Apr 25, 2016

Kentucky Derby Time

The most exciting Kentucky Derby for those of us who live in
Upstate New York was in 2003 when Funny Cide from Sackets Harbor “Ran for the Roses.” He was the first New York bred horse to win the Derby.  After Funny Cide won the Kentucky Derby the excitement continued when he went on to win the Preakness Stake. Excitement reached a fever pitch when Funny Cide ran in the Belmont Stakes. A win at Belmont would mean Funny Cide would earn the coveted Triple Crown. Alas, Funny Cide came in third but his name is in a place of honor at Churchill Downs with all the other Kentucky Derby winners. 

The gleaming white Churchill Downs has an elegant look and in front of the main entrance is a larger than life statue to Barbaro, winner of the 2006 Kentucky Derby. On a visit to Louisville, Kentucky, John and I went to the Kentucky Derby Museum and toured Churchill Downs.  There are several tours: the Barnyard and Backside Van Tour was booked several days ahead but we were able to get tickets for Behind the Scenes
Walking Tour. The tour included the betting windows, the statue of jockey Pat Day (the all-time leading rider at Churchill Down), and the viewing areas.  The view of the race track was impressive.  I tried to imagine 170,000 people standing while the Louisville Marching Band played the derby’s signature song, “My Old Kentucky Home,” and most of the people singing along. Most likely visitors will not see many race horses but there is a paddock with two horses including a “resident thoroughbred,” Twinspired. The race is called “The Fastest Two Minutes in Sports.” There are many events leading up to race day which is always the first Saturday in May.  

The Kentucky Derby Museum has everything a race aficionado dreams of from jockey racing silks to a 360-projection of “The Greatest Race,” to a simulated horse race where visitors can try their skill as a jockey. When the race is televised they always show ladies in their extravagant derby hats.  The hats have their own dedicated section in the museum. After the race there is a contest for the most “outrageous” hats. About 25 hats are selected to be on display for a year. 

John and I had lunch at the Derby Café and imbibed on the
traditional derby cocktail – a Mint Julep made with mint and, of course, Kentucky bourbon. Each year almost 120,000 Mint Juleps are served over the two-day period of Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby weekend. The café also offers another specialty cocktail – the “Donerail: The Longest Shot.” It is served in a souvenir hand-blown shot glass. The drink pays homage to the 1913 Derby Winner who had the biggest long shot victory in the history of the Derby. With odds at 91-1, a $2 ticket paid out $184.90, which is what this unique cocktail costs. We passed on that Derby tradition and decided on another Kentucky specialty. Kentucky Burgoo, the state’s official dish, a mixture of at least three meats and plenty of vegetables; and, we ended with Derby Pie, a decadent chocolate and walnut tart in a pie shell. 

There are many other great places to visit in Louisville. While in Louisville we visited: The Mohammed Ali Museum, the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory, the Frazier, and the Evan Bourbon Experience. 

Best Beach in Asia - Ngapali

 When I see the many articles listing the “Top Ten Beaches” it
seemed to me that sooner later every great beach would make the list so I knew Ngapali Beach in Myanmar would be discovered; it finally made CNN’s list of “Best Beaches” in February 2016. John and I have been to Ngapali Beach nine times, staying each year at Amazing Resort. Ngapali Beach is truly a wonderful beach on the Bay of Bengal. For us it is

perfect: soft sand, warm water, no annoying vendors, and virtually devoid of tourists. We could leave our things on our beach lounge and knew it would still be there when we returned.  There are no jet skis, recreational boats, standup paddle boarding, and other beach activities found at more “popular” beaches. We especially loved Amazing Resort because it reflected Myanmar culture, all rooms have a view of the Bay of Bengal, the staff is “amazing,” and it was the only hotel on “our”
section of the two-mile beach even though are were hotels on other sections of the beach. But, things are changing.  There are now a couple hotels on “our” section of the beach including a slick Hilton which could be anywhere in the world as there is little to make guests feel that they are in Myanmar; and, they are located at the far end of the beach where there are many rocks so they don’t have a beach.  Even though there are now a couple other hotels on “our” section of the beach and more being built they have not had any impact on Amazing Ngapali – yet. 

All of Myanmar has seen a dramatic increase in tourism, especially from the United States and Europe, has had its impact on all of Myanmar.  I was surprised to learn there is now a water sports center offering scuba diving and other tours in Ngapali. We booked Ngapali’s Water and Sport Center’s “Land and Sea” tour. It was very professional and well organized. An air-conditioned van with a driver and a guide, Mr. Ko Ko, picked us up at the hotel and off we went.  One thing I notice is that the roads have been improved; and, now Ngapali has a stop light.

Our first stop was the market in the nearby city of Thandwe.
Markets in Asia are not what most Western people think of. There are many outdoor stalls that sell everything from clothing to fish to spices and more. In Myanmar things are still done the old fashioned way – that will change soon.  We stopped at a weaving factory where the young ladies were making bamboo placemats and longyis, the wrap-around cloth that serves as clothing for men and women. The looms are hand and foot operated. A weaver can make one ten-yard longyi each day. 

We also stopped at a monastery where two venerable, mummified monks are on display. The story is they said they were “going to sleep” and they still are I guess. They say their hair and nails still grown. My favorite part of the tours was the hour-ride on the serene Thann Ba Yar River to the Bay of Bengal where we boarded the dive boat and joined two divers. They said the diving was great. The water is protected by the navy. After lunch we boated to Lone Thar fishing village and then back to the hotel. It was a great day. 

Apr 12, 2016

Pandaw Kindat Cruise - Mandalay to Bagan

John and I are not fond of tour groups but a cruise accomplishes the
same thing better without changing hotels. We flew Air Asia from Bangkok to Mandalay and stayed at the Amazing Hotel Mandalay which has a good central location. The Pandaw people picked us up at the hotel and transported us to the Pandaw Kindat.  We chose a Pandaw cruise because the ships are built by the same company, the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, which had hundreds of ships that plied the river during their British colonial days when their fleet numbered in the hundreds.  When the Japanese attacked during WW II they sank all their ships but now are building new ones in the same style but with all the modern amenities. 

The seven-day cruise was a wonderful mix of touring the historical sites, visiting handicraft shops (In Myanmar things are made and done the old-fashioned way) and free time to lounge in the sun, read, or just watch life along the river.  The staff was amazing, anticipating every need, and attending to every detail including cleaning our shoes after every shore trip.  The meals were gourmet.

Myanmar is called, “The Golden Land” for good reason; there are
many temples, pagodas, and Buddha statues adorned with gold. In Mandalay we visited Mahamuni Pagoda where the faithful have adorned the Buddha with so much gold leaf that the statue is now many times its original size.  To meet the need for gold leaf pounders using sledge hammers pound the gold into the thinnest foil. They
work from sunrise to sunset with a break for lunch for about $6 a day. After visiting a beautiful teak monastery in a horse and cart we took a small boat on Taungthaman Lake to watch the sun set on U Bein, the world’s longest teak bridge.  I noticed that one of the crew
members who came along was the boat’s bartender. Jokingly I said, “You know it is going to be a great tour when you bring your bartender along.  It was no joke; he served us Sunset Cocktails while we were sitting in our boat watching the sun set. Unforgettable. 

Every day was an adventure. Normally I am not a fan of going to workshops but in Myanmar they still make products the old-fashioned way and not to just show tourists.  One day we stopped at a small pottery-making village where we could see the entire process from breaking up the hard clay to firing the pot in an earthen kiln. Myanmar people are very friendly so when they offered some of their locally brewed tea we were quick to accept.  It was sweet and delicious. 

We visited all the famous historical sites between Mandalay and Bagan. Bagan, with over 3000 temples, is the crown jewel of Myanmar. Part of the fun was getting to the sites.  Yes, we sometime took a bus but I rode an ox cart to the Mingun Bell, crossed a small
river to see ancient Ava, and we toured a village market in a tuk-tuk stopping at a school on the way back. On board we were entertained by traditional Myanmar dancing, singing, puppetry, and other cultural presentations. In retrospect I realized the cruise was very value-laden because the cruise included accommodations, tours admission fees, tour guides, various mean of transportation, and the wonderful meals and free-flowing libations. 

Apr 3, 2016

Kite Boarding in Mui Ne

Mui Ne is the kite boarding capital of Vietnam because of the
strong on-shore winds. It may not be the best place to begin learning due to the strength of the wind but there are many kite boarding schools.  John likes to kite board, which by the way is considered an extreme sport.  Typical lessons start with three hours or more on the beach learning to control a trainer kite.  Then similar lessons take place in the water until kite control is mastered.  Then, after a few more lessons, it is time for the board.  Once one gets up on the board it is a matter of practice, practice, practice. It is not like wind surfing which most people can do after one lesson.  

John and I were in Mui Ne a year ago and even though the hotel we stayed at was nice there was no beach.  You’ve heard of “shifting sands” and that’s what happens to beaches.  They can be here one year and gone after a large storm.  Moral of the story, be careful buying beach property.  We like to walk on the beach so this year we stayed at Ananda Mui Ne Resort where there was a good beach and also the home of one of the kite boarding schools.  One doesn’t have to kite board to enjoy watching others do it.  There are many professional
class kite boarders who do stunts and get “a lot of air.”  Our bungalow had a sea view and was next to the pool so we loved it. In the evening we would go to a restaurant where dinner never cost more than $5.  One restaurant had a live duo six nights a week singing all our favorites from the 50s to the 90s.  

One day we took a trip to the White Sand Dunes. On the way we passed the Red Dunes, which are smaller and not very red but where people can slide down on mats. The white dunes are bigger and more popular but while they are not extensive they are still impressive. There were Jeeps with U.S. Army on them to drive people around the dunes.  It was a quick ride and a bit pricey.  I thought there was more to see
and I think the driver thought we would spend more time at the top.  I was surprised to see a lake in the middle.  On the way back we stopped at an overlook to see the fishing village where the harbor was full of colorful boats.  We had not planned to stop at the Fairy Spring (good name for a tourist stop).  I was
told it was a half hour walk to the springs which for me would have meant one hour.  But, thankfully we stopped and it was a short, easy walk to the spring, then a few steps down into the shallow spring. John didn’t want to take his shoes off to wade in the spring; however, it is my kind of thing.  So he
waited while I walked through the cool shallow water for about 30 minutes and passed some white Braham cows, also a place advertising ostrich rides but I didn’t see any ostriches, to a place with interesting rock formations, and to a restaurant where I turned around. As so often happens the thing I least wanted to do turned out to be my favorite.

Long Stay in Asia

Many retired folks head to Florida to avoid the snow without realizing there are other options some of which are exciting and no more expensive. John and I discovered that long-staying at various hotels in Southeast Asia is more interesting. 

Before deciding on a second home away in sunny climes, consider the expenses: initial outlay to purchase, routine bills such as water, electricity, etc., maintenance costs or association fees, taxes and other miscellaneous expenses.  The benefit of long-stays is that there is none of that. 

We have long-stayed in SE Asia for several years.  Language is not
much of a problem for English-speaking people.  English is widely spoken in tourist destinations worldwide.  Yes, there is the expense of flying to SE Asia but this year our RT flight from New York to Bangkok was a little less than $800, but when you factor in other savings it is a wash especially considering we don’t drive our vehicle for three wintery months.  

One place we have long-stayed several times is Regent Cha’am in Thailand. We stay three weeks or so and it includes breakfast, internet, daily maid service and discounts on laundry and their restaurants.  One English couple we know stays for two months before Christmas, returns to England for the holidays, and then for three months.  Some Europeans have been returning to the Regent
for 20 or more years.  The Regent Cha’am has two large pools, two restaurants, an onsite clinic, daily activities, beautiful gardens, a minimart, and a spa. Six nights a week there is a duo singing all the old songs we know. We sometimes eat in the hotel’s restaurant but most evenings we walk five minutes into the little town where there are many restaurants, hair salons, tailors, and minimarts.  Meals for the two of us are normally about $15, and they are good – plenty of fresh fruit and veggies. To address the issue of food; picky eaters need not worry as American food is the default food in most restaurants worldwide. For a nominal fee the hotel has a shuttle into Hua Hin, a large nearby city. There are a variety of day trips, a kite boarding school, a golf course, and an outlet mall are nearby. 

I guess I am a restless traveler because after three weeks in one
place I am ready to move on. For nine years we have long-stayed at one of the world’s most beautiful and virtually deserted beaches. It is being discovered however. Amazing Ngapali Hotel on the Bay of Bengal in Myanmar is truly amazing.  The beach has silky sand, the water is warm and
gentle, and the service is excellent.  Even though there are several restaurants near the hotel we usually eat at the hotel because the meals are excellent and reasonable plus the view of the Bay of Bengal at night with the lights of scores of fishing boats twinkling on the horizon is hard to beat. For every five nights we receive a coupon for one complimentary dinner and two complimentary spa treatments.  Amazing Ngapali is hard to top. There are also several activities in the area such as boat rides, diving, and visiting fishing
villages and temples. 

The time may come when we want to settle down to one place for the winter but I can’t envision it – there too many interesting places to stay and places to explore. 

Mar 21, 2016

Visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels

On our recent visit to Ho Chi Minh City John and I stayed at the ParkRoyal Hotel where staying at Orchid Club Level was well worth it.  Orchid Club level included free transportation to/from the airport, breakfast, afternoon tea, evening cocktails, and laundry for up to four garments per day.
They have great service, a lovely pool, and a spa. ParkRoyals always offer great value.  Our main reason for the stopover in Ho Chi Minh City, which many still call Saigon, was to revisit the Cao Dai Temple and Cu Chi Tunnels. I made arrangement for a private car and driver so as to avoid a large group tour which always includes a shopping stop plus I wanted to return by boat. It worked out perfectly.

After our stop at the Cao Dai Temple we traveled to the Cu Chi Tunnels.  We visited them the first time in 1998 and things have changed. The tunnels are an immense network of underground tunnels outside of HCMC that played a key part in the Vietnam War.  As incredible as it may seem the tunnels were like an underground village with a communication area, hospitals, storage areas for food and weapons, and living quarters. Most of t
he time soldiers spent the day in the tunnels and came out at night. Today tourists visit an area of the tunnels that has been developed for tourism.  I was told the area we visited previously was mainly for Vietnamese and it is less developed.  Now foreign visitors enter through an extensive gift shop and a long tunnel walkway. There is a sign saying that visitors 70 and older are not allowed but no one was checking.  The first stop was in an underground room (there are several) with a thatched roof to see a grainy video of the war.  The tunnels have been enlarged to accommodate Western tourists and low wattage bulbs have been installed.  A guide gives a
demonstration of how the tunnels were accessed through a nearly invisible hole in the ground and then visitors can try it.  There are displays of booby traps that were used. It is much more elaborate and organized than our first visit but now there are thousands of visitors daily.  There are many above the ground activities such as a shooting range where one can fire assault rifles, view caged monkeys and, of course, shop for souvenirs. 

We had lunch at a riverside restaurant while waiting to catch our boat ride back to Saigon. Les Rives offers interesting tours by boat and bike to the Cu Chi Tunnels but it doesn’t include the Cao Dai Temple so we arranged just to take the boat back to Saigon.  It was a great speed boat ride on the Saigon River.  I love viewing the scenes on and along the river.  Therewere large barges transporting 100s of clay pots and people fishing and
going about their daily activities. We paused for a few minutes to get pictures of the beautiful sunset. As we got closer to Saigon we passed many riverside restaurants and disembarked at a place set up to hold dozens of weddings at one time. There were many weddings going on and ladies in traditional dress waiting to greet those attending the weddings.  Interesting.  We paid $50 for the ride and it included transport back to the Park Royal. An interesting day to say the least. 

Mar 14, 2016

Making Spicy Korean Chicken Stew

Cookbooks are one of the most popular selling genres and now people can turn to the internet for recipes plus we all have family recipes; but, the best way to learn a new recipe is to take a cooking class.  John and I have enjoyed cooking classes in several countries and we always learn more than something new to cook.

When John and I were in Seoul, Korea, we took a cooking class at O’ngo Food Communications. We made several dishes including Spicy Chicken Stew. The teacher/chef, Hyejin Kim, said it the recipe that more people requested to learn how to make. I would have thought kimchi would be the most requested.  Kimchi is the best known Korean food. It is veggie dish that has a unique flavor. Not my favorite so we didn’t sign up for that class.

There was another couple in our cooking class which made the
class more enjoyable and when we finished we dined together enjoying the food we made.  The chef joined us and the discussion led to table etiquette and how they are different in each country.

Politeness and respect of elders is very important to Koreans. Chef Kim said that while manners have relaxed in Korea just as they have elsewhere many families try to retain the old ways. Korean meals consists of several dishes placed on the table family style to be shared by everyone. The oldest person sits down first,
 and after everyone else is seated, eating can begin when the oldest person picks up their chopsticks. Guests should try to eat at the same pace as the oldest person. When offered an alcoholic drink it is considered impolite to refuse, especially if offered by an elder. If you do not want more to drink do not empty your glass/cup. When offered more food, and, you would like more, decline twice and then accept. Leaving a little food on your plate at the end of the meal indicates the host has provided enough food. Koreans eat quietly saving discussion for after dinner. “Clean platers” is not the way of things in most Asian countries.  There is no point in saving room for dessert because there often is no dessert. The last course, in lieu of the typical dessert, is usually fresh fruit. Koreans eat quietly, saving discussion for after dinner.

Spicy Korean Chicken Stew (Dak Dori Tang)
1 and half to 2 lbs bone-in, skin-on chicken pieces (drumsticks, breasts, an/or wings)
2 onions cut in quarters
4-6 potatoes, peeled and cut to wedges
1 large carrot, peeled and cut to about 1-inch pieces
2 scallions, chopped coarsely to 1-inch long pieces
1-2 tbsp oil (enough to cover the bottom of the cooking pot)

1 tbsp chili sauce
One-half tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp chili powder
One-half tbsp.
4-6 cloves of garlic, minced
One-half tbsp sugar
One fourth tsp black pepper
1 tsp sesame seed, crushed
 1-2 cups of water

Cut all vegetables, set aside. Mix all the sauce ingredients (not the water), set aside. Put oil in cooking pot (can use a crockpot) on medium heat for three to four minutes. Add vegetables and chicken slowly being careful that the oil doesn’t spatter. Sear for four to five minutes stirring occasionally. Add sauce mixture and water.  Bring to a boil. Lower heat to medium. Cook about one-and-half to two hours, or until all ingredients are cooked, and sauce has thickened.