All posts by Mightydin

Let the shopping begin

Hoi An is my favorite place in Vietnam and I was looking forward to this stop on the cruise. Our tour guide was relatively young and seemed eager to practice his English. Throughout the tour, he asked me the English word for various things, for example mermaid. I hope I did not mess up his vocabulary.
Hoi An has not changed much since my last visit – it’s a charming town that successfully retained its roots as a 15th century trading port. Due to the time constraints of having to be back on our ship by 5:00 pm, we did not get a chance to see Hoi An at its best which I think is late afternoon into the evening when the streets are lit up by the hundreds of lanterns strung above and the river is alive with illuminated floats and small lanterns carrying wishes of those who placed on the river.
We did explore the streets in the morning and haggled with shopkeepers for souvenirs. Since prices are still cheap, you’re arguing over a few dollars at most but it’s a game that shopkeepers like to play and allows tourists to feel that they really scored a bargain.

The famous Japanese Bridge but as our tour guide said, there's really nothing Japanese about it.
The famous Japanese Bridge but as our tour guide said, there’s really nothing Japanese about it.

 

Bridge into Ancient Hoi An town.
Bridge into Ancient Hoi An town.
RC rocking the local look.
RC rocking the local look.

 

 

 

Spa Break

The cruise had only one day at port in Phu My, the gateway to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) which was about 1.5 hours away. Given the short time there (and how long it takes to drive to interesting areas such as Mekong Delta), we decided to spend the day in HCMC and make it spa day. We booked appointments at Spa Tropic which was recommended me to me by a cousin.

Getting to the spa involved a couple of obstacles: avoid getting scammed by our driver ( he wanted $8 but I insisted that he use his meter which ended costing $3); and we needed to cross streets which made RC nervous. Her baptism by fire was a six lane road at the edge of a traffic circle with no traffic light or pedestrian crosswalk. She conquered the street without any squeals and quickly became a pro.

The spa was wonderful costing about a third of the price back home. Feeling sufficiently pampered, we explored Dong Khoi, one of the main shopping street in HCMC. RC bought some greeting cards. We didn’t haggle much because they were so cheap to begin with and we felt better when the vendor quoted a price twice as much to a Chinese couple who came up after us.

ELEPHANTS AND TIGERS AND BRIDGES, OH MY

RC here, guest-blogging about my too-brief visit to Thailand with Mightydin at the beginning of Feb. 2014. Where to start? It was the first time either of us had been to this remarkable country, and our excursion may not have been particularly typical. We came via cruise ship and never actually set foot in Bangkok. However, our guide and driver (Bangkok Day Tours) did take us through this remarkable city of numerous high-rises where 11 million people live and work. While we drove through the city, our guide talked about the protesters who have been demonstrating in Bangkok for the last two months. I thought he was exaggerating when he said there were millions of demonstrators in the streets, until he showed me pictures on his cell phone of people filling the streets shoulder-to-shoulder for many blocks. In fact, our guide was one of the demonstrators. They have been protesting the prime minister’s policies as to payments to rice farmers.

Bridge over the River Kwai
Bridge over the River Kwai but not the one from the movie

Our first stop was in a western province of Thailand, at the bridge over the River Kwai, the site of some of the terrible events of World War Two. The Japanese forced prisoners of war from England, Australia, Malaysia, and elsewhere, including some Americans, to build a railroad bridge through malaria-infested jungles to serve as part of their supply line. Many, many POWs lost their lives due to malaria, starvation, the dangers of the work, or the brutality of the guards. Many who escaped perished in the jungle. Today, you can walk on the bridge, and look at some of the original bridge abutments, which were subject to multiple bombings by Allied Forces. It’s an incredibly moving place, albeit surrounded by a small town and agricultural fields.

 

The monk distracts the tiger while Mightydin sneaks behind to pet it.
The monk distracts the tiger while Mightydin sneaks behind to pet it.

After lunch, we went on to the Tiger Temple. This is a wildlife sanctuary where Buddhist monks care for tigers, water buffaloes, deer, a bear, wild pigs and other animals. The remarkable thing about it is that a volunteer will escort visitors, one by one, into the area where the well-fed tigers are sprawled in the hot afternoon sun. The guide will show you where to pose and take your picture with the tiger. They encourage you to pet the tigers!

 

OK, so in the first picture, I am not smiling and my hand is hovering about an inch above the black-and-orange stripes of the tiger’s fur. In the second picture, I did manage to stroke the tiger’s fur, which felt just like the fur of a short-haired house cat. It wasn’t until we got to the third or fourth tiger that I’m not only petting the tiger, but also smiling. However, my pulse did not return to normal until at least five minutes after we left “Tiger Canyon.”

Then it was on to the elephant compound, where we began with a ride on an elephant’s back. We sat on a seat and an elephant handler sat on the beast’s neck and guided it around. Our elephant was hungry, so the handler let it eat a bunch of long grass during the ride. Also, we watched as one elephant fed grass to another one. Lastly, it was time for “elephant bathing.” The guide helped me to sit directly on the neck of the elephant, with him sitting behind me. You hang on by clutching the beast with your legs and placing your hands on its head. It takes some getting used to, and is not as easy as it looks. Plus, you are considerably higher off the ground than if you were riding a horse. So it isn’t for someone who is afraid of heights or doesn’t have good balance. The elephants were guided down a steep bank to the river, then into the river. The muddy water came up to mid-thigh level on me, until the elephant submerged everything except its head. Also, the handlers encouraged the elephants to spray water on me and on my traveling companion. You can also sit on the elephant’s trunk, but I opted not to do that.

 

That evening, we stayed at a local hotel. We were up, had finished breakfast, and on the road by 7:30 a.m. to go to the Floating Market. Along the way, we saw many trucks carrying sugar cane to the sugar refineries. Some of the trucks were painted in beautiful and elaborate designs.

Traffic jam at the floating market.
Traffic jam at the floating market.

Upon reaching the network of canals that form the Floating Market, we climbed into a paddle boat. The boatman sat in the back and paddled along the canal where grocers sold their produce from other boats, and others sold foods that they had cooked right on their boats. We passed many stalls selling every imaginable type of tourist item. The merchants were eager to bargain in either Thai baht or US dollars.

 

Our tour concluded with lunch along the highway that led back to another part of Bangkok and thence to the port.

Bon Voyage

imageAfter a few busy, fun days in Singapore, we boarded our ship, the Celebrity Millennium, for a tour of Southeast Asia. It’s an older, large (but not mega) ship with several restaurants and pools.

imageOur stateroom is decent-sized for a cruise ship and has a nice, large balcony.

 

 

 

After checking out the room, we headed to the pool deck for a last glimpse of Singapore before we sailed off into the sunset.

Traveling with family
Traveling with family

Modern Gardens

Having been to the traditional botanical garden, we decided to head to the new Gardens by the Bay with a modern take on floral and plant presentation.  One example is the Super Trees – gigantic man-made trees, though not at the heights of California redwoods.  You can take an elevator up on of the trees and walk a narrow skyway to another tree.  From that vantage point, you can get a sweeping view of the Singapore skyline with a few of the Super Trees in the foreground. image

 

 

 

 

 

 

imageOne of my favorite foods in Singapore is the crab in black pepper sauce which I think is better than the one with chili sauce.  I’ve been raving about the crab to RC since we decided to take this trip.  We ran out time for us to go to the container ship dock or anywhere else for that matter to get the crab, so we settled on getting it at the Majestic Restaurant in the Gardens by the Bay.  The dish is a jumbo crab from Sri Lanka smothers in the sauce.  The one we had was about 2.5 lbs. I was afraid that I overhyped the crab to RC especially since we were at a restaurant that I had never gone to.  I did not have to worry.  RC savored every bite with an expression of pure gastronomical bliss on her face.

Ethnic Enclaves

Singapore has several ethnic areas and we visited three of them – Chinatown, Little India, and Arab Street.  Since it was just after Lunar New Year, Chinatown was very festive with the streets and buildings adorned with Year of the Horse decorations.  We visited a Buddhist temple called the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple which was bustling with worshipers praying for a prosperous new year and tourists.  RC noticed that the two sets of visitors appear to mix well – the worshipers tolerated the tourist presence and the tourists were respectful of worshipers.

Several years ago, a friend who served in the Navy for 27 years insisted that I visited a hawker center, uniquely Singapore institutions.  These centers contain fool stalls that served just a few specialties and for very reasonable prices – basically street food in buildings with decent food safety handling.  Chinatown’s hawker center is Maxwell’s and I dragged RC there despite not being particularly hungry.  For $3 (US), we got a plate of rice with roasted pork and BBQ pork.  Delicious with an unexpected lion dance performance!

RC at Maxwell's
RC at Maxwell’s

image

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of the three ethnic areas we visited, Little India was probably the most ethnic in the sense that its shops and services (temples, etc.) are geared towards serving the Indian community and not tourists.  The area is crowded where you could probably find most things you would want from India especially food, clothing, and gold jewelry.  My parents went to Little India the day after I went to buy some mysteriously item they can only get there.  They did not say what and I figured it best that I did not know.

We found Arab Street charming with shops catering to the tourist crowd and magnificent mosques.  Unfortunately, I was so tired and jet lagged at this point that I did not take pictures of either Little India or Arab Street.

Food and Flowers

imageAfter meeting RC in Tokyo, we flew to Singapore getting in the early hours of the morning. When we arrived at Raffles Hotel, a very nice man met our car and whisked us to our rooms, leaving the bell staff to deal with our luggage. That set the tone for our 2 day stay – discreet pampering. The hotel was beautiful with wonderful wood paneling and had a very distinct colonial feel, not surprising since it was built in the 19th century when Singapore was a British colony. Raffles gave us a whole bunch of goodies including a tray of sweets and seeds in celebration of the lunar new year and.

One of the things I love about staying at an Asian hotel is the breakfast. Not only is the buffet spread overflowing but the variety is impressive. Their menu shows that they know how to cater to the ethnic diversity d their guests. There are your standard western items (eggs and I let’s cooked to order, countless types of pastries and breads, cold cuts, cereal, yogurt, etc.) but more interesting, dim sum, sushi, congee, bento boxes, and local favorites. For example, in Vietnam, the hotels always serve a noodle soup.
Raffles did not disappoint and their menu reflected the distinct flavors of Singapore.

And this was just a fourth of the breakfast spread at Raffles.
And this was just a fourth of the breakfast spread at Raffles.

 

 

 

 

image

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prehistoric trees that would make great Halloween decorations.
Prehistoric trees that would make great Halloween decorations.

 

RC and I started the day at the Botanic Gardens which is one of best I’ve ever been. We were there for 3 hours and covered only half of it. One section of the garden covered the evolution of plant life. RC got lots of inspiration for her writing – she likes to send people back in time to prehistoric age to see what they can do.

 

DSCN0059Singapore is obsessed with orchids and you get that as soon as you get off the plane. Changi Airport is adorn with numerous plant/floral displays featuring various orchids making it one of the most beautiful airports in the world. Naturally, the highlight of the botanic gardens is the National Orchid Garden. Not only was it orchid overload, we were able to see some rare orchids.

We decided to reward our 10,000 steps with high tea at the Regent Hotel. Former British colonies know how to put on a tea service and Singapore takes to new heights. High tea is not only tea sandwiches, scones, and pastries. At the Regent, it was filets of Wagyu beef, pâté, variety of garden and seafood salads, dim sum, and many other dishes. Here some I turns though I admit I ate a few plates and forgot to take pictures of them. I did manage to restraint myself by not going back for seconds on any of them.

Tea sandwiches and scones.
Tea sandwiches and scones.
Salad course
Salad course
Build your own crepe
Build your own crepe

 

 

Gourmet dining at 30,000 feet

I found trip reports to be incredible useful when planning a trip especially on deciding which airline to fly and finding out what to expect once on board.   So I thought to try my hand at writing one and hope that it will be useful to some other traveler.  I was able to snag a first class ticket to Tokyo on ANA and another first class ticket from Tokyo to Singapore on United using miles.  Overall, a wonderful way to travel half way round the world.

A typical trip report would start with the airport lounge experience.  I got to use the Lufthansa Senator Lounge at Dulles.  I found it small and dull.  The only thing I was looking forward to was the supposedly delicious Bavarian pretzels but I couldn’t find any which is just as well because eating one would have a challenged my ability to give the ANA offerings due justice.

I was excited to fly ANA because of its reputation for excellent food and over the top service.  I was not disappointed.  Upon arriving at the aircraft gate, I was immediately greeting by name and escorted to my seat where upon I proceeded to get a several gifts presented by more flight attendants “eager” to serve me during the flight.  After checking out the amenity kit in a miniature Rimowa case, I changed into the pyjama top. I had not planned to change prior to takeoff but the flight attendant kept on asking if she could escort me to the bathroom to do so, so I caved.  They were so nice and sweet, it was hard not to do what they ask – that’s probably the source of their power.

Soon after takeoff, the meal service began.  Now I had a glass of Kruger champagne prior to take off and it was so delicious I asked for another one when the service began.  It was served with a selection of hors d’oeuvres.

Champagne with snacks
Champagne with snacks

I ate the prosciutto with melon before I remembered to take a picture – I think this will be a common theme on this blog. Everything was delicious – cheese bread sticks, the aforementioned prosciutto, the goat cheese tart, and the lightly seared rare tuna. All washed down with yummy Krug – and I generally don’t like champagne!

 

 

What followed was a two-hour leisurely lunch:

Caviar with the fixings.  The bellinis were particularly good.
Caviar with the fixings. The bellinis were particularly good.

 

Octopus, shrimp, salmon roe
Octopus, shrimp, salmon roe
Sashimi
Sashimi

 

 

 

 

image
Duck, steamed cod in cabbage, rice, miso soup, pickled vegetable

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Followed by dessert…

Tea with petit fours. Notice one of the fours mysteriously disappearing before I could snap the photo.
Tea with petit fours. Notice one of the fours mysteriously disappearing before I could snap the photo.

 

 

 

and more dessert …

 

 

 

 

Chocolate lava cake with vanilla ice cream.
Chocolate lava cake with vanilla ice cream.

l

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now it’s nap time. ANA offers a turn down service that transforms your seat to a comfortable bed.  Lie flat seats on airplanes are a great invention but the cushions can get hard and the seams between the parts of the seats create bumps. ANA solves those issues by putting a thick foam layer on top of the seat.  Voila!

image

Mt. McKinley. Can't tell which peak but it's the tallest one : )
Mt. McKinley. Can’t tell which peak but it’s the tallest one : )

 

After I woke up, the flight attendant excitedly told me that we were flying over Mt. McKinley.  Her enthusiasm was so infectious that I had to take a picture.

 

I could go on and on about how great it was to fly ANA but this post is getting to long as it is.  To sum, I’m saving up miles to fly ANA again

Functionality

My friend, RC, and I are about to take a 2 1/2 week trip to Asia with the bulk of it on a cruise.  With the United miles great devaluation looming, we decided to cash in our miles to fly first class on Asian airlines which are renown for their service and “suites” in the air.  This prompted other friends to request that I blog about the experience, especially since I am not likely to experience it again any time soon.  So for the next few weeks, this blog will be part trip report, part culinary adventures (or just overindulgence), and sights of Southeast Asia.  RC also agreed to guest blog so we will enjoy the perspective (and good writing) of a published author.

To preview the trip, I looked back at my last trip to Asia.  My first stop was in Tokyo where I did a whirlwind 24 hour tour of the city.  I will again lay over in Tokyo but will not have enough time to visit the city.  The one thing I still appreciate from my last trip is how well the Japanese think about functionality.  Although I do not speak Japanese I managed to get to, from, and around Tokyo, seeing lots of sights, because everything made sense, was logically laid out, and anticipated needs that you did not know you had.  Take for example my ramen noodle experience.  At the time, I was on a ramen noodle kick and wandered around the Ginza area to find some hole in the wall place that served good, home-made ramen.  I found it between two office buildings run by a couple.  Again, without speaking a word of Japanese, I was able to order exactly what I wanted from a menu on a vending machine.  I sat at a narrow bar waiting for my bowl of noodles to come and saw that they anticipated customers with long hair may need some help in eating the noodles the way it should be done – hunched over the bowl and slurping at the soup.

Notice the yellow hair tie.  The little things that help you enjoy your meal!
Notice the yellow hair tie. The little things that help you enjoy your meal!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am so looking forward to my flight on ANA – more ramen noodle!

Baseball at Tokyo Dome
Baseball at Tokyo Dome

I  also managed to sneak in a baseball game .  Standing room only The carnival-like atmosphere reminded me of a football (soccer) game in England, just not with the violence. If there were cursing it went over my head.

3 Islands, 28 Hours, and Unexpected Miami Bonus

I’ve been lazy in posting to this blog and my brother’s blog of his cross country car trip inspired me to continue with mine.  So here we go…

I let my friend, MM, convince me to take a quick weekend trip to the Caribbean.  Ok, I admit it – did not take much arm twisting.  The ambitious plan was fly to St. Maarten on Friday morning, take a ferry to Anguilla on Friday afternoon and return to St. Maarten in the early evening.  Go to St. Barths for the day on Saturday and then return to St. Maarten in the evening.  Spend Sunday morning in St. Maarten before heading home on Sunday afternoon.  The trip did not go as planned- the pace was even more frenetic.

Years ago, I took a bus from Oxford to London.  A few minutes after the bus pulled out of Oxford I needed to pee.  The bus did not have a functioning bathroom but I thought I could hold it since it was 1.5 hours away. Then we hit rush hour traffic and the trip turned into a 3.5 hour ordeal.  That trip traumatized me so much that I avoided intercity buses since then.  But, in the spirit of adventure, I overcame this trauma to take an intercity bus to NYC to take a flight from JFK to St. Maarten.  While I survived, I don’t think I’ll repeat the experience anytime soon.

After a routine flight to St. Maarten, we checked into the Beach Plaza hotel in Marigot on the French side.  Because of some hiccups at the hotel (note to self – listen to TripAdvisors), we got a late start to Anguilla.  The ferry ride was bumpy but short, thank goodness.   A very friendly taxi driver drove us to the famous Blanchard Beach Shack on Meads Bay and was willing to wait to drive us back to the ferry when we were done.  Can’t beat that friendly island service. The food was delicious but I think almost anything would have been delicious given that a) nothing beats the ambience of a beautiful and nearly deserted crescent-shaped beach; and 2) I was starving.  Alas, we were able to stay only about an hour before we had to head back to ferry.  It’s such a small island that I think everybody knows each other – our taxi driver pointed out when we passed the owner of Blanchard’s on the road.

Ordering at Blanchard's Beach Shack
Ordering at Blanchard’s Beach Shack
Eating on the beach in front of Blanchard's
Eating on the beach in front of Blanchard’s

The overnight bus ride to JFK and the mad dash to and from Anguilla caught up to us (well, me at least) and we ended up crashing at 9:00.  So I can’t report back on the night life of St. Maartens but I’m sure it’s lively and fun based on the locals we met.

It was a good thing I went to sleep so early since MM wanted to take the 7:15 am ferry to St. Barths.  After sorting out another mix-up over our ferry reservation by the hotel’s concierge, we boarded the ferry – it’s the “nicer” one and shows an in-cruise movie.  We got to watch 30 minutes of “Love & Basketball” before docking at Gustavia, St. Barths.

Since we were catching the 10:30 am ferry back to St. Maartens, we hurried to St. Jean Bay to have breakfast followed by a quick walk through Gustavia’s waterfront for some souvenir shopping.  I had hoped that the ferry back would show the ending to “Love & Basketball” but instead it showed the same 30 minutes – I guess they figured that no one taking the 7:15 ferry would actually take the 10:30 ferry back.  I need to see whether it’s on Amazon Prime so I can find out who won the one-on-one.

Boats docked at Gustavia
Boats docked at Gustavia
Luxury yacht leaving St. Barths.  Wonder if anyone famous on board.
Luxury yacht leaving St. Barths. Wonder if anyone famous on board.

When we arrived back in St. Maartens, MM was concerned about whether we would be able to get back home the next day given the flight situation.  So we made a game-time decision to catch a connecting flight through Miami that night.  We theoretically had 3 hours to connect in Miami.  However, there was an over 2 hour delay because the aircraft had mechanical problems, and then the St. Maarten airport closed to allow a rain squall to pass by, and then we had to wait at the Miami airport tarmac for another plane to leave the gate, and then I was stuck behind a slow moving woman and her children.  MM and I booked it through immigration, custom, and TSA screening to the gate and…we missed the flight by 1 minute, literally.  And it turns out that the flight left 5 minutes early.  So we got to spend the night in Miami but we managed to get on the first flight out the next morning.

Now, would I do this again? No but I do not regret doing this trip this time around.  Not many people can say that they visited 3 Caribbean islands and overnight in Miami in less than 48 hours.  Final thoughts, St. Maarten, Anguilla, and St. Barths are wonderful islands that I will likely visit again at a more leisurely pace.