Faith Ruth Villanueva (right) and travel buddy, Gina, in the places they've visited.
PHOTO BY FAITH RUTH VILLANUEVA
Travel enthusiast Faith Ruth Villanueva embarked on a 12-day trip to five cities on a shoestring budget. Here’s how she did it
I AM going on a multi-city tour of Asia. But first I have to travel from Laos where I work to the neighbouring Thailand. After that, I’m China-bound. First stop Shanghai, then Guangzhou and Hong Kong. Last stop, Macau. Everything is set, but the best thing is booking all airfares and trains for only $400 in total. I have to shell out $250 for accommodation though, or $120 for two days at a hotel. That’s about the most expensive thing on my budget for this trip. Ugh!
So I’m going on a multi-city tour and I only shelled out $650 for airfare and accommodation. Got lucky with online booking. I have to say, Booking.com is an amazing site!
Initially I wanted to do solo backpacking (read my thoughts on that here) but when my friend, Gina, found out about my travel plans, she wanted to come along. She said she found the prices incredible. Apparently, the last time she was in China her airfare alone cost her $1,000!
Next on the checklist was getting a visa. That job was relegated to my travel buddy since she’s been to China before. She told me it would cost $52. It turns out, that’s the price for an express visa, which takes one day to process. Regular visas, which take 7 days to process, only cost $30. Had I known earlier, we could have applied for our visas earlier! I could have spent that extra $20 for other things. Aargh!
We stumbled on the most curious place in the Thai capital – Caturday Cafe!
So we went inside just to see the place. If you’re there for the food, forget it. The menu is simple but overpriced. One mocha shake will set you back 138 baht. It doesn’t even have whipped cream.
The cats are the main attraction here (I’ll write more about this later). They look like pedigree cats, in all fairness. Highly trained, too. The place is such a marketing genius that my friend wants to open a business just like it in Vientiane, Laos. You don’t need to have an amazing menu. Just make the cats the star attraction.
We boarded our flight for Bangkok via Bangkok Airways earlier than the set time. Wattay Airport in Vientiane is undergoing major renovations but it’s starting to look better and classier.
I booked our accommodations at a hostel just below the Paya Thai Station (the last station of the Airport Rail Link System connecting to Suvarnabhumi Airport). It was a good decision. The In-A-Box Hostel indeed was value for money. It was strategically located to malls and dining places, clean, well-organized, well-designed all for an affordable rate of $12 per night in the all-girls’ dormitory.
After my friend and I checked in and left our luggage, we then proceeded to walk towards MBK Mall to buy winter supplies for our trip to the North.
Along the way, we passed by The Caturday Café. Intrigued, we decided to go inside the coffee house. Initially, I thought you needed to have a cat to get inside. Instead, I found everything simply to be an ingenious marketing ploy by the owner.
The short-order food was pretty simple and basic. The drinks? Very ordinary (my mocha shake was simply a shake – it didn’t even have cream on top) but very pricey. And yet, the place is always full because of the nearly twenty expensive and adorable-looking felines inside. You can find them in every nook and cranny of the place. Most of the time, they were just sitting quietly in their own “territory” while people fawn and gawk at them. I’m sure these are well-trained animals. And I also smell Lysol every time a staff would clean a table for the next set of customers. You need to prevent the place from stinking with cat poop and urine otherwise it’s a major turn-off for the customers. It’s really a unique business concept.
We met up with a colleague from work who also happened to have his vacation in Bangkok. So that night, we simply met up, walked aimlessly around the mall and back to our hostel. We went inside an art mall and Gina decided to have her face be drawn on charcoal. For 300 Baht, an artist was able to draw her face in less than 15 minutes. That’s pretty awesome!
We decided to have our dinner at a local noodle house. We incidentally shared a table with a Filipino who has been working in Bangkok for almost 7 years. By the end of the night, we were chatting like old friends.
Airfare from Vientiane to Bangkok via Bangkok Airways $91.40
Airport Rail Link fare from Suvarnabhumi Airport to Paya Thai Station 45 Baht
In-A-Box Hostel (Girls’ Dormitory) stay for 1 night 400 Baht
Lunch 60 Baht
Dinner 145 Baht
Since my friend never had the opportunity to visit the usual tourist spots of Bangkok (even if she has visited the city numerous times because of business), I decided to give her a tour of the city before our flight for Shanghai at 6pm.
First stop? Experiencing what it’s like to ride the BTS of Bangkok. I’ve always found it very easy to roam around the city by simply using this amazing rail link system.
So from our hostel in Paya Thai, we went to the Golden Buddha by exiting from the Hua Lamphong Station. This is also the train station for routes going to the east and northern parts of Thailand.
We hired a very friendly tuktuk driver to tour us around the strategic places within the area. For three hours, the driver toured us around the Golden Buddha Temple, The Golden Mount, and The Temple of Dawn (Wat Arun) for three hours. There were plenty of historic architecture, and we even saw statues of the three wise monkeys.
After which, we had to race back to our hostel, get our things, and go straight back to Suvarnabhumi Airport for our 6pm flight to Shanghai. Good thing everything went well as planned, although I was getting tense because of the unpredictable Bangkok traffic as well as the long line in the checked-in counter and immigration.
The airline crew made the final call for passengers to board and the red light was already blinking when we finally arrived at our terminal gate. Such a close one!
Inside the plane, I was trying to get used to the loud conversations in Chinese. This was going to be a long four-hour flight for us. Sigh…
Breakfast 80 Baht
Toiletries 50 Baht
BTS fare from Paya Thai – Asok 37 Baht
BTS fare from Asok – Hua Lamphong 28 Baht
Tuktuk fare (shared expense with my friend) 300 Baht
Golden Mount Entrance Fee 20 Baht
Wat Arun Entrance Fee 50 Baht
Skirt Cover Rental Fee (because I was wearing shorts) 20 Baht
Airport Rail Link from Paya Thai to Suvarna Airport 45 Baht
Dinner 200 Baht
Airfare from Bangkok to Shanghai via Spring Airlines $116.8
We arrived at the Pudong International Airport in Shanghai at 10:55pm. As expected, a gust of cold air greeted us when we got out from the aircraft. It was 5 degrees Celsius out there. However, we were only able to be cleared from immigration after two hours because the lines were long and there were only a few officers on duty. We finally had our passports stamped by 12:30am.
We arrived at the hotel at 1am. The taxi driver initially wanted to drop us off from the street across the hotel but I insisted he drop us inside the hotel compound. Lazy driver.
The receptionist at the hotel, after much “checking” on her phone, then told me that the only available room had one bed even though I booked a twin room. I was too tired to argue, so we took the room. It was dingy, and the bathroom had no doors! You can literally see through the glass wall of the shower. But since it was 1am, we had no choice but to grin and bear it.
By 7am, I went out of the room to request for toiletries. Incidentally the room beside ours was open and it was unoccupied. It had two separate beds and it was clean! I then proceeded to the lobby and demanded from the receptionist that we transfer immediately. It was a good thing that she didn’t argue. And so we lugged again all our things and transferred to the next room. It was clean and super affordable so we decided to forgive the employee and continue our stay for the next day instead.
Facebook, Google, Youtube, and other social media sites do not work in China. It’s like there’s this giant firewall instead. But WeChat and Line are working (doesn’t really matter to me as I have no accounts for it).
Shanghai is a highy urbanized and developed city. After all, it is China’s second largest city and a commercial hub. With that said, most people I saw on the streets wore fashionable and business clothes. We visited the commercial hub of the city and you can see skyscrapers left and right.
We also visited the world’s second tallest building and the highest observation deck – The Shanghai Tower. It also boasts of having the fastest elevator – from B2 to the 118th floor in only 55 seconds. I could feel the pressure in my ears inside the elevator as we sped upwards. Too bad as the weather was not good, we mostly saw fog on the observation deck.
Nonetheless, it was a good experience to have visited the tower. I would also like to mention that the tower’s staff were very professional, well-dressed, and good-looking. I think it was part of management’s decision to only hire beautiful and handsome people for the job – even if it’s only as an elevator operator.
When we visited The Bund (Wai Tan) later that night, I also noticed a lot of famous retail brands and high end fashion brand stores. China indeed is a good location to do business with – after all, it houses a billion people on earth.
People from Shanghai usually do their purchases and payments by simply swiping a card with a QR code. The are starting to go cashless with their transactions.
Chinese food is so varied – from steamed buns to oily meat. But personally, I find their food has either a salty or bland taste. Nonetheless, the Chinese usually drink tea as a substitute for water. I find it healthier as it flushed out the toxins and even the oiliness of the food.
As usual, we tried traveling using the local way – The Shanghai Metro Line. It is huge! This metro has 16 ines which links and crosses to different parts of Shanghai. To give you an idea how long one line is, it took us an hour just to travel from a station in the middle of the line to the end (from Nanjing Road to Pudong International Airport of Metro Line 2). The transportation system of Shanghai is very modern and efficient.
Taxi from Pudong Int’l Airport to Blue House Hotel 25 CNY
Hotel rate at Blue House Hotel (1st Day) 84 CNY
Brunch 59.5 CNY
Taxi to Metro Line 2 (Haitianean Rd) 25 CNY
Metro Train fare to Lujiazui Station 6 CNY
Shanghai Tower Entrance Fee 180 CNY
Coffee 30 CNY
Umbrella (it was raining) 5 CNY
Metro Train fare to Nanjing Rd. Station 3 CNY
Dinner 61.5 CNY
Metro Train fare to Pudong Int’l Airport 7 CNY
Taxi back to hotel 18 CNY
Total: 504 CNY ($77.54)
After a very cold morning, we took the free shuttle bus service of the hotel back to Pudong Airport. On the way, I saw how the drivers really followed the traffic rules. When the light turns yellow, they slow down until the vehicles stop. We also passed by a middle school campus where I saw students wearing uniformed red jackets. So cute!
I think not a lot of people know this but there is actually a direct bus from Pudong Airport to the Shanghai South Railway Station where the travel time is one hour. We chanced upon this service by accident when we were walking around Terminal 1. At least this time, we no longer needed to lug our bags from one metro line to another. The bus was really convenient. For only 20 CNY, you can be carried directly from the airport to the railway station. Awesome! Another score for the budget traveller.
The Shanghai South Railway Station is huge and has a modern steel-like architectural ceiling (similar to that at Suvarnabhumi Airport). The system from buying the tickets, to the waiting area, and even going down to the trains itself was very efficient. At 10:30am, our train left southbound for Guangzhou.
Inside the train, make sure to fully charge your electronic gadgets and powerbanks for the sixteen-hour journey. Good thing we booked our tickets online in advance. Or else, we would have never gotten sleeper seats. It sold out fast like hotcakes when I was booking it online. The train we were in was the old model though. One passenger shared to us that the newer train had softer seats, ample electronic sockets, and cleaner. Once in a while, carts loaded with food, snacks, drinks, and even fruits would visit our coach. We skipped lunch so we were already hungry by dinner time. The food was served in vacuum-sealed containers, which I am guessing have a lot of preservatives.
The hard sleeper area of the train consisted of three sections of bunk beds: the upper, middle, and lower bunk beds. I booked myself in the lower bunk bed so I had ample ceiling height from the middle bunk bed for my head. My travel buddy, Gina, wasn’t so lucky as she was booked at the highest bunk bed. She has to stoop when she sits as it has a low ceiling height.
By 10pm, the lights were turned off so that everybody could sleep. Only a low dim light shone on the walkway. As for me, my insomnia acted up again and so I simply tossed and turned on my bed during the whole trip.
Hotel rate at Blue House Hotel (2nd Day) 84 CNY
Breakfast 29 CNY
Long-distance bus from Pudong Int’l Airport to the Shanghai South Railway Station 20 CNY
Train fare Shanghai – Guangzhou (online booking) 343 CNY
Snacks 19 CNY
Dinner 25 CNY
Total: 520 CNY ($80)
The locals seem to shy away from conversations with strangers. Everyone goes about their own business but there is a certain kind of mutual understanding about personal space. They don’t say “excuse me” or “sorry” – and foreigners may take offense – but it appears this is perfectly normal in the local custom.
Tea plays a major part in the lives of the Chinese. There are more tea houses than cafes here. Everywhere I turn, I see the locals carrying small hot water bottles and putting tea leaves inside. While on the train, I couldn’t smell the aroma of coffee, but I did smell tea constantly.
At 5am, we arrived at the Guangzhou South Railway Station. There’s a big crowd at this hour. It looks like there are thousands of people here, but people are lining up systematically to embark and disembark from the trains.
We arrived at the hotel at almost 6am. Our reservation is at 12pm but the receptionist gave us our keycards early! Good! I need to have ample rest for the city tour later.
We skipped breakfast for more snooze time, and after recharging for a few hours, we were ready to explore! We had lunch at a local eatery where the locals spoke zero English. We simply pointed to what food we liked. How does the food taste? Weird for me as it’s either too salty or too bland.
As I was too tired to think about the local transportation, we did it the easy way – by taxi. It turns out, the first place we visited, Dafo Temple, was just a walking distance to other tourist spots via the Guangzhou Metro (Line 1). We chanced upon the People’s Park and we observed how locals spend their the weekends.
We saw a group of seniors doing a traditional Chinese dance, some teen groups, another set of old people playing cards and a crew filming on set. But what really caught my eye is this group doing the ‘takyan’ game. A takyan is a traditional Filipino game that involves kicking a weighted shuttlecock with your foot. It was really fun to watch them kick a rubber ring with feathers. This kind of game also proves to be a form of exercise as it improves your calisthenics and feet coordination.
The Guangzhou Metro has 9 lines passing through strategic places across the city. Line 1 passes through almost 80 percent of the city’s tourist spots. Of course, we had to visit the Sun-Yat-Sen Memorial Hall. After all, it was Dr. Sun-Yat-Sen who unified China. He is also the local hero of Guangzhou.
Guangzhou has multiple expressways. I felt like I was in Singapore as the roads were very smooth, with plenty of signages and warning signals. As usual, almost everyone does cashless transaction using their mobile phones (using the QR Code) even when paying for the bus or taxi.
Taxi from Guangzhou South Railway Station to Leo’s Boutique Hotel 25 CNY
Hotel rate at Leo’s Boutique Hotel (1st Day) 84.60 CNY
Brunch 22 CNY
Taxi to Dafo Temple 18 CNY
Metro train fare to Sun-Yat-Sen Memorial Hall 2 CNY
Metro train fare to Changgang 3 CNY
Metro train fare to Wanshengwei 3 CNY
Taxi to Huang Pu Gu Gang 20 CNY
Pastries 14.5 CNY
Dinner 21 CNY
Midnight snacks and fruits 13.75 CNY
Taxi back to hotel 40 CNY
Total: 266.85 CNY ($41.05)
We started our tour by midday as we opted to recharge and sleep in the morning. Good thing the weather is cool. I’m guessing it’s around 20 degrees Celsius right now.
First stop on our tourist list was the Shamian Island – a man-made island that became a settlement for the British and French after the Second Opium War. There are plenty of tourists here, with fully restored colonial buildings giving the island a western-eastern vibe.
Time for some history lesson: By the time the island was taken back by the Chinese government in the 1940s, it already housed more than 100 buildings, which consisted of consulates, banks, and foreign trading companies.
The Chen Clan Academy is also a worthwhile place to visit. As usual, there are plenty of local tourists as it is a Sunday. For the price of 10 Chinese Yuan (CNY) to enter the place, it is definitely worth it. You could see the exhaustive renovations done to preserve the architecture of the property – from the facade to the huge entrance wall (there is an exhibit on the renovation work done here since the 1950s). Presently, it houses various historical artifacts on different topics such as porcelain plates, fans, glass-window mosaics, and ancient furnitures of the early Cantonese. I felt like I was transported back to ancient China just by being inside the place.
We capped off our tour with the Pearl River Cruise. The journey took an hour and we were amazed by the lights from the river embankment on both sides as well as the beautiful neon lights from the surrounding skyscrapers of Guangzhou, particularly the Canton Tower – the city’s highest building. By the stroke of midnight, most of the lights were turned off.
We decided to wait it out until midnight hoping to see fireworks across the river to signal the start of the new year. We were disappointed. There were no fireworks on display. Even the commercial shops along the river did not have signs or displays that they were greeting the new year. We just knew it was already the start of 2018 from loud voices coming from a bar near where we were standing. After such disappointment, we then decided to go back to our hotel.
Taxi from the hotel to Jiangxia Station 10 CNY
Metro train fare to Gongyuanqian-Huangsha 4 CNY
Afternoon snacks 11 CNY
Metro train fare to Chen Clan Academy 2 CNY
Chen Clan Academy entrance fee 10 CNY
Metro train fare to Gongyuanqian 2 CNY
Metro train fare to Baiyun Culture Square 4 CNY
Taxi to Dashatou Pier 23 CNY
Dinner 32.5 CNY
River cruise along the Pearl River 68 CNY
Taxi back to hotel 16 CNY
Miscellaneous 8 CNY
Total: 190.50 CNY ($29.31)
Sorry I was out of social media for the past couple of days. Just got out from mainland China where Facebook and Google are banned and I am now in Hong Kong.
From our airy and wide room in Guangzhou (for only $13), we get the shocking realization of how expensive accommodations are in Hongkong. It costs $23 each for 1/3 of our hotel room in Guangzhou!
I learned another lesson just getting here. While in Guangzhou earlier, we packed up our bags onwards to the Guangzhou East Railway Station. I decided to use the train system instead of the bus as I thought would be better to use the metro line to reach Hongkong rather than do another round of haggling with taxi drivers. I was confident that there would be ample time to get early tickets.
Unfortunately, I was wrong. When we arrived at the station, there were a lot of people already! There were like 5,000 people just queuing up. When I got to the ticketing counter, the earliest ticket I could book was for 8:30pm! It meant that we would have to spend six hours inside the station doing absolutely nothing. Oh well, lesson learned for the next travel. Book your travelling tickets in advance! So for the next hours, we did nothing but watch movies on my laptop or Gina’s mobile phone.
Thankfully, the immigration officers on the Chinese side were fast and efficient. We were given a small paper indicating that we were to get another Chinese visa if we want to re-enter mainland China. The train from Guangzhou to Hong Kong took two hours of travel time. The journey was smooth, the seats were clean and had enough seating space. I did a short nap while Gina watched another movie on her phone.
After clearance in the Hong Kong border, our passports were not stamped. Instead, we were given a small piece of paper indicating our entrance and exit deadline in Hong Kong. Good! That’s extra space in my passport for other countries. We finally made it to the Hung Hom Station in Hong Kong by midnight.
The Hung Hom Station (on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong) connects to other stations. After a short orientation of my brain of Hong Kong’s metro system, we did the route onwards to our hotel. When you’re doing all this at 1am, with luggages, a heavy backpack and cold weather (around 19 degrees Celcius), your body’s bound to yearn for rest.
I knew, based on research, that Hong Kong is well-known for tiny spaces as “houses”. But I never imagined how small it could be.
When we were finally given our room at the Orchid Inn Hotel (which was simply leasing in a downtown building), I had to adjust my bearings on how small our room actually was. It was just 2m X 5m with a 1m X 1m toilet/bathroom. Our two separate beds only had a small space in between were we could put our legs in! There was even no closet to put in our luggages. The best word I can describe our room: TINY. And our room rate was for $50 (which was actually cheap by Hong Kong standards). If you’re a claustrophobic person, Hong Kong is simply not for you.
At 2am, we finally slept, no more showering or changing our clothes. Welcome to Hong Kong.
List of expenses:
Taxi from the hotel to Gunagzhou East Railway Station 32 CNY
Lunch 41 CNY
Train fare from Guangzhou to Kowloon (Hung Hom 177 CNY
Snacks and miscellaneous 25 CNY_
275 CNY / 6.5 42.31 USD
MTR fare from Hung Hom Station to Jordan Station 4 HKD
Hotel rate at Orchid Inn (1st Day) 444 HKD_
448 HKD / 7.5 59.73 USD
If there’s one thing that would immediately come to my mind when you describe Hongkong, it is this: everything is so big and tall, and yet so confined and small. Everywhere I looked, I could see tall buildings and skyscrapers.
Yet, when you enter a store or a shop, you would instantly feel that sense of claustrophobia. Land value is so pricey in this region that people are willing to live in this tiny island in small spaces just to make a living.
Aside from the living conditions in Hong Kong, I also noticed how the standard of living is really expensive. Everytime I pull out my wallet for money, I would always compare prices with that in the Philippines. A bottle of water from a convenience store would cost 12 HKD (or already P75.00 in the Philippines). Our noodles for lunch in a simple eatery, when converted to the Philippine peso, would be P400. By Hong Kong standards, this would already be considered cheap.
Now I understand how difficult it must be for Filipino Overseas Workers (OFWs) to live in this environment and try to scrimp and save every dollar just so they can send home money to their families. As an OFW in Laos, my standard of living is definitely considered as royalty in comparison if I live in Hong Kong.
Gina treated me to Hong Kong Disneyland. I’m not exactly a fan of cartoons and theme parks but I have to admit that I had fun the whole day. Not the child-like kind of fun but just a relaxing kind of fun way. Of course, we chose not to buy any food or drinks inside the park– everything is so pricey!
We rushed back to the city via the MTR line (Disneyland is way outside the city proper). We wanted to catch a glimpse of the famous Symphony of Lights show across the Victoria Harbour. So after having our Indian dinner at the infamous Chungking Mansions, we quickly walked to the bay area for the 8pm show. When we arrived, people were already starting to mill across the sides of the harbour. For ten minutes, we were entertained by the lighting effects show illuminated from tall buildings and skyscrapers on the other side of the bay. Best part of it all? The show was for free.
On our way back to our hotel, we passed by people who were passing out fliers. My eye caught a paper that only charged 98 HKD for a foot massage. And so we went inside the massage parlour. Ten minutes after we were already being serviced, the manager came up to me with a calculator in hand that showed the number 218. After mentally calculating the figure for both of us (98 X 2 = 196), I thought the extra amount was for taxes.
In Hong Kong, the prices of services usually do not include yet taxes. And so I agreed. Well oh well! When it was time to pay, it turns out the 218 HKD was for each person! When I started to argue, the manager pulled out a different brochure which showed the different price ranges for their services. It turns out the 98 HKD was only to clean your foot in warm water and do a little rubbing on the feet itself. A massage on the calves would have a different price. A massage on the lower legs would also have a different price. And I can bet that a simple massage of your thighs would also be charged differently.
I immediately realised this was what previous tourists were warning about in chat groups and we, unfortunately, were now victims of it. I had no choice but to pay up 436 HKD. If converted, that’s already $50. That would be my most expensive foot massage ever! I showed my clearly disgusted face to the manager while paying. I was also angry at myself because I let my guard down. Oh well, charged it to experience. At least we still had funds when we got scammed. We arrived back to our hotel room by 11pm.
List of expenses:
Breakfast 28 HKD
Snacks for the Disney activity (via 7/11 store) 41 HKD
MTR fare from Disney to Tsim Sha Tsui Station 23 HKD
Dinner 96 HKD
Souvenirs 30 HKD
Miscellaneous 28 HKD
Foot Massage 218 HKD
Hotel rate at Orchid Inn (2nd Day) 444 HKD 908 HKD / 7.5 121.07 USD
At last! Back to real living spaces! We arrived in Macau from Hong Kong at 2pm.
Hotels in Macau are expensive. It’s a good thing that we got this mid-range hotel that was just a walking distance to Senado Square. It turns out, it was also within walking distance to “Chinoy Street”, a street full of Filipino stores.
Mother Frog was cranky in the morning on the way to the pier. Both of us were already lacking sleep and exhausted. I was tensed. I thought Macau was going to be a place we would be going just to finish our journey and nothing else.
I was pleasantly surprised to be wrong. Macau was something else.
The ambiance is different. The place is alive and kicking. The food was delicious but not too expensive compared to Hong Kong. And the people? So many Filipinos around! We even inadvertently walked along a street which had such a Filipino ambiance (I later found out it was called ‘Chinoy Street’ because most businessmen there are Filipinos). We might have been tired walking to the famed tourist spots of the city but our spirits were refreshed and energised in Macau.
Our last day in this super-awesome and super-tiring journey! We took advantage of what little time we had left and visited as many tourist spots as we could before our 10pm flight back to Bangkok.
Of course, we went historical first and visited the A-Ma Temple (oldest temple of Macau) and the Maritime Museum just across it.
Macau was a fishing village in the pre-colonial era before the arrival of the Portuguese (similar to the history of Las Islas Filipinas – Philippines). And yeah, everywhere we went, we met Filipinos – even at the immigration area!
Faith Ruth Villanueva is a Laos-based teacher who loves music, art, sports and photography. When she’s not in the classroom, the shoestring budget traveler is out and about – checking places off-the-beaten track and travelling the world one continent at a time. Follow her on Facebook.
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