Friday, March 30, 2012

March 25th – Chatuchak’ed in Bangkok

My day started narrating from the bridge as we sailed up the mighty Chao Phraya River the 20 miles or so upstream from the Gulf of Thailand into Bangkok, where we berthed on the river at Klong Toey, about 30 minutes from the centre of town.

Our mission today, was quite simple – shopping and eating. And where better to go shopping than at the massive Chatuchak Weekend Market to the north of the city centre – we caught the efficient Skytrain up there, and then followed the crowds to the market.

This enormous market sells everything you can imagine - pets, plants, kitchen stuff, food, furniture, but mostly clothes. Whilst there were lots of the obligatory knock-off stuff (I bought some very cheap "Ralph Lauren" polo shirts – I wonder how many washes they will last?), there's also lots of independently produced stuff too. The choice and size of this claustrophobic place is just bewildering.

In fact, it was so bewildering that when our aching feet told us that it was time to go, we couldn't actually find our way out and we got totally lost. Every time we asked anyone to point us the way to the Skytrain, they pointed us in totally different and conflicting directions. Either people enjoy mucking tourists around, or they don't want to say they don't know so they just make it up. Either way it was quite frustrating, when all we wanted to do was to just sit down, cool down and chow down.

But, eventually we made our way out of this confusing retail labyrinth and made our way to a big shopping mall where we could just enjoy some air-conditioning away from the jostling crowds. By now, we were getting hungry, and we took a restaurant recommendation from a local ex-pat who directed us to a very nice restaurant on Sathorn Road.

As ever with Bangkok, our day had left us drained but keen to enjoy more of this crazy city.

March 22nd – Upriver in Nha Trang

10 years ago, Nha Trang was just a backpacker hangout, but over the past decade the place has been transformed into a large holiday resort, with lines of tall hotels being built along its wide sweeping bay of golden sands.

Not being a great beach lover, I resisted the call of the sea and opted for a river boat trip up the wide Song Cai River. On a swelteringly hot day, we dutifully donned our life jackets, and sailed upriver away from the city. On the way, we passed temples and little waterside villages that looked like they'd hardly changed at all in recent years, in spite of the massive modernisation going on down river in Nha Trang.

We went to a place where they make clay ovens – something that the guide seemed to think was more exciting than I could glean, and then we went to a 150 year old traditional house, where we were entertained with some traditional music. They encouraged me to have a go at the stringed instrument, which I managed to make sound fairly untuneful – I'm not a big fan of Vietnamese music, but there's more to it than meets the eye (or the ear).

So our last day in fast-changing Vietnam was a gentle one – I wonder how much it will have changed by the time we come back here in 12 months time?

March 21st – Man Handled in Chan May

The port of Chan May in the centre of Vietnam is a jumping off point for trips to Hue and Hoi An, but seeing as we've visited both of them fairly recently, we thought we'd catch the Shuttle Bus into "town", to see what's in the local area.

The port itself is fairly in the middle of nowhere – it's a small, dusty industrial port for shipping out sand, so there's nothing much within 5 miles of the port itself. We were dropped off at the Lang Co Beach Resort which was on a fairly remote stretch of beach. While there wasn't much there, the setting was pretty good – a huge, almost deserted, windswept beach of white sand.

It was a bit too windy on the beach itself, so we paid our $5 to sit around the pool. We never sit around the pool on deck, so it was a novelty just to lounge around in the shade with nothing to do other than relax.

The resort was quite a big one, but it appeared to be virtually empty of customers, so the only people there were Silversea people, and the bored resort staff, plus a team of masseurs. Seeing as the masseurs had nothing to do, and a 45 minute massage was only $10, I thought I'd give it a go. The massage was by the pool, so it was all above board, although I did reject the girl's attention that I take my shorts off for the massage.

So, I lay there while 2 young Vietnamese ladies gave me a full massage in the open air, very glad that Tracy was sitting next to me to make sure that there were no hints of impropriety. A couple of the people who had massages after me had the girls literally climbing all over them and massaging their backs with their knees, but I think they realised that my pain threshold wasn't up to that, so thankfully, they were fairly gentle with me.

So, a very relaxing day in a very chilled out place – just what the doctor ordered.

March 19th – Misty Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay is one of the few scenic places you can visit in almost zero visibility, and still be blown away by the sights. Obviously, it would have been nice to have done the boat trip around the spectacular limestone islands in the bay in gloriously sunny conditions, but the thick clouds of mists blowing across the water did give the area an extra, mysterious ethereal quality.

At times, the visibility must have been down to around 10 metres, so it would have been difficult for our helmsman to steer – on one occasion, we did have a little collision with another boat, but it wasn't a major impact. But, every now and then the mist would suddenly clear, and we'd find ourselves surrounded by sheer limestone islands covered in greenery that was somehow clinging onto the vertical sides of the cliffs.

Whenever the fog opened up, the sights were good enough to take your breath away, while the free-flowing champagne kept everyone happy whenever the fog closed in again.

As this was my 6th trip into the Bay, you can get a little blasé about this amazing natural phenomenon, but if it can still impress even in weather like this, it must be pretty special.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

March 15th –Up The Creek in Rainy Shanghai

We'd been quite lucky with the weather in the last couple of days – although it had been cold for our first 2 days, it had been clear and sunny. So, we were due a bit of Shanghai's trademark damp and grey skies, and it duly arrived today.

Our plan was to do a few walks recommended on Time Out's website. Our first one was along the Suzhou Creek, the river that empties onto the Huangpu River where we were docked. Back in colonial times, the Creek would have been a hive of activity of junks picking up goods from the old warehouses that once lined the Creek; but these days, the Creek's a bit of a forgotten about part of town, that's slowly being revitalised with new developments and artsy studios.

At the bottom of the Creek on the Bund, is the old British Consulate, which had been decaying away gracefully for years, but has now been restored and become an exclusive private members club – a clear sign that the city has recaptured its get-rich-quick, boom town capitalist past. Opposite the British Consulate, the old colonial rowing club has been restored and is waiting for redevelopment – I'm sure this will be a fancy restaurant by the time we come back next.

As we wandered up the Creek, the buildings became less grand and more functional, as we explored the "real" Shanghai, away from all the glitzy malls and skyscrapers. Here, amongst the run-down houses, scruffy shops, and crumbling pavements, you could see that the juggernaut that is Shanghai's booming economy, hasn't quite benefitted everyone in the city.

On our up-Creek journey, we came across an old warehouse that's recently been turned into an arts centre. Unfortunately the arts centre had been taken over for the week for a trade show, so we had to blag our way in to have a look around. After your representatives from "Fleming Enterprises" had presented their credentials at the check-in desk, we were able to wander around and pretend that we were interested in buying up some Chinese-produced denim.

As we followed the dog-poo-caked paths along the creek, the weather got steadily worse, so by lunchtime we took shelter from the rain in a "French" cafe. Aside from a couple of baguettes, there was little about the cafe that was typically French, but at least it had good wifi, so after a couple of hours of surfing, we called it a day.

Shanghai is the furthest East and the furthest North that this World Cruise journeys to, so from this point onwards, as we head back towards Europe, it will get warm again, and at last, thankfully we will start getting the hours back that we've been steadily losing as we've sailed across the oceans.

March 14th – A Trip out to Qibao

Today, we decided to do something a little bit different in Shanghai, so we went out to one of the old watertowns that used to encircle the city. Now that Shanghai has grown so massively over the last couple of decades, many of them have been swallowed up by the huge metropolis. The good thing is that they're now covered by Shanghai's astonishingly comprehensive subway system, so it's easy and cheap to get out to places like Qibao, a 2,000 year old manufacturing centre.

Last time we were in Shanghai, there were 9 subway lines, now there are 16 – in Britain it takes decades to plan, get permission, and build a new underground line, here they spring up in a year. Our trip to Qibao took about an hour, and encompassed passing through about 25 stations – all this cost 5RMB (50p)!

As you emerge from the station, you could be in any modern non-descript suburb, but we followed the signs to Qibao Old Town, and here we were transported back to China of the past – down teeming narrow lanes lined with old stalls. Whilst this place isn't on the tourist map for Westerners, it must be popular with the local market, because the street was absolutely packed with people picking up souvenirs and sampling the food from the many steaming stands. To be honest, most of the food looked or smelt fairly dodgy, so I wasn't willing to risk my delicate stomach on the street, so instead we went to the mall and had some stir-fried noodles.

It was a fascinating trip – it really felt like we were a world away from Shanghai.

In the evening, we went to a Shanghai restaurant that Tracy had found on the internet – Di Shui Dong, in the French Concession. The restaurant was packed with locals, which we took to be a good sign, and after a bit of a wait, we were seated. The restaurant serves Hunan cuisine, which is famed for its spiciness and use of the chilli. The food was lovely, but I have never seen so many chillies served up on each plate. With our lips and tongues tingling, we carefully picked around the chillies – on one chicken dish I had, I must have eaten about 15 whole cloves of garlic – we are going to stink tomorrow morning.

It was great food and a lively environment – the only downer of the evening was just as Tracy was congratulating herself on her choice, she jumped up like a scalded cat. Apparently, a mouse had run over her foot! We asked the table next to us if that was indeed a mouse – "oh yeah, that was mouse" they replied, as they nonchalantly tucked into another plateful of burning chillies.

So, as long as you don't mind the odd mouse running by, I'd heartily recommend this spicy restaurant.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

March 13th – Acrobatic Shanghai

The last time we were in Shanghai in 2010, the whole city seemed like one massive building site as the city got ready to host the 2010 Expo. Now, even though there are still plenty of building sites around the city, there's a much more settled feel to the centre of the city. The Bund (the old colonial waterfront) has really been smartened up, and a lot of the traffic has been removed from it by an underground tunnel.

Apart from an improved urban environment, the other difference I noticed was that the shopping appears to have got even more Westernised than it was before – there are even more Western brands creeping into Nanjing Road, and the huge shopping malls dotted around the city.

We walked up to People's Square and visited Shanghai's Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), where there was an interesting exhibition of modern Asian art. The theme of the exhibition was that Asian art is under increasing threat of being swamped by Western art and culture, and that the Far East is in danger of losing its identity and traditions. It's an interesting take on the world – we in the west seem to be increasingly preoccupied with the fact that the Chinese (plus Japan and South Korea), are the new economic superpower, and will eventually take over the world. But, the China that may one day take over the world, could by then, be just an imitation of the westernised, commercialised, consumer-obsessed world we inhabit today.

Anyway, the art was really thought-provoking; and, inspired by this, we went onto to Shanghai's main art museum, housed in the former headquarters and grand stand of the Shanghai Racing Club (People's Square is sited on the old Race course from colonial times). For me, the building was more interesting than the art, but Tracy is more appreciative of these things than me, so she enjoyed it.

In the afternoon, I did one of the ship's tours that went to the atmospheric Jade Buddha Temple (an oasis of calm in this non-stop city), and then visited a family in their apartment in one of the old Communist 1950s developments. The flat was pretty cold and small, but it was comfortable enough. I asked the lady whether she thought that Shanghai life had got better or worse in the last 15 years (the years that have witnessed the absolute transformation of her city) – she said that many things had got better, but that everything, particularly property, had got too expensive these days.

Property prices seem to be a Shanghai preoccupation these days. When a modest 2 bedroom property in a new apartment block in a middling district can now go for $1M USD, it seems like China is heading for a property crash of western proportions. Whilst a significant wealthy middle class has developed, there simply can't be that number of wealthy people to sustain a property boom like this. It doesn't matter whether the Communists are in charge or the bankers, every property bubble eventually collapses. When it happens to China, it will be fascinating to see what will happen.

In the evening, we went on the complimentary Silversea Experience, out to a theatre to watch an amazing acrobatics show. The strength and agility of the young men and women performers was astounding – it was a case of one "wow" after another. But, the biggest wow of the lot was reserved for the motorbike show at the end of it. A huge metal cage-like globe (a bit like a giant hamster cage) was put out on the stage, and a motorbike drove in through a hatch. In this dangerously cramped space, he drove around at breakneck speed and looping the loop; but, if this wasn't scary enough, a second bike drove in and they began to criss-cross each other. As we watched through our fingers, praying not to see a collision, bike after bike drove in to join them, until an unbelievable 8 motorbikes were circling each other, lights flashing, horns blaring, fumes stinking.

It was total, ridiculous, over-the-top, exhilarating sensory overload – much like the city of Shanghai as a whole.

Friday, March 16, 2012

March 10th – Back on my feet again in Hong Kong

A day of recovery in bed meant that my first day in Hong Kong was a bit of a write off; but by the second day I felt sufficiently chipper to go to meet our lovely friends Tim and Jill, who live in Hong Kong. They first took me to the lively Wan Chai market, where we saw all sorts of exotic herbs, vegetables, dried remedies etc – Jill getting the stallholders to explain what was what. Having walked through the ultra-westernised Harbourfront Shopping Mall to get off the ship to the Star Ferry Terminal, visiting this market was a good reminder of the firm Chinese roots of Hong Kong, and a reminder that traditional Chinese ways of life continue in this most modern of cities.

After this, we went for lunch to a place that's a throwback to Colonial times – the stately Hong Kong Country Club. Although it's just a 15 minute drive from the claustrophobic streets and forest of skyscrapers of Central Hong Kong, here there was plenty of space and a laid back atmosphere to enjoy, where Hong Kong's great and good come to play tennis, swim, or just enjoy the Club's restaurants away from the masses.

We had a lovely lunch, catching up, gossiping and discussing the future of Hong Kong and China. Tim explained how, as a lawyer, thoughts are already turning to what's going to happen when the 50 year period of grace agreed between the British and Chinese at the handover in 1997 expires. Under the agreement, the Chinese guaranteed that Hong Kong's laws etc would remain the same for 50 years after the British left. In the 1980s, while Mrs Thatcher and Deng Xioaping were thrashing out the agreement, 2047 felt like a long way off, but there was no agreement on what would happen after those 50 years were up. The question is, in 2047, will Hong Kong revert to Chinese laws, or will there be an extension of the status quo? Things like that matter when you're agreeing a 30 year lease on a building, or getting a 30 year mortgage. It will be interesting to see what happens.

Anyway, the day passed all too quickly, and soon it was time to get back to the ship, as I had to go up to the bridge to give a narration as we sailed out of Hong Kong's dazzling harbour.

March 8th – Code Alpha on the Way to Hong Kong

As we sailed to Hong Kong, I'd been feeling a little peculiar all day. My head had been banging all day, so I drank loads of water in an attempt to clear it. It turns out that this combined with an upset stomach was not a good idea.

That evening in the restaurant, I really began to feel strange, so rather than risk being sick at the table I got up to go back to our cabin. That's about the last thing I remember – when I came to, I was on the floor surrounded by the Captain, the Cruise Director, the Hotel Director, various other officers, countless waiting staff, the doctor, a stretcher team and a very worried Tracy. It appears that I had blacked out and a "Code Alpha" medical emergency signal had been broadcast around the ship.

I don't know which was worse – feeling like death warmed up, or the mortal embarrassment of passing out in front of pretty much the entire ship. Anyway, I came to fairly quickly, and was wheeled out of the restaurant in a wheel chair, feeling like a right idiot.