Sunday, July 1, 2018

Return to Cambodia

We needed a beach holiday but the only time available in June was the end of Ramadan so keeping things simple that ruled out both Indonesia and Malaysia.  So we headed to the south of Cambodia, re-visiting Otres Beach, a quieter area outside Sihanoukville.

We flew to Phnom Penh and spent 10 minutes looking for our pre-arranged driver.  Eventually he turned up with the Andrew sign and apologised - he had been in the bathroom.  We got into his Lexus sedan, which seem to be the car of choice for taxis - they are everywhere.  He drove safely on the chaotic roads, but spent 75% of his time on his phone during the 3.5 hour drive.

Coming into Sihanoukville we started to see the Special Economic zones and massive construction areas.  The area has had (and is still having) huge controversy about development and dislike of particular foreign investors.  As we came into Otres II beach, it had changed enormously in the six years since we had last been there.

We stayed at Secret Garden, a boutique hotel with individual bungalows.  The vegetation has certainly grown between visits - on the left 2012, and much, much, lusher in 2018.  In 2012 we could see through to the beach, now there are larger hotels on each side and construction in all directions.  We enjoyed our time, but can see the writing on the wall for the area's future. 




We ate across the road each evening, but during the day walked 30 minutes or so along the beach into Otres village for some good local food.  Sleepy Otres village, was like a main highway with concrete trucks rolling by in a never-ending stream.  Our little restaurant had a large bookshelf of wine, that had been cooking for a few years in the tropical temperatures and had priced the bottles at USD 13 or 20 apiece.  No thanks, stick to the $1 beers.  Being ecologically friendly I asked for my lime juice without a plastic straw.  Yes, yes, no straw... said the lady, but when it arrives has a straw and a plastic stirrer and no sugar.  Oh well, cutting out sugar is good too...


While the development is had to ignore, the beach is still good.  It was rainy season and we had a day of rain when we arrived, but the remainder of the time was overcast but quite pleasant.  One day with good cloud cover we both got lightly sun-burned even though there was no direct sun.   As a result of the rain there is plenty of mud.



Lucky our hero could find a puddle to wash his jandals in on our way to lunch :-)
From Otres we headed off to Kampot for a couple of days.  Kampot is a quiet, small town, with a growing reputation for Kampot Pepper.  It has EU recognised Geographical Identification (GI) for pepper grown organically in a specified area.  Kampot pepper is considered to be some of the best in the world.

Our hotel, Makk boutique villa had done a lovely welcome message to Paula Rae only, as I had booked the room in my name.  Andrew looked so sad we hastily rearranged it to include him



We did a half day day "countryside tour" by Tuk Tuk.  First stop was visiting some of the salt fields in the area.  There was nothing actually happening at this time of year- - - because salt doesn't dry when it is raining, but we did see a nice video at the Information Centre.  While they charged us $2 each to watch the video, we were 'gifted' a bag of salt as part of the admission price.  To be honest we didn't feel bad about paying as it supports the community.  This area of Cambodia is only now just getting back on its feet economically, after the Khmer Rouge period.

Each salt field can produce about a tonne of salt a year.  Salt production is also variable with rains at the start of this year meaning no salt production for the 1st quarter of 2018.  On average there are 80 to 100 thousand tonnes produced annually. 



We then visited a pepper-farm and looked at pepper growing.  On the way our tuk tuk was stopped on the road and our pictures taken with the Police-Boss.  Our driver told him we were from New Zealand, but they didn't look at our passports - just maybe a photo for their collections?

And then to Kep for lunch.  Kep had been a beach destination before 1975, but has not resurrected that vibe.  There are many derelict french mansions and the beach has sand shipped in from Sihanoukville.  It is still famous for it's crab and we made our way down to the crab shack restaurants lining the waterfront.  These are beside the crab-market, where there is a bustling trade with crabs and other seafood being sold at the market.  We selected a restaurant  (Holy Crab)that had some meat on the menu for Andrew, and sat on the deck with the sub gale-force wind whipping through our hair.  It was actually jolly pleasant.

Kampot itself, has a very laid back atmosphere, quite a few expats, and an outstanding culinary scene.  We had three superb meals there at Twenty Three, which also had craft beer and at Baraca, where we had delicious tapas.  Their Gin happy hour was great and the rosemary infused gin, surprisingly good.  And the Sisters bakery had some of the best Chocolate Brownie consumed in the last 3 years!

One aspect of the area that should out was the large Muslim population and a large number of Mosques.

We didn't do a night riverboat cruise, there were a number of 3-hulled boats waiting to take people for a sunset cruise.  But we did visit the Provincial museum.  Again $2 entry each, for a very basic display.  But we did learn a bit more about the recent history of the area.  Below is a picture of a Durian and fruit bowl taking up most of a doorway.  At the bottom of the display you can just see a metal pipe.  *Most* people would assume it was there to deter people from walking into that corridor.  But not Andrew.  Ignoring the artistic barrier, our hero proceeded to LOUDLY connect with the metal pipe which violently nudged the whole display half a meter to one side.  He proceeded to do some outstanding acrobatic manoeuvres to remain upright and not to face-plant on the floor or to wipe out the display.  I am just grateful the sole attendant didn't have  to call an ambulance or a clean-up crew.


Kampot was lovely and a low-key enjoyable way to spend 2 days.  From there it was a 3.5 hour drive back to Phnom Penh.  One thing that we don't see to the same extent in Laos is the heavy loading on the back of vehicles.  Tuk-Tuks carrying loads, vans with the back door up, allowing more people and/or luggage to be carried, motorbike carrying planks...  

In Phnom Penh we had a little luxury in our hotel, Blue Lime as we had a room with a private pool.  Nice!  We walked about and generally enjoyed an overnight stay.  

We had a very good meal at a restaurant around the corner from our hotel.  Fat Passion had great ratings on Tripadvisor, but we were the only ones there for about half an hour before a few more groups arrived.   You know it was good, when Mr 'I-don't-really-like-fish' tried the smoked Mackerel dip on our appertiser tasting plate and returned for 4th or 5th dips of it.  

It was good to return to Cambodia.  The people are friendly, the food is good, and it is cheap to eat and drink. 

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Letter from Shanghai :-)

Dear Andrew

Day 1
I hope you are having a pleasant trip, on your own, back to Laos.  It isn’t everyone who can say they flew all the way to China, only to be denied entry to the country because they didn’t bring the correct identification with them.

Yes I know you have 2 versions of your APEC card; an interim one without China on it, and the final one with China permission on it.  But really, trying to enter China without the China permission – that was simply not going to go well for you.
aprc card

I did think all the immigration police we met were very kind.  There was the nice young man who went and got us a tray of food while we sat (with obligatory guard) for ages in the immigration ‘holding pen’ watching all the other travellers passing through immigration.  And the other young man who escorted you down to the Air Asia desk to buy a cheap fare back to Bangkok, a mere 4.5 hours flying time away.  And by the sound of your messages, the one who sat by your side until you boarded your plane in departures, was also very nice.

After I left you at the airport I got a taxi into Shanghai.  Of course I had expected to be doing that closer to 2:30am rather than 5:30am – but you can’t always plan for you husband not bringing the correct documentation.  So by the time I got to the hotel nearly an hour and 160 RMB later,  I didn't really feel like having a nap.  So I had read, then a shower, and put on clean clothes to go and visit the my colleagues in the China company office. 

You would have liked the clean streets and wide open spaces of the upmarket business district.  And you would have enjoyed looking in the supermarket (including seeing some Whittakers chocolate)  Being a bit tired, I grabbed some bits from the supermarket for dinner and made it through to the end of the day.
Shanghai

Day 2

Dear Andrew

I’m sure you would have liked the view from our/my apartment balcony – but you can look out over Vientiane, now that you are home again.  I am surprised with the amount of low-rise accommodation.  The high rises are there, but there is some distance to them. 
shanghai skyline
In a conversation this evening I was told that while the official population is capped at 25 million people, there are unofficially 28 million people living in the environs.  But in the limited areas I have been, there was not ultra-high population density.  In fact central Hong Kong has a much more crowded feel than central Shanghai.

I walked down to the Shanghai Museum – it is shaped like a Chinese eating vessel.  You would have particularly liked the free exhibition of items from Tate Britain currently on short-term display.  The ceramics were also nice, but I was disappointed that the bronzes gallery was closed for renovation.  So I guess you didn’t miss the Bronzes, by not being here.


shanghai museum

And I wandered onto the shopping strip along Nanjing Road.  Apart from the increasing number of people about, I could have been anywhere in the world looking at the international brands…Apple, Zara, H&M….

I have managed both days so far to wander around with food spilled on my clothing.  Yesterday I poured coffee down my blouse and basically wandered around all day like that.  Of course travelling by yourself, your non-existent companion doesn't worry about that.  Today while enjoying dumplings I managed to squirt meat juices on my blouse – but only a greasy mark of about an inch – much easier to camouflage than the foot print sized coffee stain yesterday.  The various dumplings here are delicious. 

Having no one to eat with, I have booked myself on a Food tour.  You would enjoyed walking to 5 five different cuisines.  And the last one with a lamb and cumin dishes from the North Western areas would really have appealed to you.  Of course you would have enjoyed the free flowing beers and shots of baijiu, the Chinese national liquor.  While your roast chicken sounded pleasant, Sichuan, Cantonese, Ningbo  and Uighur cuisine was a more interesting option.  The tour started at 6pm I finally got back to the apartment after 10.  Quite a nice evening ‘by myself’


shanghai food
Day 3

Today I finally made it down to the Bund, where it was a bit misty.  While you would have enjoyed watching the boats and people, I quite enjoyed being able to walk where I wanted and leave when I had had enough of people and boats. 

bund_


I headed off to the former French concession area and walked until I couldn’t walk anymore.  By the end of the day my phone said I had walked over 21km – maybe you wouldn't have liked that.  But it was a shame you missed the tree lined streets and nice looking houses, boutiques, and restaurants.  

french
It is also good you are not here because you wouldn’t have liked the electric bikes which arrive silently, then the drivers go where they want regardless of the traffic signals.  No amount of your glaring and sending dirty looks, would have dealt to that issue.


Having seen the Bund in the morning light it was also on the agenda to see it again in the dark with the lights from the new Pudong area illuminated.  I know you would have enjoyed it because you were exceedingly jealous when I face-timed you and gave you a view on video feed.  Pictures were probably not quite like actually being there.  But if you cant bring your documentation, you have to miss out on such fun experiences.  


shanghai night
shanghai night 2
Day 4
I had a relaxed morning with a bit of neighbourhood exploration before getting on the metro to the airport.  I was going to change to the Maglev train, but at 50 rmb vs 5 rmb for the same journey, I decided to forgo travelling on the fastest passenger train in the world.  Maybe if I return to Shanghai, I might do it next time…  


Efficiently through the airport, and onto the flight down to Kuala Lumpur.  I had an “Andrew” moment at KL airport while trying to work out how to walk to the nearby Tune hotel where we have stayed before.  I wandered up and down the terminal for nearly 30 minutes before I realised I was in KLIA terminal and the walk was from the KLIA2 terminal.  But a quick ride on the shuttle train between terminals and in 2 minutes I was off to the hotel.  An overnight sleep and then up at 4:30am for the 6:30am flight back to Vientiane.  And back to work before 10 am.


I am looking forward to the trip you are planning for us to return in July.   I don't think you will bring the wrong ID on a trip again Smile 

lots of love
Paula




Thursday, May 17, 2018

Osaka and Hong Kong

We headed through to Osaka briefly before our flight to Hong Kong.  We basically ate and wandered around.  Not unpleasant at all.  Andrew was fascinated with the large Ferris Wheel – maybe because it was red I think.

osaka
And then a brief time in Hong Kong – but enjoyable as always.  We stayed in Kowloon for a change, so it was nice to check out some less familiar territory. 

We went to the very good Museum of Hong Kong history.  Initially I was a bit underwhelmed by the geological and dinosaur displays.  But once you moved into the ethnographic displays it becomes fascinating.  They have done it really well detailing ethnic groups and recent & not so recent history.  We ended up spending quite a bit of time here.

Sarah was brave, leaving Hong Kong island to come over to the ‘dark-side’.  We had a very nice meal together at a modern French Bistro :  Scarlett.  The food and wine (and company) were very good, but the Pimms we all had to start with was a major disappointment.  I guess you shouldnt expect a French restaurant to make a English drink :-) 
scarlett
At the other end of the dining scale was our first night meal. We decided to stay close to the hotel and ended up at a local spot near Temple market.  Crowded tables of locals and a couple of pairs of foreigners suggested it was a good place.  Rough and ready it delivered good beers, delicious lemon chicken with a healthy side dish of broccoli and garlic. 

hk food

Of course a sign of bravery in any restaurant is seeing one of the chefs cooking in front of burning woks – without any shirt on Smile

hk food2

Kyoto April 2018

We travelled between Tokyo and Kyoto on the bullet train, shinkansen.  Kyoto station is quite an architectural statement – big and modern.  And then at the very top a green outdoor area with views over the city.

Kyoto station

We had a apartment for our stay, about a 7 minute walk from the station.  There was a metro station nearby so we were ideally set for exploring Kyoto.

Our 1st day we visited the food-hall of a nearby mall and there we picked a random restaurant and had an outstanding lunch.  One local speciality (attributed to nearby Osaka) is Okonomiyaki, a cabbage pancakeThe staff member prepared the mixture at the table, shaped it on the grill built into the table and very seriously told us NOT to touch it.  She repeated it again, looking at Andrew.  10 minutes later she came back and turned the large cake over.  Again she told us very seriously not to touch it. Our other noodle dish we had ordered was prepared in the kitchen and put on the grill beside the pancake.  The final touch was the waitress came back and offered us dried tuna shavings (thank you, no said Andrew) and mayonnaise and a barbecue sauce swirled over the top of the pancake.  VERY good and we returned here once more while in Kyoto.

okonimoyKI 
On our first day we walked to the Kiyomizu-dera temple.  The temple was heavily shrouded with construction materials, but the views from the temple back over Kyoto were lovely.

Kiyomizu-dera
We took a couple of photos of us  (awwwww…Smile )
Kiyomizu-dera2

At the bottom of the temple were the sacred waters, here people were lining up to catch some of the flow.  It grants wishes – so there were very long queues.  

The crowds outside the temple and nearby were rather overwhelming.  This caused us to change the way we toured for the rest of the days in Kyoto.  The next days we got up early, visited our main destinations before the crowds and returned to the apartment for a rest before doing something in the afternoons.  It was a very good strategy!

crowds One morning we headed to Fushimi Inari shrine.  It is an icon of Kyoto and highly photographed.  Being there with limited people was definitely an advantage. 
Fushimi Inari
Fushimi Inari2

The temple is associated with foxes and there were many, many fox statues dotted around.  Many of these were wearing the red bibs.  
Fushimi Inari.3jpg
One day we visited the Nishiki Market, where there was no shortage of foods laid out.  And quite a few tourists to navigate around.
Nishiki Market
In need of  coffee we found an old-school Japanese cafe, Otafuku coffee.  Located down the stairs from the street, there were about 6 small tables and 4 seats at the bar.  One man was running the show.  Coffees were pour over, no machines here.  

The one thing we didnt know was available when we ordered (and later regretted) was the delicious looking cheesecake and another dessert.  The coffee took a while to come (brewed with care) and we watched with a tinge of jealousy as every other table being presented with a delicious looking sweeties. 
coffee
We  had found on day one a great looking cafe a couple minutes away from the apartment.  We duly arrived at 9:15am (they opened at 9:00) we then proceeded to wait 45 minutes for 2 drip coffees.  Admittedly the coffee very good, but the wait was not so great.  Initially it was nice sitting in the spring sunshine on the roadside, but that wore a bit thin.  If a troupe of nursery children, being pushed in trailers, had not gone by and provided some cuteness, we would have walked away – regardless of whether we lost our money or not.  If you have time to spare Murmur coffee house has good coffee. 
murmur
murmur2
Another morning we headed to the Bamboo Forest.  A nice walk and a circuit down by the river
bamboo
We joined a free walking tour of the Gion district.  We stayed for 10 minutes and the we ‘disappeared’.  The tour leader was good but we aren't good at walking around like sheep, and we wanted to explore in our own way.  In the small streets we did see two genuine Geisha moving between appointments. The influx of tourists has prompted the need for signs explaining what is acceptable behavior in these areas.
geisha

And 2 little quirks to finish…note the hand washing above the toilet – a real space saver!  And the brutal translation for what we would call reading glasses…
oddities


Tokyo in April

Another Lao New Year and another chance to have a short break without using up too much annual leave.  Cherry blossom season had just finished but there was still plenty of spring growth and blossoms to see.  Being spring it was also relatively cool and we spent most of the trip in our puffer vests.

The journey between Bangkok and Tokyo was relatively painless and only a couple of 'Andrew incidents' the 1st when he got a little confused in the lounge and followed me into the ladies toilets instead of heading in the other direction to the Gents. 

Arriving in Tokyo we made a beginners error and left the airport without activating our sim card and without having a clear idea how to get from A to B.  On the Tokyo metro you REALLY need clarity because it can be more than just a little confusing.   As a result we arrived at 9:30pm and got to our destination just before midnight having taken a couple of random trains back and forth before we got sorted.  The journey should really have taken about 30 minutes, not 2 hours.  It was the only time we were truly lost during the trip and the only time no one went out of their way to help us.  For the rest of the trip if we stopped for more than 20 seconds to look at the maps on our phones, someone would volunteer to help us - people were unbelievably helpful.

Maybe the travel pressure was why Andrew forced his way through the metro turnstile in the wrong direction?  The station worker looked a bit panicked at the thought of having to explain in English what the problem was.  But together we got him turned around and through the correct turnstile.  Then there was the time in the coffee shop when Andrew looked around and threw his sugar packets in the 'rubbish tin' I had to point out to him it was an umbrella stand as we quickly exited the shop with our heads down.

This trip we based ourselves in an apartment that was a 12 minute walk to the Tokyo central station.  We only had 2 days in Tokyo and walked around the imperial palace and other gardens and checked out a few stores.  The main focus of our time seemed to center around food and we did eat very well.

We had been recommended a restaurant near to the apartment.  Crumbed and briefly deep fried, the beef was brought to the table where you could heat the small strips as you like them.  The beef was unbelievably tender, and the dipping sauces were delicious.  We both could have ordered another set, but that would have been a bit piggy Smile
beef restaurant
The absolute dining highlight of the whole trip was lunch at Le Sputnik, a 1* Michellen French/Japanese restaurant.  When you book you are asked if you have any food allergies etc, and then the menu is 100% chef’s choice.  And it was a delightful 8 course lunch, together with wine pairings, delivered in a relaxed manner over 2.5 hours.  Andrew rates it as one of his best meals ever.  The wines were eclectic, but every single one was outstanding and they came from France, Portugal, Greece and a surprisingly good Japanese red.  The food included sashimi, foie gras, fish on burdock (pictured below), and a ‘main’of Venison.  It was fantastic and highly recommend it to anyone. 
Le Sputnik

After the meal we wandered away, well-fed and very happy.  We determined this was our wedding anniversary meal as tomorrow (the actual 9th anniversary) we would be travelling. 

In the nearby neighbourhood we spotted a restaurant selling wines from Georgia and took a look at the famous Louis Bourgeois sculpture, “Maman” a 30 foot high spider.
maman
In the evenings we used our local supermarket to produce quick meals – generally we ate rather well during the day we only needed a small top up at night.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Bucharest

After the delayed journey into Bucharest,  we again needed to rearrange what we had planned to do.  We decided we deserved some nice Romanian wine and a good dinner.  So we headed off to find a nearby wine specialist; Abel's Wine Bar.  We tried some very nice hearty reds (and brought a few bottles of Romanian and Austrian wines back to Laos)


Drinks to sooth the stresses of the travelling day accomplished, next it was off to fill the tummies.  A local beer-hall style restaurant popular with travellers and locals alike, was just around the corner. It was early and certainly not full but Caru' cu Bere  managed to find us a table "as long as we would be finished within two hours."  With just the 2 of us that seemed pretty achievable. 

Andrew had a small misunderstanding with the English menu and ordered the traditional Pork Knuckle and I had another dish.  On arrival it was enormous.  On reading the menu again it turns out it was described as being for 2 hungry people :-) He made a valiant attempt to eat it all, but the knuckle won in the end.


The new day dawned with heavy snow showers.  We needed to walk about 15 minutes to the National art gallery.  It was not a great day for looking at the streets as we trudged along, heads down.  It was a relief to get inside the buildings.  There was a very impressive collection of Romanian art and some good international galleries.


The destination for the afternoon was the Cotroceni Palace Museum.  Bucharest has a number of palaces, many with strong ties to the dictator Nicolae CeauČ™escu & his wife, and their excessive expenditures.  We chose the Cotroceni because it wasn't quite so over the top.  We walked and rode the metro to get there, stopping off for a quick kebab for lunch.  

The Cotrocheni Palace is the official residence of the Romanian President and we had to go through some security screening entering the building and were not allowed to take photos of the structures outside. Inside was interesting.




We walked up the Palace of the Parliament, a CeauČ™escu structure that Bucharest is famous for.  The guide books regularly describe the building as the largest administrative building in the world with an area of 365,000m2 & 1100 rooms.  They also say it costs USD $6,000,000 a year for electricity and heating.  We didn't do the available tour here, because a lot of people have commented on TripAdvisor that it is really badly organised, and you can only take in so many rooms.  So we just looked from the outside.


The next day had no snow falling so we actually retraced some of the route from yesterday, but this time we could actually see the streets and buildings.  Bucharest has a reputation as being somewhere you should plan to leave as quickly as possible.  But I think that attitude is changing and the city is reinventing itself.  There are numerous stately buildings.  The historic city however has been over-developed and there are tourist restaurant after tourist restaurant lining the streets in that area.  If we had had a little more time we could have explored another couple of days.



Through the country there has been a strong religious presence.  This ranged from people crossing themselves on buses as they past churches, to large numbers of churches and plenty of people going into them.

We manged to eat well in Bucharest.  For a brief moment pre-trip Andrew had been concerned because friends who had visited there in the 80's had struggled to find any food to eat.  This was not a problem for us this visit. 

Near our hotel was the recently restored Hanul Lui Manuc restaurant. This building had been a trading post/coaching inn in the past. We had a good warming set lunch there including local specialties of sour soup and polenta and cheese.  And a good dinner nearby at the city grill with a shared large platter of sausages.  Afterwards we found that beer hall, the city grill and Hanul Lui Manuc were all part of the same chain.


And then it was back to the airport to reverse the journey back to Asia.  Romania in winter, was a good destination but with the delays we experienced with flights and trains, I think we merely we pleased to have visited, and perhaps could not say we had loved the experience.