Queenstown NZ Part II

IMG_3418We spend the first four nights of our trip in Queenstown.  It should have been five but was almost three thanks to a pilots strike at Air Tahiti.  “No worries” as the Kiwis say.  We had a restful night at the Crown Plaza in LA and even managed to squeeze in lunch with Aunt Mary Beth before catching a 7:55pm flight directly to Auckland on Air New Zealand.  One hour on the tarmac, twelve long hours in the air, another thirty minutes waiting for an available gate, followed by thirty minutes in customs and we are finally there! Well, sort of.

We stand broken and exhausted at the mercy of a cheery customer service agent trying to rebook our missed flight to Queenstown.  A small silver Christmas tree blocks my view of her screen.  Christmas music fills the silence as she toggles the mouse back and forth across the desk shaking her head disapprovingly with each click.  The impatient couple behind us inches closer.  The wife drops her bags with a grown.  Her husband crosses his arms and clears his throat disapproving.  I pretend not to notice.  The line grows as four more unhappy travelers join the cause, dreams of happy holidays abroad crushed under over booked flights and lost baggage.  I hate Christmas music.  We’ve missed our connection by 40 minutes thanks to two guys with Visa issues who held up the plane in LA and never even boarded.  With our only option to Queenstown being a 2pm departure the following day, we opt for a flight to Dunedin instead.

IMG_0203I could have sworn she said the flight left at 11:15am but over our 8:00am lunch we realize the departure time is actually 15:15; seven hours from now.  Christmas music fills the silence once again.  After exploring every inch of the Auckland airport, the adjoining hotel and consuming our second overpriced mediocre lunch of the day we finally board.  When we arrive in Dunedin two hours later we’ve been awake for thirty-five hours straight.  As we wait out front for our rental car Paul chuckles.  We’re both glad he sprung for the extra car insurance.  He turns on the windshield wipers signaling his intention to merge right as we pull out onto the left-hand side of the road and begin our three-and-a-half-hour journey to the hotel.  Next time I hope he’ll use the turn signal.

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The Doubletree Queenstown is just as expected clean, modern and free (we’re staying on points of course!).  Gold and diamond members have access to all the amenities at the Hilton across the street including a great IMG_3497hot tub and a top notch breakfast.  We have a nice view of lake Wakatipu from our third floor balcony.  The hotel is about fifteen minutes from city central.  The first two days we drive; on the third day we take the hotel shuttle.  It’s also located less than two miles from the airport; convenient for those who actually get to fly to Queenstown.

IMG_0015In a city full of backpackers and outdoor enthusiasts where a clean pair of dark jeans represents the high mark of formality, traversing the Queenstown garden made me feel surprisingly underdressed.  Magnificent piles of soft fluffy petals fanned perfectly atop well tamed stems in an explosion of regal femininity. Their airy velveteen edges rising gently toward the summer rays exposing the remnants of morning dew.  This is truly one of the most beautiful rose gardens IMG_0450I’ve ever seen.  Voluminous blooms in in blushing shades of red, pink, yellow and white.  I love them all but the Patty Stephens is by far my favorite.  Paul finds the perfect bloom and snaps a picture.  I lay on the lawn and take in the sun.  We enjoy the Queenstown Gardens so much that we actually come back for a second visit two days later.

IMG_0197Athletics aren’t really my thing, but I do consider myself relativity fit.  However, a hundred steps into the Queenstown Hill hike I thought I was going to die.  Two important notes about this trail.  First, it begins at Belfast Terrace not the end of Malaghan Street as noted on the map.  Second, I don’t care what the sign says this “hill” is really a mountain.  If you’re looking for a leisurely hike, stick with the Queenstown Gardens.  We make the drive up the winding road to the end of Malaghan and find a cul-de-sac in a residential neighborhood with exactly four parking places, three of which are available.  How convenient!  A small sign points to an opening in the overgrown bush blanketed with hard packed gravel.  About thirty steps in we round the corner and are presented with about sixty stairs, each with at least a 12-inch rise.  Paul bounds ahead as I lumber behind, the distance between us increasing with each step.  About ten paces in exhausted and gasping for air I find myself bent over at the waist hands on hips, eyeballs to the ground trying to cough up a breath. Tottering side to side like a whisky fed hen foraging for food I waddle up.  This position albeit a bit strange is the only way I can muster the steep incline and ensure gravity doesn’t play any unsuspecting tricks.

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Paul stops at every overlook, climbs every rock and reads every sign.  I trudge slowly behind promising to take in the views on the descent.  We finally reach the top in what feels like record speed.  Paul checks his phone.  In total from the actual start of the trail it takes about 40 minutes.  IMG_0181 (2)The sign at the bottom estimates one and a half to two and a half hours to the top and back.  Sitting on a rock at the highest point of Queenstown Hill I take in the views for the very first time.  Spectacular!  During our decent I join Paul at each overlook for more views of the area and even climb into the Basket of Dreams for a quick photo.

Queenstown NZ Part I

Satisfied with the tautness of AJH-KB-20151217-099-001-0002-Cam02 (2)the ankle strap he reaches for the first of two carabiners and clips it into the nylon loop positioned perfectly between the legs, just slightly above the bridge of the feet.  Snap! His hands continue up the nylon strap right over left inching uncomfortably close to the crotch.  The right hand releases springing up to the belly then hooking down toward the navel.  His thumb extends forward breaking open the second clip.  The carabineer collides with the metal D-ring and closes back upon itself.  Snap! Snap! One final tug on the harness confirms a snug fit around the waist.  Two painful hops toward the ledge; feet heavy with hesitation, legs jelly with nerves.  One final look down . . . way down.  His outstretched hand points towards a platform on the adjacent mountain side.  One final picture.  One final breath.  Peripheral vision wains to the drum of a single heartbeat.  One… Two… Three… Bungy!  Not A Chance.  Fortunately, my moment of clarity came well before this point.  My twenty-minute trip from Queenstown to Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge was simply to document Paul’s Bungy jumping experience.  And that’s exactly what I did.

AJ HackettIMG_0061 Bungy is a brilliant example of social media marketing at its best, drawing thrill seekers from around the world thirsting for a sip of excitement and the sharable content to commemorate the moment.  Appealing to emotions of those looking for a visceral high and the desire to join an “elite” club of the truly nuts.  Bungy jumping is a rush of excitement for mind, body and wallet to the tune of about $10 a second.  Through the top of the giant bee hive we go down the long spiral ramp which hugs the inner wall of the dome.  Massive flat screen TVs line the walls depicting raw expressions of adrenaline madness amplified with pulsating techno music.  Equally as cool as the facility are the crew employed.  At the bottom of the bee hive we are led to a desk by a rugged Kiwi sporting a partially groomed beard and a lip ring.  His dreadlocks, pulled loosely back, expose the sides closely sheered three or so inches above his ears.  Few occupations lend themselves well to this hair style, IMG_0062fortunately for him Bungy jumping instructor is one of them.  After signing his life away Paul is weighed and marked with two numbers, his weight on his left hand and his photo number on his right.  A quick swipe of the Visa and we were ready to go.  Jump or no jump the Bungy experience is non-refundable from this point forward.

At this point we spilt.  Paul goes to the bridge to get fitted for his harness.  I head to the photo deck to join the other spectators, most of which are Korean.  As I write this Korea is experiencing an economic boom.  The New Zealand Tourism Consulate has wisely responded with a full on advertising campaign designed to make Korean travel fluid.  Korean translated maps and brochures dot every visitor center and almost all guides we meet can say hello, goodbye and thank you in Korean; many know much more.  At least for the time Korean in Queenstown is as common as Spanish in Florida.

In the AJH-KB-20151217-099-001-0004-Rovingfive days we’ve been here I’ve come to love Korean tourists.  In fact, should there be a list on the best tourist worldwide I do believe Koreans would rank at the top.  With amenable dispositions and adventurous spirits they are great at lines (forming them and standing in them for long periods), as well as some of the first to volunteer for the chance to try something new.  Want to dance under the frigid waters of the Milford Sound Falls?  Sure why not!  Cheesy lanyards and logoed hats provided by tour companies, others toss in the trash, they wear happily.  Yes, their eager nature makes them quick to crowd to the front but they are so jovial and polite it’s hard to find fault.  Besides, the tallest among them is still a good six inches shorter than me so by all means crowd ahead. Surrounded by Korea tourists I watch the barrage of jumpers hurl themselves from the bridge one right after another.  The entire process takes about 5 minutes and each reaction is the same providing me with ample mAJH-KB-20151217-099-001-0007-Rovingaterial to assess the typical Bungy jumping experience without actually having to take the plunge.  In describing the sheer and uncontrollable panic experienced by the jumper in the 20 seconds leading up to the fall, I draw on my one and only skydive experience (never again!).  Hey, every great story includes a bit of creative licensing.

AJH-KB-20151217-099-001-0008-RovingWith each jump my comrades cheer with delight, their $3,000 cameras fixated on the platform ready to capture every shot.  I’m pretty sure they have one or two friends at the top but they take pictures of every single jumper with unrelenting focus and enthusiasm.  Finally, Paul enters the shoot and the hook up process beings.  I step closer to the rail.  Eyeball to the lens I zoom in for a close-up view of the process and snap a few quick photos.  After passing inspection Paul grabs the metal bar, pulls himself to his feet and rotates 180 degrees.  Still holding on to the bar he takes two backwards hops to the edge of the platform, looks down, and stops.  What is he doing?  Every Korean camera goes up, cell phones and iPads too.  The chatter intensifies.  After a satisfying nod at the angry waters below he looks out toward the observation desk and scans for me.  I wave.  Yes, I’m paying attention.  Don’t want to miss this and have to pay for a second jump. AJH-KB-20151217-099-001-0010-Roving I can feel the Korean on my left looking at me for a response.  I shake my head.  Yep, it looks like he is going to jump backwards, that’s not surprising.  He reciprocates with something in Korean.  I nod and he jumps with delight.  Having broken the language barrier, I motion for him to move so I can steady my arm on the rail.  He complies.

AJH-KB-20151217-099-001-0012-RovingTwo more hops on the platform.  Heels suspended in midair Paul rises on the balls of his feet.  A GoPro mounted securely to his wrist to capture the full decent.  Back arched, arm splayed, he rolls his head back and he gazes into the heavens above.  One small jump and he falls into the sky.  The ride is intense but fast, so fast he is in and out of the water before I have a chance to process it.  Good thing, I had no idea this was part of the plan.  What looks like a hard splash from my vantage point he assures me was just a light dip in the water.  As he nears the river the enormous rubber band takes hold slowing his decent.  The band recoils and releases several more times before the ride finally comes to an end.  Paul is left hanging upside down about 10 feet above the water waiting for two men in a life boat to break him free.  As he lay flat in the boat I lean over the sideIMG_0139 of the platform and we make eye contact once again.  I wave and he gives me two thumbs up.  He joins me a few minutes later outside the beehive quite pleased with his accomplishment and soaking wet from the waist up.  I’m glad it’s over.  He’s happy they threw in a “free” dry t-shirt.  Welcome to New Zealand indeed.  It’s sure to be an exciting three weeks.

Japan Part II

What is perfection?  How do you achieve perfection?  Is this goal a fool’s errand?  After my time in Tokyo these are the questions I am left with.  Before I came to Asia I read a book about Bushido.  For me it was about just that, the pursuit of perfection.  The quest to know life in every breath and to truly live life to its fullest.  Now I’m not sure if that was the point or even the lesson I was supposed to learn but that’s what I got from it.  Whether or not these goals are attainable is not the point it’s the pursuit of them that matters.IMG_3982

Throughout my time in Asia I saw little glimpses of this pursuit, especially when visiting a Buddhist temple, but nowhere was it more evident then in Tokyo.  The simple act of making a beverage for a patron is something I thought I was well versed.  When bartending in college if a guest ordered a whiskey & ginger, I thought I had a pretty good grasp on how to make and serve that straightforward cocktail:  Put ice in glass, tip the bottle of chosen whiskey, count 1…2…3…4… and if you are feeling nice 5…6, fill the remainder with ginger ale, serve with a lime.  Simple right?  After seeing our bartender do this at the Hilton concierge lounge, I can unequivocally say no.  He took this simple act of making my beverage and with no flare whatsoever made me stop and stare, mouth gaping, contemplating my life.  I swear to you my drink tasted better because of the effort that was put in.  It wasn’t just the extra steps he took of chilling the glass and the whiskey or how he shook the concoction before pouring it out.  It was how he performed these steps, every one practiced, deliberate and fluid.  This man took his job very seriously and it made me reflect. Have I ever done the same in my life… for anything?

I am embarrassed to say that for Katherine and I, Tokyo was an afterthought, a place to stop because it was on the way home.  “Why not” I said, “we’ll be there anyway.” It was the one place on our journey we did minimal research.  The extent of my study was the aforementioned book on Bushido and an episode of Anthony Bourdains’ “Parts Unknown, Tokyo”.  Side note, that’s how we ended up at the Robot Restaurant.

Through TripAdviser.com and our knowledgeable concierge staff we ended IMG_3997up booking an experience that will not soon be forgotten, a traditional tea ceremony at Happo-En.  To this day I get chills every time I think about our experience in that beautiful garden.  We arrived by subway (which we had finally figured out) a little early.  Met at the entrance, we were asked for our reservation and invited to explore the beautiful grounds as we waited.

When it was time a traditionally dressed women greeted us and escorted us through the property to a historic bamboo teahouse where the ceremony would take place.  With simple gestures the hostess invited us in and instructed us to have a seat at the table.  In almost complete silence, except for the sound of the fire crackling in the stone hearth, the ceremony began.  IMG_3972I was again awestruck and left speechless by the absolute reverence that each movement was given during the ceremony. The relatively simple process of making tea was reconstructed into an intricate dance between the hostess, teacups and the utensils, with every motion done for a specific purpose. We drank our tea making sure, as instructed, to turn the bowl so as to not drink from the front (bad luck I assume).  After the ceremony we exchanged pleasantries took some pictures and departed.

On our way out of the garden we passed a collection of bonsai trees, some over 500 years old.

The care and devotion that it takes to keep something alive for that long astounds me.  We lingered here for a while taking pictures and enjoying the peace and calm that had taken hold of us.  It was a welcome respite from the concrete jungle awaiting.  I still think of that day in times of stress.  It reminds me to keep calm, slow down and respect the moment.

During our last night in Tokyo I sat in the lounge enjoying one last “perfect” whiskey & ginger, looked to my right and who was sitting there but our tailor “Tony” of Simpson Sin in Hong Kong from 3 weeks earlier.  IMG_3892The sheer probability of numbers that we should meet in Tokyo boggles my mind.  But there he was asking if we enjoyed our trip.  As I sat there mouth gaping for the 3rd time that day, all I could think was, this world is not so big after all.

Katherine and I disembarked our plane from the long trip home picked up our luggage and as we started out to the cold night we looked at each other, she asked “Are you ready to go home?” I said “Nope” she replied “Me neither.”  This adventure opened our eyes to so many new things: cultures, people, food, philosophies and religions, making us realize that it’s more worthwhile to collect experiences instead of collecting things.  I have to admit it was very hard to adjust back to “normal” life.  I don’t think we will ever stop traveling or exploring the world.  As we get older and eventually start a family we may have to limit the duration or distance of those trips but that’s ok.  For now I think the only question we need to ask ourselves is “Where to next?”


IMG_3886 With a connection through Japan’s Narita International Airport and enough Hilton points for a free three night stay we decided to extend our trip a few days and explore Tokyo. Unfortunately, this completed the planning portion of our trip. I know! We planned all our other stops, but when we got to Tokyo we just dropped the ball. Looking back, a general idea of the distance from the airport to the hotel would have been a good place to start, but by this point in the trip we were tired of planning we decided to throw caution to the wind and just wing it. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I wasn’t even aware that downtown Tokyo was a good 90 minutes from the airport until 15 minutes into our bus ride there.

DSCN1657 (1)Because the Metro was just a few blocks from our hotel and because we found it easy to navigate in both Hong Kong and Bangkok we naturally assumed traveling Tokyo by rail would be just as simple. Boy were we wrong! There’s a reason the Japanese Metro system tops the Tripadvisor’s list of things to do in Tokyo (yes it’s currently #4). Riding the metro is certainly a challenging task. To start, the subway is made up of two train operators; Tokyo Metro “JR” and Toei Subway. JR is a private rail system which operates 179 stations on nine lines and Toei is a government run system with 106 stations on four lines. The systems are closely integrated, sharing stations, but not payment thus you cannot use a ticket purchased through JR on Toei or vice versa. This would have been good information to know prior to arriving at the station. Add to that the fact that in some areas of the city the train runs three levels deep, meaning from the top of the platform you may have to take two additional escalators and pass four tracts before locating the train you’re supposed to be on.  Yes to a foreigner with no background information on the rail system the map just looks like a hot mess of spaghetti.

Being that we were staying at the Hilton IMG_4088Tokyo in the financial district and it was 8am on a Monday the rail station was was full of corporate types making their regular morning commute; too distracted by i-phones and time constraints to notice two very lost tourist trying to buy their first tickets on the Tokyo rail.

We were starting to lose hope, but all a sudden like a beacon of light in the tumultuous pool of black and gray suits two golden robed monks appeared. Frustration turned to relief as I watched them approach my disheveled husband. With praying hands and subtle smiles the tiny men stood just inches from Paul’s outstretched handIMG_1285 watching him stare defeatedly at the map. Sensing an audience Paul drew back the paper to see two tiny baldheaded men staring up at him. After exchanging a couple of nods the monks motioned for him to come closer. As he did they pulled out a shiny gold card and gave it to him along with wishes for lifetime of peace in broken English. Then one of the men raised a small coin purse and waited patiently for a response. Paul opened his wallet and handed the man $5usd but the purse remained high in the air with countenance now turning from contentment to condemnation as the monks pressed him for more. After forking over $20usd and another $20 for “the girl” they turned and disappeared back in the sea of suits.  So $40 lighter after our encounter with the two “alleged monks” and still no idea how to ride the train we headed back to the hotel to regroup.

Is this a dream or a nightmare? DSCN1700The last thing I remember is stepping out of a cab, walking down an alley and backing into a door as this ten foot tall half woman half robot (mostly breast) machine rolled onto the scene. Falling down the rabbit hole deep in the basement of Tokyo’s Shinjuku’s Kabukicho district through migraine-inducing neon, video screens and 3-D jungle graffiti into the not so Disney version of “Alice in the mind of a teenage boy video gamer world.” I was at a complete loss for words. Sensory overload coupled with the incessant pounding of beamstaiko drums and last year’s American club music made simply walking a straight line nearly impossible.

IMG_3936The staircase opened into a large pit with stadium style seating on either side. After being lead to our table and handed our preordered bento boxes we were literally chained into the seating area. Yes, I definitely need a drink, make it two. Our entry fee included two bento boxes, though we both agreed we could find tastier fare in an average convenience store.   Sure hope the show is better than the food. One and a half cocktails later the lights dimmed and the drumming began.

Two tiered platforms with IMG_3937at least a dozen hot Japanese girls rolled in from opposing sides in some sort of sexy choreographed game of chicken. Laser beams moved back in forth across the floor showering the glittery vixens in shades of red and green.   The moving platforms gyrated up as the girls swung around conveniently places stripper poles in ridiculously small bikinis which were clearly designed to squeeze every last bounce out of their giggly physics as the crowd waved their glow sticks in the air enthusiastically like drunken groupies at an EDM concert. Then the show just got weird. First came the mirrored tank with flashing lights, and then another fight scene followed by a random stuffed panda running across the stage. Intermission brought more drinks,IMG_3928 then the lights dimmed and the craziness continued, motorized bikes, several somethings resembling the terminator with clown hair, then the finale.  Out came massive “bustybots” for a little robot on robot action.  Yeah, the pictures about sums it up.  This Siskel and Ebert pair gives Robot Restaurant one thumbs up and the other thumbs down (way down).

Having just endured three hours of “man fun” I decided now was the perfect opportunity to pull the estrogen card. So over breakfast I casual suggested that since we had the morning free we squeeze in a little kabuki; and off to the theater we went. The primary difference between kabuki and traditional theater is the duration. At the Kabukiza Theatre, production begins at 10:30am IMG_4004and runs until nearly 8pm, but your not expected to stay all day. Balcony seats are sold by the act allowing commerce to continue at every intermission. The lights come on and a borage of new people appear. Not happy with your seat? No problem, simply wait for the next break and commandeer a new one. Going in I was a bit concerned that we wouldn’t grasp the concept being that we arrived three acts in and the show was entirely in Japanese. Not to fear, Paul rented me an English headset and up to the balcony we went. Not sure if Paul thought a British woman rambling the plot in his ear as the actors carried on in their native tongue would detract from the experience or if he was just planning to take a little nap after the lights went out, but we took our seats with just one headset containing a single earphone. Concerned that he wouldn’t be able to follow the story and finding myself with a few minutes to kill I set to task bringing Paul up to speed on acts one and two as he gave me his best “I’m fully engaged in this conversation” face and tried to act interested. No barely clad bods in this show. Infact, no women at all. Being male is a prerequisite to perform at the Kabuki Theatre.

IMG_4003Japansese Kabuki is just as I imagined. Powdered white faces and beautiful traditional kimonos. Lots of slow controlled movement with minimumal words causing you to lean thoughtfully in like elementry children listening to a teacher’s whisper. Then sudden outbursts of sullen cries or joyful adulation shaking the audience to their cores and filling every inch of the theater. What amazing pitch for someone with an Adams apple!  Sadly I didn’t get any pictures of our Kabuki experience as picture taking during the performance is strictly forbidden. Official looking Japanese ladies perched on bar height stools throughout the auditorium sit ready to swoop down and snatch contraband from anyone who dare try and break the rules.

On our last full day in IMG_4076Tokyo we got up extra early for an up-close look at the Tsukiji fish market. I know it sounds crazy to get up before dawn to walk around a seafood market in the freezing cold, but this place is absolutely incredible. Famous for being the world’s largest fish market each day Tsukiji moves over 5 million pounds of seafood totaling more than 28 million usd. What’s even more incredible is that you don’t smell fish anywhere in the 56 acre complex. That’s because this place draws the freshest and best seafood from all over the world; more than 60 countries.  Crab from Alaska and Russia, tuna from Spain and Croatia, sea urchin from Oregon and Australia and anchovies from Peru. Many of the ocean’s finest delicacies arrive still alive, shipped from their native lands with extra special care.

TDSCN1777sukiji Market consists of an inner market with wholesale business and the famous tuna auctions, and an outer market with retail shops and restaurants cater to the public. Although the fish market does try to be tourists friendly, it is clearly business first, tourism second in the inner parts of the market. The tuna auction actually closed about 60 minutes prior.  We would have liked to see it, but the market has a strict no tourist allowed during busy season policy so we arrived fashionable late – ten till seven.  It’s aIMG_4052 little after 7am when we enter one of the warehouses. A severed tentacle nearly four feet long stares up at me like a fallen log with a sprinkling of shiny inverted mushrooms plump after a heavy rain while its captor decapitates a fish on the adjacent board. Squid pour into barrels with a slosh like the sound of a loosed jowled woman slurping scalding soup from a spoon.
IMG_4050 After a few laps around we headed to the outer market taking care to stay out of the path of the mini carts hauling boxes of styrofoam full of seafood motoring about. In the center of the courtyard atop a large cement pillar stands a uniformed guard whistle in mouth hands flailing up and down with each tweet of his whistle. It’s time to get some sushi. We duck down under a band of flags into a tiny restaurant with a single L-shaped counter and take a seat. We are presented with a menu written entirely in Japanese. On the wall perpendicular to our stools hangs a picture of our chef with the president of Amazon.

IMG_4031Paul points to several of the pictured items on the menu and the small Japanese woman nods her head. Not sure what we ordered, not sure Paul knows either. All of a sudden I am overcome with guilt as I realize my decision to eat sushi will most likely lead to certain death for some poor sea creature on the other side of that wall.

The quality of the fishIMG_4037 is apparent at first bite.  The meat is lightly marbleized, medium fatty tuna from the upper belly, with a hint of wasabi and a slightly acidic rice which subdues my palate.  I place the entire piece in my mouth and close my lips tightly. It melts like butter into a sublime and heavenly flavor as I swallow. I am forever spoiled to Japanese sushi.


I regret not buying a Sari in Singapore. Swaddled in tangerine threads edged in delicate gold coins I pranced back in forth in front of the mirror trying to rationalize the purchase. As the hem brushed against my ankle the coins collided with a tiny ting like a raspy wind chime on a rainy day; incredibly beautiful, but completely impractical for a suburban girl from North Carolina. We left the store without so much as a picture. Agh, the regret!

Amid the vibrant chatter ofDSCN1627 (1) chaotic commerce and pungent tang of spices and jasmine we stumbled upon quite possibly my most favorite meal of the trip. With the return of western sanitation standards and my much missed stainless steel fork I eagerly awaited the arrival of Prawn Tikka Masala and Tandoori Chicken. As I surveyed our surroundings I locked eyes with an Indian man a few tables over and felt my face flush with embarrassment. Turning sheepishly toward Paul I fidgeted nervously with my straw feeling sinful for witnessing such a taboo dining behavior. As the restaurant filled with hungry patrons, my shame quelled with the distraction of noisy chatter and wait staff rushing about. I pulled the camera out of my bag and placed it on the table deciding to satisfy my curiosity covertly.

DSCN1623Leaving the cannon on the table I fixated the lens on the Indian man using the view finder on the back and hit record. Like a concert pianist ticking the ivory keys, his naked fingers danced across the mounds or rice and puddles of curry picking up bits of meat in small pieces of naan.  He delicately placed them in his mouth sucking the residue from his forefinger and thumb after each deposit.

Fresh from the ocean with legs and head still attached Paul’s prawns stared up at me from the bubbling sauce. “I don’t eat food with faces”, I proclaimed, but Paul was more than eager to adopt the social norms of Indian culture. After ditching his fork he set to work dismembering the tiny crustacean barehanded; first twisting the body in half and devouring  the tender white flesh then dunking the half eaten caucus back in the sauce in order to suck juices and solids from the head. Tangy tomato cream sauce with a not so subtle kick dripped from his hand tingling his fingers well after the meal was over.

DSCN1594Nowhere in Asia did I feel more like a tourist than the Singapore Zoo, Night Safari. Neither convenient to any of the places we planned to visit nor of particular interest to either of us it made “the list” based on my mom’s friend’s niece’s recommendation who describe it as the most amazing experience she had in Singapore . . . Yeah.


After learning the hard way that the subway ends several miles from the zoo we continued on foot down a dark isolated street in some residential section for several minutes before finding a cab to take us the last leg of our journey. As we made our way through the dimly lit entry illuminated with neon tiger eyes we were greeted with the sounds of battle drums and the incessant chatter of foreign tongues and overtired children.

Like a swirling commode, chaos turned to order as uncertainty was annihilated at the onset of roped lanes and an abundance of well placed staff channeling people into lines for tickets and then down the path to the trams. As we chugged along toward our destination I found myself confronted by two scantily clad men and the source of the aforementioned drumming. Damp with sweat and what appeared to be lamp oil, two loin cloth clad chaps alternated hip gyrating thrusts to each beat of the drum with deep throated swigs of the oily substance resulting in fiery expulsions 6 feet in the air.

The tram ride was a futile attempt DSCN1584 (1)on my part to try and capture the wild life on film in the dark, without a flash on a moving bench climbing back and forth over Paul for a better angle while he fussed at me to put the camera away and just enjoy the ride. Needless to say neither of us got much out of the experience  So when the tram stopped at the first walking trail we were more than ready to get off and explore.

The coolest thing about the night Safari is the design of the animal habitats. Deer and antelope room free along the walking trails curiously observing the human visitors without restraint or any sort of separation. Cleverly designed moats and brush give the appearance of similar proximity (but with added security) to the parks more aggressive species allowing visitors an up close view and eerie feeling that they are standing right next to gigantic predators.

IMG_3764Meandering in the dark through the thick growth of vines and trees in pursuit of wild animals was exciting. At one point on the trail we found ourselves completely alone with a heightened awareness of our surroundings and the uneasy feeling that we were being watched. Was it possible in all the excitement we had inadvertently gone rogue and ended up on the wrong side of the trail? As we approached the next clearing, low lying brush began to twist and snap with increasing intensity like fire-ready kindling under heavy foot or paw.  We froze as the breathing and panting drew near.  Roars and cackles were followed by heavy purrs as the beastly creatures tore into the bloody flesh gnashing the caucuses between their massive fangs. Drunk with adrenaline and wild with excitement the gigantic hyenas cried out with delight as they inched closer to us.

In true superhero style and without hesitation Paul leapt ahead extending his right arm and sweeping me in to a bush. With fists raised my human shield stood unarmed, but ready to protect us. Not sure how he planned to fend off a pack of wild animals with his bare hands, but in that frightening moment I was certainly glad to have him there. Crouched down and preparing for certain death I keyed in on the sound of a man’s voice. Paul stepped back and we both let out a sigh of relief as the meat wielding staff member strolled down the trail from the opposite end whistling for the hyenas as he tossed them their dinner.

DSCN1570Singapore’s beautiful and functional design is attributed to Lee Kaun Yew who served as prime minister from 1959-1990. Under his leadership the city-state underwent a massive transformation rising from a third world county to a first world country in less than a generation. Yew, fearing Singapore would turn into another concrete jungle mandated gardens and parks be built and maintained by the government so his vision would be recognized and Singapore would become a place of beauty.

We spent several hours exploring Singapore Botanic Gardens, people watching and taking pictures of all the beautiful scenery. Inside the Botanic Gardens isIMG_3744 the famous Orchard Garden which boasts the largest collection of orchards in the world. My favorite part of the conservatory was walking through the Misthouse. This climate controlled area provided a nice respite from the Singapore heat and humidity as well the opportunity to see colorful hybrids from the mountain highlands. Usually an afternoon of flower observation is not Paul’s idea of a good time, but he really seemed to enjoy this one. In fact, I was the one dragging him one from one section to another while he lagged behind requesting time for one more photo before we moved on.  Wow, what a role reversal.

IMG_3822 Having failed miserably with my photo endeavor at the night zoo I took special care to capture the light show in front of Marina Bay Sands. I still haven’t perfected the art of nighttime photography, but I certainly benefited from a stationary camera and use of the auto timer.

Three days in Singapore just wasn’t enough.IMG_3799 With several unfilled items on my bucket list we will certainly go back to the City of the Lion. So much regret!  Oh, how I wish we had ridden the Flyer. What fun it would have been to sip champagne and take in the 360 degrees view in one of those gigantic pods 516 feet in the air. Why was I so hesitant to splurge on a room at the Marina Bay Sands?  At the very least we should have sprung for the elevator ride to the top for two signature drinks at sunset. True, the experience of gazing over the city from the edge of the infinity pool while sipping Singapore Slings would have set us back about $80usd but looking back I think the experience would have been worth it. Next time for sure!

DSCN1637Not that our accommodations were all that shabby.  Forgoing the $450usd “cheap room” at the Marina Bay Sands, we opted for a free room (on points of course) at the Crowne Plaza and were upgraded to a two room suite with a separate half bath. Thanks IHG! All and all it was a good experience except for the fact we didn’t have access to the lounge (apparently not all IHG stays are created equal in the eyes of the Crowne Plaza).  Nevertheless, it suited our needs just right as we left on a 7am flight and the hotel was attached to the Changi Airport. Singapore, we’ll definitely be back and next time I’ll buy the Sari!

The Cruise Ship

With the cruise ship portion of our trip drawing to an end I thought it fitting to post an entry about our experiences at sea. As cruise ship and world traveler novices we selected this 15-night Asian Adventure aboard the Celebrity Millennium for exactly 2 reasons. Life Jacket Picture(Blog)First, travel by sea seemed more simplistic than by land. The brunt of nautical miles occurred during sleeping hours and the cruise ship staff handled most of the customs paperwork. Because of this we were able to greet each new city well rested and ready to explore. Second, this trip was available On the Deck(Blog) through Costco Travel.

Having used the wholesale club’s travel service on past trips I can attest to the value of their vacation packages. With amazing deals on accommodations, bargain priced trip insurance, liberal cancellation policies and responsive customer service agents Costco travel is our #1 choice for overseas travel.

We quickly learned the buzz word in cruising is “enrichment” with cerebral diversions at every turn. There are opportunities to learn the tango, try acupuncture, tour the ship’s kitchen, attend a cognac tasting, participate in games of trivia,Old Man Sleeping(Blog) enhance your mind with lectures on Asian culture, make ceviche, practice meditation and explore Buddhism. And yes, we did them all! Needless to say by the end of our first “sea day” we were ready to join the old folks for a nap. Paul decided that this was to much like a busy day in college and asked me to choose 1 or 2 of my favorites. He then promptly grabbed a seat by the pool, ordered a mojito and closed his eyes. After that Marshall Stern’s lecture, Buddhism 101 became the only scheduled thing we attended every “sea day”. The majority of the population practices Buddhism here so we figured it wouldn’t hurt to learn more about the culture we were visiting.

Surprisingly questions about our ship accommodations topped the list of inquiries about our trip. Although travelling aboard the Millennium was very nice it certainly didn’t rise to the level of riding an elephantCruise Ship Room(Blog) or exploring the Grande Palace. We did upgrade to a suite (which I highly recommend). It provides 2 distinct advantages; a sea view balcony (fresh air) and access to Blu, the ship’s luxury, no reservations needed dining room.
As with anything new, we encountered a few bumps along the way, however overall we both agree our first cruise ship experience was a positive one. Once we (I) decided to embrace the cruise culture and “go with the flow” it was smooth sailing from then on.
Lesson #1 You will be sprayed with hand sanitizer at every turn, just stick out your hands and accept it.
Lesson #2 Irons are strictly forbidden aboard the ship so pack items that don’t wrinkle or prepare to pay through the nose for dry cleaning.
Lesson #3 Not all outlets are created equal. Inadvertently plug your 110 volt rollers in the 220 volt outlet and you’ll have to contend with straight hair for the rest of your trip. Paul at Lounge Bar(Blog)
Lesson # 4 Enjoy your break from technology. Unless its a pressing matter just wait until you’re back on dry land. Internet is $0.75 a minute and the connection is slow and unpredictable.
Lesson #5 Leave Hong Kong without your custom made cashmere suit? No worries, the cruise ship will be more than happy to rent you a standard polyester tuxedo.

Next stop Singapore!

Thailand Part III – Laem Cham (Pattaya Elephant Village)

Oh to be a kid at Christmas! The IMG_3543 sharp, pungent scent of a Frazier fur in the living room blanketed in tiny twinkling lights and handmade ornaments. Personalized stockings hung neatly across the mantle and the joyful hope of unknown treasures morning brings. I can still remember what it was like lying in bed fighting sleep in an attempt to catch a peek of Saint Nick and his team of magical reindeer. Unencumbered by adult concerns, children experience true Christmas elation, absorbed in the wonder, anticipation, and delight of this magical time. Sadly the sheer, unadulterated joy of a childhood Christmas was but a fleeting IMG_3561 feeling. That is until I rode the elephants.

The Pattaya Elephant Village was one of two excursions we booked directly through the cruise ship and certainly worth the money (in fact, Paul says he would have paid double). We were excited to have the opportunity to visit the elephants, but certainly didn’t expect this excursion to be so interactive. This was, by far, the best experience of the trip! We left the village with cheeks sore from smiling so much.

Reminiscent IMG_3515 of my summer camp days at Gwynn Valley, Pattaya Elephant Village is like a nature oasis for big kids. It teaches simplicity and a close relationship with the land incorporating lots of hands on activities. After a quick introduction we purchased two bunches of bananas and headed down the dirt path for our first encounter with the elephants.

There in the opening of the wooded forest stood four magnificent animals. I was immediately struck by how still they were. Aside from the occasional twitch of the ear, the statuesque creatures barely moved a muscle. Tall and wrinkled with kind eyes and small bits of wiry hair the gentle giants just stood there waiting patiently for an introduction. Elephants are so approachable and easy to love,IMG_3523 we couldn’t wait to rub their furry trunks and connect with these precious animals and apparently the feeling was mutual. In addition to being super sweet, elephants are extremely curious and affectionate.

Being patted by an elephant is a weird and wonderful experience. Slobbery sniffs followed by light taps of the nose. Like a blind man navigating unfamiliar terrain the elephants poked inquisitively at our heads, shoulders and arms with the tips of their gigantic trunks.

IMG_3528 The elephants here are experts in the art of retrieving bananas from tourists. Palm to mouth takes about two seconds. Before we could separate another banana from the bunch they were poking us with their trunks for another. Paul got a slight reprieve as his elephant took an extra second to remove the stem, however my elephant just shoveled them in one after another. Somewhere around the fourth banana, deciding that my performance wasn’t up to par, she plucked the full bunch from my unsuspecting hand and swallowed it whole!
IMG_3470 Continuing on with our tour, we followed our guide down a dirt road for a ride to the other side of the sanctuary. Transportation consisted of a wooden wheeled cart and two robust oxen. Not my favorite mode of travel, but ok for a short ride. The combination of hard wooden seats and bumpy roads would certainly do a number on your backside after awhile.

IMG_3482 Relieved to be standing again, we headed down to the water for a leisurely float across the catfish farm. Our hefty vessel easily accommodated 30+ passengers, but barely caused a ripple in the water. No paddles or engine involved, just two hand operated winches at either end of the barge, some industrial rope and a few IMG_3479 willing participants. Naturally, Paul was more than willing to flex a little muscle. He commandeered the front winch and coiled the rope around the wheel as one of our guides let out the slack at the back of the vessel. An eager school of catfish followed in hot pursuit as the kids onboard hurled chow by the fistful.

After disembarking we made our way to a small thatched roof building to learn how silk is made. It was a bit disheartening to see women excluded from the rank of elephant master, however I was impressed by their entrepreneurial spirit. The ladies of Pattaya Elephant Village have created a fairly efficient self-sustaining enterprise which helps provide financial support for their families.

IMG_3487 IMG_3496 IMG_3495 ______________________________________________________________________
The process begins by breedingIMG_3506 Bombyx mori or “silk worms” on the leaves of the mulberry bush. The mulberry bush provides berries for people to eat and leaves for Silk moths to lay their eggs. When the eggs hatch the silk worms eat the mulberry leaves and later make their cocoons on their branches. The cocoons are collected and boiled to loosen the threads. Each cocoon is made of a single thread which IMG_3499 ranges from 300 to 900 meters in length. It takes 25 cocoons to spin one fabric thread. This unfinished silk is yellowish in color and rather coarse, however a short soak in hydrogen peroxide bleaches the silk white and softens the fibers. At this stage it is ready to be dyed to a myriad of colors and woven into fabric. With the silk tour complete, we bid the ladies farewell and headed down to the tree stands to rejoin the elephants.

Katherine on Elephant Straddling the head of the elephant I placed both hands on her giant head and offered a few gentle strokes on the ear. As we started to move I shifted my weight from side to side trying to find balance with the right alignment of pelvis and hips. Massive ears fanned my knees and wiry hairs tickling my ankles with each exaggerated sway. Riding bareback is way more fun than riding in a basket. It allows you to feel every bump in the road and every twinge in the elephant’s stride. Steps on the uneven earth became even more pronounced as she followed divots in the road with her entire body and I pressed my thighs together to keep from somersaulting overtop of her head. From time to time she would stop long enough to pull a snack from the trees. Like a boa constrictor trapping and squeezing its prey, she would coil the branch with her powerful trunk, then snap it loose from IMG_3618 the shaft and voraciously shovel it into her mouth.

Eight feet above the ground, I got to appreciate the lush green canopy from the elephant’s perspective. She and the other elephants followed the trail with little prodding as I am sure they had done it a thousand times before. Paul was quick to note that should one decide to go rouge we would have little choice but to hang on for the ride. Atop his elephant he found humor and truth in the old adage: Where does an elephant sit? Anywhere it wants.

Thailand Part II – Laem Cham (Bangkok cont’d)

Understanding cultural etiquette is important when travelling abroad especially when you don’t speak the language. I was amazed how smoothly we navigated around Asia with just a map and occasional assistance from a friendly local. Probably the best thing we did to prepare for this trip is learn how to greet people in every country we visited. Aside from showing respect it certainly made them more apt to help us. The “Wai” is the customary greeting in Thailand and a way to convey respect and gratitude. It is done by joining the palms of the hands, with the index fingers gently touching the nose and mouth and followed by a slow bow of the head.

Outside the gates of the Grand Place we encountered a Thai man and his dog having a picnic on the front lawn. As we passed he raised his Chihuahua IMG_3386in the palm of his hand and without a moment’s hesitation the dog placed his paws together and bowed his little head. Overcome with joy watching the tiny pup perform the “Wai” I motioned to Paul and we returned the gesture. It was one of the cutest things I had ever seen! We approached and he raised the dog again so I could take a picture and then handed me the pup so I could return the gesture. As we headed towards the gates of Wat Pho we thanked him again and he wished us well with a cheerful “Welcome to Thailand!” This stinky city was really starting to grow on me.

While standing in line at the entrance to Wat Pho we spotted another couple from the cruise ship and decided to split a guide. He was a well weathered gentleman, missing several front teeth with a thick Thai accent and a jovial spirit. Our guide was not only conversant with the interworking’s of Wat Pho but skilled in people management. We were certainly not the easiest group to lead. From the moment we entered the gate, our fellow travelers were on a mission to hit the highlights at a record pace while Paul and I meandered though every inch, tangled in cameras and asking questions about every detail; however somehow he made it work.

IMG_3401 As we approached the temple of the reclining Buddha the guide pulled us aside and handed us each a bag. Apparently Wat Pho was having issues with shoe thieves so we were advised to carry ours along. We carefully stepped over the large threshold and were immediately struck by the beautiful paintings which covered every inch of the ceiling and walls. IMG_3413 According to our guide, repainting is a continuous task which takes about 40 years from beginning to end. Impressive! It is certainly an interesting place; the temple is small in comparison to the massive Buddha. Large square pillars support the center of the temple separating visitors from the amazing shrine and making it extremely difficult to photograph.

DSCN1340 The visitors side is only about 10 feet wide and overrun with camera happy tourists jockeying for a position to capture that “perfect photo”. The Buddha is situated on his side with his right arm supporting his head depicting his last mortal position before passing into nirvana. It was not IMG_3407 until we rounded the feet that we finally got a full view of the Buddha. We stood by his enormous toes staring up at the amazing idle. We were captivated by a feeling of serenity and awe struck by his beauty all be it for a brief moment until flailing arms and flashing cameras pushed out from behind.

IMG_3430 As we emerged from the temple we notice several people laying mats and assembling a rope grid overhead. According to our guide this was for the New Years Eve ceremony. From 9pm until 1am monks fill the temple grounds to pray for peace and good fortune. IMG_3423 The rope grid absorbs the positive energy and the following morning pieces of the rope are given to the people of Bangkok ensuring the recipients a prosperous 2014 as well.

Physically exhausted and suffering from sensory overload I was ready to call it a day, but as we reached the docks and prepared to head to the hotel Paul pointed to a striking tower on the alternate shore. IMG_3440 As I looked across the river I saw the prominent central prang of Wat Arun, one of the most iconic structures in Bangkok. It was then I realized Paul was planning one more stop. From the east side of the Chao Phraya River Wat Arun looked small and awfully inconvenient. I must admit it took some convincing to get me on a river taxi heading in the opposite direction of the Hilton, but I finally conceded under the condition that we kept it short and made it to the concierge lounge by 6:30pm.

The magnitude of Wat Arun became much grander as we reached the base. It wasn’t glitzy, no mirrored tiles or gilded arches like Wat Pho and The Grand Palace, but stunning nonetheless. No, Wat Arun is a beautiful mosaic mess, bedazzled with shards of Chinese porcelain and seashells artfully configured into cheery flowers and mischievous creatures. IMG_3432 The large 70 meter central prang is flanked by four smaller prangs each held up by obscure monkeys and tired-looking demons. A climb up the cement stairs of the central prang provides passage to two terraces and picturesque views of the east side. Also known as the Temple of Dawn, Wat Arun was named for the Hindu god Aruna who governs the early morning. According to the guides the temple is most beautiful at sunrise as the rays reflect off the central prang like a shining cut diamond, ushering in the new day. We found it to be equally beautiful in the light of the late afternoon sun.

IMG_3449For thrill seekers like Paul, a climb to the top, up those insanely steep stairs, yielded spectacular views of Bangkok and a great opportunity to see the diversity of this city – the river and ancient Bangkok with the modern metropolis in the backdrop. For me, a look from the first platform was certainly sufficient. I had actually reconsidered my decision to climb a few steps in but was unable to descend as the path was narrow and congested with people moving steadily in both directions.

As Paul explored the top terrace I waited patiently on the first. This picture fails to capture the peril we encountered. It was like IMG_3445 climbing a concrete ladder; the steps were narrow, probably 6 inches deep and the rise was severe, nearly a foot and a half! Following Paul’s lead I grabbed the underside of the hand rail with the palm of my hand and braced my forearm firmly against the metal. According to Paul this underarm hold would keep us from tumbling should one of us misstep during the decent. A reasonable theory, but I still insisted he went down first.

DSCN1399The next morning we decided to take Lily’s advice and head across the street for a bit of pampering. When we entered the spa we were greeted by three giggly women who spoke no English and presented with a list of services written entirely in Thai. Paul took the flyer and we stepped aside to review our options. After determining Thai shows no resemblance to English and that we had no hope of deciphering the hieroglyphics, we returned to the counter for an impromptu game of charades with Paul rubbing his neck and me pointing at Paul and nodding enthusiastically. Eventually the ladies caught on and handed us an English flyer so we could make our selections.

DSCN1393As we sat sipping our tea and awaiting the masseuses I couldn’t help wondering if the ladies at the counter assumed we spoke Thai or just got a kick out of watching American tourists awkwardly perform for service. We were, after all directly across the street from the Hilton and within two blocks of three other American hotels. Unlike American massage, Thai massage is performed fully clothed with no scented DSCN1397 oils or lotions and instead of being kneaded and rubbed you are stretched, and pulled in yoga like positions. Although I am pretty sure we requested traditional Thai massages what we got were Thai foot, hand and shoulder reflexology. All in all it was a pretty good experience and one of the most economical things we did in Thailand. Total cost for two one hour massages was just $24USD. We left feeling rejuvenated and ready for lunch.

DSCN1404 Food was certainly a large part of our Hong Kong and Vietnam experience, but sadly we ate only one authentic Thai meal during our 24 hour stay in Bangkok. On the 31st we were so wrapped up in touring the temples that we skipped lunch completely and when we returned to the Hilton that evening we were so tired we didn’t make it past cocktail hour.

The breakfast buffet was as enticing as cocktail hour and we headed out that morning too full to eat again DSCN1405 until lunchtime. Lunch was good but certainly not exciting enough to document (I don’t think I even got a picture); curried fish and a side order of tempura vegetables, although I did really enjoy the dessert. Not sure what it was called but it tasted like a slightly firmer version of coconut jell-o mixed with bits of ice. There are so many things to do in Bangkok; guess we’ll just have to make another trip!

Thailand Part I – Laem Cham (Bangkok)

The bus ride to Bangkok was surprisingly short for two reasons. First, it was New Years Eve so much of the city was on Holiday at the nearby beaches DSCN1305 freeing up the roads from the usual congestion. Second, our bus driver actually drove the speed limit. Expecting a ride somewhere between3 ½ to 4 hours we were delighted to only be in the bus about an 1 hour and 45 minutes.

Our first impression of Bangkok; we blend a lot better here. Unlike the homogeneous populations of Hong Kong and Vietnam, Bangkok is an eclectic mix of people; there are lots of Thais and Asians but also a fair amount of Europeans and Australians. Our second thought, “wow, this city is dirty!” Smog we were use to, but loose trash and a general rotten smell through out the city was distinct to Bangkok.

DSCN1302 Using Hotel points on New Year’s Eve proved to be a bit challenging but we ended up very happy with our selection. I narrowed our choices to 2 and asked Paul to make the final decision. He ended up selecting the Hilton Sukhumvit Bangkok based solely on the fact that this one had a rooftop pool. Aside from the pool, the property had a fabulous concierge lounge and was located just a few short blocks from the MRT. Lily, one of the concierge lounge attendants, proved to be a valuable IMG_3456_result asset and we relied on her a great deal over the next 24 hours. She helped us get the most out of our Bangkok experience. Her first suggestion – taking a cab would certainly be the easiest option, but taking the subway to the Chao Phraya River and hopping on a river taxi would definitely be more “fun.” So since we were looking for “fun” that’s exactly what we did.

Treacherous transportation seems to be a reoccurring theme throughout this trip. First there was the crazy ride from the Hong Kong airport IMG_3435_result on that double-decker bus which flew madly around corners causing luggage to come crashing down all around us. This was followed by a wild motorbike ride though the streets of Ho Chi Minh City on the Back of the Bike Tour. So it seemed only natural that our transportation in Bangkok would be equally fanatical. After an uneventful ride on the subway we took a short walk down to the river. From the road we could see a partially shaded cement pad with a small ticket booth which was surrounded by about 120 people. I said “This is going to take all day!” The crowd was so disorganized we didn’t even know where the ticket line began. Bangkok River Trash Reluctantly we approached the group and to our surprise we were immediately greeted by an official looking woman who escorted us right to the front of the ticket booth. As we followed the woman, Paul pulled out his wallet and rifled through the various currencies in search of Baht. A warm stench filled my nostrils and I was compelled to ball up my sweater and cover my nose. Upon closer inspection I could see bits of yard clippings, chunks of food and pieces of partially submerged garbage all along the edge of the milky brown river. That rotten smell we noticed earlier; I think I had just found the source.

A few minutes later the boat arrived and we were instructed to get on. Even though we were practically the last people to arrive we were some of the first to board. No one seemed to be in a hurry; DSCN1321 they just smiled and nodded for us to go ahead. We took a seat with about 50 other people and prepared to ride, however we were far from leaving. More people began to trickle aboard; first loosely filling the aisles then swelling to pack every inch of the vessel. I couldn’t believe it. The small woman in the golf shirt had loaded our boat tighter than a Hong Kong subway car during rush hour and actually gotten every single person aboard. Similar boats cruised by in the other direction and we bounced along in their wake. Cringing with each spray from the Chao Phraya River I realized why we were River Boat Taxi encouraged to board first.

Not sure “fun” will make the list of words I will use to describe this experience. I will have to wait until I am certain we have made it through the window of time when inadvertent contact with river water may cause serious illness. For now I would prefer to just call it adventurous.

While I was focused on avoiding contact with the water, Paul was busy studying the map and observing the ticket collection process. DSCN1309 We arrived at the stop for the Grand Palace and disembarked. On the way to the entrance we compared notes. According to Paul the payment process appeared to be very disjointed. Passengers were not required to present their tickets prior to boarding and in fact about 50% of our travel companions had not even purchased them. DSCN1318 Payment actually occurred in transit. As the boat puttered down the river one representative weaved through the crowd collecting tickets from people who had purchased them and cash from those who had not. A full boat and a short ride meant that passengers not holding a ticket may get to ride for free. On subsequent boat rides we would wait until the last minute to board and even ride once for free.

IMG_3344That afternoon we spent several hours visiting the three most well known historical sites in Bangkok – The Grand Palace, Wat Pho and Wat Arun. Collectively these magnificent temples are the most stunning manmade structures either of us has IMG_3347_result ever seen. We were truly in awe not only by the size of these incredible creations but also in the level of detail they contain. Should we return to Bangkok we will certainly tour these sites again. One trip was definitely not enough to take it all in.

IMG_3382 Entering the gates of the Grand Palace was both an interesting and overwhelming experience. Even though the grounds encompass over 2 million sqft, to us they felt extremely claustrophobic as there were swarms of people absolutely everywhere. In fact, the crowd was so dense that that in most areas of the palace it would have been impossible for me to extend my arms to either side IMG_3383 and turn in a complete circle without touching someone. Following the mass of visitors we slowly made our way to the gate. Positioned at either side of the entrance were two women, holding laminated signs depicting clothing which was not allowed in the palace. Prospective visitors with DSCN1324 exposed ankles and shoulders were refused access and rerouted to a separate line to rent appropriate clothing. After being belted in loose fitting tops and elephant print parachute pants they were then routed back to the line for a second wardrobe inspection. Fortunately we passed inspection and we were allowed to roam the grounds parachute pant free.

As we wandered the palace, IMG_3356 mouths gaping in amazement, it became evident why the crowds were so thick. It was New Years Eve and thousands of Thais had come to pay homage to Buddha in hopes of good fortune for the coming year. In the Central Square a thick smoke filled the air as people hurried by clutching sticks of smoldering incense and fresh flower offerings. Nearby many more worshipers gilded small Buddha statues with bits of gold foil.

We made our way down the stairsIMG_3349 and into a less congested area on the side of one of the buildings. Paul unfolded the large map and examined it up against the beautiful gold and ruby tiles of the temple while I hunted in our bag for some water. I wish we had hired a guide; we both did. One of the lecturers on the cruise ship had told us that guides were provided inside the gate however this was clearly not the case. We contemplated going back out to get one, but were told if we did so, we would have to wait in that ridiculous line IMG_3331again and pay a second $30 entrance fee so we just decided to continue on with our self guided tour.

The Grand Palace was commissioned by King Rama I in 1782 and continues to be the official residence of the king today. The most notable treasure is the Emerald Buddha which is actually carved from a single piece of jade and stands a mere 24 inches tall. What we found to be most impressive was the intricate tile work that covered most to the facade. The palace is in really good condition thanks to a restoration team who has been replacing tiny tiles and maintaining carvings continually for the past 200 years. I am certainly glad we braved the crowds to see this.

Vietnam Part IV (Ho Chi Minh City)

DSCN1277 Early the next morning we headed back to the auditorium for more stickers before being shuffled down to busses for our overnight trip to Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon). During the head count our guide noticed one person was missing. A lady a few rows up raised her hand and announced her husband had gone back to the boat to get something. A few moments later she was escorted from her seat down to the side of the bus. IMG_3164_resultLooking surprised and a bit irritated she pointed at the undercarriage and nodded as the guide rummage through the bags to retrieve her suit case. Our load lightened by two, the engine started and we headed for the City. Lesson learned; if you are not on time, you will be left.

It was a solid two and half hours to our destination including a ten minute rest stop, not because Ho Chi Minh is extremely far or the road to get there particularly congested but because our driver never broke 30mph. However, the long ride provided ample opportunity to work on our blog.

dense-traffic-at-the-hang-xanh-crossroads-in-ho-chi-minh-city-doctors-warn-that-the-citys-excessive-lvel-of-noise-pollution-is-a-threat-to-the-hearing-of- Ho Chi Minh City is like an angry ant hill in the moments after it has been prodded with a stick. Thousands of motorbikes dart up and down the streets coming within inches of busy pedestrians funneling in and out of the road at will. It is the most unnatural and unnerving thing to step into traffic in front of a moving vehicle and continue walking at a leisurely pace as cars and motorbikes swerve by, narrowly avoiding impact time and time again. However, in this country it’s the norm and somehow nobody gets hit. The key is to trust the system, no sudden movements, keep walking, the traffic will adjust. Yes, there are a few stop lights and crosswalks but they have no bearing on the traffic flow. Heeding our guide’s advice, Paul found a local and we huddled close to our “new friend” as we took our first steps into oncoming traffic.

IMG_3159_result Our hotel was located just blocks from the drop off point and within walking distance of all the sites we planned to visit. After a brief elevator ride to the 27th floor we were escorted into a massive two room suite equipped with a full kitchen and formal seating for eight. Welcome to the Intercontinental Asiana Saigon indeed! The accommodations are certainly overkill for a one night stay, but priced just right for us at a mere 25,000 IHG points. IMG_3162_result After tinkering with the many buttons and gadgets located throughout the suite we started a load of laundry and headed down to explore the city. The trek to our first sight included several more exhilarating encounters with traffic, Paul and I wedged tightly against the locals. This was followed by a few solo trips lead by Paul, me clinging to his backpack with my eyes fixated on the ground.

IMG_3183_result First stop the Reunification Palace. Formally the Independence Palace, it was constructed in 1962 as the residence and working place of the President of South Vietnam. Its invasion on April 30, 1975 also marked the end of the Vietnam War. And in the words of the communist: Victory had come; the liberation of the south had been achieved. Aside from being a tourist attraction is also a venue for government meetings and special events. The décor is right out of the late 1960’s and includes many interesting gifts from dignitaries around the world. The two Soviet tanks which invaded the palace are proudly displayed out front. Our self guided tour was cut a bit short due to the daily closing of this museum IMG_3212_result from 12:00pm to 1:30pm. As customary in Vietnam, most public sites and businesses close for lunch during this time. So we left the museum and headed to a nearby restaurant were Paul enjoyed another bowl of Pho. Concluding the health standards here were slightly above the Ha Long Bay establishment I opted for a diet coke in a can.

IMG_3315_result We bought our first souvenirs of the trip, some cards from a local vendor, and headed to our next site, the Saigon Central Post office. It is the largest IMG_3175_result post office in Vietnam and one of the most beautiful buildings in the city. Designed by the French as a piece of classic colonial architecture and built in 1891 the Post Office is a fun place to visit

IMG_3170_result Located across the IMG_3177_result road is the Notre Dame Cathedral. Also designed by a French architect it was built in 1877. The Cathedral holds daily prayer services in two languages and is “the place” for wedding photos. In our 26 hour visit to Ho Chi Minh we saw four brides posing for pictures out front.

IMG_3216_result Having conquered the roads of Ho Chi Minh on foot it was time to tackle the traffic via motorbike. Fortunately for me visitors are not allowed to drive in this city and for good reason. Nevertheless my ever resourceful husband was able to line up a motorbike tour so we could get the “full road experience.” Four hours on the back of a motorbike to eat Vietnamese street food; can’t think of anything I would rather do. However, recognizing this was something Paul really wanted to do, I decided to have a second drink (maybe a third…) and just go with the flow. At 6:00pm sharp we were met in the hotel lobby by our guides Ti and Tam. After a short introduction we bent down to be fitted with our helmets, swung one leg over the back of the bike and were instructed to hold on. With the safety portion
of the evening complete, the engines started and we rolled into the controlled chaos. IMG_3220_result A few blocks later we stopped at a street corner and joined eight other tourists with their guides. Seated on small squares of linoleum we made small talk with our dinner companions and anxiously awaited our first course.

We made a total of six stops throughout the city, dining at places we could never have gone on our own. From roof top dining to crepe cooking over open flames (complete with tourist participation) we certainly got the full Saigon dining experience.

IMG_3231_result Paul’s favorite part was the ocean crab soup which included a fully intact crab floating in a creamy broth of crab stock, milk and spices. My favorite part was watching him eat Balut with the guides. Balut is a partially formed duck embryo cooked in its own broth and eaten directly from the shell.

With camera in one hand and video recorder in the other I moved to get a IMG_3259_result better view. Ti demonstrated with Paul and one other tourist bravely following. After gently cracking the shell and removing the top the guys picked up their eggs and sipped the juice. So far so good, according to Paul it tasted IMG_3261_result like chicken broth and smelled of sulfur. Next step, using a small spoon he removed the partially formed duckling and displayed for the camera. Then dipped it in chili sauce and got ready to chew. Somewhere between dipping and IMG_3259_result chewing our fellow tourist lost his nerve and Paul imbibed the small duckling solo. I don’t think Paul anticipated the number of chews it would require to swallow the duck nor was he completely IMG_3264_result comfortable with the consistency. Always the good sport he finished the mouthful smiled at the guide and informed the rest of us that it was actually pretty good. This was followed by a shot of rice IMG_3267_result wine and several long gulps of beer. He would later describe the texture as chunks of un-ripened melon suspended in Jell-O which tasted similar to a deviled egg.
After learning that not finishing the Balut is considered bad luck Paul picked up the spoon to scrape the remaining contents from the bottom of the shell. With the final bite complete he joined IMG_3280_result the guide, dropped his egg to the ground and smashed it with his foot.

Back of the Bike Tours is a company owned by a CIA Culinary Grad from the US and came highly recommended on Trip Advisor. It was a really fun experience due in large part to our wonderful guides Ti and Tam.

Below is the complete menu:

1. Goi Du Du Bo – Julienned green papaya salad topped with Thai basil, dried beef liver, toasted peanuts and prawn crackers with chili sauce and light fish sauce
2. Heo Nuong – Grilled pork skewers with roasted chili sauce
3. Ho Lo Nuong – Grilled pork sausage with roasted chili sauce
4. Banh Xeo – Crispy rice flower crepe stuffed with shrimp pork and bean sprouts served with fresh lettuce and sweet fish sauce
5. Banh Canh Ghe –Ocean crab soup with tapioca noodles, pork rinds, dried fish cake and green chili sauce
6. An assortment of desserts including ice cream with sticky rice and mango, frozen yogurt with black rice, frozen banana with coconut and frozen yogurt with fruit jellies
IMG_3308_result The next morning we made our way to the War Remnants Museum. During the planning of this trip this site made the short list of places we definitely wanted to see. We fully expected that the communist government would present a slightly different take on the war but were truly shocked by what we read and saw. Yes we took lots of pictures of propaganda depicted as “War Truths” by the communist regime, but after much thought we decided to omit them from the blog. The War Remnants Museum was poignant yet important part of this experience and I’m glad we got to see it. According to the literature provided, the museum hosts more than 500,000 visitors a year. On the day of our visit the museum was full of tourist of every age and origin. We saw lots of Australians and Asians, a few Americans and at least two Vietnam Veterans. It was particularly troubling watch the faces of the two IMG_3309_result US Vets as they walk though the exhibits scanning the walls and shaking their heads. However, what saddened us most were the scores of Vietnamese children who appeared to be about 10 years of age in their neatly pressed school uniforms being led through some of the most graphic rooms in the museum.

DSCN1283 Before leaving Vietnam we made one last stop at a slightly more upscale restaurant so that Paul could have his final bowl of Pho. It had been 21 hours since we left the cruise ship and I had eaten nothing but a can of Pringles. Overcome by starvation and happy not to see unrefrigerated meat in the window, I finally ask for a bite of Paul’s Pho. Very tasty!