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Sunday, 19 April 2015

Jaro and his bike are now in New Zealand.....

On April 16th, flew right from Whangarei to Montreal.  These are some pictures I took in Auckland in October. 

The ticket was C$1,436 and does not include the charge for the bike, which I will have to pay at the airport.  The bike was NZ$200 - Ouch!
Sponsored by a local beer company....
Going through LA again, unfortunately.  Air NZ have flights to Vancouver, but NO economy class tickets.

Sea Shepard

 I did not get a good deal because the plane was just about full.  But at least I got a little lucky - the seat next to me was empty on the AKL-LAX flight.  I paid $50 extra for the seat in the last row on the plane, which has just two seats.  I asked for the isle seat, but since the other person did not show up, I had very good access to the window, and was able to take some nice photos.

Loading in Whangarei....

We hope that you have enjoyed this blog.  Follow us in mid-November, 2015, for next winter's voyage. 
Photos belong to Jaro Franta.


Memories of Mandalay cruise....

I purchased a two-day post-extension, and on the first day, I decided to take a taxi to the National Museum. This is Thailand’s premier museum and offers a great introduction to Thai history, ranging from pre-history to the modern era.  It includes some priceless objects such as the Ramkhamhaeng Stone inscribed with the earliest extant example of the Thai script. Their collection of Buddhist art from different periods is impressive. 

For dinner, I ate at the International restaurant again. I had a curried beef stew with steamed rice and pickled cucumber (I think).   I have never been too fond of curry dishes, but I had curry several times on this trip, and liked them. 
The next day, Viking was nice enough to drive me at no cost to Jim Thompson’s House, which is the last site that I visited on this trip.   This was an easy and relaxing thing to do on the last day, and  DK Travel Guides list Jim Thompson’s House as one of the top ten sites in Bangkok.  Jim Thompson, an American who came to Bangkok in 1945, is credited with having revived the Thai art of silk weaving.

The branch of Jim Thompson Silk that is located on the grounds of the house sells many small items, such as ties and purses.  Live silk worms in a basket.......
For dinner on the last night, I went to the Italian restaurant and had a pizza and a few beers; the thin-crust pizza with ham, artichokes, onions, and black olives was very good.   Maybe I am getting homesick, but I was in the mood for a pizza.

We departed the Shangri-La Hotel at 3:00 a.m.  I had previously arranged for a taxi service on Amelia Island (where I live) to pick me up at the home airport.   By the time I arrived home, it was about 5 minutes before midnight; this is about half an hour later than originally scheduled.

We hope that you have enjoyed this blog.  Follow us in mid-November, 2015, for a Christmas cruise down the Danube River. 

Photos belong to Phil Bianco


Sunday, 12 April 2015

Memories of Mandalay cruise....

Few religious monuments in the world cast as powerful a spell as Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda, the gigantic golden stupa rising on the northern fringes of the city. The pagoda can be entered via four covered stairways with the number of steps ranging from 104 to 166.  We entered via the Southern Stairway, which also has a lift. 

Emerging from among them like a great ship rises the Shwe Dragon.  The terrace was created in the 15th century.  The main platform is inlaid with marble slabs, which can be hot under unaccustomed bare feet, so a mat pathway is laid out for visitors. 

Surrounding the main pagoda is a dazzling array of pagodas, temples, pavilions, and shrines, all of which have specific names and significance.  This visit to Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda was unquestionably one of the high points of the trip. It was appropriately the last site that we visited in Myanmar.

Viking held its farewell dinner at the Shangri-La Hotel.  Once again, we had the buffet dinner, which was exceptional.
The next morning, we left Yangon, went to the airport, and checked in as a group just as we had done when leaving Bangkok for Mandalay.  The Thai Air flight was about 1 hour and 45 minutes. Everything went smoothly, and we checked in to the Bangkok Shangri-La Hotel about 2 p.m.

For those of us who took the two-day post-extension, a potentially serious problem was looming - the typhoon approaching Japan.   Most of us had to go to Narita Airport (Tokyo) for the flight back to the US.  It was our understanding that no flight arrivals or departures were occurring into or out of Narita. So for the next two days, we were on pins and needles, and Viking was being very coy and noncommittal about making any flight changes.

All lunches and dinners for the rest of the trip were on our own. There were several nice restaurants in the Shangri-La Hotel - Thai, Chinese, Italian, and, where I ate tonight, International.  I had french onion soup, which was very good, and barbeque pork ribs (smothered in a tangy oriental style barbeque sauce) and mashed potatoes, and I had a beer. 

Photos belong to Phil Bianco.

Jaro and his bike are now in New Zealand.....

View down the hill on Morningside Road.

Residence on Morningside Road....

View from pedestrian bridge.

Getting a bit of rain this week - the first in about a week at least.  Weather has been great, except for that fly-by of Cyclone Pam in mid-March.

Bike path – view towards Anzac Park.

Whangarei marina.

Photos belong to Jaro Franta.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Memories of Mandalay cruise....

The comments which I made regarding the Shangri-La Hotel in Bangkok apply equally to the Yangon Shangri-La Hotel.  Whatever is the highest rating for hotels, I would give it to Shangri-La Hotels.  Again, the breakfast buffet was equally as exceptional, and I had a large breakfast each morning so that I could skip lunch.  Viking covered the breakfasts at the hotels, but not the lunches in Bangkok and in Yangon. 

When driving into Yangon, something obvious that stands out is that all the streets and sidewalks are paved.  Yangon is home to about 5 million people, a five-fold increase in three decades.

The Sule Pagoda is at the center of the city.  The British used the Pagoda as a centerpiece for their Victorian grid-plan system in the mid 19th century.  Its origins are believed to date back to 230 BC, when two Indian missionaries were given permission to build a shrine where they preserved a hair of Buddha.   

The massive City Hall, across from Mahabandoola Gardens, was erected in 1924.  It fuses typically British-style with Burmese elements, such as traditional tiered roofs, and a peacock seal high over the entrance.

In the center of the Mahabandoola Gardens. there stands the Independence Monument, a 150' obelisk surrounded by five smaller 30' pillars.

Southeast of the Gardens, there is the Strand Hotel, patronized by personages like Rudyard Kipling and Somerset Maugham.   After decades in the doldrums, the building was lavishly refurbished in the mid-1990s - its timeless elegance endures, with colonial-style wicker furniture in the lounge and corridors of polished marble.   In the teak furnished lounge, high tea is served to the accompaniment of harp music each afternoon.

The best known sight is the surreal Karaweik Restaurant on the eastern shore. Constructed in the early 1970s, the floating structure replicates a pyi-gyi-mum, or royal barge, such as those Burma’s kings and queens would traditionally have used on ceremonial occasions.  The restaurant is made of brick and concrete and is anchored to the lake bottom. In the evenings, popular buffet dinners feature a three-hour culture show including music, classical dance and puppetry.

Next blog - continuation of day....

Photos belong to Phil Bianco.


Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Memories of Mandalay cruise....

Today we disembarked from the Viking Mandalay cruise ship and boarded a bus to take us to the last stop in Myanmar -Yangon. They fixed a boxed lunch for us. The bus trip to Yangon was about seven hours.

This is a good place to review the ship and the passengers’ opinions on the cruise. Not everyone liked the cruise. I was one of those who liked it, and I thought it was a fascinating trip.  I heard one person make the comment that it was not up to her standards. I suspect that her standards are based on European cruises, where the ships are much larger (3-4 times) and more luxurious.  Along the Irrawaddy, larger ships would not work because of the existence of numerous sand bars and the need to maneuver close to shore without the benefits of docks.

Perhaps a third of the passengers complained about stomach problems but again, I did not have this problem.  In Europe, ships can acquire high quality food anywhere along the rivers, but such readily available supplies are not quite so prevalent along the Irrawaddy. The food was not as good as what one gets on European river ships, but I thought it was good considering the circumstances.

There were only two towns along the river where mobile phones and the internet worked - Magway and Pyay. The one TV on board the ship only worked about a third of the time.

I was worried that I was too quick in selecting the dates (Sep 17 thru Oct 7) to come to Bangkok and Myanmar.   But this period is almost ideal - the temperatures are declining and so is the frequency of rainy days.

The river cruise started in Mandalay and ended in Pyay, with Yangon the last place visited in Myanmar.  We ended in a large city, in an excellent hotel, with one of the trips major highlights - the Shwedagon Pagoda.    

This trip was certainly pricey, but practically everything was included - all meals except two dinners in Bangkok; all alcoholic drinks and bottled water; all excursions (except two on pre- and post-extensions).  Viking went out of their way to make this a nice cruise because they wanted us to bring back the word that this was a wonderful trip, but I do not think that Viking got the reviews that they hoped for. 

Photos belong to Phil Bianco.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Memories of Mandalay cruise....

Pyay’s Shwesandaw Pagoda is one of Myanmar’s largest gilded stupas, and it is one of the most important Buddhist pilgrimage locations in Myanmar.   Its mesmerizing form, soaring like a giant rocket above the tin rooftops and palms below, is reason enough to visit the Pagoda.

On this trip, I would rate Pyay’s Shwesandaw just behind the Royal Palace in Bangkok, the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, and the temples at Bagan as the most spectacular sites.  Pyay did not appear as dirty or run-down as other cities that we have seen so far.

These extraordinarily shaped, vast pagodas rise dramatically out of the flat Pyay landscape; in addition to their religious functions, they served as watchtowers.

For lunch, the soup was chicken with Thai flavor.  Mains were a classic hamburger with fries; fish with soya bean and jasmine rice; and pasta with cheese sauce. The dessert was apple strudel with vanilla sauce and assorted melons.

In their heyday, these structures would probably have been plastered and painted, but their red brick is now decorated with an assortment of vegetation.  Also, we went to the museum that contains some interesting pieces excavated from the palace. Some of the pieces reflecting Indian Hindu influences go back to the 4th to 6th centuries AD.  There are also Buddha images going back to the early beginnings of Buddhism.

For dinner, we had a banana flower salad or lentil soup.  Mains were pork curry; pawn curry with potatoes/carrots/rice (my choice); and pasta with tomatoes/garlic and shrimp.   I had white wine and the dessert was caramel pineapple with ice cream.

Photos belong to Phil Bianco.