Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Do we still have the kid in us?

Do you know how you can tell when we are getting bored by being stuck in one place too long, like here for a few months now in Danga Bay, south Malaysia? Well, it's when we make it an event to spend a day at Legoland!

So off we go. First we had to catch a bus to city center then find a bus that would take us to Legoland. The buses, many privately run, gather like flies on roadkill at 3 different areas in the city. As the mercury rose, we traipsed around, back and forth, up and down, trying to find THE bus and finally at the last bus congregation, a convivial porter with a subtle head wiggle and accent that revealed his Indian ancestry, pointed to a vacant spot and said with a proud grin, "Yes, yes, over there."

"But there is no bus there!" Jordan said axiomatically.

"Yes, it just left 5 minutes ago" he said as though that would be a satisfactory solution to our travelling plans.

With about an hour wait for the next bus and as the morning was history, we grabbed a quick cheap lunch while waiting in the bus area. As we returned to the place that was once vacant of bus and riders, we found in fact the right bus but it was packed and we were relegated to the aisle, positioned like vertical sardines.

There was no turning back now as we lurched away from the platform. "Why am I singing this song in my head - I'm off to see the wizard...?"

A half hour later, a colourful looming structure appeared with large letters on top that said LEGOLAND Hotel. (Legoland opened in Malaysia in 2012, being the first 1 in Asia, and the Hotel was opened in 2013.)

I said to Judy "I might be wrong but I think we are here." But of course, that's a statement that makes little sense since one could say that at any point in one's life and it would be true!

Welcome to Legoland!

The entry fee of about $35 US each was paid, and as we approached the turn-styles, it was about this time that we noticed some stares were in our direction. Looking over our shoulders and around, it was becoming apparent that we saw no other adults unaccompanied by children. "What does this mean?"

Undaunted and looking for a blog subject matter that might give our time in this area some interest, we soldiered on. At first, we saw only a hint of Lego in the occasional Lego statue or facade. It was mostly like any other ho-hum amusement park with only a vague Lego theme where the types of rides and attractions only patrons of the munchkin type found exciting.

Einstein and Jordan - 2 smart men

We finally found some redemptive grace in Legoland though when we came to the central area of Miniland where, for us at least, was the best part. Displayed were various Lego built replicas and models of iconic Asian cities and sites. I felt like Gulliver on the lookout for Godzilla.

Mosque (moving boat in foreground, real people in background)

Singapore ferris wheel with Lego people below it

The displays were very complex and intricate, taking thousands of parts each to build. One exhibit had a 5.5-m cruise ship, weighing 376 kg. It has 131,000 Lego bricks and 198 LED lights that took the Lego model builder 1 year to complete. For an idea of its size, those are real people in the background.

It lights up at night

Another had a 10-m tall Lego replica of the famous twin-towered, 88-storied Petronas Towers of Kuala Lumpur (542,000 Lego bricks, 1 year with 15 builders totalling 5,500 hours). These Lego-built Towers are the tallest buildings in all Legolands throughout the world.

Jordan and the Twins

Other large sites included the Kuala Lumpur Airport and the famous Great Wall of China, India's Taj Mahal, and Cambodia's Angkor Wat.

Before leaving, we strolled the lobby of the Hotel, where to the delight of the youngsters, they had access to heaps of Legos to play and create with, only restrictions being the limits of their imaginations.

And naturally, the walls had art work made entirely of Legos and the back wall behind the expansive reception desk, upon close inspection, was made up of over 12,000 miniature Lego figures (doctor, fireman, butcher, etc.)

Okay then, that wasn't so bad. We actually came away feeling just a little bit younger.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Carpe diem

As we were sitting in the cockpit of Sea Turtle, I asked Judy if we might be forgetting to share with our blog reader some of our quieter pleasant moments that we may be taking for granted.

Yes, our readers can travel vicariously through the blog, sharing in our peripatetic adventures and interesting encounters by depiction in words and pictures.

But what about the simple serene but no less impressive moments like this near perfect evening. A setting that some people would give their eye teeth for.

It was later in the afternoon when we returned to Sea Turtle at the marina after a busy day of errands. We both picked up our books and took up a comfortable spots in the cockpit to unwind. But as the sun began to set, we stopped our reading and looked around to enjoy once again the serenity of time and place,

So now, we invite you, our readers, into the cockpit for a visit and to enjoy with us what has become a not so uncommon part of our lives.
"Come aboard. We just pulled out of the fridge a cool bottle of Argentine Vino Blanco wine. Would you like a glass? It will go down well in the fading heat.

And you are here just in time to enjoy the sunset with us. Here is a cushion.

My favourite time of day is when I have my coffee in the cockpit in the early morning and then again like now in the evenings at sunset.

Those boats chugging along over in the distance? Yes, they are heading back from a day of dredging up the channel. In a few minutes, when their wake finally makes its way to us, you will feel a gentle rocking, a soothing sensation no doubt ingrained in us from infancy.

If you are lucky, later when heading up the pier, you might be lucky enough to see large butterflies perched about as we have seen the last few nights. But yes of course, I understand you are in no hurry to leave right now.

Look now guys! The sky is aglow with the setting sun. Isn't it neat how the silhouette of the sailboat rigging provides an interesting contrast?

It's so nice to have you here for this short visit. Carpe diem, no?"
So this is the other side of adventure. Simple. But it's just as memorable. We mustn't forget to share it with you from time to time.
"Come again soon!"

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Last tour

After missing our train from Danang back to Hanoi (North Vietnam) the night before, we caught an early morning flight to Hanoi on the 18th. The next morning, we were pre-booked to go to the Perfume Pagoda which is about 65 km by car from Hanoi.

The frenetic hustle and bustle of Hanoi melted away as the 2-hour mini tour bus ride ushered us out into a genteel rural setting. Upon arrival at the river bank, 6 of us loaded into a small boat for a 45-minute ride up the lazy river. The little tourist boats were powered exclusively by women rowers.

Women power

The dramatic scenery was a contrast of verdant geographical features. There was a congruous transition from river to tranquil lotus ponds and rice paddies that were abruptly halted by impressive steep limestone cliffs and hills.

Dramatic peaks

It was extremely hot and humid out but we had relief under the shade of our umbrella.

In the shadows at river's edge, we saw unusual small tombs. Our guide explained that Buddhists are placed in water tombs upon death and then about 3 years later, the bones are removed and cleaned then placed in aboveground tombs. Buddhists are never buried in the ground. The customs, beliefs, and practices related to afterlife of the world's motley cultures are as contrasting as the earth's geography.

Up the river, we disembarked then hiked up broad paths and a multitude of steps to the Heaven Kitchen Pagoda and the adjacent lunch stop.

1 of several

Once re-energized by lunch and refreshing frosty cold drinks under the welcomed fan breeze, we continued our climb up towards the cable car station platform. Along the way, we passed vendors of everything imaginable, even animals in tiny cages. (As a practice, sympathetic buyers could release the critters for merits relating to nature and freedom. But the sad futility of the practice was that many of the creatures were recaptured and resold.)

Free Willy!

Next, we had the choice to continue walking all the way up to the Perfume Pagoda or take the easy way via cable car. We didn't hesitate yielding to good advice and opted for the latter.

The easy way

Once at the top, we descended the 120 stone steps into the Cave of Fragrant Traces. Named so because of all the burning incense?? Probably not, but there was a lot of it placed on the shrines!

Down we go

In the Cave, we encountered slippery, uneven steps. There were places for those who wished to worship the many idols and touching the stalagmites was believed to promote fertility. Also present was a bell over a metre tall moulded in 1655.

Cave shrines

During an annual festival, this place is crowded with thousands of pilgrims as it is considered a spiritual and holy place. Shrines were surrounded with candles and incense as well as fruit, flowers, cookies, and yup, even Oreos. Thankfully we were here in the off season because we're not a big fan of crowds.

On our return down river, we were trailed by another rowboat with 2 jovial women constantly trying to sell us cold drinks, snacks, or souvenirs. Many Vietnamese wear long pants and long sleeves even in hot weather. Apparently they desire the white porcelain look of Chinese, not the tanned look that Westerners seek.

Happy river vendors

Back at the hotel in Hanoi, we were served a special culinary treatment by the staff who gave us a hands-on course making spring rolls that we then savoured as part of a delicious multi-course meal.

In the morning, after saying goodbye to the Rising Dragon Estate Hotel staff (aka Serenity Hotel) and gracious Anh who treated us royally during our stays in Hanoi, we flew back to Malaysia and Sea Turtle.

Till we meet again!

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Historic Hoi An

At noon on May 15th, we caught a bus for a short 5-hour ride south from Hue, through Danang to Hoi An (North Vietnam). It was a nice but unusual bus. There were 2 aisles with 3 rows of seats stacked 1 above the other. The seats were more recliners than seats and 1 could not adjust them to the fully upright position for lack of headroom. It was just "lay back and enjoy the ride."

Hoi An is a delightful town with a rich history of ancient merchants from Asia to Europe, trading exotic wares from their shops for markets around the globe. This town, unlike Hue, escaped any destruction from US bombings and today is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The buildings in the old sector were originally the small trading houses that the denizens built shoulder to shoulder with a noticeable European architectural flair. Now most are neat and classy shops and restaurants catering to the tourists.

European influence

The narrow streets of the old town are off limits to any vehicles, only pedestrians allowed. The best time is when the heat of the day gives way to the cool evening and it brings out residents and visitors alike that maunder along the canal promenades and bridges, cameras a clickin' and all to the delight of the local proprietors.

Handcrafted lanterns hanging everywhere

Back in the 1590s, the Japanese constructed an arched bridge across Hoi An's small canal to connect them to the Chinese traders. The covered bridge is a big tourist draw and was constructed with 2 monkeys at 1 entrance and 2 dogs at the other. Why? One tale says many emperors were born in the Years of the Monkey or Dog. Another tale says the bridge was started in the Year of Monkey and completed in the Year of the Dog.

On May 16th, we joined a full bus for a 45-minute ride into the hills to visit the archaeological site of My Son (pronounced Me Sone - rhymes with Bone). There we hiked through the cleared jungle to see ancient temple ruins discovered by the French about 100 years ago. Before that, they lay hidden and undiscovered for 300 years.

1 of many temples

What is most striking is that these structures were built of bricks without mortar. Each brick fit flat and snug with nary a crack between.

Craftsmanship of years ago

Before the French left, they absconded with choice busts, and sadly the site was bombed by the US trying to rout out the Viet Cong during the war. But enough was there to appreciate what it would have been like in its heyday.

Jordan with headless Buddha

Later that day back at the old town, we visited a shop that taught and produced the most elaborate and intricate pictures done by embroidery. So meticulously detailed were they that one had to get up close to see that they weren't framed photos. This was the best work we had seen.

And upstairs, they sold silk garments and they actually had the various stages of the live silk worms' growth and development. We saw how the workers stripped the cocoons' fine silk strands, about 15 at a time, to make 1 thread.

Making silk thread from cocoons

Silk worms eating mulberry leaves

Most of Hoi An's activities happen on the canal front. That is where the bustling and colourful market is and is run mostly by the local women.

Market activity

Occasionally we would see elderly with dark stained mouths from chewing betel nut, an Asian habit that provides a mild stimulant with a fresh peppery taste, but also causes oral cancer. With her colourful smile, she was selling supposedly "ancient" coins along the sidewalk.

Betel nut beauty

Boats abound. Fishing, transportation, and tours...

Along the riverfront

Motorcycle ferry

In the early evening, it was time to head back north. We caught a 1-hour shuttle bus to deliver us to the Danang train station for our overnight train ride back up to Hanoi. Only problem was, the booking agent received the wrong time for us to board from the train station and we missed our train by 12 hours! We lost our fare and not only that, all the trains were booked for a couple of days.

As it was getting late, we booked into a Danang hotel, went online, and booked a flight for the next morning to Hanoi. We have learned long ago to roll with the punches and duck the unexpected curve balls that intrepid travelling throws at you. C'est la vie.

Thursday, May 15, 2014


With a few days remaining on our trip to North Vietnam, we decided to take an extemporaneous trip south on May 13th and check out a couple of towns that sounded interesting.

We chose an overnight train that once again left Hanoi at 23:00 for a 12-hour ride to Hue (pronounced "Way" with a slight H sound in front). Hue is the former capital of Vietnam - now it is Hanoi. Scudding along rails in the last few hours, we were presented with some beautiful scenery of meandering rivers bordered by the pervasive rice paddies with backdrops of towering limestone hills.

View from train

The City of Hue is bisected by the 80-km long Huong River (aka Perfume River). The nickname derives from all the flowers that fall into it which give it a nice aroma. Our hotel was on the south side, a couple blocks off the River.

After our midday check-in, we hiked across the bridge to the north half of the City and to the old citadel (Imperial City) of the last reigning dynasty. The walls of the citadel, 10 km long and 2 m thick, are still intact as is most of the surrounding moat.

Bridge over moat to citadel

Within the outer walls is the intact walled compound of the late dynasty surrounded by a 2nd moat. Restoration work is being done to its walls and the vestigial buildings within. The sinecure dynasties reign ended in mid 1900 and on display were many old photos that showed the privileged lives of the nobility and their ample entourage in an exquisite setting while the masses bestowed a reverence worthy of gods.

Inside royal courtyard

Vietnam to spend $61 million to restore the citadel by 2015!

Later in the afternoon, we got a guided tour ride back to our hotel by an informative rickshaw pilot. He told Jordan to sit in the back in the King's position, while I was to sit in front, the Queen's position!

The Queen and King

After a refreshing heat extracting shower, we headed over to a luxury hotel and caught the elevator to the 16th floor rooftop bar to watch a resplendent sunset bring in the night.

From there, we walked to a popular touristy street and found the Why Not? bar next to the Why Not? hotel beside the Why Not? restaurant where Jordan had learned that a pool table existed. Being a pretty good player, he thoroughly impressed his opponents.

What we noticed in Hue, as well as most all places in Vietnam, was the unusual and prolific habit of face masks to protect against the environment. Some take it to the extremes like the 2nd photo below where a local jokingly said they were from another planet.

Alien motorcyclists!

The next morning, we booked a private boat ride on the river to see some pagodas, tombs, and temples. It was a total letdown. It was an impersonal noisy boat, the scenery was repetitive, and the temples were a sad display of a diminished veneration. We were also pushed to buy souvenirs from the boat owner. Oh well. Off to the next town...

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Sapa trails

Day 2 in Sapa (northern Vietnam). A long 12-kilometre trek. This one was more of a slow, long descent and along the wider Muong Hoa Valley bottom as we careened our way down uneven, ankle-twisting hills and glens.

Trekking view

We passed through 3 villages with the last being the most beautiful in the area. The Dzay minorities of the Ta Van Village exhibit a strong Chinese culture.

Riveting rice paddies

Working in the paddies

Along the pathway, we were afforded the privilege of taking this lady's photo by buying her beautifully embroidered cloth bracelets. Even at this late stage in her life, she is still happily either selling, or making and selling, wares.

A gentle geriatric

We never found any boys selling product. Only girls. We were told that boys stay home with, or go to work with, their fathers.

Fortunately on this trek, a bus picked us up for a lazy return. While we waited for the bus at a hillside store, there were many young girls with their mothers all trying to sell their stuff. They obviously knew tourists would be there waiting for a bus. The store owner had a good setup as all the tourists were needing cold sodas after a hot trek and the young sellers were also busily buying candy and sodas!

That afternoon, we departed for the train station for our overnight return to Hanoi. We had a few minutes before boarding so we jumped in a taxi for a 5 minute ride to see the border to China, another first for us!

China in the background (maybe another day!)

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Sapa trekking

We made our escape out of the big city of Hanoi (North Vietnam) to the high fertile valley retreat of Sapa. It was an all inclusive trekking excursion.

We boarded the 22:00 train late in the evening of May 9th for the 10-hour overnight ride north into the highlands close to the China border. In our air conditioned sleeper cabin, we quickly fell into a relaxed aura over wine and snacks to the mellifluous clickity clack and lullaby rocking of the ride. We both liked it as it was just like being on a rocking boat. We shared our cabin with a friendly travelling Dutch couple. The basic cabins consisted of 2 sets of narrow bunk beds with a half metre narrow table in between.

Early dawn light invited us to a splendid scenery of the meandering river through the fertile lowlands with the steep highland hills as the backdrop. A 06:00 knock on our cabin door indicated tea or coffee time before our arrival.

Rollin', rollin'...

As soon as we disembarked, a small group of us were met by an efficient and pre-arranged driver for a 45-minute mini-bus ride. As we climbed along the winding road, we left the sticky hot and humid air of the lower land and enjoyed scenery of the steep slopes.

The tranquil town of Sapa clings to a mountainous perch and looks down the quilted slopes of the ubiquitous rice paddies speckled with tiny villages and up at misty cloud-shrouded peaks that even see snow in the winter months. As a town, it was first established as a tranquil getaway about a century ago by the French, and on our arrival, it was easy to see why. It was a mostly sunny warm day as we checked into the Summit Hotel that hung on the hillside with a commanding scenic view...

...and wow, what a view!

Right after a buffet breakfast, we started our first trek. Our pleasant, short, young guide Su (pronounced "shoe", you know, what you wear on your feet) was smartly dressed in her attractive, everyday, traditional, handmade and dyed clothing of her H'Mong Village. It was a 6-kilometre, 4-hour descent to the bottom of the valley and back.

Sweet Su showing us the way

When we reached the hundreds of stoned stairs, villagers were set up all along the edges with their wares and several of them were a bit pushy in trying to sell, but they are only trying to earn extra money from the "rich" tourists. They do have excellent items of homemade silver jewellery, limestone carvings, and exquisitely embroidered bags, wall hangings, blankets, etc. We also watched the H'Mong people of the Sin Chai Village make hemp clothing and use indigo dye.

Down, down we went, now along the meandering paths snaking through the terraced rice paddies and through the Cat Cat Village.

What's a view like this worth?

Our descent culminated at a suspension bridge over the small river in the "V" of the valley. The dulcet cascades over boulders and through vegetative fringed pools made this a delightful respite.

Peaceful halfway point

After an arduous climb back, we freshened up for our late lunch at the hotel then sauntered down to the center of town to explore the local market and wares. On display were the creations and crafts of the people from the surrounding villages.

What first caught our eye was the unique and attractive textiles and dress of these slight but industrious people. Each village signature can be seen by its distinct style of outfit and jewellery.

"You like?"

Oxen herding through town

The first English words that all most likely learn was the introductory "Where are you from?" which everyone would begin with. Once for fun, Jordan tested their response and said something like "From Yaklovac." But with a nod as though they knew such a place, the next inevitable words were "You buy from me?" Yep, sounds like they really were interested in where we were from!

Lovely ladies