May 21, 2017

Visiting Kathmandu

 The names of some destinations have a magical draw for me such as Katmandu and Timbuktu. I will probably never get to Timbuktu but I decided if I was ever going to Kathmandu I better go while I still can. 

When John and I arrived at Nepal’s Tribhuvan International Airport it was very busy with
several planes arriving about the same time. We decided to get a visa on arrival but so did most of the other passengers so it was very hectic.  One of the airport security guards came to the rescue (I sure TSA& airport security in the US would do the same – maybe, maybe not).  He motioned for us to sit and said if we gave him the money for the visas ($25 pp for a 15-day visa) he would do it for us.  We gave him the money and our passports and after a few minutes he returned with all the necessary paperwork, led us to the desk where visas are issued and with a nod to the people standing in line we went ahead of everyone and received our visas.  It was much appreciated.  

Our hotel, Hotel Shanker, provided complimentary airport
transfers. I try to book hotels with complimentary transport because we find dealing with airport taxis frustrating.  The ride into the city was interesting.  The city seemed chaotic. Vendors had their wares displayed along the roadway. The traffic was intense. Katmandu has over one
million people and no stoplights or stop signs. There are a few policemen at critical intersections but basically traffic, which is heavy most of the time, operates on drivers taking turns giving way to other drivers. I was told that some foreign organizations had installed traffic lights but it caused more confusion because Kathmandu does not have reliable electricity 24 hours. 

Our hotel, the Shanker, was, like many other high end hotels,
located down a private side road from the main highway making it an oasis in the midst of a pulsating city. The Shanker is a family owner hotel and offered great deals because the hotel suffered some damage to the lobby during the earthquake and while they are repairing the damage they decided to upgrade some parts of the hotel.  It didn’t impact our stay. For a reasonable price we were able to book a suite. 

John and I enjoy cultural shows.  The concierge at the hotel booked dinner for us at Bhojan Girha with transportation. It was much better than I thought it would be. I imaged tour buses dropping of dozens of people.  Not so.  The restaurant is in an history building in neo-classic design that was once the residence of the royal priest and  is over 150 years old. It was on the verge of collapse when it was skillfully restored using
traditional methods to become a place that promotes culture and local cuisine.   They have several restaurants to meet the needs of various groups.  Our room was perfect.  Quite intimate.  Seating is traditional – on the floor but they had special low chairs for those of us who were not accustomed to
sitting comfortably on the floor. 
The festive folk music was representative of some of the over 100 Nepali ethnic groups. The many course meal was delicious from the Momocha (meat filled dumplings) to Kukhura Ko Masu (chicken curry) to Sikarni (sweetened yogurt Cream).  A wonderful way to learn about Napali culture. 

May 20, 2017

Refresh at Novotel Suvarnabhumi Airport in Thailand

No matter how one gets to Asia it is a long, arduous trip. Flights to Bangkok are often the best deal. During our three-plus months in SE Asia we fly through Bangkok several times; sometimes via Suvarnbhumi Airport, usually referred to as Bangkok International airport.  The other airport is Don Mueang International.  I love it when our flights arrive at
Suvarnabhumi because we stay at the Novotel at the airport.  All flights to Thailand from Europe and the US arrive at Suvarnabhumi.  After 20+ hours of traveling I do not want to continue to another destination, not even Bangkok city which is an hour’s drive.  The airport is very modern and Novotel makes getting to the hotel hassle-free. When we exit the baggage area we just walk to Exit Door 4 where the Novotel agent is waiting.  He escorts us to the hotel’s van. The airport is about 10 years old and so is the Novotel.  Why they didn’t make direct access from the airport to the hotel is a mystery.

The Novotel is the perfect place to get rid of jet lag and
refresh.Walking into the bright, airy four-story atrium brightens the mind and spirit. The lobby is huge with five restaurants/bars plus a Business Center.  One of the unique benefits is that there is no set check in/out time. The room is ours for 24 hours. We usually arrive about midnight so we don’t have to get up and rush out in the morning. People going on the Bangkok city can catch a cab from the hotel, less hassle than dealing with a taxi at the airport or take the Skytrain into Bangkok with direct access from the hotel. People flying can take the free shuttle back to the airport.  For those flying to Phuket or one of Thailand popular beach locations will most likely find that staying at the Novotel will be less expensive than the night at an island resort. 

The hotel has one of the most attractive rooftop pool of any airport hotel with afull-service spa and well-equipped gym just steps away. The spa offers a special treatment to alleviate the symptoms of jetlag.  Last year they were celebrating their 10th year so that had a special lottery. I drew the lucky envelope and received ten free massages. It was good for one year and I managed to use six of them.

The rooms are excellent – think five-star hotel. This Novotel is
much more upscale than most Novotels.  Join their loyalty program and book via their website for the lowest rate and free internet.  The room can be booked with or without breakfast.  The breakfast buffet is absolutely huge – unlike anything stateside; besides the usual breakfast items there are f
resh vegetables, several kinds of soup, curries, and many other things.  It may be breakfast for some but dinner for others so everything is available for all ethnic groups. John and I like their Executive Club Level. For the extra money we get breakfast (in the restaurant or club), cookies midday (John never misses) and evening cocktails with a nice selection of hor d’oeuvres. For us it serves as dinner. The other thing we like about club level is we get express check-in and the executive lounge is always serene.   Also, we usually plan to spend our last night in Asia at the hotel to grid ourselves for the long flight home.

May 9, 2017

Cruising Halong Bay with Pandaw

The towering limestone, forest-covered karst formations in Halong Bay are the iconic image of Vietnam. They are much-loved by the Vietnamese, have been featured in various movies, and have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The 10-day cruise John and I took on Pandaw’s Red River ended in Halong Bay.  The perfect place to end an amazing trip.  

We learned there are two Halong Bays – one on land and one in the Gulf of Tonkin. Pandaw’s crew takes care of everything.  A bus took us from the boat to a place where they had small human-powered boats waiting for us. The ladies rowed using their feet.  The hour-long ride along a stream took us past towering karst formations and through two low caves.  The second cave ended in a lake-like area surrounded by the cone-like
mountains.  We stayed there for about 15 minutes – I thought to give the ladies a rest – instead our rower gave us a back massage. After the boat ride we visited a nearby temple then returned to the boat.  Every time we returned to the ship after a shore trip three of the staff members were waiting for us.  One to give us a refreshing lemongrass-scented towel, one take our shoes so they can clean them, and another staff member with a refreshing fruit drink. 

We continued on the Red River to the Gulf of Tonkin and the better-known Halong Bay. When we reached Halong Bay we sailed around some of the 1,969 formations. In Vietnamese Halong means “descending dragon.” According to the local legend the Jade Emperor, the supreme Chinese deity, sent the Mother Dragon to help the Vietnamese fight fierce invaders coming from the sea and incinerated them with their divine fire and giant emeralds. The emeralds from the dragon’s mouth were scattered and formed an invincible defensive wall. After thousands of years, the walls of emerald turned into islands.  

There are only a few fishing families left who live on floating
houses in Halong Bay. The government is moving them to the mainland where they are closer to health care and so the children can go to school. We visited one family with two small children. When asked about the danger of children falling in the water she said the
little girl could swim and the other one hadn’t fallen in yet.  I was surprised to see they had a huge speakers, a TV, and other electrical equipment that powered by battery. We arrived while she was cooking dinner.  I could hear the sizzle of frying chicken – it smelled great. 

The crew had arranged for boats to takes us through some of the
caves in the area. The best part was we got to see several langurs jumping from tree to tree. They are endangered and only found here, only about 60 remain so we were fortunate. 

Sadly the Pandaw cruise came to an end.  There were only 22 passengers – the ship was
designed for a maximum of 32 passengers.  John and I saw so many fascinating things, met great people and enjoyed tea with some of them, plus the scenery was fascinating the entire way. There are a lot of things to love about a Pandaw cruise: it is all-inclusive (including the tip), the meals are gourmet, and most beverages are included.  The staff is very friendly and attentive. The cabin was roomy and so was the bathroom. It was a value-laden trip. 

May 4, 2017

Cruising the Red River with Pandaw

I have never taken a voyage aboard one of the popular big ship cruises but I am a fan of small ship river cruises, especially in Asia. I love river travel. Asian rivers are dynamic. They transport people and goods plus many towns and cities grew up along waterways.  At low water time the fertile shore become gardens. The small cruise voyages like those John and I have taken with Pandaw include everything: accommodations, meals, twice-daily guided shore trips, local beverages, evening programs, personalized service, and even the tip is included making it a stress-free, value-laden vacation. 

Our ten-day cruise on Vietnam’s Red River included so many special activities.  Small villages often make one specific product. I especially enjoyed watching villagers make paddy hats, furniture, metal items, fashioning bonsai trees, cooking local sweets, and going about their daily life.  There were also very special programs. Before returning to the ship one day, even though Lunar New Year was over, Pandaw had arranged for a
private lion dance to be performed on a jetty - they even brought chairs from the ship so we could watch in comfort. Another day we went to a temple where a group performed a traditional folk song, “Hat Xoan.” “Hat Xoan” is seeking recognition as a world cultural heritage to be preserved. Xoan singing is believed to have been developed during the reign of the Hung Kings (2890 to 250 BC). It has been passed on within certain families for generations.

One of my favorite cultural shows in North Vietnam is the Water Puppet Show.  I have been to the theater in Hanoi a couple of times.  Puppeteers stand in water behind a screen to operate the puppets that relate various Vietnamese legends accompanied with drums and cymbals. The shows originated in the paddy fields during the 11th century. The water puppet show planned by Pandaw was not in a theater but performed outdoors just as it used to be.  Many local people gathered around to enjoy the show.  

The shore trips often included unique transportation: tuk tuk,
ferryboat, or a row boat.  There were bikes for those who wanted to bike instead of walk. At the end of each shore trip we were greeted at the vessel by staff with a cool, lemongrass-scented towel and a fruit drink. We left our shoes with another staff member who cleaned them and returned them to our room.  How is that for service? 

There were also on-board presentations including traditional music
and dances. One day there was a cooking and fruit carving demonstration?  Each evening there was a presentation often a movie featuring Vietnam. 
Each evening there was turndown service along with the agenda for the next day on our bed. There were only 22 passengers on the cruise – same number of staff!  The passengers were mainly from England and Australia. There were lounge chairs at various places on the deck for those who wanted to read or just watch the world go by. The accommodations were comfortable with a desk and a roomy (for a ship) bathroom with a shower.  And, there was internet most of the time. 

One evening was magical.  We stopped at a sandbar in the middle of the Red River. The crew built a bonfire and set up white-tablecloth dining with a bar on the beach for a BBQ under the starts. 

Apr 24, 2017

Hoa Lo Prison - Hanoi "Hilton"

The Hoa Lo Prison is better known to Americans as the “Hanoi Hilton” and where John McCain and other American POWs were held during the Vietnam War. It is called the “American War” in Vietnam.  Vietnam has been invaded by the Chinese, French, and Japanese.  The “American War” was the most recent and the shortest except for the five-year control by the Japanese.  

The major portion of the prison depicts the incarcerations of prisoners other than Americans.  In January I had visited a prison in the south of Vietnam that was run by the South Vietnamese and the “American Puppet Government.” I am appalled at how cruel people can be to their own people.  North or South,
they treated each other brutally. The museum tries to relate how “kind” they were to the American POWs with pictures of them playing basketball and eating Christmas dinner.  They were probably treated better (most likely due to worldwide press coverage) than they treated their own countrymen but they still suffered during their time in the “Hanoi Hilton.” 

Ho Chi Minh is the father of the present-day Vietnam and highly regarded by the Vietnamese. He is referred to fondly as “Uncle Ho.”  Every day there is a long line of people waiting to get in the mausoleum. He is laid out similar to Lenin. Some say it is really a wax stature, but who knows?  Nearby is the house
where he lived.  Ho Chi Minh is the only leader that I can recall that never surrounded himself with luxury and sycophants after gaining power.  They like to tell visitors that he was given an air conditioner and he said, “I don’t want it. Take it to a hospital. They need it more than I do.” Also on the same grounds is the famed One Pillar Pagoda regarded as one of Vietnam’s most iconic temples. 

One of the highlights of this trip was meeting up with Jim and Allison Combs who were on their way to hike in Sapa and homestay with a Hmong family.  The last time Jim was there was 20 years ago when he was a student at National University in Singapore. The Crown Plaza Hotel has a residence section that was perfect for our reunion: two bedrooms, two baths, kitchen, dining area and living room all for $150 (plus more points in our IHG loyalty program).

To maximize our time sightseeing I rented a car with a driver for 12
hours - $100 plus tip!  Besides Hoa Lo Prison and Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum we went to the Ethnological Museum which had a variety of traditional housing styles.  One ethnic group used water flowing through bamboo pipes to pound the grain while they were working in the fields. They also used waterpower to run the bellows for forging metal.  

One of my favorite activities in Hanoi is the Water Puppet Theater.  With clanging cymbals and drums the water puppets (operated by puppeteers standing in water behind a screen) relate the legends of northern Vietnam.  It is uniquely Vietnamese. 

Twenty years ago we had dinner at the Indochine Restaurant. Jim ordered soup.  It was so good I had it for dessert.  Our last meal together before Jim and Allison took the train to Sapa was at the Indochine Restaurant.  You can’t go back.  The owners had changed and so had the location.  The soup was good but the portion small – just not the same. 

Apr 22, 2017

Interesting stay at Amazing Resort Ngapali Beach

There are a plethora of statues of Buddha throughout Asia. Many
people view Buddhism as a religion but technically it is a way of life or a philosophy. Buddhism began in northeastern India and is based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama. Buddhism is 2,500 years old and is followed by 350 million worldwide. Like most religions and philosophies understanding Buddhism is difficult to understand completely but I
like the calm and gentle ways of most Buddhists much of which comes from meditation. I try to learn a bit more about Buddhism each time John and I are in Asia. There are many different poses of Buddha.  Buddha’s hands in his lap stands for mediation. The upraised right hand is the protecting Buddha. The reclining Buddha represents Buddha in his last days before he enters Nirvana. Reclining Buddha statues are impressive. While we were in Myanmar we visited a new reclining Buddha statue which is the biggest in Myanmar. It was the last stop on an interesting day with friends.

Myanmar is a fascinating country that is changing fast but our

favorite beach, Ngapali, is still relatively uncrowded. It is two miles long and except for the guests at our favorite resort, Amazing Ngapali Hotel Resort, and a few locals there were never more than five other people on the beach. This was the 10th year we flew halfway around the world to stay there.  And, we are not the only ones.  We have made friends with some
Europeans who also return year after year.  One of our friends, Frank, is German but lives and works in Shanghai. He has started some projects in the area of Ngapali Beach. One of his projects is a chicken farm that also benefits a local family.  He arranged a day tour for us and some other friends to see his new chicken farm. We stopped to pick up Khin Khin and her baby boy.  We had all attended her wedding a couple of years ago. After
showing us around his small chicken farm he had arranged for the family that takes care of the farm to provide us with lunch.  Guess what was part of the main course? Egg sandwiches plus tomatoes and watermelon grown by the family. It may be Frank’s project but it is of great benefit
to the family.  After lunch we went into Thandwe town to the local market.  Asian markets are always fascinating.  Frank opened a small shop that sells the hardware for doors and similar items that is part of his business in Shanghai. He pays the son of the family that oversees the chicken farm to run the shop. He has also rented a small place in the market where the mother of the family can sell soup at lunch time.  I am not sure if Frank makes any money from his projects but it sure helps the family.

Our last stop was at a religious site on top of a hill.  Our tuk-tuk couldn’t make it up the hill so Frank had arranged cars and motorcycles for us.  There was an amazing panoramic view from the top plus the immense reclining Buddha that is about 600-feet long and about-90 feet high. They are currently building a protective cover. It was a fascinating day and one of the things we most enjoy about travel – meeting fascinating people who introduce us to interesting things. 

Apr 9, 2017

Staying in Hua Hin/Cha'am Thailand

People are often surprised when I say it is less expensive for us to spend the winter in Southeast Asia than it is to stay at home, and certainly less expensive than spending the time in Florida or somewhere else where it is warm and sunny. Part of the plan is to stay where the Americans do not.  Places charge what the market will bear and one thing that raises the price is if it is a popular destination for foreigners especially Americans.  John and I spend several weeks at beach resort in sunny Thailand but not in Phuket, Ko Samui, or Phi Phi Island.  We spend it south of Bangkok in the Cha’am/Hua Hin area. 

The Cha’am/Hua Hin area is a 2.5 hour drive south of Bangkok. We arrange for transportation which costs about $100 in a private car.  It is less expensive than flying to one of the islands and we get to see the countryside.  Especially interesting are the salt flats along the way.  We stay at Regent Cha’am and have for several
years but there are several options from condos to resorts in all categories. Most places like Regent Cha’am have lower tariffs for long-stays as do most hotels in SE Asia.  A long-stay can be anywhere from 5 days or one week and longer.  Most also have lower rates for returning guests.  We have made friends with an English couple who have been staying at the hotel for 20 years! They stay October and November, go back to England for December, and then return to stay from January to the end of March.

Regent Cha’am is located on a wide sandy beach.  Actually, the original beach washed away as beaches do sometimes and a new reinforced wide beach has been constructed.  We will have to see if it stays!  Mother Nature does what she wants. The hotel has two beautiful pools, extensive breakfast, daytime activities, two restaurants and a spa.  The hotel grounds are huge and beautifully landscaped. Supposedly, it was at one time the garden of a former king of Thailand. In the evening we like to walk into the little village where there are a variety of restaurants, a 7-11, shops, hair dressers, and other outlets. Meals are about $4 and great. 

There are plenty of things to do other than enjoy the hotel.  This
year we went to the International Kite Festival, a 20-minute taxi ride from the hotel. The kites were impressive and huge. Most of the big ones had a “mother” kite high in the air that was linked by string to the big ones. There was music plus food and kite vendors. Also, nearby is the former summer place of Rama VI. There are a variety of water sports including kite boarding.  Regent Cha-am has a shuttle a couple times a day into the city of Hua Hin where there is a night market and plenty of shops.  There is also an outlet storenearby. 

Some of the best flights – deal wise – are from NY to Bangkok.  We flew ANA (rated the 5th best airline in the world) from JFK to Saigon and returning to JFK from Bangkok for $565 with taxes. It is usually less expensive to take Amtrak to NYC ($50), a cab to the JFK ($65) than to fly from Syracuse on a US carrier.