Mar 13, 2017

Things to do in Penang

I always suggest that people take a hop-on bus tour first. There were two options: Beach Tour and City Tour.  I liked the fact that the tks are good for 24 hours from the time it is stamped and the buses run until 7pm. John and I chose the beach tour which took us to the Entopia Penang Butterfly Museum.  It had recently been completely remodeled. It was more than butterflies. The self-guided
walking tour included the world of bugs, waterfalls, hands-on activities and more.  I would like to go back.  The next day we went back on the bus and visited the Spice Garden – the world of spices in a beautiful garden setting. The trail wanders and climbs over eight-acres of secondary jungle with over 500 species of flora and fauna. Penang was on the Spice Trade.  There is a giant swing perfect for picture taking and at the end a gift shop and a restaurant that has an excellent menu and view.

Penang is on the Straits of Malacca and, at least while we were
there, the water was very calm.  John decided to pass on kite boarding this year and go parasailing. There are several operators along the shore – some where you can go tandem, some single, and there is the choice of takeoff and landing on the beach or on a boat. The boat option didn’t seem to go very high so John opted to take off from the beach.  He went with the instructor mainly because the instructor was afraid that John, because of his age, would not be able to run on the landing and would topple over or something.  The instructor was wrong and was impressed with John and his skill with the kite. Duh! Parasailing and banana boat rides are popular with all ethnic groups including those in Islamic dress.

The evenings were for relaxing and shopping.  We enjoyed the Filipino singing duo who sang all of our old favorites. It amazes me that the music of the 50s through the 70s is so popular in Asia.  In the evening the street in front of the hotel was lined with stalls for about a mile. The vendors would drag them out about 4 pm and then drag them away about midnight. They sold a variety of things from T-shirts to watches to leather goods. 

One day we explored Georgetown, a UNESCO World Heritage
Site.  Some of the pristine white buildings of the colonial era remain along with some traditional shop houses. There were many interesting murals – some three-dimensional – in the city. The Clan Jetty is where the Chinese settled years ago and many still live there in traditional homes. I never tire
visiting the ornate Buddhist temples of which there are many. Gen. Cornwallis surrendered to Washington to end the American Revolutionary War but he continued to serve the British.  The fort in Georgetown is named after him. 

The Americanization of the world sometimes depresses me as our culture takes over other culture.  Next to the hotel was a Starbucks which was always busy. So busy, in fact, that cars kept circling the parking area waiting for someone to leave so they could park. And, nearby is a McDonald’s and Hard Rock CafĂ© Hotel. There is a lot to do so I hope to return next year. I especially like the diversity of culture and things to do. 

Mar 6, 2017

Visit Multi-cultural Penang

 The Malaysian island of Penang is on several lists of great places people should visit during their lifetime; and, besides Number One on Forbes’ list of budget places to visit it is second on CNN’s list of “The 17 Best Places to Visit in 2017.”  It is easy to see why. The island has a myriad of different things to do from exploring the UNESCO Heritage City of Georgetown to a walking tour through the new Entopia Butterfly Farm to parasailing over the Straits of Malacca.  

I find the island’s heterogeneous population which is highly diverse in ethnicity, culture, language and religion, fascinating. In 1786 Captain Francis Light landed on the shore of Penang making it Britain’s first settlement in SE Asia.  English is a compulsory subject in Malaysian schools. Today the island is about 40% Malay, 40% Chinese and 10% Indian with a variety of other groups making up the rest.  

John and I were at the Holiday Inn Resort for Chinese New Year
which the hotel celebrated with firecrackers, Lion Dance, and the traditional Prosperity Toss. Chinese New Year begins with cymbals and big drum creating a lot of noise to drive out any bad spirits.  A Prosperity Toss is a plate of colorful veggies, fish, and noodles that people, using their chopsticks, toss in the air while shouting “Loh Hey”
which literally means to 'move upwards'. It is symbolic of the wish for fortunes to grow during the coming year. With such a diverse clientele the chefs need to prepare food to suit all their guests.  All the food is halal (prepared according to Muslim guidelines). The breakfast is impressive: eggs, pancakes, grilled tomatoes, cheese, soups, salads, fruits, bread pudding, curries, rice, and even a fava bean dish called foul which was very good – something for everyone. 

Penang is a honeymoon destination for Saudi couples and a winter getaway for Europeans.  There are women in abayas, some with face veils, mixed with guests clad in a variety of other outfits including saris and hijabs. Usually it is only the women who are so attired but there is an occasional male in a dishsdasha.

There are Europeans in itsy-bitsy bikinis and Arab women in swimsuits that covered them completely except for face, hands and feet; some are very colorful. One young mother had on a bright pink Islamic-approved bathing suit. It seemed to dry quickly and then it was her street outfit.  The Islamic women are not the shrinking violets that some perceive them to be.  They went swimming, parasailing,
and banana-boating like everyone else.  What I did notice was that, other than the newly-weds, the Muslims travel in family groups and in the evening the family would gather on the lawn together chatting, playing games, and smoking the hookah. They also made use of the children’s play center and game room. The Europeans were mostly elderly couples. 

I make a point of greeting the people who are in the elevator with me. The Saudi ladies responded in perfect American English. It seemed that the men were less conversant in English which I found interesting. Shopping seemed to be the thing to do late in the evening – not for me.  The night market on the street in front of the hotel extends for a mile or more beyond the hotel with kiosks selling an amazing variety of things from T-shirts to jewelry to food.  

Feb 28, 2017

New Show in Mui Ne, Thailand

Mui Ne, located in the south of Vietnam, is five hours by car from Ho Chi Minh City which I and some others still call Saigon.  They say they are going to build an airport in Mui Ne but I haven’t seen any activity so we hired a car and driver to get us there but there are also buses. The ride, while long, is fairly interesting as it goes through towns past rubber plantations and dragon fruit farms. The Mui Ne area becomes quite windy most afternoons which makes it one of the best places for kite boarding.  Watching kite boarding is like watching a campfire – mesmerizing. 

Besides enjoying the beach there are other things to do such as visiting the sand dunes but the newest attraction is the Fishermen Show. I saw an advertisement saying that the new Fishermen Show was a two million dollar, multi-media cultural presentation.  When I contacted them they said that would not open for several weeks.  Then, a couple days later they emailed saying they would be having a presentation that night.  So
we went.  I think the reason for the impromptu presentation was because several tour buses wanted to take their clients but there were only a few others.  For $20 we got VIP seats. The auditorium is huge but only about one-tenth full.  The show started with cultural dances from several countries including Russia and Vietnam. The most amazing part was the colorful water fountain show that served as the backdrop for all the stage presentations.  It made Bellagio’s look like child’s play. The
story was the legend of the fishing village and, of course, a classic love story with good guys and bad guys.  On the side of the stage were electronic storyboards translating what was being said into English and Russian. The acting and costuming were excellent but the show still needs polishing.  The acoustics were a bit harsh but the thing they need to fix first
are the steps which are an accident waiting to happen.  It is not handicap accessible.  I would like to return when it has been perfected.  I was surprised to find such an expensive production in Mui Ne. Even though the area is famed for kite boarding there are many families with young children who will enjoy the show.  

While in Mui Ne we checked out a couple of other hotels. There are accommodations for every pocketbook from backpackers to luxury-seekers. One of the hotels we visited was the high-end Victoria Phan Thiet.  The hotel is lovely but it is located away from the city which didn’t appeal to us since we like to walk the streets in the evenings, listen to the singers, and
then find a little place to eat.  (meals are usually about $3) Many places are losing their beach to erosion but Victoria is trying something new. They have put down Geotubes - long tubes made of a flexible plastic that are laid down close to the shoreline.  The theory is that the waves will bring in the sand, deposit it on the shore side of the tube and eventually build up the beach.  It is considered a better and more eco-friendly solution to beach erosion that what people have been using.  The one at the Victoria has only been in place for one year but it looked like it might be working. 

Feb 20, 2017

Things to do in PhuQuoc

It is very easy to get into a rut even on vacations: walk the beach, have breakfast, swim and lounge on the beach, walk the beach again, get ready to watch sunset with an adult libation, have dinner and go to bed.  We had checked on some other hotels just to see what some of the options were but had not toured the Phu Quoc. 

The scheduled tours were all-day group tours and included things we were not interested in doing, so we decided to hire a car and driver for four hours.  That’s long enough for us. I was glad when a nice young lady, Quyen, came along as a guide. First we went to the Pearl Farm, well not really a farm.  There were fishing boats out on the water but basically it was a store with high priced pearls.  The only saving grace was they had a short
demonstration on how the pearls were harvested. We made a quick stop at the market in town – Doung Dong.  We have been to many night/street markets and we don’t really shop so that was a short visit.  There is a nice museum however that covered the history of the area from prehistoric times to the present plus displays on sea creatures, traditional medicine, and spices.   

Next stop was a Pepper Farm.  The pepper plants were interesting. They look like tall slender trees. The island may be noted for pearls but pepper has been one of their biggest crops. In fact Vietnam is the world’s largest producer and exporter of pepper; however, some are now switching to grapes hoping to get a niche in the wine industry, which is more profitable. Today spices are relatively inexpensive but at one time they were a luxury item for Europeans because the most desired spices such as pepper, ginger, vanilla, and cinnamon could not be grown in Europe. At that time sugar was considered a spice. To “spice” up their foods Europeans used herbs. Wars were fought over control of the spice trade routes. The search for a faster, safer and less expensive way to get the spices led to the Age of Exploration. 

The last stop on the trip was to the Phu Quoc Prison.  Many people know about the “Hanoi Hilton” prison where Sen. John McCain and others were held during the Vietnam War (the American War to the Vietnamese) but little is said about similar camps in South Vietnam.  The prison was built by the French colonialists and called the Coconut Tree Prison but was later used as a Prisoner of War camp to incarcerate those who fought on the side of North Vietnam.  The displays using life-like
mannequins were upsetting as many show horrific tortures such as incarceration in a “Tiger Cage” and severe beatings were common. I realize that the tortures were not any different that what the North Vietnamese did to the Americans POWs. Most of the
mannequins had Asian features but no one could tell me what the initials QOC on the guards helmets stood for but since the signs referred to the prison as being used by the “American Puppet Government” I assume most of the guards were South Vietnamese who sided with the Americans. No matter how one looks at it war is not pretty and the only ones who seem to benefit are those who manufacture war materials and equipment.

Feb 14, 2017

Visiting Phu Quoc, Vietnam

Phu Quoc is a Vietnamese island that is off the coast of Cambodia.  I wonder if it will someday be contentious. It is the largest island in Vietnam and on the fast track for tourism development.  In fact, they would like it to, one day, rival Thailand’s Phuket Island as an island getaway.  I have known
about it for several years and finally decided to visit this year.  We flew into Saigon (AKA Ho Chi Minh City) and stayed at one of our favorite hotels – the ParkRoyal.  The prices are reasonable – even for Orchid Club Level which includes complimentary airport transportation, breakfast, cocktail hour; and, amazingly, four pieces of laundry per person per day. Along with that they have a wonderful pool and spa plus the staff is excellent.  It is an excellent base for visiting the area.

The Vietnam Airline flight from Saigon to Phu Quoc was less than
an hour. They have a new airport which is still in the expansion state in anticipation of the travel boom they are hoping for.  I find it hard to pick a hotel and have been very lucky so far.  We decided to stay at the Paris Hotel (not a name that seemed appropriate but the owners are French).

 The price was reasonable enough so we could book the best room which we were hoping had a balcony where we could enjoy adult refreshments and watch the sun set.  As it turned out there was no balcony but the room was large with a sitting area and wonderful views of the Gulf of Thailand.  One evening we watched a glorious sunset and then early in the morning the setting of the full moon. Part of the restaurant has a long narrow stretch above the beach that serves as an alfresco restaurant which was a great place to watch the sunset. The hotel had other pluses: a lovely pool, a great complimentary breakfast and the beach was perfect for walking.  

The hotel is reached by a bumpy dirt road but the grounds are well
landscaped.  Behind and to the side of the hotel two other hotels are being built.  It was actually interesting watching the workers. They used very little mechanization so there was a minimum of noise – just the tap-tap of a single hammer which made it sound like the “Little Old Shoemaker” - even so we could see the progress daily. There were no beeping trucks or other noisy equipment.

John celebrated his birthday while we were there.  We try not to let the hotels know when we have a birthday because they go overboard. While we were on the island we checked out some other hotels and loved the La Veranda McGallery Hotel.  It was out of our price range but perfect for a birthday. The grounds were amazing and so lush that each building was
surrounded by foliage accessed via a brick walkway with eachbuilding in a “secret garden.” We sat on the wide veranda of the main building which was designed to look like a colonial mansion typical of the time when Vietnam was French Indochina.  They had a live trio of Filipino singers who sang all the American favorites from our era.  The sublime ambiance was interrupted for a short time by an impressive tropical thunder and lightning storm. When it was over the moon came out and the air was cool and fresh. A great evening.

Feb 6, 2017

Learning how to make Ozoni

We found that taking the train to New York and then a cab to the
JFK airport is a way to save on airfare.  Our round trip ticket to SE Asia was $586. The same trip departing from Syracuse costs between $1000 and $1500 per person. The train and cab for the two of us costs about $350.  Besides the impressive savings we flew ANA (All Nippon Airways) which has more amenities than United – new planes with all the bells and whistles and great service.  

We spent the night at the Crowne Plaza Narita Airport in Japan.  It was New Year’s Eve and I noticed on the flyer in our room that the hotel was offering several New Year’s events, one of which was an “osechi” breakfast.

According to Japanese tradition

nothing should be cooked on New Year’s Day. Osechi is a variety of colorful dishes in a special bento-like box called “jubako” that is part of a traditional New Year’s morning meal along with ozoni.  The jubako (a box with single serving compartments) includes a variety of artistically prepared pieces of fish and vegetables. Ozoni is a soup containing rice cake and vegetables – a traditional New Year’s dish that is said to
provide strength and prosperity in the coming year. All cultures have various symbols and activities that are to bring good luck. In Japan, on the first day of the New Year a dream that includes Mt Fuji, a hawk, an eggplant, or all three means that one will have a prosperous and happy New Year. 

On New Year’s Eve morning, the Japanese Chef Shimada Ikuhou said he would be making ozoni and invited us to watch him make it.  He said that in order to make ozoni it was necessary to first make dashi, a Japanese soup stock used in many recipes.


Dashi: Japanese soup stock
5 ½ quarts water
1 piece Konbu (dried seasoned kelp)
2 oz dried bonito shavings

1 pp prawn or large shrimp
1 tbs soy sauce (or to taste)
1 tbs Mirin (or to taste – mirin is a sweet rice wine used in Japanese cooking) 
½ oz pp chicken
2 pp snow peas (cooked)
1 pp Kamaboko (pink and white) slice in 1/8 in strip of each color and tie in a knot 
1 pp (per person) Mochi (rice cake) baked
1 pp carrot (rosette cut)
2 thin slices yuzu (citrus rind)

To make Dashi, place water in a stock pot, add konbu, bring to a boil, boil for five minutes. Remove konbu and discard. Add bonito bring it to boil. Boil for five minutes. Drain, return to pot and allow to simmer. It is dashi. Put prawns in dashi broth cook three to five minutes until pink. Remove. In a new pot add one cup of dashi for each serving. Add soy sauce and simmer for five minutes (season to taste). Add mirin, bring to boil. Add chicken, snow peas, kamaboko, and carrots cook over medium heat until chicken is cooked and vegetables are tender. 

To prepare mochi: Preheat oven. Bake at minutes at 345 degrees for five minutes. Put mochi under the broiler for 30 seconds. Mochi should be soft with light brown top. 

Presentation: Put one mochi in each serving bowl, arrange prawn, carrot, snow peas, chicken, and kamaboko artfully around mochi. Cover with Dashi. Garnish with citrus.

Jan 29, 2017

Too much snow, too much cold, too much ice?  Have you had enough of winter?  And there is more to come?  There are places where it is easy to forget about the winter.  Plan a pool party – great for kids and adults alike.  The newly opened Holiday Inn Express in Oswego has a pool party package. They have a heated indoor pool and whirlpool. The four-hour pool package includes use of the Banquet Room (bring your own food or order delivery). Towels are provided. 

Alone or with friends, a day or two at a spa will revive you. For the ultimate in relaxation, stay at the luxurious Mirbeau Inn & Spa in Skaneateles.  With gardens inspired by Monet, Mirbeau guests can enjoy soothing massages, yoga, and swim in their indoor/outdoor pool. While it may be snowing, guests won’t mind as they snuggle by the outdoor pool’s fireplace with their favorite libation. They offer a variety of value-laden packages that include yoga, cooking classes, and fine dining.

Turning Stone is more than gambling and shows. Fine tune your
golfing skills at Turning Stone’s indoor practice area with 40 hitting stations, a practice green, and play world-famous golf courses on their golf simulators. There are also indoor courts, one for tennis and another for racquetball. 
Get warm and comfy at the historic River Edge Mansion in Pennellville where some weekend packages include learning how to make quick breads, scones, muffins, cinnamon rolls, plus bread and pizza dough. Other options include pairing wine with foods, cooking with herbs, gingerbread house making, and learning to make Asian fare.  A perfect family or girl’s getaway.

Spend the day at Syracuse’s Milton J. Rubenstein Museum of Science & Technology. It is a learning place for people of all ages and they stay open late one night a week.  Learn from their many hands-on science displays and demonstrations. Planetarium presentations are available on specific days. End the day with an IMAX movie. A wonderful family day.

Thumb your nose at winter by attending this unique winter-time
activity. The Harbor Hotels in Clayton and Watkins Glen feature Fire & Ice packages in February with a riverfront ice bar extravaganza. Guests can stay toasty warm while enjoying their favorite libation from a bar made completely of ice and marvel at 20,000 pounds of ice sculptures. Guests will be dazzled by the fireworks and enjoy wine tasting and hors d’oeuvers in the ballroom before taking a dip in their heated indoor pool.

Tailwater Lodge in Altmar offers a variety of classes from cooking classes to Beer Tasting 101 to Wine Tasting 101 to Fly Fishing 101. Make it a learning getaway by staying the night. 

In March “Wicked” will be playing at the beautiful Landmark Theater in Syracuse.  Buy tickets and then book a room in Syracuse – the Genesee Grande will provide free transport and they have a great restaurant. Or, stay at the newly renovated Hotel Syracuse. 

Want to stay snuggled up in your cozy home? Make something. While I was in Mui Ne, Vietnam Anna, a Russian gal who was in charge of the kite boarding gave me a cute bunny she crocheted. I thought what a great thing to make for kids, or to sell at a craft fare, or to donate for needy children at Christmastime.  She said she found the directions on the internet and has plans to make a horse.