Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Tashkent - 7 September 2019

We had previously thought about travelling to “Stans” a few years ago, but other destinations took precedence.  In the intervening years, the area has opened up significantly in terms of welcoming travelers.  Of the 4 countries we visited this trip: 3 were visa free for NZ passports (Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan & Kazakhstan) and the other (Tajikistan) had an easy online visa application system. 


We had left Bangkok at 09:00am and traveled via Dubai arriving into Tashkent at 3:00am local time (5:00am Bangkok equivalent).  The immigration process turned out to be totally painless.  There were no immigration forms to fill in.  This is a huge contrast to 18 months ago when you had to fill in declarations detailing every cent on you and declare any medications.
The taxi to the hotel was a 10 minute drive at high speeds on clear roads at 03:30am.  The hotel staff were lovely contrary to reports of surliness. The staff had carried the bags up 2 flights of stairs and disappeared before we could offer them any money. A short sleep we were up again at eight. We did catch up on a couple of hours in the afternoon. But generally we transitioned very well.



We had a quiet day planned in Tashkent, walking about and getting into the swing of things. The weather was a dry heat at about 26 degrees. While it was sunny, there were plenty of shady trees, making us very comfortable.  It was lovely to see mass plantings of basil, along the edges of flower garden and streets.


At the statue of Timur, down by the Soviet styled Hotel Uzbekistan, we got interviewed for a few minutes by journalism students. We couldn't add much insight to their questions about our impressions of the country, as we had only been in the country literally a few hours.




We visited the Central Department store, a bit of a hangover from Soviet times.  It looked like a street shopping mall from the 1970s – not highly sophisticated, but there was some interesting Uzbek cotton items.  I read the day after that Uzbek cotton has only been removed from the banned substances in the US in May this year.  In the past, the cotton industry has had a very bad reputation, including using child labour to meet cotton quotas.  But the country has cleaned up its act and practices have improved.  There is some comment that now without the child labour  more "normal" workers are being forced to participate to make up the labour shortfall.

Lunch was delicious, at Afsona.  We got a bit off track (lost) walking there, but it was worth the extra few blocks. Delicious beef and mini fried dumplings. The dark, dark draft beer was surprisingly refreshing




After a quiet afternoon at about 6pm we walked 15 minutes to a recommended restaurant, Jumanji. There, we were turned away from a room that was less than 50% full.  I think we got “face controlled”.  This a local procedure whereby, if you don't look good enough - they turn you away.  A bit miffed, we walked 15 minutes back to the park which we had walked through earlier in the day.  Gone were the quiet lanes, instead the place was full  of families riding bikes, scooters, eating etc 
We went to the Registan cafe in the middle of the park.  They didn’t turn us away! And the food was delicious. 145,000 som  for two burek soups and shared kebab & 3 beers – USD 15.  It was so good that we returned the next might.  Everything works out in the end. 

We walked down to the metro and found the entry and ticket purchase process not too difficult. On the train men automatically stood for seats for women. The metro stations were grand soviet style



We had a walking route recommended by Caravanistan website and we set out for Tinchlick area There we walked to a more local market, which was basically only selling bread by late-morning. Andrew charmed a few ladies to take their photo and they responded by holding the bread up in front of their faces.



Old prams were the transport vehicle of choice for the bread. There were also long lines of melons and watermelons.   We walked through a cemetery before retreating to a mall for a lunch pizza. 


The route took us alongside a canal which gave us a look at the high walls of local houses with a lot of mud brick. And at one point we came across a wedding party. There were lots of trumpets but no bride, so probably it was the send off from the grooms home. 

Our next stop was the Khast Iman Square surrounded by lovely and large scale Islamic buildings.


By this time it was 3:00pm in the afternoon and we made a beeline to Chorsu market. We hoped to get a flavour of it before it closed. It was enormous. The lines of food stalls looked great. It had been our planned lunch stop but times had not worked for us.  There was one pop-up stall where ladies were selling a type of dumpling covered with red sauce which looked like some sort of fermented concoction. They were being run off their feet with people crammed around them jostling to get this delicacy, whatever it was



In the market vegetables were lined up en masse around the outside and if you knew what you wanted there was probably everything you could ever want.  Inside, in the circular hall, it was dominated by meats of various types, with everything from nose to tail. There were also cheeses and processed meats and upstairs nuts and dried fruits.


At 7 we went back to hotel picked up our bags and got them to organise a taxi to the southern train station. 22,000 som and about 20 minutes drive, we worked out how to convert our internet tickets into real tickets. We went through security,  and within 10 minutes were allowed to get on the train. Luxury 1st class it is not. But it is 1st class :-)  8.30 on the dot we headed off, expecting to be in Khiva at 11 tomorrow. 


Train and blurry photo of people picking cotton in the fields


Stayed at Sharq hotel which was quiet, well run and conveniently located.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Saigon, July 2019

 We took full advantage of the Lao Women’s Union public holiday to have a long weekend down in Saigon.  We arrived into Ho Chi Minh early evening, and the immigration halls were full to over-flowing. It is times like this that our APEC cards allow us to bypass the crowds and go down the special channels – and we feel very, very grateful.  As we had only carry-on, we were soon standing outside waiting for the airport bus to leave.  $1 and 25 minutes later we hopped off the bus and walked the 200 meters to our hotel.  We stayed in the same place as our last time (Little Saigon Boutique) as the rate and the location couldn’t be bettered. 

Day One was wandering around the District 1 area, taking in few familiar places and shops and checking out some new additions.  We visited the Fine Art Museum for the 1st time.  The locals seem to go there to use it as an Instagram background, but there was an interesting mix of art.  The impacts of the American War were prominent themes in much of the post 1975 works. 





We headed off to Secret Garden restaurant for a very nice Vietnamese lunch.  And then around the corner to Maison Marou, a superb chocolate shop.  Andrew previously rated their Brownie as one of the best he has ever had.  A re-sampling this year supported that statement, and he maintains it is his favourite in the world.  We did pick up a couple of pieces the following day to bring back to Vientiane. 




In the evening we went to the AO Show at 6 pm in the Saigon Opera House.  It allowed us to see inside the opera house and also to enjoy a very good show.  Sometimes it is described as the Bamboo Cirque du Soleil.  It was a one hour of acrobatics and energy telling the story of Vietnam through to modern day.  Their use of bamboo and props was stunning. 


After the show we headed off to the nearby Secret Garden restaurant – it isn’t a chain, but has 3 restaurants in the inner city and we frequented 2 of those locations multiple times in our short trip.  The spring rolls would also be on Andrew’s best in the world list.  The downside of this location was the tables are at knee height and we had to curl ourselves up to eat. 

The next morning we go on the local bus and made our way over to Chinatown.  We had booked to go on a mystery tour which was expected to take the morning to do - The Strange case of Dr Lam.  The lady who met us was super impressed we used the buses.  I did end up in the opposite seat to the lady in the picture below, with my chin resting on my knees due to the wheel dome, while Andrew sat quite comfortably with a nice flat area for his feet.  We did like the hanging hand holds, which were a cup of noodle advertisement



The concept for the morning was that Dr Lam had been murdered and we had been called in to solve the murder.  We were given the scenario and a set of clues and sent off to solve the murder – a sort of hybrid structured walking tour and role playing game.  We finished just before 13:00.  Up until the last hour we had enjoyed the process, getting the clues, moving from place to place, meeting “contacts”, but in the last hour we felt the concept lost it’s way a little.  We got stuck on a clue at a Chinese temple and weren’t sure where to go next.  Anyways, we solved the mystery, and eventually found the final steps.  Andrew was highly impressed with my ability to break codes and still has no idea how I could do it.  




We did move to the nearby Rex Hotel for our last night as we couldn’t get a 3rd night in the room we wanted at the Saigon Boutique Hotel.  The Rex is a bit of an institution in Saigon and it was interesting seeing the high society weddings being hosted there on the Saturday night.  We headed back to the Secret Garden for a final meal

And a lovely photo of Andrew in art-viewing mode, with his fan and shopping bag


Monday, July 8, 2019

Hong Kong, the June Birthday Version


Andrew was offered the option of a set of new hankies for his birthday or a trip to Hong Kong.  Not surprisingly he chose the latter option. 

We arrived into Hong Kong about 8pm and headed off to our accommodation in Wan Chai:  Apartment 218 which was good value and an easy base for getting around. 

On THE birthday we went out for breakfast at a recommended coffee shop, the Cupping Room.  Pleasingly they also did a nice Eggs Benedict.  



The excellent coffees and food on board we headed to the Central Piers to catch a ferry to Cheung Chau island. 

We timed it well and were soon off on the slow boat into Hong Kong waterways.  Andrew had a great time watching the hydro foils, large container ships and other boats for the hour long journey.

We arrived about 11:00am so decided to do a short walk before heading to a beach bar for a beer an lunch.  The island has no cars so there are plenty of bikes, which we could have hired.  There were a few women riding covered from tip to toe like the picture below - note she also has stabilizer wheels, another common sight



It was very hot and humid and as we got to the beach bar it began to rain.  So we parked up under an umbrella and had a couple of cold drinks to re-hydrate.  We were still not hungry after the heavy breakfast, so decided to skip lunch and made our way back to the harbour for a return ferry.

In the IFC mall we went into Apple and got new batteries in the phones.  It was the 1st time we had used the Genius Bar services at Apple and it was such a slick operation.  The staff were easy to deal with and less 2 hours later the phones were returned to us.  We had spent the time doing a little shopping and having a couple of Tim Ho Wan Crispy Pork Buns to tide us over until dinner – didn’t want to spoil our appetites before the birthday meal.

We turned up at Ship 22 Ships shortly after 6pm to get a seat, as there were no reservations.  The dishes we selected were all very good and we enjoyed watching the tiny kitchen operation hum.  



Saturday was a bus-ride to the Hong Kong Heritage Museum.  It was good sitting on the top of the double-decker going through areas we had not seen before.  At the Heritage Museum was the “A History of the World in 100 Objects from the British Museum” exhibition.  As expected it was very good and we enjoyed the eclectic selection of items.  The museum is also home to an extensive homage to the HK actor Bruce Lee.  A good part of the 3rd floor was given up to exhibits on his life and movies in both Hollywood and Asia.

Exhibits covered 3000 years of human existence, and included a metal clubs made by the botanist Joseph Banks in London as gifts for Maori, but her never had the opportunity to bring them back to NZ


In the evening we got on another bus and headed for Central.  We are lucky Andrew has a Seniors Hong Kong travel card, so our transport costs are significantly reduced.  We specifically targeted a Moroccan restaurant, because it is one type of cuisine we don’t get in Laos.  We met Sarah at Le Souk, and had a lovely meal and evening. 

On Sunday we had some fantastic pastries at Gerard Dubois’ Passion bakery, followed up by some top notch coffees elsewhere. 


We took the free hotel shuttle-bus back to the Airport Express terminal.  It was interesting driving around the streets, that one week before, had been teeming with protesters.  There was an obvious police presence this trip, but no problems for us.  One week later the protesters, objecting to the proposed extradition to China law, returned to those same streets and stormed the Legislative Buildings.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Flores Indonesia: Here be Dragons

Another Lao New Year and another trip out of the country during the heat and associated chaos.  This year Indonesia was the destination, and more specifically the Flores Island area.  While we flew into Denpasar, Bali, our destination was a world away from the excesses of Bali or a 90 minute flight plus 1 boat ride.





The morning departure from Vientiane to Kuala Lumpur was delayed and we had a brisk walk through Malaysian Immigration, transfer to the other terminal and straight to the gate – we were always on track to make our flight but there was not a lot of time to spare.  It was still a relief to be on the flight and heading for the 2.5 hour journey across to Denpasar.  We stayed in a hotel beside the terminal and headed directly back into the airport the next morning for the 90 minute Garuda flight down to Labuan Bajo. 


There we were met by a representative of The Seraya, where we were staying for the next 5 nights.  There was also a family of four who had arrived on the same flight and we were driven 5 minutes to the harbour where we got on the little local boat for the 45 minute boat trip to Seraya Island. 




The main dining/meeting area had been built in bamboo (over steel beams) in the shape of a Manta Ray.  The effect was both aesthetically pleasing while being very cool & light.  



The plan for our time was one trip into the national park and then just daily snorkeling on the house reef.  Pure relaxation.


The reef was excellent and easily accessible from the long jetty.  Stepping off the jetty you were immediately in deep water, no wading out, no avoiding damaging coral.  The water was clear with good visibility and there was little or no current.  The clear depth would have been 4 or 5 metres and it was adjacent to a steep drop-off.  This meant we were able to see  so many brightly coloured fish – both big and small, swimming individually or as part of large schools.  We even saw a turtle.  There was plenty of healthy coral and some frames where coral was being re-seeded.  There were areas where coral had been destroyed but overall it was magnificent.

Our day trip was a full-on day.  We did it with the British Family who had arrived the same day as us.  Our powerful boat (with 2 150HP engines) chewed up the miles in the hour it took to get to Padur Island.  Here we paid national park fees, then climbed the steep hills – hard work but the reward was views over the 3 beaches on the island, black beach, white beach and pink beach.


Our boat took us on to a pink beach for a snorkel.  Rather nice to be in the water after sweating up and down the hills.  Then we were off to Komodo Island to see the Komodo Dragons.  We did a short walk and saw 2 dragons near the waterhole, a young and a mature older dragon.  


On returning the to main area we got up close to 2 more large dragons sitting camouflaged in the shade.  One got up and lumbered down to the beach as he had picked up the scent of 3 deer walking along the beach.  There was no mistaking the power in his physique - a dinosaur in motion.  Andrew struggled a little bit to remember the name of the dragons, and they were referred to as the Kumara Dragons more than once!!!






Back on the boat we saw a pod of dolphins who proceeded to play in the wake of our boat.  Later in the day we were planning to go to a place called Manta Point but we unexpectedly came across Manta Rays on our way to lunch.  The boat stopped and we all jumped into open water to swim with the Manta. 

Boating in turquoise waters and a tiny bit of a Manta Ray
It was a fantastic, albeit slightly scary experience.  We saw so many of them swimming about.  They were very large and as they swam to towards you it was slightly scary – even though our guides had told us how safe and gentle they were.  It was the highlight of the day!

picture from https://www.planetdiveholidays.com/blog/swimming-with-manta-rays/


After the swim we proceeded to a sandbar - or a desert island - for a snorkel and lunch.  Our boat driver said in the high season you couldn't see the island for people and there could be 10 or 15 drones being flown.  We are lucky to not be here in the high-season!

After lunch we went to Manta Point.  There were no Manta but the boat kept looking and then it was dive - dive -dive.  Our final experience was a single Manta Ray, but it was enormous - 3 to 4 metres across.  It was amazing.

One morning we Kayaked across the nearby island.  The sea was a millpond and it took us 25 minutes or so each way.  The island was part of a coral regeneration project where 250 frames had been seeded and were being monitored.  Other people had been over and said the coral colours were stunning,  However we found there was a very strong current in the morning and didn't really see the extent of the coral.  We didn't re-do the journey as Andrew and I struggle to co-ordinate in a two man kayak and a bit a 'discussion' is participated in.


The stay was very relaxing.  The accommodation well thought out and the evening dining with everyone eating at the same table was a good way to meet people and hear their stories. There was no internet but if you climbed up a hill nearby you could pick up some 3G - enough to check email and make sure no major had happened.  

It was back to Denpasar and on to Kuala Lumpur for 2 nights.  We managed to fit in a very nice steak meal one night at The Steakhouse and a bit of shopping.  As our return flight to Vientiane was at 6:40am that meant needing to be at the airport by 04:40am - therefore we stayed at an airport hotel where we could walk across to the terminal.  

Monday, March 25, 2019

Weekend in Singapore

We picked up a good deal for flights from Vientiane to Singapore and were quite happy to return after an absence of about three years.  We headed down on Thursday and returned on Sunday - just enough time to eat, explore and do a little shopping.

On Friday we headed out to Haw Par Villa.  It has been on my radar for a long time, but it was never quite the right time to slot it into an itinerary until now.  I knew a bit about it, but basically told Andrew nothing except that it was "quite different" and he would either love it or hate it.  It turned out the weirdness landed on the love side for him.

Formerly known as the Tiger Balm gardens, it was built by the Tiger Balm family over 8 Ha.

It all starts off fairly normal



But quickly heads to the bizarre.  Welcome to the 10 courts of Hell.  


There were plenty of  traditional Chinese elements 

But alongside there are King Kong apes or Medical bunnies and multiple items that just make your head shake in bewilderment!  



 Beyond words really, but worth a couple of hours there and back.

This trip we searched out a couple of recommended hawker food courts away from the pure tourist areas.  The 1st introduction was Alexandra Village food court.  While we had recommendations of where to go, in the end we used the traditional technique of choosing the longest line and ordering what the men in front of us ordered  $3.50 each later we had a plate of delicious mixed pork and rice.  The beers would have cost more than the meal itself!


We also went to Zion Riverside Food centre.  But accidentally we went to the Old Zion food court, about 10 minutes walk away.  Not inspired by the stalls, we settled for a chain store Indian meal.  While eating our Kottu Roti I realised our mistake looking at the map.  We were sad because we had been looking forward to some of the best Char Kwe Teow in the city and Dumplings.  So we decided to walk there anyway, and it looked great.  Having had a meal already, we bravely made room for some delicious (hot, hot) dumplings



Apart from some shopping we spent some time riding buses between destinations.  It was good to see the apartment blocks and greenery and all the trappings of a modern efficient city.  Rather a contrast to life in Vientiane.

And we have had a very culturally filled month.  Earlier in the month, the Singapore Dance company came to Vientiane and presented three modern ballet pieces which were excellent.  Looking at the arts calendar while we were in Singapore we decided not to see them again performing more ballet, instead we opted for Opera.  At the Theaters by the Bay (the Durian shaped buildings) we joined an intimate audience in a small theater for 90 minutes of world-class piano and Opera.  2 women performers, who had spent a long time on the European circuits, presented a delightful mixture of pieces.  It was a real treat, as Andrew always says


Returning home, we had a delayed departure from Singapore and a tight transit through Bangkok.  One of us, had a small meltdown with a bit of snapping at the poor guy operating the scanning machine.  You would think with the number of scanning machines he has been through, he would not bat an eyelash at being asked to take off his belt or shoes...but international crisis avoided, we made the fight back to Laos

Overall a great short break, even if the beer was amongst the most expensive in the world.


Stayed at Ibis Ben Coolen



Saturday, March 23, 2019

Prague and back to Munich

Our time in Prague was a little odd.  Rather than planning our time in the city, a lot of our attention focussed on dealing with the items we lost in Kutna Hora.  From buying new toothbrushes through to new iPads, nothing critical, but the whole process was an unsettling distraction.

Wanting to make the most of 2 days in Prague we decided to head straight for the castle.  It is an iconic part of the city.



Having endured the security screening process, we slipped and slided our way around the snowy inner courtyards.



Andrew had suggested before we arrived there would not be many tourists about in the middle of the off season.  How wrong was he?  Everywhere we went lines and groups.  I was there more than 20 years ago and it was busy but now in summer we can only imagine the total tourist overload.
Prague is geared to take the tourist dollar.  Every church, every display or anything with a door has an entry fee.  One little gem worth paying the entrance fee for was the St Nicholas church.  Baroque exuberance at its best.




Another day, another beer for lunch - even if we didn't quite manage to fill the beer card up...1 down 98 to go...



Our final night was back to Munich.  Racing down the motorway with the sound of clingwrap ringing in our ears.  Clingwrap is not particularly aerodynamic and it was a pleasure to drop the car off 1 day early.  Even though it was damaged it, the return was a very easy process.

In Munich city we shopped and went out for a good meal at a modern brewery.  Good beer and food and they closed the street down for us.  Well, not just for us, but for a pre-Carneval dance.  Quite a lot of effort obviously would be spent practicing for the annual Carneval events - and a bit of beer drunk as well one would imagine.  



We also were 'blessed' by the harlequin with a mark of soot of our noses.  Bad luck from the car break-in was banished


PragueL Ibis Mala Strana, Munich: Mercure Old town