Snorkeling Cruise on the Reggae Queen

The MV Reggae Queen. Image source: http://andamansnorkeldiscovery.com/

Three days and nights cruising the turquoise waters of the Andaman Sea off the coast of Thailand. A dream come true, right? Fun snorkeling, lovely laid-back times resting, reading, chatting on the sundeck, living in my swimsuit, not setting foot on land for the duration. The weather was perfect. I managed to dodge seasickness (I get motion sickness pretty easily). Saw masses of amazing fish and coral, a couple of turtles, and one shark. Visited uninhabited spots far off the coast where our little group of 15 was often alone. Watched the sun rise each morning over the ocean. Marveled at schools of small flying fish skipping across the water as we slipped through the calm water.

That is the side of Andaman Snorkel Discovery that makes it into the brochure and onto the website. Our experience was not exactly what you see in postcards, however.

We were picked up at our hotel in Khao Lak around 1:00 pm  and had a drive of several hours to the departure point, picking up other passengers along the way.

The first challenge was getting aboard. As we waited on the dock, I eyed the boat beside us. There was no gangway. Boarding required half-leaping from the side of the wharf over an open gap of water of several feet onto the boat’s thin metal railing, teetering precariously, then stepping to a life ring hanging on the side of the boat, and from there onto a ladder. I went first, and with the help of several crew, I managed, but it was a close thing and I noticed several of the other passengers looking askance at the proposed route.

Standard cabin.

We next checked out our cabin, which was clean and in good repair. It consisted of bunk beds: one wooden shelf built into the wall at chest height, the other “bed” directly on the floor underneath. The beds are reasonably long (says my six-foot companion) and wide (says wide me), but the mattresses are thin (2-inch), mainly useless. There are fans and the windows open to allow in cool breezes from the sea. The only good part about sleeping in the cabin was laying with my face next to the open window, just a short distance from the open water, watching the waves moving gently below and (craning my neck) the stars above. There is air-con in the cabins, but we didn’t use it, as we preferred the fresh air circulating.

Size-wise, the cabins are just big enough to stand next to the bed. Two people inside would have trouble getting changed at the same time. From my bunk, I could easily reach out and touch the wall on the far side of the cabin. The cabin has some useful hooks for hanging stuff out of the way and one small shelf built into a corner, but no ladder or steps for accessing the top bunk. I suppose that taller, younger, and/or spryer folk might use their arms to haul themselves up through sheer strength. I resorted to standing my small suitcase on end and, while my companion did his best to hold it steady, I clambered precariously up, and hurled myself desperately across the bunk like a salmon migrating up a rocky stream. Another passenger admitted to me that she had found an ingenious solution: she put her back to the bunk, braced her feet against the opposing wall, and “walked” up the wall. I did try this, but couldn’t quite get the knack of it.

We actually spent quite a lot of time sleeping on the top deck at night under the stars, as it was cooler, there were few biting bugs, and the bean bag “chairs” could be molded into more comfortable beds. Lying up there with the boat gently rocking, watching the full moon rise over Koh Bon island was magical.

There are four toilets (heads) on board, which seemed to be fine for 15 passengers. While not up to the standard of a decent hotel, the heads are about as good as one can expect on a small boat; I actually expected worse. The heads double as showers; however, I never used them as such, preferring to simply rinse down with fresh water on the aft deck after snorkeling and taking my frequent plunges into the salt sea and a generally piratical lifestyle as a convenient excuse not to shower.

One of the online reviews complained that the food was monotonous, but, really, it was standard Thai fare, with rice plus various veg, fish, and meat dishes that changed each day. It was not gourmet, but it was decent, hearty food and there was plenty of it. I considered it a miracle that the cook produced such meals from the miniscule galley.

More next week.

 

Calidris Reads: World Heritage Sites

In my house, there’s a book that never gathers dust on the shelf.

It’s in almost constant circulation: sometimes in residence on the back of the toilet,* sometimes resting on my bedside table, ready to furnish a quick read before I nod off, sometimes shared out loud in the living room as we discuss our destinations.

Currently, I count six Post-It notes protruding from its pages, marking sites of probable or possible future destinations. If you flipped through its pages, you would notice the handwritten checkmarks sprinkled sparsely throughout; my way of keeping track of which sites I’ve visited, from Dinosaur Provincial Park in Canada to the Fossil Hominid Site Sterkfontein in South Africa.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) catalogues, names, and conserves sites around the world that have outstanding cultural or natural importance to the common heritage of humanity. Each year, they add to their list, and every few years, they publish a guide to all the sites on the list: World Heritage Sites: A complete guide to 878** UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Sample entry from World Heritage Sites.

In the guide, entries are given in chronological order by the year in which UNESCO recognized the site. Indices allow you to search for sites by country or site name. Each entry provides info on the year the site was recognized, in which country the site is located, a small map showing the site’s general locale, the criteria under which the site qualifies as a World Heritage Site, and a short description. Many, but not all, entries include a photo.

A typical opening sentence for an entry might be: “The karst formation of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park has evolved since the Palaeozoic era, some 400 million years ago, and is the oldest karst area in Asia.” Not exactly scintillating prose, but it does provide a very brief summary of why you might want to visit that site.

I use the book in two ways. When I begin to research a country that I might visit, I use the country index to discover which sites lie within that country. Some I already know—like the Galapagos in Ecuador. Others are an intriguing surprise, such as the works of Antoni Gaudi in Spain. (I knew of Gaudi, but didn’t realize his architecture had been recognized as a World Heritage Site.)

But for me, the real pleasure of this book is in the browsing, just opening it at random to any page and reading. Who knew, for example, that “[t]he Solovetsky archipelago comprises six islands in the western part of the White Sea….They have been inhabited since the fifth century BC and important traces of a human presence from as far back as the fifth millennium BC can be found there”?

Yes, I realize it’s a completely subjective list that is almost certainly culturally biased and I don’t care. It simply provides me with one more focus for my travel. I figure, hey, if a place has internationally recognized importance to the heritage of all humanity, it might be worth an hour’s detour. Besides, I’m just childish enough to get a kick out of ticking off the ones I’ve visited.

Rating: 5 knots Highly recommended

*You don’t want to know.

**The number changes with each edition. 878 was the number on the first North American edition in 2009, the edition I own. There are now 1073 sites on the World Heritage Site List and six editions of the guide.

World Heritage Sites is published by UNESCO Publishing (Firefly Books in North America).

Which books inspire your travel? Let me know in a comment.

Calidris Compares: Artisanal Ice Creams

Two hot summer days.  Two gourmet ice cream outlets.

 

Travel—even around town—can be tiring on a hot day, so it’s always good to know where to find a refreshing ice cream cone.

Yes, it’s a tough job, but someone has to do it: slurping down back-to-back desserts of frozen ambrosia in order to uncover the real story. Bravely, I threw myself into this challenge on behalf of you, my faithful reader.

A gentle reminder that on a baking-hot day, the line-ups for ice cream anywhere can be daunting, and at artisanal outlets, even more so. Mentally prepare yourself to be patient. Only you can decide whether it’s worth waiting for.

Earnest Ice Cream

Outlet: Branch & Butter, Bowen Island ferry terminal

The hype: “Our goal [is] to create ice cream that expresses our passion for flavour and a business that embodies our values.”

Single scoop cone: $5 plus tax

Flavour: Whiskey hazelnut. Excellent taste of whiskey & hazelnut, with lots of chunks of crunchy (not stale) hazelnut.

As I peered into the glass counter to choose my flavour, I noticed that all of the ice creams were runny and half-melted. When I ordered a cone, the servers looked unhappy and recommended a cup instead, as the ice cream was too soft to put into cones. A bit of a disappointment, but what the heck, go with the flow (in this case, the flow of dripping ice cream), I say.

Sadly, the single scoop was not only half-melted, but it was tiny. Since they weren’t giving me a cone AND the product was substandard, I thought they might be a bit more generous with the portion. Nope.

I don’t know if the skimpy scoop should be blamed on the outlet, the ice cream company, or the servers, but it wasn’t an error, as my companion received an identical small puddle of semi-liquid product. She summed up the experience: “We should have gone to the OTHER ice cream place.”

Rocky Point Ice Cream

Outlet: Rocky Point Park kiosk, Port Moody

The hype: “At Rocky Point Ice Cream we hand craft ice cream in small batches ‘with love’ using as many local ingredients as possible.”

Single scoop cone: $3.75 (double scoop, $1 more)

Flavour: Salted caramel. Delightful combination of sweet and salty. Really good.

Waffle cone was fresh and crunchy.

Single scoop was generous—far larger than the Earnest scoop. Plus the mere $1 extra for a double made it hard to resist trying two flavours. So I didn’t. The chocolate peanut butter flavour was also delicious.

Oh, and both flavours were the perfect temperature.

Rocky Point wins this comparison hands down, but to be fair and confirm the results, I should probably repeat the experiment. As soon as possible.

Earnest Ice Cream and Rocky Point Ice Cream are made and sold in the Vancouver, BC, area.

Do you have a favourite local ice cream or gelato? Make your opinion known in a comment.

Vingerklip Lodge

The road to Vingerklip.

During my years of travel, I’ve stayed in hundreds of hotels, motels, lodges, inns, and b&bs, from an elephant stable in South Africa to a monastery in Trinidad. Most were completely forgettable; comfortable to a greater or lesser degree, but nondescript. Some I remember because of the bloodstains on the wall, the dead rat in the hallway, the bullet holes in the door, or the bed that collapsed under me as I slept. Ah, the “adventurous” side of travel!

Then there are the ones that leap to mind as soon as I reminisce about the highlights of past journeys—like the Vingerklip Lodge in the Ugab Valley of northwest Namibia, where we paused on our way from Etosha National Park to the coastal town of Swakopmund. We had spent a week in the park on safari, and while we hadn’t exactly been roughing it there, we were looking for a few plush and easy days of rest.

The lodge is named for the nearby Vingerklip rock “finger” that towers above the surrounding flatlands. You can hike to the bottom (if you want to brave the blistering heat), but other than that, there’s not a lot to do in the immediate area; no impressive herds of wildlife, no manmade entertainment. It’s really in the middle of nowhere. No, my enjoyment had nothing to do with outside activities and everything to do with the lodge itself.

One of the pools set into the hillside.

Set in a stunning location surrounded by rock plateaus and formations, the lodge features lovely arid gardens with many inviting nooks and crannies where you can sit and relax. Swing seats, loungers, chairs, umbrellas, tables, and benches are scattered around the grounds. There is a hot tub and two pools, cleverly located one on each side of the hill, so that no matter the time of day, one pool always has shade. Birds, butterflies, and small lizards find their own corners to feed, rest, or sun themselves.

The lounge, bar, and restaurant are top-notch. As per the usual African lodge custom, meals are presented buffet-style, but the quality and variety staggers the mind, while the number of food attendants assures that you get exactly the cut of meat you prefer or a custom-prepared dish.

For a once-in-a-lifetime experience, book a meal at their Eagle’s Nest restaurant, perched on top of a nearby plateau—you hike a long path and clamber up a staircase to get to it. The climb and the view is spectacular, but not for people who are afraid of heights or can’t manage a lot of stairs! You can also just climb up for the view and not have dinner; it’s free. If you want dinner, be sure to book as early as possible; the restaurant is small, and popular among guests.

Our room was okay but could have used some refurbishing. The latch for the sliding door to the bathroom had the hook mounted on the wrong side of the door, while the toilet seat had two puncture marks that looked like something had sunk its fangs into it. (What bites toilet seats??? Quite a worrisome idea when you think about it….) On the up side, the room boasted a nice porch looking over the isolated landscape and a small, lightly used, waterhole.

Ruppell’s parrot (above) and rosy-faced lovebirds (below) visiting the drippy pipes outside our window.

In any case, as birders, we were prepared to overlook any minor flaws in the room in favour of its unique feature, one that I doubt ever showed up in a promo brochure. From the side of the porch, we looked onto a large water cistern. The tank itself was covered, but the pipes and faucets leaked and dripped. In a place surrounded by bone-dry desert, any source of water becomes a magnet for birds. We had an unbeatable view of the birds that arrived in flocks to drink, including the local specialty, Ruppell’s parrot, and the charming rosy-faced lovebirds.

At night, stargazing in the desert-clear air and comfortable temperatures was all the entertainment we needed.

Day visitors are also welcomed at Vingerklip Lodge; check out their website for more info.

Is there a special lodge, hotel, inn, or b&b you discovered while traveling that lingers in your memory? Let’s hear about it in a comment.

Vingerklip room with rock escarpment behind.

 

Calidris Reads: James Michener

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read novels written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

Read for Hawaii (circa 1990) & Texas (2015) (natch)

Hawaii

First sentence: “Millions upon millions of years ago, when the continents were already formed and the principal features of the earth had been decided, there existed, then as now, one aspect of the world that dwarfed all others.”

The first sentence pretty much sums up the first chapter of the book, which goes on for a long time about the geological and topographical history of the islands. If you’re impatient, skip it and go straight to chapter 2. You won’t miss anything. And it does get much better.

Texas

First sentence: “On a steamy November day in 1535 at the Mexican seaport of Vera Cruz, a sturdy boy led his mules to and from the shore where barges landed supplies from anchored cargo ships.”

I like sinking my teeth into a good epic and Michener’s novels make for serious long-term commitments. Two problems: 1/ each chapter usually focuses on new characters and you sometimes hate to leave the old ones behind 2/ I can never finish these books because they are so massive. Despite this, they do make great, painless introductions to the location featured. I now know much more about the history, geography, and cultural mix that make up the states of Hawaii & Texas.

I’ve been through a bunch of Michener’s books and you always know exactly what you’re getting: interesting but not usually riveting stories. If you’re traveling to these places, Michener makes a good read, but don’t get too attached to the characters and don’t stress about finishing these tomes.

Both books: 4 knots Recommended

Have you read any of Michener’s books? What did you think? Did you like them? Let me know in a comment.

 

 

 

Calidris Reads: Costa Rica

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read books written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

Costa Rica:
A traveler’s literary companion

Edited by Barbara Ras

First sentence from one of the stories: “Pressed against the run-down schoolhouse, the chumico tree bears a miraculous fruit for the poor child who can’t afford marbles.”

I really wanted to like these stories, but I found I just couldn’t get into them. Perhaps because much of the work is translated. Maybe I’m just a shallow and unsophisticated reader and this represents serious modern literary fiction. I would finish one piece with relief and think “Maybe the next one will be more appealing” but it wasn’t. I didn’t find that the stories gave me the sense of place that I’m looking for when I choose a book to travel with.

2 knots (Not recommended)

 

The Jewel Hunter

Chris Gooddie

Opening: “Blood pounded in my ears. My heart rate was up in the stratosphere. I crouched on a disused hunting trail in a remote forest in southwest Sumatra.”

We all read it. We all loved it. But we’re birders. It’s a quirky, humorous true tale of how the author gave up a lucrative job to spend a year criss-crossing the globe in a quest to see every species of pitta. Pittas are reclusive, sometimes rare, birds that lurk deep in forests, so his success was by no means assured. Along the way, he comments on food, people, places, and adventures he encounters, as well as sharing the lists he creates. Birders tend to be list-makers, and Gooddie is no exception, for example, the following mantra:

  1. Animals are the best things in the world.
  2. Birds are the best animals.
  3. Pittas are the best birds.
  4. Gurney’s Pitta is the best pitta.

If this strikes you as even remotely funny, this book might be for you. (We found it hilarious.)

Note: Although we read this book during our Costa Rica trip, there are, in point of fact, no pittas in CR (nor in North/Central/South America as a whole; they are mainly Asian and Australasian birds, with a couple of species in Africa). However, we were very caught up in birding on that trip, so this fanatical birder’s story seemed appropo to our state of mind.

If you’re a birder, I’d rate it 5 knots (Must-read); if not, I’d say maybe 3 (Recommended).

Khon: A Fascinating Find

Khon performance in Bangkok. Image source: asianitinerary.com

 

 

In a quiet corner of the Grand Palace complex in Bangkok, rarely noticed by the streams of tourists focused on golden stupas and kinnaris, we stumbled into the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles. It’s a cool, dignified space staffed by serious people who welcome you with a polite smile and guide you firmly through an appropriate visit. Appropriate, in the case of this royally sponsored institution, meaning quiet, properly dressed (no bare arms or legs), and, above all, respectful.

The museum was founded by the Thai queen in 1976 to promote the appreciation of traditional Thai handcrafts, especially the creation and use of silk. As the queen is also a champion of khon (variously spelled as kohn), the museum includes a small display of the elaborate costumes worn for this traditional masked dance (“Dressing Gods and Demons”). Constructed of silk heavily embroidered with gold/silver and “jewels” of colored glass and beetle wing, the costumes are based on research conducted in conjunction with a 2007 revival performance of the ancient art.

After viewing the exhibition, I was eager to check out a performance, and through considerable digging around, we discovered shows played at the Sala Chalermkrung Royal Theatre. Our efforts to see one, however, turned into a comedy of errors.

On the evening of the show, after an excellent meal in the tiny hole-in-the-wall Café 511, we asked the taxi driver to take us to the Sala Chalermkrung Theatre. We showed him the tickets, which had on them the name and address in Thai. We told him we were going to see kohn. None of these references worked. He consulted with his taxi colleagues. Nope, none of them had a clue. Finally, we said “Old Siam Centre,” which is in the same block as the theatre. Ah! Yes, now he knew! Off we sped, only to arrive at the Siam Paragon, a luxury shopping centre. Try again. Next stop: Siam Discovery, another mall. The poor guy obviously only understood “Siam” and was doing his best based on what the bulk of tourists wanted to find. On the other hand, this is the royal theatre, for gawd’s sake, surely someone must have heard of it? By a process of elimination only, I believe, he finally brought us to the Old Siam Centre.

We walked around the place several times, thinking, How can they possibly hide a theatre here? Is it underground? Is it on the roof? We began to question our mental competence: Could a Thai theatre look so very different from what we’re used to that we’re just walking past it? We commenced staring suspiciously at young Thai women selling Hello Kitty merchandise in the market: perhaps one of their booths concealed a hidden entrance to the theatre?

Finally, we asked the crisp information officer by showing her the tickets and she sent us off with a series of hand gestures. Tickets in hand, we walked out of the mall, following her instructions as best we could, only to be accosted by a sincere-looking old man who pointed to the tickets, shook his head vigorously, and sent us back into the mall. How were we to know that he was not a kind citizen but a critic who was warning us away from the show? At least, that had to be the explanation, because having slogged around the block yet another time, we ultimately discovered that we had literally been on the theatre’s doorstep when he intercepted us and sent us away.

Fortunately—having had much experience of losing our way in Bangkok—we had allowed lots of time. We were finally seated in the vintage-1933 theatre along with a dozen giggling schoolchildren and a handful of other patrons. This in a theatre that holds well over 450. My companion suggested that the rows of emptiness probably belonged to scores of confused ticket-holders wandering the streets outside after being turned away by the helpful old man.

After all our misadventures, I can happily report that the show was worth the effort. Although khon has been compared to classical ballet, they are similar only in that their movements are formal and stylized, and the dancers use mime. Where ballet dancers balance on their toes, khon dancers stomp down heavily on their heels. Where ballet calls for airy lightness, khon favors strong, deliberate movements. Khon is mostly quite slow and often involves balancing on one foot, moving the feet and hands very precisely, and sometimes posing in tableaux-like formations. There’s also a dash of acrobatics thrown in.

The stories are drawn from the Hindu epic of Ramayana and feature gods, demons, and monkeys. Despite wearing rigid masks that cover the entire head, the principle dancers were able to convey character and humor through hand gestures and subtle body and head motions. To make the performance comprehensible to foreigners, the theatre has LED surtitles above the stage (in English only; tough luck to other non-Thais).

The onstage costumes were similar to those I had seen close-up in the museum, and it was wonderful to see the silk, dazzling metallic embroidery, and “jewels” move under the stage lights. (Okay, you may need to be a costume geek to get excited by this, but I did.) At the same time, the background information I had picked up from the exhibition enhanced my appreciation for the performance.

The two experiences made a perfect pairing I’d recommend to anyone visiting Bangkok. Just leave generous amounts of time to find the theatre and beware of that kindly man who wants to give you directions.

This excellent video shows khon both in performance and behind the scenes.

Currently, khon performances run on Thursday and Friday nights. Tickets available from thaiticketmajor.com and their outlets; 800-1200 Baht (US$23-35). The Queen Sirikit Museum is open daily from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm; admission is included when you purchase a ticket for the Grand Palace complex.

Have you experienced a piece of traditional culture in a places where you’ve traveled? Tell us about it in a comment.

Calidris Reads: Bangkok

 

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read novels and nonfiction written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

Tone Deaf in Bangkok

Janet Brown

First sentence: “I have spent most of my life searching for a home.”

A series of essays by an ex-pat on Thai (mostly Bangkok) food, language, culture, aging, relationships, home, and exploration, with a dash of Cambodia thrown in for good measure. The writing is excellent, the analysis and self-examination, astute.

The title is in reference to the tonality of the Thai language, where a slight mistake in the tone you use can make the difference between “water buffalo” and an unmentionable part of the anatomy.

Reading this before my trip, I was struck by some of her observations and looked forward to seeing for myself if they held true.

  • “It’s such a filthy place that I’ve scraped dirt from my skin while sitting in an apartment fifteen minutes after having taken a shower, and I’ve had to pick my way down neighborhood thoroughfares to avoid stepping in dog shit.”

Yes and no: the air pollution is palpable and visible at sunset as a thick haze over the city. However, I didn’t find the streets particularly filthy. Of course, you always have to watch where you step, but that’s true in my home town, too. In some neighbourhoods, there are actually people who spend their days sweeping the sidewalks with palm brooms, so things are kept pretty tidy.

  • “The air tastes like a cigarette and frequently smells far worse.”

Let’s just say the air is noticeable, whether tinged with the pong of sewage and garbage or perfumed by blossoming trees.

  • “It is unusual to see a Thai girl who isn’t beautiful, and it is rare to see a woman over forty who is.”

Not true at all. I saw lots of both.

  • “Western toilets abound in Bangkok, although the stalls all too often come without a supply of toilet paper.”

Yup. However, you have to remember that toilet paper is not part of Thai culture; they traditionally use water to cleanse. You may find a toilet that has no toilet paper but does have the ubiquitous spray hose. Besides, the number one rule of travel is “Always carry TP on your person.”

  • “On the Skytrain, it is possible to explore the city without getting lost….It’s convenient, it’s clean, it’s scam-free, and it keeps culture shock at bay.”

I am pleased to report that this is basically true. We criss-crossed the city on the Skytrain and the only issue we faced was trying to figure out the correct platform.  In one case, a young man noticed our hesitation and took the trouble to speak to us and give us directions to our platform. As we followed his directions, we found that he had mistakenly told us to go right instead of left, but we figured it out. A few moments later, while we waited for the train, he came running up to us: he had realized his mistake and tracked us down to make sure we hadn’t gone astray. Now, that’s a kind and thoughtful stranger.

4 knots (Recommended)

What do you read when you travel? I’d love to hear about it in a comment.

 

 

 

 

 

Going the Distance with Travel Comfort Gadgets

Airplane sleep: an oxymoron

 

 

On past long-haul flights, I’ve often sat slumped forward with my head propped on my hands, elbows on the fold-down tray, desperate to sleep, but unable to relax. Sure, you can recline your seat back to a greater or lesser extent, but even when fully reclined, I find that my head lolls forward as I doze, preventing any real sleep. Those horseshoe-shaped neck pillows don’t really help. What I really needed, as I contemplated blearily over many dopey hours doing the tray-table thing, was a pillow shaped exactly to fit the cramped space between body and next-row seatback. It had to fully support my head in a forward position and, of course, it would have to be deflatable in order to fit in my carry-on bag.

Reasoning that I surely could not be the only person with this idea, I checked out a number of travel pillow styles online before choosing two to try.

The SkyRest is basically an inflatable quasi-cube (approx. 14″ x12″ x11″) with one slanted side where you rest your head. You place the pillow on the tray-table or on your lap, whichever height works better. There’s an attached pocket on the outside where you can slip in your hands, but that didn’t feel comfortable to me, so I let my hands/arms dangle or put them on top. The pillow has a large, easy-to-open inflation/deflation valve.

Unfortunately, I just couldn’t find a position that worked with this pillow. I tried various levels of inflation and several positions, but none allowed me to relax enough to sleep. Either I was suffocating with my nose and mouth pressed into the pillow or my neck was twisted to one side. Perhaps if you normally sleep on your stomach, you might have a way to get comfy on this pillow. It folds up to about 12.5″ x 9″ x 2”.

My second option is a bizarre device that looks like a cross between a World War I gas mask and the head of an arthropod. Imagine you have an air mat about 24” wide x 22” high, inflated to 2” thick. You roll that mat into a hollow cylinder. Prop that on end upon the tray-table and stick your face in the hollow. You will look like your face is being eaten by an alien. Never mind; your head is comfortably resting. However, it’s a bit stuffy and claustrophobic in there, so let’s cut a hole to the outside world to let in air. For good measure, we’ll cut two more openings so you can put your hands inside to anchor this structure. You now have the general idea behind the Little Cloud Nine.

This pillow comes in two sizes depending on your height. I am 5’6” and I bought the smaller size, which suited me. You can also adjust the height by inflating it more or less firmly. The two small valves work fine for inflation, but releasing them for deflation is tricky and a bit fiddly even once you get the right idea. Be sure to practice a few times at home or you may wind up wrestling the fully inflated contraption off the plane because you can’t open the valves.

I liked this gadget, odd as it may look. I was able to sleep for several hours, which is better than nothing on a trans-Pacific flight. Of course, once I raised my head, I realized I had unsightly dents and furrows imprinted on my face, but I have long ago said farewell to vanity, so I didn’t mind (much). Deflated, the Little Cloud Nine folds to about 13″ x 6.5″ x 1”; not tiny, but doable.

If you buy either one of these pillows, remember to inflate and deflate it several times before you travel to make it easier to do on the plane. Also, leave it in a space with good air circulation for as long as possible after you open the packaging so it can off-gas the heavy plastic odor. Finally, do not fully inflate any inflatable toys(!!) on a plane until you’re at cruising altitude, or your air buddy may explode from the change in cabin pressure.

Aside from not being able to sleep, another factor contributing to the discomfort of long flights is that there are limited positions you can manage within the confines of your allotted space. Any device that permits some further variation on possible contortions is worth trying out. I picked up the BlueCosto Portable Footrest online for about US$18. This is a simple item with a long strap that goes over your tray table. From this, a kind of foot hammock is suspended. Once it is adjusted to whatever height you prefer, you slip your feet in and enjoy. After several hours in the air, it is a relief to elevate your feet by even a few inches (which is about all you have room for under the seat in front). You can rest one foot or both, or use the footrest as a swing to work your leg muscles a bit, good practice for avoiding blood clots. The footrest is made of durable fabric and folds up into its own (flimsy) 10″ x 7″ x 1” pouch.

For the minimal cost and the space it takes up, I would recommend this gadget for long-distance air travel.

All three gadgets are available on Amazon. Tip: monitor the prices. I found they changed markedly over a period of weeks.

Got a favorite in-flight gadget? Let me know in a comment.

 

Calidris Reads: Cambodia

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read novels written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

For our trip to Asia this winter, my companion and I each brought a novel set in Cambodia. As often happens, we read our own books and then swapped. The two books were similar in many ways: historical fiction set in the same general time period, focused on the Angkor area, and written by outsiders. I found both to be light, pleasant introductions to this era and place.

A Woman of Angkor by John Burgess

First sentence: “What if I’d told my husband no, no, we must reject the priest’s command, we must take the children and run away.”

The life of one rather extraordinary Khmer woman at the time of the building of the great complex at Angkor. While the main character is a bit too virtuous to be really sympathetic (Where are those likeable fatal flaws?), I still enjoyed reading about her challenges and everyday accomplishments.

That first sentence tells you everything you need to know about the writing style.

Temple of a Thousand Faces by John Shors

First sentence: “The temple of Angkor Wat had been designed to house the Hindu Gods but looked as if it had been built by them.”

Engaging novel that follows a range of characters from prince to fisherman through a period of conflict between the Khmer Empire and the Cham people. The writing is perhaps a bit more sophisticated than Burgess’. Forbidden love, heroism, cruelty, battles, it’s all here.

Perfect plane read en route to Angkor.

Both books: 4 knots (Recommended)

What do you read when you travel? I’d love to hear about it in a comment.