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International TravelThings You Should KnowWining/Dining

CAMBODIA — SIEM REAP AND PHNOM PENH

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Visiting the ancient temples of Angkor Wat, Angkor Tom and other sites in the northern part of Cambodia is the main reason travelers come to Siem Reap, just a 45-minute flight from Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City (see previous post).   For an area with fewer than 1 million residents, the current number of area hotels (500 and counting) is surprising.   The local Cambodians rely heavily on tourism as far and away their biggest industry.  If not in hospitality, the Cambodians in the north have a difficult time making a living as it is estimated that 50% of the economy is tourism.  Poverty and primitive living conditions are sadly visible in the surrounding areas; we saw this first hand on our drive from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh.  More about that in a bit.

1. SIEM REAP

Above top is the magnificent lotus flower:  it is closed at night so the display upper right required manually opening each flower.  We opted for the best way to get anywhere — via tuk tuk — about $2 for any distance.  Bottom right, delicious Mango Mille Fueille plus two excellent dishes — rice with pineapple and a refreshing salad with pomelo, which I loved.

This is an epidemic everywhere.

We followed the advice of many to capture Angkor Wat at sunrise, a particularly magical hour.  A 4:45 a.m. pick-up obviously meant waking up in Siem Reap at the crack of dawn.  Credit to the beautiful Park Hyatt for suggesting the early departure, then afterward we rest a bit, clean up and have a leisurely breakfast mid-morning.  It really made the timing of the entire plan much more palatable!

Angkor Wat is just 30 minutes from the town, including a brief stop to acquire tickets — $37 each.  By the way, US dollars are the acceptable currency in Cambodia; obviously not having to convert money always makes travel much easier.  Advance reading prior to this trip suggested carrying a decent amount of small bills — $1’s and $5’s — some great advice we happily followed.

One would think it would be much cooler at the early hour.  Hah — wishful thinking.  At least 90 degrees and very humid at our 5:30 am arrival.  There was a significant gathering of tourists, even though it’s “low season” — soon to be desolate with the impending rains.  The following pictures paint a much better story than my words.  Enjoy.

Crowds angling for the perfect sunrise photo
Hot air ballon over the area
Korean tour group, pretty in pink
Shrubs popping out of a spire. Maintenance takes great care in removing all plants, otherwise the spire would eventually be covered.
We’ll pass on this one ..
We observed the request for “modest attire” — no shorts or bare shoulders — adding to the heat.
The extent of this trip’s encounter with animals — a wild monkey perched and hoping to find food
Worth getting up for …

2. PHNOM PENH

For us, this was a one-and-done temple visit.  Others go all in and see many, but we were happy with the experience and chose to bum around the town a bit, rest up and arrange for a car and driver for the 5-hour journey south to Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh.  At a cost of $200 US, the opportunity of going door to door in air conditioning, sans airport, and seeing the countryside en route was an easy decision. Nonetheless, some sights were truly heart-wrenching as there is significant poverty visible.  Then the developed area of Phnom Penh came into view.  Much like Saigon, it is a (mostly) modern metropolis with high-rise buildings developed around the Mekong River.

We were told that few American tourists visit Phnom Penh; rather, it is mainly business clientele and largely from other Asian countries.  The Chinese are investing heavily in real estate, building new housing, hotels and casinos.  I would suggest the infrastructure could use a lot of work — mainly trash pick up.  But there’s great wifi everywhere, lots of shopping opportunities and some excellent restaurants.  And we were spoiled rotten at the gorgeous new Rosewood Hotel with exceptional treatment!  If you’re not familiar with the brand, look for it.  They have nearly as many properties opening in the next few years as they have open now; i.e, ambitious expansion.

Rosewood temptations: their tuk-tuk; bar snack (amazing); french pastry shop

We had a fabulous dinner at Palais la Poste, which building was formerly the Indochina Bank.  From upper left, a lovely French red; scallops with squid-ink risotto; escargot; profiteroles; grilled salmon.  The French influence is very evident in much of the cuisine in Cambodia (as well as Vietnam).

Our visit to the notorious “Killing Fields” and Prison Museum recalling the unspeakable atrocities at the hands of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge was very difficult.  Our wonderful young guide, Nicky, shared with us that her grandparents were killed but the subject cannot be broached with her parents.  It is still just too hard.  She chooses to look instead to the promise of Cambodia’s future.  Wise thinking.  Next up .. our final stop for this trip:  Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.

One of only four children to survive the prison (depicted in the photo), this gentleman has written his story of how he survived the inhumane treatment of Cambodians.
With our wonderful young guide Nicky and driver Mr. Thao.

 

International TravelThings You Should Know

SOUTHEAST ASIA FOR THE WIN

spring 2019

When one is fortunate to take an annual three-week vacation, where to go is obviously the biggest decision.  Many people return over and over again to their favorite spots.  They know what to expect and/or they’ve created relationships with a particular hotel or resort.  To each his own, but the hubby and I are not those folks.  Every year we try to go where we’ve not yet been for at least the majority of the trip, with possibly a repeat stay somewhere to how the trip is routed.

This year as the title suggests is to SE Asia to four new countries:  Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia.  On other trips in the region, we’ve been to Japan, China, Thailand, Singapore and several times to Hong Kong.  At some point we’ll go back to those spots, but not now.

Planning this trip was challenging as there’s a lot of geography to cover and no cruise ships involved.  And, unlike previous trips to Europe, there’s no train travel nor driving involved.  So it’s all about flights and more flights — mostly short ones.  For the long flights,  I do feel “victorious” having once again secured them via my AA miles:  LAX-Hong Kong on American (biz class for 70K per person).  The even better one (and it does feel like a victory!) is Kuala Lumpur to Hong Kong (with a 10-hour stop providing ample time to visit the tailor) and then continuing on to LAX — this time on Cathay in biz class likewise for a total of 70k each.  Long-range planning and perseverance, my friends, is what this is all about.  Our spend becomes on the ground instead of in the air, which is why I commit so much time “achieving” these tickets.  By the way, the hotels where we’re traveling are so much less than the same brands charge in other destinations.  So if I’m sounding deliriously happy, there’s a good reason for it!

The first flight was a flawless one — on time, smooth, slumber achieved.  The hubby’s seat was dysfunctional requiring a total system reset, but I was asleep.  His new bestie attendant was very kind — even awarding us each 10K miles for the “inconvenience.”  That’s what I call service and a great way to reward loyalty.

I hadn’t thought about checking the bags all the way through to Taipei as we changed airlines in Hong Kong from American to EVA.  That change was flawless as well — the transfer desk simply took our documents, handled finding and re-ticketing our luggage, then gave us new bag tags, boarding passes and lounge access all in about 40 minutes.

So stay tuned — next post after our couple of days in Taipei and enjoying baseball in a fifth country!

Excellent local cuisine at Fujin Tree and then sleep!

 

Snippets from the RoadThings You Should Know

TIPS FOR GETTING THE BEST AIRFARE

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Once again, Scott McCartney (WSJ’s The Middle Seat) comes through with some salient tips about  buying airline tickets, while debunking some popular myths.  In a nutshell:

  1. Non-stop flights are generally less expensive than flights with stops — especially in markets with low-cost competition.  Non-stops will most likely cost more on international flights and cities serviced by fewer carriers.
  2. Sunday is still the best day to buy tickets, with Tuesday the second best.  Avoid Wednesdays and Thursdays if possible.  Ironically, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the least expensive days to travel because “who wants to travel on a Tuesday or Wednesday?”
  3. Include a Saturday overnight stay to get the best discounts on international fares.  Domestic is a different story, although it still may help lessen the cost.
  4. Supply and demand is what drives pricing now.  The tie-in to oil prices is no longer relevant.  So fuel costs might go down and fares will still go up due to lack of available seats.
  5. According to a study by Expedia/ARC, the best window for buying tickets is three months before departure —  up to three weeks before.  Once inside 30 days, travelers are at the mercy of the airlines.
Illustration by Fabio Consoli

 

Things I LoveTo-Do ListU.S. TravelWining/Dining

Big Trip/Big Apple/BIG Birthday

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I’m guessing that you’ve figured out the what and the where.  As for what constitutes as a BIG birthday, 65 is definitely one.  If you follow this blog, you know we went to Greece (click for previous posts) for the hubby’s recent milestone birthday.  As for mine, the destination was a no-brainer especially since I love cold weather, great restaurants and shopping, with some theater thrown in because it’s part of what one does in NYC.

We flew American to NY and were really impressed with their new 321T plane which is used for transcontinental routes.  Wow — great plane, modern features, tons of leg room in the exit row, outlets and individual screens at each seat.  We got upgraded for our return (15K miles and $70 each); it was fabulous!

Bottom left is exit row en route to NY; other pix are the new business class seats.

It was a “no holds barred” kind of trip (within reason, of course) because a 65th birthday happens just once.  And when one is fortunate enough to have so much, it’s time to both partake and reflect.  The latter comes in a bit.

Loews Regency Hotel on Park and 61st got the where-to-stay nod after much debate (with myself and the internet).  To me this is a very central location for our plans; we had a terrific previous stay; and, the rate didn’t necessitate a second mortgage.  I chose three shows, all purchased in advance:  The Band’s Visit, My Fair Lady and Network (Bryan Cranston!).  Might I add that none of the NY tickets (all Orchestra seats) cost as much as what we paid for Dear Evan Hansen in Los Angeles.  Go figure that one out.

Hotel greetings; Network curtain call; The Band’s Visit; Still lit up in NYC

There’s a few places and restaurants where I’ve always wanted to go but never have on innumerable trips to NYC.  One is Peter Luger Steakhouse.  So many people have so many opinions about the “best steak” place to go, but one doesn’t stay in business for 130+ years with lousy food.  This was on my to-do list so that we high-tailed it to Brooklyn straight away after a fabulous performance of My Fair Lady.  Norbert Leo Butz as Alfred P. Doolittle is worth the price of admission, if only to see him perform “Get Me to the Church on Time.”

Steak, fries, lamb chops and a mountain of whipped cream

It’s also no surprise that where to dine for the actual birthday dinner was given a lot of thought.  Several months ago, I put a reminder in my calendar of the date when January reservations open up for Eleven Madison Park — notoriously difficult to book.  Three Michelin stars and consistently on the World’s Best list.  Parenthetically, if you click on that link, #15 is White Rabbit in Moscow.  Yikes.  We did not think it was so wonderful on our visit there in May.  So lists can certainly be in the eye of the beholder.

Nonetheless, EMP had availability for Jan 8 so with the hubby’s blessing, the booking was made (and pre-paid in full).  The experience was so extraordinary that I’m dedicating a separate post to it (to follow).  The night before was a return trip to Daniel — an absolute favorite and site of my perfect 60th.  The restaurant is consistently grand and Daniel Boulud was in the house.

Below is the custom menu delivered at the end of the night.  I’m always grateful for this so I don’t have to either take notes or try to remember what scrumptious dishes were served!  Inside the box is a small pastry to take with, just in case we needed another bite …

In the kitchen with Chef Boulud and with the wine director lower right.
Five years ago on my 60th.

We got to visit with family as well for Sunday brunch at Les Leopard des Artistes, close to Lincoln Center.  And we had a late night drink with a dear Houston friend who happened to be in NY.  Remarkably this is the second birthday in a row we’ve seen him (see post)!

Regular readers might remember Aunt Judy (blue coat) who traveled to India with us. Her husband, son, daughter & son-in-law made up a lovely group!
We met up with Houstonian Fred Zeidman (left) and his NY friend Gary to close the bar in the wee hours.
First visit to Russ & Daughters Cafe, Lower East Side, for transparent salmon, amazing latkes, egg cream, rugulah and clever wallpaper
Bergdorf’s shoe department, where the hubby’s “dogs” are in repose as I scoured the sales racks (sadly, nothing for me)

As for the reflection part,  I am indeed blessed.  A loving and devoted husband, adult children launched and flourishing in their respective careers, a successful business with loyal clients, seeing the world, two close sisters and great friends.  It’s a lot.  I am so grateful that I trusted my instincts to make the choices in life that resulted in all of this.  No doubt, some luck was involved as well.  But I wake up every day happy in wonderful surroundings.  So life at 65 is pretty, pretty good.

 

International TravelThings You Should KnowWining/Dining

SANTORINI, GREECE — Last stop for a milestone birthday

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Thank you to the Greek weather Gods for allowing us to arrive in Santorini to glorious sunshine.  Beautiful blue skies against the white abodes literally built into steep hillsides provide gorgeous contrasts.

Every room has it’s own terrace.
Dining area at the resort.

Our last resort for this trip was in the town of Oia (pronounced “e-a”), about 40 minutes from the ferry in Fira.  Naturally the resort — Mystique — is steep as well, just like pretty much everything else on the island.  The view of the caldera is quite stunning.  “Caldera” refers to the vast opening from the long-ago volcano eruption which formed Santorini itself along with several much smaller islands.  One could sit facing the water and do nothing else.  Of course, navigating up and down the steps required to get anywhere provides added incentive to stay put.  And there’s no “ADA” provisions; it’s simply climb or else.

Our resort with another right above it.
50 steps so far; about a million to go. No handrails.

We did walk into the town to browse around and have lunch at Mezzo Cafe.  It was like the U.N. there with very close tables that lent to conversation.  French folks (from Lyon) to the left and a group of Aussies to the right provided a wonderful opportunity to chat and hear respective impressions of the landscape and life in general.  Our French neighbors immediately asked if I was ok sitting next to their dog.  My response:  “As long as he doesn’t smoke,” which is hardly guaranteed in these parts of the world — especially sitting at an outdoor cafe.  We lucked out on all counts and had a thoroughly terrific time.

Mezzo Cafe
Go-to lunch: Chicken sovlaki with tzatziki, pita and “chips”

Much like our arrival in Santorini (described in the previous post), we experienced a similar “your driver was delayed” challenge upon leaving for a particularly ideal spot to view the sunset.  In this part of Greece, sunsets are like a religious experience.  But they must be well-timed.  We were booked at Ovac, a beautiful spot we were told was best for viewing.  We had a pre-arranged pick-up at 6:15 for a 6:30 arrival at the restaurant, giving us a solid 30 minutes until the sun fully set.  And then it’s 6:20, 6:25.  Tick tock.  Two hotel courtesy cars were waiting, but both had other commitments.

Mind you, I am not walking back down to get to the main office, because I’ll have to walk back up!  Three phone calls later (from a borrowed cell), one of the cars finally took us (ours was still “delayed”), driving at breakneck speed around the curves and we arrived with enough time to get our photos, but not nearly as relaxing as we had hoped.  We did have a delicious dinner and were glad for the experience.

Amazing salad at Ovac.
That view. That sunset.

I’m now convinced not much runs on time in Greece.  In fairness to our two other stays, both had excellent staff and great service (King George Athens and Bill & Coo Mykonos).  But Santorini had some issues to say the least.  Is it Greece in general?  Hmmm.  The country is not exactly stellar in many aspects.  Maybe with this exquisite location, the expectations are lower.  Good question to ponder.

The final day of our stay in Greece was spent at the resort — reading, spa and a wine tasting in their cellar — really a cave of sorts.  Greek grapes are interesting; they are grown without any water other than rain, humidity and/or mist from the sea.  The volcanic earth retains the moisture.  We tasted four local varietals:  sparkling, white, red and a dessert wine, accompanied by various cheeses, fruit, nuts, etc.  It was a lovely experience followed by a small dinner.

Wine tasting a deux.

Fortunately we were back in the room before the anticipated rains came for we would have not been able to negotiate either the steps or steep slope to our room.  It positively gushed water — and it supposedly only rains 20 days per year on the island.  Timing is everything.

Moderate rain flowing past our room.
The deluge a bit later.

For the journey home, American/British Air booked us via our miles from Athens to an overnight at Heathrow then nonstop to LAX.  I’ve complained before about really disliking BA’s biz class (Club World) configuration of front/back seating and having to climb over the aisle seat from the window seat.  However, we were on a brand new plane and it was really “quite lovely” as the Brits would say.  Next year that seat configuration goes away, and everyone will be facing front.  Hopefully staggered.  Better yet, single seating next to the window.  That is the best!

My cubby for 11+ hours. Plenty of room.
That privacy screen was up after the photo!
U.S. TravelWining/Dining

THANK YOU VIRGIN AIRLINES FOR THIS TRIP!

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What does that mean?  Virgin Airlines did everything in their power to destroy our return flight last September from Boston & Providence.  After much back and forth, a $500 credit was offered for future travel.  When I attempted to use the credit for a January trip to Houston, I found out that any travel associated with the credit had to go through Seattle — you guessed it.  Off to the PNW before the credit goes bye-bye.

Dinner view, Bellingham waterfront.

 

Not that one needs a good reason to visit the area, but we had a few besides the aforementioned credit.  First up, a long overdue visit with LA friends who relocated to Bellingham a number of years ago.  Then there’s my niece and her family — in particular my 3-year-old great niece.  Did we need to pick a weekend where the Dodgers just happened to be playing the Mariners?  Not really, but why not?  It’s always fun to visit stadiums, and our friends are serious fan(atics)s as well.

Bellingham transplants Marion & Ed, a friend of the hubby for 45 years.

Upon the recommendation of our Bellingham buddies, we reserved two nights at The Willows Inn on nearby Lummi Island, a quaint establishment with just eight accommodations.  From their website:  “Lummi Island is located in the archipelago that includes the San Juan Islands and the Gulf Islands in the Salish Sea, the waters off the coasts of the Pacific Northwest and southwest Canada.”  I didn’t fully appreciate what we were in for, except I knew we were going to splurge on their prix-fixe dinner.

Outdoor grill at The Willows Inn prepping dinner courses
Tempting lobby treats!
Love this outdoor table!

Chef/proprietor Blaine Wetzel is a disciple of Rene Redzepi of the world-renown restaurant Noma in Copenhagen.  The style of cooking and use of ingredients is based on whatever local products are available, heavily skewed to all types of seafood and every vegetable known (and some new ones) including plants, herbs and edible flowers.  Many were grilled outside and finished inside.  Our “snacks” began on the patio with a series of small bites and progressed inside for many more courses.  We finished back on the patio for a series of desserts mainly using local fruits.  It was a world-class meal in every sense.

You had me at bbq’d mussels
“Herb Tostada” — completely edible!
Braised local cabbage with charred edges. Outstanding.
The only bread offering (amazing) — with a buttery crab dip.

After dinner we went into the kitchen along with many other guests where we met the chef himself.  Our friends generously bought me his book so I wanted to get it signed.  Little did I know that head chef  Wetzel actually delivered (incognito) one of our courses!  Talk about everyone being hand’s on.  We loved hearing more background about the restaurant and having an aperitif before retiring to our room upstairs.

The only issue with the Inn’s location is the ferry that runs back and forth to the mainland — which ferry is the only access to the Inn.  The line can be oppressive, especially in the summer months.  After waiting about 30 minutes to get a morning ferry to the mainland, we called an audible, went back to the Inn and gathered our belongings and checked out.  The idea of spending up to 3 hours of this short trip waiting for the ferry just didn’t make sense so I booked modest accommodations for the night on the mainland and off we went for a spectacular day of sightseeing in Bellingham and the surrounding areas.

Ugh. Endless line for the ferry.

As a longtime suffering gardener — meaning my efforts and my yield are seriously out of balance — seeing blackberries growing literally like weeds everywhere is just a killer.  And then we went to pick blueberries.  Does anyone not love blueberries? (Mr. H, don’t answer that).  There are simply not enough adjectives to describe the abundance of berries in the area, both at Boxx Berry Farm and at a private home in Lynwood.  Literally grab a container and proceed.  The best method for picking proved to be imitating how one milks a cow (which I have never done but used my imagination).

Blueberries!
Three of us picked these.
Packed up for transporting home

We loved going to Safeco Field for two Dodger games.  The ratio of Dodger blue gear to either Mariners or other teams is at least 50/50 if not more.  Spending time with friends/fans was terrific fun.  Once more, the distinct differences between stadium food offerings in other parks compared to Dodger Stadium makes one wonder why our organization doesn’t do a better job!

Fun at Safeco Field
Dodger pitcher Rich Hill warming up pre-game.

We had a blast spending time with family and enjoying a splendid meal at Purple Cafe in the heart of downtown.  Delicious food, conversation and time well spent all adds up to a most enjoyable journey up north.

Pasta with local corn and tomatoes
Peach gallette with a side of salted caramels.
The fam: Niece Jenna, hubby Thomas and 3-1/2-yr-old gorgeous Doron