Vilnius, Lithuania

Gedimino prospekt, the Champs Elysées of Vilnius

I wrote this live-time in Vilnius, but wanting to focus on our current travels and a shortage of Internet time have me posting later:

We launched our Baltic adventure with a Belgium Airlines flight from Brussels to Vilnius. We cruised through the classic train-station-like Vilnius Airport, picked up our Addcar rental (far and away the best rent car deal I found in the Baltics) and–with only a short walk with luggage in the rain to our car–we were off. Things got a little snarled after that when none of my email servers would let me send or receive the emails I needed to make contact with our AirBnB hostess’ mother. We parked behind the pharmacy she’d used as a landmark in a typical Eastern European graffiti-covered alley/parking area while I messaged our hostess, Ruta, who was vacationing in Paris to let her know I couldn’t reach her mother. Meanwhile, David wandered around asking random strangers until he actually found a co-worker of Ruta’s mom and we finally got things moving. (If only Ruta had said her mother worked in the pharmacy, there’d have been no problem at all!) In minutes, we were settled into our lovely apartment. From that moment on, things flowed smoothly. We love Vilnius! read more

A Michelin-starred chef’s “french fry restaurant”

Belgians love their french fries (and are the probable originators despite the name), although here they’re called “frites” in the French-speaking part of the country and “friet” in the Dutch-speaking regions. In Antwerp, our not-infrequent home-base, fries are sold at little shops called “frituur”, literally “frying pan.” Traditionally served with mayonnaise, they also come with a variety of toppings beloved by the Belgians.

Recently, there’s a new, upscale arrival on the frituur scene, an upstart from the Netherlands called “Frites Atelier Amsterdam” that’s teamed with Michelin-starred chef Sergio Herman. [Herman, formerly of Oud Sluis, is currently chef at Antwerp’s posh The Jane restaurant.] In addition to three locations in Holland (The Hague, Utrecht and Arnhem), there’s a beautiful little shop Korte Gasthuisstraat 32 in Antwerp. Yesterday, David and I couldn’t resist dropping in for a fresh-from-the-fryer box of crispy goodness. So, of course, I had to share our experience. read more

Temples of Old Chiang Mai (& a prison lunch)

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Wat Phra Singh on our first evening in Chiang Mai. A royal temple established in 1345.

Since our hotel, Rendezvous Classic House, is in the old city of Chiang Mai, we decided to spend our first full day here exploring some of the many Buddhist temples (wats) the city is famous for. A moat surrounds the brick walls of Old Chiang Mai, enclosing a maze of streets and narrow alleys. First impressions of this part of Chiang Mai were mixed as we discovered a serious shortage of sidewalks or safe places to walk, even on the main roads. Walking requires weaving around stalls, parked cars and scooters meaning you’re frequently walking among the swarming traffic. It’s hot, too. Still, we made our way to the first wat on our list, Wat Chedi Luang, without any real difficulty. read more

Colorful Chiang Rai: A black house, an emerald Buddha & a white temple

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The White Temple of Chiang Mai

On our first full day in Chiang Rai, we opted to hit some of the city’s “biggies.” (By some accounts, we hit all of them; Chiang Rai is not a huge city and much of its tourist allure lies in the area around it.) The White Temple is the iconic Chiang Rai site, so that was definitely on our list, even though it’s really more a work of art that an active wat. I also wanted to see Wat Pra Kaew, the “Emerald Buddha Temple,” since it is a true wat and one of the most revered places in Northern Thailand. Despite warnings of temple fatigue on a trip as long as ours, it seems I don’t really tire of visiting temples. I am fascinated by the variations of religion from country to country, even within a faith, as older local customs become adapted to and incorporated within new ideas and belief systems. At the suggestion of a hotel staff member, we added the Black House to our list, a quirky art site I’d read about but wasn’t so sure was my type of thing. Still, some describe the artist who created the Black House as the national artist of Thailand, so how could I not take a peek? read more

Chiang Khong: sleepy little border town

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View from our balcony across the Mekong to Huay Xai, Laos

Our large “taxi” tuk tuk from the immigration bridge dropped us off at Day Waterfront Hotel at dusk. The proprietress could not have been friendlier, exclaiming, “There you are!” as we arrived. Nice to be expected. She offered us cold water and some of those delicious little bananas that grow in these parts as she recorded our passport info. Then, showed us to our spacious room with balcony overlooking the Mekong. The lights of Huay Xai sparkled across the river. The room was big, clean and airy and at 800 baht ($22.86), including a light continental breakfast of local sweets and coffee, it was a great bargain. read more

Two days on a Mekong river boat: Laos to Thailand

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At a Mekong village stop

It was time to leave Luang Prabang and time for the biggest question mark of this long trip. Months ago, I’d booked us on a 2-day Mekong river cruise to Thailand in a big, open-air traditional wooden river boat. At $130 each, this was big money in Laos, but substantially cheaper and way more interesting than some sleep-aboard river boats I’d seen. These same type boats do a much, much cheaper “slow boat” between Luang Prabang and Huay Xai, Laos, but with frequent crowds, unreserved seats (so if the boat is full, you may have to wait a day) and a bus-like atmosphere, they sounded way less comfortable than I was willing to do. The company I chose, Mekong Smile Cruises, got good reviews and sounded like just the level of adventure I was up for. Lunch onboard was included, we stopped at a cave filled with Buddha statues and a local village en route. The overnight happened in Pakbeng, Laos, a village or small town that Google Images led me to believe was no great shakes…but online posts indicated that guest rooms were easy to come by and ridiculously cheap. I scanned Tripadvisor, seeing a few guesthouses listed and one “upscale” hotel at around $100. After his initial impulse that I should “throw money at it” and get the hotel, David came around to my way of thinking that we should try one of the guest houses. I made note of a few recommended names and posts saying that prices doubled if you book in advance, so why bother. Alright, we’d wing it. God, I hope I’m not getting us into a mess! I say this in present tense because I’m onboard the boat as I write this. read more

The “root temples” of Angkor

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Ta Prohm

With a better understanding of Angkor and our own preferences for touring (and tolerance for heat), we decided to do without Chantrea on our second day. Instead, we negotiated with Sawat, one of the cluster of tuk tuk drivers and their families who seemed permanently ensconced in a sort of open-air living room just across from our apartment building. [We used these tuk tuks almost exclusively during our stay, paying $2-3 to be driven to restaurants, stores, etc. Usually, we’d text them using the phone Roberto loaned us when we wanted to be picked up or arrange a time in advance. If that didn’t work, we used tuk tuks obtained by the restaurants to avoid the occasional price-change scam.] read more

Singapore!

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Helix Bridge, Marina Sands Hotel & Artscience Museum

I only allowed 2 nights in Singapore, mostly because 1) we arrived early by boat so really had a full first day, unlike usual travel days; 2) I had 2 free nights at the Intercontinental Singapore and didn’t really want to pay for another night or move; and 3) I was really more interested in a quick look and then getting on to later destinations that were higher on my list of things I really, really wanted to see. [I realize there are a lot of “reallys” in the above sentence, but they seem to belong, so I’m leaving them.] Anyway, it turned out that I really, really loved Singapore a lot more than I expected. So, it looks like there’s a return trip in our future. read more

Affordable Kaiseki and friendly service: Kyo-ryori Kaji

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Picture-perfect appetizer course

I’d been wanting to try a kaiseki dinner, a traditional Japanese haute cuisine that’s as much art as food. With its extensive courses, seasonal ingredients, and careful attention to detail and beauty, these meals can be exceedingly expensive. When our AirBnB host, Eoghan, suggested Kyo-ryori Kaji (“Kaji”) as an affordable kaiseki restaurant, we had to go.

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Our friendly chef prepared much of the food right in front of us

We got off to a hectic start, by running late across town at Kiyomizudera at sunset, then hopping the wrong bus, so that we ended up catching a taxi and getting Eoghan to call the restaurant for us to explain the situation. (We could WhatsApp with Eoghan with my data SIM, but couldn’t make phone calls easily and didn’t have the number for Kaji anyway.) All this left us with no time to change out of the very casual clothes we’d been wearing all day in, periodically in the rain. I felt terrible showing up bedraggled and underdressed (David in shorts and me in cropped pants and a t-shirt), but the delightful people at Kyo-ryori Kaji welcomed us as honored guests and could not have been friendlier the whole night. read more

Norvegian Rat Saloon [Dutch Harbor, Alaska]

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Yes, the Norvegian Rat Saloon spells its name with a “v” rather than a “w.” Sometimes. The sign on the low-slung waterfront building uses a “v,” but their menu has both spellings on the cover and we saw an ad with the “w” spelling, so who knows? Sitting just across the road from the Safeway, a local landmark, the Norvegian Rat Saloon offers a casual setting: a walk-up bar, wooden tables for diners, 2 pool tables and shuffle board table, a scruffy outdoor seating area on the water, complete with a WWII bunker, crab pots fire pit and an uninviting little “smoking area” shack. read more