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

Wats in the Old City of Chiang Mai

East Gate

Sunday we decided to spend the day in the Old City of Chiang Mai.  The whole city of Chiang Mai has some 300+ Wats (temples), and we wanted to see some of the oldest and most popular ones.  We were a little sore from biking, so we figured walking would be a great way to loosen up our muscles.  We did take our time getting ready and enjoying another delicious breakfast though (this time I had the French toast with Strawberry cream – yum!).  We then slapped on the sunscreen and headed out.  All we had for navigating the town was a small map from the concierge.  There wasn’t much detail on it, so hopefully we’d be able to find all the places we intended to visit.

Very early on in the day we ran into a postman who was really excited to see us.  He wouldn’t stop talking about everything to see in his city.  He asked for my map and he highlighted the “must do’s” (which we already planned).  He also warned us not to go to any tailors.  We thanked him and moved on.  There were wats every couple of blocks on the main street into the city and we kept getting side tracked because each one is so interesting.  One we visited had a Donald Duck statue in it and a woman trying to sell us caged birds so we could set them free.  Chiang Mai was full of bizarre little things like that.  We eventually made it to the East Gate.

Wat Chiang Man

The East Gate (Thapae) is the main gate into the old city.  The old city is over 700 years old, and was once entirely surrounded by brick walls and surrounded by a moat.  In the middle of each walled side was a gate.  Parts of the wall still remain, and so does the entire moat (which is now like a park surrounding the Old City).  It’s fun to imagine what it must have been like before this big city surrounded it.  When we got inside, I almost wish we didn’t have a plan, because there were shops, cafes, restaurants, cooking schools, little alleys, and all sorts of other wonderful distractions we could have spent days exploring – oh well, maybe another time.

The first Wat we wanted to find was Wat Chiang Man, the oldest temple in Chiang Mai (built around 1270).  It served as a camp for the King while they built the city.  The wat’s grounds were pleasantly quiet and uncrowded…it felt more like a little community park.  The structures weren’t overly ornate and the buildings were simple and not very big.  The best part was the “elephant chedi” which was in the very center.  The base was constructed with the front halves of full size elephant statues all the way around.  And the murals inside the wihan (shrine hall) were also very attractive.  We saw lots of dogs and cats wondering around the grounds here as well – and people reading.  We tried to sneak out of this complex to avoid the tuk tuk driver who caught us when we first came in.  He begged us to let him take us to the wats in town, even though we told him we wanted to walk.  After a few minutes we just left, telling him we’d meet him later (which we never did).

We continued on our way through the old city to the North Gate (Puerk) – probably the most attractive entrance into the old city.  It had a set of topiary elephants to great everyone and fountains in the moats.  We then headed back to the city center.  We stopped briefly at the square in the center of the city where the Monument of the 3 Kings stands (it is devoted to the 3 Kings that were responsible for building the city).  We took a right down the main street to the west side and Wat Phra Singh.  This wat was like the “wat cathedral” –  it’s a very large complex, with lots of big buildings and it was very busy.  It’s one of the largest wats in Chiang Mai and it’s been restored several times.  While impressive in it’s size, it lacked in personality.  The highlight of this complex was Ho Trai (the temple library) and Wihan Lai Kham – because of their classic Lanna style architecture and the building details both inside and out.

Wat Luang

After a short break, we headed toward the West Gate (Suan Dok).  We walked all the way along the moat until we got to the South Wall.  As soon as we could see the southern gate we slowly made our way back into the city center.  We only got side tracked once (a small local wat – which was a good find).   The last wat on our list, Wat Luang was next.  Even though it was a large wat, it wasn’t busy.  We went inside and checked out the towering gold buddha and his extravagant alter and then headed out the side.  Expecting to see similar buildings as before, we weren’t prepared for the huge, beautiful, old and damaged chedi standing in front of us…what a sight!  Guess we managed to save the best for last.  The courtyard around this chedi was the main focal point of Wat Luang.  We spent a lot of time slowly going around it, relaxing on the benches in the shade admiring it’s size and details (it use to be 270 feet tall – and is slowly being restored).  There was also a huge tree near the small but very intricate city pillar.  Legend has it that as long as this tree stands, Chiang Mai will be protected.  By 2pm, it was getting warm, and we were getting tired, so we relaxed a bit before heading back to our hotel for a quick siesta.

Sunday Market

On the way back to the hotel, we noticed they were already setting up for tonight and we could tell it was going to be huge.  The famous Sunday market was tonight, and we were not going to miss it.  I’m glad we had a couple hours to rest up before it started.  We were told to get there early – to beat the crowds.

We got there about 5pm.  The traffic was horrendous – we almost couldn’t get across the street.  The market was huge.  It actually started several blocks outside the Gate…and then went on for nearly a kilometer on the inside.  It branched off down side streets and into the wats.  There were food courts, areas set up for foot message, areas for entertainment.   And the variety of arts and crafts for sale was incredible.  You have to see all the pictures to believe it.  All the food looked awesome…we snacked on a few things while we walked through it all.  We tried a soft chicken taco (thai style), some homemade vanilla ice cream, and of course, the pad thai.

We noticed that the quality of the products seemed to decline the further we went.  And, as it got darker, the crowds grew to the point where it was hard to walk as well as shop.  When things get that busy, we tend to leave, so we decided to head out of the city and down to the river to find somewhere to relax and have a nice drink and another bite to eat.  We came upon a place called Deck 1 which was new and very modern looking.  They sat us on these nice, big, soft cushions on their deck overlooking the river.  It was so nice and quiet and the mojito I had was SO good.  It ended up being exactly what we needed – and a great way to wind down our day.  🙂  All the day’s pictures are here:

Day 2 – Exploring Old Town Chiang Mai

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

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. 🙂

Sisters’ Visit: Takeo and Nagasaki

Japanese Dinner

Our Japanese Dinner

We arrived at our Japanese Hotel later than we probably should have for check in.  It was 6pm, but the staff was extremely gracious and they were more than happy to accommodate our request for a 7:30 dinner.  After some tea and treats in the lobby (which are usually served in the room), they showed us to our tatami room where we unpacked and relaxed while having a few drinks.  I’m sure they giggled when they saw that we brought our own pillows (sorry, we are just not fans of those buckwheat pillows).  Since it was already pretty late, we didn’t have time for the onsen, but we put our yakatas on anyway.  It wasn’t long before our dinner server was there loading up our table with TONS of food: soups, appetizers, sushi, sashimi, and all the makings for shabu, shabu.  I ate everything, it was fantastic (especially the shabu, shabu).  I really thought we were done, but then she arrived with grilled fish, fried fish, more soups and sides, and some mixture to help congeal the remaining shabu shabu broth.  As full as we all were, we tried a little bit of everything, but there was no way we could finish it all.  Finally she came by one more time with dessert – a crepe filled with cream, strawberries and kiwi.  There was no way I wasn’t going to eat that though.  YUM!  Immediately after dinner they cleaned everything up and laid out the futons.  We had internet access finally, so we Skyped our families and then went to bed to the sound of rain.

Azalea Heaven

Amazing Azalea Garden

Morning arrived in a blink.  We headed downstairs for breakfast.  It was hard to imagine eating breakfast since it literally felt like I just had dinner.  We were wondering how they can eat so much food and still stay thin.  Our Japanese breakfast consisted of lots of little bite-sized dishes, some rice, egg, nori, fruit and yogurt and a little grill to grill your own fish.   Surprisingly we were able to eat quite a bit.  This place must have the world’s smallest coffee cups…like from a child’s play tea set.

Immediately after breakfast, we headed outside for the garden next to the hotel, since the entry fee was included in the room price.  The rain had finally stopped, but we took our umbrellas with us just in case.  We walked down the hill and through the big entry gate.  I immediately knew I was going to like this place.  I’m sure this place is beautiful in full sun, but with the low clouds and everything still wet it was quite magical.  I kept thinking how beautiful this place would be in the fall too.  In the distance I could see some wisteria as we walked along the edge of the little lake.  We eventually made our way to the crown center of the garden.  At the foot of this granite mountain was something that looked like it came out of a children’s story book….there were hundreds of azalea bushes of every color everywhere – like little mounds of ice cream.  We all felt giddy, totally amazed by the sight in front of us.  We almost got lost in there and we couldn’t stop snapping pictures.  Before exiting we had to pass the wisteria and, though not in full bloom, it was so beautiful and smelled so good I didn’t want to leave.  We all love gardens, and this was one of the loveliest we’ve ever seen.

Dejima

Visiting Dejima

We headed back up to the hill and after a quick photo of all us in front of our hotel, we were on the road to Nagasaki.  It was an interesting drive, because we went through more tunnels than I ever imagined there could be in one place.  At least half the distance to Nagasaki was tunnels…huge, long tunnels.  Even our final approach into downtown was a long tunnel.  After that last tunnel, we literally only had to drive for two kilometers through the city before we reached our hotel.  It was only 11am, and we couldn’t check in until 2pm, but they held onto our bags while we went out to explore the city.  Robert met up with us at the hotel…he got there about 10 minutes before us.  We all hopped on a street car to nearly the last stop on that line and just started walking up and down (and up and down) all the streets.  Our goal was to stop at all the places highlighted on our bare bones map (it’s amazing we found anything).  All the steep hills reminded us a little of San Francisco.

Our first stop was where the first Catholic Church was built in Japan….it’s now a temple.  We ended up walking through several shrines and temples.  We eventually found the main walking street (which was pretty quiet on a Sunday).  It was around here we shopped in a few antique stores and had lunch (steamed eel) at a little local restaurant.  After visiting the Spectacles Bridge, Shianbashi street, and Chinatown, we headed for the wharf area and had some drinks to relax.  A little before 7pm, we had our free taxi ride up to Inasayama for the night view of Nagasaki.  Even though it was a little hazy, it was still an amazing view.

Dontaku Parade Performers

Dontaku Festival Parade

The next morning, Robert left to go back to Fukuoka right after breakfast, and us girls went out to find Oura Church, Glover Gardens, Holland Street, the Western Home sites and, of course, do some more shopping.  While the Japanese seemed really interested in all the ‘western’ stuff, we weren’t (we see this all the time), so we headed back down to the wharf area to check out Dejima.  This turned out to be a really interesting place – about a very important part of Japan’s history.  While just a replica of the island village that once stood in the same exact location, it is extremely well done.  The village itself used to be an island in the harbor, but with all the land reclamation projects it is now in the city along one of the canals.  Much of Japan’s modern history started on that little island, and we all found it quite fascinating.  This is a must visit for anyone interested in Japan opening it’s doors to world commerce.

It was now late afternoon, so we headed back to Fukuoka, and that is were we spent our last day together.  We had dinner at a Korean BBQ restaurant, went downtown to do some shopping, ate some more food at the stalls in the park, and watched some of the Dontaku Festival.  Before we knew it, it was time to pack up and head for the airport.  🙁   I guess all good things do have to come to an end.

Thailand – Spring Break

Happy Hour

World’s Best Happy Hour

Robert & I are back from Thailand.  We had a completely lazy vacation (well, almost) with LOTS of food and drink.  We flew Thai airways to Bangkok and had a quick connection to Krabi where we were met by the hotel driver who whisked us to our resort about 45 minutes away.  It had just finished raining and the sun was setting so were were lucky to catch a few glimpses of the tropical area before nightfall.  Once we got out of the ‘city’, we saw lots of cliff-like mountains rising straight up out of the jungle.  We saw lots of palm trees (for palm oil) and rubber trees (yes, for rubber).  We even passed some elephants.  At one point Robert was beginning to wonder if our hotel actually existed…since we just kept getting farther from civilization.  We arrived at the hotel around 7pm and had our welcome drinks and a tour of the grounds.  We took a quick dip in the pool and were eating dinner by 8:30.

The resort was great.  The view was spectacular – it was like being in a postcard, especially during sunset.  Combine the view with live music and half-priced drinks and there was no way were going anywhere else in the evenings.  We could (and did) take tons of sunset pictures.  The service was amazing and the food was very good.  The Thai set meal we had was fantastic and the khao niaow ma muang (mango with sticky rice) dessert was awesome!  Robert loved the “drunken-style” noodles, and I couldn’t get enough of the curry dishes.

Dinner

Delicious Thai Dinners

Breakfast was included and we could have anything we wanted.  There was a soup table, a pastry table, a fruit table, a cereal table, a manned station for eggs, waffles and roti (thai-style pancakes), and a huge buffet station with potatoes, sausages, bacon, cooked veggies and a few Thai rice and noodle dishes to choose from.  We ate so much for breakfast that we were never hungry for lunch.  Almost every day we’d walk on the beach then hang out at the pool (or on the beach), read our books, maybe get a message (or two).  There were bikes and kayaks to use. We took a walk down to the end of the road where the National Park was and found a trail (which we never took, because Robert found out there are King Cobras in the jungle.  I’m not sure I really wanted to encounter any of their large (meter sized) lizards either).

As content as we were, curiosity got the best of us halfway through our stay, so we took a speed boat to the island of Koh Phi Phi.  It was another absolutely beautiful, sunny, and calm day – perfect for cruising around the Andaman sea and admiring all the little islands.  We loved that part.  We first went to Phi Phi Ley arriving at Maya bay (where “The Beach” was filmed) very early before the crowds arrived.  We walked around taking pictures and walked to the other side of the island as well.  By the time we were leaving, it was getting obnoxiously crowded so our captain took us to see Pi Ley (a shallow fjord like area, well protected from the sea).

Maya Bay

Phi Phi Ley

The colors in the limestone cliffs, mixed with the turquoise water was really amazing.  We then went to view the Viking Cave which houses a family armed with guns to protect the swallow bird nests inside (since they are a delicatessen worthy of stealing we were told).  From our distance, we couldn’t see any nests or swallows, but there sure were tons of little tropical fish everywhere.  We soon moved on to Phi Phi Don where we stopped to do some snorkeling and then anchored ashore for some lunch and shopping.  We both could imagine that Phi Phi was once incredibly beautiful – before it was exploited with all the tourism.  The amount of people and trash that has accumulated on these islands was heartbreaking to see.  It really made us appreciate even more where we were staying.  After lunch we were off to a quiet snorkeling spot near Mosquito Island and then to Bamboo Island just to relax (Robert napped on the beach).  From our vantage point on the beach we could watch sailboats in the distance and the afternoon thunderstorms building in the east.  We raced back to the mainland fortunately making it back before the rain.

Massage at the Beach

Massages at the Beach

One afternoon it was overcast so we decided to spend the afternoon in the nearest town, Ao Nang, which was 20 minutes away by taxi. We walked up and down the streets which were lined with street vendors, shops, restaurants, bars, tailors, and other tourist attractions.  Fortunately, it wasn’t anywhere near as crowded or dirty at Phi Phi.  We then followed the beach to the end past several dozen massage tents to a shrine area, a mountain creek, and LOTS of monkeys.  We eventually made our way back to the street vendors and ordered a banana roti (yum!) then moved on to get some drinks and an appetizer since it was getting late and a thunderstorm was fixin’ to let loose. We always looked forward to those afternoon/evening storms since it really cooled the temperature down.

Overall, we had an awesome time and would stay at our resort again if we ever found ourselves in this area.  We will especially remember all the beautiful plants and flowers, all the jungle sounds (bugs, birds, frogs and monkeys), the tasty food and fruit (especially the bananas and pineapple), and of course, the wonderful Thai people.

Fukuoka’s Central Fish Market

Fresh Fish

LOTS of Fresh Fish

Rose and I decided to check out the Central Fish Market this morning.  It is only open to the general public one Saturday a month and today was the day.  We wanted to get there early so we could see the “best fish”.  But, I must admit, we really had not put much thought into the idea of actually buying fish.  Seriously, how would we get it home and where would we put it?  We got off the subway at Akasaka station and headed north.  As we made our way along the 3-4 blocks to the market we quickly realized that we did not have all of the required equipment.  People were heading to/from the market pulling along their wheeled luggage.  The bags being pulled by people coming from the market all had the tails of fish sticking out of them…and who knows what else was on the inside.  I suspect that these once used pieces of luggage have become special-purpose fish toting equipment.  Could you really imagine packing one of these bags full of your “finest” clothes after it had been stuffed full with fresh fish?  I don’t think so.

Restaurant on Walk Home

Cool Seafood Restaurant near Fish Market

We made it to the market and just sort of followed the crowd to get to the right building.  It reminded me of the farmer’s market in Georgia that we would go to about once a month as a child. Except, instead of fresh vegetables and fruit (okra and peaches) the market here is focused on fresh seafood (tuna, flounder, crab, shrimp…).  A couple of the vendors at the stalls tried to get us to buy things – although I think they were more focused on entertaining themselves (and us) by making fun of the gaijin who could not speak Japanese – in a fun-loving way.  However, we did get to watch a live lesson on filleting a fish – picture the guy at Costco with the juice machine – it didn’t look too hard, I need to give it a try.

We left the market and continued a LONG walk to Tenjin and then all the way back through Ohori-koen to catch the subway back home.  Also, on our walk to Tenjin from the market, we saw a cool looking seafood restaurant that we definitely have to go back and try when it is open (it was 10am and Rose refused to eat seafood for breakfast).  If you are interested in going, let us know…of course, this is directed at those in Fukuoka.

I would definitely recommend taking a trip to the Central Fish Market if you find yourself in Fukuoka on that one day a month when it is open to us common folk. And don’t forget to bring your suitcase!

Exploring Downtown Hakata

Enoteca Wine Shop

Wine at the Enoteca

A couple of weeks ago we took the subway to the Hakata area of downtown to check out the Kawabata Shopping Arcade, Kushida Shrine, and some temples we missed the last time we were there. Hakata is a suburb of Fukuoka, but it used to be a separate city.  A river runs through the center of downtown, and Hakata is basically on the east side, whereas Fukuoka is on the west side.

My favorite find of the day was the Enoteca in the basement of Eeny Meeny Miny Mo (yes, there is actually a department store with that name).  It has a great selection of French and Italian wines.  Had it not been 10 o’clock in the morning and our first stop, we probably would have depleted our savings there.  We weren’t going to tote around wine all day, so we passed on any purchases, but at least I know where it is.

Finally made it to the shrine...what a relief!

Interesting Fountain at Kushida Shrine

We crossed over the street and walked through the covered shopping arcade glancing in all the shops.  This is the oldest shopping area in the city.  There is a good variety of merchandise in there as well as some yummy food stalls.  I’ll have to come back some rainy day to do some damage shopping.   At the end of this street was an entrance to Kushida Shrine (which was founded in 757 when Hakata was designated as the base of trade between China and Japan).  On the grounds is a gigantic ginkgo tree (which is so large it is has several supports holding it up).  It is believed to be about 1,000 years old.  I like how some of these really old shires have an eery feeling about them, and I enjoy reading about their history and seeing all the artifacts associated with them.  I think that is why I don’t tire of visiting them.  There were lots of interesting things to see here, but Robert was especially amused by the fountain of the little boy peeing.

Shofukuji Temple

Shofukuji Temple Grounds

Next, we were off to find the ‘grove of temples’.  It’s actually called the Teramachi Area on my Fukuoka Now map.  It was about a 10 minute walk through a fairly busy part of the city, but once we got back there, the streets were narrow and it was exceptionally quiet.  The first temple we came to was Shofukuji Temple, which is Japan’s oldest Zen temple and the place where tea was first introduced in Japan.  The old twisty pines were kind of cool, but I was a bit disappointed that the actual temple was not open to the public.  The second temple, Tochoji Temple, houses the largest sitting statue of Buddha made out of wood (40 feet tall).  We couldn’t take a picture of it (as photos are prohibited),  but it was worth the visit.  The third temple, Jotenji,  is the birthplace of udon and soba noodles.  We never made it to Jotenji because (ironically) we were starving and thus headed back into town to get a bite to eat (and buy lots of those macaroons Robert fell in love with the last time we were there).  Those macaroons by the way…are long gone. : (

Last Days in Hong Kong

I’m sitting here in the Taipei airport waiting for our connecting flight, so I have a few minutes to wrap up our trip to Hong Kong.  While we really enjoyed the city, we prefer Fukuoka, and we are ready to get back home.

Hong Kong Day 3

View of Hong Kong Island from Kowloon

It was hot and very sunny in Hong Kong yesterday.  Since China Airlines confiscated my little bottle of sun screen, I was trying to dodge the sun as best I could most of the day, so I took the subway across the causeway to Kowloon rather than the highly recommended Star Ferry.  This ‘other side’ of the city has a totally different feel to it than the island.  It’s not nearly as easy to navigate and they have annoying street hawkers.  I walked around the same block twice, before I realized the only way to cross the main street was underground.

Bird Vendors

Bird Vendor

After finally getting to the piers, I watched the ferries arrive, and then walked along the covered part of the promenade which presented another beautiful view of the city.  I made a quick visit to the art museum, and then finished walking down the ‘Avenue of the Stars’ which is China’s equivalent of Hollywood Blvd.  It has the names of all their movie stars on it, as well as some statues, and corny Kodak picture spots…the Chinese tourists seem to love it though.

I then headed back into the heart of the city (where I could be in the shade of the high rises) and made my way down Nathan Road (the widest road in Hong Kong), which happens to be lined with, believe it or not, more shops.  I made a detour through a crowded park, passed a huge mosque, and then headed farther down Nathan Road toward Temple Market (which I purposely skipped since it’s a night market).  It was here that the scenery began changing.  There were swarms of people everywhere, lots of worn down buildings with signs in Chinese, and lots of exhaust, horns blowing, and people smoking.  The side streets became far more interesting to look down (sometimes scary looking).  I started questioning if I really should be venturing out here by myself.  Occasionally, I would see some other foreigners and an English sign which helped assure me that I wasn’t lost.

Charcoal Roasted Everything

Charcoal Roasted Everything

I came upon a popular local temple (Tin Hau) and decided to checked it out (I confess, I like the dizzy feeling I get when I’m in there).  I decided to hang out here in their community courtyard for awhile and take a rest, drink some water, watch the elder Chinese men play some chip game at their tables and review my map for the next part of my journey.  I finally felt brave enough to venture into the ‘scary’ part of town where I found the dried food vendors, ‘butchers’, and fish markets.  It wasn’t far from there that I found the Jade Market (more of a bazaar really), which I really enjoyed browsing through.  I’m not sure why some of the vendors don’t post prices – at least on some things -they’d probably get more sales (at least from me).

After walking several more blocks down Nathan street, I found the Ladies Market where I came upon even more stalls selling handbags, baby clothes, jewelry, etc.  I was still very hot and thirsty, so I treated myself to a nice cold iced mocha from Starbucks (truly an oasis in the middle of the dessert).  The sellers in this particular market were pretty aggressive, so I went through there as quickly as I could…which was not an easy thing to do.  This whole section of the city is filled with streets that specialize in one thing.  I decided to skip the electronics market street, and instead I headed for the goldfish market street (which ended up being several blocks of pet stores as well as aquariums.  That area did not smell very good, so I wasn’t too tempted to buy any cute fury animals.  Finally, I arrived upon my favorite two streets…the Flower Market (which smelled so good and I wanted to buy one of everything they were selling), and the Bird Street Market (which was highly entertaining).  At times I felt pretty sorry for the birds, but it appears the Chinese love their birds as much as the Japanese love their dogs.  Some vendors even had their birds do tricks or talk or sing.  It actually was a pleasant way to end to my very interesting day.

Hong Kong Day 3, Flower Market

Hong Kong Flower Market

I hopped on the closest subway train I could find and beat Robert to the hotel by a mere 15 minutes.  We ended up going back to the Soho area for dinner.  Oddly enough we noticed large groups of women hanging out on the sidewalks playing cards, talking and just camping out…this went on continuously for at least a mile (I kid you not).  We thought they were waiting in line for some tickets to see Brad Pitt or something, but we were informed at dinner that all the ‘domestic helpers’ in the city do this every Sunday as a way of socializing.  That’s great, but why on the sidewalk?…why not in the park?

Today we slept in…knowing a full day of traveling was in store for us.  We made it home safely with no complications (other than having our cookies and candies X-rayed in Fukuoka when we arrived).  Robert almost lost his patience…he tends to get that way when he is tired.  So, sorry FIS faculty and staff…the odds of us bringing back any treats from our future travels is now very low.

Hong Kong Day One

Day 1 in Hong Kong

Water Fountain in front of Former Supreme Court Bldg

I’m SO glad Typhoon Megi decided to vacation near Taiwan rather than Hong Kong….I really didn’t want to spend the next three days inside my hotel or in shopping malls.  Fortunately, the weather ended up being perfect.

Hong Kong feels like a San Francisco that’s being swallowed by ‘China Town’.  There is no apparent language barrier here…everyone seems to know English.  It’s very well organized and has a great and inexpensive subway system which I came to know intimately.  I spent my first day exploring from Hong Kong Central to the Western Market.  I would have preferred to explore everything with Robert, but unfortunately he was stuck in a classroom from 8:00 to 5:00…so he had to experience my day (and most of Hong Kong) through pictures.

The first half of my first day took me through the British historic areas of downtown.  It was odd to see small colonial buildings lost among all the steel and glass of modern day skyscrapers.  Times sure have changed.  With a little imagination, you could picture what it was once like.  I really enjoyed visiting St John’s cathedral (a very tiny cathedral with ceiling fans!) which is thought to be the oldest Anglican church in the Far East).  And not far from there, was the Government house and the Botanical Gardens filled with beautiful tropical vegetation and orchids.

Day 1 in Hong Kong

An Antique Market in Hong Kong

After such a relaxing and civilized morning, I was ready to take on the commercial markets.  Hong Kong has an insane amount of high end shops (most of which seem to have no patrons), and then sandwiched on small alleys between these buildings which house the shops for Versace, Valentino and Tiffany’s are street vendors in make-shift stalls repairing shoes, and selling costume jewelry, handbags, and cheap knockoffs.

The further East I went, the more exotic the shops got.  There were whole streets dedicated to dried/preserved items…including seafood, mushrooms, flowers, roots, bark, snake skins, and ‘herbal medicines’.  I can only imagine what eventually becomes of this stuff, and I’m not sure I want to find out.   I finally came upon the antique district where there were hundreds of dealers with a huge array of artifacts from jade and carved ivory to gourds and old war propaganda posters.  I’m a sucker for all things old and I would have loved to spend more time here searching for a treasure to bring back, but I really needed to be heading back, so on I went.

My last stop for the day was Man Ho Temple (the oldest temple in Hong Kong).  I passed on the palm reading, but I did go inside to view the large incense spirals hanging from the ceiling (that stuff makes me dizzy), and then I watched a few women bang the gong and burn their prayers in the big fire pit outside (sending their prayers to the spirit world).  On my way back, fortunately I discovered the Central-Mid-Level Escalators…after walking all day my legs were numb – and those moving sidewalks were a godsend!

The old Man Ho Temple in Downtown Hong Kong

When Robert returned from his training, we both headed for the SoHo area (stands for South of Hollywood).  There were numerous bars and restaurants in this area for us to choose from.  We decided on a small Italian place on one of the back roads to have our dinner.  It was an extremely relaxing evening with great food and wine.  It was exactly what we both needed.  The owner and staff were fantastic and very generous.  Neither one of us really wanted to leave, but all good things must end.  On the way back we checked out the IFC mall and walked down to the Harbor area to check out the city lights.  By the time we returned to the hotel we were both exhausted, but excited about what the next couple nights would have in store.