Friday, June 25, 2010

Hong Kong

Hong Kong wasn't part of our original itinerary, but in order to fly to Shanghai on our RTW ticket, we had a layover in Hong Kong and decided we may as well spend a few days exploring the city and its famous skyline.

Hong Kong was a bit of a shock to our wallets compared to the rest of Southeast Asia, but we were able to find a relatively inexpensive hotel in Kowloon across the harbor from Hong Kong island. We stayed in the Chungking Mansion. Contrary to images that "mansion" may conjure, the building is a huge, old building housing a myriad of small shops and restaurants on the first level and numerous hotels and guesthouses on the other levels.

From Wikipedia:

CUHK anthropologist Prof. Gordon Mathews estimates that people from at least 120 different nationalities have passed through Chungking Mansions in the past year.

With this lively mix of guest workers, mainlanders, local Chinese, tourists and backpackers, the Chungking neighbourhood is one of the most culturally diverse locations in Hong Kong. Chungking Mansions was elected as the "Best Example of Globalization in Action" by TIME Magazine in its annual feature "The Best of Asia."

The building is kind of rundown and the rooms in the hotel we stayed at were barely more than a prison cell. But that is par for the course, so we've been told, for budget accommodations in Hong Kong.

Our first full day was Wednesday and we were happy to find that most museums have free admission on Wednesdays. The monsoon season is heating up and the weather wasn't great so we took the day to wander the Kowloon Cultural Center on the water facing Hong Kong Island. This area provides some of the iconic views of Hong Kong.

We visited the art museum and the space museum. The art museum was great with everything from modern art to calligraphy to ancient artifacts exhibits. The space museum was definitely geared for kids and rather dated. They still have Pluto as a planet and one exhibit called Venus a star!

Street food seems to be harder to find in Hong Kong now than it was just a few years ago as we've been told the government is not renewing licenses or issuing new ones to street vendors. This is a shame as we were really looking forward to Hong Kong street food. We did find some dim sum down near the Temple Street Market and tried some dumplings and a BBQ pork bun.

Restaurants were much more expensive so we stuck to street food and eating cup o' noodles outside the 7-11. "For richer or for poorer..."

The rain never really went away for our time in Hong Kong so we never made it out to some of the outlying islands to experience some of the hiking and beaches in the area, but we did visit Hong Kong Island via ferry.

Immediately noticeable as we stepped off the ferry was the lack of hawkers. Hawking bans are strictly enforced on this side of Victoria Harbor and, we must say, it was nice respite. As the skyline pictures above indicate, Hong Kong Island is filled with modern skyscrapers and most house incredibly nice malls in their lower levels. We went to the 88-story International Finance Centre and the I.M. Pei-designed Bank of China Tower. Both may be recognizable to you if you saw the recent Batman movie "The Dark Knight."

We wandered around a bit as well and the central elevated walkway made getting around a breeze.

We eventually headed back to Kowloon to catch the Symphony of Lights, which is a well-coordinated musical presentation in which the lights of Hong Kong's buildings display an elaborate lightshow in step with the music. The lightshow was pretty cool, I guess, but we commented that we may be a bit spoiled by Vegas. The music was interesting too. It was sort of like a combination of syclavier-era Frank Zappa mixed with 16-bit Nintendo music (I realize that analogies should make something clearer and probably no one gets this analogy, but it is literally all I could think of -- it was weird!). Here is a video that we did not take if you're interested in seeing it (I don't have audio on our PC right now, so I'm not sure if it is the same music or not)

It was cool too see a bit of Hong Kong. It is definitely the most contradictory city we have visited, with one foot firmly in the east and one firmly in the west. Now on to mainland China where hopefully we won't be eating cup o' noodles!


Monday, June 21, 2010


Despite two previous stops in Bangkok (was supposed to be three were it not for the red shirt protests), we still hadn't really had a chance to explore the city. This time through we had more time and feel we truly got to experience Bangkok --- the good, the bad and the ugly.

We ended up staying not far from the palace, many of the more popular temples and the infamous Khao San Road. But we were still far enough away to have a nice mellow, quiet hotel. We did venture down to Khao San a few times, however, and it lived up to it billing.

The recent unrest in Bangkok hasn’t seemed to slow down Khao San, at least after dark. The street and really the area are jammed packed with restaurants, bars and guesthouses. For those that don't know, it is the backpacker mecca of Bangkok and was made famous (or more famous) by the 1997 book (and later Leonardo DiCaprio movie) called "The Beach." Khao San, like Vang Vieng and Haad Rin on Koh Phangan (also depicted in "The Beach") pretty much solely exists now to cater to backpackers looking to get wasted cheap and with no ID required.

These have not been our favorite types of places. But Khao San is definitely a sight to behold. It reminds me of nights on Sixth Street in Austin, Texas on steroids, but with Black Eyed Peas' "I Gotta Feeling" blaring constantly from ten different clubs.

The World Cup also brought out loads of crazy fans and every restaurant and bar shows the games. That said, we met some really nice folks sitting and watching some of the matches.

A few blocks north of Khao San there is a street loaded with street stalls. Really the stalls are everywhere, but here there was a good concentration of them and we found the best Pad Thai either of us have ever had. We went back a few times to try to get more, but never found them open again.

We also decided we had to go see some temples. Honestly, we were getting a bit sick of visiting temples. Not that they aren't beautiful, but we've seen a lot of churches and temples at this point. We decided to first walk down to Wat Pho, one of the more famous temples and site of the giant reclining Buddha (more on that later). As we were walking south to the wat, we realized we might be off by a street or so, so we sat down in a park and tried to hide the fact that we were consulting a guidebook map. Alas we were made and a nice older Thai man came up to us and offered to help. At first we were a bit wary, but he seemed very genuine. Still I was thinking that perhaps he'd ask us for a bit of change for helping at most. He told us about some of the temples on our map, suggesting some and not being too enthusiastic about others. He also pointed us to nice temples not featured in the guidebooks such as the Lucky Buddha and "Glorious Temple."

He then gave us what seemed like great locals advice and said always get a tuk tuk with a white license plate as these are government licensed and prices are fixed. Wow really!?! Why haven't I heard of this before!

We headed out to the street to look for a white license plate. A few yellow license plates passed and then there came a white. Our new friend hailed him for us and showed him on our map where we wanted to go. We got the great price of just 50 baht (about US$1.50) for our own tuk tuk for the whole day of temple gazing! Thanks, new friend! And off we went.

The first temple, Wat Indrawiharn, was very cool and featured a giant 32 meter (100 foot) tall standing Buddha.

The second temple, the so-called "Lucky Buddha" (I still don't know its real name) was actually quite nice too. Not a tourist to be seen anywhere. It wasn't very big though and after a quick look around, we headed back to the tuk tuk. When we got there, the driver asks if it is okay if he goes to the toilet. Of course, we say sure! Shortly after he leaves, a man in the car next to us starts talking to us. He asks about us and where we're from then says he is lawyer too and works for a firm called Baker & McKenzie. They have offices in the US too, he says. Leslie knows of the firm and we have a nice conversation. He's a corporate tax lawyer, he says, but his parents still live in Bangkok and his brother is a monk at this very wat. “Where are you headed,” he asks. We show him on the map that our Thai professor friend from the park had helped us with. "Oh Glorious!" he says, "you will really like that." Oh why is that? "Well it's the best tailor in Thailand, maybe all of Asia," he says. Uhh, what!?! Tailor? Umm, we thought it was a temple. "No, but it is great deal, usually not open to tourists, only Thai people. Today is the last day of their tourist promotion.”

We may be slow, but at this point, it clicked. The guy in the park must work for this tailor, I said to Leslie later as we were underway again in the tuk tuk. At that point I told the tuk tuk driver that we didn't need any clothes, we didn't have money to buy them even if we did and we could skip Glorious and head to the next temple. At this, the tuk tuk driver came clean (sorta) and said he gets free gas coupons from the tailor if he brings us there. We only need to look for five minutes, he says. Okay, we can look for five minutes to get this guy some free gas. At least he's being honest, we think.

We were expecting a hard sale at the tailor, but really didn't get it. We sat down in the “VIP room” for five minutes, looked at some catalogs and then left. No big deal really. We then went to Wat Benchamabophit affectionately known as simply Wat Ben. Another really nice temple, but we were tired and decided to save Wat Pho for the next day.

After being dropped back at our guesthouse, I simply had to know what had just happened to us and Googled "Glorious Tailors." What I found was exact descriptions of our day. From the "professor" in the park to the tuk tuk driver bathroom break to the "lawyer" from the UK (or the U.S. if he happens to be talking to Europeans) to the claims of free gas coupons to Glorious Tailors. Everything that had happened to us that day went according to script. It was very elaborate and very convincing. We read online that a lot of people do buy a lot of stuff from Glorious which, of course, is why they do it. We didn't buy anything, however, and got a good day at the temples out of it and a very cheap tuk tuk for the day. All we lost was a little pride at being deceived so easily. All part of the Bangkok experience, I guess.

The next day we did head down to Wat Pho and saw the temple and the famous reclining Buddha.

From Wikipedia:

Wat Pho is one of the largest and oldest wats in Bangkok (with an area of 50 rai, 80,000 square metres), and is home to more than one thousand Buddha images, as well as one of the largest single Buddha images: the Reclining Buddha. Made as part of Rama III's restoration, the Reclining Buddha is forty-six metres long and fifteen metres high, decorated with gold plating on his body and mother of pearl on his eyes and the soles of his feet. The latter display 108 auspicious scenes in Chinese and Indian styles.

The Wat Pho complex consists of two walled compounds bisected by Soi Chetuphon running east–west. The northern walled compound is where the reclining Buddha and massage school are found. The southern walled compound, Tukgawee, is a working Buddhist monastery with monks in residence and a school.

It was quite cool, but again, we were a little numb to the temples by this point. With that in mind (and a relatively expensive entry fee) we decided to skip the Grand Palace and just saw that from the street.

Bangkok is definitely a trip! We're glad that things have returned to some semblance of normalcy after the protests so we were able to explore this city. Now off to Hong Kong!


Thursday, June 17, 2010


We had decided a while back to fly from Hanoi to Lao. In fact, it's the reason we had the three-way ticket from Siem Reap to Hanoi to Lao in the first place as the three-way ticket actually made it cheaper. We had heard a bunch of horror stories about the bus ride and the border crossing so we opted to take the quick 45-minute flight to Luang Prabang.

The vibe in Lao is completely different than in Vietnam. We had heard that Lao was sleepy, but the slow pace of life in Lao still was a bit of a shock. Luang Prabang sits on a peninsula where the Nam Khan river flows into the Mekong. The city is very small consisting of just three main roads running lengthwise on the peninsula between the two rivers. In the middle of the town there is a steep hill that houses Buddhist temples and a stupa that crowns the hilltop. This main "old town" is only about a kilometer long and a quarter kilometer wide yet is home to about 20 wats (a wat is a Buddhist temple that has living quarters for monks). Buddhist monks are a very common sight in Luang Prabang.

In addition to the various wats, temples and stupas, there is a great deal of French colonial influence and much of the architecture is French. This all makes for a very beautiful and peaceful place.

Just outside Luang Prabang we visited the Kuang Si waterfalls. The falls are a popular spot for locals and tourists alike. But the area is very big and it was pretty easy to get away from the crowds. Though we did try out the rope swing in the main pool.

The falls are beautiful! We have seen a LOT of waterfalls on this trip and this may be our favorite. It almost looked fake like something from a zoo or Las Vegas. But it is all natural. Swimming in the emerald waters was very refreshing and the "doctor fish" nibbled at our feet. These little fish can also be found on many street corners in Southeast Asia. Small tanks are set up and customers pay good money to dip their feet in and have the fish nibble and massage their feet (supposedly eating away at dead skin). It was certainly an interesting sensation, but one we were glad to not have paid for.

We hiked around the area as well going up to the top of the falls. All in all it was a great day in a beautiful spot.

It is not all peace and quiet in Luang Prabang though as it does have its fair share of restaurants and bars. We mostly ate street food on an alley off the night market where 10,000 kip (about USD$1.20) gets you a large plate that you can fill up with as much food as you can. The food was great and Leslie enjoyed the night market as usual.

We also spent one night in a local bar with a very international crowd watching the opening match of the World Cup between host South Africa and Mexico. Watching it with such an enthusiastic crowd gave us a new appreciation for "the beautiful game" though we still needed someone to explain to us Americans why a draw isn't anti-climatic.

After Luang Prabang we made our way south and decided to stop in Vang Vieng. Vang Vieng has become a backpacker mecca in recent years and we have seen T-shirts from the small town as far away as South America. The town is located in a gorgeous valley along the Nam Song river surrounded by karst mountains similar to those in Halong Bay, Vietnam.

Supposedly the town started to attract the attention of backpackers due to the beautiful setting and a chance to visit an unspoiled Lao town. Ironically, the town is now overrun with backpackers, mostly younger, who come to go tubing on the river and get drunk. Guesthouses, restaurants and TV bars are everywhere. The TV bars are an interesting concept where TVs playing bootlegged DVDs of American TV shows -- mostly Friends and Family Guy -- are played non-stop and backpackers lie around watching and nursing hangovers (or start on new ones).

We were going to try the tubing but we started to notice that a lot of the westerners around town had patches over their eyes. We even saw one guy with patches over both eyes being led home from the hospital by his girlfriend! We started inquiring about this to people we met and found out that many of the people who had been tubing came away with conjunctivitis (pink eye)! Some of the backpackers tried to claim that it was just an outbreak in the hostels, but we asked one of the guys that rents the tubes and he just shrugged and said that it was the start of the rainy season and things are getting washed down from the mountains. So we decided against it and got out of dodge a day early. Vang Vieng wasn't one of favorite spots which is too bad really because it is a beautiful area.

Our last stop in Lao was the capital city of Vientiane. Like the rest of Lao, even its biggest city has a peaceful, unhurried feel to it. Like Luang Prabang, Vientiane sits in the Mekong valley. There are a lot of temples and wats here as well and we visited a few, though we are beginning to get a little "templed out."

One of the things we were really looking forward to was the street stalls and beer gardens that set up along the Mekong. However there is a good deal of construction going on now because they are redoing the promenade along the river and there didn't seem to be much going on. We opted not to endure the construction and instead stuck to the restaurants near our guesthouse.

Vientiane is also the place we found ourselves on the 16th of June, more than eight months into our "honeymoon", for our first wedding anniversary. We splurged and dropped nearly USD$20 on a big sushi dinner and talked about how great that week in Dunton and Telluride was and how fantastic this year has been.


Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Hội An and Huế, Vietnam

After our Halong Bay adventure we began our journey to Hội An by taking a bus, boat bus, motorcycle and then two more buses. Exhausted by the 34 hour journey we stepped into our $13 a night beautiful hotel with a pool. Hội An has become a travelers destination as it is a quaint town with cheap accommodations, really good food and is a mecca for clothes. It is funny because the little town with $13 a night rooms is just about 45 minutes away from Da Nang with 5 star Hiltons and Greg Norman golf courses, and Hội An is exceedingly more charming. We were a bit worried because often these charming towns become "Disney-fied" by the excessive tourism, but Hội An retains its charm and local flavor despite a high number of tourists and expats.

Our initial itinerary for Vietnam got somewhat derailed by the unrest in Bangkok. Because we decided to fly to Kuala Lumpur instead of getting visas in Bangkok, we ended up having to fly to Hanoi instead of our original plan to take the bus from Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). As a result, Hội An is as far south as we traveled in Vietnam. The sleeper bus we took south was interesting and restless enough to persuade us to spring for the train on the way back north.

Hội An's old town is basically just three main streets parallel to the river. There is a boardwalk area on one of the islands in the river as well, but it seemed more touristy and we didn't spend much time there. The old town is dominated by French colonial buildings often framed by beautiful flowers and lanterns.

As with much of Vietnam, the streets are clogged with motorbikes, but old town is certainly less crowded than many places. Still you need to be on your toes! We spent the majority of our time just walking the streets and trying the various street foods that are unique to Hội An. Interestingly (and debatable) is that two of the most famous local dishes -- White Rose dumplings and cáo láo -- are said to get their unique qualities due to the water used that comes from a single well in Hoi An and the ash from a particular tree. Additionally, the White Rose dumplings recipe is a secret, held by one family in Hội An who supplies all the restaurants in town. White Rose dumplings do have a very light, soft rice paper that surrounds a shrimp filing and a garlic rice wine vinegar dipping sauce. The White Rose has become our favorite Vietnamese dish so far. Fresh shrimp and nice light rice paper? Hard not to love.

The cáo láo is a noodle dish with sliced pork and fried dough on top (and a load of mint and other veggies). The cáo láo had an almost gingery broth and in my opinion (likely to get flak about it from hardcore phở fans....) better than any phở I have had! Also, all these dishes are typically a dollar on the street where you sit on tiny plastic stools with other Vietnamese. Jim and I both agreed that the street vendors are generally a step above their restaurant counterparts selling the same dish.

One morning I got up early to check out the local market to see the fishing boats come in. I got up at 5am, jumped out of bed and headed quickly to the fish market as the boats come in early. At 5 am the sun was already rising and the town was quiet and serene. However, the serenity was soon over as I got to the fish market. The market is slight chaos as small boats with one lady and baskets of fish compete for space to unload while slightly bigger ships with 6-7 fisherman are frantically unloading their catch as well. Even while the unloading is happening, others are yelling and bargaining for the best deals on the purchases before the fish can even get off the boat. I tried as best I could to just stay out of the way as there was barely enough room to walk around. It was hard to stay out of the way, but through the hustle and bustle I could kind of stay in the background, take pictures and witness the craziness.

We also took the opportunity to pick up some new clothes. Hội An is famous for its custom made clothing sold at amazingly low prices. We stopped into a tailor shop called Thiên Thi after a few days of the tailor's brother recognizing us on the street and chatting with us to get us to visit his shop. Most of the people trying to sell us stuff asked where we were from, but his response to us saying we were from the United States was definitely the funniest. He said jovially, "Oh USA!! Before we were bang bang (making guns with his fingers) and now we're Yay! (making a hugging motion)." His persistence paid off and I bought a few custom made skirts.

Though located inland a bit on the river, Hội An is close to the beach as well, and we rented some bikes and headed out the four kilometers for a day at the beach. It was nice just to cool off a bit as temperatures were regularly in the upper 90s with lots of humidity.

After Hội An we took a quick bus ride back north to Huế. We decided to stop in Huế on the way north instead of on the way south in order to be there for the big annual Festival. The festival has traditional Vietnamese dances and concerts as well as some international acts. The Citadel, which is the former Imperial Palace, is extravagantly decorated with lights and traditional paper lanterns.

We were only in Huế for a couple of days but we did go explore the Citadel, a walled-in section of the city that is somewhat reminiscent of Cartagena, Colombia. We spent most of our time in the Citadel exploring the Imperial Palace. Contrary to Hội An, Huế has seen its fair share of war and unfortunately much of it had been destroyed by bombings, but it is slowly being rebuilt and restored.

As always, we tried the local specialties... bánh nậm has shrimp (and sometimes a little pork too) in a rice like roll that is steamed in a banana leaf. Using a banana leaf to seal in food and steam it has become my new obsession as it creates interesting, delicious and pretty healthy food. Anyone know where one can find banana leaves in Boulder?? Finally, another fantastic food idea is the nem lụi cháy. Tofu or meat on a lemongrass stalk with veggies. You wrap it in rice paper and dip it in peanut sauce. (Peanut sauce can make anything taste good though!)

Finally we headed back to Ha Noi on the overnight train. The train was much nicer than the bus as we had our own bed. We did share the small berth that had 6 beds with 3 kids and 3 adults (besides ourselves). It sounds crowded, but the family was lovely and the young kids were practicing their English they learned in school with us.

Really, it was a pretty easy and relaxing trip through Vietnam, and Jim and I were laughing that this post might be a little boring as everything went pretty dang perfectly! Easy travel is of course great, but does not give a funny story afterwords. That is the pleasant thing about Vietnam, the beautiful people, amazing food and gorgeous landscapes.