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International TravelThings You Should KnowWining/Dining

MARVELOUS MALAYSIA

IMG_2791 KL

Immediately upon arriving Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia — a quick 50-minute flight from Singapore — the distinction from the recent visits to Cambodia and Vietnam is very apparent.  While both Phnom Penh and Saigon are quite modern, there’s virtually no comparison to KL and the surrounding area seen en route from the airport (a good hour, depending on traffic).

Leaving Singapore; clear evidence of the world’s busiest container port.

The grand welcome at the new Four Seasons Hotel was unexpected!  To say our visit felt appreciated is quite the understatement.  I have written before about the value in creating “brand” relationships.  In this case, the connection between our stay in Vietnam (Hoi An) and now in Kuala Lumpur was indeed a continuation.  A subsequent post will include this trip’s “trifecta” with a layover in Hong Kong.

With the extraordinary Guest Services team — Halilah (manager) and Didi

The area surrounding the hotel is home to numerous high rises, of which the new hotel (open less than a year) fits right in.  The structure combines both hotel followed by residences above and is attached (conveniently) to a large department store.

Readers who follow this blog know that the hubby and I consider ourselves foodies — not just passionate about experiencing cuisines, but likewise connecting with the creators; i.e., the chefs and restaurateurs.  We have such a connection, made two years ago on a visit to the Maldives at the exquisite Four Seasons Kuda Huraa resort.  Executive Chef Junious Dickerson made a fateful comment at departure when we happened to share a short ride from the resort to the mainland:  “Come to Kuala Lumpur!  I am transferring there when the new hotel opens …”

After that trip, we communicated a bit when he would comment on a blog post.  I think it’s safe to say it might have been unexpected for us to actually show up.  Nevertheless, it was a grand reunion with him and we shared some precious time during our brief few days there.  After all, he oversees a kitchen staff of 100 so he’s a busy guy.  And the food offerings were vast and elaborate to say the least.  We happened to be visiting during Ramadan, widely observed by Muslims (Malaysia is roughly 60% Muslim), so nearly ever restaurant was affected.  Since there’s strict fasting between dawn and sunset, a large and elaborate buffet was offered every night during our stay with countless dishes prepared.  Imagine your typical Sunday brunch available at many high-end hotels, and then having to do that every evening.  It is quite the effort to pull off.

With Executive Chef Junious Dickerson — he’s originally from Virginia but has been living abroad for many years. We’d follow him anywhere!
Not your typical avocado toast (with our thanks!)
Arrangement in the dining room. What’s particularly amazing is each cymbidium flower is in it’s own water tube. That is a lot of work.

As happens in the days concluding weeks’ long travel, there is a winding down period where the travel back home is now in sight.  That, coupled with a bit of travel fatigue and less of a desire for sightseeing, led to some very low-key days.  We did go to the famous Petronas Towers, not just your ordinary tall structure, but unique for the two matching towers connected by a floor-to-ceiling, glass-enclosed bridge … about 560 feet above the ground (connecting floors 41 and 42).  I got about about three steps onto the bridge and had an epic failure to proceed.  In fact, I commandeered a guide and then an elevator operator to take me straight down immediately.  I say “commandeered” because my first request was met with “Oh, you need to go to the 82nd floor and then go down with the next tour group” to which I respectfully declined.

Curiously, I was fine on the visit to Dubai’s Burj Khalifa which observation deck is 125 floors up. Or for that matter, lunch in Taipei on the 84th floor.  It was the damn bridge that did me in, feeling there was no support underneath.

That bridge! Photo cred: Wikipedia
Beautiful plaza near the hotel. It is colorfully lit with fountains at night — maybe a little too Vegas-y but fun to watch.
Night view of towers from the terrific steakhouse, Marble 8.

Our couple of days were spent with a visit to their Orchid Garden (not great considering the constant humidity) and, of course, plentiful shopping malls.  If one wanted to see then newly-released Avengers End Game, it was showing on four out of seven screens in one location alone.  Kind of like home.

At the botanical garden
Papaya? Mango?? If you guessed PUMPKIN, you would be correct. It was a delicious offering at a Chinese restaurant.
Sensational and authentic at Strato
Not a lover of dim sum, but this was delicious (soft shell crab)
Time for a healthier choice!

Our last stop of this trip is a long layover in Hong Kong.  I’ll cover that plus my SE Asia “winners and losers” in the next post.

More stunning flowers in the hotel lounge
Kid indeed.
Bar Trigona at the hotel has a cabinet dedicated to scotch afficionados.
The hotel bar was just recognized in the top 50 of best bars in Asia
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 I LoveWining/Dining

HEAVENLY HOI AN

IMG_2387 Hoi An

When sharing our itinerary for the recent trip to Southeast Asia, disclosing a visit to the gorgeous Vietnam beach area of Hoi An universally received lots of “ooohs” and “aaahs.”  Including a few days of doing nothing has become a regular part of the trip planning; this respite provides a much-needed opportunity to relax and recharge.  Otherwise, the travel is fast and aggressive in order to see as much as possible in any given destination.

Serenity.

This beach area is accessed by flying into Da Nang International Airport.  Da Nang is another familiar name to many Americans as it was the site of a major air base during the Vietnam War.  This particular location is in the center of the country — it thus provides excellent access to most other cities in Vietnam.

The ancient town of Hoi An is a Unesco World Heritage Site, straddling the Thu Bon River.  Our biggest activity there was getting manicures.  Choosing where to go was the big question as the number of available shops closely rivals the number of bars and souvenir stores.  Our two manicures cost a grand total of $14, and that was fine for us.  Compared to Hanoi and Saigon, the takeaway from the town of Hoi An was the height of touristy.  Personnel for stores, clubs and restaurants try every which way to lure customers in for whatever is being offered.  And there were outdoor carts as well.  Maybe the area traffic swelled for the weekend we were there, but the combination of crowds, being pitched and likely the weather (hot and humid; what else?) made the town visit just fair.  Fortunately, the resort itself was a haven for relaxing.

One of three locations the proprietor’s family owns in the area. Foot massages were favored by many of the males in the shop.

 

In the town of Hoi An at dusk

And that was exactly how the few days were spent by the gorgeous pool at the Four Seasons Resort.   The company acquired this existing property in 2016, and they cater to guests from Korea, Japan and the U.S. by number in that order.  The resort does an excellent job of providing both for families traveling with children and those of us without.  The main pool is for guests 14 and older, providing a very relaxing space.  One could opt for cooking classes, water sports and/or venturing into the aforementioned town if desired.   The setting is so beautiful that we mostly just did nothing — precisely what we had in mind.

Spa treatment rooms at right, Four Seasons Resort

As has the been the case with other resorts, we again had the pleasure of engaging the Executive Sous Chef, Alessandro Fontenesi, a character hailing from Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region.  He took great pride in giving us a tour of the burgeoning produce garden.  There was pure envy on my part for the available space and neat rows of plants.  While the garden is not able to supply all of the resort’s requirements, everything the garden does produce is used.  Crops are rotated and seasonally planted and the results both look and taste great.  We alternatively wanted the chef to continue providing wonderful tastes and for him to stop tempting us with such delicious food.  What a dilemma!

A couple of kindred spirits ..
Offerings from the chef
Ripening melons
Tough job in very hot weather.
Lots and lots of mango trees!
Overview of the gardens
Doesn’t matter how it’s spelled. Keep it away from me!!

After three terrific and restful days (a total of nine in wonderful Vietnam),  we bid our adieu to the great staff with the promise of a return visit.  Next up, two stops in Cambodia.

Could have easily been in Italy with this ..
Pathway to heaven.
International TravelThings You Should KnowWining/Dining

STORIES FROM SAIGON

IMG_2287Saigon
Saigon from the air

Is it Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City?  Good question.  Much like when we were in India and Bombay was used more often than Mumbai, Saigon is used a lot.  It goes without saying it is easier to say and write.  The name change occurred in 1976 after the Reunification of the country.   Saigon was stop #2 in Vietnam after Hanoi during three weeks in Southeast Asia.

Transporting eggs in Saigon via motor scooter
Orchid Show (first annual)
A truly dedicated mom brings an extended battery to keep her baby as cool as possible

Our hotel for this stop is The Reverie.  The hubby astutely observed that “a lot of marble died in order to build this place.”  There is no way to amply describe it.  One could surmise that the term “over the top” was coined here, but somehow it is all in good taste.  Our digs on the 26th floor are referred to as “Residences.”  The stacking washer/dryer (with detergent!) in the “powder room” is a good hint.  I am doing my best to refrain from that task to keep the vacation vibe going.

Lobby flowers
Too Vegas-y?
Tempting, but I refrained ..

The complex housing the hotel was seven years in the making from the ground up (36 floors), debuting in 2015.  We were fortunate to have stellar views of the Saigon River although the air quality made the word “view” relative.  Others have written about the contrasts between the more historic Hanoi vs. the modern Saigon, and I totally agree.  Saigon is a very cosmopolitan city.  We were told the business opportunities are greater in the south and it shows — upward mobility flows from Hanoi to Saigon to the U.S.

View from the room
Guest reception area

We booked the “do not miss” activities, which included a day-long tour of the Mekong Delta area, roughly two hours south of Saigon.  The Mekong River flows through six countries, beginning in China and ending in Vietnam — some 2,400 miles.  Our guide this day was a wonderful and knowledgeable man by the name of Thao.  He works daily as a guide until the off-season — May though October — when it’s just too hot and rainy.  During this time he sells life insurance.  Quite the contrasting careers!  As his large family’s youngest son, he is tasked with supporting his elderly parents, even though many of his siblings are in a better position to do so.  He shared with us his parents still live the village life, meaning no phone, computer, TV and have never been on an airplane.  Fascinating.

A visit to the “happy room” (pit stop) en route to Mekong — good guides know the cleanest places
Crossing a modern bridge — taken inside a moving car!

The first stop upon arriving in the area was a local market.  Thao assured us we were away from the general tourists and he was absolutely correct.  One of the best takeaways is not only do the locals welcome their photos taken, there’s no outstretched hand after doing so.  Meaning none of the “take my photo and then give me money” experienced in other countries.  Their hospitality is genuine and so appreciated.  Given the fastest path around the area is via scooter, we found ourselves on the back of bikes driven by two complete strangers, but vetted by the tour company.  As the saying goes, “when in …”  They were great and we felt perfectly safe.

That face …
Going with the flow …
Pre-arranged lunch stop in a private village home
Just like at home, waiting for me to drop food
Our host’s kitchen
Much needed in steamy weather.

Back in Saigon, we accepted the grand experience of High Tea at our hotel.  It was straight out of the movie Crazy Rich Asians.  Young girls dressed to the hilt, full hair and make-up, who order lots of food but eat none of it.  All the while, they are taking ENDLESS photos — mostly selfies.  It is really something to watch.   We ate, by the way, and enjoyed the experience.  The dining room is manned by a very tall Frenchman and the executive chef (a very talented Italian) who oversees a lot of moving parts including several restaurants within the hotel complex.  The Long @Times Square— so named because it spans the length of the building — had terrific pizza but no A/C.  It was not quite a deal-breaker, but close.  The thing I asked most on this particular trip, instead of “how much is that in dollars?” was “is there air conditioning?”  One just can’t get enough of it …

High Tea “trolley”

Anan was the site for an excellent dinner.  While just two years old, it is one of the top restaurants in Saigon.  Finding it was no easy feat as it’s located in the “wet market” — so called because it has historically been an area to shop for fresh seafood and the sidewalks are constantly being hosed down.  We prevailed after a few stops for directions finding a very small street.

Found it!
Love this wall decor at Anan

The series of dishes were inventive and delicious and we managed to convey our order to the young servers, young ladies who looked about 12 years old.  Not only do they all look so young, they are some of the tiniest people ever — they must be shopping in the kid’s section.  One feels positively gigantic by comparison.

Don’t remember ingredients, but it was delicious!

Before heading off to a bit of R&R at the beach, we toured the city for half a day and enjoyed a fireworks display from our room noting this long holiday “weekend” of five days around May 1.  Next up, Hoi An.

View from Independence Palace
Projection Room at Independence Palace, circa 1976
Theater at the Palace
The city stood still for the fireworks at precisely 9pm

 

 

International TravelThings You Should Know

HIGHLIGHTS FROM HANOI

IMG_1928 Hanoi Temple of Literature

Hanoi (or Ha Noi), the capital city of Vietnam, was the first of our three stops in nine days following Taipei where this this spring journey began.  Hanoi’s landmark hotel is the Sofitel Legend Metropole, established in 1901.  The original building retains the era’s characteristics while the newer Opera Wing (where we stayed) has more modern rooms and architecture.  The hotel is walking distance to the Old Quarter of the city.  It is very safe to walk in Hanoi but one has to be mindful of the ubiquitous motorbikes!  Our first and lasting impression of this country is the how very friendly the people are.

Hotel Metropole, you had me at this note in the room. Love at first sight.

We randomly picked a restaurant in the Old Quarter for dinner and it was just delicious.  Besides the terrific food, it was just $18 total for three courses and a bit of ice cream.  Welcome to Vietnam …

Old Quarter Hanoi

Around the lake

I had arranged in advance for a daylong tour to Ha Long Bay, a World Heritage Site, roughly 2 hours from Hanoi via a fairly new highway.  Many people do overnight trips to the area for a short getaway.  Once there, the endless stream of boats in the bay is evidence of the area’s popularity and status as a must-see destination.  Our guide Tien led us to our small charter with a staff of three for lunch and a few hours’ tour on the bay.  It turned out to be a perfect amount of time (for us).  Prior to the cruise, we were given a brief tour of a pearl farm and shown how the pearls are grown.  Not surprisingly, there was a big showroom right there!  Anyone who tours in this area of the world is accustomed to having a tutorial of some sort and then an “opportunity” to make purchases — whether it’s pearls, jade or even tea.  I passed this time but they had some very beautiful items and were quite willing to negotiate, with calculator in hand.

Hai Phong Port
Pearl farm demonstration
With Tien, our Ha Long Bay guide
Cruising Ha Long Bay
Lunch on the boat
In deep thought
“Kissing cousins”
From a distance, the island foliage fades to different shades of grey

After a long day, we opted for a restaurant near the hotel with pretty good Italian food.  It rained a decent amount in the evening, providing some cooler temps for our city tour the next day.  By “cooler” I mean lower 90’s … No point in going into the heat and humidity; it’s a known fact but one goes with the flow as best as one can.  That’s the deal; otherwise it means missing many parts of the world where the weather is less than optimal when we travel in April/May. For that matter, it would mean forgoing much of Asia where there’s little variance at all in the course of a year.  It’s either hot or wet or both.

Our young (just 21) guide Nam met us the next morning for a half-day tour of Hanoi highlights:  Temple of Literature, Hoa Lo Prison (commonly referred by Americans as the infamous “Hanoi Hilton”), the “notorious black market” area — with store after store of bike and car parts, electronics and other items — and finally some of the famous street food for lunch.  The first thought was obviously the food isn’t being handled in a sanitary way — raw meat and poultry with no gloves as an example.  Nam told us that it is typical for locals to shop twice daily; thus the ingredients are cooked and consumed so quickly that refrigeration is not an issue.  In fact, we had the chance to go down one street where there were (still but not for long) live chickens, but I passed on that one.

Temple of Literature
Such gorgeous faces and such lovely people
Typical black market stall — so many with so much stuff!
Similar to our home remotes (so many …)
Lunchtime
Very delicious
Amazing fresh fruits for sale

Living conditions around these small streets are another reminder of how good so many of us have it at home.  The last stop was the famous Railroad Street, where folks live just feet from the tracks.  Trains go by six times a day.  It is pretty amazing.

One water tank per renter or family
Railroad Street where the trains run by these homes six times daily
With young Nam, who is already very dedicated to his profession!

Our big dinner was at the well-known Press Club, located across the street from The Metropole.  That was more of a splurge with fancy service and stemware, with obviously a steeper price.  The place was empty save for a couple of Brits and a large tour group.  Our fellow travelers provided some good tips and things we must see at our next stop.  Whether or not we follow suggestions, the input is always welcome — it’s interesting to hear how others traverse a given area.

Spinach ravioli and bruschetta
Banana “log”
Serene setting in a hectic city.

 

Next up:  stop #2 in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City aka Saigon.

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BACKYARD FUN

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“Backyard” can have lots of different meanings.  Given the relatively “inclement” weather we’re experiencing in So Cal (we’ve already surpassed our average annual rainfall!), in this case “backyard” is a euphemism for Los Angeles in general — i.e., having fun locally by enjoying a couple of new adventures.

The first was attending the Travel & Adventure Show at the LA Convention Center.  This is a two-day affair with seminars and lots of exhibitors, both international and domestic.  I invited a friend to go with me and pre-registered online.  Easy.

Gorgeous clear skies!

The biggest debate was where should we have lunch? Before or after the show?  Downtown LA (DTLA) has endless options and there were lots of cultural pockets en route from our Beverly Hills meeting place.  We remarkably ruled out Langer’s (DTLA-adjacent with simply THE BEST pastrami sandwich) and kept on with “how about (insert type of food)???”  We also didn’t want to park multiple times. What to do …?

During the drive while my friend Sandra was on a business call, I was observing restaurant signs and got a craving for Korean BBQ.  I pulled over to search Google for nearby places and was elated to discover we were just 3 minutes from Park’s BBQ, arguably the best in all of LA.  I say “arguably” because it’s all in the palate of the beholder.  But this is a place I’ve long wanted to try.

Parks is just north of Olympic Boulevard on S. Vermont in the heart of Koreatown.  The area traffic is always heavy but the restaurant is well marked.  There is a free-of-charge valet (tips welcome) so that made it easy.  It was before noon and the place was already bustling.  And you know what is commonly said about judging an ethic-food place?  Well, let’s just say we were the only non-Asians dining there.

All the sides and condiments first

Ever since the hubby’s and my 2013 trip to Seoul, I have loved Korean culture and food.  The problem is there’s top choices of sushi and Thai food in our ‘hood, but almost no Korean.  My efforts haven’t been exactly stellar to seek out different places.  Regardless, back to the meal at hand …

We ordered two a la carte proteins to be grilled at the table: marinated chicken and paper-thin beef, prepared with onions and seasoning.  They were served with a small bowl of rice and lots of different condiments and small sides.   The hardest part was waiting for the server to give us the go to eat!  Diners are not supposed to do the cooking but rather wait until the meats are done.  We impatiently waited for our server (who supervised the grill) to return.

Hurry up and cook!
Delicious with side of rice.
Best part? Scraping the bits off the grill … ask for a fork!

The verdict?  Delicious.  Not inexpensive.  Good quality.  Lots of flavors to try.  And if you’re into spicy, you’re definitely in the right place.  I now will book a return visit with my Foodies group (executive women gathering to try different restaurants along with socializing) and I’m looking forward to that.

As for the show, if you’ve been to one convention … The best takeaway for me was collecting guides to study for the upcoming trip to SE Asia (Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Kuala Lumpur).   For the most part,the show’s exhibitors were largely promoting group tour travel and cruises.  For my friend Sandra, it was the exhibit from Billings, MT, with lots of suggestions on doing a road trip encompassing Yellowstone Park.  Particularly good info there.

One of the exhibitors .. who knew?

 

With my adventurous friend, Sandra Heller

This was a fun and somewhat spur-of-the-moment outing in our city — a place so vast that these types of experiences are virtually endless — and right in your own backyard.