Tuesday, December 11, 2012

November Trip to Varanasi (Benares)

How do you describe Varanasi? I recently told an Indian friend of mine that it's like "the rest of India is a Cafe Latte...and Varanasi is like espresso".  It's concentrated. "India on steroids".  One-hundred-and-fifteen years ago, Mark Twain perhaps said it the best: "Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together". (1897)

It is a city that I have wanted to visit for many, many years.  It probably was not that high on Amy's list...but I had been telling her since we arrived in India that I was not going to leave this place until I had seen Varanasi. We had some time over the Thanksgiving (U.S.) holiday...so we booked a trip with Eve at Fugazi Travel once again.  Thank you, Eve! It would be a three-stage trip.  Amy had to be in New Delhi for Deloitte recruiting duties (this was Part One - we left on Sunday, she needed to conduct interviews Monday and Tuesday.  Part Two would fly us from Delhi to Varanasi for three days of seeing the sights. Then, in order to avoid a full day sitting in the Delhi airport, we would fly to Mumbai and then up to Rajasthan to see the palace city of Udaipur for Part Three.

We headed for Delhi (actually Gurgaon) and the Leela Palace there so ASB could do her every-so-often recruiting thing. Deloitte has a new office in Gurgaon.  The hotel is always nice and it's adjacent to a huge mall - and the mall has a micro-brewery/restaurant inside...and a Chili's, too! She was all finished by Tuesday evening... so we got a good night's sleep and headed out on Jet Konnect 9W 2423 direct and non-stop to Varanasi.

Our first hotel choice, the Taj Palace, was sold-out because this was truly the "high-season" for Varanasi.  We ended up staying at the Radisson Hotel in town and it was just fine for our needs. Our very-good guide - provided by Abercrombie and Kent through Fugazi Travel... took us that same evening to the main ghats down on the Ganges River where we participated in our very own special private aarti at the riverside.  Then we had great seats on a rooftop where we could see everything... Amy went for a wee walkabout and I think she scared our guide a little... But all was well....

The next morning we got up at the crack of dawn and visited the Daswamedh Ghat and watched the sunrise over the Ganga (Ganges) from our own private boat....and watched the locals and the pilgrims take their ritual baths.  Another great touch...we had a masseur on board that gave us both intense foot-massages for about $1.00 each.  Yeah...that was a bargain at 10-times the price!  We saw a body arrive for funeral preparation as we exited the boat at the final ghat... Amy said that whe had never seen a dead body before...so - some local kid took her down to get a closer look.  The steps were steep and slippery so I just stayed above and watched...

Walking the old narrow streets and alleyways of Varanasi is where you really understand how old the place is....and that Mark Twain was right all those many years ago. The place is ancient!  There's a huge security problem in part of the old city...the Kashi Vishwanath Temple is there...one of the most holy, if not THE most holy place dedicated to the Lord Shiva.  What makes it a security risk is that - right next-door to the temple...literally sharing the same "lot" - is the Gyanvapi Mosque or Alamgiri Mosque. Evidently, unless you are Hindu or Muslim...you are not going to see these two famous places up close and personal... we got pat-down searched and went through a metal-detector...and all we got was a peek while standing on the top step of somebody's porch. A little disappointing, but I have seen the inside of the Shiva Temple on the television...and it's really crowded inside.

Later in the day, we went to an amazing place just outside of town called Sarnath.  Sarnath is the deer park where Gautama Buddha preached his first sermon...a very holy place indeed.  

The next day we had breakfast and headed out to the 18th Century Durga Temple...drove through the Banares Hindu University and went to the Bharat Mata Temple - which pays homage to Mother India.  It was this day that Amy showed her St. Francis side, feeding dogs and elephants and monkeys at every stop.

As usual...we needed to find a luggage store to buy an extra suitcase for taking along all our treasures...and for keeping our check-in bags below the 20-Kg. per bag limit.  Not an easy task...but we commandeered a local auto-rickshaw and got the job done!

Next: On to Beautiful Udaipur in Rajasthan!  

Please see our Facebook Photo Albums of our amazing time in the holy city of Varanasi: 

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The rest of our Bay Area Trip...

The reason we went to San Francisco in the first place was for Deloitte's annual partner meetings.  Amy Suzanne spent most of her daytime hours at meetings and lunches and breakout-sessions at the Moscone Center...while I made the trip back and forth on the BART train to Orinda to see my new chiropractor. Of course, Amy went with me the first time and we had a lovely lunch in Orinda...and I was able to spend my afternoons and evenings at Johnny Foley's Irish House watching the Giants win the NL pennant. Overall, for both of us...it was a very good week!!

See Facebook Album: A Trip on BART to the Chiropractor

But the part of the trip that we were most looking forward to did not start until the final Friday of the PPD meetings....it was then that we rented a car from Enterprise (directly across the street from where we were staying) and we went down to Brother-in-Law John's so ASB could get a haircut...and then we headed for Napa Valley!!

I was in various parts of the "wine trade" back in the 1970's and 1980's. I think the last time I was in Napa was in 1983. Let me tell you, that little valley has grown-up, big-time... when I was going often, there may have been 30 wineries of note. Today there are hundreds!! You could spend a month there and not see (or taste!) everything you want!

We had made prior reservations with a company that drives your car for you and shows you some of their favorite smaller vintners (a very smart move, indeed!) - - the company is Napa Bee Driven - and I cannot give them high-enough praise! They also helped us find a hotel (which was not easy as it was harvest-time and the busiest time of the year!). We stayed at the Andaz Napa (a Hyatt Hotel in Downtown Napa) and I also give them a 5-star rating...very comfortable and great service and staff!

Before we went of the organized wine-tour...we spent our first afternoon at a winery owned by a fellow Deloitte partner and had the BEST time and tasted some of the BEST wines ever! It's in the Stag's Leap area and they make some outstanding wines!! I don't know if they give tours for the general public...but their wines are available on-line at the Lindstrom Wines website...

Our second day in Napa was the big wine day...and thanks to Napa Bee Driven, we were safely guided to my friend Judd Finkelstein's winery Judd's Hill (OUTSTANDING wines at really great prices). The photo above was taken there early in the day....

We then were taken to Goosecross Cellars (top-notch small winery)...then on to Burgess Cellars where we bought a lot of nice wines...and finally stopping at Sequoia Grove winery.... We might have had time...but there was no chance we would be doing any more wine-tasting. Again...thanks, Napa Bee Driven!!

Except for 26-hours of flight-time and layovers through Dubai the following day....there really isn't much more to say about our Northern California experience... except someday we might want to live up there!

We are back At Home In Hyderabad now...next blog will be about our Thanksgiving trip to Varanasi and Udaipur in northern India... stay tuned!!

Here are the last two Facebook Photo Albums for this trip:

A Day at Lindstrom Winery, Napa 2012

Napa Wine Tasting - 2012

Monday, October 29, 2012

Sunday Family Day in San Francisco (Part Three)

Our Sunday in the Bay Area was scheduled to be a family-day.  Dr. Wong's office in Orinda was closed...and Amy Suzanne and her two sisters (Paula and Nancy) were planning on a "spa day" down in Palo Alto.  It was to be quite a homecoming.  Except for a brief visit to our hotel room on the day we arrived, Amy had not seen her sisters (except for a couple of Skype-calls via the Internet) since the Christmas before we left for India (December, 2009).  She was really looking forward to it...

By the looks of the photos and the stories that continued into the night, it would seem that the three of them had a wonderful time... (see photo album below)

I spent the morning at the hotel, drinking a Starbucks Venti Skinny Cinnamon Dolce Latte and watching NFL football - on a Sunday, for a change...just as God intended it, and not at 1:00 A.M. or 5:00 A.M. on Monday as we have to do it in Hyderabad.  The Colts surprised the Packers and the 49ers crushed the Buffalo Bills.  I had forgotten...with all of the other things going on in San Francisco that weekend, the Niners  vs. Bills game at Candlestick Park was part of the mad crunch as well....there were lots of TV people, the flight-crew for the Bills and lots of people wearing Buffalo Bills gear were at the hotel in the morning.  Our fellow ex-pat friends from Deloitte (India) found their way to Candlestick and scalped a couple of tickets for the blowout game.

I did as the doctor had ordered me to do...I spent the day on the carpeted floor laying with a tennis-ball under my butt-cheek... it seemed to be helping, but I was far from out-of-the-woods.  I still had pain when I walked or stood in one place for any time.  I now knew how far it was to the Powell Street BART station, but I was unsure if I could make it... The Giants were due to play Game Two of their National League Divisional Series against the Reds...so I wasn't sure how busy the BART was going to be, with the Niners game letting out and the stadium for the baseball game filling up.  I was due to leave for the southern end of The City to meet the rest of the Family...brothers-in-law John and Mitch... and Amy and her two sisters when they returned from the spa.  I think we had a dinner reservation at 6:30 P.M. at a place around the corner from John and Paula's... I opted to have lunch at Johnny Foley's Irish House and ordered up a car-service for around 5:00 P.M. to take me down south.

Walking to the car I found that I was experiencing some relief from my back pain...I had a pleasant drive down to Oak Park...and when I got out of the car, I navigated the steps at my brother-in-law's house with no pain at all! Of course I had my trusty tennis ball with me just in case.

We all met up at the house...and I walked to the restaurant relatively pain-free once again!!  This was real progress!!  The meal was fantastic (I had some jambalaya or gumbo, can't remember which, with some good local ale)...and we all went back to the house to share some of the virtually undrinkable Sula Indian Cabernet we brought to share (just so our family would know just how tragic the wine situation is in Hyderabad).  We had a Skype-session with Alexis (Mitch and Nan's daughter who is away at college in Colorado) which was really fun.  And then we talked about pans for Alexis' college graduation next June.  Unbelieveable.  When Amy and I were first dating, Alexis was seven-years-old!!

Brother-in-Law Mitch was nice enough to give us a lift downtown to the Hilton...a journey made more pleasant by the two of us sharing terrible puns and jokes about Jewish mohels.  "Did you hear about the mohel who got a job at the circus circumcising elephants? The pay is lousy, but the tips are HUGE!"

Tomorrow would be Monday...I hoped that I would get my new orthotics for my shoes...and Amy's Deloitte meetings were due to begin.  For certain we would learn the way to Orinda and back on the BART line!!

Photo Album: Amy's Spa Day in Palo Alto - 2012

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Day Two - San Francisco and Beyond 2012

After some seriously good sleeping, Saturday morning came and we needed to get up and get going early.  Before we even left India, I had made an appointment to see the chiropractor in Orinda (across to the other side of the Bay) at 09:30 A.M. The plan always was to take the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) train to Orinda, and walk to and from the BART stations (Powell Street SF and Orinda).  Actually, when I woke up in pain, I wasn't even certain I could make it to the Powell Street station, even though it was a short walk... I'll tell you straight-up - this was about as much pain as I could stand...walking, standing in one place, even sitting is some situations was excruciatingly painful, with the pain starting in my right buttock and - at-its-worst - shooting pains down my right leg, causing weakness all the way down to my foot!

Amy Suzanne and I looked at our situation and we decided to take a cab this one time, just to get "the lay of the land" and get a feel for the time and distances involved.  Our friend from Fugazi Travel in San Francisco, Eve Wertsch, had recommended her chiropractor to me...and Amy wanted to see him, too...she suffers on-and-off from upper-back pain radiating from under her left shoulder-blade.  We figured we'd both try to get straightened-out as long as we were investing the long trip, the time and the money.

Our first-choice was simply to take a cab, but the nice man in front of the Hilton who takes care of customer's transportation needs told us that getting a cab back to Downtown might be a bit of a problem...no cab driver in his right mind was going to sit and wait for us - it was really crazy-busy, even in the morning on a Saturday...the city was hoppin' and cabs were at a premium.  He suggested that we take a Town Car Service...a guaranteed price, round-trip and the driver would wait for us!

So we did.  The traffic was light and the ride was comfortable. Our driver was from the Sudan and his English was passable... he may have been the worst driver I have ever seen, and coming from somebody who has been in India for over two-years, that's really saying something.  But - he did get us safely to the chiropractor's office on-time, so we were very relieved.

The recommended chiropractor we went to is Dr. Kevin Wong, DC.  A nice young man who had the easiest nature and kindest "bedside manner" of any healer I have ever been to...he wasn't "Doogie Howser" young...he has been practicing chiropractic for 15 years! When I told him of my symptoms (I had been told by and M.D. that my problems stemmed from a spondylolisthesis and pressure on the sciatic nerve caused by the problem at L-4 and L-5.  Immediately, he told me that he was not surprised that a medical doctor told me that.  He said that medical doctors have a tendency to misdiagnose this problem and don't want to tell their patients what is really going on with their bodies because they think we're too stupid to understand what's really going on.  He apologized for his fairly blatant cynicism about the traditional American medical profession...and at once told me, based on how he saw me move and my pattern of pain...that my problem was not the spine at L-4 and L-5 - but my sacroiliac joint (SI) was impinging on the nerve and it had been getting gradually worse for years...

He hooked me up to a machine that I said was a lot like getting low-level tasered - although I had control over how much of a shock I was getting.  Electrical muscle stimulation, or EMS, is the use of electrical impulses to cause muscles to contract. EMS has long been used in physical therapy, and research has shown that it can help strengthen and tone muscles, though only to a certain extent.

In my case, the EMS pulses were to contract and relax the muscles pulling on my SI joint - - followed by a standing chiropractic adjustment and some other witchcraft that I simply trusted wold work.  He said that the most important thing was to get my movements balanced when I walk...and prescribed new orthotics for my shoes.  And of course, taking off about 80-85 pounds would do wonders for my condition (of course!)

Amy Suzanne got her adjustment as well... and seemed much better.  I, on the other hand, was even a little worse than when I came in to see the doctor.  Dr. Wong told me this would be the case...two-steps-forward... one-step-back.

I limped on my walking-stick (a lifesaver, let me tell you!) outside into the beautiful, cool, Northern California Fall day!  Our driver then took us to a CVS pharmacy, a Target Store, where we bought tennis-balls (part of my ongoing therapy would be to lay on my back with a tennis-ball placed directly or next-to my aliling SI joint), some decent wine, some clothes for Amy, some DVD's, a few 12-packs of Diet Coke and some serious San Francisco sour-dough bread (impossible to get in Hyderabad!) - some real American-style cottage cheese...and a cheap Black and Decker toaster-oven! We were set for the day.

We made arrangements for the driver to take us to the Cal Berkeley vs. UCLA game and took a nap!

We then made our way back to the other side of the Bay to Berkeley.  The place was easy enough to find (California Memorial Stadium - newly refurbished) by just following the cars.  Unfortunately, there is no real stadium parking...so we were going to have to walk a good distance across the campus at UC Berkeley.  We started out and - I could see right away that this was going to be a most difficult and painful task ahead of us.  I was still in great pain and - about 50-to-100 yards was all I could muster without needing to stop and take a seat to cross my legs and stretch.  

Thanks be to God, right on cue (as if angels from heaven were watching over us!) - a student in a big golf-cart stopped right next to us and asked if we needed a ride to the game!!  You betcha we did!! She took us as far as she could and dropped us off near the la crosse field adjacent to the stadium.  There we walked a bit (I sat a lot) and Amy did some souvenir shopping and bought a sweatshirt.  Honest to God, the kickoff was at 7:00 P.M. and the sun was just beginning to make its lazy way down to the Berkeley horizon - and we were actually COLD for the first time in almost three-years!!  I could see my breath...something that just does not happen in India unless you are up in the Himalayas climbing mountains.

Getting to our seats was not easy...as a matter of fact, it was quite a climb up several steep flights of concrete stadium stars. I wouldn't say the seats we bought were in "nosebleed" section...but it was pretty high up and definitely more of a hike than I had bargained for...Thank God for my lovingly stout wife who kept me vertical and moving.... we finally got to our seats and got - well...as "comfortable" as one could get, considering the circumstances.  

The University of California (i.e., your tax dollars at work!) had just spent $321-million to refurbish Cal Memorial Stadium...they kept the outside facade and it actually looked quite marvelous. There was, however, one minor problem.  Like the Rose Bowl where UCLA plays their home games, there are no backs on 90% of the seats in the stadium.  What you get are long "benches". Also, I think the engineers who designed the seating figured the only people that would be attending football games there would be 5'3" Asian engineering students who weigh about 115-pounds soaking wet.  Talk about uncomfortable.  You get more than three normal-sized human beings sitting butt-cheek-to-butt-cheek on this glorified metal bench - and you've got some serious overlap!!  The UCLA faction was loud and off to our left in the end-zone....but where we were was definitely the Cal Student's section...louder than the UCLA faithful...and 100% more obnoxious!!

The game started and the stadium got filled-up to completely claustrophobic proportions.  I had made surprise arrangements for Amy Suzanne to see one of her horse-show friends from Los Angeles who was also at the game....our friend Patti Manze, who has a daughter on the equestrian team at Berkeley.  I thought we were going to have to airlift Amy out of her seat so she could go visit briefly with Patti  - she had to literally crawl over the legs of all these Cal fans (one of whom was her very-close seat mate who looked and sounded like a foul-mouthed Adam Sandler....who was emitting even more foul beer-and-nacho farts the entire time we were sitting....

UCLA came out flat and Cal looked really good and on top of their game...it turned out that this game was Homecoming for UC Berkeley....the crowd was loud! UCLA made bad mistakes and took some silly penalties....ending up down at the halftime break 16-7.

Which was about all of the live college football we cared to see for one day! Or a lifetime.  You see, we realized that we love sports.  All sports.  Especially from seats in luxury-boxes at Staple's Center and the Rose Bowl.  Or even better - in front of a large-screen HD TV at home!!

We had made arrangements with one of the nice students who worked the homecoming game to get a golf-cart ride back to the Mexican restaurant where we had pre-arranged to meet our driver with the Town Car.  Since the area around the campus was completely deserted (after all, the game was only half-over!) - we got right into the restaurant and sat down for a snack and a couple of stiff drinks.  Actually, I had a couple of Bohemia cervezas which really hit the spot!

Our driver got us back to the hotel in San Francisco before the game was actually over.  Cal literally destroyed the Bruins by a final score of 43-17.  So glad we didn't stay to see the end of the disaster!

Here is our Facebook Photo Album from our first full-day in San Francisco: 

San Francisco and Beyond...(Part 1)

To use a home-visit or not to use a home-visit?  That was the question we faced as the calendar turned over to October, 2012.  We've been in India for two-years and four-months now.  This time there was no choice.  Deloitte was holding their PPD (Partners, Principles and Directors) Meetings in the Bay Area.  San Francisco, California. Amy Suzanne's "home turf", as it were.  "The City".  The Golden Gate.  Home of the Giants and 49ers.  We had to go...and go we did.

Flying westbound is always a strange thing to do.  You leave India on Friday and arrive in California on the same Friday.  Unlike returning to Hyderabad - where you'll find that you will take-off on a Monday and you don't arrive home until Wednesday. Being exactly halfway around the world will do that...  As Amy likes to say, "the only way we could be any further from California is if we were on the moon!!"  We left on Friday, 5 October 2012 at 04:20 A.M. - so - right there your interior-clock is a bit screwed-up.  The first part of the trip on Emirates Airlines is to Dubai in the UAE.  About 3:30 of flight-time...not a bad trip...and business-class on the Boeing 777 is a pretty nice way to go anywhere!

The Dubai Airport is much like most of the now-great transit-stops around the world...real "shop-til-you-drop" places...hard to think of a fancy name-brand store they don't have there.  Gucci.  Louis Vuitton. Lladro. And all open 24/7. The best part: Starbucks and Pinkberry Frozen Yogurt!! And great duty-free shops...but you need to postpone buying anything there unless you want to consume it while on the trip.  No sense carrying bottles (or whatever) for the next ten days when you can just as easily pick up what you need on the way back through Dubai. If you familiarize yourself with duty-free prices around the world, you will find that the prices are a little higher...but it's very convenient!

It's the second part of the journey from India to California that you need to mentally prepare for.  It's a 15.5-hour marathon flight over the North Pole (going and coming home)... hopefully - with help of modern chemistry and good timing, you can sleep most if not all of the way.  Which we did.  I had been suffering from a bad bout of sciatica for the last several months and being in the sitting-position for 21-hours (counting layover) is not what the doctor ordered.  It was tough finding a comfortable way to sit or lay down and was quite miserable...but still managed to get some sleep on the way.

Landing in San Francisco was a wake-up call and a real personal bottom for me.  I was in so much pain that I really found it necessary to get a wheelchair to get me through U.S. Customs.  I found that I could only walk about 50-yards and I needed to rest... We'd still be there if it wasn't for Amy doing her best "for better or for worst" stuff for me...I wanted to walk on my own I just couldn't.  Emirates has a car service that was scheduled to take us to the Hilton Union Square in Downtown San Francisco...not a bad wait...we sat and I had an Anchor Steam Beer to celebrate our "welcome home" to California.

Through some mix-up - the Hilton did not have our reservations starting until Sunday and here it was Friday afternoon.  The thing we were to soon discover was that this was the "Perfect Storm" week for The City.  Big things, huge things were going on and the hotels were packed...virtually sold-out all over the Bay Area.  There was the ongoing Fleet Week for the Navy, the America's Cup Race in the harbor, the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park, The Oakland A's vs the Detroit Tigers in the ALDS, the Giants vs. the Reds at AT&T Park in the NLDS, University of California Berkeley vs. UCLA in college football (we had tickets for this game!!) and the Napa Valley was entering harvest-time and thir busines time of the year.  But thanks to some excellent service by the nice woman behind the counter...we got a room for the first two nights with only a slight delay.  The delay was softened by the fact that there is a very nice Starbucks right in the lobby of the Hilton!

After we got settled, we decided that we were just whipped and would just have room-service dinner sent up to our new digs.  Now - neither Amy and I are cheapskates - but when we saw the prices on the menu for room-service, we immediately changed our minds.  I guess you get used to food prices in India and Asia and after awhile, the idea of paying $25.00 U.S. for a cheeseburger is just too much!!  We made our way (I limped) downstairs to check out the hotel restaurant - and found similar pricing and a pretty limited selection of dishes.  We decided that there was no way we were going to spend our first night in San Francisco going hungry...so we walked up O'Farrell to find a place to try.  It's amazing how many Indian restaurants there are in this part of town!  Not an option!!  We stumbled-upon "Johnny Foley's Irish House" - a friendly place that not only had decently-priced pub-grub...but some decent ales on tap as well!  We had found our home!!  I probably had 6 or 7 meals and quite a few beers there over the course of the next ten days!! A real good pub and a home for Giants fans to watch the ball games!!

We made our way up to our room and got a good night's sleep....tomorrow would be Saturday...and the adventure was going to begin.  We had appointments with a chiropractor in Orinda (across the Bay Bridge on the Oakland side) in the morning...keeping our fingers-crossed that he could help me...

Our Photos on Facebook do not really begin until our Saturday began...so stay tuned!!!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Our Last Day in Singapore (#4 of 4)

Our last day got off to a slow start, but we had pretty much seen all we had come to see....except for the Harry Potter Experience which was (and still is, until 30 September!!) at the Marina Bay Sands ArtScience Museum.  The St. Regis where we were staying is fairly far away from that end of the city...so we decided to use the last-day of our Duck and Hippo Tour Bus passes to get over there.  It was well after-noon when we finally got it together enough to hit the road.

I do have one complaint about the St. Regis.  They severely over-sell their breakfast package...the restaurant  is so packed in the morning that there's a half-hour wait for the buffet.  I actually asked to see the food and beverage manager to tell him that I was displeased...except for the one morning where they sat me outside by the pool on a steamy and rainy Saturday morning...neither of us could wait for the buffet and didn't partake, although it was "included" in the rate we paid.

I must say that the manager made a "nice save" when he seated me at a table in an adjoining dining area and bought me breakfast "off the menu" - anything I wanted.  That was fair...but they really ought to warn people about the size of their restaurant...it's awfully small for a hotel of that size and prestige!!

We made our way to the "Starbucks across the street from the other Starbucks" (it's not just a cliche - it's real here...literally right across the street from one another!) and enjoyed a couple of vanilla lattes...and walked across the street to the Hippo double-decker bus stop.  It was pretty muggy again, but - we still sat topside with a bunch of other people.  We made it to the Hippo office and changed bus-lines to get over toward the Marina Sands Hotel area and the Harry Potter exhibit.

We walked around the area where the casino, the museum, the HUGE convention center (probably the best place I've ever seen to hold a convention of any kind, any size! It is amazing!!_I wanted to check out the casino, but they require a passport and background-check (on site) to enter. Glad Las Vegas doesn't have any such rule! All I wanted to do was have a look inside, but - according to the large man in the shiny suit, "no dice". (Pardon the pun)

The Harry Potter exhibit was actually all I expected it to be, and more.  Unfortunately, there was a strictly enforced "no photography rule" - - Amy managed to take two quick snapshots just outside of the entrance...the photos are included in the Facebook Album below.  I think Amy actually enjoyed it, too - although she's not nearly the Potterhead that I am.  It was mostly original costumes and props from the movies...with an interactive Quidditch quaffle-toss and an area where you could pluck-up a screaming Mandrake root!

After the exhibit...we decided that we really should go to the top of the observation deck at the Marina Bay Sands Hotel called the SkyPark. Like just about everything else in Singapore...this was going to be a costly adventure.  It was $20.00 per person (!!) to ride the elevator to the top...where we were severely limited as to where we could go.  The view from up top was spectacular!! However: the beautiful pool...off limits.  The bar and restaurant - off-limits unless you have made a reservation...probably a month in advance.  There was a standing-bar...where we ordered one Cosmopolitan and one Tiger Beer...the cost almost floored me!!  $53.00, not including tip!! Needless to say, we didn't stick around for a second drink...opting instead to take a taxi back to the St. Regis and hit the Astor Bar one last time.

We killed some time the next day (best told in pictures, included below)...had some coffee, some lunch and a few beers...and then headed for the Changi Airport for the flight home.  Overall - it was a trip I am glad we took...I don't know if I'd go back unless there was a very good reason.  I would certainly recommend the trip for a 2-3 day excursion...but - there really wasn't much else we needed to see by the time we left...

Marina Bay Sands and Harry Potter Experience

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Singapore Part Three!!

To kill some time before we went off to see the Night Safari at the Singapore Zoo....we took and interesting tram-ride with a live-guide that took us into Chinatown, Little India, over by the Sands Casino and back to the Duck and Hippo headquarters.  It helped us get the lay-of-the-land for a different part of the city for future reference.  This would come in handy tomorrow...our last full day in Singapore.  We finished the tour just in time to hit the loo at the mall and board the bus.  The bus that took us to the Night Safari was pretty luxurious...seemed more like the interior of an airplane!

Now....everybody we ever talked to about going to Singapore said "you must go see the Night Safari!!" Every tour-book, every website just raved about how this was the must-see attraction.  My overall reaction: "Meh!"

First of all...it's a bit of a haul by bus to get out to the zoo.  When you arrive, the first thing you notice is the crowds.  We were given about four-hours by our bus-driver to see the place...but once you see the crowd that arrives at the same time (the "show" starts after dark...thus the "Night Safari"!) - you begin to wonder it you'll make it back to the bus in time...and - more importantly - is this all going to be worth it.

Then....(although we are not proud of ourselves) - we ended up doing a very "Indian" thing just after we arrived.  We cut in line! Ahhh - the useful things you learn from other cultures!! There was a pretty wild "fire dance" being performed by these incredible Singaporean male dancers...but - since there was no place to sit, we went into the gift store. It so happens that there was a huge line already formed to see the "Creatures of the Night" show...and the gift store was near the front of this line.  When the line began to move, we simply sauntered right into it and got prime seats for the show.  Now - some people might think that "prime seats" are right in the front.  Not for us....we decided that sitting in the very top/back row was more what we wanted...that way we wouldn't be crushed when the show ended and the people stampeded toward the lines for the Night Safari trams.

The show was cute...nothing spectacular....although the raccoon that knew how to recycle plastic and aluminum was pretty cool. On cue, when the show let out - we walked as fast as we could out to the line for the tram.  For my friends in Southern California or for anybody who has ever been to Disneyland - the line looked an awful lot like the old lines for the Matterhorn Bobsleds on the Fantasyland side of the mountain!! The only thing that was missing was the yodelers singing in the background!  Back and forth, back and forth.  After about ten full switchbacks, we both looked at each other and said that we hoped the wait would be worth it.

It was then that I spoke the words which were to become the catch-phrase for our visit to the zoo.  I said that "there better be a tiger in a top-hat and a cane dancing the ol' soft-shoe" at the front of this line for this to be worth the wait!!  Se the photo above for Amy's rendition of what that scene would have been like!  BTW, there was no dancing tiger...but the tram ride was restful and the animals were definitely visible in all of their "open" enclosures.  It was nice.  Not the best thing I've ever seen...but - yeah - I guess it was worth the wait!

After the tram let us off - we realized that the last thing we had eaten was the chicken pho at the mall! We found a place to sit down and ordered two beers and two glasses of wine (I think it was over $100.00!!) - and we ordered one burger to split (I think it was over $30.00 with fries!)...by the time we finished eating, it was time to go back to the gift store and buy a few souvenirs...and then make our way back to the bus.

The coolest thing was that the bus took us right around the corner from the St. Regis hotel.  The Astor bar was still open for business...so we had a few cocktails before calling it a night. I had stopped trying to compute how much we were spending on food and beverages...it didn't really matter by then.  Overall it was a very good day!  Below are links to our Facebook Photo Albums from our day in Singapore and the Night Safari!  Enjoy!

Next edition: The Harry Potter Experience and the Marina Bay Sands!!

The Night Safari at the Singapore Zoo

More Singapore Sights...

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Singapore (Part Two)

There's really not the problem of "jet lag" when you travel from India only as far as Singapore.  However, there is the fact that the clocks in Singapore are two-and-a-half hours ahead of our Hyderabad time-zone, so it's really easy to sleep-in and lose half of your sightseeing day.  Another plus to booking a trip with a professional travel agent...with their help, you have a set-time when your tour-guide shows up at the hotel, so you get up, have breakfast, and get ready to go! But we were "on our own" this trip...and my Amy being a real "power sleeper" when she's worn-down from her work schedule and has the time to really sleep in. Add this to the fact that it was raining pretty good the morning of our second-day (Saturday) - it might have taken a fire-alarm to get her up and going.

I left Sleeping Beauty in the big poofy bed in our room at the St. Regis Hotel, and made my way down the stairs to the buffet in the restaurant.  By the way, we were on the thirteenth-floor! Room #1311.  I don't think I've ever actually seen a thirteenth-floor in any hotel... much less stayed in a room on one!

The restaurant was packed!!  No room and a long wait for a table.  But they told me that they open a second restaurant annex on the second-floor on weekends, so - I could go up there if I wanted.  I asked if it was the same buffet, and they assured me that it was. Well...I went up to the second-floor and even that restaurant was packed full of people! They said that there was a table outside (where it was hot, humid and raining!) under an awning by the pool.  I took the table...and it was a good thing I did...a line began to form as soon as I took my seat.

The buffet was "just O.K." - and there's no way the second-floor version was the same as the main restaurant...for one thing, it was half-the-size! The coffee was decent, so I ordered some from room-service and carried a couple of fresh croissants up to the room for Amy.  Yeah...she was still sound asleep.  The coffee got her going and we decided to grab the umbrellas and head out for a day of seeing Singapore on the "Duck and Hippo" hop-on/hop-off bus where I had arranged for tickets.  It was soon that we should learn that all concierges as not created equal.  We asked the guy at the desk downstairs where we needed to go to catch the double-decker red tour-bus...and he pointed directly across the street and said "right there at that bus-stop".  The Duck and Hippo advertising said that a bus comes every 20-minutes, so - even if we missed one it shouldn't be that much of a wait. Right?

Wrong.  Although the earlier downpours had slowed to a soft, sticky drizzle...it was still pretty damp outside of the hotel.  Taking initial photos was going to be impossible for a while until our camera, fresh from the air-conditioned hotel, caught up with the humidity out-of-doors.  The lens kept fogging!  Well...we waied twenty-minutes.  Every kind of bus came...except the Duck and Hippo.  Another twenty-minutes passed, and - still no big-red-bus.  At the 50-minute mark, I had had enough.  I said "This can't be right...let's walk over to Orchard and see if the buses run there..."  

After starting over to the main drag...then coming back once to the original bus-stop - It was the right move. Not only did all of the tour buses stop at the Orchard stop - - there was a Starbucks right next to it!! AND - just like the cliche - a Starbucks across the street from the Starbucks!! We had some vanilla lattes and saw the Hippo bus come and go once...so we knew we were on the right track! We finally got on after an hour-and-a-half of waiting...and we were off!

The first thing you notice about Singapore (other than the fact that it's not all that big!) is that there are two passions there... SHOPPING AND EATING!  It's literally wall-to-wall-malls in the Orchard district...and in-between...restaurants and eating-establishments of all kinds and sizes!  The upper-deck of the Hippo was the perfect place to soak it all in...the rain had virtually stopped and the breeze up-top was pretty nice...  The city is so very clean... And there's any sort of store you can imagine..electronics, cameras, clothing, antiques... if you have money to burn...a real shoppers paradise!

We took the bus to the end of the line so that we could replace our e-mail print-out for real bus tickets...and - replace our tickets that we had purchased for the Night Safari at the Singapore Zoo from the night before.  Again..something that would have never happened on a professionally-booked tour...we had forgotten that we had tickets, thinking that they were for Saturday!  Amy told them that "our plane was delayed yesterday" - a pretty convincing little white lie that got our tickets moved... With our tour-package came a trolley-tour with a live Singaporean guide... but we had some time to kill.  Since Amy had not eaten, we found our way upstairs to the food-court in the mall we were in and found a Vietnamese place that had fresh salad-spring-rolls and pretty decent chicken pho - the owner was cool - - he was wearing an NHL hockey t-shirt, he was ethnically Vietnamese, but was Canadian by birth...and lived in Singapore by choice.  Sort of a microcosm of the whole place in one man!

More later...in the meantime...here are the photos from Day Two:

Sightseeing on the Hippo Bus....

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Singapore for Amy's Birthday (Part One)

Let's see.  I have now "been to Singapore" three times.  The first time was just for two-hours while I had a layover at Changi International Airport - a place I consider to be the BEST airport on the planet...plenty of food choices, a Starbucks, luxury shopping, free Internet kiosks, clean, indoor gardens and koi ponds...and a Business Class Lounge that has the feel of a "nice restaurant" or club (not to mention, free-use of Apple laptop computers in their "office area"!)  What's not to love!!  The second time I went "to Singapore", I actually left the airport!  Coming home from this year's "home visit" to Los Angeles in June, I had scheduled a really-long layover (on purpose - I thought I'd spend the day seeing the sights!) - but I had gotten sick in L.A. and it was all I could do to find a cheap hotel-room and sleep for 12-hours!  I know - - these hardly count as "trips to Singapore"... so I was really glad when Amy said that she wanted to get away for her birthday on 7/11 - but that she thought we should go to Singapore!

We're such "seasoned travelers" now (Ha!!) - that I figured I would just go ahead plan and book the entire trip by myself ... and that all would be just great!!  Regular readers of the "At Home in Hyderabad" blog know that, when we travel, we book everything through our friend Eve Wertsch at Fugazi Travel in San Francisco. Although I am glad we did it this way, this time...I really learned a lesson - there is great value in using a professional travel agent like Eve. With a professional booking your journey, things rarely go wrong, and when they do, they can be immediately rectified!

Anyway, so we booked Business Class on Silk Air (Singapore Airlines local Asia carrier) and left on Thursday night, the day after Amy's birthday.  It's an "overnight" flight, so - we did out best to sleep the whole way. We arrived early in the morning on Friday and our plan was to have a coffee and hit the MRT (the Singapore subway/train systerm) and take it to the Orchard Road area where our hotel was.  What an easy experience this MRT is!!  The train from the Changi Airport station was about 10%-filled.  After the first main terminal (Tanah Merah) ...the warning I had read in the Lonely Planet Guide to Singapore turned out to be true! "Avoid the morning rush-hour on the MRT" -- This is NOT a train-ride for the claustrophobic!! Nobody seemed to get off the train - and every stop seemed to add 10 more people to our car!! The ride after the transfer at the "City Hall" station was much less-crowded.

We got off at the "Orchard" station and found a cab.  Probably the worst cab in the city, it was running on 3-cylinders - - and that's better than I could say for the driver!!  Poor guy!!  Singaporean accents (a sort of a fast patois known as "Singlish"...) are hard enough to understand....but this guy had a terrible cough and sounded like he was dying of tuberculosis! He took us to the St. Regis Hotel, which was to be our home for the weekend.  The check-in staff was most accommodating and got us into our room with no charge, even though is was a full six-hours until official check-in time.  Our room (the "Lady Astor" variety with two queen-sized beds!) was really, really nice!  The beds were so, comfy...well...we just had to check them out, right??  We did....and napped the morning away.  We took time to make an appointment with a local salon in the area (interestingly enough, called THE Salon...) - and took a much needed sleep!

We took a cab to THE Salon at Wheelock Place...while Amy was getting her hair styled, I took some time to nose-around in the mall shops.  It was here that I first realized that Singapore is not really the place to go if you are looking for bargains!!  I ducked into a golf store and lasted about 30-seconds after I saw my first price-tag.  Even though the prices were in Singapore Dollars (SD) - about 20% less value than the U.S. variety...the prices on clubs and equipment...even golf balls - were ridiculously high!!

Her hair-do was actually a good price by American standards...she had a whole team working on different parts of the procedure...and I think she looked great!  We found our way across the street and went into a "Harry's Bar" - sort of an Asian chain of upscale pubs - and had a few beers/glasses of wine...and walked back to the taxi-area and waited with about 25 other folks for a cab to show up.  It took about a half-hour!  Thoughts of "we shoulda booked with Eve!" started creeping into our minds!

And here was the embarrassing part: When we finally caught a cab, it turns out that the St. Regis Hotel is probably only one-kilometer away!!  We could have walked back and forth to the hotel during the time we spent waiting for a taxi!! Oh, well...live and lean, they say!

Tomorrow, we begin to see the sights....tune in for Part Two!

In the meantime...here are a few photos from our Facebook albums:

Our Arrival in Singapore...

Amy Suzanne's "New Do"...

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Hoi An and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)

"Saigon.  $#!+. I'm still only in Saigon..."  ~ Captain Benjamin L. Willard, the opening lines of "Apocalypse Now" (1979)

Our drive to Hoi An took us through Da Nang.  It was this place that I had heard so much about growing up during the Vietnam War.  They don't call it the "Vietnam" war, obviously, in Vietnam.  It's just "The War". It was sort of eerie seeing the harbor where so many troops began their journey, "in country", as the U.S. vets used to say.  So many landmarks, so many memories.  I must say that I have a new view of things now that I have actually walked around in Vietnam (and Laos and Cambodia)...met the people, ate in their homes...heard their personal stories. I'm a firm believer in the theory of a "just war".  I'm not sure what we did in Vietnam was very "just".  Here endeth my political rant.!

Hoi An is a peaceful village.  Probably the most "touristy" place we went on our whole trip.  Lots and lots and lots of shops selling...well...just about everything.  Amy found some cool t-shirts, we got some fancy chop-sticks (I'm still determined to learn how to use the darned things!)...

We found the most delightful restaurant right on the river with an outdoor patio/seating area, called Brother's Cafe... the food was incredible and the ambiance was...well...pretty special.  They had a beautiful fountain with frogs that croaked throughout dinner...it was lovely and not-too expensive...

The place we stayed at was nice...our room had a patio as well and a view right on the river.  Hoi An is a walking town.  Many of the streets are blocked-off for shopping and walking and no cars and no taxis are allowed.  We walked a lot...we even found ourselves walking around town looking for an ATM to grab some dong for shopping (the Vietnam currency is called dong and one U.S. dollar is worth about 21,000.00 dong!!)  Tired of shopping, we headed back to Da Nang for the short flight to Saigon, or, as it is now known...Ho Chi Minh City.

Our guide in Saigon (call it what you like, the locals still call it Saigon!!) was a trip!  Young and energetic, a bit of a "motor-mouth" ... but very funny! We were nearing the end of our journey to Indo-China - and we told him flat-out that we would be needing some "down time".  Well - we hit the ground running (literally!) because we had time before we could check-in to our hotel...we saw the former Presidential Palace which was beautiful and a pretty good teacher about The War and other cultural things. It was sort of a living museum. As the palace of the former President of South Vietnam...it was sort of a command-center for the South Vietnamese government during The War ....and there were bunkers and original radio-equipment throughout.  Very cool!

We stayed at the venerable Caravelle Hotel... one of the grande dames of hotels in the Saigon area... a nice place overall - but - getting a little shop-worn.  We had trouble with the toilet from day-one...and they shut off the water completely for "plumbing repairs" on our last day.

Our second day was truly memorable - a fairly long drive down to the Mekong Delta for a all-day boat cruise!!  This was one of the highlights of the whole trip...the floating market and the transportation of goods up and down the Mekong River probably have not changed much in 200-years! We stopped at a local village and watched the entire process of making coconut candy and a sort of "Rice Krispy treat" kind of local delicacy...and got to sample the wares!!  We made another respectable hike through the canals and streets of the village and came upon a most interesting local restaurant.  It was more of a converted palace...it also had an outdoor dining area (it was as humid as hell!) where we quenched our thirst with "333" Beer - or - as it's called in Vietnamese... "Ba-ba-ba"  The waitress was coming up behind Amy Suzanne and - unfortunately - Amy could not see what was coming as our main-course!  It was a big ugly fish with head-still-on!!  As our waitress put the fish on the table..Amy let out a scream that scared everybody in the restaurant!! A classic moment I will never forget!  Time for a lot more "Ba-ba-ba" !!

After a long (and joke-filled) drive back to the city (we passed dozens of places by the roadside where you could rent a hammock in the shade and buy cold beer!  What a great idea!  I wonder if, with the right business-plan, this would catch-on in the U.S.??)... we had a great dinner at a local place. And then back to the Caravelle for our last full night in Vietnam.

The final day, we relaxed.  There was a local coffee-shop just up the road and I walked up and got us some lattes.  Amy left the hotel for an hour or so and did some last minute shopping - but - it seems that she over-spent her last few dong. She took a bicycle pedicab back to the hotel with her purchases in-hand...and for some unknown reason, the "driver" stopped and asked her how much money she had.  Evidently, when he looked through her wallet, she was going to be a little short - so he dropped her off in the middle of downtown Saigon!!

We then headed for the airport to head back to Bangkok and then back Home to Hyderabad!

Here are the final Facebook Photo Albums from this wonderful journey!! It was truly the trip of a lifetime!!

Hoi An and on to Saigon

Sunday, May 27, 2012

On to Vietnam (Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Hue)

It was touch-and-go re: getting Amy Suzanne on the plane for the short flight to Hanoi from Siem Reap.  She was weak, but the "going from both ends" had ceased and she was able to drink some water and sit-up for the whole flight.  One of the things our travel-agent extraordinaire, Eve Wertsch at Fugazi Travel told us would be a good investment all-around was the "express visa service" when we arrived in Hanoi.  Now...getting visas when you arrive in any country can be a hassle...the forms could have changed from the ones you've pre-filled-out ... you could be unprepared and have the wrong kind of currency (most of the SE Asia countries will only take U.S. dollars!) ... there can be big lines, especially of 2 or 3 planes land at the same time...

In Hanoi, our guide and one other man met us at a fairly modern and nice international terminal... immediately after we exited the business-class shuttle-bus ... and far ahead of the rest of the hoi polloi flying in coach - no offense to them - we've done it that way, too - - but in the case of Vietnam Airlines, the bump to Business Class was not that much more and so-highly worth it!! Our guide, in perfect English, told us to "follow him"... the other man took our passports and headed toward an office. We followed the guide and were escorted by an army official in uniform, through a locked gateway and out to the street.  The other man ran up to catch us - delivered our completed passports with visas attached...and we were simply waiting for our van to take us to the hotel.  Total time waiting for our Vietnam Tourist Visas?  About three-minutes and thirty-seconds!!! Amy looked at her passport and ask me and our guide: "Hey....are we sure that was legal??"  No kidding!  It was so quick we had to have cut some major corners!!

I gotta say, we really liked Hanoi.  A lot.  It's modern, but not too modern...the Socialist government has done a good job preserving parks and green-space...and - as of about 1986, when the government decided to open their markets (i.e., abandon communism for capitalism) - there are all of the modern amenities you could want.  Including a very cool hotel across from Hanoi's famous Opera House... the Hotel De L'Opera Hanoi  A fairly new hotel...kind of funky-chic...and very comfortable!

We saw enough sights to get the feel of the place...The Temple of Literature, the Museum of Ethnology (there are 54 different ethnic minority groups living in Vietnam!!) - we had a meeting and lively discussion with a local professor of history and writer about the history of Vietnam - - it was much like going to a college lecture - - very cool and very informative.... We saw the Old Quarter... and finished the long day with a show at the Water Puppet Theater - - by far one of the highlights of our trip to Indochina!!

The next day we began a three-hour drive to Ha Long Bay where we would board a cruise-sip (really a fancy "junk" - old but pretty cool!!!)  It was the holiday celebrating the end of the Vietnam War (funny - you don't hear that term used in Vietnam!!) - and the traffic was brutal!!!!  We were almost late for our 1:30 P.M. leaving time... but our guide was in contact with the boat and they knew all about the traffic problems!

The boat was sort of old and funky...but our cabin was nice (albeit tiny!) - - the food was great - - sitting up on the sun-deck was amazing... but the most incredible thing about cruising ni Ha Long Bay is the scenery!! Ha Long Bay, situated in the Gulf of Tonkin, includes some 1600 islands and islets forming a spectacular seascape of limestone pillars. Because of their precipitous nature, most of the islands are uninhabited and relatively unaffected by human influence.  One of the most amazing places I have seen on this earth!

Dinner followed by a sunset that seemed like it would never end...then a nightcap on the sundeck... it was time for a good sleep!  The next day I went out on a shuttle-boat to a beach for a swim and more sightseeing.  Amy slept.  She was still not 100% recovered from being sick in Cambodia...

Anyway - if you go to northern Vietnam... YOU MUST TO TAKE A CRUISE ON HA LONG BAY! You will never regret it!!

We drove back to Hanoi and boarded a plane for the old capital of the Kingdom of Vietnam: Hue.  (It's pronounced "Way")  We walked all over the Citadel, saw the Thien Mu Pagoda and had a nice cruise on the river.  N.B. It was super hot and super humid...I thought me might die!!  Then, another unexpected treat...we had lunch with a princess!!  Princess Ngoc So was the daughter of Emperor Dong Khanh - when she married, her father granted her the land to build a home.  Today it is one of the best garden houses and has been maintained largely in its original form.  The home has an incredible set of beautiful gardens.  The "princess" today is the great-granddaughter of the original princess...and she and her mother graciously fed us local delicacies and good cold beer!!  

Then there was a long drive (but a neat one - - we went through a really long tunnel into the post city of Da Nang!) and arrived at a cute little hotel on the river in Hoi An.  Much more later in the final blog-post of this series, coming very soon!!) In the meantime - see our photos from this part of the journey:

Good Morning Vietnam - a photo update

Hue!!  No Hue!!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Cambodia: Siem Reap and Angkor Wat

We left Laos with a heavy heart.... the people (and our guide) were just as sweet and wonderful as they could be.  But now the real adventure was going to begin: we were off to Cambodia to see the awesome Hindu Temple complex at Angkor Wat, near the town of Siem Reap.  The ancient name of the town was Angkor - but - after a particularly contentious war with neighboring Thailand, the name was changed to Siem Reap, which means "Victory over Siam (Thailand)"  Nothing like rubbing salt in a wound!  We left the small airport at Luang Prabang on our first of many Vietnam Airlines planes.  I cannot say enough about the staff and service of  Vietnam Airlines.  This particular jet was a small one - a Fokker 70 - and it was a fast little Fokker! We arrived in Cambodia at about 1:30 in the afternoon - and went right out to see the temple called Ta Prohm.  This is the iconic temple with all of the giant heads of Vishnu and other gods (see photo left/above - my head only LOOKS giant!!) - This temple was the one made famous by Angelina Jolie in "Laura Croft: Tomb Raider".  All over Siem Reap - you see signs and notices that "Angelina Jolie ate here!"

The thing you notice about Cambodia first is just what the old cliche says: "It ain't the heat, it's the humidity!"  The daytime temps were not all that much warmer than At Home In Hyderabad - which this time of year is about 40-42-degrees Celsius - or, about 104 to 109 F. But the air is thick with choking humidity...very much like a steam-bath - and it doesn't take long before you are feeling the effects.  After our first temple visit, we felt like wet-dish-rags - and went to our hotel for the next two nights: The Hotel De La Paix - a modern, artsy kind of place that really was just what we needed!  We had a "Spa Suite" - I swear it was bigger than most apartments I ever lived in!!  There we crashed...after I made a short visit to the hotel's absinthe bar downstairs!!

The next day was dedicated to seeing Angkor Wat.  To really see the complex properly (it is HUGE!) - you would need more than 2-3 days as we had - - but - we really did see enough.  Mostly, our guide "Sonny" took us around... but we saw the main temple complex and Angkor Thom with a local Khmer scholar whose father had been an academic and was killed by the Khmer Rouge - if you remember the movie "The Killing Fields" - this fellow lived through it.  The climb to the top of the main temple required a lot of climbing of stairs... and I made it 75% of the way up.  Amy Suzanne made it all the way to the top (and down!) - but the stairs were much too steep for me to try.  She came down and looked like she might pass-out from heatstroke!  As it turned out, the poor thing ended-up sick as a dog for the next 24-hours - and could not leave the hotel room!

The next day, Sonny and I went out to see the Roulous Temple group... these ruins are among the oldest Khmer monuments in the area - dating back to the 9th Century A.D.  There are three main Hindu temple structures that remain: Lolei, Bakong and Preah Ko.  I got to see all three before the heat got to me and I got shuttled back to the hotel to check on Amy.  She was not doing too well.

We spent that night and the morning of the next day making arrangements for the "what if Amy can't make it to the airport and on to Hanoi" scenario.  Thanks once again to Eve Wertsch at Fugazi travel, she gave us sage advice: "Do whatever you can to get her on that plane!"

Thanks be to God the plane did not leave until 6:00 P.M.!!  We got some fluids in her and she weakly made it to the airport for the 90-minute flight from Siem Reap to Hanoi!!

Was Angkor Wat amazing?  Was it the highlight of our trip to Indochina?  Was it a bucket-list trip that everybody should make?  The answers are "Yes, yes and YES!!"  Would we go back?  Not during the summer!  It was brutal...and I thought for a time I just might lose my wife and favorite traveling companion to the heat and some kind of viscous local stomach-bug (we don't think it was anything that she ate...we both ate the same things!)

Anyway - please enjoy these two Facebook photo albums from this part of our trip.  Next - on to Hanoi and Vietnam!!

A Taste of Angkor Wat

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam (Part One)

Hey, everybody!  It's now the middle of May, 2012!  We've been here in Hyderabad almost exactly two full years!  Still loving it, and loving it so much that we have opted to extend our stay in India for an extra year - now due to repatriate in June of 2013.  The best part about being here is the travel opportunities we've had!  As a matter of fact, we just finished another amazing, amazing trip!! This journey was actually planned by us long in advance as a "get away" trip for Amy after this years' tax busy season that ended on the 17th of April this year.  She had a few things to wrap-up in Hyderabad before we could leave...but on Friday night the 20th of April, we were on our way to Bangkok, continuing on to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam for two-whole weeks!

I was just sitting here in our bedroom - flipping through the sports-channels on our satellite TV service here At Home In Hyderabad... instead of the steady-diet of IPL 20/20 Cricket we've been getting lately...Star Sports is televising the first-ever "Lao Open" golf tournament...and it's being played at the new golf course in Luang Prabang in Laos.  Since we were just there (21 April through 5 May 2012) - the images being shown during a brief travelogue on the golf broadcast brought back lots of memories... Our first stop (after a brief stopover in Bangkok, Thailand with a minimal layover) was, in fact, Luang Prabang.  They showed the Mekong River where Amy Suzanne dipped her feet (I think it was the exact spot where she hiked down to the river!), the Kings Mansion and Museum, several Buddhist Temples, some riverside restaurants, the Night Market and the 328-step staircase that Amy climbed to the top of Phousi Hill... The more we travel, the more places we see on the TV where we have actually been.  we are so totally blessed!  As I said before, by far the best part of being here in India are the incredible opportunities to travel in this past of the world!!

Laos was an unknown treasure for us.  We book all our trips with the greatest travel agent you could ever hope for - Eve Wertsch from Fugazi Travel in San Francisco.  We stayed at the Luang Say Residence in Luang Prabong.  It was beautiful, we had our own private suite, the food was good and the Happy Hour prices made having a cocktail not quite as painful. There were also two new bunnies running around the garden. It all had a very French feel to it!

We loved our guide - - on our first day he took us around to the Royal Palace (now the National Museum) - and we went to three beautiful Buddhist Temples: The Wat Visoun (16th Century), Wat Xiengthong (also from the 16th Century) and finally, Wat Mai.  We had a nice lunch with our guide at L' Elephant restaurant - right on the bank of the Mekong River - where we learned all about the nuances of how to eat "sticky rice"  After a return to the hotel to nap and freshen up, we went back out and walked around the setting up of the Night Market and Amy (not me, I had to save my knees for the 14-days to come!) climbed the 328-steps to the top of Phousi Hill to see the sunset.  We returned to our hotel for dinner and calling it a very long, very hot and very humid day!

The second day in Laos was totally different.  We enjoyed a drive out into the hill country, where most of the Hmong tribes still live in huts on stilts and weave cotton and process fresh tobacco for a living - something they have done for centuries.  We made a stop at a school (see photo album!) - and them on to another village where we walked around (and sweat!!) and - then went into one of the stilted homes for a sit down (on the floor) lunch prepared by a local family.

Now - you might not think that this would be the highlight of our trip to Laos...but it was!!  The food was fresh, the company comfortable (although they spoke little English) - and our host was a man who liked to distill his own whiskey from rice... and he loved to share!!  He served it into what looked like little jam-jars - poured from an old Johnny Walker Black bottle with a faced-to-grey label.  He made sure our glasses were always filled!  We then were told that the Laos custom was to take a little nap after lunch (after a filling lunch and half a bottle of rice-whiskey - no problem there, mate!) - so - we were provided with pillows and our own bamboo mats - and we snoozed for about an hour while the afternoon sky opened-up and it poured down all of the humidity it had been holding throughout the day!  Thunder and lightning - it was perfect.

We came back to the hotel to shower...then we went out to the night market...an incredible outdoor affair, very popular in this part of the world - where bargains abound!  We got some t-shirts, some cool woven cups for sticky-rice serving...and - well... how do I describe this?  We were at this lady's booth - checking out what she had...and Amy Suzanne spotted something among the wares for sale.  "Oh, wow - that is so cool - what is it??" The lady explained that it was an ancient laundry basket - probably been in the family for 50 years... a beat-up old thing with a wood base and two old handles.  "Is it for sale??", Amy asked. Well, of course it was. Needless to say, after the lady cleaned up the old basket by removing some baked-on sticky rice (I think she used it to carry her lunch to work - we had just purcheased somebody's lunch-box!) - we carried that beat-up old basket around Southeast Asia for the next two weeks!! It will be a very well-traveled laundry basket now, that's for sure!!  We had a nice dinner at the Blue Lagoon (rated #1 in town!!) before taking a tuk-tuk back to the hotel for the night.  We were already feeling the effects of the heat and humidity...it takes a lot out of you when you're walking around all day!

Our final morning in Laos was spent "at leisure" (our favorite phrase on a travel itinerary) until we boarded a small plane for Siem Reap and Cambodia... More to come in Part Two - so stay tuned!

In the meantime... here is a very small Facebook Photo Album from our time in Laos...the Internet connection was extremely slow - so - I didn't get around to uploading a bunch of photos from this part of our trip!

A Taste of Laos