A few days in Shanghai

After a long but uneventful flight to Shanghai, we started our tour through Gate 1 Travel. This is a completely new experience for us and I will say: so far, so good. After having spent two days touring, I can definitely say that we made the right choice. Navigating on your own in China would be extremely difficult and it is wonderful to have someone getting us from point A to point B. Meals (for the most part) are taken care of, which is great because menus here are not written in English. I do miss being able to set our own pace but the trade off is worth it. Now, if I could only sleep at night. . .

I am very glad that I have T-Mobile cellular service which gives us internet access. I found out when we arrived that I cannot access Gmail in China and of course, no Facebook. But, I can access both using my cell service. Go T-Mobile! On the downside, Nord VPN does not work on iOS. I normally travel with my laptop (Nord VPN’s obfuscated server works with it) so was assuming that it would also work with my iPad. No go. Oh, well!

On our first day of touring, we visited the Jade Buddha Temple and the Bund. Shanghai, China

Our second day was spent in Suzhou, the Venice of the Orient.Suzhou, China

Today, we will be touring more of Shanghai before flying to Yichan to catch a 4-day Yangtze River cruise.

Off We Go!

Today, we leave for a completely different type of trip than we usually take. We are spending two weeks in China, flying to Seoul for 5 days, then spending 19 days traversing Mongolia and Russia on the Trans-Mongolian Railway followed by two weeks of cruising the Baltic and Norwegian Fjords on MSC.

What makes this trip so unique (other than the itinerary)? We have signed up for tours rather than traveling independently as we normally do. We will travel with Gate 1 Travel in China and G Adventures for the trek across Mongolia and Russia. Having briefly visited both China and Russia on previous trips, we knew that neither is particularly “user-friendly” for independent travelers. Most countries we have been to have enough English language signage and English speaking people for us to manage on our own; not so in either China or Russia. It will be an interesting experience being on organized tours; we shall see how it all works out!

I realized recently that I never finished my blog posts from our most recent trip to SE Asia. Partially this was because I got the creeping crud for the last couple of weeks of our trip, so we didn’t do too much while in Bangkok. I did write a post about Bangkok; I just never posted it! Here is a link to the post: Bangkok, Thailand

The main reason I never finished is that when we returned home from the trip we found that our beloved cat, Maxwell, was not feeling well. He wasn’t his usual self, so we took him to the vet. It turns out he had advanced kidney failure and had to be put to sleep immediately. I know those of you that have furry children understand how devastating this was for me. I was deeply affected by his passing and didn’t really feel like writing. So, I never finished my thoughts about traveling in SE Asia; perhaps I will do so while on this next trip. I definitely have some ideas that could be useful for those of you planning a trip to this part of the world.

I am curious to see how much my internet usage will be curtailed while in China. I know that social media and certain email apps are not allowed. I am hoping that at the very minimum, I will be able to keep my blog up to date. We do have a VPN that we will be using; hopefully, that will help. I am also assuming that while crossing Russia by train that internet availability will be severely limited. Stay tuned!

Cambodia

We stopped at a couple of cities in Cambodia, though we had visited both just a year ago. I wanted to visit the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh; our previous visit was too short and we did were not able to visit. And, we wanted to return to Siem Reap.

We took the VIP Cambodia Post van to get from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. It is a 6-hour trip which can be done by bus, van, or boat. We did the journey by postal van last year and enjoyed it, so we decided to try it again. The postal service in Cambodia rents out seats in their vans for scheduled runs between major cities. It is a cheap and fun way to get from place to place. I guess I have become inured to the way of driving in SE Asia. Last year when we went from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, I was petrified much of the time (From Siem Reap to Phnom Penh: The ultimate game of chicken). This time around, I was much more chill – pass directly into oncoming traffic? No problem! Run someone off the road? No problem! Drive down the middle of the road? No problem!

I know it’s weird, but we did not revisit Angkor Wat while in Siem Reap. It is spectacular, but one visit was enough for us. Besides, I ended up getting sick for our entire stay in Siem Reap and spending hours in the blazing sun when ill is not worth it. So, we visited the APOPO Hero Rat Visitor’s Center and relaxed at our hotel.

The final leg of our journey will take us to Bangkok, and then we will head home.

Phnom Penh

APOPO Visitor Center

Siem Reap, Cambodia

 

 

Leaving Vietnam

After 3 weeks, we have left Vietnam and are now in Cambodia. We survived Tet. Though it was an interesting time to be in Vietnam, it was also challenging because almost everything shuts down – for up to 10 days. This made finding meals a bit difficult! But, the cities were decorated to the hilt which made for a festive atmosphere.

We took a boat trip from Saigon to Phnom Penh, which took a total of 3 days. It wasn’t quite what we expected, but parts of it were marvelous. Watching the sun set over the Mekong while gently floating along was magical. And, the sunrise wasn’t too shabby, either.

And, we are surviving the heat! While our friends back in Seattle are snowed in, we are adjusting to temperatures in the mid-90’s.

Ho Chi Minh City

Mekong Eyes from Saigon to Phnom Penh

Central Vietnam

Along the coast of Vietnam are three unique cities – Hué, Da Nang, and Hoi An. After the kinetic energy of Hanoi, we wanted to experience something different. Hue is known for its Imperial City; Da Nang for its beaches and the Marble Mountains; Hoi An for its Ancient Town.

Vietnam is in full swing preparing for the Lunar New Year (Tet). The streets are lined with yellow and red flowers; businesses have decorated Tet trees and signs wishing “Chúc Mừng Năm Mới”. Tet is not a one-day long celebration. Businesses close down as people travel to spend the time with their families. It as an interesting time to be in Vietnam!

Hué, Vietnam

Da Nang, Vietnam

Hoi An, Vietnam

 

Incredible Hanoi

Hanoi is such a fascinating city: the juxtaposition of old and new, the incessant sounds of horns beeping, the smells of food cooking, the difficulty of simply crossing a street!

We flew from Luang Prabang into Hanoi and had arranged a shuttle ride through our hotel, the Oriental Suites Hotel and Spa. We had stayed in the same hotel last year and enjoyed it so much that we booked it again. The drive from the airport takes 30-45 minutes, depending on traffic. And boy, is there traffic! One of the unique aspects of this city is its many modes of transportation, all sharing the same narrow streets. There are very few cars and trucks, but many motorcycles, cyclos (pedicabs), bicycles, and carts. We noticed many motorcycles carrying small trees; this was not something we had noticed on our previous trip, so were curious and resolved to look into it further after reaching our hotel.

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In the heart of town, there are very few traffic lights, so at each intersection, there are 4-5 lanes of traffic all trying to get through to the opposite side. This is what makes crossing the street such a challenge! Though there are crosswalks, they do not give a pedestrian any type of right-of-way. Vehicles definitely do not stop when they see you in one. Your best bet is to slowly cross, despite the fact that motorcycles and cars are rapidly driving right at you. And, once you have started, keep walking! Traffic will weave around you as long as you keep going. If you stop, you will cause problems. It is completely disconcerting at first, but after having spent 5 days here, I can say that I have become accustomed to it. We tried to take a couple of video clips to capture the experience, but there is no way to really understand it other than to actually do it.

There are sidewalks, but if you think they are for pedestrians, you would be wrong. For the most part, sidewalks are where the nearly 5 million motorcycles in this city get parked. If you find a patch of sidewalk without motorcycles, watch out. Most likely someone is riding their motorcycle down the sidewalk and is right behind you!

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Anything and everything is carried on a motorcycle. Or bicycle. Or cart. Or…

Hanoi is all about trade; there are shops lining every street and street vendors on the sidewalks. More than visiting museums, we enjoy walking the streets of the city, watching the everyday lives of the people that live here. It amazes me how so many sit on the teeny little footstools, both to eat and to do business. Many of the streets have the word “Hang” in them. It used to be that each Hang Street specialized in a particular type of goods. This is no longer true; most streets sell a variety of goods, though there are some streets that are more specialized.

So, why were so many trees being transported around the city? Tet (Lunar New Year) is coming in a few days, and the people of Vietnam are very busy preparing for it. Peach blossom trees and kumquat trees are brought in after the home has been cleaned from top to bottom. Some people just bring branches in; some bring the entire tree. There is an entire street (at least one) here that is dedicated to selling all things related Tet. It is an explosion of gold and red!

Yesterday, we noticed that carp were for sale in many market stalls. People buy them for Tet, and then release them into local lakes and streams. There are also people burning votive paper all up and down the street; some in small chimneys or woks, some just make a pile and let it burn right on the sidewalk. The practice is related to the belief that burning objects that their ancestors loved while still alive will send these objects to the “other side” to provide comfort for them there.

People are very friendly here, especially young people that are anxious to practice their English skills. English is one of the three main subjects taught in school. All are anxious to tell you what to eat here – bun cha, banh mi, pho, egg coffee, and so on. The food is amazing – there are so many excellent restaurants to choose from. We got hooked on Banh Mi 25 for lunches. For a mere $3 US, we could both get a sandwich and a coke. Egg coffee was better than expected. We tried drinking black coffee before we knew better – that was some nasty stuff! Better with lots of sweetener and foam.

There are plenty of interesting museums to visit, but what made it so enjoyable for us was simply being here for enough days to really experience the sights and sounds of the city. Of course, we did take in a few of the sights. We spent a considerable amount of time relaxing at Hoan Kiem Lake; it is a very popular place. Click on the links below for pictures and information on the places we visited:

A trip around Hanoi on the HOHO Bus

Vietnam Military History Museum

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Lovely Hoan Kiem Lake

Temple of Literature

Thang Long Water Puppet Theater

Vietnam Women’s Museum

 

 

 

Beautiful Luang Prabang

Though it is a challenge to get here (at least from Chiang Rai), this incredible town is worth the effort. From the tree lined streets to the French-inspired architecture to the delicious (and inexpensive) food to the warm, friendly people, you can’t go wrong visiting here.

It’s not easy to get to Luang Prabang (but it’s worth it)

A Few Days in Luang Prabang

Next, we will be spending a couple of weeks in Vietnam: Hanoi, Hue, Da Nang, Hoi An, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), and ending with a 3-day boat trip down the Mekong to Phnom Penh.

Chiang Rai, Thailand

We have spent nearly 6 days in Chiang Rai. Compared to Chiang Mai, it is a sleepy town; not quite as picturesque. However, it is well worth a visit simply for the places you can get to from here. Though there are wats in town, the White Temple, Blue Temple and Black House (technically, not a temple) are each spectacular and worth visiting. There is a Hill Tribe Museum to learn about the culture of the local tribes before visiting them. No trip would be complete without a trip to an elephant sanctuary. And, rather than just visit the Golden Triangle (the place where Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand all meet) with a visit to the border town of Mae Sai, why not take a tour that will take you across into Myanmar to experience a different culture?

Plenty of inexpensive and delicious places to eat abound, as do massage parlors. There is a thriving night market with an entire food court full of stalls selling all manner of local delicacies.

Next, on to Laos!

From Chiang Mai to Chaing Rai

Temples and Elephants

Akha and Yao Hill Tribe Visit and the Golden Triangle

Into Myanmar!

 

Our 2019 SE Asia Adventure Begins!

What beats a dreary Seattle winter? Spending January and February in SE Asia, of course! Our latest adventure will take us to Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. If you follow my blog, you may recall that we visited several of these countries last year. We enjoyed them so much that we are returning for more. We will visit some new places as well as returning to some old favorites. We begin our journey in northern Thailand, in the city of Chiang Mai.

Wandering Around Chiang Mai

Zabb E. Lee Cooking School

Mae Ping River Cruise

Last Day in Chiang Mai

 

European Rail Adventure week #8: Cologne, Germany and back to the USA

It is truly amazing how quickly two months can pass by. Our last stop before returning home was Cologne. While there, we took a day trip to Cochem, which was a nice place to wrap up our stay.

We are home now, trying to overcome jet lag. We learned so much from traveling around by train; I put together a few thoughts that might be helpful if you are planning a trip to Europe, whether you are traveling by train or not. I hope you have enjoyed reading about our adventures!

Cologne, Germany

Cochem, Germany

Top Tips for European Travel by Train