Phuket to Kuala Lumpur for an extended stopover

Leaving Marriot’s Phuket Beach Club for Phuket Airport

After a week at the Marriot’s Phuket Beach Club, it was time to head to Kuala Lumpur for a few days before returning to Perth.

After reading about expensive transfers by the hotel and slightly cheaper, but still expensive transfers by taxi, I decided to download the Grab app to my smartphone. Grab is like Uber (which doesn’t operate in Phuket). Unlike Uber, we had the option to pay for the ride in cash, so no need to give the Grab app your credit card details. Grab was easy to use, and for the weekend we were leaving, they had a special on offering half price fares. Just like Uber, once you place your request to be picked up, you can see when the driver has accepted the job, how long before he’ll arrive, a little pictogram of his approach to you on the map, and his license plate number. A nicely air-conditioned van picked us up and the fare was only 235 Thai Baht (approx. $7.50 USD or $9.60 AUD). Bargain! Less than 40% of what we paid to get from the airport to the resort.

Phuket Airport and flight to Kuala Lumpur

The check-in queue for Air Asia wasn’t too bad, but the immigration queue was mayhem. Be prepared for a really, really long line (and we were there in the off-season).

The Phuket airport doesn’t have much to offer to pass the time while you’re waiting for your flight. There are some shops and there are places to eat, but you’d better have on hand something interesting to read.

Upon boarding time, once again, Air Asia staff did a fantastic job with crowd control and minimising the queue jumpers. The plane is boarded by section, starting with the expensive seats, then from the back of the plane to the front.

Once we’ve taken off and we’ve reached cruising altitude, the Air Asia flight attendants hand out food and drinks and collected payments like a well oiled machine.

Kuala Lumpur International Airport Terminal 2 (KLIA2)

Our landing at KLIA2 was fine. We had a long walk to immigration. They really need to update the English signage in the immigration hall because it says an arrivals card must be filled in, but they are no longer required. I wonder how many times a day the staff are asked for blank arrivals cards. Immigration didn’t take too long, but customs had quite a long queue. Everyone’s checked baggage needed to be scanned prior to entering the country. Only one x-ray machine was operating.

Once we we’re land-side, we changed some money to Malaysian ringgit, then made our way down to the public transfers hall. Although taking the shuttle bus would have only been RM12 per person to Pudu Sentral (the nearest drop off point), we elected to take a taxi for RM74.30 for the convenience factor. To take a taxi, you need to purchase a taxi coupon. The taxi coupon queue was short when we got there, but it took forever to process our coupon and payment; I think the girl serving us was a trainee. By the time we received our coupon, the queue was long. There was a second person also selling the coupons, but she had a couple arguing with her the entire time we were there, so that queue wasn’t going to move anytime soon.

We made our way to the taxi queue, handed our coupon to the guy in charge, who then directed us to the next available taxi. There were lots of taxis waiting. Too bad the coupons were taking so long to get issued.

Our taxi was just ok. It was old, dusty and smelly, and so was the driver. In hindsight, we should’ve just gotten an Uber. KLIA is a long way from the city centre, approximately 60 km. It’s freeway most of the trip in, but once you hit town, it’s stop-and-go traffic.

KL Journal Hotel

The KL Journal Hotel is a four star hotel located in Bukit Bintang. It’s in a great spot on a side street, but very close to the shopping malls, the free Go KL bus stop, and within walking distance of some great places to eat. It was definitely value-for-money.

Here is our tour of our room, the breakfast area and the rooftop pool:

We enjoyed the breakfast (a la carte AND buffet combined) that was included in our tariff. The rooftop pool was very refreshing after a day of sightseeing in humid KL.

KL Eats

We arrived in KL around dinner time. The original plan was to head to the Jalan Alor night market, but the humidity had already taken it’s toll on us, so we decided to dine in air-conditioned comfort of the Lot 10 food court. This food court had lots of options and was very popular, but not so popular that we couldn’t find a table. I had chicken with rice and veg. The chicken was more bones than chicken, but the flavour was good.

Lot 10 food court – chicken, rice & veg

After a morning of sightseeing, lunch the next day was at the Kopi Club in Plaza Low Yat. We had the beef rendang and fried chicken. The food was alright and they have table service. The mall itself is the place to go for all things IT-related.

Kopi Club – beef rendang and fried chicken

In the evening we walked down to TJ’s at 3 Tengkat Tong Shin as recommended by TripAdvisor. It’s not air-conditioned but ceiling fans keep the air moving. We had some delicious mango lassis, tandoori chicken, a paper dosa and a couple of roti chanai. Very happy with our meals.

TJ’s tandoori chicken, paper dosa and roti chanai

Our final meal was in the air-conditioned comfort of the Pavilion KL at Grandmama’s. It wasn’t a cheap option, but the service was very good and the portions were huge. I couldn’t leave KL without having one last Malaysian chicken curry.

Grandmama’s Malaysian Chicken Curry and Nasi Lemak

KL Sights

This was my second time to KL, so we didn’t go very hard core on the sightseeing. We had a look around the Botanical Gardens. A video of our visit is here:

We had taken an Uber from our hotel to the gardens for only RM7.52 (approx. $2 USD or $2.50 AUD). The gardens are beautiful, but the humidity was energy zapping and we sought out a respite at the adjacent National Museum. The museum was cheap to visit (RM5 per adult), 75% interesting (historical sections) and 25% flag-waving propaganda (modern day section), but good air-con. If you’re there at 10 am, they have guided tours. We took the MRT back to Bukit Bintang and it was very easy to use; it cost RM1.80 per person.

Catching the free Go KL bus from near our hotel, we alighted at KLCC to visit the Petronas Towers. Tickets to go up the Towers are relatively pricy at RM85 per non-Malaysian adult (approx. $22 USD or $28 AUD) and are allocated on a timed-basis. We were there on a Tuesday, so we didn’t have long to wait. They are quite organised with getting groups of a given time slot to queue up, then go through security (bags are x-rayed) and then listen to a safety briefing and introduction. Visits to the Skybridge and the Observation Deck are timed. Everyone is given a coloured tag on a lanyard, so the staff can keep track of who’s time is up. A video of our tour can be seen here:

One thing that surprised me the most about Kuala Lumpur is how hugely popular Christmas seemed to be. Christmas decorations were everywhere and Christmas carols were playing at shopping malls. The last time I checked, Malaysia is a Muslim country. I can’t imagine Christian countries embracing Muslim holidays in the same fashion or to the same degree.

Ready for Christmas at Pavilion KL.

Back to KLIA2

After less than 48 hours, it was time to head back to the airport. This time we took an Uber. It cost us RM72.80 (approx. $19 USD or $24 AUD). The car was much cleaner and way better smelling than our previous taxi, and our driver was nice.

For the last leg of our journey, I decided to splash out and bought the Air Asia Flat Bed seats. This was a red eye flight and I was really looking forward to a bit of comfort.

When checking in at KLIA2, note that Air Asia will weigh your carry-on bag prior to going through the security checkpoint before immigration. Anyone with overweight carry-ons are turned back. Interestingly, the carry-on bag weight is supposed to include the weight of your personal item (i.e. handbag), but for us at least, only our main carry-on was weighed.

Minimal queues at immigration meant more time in Air Asia’s Red Lounge, included in our fare. Compared to other lounges, the Red Lounge is below average, but it’s a pleasant oasis away from the rest of the airport. Just being able to avoid the constant boarding calls in this busy terminal is enough. There are plenty of tables and chairs, a lounge area with a TV, a meagre but adequate food selection and a darkened bean bag-filled area upstairs for people wanting a kip. There are hot showers with good water pressure available in the bathrooms, and clean towels are available at the front desk upon request.

At boarding time, we made our way to the gate. It was a long walk and another security screening to get there from the lounge. Flat beds meant we boarding first. The flat bed section wasn’t fancy, but definitely a step up from Economy. Interestingly, once we pushed back from the gate, the flight attendants removed all blankets and pillows from the vacant seats. No sneaking from Economy to a Flat Bed seat without getting caught. The curtain between the two classes was drawn after take-off and it didn’t take long for meals to come out. Then it was time for a sleep. Ahh, flat bed. Unfortunately, the 6 hours to Perth is not long enough to get a good sleep, but it was still really nice to stretch out for those 6 hours.

Arriving in Perth

Immigration is always a breeze these days with the SmartGates. Citizens from sixteen countries are currently eligible to use the SmartGates. To see if you qualify, look here: https://www.homeaffairs.gov.au/Trav/Ente/Goin/Arrival/Smartgateor-ePassport.

The hold up in the arrivals process is always the baggage claim. Perth is one of the slowest cities to deliver your bags in the world. Luckily, we were travelling with carry-ons only, so straight through to customs.

Perth customs have improved a lot over the years. This step didn’t take too long at all this time.

Once out of the airport, we walked to the Uber pick-up area and ordered an Uber. We didn’t have to wait too long and were surprised when we were collected by a gorgeous Jaguar. Going home in style!

Marriot’s Phuket Beach Club review

This is my review of the Marriot’s Phuket Beach Club (MPBC) in Mai Khao, Phuket, Thailand. We stayed here for one week at the end of November / start of December 2017.

The MPBC is an impressive resort. It is co-located with the JW Marriot with the JW suites in the middle of the resort and the MPBC on the north and south edges of the complex. Upon arrival at the resort, we were escorted to the reception desk and offered a much appreciated cold face cloth and tropical juice, while the staff checked us in. We were then chauffeured in a golf buggy to our home for the next week.

The first impression of apartment #1421 was “wow”. We had a 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom villa, which was very spacious and everything we could possibly need. For a video tour, check out the following:

The bathrooms were stocked with bath gel, shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, soaps and a shaving kit. These supplies were replenished daily as needed. Plenty of towels were supplied and the ones dropped on the floor were replaced daily. The master bathroom was huge! Although it wasn’t really bath weather, we had to use the giant tub.

The kitchen was well stocked with plates, bowls, cups, glasses, cutlery, toaster, drip coffee maker, paper towels, dish drying rack, teapot, water jug, colander, corkscrew, knife set, ladles, flippers, strainer, whisk, tongs, mixing bowls, reusable plastic storage containers, rice cooker, pots/pans, tea towels, oven mitts, placemats, microwave, cooktop and a full-size fridge. Water, coffee, coffee filter paper, teabags and sugar (real and artificial) were replenished daily. The coffee provided was on the weak side, so if you’re fussy, bring your own ground coffee.

The master bedroom was very large and contained a very high king-size bed with a firm mattress. The second bedroom had two double beds. Both bedrooms had televisions and plenty of storage space. There was safe in the master bedroom closet which was big enough to hold our small laptop computer.

The air-conditioning worked well, but we normally turned the bedroom air-con off at night because it made a rattling noise.

The television reception was good and there were plenty of channels to watch (Asian and Western). The wifi also worked well.

We didn’t cook much except for breakfast. Even though the Marriot breakfast buffet was reputed to be fantastic, there was no way I could justify paying 750 Baht per person (plus tax plus service charge, so closer to 880 Baht per person (28 USD or 36 AUD)). Instead, before we left home, I placed an order with Tesco online for breakfast items, drinks, snacks and fruit. Our order was delivered during our chosen time slot by a couple of very nice young men. We didn’t know our room number at the time of ordering, so stated for them to check with reception. We bought freshly baked bread at the Siam Deli within the resort complex; they offered a wide variety of bread and also baked croissants four times per day. The bread was sold at Western prices. There’s also an option to order room service breakfast, but we didn’t make use of this service.

All of our lunches aand dinners were eaten outside of the resort, but within walking distance. Fortunately, we were staying in the northern villas, which are closer to the locals shops. We had quite a few meals at the Thai Express. It’s not the cheapest place to eat, but definitely cheaper than eating at the resort. The food was always very good to excellent and the service ranged from very good to slow-ish.

Thai Express (clockwise from top left): red curry, massaman curry, pineapple fried rice, mango sticky rice.

Our favourite place to eat was JJ’s. It was a longer walk to get to JJ’s as we had to go past the mall, past Marriot’s Mai Khao Beach Resort, shortcut through the staff parking/service buildings and out the back entrance. The food was excellent, the prices were great and JJ is such a delightful character. The best dish we had there was on his specials’ board — a steamed sea bass; it doesn’t sound that great, but the lemongrass and other aromatics added to the fish made it divine.

JJ’s (clockwise from top left): chicken satays, prawns, banana dessert, pad thai.
JJ’s steamed sea bass

We ate once at the Coffee Club. They offer more than just coffee. The food was good and the service was fine.

Coffee Club’s chicken and cashew stirfry with rice

We ate once at the Bill Bentley pub. The food was just ok to not too bad, but a good option if you need a break from Thai food. The service was good, but we were the only ones in the pub at the time (we were having an extremely late lunch).

Bill Bentley’s drinks, sea bass and chilli fries

One place we visited a few times was the Sawasdee Seafood “Restaurant” It comprised a few shacks on the beach at the southern end of the resort complex. It was attached to one of the three beachside massage venues. After our one hour massages (500 Baht per person), we would go for some lunch. Cheap, simple, but delicious meals. The menu was limited, but still there was enough variety to keep us happy. They served alcohol as well.

Sawasdee Seafood beachside dining, tom kha gai and pad thai

The time of year we were there, end of November to start of December, the weather was a bit iffy. It was predominantly overcast with some sprinkles and a couple of downpours. The sun and blue sky really only made it out once (on the day before we left).

Photos from around the resort

Here is our video from around the resort:

The best thing about this resort is the staff. The Thai people are great and the staff are the cream of the crop. The housekeeping staff are wonderful. The apartments were lightly serviced daily with a more major service/clean mid-week.

The only negative of our stay was the other guests. One night we had a couple having a major row in the apartment below us and a bunch of British drunks on their balcony right above us, yelling to their friends walking past outside and yelling to each other about how drunk they were at 1 am. I had to complain to the front desk and they managed to deal with it. Unfortunately, some people choose to get married at this resort and their guests get out of hand. Later in the week, a nice man from Guest Relations came by to make sure everything was ok with our stay.

Would we stay here again? It’s a great resort, but perhaps not our style. This was my 7th time to Thailand and my 3rd time to the Phuket area. I generally prefer a more immersive, grassroots experience. Mai Khao is quite a distance from the more touristed part of Phuket. We weren’t planning on doing any touring, so the isolated location didn’t affect us. The prices are generally higher than the rest of Thailand. If you prefer the five star resort experience with a kids club, plenty of poolside loungers and a light impression of the country you’re visiting, then this is the place for you. You will be well looked after. This would also be a good place for an overseas wedding.

Flying from Perth to Phuket on Air Asia

This is a review of our flights on Air Asia, but also an Uber testimonial and what to do in Kuala Lumpur International Terminal 2 when you have a long transit.

UBER

For a long time, we tried to “do the right thing” and support the local taxi drivers, but after our last experience with them, we decided to give Uber a try. What happened was that on our previous trip to the airport, we called up for a taxi; they asked if we were ready to go immediately, and we said yes. We waited out front for half an hour … no taxi. We called them up again; they checked and said, “oh, it says here your taxi is booked for tomorrow”. Not impressed. Sure, stuff ups happen, but when you’re trying to catch a flight you’re less forgiving.

The second and third incentives to try out Uber: Qantas dangled bonus frequent flyer points and a hefty discount from Uber off our first booking. This meant our Uber trip cost us $11.47 (a taxi would’ve cost $40-$50) and we got 2011 Qantas points (2000 bonus plus 1 point per dollar spent).

We pre-booked our Uber pick-up time for 4am. Our Uber was exactly on time. Our driver was very nice, offered us water, and followed the road rules. The car was spotless and odourless. Two thumbs up for our first Uber experience. We are Uber converts.

Get your first Uber ride for free (conditions apply) using this code: cathye655ue.

CHECK-IN AT PERTH AIRPORT TERMINAL 1

We arrived at the airport at too-early-o’clock and there was hardly anyone in the queue. We were travelling with carry-ons only. I read many online forums beforehand in attempt to determine how strict Air Asia are with their 7 kgs only rule for the combined weight of your carry-on and personal item (like a hand bag or laptop bag, etc.). Yes, our carry-ons were weighed, but only our carry-ons. I avoided having to shift the contents of my handbag into my pockets to get the total weight down.

Going through immigration and security was super quick. No more departure cards to fill out. E-gates scan your passport and take your photo. No physical exit stamp from a surly immigration officer anymore (non-ePassport holders and families with babies still have to go through the manual check-out process though; click here for further details). The security screening area is spacious and moves quickly (and the staff are really pleasant, which helps).

We pre-booked breakfast on the plane, so we decided to just have coffees while waiting for boarding. It appeared to be the order taker’s first day on the job. She was a bit dyslexic with our order (the small long black and the large mocha arrived as a large long black and small mocha), but we didn’t complain; it looked like she was having a hard enough morning to deal with.

AIR ASIA – PERTH TO KUALA LUMPUR

Our flight boarded on time. It was a very full flight. I tried to do a sneaky and book a window seat and aisle seat, hoping the middle seat would be left vacant, but some poor soul was in the middle seat. When I told told him he could move to the window or aisle, he happily chose the aisle seat.

Pre-booked meals were quickly distributed shortly after reaching cruising altitude. I had ordered the nasi lemak. Although not the best nasi lemak I’ve ever had, it was tasty all the same and cheap (around 5 AUD for the meal and drink).

Nasi lemak and coffee

Being a budget airline, there was no in-flight entertainment unless you hire a pre-loaded tablet (RM49 pre-paid or RM60 onboard). After getting up at 3am for this flight, napping was all I was interested in doing anyways. Also, BYO blanket or warm top; otherwise comfort kits (containing a blanket, pillow and eye mask) are available for purchase.

The flight was relatively painless and the crew were nice and efficient. We pre-booked our seats in The Quiet Zone (no kids under 10) and it was quiet. The Quiet Zone also gets fed and watered first (after the Premium Economy class).

Here is a time-lapsed video I took while landing:

From our arrival gate, we had a long walk back to the transit entrance to enter the terminal via a security screening checkpoint. At no time did they check ID or onward boarding passes, so anyone could re-enter the terminal.

IN TRANSIT AT KUALA LUMPUR INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT TERMINAL 2 (KLIA2)

We had a six hour stopover. We could’ve gone through immigration and entered the country, taken the express train into town and had a meal or a quick look around, but since we were stopping over in KL on the way back to Australia, we decided to stay in the airport. There’s also an option to enter the country and then take a free shuttle bus to a nearby factory outlet mall. With our carry-on bags already at maximum, there was no point shopping.

We managed to make the most of our time in transit. The first stop was lunch. It was lunchtime and a long time since our nasi lemak. We headed up to Level 3 to the Food Court and to The Chicken Rice Shop. We both ordered a chicken rice set. The set included chicken, rice, broth, two fried dumpling things, bean sprouts and a soy milk. Very tasty and pretty cheap.

Chicken Rice Set Meal

Next we went back down to Level 2 to The Living Room for average coffee at western prices. A strange thing about taking the lift from Level 3 to Level 2: the airport has little carts available to carry your carry-on bags, but these carts aren’t allowed to go down in the lift, and there’s a cart nazi beside the lift at Level 3. There are new carts to collect near the lift at Level 2, but it would appear that carts can go up in the lift (no Level 2 cart nazi).

There was a lot of renovations going on at the airport when we were there, so hopefully there will be new shops / restaurants on offer soon.

The rest of the time we went to the movie viewing area. In a corner of the airport, just before Pier P, there’s a room with seats and two largish flatscreen TVs showing Fox movies. The volume is turned way down, so you end up missing a lot of the movie, but it’s still free entertainment, or a good place to doze while charging mobile phones (which is what most everyone else there was doing). One thing you’ll notice while on a long stopover is that there are constant boarding announcements. Every announcement is announced in both Bahasa Malay and English, and every announcement ended with “thank you, happy journey” (TIP: we found out on our return journey that you can’t hear these announcements in the Air Asia lounge).

Mid-movie marathon, I decided to grab a very expensive grande tea from Starbucks. There was another customer there arguing with the staff about how there wasn’t any milk in his espresso.

Two movies later, it was time for our connecting flight to Phuket. After handing our cart back to another cart nazi at the entrance to Pier P, we went through security (again), and made our way to our gate.

AIR ASIA – KUALA LUMPUR TO PHUKET

This flight was late. Departure time came and went and still no plane. The airline kept shifting our departure time until the plane finally arrived. We probably departed an hour late.

Air Asia handle the masses quite well by boarding by zone and having a queue for each zone.

On this flight my ploy worked: window and aisle seat booked with no one in between, but it wasn’t a very full flight. The flight was short, but the flight attendants still managed to distribute the pre-booked meals and sell snacks and drinks very expediently.

ARRIVING AT PHUKET INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT

The plane was parked on the fringe of the airport grounds and we were bussed to the terminal. There are many Money Changers trying to get your business before you reach immigration. They mention that their rates are the same as after immigration and the rest of the airport. They aren’t fibbing (I checked), but the rate isn’t as good as in the rest of Phuket, so only change a small amount at the airport if you have to.

At some stage, we should’ve been handed arrival cards, but it didn’t happen. We had to ask for cards, and the staff member asked was suspicious as to why we didn’t have them. Like we’re going to sell them on the black market or something?

The queues for foreign passports was relatively short as was the queue for customs (all big bags get x-rayed).

Once we were out of the terminal, we looked around for the Meter Taxi booth. I knew where it was in the old International Terminal, but we couldn’t find it at the new terminal, and ended up getting a limo taxi (600 Baht to Mai Khao). The limo taxi was a very nice car with excellent air-conditioning, accompanied by a driver with a very aggressive driving style. He got us to Mai Khao in record time, but had to stop a few times in Mai Khao to ask where our resort was (with three Marriot properties beside each other, it is a bit confusing … best to ask for the JW Marriot when you’re trying to get to Marriot’s Phuket Beach Club to avoid confusion … the two properties share the same reception area).

Our stay at Marriot’s Phuket Beach Club will be described in my next blog entry.

Fernie, BC – history, hiking and avoiding bears

We spent four days in the Fernie, British Columbia area in mid-June. This is what we got up to:

Island Lake hiking

Island lake lodge is located south of Fernie township and north of the Fernie ski hill where we were staying. Once leaving the highway, we drove through the campground and up the mountain along a gravel road with many switchbacks. There are many hiking trails on offer around the lodge with all degrees of difficulty clearly marked on the trail map. We chose the Easy trail around the lake. The Lake Trail is a 2 km circuit around Island Lake offering scenic vistas for the entire gentle walk.

Island Lake
Island Lake

Unfortunately, the bridge near the end of the circuit had been washed out, and a detour onto the Fir Trail was suggested. In hindsight, it would have been easier to double-back on the Lake Trail rather than detour onto the Fir Trail. The Fir Trail added three extra kilometres to our trip, and although rated as an Easy trail, was a bit hillier than anticipated (not a big deal unless you’re accompanied by non-walkers who only budgeted their expectations to do a 2 km flat walk). Nice walk through the trees though.

At the end of the hike, we were back at the lodge and settled in for a well-earned coffee and tea on their sun deck.

Ice-cream, chocolate and museum

The next day we headed into the township for a look. Fernie is well set up for tourists with many places to eat, drink and shop. Our first stop was the delectable Beanpod Chocolate for gelato. So good!

Honeycomb Gelato

Our next stop was the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Company. We were served by a nice, young man from New Zealand. So many varieties to choose from. I chose a Tiger Butter Cup. Yummy!

Tiger Butter Cup

Our next stop was the Fernie Museum. This is a small, but very informative museum, which outlined the very fascinating history of the Fernie area. $5 entry fee.

Turtles

The next day, we decided to take a road further south to walk around another small lake, but hopefully see some endangered painted turtles this time.

We took an easy half-hour drive to Surveyors Lake in Kikomun Creek Provincial Park. There’s plenty of parking available along with picnic and toilet facilities. The lake seemed popular with canoers / kayakers and swimmers; the swimmers reported that the lake temperature varied a lot depending where you were in the lake. We were just there for the hiking. The 2 km hiking trail around the lake is pretty easy hike, but a bit slow going because you’re always on the lookout for turtles.

Surveyors Lake, Kikomun Creek Provincial Park

And we found turtles …

Endangered Painted Turtles

More hiking and more ice-cream

We ventured out for one more easy hike: the Fairy Creek Falls trail. Our first stop was at the Visitors Centre on Highway 3 beside the oil derrick. The oil derrick is the last wooden oil derrick standing in British Columbia. It was reconstructed at this location in 1984 using the metal components from the rigs used to drill Akamina #1 and #2 in 1907 and 1908, respectively.

Wooden oil derrick

The staff at the Visitors Centre are very friendly and helpful, and provided us with a trail map for hikers and bikers to Fairy Creek Falls. They also gave us a bear sighting update (yes, bears were spotted the day before).

The Fairy Creek Falls trail is a 4 km round trip with a 120 metre change in elevation. Its trail head is conveniently located at the Visitors Centre.

A lot of that change in elevation seems to be at the very start with some well-groomed switchbacks to climb. There’s plenty of vegetation to look at along the way and a meadow approximately halfway adorned with “land for sale” signs.

We passed a couple going the other way; they were wearing bear bells. It reminded me of that joke, “how do you identify bear poo … by the bells.” We were carrying bear spray and making as much noise as possible as our method of bear avoidance.

On the last stretch towards the Falls, the trail splits into an upper trail and lower trail. We opted for the lower trail, but in hindsight, we should’ve taken the upper trail as the lower trail got quite muddy at the Falls. Instead of getting muddy to have our lunch at the bench overlooking the Falls, we made our way back along the trail to another bench we had passed.

Fairy Creek Falls

While we were stopped for our lunch break on the back-up bench, another group of people on the way to the Falls stopped and mentioned that they had just seen a bear, which fortunately ran off. Great. We were heading in the same direction as the bear. Luckily, we didn’t see any bear, but seeing a bear by proxy was enough excitement for us.

On our way back to our accommodation, we stopped in at the Happy Cow Ice Cream shop as recommended by the staff at the Visitors Centre. Nice post-hike treat, but we preferred the gelato from Beanpod.

Summary

Fernie is a hikers (and bikers) paradise with plenty of trails on offer for all skill levels. Make sure you have your bear avoidance action plan in place if you visit during bear season. There are many apres-hike/bike places to eat/drink in and around the Fernie area, and the local supermarket has quite an extensive selection of foods for those who self-cater. Bring earplugs if you’re not used to train horns tooting at night.

 

Road Trip – Calgary to Fernie, BC

After a few days of catching up with family, we hit the road going south, then west to Fernie, British Columbia. The most direct route out of Calgary was to take Highway 2, also known as Deerfoot Trail as it crosses through Calgary. It was a bit like driving in a Formula One Grand Prix race — I swear one pick-up truck passed us going 160 km/h — until we approached the city limits; then it became relaxing country driving.

Driving south on highway 2

Highway 2 bypasses many towns going south, but it’s not too inconvenient to stop for food or gas when required. We made a stop in High River for a toilet / wifi / food break. If you decide to do the same, do not do what we did, which was taking the first off-ramp to High River; this will lead you to the industrial part of town. The second exit will lead you straight to the fast food restaurants and service stations.

Back on the road, it wasn’t much longer before we reached our turn-off at Highway 785. This is the road that will take you to the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump World Heritage Site. If you don’t intend to stop here, keep going on Highway 2, and turn right at Highway 3 (Crowsnest Highway).

The HSI Buffalo Jump is well set up. There’s plenty of parking (and overflow parking). They also have a shuttle bus that will pick you up from the parking lot and take you up the hill to the main building. They are open from 9 am to 5 pm everyday during the summer. Cost of entry for adults is $15 each.

View (of the overflow parking lot) from Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump main entrance

We were given a map upon entry and advised that it’s best to start at the top of the building and work our way down, so that’s what we did. The first stop was outside and along a short path to where you can view the actual buffalo jump.

The Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

Back inside and down the stairs, there was an audiovisual display showing what life was for the native Indians back in the day. The next level down was a display of the type of things the Indians would normally have in their possession.

A display in the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Interpretive Centre

The next floor down showed how the buffalo hunt was carried out. The next stop was the theatre. A 15-minute long movie was shown re-enacting the buffalo hunt. It was clear that no buffalo were harmed in the making of the movie. The next stop was the on-site cafeteria. Food and beverages are available for purchase, but the cafeteria closes much earlier than the rest of the site, so keep this in mind. The last two levels down outline the first contact between white men and native Indians, and the progression of that relationship over time as related to the buffalo hunt.

Upon departing the site, we turned right onto Highway 785 as Google Maps showed it connects to the Crowsnest Highway. What Google Maps didn’t tell us was that this part of the highway is mostly gravel road. We had to drive slower than normal highway speeds, but this part of Alberta is beautiful with plenty of rolling grassy hills.

Along Highway 785 west of the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

Further south we came upon hundreds of windmills. This part of Alberta is extremely windy so this is the perfect spot for them.

Wind farm along Highway 785

Eventually we make it to the Crowsnest Highway and head west towards Fernie. Driving through the Rockies is always awe-inspiring.

Beautiful scenery along Highway 3

We stopped at the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre. Although we arrived too late to visit the centre, we’re able to go the the adjacent scenic lookout to have a look. The volume and size of the rocks that slid down the mountain is quite amazing to see up close.

Frank Slide
Frank Slide

It was just another hour of driving to get to Fernie. We drove through some spectacular country. The road is pretty good, but usually just one lane in each direction; however, they do have frequent enough passing lanes so that you won’t be stuck behind a gigantic, slow-moving motorhome for long.

Example of a passing lane going the opposite direction on Highway 3 (and a relatively small motorhome)

We stayed at the TImberline Lodges – Juniper Lodge which is actually south of the Fernie Township on the ski hill. Mid-June was a good time to stay there as hardly anyone else was there, but it also meant that many surrounding facilities weren’t open for summer yet. The lodge was a nice place to stay. We stayed in a 2 bedroom / 2 bathroom condo with my parents. The condo had a balcony with overlooked the hot tub area and surrounding forest. The kitchen was well equipped, and the bathroom floors were heated. There was air-con in the main bedroom, which was a good thing because it got really warm in there for some reason; you don’t expect to need air-con when it’s 15 degrees C outside. Bookings to stay here can be made by clicking on this link.

Juniper Lodge – (clockwise from top left) living room, bedroom, kitchen, bathroom

Our adventures in Fernie will be covered in my next post.

 

Air Canada Premium Economy Review – Seoul to Vancouver to Calgary

After our great stopover in Seoul, it was time for the next leg of our journey. We departed our AirBnB and headed to the Airport Bus #6011 at Anguk station, only a minute’s walk away. The bus fare was 10,000 won per person and had nearly door to door convenience.

We arrived at the airport, practically at the row we needed for check-in, with plenty of time to spare. It was too early to check-in, so we headed upstairs for lunch. There are many junk food type places to eat, but we found a place offering salad, followed by donuts for dessert.

There’s something really nice about seeing the queue for Economy class wind back and forth, back and forth, out past the velvet ropes, around the corner and down the concourse, and then heading for the Premium Economy check-in with absolutely no one waiting. Needless to say, our check-in was painless. After checking in, we were asked to wait around for 5 minutes at the end of the row to make sure our checked bag screening was fine (if it wasn’t, the matter could be settled straight away).

Before going through security, we located a convenience store (on the arrivals level) where we could cash out the remaining funds on our T-money cards (minus a 500 won service charge).

The security screening was fairly standard, although my baggie of liquids didn’t have to be screened separately from my carry-on bag. I was selected for the random chemical screening test. Upon analysis, the red alarm went off. The staffer re-ran the test, using a different machine, and I was given the all clear.

Immigration was quick and painless. There was no queue at all, no departure forms, and no communication with the immigration officer required. Just a stamp out and we were done.

Our flight was departing from the satellite terminal, which required a travelator, a train, a few escalators and more travelators to get there. There are duty-free shops in the satellite terminal, but if you want a variety of shops, complete your shopping in the main terminal before taking the train.

There was plenty of seating at our gate. As usual, there were plenty of queuers before boarding commenced. The Air Canada staff were quite good at redirecting the Economy class passengers who were blindly queuing in the Premium line. Air Canada boarded the aircraft by zones; Zone 1 (business class) boarded first, followed by Zone 2 (premium economy), and then, I assume, everyone else.

The premium economy section on this Dreamliner 787 consisted of 3 rows in a 2 x 3 x 2 configuration. The seats were quite confortable with lots of legroom. The footrest was drop-down bar-style. The IFE (inflight entertainment) screen was a good size, but there didn’t seem to be many blockbusters or new releases on offer. At least the quantity of movies available was adequate. The IFE was available for viewing immediately upon boarding until landing. Only non-noise cancelling earphones were provided.

IFE

Each seat had a power point and USB plug-in.

There was a small goodie bag provided, which contained socks, eyemask, earplugs and toothbrush/toothpaste.

Goodie bag

The food on offer was generally good, but portions were at best snack-size. The gluten-free dinner was a mixed seafood with potatoes and vegetables, a plain green salad (no dressing), a mystery unsweetened glutinous rice square covered in tasteless soggy nuts, and a bit of fruit . The main course and the fruit were very tasty, but could have been improved with more volume. The regular meals on offer were bulgogi beef or Moroccan chicken.

Gluten-free mixed seafood and vegetables, green salad, glutinous rice square and fruit
Regular dinner – bulgogi beef with rice and cabbage, green salad and black forest cake

I usually don’t have any trouble getting some sleep on flights, but I had difficulty on this flight for some reason, and didn’t get more than an hour or two of sleep.

Another snack was served at the halfway mark. The gluten-free offering was a salad (with dressing this time) and a chunk of pineapple. Regular patrons received a sandwich and cookie.

Salad and pineapple snack

I was politely told off by one of the flight attendants for undimming my window shading. Apparently it was disturbing the sleep of other people. I was slightly annoyed by being singled out since half of the window-bound travellers had also undimmed their windows, it was only 20 minutes before the house lights came on and everyone had been provided sleeping masks.

The breakfast snack was served 2 hours before arriving in Vancouver. The gluten-free meal comprised scrambled eggs with vegetables, another mystery unsweetened glutinous rice square with soggy nuts, a chunk of watermelon and a small carton of milk(?). You can’t tell from the photo, but the serving tray was approx. half the size of the tray table.

Breakfast

Disembarkation was fairly quick. Zone 1 was first off the plane followed by Zone 2 and then everyone else.

Things I didn’t like about this flight: there was no curtain between premium economy and economy. Not meaning to sound elitist or anything, but since premium economy does cost a substantial premium above regular economy, some division between the classes would’ve been nice. A curtain may have also deterred the economy class from using the premium economy bathroom; as it was there was a long queue at peak times and the bathroom was very putrid by the end of the flight, with an overflowing waste bin. The curtain would not have helped the position of the bassinet row immediately behind the premium economy section though; fortunately, the babies weren’t crying for the entire flight. The food quantity needs improvement; 3 snacks on a 10 hour flight isn’t enough. Other airlines provide self-serve or service on demand interim snacks in this travel class for people who are still peckish between meals.

Immigration and customs were fairly straight forward. They have mostly automated the system now. There are a large cluster of computer stations set up where your passport is scanned, your photo is taken, and you answer a series of standard entry-type questions. You are then given a print-out which you show an immigration officer before entering the baggage area.

Our bags were tagged as priority, so we didn’t have to wait long at all to get them. People with connecting domestic flights go through a different exit than the people entering Vancouver. At our exit, we handed our immigration print-outs to the customs officer and showed him our boarding passes for the next flight. After depositing our checked bags onto the conveyor belt, we took the elevator up and walked the hallway to the domestic-side of the airport. One more security screening, and then to locate the gate for our connecting flight.

The transit time was tight. Although 90 minutes was an allowed connection time, perhaps 120 minutes would’ve been less stressful; it would’ve also given us time to have a snack.

The Vancouver to Calgary flight boarded with the same protocol with Zone 1 business class going first, followed by Zone 2 preferred seating. There’s no Premium Economy class on the flight per se, but as we were travelling on a premium ticket, we were given 3 seats in the preferred seating section.

The IFE on this flight had much smaller screens, but the same offerings as the international flight. However, earphones were an extra cost (3.50 CAD) and they only allowed airline earphones. Had we known this, we would’ve pinched the earphones from the previous flight. It didn’t really matter though since the flight was only slightly over an hour. A quick round of refreshments were served (non-alcoholic drink and cookie — no gluten-free option).

Small screen

Our plane parked at the gate closest to the baggage terminal. Our bags didn’t take too long to come out and priority bags were first.

As we were meeting family, we were being picked up. The Calgary airport has a convenient, free cell phone parking area. Your ride can wait for free until you call them.

Final verdict: Air Canada is not a 5-star airline, but better than a budget airline. Although their premium economy product wasn’t perfect, it was still better than flying economy.

Fourth Day in Seoul – Gyeongbokgung, Bukchon Hanok Village, Myeongdong

Gyeongbokgung Palace inner gate

Today is Monday, and on Mondays most of the palaces and museums are closed, except for Gyeongbokgung Palace (which closes on Tuesdays instead). We timed our arrival to coincide with the first English tour of the day along with 50 other English-speaking tourists. Luckily, our hanbok-clad tour guide came equipped with a microphone and speaker system so all could hear.

Our tour guide started by explaining the history of the palace. How it was built in 1395 as the main palace of the new Joseon Dynasty. The name Gyeongbokgung means “the new dynasty will be greatly blessed and prosperous”. Things were going well until 1592 when the Japanese invaded and burned the palace down. The Joseon dynasty relocated to Changdeokgung until Gyeongbokgung was rebuilt in 1867. The restoration saw over 500 buildings constructed within the palace complex. In 1911, the Japanese invaded again and the palace was once again destroyed. Re-restorations have been underway since 1990.

Palace history lesson

The tour continued passed the Geunjeongjeon Throne Hall, the Gyeonghoeru Pavilion party building, Gangnyeonjeon Hall where the king slept, the queen’s gardens behind Gyotaejeon Hall (queen’s residence), the decorative chimney of the Jagyeongjeon Hall (king’s mother’s residence) and finally to Hyangwonjeon Pavilion (currently under renovation and could only be photographed by holding your camera above the fence — if you’re tall enough).  The tour took approx. one hour.

Geunjeongjeon Throne Hall
Gyeonghoeru Pavilion
Gangnyeonjeon Hall
Queen’s gardens
Decorative chimney of the Jagyeongjeon Hall
Hyangwonjeon Pavilion

There were a few more things to see within the palace grounds, but as we were starting to get peckish, we headed out the east gate. This brought us to the Folk Museum. Since it had free admission, we elected to take a quick look. It’s an interesting collection of displays providing a snapshot of life in Korea throughout the ages. Some displays were interactive. Attached to this museum is the Children’s Museum, which we didn’t visit.

Now our stomachs were rumbling, so we headed out, across the street and around a few corners until we reached the Luden Loquen Cafe within the Bukchon area. I specifically wanted to come here to try out their rice cake waffles and we weren’t disappointed. The lady working at the cafe was kind enough to warn us that the waffles were a big serve and one portion could easily feed the two of us. She wasn’t kidding!

Luden Loquen cafe interior
Rice cake waffles

After lunch, we wandered around Bukchon a bit more. The tourist infomation centres can provide maps to the more photogenic parts of the village. We also noticed map stands placed at various locations within the village.

Bukchon Hanok Village

We eventually ended up at the most photographed street in the village. The tourists were out in force. Nearly every door and every wall had a sign reminding people to be quiet as these beautiful old homes are lived in by normal people.

Bukchon Hanok Village

It was quite obvious that the hanbok rental places were doing very well in this area.

After a quick siesta at the AirBnB, we headed to Myeongdong for dinner and shopping. We purchased some skin care products from one of the hundreds of skin care shops in the area. Our sales boy was so good. He had a very polished and dynamic friendly sales pitch and I probably would’ve bought more and more products if my minder wasn’t with me.

With a bit of retail therapy taken care of, it was time for dinner. We wandered past a menu tout who must’ve sensed our interest. She thrust the menu at us to have a look and told us “mashisayo” which means “delicious”. Half of the restaurant’s offerings was BBQ, which is what we were after. The prices looked alright, so we took a punt and agreed to give it a try.

The Golden Farm restaurant is on a third floor and gives a good eagle-eye view of the shoppers below. We were seated at a window-side table. We decided to get the marinated galbi (beef rib meat) and the pork shoulder. The meal came with kimchi cabbage (of course), kimchi radish, spicy beansprouts, spicy salad, regular dressed green salad, tiny dried fish, samjang sauce, raw garlic, lettuce leaves (for wrapping the meat in), and a mystery green leaf vegetable in a honey sauce.

Golden Farm Restaurant for BBQ – here are the banchan (side dishes)

They cooked the pork for us first. Our server also grilled onions and mushrooms and the same time. Next they cooked up the marinated galbi. Everything was so delicious. Our gamble paid off.

Golden Farm restaurant – pork shoulder, onions, leeks, mushrooms and tteok (rice cakes)
Marinated galbi (beef rib meat) is next

Cost: 54,000 won (47.71 USD) for the pork shoulder, marinated galbi and two green teas. Price to quality ratio was satisfactory, especially since this was our last dinner in Seoul.

Time for more shopping. Now there were heaps more people out and about. So many people around on a Monday; I can’t imagine what the weekend foot traffic must be like. Shopping was supplemented by an ice cream in a fish-shaped waffle cone and topped with honeycomb for 5,000 won (4.42 USD). There were many options of street food available. Oh, if I only had a second stomach!

Ice cream in a fish-shaped waffle cone
A food stall in Myeongdong

Once shopping and eating were all done, we made our way back to the AirBnB.

We’ve been pretty happy with our AirBnB (link to the property is here). The location is excellent — just a short walk to Insadong, Bukchon, Changdeokgung, Gyeongbokgung, Anguk station and the airport bus stop. Close to everything, but still very quiet as it’s set back from the main road. It’s much bigger than most AirBnB on offer in this area. Wifi is great, and a portable wifi egg was included in the tariff. Air-con is good, but at this time of year we had a nice cross-breeze going through the windows. The kitchen was well equipped, but we didn’t do any cooking with so many nice restaurants around. Plenty of closet space and lots of hangers. The owner seems quite nice. We met him shortly after our arrival to sort out any questions we might have. Things that may be deal breakers for some (but didn’t bother us): the stairs up to the apartment are VERY steep; the bathroom is a typical Korean wet bathroom (no shower cubicle to keep the water contained); no TV; and the bedroom gets pretty bright post-sunrise (bring a sleeping mask if you’re a night owl). If you’d like 23 USD off your first AirBnB booking (over 75 USD) please click here.

Seoul was a delightful place to visit and exceeded our expectations. It’s very easy to get around, Service is uniformly excellent. Tourist sites are well organised. It’s a paradise for food lovers and shoppers. I wouldn’t mind a bit more time here, but we moving onto the next chapter of this journey tomorrow.

Third day in Seoul – Dawon Tea House, War Memorial and Tosokchon Samgyetang

Getting in late last night led to a lazy morning. We ventured out at lunchtime in search of the Dawon Tea House at the Kyung-in Art Museum (11-4, Insadong 10-gil).

Dawon Tea House

Upon arrival, we were promptly seated at the window overlooking the complex’s courtyard. Our order was taken shortly afterwards.

Tea House Interior
Courtyard view

I ordered the cinnamon punch while Tom got the ginseng tea. We also ordered honey rice cakes and a big mochi to share.  My punch was very sweet and very cinnamon-y, but quite refreshing. The rice cakes and mochi were only slightly sweet and pretty moreish. Surprisingly, we were quite full once finished.

Cost: 7,000 won (6.22 USD) per tea, 5,000 won (4.44 USD) for rice cakes and 2,000 won (1.78 USD) for the mochi. Probably expensive for what is was, but the experience was worth it.

We then took the subway to the War Memorial (29, Itaewon-ro) in time for the 2 pm English tour. Entrance to the War Memorial is free, but they do accept donations.

War Memorial of Korea

Our tour guide was a retired gentleman who had been volunteering at the memorial for 10 years. He gave us a brief summary of the war, then had us watch a film explaining what happened in greater detail (approx. 18 minutes long). He then took us to a 4D experience with 3D glasses and a moved platform, which we were seated and fixed into, while we watched a 7 minute video from a first person perspective of what it was like to participate in the war. He explained a few more interactive exhibits, before deposited us in another 4D movie. This time I think the 4th dimension was “freezing during winter” as the air-conditioning seemed to be turned up to maximum in the room! The story was about one gentleman’s story as he experienced the war. A few more exhibits explained and the tour was done.

The memorial could be viewed without the guided tour, but I think doing the tour really brought it all together. There are many interactive displays within the memorial and one could easily spend the entire day there. There is a free audioguide system in place which can be accessed from your own mobile phone (but I didn’t personally try it out so I can’t tell you if it works or if the quality is any good); the memorial has free wifi to facilitate access.

The memorial has six halls, each with their own theme: Memorial, War History, Korean War and UN Participation, Donated Relics, Expeditionary Forces and ROK Armed Forces. I decided to not take photos within the war memorial during our visit to absorb what the memorial presented, and interactive displays are not necessarily photogenic displays. We spent 4 hours at the memorial and had museum burn out by the end. My plan to also visit the Korean National Museum nearby was scrapped and we decided to head back north for an early dinner.

Disembarking at Gyeongbokgung station, we made our way to Tosokchon Samgyetang (5, Jahamun-ro 5-gil), the most popular ginseng chicken soup establishment in Seoul. The chicken is stuffed with short-grained rice and the soup also contains ginseng, chestnuts, Korean dates, garlic, ginger, perilla seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, nuts, pine nuts and black sesame. Probably due to the early hour, there was no queue when we arrived and we were seated straight away in traditional seating.

Tosokchon Samgyetang

The soup tasted very nourishing and came with kimchi (of course), tea and a shot of ginseng liquor (very, very strong).

Ginseng Chicken Soup

We wandered for a bit through Bukchon for a bit before heading back to the AirBnB. It’s been a pretty heavy day even though we did less than the day before.

 

Second Day in Seoul – Changdeokgung, Secret Garden, Bibimbap, Hanboks and Gwangjang

Today was our first full day in Seoul. We made our way to Changdeokgung Palace in time for the 10:30 am English tour, only to find that the tour actually started at 10:15 am. Oh well, self-guided tour it is.

During summer, the palace is open from 9 am to 6:30 pm. Admission to the Palace only is 3,000 won (2.66 USD) per adult. We bought the Royal Palace Pass for 10,000 won (8.88 USD) each which gives us entry to Changdeokgung, the Secret Garden,Gyeongbokgung Palace, Changgyeonggung Palace, Deoksugung Palace and Jongmyo Shrine (ticket valid for 3 months).

Changdeokgung Palace was known to be the favorite palace of the kings of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) because of the spacious and beautiful garden at the back. The palace was constructed in 1405 as a secondary palace. After its destruction during the Japanese invasion (1592-1598), it was rebuilt in 1610 and served as the main palace for about 270 years.

Injeongjeon Hall is the throne hall, which was used for holding the most formal of state events such as audiences with ministers, coronation ceremonies and receptions of foreign envoys.

Injeongjeon Throne Hall (exterior)
Injeongjeon Throne Hall (interior)

Seonjeongjeon Hall is the ruler’s council hall and the only structure remining at Changdeokgung palace with blue-glazed roof tiles.

The king’s residence is Huijeongdang Hall where the king slept and informally worked, while the queen resided in Daejojeon Hall. Nakseonjae Hall was built by King Heonjong (24th king of Joseon) for his favorite concubine.

We booked the 11:30 am Secret Garden tour. The garden can only be viewed by guided tour and it is highly recommended that you book this ahead of time. Bookings can be done online here up to 6 days before your desired tour date. Sure enough, our tour was completely full. Our tour guide was excellent and spoke perfect American English.

This tour was well worth doing. The gardens are beautiful. However, keep in mind that some degree of fitness is required; the garden is very hilly with steep inclines/declines and there are many steps at one point. The paths are generally paved and there is anti-slip matting in place on the steeper sections.

Entrance to the Secret Garden
Buyongji Pond
Aeryeonji Pond
Jondeokgeong Pavilion
Ongnyucheon Stream
Anti-slip matting on steeper hill sections
Yeongyeongdang Complex
Lavatory facilities for the staff (back then, not now), next to the stables
750 years old juniper tree

After the tour, we headed into Insadong and back to Ssamzigil. This time we went into the basement level to Gogung for bibimbap. We shared a traditional bibimbap and a dolsot (hot stone pot) bibimbap, plus many side dishes. It was so good.

Bibimbap at Gogung

Cost: 11,000 won (9.77 USD) per bibimbap.

After lunch, we headed to the Insadong Tourist Information Centre to pick-up a few brochures and to have a Hanbok Experience. For 3,000 won (2.66 USD) per person, we could try on one traditional Korean costume each for 20 minutes. The lady at the centre was very helpful in helping us get dressed up and with taking our photos for us.

Hanbok Experience at the Insadong Tourist Information Centre (Insadong 11-gil)

There are also many hanbok rental places around where you can rent outfits for two hours (10,000 won (8.88 USD)) or four hours (15,000 won (13.32 USD)). If you are wearing a hanbok when you visit a palace, you get free entry.

After a few hours rest at the AirBnB, we took the subway to Gwangjang Market. The subway in Seoul is very easy to use. All of the signage is in English and Korean. There are safety gates in place along the platforms. Fanfare-type music announces the arrival of a train to the platform.

Gwangjang Market is a short walk from Jongno-5 station. At night, it’s mainly the food stalls that are open. The market was really busy; many Seoulites out and about on a Saturday night. We were hoping to try the bindaetteok (mung bean pancakes), but the queues were incredibly long, so we selected a stall where we had tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes), mayak kimbap (Korean-style nori rolls) and japchae (vermicelli noodles). The lady running the stall was lovely and the food was delicious.

Tteokbokki and mayak kimbap
Japchae noodles

After dinner, we headed down the the Cheonggyecheon stream, an 11 km narrow stream that was once covered up by an elevated highway post-Korean war and was since redeveloped in 2003. It is a really nice walking area with many people out for an evening stroll. At one point we passed a duo playing music with many spectators in tiered seating enjoying the impromptu concert.

Stores can be open really late in Seoul. We headed to Cheongnyangni to visit the Lotte Mall. Although the Lotte department store was already closed, we stopped into a Hi-Mart electronics store. We came across people testing out the high-tech massage chairs and decided to join them. Pretty good free massage! Next, we headed to Lotte Mart to pick up tomorrow’s breakfast, then back to the AirBnB.

What a great day.  The Secret Garden was definitely the highlight.

 

First Day in Seoul, South Korea

Upon entering the country, we got money out of the ATM. Although I’ve read about certain ATMs not charging a user fee, I couldn’t locate this mythical machine, and ended up paying 3,600 won (3.20 USD) for the privilege.

We headed to Door 11 and took an immediate left once we exited to purchase Airport Bus tickets to Anguk-dong (10,000 won (8.88 USD) per person). The lady on duty directed us to Stop 11B to wait for our Bus 6011. Our timing was good; we only had to wait 10 minutes for our bus’s arrival. When our bus arrived, the bus attendant loaded our bags onto the bus, giving us claim tickets in the process. The bus was perhaps a quarter full.

The bus trip didn’t seem to take very long as we passed rows upon rows of apartment buildings in the distance and farmland closer up. Most of the cars on the road were either Kia or Hyundai. For some reason, our bus driver drove passed our stop, so we disembarked at the next stop, which was fortunately only 5 minutes’ walk back to where we should have alighted.

The weather in Seoul was surprisingly mild and deliciously cool and night. Our AirBnB, which I’ll review later, has many windows allowing for a lovely cross-breeze.

As we hadn’t eaten since our second breakfast in flight, we decided to have an earlier dinner. We wandered over to Insadong and had Korean BBQ (or BBQ as the locals would call it) at Cha Iyagi. I had read a few good reviews online about this place and was keen to try it out. These reviews also said this place was hard to find, but we didn’t have any problems; just look for the spinning BBQ sign on Insadong 10-gil and you’re there!

There was one other table occupied, but the place was fairly busy by the time we left. The ladies running this restaurant were lovely and spoke enough English. There’s a choice of Western seating or traditional (floor) seating; we chose Western.

The menu is in both English and Korean. We had the Samyeopsal set (pork loin with side dishes). This included roughly 100 grams of pork per person plus 10 side dishes, including kim chi (of course), raw garlic, ssamjang sauce, artichokes, some sort of tasty greens, an Asian-style coleslaw, tofu, pickled turnips, a mystery vegetable in red sauce, a very spicy tofu and mushroom soup, rice and lettuce leaves for wrapping the meat in. Everything was so delicious and very filling. The pork was quickly self-cooked at our table.

Tom did the biggest no-no and blew his nose at the table! This is definitely not something that’s socially acceptable in this country. It’s ironic that the food is can be spicy enough to make your nose run, but nose blowing is not polite; you must stick to nose dabbing or sniffling.

How Spicy ratings:
kim chi – me 3/10, Tom 5/10;
soup – me 5/10, Tom 6/10.

Cost: 13,000 won (11.55 USD) per person

Next stop was Ssamzigil for a look-see. It has a lot of cute, little shops selling cute things.

We ended up at the Poop Cafe on the top floor for a post-dinner drink. I had a green tea latte and Tom has a hot chocolate. Price point: 6,500 won (5.77 USD) per drink.

On our way back to the AirBnB, we stopped at a GS25 convenience store for supplies. This included drinks, breakfast and T-money cards. For breakfast tomorrow, we’re having kimbap (triangle-shaped sushi rolls) and iced coffee.

T-money cards are used on the transit network. Instead of buying a ticket each trip, we now have tap-and-go convenience. We can also return the cards when we leave South Korea and get a refund (minus a small service fee).

So far, Seoul has been great. Everything has worked like clockwork (despite the mis-step with the bus drop off) and we’re really looking forward to spending the next few days exploring this city.

 

Review of Cathay Pacific Economy Class – Perth to Hong Kong to Seoul

Ground Staff in Perth

We arrived two hours prior to departure time. Having checked-in online, we joined the short Bag Drop queue. There were staff members in place to make sure you were in the correct queue and to hand out departure immigration forms. The staff member on the desk was very professional, but also friendly, and efficient.

Immigration and Security in Perth

Immigration in Perth is very speedy now with the Smartgates in place. After scanning your passport, you get your photo taken, and then you’re done. There were no queues when we went through.

Security was also streamlined in the last airport renovation. It’s a much bigger area with better flow through traffic.

Departing from Perth

We had a short wait to board. Plenty of seating available at Gate 51 within the new expansion part of the airport terminal. Again, the Cathay Pacific ground staff were impressive. They clearly explained the boarding procedure prior to the commencement of boarding, and then controlled who boarded when — Rows 65 to 75 meant exactly that.

CX170

The plane from Perth to Hong Kong was an Airbus A330 and seemed to be a newer model. We had a window/aisle “loveseat” pair, so avoided rubbing elbows with strangers. These seats had a fairly good recline, but given the tight pitch, this meant your forward neighbour appeared to be on your lap when they maximised their recline if you didn’t. This also mean that your monitor was in your face unless you also reclined into the lap of the person behind you.

The staff onboard were excellent — very quick at distributing meals and drinks.

The biggest plus was the IFE (inflight entertainment). An excellent and extensive selection of fairly recent Western movies viewed on a touch screen.

The biggest minus was my IFE. The screen kept turning itself on while I was trying to sleep (this was a red eye flight). That’ll teach me for not bringing an eye mask.

We were fed twice on this leg: a supper and a light breakfast. Both of us pre-ordered special meals, which arrived much earlier than everyone else’s meals. I ordered the Gluten Intolerant meal. The supper included chicken with mashed potato and pureed peas, gluten-free bread, chickpea salad, chocolate cake and fruit salad. Everything was quite tasty, except for the bread, which had the texture and taste of a sponge.

Breakfast comprised the same bread, plain yoghurt, fruit salad, Not exciting, but acceptable.

View at breakfast time

Our descent into Hong Kong wasn’t too bumpy and our landing was smooth.

Transit in Hong Kong Airport

This airport is massive and impressive. There were enough staff around to direct us to our connecting flight. Unfortunately our short connection time meant no time for shopping or exploring.

After a short wait, the Cathay Pacific ground staff told us to start queuing to board; one line for business class / high-ranking frequent fliers, and one line for everyone else in random order. The staff handed out disposable rain ponchos “in case in rains”, which it didn’t. We were bussed to our planes location on the tarmac.

CX410

The plane from Hong Kong to Incheon/Seoul was also an A330, but appear to be an older model. The aircraft was equipped with old-style shell seating. The good thing about these seats is that no one will recline into your head space. Seat pitch is quite decent, until you decide to recline, in which case your seat slides forward, decreasing the pitch and highlighting the lack of lumbar support. The headrests had adjustable wings that provided something to lean on when snoozing. Snoozing featured highly in this flight after the previous flight’s disturbed attempt at sleep.

Flying out of Hong Kong

The IFE offered on this flight was the same content as the previous flight. This meant I could continue watching the last movie which ended upon landing with 20 minutes of the movie left to go. The screens on this plane were somewhat smaller and only semi-touch screen, working in tandem with a handset.

Breakfast was served on this flight. This Gluten Intolerant meal included chicken with eggs and potato, bread, fruit salad and yogurt. Tasty, except for the bread, which had a better texture this time, but still tasted like sponge.

Again kudos to the excellent flight crew. Thank you for handing out juice exactly when I woke up from my nap.

Descent into Seoul was smooth, but too hazy to take photos while landing.

Immigration and Customs in Seoul

It took awhile to get from where our plane was gated to immigration. Many travelators, a train and more travelators later, we joined the massive queue for foreign passports. Fortunately, the queue moved very quickly. The immigration process is painless: hand over your passport and entry card, take a photo and fingerprints, and you’re done. The time from joining the queue to entering the country took perhaps 15 minutes.

Our bags were on the carousel by the time we got there. Customs consisted of handing the customs form to a staff member.

Conclusion

Yes, I would recommend Cathay Pacific. The service is outstanding and the planes are generally comfortable.

Welcome to my travel blog

My name is Cathy and I live in Perth, Australia.  I’ve decided to take the plunge and graduate from Facebook posts to a more cohesive format.

My next trip is in 45 days’ time — a brief trip to Seoul, South Korea, followed by a few weeks in Canada to see family.  Stay tuned …