Attention to detail: the logo always faces the customer!
Attention to detail: the logo always faces the customer!
Some breakfast at the Cathay First Class lounge in Hong Kong
Some breakfast at the Cathay First Class lounge in Hong Kong

Thai Airways took us from Bangkok to Beijing on their daily red-eye. The flight was way too short to have a meaningful amount of sleep but that didn’t matter, I was very excited to be on the way to Mongolia! We landed in Beijing just before dawn on a beautiful autumn morning.

After a brief visit to the Air China lounge we boarded our connecting flight on an Air China operated Boeing 737. It was my first time on Air China and I have to say that I wasn’t impressed. The meal service included some terribly bland rice porridge and the entertainment consisted of a lively argument between two of the flight attendants midway through the meal service. In the end, I concluded that the best thing about Air China is that they are in the Star Alliance (my miles work for booking their flights) and that they go to Mongolia. Other than that, I wasn’t too impressed.

Nice mix of livery in the early light at PEK
Nice mix of livery in the early light at PEK

We had booked a room with the Khongor Guest with the intent of also booking one of their tours. This got us a free transfer from Chenggis Khaan International Airport into the center of Ulaanbaatar (UB), a drive which took nearly an hour to cover the 10 or so miles. Traffic, even at 10:30AM on a weekday, is horrendous in UB. I was glad that we had the ride because the location, or at least the entrance, of our hostel was hard to find.

The non-descript entrance to our guesthouse
The non-descript entrance to our guesthouse

We spent the majority of our first day in UB recovering from the redeye and working on a tour plan with the owner at Khongor. They offer a wide range of itineraries spanning from simple day trips to 30-day tours of the whole country. We wanted to visit both the Gobi Desert (in the south) and some of the lakes in the west/north of the country. We eventually converged on a 14-day itinerary that would allow us to visit these areas.

Our room at the Khongor guesthouse was a bit on the small side.
Our room at the Khongor guesthouse was a bit on the small side.

Another aspect to planning to the tour was finding companions to lower the per person cost. Luckily two other travelers had arrived the day prior and had similar destinations in mind for their tour of the steppe. The four of us were to travel together for the first 8 days of the tour and then Amy and I would continue on our own for the remaining days. We opted for an all-inclusive tour which included the minivan, fuel, driver, tour assistant, accommodation, all food, and admission fees along the way. This type of tour priced out to $48 per person per day when we were splitting it four ways, and then $82 per person when it was just Amy and I. Pretty expensive, but it is not an easy place to travel independently.

Sükhbaatar Square
Sükhbaatar Square

With the tour scheduled for departure the next day, we set out and explored a little of UB. Near the guesthouse was the State Department Store whose slogan reads ‘all needs fulfilled.’ It dates back to ‘Red Russia’ times but nowadays serves as an outlet for all sorts of high-end brands. Just a little further down the main drag is Sükhbaatar Square, the center of UB which was a reasonably impressive sight.

UB's State Department Store: "All needs fulfilled"
UB’s State Department Store: "All needs fulfilled"

Foodwise, UB treated us much better than expected. We found a vegetarian restaurant (Gerel Ayalguu, directions here) just a couple blocks from where we were staying. On our first visit we sat down and had a good long stare at the Mongolian menu. I could positively identify one word “кофе” (coffee) but nothing else. Eventually one of the waitresses brought over an English menu – phew, what a relief. Ordering still took some guesswork (the translations were iffy) but Amy ended up with a nice soup and I got a big hearty serving of noodles.

One of our first challenges in Mongolia: ordering food
One of our first challenges in Mongolia: ordering food

The next morning we were met by our driver and tour assistant, Ultzi, who would be taking care of us for the next 13 days. We loaded our bags into a tough-as-nails looking Russian minivan and set out for the grocery store. Ultzi shopped for the food that we would need for the next few days and we found some supplemental snacks before setting out on the steppe.

Who's hungry?
Who’s hungry?
Off to Mongolia
Nice mix of livery in the early light at PEK
Nice mix of livery in the early light at PEK
This flight brought to you by Boeing and Air China
This flight brought to you by Boeing and Air China
The non-descript entrance to our guesthouse
The non-descript entrance to our guesthouse
Our room at the Khongor guesthouse was a bit on the small side.
Our room at the Khongor guesthouse was a bit on the small side.
Sükhbaatar Square
Sükhbaatar Square
UB's State Department Store: "All needs fulfilled"
UB’s State Department Store: "All needs fulfilled"
One of our first challenges in Mongolia: ordering food
One of our first challenges in Mongolia: ordering food
Amy enjoying her 'kimchi soup' and (soy) milk tea
Amy enjoying her ‘kimchi soup’ and (soy) milk tea
Noodles, the first of many I think I'll be having in Mongolia
Noodles, the first of many I think I’ll be having in Mongolia
Noodles.  The first of many I will consume in Mongolia
Noodles. The first of many I will consume in Mongolia
Who's hungry?
Who’s hungry?

Nov 072011
Are those donuts?
Are those donuts?

We decided to only make two major stops in Cambodia since our visit was a mere ten days in length. Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city at 140,000 was our second destination. The city has some nice colonial buildings but the main attractions lie a short tuktuk ride outside of town.

The fastest way to Battambang from Siem Reap is to take the bus. A more interesting but slower and more expensive way of making the trip is by boat. The trip started with a van transfer from our guesthouse in Siem Reap to the boat docks on the shore of Tonlé Sap Lake. I think this part of the trip is usually pretty fast but we had to forge some pretty deep door-seal-testing flood waters along the way. Ironically, the flood waters also cut our boat journey short at the other end of the trip as our boat was unable to pass under some of the bridges near Battambang.

At some point on the river, we broke down. I think this is par for the course on this ride; the guidebooks warn about it. This time one of the steering cables broke but our crew fashioned a splice out of a pair of knock-off vice grips. The breakdown was actually nice because for once we could enjoy the peace and quiet of the river. Best I could tell, our boat had a very minimal exhaust system – straight pipes seem likely. All I know is that it was really loud whenever the engine was running!

Eventually we entered the delta of the Stung Sangker river and passed a number of floating villages. They are quite a remarkable sight. Pretty much everything: houses, gas stations, stores and schools are floating. Some of the houses even had floating pigpens and chicken coups. The only permanent structures I could spot were the numerous cellular phone towers anchored to cement pylons.

Once we arrived in Battambang we tuktuked into town (an extra 8 kilometers thanks to the flooding) and found a nice room at the Lux Guesthouse for $18 per night. Surprisingly enough, we heard that Battambang had some good vegetarian restaurants. Starving from the boat ride we immediately went and checked one of them out (Mercy House).  Faux meat dishes aplenty on the menu and those proved to be one of my favorite things to eat during our three night stay in Battambang. Lunch or dinner for two people came to $5 on average. Great food at a cheap price.

Loaded up in the tuk tuk and ready for a day of touring
Loaded up in the tuk tuk and ready for a day of touring

The big thing to do when visiting Battambang is a tuktuk tour of the surrounding countryside. The tuktuk driver who picked us up at the boat seemed like a nice guy but despite emailing and calling I couldn’t reach him to scheduled a tour. Instead, we ended up with one of the guys who works for our guesthouse.

When you come across another train, one of them has to be dismantled.
When you come across another train, one of them has to be dismantled.

One of the first stops on our day tour was the bamboo train. Although there are plans to revitalize it, the Cambodia railroad system is currently defunct. This hasn’t stopped the locals from continuing to make use of the tracks. Makeshift bamboo carts with small engines are used to transport people, goods and tourist along the tracks in this part of the country. The carts are easy to disassemble so anytime another “train” is encountered the one with the lighter load must yield the way. Apparently these were also used when real trains were plying the tracks!

We blasted a few kilometers down the tracks at what felt like a very high rate of speed. The train tends to scare the insects living in the grass around the rails so you are constantly pelted with grasshoppers and the like along the way. Amy wasn’t too fond of this!

The steps leading to Phnom Banan
The steps leading to Phnom Banan

Next we drove to Phnom Banan, a temple perched nicely on a hill surrounded in pancake-flat brilliantly green rice fields. From the dropoff point it is a 358-step climb to the temple which was a good way to work up a sweat in the Cambodian heat.

The final stop of the tour was at the killing caves of Phnom Sampeau. The Khmer Rogue dumped hundreds of bodies in these caves and nowadays the site has been converted into a memorial. After the climb to Phnom Banan we weren’t too keen on climbing another mountain so we hopped on the back of a couple of motorcycles.

I spent quite some time chatting with one of the motorcycle drivers. He was a young kid, maybe in his late teens and his goal was to become a tuktuk driver like the one who was showing us around that day. He explained that it is a very highly paying job – they earn approximately $15 for a day tour. They usually spend one day searching for a customer and then spend the next touring with them; at least that is the way it can be in high season. It doesn’t sound like much money but in Cambodia it is way above the average.

He told me that he had to leave school prematurely in order to help his parents run their restaurant near the killing caves. He takes tourists up the mountains as a side job to help support the family and to save for a tuktuk. What struck me about this guy was his mastery of English – much better than most Cambodians we met during our visit. I complimented him on it and we left him a nice tip for showing us around the caves. I really hope things work out for him.

On our third morning in Battambang we rose early and schlepped our bags over to the bus station to catch a Bangkok-bound bus. Actually, there was no direct bus to Bangkok but we didn’t know that until we were dumped in some obscure town along the road to Poipet. Watching the morning “rush hour” while we waited for our second bus of the day was good entertainment.

A textbook example of proper horsecart weight-and-balance technique.
A textbook example of proper horsecart weight-and-balance technique.

At the border things moved very smoothly for us but some of our fellow backpackers apparently had issues leaving Cambodia. Something about their entry visas not being legit – shocking. I think we were waiting on the Thai side of the border for a good hour before they found their way to the minivan.  Then we had to wait longer for them to get food because they were starving.  Classic.  In retrospect, we should have just bought a bus ticket to the border and then a second ticket from the border to Bangkok. Less wait and less hassle!

Spicy green papaya salad
Spicy green papaya salad

We had no idea if it would be problematic to get out of Cambodia so we had padded our schedule with an extra day. This left us time to gorge ourselves on more Thai food and run an important errand: buying winter clothing. Next stop, Mongolia.

Battambang, Cambodia
Floating gas station
Floating gas station
A floating flood vendor
A floating flood vendor
Sunset with a thunderstorm
Sunset with a thunderstorm
Battambang's central market
Battambang’s central market
Three kids on a bike in a torrential rainstorm.
Three kids on a bike in a torrential rainstorm.
Loaded up in the tuk tuk and ready for a day of touring
Loaded up in the tuk tuk and ready for a day of touring
Are those donuts?
Are those donuts?
Riding the bamboo train
Riding the bamboo train
When you come across another train, one of them has to be dismantled.
When you come across another train, one of them has to be dismantled.
I hope this bridge had a few more wooden ties back when real trains came through.
I hope this bridge had a few more wooden ties back when real trains came through.
Bamboo lever is used to slide the engine and make the belt taught.
Bamboo lever is used to slide the engine and make the belt taught.
Cane juice! One of my favorites.
Cane juice! One of my favorites.
The steps leading to Phnom Banan
The steps leading to Phnom Banan
A good reason to stay on the path.
A good reason to stay on the path.
One of the killing caves where the Khmer Rouge disposed of countless people.
One of the killing caves where the Khmer Rouge disposed of countless people.
Checking out some abandoned German and Russian built tanks.
Checking out some abandoned German and Russian built tanks.
Cambodian gas station (soda bottles filled with gas)
Cambodian gas station (soda bottles filled with gas)
Old Pepsi factory that wa abandoned when the Khmer Rouge took over.  Oddly, the lawn is still maintained.
Old Pepsi factory that wa abandoned when the Khmer Rouge took over. Oddly, the lawn is still maintained.
Chicken is always on the menu in SE Asia
Chicken is always on the menu in SE Asia
The horse quite nearly took to the air as the trailer was loaded. I'm glad this guy isn't loading cargo into the jumbos at BKK.
The horse quite nearly took to the air as the trailer was loaded. I’m glad this guy isn’t loading cargo into the jumbos at BKK.
A textbook example of proper horsecart weight-and-balance technique.
A textbook example of proper horsecart weight-and-balance technique.
Thailand has some great vegetarian options
Thailand has some great vegetarian options
Sweet dessert made of sticky rice, coconut milk and sweet beans.
Sweet dessert made of sticky rice, coconut milk and sweet beans.
Spicy green papaya salad
Spicy green papaya salad

Sep 162011

Readers who have been watching the map on the website have probably noticed that we are no longer in Sri Lanka.  Indeed, we left the Pearl of the Indian Ocean a little over a week ago.  After almost 25 days of frequent use of Sri Lanka’s public transportation, coach seats on a Bangkok-bound airplane felt absolutely luxurious!  I still have quite a bit more to write about Sri Lanka but I thought I would interrupt the normally scheduled broadcasts and share our upcoming adventures.

During our last week in Sri Lanka I spent some quality time looking at airline award charts.  Ever since we left the States in July, I have been carrying hard copies of redemption charts for United, America, British Airways, British Midlands, and US Airways – all airlines in which I have a fair number of miles sitting in the bank.  I am sure I really confuse other travelers and locals alike when I sit someplace public and pour over these tables but staring at them for a long time is the best way for me to find the fun corner cases.  While planning our escape from Sri Lanka I think I had some good luck finding one of those corner cases.

The basic goals we had were as follows:

  • Thailand for a quick jaunt to Cambodia/Laos
  • Hong Kong – a city neither of us has visited
  • Mongolia – a country that has long been on my must-see list
  • Philippines – for more SCUBA and snorkeling

The first idea I had was to cash out some British Airways miles for an award with Cathay Pacific.  This would take us from Sri Lanka to Thailand for a stopover then onward to Hong Kong for another stopover.  Finally, the award would terminate by carrying us from Hong Kong to either Manilla or Cebu in the Philippines.  This seemed to be a good value but I wanted to stretch it even more.

Mongolia has long been on my must-see list and we are in the same neck of the woods, sort of.  OneWorld has no service to Ulaanbaatar but Air China, a Star Alliance member, has once daily service from Beijing.  Nesting a second award ticket inside of our Hong Kong stopover was doable but the miles required wasn’t all that attractive and the Chinese visa issues even less so.

Image from Wikipedia Mongolia article

Mongolia

Eventually it occurred to me that I could probably accomplish most of our goals with a single ticket using my British Midland (BMI) miles.  BMI allows stopovers, even on one-way awards, and prices their awards with a zone-based system which favorable groups all those destinations into adjacent zones.  By booking two one-way reservations I was able to construct a ticket to take us from Sri Lanka to Thailand for a stopover and then onward to Ulaanbaatar.  After a 16-day stay from Ulaanbaatar a second one-way ticket will take us from Mongolia to the Philippines…but wait, there’s more!

While I was checking the Star Alliance timetables for Manilla, I noticed that Continental’s Micronesia division has twice-weekly service from Manilla to Palau.  I also noticed that Asiana has four-times-weekly service from Seoul to Palau.  I wasn’t sure if the airline would accept the detour through Palau but I was determined to give it a shot.  After checking award seat availability I phoned up BMI and read off the segments.  The agent commented on the long routing but also noted that routing through Singapore, a much longer distance, was legal.  He had to get a supervisor involved but eventually all was approved.  15,000 miles were used for the entire ticket: Sri Lanka to Thailand to Mongolia to Palau to the Philippines.

My good friend Charles opined that we will perhaps be the 55th and 56th people ever to fly from Mongolia to Palau.  It is certainly a strange routing and a testament to the power and flexibility of air miles and global airline alliances.  Even if we aren’t the 55th and 56th, travel that day should be a radical change of scene after 16 days out on the steppe!

Palau image from Wikipedia

Palau's Rock Islands

So in the end we didn’t accomplish the goal of visiting Hong Kong but we did add the bonus destination of Palau!  Hong Kong should be easy enough to hit up some other time as its a major hub.  Our stop in Thailand is scheduled to last 12 days; not enough time for Laos but certainly enough time to visit the ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.  We could have stopped longer but the Mongolian winter is closing in.  Even this week, the second full week in September, they are already seeing lows around 15F (-10C)!  It’s high time to shop for some cold weather clothing!

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