November 27, 2007

Good site to see what sort of traveller you are

This was mentioned in the Wall Street Journal today, so it may be a bit slow for a couple of days.

It is interesting, though, and worth the five minutes it takes:

Best Trip Choices | Home

November 26, 2007

John Browne on Energy

While the following contains no astounding insights, it is interesting to see what someone of Lord Browne's stature has to say about energy, carbon, global warming, and the economy:

John Browne on the Future of Energy

November 14, 2007

Hong Kong on the flop

On the way back home we had one more night in Hong Kong. This time, we stayed at the Mandarin Oriental. It is on Hong Kong island itself (the Peninsula is in Kowloon) and one of the other great hotels in town. We were greeted by a nice German girl at the front counter who was planning a trip to Cambodia herself. We gave her a few tips as we went up to the room.

The room was done in a very modern style. It was nicely done, but not necessarily to our taste. We wandered about the city a bit before a bath and then off to dinner.

We started with a nice coup of champagne in the bar on the top of the hotel. As we were heading up to the bar, we happened to run into the sommelier for the Pierre Garnier restaurant that is located in the hotel. We asked for a recommendation for a champagne, and he gave us great one that they import solely for their own use.

After the champagne we headed to the Peking Kitchen for Beggar’s Chicken. We had to order this in advance by at least 24 hours. We had arranged this meal before we left Hong Kong for Cambodia.

Now, Beggar’s Chicken is quite good. But for some reason they didn’t ask us to order anything else! I guess they thought “these dumb quai lohs don’t know what the heck they are doing with the Beggar’s Chicken, never mind!” But it is pretty good. You take a chicken, stuff it with some muchrooms, some meat, and then wrap it with lotus leaves. You then cover the lotus leaves with wet clay and back the darn thing. It was quite good. But we could have used some rice, or maybe baby kalian, or something or other.

The next day we headed to the central train station (we took the train rather than getting picked up by the hotel on this leg) so we could check in and hope for lucky transportation. (they have a check in counter at the train station, which is nice)

I had handed over our passports and the guy behind the counter typed our names into the computer. He then stopped, made a phone call, and handed me the phone. Now THAT can only be bad news!

The Continental Concierge told me that we really did have a confirmed seat on our flights. But if I would be interested, they would re route us through Narita (Tokyo) and get us to Houston 5 hours earlier than our original plan. Not only that, but that meant that we would avoid Newark and almost certain delays. We said “You bet!” and were told to hop to it to the airport. They had to get us on a JAL flight that was leaving an hour before our Continental flight.

We got to the airport and were met by a JAL and a Continental person. They hurried us through all the official procedures, and told us we would not be able to sit next to each other on the four hour Hong Kong to Tokyo leg. We were both in center seats, one behind the other (I was behind Doreen). But the seats were very comfortable, we had on demand video, and a pretty good Japanese meal.

We got to Narita and had to proceed briskly to a different terminal. We once again had seats in different rows, but one in front of the other. We were able to secure a trade once onboard, and that is where we are now. Doreen is sleeping, and I am not.

Tonle Sap

The last day in Siem Reap we did not have a temple pass, so we decided to tuktuk down to Tonle Sap lake with Mr Phaunna (the sad driver). It was about 17 km. quite a ride, and when we got down there we had to buy a boat to take us out ON the lake. It was different than anything we had done before. This is the largest lake in Asia, and its size changes from a 3,000 diameter to a 1,000 km diameter. This is because of the monsoon flooding upstream in Thailand and China. It is one of the few “inundated forest” ecosystems (the only other one I know of is in the Amazon basin) where the trees are underwater for about ½ the year, and exposed the other half. Fish thrive in this environment, actually eating fruits off the trees. Spectacular.

We were there just as the rainy season had ended, so the lake was starting to recede. There are many people who live on the lake, and as it recedes, they follow the water in their houseboats. So we saw several boats being towed to deeper water. We even saw a Catholic Church being towed to the lake!

Even here, the tourists are a way to make money. There were many boats trying to sell soda, beer, and fruits. On the lake itself a boat came alongside with a momma, poppa, and young girl (maybe 5?) with a baby Burmese python (my guess on the species). She was playing with this snake, it was very docile. I took some photos and gave her a small rial bill. She immediately put it in her pocket and climbed on out boat. I took the snake (I am pretty sure that there were going to eat it when it got to big to be cute) and the boat driver took our photo with the little girl. She flashed a peace sign (the second time I saw this when a photo was snapped) and then she got back on her boat and they drove away. There was another boat with another family, and another snake waiting nearby as we started our way back to land.

That night, our last in Cambodia, we ate at one of the fancy restaurants in Siem Reap. Fittingly, one of the courses on the tasting menu we had was “Pounded Dry Bar-b-Que Snake”. Snake or no, the meal was great. The next day we headed back to Hong Kong.

Siem Reap.

We arrived in Siem Reap after a short 1/2 hour flight on Siem Reap air. The flight was mostly empty. We got to the hotel, another Raffles and checked in. We didn’t like the room we were given and asked for another. They said none were available, but Doreen persisted, and they found us one with a better balcony overlooking the gardens, not the pool. This sort of set the stage for our relationship with this hotel. While it wasn’t a bad hotel by any means, everything seemed just about a half beat off. Nothing was horrible, but plenty could have been better.

The hotel had arranged for a tour guide to get us to Angkor Wat the next day. We left about 8:30 and made it to the temple after buying a three day pass to the ruins at a very efficient waystation run by the richest guy in Cambodia (who we were told is Vietnamese).

The temples are something. You can see my photos in my Picasa albums. I won’t try to describe them here, others have done a better job than I could even start to do. I would recommend visiting these places to anyone who can take the travel.

Since we stayed in Siem Reap for five nights, we had quite a time arranging transportation and food. We were lucky with the food. We used several resources to uncover some interesting places to eat. The Robert Parker bulletin board (ebob) was extremely useful in getting ideas of places to eat. Doreen got a bunch of ideas from Patricia Wells (we love her recommendations for Paris) and the hotel as well.

The food ranged from fancy cooked by creative Australian Chefs to a local kitchen where we could not spend much more than $10 if we tried, but the food was outstanding.

The geegaws in Siem Reap were much more expensive than in Phnom Penh. I think that was because there are so many more tourists. The shopkeepers were less willing to negotiate as well.

You had your standard contingent of dissolute ex-pats and hippies in Siem Reap. You could find places to stay for under $5 a night! And some of these people were odd, and some of them sort of mean. I saw one guy negotiate with a little Khmer kid until he started to cry (the kid, not the hippy). We saw another couple go to a café, (which served food) then proceed to pull out a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter and make sandwiches and comment on the local (male) talent.

But the strangest thing about Siem Reap is how you developed a relationship with your transportation. As in Phnom Penh, the tuktuk was the most common way to get along. And once you used a tuktuk drive, you were his, and he was yours. You were expected to use that same guy whenever you saw him (or more like, he saw you). The good thing about that was you could honestly answer you had a tuktuk waiting when the others came by to bug you. You had better remember his name, though. Because they would ask. (we used number 555 for a while, but our favorite was Mr Phaunna – he was one sad looking guy. But he was a good driver. One night I negotiated a different guy too low for his preference, so he got drunk when we were eating dinner. You have not lived until you have been driven around Siem Reap by a drunk tuktuk driver)

November 7, 2007

Phonm Penh, last full day

The next day we decided to go to the Royal Palace, and then the Russian Market. Lunch would be leisurely and we have a quiet afternoon. So after breakfast we walked outside the hotel to negotiate with the phalanxes of Tuktuks for a daily rate. We sat in two (it is important to be able to see out the front of the Tuktuk, we discovered. It makes the ride much more enjoyable) and negotiated a day rate with Pol, one of the few drivers who uses a helmet.

We told him the plan and started down the road. We got to the Royal Palace and were dropped off. Pol told us he would wait across the road. We walked in and tried to buy tickets (One of the few places with prices in Cambodian Baht – it was B/.25,000 – or $6.25US – also one of the most expensive places.) and were told that Doreen could not come in. She was wearing a top that had very short sleeves (see photo) and that was not allowed. We went back out, grabbed Pol and were headed back to the hotel so she could change.

We decided it that we ultimately wanted an FCC t-shirt, so we turned the tuktuk around and rode to that bar. We bought her an XXL shirt so that I will be able to use it later, and headed back to the palace.

This time they let us in with no problems. We walked in and the place looked like it is some third world country’s idea of what a palace grounds should be. Plenty of buildings with fancy roofs, and some of the buildings you needed to take your shoes off before you walked in. The coolest place was the Silver Pagoda, which housed a “crystal” Buddha. It had a silver floor! Yes, a floor made out of silver. They did not allow photos in there (so we had to sneak some).

Another interesting building was a wrought iron building built by the French to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal. Then Napoleon III decided to give that building to King Norodom. And it was shipped to the palace grounds. Go figure.

We then went to the Russian Market – so called because so many foreigners shop there and there was a time when the only foreigners here were Russian. And because Russians are so cheap, they have the best prices in town. We looked at silk and picked up a small Buddha, but mostly just wandered around.

Then back to the tuktuk and on to The Metro for lunch. It was a great lunch with pork and beef satay, green beans and bacon and chicken wings. The best chicken wings in the world, by the way.

More Phnom Penh

On our second day in Phnom Penh we started with breakfast at the hotel. We then took a tuk tuk to the National Museum to look at some statues that had been rescued from around the world and reunited (bodies and heads). It was interesting.

You really need to understand how traffic works here. First of all there are millions of scooters on the streets. Many have two people on them. Several have three people on them. And some even have four. We did see one with FIVE people on it, but two of them were babies. Few people wear helmets, and many of the women sit side saddle. Doreen even saw a gut texting while driving, with his girlfriend sitting sidesaddle in the back reading what he was texting. That is skill!
The tuktuks are like little open air cabs pulled by motorcycles. They are everywhere, and they are cheap. To make a left turn they will pull into oncoming traffic, and then slowly wind their way across the traffic flow. Don’t ask me how, but it is quite an efficient way to get around. Scary, but efficient.

We had a light lunch and then went to the Genocide Museum at the old high school where the Khmer Rouge tortured and killed so many people. It was extremely sad and disturbing. It didn’t help to see some idiot wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt. As we walked by I said that Che would have really understood that museum. It was just want he wanted.

It was also disturbing to see a waterboarding table, as well as a dunking table. Horrible that we, the USA, would think that things like that are OK. Trials without juries, secret evidence, punishment without due process. This is the end result of such actions. We should make everyone in Bush’s administration come here and look at this.

Then we came back to the hotel and relaxed by the pool a bit. Some bigshot (no doubt here to do good deeds) came to the pool with his 18 year old Cambodian girlfriend, his bodyguard and his Personal Assistant (who was wearing a suit and tie)

We got up to leave. Doreen is now getting a massage.

Phnom Penh day one

Leaving Honk Kong was as uneventful as arriving. The queues were short and all the officials were efficient. We boarded the plane on time, we left on time, and we arrived in Phnom Penh on time.

But when we got to Phnom Penh, we knew we had entered the third world. We were the first off the plane, and we had our visa forms all filled out. Now, I had a photo (as required) but Doreen did not. So I said we did not have the necessary photos. The official muttered something about us needing to pay an extra $1 (which we knew. Thank you Jack!) and they passed us down the line.

You need to think about this line. Picture a cafeteria serving line except on the other side of the line there are eight officials dressed in uniforms. Some men, some women. All sitting down looking at something in front of them (which you cannot see). You proceed to the end of the line where you have to pay your $20 entry fee. The first person attached a visa to your passport and hands it to the next person in line. The next person stamps the visa and passes it to the next person in line. The next person writes something on the visa, perhaps the expiration date and passes it down. Well, you get the idea. By the time it reached the end of the line (about five minutes) it was completely processed. But they don’t come in order. Two people’s passports came before ours did. Then you pay your $20 (each)

You then take your duly authorized passport to the immigration line. There, then check to make sure you are not a bad fellow, and they take your photo! (remember the $1 fee?). But they take EVERYONE’S photo. It goes pretty fast and by that time your bags are already on the belt. You grab the bags, walk through customs (no problems there) and proceed to every third world airport in the world.

The airport is teeming with people. Some are holding signs, some are milling around. They are all behind a barrier. The official Airport Taxi people are on our side of the barrier. So we grab one ($7US into town) and proceed to some small Toyota taxi into which I get shoe horned. I cannot sit upright in the Taxi, but of course he wants to be our tour guide for the week. We say no thanks.

We get to the hotel and it is very nice. We are greeted with a welcome cocktail of some tropical fruit juice. John Spooner, the Guest Relationships Manager meets us as well and tells us a bit about Phnom Penh. Our friends Jack and Bruce had been to Cambodia this past summer and met John up in Siem Reap. He is now working out of Phnom Penh and gave us some nice hints about the city.

That night we grabbed a tuk tuk ($2US) and drove into the city. We started at The Metro Cafe and wandered down the riverfront. We ended up eating at the Foreign Correspondents Club. We started with a couple of beers on their great balcony overlooking the street and the river. Nothing ever stopped while we were watching. We had some treats and then tuk-tuked back and called it a night.

Hong Kong last outbound day

During our last day in Hong Kong we took the tram to The Peak and walked around the mountain. It was about an hour’s walk, and had some very spectacular views. It was very scary for me, being afraid of heights.

We had lunch at a great place called The Pearl at The Peak. It was Sunday, so they did a brunch. We started out with a beer, then a glass of champagne. We had a Seafood Platter (crab, oysters, two sorts of clams, a small conch like thing, some crabs) and then we each got the “Toasty” which was a poached egg inside a yeast roll with salmon roe on top. It was great! We also had two seared Japanese scallops on the side.

Finally, there was some sort of dessert stuff. I didn’t partake. We had a bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc to go with the food. It was all quite nice.
That evening we went back to the Spring Deer and had dumplings and some sort of a crispy chicken. It was all good.

The next day we checked out. It was a nice hotel with great staff. As we were leaving the clerk asked us where we were heading next. We told him we were going to Phnom Penh in Cambodia.

“Cambodia!” he said. “Wow. That is exotic!”

And here I thought that Hong Kong was exotic.

November 4, 2007

a Toasty

This is a Toasty from the Peal at the Peak, a restaurant at the Peak in Hong Kong.

It is a poached egginside a toasted yeast roll that is then covered with a garlic mayonaisse and topped with salmon roe.

It was accompanied by seared Japonese scallops and a dry New Zealand SB


(I took this photo of a neighboring table's toasty. They were expats from the UK, Oz, and the US. more on them later)
Posted by Picasa

November 3, 2007

Hong Kong Day Two

We slept rather fitfully last night, in spite of taking some Melatonin for relaxation. We both woke up about 4:00 AM, after getting to sleep about midnight. We lounged in bet until about 7:00, and then got on the road about 8:30.

We stated off by taking the Ferry (HK$2.20 each) to the Hong Kong side of the island (we are staying in Kowloon). Once there, we walked and walk for several hours. (Check out some of the photos by clicking on My Picassa Albums to the right). We saw some interesting antiques, and some interesting fake antiques.

We ate lunch at a Dim Sum place called Victoria Seafood. It was good (Hairy Crab Coral Dumplings – both steamed and fried) but not great. We took the ferry back to the hotel.

Doreen is having a spa treatment. I am reading.

Fancy dinner tonight

November 2, 2007

Asian Adventure - Hong Kong

We had the good fortune of arriving in Newark on time, en route to Hong Kong. The first flight was normal, and we arrived in Newark about two hours before our scheduled departure
The Newark airport was crowded at the gates. There was a family that was particularly annoying as they were trying to get on an earlier flight than they had booked. The kids were screaming, the parents were whining and yelling. Let ‘em walk.

Our flight left about an hour late, but that time was made up in transit (!). We flew on a 777, which are now beginning to show their ages. Neither my seat nor Doreen’s worked that well. They had to substitute one movie for another (The Simpsons for Harry Potter. Good for us! “Spider pig, spider pig. Does whatever a spider pig does. Weave a web? No he doesn’t. Because he is a spider pig”)

This flight flew over the North Pole and over Russia. I looked out the window while over Siberia. It was very clear, and it was very white. There was no sign of life.

When we arrived we were greeted by two little (short) women from The Peninsula. They took our claim passes and guided us to Customs. There was about a 20 minute wait there, and then we were scooted off to the hotel.

It is an excellent hotel, and we have a harbor view. Click on My Picasa Albums to the right to see some of the photos.

We went out to eat at a place called The Spring Deer and had Peking Duck. It was a very large place, and the food was great. Crispy duck skin with abundant fat. We also ordered some Baby Kai Lan with Garlic. I bet we STILL smell of garlic this morning. This is a Food City!

More later.