Journey to the West a.k.a Tour of the American Monuments, Memorials and National Parks

Published: September 29th 2012
Edit Blog Post

Journey to the West

a.k.a Tour of the American Monuments, Memorials and National Parks

From 14th August to 1st September 2012

By Benjamin Boey

Geography is one of my favourite subjects in high school. I always paid full attention when Ms. Geh explained the landscape and geological formation of the North America in a very stimulating approach. I scored a distinction for this subject for my GCE “O”level back in the 1980’s.

It has always been my wildest dream to witness the massive eruption of the Old Faithful geyser in the Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. I also had dreams of trekking down the gorges of the Grand Canyon to see how the powerful Colorado River created such mammoth erosion to the plateau.

I received my US visa after completing a MBA course back in 2003 with an intention to attend the convocation in California with my course mates. However it didn’t materialize. I went to Egypt instead!

After almost a decade when my US visa is about to expire in December 2013, I told myself I need to make a maiden voyage to the States or else I would be encountering much difficulty justifying for the renewal of my visa in future. The next moment I called some friends asking anyone interested to join me for a trip to see this big country. Only William responded with an affirmation. It was March this year and I called my travel agent to start making flight and tour arrangement for us. William got his US visa within 2 weeks after he came back from his Bhutan trip in June.

We met in Changi Terminal 3 on 14th August 2012. The next morning we boarded United Airlines heading for Narita for a two-hour transit. The flight from Narita to Seattle, Washington was tiresome but luckily I had a chatty neighbour by the name of Kelly who was also returning to US after working one year in Chiang Mai as an English teacher. She was kind to share with me some general knowledge about San Francisco. The night wasn’t too unbearable when I had one good conversationalist flooding me with myriads of valuable information.

Day 1, 15th August 2012

Arrived in Seattle International Airport on 15th August morning and after clearing the immigration with no hassle at all, we took our luggage for re-check in for our final destination – Denver. We explored a bit within the SIA and bought some t-shirts and fridge magnets at the souvenir shop. Anxiously we waited at Gate 31 for the next outbound flight but no announcement was made when the take-off time was nearing. Curious as a Malaysian wild cat, I approached the officer at the UA counter and was only informed that our flight to Denver was delayed for 2 hours! Grumbling and groggy at the same time, we just sat back patiently till the next announcement was aired.

The domestic flight from Seattle to Denver again separated William’s seating from mine. I was seated next to a mid-aged couple from South Dakota and inquisitively the wife asked me where I was from and where I was heading next. I told her I was traveling with a friend and would be touring some of the national parks of the mid-West. She was so pleased when I told her my tour included a visit to the Black Hills of her home state.

Finally we touched down in Denver International Airport at 7.30p.m. Bought a ticket for 2 and we hopped on to the airport shuttle bus heading for our first night stay in downtown Comfort Inn. Our tour director left us a note with the hotel reception and I told William it was pertinent to read the message before we proceeded into our slumberland.

Day 2, 16th August 2012

Couldn’t sleep well due to the adjustment in our body-clock and William commented that I talked in my sleep last night! Did I?? We placed our luggage diligently at our door front by 7a.m. and joined the rest of the group members for a continental breakfast at the hotel café. It was a simple meal and we looked around to guess who would be Steven Osten – our Cosmos tour director for the next 13 days. We hopped on to our motor coach which was a brand new one by 8a.m and was seated first row on the left. However we were being reminded to rotate the seating on a daily basis so that everyone had an equally good view from the window. Steve came to our seat and introduced himself and we updated him we were stranded at the DIA for a couple of hours and only checked into the hotel at approximately 9p.m. last evening. There are only 2 of us from Malaysia and 1 from Mumbai, India. The rest of the group were from Australia, UK and other parts of USA.

We left Denver heading for the Black Hills district and stopped by Cheyenne in South Dakota for lunch break. William and I had a tuna flatbread from Wendy’s which was reasonably edible. The journey took about 3 hours before we arrived at the Crazy Horse Memorial Park. Steve gave us a brief introduction of the Crazy Horse Memorial and showed us a video on the same subject before we arrived at the park.

The sky was still bright when we arrived at our hotel in Keystone. William and I took a slow stroll around the vicinity but due to the urgency of answering the nature’s call, William had to rush back to the hotel while I continued to explore the surrounding on my own. Initially I wanted to take a slow walk to have a night view of the Mt Rushmore memorial park but discouraged by the distance, I turned back and ended up visiting a wax museum of all the American historic figures about 500m from our hotel.

We had buffet dinner at our hotel café and our complaint was the meat being either too tough or oily.

Day 3, 17th August 2012

On the 3rd day, since we did not participate in any of the Cosmos’ optional tour to visit the Custer Park, after taking our instant noodles breakfast we decided to take a walk and snapped some pictures near our hotel surrounding.

I was speechless the moment I had the first glimpse of the symbol of democracy as our motor coach approaching the area. Steve suggested we spend about 2 hours including lunch break at the park. The walking trail to the top of the hill would take about an hour but William and I opted for an easy walking trail instead. We snapped plenty of photos as we walked. The weather was bright and sunny and we didn’t feel tire at all. William reminded me of the first day of the seventh lunar month and we should refrain from consuming meat on this day. We screened through the little labels at the cafeteria and were so glad to have spotted fried rice! Without any hesitation both of us placed our orders for some fried rice, fries, stirred fried vegetables and some fruits. Half way through our munching, William lamented the fried rice contained some tiny meat pieces and we immediately abandoned the residual of the fried rice for the obvious reason!Our motor coach picked us at 11a.m. for our next destination i.e. Mt Rushmore Memorial Park.

We watched a life cowboy show on the main street of Deadwood and it was at par to Hollywood standard. Our coach picked us at 5p.m back to the hotel. Our luggage was already placed neatly inside our hotel room.

William and I decided not to stay back in the hotel for the rest of the day and we walked to one of the restaurants to buy some bread and a cinnamon roll for dinner.

Day 4, 18th August 2012

Our casino hotel served very basic continental breakfast. Steve warned us today’s journey would be a tedious and dreadful one which would cover at least 400 miles before reaching our next stop. The scenery along the way was breath taking even though both William and I dozed off intermittently due to getting up as early as 4-5a.m! It was about 11.20a.m we arrived in Sheridan for early lunch. Steve recommended a few places for food and inter-alia a Chinese takeaway store inside the Smith.

I told William that lady who served Chinese food looked very Malaysian and we were astonished when she told us she was from Bukit Mertajam, Penang! We had a small chat with her and I noticed she scooped an unusual big quantity of rice / noodles into our lunch box!

We were awaken by Steve’s announcement that we were fast approaching Cody, Wyoming.

Our first stop in Cody was to visit the Buffalo William Historical Centre which we paid $18 each. This five-museum complex includes the Buffalo William Museum, the Cody Firearms Museum, the Plains Indian Museum, the Draper Museum of National History and the Whitney Gallery of Western Art. The first museum I conquered was the Plains Indian Museum. The Indian culture is so rich to learn but with so little time to spend here. The only museum I didn’t explore was the Cody Firearms Museum due to running short of time. Bought 2 CD on “Yellowstone National Park” and “Tribal Waters”.

William reckoned we split since we had different agenda to cover in Cody. I left our lodge at about 5.30p.m and explored the surrounding area but realized that not much to see. I walked down the main street and went back to the Buffalo William Historical Centre direction. Spotted a mule deer and some wild rabbits in the garden of one of the residential areas. The sky was getting darker and my stomach was beating like the Indian drum. Came across a Chinese restaurant serving buffet dinner near the Buffalo William Historical Centre at only $11.90. I mainly took vegetables and legumes that night even though the other meat stuff looked yummy. By the time I returned to the hotel, William was already packing his luggage for tomorrow’s journey. We retired to bed around 10p.m after walking for 3 hours. We had a good sleep that night.

Day 5, 19th August 2012

William got up at 4am to start his prayers and I got up at 5a.m. Had instant noodles for breakfast again. We departed for Yellowstone National Park at 7.30a.m.

The scenery from Cody to the Yellowstone National Park was magnificent. Steve made two stops to let us see the Upper and the Lower Falls. Even though we were not close enough to hear the gushing of the waterfalls, we could feel the mother-nature accomplishing her ferocious task from a distance. Incredibly amazing.

After paying the entrance fees at the Yellowstone National Park, Chris drove us along the scenic path admiring the rolling hills with wild lives such as bison, elks, bighorns etc. roaming freely. The weather was partial cloudy but warm.

Even though we were not staying at the Old Faithful Inn which is only a stone’s throw from the renowned geyser, the hotel we put up at Grant Village was equally comfy. William and I had western buffet for both lunch and dinner even though the menu from dinner was 90%!a(MISSING)kin to lunch but we had to pay for a “premium” price for that.

Day 6, 20th August 2012

So far we were pleasantly satisfied with the sceneries we visited for the last 5 days. On the 6th day of our journey, we left Grant Village in Yellowstone for Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Today’s excursion included a visit to the Grand Teton National Park. My stomach started to send S.O.S signal to my brain barely an hour we left our hotel. I was praying hard no abrupt explosion during this critical moment! My tension relieved when we were nearing Colter Bay Visitors Centre for the morning break. Told William I needed to answer the nature’s call and don’t bother to wait for me. Great relief after a 5-minute’s fast detoxification of the bowel system, I hurriedly caught up with the rest of the group members.

The snow-capped mountains of the Grand Teton were getting more visible as we fast approaching the vicinity. We stopped at the tourist centre which was a double-storey mansion which housed a few eateries and stalls selling souvenirs for an-hour lunch break.

For the entire Cosmos trip, the overnight stay in Jackson Hole would be the longest and the only stop which stretched up to 2 nights. Our motor coach navigated the township of Jackson Hole for about 30 minutes before we checked into Painted Buffalo Inn. Steve reminded those who participating in the Bar T-5 Chuck wagon optional tour to assemble in front of the hotel by 4.45p.m.

For this Bar T-5 chuck wagon tour, passengers would take a 2-mile covered wagon ride along Cache Creek to the cookout site. The chuck wagon was a 14-seater carrier and our navigator was a cowgirl who asked her passengers to introduce themselves on the way up the hill. There were some stunt acts like actors disguised as Red Indians “ambushing” our chuck wagon and the hero on the black horse came to our rescue. It was a half-hour “smooth” ride and when we arrived at the site, we were welcomed by some rangers in cowboy attire. After we were ushered in and seated, the emcee announced to the audience of about 80 people that we had 2 Malaysians participating in this event. So William and I waved our hands frantically to acknowledge our presence. Our dear friend from Mumbai immediately volunteered to introduce herself and the floor applauded. The menu was Dutch oven meal of chicken, roast beef, corn on cob, baked beans, rolls and brownies. William and I took all except for the beef stuff. We concluded that the chicken was too soggy and lacked of punch. The Wild West show was the highlight of this optional tour and William was dead-worried he might be called up to the stage to participate in their game show! I advised him if the emcee came around, just walked out as if you were going to the restroom! LOL…. Some of our group members were invited onstage to join in the games. Claire from our group was even being “proposed” by one of the young handsome rangers as part of the game. The entire show lasted for 1.5 hours and by the time we got back onto our chuck wagon I could see the beautiful golden sky of Jackson Hole.

Day 7, 21st August 2012

Despite the morning meal was complimentary from the hotel we made some instant noodles in addition to the limited choice of the continental breakfast. After a hearty meal, I went to the lobby to check my emails as my Samsung Galaxy had not been working well for the last few days. Was in fact frustrated despite the Wi-Fi signal indicated that my cell phone was connected. On the other hand, William’s Wi-Fi which was not working earlier but seemed to be functioning well and he managed to upload a few pictures in Facebook.

Today’s optional tour was wildlife scenic float – a leisurely, calm float trip on a big rubbery raft down the Snake River which lasted for 1.5 hours. The sun was harsh this morning and I refused to put on a cap. Serve me right. I got bad sun burn on my forehead and nose at the end of the float trip! Frankly it wasn’t really an enjoyable and scenic ride as the river was rather shallow and we were drifting slowly under the scotching sun. William complained that we were being “roasted” like bak-kua (BBQ meat)! The only wildlife we spotted were a few bald eagles and a herd of cows drinking water at the Snake River. Very disappointed that no osprey, beaver, otter, moose or elk was spotted.

By the time we came ashore, my forehead and nose top were nicely baked like a lobster. Our school bus sent us back to our hotel by noon for refreshing. Since today was a free day, we decided to wander around to look for some nice food for lunch. We ended up at a Thai restaurant just a few blocks from our hotel. The downtown of Jackson was swamped by tourists from all over the places. We bought some key chains and fridge magnets from one of the souvenir shops. We also visited an Art Gallery who was owned by an Aussie who had settled down here for quite some time.

After a few walks, we bumped into the Indian couple from Maryland by the name of Mr. and Mrs Akathir and was told that they were going to the Snow King Mountain. So we joined them. Initially William was quite reluctant to take the chairlift as it looked quite flimsy and unsafe for the 20-minute ride. After rounds of coercion, we paid $20 each to get on to the ride. If you are acrophobic, my advice is DO NOT opt for the chairlift coz you are only wrapped around by a few steel bars!

The view from the top of Snow King Mountain was indeed splendid. I was lured to take a short walking trail when I met the British couple and their 10-year old son, David from our Cosmos group. Barbara told me it was worthwhile to take a walk to see the entire Jackson Hole valley from the top. After easing myself, I ventured into the woods alone without informing William and the Indian couple. I thought I was brave but as I went deeper into the woods, my subconscious mind told me that if I took the wrong trek and got lost in the forest, I might not be able to see them anymore. To make the matter worse, it’s also superstitious to indulge in any “risky” acts during the seventh lunar month a.k.a Hungry Ghost Festival! I kept chanting “amitabha” as I tried to stay calm and followed the guided trail hopefully to have a quick glimpse of the power cable for the chairlift which fetched us up here. After 15 minutes panic walking, I finally recognized the tiny dwelling next to the cable power station and hurriedly half-walking half-running toward my fellows. I was told that if I were late by another 5 minutes the Akathirs would make their way down without me. I thanked the Indian couple for waiting for me and we went down together.

We took a free shuttle bus from the foot of Snow King Mountain back to our hotel and after bidding farewell to the Alkathirs, we started to look for food to ease our hunger pangs. The first sign appeased our eyes was the Mexican restaurant near our hotel. We stomped in and ordered something which I would never ever want to consider in the distant future i.e. Mexican prawns in bean-sauce! William had grilled fish and he seemed to enjoy his meal very much. The rest of the night we spent visiting from one souvenir shop to another without serious buying intention.

Day 8, 22nd August 2012

We slept through the night without any interruption and William got up at 4am to prepare for his prayers. We normally said a little prayer before our breakfast. We were searching for hard-boiled eggs at the café but in vain. Today’s journey from Jackson Hole to Salt Lake City, Utah would be long and keeping our tummy full at breakfast was our ulterior intention.

We arrived in the heart of Salt Lake City at about 3.30p.m and were greeted by some Mormon followers at the Temple Square. They were the missionaries and some even came here as far as South Korea. We were led by an elegant lady in her 50s as our city tour guide. What we actually went through was courts of colourful flowers and I wonder whether anyone paid attention to her commentary when most of us were busy snapping pictures or yakking away!

About three quarters of our Cosmos members participated in the Temple Square Lion House / Rooftop Dinner. We giggled about those ladies who dressed to the nines for a dinner function held at a cafeteria! Our Ah-Fei Cheh (Ging who married to British guy Raymond) really stood out from the crowd with her long turquoise blue maxi dress and matching socks and woven cloth blue hand bag. We admired her bravery. We were advised to try the home-made baked rolls at this Lion House cafeteria but nothing really special about it. The portion of the food served was not huge enough to last me through the rest of the evening. The missionaries reappeared when we finished our meals and invited us to the interior of the Lion House (home of Brigman Young).

We thanked the missionary ladies and hopped on to our motor couch back to our hotel. I told William I would be exploring the city and asked him to join me but he declined.

Salt Lake City is the most metropolitan city we had seen so far throughout our journey. I walked passed some prominent architecture but didn’t bother to find out more about them. With a city map, I roamed the city and was surprised to see the sophistication of Salt Lake City. I went inside Macy’s in downtown and there were people doing some shopping or hanging out in the trendy bistros. It was getting late and I realized I must get back to the hotel before I got totally lost. I recalled Steve saying something about the free train within the city and saw two lines running at that time. Asked a man on the street how to get back to my hotel by showing him the hotel key, soon I was on board the free train back to the nearby station before alighting the vehicle. Back to my hotel room, I narrated my encounter in downtown to William but he seemed not too impressed by my story.

Day 9, 23rd August 2012

Almost 3 quarters of our Cosmos tour were over by now and the schedule for the 9th day was going to be fulfilling with lots of unique land formations.

The first landscape which greeted us was the Red Canyon. Steve only allowed us about 30 minutes to explore this area.

The distance between the Red Canyon and Bryce Canyon is reasonably short. We arrived in Bryce about lunch time and there was an overcast hanging over the canyon giving a spectacular view of the entire site. We did some easy walking around the vicinity and captured many beautiful shots with members of the group. One of the tour trainees Betsy Wilson asked why the motor-cyclists in Malaysia wear their jackets differently from the rest of the world! In normal circumstances, the jacket is zipped from the front after putting it on whereas the Malaysian way of wearing is just to cover the front torso leaving the zip at the back without zipping it! I told her that’s “Malaysia Boleh”!

I would say that the tour of Bryce was adequately conducted and we were very happy with what we harvested visually. After about 2 hours sight-seeing of the Bryce Canyon, we were sent back to our Ruby’s Inn at about 4.30p.m. I left the hotel alone and ventured into the woods again. The trail was in fact very deserted but only with some herds of black cows. At one stage I was so hesitant to advance deeper into the woods due to safety reason. I kept chanting Amitabha as I walked past a herd of black cows.

I heard rushing waters not far from where I stood and knowing that I would be seeing waterfall soon. It wasn’t a huge one but at least I met with one. Next I came across a scene just like the amphitheatre canyon I saw this afternoon but in a smaller scale. It must be from the same origin but different angle. Stayed there for about half an hour before seeing a couple from our Cosmos group coming towards my direction. I made my way back to the hotel passing the same herds of black cows again but this time I was much more confident they would not do any harm to me. Met up with William at our hotel and we went for buffet dinner at the lodge restaurant. After our meal, we saw gorgeous sunset at the Bryce Canyon and the entire sky was shimmering in golden and orange hues.

Day 10, 24th August 2012

Our expectation of the national park excursion was heightened after visiting the Bryce. Today’s highlight was to explore the Zion National Park. We left Ruby’s Inn at 8am sharp.

It was quite a relative short drive from our hotel to the Zion National Park. Steve briefed us the logistics arrangement and time for pick up after our walk.

There was free shuttle bus to bring us to various parts of the Zion depending how much time we had and individual’s interests to see the park. We took the free ride up to the last stop and alighted together with the rest of the group members. Almost everyone went for this Riverside Trail.

It was an easy walk through the small paths with lots of great scenery to offer. Everyone was dressed in Bermuda shorts and sneakers so were William and I. I came across numerous wild squirrels looking for free food but we were pre-warned by Steve not to feed any of them. His rationale was once we ran out of food to feed them, these mischievous squirrels would attack and bite the hands that fed them!

After walking for more than half an hour, we came across a stream. The water was not running fast and it looked relatively shallow too. I was very hesitant to wet my shoes and take the risk to cross over as I was carrying my Canon DLSR camera with me. A fall would cost me not only an expensive camera but would also spoilt the rest of my vacation with sprained ankle. William made up his mind much earlier not to take the chance to cross over the river even how beautiful the view at the other side of the river would be. I could only admire those who made the effort to cross the river and prayed for their safety. Not many from our Cosmos group attempted the crossing. Back to our original spot, we stayed for a short while before making our way back to the bus stop. We had our packed sandwiches and fruits for lunch at the rest area outside the tourist centre. The free shuttle bus arrived on time to send us back to the lower station to meet up with Steve and Chris.

We left Zion at 1p.m and our next itinerary was to take part in the Antelope Canyon Cruise on Lake Powell. The fee for the 2 hours cruise was $48 and it was worth seeing the unique formation of the rocks.

We came back to our Quality Inn in Page around 6.30p.m. and started to look for food. Steve recommended a few good eatery near our hotel but we preferred to have Chinese meal that night. Despite a sore leg, William braced himself to walk with me to the nearby mall to look for Chinese food. We ended up at one Chinese American old restaurant. The owner was from china and had been living in the US for numerous years. Despite the food was not up to par we managed to finish it to satisfy our hunger pangs.

Day 11, 25th August 2012

We woke up about 5a.m. to prepare for the Antelope Slot tour. In fact there were 2 optional tours today vis-à-vis one on the slot tour and the other a 45 minutes flight over the Monument Valley. I wanted to participate in both but they departed simultaneously. Eventually I chose the Slot tour.

Our jeep arrived on time and I was seated next to Claire. We didn’t put on the safety belt as it was too uncomfortable for three of us to be strapped under one belt. We held tight onto the hand bar as the jeep maneuvered on the sand dunes. The journey was about 20 minutes.

Our destination was like a desert in middle of nowhere.

The slot tour finished slightly past 9a.m and after tipping our guide cum jeep driver, we re-united with the rest of our Cosmos group members at our hotel entrance.

The next itinerary on the list would be the highlight of the entire 13-day National Park excursion – The Grand Canyon. Arizona is a rugged and dry state. We enjoyed the desert view along the way before arriving at Cameron for early lunch.

We resumed our trip at about 1p.m. to the North Rim of Grand Canyon. The first glimpse of the renowned canyon had me sucked into a dimension of hallucination. My dream of seeing the Grand Canyon by my very own eyes eventually fulfilled at this very moment. I was enthralled deep inside but at the same time managing my euphoric emotions quite well. William and I climbed up the Desert View Watchtower to have a bird’s eye view of the North Rim of the GC.

We stayed for about an hour at the North Rim of Grand Canyon before departing for the IMAX Canyon Film show at the National Geographic Centre. We were like school children waiting patiently for the “movie” to start. Some even got popcorns and soda on both hands. Meanwhile William and I started on the shopping spree for various souvenirs. I bought 2 books on Grand Canyon and also a DVD documentary on the early discovery of the GC. The movie was about one hour long but I just felt that it was not long enough to fulfil my curiosity about this amazing site. Some of our group members complained about having headache after the show due to the 3D effect.

We arrived at our Maswick Lodge early at 4pm and it started to rain. That was the first time it rained since we set foot in America. I left the lodge despite the rain even though carrying the DSLR camera together with a brolly was no fun at all. The rain was getting heavier as I descended the gorge of the South Rim. Many tourists took shelter at the bus stop area but I continued walking down the trail until I had to abandon the idea of advancing after 500m from the hotel. Waited patiently for about 20 minutes before the rain stopped. I met the Alkathirs and the Raymonds while walking around the South Rim. The view was much more spectacular after the rain and I was lucky to see a rainbow over the canyon. Perfect proposition for photo shooting. There was free spring water from the canyon to fill up our tumblers. As the sky was still bright, I thought of making a descend down the canyon. It was an easy task but some part of the trail was quite narrow and fatally dangerous if one was not careful, a plunge into the canyon would be the end of the story. A Korean tourist alerted me there were a couple of mule deer on the slope of the canyon and I was lucky to take a shot of them. Dusk was setting in fast and it would be foolish of me if I did not make a quick ascend from where I stood. The ascending was tough compared to going down the canyon. When I reached the entrance of the trail the sky was almost completely dark. I made my way back to the Maswick Lodge but stopped by a huge cafeteria for dinner. Bumped into William who was sitting at the lobby fiddling with his cell phone most probably uploading some new shots into his Facebook. I had some warm soup, some Mexican food and a can of yogurt for less than $20. Bought 2 buns for tomorrow’s breakfast on my way back to the lodge. My mind suddenly went blank when I tried to figure out my room number and the direction to the lodge. I entered a room which was opened ajar and called for William but was chased out by a Caucasian lady for being a trespasser! I went back to the lodge reception hoped against the hope that the receptionist could help me to locate my room. Met Carol (our tour trainee) at the reception and she told me she also lost her way back to the lodge. After obtaining my room number from the reception, Carol volunteered to guide me back to my room with the flash from my Samsung Galaxy. I thanked her even though we lost our way twice. I told William about my extraordinary adventure and he laughed his head off.

Day 12, 26th August 2012

We were nearing the end of our tour and on this 12th day as usual we put our luggage out in front of our room before settling down with our breakfast. I had the last packet of the instant noodle I brought from Penang while William had some biscuits and muffins. William was exceptionally thrilled about today’s optional tour – helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon. The fare was $199 each for a half an hour ride.

We arrived at our Casino Hotel, Harrah’s at approximately quarter to 4p.m. After briefing us the final details what to do in LV, we bade farewell to Steve, Chris and the rest of the group members. This time I didn’t miss any particular person from our group unlike last year when Heng and I went to Scandinavia I sort of missed Lina, those Hong Kong ladies, Eszter Bokros and Rob Tidswell. It took the bellboy (oops a middle aged lady) to deliver our luggage to our room within half an hour. Before we could tip her, she already left in a hurry to deliver the rest of the luggage to other guests. We rested for an hour and half before going down to the reception to find out more about things to see and to do in LV. I told William we gotta watch the cabaret show in LV and I checked with the lady from the reception. She looked like either a Malaysian or Singaporean to us with a pseudo American accent. Not a pleasant GRO of any standard! After hearing me repeat twice of the name of the show, she collected $40 each from us for the so-called cabaret show but we actually ended up watching a striptease show instead! We met the Alkathirs at the lobby and invited them to join us. They nodded without a single question. Mr. Alkathir paid on our behalf by his credit card and he reimbursed him later.

The Indian couple asked whether we wanted to join them for an Indian vegetarian meal and I told William to agree with them. After collecting our “cabaret show” tickets from the Flamingo Hotel, we took a cab to an Indian Restaurant outside the Strip and we shared the cab fare among 4 of us. The food we had was not appealing at all to our taste buds but apparently the Indian couple enjoyed themselves very much. It was about 8pm when we finished our dinner and we took a cab back to the Strip. We told the Alkathirs we wanted to take some pictures along the Strip and would meet them at the Flamingo before 9p.m.

There were many great spots for capturing the night views of Las Vegas and we were busy taking turns to snap for each other. We walked back to the Flamingo at about 8.30pm and the queue was already far too long. The Alkathirs were lining way in front of us. I knew it was not any cabaret show we were about to see and warned William for an pre-matured disappointment. Anyway, we survived through the sexy striptease show for one and half hours. I found it quite artistic if not for a few lewd scenes. We were the first few guests who left early once the show was about to end. I told William we gotta see more of LV since we didn’t have to get up early the next morning. We walked for miles continued to take more pictures of the Venetians, Wynn, The Palazzo, Bellagio, Stratosphere, Tuscany, Caesars Palace, Mirage and Monte Carlo. William complained that his legs were not cooperating with him and wanted to return to our hotel and thus we retreated about 2a.m.

Day 13, 27th August 2012

Despite all sorts of sinful activities evolving around us in LV, we had an excellent rest and got up fresh the next day. It was our last day in US and after having some snacks / fruits for breakfast, we took a shuttle bus to the McCarran International Airport.

The MIA is really a whimsical place to be in if one is still desirous to go on a gamblethon. How interesting to see lots of jackpots and slot machines on the departure hall. Ironically there were not many takers at all. Most probably the pockets were already emptied or a windfall became reality the night before.

The check-in procedure was hassle-free and no one even bothered to ask for any identification before we embarked on the aircraft.

It took only 2 hours before we landed on San Francisco terminal 2. The clearance was equally easy. I recalled taking a BART train from the airport to our hotel in Market Street would be the most cost effective manner to do in SFO. We searched high and low for the ticketing counter for BART but to no avail. At last I approached an airline officer for some info and was guided accordingly. The train only took us 40 minutes from the SFO terminal 2 to Civic Centre BART station. We walked for another 10 minutes before reaching our Aida Plaza Hotel in Market Street.

The receptionist at the hotel was an old man who migrated from Iran many years ago. After registering, we proceeded to our hotel room on level 3. The elevator was so rundown that we could hear the friction noise as we went up the floors. The first impression of this so-called budget hotel which cost us US$150 per night was cheapskate and without proper facility such as the air conditioning! William started to condemn every piece of the furniture in the hotel room. I just reminded him that the hotels are pretty expensive in SF and we were not prepared to spend big money for only 3 nights stay here. This shut him up.

As it was still bright at 6p.m, we roved around to look for food as well as get ourselves familiarized with the neighbourhood. We were in fact quite curious to visit the SF Chinatown and after getting the direction we slowly walked into the notorious Chinatown in no time. The Chinese characters on the signage as well as the road signs thrilled us the most. We thought we were in either China or Hong Kong. Besides taking more pictures of the retail shops and Chinese-influenced architecture, our tummies were already rumbling like thunder. We sourced around and decided to try at one of the Chinese restaurants. William ordered a plate of fried rice and a bowl of dumpling soup whereas I just ordered a vegetarian dinner set. The quality of the food was so deplorable that William didn’t even finish his portion. After paying our bills, the waitress made a comment in a high-pitch voice that our settlement did not include the “mandatory” tipping. William was so tempted to give a piece of his mind that she didn’t deserve the tipping as both the quality of food and service level were frantically unacceptable. Anyway we just left $2 each on the plate and stormed out the eatery.

Since we bought the muni-pass for 3 days use, we thought of using the muni bus to get back to our hotel. However the bus didn’t commute along Market Street right till our hotel but detoured to some other unknown territory. We immediately pressed the bell to alight. Luckily it was not too far from where we stayed.

Day 14, 28th August 2012

On the second day in SF, we joined a half-day guided tour to visit the muir woods and Sausalito district across the Golden Gate Bridge. We assembled at our hotel lobby at 8.30a.m and the bus lady driver came in to look for us. We were driven to the bus station near Pier 41 and were asked to get down to purchase our tour tickets. Confused, but we just did as directed. A couple from Shanghai tagged along with us as their command of English was not good and depended on us for interpretation. Their joy of having us as companions was short-lived when we were separated by our destinations. While we were going for the muir woods tour they participated in the city tour.

We hopped on to another tour bus heading for the muir woods tour and there were less than 10 of us mainly Asian passengers. The bus driver cum tour guide was a mid-aged local and started to tell tales as he drove along the beautiful streets of San Francisco.

We were highly fascinated as approached the Golden Gate Bridge. It isn’t a very long bridge but the feeling of traveling on the bridge was so great.

Upon arriving at the entrance of the Muir Woods National Park, the tour guide told us we only had one hour to go for a quick walk and to come back by 12p.m. The weather was just fine with sunny blue sky and gentle breeze. I loved this place very much but not in the case of William. He seemed not too enthusiastic about the walk perhaps due to the injury on his sole. He had multiple blisters as a result of intensive walking. We only took the short trails and returned to the visitors centre to look for some tiny souvenirs.

We left the muir woods national park at 12p.m and our next stop was to sight see the neighbourhood of Sausalito.

We only had 45 minutes to have our lunch in the marina area so we chose the fish ‘n chips shop. I ordered a combo set and the serving was huge. I didn’t have room for ice cream unlike William.

The bus driver came around to ask for our point of disembarkation and I told him we were going to the ferry terminal but he misunderstood us and sent us back to Pier 41 instead of the Sausalito harbour. I queried him about that but he just asked me to talk to the officer at Pier 41 for a refund. So I did and got back my $20 refund for not using the ferry!

We slowly walked towards the famous Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf and this is really the main tourist attraction in SF. Everyone was in joyous mood with either ice creams or hotdogs in their hands. The price for the seafood at Fisherman’s Wharf was exorbitant in our opinions so we didn’t try anything there. Instead, we ventured into most of the souvenir shops along Beach Street of San Francisco’s Bay to look for momentos. We were particularly interested in a chocolate boutique shop specializing in all types of chocolates and I just had a con of ice cream.

We took a bus to the Chinatown for the second time. The aroma of the freshly steamed dumplings was the main reason lured both of us to buy a few dumplings for tomorrow’s breakfast. Time for us to get back to our hotel for a rest.

William had a cat’s nap after returning to our hotel but I did not. I went down to the Pizzeria to order a vegetarian pizza for myself even the American “small” size was huge enough to feed 2 persons. We had our dinner outside our hotel room in the common area. I shared a quarter of my pizza with William.

We came out again after our meal. This time we walked towards Union Square for a quick glimpse of the branded items. Most shops closed at 6p.m except for a small number still operating till 9p.m. William told me we had to spend whole day tomorrow doing our shopping.

Day 15, 29th August 2012

On the 3rd day in SF, the first thing in the morning I confessed to William that I did not feel like spending whole day shopping but would like to revisit the Golden Gate Bridge since we did not take a proper shot of the famous bridge. To my surprise, he shared the same sentiment as I did. Of course I was euphoric upon hearing that.

After a quick bite, we asked our hotel receptionist the direction to see the renowned bridge. While waiting for the bus #78 just right opposite of our hotel, we saw some old Chinese ladies selling some canned foodstuff and other daily consumables behind the bus stop. I spoke to one old lady and told me she was 80 years old and came from China many years ago. She was pleased that we could speak Cantonese reasonably good. While I was heading back to my hotel, I heard her screaming "Don't take my goods!" at the pitch of her voice, I was so worried that she was robbed by some vagabonds who loiter around the streets of SF daily. When I came back to the scene and asked William what happened while I was away, he related to me that he witnessed some enforcement officers taking away her merchandise as she was selling illegally there. It was so disheartening to look at these old folks packing their merchandise in a hurried manner to avoid the harassment from the enforcement offices again.

Our bus came within 15 minutes and off we were on our way to the Golden Gate Recreational Area. The drive was fun and half of the passengers that day were local Chinese folks. They spoke in Cantonese among themselves. We changed to another bus when #78 reached its final stop.

The first sight embraced us was not the majestic bridge but the unwelcomed morning fog. My heart sank the moment we alighted the bus as the entire bridge was marred by the heavy fog. Disappointedly, we walked into the visitors centre to look for some souvenirs hoping the morning fog would vanish in a split second. Our hope remained shattered as we came out of the visitors centre. One of the workers from the visitors centre told William we should be able to see the bridge better if we walked to the mid span of the bridge. We spent almost an hour bus ride here and inspired by the advice we started to make the quantum leap hoping against the hope miracle could appease us.

It was a windy and cool mid-morning despite the bright sun shining on our face. William wanted to retreat as he only had a short-sleeve t-shirt on him. We agreed to meet at the visitors centre half an hour later while I continued to pursue my desire to see a clearer side of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The red paint of the bridge became more visible as I advanced my steps towards the middle span. Many cyclists moved swiftly by my side and I could feel the triumph overcoming my unspoken joy. Now the entire red South Tower delivered its virgin beauty right before my very eyes. I was speechless beyond words but drowned myself in utmost admiration of this mammoth structure. The phrase “Making the Impossible, possible” vividly flashed across my mind within split seconds. Of course my right index finger was cursing me for working extra hard on my DSLR. It was worth the while to be frozen in motion, literally the chill was indeed killing me.

With much reluctance, I knew it was time to bid farewell to the enjoyment of being on the famed bridge, perhaps this would be the once-in-the-lifetime phenomenon. I united with William who was patiently waiting for my return. My victorious emotion of seeing the real thing was frankly indescribable.

The bus #28 came and I told the driver we would like to exit at lombard Street.

We took the tram from Lombard Street all the way to Union Square. We had our lunch at one of the bistro in Union Square. I had vegie salad and cold noodles while William ordered a sandwich.

The next itinerary which was not pre-planned was the most thrilling experience for both of us – shopping madness! Imagine a guy like me who don’t usually like shopping went on a shopping spree in San Francisco???

We started at the Coach outlet at Grant Street. William showed the shop assistant the specification of the handbag and organizer and he bought the goods in less than 15 minutes. Next we stormed into LV, Burberry, Giorgio Armani, Tumi, Zara, DSW, Macy’s, CK and many more. I only bought one pair of khaki slim fit Zara pants, one Coach soft-leather briefcase, one pair of Nike shoes, 2 Nike t-shirts. William wanted to splash more on branded items but I advised him to be more frugal. I think deep inside he must be cursing me like mad for preventing from buying more. Time was our archenemy that day. We started collecting designer brands at 2p.m and ended at almost 9.30p.m when all the shops closed at that hour. I didn’t hear any complaint from William about his sore feet as far as shopping was concerned! We had quick dinner at one of the nearby Thai Restaurant in Union Sq. We were so hungry that each of us ordered one big bowl of soup and one plate of fried noodles / rice. The Thai food was especially delicious that evening.

We got on to the bus and arrived at our hotel at almost half past 10p.m. Utmost satisfaction was the best word to describe our sentiment that night.

We began packing or rather repacking for tomorrow’s departure till mid night.

Day 16, 30th August 2012

Our pre-booked shuttle bus arrived at 9.30a.m on our last day in America. The journey to SFO was considerably smooth. After tipping the bus driver, we pulled our luggage to the right lane of the check-in counter. The line initially looked pretty decent and moved in an orderly manner. However after 15 minutes in the line, the officer from United Airlines started to make announcement for those departing for Tokyo so we thought we were being called and would be able to escape the long wait. We were fairly let down as he meant to call for those flying in an hour’s time! The same officer after clearing those flying to Tokyo made another announcement for those flying to New Mexico even though he knew we were next in the line. Flabbergasted! The situation started to turn ugly when someone from our line commanded to move forward but the same officer just told him off that he was the one who called the shot! As frustrated as a simile, to circumvent the chaos someone from behind advised us just to step forward to any available counter and we did.

The officer attending to us was equally confused when the crowd started to become a little rowdy. I spotted her nametag as Rebecca and greeted her in Cantonese. She was kind of surprised we could speak Cantonese. She had some difficulty in keying William’s surname and asked why it was spelt as zero zero “1” and William corrected her the right way of reading his surname should be typed as “OOI” which is equivalent as “Wong” in Cantonese dialect. After rectifying it, William’s 3 boarding passes were printed and handed over to him. My nightmare began the next moment. When Rebecca keyed in all my details into the computer, she could only print out the boarding passes from SF to Tokyo and Singapore but couldn’t generate the ticket to my final destination i.e. Penang. Hence my luggage could only be carried up to Singapore and I needed to recheck in upon arrival in Changi Airport. In desperation, I phoned Janet of SAS Travel Agency even though it was 3a.m Malaysian time. I could hear her groggy voice when she picked up my call. I guess she must be cursing me like mad for crushing her sweet dreams a few hours early! I related the entire episode to her but she insisted that the flight itinerary was no mistake on her part. I pleaded Rebecca to recheck the system which she had been frantically fumbling with my 2-sheet of e-ticket. Finally a solution struck her mind and she reckoned it had to be done manually. After she made a call to the “HELP” desk and got some clearance from the other end, she proceeded to do the necessity. Alas! She ensured me everything would be ok and the only thing I needed to do was to get my boarding pass when I touched down in Changi. The entire check-in process took us more than half an hour and we rushed to our gate within split seconds.

The baggage scanning section was rather chaotic which we needed to take off our shoes, belts, wallets etc. before being admitted into the respective gates. I was really in a daze after going through the vicarious experience earlier and didn’t realize we were only 10 minutes away before boarding time. William asked how to return the customs departure slip to the officer since no one collected it from us when we went through the immigration counter. I told him to ignore it. However when he was about to board the aircraft, he asked the officer again and was told to remove it from our passport. As I was only a few steps ahead of him, I came out again to remove the slip and leave it to the officer. Phew, what a day! Should I bring the slip with me and bring it back to Malaysia, I would be facing the music on my next visit to America in future!

The flight from SF to Tokyo was dreadful. I was so restless that reading the minute hand tick was the most foolish thing to do. 9.5 hours flying gave me a sense of claustrophobia. 5 hours lapsed and we were only marginally over the International Timeline. Peeped through the gap in front of me and noticed William and the passenger seated next to him having a good chat. I really felt like walking towards to join their conversation.

Buddha must have sympathized my problem and finally the announcement of arrival in Tokyo was made. I was extremely alert for that.

Day 17, 31st August 2012

The flight from Tokyo to Singapore was much better than the earlier route. Touched down in Changi T3 at almost midnight and after clearing the immigration, we hopped onto a free shuttle bus and by the time we checked into our separate rooms, it was almost 2.30a.m.

Day 18, 1st September 2012

We checked out at about 9.30a.m the next morning and the first thing in our mind was to look for some authentic Asian food to ease our hunger pangs. We spotted a Singaporean Hawker store and without any hesitation, we ordered sets of breakfast menu with extra side orders. Even though the hawker food in Singapore is considered second to Penang but we found that the curry mee we had was the most enjoyable meal we ever had for the past 18 days!

We continued our shopping madness even in this Lion City airport. First we went into Cotton-On Fashion store and bought a couple of denim shorts and check shirts and window-shopped at other fashion boutiques. After bidding farewell to my best friend of 33 years, we walked towards our respective gates for our final destinations. William would be going back to Kuala Lumpur for a few more days before taking off again back to Cambodia.


Albeit being exhausted from the walkathon of the US National Parks, my heart was filled with enormous gratitude that I eventually landed safely back on my beloved hometown – Penang. Nothing beats my beautiful home sweet home.

In a nutshell, it was indeed a fantastic 18-day trip whereby I learnt myriads of new things from William especially from the religious perspective and the people I acquainted throughout this journey. I felt my soul was rejuvenated after putting up with a buddy whom I know for the past 33 years when my mind was constantly bombarded with new and old jokes he cracked during the entire trip. We rekindled our friendship by recalling all those silly things we did together during our teenage years and laughed at life as if there was no tomorrow. We teased each other, we stood firm each time adversity was thrown right onto our face and most importantly we appreciated and respected the essence of being two uniquely different individuals. At times, when we had differences in opinions, tolerance and compromises were the cornerstones for the meaningful togetherness. We vowed to have more of such wonderful trips together with another common friend, Peter in future.


Tot: 2.199s; Tpl: 0.102s; cc: 11; qc: 51; dbt: 0.0333s; 1; m:saturn w:www (; sld: 1; ; mem: 1.5mb