Sunday, August 26, 2007

around town/bangkok: Chatuchak.

Being able to shop at Chatuchak market was perhaps at least a small part of the reason I wanted to come back to Bangkok. The first time I went, I had been in Thailand for less than a week- all of the people, the tight spaces, and the mountains of knock-off Puma sneakers were rather overwhelming. But eventually I relaxed, and ended up really enjoying the visual onslaught of the world's biggest market. This time around, I was more prepared. And even better, I was actually able to shop- required to, even- as I had a bed at home that needed sheets.

Chatuchak surprised me the first time I visited; I had been expecting the knock-off handbags and cheap t-shirts, but I wasn't expecting the rather chic outlets that have stands at the market. There are home stores selling expensive decor and hip linens, and stylish stands selling lemongrass candles and coffee soaps.
Though we were there ostensibly to shop, we likely spent more of our time eating. The market is a good time to try out new foods from the numerous vendors that are positioned at every intersection; though not all of these experiences end well (see: the fishball incident). While walking through the rather chic home wares section in the far corner of the market, we found a man selling home-made ice-cream popsicles from a cooler. He had several strange flavors, like durian and banana; Bordeaux selected black-bean, and I had coffee. Both were incredible: soft, creamy, and deliciously flavored. A bit later, we found a woman selling miang kham on a stick. These are little packages of coconut, peanuts, chili, lime, and dried shrimp, wrapped in a bitter green leaf. They're one of our favorite Thai snacks, and they worked perfectly as a simple, skewered treat.
Eventually, we decided to stop and rest for a real meal. We found a cluster of foodstands, and ordered at the one that had the strangest menu. Our meal was an odd but rather delicious salad. On the plate were several piles of ingredients: shredded papaya, raw green beans, strips of fried egg, pieces of caramelized pork, tiny chili slices, scraps of purple onion, and two big slices of cucumber, all circled around a mound of brown rice. We could then mix the ingredients in each bite, adding extra chili for heat or pieces of pork for flavor. Aside from the pork, it was all rather fresh, and had a lightness that worked well for the heat of the market.
We eventually found a few places selling nice linens, in simple, solid colors. We considered the sets from one stand, who sold sheets and pillow cases in fun, co-ordinating colors. In the end we instead selected our fitted sheet and pillow cases (in Thailand no one uses a flat sheet) from a cheap discount stall. We'd had enough of the market by that point, so we managed to find an exit and get out. We live on the other side of town, but thankfully it's just the opposite end of the skytrain line, so getting home was extremely simple. Once we had the bed dressed, we found that the fitted sheet was actually a somewhat dull mint-green. Thankfully, the pillow cases are a beautiful deep chocolate brown. Perhaps we'll go back to look for a new fitted-sheet (and a lot of other things) once our first real paychecks come in.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Return to Bangkok.

The photograph above (not my own) is of Bangkok's new Suvarnabhumi airport. Arriving in the sexy glass and steel airport, walking among fellow travelers while being guarded by brightly colored garuda statues; it reminded me of all the things I love about Bangkok. How it's both exotic and modern, cosmopolitan and yet distinctly Thai. The experience of arriving in the airport alone assured me that we had made the right decision by coming back.

Food and Coffee in HCMC.

Undoubtedly, Vietnamese foods is one of the things I will miss most about HCMC. As a vibrant, cosmopolitan city, HCMC offers a wide range of eating options, including upscale cafes and international restaurants. And while we ate in a number of restaurants in the city, the best dishes were found in cheap noodleshops and on street corner stalls. From warm dishes of pho (noodle soup with beef), to steamed pork buns, it was incredible how well we were able to eat for so cheaply.
We had one of our best meals on our last night in the city, at one of the many food stands set up next to the Ben Tanh market. The first thing that drew me to the stand was the abundance of fresh greens in their kitchen. Most of these were served along side the food, certain leaves adding spicy flavors and crisp textures to the meal. Thankfully, the food they made tasted just as fresh as the leafy greens they used to garnish the plates.
We first ordered a plate of nem (fresh springrolls), one of the most iconic of Vietnamese food. Inside the tight rolls were shrimp and a mix of green vegetables. The shrimp inside the rice-paper rolls still had their shells on; this is done to preserve the flavor of the shrimp, but I felt it also added a nice texture that contrasted with the soft rice-paper and fresh vegetables. I don't normally care much for shrimp, but I actually liked the flavor quite a lot. Alongside the springrolls, we ordered banh khoai- tasty little omelette/pancakes. They had a nicely singed exterior, and a tasty filling of shrimp and sprouts.
We were still feeling a little hungry, so we decided to try prawn on sugarcane. This was by far the highlight of our simple street meal. The prawn gently hugged the stalks of sugarcane, absorbing a little of the sweet flavor. In the first one I had, the sugar cane was soft enough to be eaten- which added a nice texture and a sweet flavor.
And of course, I can't end this entry without mentioning the coffee in HCMC. Vietnamese coffee is fairly well known- strong, thick and tasty brews served with an unhealthy layer of condensed milk to flavor it. My favorite thing about the coffee was the way that it was prepared and served in little tin filters- which I now regret not buying. HCMC had an incredible variety of coffeeshops, including a number of rather chic cafes around downtown. Most ubiquitous were the numerous branches of Highlands Coffee- it's a Vietnamese style Starbucks, which reminded me of Black Canyon coffee in Thailand. The best coffeeshop I visited was La Fenetre de Soleil, near the Ben Thanh market. It's a bit difficult to find- through a discreet doorway, up a tiny darkened staircase, and down a grungy hallway, moldy and glowing in florescent light. But the strange journey only makes the cafe all the more rewarding. It's a beautiful space, with tall windows, overstuffed couches, and an elegant salon atmosphere. The iced coffee I had was amazing, and the earl grey muffin I ordered was delicious. It was the perfect place to escape from the pounding motorbike traffic of the city.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

A Short Stay in a Far-Away Land.

Nearly a week after my birthday- most of which was spent sick in bed (with what was likely a flu, and not malaria as I expected), Bordeaux and I left Cambodia. We crossed the border into Viet Nam, and soon arrived in Ho Chi Minh. It was to be our final destination, and the city where Bordeaux and I were expecting to make a home.
Ho Chi Minh was a surprisingly beautiful city. Our guesthouse was directly opposite a lush leafy park, where old women went for walks and young couples sat together on wooden benches. The city was constantly buzzing with traffic and activity. There were tiny noodle shops in alleys, and wide streets lined with foodstalls. Perhaps most charming of all, the city had a number of incredible old buildings, that, astoundingly for Southeast Asia, were perfectly preserved. The paint on the post office, the opera house, and the baroque Hotel de Ville looked as fresh and creamy as if they had just been built. The city also had a quirky sense of humor and design, present in the kitsch Communist propaganda posters, and the gold painted pop-art Ho Chi Minh busts that lined shop walls.
But sadly, life in HCMC was not to be. While searching for jobs, we found the options to be limited- where they were hiring, they generally required a CELTA or a TEFL. And while I liked the city far more than I expected, I never felt the same instant connection that I felt in Bangkok. After less than a week in Viet Nam, we began searching online, and visiting travel agents- and we booked two one-way tickets back to Bangkok. It was a big decision, but it felt right. Still, I was a little sad to leave HCMC. It was a shame to spend such a short time in such a beautiful place- particularly since we spent most of the time worrying about finding jobs and housing, rather than enjoying the atmosphere. HCMC city is without a doubt the place from our trip that I'm most curious to revisit.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Birthday in Phnom Penh.

While the week before my birthday was spent among the jungled ruins near Siem Reip, the actual day of my 24th was spent in Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital. It was a chance to enjoy some urban pleasures, in one of the strangest capitals in the world.
Phnom Penh was a fascinating city, both more pleasant and more jarring than I had expected. After weeks in Southern Laos and rural Cambodia, it was a strange confrontation to be in such an urban space. There were hip cafes and trendy bakeries, serving tasty coffee and elegant pastries. There were leafy avenues, packed with traffic. And there were disturbing signs of poverty and misfortune: amputees sitting on sidewalk corners, mother beggers with sick children in tow.
For my birthday, Bordeaux woke me with breakfast in bed, and some gifts he had cleverly gathered. In search of coffee, we walked along the riverbank, peeking in at the disappointing cafe at the dismal Cambodiana Hotel. We found good lattes at Cafe Fresco, and spent most of the afternoon relaxing. For dinner, Bordeaux took me to the Foreign Correspondent's Club. While the Phnom Penh branch of the FCC isn't quite as sexy as the modern white branch in Siem Riep, the restaurant had a nicely casual atmosphere and a beautiful river view. We first visited the top floor, where we ordered cocktails. We then moved downstairs, into the pale-yellow walled dining room, where Bordeaux had reserved a table looking out over the river. I ordered a spicy crab curry, which was incredible. We even ordered wine (a rare luxury for us in Southeast Asia). For dessert, we had an unusual sticky rice dessert, served with melty vanilla ice cream. We also ordered more alcohol- two shots of a warming port that were the perfect end to a great day. The fact that my birthday was so pleasant is all credit of Bordeaux- who not only knows me so well, but was somehow able to plan an incredible day in a foreign city we'd never been to before.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

eating culture/eaten: Grolan.

While in Cambodia, there was one street-side snack food that I became rather fond of. And no, it wasn't the giant black spiders fried in oil and chili, shown above.
My Khmer snack of choice was grolan, the sticky-rice equivalent of Gogurt. It's naturally pre-packaged, easy to transport, and fun to eat. I first encountered it along the riverside in Kratie. Bordeaux and I bought one for the bus ride, though we ended up forgetting about it until we got to Kampong Cham. Grolan is sticky-rice, mixed with coconut milk and blackbeans, and steamed in a bamboo tube. The bamboo is broken away, and it is served in just a thin bamboo sheath. To eat it, you peel that away, revealing the thick tube of sticky rice. The texture is a little like a hardened porridge, with occasional black beans adding a little sweetness. As one might expect of a steamed rice and coconut milk treat, grolan is extremely filling. On our last night in Angkor, Bordeaux and I bought one to take with us as we watched the sunset. It was the perfect treat for the trip- easy to take up the hilltop, and more than filling enough to tide us over until dinnertime.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Mysterious Angkor.

Travel writer Paul Theroux described visiting the Crac des Chevaliers, the crusader fortress in central Syria, as like being in the castle of his childhood fantasies. I never fantasized about castles or knights as a child- I spent my time imagining mysterious temples in dark jungles, likely a product of repeated childhood viewings of Temple of the Forbidden Eye. I should be embarrassed to admit it, but it was partly this fascination with the mysterious exotic that initially lead me to pursue anthropology. Jungle hidden ruins like Angkor were the playground of my childhood imagination- so, like every other tourist in Cambodia, Angkor was at the top of my list.Amazingly for a place that I had wanted to visit since I was a child, the ruins of Angkor did not disappoint. Somehow, despite being a major tourist site, overrun with souvenir vendors and bickering families, Angkor has lost none of its allure. Some sites, like Angkor Wat and the Bayon, were astounding for their grandeur: they seemed more elegant and fantastic than any storybook castle. There were long causeways lined with stone elephants, and promenades with python balustrades.Many of the sites had impressive reliefs, still intact in vivid cartoonish detail. The walls of Angkor Wat told complex mythologies, of Rama's battle with Ravana. There were countless figures filling every inch of stone space: many-armed gods in chariots, and monkey-faced soldiers fighting among warring elephants. Far more interesting were the reliefs around the Bayon's outer walls. They showed a social history of Khmer life. There were fishermen rowing among giant fish and crocodiles; a circus scene, featuring a dog-like rhinoceros; and even women picking lice out of each other's hair.
Several of the more intriguing ruins were still entangled in forest growth, with uneven doorways leading into darkened chambers. Vines and roots spilled over doorways, with the muscular girth of a coiled python's body. Smiling stone faces were veiled in dust and cobwebs. With their mossy walls and crumbling causeways, they had exactly the jungle atmosphere I had craved.
One of the best parts of visiting Angkor was interacting with some strange locals. On our first day in Angkor, an entirely naked 4-year-old boy marched up to Bordeaux and I. He stopped right in front of us, put his hands on his hips, made a sassy pout, and did some strange dance move that he must have gotten from a music video or a fashion show he'd seen on tv.
On our second day, during the sunrise at the Bayon, we were approached by a slightly off monk. He first asked where we were from, and hearing that I am from the US, suddenly began repeating "ah, George Bush!" He climbed onto a stone step, and raised out his arms. I at first thought he was taking the form of a bomber jet (to represent the US), but he began pointing at himself saying "Jesus Christo! Jesus Christo!" He came back to me, grabbed my sketchbook, and wrote out an extensive thesis, which referenced both Cambodia and the US, and involved the phrase (in Khmer) "christian+mormon+catholic", and which he dated and signed rather officially. I'm unsure of whether this was a prayer or some sort of unofficial pact, but I accepted it from him as solemnly as I could. As Bordeaux and I were leaving the Bayon later, we saw him again: he was smoking two cigarettes, and the carved parrot handle of his umbrella was smoking a third.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Cambodian Signs.

Aside from the crumbling relics of French colonial architecture, one of the most attractive elements of Cambodian streets are the abundance of hand painted signs. They advertise sewing services, appliances, and hair salons. The images seem to be taken from specific photographs; I'd often see the same woman's face on multiple signs, with only the color of the dress or the details of the hair changed.
Not all hand painted signs are used for advertising. Some of the most intriguing are those with a social message. Hand painted billboards warn against the dangers of drugs, speeding, and landmines. I'm not sure of the exact meaning of this somewhat mysterious one below, which seems to caution against the dangers of women.