Saturday, January 19, 2013

Chiang Mai, Thailand Part 2

The day had finally arrived for Daddy's 10km race. We were all up early at 5am and when Daddy went for his warm up, I got the girls ready. They were all very cooperative despite the waking up in the wee hours. We put on our jackets, head lights and armed with our cheerleading pom-poms and star baton, we were ready to stun the crowd. And boy, we really did stun the crowd. We stood out, not only in the dark, but also in the very very thin crowd. Forget about barricades and a huge mass of cheering crowd because there was none. Besides the participants, there were a few, a few supporters. The rest were crowd control officers and photographers. As we walked, people were amused by us. Everyone, including the policemen, thought we were Japanese and started greeting us in Japanese. I responded with gentle bows and smiles. Photographers started snapping away at the two cute cheerleaders and it was starting to get fun. 

When  the race started, I started cheering but I was the only one. It did not take me very long before I decided to stop. No one was cheering and soon, the excitement wore out. While waiting for Daddy at the finishing line, the cheerleaders had some snacks and as Daddy was only running a 10km race, we were on standby 30 minutes after the race started. The full marathon runners who started a few hours earlier were coming in so no harm cheering for them too. I was intrigued by the fact that there were so many spectators standing just a stone throw away, in front of the finishing line. From the races which we had previously cheered in, spectators were usually by the side. Well, I suppose the up close and personal touch adds to the local atmosphere. By the way, Daddy came in second for his category and his cheerleaders went up to collect the trophy with him, with beaming smiles on their small faces.

After a good shower and afternoon rest, we headed early to the Sunday Walking Street which was just within Thapae Gate. We were so glad that we were early. We got there around 430pm and stalls were already setting up. Streets were rather empty and we were able to do our shopping in peace. Boy, the whole walking street is long...with many turns to small alleys. We were not able to finish the whole area. 

Drink, eat, shop...

We had to try some fried insects!

Rest for tired legs and refuel with a strawberry smoothie.
Refreshing massage (kids get to try too) and herbal juice
At night the crowd begins to build up.

Night snack: the best barbecued mushrooms I have ever tasted.

By the time we returned back to our starting point, 4 good hours had past. Next time, we would be sure to cover more. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped by a street cart selling on-the-spot prepared Mexican food, and brought chicken quesadillas back to the room to end the day. It turned out to be quite a hit.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Weekend Sand Play @ East Coast Park

Often times, weekends are usually littered with unfinished work we take home to complete before Monday deadlines, grocery shopping to restock the fridge, errands to run, people to visit.... but not today! Well, at least for Daddy. Mommy had an appointment, and Daddy planned to take the girls out for a favourite past time we hadn't done for a while.... sand play at the beach!

We left the house early and found a spot with a bench near the sand by 8.30 am so the sun wouldn't be too hot. In a large bag were some sand toys, towels and bathing gear, a change of clothes, water bottles, a portable cooler with cut oranges, apples, carrots and cheese, wet wipes, tissues and hand sanitizers. We found a nice spot with a stone bench near the sand about a hundred metres from the nearest toilet to set our stuff down.

Immediately, the girls swung into action, dumped their sandals, plonked the gear down on the beach, and began digging, filling, sprinkling, and best of all, imagining all the things they could do with sand. One found some mangrove leaves and seeds brought in by the incoming tide and started playing "gardener". The other began stirring up some soup and filling out a washed up bottle to make an ice-cream cone with seashell toppings for Daddy. The girls have come a long way from the first time we brought them to the beach, and the extended cloudy weather meant that by 10.30 am, the weather would still be nice and cool for a longer play time than expected, during which they took breaks to finish up all the snacks we brought along. The older girl took the liberty to splash around in the incoming tide while the younger one wasn't very ready to explore the murky waters just yet. To her, the roaring waves still appeared rather intimidating, and she kept high and dry.

Ice-cream anyone?
Soup's coming right up!

After the play time, we adjorned to the toilet area to rinse our gear and proceed for an 'outdoor shower'. The public showers prohibit bathing in the nude, and the girls soaped and scrubbed through their clothes. It was an opportunity to rinse the sand off their clothes too anyway. A quick change in the changing rooms, combing of hair, sips of water, and we were ready for lunch.

"I press, you wash"

"This is the way we wash our hair..."

Daddy decided to give the girls a treat by bringing them to one of their favourite fastfood restaurants: Burger King. Breakfast was still being served and the two girls had a kids' meal each with an orange juice and an ice Milo.

After the hearty meal, we caught a cab back home in time for a short afternoon nap for everyone... including a tired Daddy. But wouldn't it be nice if every weekend was like this?

Monday, January 14, 2013

Chiang Mai, Thailand Part 1

Came back from our Hanoi trip, unpacked, did laundry, packed and within a few days, we were off again. This time to another new place - Chiang Mai. Daddy signed up for the Chiang Mai Marathon 10 km race so the remaining 3 ladies of the house decided to be his cheerleaders. An excellent reason for another trip. We were blessed to get a great deal on Silkair - SGD$1300 for the four of us so we were all ready for another smooth ride. Minus the fact that we had already browsed through the in flight magazine umpteen times and watched the in flight entertainment repeat itself twice on the previous flight that we had to find new ways to entertain ourselves on the journey.

Weather was so cool in Hanoi (15-18 Degrees Celcius) so we were all ready for similar weather. However, we were greeted with warm sunshine upon touchdown that it felt as if we were back in the sunny Singapore island. Strange as my friends who just returned from Chiang Mai, just before we flew, recounted how cool the weather was. Definitely a sweater worthy trip. The amusing thing was I could hear the groans of fellow passagers, complaining about how they had packed so many warm clothings. Lesson? We can never outsmart the weather. Yet, in my heart, I was keeping my fingers crossed that the weather would turn cool...and stay that way.

Our hotel, De Chai The Colonial, was located near Thapae Gate where the Chiang Mai Marathon would be held so after checking in, our travellers' itch kicked in. We left the hotel almost immediately and started our exploration of the surroundings. We figured where the eateries and convenient stores were - important when travelling with kids, and read up on places we wanted to go.

We made a quick swing by Thapae Gate to collect the race-bib. The set-up was simple. Most of the tentages were not up yet, but the volunteers were helpful and the collection of the bib and T-shirt were quick. There was a lady selling cheap icecream and we got us a cone each.

After that, we re-fuelled at the Sailomjoy restaurant on Rachadamnoen Road and the tripadvisor reviews here describe it better than I can. We tried the well known Chiang Mai style noodle (Khao Soy), and had freshly sliced Thai mangoes, and the girls each had a fruit smoothie. We would be back to pack meals back to the hotel to eat on days we felt too tired to go out, usually choosing dishes you can't go wrong on, including noodle soups and various versions of the Phad Thai, as the portions were generous for the price you paid. Needless to say, the food was good.

We proceeded to do some street walking, which ended in dinner at yet another highly recommended Chiang Mai eatery named 'Art Cafe' situated near our hotel on Thapae Road. The restaurant is well known for its authentic Tex-Mex foods and we tried pastas and a wonderful burrito.

The next day, we decided to visit the famous Tiger Kingdom. We hired a tuk-tuk on the kids' request and off we went. Admission fees are based on the type of tigers you want to visit. We have very young children so we were only allowed to enter the cage with the youngest cubs (4 months). We did see older children of about 8-10 years of old in the cages holding the 8 month old cubs. The admission fee for the youngest cubs is the most expensive at 620THB per person. Admission fee for the bigger tigers is at 420THB per person. We signed an indemity form each and were ushered to the waiting area. A guide soon came by and brought us to the cages. There was a long list of instructions before we could enter the cage and I made sure these instructions were clearly explained to the kids. I needed to make sure everyone was safe.

Girls were afraid at first but after I started stroking the tiger cubs, they were more willing to come near. We were pretending to sleep on one when he suddenly growled and stood up. He was hungry. His trainer made his milk quickly and we had the opportunity to feed him using a milk bottle. Soon, other cubs started waking up and before we knew it, they were making a 'milk fight' right in front of our eyes. Once they were fed, they went back to sleep again. According to the trainers, they sleep a lot in the day so visitors are allowed only in the day.

We were able to look at the other older tigers from outside their cages. The 8 month old cubs (yes, they are still considered cubs but they are so big) saw the 2 children and started stalking them slowly. The girls stopped and looked at the two cubs staring at them. The girls were fascinated but suddenly, with no warning, the two cubs pounced at the girls, only to end up gripping onto the sides of the cage. The trainers explained that they recognize small creatures and their hunting instinct was aroused. Thank God that the cage held up. Parents, do watch your children when you visit this place. It is an interesting place indeed but it is important to be alert as well.

After an hour or so there, we headed off to the Monkey School which is a short 5 minutes drive away. It is a very run-down place, with a few monkeys strapped up. Baby monkeys were locked up in small cages and when we arrived, the staff quickly took out milk bottles and started feeding the baby monkeys, in a bid to attract the children.

The babies went frantic and grabbed the bottles eagerly. They were also very aggressive and I seriously wondered how much they were fed. We stayed for a short monkey performance show where we saw monkeys played basketball, picked out numbers that the spectators called out, plucked coconuts from the coconut tree, rode a tricycle and even took a quick swim at the pool, picking up money that the spectators threw in.

I couldn't say I enjoyed it thoroughly because of their working conditions. At the end of it, I felt as if my conscience was pricked. The notice board at the Monkey School did highlight that the monkeys were let loose at 5pm before being chained again the next day. I had my doubts but who am I to say anything? Afterall, I paid for the entertainment. Perhaps the only justification or excuse I can come up with is that my children are now aware of monkey's behaviors and I can explain to the them, the importance of respecting the animals and protecting our environment.

In the late afternoon, we headed to the local market where the rustic charms were displayed in full array.

Street stalls
Fried insects.
Deep fried fish, chicken heads, and dog... only the puppies as they're smaller and more tender. Needless to say, I did not try anything here.

After a long day, we spent the night just lazing around in the room, spending wonderful family bonding time, playing card games. And of course, the girls had a great time playing with each other, pretending to be baby tigers. 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Hanoi, Vietnam Part 3

We figured the best way to cover as many attractions as possible with 2 kids in tow is to hire a private tour. We arranged one with the hotel we are staying at (just to make sure that everything is in order and accounted for) and paid US$200 for the whole family. It includes all entrance fees, a private driver, an English tour guide and lunch.

We were picked up at 830am and brought to our first location - Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum where the embalmed body of the country's respected leader, Ho Chi Minh is kept. When we got there, there was already a long queue outside the Mausoleum, largely made up of school children. According to the guide, this is the first place where all tourists should come because it holds the reason behind the making of Hanoi. However, we were also aware that one must keep very quiet once inside the building. No photographs, no noise. Visitors must also be properly attired - no shorts, slippers, singlets etc. We were wearing bermudas and sandals and with two young children, it became very clear that it would be less stressful to just admire the building from outside.

Visitors lining up to enter the mausoleum.

The tour guide gave us a good history of Vietnam and it's political growth. We asked a lot of questions and we were very pleasantly surprised by our guide's honest answers. We were given insights into the country's social, economic and political scenes and more importantly understood the country at a whole new level, away from what we read and know from newspapers. Strangely, with this understanding, I became more at ease with Vietnam and am more able to embrace it like never before.

We walked through the humble residential areas of Ho Chi Minh, and discovered his love for people, who referred to him by the affectionate title of 'Uncle Ho'. He rejected big and fancy houses left behind by the French, and opted for a small humble wooden house. A fish tank was kept in his house so that he could entertain children when the locals visit. We walked through the neatly kept gardens -  a space frequented by the locals till today.

Visitors lining up to visit the humble residence of Ho Chi Minh from 1958 to 1969. It is dubbed "The House on Stilts".

Inside the humble abode.

The French Governer's electrician's house, in which Ho Chi Minh stayed when he took over as Presdient. He found the French Governor's mansion too extravagant and opted to stay here while his "House on Stilts" was being built.

A refurbished garage showcasing the cars used for official duties.

Next, we went to the Vietnam Military History Museum. A short drive from the Mausoleum, we were greeted by a restored Soviet MIG21 fighter jet and a T54 main battle tank. The entrance ticketing booth provides storage lockers for bags and other belongings, and we strolled to snap our first souvenirs with the military memorabilia.

The entrance room gives an overview of Vietnam's miliary history from the founding of the country, through the tenth century, all the way to the French invasion of 1858. When we think of the Vietnamese miliary might, we often envision the jungle warfare of the Vietnam War against the Americans. It was interesting to find out from the exhibits that the country's involvement in armed conflict went much further back in time to the era of spears, swords, and cannon balls.

Further on, the exhibition takes us through the French Imperialism, followed by the Vietnam War era (1949-1975). There was an impressive display of military hardware, most of the items accompanied by interesting write ups, stories, and descriptions. There were re-creations of the famous 'boobie traps' used during the campaign, and displays of other infantry weapons, uniforms, helmets, and equipment of captured French and American soldiers and airmen.

Exhibits depicting improvised explosives and 'booby traps'.
Photographs and displays honoring the heroism of the soldiers who launched suicide anti-tank attacks using 'Lunge Anti-Tank mines'.

In the S4 House, there was a large sand model linked to a video screening, with coordinated lighting depicting the various battles of the Ho Chi Minh campaign as they appeared in the film. We did not have much time to enjoy the indoor exhibits for too long as the Museum's indoor sections were closing for lunch.

Visitors enjoying the film screening and sand model depicting the Ho Chi Minh campaign at the S4 House.
However, there was much more awaiting us in the outdoor section. The courtyards were a massive display of military vehicles and aircraft used by the Vietnam's People's Army, as well as those captured from their adversaries. There were amoured vehicles, helicopters, jets, missiles, artillery pieces, mines and much more. Among them, the wreckage of an American B52 bomber shot down over Hanoi in 1972, and a downed Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopter which we had the opportunity to climb into.

Surface to air anti-aircraft missile used to defend Hanoi against the B-52 bombing raids.

A sculpture made from the wreckages of downed aircraft.

CH-47 Chinook Helicopter

Sitting in the pilot's seat.

A-37 Dragonfly Light Attack Aircraft.
From the narrations, displays, and coversations with the tour guide, I was impressed by the resilience of the Vietnamese throughout their war history. It was evident that the strength of the Vietnamese defence mechanism lay not in equipment or technology, but in the the unity of its people.

It was lunch time, and we requested for the tour guide to take us to a place with a wide variety of local food... and what a variety there was at Quan An Ngon!

The eatery is fashioned like a Singaporean food court or Marche restaurant, with numerous stand alone stalls selling all sorts of Vietnamese fare. You can visit the booths to buy dishes or make your selection from a menu.

The guide told us it's 'all you can eat' affair with the bill included in the cost of the tour, and we delightfuly obliged by choosing a variety of noodle soups, fresh spring rolls, and barbequed meats. Everything seemed to be served with sides of fresh leafy greens and sweet sauces. For the spring rolls, we selected mainly the healthier 'fresh' versions. While I cannot recall the exact names of the dishes, the following are mouth-watering photographs of some of the dishes we chose (apologies for making this post look like a food-blog, but if you're a foodie, proceed with caution!):

Grilled chicken and pork on skewers with barbecue sauce

Fried prawn cakes. These are small wafers with a whole shrimp (shell included) fried into a crispy crunchy cake. Goes well with the sweet sauce provided!

Pork spring rolls

Prawn spring rolls

Vietnamese pancake (Banh Xeo). These resemble a thin, fragile crispy crepe fried with shrimp and vegetables that you break into pieces and wrap in thin rice paper skins with mint leaves and dip into your sweet sauce. 

Rice noodle spring rolls with peanut sauce

Pork spring rolls in the process of being prepared for the palate!

Eel noodle soup.... eeeeeeeeewwwwwwllll...
While leaving the complex after a sumptuous meal feeling all satisfied, we saw a peddler selling fresh Jack Fruit and the thought of a bag of sweet munchies to accompany us during our ride was too much to resist.

Next we proceeded to Vietnam Museum of Ethnology where the essence of the different ethnic groups in Vietnam is housed. The main building showcases the cultural and social make up of each ethnic group. Videos showing how they perform daily tasks, including spiritual rituals, are also shown. The only obstacle, which is a big one, is that the videos are without English subtitles. We kept having to bombard our guide with questions. The other displays are accompanied by English, though not in much detail. Nonetheless, the museum had enough artifacts and pictures to occupy my elder daughter and I while the second one took her much needed afternoon nap on her daddy's tired shoulders. Just when we thought the one and a half hour walk around the museum was it, we were told that there was more.

Behind the main building is a real-life display of the different ethnic groups' houses. According to our guide, a lot of effort was spent to bring the ethnic houses and 'tombs' (where they house the deceased) from their original sites to the museum. Visitors are also allowed to enter these houses. One needs to be respectful when entering these houses and be careful not to make too much noise and ruckus. Shoes cloths (just wear it over your shoes) are also provided to prevent visitors from dirtying the houses. We entered one of the houses and were initially unsure as to whether the bamboo underneath our feet would support our weight. The minder in the house (I was told they have a minder/volunteer in each house) assured us that the house was very strong and urged us to continue. We did and after a while, both my older daughter and I got a hang of it even though the creaking sound of the bamboo did a great job instilling uncertainties every now and then. The minder explained that the loud sound often made going to the toilet a burden for those sound asleep in the house. I could so imagine.

What followed next on our tour itinerary was an hour ricksaw ride around the Old Quarters. It seemed a bit surreal sitting in a ricksaw admist the rush in the old quarters. The last time I sat in a ricksaw was when I was a little girl and my grandmother would bring me along for her marketing chores. The ricksaw uncle would always pick us up at her house and wait for my grandmother to finish her errands at the market before sending us back again, through the small quiet alleys. All these for SGD$1-2. However, Singapore was developing rapidly and soon, ricksaw uncle stopped working.

Now that I got to sit in a ricksaw again, I felt as if I was a young girl again. Only this time, I had a young girl with me. Tourists were fascinated with the ricksaws and started taking photos. Being hospitable, we posed along. The kids did a great job publicizing for the ricksaw drivers that more tourists came to snap the 'authentic' scene. As we moved along, the ricksaw drivers, in their limited English, tried to find out where we were from and did a very basic introduction of the areas or buildings we went pass. Simply put, they gave us the names of places and buildings but it was good enough as it helped in our orientation. We were dropped at our hotel after an hour and it left us a better impression of the Old Quarters and a determination to explore more of it the next day.