Bangkok

On our tours to Vietnam and Cambodia, we often fly via the airport in Bangkok. Here is what until recently I saw of Bangkok:

Yes, there are lovely shops.

But we never actually saw Bangkok.

This time was different. We took advantage of our opportunity to remain in Thailand for a period of time after the tour. Having anticipated a stressful tour, we were sure that we would need the time to recover. However, we had such a wonderful group of people that despite all of the work we did, we felt energized and elated rather than tired!

So, we arrived in Thailand with anticipation… and we were not disappointed.

We arrived late at night and didn’t check into the hotel until after midnight, so the next morning, we got a fairly late start. Four of our travelers were at the hotel with us because they were unable to be accommodated on flight to Israel and would instead be spending one day in Bangkok. Two wanted to go shopping and the other two, who had been in Bangkok before, were our guides for the day!

Our hotel was on the Chao Phraya River. From our hotel to the station of the water bus, our hotel provided a free boat ride that left fairly frequently. Once on the water, we got to see a glimpse of Bangkok.

Had we been on a guided tour, we would have heard about the population, history, and current status (political, economic, and social). Instead, we looked around and enjoyed the sights.

It was enormously relaxing to just sit on the boat and watch the city go by.

Next time: Buddha was relaxing too!

Coming attractions…

You can read a little about out recent tour to Vietnam and Cambodia here. Once I catch my breath, I will be writing a bit more about the tour and also about our own personal trip to Bangkok. Stay tuned for some awesome pictures, one of which answers a very important fashion question.

Until then, how about some pictures of one of my favorite sights, a rice field! This one is in the village of Pho, not far from Bac Ha.

Jerusalem!

Usually I write about exotic places far from my home. But, in fact, one half hour from my home is a city that defies comparison. It has been the Jewish capital for over 3000 years, and wherever Jews have lived, when they prayed they turned toward Jerusalem. In the Galapagos Islands, we consulted with our compass so that we could face Jerusalem in prayer. In China and Vietnam, we turned toward the west, in the direction of Jerusalem.

Mount Zion, Jerusalem

About a year ago when I was in South America, some of the people on my tour were talking about the magnificent time they had when they went to see the opera Nabucco at Masada. So, when I heard that this year they were performing Aida at Masada, I immediately tried to buy tickets. Unfortunately, because the opera started late in the evening, a hotel stay had to be part of the package and because people were coming from all over the world to see the opera, the tickets were expensive and the hotels could charge whatever they wanted. We realized that we could travel to Europe on two 5 day jaunts for the price of one night at the opera!

Disappointed, I looked to see if Aida was being presented in Jerusalem. It was not.

A couple of weeks ago I received an email with this tempting offer: a night in a hotel in Jerusalem and two tickets to the Verdi opera, Jerusalem. The hotel was a newly renovated boutique hotel located within easy walking distance of the Sultan’s Pool Amphitheater, the venue of the opera, which lies at the base of the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. How could I resist? Included were special gifts like chocolates and a bottle of wine, and a magnificent view from the large balcony overlooking the Old City.

We took the opportunity to visit the Begin Center, a wonderfully designed facility that teaches about the life and legacy of Menachem Begin, Israel’s sixth prime minister and the man who was the first to make peace with an Arab country, Egypt.

Entrance to the Begin Center


Begin’s life was fascinating. He loved his land and his people. Begin was unaffected and humble. He was a man of principle. His first act as Prime Minister was to order the rescue of 200 Vietnamese refugees who had requested asylum. He wrote his own speeches.

Begin's handwritten remarks for the ceremony on the White House Lawn

After an impressive visit to the Begin Center, we made our way to the Old City.

Up the steps to Mount Zion

We climbed up to Mount Zion, a place we’ve been many times, but never fails to entrance me. We walked toward the Jewish Quarter. We found it bustling with people. The city is full of tourists from everywhere in the world, and everyone was having a great time. There are now numerous stores and restaurants in the Jewish Quarter, but our destination was the Hurva Synagogue. The history of the synagogue is here. Destroyed in 1948 when the Arabs captured the Old City and murdered some Jews and exiled the rest, the rubble lay waiting for redemption. In 1967, with the reunification of Jerusalem, a decision needed to be made about what to do with all of the destroyed buildings. Eventually, only an arch was erected at the ruins of the Hurva and it stood as a symbol of what had been there. Fortunately, the end of the story is a happy one. A year ago full reconstruction of the synagogue was completed, and we were able to see it in all of its glory last Monday. It was particularly then since they were going to be dedicating a sefer torah that night and the next night was shavuot. The synagogue was festooned with flowers.

After dinner, we descended Mount Zion and went back to the hotel to get ready for the opera.

Walking down from Mount Zion

. The Israeli orchestra and soloists were accompanied by a choir from Romania. There were thousands of people in attendance. The performance was magnificent. The setting, exquisite. We walked from the performance back to our hotel, looking back at the city walls. The atmosphere was magical.

As Jerusalem mayor, Nir Barkat, said to the audience, “Next year in Jerusalem!”

Vietnam & Cambodia this August!!

We are very excited about our upcoming tour of Vietnam and Cambodia. Traveling to this magnificent part of the world is a treat to the senses from the beautiful sights to the lovely music and the amazing landscapes. All this and kosher too!!!

You can find our itinerary here

and read about the tour here and here

Vietnam and Cambodia are photographers’ paradises. I am including just a few more photos, but I could have easily added another 50. Please come and join us on this fantastic tour!

My email is drsavta@gmail.com

Inside the grounds of the Temple of Literature


Traffic in downtown Hanoi


Walking beside rice terraces in the north



Girls talking in the market

Malta, Part 5

Shabbat descended on Malta. We had had our frozen meals heated in the microwave just before I lit the candles and my husband brought them up to our room. We enjoyed a restful evening. We got up early in the morning and made our way to the synagogue.

Malta has a small Jewish community. There is one family that is primarily involved in keeping the synagogue going. Mr. Avraham Ohayon is the president of the congregation and one of his sons, Reuben, serves as the shaliach tzibor. Their extended family comprises a good portion of the Malta Jewish community. There are about 80-100 Jews in Malta.

We walked along the seaside and then veered to the right and a couple of blocks later, the synagogue was on the left. The synagogue is located in an apartment building. There is no indication on the outside of the building that there is a synagogue inside. We worried that we wouldn’t be able to get in because without a key, one would have to buzz to enter. That is one of the reasons we made sure to come early. As it happened, just as we got to the building, a woman was going into it via the front door and we followed her in. We walked up to the apartment which was located on the first floor above ground level. We knocked on the door, but no one else had arrived yet.

After a few minutes, Mr. Reuben Ohayon and some other people arrived. The apartment in which the synagogue is located is very large and the area was very pleasantly planned. The men’s section was long and thin with the ark at one end and the reader’s desk in the center. The men’s chairs were located on either long side of the room facing the center. The women’s section was at the back separated by a tasteful curtain. The room used for the kiddush was off to the side.

The service started at about 10 a.m. and the service followed the Ashkenazi (European) ritual even though the majority of Maltese Jews originally lived in northern Africa. There were two sifrei torah, one Sefardi and one Ashkenazi. About 25 men and about 10 women showed up as well as a number of children including the famous quadruplets, two boys and two girls who are now in their teens. During the torah service, the wimple (the long piece of fabric that is wrapped around the torah as is done in German synagogues) was given to the women to coil and it was passed from one woman to another and each held it and said a prayer. After the torah service, they said a prayer for the government of Malta, just as Jews in every land pray for the well-being of their government. Then they said a prayer for the members of the Israel Defense Forces. The service was very beautiful and very moving.

After the service, the very warm, welcoming congregation gathered for a lovely kiddush serving products mostly imported from Israel. A mixture of English, Maltese, and Hebrew was spoken. It was lovely meeting these people and with the increased number of Israelis visiting Malta these days, perhaps the community will gain strength.

Jews visiting Malta over shabbat should take advantage of the opportunity to visit the synagogue and meet this community. Since hotels are scattered throughout Malta, it would be a very good idea to locate the synagogue on a map and then find a hotel that is nearby. The synagogue is on Enrico Mizzi Street which appears on the map as Enrico Street in Ta’Xbiex. As a basis of judging distance, we stayed at the Park Hotel in Sliema and the walk was between 30 and 40 minutes.

Enjoy Malta, and when you get to the synagogue, be sure to give the people there my warmest regards!

Malta, Part 4

The next day was a Friday and since we had swung far afield the previous two days, we left Friday for Valletta. Valletta is Malta’s largest city and also its capital. We had once before been to Valletta and were excited about having the time to walk through the quaint older part of the city.

We took one of Malta’s very famous buses to the city. Malta has a collection of buses from everywhere they drive on the left side of the street. All of the buses are painted the same colors and for years, they have been a favorite feature of Malta visits. As of July 3 this year, the old buses will be retired and a new modern transportation system will be implemented. So, we were happy to have the opportunity to ride an old Malta bus while they still are in service.



While walking in the pedestrian mall, we stumbled upon an archaeological museum. My husband suggested that we go and see it, and I reluctantly agreed. Since I am pretty ignorant in the field of archaeology, I don’t really enjoy seeing ancient artifacts, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that they had an exhibit of Alphonse Mucha’s work at the museum. It was a wonderful exhibit that included a documentary on his life. It was just beautiful. After seeing that exhibit, my husband spent a good deal of time in the regular exhibit and I spent a good deal of time in the gift shop. Unfortunately, there was nothing there that tempted me.

The center of town is lovely and we sat down nearby to have the lunch we had packed. Then we got up and walked on further. We came to a shop that was selling cosmetic products from the Dead Sea, apparently relabeled for sale in other countries. The product was described as from “The Holy Land, Israel.” The man selling the items was, of course, Israeli.



We passed by the seat of government and watched the guards walking their posts. We enjoyed seeing the inscriptions on the wall that were taken from letters received in Malta during World War II. Malta withstood the war with honor.

What makes Malta so picturesque is that the sea seems to be everywhere.

We walked along another street and bought some huge delicious bananas and we heard someone playing some well-known Israeli songs on a guitar. It seemed appropriate for a Friday afternoon!
We were almost feeling completely free of the worries of the day when we were reminded that there are lots of problems in the world still to be solved.

It reads “Association of Libyans, resident in Malta”

We returned to our hotel happy and relaxed and awaited our shabbat adventure!

Malta, Part 3

We were lucky enough to buy this package to Malta for a low price. As with all tours that are sold in this manner, once we arrived in Malta we were met by a representative who pointed us in the direction of our ground transportation. Once on the van or bus, a company representative outlined which tours and activities we could purchase, if desired. Our tour of the island of Malta that we took on our second day was one of the offerings. This day we also took a tour, this time to Gozo.

It was another bright, sunny day with mild temperatures. We boarded the bus and went on to gather other Israelis who had also purchased this tour from their hotels which were scattered along the northern coast of the island. Among the Israelis were a number of Israeli Arabs who were part of the group. Characterizations of Israelis as racist are not only offensive, but untrue. What Israelis don’t like is people who want to kill us. Fellow travelers out to have a good time were just that, fellow travelers.

We reached the northwesternmost point of Malta and waited for a ferry to take us to Gozo, the second in size of Malta’s three islands.

Our tour took us to Calypso Cave first. What a disappointment! It turned out that it was a small cave which one entered and exited from the same place. Most of us stayed above ground and enjoyed the beautiful view of the sea and the flowers that were blooming in the area.


I especially loved this beautiful wild plant.

We proceeded to Victoria, the largest city on the island. The entire island has a population of something over 40,000, so even the big city was not so big. This day, March 31, was Freedom Day, the anniversary of the withdrawal of British troops and the Royal Navy from Malta in 1979. The central square of the town was filled with people who were listening to a performance by the police band and several very talented singers who played and sang songs that surprisingly, we were familiar with.

Here is what the rest of the street looked like.

We walked up to the top of the hill for a very beautiful view.

Of course the most prominent feature of the landscape was the church in the distance.

When we left there we went via Fontana where there was a factory that sold sweaters and lace items to the beautiful harbor of Xlendi (pronounced “Shlendi”). It was a glorious day with bright sunshine and people sat outdoors eating lunch. We had, of course, packed our lunches and so we bought drinks and walked along the water’s edge.

We were happy to see one of the picturesque boats that we had seen the day before.

It was a beautiful day.

My husband and I always enjoy traveling and we enjoy seeing new places. So, for us, it was a great day. In terms of a satisfying tour, not so much. It lacked information about the history and culture of the area. While we were walking along the water’s edge in Xlendi, the rest of the people from our bus were in a crowded restaurant waiting for service because our guide, who admittedly was brand new in Malta, advised them that that was the place to eat lunch if they wanted a great meal. When our departure time didn’t leave them any time to even walk to the water’s edge to see the inlet, people were annoyed.

But it was a beautiful, relaxing day filled with lovely sights and new experiences. All too soon, we returned to the ferry dock and left Gozo.

Malta, part 2

Having landed in Malta after a sleepless night, our first night’s sleep at our hotel was particularly long and satisfying.

By nine in the morning of our second day we were outside on the main street where we waited for the bus to pick us up for a tour of the island. Our first stop was at a craft village where they manufactured a number of different craft items including filigree objects, mostly in silver, pottery, and very attractive decorative glass items.
Our next stop was in the town of Mosta which is proud of having the third largest unsupported dome in the world. We visited the church there which is very impressive from the outside.

and just as impressive inside. The church was the site of a miracle. During World War II, a Nazi plane passed over the church and dropped three bombs. Two bounced off the outside of the dome. The third came through the roof into the church when 300 people were present. The bomb did not explode and no one was hurt. For this reason, this church is a popular place for the people of Malta to pray. After all, if the church was capable of this miracle, then why not others?
In this picture, on the right hand side, just below the center, you can see where the dome was repaired.

Our next stop was Mdina, pronounced em-Dina. Mdina is a walled city and it is well preserved. Walking through Mdina was really lovely, and from one area there is a most beautiful view of the island.



The treat was seeing the dome of the church in Mosta from far in the distance, as we did here.
Of course, if one did not want to walk through the streets of Mdina, one could hire a friendly horse to help out.

or one could just start up a conversation with him.

From there we went to see the Blue Grotto. First we got on a boat.

Then, once on the water, we saw the caves.

Our boat darted into and out of the series of caves, but the most astounding part of the tour was when we saw the neon blue water.

The water actually looked as if it were lit from below. The water was very clear. Even at a depth of 10 meters, one could see the bottom of the sea.

After that, we had our last stop of the day. It was a fishing town called Marsaxlokk (pronounced Marsa-shlock). It was very picturesque, from the boats

to the fishermen themselves, fixing their nets.

It was a beautiful, full day!

Tomorrow: Gozo!

Malta, part 1

One nice side benefit of living in Israel is that there are so many foreign countries within only 3 or 4 hours flight distance. Israelis love to travel. We often notice that in the most far-flung places we are likely to find Israelis. In fact, although there are only 7.5 million Israelis, we are far more likely to see Israelis than Americans when we travel abroad, whether it’s in Europe or Asia or South America.

Israeli travel agencies offer tour deals that are nothing short of amazing. If one wants a tour for 3 or 4 nights, one can find very inexpensive tours to a large number of European locations, frequently for under $400, many times under $300, which includes airfare, transfers, and hotels. We have traveled on these sort of deals to Crete, to Varna (Bulgaria), to Rhodes, and now, to Malta.

Malta is a very small country. Even compared to Israel, Malta is tiny. Malta occupies about 316 square kilometers or 121 square miles. Israel is over 20,000 square kilometers or over 8000 square miles! Malta is an archipelago which is located in the Mediterranean 93 kilometers south of Sicily. It is made up of three islands and several outcroppings. The largest island is named Malta and the second is Gozo. The third, Comino, is much smaller than the other two and is almost unoccupied. There are a couple of farmers who live there during the year and in the summer, there is a hotel which is open to tourists. People visit Comino to take hikes through its unspoiled countryside. The population of Malta is about 410,000.

Malta has numerous natural harbors and has many beaches. People there speak Maltese, a combination of Arabic, Italian, French, and other languages, including Hebrew. However, Malta has two official languages with the second being English. Maltese children all begin learning English as soon as they enter school. All signs are in English. The bookstores there are filled with English books. Virtually everyone on the island speaks English. That makes it a wonderful place for English speakers to visit. The British, in particular, enjoy visiting Malta for its beautiful landscapes and feel at home with the traffic following British road rules, driving on the left.

We arrived at the airport in Israel at about 3 a.m. for our flight. The airport was packed. It appeared that several groups of Israeli students had just returned from trips, probably to Poland, and they were very enthusiastic, dancing and joyful. It was a great way to begin our holiday!

When we finally arrived in Malta, we were treated to almost perfect weather which lasted during our entire visit except for one cloudburst that occurred while we were indoors for a few minutes.

Once we were settled into our hotel in a small city called Sliema, we decided to go exploring. Both of us like just walking through the streets of new places and this walk was mostly along the sea side, so it was beautiful and relaxing.

We knew that there was a small Jewish community in Malta, and so we made contact with the community leader who told me where the synagogue was located and when services were. We chose a hotel within walking distance, but we were not going to rely on fate to walk there in shabbat morning without having walked the route once with a map.

It took us about 45 minutes to find the building where the synagogue was located. The hardest part was finding the right building once we were within a block of it. There was not an address, only the name of the building. This seems to be the Maltese way since everywhere we saw signs on buildings with their names. Here are two examples of some of the nicer homes we saw. These homes had street numbers too. Unfortunately, the building that the synagogue occupied did not.


We tried asking people who lived within a block of it where the building was. No one knew. Finally, my husband said that we’d been told it was across from the old bowling alley. Someone pointed us in the right direction. Here is the building from down the block.

and here is the building up close.

Yes, its only address is “Florida Mansions.”

The synagogue is in an apartment converted for use as a synagogue. It is actually very nice. Unfortunately, I have no pictures, as we were not able to go inside then and the only time we were there was shabbat. But I will describe it when I talk about our shabbat in Malta.

We walked back to the hotel where we sat and waited for our dinners to be delivered. There is a man in Malta who supplies kosher meals to travelers. They are not inexpensive, but it was very nice being able to eat real warm meals. We ordered meals for all four dinners to be delivered frozen to our hotel at the same time since there was a 5 Euro delivery charge. We put the meals in their sealed plastic containers into our thermal bag, and the hotel stored them in the freezer and then heated them for us, sealed, in their microwave, each evening.

We looked forward to the next day: a tour of the island of Malta. Join us!

Ah, Vietnam

I love traveling. One of my favorite places is Vietnam. I know that I have written in detail about one of our tours, but there is so much more to say. One of the things that makes traveling particularly pleasurable is the learning aspect. Different cultures really are different. The culture of Vietnam is very special. It has all of the modesty and beauty of the Orient combined with French influence. Vietnam has lived through difficult times, but the people are amazingly resilient. And, there are surprises around every corner.

For example, in the lobby of our hotel we saw a lovely arrangement of flowers. It was only as I looked a little more carefully that I saw that among the flowers there were cabbages!

Centerpiece in lobby at Rex Hotel, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Leaving the hotel that morning, we came upon the following scene.

Some people thought that we were seeing a parade. There were people in white uniforms who were playing music and there was what looked like a float at the front.

But people were fascinated when we told them that what we were seeing was a funeral. A dignified funeral in Vietnam consists of a parade with music, mourners often wearing cheesecloth over their clothes or faces walking along the route, and an intricately decorated hearse.

We were on our way to the Mekong delta. On the way we stopped at a rest stop. There we encountered another surprise- a beautiful garden.

This garden was not adjacent to the rest stop. It was the rest stop. There were outdoor pavilions where people can eat and a beautiful, elegant shop with reasonable prices as well as clean bathrooms (Western style.)

The garden with a pavilion in the background

Our visit to the Mekong Delta was very lovely. We ended the visit with a delightful boat ride back to our bus.

This is the life!

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