Sandra and John Scott

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Few places on earth can match the astonishing natural beauty of Palau. With a population of 20,000, it is a paradise with over 500 densely tree-covered islands of which only nine are inhabited. Once the scene of horrific battles during World War II, nature was the ultimate the winner. Dense vegetation has covered the war scars on land and the sea is slowly wearing away the downed WWII planes including the “George Bush Wreak,” the first President Bush’s plane. Today pristine Palau looks like the “Land Before the Hand of Man.”

Palau’s Rock Islands, relics of ancient coral reefs, are one of the world’s most unique phenomena. The largely uninhabited, mushroom-shaped islets are located in a vast lagoon that is a habitat for one of the world’s greatest concentrations of coral and marine life. The islands may be “green”, but the waters around the islands are so many beautiful shades of blue it is breathtaking. The blue starfish and the blue Napoleon wrasse share the waters with other colorful tropical fish, black-tip reef sharks, sea turtles, giant clams and coral of all colors.

Most unique among the wonders of Palau is Jellyfish Lake. After a boat ride to an island there is a short but steep climb up then down the ridge that isolates the hidden lake. In this intriguing lake the jellyfish have flourished and lost their sting because they have not had to fight off predators. Snorkeling with the translucent, pale pink jellyfish is like being part of an underwater ballet. On the way the tourist boats usually stops at the Milky Way, a narrow stretch of water between two rock islands. The guide dives in, scoops up a handful of the white sand that is as soft as cold cream and encourages people to slather it all over their body claiming it has rejuvenating qualities. Snorkeling, scuba diving, and fishing are all over-the-top activities with more than 1,400 species of fish and 500 species of coral. It is easy to understand why Palau is often referred to as the “Eighth Natural Wonder of the World” and “One of the Seven Underwater Wonders of the World.”
Land-based tours explore remote waterways that have been changed little by the hand of man. The Sense of Wonder Eco Tour is an environmental and educational program that includes kayaking through the mangrove forests that serve as a nursery for a plethora of land and sea creatures. At the start of the tour a sprouted coconut found laying on the ground is split open and the coconut meat, which has turned spongy, is applied to exposed body parts. It is the time-honored traditional method to prevent sunburns and keep the mosquitoes at bay. Quietly kayaking through the primeval-looking mangrove it is possible to hear a bird that imitates the call of a monkey and spot the large fruit bat hanging out waiting for nighttime.

A short trail in the mangrove leads to a place where, according to Palauan legend, the taro goddess brought back samples from the taro patches she created on the various islands. She placed them in the area where she got married where they turned to stone. The tour includes an expansive lunch featuring a variety of delicious items made from the taro plant.

The Jungle River Boat Cruise is another eco-friendly tour that starts with a nature walk through the jungle stopping to see the Gorilla Arm Tree and learn about the Noni Tree, the fruit of which is said to cure just about everything. There are carnivorous picture plants, 23 varieties of orchids, and ancient fern trees. As the riverboat plies the Ngerdorch River crocodiles sunning themselves on a spit of land slip into the water and kingfishers burst up out of the vegetation. Other jungle treks explore more of the wonders of Palau including beautiful Ngardmau Waterfall, one of the republic’s largest. For a taste of culture there are traditional men’s houses, mysterious stone monoliths, Yap stone money, cultural shows, and local crafts.
Palau was “green” long before “green” became fashionable. Realizing the environment is their greatest asset, they continue to preserve and protect their Eden. To increase awareness of the environment’s fragility the Palau International Coral Reef Center celebrates Palau’s environment with exhibits that recreate the various ecosystems. It, along with the Palau Conservation Society, partners with scores of other organizations in developing sustainable tourism strategies. A good example is Carp Island Resort where they have started their own farm. The pigs, chickens, tomatoes, egg plants, along with the fruit trees will provide guests with fresh food. Filtered water from the mangrove is used for shower and toilets. They are looking into the feasibility of wind or solor power.

Palau’s former President, Tommy E. Remengesau, Jr., developed the Micronesia Challenge, a regional inter-governmental initiative in the western Pacific region that called on other countries in Micronesia to join Palau in conserving 30 perecent of shore coastal waters and 20 percent of forest land by 2020. The Federated States of Micronesia, Republic of the Marshall Islands, the U.S. territories of Guam, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands accepted the challenge. For his efforts, ex-President Remengesau, Jr. received an award from TIME magazine as one of the Heroes of the Environment in 2007.

Palua is an iconic tropical Pacific island unspoiled by rampant commercialization. It truly looks like a “land before the hand of man.”

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Friends have said to us, “You are going to Thailand – again?” We reply, “We have been there a dozen times and there is always something wonderful to do.” This trip was no exception.
Any reason is a good reason to visit Bangkok. My husband and I are frequent travelers in Asia and we make sure that Bangkok is on the itinerary. Some of our trips are long – some are as long as three months. During our three-month trips, John and I plan mini-vacations – our R&R time. On our most recent Asian trip we decided to treat ourselves to a stay at one of the world’s most famous hotels, The Peninsula Bangkok. We walked taller when we exited the new Bangkok airport and saw the sign for the Peninsula and knew it is for us. Nothing so plebian as the guest’s name on the sign board! A slight nod and the tuxedo-clan sign holder quietly acknowledged, “Mr. and Mrs. Scott. Welcome to Bangkok. Your car is waiting.” Shortly the black Mercedes pulls up. “Here is a chilled bottle of water and today’s paper. Relax and enjoy the 40-minute ride.” And we do. My husband whispers, “Let the relaxation begin!” It is like returning to an old friend as we marvel at things that are uniquely Bangkok – the mystical figures gracing the flower-clad roadway, the bright pink taxis, the Chao Phraya River, and other familiar sights.

We barely noticed the call the driver made alerting the staff of our arrival assuring that they were out front to greet us. Everyone needs to feel special and important – and at the Peninsula Hotels everyone does. The award-wining hotel is so tech sophisticated that there are buttons for everything from closing the drapes to dimming the lights. The bathtub has a built-in TV and a valet button. I wonder, “Why does one call for the valet when in the bathtub?” There is a small box near the closet that can be accessed from the hall. Shoes placed in the box at night are returned shined in the morning. When the red light is on it means the box contains a message or the newspaper. Very cool!

Besides being an amazing hotel the Peninsula has the three most important aspects of any property – location, location, location. The hotel is located on one of our favorite rivers, the Chao Phraya. All the Peninsula rooms have a river view. Watching the Chao Phraya is as mesmerizing as watching a campfire. It is a vital river with tiny tugboats pulling barges up and down the river. Long-tail boats zip along reminding us of a James Bond movie. Ferryboat attendants whistle their arrival at a dock. Thai-style boats from the Oriental and Peninsula Hotels crisscross the river. In the evening the lights of the city are reflected in the river, plus the brightly-lit dinner boats add a festive look. We started each day with a long leisurely breakfast at the water’s edge and ended the day lounging in a sala by the pool with the river always in view.
We have transited through Bangkok many times, and there is always something to do. This time there were many colorful signs wishing the Thai monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej a happy 80th birthday, so we felt a visit to the Grand Palace was appropriate. He has been king for 61 years making him the world’s longest serving monarch. He is much loved by his people for creating royal projects including tree-planting programs to protect the environment long before it was popular to do so.

The expansive grounds of the Grand Palace are awash with golden temples and glittering mosaics. The most revered temple in Thailand is the one that houses the Emerald Buddha. The small Buddha is actually made of jade and has a fascinating history of being captured and recovered, then lost and found. According to reliable chronicles, lightning struck a chedi in Chiang Rai, Northern Thailand, in 1434 chipping the stucco off the Buddha image. The abbot of the temple noticed a green color showing through. He removed the stucco covering and found the Emerald Buddha. And that is only part of the amazing story of the Buddha. The last time it returned to Bangkok was when a rainstorm washed away the plaster that had kept it hidden for a century.

We have so much to learn about other countries’ religions and cultures. I am always embarrassed by our ignorance of Thai culture and the Buddhist religion. We try to learn a little more each time we visit. Within the palace grounds are scenes from Ramakian, the Thai version of the Hindu epic, Ramayana. The scenes depict the Thai creation story. I liken our learning to the beautiful and intricate mosaics that decorate the buildings and statues. Each time we visit Bangkok we learn a few more pieces of their colorful history. Maybe someday we will have the whole picture. Regardless, I appreciate the beauty and intricacy of the temples and find the impressive statues of the mythical guardians especially intriguing.
One of my favorite places in Bangkok is the Wat Pho, Temple of the Reclining Buddha. Each visit reveals a new level of understanding. We always marvel at the size of the reclining Buddha, which is 151 feet long and 49 feet high. “And to think it isn’t even the largest in Thailand!” I tell John, but he is busy getting change so he can make his merit offerings in the 108 bronze bowls. On this trip I was surprised to learn that Wat Pho is considered Thailand’s first public university. The murals spread throughout the temple complex explain a wide variety of topics from geography to science to religion. It is famed as the birthplace of Thai Massage.

“Welcome back, Mr. and Mrs. Scott.” How do they do that? How can the Peninsula staff remember everyone’s name? One of the staff asked, “Have you seen our new spa? It is only one year old and quite beautiful.” A Thai massage seemed like just the thing after visiting the birthplace of Thai massage. There are spas and there are spas but there is only one Peninsula Bangkok ESPA. It was like entering another dimension. The music whispered, and the candles flickered as we were shown to our private salon with a Jacuzzi, steam bath, reclining lounges, and herbal tea. After tea and enjoying the Jacuzzi, our therapists arrived and we relaxed totally. As if we were not relaxed enough, after the treatment, we went to the relaxation room, put on headphones, listened to the music, gazed out over the pool to the river, and watched nighttime arrive.

At dinner in the Thai-style Thiptara Restaurant, we listened to traditional Thai music and enjoyed the river scene. I savored the Thai spicy soup with prawns and lemon grass while John delved into the green mango salad with grilled prawns. “I wish we could stay forever.” John reminded me, “If we don’t go we can’t come back.” Hum, I guess that makes sense.
We drove about one hour from Bangkok to the ancient capital of Ayutthaya and boarded a rice boat on the Chao Phraya River. Boats are no longer used to transport rice, so some of the teak boats have been converted into restaurants and a few into houseboats. Our boat could accommodate 12 passengers; however, we were lucky because there were two other guests along with our two guides, a cook, and the boat’s pilot. Interestingly, the other couple only lived 200 miles from us.

We traveled the river for two days and one night stopping along the way to visit small villages sometimes by bicycles, which are provided, sometimes by walking. We slept in the lower portion of the boat where the sleeping area was divided by curtains. There were two bathrooms and one shower. The main deck had ample sitting area and a small upper deck had a few chairs.

Many people still grow rice, but during the time when they are not busy in the fields some families have created small businesses to make extra money. Everyone in the family works together. We visited families that make bricks, drums, incense sticks, and charcoal. Especially interesting was learning how they grow mushrooms. They are so successful that expansion is planned. Regardless of the product, each process was so much more complicated than we thought. Mainly the families make things that can be used by people in their community.
Buddhism is the main religion in Thailand and our houseboat usually tied up by a Buddhist temple, which is the center of the community. Buddhist monks live a very simple life without any personal belongings so the people of the community give them what they need including food. One morning we got up before the sun and with food our cook had prepared waited for the monks to walk by so we could give them the food. The monks in Thailand wear saffron colored robes, sandals, and shave their heads. We had a bowl with rice, and the cook had put a soup-like mixture that contained chicken and vegetables in small plastic bags. In a show of respect for the monks we took off our shoes, bowed our head, then divided the food between the four monks. After the food was distributed the monks thanked us by chanting a blessing and went on their way. Buddhists believe that if you do good then good will come back to you. If you do bad, then bad will come back to you.

One day we visited an orphanage with 1400 children. It was dinner time so one group at a time chanted a prayer of thanks and then got in line for their dinner of rice and a mixture of vegetables. We saw many boy scouts helping to distribute the food. We also visited a school. The children were so excited to see us. They all wanted to have their picture taken with us. Before we entered the classroom we took off our shoes. Thai people do not usually wear their shoes inside their homes, temples, or schools. Surprisingly the students knew how to say many words in English, including how to count.

When our houseboat was traveling down the river toward Bangkok, we relaxed, waved to people on the shore, and watched the activity along the river. People were fishing, watering their crops, and just relaxing by the river. The barges were especially interesting because families live on little houses on the barges. They were cooking meals, doing laundry and other daily chores. We saw the barges being loaded with sand. Now we know where the barges come from. It was an amazing trip that was over way too soon.
Thai food is popular the world over, so we decided a cooking lesson was in order. Just mention the name “Yingsak” and everyone breaks into smiles. Flamboyant Chef Yingsak is the most popular chef in Thailand with his own TV show and cooking school. My husband and I joined one of his classes for the morning. We were given a booklet with the recipes for the items we were going to make then watched a video on how to prepare them: Miang Kwuay Tiao (rice noodle packets), Kaeng Keow Wan Sai Kok (green curry with sausage) and Kaeng Liang Pak Ruam (clear spicy soup with vegetables). Chef Hoon went over the instructions verbally adding more tips. Luckily there were students with an excellent command of the English language to help us when we needed translations. Then we all went to the kitchen where working as a team we helped to prepared various parts of the food – chopping, slicing, stir frying, and so on. It was an incredibly smooth team effort that ended with tasting everything.

Christchurch, on New Zealand’s South Island, a three-hour flight from Sydney, Australia, is the most English city outside of England. And, like England, people go punting on the tree-lined Avon River. The city is renowned for its gardens, and a free trolley makes getting to the parks and museums fun and easy.
Rent a car. In New Zealand, driving is on the left but there is very little traffic and the roads are good, plus the motels are reasonable. It is the only way to see and enjoy the island. Driving west from Christchurch the towns and rolling hills are expected, but then the unexpected happens. The road begins to climb until it clears a mountain pass to present a stunning scene – snow-capped mountains against solid blue skies. A scene straight out of “Lord of the Rings.” The always-changing scenery of the South Island dazzles even the most jaded tourist with its variety: snow-capped mountains, blue lakes, teal-colored rivers, waterfalls, rainforests, rugged coastline, beaches, and glaciers. Just when you think there is nothing more to impress you, you round a corner or come to the top of a rise in the road, and once again you are amazed at the beauty of the South Island.
New Zealand and extreme adventures are synonymous. The adventures are many and varied. For a thrilling bird’s-eye view consider paragliding over mirror-like Lake Wanaka with the snow-capped Southern Alps as a backdrop. After a hike on the rainforest path to the Franz Joseph Glacier viewing point, you may find you need a closer look. For those who are not into arduous hiking, a helicopter to the top of the glacier is the perfect answer. Walking on the ice field feels like being on top of the world. Returning, the copter swoops down for a closer look at the glacier’s surface, which is fractured into pinnacles creating what looks like a city of skyscrapers.

The West Coastal Road is one of breath-taking scenery at every turn. Take your time. Plan to stop at the uniquely layered Pancake Rocks and check out the seal colony at Cape Foulwind.
After exploring the South Island head to the North Island. New Zealand is very tourist friendly. They have it all figured out. Just drop the rental car at the dock in Picton, take the modern ferry to Wellington, and a rental car will be waiting. It is all part of the service. In Wellington, don’t miss the Te Papa Museum highlighting the history of the islands.

It is nearly impossible to resist all of the adrenaline-pumping activities. Near Lake Taupo on the North Island is a beautiful place to bungy jump. Just step off a platform into a gorge, touch the blue-green waters of the Waikato River 150 feet below, and a boat will be there to “hook” you in. Jumpers say the walk back to the top is worse than the jump. A tip: “Don’t look down – just do it!”
The central part of the North Island is a “hot-bed” of thermal activity; there are steam-spewing fumaroles. At Wai-O-Tau near Rotorua, I wandered around a thermal wonderland of collapsed volcanic craters, boiling mud pools, steaming lakes, and fumaroles. Adding to the unworldly look are the hues of red, yellow, orange and purple edging some of the formations, which is caused by the presence of sulfur, antimony, iron oxide and other elements. It is a bit unnerving to hear the earth gurgle and bubble so near the walkways. Geothermal energy is harnessed to provide five percent of New Zealand’s electricity.
Don’t miss the Waitomo Cave, which at first seems like a typical cave with the usual stalactites and stalagmites. Then visitors board a boat on the underground river – in the dark. And above is a vast Milky Way of blue-green lights from the thousands of glowworms. The glowworm, really a fly larva, produces the light to attract a dinner of insects in its sticky web. Nearby is the do-not-miss Woodlyn Park farm with its “show-stopper” one-man Pioneer Show that relates the history of New Zealand’s settlers with a mix of humor, audience participation, and farm animals that perform on cue. The back of the stage is open to the hilly pasture, where the “header” chases the sheep down the pasture onto the stage. Someone from the audience volunteers to help shear one of the sheep the old fashioned way with a hand-cranked clippers. The farm also has unique accommodations – an airplane remodeled into a modern two-room “motel” with kitchenette. Airplane buffs can choose the bed directly behind the cockpit, watch a spectacular sunset, before dozing off.
The Maori, the pre-European settlers of New Zealand, celebrate their culture with a show followed by a hangi. At the entrance of the Maori ancestral house the tattooed-faced warriors, after a series of challenges, determine if the dinner guests are friendly. If so, they are invited to enter. There are speeches of welcome and the traditional Maori greeting – hongi – a handshake followed by touching noses. The performance of traditional songs and dances is followed by a hangi – a feast steamed over red-hot rocks for three hours. After dinner each foreign national group was asked to sing one of their national songs.

The Kiwi expression, “Too right,” describes beautiful, tourist-friendly New Zealand where the sights are astounding and the activities varied.