Monday, May 27, 2013

BANGKOK, THAILAND: Buddhist Temples, the Flower Market and More, Guest Post by Cynthia Watters

Bangkok, Thailand.  Temple.
In April, my friend Cynthia Watters and her husband Chris took a trip to China and Thailand.  While their visit to Bangkok turned out not to be exactly what they planned, it ended up being a good end to a full and exciting trip.  Here is Cynthia's report:

Ariyasom Villa Hotel, Bangkok
Following a great 17-day Viking River Cruises trip to China, we were to spend a week in Thailand and Cambodia with a guide plus car and driver through Kensington Tours.  By the time we flew into Bangkok, I was feeling under the weather with cough and sniffles and regretting the decision to see more of Asia while we had the opportunity.  We were met by our lovely guide Pukki and driven to the Ariyasom Villa Hotel in Bangkok.  The hotel was delightful—24 rooms in villas situated in lush palm tree gardens with a lovely pool and an excellent indoor/outdoor restaurant with a charming, attentive staff. 
Bangkok.  Temple.
The next morning we embarked on a full-day tour of Bangkok with Pukki and the driver.  We saw Buddhist temples, the flower market, had lunch in a boat on the river followed by a river tour in a smaller boat, and ended with a massage.  In the evening we attended a dinner theater with traditional Thai dance.  All lovely, but I was tired. 

When Pukki arrived the following morning, she recommended a trip to the hospital rather than the day’s tour.  It seemed our hotel was one block from what she said was the best hospital in southeast Asia, the Bumrungrad International Hospital.  Add medical tourism to our itinerary.  The clinic at Bumrungrad was fantastic: excellent, courteous care and relatively inexpensive fees, all from very competent Thai staff: a little over $400 for two sets of visits, involving a generalist and a kidney specialist (I had low sodium), chest x-rays and two rounds of blood tests (I had bronchitis).  The waiting rooms were filled with international patients.
Our guide, Pukki.

To reach the hospital we walked the short distance along a narrow street with vendors or driveways along both sides, which reduced navigation to one lane, with autos and motor scooter or motorcycle taxis weaving in and out.  Along the way, our route took a shortcut through the parking area for an overhead hospital dormitory, in which an outdoor “restaurant” was preparing and serving noodle meals for staff for about $1. The aromas were wonderful!
Pool and outdoor restaurant, Arivasom Villa Hotel
Since the doctor wanted to see me back in two days, we cancelled our scheduled flight to Cambodia, where we had intended to spend two nights and visit Angkor Wat, the extensive temple complex.  Instead, we relaxed at our wonderful hotel, with staff asking solicitously how ‘Madam’ was feeling and the owner recommending what I might eat (a lovely vegetable soup—on the third night I actually had the version with prawns added!)

Dining room, Ariyasom Villa Hotel
It was a lovely time despite my illness.  Now we need to go back to see Angkor Wat and more of Thailand as well as to luxuriate again (in good health) at the Ariyasom Villa Hotel!

Monday, May 20, 2013

NEPAL, Shrines, Temples and Breathtaking Mountains: Guest Post by Owen Floody

Nepal. Machhapuchhare Sunset

In March, our friend Owen Floody went to Nepal.  We have known Owen ever since he and Art were graduate students at Rockefeller University in New York.  Owen recently retired from a career of teaching and research at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. Here is a short reflection on his trip to Nepal and a few of his amazing photographs. 

Buddhist Stupa at Boudnath
Owen's post: I've been celebrating my recent retirement with a flurry of exotic trips.  On most, I've either assembled or joined a group of like-minded travelers, the latter by signing onto a trek advertised by a well-known specialist in all things outdoors.  Heading into one of these, one can worry about the group being too large and the experience too impersonal.  But is it possible to experience the opposite, to be overdosed with individual attention in an overly small group?
From L to R, Annapurna South, Annapurna Fang, Annapurna One
My most recent trip, an early-March camping trek to the Annapurna Sanctuary, in Nepal, certainly put this possibility to the test.  This was advertised as a group effort, but I was the only one to sign on and the outfitter generously elected to run it anyway.  So it was just me and my entourage of 7 (no sedan chair or gun bearer, but 1 guide, 1 cook, 2 kitchen boys, and 3 porters) hiking up and down the trails on the way to and from the Machhapuchhare (at an elevation of 3700m) and Annapurna (4100m) base camps.  Now there were advantages to this arrangement: If the pace or anything else wasn't to my liking, I had only myself to blame.  At the same time, I found it to be a peculiarly isolating experience and more than a bit anachronistic--not the happy medium that I will shoot for in the future.
Rhododendron of the season
The weather on my trek was a bit of a mix. It generally was clear in the mornings, so that it was then that I had my best mountain views.  On most days, it was cloudy much of the rest of the day and rained and/or hailed for at least part of the afternoon.  Not surprisingly, it was cold at the highest altitudes--39 and 34 degrees F at night, and that was inside of the "teahouse" rooms they put me in when snow at the base camps prevented camping.  The early spring weather also affected the rhododendron crop.  I had timed my trip partly to see these, but did not realize that the different colors bloom sequentially.  So rather than the array of different colors that I had hoped for, I saw pretty much only the deep red that is pictured.  It's great, to be sure, but perhaps not absolutely ideal for the color-vision-limited.

Durbar Square, Kathmandu
Of course the high point of this trip was the mountain views, especially of Machhapuchhare and several of the Annapurnas.  More of a surprise to me was my enjoyment of my walking tours, some guided and others self-guided, in Kathmandu and other former royal cities or attractions in the Kathmandu valley.  Each city's Durbar (royal) Square was chock-a-block with temples, as might be expected. 

Buddhist shrine encountered on walking tour of Kathmandu
But throughout at least the older parts of these cities, it seemed impossible to walk for more than a few yards without stumbling across a Buddhist or Hindu shrine or temple, all still in use, many very attractive, some also very old. If and when you visit Nepal, I'm sure that no one will have to tell you to seek out and enjoy the mountains.  But also spend some time walking the streets of old Kathmandu, and enjoying the shrines, temples and other buildings.

You can find out more about Owen's recent travels and see more of his amazing photos in his May 6, 2012 post about his trip to northern Tanzania.

Monday, May 13, 2013


Kona, Hawaii, King Kamekameha Heiau
A little over a year ago, in April, I was in Hawaii with Art, who was attending a conference.  The conference was in Kona, on the Big Island (Hawaii), and while Art was at his meetings, I spent part of each day doing my own work, and part enjoying the local sights. This was our third visit to Kona and I was looking forward to its more relaxed pace of life.  Most people think of Kona as a jumping off place for trips to the volcanoes or the luxury resorts up the coast, but I find that the town has its own charm.

The main street of Kona, along the waterfront, is full of shops for tourists, but it also has several spots of historical interest including the first church in Hawaii, founded by Christian missionaries.  I love the museum across the street from the church where you can learn the history of the island both before and after Captain Cook.  On a previous visit I happened to be at the museum when a docent was giving a tour.  Afterward, when I went outside, a group of little girls were having a hula lesson on the front lawn.  This time there were no dancers, but I noticed that the palm trees had signs warning tourists to “Watch Out for Falling Coconuts”!

We were staying at the King Kamekameha Hotel and from the balcony of our room on the fifth floor I could see the ocean peeking though the palms of the courtyard below.  On a small island just beyond the hotel was a traditional Hawaiian structure, honoring King Kamekameha.. In front of the hotel, colorful canoes were stacked up by the beach and in the late afternoon each day I watched local rowing teams take the long canoes out into the bay to practice their racing skills.

We always wake up early when we go to Hawaii because of the time difference, so our routine was to get breakfast at our favorite eatery, Buns in the Sun (located in the nearby shopping mall and selling delicious sticky buns), and then take a walk in the old airport park.

Community Garden at Old Airport, Kona
Some years ago, the airport for Kona was enlarged and  relocated several miles to the north.  The old airport, along the beach just at the edge of town, has become a park with picnic tables on the beach side of the former runway (now a parking lot), and a walking/jogging trail on the other.  The land along the walking trail has become a community garden and half the fun is admiring all the different plots and the variety of plants. The other entertainment is watching the cats.  The park is filled with feral cats, all looking quite happy and healthy because of the “cat ladies” who bring food every day. 

Kona Farmer's Market
When I am in Kona I also enjoy walking along the waterfront, doing a little bird watching, and sometimes catching sight of dolphins in the bay.  The other wildlife seen all over the island are the mongooses.  Brought to Hawaii originally to prey on rats in the sugarcane fields, they have proliferated and become pests. On one of my afternoon walks I went the farmer’s market where people sell locally grown coffee, macadamia nuts, papayas and other tropical fruits, homegrown vegetables, exotic looking plants, and souvenirs.  That evening we at at Jackie Rey's, a local restaurant recommended by a Hawaiian friend, where we had a delicious meal.

On one of Art's free afternoons we treated ourselves to a game of golf--the challenge being to avoid hitting the ball into the ocean or piles of lava. When the conference was over we headed back to Los Angeles.  I had enjoyed my third visit to Kona.  To read about what we did in Hilo at the beginning of this trip, go to my April 30, 2012 post, Hawaii’s Big Island: The Hilo Side.

Monday, May 6, 2013

TANZANIA, African Wildlife Up Close, Guest Post by Owen Floody

Playful lion cubs, Lobo area of Serengeti National Park
In December 2012, our friend Owen Floody went to northern Tanzania, traveling with his wife, several friends, and a guide.  They stayed in tent camps and lodges and visited Tarangire National Park, Lake Manyara National Park, the Seronera and Lobo regions of Serengeti National Park, Ngorongoro Crater and the Ndutu region of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, going out each day to view the scenery and wildlife.  Owen’s photographs of the trip are superb—he is more than lucky—he is a talented photographer.  In 1971, when Owen and my husband Art were graduate students studying animal behavior, they were partners in a field research project studying Uganda kob (a kind of antelope) in Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda. (See my post for May 16, 2011.)  Owen has been back to Africa several times since then. Here is a short reflection on his most recent trip and a few of his amazing photographs. 

Elephant calves playing in the mud, Tarangire National Park
Owen's post:  In my opinion, a worthy goal on wildlife-oriented trips is to be grateful for what you're given, the latter being something that will never be completely under your control.  But it is nice to have the luck required to eliminate any suspense regarding your success.  On our most recent trip to northern Tanzania, in East Africa, we were so lucky that even our bad luck turned good.  
Stormy skies over the African savannah, Lobo area of Serengeti NP
I had timed this trip to avoid the rains, but this was not to be: We had some rain on most days, sometimes turning park tracks into what looked more like canals.  Fortunately, this did not faze our vehicle or guide, who somehow managed to keep us moving through everything but the aardvark burrow.  And in return for those rains we got two unexpected benefits.  One was the wonderful stormy skies that help to set off some of my favorite landscape photos. The other was the absence of potentially choking dust.  Initially, we greeted a short stretch of dry days with pleasure.  Quickly, however, we noticed the tracks becoming dustier and dustier, and found ourselves wishing for a return of the rains.  In moderation, of course.

Yawning hippo, Ndutu area of Serengeti National Park
Our luck also was good in all of the more obvious ways.  We saw great sights, including leopards lounging in trees, elephant calves and lion cubs at play (not with each other, unfortunately), lions and vultures cleaning up a kill, and hippos defending their spaces.  In some cases, we even were the first to come upon these sights, and so had them completely to ourselves for part or all of the time.

Cantankerous vultures, Ndutu area of Serengeti National Park
Though I speak of luck, I know that part of this is skill--mainly on the part of our guide--and another part attitude.  The broader your interests, the "luckier" you will be.  We were happy to see members of the "big five" (lions, leopards, elephant, buffalo and rhino--deemed to the top of the list for most tourists) but were as delighted to see attractive birds and vegetation. 

Lounging leopard, Seronera area of Serengeti National Park
Fortunately for us and others like us, there are lots of great birds out there, and you're likely to see many of them if you make the effort.  And the vegetation is least likely of all to get away from you (and surest to benefit from any rain).  Sometimes you'll even find small creatures hiding in or near it. 
I encourage you to take advantage of these opportunities and plan your own safari.  Be sure to make at least some of your own luck. 

Baobab tree with giraffe in distance, Tarangire National Park
Owen's trip began and ended in the town of Arusha, in northern Tanzania.  The group stayed in three places during the two week trip:  Lobo Wildlife Lodge in Serengeti National Park; Ndutu Safari Lodge in the southwestern Serengeti area near Olduvai Gorge; and Ngorongoro Farm House in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.