Saturday, November 28, 2009

An interlude in the travel advice...

I'm in Saigon's international airport drinking a $4 (74,000vnd) illy cappuccino while three swallows fly around the curved ceiling of the departures hall, which is paneled with acoustic tiles. Dave says they absorb sound and he is right, as he points out there is no echo in the whole long hall. I figure the $4 accounts for the nice view of the grassy runway which leads planes out of Paris of the East and off to other parts of the world.
We commemorated our last morning in Vietnam with Doner Kebab bahn mi eaten on our way up to have coffee at Highlands coffee (a prevalent coffee chain here). Coffee is a big part of Vietnamese culture, ca phe is drank thick and dark and strong. In fact an ad for instant Vietnamese ca phe showed a guy being punched in the face by his coffee cup, and it can feel just like that. Both Dave and I opt for the slightly less potent ca phe sua, coffee with a 1.5 centimeter or so layer of sweetened condensed milk. Mixed up and over ice it is a nice afternoon kick in the pants.
Most days we've been having a 'nosh.' Come 4 I'm ready for some coffee and Dave, let's be honest is always ready for a beverage. It gives the day a nice rhythm. One afternoon, even after having coffee with my friend from Hue, Mr. Khoa, we still wandered down to the river to have another round.
That's actually been one of the nicest parts of having David here, having the chance to introduce him to some of the people I've worked with over the last 6 months. It was pretty funny to see Khoa (who is just pushing 5 feet) walking on the street next to Dave. Ms. Ha, my tailor-friend in Hoi An also insisted on taking Dave and I to Cao Lau, a famous noodle dish from Hoi An. All the girls from the shop took us over to the market where we squatted on child-sized plastic stools. They all giggled as Dave's knees poked above the table and he housed two servings of the noodles.
Cao Lau is one of my favorite Vietnamese dishes. It consists of square noodles which are a bit soba-like, slices of pork, squares of crackling, and various herbs. You pour both rice vinegar and soy sauce on top and then doctor it with your choice of chile powder, chile paste, pickled chiles and shallots, or lime. It was one of those fantastic moments seeing Dave across the plastic table from me while we sat in the middle of the bustling chaos of a local market.
I have to give David a lot of credit for his stellar traveling skills. I think I had more frustrated moments than he did (especially when we turned around on our way out of Halong Bay to retrieve the forgotten fish). Not many people can hit the ground running in a country like Vietnam; he wasn't phased by much, even when confronted with crossing in front of walls of Vietnamese traffic.

Friday, November 27, 2009

guide: cambodia (p2 to start more to come)

If you have any sense at all you are going to fall in love with Cambodia. Like anywhere it does have its frustrating aspects (NO I DON'T WANT A TUK-TUK YOU JUST SAW ME STEP OUT OF ONE!) but speaking from a tourist's perspective (not of pcv or ex-pat) Cambodia offers up the goods. Boasting an enviable swath of coast line, jungles, ruins, haunting history and decaying colonial cities, Cambodia counters the resort lifestyle of Thailand and the chaos of Vietnam with a difficult to describe charm. Most people end up in Phnom Penh, so we'll start there and then move out.

PHNOM PENH ('p squared')
Upon first glance I wasn't quite sure what to make of Cambodia's capital city, I arrived at night, and night time arrivals are always a bit disorienting. In the light of day I found PP a mass of slowly deteriorating colonial buildings mixed in with the typical skeletons of concrete structures which were variously in some state of falling apart or being put up. It was familiar and yet distinct and though I found PP at first, tiring, dirty, and unappealing I soon found myself enamored with its charms.
I wrote a bit about PP when I first came to Cambodia on a mission to spend as much time consuming coffee and pumpkin soup with Michael as is possible to cram into a single month. I loved it then and I still love it now.
Most tourists end up down by the waterfront, which isn't an awful place to hang out. PP makes it incredibly affordable to live out your Indochine fantasies, you can spend the afternoon buying silk, eating exquisite food and follow it all up with a cocktail on the terrace of the FCC as the sunsets behind the red sandstone of the National Museum or a pretty nice view of the confluences of three rivers. There is quite a bit to see and do so we'll try and break it down....
things to see...
National Musuem: which might be very cool, I have never seen it and no one ever managed to convince me it was worth a trip inside. It is built in traditional Khmer architecture out of a really nice red sandstone. It is definitely worth taking a photo of, but I'm not making any promises regarding its contents.
Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda: so maybe this is going to make me seem like a bad Tour Leader but I never ventured with in the walls of the palace. Louise told me it was worth a visit, but somehow coffee always got in my way. Maybe that is a bad excuse, but I figured it couldn't be that different to the Royal Palace in Bangkok. You can correct me if I am wrong. Just remember to dress conservatively, no tank tops please!
S-21/Toul Sleng/Genocide Musuem: This place has a lot of different names and it is certainly worth taking some time to see. I find the idea of coming to Cambodia and not learning at least the basics of the history a bit lame. The museum makes all the stories, all the facts hauntingly real, you don't have to linger, but I think it is worth getting a guide and listening to what they have to say. I've been twice, and although even just sitting outside makes me feel a bit queasy, I encourage you to go. Afterward you can reward yourself with a cool beverage at the bhodi tree cafe right across the street.
Choeung Ek/Killing Fields: The Killing Fields were the last step for prisoners after leaving s-21. Guides hang out here and are happy to show you around the site, but it is well signed and I think wandering around here silently is usually more than enough. They have a constructed a large stupa to store the skulls of the victims, it is a raw look at a sad time in Khmer history.
If one were to take off in the morning at about 8, stopping first at s-21, then at the killing fields you could be back in town by about lunch time and visit Friends for lunch. Friend, the restaurant, supports Friends International the charity. After a sobering morning it can be nice to relax in a place which you know is giving back to the local people and has a profound effect on many young people's lives. Next door to the restaurant Friends runs a store which has been recently redone.
Continuing in that vein, places to shop...
There are a lot of markets in PP most people's favorite for touristy needs is the Russian Market (no they don't serve borscht). Though at its center it is your run of the mil market, the outer layers are choc-a-block with all the crap tourists love: ceramics, lacquer, t-shirts, knock-off rolexes, pirated dvd, gap clothes from the nearby factory, silk scarves, embroidered wallets. You HAVE to haggle or you will get robbed blind, be ready to walk away and compare prices. Central market is huge and it is more than possible you will get lost just trying to get into the market itself. The building itself has been under restoration for the last few years and the work is starting to show, its art deco architecture has been served well by a new coat of lemon yellow paint. Even if you just stop by to take a picture it is worth the trip. Nearby is the Sorya mall, the tallest building PP. Ride the escalators to the top to earn a nice view of the city. They also have incredible collections of pirated DVDs for sale.

Where to eat:
FCC (all the tuk tuk drivers know it) great for happy hours
Elsewhere and the rest of 278 (tell your tuk tuk driver to take you to golden gate guest house) my favorite street for bars
Garden Cafe (#4, St. 57, very near 278 next to smateria) has absolutely everything one might imagine wanting to eat.
Nature and Sea (on the rooftop in 278) awesome salads and smoothies.
Warung Bali (just up the road from the fcc, across from the National Museum) cheap great indonesiian food.
Friends (v. close to the National Museum) everything is good, omg.
Romdeng (street 178) classy Khmer food in a gorgeous colonial house (also part of Friends International).
The Shop (street 240) for a totally french and fabulous moment, don't miss their sister store, Chocolate (also on street 240).

Enough already! Enjoy.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

pix pix pix. ur welcome vic.

Images (top to bottom) The venerable Tich Ouang Duc's car, Hanoi alley wall, the glorious Edwardarons on Ti Top hill (photo credits to Tom), Ti Top beach sunset.

'and what do you sell?'

David is absolutely fascinated by the Vietnamese economy.  It all started in Hanoi which is staggering in the guild layout of the Old Quarter.  There are blocks which only sell one thing: shoes, towels, coffee, spices, welded metal, buddhist paraphernalia, pictures of Uncle Ho, you know all the basic necessities.  And more than that there are stores that only sell one thing, which I think is what sparked David's favorite new game to play while walking down the city streets...
'Hey what do you sell?,' his monologue begins.
'I sell rolls of foam.'
'I sell car batteries!'
'I sell used medical equipment.'
'I don't even know what I am selling, but I am selling something!"
This has gone on a number of times, it usually makes me laugh pretty hard.  But Dave is right, he sums it up by saying that every place is a shop, and that is true, everyone is selling something.  Today on our way over Hai Van Pass (ala Top Gear, picture Clarkson having his first moments of enjoying riding his motorbike) we stopped to take a photo and from out of nowhere an old man with a cleft lip, three teeth, and one eye missing appeared to sell us a map of Vietnam.  During our stop at the railroad crossing (where Clarkson poetically sums up vietnam in a touching monologue) it was a 12 year old kid selling postcards and begging loose change for his money collection.  And finally, the most impressive example of over the top salesmanship are the vulture ladies at the top of the pass who will not let you off without at least consuming a beverage and considering some pearl earrings.
Now we are in Hoi An, a city of colonial beauty and a shopaholics worst nightmare.  If you aren't shopping you must have your eyes closed. The Vietnamese are incredible sales people, they put the Israelis that sell that Dead Sea stuff in Mexico to shame.  It is exhausting and inspiring all at the same time.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

travel advising continues... THAILAND

My pending departure from Asia has motivated me to try and sum up a bit of my experience in a 'guide-esque' documentation of some of my favorite places, things to do, and foods to eat so that those of you who have the opportunity to visit this incredible region might benefit from my travels here. Plus I have a bit of free time....


BANGKOK ('Bangers,' 'KOK')

Loud, modern, huge, overwhelming at first. Most backpackers end up being spit out into the bowels of Khao San and the 24 hour honkey circus which is perpetually in motion. I struggle with Khao San, it has a lot of convenient aspects to it, but it also kinda sucks. Some might say it 'isn't Thailand' which is kind of like saying a tomato isn't a fruit. Regardless you should give the whole thing at least a gander, it is an amazing tribute to all things traveler oriented. The whole swirling chaos exists for a reason and if you can learn to exploit it for what it is good for Khao San can be a kind of fun quirky experience. I higlighted a couple of my favorite spots here in an earlier post.
Of course Bangkok is much much more than Bagalamphu. My favorite thing to do in Bangers is to head to Siam Paragon, which is a big mall. I don't typically find myself wanting to spend a lot of time in malls but this one has a number of things in its favor: 1. air conditioning that allows you to forget about crippling heat and humidity 2. hands down the most amazing supermarket I have ever seen 3. movies (PONYO!!!) and a selection of 3 different types of popcorn. Seriously the supermarket is something else. Find the ladies with the rice crackers with coconut sugar, sesame and pumpkin seeds. They are ridiculously good. Plus the food court goes on for ages, every type of fast food a Midwesterner could want, surprisingly cheap thai food, as well as a plethora of ice cream/gelato/fro-yo places. Siam Paragon is part of a long chain of malls all linked by either the BTS or raised walkways. In fact most of the BTS (KOK's MRT/tube/BART) is lined by huge malls. If you needed to spend a lot of money you could do it quickly in Bangkok.
Other cool things to check out:
Boat rides on the klongs (canals), which is consequently one of the fastest ways to get around in Bangkok.
Wat po, home of the giant and incredibly impressive 40m long reclining buddah (Mandy is a HUGE fan).
Nancy Chandler does an awesome map of Bangkok, I'd suggest picking one up if you are planning on spending much time in the area. I'd say it is a must have if you were living there.

I never feel like I have enough time in Chiang Mai. We always stay at Mandala house for work and it is cool enough that I have spent time there on my time off as well. The price is right, it has a good location, and the staff are super friendly. Chiang Mai is famous for its night markets, which are absurd sprawl of stands selling everything that one might want to cart back home: strings of christmas lights decorated with champa flowers, Karen silver jewelery, lanterns which fold flat, hill tribe tote bags, Thai fisherman pants, knock off Tiffany's, the stalls run as far as your eyes can see, the markets spill into one another forming blocks of frenzied consumerism. To one end of the markets is the Old Chiang Mai Coffee shop, it is a funky little cafe/gallery serving a ridiculous chocolate cookie cream cheese sandwich. Derlish. Que mas? Ahh of course there is ever famous cooking courses in Chiang Mai. I've always taken them at the Chiang Mai Cookery Schol, because Sompon is a BAD ASS. They are super professional and you will be blown away by what you can learn in a day. I think that taking a cooking course also gives one a deeper appreciation for the local cuisine. You will be more able to understand the flavors in the foods and possibly be motivated to try new dishes (rather than spending your whole time eating Phad Thai --- boooooring!). Finally people often come to the North of Thailand to ride an Asian elephant. This can be an amazing experience, especially if you do it at one of the more responsibly run organization. I wrote briefly about this on an earlier post, there are a number of elephant camps around Chiang Mai but two which stand out are: the Elephant Conservation Center and Elephant Nature Park (which also runs a veggie restaurant in Chiang Mai). Both programs take good care of their elephants meaning that you can feel like you and the elephants are both benefiting from your experience.
Finally: Nancy Chandler also made a map of Chiang Mai which is another fun way to discover some hidden gems.

Cutesy to the max, Pai is a fun mellow place to escape the city and see some pretty stunning countryside. In their same same but different way Pai has been totally overrun by cute boutique like shops, it is a bit out of control. But it is a fun place to kick around for one or two nights. The van ride from Chiang Mai is a bit crazy, there are about a million curves but it isn't too bad. Many people use Pai as a base for some more in depth explorations: moto touring, hill tribe trekking, ventures towards Burma. It is a bit overdone tourist-wise but the setting is pretty idyllic. Dini and I stayed riverside in a place called Rim Pai , which was a bit pricey but gorgeous and totally cute. There is quite a bit of good food around Pai, in the late afternoons there is a well organized fresh market with some good street foods, otherwise most of the restaurants whip up the normal delicacies.

UP NEXT: Cambodia


David is not good for my attempts to go wheat-free, or at least bread-free (which is not some shallow attempt at weight loss or at being trendy, it is actually because every time i eat bread i end up feeling ready to barf). Anyways he found this ridiculous article in the New York Times.  So of course this afternoon, pressed for time and starving after an incredibly frustrating return trip from Halong Bay (which included 40 minutes of backtracking for a styrofoam box of fish) we set out in the general direction of Hoang Kiem lake, and not feet from the famous Bia Hoi corner we stumbled upon a man slinging said sammies.   All wheat-free resolve had crumbled days before during a rushed attempt to eat brekkie before departing for the glorious wonder of Halong Bay so I didn't even pretend to resist and we ordered two right there and then.
Maybe we should back up here and discuss what bahn my (ban mi or some combination of spelling) are exactly.  As the NYT will tell you, and I can tell you as well, the word translates to 'bread,' but usually refers to a sandwich in a mini baguette wrapped in newsprint.  They are most frequently purchased on the street from a vendor, you choose the fillings: pate, laughing cow cheese, chicken, pork or in this case Doner Kebab. Then you have your veggies (cucumber is a MUST), chili sauce, and maybe some mayo.  Dave sums it up as, 'a vietnamese sanwhich,' which I suppose if you are "into the whole brevity thing" covers it.
Anyhow our first round was not on the traditional baguette, it was some sort of slightly denser, more toothy than the standard mini-stick, right-angle-triangle wedge of bread, which was great.  The pork's fat was all rendered and spiced with a sort of Vietnamese take on the chinese 5 spice.  Add a bit of lettuce and onion with a squirt of chili sauce to the mix and we were in business.  We consumed round one on the way to the DVD shops which line the streets near Bia Hoi corner and by the time we had finished our first round of buying pirated media (don't judge) it was time for round two.  Look I get that normal people would say that this was excessive (and I am sure LINDY is having a fit thinking about her over-sized children chowing down in Hanoi) but whatever, we were hungry.  So round two was accompanied by some small talk with a couple Aussies and a bit of a wait, but it was worth it. This time it came in a baguette with the addition of purple cabbage and it was fabulous as well.  Why are sandwiches eaten while walking down the street so damn satisfying?  After our second course it was back to DVD/music purchasing. 
Then we took a walk around the lake over to KOTO so that we could do some more eating and support a good cause.  We did hold back, just split a main (marinated chicken supreme or something to that end) and tempura vegetables, and then there was creme brulee (i am weak when it comes to this) as well as coffee. I mean this is the shit that happens when you have too many things which you want to eat and not enough time.  I blame our crazy ass driver for the not enough time part of the equation.  So I guess, judge all you want, my belly is full of Vietnamese goodness and yours probably is not.  UP NEXT: a flight to hue and an adventure with Mr. Khoa.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Dave arrives.

Today has been grand.  I started off with a round of goodbyes, a passion fruit, pineapple, banana and mango smoothie in a very windy Nature and Sea, a final purchase at Smateria, and then a jaunt in a tuk-tuk to the airport.  Then it was time for my final goodbye to Cambodia, which was sad.  Cambodia has become pretty homey to me. I get by with my terrible Khmer, I love the food, and I had a couple of really lovely friends here, so it was pretty sad to see the Khmer landscape fall below my airplane as we soared off towards Saigon.
I guess I moved on pretty quickly because there was a person, a very large important person waiting for me in Saigon.  After rushing through immigration and an energetic wait at the baggage carousel I managed to do a very excited skiphopshuffle to THE DAVEMAN!!!! After months of imagining what two EDWARDARONs (Eva I know you know just how to pronounce that) would be like in Asia we finally had our answer: loud and entertaining.  Food of course was necessary, Dave had already fallen in step with the coffee with sweet milk, there may have been some noodles, and some spring rolls, Dong was disseminated.  It was exciting.  Then Dave managed to throw his sunglasses to the floor as we tried to pass through security, which resulted in a comedic exchange where the sunglasses tried and failed to pass through the x-ray machine, only to be rescued by the force of a briefcase which managed to part the curtain of rubber strips, all the while Dave was faffing about trying to retrieve them, I may have snorted in laughter. 
We managed to board the plane to Hanoi in great style, upon which we were served two types of compressed meats, pickles, tomatoes, salad and a very dense roll.  I had a coffee, Dave did too.  Upon landing in Hanoi we suited up in our respective hoodies/fleeces and braved the taxi circus only to be matched with a man with a penchant for finding the most ass-backwards way into Hanoi.  Whilst driving along, Dave described Hanoi as, Poland meet Puerto Rico meet Hawaii meets England, something about the Soviet-like architecture, the incompleteness of most of the buildings, the palm and banana trees, and the rows of houses.  Give the guy a break, he's jet-lagged. 
With a bit of trouble we finally arrived at our $28 a night hotel and set off for dinner.  David was incredibly impressed with the traffic in Hanoi, and the driving, and the general chaos.  It is pretty crazy here and it was funny to have Dave weaving in and out of Vietnamese traffic with me.  I steered him to Little Hanoi (which you may remember me mentioning in an early post) and we ate that eggplant and Dave almost lost it.  I also introduced him to the wonders of morning glory with garlic.  He may never recover.  Then I dragged him to the other end of Hoang Kiem lake to sample Fanny's ice cream.  It was a pretty full on evening.  Now he is in the big bed making snuffling noises, I'm in the small bed typing away.  Tomorrow we are off to see the Magical Halong Bay, should be a riot. I'll try to keep up, but somehow I sense that this should be an exciting next ten days. 

Monday, November 16, 2009

pure magic.

Forgetting the hords of tourists, red plastic chairs, ridiculous chatter, and how tired I was, this photos just about conveys the experience of an elusive sunrise at Angkor Wat.
I spend a bit of time thinking about how photos have almost over taken the actual travel experience. No photo can properly convey the dicomfort, humidity, heat, and annoyances of travel here. The smells and sounds are lost, the dust, torrential rains, and sweat fade as we reduce our travels down to a series of images. Yet we persist with our obsession of capturing our travels visually, we walk around seeing places through a view finder, more focused on our photos than on giving pause to exactly where we find ourselves. People tell me over and over that without their photos they might forget where they've been and what they've done. I can't imagine that one could ever forget the majesty of Angkor Wat, nor Tikal, nor the Pyramids. Even though countless photos have been taken of these monuments we still need proof that we have been there. Of course one photo of us posed awkwardly in front of these places will not do. We need hundreds of images, and these days I wonder what we even do with them. Thousands of unfocused images make their way onto facebook, we email some back and forth, but mostly they just sit, taking up hard drives.
I often pause in my frenzy to document the beauty of the places I travel and try to just absorb the moment. I notice the heat pressing down on me, my annoyance at the trivial things people manage to talk about in the presence of such beauty, how my eyes ache with tiredness, the empty rumble in my stomach, the itch of the mozzie bite on my ankle, and how the sky went from indigo to almost white with guazy peach clouds stretched across it's curve.
Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

vacation for the girl whose job is vacation

Images, top to bottom (St Peter and Paul, Godalming. Mirrors, Camden Market. The North Down Path, near Farncombe.)

I've been dreaming about being cold for months. Now I am cold and it kind of sucks. I do like getting all cosy and snuggly in my new hoody, and I like wearing socks, I like layering, and hiding beneath the blankets because my nose is cold, but the idea of the tropics all of a sudden seems appealing. Bring on sweaty knee pits, cheap cold beer, mozzies, gap year travelers, tuk-tuk drivers, and all that Asian craziness.
Honestly everyone thought I was nuts to go from SE Asia to England in November, but I love autumn. I like yellow and red leaves, crisp air, feeling like Christmas is around the corner. It has been incredible seeing my family, hugging my mom, eating fish pie at Judy and Jeremy's, meeting Isla, seeing Charlie and Eliot being parents, going for walks, seeing art and very hairy pregnant cows. I haven't drank this much tea in ages, nor ate this much toast or cheese. MMMMMM.