Monday, December 1, 2014

Myanmar the Land of Temples: Part II - My First Two Days

I awoke on Saturday morning and looked out my window at the Shwedagon Paya (Pagoda).  This is an icon off Yangon and is the most sacred of Buddhist sites in Myanmar.
Shwedagon Paya at Dawn

 This was to be a day of rest and relaxation after my long flight.  I went down to the buffet breakfast, which catered to diverse tastes.  In addition to standard American/European fare, there were sections for Indian, Chinese, and Japanese.  A section with bacon and pork was marked "Non Halal" so Moslems would know not to take any.

My hotel is the Chatrium Royal Lake and surely, Lake Kandawgyi (Royal Lake) is just across the street.  I walked across and started walking a path around the lake.
Royal Lake
Much of the path was brick, but it was not very well kept up and had dirt or broken bricks in places. Finally, I came to a locked gate and could go no further. I turned back and went to the hotel.  I put my bathing suit on and went to sit by the pool.

I read my spy novel and watched the people around the pool, getting in and swimming a while.  By late afternoon, I went into the bar and had one of their 640 ml (21 oz) bottles of Myanmar Beer. It's a great bargain for $6 if you can drink it all.  They also have regular 335 ml (12 oz) cans for $4, so this might be the way to go.  I went to the hotel's Chinese restaurnt and had their special of the day, crispy noodles and chicken. The waitress sugested dessert, so I had chocolate ice cream.

Back in my room, I started arranging my things.  The next day I wanted to start exploring Yangon fairly early, so that I would avoid the heat of the day. While I was in my room the hotel slipped a note under my door. It was from my tour leader, Don Lyons.  I called his room, and he suggested that we meet for breakfast at 7:00.   I agreed and went to bed.

The next morning, I met Don for breakfast and we got to know a bit abouy each other.  We finished at about 8:00; he had some appointments and I had my photos to take.  I stopped at the concierge station, and they gave me a map, a hotel card, and engaged a taxi to take me to the Sule Paya for 3,000 kyat (about $3.00, $1 US converts to about 1,025 kyat).  Dealing with the hotel, everything is priced in USD; on trhe local economy things are priced in kyat.  In any event, the driver took me to the Paya in record time.  Of course, it was Sunday; when I made almost the same trip the next day, traffic was much morse.

Near the Paya is a small park, Maha Bandula Park.  A lot of people were enjoying the park..  There were many young couples, strolling hand in hand, or just enjoying each other's company.
Maha Bandula Park
 Across from the park there was the Yangon City Hall, the first of many buildings that I would photograph on that day and the  next.

After walking around the park and taking a few more shots, I then took some pictures of the Paya, and walked up the stairs to the skywalk and went inside.  I removed my sandals and left them at the door after paying the entrance fee. There were several small chapels which it was OK to photograph.
Yangon City Hall
Sule Paya

After the Paya, I went an photographed some other buildings.  which are shown below.
Sule Paya
 I somehow missed the street that I wanted to take to continue on the tour that was shown in my guide book, and went on to a Road with the same name.  This led me to a dead end.  I truned right and passed several more little paths that were obviously not what I was looking for.  I felt that I was somehow lost, and was tired.  There seem to be taxis everywhere you look in Yangon. I saw one showed the driver my hotel card.  He seemed to know where it was, so I quoted him the 3,000K price which he ageed to, and off we were back to the hotel.

We were on familiar streets, getting close, when he veered off the main road to a Lane with the same name. I assumed that the driver was, just bypassing main road traffic, but he got lost.  After one false start, he found another taxi driver, who gave him directions and we finally arrived home.

Here are pictures of some of the other old buildings I saw on my walk that day.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Myanmar Land of Temples: Part I: The Journey There

I had a lucky start to my trip.  About a week before, i had been watching the departures and arrivals of my planned flight (UA6487) from Santa Barbara to San Francisco.  It appeared to be arriving late about 50% of the time, largely to to air traffic control at SFO.  I only had an hour to connect as scheduled, and often the arrivals we more than an hour late.  i considered going up to SFO the night before if I didn't have any change penalties to pay.  I called up United and broached the question to a customer service agent.  She immediately switched me to  a flight leaving Santa Barbara two-and-a-half hours earlier (6:00 vs 8:30).  

This necessitated my getting up at 3:30 and getting Pat up at 4:00 to get me to the airport by 5:00 to check in.  Everything went smoothly and he plane left on time, arriving at SFO by 7:30.  I was comfortably sitting in the lounge at SFO, when I determined from my FlightAware app that the original flight was delayed and wouldn't arrive at SFO until 15 minutes after my 11:05 flight left for Tokyo.  

I'm not sure what would have happened if I'd taken the original flight.  There are no more flights to Tokyo from SFO after mine. This one option was wait a day either in SBA or SFO and hope for better luck the next day (Thanksgiving), or take a later United flight to Shanghai, and take a different flight from there to Yangon.  I didn't want to wonder about that.

My flight landed in Tokyo ahead of schedule and I took a shuttle to the Narita Hilton, where I was spending the night.  After putting my things in the room and a quick freshen up, I was back in the lobby to take the shuttle back to the airport to catch the Skyliner train to Tokyo, where I would meet Hiro and Natsu Matsumoto for dinner.  Natsu was in the Channel City Camera Club while Hiro was studying at UCSB 12 years ago.  Pat and I had visited with them during a tour of Japan in 2004. I had reconnected with them on Facebook, and Hiro and I had set up the dinner meeting via email as my trip plans finalized.
Hiro and Natsu with SBYC visors

Hiro and Natsu were waiting at the Skyliner ticket gate in Ueno station, and Hiro  hailed a taxi outside to take us to the restaurant he had chosen.  This was a very Japanese experience. We all took off our shoes and sat at a low table with our feet in a hole in the center over a lamp to keep them warm.  This is called a Kotatsu.  

A gas ring is in the center of the table, upon which is placed a bowl with cooking oil in it.The staff brings in dishes of raw ingredients, mostly vegetables in our case, are are placed in the oil to cook. The cooking pot is called a nabe. Natsu did the honors, adding and stirring the food and passing out individual dishes to Hiro and me.

We had some beer and sake and talked.  Hiro and Natsu asked about camera club members they remembered from their visit and I brought them up to date on those and also a few others who were in  the club at that time and that they remembered.  We talked about Hiro's job and Natsu's pictures and my family.  It was a very pleasant time.
Dinner Ingredients

But all good things must come to an end.  Hiro and I had discussed getting me back to the hotel while they still ran shuttles to one of the train stations in Narita. A short walk from the restaurant is the Asakusa station of the Keisei line, the more conventional train operated by the Skyliner company.  This train would end up at the Narita city railroad station where there would be a 10:35 shuttle to the hotel.  Hiro and Natsu got on that train with me to go to a station where I had to transfer to different line.  They took me to the transfer point and put me on the correct train.  I was then on my own, and just a little concerned that I wouldn't make the hotel.  Luckily, I  had brought the hotel's instructions for that shuttle with me on my cell phone, and with a  little help, I was able to find the place to board the shuttle after I arrived at Narita Station.  The shuttle arrived on time and I climbed in.  I returned to my room about 11:00 PM, 26 hours after I'd arisen in Santa Barbara.  I had had some sleep on the plane ride to Tokyo, but was glad to hit the pillows after a fine evening with  friends.

I was up at 6:00 in the morning and watch the sun rise outside my window.
Sunrise in Tokyo
I showered and went down to the restaurant for the breakfast included with my room.  There were Japanese and American buffets.  I opted for the American, and had fruit, an omelet, toast, and coffee.  A trip to the room and back to the lobby for the 8:20 shuttle to the airport to catch my flight to Yangon.  

Once at the airport, I checked in with ANA, went through security and Immigration, and settled myself down in the lounge to await boarding. As I had an ample breakfast at the hotel, I just read my book until the plane was called.

After boarding, I settled into my seat for the eight hour trip. There was not much to do. I didn't want to sleep, as I was trying to acclimate myself to the new time zone. I had a fairly good rest the night before, and wanted to go to sleep at a normal time in Yangon. I had an interesting spy novel about an Israeli Intelligence agent and art restorer who planned to detect and take down a terrorist network, Portrait of a Spy, by Dan Silva. I read that and had lunch and generally enjoyed the flight until the plane touched down at Yangon International.  

There was then the normal drill of Immigration, pick up suitcase (mine made it all the way), go through Customs, and another X-Ray bag inspection before leaving the Customs area. As soon as I was out the door, I spotted the driver from the tour company with his sign with my name. He took me to the curb to wait while he retreived his car.

This began a one hour drive through very heavy traffic. Google Maps says it's 14.6 km and should take about 20 minutes in normal traffic; the trip lasted one hour with the traffic. However, I reached the hotel, checked in, had dinner and went to bed.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A day on the town in Bangkok

I took a multi-modal trip from the Baan Thai House in Ayutthaya to Centre Point Silm in Bangkok.  A tuk-tuk took me and my luggage to the mini-van station in the center of town. From there we (my baggage counted for an extra passenger) went to Victory Monument in Bangkok. The van stopped several times along the way to pick up and discharge passengers, but made the trip in slightly over an hour. At Victory Monuument, I hailed one of the many passing taxis. The driver looked at the address (in English and Thai) of my destination and decided either he didn't know where it was or he didn't want to go there. The second driver looked at it and quoted me a price of 300B, off the meter.  That is what I had budgeted for this leg and so accepted.  Traffic was heavy so it took probably longer than he thought. He also got into the area and had to circle the block. I tipped him and extra 40B and he was genuinely grateful.
The whole trip cost 500B, which was one-third of the taxi from the airport to Ayutthaya.
Bangkok from my room at Centre Point Silom
I was ushered to a 21st floor apartment with a river and city view. Which you can see in the picture. I stayed at Centre Point Silom on my last visit to Bangkok, and like it for its location and relatively low cost for all the amenities. Go to to read my reviews.
I really had no further plans for the afternoon, so went to the pool, swam and read for about an hour. At about 5:00 PM, I decided to walk to the Mandarin Oriental to have a sunset beer by the river.  That's the nice thing about the Centre Point Silom, you can enjoy the Mandarin's high priced beers ($10) without paying for their high priced rooms ($300+).  I walked the few short blocks to the Mandarin and took some pictures along the way.  The doorman at Centre Point had told me how to get there ( walk to 40 soi (alley)) or I would not have known otherwise.  There are no signs where 40 soi leaves the main road, and there are none on the hotel. I saw a building that looked like a hotel and asked and sure enough it was.
Fruit stand on the street

Typical Bangkok traffic

On the terrace of the Mandarin enjoying my beer
After renting a seat on the terrace at the prime sundown hour, I returned to Centre Point and dressed "smartly casual" (clean shirt) for my dinner at the Blue Elephant Restaurant.  The desk at the hotel had advised that I take the Skytrain one stop, rather than a taxi as it would be much quicker with the traffic at dinner hour.  I walked one block to the Skytrain station and climbed the stairs and paid my 15B for a ticket. The Blue Elephant is right at the next station so I couldn't get lost. It is in a Sino-Portugese house.  This is the Bangkok outpost of a chain of Thai restaurants that started in Brussels and spread east through Europe and the mid-east before finally opening in Thailand.  The prices are steep compared to most in Thailand, but certainly not off-putting for someone in a major city in the US or even Santa Barbara.  Read my review at   After a thoroughly delightful dinner, I returned to the hotel by the Skytrain and as I reached the door was greeted by a fireworks display at an adjacent building (maybe the Mandarin).   Finally, I went upstairs and went to be for my last full night in Asia.
Night  vegetable market on the way to the Skytrain

Blue Elephant Restaurant

Skytrain Station

Late night fireworks

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Wat I've Been Doing - Feb 05 - Feb 07

I have not kept up my Vietnam and Cambodia trip blog for two reasons. First, I lost my wallet in Ha Noi and had to spend time getting replacement credit cards, etc. and Second, the tour just kept me too busy to write anything after downloading all the pictures I took every day.  I'm now off the tour and on a short tour of my own in Ayutthaya, Thailand.  This is an old capital that was a thriving metropolis until 1767, when the Burmese attacked it forcing the capital to move to what is now Bangkok.

In any event, when it was thriving there were a large number of temples (wats) built to honor Buddha. Some are still standing and some are just piles of stone and bricks now.There is no doubt in my mind after this trip that Buddha set off a building spree in South East Asia that more than rivals the cathedral building in Europe in the middle ages.  This was in about the same period with both Angkor in Cambodia in the 10th -12 th centuries and Ayutthaya in the 13th to 18th.

Baan Thai House
I arrived in Bangkok at about 10 PM after a flight from Phnom Penh. Being 75 has some advantages as there is a priority immigration line in the airport for those over 70.  They took extra pity on me and shunted several of us into the diplomatic line, which was otherwise unused.  I stayed at the Novotel at Bangkok airport overnight and hired a taxi to take me for the 90 minute ride to Ayutthaya.  When I arrived, I checked in at the Baan Thai House and about 11:30 headed for town planning to rent a bike and tour the wats.  I was soon disabused of this notion by a tour guide who offered me his three hour tour for 600 baht (~$18).  After the tour was over, I was glad I had accepted.  The wats are spread over a large area which I never could have covered in three hours, if I hadn't died of heat prostration first. I recorded the tour on a GPS program on my iPhone and it was over 19 miles.

I will show a few of the sights I saw on the tour here.
Wat Yai Chai Mongkhorn

Wat Yai Chai Mongkhornption

Wat Chaiwatthanaram

The tour ended at 3:15 and I was exhausted, hot, and sweaty and the one bottle of water I had with me was almost enough.

Wat Lokayasutharam (Reclining Bhuddha)
 Some more wats from yesterday
Wat Worapho

Phra Monkhon Bophit

Phra Wihan
These pictures are about half of what I saw yesterday, and we didn't even begin to cover the territory. I think the guide forgot that I had bargained for three hours and he was taking me to more and more. Finally, I was too tired and hot to go any further at slightly after three hours and I asked him when the tour was going to end and was this all included for the 600 baht. No he said, I was into the fourth hour and I now owed him 800 baht. I was a little upset, which he noticed, and asked to be taken back to Baan Thai House, which we were fairly near at the time. I gave him 700B, which he accepted and we parted company. I retreated to my air conditioned haven to await the dinner hour.

After a dinner of Green Chicken Curry (very spicy) at the hotel, moderated by a bottle of Singha Beer and a dish of mocha chip ice cream, I retired to my room to download pictures and tag them with the names of the individual wats, which I had recorded on the way. 

The next day (Feb 07), I started out right after breakfast to go over to the main part of town, look around, and check out my ride back.  I had decided upon a minivan shuttle to the center of Bangkok, from where I could get a cab to my hotel.  I had read that they did not allow a lot of luggage and I have a 25" suitcase and a backpack. We agreed that the luggage would be a second passenger, which I suspected. The fare per passenger is only 60 Baht ($1.80), so all told, it would be less than one tenth of the taxi cost.

Getting from Baan Thai House to the center of town by foot involves walking about 700 meters to the ferry dock and taking the ferry across.  The ferry is 4 baht each way.  I walked through town and actually went out to a couple of the wats I saw yesterday.  I logged 5.6 miles of walking before lunch.  Here are some pictures from today.
Ferry across the river. This river flooded last fall and swept over my B&B which is quite a way away

Downtown Ayutthaya

Tourists on an elephant ride
Tuk-Tuk, which is a comon means of local transportation

Intercity bus to Bangkok

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Vietnamese Journey - Part I: January 17 (Home) to January 19 (Hanoi)

We had planned a trip to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand in August; by December, Pat’s hip had become so painful that she felt that she would not be able to participate in the tour, which included several walking tours of cities. She insisted that I continue as planned, so on January 17th, I started to Los Angeles to board THAI Airways for the first leg of the trip. Traffic was light, so I arrived at the Hilton, where I parked my car and boarded the shuttle for the Bradley Terminal. I arrived about ten minutes before the counters opened to accept passengers for the flight.  Shortly I was relaxing in the lounge waiting for the boarding announcement.
Food Counter in Bangkok Airport
The first leg to Bangkok went smoothly. There is a period of about eight hours between the first and second of three meal servings on the flight and I was able to sleep fairly well through most of that. We arrived at Bangkok about 45 minutes ahead of schedule, so there was plenty of time to catch my flight to Hanoi. In Bangkok, transiting passengers had to go through another security check, but did not go through Immigration.
My first view of Ha Noi from the plane
The new terminal in Bangkok is immense, and I had to walk at least one km to change planes through long concourses filled with shops and restaurants. We boarded and were soon on our way to Hanoi (In Vietnam it is broken into two distinct words, Ha Noi).  On landing the field was totally socked in. The plane had had a short delay before takeoff and I wondered if that was to obtain a landing slot.
Intercontinental Hotel in Ha Noi
Then through Immigration and the walk through the Customs green lane and I was officially in Vietnam. I obtained Two million Dong (VND) at the ATM, or about $100. They really need to have a 1:1000 reverse split of their money here. The menus at the hotel and the taxi meters all assume the last three zeroes anyhow.  As instructed by my tour leader, who had sent me an email beforehand and the signs in the airport, I ignored the “independent” drivers in the claim area and went across the street to find a dispatcher.  He offered to take me to the hotel for $16, which was two dollars less than I had expected, if I paid US$.  I had planned for this and got in after telling him the hotel for the second time.  This is actually quite reasonable as it’s over 10 miles to the hotel from the airport.
I had told the hotel that I was arriving early, planning to store luggage and then go out. They actually had my room ready, so I took my luggage up. The view is not one of the better ones; whether that was because I was early or they save those for tour groups I don’t know. However, inside it was fine with a nice king bed and a large bath and plenty of room to stretch out.

Purchasing a tree for Tet

Taking a tree home for Tet

After I arrived, I decided to take a walk in the general direction of the restaurant where I had planned to have dinner. The Google map said it was about 2.5 miles, so I started out with my camera. As noted the fog, which I decided is smog, was dense, which sort of ruined the picture opportunities. I took some pictures of buildings and many of the traffic and the people going by on scooters. Most of the traffic consists of mopeds, scooters, or motorized bicycles, with a few cars thrown in for good measure.  There appears to be no traffic control. No lights, no stop signs, no police. A few times, I tried to cross a street. You need to wait for a break; good if it’s in both directions at the same time and then time your path through the break. Fortunately, the streets are narrow, barely wide enough for two cars.  After walking for a while, I decided that I wouldn’t make the restaurant by walking and turned home. The whole trip was about an hour and a half.
On the way from the airport and during my walk, I saw many people with small trees, mostly orange, on the  back of their scooters driving around. I guessed that this may have something to do with the upcoming Tet (New Year's )holiday. My guess was confirmed by an article in Friday’s Vet Nam News about the demand for plants for Tet.  It seems that there is a thriving business in these plants both for sale and rent. In HCMC (Saigon) a florist is renting plants “from 2m high for VND 20 to 35 million ($1,000 to $1,700). This price does include transportation.
I went back to the hotel, showered, did email, and went out to eat at about 5:30. Given my experience of the afternoon, I took a taxi.   It seemed to take forever and the ride was 100,000 VND ($5). Looking at the map this morning, I think he took the long way around the lake.  The trip back was only 40,000VND ($2), which was consistent with my expectations. As a matter of fact the way back was pretty familiar from my earlier walk.
Mushroom Hot Pot at Sen Tay Ho Restaurnt

The trip to the restaurant, which came at a busy period was just a little hectic. Every so often we would meet a car coming in our direction on a road that was only one car wide. There was a lot of light flashing and horn honking. The amazing thing is that between my walk and two taxi rides, there were no collisions. I think that oddly there is a certain restraint and that traffic doesn’t move very fast and that the drivers are used to this and are prepared.
I went to a restaurant called Sen Tay Ho. It is a large establishment with several dining floors. The host took me to an outside table in the buffet area. I think they have table service on the upper floors. The buffet was about $15 and a large bottle of local beer was a little over a dollar. The buffet was spread out over a large inside room and the outdoor porch where I was sitting. There was a large variety of shell fish, BBQ chicken, pork and fish, vegetables, spring rolls, and other local dishes.  I had a mushroom hot pot which had several kinds of mushrooms, vegetables, and meat in broth. It was hot both in temperature and spice, and I finished about half the bowl.  However there was plenty to eat and a large table of small French pastries for dessert. I was full when I left.

Interesting House overlookng the lake

Typical Ha Noi traffic

Interesting building and wetland

A foggy day across the lake

Sunday, November 20, 2011

In Search of Roots: A Trip Through Ireland and Great Britain
Part 7: Dingle and the Dingle Peninsula

Dingle Loop Drive - Starting and Ending at Castlewood House
Castlewood House
Our trip on the Ring of Kerry ended on the Dingle Peninsula in the town of Dingle. After a little searching, we found Castlewood House, located outside of town overlooking Dingle Bay. Castlewood House is arguably the nicest B&B that we stayed in during the trip. After settling in we went for dinner at Out of the Blue Seafood, an outstanding restaurant on the harbor just outside of the main town. It was busy and we had some libation and listened to the music while we waited for our dinner.  This time, I had the almond sole, which was perfect and Pat had Dory, which was a little rubbery. I'm sure she wishes that she had Sole.
Out of the Blue - Excellent Seafood
Almond Sole at Out of the Blue

We really had quite a bit of good food on this trip, which gave the lie to our expectations of English/Irish cooking.

Eggs Benedict Supreme, with Smoked Salmon
The crowning touch came at breakfast the next morning when I had the Castlewood House's version of Eggs Benedict, called Eggs Benedict Supreme.  It really was. Instead of the usual ham, the meat was local organic smoked salmon.

Well fortified, we started out on the Dingle Loop. One of the first sights is directly across the Bay from Castlewood House. It's called Milltown House B&B. Robert Mitchum stayed there for a year while he was in Dingle, making the movie, Ryan's Daughter.  Staying in that area for a year could not be considered tough duty.
Miltown House, where Robert Mitchum stayed
Because of this trip, we recently rented Ryan's Daughter from Netflix. It's a long movie on two DVDs. We spent two hours on the first one and then the second one wouldn't play and Netflix has no more copies. The scenery is spectacular, but I wish we could have found out how the story ends.

Moving on, we came soon to Ventry Beach, an almost deserted strand as late June is still too early for beaching here.  On the whole beach, there was one family, a mother and two small children with plastic table and chairs having their own tea party.
Tea Party on the Beach
Kavanaugh Family Cottage, abandoned during the famine
Further on we come to a thatched cottage, typical of those inhabited by the Irish in the 1840's and then abandoned by them when they left Ireland for the United States and Canada during the Irish Potato Famine.

The Walls of Dunbeg Fort, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean
Next along the road is the Dunbeg Fort dating from roughly 500 CE. Forts like this are the most important relics left from Ireland's Iron Age (500 BCE - 500 CE).

As I spent some time exploring the fort, the sun came out and the skies turned blue. This became one of the better days, weatherwise, on the trip. Looking out to sea, I could see the Skelig Islands.
Skelig Islands from the Dunbeg Fort
This loop has many outstanding views and historic sites.  I am placing pictures of some of the more important ones below. And there are many more pictures at my SmugMug Gallery "Dingle and the Dingle Loop".  At the end of the day, we returned for another peaceful night and wonderful breakfast at Castlewood House and made ready to start our all day trip to Dun Laoghaire for our last three days in Ireland.

Blasket Islands
Gallus Oratory - About 1300 years old

Dingle Harbor