Thursday, March 29, 2012

Getting "Angkored"

Getting through customs in Cambodia is a breeze.  We filed for the visa online, waited briefly in-line, let them take our fingerprints (all 10 of them!) & away we went.  If only Vietnam reflected this efficiency a little bit…but that's another story.

We had only two days to visit the temples in and around Angkor Wat (late 11C). Space wise they span 81 hectares.  In years they span about 12 centuries, but we focused on 10-12C. (When we have time, we'll update this with more details on the vast complex of temples.) The visit started out with an elephant ride around Bayon Temple (late 12C).  The Leper King Terrace (1190-1210; faced with deeply carved  bas-reliefs inside & out depicting multiple-headed serpents, garudas, giants, gods, and dancers; many theories abound re why the name, so don't ask…)  It rained through lunch and off & on later.  Much of this was spent undercover in Angkor Thom (12th century) where we climbed to the highest level and entered "heaven".

Day 2 we visited Banteay Srei temple (10th c), regarded as the jewel in the crown of Classical Khmer Art with good reason.  The bas reliefs are delicately and intricately carved.  Way finer than those we saw the day before.  And they are unprotected but have withstood centuries of weathering.  Wars & theft have taken their toll though.  It's about 35 km from Siem Reap but absolutely a "must-see".  From there we returned to the Angkor complex to see Ta Prohm, recognizable from Tomb Raiders. This temple has been taken over by trees that grow in, around and through the stones.  At this point the trees are frequently part of the structure. Ta Prohm has been relatively untouched since it was discovered and retains much of its mystery. We had to pass up the earlier temples (from 1-9C) due to a flight change.  But honestly, Banteay Srei & Ta Prohm were so impressive, it was fine to leave it at that.

Banteay Srei Detail

Banteay Srei Detail 
Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei
Ta Prohm

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Back to Singapore

We returned to Singapore for two days before our big trip to Cambodia & Vietnam.  Day one we visited Kampong Glamm (the Arabic section of Singapore). Conveniently that was the day of a great intro to Singapore Tour in that area.  We learned about the history of Singapore (Johor Empire to Brit to today), wandered the lanes of shophouses (shops on the first floor, living space above), visited the mosque, enjoyed demonstrations of perfume blending, wrapping a sarong, and using a neem tree twig as a toothbrush.

Park View 
- Art Deco Building circa 2002

Shophouses - shops on ground floor,
living space above

Alleyway Barbershop

What were they thinking?

Following the tour we had lunch at Gourmet Port (North Bridge Rd) which featured Morroccan & Italian food.  We had Muhammara, Lamb Shank Tagine and Chicken Kababs.  The chicken was absolutely fabulous...soooo moist.  After lunch we explored the shops.  The fabric shops on Arab Street are amazing.  We'll be back on our final visit to Singapore for this trip...

Muhammara - Red pepper puree 
with garlic & Morroccan Spices
Chicken Kabab - perfectly moist chicken!

Fabric Display in one of many textile shops on Arab Street
Day 2 was basically relaxing & preparing for the trip to Cambodia & Vietnam with a 4:30 flight to Siem Reap.

Bali Hai

View from our room.  Not bad, huh?
Sunday we were off to Tioman Island, the island called "Bali Hai" in the movie South Pacific.   We wanted some beaching and a taste of the reef.  We found an idyllic, isolated resort, convenient to Singapore.  (Giving credit, where credit is due, Bill & Judy Zivko found this island first via their Malaysian daughter-in-law.) We vegged out for 1 1/2 days, laying on the beach reading, occasionally looking up to be amazed at the beauty of the surroundings. It's truly impossible to really express how gorgeous the place is.  Hopefully the photos suggest it a bit.

Tuesday we made up for our lazy ways by taking a 2 hour (one-way) hike out through a small village and on to a waterfall. To minimize the heat we headed out at 9am.  Not bad.  The return trip was pretty darn hot. We were certainly ready for our shower and lunch when we got back!  The trek started out on a forest trail which then took us across a beach then back to the forest and on to a neighboring resort.  A bit further it turned into a 5 foot wide concrete "road" that continued to the village and on to the waterfall.  It is clear that some of the villagers work at the resorts. We'd seen some of them passing by our otherwise secluded rook.  But we were amused to see the old bikes parked at the end of the concrete awaiting their owners workday return. A little after-lunch snorkeling was enough activity to round out the day.

View upon arrival by b oat from the airport
View from our chairs on the beach

Parking Spot at the end of the pavement

A wing is good. A swing on in paradise is better

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Singapore - visit number one

We overnighted Saturday in Singapore with Dave & Shelly. The basic plan was to do a little laundry and otherwise take it easy, recouping from our busy days in Kuching. Still, they wanted to be sure we got a good intro to Singapore.  So for lunch we went to a favorite spot for Shanghai Dumplings (dumplings with a wonderfully flavored broth in side).  In Hong Kong, we learned to eat them by letting them cool a bit and then popping the full thing into our mouth.  Dave & Shelly taught us a second way. With the dumpling in a chinese soup spoon, make a little hole into the dumpling and sip the broth.  Then pop the dumpling in your mouth.  This second ways enhances the experience by allowing you to more appreciate the broth before then also enjoying the dumpling.  Next up: Durian. Durian is a fruit that with a reputation for a pungent (can I say horrible?) smell and a wonderful blend of tastes.  Shelly started by taking us by the durian fruit in the market.  It wasn't as bad as we feared. Yep, there's something weird in that smell, maybe sulphur? We didn't run away. So she got braver and headed to the very popular durian crepe stand.  Pat & Shelly shared a crepe.  Shelly loved it. Pat was OK with it.  But let's face it, this was a mild intro to durian.  The filling included durian, but in a pudding form, hence diluting the taste. Later they took us to Little India for dinner featuring fish head curry...note: it's definitely better than it sounds! We also experienced a Singapore thunderstorm.  No hail but otherwise even more impressive than a San Miguel storm.

The place to go for durian crepes...
Shelly preparing her Shanghai Dumplings

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Busy days in Borneo

While we hear very little about Borneo from a tourism perspective, once we started looking at what destinations combine well with visiting Singapore, we discovered that Borneo, an island inhabited by three countries (Malaysia, Brunei, & Indonesia), had some very appealing options. In fact we had planned 3 full days of touring and scheduled an additional  free day.  Good thing because we decided to add a day of caving. Yep, caving.  

As planned, our first day in Kuching & area included a half-day at the Sarawak Cultural Village, a complex which displays 9 ethnic homes & a folk dance/customs performance including blow dart skills) combined with an afternoon city exploration. Kuching spans a river and includes multiple gorgeous chinese temples.  

Day two, we combined a visit to the Semonggoh Orang Utan Sanctuary followed by Kayaking trip followed by an evening visit to Anna Rais longhouse (a real Bidayuh longhouse community which offers a glimpse into authentic current day life and, as in Italy, we discovered that many locals have a professional life in the city but return to their village on weekends.). The day started with a downpour in the city but we were assured the tour would be fine, as it was.

A happy Orangutan

Mom & Baby on way to lunch

Dragon Fruit (and other fruits for Dessert)
Pat & Bill on way to lunch after "parking" kayaks
Yep, it's Heads in the "Head House "

Winnowing Rice at the Long House
Day three: Bako National Park, renowned for its biodiversity, is home to 3 types of apes (proboscis & silver leaf monkeys, macaques), the bearded wild boar, and the flying lemur, all of which appeared for us shortly upon our arrival.  (The trick is to arrive early before the numbers of visitors drove them away from the beach.)  The massive pitcher plants were the most impressive of the varied plant life.  In fact, we've noted that Malaysians are very proud of their pitcher plants, with numerous fountains, street lights and monuments featuring them.  On our boat trip back to the Park HQ we sighted a crocodile on the riverbank.  

Day four was the unplanned caving adventure.  There are many caves in the area. A few of which are well-known, one reputed to be the world's largest, another where a 37000 year old skull was found.  Our guide is the local expert and has personally explored and documented about 400 caves.  Ours was a mild adventure.  In the first cave, there were some tight space and some challenging climbs.  We spotted many swifts (three types, one of which is valued for its nests) and several types of bat, all of which stayed away from us.  The second cave was a river exploration, wading and floating through an underground stream that sparkles (when a light is shown through it) and is roughly 85 degrees (it feels cool when you first get in but never chills you.)  A lovely activity for a warm, humid climate. 

Aside from the above, March 14 (day two) is the "saint-day" of a significant Chinese diety.  As in San Miguel this warranted a colorful procession. And quite coincidentally we ate dinner in a restaurant overlooking the start of the procession and returned to our hotel room to overlook the end of the parade.

Food: Aside from eating twice at the great Italian Fusion restaurant (Junk), which gives new meaning to the term "junk food", we had to check out the local speciality, medin (the small, young fern frond available year round has a sweet delicate taste unlike the slightly bitter "fiddleheads" of Maine) and a traditional Malaysian Seafood Restaurant (where you go to the counter and personally select the fish and shellfish you want, along with companion veggies and then confer with the staff on cooking technique. The fried prawns were amazing. The grilled seabass, was a bit too "steamed" for our taste...while allegedly grilled, it was grilled covered and occasionally the cover was removed and the fish doused with broth.)

We stayed at a great property, the Batik Hotel. Aside from being lovely & comfortable, they couldn't have taken better care of us, arranging our tours, advising us on dining, Jackie, the owner, personally selects all the tours that she recommends. Their slogan, "Classy, Chic, Cosy" pretty much says it all.  If interested, check it out at:

For more re activities in Kuching, see,, 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Kuala Lumpua or KL for those in the know

KL Skyline

First let me say, we are not use to the discipline required to keep up a blog as we travel. Plus adding photos is somehow a mystical thing that either works or doesn't, and for the moment it is a bit challenging.  We are now in Kuching (on the island of Borneo) and have a very busy schedule of tours for the next few day.  So, for now, the plan is to initially post photo free and then later add photos as get free moments. (Photos added while in Singapore a week later.)

Fountain in Little India
Hop-On Hop-Off Bus
Dragon Boat at History Museum

We started our visit of KL with KL Hop-On Hop-Off bus tour.  Stops included Chinatown (market & food stalls), Little India (food stalls), Central Market / kasturi Walk (crafts, food), and Ain Arabia/Arab Street (food).  Touring stops included the National Museum (ethnic and natural history), Lake Garden (huge aviary, orchid garden, butterfly garden), with photo stops at the National Palace & Medara Square.

The next day, recouping from a long day of making the most of the KL Hop-On Hop-Off bus yesterday, we took a morning off.  When we finally went out, we decided to check out the Pavilion Shopping Center with it's 450 outlets…a short walk from our hotel, once we discovered the right route, in the trendy Bukit Bintang district. We went to explore but then Pat realized this might be the place to check into buying a suitcase.  

We know that it seems odd to buy a suitcase when you are well into a trip… Actually we'd already bought two while in CA.  Here's the lesson.  If you buy two sets of suitcases at the same time, and then travel together sharing suitcases (with clothes for both of you in each bag in case one gets lost or delayed, which has happened too often), then when one piece dies, it won't be long before the others do.  In our case, the wheels on Pat's carry-on died on our previous trip.  So we planned to replace that in California.  Then upon arrival in CA, we discovered the seemingly sturdy hand hold on Pat's bag had been broken.  Two new Eagle Creek bags latter we were off to HK.  Enroute to KL, the wheels on Bill's bag died.  

We work our suitcases hard, nearly always at the 50 pound limit, so we need something sturdy and, in this day & age of airline fees for everything, we prefer lightweight.  We've seen many cheap sources of luggage  but we were hesitant to buy from just any street side vendor. So we headed to the flagship store of the Malaysian based Parkson Department Store, where we discovered they were in the midst of a special luggage event. With our third new bag in-hand, we wonder, will they all die at the same time again?  As long as it is many great trips away, who cares?

The Petronus Twin Towers are "The" landmark of KL. Daytime views are impressive but nighttime views are spectacular. Somehow they just gleam like diamonds.  And getting close to them, from what we consider the heart of town (Bukit Bintang), couldn't be easier. Having spent the day struggling with a hard-to-read map, we thought we were finally up to the "cross-town" expedition to KLCC (KL City Centre) as the surrounding area is called.  We started out, dealt with the 3 street crossings to get to the nearby Pavilion Area crossing and then, Voila! There we were facing the stairs to an elevated, air conditioned walkway with signs for KLCC.  Within 10 minutes we were there.

Yes, that air conditioned walkway was much appreciated.  The year round max temperature in KL hovers around 30-33C (86-92F). And the humidity?  Let's just say that is high as well. Touring in the AM and evening are recommended.  Or using air conditioned walkways! 

Petronus Tpwers from Traders Hotel Sky Bar
Petronus Towers from the Base

Looking up at the towers from the base is awesome.  But we really wanted to get close to view the Lake Symphony. This is a 10,000 square meter man made lake with water fountains. The main fountain can shoot water up to a height of 42 meters. The water features occur every day (usually) at noon and in the evenings.  We imagined they are similar to those at the Bellagio in Las Vegas… a delight to watch.  Guess what? We continue to imagine because as of March 1 until June, they are under renovation!  

Food?  Yep, we're still eating.  We confess to succumbing to eating Italian a couple times.  We found a too appealing restaurant (Spasso Milano) on the 6th floor of the Pavilion. Pat's pasta (strozzapreti with mushrooms and crispy braesola) was up there with the amazing risotto with mixed mushrooms she had a year ago at Iguazu Falls.  Basically, she was in heaven.  OK, we admit, we even returned to Spasso Milaon of lunch (pizza with arugula & proscuitto) but the other big food find was, ta da, "white coffee".  Now that does not reach out and grab either of us.  But we were in the mood for cappuccino, but it wasn't to be.  White coffee was recommended.  Based on the waitress's recommendation, we succumbed. Instead of basic American coffee with lots of milk or cream, this turns out to be a local beans are roasted with palm-oil margarine, and the resulting coffee is served with condensed milk.  If you didn't know better you might think it was a cappuccino but with some subtle interesting spice.  

Strozzapreti & 3 Kinds of Mushrooms
Want a coconut with that meal?
White Coffee

Saturday, March 10, 2012

HK Island: The Fog, The Peak, The Food

Well that fog didn't lift and a grey day (make that 3 grey days) greeted us on Hong Kong Island. But just to cheer us up, one of the first sites we noticed was the Apple Store. We didn't visit it right away as we were late getting to lunch with Dennis.  But when we later visited the store in mid-afternoon on Wednesday, it was buzzing.  

First though, we were off to City Hall for Dim Sum (note: City Hall in HK is more of a cultural destination than a government building.  Marriages appear to be the one official function that occurs there.  What did we have?  Hmm.  Dennis just kept ordering.  We were so busy eating we only got one photo. To top that, we forgot to take any photos at our Indian diner at Curry Tiffin in Stanley Market where we had garlic naan, chicken tikka masala, rogan josh, aloo gobi, sag paneer with Carlsberg beer. To be honest, the real culinary treat of the day was the crackers coated in dark chocolate that Aissa made.  (Aissa was off dealing with family affairs in the Phillipines, so this was our only local connection with her.)  I really hope to get that recipe from her. 

After lunch we rode the double decker trolley to see a slice of HK life. Pat especially liked the folks squeezing through between the trolleys...and the iPhone ads...and, of course Mc Donald's.

Later as we were waiting for Dennis, Pat couldn't resist looking at the Swarovski crystal jewelry.  And, don't tell anyone at Apple, but she bought cute little Apple logo shaped silver earrings with clear crystals. 

The next day it was even foggier.  So we set off to see HK Gardens with the tea museum, aviary, and conservatory.  

Love the juxtaposition of architecture.
The colonial building is now the Tea Museum.
It was amazing to learn of the dozens of ways, some simple, some ridiculously complicated. 

They have annual teapot competitions.  This is one of the
 cuter winners.  I wonder how practical it is though.

Pat especially liked the orchids.

The aviary was closed but we did see the conservatory.  They had a "Dry Climate" section with very familiar cactus and a "Wet Climate" section with more local plants.  Well, speaking of local plants...they have New England plants (rhododendron & azealas in bloom while we were there), along with tropical plants (hibiscus in bloom as well).

For Pat, the key drive to return to HK, aside from seeing how it had changed in 20 years, was to re-live the experience of taking the tram to Victoria Peak and enjoying the city views (both daytime & nighttime.)  It was not to be.  So we went up anyway & overcame our sorrows with food & wine. (OK, why isn't anyone surprised?)

The atmospheric view from the Tram.
That's marketing speak for
"this is all the view you get."

For those of you that haven't been to HK, 
this is the view we hoped for (from poster at the Peak.)

Our later explorations included riding the mid-level elevators. These were built since our last trip to HK.  This is the longest outdoor covered escalator system in the world.  In the morning it carries folks down to the business center, in the afternoon it carries them back up.  From there we wandered through SoHo (South of Hollywood), an area now crowded with cafes, shops & wine bars, as well as many options for better developing your wine tasting skills.  

Our final touring stop was at the Man Mo Temple, a mid-19th century temple, dedicated to the Gods of Literature (Man Tai) and Military (Mo Tai). Not being all that knowledgeable about the beliefs behind this place, we were most impressed by the incense rings that hang like bells.

Dragon detail from the door of the temple.

We need to get on with touring in KL.  So to close for now. some final food photos... Peking Duck from Peking Garden and Fried Shanghai Noodles from Crystal Jade.  Yum!