Tag Archives: travel

…Busan

Busan is on the southern tip of the Korean penninsula, so it was considerably warmer there than here in Seoul when we visited last weekend. We were even walking around in short sleeves! My cousin’s been working down there as an English teacher and we took the opportunity to visit him and cash in on some of those hotel points from Hyatt that we’d accrued in 2012. They just opened a new Park Hyatt there, and it was experiencing some growing pains and wasn’t fully 5 star yet, but the minor troubles we experienced garnered us a free upgrade to a suite (which is always nice with Neko, as we all sleep better when we’re not sharing a room), and a free bowl of fruit (most of which we gave to my cousin, as it was a LOT of fruit for one day!). Our room had a great view of the marina and these great wooden floors which lent it an old world aesthetic even in its extreme newness.

At Haedong Yonggungsa Temple just Northeast of Busan, getting ready for the lantern festival to celebrate Buddha's birthday.
At Haedong Yonggungsa Temple just Northeast of Busan, getting ready for the lantern festival to celebrate Buddha’s birthday.
All over the grounds of the Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, there were little buddha statues.
All over the grounds of the Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, there were little buddha statues.
And mini stupas.
And mini stupas.
One big Buddha (the scaffolding is to hang the lanterns for the festival).
One big Buddha (the scaffolding is to hang the lanterns for the festival).
...and more mini-buddhas
…and more mini-buddhas
The temple overlooks the ocean, and several groups of people were holding services on the rocks below.
The temple overlooks the ocean, and several groups of people were holding services on the rocks below.
Slightly more traditional statues, these are behind the massive statue of the Queen of Heaven
Slightly more traditional statues, these are behind the massive statue of the Queen of Heaven
Two Golden Pigs... are they the biggest piggy banks ever?
Two Golden Pigs… are they the biggest piggy banks ever?
Mr. Adventure and Neko have no idea what's lurking in the bamboo behind them...
Mr. Adventure and Neko have no idea what’s lurking in the bamboo behind them…
...a ravenous tiger.
…a ravenous tiger.
One of several statues of the Queen of Heaven
One of several statues of the Queen of Heaven
Later that night, we visited another temple.
Later that night, we visited another temple.
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…Lunar New Year at the Gyeongbokgung (Gyeongbok Palace)

Admission to the Gyeongbok Palace was free on Lunar New Years, and we’d heard that many of the locals will dress up in traditional clothing to celebrate the holiday. While it seemed way too cold for many of them to celebrate that way, a few brave souls did venture out in the silk Hanbok dresses, complete with wolly undergarments and quilted coats. The palace itself was rebuilt after the wars, so it feels a little manufactured rather than historic, and the gardens weren’t all that exciting in early February, but we did wander into the neighboring museum grounds and were surprised by a festival, complete with drumming, kites and food samples (which we missed by a hair).

Gyeongbok Palace, Seoul
Gyeongbok Palace, Seoul
Gyeongbok Palace, Seoul
Gyeongbok Palace, Seoul
The pine trees in Asia look just like they do in Chinese calligraphic art. I thought it was just a stylization until I moved here, but they really are wispy and slanty. And, this photo shows how not exciting the gardens are in February.
The pine trees in Asia look just like they do in Chinese calligraphic art. I thought it was just a stylization until I moved here, but they really are wispy and slanty. And, this photo shows how not exciting the gardens are in February.
The slightly prettier inner gardens near the King's quarters and the concubine's rooms.
The slightly prettier inner gardens near the King’s quarters and the concubine’s rooms.
Traditional Drumming performance. I took this photo by reaching over the heads of the crowd.
Traditional Drumming performance. I took this photo by reaching over the heads of the crowd.
My actual view of the drumming performance.
My actual view of the drumming performance.
The changing of the guard at the Gyeongbok Palace.
The changing of the guard at the Gyeongbok Palace.
They do things more colorfully here than at Buckingham Palace.
They do things more colorfully here than at Buckingham Palace.

…Tokyo

In January, we took a weekend trip to Tokyo, and stayed in a fabulous suite at the Park Hyatt near the City Hall thanks to a free Hyatt upgrade. The weather was a nice respite from Seoul’s supposedly record-breaking winter, and we took several long walks to enjoy the sunshine.

Old Tokyo train station
Old Tokyo train station
The Imperial Palace grounds
The Imperial Palace grounds
Mr. Adventure playing with his new camera, all bundled up, but we felt it was warm compared to Seoul!
Mr. Adventure playing with his new camera, all bundled up, but we felt it was warm compared to Seoul!
Leaving the Imperial Palace's Garden
Leaving the Imperial Palace’s Garden
Sensoji Temple, Asakusa, Tokyo
Sensoji Temple, Asakusa, Tokyo
1014
On the walk to the Meiji Shrine, Tokyo
1015
Entrance gate to Meiji Shrine
1017
Meiji Shrine fountain
1020
A bride leaving the wedding pavillion at Meiji Shrine

…Istanbul

OMG, Istanbul was great!! Oh wait, I wanted to give a different impression first. All you FS types reading this: Turkey was hot, and there was bad traffic in Istanbul, and… and… Turkish is a hard language. Er… I’m trying to come up with reasons for you all to avoid bidding on the very few posts available in Istanbul, but it’s hard. So, I’ll go for the personal appeal, please, please, please, don’t bid on it. I want to. 🙂 If you read the rest of this, you might want to bid on it, so please don’t. The OUR “Orient Express” family has already done an excellent job of detailing the merits of Istanbul, and I’m going to have a lot of work ahead of me discouraging the rest of you from bidding on it.

But, yes, Istanbul was great. Really.

The breakfast buffet at the Armada

We arrived in the evening and took the hotel’s rather stealthily luxurious van to the back streets of Sultanahmet, the old town district of Istanbul. The Hotel Armada was both tastefully elegant, and yet a bit hip. The building was decorated with late 1800’s sensibilities (both Old West and Colonial), but the staff wore tight black t’s and pants. The food at the breakfast buffet was divine, and divinely fresh. I wanted to pack up the whole spread and air freight it home. They had fresh honey comb, fresh OJ squeezing, 5-10 different kinds of jams/bread toppings, 8 kinds of cheese, three kinds of tomatoes, etc…. Wonderful. In the lobby, there was a living sculpture of Mississippi red-eared slider turtles in a fountain. The roof deck (where breakfast was) had views of both the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, and the Marmara. There were fresh flowers everywhere. The soaps were handmade. There were exotic birds in gilded cages. But… I have no idea what the rooms were like, because we actually rented an apartment around the corner, which was even cooler.

Our apartment was about 30 seconds from the front door of the Armada, but gave us the experience of living in Istanbul, like a local. Across from our front stoop, was a front stoop where real Istanbullus sat and watched the afternoon go by. A klatch of three busibody ladies sat in plastic chairs in front of the local “everything store.” At the same store, Mr. Adventure bought an ice cream one night, and had the wrong change, so the proprietor told him to come back the next day and pay him back. Our neighbor’s baby smiled at our baby. The street cats sidled up to us as we walked by. People waved and smiled. It was not your typical hotel experience.

Turtles in the Armada lobby

If you do rent the apartment we used (Studio 1, ground floor and basement), beware the ground floor shower. It’s er… scary. The sprayer keeps popping off the hook and there is no scald guard. However, there are two bathrooms!!! And the one downstairs has a perfectly fine shower, that doesn’t spray water all over the ceiling when it falls off the hook. That apartment had a queen bed on the main floor, along with a 24″ TV that had only 1 English channel ;( CNN, a kitchenette (stovetop, sink, toaster, coffee set up), and a eating table. The basement had 3 twin sized day beds, a tiny TV, arm chair, and TONS of pillows. There was also ample storage for all your luggage, as nearly every wall was lined with cupboards and closets. And, because this is a hotel apartment, you still get the fancy linens, the cozy bathrobes and in-room safe that you’d expect to find in a hotel. The apartment we chose was the mid-sized one, but there’s a smaller and a larger one, depending on your family. Ours was too big for us, we didn’t use the ground floor as much as we would have if Neko were older. We’d hoped to put her down there since her sleeping schedule is different than ours, but the crib they provided didn’t negotiate the stairs.

At the ceramics museum

The first night, all we did was sleep. We were recovering from the sunburn and sleeping outdoors adventures of the previous few days.

However, the next morning we were up and ready to explore! After the aforementioned glorious breakfast, we headed up the hill to Topkapi palace, hearing the sounds of a traveling musical troupe, and espying people on stilts was up ahead in a crowd, but never quite catching up with the show. We eschewed paying the entrance fee to the Palace, partly because of the enormous line, and continued on our merry way, spotting another museum on the way. The museum was advertising an all-museums pass for 70L, which allowed you to skip all the future ticket lines, and (as we found out when doing the math) saves you money as long as you visit both the Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi. It also includes admission to the Harem at Topkapi.

Enjoying lunch at the kebap and rug shop. Neko flirted with the very friendly waiter.

This museum that was down the hill was the archaeological museum, and included 3 separate museums, filled with the treasures of the empire. There were ancient relics from various far-flung sites that were once part of the Ottoman Empire, Eastern Roman Empire, Caliphate, etc. There were fancy things that were once used by those various rulers. The neatest items were in the main archaeolgical museum (which was under reconstruction, and partially closed), but the neatest building was the ceramics museum. Glorious mosaics, tiles, stained glass windows… I could live there. Wouldn’t be hard.

Hagia Sophia, with teeny tiny people. Ok, those are real full-sized people, the building’s just really huge.

We took some breaks to accommodate food for Neko and for ourselves, and then walked up the hill to the Hagia Sophia. It was everything I imagined, and cooler. Mr. A had previously seen it, but it was being restored at the time, and full of scaffolding. This time, both of us got to revel in its mosaics, expansiveness, and the weirdnesses of the whole thing. Much of the original splendor is lost due to lootings, idolatry controversies and it’s conversion to use as a mosque, but the architecture itself is more than suitably awe-inspiring. That might be hidden if there were more of the earlier decorations.

Classic mosaics at Hagia Sophia (Imperial types offering gifts to Christ)

After the Hagia Sophia, we gobbled yet another ice cream snack, and then took a chilly, damp trip down into an ancient cistern. It had been hidden for hundreds of years, but rediscovered when travelers heard tales of subbasement fishing holes. And, yes, the fish in there were strange and enormous. Neko liked the way the lights glowed against the damp walls, and possibly the novelty of walking around in the dark after just being outside in the middle of a bright day.

Cistern a la spookiness

We followed that up with a trip to the Blue Mosque, complete with the requisite modesty police that drape you in ugly swathes of velcroed fabric to hide various parts of your anatomy. Unlike some other mosques, the Blue Mosque was not concerned about my hair, but about my “shoulders,” which probably meant my decolletage, really. Either way, I had pre-scarfed my hair, so I had to re-scarf myself to cover my shoulders, but the initial look was much tidier than the second. The scarf, purchased nearby, was a nice match to the mosaic walls of the Blue Mosque, however, so that’s something. Neko, tidily packed up in the Ergo was free of the modesty restrictions. This was a pretty place, but not really anything different than many of the other mosques we’ve been to. I would have liked to get closer to the pretty tilework, but it was all up on the ceiling.

Scarfing it in the Blue Mosque

We ate dinner that night at McDonald’s, because yes, we’re deprived here in Dhaka. It was the first McDonald’s we’d had abroad that was so dramatically different than USA McDonald’s. The burger was a Kofta burger, even though it was labelled as a Big Mac, and the chicken nuggets were more like a panko breading than the normal smooth coating. The fries were perfect.

“Magic” corn

We zipped from there off to a night bus tour that took us to the highest point in Istanbul to watch the sun set over Asia and Europe, and suffered from some terrible traffic on the way there. Apparently one of the bridges was closed due to some once-every-40-years maintenance schedule, and so everything was being routed over the bridge we took. That would have been ok, since we’re used to traffic, but it was accompanied by some really bad turkish traditional music on a short repeat. Normally that music would have filled in the bits between the recorded narrative, but instead we heard it hundreds of times. Mr. A said his nightmares were punctuated by its cadences.

A carpet vendor at Arasta Bazaar… the whole bazaar thing was much fancier than I’d expected. I thought it would be more like a street market. Bizarre

The next day we started with another great breakfast, and then hit up the Topkapi Palace, armed with our handy all-museum pass. While the guidebooks dissuade you from the Harem, suggesting it’s lewd, or somehow uninteresting, I think it was the best part of the whole palace, and certainly the least crowded. There’s a separate admission fee, unless you have the museum pass, so most people skip it. It’s really lovely, however. You get to see the insides of the actual home of the court, so it’s all the most decorated and cozy bits. There’s one creepy recreation of the Queen mother with some of the concubines, but other than that, it’s a great tour. I might have sprung for the audio tour if I’d known that there’d be so many things to learn about in there, but the rental place was all the way back at the palace entrance. We made do with the official signboards, which were pretty decent, actually, compared to the other sights in town.

Near our apartment, a sidewalk had these great glowing cobbles interspersed among the stones.

We sat in a grove on the palace grounds so that Neko could have her elevenses, saw the treasures of Mecca, skipped the royal treasury (because six million people were in line to get in), and wandered off back toward the center of things. The afternoon saw us use our bus tour tickets from the night before as passes for the day tour (interesting, but nothing special unless you actually take the time to HopOn HopOff at some of the sights). We followed that with a delectable dinner of contemporary Turkish cuisine at the highly recommended (by us and other) Oceans 7 in Sultanahmet, and made some purchases at the bazaar beneath the Blue Mosque.

That is paradise. We picked up some black zebra tomatoes that were the sweetest tomatoes I’ve ever had (surprisingly so), and some dark cherries. We brought them home, along with a couple weird chocolates, a box of kinder-egg knock-offs and a can of black olives. I heart Carrefour.

But, it wasn’t until the last day that we really became Istanbullus. Because on that day, we went to a mall. Yes, folks… a shopping mall. There, we saw a food court with 7 options of kebap and 3 kofta places (but no chinese or mexican…), 2 cart vendors selling “magic” corn, a kids play area… and we bought… an iPad! Yeah! A replacement for my broken computer! I’m still trying to figure things out, and epic blog posts like this one are still better on Mr. A’s computer, I think, but it’s been addictive already. We also toured the wonders of Carrefour (our second ever), and brought back salted olives, cherries and tomatoes to Dhaka. Awesomely good cherries and tomatoes. California quality.

Why am I still here? I need to go back and get me some more of that Turkish produce.

So, what did we miss? We did not visit the Grand Bazaar, the Egyptian/Spice Bazaar, the Chora Museum, Miniaturk (a miniatures park), the Aquarium, the largest shopping mall in Asia, a Bosphorus boat tour (we’d been on enough boats!), a dancing show (didn’t think Neko could hack it, and didn’t have food to sustain her with a babysitter). Some of these we weren’t interested in, some we didn’t have the time to see. Essentially, we need to go back. Soon. And live there. So don’t bid on it, unless you’re not on our cycle, then you can.

——

For fans of AdventuresIn who went to college with yours truly, Peaches, Istanbul was stop 2 on my “Jesus to Muhammad” bucket list. (That’s the name of a formative course also famous for weeding people out of the Honors program when I was there.) While there, we got our fill of ancient buildings, relics, mosaics, ionic/doric/corinthian columns, and egg-and-dart motifs. Some of those we actually saw in Olympos, but we’ll group them all together for simplicity’s sake. The previous stop on the list was Rome, and that was way back in 1998, so… er… I’d better pick up the pace if I want to visit the rest of the sites before I join them in moldering away. It’s a good thing I don’t have a list for any of the other 3 courses in the series, or any of the other innumerable courses I’ve taken, though Aix-la-Chapelle and the abbey at Cluny are on the life list, and were part of the J2M+ course series.

…The Turquoise Coast

A pancake vendor near St. Nicholas Island. We tried the Lemon and Sugar. Absolutely Divine. Other options included Nutella and Banana or Spinach and Cheese.
The BlueKey, our (not really a sailing) yacht for the week.

Southwestern Turkey is known by the doubly meaningful “Turquoise Coast.” The water is both blindingly blue, and the country is Turquoise (or Turkish, in it’s more Anglophone spelling).

We just got back from a weeklong break from Dhaka to Turkey. Yes, I know, we’re doing a lot of travelling recently, but we’ve got to make sure we take all the trips possible from here before we leave, no? And other than Sri Lanka, a few of the Emirati airports and some of China’s lesser known cities, we’ll have made a nearly complete tour of all the “direct flights from Dhaka” before we go. Turkey is the longest haul from here, (though Biman flies to London as well, that’s just too far for a short visit). 

So, to Turkey.

We divided our week into two bits, a sailboat cruise along the coast and a urban sightseeing adventure in Istanbul.

The beach at Olympos

The first bit was incredibly HOT. The weather was promised to be in the 80s (35 C), but it was instead in the hundreds. Since the boat was in the sun, without a/c, this was a bit of a challenge. Most people sleep on the boat deck, but in a fit of modesty, and for fear that Neko would keep everyone awake, she and I tried to tough it out in the cabin the first night. And, yes, it was torture. I would have been less (sweaty) wet if I’d slept floating in the Mediterranean. The rest of the nights we kipped it on the deck, midnight wake-ups and feedings be damned. And, no one even noticed she woke up (3-4 times a night). I was refreshed and happy. Sleeping outside under the stars with a 6 month old? Priceless.

Of course, when we got home a week later, she had a bit of sleep regression. She must have liked snuggling cozy between us on a gently rocking boat. Yes, that does sound nice.

Some of the really tasty food aboard. The crew shopped in the towns along the way to ensure fresh ingredients. Olives, tomatoes and fresh bread… Roasted fish, eggplant, pasta….
An open market shop in Kas.

We visited the lovely village of Kas, which has the air of the Riviera, and is the kind of place that people dream of for a retirement home. Quaint cobbled streets, bright white stucco, wooden shutters, geranium window boxes, tiled roofs, shady central squares, open fresh markets…. Such a happy day. We bought a handpainted bowl, comparison shopped on ice cream (one guy charge us 2.50 lira for a cone, another guy charged twice as much! We ate both), and watched as a steady stream of competetive swimmers made their way from the waterfront end of the race to the main town.

We also stopped in at a few ruinous sights (the ancient Roman town of Olympos, the sunken city of Kekova, the Island of St. Nicholas). We visited a hippy backpacker campground and farm only accessible by boat known as the Butterfly Valley, but butterflies were out of season, and we only saw 2. A great waterfall and some crickets and grasshoppers, though. We missed the Lycian tombs and the mysterious Chimera flames, but that’s just more reason to head back down there some time, right?

We did a lot of swimming (even Neko), and (forgetting that I’d applied sunscreen while wearing a shirt) got really sunburnt in a 15 minute snorkeling session. I missed out on further swimming because the burn was pretty bad, and didn’t really snorkel in the best spots, so that was a bit disappointing.

Swimming with Neko

The water felt really salty at first, but was alternately bathwater warm and chillingly refreshing. You could see about 30 feet down in most places and some of our fellow travellers used the opportunity to dive under the keel of a boat. Most everyone else on the boat was from down under, deeply tan and on extended journeys (of a year or more) before they returned home. I felt like a bit of a fly-by-night tourist.

Ruins at Olympos. Nearly all the rocks were chunks of ancient buildings.

Overall, I highly recommend the Turquoise Coast, though you don’t need to see it by yacht. Most of the harbors offer day long tours to the same sights we saw slowly over three days. Of course, you miss out on sleeping under the stars if you do, but you’ll be blessed with air conditioning instead. It’s a toss up.

Tomorrow, a recap of Istanbul.

Happy (and hot) hikers.

…Bhutan

So, I am way late on blogging about our adventure in Bhutan, but, in my defense… I did get pretty sick the last day, and that lowered my motivation level for recalling it. But, it wasn’t Bhutan’s fault that I got sick, but Dhaka’s. I carried influenza with me from here. That gave me a rather novel opportunity to review their healthcare, which, more or less, reminded me of the summer camp nurses’ offices from my youth. Wood paneling… Tylenol… lots of cardboard boxes with handwritten labels. I had an IV, with a latex tubing system. Latex? What is this… 1960?

Regardless, Bhutan was beautiful, very peaceful, and very clean. The air was wonderfully brisk, both because of the chill and because of the lower oxygen content at altitude.

The view from the plane

We arrived on a direct flight from Dhaka, wending through the mountainous landing path before touching down. You really do feel like you could reach out and touch the surrounding mountains, and the pilot cannot land on a straight descent. The planes are all relatively small for international travel, as they have to negotiate the tight mountain terrain. We deplaned onto the tarmac, and all the tourists immediately started snapping pics of the plane, the flight attendants, the views, the tiny airport, etc. So did we. We were tourists too, after all.

On the tarmac. Look at that lovely sky!

Our guide picked us up after immigration. To visit Bhutan, you must purchase a rather expensive daily visa that includes a guide, lodging and meals (though upgrades are available). For us, that included a hotel room with a private bath, a space heater and a private sun porch. It was rather chilly, but the hotel staff was great, and loved taking Neko from us to play with her. The food was decent, if not terribly interesting, though they did have the weird cheese dish that everyone says you must try. I couldn’t face it.

The entrance to our hotel

Our first day we spent visiting some museums, cultural sites, and temples. On the second day, we attempted the famous Tiger’s Nest trail. OMG. There are a lot of stairs. If you’re of a smaller-than-average-American size, you can take a mule/donkey ride half way up to the view point. I recommend it, especially if you’re coming from sea level. If you have a chance to acclimate before the trek, it’s lovely. For me, it was rather challenging. (I didn’t know that I was coming down with the flu either). Neko spent most of the uphill bits complaining, and we had some interesting experiences changing and feeding her along the very busy trail. We all rested at the viewpoint before having lunch and returning to the valley floor. So, no, we didn’t make it all the way to the Tiger’s Nest.

A third of the way up. The first viewpoint. The cafe is another 30 minutes from here.

That night, I started feeling poorly and by the time that Mr Adventure was up, I thought I was going to die. (You know how it is when you’re sick….) The influenza got me, even though I’d had my shot. I piteously requested to go to the hospital NOW, and we eventually got there. I had the slowest IV drip ever (1 liter in something like 7 hours?), and it took forever for me to feel better. Mysterious injections, pills, etc… and a series of doctors who came to look. One diagnosed me with the common cold. Er… who has ever had a severe fever, bone aches, etc. from a cold? Anyway, they were all friendly too, even if relief from the dehydration and pain was slow in coming. The staff also really wanted to spend the day playing with Neko, so she enjoyed herself meeting all her new friends.

Neko with our guide

Our visit to the hospital meant that we missed Thimpu, the capital. We did get to do a little shopping and picked up a temple decoration for Neko’s future room. It’s very brightly colored, and hangs from the ceiling like a valance.

Would I go again? Er… it’s really pretty, but I’m not sure it’s worth the price. The visa fee isn’t as bad as the cost of the flight. 45 minutes in the air at a rate of almost $20 per minute. Kinda steep (lol).

It was a calm and pleasant respite from Dhaka, and something unusual, for sure. It was also good practice for traveling with Neko. She was a trouper and lived up to her reputation as a people lover. Right now, everyone is her friend. She’d rather be at a party than anywhere else. Bhutan was perfect for that.

…Jet Lag

Contrary to popular belief, babies do suffer from jet lag. Well, at least ours does. Last night, as we slept in the airport hotel, exactly 12 hours opposite the globe from where she’d spent the rest of her life, she wanted to be up and playing all night long. And, when we tried to make her sleep, she threw quite the fits. Hopefully today’s attempts to keep her alert when the sun was out will help her acclimate.

That won’t help the rest of us though, as we’re suffering from jet lag too, and her habit of sleeping in fits and starts doesn’t really help either of us in figuring out when it’s day or night.

However, I mostly wanted to let everyone know that we’re back in Dhaka, and even though the airline lost our stroller twice, it and all our bags made it here. Thank goodness!

…Baby-having

Been wondering why I’ve been off the radar so long? 

This is why: 

7 weeks of pre-delivery medivac in Florida, marked by an excessive amount of garage sale-ing, consignment shopping, thrift store hopping and layette preparing. There are not really many options for baby items in Dhaka, and I’ve been trying to build up a year’s worth of “product,” clothes, toys, etc. to keep baby in style, or at least health. Of course, as a new mom, I have no idea what I need of what’s useful, so my choices may be completely off. Thank goodness for amazon, but we can’t really ship liquids, so I think I may have over-shopped on those. 

A little less than a week of hospital and post-baby delierium.

A week of bouncing up and down, trying to learn the ropes as a anxious, sleepless, happy new mommy. 

Thank goodness that Mr. A was able to be here, I can’t imagine doing all the crazy things we need to do on my own. Between paperwork, doctor’s appointments, shushing and late night feedings, I’d be lost without him.

We’re planning our trip back to Dhaka now, and I’m totally overwhelmed by the list of things to do.

Wish us luck!

…Chiang Mai

Over the long weekend, we took yet another little vacation out of Dhaka (didn’t I mention that “hardship pay” before?) and headed out to Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand. Thailand is a popular destination from Dhaka, though most people head to the beach resorts. The flights are moderately annoying—you either fly over night (and the long flight’s only 2 hours, so you’re not really well rested), or you fly all day (leaves here around lunch, etc.)—and that’s held us back from visiting there in the past. But… Chiang Mai was totally worth it!

All the temples had dragon guardians outside

SO much to do… nice and compact old town… access to shopping if you need it… etc.

We arrived late Thursday evening and checked into the Tamarind Village Resort after a quick dinner at Burger King (yes, we are fast food deprived). The Tamarind is highly recommended by me, especially because of the shower. Wow. It was awesome. A rain shower (which I usually hate) with the drenching force of an ocean wave… The ginger-scented bath products sealed it. I showered a whole lot more than I normally do, just to enjoy the shower. It’s a good thing there’s been a lot of rain there recently, or I might have drained the country dry.

Besides the shower, our room was lovely. It was the room featured on their in-room channel, so we felt pretty special, but it was really just a base rate room that we booked on hotels.com. Their base rate rooms were just perfect for the two of us, but when there are three, we’ll probably need something a little bigger.  Their breakfasts were very filling and had enough diversity to keep me happy every day. There were Thai options, an egg-station, meats, fruits, breads, juices, etc. Tasty.

Wind Chimes to keep the birds away? or to make a constant prayer? (sources differ) Our hotel had them, so did all the temples.

On Friday, we (more-or-less) followed the Lonely Planet’s recommended temple walking tour. It was a little warm, and we got lost in the beginning as old town Chiang Mai doesn’t seem to have many street signs, but we saw the major temples and sights. At Wat Phra Singh, we even saw a huge crowd of novice monks (all between 12 and 16 years old, and a common thing to do as a post-elementary schooling option, even for those who will never be professed monks) who were visiting the royal temple on a 4 day retreat. They were all very cute and excited to be there.

After sitting down in a garden at the back of the temple, a 20-something monk who turned out to be one of the retreat chaperones asked if he could sit with us. Apparently it’s quite common for the young monks to want to practice their English skills and some temples have set up special chatting areas to encourage English speakers to both learn about Buddhism and the monk’s lifestyle while the monk learns new words and accents. This wasn’t one of those areas, but serendipity struck. We talked a bit about his home temple, and where Bangladesh was. He was most impressed that we, of very pale skin, were living in this kind of hot, tropical climate. I am not quite sure he understood that we were not ethnically Bangladeshi, but I was amused, particularly when he opined that he’d prefer lighter skin too. That’s not the kind of thing you hear every day from a monk!

After we left Wat Phra Singh, it began to rain. We’d been heading for the Cultural Center and Museum, and decided to have some lunch before we went in. We stopped at a roadside noodle joint, just as the deluge began in earnest. We were the only foreigners there, but it was pretty packed with locals and the turnover was quick. We had beef noodle soup, about half of a normal American sized portion, but still sufficient for lunch. For two bowls of soup, and two bottles of Fanta, we paid 84Bhat… about $2.50.

This guy guarded a little consecration temple at Wat Phra Singh

We left there with the rain still coming down in sheets and headed for the museum, and its promise of air conditioning. The museum was nice enough, particularly if you like dioramas with little tiny people working little tiny farms and machines. However, the textual explanations were a little tedious, and hard to read. It seemed like they focused almost entirely on listing the genealogy of the king related to the events depicted, and didn’t get enough into the actual excitement of the event. The building was lovely, and the dioramas and artifacts were really excellent, they just need someone to go in there and tidy up the ponderous explanations. The gift shop at the end of the museum was also really nice, though we didn’t get anything. They had good stuff we didn’t see anywhere else, including items related to their special collections and hill tribe art.

By the time we’d finished the museum, I was pretty worn out and swelling up like a southern sausage, so we headed back to the room for a little nap, dip in the pool and then a massage at Khulka, a small but welcoming spa that didn’t feel mercenary or skeezy, as some of the massage places seemed to. Their prices were slightly higher than the average, but it was made up for with private curtained treatment areas, soft lighting and cheerful service. I had a delightful foot and leg massage, and if I’d had more time would probably have gotten a pedicure too.

A fat Buddha. The story goes that he used to be a handsome man who desperately wanted enlightenment, but couldn't spend enough time meditating because all the young women were chasing him to ask him about the path to nirvana. So, he prayed that he'd be ugly and they'd leave him. It worked, and he became fat and bald, and none of the young women chased him any more. So he smiles, because he's happy.

We walked from there to the night markets to see what the fuss was all about. And the fuss was about crazy tourist shopping. It was the first market shopping I’d done since Guatemala’s Chichicastenango, and much more appealing to me than the pretend “artisan” shopping that is popular in Egypt and India. If I want to buy tourist crap, I’m going to buy it from a mad market, and feel like I got a good deal, rather than a tourist store that your guide brings you to under the premise that they will “teach” you something and then won’t let you leave until you buy something.

We took a tuktuk back from the night market, in the hopes of saving what was left of our tired feet for the next day’s adventures. Unfortunately, the act of getting in and out of that vehicle stretched something in my belly a little too much, and left me a little tearful. Thankfully, I had a chance to enjoy the in-room tea pot and hot shower to cure some of those ills.

On Saturday, we woke up early to get breakfast before our day tour to the hill tribes and other outlying sights. A high recommendation for the team at Wayfarers Travel. They were the only company we could find to offer a one day trek (One Day Trek – Hilltribe Trail   (ref. CMT1D)) that did not involve visiting fake villages and sights. Our day hike visited three different hill tribe villages: Lamu, Karen and Palong. There were not many people in the villages, as they were mostly out working the harvest, but in the drier season, you apparently get to meet a lot of people. The Palong wore the most interesting woven outfits, and I would have liked to see them doing the actual weaving and embroidery work, but that takes place at a different season. Our particular visit was near the end of the rainy season, but it’s been a remarkable rainy season, and there was flooding in many parts of Thailand in the last few weeks. Our trek, which crossed several streams, was slightly more vigorous than it normally would be, because of the rains. We had to take off our shoes to cross rocky streams several times, and I wished I had my hiking sandals on instead of my hiking shoes. Our guide, in typical awesomeness, hiked the entire thing in flip flops.

Alongside the trail, some of the Karen weavings.

We stopped for lunch and let our tour guides surprise us with lunch. They played it pretty safe, fried rice, noodles, chicken stir fry and lemongrass soup, and were shocked to see that we ate it all. Apparently the foreign tourists usually don’t eat much at the lunch stop. We loved it, and finished it all. After lunch, while discussing the history of Buddhism, one of our guides finally figured out that we were pregnant, when I asked if I could sit down in the shade to hear the information, rather than stand in the hot sun. They were both pretty surprised; I was surprised they didn’t notice. But, perhaps all American women are round balloons in their eyes. I feel pretty round right now.

After the hill trek, we stopped at the Chiang Dao caves, where a 1/3 km trail wends between stalactites and Buddha statues deep underground. It was a pretty cool cave, and there are options there to do actual spelunking, but, of course, you don’t do that kind of craziness while 7 months pregnant!

We rounded out the day with a tour to the Doi Suthep, a golden temple on the mountain overlooking Chiang Mai, and a quick walk out to a really lovely waterfall just off the road to Doi Suthep in the national park. If I’d had more time there, it looked like a great waterfall to play in, and it’s popular with locals as a picnic spot. Outside the park itself were a bunch of stalls catering to day visitors, selling everything from frog or duck satay to toasted silk worms. (The bamboo worms didn’t look bad, but the silk worms looked like something from a horror film).

Other than temples, we didn’t do the typical Chiang Mai visit, which appears to include an elephant ride through the forest, rafting on a bamboo float, the night and day zoos, the tiger and gibbon parks, the butterfly park, etc. There’s even a coin and a stamp museum for the collectors. We were really just thrilled to breathe some clean air, revel in a little mud (or a lot of mud at some points on the rainy trail!), and be away from the dense population of Dhaka. Chiang Mai’s whole population could live in the tiny neighborhood near the embassy here in Dhaka, and yet the locals bemoaned the traffic and pollution. Little do they know what it could be.

All in all, I’d go back, and think it’s a great place to visit. I’d recommend Chiang Mai to family and friends, with and without children. There’s everything: history, adventure, culture, animals, food….

…R&R, finally

Dhaka’s a two-R&R post for 2-year tours. That means the government rates the conditions in the city strange and/or difficult enough to warrant two trips to some other place for a little sanity restoration. (Those of us who are here realize that 2 vacations isn’t really quite enough, and, on average, take an out-of-country trip at least every other month. Our rate is slightly lower than that, but close.) There are regulations in place at each R&R designated post about when you can take the trip. Here in Dhaka, you have to wait a certain amount of time after arriving (and vice versa on the other end), as well as have a certain number of months between each trip. You, of course, like any vacation time, have to coordinate with your coworkers and supervisors for coverage.

The R&R “perk” is that the government doesn’t just tell you to git outta Dodge, but also pays for your ticket out. You use your own vacation time, so we try to schedule R&R travel to coincide with trainings or long weekends to maximize the time.

We’re about 10 months into our tour here in Dhaka, and one of the last of our group to take our first R&R. It’s possibly the sweeter for being so long delayed, however, and we’re really looking forward to the chance of being a bit chilly for the first time in a long time. We even went through our winter clothes, wondering if we needed to pack the wool socks. Why? We’re going to Alaska, and we hear they have glaciers and grizzlies there. They apparently also have McDonalds and other American excitements, possibly even movie theaters and sidewalks!