Day 560 of Traveling the World, the Bulgaria-Serbia Border. August 25, 2019.

Question: What do you get when you combine midday on a weekend + 15 full buses + ONE Passport Control agent for all of the buses?

Answer: 4.5 hours of agony and anger, waiting endlessly on a bus.

Our bus bound for Belgrade, Serbia from Sofia, Bulgaria was scheduled to depart at 9:00 am and arrive in Belgrade at 2:00 pm, but we had learned on a walking tour that Bulgaria’s favorite motto is “It’s great to be late.” So, accordingly, our bus departed about 9:20 am. We hit the border in about an hour, with a long, long line of cars, buses, and trucks. People jumped off the buses to stretch their legs and use the restroom. Then, that turned into multiple stretches and multiple restroom breaks as the clock changed to 11:00 am, 12:00 pm, 1:00 pm, 2:00 pm. When our bus finally got to the front of the line a little after 2:00 pm, we had been told the agents would come on board to check our passports, but no….we all had to get off and stand in a line in a small office as one woman tediously processed each person very slowly. We all piled back on the bus, finally. BUT….we found out THAT stop was only to get a departure stamp out of Bulgaria! We then drove a few hundred yards, only to be forced off the bus again to stand in yet another line to get a Serbian entrance stamp! And here, there were cafes, stores, and money exchanges, so once people were processed, they went shopping for food and snacks and stood in more long lines to exchange their money. There were no instructions to get right back on the bus, so most of us had to wait until it dawned on the stragglers that the bus was ready to go. More pain. Our 2:00 pm scheduled arrival in Belgrade turned into 6:30 pm. Our hotel was a 20-minute walk away, which we were willing to do if we had arrived in the afternoon, but after 9.5 hours on a bus, we decided to take a taxi. Not one taxi driver would drive us to our hotel with their meter on….you know, what taxi drivers are supposed to do??? We were told by locals that a taxi to our hotel should cost $2 to $3, but each driver we approached wanted either $10 or $20 and refused to take us on the meter. So we walked (it did indeed only take about 20 minutes), and they sat at the bus station, not making money. All in all, this was the most painful day of travel so far. We are not looking forward to crossing the Serbian-Hungarian border next week.

Most of the European Union countries are a part of the Schengen Area, 26 European countries that have agreed to abolish passport controls at their borders for ease of travel. Neither Bulgaria nor Serbia are parties to the agreement, so their border is often overwhelmed by a lot of travelers with few agents. It is likely a financial decision by these countries not to employ sufficient agents for the number of people passing through. But it is said that you have to spend money in order to make money. We, and our fellow bus travelers (people from all over the world), were pretty disgusted by waiting 4.5 hours in the heat. Those we talked to readily agreed that their future travel through these countries’ borders would be unlikely. That means a loss in tourist dollars for hotels, restaurants, tours, museums, public transportation, and all other travel-related purchases. The discomfort and outrage simply is not worth traveling here again, which is sad, as there is so much history here, with so many beautiful buildings, parks, and culture. Bulgaria has a major emigration problem, and has the fastest decreasing population of any country in the world. Most refugees from war-torn countries just pass through for better opportunities elsewhere. The country is a prime example of how a government can turn lemonade into lemons. Our experience at the border was a glaring demonstration of that ability.

No pretty photos today, just long lines of vehicles and people waiting in the sun!

Day 557 of Traveling the World, Sofia, Bulgaria. August 22, 2019.

Back in Europe! We have been traveling around Asia for about the last six months and have really enjoyed it. But yesterday we arrived from Dubai and we are starting our journey across the continent. We haven’t been in Europe since 2017, and we are looking forward to seeing some different sights. Ironically, both of us sunburned a little today because it was too hot to go outside in Dubai, and so we haven’t gotten any sun for a while.

We spent our first day in Europe walking around Sofia for 7 hours, the beautiful capital city of Bulgaria. As we walked, we were most impressed by the number of parks, fountains, and statues, several of which are included in this entry. It is also a city of flowers, flowers everywhere we looked, which we adored. Quite lovely!

Sofia has been inhabited since at least 7000 BC. The city is located in the center of the Balkans, roughly midway between the Black Sea and the Adriatic Sea, while being closest to the Aegean Sea to the south. The recorded history of the city is sad, as it is one of many invasions and conquests. Beginning in 29 BC and through the end of WW II, it was conquered by the Roman Republic, the Huns, the Visigoths, the Avars and Slavs, the Byzantines, the Pechenegs, the Magyars and Serbs, the Crusaders, the Ottomans, and the Soviet Union. Today it is one of the 10 best places for start-up businesses in the world, particularly in information technologies.

So we begin with statues…first up, the ferocious-looking Tsar Samuil, one of the great Bulgarian rulers. His eyes are made of a special material so that they shine in the dark, but we were here in the afternoon, so we missed that. Next up is Stefan Stambolov, also looking quite stern. He was Prime Minister from 1887 to 1894, and was known as the Bulgarian Bismarck. In 1895, he died when four assassins attacked him, shooting at him and stabbing him. Because he wore a protective vest, they stabbed at his head and fractured his skull….thus, the statue’s slashed cheek and head fracture on the left side! After that are various statues that we liked, followed by the fountains leading up to the National Palace of Culture. After walking by the fountains, we saw what looked like a tiny, cute chapel. It is the Temple of Bulgarian Martyrs, and the photo after that shows a peek at the very small interior.

The beautiful Russian Orthodox Church that you see next is known as the Russian Church of St. Nicholas the Miracle-Worker, built in 1914. It was built as what was known as a diplomatic church, adjacent to the Russian Embassy at the time. As was the custom then, it was named after the ruling tsar, Nicholas II. The two photos following those of the exterior were taken inside. It was small but beautifully decorated with icons.

Next up is the most famous attraction in Sofia, St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. It was primarily built between 1904 and 1912, and until the year 2000 was the world’s largest finished Orthodox Cathedral, being the Cathedral church of the Patriarch of Bulgaria. The three photos are of the outside and inside. The interior is decorated with Italian marble in various colors, Brazilian onyx, alabaster, and gold. You can see the beautifully painted dome and walls of the interior, along with some very impressive chandeliers.

The next two photos are of the origin of the city’s name…the Basilica of St. Sophia. It looks very plain, just a brick building, right? But its history is astounding. It was erected amidst the ancient necropolis of the city, above 50 burial structures dating from the 3-5th centuries AD. The earliest temple was constructed in 311 AD, with mosaic tile work depicting the Garden of Eden and other biblical motifs. For several centuries, more temples were constructed over the original one, and the present basilica is the product of the fifth building period, in the 6th century AD. During the Ottoman occupation, the building was transformed into a mosque, but since 1930 it has been an Orthodox Cathedral, its original function.

After that are photos of a beautiful building we liked, a manhole decorated with colorful lions, and the main pedestrian street, Vitosha Street. After all of that, we took a food tour, but this one was unique…a FREE food tour! Called Balkan Bites, we walked and ate for two hours. We thought we might just get small samples of food, but the portions were generous at the 5-6 stops we made, and it was equal to food tours we have taken around the world costing, usually, $40 to $80 or so per person. We learned a lot about the city and its history, as well as a lot about Sofia’s foods….always, it is yogurt and cheese, first! We had fabulous yogurt/dill/cucumber soup, cheese nibbles, Bulgarian wine, local donuts, and more. The last five photos are from the food tour, including one of the cheese dishes on small rounds of bread that were so tasty! We end with a short video of some participants learning a Bulgarian dance! We must say….in just two hours, we felt very comfortable with all 11 of the very nicest people we met on the tour. They were from Denmark, Japan, the Netherlands, Italy, and Israel, and couldn’t have been kinder about offering to show their countries and culture if we ever visit. Hospitality lives!

Day 553 of Traveling the World, Abu Dhabi, UAE. August 18, 2019.

Road trip! Today we rented a car for the day and drove to Abu Dhabi, another of the seven Emirates that make up the UAE. It is the capital city of the UAE and accounts for about two-thirds of the $400 billion UAE economy. Before the seven emirates combined to form the UAE, they were chiefly fishing villages. Sheik Zayed, after whom major roads and buildings are named, is revered for bringing the country into global and technological prominence, uniting the Emirates almost 50 years ago.

Abu Dhabi felt so much smaller than Dubai, although it took some time to drive through the city. The first photo is of Sheik Zayed (remember him?) Mosque, and was completed in 2007. It stands out as you enter the city from the north, looks huge, and has many employees sitting in the 110-degree heat to motion you to the parking structure. Signs would work just as well, but were not utilized. We did not venture inside the mosque, as there is a strict dress code, and we were wearing shorts. You enter through a Visitor’s Center, the dome building shown in the second photo. It has a mall and food court! The dome as seen from the inside is shown in the third photo.

The next three photos are of the Emirates Palace…pretty impressive entry arch, huh? But, it is just a hotel. We saw the sign, and thought we were at the real palace. Not! After that, the two beach photos are of the area along the Gulf that is called the Corniche. But as we noted in our last post, it looks like a ghost town. Nobody was out, even though the beach was wide and the sand was blindingly white. It is just too hot.

Next up are just two buildings we liked, both hotels. The first is the Bab Al Qasr Hotel, and the next is the Fairmont Marina. Getting great shots was pretty difficult, so what you see is what you get. And the last photo was taken from the car along the eight-lane freeway from Dubai to Abu Dhabi. We had heard there was “nothing” along the road, which made us think of the drive from California to Las Vegas, and this photo seems to support that assertion (even though most of the palm trees are brown and droopy, suffering from a weevil infestation). But, there were frequent gas stations, mosques, strip malls, and loads of trees to keep our attention along the 85-mile drive.

We want to note that we have been here in Dubai for almost three weeks, and we have yet to speak to a native Emirati. We read that only 10 percent of the UAE’s population are citizens, with the other 90 percent being ex-pats and foreign workers. Everyone working at the hotel and in the malls are from somewhere else. In fact, the hotel staff told us that they are provided housing by the hotel, but it is about 45 minutes away (land is too expensive near the hotel itself). In addition, the hotel has a buffet just for its workers all day long. These are the necessary incentives to lure workers away from their home countries. And, since nobody is ever seen outside, the only place we have seen men and women in Arab dress (robes) is in the malls, where they seem to live. You can’t find a seat in the food court around 3-4 pm, as it is just jammed with families with many children. The children will stare at us, and when we wave and smile, they shyly wave back…but they keep on staring. Maybe it is the blonde hair? Or maybe, just that we are westerners? In any case, we are always treated kindly.

Day 550 of Traveling the World, Dubai, UAE. August 15, 2019.

Several years ago, we were playing trivia on a cruise when the question was posed: Name the tallest building in the world. We were stumped. When we heard the answer, the Burj Khalifa, we wondered how anyone could have known that! Yet, here we are in Dubai, home to the tallest building in the world…2,722 feet tall, opened in 2010, and seen in the first photo. You can see it from many places in the city, and it is adjacent to the Dubai Mall, the largest mall in the world, which makes it convenient to see and visit. This is a city of many firsts and many largests.

Today we hired a taxi to drive us around for a few hours to see more of Dubai, as not all of it is accessible by the metro. In the heat, walking is out of the question, so any sort of organized tour was unthinkable. We drove by the Burj Al Arab Hotel, seen in the second photo, which is another landmark building in this very modern city. It is the fifth-tallest hotel in the world, with its architecture meant to resemble a sailing ship. Adjacent to it, seen in the next photo, is the Jumeirah Beach Hotel, whose exterior resembles a large descending staircase. Next up was the Nasser Rashed Lootah Masjid Mosque, or Grand Mosque, of Dubai. We couldn’t find a way in, so we only have an exterior shot. After the mosque is a photo of the beautiful white sand beach along the Persian Gulf. Speaking of the Gulf, the UAE is in a very interesting location in the Middle East. It is bounded on the west by its huge neighbor, Saudi Arabia. One hundred forty miles east across the Strait of Hormuz is Iran, and Afghanistan is just beyond that. To the south, across the Persian Gulf, are Pakistan and India, and a bit to the north is Iraq. Having heard news about these countries for our entire adult lives, it is most interesting to be within their cultural spheres and see what their landscapes, environments, and weather are like.

After that, things got very interesting, as we drove onto the artificial archipelago that everyone has seen in photos, the Palm Jumeirah, which extends into the Persian Gulf and resembles a palm tree (from the air). The Palm Jumeirah opened its first residential buildings in 2006, and today has a population of about 11,000 people. Each “frond” of the Palm tree gives businesses, residences, and hotels views of the Gulf and beach access, so it is highly desirable real estate in Dubai. Of course, driving on it, it is quite large, and all you really see are buildings. Our destination was the outermost edge, where the Atlantis The Palm Hotel/Restaurant Complex is located. As you get near to it, the road goes into an underground tunnel, under the Gulf, just like the Chunnel! It was pretty neat. Public transportation is available onto the archipelago via a very modern-looking monorail zooming overhead, although the locals call it the tram (to distinguish it from the metro/subway). There are a series of photos of the outside and inside of Atlantis, which follows the story of Atlantis but also contains Arabic themes. The main glass “tree” you see upon entering the hotel is made of Venetian Murano glass, also used in the lobby of the Bellagio Casino in Las Vegas. We have read that the largest suite in the Atlantis goes for $18,000 per night! After the Atlantis photo is one of the residential areas we passed on the archipelago, which resembles an Arab fortress.

Next up is the Dubai Marina, with a photo of the still-in-progress Ferris wheel that will be…you guessed it!….the LARGEST in the world when it is completed next year in time for the 2020 World Expo. The other photo is of some beach cabanas and beach lounging areas. We must note, however, that almost everywhere we traveled today…in all the outdoor tourist areas….there is almost nobody outside other than a few workers here and there. Air conditioning is the Middle East’s lifeblood in the summer. It is even almost as hot at night as it is during the day. It was 110 F again today, and it hard to be outdoors for more than 10 minutes, maximum. So nobody is currently enjoying the beach cabanas or beaches! All the hotels have doormen and parking/taxi attendants, all wearing suits and long-sleeved shirts. We have asked them how they can be outside dressed that way, but they all smile, shrug, and brush it off. We get it, it is their job and their uniform, but we have trouble in shorts and tank tops!

The last two photos are also from the Atlantis, in the luxury coffee shop. These desserts look unreal. The one on the extreme right in the next-to-last photo is labeled “Coffee Lemon,” but doesn’t it look like porcelain? They all cost 26 dirhams each, about $7. Aren’t they beautiful? And wouldn’t you hate to ruin the illusion and bite into any one of them????

Day 542 of Traveling the World, Dubai, UAE. August 7, 2019.

Our lips uttered the words, “No, thank you,” about 500 times this morning. Dubai is the only one of the seven Emirates that made its fortune through trading rather than oil. By the 19th century, it was well known by traders around the world. We walked through several of the city souks (markets) and were delighted by the colors, varieties, textures, and quantities of what we saw. Offered for sale were cinnamon, saffron, cloves, cardamom, ginger, paprika, turmeric, nutmeg, pomegranate, various flowers, dried fruit, tea, frankincense, pashminas, scarves, shoes, dinnerware, souvenirs…the list goes on. We were approached by each and every stall owner, invited to smell, touch, and/or guess what was in front of us. We recognized very little. One item resembled a sleek dark rock that didn’t look at all useful; we were told it was for men to use, as it acted like Viagra! We also didn’t know the black item in the photo below that I am holding between my fingers; it is a dried lemon! When asked its use, the salesman became oddly quiet for the first time.

I couldn’t imagine wearing any of the shoes in the photo, but the owner was insistent that he could find my size. Since we don’t have a home, and can’t buy souvenirs, we were only there to browse and take in the scene, so we said no to everything presented to us. When the watch salesmen noticed Mike wasn’t wearing a watch, they approached with their idea of what he needed on his wrist. But we have told vendors for 10 years now, “nobody wears watches any more; we have our phones.” They always seem a little deflated by that, but accepting. We went out today right after breakfast, as it was “only” 100 degrees F early, but this afternoon will rise to 108-110. We have not wanted to venture out in the afternoons, and the first few days felt trapped in the hotel. So our compromise is to do whatever we are going to do early, getting back before the highest temperatures hit. Even so, we were quite hot and sweaty. Dubai in the summer!

We love the photo of the properly dressed Arab family of mannequins. The poor little boy lost a hand but somehow grew a mustache and beard! After the Spice, Herbs, and Utensils Souks, we arrived at the Gold Souk. There we found gold, silver, and precious gems, some quite elaborate, as you will see in the photos. We don’t know who would wear the full-body gold “armor” other than entertainers or someone in costume. It was all quite heavy and cumbersome. And look at that ring! It holds the Guinness World Record for being the world’s largest ring, the Star of Taiba. The ring itself weighs 141 lbs! We also loved the Gelato sign, ice cream made with camel’s milk, dates, and saffron, and oh yes…Gelato makes gold better.

The last photo is not from the souks, but from the other day at the Dubai Mall….there is a Waterfall Promenade, and these neat sculptures are a part of it! Enjoy!

Day 538 of Traveling the World, Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE). August 3, 2019.

Quite the buzz here about so many things! The World Expo (World’s Fair) will be held here in Dubai next year, starting in October and continuing until April 2021. The first photo is of the Museum of the Future, still under construction, and slated to open next year. It is in a torus shape and is encased in stainless steel with Arabic calligraphy. Unbelievably, it has already won design awards! The museum will serve as a base for exploration of the future’s greatest challenges and technologies, from climate change to medical breakthroughs. It is stunning to look at, and is already being called the new iconic symbol of Dubai. We can just imagine that being inside will be a great experience as well. The city also has many stunning skyscrapers, and we are showing just a few. We flew here from Bangkok on Emirates Airline, and we were way impressed! For us to be impressed by an airline is almost unthinkable, as they are all so mindlessly similar and, usually, unremarkable. We flew in an Airbus A380, with an upstairs area. We had more legroom than usual, and all meals, snacks, alcohol, and other drinks were FREE. They gave us a menu from which to order lunch! And the menu noted that if you get hungry at any time, you can order a free cup of noodles! Headphones were free, and we had a choice of 1,000 movies…so we watched two! We were in Economy class, but the Airbus also has private suites and…get this!….private showers! It was all too much. The flight attendants were genuinely friendly and never lost their smiles. It was like an alternate universe. When we got into Dubai, it was the only place for which we did not have to turn in an immigration card; we did not have to prove that we had booked a hotel; we did not have to prove that we had a flight OUT; and, we did not have a long line for passport control, as we did in Bali, Bangkok, Malaysia, and Cambodia, in particular: plenty of passport control agents, no line, done in 1 minute. It was fabulous beyond words! A truly modern country!

After that is a photo from the Mall of the Emirates, where we went to see a movie. It is very modern and has many American restaurant chains inside. Interestingly, most public buildings, including the mall and the airport, have Prayer Rooms. We have heard the Call to Prayer (Adhan) called out by a muezzin (chanter) in Istanbul and Casablanca, as it is mandatory five times a day in Muslim countries. Normally, it is presented from the minaret of a mosque. We were quite startled, therefore, to hear it chanted in the mall! We weren’t sure if we should stop, or stop talking, or do anything at all, so we observed what everyone else was doing. They continued walking and talking, so we did the same. It is mandatory worship if you are Muslim. The “weekend” here is Friday and Saturday, with the first work day of the week on Sunday. In the US, “hump day” is on Wednesday – the middle work day of the week. In the Middle East, hump day is Tuesday! It can get quite confusing as our brains try to pry away from what we have always known and learn new ways of thinking about time and about cultural norms.

The next photo is, of course, a ski slope with real snow and real people walking around with winter coats! This takes up a huge section of the mall, and is the only place you can ski in the UAE! And the temperature outside is 110 degrees Fahrenheit! After that is a photo of the stops on the segment of the metro we rode. If the stops don’t tell you this is a city for business, nothing will: World Trade Center, Financial Center, Business Bay, Noor Bank, and First Abu Dhabi Bank. The other two stops are mega-malls! The next photo just cracked us up. Every morning in the gym, the televisions are set either to news or some international sporting event. But what is on here? Camel races!! The last photo was taken just 3 minutes ago…the city getting ready for the evening. You can see all the way out to the Persian Gulf.

The food at the breakfast buffet here is nothing short of amazing. It is Middle Eastern, and always includes hummus, baba ganoush, laban (yogurt dip), shakshouka (eggs poached in a sauce of tomatoes, chilies, garlic, nutmeg, cumin, and other rich spices), foul (a terrific bean stew with olive oil, parsley, tomatoes, onions, hummus, and lemon), Arabic breads, a dosa stand (rice batter spread thin and cooked into a crispy crepe, then filled with veggies or potatoes or cheese and eaten with any of the items already listed above), and Indian foods. It is fabulous. We were mourning leaving Asia a little, as breakfast had so many different and delicious items other than eggs, pancakes, and waffles. But this more than compensates!

Another thing we have found in this amazing city is its technological advancement, as we find it similar to Singapore. The metro is new and shiny, quite extensive, and runs aboveground rather than underground. Airports, malls, subway stations, and even office complexes have moving sidewalks. Escalators do not run constantly, but start up when a person gets within a foot or two, thus saving all that energy of running continuously.

Day 522 of Traveling the World, Siem Reap, Cambodia. July 18, 2019.

Angkor Wat. The largest temple complex on earth. UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built over 30 years in the 12th century by Khmer King Suryavarman II as his state temple and eventual mausoleum. It is considered an archaeological and artistic masterpiece. There are causeways, elevated towers, five main towers, covered colonnades, chambers, courtyards, and walkways on different levels linked by staircases. Oh, the stairs! It felt like we walked thousands of steps, but it was probably only a few hundred. The tropical heat made it quite uncomfortable. Everywhere you looked on this vast complex, you saw etchings and artwork and repeating scrolls and statues and deities. Not a single piece of stone was left undecorated. That is saying something on a site that covers over 400 acres!

In the first three photos you can see the long approach to the main temple. After that are some photos of the moat surrounding the site….get this: the moat is 650 feet wide and circles a distance of 3.5 miles! It is humanmade, not natural, and is just huge, today filled with fish and turtles. Do you see the bridge across the moat? That shot almost looks like somewhere in Florida, but it is a huge linked-together pontoon bridge! Yep, it bobs up and down with your footsteps as you walk and is kind of spongy, but a great idea for getting across the moat.

The rest of the photos are just various scenes from around Angkor Wat. You will notice a few decapitated statues…many of them were! There were many depictions of goddesses, and a gorgeous bas relief history and mythology of Cambodia that extended on the walls forever along several galleries. There were monkeys there, of course, playing with each other. The original stone staircases up to the top of the temple had deteriorated, so you can see the new staircase…with handrails! Even so, it was quite steep both to ascend and descend. And, even though there were many people there, the complex is so large that you only encountered other people in the most popular places…the rest of the site almost seemed deserted, yet very calm and quiet. Having visited so many museums, castles, and heritage sites, it is incredible to us that once you enter the grounds (the day pass for the area’s temples is $37), you can literally go anywhere, walk anywhere, climb on anything, do what you wish. There are no guards watching or scolding. Amazing!

Beginning with the large stone-faced entrance monument, these seven photos are from nearby Ta Prohm Temple. Because it was not built with the same, stronger stone that built Angkor Wat, many of the walls have fallen into heaps of jumbled stone. As you can also see, trees have grown through the temple over the century. There is even a brace holding up the elevated tree roots!

Our impression of Cambodia is how very, very poor it seems…each store and home is tiny, and most of what you see riding around is agricultural fields and forests, which is typical of most of the country, as 80 percent of the population farms for a living. We were told by a local that it is a very corrupt country. We told him our story upon arrival in the airport yesterday: there were the inevitable long lines for passport control, which we reluctantly joined, but knew we had no choice. The line had barely moved after 10 minutes, but we kept seeing signs about visas. Up until now, in every country we visited, no visa was required for Americans for stays under a month, except Australia, which we had procured online. So, Mike went to ask a uniformed employee if we needed a visa. Sure enough, the man told us to get out of line and “follow him.” We did, walking through the passport area that said, “Diplomats Only.” He told us the visas were $30 per person (oddly, everything is priced in US dollars, even though there is a Cambodian rial), and asked for the money and our passports, instructing to wait right where we were…just behind the customs and passport control desk, saying that we were “VIPs.” Mike gave him a $100 bill. The line we had been in still looked like it hadn’t moved at all. In about 10 minutes, he came back with our passports sporting newly-stamped visas. He was holding up a $20 bill in each hand (our $40 change), and he asked, “Something for ME?” He had saved us about an hour in line, so Mike snatched one of the $20 bills and let him keep the other, and we said thank you and were on our way. As we walked past the passport/visa line to find our tuk tuk (see the last photo) that we had ordered from the Uber-like site, Grab, we noticed that the line still hadn’t appeared to have moved. We thought of the advantages of “gentle corruption.” In a less corrupt country, like the US, Germany, or Singapore, we still would have been in that line and would have ridden to the hotel during the worst of the approaching storm.

When we got out of the building and started looking for our tuk tuk, the driver texted us that he wasn’t allowed to pick up on the airport property and we would have to meet him on the public street. No doubt the taxi union has the government do them the favor of banning rideshare companies from the airports….an altogether different type of corruption, and one that is still present in seemingly “less corrupt” countries.

The Siem Reap Airport is small, so the walk to the street didn’t take long. Our driver met us right at the entrance and were soon on our way, driving through the as-yet light rain, before the torrential downpour. All in all, we would consider the two forms of corruption at the airport a net advantage, $20 and all.

Day 521 of Traveling the World, Bangkok, Thailand. July 17, 2019.

Street Food Tour 2019, via the year 1919! Everything available 100 years ago, and cooked as it was 100 years ago, was on the menu last night as we toured around and in Chinatown. But the first stop was, as with everything in Bangkok, a Buddhist Temple….the Golden Buddha Temple Syelendra. Inside is housed a 6-ton golden Buddha, which was concealed with plaster for 200 years to hide its true value.

After that is a photo down the main drag in Chinatown, with the already-not-very-wide streets cordoned off to set up….food stands. We passed hundreds of them, most involving rice in some form, and lines in front of many of them. Our tour guide, Alex, knew the tastiest and most popular dishes, and deftly guided us through the mobs to attain our Foodie Nirvana. First, though, photos of some of the narrow alleyways of Chinatown, empty markets that bustle in early morning but look forlorn at night, and just before the food photos, an abandoned, moldy-surface hotel where it is said people died from drug overdoses and other…things. Alex said it might be haunted, as women have been seen staring out the windows, and he has been thinking about adding a haunted sites tour to his itinerary. Most of these places sure were creepy, but they are in Alex’s hometown and stomping grounds, so we felt (mostly) safe.

On to the food! In order, you can see excellent satay with peanut sauce; then, a dessert soup, flavorful ginger broth with sesame balls…when bitten into, the balls tasted like exploding peanut butter in your mouth! After that is a surprise!…Michelin-rated Thai donuts with a coconut dipping sauce that was just heavenly – word was out, though, as the line waiting for this delicious treat was extremely long. The photo of what looks like tacos were amazing to taste, as they are called, for lack of a better translation, Thai pancakes. What looks like grated cheese is sweetened pumpkin, and what looks like sour cream is a coconut marshmallow-y cream. The “taco shells” are very very thin and crisp crepe-like pancakes, and it all works together very well. The last of the foods we ate is extremely popular here…sticky rice and mango. The sticky rice has sweetened coconut milk in it, and with the fresh mango, it is simple and so, so good.

Okay, on to the most interesting part of the evening! You can see salted fish being grilled, and then what looks like an attack of alien lobsters! And, oh yes, the stand with insects of all kinds….roasted worms, larvae, grasshoppers, and scorpions on a stick. We watched a couple order a scorpion and proceed to give it to their little girl like they were presenting her with a lollipop. As you can see in the photo, she put it up to and around her mouth while everyone took photos. Then, the vendor asked for it back, ripped off the stinger, and gave it back to her. The girl wasn’t particularly horrified by the scorpion itself…just sort of indifferent. The couple also ordered a bowl of grasshoppers, of which you can see a close-up. I said to the woman, do you like eating them? She made a face and said, they are terrible…they are for my husband! Our guide Alex asked if any of the four of us on the tour wanted to try a grasshopper, and we all declined, grimacing. But then brave Lauren, an ER doctor in New York City, said she was game! She held the roasted grasshopper-on-a-stick, peered at it, gulped a little, and asked if she should bite some off. Alex said, just go for it….ALL of it! She said, so you just want me to eat the whole thing all at once!??? Yes! So you can see the six photos of the evolution of her getting it into her mouth, chewing, and swallowing. In the fourth photo in the sequence, you can see a little bit of grasshopper leg sticking out. What a sport! She said it mostly tasted like soy sauce, was quite crunchy, and wasn’t so bad. We reminded her that she was eating lungs, heart, brains, its digestive tract, etc., and she said….ugh, don’t tell me that before I’ve even swallowed!

It was a fun, and interesting, night. Except for the bugs, everything was “normal” food…chicken, pork, donuts, soup, fruit, lots of rice and coconut, salad. All dishes could be made more or less spicy, depending on taste. We all tried the Thai hot chilies, and they left some burn in your mouth, but weren’t too bad overall. And again, they were present on all the tables so that you could add them as you wished. This was our 25th food tour in cities around the world, and like all of them, the guides really work hard at diversity and local, unique dishes that taste good. A great way to see, and eat your way through, a city.

Day 517 of Traveling the World, Bangkok, Thailand. July 13, 2019.

There are no words. Mind-boggling is too understated. Fantastic, magnificent, stupendous, outstanding…are all too weak. We commented that the Grand Palace in Bangkok makes Liberace look modest, and plain. Everywhere you looked inside the compound, there was (genuine, 24-karat) gold and gold leaf, statues (many repeated a hundred times around the base of a building), glass tiles, roofs with ornamentation, little shrines, small showcases, spires, temples, intricate detail, frescoes, protector gods, mosaics, carved entrance doors, painted porcelain, Chinese cherry tree tiles, color color and more color, and oh, yes, people….thousands of them. What a day! It was a privilege to walk the grounds and gape at everything this site has to offer. Even the trash cans were decorative! There was a graduation class mugging for the many cameras trained on them, thousands of photos, thousands of selfies, life…life…life! It was exhilarating. Just look at the images! Beautiful! Photography was not allowed inside the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, but it contained all gold ornamentation and fixtures, and enshrined a Buddha carved from a single piece of jade that dates back to the 14th century. After all the temples and shrines, we came to the actual palace and government buildings. That’s when we started seeing more and more guards.

The palace dates to 1782, and was home to Siamese kings for 150 years. Many of the buildings were not accessible, but the war ministry, department of state, and even the mint was inside the walls of the complex. The site is the spiritual heart of the Thai people and is used today for ceremonial and religious purposes. Several spots were for “Thai people only.”

We actually tried to see the palace yesterday, but found that we were improperly dressed. Shorts, tank tops, tight jeans, and flip flops are not allowed, nor sandals without socks. They send you into a building where you can “rent” proper attire for a few dollars. Instead, we opted to return today, dressed appropriately. Entrance is steep, for Thailand: about $16 per person. This is entirely within the bounds of entrance fees for the world’s major museums and sites, of course, but everything else in Thailand is exceedingly inexpensive.

Yesterday we wound up at Wat Mahathat, wat being the local term for temple. After the photos of the Royal Residence, the first photo from yesterday is the Naga Buddha, where Buddha is being protected by a seven-headed snake (with a cool red mouth!) called Mucilanda. As you can see, we were delighted by the many, many gold Buddhas and the light fixtures…a light is not just a light, it is a work of art! The inside was very quiet, and you can see a monk praying in front of the large Buddha.

We have been experimenting with different forms of transportation. We tried a river taxi yesterday for 50 cents per ride, but it did not announce each stop, was jammed with people, and we never knew what was going on. We tried Asia’s version of Uber, called Grab, and it worked fine the first two times at a good price, but then failed yesterday when they said none were available and this morning, when we had to walk quite a few blocks to where the driver parked. When we tried taxis they didn’t want to turn on their meters, just negotiate a price, but they were on the high side. So, we have ended up with traditional tuk tuks a couple of times, although each time we had to negotiate to not be taken to other attractions and not be taken to a jewelry shop, where, according to the driver, “all you do is look around for 5 minutes and I get free coupons for gas!” In other words, the drivers get kickbacks for bringing in unsuspecting tourists to buy junk. It is said that tuk tuks are the most fun you can have on three wheels! No trip to Bangkok would be complete without trying one. The first time they were quite insistent on the shopping trip….until we walked away. Then they quit pushing the shopping and just negotiated over the direct ride to the hotel. We thought it might be too hot to ride without air conditioning, but the open-air vehicles provided a nice breeze. So today, we walked up to a tuk tuk and said, here is our offer: no shopping stops, just return to our hotel for the same price as we paid for one last night. The driver capitulated immediately. He is shown in the last photo. Of course, the forerunner to the tuk tuks was a rickshaw, then there were rickshaws attached to bicycles, and the motorized tuk tuk was introduced in the 1960s. The best thing is that they can move through heavy traffic much better than a car, as ours occasionally drove on the other side of the road to get around congestion. It didn’t work quite as well as a simple motorcycle, but it was close. If we had gotten into a head-on collision, what a way to go!….having a ball on three wheels!

Day 515 of Traveling the World, Bangkok, Thailand. July 11, 2019.

We thought we would spend our first day in Bangkok just walking around the area of our hotel, getting the lay of the land, and taking it easy, as there is a 2-hour time difference from Seoul, and we are still a little “off.” We walked into the mall next door, ICONSIAM, and were just shocked and delighted by how they had redefined the mall concept. Walk with us through our photos, as we start at a gorgeous teak wood-designed market section, with a low ceiling, fruit stands, lanterns, and an artificial stream with small kiosks that look like floating boats. Street food booths were set up along the walkway with some very, very inexpensive foods. We are talking, food prices from 1950! There were small chicken kabobs for 16 cents each. Most of the meals in restaurants along here were $4-6. Out on the street, they were selling corn dogs on a stick for 15 cents, while styrofoam takeout boxes jammed with rice, chicken, and salad went for 32 cents.

After that portion of the mall, it opened up a bit, starting with the elephants, and here come the upscale retailers: Gucci, Apple, Bally, and local companies. Every floor had something different to gawk at. We both said that this was the sort of retail space we thought we might see in Tokyo, but we didn’t encounter anything this lovely and interesting there. One floor housed a cineplex, and most of the movies were American in their original English, but with Thai subtitles. A lot of people who travel don’t think about seeing movies, just seeing the local sights. But over the years, we have found that you just can’t go all day, every day, You need some rest time. That is where movies are great, as you can sit in the dark for a few hours and rest your feet. The one time we don’t mind paying to see commercials is when they are in a culture foreign to us. The ads are in the local language, of course, and are sometimes hilarious…very simple and innocent, somehow. And they are a great insight into the culture. It is often a mental exercise trying to figure out what they are advertising as you watch it, and sometimes it ends and you still have no idea what they were selling. Blue jeans? Skin cream? Cell phone service? Cars? We have probably seen about a dozen movies in Asia this year, and the price is typically around $6. Popcorn and soda are about $3 each. A bargain!

Following the mall photos are a few views of the Chao Phraya River, taken from a terrace cafe on one of the upper floors. The river runs through the center of Bangkok and certainly is a part of the city’s vivacity. Do you see the skyscraper that looks like it is falling apart? That is the King Power MahaNakhon residential towers, the tallest building in Thailand, at 1,031 feet. Opened in 2016, it was designed with a spiral “helix” cut into the sides, creating many more units with balconies for views of the city. The Ritz Carlton owns 200 units in the building that sell for between US $1.1 and 17 million. The next to last last photo is some very happy ice cream that we encountered! And the last photo is fun…at the airport in Seoul yesterday was this happy robot walking around with gate and flight info on its belly. If you scanned your boarding pass, s/he gave you gate info and the status of your flight. It was neat.

As we walked around, we discovered a Thai massage shop across the street. We had seen a question posed on the Internet, “where can I find cheap Thai massage in Bangkok?” One answer was, “asking THAT is like asking, where can I find some rice in China?” Anyway, massages there are $8 per hour. We joked that we would just go in for 8 hours some day, and let them send in different masseuses as shifts changed and people went to lunch. If you have never had a Thai massage, it is heaven. You don a light shirt and short pants and lay on a mattress on the floor. No oil is involved. Rather, the whole experience is lovely pressure, pressing, stretching, walking on your back (yes, they are very petite and light), elbows being nuzzled into your back and legs, all followed by a scalp massage. A tour guide once described Thai massage as being like yoga, but they do all the work for you. They stretch you in ways you never knew you could be stretched. It is the most relaxing hour of your life. So, yes, we indulged…and made another appointment for tomorrow! We may have one every day, in fact. $8!!!!