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Panama City Tour

We started the morning at the epic Mamallena Hostel: looks like we wake up and make breakfast before alot of the younger group! Pancake mix and a press is available, so it’s a simple breakfast with coffee to start. The Hostel cats are in charge while things are quiet. To get to the historic part of town, we took a short walk to Central America’s only subway here in Panama City. Borrowing a rechargable rail pass from the hostel, we charged up the right amounts with some local help on the platform, and off we went to the historic Ciaco Viejo portion of the city.

The waterfront layout is super interesting, and only in the past few decades this has turned into a reconstructed tourist spot. There is a walking tour map avail and you can follow along, getting directions through the district. Signposts indicated this is a 17th century church, then to the grand Cathedral Metropolitana in the Central Plaza, flanked by grand buildings with festive figures. San Francisco church was rebuilt in the 1800’s. Some of the more historic sites had some niches that contained partial decor under the plaster from 1680’s. Alot just need some reconstruction work to start!

Our next stop was to get to the causeway that juts out into the Pacific ocean. We started to walk, but quickly realized some parts of Panama City are not really ment for tourists on foot. Backtracking to the tourist district, we hailed a cab, and took a ride to our next destination increasinly happy with the decision to get a ride as we tour though some tough portions of the city!

Onto the Amador causeway, we found Bicicletas Moses, who rented us a pair of bikes for tour of the journey. It’s quite a long journey (2 kms) as this juts out into the Pacific ocean to shelter the ocean the entrance to the Panama Canal for ocean freighters. We say 6-8 freighters anchored waiting their turn, as they entered the canal one at a time to get though the first of the locks on the Pacific side. Looking the other direction, yachts were harbored in the blue waters, with the Panama city skyline in the background. There is also the colorful Biodiversio Museum along the causeway: and also seems to be a great spot to launch fireworks, as this was Jan-2nd.

Our third and final stop was to get to the hilltop that overlooks the city, as well as the Panama Canal. Getting another taxi to the suburb at the base of Ancon Hill, we started to explore the neighborhood until we found a trailhead. Starting in the wrong direction, we backtracked, and took the steep winding roadway though the jungle to the summit. Along the way, we saw spider monkeys in the treetops, as well as a few toucans darting past. Some of the smaller lizard creatures cooperated for a photo, and near the top, huge termite mounds were everywhere, as well as a super large 8-10 kilo Capybara rodents were present nibbling on the greeneries. The top of the hill remains a partial military zone, with state broadcast antennas, though there are still tourist lookouts to see the Panama City and the Panama Canal. Overall, a great destination!

Koh Chang & Mr T’s Reggie Bar

Koh Chang is an epic island in the Trat district, a short 5 hour bus ride from Bangkok, and will also include a short ferry ride from the mainland to the Koh Chang Ferry terminal. From there, it’s the traditional Tuk-Tuk scramble and bartering needed to get to you final destination unless you have made other arrangements with your lodging.

Billed as an island where Thai’s actually live it’s a wonderful spot with lots to explore, and can be a launching point for a number of outings ranging from snorkeling, elephant encounters, along with just exploring jungles and waterfalls in some of the island National Parks. We stayed at the Bang Bao resort on the far end of the island – near the Bang Bao Pier where a lot of the snorkeling trips launch from. Never sure what to do on New Years Eve, we strolled along the waterfront beaches in the afternoon and found a small tidy place that looked interesting: Mr. T’s Reggie Bar and we’re delighted we returned that night for the festivities!

Arriving in in the early evening, before the sunset, we snagged a small table for two on the edge of the seating that spilled over onto the sand beach. Close enough to the open restaurant to see the activity and permanent stage in the bar. There were a mix of mostly foreigners and some Thai’s at the event, which is always great. The Belgian couple beside us had some small kids with them, and they entertained themselves in the hammock that separated our seating areas – though did not last very long before heading to bed – wise parents.

The dinner was ‘Buffet Feast Style” at a fixed price, and Mr T himself walked around to ensure everyone was having a good time and was well fed, and he’s a one-man entertainment himself! Thai dishes kept appearing on the Buffet table throughout the evening, and was a great event. Paired with a frost cold Chang, it was a wonderful evening. Almost everyone at one point got a selfie with Mr T, so we needed to oblige as well with Judy – and our host.

As the evening progressed, some of the local Thai’s present approached the stage, and started singing a mix of tunes, in mix of English and Thai – everything had that happy Reggie vibe to it as well! Mr T himself also managed to add a few songs accompany with guitar or drums/bongo.

As the evening progressed, the fire dancer guys arrived : Mr T had dibs on their performance, and we got the first show on the beach! In the small and intimate setting, we could feel the flames and the heat as various feats were performed. Something you defiantly want to practice before lighting up the flaming balls on the chains! At the end of the performance, a hat was passed for tips, and the group moved onto the next restaurant – though they did return in a few hours for round two!

Overall, a great evening, and memorable way to finish our New Years eve for 2016! I think Judy is really enjoying her first week in Asia in Thailand!

San Ignacio & Cahal Pech

It’s Dec-31, 2018 and the last day of the year. We’ve settled into San Ignacio and getting into our groove at the Guesthouse Hyatt. This is the second largest city in Belize (10,000), twinned with Santa Elena (8000), across the Mopan River, so a good place to settle down for a few more days. Up in the morning before Chris and Sam, we headed down to the market area to score some fresh baked Cinnamon rolls and apple fritters to complement the coffee we’re enjoying on the small balcony in our guesthouse.

After seeing the significant Mayan ruins at Xunantunich yesterday, we headed out to the local town site Mayan ruins at Cahal Pech Archaeological Reserve. Discovered by accident in the 1940’s during a construction project putting a water tower on the hillside, this is a gem of a find for folks staying in town. It’s a simple 30 minute walk (keep heading up the hill), about 1.5km from the main square and you get to this interesting site. Headquartes is find modest building, and it’s a modest $10BZ ($5USD) entrance fee for tourists. The small museum has a lot of history and some of the samples of artifacts: pottery, tools, arrowheads, and numerous carvings that have been unearthed at this site. The site was established as early as 1200BC, and abandon in the 9th century as a classic Mayan site. Only excavated in 1988, and (partially) finished in 2000 there is still lots buried in this area.

Moving into the site itself, there are a series pf Plazas and pyramids: some of then restored on one side, and still buried into the hillside on the back. The whole site is open to the public, and we’re able to explore and scramble up the restored staircases and temples at our leisure. Sam and I did a tour of the monuments, checking out the Royal plaza and thrones – as well as some of the ‘secret royal passages’ linking some of the sites structures together. At the time of our visit, there were probably 10-12 tourist seeing the whole area – very much under visited with the larger sights around – but a fascinating local attraction that should not be missed.

Walking back through town to our guesthouse, got to see all sides of San Ignacio as well. Lots of building are brightly colored, and some are left to nature. Modest and quiet in size, we got a kick out of the no-parking signs on the streets: we have not see the volume of traffic in this country that warrants this kind of traffic control!

Back at home-base, Judy and I decided to see other local sights: there’s a local swimming hole at the conjunction of the Mopan and Macal rivers, so we took a walk out in that direction right though the center of town on Burns Avenue. The road quickly lost the pavement and went into a dirt road in the forest – and a short time later we came to the riversides. Sure, a place to dip into the cool waters (of course, was around 28C), and there’s definitely evidence of a small ‘party spot’ here for the locals! In order to get across the river to Santa Elena from here, there is also a small pedestrian/motorcycle suspension bridge, that we saw reasonably well utilized in our brief stay. There’s no qualm with the locals this is a 2-way grade bridge, and the motorcycles slowed as they passed during our crossings!

After that, we settled down for a dinner out at a local restaurant in the main square, enjoyed the live band entertainment: complete with a surprising Reggie rendition of “Hotel California” and other Belize style tunes. Touring around the sights as the night air was filled with music and old school firecrackers – we then headed back to the safety of our guesthouse on the hillside. As expected, festivities peaked at midnight with fireworks, and firecrackers rattled around in in the streets: great way to see out 2018.

Sukhothai Cycle Outing

Enjoying our stay in Sukhothai, we rented a pair of trusty bikes and decided to explore some of the additional parks and sites around the main Sukhothai Historic Park. It’s 30C and a large area, so the bikes are a great addition. Our hotel location at Old City Guest House was ideally situated, and had cats to keep us company too!

Our trip starts by heading past the main gates: can’t resist taking a photo of the ‘tourist shuttle’ that runs from the main town where the bus arrives, and the ‘New City’ that is at the gates of this UNESCO Heritage site where we are staying. Moving along, we quickly get diverted to our first Buddhist temple along the route: outside the managed park area, you can just roll up on your bikes to admire. We’re the only ones here. As we continued along to the North Park, we quickly got diverted when we saw a marked bike path (shared) lane that headed back to the Old City, parallel to the main roadway, so we had to check it out! Riding along these quite local roadways, we were in the country side and quickly stumbled onto more historic sites: starting with Wat Chang Lom. The countryside was quite and peaceful: lot of local activity, hotels, and farming in the area. I’ll never get weary of riding past large paddies of green rice fields!

Along the way, we rode beside the Mae Remphan river, that twisted it’s way towards the Old City. We didn’t get far until we noticed a large shiny temple spire towards the roadway, and we had to roll in and visit Wat Ban Khwang along the way for a photo op. As we were taking photos of the seemingly empty site, we got a call from a local monk sweeping up the place. He was eager to practice his English, an we got a private tour of the Wat as he flung open the doors, and insisted on giving us a proper Thai Buddhist blessing with a water ceremony. Very grateful, we exchanged greetings and a photo op with him: designating him ‘The Chatty Monk’ for the rest of the trip. The site was fascinating and had lots of history as well, including cemetery of past monks. Bidding farewell, we continued along the shared roadside for another while along the river, enjoying views along the way.

Turning around, we decided to return to our original objective: the Northern Sector Historic Park! As it was approaching noon, we checked into the main government tourist building and sought shade for break and a cold drink. Fantastic site with impeccable bonsai gardening, and and lots of info on this section of the UNESCO Heritage site. Inside the park, we quickly found some of the famous Thuriang Kilns that have been excavated: these were the sites that made pottery in the 1400’s. These are in various stages of being uncovered: and there are litteraly hillsides of sites to be found. Moving onto the main temple site of Wat Phrapai Luang, we took additional time in the shade to explore this huge complex: taking a lap around the Northern Sector, we then headed out to the more remote Western Sector. This area is massive, and probably a 8-10km ride: with temples dotted along the forest and hilltops with minimal tourists. At most sites, we were the only ones there – a true hidden gem, and not at all a secret!

Hot and weary, we make it back to the ‘New City’ and returned our bikes for some AC to relax, and then find a good dinner site along the market road. There was a 3 day festival starting to celebrate the start of 2020 here in Sukhothai, and were were encouraged to head back to the Central Historic site for entertainment and the light show. Passing through one of our favorite spots: Wat Traphang Thong in the setting sun, there are lots of Thai locals enjoying feeding the carp, and the cooler night air. Heading into the park, the light show and entertainment was definitely festive. A great place to get some Thai street food and enjoy a free English/Thai show at this historic site. Truly a memorable evening and a great sendoff to our next destination in the morning.

Leaving HCMC, to Mui Ne

We super enjoyed our stay in our hostel, tucked into the small and tight alleys in HCMC. The maze of alleys and streets had us passing though a lot of residences and small local businesses to get to our hotel each day – and was always something new going on! The local butcher had his shop setup, and there were always seniors hanging out in the alley watching the world, playing mahjong, or sipping tea as a group. Out on the main strip at the park across the street, there was constantly gardeners taking care of the landscape: with the heat and the moisture, things were a thousand shades of green, growing everywhere.

Making our arrangements at a local travel shop, we booked the first of the series of ‘sleeper-bus’ for the 5 hour, 220km journey: double decker seats three wide with AC blasting on the journey. Half way, there is always an obligatory breakpoint at a food stall or restaurant that has a toilet available as well. It’s a short stretch and we hover around the bus after 10 minutes: not ever exactly sure when the departure is! Snacks are always healthy, and we’re really enjoying eating ‘locally’ with all the fresh fruit.

Continue along with the bus trip, we approach our destination and passing through the nearby town of Phan Thiet, and admiring the fishing boats that are safely anchored in the river sanctuary. Arriving in Mui Ne, we deposited our gear into our rented bungalow at the edge of town, and checked out the oceanfront. The beach is narrow and rocky, though peppered with small Vietnamese basket boats for the fishermen. They are also colorful, filled with nets and other gear. Exploring the area more, we enjoyed the day, and made plans to visit a nearby attraction: Fairy Stream that we’ve seen described in the guidebooks. Weather warm, it’s always great to have a cold beer on the patio to catch up on the journals and social media. Fantastic getaway!

Ottawa Christmas Season Stroll

It’s 2020, and we’re in Pandemic-mode: Orange in early December. Acceptable to meet in small groups outside, so we took the opportunity to see the kids together for the first time in 3 months! With the weather mild and a late season for snow, it was a simple stroll down unusually quiet streets, even for Ottawa. Starting in the Sandy hill area, we took a 90 minute stroll though our fair city.

The view on Parliament hill is altered and blocked with renovations done on Center Block, though there is a nice display of ‘prairie wheat’ snow marker reflectors illuminated by colored lights leading up to where the main staircase is presented. East block is fully renovated, and currently holds the House of Commons in a refurbished center square. Festive lights around the National War Memorial illustrate the always well lit monument. Canal and locks are currently drained for the winter: and the view onto the Ottawa river towards Gatineau is picturesque. The changing and colorful refurbished National Arts Center (NAC) adds a splash of color to our normally quiet Ottawa night.

Down below, we see City Hall hosting The Rink of Dreams: an outdoor and refrigerated ice skating surface: sparsely utilized but a nice way to skate on smooth ice. The City hall park is also well lit, with festive lights. Heading over to the modern steel and glass National Gallery, we see Madam’ watching over her brood, along with (L to R): Chris, Sam, and Judy. Across the Street is the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica, built and redesigned in the 1840’s. As we head home though The Market in a very quite scene, we can also see Ottawa’s oldest Tavern: The Lafayette established in 1849.

Closing down our walk, we stoll by the darkened Rideau Canal once again, with highlights from The Chateau Laurier: established in 1912 as the grand hotel across from the terminus of the Grand Trunk Railway, Union Station (currently temporary housing The Senate Chamber).

With our excursion completed, we bid farewell to Chris – living locally… and mask up for the drive home. Pandemic outings completed!