Slideshow

Sawasdee ka from Bangkok

December, 2008
That is the phonetic spelling for hello (the feminine version) from Bangkok, Thailand. Everyone here is so respectful.  We are greeted in this way incessantly, with coordinating hand movements, palms together under the chin (this is called the wai). 

The Thai language has 44 consonants, 23 vowels, and 5 tonations... so if any of our readers thought we would master it in 5 days, they were sorely mistaken. 
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It is now Friday afternoon.  We arrived at the hotel on Thursday morning about 1:30 local time and, as you might expect, have pretty much been on the move since then. Our body clocks are so confused we have no clue what time or day this is... much more striking than in prior trips. The temperature is averaging around 75 with little humidity (for Bangkok).  Needless to say, we are loving the weather.

So, starting at the top.  We had not even left O'Hare when we heard our esteemed governor had really lowered the bar on political corruption.  Would you believe that story was front and center in the International Herald Tribune on Thursday morning?  It certainly put the political issues in Bangkok in perspective. 

The King just celebrated his 81st birthday and his picture is ubiquitous.  By the way, there is absolutely no evidence here of political unrest.  Everything is back to normal except that hotel and service personnel are especially grateful to see visitors.  Many people did cancel their plans and the hotels and restaurants, so far, have only been too happy to greet us and take our money (our bahts, that is).

General reactions. Ten million people in Bangkok out of 60 million in the country.  It's more frenetic and chaotic than Tokyo... and feels non-Westernized, more exotic than any other place we've visited. There are big highways (high as in "elevated") and many big beautiful boulevards (they also have a Champs Elysees), and then there are the extremely narrow side roads that are chock-a-block with stalls and pushcarts.  The traffic is amazing!  It is non-stop from dawn to night. They drive on the "wrong" side of the road so of course that is disorienting. And there are HUNDREDS of motor scooters and motorcycles (and the "passenger" often rides side-saddle and doesn't even hold on!!). The cars appear to move in a helter skelter fashion, but it is really more like a plague of locusts. Cars dart in and out, motorcycles go between cars and in FRONT of cars, all within inches of each other, but there are no horns blaring and no screeching of brakes...it is as if everyone is able to read the minds of everyone else and avoid collisions (sort of like the BORG Collective of traffic).  When there is a red light, it is often for several minutes at a time. How do we know? There is a clock next to the stop light which counts down the time remaining! So while it is red, all of the motorcycles weave their way to the front of the pack, so when the light changes, it is like the start of a motcross rally.  These guys make drivers in Italy look positively tame.  We have not even tried to walk anywhere.  The guidebooks recommend you take the river taxis or the elevated train (SkyTrain) and avoid regular taxis at all costs.

So Thursday, we had a wonderful breakfast outside by the river. Bangkok used to be "The Venice of the Orient"...many rivers and smaller canals and life was certainly water-oriented. But many of the smaller canals have been filled in over the years.  Speaking of being filled in, we are filled up (and have only been here two days).  Our breakfast buffet has everything imaginable! It rivals some of our other favorites like in Melbourne and Bobadilla, Spain. Lots of local fruit:  we had Rose Apple (which is like a trianglular apple, tastes like an apple except not sweet...just apple-y) and rambutan (which is a big red hairy thing -  "rambu" means "hair in Thai - that is sweet and not like anything we ever tasted. Also had guava and the sweetest, most juicy pineapple ever (even beats Hawaii). Then we took a tour (with Looi--our other local guide is Yewie, all we need is Dewie and we're all set... quack, quack) around the city (just 6 of us....the official  tour does not actually start until Friday night, so only a few came early like us)....but mostly we stopped and walked through an amazing wholesale flower market. Then the fruit market..so many wonderful things.

We got back around noon and went to CURRY QUEEN for lunch!!!!  No blizzards here, but really wonderful food.  Everything is cheap in Bangkok.  Right now, 100 baht is about $3.  We had a scampi dish and a fried rice dish and a 24 oz bottle of Singha (local beer) for under $9.

Then we went back to our room and crashed for a few hours. Then, it was time to eat again.   We had a reservation at a very good restaurant. It is only 3 miles from our hotel, but the cab ride took 45 minutes!!!  Traffic!!  But there is no way we could have walked there even if we wanted to...the streets are like a maze.  Some signs have both Thai and English, but if you get lost, you'd be doomed. We had a nice dinner and the cab ride back took 10 minutes!! Not so much traffic in that direction.

Today, the focus was on food again.   We had an early breakfast because our main activity was a Thai cooking class!  Alas, we should have skipped breakfast (and all meals for the month of November!)  We got picked up at 9 and were delivered to the "school" by about 9:20. We have no idea where it is in relation to our hotel.  It was us and a newlywed couple from Leeds, England and a businessman from Zurich (this was his 4th class!!!!). It was an awesone experience. 

We made 4 different dishes. First the teacher (a really cute Thai woman who kind of spoke English) would demonstrate how to make the dish (and they gave each of us a packet with all of the recipes). Then she would pass it around so we could taste it. Then we each went to our cooking station (where all of the ingredients in the right proportions were magically waiting for us), and made the dish again ourselves (all were stir fried). Then, we took what we made and went to a table and ate that!  First we made stri fry vegetables (corn, peas, carrots, garlic (they are BIG on garlic) and ground pork, with seasonings. We put that aside and each made 5 little stir fry "baskets" from a flour and lime juice batter with a special basket mold. Then we filled the baskets with the pork-veggie mixture and ate it. Next we made a stir fry glass noodle and muchroom and shrimp dish.  Same routine. So good.  This is where Wayne hit the wall--fatigue and appetite satiation-wise!  Next up was stir-fried beef with veggies. Wonderful!  Then we made yellow curry chicken.  We have gained 10 pounds in two days--not a good trendline.  (if you are really curious about this, check out http://www.baipai.com/.)

Tomorrow we begin our temple and palace tour with 28 other smiling Americans and 2 Canadians.

Bangkok eye (and mouth) candy

December, 2008
We've only been on the official tour for two days and we're still fairly sleep deprived (could've titled this "Sleepless in Bangkok"), but if the past 2 days are any indication, we are on a journey of sensory overload.

Saturday we took a boat ride on the Chao Phraya River (River of Kings) to see Wat Pho ("Wat" means temple--there are over 400 temples in Bangkok alone!) This is a huge complex of buildings. One contains a 150' long gilt-covered reclining Buddha. There are also tons of statues of Chinese and Dutch (you can tell by their wooden shoes) guards, and animals - some real, some mythical. Then we went on to the old (previous) Royal Palace (there are at least 3 in Bangkok). Again a vast collection of buildings and temples (the whole society is built around Buddhism)  -- many buildings covered in colored glass mosaics that magnificently reflect the sunlight. Then back on the boat and a short ride and we docked at a restaurant for lunch. As is often the case when the whole group eats together, we were served family style. First: shrimp and veggies in crispy noodle baskets (kind of like what we made in cooking class!), then curried chicken, then beef and veggies, then prawns with onions and garlic. All served with a generous scoop of sticky rice of course. Then it was back to the hotel. It was free time so we went on the Sky Train (the "EL") to the Jim Thompson  House Museum (no, not our former gov...you know...the one who actually finished his term with being under indictment!). At each stop, as the train got closer to our destination, many people wearing red shirts got on board. Vas ist das?  The station we were going to is called "National Stadium Station" because (duh) that's where the National Stadium is. So we figured there was a big soccer game or something. It wasn't until we saw the front page of today's paper that we learned there was a huge political rally there for the recently ousted Prime Minister!!!  (BTW: the train is easy to use and very clean. In each car are TVs that continuosly show ads, but at the bottom it tells you (in Thai and English) what the next stop is. Also, you know where we have signs in ours that say "Please give up your seat to a handicapped person" (or somesuch), here they have signs that say "Please give up your seat for a monk"!!!!!). Anyway...we got off and found our way to the museum. Thompson was a US serviceman in WWII who stayed in Thailand after the war. He reestablished the Thai silk manufacturing industry. He bought 6 houses from various parts of the country and reassembled them into 1 big house in Bangkok and filled it with beautiful antiques. Now it is a museum. Then it was back on the train to the hotel.

Everywhere we go the smell of delicious food is present.  It's amazing! 

So after a short rest, it was time to eat again. We went (on the Sky Train) with 3 other couples to the Blue Elephant restaurant. They have branches all over the world, but not in the US. It is in an old house and each dining room is amazingly decorated. We all ordered so much food that they could barely fit the plates on the table! They started everyone with an amuse-bouche of sweet corn soup, a small piece of chicken and noodles, and a shrimp-veggie salad. Then we shared an appetizer of grilled scallops. Then Wendy had steamed sea bass served in a half-pipe bamboo stalk. Wayne had prawns in a black peppercorn sauce. Yummo! For dessert, Wendy had assorted ice cream scoops; Wayne had a chocolate lava cake (!!! finally...some chocolate!!!) that came with a scoop of mulberry leaf ice cream. To paraphrase Clemenza: "Take the chocolate, leave the ice cream." We were all so stuffed we were afraid we might not have room for breakfast! On the way out, they gave each of the women a stalk of orchids! Yes!!  They are ubiquitous here.

Odds and ends:  This is our 4th Tauck tour, but it is the first time we are NOT the youngest couple!  We must be getting older.....

They have 4 seasons here: hot, hotter, hottest, and rainy. We are now in the hot season, but the newspaper said that some Thais have been seen wearing sweaters and complaining about the cold!!!
OK...back to the tour: Today we had to be at the dock at 8:00 for a trip along some of the canals that branch off the river. People live right on the banks in raised houses (sounds like NOLA), and often go out in little boats to sell things to people on the river. Then we went to the Royal Barge Museum. These are long decorated boats that the kings used to use in river "parades". This was a "must miss" stop. Then up the river to another former "palace" (really the king's home in the cooler suburbs outside the city). It is entirely made of teak, so of course it is the biggest teak house in the world!  It has 80+ rooms and we saw about 30 on the tour. Many antiques (the house was in use from 1901 - 1938), and rugs and lots of photos of the king and family. It was somewhat like going through Versailles, but not nearly as opulent. Still, very impressive. Then back to the hotel for a free afternoon. Tonight we have a group dinner and see an authentic Thai dance ceremony. Sounds like fun.

Tomorrow early we go to the airport and on to Chiang Mai.  We'll be back with more in a few days. Lah gorn na. (bye for now)

Heading to Hanoi

It is Wednesday morning at 9:20, December, 2008.  We are in the Bangkok airport waiting for our connection to Hanoi... after two absolutely magical days in northern Thailand, Chiang Mai.  Hope everyone is doing well.

Chiang Mai is such a special place... though the fact that we were booked into the Four Seasons didn't hurt as they say.  Set amidst the mountains.  You walk into the open-air lobby and look out at beautifully manicured rice paddies, gardens, statues.  On our first walk there we ran into two water buffalo (escorted, of course).  Each room has a sala (pavilion with a mosquito net covering, very romantic.)  The rooms were beautifully appointed.  Of course, I had to check out the spa which was amazing... they do a combination massage (Thai and regular) that was indescribable.  Just say it was one of the top 10 massages of all time.

Anyway, aside from the amazing resort, in Chiang Mai we had three destinations-- 1) temple, 2) elephant ride, 3)  crafts market.  The temple and the monastery (12th century) were so different from the temples we had visited in Bangkok.  Here, we made a group offering to several monks.  As those who have travelled here know, it is taboo for your feet to face forward--particularly in Buddhist shrines.  It was comical to see a group of 30+ 50, 60, and 70-somethings sitting on their knees.  Our next destination was the definite highlight... a visit to the elephant camp with an elephant ride in the jungle.  While we did this in Zimbabwe during our Africa trip, this was an altogether different experience.  We fed the elephants--they enjoy eating half a bunch of bananas at a time.  Then, we watched them being bathed (though it was more like a synchronized swimming performance).  Then, the talent show... lots of marching, lifting, some formations.  But the piece de resistance was to watch one of the elephants do a painting.  I kid you not. Perhaps you saw this on PBS... it was familiar...but seeing it in person was wild...single brush strokes in different colors in a tree design with flowers, grass, and leaves.  They sold the canvas for $15 afterwards but we chose to take a pass. 

The absolute best part of the elephant adventure was our ride.  Whereas in Zimbabwe, we trekked through the brush--one elevation only--and were seated on elevated pillows so felt nothing.... in Chiang Mai, this was more of a thrill ride.  We sat on an elevated seat with a seat belt, ha!, and bounced our way up and down through jungle paths (including one segment that was totteringly close to the edge).  Everytime time we descended, I white-knuckled the handles for dear life.  The 18 elephants trekked together in a single line.  It was particularly exciting when they descended into the river, one by one...which was probably up to 3 feet deep before we were through.  Just let me say that I had further evidence of why you should only drink bottled water as a result of the elephant ride.  No further description necessary.  While the trek was somewhat harrowing, it was worth it.  The last destination in Chiang Mai was the crafts market.  Highly acclaimed, but not worth the afternoon.  I didn't buy a thing but made up for it in the hotel gift shop afterwards.

I would be remiss in my write-up of Chiang Mai if I didn't describe the food.  Our guide recommended we consider having rooom service night one because of the setting.  While we've had our share of mediocre room service, we took him up on it.  It was lovely... as good if not better than any restaurant meal so far.  I stuck with Thai... Wayne had more continental choices.  The prawns with peppercorns were to die for... the broccolini was great.  We had an appetizer of chicken wrapped in banana leaves which was very good and, of course, fresh fruit for dessert.  Wayne had grilled sea bass.   For dinner Tuesday night, we decided to depart from Thai and have Italian (the other option at the hotel).  They were doing yet another Thai dance performance in the other restaurant with yet another buffet and we decided a break would be good.  Our dinner was fine; but our dinner companions did not share our political persuasion so our conversation topics were quite limited!
Some miscellaneous thoughts as we leave Thailand.  The Thai women are absolutely beautiful.  People say this but it is so true.  The Thais are very nice; our guide explained that this might be attributable to their Buddhism, which is the Southern brand, including a tinge of Hinduism.  People from the Hill Tribes, who we met at the elephant camp, were even more gracious and their children were just too precious.  Evidence of the monarchy is everywhere and thou shalt not say anything against the king.  Thais seem to be somewhat embarrassed by the political situation.  But, it is ongoing and they seem to be used to it. The service levels in the hotel and restaurants are unbelieveable.  When we went down for the early (4:00 am) continental breakfast this morning and wondered if there was any type of juice beyond OJ, they went in the back and squeezed some pineapple juice.  I could go on and on.

Making Sense of Vietnam

Sin Chow--hello from Vietnam. It is 3:30 on Tuesday afternoon, Dec 23, 2008.  Happy Chanukah! We have been here a full week, stopping in Hanoi, Hue , Danang, Hoi An, and Saigon and haven't had a chance to report in until now.  What a textured and complex country.  We flew in not knowing what to expect, carrying our physical and emotional baggage, and we'll leave tomorrow for Cambodia so gratified we came, but still mystified by the immensity of what we experienced.  An absolute assault on our senses and a must not-miss destination.
 
First, politically.  While the Chinese and French have been gone for a long time (Chinese for centuries and French for decades), their influence still lingers in architecture,  cuisine, and language. Yes, it's a communist country and yes the north won the "American" war.

Three-quarters of the population was born after 1975.  The  Buddhist influence is strong so most people (not the  government) appear to have let go of their anger about the  war (at least toward Americans).  There is no social egalitarianism here.  There is extreme poverty and great extravagance.  And while seeing Ho Chi Minh laid out was chilling in more ways than one and seeing the omnipresent red flag with yellow star is powerful, we are past the cold war, Vietnam's business presence is growing.  It was not at all uncomfortable being an American here. Of course, you need to take the anti-American museum captions and displays with a grain of salt.  For instance, we stayed at the Hilton Hanoi and visited the Hanoi Hilton where we saw the day-to-day activities of the American POWs glorified.  And we contrasted Ho Chi Minh's office and lodgings with the opulence and corruption of the President's Palace (now Reunification Hall). We traipsed through the woods and crouched through the Cu Chi tunnels where many thousands lived and over 10,000 Viet Cong died from the late 40s to the mid 60s, witnessed those horrific living conditions (yet awful traps) firsthand.  Our favorite guide told us that Ho Chi Minh city is only called that by people in the north; it's Saigon to those down south who refuse to be "brainwashed" (his word).  So, we are more conflicted than ever.

Moving to that assault on the senses and starting with the visual gifts of this fascinating country.  Vietnam is a spectacle of colors--from the beautiful flowers everywhere, to the markets with their full array of magnificent silks, lanterns, vegetables and fruits, clothing, meats, candies, teas, and fish.  From the breath-taking scenery on the Hai Van Pass to Danang (rivals the road to Hana but wilder) to the 19th century royal palaces and tombs and ancient city, to the beautiful lakes in Hanoi, China Beach in Danang... all was beautiful. Of course, the presentation of the food was every bit as beautiful as in Thailand. The adults (many wearing masks as protection against the pollution--no emission standards here and also they'll go to great lengths to keep their lily white skin white) and the children were so memorable.  The teeming cities with almost more motor bikes than people and the cyclos galore (these are tricycles with front seats for one passenger each).  We took 4 cyclo rides.  The carry-poles (bamboo poles carried across the shoulders with two baskets carrying a wide range of items ranging from fruits and vegetables to French bread) were everywhere. We loved watching citizens of Hanoi playing badminton and/or doing aerobics or Tai Chi on our early morning walk.  The water puppet show in Hanoi and Cham Hindu statues from the 7th century on (in a wonderful museum in Danang) were visual treasures. The rice paddies nearing harvest time. The Christmas decorations.  We could go on and on.
 
But sight was not the only sense where we were assaulted. Vietnam is a cacophony of sounds.  The cities with their constantly-blaring and beeping horns; the gentle chanting of Buddhist novices at the Tu Dom pagoda outside Hue.  The constant chiding of street merchants for us to buy a T-shirt, a postcard, take a picture.  The harsh staccato language  with six tonations (the letters "ma" are pronounced in 6 different ways--each with very different meanings.  A slight slip of the tongue could mean disaster!).  [The written language is just over a century old, by the way, and uses Roman characters.]  Other sounds: the crashing of the surf at China Beach .  The constant din outside our window in Saigon past midnight.  The Christmas carols (in English) sung by a choir of high school students at our spectacular seaside resort in Danang (a growing tourist destination). 

As to the sense of touch.  There are silk merchants and tailors everywhere and two actually reeled us (Ok, Wendy) in by the sumptuous silks.  So soft and luscious to the touch and now I am the proud owner of several custom-made jackets and camisoles that may not get a lot of wear but will have been completely worth it based on the precise tape-measurement experience.  Of course, Wayne is concerned that I will give these items away which will not be the case...but given the amount of food that has been consumed it may very well be several years before I can wear them.
 
On to the sense of smell.  We won't easily forget the smells up and down the side streets of Hanoi at breakfast time (people preparing noodles, rice dishes, meat curbside--then dining with their neighbors). The smells were even stronger at the small country village outside Hoi An.  As we watched the old women whack at the fresh meat and fish, we couldn't help but back away.  But perhaps the smells in the Saigon Cho Benh Thanh (Central Market) were most pungent.  This market, taking up a full city block, was pulsing with merchants selling every conceivable type of product--including, but not limited to, electronics, bed linens, lingerie, toys, fish, meat, vegetables, and fruits. We had an actual durian encounter, as you may know, durian is the absolute smelliest fruit around (our hotel in Danang actually had signs forbidding durian in the rooms). The 91  degrees outside only intensified the "fragrances" coming from this market.
Alas, we won't forget taste.  We liked Thai cuisine, we loved Vietnamese cuisine...not quite as sweet as Thai, not quite as hot, with French influence.  All of our meals were good.  We had two particularly lovely lunches in beautiful settings (one on the river in Hoi An) where we feasted on carmelized eggplant, beef with peppers, chicken with vegetables, prawns in all shapes, flavors, and sizes, lots of pork, and the ubiquitous white rice (once my favorite food). But our first dinner in Vietnam was perhaps our most memorable where we dined at the Ba Mien restaurant in Hanoi and chose the set menus.  While my menu included 10 items, they were not served in true degustation style...but rather, in groupings of 2 or 3... so only 3 courses.

I should make clear that several couples on our tour group keep Kosher so are eating fish and vegetarian.  They have done very well.  But neither Wayne nor I have any aversion to shellfish (and Wayne loves his pork)... so we have been exposed to the full array of dining possibilities.  For this particular meal (loosen your belts), I started with crab meat and aloe vera salad, Imperial Hue spring rolls with pork, shrimp, star fruit, green banana and herbs, and Fried Hanoi spring rolls with crab meat, minced pork and glass noodle.  These were served together on a plate with a candle.  The soup was next--asparagus soup with crabmeat, mushroom and steamed crab meat dumpling.  Next, came the main course(s) which were grilled scallops with lemongrass scent, wok fried Wagyu beef cubes and capsicums with black pepper sauce, rice with wok fried vegetables and braised abalone (which I ignored).  The dessert course included banana custard with caramelized bananas and passion fruit sauce and tea with green tea macaroons. Please understand, the serving size for each item was relatively small and the pacing was appropriate.  With 10 of us at the table and most of us having the set menu, the total cost was Nine Million Five Hundred Thousand Dong! (covered by our tour except for alcohol which was minimal in this group).  That's about $45 each (the U.S. dollar goes a loooong way here).
 
We leave for Cambodia (Angkor Wat) in the morning.  We will leave you with one more impression of Vietnam. The traffic is crazy and you take your life in your hands each time you cross the street.  One of our local tour guides (and all 6 of our Vietnam tour guides have had the same last name--Nguyen,pronounced Nwin, by the way) gave us some excellent counsel.  Nghi (pronounced Near as in near and far as he told us) suggested that we keep three principles in mind:  Be confident, walk slowly, and never look back. We added another, it's now or never. Traffic lights are just a suggestion, not to be taken seriously.  With these principles in mind, we successfully and safely navigated many busy streets in Vietnam .

Siem Reap, Cambodia

December, 2008
Hi everyone:   The name of this town literally means "Siam Defeated", to commemorate a 17th century victory over the Thai people.  But you probably know it better as the home to Angkor Wat.  As you may remember from our earlier email, "wat"means "temple", so Angkor Wat translates as "the city which is a temple". It is the largest religious monument in the world. It was built in the 12th century. In the middle are 5 towers with lotus-shaped tops. The outer walls represent the edge of the world and the surrounding moat represents the ocean (a common architectural theme in the temples in this area).  I believe our guide said the outer walls are each a mile long. The structure is made of sandstone, which is harder than our sandstone, over a substructure of tufa (volcanic rock). They would build a layer, then pile dirt up around it so that the elephants could pull the stones up the incline to build the next layer. When it was all done (after about 30 years), they had to dig out the whole thing!!  And all of the walls are covered with exquisite carvings showing battles, ceremonies, etc. There are over 2,000 bas relief carvings of asparas (celestial dancing girls). This temple is unusual in that all other temples face east (toward the rising sun) while this one faces west, since it was partly built as a shrine to the king for when he died. We walked around for about 2 hours and got a good sense of the scale, history, effort and beauty.  Also, for those of you who watch The Amazing Race we were in the room where you pound your chest and it makes an echo, and we did and it does!!! The reason is that it is a small room with a high valted arch ceiling so the sound reflects. Many of the halls and rooms had this type of ceiling and you can see how the huge blocks of stone are fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle (no cement or mortar here!).

The next day we visited the temple of Ta Prohm (means Ancestor of Buddha).  This is the temple you always see (and featured in "Lara Croft - Tomb Raider") with the huge kapok and banyan trees growing on, around and through the walls. Some of these trees are over 300 years old. Here, like at Angkor Wat and the other large temples, much restoration is going on. But again, there are many magnificent carvings. This temple is made of laterite.

Next, Angkor Thom (which means "Great City"). It was built around 30 years after Angkor Wat was finished. Leading up to this temple is a wall with several hundred carvings of elephants showing how they were used. Some are carrying warriors into battle, others showing hunting scenes. The detail is incredible as you can see feathers on the birds, individual leaves on the trees, etc. Then you get to the inner temple, called Bayon (which means "amulet"; the Cambodians believed that wearing a sacred amulet on a rope around your neck was more protection than armor. Not sure how that turned out). The remarkable thing about this temple is that there are 49 huge pillars and each one has a face carved on each side (pointing north, south, east, west). Truly amazing. Then there is a long wall showing scenes from a military procession preparing to battle the Cham (remember them from the sculpture museum outside Danang??). In front are the Chinese mercenaries (on foot) followed by Cambodian generals on elephants then followed by people supplying the food, etc.  Again the detail is incredible. In one scene a woman is holding a turtle who is apparently biting the butt of the man in front of her and his head is turned back in a scowl. Our guide said either she was being playful or trying to get him to walk faster. In another, there is a sea battle and you can see the oars in the water and the fish and even alligators eating the soldiers who have fallen or been thrown overboard.

Our last activity was a boat ride through an estuary into Tonle Sap, the largest lake in southern Asia (our guide said 35 miles to the other side). What is amazing here is the 1,000,000 people (many Vietnamese left over from the 1979 - 89 campaign against Pol Pot) who live along the shore in houseboats. But they move around as the estuary dries up in the summer and then expands greatly in the rainy season. The lifestyle is abysmal and very primitive (from our point of view), but the guide said they have a steady supply of food (they trade the fish they catch for fruits, veggies and other necessities), and some even have electric lights and tv's (that they power via car batteries!). 

That ended our fabulous tour of Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. We are now getting some R&R (OK....just trying to avoid coming back to the nasty winter weather) by spending a few days in Phuket, Thailand. As elsewhere, the tourists have stayed away in droves due to the economic and political conditions. But we are loving it.

PS:  Several times during the trip Wayne wore his "Obama '08" shirt and all of the locals who saw it smiled and gave a thumbs up and shouted "O-ba-ma...yes we can", so, yes, the world (at least this part of it) is very happy and excited for our new prez. And they are even more interested in his success as, through no fault of their own, the bad economy has decimated the tourism industry here.  So, along with all of the wonderful people we met on our journey, we wish all of you and the whole world a much happier 2009.

Southeast Asia Photo Album Links

You can see our Shutterfly photo albums for this trip by clicking on the following links.

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Cambodia

Viet Nam

Thailand

Morning in Melbourne

Australia Tour Map
G'day,
We arrived about 24 hours ago.  It is now Monday Dec 10 in Melbourne (pronounced:  Mel-bin) and our official tour starts in about 45 minutes.  Our trip over was uneventful, our carry-on strategy worked, X-ray was not traumatic, and it really wasn't as long as all that (9 movies to choose from certainly doesn't hurt!).  We arrived here to spring-like weather and immediately started exploring (they say that sunlight is good for jet lag).  The hotel is on the Yarra River... so far, the city reminds us of a cross between Cambridge, Mass with a little bit of Nice thrown in. There is not the kind of hustle and bustle as Capetown or SF. The British influence is still strong, and the accent is easy on the ears.  You could get used to Melbourne easily; very nice.

Yesterday we went to an open-air crafts market (every Sunday) saw some wacky street performers (one asked if there were any Americans.  Andrew mistakenly raised his hand and the guy said "it's tough to be an American out of the states, isn't it...and made some derogatory comment about W.  Love it).  Then, we went to the Immigration Museum. Perhaps there was one syllable (not even an inch) in all of the exhibits dedicated to the Aborigines... other than that, the exhibits were all about the other groups who have made their way here.  Fascinating.  (By the way, I read the Bill Bryson Australia book on the way over.  It is pretty pathetic how they have treated the indigenous people here; it is tragically familiar to what we've done in the states.)  Then, on to dinner which was incredible  (NEW READERS NOTE:  we feature food descriptions in our travelogues.  If you're not into food, feel free to stop subscribing at any time!).  The dinner was incredible; the concierge (who is a real piece of work... a very typical OZ sense of humor!) was impressed we even knew about the place (Donovan's) and raised his eye brows (it's trendy for foodies).  We had "4-tastes" for first with a foot-long prawn, veal sausage, roasted vegetables, and an arrancini with an Italian flag in it.  A and I shared an asparagus salad.  For mains, Wayne had bouillabaisse with barramundi; I had a whole red snapper; Andrew had risotto with sea food.  The presentation was lovely.  Andrew had a carmelized banana tart for dessert.  Already, I can see I should have packed more pants with elastic waists!

Went back to hotel to continue adjusting to the time change.  It is funky to think we missed Dec 9 altogether.  Let us know if anything significant happened then (such as Barack clinching in Iowa!).  (NEW READERS ALSO NOTE:  the editor has definite political biases; if you don't agree, simply ignore or stop subscribing at any time.)  This morning we went for a nice walk along the river and had a great breakfast in the city center in an alley that reminded us of Barcelona or Venice.  They like doing things with poached eggs here...  And the egg yolks have a much deeper yellow.  The bacon is more like Canadian bacon and the toast is very thick and wonderful.  You don't ask for latte with skim milk; it's a skinny latte.  And it's served in a juice glass.

Again, ever so shortly, our tour starts.  On the itinerary today is a cruise on the Yarra River and a dinner on the tram car (!).  Tomorrow a.m. there is a bus tour; we are free in the p.m.  Perhaps we will go to the botanic garden.  Wednesday morning, we are off to Alice Springs.

Weather is low 60s, but for the most part sunny.  We will see if our carry-on only strategy works (we packed layers so hopefully we will be good but will cross our fingers we do not need to wear all layers at once!). 

Reflections from the Red Hot Centre

G'day,
It is on Friday, December 14, 2007, and we arrived several hours ago into the rain forest in Mossman (outside of Cairns) in preparation for our journey to the Great Barrier Reef tomorrow.  But, because we haven't checked in since Monday, I wanted to concentrate here on the Red Hot Centre of Australia, the Outback--which is where we spent the last several days.

Think The Thornbirds and an absolutely desolate area... a little bit of west Texas, no tumbleweeds...many fewer people...temperatures hovering in the high 80s (though it's Celsius here) and LOTS OF flies! (You would absolutely love our facial fly nets; the latest craze but they work.) Welcome to the Outback. We arrived in Alice Springs on Wednesday morning and proceeded to a bush tucker lunch in the brush where we heard a talk on the Aborigines and then had the opportunity to purchase art from several artists.  I promised food updates... so the most notable item here was not the art, the artists or even the cultural talk.  It was our own Andrew Rhodes tasting some authentic ancient Aborigine fare--a live grub!  Our host asked for volunteers and Andrew, being the youngest in the group by 27 years, felt the need to volunteer.  He gulped the grub faster than the speed of light, so we were not able to record the moment for prosperity with a photograph.  But, he reports it was crunchy on the outside and creamy on the inside.  Needless to say, the two of us (Wendy & Wayne) had severe stomach cramps for the rest of the day!

That evening, we went to an Australian BBQ where Wendy was called up as one of the entertainers (you don't want to know).  The dinner featured grilled kangaroo filets (tasted like soy sauce).  Just say, we had a full day of kitsch!  The itinerary started getting really fantastic though on Thursday.  Andrew & Wendy started out the day with a hot air balloon ride (and champagne breakfast) over the outback.  It was amazing and doable even by those with an unreasonable fear of heights (your editor).  We were promised a kangaroo sighting or two but only saw cows and the sunrise...but that was enough.  However, along the way we picked up some trivia about champagne.  First, apparently, Australia has the largest per capita champagne consumption of any country worldwide.  If my drinking is any indication, that stat makes perfect sense.  Second, because hot air ballooning was invented by a Frenchman, champagne is a critical component of the overall event.  The champagne brunch included four courses (all finger food) which were amazing...

However, by far the highlight of the day (and the trip so far) was a visit to Uluru (previously called Ayers Rock) in mid afternoon through sunset. Uluru, a huge rock (one of my co-editors would do a better job with the dimensions--but suffice to say it is more than 6 miles around)... is a sacred Aboriginal space.  And, indeed, it was truly spiritual.  We explored some of the adjacent areas (some cave paintings, a watering hole) and were just amazed at its magnificence.  Great museum here, too.  We capped off the evening watching the sunset over Uburu, with (yes, once again) champagne and (this time) appetizers.  

The plan this morning was for Wendy and Andrew to leave the hotel at 4:45 (that is after a 4:00 a.m. departure on Thursday) to take a camel ride around Uburu at sunrise.  However, the van driver arrived with the message that the camel event had been cancelled because there was a light rain and "camels get psycho in the rain"... so next time for that! Andrew and I walked to a lookout point to catch the sunrise there instead. 

There is a queue at the computer...so it's time to sign off.  We're off to Cairns on Sunday and, hopefully, a business center with better access.

Treasures in the Tropics



G'day,
It is Tuesday, 3:19 p.m., 12/18/07 in Sydney and we are finally a foursome (Em arrived this morning).  Next edition will be dedicated to spectacular Sydney and that it is.  But, here, we'll describe our experiences in Northern Queensland where we spent Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.  This is the fastest growing part of OZ. 

We left Uluru for Cairns on Friday and followed the Coral Sea (James Cook Highway) to the Silky Oaks Lodge--a beautiful retreat in the rainforest where every guest's room is an upscale tree house (did you think I would camp?).  On Saturday, Andrew & Wendy headed off to the Great Barrier Reef (world heritage site treasure #1) while Wayne went on a Daintree Rainforest (treasure #2) aboriginal nature tour.  The Great Barrier Reef defies description--over 1,000 miles of reef, incredible sea life, glorious colors, amazing snorkeling, etc.  After a 90 minute catamaran ride out there, Wendy did the submersible (amazing photos) and Andrew snorkeled.  Then, we got together for an "ocean walk," a new attraction simulating scuba without certification.  Here's how it works.  You suit up, they give you weights to wear around your waist (those would be waist weights... say that 10 times).  You walk onto a platform and they put a big plastic bubble over your head which they pressurize and attach to an air hose.  You then are escorted by one of the divers to an underwater platform (16 feet under) where you view the fish (holding onto a handrail for dear life if you're not a scuba diver or great with deep water such as your editor here).  Anyway, the fish swim right up to you; perhaps the most fun was when they fed the fish and they swam up to our faces (or what seemed like our faces).  Great photo opportunity for the diving company; of course they try to sell you all the pictures and of course we bought a bunch (grandparents:  you will be the proud recipients of several).


Saturday night we had a wonderful dinner at the hotel with new friends who live on an island outside of Seattle (Mardelle / Jim:  please note). Wayne got adventurous and had not only a crocodile souffle as an entree (which means first course here) but also kangaroo filet for his dinner (called main here).  The setting (again in the rainforest) was marvelous.

Sunday, we were off for additional treasures.  First, to a wildlife preserve where we saw crocodiles (they were being fed chicken heads, ouch), cassowaries (a most amazing bird, said to be more dangerous than crocodiles because of their deadly talons) and uber-cute koala bears.  We left the preserve to go to Tjapukai (an aboriginal cultural museum dedicated to the history and culture of the rainforest Aborigines).  Unlike the aboriginal culture talk we'd had earlier in the week in Alice Springs, this was not at all patronizing.  It was beautifully done and featured Aboroginal performers.  As one of the activities, we tried our hand at boomerang and spear throwing; no comments on my (lack of) athletic prowess there. 

We finished our time in the tropics with an evening in Cairns--a tourist town that felt like Florida.  However, unlike Florida we found a wonderful art gallery where we treated ourselves to a beautiful piece of Aboriginal art which will go on our one remaining wall in the living room. 

Tonight it's off to the Sydney Opera House... a tour, dinner, and the Nutcracker.  Tomorrow, more touring of Sydney and then it's off to NZ.  We'll be back at you there.