Day Trip to Bahrain

So I had to make a day trip to Bahrain, a tiny Middle Eastern country one-hour away from the UAE. It’s known as the Vegas of the Middle East (although much much more conservative), and many Saudis and expats living in conservative Muslim countries visit to get away from the restrictions of their own country.

Bahrain offers Visa on Arrival for Americans (and many other nationalites); all you have to do is pay 5 dinar at customs and you get a two week visa. Before I left for Bahrain, I was advised to fill in the entry form completely, or I’d have issues at customs. If it’s your first time visiting Bahrain with your valid passport, you’ll have to wait awhile while they do a check; I was assured that the next time I visited I’d go straight through.

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Mandatory pre-travel airport selfie!

The Bahrain dinar is tied to the American dollar, at 1 dinar to 2.65 dollars.  I’m much more used to money that’s smaller than the American dollar, and as a result, struggled with realizing that almost everything in Bahrain is expensive.

By the way, the Bahrain International Airport is really boring, with few shops and places to eat. If you happen to be heading to a gate downstairs, just know that you’re not getting back up.

Upon exiting customs was to get some cash at the ATM, as I was planning to take taxis and visit the souk. I had an inkling that this was a place where people spend big money when I was greeted with the options of withdrawing 50-500 dinars. Five hundred dinars is $1326! I felt very poor indeed when I picked “other amount” and withdrew 40 dinars.

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Half Bahrain dinar bill, worth $1.33

First thing I noticed after leaving the airport was that the taxi drivers appeared to be local, which never happens in the UAE. All taxi drivers in the UAE are from neighboring countries like Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India; you almost never see the Emiratis working customer service. I assume Bahrain’s taxi drivers are local because it’s good money; it was about $30 to travel from the airport to the city center, and it was a short trip. There’s a 1 BD charge for trips leaving and going to the airport, and they also charge you 1 BD for a “waiting taxi”; when I was leaving the mall to get back to the airport, all the available taxis were waiting in the parking lot rather than at the entrance of the mall in order to levy this extra fee. Sneaky!

Originally I’d planned to spend some time at the souk (Arabic for market), but I’d forgotten that many stores close for a few hours around noon. It’s like an afternoon siesta where the locals go take a nap and rest while the sun is at its hottest. So I wandered around for a bit, looking at the shop windows and wondering whether I should wait an hour for it to open.

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I ended up leaving because I was getting stared at and men were whispering sexual innuendos as I passed. Traveling alone as a non-Muslim woman in the Middle East, it’s just something you have to get used to. A lot of men in the area equate not being covered from head to toe to as a sign that you’re loose, or worse, a prostitute. On the plus side, no one ever tries to touch me.

I decided to go to a nearby mall to grab some coffee and a bite to eat. I admired the architecture along the way; it’s so strange to think that all this is in the middle of a lot of sand.

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Beautiful view of the coast.

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I’ve always wondered how they keep things so green.

The Seef Mall is just like any other mall I’ve seen in the Middle East, with lots of coffee shops and kid-friendly facilities. What’s surprised me were the prices; something were very cheap ($1 vitamins) and some were outrageously expensive. I walked into a gourmet popsicle shop, and got a tiramisu pop dipped in chocolate (it’s as good as it sounds). I didn’t see any prices, but I thought, how expensive can a popsicle be? it was $6. SIX DOLLARS FOR A POPSICLE!

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Starbucks is fancy here.

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Ridiculously expensive popsicle shop. Have to say, it was gooooood. If it weren’t $6 apiece, I’d probably have 4.

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I’m not sure who decided that giant animal cars for children are a great idea in the confined spaces of a mall. I almost got run over…twice!

Before I finish off this post, I have to recommend this awesome organic burger place, Elevation Burger. The beef patty was juicy and the fries were made from olive oil. Almost as good as Shake Shack but probably a lot healthier. On a side note, a Saudi Arabian family of about 10 people came in, and bought about $270 worth of burgers and fries. Just saying, I’ve never seen so much money spent on fast food!

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Just looking at it makes me hungry…

That’s it for Bahrain! Next time I hope to see the Tree of Life and maybe the souk when it’s open. Let me know if you know any good places!

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Hong Kong: Get your Chinese visa…and the best food in the world!

I don’t know if I can say that I’ve really been to Hong Kong. According to my passport, I’ve been here 5 times, and all 5 times I’ve been stuck at the visa office.

My experience of Hong Kong is basically limited to a few stops on the metro, mainly Wan Chai, Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui. Wan Chai is where the visa office is, and that’s where I have to go two to three times on every trip to Hong Kong.

Everyone who’s ever had to get a Chinese visa will know that it’s a trying experience. The lines are long, they don’t always open when they say it will, and the policies always seem to be different than what’s on their website. Which is what I found out after waiting 2.5 hours…and on my birthday too!

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That’s right, a little over an hour before they stop giving numbers, and there’s still 210 people ahead of me…

There really isn’t any reliable way to know exactly what you need to obtain a Chinese visa. Sometimes you need proof of accomodation (hotel) and a return flight to get a tourist visa, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you need proof of relation if you’re visiting a relative, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes they ask for an invitation letter sometimes you don’t. At the Chinese office in Thailand, I was asked to get a health evaluation for my work visa, even though it wasn’t listed on the website. I’ve tried every single time to get a multiple entry visa because it says I can on the website, and it’s never worked before, but I got it this time. You just never really know what will happen, and the infuriating thing is, you just have to deal with it.

In general, Mondays and Tuesdays aren’t a great time to go for a visa. If you are planning to go on those days, you should go half an hour to an hour before opening, or the line will be heinously long (see above picture). They won’t give you a number unless you have a completed form; they pass out applications while you’re waiting in line. I wouldn’t recommend downloading the forms from the website, because they’re often outdated;I think there’s only been once or twice where the form I downloaded was accepted. You should have the information ready (in general, home address, work address, address in China), as well as a passport picture. If you’re visiting an individual, you’ll need an invitation letter from that person, as well as a copy of their Chinese ID or passport. A foreigner with a residence visa in China is allowed to issue invitations. Oh and disregard the “Applicants are advised to apply his/her Chinese visa from the Embassy or Consulate-General of Peoples’ Republic of China in the country where he/she resides or works permanently” notice on their website; they do allow people who don’t reside in Hong Kong to get a visa.

*Disclaimer, all this information is up to date as of November 12, 2013. I can’t guarantee it’s accurate in the future…

Hong Kong is a mix of the old and new; you’ll see evidence of traditional Chinese culture mixed with all the amenities of the modern world. You’ll see the bright white Apple store and Louis Vuitton on one street, and herbs and street vendors on the next. There old hostels and glamorous five-star hotels. You can have wonton noodles for $3 at a local cha chaan tang (tea cafe), or crab and winter melon soup at a 2-star Michelin restaurant. There’s something for everyone!

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Taken in Wanchai. Some women doing Taichi under an office building!

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Taken on one of the many skybridges in Hong Kong.

The one bright side of my terrible visa ordeal was that I found this great restaurant, Yin Yeung, in Wan Chai. Usually they don’t take walk-ins (they require a reservation 5 days in advance), but I told him it was my birthday (it really was!). I’m really glad they let me in, because it’s one of the best Cantonese food I’ve ever had! You don’t order anything, they have a set tasting menu. I spent HK$200 on this meal, but mine was a special order and not their full-course meal.

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Taken at Yin Yang in Wanchai. Make a reservation before going!

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Organic vegetable soup. All the vegetables used at this restaurant are grown in a local organic farm.

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Organic vegetable with shrimp sauce. No idea how they make a simple stirfry vegetable dish so good!

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Claypot rice with Wagyu beef and music egg. Not sure what a music egg that is but it’s good! I personally don’t like to eat it with soy sauce, I find it covers up a lot of the natural taste of the beef and rice.

There’s a dessert place at Causeway Bay that I always go to, because they make the best Hong Kong-style desserts (imo of course). It used to be located under the Holiday Inn Express (near Time Square), but now they’ve moved one street down to Yiu Wa St. If you go later in the night, you’ll have to wait in line if you want to sit down, although it’s mostly empty during mealtimes.

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Taken of  Cong Sao Star Dessert. The long lines of locals prove me right!

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My mango milk custard dessert! Got takeout to avoid the line…make sure you eat it quickly though, it’s best eaten cold.

On the same street is an interesting coffee shop called Coffee Academics, offering a huge variety of coffees, prepared they way they would in Europe. Unfortuanately, the service was a little lacking, and the salad I ordered was substituted for another one without my consent. They also didn’t have a lot of the things they have listed on the menu, which was disappointing. However, the manuka honey latte I ordered was definitely different; coffee lovers should still give this coffee place a shot.

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Taken at Coffee Academics.

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Mauka honey latte! I’m a sucker for coffee art…

I’d heard that the famous ramen shop from Osaka had opened up its first overseas branch in Hong Kong, and being a ramen fan I had to check it out. I was advised not to go during mealtimes, as people have reported waiting in line for FOUR HOURS. Four hours for a bowl of ramen? No thanks.

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Taken at Ichiran at Causeway Bay.

The ramen here is served in the Japanese way, designed to expedite the eating process. Each person gets a little booth and fills out an order form that allows you to customize your ramen. Everything is optimized so that as little time as possible will be spent on waiting for service; there’s tissues on the wall, a water tap and cup in each booth and a button to call for service (usually to order food).

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They might have booths for groups, but if you come yourself or in couples, most likely you’ll get this a little one like this.

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The Japanese way is to provide instructions for everything in order to minimize confusion.

The ramen appeared quite quickly after I handed in my order form. You can choose the type of soup base you want, how soft the noodles are as well as the condiments and toppings.

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Ramen with thick soup base, medium soft noodles, spring onion, chashu and a salted soft-boiled egg.

The cost of this meal was HK$101 ($13), which is quite a lot for ramen. The ramen was exceptional, but the price and location (it’s quite hard to find) make me reluctant to go for it again.

I swear, next time I’ll go just for Hong Kong, and really get to know it better. It’s definitely a place worth returning to!

Prague Episode 1: Scams, Food and Beer

I won’t bore you too much with information on the Prague Castle and Charles Bridge; after all, those have been done to death online and in guide books. I do want to share my experience with this beautiful European city; the people, the food, the way things are done.

We arrived at the Prague airport mid-afternoon, where I had my first Vienna coffee. Vienna coffee is basically 2 shots of espresso served in a tall glass, and filled with whipped cream (need I say more?). It’s now my new favorite way to enjoy coffee, and provided an inkling as to why Europeans disdain our Starbucks and “American” coffee.

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Taken at one of the many many cafes in Prague. Vienna coffee, or Einspänner.

We’ve been warned that taxi drivers are prone to prey on tourists, and nervous that our trip from the airport to our hotel will empty our pockets. We decided to follow our Lonely Planet’s advice and go with Radio AAA. We got from the airport to the city center (Ibis at Praha 1) for less than 600 kc ($32) and received a coupon for our trip back. Sounds pretty reasonable to me. We were also advised by a friend who lived in Prague for years not to take taxis that were parked and waiting for customers. You definitely won’t get a good fare with them (it’s the same in Beijing). Taxi drivers don’t expect tips, but it’s nice to round it to the nearest 10, and they seem to be very happy when they get a 10% tip.

Another thing to watch out for is the currency exchange shops, usually marked with a big “Change” sign. The first one we went to gave us a rate of 18 ck to $1, which wasn’t great but still reasonable compared to the 16.7 ck to $1 at the Travelex in the airport. The next place we went to gave us 18.3 ck to $1. It’s important to compare, as the rates can differ even on the same street. And definitely watch out for the “0% commission” sign. We were duped at Wenceslas Square (a lot of tourist traps there!), where we saw a great rate of 18.9ck for $1 at a change shop. What we failed to notice is that the 0% commission sign we saw at all the other shops was missing; we just assumed it was there. We ended up paying a19.7% commission on the $300 we exchanged, getting only 4,536kc ($240) back! There wasn’t anything we could do about it, as it said in Czech on the sign that “a commission applies”.

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The one on the left is the change shop where we got screwed over. If you look closely at the sign on the right, the great rate of 18.31ck for $1 is only for “large transaction”, while the rate of $11.01 applies to “small transactions”.

What you should take from this is, don’t hand over your money until you’re sure how much you’re gonna get back. Ask if there’s a commission and what the buy rates are. Use specific language like, “How much korunas can I get for $100? Is that including commission?” Legally they can’t lie to you. Also, don’t get greedy like we did; if the rates of a certain shop is a lot higher than the shops around it, chances are there’s a catch.

Our hotel is really close to the I.P Pavlova metro station, and surrounded by food and beer. I’m all for leaving the touristy areas to look for something “more local”, but sometimes it’s just easier to go somewhere nearby, where the menus are in English and most servers can at least speak basic English.

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Normally I’d be depressed if it kept raining during my vacation, but Prague is just so beautiful after a good shower.

My first recommendation is the Pizza Coloseum right next to the I.P. Pavlova station. The pizza is authentic Italian; handmade dough, fresh cheese and great salami.

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The second, also nearby, is called La Pizza Toretta, which makes fresh pasta everyday. Don’t think I can go back to packaged pasta now…

Food is fairly cheap in Prague. At La Pizza Toretta we had a beer, a bottle of juice (more expensive than the beer btw) a pizza and spaghetti for $16. At a dessert shop in Old Town, generally considered a tourist area, we had a dessert each, a cappuccino, and a beer for $6. While we did spend more than $50 at La Gare Brasserie (amazing French place near Namesti Republike), it included two drinks, two appetizers, two main courses and dessert. Considering that we spent $50 on sushi takeout last night in Abu Dhabi, that’s pretty good.

There’s a food fair at Wenceslas Square if you’re into trying out some Czech food with beer. Prices are a bit higher, but the atmosphere is good (everyone is slightly to moderately buzzed, even in the middle of the day).

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Taken at Wenceslas Square. No jokes please!

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Taken at Wenceslas Square. Whole pig roasted with real firewood.

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Taken at Wenceslas Square. Example of happy drunk German.

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La Gare has many different traditional French and Czech desserts, including creme brulee, apple strudel and chocolate cake. And the not so traditional absinthe gelato.

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For appetizers we have a cheese plate and homemade French bread. Our guidebook says that in most places they offer bread but then charge you for it; we didn’t encounter any restaurants that did. Doesn’t hurt to check tho.

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Rex du Poitou (rabbit thigh stuffed with mushrooms) isn’t something I’d usually eat, but I figured I’d order whatever was most exotic on the menu. After all, you don’t want to hear that I had a plain old steak. The mushrooms were perfectly seasoned with a variety of herbs, and the sauce complemented the meat.

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My boyfriend had the duck, which was perfectly cooked (seared on the outside, red in the middle).

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Three different garnishes came with our meal. No wonder the French take so long to finish a meal!

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For dessert, triple chocolate mousse cake with a latte.

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If you’re in Prague. this is definitely a place you should try! It’s also really close to the only major mall near Praha 1 and 2, and close to the Mariott and the Hilton in Old Town, so it’s ideally situated for tourists. We actually came back a second time for the desserts!

I admit, Czech cuisine is not my favorite. The meat is a little too cooked for my taste (where’s the blood?!) and goulash sounds like prison food. The bread dumplings are pretty good and remind me of the steamed buns in China, but all that sauce puts me off. Still, it’s interesting, and they do know how to cook duck. Parliament Restaurant is in New Town, with good beer, great environment and an interesting variety of Czech food.

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Taken of Parliament Restaurant in New Town. Server worked really hard to explain the menu (in Czech) to English for us.

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Duck with purple cabbage and bread dumplings.

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That goulash I was talking about…

Beers are $1-2 here. And according to my boyfriend, Czech beer is amazing.

“What do you mean according to your boyfriend?”

I don’t drink. I don’t like the taste, and I have a tendency to feel hungover 10 minutes after imbibing. After trying to increase my tolerance in college and having some really bad experiences with alcohol, I just don’t drink anymore.

Luckily, I had my boyfriend to try all those Czech beers for me, so I can tell you all about it.

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There’s restaurant called Vyptopna at Wenceslas Square that brings your beer to you by minature train. Unfortunately we didn’t get to try it, as we were only there for drinks and the owner wanted to keep seats for actual diners. That’s another thing that’s common in tourist areas here; during mealtimes, restaurants are unwillingly to provide seats if you’re not ordering a full meal. And it’s not just “frowned upon”, they will ask you to leave.

Czechs love their beer. If you’re out on the streets any time after 9pm, chances are the people you meet will be drunk. Beer is sold in convenience stores, in stands at the market and virtually every cafe and restaurant. And it’s cheap! To quote my boyfriend, “Why would I order water if the beer is cheaper?”

To be continued tomorrow!