Enjoying Barcelona’s Beaches and Medieval City

Barcelona is much more than just Gaudi’s work.  We enjoyed it’s beautiful weather, it’s beaches, it’s markets, and it’s Ciutat Vella (Old City).  We spent most of Friday and Saturday in the old city and walking along the beach.  While November wasn’t quite sunbathing weather, it was still nice enough to walk along the boardwalk in short sleeves, eat tapas outside at one of the restaurants, and sit on the bench enjoying the view of the Mediterranean Sea.  Other than the beach, a Christopher Columbus statue that is pointing the wrong way and lots of boats, there isn’t too much to see or do along the waterfront, but it’s a great place to relax and enjoy the sublime weather.

The Boardwalk, Boats, and Food

The medieval part of the city is between the waterfront and where our hotel was.  We stayed in the new part of the city which is officially outside what use to be the ‘old city’s’ wall.  The new part of the city is incredibly clean, beautiful and modern.  It has every thing you could possibly need.  At times I almost forgot we were still in Spain.  It’s very westernized with lots of high end shops and restaurants and nearly everyone seems to know English (and French, and Catalan, and Spanish).  The ‘old city’ however is unique – you know you’re somewhere special.  It almost feels like you’ve been transported back in time.  Most of the old city dates back to the middle ages and there are even some Roman ruins dating back 2,000 years.  Like Toledo, there are lots of narrow, cobblestone streets which are for pedestrians only – making it fun to wander around.  Most of it is very well preserved, clean and safe.  Inside all these beautiful old buildings are museums and churches as well as lots of cute shops and restaurants hiding in there too.

Restaurants, Markets and Art in Barcelona’s Medieval City

Among this maze of streets and alleyways we found the amazing Cathedral first, and then we saw three other old churches: Santa Maria del Mar (which use to be on the ocean and over time has become landlocked), Santa Maria de Pi (which was surrounded by art booths), and the cute little country church, Sant Pau de Campo.  I really liked Sant Pau de Campo. It’s really tiny and it’s the oldest one in Barcelona at almost 1,000 years old.  It use to be out in the sticks, now it’s in the middle of the city.  When we were there, there were some musicians practicing inside and the acoustics were amazing.  Barcelona’s old section also has it share of quaint plazas, hidden courtyards, parks, musicians, art,  festivals and fresh food markets too.  Despite spending the better part of two days down in that area, we didn’t come close to seeing everything.  We’ll have to come back to Barcelona for sure.  Just like Madrid, there is so much to see and do around there, it would take a long time to complete that list.

Narrow Streets, Stained Glass Windows and Musicians

Visiting the Old Churches of Barcelona

To see more pictures of Barcelona, click on the picture below:

So much yummy cheese! 🙂

 

 

 

Thanksgiving in Barcelona: Gaudi and Goodies

View from our Apartment – Casa Mila in the center

Since we couldn’t easily go home for Thanksgiving break, we decided to go to Barcelona instead.  We heard the food there was fabulous plus we would have a 4-day weekend to explore the city.  We left Wednesday night and instead of driving (which would have taken us 6-7 hours), we took the high speed train (at 180 mph) and we were there in 2.5 hours.  The train station is also conveniently located in the center of the city, so we were even checked into our apartment by 10pm.

We booked a place on the main shopping street in Barcelona….Passeig de Gracia.  The hotel surprised us with an upgrade to a 2 bedroom, 2 bath apartment (it was really nice but way more room than we needed).  They also gave us a box of chocolates and free internet service – all for the same price as a little hotel room. 🙂  The location was perfect, the view was great and the weather was perfect.  The second night we were there the city turned on the Christmas lights so the streets were all beautifully lit up.

Casa Botilo

Thanksgiving morning we out to have our coffee & pastry and decided to spend the day seeing Antoni Gaudi’s work.   Gaudi’s architectural work is so different and wild….seven of his properties are recognized by UNESCO as outstanding examples of early 20th century architecture.  Each of his works is more like a piece of art than it is a practical building.  He designed everything from lamposts, to buildings, to churches, to parks.  We actually spent all day looking at his creations.  It was like walking in fantasy land.  We first saw Casa Mila and Casa Botilo, then we went to see his masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia.  The church was amazing and we spent three hours there.  You can see and read all about it in our next post.

After our church visit, we headed to Park Guell….which is a park designed by Gaudi.  It’s not easy to get to, but it is on top of hill so it has a great view of the city.  It was an incredibly beautiful day and it was great to be spending it outside.  Visiting the park was so much fun and also very relaxing.  We sat on the park benches soaking up the sun, looking out to the sea and listened to several musicians and bands playing.

The design of the park is so whimsical and colorful!  I felt like I was in the Hansel & Gretel fairy tale.  The entrance even has what looks like two gingerbread houses.  The walls surrounding it undulate, the park benches are either circular or wrap around like serpents, there are cute little mosaic creatures and beautiful tiles throughout.  Curvy trails are all over the hill, going thru little tunnels and leading to all sorts of different places – including the house Gaudi lived in (which is now a museum).  I could have easily spent the rest of the day here but it was getting late and we still hadn’t had lunch.  We headed out and immediately found a great little cafe near the park and ended up having a majorly delicious little Mediterranean pizza and a mouth watering Iberian ham sandwich.

Park Guell in Barcelona

It was already early evening when we took the subway all the way down to the waterfront and walked up the infamous mile long street (La Rambla).  We stopped there to buy some evilly good chocolates at Le Boqueria (a huge farmer’s market) and then picked up some wine, cheese & bread to snack on before going to our Spanish dinner at 9:30pm.

Our restaurant was only a few blocks away from our apartment so we walked there.  It was a small restaurant with only 10 tables but it is very popular.  I had to make reservations several weeks in advance.  The dinner (which consisted of multiple courses) was fantastic.  Every dish they served was simply amazing and so different…so many colors and flavors.  Some of the things we had included bread, stuffed olives, spicy nuts, a tricolored caramel shot, foie gras on pastry crust with caramelized leeks, scallops, roasted suckling pig, a celery-lime sorbet, a cheese plate, banana mouse with ice cream and caramel sauce and finally several chocolate samples. Robert ordered the local wine pairings.  It was great to be able to taste so many different local Spanish wines with each dish.  This was by far the best place we ate in Barcelona and so far the best in Spain.  Just thinking about it makes me want to go back.  We sure hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving – there is so much to be thankful for!

Thanksgiving dinner

 

 

Autumn in The Gardens of Aranjuez

Apollo Fountain in the Isle Garden

Aranjuez is not on the typical tourist’s radar.  I’ve seen it mentioned in our guide books but they don’t give any specific information on it.  It seems to be more of a day trip for the local folk.  It’s widely known for it’s strawberries, asparagus, and most importantly, it’s palace and gardens.  It’s not far from Madrid and it’s easily accessible on the local commuter train.  When it’s strawberry season,  you can actually take the Strawberry Train to Aranjuez (which I might have to do someday if I can find someone else who wants to take it with me).  It sounds interesting and yummy, despite being touristy.

After our now habitual Spanish breakfast (pastries & coffee), we caught the next train to Aranjuez.  The countryside getting there was not particularly attractive.  It was mostly hilly, dry and industrial.  However, as we approached the town, there were all of a sudden irrigated fields, gardens, and trees.  Aranjuez is the last city on that train line and once you get there, it’s like stepping into an oasis.  There are wide, tree-lined streets and sidewalks which lead you directly to the center of town and palace.

Interestingly enough, this palace was designed by the same two gentlemen that designed El Escorial (the HUGE monastery).  However, this palace is much more attractive.  I read it is incredibly beautiful on the inside, but we weren’t really interested in seeing the inside this time because it’s the palace gardens that are listed as a UNESCO Cultural Landscape Site, and I love gardens.  We decided to check out the gardens by the palace first then, if we had time, we’d walk around the town.

Ducks on the River

The gardens looked more like something I would expect to find in France  – not here in such an arid part of Spain.  There were trees and shrubs and fountains everywhere!  We must have seen 40-50 different fountains that day.  My favorite fountain was the guy sitting on the wine barrel (although Apollo was looking mighty fine).  The gardens are huge and geometrically designed.  The walkways were going off in every direction.  Most people had maps, but we just wandered around slowly and discovered all the treasures hidden inside.

The Isle garden (with most of the fountains) is actually on a manmade island on the Tagus river (that’s the same river that runs around Toledo).  There were lots of birds and ducks and a couple of little water falls along the river.  It also looked like you could do boat trips or kayak on some parts of the river – I’ll have to do some research on that.  I know there is a hike in the area, and it looks like it would also be an ideal place to do some biking.

Robert at El Rana Verde Restaurant

Before we knew it it was lunchtime (2pm).  We learned the hard way that you don’t want to be late for lunch in Spain or you won’t find an empty restaurant.  I only knew about two restaurants in town (both were listed in my hiking book).  We found one right away and it was right on the river.  We decided to give it a try even though it looked pretty fancy (the waiters wore suits).  We were unsure at first, but we ended up having a great waiter (yes, in Spain! where they are notoriously known for being awful).  There was a huge Spanish family (22 people) dining beside us so I thought for sure we’d be forgotten, but he was right on time with everything and very friendly.  We each ordered the “Menu del Dia” which included a starter, a main course, a dessert, and a whole BOTTLE of wine – all for only 15 euro ($20).  This may have been the best bargain meal I’ve ever had.  I really wanted to take pictures of our gourmet dishes, but I felt it was inappropriate in a place this nice….maybe when we get our iPhone (then it will be less conspicuous).

After our 2 hour lunch we headed out to work off some of those calories, but the clouds were rolling in, so instead, we skipped the city and briefly peeked into the Prince’s garden.  After a few sprinkles of rain we thought it best to head back to Madrid.  Our timing was perfect, the train was there just waiting for us.  🙂

We both really loved Aranjuez.  It’s beautiful, laid back, and it seemed to be the most ‘authentic’ Spanish experience we’ve had so far.  It’s amazing how different this town was from Toledo.  I’m finding that every city, town, and suburb here is different.  Each has their own personality, their own foods, their own look, and their own vibe.  I can’t wait to visit some more.  I feel like a little kid in a candy store!

Summer Palace in Aranjuez

Our Restaurant on the River

Fall Sweets! – Balls and Bones

Bones, Balls and Banana Bread

One of the little joys of being in Europe is the pastry shops.  Every town seems to have it’s own ‘special’ sweets.  Some are available year-round and others are available only during certain times of the year.  Everything looks so wonderful!

We’ve been going out for evening walks just about every day and we pass lots of pastry shops along the way.  After drooling for several minutes, we’d leave with nothing.  Well, one time we finally broke down and bought a bunch of stuff.   Now we have a new addiction.

Recently we bought what we jokingly call: “Balls and Bones”.  The “balls” look like munchkins and they are filled with different flavored creams.  They are actually called ‘Bunuelos de Viente’, or in English : Fritters.  These are darn good!  We absolutely LOVE these.  I think about them all day.  I really hope these are seasonal or we are in big trouble.  We’ve had the chocolate, the vanilla cream, the Dulce de Leche, and the whipped cream filled (which tastes like a mega cream puff!).

Cream filled Fritters

Inside of Bunuelos de Viento

Inside a ‘Hueso de Santo’

The “bones” are the white skinny things that are filled with different fruits or fillings.  The outside tastes like an almond flavored pie crust.  The lady in our pastry shop told us they are only available around All Saints Day and that they are called ‘Huesos de Santos’ or ‘Saint’s Bones’.  We’ve tried the coconut, chocolate, strawberry, carmel, and apricot.  They are very different than any sweet we’ve ever tried.  They are good but no where near as good as the ‘balls’.  I think they just take some getting used to.  The almond pastry has an entirely different taste than butter pastries – they are not as sweet and the flavor is pretty strong.  I like them, but Robert would much rather have my homemade banana walnut raisin bread. 🙂

I can’t wait to see what comes out for Christmas!

Hiking in Madrid – Collado Mediano

Collado Mediano Area Hike and Mountains

After 3 weeks of walking on sidewalks, hearing sirens, seeing mostly buildings, cars and people, and stressing out about finding an apartment, it was time to get out of the city.  I had initially planned on just taking the train up to the mountains when I suddenly stumbled upon a website about Hiking in Madrid.  I hadn’t even thought about hiking here but it turns out there are lots of mountains and river valleys nearby so why not?  It would also be a great way to get some fresh air, meet some more people, and get more comfortable using our great local transportation.

I contacted them to get more information on upcoming hikes and I went to the local bookstore to pick up a copy of their book.  Their Saturday and Sunday hikes both sounded great.  Robert had some work to do on Sunday so we opted for Saturday’s hike.  For 10 euro (plus transportation) we met at the bus station at the pre-arranged time and we were taken to our destination outside the city to hike for 3-4 hours – lunch and a drink afterward are included.  There were 28 people that went that day.  Most of them live in Madrid.  Most of them spoke both Spanish and English.  They were of all ages and from all over.  Someone even brought their dog.  We had people from Israel, Britain, Mexico, Lithuania, the US, and other parts of Spain.

Our Hike Reminded Me a lot of Arizona

This particular hike was about 45 minutes outside the city near the small town of Collado Mediano (which means Middle Valley).  When we arrived in town, we had a 20 minute break to stock up on water, get breakfast, use the bathroom and check out the town before heading out.  The croissants we had was SO good, we should have bought more.

We headed up and out of the village.  There were trails going in every direction (many mountain bike trails), so it was good to have someone point out which way we were suppose to go.  Our hike was pretty much straight up hill to the top.  The rock outcroppings, vegetation and mountains here remind me a LOT of southern Arizona.  It was plenty hot that day too – which also reminding me a lot of Arizona.  Next time we go, I’ll know to bring extra water and another back pack.

View of the valley

We had a great time.  It was exactly what we needed.  Good exercise but very relaxing at the same time.  The views along the way were great.  We could see the world’s largest cross in the Valley of the Fallen off in the distance.  We could see the many surrounding mountains, several reservoirs, and other towns and villages dotting the countryside.  We eventually found a nice shady spot in the pines to have our lunch (which was peanut butter sandwiches, bananas, and chips).  We had lots of interesting conversations that day and met lots of interesting people.  Eventually we headed down the mountain – which was easier.  It was mostly a long winding path back down the side of the mountain we climbed.  There were thunderstorms in the area which cooled the temperature a bit and provided us with much needed cloud cover.

When we returned to Collado Mediano, we had to wait over an hour for the next bus to Madrid.  Which was great actually, because we were thirsty.  And here in Spain there’s nothing better than just sitting outside at one of the local taverns and having some drinks and tapas.  And that’s exactly what we did!

For more pics, just click on the photos.

Croissants!

Largest cross off in the distance

 

Bangkok Mishaps And Onward To Siem Reap

Lizards in the City Park

We had an extra day in Bangkok and we decided to check out more of the city.  What we should have done was just leave a day earlier for Cambodia.  As it turned out, the rest of our time in Bangkok ended up being mostly a series of calamities.  Right from the start we should have known what kind of day it was going to be when we had to wait forever at Starbucks.  After that we walked to Limphini Park where we discovered it was being completely washed down and the lawns were being watered (making it virtually unusable).  Hardly any one was there (which was actually really nice), but all the park benches were wet.  It’s a very nice park with some great views of city, but we couldn’t sit down and enjoy it.  The highlight was when a 4 foot long lizard came out of the pond and stood just a couple feet from Robert.  Robert had no idea it was there since he was totally focused on taking photos.  When he finally did notice the lizard, he jumped 3 feet high and probably almost had a heart attack.  I got a good laugh and he managed to get some good pictures of him.

Siam Shopping District

In the park we were also warned by an off duty officer that we should be careful walking around the city since they had recently released a lot of prisoners (due to the recent flooding).  He mentioned that they were targeting tourists.  That was a comforting thought so off we went to the Siam Shopping District.  This area was as modern and cosmopolitan as it gets.  It ranks right up there with Hong Kong and Singapore in terms of the number of “name dropping” stores.  There were xray machines and security guards at every entrance and exit.  The Christmas decorations outside and inside were very typical of western commercialism (and only briefly interesting to look at).  We tried to “shop” at Central World and the MKB (where they charged us to use the restroom), but we couldn’t think of anything we wanted or needed.  I did walk away with a chocolate croissant that was pretty darn good though. 🙂 Overall, I guess we were lucky we didn’t get thrown in jail that day.  Fortunately we spotted the “no photographs” sign before a police officer spotted us taking indoor photos.

Bored with the shops, we took the BTS back to the river and boarded the ferry to see about getting some lunch in Chinatown.  That turned out to be an incredibly bad idea.  That place was loaded up with people – packed in there like sardines – and we could only move in the direction of the crowd.  We got out of there as fast as we could (which wasn’t very fast), yet it still took us forever to cross the streets and get back to the ferry terminal.  We were hot, frustrated, and hungry so we went back to our nice cool apartment (which we should have never left) and ate some fruit and watched a movie.  The day ended good though, as we went to the very good Italian restaurant we found the night we arrived.  They had awesome pizza and pasta (and of course, wine). 🙂

Arriving in Siem Reap

Arriving in Siem Reap

The next day in Bangkok wasn’t much better.  We checked out at 10am and took a taxi back to the airport. The traffic getting to the airport was horrendous and we had to wait in notoriously long lines at check-in, immigration, and security.  Our flight then ended up being delayed several hours ruining our afternoon plans in Siem Reap.  At least we did eventually take off.  We were thankful to finally be out of Bangkok.  Bangkok was better than we anticipated but not somewhere we’d likely return to.

The flight was very short and our approach into Siem Reap was very interesting.  The last 15 out of 20 minutes, all we could see below us was water everywhere – including under all the trees.  I started wondering if there was flooding here or if this place was like a swamp.  It turns out, we were flying over  Tonle Sap lake (which is huge this time of year).  We landed right before sunset – which was beautiful.  I didn’t know this, but Cambodia is incredibly flat – as far as you can see, a hill there is very rare.  And whereas sunsets are beautiful lots of places, I noticed right away there is something mysterious about this place that makes them magical here.

Cambodian Treats

After deplaning, it took us awhile to get through immigration (even with an e-visa), but it ended up being perfect timing since we had to wait for luggage anyway.  A driver from our hotel was there to pick us up and in 15 minutes we were at our hotel.  I’m not exactly sure what they gave us as our welcome snack and drink…there was a green jello/gummy bear thing and a green drink.  Both were very unique tasting (actually indescribable).  Let’s just say they are not destined to be on a top 10 list anytime soon.  When we checked-in they also set up a guide and driver for us for the next day.  Our hotel had a distinct Cambodian style – lots of wood paneling and statues resembling pieces from Angkor Wat.  After a few drinks in the bar and a wonderful buffet dinner we went up to our room to get some much needed rest anticipating the full day ahead of us.

Click the picture below to see some more interesting photos:

Exploring the Streets of Bangkok

Time to Cook – A Lot of Thai

Our Cooking Class Limo

We both love food and we both love to cook but neither of us had ever been to a cooking class, so we decided to try one.  Chiang Mai must have 50+ cooking schools and it was a great way to spend the day (especially if you like Thai food).  All of the schools were rated highly on Tripadvisor, so it probably didn’t matter which one we actually chose.   In the end, it ended up being a fun and very economical way to spend the day since it went from 8am – 6pm and pretty much included breakfast, lunch and dinner.  We meet some interesting people and we also ate some of the best food we had in Thailand.  Hopefully, our newly acquired knowledge (and the included cookbook) will help us re-create these dishes when we get the urge to eat Thai food again.  The hardest part of making Thai food at home is actually locating all the ingredients that give it that uniquely Thai flavor.

Robert Cooking

We booked our class with A Lot of Thai.  Yui has been teaching these classes for 10 years, and she only teaches 8 people at a time.  We registered for the “Popular” dishes course (which, not surprisingly, included most of our favorites).  We were told not to have breakfast, but we did anyway (there was no way we were passing up that).  Our pick-up was suppose to be at 8:30, but they were running late and didn’t get to us until 8:45.  When the van drove up, we chuckled.  We could tell right away that this was going to be interesting day.

After we picked up one other couple, we arrived at her house by 9am.  The class was actually held in her long covered patio area which was bright, tropical and very homey.  Everything was already set up for us and we each had our own cooking station.  Everyone was introduced and we put our aprons on.  Our class consisted of a couple of bee farmers from Canada, a father and daughter from South Korea, and a young couple from London (he was Indian and she was Swedish).  The first dish we all made was Chicken Pad Thai.  Yui first explained all the ingredients and then she demonstrated how to cook it.  We each got to try what she cooked and then off we went to our stations to replicate it.  As we cooked she walked around and would repeat steps outloud and correct us if we were doing anything wrong (or adjust or stoves if it was too hot/cold).  Our first dish was a success!  After we finished cooking, we’d go back to the little picnic area, eat our creations and talk.  Having lived in Chiang Mai for so long, she was a wealth of information about the city – especially the good restaurants.

Red & Green Curry

The next two dishes we made were Tom Yum Soup and Red/Green Curry.  The soup was incredibly tasty in spite of the fact that it only takes about 15 minutes to make.  There are lots of ingredients in it, but all we really ate was the shrimp and mushrooms and drank the broth.  The rest of the ingredients were mainly for flavor.  If I made it this at home, I’d probably strain the big stuff out right before serving it.

The curry dish was quite involved and had more ingredients than I thought it would.  Robert made the red curry and I made the green curry, this way we could compare.  They were both fantastic with the green curry being a bit more spicy than the red.

After cooking three of the six dishes, Yui took us to the local market.  This was great timing for several reasons.   First, it gave us a break from cooking.  Cooking is hard work, and at times stressful – especially if you are competing with your spouse.   It also gave us time to build our appetites back up.  While the serving sizes we made were very reasonable, rice, noodles, and coconut milk are filling, so a chance to walk around felt good.  Finally, it also helped us learn and remember what we saw at the market.  Since we just used many of the ingredients we could locate a lot of them on our own. The market also gave us an opportunity to purchase hard to find ingredients that we could take home with us.  Yui went over a lot more than just what we just did in class.  We meet several market vendors, had ice coffee made, watched fresh coconut being ground, and so much more!

Yui & Us

After about an hour, we headed back to the house to do our next three dishes: Chicken with Cashew nuts (yum!).  This one was pretty straight forward with no difficult ingredients, so I’m pretty sure we can do this one again.  Our fifth dish was spring rolls (which ended up very crispy – not greasy).  We usually don’t make fried food, but this one seemed pretty healthy the way it was done.  The last dish was  my complete and utter favorite – Mango with Sticky Rice.  And it was SO incredibly delicious, I thought I had died and gone to heaven.  Even without mango this dessert is so good.  I know it sounds like it would be easy to make, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to make it that good again.  The rice she used I’ve only ever seen in Thailand…..but I’m not going to give up, because even so-so versions of this dessert are so worth the effort.

It was 6 o’clock by the time we finished and we were all full.  No one had made plans for dinner – except us.  We had pre-arranged a meeting with friends at 7pm.  We did warn them however, that we probably would not be eating, just drinking – and that’s what we did.  What a great day!

Check out the rest of our pictures by clicking on the photo below:

Day 3 – Thai Cooking Class

Cycling the Hills of Chiang Dao

Banana Pancakes with Mango Gelato

Most people start their vacations by sleeping in…not us.  It was Saturday morning, and we were up at 6am.  Of course it felt more like 8am given the time difference from Japan, so it really wasn’t a big deal.  The sunrise was soooo beautiful, and we had a delicious full buffet breakfast waiting for us.

There was more food in that buffet than was humanly possible to consume: a large selection of fresh fruit & juices, pastries, yogurts, muesli, smoked salmon, cheeses, salads, noodles, soups, breads & jams.  We could also order anything off the hot menu.  We not only tried a bit of everything on the buffet, but we ordered hot meals as well.  Heck, why not, we had an active 9 hours ahead of us.  And I’ve got to say….my banana pancakes with mango gelato were particularly scrumptious.

Biking in the Hills of Chiang Dao

As promised, our bike guide and driver picked us up at 8:15am.  We found out we were the only ones scheduled for today’s trip – which was an added bonus.  We got into the truck and started our 1 1/2 hour drive north.  It took a good 45 minutes to get out of the city, but it was worth the wait to see the beautiful countryside.  The roads became curvy and less crowded and the mountains and hills became more visible.   Eventually we entered a wide river valley and began traveling on small rural roads.  I’m pretty sure I couldn’t find this place on my own.  The last stretch was on a dirt track (with no signs).  We eventually drove thru two large open wooden gates.  Within the walled compound was a beautiful little complex.  I felt like I was in some scene from Romancing the Stone.  There was another group of people (from REI) that had spent several days biking in the area and they were getting ready to leave.  After our quick 15 minute rest stop, we were fitted for our mountain bikes and helmets, grabbed some bottled water, and headed on our way up the dirt road.

Hill Tribe Crafts

Kiki (our guide) lead the way.  She was great.  She’d stop along the way and point out the different types of trees, fruits, nuts, rice, coffee, and plants they grew (which is just about anything you can think of).  We stopped and watched the locals picking, packaging and hunting.  Sometimes we’d stop just to take pictures of the countryside.  In the course of about 2 hours (and 12 km) we also got to ride through and visit 5 different hill tribe villages (Karen, Akkha, Lahu, Lisu and Palong).  These villagers migrated from either Myanmar (Burma), China or Tibet  over 100 years ago and each have their own distinct culture and language.  The women stayed home and watched the kids, while the men went to work in the fields or to hunt.  They shared one vehicle in the village.  The women worked on crafts made of cotton (hats, coin holders, purses, wall hangings), stones/gems (for jewelry) or bamboo (for baskets).  They were always excited to see foreigners and would lay out blankets and display their creations in hopes of making a sale.  Chickens, dogs and pigs roamed freely.  Their houses and possessions were minimal, yet they all seemed content, and it was very clean.  Some of the old women had a very bad habit of chewing on betel nut (a stimulant), and their teeth had become chipped and black.  Actually learning about these people while you meet them was very interesting.

Cutting Bamboo for Baskets

Before we knew it, we were back at the lodge.  It was good timing, because riding on dirt roads without biking shorts and cycling up some good sized hills had started to take it’s toll.  The lodge offered us some soft drinks and a huge spread of food.  While it was all very good and healthy, we were a little disappointed it wasn’t that spicy.  Looking back, however, it was probably not only a good thing, but also intentional – especially since we still had 30 kilometers to go.

We rested for 20 minutes and then restocked our water.  Off we went, this time down the hills and across the valley.  The single dirt track we took was fun.  It had a good bit of sand on it (probably from the recent floods), and we would occasionally get stuck.  We rode through forest, and then past fields and orchards.  Finally we ended up on the rural road from which we could see Doi Chiang Dao mountain in the distance (the third highest mountain in Thailand).  The cave at the base of this mountain was our final destination.

Herbal & Root Medicines

It was pretty warm that afternoon and the sun was pretty intense.  We stopped at a rice “factory” and at a newly planted teak tree plantation for water breaks.  The driver followed us in case we needed a break from riding.  Fortunately, the closer we got to our mountain, the more shade there was.  We made it, but we were both glad to get off the bikes.  Walking around felt good.  There was a large market here which specialized in natural and herbal medicine.  If you had an ailment, they had a fix.  I forgot to ask if they had something for my numb bum.   We ended up not purchasing anything though, since it probably wouldn’t have gotten through customs in Japan.

Buddha in the Cave

We walked around the place to stretch our legs, take pictures of all the cool stuff, and cool off before we went inside the cave.  It was similar to other caves – except for the religious statues, articles and decorations scattered throughout.  There are supposedly 5 interconnected caves (at various levels) believed to stretch some 12 km under the mountain, but tourists usually only see the first 1km – which, quite frankly, is enough.  It’s humid and damp and some areas are pitch black.  We went as far as we could without lanterns and a cave guide.  At the end of the lighted area, there is an imprint on the wall of the royal emblem – the King and Queen paid a visit here in the ’60’s and someone left their mark.

It was now time to head back to Chiang Mai.  We were back at our hotel by 5:30.  A nice long shower and a short walk to dinner was the only thing on our mind.  What a great first day.  We packed a ton of stuff in and we knew we’d sleep great.  We were also looking forward to a leisurely day exploring the Old City tomorrow – if we could still move in the morning. 🙂

We took over 150 pictures that day.  Check them out on our picassa website:

Day 1 – Biking in Chiang Dao

Taketomi Island and the Traditional Ryukyu Village

A shiza in front of every building...

A shiza in front of every building…

Our first island trip from Ishigaki was Taketomi island.  It is a small, circular, flat island that most people either walk or bike around when they visit.  It also happens to be the most popular day trip from Ishigaki.  The ferry only takes 10-15 minutes to get there, and they come and go every 30-40 minutes, so odds are we weren’t gonna miss the last one and be stuck on the island overnight (unless, of course, it was cancelled due to weather).

It was a good day to test my tolerance for ferry travel. Iriomote would be 35-40 minutes on a ferry, so if I couldn’t handle this one, I knew I’d be in trouble.  It was a fairly windy day, and the captain warned us it would be a bumpy ride (we could tell by the use of his hands, not by what he said), and he was right.  However, the ferry went pretty fast so even though it was bumpy,  it wasn’t a tossy-turvy make-you-sick motion.

We arrived safely at the ferry terminal (which has a great view of Ishigaki Island and the city), and we started walking toward the village.  It only takes about 10 minutes to get to the center of town.  Taketomi is well known as as a well preserved, traditional Ryukyu style village.  There are less than 400 people that live here.  The weathered-wood houses are all one story, with red tile roofs, rock walls, sandy streets and lion-like statues (shiza) at either their entrance or on their rooftop (which they believe will ward off evil spirits).  Preservation efforts are in place to keep this village exactly like this, which is great, because it is so unique and interesting.  By going here first, it helped me notice the traditional houses on the other islands (which were very few and far between).  I really loved this island – especially all of the different shizas, the flowers, and butterflies.

Single Story, Red Tile Roof, Sandy Streets

Taketomi Tradition Ryukyu House

Some of the houses in the village are actually minshuku in which you can stay overnight at (if you know Japanese well enough to make a reservation).  I would have loved to do that.  Other houses in the village contain shops or restaurants, but it’s hard to tell the difference between them, since all the houses look alike.  We wondered around leisurely, admiring the quaintness of the place.  It wasn’t very crowded, and at times, it almost felt like we had the whole place to ourselves.  We saw the school and post office, the Nagaminoto  tower (which we didn’t climb), and the water buffalo cart man who was trying to strum up some business (and he did!).  We also saw lots of cats, including one that got caught drinking out of someone’s noodle bowl – the waiter was not very happy with him.  We had lunch at a pretty big place with a beautiful wood interior (it had lots of customers which is always a good sign). I ordered the Ishigaki Beef burger which was delicious and Robert got the pork cutlet which was also very tasty.  It came with salad, macaroni, and some yummy pickled vegetables.

With a happy tummy, we went off in search of the beaches.  We arrived at the West Pier in about 10 minutes – which had a great view of the other islands.  We walked along the dried black coral shoreline until we got to Kondoi Beach.  The beaches here are white, but they have lots of little dead coral pieces mixed in, so I’m not sure I’d want to walk barefoot on them.  The water is crystal clear and the colors range from light blue to turquoise.  If we had more time, I could have easily spent a couple hours here.  Our next stop was Kaiji Beach which is one of only two beaches that have star-shaped sand.  Several small tour buses were stopped here.  Robert tried to find some star sand but he gave up pretty quickly.  At the little make-shift stall on the beach, we looked through a magnify glass and sure enough it’s true – there is such a thing as star-shaped sand.  They were selling some in a bottle there, so I just had to get me one.

Star Shaped Sand as soon through Magnify Glass

Star Shaped Sand

We had successfully done everything we wanted to do on this island, but looking at our map, I realized we were now on the opposite side of the island and at the furthest point away from the ferry.  We still had plenty of time, so we took the back roads to the ferry terminal.  Fortunately, the weather continued to cooperate and we made our way safely back to Ishigaki.

That night we had dinner in town at a local place called Hitoshi.  They actually have two locations in town.  I had read about it on the internet and it was # 1 on Tripadvisor.  The menu was entirely in Japanese, but fortunately a wonderful woman working there, spoke some English and helped us order their best dishes.  They specialize in tuna and it was by far the best tuna I’ve had since being in Japan.  They also make this homemade tofu with a sticky peanut sauce that is out of this world.  I think Robert would fly all the way back there just for that.  It ended up being a perfect ending to a perfect day.

Ishigaki: Visiting Some Okinawa Islands

View of Kabira Bay

Kabira Bay

We decided to go to the southern most part of Japan (Okinawa) for our Thanksgiving Break.  We heard it was very different from the rest of Japan and indeed it is.  The islands definitely have their own distinct culture and a very different history than the main islands of Japan.

There are actually more than 100 islands stretching some 600 miles from the southern part of Kyushu down to Taiwan and all of these islands use to be part of the independent Ryukyu Kingdom.  Some island groups have their own language – 6 different languages in total (which are slowly being phased out due to the national education system).  Japan started invading and occupying the islands in the early 1600’s, – they weren’t officially annexed by Japan until 1879.  Until then, the Ryuku kings paid tribute to both the Japanese Shogun and the Chinese Emperor.  The islands were deeply effected by WWII and were also influenced by the Americans (due to US military control of the area until 1972).

The subtropical location of the islands make them look like a cross between Florida and Hawaii.  They are completely surrounded by beautiful coral reefs which make them a very popular diving and snorkeling destination.  Driving around the towns and looking at the buildings, it is obvious that this is the poorest prefecture in Japan (I’m sure the weather doesn’t help the appearance of things either).  The locals look different than the Northern Japanese and they have a much more casual and relaxed demeanor.   The local folk music sounds more Hawaiian and their instrument, the sanshin looks a lot like a ukelele.  They also eat more beef and like their food spicier.

Dinner

Sashimi & Peanut Tofu

We stayed at the ANA Intercontinental Hotel (highly recommended) which is about 6 km outside the city of Ishigaki.  We loved their pool and spa, and especially liked the little contraption that would dry our swimsuits out for us.  Their concierge desk was extremely helpful with making dinner reservations and planning our big excursion to Iriomote.  The city of Ishigaki isn’t beautiful, but it has lots of character and wonderful restaurants.   There are even enough shops to easily occupy a full day.  All the meals we ate in Ishigaki were fantastic including their famous soba noodles (which we had downtown at the little Okinawan hut which was full of business men and a big group of local woman planning some event).  The taco rice, seafood salad, ishigaki beef, and sushi/sashimi (especially the tuna) were fantastic too.  Two of our favorite dishes, which we never had before, were peanut tofu and sea grapes.  We also had some of the best Chinese food we ever had one night at our hotel (we had to book it two days in advance to even eat there).  The town really comes alive at night and you MUST make reservations at the restaurants (even in the off-season) or you’ll be turned away.  We really enjoyed their local beer (Orion) and even tried a couple different Amawori (the local distilled liquor made from rice).  We also liked all their speciality desserts we tried (too many to list).

Shopping

An Ishigaki City Shop

One day of our trip was devoted to just exploring Ishigaki island rather than visiting one of the other islands.  As it turns out, there were lots of little hidden gems here too.  We traveled along the west coast of the island to visit both Sukuji beach and Kabira Bay.  Kabira Bay is known for cultivating black pearls.  It was by far the prettiest beach we saw on the island, but unfortunately you can’t swim there. The associated town is not very big.  In fact, the whole area once you leave the city is very sparsely populated, full of lush vegetation, mountains and streams.  It would be very easy to get away from it all if you stayed at one of the hotels out this way.  It really has a lot to do if you are an outdoors/beach person.  In route that day around the island, we also saw Tourinji Temple, Gongendo Shrine, the Toujin Grave, and the Wetland Wild Life Refuge.  If we had more time, we would have liked to see more of the island and it’s beaches, do some snorkeling, and hike up Mt Omoto.

The Okinawan islands are actually very easy to get to from Fukuoka and makes for a nice getaway.  Each island we visited (Ishigaki, Taketomi, and Iriomote) was rewarding and different in it’s own way.  It makes me want to visit all the islands….but that would take quite a long time. 🙂