Mar 29, 2015

Myanmar's amazing Golden Rock

John and I have been to Myanmar many times but the most
amazing site in a country of many amazing sites is the Golden Rock.  On our recent trip we stayed at the Park Royal Hotel in Yangon.  The hotel is wonderful with great service, a bountiful multi-ethnic breakfast, and a wonderful staff. 

We booked a two-day one-night tour to the Golden Rock.  Our driver picked us up in an air conditioned car for the five-hour drive. We passed farmland, rice paddies, and villages.  It was time for picking watermelon so there were many roadside stands selling them.  Visiting the Golden Rock is very popular as it is an important Buddhist pilgrimage site.  When we arrived in
Kyaikto, the small town at the base of the mountain that is home to the Golden Rock, the driver dropped us off where trucks were lined up to take people up the twisty nine-mile mountain road.  It was very organized. We climbed into the back of a truck with rows of narrow, padded benches - six to a bench and ten rows. Luckily I had an outside seat so the view was great. Some people walk up the mountain but it takes hours. The ride takes about 30 minutes.  I thought we would end at the top
where the Golden Rock is located but no such luck.  After we climbed out of the truck it was still about a 15-minute uphill walk to our accommodation, Mountain Top Hotel, and then more walking uphill to the flight of steps leading to the Golden Rock. The Golden Rock is at an
altitude of 3600 feet. I didn’t hesitate to hired a sedan chair with four porters.  They were excellent. They waited while we dropped our overnight bags at the hotel and when we got to the bottom of the steps I thought that it was the end of my portage; but, no; they went up the long flight of steps.  Truly amazing!  And, well worth the $20!  

The Golden Rock is amazing and defies the laws of nature as it balances precariously on a table rock and has for more than two thousand years.  It is said that Buddha gave one hair to a hermit
who carried it until he found a suitable boulder.  Upon this boulder the hermit built a pagoda in which he enshrined the sacred Hair, and there the hair of Buddha, the pagoda and boulder remain after more than 2,500 years and several violent earthquakes.  We had a magical view of the rock during dinner.  Many of the pilgrims spent the night sleeping on mats near the rock. On our return to the Park Royal Hotel we saw a new Myanmar tour bus with the side professionally painted with the logo of Las Vegas.  It is especially incongruous consider there are no gambling establishments and/or western chain restaurants in the country – yet.

By the way, the official name of the country is Myanmar and has been since 1989. It was called Burma by the English during the time of British colonization. The Burmese are just one of over 136 ethnic groups in the country. They are the largest group so the British called the country Burma.  In 1989, in order to be more inclusive of all ethnic groups, the country officially reverted to the historical name of Myanmar; however, many Americans and British are still unfamiliar with the name change. 

Mar 23, 2015

Visiting Mui Ne, Vietnam

John and I have visited many places in Vietnam including the beaches between Danang and Hoi An.  This time we decided to try some place different – some place that would be warm. Mui Ne is about 135 miles due east of Saigon.  After some searching we decided to stay at Shades Resort.  The rate was reasonable; it was on the water and had a pool so it fit our needs.
 There are buses that connect Saigon to Mui Ne and they look very upscale but we booked a private door-to-door transport with the help of Mr. Phi at Shades Resort. The driver picked us up at our hotel in Saigon.  The trip took about five hours because of the traffic and road construction.  It was interesting as we passed through towns, cities, past rubber tree plantations and dragon fruit farms.

Shades Resort was perfect for us.  Our room overlooked the South
China Sea and in the morning we watched the sun rise and the unique, round fishing boats called coracles head out to gather their catch from the nets. In the morning when the tide was low we would walk on the beach. For breakfast I would have pho, the traditional soup of Vietnam and my favorite soup of all time. Our accommodations had a kitchen and a Jacuzzi-style tub in the bathroom. Most days it was windy and John would
walk down to Mr. Lee’s Kite Surfing School for a lesson.  It is a famous windsurfing area as the winds are strong but the sea is also rough.  They advertise “Zero to Hero in 16 Hours.” The main thing is learning how to control the kite.  It is more difficult than it looks. In the
evening we would walk to one of the many local restaurants for a great, cheap meal. A good plate of traditional food averaged about $3 and we usually had enough for take-away. There was a lady with a push cart that sold sandwiches for $.75 that were excellent.  We would buy one to share for lunch. 

One day we took a taxi to Ta Cu Mountain.  On the way we stopped at a water tower but didn’t walk to it or climb it.  The boats in the harbor in this area are very colorful.  We also stopped at a dragon fruit farm.  Dragon is quite unique.  Is the fruit of a cactus with the outside
resembling flames of a fire-breathing dragon. The inside is usually white with tiny black seeds but we saw some where the inside was blood red. At Ta Cu Mountain there was a complimentary trolley that took us to a flight of steps that led to the gondola ride.  The ride was great as it went up the mountain and down the other side.  The views were lovely.  Then it was more steps up to the reclining Buddha, at 150 feet in length it is the longest in Vietnam. There was a small temple but a new temple was being built.  

On day the staff shared a great lunch with us and other guests. Lovely! There are other things to do in the area including visiting the sand dunes but we were happy with the one-day tour. The village of Mui Ne was more developed than I anticipated but things were quiet because it is a favorite of the Russians but their economy took a bad dip so there were not many Russian. Most tourists were from Europe and Australia.  

Mar 15, 2015

Visiting Saigon AKA Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City has been the official name since the fall of Saigon in 1975 but both are in use. Once again being a loyal customer paid off.  We had a free night with InterContinental Hotels due to using their credit card and being a member of their IHG Rewards Club so we booked a room at the InterContinental Asiana Residence. We didn’t realize just how lucky we were until we saw our accommodation. We had two huge rooms.  One was a combination kitchen, dining room, and living room with surround-sound TV.
 The bedroom was just as big with a huge bathroom with a tub and shower.  I was really excited to see the washer/dryer combination.  The washer worked great but I could not – even after reading the instructions – get it to dry the clothes.  The dry cycle included a rinse cycle which was counterproductive so after a few tries I gave up on the drying part.  Maybe that is why there was a drying rack.  The rooms had a large balcony and I noticed other people also had drying racks on their balcony.  

On the first level of the building there were several stores and eateries.  We bought groceries at the mini mart and enjoyed eating some meals in our room.  Breakfast was included and it was excellent.  

The InterContinental Hotel is connected to the Residence so we had easy access to all their services, too.  We ate lunch at
their Market 39 where they had a pancake station.  Vietnamese pancakes are tasty and fun to eat. We asked Chef Josh, the executive chef, to share the recipe and explain how they were made. He was happy to do so. The pancakes are more like an egg crepe with prawns and other goodies in it.  To eat just pull off a hunk, wrap it in lettuce, add some other greens and dip in pickled carrots. Yummy!

We have been to Saigon a couple of times. The most frequent side trip includes the famed Chu Chi Tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the “American War” as it is called in Vietnam, and
the colorful Cao Dai Temple. We considered visiting again this year but didn’t have time so we just walked to a nearby church and post office. My all-time favorite soup is Vietnamese pho.  The Vietnamese eat it several times a day. There are many street stalls that sell it and other food. There is always something interesting to see on a walkabout in Saigon. We stopped to listen to a school group marching and playing the drums. 

We did visit the War Remnant Museum which has some displays and videos that are hard to deal with.  Especially difficult was the section showing birth defects caused by Agent Orange.   It is hard to put a pretty face on war.

I have never forgotten what our guide at the Chu Chi Tunnels told us years ago. He was born in the tunnels, when John asked about the “American” War and his perception of Americans, he replied, “That was then, this is now, let’s go forward.” From my perspective it was good advice and words to live by. More than half of the population was born after the war and the American War was preceded by 100 years of French colonialism and before the French 1000 years of Chinese domination. Now they govern themselves.

Mar 9, 2015

Cruising to Saigon

There is something sublime and magical about a river trip. I feel like I am part of a “National Geographic” special as I cruise pass one vignette after another.  The Mekong is the 12th longest river in the world and borders many countries. John and I have taken a river cruise on the Mekong between Laos and
Thailand.  This time we boarded the RV Mekong Pandaw in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on the Tonle Sap, a branch of the Mekong.  The cruise vessel is a teak and brass replica of a colonial steamer.  The Pandaw Company can trace its origins to the famed Irrawaddy Flotilla Company making it 150 years in operation.  The 200-foot RV Mekong Pandaw can carry 48 passengers but there were only 18 on board.  Our cabin was roomy, a fairly large bathroom and, best of all we could sit on the walkway in front of our cabin enjoying one “Kodak Moment” after another.  All the shore trips, Wi-fi, meals (which were wonderful and varied), libations, and tips were included in the price.

There were already some passengers on board as the cruise had started in Siem Reap, near historic Angkor Wat. The first evening we were treated to a wonderful Cambodia folkloric show. Some of the dances were beautiful, others playful, and they included the traditional bamboo dance. From Phnom Penh we cruised to the Mekong and the
Cambodian-Vietnamese boarder.  The staff took care of formalities at the border crossing. The vessel idled in the river while small boats transported documents from one onshore official to another and then we were on our way. There was a fruit carving demonstration and the chef showed us how to put together Vietnamese spring rolls. 

The Mekong Delta is a huge area and the rice basket of Vietnam. It is where the Mekong divides into many
branches. One day we visited Chau Don Town via a sampan tour boat. It is a fishing village where the riverside houses are on stills.  There were stalls selling local handicrafts, a lady weaving, a group of males playing marbles, a lady selling lunch, and up near the road there was a fresh food roadside
market and their mosque.  We also visited a fish farm. That evening we watched (yes, there is an onboard movie theater) “The Lover,” a story based on a book by a French woman and her first love.  It was a bit risqué to say the least.  The next day, in Sa Dec, we walked along the huge fresh market to the house featured in the movie.  John and I were interviewed by a TV crew about our views of Vietnam.  (I think we looked the most foreign!)  That afternoon, in Cat Be, we passed by the floating
market but most of the marketing is done in the morning.  We visited a place where they were making all kinds of sweets, rice paper, rice whiskey (the more adventurous travelers had a drink of wine that had a snake soaking in it!), popped rice and other treats.  All – save the snake wine – were quite good.  That evening we were treated with a Vietnamese folkloric show. 

Too soon our cruise was over and on the last morning we were bused to Saigon leaving us to yearning to do more river cruising. The scenes along the river are fascinating as people go about their daily routine.

Revisiting Phnom Penh

One of the great things about traveling in Asia is the many budget airlines.   We often fly Air Asia and buy the tickets early to get a promo fare.  From Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, our ticket was about $60 including 15 kilos of luggage. We pay for our luggage when we buy our tickets.  It doesn’t matter how many pieces of luggage as long as it doesn’t go over the weight paid for.  We were able to get our Cambodian visas at the airport on arrival.  We had passport photos with us so the cost was $30.  

John and I have been to Phnom Penh several times but not for five years and the changes were dramatic. The ride to the Frangipani Royal Palace Hotel took about an hour.  We were amazed to see so many Lexus SUVs and Mercedes and all the new buildings.  

The Frangipani Royal Palace Hotel has a great location. Our room
with complimentary Wi-Fi and breakfast was $70.  The best part was dining on the roof with a view of the Tonle Sap River and the Royal Palace.  The same view was available in the morning from the breakfast room. 

The Royal Palace is the residence of the King Norodom Sihamoni who became king after his father Norodom Sihanouk abdicated in 2004.  The Royal Palace is a complex of buildings and except for the actual royal residence most of the buildings are open to the public. All the buildings are beautiful but the Silver Pagoda is noted for the 5000+ silver tiles that cover the floor and it is where over 1600 cultural and religious
treasures are kept. There are always many monks around.  On my first visit several years ago I sat on a stone wall next to two monks and started chatting with them. They were very friendly then one said, “Can I ask you a question?” I said, “Of course.”  He asked, “Do you hate us.”  I was caught off guard and said, “No, I don’t even know you. Why do you ask?”  He explained that his teacher said Americans hated Cambodians.  I guess it was a remnant of the Vietnam War years.  

Near Phnom Penh is one of the several Killing Fields where over one million Cambodians were killed by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and1979, and in the city is the Genocide Museum.  Some people don’t visit because it is just too horrible but I have mixed feelings about that.  How can we stop these atrocities if we don’t learn about them?   On my first visit our driver said when he was a young boy his parents were
arrested and sent to different “camps” while he was sent into the jungle with other children.  His father told him, “Don’t ever forget your name.”  The children were given revolutionary names and many did forget their name but our driver remembered his and when he returned to Phnom Penh there was a wall of names of people who were trying to reconnect with family members.  He was lucky to reunite with his parents but some children had forgotten their name. 

Today, Cambodia seems to be doing great and each time we visit we see more improvement.  The place most visited is Angkor Wat with its amazing ruins. Tourism is a great unifier. 

Mar 7, 2015

Visiting Pattaya, Thailand

Frequent flyer miles are not as easy to use as they used to be but we have had great luck with them in Asia.  We used United miles to fly from Shanghai to Bangkok and it only cost us $29.40 for two tickets on Thai Air.  We arrived late in the afternoon so we stayed for the night at the Novotel Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport Hotel, which is lovely. The airy atrium and rooftop pool are great for alleviating jet leg. John and I were looking for somewhere different to spend a week so we picked
Pattaya, which is a couple of hours from Bangkok.  We had made arrangements with Sawadee Travel Company to transport us from the Novotel to Pattaya. After an excellent hotel breakfast which met the culinary tastes of all ethnic groups we made the two-hour trip to Pattaya. It is located on the East Coast of the Gulf of Thailand and we often stay in Cha’am on the West Coast so thought it would be interesting to check out the other side. 

In Pattaya we stayed at the Holiday Inn (gathering more points for
future stays). The hotel was bright with a contemporary flair. We are IHG members so we were upgraded to a higher floor which offered a better view of the area and we had a balcony which we always enjoy.  The hotel is set back a bit from the beach but they have a shuttle that we made use
of.  The walk along the beach was disappointing. I read the write-ups and knew that Pattaya did not have the best beach.  It was long and had many people on it but the area had a time-worn look.  It seems that they are suffering a slump in tourism.  We in the US may be enjoying the lower gas prices but it has cause an economic recession in Russia. The Russians are the new big tourist group and the area is hurting because they are not traveling this year.

The infinity pool at the Holiday Inn was wonderful.  It was located outside the restaurant on the sixth floor and where I spent my days in leisure.  One day we had a cooking experience where we learned to make Spicy Mussel Salad.  John made his with less spice. 
 The staff was wonderful and fun to cook with. I was impressed with the expansive presentation of the ingredients needed to make the recipe. I think chefs like to be recognized and show off their talents. Too often guests take them for granted.  We have found chefs very willing to share recipes and show off their skills. 

There are many things to do in the area including elephant rides and
shopping but we opted to visit The Sanctuary of Truth which we could see off in the distance from our balcony.  Had we known we would have planned to spend several hours there because there was a lot to do. The elaborately carved wooden structure was built in 1981 but has the look of an ancient temple.  The temple carvings showed the relationship between humans and the universe. Located on the waterfront, it was “The Magnificence of Heaven Recreated on Earth.” Besides touring the temple there were buggy and elephant rides.  I would have liked to take the boat ride to see the temple from the water which I think must be magnificent.

Mar 2, 2015

Waldorf Salad Shanghai-style

John and I have visited the 1000 Islands many times and love to
tour the grounds of Boldt Castle where George Boldt, the owner of the Waldorf Astoria was building a European-style castle in the early 1900s. 

Waldorf Salad was an instant success when it was created by the Waldorf Astoria’s maître d'hôtel, Oscar Tshcirky in 1896.  The original version contained apples, celery and mayonnaise served on a bed of lettuce. Chopped walnuts later became an integral part of the dish. Boldt insisted that it always be on the hotel’s menu.

Today, that iconic American hotel now has sister hotels located in several places including Shanghai. The Waldorf Astoria on the Bund in Shanghai is a luxury hotel that is home to the famed Long Bar where, during British times, patrons were positioned at the bar according to social status. The higher the status the closer to the Bund. The views of the Bund are fantastic. While in Shanghai my husband, John, and I stayed at the hotel, had a drink at the Long Bar, and had the opportunity to try the Waldorf Salad Shanghai-style.  The familiar salad had a Shanghai twist to it. 

Shanghai Waldorf Salad with Truffles & Candied Walnuts

Candied Walnuts
1.5 cups cooking oil
½ cup apple juice
1/8 cup honey
3 tb molasses
3 tbs maple syrup
½ cup walnuts

Heat the oil to 180° in a sauce pan. In a separate sauce pan warm up the apple juice, molasses & maple syrup. Bring to a strong simmer & add the walnuts and turn the heat to a gentle simmer and cook for 15 min. Remove from the heat and strain the nuts, carefully fry the nuts in the oil for 20 sec, or till golden brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and spread out on a try that is lined with parchment paper. Allow to cool. Store in an airtight container.

1/3 cup crème fraiche
1/3 cup plain yoghurt
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
1 tbs walnut oil
Salt and ground pepper to taste
¾ tbs minced black winter truffles

Mix the crème fraiche, yoghurt and lemon juice in a bowl, whisk in the walnut oil correct the seasoning and fold in the truffle

Waldorf Salad
1 granny smith apple
1 gala apple
3 stalks julienned celery
2 tbs celery leaves

Julienne the apples (unpeeled) into matchstick size strips. Transfer into a mixing bowl, add the julienne of celery. Gently fold in the dressing till well combined. Put in serving bowls and garnish with celery leaves. Scatter with the walnuts.

George Boldt enjoyed his days in the Thousand Islands. He especially enjoyed fishing. Thousand Islands Dressing was born in Clayton, just across the river from where he was building his dream castle. Legend has it that around the turn of the century, Sophia LaLonde, wife of a 1000 Islands fishing guide, shared her dressing recipe with a prominent stage actress named May Irwin, who dubbed it Thousand Island Dressing. Irwin gave the recipe to fellow 1000 Islands resident Boldt. Boldt, in turn, instructed that it be included on the Waldorf Astoria’s menu where it was introduced to the world.

Thousand Island Dressing – Shanghai Waldorf Style

¾ cup mayonnaise
1/3 cup bottled chili sauce
2 tbsp Heinz tomato ketchup
2 tsp sweet pickle relish
Kosher salt to taste
ground black pepper to taste

In a bowl mix all ingredients together till thoroughly combined and correct the seasoning to taste.