Wednesday, 30 April 2008

From Bangkok's Blandness to Hanoi Heaven

I'm doing my best to see a bit of the world I have always wanted to travel to, and today it feels like I hit the big league.  If I'm honest, Bangkok was a bit of a damp squid, a very large damp squid.  The city is far from the glamorous vision of the East I had.  True, it served as a great introduction and a good place to acclimatize to the urban intensity in this part of the world. But, it's usefulness ended there.  Some beautiful temples were on offer and they proved a great calming relief to the cities heat, and it's noise.  And yes, there will be many a voice that disagrees with me, but Bangkok  is just not fun.  The depravity of the sex scene was on the one hand quite amazing, but at the same time, incredibly creepy. You'll find the Nana 'Entertainment' plaza at the heart of Bangkok's largest tourist area.  See it, but perhaps only in daylight. You can have fun in Bangkok, but limit yourself to 2-3 days, anything more is better spent in other parts of Thailand.

So, now I find myself in Hanoi's Old Quarter on the shore of Hoan Kiem Lake. The Lake of the Returned Sword, and its rarely seen population of giant tortoise, enigmatic as they are.  I do not know how to say this any more forcefully, COME HERE AND COME HERE NOW.  It has been mere hours, but I am already in love. 


The chaos and noise combines perfectly with the old colonial architecture and the cities symbols of socialism.  The first and perhaps scariest test of any Westerner in this city is the dreaded need to cross the road.  You can wait for the traffic to stop, but believe me, your  visa will have expired by then and immigration officials will be looking for you.  Step into the road, put one foot in front of the other and go.  Hesitate at your peril though.  Move confidently and the hordes of motorcycles and cars will move  around you like a  water coursing down a river.  Get over that ordeal and your task is simple, enjoy yourself.

It helps that I arrived on a night when stages appeared around the lake.  No dilly dallying here, the stage I'm watching form a terrace bar only went up about 4 hours ago.  The general impact on traffic seems irrelevant as acts from military choirs to aerobatic performers delight the gathered ranks of mopeds and their seemingly unwitting passengers.  It only serves however, to reinforce the fact that after years in the hinterland, Vietnam is waking up and the deep pockets of the west should take notice.  In my very short time here I have come to one conclusion, this place is a jewel if ever there was one.


Monday, 28 April 2008

No Pictures of Elephants I'm Afraid...

A quiet day in Bangkok's suburbs


The 'Sleeping Buddha'


I bet he hates this...


Down river side







Sunday, 27 April 2008

"Must get money" in Bangkok

Imagine you're walking along the side of small lane.  Mopeds and cars are flying past you, there are more street stalls than you can imagine, and your senses are working overtime.  You're looking around, at everything and nothing - the cacophony from the road, the glare of headlights, the Deep smells from street food vendors and the myriad of faces are a delight to the senses.

And the next thing you know you nearly walk into an elephant. Yes, an elephant.  A real live, swaying, grey chunky elephant. RIght there, in the middle of the sidewalk.  No, it's not minding it's on business, but working. And it will walk the streets, night after night after night.

Bangkok is a city of contrasts.  Throw into the mix young Thai urbanites, the 5 star hotels and condos, the vendors, the hoards of tourists, the working girls, the lady boys, and one smallish elephant.  But then add an ample measure of poverty. There are beggars on the street who have maimed themselves (i.e. limb amputation being extreme but nonetheless a fair example)  to appear as being in greater need of your coinage, and the mothers who bring their children to the street to beg, some still infants.

That elephant represents the hoards of rural Thais who leave the country side and come to the city in the hopes they can break out of the poverty that has followed them since birth.  The elephant is a revered creature in this country. But to the mahout (handler) who brings his animal into the city to walk the streets of Sukhumvit each night, that elephant is a source of income.  He sells smalls bags of food to the tourists so they can feed the animal.

Animals being used in this way is truly shameful.  But the greater sin is poverty, were it not for it, the elephant would be in the country where it belongs. 

Come here and spend your money, and spend a lot of it.  But spend it with a conscience.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Ever feel like a cat in a washing machine?

So, can you say, mind blown??  Yes, I think you can.  I found myself in Sunny Bangkok (though today is like a rainy day in Cumbernauld - if you add on 30 degrees that is) battling a major case of jet lag and a sense of culture shock that feels a little bit like raw oysters sliding down your throat.  You want to do it but feel slightly sick as a result.

In a city where almost anything goes, I can't help feel like I've been parachuted into a mad social experiment and have no idea what will happen next. But, this is not a bad thing.  Its been said that if its your first time to SE Asia, then this is the place to start. It's a fusion of western and Asian culture, instantly recognizable but most certainly not what you expected.  The initiation is definitely worth it.

In 24 hours, the jet lag has abated but only slightly, and the attack on my senses is only just beginning. 

Spot on.

The Portland Adventure. And the Invisible Mountain too.

Portland has a secret.  Everyone has heard the rumour, but many don't believe it to be true.  Apparently, there is a large Mountain overlooking the city.  My immediate reaction was 'no, you must be kidding.  That's preposterous.'  But, if you ask the locals, they will all swear by the fact that Mt. Hood, does in fact, exist.   The only problem is, I never saw it and consequently, I can't be sure.  But, that said, I did visit Mt. Hood's  Timberline Lodge, famous for being the setting (but only the outside I grant you) of 'The Shining. The snow was so heavy, the lodge seemed but an afterthought, in keeping with the film itself. Who said Spring had arrived?


Mt Hood has been described to me as being not dissimilar to Mt. Fuji in Japan.  It's conical and snow capped reach overlooks (apparently) a city awash with micro brewery's and restaurants of every conceivable origin. You will find a world of gastronomic pleasures in this city, and don't be surprised if you find yourself sitting in a period home that has been gloriously maintained and now serves as a small enclave  where the stomach is king..  This is particularly evident in and around Portland State University, with its tree lined avenues and coffee houses, the area is a haven for students and intellectuals, so I couldn't help wondering, 'What am I doing here?'


A short stroll away you'll find the Portland Art museum. along with its permanent exhibits on both the inside and outside of the building.  Go now if your passion is Impressionism and you'll be able to enjoy the works of Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec amongst others.


Enjoy a latte, stroll down towards Pioneer Square and pop into one of the many shops that envelop it.  I dare you not to walk into Macy's.  A walk down to Portland's China Town might not feel particularly Chinese but you'll find ample distraction in the 4 floor Goliath that is Powells Books.   It is without doubt, the largest bookshop I have ever been in (and America's biggest).  If you like to read, Valhalla awaits you in the state of Oregon.


You can fly to Portland, like most cities.  But you shouldn't. And don't take the train either.  Drive. Yeah, you'll probably be in the car for a while, but you'll never be bored.  And unlike airplanes, you can stop, get out and enjoy what has to one the most beautiful corners of the US.


Boring Oregon is not, despite what the sign says...



Friday, 18 April 2008

Its a compliment when...

It was nice of Simon / Molly and at TravelBuzz to take an interest, though I may have caused some controversy by describing New York as 'Past it' - Perhaps I was a bit unfair to NYC, after all, I said it myself, I avoided the things I like the most about it, the 5th Avenue glitz. So, I'll eat my words somewhat, but the East Village is no longer for me.

Go to NYC and indulge in the things you love, for it has something to satisfy any taste. Just think twice about what you tell your Mum!

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Polygamists not only drink beer, they have a sense of humour too...


What can happen in 24 hours?

The Mariners hammer Kansas City


Heading through the mountains after leaving Seattle


Waking up in Leavenworth (yes, the sign is in German)

P4160154 P4160162


On the road to Oregon


Feeding squirrels in the Columbia River valley

P4160268 P4160271

The Multnomah Waterfalls


What the 'Sam Hill' is going on here?


Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Please Seperate Plastics from Paper

Um, can anyone say laid back? My impression of Seattle is that it marches to it's own beat, it's decidely lovely and there seems to be little of the usual passive aggressive undertones you find in many cities.

Perhaps temper that with the fact that this is literally 'the end of the line'. Long distance freight trains that come here end here. If you happen to be a railroad hobo, there isn't much farther for you to go unless you don't mind getting wet. There are a lot of homeless people in Seattle, and the liberal minded north west is kinder than other parts of the US. It's a unique problem as many arrived homeless. And with that way of life, the city has more than it's fair share of vagrants. It's disturbing how easy they blend into the city, how easy it is for them to become invisible.

All that said, its a refreshing place. The Puget Sound figures hugely in the cities geography. Its a nice reminder that we haven't destroyed all of nature just yet. It's a city dedicated to reusing, recycling, free-cycling and composting. This might explain why most of the people I've seen, at least downtown, appear to be tourists. The locals are all at home seperating plastics from glass and tending to water filtration systems.

I've taken a walk up to the diverse Capitol Hill, Seattle's equivalent of New York's Village. With a big dose of artsy-ness, there are lots of cafe's, bars, clubs and book stores, a smattering of tattoo parlours and a heady mixture of liberalism. Don't tell anyone from Alabama though, they'll 'send up the boys' and sort this place out in no time.

The city home of the long running comedy 'Frasier', Seattle also boasts the Elliot Bay Bookstore. It is not only an incredible warren of wooden bookshelves, but it's cafe was the model for the one appearing in the tv show itself. It's also exactly what a bookstore should be. Afterhours (read 'lock-in') poetry readings wouldn't be out of place here. Once they release you, check out all that nearby Pioneer Square has to offer.

Amuse yourself along the harbour front, dip into the buzz of Pike Place Market and walk a short distance down 1st Avenue and your in the Seattle Art Museum.

You'll find flavours to suit every taste bud so there is little chance of losing weight if your an expanding gastronome such as myself. You can try and work it off by taking advantage of this citys walking and biking trails and if your destination is across the city, unusually, you can take your bike on the bus.

If your at all human, its hard not to like Seattle.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Seattle's Pike Place Market - Where Fish Can Fly


The craziest fishmongers I have ever seen. Definitely worth a visit as they are the spirit of this bustling (and large) downtown market place.

Where it all began....

The world's first Starbucks. Opened in 1971 in Seattle's Pike Place Market.  If you have ever wondered why the logo is a mermaid, this coffee shop sits along side the wares of the local fisherman.


Though though have decided to save the mermaids blushes and cover her up these days....





The original








The modern day logo





The Seattle Water Garden

Nestled within the centre of Seattle, this small public space was a real surprise...

Saturday, 12 April 2008

I'm Not the Most Important Visitor in Town

Apparently, the Dalai Lama is also here. And wacks of security accompany him....

Escape from Minneapolis: Just in Time

I spent 3 very chilled days in one half of the Twin Cities. I ventured out only to wonder through the University of Minneapolis campus, conveniently located right next to my hotel. Oh, and it won't be news to any of you that I also went to the mall. Though, not just any mall. Mall of America, the biggest and brightest of them all.

It was a rest break more than anything else, and a welcome change from pounding the pavement in Chicago and NYC. Though excitement of the wrong order came after I'd left the hotel, which thankfully undercharged me for my late check out to the tune of about $50. Thanks so much. The hotel shuttle took me to the station during a flash snow storm that looked set to well and truly dump on the city. There were a few cars strewn along the roadside. The shuttle, crawling at about 10 miles and hour narrowly avoided a 360 spin into oncoming traffic. I wonder if the $2 tip I paid the driver reflected my value?

The journey through the night was like a scene from 'March of the Penguins'. And before you ask, think about it..

The world according to Amtrak.

Do not expect speed. Passenger rail plays second fiddle to freight. Pound for pound, we just aren't worth as much, even after you account for the generous poundage of the average American. The US railways, long the great arteries of this nation continue to ferry all manner of goods across it's vastness. No ramshackle group of weary travellers will get in the way.

Car or coach travel might well be quicker and cheaper. But what Amtrak loses in expedience, it more than makes up for in comfort. The trains are spacious beyond expectation with both café and dining cars. But this is still America. Leave your diet at home and bring your cholesterol busting margarine with you. I know that I have easily gained a few pounds, though Amtrak can't be entirely held to account. The nation is awash with heart attack inducing delights, though the alternatives are not only few, but in many places don't exist if your living out your suitcase and eating out a lot.

So. You have a comfy seat on your train, your fellow passengers are decidedly friendlier than the battle weary folk that brave Britain's railways and you have a journey of anywhere between 8 and 40 hours ahead of you. Good on. Now you just have to worry about amusing yourself. Sometimes, other passengers take care of that for you though.

Amtrak Train Attendant: “Haven't I seen you somewhere before? Were you on this route a couple of weeks ago?”

Passenger (Who is black incidentally): “No I wasn't, but I guess we all look the same.”

Did he just...?

Or, take the train conductor who quite literally appeared as if he had been on the railways since the ground was first broken and the tracks laid in the new west, “The next stop is a designated smoking stop. So, if you would like to disembark from this Empire Builder Service and partake in a fine tobacco product of your choosing, please do so with great enjoyment.”

Are you kidding me? Can you imagine British Rail offering first, a smoking stop, and second, imbuing its passengers to enjoy the finest smoking products available? It's more likely that the train would be late, stop at the station, and promptly break down. And to top it all off, you'll get a £50 fine for smoking within spitting distance of a British Rail sign, which has probably partly fallen down.

It is an interesting and very pleasant (Cathartic? Maybe) experience on Amtrak but it comes into its own if you stay in accommodation, effectively first class. As I write this, I'm waiting for my train to leave Minneapolis, bound for Seattle and my 'bedroom' also has a shower in it. Nice. Tomorrow there is a wine tasting session between lunch and dinner. Double nice.

I did have to wonder however, how it came to be that I was giving financial advice to a steward on board my journey from New York to Chicago. Your asking me? About buying a house and how much you should commit to? Me? Have you seen the news? Don't mistake the fact that I work for a bank as a signal I know anything about banking! God bless her, she was a dear and made me feel very welcome. Your carriage attendant can make a real difference if they are clued up enough, and be warned as not all are.

So, Seattle here we come. A smidgeon under 1,800 miles. The mountain views will go quite nicely with the wine.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

The windy city wasn't so windy, and the village wasn't so kitsch


You'd think u had spent a week in Texas but no, apparently they all say it.
Chicagoans are a little less in your face than new yorkers. This is not a bad thing.

Generally very friendly and as a city, Chicago is fabulous. Its got to have one of the best skylines I have seen in the US, and provides ample opportunity to find places used as locations in Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

My latest find was the parking garage where the slimey dude nicks Cameron's dad's car. The attendant on duty was equally greasy.

Always hoping George Clooney would come round the corner in his white doctors coat, I must have walked the length and breadth of the city. The same can be said for new york and if you ever decide to walk 300 city blocks in 2 days, I can advise a really good ointment.

The top-notch Chicago weather was totally unexpected. Millenium Park was awash with cyclists, runners (fast walkers, this is America people!) and dudes on roller blades. I seemed to have arrived in the middle of nature's late winter hiatus, and I wasn't complaining.

If you have not been, go. Get your photo taken on those steps made famous in 'The Untouchables', eat ribs, go to one of the many museums and shop on the Mile or jump aboard the 'eL' train and zip around the city above street level. Whatever you do, don't argue with Chicagoans about their sports teams. They are almost as pathological as new yorkers.

After all, 'your English, and you play soccer'. I'm what?? I didn't catch his name but its true, some Americans do understand the lowest form of wit afterall.

New York and I are finished I think. Either that, or I only liked it for the shopping and 5th avenue glitz. The east village might be able to claim to have had some salubrious residents like Allan Ginsberg, but well, I think its a bit past its day. Yeah, there are some gems, and some great music, but it was missing something. Maybe it was Ginsberg.

So, now I'm in Minneapolis, eating mozzerella sticks and drinking a beer. And the best part about the whole thing, I'm still getting ID'd!!

Who says I don't have any class?

The next couple of days are going to be a bit of time out I think. I have to learn a bit of Vietnamese. Otherwise, I run the risk of asking someone for directions, but actually saying 'your chickens are sexy, and are they for rent?' I can't see the locals taking kindly to that.

I hope all is well at your end, and that its at least a bit warmer than it is here. Seriously. Its cold. Minnesota isn't full of Norwegians for nothing.