Greetings from Thailand! Just on the way home. I have to be honest and say we didn’t love this part of our trip as much. Maybe we went to the wrong places?

Bangkok is an amazing modern city, with all the excitement and hassle that entails. It’s also crowded and dirty and at least for us, not so much fun as a tourist. The highlight was seeing the amazing temple Wat Pho, totally worth a visit. But famous entertainment areas like Patpong were lost on us; too crowded and sleazy. I’m sure folks have more fun in Bangkok than we did, but for us a couple of days was enough. As for dining, it got better once we got out of hotels. Queen of Curries was quite good: divey place by American standards, but friendly staff and delicious food. The Local was more interesting, strong fresh flavors and significantly more variety than we see in the US. I particularly liked the lemongrass salad with little dried shrimps and fried tiny fish, wrapped in betel leaf.

We had more fun in Chiang Mai, the medium sized city in the north. The Dhara Dhevi hotel was phenomenal: incredible hotel architecture, great food, terrific service. Our favorite experience was the hotel’s cooking class with market tour. Our temple tour was also interesting was thanks to a good guide. Riding elephants was not for me: certainly interesting and different but I’m not much for large animals.

So now we head home from a long successful trip to Bali, Singapore, and Thailand that my sweetie Ken arranged for us with help from our travel agent. Turns out to not be so hard to visit this part of the world, at least if you’re a little patient and don’t mind paying for high end service. Bali was definitely my favorite place of the three, I’m sure I’ll be back.

culturetravel
  2014-01-07 01:16 Z

Hello from Singapore! It’s exactly like everyone said, a modern and somewhat synthetic city that’s Western in its administration and Eastern in its culture. I like it, but it’s odd being in a new city (1819) without a long history. Then again the syncretic culture that’s here now is neat, the mix of Chinese, Malay, Indian, British, all fused into something uniquely Singapore. And so commercially ambitious.

Every Singapore person I asked for tourist advice said “go eat”, particularly at the famous hawker centers. They’re like food carts but with guaranteed hygiene and centralized convenience. There’s three we found nearby: Maxwell Center near Chinatown, Tekka Centre in Little India, and Lau Pa Sat in the center. I definitely enjoyed them but it’s a pretty grimy and simple experience, like going to your favorite taqueria in San Francisco. Buy a beer from one stall, some dumplings from another, maybe a paratha or some spicy noodles from others. Bring your own napkins.

Hawkers are great for tasty food for cheap. Singapore also has an amazing deep restaurant culture reflecting its international position. Various kinds of Chinese and Malay are the main foods you see here, but there’s also lots of Indian and of course Singapore specialities like chili crab. And then a vast international mix, like the warren of French wine bistros on Ann Siang Hill.

The other remarkable thing I’ve seen in Singapore is the Singapore City Gallery near Maxwell Food Center, part of the urban planning department. The permanent display of a scale model of the city is interesting (and free, and air conditioned). But even better was the temporary display of the Draft Master Plan 2013, Singapore’s ambitious plan to develop their island more, building new communities and spaces. Singapore is in a unique position as a wealth city-state and they’re taking their development planning seriously. Interesting to see.

culturetravel
  2013-12-28 03:19 Z

Hello from Bali! Ken and I have been here most of a week and are having a marvelous time. The combination of tropical beauty, friendly people, and deep culture makes Bali amazing. We’ve been staying in lovely resort hotels which is great but I regret not getting more into the villages and towns and experiencing more regular life. It’s very hot and difficult to get around, so far we’ve been taking private cars from the hotel.

Our first few nights were in Jimbaran Bay, down south near the airport. Beautiful bay, clear and gentle and great sunsets. The Bali Intercontinental was great, particularly the extra amenities with Club access. I’d characterize it as the beach + resort part of Bali, lots of emphasis on swimming and massages and relaxing. We did get out a little, particularly to enjoy the Kecak Dance in Uluwatu and to go down the road for a nearby resort’s excellent Indonesian restaurant.

Now we’re in Ubud, the arts & crafts center. Balinese culture has such depth in music, dance, decorative arts, fine painting, there’s just a huge amount to explore and happily it’s all vibrant and available. Our first day here was spent being taken from shop to shop, large warehouse-style galleries of stone carving, paintings, jewelry, etc. It’s definitely touristy, tourist money helps sustain the economy. But it’s also deep and rich and with an authenticity of hundreds of years that some vulgar visitors can’t disrupt.

Yesterday was more of a high arts experience. Through an American friend we met Dewa Alit, a gamelan composer from a family of musicians. We visited him for a lesson in the very basics of gamelan with me clumsily trying to learn to play a few patterns. He’s an internationally known musician so I feel a bit guilty spending his time on something so rudimentary, but he was generous and patient and I got a huge amount out of it. Alit doesn’t do this kind of thing regularly; some enterprising Balinese could make a fine business teaching gamelan workshops for tourists. We also visited the Agung Rai museum of Balinese painting, with collections mostly from the 1940s to contemporary art. Fantastic stuff and I know nothing at all about this genre and would love to know more.

So much more to see, we didn’t even get into the religious culture and temple festivals. Missed the cockfighting, too. I’m hoping to get out into Ubud today and just walk around the shops at my own pace. but then it’s pouring rain and will be 95° and the Four Seasons Sayan is awfully comfortable. There’s so much to learn about Bali, I could easily spend a month here.

Update: last day was a drive to an art gallery, a horrible traffic jam drive through the forgettable tourist dross on Monkey Forest road in Ubud, and then an amazing visit to the home of artist Ketut Soki. We'd seen his work in shops but it seemed awfully expensive without knowing more; he's a master artist and the quality is visibly better than the cheap souvenir stuff. Our awesome driver Korta offered to take us to the artist's home to buy a painting direct from the artist without the 100% gallery markup. Really great experience and I can't wait to get this beautiful painting on my wall.

culturetravel
  2013-12-25 03:27 Z

Ken and I just took a nice trip to Germany, focussed mostly on the northeastern corner on the Baltic Sea. Lovely trip, very mellow, here’s a bunch of photos.

The biggest revelation for us was the Baltic sea resorts, 19th century spas and hotels. We started our trip on Rügen, a relaxing quiet island. The town of Binz has a terrific collection of nice hotels and restaurants. Also nearby is Nationalpark Jasmund with its famous chalk cliffs, the bizarre Prora (a facist beach resort built in the 30s), and the Rasender Roland beach steam train.

But the best Baltic sea experience was a last minute decision to go to the Grand Hotel Heiligendamm and its amazing gourmet restaurant Friedrich Franz. Really lovely overnight, fantastic cooking. Heiligendamm is interesting for being one of the first ever beach resorts, founded in 1793 and popular with various royalty. Up to and including the G8 summit in 2007. Also another steam train, the Molli Bahn. Just a terrific place all around, worth planning a stay if you’re in the area.

Beyond the resorts we visited various Hanseatic towns: Rostock, Wismar, Stralsund, Lübeck. And a trip down to the lake region to Schwerin. Lots of beautiful brick buildings dating from a wealthy past in the 15th-17th centuries. Of the places I liked Lübeck and Schwerin the best, combining charming town centers with some lively modern life.

The trip was bookended by visits to Berlin and Hamburg. Berlin is amazing, particularly right now since its relatively low cost of living has attracted a vital core of artists and entrepreneurs. I think we may try to go back to spend a month living there next year. Hamburg is also quite pleasant for a visit, I think it’s a city that would reward settling in and exploring a bit.

culturetravel
  2013-10-23 21:38 Z

Ken and I went to Hawaiʻi for a week for my birthday. The big island, at a fancy tourist resort, my first time ever. It was lovely but also a bit boring, next time I go I’ll do it differently.

The great thing about Hawaiʻi is that it’s easy to visit and is absolutely beautiful. I totally get why people go there in the winter, to get some warmth and sun and relaxation. We stayed at the Four Seasons Hualālai which was excellent if outrageously expensive. The problem with a resort like that is it’s disconnected from the real place. And as nice as it is to have your big decision of the day be which of the four pools you hang out by, that’s not really my kind of vacation.

So we escaped The Village and drove all over the Big Island. Saw lots of things, honestly many not very exciting. I was particularly frustrated that the archaeological sites didn’t have more to see. My favorite things were the amazing botanical garden near Hilo, the town of Waimea, finding great macadamia nuts, and a helicopter tour whose highlight was flying into the narrow canyons west of the Waipiʻo Valley. The Kīlauea volcano would have been better if we spent more time.

But what I missed was seeing a real place, getting more in to local culture and food and history. I’m kicking myself that I didn’t plan to visit other islands, in particular to go to Oʻahu to see the Big City, go to Pearl Harbor, and to accept my anthropologist friend’s offer to tour the Bishop Museum. Next time. (Incidentally, the TSA security theater is an enormous burden to inter-island travel. 30 minute flight, 90 minute security.)

PS: the Hawaiian language is fascinating: only 8 consonants and one of them a glottal stop, but plenty of diphthong vowels. t and k are the same letter, so taboo becomes kapu. Only really lives on in place names. Hawaiian Pidgin is in active use, although I only heard it once.

culturetravel
  2013-03-19 15:14 Z

My Parisian friend Evelyne just took a big Route 66 trip, a long dream of hers to drive the Mother Road. (Oddly, Route 66 is a much bigger myth for Europeans than Americans.) I love road trips so was glad to be able to join her for a portion of the trip, from Las Vegas to Santa Monica.

The highlight of the day was lunch at the Bagdad Cafe in Newberry Springs. It’s just a little roadside dive of dubious cleanliness, but it’s awesome because it has become internationally famous thanks to the German film. They get 100+ guests a day from France, Japan, Germany, all over the world, in the middle of nowhere in the Mojave. The owners have recognized the good thing and are welcoming and have decorated the place with mementos brought by visitors. Really cool experience and the chili burger was pretty good, too. (We met Ken at the Barstow/Daggett airport, about a 15 minute drive away.)

The lowlight was buying gas at the Hi Sahara Oasis, the worst gas station in America. It’s the only gas for miles and we were getting towards empty, so I don’t begrudge them charging $5/gal. But the staff was incredibly rude and the place just reeks of bad karma. Avoid.

Honestly, the drive was not awesome; the Mojave is long and boring with very little to see along the badly paved old road, not even many remnants of settlements and amenities. It didn’t help we were starting in Vegas, two hours north of the actual route. If I were doing it again I’d skip the empty road in the desert and focus my time more on surface streets in Needles, Barstow, and Los Angeles. Or else take two days; 380 miles is too long for one day. By the time we got to LA we just took I-10 across town to be done with it.

Evelyne said she had a splendid time from Albuquerque to Vegas, lots of beautiful sites along the way. And I have to think the portion from Chicago to Oklahoma is still vital, nice towns and things to see and do. Maybe I’ll do that trip myself some day.

BTW, the best free guide for Route 66 I’ve found is Route 66: An American Treasure published by AAA. It’s got a good high level map and information. There’s a whole industry in much more detailed maps and guides for Route 66 but the AAA maps are a good start.

culturetravel
  2012-09-07 23:26 Z

Ken and I had a nice little vacation last week, up near Grass Valley and Nevada City. It’s up in the Gold Country, in the Sierra Foothills northeast of Sacramento, about three hours drive from San Francisco. In the past we’ve enjoyed going up to Placerville; same idea except the towns are bigger and have more to offer up north.

Not that city life is the primary reason to go to Nevada County. It’s quiet up there, and beautiful; a nice escape from the city. Still, nice to have amenities like grocery stores and restaurants. New Moon is good for fine dining and South Pine Cafe is a great casual breakfast / lunch place.

We had a great stay in this log cabin, a bit south of Grass Valley in Alta Sierra. Really comfortable place and big, could easily host 6+ for a week. Nice creek in the back, chirping frogs, wood stove, hot tub, hammocks, and a well furnished kitchen.

culturetravel
  2012-05-06 17:16 Z
Ken and I spent a week in Grass Valley, up in the Sierra Foothills northeast of Sacramento. We're thinking about buying a house up there. Here's where we went.
The map is a screenshot from Google Latitude, a passive location tracker. It's a roughly accurate view of where we travelled; the purple circle is where we stayed. The spray of red south and west from there aren't correct, I think it's iPhone location errors in a rural setting.
culturetravel
  2012-05-02 00:35 Z
What strikes Ken and I most is how much better and how many more dining options there are in New York than San Francisco. In SF we like to think of ourselves as foodies, but it's pretty provincial compared to NY.

Les Halles (Financial District). Atavistic French brasserie. Very basic menu, great if you want steak frites and not so much otherwise. Reasonable preparation, nice room, surprisingly inexpensive. I wish I had a place like this in San Francisco.

Dos Toros (Village). A taqueria serving SF-style burritos, in New York! Considered the best burrito option among many SF expats. I thought it was good; honestly as good as most of the places in SF. Nice spicy sauce, good carnitas, good cheese. Too salty, and the staff of four rolled sloppy burritos in twice the time a single person in SF can do. But it was good.

reBar (DUMBO). Didn't eat, just drinks, but liked it. Comfortable place to meet after work, nice beer selection, cool art in the building.

Wolfgang's Steakhouse (Tribeca). Ken wanted a New York steakhouse, this was pretty great. Really amazing quality steak, both the filet and the ribeye, although the portions are comically oversized. Better quality of beef than Ruth's Chris, for what it's worth. Good salads, OK service, kind of noisy room.

Bar Boulud (UWS). Part of Daniel Boulud's empire, the Bar is a more casual cafe kind of place. Serious brunch menu, including very well made omelets (a lost skill in most of the US). Also a lovely charcuterie selection, many delicious meats. Great place for a smart lunch.

Chez Josephine (Hell's Kitchen). 11pm dinner after theater, French, with nice live piano music. And a wonderfully welcome very gay staff. The food was, frankly, mixed quality; both our entrees were fairly dull meat+sauce, but the salads were nice. Really enjoyed the room and the service, though, a nice post-theater meal.

Highpoint (Chelsea). We were in the mood for a boozy brunch in Chelsea, Highpoint was perfect. Great breakfast bar, terrific Bloody Marys and an interesting list of other cocktails. The eggs benedict were nice. The food is quite inexpensive, too, good value.

culturetravel
  2011-10-23 23:18 Z
My first few days in NY have had beautiful weather, so I've done a lot of walking through Manhattan's open spaces. Here's some notes and photos.

Roosevelt Island is this wacky bit of Manhattan borough, an island in the East River. There's not much out there, condos and hospitals. The reason to visit is the open space, nice long walks on both sides of the island and great views of the Upper East Side. Also grass, parks, even barbecue grills for anyone's enjoyment. It will be particularly nice to visit in 2013 when the southern park is fully open. It looks like they are preserving the creepy hospital ruins there as part of the park, a nice touch of gothic drama in an otherwise bucolic place. (Roosevelt Island is also a popular video game setting; several GTA4 missions start at that hospital.) The Tramway is strongly recommended; it's a short ride but the view as you go sailing into midtown between the buildings is terrific.

The High Line is New York's most famous new park, a nicely landscaped mile or two of abandoned railroad track. Having a park up above the city streets makes all the difference, a nice quiet remove. They also did a stunning job on the design with many great places to sit and watch other people. There's too damn many people, actually, and the linear park design makes it hard to get any space. So it's more of a people watching place than an open area.

culturetravel
  2011-10-20 22:37 Z