Four Days in Singapore

With a four-day stop over in Singapore,  I am happy to report that just about everything that’s been said about this unique city/city-state is true.

I arrived at Changi Airport just as the sun was setting so was able to see what was in store as the shuttle bus drove at a decent speed into the centre of the city where I am staying. The Bougainvillea lined freeway failed to turn up even one scrap of garbage…anywhere. I was looking both sides and saw nothing. What a contrast to Cambodia or any of the SE Asian countries.

I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps this is why some have said they found Singapore boring. Was it boring because it looks like a city should with clean streets and orderly traffic? Are we to the point that it takes dirt and poverty to stimulate our senses?

To tell the truth, these very qualities espoused by Singapore have put me into seventh heaven. For me it’s a pleasure to be walking around a city that seems to work. Traffic is heavy as it is in all big cities, but it moves at a good pace. There isn’t a lot of honking and excessive noise with big trucks and buses spewing out toxic fumes. Motorists stop for pedestrians before you even put a foot into the street, and they wait until you are all the way across. Pedestrians are equally as courteous. They don’t jay walk, and they wait patiently at the traffic lights until the walk signal comes up. At times this seems like an eternity to me. The Singaporeans don’t mind waiting; they can check their phones instead. Everyone has a phone to play with here. When I thought Bangkok took the prize for this phenomenon I have learned that it must be Singapore. While on the MRT (the subway), all twenty or so people in my car  except me and one other person was concentrated on their phones.

Street scene with old and new.

Since my solo travel began five years ago, I have found that the best way for me to explore a large city at first is by walking and getting to know the area where I am staying. I keep the regular tourist sites or ‘must sees’ for later…if ever. I am happy to get three out of ten of the best recommended sites. Trying to take in everything that everyone else goes to see would stress me out. I’ll take sore feet at the end of a day over that kind of stress.

My first day in a brand new city, especially one that has been recently named the most expensive place to live in the world, can offer mixed emotions for me. Yes, it’s definitely thrilling  for me to explore new territory but underneath there is always a little anxiety. My main stressors are getting oriented so I at least head out in the general direction I want to go and figuring out the general lay of the land. That way I can finally decide where I want to walk.

The advantage I had in carrying out this plan in Singapore is that all Singaporeans speak English. This is their first language but then you have all the various other languages, such as Mandarin, Malay, and Hindi with their different accents and rendition of English which doesn’t always make their English understandable to a person like me whose auditory strength borders on the weak side. With the help from the friendly staff at the Champion Hotel City where I have been staying, I quickly opted to start my exploration close to my area which just happens to be at the border of Chinatown and within walking distance to downtown and the Singapore River.

Entrance to Chinatown.

I found out that the river is the cleanest it’s ever been. At one time before Singapore gained its independence from Malaysia in 1965 it was filthy. I doubt many places can boast of this today, at least not any in Asia.

The Singapore River

Fortunately, I had an ideal location and if I wanted to go further afield all I had to do was figure out the complicated (to me anyway) subway system and go from there. I decided to make it really simple that first day by walking straight up Victoria Rd. to the area known as Bugis noted for its diversity, history and shopping.

Entering the Bugis area.

I expect most of you have heard of the Raffles Hotel with its famous bar serving the equally famous singapore sling. How about the man who started all this…Sir Stamford Raffles? My trek to Bugis helped me sort out some historical facts regarding this man who is considered to be the founder of what is modern-day Singapore. It has a humble beginning as a fishing village inhabited by poor Malays (people from Malaysia) at the time when Raffles’ made his appearance under British rule. This was in the early 1800’s which isn’t so old by our standards considering what Singapore is today. At that time, the area was controlled by the Dutch and those living there, numbering about a 1,000 were chafing at the bit under their rule. Sensing this, Raffles quickly proposed a more lucrative trade for them under Britain. With the right kind of diplomacy and salesmanship, a partnership was born and there has been no looking back ever since. Today his legacy can be seen on buildings and streets everywhere.

A little history of Bugis and Sir Stamford Raffles.

Before reaching Bugis I came upon a stately white portal or gate and wall encircling an attractive older building and grounds which looked at first glance like a five-star hotel sporting a couple of high-class restaurants and a courtyard. Seeing a parade of women dressed in beautiful long dresses spoke of some kind of ceremony to be held…a wedding perhaps? However upon closer scrutiny, I realised I was wandering around a significant historical site which also housed a gorgeous Gothic style church painted in white. Except for its colour it looked much like the Notre Dame in Paris. The site I had stumbled upon is called Chijmes, dating back to the 1880’s when it was built as an orphanage by the nuns for abandoned females. As far as I can fathom, it simply isn’t on the tourist radar. None of the brochures and maps mentioned it. Such a pity because the site is beautiful and a perfect symbol of Singapore’s past. The ladies were singers taking part in a Singing Festival. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find out when the actual performance was to be held. What I saw was a dress rehearsal.

The Chijmes Cathedral

A choir in their lovely purple dresses.

My travels that day also took me to a couple of ritzy malls… the brochures weren’t kidding when they said this was one of the best shopping areas in the city along with others like Orchard Road, Little India, Chinatown, and the list goes on. Singapore could brag they are the most over-malled city in the world.

At one point I wandered into a predominately Muslim area (Halal) evidenced by the number of women wearing scarves. Hunger was taking over by this time so I decided to stop for an afternoon meal which would serve as lunch and dinner. A restaurant with the Trip Advisor logo and a claim to have the best biryani in Singapore caught my attention so I decided to give it a try. I wasn’t disappointed and by Singaporean standards I got good value for my money at $14 which by the way is a few cents more in our Canadian money. Not bad considering the menus I had looked at where almost double that.

A chocolate dessert at a mere $18.

One of the tourist recommendations I did take in was the iLight Show at Marina Bay a magical display of light and colour celebrating the city’s support of sustainability. It showed creations from artists around the world including a Canadian artist from Quebec.

An exhibit made from used plastic.

This creation named Light Breeze is made from used neon tubes.

The light show with the Marina Bay in the background.

I couldn’t afford to have a drink at Raffles so instead I went to Level 33 a bar up on the 33rd floor of the Marina Bay Financial Centre where I opted for a cappuccino which I enjoyed much more than a singapore sling. The views were just as good, too.

View from Level 33 of the harbour and the container ships.

View of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel and Casino with the Supertrees Garden on top.

Yesterday I met up with some Chiang Mai friends at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where we enjoyed a delicious lunch at the Halia Restaurant. We had so much to talk about that we didn’t leave nearly enough time to explore this English garden landscape dating back to the 1800’s. To this day it remains a major centre for plant research and breeding, with orchids leading the list. It’s one of the most visited gardens in the world and has won numerous awards. Time magazine described it as ‘Asia’s best urban jungle’. It comes highly recommended so I’m sorry we didn’t plan this better so we could see more of it. Maybe it was just as well we didn’t because by the time we finished our meal the humidity and the heat were overwhelming.

Friends Irene and Trevor.

Finally, you can’t visit Singapore and not take the time to visit the two most popular enclaves: Chinatown and Little India. I had my first meal in Chinatown the night I arrived…dumplings, my favourite Chinese food. Then yesterday I made a quick run through Little India, brimming with colour and bargains in Indian jewellery and clothing. For Indian food lovers there were restaurants galore. This was probably the place where I saw more garbage than usual, nevertheless,  by Indian standards it just couldn’t compare.

Street scene in Little India.

Colourful Indian saris.

Four days were about the right amount of time for me. There was still much more I could have seen and done had my budget allowed. I have no regrets in stopping over, and one thing for sure it’s prepared me for what lies ahead. Australia is also an expensive country to visit so getting used to such high prices has been a learning curve which I know I’ll have to deal on my next stop which will be Melbourne.

Chinatown

Cambodia – Past and Present

Cambodia – Past and Present

“Why do you keep going back Cambodia?” I am confronted with this question many times from fellow travellers and friends. This is always a good question to ponder because it does get me thinking about the reasons for putting it on my list four times out of the nine that I have visited Southeast Asia.

Cambodia is a small country with a dark history which could still be witnessed right up until the late ’90’s.  Each time I return, I see changes with forward strides benefiting some but by no means all. There are still those struggling with the scars of their past and the present day changes being thrust upon them by this rapidly changing world.  The ‘those’ I speak of are the poor who are more than 20 per cent of the population.

Historically all the SE Asian countries have had their problems with outside invaders, save for Thailand which has never ceded control to anyone but themselves. Thailand has a long history of invasions from its neighbour Burma (now Myanmar) but has continuously managed to keep them at bay as they have of other invaders in the past wanting a piece of their empire. In spite of numerous internal problems such as trying to build a democracy that works and learning to live with some very restrictive military governments, Thailand has successfully avoided being under the thumb of any kind of foreign domination.

This certainly has not been the case for Cambodia, Laos, Viet Nam, Myanmar (formerly Burma) or any of the other SE Asian countries, such as Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines or Singapore. Many will note that for this reason Thailand has been recognised as one of the leading developing countries, except for Singapore. The very opposite is true for Cambodia which lags behind all of them.

A bit of the country’s history can help us to understand the problems she is facing today. The first recorded history for Cambodia can be traced back to southern China with the Hunan polity followed by the Chennai people.  The Khmer empire, the most notable and powerful period of Cambodia’s history, flourished from the 9th to the 15th century in what today is known as Angkor.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

After Angkor’s decline, the country lapsed into a period of hibernation resulting in being overtaken by the Siamese (Thai) and the Vietnamese who further eroded their culture. With the entrance of the Indochinese Union, it then became a French Protectorate. For a short time during WWII the Japanese occupied Cambodia and with their influence under the leadership of King Sihanouk, they were able to achieve their independence from France in 1953.

From then on, the ineptness or plain stupidity of the king, internal power struggles, outside influences, along with illiteracy and poverty all contributed to the country’s downward spiral.

Sihanouk’s first mistake was to abolish the romantic part of the Khmer language for the script which basically took their culture backwards. During the 50’s and 60’s he and his country tried to remain neutral towards the rise of communism and the cold war, but being surrounded by the heavy influence of Viet Nam and what was happening there, as well as the ultimate interference and fiddling of the US, a split between the rich and the poor began to occur. The middle class became more and more disenchanted. The seeds were being cultivated which would lead the country into its darkest hour…the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

This is just one of the theories for how and why the Rouge happened. Blame has also been levelled at China and their support of the Rouge. Who knows all the reasons for such madness, but to this day many  Cambodians cannot forget the horror of this genocide which nearly devastated this small, once very proud country.

The Rouge wanted to completely reform Cambodia’s society: their banking system, their religion, their beliefs, their lifestyles…everything. No one felt safe under this strict regime which resulted in neighbour fighting neighbour and in some cases family versus family. They were all struggling to survive and in doing so turned against each other. The whole country was collapsing. The murders began in Phnom Phen where most of the upper classes lived. The entire city was evacuated resulting in the loss of over 20,000 lives. Then began the purge of the eastern part of the country where records show that 250,000 lives were lost. When all was said and done, Cambodia faced the grim fact that their country now had an estimated two million people murdered…. almost all of the well educated…with 600,000 refugees displaced to other countries such as Thailand. Towards the end, many members of the Khmer Rouge fearing for their lives fled to Viet Nam. Hun Sen, the first and still reigning prime minister, was one of them. The Khmer escapees with help from the Vietnamese devised a plan to invade Cambodia to set up a new form of government which would eventually become the Cambodian People’s Party. Thus, began Viet Nam’s occupation of Cambodia beginning in ’79 and ending in ’93.

Any kind of lasting peace did not happen until 1991 following the Paris Conference when the United Nations was brought in to oversee the rebuilding of this devastated country. At first the country was ruled by a two-party system with Hun Sen…remember the man who was a member of the Khmer Rouge…. and Prince Ranariddh….a member of the Royal family…. as his second in command. Known for his strong-arm approach to ruling when “it’s needed” as the saying goes, Hun Sen maneuvered the situation so as to basically abolish any power the monarchy had to that which today gives them no authority other than to be figure heads for the country.

Cambodia’s figure head king.

As late as 2008, a tribunal was established to bring to justice those who were involved in positions of authority in the murder of the estimated 2 million citizens. Targeting only those who held senior government office and who had violated international law and carried out acts of genocide, a panel of foreign and local judges was formed to try them. By this time many of culprits had either died or disappeared including Pol Pot, the leader of the Rouge, who was hiding out for years in the north. After many trials and tribulations only three persons were convicted. Of those three, two have made restricted apologies to the Cambodian people with the third, the warden of the Tuol Sleng prison, called Duch, who was handed a life long sentence. To call this tribunal a success story is still up for much debate.

So what have I witnessed on this visit to Cambodia which could be seen as as a move forward to improve the lives of its people? The most obvious one is the vast improvement in its infrastructure. New roads connecting all the major towns and cities and streets in Phnom Penh all paved. This wasn’t the case on my first visit here in 2014.  A new train service has begun, linking Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, and another linking Cambodia and Thailand is just about completed. Here in Kep, from where I write this post, Route 33 A is a first-class highway running by the Bacoma Bungalows my lovely home for this past week. Cambodia has China, of course, to thank for this. Improved roads means more tourists especially from China which in turn is creating the problem of being overrun by them even though it’s providing jobs galore for young Cambodians.

Hwy 33 A

The entrance to Bacoma Bungalows.

My bungalow.

This, along with the flourishing tourist business, has increased the earning power of many Cambodians so they can now own motor bikes or even late-model cars. There is also evidence of a rising middle class taking place. I noticed this at Kep Beach which three years ago was a beach in the making. Tons of sand from somewhere else was brought in to make this sandy beach which has proven to be a huge success for locals and visitors alike. It appears to be a big draw for Cambodians of all classes and on a Sunday is packed with picnickers.

This is not on a Sunday!

However, the downside to this is that many of those forming the middle class are government workers whom I am told gain their positions by literally buying them. They also get substantial bonuses throughout the year which allows them to buy their big vehicles. Here is an example of  “the big C” at work which puts the country right up at the top when it comes to corruption. For more on this problem you can check out my post: http://The Big “C” in Cambodia

Cambodia’s history has not done anything to help it with its problem in getting their literacy rate up so that it can deal more effectively with its issues regarding poverty. Although statistics are saying that there have been improvements and that learning English is now considered a must, it’s up for debate on whether the present government with its lack of concern for human rights and the layers of corruption that still exist, is responsible for this. Most likely it’s been with the help of the NGO’s and the locals themselves, as well as young volunteers visiting from developed countries who want to get involved. In any event, the young people I talk to are eager to learn, but not so eager as those I spoke to in Laos. I would guess that the young are still affected by what happened in their country not that long ago. The scars of the older generation and the continued repressive government from a Prime Minister and some of his ministers who had connections to the Khmer Rouge are still having their negative effects.

Eeven though the economy here is showing an increasing growth rate fuelled by Chinese investment, increased tourism, and the garment industry which provides cheap labour for many countries including our own, it still isn’t keeping up with the kind of growth it needs to be a recognised contender in the Asian economy. It continues to lag far behind as it struggles with overwhelming human rights issues under an extremely repressive political regime. Although there are signs from the government that the lack of any kind of national education system is an absolute must to improve the literacy level of its population to alleviate the extreme poverty that prevails, there has been no real action. How can there be any change so long as the old way of getting anything done is to buy it? This is the core of Cambodia’s inability to become a more effective competitor in the new world which is emerging.

Ignoring such problems is easier to do than this one: the mounting piles of garbage! Garbage can be seen everywhere in this country.  And, to make matters worse, there is apparent lack of interest or will to do anything about it.

On my way to Kampot on the bus from Phnom Penh, I happened to take a pause from an interesting conversation I was having with an English teacher visiting from Ho Che Minh City, when out of the corner of my eye I saw the side of the road littered with garbage piles for what seemed like a kilometer or more. In the midst of it all sat a young boy about 12 years of age… totally naked. I don’t think I can ever erase this image from my mind. I resolved right there and then that I would do my utmost to avoid plastic bottles in my travels. This isn’t an easy task especially here in Cambodia. Fortunately, the owner of Bacoma Bungalows is filling my metal water bottle free of charge so I don’t have to buy plastic bottles. In most of the places I’ve stayed, I’ve had to take the small bottles of water offered to me. They were free so I took them knowing I would have to buy the same thing elsewhere. Large bottles often are not available or if they are they come packed in large quantities. Since the water here is undrinkable even for the locals, can you imagine the amount of plastic that keeps piling up! To make matters worse, the garbage collection from what I can determine in the rural areas is almost non-existent! I spoke to a young Cambodian lady about it, and she agreed there was a problem. “The only way to solve it is by educating the kids. The parents are hopeless,”she said. They aren’t educated enough to understand. Moreover, they prefer to buy their water in bottles from the fridge so they can drink it cold as a kind of status symbol to the fact they can afford it. She also pointed out that pure water is also something that brings good luck to their family. In rural areas the water is so polluted that people are getting sick from it. I am sure this is happening in many countries around the world where more and more of our water resources are being contaminated by toxins so what on earth are we going to do to solve this?

Phnom Penh’s garbage collection shows some improvement but still has problems.

Garbage collectors in Kampot trying to keep this tourist town clean.

Oops, they missed this pile.

I saw a few of these, but would the locals put their garbage in them?

Yes, Cambodia’s problems are the same ones facing all developing countries. The question is what can I or any tourist do to help them? Where can we start with the problem of potable water and the rampant use of plastic bottles? Perhaps we can start by setting a good example. From my small act of carrying a refillable bottle, I find myself not only talking about the problem with those who listen but now writing about it. This creates good energy which will spread. We can no longer just ignore the problems we see when visiting other countries. We must talk about them, or write about them, or do something! The more awareness each one of us can create the better. I would like to hear from you, my dear readers, on what we can do to alleviate rather than to contribute to their problems.

In closing, I will leave you with this quotation by the American ambassador, Joseph Mussomeli, who served here in 2005 which helps to explain why I and many others are lured back to Cambodia time and time again:

Be careful because Cambodia is the most dangerous place you will ever visit. You will fall in love with it and eventually it will break your heart.”

For my other personal reasons for returning to Cambodia, take a peek at my post from last year by clicking on the link A Brief Hiatus to Phnom Penh

or this post Soaking Up Phnom Penh

or Phnom Penh Re-visited

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chiang Mai’s Race For Tourist Dollars

Chiang Mai’s Race For Tourist Dollars

“What is old is new again.”

Some noteworthy person must have said this somewhere or at some time so I can’t take the credit for coining this. However, whatever its origin, the words aptly fit my impressions of what is happening in Chiang Mai right now.

This Northern Thai city is undergoing a restoration and building boom, at least in the inner city which is that part surrounded by a moat. If you want further information on the moat and the remains of the wall that defines the character of this ancient city, then do refer to the blog I posted three years ago: click on  A Precious Gift

A past picture of the moat with fountains on.

Where are the fountains this year?

The first sign of the changes occurring in the inner city, the most touristy part, surfaced as I walked down Phrapokktao Rd. and spotted a few wats undergoing huge renovations. Wat Jedlan captured my interest so I decided to take a closer look at it. I wasn’t disappointed and wondered how I had managed to miss in on all my previous visits. The grounds are spacious and beautifully manicured. However, the buildings are old and in need of repair so, hence, the restoration.

Massive construction going on here.

The next day as I headed to the Sunday Street Market, I noticed that Prah Singh, Chiang Mai’s largest and wealthiest wat, was sporting a glamorous new outfit in gilded gold.

Looking good.

There is definitely a sense of competition going on between the numerous wats in this fair city. They are unabashedly out to get the tourists’ dollars not just with visitor donations but lately by charging them fees to enter. Chedi Luang, the second most sacred and grandiose wat in Chiang Mai, is one of those doing that. The lineup of people waiting to enter reminded me of those horrendous lineups you have to contend with in cities like Rome or Paris. I hope it never gets to that, but then with the droves of Chinese tourists coming here, this could happen.

If a wat doesn’t charge entrance fees then they may resort to renting out some of their valuable land to vendors for selling their wares during the big Saturday and Sunday Night Walking Street Markets which grow larger every year. Click on Shopping the Markets in Chiang Mai

Prah Singh’s entrance to Sunday Market.

Another wat renting out a rest and eating area for market shoppers.

It’s not just wats that are getting a make over: it’s also the accommodations and restaurants in this city. Hearing that at least two of the guest houses I used to stay in…Pachkit House and Baan Nam Sai.. were now facing the wrecking ball, I made it my quest to check both of them out. Sure enough they are both receiving major new face lifts.

Destroying the old Pachkit house for the new.

What’s left of the original.

How can this be happening? In most cases, it’s about money from China which is enticing to family owned businesses who want to retire and leave the hard work to those who have the money and plans for the future. Thailand faces the same problems as all developed countries these days…an aging population along with earlier retirement. China on the other hand which also faces an aging population, but also a thriving younger middle class and a much larger population, is looking for other places to visit where it’s cheaper and exciting. Thailand and in fact all SE Asia is one of their first places to go to before they hit Europe. Those entrepreneurs who have the money see Thailand and its neighbours as great places to invest in since all of them are still bringing in huge amounts of tourist dollars from the West.

What all this change means for us flashpackers…what older backpackers have been dubbed… is less inexpensive accommodations at our disposal. The little family run guest houses are being converted to what is commonly known now as boutique hotels which are smaller and less expensive than the 5 stars but still far more than the traditional guest house.

One of the flourishing boutique hotels.

For backpackers who are younger with a minimal budget, there are the hostels where they must share a room with others in a more communal setting. Still entrenched in my old ways, I avoid these and look for the small guest houses. When I first started coming to Chiang Mai it was easy to rent a room on a monthly or a weekly basis but not so now. If I want to stay in the centre, I will most likely have to pay by the night. Those places offering monthly rates are more likely to be found out in the suburbs and even those should be booked early because they are snatched up quickly. Here you can find a condo or house to rent, but as I discovered last year has its disadvantages. Transportation is the biggest drawback unless you are the adventurous sort and rent a motor bike to get around. My post from last year titled “Is Chiang Mai Losing Its Allure” will give you a better idea of the pros and cons. Click here Is Chiang Mai Losing It’s Allure?

My condo apartment out near the airport from last year.

Like most people when I first saw the construction and heard the jack hammers, I was a bit disgusted. How could Chiang Mai yield so willingly to the tearing down of their storied past for the new opulence of the future? On second thought, I realised it’s simply their way of surviving. If they don’t join the wave of the future where there is literally a tsunami of Chinese tourists descending upon them, then they stand to lose a big chunk of their economy, and like all countries they can’t afford to do that. Sure all this change will just lead to other problems but somehow they will find a solution for them and so on it goes. What would CM or any of us do if we never had problems to solve? Now here is some food for thought….

A typical Thai building still standing.

Let’s hope it doesn’t meet a similar fate.

Making way for the new.

 

How Our Changing World Is Affecting Our Travel

How Our Changing World Is Affecting Our Travel

Anyone who travels afar these days can’t help but wonder or worry….a little… about how our fast changing world is affecting how we travel. I know I am noticing some changes not always for the better. For me, who is in her senior years and often travelling alone, it’s becoming more of a challenge.

The rapid evolution of our technology which has had a drastic change in how we communicate has probably had the greatest impact upon how we now must travel. When I started my travelling in 2008 I did not have a cell phone or Smart phone. I did not have a computer or an E-reader. The only piece of technology I carried was my new digital camera bought the year before when I lost my Fuji camera with film while vacationing in Cuba.

Now I travel with a cell phone… which may soon have to be traded in for a Smart phone…. a tablet with and E-reader, a small laptop computer, and a camera, along with  other ‘must-haves’ such as, chargers, USP cords, adaptors and other technological gadgets designed to make my travel easier….or so I am led to believe. Frankly all these gadgets just make me more stressed. I admit I am a dinosaur when it comes to all the new technology, but I am forced to get on board with it all. If I don’t have a an app for this and that, I am often left up the  creek without a paddle. Internet cafes are fast disappearing the way of the Dodo so I can forget trying to find a place where I can get a copy of anything, such as proof of my booking at a hotel or an airline ticket. Folded paper maps that you can hold in your hands are scarcer than hens teeth. Now I am supposed to find my way around with Maps Me. A young man I met on my travels last year downloaded this app onto my tablet. I tried it out while in Viet Nam, but found it so confusing that I ended up going east instead of west for more than five kilometers before I discovered my mistake. I needed to see the whole picture of the area not just a partial one in order to get some proper orientation. I needed a map!

Today, changes in our climate are having some effect on where and when I travel. Our earth is definitely feeling the effects of global warming. Granted, we are noticing more weather extremes here in North America than the countries in SE Asia where I have been travelling to. Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Viet Nam are on or near the equator, making the effects of climate change more subtle. Nevertheless, I have noticed that the time period in Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand for comfortable weather with clear sunny days is getting shorter every year. Now we are lucky to get two months of this kind of weather before the intense heat and humidity set in. By mid February it’s getting too hot for me to stay any longer forcing me to leave for a more moderate climate. To arrive back in Nova Scotia before April is too soon since our winters are long so making a stop in one of the countries in southern Europe has helped to solve this problem. The downside to this is that it’s more expensive than any of the countries in SE Asia.

One of the many wats or temples in Bangkok.

Furthermore, it should come as no surprise that the cost of travel is creeping upward in most areas. What this means is that unless I have more money to increase my budget, I am compelled to limit my travel and opt to stay in one place. The more travelling and sight-seeing I do, the more I spend. Everyday living expenses in food and accommodations have increased over the years but not too drastically. It just takes more careful planning to keep my costs within my budget. In Thailand it’s still cheaper to eat out than it is to eat in. But, for how long? In Bangkok, the present government is cracking down on street vendors forcing them into markets or out of business entirely. This will definitely make a difference in the cost of meals for those travellers who thrived on eating authentic Thai street food at fabulous prices.

Street food in Bangkok.

Surprisingly, the cost of my airfare over and back has not increased by much, if at all, depending on when I make my bookings… the earlier the better… along with the help of a good travel agent. You can easily book a round trip fare from Halifax to Bangkok starting at $1200 and upwards depending on the class and flight times you prefer. However, if you break your flight up with short or long layovers as I do because I want to stay awhile in Europe, then you pay for the privilege. When doing this, it’s best to enlist the help of a travel agent.

Although the cost of flying hasn’t varied much, the days of leisurely air travel, which once travellers could look forward to, are fast disappearing. Most will agree that air travel is becoming more and more challenging. Increasing numbers of passengers, overwhelmed and poorly trained customer service personnel, more competition among the airlines, uncertain weather conditions, ever-changing technology, and strict security due to the threat of terrorism have all taken their toll on what used to be fun way to travel. We have all heard of the horror stories resulting from cancelled flights and missed connections. Just read the testimonials given by anyone who has experienced this, or better still talk to those you meet. Everyone has their story. I encountered all of the above when travelling westward over to Thailand with American Airlines, but since I changed my direction by heading east via Europe, I have had fewer problems. I have been lucky…so far.

Another reality…I hesitate to even mention this… is that I am not getting any younger. By eating well and remaining active, I have so far avoided having to rely on any medications, thus, eliminating the problem of carrying prescription drugs. Vitamins and other alternative health foods are available in most of the countries in SE Asia, and the ones that aren’t or are simply too expensive, I take with me. I confess I don’t get any kind of health insurance as the Thai medical system is not only inexpensive but in most cases very good. The other SE Asian countries are iffy and in some cases bad. I have accepted the fact that if I should need medical care, I will simply pay the cost because any type of medical insurance today would cost me more than the cost of my flight over and back. Taking extra caution on where I go within the countries I visit and limiting my movement by not trying to see it all, helps me keep my costs down and eliminate any possibility of getting sick or injured.

Despite the changes and challenges of travel today, it doesn’t seem to be affecting the number of people who are on the move. Tourism is up in most parts of SE Asia as it certainly is in Europe and here in North America. Many of us would agree that it’s the Chinese Effect. This huge country with its strong economy has put them on the move…young and old alike. I think it’s a good thing as it is the best way to gain an education especially for the young who will inherit the problems our world is facing. From my own experience, I count travel as one of my most valuable educators. However, now as an older traveller, I question just how it can contribute to my own personal growth.

Sunset in Laos

Supposedly with age comes wisdom gained through our long life experience, but does aging not also come with greater challenges to our capacity to be more resilient in our physical and mental abilities? If this is so, then am I not going to be affected more by the changes taking place in the world.

I can’t help pondering this dilemma after ten years of travel. The monumental changes in how we communicate, move around, and the increasing number of people travelling these days have all upped the ante to my own personal challenges. Travel was easier ten years ago. Was that because I was younger and more naive to its challenges, or was I simply that kid in the candy store exploring and savouring all the new countries and cultures I visited all the while relishing the new-found freedom that came with it? Perhaps now the time has come for me to turn my focus away from the fun and freedom of escaping our winters to concentrate on how to be of more service at home in this troubled world we find ourselves living in.

Early morning monk walk for breakfast – Luang Prebang.

Laos

 

 

Overcoming the Fear of Travelling Solo as a Senior

To escape the harsh Canadian winters of Nova Scotia, the place I call home, I do what more and more people are doing which is… to seek out some place that is warm. Florida is not the answer for me as has been the custom for many Nova Scotians in the past. For the last nine years, winters have taken me to the Far East, to such countries as Thailand, Viet Nam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Nepal, India, and, finally, last year to South America for the first time.

When I explain to friends, old and new, why I choose to travel to far off places by myself without my husband (Hubby), I get various reactions, such as: am I worried about getting sick, do I feel safe, how do I endure the long flights, or where do I get my energy? They might then end up by saying, “I could never do it.” Before addressing these concerns from the dubious, let me digress to the events leading up to my discovery of travelling solo as a senior female.

I never planned to do this kind of travel when Hubby and I moved to Nova Scotia from the big city of Toronto in 2006. It happened gradually. We kept meeting people in Annapolis Royal…the little town nearest to where we live in Victoria Beach… who had been to South East Asia. They helped perk my interest in the possibility of going there instead of to the south where we had gone previously. To my surprise I was able to talk Hubby into testing the Asian waters. We both realised it was so much cheaper to head east rather than south. For the same amount of money as we would spend to go to Cuba and stay at a resort for a week, we could stretch out our time away in Thailand, for example, to a month or more. Heck, after our second visit we realised we could stay for three or four months and live on a much smaller budget than we ever would if we stayed home. Home meant having to heat a century old house with oil and driving two cars.

Our home in Victoria Beach.

Annapolis Royal in December

After our fourth visit to SE Asia, Hubby announced that he was tiring of this part of the world and wanted to spend his next winter in Florence, Italy, where he had lived for a while as a young man. He also had friends in England he wanted to visit. The thought of spending my winter in either of these places left me cold (no pun intended). I was going back to Thailand again, not just for its warmth, but also because I wanted to shop. If you refer to one of my previous posts you will know why shopping in Thailand is my lure. Click on this link to read: Shopping the Markets in Chiang Mai.

Hill Tribe village in northern Thailand.

Night market in Chiang Mai

So now back to the concerns I have encountered from those who are interested in travelling solo as an older person. I say “interested” as I accept that not everyone wants to do this. We all have different ways of deriving satisfaction on our life’s journey. However, for those who would like to do it, but think it’s impossible to travel as a solo senior who is married, I want you to know it is… if you want it badly enough. You can convince your spouse or partner, if you have one, that it’s better for your relationship if you take time off from it and just trust. You can be safe if you use your common sense…this is where seniors have something that the younger set may not. You most likely won’t do anything crazy like walk around deserted streets late at night. You won’t get sick if you are careful of what and where you eat, and should you get sick there are tons of pharmacies with qualified staff and good hospitals in all the countries I have travelled to. Finally, you will survive the long trip overseas if you prepare yourself for the flight and take it easy for the first week by not eating too much spicy food and keeping a normal sleeping schedule. I have many tips for keeping in shape and staying healthy while travelling which I can address in a separate post if you want me to. For anyone who does decide to give solo travel a try, two things can happen:

  1. You will gain a thirst for more.
  2. Or if not, you will be glad you overcame any fear and just did it…once!

Either way you won’t regret it!

Fear of what disasters could happen are a huge concern for anyone starting off on a solo trip. When Hubby and I went on our separate trips in 2013, I was scared, but at the same time I was excited to be out there on my own. I could almost taste the freedom facing me. To deal with the fear factor, I started off with the familiar by travelling to Thailand first. I had friends there and was so familiar with this country that was becoming like a second home for me as Florence was for Hubby.

Viet Nam, however, was another story. My first night in Hanoi scared me to death when I was finally faced with the hoards of motorbikes and cars which seemed to be everywhere buzzing around like flies. With few traffic lights and police to direct the chaos, the Viet Namese drivers cope with a seemingly effortless charge ahead into the flow aiming for any spot that looks like a possibility. As a pedestrian, we must wait for a small gap or lull before heading out into the traffic. Then we pray the drivers see you and go around you rather than into you. I will be forever indebted to Mike and his wife, Diane, for helping me master the art of crossing the busy streets of Hanoi. Their presence was a gift because having been there many times, they were happy to not only be a guide for me, but to be my dinner companions. Aware that this was my first venture to a new place on my own, they kindly took me under their wing… or tried to. I can be awfully independent at times.

Hanoi traffic

My next leg of this solo journey took me to India and Nepal. This was the most daunting part of my whole trip. Any traveller will tell you that India isn’t easy…Thailand is a breeze in comparison. I was definitely put to the test by having to endure scams, pushy males, and sickness. You will come away from India either loving or hating it. By the end, I was somewhere in between. Should the opportunity arise to return, I would. If you want to learn more about my adventures in India you can click on my post Incredible India. 

This is Kerela in South India

Nepal came much easier to me, but it still had its challenging moments, such as my encounter with a bull who didn’t like what I was wearing. You can find out more about this adventure by reading my post Adventures in Nepal.

The Annapurna Massif – part of the Himalaya range.

What I learned from this trip was that any fear you might have about travelling on your own can be overcome by simply doing it. If you don’t have friends you can meet up with, you can always find fellow travellers willing to help you out at the places you stay or eat. Moreover, don’t discount the incredible helpfulness of the locals who in almost all cases will bend over backwards to help. Not everyone is out to scam you. Even in India which probably has one of the worst reputations for devising outlandish schemes to get your money, you will find incredibly helpful people.

So what I have learned about overcoming the fear that comes with travelling on your own is to gain all the information you can about whatever it is you need to know. And, of course, what better way to gain this information than by actually doing it. You can read all the guidebooks and talk to others who have done it, but the best teacher is your own experience. You will make mistakes, things will go wrong, you will get scammed, you will get discouraged, and sometimes feel very alone. However, look at these as the ingredients that make up the experience. Keep at it and you will get better at it. Fear will be replaced with love. Through your own growing, you will learn to not only love yourself more because you have done something you wanted to do and be proud because of it, but you will also become more accepting of all those you meet up with on your travels. You will become that better person where you will have gained a more open mind and be more compassionate towards those who have less than you. You will cease taking our wonderful country we call Canada for granted. This is what travelling solo has done for me, and I am so grateful that in my senior years I can still do it.

For more thoughts on my solo travels, you can refer to Travelling Solo or Not?

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain

 

 

 

 

Life on a Homestay in the Mekong Delta

Life on a Homestay in the Mekong Delta

The prospect of spending more than a day or two in Ho Che Minh City…again…held no appeal this time around so I opted to make a quick trip back to the Mekong Delta specifically to experience life on a Homestay.

Homestays are cropping up like flies all over this part of Viet Nam notably on the numerous canals that meander through this fertile and densely populated part of the country. They offer tourists a break from the fast paced life of the cities and a chance to see and experience how life and the commerce of the delta region is conducted.

I booked myself into the Minh Viet Homestay about 12 km outside the largest city in the Mekong Delta, Can Tho. However, getting there was not as easy as I had anticipated. After two bus rides from where I was staying in HCMC to the bus station where I would get the bus to Can Tho, I then faced a three hour ride. This was fine as I had a sleeper bus so could recline leisurely as we travelled along a fairly straight highway. I must add that the highways I travelled while in Viet Nam were in good shape. The trouble began when my bus left me off in what seemed like the middle of no where on the outskirts of the city. The driver’s assistant spoke no English so pointed that I could get to my destination by going over to the left where there were lots of buses but no station, or to the right which appeared to be a huge department store. Neither looked promising and there were no taxis in sight except for a couple of men wanting to take me on their rather dilapidated motor bikes. The only thing to do was to solicit some help from someone who could speak a little English. Luckily I found a young chap with a phone who called my Homestay. I was hoping they had got my message on the time I would be arriving and would be able to meet me. No such luck! They advised me to grab a taxi. I had the choice of a motor bike or an auto taxi which had miraculously appeared. I took the car and showed the address to the driver who nodded he knew where to go. However, I soon realized he didn’t have a clue where he was going. Several stops for directions, a few phone calls, a couple of back tracks, and we finally found the correct address. All this time I am watching the meter creeping upward to a point well beyond what I paid for my bus trip. I guess I should have taken that motor bike after all!

Arrival at a homestay isn’t anything like that of a hotel or guest house. There is no desk and there may or may not be someone there to greet you. In my case, there was a woman who I later found out was the mother of this family. She spoke no English but was smiley and kind. She showed me my room and that was it. My room was small and rustic…rustic meaning it had just the bare essentials: a bed with a mosquito net, a small wooden table, and a cabinet for putting clothes in. At least I didn’t have to share a bathroom as I did at my place in HCMC. Although my room was small and dark, it did face on the canal so I had a view.

My room at Mien Viet Homestay.

Feeling somewhat marooned and very hot and thirsty after my long journey to get there, I spied a cooler with cold water and drinks so grabbed a water and sat down at one of the tables in the open air dining room to get my bearings. I had no sooner sat down wondering if I had made a mistake coming here when out of the blue an older couple who spoke English arrived. I was starved to have a conversation in English with anyone who was willing to do so, and like all Dutch people who are very much at ease with our language, they were more than happy to sit down for a chat. We soon found out we had lots in common on the subjects of travel and the political and other problems facing our respective countries. For the duration of my stay they were my meal time companions and bicycle tour guides.

Dining and rest area.

We started out the next day after breakfast, on free bikes from our homestay, to explore our surroundings. Unfortunately, free bicycles often means they aren’t always in the best condition. Out of the two that were left, I chose what looked to be the best and off we went. We hadn’t gone very far before one of my bike’s brakes gave me some trouble. We tried fixing it to no avail since we didn’t have the right tools. Fortunately, we didn’t have to go too far before we spied a house which looked like it might have what we were looking for and sure enough it did. One of the men quickly had it fixed, and we were once again up and running.

Could there be anything more peaceful and uplifting than this, I wondered? Seeing the homes… some fancy, others not…having the children greet us with their smiling faces, waves, and chirpy “hellos”, along with the proliferation of colourful flowers and greenery, was a wonderful treat. I must add that the motor bike traffic wasn’t a problem. The only time we had to get off our bikes and walk them was when we came to a village with a market. The land is flat so we had no hills to climb. However, the weather was hot and humid so we stopped often to keep ourselves hydrated with drinks.

Early on we came across a family party for their grandson’s 1st birthday and were invited in to celebrate. Not wanting to intrude, we didn’t stay too long. However, the Viet Namese don’t look at such a visit as an intrusion. For them it is more an honour to have us help them celebrate such an occassion so they immediately provided us with drinks and plates of food. The only way to return the favour was to take some pictures of the family which I was able to share with them and later send along via email.

The birthday boy and his mother.

One of the main attractions for visiting Can Tho and its environs is to witness the early morning floating markets. The one which draws the most crowds is the largest and most colourful: the Cai Rang. After speaking to the one member of this family who spoke fairly good English, the son, Minh, about his tour to the floating markets, we decided to forego it. For me it was the expense of doing it on my own since my Dutch friends opted to do it on another day. Furthermore, I was not keen on having to be up at four in the morning. I needed to rest up after the trip down. I only had one full day at the Homestay before heading back to HCMC so couldn’t do it all. For me it was either the all day tour visiting not just the Cai Rang market but a smaller one, the Phong Dien, in the other direction which would have meant more boat travel rather than actual sight-seeing, or taking the leisurely tour on bicycles on our own which would cost nothing and be just as stimulating. If I ever do another homestay in the Mekong Delta, I will plan for at least two if not three full days to really have enough time for both.

The one thing that Mien Viet Homestay excelled in was the fabulous meals that the women of this family produced. My room fee included both breakfast and dinner at $20 a day. You can’t beat that. The breakfasts were fairly standard with a banana to start, followed by eggs (any style), bacon, a crusty bun or baguette with jam, and good Vietnamese coffee. Freshly squeezed orange juice was available for an additional cost. For both dinners, we had appetizers, a main meat or fish dish with rice and vegetables, ending up with fruit. Every plate was tasty and there was always something different…with the exception of rice which accompanies every meal. I would see the women washing, cutting and preparing food throughout the day. They took their craft seriously making sure their guests were happy and well fed.

Mother and grandmother.

I don’t think it’s really possible to sleep in while you are at a homestay if it fronts a canal. Canals play a big part in the Delta’s transportation system and are the life source for the people who live along them. Boats of all shapes and sizes laden with just about anything and everything seem to be constantly plying the dirty brown waters of the canals. Business usually starts about the time the sun rises and doesn’t cease until it sets, if not later. Add to this the proliferation of boats transporting tourists and you have a constant stream of activity.

My two nights and a day at the homestay allowed me to observe first hand how families live and work in this vast delta, dubbed “the bread basket of Viet Nam”. There is a noticeable hustle and bustle as the inhabitants go about their personal and commercial business. The people are friendly and appear to want to share their lives with all the visitors who seem to be coming in droves. There are many homestays to choose from. The one I stayed at was fairly basic but some offer more amenities and are better run. They will cost more but are more suited to those who want a little more comfort. If a homestay of any kind is not your preference, you can stay in one of the many hotels available in Can Tho. Tours to the floating markets and canals are available from there. Whatever choice you make, you are bound to enjoy all that this driving force of Viet Nam has to offer. I know I did and am glad I went.

Dalat “Le Petit Paris”

Dalat “Le Petit Paris”

My latest post “A Wonderful Welcome to Viet Nam” mentioned three reasons for returning to this country. It should have been four.

Returning to Dalat is the fourth for me and a good reason for anyone visiting this country for the first time. If you like anything that is reminiscent of Paris or anything French, such as fresh baquettes, colonial architecture, an Eiffel Tower look- alike which happens to be the city’s radio tower, wide, tree-lined boulevards, and just plain old charm, then take a side trip up to Dalat.

Dalat's Eiffel Tower

Dalat’s Eiffel Tower

Discovered and built primarily by the French when they occupied the country in 1912, it was an answer to their search for a retreat to escape the heat of Saigon. Dalat’s location at 4,900 feet above sea level offers a temperate climate where the yearly temperatures hover at 15 to 25 degrees C. It’s no surprise that over the years it has earned another appropriate title…”the city of eternal spring”. If you don’t like this title, then how about “city of a thousand pines”? The city has so many tall pines that you can actually smell them. If it weren’t for the usual traffic woes, I would have a hard time believing I was in Viet Nam.

A nice pine-scented view.

A nice pine-scented view.

My first visit to Dalat was five years ago. The city, I am happy to report, hasn’t lost its charm, and there are little if any signs of climate change. The one and only complaint I have is the constant traffic which is chaotic and noisy as it seems to be no matter where you are in Viet Nam. It’s just the way they drive here, and we either adapt or end up as toast.

There is a motor bike under there.

There is a motor bike under there.

Dalat’s temperate climate in the Lang Biang Mountains has created an ideal place to grow things making it literally the ‘bread basket’ of Viet Nam. All kinds of vegetables, fruits, and flowers can be found growing year round. Their speciality is strawberries, black currants, and artichokes in the produce department, and when it comes to flowers, it has to be hydrangea and roses found just about everywhere throughout the city… lining the boulevards and hanging from lamp posts.

One of the best places to see what grows here is the Dalat City Park located near the Xuan Huong Lake. This lake was created after the construction of one of the area’s many dams resulting in one of the city’s main attractions. If you are one for walking, it’s a 7 km trek all the way around. I got marvellous views of the city from all angles because of the lake’s configuration which resembles a banana.

Looking across the lake to one of Dalat's churches.

Looking across the lake to one of Dalat’s churches.

A view from the other side of the lake.

A view from the other side of the lake.

To some, the Park borders on the kitschy with its ceramic animals placed strategically amongst the flower beds, and the gaudily adorned horse-drawn carriages readily available to transport weary visitors. Nevertheless, the gardens themselves with their variety of flowers and shrubs are absolutely beautiful on a perfectly clear, sunny day such as I had.

Dalat Park entrance.

Dalat Park entrance.

mui-ne-and-dalat-075

Inside the park.

Inside the park.

Coffee is another rapidly growing industry here putting Viet Nam in second place on the list of the world’s coffee producers. Their focus has been the Robusta type used primarily in instant coffee like Nescafe, but since its lofty position as number two coffee producer, the farmers are beginning to move over to the Arabica type and gaining recognition there. Coffee cafes are on every street corner, but most don’t serve Italian or American coffee – just Viet Namese which is very strong and sweetened with condensed milk. I find it ironic that most locals still prefer to drink tea.

Wine production is becoming a serious concern of late. It started with the French in the ’50’s and has now morphed into a viable industry. Dalat wines can be found throughout Viet Nam and Japan and other SE Asian countries are now importing it to good reviews.

Advertising Dalat wine at the Park.

Advertising Dalat wine at the Park.

Dalat, like all cities and towns of a certain size, has a market as one of its central attractions. Nestled between two hills in a tiny valley, it’s a beehive of activity any time of the day or night. Smack in the middle of the city, it’s close to a host of small hotels and hostels and great places to eat. My hotel was probably a ten minute walk away as ‘straight as the crow flies’, but in order to get to it, I had to go down one hill and up the other making my trip much longer. The city is very hilly so walking can be difficult as the streets seem to meander up and down and around. Walking around in circles can be frustrating for those of us who are directionally challenged.

Looking down on the market at night.

Looking down on the market at night.

Every kind of fruit imaginable.

Every kind of fruit imaginable.

In spite of the heavy traffic, Dalat’s air is clean which was a real treat for me. Certainly its lofty location contributes to this, but another reason is because other than growing food, the only industries are in education and scientific research. Many schools were started by the French so Dalat quickly became a learning base for all Indochina. Today there is a large training school for teachers and a thriving university. Tourism is growing, too, as travellers and locals seek a respite from the heat in the south and the cold in the north especially at this time of the year. For the adventurous tourist, there is trekking, canyoning, and mountain biking. There are numerous minority villages to visit for handicrafts, silk farms, six good-sized waterfalls, pagodas, and lastly the number one attraction right now…the Crazy House.

Is it the name or is it the fact that the weird architecture of this house reminds tourists of Gaudi’s creation in Barcelona? Whatever it is, it’s become a ‘must see’ for anyone who visits Dalat. I have to admit I didn’t go to see it this time around because I toured it five years. My husband and I joined in the fun of exploring its maze of tunnels, climbing its ladders, and being constantly surprised by what lay ahead…spiderwebs, mushrooms, strange animals, with everything seemingly sprouting from the trees. A Mrs. Dang Viet Nga, daughter of the successor to Ho Chi Minh as Prime Minister of Viet Nam, received her Ph.D in architecture from Moscow. Her objective was to build a house which would bring people back to nature so she began with a giant banyan tree. It’s absolutely amazing what she has accomplished over the years. She is still alive and her creation has garnered the reputation as one of the world’s most bizarre buildings.

Outside of the Crazy House.

Outside of the Crazy House.

Inside the house.

Inside the house.

Yes, Dalat has much to offer tourists who come here, as well as the people of Viet Nam who are beginning to tour their diverse country now that they have the means to do so. The Viet Namese are romantics at heart so Dalat provides them with the perfect setting for their wedding pictures or a honeymoon. Roses, flower gardens, a beautiful lake setting, and hotels that cater to them, is this not enough? Apparently not, as not only locals, but bus loads of tourists will include a trip to the Valley of Love for even more love theme kitsch. As a mature, solo traveller I might have felt a little out of place so didn’t make the effort.

Dalat does have more serious attractions for visitors, however. The French left behind a noticeable legacy with their catholic churches exemplifying their gothic architecture. They are lovely to look at from the outside but, unfortunately, aren’t open for viewing.

Lovely gothic style church.

A more modern church.

A more modern church.

However, there are numerous elaborate pagodas to visit reflecting the Chinese architecture. They are open for viewing. My choice was to check out the Truc Lam Pagoda. This zen monastery sits on top of a mountain to the south of the city and is easily accessible by cable car. After a hair-raising motor bike ride out to the lift, I was then treated to my own cable car for a 15 minute ride through the lush greenery of the pine forest. I instantly felt at peace and totally safe. What a fantastic view of the city and its environs! The grounds of the monastery were almost as peaceful save for some bus loads of Russian tourists who arrived. This wasn’t a problem for me as the grounds are so spread out and beautifully designed, providing many secluded spaces with tables and benches for sitting and meditating or just getting away from people.

Entrance to the pagoda.

Entrance to the pagoda.

A temple with huge bell.

A temple with huge bell.

Hollyhocks.

Hollyhocks.

These are for real. Not sure what they were.

These are for real. Not sure what they were.

A quiet spot for some meditation.

A quiet spot for some meditation.

Zen affiliates from around the world have donated benches. This is from Canada.

Zen affiliates from around the world have donated benches. This is from Canada.

Descending down a tree-lined path, I came upon Tuyen Lam Lake, another man made lake.

I was surprised to find stalls selling souvenirs and one in particular caught my buyer’s eye. Taking a chance and wandering in, I found some money belts handcrafted by a minority village in the area. They were a decent price so I bought some.  Over to the left, at the end of the lake, I spied some signs advertising food and coffee. Hot and weary, I decided to check them out. I didn’t see anything that whet my appetite until a restaurant advertising classic cars and ‘weasel’ coffee grabbed my interest. In case you don’t know, ‘weasel’ or civet coffee is made from this animal’s poop… and it’s expensive….way too expensive for my budget! However, since I hadn’t had my coffee fix for the day, I decided my caffeine treat would be a mocha latte…made with regular coffee. Yum! I thought this was an appropriate way to end my visit before heading back to the city.

My mocha latte.

Would I return for a third visit? Without a doubt should the occasion arise. Dalat may not have the history and culture of other hot spots, such as Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi Han, Hue, or Hanoi, but it does have a comfortable climate and enough things to see and do to keep visitors there for at least a few days. Like the French over a century ago, we tourists are searching for a place that not only offers a relief from the sweltering heat, but also some of that irresistible French charm they left behind.