I finally got to Ayutthaya, not according to plan at all. Ended up on a Klook Tour.

A couple of months ago, I had planned to go to Ayutthaya and Sukhothai for a few days (by myself in each city) but those plans went up in smoke when my back gave out but it wasn’t all bad, I guess. I posted about that HERE. My original plan was to take the bus to Ayutthaya, disembark at the bus station, hop on the ferry to cross the river and rent a bike to ride at any venue that offered bikes. Then grab/tuk tuk in between venues. I was told that it was better to rent bikes after taking the ferry because you have to pay extra to bring a bike onboard.

Whilst planning my 2 day trip I was wishing I had more time to explore Ayutthaya but alas as luck/fate would have it, my plan now included my family and since my kid couldn’t get any time off work that week, we only get one day in Ayutthaya. Well, since one of kids can’t cycle and the other one is ok but rather ‘green’ we decided biking was out of the question (since I couldn’t find any info on the availability of tandem bikes). For some reason, I couldn’t book bus tickets online from Singapore, either there were no tickets or the payment page wouldn’t work. At this point I’m just purely frustrated so I just booked a tour package.

I booked the one day Ayutthaya tour from Klook, I’ve booked tours (in Japan) before and the tours were well organized and on time, but really, really rushed. So that’s what we were expecting. Our tour included these places: Bang Pa-In Summer Palace, Wat Chaiwatthanarm, and Wat Yai Chai Mongkol with Night Market at a cost of $48 SGD per person. The drop off point was Icon Siam mall (different from the pickup point) which none of has had been to so that was a bonus, I guess.

The meeting point was easy to find (Siam Paragon Mall) and the instructions given on the website were precise. Departure time was accurate and the bus was large and spacious (2 seats on either side). Having said that, they don’t allow large bags/suitcases, so for those who didn’t know, there are lockers around the corner for people to lock up their luggage. Backpacks are ok though but you’ll have to sacrifice some leg room which isn’t a problem as there’s plenty. I had my backpack and waist pouch (that fits 2 dslrs) on the floor and still had plenty of leg room.

The bus was an older one with lumpy seats but the aircon worked well, some people had to put on jackets while others closed the aircon vent. The seats looked clean and overall the entire bus looked well kept. Oh, there isn’t a toilet on board and no scheduled toilet breaks (although the trip is only an hour or so). Included in the tour was a complimentary bottle of water and a bun with some sort of filling (assorted flavors).

The tour had two guides, one did all the talking and spoke in both English and Mandarin. The two guides did great in making sure everyone was taken care of both in getting photos at all the venues as well as making sure everyone was able to order their lunch. The lunch venue was a strip of local “mom and pop” style restaurants outside one of the venues. Although we were free to choose where we wanted to eat, the one they recommended was really, really good! I had TWO portions of whatever it was, I think it was pork. I’m not in the habit of taking food photos, so yeah, regrettably I have none.

If you’re travelling by yourself (as in not part of a tour), you really should take into account transport because the venues we were taken to are pretty far apart. Although, if you knew where you were going, I suppose you could bike it but I wouldn’t want to (I carry a buncha camera gear, lol), plus a lot of the biking would be done on the roads, not so great for little ones or those not fully confident riding in traffic.

Overall, this tour and our guides were awesome! We weren’t rushed at all and my family and I found that although we could have spent way more time at each venue, we did have enough time to get the images we wanted in the allotted time. This included me setting up the tripod for family shots at each venue which is rare when we are on a tour. Although tips weren’t mandatory, we unanimously agreed that our guides and driver deserved it. Plus at the drop off point, Icon Siam mall, they got us an envelope full of discount coupons, not sure where they got them from but it was nice.

Thanks for viewing and best wishes!

All the photos (unless otherwise noted in the post) were taken by me and are available for sale. If you’re interested in buying an image or three, 😃 please don’t hesitate to contact me for more details.

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Did I get scammed in Chiang Mai?

Tourist posing in bikini in front of a waterfall

I think i did but you know what? I’m not mad because if it was a scam i think it was a really good scam! Plus, not that it shouldn’t matter, the actual amount was pretty small. Ready to laugh at my expense? Here goes…

I was told by the hotel staff that Doi Inthanon is a “must see, you can’t say you’ve been to Chiang Mai if you don’t go to Doi Inthanon.”  Well, if that’s the case, I better go or at least research it, right? Oh, in case you haven’t read my “Dental vacation, wait what? SERIOUSLY?!” post, the reason why I was in Chiang Mai without having done any research on things to do there was because of my last minute need to get some dental treatment. Have a read if you’re interested in dental vacationing.

Anyways, Doi Inthanon is a national park that is on one of the mountains at the tail end of the Himalayan mountain range. It’s the highest point in Thailand and a source of great pride, I’m guessing, from the way it was described to me by the hotel staff. On this mountain are hiking trails, waterfalls, a monument in which the remains of a King of Chiang Mai is entombed. There is also 2 stupa’s in a park dedicated to a king and his wife as well as a temple. The mountain is also home to tribal people who were poppy farmers (think opium) until a king seized it all and made them farm something else, like flowers. There are a few trails that you can hike with one of them being a mandatory guided one. You have to hire a local guide (member of one of the Hill Tribes) to guide you. This particular trail is not too difficult and will lead you to a more waterfalls. Yup, I wanna go.

So what are the options? At the time I was trying to get there (early May 2019) the options were $800 TBH to rent a car (You must have an international drivers license by law but a tour agent said as long as my drivers license is written in English it will be allowed), even though mine is, I didn’t chance it. I didn’t want to drive on the “other side” of the road and I didn’t want to get potentially scammed by the usual vehicular scams ie dents, damages etc. I also didn’t want to mess with getting gas and fiddling with insurance. Same applies to renting a motorcycle/moped (I don’t know how to operate one anyways) and it’s at least an hour and a half drive. So my only options were a tour which ranged from $800 to $1200 TBH but included a lot of stops like tribe’s markets and a hot springs, which according to reviews was just a hole in the ground and nothing else. According to the tour agent you’d get to spend at most 45 minutes at the top where all the good stuff is. That just won’t cut it for me and the exorbitant amount of time I take to make images. So what’s left was taxis and private guides with a car. The hotel offered to get me a taxi for $3500 TBH and the driver will take me wherever I wanted to go and wait at wherever I wanted to stop. Private guides with cars were upwards of $4000 TBH and a Grab driver tried to sell me on $4500 TBH when I told him it was way too expensive he told me $3200 TBH to get up to the Visitor Information Centre which was about 1/2 up the mountain. When I declined that he dropped the price to $2800 TBH, WTH?! Right? Lol. OH! Forgot to add, if you get a cheap price ask them if the price includes gas, because you don’t want to get waylaid after the fact OR you can offer to pay the gas at the gas station to ensure you pay the actual amount and not some inflated figure. Anyways, I really had no choice but to go with the taxi service that the hotel (The Signature Hotel @Thapae, click here if you want to read my review of it) offered to get me. When the front desk clerk got off the phone, she informed me that the price would be $3200 TBH. BONUS! The wait for the taxi was about 5 minutes and the clerk told me I needed to pay the driver upfront. I figured it should be ok, it’s arranged by the hotel, right? The clerk then, in Thai, spoke with the driver and informed me that she told him all the spots I wanted to go, another bonus! Even though the vehicle wasn’t one of those slick looking metered taxis, it looked well cared for.

So off we went, we chatted a bit which consisted mainly of him trying to get me to change my destination to one an additional 2 hours away! I declined and he proceeded to informed me that we would make a pit stop to put in gas and at that rest stop I should use the toilet and or get some snacks because there won’t be any from that point until the top of the mountain. Awesome, sounds like a plan. About 45 minutes into the drive, the driver woke me up because we were at the pit stop. Darn meds always get me, lol. So at the gas station, the driver gets out, to check the engine compartment with an attendant, while another attendant put in gas. He closes the hood and pays and we drive over to the parking area for our snack and toilet break.

Fifteen minutes later we were on our way and roughly 45 minutes later we reached the Doi Inthanon National Park check point where I had to get out and pay the entrance fee of $300 TBH (foreigner’s price). I got back into the car and off we went to the first waterfall and then he starts complaining that the weather is so hot. Well, ya but it’s supposed to get cooler the higher you go. After all, it’s recommend in all the brochures and tour info guides to bring a jacket because at the top is the only place in all of Thailand where there’s “snow” (actually frost). Anyways, we get to the parking area of the Sirithan waterfall and I get out to go check it out while he pops the hood to “cool” the car because the weather is too hot (it really is hot in Chiang Mai, hotter than Singapore). I haven’t realized anything is wrong yet at this point, I’m already heading down the trail. The trail is pretty short and down a slight, stepped incline with sturdy hand rails that ends in a platform quite far from the falls. There are paths to the falls but they have been closed (looks like for a while now since the paths were overgrown) and blocked with “Do Not Enter” signs. So you’ll have to settle for view of the falls from between the trees. Roughly thirty minutes go by and I’m done and back at the car and we’re off again. Driver carried on as if thre were no issues and I asked if the car was ok, and he replied yes, it’s just too hot and Mitsubishi cars aren’t made to go up mountains. No clue how or why he came up with that…

Sirithan Falls within Doi Inthanon National Park.

Sirithan Falls within Doi Inthanon National Park.

Sirithan Falls within Doi Inthanon National Park.

Sirithan Falls within Doi Inthanon National Park.

So just before the next tourist spot, Pha Dok Sieo Nature Trail, I can see white “smoke” coming from the under the hood and the driver complains again of the weather being too hot and we pull into the parking area just as the car stops. I thought the driver just stopped the car in the middle of the area to let me out since he was telling me to go see the waterfalls and that the car just needs to “cool down”. I headed towards the trail but was stopped by some people under a makeshift gazebo. Apparently I had to pay for a guide to take me on this trail ($300 TBH) and that it’ll take about an hour and a half to get to the end point and that’s where my driver will pick me up. Well, I didn’t think too highly of the hike so I turned around just in time to see the car’s hood popped up with lots of white “smoke” billowing up and my driver along with some tour bus drivers pushing the car to a better parking spot. I went to enquire about the car and was reassured that it was ok and that it only needed to cool down but for now just go on the hike. I saw some people handing him water as he tried to pour some into the radiator. Hmmm, something is off but well, what else could I do since I’m already there. I might as well go on the hike, better than sitting around watching him pour water. So I paid the fee and off I went with my guide leading the way. Since the tour group before me was already full and had left, I get a guide all to myself, but I’m pretty sure I paid more than the participants of the tour group, as I saw the stack of money left by the tour group. Maybe my math is wrong or there’s a group discount, lol. Along the way, you’ll be able to see some of the opium poppy farms that have been converted to flower farms and 3 water falls, one of which you can swim in the resulting pool of water at the base. As you come up to the flower farms, you’re actually right up at the edge of the property. Where we were, the plants closest to use weren’t in bloom so I asked if we can go in, the answer, from another guide (we caught up), was “no”. My guide was looking around (don’t know what he was looking for but I was looking around to find a better shot and when the other group left, my guide motioned me over to where he was and he took me further into the farm, bonus! My guide mentioned that it will probably change to marijuana farms when marijuana becomes legal in Thailand. Interesting. Along the way, if you’re thirsty, there’s water, if you dare to drink it. Someone stuck a bamboo tube to catch some run off water and there’s even a makeshift bamboo cup for you to use. From where the water came from, I couldn’t see but it looked awfully sketchy to me. As I had two bottles of Gatroade with me I declined a sip but my guide drank some so it’s gotta be safe, right? I have to say, I found these waterfalls quite impressive and by now, I’m totally over the car ordeal. The hike is all down hill and really steep in some parts but not that bad if you can handle stairs that can be described as ladders in some sections. I’m actually quite content with this hike, my guide wasn’t rushing me at all and was a good sport about me taking photos with him in them and including him in my selfies (he was reluctant but obliged). He even pointed out things along the way and tried to spot birds and animals. As we reached the end point I was taking pictures of the other tourists taking their photos as my guide went to talk to another guide. They both came up to me to inform me that my driver couldn’t or didn’t want to come down then go back up again to the summit so I had to hike back up the friggin’ mountain. I thought to myself, YES!!! I can still get to the top of the mountain to see the other stuff. Well, my enthusiasm quickly died as we hit the first of the very steep inclines. Truth be told, I had to stop 3 times to catch my breath and at one point I felt light headed, my guide was cool about it and not laboured at all. I asked him how many times he hikes this trail he said 3 and I said something like, lucky he doesn’t have to walk back up each time like now and he replied, “no no no walk down, walk up is one time. Every day three times”. Well damn! No wonder he’s not fazed! I feel I need to also note that, as you can see in the photo’s, he’s wearing slippers! What you don’t see in the photos is my backpack with camera gear/tripod, and my waist pouch with 2 DSLR + attached lenses.

Local guides for the Pha Dok Sieo Nature Trail on Doi Inthanon, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Flower farms on the Pha Dok Sieo Nature Trail on Doi Inthanon, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Have a drink of this “clean” run off water on the Pha Dok Sieo Nature Trail on Doi Inthanon, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Tourists enjoying a swim and the view at one of the waterfalls on the Pha Dok Sieo Nature Trail on Doi Inthanon, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Me and my guide in front of a waterfall on the Pha Dok Sieo Nature Trail on Doi Inthanon, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Nearing the end of the Pha Dok Sieo Nature Trail on Doi Inthanon, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Parts of the Pha Dok Sieo Nature Trail on Doi Inthanon, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Parts of the Pha Dok Sieo Nature Trail on Doi Inthanon, Chiang Mai, Thailand

By the time we got back to the car, a little more than 3 hours had passed and I was drenched, head to toe from sweat. Lucky I brought a hotel hand towel. My hiking shirt was so drenched I could wring water out! Not as quick dry as I believed it to be, haha . The car’s hood was down and I asked about the condition and again, driver said it’s ok, so off we went. Not even 10 minutes later we see smoke again and this time my driver gives up and finally admits we can’t make it to the top but on the way down he’ll take me to see some “more beautiful” places. With no choices and getting frustrated, I said “fine”. He makes a U-turn and drive a ways before finding a spot to stop the car. So now that I can’t get to the top, I’m getting mad and worried about being stuck in a busted car with no view. Flashbacks of my first car, a 1979 Mustang, and all the engine problems it came with didn’t help. But I thought, if this car can still run and all that it needed was water then the issue wasn’t that bad and the smoke wasn’t smoke, just steam. I guess my face showed my unhappiness as he started to apologize profusely while blaming the weather and Mitsubishi (for making crappy cars) and insisting that the places he was going to show me were “really beautiful.” Now I’m thinking i was lucky I didn’t let him persuade me to go to the other place or I would have seen nothing! So all the way down the mountain, every time the over heating light came on, we had to stop, sometimes he put in some water and we’d continue. Before we reached the bottom of the mountain he did take me to see another waterfall.

To get to the Wachirathan Waterfall you drive down this, what looked to me, like a one way path but you can just barely fit two cars, something to note if you’re driving. The area around the waterfall is nice. There are gift shops and a coffee shop where you can get some food and drinks. There’s also a short trail you can follow to see where the water pools and get closer to the falls. Apparently you can play in the water further along the stream even though there are signs posted saying “no Swimming”. After almost an hour, I make my way back to the parking lot and the car isn’t where it was parked when I got out. Great. So I whip out my phone as I walk towards the souvenir shops at the lower half of the parking lot to buy a drink, thinking I’d just call the hotel to send out another car hopefully cheaper than it would cost to get a Grab taxi. At the lower half of the parking lot is where I see my driver waving at me. So I skipped the drink and got into the car, thankful I didn’t have to spend anymore money for transport on this excursion.

Wachirathan Falls within Doi Ithanon National Park

Wachirathan Falls within Doi Ithanon National Park

As soon as we reached the bottom of the mountain, lots of steam billowed out and we had to stop. Luckily, I guess, it was in front of a residential type area where at least I can get out of the car and walk around and find something to drink (I finished the 2 bottles of Gatorade on the hike back up the mountain). Plus my driver was out of water and had to go look for some. I thought nothing of it until he came back and told me he found some water at a public restroom just across the street. As he was gathering his empty water bottles, he turned to me then said “oh there’s a police station beside the restrooms”. I wondered why he mentioned that, not like I could steal his busted car, right? Or did I look like I was gonna hurt him? Anyways, he came back with the water for his car and I told him I was gonna find something to drink and he quickly volunteered to go buy some, his treat. Well, that’s nice. When he came back I watched him pour the water into the radiator(attempting to anyways because the steam just kept pushing the water away). Took him awhile to figure it out or maybe he got tired of refilling his water bottles so he waited until we couldn’t see the steam coming out the radiator before attempting to pour anymore water in. It was during this time that he brought out a cloth and started wiping the engine compartment and I realized that the car was spotless inside and out and so was the engine compartment. There shouldn’t be any engine issues if someone is this meticulous with his car, right? At this point I started taking pictures and looking for the radiator cap because I remember not being able to touch the cap due to the extreme heat when I had engine problems in my Mustang, so how did he get the cap off so quickly? I couldn’t find the cap. Having filled the radiator, we continued on. A little ways into the drive, I was taking pictures out the window of the sunset (better than nothing, I had try to get some shots) I was vaguely aware that the driver was reaching around the front compartments. A few minutes later he exclaimed something along the lines of “I found it” and showed me the radiator cap! What The @$#%@^@! As soon as he could, he stopped to put it on. After that, all the while driving he kept complaining that the weather was too hot and that the cap didn’t solve the problem because the over heating light came back on. About 45 minutes away from the hotel we stopped one last time in front of some houses along the highway and he went into the yard of one of them and came out with a big bucket of water. I don’t know if kept the radiator cap on or not after that, I just gave up caring.

Taxi with overheating issues

Taxi with overheating issues

Taxi with overheating issues

Taxi with overheating issues

Back at the hotel, he wouldn’t discount the fee with the excuse that he took me to additional “beautiful places”. I reminded him that he took me to one other place, his response was continued apologizing. Quick math…if I had paid for going up 1/2 way it would have cost me about $2800 TBH according to the Grab driver I spoke with days ago, so this driver now is only ripping me off $500 TBH which is about $22 SGD. I’m just too tired to fight over $22. So I walked away and into the hotel. The front desk clerk, the same one who got me the taxi asked me how it went and when I told her of the car problems she tried to go outside to argue with the driver but he had already left. She apologized for my troubles and making an effort to call someone, I didn’t stick around to find out, I was tired and hungry.

So if you book a cab and the car + driver shown in the above pictures show up, don’t take it. Unless you think my ordeal is just a series of unfortunate events. For me, the icing on the cake was the strategic use of aircon in the car. Now this was a good scam, totally didn’t see this one coming, a $22 “life lesson”, cheap right? LOL.

Consider following me for updates to find not only my other travel bloopers, blunders and shenanigans but also photography related news/reviews and the occasional contest entry.

All the photos (unless otherwise noted in the post) were taken by me and are available for sale. If you’re interested in buying an image or three, 😃 please don’t hesitate to contact me for more details. Thanks in advance!

Comments & Critiques are always welcome, as are upvotes and resteems.

Thanks for viewing and best wishes!

PS. If you want to check out my other ‘works’, you can find them here:

Fine Art

Review of Hong Changyu Inn, Pingyao, Shanxi Province, China

Hong Changyu Inn
Pingyao, Shanxi Province, China.

Hong Changyu Inn is situated within the city of Pingyao’s ancient walls. For clarification, the Inn is inside the walls but outside the no drive zone. This means that you can get front door pick up, drop off service for a fee. My quoted pricing was 48 Yuan for pickup at the highspeed railway, 30 Yuan for the regular train’s station (the one from Datong stops here) and drop off service to Taiyuan Airport was 380 yuan. Shaw, the Inn keeper can converse in English and responds to emails quickly. He’s very patient and helpful. Payment was made in cash at check in (remember to get your receipt, just in case) including security deposit and payment for taxi fare to Taiyuan airport. Check out was smooth and quick. Deposit was ready and returned without hesitation. Breakfast is not included and costs 10 Yuan per person. As a matter of fact, I don’t even recall seeing a restaurant. We didn’t have time to experience it though plus the street food looked way too good.

Courtyard of Hong Changyu Inn

Details and decor of the Hong Changyu Inn.

If you’re into ancient architecture, decor and ambiance, then you can’t go wrong with Hong Changyu Inn. The room we got looked exactly the same as the one pictured when I booked on Booking.com.  It had everything I wanted to experience straight down to the stone bed. We didn’t get to light a fire under it for warmth though. The opening to shove in wood/coal was closed off and it wasn’t cold enough anyways. The bed was not as hard as I thought it would be, probably because the padding was pretty thick. Pillows were comfortable, might be a bit too hard for some (don’t worry, it’s not the wood blocks of old). The room and Inn looked a bit too new for the decor (there were some run down looking Inns/Hotels but I didn’t want to chance it). The room was clean as were the sheets, blankets and towels.

There is the usual compliment of toiletries and a sitting toilet but there isn’t a safe for your valuables. Lucky, I always bring my laptop cable lock and looped it around the the ornate brick of the bed and locked the tumbler section inside my suitcase (between the zippers and locked the zipper handles). Not perfect, but better than nothing I suppose. The entrance to the room is unique in the sense that there is a heavy, rattan like mat, roll up curtain (but doesn’t roll up) that you have to move aside to open the door. If you’re wondering why it’s there, its so you can leave the door open for more fresh air and still have some privacy. The door is secured via latch and padlock.

Doorway to a room at the Hong Changyu Inn.

Doorway to a room at the Hong Changyu Inn.

As you can see, the room is small but still ok for a couple or single occupant. The bed is big enough to fit 3 though. If you do stay with more than just yourself, take note that the frosted glass of the bathroom/toilet is not as frosty as the photos indicate, especially when wet. Another thing to note is to remember to take the toilet paper out of the bathroom (and the dust bin) when showering (yes, that’s the roll holder almost directly under the shower head)! Also, for some reason the water tastes weird (but bearable), don’t know why or how. No I didn’t drink it, just got some in my mouth from showering and brushing my teeth.

Inside one of the rooms at the Hong Changyu Inn.

View inside the restroom of a room at the Hong Changyu Inn.

If you’re visiting Pingyao for the the Pingyao International Photography Festival, this Inn is really close to Feng Yi gate which you need to exit to attend the opening ceremony if it’s held at Feng Yi Park (as it was in 2017). It’s also really close to the main exhibition halls (Diesel building and others). All within 15 minutes walking (assuming you head directly to the destination).

I would definitely stay at the Hong Changyu Inn again next year (if I’m fortunate enough to make it into an exhibition)!

To see more pictures from Pingyao, China, visit my Flickr Page.

My journey to the Pingyao International Photography Festival 2017

Documenting my journey into China. I thought it would be a good idea to visit some historic sites on my way to the Pingyao International Photography Festival 2017, which is the largest photography festival in China and set within the ancient city walls of Pingyao in the Shanxi province. Hopefully my exploits will help some of you if you happen be in similar situation(s). I will put my visit to each tourist site in separate posts with links in this post. It was quite a privilege for me to participate as part of the Photographic Society of Singapore’s curated contingent. Here’s me with my entries:

My large prints on exhibit at the Pingyao International Photography Festival 2017

My large prints on exhibit at the Pingyao International Photography Festival 2017

NOTE: Yuan and Renmenbi are used interchangeably as the name for China’s currency. Yuan is the official name, I think.

My daughter and I flew out of Singapore on China Eastern Airlines into Shanghai’s Pudong Airport and had a few hours layover before our flight to Datong so we got some breakfast and ate it at the gate lobby. Although the flight was on time and we were sitting outside the gate, we almost missed the flight!!! Between my daughter and myself we heard only one call to board roughly 30 minutes before the printed boarding time on our boarding pass. As we got to the counter, we noticed that we were at last call with roughly 10 minutes left and being rushed and a bunch of people were starting to stir behind us. Apparently, there were 2 flights leaving from this gate and the attendants were sifting through the passengers. So we got through with a bunch of other people and had to get on a bus, there was enough of us stragglers to fill the bus! Then it took us roughly 25 minutes to get to the plane. We all boarded the plane, no hassles, plenty of overhead cabin space and the flight went by smooth. No horror stories, no bad service, zip. Three hours later we land in Datong

View of Datong Airport’s terminal from the runway.

Datong airport has a tourist transportation kiosk that you can see as soon as you step past security after collecting your bags, it’s a big red sign in English. The lady we spoke to didn’t speak English though but we managed to ascertain that the free bus that goes into the city had just left and that a taxi would cost 50 yuan. So instead of wait 30 min. for the next free bus (which would have stopped in front of our hotel) we chose to take the taxi she walked us out to get the cab and made sure the driver knew that the fare would be 50 yuan. The ride by (speeding) taxi was roughly 30 min. I imagine the bus would take twice as long.

NOTE: I was told prior to leaving for this trip that everything was negotiable and that it is imperative that you ask for the price BEFORE you get into the taxi. This lady dictating/reinforcing the fare really set this process in my mind.

Our Itinerary (will link to reviews when I write them):
First Day: Yungang Grottoes.
Second Day: Wooden Pagoda, Hanging Temple, Hengshan mountain
Third Day: Datong Great Wall and inner city walk around.
My full review of Datong Hotel

So we got to the hotel, Datong Hotel, roughly 20 minutes later and was able to check in early. There was a guy (tall with glasses) that could speak a bit of English that helped us check in. He took my Booking.com details and was quite pleasant. He informed me that I had to use my credit card for security deposit and I understood a charge of 1/3 the quoted price would be charged. He actually charged 1/3 over the quoted price and said the difference would be “returned”. I didn’t really think I’d get ripped off and if I did I can dispute, right? Not really. Anyways, got the keys and went to the room to drop off our suitcases. We were excited and wanted to go see stuff already. We spent roughly 3 days and 3 nights in Datong. There are many eateries around but none looked like they would have English menus so we just picked a joint that had pictures on the wall and pointed out our order. Here’s a picture of the hotel front yard:

Datong Hotel

Front view of Datong Hotel.


The hotel is old, but not dirty. A bit dark in places but overall, ok. It’s kind of close to many of Datong’s attraction.  Only ran into 3 staff that could converse, kind of, in English. All were front desk staff. Although the hotel’s rates are relatively inexpensive beware of this scheme:

My quote from Booking.com was in the amount of 684 Yuan for 3 nights. Upon checkout, they did not reverse the security deposit charge and charge the subsequent correct amount of 812 yuan (we room charged dinner one night in the amount of 128 yuan). When questioned, they punched a bunch of stuff into the machine it spit out a long paper that had the correct amounts on it but was difficult to read. Now going on at the same time, the taxi we had arranged, had not shown up yet (20 min late) and I was worried we would miss our train to Pingyao. So I figured I would give them the benefit of the doubt and deal with this through my credit card if necessary. Also the converted potential loss would be around $38 dollars (my currency) which would be cheaper than missing my train.

UPDATE: As of 9/30/17 The security deposit is gone from my credit card statement and the proper charge is reflected.

So we got the hotel to get us a taxi to the train station. It cost 15 yuan and took roughly 20 min. We got to the train station, went through security, bought some drinks and took a toilet break, 10 min later it was boarding time. Here’s the train station:

Datong’s railway station.

TIP: get your tickets early and try not to get the standing or hard seats (standing literally means standing in the aisle of the hard seat section). I used Ctrip.com (their website’s in English and you can pay via Mastercard or Visa) and collected the tickets the day before the train ride (again 15 yuan from Hotel). Take a picture of your ticket(s) before you board.

Although the sign says pick up tickets here (where the lady in yellow is in the above picture), behind all those doors is the security line of bag x-ray machines and security personnel with metal detectors. To pick up tickets, go through security and walk down the corridor on the right (as if you had walk straight through the doors where the lady in yellow is in the photo above). The corridor opens up and you’ll see ticket counters from which you can get your tickets. If you’re catching your train, after security check, show your ticket to the last security personnel and they’ll point you in the direction you need to go. Well at least that worked for us, the lady security guard even spoke the directions in English.

We booked the Hard Sleeper seats which are bunk beds three high on either side of a cubicle. One train car has like 4 or 5 cubicles. I couldn’t pick seats so we got one way at the top and one on the opposite side bottom (at least we were in the same cubicle. Don’t be surprised if someone is on your bunk, they will move when you get there if not show your picture of your ticket. The person who took your ticket when you boarded the train will give you a plastic card when the train starts moving. This card is what you will need to show if you get questioned when/if you walk around. There is a dining car, but was locked when we tried to get food. You give back the plastic card when the train personnel comes by presumably to tell you your stop is coming up.

Train tickets from Datong to Pingyao

Plastic cards given on train with seat/bunk number

TIP: Know how many stops and keep count of the stops you’ve passed. There are either NO SIGNAGE or they are very hard to see/find or not in English. Arrival time may be off by 15 min (ours was and we almost didn’t get off the train, a fellow passenger my daughter befriended told us that we needed to get off the train). Some train stops seems really close together so it may not be obvious even though the train personnel came to take the plastic card. Here’s the Pingyao train station (slow train) the high speed train station is some where else.

Pingyao train station platform.

Outside of Pingyao Train Station.

The outside of the station had some construction going on so I couldn’t get a better frontal shot. But all you would need is the characters on top of the building to show anyone if you needed to get to Pingyao’s regular train station (as in not the high speed train station).

So we booked a hotel (Hong Changyu Inn, review here) within the ancient city walls and while it is technically possible to walk from the train station, I’m guessing 30 min walk. I wouldn’t. We tried and abandoned the task within 5 min. We both had wheeled carry on sized suitcases and the surface is not conducive to rolling them on. The way is a patchwork of nice brick surfaces, to cobblestone to dirt patches. Then the “sidewalk” would end and you’d have to walk on the street (that in itself is a harrowing experience). Better just to get one of those “tuk tuk” looking taxis for 20 yuan or better yet have the hotel go get you some hotels offer it for free mine didn’t.

Due to time constraints I had to limit our stay in Pingyao to 3 days and nights. The Pingyao International Photography Festival spans a week. Within the city there are 22 tourists spots which you can enter using one ticket. Which usually costs 130 Yuan. This ticket  during the festival was on sale for 65 yuan and has a bar code on it that gets scanned at the entry of each tourist destination (sometimes scanning is self service). There are some attractions that aren’t included with the ticket (so look for the turnstyle gate thing). We allotted a whole day (our last day) for the attractions and only finished 11. We did see an additional 2 attractions (temples) from the outside because they were closed. The attractions close around 18:00 / 18:30. So keep that in mind. Pingyao Ancient city is way bigger than it seems especially if you plan to walk everything.

The people are friendly, most can tolerate the language barrier and we found more English practitioners in Pingyao than in Datong. Food prices can very widely and coffee is scarce and when I did find it it was 48 yuan a cup, beer was only 18 yuan and bottle drinks 5 yuan. Street food stall prices vary too. I had a sausage on a stick for 15 yuan at one stall and at a different stall I had two on a stick for 10 yuan.

My review of Pingyao International Photography Festival 2017.

Even being able to speak Cantonese didn’t help with the language barriers as everyone spoke Mandarin, but according to my daughter the Mandarin we encountered is different than what she learned in school. If you can speak another Chinese dialect I would encourage you to try if only to negate the crassness of some people who find it unreasonable that a Chinese person can’t speak “Chinese”.

The hotel we stayed in was the Hong Changyu Inn and it was exactly as advertised on Booking.com. Shaw, the inn keeper can converse in English and was extremely helpful. He also (at my request) arranged a cab to drive us to Taiyuan Airport for 380 yuan (the driver was conscientious and safe). Payment inclusive of security deposit was paid in full upon check in (just remember to get your receipt and you should be fine). Deposit was refunded with no issues. Actually I got 6 yuan extra because neither of us had small bills. Here’s a photo taken from within the courtyard:

Courtyard of Hong Changyu Inn

My review of Hong Changyu Inn

From Taiyuan we flew to Shanghai’s Hongqiao Airport, and had 10 hours layover so we rode the subway into town (peoples square), it was raining so not much happening in the park so we walked around the malls, then took the subway to Pudong Airport for the flight back to Singapore. Food prices and trinket stuff in the malls were not so bad but the branded stuff, I found, were more expensive than Singapore. There is a distinct shift in friendliness too, Shanghai being way less friendly than Pingyao, Datong or Taiyuan (though we only spent time in the airport).

There are a lot of bad reviews for China Eastern Airlines but for us, the only thing to complain about was the age of the plane, it was readily apparent. Some planes had no screens for movies, broken tray tables, broken cup holders, torn seats, lumpy seats (I used the blanket as a cushion on one flight). Other than that it’s not bad (especially for the price). Every flight had a meal, AWESOME!. My daughter and I love airplane food! Oh conversing with the flight crew in English may be an issue at times, for example, we asked for apple juice they said yes and gave us orange juice.

I really wish I had more time in both Datong and Pingyao. I really loved both places. The air quality everywhere we went was noticeably bad, especially in the morning. It literally leaves a bad taste in your mouth but by noon most of it was gone, not the taste though. Maybe that’s why people spit so much in China.

1. Horns, bells, whistles and verbal sirens are all indicators that the person is coming through and will not give way (for the most part) so it’s best if you move, especially if you’re a pedestrian.
2. Spitting is loud and everyone does it, it seems. Chances are quite high you’ll step in a big wad of spit/mucous if you don’t watch where you’re going.
3. Children (boys and girls) will pull down their pants and pee wherever. In Pingyao we saw numerous toddlers with pants that had no back side to facilitate the easy of relieving themselves I guess.
4. If you leave even the slightest gap, someone will cut in and think nothing of it, it’s normal. People will get mad or shove you through if you don’t do it.
5. You’ll be lucky if you get a sitting toilet, expect to squat. ALWAYS bring your own tissue.
6. For this trip (since I have a very intolerant digestive system), I followed the pharmacist’s advice and used Duolac then when my stomach got a bit queasy (only 3 times)  I took Imodium. My whole trip I had no problems and was even eating street food!!!
7. Smoking is allowed almost EVERYWHERE it seems.

More Datong photos in this Flickr Album
More Pingyao photos in this Flickr Album

Tradewinds Tour & Travel Singapore

An account of my family’s vacation booked/organized by Tradewinds Tour and Travel Singapore. Book with these guys and you probably will get a similar experience.

Background info: Tour package from Singapore to the west coast USA (LA, Las Vegas, San Francisco). Group size: my family (8 pax) and a very nice couple makes 10 PAX. Tour destinations: a handful of duty free shops, Disneyland, Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Palm Springs, Fisherman’s Wharf.

Overall I think these tour guides are just out for commissions from shoppers and must think very lowly of their customers intellect. From their non stop suggestions on which shops to shop at and which shops to eat at(the one restaurant we were specifically brought to was crappy both in service and quality of food). Credit to the guide (for the LA portion) for bringing us to an In and Out Burgers after I had expressed my liking for the burgers, otherwise the only other suggestion would be Panda Express (fast food chinese restaurant). The guides would do better to learn more on the areas they are bringing their customers if only to stop them from making racist comments against that particular area’s demographics. They also need to learn the difference between service charges and gratuity (tips).

One of the first things they will tell you, is that it is mandatory to tip and that the driver gets $5 per passenger per day payable to the tour guide. The tour guide gets between $5 to $10 per person per day and then proceeds to tell you about previous tour guides giving him VERY generous tips. Sounds like highway robbery to me! We had a total of 3 different guides, the first 2 were snobbish, uninformative and rude at times only the 3rd one (the one based in San Fran) was really good. On par with other tour guides at the least. The first two guides, basically, were useless, they just show up to collect their tip, it felt like. The third guy at least brought you to the places and stayed around to give you some info on the area, helped with your bags and was pleasant and courteous.

Here are some unbiased facts:
1) We booked this vacation months in advance and requested that two of the four rooms be joining. NONE of the rooms at any of the hotels were joining when we checked in, we had to request and juggle rooms within our group to get this accomplished.
The Courtyard by the Marriot Palm Springs couldn’t / wouldn’t give us joining rooms, at first, claiming they didn’t have joining rooms (I asked 2 room service attendants and both confirmed they DO have joining rooms). We couldn’t get a refund for the unused room. My kids are too young to be left unattended and we were unwilling to split our family apart on a family vacation. Judy at front desk the next morning hinted that joining rooms were possible but difficult and would require advance notice, I asked if 2 months was “advanced” enough and she apologized for not being able to help.

2) We get to Las Vegas and get a new tour guide, right off the bat he starts speaking chinese which is ok, if everyone understood but not everyone did, not even 50% of us. Me being the worst I can’t understand at all, the rest can. When asked if he can speak english he obliged. Up until we get to the Grand Canyon and he realized the majority of us were not taking any “Extra” tour things so he starts speaking mandarin with another tour guide and takes off with another group of people! Yeah really! I don’t understand much mandarin but even I understood the last sentence of “whoever is taking the helicopter tour, follow me”. That’s not the worst part, the worst is, we stayed in the gift shop area and they had some Native American performance. The kicker of it all is, the guy comes rushing up like 20 minutes later saying he was looking all over for us and we shouldn’t wander off, we should be following him. Like wow…he takes off and tries to blame me (us). Well I pulled him aside to tell him it wasn’t cool to do that, he thought he was cool and started walking towards my family still trying to blame us so my wife joins in and he realizes he lost and his last remarks were, “how do you know what I said?”. What a retard! His name is Wayne, so if you get him as your tour guide…good luck. He took off on us again a few hours later without saying a word. Also, some of my relatives went on an “extra” tour (the glass balcony thing over the Grand Canyon) and Wayne went to get the tickets, initially my kids didn’t want to go but changed their mind later so I bought the tickets myself and we found out later that I paid $15 less.

3) We get to the airport for our flight to San Francisco and Wayne tries to check us in…I say ‘tries’ because the people at the counters couldn’t find our names. We had our confirmation numbers but apparently we needed some other number which Wayne, didn’t have. So we waited while Wayne called back to the Singapore office. After some delay and panic, we were able to get on board. How can a tour company arrange a tour and mess things up like that? Unbelievable is when they tried to blame it on a computer glitch. Yeah only the 10 of us got “glitched”, right? Everyone else was checking in just fine, quite quickly too.

4) When we reach the hotel in San Fran, after the days’ tour had ended, we were informed that we didn’t have transportation to the airport for our vacation in Canada, even though it was supposed to be taken care of and confirmed. It’ll cost us about $100 more. So we got our own transport via the concierge for $75. So that ended our tour package with Tradewinds Tour and Travel Singapore.

5) Since we had booked our travel package with Tradewinds (months before) we had them book our flights to Canada as well. Guess what? Our seating on the flight was eight seats all over the place. We had to request for reassignment of seats and managed to get each kid beside an adult. Don’t know if it’s Tradewinds’ fault for not specifying we were a group and should be seated in close proximity due to the 4 children in the group but at this point, I’m going to blame it all on them anyway.

6) Flight back to Singapore, AGAIN they couldn’t find our names. In the end we didn’t miss our flight but it sucked all the same.

Our vacation was, by no means, ruined by these idiots but it wasn’t stress free as a vacation should be. Was more costly than what they indicated when we booked and would have been even more so if we believed what they told us. In my book, these guys suck and will get what they deserve.

I hope karma will let me watch when she comes around to these people.