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.

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!

Bikes and Boîtes in Bangkok

Bangkok, Thailand – 18 & 19 April 2018

Presented myself at Grasshopper Adventures for my Bangkok bike tour. As it turned out, I was the only person taking the tour that day, so it was just me and my guide for the day, Tick. It was a pretty great day! We rode across Chao Phraya then through mostly quiet residential areas and narrow paths surrounded by greenery and water. I didn’t actually take many photos – which I suppose I regret, but honestly, spending most of the day in the saddle was great for me. I miss riding when I travel and it’s good for me physically and mentally – and I hope it helped me work off my vastly increased intake of condensed milk, thanks to my love of Thai ice tea.

Tick figured out right away that I am a fairly experienced urban rider, which meant we kept up a pretty good pace. Of course, some of the narrow paths had very sharp turns or were slippery or had no railings or all of the above, so my adrenal glands def got a bit of a workout – but I only had one near death experience… Not really, of course, but I did almost leave the path at what would’ve been a very inopportune moment.

We stopped at a couple of temples along the way, which were lovely as is pretty much always the case here in Thailand. Tick was really knowledgeable and told me about various conservation and construction efforts underway at our various stops. We also saw lots of dogs and a few cats, which was not only great, but made me think of Calvin, whose ashes I scattered in Chao Phraya two years ago, not too far from where we were riding…

Next to one of the temples there were food vendors and I had some pad Thai which was absolutely delicious – one of the best I’ve had! It was a great day and a great tour and I really loved it.

After Ak finished work, we headed to Vogue Lounge, an old favorite of both of ours, and enjoyed a couple of cocktails outdoors under the shadow of Mahanakhon Tower. Next stop was Iron Balls Bar, a new place from A.R. Sutton (I’ve still not been to his OG place) and my opportunity to finally try locally-distilled Iron Balls gin.

The bar was pretty cool looking and our drinks were good – but the atmosphere was pretty terrible. The place wasn’t crowded but it was mostly folks who seemed like they were all very impressed with themselves. The staff all seemed fairly unhappy to be there – though the bartender who made my drink was pretty friendly once we ordered. Anyway, it’s not a bar I’ll go back to – not really my kind of vibe, I guess.

Dinner was just up the street at a place called Thai Lao Yeh – chosen mainly for its proximity to the bar. Well! It turned out to be excellent. Located in the lovely Cabochon Hotel, the colonial-style dining room was looked after by an extremely friendly staff.

And the food! Like Thai Niyom the other night, this was Esan style food and it was all delicious – though also like Thai Niyom, the simplest dish was my favorite: steamed clams with lemongrass. The plump clams were impeccably fresh and tender and the lemongrass lent just a bit of perfume to the dish. Wonderful! And this being Esan food, of course we had sausages – juicy and spicy and sour and so tasty. Our shaved ice dessert with tapioca pearls and condensed milk was the perfect end to the meal – and très, très léger…

Thursday was pretty quiet. Ak and I had breakfast at the bbq pork noodle place near our hotel, then he headed off to work. I dropped off some laundry and then spent the day shopping at Bangkok’s amazing malls. And I may have found time for a few hours of massage therapy…

Drinks that night at Salon de Japonisant, a great little bar tended by Kei Sawada from Japan. The place is simply decorated and the “art” on the walls is really cool labels from Japanese liquor bottles. The drinks are intricately handcrafted without being fussy and are gorgeous to behold. They’re pretty delicious too!

The crowd was bit hi-so for our taste – and due to the painstaking construction of each cocktail (including hand-carving ice into the appropriate shape), the pace can be slow. We were the first to arrive at 7:30, so our first round was served quickly. But next time I go, I’d probably try to get there at opening at 7PM so the second round could’ve been served to us a bit more quickly.

Dinner at Soul Food Mahanakhon, another old favorite – I think we’ve eaten here every time I’ve visited! Food was all tasty per usual, though my favorite is always the miang kham. We did both nearly sprain our eye-rolling muscles (Ak especially!) when the farang at the next table claimed to his companions to know everything about Thai food while butchering the pronunciations. Eh, I guess I shouldn’t judge, since I’m sure I’m no better – but judge I did!

We met an adorable kitten outside the restaurant – obv the highlight of the evening – on our way to Rabbit Hole for a quick nightcap. Then back to the hotel and ended the night with another argument about the correct method of taking photographs. At least we’re consistent! Tomorrow is TGIF for Ak and the start of my last weekend in Bangkok. Sigh…

First Day in Siem Reap

Off to Cambodia! Things started off well enough, with Ak and me managing to arrive at Don Mueang airport nearly simultaneously. This is Bangkok’s “old” airport and currently serves mostly low-cost carriers on short hops in and around SE Asia. It’s also really crowded and not the most modern of facilities… and the AC was mostly conked out. So, all in all, not the most glamorous introduction to air travel for Ak, who was making his first flight!

Our flight on Air Asia was delayed by about an hour. And, in a bit of “are you for real?” on my part, my “Premium Flex” ticket for which I paid extra and which included among other things pre-boarding of the aircraft was rather a misnomer. Our aircraft was out on the tarmac and we were transported by bus from the terminal to the plane. So, while I did indeed get to board that bus first, I schlepped up the stairs in the midst of all the hordes of people who’d crammed onto the bus after me. Yes, yes, first world problem, blah, blah, blah. But I did in fact pay for something which I didn’t get.

Anyway, the flight itself was pleasant enough and Ak didn’t flip out – though he may gone just a bit saucer-eyed at the landing, which was a bit of a jolt. The small Siem Reap airport seems very new and immigration was relatively painless, if not the friendliest. And even after such a short flight, it’s always a lovely thing to see a driver holding a sign with one’s name on it when entering the main terminal.

The first thing I noticed on the short trip to our hotel was how much calmer the traffic was compared to Bangkok. Granted, Siem Reap is quite a bit smaller – but the roads were populated with more bicycles than cars on the road from the airport and drivers seemed pretty mellow.

Arrived at our hotel for the next few days, Viroth’s Villa – a groovy little boutique place. TBH, I might’ve been happier with a room on the second floor, but I got the only room furnished with separate beds. The place was quite comfy, the staff extraordinarily kind and helpful throughout our stay and the pool provided a lovely way to spend the afternoon after visiting Angkor Wat during the day.

Our first evening we ate at Chanrey Tree. I think I stumbled across it online. It wound up being the perfect choice: a short walk from our hotel, a lovely outside table on a very warm evening, cocktails, tasty food, all in lush garden setting. We loved it!

Made an early night of it, since Thursday morning started early: our guide from Grasshopper Adventures was picking us up at 4:30AM for the short drive to Angkor Wat to watch the sun rise. This certainly seemed like a great idea when I was reserving this trip, though somewhat less so when faced with the prospect of actually piling into a van at 4:30AM…

But pile we did! And it was an ideal way to start our visit. One thing I hadn’t paid attention to, however, was that the tickets required to visit the Angkor Wat compound were not included in the price of this tour. NBD – we stopped to purchase them on our way in. The only little problem was that the tickets are cash only (and US dollars at that), so I was a little more tapped out than I’d anticipated once the trip was over and it came time to tip… Not that I had nothing mind you, but I wish I could’ve been a bit more generous.

Anyway, we got to the main temple of Angkor Wat and found our seats along the exterior moat waiting for the sun to rise. There were a lot of other tourists there – though my sense was that many of them actually walk into the central enclosure for a close-up view of the sun appearing behind the wat’s towers. However, I really enjoyed our vantage point along the moat – not just because it wasn’t too crowded but because the reflection of the ruins on the water was especially lovely as dawn crept up on us… Our guide was great, providing us with snacks to tide us over ‘til breakfast and helping us make friends with the local temple dogs who were hanging out with us.

Once daylight was upon us, we explored the interior structures and frescos. A hike up to the towers via some very steep staircases (to remind us of the difficulty of ascending to the kingdom of the gods) provided a splendid view of our surroundings. And, as if that was not already fantastic enough, we came upon a dozing mama cat and her three gamboling kittens! Really, is there anything better than temple kittehs?

Next we had a simple breakfast before starting the bike portion of our tour. It was a small group – just Ak and me; a fellow from South Africa; a nice woman from Singapore; and a Canadian who was a bit out to lunch: she didn’t realized she’d signed up for a bike trip…  It was kind of funny that it was all singled folks on the trip. When I’d been in Thailand last October, I was typically the only sad Mary-Ann-Singleton on the various tours I’d signed up for. Now, here I was with a traveling companion and everyone else is on their own. Anyway, it was a nice enough group, though no long-lasting friendships were forged.

Now, I do love riding, though I also forget that my urban bike riding experience doesn’t always translate very well to a more off-the-beaten path ride. Luckily, though, one of the fellows in our group looked pretty experienced so I did my best to follow his lead. And I did OK! No wipe-outs and no dropped chains – can’t ask for much more than that.

The rest of the day was spent biking around from temple to temple, with stops to explore on foot. Our guide was very knowledgeable and we had a really enjoyable visit. And I was very pleased that Ak – despite insisting dramatically a couple of times that he was very close to death – held his own on the bicycle, despite not being a daily rider like I am.

Of course, after ten miles of riding in 100° weather, one does get a bit exhausted. So, when we wrapped up our tour with a stop for lunch that include a couple of beers? We were all pretty delighted.

Back to hotel where we washed our stanky grimy selves off. No time to waste, since Bodia Spa was sending a tuk-tuk to collect us at 3:45PM for our our three-hour “Relaxation” package. WELL. This was a delight! Gentle therapeutic massage along with an invigorating body scrub. Really the perfect way to end a rather strenuous day.

Dinner at Cuisine Wat Danmak, listed as one of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. And it was OK – though TBH, neither of us were particularly bowled over by the meal. It was fine and the price was reasonable – but we actually enjoyed the previous night’s dinner more than this one.

A short tuk-tuk ride back to our place and an early night. Tomorrow: more temples!

And here’s a few shots from my helmet cam from our biking trip!

 

 

 

So Long, Bangkok!

My last day in Thailand! How is this even possible? I feel simultaneously as if I’ve been here for ages and as though I’ve only just arrived…

Met Ak for brunch at the hotel – a fancy and frankly ridiculously pricey buffet at the Red Oven. Now, I don’t mind spending a couple of bucks on a meal – but this was decidedly mediocre. In fact, compared to the breakfasts I’d had at Riva Surya and Dusit D2 earlier in my stay, this was far and away the least impressive and the most expensive. The view was nice, but that’s about it… So, if you’re staying at the Sofitel So, don’t bother with breakfast here.

Anyway, long before I’d even planned on visiting Thailand, I’d read this article in the NYTimes about Bang Krachao, Bangkok’s “Green Lung.” Given my penchant for bicycle riding, it sounded like someplace I’d really like to visit – and here I was, two years after reading about it actually on my way there.

Ak, despite being a native of Bangkok, had also never been – but it was certainly ideal having him along this morning. Sure, I could probably have figured out how to get here on my own – but having a local who can instruct the taxi driver where to go and then get me onto the (very small!) boat to cross the river to Bang Krachao and take care of renting some bikes once there? That is fantastic – especially since I could focus on our surroundings rather than worrying about where I might wind up.

First we had a good ride around Sri Nakhon Khuean Khan Park. Green and pleasant, with a large lake and lots of smaller ponds. From there, we headed to the local floating market. Parked our bikes and spent a good hour or so making it from one end to other and back. Crowded mostly with locals, though a good sprinkling of tourists as well. Then back on our bikes to find the Bangkok Tree House, the eco-lodge mentioned in the Times. It took us a bit to find our way, as there is a small (and to be honest, potentially perilous) path for walkers, cyclists and scooters (!) over the swamp and through the trees. It was a bit of an adventure to get there, but get there we did – and treated ourselves to a couple of ice cold beers.

It was quite a bit easier finding our way back – though encountering scooters on the narrow path remained rather heart-pounding. But just like Kelly and Michelle from Destiny’s Child, we are survivors!

Back across the river and a taxi to the hotel. A perfect time to have a dip in the Sofitel’s gorgeous pool (and a cocktail naturally). After a little downtime, we headed to the roof for a couple of cocktails while the sun set.

Dinner at Naamsah Bottling Trust, a lovely old house turned into a charming restaurant. Had a couple of tasty cocktails at the bar before heading upstairs for dinner. The food was tasty – though the lights were kept quite low, so none of my photos came out very well. But the portions were generous – we definitely over-ordered. And we didn’t skimp on the wine! So, as much as I enjoyed the meal, it was spending a really fun evening with my friend Ak that is my favorite memory of Naamsah. Well, that and the super-handsome Oscar-Isaac-lookalike sitting on the opposite side of the dining room that we both kept sneaking looks at…

From Naamsah, we headed back for one last drink at Bas Bar in Silom Soi 4 – stopping along the way to pose with a clown, an octopus and to attempt several cat-nappings of various adorable street kittens. And there may or may not have been some singing of Cher songs along the way…

Back to my hotel for a bit of a nap – but not much of one. My flight from BKK departed at 7AM, meaning I had to be at the airport at 5AM, meaning a car was coming to collect me at 415AM. UGH. Though as it turned out, this was OK. I slept a good portion of the six-hour flight to NRT; did my usual shower-beer-sushi during my three-hour layover (N.B.: let me just reiterate – if you are flying to Asia, it’s worth your while to transit through Narita just to have the sushi at Kyotatsu), then was on my way back to SFO. I arrived 11AM the same day and was back home by noon. I mostly stayed awake until about 10PM, went to sleep and was up for work just a bit earlier than usual.

And just like that, I’m back at the office. It’s almost like I never left! Happily, though I have a ton of great memories and experiences (plus about 1200 photos) of my first visit to Thailand. And, even better, I’ve already planned my next trip back – in just about four months from now!

Here’s a bit of our ride through the jungle:

 

And our boat trip back across the river:

 

BONUS FOOTAGE: proving once again that Japan is great, the beer pouring machine in the United Lounge at Narita.

Pulled Over!

I must confess, I was a bit leery of sharing this video on here, what with the slim chance that some anti-bike nuts will stumble across it and brand me history’s greatest monster for my horrible lawlessness and disregard for human life. But, eh – what’re you gonna do?

Anyhoo, a few weeks ago, I was biking home, eastbound on Market St. and I got pulled over by an SFPD officer. My crime? Stopping for a red light at 10th and Market – but doing so after the intersection’s limit line.

Oh, and while you watch, please keep your eye out for the MB SUV in the left lane – I’ll have more to say about him later…

Now, let me state for the record: YES, I AM WELL-AWARE THAT WHAT I DID WAS A VIOLATION OF THE MOTOR VEHICLE CODE. I also certainly appreciated that I was let go with a warning and that the officer was generally courteous (though I thought he belabored the rules about the limit line).

But here’s why I have some issues with this incident:

1. This is a particularly poorly designed stretch of road. As cars and bikes pass Van Ness going eastbound, they are forced to cross paths in a way that is confusing and potentially dangerous for the uninitiated. Vehicles must get into the far right lane as bikes must merge from the right into the center bike lane. Once at 10th, the intersection’s limit line is six car-lengths back from 10th St. Thus, while I did in fact go past the limit line, I was not in the path of any vehicular traffic nor did I interact with any pedestrians, since there were none present at any time during this incident. Also, what about the the two cars in the right lane that had passed the limit line? Why weren’t they busted?

2. What happened to that MB SUV? He was in the transit/taxi only lane in the left yet he never passed the waiting SFPD officer east of 10th St. So, besides having already been illegally traveling in the transit lane, he had to have executed an illegal left- or U-turn – or made a right turn from the left lane onto 10th St. cutting across the bike lane – both illegal and dangerous. And given that he must’ve seen the scooter getting pulled over, the MB driver was pretty clearly aware that he was illegally traveling in the transit lane. Of the bikes, the scooter and the MB, the MB’s actions were, in my view, the most serious and included multiple violations – yet he got away scot-free.

3. What about the first biker guy? He just kept going and thus didn’t get a lecture. That’s a pretty lousy lesson – that I’d be better off ignoring a police officer, since he won’t bother to pursue.

4. Finally – and, really, this is far and away my biggest complaint about this incident – this little stakeout on Market St. was on the afternoon of December 14th – the same day as SantaCon. In other words, someone in command at SFPD decided that, despite the presence in the city that day of thousands of open-container-carrying, public-urinating, projectile-vomiting, “Show us your tits!”-screaming, drunken Santas staggering from bar to bar (several of whom can be seen and heard in the background of my video), this was the ideal day to set up a little trap on Market St. to catch bikers who stopped for a red light but a few feet past the limit line. Excellent setting of priorities, SFPD!

I Love My Commute

Got a cool new Contour helmet cam for my birthday! I’m looking forward to documenting and sharing the various bad behaviors and outrages visited upon me as a pedal my way around the city.

And here’s my maiden voyage. I still need to get something to help cut down on the wind noise, but it’s actually not too bad as-is. My favorite part? The mike picks up quite easily on everything I say – which most typically is “What’s this idiot doing?” or “Jesus, look at this jackass.” This particular ride was uneventful, so no narration. But I’m sure that’ll change!