Tag Archives: journey

An Amsterdam-to-London adventure

I hadn’t planned to catch a train from Amsterdam to London. I had my flight booked and an easy 45 minutes or so in the air already planned.
Yet the weather had a different plan…
And this is the story of how travel disruption turned from very stressful into a nice adventure :-)

Monday 11 December 2017. Snow, fog and strong wind cause the cancellation of 95% of flights out of Schiphol airport.

When at 5pm announcements were made that also my flight (initially scheduled for 2pm then delayed to 7pm) was no longer going, panic seeped in! I have to be back in London within 24 hours due to more travels planned, and there are no seats on other flights until Wednesday, I cried to the desk agent – how the heck am I going to make it?!
To add to the misery and mayhem, also all trains from Schiphol were cancelled due to bad weather conditions. The only way out of the airport was to catch a taxi. Welcome to a two-hour queue then :-(.

Based on the EU regulation Nr. 261/2004 on “compensation and assistance to passengers in the event of denied boarding, flight cancellations, or long delays of flights”, I was reassured that my airline would reimburse any additional expenses incurred (within set limits). So I went ahead with taxi and hotel booking in Amsterdam for the night.

And to get to London? Then train will have to be! Intercity from Amsterdam to Brussels then Eurostar from Brussels to London. It would take me most of the following day but at least there were seats. And a chance to get home!

It was sunny with blue skies in Amsterdam the following morning. I took a stroll around Amsterdam Centraal train station to enjoy the snow. But it was soon time to catch the train.

And here I am, on board of the Intercity train to Brussels. Slower but much cheaper than the Thalys, it felt like being back to the days when train journeys across Europe (good old InterRail!) were the norm. Slow travel. Stare out of the window. Enjoy the moment.

The scenery was lovely – snow covered the fields, the streets, the roofs of the houses. White everywhere, shining in the sunlight of a beautiful day with bright blue skies.

The train drove through Den Haag, Rotterdam, Dordrecht, Roosendaal, Antwerp, Mechelen. And eventually reached Brussels, 3hrs and 20minutes later.

The Brussels-London stretch wasn’t as interesting. I slept most of the two hours on the Eurostar, it was dark outside and in the tunnel under the Channel. I had finally relaxed, knowing that I would make it home in time to unpack my bag, repack it for the tropics, and fly out again the following morning!

As for my claim for a refund, once I got home I immediately submitted it online, uploading all receipts for transport, accommodation and meals costs incurred as the result of the flight cancellation. (Update Jan 2018: in less than a month I received full reimbursement of all additional expenses!).

If your travel plans are ever disrupted in a similar way and you find yourself stuck, try and see the bright side to it as you can turn it into another adventure :-)

On the train from Kandy to Galle

There is no direct train from Kandy to Galle. The quickest route is via Colombo, where you change train.  Both legs of the journey are very scenic, although different: the first one through mountains while the second one follows the coastline.
I took the Intercity train from Kandy to Colombo at 6:15am and was pleasantly surprised to realise that my 1st class ticket (Rs 800, bought two days in advance) entitled me to a seat in the observation car, the one at the rear of the train, with a large window looking back along the tracks.
The train travelled at snail pace, rolling and rattling through the mountains, with amazing views of the tropical forest wrapped in the morning mist. Every now and then, short tunnels interrupted the view. School kids and workers would sometime appear out of nowhere and cross the tracks as soon as the train was gone.
The mist gave an almost magical touch to the landscape and I watched the scenery in awe.

We arrived at Colombo Fort railway station just before 9am, after almost three hours.
Colombo Fort was bustling with energy and was as chaotic as ever. I bought a 2nd class ticket to Galle (Rs 180) and waited for my train to arrive.

At 10:45am the slightly grubby train started its journey south, following the coastline so closely that for the first hour I could almost touch the ocean. I had managed to get a window seat and could really enjoy the amazing sea view: miles of blue waters, sand and palm trees. Villages and towns were dotted along the railway line, and villagers seemed to enjoy watching the trains go past.

We made it to Galle in just over two hours. The whole journey from Kandy to Colombo took almost 7 hours but I really enjoyed it!

Where do we go from here?

My travel & photography blog has been suffering. I have been neglecting it. 2015 was supposed to be another year of extended travels. Instead, I have only crossed the border twice and only for short trips.

Things won’t change much any time soon. I start a new job on Monday and my travelling will only appear in the form of a very long daily commute. I am dreading it already.
But hey, crossing London from one end to the other on a daily basis, and using public transport, is not for the faint-hearted! Brave hearts are required: jam-packed trains, frequent delays, and the long time it takes to reach your destination, leaving you with little leisure time. Can YOU do it?!

Maybe I can use the commute time to write more about past travels, work on new features for the blog, and update you with stories of London commuters. How about “Stories from the London Underground”? (mmmmm I am sure someone has done it already, but this time it will be MY point of view!)

So suggestions are welcome!
In the meanwhile, watch this space: my Out Of Office Reply may not be On, but this blog will continue :-)

My train strike mishap

I consider myself fairly well travelled.
You may have bumped into me on a local bus in Hoi An (Vietnam), seen me arguing with taxi drivers in Phuket (Thailand), or spotted me planning complex train journeys, always checking timetables and any other available information.
I mostly travel alone, and careful planning makes my life a bit easier.

So how did I miss the news about the national train strike in Italy this weekend??? How did I manage to find myself completely stuck at a main train station, with no trains (or even buses) to reach the destination of my planned day trip???

I am staring at the board. “Cancelled”, it says. Second train I am trying to catch within an hour. Second cancellation. In both cases, trains were cancelled a couple of minutes before departure, and after I had validated the ticket. Someone’s having a laugh, I thought.

It looks like I am not going anywhere today. I quietly turn around and leave the station, and prepare myself for the online refund process, which isn’t as straightforward as it should be.imagesBut the doubt remains. How did this super-well-travelled chick manage to miss a national train strike in her home country? Ok, I don’t live here anymore, have been back only for a few days and don’t feel the need to be overly alert. But I should have known better. Or not?

No, this is not how Trenitalia announced the strike!

I look on the Trenitalia website again. I had checked train times online the night before travelling, and all seemed good. I had booked the ticket online in the morning, with no issues. Now I spot a note at the bottom of the webpage stating that there is a national strike and train schedules may be affected. Why not putting that note right at the top of the webpage instead – this defies all logic to me. Yet, they had indeed informed us. I just didn’t read.

So here’s my piece of advice, for what is worth: when you are about to embark on a train journey, always check the news and ensure that trains are actually running… Even more so when you are visiting home: never let your “experienced traveller” guard down!

Now it’s your turn: feel free to share your experience of a time when an oversight badly impacted your travel plans :-)

On the Reunification Express – round two

Three days after my first experience on the Reunification Express (read here), I decided to give it another go.
This time SE8 from Ninh Binh to Hanoi. Less than three hours, afternoon journey.

Did I book my ticket online this time? Nah. Last minute decision, plus Ninh Binh doesn’t seem enabled for online bookings.
So I turned up at the station 20 minutes before train departure time, only to find out that the ticket office wouldn’t open until 1pm.

Hold on! The train departs at 12:52 but the ticket office opens at 13:00??? How is that going to work?!
“No worry madam” a local man told me “you can buy ticket before train. Sit please”.
Mmmmmm, does he know that the train is very late and all will be fine? No idea, I was not convinced and he wouldn’t explain. I had no choice. Sit and wait.
Not that I managed to do that for more than five minutes! I was completely restless and kept moaning so I decided to start the queue at the ticket window.
I. Am. First. In. Line.
Well, I was. Until some locals decided to arrive from the sides and push to the front. Heeeey! There’s a damn queue here!  I live in England, the land of orderly queuing, do not mess around with me! After a few minutes of me moaning at them very loudly (and everyone watching me) they all backed off. Yay!
When the ticket lady finally decided to grace us with her presence at 1:30pm (and still no sign of the train, luckily), I only managed to buy a ticket for a hard seat coach. No soft seats available. Oh well. For 58,000 dong (less than US$2) I can surely sit on a wooden bench in a crowded coach for just over 2.5 hours!
And so I did.

Hard seats area
Hard seats area

It was crowded (but not as bad as it could have been). Loud. Dirty. Smelly. Very hot. Luggage everywhere. People everywhere. Food everywhere (mainly on the floor). And I was surrounded by a group of very loud ladies who kept shouting on their phones and at each other. Deaf now.
But it was all part of the travelling experience (I am a spoilt Westerner, after all) and I regret nothing of it.

Also I met a superhelpful Vietnamese lady who – in great English – gave me lots of tips and info about Hanoi.

The little note from the Vietnamese lady
The little note from the Vietnamese lady

And this is what I love about travelling!!!

The amazing landscape around Ninh Binh

When Tom and Norma, whom I met at the Nguyen Shack homestay in the Ninh Binh area, asked me if I wanted to join them for a half day trip to Trang An I said Yes even if I had no idea what was there to see. After all I had no plans for the day.

We rode our bicycles for about 5Km on very muddy and rough terrain (Tough Mudder, here I come!) and when we arrived at the Trang An pier we paid 150,000 dong entrance fee and got on a small boat, joined by a Vietnamese men.

For the following two and a half hours, our boat woman took us around (rowing sometimes with her hands and sometimes with her feet!) amongst amazing limestone hills. We visited several grottoes, where we often had to duck down, we got off the boat to see pagodas dotted along the river, but mainly we enjoyed the fantastic scenery.
This is Ha Long Bay on land!

Inside one of the grottoes
Inside one of the grottoes
On the river
On the river
More limestone hills
More limestone hills

There were several other boats on the river, but overall it wasn’t busy. The area is mainly visited by Vietnamese tourists, while Westerners seem to go to Tam Coc instead.

After the boat tour, we cycled further to reach Hoa Lu, the ancient capital of Vietnam (10th-11th century), but we decided not to visit. We had been advised that there was not much to see there. So instead we turned into a side road and through two tunnels to reach the “secret valley”. In front of us another set of limestone hills like a natural theatre. Absolutely stunning!

Your travel blogger in the "secret valley"!
Your travel blogger in the “secret valley”!

After this, I think I will give Ha Long Bay a miss! ;-)

Update 27 June 2014: at the 38th session of the World Heritage committee (15-25 June 2014, Doha) Trang An was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. 

On the Reunification Express

There is a pot with flowers on the small table by the window. I have never had that before on a train.

In my train cabin
In my train cabin

This is the SE20 Reunification Express train from Da Nang to Hanoi. I have got on board in Hue’ and will get off in Ninh Binh in the morning – a 12-hr overnight ride for $46.
Memories of my “epic journey from Da Lat to Hoi An” (click here) make me pray for an uneventful one.

The train itself – when it finally arrives in Hue’, 45 minutes late, not too bad for a start I am told – doesn’t look bad. It reminds me of trains in Italy in the early 80’s. Very basic. But it’s clean.

I booked my ticket online on the Vietnam Railways website and the ticket was efficiently delivered to my hotel in Hue’. A lot of Westerners told me that they had tried to do the same but not found the correct website. So I am grateful to my local contact in Ninh Binh for sending me the right URL!

My berth
My berth

I have a lower berth in a 4-berth soft sleeper cabin. An Australian girl is already in when I get on board. A Vietnamese man joins us an hour later and spends the whole night coughing and spitting. But there are no other disturbing factors.

The cabin is initially very hot but at some point the a/c kicks in and I have to make use of the blanket provided. I wonder how often blankets and pillows are washed/changed. But I don’t see major causes of worry.
I spot one coackroach in the morning but I guess it could be worse.
And it’s quiet. Quite unusual, a regular ‘commuter’ tells me.

We arrive in Ninh Binh at 9:30am. 45 minutes late. It’s ok.
All in all a fairly smooth train journey!

My epic journey from Da Lat to Hoi An via Da Nang

There are no toilets on the bus.
And I am the only Westerner on board.
And no one speaks any English.

These were the first thoughts that crossed my mind as I boarded the Phuong Trang (Futa) bus from Da Lat to Da Nang. Not before having had a major argument with the Futa staff who refused to tag my suitcase and give me any form of receipt when they stored it in the luggage hold.
This 14-hr bus ride is going to be fun. Not.

Inside the sleeper bus
Inside the sleeper bus

I had reserved a seat on the sleeper bus via my hotel in Da Lat and I hadn’t really bothered with many questions. I got picked up at the hotel and dropped off at the Da Lat bus station, where my ticket was waiting for me. Once I got to the bus I realised it was going to be an eventful overnight ride…

My seat/bed was actually quite comfortable and having booked on the “upstairs/window” I had a nice view. We went through mountain villages and stunning scenery, until the sun started setting and I feel asleep (courtesy of the travel sickness tablets).

More mountain scenery
More mountain scenery

Three hours into the journey we stopped at a restaurant. I think we were in the Nha Trang area, judging by some road signs. All announcements were made in Vietnamese only, though, and the rude and unhelpful Futa guys on board ignored any of my requests to explain how long we were going to be there. Great: I am completely on my own here! Roll your sleeves up, Chiara, I thought.
Back on the bus, we followed the road along the coast for some time. In the darkness surrounding us, the lights from the fishermen boats looked like a huge number of fireflies. It was stunning.

Then the bus started climbing up towards some mountain pass, overtaking on hairpin bends seemed to be common practice.
When we stopped again a few hours later – the Futa guys needed a smoke… – a few men got off the bus so I followed. Toilet break, yay! Only to find out that there were no toilets: we were in the middle of nowhere and the men were all standing on the nearby bridge with their legs apart. “Toilet for women?” I asked the Futa guys in my total naivety. They stared at me showing no understanding of my question, then looked at each other and started laughing. Their attitude was really getting on my nerves at that point. Then one of them pointed at the line of men standing by the bridge. Great: bush toilet, but with nowhere to hide. All I could do was going to the other end of the bridge and hope that the darkness would protect me. Not happy.
Back on the bus I fell asleep and slept most of the night.

At 6am we arrived in Da Nang. The bus dropped us off and left. This was not a bus station. And now where do I catch the bus to Hoi An? I was suddenly surrounded by ten men saying “Motorbike! Motorbike!”. No, I don’t want motorbike: it’s 30Km to Hoi An, I want the local bus. Tired and dehydrated I walked to the ticket office and asked for the bus. A heaven-sent guy told me to follow him, and walked me all the way to the bus station, which was 500m away, and left me in front of bus #1 to Hoi An. I got on board and was asked to pay 50,000 dong. No! I know the real price is 20,000 I said. I had read enough internet forums about this scam. The price dropped immediately to 30,000 and I agreed to that. Too tired to argue any further. After all, we are talking about 50c difference here…

An hour later we arrived at Hoi An bus station, which happens to be out of town. On for the last fight! Surrounded again by “motorbike!motorbike!” men, I got asked for 50,000 dong for a ride to town. No! You gotta be kidding. I know the price is 15,000 I said. “Oh town very far” they replied. I stubbornly stood in front of the town map with the GPS on my phone switched on, trying to work out how long it would take me to walk to my hotel and which direction to go.
And I didn’t give in to the motorbike men pressure. And I walked all the way.
Half an hour later and completely covered in sweat, I arrived at my hotel. Shattered.
It was 8am.
I had left Da Lat yesterday at 4pm.