a few days in bangkok

Bells
after a week in saigon (minus a few days in hoi an to which i did not bring a camera battery – so you will see no pictures), i travelled to bangkok to meet up with b, who had never been to asia before, for a week of vacation silliness in a city still known for its wild side.  if i had to choose only one country to vacation to, it would be thailand.  having been twice before, this third trip to the kingdom would be my shortest, and the first time i would not leave bangkok for the duration of my trip.  there are plenty of hotels to choose from in bangkok; from the top-of-the-line to backpacker-chique.  i am partial to the sheraton royal orchid on the chayo praya river, besides i can stay on points.  all rooms in the hotel have been (or are being) renovated and have river views.  the ferry, a free luxury that all river hotels have, takes you to saphin thaksin bts (skytrain) station and you can ride the modern convenience throughout the central area of bangkok and up to the jj market.  even though taxis are inexpensive, using the skytrain system sometimes can prove easier near the main shopping area.  in the evenings taxis (or when you are up for a thrill, a tuk-tuk) can take you directly to your destination for very little.

Royal Orchid Sheraton

River LifeRiver SideAlong the River

as i have mentioned before, i do enjoy relaxing by the pool, eating and shopping on a vacation and bangkok offers exactly what i was looking for.  siam centre, still my favourite place to shop, is located along side the downright luxurious siam paragon centre, mbk centre – the place for leather goods and various quality levels of knock-offs and another dud mall, siam discovery, that i usually avoid.  for a bit of culture thrown in, jim thompson house is located a short walk from this corner as is worth seeing, if only to see a traditional thai style house, right in the middle of this bustling metropolis.

Temple DetailTemple Detail 2Wat PhoOfferings to Buddha

of course i have a favourite restaurant in bangkok – eat me, located on convent road a few blocks from sala dang bts station, has had me coming back several times each time i am in town.  the intimately scaled, yet open style of this tropical restaurant is a favourite haunt for travelers in the know, expats from the world over and hi-so thais not only because of its delectable internationally flavoured menu but also the informative longtime owner darren hausler, who can often be seen chatting-up other guests and the headwaiter, who’s seductive voice could at easily talk you into a second dessert.  the city of angels is also known for its street food as bangkokians spend much of their evenings and time off out, on the street.  this way of life has lead to some of the most diverse street food that i have seen in my travels.  the smells and sights will excite the true foodie, and anyone with a sense of adventure will want to try a snippet from many a cart.  as a good rule of thumb with any restaurant, if it’s not busy, don’t eat there!

Mother of Pearl DetailReclining Buddha

i have an every increasing list of things to do when in bangkok.  i have never made it through.

saigon

Smoke Trails

there are many thoughts and images that come to mind when one thinks of vietnam.  it is a country that has weathered many occupations, wars and calamities.  for many, it is synonymous with a failed war, befittingly called the american war here.  before that the french occupied the area and going back before that the chinese left their legacy of rule.  the influence of america’s war, french colonial rule and chinese control can be seen in the architecture, food, religion and the population itself.  though i am familiar with south east asia, this was my first trip to vietnam and i was not disappointed.  many travel writers have compared saigon of present to bangkok 10 to 15 years ago.  and while there can be many parallels drawn between the two, saigon and bangkok are unique gems in their own rights.  in these writers’ defense saigon is, as bangkok was (or in a more limited capacity is), still a city that has many draws for the ‘backpack in one hand, lonely planet in the other’ crowd of travelers that help open the world of travel to the masses.  i however, travelled to saigon with luggage on wheels, my laptop, several cameras and lenses sans a lonely planet guide under my arm – and still managed.

visiting saigon was prompted by my friend s who is living in vietnam for one year in order to adopt her second child.  s, who i have know since high school, already has her beautiful 3 year old daughter m, who she adopted from china several years ago, and together they are living outside the tourist zones of saigon in quận 8.  having lived in the city since january, s was a tour guide that could help navigate such a whirlwind of a city as well as offer some sound advice on the idiosyncrasies that make saigon both unique and possibly treacherous.

the first thing one might notice after leaving the airport in the relative comfort of a taxi, other than the heat and humidity of course, is the sheer number of motorbikes on the road.  as  our taxi weaves through the sea of literally thousands of motorbikes, each using their horns as a type of echo location device, it dawns on me that this might be as close to controlled chaos as i have ever been.  i am reminded of traveling through india many years ago – but it is only a glimmer – as the city unfolding before me takes centre stage in my mind’s eye.  as i had landed after 10 pm, traffic was actually light and we made it south from the airport to s’s place in less than half-an-hour.  as saigon, and vietnam as a whole, continues to develop, the middle class continues to grow as evidenced by the relatively new homes that have been built throughout the city’s many districts or quận(s).  as we pull up the house s shares with a couple who is also living in vietnam to adopt two children (3 and 12), i am struck by the difference in architecture compared to an average home in vancouver or toronto.  as with most newer homes in saigon, s’s home is a row house with 4 floors.  the front of the house literally opens up completely, both to act as a front door and a garage door.  it seems that if you are lucky enough to afford an automobile in saigon, you must also park it in your living room.  with no cars at the house, the living room merely had to cope with two motorbikes.

morning in quan 8sunrise quan 8

ah, the motorbikes.  i was quickly initiated into saigon’s motorcycle culture the next morning when s, along with m strapped in, and i head out into the blurry streets in search of breakfast that didn’t include noodles.  heading further from the city centre, towards a newer enclave of homes and shops being built for the booming expat populations that have begun descending on this relatively undiscovered south east asian gem, we stop at vietnam’s answer to starbucks – highland’s coffee and have a delicious breakfast of eggs, french bread, fruits and yogurt.  the french’s lasting influence on the cuisine in vietnam cannot be ignored.
Parking

after fueling up on breakfast (and espresso) we get back on the donorcycle and head into the thick of saigon’s quận 1, the central business, tourist and shopping district.  the roar of the traffic, the echoing horns and palpable energy pulsing through the air, continue to rise as we move closer to the heart of the city.  while the average resident of saigon is not unaccustomed to seeing foreigners throughout the city, two europeans with a chinese toddler (often sleeping!) riding through the crowded city streets on a motorbike still draws it’s fair share of smiles, add to that that it is the woman driving and you have the perfect recipe for some outright laughter.  as the throngs of motorcycles squeeze through the streets, jockeying for space amongst the buses, cars and taxis you are reminded of just how fragile we as humans really are.

for me, traveling is often about meeting people, eating and shopping – with my fair share of lazing by a pool thrown in – and less about sightseeing.  i hate to schedule every moment of a trip as much of the more interesting days seem to unfold all on their own.  district 1 offers plenty of distractions for everyone, from the backpacker in the group to the gucci girl of the pack.  shopping is a pastime that can easily engulf an entire week in saigon – from the comfort of the air conditioned plazas to the dozens upon dozens of shops lining every street throughout district 1 – there is no end to shopping, at any price point.

for the foodie in the group, stumbling upon saigon – with it’s thousands of street vendors and hundreds of restaurants offering local specialities, and specialties from throughout the country – it is easy to immerse yourself into vietnamese food on a grand scale.  with its history of french occupation saigon is also home to many french restaurants and bistros… for those craving a baguette and a glass of wine for lunch the refinery, located near the park hyatt, is a perfect place to stop while exploring the city.  saigon is also home to a few 5 star hotels, each with their own way to eat, and experience the city.  firstly, the rex hotel – the choice of foreign journalists during the war –  with its sparkling, almost kitchy, rooftop restaurant brings you just far enough up from one of the district’s main intersections without disconnecting you from the pulsating rhythm.  it is worth a dinner on a friday or saturday  night before exploring the nightlife.  Secondly, bringing you up much further – the 23rd floor to be exact – is the bar/restaurant of sheraton saigon towers.  the view is stunning and brings you far above the crowded city streets, and if you happen upon here at dusk you’ll be able to see the bats swooping and performing aerial acrobatics in search of the evening’s meal.  the sheraton also offers two towers for guests and is the hotel that i spend my last night in before heading to bangkok.  lastly, for the 5 star afternoon tea break, i suggest the hotel majestic’s street level restaurant.  one cannot discuss food in saigon without mentioning the famous quan an ngon, located near reunification palace.  this restaurant, popular with locals and expats alike is an open air oasis allowing you to dine on some of saigon’s best street food under the rustle of banana leaves and palm trees.  despite all this, sharing phở, rice noodles and beef strips in a beef broth, with locals, late at night at a street vendor’s seating area on the sidewalk, remains a highlight of my trip.
The RefineryRefinery Lunch

a week anywhere would be hard without seeing some of the sites.  throughout the city there is evidence of the french occupation.  wide streets, lined with beautiful examples of french architecture are prominent throughout district 1.  the central post office exemplifies this and is a popular tourist destination.  perhaps one of the most disappointing tourist spots is the reunification palace – which looks less like a a palace and more like a university designed in the 70s.  the park located across from it however, is a lovely expanse of grass and trees and provides a quiet refuge during a hot day.  though hard to find, the emperor jade pagoda provided a glimpse into some of the chinese influence on vietnam and gave me a chance to take some pictures with my new lens.

PrayersOfferingsExitCyclo Close-up

with the world economy in its present uncertain state, it is hard to say if saigon will continue to change at its present pace, but regardless, like many other times in its history saigon seems to be at a pivotal moment and is sure to continue to draw more and more tourists eager to see and experience its charms.

a fall day

it feels like only yesterday that summer began and yet here we are already in fall – there’s a chill in the air to prove it!  despite the cooler temperatures september is traditionally a decent month for sun in vancouver and yesterday (and today) it has graced us with its presence.  i got a few shots that i am happy in the afternoon with the sunlight filtering through the bamboo.

i am experimenting with using flickr to host my photos – i think i like it, though it does take more time to post.

<click here to view entire set>

grandma’s tea tray gets a new life

this silver tray came from m’s grandmother when she recently moved.  i have never liked a cluttered counter, besides it is too difficult to clean when there is bottles of this and containers of that everywhere.  this tray allows me to keep often used things close to the food prep area and move them out of the way when i am cleaning up after dinner.  and yes, i do use the disco-ball vodka bottle all the time.

summer snippets

there is nothing quite like a sunny day in vancouver. my garden is its happiest when amun ra graces us with his presence. you can practically watch the banana leaves unfurl and the canna reach for the sky. as for my own preference, i can think of nothing better than the sun on my face all day long. this past week i was lucky enough to catch a few sunny days camping in pacific rim national park on vancouver island’s westerly coast. seeing the sunlight filter through the giant trees of the temperate rain forest reflecting off the spanish moss would make even the most ardent city dweller (such as myself) weak in the knees and wonder would it would be like to give up the concrete and fumes for good. though i could never give up the amenities of city life in exchange for a life in the unspoiled wilderness, i am lucky enough to have my own little slice of almost tropical heaven to relax in and enjoy ‘nature’ my own way anytime i wish.

away from the garden…

it seems that i have been away from my garden for a longtime – and it’s true! in mid-july we headed back to do some work on our place in toronto – i will not bore you with details, but in short, i hate drywall. the day we returned i was forced to moved all the pots in the front garden away from the fences so they could be powerwashed and painted – and that is how it stands to this day. thanks to my friends d & p the garden was kept well hydrated during my absence and as such the back garden is coming along tickety-boo with the plants being far too full to even consider painting those fences.

the banana plants continue to grow at phenomenal rates and are one of my most favourite plants in the garden. they have opened several new leaves since this photo adding at least a half metre to their overall height. you can see the first year’s growth of the giant cane bamboo – it is magnificent, and i am so glad we installed the rhizome barrier! the gunnera i planted this spring is happily growing ever larger leaves in the planter we built for it and has started really shielding the garden from a neighbouring building.

enter the joneses

as any real estate agent will tell you, curb appeal is important. for those of us that live in one of the city’s many townhouses it is our gardens that allow us to express some individuality on this frontier. we are lucky to have several neighbours that sport green thumbs and i really like how different one person’s style is from my own. case-and-point is our neighbours and friends d and p – their garden couldn’t be more different than my own. full of ferns and other shade loving plants, their garden is a cool oasis at anytime of day. with d away on business p is free to play with the garden at his own pace and recently has begun some experimenting with new plants and ideas – i love how a few new plants can completely change a garden. in front a window sees its fair share of light he planted this lovely passion flower, training it to climb a 5′ obelisk. sitting outside the other day i clicked this photo is the day’s waning sunlight.

selby street, toronto

last year at this time i was still living in toronto’s downtown core. the backyard really needed some help and we decided to have it totally redone so we could enjoy it for the summer. i designed the decking and fencing to both provide privacy from neighbouring houses and allow us to spend time outside enjoying the relatively short lived, hot sultry summers that toronto is famous for. as with most homes in the area the yards are incredibly small so i decided against any built in planters and focused on giving us as much space as possible for whatever we (or future owners) wanted from this space.

despite being only a block from the constantly busy bloor street our backyard is remarkably quiet. adding this buddha fountain removes any trace of living so close to the action.

the ‘coffee table’ is actually an outdoor dining table that m shortened the legs with a hack saw. it provides plenty of room for food, drinks and an arrangement of plants.

eventually the pergola above the back fence will be covered with vines and provide more privacy and greenery.