housed in a period building with wooden interiors worth a visit.

For clothes –

  • Evangelina Bomparola (Quintana 20 in Recoleta, Tel: +54 11 4814 2553) – stylish simple designs that last for seasons. Expensive but worth the price.
  • Tombolini – (Patio Bullrich) an Italian brand that has both imported and locally-made suits, also has a women’s collection.
  • Paula Cahen D’Anvers (in most shopping malls plus a big, shiny new store in Palermo Viejo) – classic preppy wear with a twist in a palette of black, white, grey and beige similar to Paris’ Vanessa Bruno There is also a children’s line. Not cheap but quality is good.

For personalized cards and stationery –

For guided tours -

  • Eternautas – historical and cultural tours with a knowledgeable guide, the City Walk tours are especially entertaining.

For lodging -

  • ApartmentsBA – we rented a very well-located apartment in Recoleta through this company. Great selection of furnished and reasonably-priced short-term rentals.

N.B. Check out the official Buenos Aires tourism website for must-sees around the city.

P.D.  Nov. 2009 –  Sadly, both MAYORANO and EVANGELINA BOMPAROLA have closed.


Filed under Buenos Aires, Shops, Travel Tips