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Thai Massage Anyone? Ko Samui

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We make a short call at the beach town of Na Thon on the resort island of Ko Samui. Not being beach people, it was a perfect opportunity to get an authentic, famous Thai massage. img_0047And so we did. It was rigorous, but we were able to walk out without assistance. It was so inexpensive – about $10 each and that was with a generous tip.

#LoveTravel, @AzamaraJourney @AzamaraVoyages

The Kingdom of Siam: A Visit to Old Bangkok

In the Grand Palace complex.

In the Grand Palace complex.

We did not have a lot of time in Bangkok, since we chose to zip over to Cambodia while here, so we needed to make the most of the time we had.  With the help of our wonderful A&K guide Annie, off we went.

No trip here would be complete without seeing the famous Buddhas.  The guidebooks say if you see one thing here, it has to be the Grand Palace.  We did see the Palace and the Emerald Buddha (actually jade), but my favorite site was not the Grand Palace, but Wat Po, the temple complex that houses the Reclining Buddha.

The Reclining Buddha.

The Reclining Buddha.

The Grand Palace complex is huge, beautiful and has many buildings and even commercial shops.  King Rama IX died in November, and the country has recently completed 100 days of mourning. The Palace complex is very crowded with locals since the King’s body is lying in state and traffic is closed on the immediately surrounding streets. Security was tight, everyone passes through metal detectors and a photo ID, in our case a passport copy, must be shown. Ankles and shoulders must be covered (and not with a shawl). I saw people turned away. Many locals are still wearing black to honor their beloved King.

The Emerald Buddha is small and positioned quite high, and was dressed for winter (one of its three outfits), covering all the jade except his face.  Visitors maybe not photograph inside the Wat Phra Keo (temple) that houses this Buddha, and from outside the temple, only a camera much better than mine would have a lens good enough to get a decent photo.

Area of Wat Po.

Area around Wat Po.

Conversely, the buildings at Wat Po were closer together and look like something in a fairy tale.  As with other ceremonial locations, tiny tiles of stained glass, ceramics and richly painted murals cover every surface inch of space.  The effect is magical, sparkling in the sunlight, vibrant color everywhere. Again, I find my camera lens insufficient to capture what I am seeing.  The 160-foot-long reclining Buddha is far larger than it looks in photos – breathtaking.

I was blessed by a monk here – being “tapped” (it was pretty hard) on the head and shoulder with a short straw broom and basically doused with a substantial amount of cold water. It was so hot, it did feel good. We also visited the massive Golden Buddha at Wat Traimit.

The solid gold, Golden Buddha.

The solid gold, Golden Buddha.

Solid gold and weighing in at 5 tons, but skipped a visit to Wat Aron, and settled for seeing it from the river since the entire temple is scaffolded for renovation.  Clearly, these temples are meticulously maintained; they are all so elaborate and seem in perfect condition.

The temples we visited are in Old Bangkok, but the rest of this sprawling, modern city was not unlike our home city of Miami. Skyscrapers, modern elevated expressways, tropical vegetation and sunshine.  Our focus was to see as much of the ancient and traditional features of Bangkok as possible, so we embarked on a private long-tail boat trip through the canals (khlongs) of Thonburi.

A canal vendor.

A canal vendor.

Traveling through locks (they say “water gates”) on the way in and out of this charming area, we enjoyed seeing the wooden shacks, beautiful new homes, Temples, waterside markets and even restaurants with cooks preparing food from small boats in the canal. I’ve read these waterways make Bangkok the Venice of the East, but they reminded me far more of the Florida Keys.

Thanks to the efficiency of our intrepid, always smiling guide Annie, we even managed to get in a ride on a tuk-tuk, one of the motorized three-wheeled carts so prevalent in this city.  Thankfully our smaller ship, Azamara Journey, docked in town on the Chao Phraya River (larger ships dock two hours from town), and we were able to productively use every minute of our time here.

I now understand “The King & I” is more fairy-tale than truth (it’s banned here), but do plan to re-watch.

Side bar: Originally, I had wanted to visit the MaeKlong Railway Market, a market that covers rail tracks, and is quickly picked up just prior to the train entering the station. But it’s about 90 minutes out of town and this time of year, the train only comes through twice a day, 8:30 AM and 3:30PM. Apparently, many of the local vendors have quit going to the market, because the growing number of tourists is having a negative impact of their ability to sell their fruits, vegetables, etc.

Wat Traimit, home of the Golden Buddha.

Wat Traimit, home of the Golden Buddha.

 

#LoveTravel, @AzamaraJourney, @AzamaraVoyages

The Consequences of History: Central Vietnam

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Today was a confluence of sights, sounds and impressions.

The highlight of the day was a bicycle ride through a rural area in the settlement of Cam Thanh. It was a lovely, lush area and actually seemed pretty affluent. Preparations for the New Year were evident as we saw people cleaning their property, special signs and traditional chrysanthemum and kumquat plants everywhere.

Some of the paths were paved, some were dirt and many were quite bumpy, but the only part that was a bit scary was the constant appearance of fast-moving motor-scooters.  When they had large, overlapping loads, or were leading something like a water buffalo, it was intimidating. I just wish I could’ve taken my hands off the handlebars with more confidence to take some photos. The scenery was just as I imagined – rice paddies, water buffalo, and small fishing boats along the river. img_9338-copy

At one juncture along our path, there was commentary being loudly broadcast over a loudspeaker followed by music.  When asked later, our guide explained this is how the government still communicates in many rural communities.  For us, it was an eerily, MASH-like moment. On a less bizarre note, we stopped along our ride to visit a beautiful Buddhist Temple, complete with chanting monks.

All-in-all, the bike ride was a very memorable experience.

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Incense coils in the Chinese Temple, Hoi An.

img_9531-copyWe also did a walking tour of historic Hoi An, another UNESCO site. Untouched during the war, Hoi An is 45 minutes from Da Nang, where the US had a large military presence during the war (we saw the air base).  A trading crossroads for centuries, this mostly pedestrian-only zone has wonderful surviving elements of Chinese and Japanese cultures.  I say mostly, because around 11AM, they let motor-scooters back in. Today, Hoi An continues its role as a trading crossroads – but basically to “trade” with tourists; taking both credit cards and US $.   The city has been preserved well, with dozens of inviting restaurants and attractive shops featuring local artisans and handmade items. I loved all the colorful lanterns strung across the narrow streets.

The area is also known for silk, and is a huge center for custom-tailored goods.  Because of the New Year, we saw the occasional shop-owner burning symbolic money for good luck.  And OMG, the cooking smells emanating from the restaurants were incredibly good. We eventually did enjoy a wonderful Vietnamese lunch.

From the road, we could see the Marble Mountains in the distance, each named for the five elements-water, metal, wood, fire and earth, and we had a photo-op at the 20-mile Non Nuoc Beach, famous in the US as China Beach (where US servicemen went for R&R). Locals don’t like to call it China Beach, and although they say it’s because they don’t want to credit China, you have to wonder about the US/war affiliation.

Overall, I have to comment this part of Vietnam is being rapidly developed and construction is hi-end with obvious foreign investment.  Four Seasons, Raffles, and Hyatt are there and several major resorts are currently under construction.  It appears the entire beach-front has been optioned. There is even a casino for the Chinese visitors (locals are not allowed to gamble).

Someone needs to tell the Vietnamese guides they do not need to talk 100% of the time . . . .

Remembering Sacrifices of the War

This beach area in Vietnam (Nom O Beach) is where 3,500 US Marines landed on March 8, 1965, becoming the first American ground troops in Vietnam. And the rest is history.  It was also in this area that the Tet Offensive in 1968 was launched by North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, essentially marking the beginning of the end of US involvement in the war.  It was called “Tet” because it was planned for the Lunar New Year celebration (which is this very week in Asia). The North Vietnamese correctly guessed the opposition soldiers would think the initial assault was just firecrackers from the celebration and be caught off-guard.  My husband was luckier than others and did not have to serve here; but he has nevertheless been soberly reflective during this visit.img_9371-copy

For my trivia buddies, one fact I never knew til preparing for this trip: It’s bad form to stick chop sticks into a rice bowl vertically – it’s the Buddhist sign of death.

#LoveTravel, @AzamaraVoyages

Cannes is a Star

Modest local boats, near elegant villas and gardens, share fantastic views along the Cote d'Azur.

Modest local boats, near elegant villas and gardens, share fantastic views along the Cote d’Azur.

 

Cannes is beautiful.  We tendered in right by the Vieux Port (Old Port) and were met by MoMo, a driver we had contracted for a few hours.  The goal was to get out on the coast and take in the scenery, and that is exactly what made this day so special.

Before we left town, we headed up the famous waterfront on the Boulevard de la Croisette, where the Palais des Festivals hosts the annual Cannes Film Festival and grand hotels like the Majestic, Carlton and Martinez are found.  Among the high-end shops you can find Chanel, with the address Number 5, the origin of the famous perfume name.  The Rue d’Antibes offered even more shops, but without the distraction of the colorful parks and action on the waterfront.

We wanted to drive along the Corniches (roads cut into steep hills) and we started with the lower, Basse, Corniche along the coast to Antibes and Cap d’Antibes. The entire area was extremely beautiful and obviously very wealthy.  In Antibes we also visited a local market, sampled the delicious Socca (made from chickpeas and olive oil) and purchased some Absinthe, the legendary and controversial, potent liquor.  We took in the 13 mega-yachts and one 92’ baby-yacht, all but one with Cayman Island registry, and then drove by stunning villas along the coast.

In the distance we saw the Lerins Islands of Sainte Marguerite (where the Man with the Iron Mask was jailed) and Sainte Honorat.

We did drive on all three of the Corniches, including the Grande (upper) and Moyenne (middle); these roads all follow the coastline, but at various heights along the route. Ah, yes, and more bocce “courts”, which look like large sandy fields in France, where the game is actually called Petanque.

Our drive took us to the hilltop village of Eze, where we enjoyed a quick survey of the shops, cafes and 5-star hotels scattered along the steep, narrow stone pathways.

Once back in Cannes, we visited the Old Town of Le Suquet with its Notre Dame d’Esperance 17th century, Franciscan church and castle ruins.

A final stop at a waterside café for a glace was a perfect ending to the day.

A Surprise Visit to Villefranche

Harbour at VilleFranche.

Harbor at Villefranche.

When we opened our eyes this morning and saw the whitecaps outside, we knew we were not going to be able to tender into St. Tropez.

It wasn’t long before the Captain of the Journey announced he was looking for a more sheltered harbor; and not long after, he broadcast we would anchor off Villefranche.

The crew scrambled to get together some on-shore options, and we chose to take an excursion to St. Paul de Vence, a beautiful, hilltop village right out of a medieval movie set.  It turned out to be a warm sunny day, and the new harbor was nice and calm for the tenders to get to shore.  Villefranche is beautiful, and also has major city walls left from the fortifications built when it was a part of the House of Savoy, and defended itself from the French.

We drove along the coastal La Promenade des Anglais through Nice, and were surprised at just how quaint, picturesque, clean, colorful and interesting it all looked.  St. Paul was absolutely charming, with narrow, winding alleys filled with high-end art galleries and beautiful shops.  Fitting for an area that inspired Matisse, Chagall and Picasso.

We capped it off by sitting in a café at the entrance to the village and watching the local bocce players.  They played on a sandy court with no edging and the traditional smaller balls.  It was amazing to watch them toss the ball in the air for a dead hit on the competitor’s ball, and then nestle their ball right up to the pelota.  They took the game to a whole new level.

I loved everything we saw today, and can see why so many count this part of the world among their favorites.

 

Tip: Train service runs regularly along the coastal route, connecting Monaco with all the cities along the Cote D’Azur and beyond.

How are Pisa & Porcupines Connected?

I know - really cheesy . . .

I know – really cheesy . . .

Pisa is about a lot more than the iconic Leaning Tower, but that’s why we came. It is a beautiful city on the Arno, very similar in appearance to its neighboring Florence. Every Piazza and building seems to be steeped in Renaissance history. Portions of the original town walls are still in place and many of the streets are lined with the famous “umbrella” pines for which the area is known.
Once again, we took the train. We had some difficulty finding a cab to take us to the station, there were crowds of people in the area. We ended up sprinting to jump on the train, without validating our tickets (a huge no-no). The train was packed and there were no seats, so for the first time since college, I stood between cars. Fortunately, it’s only about 15 minutes from Livorno to Pisa. And, the travel gods were watching over us since the conductor never got to us to punch our tickets, so we escaped the consequences of not validating our tickets (which is supposedly a hefty fine).
It seemed like half the people in Italy must be visiting Pisa today (a Tuesday in October?), taxis were scarce. We had the option of the public bus, but decided to take the local Hop-on (15 euros), 10 minutes to the Tower, and pick it up an hour later for the remaining 50-minute tour back to the train station. It worked out well and gave us a nice bit of history along the way.
Oh, about those porcupines, it seems they were hunted and eaten as part of the local Tuscan diet; I’m glad that delicacy never caught on.
Some Tips:
Train fare to and from Livorno is 5 euros each way and trains run every hour (towards Pisa at 12 after the hour; returning to Livorno at 28 after the hour). From the Pisa train station take public LAM Rossa (approx. 2 euros), to get you to the Campo dei Miracoli (Field of Miracles) where the Duomo and Leaning Tower are located.
The Hop-on bus leaves every hour on the hour from the train station. It also goes to the nearby airport. Be flexible – the headsets are a bit problematic, and the route/schedule is just slightly off, but it was worthwhile.

Along the Arno in Pisa.

Along the Arno in Pisa.

Florence Redux

The Campanile, at the Florence Duomo.

The Campanile, at the Florence Duomo.

Lorenzo Ghiberti's beautiful three-dimensional Gates of Paradise from the 1400s.

Lorenzo Ghiberti’s beautiful three-dimensional Gates of Paradise from the 1400s.

It was an easy hour train ride into Florence from Livorno. Advance info said all trains were at 12 minutes after the hour – but we caught one about 15 minutes earlier. Italian trains are always a bit of an experience and you have to validate your tickets prior to each trip (or you get a hefty fine); I had read to look for the yellow machines. PS, they are all green and they don’t all work.  Another note, you still have to pay a Euro to use the toilet at the Florence station – an annoying blast from the past.

We enjoyed visiting Florence again and just walking . . . a little shopping at the San Lorenzo market, seeing the statuary at the Loggia dei Lanzi, strolling by Dante’s church and museum, and time to see the beautiful bronze doors (actually a replica) at the Baptistery of San Giovanni. Lunch overlooking the Ponte Vecchio and, of course, chocolate gelato.

The day fittingly ended with an AzAmazing evening at Livorno’s historic Goldoni Theater and a performance by three tenors singing Italian opera favorites.

Grazie Azamara.

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Ciao Italy with the Azamara Journey

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We can’t call it Shitavecchia anymore. The town of Civitavecchia seems to have radically improved the appearance of the port area.  We haven’t been to this port in many years, and are pleased to see nice green spaces and exposed old city walls. It looks very nice.  Very confusing to actually navigate driving to the port, but thankfully we weren’t behind the wheel. After a two-hour flight from Berlin, it took half that time just to get our bags.

Every time I visit Italy it always reminds me of spending time with the casually good-looking, cool friend who didn’t follow the rules and was always a bit of trouble. It’s good to be back, even if only briefly.

I was only on the ship for about 10 minutes when I scheduled a wash & blow dry for my hair – learning from a couple of girlfriends (you know who you are!)

We have set sail on the Azamara Journey and are on the way to Corsica!