Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Luang Prabang

Around town...

Luang Prabang, Laos

We have been here staying at our old favorite hotel, The Apsara, for a week.  The hotel is located along the Nam Khan river which winds past the town and connects with the larger Mekong River.  The historic area of town is a peninsula, only four streets wide and many streets long.  There is a heavy French history here, mixing old wooden shop houses with graceful French villas.   The Apsara, which is the Khmer word for dancing girl or heavenly nymph, was originally a warehouse for rice.  It retains its original plank wood flooring and lattice transoms.  Of course the romantic aspect of the design often plays havoc with modern comforts.  Our floors creak insistently and the walls are paper thin, affording you perhaps a tad too much familiarity with your neighbors!   The town has changed considerably since our first visit in 2000.   With the World Heritage designation tourism has bloomed, and this sleepy town awakened.   There used to be mostly bicycles cruising along the narrow streets, and now everyone has a motorcycle.  There are still bicycles but mostly with tourist.  So many old buildings are now guest houses and restaurants, the old families having moved out of town.  Even so, it is an ancient town and there are 32 old wooden and stucco temples on almost every street.  Every morning the "Tak Bat" ritual procession takes place.  The Tak Bat is a profound expression of generosity, and is done with a sense of beauty and affection, piety and deep commitment.  The lay people prepare offerings of cooked rice early each morning and wait for the monks to circumambulate the streets before the sun rises.  They sit or kneel on mats, in silence, waiting for the monks to approach, their heads and feet bare in humility.  They place small amounts of rice in each of the monks alms bowls, without making eye contact.  They practice this generous act with joy knowing that it will benefit them, their living or departed relatives and all beings.  I have seen this precious silent procession begin to turn into a tourist attraction and it is difficult to tolerate.  So many people with cameras and disrespectful talking.  But the locals peaceful silence and smiles, and the monks walking barefooted and serene throughout the town, is an example of tolerance for all of us here.   Somehow the beauty wins out.  

Ron and I have walked every day through the small streets, across bamboo bridges, bicycled the dirt roads just outside of town, watched the sun set behind the mountains along the Mekong, smiled at all the gentle kind people who greet you with palms together and soft "Sabaidee" and caught a picture of their lives here.  It is amazingly peaceful.  And yet it is Asia!  There is the other side of tranquil... Loud music, motorcycles, exhaust and sewer smells, cigarettes, holes in the sidewalk, uneven steps that could really do some damage if you are not watching carefully.  But this town is so small it all seems to be easy.  I will miss the sounds of the 4 am gongs from the temples calling the monks to prayer.  I will miss the golden light an hour before sunset when we are walking through the town and it is quiet, and the evening chanting of the monks.   I will miss the many cafes along both rivers!  The delicious heritage of french coffee and baguette, and the smells of garlic and lemongrass.   The food has been wonderful, starting with the lovely breakfast we receive each morning at our hotel.  Homemade jams of pineapple, papaya, and tomato!  Noodle soup!  Fresh bread!   Impossible to resist the pastries and croissant.   My friend told me my blog was more about food than culture, but I insist that food is culture!  And I am happily immersed in both.

Today was our last full day here.  We leave tomorrow in the afternoon.  We walked as far as we could trying to see everything one more time, starting at 6 a.m. with the monk's procession and ending tonight after our last sunset over the Mekong, and our last dinner in the small cafe we frequent above the river.   The game was even more fun because we only had 150,000 Kip left.  That is about $18.  We didn't want to have to change anymore dollars as we leave soon.  Since breakfast is included with our room, we went all day only spending 5 Kip on a large bottle of water.  The wonderful owner of the Apsara invited us for an afternoon drink and a last conversation before his 5 pm tennis game.  So civilized!  We went to dinner and ordered a large bottle of Laos Beer, fish cooked in banana leaf, glass noodles cooked with tofu and veggies, and a mixed mushroom and vegetable stir fry with rice.  It was a busy night with a large group of German tourist and after we had eaten our fish and noodles, never having received our mushrooms and vegetables, our total bill came to 70,000 Kip, or $8.50!   Sitting in a pretty riverside cafe with hanging paper lanterns, and multinational conversations, and beer!   Not bad!  We still have 75,000 Kip left, which is $9 and that will enable us to treat ourselves to fresh pastries and delicious baguettes to take along to the airport tomorrow.  We may leave here with no Kip left over!  

It is quiet now.  The town goes to bed early.  I have sipped my last vodka and lime while writing this blog.  The duty free bottle still has a couple of strong drinks left in it, but I will leave it behind...  Tomorrow is another flight, another country.   And with a sad but grateful place in my heart for this most charming town, I too must say good bye.

The Apsara Hotel...Cafe, Breakfast, and view from our Room

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Amulets and temples

Chiang Mai

Ron and I have settled in and found our rhythm here in our small area of Moon Muang, Soi 7.  The narrow lanes intersecting the neighborhood are wide enough for one small car or a motorcycle and strolling tourist.  It is peaceful in the mornings and we listen to a few roosters far off and lots of doves and pigeons singing their birdsong with the dawn.  From our third story balcony we have a nice view of the hills surrounding Chiang Mai.  A few golden temple rooftops glistening in the distance.  There is an incredible amount of street art, or grafitti, which ever you choose.  Small cafes abound with simple gardens where you can sit shaded by the tropical trees and bushes help keep you cool as it is very hot in the afternoons.  Nighttime it is cool and we sleep with our doors open and screens closed so no air con needed.   Food abounds.   Everywhere you walk there is food.  People cooking on the street,  cafes, markets offering fresh local delicacies, and always the many coffee houses.  Even as we lay in the chaise around our pool, the kitchen of our small hotel is just behind our heads and we are serenaded by the sounds of metal spatulas clanging in the woks and the rich aromas enticing our taste buds.   Here is a typical day of ours....

We have had a nice day.   Started with mugs of tea in our room listening to the roosters and doves.   Slowly the streets start to come alive with motor scooters and people walking around.  We went to the next street over by way of the narrow back streets called Soi.  We found a place with comfortable real rattan chairs and at table height.  Mostly the little funky cafes have tiny stools, or short wooden hard chairs, or cushions at low tables.  Ron just can't sit in those.   Fortunately the place we like serves a fabulous fruit salad.  About ten different kinds of fruit cut in nice small bits with homemade yogurt and musli and honey.   I get a hot latte and we are happy sharing both.  We walked back through the morning market and I spied a package of what looked like fresh small spring rolls.  The young woman told me they were vegetarian and there was a small intriguing plastic bag of sauce that came with them.  So I bought them.  As we walked past the " Irish Bakery" we stopped to look in the shaded garden and I saw a guy eating a huge sandwich made from thickly sliced wheat bread and cheese and tomatoes and who knows what else.   I had to make myself walk away.  It looked so good.   When we got to our room I opened the package and discovered that the spring rolls were wrapped in a soft warm rice noodle so delicate it melted in your mouth and the inside was skinny rice noodles and tofu and chopped veggies.  The sauce was slightly sweet, slightly spicy soy sauce.   My God, they were heavenly.   I can't wait to go back and get more tomorrow.   Cost about 75 cents.    Then we went by TukTuk to another section of town to say hallo to the couple who checked my eyes and made my glasses last trip.  We went to a nearby place called Mango Tango and had a scoop of fresh mango ice cream, fresh mango pudding, and fresh half of a mango.  Yum.   Then we walked back to the Main Street to find a tuktuk back home.  While Ronnie watched the traffic to flag one down, I spied a woman at a small stand take a large bunch of fried chicken pieces out of a deep fryer and dump them on the counter!   I couldn't resist and picked out two huge breast and she then chopped them with a cleaver on a thick wooden cutting board and threw some spicy fried bits in the bag with them and two little plastic bags of sweet chili sauce.  The fried bits were shallots and kiefer lime leafs that were so crunchy and delicious.  We took our plastic bag back to our room and sat on our balcony and ate all the warm fried chicken with our fingers and it was the best fried chicken, moist and tender....double yummy.   By then I also realized I had been carrying around a freshly made chocolate cookie that I had bought at our breakfast place.   We still have that to eat.  After a swim, and another walk around the street, we went to the little bakery and bought a container of freshly made plain yogurt with fresh strawberry jam in the bottom.  And a bottle of water.  We sat out front and watched the people walking past looking at the small table set up with loads of fresh breads, croissants, and cone shaped macaroons dipped in chocolate.  Fun to watch the tourist looking at all that stuff, who will buy and who will just look and keep walking past.  Strawberries grow here up in the nearby mountains, so are very fresh now.   I love the small dried ones they sell in the market.  So chewy and rich with flavor.   Now, it is 5:30 and we still have dinner ahead of us!   Should we have som tom or go for the street stir fried Pad Say You?   Or try to keep it light and have some veggies and rice?   There is a Dutch guy down our street with a homemade pizza oven in his garden and he makes a mean pizza.  I tell you it is food heaven here.  I really love the street food.  

Around town

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Around Bangkok


After all the work, and multitude of details for departure, we said farewell to Cardiff and drove to LAX at 3:30 am to catch our morning flight to Bangkok.   Comfortable in our business class reclining "bed seats" we flew 16 hours to Hong Kong watching movies and finding sleep evasive.  Upon arrival in Hong Kong, we found our way to the calm and quiet business class lounge where we immediately procured two small rooms to take hot showers, and get refreshed.  Still, with a four hour layover, we began to fade and it was so tiring waiting for the flight.  Finally we boarded and finished the journey in 2.5 hours to Bangkok.   We had priority passes which allowed Ron and me to zip through the visa on arrival process.  No long lines for us.  Then we collected our bags, cashed some dollars into Thai Baht, and worked our way outside into the balmy air to catch a taxi into town.  No traffic at 2 a.m. so we got to our hotel within an hour.  We had miscalculated our arrival date so we had to hope that even though we arrived well past midnight on the fifteenth, we could have our room which they required us to pay for as if it was the fourteenth.  Everything was fine and we were in our bed and exhausted by 3:00 am.  All in all with the drive from home and the waiting and the flights, we had been on the road almost 30 hours.  

The morning sounds woke us as the taxi boats and barges working the Chai Phraya River winding through the heart of BKK came to life outside our hotel.  We had breakfast in the open garden alongside the river and beneath the flowering trees that had grown a lot since we were last here.  Now the air was perfumed with the scent of pink jasmine and the exhaust from the long tail boats working their way up and down the river.  Breakfast consisted of pitch black coffee no amount of cold milk could improve, lovely sliced papaya, banana, pineapple, watermelon and dragon fruit with cool yogurt and musli.  The heat came forth with a vengeance and the humidity sucked the strength out of us.  We wandered down the small alleys, called Soi, and felt invigorated just to be back in our familiar hood.  People were already sitting at small Formica tables on tiny plastic red and blue stools eating fragrant noodle soup, the locals choice of breakfast food.  Motorcycles were weaving through the strolling tourist, dressed in every imaginable color and pattern. Later the narrow streets were crowded with people in funky reclining chaise, one next to the other, in various states of bliss as armies of young Thai boys and girl's massaged their feet.  Smells of grilled meats and fish filled the air, vendors offering fruit shakes and fruit salads and fruit slices in plastic bags.  Large mounds of fresh noodles and veggies were awaiting your order so cooks could throw it all into a hot wok and stir fry your Pad Thai in minutes.  Everywhere food.  Delicious smells of food and the sewer comingled.  Colors and colorful, beautiful and ugly, unique and strange... All your senses are heightened from the onslaught of everything, while you are jet lagged and trying to avoid stepping in a hole, or off an uneven curb, or run over by the many motorbikes coming at you from the opposite direction.  That coupled with the humidity and the heat and the haze takes a toll.  But you feel so ALIVE, so amazed by the whole "Fellini" movie taking place around you.  

Later we meet up with our friends Mark and Luci who are traveling for the first time in Asia.  We had so much fun enjoying their enthusiasm at the scene.  We walked down the middle of Khao San Road and had afternoon lunch sitting street side drinking cold Singha beers and eating stir fried noodles at The Central, an old establishment of long standing.  Some of the waitresses and waiters have been there for ever.   That night we went to a quieter Soi for dinner, of curries and stir fried veggies, at our old favorite Ranees.   The new location is in a quiet garden with lots of bicycle memorability and Jasmine trees.   A cool breeze came through and it felt so refreshing, and necessary.

The day's slowly passed in a kind of haze.  We were tired from the jet lag and the lack of quality sleep.  It took us two days to get our SIM cards for our phone and iPad.  We have never traveled with a phone before!  Like old dinosaurs learning new tricks.   We swam in the pool, wandered the Soi, shopped, ate and enjoyed the company of our friends.

Our third morning a medical emergency roared it's scary head.  Ronnie realized he had a swollen testicle.  (He has graciously given me permission to write about his private parts). We were alarmed but in our laid back fashion, we decided to treat with ice and Aleve.  24 hours later and no improvement, we decided further action was necessary.  It is very scary to be in a foreign city without references or knowledge and have a medical problem.  We researched the symptoms, got a sense of what it could be and then looked up hospitals and clinics.  Fortunately I recognized the foreign name of a hospital in an upscale area of BKK that a well traveled friend of ours had mentioned he had gone to.  We went by taxi in rush hour traffic for over an hour to Samitivej Hospital.  We walked in and went to the desk where one of the young receptionist asked what our problem was.  We told her a swollen testicle.  She immediately escorted us to another desk where they asked us to fill out only one page of questions, and took Ron's photo.  Then we were escorted to the Urology department where we waited in comfortable large chairs with back pillows and complimentary bottles of fresh water.  Ron had his blood pressure taken and within ten minutes we were in a private room speaking with the young Urologist.  He did a physical, and prostate exam, and then he suggested an ultrasound and urine test which Ron completed immediately with another MD.  Then after an hour or so when the results of the test came back, the urologist had us return to his office and showed us on the computer the ultrasound images and explained Ron's condition, called Hydrocele. He then gave us two, ten day courses of antibiotics and anti inflammatory meds, just in case we needed a second course while in Cambodia.  They prepared a CD for us to take to Ron's MD at home, and within three hours, and prompt careful attention, we were charge a total of $228!  It should be so easy at home!

So we felt better and confident that we could proceed the next day on our journey to Chiang Mai, the former seat of the Lanna Kingdom, and now a modern, laid back place to relax.  More to come.....

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Down the Rabbit Hole

Once again, another trip looms... South East Asia here we come.  We are excited.  So many details to attend to in this final week before departure.  Can't wait to put my tush into that business class seat and sip my first champagne.... here we go.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Home again/Om again

We're home.  26 hours after leaving we've traded the heat and humidity and lushness of Bali for the sweet chilly fresh air of Cardiff.  Our family and friends have embraced us with their loving spirits, welcoming us back, excited to reconnect.  Hugs and kisses abound.  Such a charmed circle of interesting intelligent people.  Trying to conquer our jet lag, still awakening at 3 am.  Thank goodness for Ambien.  Sipping our own rich coffee, organic salads, and excellent red wine.  Home feels nice. We are lucky.  And now the blog will retire until our next trip, wherever that may be.  Travel keeps us young, fills us with new awareness and excites our imagination.  Take a trip.  You will be glad you did.  Get outside your comfort zone, eat something exotic, feel challenged.

                               Namaste.   Sawasdee Ka.   Saibadee.   Selamat Jalan...