Friday, May 30, 2008

Asia's Recent Tragedies: Reflections, Comparisons, and How YOU Can Help

Jerry and I have just returned from a trip to Asia. It’s always interesting to us to get local news from within the country and compare it to how it is interpreted and presented in the U.S. While we were there two devastating natural disasters occurred. On May 2nd, a Cyclone Nargis in Burma killed as many as an estimated 127,990 people, according to a recent tally by the International Red Cross and another 56,000 are missing. The death toll is expected to rise further, as the situation in remote areas becomes clear. In Irrawaddy's Labutta township, 75% of buildings collapsed and 20% had their roofs ripped off.

To contrast the magnitude with that of one in our own country, two years ago, on August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the US Gulf Coast. The official death toll from the storm stands at 1,836, with many more lives never accounted for, and damages sustained in the hundreds of billions of dollars. More than a million people were displaced, many never returning to their homes to this day. Still, this death toll is 10% of that suffered in Burma.

Just 10 days later, on the afternoon of May 12, 2008, an earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale hit Sichuan Province, a mountainous region in Western China. By the next day, the death toll stood at 12,000, with another 18,000 still missing. Nearly 2,000 of the dead were students and teachers caught in schools that collapsed. To contrast the magnitude in terms of the 7.1 magnitude Loma Prieta Earthquake that occurred on October 17, 1989 at 5:04 p.m., that quake killed 62 people throughout Central California, injured 3757 and left more than 12,000 homeless, again, just a fraction of the human cost of the China quake.

These are two places we have been fortunate to visit in our travels never thinking about what the impact of such a disaster might be on people in these places where life is simple and without anything beyond basic necessities.

While we can somewhat imagine what the people in Burma and China are going through, the one difference in the future of the people suffering there as a result of these events is that it is unlikely that most ever will recover from these tragedies on a personal level. And many that were not killed in these natural disasters will die in the aftermath. The people in Chengdu who lost their children when the earthquake destroyed the schools lost their only child due to China’s one-child policy. And this being a relatively poor rural area, they probably also lost their homes. For now they are living in tent camps.
We saw the live news coverage of these tent camps that consist of row after row of cots covered by plastic sheeting “roofs” and no walls. While the Chinese government has been very responsive in the recovery effort, there is much to be done to find, identify and properly bury those killed in the quake and to clear away the amazing rubble that was once a small village and attempt to rebuild it.

The small family-owned businesses we deal with who are middle class by Chinese standards are sharing what they can by donating money to the relief effort. The Chinese government actually declared a 3-day period of mourning while we were there, and while people only stopped for 3 minutes of silence one of those days, it was a touching sign of honor and respect to those who are suffering and will be struggling to rebuild their simple lives in these rural villages.

The situation in Burma is quite different. The military junta that controls the government was totally unresponsive for days after the cyclone and even then was obviously unprepared to deal with a disaster of this magnitude. And to make matters worse, they were uncooperative with countries and aid agencies who attempted to assist in the recovery effort in fact thwarting their efforts by delaying approval of entry visas and insisting that the Burmese military be in charge of and oversee their aid efforts…a task for which they obviously had no training.

Again, we watched live newscasts of dead human and animal bodies floating on the banks of the delta at the edge of the devastation with no aid in sight. You can imagine the potential for disease (cholera and dengue fever) this alone creates. To make matters worse, the delta is one of the most fertile areas of the country and just before the cyclone farmers were ready to see their crops. The storm not only washed away much of the farm land, but the farm land that survived, turned into swamp and the seeds were soaked then cooked by the sun and are now sprouting. We saw an interview of a farmer who said that these seedlings cannot be planted so will become animal feed, or potentially human food as there is no food aid, no shelter and no fresh water being delivered to these remote areas. One farmer I saw interviewed by a BBC reporter who had crossed into the country illegally to get information said, “We will die here, and not from the cyclone, but from starvation. We have no food and no water and no way to get it.”

To say we have so much, and they have so little is both trite and true. What they do have that we have experienced in meeting people all over Asia and particularly in primitive rural villages, is the beauty of living a very simple life. For the most part, life in these villages is about simply doing what it takes to sustain life -- whether that is farming their land, selling what they grow at the local market or what they make such as hand woven baskets, or tin trays, etc. They own almost nothing other than that which they need -- a mat to sleep on, a pot or two to cook with, a few plates, cups and utensils and a few items of clothing.

So what happens when all the very little they had to begin with is now gone, and in some cases their family is also gone? Is there some way we can share our good fortune with these people in a way that a very little will make a big difference? Yes, there is. We have identified 2 organizations to whom we are donating 10% of our profit for the month of June and ask that you consider a small donation as well.

Late last year we had planned a presentation by the Executive Direction of the Foundation for the People of Burma to speak at Harmonique Home but that event was postponed. Now this person is on her way to Southeast Asia to do what she can in conjunction with similar local organizations to help the survivors of this disaster rebuild their lives. You can donate directly to this organization plus if you purchase anything at either Harmonique Home or Harmonique Garden in June, 10% of the sale of Burmese products will be donated to their efforts.

While we have not specifically showcased items from Sichuan province in the store, many of the Miao tribal textiles are from this region, but everything in Harmonique from China is purchased by us directly from small family businesses who depend on our interest in their culture to sustain their way of life. Harmonique will also be donating 10% of sales of all furniture and home décor items from China to Mercy Corps China Earthquake Relief Fund and welcome your direct donations to this organization or to it through your purchases.

Jerry and I believe it is through developing one to one relationships with families and family business around the world and sharing their crafts with you we can make the world a more caring and understanding place. We are really all the same.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Saigon Hotel - Windsor Plaza

This hotel looks good in the photos, but it's a 3-star Asian style hotel that will disappoint most Western visitors. First of all...ONLY stay in District 1 if you want to be within walking distance of the Saigon action, shops, etc. This hotel is 20 min. ride (free in nice hotel shuttle) in District 5.

I think this hotel is meant for Asian business people. We booked the "executive floor" at $119++ and it was a high floor, but if you have stayed in other executive floors, this will not compete. When we arrived, the very friendly hotel staff (a big plus for this hotel) requested we wait and enjoy food at the free 24/7 buffet. It was very nice to relax and have a cup of tea and some sweets.

The room was as shown in the website photos...sort of. Tile floors and a plastic shower were a surprise when a "granite" bathroom (the sink counter is granite) was described...but it is a try. The biggest problem is not so much the hotel as the guests. When we returned to the Executive Floor Suite for an evening cocktail, the room was overtaken by a loud businessman carrying on a yelling match with his colleague. This went on for 20 minutes with no intervention from management who could easily have moved their "meeting" to a private room. It was completely distracting not only to us, but to the very polite young family sharing the table next to us...just trying to relax at the end of the day.

Dinner in the hotel's Chinese restaurant was very pleasant (except for the smoking) and well priced. But unfortunately, the walls in this hotel are so thin that upon return to our room, the next door neighbor's TV was so loud that I could have left the sound off on ours and heard everything perfectly.

I guess if you are trying to save a few bucks this is a good place to stay, but if you are going to spend any quality time inside the hotel, try another facility. If you are used to 5-star accomodations in big cities in Thailand and expecting the same in Saigon or Hanoi...think again. For some reason I have yet to figure out, the same hotels here are much more expensive and have a lower level of quality and service. But then are not here for the hotel, right?

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Changmai: Some Things Never Change

I don’t know how many times we have visited Chiangmai Thailand, but this is for sure our something-teenth visit, starting back in 1991. One way to count is that the hotel we have found to be the most appropriate for us when here on business is now the Holiday Inn. Last year it was a Sheraton, which—believe it or not—was an improved version of the former Westin—and for at least 10 years before that it was…yup, a Sheraton.

The new management is finally updating what inexplicably every hotel finds to be most important, the lobby. Huh? This is one of a traveler’s greatest mysteries…the big lobby renovation of a tired hotel. Why, would you invest a big chunk of your investment in a new property in the lobby when your guests only pass through there twice a day on their way to what they really are paying for, their 25-year old guest room? I have never understood this. Is the corporate guy thinking, “they will overlook the dated design of the guestroom if we just spruce up the lobby, put in some new plants, hire a new band for the bar, and get the staff new uniforms”? Whose corporate mind works like that?

Anyway, the dated but spacious rooms here have baby blue wallpaper, art-free walls, 1960’s designed ergonomics including a strange scarcity of electrical outlets (most of which turn off with the lights, so don’t try recharging your laptop or phone overnight), and baby blue tiled baths that have literally never changed since our first visit…not even the wastebaskets are new. It’s kind of like going home to visit grandma…the furniture never moves, the wall color never changes, and the old fashioned décor still performs its basic function---so why change it? In fact, I’ve gotten so used to the rooms here at the “West-Sher-aday” (which, by the way are all identical in this hotel no matter if you request Superior or Deluxe—unless you prefer a North over a South facing room). I have the furniture rearranged to accommodate my routine before the bellman is out the door with his 200 Baht tip. I move the desk close enough to the TV and the single outlet that doesn’t go off with the lights to plug in my laptop, move the coffee table against the wall where I set up the photography backdrop for my husband to photograph the day’s purchases for the website, and slide the lonely one-person bench next to the desk for the little suitcase full of trip reference materials that I can never do without but for the most part don’t use much. Then I write myself a note to unplug the cell phone and plug in the laptop when I leave for the day as they share the only outlet that isn’t controlled by the room’s energy-saving master switch.

So why do we continue to return to this hotel with the changing facade? Well, we’ve tried to replace it. There are 5-star properties here, the Oriental, the Four Seasons, and the Chedi. All have the usual amenities that go with their stars, and all except the Chedi are miles away from the action…no make that ANY action...and miles from the charming walled Chiangmai city. They are also too expensive for a growing company’s business to justify with prices ranging from $350-1,000 per night.

OK, then why not go really budget, stay at a “Guest House” and get a real feeling for life Thai-style? Unfortunately, this is a business trip in a beautiful place, and although we are blessed to be traveling here for our business and not to Des Moines or Fresno, (no offense meant to those fine U.S. cities), we need business services and comfort, most importantly a reliable internet connection and a comfortable sleeping accommodation after a 12-hour day in 95° tropical heat. Most guest houses are equivalent to the European style bed and breakfast. They are family run…and sometimes part of a family home or compound. The rooms are tiny and spartan and sometimes without aircon. There is no internet connection or business center, no down duvet or extra pillows and no daily maid service. But, on a budget you do trade those things for wonderful Thai hospitality and a taste of a simple life most American’s have either given up or never experienced.

At one point we searched for something new in the middle ground, and found very interesting hotels. All are priced at about $120-150/night and fit into the 4-star category by U.S. standards. The first is the hip D-2 hotel right in the heart of the after-dark action, the Night Market. This too cool, modern reno of a former 60’s no-name hotel is great if you long for Manhattan cool in the heart of an ancient city. Trendy orange décor, high tech gadgetry everywhere, and youthful friendly staff make this an option.

The Ratchamanka within the old city walls is a peaceful boutique hotel that provides a middle ground blend of Thai style and modern conveniences. The Lana architecture of the building with its peaceful courtyard, secluded lap pool and library/business center (2 computers with internet access) almost make it, and for convenience this hotel is well situated.

The third is the Bann Tazala, located off the beaten path on the outskirts of town and not within walking distance to anything interesting. It too falls into the boutique category with under 20 rooms decorated in high quality Lana style with all the upgraded amenities including flat screen TV and DVD, a big soaking tub and separate shower, ample closet space and in-room internet connection. There is also a stellar on-site restaurant where breakfast is served and a romantic dinner can be enjoyed alfresco. There are only 2 things that keep us from adopting this one as our Chiangmai home, the inconvenient location and the incredibly unbelievably annoying and uncontrollable neighborhood roosters that begin their call of the wild at about 4:00 am. Sounds like a big nothing, but unless you grew up on a chicken farm, this is not nothing…it’s a sleep eliminator. Unfortunately, although management even provides earplugs, this is a big problem if you are trying to get much needed sleep to be able to work. ( See other blog entry about this hotel specifically).

So, as a small growing company with a need to keep the hotel and food expenses to a minimum without sacrificing these basics, we keep returning to West-Sher-aday, which in its ho-hum ness does fit all our needs. The room is spacious, the bathroom is clean and in working order, the aircon is quiet and controllable, there is an in-room safe, a business center if you need to make a photocopy, and the big buffet breakfast (which is often our only meal of the day) is included in the price. Oh yes, the price…an unbeatable $77 including breakfast.

Oh, there is one thing the new Holiday Inn face on the West-Sher-aday has taken away that served as evening entertainment on all our previous visits…the Kashmiri silk carpet sales outlet in the lobby. This fascinating operation was renamed by us “The Spiders”. The friendly and incredibly persistent Kashmiri carpet salesmen (the Spiders) would carefully approach each Fly (unsuspecting and jet-lagged hotel guest) with the opener, “May I please show you my art? (Spider words for handmade silk carpets). If the Fly even hesitated or politely smiled, the web began to tighten. A second Spider would magically appear from behind the screen to assist by quickly unfurling each carpet with a graceful bow followed by a finishing SNAP as the rug was spread in front of the Fly. Then, with predictable aplomb, the assistant Fly would quickly spin the rug around 180” to show the Fly the difference between the light and dark side of the carpet. And finally the Spider’s closer was to show how the silk masterpiece (and truly these rugs are incredibly beautiful works of handmade art) could be easily folded into a parcel that one could easily carry on their journey home…no waiting, no shipping costs…just more stuff to schlep along through security onto the plane. The entire web of salesmanship was so carefully practiced and timed that Jerry and I used to anticipate each move as it was executed on the unsuspecting Fly. I believe only once did we ever see a Fly actually get caught and eaten reluctantly proffering his Visa card for the doormat size specimen that is the last resort of the Spider before the Fly wriggles out of his sticky trap. But this free show was a priceless reminder that we had returned to our Chiangmai home away from home…and now, sadly it’s gone from the new West-Sher-aday. But you know how Spiders are…they have a way of showing up in your house when you least expect them….

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Great "Eats" in Beijing

Some of our favorite “eats” in Beijing.

Beijing is one of my favorite Chinese cities. It reminds me of Chicago for a number of reasons…but mainly because it shares basically the same climate….COLD winters and hot sweaty summers, but also the beautiful wide boulevards and lovely parks. Beijing is now sprawling, and changing so fast we can’t keep up even though we visit 2-3 times a year. There are cranes operating 24/7 and the lights of the new and expanding freeways are a sign of the ongoing changes and preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games.

It’s been a while since we had time to be “tourists” in Beijing, but here are some of our favorite places and especially, some places to eat well.

We have eaten in several good dumpling houses on boulevard Chang An – the big 6 lane boulevard. This is just outside the Grand Hyatt hotel, and FULL of locals shopping day and night. Be careful in this area crossing the streets…even if they are controlled with stop lights. Cross carefully—pedestrians are targets! We love a restaurant called simply “ Dumpling House”. The atmosphere is San Francisco Chinatown. Bright fluorescent lights, cheap tables and little round stools for chairs. People crowded around eating food they bought there or brought in…go figure. When we arrive the place is always packed, and the custom is to just stand behind someone WHILE they finish their dumplings so you can quickly take over their table when they leave. OFTEN people will get up and give up their table for us when we arrive…they INSIST, and sometimes leave behind half of their food. We are usually the only Americano’s in the place.

Go hungry. There are 6 dumplings to an order. Jerry and I can easily eat 5 orders…along with 2 beers which are GIANT. The bill for that order is about $5…total, not $5/person. You will be the only white folk here, but people will be incredibly friendly. One other custom. If you want the same morning breath that you will encounter with the locals, enjoy some of the raw garlic provided in a dish at your table along with your dumplings. Warning, take your own tissues or hand wipes. Napkins consist of a little square of T.P., so you might want to have your own. No tipping is allowed—it goes to the owner and is frowned upon. Oh, one other thing. You pay for your meal at the time you place your order. The first time we were here, we didn’t understand why the waitress was just standing over us after we placed our order…it became apparent quickly! We eat only vegetarian, and all the veggie ones there are YUMMY. They come steaming hot out of the boiling water…no frying done here.

After dinner the boulevard outside has something interesting going on. There are food vendors all along the street outside cooking up fresh food of all form. Kebabs, mostly and there are some pretty unusual selections, and some that are not distinguishable and they are cooked to order right there after you make your selection. It’s fun to just walk along and see what’s happening. If the weather is nice the place will be crowded and very interesting people watching.

If you get a craving, there is an excellent sushi bar in the Oriental Plaza shopping mall under the Hyatt Hotel. There is also a big western style grocery store. The breakfast in this hotel, as in most of the western hotels is amazing. And, strangely enough, so is the Italian restaurant here! We’ve been here so often that we do sometimes eat the not-so-local offerings. Another good Chinese restaurant is Huajia restaurant. They have 3 locations

Other Beijing musts…

Try to stay as long as you can and walk as far up as you have time on the Great Wall. It’s just so amazing. The standards “tours” kind of rush you in and out with just and hour or maybe two to climb up the wall. I don’t think it’s long enough. Ask your hotel to pack you a lunch, take it along and sit down on the wall and enjoy your lunch and the most amazing scenery in the entire world. And believe it or not, your cell phone (if you brought yours) WILL work here. How is it that I can call my mother from the top of the Great Wall of China and get a perfect connection, but I can’t hear a word she’s saying from my home 2 miles from her house? Depending on which of the wall you enter, there are nice shops at the base of it that have some unusual stuff. Bargain hard!

The Summer Palace is a beautiful place. Be wary of people selling sweat shirts or t-shirts there. We had lots of fun with them, but one vendor who followed us for miles finally broke down our traveling companion Dave and sold him a shirt. After he ran off with Dave’s money, Dave realized that the vendor had given him change in Russian currency!

If someone suggests going to the “silk market” you can now say OK. Until last year I would have told you to run the other direction. The old outdoor market has been moved inside and someone has given a few lessons in the art of polite selling to the aggressive shop vendors. It’s still a bunch of cheap t-shirts, purses and so on…but some people can’t resist the bargaining and rock bottom prices. Look very carefully at anything you buy from purses, pashmina shawls, scarves, shoes, “Tommy Bahama” shirts etc. as some of the quality is very poor. This is one of the few places I worry about my wallet. The vendors actually reach out and grab your arm and try to drag you over to their stall. It’s also wall to wall people pushing and shoving—mostly Russian tourists, so just stay alert.

Have some real fun and go to the Beijing Flea Market (Panjianyuan). (We call it the dirt market.) It can be crowded too, but there is everything fun and interesting from old to new and it’s all sectioned off by product, so if you are not interested in ceramics, you can skip that isle…but don’t skip any of them! This is where you will find isles of art vendors also. It’s interesting. Be prepared to deal with lots of cigarette smoke there, even though it is outside. Remember to bargain hard – if they say 100 RMB, offer 20 with a smile and go from there! Don’t forget a big lightweight bag to drag home your prize purchases. Or if you do, there are vendors selling some cheap carry bags for $1. There isn’t anything there I would dare eat, so take along your emergency power bar or eat a hearty breakfast.

And, lastly, taxi’s here are incredibly cheap. Just be sure you have the business card from your hotel with the name in Chinese to show the driver!! Get extra’s at the concierge station. For some reason, they don’t recognize the Hyatt hotel or the Oriental Plaza shopping center as well as the other big ones. I think it is mainly a business hotel and business people are usually in cars with a driver, not taxis! And there is one thing Jerry and I have laughed about since our first trip. It happens when you get in the taxi and hand the driver your hotel card. They hold it in two hands and stare carefully at it—usually for a full minute. Then they turn it over to the English writing side, and stare at it again. Then they turn it back…and stare at it again, sometimes removing their eye glasses. And just when you think they are going to say “No…don’t understand”…they turn and say “OK…hit the meter, and you are off!”…go figure…

Have fun…it’s a wonderful place with amazing history and lots and lots to see and do. Don’t miss a thing!

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Great Hotel in Chiangmai Thailand!

If you want to avoid the crowds and tour buses and get a feeling of true Thai hospitality, I highly recommend this small boutique hotel. We have been traveling to Thailand for business for almost 20 years and are always looking for a place to feel pampered and welcomed at the end of a long (hot) day. If you are heading for Chiangmai for the night market and the crowds, stay in town. Although the hotel is about a 10 minute taxi ride into the city center, it is just across the road from the well know Mandarin Oriental hotel so there is variety if you have a long visit and want to walk to other places to eat or shop.

The hotel was just a year old when we arrived but felt like it was built in true Lanna style years ago. You are greeted by a bubbling turtle fountain in the courtyard, and a gentle greeting from one of the friendly staff members. Jaree, the hotel manager performed the check-in procedure, then escorted us to our Deluxe room.

The room was spacious and light filled and updated with all the appropriate furnishings necessary to either relax or work. For me a work desk and an Internet connection are a must, and both were provided in the room in addition to a computer in the library if you needed it. Our room also had a flat panel TV and DVD player (free movie selection in the library), a Jacuzzi tub big enough for two to relax comfortably, separate shower and commode. No detail was missed as far as international 5 star standards are concerned.

If you are require a gym or nearby place to take a morning run, this may not be the best hotel for you. There is a lovely lap pool, but no other facilities for exercise. Although the hotel is in a quiet neighborhood just off the main freeway, once you leave the street your morning run, you will be on a major highway with the accompanying traffic and pollution. Besides…unless you are out and back before 6 am, it’s too hot to jog!

There is one difficult noise issue, and that is the healthy neighborhood rooster population. It may (probably will) awaken you each morning, but the staff is happy to provide ear plugs if that will help. That’s one of the drawbacks of a rural hotel site, but after the first morning we were not bothered by it.

We would definitely stay at Bann Tazala again and recommend it highly!

We enjoyed dinner one evening in the dining room. My rack of lamb, and my husband's duck breast were executed to perfection. Service by the friendly staff was impeccable. We were glad to have a cooked to order breakfast instead of the usual buffet of breads and fruit.