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Wednesday, February 20, 2019

An Exciting Visit to the Train and Floating Markets Outside Bangkok

On our second day in Bangkok, we met our great guide, Amy, from Trails of Indochina, at 7 am outside our hotel, Anantara Siam, and drove nearly 90 minutes southwest of the city to see the Train Market. Every day in the morning, a train runs on tracks between a bustling outdoor market. We walked along the tracks and viewed the bins overflowing with fish, squid, meat, pork, chicken, fruit, clothing, you name it. Then a horn blows and the shop owners quickly move their bins away from the tracks as visitors scramble behind a red line with very little space to spare so they don't get hit by the moving train. It's a frenetic yet exhilarating display of humanity in action, yet even more insane when you realize the train is only carrying tourists looking down at you with their cameras. I'm sure at one time, the market supplied genuine passengers on long train rides with produce for their ride. Anyway, we tried an assortment of tasty fruit, like rambutans and longans (similar to lychee fruit), sweet finger bananas, juicy mangosteens, and a wonderful mango smoothie.

Then we drove another 15 minutes to take a longboat on murky canal waters past houses on stilts to the Floating Market. In one of those rare Anthony Bourdain-like moments, there was a woman cooking pad thai in a large wok over a propane tank in her longboat in the mass of boat traffic, diesel fuel spewing everywhere. So we had to sample and it was probably the tastiest pad thai I've ever tried. The noodles were so fresh they practically melted in your mouth. Every bite I'm thinking "this is so yummy, am I going to get sick? I'll have one more bite." Then we walked over to a market selling souvenirs and more food stalls selling coconut pancakes, barbecued pork kebabs, and sticky rice, squeezed out from a small plastic bag. All delicious and, for the record, my stomach was fine the entire trip to Hong Kong and Bangkok. 
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 02/20/19 at 06:00 AM
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Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Hong Kong Hotels

I loved all three properties we checked out in Hong Kong for various reasons. The Intercontinental Hong Kong (soon to change its name back to the Regent again) offered fantastic views of the Hong Kong skyline and waterfront from the floor to ceiling windows in the room. After long days of sightseeing, I enjoyed coming back to the room to watch the Chinese junk boats, ferries, fishing boats, and larger barges and cruise ships pass by. The Intercontinental also had the best breakfast buffet of the 3 hotels, with a lavish spread of American, Chinese (great dim sum), Indian, Japanese, and Korean choices, all washed down with fresh mango and guava juice. The W Hong Kong had fantastic service, like a welcome tray of goodies in our room, including a photo of our family from a recent trip to Switzerland. The concierge was excellent designing two days of travel and arranging tickets in advance for the cable car over to Big Buddha. While I probably liked the Intercontinental location a bit better since you could walk outside the hotel to catch the Star Ferry over to Hong Kong and find nearby restaurants at night, I did like that the W was perched above a large mall and subway stop, including the direct train to the airport, the Airport Express. The fitness center was also wonderful, sitting on the 73rd floor with glorious views of the city below. The Upper House on the Hong Kong side offered by far the most spacious rooms with good vista of the city and waterfront below. The concierge was also excellent, setting up free shuttles around the city to see the sights and hit the restaurants at night. In fact, service at the Upper House genuinely made us feel welcome. 

 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 02/19/19 at 06:00 AM
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Monday, February 18, 2019

Hong Kong Dining

Yes, the dim sum (One Dim Sum, Tin Ho Wan) and bao (Little Bao) lived up to expectations. But it was the other international fare that far surpassed anything I anticipated. The hummus, babaganoush, tabbouleh, and shawarma at Maison Libanaise was the best I've had outside the Middle East. The Nepalese food at Manakamana in the Kowloon Night Market was so authentic I was sitting next to monks from Kathmandu. Even the French bistro, Bouchon, popular with Aussie expat workers dining in the outdoor garden during lunch, served a tasty steak frites and tender barramundi wrapped in rice paper. But my favorite restaurant in Hong Kong was Yardbird in the Sheung Wan neighborhood. Old school R&B from Donnie Hathaway to Luther Vandross was thumping as we walked into the crowded bar on a Friday night and ordered innovative cocktails. We waited an hour to snag one of the coveted tables and once the food arrived, it was definitely worth the wait. Their specialty is yakitori, where different parts of the chicken arrive on small kebabs. All were juicy, but the neck, inner thigh, and meatball selections were out of this world. Also order the KFC, spicy Korean fried cauliflower. 

 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 02/18/19 at 06:00 AM
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Friday, February 15, 2019

Hong Kong Week-Climbing Dragon’s Tail and Other Highlights

On our last day in Hong Kong, we went on a group hike on the Dragon's Back Trail with expats from Switzerland, France, and London now living in Hong Kong. It's a glorious trail atop a mountainous ridge with vistas of the ocean, beaches, and seaside villages below. We went with a French guide from Wild Hong Kong, who has lived all over the world, but now resides with his wife in Hong Kong. He told us that on our next visit we have to bike in the New Territories, where the landscape is stunning, traffic is less, and the biking wonderful. 
 
Other highlights of our trip:
Art Gallery Hopping-All of the major art galleries in New York like Pace and Gagosian have offshoots in Hong Kong. Most of the galleries are located in two buildings, H Queen's and the Pedder Building. Simply hop on the elevator and jump off at every floor. We saw shows on photographer Irving Penn, abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell, and exciting contemporary Chinese artists. 
 
PMQ-A collection of Hong Kong's finest clothing, home goods, and craft designers are located just off Hollywood Avenue in the PMQ building. We purchased an exquisitely painted miniature glass jar from an artist in Xi'an.
 
Man Mo Temple-The first temple we visited was one of the most historic, the Man Mo Temple, built in 1847. Venture inside the smoky interior, smell the incense, and you immediately feel transported to another time and place. 
 
One of the main reasons we chose to go to Hong Kong was the dining and it did not disappoint. I'll be back on Monday with our favorite restaurant finds of the week. Have a great weekend and keep active! 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 02/15/19 at 06:00 AM
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Thursday, February 14, 2019

Hong Kong Week-Seeing Big Buddha and Tai O

It's hard to grasp the immensity of Big Buddha until you're high in the sky on a cable car looking down at this massive sculpture perched atop the hillside on Lantau Island. The sitting Buddha is one of the largest in the world at 112-feet high. It's definitely worth checking out, not only to walk up the many steps that lead to the Buddha and see the neighboring Po Lin Monastery, but to take the wonderful cable car ride to the site. Once again, our concierge at the W steered us in the right direction by getting tickets to the cable car in advance and going for the standard car, not the deluxe one with a glass bottom. The line for the standard cable car was much shorter and frankly the vistas from the windows are magical enough. Take the subway to the Tung Chung station and you'll see signs to walk over to the Npong Ping Cable Car. Wait in line with your timed ticket (try to arrive at least 20 minutes prior to your time) and then get ready for a 25-minute ride past the international airport to the mountainous silhouette that houses Big Buddha. Once you disembark, walk past the shops and climb the 268 steps to go face-to-face with the statue, which made its debut in 1993. Then wander over to the large monastery, where people were lighting incense and saying prayers for good fortune at the start of the Chinese New Year. 

 
From Big Buddha, you can take a 15-minute bus ride to the historic seaside village of Tai O and then take a short boat ride to supposedly see pink dolphins and the many historic houses built on stilts on the riverside. We didn't see any pink dolphins on our boat ride, but I did like being on the boat looking at the landscape. Afterwards, we strolled the narrow streets and tried the homemade fish shu mai. Tasty. Realize that from Tai O, it's a good hour-long bus ride back to Tung Chung station. So if you're in a rush, you might want to skip Tai O and take the round-trip cable car back. 
  

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 02/14/19 at 06:00 AM
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Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Hong Kong Week-A Must-Stop at Nan Lian Garden and Wong Tai Sin Temple

Our concierge at the W was also exceptional, booking tickets for the cable car to Big Buddha well in advance (I'll discuss tomorrow) and introducing us to the wonderful classical Chinese garden called Nan Lian. We headed down from the W into the mall, where we caught the subway to the Diamond Hill stop. The subway in Hong Kong is so easy to use and so well run. Simply purchase an Octopus Card for HKD$150 and then use your entire trip, adding money when needed. When you leave, bring the card back to the subway for a HKD$50 reimbursement. 
 
Once in Diamond Hill, it was a 5-minute stroll to Nan Lian, a serene oasis in the city, where small pathways led past bonsai trees rocks, koi ponds, bridges, pagodas, and waterfalls, finally entering a large Buddhist temple. There were many international school groups there the sunny day we visited, including children speaking French and English. It's a very relaxing walk through nature when you've had too much of the city center. One subway stop away from Nan Lian is the most popular Buddhist temple in all of Hong Kong, Wong Tai Sin. As soon as we left the subway station, we saw the large crowd gathered at the temple to light incense and say prayers for good wishes for the year prior to the Chinese New Year. We ended with a taxi ride to the original Tim Ho Wan in Kowloon, known as one of the best places in Hong Kong for dim sum. We were the only tourists inside and we watched as people washed their plates with hot tea before being served. The barbecue pork buns were the best I've ever had, crispy yet spicy pork in a fluffy light bun. I also liked the bill, about $15 USD for 3 people. 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 02/13/19 at 06:00 AM
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Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Hong Kong Week-Climbing Up Victoria Peak

The concierge we dealt with at the Intercontinental was exceptional, not only providing us with authentic Chinese restaurants to visit, but finding a sports bar to watch the New England Patriots playoff game. We wandered over to an Irish pub called Delaney's at 8 am, only to find the place packed with American expats. Three hours later, we wandered out of there elated after a stirring victory onto the busy streets of Kowloon, a bit of a culture shock. We took the historic Star Ferry over to the Hong Kong section of the city after making an essential stop at the ferry terminal to talk to someone at the Hong Kong Tourism Board Visitors Center. They provided a walking map to hike up to the top of Victoria Peak. Seemed easy enough, but we had no idea how steep the trail is. On a series of switchbacks on a narrow concrete path that starts to the left of the Victoria Peak tram, we snaked up the hillside past the tall apartment buildings and residential neighborhoods. Close to the top, we spotted a pair of wild boar nibbling at the scrub, which seemed apropos since the Chinese New Year is celebrating the Year of the Pig. We would later learn that the wild boars are overrunning the island and becoming a bit of a problem. One hour later, we made it to the top of the funicular to a viewpoint that offered a spectacular vista of the city skyline, surrounding waters, and neighboring islands below. We then celebrated our achievement over pizza and German beer at a place called Wildfire, before happily taking the funicular back down. 

 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 02/12/19 at 06:00 AM
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Monday, February 11, 2019

Hong Kong Week—Checking out the Prince Edward Neighborhood of Kowloon

We arrived into Hong Kong at sunrise Sunday morning after a 15½-hour direct flight from Boston on Cathay Pacific (great airline which I'll delve into further on a later blog). We dropped our bags off at the Intercontinental (soon to be the Regent again) and then took a taxi over the Prince Edward neighborhood. There was already a line at One Dim Sum by the time we arrived. They gave us a menu with checklist to fill out and soon we were dining on the first of many delicious har gow on our trip. Afterwards, we walked over to the nearby Flower Market to see row after row of fresh orchids, exotic fare like proteas, and numerous mandarin orange trees that people purchase to celebrate the Chinese New Year. We bought a cute stuffed animal, a pig to celebrate the Year of the Pig, and then wandered over to the Bird Market, where hundreds of parrots, parakeets, finches, and love birds are for sale. The birds were adorable. The food they ate-buckets of crickets, worms, and other assorted bugs, not so adorable. 

 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 02/11/19 at 06:00 AM
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Friday, February 08, 2019

Hotels I Visited in Thailand and Laos

Guest Post by Amy Perry Basseches

I'll end the blogs on my trip to Thailand and Laos with a quick summary of the very nice hotels I visited on behalf of ActiveTravels members. Rest assured, if you are seeking a Five Star experience in Bangkok, Chiang Saen, Chiang Mai, or Luang Prabang, I have first-hand experience to pass along.
 
My favorite hotel of the trip was the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort, in Chiang Saen (not too far from Chiang Rai). While staying there, we also toured the nearby Four Seasons Tented Camp. The location is amazingly beautiful. Both are high on a hill, overlooking the border with Myanmar and Laos, on the Mekong River. You can see from balconies and hot tubs elephants grazing and roaming around. There are 160 acres of bamboo forest, indigenous gardens and rice paddies at the Anantara. And there's glamping at its best at the Four Seasons -- superb luxury tents. Interact with the elephants, enjoy the spa in the jungle, take a three-country cruise down the river. These hotels are quiet and offer delicious food. Perfect!
 
I also really liked our hotel in Luang Prabang, the Sofitel. Originally built as the French Governor's residence in the 1900s, it is on the outskirts of town, and lovely. I had an enormous outdoor tub in my patio area. While we did not take a cooking class, the facility on-site looked outstanding. There is a sister property in the heart of the old quarter, in the UNESCO World Heritage neighborhood, called M Gallery 3 Nagas, where we ate a delicious first dinner in Laos. Lastly in Luang Prabang, we visited the Belmond La Residence Phou Vao Luang Prabang, which felt similar to the hotels in Chiang Saen, with calm mountain vistas and cloud forest. No bad choices!
 
In Chiang Mai, I'd like to feature 137 Pillars Chiang Mai. The main house of this small luxury hotel was built in the 1880's as part of the Borneo Company headquarters (which was in the teak wood business in Northern Thailand); it's a beautiful restored teak building. The 30 rooms and mouth-watering cuisine here are modern. We also stayed at the Anantara Chiang Mai (right in the center of the city, set on the grounds of the former British consulate, but very peaceful once inside...and wonderfully walkable to the Night Market!), and we visited the Four Seasons Chiang Mai, featuring two small lakes and a working rice farm, where I had an amazing lunch of Khao Soi Gai (Chiang Mai Yellow Curry Noodles with Chicken). I could envision being quite content at any of them. 
 
I'll let Steve and Lisa discuss the hotels in Bangkok, where they spent more time than I. Keep in mind that at many of these hotels, we can secure additional perks for our members and clients. Your comfort in mind, let me also assure you that Thai and Lao beer is top notch. Cha La Wan, Thai Amarit, Chang, Singha, Leo, and Lao were all sampled plentifully and can be recommended. Thanks to our destination partners Kensington Tours and Khiri Travel for all of their support and assistance on my 9-day journey in Thailand and Laos. Contact ActiveTravels for more information! 
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 02/08/19 at 06:00 AM
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Thursday, February 07, 2019

My Visit to Luang Prabang

Guest Post and Photo by Amy Perry Basseches 

My first trip to Southeast Asia was winding down, one more stop to go: Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for "its remarkably well-preserved townscape reflecting the alliance of two distinct cultural traditions" (French and Lao). Laos has 160-plus ethnic groups, speaking a total of 82 distinct languages. The two guides I met, ST and Nick, were both Khmu, from villages near Luang Prabang (the Khmu were the indigenous inhabitants of northern Laos). A stop I really enjoyed was The Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre, housed in the former residence of a French colonial judge. Founded to preserve the diverse ethnic cultures and peoples of Laos, it serves a crucial function for visitors too. 
 
As with many towns we visited over the entire trip, there were night and mornings markets to visit (although Laos has been Communist since 1975, there is commercial activity everywhere!), morning alms to be given to the novice monks, and temples to be respected. Nick also pointed out to me that Lao Buddhist temples have different architecture from Thai ones: Wat Xieng Thong, built here in 1560, was shorter, made more of wood, with more drawing / painting and fewer stones, than its Thai counterparts. Nick himself had been a monk for 7 years, starting at age 13, and, while we climbed Mt. Phousi, he told me that 70% of Lao boys become novices because it is, like in Thailand, the way to an education and out of the village. One can stop being a monk at any time. Nick left to attend university, obtain a business and tourism degree, get married, and have a child. A few generations back, his family were opium farmers, he said. 
 
A real highlight for me was a visit to the Laos Buffalo Dairy, and this wasn't just because of the delicious cheeses, ice creams, and cheesecakes we all ate. The story behind this place is very unusual -- people in Laos did not milk their water buffalo as was done in other places. So Susie (an Australian corporate executive who moved here from Hong Kong), and her team, showed local people how, and are now helping the area. "We cooperate with people from villages in and around Luang Prabang by renting their buffalo, which provides the families with a regular income stream from an underutilized resource, namely female buffalo; male buffalo being sold for meat. We built a facility for milking their buffalo and keeping them well fed, healthy and safe." I wanted to stay longer, eat more cheese, feed more buffalo, and learn more about this cool sustainable agriculture and community development project. 
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 02/07/19 at 06:00 AM
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Longtime Boston Globe travel writer, Steve Jermanok, dishes out his favorite travel locales and provides topical travel information that comes across his desk.

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