Monthly Archives: March 2018

Hong Kong

We decided to be rich for a few days — even though it might mean some poverty later.  The best place for this seemed to be Hong Kong, and in particular “our” neighborhood, the International Financial Center. That’s basically a world-class shopping mall with skyscrapers sprouting out the top and a vast transit center beneath. The tallest building in the picture below, Two International Finance Center, stands at the eastern, left, end, and our hotel, the Four Seasons, a couple blocks to the right, at the western end, eclipsing the building with the noticeable mast on top.

Though it would cost a bit more, we had asked for a room on a floor above the 35th, insuring a magnificent view.  But the hotel had overbooked, maybe for the New Year, and offered us one on just 18 instead.  To make up for the disappointment, they gave us a suite — and one that included privileges at the Executive Club. Having now seen how the Other Half lives, I think I am beginning to understand what makes money so attractive.

Here’s what our sitting room looked like, except that you can’t see the the foyer with its elegant little half-bath:

Also not obvious are the hidden ports for electronics, or the portable controls for the sheers and the curtains on the windows.  We operated these once, for the thrill of it, and then left them all open all the time, using Kowloon as our night-light.

On this trip we had begun seeing “Do Not Disturb” signs that operate electrically instead of relying on cards hung on the door. In this room, there’s a switch not just by the entrance, but another set by the bed so that you can change your preference without getting up.  I would be surprised if the “Please Make Up Room” signal didn’t light up in the attendant’s room as well.

I reckon that the suite is about the size of our entire condo back in Seattle. It has two or three times as many chairs — and definitely three times as many television sets, once you notice the little one set into the mirrored wall at the foot of the tub. The walk-in closet is perhaps better called a dressing room:  it’s large enough to have its own artwork.

The suite lacks a kitchen — but of course there’s an excellent one on the other end of the phone line. Also, there are complimentary breakfast, afternoon tea, an early, light supper, and snacks available at any hour, at the Executive Club.

It’s there, at the Executive Club, where they have that magnificent view — they’re on the 45th floor.  The remarkable thing may be the service though. The person who holds your chair for you at breakfast isn’t so much a waiter as an administrative assistant.  They’re eager to discuss your plans for the day and to help with anything involving scheduling, transportation or communication. As soon as you give your room number to one of them, they all address you by last name and title, no matter when they see you.

We were able on several occasions to wrest ourselves free from this heaven of hostelry, the first time shortly after our arrival, when we made our way into the open air to have dinner at another luxury hotel several blocks away. On our return, judging ourselves now quite the Old China Hands, we did some window shopping. Besides all the designer clothing shops there’s a big Apple store, and one just for Leicas. Quite near the entrance to the hotel there’s a BVLGARI sign — also the name on the give-away toiletries in our bathroom. We acquired some chocolate at one of the many boutique shops. The more pedestrian outlets tend to be on the transit levels.  There’s a Mrs. Fields within a stone’s throw of two 7-Elevens, for instance.

Our very best purchase was an Octopus card for each of us, the equivalent of our ORCA transit pass back home — except that it lets you ride more kinds of transport, gets you discounts on some of them, can be used to make purchases at many stores (!), and then refunds your unused balance when you’re ready to leave town.

So we used our cards to go to some of the typical tourist places.  We rode the Star Ferry over to Kowloon (see again that picture at top) and visited a couple of nice parks there.  We took the tram (a long wait and a separate ticket) up to Victoria Peak.  We rode the subway all the way back out to Tung Chung on Lantau Island and then the cable car to Ngong Ping  for the classic aerial view of the airport and a look at the world’s largest statue of Buddha.

The next-to-last stop on that train line is the connection for the local Disneyland resort. An excited little girl with her extended family boarded after we did, and I started to offer my place to a mother or aunt; but Grandfather signaled that I should remain seated — it’s age, not gender, that gets you special treatment here. As they all got up to leave we wished each other a good day.

At one time Hong Kong sounded far too exotic for me, but it’s one of those places that allow the traveler to sample just the desired degree of foreignness. It offers  what could be a valuable experience to many Americans:  to find yourself in a situation where 1) nobody looks anything like you, and 2) nobody gives a darn.

Victoria Harbour — Executive Overview


The task:  create an earthly replica of heaven; that is, the sacred Mt. Meru and the cosmic ocean that surrounds it.  Given a few decades, plus the resources of an empire that covered most of Southeast Asia, this was pretty much a snap:

After several centuries of deferred maintenance, Angkor may no longer be the world’s largest urban center; but improved airline connections have probably put it within reach of a greater number of people. We, for instance, went there (the modern city of Siem Reap) as the last stop on our bicycle tour.

That’s Angkor Wat in the picture above, seen shortly after dawn, both an early capital and the temple with the best name-recognition.

But of the dozen temples and other ruins accessible with a single wearable punch-card pass, the site that best brings out the tourist’s inner Indiana Jones may be Ta Prohm.

Nothing says “Lost World” quite like a delicate stone carving caught in the clutches of a strangler fig. This Buddhist monastery, abandoned in the 15th Century, vandalized by iconoclasts and then given only minimal restoration in recent years, provides a brooding backdrop for Hollywood blockbusters and whirlwind vacations alike.

Here’s our local guide Borin pointing out another mystery: two of the images on this column seem to resemble, respectively, a stegosaurus and a drawing by Maurice Sendak. The best theory is probably that these are the result of imaginative coincidences.  On the other hand, it was once asserted that Angkor’s wonders were produced on a single night by a divine Architect.

The earliest of the works we see are Hindu monuments; some were re-purposed more than once as the predominant religion alternated with Buddhism, now by far the favorite. These are not the only attitudes that have changed:  Borin told us that the current older generation of Cambodians once wondered why the Americans hated them so much that they dropped bombs on them.  The younger folks view Americans favorably, regarding them as generous tippers.  He was our guide during our tour in Cambodia, working for Backroads; then, the next day, after the other guests had left, he was back as our fixer, on behalf of Trails of Indochina, making sure that we got not just to the airport okay, but into the best line for check-in.

By the way, it should not be imagined that the wonders of Southeast Asia are all visual.  By the time our trip was over, I had eaten, for the first time, jackfruit, dragon fruit, rambutan, mangosteen and longan.  And durian!  And — crickets!

Here a guide rides his personal bike. In Cambodia, Backroads uses only their version of the mountain bike, that is, their standard titanium frame but with fat tires and flat bars.

The Pleasures of Hội An

It wasn’t just the warmer weather, or the lower traffic density, that made our time in Hội An seem more comfortable.  There was also the discovery of the Four Seasons Nam Hai Resort, at least briefly my favorite hotel.  So great is its charm that our trip leaders have identified a syndrome, called “Nam Hai Fever,” which seems often to prevent guests from leaving the premises even to join in planned activities.

The hotel has a number of types of accommodations, including suites with up to five bedrooms, but our bunch was put up in their one-bedroom villas.  This page has a link that shows the graceful floorplan, which puts the living area in an island all its own, leaving plenty of airy, naturally-lighted space for circulation.

The villas are arranged so that each unit has a view straight out to the water, with a big furnished, covered patio on that side.

The other end of the bungalow is the ideal way to return from the beach, since it has a little yard with an outdoor shower.  We used the light there as a night light.

In this back part of the house (which can be screened off from the living area), there are two vanities, each with its own small walk-in closet, including a low dresser, cubby-holes and an overhead shelf.

The main entry (yet a third doorway, notice) is at the side of the house, forming a spacious transept with the closet-like mini-bar across the way.  The elevated living area, built like big six-poster bed, encompasses a soaking tub, seating areas, and a spacious desk that shares its backboard (and flexible task lighting) with the bed on the other side. In this picture the desk and bed are offstage to the right:

Centuries ago, Hội An was one of the most important trading centers in Asia. drawing settlers from many other countries.  Today, tourists come to look at the well-preserved old city and to sample the cuisine that resulted from that meeting of cultures. It seemed like maybe the New Year’s party had already gotten into full swing, but we were told that, no, it always looks like this.

Even I overcame my “fever” to spend some time in town.  One of the activities offered on our tour was an evening learning from Ms Lu at the Morning Glory Cooking School. The street view above is from the balcony where we ate chicken skewers that we had prepared earlier (our pancakes and spring rolls having been consumed in the moment).

Each guest gets a bicycle.

Personally, I could have stayed at the Nam Hai forever, but it should be stated that others found themselves less suited to the arrangements. Alex points out that, though there is plenty of room for lounging, there are no chairs, so no meaningful back support. The components of the living area are ingenious but complex, as is the lighting system. And I have myself observed that any person who is six feet tall will eventually strike his or her head on the elegant shelf in the closet.

For the visual delight, for the appearance of the local Marou chocolate in the mini-bar, for the serenity of contemplating the pot of rainwater with its ladle out at the end of our yard, I would have been willing to learn to sit cross-legged, and to memorize the topography of the fixtures. But the opportunity did not arise, because, inevitably, after just a few days, we were off to Cambodia.

South from Hué

It was gray and rainy when our bunch landed in Hué, but Alex and I were prepared.  While the others pedaled around in filmy handout ponchos, we Seattleites were snug and warm in our robust, reflective yellow winter cycling jackets, rain pants, helmet covers, and even booties.  Still, we were plenty glad to pull up at our hotel, the Art Deco La Residence  (the history link on their website is worth a look). We spent some time cleaning the road dirt off our gear and then settled in for the evening, passing up the tour of the Citadel on the other shore of the Perfume River.

Among the splendid sights of central Vietnam is the Khai Dinh Mausoleum, resting place of the next-to-last Nguyễn emperor, who died in 1925. The bronze likeness was cast in France — a clue to his coziness with the colonialists, which earned him criticism from many of his subjects, including the young Hồ Chí Minh. Nonetheless, we have the Emperor to thank for the decree that Vietnamese would no longer be written in Chinese characters, providing the tourist with the single scant hope of understanding some of the language.

Veneration of ancestors is important in this part of the world, so you don’t have to be the king to get a noticeable tomb. Elaborate monuments rise from rice fields and hillsides. At another altar, we joined in the ritual of burning currency so that wealth might be carried aloft by the smoke to waiting spirits.  (The money that’s burned is normally counterfeit, raising some question about who is being fooled.  Later I saw a guy carrying a cardboard motor scooter, and yet still had to be told its purpose.)

We aren’t souvenir hunters, but one of my favorite stops was at a village where handicrafts were on display.  One little shop was producing incense sticks, starting from freshly-cut bamboo that we saw being brought in. Next door was a maker of those ubiquitous conical hats made from palm leaves; and there I learned another thing I wouldn’t have guessed.

The hats aren’t completely opaque, and it turns out that it’s possible during construction to add an intermediate layer with a message or a picture, like in a shadow-play, that will be visible only when the hat is trans-illuminated, as by holding it up to the sun. Traditionally, a suitor might carry this discreet message for his beloved, revealing it, wordlessly, only at the ideal time and place. While it wasn’t practical for me to commission one of these “poem hats,” I was very glad to bring the concept back with me.

After a couple days in Hué it was time to head south. The idea is to ride over Hầm Hải Vân (“Ocean Cloud Pass”) to Đà Nẵng; but, as sometimes happens, I got a late start and decided to skip the uphill grade. From the summit though it was a new day, the weather now sunny and warming, with a pleasant ride downhill and then across the harbor to the Buddhist temple out on the peninsula. Lunch followed at a resort near there and then a bus ride, south along China Beach to our next stop, the Four Seasons Nam Hai at Hoi An.

Đà Nẵng’s answer to Fisherman’s Terminal.