On the “Kohs” From Here On Out

The Gulf of Thailand. Home to over 1,000 tropical islands, both inhabited and uninhabited, and where we intend to remain for the next month or so, as we island hop our way around paradise. If that means getting seasick (which it does), then so be it. For us, our beach bumming began in Koh Tao, which means “turtle island”. No turtle sightings for us, but a good place to hang for a week and slow down the pace. We stayed at a budget resort in Chalok Beach. While the words “budget” and “resort” may not necessarily appear together on a Taboo card, we have found that they work out quite nicely for us. While the accommodations range from basic bungalows to air conditioned villas with every amenity, we are more than happy to fork out the $10-15 per night for a fan room with cold water, while still reaping the benefits of resort life. Peace and quiet. Sea and garden views. Even an infinity swimming pool overlooking the beach!

Making good use of the pool

Making good use of the pool

First Koh Tao activity-snorkeling in Shark Bay, an easy walk from our room. So we grabbed our snorkel gear and headed off. The road leading to the bay had been closed, so we were told that the only way to access it was to swim from another bay farther up the coast. As luck would have it, I had brought along my new dry bag, purchased the previous night after a bit of bargaining. Into the bag went everything we had, clothes, towel, camera, money. We clipped our flip flops on to the outside. Jeff slung the bag over his shoulder and we dove in for the swim. The snorkeling in Shark Bay was disappointing, but the bag did its job. It was my turn to carry the bag on the return trip. For most of the swim, I was having a grand time pretending to re-enact the scene from “The Beach”, as a shorter, Asian version of Francoise, swimming her butt off to reach the legendary island. We found out much later, that had we stayed on the rocks and NOT swum to Shark Bay, we could have snorkeled with about 50 sharks. Bummer. Go figure.

Food in Koh Tao is expensive (in our experience more so than most anywhere else in Thailand). Our friends from home were on vacation, with Koh Tao as one of their stops, and aside from one amazing dinner which they generously treated us to, our pockets definitely took a hit. We resorted to dry packaged ramen again for a couple of meals (which is slightly more classy when enjoyed from the balcony of one’s room). Even the local non-western catering restaurants seemed to be in on it. Oh, would we like rice with our rice dish? Then that will be an extra 20 baht. Puh-lease. Time to head off.

Busy day

Busy day

We are now on Koh Phagnan, the second largest island in the Southern Gulf archipelago, where the full moon parties are the stuff of travel legend. We plan on staying here for at least a week, which will put us right here for the full moon. The problem is, we’re not ravers, nor heavy partiers. I don’t like techno music. I really don’t like large crowds of drunk people (unless I am one of them). Okay, so that’s more than one problem. But, how could we be on Koh Phagnan during the full moon party in high season and NOT attend the festivities? This should be good. Stay tuned.

Posted: January 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Thailand | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Fear Factor, Here I Come…!

I lost a bet and this was the consequence.  Pick any insect of my choice and gobble it down.  Hmmm…would it be the small goo-filled meal worms or the hard shelled Twinkie-sized beetles?  I went for the grasshoppers.  Are they this big everywhere??

The pick of the crunchy bunch

The pick of the crunchy bunch

Close up

The losers (there was no way)

"Maybe I'll just try a leg first..."  Very crispy.

“Maybe I’ll just try a leg to start…”  Very crispy.

Look at the size of this sucker

One leg down, and look at the size of this sucker

Crispy on the outside, crunchy on the inside, tastes a little like fish

Crispy on the outside, crunchy on the inside, tastes a little like fish

Do I have to eat the head too??  I think I'm done.

Do I have to eat the head too?? I think I'm done.

Ta-Daaa!

Posted: January 5th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Thailand | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Time for Thailand

Our travels have finally brought us to our final destination country. Thailand. We plan to stay as long as we can (read: until our visas run out), “why?” you ask? Well, because it’s Thailand. Although truthfully, we could have easily stayed longer in the vast majority of countries on our itinerary.

We crossed from Cambodia to Thailand at the Poipet/Aranya-Prathet land crossing. Just across an invisible line, lay our newest host country and while crossing was procedurally seamless, the difference couldn’t have been more obvious. Upon walking across the border to find a Bangkok-bound bus, the first things we noticed were a couple of shiny casinos at border’s edge, and outdoor bars and ATMs galore. We’re not in Cambodia anymore, Toto. Welcome to Thailand!

First meal in Thailand

First meal in Thailand

We arrived into Central Bangkok that evening and were welcomed by the sight of bright signs and neon, traffic lights and jams, street food vendors, and well-heeled ladies (and lady boys!) passing by the taxi window. Instead of playing our usual game of “find-a-guesthouse”, we were extremely fortunate to stay at the condo of a friend of mine. It was awesome and we almost didn’t want to leave. The views alone could have kept us entertained for a few days. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, when you’re on the road, there is nothing like than getting to stay in someone’s home and appreciating the creature comforts. We’ve been lucky enough to be hosted a handful of times throughout our journey, and for us, the opportunity always seems to come at the right time. Thank you again. All of you.

After prying ourselves away from Bangkok, we made it to Nakhon-Ratchasima (aka Khorat) to see some pre-Angkorian ruins (guess we didn’t get enough at Angkor??), and where we also celebrated the New Year in local style. An outdoor festival with tons of great food (heavenly) and live music (less heavenly) and other surprises (such as an actual snow-filled dome and holiday displays). We enjoyed the atmosphere and took it all in.

Bag of coke at Chatachuk Market (doubles as an icepack when done)

Bag of coke at Chatachuk Market (doubles as an icepack when done)

A couple of nights ago in Surin, while waiting for our meals at an outdoor street table, Jeff grabbed my arm, staring over my shoulder. My first thought was that there must be a cockroach on the back of my chair, but luckily for both of us, it turned out that Jeff was merely staring at a baby elephant walking around with a couple of handlers. For a few cents, we got a bag containing several sticks of sugar cane (or something resembling sugar cane) to feed to him. The little guy was a bit impatient (referring to the elephant), trying to get the sticks out of the bag on his own, but it was a great bout of evening entertainment. Plus, how often do you get to feed a baby elephant during dinner? I have a feeling Thailand will be full of surprises.

Posted: January 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Thailand | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Cambodia Eats

Again, as with so many elements of this trip, I didn’t know what to expect when it came to the cuisine of Cambodia. I thought about it. No signature dish or flavor came to mind. Time to test the waters!

So far, it’s been a mixed bag. As you know, we tend to frequent the street stalls and local street vendors, where menus are unheard of and the food is (almost) always more than worth the cents spent. In other words, street food has been good to us. So we expected more of the same in Cambodia. Maybe we’re not hitting up the right stalls. Nothing’s been horrible, but there’s nothing to write home about either. Lots of instant noodles with various toppings, rice porridge, and bland soups, and the ever present fried rice or noodles. However, we have slowly discovered that some of the restaurant prices are only slightly higher than the streets’. Once this discovery was made, we’ve taken to hunting down cheap restaurants with good food and have had some great success. Where Khmer street food may have fallen a bit flat on our palates, Khmer restaurant food has been outstanding.

Garlic pepper chicken (with famous fresh Kampot peppers)

Garlic pepper chicken (with famous fresh Kampot peppers)

The best curry to date (albeit a Thai style curry), has been had in Sihanoukville. Best fruit salad? Phnom Penh. A garlic pepper chicken that was so good, we went back and ordered it for lunch the next day. A couple nights Jeff even treated himself to barbecued barracuda (with salad and baked potato) for $3….which he thoroughly enjoyed, even if he didn’t enjoy my sneaky fork tactics. And if anybody is wondering about the “happy pizzas”…ours was a better than average pizza, but we have decided that a more appropriate title would be “relax-y pizza”, since shortly after polishing it off, I fell asleep in the middle of a conversation discussing how relaxed we were feeling. This, thankfully back at our guest house, not in the restaurant!

Neither of us has encountered the highly anticipated tarantula, scorpion, or other such fried nasty on a stick, and other than for a photo op, I’m not really looking forward to that moment. In the meantime, I’ll be happily digging into what may be my next new favorite Khmer dish.

Happy Jeff with a "happy pizza"

Happy Jeff with a "happy pizza"

Note: Shortly after writing this blog, we have had great luck with street food again in Siem Reap.

Posted: December 19th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Cambodia | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Beach Life Redefined

I can still close my eyes and just see touristed beaches elsewhere. It’s summertime and the briskness of morning can still be felt in the air. These early hours are dominated by beach-blond surfers hitting the water; some are zen-like cool, others are territorial assholes. The occasional jogger becomes the first of the day to imprint the sand with carefree, confident steps. As the sun heats the sands, colorful board shorts and bikinis begin to paint the landscape. Most arrive in groups of two to four, and in these small groups find areas on the beach to lay claim to (spread out equidistantly of course). The occasional boat might pass on the horizon, silhouetting a sandcastle a boy has made, complimentary with the help from his happy meal sand toys. It’s quiet except for some small chatter and the break of the shoreline, only the occasional whiff of something SPF-40 or higher touches your senses. This is what I recall it is like, but just barely. At the moment “elsewhere” cannot be further from our experience.
We’re in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Beaches line the town on 3 sides of the peninsula. We’ve checked out Otres Beach and Ochheuteal Beach here, and they, for the most part, support my image of a beach. Sunny. Calm. Relaxing. But today we decided to venture to Serendipity Beach, the popular beach of the area. Here, they’ve taken elements of what we’ve seen around other touristy beaches in Asia and crammed it into a 1 kilometer stretch of sand. We arrived via a dirt path, women in asian-style pajamas and kramas (Cambodian scarves) immediately asked if we wanted massages, pedicures or our toenails cut. We declined and hurriedly turned to our left to walk the beach, or more accurately the 1-2 meters of beach between where the water hit the shore and where the edge of the restaurants was. Yes, the beach itself had been swallowed up by about 50 beach shack restaurants with enough lounge chairs and beach umbrellas to block out the sun and the sand. Every few meters a restaurant gave us their pitch. “Cheap food! Free lounge chair! Happy shake!” Each pitch we tossed back to them politely, but firmly and kept walking. We passed a monkey leashed to a tree. And after we walked enough of the beach to not be able to distinguish one area from another, we settled down and tried to take it all in. Women continuously walked past us offering plates of fruit, cooked lobsters (and at $4 for 10 lobsters, we indulged), drinks, souvenirs and of all things…nursery plants. Small Cambodian children played in the water and came from 1 of 2 camps. Either they splashed around completely naked and for the most part only with other kids of their age, or they came to the beach in shorts, long-sleeved shirts and neon bright life-vests. These children waddled into the surf, with watchful parents arm’s lengths away. For some reason the word for “fear of the water” escapes me.
Western tourists laid out on the lounge chairs, ordered beer and read novels. They (and we) soaked in the sun, and occasionally went into the water to cool off before reapplying our sunblock to minimize the actual sun we soaked in, in order to do it again for as long a period of time as possible. It is clear that Asians view the beach differently. Groups of Cambodian young adults played beach games together. Soccer games spontaneously sprang up and just as quickly dissolved on different parts of the beach. Groups of women played Monkey-in-the-Middle in waist length surf, fully dressed and just as often in full hysterics. Men buried their friends in sand and gave them sand-boobs. And speedboats pulled groups of 7 on huge inflatable water toys, only to dislodge the laughing riders into the water at the end of their trip.
It was busy, chaotic and loud at the beach today. There’s so much going on that an image of a serene, isolated stretch of beach blips into my head but has no staying power. But tomorrow we’ll go back to Otres Beach and see again the blue of the ocean, the white of the sand. We’ll escape the crowds, the vendors, the stimulation and just relax. We’ll soak in the sun (as minimally as possible), swim in the ocean and repeat the process. I’ll get through the rest of the mystery I’m reading, maybe treat myself to a Happy Shake. And part of me will recall the groups of Cambodians playing like it’s their first time at the beach, or like they are once again six years old, maybe as if it’s both. And for some reason the word for “fear of jealousy” escapes me.

Posted: December 17th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Cambodia | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

Laos Impressions

Thus far Lao has been an unexpected surprise for us, and we are enjoying discovering its treasures day by day. I will admit (begrudgingly) that prior to last month, if I was asked to name one city in Laos, I don’t know that I could have. Embarrassing, yes. But room to grow. And now the names of towns and cities are rolling off my tongue as we pretend to know exactly where we’re headed next. Udomxai, Luang Namtha, Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane. So far each stop has proved more than worthwhile and had something new to offer.

Everywhere we go, we are greeted with a smile and a warm, “Sabaai-dee!” which we return in kind. The most refreshing part about this ritual is that it is rarely followed by any solicitation, with which we have become so accustomed to almost everywhere else. Those who do ask us to look or buy usually do so quietly and politely and often react with humor when we decline their offers, which makes for a pleasant experience all around.

Monks and bikes in Luang Prabang

Monks and bikes in Luang Prabang

Food has been outstanding, and of course, this is huge for me. With the exception of one dish made with an overpowering, nose tingling, gag reflex inducing local herb, everything has been delicious. In fact, we want to stay in each town a bit longer just for the food (among other things), just in case the next town doesn’t have the same dish, prepared the same way. Most dishes are spicy, but in a mouth-watering tasty way, as opposed to the it’s-so-spicy-i-can’t-feel-or-taste-anything way. And we choose to accompany most of our meals with awesome Lao fruit shakes which sometimes are a meal in themselves at a mere 60 cents. Still trying to figure out the secret that makes them so darn good. See ya, Jamba Juice.

When it comes to nature and the environment, Laos is the least altered environment in Southeast Asia. This is in large part due to the danger that exists as much of the land is dotted with unexploded ordnance (UXOs), which are a danger for all. As an unintended consequence, this means Lao has a greater concentration of wildlife than Thailand and surrounding countries that have been ravaged by mass tourism. Even in the cities, it’s hard to get over the number, size, and colors of the butterflies that dart about. While poaching, deforestation, and other hazards occur, conservation efforts are in effect and in force to protect the country’s natural resources, which makes eco-tourism even more important here.

At the Kuang Si waterfalls near Luang Prabang

At the Kuang Si waterfalls near Luang Prabang

I’ve also gotten favorable impressions of the larger towns, which so far really is just Luang Prabang, but wow…what a place. It is described by one writer as the most photogenic city in all of South East Asia. Sure, it’s geared toward tourists-the main areas are packed with tour operators, guesthouses, souvenir shops, bars and restaurants. But it’s also lovely and lively, with several markets and wats cared for by the many monks.  French colonial architecture, local vendors, and the Royal Palace turned museum, all sandwiched between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. A turn down a side alley takes you through peaceful, dusty pathways, where local people dry rice cakes, do daily chores, and school kids walk home in small noisy packs with dusty uniforms. We get a good feeling being here.

Getting through Laos in less than a month requires some long bus rides, but the scenery makes it worth it. We’ve been taking the local buses that drive through the mountains and villages, and I find myself gazing out the window more often than dozing off in my seat. I can’t help smiling every time someone gets off the bus at one of the interim village stops and is greeted by a welcoming committee of friends and family (and sometimes dogs and pigs), eagerly awaiting their bumpy arrival. The houses, many made of tightly woven rattan and some on stilts are simple but beautiful. We pass by women and girls in sarongs, showering and washing their hair outside their houses. Children (some clothed, others not) running around rolling bike tires with sticks–the first time I witnessed this, I thought to myself, “Wow. Kids actually do that.” In a country where the average annual income is $400, there is beauty everywhere. I don’t mean to glorify poverty in any way, as there is no question that theirs is a hard life and a hand-to-mouth existence for many (not to mention the very real risk of encountering unexploded landmines, which kill approximately 200 children every year as a result of the US-led “Secret War”). But what I also see are incredibly strong families who are very close and the value in that. Watching them gather at all times of day for a game of badminton, volleyball, or soccer never fails to warm my heart. It reminds me of a simpler time, even if I have never lived it, and that in my own life maybe, sometimes, less is more.

Posted: November 19th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Laos | Tags: , , , , , , , | No Comments »

November 7th-16th

• We left Vietnam from Hanoi on November 7th. After waiting 5 hours at the bus station (because of the incorrect advice from our guesthouse) we started our 13 hour ride to the border town Dien Bien Phu. This was to be followed by getting immediately onto a 5:30am bus for 7 hours to the Laos border and then to a transfer town called Muang Khua. At Muang Khua we would walk the 3 kilometers with backpacks to the bus station which, after a 3 hour journey through winding dirt roads, would lead us to our destination of Udomxai. The highlight of the journey was that apparently our dinner was included in the price of our first ticket. So when we stopped at a rest stop we were told to sit with four others, a Vietnamese family. The daughter smiled and scooped rice for me. She then followed that with pantomiming for me to try the dish in front of her by rubbing her stomach. I tried the intestines, she laughed in return. Meanwhile her father and uncle, both in full military uniform, had offered me a shot of rice wine…and then six more. The rest of the ride, well, I don’t remember so well.

• Udomxai was a jumping point to Luang Nam Tha, an NPA (National Protected Area) with supposedly great hiking. We thought we would have the chance to see Black Asiatic Bears, elephants, or ligers. We were disappointed to find out that it was unlikely to see any animals without doing expensive 4+ day hiking trips. We opted instead for our own free 14 kilometer walk through stilted thatched villages to a waterfall. We bolted down to Luang Prabang the next day.

• Luang Prabang is an UNESCO World Heritage City. With its old French architecture, flourishing temples and location between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers it’s easy to lose yourself in its beauty. Unfortunately, as it seems with UNESCO protected cities and the catering towards package tourism it spawns dilutes the city’s charm. In spite of that though, the city still speaks to us and we’ve been finding our way through it to the things we think of as its gems. The nearby Kuangxi waterfalls are beautiful, producing turquoise blue pools that seem almost unnatural. The Hmong night market houses a food alley where a vegetarian buffet goes for about sixty cents. And today, Mari and I volunteered at a local English teaching program called Big Brother Mouse. Mari worked with a 21 year old man who was trying to learn English so that he wouldn’t have to be part of the family business as a farmer. He reminded us how much Luang Prabang, and it’s bubble directed towards wealthy foreigners, is not reflective of the average living conditions in Laos by mentioning in conversation practice that he didn’t know if he liked eating at restaurants, since he had never been to one before. For my couple of hours of volunteering, I was matched up with a young man who took me to an internet café because he wanted me to help him communicate with a doctor he had met here before…through Facebook of all things. We spent the whole time setting up his account, posting a picture to his profile, and sending out his 1 friend request. In the end, he thanked me and asked if I would be his second friend. Something tells me he’s getting the hang of it.

Posted: November 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Laos | Tags: , , , , , , , | No Comments »

Frozen Feeding Frenzy

Banana….Strawberry….Pistachio….Salted Caramel….Coffee Chocolate…Mint….Vanilla Macadamia….Stracciatella….Chocolate Chili…Lime….Strawberry sorbet…Tutti Frutti…Pineapple…Vanilla….Mocha…Rum Raisin…Banana (again)….Vanilla Macadamia (again)…Strawberry (again)….Chocolate Chili (again)…for a total of 20 scoops of ice cream.

Still happily going to town

Still happily going to town

Not to brag (because I probably should be ashamed), but this is what I consumed in less than an hour and a half at Fanny’s First Friday of the Month All-You-Can-Eat Ice Cream Buffet in Hanoi. You should have seen my reaction yesterday when we walked by the sign. As for my ice cream appetite, Jeff said he has never felt more proud and horrified. To his own credit, he put down 16 scoops, which is fair, but he had nothing on me.

Heaven on a sign

Heaven on a sign

If not for the crowds of fellow ice cream freaks getting a little too pushy, I would have had a few more scoops. But after Jeff got shoved out of the way by a pudgy little girl on her way to the chocolate syrup fountain and my numerous attempts to muscle my way to the front of the crowd, it seemed like a good time to make our sticky exit. At $4 a piece, it was a bit of a splurge, but not a bad way to spend our last night in Vietnam.

At the counter again.  "Please sir...may I have some more?"

At the counter again.

Posted: November 6th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Massage, Museum, and Mekong

Day One – A few days ago we touched down in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC, but still referred to as Saigon by most people here) in Vietnam. We easily found our hostel, centrally located with the friendliest staff imaginable. After putting down our packs and consulting a map, we headed out in search of a particular massage clinic. After navigating around several blocks worth of muddy puddles, broken sidewalk, fruit rinds, and staying clear of the motorbikes careening on and off the walkway, we found the building. The Vietnamese Traditional Medicine Institute offers hour-long massages for a mere $2.50, but what is even more significant, is that all the masseurs are blind. If I’m being honest, initially I was a little uncomfortable upon entering and being hand-led to the massage table. My female attendant instructed me to undress and exited through a curtain. Despite the obvious fact that this was unnecessary on her part, I suppose that to do so is just proper masseuse etiquette. My discomfort quickly subsided once the massage began. She was proficient with a definite no-nonsense quality, as she quickly dabbed menthol oil from a jar in her pocket and swiftly rubbed it in, before going to work on my muscles with some (very) strong kneading. As she worked, I listened to the lively chatter and the sound of palms rapidly pounding away through the curtains. While different from the tranquility and zen-like atmosphere that spas attempt to create (in the few times I have been in a spa), I enjoyed it. Plus there was something eerily comfortable knowing that my body wasn’t being visually scrutinized. We left feeling relaxed and with a feeling that it was money well spent.

Day 2 in Ho Chi Minh was spent walking around the city and visiting the War Remnants Museum. After our free breakfast at the hostel, we walked toward the museum. As we navigated the city streets, I tried to prepare myself for exactly what it was that were going to see. No amount of mental prep would make taking in the exhibits any easier. It was heartbreaking. What I came away with was that regardless of politics and beliefs, to see the war through the eyes of the country where it all took place was horrifying. The pictures were hard to look at, but I forced myself to look at each and every one, to read each and every name. Some may argue that the museum does not provide a balanced view of the war-that it is weighted with propaganda, and maybe that’s true. But to be fair, maybe that’s justified, given that the museum is housed within their homeland. Although Vietnam as a country is recovering, many of its people are still reeling and the effects of the war continue to be felt and seen everyday. I walked through several exhibits with a lump in my throat, and at times the tears spilled over. As I learned more about the personal stories of the war, I couldn’t help but feel what we all know as fact-that in war there are no winners. It’s one of those simple truths that we all take as a given, but at this moment I actually felt it to my core. In this museum, the way it was portrayed, my heart broke for the people of Vietnam, but also for the Americans, the French, the Laotians, Japanese, Australians, and everyone else, military and civilian alike, who had no choice but to see and experience what no one should have to-the consequences of war. One of the most touching pieces was a recent addition to the photo exhibition, an enlarged copy of a letter written by a young Vietnamese man to President Barack Obama. In his well-penned letter, he commends our current president for his beliefs, and his hopes for his children to live in a world of peace. He also asks for assistance for victims of Agent Orange, including the author himself. Despite the best of intentions, I had a heavy feeling of hopelessness, knowing that in all reality his pleas may not be answered, at least not in his lifetime. The museum closed for an hour, just as the afternoon deluge began. But we bought ourselves ponchos, had a pensive lunch, and went back to the museum to see the rest.

Exhibit in War Remnants Museum

Exhibit in War Remnants Museum

Day 3-4 were spent not in Ho Chi Minh, but instead on a tour of the Mekong Delta. I feel a bit hypocritical after the stance we’ve taken on tours, but sometimes they are truly unavoidable. Plus this two-day tour was $20 including transportation, hotel, and most meals. The first day was worth-while and included a boat ride to several smaller islands, a canoe ride through the delta, a trip to a bee farm and candy and wine making factory where we sampled the wares and Jeff drank snake wine.

Snake wine

Snake wine

We enjoyed some live local music and dancing, and took a bike ride through one of the villages. The best part of the bike ride other than hopping off, was that I didn’t crash into anything, since it has been well over a decade since I’ve ridden on one of those things. That night we stayed at a hotel in Can Tho where we tried snake for dinner (chewy), and woke up at 6 in the morning to go to the famous floating market, Cai Be. It was slightly underwhelming, compared to what I had conjured up in my head, but nice seeing the fruit and vegetable-laden boats floating around selling their wares. What was less fun was the two-hour boat ride after to the ferry, and the five-hour bus ride back to HCMC to end the day. The one-day trip would have been the better option. We had a great cheap dinner at the night market in Ben Tranh (my favorite meal so far) to wrap up our stay in HCMC. Now it’s off to Mui Ne to get away and back to beach life.

Yummm....snake

Yummm....snake

Posted: October 14th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

Foodie

So far China has been a lot of things, and one that stands out has been the food. I think it is fair to say that we have run the gamut in terms of fine dining and cheap eats. And my taste buds (for the most part) are happy. Maybe one of the biggest challenges of travel for me has been the issue of food. It is not realistic to have aesthetically-pleasing, well-balanced, finger-licking good meals every day while traveling on a budget. But in some countries it’s easier than in others. China is one of these. So we’ve splurged and done the Peking Duck thing, which was and will be the most we’ve spent on any meal during this entire trip. Typically though, we’ve been more than happy with the awesome street food (my favorite so far, the spicy pork on giant skewers) and all the bakeries with their baos and sesame balls and dan tats and deep fried goodness. All for just a few cents! YUM. Half the time, we don’t even know what we’re ordering. We just point, pay, and wind up pleasantly surprised.

Quail eggs on skewer

Quail eggs on skewer

Last week we found ourselves on a side street in the polluted transit city of Shijiazhuang. The Lonely Planet states that there is no reason to go there, except to pass through, and unfortunately we could see why. Here were our food options for lunch: A California Beef Noodle King USA. A Yoshinoya/Dairy Queen (a common pairing in China). And several over-priced looking restaurants, one called Sushi Beef. Hmmmm. Or….a trip down a tiny, dirty, alleyway lined with food carts.

Food cart alley it was. No menus here. No English either. We walked slowly by each cart, some set up with as many as twelve different dishes in trays, looking for something appealing. We passed over the pig noses and vat of chicken feet. We slowed down in front of the next cart and started pointing. We got a heaping plate of three different dishes (an onion dish, a bean sprout dish, and a tofu dish). As there was no seating outside and no apparent eating area inside, I had figured we’d get a take-away container of sorts. So when I was handed the heavy plastic plate, I just stood there and did my best pantomime of “Where to eat?” It became evident that we were to go inside. Behind the food cart, past a heap of dirty buckets and trash were a couple of steps leading down around a corner. As I rounded the corner, I spilled an enormous amount of sauce on the concrete floor. I looked back apologetically, but even though they witnessed it, no one seemed to mind. I looked up and it became clear why. There was a pile of black dirt, about waist high on my left, heaps of debris, garbage, and old food on either side, and through the dump there were four tables in a dimly lit concrete compound. There was food all over the floor. No décor whatsoever. The tables and floor were covered in sauce stains (evidently both freshly made as well as days/weeks old). It was the kind of place where you just know you will see a roach or rat if you look hard enough. There were a few middle-aged men, sitting around and drinking, who stared as we entered. Toward the end of our meal, a fly dropped dead and landed upside down on our table. But the food was delicious. Really really good. The three dishes, plus two bowls of rice the man brought over, were 60 cents total. It was so good that I told Jeff I would consider coming back for dinner, but that I might have to eat with my eyes closed.

This week we tried hot pot in Sichuan the night we left Chengdu with our friend, Cat and her friend, Chris.  Luckily, their Mandarin is better than ours and although “not spicy” was not an option, we were able to order a safe selection of items for our pot.  It was HOT, but good.  The real deal.  Like shabu shabu, but with a giant pot of deep red spicy broth with a layer of Sichuan and chili peppers covering the surface, instead of plain boiling water.  A little intimidating, but I’m glad we got to try it.  Plus, it gave us an excuse to go for ice cream immediately after dinner to soothe the burning in our mouths.  Awesome.

Hot Pot and some fixin's

Hot Pot and some fixin's

Posted: September 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: China | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments »