We had always wanted to visit Asia, and our wonderful trip fulfilled our dreams!
I apologize for the length, but we were gone a whole month, and that is a very long time for us.
Flights and Pre-cruise:
We booked the air on our own and we went from Chicago to Tokyo to Bangkok on United on April 6 and 7, 2013. 21 hours of flying with just a 2 hour layover in Tokyo. We upgraded to economy plus for an affordable amount, and enjoyed an empty seat between us all the way over and loved the extra leg room. We planned 11 days of pre-cruise touring in Thailand.
Our pre-cruise was a combination of bookings on our own and then joining in with Princess pre-cruise 2 nights before the cruise, thus using their transfer service to get us from Bangkok to Laem Chabang cruise terminal, 2 hours away. Our first 2 nights were at Bossotel, right by the Shangri-la and the river. They picked us up at the airport for a very small fee, and what a welcome sight to see our name on their sign for our ride into Bangkok at such a late hour in the night. Bossotel was very affordable, like $55 US per night; that included a very good breakfast and it had a small pool, too. We knew the jet lag would be bad, and for us, to have spent more money on the room would have been a waste. Bossotel was great. The restaurant served very good, affordable food and their spa was also very nice and affordable.
Our first full day in Bangkok, we dressed in church clothing as we had read we should and took the fifty cent public boat to the Grand Palace. What a sight. We also visited the watt nearby with the Reclining Buddha and had a drink at a lovely little riverfront restaurant by the pier where you catch the public boat back to the main pier. The restaurant had a great view of the other watt that is across the river, Watt Arun I think it is called. Our ability to fight the jet lag amazed me, but we just kept moving to fight it off.
That night we visited Lebua Tower for a drink and dinner at the Dome. Yes, it was overpriced, and yes, the food was just so-so, and I can't say that we weren't warned on Cruise Critic because we were warned. It was probably our only disappointing meal the whole month, but the view was great and we did still enjoy the evening. It was a 5 minute walk to Bossotel. We collapsed into our bed and had a good night sleep, in spite of our inner clocks being way out of wack.
The next day we walked around the neighborhood, checked out of Bossotel, took a cab 2 blocks to Shangri La Krungthrep wing to store our big suitcases for 4 days, and proceeded to the main train station with carry ons in tow. The train station was very interesting and the waiting time flew by. They were preparing for the start of Songkran festival and there were also several monks to add to the sights. That evening, we took the overnight train up to Chiang Mai, in a first class sleeper train, and the whole 14 hours were a great cultural event. What fun! We went to the dining car and my hubby ordered from the menu while I ate my peanut butter crackers I had brought from home. We both had a beer and really enjoyed the evening. We slept pretty well, even though it was a real rickety rackety motion event. As I get motion sick, I took my Dramamine and slept well, but just be warned that the toilets, well nothing for that matter, is first class according to our standards. But we loved it. And we had a great time, both going up to Chiang Mai and returning 3 nights later. We wanted to spend Songkran, the Thai water festival/New Years up there, but, even using a local Bangkok travel agent to book the train rides months in advance, we couldn't get the dates we wanted, and ended up mostly enjoying Songkran in Bangkok. In Chiang Mai we used Viator Tours, booked one tour in advance and one on the spot, to ride elephants, go to Tiger Kingdom, and visit local crafts and villages. We also toured Chiang Mai itself on foot on our own and loved it. We ate at The Gecko Restaurant 2 days for lunch. Wonderful food and beer. We stayed at the Shangri-la Chiang Mai and loved it. We ejoyed the pool every afternoon. Beautiful hotel. We booked it on their own website at a pretty affordable rate. Their buffet breakfast is huge and delicious.
Back in Bangkok 4 days later, we enjoyed Songkran with the Shangri La Krunthrep wing as our home base for 4 nights. We booked and prepaid 2 nights through Expedia, and upgraded directly through the hotel the other 2 pre-cruise nights that we had booked through Princess. The charge was nominal to get upgraded to the Krungthrep wing, and then we didn't have to change rooms and we got to stay in the beautiful river front room with a balcony the whole 4 nights. Krunghrep Wing includes a huge breakfast daily, afternoon tea, which is sandwiches and teas and juices, and cocktails for 2 hours every evening and several delicious canapes. We never once went out to eat dinner after the Krunghrep wing cocktail hours. We were too full!
We did our tours in Bangkok on our own. It is very doable. Their above ground trains (the BTS), their subways, and their public boats systems are wonderful and cheap and easy to use. We spent lots of fun time at Chinatown, Chatuchek Weekend market and Siam Square enjoying Songkran and people getting soaked. We took a private longtail boat Klong (canal) tour and went to Bangkok's local floating market and got soaked ourselves along the way and soaked everyone else we could get the buckets of water thrown onto. We are still laughing about it. We visited watts, Buddhas, klongs, markets, and spas. And lots of good food and beer. We sat by the Shangri la pool every day, and they even brought the tea and sandwiches out to the pool for us. We really felt pampered.
We also started meeting fellow cruisers while at the Shangri la and then you started seeing other people associated with the cruise and recognizing lots of people. It was great fun.
Dollar for dollar, we felt Princess delivered a lot of bang for the buck both for our 2 nights pre-cruise and transfers, and our 4 days/3nights post cruise with tours in Beijing. Excellent service throughout and very well organized by Princess Cruise Lines. More on Beijing later.
Now on to the actual cruise.
The Singapore Suite: If you never had a chance to stay in a suite, and tend to book inside rooms to save money like we do, you might find the following helpful, just in case some day you have a special occasion to celebrate, as we did; and just in case one day you receive a special "suites on sale" e-mail from Princess, as we did; it will be helpful to know that it does indeed end up being worth it, if the price is right.
Transfers and boarding went seamlessly. Princess really runs things well. We were on the shuttleat the Shangri la in Bangkok by around 11 AM and on the ship in our stateroom by 2 PM. We had splurged and booked a Vista Suite, The Singapore Suite. It was aft and above the wake, a really beautiful view. Originally, about 14 months out, we had booked a balcony cabin, but a Father's Day weekend email from Princess about a sale made us rethink things and we booked the suite at a great savings. As we were celebrating my husband's retirement, we felt it was worth the extra money. And the perks are really wonderful. Breakfast at Sabatini's with mimosas daily, in a very quiet small group setting really came in handy as the noro-virus was spreading on the ship. And we enjoyed the huge deck to relax on and read during down time. Yes, it is one of the suites with the "dreaded beam", but the beam really didn't bother us in the least. There were 2 reclining chaise lounges, great for taking naps, 2 end tables, a big dining table and 4 more chairs. The sound of the wake was mesmerizing and the view was very tranquil. Of course it helped that we had, for the most part, really nice weather.
The inside of the suite was rather large. A living room with a couch and arm chair, a cooler type fridge, a wet bar, with mini bar set-up liquors and soft drinks included, a drape for closing off the nice size bedroom, which was great, as my hubby likes to sleep in. There was a walk-in closet, and a huge bathroom with a whirlpool tub and glassed in shower in one room and the toilet and sink in another room. There were 2 sliding glass doors out to the deck, one from the living room and one from the bedroom area.
Another suite perk we enjoyed was free laundry and dry cleaning. As we arrived onboard after 11 days of a land tour in 95 degree weather, we already had 2 huge bags of clothing that needed laundering, and it was all done for us, included in the rate of the suite. Because we booked before July 15, we also received free internet, but I think that this particular perk is no longer available. As the internet service onboard is rather slow, I was glad I had already paid for it in the price of the suite. We had a sick grandson and facetime came in very handy. Another perk was that we could order from the dining room full menu any time for room service breakfast, lunch or dinner. As mentioned above, Sabatini's for daily breakfasts with mimosas was a great way to start our day. We also were able to have a free dinner at Sterling or Sabatini's the first night or second, it depended. We went to Sterling Steakhouse the second night, free of charge, due to the suite.
Also because of the suite, on the first formal night we received a free corsage and boutonnière, and every night we were able to order chocolate strawberries and canapes delivered to our room, and we did! There is also a separate line for the purser's desk, and for embarkation, and a special lounge for disembarkation. The pampering we received in Bangkok at the Krungthrep Wing Shangri la continued for 16 nights on the Diamond Princess in our suite. It really was fun, and whether or not we will have the opportunity to experience it again, only time will tell. But it was fun while it lasted. In fact, the entire month we were gone was a great time, with only one bit of sad ending. (I will explain later)
Daily life and Itinerary on the Cruise
This cruise began with 2 sea days which really must have helped those passengers who only arrived a day or two early with the jet lag. There was always plenty to do. Bingo, elevator roulette, lawn bowling, trivia, port lecturers, cultural lecturers, entertainment, dancing lessons, dancing music, specialty interest group meetings, you name it, The Diamond had it. You could do something every minute, or do nothing at all. We did something somewhere in between. We went to 2 of the 8 or 9 port lectures, but saw them all due to the running of them on the in room tv's. These lectures were excellent and not to be missed. The cultural lectures were all informative. We attended one on the Xian warriors and another on a topic that I can't remember because I fell asleep, but I know it was good from people's expressions. It was the Dramamine. Just a little rough seas, but I took the full strength because of it and I fell asleep.
The nightly entertainment was, for the most part, very good to excellent. The singers and dancers were great and the pianist was wonderful, and most of the magicians, comedians, bands, etc, were fine. Only one disaster comes to mind, some gentleman comedian that was so bad many were getting up and walking out.
Another activity we enjoyed was the cruise critic meet and greet thanks to Fran and Billy. We had a very active roll call and it was a plethora of info and help during the planning phase. The meet and greet was a lot of fun and everyone got to put faces to names. Many of the tours we took were thanks to CruiseCcritic members who planned them for us with local tour guides. We did the Ho Chi Minh with Cruisinkayakers, Anne. It was fabulous. But more on that later.
The work out facilities were fine, although for some reason my hubby and I got into a lazy mood and we hardly worked out. We walked the promenade more than anything, and enjoyed that immensely. WE also read a couple of books. Very relaxing itinerary, with a nice mix of sea days (8) with 8 ports.
The Atrium was "our place" to often gather and relax on sea days and before dinners. Lots of ongoing entertainment: a classical quartet daily that was very enjoyable, singers, pianists, bands, and this was besides all of the other entertainment in the other venues. The atrium area is also where the lobby lounge/bar is with great coffees, teas and such. Gift shops, library, lots of interesting relaxing areas. We loved the atrium. It was 3 stories tall and beautiful.
The pools were great, with one in the aft area, one mid-ship, with MUDS, and one very tranquil one under a see through roof. Of course there was the spa's pool, too.
The meals were very enjoyable. We had anytime dining, and often made reservations for a table for two. We enjoyed this, as you still get to meet other people who are close by, but if you are tired and don't feel like holding up a conversation, there is no need to. However, any evening we sat with a group, we had a really good time. Sometimes service was a little slow, but we really had nowhere to go, and were not in a hurry anyway.
Beautiful ship, the Princess Diamond and a very relaxed atmosphere!
The Ports and what we chose to do
In Singapore, a bunch of us Cruise Critics got together and took the ship's shuttle into Singapore and used the Hippo Hop on Hop off Bus. It was well worth the $33 Singapore dollars. Included were 3 routes of the bus, walking tours, and a river cruise that was the best.
One of the stops is the Singapore Flyer and my husband and I went on it and bought a ticket to enjoy a Singapore Sling--our first. We had the whole cabin to ourselves and had fantastic views over Singapore while sipping our Sling for 30 minutes.
It was a great day with fellow cruise critics and everybody had fun at a small cost.
Ho chi Mnh/Saigon
We did CruisinKayakers' Anne's tour with Smile Tours. Don't let anyone dissuade you about going into Saigon because of the 2 hour bus ride: it is interesting, interesting all the way in and back to the port. The mass of people on mopeds and cycles is amazing and the way they protect themselves from the sun and the pollution, WOW! By the way, just like the in Thailand and Singapore, the Vietnamese people were very nice and helpful. The tour included the main sights and a water puppet show that no one can figure out "how do they do it?" but we loved watching it. The lunch we had was excellent.
Here we did our own thing. We took the ship's shuttle into a convenient spot in town, enjoyed the market, hired a taxi for a low fee to see the sights, and then spent the afternoon at the beach club that Princess suggested, La Louisiane. We swam in the South china sea, and it was very warm water. I had a 40 minute massage there for $5US. And they had good food there at La Louisiane, too. We took a cab back to the ship for a few dollars.
We went on our own in Hong Kong. We took the free shuttle again, so we could get to the Big Bus, which, like Singapore, was great. A couple of routes were included and so was a Sampan boat ride which was fun. We went to the top of Victoria Peak, and the tram to the top was also included in the Big Bus ticket. We really enjoyed Hong Kong, and that night the Captain of the Diamond got special permission to cruise through Victoria Harbor and see the laser light show. It started to pour, but we continued watching from our aft balcony and saw the whole thing. It was very romantic, to tell you the truth. Our balcony was protected and we sat out in the rain for another hour and watched Hong Kong and the lights of Victoria Harbor slip away.
In Shanghai, we did a Princess tour that included all the best sights, and good lunch, and a trip to the top of the Jin Mao Tower at night to see the lights. It was a full and fun day. Well worth it.
Birthplace of the Princess Diamond, the ship docks right downtown. The trams are super easy and cheap to use, and a lot of fun. We went on our own to the Atomic Bomb memorial and museum. And then went to Chinatown, and all on the tram. We also ran into a Japanese casino and took a look. We walked a little more and ran into a barber shop, and as my husband desperately needed a haircut, we thought, why not get it in Japan? We spoke no Japanese, and the 3 barbers spoke no English, but my husband got one of the best haircuts of his life. And a shampoo and a massage and a blow dry. It was all very interesting the way they did it. And the most ironic thing that happened on the trip, happened in this barber shop: they had 2 tv's playing the daily news, and what was on the news? The Princess Diamond and footage from an interview of passengers and on the scene video of the ship in port. We told the barbers that was our ship. We hope they understood us. We ended our day in Nagasaki in the beautiful area directly across from the ship/pier, I think its called Covent Gardens, or something like that. We didn't pay to go into the gardens, but the neighborhood in front of it down the hill is beautiful with a lot of shops and a tea house or two.
Busan, South Korea
We did a Princess tour to the Temple out on the sea. It was beautiful. Well worth it. They also took us to APEC headquarters and then to the markets, which were really great. Especially interesting was the fish market where the fish and eel and octopus, etc., are still alive and swimming around and waiting to be purchased and eaten.
Noro-virus update: about the third day of the cruise, there was an outbreak of the nasty noro-virus. All sorts of precautions were taken: the buffet was no longer self-serve, purell hand sanitizer was enforced before entering any restaurant, the sick were quarantined, and on port days, the entire ship was repeatedly sanitized. We were relieved that the Captain was so strict about it all. We heard that 2 couples were put off the ship in Viet Nam because they wouldn't follow the quarantine. After all, with over 4,000 people on board, you have to follow the rules. It is that simple. We thank God that we did NOT get sick, but we enjoyed the extra space in our suite and were glad that for once we hadn't booked an inside cabin. Princess did a great job at finally bringing the virus under control, but it took quite a few days to do it.
Tianjin, Beijing Port, China: end of 16 day cruise, beginning of post cruise
We did the Princess 3 nights with tours Marriott City Wall post tour. It was well worth it. We like touring on our own, but being in a Communist country and not knowing any Chinese made us choose to go with Princess and stick with the group. After a cost analysis, realizing all that was included, the decision was made. The shuttle in, the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Summer Palace, plus breakfast and lunch everyday, including drinks, were all included. Also, the first two nights we were given nighttime options that we took advantage of. We went to dinner and an acrobatic show one night and dinner and the food market the other night. It was all really great and a lot of fun. We also had a rickshaw ride in the hutong area of Beijing and got to visit a family home. It was all amazing. Like everywhere we went, The Chinese people were very nice.
The entire month was the trip of a lifetime. No complaints about anything. The people of all the lands we visited were hospitable and friendly. Our hotels were comfortable and Princess Cruise Lines runs an affordable , efficient and interesting cruise/tour experience. Our only disappointment was that on our return, because I couldn't get my ipad to turn off, I put it in my TSA approved locked luggage. Upon returning home later that night, I found that my ipad had been taken from my suitcase. The lock was not broken into, so it had to be someone working with the luggage process, but they left no type of "security check" note for us to see. We called United Airlines for help and were given a claim number. And we will be faxing more info to United on Monday, in hopes of getting in back. MY husband says I am dreaming, but I do hope to get it back. The case can't be replaced as it has 2 elephants painted on it by a lady making an umbrella by hand in Chiang Mai. The ipad also has all of my pictures on it. Time will tell if some kind person returns it to me half way around the world or not. But we aren't letting this ruin our trip. It was way too much fun for that.