Conservative Excursion in Riyadh

There are two rules which I always keep in mind when holding a camera while strolling in the world’s most conservative culture country, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. These are both applicable to my handy compact camera, DSLR, and even mobile phone. First, I should not take photos on the government buildings in an obvious method. And lastly, Saudi women should be censored from any types of photography.

I visited Riyadh, the country’s capital city, to meet our relatives and to renew my passport at the embassy. It was less than an hour travel from the eastern region by air flight. My embassy matter was just a few minutes transaction so the remaining hours was taken discovering the capital.

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Riyadh International Airport
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A beautiful building along the road.
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Comfortable bed of Mena Hotel

Location: Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Where I Stayed: Mena Hotel

Buddies: Family

We checked in at Mena Hotel which was located at the famous Olaya Road near King Fahad Library and the Al-Faisaliah Tower. The receptionist’s English accent was excellent just like I spoke to an American in the body of a Saudi local. After a short orientation for our overnight stay we headed to our big and cozy room.

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King Fahad Library and Al-Faisaliah Tower from the hotel’s restaurant.

As promised, we met our relatives who was working for several years in Riyadh. The city was full of expatriates who are visible from streets, houses, shops, and restaurants.

We visited Batha Market, the famous local market for everything. Anything we needed was available in the market but the most attraction there was the gold shops. Our eyes glittered seeing a street of jewelry shops without armed security guards and those hanging wide belts, long chains and plates made of gold. For sure, women will surely love the shining shops to be satisfied from all kinds of jewelries and wide selection of gold accessories. The way of selling was amazing. My relative chose one type of a golden chain and the shop vendor chopped it according to her budget and bargaining influence. They also have ready-made sets and packages as best buy souvenirs. The jewelries here are much cheaper and had more options comparing to the other cities of the kingdom.

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Souvenir from Batha Market
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Kingdom Tower

From Batha, we stopped a taxi but the driver only speak and understand Arabic. There was guilt on my side because I’m working here for many years but I still do not speak the local language. The second taxi understood and brought us to the Kingdom Center, the base of the city’s landmark and a tourist destination.

We headed to the ticket counter to buy entry passes to the Kingdom Tower Sky Bridge. The sky bridge was accessed by paying 60 riyals per head. Children under two years are free. Two high speed elevators brought us to the bridge and let us witnessed the movement of the city at 360 degrees view, 300 meters from the ground. Unfortunately, camera was not allowed and our only option for memory keeping was to avail their photo booth service. The best time to stay is few minutes before sunset but it was already 7pm when we reached the tower.

After few minutes of staying at the highest part of the city, we took a delicious and heavy dinner at Tokyo Restaurant. The Japanese cuisine and its ambiance refreshed our taste buds from Arabic foods and our owned made menus. We continued the unending story telling which was paused after dining at the hotel to end our joyous day.

 

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Dining at Tokyo Restaurant

Riyadh is not just a deserted land. Aside of being a modernized and developed city, it has a unique culture. Additional to this is the strict rule requiring women to have their hair covered aside from wearing traditional abayas. Compared to other cities like Khobar and Jeddah, head covering is not seriously required for non-Muslim women expats.

The next day, after our buffet Arabic breakfast in the hotel, we prepared our things back to the Eastern Region by road. We did farewell to our relatives thanking them for sharing  and spending their hours with us.

The surrounding red sand dunes was the best sight while traveling from Riyadh. It took us more than five hours to reach the Eastern Region.

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Struggling Flight and the Mactan Bridge

We prepared our baggage late. The typhoon Hagupit is still lashing the eastern islands of the Philippines and based on news, it will pass through the Central Visayas. Our doubt, maybe our flight will be cancelled.

I booked the Shore Time Hotel in Boracay for 3 nights and they asked to have 10% non-refundable down payment. Our flight itinerary will be Davao to Cebu and Cebu to Caticlan on the next early morning. There is no more direct flight from Davao to Kalibo. I didn’t know the reasons why airlines had ceased this comfortable route.

TRAVEL. At 7:45am, we left Kidapawan City and arrived in Davao Airport three hours early of our flight schedule. I checked the Cebu Pacific website for any changes on their travel advisories. Most of the flights going to Visayas were cancelled.

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At 12:30pm, the plane from Cebu landed in Davao confirming that the airport in Cebu was still safe. At 01:20pm, we departed from Davao and safely landed in Cebu after an hour. The clouds covering Visayas islands was so alarming, indicating the presence of a typhoon.

Yet Cebu City has a typhoon warning signal, only rain and moderate winds was experienced. “This typhoon is not as strong as Haiyan. There is no tree uprooted”, according to a local.

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Comfortable bed of Bellavista Hotel

Location: Mactan, Philippines

Where I Stayed: Bellavista Hotel

Buddies: Family

We checked-in at Bellavista Hotel for overnight because of its overlooking view of Mactan Bridge at 2,600 pesos. The free shuttle pick up from and to the airport was a plus. It has a small pool on the top of the building but we didn’t try swimming because the weather condition was not normal.

We ordered foods from the restaurant and it delivered to the room nicely. The taste was excellent and I loved their homemade pizza.

The complimentary buffet breakfast was simple Filipino meal but filled our stomach satisfactorily.

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Off Road to Bahrain

Bahrain is the closest open country from the eastern region of KSA. A weekend gateway for both Arabs and expats from Saudi Arabia who are longing for a few breezes of cultural freedom.

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At 3pm, we left Jubail going to Bahrain . We’re lucky that the queue in the immigration is not too long. Somebody told us that so many locals flock to Bahrain during weekend especially Thursday night up to Friday. The immigration is in the middle of the bridge connecting the two Arab countries.

We arrived in our hotel at 5pm which I booked in Agoda. The hotel is just at the back of the Holiday Inn in Hoora Exhibition Road.

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Comfortable Bed of Holiday Villa Hotel

Location: Manama, Bahrain

Where I Stayed: Holiday Villa Hotel

Buddies: Family

The receptionist gave us the room on the 16th floor which has a great view of sea and part of the city. Holiday Villa Hotel is a new hotel as what the local said. A little walk in front of Holiday Inn is the taxi terminal. So this is the best place if you come to Bahrain for enjoying the city life.

We directly headed to Sacred Heart Cathedral for the 5:30pm mass. The mass is already half way when we arrived. We met our friends whose working in Bahrain and gladly introduced us to this small country. We dined in Swan Lake, a known Thai and Filipino restaurant in the city proper. We ordered pork menu for we’re craving for it. A sip of coffee at New York Coffee shop continued our bonding.

The next morning, we visited the city’s known mall, City Centre. It’s huge but it still small if compared to malls in Philippines. However, we have not known that we spent our three hours walking inside this mall. It has its own attractions. Aside for being a mall, it has a hotel and a water park.

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PARK and SHOWS. A 10-minute walk from the hotel crossing the pedestrian bridge is the marina bay area which has an amusement park and a dolphin show theater. We bought a ticket for a dolphin show for BD4 per head which will start at 6:15pm. The first show is the sea lion. The biggest sea lion that I’ve seen so far doing the same tricks. Although the language used in the show is Arabic, but it seems we understand animal gestures.

The next show is the dolphin tricks. The area is too small for a big mammals. The dolphin can do more when it’s in the big pool. Since most of the audience are kids, the facilitator mostly drawn more attention from them. The show ended on a picture taking with the dolphin. At this time, the audience are dry. The dolphin jumped up and landed on the dry stage. For the sake of picture, the dolphin sacrificed.

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DINING. There are so many great restaurant near the hotel in Hoora. We’ve discovered the Arirang Edo Restaurant, a Japanese and Korean cuisine. We have a great time enjoying our Korean meal with Japanese sushi. They also gave us a special room near the  kitchen, and we have a chance to witness one of their chief while preparing sushi.

Lantaw Marbel & the Road to Gumasa

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This is a family outing planned for two months. For this is a peak season, we are obliged to pay the full amount on room reservation at White Haven Resort in Gumasa.

We left the town of Mlang at 7am. We are expecting to pass provincial roads of North Cotabato, Maguindanao, Sultan Kudarat, South Cotabato, and Saranggani. We estimated a continuous four-hour of land travel to reach the beach capital of the south.

 

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On the way, we got a 15-minute stopped over and visited the highest place of Marbel, South Cotabato. The Lantaw Marbel is a park on the hills of Marbel giving us the panoramic beauty of the city. The cages of birds and fish ponds are the first attractions the park can offer to tourists for free.  The park has no entrance fee. There is also a restaurant overlooking the city but they have no customer that time.
There is on going building construction that might be offered for wedding and big events reception. It may be soon to open.

After an hour, we reached General Santos City. We stopped at RDEX Food shop to buy frozen tuna, their best seller, for our dinner. Gumasa is more than an hour away from the city according to locals. And finally, we reached White Haven Resort in Gumasa, Saranggani Province at 3pm.

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Location: Gumasa, Glan, Saranggani Provice, Philippines

Where I Stayed: White Haven Resort

Buddies: Big Family (13+)

The White Haven Resort is the first resort which lies on the Gumasa shore before Rosal Resort. We reserved the beach front Pagoda House for our entire family of 13 heads including three children. The Pagoda House has two rooms. One room can accommodate three persons and the other rooms can carry five. The place is wide, so there is no problem for having a big group. It also has open cottages with shared toilets and kitchen for day tour visitors.

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The Pagoda House is a typical one room native house with veranda and a hall which commonly used for dining. The other room is wider and separated from the main house. Only the main room has comfort room. Included in the vicinity is the grilled station with gas stove for cooking. There is also a refrigerator inside a wooden cabinet for storing foods. All these properties are inside a wooden fence, so the feeling of comfort and security is great.

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The beach has white fine sand that’s why travelers named it as “Boracay of the South”. Though on our arrival, the beach was so messy. We asked the staffs if what happened to the place. They too couldn’t answer but I saw them cleaning the entire beach front and shore line.

The beach is good for family retreat. If you’re looking for relaxation and peaceful place in Southern Mindanao, this place can be recommended. Just don’t forget to bring a lot of foods. Both raw and cooked.

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At night, we remained calm and quite as the staffs kept on reminding. This is to give other visitors the best and relaxing rest, and respects to what they talked spirits whose taking care and maintaining the beauty of the place.

I didn’t have time roaming the entire beach even the neighboring and sister resorts, Rosal and Coco which both owned by the same family.

We left the resort at 10am next day and stopped over in General Santos City for meeting long time not seen friends. We finally departed the city at 3pm.

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Best Buy. On the way back to Marbel, we stopped over in a highway (town of Polomolok) to buy pineapples. Polomolok and neigboring towns are home for sweet pineapple plantations of DOLE Philippines.

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DOLE Philippines pineapple plantation

Spying Underground River and Caving in Ugong Rock

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Our tourist guide named Ernie picked us in the hotel at 7pm. On the way, we picked us a couple, and a family with four members. All of us have the same status as explained by Ernie. Booking in Underground River should be done a month before of planned vacation. Our group just booked yesterday so this local guide gave us chances to visit underground river. Anyone can justify that it is illegal but I proudly say, he gave justice to our vacation itineraries. We occupied those names who booked but confirmed that they wouldn’t come. We’re just like an undercover agents having different identities. Me and my wife having names of Mr. and Mrs. Narciso Lopez with matching identification card. Very clever!

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The underground river is in Sabang, two hours away from Puerto Princesa. As we traveled, we passed those roads categorized on how its name implied. The zig zag road, roller coaster road, massage road, and the rocky road. Ernie also surprised us as he is also a puppeteer. He managed to entertain us using his monkey puppet.

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UNDERGROUND RIVER. We arrived in Sabang and we enjoyed ourselves taking beautiful shots while Ernie registered us to Sabang Park, the entrance of the river. After 30 minutes, we boarded a boat going to Sabang Park where wild alligators are freely roaming. They said that there are monkeys too, but we saw nothing during that time.

We headed to the river entrance where we put on our life vests and helmets. A paddled boatman whom our underground tour guide arrived to pick us and started the tour inside the longest underground river which was now included in the Seven Wonders of Nature. I’m seated in the front seat so I’m maneuvering the spot light of the boat. I clearly saw stalagmites and stalactites in vegetation, animals, and biblical forms. Also, the entire cave is with foul smell because of bats and cave birds. The paddling tour took for 45 minutes.

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We were back to Sabang beach with the same boat which waited for us in the park. In the beach, our buffet lunch was served as part of Underground River package tour which costs P1,500 per head. The lunch was so delicious because of pork liempo and chicken adobo. Tamilok, edible sea worm, in vinegar is also served here for P100.

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UGONG ROCK ADVENTURE. “The villagers here are nature destroyer…before”, nicely explained by Ernie. The money earned from every tourist visiting Ugong Rock contributes and helps the villager to do other livelihood instead of damaging the nature.
At the tourist receiving hall, they asked us if we like to do caving, spelunking, and zip line. Caving costs P200 while zip line is for P250 per head. “What is spelunking?”. It is a climbing technique during caving by pulling the body with rope. Everyone in the group agreed to do caving but nobody assured to do zip line. We put on helmet and gloves as required to avoid contact with the growing stalagmites and stalactites. The group started caving Ugong Rock which its name derived from the humming sound when knocking rocks and walls seen in this cave. Ugong Rock Adventure is merely a mountain climbing activity which the final destination is on the top of the mountain.

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At first, the caving was funny for it was just an ordinary cave. But when we went higher, the steeps, channels, and slopes were getting more exciting. We needed to enter in side ways, climb stairs, and spelunking until we reached the summit for more than 30 minutes.

After the sweaty caving, we took a rest at the shade on the top of the summit. How can we go back? The staffs gave us two options, by going back through the same channels we had passed through or by 11 seconds zip line. Even the eldest in our group preferred the zip line for he felt his knee trembling and tired. Besides, going down is more difficult than climbing up.

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I went ahead for it was my first time to do zip line. I felt nervous. My entire body was almost numb and I closed my eyes when the frictionless motion of the harness begun to slide. In the mid air, I adjusted, relaxed and enjoyed the ride.

We left the Ugong Rock with a smile for most of us were first timers. We arrived in Puerto Princesa at 4:30pm.

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Dinner at Ka Lui is the most suggested food tripping venue by locals. The restaurant don’t accept walk in costumers, so we were advised to book it early. We asked the hotel receptionist to reserve us a table in Ka Lui and we were scheduled for 6:30pm dinner. The place is natively decorated and we entered  the restaurant leaving our shoes on the rack outside.
The foods were excellent especially the Trubattaha salad. They served the food orderly from soup to desserts so our table was never full of serving plates. The best thing here was the food price was cheap though it was a well known restaurant.

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Cheers in Colombo

The flight itinerary was so complicated but it was the cheapest option to visit Thailand and a glimpse of Sri Lanka. Before leaving Bangkok, I tried the Thai beer and I realized that drinking alcohol prior for flight was not a good move. The awkward effect was still felt until landing.

The flight was so special because a lady pilot drove the plane safely from Bangkok to Colombo in Sri Lanka.

Location: Colombo, Sri Lanka

Where I Stayed: Good Wood Plaza Hotel

Buddies: Solo

My onward flight to Dammam would be next day, so Sri Lankan Airways gave accommodations to all passengers having such long connecting flights. It was clear written in the ticket that the airline will provide a hotel in Sri Lanka if the transit period is more than 8 but less than 24 hours. So be it! After receiving a referral from the airport transit desk, we (I’m now with a group) went to Sri Lankan immigration for passports stamping. We went down to the arrival area and an airline representative waited there to give us our hotel voucher. We waited mostly 30 minutes for the transit hotel bus which picked us from the lobby.

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Good Wood Plaza Hotel. This hotel was just five minutes away from airport. It might be the reason why the airline chose this as a transit hotel for their passengers. The reception was really nice and the hotel has its own unique design. We were three persons shared in a room (same nationalities) and it was not a problem to me. I’m always ready for a room sharing.
The staff lead us to our rooms separated from the main building passing the hotel’s restaurant. The hall was dark and the room allocated for us was on the ground floor. I really disappointed on the room because it wasn’t like a room of a hotel which already has name and famous. Besides, it was a transit hotel partnered with Sri Lankan Airlines, an airline with great sky services.

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The room was so ordinary with a unidentified foul smell (bat or rat urine?). I thought, my nose has problem but my room mates complained the same. We started the air condition and for an hour, the room was still hot. We started the ceiling fan for help and seems effective but the smell was everywhere. There were folded fabrics hanging on every bed ( mosquito nets) but nobody used it. This room was for three persons but the towel available was only one. The compliment bottle of water was not sealed, so we thought that it was just came from the faucet. We therefore went to the restaurant to buy a bottle of water for 120 rupees. Anyway it just for one night and our noses was immunized to the smell.

Restaurant. Both breakfast and lunch for me were average. The restaurants staffs were gladly served all guests from 7am to 11pm. They were smilingly assisted me when I needed to change a currency to rupees and offered me to try Sri lankan best beer.

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Attractions. The hotel’s swimming pool was no longer attractive. The water seems not cleaned and not treated. Anyway, Squirrel captured my attention! Their numbers in this place was amazing. Crows and squirrels filled the trees near the hotel but hard to capture from my normal camera. Lucky, I spotted a wedding prenuptial in the hotel! Best Wishes to the new couple!

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The traditional dress “sari or saree” wearing by all Sri Lankan women made them stand out from others. The clothing style was I first seen as uniform of the Sri Lankan flight stewardess. I found out that it was wore normally in the country from the immigration officers, hotel receptionists, and so on even at the wedding.

Bye Sri Lanka, “A Land Like no Other!”I wanted to navigate your wonders but I’m only on transit. Left Colombo at 6:40pm.

Temples, Palace, Cruise, and a Lotus

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First look – a typical water lily with cute buds.

We woke up early for our Thai breakfast at 7am. The dish was like a porridge with so many spices. The taste was very flavorful.

We then prepared to Taling Chan Floating Market which was just 20 minutes from the hotel according to the google map. Unfortunately, the taxi only brought us at Taling Chan town and not in the floating market. They advised us for a motorcycle ride for 60 baht to reach the floating market in time.

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The floating market was not so big but we saw bulk of tourist visitors. Like us, we’re here with a common reason. To experience the market venue in a floating platform. The good thing was its free and has no entrance fee.

We saw those women paddling the boat and selling their products. The water was not clear, chocolate in color but those big fishes (catfish?) were smartly living there. One Thai student fed the fishes with bread and offered some bait with us. We enjoyed the life in the floating market and the restaurants as well. The first menu was the delicious and fresh vegetable salad. We also tried  the tasty bowl of noodle soup while seated in a shortened chair with matching table. Our stomach were full when we left the market. There were so many Thai foods and agricultural products on sale.

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We decided to walk up to the temples that we had seen along the way. We didn’t usually know the names of them. After the temples, we hired a taxi going back to the hotel to prepare for our next tourist site. I checked through internet that entering the Grand Palace requires descent clothing. Wearing short skirts and pants were discouraged.

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We arrived at the Grand Palace at 3pm. We were late but we still secured an entrance gate pass for 400 baht each. We were amazed on the preservation of the place and the temples of Emerald Buddha. The stones and the architecture were very impressive and unique. We even entered the temples removing our shoes. Touring and visiting Grand Palace needed more time to explore. And we failed! We didn’t gave such ample time. We lastly visited the Emerald Buddha museum before it closes at 4:30pm.

We followed the flow of visitors exiting the palace. It was directed to the nearest market along Chao Praya river. A cold refreshing smoothies after a tiring walk inside the palace was the best reward.  The foods in Thailand were very cheap and healthy.
We didn’t eat much for we’re preparing for our cruise dinner. For it still early, we walked from the market up to the pier allocated for boats going to Temples of the Dawn. We just glimpsed the temples because we didn’t have time to transfer on the other side of the river.

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The Wan Fah Dinner Cruise was booked through site Bangkok Cruise for 1,300 baht. The starting point was at the River City. Thinking that we’re just along the river, I’m expecting that we’re near the River City pier. I asked a “tuk-tuk” but the driver charged us 300 baht. We didn’t agreed because for me it was overpriced. We dealt with 200 baht. But on the way, I realized that it was really far and the traffic jammed us. The cleverness of the driver escaped us from the crowded traffic. When we arrived at River City Mall after Sheraton Hotel, we handed him 300 baht as silent apology.

At the pier, back of the River City Mall, we couldn’t see the staffs of Wan Fah Cruise. We went inside the mall and saw their booth. We approached the staffs and confirmed our arrival. They pinned us corsages with a number and led us to the waiting old wooden boat at the pier.

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Our dinner cruise along Chao Praya River started at 7pm. Prior for our boarding, a lady wearing a thai traditional costume held us for a picture taking. She then led us to our table number corresponding the number on our corsages. The boat started to move and the dinner was prepared starting with a spicy soup and vegetable spring rolls. After a few minutes, the Thai and Seafood set baskets were served. While the people were busy popping their heavy meals, the tour guide was explaining the tourist sites we had passed like the Temples of the Dawn, Grand Palace, famous hospital, and the beautiful Rama VIII bridge of Bangkok. When the guide is off air, thai traditional music was on the playlist.

On the way back, Thai traditional dances were performed. They also asked some tourist to dance together with them. Unfortunately, my camera was down because the battery degraded. I have no souvenir from those cute dancers. Three different dances were performed but with same dance steps. For me, only costumes and the music were changed but the steps were not. The bill was then given to each table. The drinks were not free except for water. Each delicious drink costs 150 baht. Then the photo shopped picture which was taken before boarding was in frame and costs 200 baht.
The river cruising took two hours and the experience was great. Touring Bangkok will never complete without experiencing river dinner cruise.

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For the River City is very far, we chartered a taxi in going back to our hotel. Our hotel was not that famous because the first driver didn’t know it. So, we rode a taxi to the famous Phayathai train station and from there another taxi to Resort Bangphlat.