Global career and now global nomad. This blog is my way of recording what I'm seeing, thinking and doing (and probably also eating!). Twitter@susiebabani. Linked-In Power Profile. https://www.linkedin.com/in/susiebabani/
In case anyone thinks I’ve given up blogging about my travels – I haven’t but as I’ve spent the last three weeks with friends and on my own (planning the rest of this year and even 2021 travels) in a place I have often blogged about – I thought I would save this visit up for one blog with things I haven’t necessarily mentioned before although I have posted a few interim things on Instagram which is much faster!
I always love having people to stay at my place in Vietnam when I am there and this year I had two lots of visitors. Firstly my cruise and SE tour buddies – Luisa and Chris (and aren’t we glad we did the Asia cruise at the very start of the year thereby avoiding cancelled destinations and even cancelled cruise) and secondly Jo and Fliss – both of whom, like me, are rather enjoying not working. Jo is a regular visitor here but the other were newbies so it was fun showing them around.
My apartment is a very short walk from Marble Mountain but as is often the case I rarely visit there. But this time we took the short elevator ride to what I thought was just one pagoda but turned out to be a large complex of pagodas and temples. Pretty cool actually and literally on the doorstep.
En route to Marble Mountain there are about 10 massive – and I mean massive shops – selling marble everything. Again another place I had never beven into – but this time I decided that “Marble Bunnings” or “Marble B and Q” for my Brit friends had to be seen. So glad I did – check out photos below – not sure who buys these – and some are ginormous – but I did get a kick out of seeing what was for sale!
And a visit to Hoi An has to include shopping – ladies I’m looking at you! Of course I had to join in – such a bargain – so had some clothes and some shoes made (plus some Birkie lookalikes). We also bought a lot of other stuff – I won’t bore you….
Finally the two things I never tire of when I visit this part of the world – the evening light in Hoi An and the view from my apartment.
I will be back next year but now heading south to another of my “homes”……..
I have always had a soft spot for Luang Prabang in Laos and so this is unashamedly by fourth visit. I always prefer to stay slightly outside of town as many of the hotels are situated in the peaceful rice paddies which gives a real flavour of the countryside. This time I stayed at the Pullman Hotel about ten minutes from town.
Feeling the serenity at the Pullman Hotel Luang Prabang
You can’t go far in Luang Prabang without seeing temples of every shape and size – they are all perfectly formed and well kept by the Buddhist monks. In fact the whole town is very clean – it is always being swept everywhere you turn.
Examples of Lao Temples in Luang Prabang
A particularly well known temple is Wat Xieng Thong or the Temple of the Golden City. It is known for its mosaics on the walls – just lovely.
Wall mosaics at Wat Xieng Thong
More exteriors at Wat Xieng Thong and a Lao couple in wedding dress
And where there is a temple there must be various incarnations of Buddha – something about that face is so peaceful to look at.
Buddhas in temples in Luang Prabang
Something I haven’t done since my first visit is to get up at the crack of dawn to give alms to the Buddhist monks. This time I convinced Luisa and Chris to leave the hotel at 5.30am so that we could do just that. First stop is to pick up a basket of stick rice. Then you put on the shawl and wait for them to float down the street from various monasteries in single file holding their rice bowls which we filled as they passed – no human touch allowed. It’s a really special experience and if you go with a private guide they will take you to the area where there are not loads of tourists – definitely a plus.
Giving alms to the monks before dawn
Me and my rice bowl. The ladies who get up earlier than us and cook the rice set off home at 7am.
Luang Prabang having a strong Indochine background due to the period of French rule of about 60 years also has quite a few interesting buildings that reflect both French and local architecture and sometimes both in the same building. We did an architecture walk after giving alms to the monks – and a lot of strong coffee.
French Colonial and Laotian houses in Luang Prabang
Wandering through the streets of Luang Prabang is always fun with something to see at each corner – colourful tuk tuks and colourful flowers and veggies and a mish mash of wires are common sights.
Street scenes in Luang Prabang
Between 5pm-10pm the night market is in full flow and a fun place to idle before heading off to a well deserved cocktail and Laotian meal.
Lots for sale at the Night Market
Luisa and I enjoy “Lohitos” in Luang Prabang
Once the monks are up and about they are visible until around noon. They are either at the temples cleaning and doing other chores or they are visiting from other places and are as touristy as anyone else including enjoying taking selfies and having their photos taken. Just as well as they are very photogenic – ranging from 9 years old to 90!
Back to Cambodia but this time on land rather than via cruise and visiting Siem Reap – land of temples and smiling people.
Before we started on the temples we took a leisurely boat trip to watch the sunset at the floating village of Tonle Sap. The waters are starting to get lower now which means you see a lot more land than usual. This lake is massive (250 km long). I think some of these homes would be described as “fixer uppers” by most of us but everyone here seems to be happy in spite of their lack of material possessions.
Tonle Sap Lake at sunset
Catch the sun, eat the sun!
Siem Reap is all about the temples and the big Daddy of the all is of course Angkor Wat. Our visit to Siem Reap co-incided with Chinese New Year and so there were a lot of visitors but we were told that tourism is nevertheless down 40% on last year – which is a real problem for the locals who really need those tourist dollars. I think there may be a lot of misconceptions about Cambodia but I think it is a wonderful place with gentle caring people who are trying to make the best of the future after a traumatic past. I can also vouch for the Khmer food – yum.
There are many temples to visit and it is a good idea to cap it at two per day so you can enjoy them properly and not get “templed out”. Most of them are very close to one another and also close to where all the main hotels are based. They are particularly interesting as they are a mash up of Hindu and Buddhist religions due to the period they were built being a time of Hindu or Buddhist prominence depending on which King was in charge!
Dawn at Angkor Wat – you just have to do it and get past the 5am start. Worth it.
Interiors at Angkor Wat – which is the largest religious site in the world – incredible detail everywhere.
On my last visit about 20 years ago Angkor Thom (or Baiyun) was my favourite temple and I think it still is. The 49 giant Buddha faces are extraordinary and seem so peaceful. Also the detail of the bas reliefs which cover many walls tell you so much about the way people lived back in the 1100 and 1200s – how they dressed, the animals used and eaten, the flora and fauna etc. A lot of the faces have different expressions on them too.
Angkor Thom or Baiyun temple
We then had a non temple day in town – which involved tuk tuk rides and shopping. A great place to visit is the Artisans of Angkor workshops – started about 30 years ago as a means of teaching local Cambodians traditional crafts which were dying out due to the fallout from the Pol Pot regime when these kinds of capabilities were not valued at all. Initially they had to search both inside and outside of Cambodia to find people who were still alive and knew how to do things like wooden carving, silk weaving, silver making, soapstone carving, etc. Many had to be persuaded to come back to help teach young people these skills. But now this company employs many people, is self sufficient (in fact will not accept donations as they want to be able to show the local people that they make things that visitors want to buy and pay money for and so can turn a profit) and they provide paid vacation and maternity leave pay and childcare facilities – very unique in Cambodia. Apparently Angelina Jolie is always trying to give donations to them but they refuse even her – she can shop there though and that is what we did too -so hopefully we have done our bit to help some Cambodians.
Chris tries to pretend she likes being on a tuk tuk and the view behind as we head to Artisans of Angkor
Inside of Artisans of Angkor – the workshops and the showroom of finished items
On our second day of temple hopping we visited Banteay Srei – also known as the Temple of Women for no good reason other than they think the name of the place sounded like the word for Woman! I like to think of it as the Pink temple and it is compact and charming and like Angkor Wat surrounded by a moat. It is 35 km outside of the main area of Siem Reap temples but well worth a trip in my opinion.
The picturesque Banteay Srei Temple
Doors and corridors at Banteay Srei Temple
Symbols and stories are etched everywhere at Banteay Srei Temple
Outside the temple there was everything from a set of musicians raising money for people impacted by land mines, to market traders to a friendly driver whisking past.
Near Banteay Srei Temple
A quick stop at a Hindu temple which has not been restored as well as some but remains majestic
Hindu temple between other temples!
Our final temple was Ta Prohm (or the Tomb Raider temple as it is rather annoyingly known as – ref this is where Angelina Jolie played Lara Croft and also adopted a child). Anyway, ignoring the hype – this is a magical place where the trees have taken over parts of the temple creating a captivating symbiosis (yes a bit pretentious here but a fair description nevertheless). Alternatively the ultimate kids adventure playground maybe?
The trees are taking over at Ta Prohm – but it all seems to work well anyway
Ta Prohm Temple
We also paid a visit to the National Museum which I highly recommend to do either before visiting the Wats so you know what to expect or at the end of your trip – as we did – which gave us a better understanding of what we had seen. Unfortunately no photos but the room with 1000 buddhas is worth the visit alone.
Back to Singapore again after the end of our cruise – I know it quite well but always great to see new things and catch up with friends as well.
We visited the Botanical Gardens and I think I was last there in the 80s. It’s so wonderful – an oasis in the centre of a busy city. We spent three hours there wandering from one end to the other. And it’s free with only a small payment to visit the orchid garden.
Orchids at the Botanical Gardens
More stunning orchids
Even the leaves are beautiful here
The bigger picture as you walk around the Botanical Gardens
Singapore reinvents itself every year -I never get bored of the skyline and like finding new spots for taking photos.
Singapore in black and white around Marina Bay
More enjoyment of plants and flowers at the Gardens by the Bay – never get bored of these – although we couldn’t do the skywalk due to maintenance which was a shame. Next time.
Inside at the domes at the Gardens by the Bay
And always good to catch up with friends like Tareq and June – and to watch Chris getting her daily sugar rush after a massive Sunday brunch.
Little India, friends and another lunar new year rat!
Chris, Luisa, June and I enjoying a Steamboat dinner.
After visiting various stops in Vietnam next was Sihanoukville in Cambodia – a port in transition but as usual visiting the people in the market and at their homes was fantastic – such a gentle kind nation who have suffered so much.
In the colourful Cambodian local market
Daily life in Sihanoukville – a schoolgirl buys her lunch while on her bike.
Peaceful thoughtful people
Of course in Cambodia you have to visit a temple wherever you are (and I will be at the big one in a few days when I head to Siem Reap) but in the meantime this was the first temple (Wat Lau) we saw at this location.
Monks at the temple
Many many versions of Buddha
Pattaya in Thailand was next – never been a favourite of mine but I did enjoy the big focus on the forthcoming Year of the Rat – as this is my Chinese zodiac sign so always interesting to see how the Tat is portrayed in various parts of Asia – more to come no doubt.
Looking forward to the year of the Rat
A visit to the man made floating market was fun too
I finally got to enjoy a caviar in the surf event on Seabourn – usually I tend to be on cruises away from beaches so have only seen the pool version. In this one we are all able to disembark to a tropical island – in this case Kho Kood – and enjoy the ocean, massages, a seafood bbq and caviar served in the surf. Fun.
Kho Kood island for caviar and champagne in the surf
In Pattaya we also visited the Sanctuary of Truth – a kind of Thai version of segrada familia inasmuch as it is still being finished thirty years after it was started by a local business man who wanted to celebrate the importance of life on earth regardless of your religion. It is quite the feat of engineering as it is also only made out of wood and has no nails at all – so we had to wear hard hats inside but I think it will last a long time!
Exterior of the Sanctuary of Truth
Interiors of the Sanctuary of Truth
Now the night before disembarkation and Chris, Luisa and I say goodbye to the lovely crew.
Until next time….. but now on to Singapore for a few days.
Excited to be back in Hong Kong after a couple of years and arrived early on New Year’s Day – just in time for a demonstration – which had a large turnout but was mostly peaceful until the end when the two lions – Stephen and Stitt – outside the HSBC Asia HQ were plastered with red paint:( They have now been covered up with hoarding to be be restored – only one of two times they have been covered or moved – it happened when the Japanese invaded HK during the WW2!)
Demonstrators Hong Kong New Year’s Day 2020
HSBC lion plastered with red paint 😦
Still I do understand why these demonstrations are happening and I’m pretty sure they won’t stop so I do hope that the Chinese government come forward with some solutions or this could turn ugly. Certainly tourism has been impacted severely – hotel prices down, malls empty and generally less people about. Even the NYE celebrations were tempered with no fireworks at the end of the decade.
In spite of all that’s going on the famous HK lights at night are hard to beat and still gave me a thrill.
Hong Kong skyline at night
We also visited the Chi Lin Nunnery and Nan Lian Garden in Kowloon for the first time. An oasis of peace in this very busy city tucked in among high rise apartments. It was a lovely spot to meander for a couple of hours. And check out that blue sky!
Chi Lin Nunnery Hong Kong
Nan Lian Gardens Hong Kong
I met up with my cruise buddies Luisa and Chris in Hong Kong as our next stop is two weeks on Seabourn Ovation.
Chris, Luisa and I enjoying the sights of Hong Kong, Peking duck and cocktails at Sevva
First stop on the cruise was Halong Bay in Northern Vietnam – a palace I haven’t been to in twenty years. I understand some parts are now very crowded with tourists but our visit took us to some quiet areas and a local village that is working to create and eco tourism culture. Plastic water bottles are no longer allowed on the Bay – that is a huge step in the right direction. This place is as lovely as I remember it:)
Beautiful Halong Bay
Halong Bay even lovelier in black and white
I skipped the stop at Danang (as I will be back there next month) and had the ship just about to myself which was rather nice.
And then on to Saigon – first visit for about four years and a city I thought I was very familiar with but an evening walk made it clear that the amount of construction that had taken place in the intervening years meant that much had changed and got a lot swankier than I remember!
But the roof top bar at the historic Rex Hotel where the foreign correspondents used to gather to watch the war (they often call it the American War over here) is still going strong and a very pleasant way to enjoy a few cocktails with great views of the city centre.
Night time views from the Rex Hotel rooftop bar in Saigon
During the day we took a two hour drive to the Mekong and then cruised down it for a few hours stopping off along the way. Nice way to spend a hot day but sad to see how much trash is chucked into the Mekong – they urgently need to take the Halong Bay approach to cleaning it up if they want to keep the tourism dollars coming in.
Rolling along the Mekong – I think the second place is a “fixer upper”!
Back in Saigon we had a foodie day visiting the medicine museum first to find out about traditional Vietnamese medicine and then to some of the local street market stalls. Colourful as ever.
It seems I was only just writing my reflections on my 2018 travels and once again as the year is drawing to an end and I am back in Seville for the 3rd time in as many years, it is a good time to reflect on the past 12 months (and to plan for the next 12!)
I counted that I visited 35 different countries during the year and 15* of those were new countries for me bringing my total to 114 countries visited in my life time so far. *The new ones were: Brazil, Uruguay, French Guiana, Trinidad and Tobago, Israel, Palestine, Bulgaria, Romania, North Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mauritius and the Seychelles.
One of my favourite things about traveling is catching up with old friends where they live, meeting up with old friends in new locations, happening to be in the same place at the same time as someone I know with no prior planning and making new friends – something I have been lucky enough to do especially on cruises. I would like to thank all those friends for making my year even better by being able to spend time with them and to those who also hosted me in their homes (and gave me unfettered use of their washing machines!) on various occasions. A BIG THANK YOU.
Rather than a post with 100 images I have picked a some faves and added the blog links for easy access to the full posts from that country if anyone is interested in finding out more or thinking of visiting.
I started off the year with Beth in Las Vegas – as you do! Then back to my beloved Vietnam for some chill time a few days in Singapore and then back to one of my second homes – the wonderful Melbourne.
The people I was lucky enough to work with at ANZ – a very special team.
Quarter 2, 2019 – Buenos Aires and Iguazu Falls in Argentina; then cruising up the coast of Brazil and into the Amazon; Uruguay; French Guiana; St Lucia; Trinidad and Tobago; Canary Islands Spain; Morocco; Lisbon and Porto in Portugal; Israel; Palestine; Bulgaria; Romania; North Macedonia,
Quarter 3, 2019 – continuing my journey west from the Balkans I visited Slovenia, Hungary, Berlin, Germany and then to Denmark to embark on another cruise covering the East coast of the UK, Sweden, Norway and North Germany. A couple of weeks in Belgium and a quick hop to Rotterdam, Netherlands before starting my two months in London.
Gotta love this country – pretty, nice people and inexpensive!
Had only been here fore a long weekend before so two weeks was an amazing opportunity to see as much as possible – which I did of course. Another place where the recently of history still hangs heavy but counter art culture is thriving and it is also a reasonably cheap part of Germany. Loved it.
And at the start of November it was time for another big birthday celebration trip – this time for Trudy. Touring Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa and Mauritius (and I went on to the Seychelles) was amazing and we liked it so much we are back in SA in early 2021!
And then I needed warmth again – so off to Tenerife and La Gomera to stay with Florence and Michael
And for the Yuletide season I ran away to Seville – again!
Seasons good wishes to all
And where next?
Well I can say I will be departing 2019 and starting 2020 on a plane!Nothing new there then….
BOOKS – my two absolute favourites are starred
Given I travel a lot and because I have always loved books, I get to read and listen to Audible books a lot more than I had time to before. My favourites this year are:
All the Bernie Gunther novels – a Berlin detective series written by a Brit (Philip Kerr) and set in the 30s and 40s – it was one of the reasons I had to spend time in Berlin this year and I even called my travel buddy after him – Bernie the Berliner Bear
The Testaments – Margaret Attwood – I remember reading the original, then much later watching the TV series and unusually bought this the day it was released. Attwood writes about a dystopian world where the women’s role is scarily not as far away from today’s world as it ought to be. Let’s hope it stands as a lesson and the movement for gender equality thrives.
Becoming* – Michelle Obama – I recommend the Audible version as she reads it. Authentic autobiography by one half of a couple who seem to do the right thing whenever they can – too bad that is not recognised in the way it should be.
Everything I never told you – Celeste Ng – an excellent look at a mixed race (Asian/Caucasian) family and the things that are never spoken about. I like it so much I have waited a year to read her next book – will do that in January so that I can eke it out. Hope she write more.
Mythos – written and read by Stephen Fry (so Audible is a must) it is his take on Greek mythology as only he could do it. Accurate but funny and fascinating.
Me – Elton John. Nothing Elton John does can be anything other than fab in my books and I loved this canter through his legendary life as well as reliving things that were going on in the UK at the same time.
Last Tattoist of Auschwitz – Heather Morris – based on a true story of love and hate. This book and its sequel have become quite controversial given it is supposed to be based on a true story but either way – it is a darned good read.
The Dutch House – Ann Patchett – great writer and the story of a House and the lives of the people who live in it at various times.
The Clockmaker’s Daughter *- Kate Morton – very similar theme to the Dutch House but it also transcends time back and forth.
TV SHOWS – my two absolute favourites are starred
Although I enjoy movies my travels mean that unless I am in an English speaking country it is hard to get to see that many movies on the big screen in English. Luckily I think we live in an age where many of the best writers work on TV and cable channel now, so here are my picks for 2019. I also love that Netflix produce a lot of shows in languages other than English – so yes it requires a bit more effort to read the subtitles but that’s worth it and you almost feel fluent in any language you listen to by the end of it!
Money Heist – Spanish Ocean’s 11 type series but far more subversive. I love every bit of it of the first three seasons.
Bonus Familie – Swedish but for a change this is not “noir” at all but a light hearted look at a modern family where the divorced couple and their new spouses share child care from former relationships and have their own kids too. It’s frightfully Swedish and everything tries their best to behave properly – nice and light.
Cuckoo – a Brit comedy that I thought was silly at first but somehow keep enjoying anyway!
Succession *- Wow! And I thought I knew about succession planning!! This is the best series of the year. Keep watching – the tension builds with each episode.
The Crown – maybe the things going on in the 60s and 70s are not as exciting as the first series but we are now in an era where I remember the events occurring outside the royal family so I enjoyed the social history aspect of Season 3.
The Handmaid’s Tale – great script, acting and nail biter. Can only cope with one episode a day but boy it’s good.
Derry Girls* – adore this Northern Irish comedy set during the troubles of the 70s and 80s in Londonderry about a bunch of potty mouthed school girls – always funny and at times poignant – it is another period of history I remember well.
Killing Eve – Phoebe Waller’s writing credentials are excellent and the bizarre cat and mouse game of the two protagonists are mesmerising as are Jodie comer’s character’s clothes.
Patrick Melrose – I hated all the characters but nevertheless thought Cumberbatch was brilliant as was Hugo Weaving.
Fauda – this time an Israeli series about a former Israeli Defense force fighter who comes back into his old job. It is set in Jerusalem and Palestine and has a cliffhanger at the end of each episode. It started in 2015 but I have only just discovered it so have 3 seasons to enjoy.