An Asian Christmas

Late last night I arrived home, with my husband and young son, from a 17-day tour of Asia. We travelled over Christmas and New Year, starting at Singapore and ending in Shanghai, visiting in between Hong Kong, Ko Samui, Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan.

We went via cruise ship plus two long-haul flights out of Heathrow and back. Phew! Over the two and a half weeks, we experienced the fascinating, exotic, run-down, hot, cold, tranquil, bustling, rich, poor, developed and undeveloped of this vast region.

A relaxing holiday it was most definitely not, but it was a great way to get a taster of each of the countries. The only one I’d visited previously was Hong Kong, so it was almost all new to me.

Clearly, there isn’t enough time in one blog to go into great detail, but here’s my top line:

Start (see pic): Singapore – beautiful, super clean country with zero crime rate. Very impressive buildings and one of the best hotels I’ve ever stayed in, although it wasn’t ludicrously expensive (Swissotel). The service was phenomenal and the people we encountered were fabulous and so helpful. On the top floor of this huuuuuuge hotel, there is a bar, where you can sit and take in the extraordinary view. So we did, with a Singapore Sling in hand.

The weather is hot, hot, hot!

Singapore is almost all built-up, although doesn’t have that too-busy city feel, which I hate, so I’d love to go back here again.

Stop one: Ko Samui, Thailand. We paid to go on a trip to a hotel for the day. It was called The Passage. Our tour package included lunch (gorgeous), a Thai massage (definitely an experience to be had), and use of the beach and pool (spectacular).

We were so lucky to miss the storm, which hit the area just a few days later. The weather we had was blissful. The tour wasn’t cheap (none of the cruise tours are, so it’s the only one we went on), but it was worth every penny.

The Thai people were super and the place was beautiful. Will definitely be saving the pennies for a return visit.

Stop two: Pattaya, Thailand. The problem with cruising is that you’re basically dumped where the ship docks. Unless you’ve robbed a bank recently and can afford all the trips, then you have to find your own way around, and the place you dock in may not be particularly nice. Although the ship advertised it was stopping at ‘Bangkok’, we were actually 2.5 hours drive away from Bangkok!

We took a 30-minute coach ride to the town of Pattaya, which is OK but not very salubrious. By night, it’s the red-light district. We were there in the day, so didn’t see that, but still, it’s very built-up and the beach, although nice, is lined with people selling parasailing (or whatever it’s called). It’s cut-throat business, so be prepared to be harassed a little from traders. The weather was glorious. I’m sure there are a lot nicer places in Thailand, and this won’t be on my list to go back to.

Stop three: Vietnam. Similar story here – we docked miles away from anywhere of interest. The city was the place on everyone’s hit list, but it cost a lot to get there.

I’ve heard lots of accounts of how wonderful Vietnam is, but our experience wasn’t in line with this. Having said that, other cruise passengers said they really enjoyed their day here, so it is of course subjective.

Our experience involved getting off a coach in a minor town. It was bustling, with a small shopping centre, a market and lots of local shops lining the street.

The area appeared fairly poor, with a lot of traders walking up and down, touting their goods on a tray around their necks. Everyone, but everyone, rides on a scooter – often with several people (and dogs) to one scooter.

The weather was very hot. That was our final hot stop…

Stop four: Taiwan. I had no preconceptions about what Taiwan would be like. I felt like we hadn’t made the most of our stop in Vietnam, and should probably have visited the main city, so when we reached Taiwan, we decided to get on the local train and venture into Taipei, which was around 45 minutes away.

If you love cities, hustle and bustle and something new every corner you turn, then you may well love Taipei. For me, however, I find this level of busy overwhelming.

We left the enormous train station and found ourselves in a shopping mall that was so huge I felt a little dizzy. We walked around the streets and the amount of market traders and shops is staggering. There are definitely bargains-a-plenty.

I had a good look out of the window on the train ride in, and the term ‘concrete jungle’ must have been coined for this area. Everywhere you look, there are high-rise grey concrete buildings. Pretty it isn’t, but interesting, most certainly.

It was a grey, chilly and rainy day, which I believe is typical of Taiwan at this time of year.

Stop five: Hong Kong. A busy metropolis, rammed with people and skyscrapers, Hong Kong does enormous on its own scale. We rode the metro around the city – very easy to navigate, and just like London’s Underground system.

We had lunch in a local restaurant, which was delicious, and I ended up eating everyone’s as my family weren’t feeling particularly well. Oh well, more for me!

I did a highly intellectual experiment and ordered sweet and sour chicken to see if it really did taste like the version you get in The West – given so many people say it’s altered for our taste. Lo and behold – it was as beautifully sweet and gloopy as we get in Worthing’s Imperial China restaurant. Hurrah!

We took a taxi back to the port and the driver took the side streets. Wow! The shiny, shiny Hong Kong you see in pics is a world away from the city’s underbelly. Parts of HK are really rundown. I realise this doesn’t come as a surprise as that’s all cities, but wanted to point out that if you have a craving to see the ‘real’ HK, then by all means visit that famous skyline, but take a trip down the side streets too.

It was a winter’s day in HK at around 10 degrees C, so wrap up warm if visiting this time of year.

Stop six: Busan, South Korea. Thankfully, this is one of the stops where the city of interest is near to the port. I really liked Busan. Although English is not widely spoken, the people we came across were very kind and friendly and we both tried hard to communicate.

Busan is highly developed, and during this stay, we visited the high street and local mall. The mall was huge with so many floors I couldn’t get my head around it. We went to the top and took in the view, which from that height, was awesome.

What I particularly liked about Busan was that although it was lively enough, it wasn’t crammed with people as some of our previous stops had been, and I actually felt I could breathe.

This was our coldest stop at a rather nippy 5 degrees C.

Stop seven: Nagasaki, Japan. Nagasaki is a small, pretty town, and the boat docks within walking distance of the centre. Needless to say, Nagasaki is most famous probably for the WWII bombing it endured, and there is a museum dedicated to this time in its history, as well as a peace museum.

The nicest people I have ever met live in Nagasaki. Our son being young, blonde and blue-eyed got a lot of attention, and many people stopped to talk to us in the street. He ran onto a playground and within minutes was playing with a group of Japanese children and teenagers, who were all shouting out his name.

I loved Nagasaki, not just for the people, but for its tranquility – ironic really, considering what it’s been through. You can mooch around without being bothered and without bumping into a thousand people.

I don’t suppose we’ll ever make it back to Nagasaki, but I would heartily recommend a visit.

It was a beautiful day – cold but sunny.

Final stop: Shanghai. Due to delays with the boat reaching shore, we didn’t really get to see much of Shanghai. We stayed in the Longemont hotel, which was recommended by the cruise liner, although if that’s the best Shanghai has to offer, then it wasn’t particularly impressive. Our room smelt of cigarettes and the temperature in the room was set at 30 degrees C, even though it was about 10 degrees outside. We were melting! Someone was sent to help us, and ‘fixed’ the problem by opening the window. This wasn’t my favourite solution considering we were on the 40th floor.

They eat very ‘interesting’ food in this part of China, which I’d say requires a rather strong stomach. I consider myself quite adventurous when it comes to trying different foods, but it was a bit like watching an episode of ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get me Outta Here’. It isn’t just chicken’s feet and deep fried insects on offer – it’s on a whole different level. I’m not sure what the ‘cloud soup’ was, but it looked rather globular. Clearly, wonderful for adventurous foodies everywhere!

If you visit Shanghai, be prepared that English is not at all widely spoken and the food and service levels are very different from what’s expected in The West. You may consider this half the fun of travelling, but if this is likely to hamper your stay, then it’s worth thinking about.

We travelled to Singapore with Singapore Airlines. The food and service is good and the cabin crew are staggeringly well-kept.

We travelled back to Heathrow with British Airways. The food was OK, the service was crud and the cabin crew look like a right old state. There was a 3 hour delay going out, and we waited almost 2 hours for our baggage to reach the belt.

Choose Singapore!

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