A Weekend in Santa Fe

Santa Fe & Española, NM – 17-21 April 2018

Spent a really nice long weekend with my sister and sister-in-law at their lovely home in Española. I was coming from a business trip in Phoenix and I flew directly into Santa Fe Municipal Airport. It was a bit pricier than Albuquerque Sunport – but not having to wait for the shuttle to Santa Fe and spending over an hour en route from there was well worth it.

Andrea met me at the airport, since it’s just up the road from her work and I was off the plane and out of the tiny airport in about three minutes! We picked up Marybeth and then headed to Gabriel’s for dinner. It was as good as always – with the notable exception that we didn’t get our second round of margaritas we’d ordered, so the entire trip was obviously ruined… We did however stop at the highly glamorous Kokoman liquor store so we could at least have that second round of drinks once we got back to the ranch.

It was nice to get back to their place. It’d been four years since my last visit (#worstbrotherever) and they’d made some changes around the place, most notably putting in a new staircase to the upstairs, which was now the location of my guest suite! Very comfy – though cats Parsley and Donut, as lovely as they are, didn’t provide the same level of hostess service that Porkchop (#RIP) provided on my last visit – she would snuggle with me at night and then wake me up in the morning by sneezing in my face. Try to find that at the Waldorf Astoria!

Friday was spa day. Andrea works at the Sunrise Springs Spa and Resort, so she treated us to a morning massage, followed by lunch. The whole property is lovely. The massage facilities were just gorgeous and I had 90-minutes of deep tissue massage and reflexology from the very-skilled Oliver. My only complaint was how quickly those 90 minutes flew by!

Lunch on the terrace at the Blue Heron. I had their deservedly award-winning green chile burger and we all shared a lovely bottle of rosé. The meal was really delicious and the service was wonderful. And an hour soaking afterwards in one of the private hot pools was the perfect way to wrap up our visit.

Back home, we alternated between watching reruns of The Royal Wedding and napping, before having a yummy dinner of shrimp with rice and zucchini.

Saturday we visited a lavender farm up in Abiquiu, which was fun – though perhaps not quite meeting our expectation of endless vistas of waving fields of lavender à la Provence. But the scenery up there is beautiful nevertheless.

We’d not reserved early enough to make a visit to Georgia O’Keefe’s house in Abiquiu, so we had to content ourselves with a nice lunch out on the terrace of the Abiquiu Inn. We also stopped at Freddy’s, a regional fast food place, that serves burgers and frozen custard. I got the “Hawiian Delight Concrete” – a blend of frozen custard, pineapple, coconut and macadamia nuts (hold the strawberry, please #c’estleger) and it was pretty darn tasty.

Another dinner at home, prepared by Marybeth, followed by a few episodes of “House Hunters International,” with the three of us all yelling at the contestants and their stupid choices and opinions. In other words, a perfect night.

Sunday we were up and on the road early. Annie and Marybeth dropped me off in the center of Santa Fe, where I met up with my guide for a two-hour tour around town. It was really enjoyable, insofar as I’m always happy when I have an opportunity to ride. With that being said, my guide, while pleasant enough, wasn’t exactly overflowing with knowledge about Santa Fe – or even about alternative bike routes. I mean, it was fine – but I’d probably have been just as happy renting a bike and exploring on my own. Next time…

Meanwhile, though, Annie and Marybeth were on an important mission: visiting a litter of puppies, with the hopes of adopting one. And lo and behold, they did! They picked me up downtown along with the new addition to their menagerie, Pearl, an eight-week-old Great Pyrenees! And she already weighs 17 lbs. – she’s gonna be a big girl.

When we got back to their place, Pearl was a little woozy from the long ride in her crate and had a bout of carsickness. But soon enough she’d had some food and water and was bounding around the yard, settling into her new home, while also getting lots of hugs and belly rubs from the three of us.

While Marybeth got started on dinner (#hero), Annie and I went out to run some errands: getting wine and going to Dairy Queen. Seems simple enough – but not so fast! First liquor store was closed since it’s Sunday (#wtf), so we had to go back to Kokoman, a bit further down the highway. It was actually pretty convenient, since the DQ is just up the road.

Anyway, we got the wine and then popped into DQ where the woman working there greeted us and then advised she had some bad news: no ice cream today! The machine was broken (#insertMcDonaldsjoke) so we were out of luck. I let her know that my weekend was ruined and then suggested they rename the place “Non-Dairy Queen.” (I didn’t actually do that.)

Luckily, there was another DQ back on the other side of town, so off we went and I finally got my fix. And the silver lining? Got to stop and take a photo of a really amazing old sign for the long-gone Arrow Motel.

Had another fine dinner that evening and hit the hay early. Annie drove me down to Albuquerque and we stopped into the Los Poblanos Inn. Their restaurant isn’t open for lunch, but we visited the shop and explored the lovely grounds for a bit. It’s quite charming.

Some lunch up the road (with wine for me since I’m still on vacation!), a walk around Old Town (which was kind of a snooze) and then to the Albuquerque Sunport for my ride home. It was a really great weekend and I can’t wait to come back to see my family and all the animals again soon.

Oh, and here’s a nice “now and then” bit. While there may have been some wine involved, no Donuts were harmed during the making of these videos. What a difference four years makes!

Compare:

 

And contrast:

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Last Weekend in Bangkok

Bangkok, Thailand – 21 & 22 April 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bikes and Boîtes in Bangkok

Bangkok, Thailand – 18 & 19 April 2018

Presented myself at Grasshopper Adventures for my Bangkok bike tour. As it turned out, I was the only person taking the tour that day, so it was just me and my guide for the day, Tick. It was a pretty great day! We rode across Chao Phraya then through mostly quiet residential areas and narrow paths surrounded by greenery and water. I didn’t actually take many photos – which I suppose I regret, but honestly, spending most of the day in the saddle was great for me. I miss riding when I travel and it’s good for me physically and mentally – and I hope it helped me work off my vastly increased intake of condensed milk, thanks to my love of Thai ice tea.

Tick figured out right away that I am a fairly experienced urban rider, which meant we kept up a pretty good pace. Of course, some of the narrow paths had very sharp turns or were slippery or had no railings or all of the above, so my adrenal glands def got a bit of a workout – but I only had one near death experience… Not really, of course, but I did almost leave the path at what would’ve been a very inopportune moment.

We stopped at a couple of temples along the way, which were lovely as is pretty much always the case here in Thailand. Tick was really knowledgeable and told me about various conservation and construction efforts underway at our various stops. We also saw lots of dogs and a few cats, which was not only great, but made me think of Calvin, whose ashes I scattered in Chao Phraya two years ago, not too far from where we were riding…

Next to one of the temples there were food vendors and I had some pad Thai which was absolutely delicious – one of the best I’ve had! It was a great day and a great tour and I really loved it.

After Ak finished work, we headed to Vogue Lounge, an old favorite of both of ours, and enjoyed a couple of cocktails outdoors under the shadow of Mahanakhon Tower. Next stop was Iron Balls Bar, a new place from A.R. Sutton (I’ve still not been to his OG place) and my opportunity to finally try locally-distilled Iron Balls gin.

The bar was pretty cool looking and our drinks were good – but the atmosphere was pretty terrible. The place wasn’t crowded but it was mostly folks who seemed like they were all very impressed with themselves. The staff all seemed fairly unhappy to be there – though the bartender who made my drink was pretty friendly once we ordered. Anyway, it’s not a bar I’ll go back to – not really my kind of vibe, I guess.

Dinner was just up the street at a place called Thai Lao Yeh – chosen mainly for its proximity to the bar. Well! It turned out to be excellent. Located in the lovely Cabochon Hotel, the colonial-style dining room was looked after by an extremely friendly staff.

And the food! Like Thai Niyom the other night, this was Esan style food and it was all delicious – though also like Thai Niyom, the simplest dish was my favorite: steamed clams with lemongrass. The plump clams were impeccably fresh and tender and the lemongrass lent just a bit of perfume to the dish. Wonderful! And this being Esan food, of course we had sausages – juicy and spicy and sour and so tasty. Our shaved ice dessert with tapioca pearls and condensed milk was the perfect end to the meal – and très, très léger…

Thursday was pretty quiet. Ak and I had breakfast at the bbq pork noodle place near our hotel, then he headed off to work. I dropped off some laundry and then spent the day shopping at Bangkok’s amazing malls. And I may have found time for a few hours of massage therapy…

Drinks that night at Salon de Japonisant, a great little bar tended by Kei Sawada from Japan. The place is simply decorated and the “art” on the walls is really cool labels from Japanese liquor bottles. The drinks are intricately handcrafted without being fussy and are gorgeous to behold. They’re pretty delicious too!

The crowd was bit hi-so for our taste – and due to the painstaking construction of each cocktail (including hand-carving ice into the appropriate shape), the pace can be slow. We were the first to arrive at 7:30, so our first round was served quickly. But next time I go, I’d probably try to get there at opening at 7PM so the second round could’ve been served to us a bit more quickly.

Dinner at Soul Food Mahanakhon, another old favorite – I think we’ve eaten here every time I’ve visited! Food was all tasty per usual, though my favorite is always the miang kham. We did both nearly sprain our eye-rolling muscles (Ak especially!) when the farang at the next table claimed to his companions to know everything about Thai food while butchering the pronunciations. Eh, I guess I shouldn’t judge, since I’m sure I’m no better – but judge I did!

We met an adorable kitten outside the restaurant – obv the highlight of the evening – on our way to Rabbit Hole for a quick nightcap. Then back to the hotel and ended the night with another argument about the correct method of taking photographs. At least we’re consistent! Tomorrow is TGIF for Ak and the start of my last weekend in Bangkok. Sigh…

Bangkok Days…

Bangkok, Thailand – 16 & 17 April 2018

Started the day in a shameful – though nearly traditional at this point – breakfast at Au Bon Pain. In our defense, due to Songkran holiday, many places closed, including our favorite bbq pork noodle place, so here we are.

The streets this morning were eerily quiet. Silom Rd. is generally teeming with people and traffic pretty much 24/7 – but everyone is either out of town or still hungover from yesterday’s Songkran craziness, so Silom was weirdly empty.

Anyhow, we got ourselves to Wat Saket (The Golden Mount) and climbed up to the top. It’s magnificent! The wat itself is lovely and the view is amazing – high enough above Bangkok to see a huge swath of the city but not so high that you can’t see life teeming below you. Set in the old part of Bangkok, it was especially great to see all the old shops, houses and other buildings in the immediate neighborhood.

While gazing up at the golden stupa at the crest of the wat, I had a bit of a moment. Not full-blown Stendhal Syndrome, but certainly something akin to it. I seem to experience it once or twice every time I travel somewhere and find myself in a place that is particularly beautiful or simply just so of its place and I marvel at the fact that I am there and that I have the great good fortune to see and experience these things – especially along with my dear friend Ak, who is always proud and happy to teach me about his home city and country. Ok, sometimes it’s tinged with exasperation with my ignorance, but still! It was a wonderful way to start my day in this city that I never tire of visiting.

Next stop was at Wat Suthat, another temple nearby – and another place I’d never visited. The interior of the temple was beautifully painted – all the columns, walls, doors and ceiling. And we saw a couple of workers doing some restoration on the paint.

Lunch at Krua Apsorn, an old favorite that I first tried back in October 2015 – my very first visit to Bangkok! – after reading about their justly world-famous crab with yellow curry. It’s a bit pricey by Thai standards at THB500, but it’s piled high with huge chunks of crab meat that are fresh and tender – and require no extrication work by the customers and certainly not a bib… We also had a really tasty larb moo and some stir-fry pork.

Ak observed a rather hilarious – and not just a tad depressing – interaction with a couple of Western hippie backpacker types (you know, the ones always in search of authenticity) and their server. Anyway, despite a menu that was in both English and Thai and that had photos of every dish, these two ordered massaman curry – which is not in fact on the menu. Next, they requested pad Thai (because of course) and were advised that pad Thai was also not served in this establishment.

At this point, they decided to leave – not willing to give up on the authentic Thai food they craved at this clearly-not-authentically-Thai restaurant. It was laughable at best – but honestly, if you mention Krua Apsorn to just about anyone who’s been to Bangkok (or has Google), the response would be, “Oh, that place with the fantastic crab curry? You have to go!” #ohfarangs

Next we stopped for some shaved ice with noodles, sticky rice, fruit and one or two other items thrown in for good measure. So tasty on a hot day! Our next stop was Nuttaporn ice cream for Round 2 – but they were closed for the holiday. #tripruined

Onward, though, to the Grand Palace and a visit to Queen Sirikit’s Museum of Textiles. There was a special exhibit celebrating 200 years of friendship between Thailand and the US. Lots of diplomatic documents and communications from the 1800s on up to display of some of the beautiful Thai nielloware presented to various US Presidents and their families.

Of course, my favorite part of this museum is always seeing the selections from the Queen’s personal wardrobe, most of them from the 60s and 70s, designed to her specifications by Pierre Balmain and typically incorporating Thai silks and patterns. The materials are all so gorgeous and the workmanship is unbelievable.

Went back to the hotel to freshen up and decided to try a new place for dinner, Thai Niyom. I’d read a little blurb about it online somewhere, as it’d just recently opened and it wasn’t too terribly far from our hotel.

WELL. I don’t mean to engage in hyperbole, but it was one of the best Thai meals I’ve ever had – and Ak thought it was pretty amazing too and he’s Thai. We had spicy beef soup (tom sep) which was simply prepared – tender brisket in a deep, rich broth. And super spicy! But the kind of spicy that’s so delicious, you can’t stop eating it.

We also ordered a deceptively plain sounding dish of cabbage stir-fried with nam pla and garlic. The ingredients were straightforward – but the preparation was perfection. This is dish I will never forget eating – truly one of the most amazing things I’ve ever had.

We had a couple of kinds of Esan sausage and a seafood salad. Everything was great! We were so delighted to try someplace new and have it turn out to such a fantastic meal.

Tuesday, Ak was back to work (#poorhim), so I was on my own. On my way out, I had the pleasure of meeting Killian Donoghue, the GM at Le Meridien, who had been so helpful in resolving my issue with check-in. In his email yesterday, he’d said he hoped to meet me during my stay and I responded that he should just be on the look-out for a bespectacled farang with a crazy gray beard – so obviously, when I was walking through the lobby, he had no problem identifying me. Anyway, he was as gracious as could be – and I thanked him again for his assistance. I’m happy to report that the rest of my stay at Le Meridien was just as great as always – thanks to a really fine staff who all deliver top-notch service and make it all seem effortless. I’m looking forward to my next stay this autumn.

Next up was a visit to Terminal 21 for some shopping. I usually find some cute t-shirts there (assuming I can find any large enough to fit me. Sizing in Asia is not kind to farangs…), but had no luck this time – though I did get a cute aloha shirt, which everyone wears during Songkran, so the selection was good. I was looking at another shop where I’ve had some success in the past, but as I was looking at shirts on the rack, the lady running the place announced, “Not for you. Too small.” and shooed me over to small selection of what might actually fit me. As I said to Ak later, “I think this was the Thai version of ‘We only carry sizes 2 and 4. Maybe you should try Sears.’”

I consoled myself with a massage later at Infinty Spa. It was lovely! The Thai body massage was fine – nothing to write home about – but the subsequent foot massage was superb. And I’ll say the same about the post-massage snack of mango sticky rice – so good!

Met up with Ak at Eat Me for a couple of cocktails, base on Thai street food – my first was Kaeng Tai Pla: mezcal, shallot, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf, curry and lime. Just enough tart, savory and umami to make a great drink. Second was larb – a similar flavor profile but a bit limier and served with a strip of crispy ham (#nom). Ak had a sake spritzer with elderflower which he loved (I agreed when I got a taste).

Dinner near the hotel at a ramen place, then made an early night of it. Wednesday morning would be an early one for me, as I had to be down near Old Town before 9AM to go on a bike tour.

 

A couple of videos from our visit to Wat Saket:

 

Hoi An, Then Back to Bangkok

Hoi An, Vietnam – 14 April 2018
Bangkok, Thailand – 15 April 2018

Made our way into town to Hai Cafe, the meeting point for our cooking class with Red Bridge. Our morning guide met us promptly and we had something to drink while we waited for our fellow tourists, who turned out to be a couple of not-particularly-friendly Aussie women. They weren’t unfriendly, exactly, but were not especially interested in engaging with anyone but one another. NBD, though it was a little exhausting for me trying to do the heavy lifting to keep a conversation going until I just threw in the towel.

The first part of the tour involved a stop at a local organic garden, which was pretty interesting – though went on perhaps a bit longer than was necessary. Same could be said for our trip to the market, especially since we’d already been through it during one of our food tours.

Once we arrived at the Red Bridge School and Villa, things took a turn for the better. The setting was lovely and the outdoor cooking facility was great in terms of both the working space and all the fresh ingredients. Our instructor Mimi was great – gregarious and knowledgeable and enjoyed sharing her techniques and showing us what to do.

We started off prepping the ingredients for a banana leaf salad with grilled chicken. All the different fruits and vegetables in the salad were just gorgeous and the bbq’d chicken turned out to be as wonderful as it looked and smelled.

We also worked on broth for pho, grilling up beef leg bones over the fire before starting the soup. This was followed by prepping chiles and aromatics to make a marinade for shrimp that we wrapped in banana leaves before grilling. Then we ended with hotpot with fish and dill. Really tasty!

It was a fun afternoon – though it also seemed as if our two other students were pretty unfamiliar with cooking. Which is fine, I guess, but it seemed an odd choice of activities for them.

We’d done four different tourist activities while in Hoi An: two food tours, a cooking class and a bike tour. The cooking class and the second of the food tours were run/owned by non-Vietnamese apparently – and while I wouldn’t say they were terrible, they seemed to lack the local take that we enjoyed so much on our first food tour and the bike tour. The locally-run tours just felt more like we were interacting with Vietnamese folks on their terms and in a way that felt more personal. The other experiences felt more highly scripted and almost veered into performance. I don’t suppose there’s anything wrong with that – but it’s a type of tour that I find less interesting.

Took a boat back to Old Town and wandered for a bit. Back to hotel for a nap, then dinner again at Morning Glory. We probably should’ve tried somewhere new, but we’d really enjoyed the previous meal there, so why not go with a sure thing for our last evening?

Walked around after dinner. Hoi An is really quite magical in the evening, with hundreds of different colored lanterns strung across every street and building. It’s brimming with tourists, yet it still feels just delightful to be out and about.

We bought a couple of candles to float down the river, mainly because I was thinking of a good friend back home who will soon be saying farewell to her kitty companion. It was nice to be able to do a little something to keep them in my thoughts, but it got me a lot more choked up than I’d anticipated. Nevertheless, a very nice way to wrap up our evening.

Up and on our way to the airport by 9AM, despite a bit of a kerfuffle at check-out as to whether or not I’d pre-paid for our stay (I had), but it was resolved quickly. Hung out at the lounge in Da Nang, thanks to my Priority Pass and soon enough we were BKK-bound. Well, technically, DMK-bound – the LaGuardia to Suvarnabhumi’s JFK. But it was an easy flight and we were quickly in a Grab, headed toward Le Meridien, my home-away-from-home here in Bangkok.

Or is it? Check in was a bit of a bother when they charged me extra to “upgrade” to a room with a Toto Washlet (because who doesn’t love a Washlet?) – something they’d never done in the past when I’d requested it and this being my fifth or sixth stay here (and I’m a Starwood member), I was not pleased –  but I paid it and then sent an email along to the GM, sharing my disappointment. Happy to report, he got back to me the next morning to advise the charges had been reversed. Squeaky wheel, grease, etc., yes – but still left me with a rather less enthusiastic feeling for this hotel at check in, a hotel that I’ve been singing the praises of since my first visit a couple of years ago. Well, we see how the week goes.

Oh, and it’s Songkran weekend, the Thai new year and unofficial gay pride celebration. The streets in Silom are mobbed with folks armed with huge water guns and buckets as they participate in the nationwide water fight that rings in the Thai new year. And apparently, Le Meridien is also queen central, if the parade of toned male couples in tank tops and expensive sneakers were any indication – including two shirtless and soaking wet muscle queens and their water bazookas just chillin’ in the lobby. Fancy!

Dinner at the mall: great Thai food that we’d both been craving. Sure, we’d had plenty of great food in Singapore and Hoi An, but let’s face it: Thai food is best.

Also at the mall: a big Songkran circuit party – I shit you not. It was pretty hilarious seeing gaggles of queens in harnesses and booty shorts sashaying past Uniqlo and through the food court on their way up to rave the night away. Westfield Center take note!

Tomorrow: a visit to Old Town!

 

Visiting Hoi An

Hoi An, Vietnam – 11, 12 & 13 April 2018
Our flight to Da Nang was perfectly pleasant and passed quickly. Arrived on time with all of our luggage, bought local SIM cards right next to baggage carousel and were soon off to our home for the next five nights, the Lantana Riverside Boutique Hotel.

There’d been a bit of a mix-up with our room, insofar as it was not available the first night of our stay due to overbooking. It was a bit irksome, given that I’d bought and paid for the Lantana Suite months ago – but it’d been a long day and the alternative room we were provided was more than adequate. Ak and I both slept soundly that night. We were moved into our originally booked room the next afternoon and it was a nice upgrade, thanks to a better layout and a nice view of the river.

Ak and I both felt a little unsure about Hoi An at this juncture – not unhappy with it per se, but it was also not as we’d pictured it. What little we’d seen on the ride in made it seem more touristy and less charming than I’d thought – but we’ll see if that holds true. And as nice as our hotel is, I’d probably prefer something a bit closer to old town were I to visit again.

Wednesday morning we were up early for a trip to visit the temple ruins at My Son. It was a nice small group: our guide, the two of us and three people from France. The drive out was about an hour and we spent maybe 90 minutes or so taking in the sights. Frankly, it was just about the perfect amount of temple ruins for this philistine – and compared to someplace like Angkor Wat, it was wonderfully uncrowded. The ruins themselves are interesting and learning about their construction and conservation was great. A really nice morning!

On the way back into the city, we stopped at a place for local handicrafts – which in actuality was mostly a shop trying to hard-sell us clothes, lanterns and silk ware. Not the end of the world, but certainly not my favorite type of tourist experience.

After wrapping things up and having a bit of a lie-down, we headed into the center of Hoi An to meet up with our food tour for the afternoon. Our guide was Emma and we were joined by one other traveler, a German woman closer to my age than Ak’s who was about halfway through her three month backpacking tour of SE Asia.

As we ambled about we stopped and had beef noodles, Madame Khan’s world famous (and deservedly so) banh mi, black sesame pudding and pork dumplings from White Rose – to name a few. We wrapped things up at a local home where we helped to prepare and cook spring rolls and savory egg pancakes before tucking into them along with a couple of cans of beer. It was a great way to spend an afternoon and a really fun way to get some local insight into Hoi An’s food. Emma was a wonderful guide – teaching us not just about the food we ate but about everyday life in Hoi An and Vietnam.

Walked around Old Town for a bit and had some really tasty cocktails at Q Bar. I was especially enamored of the gin/cucumber/lime concoction they offered.

Another early start on Thursday for ANOTHER food tour, this one run by an ex-pat Aussie. When he came to collect us at 7AM and had not presented ourselves in the lobby (we were literally in the elevator on our way down) he had hurried into the breakfast room to ensure we’d not disobeyed his very explicit instructions to not eat anything before the tour. And this was no joke – when we were presented with the menu later, there were over 40 different dishes for us to try!

Four other Aussies joined us on the tour and the first part of the day was spent with Ms Sen, a local woman who took us through the market and then to a variety of stands and shops for all sorts of tastings. Our favorite of the morning was mì gà – essentially chicken noodle soup – with a golden broth that was sublime. We also had some outstanding banh mi here. Oh, and barbecue pork. And after a short walk we had some super delicious ice cream – coconut for me, taro for Ak. Uh, and I also had a coffee ice cream. They’re very small!

The latter half of the morning was spent back at the tour company’s HQ, all of us seated around a table sampling a huge variety of local foods while Neville regaled us with his stories, opinions and history.

It was all good tour, though also quite A LOT of food. As much as I enjoyed this tour, it was perhaps just a bit much by the end. I have to say, the tour we took yesterday was more interesting and more fun – I suspect largely since it felt a lot more like a local perspective on things rather than that of an ex-pat Westerner.

Surprisingly enough though (OK, not all that surprising), we were hungry again by 5PM after wrapping up the tour at noon. After stopping for a quite lovely massage at La Luna Spa, we had dinner at The Seashell, an outpost of the well-reputed Nu eatery here in town. The food was Vietnamese fusion – and TBH, we’d both’ve preferred something a bit more authentic – though the orange chicken rice bowl was delicious and I had a quite tasty glass of wine with dinner. Wandered around Old Town after dinner a bit, but made a relatively early night of it.

The next morning, we taxied into Old Town to Heaven and Earth Bike Tours for a tour of the countryside, along with our guide Tram and a lovely Welsh couple called Caroline and John. We started off with a boat ride (along with our bikes) and I had a chance to do perhaps the straightest and male-est thing I’ve ever done: chatted up John about his photography equipment. Happily, he offered me some excellent insight – and I really do need to save up my pennies and replace my bulky DSLR. I was quite envious of John’s compact little Lumix which he told me provides excellent images and has interchangeable lenses.

We covered about 14 km before lunch at a local homestead – though we stopped several times along the way, including at the home of one of the guides who rode part of the way with us. Her mother makes rice noodles in her village and we got to see the process and sample her wares. Amazing!

We pedaled through rice fields and shrimp farms – and passed by a duck farm where a few hundred ducklings hustled out of our path and into their pond. We also saw water buffalo, plenty of cows and dogs and a nice variety of local birds. And all along the way friendly locals yelled “Hello!” as we rode by.

As lovely as all this was – and as delicious as our lunch was – the heat of the day proved a bit much, so Ak and I decided to call it a day and to pass on the 9 km remainder of the ride. And special thanks to our guide Tram and fellow tourists John and Caroline who were all patient and supportive when we found ourselves really needing to slow the pace of the trip toward the end, thanks to both the heat and general exhaustion.

Despite pooping out, we really loved this tour. Getting away from the center of Hoi An and out into the quieter countryside was a nice change – and again, like with our first food tour, getting perspectives from a local resident offers so much more insight into local life. It was a really fun ride.

Made it back to town and then to the hotel for a lie-down and some electrolyte-laden sports drinks and we seem to have made a full recovery from the day’s exertions. Heading into town for early dinner and cocktail. Tomorrow: cooking class!

Last Couple of Days in Singapore

Singapore – 9 & 10 April 2018

Today, we visit the Singapore Zoo. We started nice and early, stopping first for an “eh” Western breakfast at a place across from the hotel that had the decided advantage of opening at 6AM – which includes the bar, as was evidenced by a patron – no, not me or Ak – ordering a Singapore Sling at 7AM.

Hired a Grab to take us on the 25 minute drive to the zoo and had quite the affable and chatty driver who shared some history of Singapore with us. All went well until the subject drifted to politics – and while I wouldn’t go so far to call him a Trump supporter, he did opine that the “mainstream media” had somehow portrayed DJT in some kind of unfair light. *ahem* Rather than removing my earrings and whooping a trick, I simply stated that I’d been following his activities since the 80s and that he’s a con artist pure and simple. The driver changed the subject – though sadly it was to share with us his philosophy that is one of the many variants of “The Secret” and the power of positive thinking. Eventually, we steered things back toward Singapore and tourism which seemed a safer subject all around.

Arrived at the zoo at just about exactly 8:30AM, right when they open – though the ticket windows were not yet open, which was a tad annoying. I’d actually attempted to buy my tickets online but had been foiled by the site’s rule that only one-time-use credit card numbers were permitted for purchase. I guess the black market for zoo tickets must be quite active…

Once inside, we spied a couple of varieties of small primates dangling from the trees overhead – really cool way to start things off! Made a pretty much complete circle and saw just about all the animals. The orangutans were fascinating – as were most of the primates on display. They also appeared to be relatively nice habitats considering they were all captive. The white tigers were gorgeous of course, as were the leopards, cheetahs, pumas and lions – though it was hard not to wonder if even these relatively generously sized enclosures were really a reasonable facsimile of the cats’ natural territories.

One of the more difficult exhibits was that of Inuka, the elderly polar bear. He’s in his mid-20s, which is pretty old in polar bear terms – their life span in the wild is 15-18 years. But the habitat felt a bit grim and it was hard not anthropomorphize him with feelings of loneliness. I guess more than anything else, it reminded me of my own personal discomfort with zoos. I am fully cognizant of the value they serve in terms of caring for wild animals and inspiring people young and old to embrace efforts to protect and value animals – but it’s hard not see captivity as a less-than-ideal way of life for a wild animal.

We watched a couple of shows too. The first featured domesticated animals – mostly dogs and cats with a couple of rats and a parrot thrown in – so I was AOK with this display. The rainforest show was a little dicier – seeing non-domesticated animals performing is odd. Though I should add that they weren’t doing tricks so much as engaging in some of their normal behaviors on-cue and rewarded with food. And, let’s face it, who can resist a lemur galloping across a vine suspended overhead?

Had a pretty decent lunch in the zoo – vegetarian biriyani for me and mi goreng for Ak – before heading back into the city. Went for a stroll down Haji Lane, at Ak’s request. “Why did you want to visit here?” I asked. “Is it because you saw it on Instagram?” Answer in the affirmative, which led to my establishment of a new rule: any sightseeing based solely on Ak seeing it on IG gives me the option to say, “I’ll meet you when you’re done” with no eye rolling, resting bitch face and/or passive-aggressive sarcastic comments about ruining his vacation. Happily, though, Haji Lane is only about two blocks long, so soon enough we’d found a mall to pop into for a spot of cha nom yen for me and iced Milo for Ak.

After a bit of a lie-down back at the hotel, we headed out for drinks at ATLAS Bar located at Parkview Square – the high-rise also nicknamed the Gotham Building since it looks straight out of a Batman set. The bar itself is just as spectacular as the online photos indicated – towering ceilings in a large Art Deco space that would look right at home in Rockefeller Center. Hard to believe it’s actually only a few years old. Cocktails were pricey but really tasty – Ak had Scandal Water, essentially a martini tarted up with some champagne… It was obviously delicious. I went a bit simpler, opting for a G&T made with Paper Lantern gin, distilled in Thailand from galangal, lemongrass, Sichuan pepper and other regional ingredients and East Imperial Burma tonic from New Zealand, a more old-school style tonic with less sugar and more citrus. It was great!

Next stop was next door at Mr. Stork, the rooftop bar at the new Andaz Hilton (I’m only linking to them in hopes they’ll read this and someone will apologize- srsly, don’t go there. It’s terrible). The view was as spectacular as the drinks and service were dreadful, I’m sorry to report.

Things started off inauspiciously when we both chose a drink from there list of eight special house drinks: Rhubarb for Ak, Ginger for me. “Oh, we’re out of both of those.” Uh, ok. So, I went with Basil, Ak with Thyme. They were both served sloppily and tasted like not much of anything described on the menu – with Ak’s topped with a sad, wilted sprig of thyme. But what do you expect for SG$20 each? (#sideeyeemoji).

As for our servers, it seemed as though none of the kids working there (and even Ak thought they seemed like kids, so it’s not just my grumpy old man syndrome) had received even the barest minimum of training on how to interact with customers. They weren’t mean per se, but definitely not skilled or polished. After ordering drinks, we ordered some food and the server asked if we also wanted drinks – which I explained we’d already ordered. Not the end of the world, but organization was not a strong suit here. Then, while literally mid-sip halfway through my drink, a third server appeared and shoved the bill in my face.

“I’m sorry, sir, can I trouble you to pay the bill?”

“Uh, do I have to decide now?”

“Yes, I’m sorry, sir, we need you pay now.”

WTF? Very weird. Anyway, I settled up and we sat and enjoyed the view – and I decided to have one more drink – a glass of wine. When our latest server showed up with two glasses, I explained that I’d only ordered one, which was met with a blank stare, so I repeated that I’d only ordered one. The second glass was then whisked away – which is fine, I guess. But virtually every bar or restaurant where I’ve been served something I didn’t order has typically been met with, “Well, why don’t you have it anyway? I’ll take it off the bill since we made an error.” I mean, it’s NBD, but were they gonna get out a funnel and pour it back into the bottle? OK, actually, maybe they did…

A few sips into my wine, our insistent bill payment enforcer showed up and once again demanded immediate payment. I should also add that this same scene appeared to play out for the other folks attempting to patronize the bar that evening – even the ones who are far less unsavory looking than myself. It was a very peculiar experience and I’ll be quite sure not to return.

We planned to check out the very nice looking wine bar and specialty shop downstairs called So France, only to see they’d posted signs on the front door indicating CASH ONLY due to a credit card machine failure, apparently. Jeez, strike three!

Dinner was at Folklore, a new-ish place specializing in Singaporean heritage food, i.e. the sort of old fashioned local dishes that Singaporeans grew up with at home. It got a write-up in the NY Times recently and seemed worth a try. We enjoyed dinner, especially the sambal fried rice and the sago dessert. We ordered a jug of beer also, only to be advised that there was no draft beer that evening, in keeping with this evening’s apparent theme of “Nope, Try Again” when it came to drinks.

Back to the hotel earlyish, where Ak and I both slept fitfully, thanks to having ordered probably one more entree than was really necessary at dinner – and perhaps I’d say the same for those last two bottles of beer.

Up early and had a Western breakfast near our hotel. It was tasty – and, this being Singapore, pricey. Eh, what’re you gonna do?

Began packing back at the hotel, which stressed me out no end, thanks to Jetstar, our airline for today’s flight to Da Nang, sending me increasingly dire and alarming messages about weight restrictions for carry-ons and exorbitant fees for checked bags that exceeded weight allowance. I paid to add another 10 kilos of checked bags and then did my best to slim my carry-on bag down to the permitted 7 kilos. Christ, it’s really a fucking racket. Either the bag fits in the overhead (which mine does) or it doesn’t. Who gives a shit what’s in there? Not too mention that 7 kilos is very close to the weight of an empty suitcase…

On top of all the this, I’d developed some kind of rash on my feet – which I naturally assumed was bedbugs or scabies or some other equally awful malady. And the itch was driving me insane.

Our flight wasn’t until 6PM and at this point, we were just sitting around the hotel room with me becoming increasingly stressed out – so we figured we’d just head to Changi, which 100% deserves its reputation as the world’s best airport.

First things first, we got to Jetstar check-in and weighed our bags and redistributed things between checked and carry-on until we both had 7 kilos for the overhead and everything else checked. Needless to say, the extra 10 kilos I’d paid for was unnecessary since we were under our 40 kilo allowance. Oy, a racket, I tell you!

One nice thing though: there’s an urgent care clinic at the airport! I checked in and saw a doctor after a not-too-terrible wait. Diagnosis: atopic dermatitis! Which is really just a fancy term for “Yeah, that’s a rash.” But I got some steroid cream and antihistamines, along with the peace of mind that I’d not contracted an exotic parasitic infection.

Used my Priority Pass to treat us to a decent (and free!) Japanese bento lunch at TGM in T2, then hung out at the Dnata Lounge having wine until it was time to board. All went smoothly with boarding – and needless to say, no one gave my bag a second glance and certainly didn’t attempt to weigh it. I could’ve packed an anvil in there! Sigh. Well, as long as our checked bags have accompanied us to our final destination, I’ll consider the flying experience a success. Anyway, next stop Da Nang!