Ninh Bình, Vietnam - the missing post

 

Ninh Bình, Vietnam

"The missing post"

November 2013

 

 

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This was a really good trip and I am not sure why it fell through the cracks in getting posted.  Ninh Bình is a city in the Red River Delta of northern Vietnam and has some amazing scenery.  It is about a two-hour drive from Hanoi.  D had a business trip to Hanoi and while we were there we took the weekend to explore Ninh Bình.  We were not expecting the area to be so picturesque.

 

 

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Ninh Binh is much less touristy than its nearby "big brother" Hạ Long Bay.  We found it to be as beautiful with equally impressive views of the Karst Mountain formations.  But to really see the Karst Mountains properly at Ha Long Bay, you have to take a two-to-four day cruise.  Ninh Binh can be done via a car or motorbike with a few short trips in a small boat. 

 

 

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In fact, Ninh Binh has been referred to as “Ha Long Bay on Land.”   And along with the Karst Mountain views, you experience winding rivers, rice paddies, ancient settlements, and everyday life in the countryside.  

 

 

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We visited in November, which is the tail end of their cold & rainy season.  And yes, it was rainy and cold.  But this did not stop us.  We had planned a two-day motorcycle ride, but it was too rainy the first day so we had our driver bring a car.  The next day, even though it was very cold, we bundled up and rode on the bikes!

 

 

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In all of our travels we have never seen a raincoat for a calf.  Adorable!

 

 

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Our guide needed to stop by the father's house of his best friend, and he asked us if we wanted to go along.  The older gentleman's wife had passed a few months earlier and our guide had not been able to visit to give his condolences.  What a unique opportunity.  Other than our guide, no English was spoken.

 

 

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Moments like these make me realize why I love traveling.  They were as interested in us as we were in them. 

 

 

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They offered us tea.  I always do my "pretend tea drinking" when we are offered tea in an area that I feel the water might be questionable.  It would be rude to say no, but I also can't risk getting sick.  So I just put the cup up to my mouth and act like I am taking a sip.  

 

 

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 It is always fascinating to me to see how hospitable they are to complete strangers.

 

 

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The inside of the house was very simple.  It was one large room with fabric hung to separate the rooms.  It's hard to tell from this picture, but the wall directly behind us is the family shrine.  Every Vietnamese house has a prominent family shrine with photos of all their relatives.  The owner was very proud to tell us stories about notable people in his family. 

 

 

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Next, a boat ride at Tam Coc to see the Karst Mountains...

I have to say that I think Karst topography is one of the most beautiful natural landscapes in the world.  We have seen them in Vietnam and China, but there are many countries around the world where you can experience them.  The mountains are formed from soluble rocks such as limestone, dolomite and gypsum.  They have unique underground drainage systems with sinkholes and caves.

 

 

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D steering our boat.

 

 

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... an interesting hay stack.

 

 

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In this area they have a very unique way of rowing... look closely at how the locals use their feet on the oars to row.   Interestingly, most are older women rowing, especially on the tourist boats.

 

 

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As I mentioned, it was very cold, so I had on two pairs of pants and four layers of tops.  

 

 

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A great Pho stand near our hotel.  We ate here a few times as there were very few restaurants.

 

 

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 And we had to sample local Banh Mi.

 

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With the local salted lemon mineral water.

 

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The next day...

The rain stopped so we decided to hop on the motorcycles with our fabulous guide Toan.  It was still very cold, especially riding bikes!  D wore three pairs of pants (really) and five layers of shirts/sweaters. He basically had on his entire wardrobe at once. 

We stayed at the charming Vancouver Hotel in Ninh Binh.  Many guides will tell you to stay in Tam Coc, but since this is not a touristy area good hotels are scarce.  We highly recommend this hotel but book early, because David (the owner) only has two rooms.  He was hoping to expand and may have done so since we stayed.

 

 

Me moto

 

 

I have shared with our readers that I am not a fan of motorcycles, but I do love riding them in Vietnam!  Okay, technically these were only motorbikes.

 

 

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I was enamored the poinsettia trees (Trang Nguyen flowers) that grew wild in this area.  All in full bloom.

 

 

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As of 2014, Tràng An, a scenic area known for it's boat cave tours near Ninh Bình, was included in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites.  

 

 

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This time we were in a boat steered by a shoe-less woman.  It was a bit cold so she had socks on.

 

 

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Get ready - we are going in.... there are about ten different caves on this two-hour boat ride.

 

 

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 It was an amazing view when you exited the cave.

 

 

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Below - a packed boat of friendly visitors.  We were very lucky because this time of year is a low travel period so there were very few boats on the water.  At peak season the waters are full of boats with locals trying to sell you soda and souvenirs.   We did not experience any of this so it was a very pleasant experience for us and we highly recommend it.

 

 

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Back to our bikes for more rice fields and local characters...

 

 

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Always a favorite of ours, visiting the local market. 

 

 

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 And a few photos of the local people.

This might be my favorite photo - notice how the girls are all bundled up with coats, leggings, and hats but still have on their flip flops!

 

 

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I thought this was a parade but our guide told me it was a funeral.  But he said it was a time to be happy and to celebrate the life of the deceased.

 

 

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The local barber...

 

Barber

 

 

Ear cleaning is an art in Vietnam.  I think I would be afraid to let someone dig in my ear like that!

 

 

Ear cleaning

 

We went to a very old amusement park.  It was closed for the winter; at least we think it was just for the winter.

 

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Can you image and old rusty ride like this in the US?

 

 

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Bái Dính Temple and Cultural Complex is a series of Buddhist temples on Bái Dính Mountain.

 

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The compound consists of the original old temple and a new larger temple. It is considered the largest complex of Buddhist temples in Vietnam and has become a popular site for Buddhist pilgrimages.

 

 

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We really enjoyed our three days in Ninh Binh - we would love to go back when the rice fields are green.

 

 


Siem Reap, Cambodia - the girls trip

 

 

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Siem Reap/Angkor Wat, Cambodia

 February, 2015

 

Exactly one year ago today, Cousin Maria, Jane, Sue, and I took a "girls" trip to visit Siem Reap for Jane's 50th birthday.  It was also part of Sue and Maria's big Asian Adventure.  Although it was only three days, we packed in a lot and had a fabulous time.  It was my second visit to Siem Reap, but I was still in awe at how amazing and beautiful this area is.

 

 

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 Getting up at 4 am to see the sunrise at the stunning Angkor Wat temple was worth it.  The great temples of Angkor Wat are situated in the province of Siem Reap Cambodia. These ancient temple ruins are considered the largest religious complex in the world.  Interestingly, this area was abandoned for nearly 1000 years, hidden by the jungle.  In 1890, a French explorer rediscovered the "lost city."

 

 

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Angkor Wat was dedicated to Vishnu, a Hindu deity.  This was unusual for this time as most were dedicated to the reigning king.  In the late 13th century the temple transferred from Hindu to Buddhist use and is still used by Buddhists today.  Angkor Wat has also become a symbol of Cambodia, appearing on its national flag. 

 

 

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There were many tourists at the temple, but it did not distract from the experience.  I actually favor this photo of all the tourists, each doing their own thing, while they anxiously await the sunrise. 

 

 

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We were so lucky as the weather could not have been more perfect for the sunrise! 

 

 

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As I mentioned in our other girls trip, the Maldives, it is fun traveling with girlfriends as we all LOVE posing for group shots!

 

Poses

When Angkor Wat was named a World Heritage site in 1992 it was also added to the List of World Heritage sites that were in danger.  People were pillaging and stealing the ancient artifacts.  In 1993, UNESCO launched a campaign along with the Cambodian authorities to restore and safeguard Angkor. 

 

 

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UNESCO continues to be a part of Angkor’s future to ensure that tourism and development do not compromise this cultural treasure.  However, the structures are in jeopardy from the sheer amount of visitors who walk on the ruins each day.  There are rumors that authorities may shut down parts of the monument.  This would be so unfortunate for future visitors but I can understand why they would make this decision.

 

 

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 Cambodia - cathy996

 

 

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That evening Jane managed to surprise us all for her birthday.... she had made a donation to buy a water pump for a needy village in all of our names.  We were able to go and visit the village, meet some of the children and people who live there, and see the water pump.  What an amazing gift for us... but can you image what this clean water will do for this poor community? Only 30% of rural people have access to safe drinking water, 19% to adequate sanitation and 50% to health services. About 4 million people, or almost 40% of the population, live below the poverty threshold.  Jane is a very thoughtful and a very giving person.

 

  Water pump

 

 

Elephants!

Of course riding an elephant was high on Maria and Sue's list of things to do in Asia.  It certainly made for a unique photograph with the temples in the background!  

 

 

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  Elephant ride

Many people do not realize the vast amount of temples in the Angkor Wat complex.  In three days, you can only visit a small handful of them. 

 

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 Ta pram

One temple not to be missed is Ta pram or the jungle temple made famous by Angelina Jolie and the Tomb Raider movie.  Construction on Ta Prohm began in 1186.  Unlike most of the temples of Angkor, it has been largely left to nature, hence the fantastic overgrown roots.  Ta Prohm is often described as the most magical place in all of Angkor.  

 

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You feel like an explorer as you wander the temple grounds.  Not to mention, it is a playground for photography.

 

 

 Tree

 

 

 

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 Bayon Wat

Know as the temple of faces, Bayon Wat is one of my favorites.  From a distance, it looks like a pile of blurry stones.  But as you get closer, the magic appears...

 

 

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Built by Jayavarman VII the temple has 54 towers and 216 faces.  No one knows exactly whom the faces represent. 

 

 

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Each tower has four huge carved faces on each side.  The faces are 13 feet high (4 meters) and oriented toward the four points of the compass.  They all have closed eyes, which gives a very peaceful Zen feel.  It is another site that is fantastic for photographs.

 

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Cambodia

 

 

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Statues

 

 

 Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei is a 10th-century Cambodian temple dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva. The modern name of the temple means “Citadel of the Women.” 

 

 

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Because it is 20 miles from the main group of temples, it is not as crowded.  It is also very different from the others as it is built with rose-pink sandstone.  The temple is elaborately decorated with floral motifs, female deities, and monkey guardians.

 

 

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group temple

 

So many picturesque Doorways...

 

 

Doorways

 

 

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Back at our hotel

 

We enjoyed a cooking class where we learned how to make traditional Cambodian dishes. 

 

 

Cooking class

 

Cooking

photo by sue

 

Our last afternoon we relaxed at our hotel pool.

 

Pool

 

 

The local village

 

Flash back to April 2011, the first time D and I visited Cambodia.  We stayed at the same hotel and visited the village next door.  Below is a photo of D sharing photos with the children in his viewfinder. 

 

 

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It was a very special experience for us. We even bought a water filtration system for one family in this village.  D had a great idea and printed out photos that we took on that trip, so that I could give them out when I visited with the girls.  Many of the staff at the hotel are from the village so all we had to do was show the photos to them and they were able to tell us whom the parents are. 

 

 

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This was a grandmother of the little girl in the photo.

 

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I was very excited, as were they.  One of those priceless moments!  Thanks Sue for taking these photos of my reunion!

 

 

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When I walked away, I looked back and they were still laughing and enjoying the photos.  I just wish D were there to enjoy it.

 

 

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We continued on to visit more of the peaceful little village.  The hotel is outside of the city so not only do you get to feel what the local life is like; there are hardly any tourists.

 

 

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Below is a typical house in the village - no electricity, no running water, basically a palm leaf hut.

 

 

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Cambodia has a population of 15 million people.  Cambodia is slightly larger than state of Missouri and lies between Thailand and Vietnam in mainland Southeast Asia, with the northern border adjoining Laos.  Decades of war and internal conflict have left it one of the world's poorest countries.

 

 

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Most likely her blackened teeth are from chewing betel.  Betel chew is made up of several ingredients - betel leaf, slivers of areca palm nut, and lime paste.  It releases a mild stimulant. There is also a tradition to lacquered teeth, but I think this is from betel because it is on her lips. 

 

 

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{above photo by sue - fantastic!}

 

 

A Buddhist cemetery

 

 

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The predominant religion in Cambodia is Theravada Buddhism where death marks the transition from this life to the next.  The belief is that all life/being evolves in a successive cycle of birth, sickness, old age, death and rebirth/reincarnation.

 

 

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In Theravada Buddhism it is traditional to cremate.  Cremation is usually carried out in the temple and the ashes placed in an urn, which is then placed in a stupa (also called a chedi).  Only one person is laid in each stupa.  The size of the stupa reflects the status of the deceased.

 

 

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Prayer flags at the temple grounds.

 

 

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Bringing the cows home at the end of the day...

 

 

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I pulled the photo on the left from mine and D's visit in 2011 - it is the same man in the photo on the right I took on this trip.  Sporting that same dapper look with his hat and scarf.

 

 

Cambodia
 

 

A note about Cambodia's history: 

The Khmer Rouge is a very important part of its history.  There is so much to be told it would take me an entire blog…..what I will tell you is when the Khmer Rouge ruled between 1975 to 1979, it is estimated that 1.4 to 2.2 million Cambodians were killed.   Half of those deaths were from executions, and the rest were from starvation and disease.  Most of the people killed were the wealthy and educated.  This horrible part of history devastated Cambodia and they are still trying to recover and it is still one of the poorest countries in the world.

 

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Always my favorite, the beautiful children...

 

 

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I'll end this post with a handful of random photos that really captured the essence and the fun we had on this trip!!

 

 

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It's all about the photos!

 

 

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{above photo by sue}

 

 

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Temple posing


 

 

Bond girls

 

 

Happy 50th birthday Jane!!!  Thank you for sharing your special day with us!!

 

 

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Cousins!

 

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Maria and Sue - catching the spirit of the temple.

 

 

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Maria - supporting the local economy by purchasing handmade bracelets from a young girl.

 

 

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{above photo by sue}

 

 

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  GIRLS

 

 

And if anyone can guess what Jane is doing... you win a prize!

 

 

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Good Night Cambodia!

 

I love the colors in this photo... taken at the "golden hour (the golden hour also called the magic hour is just before sunset - or after sunrise when the sun's light is redder and softer than when the sun is higher in the sky).  I have taken only a handful of photos caught at this exact moment.  But when you are able to catch it, the light makes for a very special image.

 

 

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It was a perfect sunset TO END A PERFECT TRIP.

 

 

 

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Australia - Canberra and Sydney

 

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Where in the world is Canberra?  And why did we pick this city? 

Canberra is 170 miles south-west of Sydney.  It is actually the capital of Australia and where their central government offices are located.  Canberra is Australia's largest inland city and the eighth-largest city overall.   D had business there. 

We flew into Sydney and took a train to Canberra for two days, then returned to Sydney and spent the weekend.  There was beautiful scenery along the way, much like the rural parts of the United States.

 

 

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We really enjoyed our short visit to Canberra.  It seemed to be a very livable city.  And the very best part was their local residents.... kangaroos!!  I really wanted to see a kangaroo in the wild (on the bucket list) and the further north you go, the better chance you have.

Did we see them? 

 

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YES!! Lots of them. 

Adorable!

 

 

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But it would have been impossible to find them without an experienced kangaroo tracker!  D's Australian co-worker Nick was kind enough to take us out roo-hunting (cameras only)!

You are probably thinking ...kangaroos are big, why was it so difficult?  I'll let you try... look at the photo below and tell me if you see any kangaroos.

 

 

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If you counted 9 you are correct!

 

 

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Kangaroos are fascinating to watch.  They are the only large animals that hop as a primary means of movement.  They are social and live in groups called a mob, a herd, or a troop.  Kangaroos in a mob will groom each other and protect each other from danger.  If a kangaroo suspects there is danger in the area, it will stomp its foot on the ground to alert others.

 

 

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On to Sydney...

 

 

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The iconic Sydney Opera House, built in 1973, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 

 

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I found it interesting that the architect was Danish and not Australian. When I researched this I found that an international design competition was held to find an architect for the structure. The city received 233 entries, from 32 countries. The criteria specified a large hall seating 3,000 and a small hall for 1,200 people, each to be designed for cultural programs.

 

 

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According to legend, the design was originally rejected, and at the last minute it was pulled out and declared the winner.  Today, this beautiful building is not only the “symbol” for Sydney, but the whole country.

 

 

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Viewing the city from the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

 

 

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Port Jackson, also called Sydney Harbour, is an inlet of the Tasman Sea (part of the South Pacific Ocean).  It was very busy with sailboats on the weekend.

 

 

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We caught several Ferries and toured the waterways.  They provide you with a beautiful view of the Opera house and the city skyline.  We got off on the famous Manly Beach, had lunch, and walked along the beach.

 

 

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Around town and our hotel

We lucked out on the hotel room we were given.  It was a suite with a large deck with a fantastic view of the city.  What was even more exciting was we used hotel points and stayed for free!

 

 

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Dining at a waterfront table at the local restaurants was the "trendy" thing to do, but it was very difficult to get reservations.  We had such a fantastic view, we opted for dinner on our private deck and enjoyed  a carryout cheese and meat platter and a bottle of wine.

 

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And the nighttime view did not disappoint!

 

 

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Harry De Wheels, started out as a simple caravan cafe during the years of the depression (it is over 70 years old) and has developed into somewhat of a Sydney Icon.  They serve meat pies with mushy peas - delicious!

 

 

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We also enjoyed a black widow hamburger with the famous charcoal bun.  Let's just say it was different.

 

 

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A few interesting sights around town...

 

 

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And this guy is a white ibis.  They are like pigeons in the US and are all over the city.  The locals loving call them trash vultures.

 

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It happened to be Chinese New Year when we were there.  Sydney is said to have one of the largest Chinese New Year celebrations outside of Asia.  This year was the year of the sheep.

 

 

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It was a really fun parade with local groups participating and the best part it was free!  In Singapore the parade is very pricey and almost impossible to get tickets for.

 

Parade

 

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It was a fast but fun trip to Sydney.  Another area we think would be a great place to live.


Lots of new countries coming soon!

 

Just a quick note...

We have several trip reports to share....

 

 

Australia

 

 

I am behind on posts as we just relocated back to the United States.  We squeezed in as much travel as we could before we left Asia, so there was no time to write my blog!   Check back soon as I have so much to share... If the link is red - it is now posted.  Just click to visit this county!

 

Trips to post:

 

Siam Reap, Cambodia

Canberra & Sydney, Australia

Sri Lanka

Bangkok, Thailand

Seoul and Jeju Island, Korea

Beijing China and the Great Wall (AWESOME!)

Tokyo, Japan

Bali !!

and a quick trip to Europe this week....

Brussels, Belgium

 

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Happy Birthday Singapore! and Farewell!

 

Happy Birthday Singapore!

and

Farewell!

 

 

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Singapore's Golden Jubilee

 

 

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Happy National Day!

 

 

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Today, August 9th, marks Singapore’s 50th Birthday as a nation, and Singaporeans are celebrating BIG!!  The president declared August 7 a public holiday making it a four-day weekend. All over the city there are red and white decorations, carnivals, concerts, fireworks, special T-shirts, even a sardine can with a wish! 

I wanted to share a few of the photos I captured over the last few days of the celebrations....

 

 

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We went to the practice sessions for the air show. 

The highlight was the formation of 20 planes in the shape of a "50".

 

 

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A little history on Singapore...

 

On 9 August 1965, Singapore separated from Malaysia to become an independent and sovereign state.

 

 

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In less than 50 years, this small country went from third-world to first, and has become one of the richest nations in the world.  Amazingly, 1 in 6 Singaporeans are millionaires and 90 percent own their own home.

 

 

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Much of Singapore’s success can be attributed its first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, who just passed away in March of this year.   So sad he did not live to see the 50th celebration.

 

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Mr Lee made a promise to Singaporeans, he said: "We are going to be a multi-racial nation in Singapore. We will set an example. This is not a Malay nation; this is not a Chinese nation; this is not an Indian nation. Everyone will have his place, equal: language, culture, religion."  Singapore truly is a multi-racial country.

 

 

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I posted these facts about Singapore on the blog when we first moved here and thought it would be fun to share again – with a few comments (in red) after living here for almost four years.

 

 

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1)  Singapore is a city and a country.  It is made up of one main island and 63 small islands (most are uninhabited).

 

 

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2)  The country is 240 sq miles.  Slightly smaller than New York City, over five million people live here.  Apart from Monaco, it is the most densely populated country in the world.

 

 

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3)  It is a very prosperous country with only 2% unemployment. 

 

 

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4)  It is 85 miles north of the Equator - this means it is hot hot hot. 

I confirm.... it is HOT.  It took me over two years to adjust, but I did!

 

 

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5)  It has a tropical rain forest climate with no distinct season.  It rains almost everyday.  The temperatures ranges from 83 to 90 degrees with the average humidity around 84% - which means hot hot hot. 

This is true, it does rain almost every day around 3:00.

 

 

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6)  English is one of the four official languages along with Chinese, Malay, and Tamil.  English is also considered the first language. 

It is very easy to live in Singapore as most people do speak English.  The sign below is in Bahasa.  Majulah Singapura means "Onward Singapore" which was later adopted as their national anthem. 

 

 

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The "little" red dot on the back of the bus was one of the themes for the 50th celebration.  The logo celebrates the Singaporean spirit – signifying that their dreams are not limited by the physical size of the "little" island nation.

 

  Red dot

 

 

7)  There is a 12-hour time difference between Singapore and the US.  They do not practice daylight savings so it is 13 hours in the winter.

 

 

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8)  They drive on the right hand side (opposite of the US!).  All cars must be  less than 10 years old and are removed or destroyed when they reach 10 years. 

But even more interesting  -  you need to buy a coupon to drive a car in Singapore - they auction for around $70,000.  This does NOT include the price of the car or insurance.  The coupon also has a 10-year expiration.

 

 

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Last night we went to see the Super-Tree 50th celebration light show at Gardens By The Bay.  It was so pretty.

 

 

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9)  It is one of the cleanest cities in the world and you can be arrested for spitting, littering, or chewing gum!

 

 

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10)  The crime rate is super low - making it one of the safest cities in the world. 

True.  I see woman leave their purses on the hawker stand tables to secure the table while they go to buy their food.  And the sign below is real... I am not sure if it was a child cheating on a test, a man cheating in checkers, or a man cheating on his wife... but cheating is a crime!

 

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11)  Singapore is a foodie's dream.  It has been referred to as the food capital of the world with a mix of so many cultures and cuisines {yeah}. 

This is so true and part of what we have come to LOVE about Singapore.  We have a list a mile long of favorite foods we have come to love here but on the top are:

Roti prata - an Indian inspired round pancake, often eaten with mutton or fish curry. 

 

 

Food

 

 

and XLBs (xou long bao) soup dumplings - little pillow of heaven.  You bite into it and the soup bursts into your mouth.

 

 

Food 2

 

 

12)  It has one of the best health care systems in the world and the best water. 

The doctors are excellent here.  You can get an appointment fast with top-rated doctors and the doctors spend quality time with you.  They seem to really want to get to know you and help you.  We will miss this.

 

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13)  It is one of the most expensive cities in the world in which to live.  Our basic 3-bedroom apartment sells for $2.5million USD.  Our friend's embassy-provided apartment sells for $6million USD.  

 

From a 2015 report - Singapore is the world's most expensive city, according to an index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit.  It comes in ahead of Paris, Oslo, Zurich and London.

 

 

 

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14)  They say Christmas is spectacular - guess I will be able to confirm this!

Confirmed!  The decorations are more spectacular than in the US.  A bit unusual given most Singaporeans do not celebrate Christmas!  The photo below was from last night at Garden's By The Bay.

 

 

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15)  Did I mention Singapore is hot hot hot   :  )  YES YES YES. 

But there is something to be said about having a wardrobe you can wear 365 days a year and NEVER having to stop and think... do I need to carry a coat today?!  

 

 

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Farewell Singapore....

When we board that plane on Thursday to head back to the United States I will cry.  Thank you Singapore!  We have come to love this wonderful island that we have called home for the last four years.  We have a made so many wonderful friends - Singaporeans, expats from other countries, and some folks from our own backyard at the US embassy!  We will miss all of you and we hope that our paths will one day cross again. 

Until we meet again.....

 

 

 

 


The Maldives!

 

Girls trip to the Maldives!!

 

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This is a long intro...but stick with me!

 

 

  Pier



What a special trip this was.  My friend Jane was celebrating her Big 50, AND her friend Sue and my cousin Maria were visiting from the US.  So we planned a few girls' trips around Asia. 

 

 

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Wait until you hear what Jane and I did to surprise Maria and Sue.  We asked them where they wanted to go, and they picked Cambodia and Koh Samui (KS), Thailand, as they wanted to see a beach in Asia.  When Jane and I were planning the trip, we were having a hard time getting a good price on the tickets to KS and we found a great price to the Maldives.

So.... we purchased tickets to the Maldives, planed the entire trip, but did not tell Maria and Sue.  We wanted it to be a surprise.  I knew it was a dream trip for my cousin, but when she had asked early on about the Maldives, I told her it was just too expensive... which it normally is!

We wondered how far we could get them before we had to tell them where we were really going.  D took us to the airport, as he wanted to see their reaction.  Check in... D keeps them distracted while Jane shows all of our passports to the ladies at the desk.  We whisper to them it is a surprise.  They keep quiet. 

 

 

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Next, passport control.  None of the guards say anything.  We go through the gate and they hand us landing cards, which do say THE MALDIVES.  I jump in front of everyone and say I'll take those.... I am the tour guide".   

 

Hey Sue and Maria - show us where you are going...

This photo makes me laugh, as they still have no idea!

 

 

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And by now you are asking  - really... how could they NOT know?  It says Malé on the boarding pass, as this is the main city in the Maldives.  We tell them Malé is the airport in Koh Samui.  Neither have traveled in Asia - they have no idea.   We laugh and say we are going to "male" for Jane's big 50!  

Jane was not the only one with a surprise; we had a crown and beads for her to wear for her big celebration.

 

 

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We actually get on the plane and they still had no idea!  The announcement comes on and they say enjoy your flight to Malé.  Perfect.

 

 

Toast

  

 

After the plane took off and we had our champagne in hand, we gave them this printed itinerary....

 

 

Invite

 

Were they surprised?

 

  Plane

 

 

We were only there for three nights but was pure perfection.  We stayed at the AMAZING Banyan Tree - Vabbinafaru - where the hotel is on its own island (photo below).   In Maldivian, Vabbinfaru refers to a round island circled by a round coral reef.

I did not take the photo below (pulled from Google images) but I wanted to show how AMAZING this island is.  

 

 

 

 

These are my photos, along with some by the girls...

 

 

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We also visited the sister property Angsana, where the snorkeling was drop dead gorgeous!  Yes, the water is actually this color in the shallow part. 

 

 

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Pose

 

Cousin Maria and I shared a Villa and Jane and Sue shared one.  Each had an outdoor shower, pool, and jacuzzi.

 

 

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The back of our room opened up onto this view of the beach.

 


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For the record, this trip tied me with D for the number of countries we visited, 54!! 

I told you I was going to sneak off one day...

 

 

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We woke up early each day and enjoyed the sunrise and coffee on the beach.

 

 

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What is great about an all girls trip is you can pose for corny photos - which we did!    The pictures where I am in the photo, or all four of us, are taken by photographer extraordinaire, Sue Harris Photography.

 

 

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It was interesting how the blues of the sky and water changed at different times of the day.  We were told by the hotel staff that on a scale from 1 to 10, the day we were there would have been around a "3" for water color and clarity.  Only a "3"?  It was stunning... I cannot even image what a "10" day looked like!

 

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Meet Moosa, the adorable guide we had for snorkeling and all marine life activities.  He started us off with a one-hour presentation on what Banyan Tree is doing to help sustain the Maldives, which are disappearing.  

 

 

 

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The Maldives is the lowest lying country on Earth, at just 8 feet above sea level.  Within 100 years, the entire country will be under water.  

 

 

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Snorkeling! 

 

Angsana is said to have one of the best house reefs in the world.  I believe them!  The sea life we saw was more of the level you see when you are scuba diving, not just snorkeling.  You can see from the photo below we were not in very deep water.  Moosa took these photos for us with his underwater camera.

 

 

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Yet, what we saw was incredible - with a punch of color.

 

 

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I have to share this image even though it is not the clearest one.  Jane had never been snorkeling and we were very proud that she gave it a go with us.  What a great thing to try on your 50th Birthday!

 

 

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And look at Sue go - she was really going deep in the water!  I had to stay at the surface - but it was so clear you did not have to go very deep to see the splendor!

 

 

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And I lost my breath (we all did!) when we saw this - A SHARK!!!   I was hanging on to sweet little Moosa for dear life.  I wished they had taken a photo of my face at this exact point.  What we saw are black tipped reef sharks and they are not dangerous.  We saw several of them, each time giving us a jolt of excitement!

 

 

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The most spectacular scene was at the very end - and of course we ran out of memory space on the camera at that exact point!  Moosa went deep and swam directly into this school of fish.

 

 

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I am not even sure how to describe this.  The fish started to swarm around him in a circle.  If he flipped his arms out they would break away in perfect formation and then come right back to the circle.  He would kick out his leg and they would do the same thing.  It was like nothing I have ever seen.

 

 

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After an amazing day of snorkeling... it was hard to imagine that the evening could be better... it started off with another surprise by Jane and this time I was not in on it! 

A sunset cruise...

on a yacht....

 

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with just the four of us...

 

 

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with champagne and appetizers...

 

 

Boat

 

 

We had to recreate the scene from the Titanic.

 

 

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Had the night ended there it would have been perfect.... but there was more!  Look out into the ocean...

 

 

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Can you see that very small island (technically a sandbank)?? 

 

 

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As we got closer..... 

 

 

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We could see two adorable young men holding 4 glasses of champagne...

 

 

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the moon, and a beautiful table set for four!

 

 

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Really?  Dinner on a private island?  And we are the only guests!

OH MY GOSH!

 

 

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Cheers cousin Maria!

 

 

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As the sunset, it cast a delicate pink hue... like a dream.

 

 

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Here's to Jane... Happy Birthday!

 

 

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Our dinner was impressive given we were on a small island with no electricity.  Everything for the dinner, including the grill was carried on the yacht to the island.

We started off with a grilled shrimp salad, followed by lobster, chicken, baked potato, and corn.  Then we enjoyed a second main of grilled lamb and veggies and we finished with a fruit and cream brulee.

 

Dinner

 

 

Where did they cook this amazing meal?? 

On a very small grill!  

 

 

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The entire meal was catered and cooked by these five men.  They also took  great photos of us.

 

 

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 It was an incredible evening! 

What a PERFECT 50th Birthday we had... I mean Jane had!

 

 

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When we got back to our rooms, they had decorated for Jane's Birthday.  But there was a gift for each of us - a sarong with our names embroidered on them.  You will see us wearing them in a group photo towards the end of this post.

 

 

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Other fun things we did during our holiday...

No photos - but we all had one-hour massages - ahhhh so relaxing!

The marine center (our guide Moosa) does a daily feedings of stingrays and sea turtles.  It is fascinating that wild stingrays know to come to a specific location on the beach everyday around 4:30 to be fed.

 

 

Stingray 1

 

 

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Stingray 6

 

 

We took a demonstration cooking class to learn how to make Maldivian food.   We learned how to cook Mas Goulah (fish balls) with coconut Roti, Kulhi Boakibaa (tuna dish), and chicken curry.  They cook most dishes with coconut milk so I was in heaven.   SO YUMMY!

 

 

Cooking class

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We went by speedboat to visit one of the local islands.  The Maldives is an Islamic republic, which lies off the Indian sub-continent. It is made up of a chain of nearly 1,200 islands, of which only 200 are inhabited and around 90 are developed as resorts. 

 

 

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The islands are spread over 90,000 square kilometers (35,000 sq mi), making it one of the world's most dispersed countries.  We were on the North Male atoll area.

 

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The population of all of the islands is only around 350,000.  Alcohol is prohibited in the Maldives, but resorts are allowed to serve it.

 

 

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A very interesting fact about the Maldives...they have a 98-percent literacy rate among adults and 100 percent of children are enrolled in primary school, with a 99 percent graduation rate to grade five.  

 

 

Color

 

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Our last day - Jane's Birthday Breakfast

 

We finally got to surprises Jane by wrapping 50 presents for her to open on her special day!

 

 

Jane v3

 

 

 

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Exactly how many cakes did you have Jane?

 

 

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More group photos on Jane's b-day with our matching Sarongs (note our names at the bottom).

 

 

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  Msg jane

 

Most of the staff came out to wish us well when we left.  I just hope that I can one day go back and visit this beautiful island!

 

 

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This was a fantastic girls trip - one we will always remember!