Singapore

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.

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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)


IMG_3384
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!

Vietnam Part III – Phu My (Ba Ria)

We were scheduled to visit IMG_3158_result Chan May (Hue/Danang) the following day, but due to bad weather the port was closed and we were rerouted directly to our next stop, the port of Phu My to dock for an additional day. With plans to travel two hours inland for an overnight to Ho Chi Minh City the following day and no idea how to navigate the immediate vicinity we opted to book a day trip to nearby Ba Ria for a tour of the rice patties and rural life in Vietnam.
“Isolated shipping port” was certainly an accurate description of Phu My as there is absolutely nothing here but a commercial building and a bunch of shipping containers. Going inland is a must if you want to do anything other than hang out on a cruise ship or learn to operate a fork lift.

This was our first excursion DSCN1419
with Celebrity and it was surprisingly organized however somewhat reminiscent of a grade school field trip. After being herded in to the auditorium we were DSCN1420 sent down to the stage, asked our name and marked with a number sticker. Next we were lead down to the gangway and told to look for the man holding a paddle that matched our sticker. For those who had difficulty following instructions additional staff was on hand to match people to their busses.

IMG_3120_result We made a total of six stops on our tour, 3 temples, a market, a distillery and a rice paper factory. First stop, Duong Vao Than Tha, a Cao Dai temple located about 20 minutes from the port. Cao Dai is a mixture of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism with nods to each represented by the yellow, red and blue colors throughout. IMG_3115_result This was the first of many temples which required us to remove our shoes before entering and I hesitantly followed suit trying not to think about how many feet had walked this path and making a mental note to bring and extra pair of socks from now on. IMG_3112_result
We were surprised to see elements of other religions represented in the design of the Cao Dai Temple including pillars denoting the Catholic Church and long sides with peaked doorways symbolic of a Mosque. Above the altar were carved figures of many of the world’s most prominent religious leaders.

IMG_3125_result Dinh Than Phuoc Le Pagoda was was built to honor the heroes of the Vietnamese people, most notably an ancestral leader who three times drove out the Mongolians. The Pagoda feels a bit like being at a carnival with lots of blinking lights and fortune telling items scattered about. Situated at the front of the Pagoda are two large cranes standing on turtles representing Yin and Yang.

IMG_3151_result
Trang Nghiem Tinhd Do is a Buddhists temple which was built in the early 1990s and tended by the monks who reside here. In fact all three temples we visited were fairly new. During our visit we learned that old temples are not very common in these parts as most were damage or destroyed during the Vietnam War. At this last temple one of the monks was kind enough to pose for a quick picture with Paul.

Back on the bus IMG_3126_result and through the rice fields we went to a traditional Vietnamese home for a view of a family owned rice wine distillery. The process is somewhat primitive but it does seem to be an efficient use of resources. Rice is distilled into alcohol in large pots which are IMG_3129_result positioned on top of fires fed with wood and rice hulls. When the wine is finished, the pulp becomes food for the livestock and the ashes from the fire are used to fertilize the fields. I did have a little taste and got a fun video of Paul taking a bigger taste. The term rice wine is a bit of a misnomer; it is IMG_3132_result actually about 40% alcohol. About 15 feet from the distillery was the family livestock which consisted of about 20 chickens and several pigs of various sizes. I developed a soft spot for one pig in particular who raised his snout and looked at me forlornly.

IMG_3140_result Visiting the local market that afternoon certainly didn’t help to clear my conscious. Holding my breath gripping Paul’s arm I shuffled down the narrow aisle lined with de-feathered chickens plied high in baskets and stacks of pig carnage sorted by body part. In the center of each table sat a small Vietnamese woman, full lotus, knees bent, feet pressed firmly together, yielding a cleaver just inches from her toes. With each hack of the enormous knife came sounds of bones cracking and bloody tissue sloshing about. Thus begins the vegetarian portion of my trip.

Needless to say I was glad IMG_3136_resultto leave the market and continue to the animal free rice paper “factory” a few miles away. This was also a family run business out of the home. Rice paper, made the traditional way, takes a fair amount of effort. The raw rice is ground into flour, mixed with water and pushed through a metal sieve. The resulting batter is spread into large thin circles on a pot covered with fabric. IMG_3133_result It is then steamed for a short time, carefully removed and placed onto bamboo screens to dry. After several days in the sun they are peeled off and placed into stacks of 100. Not surprisingly you can buy a stack of homemade rice paper for exactly one US dollar.