Ronald Reagan International Airport
My recent around the world trip was unplanned and out of the blue. I had not seen my mother for so long, so we make a plan to visit her in Malaysia (Asia). TwoMonkeyme couldn't get time off, so it was only me and LittleMonkeyme.
I took the Amtrak train from Minnesota to Chicago, then changed trains to go to New York. I had to change trains again in New York for Washington, DC to pick-up LittleMonkeyme, as he now lives in DC.
Union Depot Station, St. Paul, Minnesota
We flew from DC to New York to catch our flight to Asia with China Southern Airlines. LittleMonkeyme had a visa for China as he was going to return via Beijing and Shanghai. I did not bother as I was only transiting in China for maybe a couple of hours. My ticket was from New York to Kuala Lumpur with a transit to Guangzhou, China. To be safe, I booked a return ticket from Bangkok to Los Angeles with a transit in Oslo with Norwegian Air which seemed to be the cheapest ticket I could find online. I was thinking of taking the bus from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok which I have done many times before.
New York City, USA
My understanding of the Chinese visa procedure was that if I didn't leave the airport and was not staying more than 72 hours in China then I didn't need a visa or a return ticket. We checked in at the China Southern Airlines counter at John F Kennedy Airport but the Chinese woman in-charge said I had a problem - I needed a visa or a return ticket. I explained that I had a forwarding flight to Kuala Lumpur and would only be in Guangzhou airport for maybe 2 hours at the most to change flights. It didn't matter - I needed a return ticket so we showed her my ticket from Bangkok to Los Angeles but she wanted to know how I would get from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok. We explained that I was going to take the bus or train. She wanted to see the bus ticket even though I told her that I could only buy it in Kuala Lumpur. My American passport and credit cards are all irrelevant - I need a confirmed ticket out of Kuala Lumpur. I told her that Malaysia is another country and not part of China - that I have families there, therefore she doesn't have to worry but still doesn't work.
Trump International Hotel, Washington, DC
Since all the passengers had already boarded, I was now resigned to missing this flight. We kept insisting that we were not staying in China but the woman was adamant that she was only following the rules. She had to call China ( I'm not sure which one - the airline or the communist party ) but she did not pick up the phone so I was sure that's the end of it. However, LittleMonkeyme was still trying to explain politely about the situation and at the same time working on his iphone to booked me an air ticket from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok. The woman wanted to see it confirmed before she checked us in. Whew!
China Southern Airlines was actually not bad. The flight was about 16 hours but pleasant; the food was good and the flight attendants were courteous. We landed in Guangzhou and had to rush to find our connecting flight to Kuala Lumpur. We had to go through several custom checks and immigration to find our departure gate. We had to jump the line to get our passport stamped - but this time the immigration guy at the counter was so nice and even pointed the way to our departure gate as there seemed to be thousands of passengers quieng. LittleMonkeyme had to run to hold our plane as we had like 10 minutes left. We didn't even have time to snap a photo or familiarize ourselves with the airport but I must say, the security, immigration, and other workers at Guangzhou airport were all nice people. A slight delay and we could have missed our flight easily. Maybe that's the reason why the Chinese woman at JFK airport counter wanted me to have a return ticket.
Our Accommodation in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
We finally arrived in Kuala Lumpur. KL as it's popularly known has developed so much since the last time we were here. I used to walk around from Chow Kit to Pudu but this time, I didn't recognize the place anymore. We checked in at a medium-priced hotel in the Chow Kit area but nothing seemed familiar to me anymore except the tasty bakkute for dinner. The hotel we stayed at had a nice rooftop swimming pool and a view of the Kuala Lumpur skyline. The best thing in Kuala Lumpur or KL is that it's 50% cheaper but 50% nicer than the places in the West.
Batu Caves, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
I have family in Kuala Lumpur the reason for this trip - so we moved from the hotel and stayed at my brother's apartment which is located outside downtown, a place where Kuala Lumpur looks like when I visited here the last time many years ago. We visited Batu Caves, Genting Highlands and tried our luck at the casinos. Again, everything seemed to have changed. The 3Monkeys had been here before.
Kuala Lumpur is a nice city that can easily compares to every large city in the world. All the American brand names are everywhere, even those brands that are now bankrupt in the US. The shopping centers are huge, too. Sitting and having my coffee at Starbucks I sometimes get confused as to whether I'm in KL or back in the US.
I also have relatives in Singapore so we took the bus there from Kuala Lumpur. The bus was impressive - better than a plane. You have more leg room and the bus attendant even wore a suit and tie. We left KL at 6:00pm and arrived in Singapore at around 1:00am. The Singapore immigration asked where we were staying in Singapore. I didn't remember the name of the place I had booked so I just said, "Somewhere in Chinatown" guesthouse. I didn't know that you are required to give the name of an abode so I didn't keep a note of the place and our bags were at the bus. You have to get out to clear immigration and meet your bus at the other end. The immigration officer was a bit irritated and took my fingerprints, but he let us through.
Our tomb like accommodation in Singapore
We caught a taxi to our accommodation. The Chinese taxi driver was very friendly and so chatty with his Singaporean English. This is the Singapore I knew - happy and very friendly. The taxi meter said S$9.00 but when I asked how much, he said S$15.00 when I referred to the meter, he explained that there's a surcharge of S$6.00 after midnight. I gave him S$20.00.
The guest house in Chinatown was closed but they left a message outside the door that our keypad was inside the box with our room number and bed. It was a pod-type of accommodation consisting of two stories - like a tomb. I thought, this is like a cemetery and a good experience of how people are put in the tomb when they die. It's amazing! You can actually experience being dead while still alive. Worth the price, I guess!
Singapore is very clean and safe so we spent the whole day checking out the city. We visited the Gardens at the Bay, Orchard Rd, Chinatown, Little India and just walked around everywhere. My aunt-cousin visited us on our second day there, so had another day of wandering around the place until midnight. We took the Metro Transit, ate at the open food stalls, and checked out more attractions, etc.
Kota Kinabalu International Airport
We flew from Singapore to Kota Kinabalu by Air Asia, about a 2 hour flight. Kota Kinabalu is the capital of Sabah in Borneo and our former home. My maternal grandparents immigrated here from the Philippines, thus, I have family all over here. The best thing with being a Filipino is that like rabbits, they can multiply so much. Some in my family don't want to be called Filipino anymore. They have never been to the Philippines and don't speak the language. They have intermarried with other cultures. They become Badjao, Chinese, Kadazan, Suluk, Bugis, Brunei, Malay or what else, we become the 3Monkeys. Their beliefs also change. Catholics, Muslims, Buddhist - our family is diverse in every way and it's only two generations. My grandparents would be very proud.
LittleMonkeyme learn how to swim in this Hotel pool when he was 3 years old
We arrived in Kota Kinabalu and I noticed more changes from when we lived there. The accommodation that we booked was at Sadong Jaya with just a tiny signboard so the taxi driver couldn't find it. Sadong Jaya is a small area outside of downtown. The guesthouse was just like what we experienced in Singapore - a tomb like accommodation, only that we were now used to how it felt to be dead. This one though was not as nice as the one in Singapore, but very cheap.
Jalan Gaya, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Borneo Malaysia
Kota Kinabalu used to be my town and I knew a lot of people there but I couldn't find any friendly faces. Everyone seemed to be stranger. It is more crowded than before so I wondered where all these people came from. The jetty where I used to send tourists to the islands is now a bustling nightspot with little shops that cater food, drinks and other entertainment. LittleMonkeyme and I checked out the Islands and tried the tropical fruits, and seafood that we missed that is hard to get in the States. We get the bus to Keningau to see some more relatives. The Bus Station is still in the same spot from where we left more than ten years ago - some things just don't change. I noticed wild elephants along the way; the bus driver actually had to stop to let them pass through.
Sapi Island, Kota Kinabalu
Keningau used to be a little town where even buffaloes and cows loved to roam the streets but now it's all cars and traffic. It developed so fast but not in a planned way of development. Most of the rainforest is gone in exchange for palm oil plantations. I got my first driving license here when there was only one road and no traffic lights.
Our Keningau - Tawau Bus
After Keningau, we took another bus to Tawau, the town where my grandparents originally immigrated from the Philippines. We stayed in a huge hotel where a close cousin worked. The 3Monkeys used to own a hostel here and did some tours. My Maliau "Lost World" trip started in Tawau. This time, however, I'm coming as a tourist and only see relatives and friends. My grandparents house is still there but needs some renovations. LittleMonkeyme had to get to Beijing, China so we decided he should fly to Kuala Lumpur from Tawau. The new airport is bigger and far from town but not busy.
Tawau, Sabah, Borneo Malaysia
Tawau is next to the Indonesian border so you can catch a boat or plane to Tarakan, Indonesia. The 3Monkeys actually flew in one of those small planes where you have to hold the door closed, as it is prone to open while you are in flight. We thought it was scary but it actually landed nicely and without a hitch. The two young pilots were even smoking while flying but looked confident. Tarakan is smaller than Tawau and has an interesting history. During the second world war it was under Japanese occupation. You can still see some Japanese remnants there. For example, the Peningki Lama Site at East Tarakan, the Museum Roemah Boendar (Roundhouse Museum), Pillbox/Stelling Post, The Australian Monument at the Kodim (Military Command Center) on Pulau Kalimantan Street, and The Japanese Ash Monument to named a few.
Indonesian Pelni Boat
I continued on to Semporna to see the changes and tourist development in that part of Sabah. Semporna has so many beautiful islands and is also home to Sipadan and Mabul islands, rated one of the best diving spots in the world. I was instrumental in starting a diving homestay in Mabul and actually put in some money to start the business when no one else seem to be interested. Mabul is very sentimental for me as that is where I had an accident and crushed my knee cap. It is also the place LittleMonkeyme got his scuba diving license.
Semporna at Night
Semporna has change a lot. It has a very lively atmosphere now. The seaside next to the Ocean Resort has been turned into restaurants, bars, coffee shops, guesthouses, and hotels. It was also thriving with so many Chinese tourists. I only noticed a couple of western backpackers who used to dominate the place. It could have been a low season for Europeans as it was February. I decided to stay in the area to observe the development. I managed to see my previous business partner at his place. He told me his son is now a diving instructor and managing the homestay at Mabul Island. I wonder what happens to my money and investment with him.
Semporna Ocean Tourism Centre
I stayed 3 nights in Semporna then went to Sandakan to see more relatives. I checked in at Hsiang Garden Hotel as I was not sure where my relatives were staying now. The area was so quiet and eerie; everything seemed to be abandoned and deserted. This was a booming area when I left 10 years ago but now the hotel I was staying at was not cheap but it was smelly and looked like I was the only guest staying there so I decided to move to another hotel which was nicer across the road.
Sandakan, Sabah, Borneo Malaysia
I took the bus to visit the Sepilok Orang Hutan Rehabilitation Centre outside of Sandakan. There were no tourist at all, not even the Chinese. This used to be a major tourists draw. After taking some photos, it was time to go downtown and see my relatives. Sandakan is a different town than when I left. It was deserted and seemed to go downhill. The area where I used to have another Hostel and run trips to Turtle Island and Kinabatangan River was all abandoned. The whole town seemed to be deserted and dead. My sister told me that the kidnapping and beheading of the owner of the Ocean Seafood Restaurant by the Abu Sayaff seemed to have spooked everyone. I was taken aback as this was the restaurant where we used to hang out for dinner - best seafood in town, and now everything is closed.
Sepilok Orang Hutan Rehabilitation Centre
I then continued to Mt. Kinabalu. I used to climb this mountain, one of the highest in South East Asia, for free through my connections. LittleMonkeyme was first up to the summit with me when he was seven years old. TwoMonkeyme got altitude sickness so never made it to the summit. now they're charging us US$450 per person for the 2 days trip to the summit and back. This included accommodation and meals but excluding the park guide. We had now become the tourists.
Entrance to Mt. Kinabalu Park
Back in Kota Kinabalu, I flew to Kuala Lumpur then flew to Bangkok by Malindo Airlines, courtesy of the Chinese woman at the JFK counter in New York. The budget airlines still use the old Bangkok airport so it was easy to navigate. I took the bus to Khao San Rd and was surprised that nothing had really changed except for the price, of course. I booked my accommodation online so even though I was familiar with the area, I couldn't find the place. The locals I asked were always helpful but also always brought me to the wrong place. I was ready to find another accommodation when a young Japanese couple passed by. I asked them if they knew this place. The man looked at his phone and politely said, "I'll send you there." They accompanied me to the Hostel and said, "Here you are, safe and sound." It is so amazing that all the Japanese people I have met are always nice and helpful.
Khao San Rd, Bangkok, Thailand
The people that run the Hostel were so nice. With the breakfast, it was worth my time looking for it. It was in a small wide alley so I missed it but the owner put some signs when I mentioned it. I'm familiar with Bangkok so this time I spent my time looking at it on the river. This was actually the best way of seeing Bangkok properly. You can buy a very cheap ticket for one day and get on and off anytime.
I decided to check-out of the hostel a day early to catch my flight home. The new international airport is much nicer than the old one I landed at arriving from Kuala Lumpur. I have a stopover in Stockholm so I took the train to downtown. Stockholm is a nice city but it looked old and didn't have the skyscrapers that you can see in the US or Asia. I always heard and read that they are rich and progressive but infrastructure wise, I think Singapore and Kuala Lumpur are more modern and progressive. Nevertheless, it's different and as always, enjoyable when you are new to an area.
After 3 days in Stockholm, I flew to London. I was not impressed with Gatwick Airport where I landed. London though, is easy for everything. I just went straight to the Metro train to downtown. The Hostel I stayed at was close to Pancreas Station where I stopped from the airport. I found London to be more interesting than Stockholm. It has more history and is also easy to navigate. There are more things to do and more folklore to imagine (like Robin Hood and King Arthur).
Westminster Abbey, London, England
I stayed 3 days in London and then took my flight to Los Angeles. After so many airports, I just realized that Los Angeles has the worst airport in the world. America has so many nice airports but sad to say, Los Angeles is not one of them. Also, this is the second time I landed here and still the same boring accommodations. I had to catch my flight to Minneapolis and was glad to arrive at a good airport. Minneapolis is icy cold, maybe colder than Stockholm, but definitely much nicer, and home to me. This time there were no immigration walls, just an easy walk out of the airport with no immigration to yell at me, Though I guess I can yell back now that I am a citizen.
Gatwick Airport, London, England
I took the train from the airport to downtown Minneapolis. It is still winter and ice snow are still visible along the track but it feels good to be home. I stop at Nicollet Mall to take the bus to Saint Paul. TwoMonkeyme is at work so was not able to pick me at the airport. I can also get a Lyft or Uber but I prefer and enjoy going by train and bus.
Minneapolis is the one half of the Twin Cities. Saint Paul is the other half. They are interconnected by rail and public transport. Saint Paul is the capital of Minnesota and Minneapolis is the commercial center. The Twin Cities have many colleges and universities. The University of Minnesota is one of the largest universities in the USA.
Minnesota is arctic cold in winter and burning hot in summer. It is called the "Land of Ten Thousands Lakes" as it has more than 11,800 natural and manmade lakes.