Monday, December 5, 2016

Taipei

Well! This was perhaps the biggest surprise of our trip. We had such a negative response to China, and no real sense of Taiwan (we'd only changed planes there once before), so when the airline changed our flights home in such a way that it made the most sense for us to spend a night in Taipei, I don't think either of us had great expectations. Maybe we just had a neutral feeling, I can't remember any more, but boy were we surprised.

We arrived so late, which was disappointing because the only thing we were really looking forward to was the night market -- and that was our only available night, since our flight left at 7:30pm the following day. Marc found us a hotel immediately next to the night market, but it was nearly midnight by the time we checked in so we figured we'd missed our shot. I was really tired and got in bed, but Marc dashed out just to see what he could see, and it was still going on, so vibrantly! He got a container of fried tofu and brought it back to the room (super good) and then dashed out again to keep exploring as long as he could. By the time he came back, it was ~1am and all the food stalls were closing down. He was so happy he got to see it.



The next morning, Marc had scouted a couple of possibilities for breakfast, and we ended up here because there were so few places open as early as we wanted to eat:

The food turned out to be just OK, at best; we had a noodle/mushroom dish with a gloppy brown sauce and
topped with an over-fried egg (totally forgettable) and some kind of scallion pancake (-ish) that
had a fried egg on one side and a spicy dipping sauce that was doable. Still, considering that there
was no shared language for communicating, pretty good!

happy to be in Taipei -- but boy I look tired!
this felt a little bossy :)

Our hotel couldn't have been better, even though it was kind of a dormitory for kids. We had our own room, with a bathroom, and the room was kind of spare, but it was located in the best area for us, and the people at the desk were very helpful. AND! The room came with a yoyo.

a first for us :)
So after our breakfast, we rambled around. We accidentally found the most interesting street (Dihua Street), and then we rambled over to the river, and back through nearby neighborhoods.

this was the fanciest shrine we saw in this part of town, and in active use

the interior was gorgeous -- I couldn't get a great shot of the deep inside, but wow.

and that was a kind of crematorium for papers, also in active use

this was right across the street, less actively used but very beautiful

just down the street: Johnson Lace Mall, for ALL your lace needs. Truly. I've never seen so much mass-produced lace.

these lanterns weren't all that common, but when I spotted them I always liked them.
Then we spotted this woman selling a kind of fried dough that we had in Nong Khiaw;
they are ball-shaped, but filled with air, so it's more like a hollow donut hole
if you can imagine that. These were great -- some were extra crispy, and some were soft.

We found our way to the river -- and in so many ways, Taipei had made me think of New York. When we came in from the airport, we drove over a bridge and saw the city curved along the river, and I thought of seeing Manhattan curving along the Hudson, from the George Washington Bridge. The river isn't like the Hudson (and the bridge wasn't at all like the GWB), but I couldn't shake the NYC feeling.

In the park alongside the river, there was a karaoke tent under a giant tree (and it was in use -- once by a woman
who was singing to no audience at all), and a large shrine of some kind. This was one side of it, and I don't know
what those little plaques were -- some kind of prayer wall or something? No idea.
As we kept walking, we came to a part of town that was so much like the Times Square of Taipei (much less annoying, though).

it even had a TGI Friday's, just like Times Square. Oy.

Lots of stores and concessions, and crowds of people, and a huge movie theater,
and people walking dogs.....
This dog was wearing JEANS and a SWEATER. Shoes too, maybe, but I couldn't get a good enough look.
The skies were starting to gather into dark clouds, so the humidity was building up and I was kind of hot and muggy, so I sat on a bench and Marc did his thing, seeking out something for us to drink.

I'm always so glad he is brave in this way that I'm not.

He brought back these two tapioca bubble tea drinks: one orange with a variety of
other citrus chunks, and the other orange with guava and other fruits. They were good!
We were running out of time -- we needed to leave the area by 4:30 at the latest and I wanted to leave earlier than that, so we wandered around a bit more and saw these random things:

Cat on leash in front of birds in cage. The birds didn't seem too freaked out, but then again the cat
didn't seem to be paying any attention.

this alley was filled with graffiti -- as if the city had set it aside for that purpose

I saw this a few times -- a pretty grim fantasy world, if you ask me!

this is an older police station, and you can see it's the kind of architecture that must've
seemed like a cool idea at the time.......

random!

standard apartments in Taipei City
We were really sorry to have to leave so soon! When we were heading to the airport, we took a cab to the bus, and the cab driver ("Steve") asked us how we liked Taipei and I think he was surprised by the enthusiasm of our response, given his facial expression. But we really did like it, and we wouldn't mind going back for a couple of days if we fly through Taipei again. 

We were there when the president-elect spoke on the phone with the president of Taiwan, a breech of protocol that made China furious and raised the hackles of people in the US -- but we have no idea how the Taiwanese people might have felt about it. We encountered few people who spoke much English, at all (aside from the guy at the hotel desk), but they were generally so kind and friendly, and warm, and we didn't have the same kind of feeling we had in China, at all. We really liked Taipei a lot.

Trat

Trat is the capital of the same-named province, and at least nominally the location of the ferry and airport . . . although both are about 45 minutes outside of town. To get to Mairood Resort, we have to fly from Bangkok to Trat and then drive (although we could also just hire a car to drive us from Bangkok and spend approximately the same money and time). So we drove through Trat last year on our way to/from Mairood, which means we only glancingly saw it -- and we would've had the same experience this year, but this year we had one night in Trat. Boy, are we glad.

Trat was much better than we dreamed! It was a lovely little town, very accessible, and with a great market. We stayed at a perfectly fine little place near the market (although it had no tea kettle, a first in SEAsia, and the attached "coffee shop" was usually unmanned, even in the morning when one would really like a cup of coffee please, in a place that doesn't seem to have other places where a girl can get up a cup of coffee).

We took a songthaew -- a kind of shared truck tuk-tuk that holds 6-8 people, open-sided -- from the ferry to our hotel, and after hot showers that were necessary from being splashed incessantly on the chilly, wild speedboat ride from Koh Mak, we headed out for some lunch. There was a "seafood noodle" place a block or so away, so that's where we went:

the kitchen area

the interior

see the large menu on the wall? know what it says? neither did we!

The woman who took our order simplified the menu for us: "I have seafood soup
and pork soup." We ordered the seafood soup, and it sure enough was full of seafood.
And check out the table cloth -- it was all Disney.

the soup, which was good, and the restaurant exterior, which was so charming
After lunch we walked around for a while, walked through the day and night market areas to get a feel for them, and we probably took a little nap until it was time to head out for dinner. We had decided ahead of time that we wanted to eat at the night market, since we really enjoy that, and since it's kind of crushed with people and stalls, we also decided that I'd find us a table, and Marc would make the rounds and bring us food. That's the greatest thing: I'm happy to wait and watch people, as long as I feel safe (which I did), and I get the happy anticipation and curiosity about what Marc will bring, and he gets the chance to wander and look at options and circle back and take his time without worrying about me. We both win!

the scene -- well, one very tiny corner of it (the least-populated corner, actually, which is where I was sitting).

I just love seeing him out doing his thing -- this is one of his happy places,
roaming around a market in SEAsia.

Five summer rolls for $0.57. Even though I held a tiny bit of worry about eating the lettuce (we were fine!), they
were so so delicious. We also got fried chicken over rice, and some very spicy skewers of pork, two kinds, and
some grilled, dried fish that I wasn't too fond of. Still, it was all freshly made, and so so cheap and good.
the night market -- well, rather my tiny corner of it

They excel at frying chicken, leaving us scratching our heads over the presence of a KFC. 

Marc found these donuts, shaped like a bear claw but really just super yummy fried dough with a nice coating
of a sugar glaze -- so good I didn't think to take a picture until I'd eaten more than half of this one.

So we decided to buy more donuts, but they weren't nearly as good
as that other one. And the chocolate glazed donut was awful
compared to the one we got at the night market on Gili T, off Bali
a few years ago. That remains my Platonic Ideal of
night market chocolate donut. :)
We had the next morning to poke around Trat before a taxi picked us up at 11:30 for our flight to Bangkok-->Taipei, so we returned to the market for some breakfast and a bit of shopping. I love this part:

Marc buying a couple of curry pastes and doing his best through the language divide.
This is one of my favorite things to watch.

Picking through the various options, so focused and intent.

I always love seeing him walk toward me after he buys something -- he's always so excited.

I wasn't feeling all that well -- the weather was very low, and leaning on my sinuses,
so I sat on a curb while he searched for our breakfast. Mysteriously, there were no donut
options! So he brought us bags of fresh pineapple and watermelon, which he
successfully got the seller to slice for us. The pineapple came with a little bag of
a sugar/salt/chili mixture to sprinkle on the pineapple, which I liked.

This was my view -- I finally realized that it was Saturday, so maybe the market was extra busy because
of that.....no idea. But it was nice watching everyone come and go, while Marc did his thing.

The older kids were pulling this little girl through the market in this blue tub, and
they were all having a blast. 
We really enjoyed Trat, a lot! I found it very accessible, and Marc really loved the markets, and the neighborhoods, and we might easily have missed it. Not sure we'll ever go there on purpose, again, but if we find ourselves in that part of Thailand, who knows. It was a really charming place, easy to see how people live and work there.

The rest of our travel day was long, and we didn't get to our hotel in Taipei until right around midnight, but that's a story for the next post.


Friday, December 2, 2016

Koh Mak

Getting There

Through a number of easily made miscommunications, our ferry trip from Mairood to Koh Mak was a comedy of errors and we weren't always 100% sure we were going to make it. Chin had asked us what time our reservation was for, and since he and Judy and others were going to Trat anyway, they kindly gave us a ride at no cost. The first miscommunication was him not being specific asking, and us not being specific telling (because we didn't really understand this) which ferry line (and consequently which of two piers) we needed -- and so, in the way things work, we went to the wrong pier. No one there spoke English and we speak no Thai, but somehow we realized we were at the wrong pier, approximately 20 minutes before the ferry was to leave -- and the other ferry was 40 minutes away. Our hotel on Koh Mak had already purchased our ferry tickets, but all there was to do was to buy new ones and take our chances. Someone at the ticket desk understood our situation well enough and called the hotel to tell them to pick us up at the correct pier on the other side.

So we boarded the big catamaran-style ferry (no life jackets visible anywhere despite a sign that said we were required to wear them) and headed off, hoping for the best. It was a 2-hour trip, since we stopped first at Koh Kood and then on to Koh Mak. Sure enough, a man from the hotel was waiting for us, with truly the most beautiful smile we've seen on our trip, and off we went.

en route in the back of a songthaew

The Hotel

Seavana Resort was really lovely, and our room was gorgeous -- but with a terrible absence of electrical outlets.

our jewel box of a room

we had the top floor

sitting on our patio - behind those chairs on a slightly elevated platform was a jacuzzi we never used,
and never planned to, anyway
The grounds were really beautiful too; a small creek wound through the property, and there were orchids and lilies and mango trees, and some kind of flower that smelled so sweet it nearly knocked us over when we passed.

the butterflies were fabulous -- often the size of small birds! This one wasn't that large, but it was beautiful.

hammocks and day beds (and swings) were scattered throughout the property

sunset reflected in the little creek




wrong island, dudes!
The first afternoon we were there was really the only lovely day for doing things, but of course we didn't know that. We did know it was going to be windy the second and third days, but we underestimated how much an impact that would have. So while we should've gotten in the ocean the first afternoon, and maybe even used a kayak to head out to a small nearby island, instead we ate lunch and then swam in the pool, walked around the grounds, admired the beautiful sunset, and had a too-huge dinner. SERIOUSLY. We ordered easily 2.5 times the food we should've ordered.

crab tracks made me so happy.

these giant red leaves were everywhere

so happy to be in such a beautiful place. I'd forgotten to remove my yellow ferry sticker. :)

Marc specializes in art shots and panoramas. I love it when he's taking pictures..

here's one of his beautiful panoramas

the sky was really soft and beautiful

And here is a shot he took because he knew I would love it -- and he was so right. Leaves at the edge of the pool.

and speaking of the pool -- there it is!

The place doesn't look real, does it? It was really so very lovely. That island out there is the one we
could've kayaked to. Too bad.

gorgeous sunset!

Just your basic paradise, really.
Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day, usually, and I especially love breakfast when we are on vacation. I still remember the enormous breakfast buffet we had in Hoi An, back in 2005; the fresh fruit was so luscious and it was the first time I'd ever eaten dragonfruit (or seen it, for that matter). The breakfast buffet here wasn't nearly as large, but it was so good.

In addition to the buffet items -- fresh fruit, homemade yogurt, homemade breads and jams, homemade croissants --
they also had a short menu of more substantive dishes. Although Marc tried a couple of different things, every
morning I just got the banana pancakes. The strawberry sauce that came with them was slightly salty, and
the way it complemented the very sweet, slightly caramelized bananas in the pancakes was fabulous. Every morning
I made a couple of cups of coffee, and while I drank them I was daydreaming about getting down to breakfast
and ordering these pancakes. YUM.

The watermelon and pineapple were SO SWEET, and the
yogurt was homemade, silky texture and lightly sweet with
vanilla, and my eyes practically rolled back in my head.
Every. Morning.

I took this picture after the winds came in, so they started having to roll down the shades to keep the
wind from flying through the restaurant. It was very nice the first day and night, having the space open to the air.
The second morning, even with these pulled down, the wind was so strong it blew the yogurt off my spoon.

walking to breakfast -- that's the restaurant on the right.
We ate too much. Breakfast, always, lunch always (a curry or for me a green papaya salad), and then a big dinner. The first night I ordered a green papaya salad (no prawns) and a red tofu curry -- with rice. Marc ordered two dishes, one with fish and one with shrimp, and rice. My god. We could've split my green papaya salad, ordered one of the mains, and each had a little rice and been so full. The food was just very, very good. By the last night, we were so overly full we just had club sandwiches and called it a night. And since I had a Thai beer with lunch every day (and at Mairood I'd had a big bottle of Singha with dinner each night), whoo boy have I put on vacation weight. But that's what home is for; I'll get this weight off then . . . for now I'm just enjoying the pleasure of all this good food.

On the second day, we decided to take a bike ride to the other side of the island. We figured it wouldn't be as windy as it was on our side (we were right), and we also figured the breeze would help moderate some of the heat. Although we thought the island was supposed to be flat, we'd obviously noticed that the bikes were of the mountain bike sort, and we scratched our heads over that. Hmph, why would we need to change gears? Why those larger tires? Why no basket for water and our phones? Hmph.

At the Koh Mak Temple, these Buddhas watch over the harber

The monks' bathtub -- that snake with the little silver hat would make me nervous.

The Buddha you first see when you enter the temple grounds

Five Buddhas sitting around this tree.

MY GOD I was hot. I did stop and drink water, and I had my hair up and a hat shielding my
eyes, but man. At one point I just wished someone would jump out of a bush and murder
me so I wouldn't have to keep going. Marc and I both got a bit of sun poisoning,
even though we took breaks and drank water. The rest of the day we felt odd and weird
and out of it, and we ended up taking aspirin. We didn't really feel better until the next day.

But he is mighty cute riding his bike.
We passed so many rubber trees -- always planted in orderly, straight rows, each one
outfitted with a small black bowl placed underneath a diagonal slash in the bark.
On our third day, the wind was whipping around so hard we just piddled around a lot, disappointed not to have had a chance to swim in the ocean or snorkel (although the seas around these islands have a kind of jellyfish that either kills you or is extremely painful, depending on which news articles you read -- though there have been deaths, so that's no joke. The hotel fenced off a large section of the sea to make it a bit safer, but the wind was whipping the ocean over the fencing so much we wouldn't have wanted to try anyway -- plus it was chilly, with those winds). We ate, tried to swim in the pool and lie in the sun, napped, walked on the beach a few times, and read. Not bad, but the whole vacation has been quite low-key, so it was another in a long line of very low-key days and we were getting ready to move on.

so windy! But the clouds weren't blowing around at all -- it was all just whipping in across the ocean

But the sunset was still gorgeous -- not the pale pinks and oranges of our first night, though



We travel together very well


DANG it was windy.
Leaving Koh Mak

We'd planned to take the 1:30 boat back to the mainland, but due to the wind the later boats were all canceled, so we had to take the 11:30 boat instead. HOLY COW. That was like riding a bucking bronco, no lie. I was grateful Marc had dramamine in his backpack, because I'd have been puking. While we were waiting to get on the speedboat (not a big catamaran ferry like the last one), we started talking to a couple from Germany who were just leaving after 5 weeks -- they had also been at the Mandala Ou in Nong Khiaw! They talked to us at length about Sulawesi, in Indonesia, the island we'd planned to visit on that vacation but heavy rains caused us to change our plans and go to Bali instead. I don't know; the pig and rooster slaughters sounded pretty horrible, and the death ceremonies, and while I'd really love to have gone there, I'm not sure I could manage the actual being there. But MAYBE! They were quite adorable, those two, and when we boarded, they sat at the very back of the boat, the last row. And then as the ride got underway, and the waves started splashing us, and as the boat would go way up in the air and then slam down hard on a wave, we could hear them both laughing so loud, having a blast with it. Since I wasn't seasick I could have fun too, and while I was very cold from having sea water splashing me throughout the trip, and my glasses were so wet it was hard to see, it was still lots of fun. Of course it was great when we got to the mainland, too, I won't lie.

This is the speedboat

REALLY GLAD TO HAVE LIFE VESTS

Dripping wet, but so happy
video


So we have a night here in Trat, and tomorrow we fly from Trat to Bangkok to Taipei, where we'll spend the night and have much of the next day to sightsee before we board the flight home to NYC. Not sure I'll get a post in before we get back to NYC. Koh Mak was gorgeous, the people we met were all so kind and beautiful, and we had a great time. The staff were especially sweet to the small children at the resort; they would carry a baby around while the parents ate, or play with a child and put her pacifier into her mouth, or just chat with them so sweetly. We'll remember it with a smile, for sure.