Thursday, August 9, 2018

Luang Prabang, in rainy season

We were pleased to have an excuse to return to Luang Prabang, as we hadn't been back for about 5 years.  The excuse was a friend from New Zealand venturing up to the wilds of Laos.

This year July had heavy rains and the Mekong was high and dirty.  We were lucky with the weather, our 1st day rained from start to finish, but after that it wasn't an issue.  It did mean two boys walking around town dressed in over-sized plastic bags.

They took a boat ride on the Mekong to the Pak Ou caves.  Plenty of scenery on and off the water.  From hand-crafted boats through to Lao Lao (whiskey) and over happy locals

 The town itself still had the same charm, but there plenty of tourists.  We didn't get any classic sunsets, but a couple of nights dining on the river was great to see local life passing by.

The terrible two did a cooking course at the Tamarind cooking school, just outside town.  They had a good mix of people in the class, and enjoyed it hugely.
We visited a few good restaurants and two stood out.  The Blue Lagoon and Manda de Laos.  Both of these places had outstanding service.

We stayed near the night market, just off the street for the morning market.  Here the locals did their produce shop for the day.  Our guesthouse, Le Bougainvillier was lovely.  Spotlessly clean, quiet, and with a lovely breakfast each morning

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Shanghai–with Andrew this time!

It was definitely a relief as the immigration officer briefly perused Andrew’s passport and documentation and stamped him into China.  No questions about being turned away previously – we were free to enjoy the best part 4 days in Shanghai.  It was 01:30am, and we zoomed into the city in an airport taxi. It was great to check-in and go to sleep.

July was much, much warmer than May but we planned around the weather and tried to be reasonable in each days itinerary.

1st stop was the Shanghai Museum, but when we saw the lines we decided to park that for another day.  Instead we went across the road to the Shanghai Urban planning museum.  Here we spent a good couple of hours exploring the exhibits, which were informative and impressive.  Particularly interesting was the information on the Lilong or lane housing and the huge model of the city.  The city was trying to modernise living conditions, but it is a difficult process of balancing heritage and urban demands.

Shanghai urban
On our 1st evening we joined a food walking tour with Shanghai Foodie.  There were only 5 of us, so a good small group.  Jim our tour guide was very good at telling us snippets about the areas we were in.  One of the most noticeable comments was about urban development and lack of documentation making many of shop owners open very long hours, effectively to get as much money saved before inevitable closures would happen. 

We started a beer in a bar in the Xintiandi area (drink here, don’t eat here said Jim) before heading to a tiny noodle shop.  Great noodles with a variety of toppings.  While it looks empty in the picture, when we went in we crowded around 1 table and there were no spare seats in the 4 table cafe.
From here we have an eating rest while we had tea.  With Coffee culture expanding at an exponential rate, traditional tea-shops were disappearing.  This was followed by Xiao Long Bao, specially cooked by the owner as XLB are usually a morning/early afternoon thing. From there we had some soy snacks, spring rolls, and were very well fed!
more food
We finished with more craft beer.  Locally made and Epic, from New Zealand.  One of the beers they put a shot of gin in.  The gin was … from NZ.  Shanghai foodie evening tour, is wonderfully low key and relaxed, and recommended for a taste of local foods (pun-intended)

Having seen the museum lines mid-morning yesterday, we had a plan to be in the line for when the museum opened.  About 400 other people had the same idea and we stood in the morning heat for about 50 minutes.  There were fans cooling things down and we were under a sun-tent - unlike the people who arrived after us.  The old-lady vendors were doing well selling chilled water bottles.  Most of the locals were paying with their phones, scanning QR codes, not cash payments.  Inside the wait was worthwhile to see some of collections.  Particularly interesting, were the bronzes and ethnic displays.

We visited the Bund on a couple of occasions.  In the evening, we were joined by 10,000 other people.  Incoming foot traffic had to be directed down one side of the street and others leaving on the other side. Andrew commented he had never seen such committed crowds.  The number of people standing at the metro station encouraged us to walk an extra half hour home, rather than try buy a ticket and join the masses.

We walked many kilometres in the french concession areas.  There is a a variety of things to see from small boutique shopping areas to residential and expat cafes.

We managed to fit in two particularly good restaurants.  One, Xibo, had distinctive Uygur cuisine from NW china, Xinjiang.  This meant slow cooked, delicious lamb.  Andrew is now willing to travel to that region for the food.  We also went to the perennially popular Lost Heaven on the Bund – we had to make 2 trips to get in, as it was fully booked the first night we tried. These were in addition to the pancakes and dumplings we ate at various times.  We ate well in Shanghai!
more food2
 Locals use bike delivery services constantly.  Everywhere you go they are rushing from job to job.  There are almost no petrol motorbikes in the central city areas we were in, they are all the deadly silent electric bike.  They pop up out of nowhere and pretty much think they own the footpaths and roads.  People still found foreigners a novelty and we were asked to join a few photos.

On our final morning we went to the Yu gardens, classical Chinese gardens.  They were delightful and being a Monday morning there were a few less tourists than crowd in at the weekend.
chinese gardens
gardens 2
The journey back to the airport was partly on the Maglev.  The 30km journey was only at 300km per hour. Some parts of the day it runs at 431 km/hr.  The train is magnetically levitated, so it doesn’t have surface drag slowing it down. 
Through to Kuala Lumpur before the 6:30am flight back into Vientiane

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.

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. 


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.  

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

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.

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 :-) 
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.

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.

We took a couple of photos of us  (awwwww…Smile )

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. 
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. 
Another morning we headed to the Bamboo Forest.  A nice walk and a circuit down by the river
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.

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…