Travelling by air always reveals amazing sights that tell a story about the world below. I confess to being a window seat addict. My favorite time of travel is mid afternoon in the wintertime as the sun is setting low in the horizon creating long shadows and stunning vibrant and painterly coloration.
Sunny days are a treat, but even cloudy days provide amazing photo opportunities through the fluffy beautiful clouds and patches of land below.
In just 1 1/2 hours of travel time from Newport Beach in California en route to Salt lake City in Utah you can explore poetic coastlines, dense suburban urban areas, mountain ranges, dramatic desert landscapes and snow clad mountain ranges.
Flying from John Wayne Airport in Newport Beach is always thrilling as the planes take off at a dramatic roar to quickly reach a high cruising altitude, then almost stilling the engines while flying above the stunning Back Bay areas and the charming Newport Marina, then quickly turning around above the ocean rendering stunning views of endless wide white beaches.
Cruising above seemingly endless suburban areas and packed freeways for 5 minutes to reach Riverside and the green hilly mountain ranges of Lake Arrowhead; suddenly the desert landscape takes over, a reminder of the dependency of irrigation in Southern California. Western America is so vast and empty, with only traces of life below.
Traces of roads crossing sand dunes with amazing windblown formations and bluish purple colors merging the yellow and red sand formations. Solar farms with their reflecting mirrors, dry lakes and old mining areas pop into view for just seconds.
Flying past Las Vegas and Lake Mead, the Mohave Desert is stunning and spectacular, its long shadows emphasizing the unruly geology. Valley of Fire with the intense red coloration quickly transitions into the lower Grand Canyon plateau, with its table mountains and jagged lines carved by rivers for thousands of years.
Slowly the snow clad mountain ranges of Southern Utah appear with light fluffy layers of clouds, painted orange and pink by the setting sun. The Greater Salt Lake and Salton Sea are different geological sights, while the plane is preparing for landing, with the white mountain ranges as a backdrop.
Relax, enjoy and explore during your travel time being airborne.
BANGKOK AND SINGAPORE: 2 CITIES SO CLOSE AND YET SUCH POLAR OPPOSITES
Singapore so lush and green, tropical, clean and orderly. Well planned. Life is easy, although most work hard and efficient. Houses are coated in fresh paint, in myriads of fresh pastels, crisp and fresh.
Shophouses offer a wonderful natural architecture for the tropical weather in Singapore
Lush lotus pond at the Sands in Singapore
The city is safe, clean and very tropical. Almost daily tropical rain makes everything exceptionally lush, green, hot, humid and very tropical. You can leave your purse on the street and still have a good chance of finding it hours later. It is safe to walk at all times of the day even as a single woman. Mosquitoes are abated monthly, yet the tropical paradise can offer sightings of flying Timorous Beasties.
Tropical beauty: Canonball tree in Singpore
Pavements are straight, orderly and clean for the most part, no black gum spotting, no spitting’s. Only the red mud from daily rain tracks into your front door. Transportation is efficient and cars are limited through permits that are so expensive that most people’s dream of owning personal cars will remain a very distant dream. Public transportation on the other hand is efficient and well planned. Air quality is good, except for neighboring countries’ uncontrollable wild fires. Covered roof structures will provide shelter against the almost daily sudden down-pour. Noise is limited to the roars of Ferraris and Lamborghinis trying to rev-up before the next traffic light: No chance to ever reach the maximum engine possibilities on the small island-or chirping exotic birds and expressive utterings from tropical frogs. Old traditional shop houses are juxtaposed by new slender mid-or massive high-rise condo towers, HDB government subsidized housing blocks or crisp white or pastel colored carefully restored colonial buildings.
Old colonial shophouses are overpowered by huge HDB apartment buildings at Duxton Hill
Bangkok on the other hand is unruly, and has a dirty urban grit. Diversity and difference are key differentiators for Bangkok. The city is unplanned and chaotic, with a large amount of imperfection. Bangkok forces and allows people to live without plans. Chaos and a large degree of randomness is everywhere. Old wooden shacks are flanked by office buildings or condo towers.
Old shack houses at the main river, Chao Phraya in Bangkok
Tucked away in side alleys you can find gems and oasis of restaurants and cafes, if only you know how to get there, have a car and a GPS to get there. It is almost impossible to walk, squashed between cars, Tuk-Tuks, motor bikes, street vendors and utility poles with dangerous infernos of electrical wires hanging overhead, dimly lit or not lit at all at nighttime. Walkways are uneven, tiles are broken and under seemingly constant repair-in-progress, dirty and haphazard, aligned with the fumes of street food vendors’ temptations of fried fish, bananas, sausages, plastic bags of fresh cut colorful fruits, peppered by exhaust. The city is grey and trees are far and few in-between.
Well-kept street temples and offerings of yellow and fragrant flowers, incense, fresh coconuts and orange juice for good fortune provide a poetic juxtaposition to the dirty urban fabric of unpainted buildings, graffiti littered fences and the double-stacked ugly concrete structures of time saving and quite efficient sky trains.
When in Bangkok try to live close to the BTS or be prepared to spend the next hour or hours grid-locked behind your personal car’s or taxi’s steering wheel. Personal freedom means having your own car, but sacrificing your time and patience. Grid-lock is everywhere, seemingly at all times of the day
Gridlock seemingly everywhere and at any time of day in Bangkok
Juxtaposition between colonial building and new condo towers in Bangkok
Food are the favorite hobby in both cities and joyful sharing of sumptuous meals are favorite pastimes in both cities. In Singapore Chicken-rice or chili-crab is the all-time favorite national food, in Bangkok crispy fried street food, spicy curry dishes or chili flavored mango salad. Shopping is becoming a second hobby for both cities. New malls with ice skating rinks are alluring both Bangkok shoppers to become their new destination and pastime. Singapore offers almost nonstop shopping, mall after mall after mall seemingly competing with the same high end luxury items.
Streetfood in Bangkok
Street signs in Bangkok are an inferno, competing for massage, yoga or snatch-thief warnings. Slippers are scattered in front of buildings indicative of a favorite luxury, taking time for a cheap Thai massage or foot massage treatment on-the-go. Every Thai I have met is smiling, welcoming and love to enjoy life. When asking a Thai what he or she loves to do: party is a good answer. Singaporeans are more reserved and offer less facial expressions. When asking a Singaporean what their hobby is, the standard answer is: eating and shopping. Street signs are offering luxury lifestyle or food.
Each city has so much to offer in such different ways.
In Bangkok you need to discover pockets of art and sub-culture dispersed in seemingly unlikely places, hidden in small soi’s but a rich underground culture and appreciation of design and creativity is spreading roots; design and creativity is becoming a national differentiator. Thailand is becoming the first country in Asia to come up with the idea of establishing design as a national agenda. Creative freedom as differentiator. In Singapore life is very organized, efficient, a bit uptight, yet you can find pockets of alternative museums and galleries, especially in some of the old colonial military barracks. Art is more controlled, as is life, where only groups of people up to 5 are allowed to gather in the streets.
A perfect location for spiritual contemplation and gourmet delights.
Luang Prabang is a place where time runs slowly, where the whiff of fragrant freshly baked flakey French croissants merge with the scent of incense and the tantilizing gourmet spices of the French-Laotian cuisine. A place where body and mind truly reunites. Encircled by hazy green mountains, Luang Prabang is located on a peninsula between Nam Khan and the grand Mekong River. Now is the time to discover the splendor of Luang Prabang, before it is too late: in a few years a new high speed train will connect from mainland China, adding large volumes of loud tourists to a spiritual sanctuary. A city so pervaded by an intangible charm and spiritual calm could change very rapidly.
Luang Prabang was an ancient Royal capital and is still the main center for Buddhist learning in Laos. The more than 33 wats (monasteries) are worth exploring, all displaying the unique Laotian gold temple roof embellishments, gold stenciling, and wood carvings. Doors and windows are decorated and hand carved with tales of life: heaven and hell. Since 1995 Luang Prabang was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site, meaning no cars and trucks are allowed: this place is so peaceful and such a delight, with a strong spiritual ambiance. The city is best explored by foot as treasures abound around each corner – or negotiate a ride on one of the local colorful local Tuk-Tuks, a motor bike rickshaw, the only mode of transportation admitted in the old quarters – or take a day off relaxing your feet on a river cruise on the Mekong River aboard one of the old charming long wooden junket boats to the Buddha Caves and a hilltribe whisky village.
Glistening Buddhist architecture merges with Colonial French into a magical and alluring dreamy visual and auditory sensation. Not to mention the scent sensations: flaky French patisseries and spicy Laotian dishes fused with French cuisine. I wish I had taken the time to take a cooking class in one of the restaurant kitchens along the river.
French colonial villas house the majority of the guesthouses, small cozy hotels and Indo-French fusion cafes and restaurants and artisans. The friendly multi-ethnic Laotian people and nearby colorful Hmong hill tribes captivate even the most jaded traveler.
Color ornamentation and tantalizing scents are the first of Luang Prabang’s virtues greeting travelers. Frangipani and magnolia trees with their heady perfume and vibrant flowers, the vibrant saffron colored robes of hundreds of young monks and novices walking with their colorful rice umbrellas are mesmerizing. Roosters awaken the city prior to dawn, getting the Laotians ready for giving alms to the silent 6:00 AM progression of monks and novices through town. The gonging of nearby temple drums add a sacred balming layer to your busy minds. I wonder what all the roosters in their woven baskets are really used for, except as alarm clocks? I may not want to know…
The town is a juxtaposition of faded French colonial villas, old traditional Laos homes creaking on stilts, interspersed by spiritual architectural treasures. Patisseries makes the nostrils vibrate and yearn. Tranquility and charm are the key words.
French Indochina culinary fusion deserves explorations: try grilled marinated buffalo in coffee grain sauce at 3 Nagas or the amazing grilled red pepper and tomato soup layered with pepper and spring onions at Jarvos for a lazy lunch on the street porch, squandering a few lazy hours on a very hot afternoon. Street food offerings are abundant, especially during the daily night market: try thin crepes, grilled corn on the cub, grilled unmentionables, or grilled bananas delicately wrapped in banana leaves.
The gonging of giant drums sounding from neighboring wats signal a balming spiritual retreat for a stressed traveler, urging you to stop and inhale with all your senses.
One of my favorite places for lunch and contemplation was an outdoor restaurant at the tip of the peninsula, with a view of the suspended bamboo bridge and the 2 joining rivers.
Take time for long boat cruises along the muddy Mekong River to visit hill tribes and/or the Oak Ou Buddha karst caves which are depositories for thousands of Buddha figures. This experience is truly overwhelming and worth a half day trip. Hundreds of steps lead up the journey to the 2 levels of Buddha filled karst caves. Once inside you cannot help but wanting to capture the experience, over and over. It truly leaves a spiritual impact on your soul.
Luang Prabang is indeed a very special place worth exploring. I left part of my heart and soul in Luang Prabang. Devote some days to just unwind and indulge: surrounded in frangipani scents, incense, excellent spicy French inspired Laotian kitchen and French bakeries, and do indulge the fifth sense by trying Laotian massages. This is one of those places in the world that gets under your skin. In a good way.
A country so rich and diverse in culture: a cruel past with horrifying wars, wonderful hardworking and generous people and with so much potential for recreational and resort destinations. Diverse adventures and explorations await in different cities, Unesco World Heritage sites and stunning nature for the adventurous destineer and traveler.
Having recently returned from an intense one week exploration so full of diverse impressions my mind and camera are so full of impressions.
HANOI turned out to be completely different from my preconceived expectations. I expected to find formal French Colonial architecture juxtaposed with communist style concrete soulless buildings and wide streets jam packed with cars, an auditory inferno and assault on all senses. Instead I found a vibrant, exotic, vivacious, small scale and colorful urban life unfolding in the Old Quarter of Hanoi.
Saturday evening in Old Quarter. The streets become pedestrian zones, inviting locals and tourists to share the ambiance on tiny low plastic chairs. Many small restaurants offer BBQ Korean style, where you prepare your own meet and vegetables while watching the street life unfold.
Intriguing coffee houses lure you with a reminiscence of romanticized rustic salvaged vintage combat furniture, worn out tile or concrete flooring flooring, bright and vibrant hues of wall colors, and-the best coffee in the world.
Food is being barbecued at tiny tin cans on low tables Korean style at the sidewalks while cheerful people are gathering for coffee, drinks or food on tiny kid sized plastic chairs. The fumes of burning hot chestnuts merge with grilled corn on the cob; charcoal flames are being whipped to perfect intensity by old squatting ladies with banana leaves. The tantalizing mouthwatering sniffs of barbecued meat and onions interspersed with the scent of incense create a mysterious layered impact of scentsations. while live music and dance performances add to the auditory fusion. Brightly colored lanterns and string lights add to the layered romantic experience. We were lucky to experience the Old Quarter during the weekend when large areas are closed to traffic and Old Quarter becomes a large pedestrian zone
Beware, Hanoi can be cold and humid. Arriving from Bangkok’s hottest season in sandals and thin clothing was a thermal shock, but fortunately the Old Quarter is full of stores selling North Face feather jackets. Comforted by cozy down jackets all street life activities can be thoroughly enjoyed.
At daytime the sidewalks are completely overtaken by parked motorbikes and you jump for your life trying to navigate the narrow streets full of motorbikes, bicycling rickshaws and vans. The city is best enjoyed by bicycle rickshaw. The elderly male rickshaw drivers are agile dare devils, going against intense traffic, honking cars and motorbikes with whole families of 4-5 on top. We covered the major sight seeing venues and the rich variety of Old Quarter streets by rickshaw.
Each street has their own type of businesses: one street of bamboo vendors, one for auto spare parts, one for motor bike repair shops, one for Chinese temple accessories, one full of vibrant baskets filled with garment dyes, one for fabric vendors, one for tailors, one for chrome metal manufacturers, one for lock makers, one for bird and fish vendors, one for tombstone, etc.
Some of the biggest sightseeing’s are the Women’s Prison but the line of tourists waiting to buy tickets was too daunting for a sinister experience. The Library Temple Gardens was quaint and poetic. The monumental Ho Chi Minh Monument and museum turned out to be closed on a Monday. The lake is charming. Time for another Vietnamese coffee!
Hotels in the Old Quarter are tiny and can be a “hit-and-miss”, as even 4 star hotels can be rather unimpressive at the least and the photos on travel sites can be very deceiving. Spas can also turn out to be less than a glamorous experience. I recommend to book a hotel for the first night only and then explore some hotels by foot in person to find one that live up to your expectations. With the large amount of tourists in Hanoi, new smaller independent hotels seems to have a great target audience. Most hotels can arrange junk boat excursions at Halong Bay and city excursions, but do search Trip Advisor first to read the reviews.
A tour to Halong Bay, a Unesco World Heritage site, is a must. The drive takes about 4 1/2 hours and is rather nauseating as the roads are still less than desirable and some of the excursion vans offer very little legroom. Modern rest stops are surprisingly clean and sell all kinds of souvenirs plus some limited food choices. Once you arrive at your cruise junk boat and start your excursion through the stunning freestanding rocks and mysterious caves you forget about the hurdles of getting there. Our day was poetic, interspersed by a thick layer of fog and a light drizzle. Elderly ladies in bamboo row boats will take you through beautiful secret photogenic coves-or you can choose to kayak yourself, but cannot take photos. I strongly recommend to take the bamboo boat to support the lovely Vietnamese hardworking women. You may even get a song.
After a delightful fresh seafood lunch on the junk boat, we entered a great huge stalagmite cave which was fantastic and mysterious, although a slightly distressed experience as the cave was packed with groups of very loud Chinese tourists. The caves were used to hide troops during the war. The stalagmite formations were truly stunning and offered myriads of photo opportunities.
I highly recommend to take the 2 day junk boat trip in lieu of the one day trip. One day just gave you an initial impression, whereas sleeping on one of the red-sailed junks will leave you with truly memorable experiences. The 4-5 hour drive back to Hanoi was rather grueling as the minibuses were designed for Asians and not for westerners (No leg and shoulder space).-and the traffic congestion was gridlocked getting back into Hanoi.