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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Lebanon, Al Mina

 

Leaving Byblos I am soon making slow “S turns” along the highway pass good size red and white striped barriers. I find this interesting and I get the video tape rolling (ok, that is so old school). What seems to be to be an old military check point turns out to be an active one and I quickly put away my recording device.

Although it maybe different here I had an interesting experience doing almost the same thing at a border crossing into Israel a few years ago. I have learned my lesson.

As it turns out, I along with about every other car on the route are freely allowed to pass. Beyond the check point the landscape begins to change into mountainous terrain. On my right, I now get a glimpse of towering snow capped mountains.

 

 

ST76 JAN23 034Al Mina Mosque

 

Soon I see an exit for The Cedars but continue on for about another 20kms to the seaside community of Al Mina just outside of Tripoli. With the time being later in the day than planned and earlier warnings of rebel issues in some areas of Tripoli, I remain for only a brief time at Al Mina.

 

 

ST76 JAN23 036From the seaside docks I enjoy views of the area that made the drive for me definitely worthwhile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bangkok, How Deep Is Beauty

 

Still feeling relaxed but lacking in the beauty department, I head over to one of Bangkok's unusual theaters for maybe some beauty tips.

I can see that my self researching tips may come at an expensive price as I say good-bye to THB$1200. If all else fails, I do get one free drink for my THB$1200.

It's about 8:10pm and I am descending down a set of spiraling stairs against a mirrored wall. I am inside the Asia Hotel where one by one an almost over friendly staff welcomes guests to The Playhouse Theater.

Our free drinks are served while the house lights are up and it is well past the 8:15pm show time before the house lights are finally turned down.

A lengthy and loud introduction soundtrack is played as we can see and hear commotion going on behind the still closed stage curtains. Obviously, the “Quiet On The Set or Positions Please” call has not been made.

 

“Come with me and you will be in a world of pure imagination”

 

 

SAM_1353I accept the inviting challenge of the opening act and forget that I am in a theater with only about thirty people.

 

 

 

 

 

I assume most of us are here because of our curiosity about the actors. It is not long before the calm invitation of the opening act turns into a high energy performance.

 

 

 

SAM_1355OMG, Has MJ Returned

 

 

It is taking a lot of my imagination to accept what I should be accepting. However, I can see how some theater makeup might help me in the beauty department. Learning some of the moves might also help update my John Travolta routine.

Over the course of the next hour or so the energy level of the show decreases every once and awhile but not for too long. From a tribute to Michael Jackson by MJ himself to a rendition of Fame, I am really enjoying the vigor of this performance.

 

 

SAM_1357For me, two funny moments in the show comes from seeing male ballerina dancers and learning the sad fate of a couple of “ladies men”, playboys.

 

 

 

 

The first one got two warning shots to the head (at least he was warned), the other happen to fall on a kitchen knife about ten times. I guess they both had it coming.

In my younger days I knew a man that would dance for you, in worn out shoes. He once told me:

“But most the time I spend behind these county bars 'cause I drink a bit”. I ask him, please Mr. Bojangles, Mr. Bojangles, Mr. Bojangles, dance.

For a group whose native tongue is not English this is one of the coolest rendition of Mr. Bojangles that I have ever seen.

No doubt The Playhouse Cabaret has a lot of missteps and is not destined for Broadway anything soon but this turns out to be a fun experience.

As the show ends I am still left wondering, really those were really. Really?

Leaving the theater we get the opportunity to take pictures with the actors  in exchange for sometimes aggressive request for tips. I don't mind as I enjoyed the performance and maybe they are starving theater students.

 

 

SAM_1365Up close I do discovery that some of them are not who they appeared to be on the stage. That's ok as I now have my imagination back and know the makeup thing is not going to work for me. I am going to have to find a way to be naturally beautiful or I might end up looking like this!

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Lebanon, To Byblos And Beyond

 

I leave the comfort and safety of The Mayflower Hotel for what some may consider a dangerous or crazy idea. I am about to go driving in Beirut and through the Lebanese countryside where I am told drivers take road signs as mere suggestions.

This explains why during my journey into the city some “One Way Signed Streets” had two way traffic and some traffic signals did not work as far as some drivers were concerned.

Down Hamra Street I am in the mid-morning traffic rush although it is probably like this most hours on any given day. A few turns here and there and I exit West Beirut to join a highway along the coast that will eventually take me to Tripoli.

 

 

ST76 JAN23 001Another interesting aspect of Lebanese driving is how a three lane highway becomes four or five lanes by drivers choice topped off with a few honks as the process is accomplished. All fun to watch as I cruise along enjoying the scenery and the sounds of a local radio station.

 

 

 

 

ST76 JAN23 002Bahamas

 

 

A stop along the way at Wooden Bakery and I discover a first for me. A pastry named after my country of birth. Surprisingly, I don't have the appetite to eat my homeland. However, I am amused to see it in the form of a fancy chocolate presentation in Lebanon.

 

ST76 JAN23 005A few hours after leaving Beirut, I am at my first stop, Byblos.

Located along the shores of Lebanon this city is recognized as one of the world's oldest inhabited cities. Archeological records have been found here dating back some 8,000 years ago.

 

 

 

 

 

ST76 JAN23 020Byblos, Lebanon

 

 

After paying a small entrance fee and walking the grounds I can see why here would have been a prime location for our early ancestors. Today with an ocean breeze blowing the temperature is near perfect and the scenery spectacular. I imagine not much has changed here in that regard since about eight millenniums ago.

 

 

ST76 JAN23 017Early residences along with the remains of a Roman theater from the third century are just some of the findings that have been excavated here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ST76 JAN23 024Third Century Roman Theater

 

 

 

ST76 JAN23 031I am not sure about the beginning of its existence but nearby is also an old souk (market place).

Although it is now modernized with the latest souvenirs and high fashion items available for sale.

 

 

 

I wonder to myself what a pair of Nike's would have cost 8,000 years ago.

Even with a language barrier there is no wondering the meaning of the sounds I am hearing as I watch two gentlemen play one of the world's oldest board game.

With a last chance to hit an opponent’s checker and coming up with an lucky roll of the dice I think I know the meaning of “Aaatt..”

 

 

 

Bangkok, Bald and Relaxed

 

 

003After a few hours relaxing at a Starbucks near the Phaya Thai Station, I make my way back there to the BTS Sky Train.

For less than US$1 (20 Baht), I am just a few stops and a short walk away from my hotel for the night.

 

 

 

 

005“He is, The King”

 

 

 

153Checked in at another familiar spot in the city, I relax in the comfort of what seems like home then it is time for a long hot refreshing shower.

 

 

 

 

 

Wearing my backpack “Monday Best”, I am again off on the streets of Bangkok, in a manner of speaking.

 

 

SAM_1349My first journey is along one of the cities fun transportation avenues, its famous canals.

This time it's a THB$10 (US$0.50) fare for a journey that will take me to one of the main streets in the city.

 

 

 

For me, going to the barber at home brings on a standard joke and criticism of my financial wisdom.

“You have no hair”. “Why are you wasting money going to the barber?”

For the most part these criticisms are fair since I have had a bald spot for at least the last twenty years, most of my young life. However, as long as I have some hair, every now and then it deserves some special treatment.

At the moment, I am on my way to do just that and the only people that will be amused by my actions are those I don't know and a barber that will see it as easy money.

THB$120 (less than US$5) including a tip and about twenty minutes later I am bald but not quite yet beautiful. An excellent hair cut with a warm towel face wash and an old-fashioned barber razor edging.

I feel like THB$29868071.69.

 

 

SAM_1350Looking in the barber shop mirror, I am reminded of a universal truth that we all know.

God only made a few perfect heads, on the rest of them she put hair.

 

 

 

 

A few steps down from the barber shop and I am being twisted like a pretzel almost to the point of pain. With a weight on my body, I am bent from one direction to the next.

Except that I know my perpetrator's intentions are good, I would otherwise wrestle her free from me and runaway like I did after losing a fight to another girl in the fourth grade.

An hour later I am so relaxed almost to the point that I am afraid to walk. However, with steel determination I find the will to do so as my Bangkok outing must continue.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Lebanon, To Hamra West Beirut

 

Leaving the Beirut airport I quickly enter the “First Time Uncomfortable Zone” of driving in a foreign country. Although I have a generic map, it is now dark and it is not an easy feeling as I merge onto a dimly lit highway with huge trucks belching diesel fumes. It would help if I read Arabic but I continue on as if I know where I am going.

Soon I see two tunnels that eases my comfort level. I was told earlier about these by the rental car employee and now I have a sense that I am on the right track. I take the one on the right and exit onto a congested one way street. A quick stop at a gas station and an English speaking local confirms that I am almost where I should be.

Heading down a busy Hamra Street, I make a few turns here and there, head this direction and then the next, compete for road space with a few motorcycles and pedestrians, ask a few more questions before eventually arriving at my destination.

 

 

ST76 JAN23 095Unknown to me at the time I made my reservation, I am staying at a hotel that has a part of Lebanon's sad civil war history.

The Mayflower is said to be one of the only hotels that remained open during the conflict.

 

 

 

I am happy to see there is no evidence of the war left behind. I am not sure why but I am upgraded to a Junior Suite and will have room to entertain a delegation for the next three days.

Although it is later in the evening, checked it at the Mayflower, I hit the streets to find an old Middle East friend. Fortunately, I think she will not be hard to find as I have no doubt she is very popular in a city like Beirut.

 

 

ST76 JAN 22 016At an ATM just off Hamra street I withdraw some Lebanese pounds and continue my search by sitting outside at Kaakaya Restaurant.

 

 

 

 

A Lebanese salad is ordered followed by what I consider a Lebanese feast. Humus, seasoned pickles, grilled meat, slices of warm pita bread topped with mint leaves and read onions along with French fries.

In talking with Kaakaya's manager he has offered to help me find my friend and suggest I should enjoy our time together with a hint of mint and lime.

 

 

ST76 JAN 22 019Lebanese Feast For One

 

 

My food arrives and shortly thereafter my Middle East friend. Hours later I leave Kaakaya content with a full stomach and a big relaxing smile on my face thanks to the delicious food at Kaakaya and from being able to spend quality time with my friend, Shisha.

 

 

ST76 JAN 22 033A Middle East Vice, Shisha.

Burma, Visa On Arrival

 

If you have plans of visiting Burma don't delay them as VOA is available and it is as easy as a brand new “Benjamin” or a “Jackson”.

I made my application online and paid about US$43 for the service with the understanding that I would pay an additional US$30 on arrival for the visa itself.

 

SAM_1373Although the email service from the company was slower than expected, eventually I received an approval letter and a list with my name on it from them. Both of these items I saved on my netbook to present to Air Asia when checking in for my flight and to the Immigration officials when I arrived in Yangon.

 

 

At the VOA desk you have to fill out another form and present one passport photo. The process could not have been any simpler or more pleasant as the officials were friendly and very accommodating. However, one interesting thing.

Your American currency must be in perfect condition as it has to pass the tough inspection of one Chief Currency Inspector No. 13. No folds, wrinkles or markings or bent corners. Fortunately, I had a fresh from the bank at home and well traveled US$100 bill.

 

 

SAM_1392One of Many Pagodas In Yangon

 

 

Once my visa was issued, I then proceeded onto Immigration and Customs where again the officials were refreshingly friendly and welcoming.

In the baggage claim area there is an ATM with dial up internet connection, I swear I could hear that old familiar dial up tone. Don’t pretend like you are too young to remember, I know you had a Vic-20 too!

Nearby is a Currency Exchange Booth where your old worn out, torn, dog eared and wrinkled Jacksons, Benjamins and even Old Georges are gladly welcomed. There is a varied rate for currency exchange with the hundred dollar bill getting the best treatment, as it should.

 

 

SAM_1399Being in Burma is exciting and with the ease of VOA, I would say start packing.

I think my new found friends would agree.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Lebanon, From Brussels To Beirut

 

From the boarding area in Brussels I can tell that my flight to Beirut will not be full. For me this is a good thing for two reasons. One, I will probably get to stretch out in coach and more importantly I will have a window seat.

 

 

ST76 JAN 22 001Although it has snowed overnight in Brussels the skies are clearing at the airport.

With no de-icing required, it does not take long before Middle East Airline Flight 216 is airborne for Beirut.

 

 

This is my first time flying a Middle East airline and I am quickly impressed by the attentiveness of what seems to be by American standards an over-staffed crew. The flight attendants are very business like and seem more that eager to help passengers find their proper seats even on a half full airplane.

 

 

ST76 JAN 22 006Our flight time to Beirut is just under four hours.

We are served (for free) a hot meal in coach which seems to be lacking on most flights in the United States.

 

 

 

However, in reading their on board magazine there maybe somewhat of an explanation for this. MEA has recently been granted a 12 year extension of it's rights to be the exclusive airline to and from Lebanon. This can be seen as somewhat of a competitive edge which may in turn allow MEA to provide a better product for its passengers. A win-win situation.

 

 

 

ST76 JAN 22 011Approach Into Beirut, Lebanon

 

About three hours and forty minutes into the flight we begin our approach into Beirut under smoggy skies that clear as we descend lower. From my seat I begin to see “Paris Of The East” although the landscape reminds me somewhat of Manhattan, New York when arriving into La Guardia airport.

Our route takes us along the downtown shores of Beirut where I get a birds eye-view of Pigeons Rock before Flight 216 touches down ahead of schedule.

 

 

 

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Vietnam, Good-bye!

 

It is our last morning in Vietnam and in few minutes we'll take a walk to a bus that will be taking us to Cambodia.

As I recall our time here, one of the fun if not crazy things we did while here was simply crossing a main street. Making multiple crossings and not being a “Hit” in some strange way made us feel apart of Vietnam.

 

 

009Beautiful Vietnamese Artwork

 

 

If you come to Vietnam it is definitely something you may have to contend with. One piece of advise, just keep walking and I hope you will enjoy Vietnam and its people as much as we did.

Thanks, Vietnam.

 

 

Lebanon, Beirut A Gem In The Middle East

 

For many years I have had the desire to visit Lebanon although with the uncertainties and wars in the Middle East over time that desire had waned like the setting sun.

A few years ago while traveling in Turkey, I met a family from Lebanon while touring the Grand Palace in Istanbul and a seed was planted for me to think again about visiting Lebanon.

With uncertain and flexible travel plans for vacation I once again began to desire the land that was once know as “Paris Of The East”. As I stand on a train platform in Brussels, Belgium with practically numb hands from a cold winter wind, I am looking forward to in a few hours boarding a Middle East Airline flight for the warmth of Beirut.

 

ST76 JAN 22 001On a flight that is less than half full, about three hours and forty five minutes after leaving Brussels I peak out my window and through almost smoggy skies I begin to see the outline of the paradise I waited so long to visit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

ST76 JAN 22 010Approaching Beirut Airport

 

 

An easy Immigration and Customs clearing process and I exit into the arrivals area of Beirut International Airport.

Paying what I consider an absorbent amount for Wi-Fi access, US$12 (75m)I begin to put together my plan for the next three days and two nights in Lebanon.

With a rental car from Europcar for US$77 along with helpful information, a map and a little word of caution from the Europcar employee, I set out for the Mayflower Hotel in the Hamra area of Beirut.

My Lebanon adventure begins.

Luxembourg, A Winter Evening Walk

 

 

ST76 JAN21 021As I crest a snow covered hill from a cobblestone path, I am on one of the main roads into the city and I am immediately taken back in time.

Along this road are the partial remains of probably one of the city's historic entry gates.

 

 

From my vantage point I can now look down on another part of the city which is hundreds of feet below me. With rooftops covered in snow and amber lights radiating from the windows of some of the buildings, it seems as if I am looking at a fairy tale city.

 

 

 

ST76 JAN21 022Casemate Luxembourg

 

 

 

ST76 JAN21 029What I am actually looking at is the Casemate, an area built by the Spaniards in the 1700's.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Along a path off the main road I am headed towards Notre Dame Cathedral one of Luxembourg’s prominent landmarks. Built in the 1900's, at the entrance of the cathedral is a nice written display of the history of Luxembourg.

 

 

ST76 JAN21 031The two things that I find most interesting are the conquest of Gaul by Julius Cesar 58-50 av and the fact that the city was liberated by American soldiers in 1944.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ST76 JAN21 043Notre Dame Cathedral Luxembourg

 

 

Although the inside of the cathedral does not compare to Notre Dame in Paris the sense of calm and peace being here is the same as I view a still on display nativity scene while soothing music is played in the background.

As I leave, the bells of Notre Dame are tolling to mark another hour passed in the city.

 

ST76 JAN21 052My walk this evening follows one of the many designed paths that allows you to in about two to three hours cover hundreds if not a thousand years of Luxembourg history.

 

 

 

 

With night and temperatures falling I will shave a few hundred years of history from my walk but will have still learned a few things about this city which was founded in 963.

 

 

ST76 JAN21 047I stroll down now softly lit narrow streets to view The Grand-Ducal Palace, The Palace of Justice and The Museum Of History de la Ville as a light snow is beginning to dust the ground.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ST76 JAN21 056The Museum Of History de la Ville

 

Making my way back to YouthHostels Luxembourg, in some areas the intensity of the snowfall increases. This enhances the fairytale image of the city below that I walked by earlier.

I imagine warm fireplaces been stoked and I know somewhere out there is a gingerbread boy.

 

 

Friday, January 25, 2013

Vietnam, A Wet Puppet

 

 

008An easy walk from our hotel is The Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater almost a must if you visit Saigon.

This is a show that gives an entertaining presentation of Vietnamese life and culture in an interesting form of storytelling.

 

 

The art of water puppetry has a steep traditional in local Vietnamese culture and is connected with the spiritual life of the Vietnamese people.

For me, attending any theater production it is always amazing to see the talents of the performers no matter the art form. As a person that never mastered the recorder, I always appreciate this.

 

 

020Water Puppets

 

 

The Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater has several shows every evening that last about 50 minutes without an intermission. For about US$7.50 per person it is a worthwhile outing in Ho Chi Minh City.

 

 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Vietnam, A Saigon Secret

 

 

006It is not until our last night in Vietnam that I discover what maybe one of Ho Chi Minh City's best kept secrets.

While walking to the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater we stumble upon something sweet that is as simple as ABC.

 

 

 

 

 

001Sinful Saigon Pleasures

 

 

A quick calculation and I determine that if tomorrow I walk to Cambodia instead of taking the bus, I can indulge in a few sinful pleasures and not even gain a pound!

 

 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Vietnam, The Cruelties Of War

 

No doubt the most heart wrenching and soul searching moments of my visit to Vietnam comes as I leave the outside displays at the War Remnants Museum and venture inside. Here, I  get to see some of the historical horrors and cruelties of war.

 

2012-07-02 06 54 38From tiger cages where prisoners were kept like animals to the point of developing unbelievable deformities to the guillotine and the use of chemical weapons, our inhumanity to each other can reach a point beyond insanity.

 

 

 

 

2012-07-02 06 56 07Victim Of Chemical Attack

 

 

In viewing the displays here the exhibits are weighted mostly to the U.S injustice here but one would be naive to think it did not happen on both sides of the battle field.

 

SAM_1427I am sure the displays at Cu Chi Tunnel only give a hint of what some U.S service men suffered on the other side.

 

 

 

 

In any event, it is a tough pill to swallow seeing some of the exhibits and it does give me a sense of shame for some of our misguided policies here during the war. One of the most lingering affects of the war here was American use of Agent Orange.

 

2012-07-02 06 56 57Even many of our service men and their offspring such as this girl born without a full arm have been forever damaged by this chemical weapon.

 

 

 

However, It is nice to see that areas of Vietnam that were once destroyed are now thriving communities and cities. The before and after comparison are ones you like to see as probably they show us that maybe we have all learned lessons from the mistakes that have occurred here.

 

 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Vietnam, American Military Equipment

 

 

072Back in Ho Chi Minh City, we take a walk over to a museum that we are told over it's history has had many names.

On the grounds of the War Remnants Museums are what I consider the less heart tugging reminders of the conflict here.

 

 

As someone that has been fascinated with aviation from my early childhood, I am always in awe of flying machines and the miracle of flight. To touch a UH-1 helicopter, the aircraft that symbolized for me more than any other aircraft the US presence in Vietnam is simply a cool experience.

 

 

075For a moment I withdraw the war aspect of these machines and admire those that designed and operated them.

Their courage and sacrifices should not be forgotten.

 

 

 

 

Vietnam, Words You Can Shop, Buy Maybe

 

The opportunity to learn more about Vietnamese culture continues even as we make our way back to Ho Chi Minh City. Although I am not an avid shopper, I listen and ask questions as our tour guide gives us some tips for bargaining.

One word that we learn to be careful with is “Mac-w aah” as in the wrong situation you might be looking at a right upper cut coming your way.

“Mac-w aah” can be taken as offensive so might want to practice your “bob and weave” or be quick with a “Sin loi” which means sorry it is my fault.

 

 

Brussels, Welcome To Europe

 

 

ST76 JAN21 007About twelve hours after leaving the unusually cold weather for this time of the year in the Southern United States, under dawn's early light I can see the ground is covered with snow as we make our arrival into Brussels, Belgium.

 

 

 

 

ST76 JAN21 008This is not my first time visiting Belgium but it is my first time to experience a bit of winter here.

A friendly welcome during the immigration processing and I set out to change my original plans.

 

 

 

With a forecast for snow throughout the day, I look into taking a train into Luxembourg instead of driving. To my surprise, the train is a lot cheaper than renting a car when you purchase a flexible round trip ticket.

 

 

ST76 JAN21 009E$51 later and I am headed a short distance down a flight of stairs to Platform 2.

In less than ten minutes I am onboard a train that will take me to Brussels North Station where I will change to a direct train to Luxembourg.

  

Arriving at Brussels North, I discover that the trains to Luxembourg leave hourly at 42 minutes past the hour and I can leave whenever I chose. I take this opportunity to walk towards the City Centre although the conditions outside are almost miserable and in some places treacherous. Once or twice I come close to almost wiping out on the icy and slushy sidewalks. Guess I picked a good day to give up drinking.

 

 

 

ST76 JAN21 010Belgium Winter Weather

 

Refuge in a McDonalds to warm up and surf the web then I am back at the station in time to catch the next hourly scheduled Luxembourg train. After about three hours of taking in the snow covered landscape at various speeds with numerous stops along the way, I arrive in Luxembourg in plenty of time to explore a bit of the city on a cold winter afternoon.