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All posts for the month February, 2018

Mark enjoying a Perfect Manhattan at Eat Me, one of our favorite restaurants in Bangkok. And just for the record, the drink was perfect; you don’t find that often outside the U.S.

Yes, by my count this is our ninth stop in Bangkok since starting this adventure in 2013, the most separate stays of any city as we approach our fifth anniversary on the road. As much as we love Paris, we’ve “only” made six stops there. (To be sure, we’ve spent 45 nights in Paris during that time compared to just 34 in Bangkok so it’s fair to say we love Paris more than Bangkok.) Over that time, to our surprise, we’ve come to genuinely like Bangkok. Despite the crowds and dirt and chaos and noise and poverty and heat … there’s something very cool about the city.

Mark loved this picture. It somehow epitomizes Bangkok….

On the other hand, we don’t have a lot more pictures to take here and there’s not a lot more to write about Bangkok; it seems as though I said it all in the last Bangkok post I wrote a year ago. We’ve found good restaurants, good bartenders, nice hotels, and even malls we like. OK, it’s hard to say that we actually like the malls but this stop in particular required a lot of shopping. Both my AppleWatch and iPhone were dying. Neither of us had bought a pair of shorts in a couple of years. We needed t-shirts. Toiletries! Just the basics but this is the place to find it all.

That was pretty much it. We revisited some of our favorite restaurants, got a lot of shopping done, and just enjoyed the scene. We even had lunch with Adam and Steve (owner and staff member, respectively, at Grasshopper Adventures, our favorite Asian bicycle tour company), proving that those right-wing Christians were wrong; God did create Adam and Steve! From here we’re making a bit of a tour around Thailand, first north to Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai, then down to the beaches of Phuket and Koh Samui. Before one last stop again in Bangkok. Maybe we’re just addicts.

Oysters at Eat Me. How’s that for First World cuisine?

Me and the orchids at Mango Tree, another great restaurant we love

A selfie in the unbelievable water of the Maldives. Think we’re having fun?

Mark & I both observed that going into our six nights in the Maldives we felt as though we were kind of “checking off a box,” as in you have to go there at some point and since Sri Lanka is the closest country might as well do it now. It’s not that we weren’t looking forward to it, it was just that it seemed unlikely we were going to be that excited by it. Six nights later and it may now rank as the most fantastic, beautiful, perfect resort we’ve ever stayed at. That’s saying something. If you’re fortunate enough to travel in tropical islands – the Caribbean, the Greek islands, whatever – you’re always looking for that beach that’s just like you see them in the travel magazines. We found it.

Our own kind of semi-private beach with a little path headed up to our stunning suite

First, you have to acknowledge that the resorts here are ridiculously expensive. We did the whole six nights on Hyatt points earned long ago, staying at their Park Hyatt, the top property in their chain. Even with free lodging, though, we knew it was going to be an expensive stay; when you’re captive on an island like that (the Park Hyatt has the entire island; there’s literally nothing else there) you pay top dollar for food and drinks. And to make it worse the Maldives is a seriously Moslem country where alcohol is banned for those entering the country. That ban is lifted in resorts so you can drink, but only what they sell you at their prices. So yeah, expensive even if the room is free.

But wow, was it worth it. It started good enough, with a weekly manager’s Happy Hour on our first night that included free drinks for an hour or so along with local entertainment. We had an entry-level room and it was beautiful. On the second day, though, we were told that they were going to upgrade us the next day to a suite, a two-bedroom place with a veranda, private pool, and semi-private beach. Wow, wow! We’re not sure why us (it could have been random, or it might have been related to a certain staff person who seemed to really like having a gay couple staying there…) but now we were living large.

Mark sitting under the covered veranda on a day that was on-and-off rainy with our private pool. Sweet!

What do you do at a luxury resort on the most beautiful tropical island we’ve ever seen? Not a lot. Reading, sunbathing, swimming, napping … that’s about it. Even on the one day it rained, pretty much all day, you could sit in luxury and just drink it all in. In an unusual twist we made a bunch of friends. Our experience is that the more expensive and exclusive a resort the less likely you are to meet people; you have more space to yourself and people just stay apart. Here, though, the bar was a lively place through the afternoon and evening. Several people at least had “all you can drink” packages and some of them took good advantage of it. In our case the resort also allows you to buy an “unlimited” package on a daily basis and, as the price was less than the cost of wine with meals plus a cocktail each, we bit.

So we met James & Lidia, a fun couple from London on their slightly delayed honeymoon. Our little friendship didn’t start so well when James, an investment banker of some sort and heir of some sort, claimed to be a big fan of both Donald Trump and Brexit. Mark tactfully called him a damned idiot and then we got along great. Joe & Cassie were a fun couple from Australia who just happened to share the names of a great-great-uncle and aunt whom I remember fondly from my childhood. Probably best of all were Chas & Patty, a great semi-retired couple from St. Louis; inveterate travelers and very much on our side in the Trump flare-ups. Late in the stay we met Eran and Rhianna, a young Manhattan couple escaping the New York winter. Oh, and you can’t forget the Turkish dentist. Actually, we never talked with him and in fact I’m not sure he even spoke English (and I’m sure I don’t speak Turkish). You couldn’t miss him though, a big, bulky, heavy-set, unattractive guy who spent a week there with someone who sure seemed like a hooker. And in fact Joe said one of the staff people told him “Yeah, he comes here every so often with another one.” Colorful!

Entertainment on our first night. That’s the beautiful Cassie in the blue dress with her husband Joe taking the picture.

OK, though, back to the islands. Some interesting things about the Maldives. With fewer than half a million residents, it has the smallest population in all of Asia and is also the smallest in terms of land area. At the same time it is remarkably dispersed, with the northernmost island some 530 miles from the southernmost. As a result it’s not easy to get around: from Colombo we flew into Malé, the capital, caught a connecting flight about ninety minutes south, and then caught a boat for about 45 minutes to the resort.

En route to our island paradise

Two other quirks. The country is the world’s lowest, with an average elevation of just five feet above sea level and it also has the lowest high point of any country in the world, just under eight feet. (Quick quiz: if the Maldives is the country with the world’s lowest high point, what country has the world’s highest low point? Give up? Lesotho, in Southern Africa, a country we went to way back in late 2000.)

A picture of one of those Maldive bats – an Indian Flying Fox they’re sometimes called – we cadged from the Internet

And then there’s the time zone weirdness. The Maldives are pretty much directly south of Mumbai (and just barely north of the equator) and when we got to Malé we were in the time zone Mumbai would be in if India didn’t do that weird half-hour thing. Easy enough. When we got to the Park Hyatt, though, the clock had moved an hour forward even though we’d gone almost directly south. What’s that all about? Turns out resorts in the Maldives get to set their own time zone and they typically like to move the clock ahead an hour so sunsets are at the more civilized time of 7:00 PM rather than 6:00. Odd to give resorts such sovereign authority but they were right; it was nice for the sun to rise and set a bit later.

OK, one more last thing about the Maldives. Bats. You wouldn’t believe it. They’re the biggest bats I’ve ever seen, maybe the size of a crow or something. But when you see them flying – and they fly all over, all the time – they are indisputably bats. Ugly, scary damned things, probably five or six times the size of the bats I used to hate back in Minnesota. One night Mark wanted to take a bath in a beautiful outdoor tub we had but the bats were so heavy right over him he had to get out lest one somehow fell on him.

As always, though, our week in paradise came to a close. Of course, other people leave the resort and go back to work; we’re off to Thailand for four weeks. Nothing to complain about there. To our surprise, though, we think we’re pretty likely to come back to the Maldives some day. Far from just checking off a country we absolutely loved it here.

Sunset

A little later the same evening. Those are the over-water bungalows, a lot more expensive than most units but I can’t imagine I would like them any better than the suite we had.

The next day stormy weather blew in but it really didn’t hamper our little holiday one bit

The big public beach, where on many nights they serve a romantical dinner under the stars to some lucky couple

Our beach chairs

Mark out in the water

Jim out in the water

Our pool and veranda with just a little raindrop or two

Nothing to complain about when you pay for the entry-level room and they give you this

The main pool wasn’t too shabby

Palm trees

And finally one memorable meal. On our second night we chatted a bit with the chef and learned he’s from Armenia. “Oh,” Mark says, “We love Armenian food!” So the chef says fine, he’ll cook us an Armenian meal the next night if we want it. We did. Great grilled meats and absolutely stunning veggies. That’s service!

Here I am at Rana Seafood Restaurant, just a few steps outside our hotel grounds. We were up on the second floor, after crossing the railroad tracks you see in the background. The food was pretty good, the price was pretty good, and the setting was delightful.

Our (nearly) last stop in Sri Lanka was the tiny little town of Bentota, midway between Galle & Colombo, where finally we had a pretty good beach experience. Our hotel – Vivanta by Taj – was at the end of a small road and then up on a bit of a hill. The result was that the pool and all that had nice views over the beach but, if you wanted to, you could go down to a big, wide, beautiful beach. Unlike further south where we’d been the water here was swimmable without too much danger. So Mark & I both spent a bit of time, finally, in the Indian Ocean.

Here I am down on the beach. As you can see it’s a huge beach and I was pretty much on my own. I love sitting like that with a good book! Unfortunately there were tiny, tiny little bugs that must have been three-quarters teeth. They didn’t bother me too much at the time; they were so small you could just ignore them. Five days later, though, I’m still scratching them like crazy.

Otherwise, besides pool and beach, this was a quiet stop. We discovered two nice restaurants just outside the hotel grounds which is always a plus; the food is better than what you’ll get at the hotel and significantly cheaper. Sadly, though, we were there during the full moon. Here’s whats weird about that: in Sri Lanka, full moon days are public holidays known as “Poya.” Shops are closed, which is fine. Horrifically, though, the sale of alcohol is prohibited, even in restaurants. Fortunately we knew about this in advance and had gone into town the day before to buy some wine and then ordered room service in a room that was big enough it had a sitting/eating area. With advance planning like that it sure seems as though Mark & I could survive in the wilderness if we needed to.

Mark with our room service Indian meal and the prized bottle of wine on Poya. Note that Boston Bear joined us that evening.

After three days in Bentota, then, we hired a car to drive us up to an airport hotel near Colombo for a very early flight the next day to the Maldives. Two things about that stand out. First, we asked at the hotel about hiring a car; they quoted us a price of $110 USD. That was insane, well more than twice what we’d paid for any other transfer in Sri Lanka and this was a pretty short drive. I went out of the hotel, then, to hire our own car and the first guy quoted a price of about $50 as his first (high) offer. It pissed us off to have the hotel try to rip us off like that.

And then when we made it up to the airport hotel they’d upgraded us to a suite which was as big and nice as nearly any room we’ve had in a few years. Strange to have that experience at an airport hotel. Finally, let me add how much we loved Sri Lanka, just a real paradise. Beaches, highlands, culture – we saw it all in our three weeks here. We have this sense that in a couple of years Sri Lanka will be a major tourist destination, so get here fast before it changes too much!

View of the ocean from the pool area. Not a bad place to hang out.

And indeed, that’s where Mark spent much of his time

How’s that for a beautiful beach?

Meanwhile, back at Rana Seafood Restaurant, the train makes its way leisurely up toward Colombo

Dinner at Malli’s Seafood was also up on the second floor, also right next to the train tracks where local trains entertained us coming and going

And a final shot from Malli’s. When you sat down they brought this coconut bread, some fresh tomatoes marinated in something-or-other, and the incredible melted butter and garlic. We usually avoid bread but this was absolutely worth an exception in our diet. Wow!