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!

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!

Compare:

 

And contrast:

Last Weekend in Bangkok

Bangkok, Thailand – 21 & 22 April 2018

Sigh… My last weekend here. I guess we’d better make the most of it! Friday was pretty quiet and we got dinner at Suppaniga Eating Room, an old favorite that’s not too far from the hotel.

Got an early start on Saturday and heading to the subway, we walked up the alley right next to Le Meridien. I can’t believe we’d never walked up here before! It was really quiet and local – hard to believe we were just a few dozen meters from the craziness of Patpong. And there were cats, so it was a double win!

Took subway to Chatuchak Market (of course!) with a stop for breakfast at Or Tor Kor Market (of course!). I scored big time on t-shirts – which made me really happy, since I’d mostly struck out during my visit to Terminal 21 earlier in the week, my usual spot for cool shirts. Ak found several great-looking shirts at his favorite thrift stall.

After the market, we decided to check out Papaya Vintage Market. I’d read about it in the NYTimes and it sounded pretty cool. Granted, I’m probably not going to have room for a vintage mid-century occasional table in my luggage, but always fun to check out what’s for sale. WELL! This place was kind of amazing – a large, multi-story warehouse crammed with everything from Danish modern coffee tables to 70s stereo consoles to giant Ultraman figures. We probably spent about an hour just wandering and gawking and we loved it.

Next stop was at the old race track, slated for demolition, where they were having a special pop-up market. Took as a while to get there, thanks to the usual crazy traffic in town – but not long enough as it turned out. We arrived at 3:00, only to discover that the market doesn’t start until 4:00. Oopsie! So, given the heat and that we were kind of hungry, we made the only logical decision and headed to the mall.

The Siam Paragon food halls usually have one large section with a special theme and today it was “Floating Market” – so Thai street food! We shared a variety of sweet and savory coconut tarts and some deep-fried pork – you know, just a little snack to tide us over ‘til dinner…

Of course, before dinner comes cocktails and tonight we decided to try the Penthouse rooftop bar at the recently-opened Park Hyatt. The interior of the hotel is swankily modern. The bar, a bit less so. It’s a cool space with great views and I really liked being seated under the large swoosh of aluminum that crowns the building. But the decor was a little out of place to me, feeling rather “generic suburban hotel.” It wasn’t terrible by any means, but the vibe didn’t seem to match the quite spectacular architecture of the building – and the chairs were oddly proportioned, with a too-shallow seat making them not so comfy. Drinks were decent and rather reasonably priced for this being a bar on top of a fancy hotel.

Downstairs from the rooftop is another bar and restaurant – and, hidden away on the other side of the top floor, The Whisky Room. Ak’s friend who writes about the bar scene in Bangkok said it was a must-visit – and she was not wrong!

The space is really cool. Kind of old-school clubby feeling, but with some mood lighting to jazz the place up – plus some giant windows to take in the city. We sat at the bar. I don’t know much about whiskey, so I stuck with an old favorite, Maker’s Mark. Prior to ordering, I didn’t engage our extremely friendly barkeep in deciding what I ought to try – a mistake, as it turned out, since he was extremely well-versed in his inventory. He shared lots of his knowledge and opinions with us and I can’t wait to come back and try some of the pricier-though-not-crazily-so whisky that he recommended. But we had several other bars on the list for evening, so I was trying to pace myself…

For dinner, we went back to Thai Niyom – and it was excellent again, especially the cabbage with nam pla. Dessert was sticky rice served with a caramelized shredded coconut and it was fantastic.

Next stop: Tropic City, a rum bar with a tiki vibe and an extraordinarily friendly staff. Then we cabbed over to Asia Today – the sister establishment to (and around the corner from) Teens of Thailand – in Chinatown for a final couple of rounds of very tasty drinks, made with less-commonly-found ingredients like Tiger Ear and local honey.

Despite the many venues, we didn’t overdo it and were up at a reasonable hour Sunday morning. Decided to walk through Lumphini Park – and were rewarded with several cat sightings! – on our way to lunch at Eathai in Central Embassy. I had my favorite char siu and we shared some moo ping and fried dumplings. Did a bit of shopping. Posed for my now-obligatory photo in front of the Gaysorn sign. And then it was time to get back to the hotel and say our farewells – always the most difficult part of my visits. I hate saying goodbye to my friend Ak and to this city that I love coming back to and getting to know a little better each time.

Of course, the sting of leaving was soothed a bit by getting to fly Cathay business class back to SFO. It was certainly comfortable – though the food was unremarkable (especially compared to the really tasty meals I’d had on SWISS when I flew here). My prior flights with Cathay had seemed more impressive – though this was an overnight flight from HKG, so maybe it was just low key due to the late hour. Anyway, all went smoothly and I arrived in SF, whizzed through Immigration thanks to Global Entry and was home on my sofa less than 60 minutes after I was wheels down on the runway. Pretty great! Well, except for the fact that I’m home and not in Bangkok and that real life starts bright and early the next day as I return to work. Good thing I’ve already got my tickets booked for my next trip this autumn!

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…