A Busy Day in Hong Kong

We spent Saturday morning with Yvonne, our guide from Context – a walking tour company I’ve used in several cities around the world and always with very interesting walks. This morning was no exception, I’m happy to report. Yvonne met up with us in Statue Square and spent the next three hours walking with us through Hong Kong’s center, first among the towering (both literally and figuratively) financial institutions like HSBC and Bank of China, then up the hill, through SoHo’s trendy restaurants and quieter neighborhoods.

Yvonne’s knowledge of Hong Kong was impressive and Mom and I both enjoyed the morning. I especially liked some of the trivial-but-no-less-fascinating bits of local knowledge  – like learning the nickname of Jardine House, one of HGK’s more distinctive skyscrapers thanks to its round windows, is sometimes known as the House of a Thousand Assholes – referring not just to the fenestration but to Jardine’s still somewhat unsavory reputation given that their business started out smuggling opium.

Along the way, we stopped at the Honolulu Cafe, a greasy spoon style place known for its egg custard tarts. They were very tasty – though my allegiance to Macau’s Portuguese custard tarts remains unchanged.

Some other highlights included St. John’s Cathedral – Hong Kong’s oldest Anglican church; a small local shrine that makes an appearance in a Wong Kar-wai film; and Yvonne’s broad knowledge of local food trends – she gave me several good leads on more places to eat during our few days left in Hong Kong!

After winding up our walk and saying our farewells, Mom and I took the subway over to Kowloon for afternoon tea at the Intercontinental. There are quite a large number places offering afternoon tea set, so it was difficult to choose where. I’d been leaning toward the Peninsula initially, given its reputation as the OG tea in town – but from what I’d read, it can be a bit of a zoo thanks to its popularity and their no-reservations policy means there’s likely to be a wait. A couple of other promising contenders lost out thanks to gimmicky sounding (though rather tasty looking, I’ll confess) themes or mixed reviews – the Intercontinental seemed to tick all the boxes, plus the venue offers a spectacular view of the harbor.

As it turned out, the view was indeed the highlight of the visit. The experience for the most part was a victory for style over substance. The food – both sweets and savories – was lovely to look at, but really not all that interesting to eat. I thought they were a bit stingy with the savories, though that may be as much my personal preference as an actual drawback. But most of the food was difficult to eat – too large to eat in one bite, but too unwieldy to make it two bites without it falling into one’s lap. This was especially true of the sweets. For example, the darling little berry cream shaped like a ladies’ spring hat was served on a little pastry cardboard – when I removed it from there, half of it wound up down the front of my shirt (which was white, of course and the pastry bright red, of course).

The tea was served tepid. The table was too small to easily accommodate the tea service. The chairs low and cushy – comfortable for sitting, not practical for eating from, especially given the dangerous instability of the sweets to which I’d already fallen victim. And the price was really quite breathtaking.

I suppose I should have known better from the get-go, given that reservations are not accepted for afternoon tea at the Intercontinental. This isn’t some trendy little hole-in-the-wall – it’s the lobby lounge that’s part of a luxury hotel chain with locations around the world. The fact that they’re unwilling to accept reservations smacks of “you should be happy that we’re allowing you to eat here” – which is further exacerbated by forbidding non-hotel-guests from sitting at the most desirable tables or from using the hotel’s wifi. The hotel is certainly within its rights to manage their establishment however they like, but it certainly left me disappointed with the experience, particularly given how ridiculously expensive it was.

When we left the hotel, it was still rather early in the afternoon, so we had some free time. On a bit of whim, we walked up to the Hong Kong Museum of History. This turned out to be a very wise choice! The museum didn’t look like much from the exterior, but inside had a huge and extensive history of Hong Kong from prehistoric times to the present day. Even going through at a rapid clip, the 90 minutes we spent there really only got us as far as the Opium Wars – we may try to squeeze in another visit if we have time.

Back to the hotel to rest up for this evening’s festivities – which really just consisted of a reservation at J.Boroski. I’d been to the original Bangkok outpost of this bar and really enjoyed it, so was quite excited to visit their new outopost in Hong Kong. Located down an alley and behind an unmarked door, the interior is super cool – a long room with a low curved ceiling covered with mounted scarabs, the bar on the left some tables down the center and along the wall with some fringed dividers. A really cool space. Had a very nice bartender who did the usual spiel, asking about what spirit we wanted in our drinks and what other flavors we liked. He made mom a very tasty take on a margarita but with elderflower and fig. I indicated I liked citrus fruit and watermelon, perhaps some fresh herbs or heat but nothing medicinal – and he prepared me a drink that had no discernible fruit and was medicinal. Sigh…

Dinner was down the street at Mak’s Noodles for wonton noodle soup. We’d tried to go the other day, but too early and they’d not yet opened. I wasn’t planning on a return trip, but our guide Yvonne had indicated that they really do make some of the best wontons in HKG – and she was not wrong! Portions are a bit on the small side, which was nice since neither Mom nor I were famished at this point. It was a really great meal and I’d say don’t miss it if you’re in Hong Kong.

Headed back to the hotel and called it a night. Well, just about – I convinced myself I was still feeling a bit peckish, but I think I really just wanted an excuse for another plate of char siu at Joy Hing. Saw Mom up to her room, then nipped up the street for my bbq pork fix – it was just as delicious as the previous evening. I hope I can squeeze in one more visit before we leave for Hanoi on Tuesday – but we’ve still got some other places to eat while we’re here!

A Day in Macau

Mom and I got an early-ish start on Friday and made our way to the Hong Kong-Macau Ferry Terminal for our ultra-deluxe, mega-luxurious hour-long ferry ride to Macau in Premier Grand class on TurboJet. Was it worth the money? Hard to say. We got priority boarding and reserved seats in a comfy-though-not-exactly-Cathay-Pacific-first-class-style, if you know what I mean. We also got a meal – which was also not exactly first class, consisting as it did of scrambled eggs, “sausages” which were much more akin to chicken hot dogs and canned corn.

But then again, we did also get to pass through immigration before all the other passengers – and once cleared, TurboJet provided us with a driver to take us to where we wanted to be dropped off in Macau.

He left us at Rotunda da Carlos Maia and we followed along one of the several walking tours laid out in the Macau Tourist Bureau’s really quite good app. Saw a few different temples, ambled through the Fireman’s Museum and enjoyed walking the narrow streets which are certainly reminiscent of Europe given Macau’s long history as a Portuguese colony. Stopped in the park along the way and a group of school kids spotted the two Westerners and came running right at us – they were practicing their English by asking questions such as “Do you like chocolate?” and “Do you speak more than one language?” and tracking their results. Nice kids and a fun little break. 

Took in the ruins of St. Paul’s, doubtless Macau’s most famous landmark. Sitting at the top of a hill it’s impressive to behold – as are the hordes of tourists. Starting our walk had taken us through more local scenery – but here we were at the nexus of the throngs of visitors. It was a little hectic to say the least.

One saving grace: there was an outpost of Tai Lei Loi Kei at the bottom of the hill, Macau’s most famous purveyor of fried pork chop sandwich. Mom and I got one regular and one served on a sweet bun. They were just OK, sadly. Not bad, mind you – but I certainly didn’t understand the hype.

I’d wanted to visit the Macau Museum, but it turned out it was a fairly long schlep back up the hill we’d just walked down and mom was not eager to fight our way back up through the crowds in the noon heat. We made our way toward Senado Square and took in some of the of other churches and government buildings, eventually winding up at the Opium House near the Inner Harbor. There wasn’t actually a lot to see over here and it was still early – so I suggested we just get a cab to take us back to the museum. No schlepping involved, plus some much needed AC to revive us.

WELL. This turned out to be a great decision. Mom and I both loved the museum. A solid and entertaining overview of Macanese traditions and history along with a special exhibition about Chinese opera. We were both so happy we decided to make the trek.

Next stop was in Coloane Village (after a rather difficult time finding a taxi) where I wanted to try Lord Stow’s Portugese egg custard tarts. I think they have branches in some of the hotel/casinos here, but I wanted to check out the OG location. It’s still tiny shop on the edge of the water, though they’ve added a comfy little cafe around back where Mom and I sat down for some tea and tarts. The tarts were absolutely delicious! Unlike the egg custard tarts back in Hong Kong, these were creamier with golden brown crust on top – almost reminiscent of crème brûlée – and a crispy flaky crust. Given that I’m unlikely to be in Macau again soon, it certainly seemed correct to order a second tart…

Had a little walk around afterward, checking out a few little side streets and some shops along the harbor. Very quiet and local – a nice way to wrap up our day in Macau.

Our exclusive and ultra-fancy Premier Grand VVIP shuttle showed up right on time and whisked us back to the ferry terminal. The ride there was pretty interesting as we got a closer look at some of the truly astonishing casino hotels here. Several of them are quite gargantuan and outlandish – Vegas, eat your heart out!

Upon arriving at the terminal, a helper from the ferry greeted us and asked if wanted to get on the 4:30 ferry rather than the 5:00 we were ticketed on. Answer in the affirmative, so we hot-footed it through the terminal and were escorted to our seats. About two minutes later we were headed back to Hong Kong.

After getting back to our hotel and freshening up, we decided we could use a little something to eat. There’s a very well-reputed roast meat shop called Joy Hing just up the road from our hotel. I wasn’t sure if Mom would be in the mood for the experience, so I texted her with the particulars: it’s divey, not pristine, small and very crowded which means sharing tables, could be a wait, servers are brusque and the ambiance is “eat, pay and get out.” Her reply to me was, “Do they have beer?” So off we went!

Happily, there was no line and we got right in – though we were disappointed to discover they do not in fact have beer. We ordered some roast chicken, which we both found pretty “meh” – not a lot of meat on the bones and skin was rubbery rather than crispy. The char siu pork however was sublime – I’m quite comfortable declaring it the best roast pork I’ve ever had. Tender, meaty, a bit smoky with a caramelized exterior and served on rice. There was some sweet-and-spicy sauce on the table that one of the quite-reasonably-friendly ladies working there recommended. This was the best meal I’ve had this trip so far and I’ll be sure to be back – possibly daily since they open at 9AM and I love nothing better than roast pork for breakfast (save your jokes, Skip and Emily – I’ve already made them all in my head).

Since we didn’t get our beers, we retired to a local restaurant and had a couple of cocktails while sitting on their terrace enjoying the warm tropical evening. A great way to wrap up our latest adventure here.

I’m in Hong Kong!

Well, I don’t suppose I really need to go into a huge amount of detail when I describe my flight from SFO to HKG. I’d cashed in miles before American devalued them – and as a result, I flew first class in seat 1A on Cathay Pacific. Here’s how things went: arrived at airport and was checked in immediately with no waiting. Made my way through the “priority” security line, which sure seemed to have more than its fair share of hopeless rubes gumming up the works. Then onto the Cathay Pacific lounge, where I enjoyed some wonton soup and a glass of Chardonnay. Our flight was announced, I strolled from the lounge to gate 7 and walked directly onto the plane. Oh, if only air travel could always be this easy…

Oh, and there was some WASP-y, Los Altos-y looking couple in the lounge who seemed to be giving me a bit of a “who let him in?” look in the lounge. Let me just say, it was delightful to have them walk past me sitting all the way up front on their way back to business. “Enjoy the flight – if you can, you poor slobs!” went through my head, because I am the worst.

Food all very tasty and service amazing – and I got a fairly good seven hours of sleep, despite a bumpy ride across the Pacific. I arrived in Hong Kong feeling pretty perky in spite of the 14 hours in the air.

I was feeling decidedly less perky after the car service I’d booked and paid for was a no-show at HKG. But it was easy enough to get a taxi and I was soon at my home for the next five days, the Novotel Century. My room wasn’t ready at this early hour, but Mom had arrived the night before, so I was able to leave my stuff in her place and take a shower. Then it was off for some food and shopping!

Honestly, I didn’t plan to do much in the way of shopping in HKG – I assume I’ll find better prices once I get to Hanoi and Bangkok. But along with the delightful pajamas I got during my Cathay flight, they include a coupon from PYE, a maker of high-quality shirts – and those pajamas from the flight. The coupon is good for a free gift or a large discount on a purchase – and since one of my fellow passengers foolishly left their coupon behind on the plane, I snagged it to supplement my own. Waste not, want not…

Anyway, found the place eventually (after not finding the branch of Tim Ho Wan I’d been searching for) and received a box of handkerchiefs. If I’d been more frugal, I’d just have gotten two boxes – but I wound up getting a quite handsome navy polo shirt with my other coupon. On my way out, I bumped into the fellow who’d been sitting behind me on my flight, who was also wringing every bit of benefit from flying first class with Cathay… A man after my own heart.

Next stop was to be Mak’s Noodles, reputed to have some of Hong Kong’s tastiest wonton noodle soup. Found the place without too much difficult and arrived there hungry and a good half hour before they opened. Happily, Tsim Chai Kee is right across the street and also has great wonton noodle soup and is open! This was my first “real” meal in Hong Kong and it was very tasty.

After a pit stop at the hotel, mom and I walked over to the Star Ferry pier in Wan Chai and headed over to Tsim Sha Tsui to meet up with our tour guide Gabi from Walk Hong Kong for a Kowloon market walk. She’s an ex-pat from Switzerland who’s been living in HKG with her husband (and three children born here in HKG) for 20 years.

She took us by bus a bit north by bus and we spent most of the afternoon walking. We saw one of the many local food markets, the flower market, the bird market, the lady market. Gabi gave us a solid overview of everyday life in Hong Kong and some great historical background. We also visited Tin Hau Temple, the center of which was filled with large coils of burning incense hung at roof level. They were beautiful and smelled lovely.

Our tour was a great intro to Hong Kong – especially spending time in Kowloon, which we would no doubt have been unable to see as much of on our own. A really fine way to spend the afternoon.

Mom and I were a lot hungrier than we realized and dinner was decent – pork was tasty though not spectacular. The pan-fried vegetable dumplings tasted as though the dough hadn’t been thoroughly cooked. A quick ferry ride home across the harbor at twilight gave us some pretty views of the Hong Kong skyline. We made a quick stop for me at the musubi/onigiri place so I could have a little snack later, then at 7/11 for a couple of cans of beer, since mom and I are both very classy and elegant ladies. Back to hotel for a very early night – I was asleep before 9PM! – as we re-energize for Friday’s trip to Macau.

Last Days in BKK

A quick taxi ride from DMK airport and I arrived at my home for my last few days in Bangkok, the Hansar. WELL. This place is pretty deluxe! A spacious and lovely suite and a huge bathroom and dressing area. I could get used to this…

Anyway, had a low-key evening and then was up at a reasonable hour on Sunday and headed out for lunch at May Kaidee, reputed to be one of BKK’s best vegetarian restaurants. Now, I’m sure you’re asking yourself, “Why on earth would you go to a vegetarian place when there are hundreds of places serving up delicious meat, fish and seafood mere steps from your hotel?” Well, in one of those “small world” type deals, my friend and former colleague Amanda and her b.f. just happened to be in BKK at the same as I was. They are in the middle of a rather long trip that started in South America and then brought them to Australia and parts of Asia. Oh, and she and her b.f. are both vegetarian, hence my magnanimous gesture in foregoing meat for a single meal during my visit to Thailand.

And the food was quite tasty! Plus it was really fun to catch up and hear about their adventures thus far. Ak and I gave them the 4-1-1 on our trip to Siem Reap, which was their next stop (our recommendation of Chanrey Tree was a big success, according to Amanda’s email a few days later). I had such an enjoyable time that I neglected to get out my phone for even one group selfie. Christ, what an asshole!

Back to the Hansar for some r&r by the pool, then out to dinner at what was listed on my itinerary as “Ak’s secret” – meaning Ak had chosen where we were eating and it was a surprise. It was a place called Hot Rod and they specialized in “Asian tapas” – which sounds a little suspect, but we were sitting at the bar and got to see all of our food (and cocktails, obv) prepared to order. Everything was pretty delicious, especially the grilled beef – not to mention my “Panda & Buffalo” cocktail. We had a great time here.

Next stop was J.boroski Mixology. Yeah, I know, it already sounds kind of insufferable – and I’ll cop to it being a bit precious. It’s located at the end of a non-descript alley in Thonglor. There’s no sign out front, though there is a discreet door guy who’ll let you know you’re in the right place. Inside it’s small and very dark (TBH, a bit too dark – but what’re you gonna do?). Ak and I were shown to a couple of seats in back and the fellow taking orders explained how things work: we tell him what kind of spirit we like, along with some ingredients or flavor profiles and he’ll tell the bartender who’ll create something for us. I mentioned gin and watermelon… Like I said, a bit presh – but you know what? The cocktails were fantastic and delicious. And the speakeasy vibe was pretty cool too – we def felt like we were someplace special, only open to those in the know. I really loved this place!

Then on to Sing Sing, voted one of BKK’s best bars. It’s done up in 1930s Shanghai-style glam and the photos I’d seen looked amazing. The reality was a bit different. It was pretty cool looking inside, but the music was lousy and painfully loud. And the few patrons there during my visit were all kinda bro types – I found the atmosphere rather uninviting. With that being said, our cocktail waitress was very nice – though the cocktails themselves were disappointing. All in all, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that I much preferred the low-key vibe of J.boroski to the OTT atmosphere of Sing Sing.

Back in Silom, we stopped in Soi 4  for another couple of drinks (because why not?) and then found ourselves feeling a bit peckish ‘round about midnight, as one does. Luckily, there was a Japanese place around the corner where we had ramen and gyoza before calling it a night.

Monday we planned to visit one of the residences of the royal family, the Queen Savang Vadhana Museum. It is only open for visits by the public during certain times of the year and I was lucky enough to be in Bangkok during that time. Conveniently located right next to Siam Paragon, we showed up there before lunch and we’re promptly told we needed to call to book an appointment in order to visit. Once again, I was very fortunate to have Ak with me – he got on the phone and was able to make arrangements for us to visit that afternoon.

So,  Ak and I headed off in search of a shop that sold home fragrance, only to discover that its location had been demolished. Happily, though, we were just a short walk from Terminal 21, one of BKK’s many cool malls, this one with each floor representing a different city. My favorite was “London,” filled with small shops selling mostly local designs. I was even able to find a couple of t-shirts that I was able to squeeze my lumpy farang body into!

Back to the Sra Prathum Palace at the appointed hour and had a very enjoyable visit. It’s a lovely place, a large and lovely house on 17 acres in the heart of Bangkok. It’s quite astonishing to walk through the beautiful and quiet grounds and realize you’re barely a stone’s throw from the teeming throngs at Siam Paragon and its surroundings.

No cameras allowed, which is always a nice respite and a chance to really take in one’s surroundings. The tour guide was Thai (duh, obviously) and her discussion of the grounds and palace were in Thai (again, duh). But in typically gracious fashion, a separate guide was assigned to me, the lone farang, to provide me a tour in English.

The museum portion was very interesting. I spent quite a great deal of time in front of the royal family tree, trying to figure out how successions had worked. I was relieved to be advised that even Thai people find it very confusing.

The palace itself is a grand old place. It’s large of course, but not overwhelmingly so. It feels quite homey – and I can understand why Queen Savang Vadhana spent such a large portion of her life living in this lovely place.

After a quick visit to Siam Paragon (because of course), we headed back to the Hansar – but with a stop first at the St. Regis for an afternoon cocktail. They have a great bar/lounge up on the 7th floor and I was dying to try the Siam Mary, a Bloody Mary re-interpreted with Thai flavorings like lemongrass. It did it’s job and revived me sufficiently to decide on where to have dinner.

After a bit of downtime, we returned to Suppaniga Eating Room – and since we were in the neighborhood, we also popped back in for a round of drinks at the bar at The House on Sathorn. This time we sat at the bar and got to chat up the bartenders while they made our drinks. I tried some kind of fancy margarita, which was very good – though not nearly as good as The Garden I’d had last time. Luckily, we had time for a second round, so….

Dinner at Suppaniga was great. Food was again excellent (esp sai oua and grilled pork!) and I think we had a better table. Mango sticky rice for dessert…

Tuesday was my last full day in Bangkok! Needless to say, this meant starting the day off with my favorite bhang mee moo dang hang – bbq pork with noodles (with extra pork, DUH). I miss all of the food in Thailand, but this really was my favorite breakfast and I can’t wait to have it again.

Next stop: the National Museum! Sadly, we did not check the hours and discovered they are closed both Mondays and Tuesdays. UGH. Well, what’re you gonna do? In our case, we decided to have a snack and then cross the river to visit Wat Arun.

I’d been through here once before while on a bike tour, but it was in the evening. I was happy to see it again in daylight. We had a nice wander around and then decided to explore one of the little alleys adjacent to the temple. WELL. This was a wise decision, since the alley was filled with friendly cats and both Ak and I got our fill of “aww-ing” and petting all these adorable little felines

Headed back to Wat Pho so we could have the extreme stress of finding the museum closed worked out by their fine massage therapists. Then a tasty lunch across the street at Inn A Day, a place I’d eaten at on my last visit. I was quite pleased and relieved when Ak pronounced the food delicious and sufficiently authentic.

Now, my sense of direction is still rather challenged in Bangkok – I definitely don’t have a good feel for where things are in relationship to one another. But I had a sense that we were not too terribly far from Nuttaporn ice cream. OK, it wasn’t exactly right around the corner but we walked off our lunch to revisit this amazing little shop. I’d wanted to try the Thai tea flavor and we also wanted to taste the coconut cream (a slightly different version of the regular coconut ice cream we had last time). They were both pretty tasty! But neither of them compared to the mango and coffee flavors we’d had last visit – so, this being my last day and all, time for a second dessert. Ak had the extremely smart idea to get sticky rice on our mango ice cream. SO GOOD!

Later that evening, we headed up to the rooftop of the Centara Grand Hotel. We’d wanted to get here for sunset, but after such an exhausting day, that proved to be a little ambitious to fit in after a nap. But it was a great view from up there – and Ak is always a font of information, pointing out buildings and sights, as well as making recommendations about what part of town I should live in, just in case I decide to abandon the US.

Dinner that night at Bo.lan, one of the many places I’d wanted to try on my previous visit but ran out of time. I must confess, I was slightly hesitant – only because the other two restaurants we’d tried from the “Best in Asia” list were both among the more disappointing meals of the trip. But what the hell? We gave it a try.

And it was great! The place itself is absolutely charming. Located at the end of a little alley, it feels like one is entering an old style Thai home, though with modern furnishings. Service was lovely and friendly. Even before the first bite, I was loving this place.

The dinner options are two tasting menus – one large and one small. We chose the smaller, because we are fucking dainty. And we loved it. Now, I must confess, I’m writing this update more than two months after the fact, so the specifics of what we had escape me. Plus  Ak and I enjoyed our evening so much, I wasn’t exactly in reporter mode. But it was great fun and a fine way to wind up my visit to Bangkok.

On the way out we chatted briefly with Chef Bo. She’s something of a celebrity in Thailand, so Ak was a bit starstruck. But she very kind and we both told her what an excellent meal we’d had.

Back to the Hansar to finish packing. Then to sleep – though only for a bit. I left for Suvarnabhumi Airport at 5:30AM for an 8:00AM flight home. As always, sad to be leaving Bangkok and saying goodbye to my friend Ak. Happily, though, I’ll be back in again in October!

More from Siem Reap

Our next day in Siem Reap was in many ways similar to our last: up early (though thankfully well after sunrise this time) and back to visit more of Angkor Wat, though this time focusing on temples along the “Grand Circuit” so we wouldn’t be visiting the same places as yesterday. And as much I as enjoyed exploring Angkor Wat by bicycle, there is certainly something to be said for touring via an automobile with AC!

Our guide, Kimthet, was great. Extremely well-versed in the history and construction of the various places we visited during the day, including the ruins of Neak Pean, a 12th century hospital made up of pools that were believed to have curative powers and Banteay Srei, an amazing temple from the 10th century carved largely from pink sandstone. The materials and motifs used to construct this temple were notably different than other temples in the Angkor Wat complex, so it was a particular highlight of our visit.

Now, with that being said, I rarely post about my travels without acknowledging my own philistinism, particularly when it comes to visiting ancient ruins. Don’t get me wrong – the temples here are fascinating! But after visiting several of them over the course of the day, they do start to feel rather similar (with the fairly notably exception of Banteay Srei) – and the 100° heat can make getting out of the car a positively Herculean effort. But Ak and I soldiered on and really enjoyed our day.

It certainly helped that we had a nice break for lunch. The tasty food was welcome of course, but even better was making some more new cat and dog friends during lunch. We ❤ cats!

As I said, Kimthet was a great guide, a real storehouse of knowledge about Angkor Wat. At one point during the day, we were talking about tourism’s impact on Siem Reap. Despite the huge influx of tourists and the money they bring, much of that money doesn’t stay in Cambodia. Many of the large resorts are foreign-owned and even the merchandise at the tourist markets tends to be made in China and Vietnam. Kimthet gave us some excellent recommendations when I asked what I could do to be a “good” tourist (or at least nominally less awful). One was to donate to the local children’s hospital (something I was happy to do); the other was to avoid shopping for trinkets and souvenirs at the tourist markets and instead visit Artisans Angkor, which trains young people in various Cambodian handicrafts and offers their works for sale.

Kimthet also told us a bit about his own quite harrowing experiences growing up in Cambodia. It was eye-opening, to put it mildly. He reminded us that fully half of Cambodia’s population today is under 22 – a sobering legacy of the millions killed during the Khmer Rouge and in the subsequent Cambodian-Vietnamese war. Should you find yourself visiting Siem Reap, I certainly encourage you to engage the guide services of Mr. Kimthet Lay – you’ll find him to be an excellent guide who’ll teach you many things about his country. You can email him at artisansangkor@yahoo.com.

After our long, sweaty day visiting temples, Ak and I were happy to get back to our little hotel and have a swim. We had a bit of time to waste before dinner – so I had the clever idea of returning to Bodia Spa, just for a quick hour of foot reflexology. Happily, they had room for us and sent a tuk-tuk over to ferry us back to the spa. I could def get used to this…

After the spa, we went out in search of Miss Wong Cocktail Bar, someplace Ak had read about in his research for our trip. We got a tiny bit lost but eventually found our way up a small alley to a cozy bar done up in Shanghai 1930s style. Had a couple of very tasty cocktails, posed for our lives for some selfies and then ambled off to dinner at Viroth’s Restaurant, located at our hotel’s sister establishment. Dinner was outside, the food was great, the waiter adorable – can’t ask for much more than that.

Saturday morning we headed over to the “real” (as opposed to tourist) market, Psha Leu. We wandered the aisles for a good hour or two, staring at all the things for sale: everything from freshly-caught fish to just-slaughtered pigs to umbrellas to ballgowns. One of the more fascinating sights was a lady selling corn. She had a large bowl of kernels that had been stripped from the corn and was scooping them up and dumping them out in front of an electric fan – thus blowing the silk remnants out and leaving just the kernels behind.

After our shopping excursion, we headed into town to visit Angkor Artisans, per Kimthet’s recommendation. It was great! Really beautiful silk ware, wood and stone carvings, some lovely jewelry. I got charming little carved pig to take home with me and Ak picked out a necklace with a soapstone pendant. We didn’t have time to take the tour of the workshops, but I was really impressed with the fine quality of all that was being sold in the shop.

Then, it was back to the hotel to collect our luggage and head to the airport. A relatively uneventful trip back to Bangkok – though I did have to perform some ridiculous charade of moving stuff between my suitcase and my backpack in order to meet Air Asia’s absurd weight limitation for carry-on bags. The end result was that I brought on the exact same two pieces of luggage I arrived with and put them in the exact same location in the overhead bin – but that some of my clothes were now in my backpack rather than my suitcase. Proving once again, I suppose, that you get what you pay for…

As much as I enjoyed Cambodia, I was also happy to be back in Bangkok. Sure, it’s only my second visit and I have much to learn still about this city, but there is already an element of “coming home” when I get here.

And here we are in our tuk-tuk, heading to the spa. Wheeeee!



First Day in Siem Reap

Off to Cambodia! Things started off well enough, with Ak and I managing to arrive at Don Mueang airport nearly simultaneously. This is Bangkok’s “old” airport and currently serves mostly low-cost carriers on short hops in and around SE Asia. It’s also really crowded and not the most modern of facilities… and the AC was mostly conked out. So, all in all, not the most glamorous introduction to air travel for Ak, who was making his first flight!

Our flight on Air Asia was delayed by about an hour. And, in a bit of “are you for real?” on my part, my “Premium Flex” ticket for which I paid extra and which included among other things pre-boarding of the aircraft was rather a misnomer. Our aircraft was out on the tarmac and we were transported by bus from the terminal to the plane. So, while I did indeed get to board that bus first, I schlepped up the stairs in the midst of all the hordes of people who’d crammed onto the bus after me. Yes, yes, first world problem, blah, blah, blah. But I did in fact pay for something which I didn’t get.

Anyway, the flight itself was pleasant enough and Ak didn’t flip out – though he may gone just a bit saucer-eyed at the landing, which was a bit of a jolt. The small Siem Reap airport seems very new and immigration was relatively painless, if not the friendliest. And even after such a short flight, it’s always a lovely thing to see a driver holding a sign with one’s name on it when entering the main terminal.

The first thing I noticed on the short trip to our hotel was how much calmer the traffic was compared to Bangkok. Granted, Siem Reap is quite a bit smaller – but the roads were populated with more bicycles than cars on the road from the airport and drivers seemed pretty mellow.

Arrived at our hotel for the next few days, Viroth’s Villa – a groovy little boutique place. TBH, I might’ve been happier with a room on the second floor, but I got the only room furnished with separate beds. The place was quite comfy, the staff extraordinarily kind and helpful throughout our stay and the pool provided a lovely way to spend the afternoon after visiting Angkor Wat during the day.

Our first evening we ate at Chanrey Tree. I think I stumbled across it online. It wound up being the perfect choice: a short walk from our hotel, a lovely outside table on a very warm evening, cocktails, tasty food, all in lush garden setting. We loved it!

Made an early night of it, since Thursday morning started early: our guide from Grasshopper Adventures was picking us up at 4:30AM for the short drive to Angkor Wat to watch the sun rise. This certainly seemed like a great idea when I was reserving this trip, though somewhat less so when faced with the prospect of actually piling into a van at 4:30AM…

But pile we did! And it was an ideal way to start our visit. One thing I hadn’t paid attention to, however, was that the tickets required to visit the Angkor Wat compound were not included in the price of this tour. NBD – we stopped to purchase them on our way in. The only little problem was that the tickets are cash only (and US dollars at that), so I was a little more tapped out than I’d anticipated once the trip was over and it came time to tip… Not that I had nothing mind you, but I wish I could’ve been a bit more generous.

Anyway, we got to the main temple of Angkor Wat and found our seats along the exterior moat waiting for the sun to rise. There were a lot of other tourists there – though my sense was that many of them actually walk into the central enclosure for a close-up view of the sun appearing behind the wat’s towers. However, I really enjoyed our vantage point along the moat – not just because it wasn’t too crowded but because the reflection of the ruins on the water was especially lovely as dawn crept up on us… Our guide was great, providing us with snacks to tide us over ‘til breakfast and helping us make friends with the local temple dogs who were hanging out with us.

Once daylight was upon us, we explored the interior structures and frescos. A hike up to the towers via some very steep staircases (to remind us of the difficulty of ascending to the kingdom of the gods) provided a splendid view of our surroundings. And, as if that was not already fantastic enough, we came upon a dozing mama cat and her three gamboling kittens! Really, is there anything better than temple kittehs?

Next we had a simple breakfast before starting the bike portion of our tour. It was a small group – just Ak and me; a fellow from South Africa; a nice woman from Singapore; and a Canadian who was a bit out to lunch: she didn’t realized she’d signed up for a bike trip…  It was kind of funny that it was all singled folks on the trip. When I’d been in Thailand last October, I was typically the only sad Mary-Ann-Singleton on the various tours I’d signed up for. Now, here I was with a traveling companion and everyone else is on their own. Anyway, it was a nice enough group, though no long-lasting friendships were forged.

Now, I do love riding, though I also forget that my urban bike riding experience doesn’t always translate very well to a more off-the-beaten path ride. Luckily, though, one of the fellows in our group looked pretty experienced so I did my best to follow his lead. And I did OK! No wipe-outs and no dropped chains – can’t ask for much more than that.

The rest of the day was spent biking around from temple to temple, with stops to explore on foot. Our guide was very knowledgeable and we had a really enjoyable visit. And I was very pleased that Ak – despite insisting dramatically a couple of times that he was very close to death – held his own on the bicycle, despite not being a daily rider like I am.

Of course, after ten miles of riding in 100° weather, one does get a bit exhausted. So, when we wrapped up our tour with a stop for lunch that include a couple of beers? We were all pretty delighted.

Back to hotel where we washed our stanky grimy selves off. No time to waste, since Bodia Spa was sending a tuk-tuk to collect us at 3:45PM for our our three-hour “Relaxation” package. WELL. This was a delight! Gentle therapeutic massage along with an invigorating body scrub. Really the perfect way to end a rather strenuous day.

Dinner at Cuisine Wat Danmak, listed as one of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. And it was OK – though TBH, neither of us were particularly bowled over by the meal. It was fine and the price was reasonable – but we actually enjoyed the previous night’s dinner more than this one.

A short tuk-tuk ride back to our place and an early night. Tomorrow: more temples!

And here’s a few shots from my helmet cam from our biking trip!




Monday and Tuesday in Bangkok

One of the best things about being on vacation is that Monday is just as delightful as every other day of the week… My agenda for the next couple of days was mostly re-visiting places I’d enjoyed last October or that I’d not had time to visit. But breakfast first, of course! Back to the little joint near my hotel that specializes in pork and noodles – and that’s exactly what I had (again): pork and noodles. Though this time I got barbecue pork and noodles rather than crispy pork belly. No lie, I’d be happy to eat this for breakfast every morning forever.

Next, on to Wat Pho! I’d actually been here a couple of times last visit to Bangkok, but I had foolishly neglected to avail myself of the massage services available from the students at their world-renowned massage school and the spiritual home of Thai massage. Ak and I each went for the full treatment: one hour foot massage followed by one hour Thai massage for the extremely reasonable price of ฿840 each. The surroundings are not fancy and the massage platforms and chairs are tightly-packed. No matter though – the services are, as one would expect, top-notch. I enjoyed my foot massage – but I loved my Thai massage! My therapist really seemed intuitive and by the time I left, my recurring hamstring injury felt nearly cured. Ak found the Thai massage a bit on the intense side for his taste, but really loved his foot massage. À chacun son goût…

Massage leaves one surprisingly hungry, so I was happy that our next destination was Krua Apsorn, where I could once again scarf down some of their amazing crab curry and crab omelet. We walked there – NBD under ordinary circumstances, but BKK’s temperatures that week had been referred to online as “face-meltingly hot” and that was not wrong. The high that day was something around 97° – so our half-hour walk left us rather worn out, despite popping into one of BKK’s ubiquitous 7-11s to ostensibly buy some water but really just to luxuriate in the chilly AC (and also for me to observe all manner of fascinating items for sale!).

But we made it and the meal at Krua Apsorn was as delicious as I remember. And good thing – someone was getting a bit hangry while we waited to be served…

After lunch, a rather short stroll to a place that had been on my list to visit last time, but that I coudn’t fit into my schedule: Nuttaporn Ice Cream, a tiny place that has been turning out coconut-milk-based ice cream for 60+ years. Ak and I each went traditional and ordered the coconut ice cream, me with corn and palm jelly, his with peanuts and palm jelly. It was really good! Deeply coconutty, though with a texture more like sorbet. And rather dainty portions too – which was frankly a relief, since it meant we could order a second round!

I went with coffee, Ak with the fresh mango – no toppings for either of us. OH. EM. GEE. I immediately declared without hyperbole that the coffee ice cream was the finest I’d ever had. The texture was creamy, though a bit less so than one made with cow’s milk. The flavor was intense and only barely sweet. Sublime. As for the mango? It was as if a mango had been plucked off a tree and magically transformed into ice cream. As my nephew accurately observed when he visited Nuttaporn (on my recommendation, natch) last November, “it was the bomb!”

And while Nuttaporn is clearly doing something right – they have been in business for longer than I’ve been alive (which frankly seems impossible, given my childhood spent along the Euphrates…) – it’s quite astonishing to me that the place doesn’t have a line around the block everyday. Bangkok is already a mecca for “foodies” (ugh) and this is place has all the hallmarks of a cult favorite: hole-in-the-wall, simple, inexpensive, delicious, a bit off-the-beaten path. Don’t get me wrong – I’m kinda glad they are just keeping on as they have in the past. Part of its charm is certainly that it’s a local place with a totally neighborhood vibe.

Anway, def go here while you’re in BKK – but don’t ruin it please!

After ice cream, we hopped on the canal boat and wound up, per usual, at Siam Paragon. I think we just passed through on the way to the Skytrain station – or maybe it’s because we can’t seem to avoid popping in at least once a day for whatever reason. Whatever the case, back to my hotel for a little downtime and then time to get ready for more eating – which, if I’m being totally honest, was probably one of the main reasons I returned to BKK so quickly after my last visit, i.e. I had waaaaaaay more food to eat!

This evening, Ak  was taking me to one of this favorite local spots. We met up with his friend Koi and headed to Jae Koy. Super-local, super-simple and not a place I’d likely to have wandered into on my own – in fact, I was the only farang in the place. I loved it! Food was all great – som tum, beef salad, tom yum and gai yang. I think the beef was my particular favorite, thanks to being spicy and tangy and fragrant. Just all of it so delicious…

Toward the end of our meal, I saw a Western couple come in and sit down, as I thought to myself, “Well, they must be really dialed in to the local food scene if they are here.” And then I noticed their Thai companions bright green shirt – it was Olive, the guide who’d taken me on a marvelous floating market tour last October! That’s one great thing about having my crazy beard, nerd glasses and septum piercing – when I started waving, she def remembered me. Anyway, she came over and we chatted a bit – and she pointed out that whoever took me here must really know their food, because the place is excellent. Nice job, Ak! Not that I expected anything less from him…

Had an early night since the plan was for us to meet up early and check out the Teak and Dusit Palaces on Tuesday morning. Met Ak at the BTS station and then we clambered onto a bus for a short-ish ride to the palace grounds.

First stop, the Teak Palace. Lovely both inside and out. And, while I would’ve loved to have taken some photos of the interiors, cameras and phones are strictly prohibited since this is still a royal residence. Visitors are required to store any and all gear in a locker before entering the building. Honestly? It’s kind of nice to just take in the surroundings without trying to get photos of everything – or, as is more often the case, being pushed and shoved by tourists who don’t look at anything that doesn’t appear on their iPhone screen.

Shoes are also not permitted, so off we padded after leaving our shoes in the rather fragrant repository. The palace itself was quite lovely inside. It’s a little disappointing that there’s not much in the way of information about what one is seeing, so it’s mostly just, “Oh! This place is lovely.” Though Ak was able to provide me with some of the history and context – one of the many benefits of having a Thai friend to squire me around!

After the Teak Palace, we schlepped (srsly, it was kind of a schlep – plus it was literally one million degrees out) over to the Dusit Palace. Wow! The palace is as impressive as the lines are long! Similar drill here, too – no cameras or phones allowed. We locked up our stuff and then joined the enormous line in the blazing hot sun with no shade anywhere. This was gonna be a challenge!

Now, one of the things I’ve learned in my travels is that it is very easy to slip into making broad generalizations about the relative lack of social grace possessed by various specific nationalities. However, I’ve learned that this is not primarily a product of varying social mores (though they play a role) but rather that when you get large tour groups of people from anywhere, they tend to behave like boors. And other than Ak and myself, every visitor at the Dusit Palace had just bussed in from whatever the version of Bumfuck is from their respective countries of origin.

Happily, though, this turned out to be a boon. As we waited amongst the loud and jostling crowd, one of the line wranglers saw us and waved us up to the front of the line for immediate entry. Not really sure why (I imagine because we were not part of the massive group that had descended), but quite sure I don’t care why – I was delighted to be inside not just to look at the quite marvelous collection of objets but to experience the blissfully frigid AC.

The various gold and jewel encrusted thrones, litters, boats and other objects were certainly impressive – as were the soaring ceilings and the various painted scenes upon them. But I must say, the huge carved wood panels were breathtaking. The intricacy of the work and the realism of the subjects was astonishing. There were also some silk embroidered panels that were just lovely.

So, enough with the local sights – it’s time for more food! Lunch was at Som Tum Nua, in the Siam Center shopping center. We had som tum (duh), wings and some kind of noodles that Ak chose and were (duh) abso-effing-lutely delicious. Dessert was across the way at Siam Paragon where I managed to eat an extremely dainty matcha-cream-filled pastry, since I myself am dainty AF.

That afternoon was pretty quiet. Had a lie-down and a swim, then grabbed some tasty katsu curry around the corner for dinner, before finishing up packing. Tomorrow would be a travel day – off to Siem Reap, Cambodia to visit the temples. More to come on that in my next post!