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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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Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Highlights of Chiang Mai

Guest Post and Photo by Amy Perry Basseches

Midway into our journey from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai (a 4-5 hour drive), we stopped for a breather at the humorously named Cabbages and Condoms, which is, unbeknownst to me, a thriving chain of inns and restaurants in Thailand and the UK  -- where all profits support the The Population & Community Development Association (PDA) and its programs in primary health, education, HIV/AIDS, family planning, rural development, and the environment. The restaurant started as a small vegetable stand on PDA office premises where the vegetables, along with condoms and oral contraceptives, were sold to the local residents. Of course, I bought a T shirt. It's a good cause, and good for a chuckle back home. 
 
Other highlights of my trip to Chiang Mai:
 
I love learning new things, and "Monk Chat" at Wat Suandok was right up my alley, arranged by my guide Oy. I spoke directly to Phra KK, a monk for the past 18 years (since he was 13). Rather than being hokey or awkward, it was genuine and open. Phra KK explained that Monk Chat is a way for monks to give correct information on Thai Buddhism, which was much appreciated. He explained that Buddhism is not a religion per se, but a way of living and of understanding life; there are 227 precepts by which to do so. It is not a centralized belief system based on a god or set of gods. I asked, so, you could be another religion and also a Buddhist? And he said, "Like a Jew Bu? Sure!" He also explained when it is acceptable to break one of the precepts, and what followed was a great digression into when monks take "Western" antibiotics. Ask me sometime.  
 
Again, with Oy at my side, I set out for an Anthony Bourdain-styled breakfast at the Chiang Mai Gate Market early one morning. Over the course of 2 hours, I ate and ate and ate! Bamboo stuffed with coconut and peanut sticky rice. Sticky rice with tea leaf. Rice noodles, broth, pork, and tomatoes.  Water buffalo rind. BBQ pork stick. Banana leaf with coconut cream sticky rice and banana. Sticky rice with catfish. Sticky rice with fried garlic, sugar, and dried fish. Sticky rice with sesame and salt. And, at the end, Thai coffee (made with condensed milk). I didn't eat the ant egg delicacies (too expensive!), or the grilled frog, but my taste buds and appetite for exploring and eating were sated. 
 
Also great in Chiang Mai:  
  • Really inexpensive foot massage at Anusarn Night Market. 
  • Fun hike among huge Ficus Altissma trees in Doi Suthep-Pui National Park
  • Blessing by a monk at Wat Prathat Doi Suthep. 
  • Shopping for packaged food -- including fried worm snacks, with Oy to help me shift through options, at Warorot Market, and tasting Lao Khao (moonshine rice whisky). 
  • Giving food to the novice monks near Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep.
  • The Jewish neighborhood, inhabited by around 400-500 ex-pats (mostly from the US, Canada, and Israel). A restaurant gathering spot is Sababa
  • Cooking dinner with the Raunkaew-Yanon family, who has lived in their spot for approx. 150 years; they now have 36000 sq meters (almost 9 acres), scattered with homes and gardens. 
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 02/06/19 at 06:00 AM
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Tuesday, February 05, 2019

On to Chiang Rai

Guest Post by Amy Perry Basseches 
After Bangkok, I flew to Chiang Rai, the northernmost large city in Thailand, to begin two days in and around "The Golden Triangle," where the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet at the confluence of the Ruak and Mekong Rivers (formerly one of the most extensive opium-producing areas of the world). We stayed in Chiang Saen, a part of the Chiang Rai Province that literally sits on the Mekong and from which you can see Myanmar and Laos. A "three country" boat trip can be taken here which includes travel by tuk-tuk and longtail boat, stopping at local markets, temples, and ruins. 
 
In Chiang Rai, we visited three temples, Wat Rong Seua Ten (Blue Temple), Wat Rong Kun (White Temple), and Baan Dam (Black Temple). Although sometimes historic temple ruins were present, these are modern creations: the Blue Temple was finished in 2016, the White Temple opened in 1997 and was designed by artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, and the Black Temple is artist Thawan Duchanee's "artful portrayal of hell." Afterward, I loved eating at Chivit Thamma Da Coffee House, Bistro & Bar, a  "Slow Food" restaurant, featuring Hill Tribe organic eggs.
 
All of the above paled in comparison to the highlight of my time in Chiang Rai and Chiang Saen, The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation. The GTAEF was set up to rescue elephants, mahouts (caretakers) and mahout families from illegal logging camps, the street, and abusive shows. Our hotel (to be detailed in a separate blog post) overlooked the elephant sanctuary, home to approximately 40 elephants. Here, the elephants, mahouts, and mahout families are housed, fed, and provided health care, and the mahouts' children educated. 
 
Asian elephants are listed on The International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species, which means they have had at least a 50% decrease in population in the last three generations. They face habitat loss, as well as poaching. The current best estimate for Thailand's remaining wild population is around 2000 to 4000.
 
Many tourists seek an "elephant experience" while in Thailand. Tourism remains the main income source available to keep the majority of Thailand's captive elephants fed, but it is important to work with businesses and the mahout community to promote welfare and sustainability. Especially after being in Thailand, I can say with certainty: ask ActiveTravels for assistance in choosing your elephant experience in Thailand. There are a lot of not-so-great ones offered. 
 
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 02/05/19 at 06:00 AM
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Monday, February 04, 2019

First Stop on My Trip to Southeast Asia: Bangkok

Guest Post and Photo by Amy Perry Basseches  
 
"Southeast Asia has a real grip on me. From the very first time I went there, it was a fulfillment of my childhood fantasies of the way travel should be."
Anthony Bourdain
 
With this quote in mind, and Bourdain's 2001 "A Cook's Tour" in my backpack for inspiration, I set off on my first foray to Southeast Asia. Would I too feel my travel fantasies fulfilled? My son Jake had spent 3 weeks in Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos during the summer of 2016; I was eager to follow in his footsteps. 
 
Bangkok is a bustling city, full of travelers from all over the world. I stayed in a hotel overlooking the Chao Phraya river, and savored my activities while moving in step with millions of others. With my guide Kim, early on Sunday morning, I set off for Wat Pho and Wat Arun, two of the famous temples in Bangkok. Wat Pho is home to the 46 meters-long "Reclining Buddha," and it is one of Thailand's oldest temples (built in the 16th century). While there, I saw a classical Thai dance lesson being taught. On Sunday mornings, Kim said, classes are offered free to local schoolchildren. We then crossed the river to Wat Arun, considered by many as one of the most beautiful temples in Thailand. Climbing up high, and looking back toward the river, was a highlight for me. 
 
The next day, our entire group visited the Grand Palace, an over 50-acre complex of buildings, the official residence of the Kings of Siam since 1782. Signs are everywhere, stating: "Buddha is not for decoration. Respect is common sense." This is especially noticeable outside the famous Temple of the Emerald Buddha, where people throng, a few of them tattooed with, you guessed it, images of Buddha. Sigh. 
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 02/04/19 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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