Bangkok: My Old Friend

Bangkok, Thailand – 19-25 November 2018

As I’ve been lucky enough to say half-a-dozen times, I’m back in Bangkok. One of my favorite cities and home to my friend, Ak. The city here is both familiar and brand-new every time I visit, thanks in large part to the extremely lively bar and restaurant scene – and on this particular trip, the first ever Bangkok Art Bienniale, with displays and installations throughout the city.

I was soon enough checked into my home-away-from-home here, Le Méridien – and, as usual, I was welcomed by the staff like they’d just seen me yesterday. I really do love this place.

One of the things that’s so nice about coming back to Bangkok is that, while in some ways I’ve barely scratched the surface of everything there is to do and see here, I’ve certainly made a dent in my previous six visits. And there’s something very relaxing about being able to explore a big city like this at a leisurely pace.

For the most part, I’ll let my photos tell the story of this visit, though there are of course some places I’ll need to call out specifically, either because they are new – or just continue to be amazing.

In the latter category is the restaurant Thai Niyom. Ak and I discovered this place last time I was in BKK. It was still new then and was pretty quiet both times we ate there. But the food! So good. The most amazing dish I ate last time was cabbage stir-fried with fish sauce and garlic. Simple and simply fantastic. And this visit? Same dish, still amazing! We ate here twice again. I can’t recommend this place highly enough. And they got a Bib Gourmand mention – very deservedly so. I was happy to see the place is doing a brisk business – not only because they should be but so that I can look forward to more meals there next time I’m in BKK.

Ak and I also had a lovely afternoon tea at Peacock Alley in the new Waldorf Astoria. Tea in fancy hotels is a bit of hit-or-miss prospect in my experience, with style often winning out over substance all too frequently. I’m happy to report that this tea was mostly quite good. It was absolutely stylish, a sunlight-filled modern room overlooking the Royal Bangkok Sports Club. There was a nice selection of tea-infused cocktails which were as tasty as they were delicious. The sweets and savories were really gorgeous – clearly made with Instagram in mind – but were also quite tasty. There were a few duds, but overall everything was quite good. Granted, I’d’ve preferred a higher savory-to-sweet ratio, but that’s been true just about everywhere I’ve had afternoon tea.

Another very special evening was spent at Sawaan, a new-ish fine dining restaurant serving Thai food – and the recent recipient of a Michelin star. Since this was a “fancy” dinner, I’d reserved for Thanksgiving – which is obviously not celebrated here, but it felt like a good reason to celebrate.

Well, this place was delightful. The service was just lovely – warm and welcoming and the entire staff really went out of their way to make sure our evening was special, as I’d mentioned in my reservation that it was Thanksgiving for me and a belated celebration of Ak’s 25th birthday. They served us a complimentary round of drinks for the holiday and presented Ak with a wonderful extra dessert at the end of our ten-course meal.

And the food? Just wonderful. Large multi-course tasting menus can feel daunting at times, but this one worked really well, not just in terms of the food but in the pacing. Several of the dishes were served with some theatricality, though it didn’t feel precious – and the food itself was amazing.

A few standouts: Fresh amberjack minced tableside with a dozen different herbs and other flavorings. A fat, buttery oyster presented in a bowl, into which a ewer of mushroom broth was poured, gently poaching the mollusk. A slice of Iberico pork, cooked simply but with a complex marinade of Thai herbs and spices.

It was a wonderful meal – and a really fine way to spend Thanksgiving. And I was indeed thankful – not just to be spending the holiday with my good friend Ak, but also being reminded once again of how very lucky I am to get to travel to amazing places like Bangkok.

We also visited the just-opened Icon Siam, a huge new shopping mall on the banks of Chao Phraya. The place is pretty swanky and includes an indoor “floating market” with plenty of local food and snacks for sale. Of course, for us, the best part turned out to be the outdoor promenade along the river – it provided many excellent opportunities for us to pose for our lives. And honestly, I wish I had Ak around as my personal photographer on the regular – he always manages to make me look good in photos.

While I didn’t come close to seeing everything on display for Bangkok’s first Bienniale, I did see quite a bit. Choi Jeong Hwa’s (South Korea) work was displayed in several locations and was always colorful and engaging. I especially liked Sornchai Phongsa’s (Thailand) installation at BACC – it was fascinating to see and was given particular depth when I learned that the artist had hired undocumented immigrants to build the structure, a commentary on the many stateless residents of Thailand. 

Thanks to all the amazing food, cool bars, great art and fun times with Ak, my six days in Bangkok flew by. Soon enough, I was winging my way back to real life in SF. Looking forward to my next visit to Thailand in October!

 

First Time in Laos

Luang Prabang, Laos – 15-19 November 2018

Despite the short distance, it was a bit of an all-day affair to get from Phnom Penh to Luang Prabang, thanks to having to fly via Bangkok. But it was a mostly uneventful trip. The flights were short and I spent my layover in the Miracle Lounge at BKK waiting for my connecting flight, thanks to my Priority Pass. Lounge was comfy enough with some very tasty food. Granted, I was less than pleased with the old white lady putting her bare feet up on a chair while she kicked back and listened to Christian sermons on her phone – with the external speaker natch…

Oh, and then there was the fellow who was seated in my row on the flight to LP. I was on the aisle, reading my magazine during boarding and he needed to get past me. Rather than saying “Pardon me” or some other normal method of interacting, he just stood in the aisle staring at me – while all the other boarding passengers were stuck behind him – until I finally felt his freakish gaze and looked up.

“Oh, did you need to get in here?” I asked.

He just continued staring at me. Very peculiar. Oh, and once he was seated (and while we were still sitting at the gate), he reported to the flight attendant that the passenger in front of him “tried to recline their seat.” I think he was expecting her to reprimand the other passenger? All I can say is I’m happy the flight was half empty and I moved one row back to get away from this weirdo.

As we approached LPQ, we were flying over the lush green mountains of this province. It was actually a tad intimidating, because we were clearly descending but there sure didn’t seem to be any large, flat expanses of ground that might accommodate something like – oh, I don’t know – an airport. Eh, I’m sure the pilots know where they’re going.

I was listening to music on my headphones as we approached LPQ – and Aaron Copeland’s “Hoedown” shuffled on. It’s a quintessentially American song – yet it seemed the perfect song to hear as I started my latest adventure. And it was one of those moments I have sometimes when I travel where I realize how incredibly lucky I am to be able to visit different countries, meet new people and experience cultures other than my own. It got me a little misty-eyed…

Arrived at LP’s small airport and made a beeline for Immigration. Laos does “visa-on-arrival” which I’d done when I visited Siem Reap a couple of years ago (Cambodia now has an online visa system, which makes it way easier; Laos is implementing one this year, I believe), so I knew I wanted to be at the front of the line so I could make it through quickly.

And I did! Things went very smoothly. The two immigration officers at my counter started off in the typical serious and unsmiling manner shared by customs officials all over the world – which is fine! They aren’t CS agents, after all. But after verifying that I wasn’t an undesirable who’d be denied leave-to-enter, they began quizzing me about my beard, how long it took me to grow it, etc. They were all smiles, as friendly as could be and quite fascinated with my beard – which, let’s face it, IS pretty impressive. It was a nice welcome to Laos!

My hotel had sent a shuttle to collect me and soon enough, I was checked in to my lovely and spacious room at the Kiridara Hotel. The place is located a bit outside of town, which turned out to be mostly OK, especially since there are bikes available for guests to borrow. The property is quite beautiful, built into a hillside and looking down toward the Mekong River and the surrounding countryside.

My room was large and comfortable, though the space wasn’t used as well as one might hope. There really wasn’t much of a workspace – which, granted, this is a resort not a business hotel, but there wasn’t anywhere comfortable to set up my laptop – yet there was a ton of wasted space near the closets that would’ve been the perfect spot for a small desk.

There was also a huge terrace – though it was right next to the pool. There were some plants separating the terrace from the pool area, but it wasn’t as private as one might hope. But the view was really great. Well, except for the huge mansion down the road that looked something like Graceland East. It was wildly out of place (it belongs to a wealthy Laotian construction company owner, according to a shuttle driver I met later that week) with its Greek columns and pediments – though in a nod to local culture, there were also several huge bronze elephant statues flanking the entry gate. Kudos to the hotel though for planting a thicket of bamboo in a moderately successful attempt to obscure this mega-home from view.

Had dinner at the hotel – it was just OK (breakfast was similarly uninspiring for the rest of my visit), though my cocktail was very tasty: a Lao-jito!

Up early the next morning to head into town and meet up with my bike tour to Kuang Si Falls, about an 18 mile ride outside of town. I’d been very excited to do this ride, though I’d had a bit of a quandary booking the tour with Tiger Trail Adventures: I could pay double and go on a private tour, i.e. me and a guide or – if some other folks signed up for the tour during my stay in LP – join the group tour. I’d been checking with Tiger Trail regularly and it was just the day before that they told me a group was going on Friday. Perfect! Or so I thought…

Now, don’t get me wrong – the tour was fantastic. The ride out there through the countryside is absolutely gorgeous. Plus it was a nice long ride and included a few challenging-but-doable hills along the way. And our guide, Cha, was very good.

But, as an experienced cyclist, it wound up being disappointing since our slowest riders ultimately set the pace of the trip. Actually, that’s not quite true – Cha and I were typically way out in front together (though even he had to walk his bike up one of the hills that I cycled up with relative east – all my riding at home through SF’s hilly terrain paid off!), with the nice Finnish couple in the middle and bringing up the rear, an older couple from Idaho and our other guide. The couple were not experienced cyclists.

Far be it from me to tell people what they can and cannot do on vacation – but if you don’t ride regularly, does it really make sense to sign up for a riding tour that goes for 18 miles and includes hills? And while they weren’t the worst tourists I’ve ever encountered, they were very American in their demeanor, so not exactly my favorites.

Ultimately, it just meant that we had to stop every now and again to wait (sometimes for quite a while) for the rear guard to catch up. Not the end of the world – but had I been on my own, we probably could’ve made it to the falls in two hours rather than the three-and-a-half it actually took.

Again, though, I was particularly grateful for our guide letting me set a fast pace for us up in front. It was a really wonderful morning – the scenery of course and putting some serious miles in the saddle, which is always so good for me physically and mentally.

One of our stops along the way was at a local silk shop. A very friendly merchant ran the place – though for me, the highlight was the absolutely adorable puppy who was probably only a couple of months old. She was fluffy and playful and loved being around people. She was gamboling – gamboling I tell you! – and just a delightful little furball that I wish I could’ve smuggled home in my suitcase.

Once at the falls – which despite being a huge tourist draw were not overwhelmingly crowded – we walked up through the forest path to the main falls and gawked and gazed and took photos. They really are lovely.

Walked a bit further down to one of the pools where swimming is permitted. The water was pretty chilly but it was a refreshing and the water was pristine.

Next, some lunch at a local place back near the entrance, before riding down to the Mekong River. We boarded a boat for a leisurely trip back to town. As is so often the case with boat rides of any sort, it was a bit longer than I’d’ve liked – but it was relaxing and certainly much nicer than being in a mini-van. Personally, I’d’ve been happy to get some more time riding – but even so, it was a really wonderful day and I highly recommend this tour.

The rest of my stay in LP was pretty laid-back. Spent some time by the hotel pool. Made regular use of the bicycles-for-loan from the hotel to get into town.  

Had a couple of very nice meals at Pha Khao Lao – well, actually the same two meals: larb meatballs which were delicious! Owners are a husband and wife – he’s from UK, she’s Lao. He was very friendly and took great care of me on my second visit, making sure I got to try some of the local sausage along with my meatballs. A really charming place with such good food and a friendly local staff.

I also had a couple of meals at Le Banneton, a French bakery at the eastern end of LP’s main drag. It was a wonderful spot to relax and watch people go by or just take in the temple across the road. A very yummy jambon-beurre sandwich was the highlight, especially the good quality baguette. Pastries were tasty, though some of them seemed to suffer texture-wise from the local heat and humidity.

I was really just delighted with my visit to Luang Prabang. I think I was expecting something more overwhelmingly touristy and that’s not how it felt to me at all. Granted, I avoided the sunrise crush of tourists thronging the local monks collecting alms each morning. Everything I’d read about it made it sound both overwhelming and often disrespectful – though it is a huge draw for tourists. I’m sure it’s fascinating, but the cons seemed to outweigh the pros.

Really, the only thing that I ultimately didn’t like about my stay was my hotel. Granted, it was a lovely property – but beyond that, it fell short in many areas. The bikes – which I loved having use of – were not particularly well-maintained, many with squishy brakes. The shuttle to town didn’t seem to hew to the posted schedule – which is not the end of the world, but there was never any communication from the staff about when/if the shuttle was leaving or arriving. The staff in general were very friendly – but seemed unequipped to respond to anything other than the most basic requests.

Case in point: my last day was Monday and my flight was at 5PM. I asked for a late check-out at 2PM and was refused since, the fellow at the front desk explained, the entire hotel was fully booked for Monday. Fair enough – though I did ask if they expected all the guest to arrive at precisely 2PM, the stated check-in time. I didn’t really get a response.

There were a variety of things I could have been offered: use of a different room; access to a shower and changing room; a compromise of 1PM check-out – but there was nothing. Just repeatedly being advised that I had to be out of my room at noon.

And so I was! I hung out by the pool reading (though not swimming, since all my bags were packed and I wouldn’t have any place to shower and change before my flight) for a couple of hours. When I did leave at 2PM for the airport, not a single guest had checked into the hotel. Furthermore, the couple in the room immediately above mine gathered their luggage and checked-out – at 2PM.

Then I had to wait around for the hotel shuttle to the airport, with no advice as to why it was now 15 minutes after I’d scheduled my ride and I was still sitting by the front desk with my luggage and various staff members hanging around. I finally inquired and got to the airport with plenty of time – but the whole experience on my last day at the hotel was really poor. I have to say, as beautiful as the property is, I probably wouldn’t recommend it.

But Luang Prabang? Don’t miss it! Really just a wonderful spot that I hope to visit again soon.

Touring Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh, Cambodia – 13 & 14 November 2018

Tuk-tuks are ubiquitous in Phnom Penh, just like in many other cities in Asia. They are charmingly photogenic and generally inexpensive – but honestly, not the most comfortable way to travel. But oh well – when in Rome and all.

So, off I went in a tuk-tuk for the 15 minute ride (per Google Maps) to meet up with this evening’s food tour of Phnom Penh. Even with the 15 minute buffer I’d added, the trip was frustratingly slow thanks to the usual cuckoo traffic. But I made it just about on time and met my guide for the evening, Vanarith at the appointed location near Olympic Stadium. Happily, I was the first to arrive, so I didn’t feel so bad about being a bit behind schedule.

The two other women joining our tour showed up a few minutes after that and, I’ll confess, I was initially leery. They were Western and I assumed American – so I was prepping myself for some eyeroll-inducing cluelessness. Instead, it turned out they were Canadian and I heaved a big sigh of relief. We had something else very much in common, as I was to find out later…

Anyway, we explored a bit of Olympic Stadium, which is much different in the evening compared to my visit that morning. Not only were there a bunch of food carts and vendors selling their wares, locals turn out for semi-organized dance rehearsals. It’s kind of like a community Zumba? Anyway, it was super fun to watch but I declined the opportunity to participate.

We grabbed a table near the food carts and our guide ordered a bunch of stuff. Now, here’s where I have to confess – I did a terrible job documenting either with notes or photos all of the food we tried over the course of the evening. And further confession – while it was all tasty, none of it bowled me over, though this was pretty much the case with most of the food I ate while in Phnom Penh. Now, don’t get me wrong – nothing was bad. I think it’s just that compared to Vietnam and Thailand, I didn’t eat any Cambodian food that was particularly memorable, even though it was all good and freshly prepared.

Now, this should also not be considered a knock on this particular tour. In some ways, I think it was my favorite of my visit – thanks largely to the good chemistry between our guide and my two new friends from Canada. Vanarith was extraordinarily engaging – he knew plenty about the food we were eating of course, but shared wide-ranging information about local life, Cambodia’s history, the changing face of Phnom Penh. He’s a great guide!

At some point during the evening, I shared email or IG or something with Tania and Arielle and thanks to my highly-Jewish surname, we discovered we are all descendants of Abraham. Yes, yes, I’m still a devout atheist, but am most certainly culturally Jewish. And of course, all three of us swung right into action, teaching Yiddish to Vanarith. “Oy vey,” “fakakta” and “schvitzing” all made the list and he was an impressive student – though “schvitzing” proved particularly challenging to pronounce.

I had so much fun yakking with everyone, that I didn’t take as many photos as I’d’ve liked – but that’s quite indicative of how much I enjoyed this tour.

The next morning I was up early since I had to be back in the center of town for a bike tour that started just before 8:00AM. It sounded like it might be raining a bit, so I opened the draperies to check the weather and it was POURING. Like crazy buckets and cats-and-dogs raining. I was semi-relieved since I kinda wanted to go back to bed – but then remembered I’d already paid for the tour and they expect you to show up rain or shine since weather can change quickly.

And sure enough, by the time I was on my way, the rain had completely cleared up. I got to Grasshopper and we were on our way soon enough – me, a Swedish couple, a young Tunisian man who lives in Qatar and our guide.

First we rode along the river on a nice paved bike and pedestrian path – though constructed of some kind of slippery material, so I managed to halfway wipeout on our way to the ferry to cross the river. Oopsie! I guess I was being punished for the hubris of bringing my own helmet…

Made across the river and started our ride on paved and then gravely roads. All was AOK! Then we got to the unpaved portion of the tour…

Hoo boy! After that mornings torrential downpour, there were mud and puddles everywhere. It was challenging going to say the least. I did OK, particularly once I gave up and accepted the fact that I was going to end the ride covered in mud from head to toe. This realization really sunk in (no pun intended) when I had to put my foot down to keep my balance and I want calf-deep into the mud.

Ultimately, it was really kind of hilarious. I mean, sure, the paths were quite treacherous in a couple of spots but I survived. I think I felt worst for the other solo rider. He didn’t seem an especially experienced cyclist and rather than steering around puddles, he’d attempt to power right through them – and they often turned out to be quite a bit deeper than they appeared. I think he was knee-deep in mud more than once. At one point during the ride, I think he was trying to shake some of the mud out of his gears by braking the bike hard – but he did so using only the front brake and managed to send himself ass-over-handlebars onto the paved road we were on. Happily (and somewhat shockingly) he sustained no injuries.

We stopped at small silk weaving outfit, which was quite fascinating to watch – especially for the very intricately patterned fabric that one weaver was working on for a bride. There was also a super friendly doggo there, so that was an extra bonus!

Once we’d gotten past the worst of the mud, things went more smoothly. The countryside was very pretty and we spent a bit of time exploring a local temple complex while waiting for another boat. We ended with lunch back in the city. Sure, I was filthy and smelly, but it was a pretty great half-day in the saddle.

I’d wisely booked a massage appointment for that afternoon, back at Bodia Spa – and let me just say, they were just as welcoming and gracious as on my previous visit, despite my monstrous and filthy appearance. And I was able to have a nice hot shower before my massage, so by the time I left two hours later, I felt absolutely fantastic!

Headed back to my hotel and had a quiet evening in, while I packed and got ready to leave in the morning. Next stop: Luang Prabang!

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh, Cambodia – 11, 12 & 13 November 2018

The flight to Phnom Penh was uneventful – really, the best kind of flight. The most memorable part of the trip was Vietnam Airlines’ promo video for their international service, in which happy passengers enjoyed their flights in economy, premium economy and business class – though the business class passengers were all white, unlike those in economy. A little bit racist!

Getting through the airport in Phnom Penh was easy – much more so now that online visas can be procured prior to one’s visit, a big improvement over visa-on-arrival that I’d used in Siem Reap. Leaving the airport? That was another story. Traffic was at a literal standstill – and even once out of the worst of it, traffic remained slow and congested. The 7-mile trip from the airport to my hotel took over an hour – longer than my flight from Saigon!

Happily, though, arriving at my hotel, the Rambutan Resort, showed that the place was even more delightful than it appeared online. A small boutique style place with an open lobby, pool and restaurant occupying the ground floor, all of it lushly landscaped – this place is a real oasis in this very hectic city. And the staff were all delightful – so genuinely friendly and helpful throughout my stay.

I’d splurged a bit on this stay and was staying in the penthouse. The quarters were spacious and comfortable and the large terrace was a lovely extra. Really, I couldn’t have asked for more. Well, OK, maybe one thing – the bidet sprayer (a.k.a. “bum gun” per my friend Ak) was a little weak pressured and thus not quite as effective as it could be. But other than that, all was well!

Dinner and drinks at the hotel that night and breakfast there the next morning. Food was all very good, as were the mojitos I had with dinner. After breakfast my first day, I spent some time lounging by the pool and it was wonderful. Read, swam in the saltwater pool, finished a crossword puzzle. I’m not always good at “allowing” myself to have downtime when I’m exploring a new city, so this was a nice way to start my visit.

Eventually, I made my way into the center of Phnom Penh. The city is larger and more bustling than I’d imagined for some reason – and while the location of my hotel away from the center meant having to take a 15 minute (or more when traffic turned bad, which is often) tuk tuk ride, it was nice to be located in a relatively quiet neighborhood.

I had a bit of time before joining my walking tour that afternoon, so I had a mediocre lunch at a noodle place (well-reviewed by foreigners on TripAdvisor – which should have warned me away) and then a nice visit to a cat cafe, where a little tuxedo fellow became my BFF. Oh cats!

Walking tour with Grasshopper Adventures was pretty good. We covered a lot of central PP and explored many of the tiny alleys and streets where locals live and lead their lives. While it was interesting, it did feel a bit invasive at times. I think maybe working with some locals who are actually interested in sharing a bit of their lives with tourists might make for a better experience.

There’s still a good amount of colonial architecture in PP in varying states of repair. The old abandoned police station is a bit worse for wear, but is home to an assortment of apparently thriving used car sales and detailing businesses. There’s also a volleyball court – one of the most popular sports in Cambodia – where we stopped to take in a bit of a game being played by some local fellows.

Climbed to the top of Wat Phnom and my guide told me about the legend of a wealthy widow called Penh who found a tree with Buddha statues inside, inspiring her to construct a small hill and temple on the site, and eventually lending her name to the city (Phnom means “hill”).

We finished up the tour with an afternoon snack at a very local place – so local in fact that my guide warned me that I probably shouldn’t eat the greens and herbs served with our rolls, due to my presumably delicate Western constitution. Though after we were halfway through our meal, I mentioned that I’d been eating everything in Saigon including local and street places – and he told me then I’d probably be fine if I ate everything we’d been presented with. I was tempted, but he’d gotten me sufficiently paranoid that I declined.

Back to the Rambutan by tuk tuk – and I will just say again how wonderful it is to return to this place after exploring the hectic city. The setting is so tranquil and all of staff are so welcoming. This is really a special place.

Got an early start the next morning, this time for a tour of the city’s 1960s architecture with Khmer Architecture Tours. We started at Olympic Stadium, designed by Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann. It’s a pretty amazing site, despite the fact that it’s fallen into a bit of disrepair and all of the original reflecting pools on the site have been converted to parking or other less inspiring functions.

The indoor stadium is clearly 60s in style with both Brutalist and Modernist styles. However, the adaptations to local climate are ingenious, like vents under the tiered seating to allow airflow. The angled metal “windows” allowed some light into the venue, but shielded it from direct sunlight and was another path for airflow.

The surrounding area is home to numerous recently-built highrise condos, all of them pretty fancy looking and not affordable for most Cambodians. They are primarily being built by Chinese for Chinese. It’s a decidedly double-edged sword, given that the developers have chipped in to maintain and repair the stadium and are providing construction and other jobs – but these projects are massive and are substantially changing the city, for better or worse (probably a bit of both).

Next stop was a visit to the 100 Houses, another Vann Molyvann project. The project was conceived as a block of 100 houses for middle class workers – sort of a Khmer version of California’s Eichlers. Simple and identical floor plans, designed to maximize airflow, vent cooking fumes and provide some outdoor space for growing a garden.

Built in the 60s, then largely abandoned during the Khmer Rouge genocide, those that haven’t been razed and replaced have been mostly re-occupied with massive additions and renovations. But we did get to explore one semi-dilapidated house that remains vacant on an overgrown lot. It really was a thoughtfully conceived living space.

Our last stop was at Royal University of Phnom Penh, home to quite an assortment of 60s modernism – most notably, the main hall with it’s parabolic roof. As with our previous stops, it was quite fascinating to learn how modern architectural styles and designs were adapted to function in the climate of Cambodia, where airflow and rainwater mitigation are always major concerns.

My guide’s knowledge was exhaustive – which was great, though also a bit literally exhausting. She shared so much information, it was hard to absorb it all! It was certainly a great way to get a bit off the beaten tourist path in PP and see some of Cambodia’s history.

After another unremarkable lunch, I had a massage at Bodia Spa – and it was wonderful! I’d visited their spa in Siem Reap a couple of years ago and had good memories. The spa in PP was really lovely – a very friendly and gracious staff in a beautifully designed space. My therapist was very skilled and my massage was a wonderful treat after spending much of the morning on foot.

Back to the hotel for a bit of a rest, then time to head out for another tour: this one a street food tour that I’d booked last minute. What a day!

 

A Day on Bikes in the Mekong Delta

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – 9 & 10 November 2018

When I’d visited Saigon last year with Ak, we’d contemplated taking what sounded like a great bike tour down in the Mekong Delta with Grasshopper Adventures. However, the weather was iffy and the prospect of driving in a minivan for two hours only to ride around on bikes in the rain sounded less than ideal.

So, I was determined to make the trip this time, not least because the weather had been delightful and not too hot (by southern Vietnam standards). Of course, the fly in the ointment was my traveling solo – there needed to be at least one other person signed up for the trip if it was going to take place.

I’d submitted a request a month prior to my trip and there were no tours available during my stay. Amazingly, though, two days into my trip, I got an email from Grasshopper Adventures that a tour was available for Friday. Hooray!

I showed up at the designated meeting point and met, Dat, our guide for the day and two fellows from So Cal, Albert and George, friends since high school and regular travel buddies. We piled into our minivan and made it to our starting point in about 90 minutes.

Well! I’d not really known what to expect, especially after my friend Vu had warned me to be prepared for a super touristy experience. I suspect this may be true at the floating market or some other destinations in the area, but we really spent the entire visit as the only foreigners around, pedaling our way through gorgeously lush countryside and narrow paths shaded by banana and palm trees. It was really one of the best bike riding tours I’ve been on.

One of our first stops was at a local home factory where they made straw mats that Vietnamese use for sleeping and sitting. I was a little leery at first, since so often stops like these on tours are really about the gift shop. Not this time! This was a genuine local workshop and we got to see the folks producing the mats while Dat explained to us the economics of the product and the history of this particular workshop. We met the 82-year-old matriarch (with whom I foolishly neglected to take a photo!), who’d only just recently retired from running the show and handed the reins over to her son-in-law. She was pleased to meet us and Dat interpreted for us as she thanked us for coming to visit. Her grandson (or maybe great grandson?) was also there and practiced his very-good English with Albert. Everyone we met there was delightful and welcoming and it was wonderful.

Rode some more, passing by duck farms, herb farms and the occasional cow. Our next stop was a cocoa bean farm. Dat walked us through the whole tree-to-bean process, as we ambled through a grove of cocoa trees before visiting the main part of the farm where the beans were harvested and prepped. The cocoa pods contain white-fleshed lobes of fruit, each with a bean inside. We tasted the fresh fruit and saw the various stages of the beans as they are dried and peeled. The smell of the place was like a strong dark chocolate along with a fermented edge. We tasted the dried beans which was as expected, a sharp bitter chocolate.

We met the farm owner, who shared a shot of chocolate booze with us – it was very similar to sherry or port. The farmer works directly with Maison Marou, a Vietnamese chocolatier started by a French company. The maison produces chocolates all sourced from several regions in Vietnam, making both bars and fancy boxed chocolates.

It was a wonderful visit – and again, it was really focused on learning a bit about this farmer, his work and his crop rather than an opportunity to hard sell some gewgaws to tourists. Obviously I’ll be making a trip to Maison Marou once I’m back in Saigon to pick up some of the single-source chocolate bars made from the beans on this very farm.

We continued our ride and the countryside remained glorious. Since we we were all three keeping a good pace with Dat, he took us on a little roundabout route to our lunch destination so we could get some more time in the saddle.

Lunch was at a private home that was also a small farm. Our meal was prepared from ingredients harvested locally and it was delicious. I mean, it was delicious in and of itself – but after a long ride, we were all pretty famished and wolfed down just about everything in sight: fried rolls, stir-fried beef, greens, pork and vegetable soup, fruit and plenty of rice.

We also met some adorable baby boars frolicking near their parent’s sty – and I just pretended that I hadn’t eaten their siblings for lunch. Awkward… but still delicious.

Next we needed to board a boat – but our captain was apparently a bit behind schedule, so we wandered a local wholesale fruit market nearby. As happens frequently, my beard was a source of mirth and fascination for some of the locals. According to Dat, one of the ladies selling oranges thought I was quite the handsome devil! A woman of good taste clearly.

Soon enough, our long boat arrived and we spent a little bit of time on the Mekong. Initially we were one of the several tributaries in this region, but shortly we made our way out into the main artery. It’s huge! Really amazing sight.

Another great part of this trip was that the boat ride was a reasonable length – about half an hour, I’d say. It was enough time to see the river and enjoy the breeze but didn’t even approach the “OMG, when are we ever getting off this boat?” territory.

Piled into the van and headed back to HCMC. What an amazing day! It was such a great ride and Dat was a really excellent guide – plus Albert and George were great touring companions and we were all keeping up the pace with each other. I really lucked out with this

Had dinner at a relatively unmemorable place down the road from my hotel. Not bad, but nothing to write home about. Another early evening and slept like a baby, thanks to today’s ride.

Saturday, I was tempted to try to head back to District 4 for my favorite pho – but Pho Minh is right next door to my hotel and serves very tasty pho plus pate chaud! Convenience won out and I am OK with that.

The rest of the day was dedicated to treating myself and a little shopping. I checked out Mayhem, a vintage shop that’s apparently all the rage. Looked like the women’s section was fairly well-stocked – but the men’s was a little ho-hum for my tastes.

Next stop: Maison Marou, the chocolate shop that sells the bars of chocolates made from the cocoa beans of the farmer I met during my tour of the Mekong Delta. Wow! The shop and cafe is delightful. Besides the single-source bars, they also have fancy boxed chocolates with fillings like Vietnamese coffee and coconut. The prices were also amazingly reasonable, so I stocked up on treats to bring back home with me.

Wrapped up my time in HCMC with a Sunday morning visit to Unification Palace. I’d explored the entire place last year, but I still think this is one of the most gorgeous examples of modern architecture, so I had another wander about, taking photos inside and out. And before I knew it, it was time to get back to the hotel and head to the airport. Next stop: Phnom Penh!

SFO to HCMC via HKG

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – 4-10 November 2018

Far be it from me to complain about flying across the Pacific in business class – but I will say this: Cathay Pacific positions itself as a “premium” airline, but my experience – while obviously better than service delivered by U.S. carriers – was a mixed bag. Check in took way longer than it should have and the agent was not especially friendly nor did she seem particularly well-versed in her job.

The flight crew was competent, but also not especially friendly – plus no slippers for business class passengers and too-small pillows. The food was decent – but the hamburger available as a midflight snack, while still quite tasty, used to come with fries but now comes with chips.

And then there were my efforts to rearrange my flights in HKG to get to Saigon instead of Hanoi, as I was ticketed to do. One agent was very helpful but the early flight to Saigon was full. Later, when I spoke with another agent and indicated that I’d be flying on to Saigon on a different airline and wouldn’t be using my onward business class ticket to Hanoi, accused me of “cheating” (yes, that’s the word she used) when I asked if I could still use the biz class lounge (and which she insisted I could not and therefore did not).

So, yes, flying up in the pointy part of the plane is always better than the alternative – but Cathay is sure no Singapore Airlines. I think they are outperformed by EVA, ANA and JAL, as well.

Anyway, enough of my kvetching about my first world problems. I had a nine-hour layover in HKG, so that was plenty of time to get into the city for a walkabout and – far more importantly – a breakfast of char siu at Joy HIng Roasted Meats in Wan Chai. And it was absolutely worth the trip in, I’m happy to say! Afterwards, I took the Ding Ding Trolley over toward Sheung Wan, then climbed up the hill and walked along Hollywood Road before heading down to check out the harbor and use the free wifi at the mall.

Back to the airport, where my flight on Vietnam Airlines to Saigon departed from one of the dreaded 500 series gates – the gates in the basement underneath the “real” gates. Instead of a jetway, passengers are schlepped out to their plane on a crowded bus. Business class this wasn’t! But once on board, the seat next to me was unoccupied which is a pretty great way to fly coach – plus there were a hot meal served on the two-hour flight!

Finally arrived at airport in Ho Chi Minh after about 26 hours in transit – and of course I chose the slowest line for Immigration staffed by an officer who was apparently VERY PARTICULAR about each traveler’s documents. Sigh… But once through, I stopped to get a local SIM card, which was easy enough – except I didn’t have exact change in my wallet, so had to dig through my backpack and suitcase for the rest of my cash and at which time I also discovered that the See’s chocolate turkey I’d brought for my friend Ak to celebrate Thanksgiving when I’m in Thailand had been smushed. Exhaustion made my reaction to this discovery rather more pointed than was absolutely necessary.

But at least once I left the terminal, I was greeted by my favorite sight after a long day of travel: a sign with my name on it, meaning a car service was here to collect me.

We were on our way to the hotel in short order – but I’d forgotten how absolutely intense traffic in HCMC is. We moved at a snail’s pace for most of the ride and all I wanted was to be in my hotel room. It was at this point I was thinking to myself, “Why do I ever even leave home? The trip takes too long, I’ve made bad decisions about my travel arrangements and my turkey is broken. Everything is ruined!” OK, perhaps I was a bit overwrought…

Made it to my home for the week, the Liberty Central Citypoint in the heart of District 1. Check in went smoothly – though they do love try and upsell which was hard to be patient with given how eager I was to have a shower…

But once in my room, shower I did, then unpacked and had a bit of lie down. I was feeling much better already – and even more so after a bowl of soup next door at the Old Compass Cafe. I’d visited for lunch last time I was here with Ak and we’d really enjoyed it – plus it’s run by the purveyors of the Rusty Compass website, an invaluable resource for places to eat and things to do in Vietnam and other parts of SE Asia.

In fact, I had a walking tour scheduled with Nhi from Old Compass for the next day – and was lucky enough to meet her that evening. In our earlier email about where to meet for the tour, I’d told her I’m easy to recognize, thanks to my big gray beard. Well, she saw me at my table and figured out pretty quickly, “Oh, that looks like the crazy foreigner I’ll be showing around tomorrow…”

Had a nice bowl of soup and more than one glass of Chardonnay – you know, just to take the edge off of a very long day. And it worked! Back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep.

Up early and headed down the alley next to the hotel to visit a favorite from last time, Phở Minh. This little place is amazing! Just a few dozen meters off one of Saigon’s busiest streets, this alley is a quiet oasis – and the phở is very tasty. Plus it comes with a couple of bánh patê sô – flaky little meat pastries that are just delicious.

After breakfast, made my way to the Saigon Zoo, the meeting point for today’s tour. I was there a bit early and had the great good fortune to witness a dance troupe of local children in full costume, coming either from dress rehearsal or a performance. Sadly, I didn’t whip my camera out in time, but did manage to capture a photo of two of the boys in their sequined shorts, vests and tank tops. Get on down, little dudes!

Besides Nhi, there was one other tourist, a nice woman from Australia. I did have a bit of a rude awakening self-awareness-wise when she showed up, thinking to myself, “Oh, she’s old.” – only to realize she was likely a few years younger than I… It’s still weird to remember that I am in fact an old coot!

The tour was great, focusing primarily on the history of Saigon and Vietnam along with an emphasis on local styles of architecture. Nhi was very knowledgeable and engaging and had quite a bit of background details on the local tensions between preserving historically important and generally quite lovely old buildings and developing the city’s infrastructure and economy. She also explained that the scooter population in Saigon is the same as the human population – in other words, for every person there is a scooter. That certainly sheds some light on the insane traffic here!

We finished up with a tasty lunch at the Old Compass Cafe. I got to meet Mark, the founder of rustycompass.com, along with the cafe and tour company. He and the other woman on my tour had a good chat about the current state of Australian politics – before the subject turned to the US. Let me just say this: most people who enjoy traveling abroad, wherever they’re from, seem more likely to be “my kind of people” and I’m happy to report these folks were no exception. And let me also add that I was pretty happy to be out of the country for Election Day back home… Being away from the everyday stress of the Trump regime is doing me a world of good.

After lunch, had a nap and did a bit of catching up on social media while deciding where to have dinner. Wandered over to Secret House, sister establishment to Secret Garden where I’d eaten with Ak when I was here last year. Menu at new place much the same: had some just OK clams, some good fried rolls and some excellent seafood fried rice.

Headed back to hotel, but it was still early. I decided to walk by a local gay bar in the backpacker district. It was early, so the place was populated by a couple of pasty-but-now-sunburnt white dudes out front and some louche money boy types inside. Hard pass! And the backpacker district was kind of a hellscape – how surprising…

But once close to my hotel, I Googled “cocktails near me” and found The Alley – located literally right next door to my hotel and down the same alley as Pho Minh and The Old Compass Cafe! That is one magical alley.

Anyway, the place was exactly what I was looking for: not empty but not crowded with a mellow feel and a highly-competent bartender who prepared me a Fusion Gimlet with lemongrass and sweet basil. Excellent! And the perfect way to wrap up my first full day here in HCMC.

While it’s true that adjusting to local time here is pretty easy coming from SF, I’m still waking up quite early – which is mostly fine, save for being ready for bed by 9PM. But there’s also tons to do in the morning here, especially when it comes to eating.

I set off in search of Amen, a noodle stand serving hu tieu nam vang that I’d read about here. It seemed simple enough – right on the corner of Hiem 178 Doan Van Bd and Doan Van Bo, which I found easily enough on Google Maps. And I’d visited District 4 last time I was here with Ak and our guide Vũ. What could go wrong?

Well, to start off it was raining. Not pouring, but def more than sprinkling – though I was able to pick up an umbrella at a Circle K as I made my way on foot from my hotel to District 4. So far, so good!

Once I was over there, I recognized the street I’d started off on last time and took this to be a good sign. Sadly, it was not. I found myself on the exact location described in the article about the soup place and besides the fact that there were dozens of shops, stands and eateries, none of them bore even the remotest resemblance to anything in the photos with the article. I was zooming into the backgrounds, trying to spot matching window styles or shop signs, all to no avail.

While I wouldn’t describe the locals as unfriendly, they were all pretty busy with their own lives and the only fellow interested in my apparent confusion was someone trying to proffer his scooter taxi services. As is often the case, I was really too shy/intimidated to try to ask one of the neighborhood folks for some help. Not knowing the language makes me feel extra awkward… And as I was to find out later from two different locals, District 4 is apparently gangster territory – not that I had any problems, but I guess I’m glad I found this out after the fact..?

And to digress for just a moment: it’s been a while since I’ve traveled solo. I absolutely enjoy it! But it does have a way of preying on my own insecurities. Whenever I’m on the road, all my social media – whether it’s this blog, FB or IG – is putting forward a narrative of how amazing a time I’m having. And that’s true! Even when I’m being self-deprecating, I’m posting the best parts of travel. But I’d forgotten that I tend to be very hard on myself when I travel. Despite the fact that traveling on my own means I can do whatever the eff I want, there’s often the voice in my head saying things like, “Ugh, why are you going to same place for breakfast again? You should try someplace new!” or “Why are you eating in this restaurant? It’s mostly tourists! Why aren’t you going somewhere authentic and local!”

I suppose to some extent it’s an outgrowth of travel shows like Bourdain’s, which prize “authenticity” above all else – which is kind of silly, since he had a whole team of researchers and producers mapping out his shows. When I travel, I can be just as judgmental of others, wondering who’d come all the way to Vietnam to eat in a mediocre Italian restaurant? I’m trying to check these thoughts when I have them – because the fact of the matter is, for any Westerner (Americans in particular) to come to Vietnam is a pretty amazing travel itinerary, no matter if you eat banh mi on the street or duck into McDonald’s for a burger. I mean, it’s obviously a fascinating country – but it’s very different from home for most people and managing to roll with those differences however works for you is pretty great.

Anyway, I’m trying my hardest to be nicer to myself about my choices – but it’s not always easy when I’m on my own and responsible for all my decisions.

Back to District 4. My plan to eat breakfast at Amen was stymied. BUT! Luckily, I still had the name and address of the best pho I’d ever had from my food tour last year – and it was only about an eight minute walk from my current location, so off I went.

Found the place with no problem (thanks again, Vũ, for sending me the address last year!) and had a delicious bowl of soup. Sure, I never did find my OG destination, but who could complain about a great meal at Pho Mui?

Next stop: ANZ Bank ATM. I’d read online that they had a higher limit on withdrawals. The ATM I’d used the other day gave me a mere 3 million dong (heh) – about US$125. It was about a 20 minute walk there – which was both nice, insofar as I saw some different parts of the city, but also an occasionally harrowing reminder that HCMC is not exactly a walker’s paradise (I’ll call out again the stat that the number of scooters is 8 million – the same as the number of residents).

Arrived at the location on Google Maps and discovered a construction site. Super! Eh, it’s fine – and as it turned out, the additional 3 million dong (heh) I withdrew from some other ATM was more than enough to get me through the rest of my visit to Saigon.

Wandered around for a bit. Grabbed a banh mi from a place with good reviews online – it was fine, though nothing to write home about, IMO. I also stopped by Cộng Cà Phê, a place I’d been introduced to in Hanoi: a Vietnamese chain (though they’ve just opened their first shop outside the country in Seoul) of coffee places with a communist military theme – and which serves frozen coconut coffee, essentially the world’s greatest coffee milkshake prepared with coconut milk slush. If they manage to open a branch in SF someday, I’d be both delighted and frightened of how much weight I’d gain… But for now, I’m on holiday and they are delicious, especially after walking around in the hot weather.

Tonight I was meeting up with Vũ. He’d been our guide for a street food tour when I visited Saigon for the first time last year with my friend Ak. We’d kept in touch a bit and he’d told me if I ever returned, he’d take me around to new places to eat – and on his own time at no charge! I’d’ve been happy to simply sign up for another tour, but he’d graciously insisted that he’d take me out on his own time.

He’d also told me that it would be best if I traveled on the back of his scooter – which, while I was still home in SF, sounded a bit daunting – but once I was here, I said, “Eh, when in Rome… And that’s why you paid a little extra for that trip insurance with medical evacuation coverage.” So, we met up in District 5 at 5PM, I perched the tiny helmet he brought me on my giant noggin and off we went!

And honestly? It was fine. Sure the traffic was crazy, but for the most part the pace is not Indy-like – and Vũ was a very steady pilot. I mean, yes, I may have clutched him once or twice when we hit a bump, but at no point did my life flash before my eyes.

He took me all over town. We ate soup with dumplings, quail egg salad, banh mi, banh xeo, rolls and – to wrap up the evening on an especially festive note – a whole bunch of meat and seafood that we (and by “we,” I mean Vũ) grilled up ourselves on a little table top charcoal grill at an outdoor place that also served plenty of cold beer. Oh! And had coterie of lovely cats – who were also surprisingly finicky about what they’d eat! I guess they are so used to being fed by the patrons, they can afford to pick and choose what they like.

It was a great time, especially seeing parts of Saigon I’d’ve never seen on my own, plus eating like a local. Plus Vũ laughed at all of my corny jokes. He really hit this one out of the park.

Thursday was looking to be pretty chill. Wandered around District 1 after a breakfast of pho at Pho Minh again. Compared to other parts of the city, it’s relatively walkable – once you get used to the fact that sidewalks are also used as shortcuts by in-a-hurry scooters who just can’t with the traffic – and there are lots of trees and lovely old buildings.

Eventually made my way to Moc Huong Spa, where I’d had an excellent Thai massage last year when I was here with Ak. He’d complained that his massage was too strong – though I pointed out that he’d been snoring quite loudly during his treatment, so it couldn’t have been that bad!

Anyway, things were not quite the same, sadly. Reception was hectic and disorganized. Several different folks talked to me about the treatment I’d reserved and no one seemed to be communicating with each other. There was another large party there waiting for services, so the whole process was super unrelaxing.

My therapist eventually collected me and took me upstairs for my massage – and it was pretty clear from the get-go that she didn’t know WTF she was doing. I mean, I assume she’d had some training in massage, but not in Thai massage it seemed. Some parts were OK – other parts felt like she was just making stuff up. She had me hanging off the side of the mat, my limbs ensnared in the curtains surrounding the treatment area;  she was twisting my body around into some weird positions; and at several points elbowed me in the face while manhandling me. Honestly, I should have stopped the massage and either left or asked for a different therapist – particularly since later that day, the crick I’d had in my neck from sleeping funny had been made substantially worse by this therapist’s terrible massage. Boo! A real disappointment.

But I did stop for another frozen coconut coffee, so the day wasn’t a total loss. And I was looking forward to my Mekong Delta bike tour the next morning!

 

 

 

A Weekend in Santa Fe

Santa Fe & Española, NM – 17-21 April 2018

Spent a really nice long weekend with my sister and sister-in-law at their lovely home in Española. I was coming from a business trip in Phoenix and I flew directly into Santa Fe Municipal Airport. It was a bit pricier than Albuquerque Sunport – but not having to wait for the shuttle to Santa Fe and spending over an hour en route from there was well worth it.

Andrea met me at the airport, since it’s just up the road from her work and I was off the plane and out of the tiny airport in about three minutes! We picked up Marybeth and then headed to Gabriel’s for dinner. It was as good as always – with the notable exception that we didn’t get our second round of margaritas we’d ordered, so the entire trip was obviously ruined… We did however stop at the highly glamorous Kokoman liquor store so we could at least have that second round of drinks once we got back to the ranch.

It was nice to get back to their place. It’d been four years since my last visit (#worstbrotherever) and they’d made some changes around the place, most notably putting in a new staircase to the upstairs, which was now the location of my guest suite! Very comfy – though cats Parsley and Donut, as lovely as they are, didn’t provide the same level of hostess service that Porkchop (#RIP) provided on my last visit – she would snuggle with me at night and then wake me up in the morning by sneezing in my face. Try to find that at the Waldorf Astoria!

Friday was spa day. Andrea works at the Sunrise Springs Spa and Resort, so she treated us to a morning massage, followed by lunch. The whole property is lovely. The massage facilities were just gorgeous and I had 90-minutes of deep tissue massage and reflexology from the very-skilled Oliver. My only complaint was how quickly those 90 minutes flew by!

Lunch on the terrace at the Blue Heron. I had their deservedly award-winning green chile burger and we all shared a lovely bottle of rosé. The meal was really delicious and the service was wonderful. And an hour soaking afterwards in one of the private hot pools was the perfect way to wrap up our visit.

Back home, we alternated between watching reruns of The Royal Wedding and napping, before having a yummy dinner of shrimp with rice and zucchini.

Saturday we visited a lavender farm up in Abiquiu, which was fun – though perhaps not quite meeting our expectation of endless vistas of waving fields of lavender à la Provence. But the scenery up there is beautiful nevertheless.

We’d not reserved early enough to make a visit to Georgia O’Keefe’s house in Abiquiu, so we had to content ourselves with a nice lunch out on the terrace of the Abiquiu Inn. We also stopped at Freddy’s, a regional fast food place, that serves burgers and frozen custard. I got the “Hawiian Delight Concrete” – a blend of frozen custard, pineapple, coconut and macadamia nuts (hold the strawberry, please #c’estleger) and it was pretty darn tasty.

Another dinner at home, prepared by Marybeth, followed by a few episodes of “House Hunters International,” with the three of us all yelling at the contestants and their stupid choices and opinions. In other words, a perfect night.

Sunday we were up and on the road early. Annie and Marybeth dropped me off in the center of Santa Fe, where I met up with my guide for a two-hour tour around town. It was really enjoyable, insofar as I’m always happy when I have an opportunity to ride. With that being said, my guide, while pleasant enough, wasn’t exactly overflowing with knowledge about Santa Fe – or even about alternative bike routes. I mean, it was fine – but I’d probably have been just as happy renting a bike and exploring on my own. Next time…

Meanwhile, though, Annie and Marybeth were on an important mission: visiting a litter of puppies, with the hopes of adopting one. And lo and behold, they did! They picked me up downtown along with the new addition to their menagerie, Pearl, an eight-week-old Great Pyrenees! And she already weighs 17 lbs. – she’s gonna be a big girl.

When we got back to their place, Pearl was a little woozy from the long ride in her crate and had a bout of carsickness. But soon enough she’d had some food and water and was bounding around the yard, settling into her new home, while also getting lots of hugs and belly rubs from the three of us.

While Marybeth got started on dinner (#hero), Annie and I went out to run some errands: getting wine and going to Dairy Queen. Seems simple enough – but not so fast! First liquor store was closed since it’s Sunday (#wtf), so we had to go back to Kokoman, a bit further down the highway. It was actually pretty convenient, since the DQ is just up the road.

Anyway, we got the wine and then popped into DQ where the woman working there greeted us and then advised she had some bad news: no ice cream today! The machine was broken (#insertMcDonaldsjoke) so we were out of luck. I let her know that my weekend was ruined and then suggested they rename the place “Non-Dairy Queen.” (I didn’t actually do that.)

Luckily, there was another DQ back on the other side of town, so off we went and I finally got my fix. And the silver lining? Got to stop and take a photo of a really amazing old sign for the long-gone Arrow Motel.

Had another fine dinner that evening and hit the hay early. Annie drove me down to Albuquerque and we stopped into the Los Poblanos Inn. Their restaurant isn’t open for lunch, but we visited the shop and explored the lovely grounds for a bit. It’s quite charming.

Some lunch up the road (with wine for me since I’m still on vacation!), a walk around Old Town (which was kind of a snooze) and then to the Albuquerque Sunport for my ride home. It was a really great weekend and I can’t wait to come back to see my family and all the animals again soon.

Oh, and here’s a nice “now and then” bit. While there may have been some wine involved, no Donuts were harmed during the making of these videos. What a difference four years makes!

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