Finally in Portugal

So far, we have had an easy trip. Our 2:00 PM flight from Guadalajara to Dallas was on time. The four hours in DFW allowed us to have a bite to eat before boarding our almost 9-hour flight to Madrid. We were very fortunate to each have a three-seat row to crash on. With our blowup seat and neck pillows and plane’s blanket, we were pretty comfortable.

I got a few hours of sleep, which is pretty good for me. The inflight entertainment had lots of options, so awake time wasn’t too horrible. Flying a US airline (American) meant crummy food for dinner and breakfast this morning. When we return, we fly Iberia from Lisbon to Guadalajara via Madrid and Mexico City. I am convinced (or at least hoping) that the food will be an improvement over the long flight here.

For those who have been in the Madrid airport, it is huge, architecturally attractive and has amazing restaurants, food stalls, and shopping. Just looking

Long hallways to gates at
Madrid Airport

at the food, the Iberian ham, salads, and tapas, make your mouth water. We had a couple of hours there, which is sufficient to pick up bags and re-check them to Porto. However, it was not necessary, as our bags went straight through. We love Madrid and recommend it highly as a vacation destination.

Walking this airport is definitely a challenge, though. We didn’t see any golf carts or other mechanical means of getting to the distant gates. I guess you either hoof it or use a wheelchair! As you can see, our Porto connecting flight is at Gate 87 and they went up to Gate 95.

By the way, I used my brand new Czech/EU passport for immigration in Madrid. It was the speediest way to go. Jim went through the regular line with the other hundreds of travelers, taking over a half hour. Woo hoo!

And for anyone traveling to or through the US, definitely get the Mobile Passport app on your phone if you don’t already have Global Entry. It isn’t available at all US airports, but most, and it eliminates the waiting lines for immigration.
Nothing exciting during the .one hour flight from Madrid to Porto. We didn’t have to go through Immigration again, even though Portugal is a different country than Spain. Once you are in the EU, you are in everywhere. The Brits will have quite a shock after the end of October if they are out of the EU then.
Porto was pretty foggy. The 20-minute taxi ride to our hotel, practically overlooking the Atlantic (if we could really see it), and we are finally settled into our room. Jim is exhausted due to lack of sleep but we will go to bed at our normal time, even though we are six hours ahead of Guadalajara time.
We will have breakfast in the morning and then meet up with our guide and the group for a tour of Porto. The temps are cool, 68-70F for the high. No problem, because as we go south, the temperatures will be warmer.

Off to Portugal

We have been taking two big trips a year and this next one is almost three weeks in Portugal. We leave Guadalajara via Dallas and Madrid to Porto in the north. Porto is supposed to be a beautiful city. We will meet our tour group from Smartours the day after our arrival (September 18, 2019) and spend the first day touring around the town. The ten days of the tour are filled with visits to surrounding towns, a Douro River cruise, Coimbra, Fatima, Evora, Obidos and ultimately to Lisbon, where we will rent a car to tour the Algarve in the south.

On the southern coast, there are spectacular beaches, Mediterranean views, great food and, hopefully, a cooking class if possible. We have rented a penthouse overlooking the water in Carvoiera for four nights, then a beautiful room in a villa in Albufeira for three nights. Supposedly, the width of the Algarve is less than two hours from one end to the other, giving us a chance to explore all the towns along the way.

We hope to visit the sister of a friend here in Mexico, as well as other friends who moved from Ajijic to Portugal about a year ago. Their insights into living there will add to the enjoyment of our visit.

 

Another Day in Morelia

Typical Morelia Street

We decided to go to the Morelia Zoo today. Not knowing what to expect, it turned out to be an excellent zoo. We saw as many African animals as we saw while in Africa! Plus, we saw a white tiger, which is quite rare.

The city is a UNESCO World Heritage site, with beautiful buildings around their central Plaza. The Basilica on the Plaza is ornate and elegant. There must have been dozens of churches in the area, although we concentrated on the main one.

Everywhere, there were mini-buses taking the locals to different areas, rather than large buses. They hopped on and off easily. We thought it was quite impressive. This will be our last day here, then we are off to Patzcuaro, about 45 minutes away

Morelia Basilica at Night
Inside of Basilica
Basilica Organ
Basilica Door
Basilica Dome
Manicured Plaza in the heart of Morelia Michoacan

To LA and Home, Day 13

Our flight took off on time, at 4:00 AM and arrived at 9:00 AM Shanghai time, one-hour time zone later. The layover dropped from 8-1/2 hours to 3 hours, which was good, since the Shanghai airport has little to see or do, other than duty free shops and a few restaurants with strange offerings. Congee for breakfast, no matter what you pair with it, doesn’t sound or look good. Probably the best thing to eat was at Starbucks!

Finally, on the plane to LA. The flight was totally full, but after getting some sleep in the Siem Reap airport and again on the flight to Shanghai, the 11-hour flight to LA seemed to fly by. There were some good movies to watch, a little walking around, maybe a catnap now and then, but otherwise we were awake the whole time.

We arrived in decent shape to LA, found electrical plugs to charge our devices and spent the four hours just relaxing and having a bite of food. We leave at 4:00 PM and will be home and in bed by 10:00 PM our time. We are looking forward to that.

General Observations of the Tip:

Smartours does an excellent job of providing knowledgeable, capable and enthusiastic tour guides. They really know their stuff. In general, the hotels were excellent. In one case, the hotel wasn’t that great, but that may have been due to a Vietnamese holiday in Hue causing them to use a hotel that could accommodate all of us. We don’t know for sure, but even our guide said that it wasn’t up to the standards he normally sees.

Having some down time is very important and we could have used an extra half day to enjoy the pool or shop. Still, we saw so much and with all the entrance fees, transportation and most of the meals included, it is a great bargain.

We loved the Vietnamese people, with their smiling faces. The large cities in Vietnam are modern and crazy. The millions of motorcycles make life there a nightmare. Previously, it was the same, but with bicycles, nor motorcycles. The smaller towns and countryside villages seem quite poor. The country is still dealing with probably 1,000 buried landmines that have not been found. You see men without arms or legs as a result of the war so many years ago.

Cambodia was even friendlier. The roads are filled with tuktuks and rickshaws, as well as very current cars. I would say that the number one car in Siem Reap is the Lexus SUV. Some were as much as 10 years old, but there were some that were much more current. You couldn’t miss seeing a Lexus everywhere you turned. I found that quite remarkable.

There are huge well-stocked grocery stores, a zillion restaurants and coffee shops, and at least one or two banks in every block. While the culture is very different from Vietnam, the people are warm and inviting. We would recommend this trip. The only down side was the amount of time we spent on a bus getting from one part of Vietnam to another. However, there are few options if you want to get the flavor of what Vietnam has to offer.

There are so many pictures to share and we will miss the friendships we have made on the trip. We look forward to having some of them visit us in Mexico in the future. The pictures will be added soon…

Free Day in Siem Reap, Day 12

After visiting so many places and sights, we truly welcomed having a day to just relax, do some last minute shopping or take a swim before heading to the airport for the final part of this journey, the trip home.

Bruno, Stephanie, Judy and I took a tuktuk to town to seek the treasures we missed before. We immediately found lots of amazing shops with clothing, jewelry, decorative items and so much more at truly bargain prices. Jim didn’t join us, although we tried to call him to come and meet us. Unfortunately, we couldn’t reach him.

In town, we immediately found lots of fun items, mainly as gifts. Everywhere you turned, there was something fun to buy. After our exhausting search (not really exhausting…) we sat at an outdoor table at the the Beatnik Speakeasy pub, had beers for $.75 US each, authentic nachos, cheeseburgers and wedge fries and the specialty of Siem Reap, ice cream rolls. You pick the flavor and they chop the ice cream with the additions you request, then roll them up and put six of the into a cup. It was the perfect dessert for four people to share.

Once we did our damage in buying, we returned to the hotel to pack and put our suitcases outside of our rooms for pickup at 3:00 PM. This left three and a half hours before going to dinner to take a leisurely swim in the huge pool. Without the pool, we would have suffered the heat and humidity outside and we certainly didn’t want to be inside, even with air conditioning.

We changed out of our bathing suits and went out to another fine restaurant for dinner. Joe, in our group, had a birthday today. We celebrated with a great cake and a sparkler candle. By 8:30 PM, we were on our way to the airport for our 11:15 PM flight to Shanghai.

However, the flight was delayed for some undetermined reason and was not leaving until 4:00 AM. We were lucky to find a fairly comfortable place to try and get some sleep, while many just camped out on the floor or wherever they could find a space. With a couple of hundred passengers who will board this plane (mainly Chinese) and nothing open for food or drink during the night, we were quite a grumpy group.

We had a long layover in Shanghai, so there was no worry about missing our connection to LA, at least for us. Some of the folks were taking an earlier plane to NY and this delay could cause a problem, but we certainly hope not.

Siem Reap Angkor Wat, Day 11

Finally, we went to the destination that most people can not wait to see. Angkor is an entire area just outside of Siem Reap, known for its many temples and ancient buildings. Angkor Wat is the most famous, a huge with many buildings, open courtyards, and colonnades on three sides of the main building. It was inhabited by Hindus initially, it is now where Buddhist monks live.

The grounds and main buildings are massive in scale. Even with thousands of visitors daily, you are not overwhelmed by their presence. Crossing the wide moat, you enter through a large opening in the outer wall to an expansive grassy area. There is a reflecting pond, which is quite low now, almost devoid of water, since this is the end of the rainy season. However, you can still see some reflection of the three towers from the main building.

The colonnades (or walkways) wrap around three sides of the main temple, with wall carvings depicting battles, heaven and hell, farming and many of the typical themes of the era. Many of the carvings were rubbed to a dark patina by visitors’ hands before the area was roped off a few years ago.

Several in our group found the walking in the escalating heat too much for them. They went to a shady spot to wait for the rest of our group. It sounded appealing, but we persevered and continued to see more of the temple. Truthfully, we were underwhelmed by this temple, despite its notoriety. We thought the temples we saw yesterday, although smaller in scale, offered a better glimpse of life in the 9th century.

The heat was now becoming oppressive and quite humid. Just being in the bus was a welcome respite, with great air conditioning. After lunch, we drove to Tonle Sap Lake, just to the south of Siem Reap. It is known for growing rice in the dry season and fishing in the rainy season. Since this time is close to the end of the rainy season, which will begin in July, it is difficult to imagine the amount of water that will fill this lake and its tributaries.

The best way to tell is to see that the houses on the road to the lake and alongside the canal to Cambodia’s largest lake are on stilts that are as much as three stories above the road. The water can rise 35′ or more. At this time, it is very shallow, with the propeller on the boats on a long screw that is kept at the top level of the water. If it goes any deeper the existing boats can get stuck in the mud. There are also many houses that are built on barrels so they float with the water level.

We saw the locals drying out the rice they harvested on tarps on the ground, then filling huge bags with the dried grains. In some cases, they filled large tractor trailers with maybe a couple hundred or more 100 lb bags of rice. Some residents caught what looked like sardines, although the main catch is catfish and talapia.

Our hour and a half trip on a rickety fishing boat down the canal to the main part of the lake was very interesting. The current muddy water is replaced with the rain water that comes in the season, making the water a clear blue-green. The elementary school floats on the water, and there are even solar panels on the roofs of the floating houses. After many years of harvesting the rice by hand, this year, our guide said that he saw several John Deere tractors getting the land ready. This was the first time.

An hour or so of rest, then off to our final dinner. We went to a large restaurant, filled with many other tour groups. We saw Gate 1 travelers, but we were sure that there were other groups. The highlight of the dinner was the entertainment. The traditional Cambodia dancers in authentic costumes were elegant and told a story with each dance. The women are particularly beautiful, with skin like porcelain with the grace that comes with many years of training. It was a fitting end to our trip.

Siem Reap Angkor Temples, Day 10

Today was planned to be an exceptional day of sightseeing the temples in the Angkor area. With the weather getting warmer each day, we started out right after an early breakfast.

Our first stop was the temple of Banteay Srey, an amazing example of many religions. There is evidence of symbolism and architecture from the Brahmins, Vishnu and Shiva eras, starting from about 900 AD. The construction styles and details are documented in the entry hall before entering the temple itself.

Unfortunately, much of the decoration and statuary has been removed to a museum in France and elsewhere. What is left or wasn’t pillaged still provides a hint at what existed so long ago.

Our next stop was the south gate of Angkor Thom. It is a beautiful example of the temples of the time, over 1,000 years ago. There is so much to see, with many bas relief wall carvings, supposedly created by 70,000 artisans over 30 years or more. There is much symbolism in the carvings, which our guide pointed out. We found this temple to be especially interesting.

On to Bayon, which isn’t a temple at all, but an edifice that is notable because of the 115 faces as you approach. Each side of the bridge to the gate has rows of statues. Inside, much of the building has deteriorated. There is reconstruction going on, but the process is very slow. The huge stones are being catalogued fo reconstruction. There is much work to be done.

Our last stop of the day was Ta Brohm Kel another temple, also in the same area. There are over 4,200 temples in Cambodia, so you never run out of them! This temple is famous because of the ficus tree roots that have invaded and embedded themselves into the walls and the structure of the buildings and walls. It is a destination for many, especially the Chinese tourists, to have a photo taken. Angelina Jolie’s film of Tomb Raider was filmed here, making it quite famous.

Cambodia is 95% Buddhist. The other 5% is mainly Hindu or Christian. There is a smattering of Catholic churches and Hindu temples. We visited a Hindu temple and felt the Indian influences.

After this long day, we went to a lovely restaurant for a group dinner. So many of the restaurants cater to groups of various sizes with a set menu, giving us an opportunity to experience the varieties of cuisines available. The menu usually includes fried spring rolls, a soup of some kind, a curry, stir-fried vegetables, steamed rice and fruit for dessert, usually watermelon or papaya.

It was still relatively early after dinner, so we took a tuktuk into town, about 15 minutes away, to see the famous Night Market. It was absolutely amazing, with shops selling every imaginable souvenir, and restaurants and pubs open until midnight. The town comes alive at night. We knew that a return visit would be a must.

By now, we were exhausted and ready for bed.

Hanoi to Siem Reap, Day 9

The weather has cooperated some, with overcast skies, the temperature was very comfortable. We started the day with an electric car ride downtown. These were oversized six passenger golf carts. The three we had weaved their way through the traffic with ease. Occasionally, we had to close our eyes to avoid seeing the oncoming traffic.

We drove through the French Quarter with architecture that feels like Paris. We returned to old town and then wove our way through the very upscale area of Hanoi. It was an interesting way to get a feel for the city.

Time to get our luggage ready for our afternoon flight to Siem Reap. We grabbed a quick bowl of soup at the hotel and made our way to the airport for the hour and a half flight. 

Although Pnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia, Siem Reap is the home to the most ancient temples and ruins. The local currency is the riel, $4000 to the dollar) but the US dollar is the currency used for almost everything, including ATM’s. Also, English is the main language spoken, not Cambodian, a derivation of Sanskrit, fading in use for young people, who can speak and read it, but are resistant to writing or using it for every day communication. 

Our Vietnam guide, Kit, continued to accompany us to Cambodia but we now also have a local guide, Narun, who is multi-lingual, including speaking Spanish and French. He is very knowledgeable and will accompany us for our time here.

Scheduled for another day, we went to a school training artisans in many of the most important skills and techniques. They learn to carve in wood and chisel different stones to create statuary, create porcelain, lacquer work, weave silk and create items that will be sold all around Cambodia. They are usually younger students learning a trade, working in stifling buildings for many hours a day. Still, it is a skill they would not otherwise have and eventually can translate these skills to other possibilities.

Before leaving, we visited the artisan store (of course). However, the quality of the items was spectacular. The silk was used for clothing, wallets, jewelry holders and more, they created porcelain vases and dishes, lacquer art and bowls, metal and wood sculptures and much more that was beyond the normal souvenir quality.

Finally, we checked into our hotel after we got settled in our hotel. Dinner was not included in our tour tonight, so we caravanned in the local transportation, the typical tuk-tuk, into town for a group meal. A tuk-tuk is a carriage holding four passengers pulled by a motorcycle. No crazy traffic, so it was an easy trip. We had a delicious dinner from an ala carte menu, which allowed us to sample food we may have not had previously. We tended to have a beer with our meals and so far, they have all been tasty and refreshing.

By the time we returned to the hotel, we were exhausted. It was a long day of travel. In no time, we were asleep.

Hanoi, Day 8

After our beautiful trip on Halong Bay, we drove four hours to Hanoi to check in to our beautiful Movenpick Hotel. It is close to everything and provides a perfect opportunity to see the crazy Vietnamese drivers, with motorbikes fighting for space with cars and buses. Since traffic lights are merely a suggestion, vehicles continue through intersections as if they still had the green light. Even on our bus, it was death-defying to experience!

We started the day going to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum.  It is visited by tourists, school children, and locals alike. Ho is still revered, “resting” in a building built by Russia. The architecture is pretty stark compared to the elegant French architecture prevalent in Hanoi. From there, we walked to the grounds housing the former King. It is quite beautiful but unused for many, many years. His cars are still in the garage, but he lived a very simple life personally, choosing to sleep in a house on stilts. His bedroom and office were upstairs with the dining room downstairs. The wood used everywhere is rosewood, a beautiful reddish wood that holds up well in this climate.

On to our next adventure, taking an hour-long drive on a rickshaw through the old town, two people in each vehicle. The cart is pushed by a bicycle and has to maneuver the narrow streets, dodging cars and motorcycles. The rickshaw drivers are fearless. Each block specializes in a different item, like party supplies, pots and kitchen supplies, clothing or sewing supplies. No time to stop, but you wouldn’t want to. It is just crazy.

On to another meal, this time a small restaurant in the old town. Our seating was upstairs, climbing a narrow stairway to get there. Many restaurants are in narrow buildings, requiring a second or third floor of seating. Since taxes are based on the footprint of a building, many of them are only 15′ wide, with the residence of the owners on the upper floors and a store or other commerce on the street level. The food was a little different than the food in the south. We had a creamy pumpkin soup, stir-fried bok choy, a chicken dish and a pork dish and fruit for dessert (the typical dessert).

We had a short break before going to the famous Water Puppet Show. This 45-minute show is accompanied by a musical ensemble of very typical Asian instruments, but very foreign to most of us. There were two female singers, plus a drummer, all playing percussion.

The puppets are in front of a bamboo curtain, hiding the puppet masters who guide them with poles under the water. Each vignette has a story. Sometimes, it is about farming, fishing, battle or phoenixes. There are two water puppet theaters, with many shows each day. And, each performance is full. There were no children at our show, which I thought was strange. The audience was almost all tourists. It was interesting, but not something mandatory to see.

Since it was still early, Jim and I were joined by Judy and Stephanie to walk to the central lake area, only a 15-minute walk. It is near the old town and puppet theater and seemed farther when we went there by bus earlier. Easy walk. There was a kiosk-like restaurant by the lake, which looked like it had a limited menu, to only serving ice cream or desserts. However, the surprise was that they had a huge menu with many offerings. We shared a cheeseburger and fries (needed our Western food fix), as dinner did Judy and Stephanie, which was a wonderful change. We treated ourselves to a dessert of ice cream with Bailey’s on top and four spoons. It was great!

Next, we decided to walk around the lake, which is many blocks long. There was loud music playing, great beat, with about thirty people dancing zumba. We joined in. A little further, more music, this time Latin, with couples dancing salsa. Supposedly, salsa dancing is very popular here. A bit further, more music and a group line dancing. Every bench was filled with families, young people, and some tourists. We were enchanted. The temple on a little island in the middle of the lake, reached by a charming bridge, was lit and reflected in the water. It was absolutely magical.

Time to explore some shops near the lake. Jim hit the North Face stores in search of a lightweight jacket (either was heavy or too light) and I stumbled upon a Louis Vuitton crossbody bag, totally authentic of course, for $27 US. It is real leather and only a few people would know the difference. I was pleased.

Sadly, we had to return to the hotel. FYI, there is a Baskin-Robbins ice cream store across from the hotel. It was a good and busy day.

Hoi An to Halong to Hanoi, Day 7

Sad to leave Hoi An, we left the hotel early to get a flight to Hanoi. The short flight took us directly from Hanoi Airport to Halong Bay on a three-hour bus trip, with a stop along the way for lunch. Upon arrival at the Novotel in Halong, we were amazed to see how many hotels were there, or under construction. Twenty years ago, there were only four hotels and now, there must be hundreds. Just on the road near our hotel, there were about 30 buildings being built as hotels on landfill added to the shoreline. All the buildings appeared to be empty. Kit said that they were built for the purpose of money laundering and may never be occupied!

Our hotel, however, is beautiful, with a huge pool. Unfortunately, the sky was quite overcast and as inviting as the pool may have been, after the early morning wakeup, the time in the airport before our flight, the flight itself and the three-hour drive to Halong Bay, it was nice to just relax and have a little dinner in the hotel.

The next morning, we boarded our bus for the short drive to the dock, where we boarded our junk for a four hour tour of the incredible bay, with its obelisk limestone islands and calm water. There were many boats on the water, large with multiple levels and small, like ours. Inside, there were tables for about 25 people, plus an upper deck to enjoy the breezes and views, just for our group.

After about an hour, we stopped at the famous caverns that were originally discovered by a French man in 1899, then re-discovered in the 1990’s by a local fisherman. It has become a destination for those who want to see a nature-made spectacular cave. The entrance opens up to a huge room, filled with stalactites and stalagmites. The path inside takes you past many formations that have earned names due to their shape, such as the dragon head, eagle wing, etc. It is well lit and preserved as a national treasure, thank goodness. The easy walk proved to be an adventure not to be missed.

Back onboard, we continued to tour the Bay and were served another incredible meal prior to disembarking. Our next stop was a pearl factory nearby. Natural pearls are beautiful but they can be irregular in shape and quality. Making cultured pearls is quite a tedious endeavor. Women remove the small muscle from the oyster, scrape it and shape it into long strips then tiny pieces, to which they add a disinfectant. It is carefully placed inside the oyster, along with a small bead made from the shells themselves. This starts the pearl process and takes about 3-5 years to create the perfect pearl, depending on the size of pearl.

Halong Bay is home to many pearl farms, where the cultured pearl oysters rest in a wire basket until they are harvested. They use an x-ray to determine if there are pearls ready to be harvested. Pearls come in all colors, white, off-white, cream, grey, purple, blue-green and even black. Freshwater pearls are irregular in shape and make beautiful jewelry but round pearls are extremely desirable for expensive necklaces, earrings and bracelets. There were necklaces for $100 US and as much as $85,000 US. A few in our group were excited at the prospect of getting the special pearls they craved.

We boarded our bus once again for the four-hour drive to our hotel in Hanoi., our final stop before leaving Vietnam. Once in the main part of this modern city, the driving habits we experienced elsewhere were equally as death-defying. Crossing streets is a challenge, not because there aren’t green lights that say it is the pedestrian’s right of way, but because buses, taxis, and motorbikes still continue through their red light. We were told to walk without making eye contact with car or motorcycle drivers. Just keep walking. This isn’t easy to do.

The hotel is again a four-five star facility. Thank you Smartours! It had been a long day of activities and travel, so we decided to have an easy dinner at a recommended restaurant nearby. It was a huge building, seating probably 500 people We finally got a table and ordered their speciality, a huge pancake (16″ across, at least) filled in the center with shrimp and pork. The waiter used scissors to cut the pancake into edible sizes. We completed the meal with fresh and fried spring rolls.

Tomorrow, we visit some important sites…