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Malacca

Arrived in Kualu Lumpur, or KL as everyone calls it, and then on to Malacca the next day to meet our good friends from home, Bill and Debbie. Malacca was hot and touristy, though mostly with non-western tourists. There were Interesting shop houses among the many narrow streets, and a mixture of Dutch, Portuguese, and British architectural influences, in this once thriving port and city state. The city was more or less founded by Parameswara, a Hindu prince from Sumatra in the late 1300's. Now it is a mix of Indians, Straits Chinese, and ethnic Malays. The Chinese have been here some 500 years or so, whereas the majority of Indians did not come until after the British in the early 1800's. The ethnic malays are Austronesian peoples from disparate backgrounds, including south coastal Thailand, Burma, Borneo, and parts of what is now Indonesia.



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In the middle of the day, we went for a boat ride on the Malacca River to cool off. Marginally effective, it was good way to see this former trade route.

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In the evening we took a stroll along the river walk.

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Another view of the river from a bridge downtown
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Though I cut my toe on one of the very uneven sidewalks, we all managed to avoid this place.

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The best part of the experience was eating at Amy's Nyonya Restaurant.




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A very friendly Amy, who spent three weeks cooking at the UN in New York, helped select the dishes, which were a mixture of all the various cultural influences in this polyglot city.




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It was a fabulous meal, though I can't remember the names of what we ate, nor can I adequately describe it. Her cousin, Florence Tan, has a cookbook which which I intend to purchase. It was so good we went back for lunch the next day. We also had a melt in your mouth tandoori chicken and naan in a more modest place, while sitting outside.

Yes, we saw the sites, but the food is what I will remember.


On the other hand, I couldn't resist a shot of this guy.

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Posted by jonshapiro 12:07 Archived in Malaysia Tagged food tourist_sites buildings_postcards Comments (2)

Hanoi

We have spent four busy, fascinating, days in Hanoi sightseeing and getting to know several local people. This vibrant but polluted city, is a mix of stately, yellow, French colonial houses in various states of repair, a few wide boulevards, and many neighborhoods of alleys, shop houses, crowded low rise tenements, and smaller houses in close proximity.



Old town street scene, an area popular with tourists
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Luckily, we arranged for transport from the airport to our comfortable home stay, located on a tiny alley in a non-touristy area. We would never have found it by ourselves, and it was always an adventure finding our way to other parts of the city and back again. Our host at Chez LinhLinh, Thuy, has been an absolute doll, giving us all kinds of info, lending us her phone in case we got lost, something we made us of, and even finding us a free local guide, a university student.

During our first day we explored the city on our own. Our home stay is somewhat outside the center, and there are few westerners here. Instead the maze of tiny alleys are chock full of various food vendors selling fresh veggies, and Pho. They seem to come and go, depending on the time of day. Some are open for breakfast, others lunch and dinner. The table and stools are tiny, much like the tea stalls in Burma. They are not made for long legged Americans, but the food is usually fresh and cheap.

After struggling to find our way out of the maze, we walked a long time, passing embassy row, and then arriving at Ho's mausoleum, which was closed. We did manage to see his house and walk around the extensive grounds.



Ho's Mausoleum
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Houses on Ho's compound
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Uncle Ho is still very much of a revered figure here, and his residence and mausoleum are hallowed ground. There were many Vietnamese as well as foreigners. Finding our way back was even more difficult. At one point we stopped at a small hair salon and showed them our card from Thuy, in Vietnamese and English. Each patron pointed a different way. One person seemed more sure of herself, and luckily, she turned out to be right. We were only two small streets away, but if we headed in the wrong direction, I might not be writing this now. The traffic is without exaggeration, insane. Totally over the top, especially at rush hour when there is not enough room to move, even on the narrow sidewalks. Motorbikes buzz like angry bees, and head in every direction at once. There is an occasional light, but you can't count on anyone stopping. Crossing the street is very much a game of chicken. It took us a couple of days to get the hang of it. Don't look at anyone, try and cross with others, and above all act fearless. Hanoi may be a perfect illustration of Shapiro's traffic rule number one. The more repressive the government, the more people act out (with tacit permission) on the road.

Later that evening , auspiciously on the last night of Tet, Thuy took us to the local Buddhist temple to make an offering to her ancestors. She then gave us some chocolate coins, not unlike Hannukah Gelt, a good luck New Year's present.




Nanette, Thuy and her three lovely children
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We walked from there to her nearby parents house, where they plied us with all kinds of local food, as well as beer and rice wine. Her father, who spoke almost no English, kept refilling my glass, despite my protests. I think however, like most asians, he couldn't hold his liquor as well as I, a westerner, could. Thuy acted acted as translator, and her three girls, age 16 months, 6 and 8 provided plenty of entertainment.

The next day, Thuy introduced us to our very own tour guide. Huyen, a sweet 20 year old English student, took us to all to kinds of local places that we would never have found on our own. We started out in one of the nearby alleys with banh cuon, a kind of dumpling with mushrooms served in a pork broth. Delicate and delicious.



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We then walked into the main part of town stopping to look at different pagodas, before going into another tiny alley to get to a famous student coffee shop, where they served egg coffee. No foreigners present.



Drinking egg coffee and eating sunflower seeds
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Vietnamese students drinking coffee in outdoor coffee house in old town
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From there it was on to Hoan Kiem lake in the center of town, with bridge and pagoda connected to a small island.




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Grandfather and granddaughter sitting near the bridge
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The lake is famous for a huge turtle which is only seen intermittently. We saw the carcass of a preserved one which had washed on shore several years ago. Apparently the lake used to have many more turtles, but now there is only one. Nearby, a rather phallic looking edifice, where, we were told, one can write messages in the sky to one's departed relatives.

From there we stopped in the Vietnamese version of a drive in ice cream place, a sort of A&W, without the burgers and the root beer. It was packed with young people and motorbikes. We ordered coconut ice cream pops, kem sua dua. Love to say that word. We each had more than one in fact. Hard not to at around 25 cents each.





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While Nanette popped into an art gallery across the street, I took pictures of the ice cream police, as I call them. They seemed intent on giving tickets to all who parked their bikes on the sidewalk. Well, not all. Those who could cough up an immediate bribe were spared, at least that is how it appeared. Considering that I never saw anyone receive a traffic ticket for going through a red light, it seemed like a scam.




Ice cream police truck
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Street scene outside of ice cream store and gallery
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In the gallery, Nanette found an abstract artist whose work she really liked, and made arrangements to visit her studio the next day. We then took the scenic, aka long way back, past West Lake. We stopped to take pictures of Huyen in front of her imposing French colonial high school, and talked with her about school and her family.




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Like many of our former Chinese students, she loved the opportunity to practice her English and seemed to really appreciate that we had come to visit her country. She was outgoing and open about her life, and in many ways seemed more mature than her age cohort in the states. By the time we got back our feet were killing us, but so what. We did manage to make our way to a nearby Pho place. Exhausted, we made it an early night, whereas Huyan was off to her belly dancing class. The next day she had classes at university, but she invited us to have dinner with her family in the evening.

In the morning, after a bit of confusion we were picked up by Nguyen Tam, the agent of the artist, who took us to see her studio. Ngo Hai Yen's was am attractive, vivacious woman in her 40's. She and Nanette seem to hit it off at once. Her abstract lacquer paintings were an intense mixture of colors, with bits of gold and silver leaf added to increase the layering effect. When Nanette saw she had some smaller works, she couldn't resist buying one. We were then invited to her house to see her canvas paintings, which we were more than happy to do. Nguyen, also her best friend, and an interesting woman in her own right, acted as translator. Before long the artist was cooking up a storm and invited us to stay for lunch. Some how we got started discussing classical and latin music. It wasn't long before I took out my phone to play Congo to Cuba while we ate lunch. As we shared more about our lives, they both told us they didn't have much in common with their husbands, something Thuy had also made a point of telling us. They are engineers by training, and as is often the case, they are not very communicative. Thuy's husband on the other hand, is a travel agent. The women were very revealing about their personal lives, perhaps because they might not see us again?

After lunch Ngo, the artist, asked if wanted to go dancing in a club. In the afternoon we queried? They nodded, and although her friend didn't know how to dance at all, it wasn't long before we piled into a cab and went off to the club. It seems as though ballroom dancing is a popular pastime in Hanoi, though the place was relatively empty at this time of day. I pranced around in my usual, half assed, 60's free form manner, but Ngo was a fabulous dancer. There were a number of young men who were eager to be her partner. Professionals? Gay? Perhaps, but they could really move to those latin beats. Nguyen was happy to sit on the side, except when I took her up for a whirl. I'm sure we looked ridiculous. I also managed to dance with a couple of the older ladies who attempted, with little success, to show me how to move properly to the music. Quite an experience. It was nice to see a range of ages, all dancing with one another.



Ngo with one of the professional dancers
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We returned in late afternoon, just in time to shower and go next door to Huyen's house. She had invited her older cousin and a friend, both of whom spoke excellent English. While they prepared a huge meal of snails, clams, fresh spring rolls, etc., I chatted with her very young looking father, (mid 50's) who runs an IT company with 70 employees. Considering this, they live in a very modest house and obviously don't have much money. Hong was educated in Hungary during its communist days. He speaks Hungarian, and also spent a year in Russia, so naturally he speaks Russian. He also speak a bit of Mandarin as well as English. His parents, now dead, moved to Hanoi from Hue in between the French and American wars. The American War, is of course, what we call the Vietnam War. During two periods of heavy American bombing, Hong was sent with several hundred other children, to live deep in the jungle. There was rarely enough to eat, and they often had to catch fish and insects by themselves. His other three brothers were sent to different sites, apparently because there was less chance they would all be bombed at the same time. In between bombing episodes, he returned home to his family.

His father was fairly high up in the North Vietnamese army, but apparently didn't know how to use a gun. Whether this meant he really was never taught, or if he just couldn't bring himself to use it, is not clear. Hong told me about a time his father was in the jungle with another officer. It was hot so the other man slept at the entrance to the cave. In the night there was a bombing raid, and the other man was killed while his father was okay because he was sleeping deeper inside. Just lucky, he said. He also told me another story about how an American bomber was shot down and landed totally intact. Both the Russians and the Chinese wanted to get their hands on it. This made it very difficult for Vietnam. Eventually, they gave it to the Russians in exchange for 300 bombers, but the Chinese were very angry. At the end of the war, when the Vietnamese fought Pol Pot in Cambodia, the Chinese were also angry, and started to bomb the border areas in the north of Vietnam. At this time Hong was in the army, and like his father, did not know how to shoot.

He, his family, and other many others in North Vietnam seem to harbor little resentment of the Americans as well as the French. It is largely a country of young people though, and so they have little direct experience with the wars. The one group that seems to engender some anger is the Chinese, perhaps because they occupied the country for more than 1000 years. So much for the domino theory.

I let Hong know that I was opposed to the war, and although it was hard to completely gauge his feelings, based on his hospitality it was obvious that he could distinguish between the US government and individual people. What an incredible waste of human life and so much suffering. Ten million Vietnamese died he told me. After this somewhat heavy discussion, (despite the beer we shared), dinner was served to the delight of all. It was quite a feast, and a good time was had by all. We took many pictures of one another.


The gang's all here: Huyen with family members and friend
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Hong and his wife with Nanette and Jon
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Later, Hong showed me an old one of his father that he was obviously very proud of. Hard to imagine that 50 years ago there was so much killing, and now it is like it never happened.



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The following day we were on our own again, but it was much less hectic. The water puppet show, which tells the story of the founding of Vietnam, was the highlight. Tomorrow we go off for two days to Halong Bay on a junk.





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Posted by jonshapiro 07:03 Archived in Vietnam Tagged people food cities_postcards Comments (4)

Thaton to Chiang Rai

On the return trip to Tathon, we happened to be accompanied by a Russian, Jewish couple who emigrated to Australia some 18 years ago. This was their first real trip abroad, after being encouraged to hit the road by their British son in law. Also on the songthaew, was another emigre to Australia, this one from China. We traded stories with him about the 60's demonstrations against the Vietnam war, both in his adopted country and in ours. He is 70 and was quite active in the antiwar movement in Australia. Sitting next to him was another Chinese man who had travelled overland for a month starting in Kunming. He spoke only Mandarin, and unfacetiously said to the Chinese/Australian gentlemen that if it wasn't for the Party, he would never have been able to travel. Perhaps he worked for the party. It was, you might say, quite a multicultural ride. After returning to our guest house by the river, we waited until the sun was descending before starting out on a walk to then near by Wat, at the top of a steep hill. There was a small road to get there, but not having wheels, we hoofed it up the many sets of stairs. On the way, we passed this statue of the Buddha.



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And this one at the top.

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Below us, the town and the river valley were part of the panoramic view.





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This was a handheld shot of the guest house path, as night came on quickly, as it does in the tropics.

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In the morning, we left on the long tailed boat ride for Chaing Rai. A Dutch couple our age, who were staying at our guesthouse and biking for a month were also on the boat, and then we stopped to pick up Travis, a young American who was on the road for more than a year. He had been all over South America, Indonesia and many parts of Asia , as well as New Zealand. How coud he take this much time we asked. He had his own business repairing various technical machines (not computers) which he had started at age 20. Now at 32, he was taking off some time and letting his partners manage the business. Pretty impressive. The ride was quite enjoyable, with green hills all around, and even some rapids in the bony river.



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We passed several large and small dredging operations, and stopped in a Lisu village where they stared at us and we stared at them. They even had a picture station set up with a cutout figure of a hill tribe couple. We couldn't resist the ridiculousness of it, but they then demanded 40 baht for the priviledge. A bit like Disneyland.




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After four hours or so, we arrived in Chaing Rai, which is pleasant enough, if somewhat on the nondescript side. While there are plenty of farang, the place does not feel like a tourist town.

The clock tower, on the other hand, is impresssive, particualrly at sunset.



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We went Wat hopping, first to Wat Rong Khun, the white temple outside of town. Everyone raves about this new place, and it is a big tourist attraction for Thai and Farang alike. It is a bit too rococo for my taste, though some of the artwork is interesting.




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My favorite was in the in town, Wat Jet Yot. About a 100 years older it is a much simplier affair , but the enormous gold cement Buddha is both imposing and calming at the same town.




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Temple painting
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In this Wat I met a Hungarian. We talked politics, in a not particularly Wat like conversation, but intriguing nonetheless. He is a nuclear scientist who spent two years working on Long Island.

Then it was back to the center of town for the best Tom Yam that we had in Thailand. It was from a tiny shop, really a street stall, whose prorietor seemed especially pleased that we liked his soup, which practically exploded with flavor and spice. We shall probably return for the same thing for dinner, along with some tasty baozi, Chinese steamed buns, though they don't call them that here.




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Posted by jonshapiro 11:21 Archived in Thailand Tagged buildings people food cities_postcards Comments (1)

Back to Bangkok

Note to subscribers: Some of you had trouble accessing my site to view the last posting. It turns out this was my fault. However this link should give you access to the blog without any problem and you can simply look at last post if you are so inclined.

2/3--New Siam Guesthouse. This place never changes. Khao San Road will forever be locked in the 60's with a constant parade of foreigners from all over. Interestingly we have heard the Chinese now make up 13% of all tourists and are now the single largest group of foreigners. However, there are lots of hippie types (non Chinese) or wanna be hippies. This includes an old white guy, going bald, but with dyed red hair and a long white beard looking more or less like an Indian sadhu. Everyday we see him parading back and forth along the nearby alley. There are Euro's with little kids, and yes, even a bunch of us older folk, (excluding the sadhu), from various parts of the globe. We met two intrepid travelers from Vancouver, several years older than us. Joyce and Gordon have been all over, taking off for four months during the soggy winters of coastal BC. They have been to and trekked in Nepal several times, befriended a guide named Santa, and paid for his girls to go to school. They will leave for Pokhora in a few days after spending a month in Burma. They tell us the place is now lousy with tourists, prices have quadrupled, ATM's have appeared, and cell phones are ubiquitous. Luckily, the people are still the same, though I think we got there at the right time.


At night the nearby alley and surrounding streets here in Balimphoo become one big party scene with loud American rock and blues, outdoor restaurants and bars, and VERY crowded streets. It is quite a scene.






All's quiet in the morning
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Our breakfast spot
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The famous Mr. Yim, who makes various Thai veg curries for a buck
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Yesterday, we went to see Wat Pho, a little further on the river taxi than the King's Palace, but a place we had never been. The enormous reclining Buddha was spectacular.


Although some 50 feet long, it is only possible to capture the head by itself
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Statues on the grounds of Wat Pho
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After wandering around a bit, we set off to look for a local sim card. That was an adventure, and we got somewhat lost on the way back. It was a success, in that we did find a card and then were able to call Derek at Chaing Mai Apartments, our next destination.

Posted by jonshapiro 18:14 Archived in Thailand Tagged food cities_postcards Comments (0)

At The Farm in Wangen

The weather here is much like early Spring in upstate New York. We have only had glimpses of the snowy high mountains in the distance, because many days have been cloudy, chilly, and rainy. We have been helping out with the renovation work, such as grouting and painting, which is fine, particularly given the damp weather.


Joachim and his brother in our yet to be finished bathroom.
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Most nights we ate dinner with Peter and his family, as well as Antonette and Joachim in the farmhouse next door. Peter is hoping that the barn will be ready enough for them to move in a few weeks, as they have to vacate the farmhouse so the new owners can move in. It will take much longer for Joachim and Antonette as they are doing most of the work by themselves.

Peter is a kind of larger than life character, a bit like Falstaff, always eating, drinking and laughing. It is a bit dangerous to ask for food and drink in his house, as he will always bring six times the amount you need. In fact you don't even have to ask.



From Left to Right: Peter, Lissie, Max, Joachim, Antonette, Nanette's Arm
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A much better picture of Max
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Peter was a kind of ne'er do well in his youth,quite rebellious and always challenging authority. As a teenager, he moved to Lindau in nearby Bavaria, because the school system there was somewhat looser and more tolerant. He now owns a successful architectural firm in Wangen with several employees. Joachim was also a rebel as a kid, and his parents sent him off to boarding school from age 11-16, not so different from yours truely. It seems that the three of us have a fair amount in common, though both of them are more than ten years younger than I.

One cloudy day, he took us on a tour of Lindau, which is on an island in Lake Constance. Now it is a charming resort town with many old buildings. We went on to cross the Austrian border, no passports needed, and walked around a different side of the very large lake, similar to Lake George.



Lindau harbor and old building. You can see why they call it the Bodensee.
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Not to be outdone Wangen too, has its charms.





Wangen on market day.
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When we came back, we helped Antonette make spatzle, a local cheese, egg, and noodle concoction, very much a group project. Antonette and then Joachim's daughter, managed to drop the batter on the floor two times because of the lack of counter space, but, no matter, we ate it any way.





Antonette is putting the spatzle back in the pot after it fell on the floor
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Yesterday, I went with Antonette, Joachim, Lissie, her son Max, and a friend, for a hike in the Icetobel. It is called that because it is a deep gorge with a series of water falls, and tends to hold onto ice and snow late into the year. It did not disappoint on this day. We hiked for about 1 and 1/2 hours in a cold rain that turned to snow at the end. Glad to get back to the car, we hunted for a restaurant that was open in the late afternoon. I had a typical sausage, noodle, and lentil dish, good, but heavy, as is a lot of the food here.

Today we awoke to about three inches of snow. I guess the Shapiro's have brought their weather with them. Our plan was to go walking in the high mountains, but that was put on hold. Instead we went to a nearby castle and then for some heavenly pastry. A good time was had by all.


View from the top of the castle
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The grand pastry and teahouse
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Posted by jonshapiro 09:35 Archived in Germany Tagged people food buildings_postcards Comments (1)

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