Midday on Thursday the 25th March found us landing at Beijing Airport after two Emirates flights from the UK totalling over 17 hours. The flight from Dubai was quite an occurrence as we were seated amongst a group of itinerate Chinese workers returning home, and the whole experience could be likened to a Sunday School outing of excited children who wanted to talk with everyone and would just not sit down. The highlight of the flight being the spectacular views we had flying over the Himalayas.
Arriving at our Hotel in Bangkok, the superbly located Novatel Peace, we were warmly and efficiently greeted and checked in.
Waking early the following morning we were met with clear blue sky, none of the smog for which Beijing is renowned. After a super ‘western’ breakfast (which was replicated for the duration of our stay) we set out on our first tour, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Far better descriptions of these than I could possibly give can be found elsewhere. Sufficient to say it was a marvellous experience. What was a little surprising and somewhat unnerving at first was the number of Chinese who approached Maureen and I requesting to have their photos taking with us. We now know how Posh & Becks must feel.
Another early breakfast and we were boarding our coach to the Great Wall at Badaling, Nothing can prepare you for the wonderful sight of the wall stretching up and away into the distance; and the bragging rights that I climbed on the Great Wall of China will be with me forever. We then sped off back towards Beijing to visit the Summer Palace, returning knackered to our hotel mid evening.
Sunday was a rest day; however a friend, a Secretary at the Embassy took us out to see the Olympic Stadium, visit a Hutong where we were transported around on a rickshaw, sampled the fantastic metro system, and dined in a local’s restaurant.
A cold cloudy Monday morning saw us leaving Beijing for our 3 hour journey to join the Diamond Princess at Xingang. Despite our driver getting lost and having to enlist the help of a local taxi we arrived at the Port early but with just a half hour wait before boarding.
Leaving Xingang that evening we set off towards the Yellow Sea for our two day sail to Shanghai. Unfortunately the weather did not improve, but became increasingly foggy. We now had found our way around the Diamond, met our dining companions, Kevin & Sue from Yorkshire and Jim & Gloria from Florida. Nestor our Cabin Steward was a friendly and efficient guy who just got on with things without any fuss. The trio, Phoenix Rising played our sort of music in the Wheelhouse Bar; IMHO a much superior venue than it cousin Ramblas on Ventura. Once gain we found the cosmopolitan feel and can do attitude of Princess much to ourliking. Early Thursday morning we found ourselves adrift at the Pilot boarding ground some 40 miles from Shanghai. Having been informed that the Port had been closed because of the fog, It was not until late in the afternoon that we eventually berthed. By this time Princess with its customary efficiency had arranged night time tours and a shuttle bus (40 minutes) into town. BIG mistake! We decided to stay on board and missed out on Shanghai at night. The following day we took a tour into this fascinating and very modern city, visiting amongst other things the Jin Mao Tower.
Having spent an extra day in Shanghai, there was much speculation as to what would happen with the rest of our itinerary. The hope amongst the Brits was that we would not call into Okinawa. However Princess decided that we would only now be calling into Hong Kong for one day only. This on reflection was the correct decision as there were many war vets onboard to whom the Okinawa call was important. Saying this Okinawa proved disappointing with a high street resembling Blackpool and given we was to leave around 2.00 pm, not enough time to chance doing your own thing.
Monday we arrived in Keelung, Taiwan a tatty port town. By this time the weather was improving a little and we set out for Taipei. The first surprise on leaving Keelung was the rich tropical vegetation and the pretty undulating countryside. Taipei is a wonderful modern city with wide boulevards and fine squares where we watched the changing of the guard at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.
The one place we really wanted to visit on this cruise was Hong Kong as our sons had built up our expectations. Unfortunately it rained for most of the day and the cloud level was only a few hundred feet. Despite this we took the shuttle bus from the container port where we were berthed to the Ocean Terminal. Then, flashing our pension books got a free ride on the Star Ferry across to Hong Kong Island with the intention of taking the open top bus tour and a cable car up to the top of Victoria Heights. At this point a friendly local we got chatting to said that we would be wasting our time and money as the bad weather was set for the day. Returning to Kowloon we went shopping in Nathan Road and replenished my Gin stock. Again the weather spoilt things as the Captain informed us that the pilot would not take the Diamond out through the channel between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island and we would therefore miss the spectacular light show.
It was now Thursday of the second week and we were tendering to Nha Trang in Vietnam, the place where the American soldiers enjoyed their R&R. Hurrah! today was hot and sunny at last so we decided on a ‘Caribbean’ beach day. We found a quiet spot where a delightful lady said we could rent two loungers and a umbrella for only $4. Now what I hate is being pestered by beach vendors, but these lovely people managed to relieve us of $40 for a load of the usual junk, but it didn’t seem to matter, we shared such a delightful day. Returning to the tender station I managed to purchase a ‘genuine' Omega Seamaster watch for only $15 before returning to our ship.
Another early start, unfortunately after a late night, saw us leaving the port of Phu My for our tour of Saigon. A two hour drive over dusty bumpy roads with a hangover. I don’t know what I expected of Saigon but I didn’t expect the French boulevard , the number of 5 star hotels, the head post office which looked as though it had been designed as a railway station, Notre Dame Church where the local wedding groups came to be photographed, irrespective of whether or not they were being married there. We lunched in an excellent restaurant, very cosmopolitan which could have been in London or New York other than the price was two thirds lower.
This is probably an opportune moment to consider in a little more detail the Diamond Princess. She is very similar in size and construction to Ventura, which we last sailed on in November. However with one big difference; she has one deck less off passenger cabins so consequently carries 500 less passengers, but with the same public spaces dining areas etc. It was most noticeable when using the buffet restaurant, finding a table never presented us with a problem, likewise finding a sun bed was never something to concern us. The menus this time had quite an Oriental slant, not surprising considering our destinations, and the number of folk of Asian descent on board. Again it was noticeable that the food budget appeared higher than that of P&O. Unfortunately the ubiquitous Norovirus hit the ship, but the outbreak was well handled and quickly brought under control. As for the Entertainment, the shows are very similar to P&O so for the most part we gave them a miss. The bands that played in the lounges were a league above those found on P&O with the exception of Natural High and Caravan. The guest entertainers? well it’s all down to personal taste, however, we did enjoy Linda Genteel “The Piano Princess” Liberace was quoted in 1986 as saying: “Linda plays as beautifully as she looks!” For us the thing for us that’s sets Princess apart the positive attitude and friendly approach of the staff. Like P&O, Princess also host a lunch with the captain and senior officers, but only for the 40 most travelled passengers, this is still a silver service affair.
It was now Monday 12th April and our last port of call, Singapore. Once again we docked in a container terminal, a massive pristine facility where one could imagine that a dirty container would be refused and put back on the ship. This terminal is so large that a system of traffic lights is in place to control the traffic. It was in Singapore where the heat and humidity really started to get to us, we aborted our walk to Raffells and ended up with Maureen buying clothes in M&S.
Our last night on board was a really enjoyable affair with our table companions and other friends all getting today to round off what had been a super cruise. Embarkation in Laem Chabang Thailand was a painless event and after identifying our luggage and we were soon setting off on our 3 hour coach journey into Bangkok.
Our first and only(at that time) full day in Bangkok entailed our River Kwai tour, again a very early start and a two hour drive to the JEATH museum inside Wat Chai Chumpho, this has been constructed largely in the form of an Allied Prisoner of War camp which is managed by a Thai monk. The thatched detention hut with cramped, elevated bamboo bunks contains photographic, pictorial and physical memorabilia dating from the Second World War. We then visited the immaculately maintained Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. It is located opposite Kanchanaburi's Railway Station where we caught a train taking us over the River Kwai Bridge and North to for lunch and a ride on the elephants.
It was on arriving back at our hotel and checking the BBC World Service that we realised the ASH CLOUD had struck and we were not going home the next day. What followed were many days of uncertainty, as our first estimate of a return date was the 7th May. However our tour company Spectrum Cruises and there local Agents Tour East worked tirelessly in our interests. Initially to confirm that our hotel costs would be covered and then to get us home ASAP.
Not wishing to sit on our hands for the next week or so the group went about organising its own excursions, and we had the delight of visiting many of the cultural, historical and nature-based sites. The most impressive being the Bang Pa In, summer palace of the kings of Thailand. By that time the riots were starting to kick off again, the Consulate was visiting us at the hotel , and some of our group had a lucky escape when one of the rocket fired grenades hit just yard from where they were imbibing.
It was on the Friday morning, nine days after we had checked in, that we were informed that Emirates was running an extra flight the following morning to London Gatwick and we were booked on. We departed Suvarnabhume Airport about midday landing Gatwick late evening where Spectrum again stepped up to the plate and had representatives and a coach waiting to transport us back to Manchester England. All said a holiday in a lifetime which we would recommend to anyone.
Ray & Maureen