Saturday, November 23: A last day, then homeward bound

The first leg of our journey home started Saturday evening with a 7:30pm flight. Since you normally have to check out of your hotel much earlier, we had booked an afternoon walking tour of Siem Reap. But this plan had some problems. First, touring in the afternoon in the heat and humidity would mean we would be dressed for the tropics, and both tired and sweaty by the time we got to the airport. Not the way I want to travel for 36 hours. We also took a look at the itinerary, and it included the local market, some street food, a temple, etc. We are seriously temple’d and market’d out. After our second day of temples here, we asked Sunny to drive us through town on Thursday, and that sealed the deal. So we cancelled the tour.

That left the problem of what to do all afternoon. We asked the front desk at the hotel if we could get late checkout, and they responded (the next day) that we could stay until 3:00pm. Problem solved! Enjoy the room (and backyard) and pack all day, leave our room at 3:00, a late and slow lunch in the restaurant until 5:00, then off to the airport.

Here are a few more scenes from around Phum Baitang.

That’s how you do it, November 2019

The hotel has its own rice paddies and water buffalos to work them in the traditional manner, and we got to see the tilling and seeding the other day.

Beer kept cool in an ice bucket, November 2019

The main restaurant is outdoors, and has the same peaceful and calming atmosphere as our room.

So Saturday changed from having to pack and get out before lunch, to being a leisurely day. We got to spend some more time in the nice restaurants at the hotel, some time in our backyard and pool, and some time enjoying the grounds.

All in all, a great trip.

Friday, November 22: A day of rest

Ed. Note: I know this is out of order, but I wanted to get it out today.

In some of our earlier trips, we traveled with other couples. On the two Mediterrainian cruises, it was our friends Laura and Rob on the first, and on the second, Zelda and Matteo. I’m sure you remember them fondly; I do (1). Anyway, by sheer coincidence, today is both Rob’s and Matteo’s birthdays.

Happy Birthday, Rob and Matteo!

We’re not doing anything today, just hanging out. Let me give you a tour of our villa here at the Pham Baitang in Siem Reap, Cambodia. You’ll understand why we’re just hanging out.

Do you know the way to Villa 2?, November 2019

Backyard, November 2019

Entrance, November 2019

Bath, November 2019

Bedroom/sitting area, November 2019

Any questions?

(1) Both the cruises, and the couples.

Thursday, November 21: The Bassman and Sally’s final tour

We’ve taken more than a few tours during this trip. But you know that; you’ve been reading all of these posts. Each place had a guide:

Bangkok – Moo

Chiang Mai – June

Luang Prabang – Oudune

Hanoi – Sunny

Ginger – Minh (Minny Minn)

Saigon- Thuy, Henry

Jahan – Tri

Phnom Penh – (we don’t remember, and don’t want to)

Siem Reap – Sunny; The Professor (at Angkor Wat)

But today was the final tour. Sunny, our guide here in Siem Reap, picked us up to go see the “other” temples here. While Angkor Wat is massive almost beyond comprehension, and also in pretty good shape for an 800 year old structure in this climate, the other sites are all ruins.

The Bassman and Sally go to temple(s), November 2019

I mentioned that Angkor Wat was less crowded than we expected, perhaps just because of its scale. But the sites today were more crowded. There were allegedly more than 1,000 temples in the Siem Reap area. Most of them were abandoned over the centuries. We went to visit a few of the more interesting ones (1).

Tourists?, November 2019

And as always, there were monks. And tour groups.

Miles of smiles, November 2019

The architects were pretty amazing. They would design these structures with repeating elements – figures, towers, columns – that visually line up. This helps to create the beauty that must have once been here.

Angelina was here, November 2019

One of the ruins, Ta Prohm (the so-called Banyan Temple), was used in a scene in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. There’s a scene where she stands by a particular root system, and there were hordes of women lining up (2) to have their picture taken where Angelina Jolie stood.

After we finished the temples, we asked Sunny to drive us through Siem Reap proper. We have a walking tour of the city scheduled on Saturday, but weren’t sure if it was worthwhile. So we drove around for about 15 minutes and decided we would cancel the tour. The rest of the day was in the pool, lounging in the shade, eating a couple of meals and watching another sunset from the bar.

(1) According to Sunny.

(2) It wasn’t really a line, more of a mob crush. Sort of like getting on the subway at rush hour. We didn’t even think about getting a picture.

Wednesday, November 20: Angkor Wat

Our guide here in Siem Reap, Sunny (1), picked us up this morning at 9:00am for our first tour here, to Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat, November 2019

Angkor Wat is reputedly the largest religious structure in the world at 400 acres. It was originally constructed in the eleventh century as a Hindu temple, and then transformed into a Buddhist one later in the century as a new king and the population moved to Buddhism.

He has a future coaching in the NFL, November 2-19

We spent almost three hours at Angkor Wat. Sunny didn’t accompany us; rather, we were introduced to an archeologist and expert on the local temples who proceeded to give us the survey course in Angkor Wat. Neither Sally or I could understand his name, much less remember it. But he was earnest, intense and extremely knowledgeable. He was also completely relaxed with any questions we asked, no matter that he just got finished explaining that fact to us.

Dancing girls, myths and warriors, November 2019

Pretty much all of the walls – thousands of feet worth – are covered with engravings that tell the various stories of old Khmer myths and the king’s victories. They are the usual stuff you see in old buildings – dancing girls, warriors, animals real and mythical.

Hard to appreciate the scale, November 2019

Although it was crowded, we didn’t feel it was too crowded to enjoy. I was able to get many pictures with no one in them, but then you miss the scale of the place.

Monks, scholars and dancing girls, November 2019

And many of the people themselves were interesting.

Our oasis, November 2019

By the time we got back to the hotel, it was hot and we were tired. We went for lunch in the restaurant, then spent some time by our pool.

Sunset at the oasis, November 2019

The Phum Baitang has a great afternoon tradition. The guests (or at least some of them) gather on the porch outside the bar and sit facing the sunset. A Mai Tai, a G&T and comfortable chairs at sunset – what more do your need?

(1) We’ve had at least one other guide named Sunny on this trip, in a different country. Maybe two.

Tuesday/Wednesday, November 19/20: A few hours in Phnom Penh

We entered Cambodia yesterday, Monday, and arrived at our dock in Phnom Penh around 7:00pm. The cruise director had announced earlier that we were free to leave the ship after dinner for a couple of hours, as long as we respected his 11:00pm curfew. While some of the other passengers planned to walk over to the nearby night market, we had a different plan with our little (1) group.

Sally & friends, November 2019

At someone’s suggestion (not mine), we decided to go to a rooftop bar for cocktails. Never mind that we had no idea where a rooftop bar in Phnom Penh was to be found, or even if there was one.

Is there a rooftop bar in this town?, November 2019

We never found a rooftop bar.

Albane and Andy decided that they could figure it out, so we all (!) climbed into a tuk tuk and they somehow got the driver to go to an address they found on the internet. The address turned out to be a nondescript building at the end of a dark alley, so we got back in the tuk and started driving again.

Every time we saw a tall building with bright lights, Albane would decide that was the rooftop bar and direct the driver – who spoke only Khmer (2) – in that direction. We finally disembarked in front of a place packed with people, some in cocktail dresses, and went in, certain it was our destination. After being led to, and walking through, an underground shopping center, we realized it was simply a casino, and there was no rooftop bar to be found.

We had our cocktails in the bar back on the Jahan.

The next morning we said goodbye to our Swiss friends and the Jahan. As our flight wasn’t until 2:30, we were able to fit in a short morning tour of Phnom Penh. We were picked up by the usual guide-and-driver team and went off to see the sights.

The Royal Palace and tomb, November 2019

The royal palace was pretty impressive. Cambodia still has a king, although he is apparently just a figurehead. The palace complex, where he actually lives (3), is a number of quite beautiful buildings.

Another temple, and the museum, November 2019

From there we went to the national museum, which housed a lot of old Hindu and Buddhist statues, and which took us all of 15 minutes to walk through (4). And then a temple. The last part of the tour was to be the local market, but we’ve already seen too many local markets.

The poor side of town, November 2019

We prevailed upon the guide to show us some non-touristy things, and he finally lead us through some small alleys in a poor section of town. From there we went to the airport to fly to Siem Reap.

(1) In addition to Elizabeth & Andy, Sally befriended another Swiss woman, Albane. Also lovely.

(2) Khmer is the language of the Khmer people, who are what we call Cambodians. We had English, German, French, Italian and Japanese amongst us, but no Khmer.

Monday, November 18: Another river day

Monday was our second and final full day on the Jahan. Unlike the disaster last week that was the Ginger, we’re not anxious to get off. In fact, we’ve gotten even more friendly with Elizabeth and Andy, our new Swiss friends. We’ve had our meals with them, talked with them over drinks and exchanged impressions and photos from our outings.

This morning was the third of the three excursions via launch from the Jahan as we make our way up the Mekong. We’re still in Vietnam, but only a few miles from the Cambodian border (1). Tri (2), our guide, announced this morning that the guides and Captain – who are Vietnamese – would be leaving the ship at the border, and Cambodian guides and a Cambodian Captain would be boarding.

Everybody got a cyclo, November 2019

First on today’s agenda was a visit the town of Tan Chau. We motored to shore in the launch, and then we each boarded a cyclo for a ride around town. These are small carts pulled by a bicycle. We each got our own, but the guide insisted that regular Vietnamese would ride four or even six at a time (3). With only one passenger, some of the drivers were racing with each other, passing on the straightaways and laughing.

The cyclos dropped us at the local market, where we tipped our drivers more than the suggested $1/person.

Only the healthy stuff, November 2019

Sally and I walked around the market, which by this point in our trip was no longer remarkable. There was a section of fresh meat and fish, all laying out without refrigeration in the heat (4). Not what I would want to eat.

Fish food, November 2019

The final stop before we returned to the launch and the Jahan was a fish farm floating in the river near the banks. These are all over the place; we saw them two days ago way down in the Mekong Delta nearer Saigon, and along the river. It’s basically a floating structure, perhaps 50′ along each side, that uses nets draped from the outer perimeter to contain tilapia (5) that are raised from fingerlings to about 3 lbs. Two men can operate the farm, which consists mostly in this case of mixing feed and feeding the 100,000+ fish swimming beneath us.

Washing the deck, November 2019

It’s obviously hard work, as these two guys were chiseled.

On the way back to Jahan, we said goodby to Tri in the traditional way: with a tip.

Cambodian river bank, November 2019

Around 2:00pm, we left Vietnam and entered Cambodia, our last stop on this journey. Nothing immediately changed on the river, but gradually the river banks became less industrialized. Cambodia is much smaller, less populous and poorer than Vietnam.

(1) Sheen’s Willard was searching for Brando’s Kurtz in Cambodia.

(2) Pronounced tree.

(3) For what it’s worth, I saw no one but tourists in a cyclo while we were here.

(4) I chose to show you pictures of pretty fruit rather than rotting meat. You’re welcome.

(5) And some other similar fish whose name I never really understood.

(6) Cambodia’s per capita GDP is $1,600, Vietnam’s is $2,740 and it has 6x as many people.

Sunday, November 17, Part Deux: More on the Mekong

This cruise on the Jahan has some similarities to our trip to Africa: each day you’re up early (1) for an excursion, then come back to the ship for lunch, and continue with an afternoon excursion before returning in time to clean up and go for dinner. And you need to clean up; after a full day wearing sunscreen, the heat and the humidity, a shower is definitely on order.

Industrial fishing, November 2019

The afternoon outing took us out in the launch again up a channel that was fully dominated by the fishing industry. Not just the fishing boats, but fish farms in the river, and processing plants along the banks.

Fisherman, November 2019

The fishers range in size a single guy in a small boat pulling in his nets with a dozen or so fish to large farms with were raising tens of thousands of fish.

Men eating, women doing dishes, November 2019

But the highlight of the afternoon was a stop at Thanh Island.

Smoking, November 2019

The village there is about as “authentic” as you can find while on a tour – the only westerners were our group, and there were no gift stops, souvenirs for sale, street beggars or any of the usual trappings tourists see.

Preparing for the feast, November 2019

Instead, we saw people doing what they might do if we weren’t around.

Elders, November 2019

Towards the end of the walk we sat in a multi-purpose building where an elderly man and woman sat and talked with the group. It was staged, of course, but their comments were real and they answered questions from the group.

Sunday, November 17: A very full day on the Mekong

After two relatively quiet days, Sunday was chock-full of activity. Like any cruise worth it’s fare, the Jahan has lots of activities available. Tai Chi at 6:30am, breakfast starting at 7:30am, and the first of the two included tours at 8:30am.

Breakfast was a lovely buffet in the comfortable dining room, complete with an omelet bar. Like dinner last night, they offered both Western and Vietnamese style food. We met a lovely couple from Switzerland yesterday as we were waiting to board the bus, and we’ve now had two meals with Elizabeth and Andy. Most of the tables in the dining room are for more than two people, so it’s great to find people you like to be with.

The ship holds up to 52 people in 26 rooms, and there are 43 on this sailing. They divided us into two groups and assigned each of us to a guide (in our case Tri) and a local launch for the day’s activities. We were issued radios so we could hear the guide without him having to shout over the launch’s engine roar.

Going upriver, November 2019

As we motored away from the Jahan across the width of the Mekong to a smaller branch leading to town of Cai Be, I couldn’t help flashing on Martin Sheen motoring up the river in the patrol boat in Apocolypse Now, looking for Marlon Brando. The thrum-thrum of the motor just triggered me …

Fishing, selling, carrying cargo, November 2019

Life on the Mekong River, and the tributaries and channels that make up the Mekong Delta, revolves around everything the river has to offer. We passed fishing boats and farms of all sizes and types. We stopped at a floating market, where the dealers act as intermediaries between the nearby farmers and merchants who sell the produce in town.

Three places to live and work, November 2019

Many of the boats are also homes for their owners and families, at least part time. We frequently saw boats with hanging laundry and outdoor kitchens, and a man, woman and child moving up the river.

Cai Be itself wasn’t that exciting. We landed at a small area where there was a factory that made coconut candy, rice paper and other items and watched some demos. Typical group tour stuff: Tri led us from place to place and explained what they were doing, while we all crowded around. Or, in my case, took a couple of pictures, then wandered away to look at other stuff.

Back at the Jahan, lunch was another excellent buffet. I’m beginning to get comfortable with this ship (1), overcoming the bad feelings from the Ginger.

To be continued …

(1) Good thing. We’re aboard for three nights.

Saturday, November 16: Back on the Mekong

This morning we packed for a two stage transfer to our next accommodations, which was also a transfer: the Jahan, a cruise ship that sails up the Mekong River from a point 40 miles south of Saigon to Siem Reap, and back. That voyage takes seven days, but we’ll only be aboard for the first three, disembarking at Phnom Penh.

You’ll recall that we were on the Ginger overnight last week, and it didn’t go so well. Ginger is operated by Heritage Lines, which also operates the Jahan. So you can imagine that we were a bit nervous as we set out.

Jahan, November 2019

The first part of the journey was a transfer from our hotel, the Park Hyatt, to the meeting place at the Renaissance Hotel. That piece was handled by Tours of Indochina, our outfitter. As usual, they sent a guide and a driver. The transfer was less than a half mile and it took more time to load and unload the car than to drive over. Really, we could have managed a taxi ourselves. But that’s how TOI rolls.

The second part was two buses transporting about 30 of us the forty miles. Our bus was escorted by Tri, who will be our guide during our stay on the Jahan. The good news is that this was well organized – they knew who we were, gave us clear directions on where to wait, etc. The bad news is that this was beginning to feel like what we hate about group tours: everyone lined up and moving as a group.

Cabin 207, November 2019

In any event, by 2:00 we were in our cabin and by 3:00 the ship departed. Then came an info session and safety information, with a complementary welcome drink of champagne (1).

The safety briefing was given by a crew member, who also introduced the ship’s officers: the captain, the chef, the food service manger, the cabin service manager. It was straightforward. The information piece, which described how our itinerary would work and the first day details was given by Tri. We realized that he was both very competent and entertaining. He would interrupt himself to tell a personal story, a joke, or give some insight into how Vietnam has been recovering from the war. The jokes were usually pretty corny:

“A man walks into a bookstore and asks for The Man Is Master Of The House. The shopkeeper, a young lady, replies “Fiction and comedy are upstairs, sir.””

This was all a good uptick from the Ginger. As was dinner, which was a delicious compendium of Vietnamese and Western dishes. I think we’re going to like this one.

(1) Or at least some sparkling white wine; we never saw the bottle, but that’s what they called it.

Friday, November 15: More better massage

After yesterday’s sidecar tour and lengthy lunch, we deliberately planned nothing for today. We’ve been on the road for 18 days already, and sightseeing and hitting schedules needed a pause. So we slept in (relatively speaking), lounged around our spacious room apartment, and had a late breakfast. Which led to a late lunch.

Not quite a house, but an apartment, November 2019

Some of you may know that massages and massage parlors are very prevelant in Southeast Asia, far more than in the US or Europe. They’re also pretty inexpensive, again compared to the West. And it doesn’t get any cheaper than free: Sally’s had five massages so far, and I’ve had four (1). And all we’ve paid are the tips. Which probably totaled less than $50 for both of us, and we were generous (2).

Park Hyatt spa, November 2019

Today, for instance, we each had a 30 minute foot and leg massage that was an amenity associated with how we booked our room. We both really enjoyed them (3), and both dozed off during the session. The two cost VND 1,260,000, or about $54. If you’ve ever checked out the pricing for massages in fancy hotels or resorts, you’ll know that is dirt cheap.

And just as the price at your local Massage Envy is much better than that at the Four Seasons Hotel, the price for a massage at a small place on the street is better than the Xuan Spa. You could pay as little as $10 or $12 for a 60 minute massage. Of course, the environment is unlikely to compare, and I can’t speak to the quality of the masseuse, but still.

Ho Chi Minh, November 2019

Given our late lunch, Sally wasn’t up for dinner and just had some of the fruit in the room. Rather than try and get a recommendation from the concierge (who seemed to have a limited set of recommendations anyway), I went out and wandered around. I found a large concourse, sort of like a park only completely paved,

Large portion of G&T, November 2019

Dinner was at a restaurant on the concourse that served western food. And G&T seems universally available.

(1) Not all have been a full hour, but still.

(2) We think.

(3) In contrast to the disastrous massage session on the Ginger.

Thursday, November 14: Bikers

In between our evening arrival here in HCMC (1) on Wednesday and our morning departure on Saturday we have two full days and only one scheduled tour: a motorcycle sidecar tour.

Sidecar Sally & Biker Bassman, November 2019

We were met at our hotel by Henry (2) who explained the process: we would ride with a driver (3) on the motorcycle with a sidecar attached, one of us in the sidecar and the other riding pillion (4). Guess who got the sidecar?

Riding in traffic, November 2019

I had pictures of motorbike riders in earlier posts, and you undoubtedly noticed the face masks. The air in Hanoi is pretty bad, but it’s much worse here. A significant portion of bikers wear them. I saw people get out of cars and put on masks before walking away. I saw people working at their sidewalk stores wearing masks. So we were offered masks by Henry and took them. I’m not sure they are anything more than a placebo, although they probably help with the larger particulate matter. We only wore the masks while riding on the bike.

Henry followed us on his scooter, and gave us radios with earbuds so he could talk to us while we were riding. Although we were in the traffic, we really didn’t have the same experience as if we were riding a motor bike or scooter in the city. The sidecar bike is big, heavy, loud and not nearly as maneuverable as a normal bike. Still, we were in the thick of things, in the bike lanes, surrounded by the bikes swarming like flies around a discarded fruit.

But this was more than a ride, it was a tour. When he picked us up, Henry asked what we wanted to see. We pleaded ignorance, so he took us on his favorite itinerary. The first stop was the remnants of Saigon’s floating market. Like Bangkok and the other large cities in the region, the government doesn’t like these markets for lots of reasons, including health concerns and their generally unsavory appearance. The people live on their boats and spend a few days in Saigon selling, then they sail back down to the Mekong delta where they spend a few days buying product. Among other things, it means their children don’t get much of an education (5).

Wholesale market: need 10,000 hats?, November 2019

Chinatown in Saigon is huge. Like in many other countries, the Chinese here are merchants. Years ago they built a massive market, which caters primarily to wholesalers.

Sally engages with Tim, November 2019

Our last stop on the bike was the neighborhood where Henry used to live. Sally engaged in a conversation with a little baby nam Tim who’s mother was teaching him a bit of English, and we stopped for some refreshments on the obligatory low chairs and tiny table. I was chided for finishing my Vietnamese coffee too quickly; apparently, the socially acceptable way was to spend an hour or two on two ounces of coffee. Sally enjoyed some locally authentic Lipton tea.

Ambassador’ s Residence, November 2019

At this point it was lunchtime, so Henry and the driver dropped us off at the former home of Henry Cabot Lodge, who was the US Ambassador to South Vietnam during the war. The house is now privately owned and occasionally used for various events. We were treated to a tour of the house by our guide They (6) and the owner’s father, an elderly man. And then we sat down to a five course meal in the formal dining room under a portrait of Lodge.

As we finished the delicious meal, They joined us and Sally had a lovely conversation with her about tipping, the Ginger Cruise, her children and her time in America.

The Bassman Blog, November 2019

It was mid afternoon by the time we got back to the hotel. I spent the afternoon catching up on pictures and blogging. Hope you enjoyed my work!

(1) “HCMC” = Ho Chi Minh City amongst the cognoscenti. Not amongst the locals; they usually use Saigon. In contrast, the northerners in Hanoi almost always use Ho Chi Minh City.

(2) Again, not the name his mother gave him. He declined to say his real name, telling us we couldn’t pronounce it anyway. His English was excellent, btw, which he attributed to YouTube.

(3) I never got the driver’s name.

(4) A pillion is a secondary pad, cushion, or seat behind the main seat or saddle on a horse, motorcycle, bicycle or moped.

(5) Schools are not free in Vietnam. Most poor children only go through primary school, and then the money runs out.

(6) Pronounced more like “tway”; she told us to call her Tree.

Wednesday, November 13: Happy Birthday to me, and welcome to Saigon

Fifty years ago this week I went down to my local draft board to register. I had turned 18 and that’s what we all did (1). The Vietnam War was in full bloom, Nixon had been elected the year before, and they were drafting about 3/4 of all the eligible men every year. I was a college sophomore in good standing, so I had an S-1 student deferment. That meant I wouldn’t be drafted until I graduated or flunked out, whichever came first.

A draft registration card, c. 1964, November 2019

For me and of of my friends, staying out of the army, and therefore staying out of Vietnam, was a high priority. It meant staying alive. What none of us realized at the time was how many men who survived and came home would be injured and damaged in many ways that would persist for much of their lives. Or that many of the lucky ones, who were never injured, had careers or education interrupted and never quite got back on track.

Birthday meal, November 2019

So I find it unbelievably ironic that I’m spending my birthday, exactly 50 years later, traveling from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. I never wanted to come here. Certainly not during the war, but not as a tourist either. It’s all Sally’s idea, and we’re both having a great time (2). But I can’t stop thinking about what might have been.

(1) Not the girls, of course. Getting blown up was men’s work back then.

(2) Despite the Ginger Cruise.

Tuesday/Wednesday, November 12/13: The Ginger Cruise

Warning: this s a bit long, and a bit of a rant. But once I started, I couldn’t control myself.

Tuesday morning we left our Hanoi hotel for a two hour drive to Lan Ha Bay, where we boarded the Ginger for an overnight cruise. Lan Ha Bay is a newish part of Ha Long Bay, where day trippers and overnight trippers go to see fascinating islets which dot a large area. We saw advertisements for excursions to this area all over Hanoi, most offering a round trip bus combined with a several hour cruise.

Ginger, November 2019

At the advice of our travel consultant, we elected to stay overnight on the Ginger, a luxury boat with twelve spacious cabins. We wound up getting the largest cabin on the boat, a suite with wrap-around windows and a forward facing deck. Decadence strikes again.

We had assumed that we would be picked up by a driver Tuesday morning for the two-ish hour drive, and also on Wednesday to return to Hanoi. But as I alluded to in the last post, our expectation that we wouldn’t see Sunny after Monday was wrong. Sunny and our driver would accompany us to the Ginger, then hang out overnight in a nearby hotel, and take us to the airport the next day. So we needed to plan for four days worth of tips for them rather than two. Not that it’s that much money, and they’re both very nice, but I didn’t really see the value in having a guide sitting in the car with us and spending the night in a hotel. All of which we paid for, of course.

At least our luggage made it, November 2019

Anyway: we boarded the tender at the check-in dock around 12;10, and 10 of us (1) motored out 15 minutes in the drizzle to board the Ginger.

Our suite, November 2019

The Ginger is about a year old, and is really nicely furnished. In addition to our spacious suite, there’s a very roomy dining room, an open foredeck with tables, lounges and a jacuzzi, and a small library. The lousy weather made all of the outside stuff pretty useless.

Welcome drinks, November 2019

The first order of business was an orientation session, where Minn (2), the cruise director, outlined the safety procedures and our schedule for the next 23 hours. Lunch would be at 1:00, followed by our afternoon excursion.

Lunch was pretty mediocre, but turned out to be the best meal we would have.

For the afternoon excursion, we read in our itinerary that we would “disembark at Viet Hai Village, a small village on Cat Ba Island, where we hop on bikes (electric car available) for a tour along small paved roads towards a quiet village nestled in a valley. Meet and greet local villagers and see their daily routines at homes, school, and work.”


We paid good money for this, November 2019

We didn’t disembark at any village, but past the end of a road being paved, forcing us to walk in the rain along the side to where our vehicle was waiting.

There were no bikes there, which is just as well. It was raining.

If the open vehicle was electric, it was the first one I’ve seen that emitted carbon monoxide from an exhaust pipe.

The road was small. And paved.

The road to Viet Hai, November 2019 (7)

When we stopped after about 30 minutes, we were all lead into a covered area to sit on small plastic chairs while Minn explained the geology of Lan Ha Bay. In heavily accented English. To an audience of four Germans, two Belgians, and four Americans (3).

The cultural portion of our voyage, November 2019

We then were moved about ten feet to a second set of small plastic chairs while Minn showed us various whiskeys and brandies made locally, including one aged with a cobra in the bottle. And another with scorpions. Exciting!

On the way back in our stretch golf cart, we stopped a couple of times to take pictures of ourselves in front of cloud-obscured hills.

And that wasn’t even the worst part of the trip. When we got back, Sally and I went for the complementary massages that came with our cabin. Mine was good. Sally got the trainee, who gave a unbelievably terrible massage. Sally was afraid that the masseuse was going to hurt her.

Because of the massages we didn’t have time to go to the cooking class that the other eight guests seemed to enjoy.

Karsts and fisherman, November 2019

Then there was a mediocre Pina Colada, followed by a mediocre dinner. After dinner we had a choice of activities: squid fishing in the dark and rain, or watching a BBC movie about two guys trying to get to Ha Long Bay from Ho Chi Min City. We passed on both.

Wednesday’s schedule was also interesting. Tai Chai at 6:30, followed by kayaking at 7:30 (4). Three people attended each. Then back to the cabin with time to shower and pack, as you needed to have your bags in the hall by 9:30 when breakfast was served (5). Breakfast itself was terrible – cold French toast, horrible coffee that actually never came, and white bread toast that wasn’t ordered.

Around 11:15 we were back in the tender, heading back to shore.

The rain stopped.

Floating village, November 2019

So: this mini-cruise had all the things I hate about cruises: mediocre food, lousy excursions and activities, being herded around in a group like sheep, being on someone else’s schedule and no ability to go and do something on your own. The cabin and ship itself were great, and the crew were pleasant (6) and helpful. And of course they’re not to blame for the weather.

As we were waiting for the tender, Sally filled out an evaluation form. Being the nice person she is, and liking the staff, she gave the Ginger mixed but basically positive ratings. My evaluation would have been less positive. But you know that by now.

(1) The boat has 12 cabins, and was apparently full yesterday. I guess no one wanted to cruise with us. Or they read the weather report.

(2) His name tag said Minnie Minn.

(3) Minn is a really nice guy. It’s not his fault we don’t speak Vietnamese.

(4) We were still experiencing periods of drizzle and heavy rain mixed with a bit of brightening.

(5) The only food available before then was a bit of fruit, reheated croissants and perhaps the worst coffee either of us ever had.

(6) Excepting the killer masseuse.

(7) These are approximately all the local people we saw.

Monday, November 11: Street food, and more food

Monday’s scheduled activity was a walking tour of the city after noon, with an emphasis on trying street food.

$65, November 2019

But I started the day with a much more mundane activity: tips. Asia is often thought to have less of a focus on tips than the US or Europe, but the places that cater to Western tourists seem to be moving into the hands-out-at-every-turn strategy. While we could tip in dollars, the recipients would most likely convert it all to Vietnam Dong (VND) anyway. So we decided to buy some dong. The exchange rate is ~23,000 to the dollar; $100 gets you VND 2,300,000. We have three more stops in Vietnam after Hanoi, and ATMs won’t be accessible in two of them. We laid out what we thought we might tip for these stops, and I went to get 8 million dong.

Mo’ models, and taking a break, November 2019

After breakfast, I did the walk-about for a bit. Although breakfast was later than I would normally eat, I was concerned that we wouldn’t find any food during our street food tour that this picky eater would like.

You use what you have, November 2019

We met Sunny at noon and took off to find lunch.

Food choices, November 2019

I have to say it was very interesting. We would go to a small shop and Sunny would explain the food choices, how they are made, and what they contain. Then he would buy a few, and we would eat. We had rice things, stew things, rice-paper wrapped things, and donuts (what we call donut holes).

Not sure I want to try everything, November 2019

Along the way we walked through interesting streets in the old city, watching shopkeepers go about their business, people manufacturing things on the sidewalk, and shoppers.

Working, November 2019

All the time we were dodging motorbikes. As I mentioned yesterday, motorbike observance of traffic rules appears lax. They often will run red lights. And because it’s inconvenient for them to stop for anything (1), they tend to not do so. On the other hand, there is a certain rhythm and flow to the traffic, and I felt myself getting used to it and able to cross busy intersections.

In fact I noticed yesterday that Southeast Asia has started to feel “normal” to me. I still can’t read the signs or labels (2), and the food mostly looks unappealing, but the sense of different-ness which hit me every day last week seems to have disappeared.

Coffee time, November 2019

But back to the food. The last stop took a bit of cajoling from Sunny to get us to go. A well-known specialty in Hanoi is “egg coffee”, which sounds anything but appetizing. But in the spirit of the day, we consented to at least look at it. We walked over to a building and climbed two flights of steep and narrow stairs to a room where a dozen or more people sat on small stools at tiny tables. He ordered our drinks, and when they arrived, we realized that egg coffee has a custard-like confection on top, made with egg yolk, condensed milk and sugar. Underneath is strong black coffee. Like any fancy cappuccino, a pattern is etched in the creamy top.

Sally loved it. The Bassman found it very tasty.

Having spent a few hours eating, we proceeded back to the hotel for afternoon tea. Can’t have too much food!

It’s always pizza time, November 2019

By the time evening rolled around, Sally wasn’t hungry anymore (LoL). However, I seem to need to eat every mealtime so I went out and found a gourmet pizza place nearby, completely by accident. I didn’t have a reservation, but the hostess said I could sit at the pizza bar as long as I left within 90 minutes – that seat was reserved later. No problem.

All in all, a very successful and filling day.

(1) They fall over when stopped. Unless you put a foot down.

(2) Unlike Thailand and Laos (and Cambodia), Vietnam uses the Latin alphabet. So we can mostly read the signs, although we have no idea what the words mean.

Sunday, November 10: Hanoi

We got here pretty late last night. We were met as usual at the gate by an escort, who was a frenetic guy apparently trying to shepherd a number of people through the international arrivals and luggage process at Hanoi’s airport. The contrast with Luang Prabang couldn’t be greater. Where LP was a sleepy, tiny and run-down (1) airport, Hanoi’s is very large and modern. As befits the capital of a rapidly growing country of 94m people.

You may enter the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, November 2019

I had gotten our Vietnam visas by Internet and mail in October, so we saved a lot of time filling our forms and waiting on lines in the airport.

After getting our luggage and passing through Customs, we were met by Sunny, our guide for the next two days (2), for the 45 minute drive to our hotel. Sunny is energetic and talkative, as befits a guide, but his English accent leaves something to be desired.

Sunny at the Women’s Museum, November 2019

Sunday morning was the City tour. Sunny and the driver picked us up, and our first stop was the Woman’s Museum. As we walked through the exhibitions of women’s contributions to Vietnam and a lot of regional costumes, Sunny gave us the 30 minute historical talk on Vietnam. I found the museum itself mostly uninteresting, but the history was better.

Bride and her maids, November 2019

Our next stop was some old kings’ palace or other (3), which is now a park/museum. There were tourists looking at the statuary and stuff inside. But the real activity was various groups – wedding parties, high school classes, etc. – posing for formal pictures around the grounds.

A king, a queen and a king, November 2019

After Sunny dropped us back at the Sofitel, we went for lunch in the pool bar – cleverly name “Le Bar” (4).

Two wheeled transportation options, November 2019

Sally went up to the room to rest, and, as my custom, I went out for a walk.

Having coffee, or working, November 2019

Like the rest of Southeast Asia, motorbikes are a prevalent form of transportation here. The riders are less constrained by traffic rules, and weave and dart through traffic whenever they can. Crossing the street requires exquisite timing as there are few traffic signals. But it can be done.

Motorbikes everywhere, November 2019

Everyone, from the hotel Majordome to Sunny, said we needed to check out the Sunday activities near Hoan Kiem Lake. The lake is just a few minutes from our hotel, so I went over to check it out.

I have no idea what this parade is about, November 2019

Every Sunday they close the streets surrounding the lake and park starting around noon and going to midnight. It gets busy during the day as families start to arrive, but really takes off in the evening when there are live bands, street food, toy vendors and thousands and thousands of people.

Electric cars and V-Pop, November 2019

One apparently popular activity is for kids to ride motorized cars around on some of the closed-off streets. We’ve seen many fashion shoots and at least two music videos being made in the streets.

Dance to the music, November 2019

At night, the music come out and it gets even more crowded. One small park was taken over by Latin music dancers.

(1) Run-down, although apparently built in 2015. Given the wear on the seats in the waiting area, they must have bought them used.

(2) Actually four, but that’s another post.

(3) We are both seriously temple’d and palace’d out.

(4) The French controlled Vietnam for 100 years, and Ho Chi Min started fighting to get rid of them. But there’s still residual influence.

Saturday, November 9: Leaving Laos

Last night, while we were in the room house relaxing after dinner, we got a phone call from Mr. Something-or-other (1) who introduced himself as the country head for Tours of Indochina for Laos. TOI is the outfitter who actually booked all of our arrangements here, although we worked with them indirectly through Kelly, our travel advisor based in California. Sally found Kelly great to work with, and all of the arrangements made by TOI have been both what we expected and well executed. Mr. Something wanted to know how everything was going during our stay in Laos, which of course was going well. Then he suggested that he have our luggage picked up early in the afternoon, about four or five hours before our flight, so we just would need to deal with our hand luggage from then on. He said it would simplify our check-in as the luggage would be checked in early.

Trails of Indochina, November 2019

Now this all sounded very strange. First, since we were on the only flight from Vietnam Air that afternoon or evening, check-in wouldn’t start until 5:15, about two hours before the flight. Second, I can’t imagine how the airline would allow some random person to drop off two bags to go in the luggage hold. And of course, there’s no chance I was giving him our passports as ID. Finally, the idea of sending our luggage off ahead when flights can be delayed or cancelled seem way to risky.

So we declined.

Luang Prabang departure gates, November 2019

We took the luggage with us when we traveled to the airport, but of course never touched it. The hotel staff carried it out to the van, and the TOI guide wheeled it 30 feet from the van to the check-in. Where we waited about two minutes for the passenger ahead of us to finish. Checking in took about five minutes total. Security line was non-existent. The airport is tiny, with less than ten gates total. We were seated by our gate 25 minutes after boarding the van at the hotel.

All very strange.

But back to our last day in Laos. Normally, checkout time at a hotel is 11:00am. On occasion, when we’ve had a late flight or just don’t want to leave that early, we’ve asked to check out at noon or even 1:00. Often (but not always) the hotel will accommodate us. Of course, if they’re sold out and need the room for an arriving customer, they’ll say no. All very reasonable. And we were planning to ask about it for today.

Sally asked Avna, the front-of-house manger, if we could have late check out. She said it’s already been arranged. Sally said we weren’t leaving until 5:00 and asked how late. To which Avna replied: as late as you want. So we stayed in the room house until 5:00. No charge.

After a late breakfast, we went out for a long walk and went all the way down the main drag, further than we had gone before. Came back, packed, cleaned up. Lunch.

As we were loading into the van (2) at 5:00, the entire front-of-house staff came out to say goodbye. Avna, Jovan (the Executive Chef), the waiter and other staff who greeted us each time we left or returned to the hotel (3). The Amantaka was truly a great experience.


(1) I apologize for not being able to actually understand his name, which is Laotian, between his English accent and the lousy cell phone connection.

(2) With our luggage!

(3) Wish I had a picture.

Friday, November 8: Waterfall

Natural colors, made from plants and roots, November 2019

Another day, another tour. Oudune picked us up at 9:00 for a drive in the country. Where the cruise yesterday took us north, today we drove south to the Kuang Si National Park. But not without making a stop where you can buy stuff (of course).

Weavers, and a tourist taking a class, November 2019

Our stop was at the Ock Pop Tock Weaving Centre, where we got to watch six or so woman weaving on hand looms, making intricate patterns. A guide showed us around, and we saw the different plants that make up the all-natural colors that they use in their yarn.

We continued on to the Kuang Si Waterfall, located in a national park. The park also houses a bear sanctuary, where bears are housed after somehow being “rescued”. I have no idea what that means, and we only saw one bear sleeping.

The waterfalls, however, were quite cool (1).

Cold cold water(falls), November 2019

You walk uphill along a path, passing waterfalls of increasing size. There are pools below each set of falls where bathing is allowed, and hardy souls were going in. There were also areas with lots of “No swimming – Danger!” signs, where stupid souls were going in.

Quiet little table for two, November 2019

The over-the-top piece of this day was when we saw that they had set up a lunch table for the two of us – just Sally & me – by a quiet little pond, away from all the other tourists. We had our staff of four – guide, driver, waiter and busboy/cook – taking care of us. Pure decadence.

In the afternoon, hung around the room house for a while, and then we took an afternoon walk through town. Dinner was at the Amantaka again. Food here in Laos is extremely reasonably priced – the hotel meal was under $50. Of course, it’s still cheaper outside the hotel: my lunch in a real restaurant with a drink was about $12, and street food is far cheaper.

(1) Actually, very cool. The water was freezing.

Thursday, November 7: Cruise to the caves

Thursday started early. Really early. While we’ve had to set alarm clocks any number of times on this trip to ensure that we got our included-in-the-price breakfast before a morning tour, today we were to see the monks walk asking for alms. And provide them with said alms. This is an 800 year old tradition whereby devotees and now tourists place sticky rice in bowls carried by the monks. This provides food for the monks (although they have other food as well) and, at least for the devotees, shows respect for the monks.

A young monk collects sticky rice from Sally, November 2019

So we arose at 5:00, met our host at the front of the hotel at 5:30, and sat on cushions he had placed along the street in front of the hotel with bowls of sticky rice. We had to don sashes properly wrapped around us. About 40 monks passed us in four or five groups (1). While I got the picture above, I was mostly busy digging handfuls of rice out of my baskets to drop into the bowls carried by the monks. Also, it was still before sunrise, and pretty dark (2). Most of the images I shot didn’t come out.

By 6:15 we were back in our room house. Sally went back to sleep, while I caught up on the blog.

Taking the kids to school, November 2019

We had a late breakfast and then I walked into town to see what it looks like during the day, with no guide, and no night market. It’s a pretty sleepy town. There are extremely few regular cars here. Traffic in town and the surrounding area is dominated by motorbikes and tuk tuks. The tuks here are different than those we saw in Thailand. At least in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, they are used for short trips and mostly by tourists. Here they’re a major form of transportation, and so they are bigger and more robust.

Our Captain & crew, November 2019

Our main activity for the day was a river cruise on the Mekong. We really had no idea what to expect other than sitting in a boat all afternoon with our guide and having some snacks while we looked at the scenery and made of couple of stops. I think we were both a bit afraid that we would be uncomfortable in the hot sun and bored. It turns out we were anything but uncomfortable, and we weren’t bored either.

The Mekong Queen, November 2019 (3)

The boat was a big surprise. It was extremely long and narrow for its length, and setup up to accommodate maybe six guests. We, of course, were only two. There were two king-sized day beds separated by a bar and serving station. We were outnumbered by the waiter, the captain and our guide.

Dove Mountain, November 2019

The scenery was beautiful. We’re just at the end of the rainy season, so everything is still lush and green. And with the boat moving and creating a breeze, and being shaded from the sun by the roof and some clouds, the temperature was about perfect.

Whiskeytown, November 2019

We made two stops. The first was a little village where they distill whiskey, which was cute. The second, our endpoint, was a cave where 2,000 Buddhas sit looking down (4).

River life: even monks have to work sometimes, November 2019

Along the way we saw that the Mekong is still a river where some people have not moved into the 21st century.

Stairway to wisdom, November 2019

The last stop was a pair of caves which rise above the river which house hundreds (5) of Buddhas, reportedly placed there by local villagers over hundreds of years. The lower cave is a couple of steep flights up, and the upper cave is a couple of hundred steep steps up.

Billions of Buddhas, November 2019

We just visited the lower, which contains most of the Buddhas (6).

Afternoon catering, November 2019

The cruise home was peaceful. In fact, the current was strong enough that the captain slowed down so we wouldn’t get home too early – this was supposed to be a sunset cruise. But we enjoyed our afternoon snacks (7). Unfortunately, the sky clouded over before sunset so it just got dark.

(1) There are more than 1,000 monks in Luang Prabang.

(2) 1/13s, f/1.8, ISO 3200 dark.

(3) Not really it’s name, which was written in Lao script. Which I can’t read.

(4) Buddha’s eyes are almost always shown looking down as he meditates.

(5) Our guide said there are thousands. I’m not sure that’s true, nor am I sure about the provenance of the statues. The information I can find all seems pretty sketchy.

(6) Apparently the local villagers are no more energetic than we are.

(7) There was enough food that Sally didn’t need dinner.

Wednesday, November 6: More temples, more markets, more food


Breakfast room at the Amantaka, November 2019

So I’m beginning to develop a sense of how this vacation is going to look. After breakfast Wednesday morning our guide, Oudone, met us at 8:30 for a “Temples of Luang Prabang” tour. Luang Prabang is much smaller than Chiang Mai, and also much poorer, so there are fewer temples of note.

Which Buddha is this?, November 2019

But the drill is the same: out of the van (1), walk around the grounds a bit, guide buys tickets, shoes off, wonder at the Buddha, shoes on, off to the next stop. The temples are nice, and the statuary and decorative arts are often beautiful, but it’s kind of like the 58th church you’ve seen while touring Italy.

Which is scarier, King or monk?, November 2019

We also saw the former Presidential palace. Before the communist Pathet Lao took over the country in 1975, two successive Kings lived in this large building, which is quite simple by Western standards. We had to do the shoes-off thing here as well, even though it is neither a temple nor a home (it’s now a museum). There are lots of era-appropriate artifacts in the palace, per our guide, but I’m skeptical that they were originally from there (2).

Either 300 steps uphill, or a telephoto lens, November 2019


Another activity that was part of this tour was climbing a hill to a temple at the summit. But it was pretty warm, and the climb was more than 300 steps, so we decided to bail. I could do it any time on my own, anyway.

Around 11:00 Oudone asked if we wanted to see more temples, and we declined. So the four hour tour was over in 2 1/2. The way I look at it, we already paid, and we would be happier back in our room house than taking our shoes off and on again.

Lunch at the Amantaka: inside or out?, December 2019

We decided that we would try lunch at the hotel, giving them another chance, and then go out for dinner. Since we had so much fun at the Thai cooking class a couple of days ago, we had Lao-style food for lunch and booked a reservation at a Lao restaurant (3) for dinner. Turns out that this restaurant, Tamarind, also runs cooking classes. One of the people serving us had a name tag saying “Trainee”.

Luxury tuk tuk, November 2019

The Amantaka has a pair of luxury tuk tuks, so they drove us over to the restaurant, probably saving us $3. The restaurant manger was very attentive; the hotel had given him the garlic speech and he spent a lot of time working with us on ensuring our selections were safe. Which they were.

Preparing for the night market. November 2019

After dinner we walked over to the night market. It’s obviously much smaller than the ones in Chiang Mai or Bangkok, stretching over 4-6 long blocks. From there is was a 10 minute walk back to the hotel.

(1) The four of us – Sally & me, guide, driver – are covering basically no distance in a 13 person van.

(2) No pictures were allowed inside the palace.

(3) There is plenty of Western-style food in town, but I suspect it is as tasty as what the hotel served us.

Tuesday, November 5: Toodles to Thailand

It’s hard to believe that we’ve finished a week already, and it’s time to leave Thailand. We spent the morning relaxing, packing, reading. And then we rushed through lunch because we misjudged how long our order would take.

Mug shots, November 2019

Anyway, we made it to the airport in about 15 minutes (1) and were, as expected, met by our escorts who expedited our passage through passport control and got us to a lounge. The same process repeated itself in reverse when we arrived in Luang Prabang, Laos. While Thailand does not require a visa for US citizens, Laos does, and you typically get it when you arrive at your port of entry. They take a picture of you with their camera, and they also want a hard copy passport photo which goes somewhere in their files. And US$25 per person in cash, clean unmarked and un-torn bills. So Sally & the Bassman are forever on file here.

Our backyard, November 2019

Our accommodations (2) here at the Amantaka are pretty amazing. The place only has 24 rooms, and we apparently got an upgrade for some reason. We have a bedroom, an office, a large dressing room, a room just with a tub, a bedroom of course, and a giant pool.

Bed’n’Bath, November 2019

Office and living room, November 2019

While we were checking in, Tom, the GM, came by and we chatted. Turns out he was either the GM or a manager at two of the camps and the two city hotels we stayed at on our trip to South Africa and Botswana.

The dinner setting was much better than the food, November 2019

Because we had no better idea, we had dinner at the hotel. I had a mediocre piece of salmon, while Sally had mediocre gnocchi. Perhaps it will improve as we go along.

(1) Take that, any big city in the US.

(2) Sally refers to this as our “house”.

Monday, November 4: More (Chiang) Mai

Editor’s note: I started writing this on Wednesday, November 6, and looked back on my calendar to remind me what we did two days ago. Turns out that the umbrella factory visit was actually not Sunday, but was Monday. So you’re not imagining you already read about the umbrellas.

They come in colors everywhere, November 2019

Monday was a light day until late afternoon, when we were scheduled to be picked up and taken to a Thai cooking class outside of town. After talking with June last night, we decided to leave a bit early and stop along the way in an area that has a number of craft businesses. But not the tourist-focused things you see on sidewalks; rather, commercial-grade enterprises that sell to other businesses as well as to consumers.

Tangled up in blue, November 2019

The most interesting was an umbrella factory. The public space had a dozen or so workers making umbrellas of different sizes and shapes, along with a retail shop. Sally was very tempted, as they were very pretty, but the difficulty of carrying them for the next three weeks and getting them home ultimately dissuade her.

Sally’s silver, November 2019

The next stop was a building that housed a silver jewelry and decorative items store, and a fabric and clothing business. The salesman in the fabric place was pretty pushy, which is a sure-fire way to get us to not buy anything at all. The silver place was much more pleasant, and Sally ultimately bought a necklace.

Pea teaching Bassman (lol) & Sally to cook Thai, November 2019

The cooking class was just for the two of us in a large teaching kitchen at the home of Pea, our teacher. Her English was excellent, she was very animated and she had a very nice way about her as she tried to get us to pound our ingredients properly with a mortar and pestle.

We each made five dishes and ate more food than we needed to. I’m not a Thai food fan (1), but I ate all of my creations and finished a couple of them. After dinner, Pea collected our email addresses and by the time we got home we had all the recipes. I’m sure I’ll never use them, but perhaps Sally will. In any event, it was fun.

Night Market, Chiang Mai, November 2019

After driving back to the city we went to one of the night markets. Much like Walking Street, this is a huge expanse of small booths occupied by vendors selling all kinds of stuff. Much like craft fairs in the US, a fair portion of the merchandise is not really local; much is imported from China. But it’s still fun.

Sally bought some elephant pants. But she overpaid, spending 120 baht vs. the 100 baht they cost in Bangkok (2).

(1) But you knew that.

(2) 120 baht = ~$4; 100 baht = ~ $3.30.

Sunday, November 3: Chiang Mai

We settled into our hotel yesterday and I gave you the early read on what we think about it. To be fair and balanced, the staff here is great: friendly, accommodating and efficient. We have a butler here (Ray) as well, although we only saw him at check in. Since then, he’s been texting me to get updates on whether we need anything, but certainly has not reached the level of Bright from Bangkok.

Today’s office, November 2019

And as I said, the place is quite attractive. I’m writing this sitting on our expansive veranda, all done in teak and tile, with a daybed and a rocking chair.

Chiang Mai flower market, November 2019

Sunday started early: June (our guide) picked us up at the hotel at 8:30 for a four hour city tour. We drove a short way to the flower market, where we walked for a while. Then we got in bicycle rickshaws for a ride around the perimeter of the old city. The moat which once provided part of the defense against invaders is still there, and a tiny piece of the wall stands as well.

Rickshaws, November 2019

Chiang Mai temples, November 2019

From there we did the temple thing in the city, and then drove up Doi Suthep mountain to a famous temple at 1,055m (3,461′). Wat (1) Phra That Doi Suthep is traditionally thought to be located where a white elephant died. It contains both Buddhist and Hindu aspects, and June explained some of the relationship between the two great Eastern religions (2).

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, November 2019

Hand-made jade, November 2019

On the way down we stopped at a jade factory. Not just a tourist shop, this place actually makes lots of jade items from small pieces of jewelry and figurines to very large sculptures. Sally bought a bracelet, which they were happy to resize for her on the spot.

Let a smile be your umbrella, November 2019

Next door was an umbrella factory. They make all kind of umbrellas, from very small ones for fancy drinks to very large one to be used for decorative purposes. Sally decided to have the appliqué they were using on the umbrellas applied to her bag.

By the time we got back to our hotel, it was mid-afternoon and we were starving. The hotel restaurant offered to make a special garlic-free sauce for Sally, so we had pizza for lunch.

Chiang Mai Walking Street: Crowds & music, November 2019

Many Asian cities have a walking street(s) and night markets. The walking street is pedestrian-only either some or all the time; the night markets are bazaars that set up late in the day and run till the wee hours. They mostly sell merchandise of all sorts, but also have music and food. I decided to go to the walking street here to see the crowds and find some dinner, while Sally stayed behind and relaxed in the room. After a quick discussion with the hotel staff, I installed the Grab (3) app on my phone and ordered a car to drive me over. The 10 minute ride cost me $2.75.

Chiang Mai Walking Street: goods & services, November 2019

The place was packed, and huge. It was many blocks long along a wide avenue, and extended into the side streets as well. It’s hard for me to estimate how long it was because it was so crowded I couldn’t walk very quickly, or indeed at any sustained pace.

I spent a couple of hours walking around not just the walking street, but also passing the night market and eventually walking back to our hotel.

(1) “Wat” means temple

(2) He also explained Buddhism is not actually a religion; there is no god.

(3)Very similar to Uber, but offers a cash payment option as well.

Saturday, November 2: Dinner Addendum

Good music after good food, November 2019

I forgot to mention that our butler gave us a bunch of recommendations for dinner, and one of them turned out to be great. We drove over in a Grab (1) car that the hotel ordered for us, and had a great meal. To our surprise, they had a trio singing western-style music with a great singer. They started after we finished dinner, but we stayed and listened for almost another hour.

We went back to the hotel by tuk tuk.

(1) Grab is similar to Uber, but offers a cash payment option.

Saturday, November 2: Bye bye Bangkok

We are making eight stops on this trip, and we completed the first one Saturday. We left Bangkok to fly north to Chiang Mai (1).

We were concerned about packing for this flight, as Bangkok Air has a reputation for good service and strict baggage limits. According to their website, you are allowed 20 kg (44 lbs) checked and 5 kg (11 lbs) hand luggage. I wasn’t worried about the checked limit, but 11 lbs. carry-on is really tight. Sally’s rolling carry-on case is 6 lbs. empty; my cameras, critical meds, batteries, iPad and iPhone are around 9 lbs. without a bag.

So Sally packed into a soft bag for this flight, and we carried everything “lightly”.

Turns out no one ever looked at the hand luggage. They weighed our checked bags, which came in at about 38 kg in total (2). But I’ll take it. We have another flight with them to get back to Bangkok on our way home; now we can relax a bit more for that one.

The flight itself was short (1:10) and uneventful. We were met at the gate by our escorts, who collected our luggage and handed us over to June, our guide for our stay in Chiang Mai.

Pretty grounds, November 2019

We’re staying at another boutique hotel, 137 Pillars. They have less than 20 rooms. The public spaces and building are beautiful: teak structures, a lot of open areas. Our room has a huge balcony. But the room itself is weird.

Attractive, but dysfunctional, November 2019

First: no drawers to unpack in. As in, none. I mean, this is a comfortably sized room. It has a good sized dressing area with plenty of hangers and two little drawers full of the hair dryer and laundry bags. They found room for a full sized rocking chair. There is no dresser. There are no drawers in either night table – one is just a small table, the other is full of the minibar and coffee maker. But it does have room for a bar cart with lots of glasses and drinks for sale. So our stuff is spread out all over the room on any flat service: under the bathroom sinks, in suitcases lying open, etc.

Second: the bathroom is lovely, all glass and chrome. A huge free-standing tub in the middle, shower and toilet on either side. Both with clear glass doors. Yes, the water closet has a clear glass door. Not that I’m overly modest, but I don’t get the point of a door that offers no privacy. There are both indoor and outdoor showers. The vanity also has no drawers, and the counter is filled by the two sinks.

There are other random items in the room taking space that could be better served by storage: a large tv standing on the floor (not wall mounted), a Bionaire air filter, a Lucite magazine rack with advertising stuff, the bar table.

The balcony is beautiful, but the mosquitos are everywhere. We’re both wearing DEET now.

Anyway, we scattered our stuff around and went for dinner.

(1) “Chiang” = city; “Mai” = new; we’re going to New City LoL.

(2) Amazingly they allow a family to pool their luggage allowances.

Friday, November 1: Transportation Travails

Friday was our last full day in Bangkok. As we had deliberately limited our pre-booked tours here to only one on Thursday, we had to find something to do. We had extensive conversations with our butler, Bright (1).

Bright the Butler, November 2019

A butler at the Siam Hotel is unlike anything I’ve experienced before. He is a combination personal concierge and personal customer service representative to the hotel. He will make dining reservations at the hotel or elsewhere, make suggestions for tours and arrange transportation, get housekeeping to bring towels, etc. Bright was an engaging and friendly young man who seemed to unobtrusively follow us around. In fact, he always seemed to appear whenever we were somewhere in the hotel. Late each day, he would talk to us about our plans for the following day, making suggestions and discussing alternatives.

Long-tail boat, November 2019

After deep discussions, we agreed that a long-tail boat ride down a canal to an artists’ area would be just the ticket, and so he booked a boat. Long-tail boats are long, narrow boats with an eight cylinder car engine mounted above the stern driving a propeller at the end of a long exposed driveshaft. They are loud – very loud – and go fast. Unfortunately when we came down to the dock to meet our boat, the wind was making the river too choppy for us, so we cancelled the boat ride (2).

Jim Thompson House, November 2019

We developed a backup plan, which was to take a taxi (3) to the Jim Thompson house. Thompson was an American OSS (4) operative during World War II who worked in Thailand, and who decided to stay after the war, and developed the Thai silk industry. After he disappeared while vacationing in Malaysia in 1967, the home he had created was turned into a museum. It’s quite nice, with a number of buildings he relocated to the site, reconstructed and furnished with Asian antiques. Unfortunately pictures are not allowed in the main building, so you’ll have to look elsewhere (5).

From there we walked over to an the Bangkok Art & Culture Center, but first went to find some lunch. We found that unique Thai restaurant, Jamie Oliver’s Italian Bistro. Pizza and pasta! After lunch we went back to look at the art, which was okay, but not great. A bunch of the pieces looked like parent visiting day for second grade.

How do I find the Siam Hotel?, November 2019

Getting home was an adventure. I stupidly decided to try a tuk tuk (6), although a 25 minute ride in one is probably not a good idea. But the driver I chose not only had no idea where the hotel was, but couldn’t understand the printed direction card I gave him, use Google Maps, or get directions from his friend – another tuk tuk driver he flagged down. So after 10 minutes of driving aimlessly, we bailed out (without paying) and found real taxi.

Street food in Chinatown, November 2019

We had dinner (for the second time) in the hotel restaurant, then afterwards I went down to see Chinatown. Chinatown in Bangkok is several blocks of street food. I mostly wanted to see the crowd and the action, as I had already eaten and wasn’t really interested in trying the boiled squid with egg and other delicacies on offer. And crowded it was.

Posing, November 2019

The main part of the area runs along both sides of a wide boulevard. The crowds significantly overflow the sidewalks onto the street.

Food for sale, November 2019

Some of the vendors apparently are renowned, as the lines to buy their take-away food, or sit at tiny plastic tables on plastic stools, was very long.

Crowded streets, November 2019

Getting home was again an adventure. The first two taxis I tried (no tuk tuk for me this time) wanted double what I paid to get there. After futilely bargaining with each, I finally found a driver who (a) was willing to run the meter, and (b) could find the hotel. Twenty minutes and $3 later I was home.


(1) I’m pretty sure “Bright” is not what his mother named him. Yet that’s what his name tag said. All of the butlers (there were several) had western names on their tags.

(2) Bright negotiated a big discount on the cancellation fee with the driver.

(3) I didn’t know what to expect, as there are three levels of taxis: cars, tuk tuks, and motor bikes. The 25 minute car taxi ride cost about $3 on the meter.

(4) OSS: Office of Strategic Services, the WWII predecessor to the CIA. Yes, he was a spy.

(5) You can look here:

(6) Tuk tuks are motorized tricycles. The front looks like a motorcycle with a windscreen, while the back is a canopied seat for two that occasionally holds up to four. They don’t appear to be equipped with mufflers.

Thursday, October 31: All that glitters

Our guide, Moo (1), picked us up at 8:00 this morning for our half day Temple & Palace tour. Meeting at 8:00 means getting up before 7, which seems very un-vacation like, but we’re 11 hours ahead of EDT and still jet lagged anyway. We were a bit late, but light traffic enabled us to recover the time and we got to the first stop before it even opened at 8:30.

I can’t even tell you what we actually saw, at least not without doing a lot of research from guide books. It felt to me like we ran for three hours straight, visiting temples and palaces built by various kings over the last hundreds of years. Between Moo’s accent, my unfamiliarity with anything to do with Thai history, and the seemingly endless number of Kings named Rama (2), I quickly lost track of who built what.

Not that it mattered.

Can you say “glitz”, children?, October 2019

Everything was covered in gold and jewels. I don’t mean swords, crowns and furniture, I mean entire buildings. And statues of angles, Buddhas, devils, and monkeys.

Monks, a guard and us, October 2019

By shear luck, we came to a temple built by someone or other where a group of monks were chanting and blessing people. We got sprinkled with holy water, were given string bracelets and apparently were blessed. He didn’t say much (that I could understand).

More glitz. And us. October, 2019

There were an endless number of statues of angles, devils and monkeys. And lots of gold leaf, except for the stuff that was solid gold. And Buddhas.

After three hours of this, we were ready to retreat.

Siam Hotel, October 2019

We came back to the hotel around noon, where we had lunch. We spent the rest of the day at the hotel, getting massages, lounging around, using our private pool, and just generally relaxing.

The spa at Siam, October 2019

(1) She told us Moo is the nickname her mother gave her as a baby. Confusingly, it means “pig” in Thai. Which is not considered an insult.

(2) Rama IV was immortalized by Yul Brenner in The King and I

Wednesday, October 30: River of dreams

Today was our first full day in Bangkok. One of the choices we made in planning this trip was to have a mixture of scheduled and non-scheduled days; this was a non-scheduled one, mostly because we assumed we would be pretty jet-lagged, as we are 11 hours ahead of EDT here. We both took sleeping pills Tuesday night and both managed a few hours of sleep.

River scenes, October 2019

After breakfast we took the complimentary shuttle boat that the Siam Hotel runs up and down the Chao Phraya River, which runs through Bangkok. Traffic is terrible, and boats are a very efficient way of getting from one place to another as long as your start and end points are on or near the river. Our hotel sits right on the river, with its own dock, and we headed 30 minutes down to an area with some art galleries and other shopping to see what’s up.

Just another glitzy mall, October 2019

The art galleries were mildly interesting. We took a ferry across the river to ICON SIAM, a very new and very large shopping center that rivals any upscale mall in the US. After cruising through it (1) we found a place that we thought might have acceptable food (2) and had lunch.

We came home on the hotel boat after some uncertainty about where they would pick us up. Then after relaxing and cleaning up, we got back on the boat to return to the same area for dinner in a restaurant that wasn’t all that good. I enjoyed mine, but I think that was more from being hungry than the quality of the food. And finally another boat ride home. So more than two hours on boats today, going up and down the Chao Phraya.

Night on the river, October 2019

I promised some pictures of our suite at the Siam, so here you are.

Room 105, Siam Hotel, October 2019

(1) Everyone at the hotel and Moo, our guide, all thought the mall was worth seeing. But once you’ve seen Gap, Apple, Uniqlo, Dior and Louis Vuitton at a hundred malls, the next one isn’t that exciting.

(2) Between Sally’s garlic issue and my food pickiness, we run out of good choices real fast.

Tuesday, October 29: Here we are

The flights from home to Dubai, and then from Dubai to Bangkok were uneventful but long. The first and longer flight was on a 777, and had nice but pretty standard business class with all the usual amenities: big screen tv, power outlets, lay-flat seats for sleeping. The second flight was on a 380 and we were on the upper deck in the newer and more luxurious “pod” style seats. On both the Emirates attendants were excellent.

Sky Pod, October 2019

After landing in Bangkok we found our airport escort who guided us through the maze and crowds that is Bangkok’s airport, put us on the Fast Track passport control line, collected our luggage and took us to our guide, Moo, and driver. The ride into the city was okay until less than a mile from the hotel, where it took us 20 or so minutes to go one block. Moo chatted for the entire 1:15 trip. I know she was just doing her job and trying to entertain us, but neither Sally or I were in the mood.

Antique horns in the bar, October 2019

We’re staying at the Siam Hotel, which is furnished with antiques of all sorts. Our room has the usual chests and accessories, but one bar has 20 or more tubas, French horns, etc. hanging above the bar.

I did take pictures of our room (of course), but it was dark already when we arrived. I may try again later. Suffice to say that it’s quite spacious with a private pool and roof deck, where one can sit in the heat and humidity.

Monday, October 28

So here we are in the Business Lounge at the airport. It’s nice, and empty.

Just us, October 2019

The security line, however was not so empty. We waited about 20 minutes despite having TSA-Pre and Business tickets. They only had one scanner open.

Anyway, we board soon for a twelve+ hour flight. And then another six+ hour flight.

Sunday, October 27: All revved up and some place to go

Tomorrow we’re off on our next journey, heading east to Bangkok and beyond. It’s about 8,667 (1) miles away and we stop in Dubai on the way.

Packing is always the same, and always different. You’re going to a different climate (or climates), you’re planning different activities, you’re using different modes of transportation.

This trip will have a warm 🥴 climate – the highs at our stops average from 75 to 90, while the overnight lows go from 61 to76. I always find it hard packing for a warm climate when it’s cool at home. And I expect we’ll have some rain along the way.

It’s a long trip, so we need to bring enough consumables (like meds and some toiletries) that we probably can’t acquire while traveling.

And finally, we’re taking a number of regional flights from city to city, and so we will be packing for air travel many times. Batteries, fragile items, meds, valuables, etc. need to be hand luggage. And some of the regional carriers have ridiculously restrictive carry-on limits (2).

All that said, we are pretty much packed for our morning departure. As usual, I’m taking one hard-sided suitcase as checked baggage, and carrying-on my camera bag. Fortunately the camera stuff itself isn’t that big, as all the other stuff needs to fit in it as well. My checked bag is only 36 lbs, and the backpack is 11 lbs. Both inside the limits we face on this trip.

The usual bags, October 2019

Anyway, I’m pretty excited and looking forward to seeing some new places. Should be interesting.

(1) The Earth’s circumference is 24,901 miles, so we’re going more than a third of the way around.

(2) Bangkok Air limits your one piece of cabin luggage to 5 kg or 11 lbs.