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. 

Apr 3, 2017

Visit Myanmar Now

There are very few places in the world where the culture has remained the same for years.  Myanmar is one of those but now it is changing – too fast.  We have visited Myanmar every year for ten years.  There is much we love about the “Golden Country” but now we go mainly to  enjoy Ngapali Beach.  It, too, is changing. Now there are more hotels and many flights arrive
every day.  We always stay at Amazing Beach Resort Hotel – it is Amazing. It is located on a long, sweeping beach on the Bay of Bengal.  The sand is soft – never too hot to walk on and yet near the water’s edge it is firm for walking. Originally, Amazing Resort was the only hotel on that beach but now there are others including a Hilton. But they are way down the beach where it is rocky.  Why go to a beach where it is rocky?  This is the first year we have seen visitors other than those staying at Amazing Resort.  But, there were never more than three or four on any one day and not in the area of our hotel so there really was no impact. 

Yangon, the former capital, is now a bustling city with traffic
issues.  Ten years ago all the vehicles were old now there are many SUVs and other new cars. Motor bikes are banned in the inner city. New hotels are going up but many people still dress in the traditional longee and some even put thanaka on their face for protection for the heat and sun. Because the traffic has increased we now stay at Myanmar Life Hotel near the
airport.  They offer free transfer, breakfast and have an awesome pool; plus, the price is reasonable. Yangon has a new state of the art international airport and the domestic airport has been replaced with another slick new airport. They even have a Burger King.  Fast food chains are finally showing up in Myanmar – there goes the neighborhood. Ten years ago the people did not have electricity twenty four hours.  Now they do.

Ten years ago there was no internet, credit cards were not accepted, and everything had to be paid in pristine (right from the bank) USD.  Now there is internet everywhere. We had fiber optic internet in our room at Amazing. The changes are happening fast… very fast.  It is still possible to see some people from the many ethnic groups dressed in their traditional outfits.  Even though face tattooing is no longer done there are still women 60 or older who had their faced tattooed when they were young girls. Some of the people still have neck rings as part of their traditional outfits. Even young girls. 

Not everything has changed.  The people are still very friendly.
English is common in the tourist area. Myanmar was an English colony so many of the older people speak English and now the younger people are taught English in school. The country is very safe. Besides the golden temples there are many other things to see and do: hiking, homestays, diving,
hot air balloon rides, river cruises, and more. We really enjoy visiting shops where things are still made by hand – gold leaf, pottery, lacquer ware, weaving, and the like. Planning a trip? Take a Pandaw cruise on the Irrawaddy River, visit Lake Inle, and then relax at Amazing Resort in Ngapali. 

Making Jinha Masala

I love it when hotels offer free activities for their guests –especially if there is a cooking demonstration. I may never make the recipe at home but I get to try something new and typical of the area John and I are visiting. The Malaysian Island of Penang has some of the best Indian food. Why?  More than ten percent of the island is of Indian ancestry. One of the popular Indian dishes is Jingha (Hindi word for shrimp) Masala (from the Hindi word for spice). The island’s heterogeneous population is highly diverse in ethnicity, culture, language and religion making it a fascinating destination. It was first settled by the English but today the island is about 40% Malay, 40% Chinese and 10% Indian with a variety of other groups making up the rest. 

 The Malaysian island of Penang is on several lists of great places people should visit during their lifetime; and, 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 Mallaca.  

 Penang is a honeymoon destination for Saudi couples and a winter
getaway for Europeans.  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. 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.

With such a diverse clientele chefs need to prepare food to suit all their guests.  All the food is halal. 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. And, so is Jingha Masala. However, it can be very hot which we are not used to.  A while back we had a guide in Penang who took us to lunch at a typical hawker stall place (think food mall) and he had his food so hot he was sweating. When I asked why he eats such hot food he said “I sweat and it evaporates making me feel cooler.” Hummm, not sure it is worth it!

Jingha Masala

1 tbs cooking oil

1 tsp chopped garlic

1 tsp chopped onion

15 curry leaves

2 tsp ginger

1 tsp garlic paste

½ cup tomato puree or finely chopped fresh tomatoes

1 tsp salt

1 tbs red chili powder

2 tsp turmeric powder

25 pcs prawn or shrimp (cleaned and washed)

1 tsp green pepper chopped

2 tbs cream (light)

1 tsp kastoori mathi powder (fenugreek)

Fresh coriander leaves chopped for garnish

Heat oil in wok or frying pan. Add garlic, onions, and curry leaves. Sauté for a few seconds. Add ginger and garlic paste. Sauté for one minute. Add tomato puree, salt, red chili powder and turmeric. Cook for five minutes stirring frequently. Add prawns and cook gently for 5 minutes. Add green pepper. Cook for one minute. Add cream and kastoori mathi. Stir and remove from heat. Garnish with fresh coriander leaves.  Serve with naan bread.

Historic Cemeteries

Cemeteries might not seem like a likely place to visit as a tourist but they are. Some people visit cemeteries to pay homage to presidents, artist, poets and other influential individuals.  Others go to admire the art and architecture, while still others find the beautifully landscaped gardens a place to reflect.  

1. Arlington National Cemetery: The military cemetery located just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. It is the most visited cemetery in the United States.  It is the grave site of President John F. Kennedy.The Changing of the Guard at the tomb of the Unknown Soldiers has taken place every day without interruption since 1937. 
2. Gettysburg National Cemetery: This Pennsylvania site is the final resting place for more than 3,500 Union soldiers killed in the Battle of Gettysburg, considered the turning point in the Civil War. There are numerous monuments including one to President Abraham Lincoln where on November 19, 1863 Lincoln gave his famous Gettysburg Address speech.
3. St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, New Orleans: There are many
tours of this cemetery where, because of the high water table the deceased are interred in above-ground, whitewashed crypts topped with statues. It is a stop on the African-American Heritage Trail. Many noted individuals are interred here including New Orleans’ famous voodoo priestess Marie Laveau.
4. Colonial Park Cemetery: With live oaks draped in Spanish moss it is Savannah's oldest and most haunted cemetery. The Gen. Sherman’s soldiers changed the dates on dozens of headstones indicating that some of the interred lived 100s of year. According to Josiah Muir’s stone he was 11 when he died and his son died the same year at the age of 12.
5. Lakeview Cemetery: The Cleveland, Ohio cemetery is for Tiffany-lovers. It is home to the Wade Memorial
Chapel and boasts of one of the few interiors in the world that was entirely designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany and his studio. The chapel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
6. Forest Lawn Cemetery: Architecture lovers will enjoy Buffalo’s Forest Lawn Cemetery. It claims to be one of the world’s finest outdoor museums with monuments, sculptures and mausoleums designed by great sculptors and architects including Frank Lloyd Wright’s Blue Sky Mausoleum and Tiffany stained glass. 
7. Woodlawn Cemetery: The Woodlawn Cemetery in Bronx, N.Y. was one the earliest garden cemeteries in the United States. The curving road through the rolling hills passes by hundreds of mausoleums, many designed by noted architects. Irving Berlin and Herman Melville are just a few of the famous people interred there. 
8. Hollywood Forever Cemetery: Starry-eyed travelers should visit Hollywood Forever Cemetery, the final resting place of many of Hollywood’s greats. It is on the National Register of Historic Sites. Visit and pay your respects to Rudolph Valentino, Cecil B. DeMille, and many more legends of the screen.
9. Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park: Some
cemeteries are under the auspices of a local government while others are military and a few are private family cemeteries such as the Johnson Family Cemetery which is now part of a national historic park. LBJ is buried in the same area where he was raised. 
10. Boothill Graveyard: Those interested in the Old West should head to Tombstone Arizona where about 250 people “died with their boots on.” Lester T. Moore who died in the 1880s has what is probably the most famous epitaph: “Here lies Lester Moore, four slugs from a 44, no Les no more.”

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 Café 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.