Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Mini-vacation in Bangkok

The Peninsula and their shuttle boat
Our home away from home!
Welcome goodies!

Spa room with Jacuzzi tub.
The Royal Residence where the king's sister is lying in state.
The reclining Buddha.

During our three-month trips, my husband, John, and I plan mini-vacations. On this year’s Asian trip we decided to treat ourselves to a stay at one of the world’s most famous hotels, The Peninsula Bangkok. The award-wining hotel is so tech sophisticated that there are buttons for everything from closing the drapes to dimming the lights. The bathtub has a built-in TV and a valet button. I wonder, "Why does one call for the valet when in the bathtub?" There is a small box that can be accessed from the hall. Shoes placed in the box at night are returned shined in the morning. When the red light is on it means the box contains a message or the newspaper. Very cool!

Besides being an amazing hotel the Peninsula has the three most important aspects of any property – location, location, location. The hotel is located on one of our favorite rivers, the Chao Phraya. All the Peninsula rooms have a river view. Watching the Chao Phraya is as mesmerizing as watching a campfire. It is a vital river with tiny tugboats pulling barges up and down the river. Long-tail boats zip along reminding us of a James Bond movie. Ferryboat attendants whistle their arrival at a dock. Thai-style boats from the Oriental and Peninsula Hotels crisscross the river. In the evening the lights of the city are reflected in the river, plus the brightly-lit shuttle and dinner boats add a festive look. We started each day with breakfast at the water’s edge and ended the day lounging in a sala by the pool with the river always in view.

We have transited through Bangkok many times and there is always something to do. This time there were many colorful signs wishing the Thai monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej a happy 80th birthday, so we felt a visit to the Grand Palace was appropriate. He has been king for 61 years making him the world's longest serving monarch. He is much loved by his people for creating royal projects including tree-planting programs to protect the environment long before it was popular to do so.

The expansive grounds of the Grand Palace are awash with golden temples and glittering mosaics. The most revered temple in Thailand is the one that houses the Emerald Buddha. The small Buddha is actually made of jade and has a fascinating history of being captured and recovered, then lost and found. The last time it returned to Bangkok was when a rainstorm washed away the plaster that had kept it hidden for a century.

We have so much to learn about other countries’ religions and cultures. I am always embarrassed by our ignorance of Thai culture and the Buddhist religion. We try to learn a little more each time that we visit. Within the palace grounds are scenes from Ramakian, the Thai version of the Hindu epic, Ramayana. The scenes depict the Thai creation story. I liken our learning to the beautiful and intricate mosaics that decorate the buildings and statues. Each time we visit Bangkok we learn a few more pieces of their colorful history. Maybe someday we will have the whole picture. Regardless, I appreciate the beauty and intricacy of the temples and find the impressive statues of the mythical guardians especially intriguing. So much to know, so little time!

Friday, February 8, 2008

Vietnam - Same, Same, But Different!

InterContinential Hotel Westlake - Hanoi
Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum
Water puppet show

Chocolate Buffet at the Metropole in Hanoi
Hoan Kiem Lake
Prison camp in Hanoi

Nam Hai - China Beach - Hoi An
Nam Hai - the three pools
Nam Hai - our room but you can't see the outdoor garden shower or the porch lounge area!
Hoi An - Chef Thanh teaching John to cook Egg Plant Clay Pot
Da Nang - China Beach is now a tourist beach destination
Hue - Emperor John

"Same, same but different" is a common saying in Vietnam. Ten years ago John and I were in Vietnam and he ordered spinach. The waitress said, "We don’t have." Pointing to another item on the menu she suggested. "Try this. Same, same but different." The phrase stuck with us. After ten years we have discovered that Hanoi is, "same, same but different."

The changes are dramatic. This time we opted for the newest hotel in Hanoi, the InterContinental Westlake. It breaks the molds of city-style hotels. The hotel is made up of a main building and several two-story pavilions built on pillars in the water making it seem more like a resort than a city hotel. Ten years ago there were only a few name-brand hotels. The Hanoi Hilton was nearly completed. At that time we wondered how a hotel named "The Hanoi Hilton" would do considering that for Americans "The Hanoi Hilton" meant a POW prison camp. Not to worry. The Hilton is doing fine and so is everything else. As one person told John when we asked about the "American War" as it is called in Vietnam, "That was then, this is now, let’s go forward." Most of the Vietnamese people were born after the war.

The sea of bikes that quietly traveled the tree-lined street, sounding their bells, has been replaced by motor scooters and new cars trying to maneuver the streets not designed for motorized vehicles. The ting-ting of the bike bell has been replaced with a cacophony of horns.
On of the InterContinental’s offerings is an Insider Tour, which is especially designed to meet the needs of the guests, so we asked to return to the places that we visited ten years ago. The mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, the One-Pillar Pagoda, and Temple of Literature were the same except for the tourists. On our last visit there were very few tourists.

We visited the Hao Lo Prison where presidential hopeful, Sen. John McCain and the other American POWs were held. It was not open when we were in Hanoi previously. Maybe more than any other place we visited we came to understand a little bit of Vietnam’s long and difficult history. America’s involvement in Vietnam was just one page. The American POW section is at the end of the tour.

Today, young ladies seldom wear their long, silk traditional outfits, which we thought were so beautiful and genteel. Now it is jeans and t-shirts, cell phones, and sitting in cafes sipping coffee and chatting with friends.

From Hanoi we flew to Da Nang and China Beach, which is on the way to becoming the Cancun of Vietnam. The long, sweeping beach has several upscale hotels including Nam Hai, which is setting the standard for luxury stays in Vietnam. Hard to imagine but the hotel has three pool and 100 villas, of which 40 have their own private pool, and they are not plunge pools but of a size suitable for a villa. Locals are quick to mention that many big names resorts are building in the area.

Good times seem to have finally arrived in Vietnam but the people are still the same welcoming and friendly people we met on our first trip. We plan to return next year to visit the south of Vietnam where we were told the changes are even more dramatic.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Beyond the Road to Mandalay

English Colonial Residence Hotel in Kalaw
Pindaya Cave with a zillion Buddha statues
Legend of the soldier who saved the maidens from the spider

Beautiful Inle Lake
Unique leg rowers
Padaung lady greeters at our hotel - The Paramount

Lunch at the beautiful Inle Princess
The weekly farmer's market
Just one of the amazing sights

Breakfast around the pool
Our Ngapoli Beach Hotel
A beach with all our friends!

I have always been attracted to places with strange sounding names. Places that invoke romance, intrigue, and times gone by. A place where "…the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay!" And, "…the mist was on the rice-fields an' the sun was droppin' slow…" Shaded from the sun, I watched the waves roll in from far off India across the Bay of Bengal. The rust-colored robes and matching parasols of the monks were exclamation points against the blue of the sea and sky as they strolled along the water’s edge oblivious to the waves lapping at their feet. The words of Rudyard Kipling’s "Road to Mandalay" crossed my mind once again and I felt at one with the word. "If you've 'eard the East a-callin', you won't never 'eed naught else."

Myanmar or Burma? The name has changed but the land still delivers its promise of romance and times gone by. Yes, there is the impressive golden Shwedagon Temple in Yangon, the magnificent ruins of Bagan, and a lifetime of National Geographic vignettes along the Ayeyarwady. Those were the things that drew me to Myanmar. But I will return to Myanmar to laze on the tropical beach in Ngapoli, to spend more time exploring Lake Inle, and to relax at a hill station in Kalaw.

Imagine a long sweeping pristine beach with no nasty currents, no mosquitoes, no sand flies, no annoying vendors, first class resorts but none higher than the palm trees, and excellent service! Seem impossible. Not at Myanmar’s Ngapoli Beach. It was with some trepidation that I made reservations at Amazing Hotel’s Ngapoli Beach. I could not conceive of a beach in Myanmar that rivaled the standards of Thailand and the Caribbean. It not only exceeded my expectation, my husband and I thought it surpassed many resorts in highly touted beaches location worldwide.

The one-hour Air Bagan flight was punctual with friendly service and a light snack. At the airport in Thandwe I was relieved to see two attractive young ladies in traditional blue longyis and matching blouses holding an Amazing Hotel sign with our name on it. Swiftly and efficiently our luggage was transferred to the waiting minivan for the complimentary five-minute ride to the hotel. The Amazing hotel is just one of several hotels in the area. From the traditional architecture to the infinity pool to the garden setting we instantly fell in love with the place - the place for a perfect beach vacation. We spent several days wandering the beach, riding the waves in inner tubes provided by the hotel, and dining on freshly caught fish. The hotel rents bikes for exploring the villages for a dollar an hour. Tours are available for snorkeling and visiting an elephant camp. We were told, "You can probably leave your things on the beach and they will be there in the morning. Even so we don’t recommend it." Ngapoli is that kind of place! Turndown service included hotel-made traditional coconut sweets in a pagoda-style lacquer bowl.
Myanmar offered one surprise after another.

It seems that the world stopped years ago. The traditional ankle-length wrap-around cloth called the longyi is still the normal clothing for both men and women. The main difference is that the men put the fold in the front that is secured with a twist knot and the women’s longyi is more decorative and folded on the side. Sandals are the most practical footwear because, as a sign of respect, all footwear must be removed before entering a temple or pagoda.

The English controlled Myanmar for many years and called it Burma after the Burmese, just one of the more than 100 ethnic groups in Myanmar. There are still some vestiges of colonial times. Kalaw is a hill station where half-timber houses surrounded by gardens offered the British a tranquil setting and a respite from the heat. I found the area serene and peaceful. At the Colonial Residence each room has a fireplace to ward of the evening chill. It is a place that just begs visitors to stay, hike during the day, and cozy up with a good book in the evening.

On Lake Inle the fishermen continue their unique style of rowing boats standing and rowing with one leg and one arm so as be able to see the fish and have one hand free to cast a net. It has not evolved to the level where the unique rowing style is just for the tourists – it is the way they have always done it and still do. The Five Day Farmer’s Markets are still where produce is sold, with locally prepared food stalls, outdoor barbershops, men preparing betel nut and cheroots, and where ethnic groups still wear their traditional garb. And yet, while the traditional lifestyle is the norm, there are up-scale accommodations. The Inle Princess has five-star accommodations, a remarkable spa, and a wine cellar dining room that rivals any in the world. Built to resemble a cave with the wine bottles protruding from the wall and a mural on the ceiling above the lacquered dining table depicts scenes from Myanmar history. During dinner a St. Bernard supplies guests with rum from the keg under his neck.

Over a century ago, Rudyard Kipling wrote, Burma was "quite unlike any land you know about." And amazingly, it still is. Place names may have changed but little else has, the people are charming and the sights are outstanding.

I had wanted to visit Myanmar for several years but wondered if it was the right thing to do. Other travelers we met over the course of the last couple of years who had visited Myanmar encouraged us to go saying, "You will not be sorry and you will be impressed." My husband and I finally decided to go and then the September demonstration occurred. We had already purchased our non-refundable air tickets so we continued with our plans. For a tourist, Myanmar is extremely safe. There is almost no crime. Because the government has little interest financially or emotionally in tourism, we felt we were helping the ordinary people not supporting a restrictive government. Every time we bought something, every time we left a tip, everywhere we went we felt our dollars were helping the people who needed it most. And, maybe most importantly, our very presence in Myanmar was an excellent example of the benefits of a democratic way of life.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Road to Mandalay - Myanmar

Governor's Residence
John's Birthday
Reclining Buddha
Shwedagon Temple
Cooking lesson
Road to Mandalay riverboat
Bagan with the cows returning home
Village lady feeding the cows
Lady carrying the pottery she made to market
Novice monk parade
Ear Piercing parade

Over a century ago Rudyard Kipling visited Burma, now called Myanmar, and said it was "quite unlike any land you know about." He wrote, "The Road to Mandalay" but never visited Mandalay. In fact he was in Myanmar for a very short time but his poem has invoked images of romance and beauty in minds of travelers for generations. Myanmar has change little in the last 50 years and is one of the few places to retain its agrarian lifestyle. The most beguiling aspect of Myanmar is its people who are friendly and welcoming and not jaded by the world of commercialism. Imagine a country with no McDonalds and no WalMarts!

We arrived in Yangon and our first impression was positive. The streets of the city are lined with trees and quiet – honking the car horn is not allowed in the city center. Our hotel, the Governor’s Residence, is located on a quiet street in an area that is home to many embassies. A gong announced our arrival. We fell in love with the Governor’s Residence immediately with its beautiful garden, jade-colored pool, and teak buildings built in the traditional style.

For six dollars an hour we hired a car and driver to tour Yangon. The jungle setting of the glass factory was beyond description. The kilns are in very rustic buildings covered with rusty metal sheets. There are piles of glass everywhere. We were glad we went because we saw their glass products at all the hotels.

At the Temple of the Reclining Buddha we were invited into the monk’s quarters Most monks were sleeping because they get up at 4 a.m. to pray so we tried to be very quiet. They live a very Spartan life. In the evening we visited the most important Buddhist Temple, Shwedagon Pagoda, to watch the sunset. One morning Mr. Ko Ko, the Restaurant Manager, took us to the farmer’s market where we saw familiar, and unfamiliar, fruits and vegetables. We bought feather back fish and when we returned to the hotel Mr. Ko Ko and his assistant taught us how make Fried Fish Cake Salad. It was excellent!

We hated to leave the serenity of the Governor’s Resident but the river was calling us. We flew to Began and boarded the luxurious "Road to Mandalay" riverboat on the Ayeyarwady River. It is part of the Orient Express so connections, tours, and everything else was seamless and perfect. We toured the ancient capital of Bagan, which was at its pinnacle between 1057 and 1287. The impressive ruins spread over acres. We visited pagodas, watched people make pottery, lacquer ware, and other handicrafts, wandered through a farming villages, visited a nunnery, went for an ox cart ride, and watched the sun set from atop a pagoda. There were so many wonderful sights to see and interesting things to learn about. The people we so open and friendly that we felt very comfortable everywhere.

On board, a French chef prepared gourmet dinners every evening. In the evening there was entertainment but one evening was magical beyond description. After a blazing sunset, we gathered under the full moon on the top deck for the Festival of Lights. Off in the horizon there were hundred and hundred of small colored lights. Slowly, while listening to classical music. the candlelit, colored lanterns flowed with the current until it reached and surrounded the boat. Incredible!

When we were sailing we could swim in the boat’s pool and just sit on the deck and watch the ever-changing scenery. It was National Geographic come alive. One day we were fortunate to arrive in a village in time to see the parade of young boys heading to the temple for the Novice Monk Ceremony along with girls on their way to the Ear Piercing Ceremony. Each boy was dressed like a little prince and the girls were in beautiful outfits as were the accompanying family members carrying gifts for the temple. Even the horses, cows, and cart were festively decorated.
Every day was one amazing sight after another. We fell in love with Myanmar and are planning to return in 2009! Stay tuned for the second half of our Myanmar trip.

Kipling was correct, it is "…quite unlike any land…".