Monday, September 25, 2023

A day on the Mekong Delta

A visit to Vietnam would not be complete without a trip to the Mekong Delta. in southern Vietnam. You can spend days, even weeks, visiting the region in southern Vietnam. With only a day to visit from Ho Chi Minh City during our recent cruise, we a second visit to this incredible (and expansive) area would be worthwhile.

Boats take locals and visitors between islands and 
the mainland.

Fifth largest in the world, the Mekong River starts in the Himalayan Mountains of Tibet. The resulting delta is a vast maze of rivers, swamps, and islands. Boats are the main means of transportation, and floating markets are popular among locals and tourists.

Fish lunch prepared by a local lady

Life in the area revolves around water with farming and fishing supporting 20 million Vietnamese. The Delta is renowned as the “rice bowl of Vietnam” because more than half of Vietnam’s rice (and fish) comes from the region. For this reason, the Delta is essential to the Vietnamese economy and diet.

With this background, I will describe our most recent excursion through the small waterways of the Mekong. Upon arriving at the Delta, we took a boat ride to Thoi Son Island, one of several in the area where people live. After disembarking we walked to the village where we planned to interact with and learn more about the unique life of the locals.

Bee pollen tea and fried banana strips

Bee keeping is popular and useful as we learned when we were served a snack of tasty banana strips fried in honey and tea flavored with honey bee pollen. Flowers and fruits were plentiful--among them the durian, a very stinky Asian fruit that people either love or hate.

Dorian is a "love or hate" fruit.

Making coconut candy
Coconuts are a staple food in Vietnam. Every part has a use, from food to lotions to cleaning supplies. Our guide broke open a coconut and showed how the milk is saved and processed into candy and other products. All processing is done by hand—no machines are used. We watched a local lady make coconut candy by flattening the mound of cooked coconut and then cutting it into strips. The result is a sweet, chewy treat that is the consistency of peanut butter. Ultimately other ladies cut the candy strip into pieces which were individually wrapped by hand for sale.

Assortment of tropical fruits

Later a group of locals sang traditional songs for us while we enjoyed pieces of different tropical fruits and jasmine tea. What a treat it was for some of our group to be invited to dance with them.

Typical houses on the island are very basic, possibly with open sides, perhaps a small porch, and equipment for outside chores nearby. Yards as we know them were nonexistent, Stepping stones made paths to keep shoes and feet from getting muddy with frequent rains. Colorful flowers and edible plants seemed to grow wild.

A typical home on the island of Thoi Son

After these experiences, we boarded a sampan (like a canoe) for a journey down the Mekong River. Our boat was paddled by a “little old lady” who sat cross-legged and barefoot as she deftly maneuvered through palm trees lining the banks. For protection from the sun she wore a wide-brimmed had made of rice straw, which we learned was waterproof and would last about two years. We made sure to sit as still as possible in order not to tip the boat (the water was not inviting), even while sampling fresh coconut milk.
Sampan ride down the Mekong River

Ferries transport people and goods from one island to another during the day. However, residents are able to provide for most of their needs on their own island, meaning they live a very simple, almost cloistered,  lifestyle. As we returned to the mainland we passed various fishing boats, many adorned with “eyes” intended to keep evil away.

Fishing boats

Vietnam remains a poor rural country. Farmers and fishermen face many challenges in the Delta these days, including sea level rise, land subsidence, increasing salinity, and shifting water regimes. It’s not an easy life—far from the bustle and hustle of ever-growing cities that may be all some visitors see of the country.

However you arrive in Vietnam, by land or sea, plan to include some time on the Mekong Delta.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier


Friday, September 15, 2023

San Antonio's hidden gem

What do you do with an abandoned limestone quarry and cement factory?

Park officials in San Antonio, Texas struggled with that scenario in the early 1900s as they pondered possibilities for converting a bare but rocky landscape into something beautiful and relaxing for the city and for visitors.

The result is a hidden gem we discovered years ago and have visited many times. Inspired by the popularity of Japanese art and fashion in the early 20th century, city officials transformed this spot devoid of anything attractive into a lush oriental-style garden.

One of our favorite features is the rows of stone paths and walkways that meander through abundant foliage and flowers. It’s the perfect place to wander leisurely, stopping at the stone arch bridge for photos, skipping along well-placed rocks, strolling past an island, or marveling at koi swimming in a lily-pad pond. The 60-foot waterfall is another place to stop and medidate. Because of its construction on multiple levels, parents find the garden an excellent place for children to explore and expend some energy.

Known as Japanese Tea Garden or Sunken Gardens, it is located on the northwestern edge of Brackenridge Park, near the San AntonioZoo. If you have time, you can easily visit both places the same day.

At the city’s invitation, Kimi Eizo Jingu, a local Japanese-American artist, moved to the garden with his family in 1919. A recognized tea expert, he lived in the park and maintained the garden until 1941, when feelings toward anything Japanese declined.  Thus, during the World War II years, the garden was renamed Chinese Tea Garden to prevent vandalization and negative repercussions. In 1984, the original name of Japanese Tea Garden was restored by the city.

Today the site is on the National Register of Historic Places as it honors San Antonio’s history of limestone quarrying and its cultural diversity. I highly recommend visiting the Japanese Tea Garden, located at 3853 N. St. Mary’s Street in San Antonio, Texas.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Thursday, September 7, 2023

Montmorency Falls is a must-see when in Quebec

Montmorency Falls near Quebec City, Canada
(with suspension bridge visible over the top)

A highlight of our recent stay in Quebec, Canada was a visit to Montmorency Falls. This spectacular waterfall is more than 2700 feet tall. While crashing water dominates the landscape of Parc de la Chute-Montmorency, there are also historic and geologic features for those who wish to dig a bit deeper into its importance.

A good view of the boardwalk and stairs

Upon arrival we learned there are different ways to view the base of the Falls. Passing over the river, the old railway crossing has been replaced by a long, wide footbridge providing pedestrian access and series of platforms on various levels. This is the shortest route to beautiful views.

On the east side of the basin is a concrete walkway that has been refurbished, widened, and raised, with a mineral garden lining the walkway.

On the west side, a new wooden trail offers a completely different feel, and this is the path we took to get closer to the waterfall. It takes about 15 minutes to walk on the trail, depending on how often you stop to take pictures and admire the Falls from each new angle.

Long staircase from the top to the bottom of the Falls.

Arriving at the base, we could see the suspension bridge high over the waterfall, which seemed to be calling our names. We marveled at the panoramic staircase on the side of a cliff, with its 487 steps leading from a concrete promontory at the bottom to great views at the top. Although there are specialized occasions that people are allowed in the water at the base of the Falls, we observed young folks apparently on some type of excursion seemingly having a good time in the chilly water.

Larry by the window of cable car
Originally expecting the wooden trail to be our primary focal point, after trekking back to the Visitor Center, we decided to take the cable car up to the top (where the suspension bridge is) for even better looks at the waterfall. This was a bit risky as we were on a tour with limited time and knew we’d have to rush to make it back in time.

Stay at the hotel, and your walk to
the bridge is much shorter.
By the time we bought tickets for $15, waited for the cable car to fill, then took the short ride up, and disembarked at the Manoir Montmorency (an English style country inn), we truly had to push ourselves. But it was worth it!

Starting from the Inn, there’s a fairly long boardwalk along the cliff leading to the suspension bridge. On the way, I stopped briefly at La Baronne Observation Deck to admire the panoramic scenery. 

Quite a view for zip liners as water
flows under the bridge.

Because of our limited time, we skipped other magnificent lookout points. At the Suspension Bridge above the Falls, we watched the water plunge explosively into the St. Lawrence River. We could hear and feel the roar of the water as it tumbled over the cliff.  And it was fun to watch adventurous zip liners racing across the river. What a memorable experience!

Watching the water rush over the cliff at the 
top of Montmorency Falls.

With more time we would have read about historical and geological characteristics of the surrounding territory to gain a greater understanding of this important feature. As it was, we hurried back to the downward cable car and were only slightly late to meet our waiting group. Although we could have spent an hour or two on that excursion, I’m still glad we took a chance and did what we could.

 Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier


Thursday, August 31, 2023

Finding joy in unexpected places

During a recent visit to Cambodia, we found ourselves in Sihoukanville, a small southern province also known as Kampong Som. This coastal city sits on a peninsula with beaches and tropical islands around. It was founded in 1964 to be the only deep-water port in all of Cambodia, but during the coronavirus pandemic a mass departure of Chinese investors left behind more than 1,000 unfinished buildings and a decimated economy for the city.

Deep in the countryside not far from Sihoukanville is Betrang Village, which consists of two poor communities where the residents struggle to survive. We chose to have a look at daily life in this rural town. After stopping at a temple adorned with statues of elegant Apsara fairies dancing to entertain the gods, we went on to spend a couple of hours at a local school.

Entrance to the school

This was such a delightful time as the students and teachers at Betrang Primary and Secondary Friendship School of Preah Sihanouk-Jiagsu were so welcoming and charming. The school was quite basic with two plain buildings for classes according to age and grade of students. There was a large open space where groups gathered at specified times.

A kindergarten class was our first stop. Outside the door we found a colorful assortment of shoes in neat rows, just as the children had left them. Inside we were serenaded by mostly bashful, sometimes giggling, youngsters doing their best not to stare at the senior Americans who were disrupting their day.

Kindergarten children
 We learned that English is taught from fourth grade on. Children attend school for four hours, either in the morning or afternoon. There are no school buses and very little family transportation (which would have been scooters), so students arrive mainly on foot. Children wear uniforms, but that was loosely enforced as not everyone could afford the exact same thing, and many were obviously hand-me-downs.

Before we got to a middle school class, we had observed a teacher calmly comforting a child on the playground (no swings or play equipment) and young girls eating a snack of watermelon in the common space. We didn’t observe organized activities outside, so children tended to group with friends.

Middle schoolers were less awed by our presence. Many were delighted to have a break in their studies; others seemed politely annoyed at the intruders. Still they gamely performed songs and rituals with smiling faces for our group.

Younger dancers

Then we were treated to a highlight of the school visit. Barefoot girls wearing colorful costumes entertained us with a variety of traditional dances. They were well practiced as they demonstrated ancient culture, a combination of Khmer with ancient Chinese and Vietnamese influences.  The young girls were stunningly beautiful as they moved deftly and with great balance while performing graceful, flowing movements to the music.
Older dancers perform

We also visited a temple that was on the grounds of the school and watched a monk demonstrate a worship ceremony. Scenes inside the temple revealed exquisitely decorated walls with pictures that told stories.

Temple walls tell stories in pictures.

During the school day, children were free to wander over to the temple area. I’m guessing that some had to wait for siblings or parents before heading home. I tried to make friends, but many were shy around strangers. A few charming girls joyfully posed for the camera, which made some of my favorite pictures from that day.

Although we went on to explore charming markets, statues, beaches and resorts in the area, the school visit was what I remember most from that excursion.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Saturday, August 19, 2023

See Singapore at night

Sign at entrance
One of the highlights of our most recent visit to Singapore was an evening ride on the Singapore Flyer. This giant observation wheel provides awesome, unobstructed views of the city. Illuminated night scenes were especially stunning.

We stepped into one of the 28 air-conditioned glass capsules and for almost half an hour were treated fascinating views of the city. From inside the capsule we could see the wheel slowly turning and providing constantly changing 360 degree views. The wheel itself was outlined by changing colored lights, making it stand out against the night sky.
The Flyer rotating

Located in the downtown Marina Bay area, the Singapore Flyer is Asia’s largest observation wheel, reaching an overall heights of 541 feet. Each of the 28 capsules can accommodate up to 28 passengers (also will accommodate wheelchairs) with bolted benches for comfortable seating. But most of the time we were on our feet standing close to the full-length windows enjoying scenes of many landmarks.

Larry is inside the capsule,
by the window.

When the wheel opened in 2008, it initially rotated in a counter-clockwise direction, but in 2008 this was reversed on the advice of Feng Shui masters. It was interesting to learn that the number 28 is significant in Feng Shui so it’s fitting that there are 28 cars, and it takes approximately 28 minutes to complete one rotation. Of course, we weren’t aware of that when riding in the wheel, but I’m sure it enhanced our views.

Marina Bay Sands Hotel

We saw the famous Marina Bay Sands Hotel, with its iconic ship-like structure topping the three towers. Lights also glowed on the famed garden area and Crystal Pavillions, the colorful stadium, and Art Museum. From our elevated vantage point we saw reflections of buildings sparkling in the water. Even cars streaming on freeways provided interesting, brightly-lit scenes.

Landmarks of Singapore at night

Tickets for a ride on the Singapore Flyer are $33 for non-resident adults and are available for day or night adventures. In addition to the “flight,” there is a restaurant and plentiful colorful displays along the long corridor that visitors must walk to the boarding area. You can take as long as you like to enjoy these displays, which are worth a bit of your time.
Looking out the window at another capsule on the 
Singapore Flyer

As we toured many of Singapore’s landmarks again the next day, we were delighted for having had a magical overview on the night Flyer.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier



Saturday, August 12, 2023

Movie superstar supports music festival in Cork, Ireland

All eyes are on currently on Cillian Murphy’s powerful portrayal of the “father of the atomic bomb” in the recently released movie Oppenheimer.

Poster from famed movie Oppenheimer and 
star Cillian Murphy

The much-lauded actor, who now lives in Dublin, is originally from Cork and, as well as being hugely successful in the drama arena, is also a talented and passionate musician. In fact, as a teenager he had a band that was offered a record deal but when things didn’t work out he turned his attention to acting.
However, Murphy didn’t leave his love of music behind and went on to co-found the Sounds from a Safe Harbour biennial festival of music, dance, art, theatre and conversation, which takes place in Cork city 7–10 September.
The festival has a particular focus on new works, collaborations and shared experiences. Among the artists performing this year are Chicago band Wilco, Bonny Light Horsemen performing with the RTÉ orchestra and Crash Ensemble, Ireland’s leading new music ensemble who play adventurous, ground-breaking, contemporary music.

St. Patrick's Quay on River Lee
It’s one more reason to visit County Cork which already has plenty to recommend it.
Cork city is full of attitude and famously considers itself to be the real capital of Ireland. A visit there should take in historic Cork City Gaol and Elizabeth Fort where the turbulent history of the city will be revealed.
Famous English Market claims
to be Food Capital of Ireland.
We ate traditional Irish stew
 in the cafe there.
Foodies should not miss the English Market, a delicious den of traditional and exotic food specialities. Pair it with a visit to the Franciscan Well Brewery to taste craft lager, ale, stout and wheat beers, as well as various tipples from micro-breweries all round the world.
Cork Jazz Festival (26–30 October) presents a stellar line-up of top musicians while visitors to the city also have the chance to make their own music by ringing the Shandon bells at St Anne’s cathedral.
Old Cork city jail, now a museum

Beyond the city, County Cork offers stunning scenery, picturesque towns and fascinating heritage attractions. In Cobh you can discover strong connections to Titanic, while seventeenth-century Bantry House and garden overlooking Bantry Bay is a delight to explore.
St Fin Barre's Cathedral in Cork

Today’s post is courtesy of Ruth Moran, Tourism Ireland

Photos from free sources and Beverly Burmeier

Friday, August 4, 2023

Watch out for the train at this Thai market

Visitors to Bangkok, Thailand are often directed to two famous markets, the colorful and bountiful Flower Market and the intriguing local Floating Market. If you wish to see another market, one that is truly unique, consider visiting the Train Market.

This is where we boarded the train.

One of Thailand’s amazing attractions, this market is located near/on the Mae Klong Railway Station in Samut Songkhram Province, about 50 miles southwest of Bangkok.

We left Bangkok with our guide and driver about 7:30 a.m. and drove out of the city for almost an hour to a spot in the road (no depot there) where the train stops to take on passengers who are going to the market (early morning is the best time to go). 

As the train approached the end of the line, we were amazed by the proximity of vendors’ stalls and shoppers wandering around just outside the window—so close we could have reached out and touched them.
On the train approaching the station.

This big, vibrant outdoor market is sometimes called Siang Tai (life-risking) because many stalls actually occupy part of the train line, meaning trains run directly through the market several times a day.

Vendors open and close their awnings whenever
the train comes or goes.
Here’s what we witnessed: Vendors at the market put out parasols or awnings as protection from the sun. These shelters extend over the tracks where visitors walk and shop. When a signal rings indicating the arrival of a train, chaos happens. Vendors rush to close their coverings and clear all goods that might be in the path of the oncoming train.

People walk along the tracks
while shopping.
This happens six times a day, so the vendors are prepared and go through the procedure with lightning speed. Once the train passes, everything is reopened, goods are put back in place next to the railroad, and shopping continues. It’s a fascinating scene to witness and to participate in, if you dare.

The market began in 1905 and is open seven days a week from 6:20 to 5:40, which coincides with the first arrival and last departure of the train. It’s a traditional Thai market selling fresh vegetables, food, fruit, and all kinds of staple goods. It’s an important market for locals whose livelihood is fishing, to sell fish what they catch.

Large selection of veggies

While the train is stopped, many people climb on the caboose and take pictures. When it’s time for the train to leave, people crowd around to watch it depart, often scampering off the tracks in the nick of time. We spent about two hours wandering through the stalls, checking out the variety of items offered for sale. It was a fun way to spend the morning.

Train departing catches people's attention.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier