Sunday, September 30, 2007

Darkie Flamingo.

Oh, but before I return to Bangkok completely... one last animal inspired piece by a South African Designer. Darkie is one of the coolest clothing labels in South Africa; it always has a great mix of colors, and playfully Afrocentric graphics. Two of my favorite pieces of clothing that I own are from Darkie: the orange and brown afro tank that I likely wear way too often, and a retro green, brown, and orange track-jacket that I regrettably left in the states. I saw these flamingo dresses when I was in Johannesburg in December- sadly, he didn't make flamingo pieces for men. Maybe a marabou could be a nice male equivalent?

You should definitely check out Darkie's website, to see his collections. The site has a great look, with a nice mix of colors and textures- I especially love the photo on the homepage.

Exotic enclaves of Bangkok.

Why is my head in Africa lately? In part, I have a simple problem with being settled; no matter how much I love where I am, I'm always thinking about somewhere else. Thankfully, Bangkok is exotic enough to keep my wanderlust satisfied. Last weekend Bordeaux and I took advantage of the city's cosmopolitanism, as we crossed to the other side of town to visit Chinatown and Pahurat, Bangkok's Indian enclave.
You can tell you've arrived in Chinatown by the warm smell of spices and herbs permeating the air. The streets are lined with herbal medicine shops, their dark antique wood cases stuffed with strange ingredients: golden colored roots, ground leaves, and dried out sea creatures. This area has a number of incrediblly beautiful buildings. Aside from the ornate Chinese temples, there are blocks of buildings from the early 20th century. Some are left clad in muted faded tones, and some have been freshly painted in eye-grabbing hues.
The sidewalks of both Chinatown and Pahurat are crowded with vendor's tables. There were stands selling t-shirts, used appliances, and Barbie dolls dressed like Thai school girls. Somewhat more photogenically, there were all sorts of foods for sale, like steamed desserts, sizzling satays, and juicy, freshly sliced pomelos. While we didn't get to try much of the street-food, Bordeaux and I picked up some pistachio-filled Indian desserts from an alley stand after lunch. As I bit into the first one, a woman on a passing motorcycle smiled at me, and said "Good, yes?"
The main reason for our visit was to buy some fabric for Bordeaux's latest sewing projects. Paharut has a well-deserved reputation as the place to go to buy cloth and fabric; it boasts an impressive fabric market, packed with reams and reams of cloth in an amazing array of colors and patterns. After spending several hours among the maze of dark alleys in the fabric market, we emerged with several yards of cloth, coordinating zippers, and spools of brightly colored thread. For Bordeaux's side of the story, check out his blog.

Friday, September 28, 2007


In keeping with my recent theme of animal design, I wanted to point out this incredible Springbok toy. This 'Springbuck' was designed by Joom, a very clever South African design firm. I love the simple curving shapes (particularly in that long black teardrop eye), and the way the grain of the wood was left showing in the bok's body. The springbok is such a distinctly South African animal, and yet so rarely used in design that it makes this toy all the more unique. Unfortunately it's sold out- but you should still check out their website. In addition to the Springbuck, they also feature a bovine inspired bookcase, and some incredible graphic design work.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Africa Abstracted.

In writing my recent entry about finding inspiration in giraffes, I thought back to some of my own wildlife photographs. On my last trip to the lands north of the Limpopo, I focused less on capturing the movement or interaction of animals, and more on the forms and patterns created in nature. Through taking photos with slightly polarized light and dark spaces, I tried to contrast animal forms with areas of abstraction. In the above photograph, which was taken in Mosi oa Tunya National Park in Zambia, I was drawn to the strange abstract space around the giraffe created by the thicket of branches and dry leaves. While this might not be the type of thrilling wildlife photography featured in National Geographic, I hope these images captured some of the odd visual appeal of the African bush.

Chobe, Botswana

Chobe, Botswana

Mosi Oa Tunya National Park, Zambia

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Cloth kameelperd.

I saw the giraffe photographed above while on a game drive in Swaziland; he watched us intently over the brambles of an acacia, flicking his purple tongue and dark eyelashes. I've always found inspiration in the forms of certain animals, and I find giraffes in particular to be rather handsome. I usually like the way Afrikaans describes the creatures of Africa, but the Afrikaans word for giraffe is kameelperd, or camel-horse, a composite that hardly captures the awkward beauty of these strange creatures.
I found this cloth kameelperd at a craft-stand on Phra Arthit, here in Bangkok. The craft woman had a table packed with hand-sewn monkeys, water buffalo, kangaroos, and dinosaurs, but I was drawn to this giraffe for its blank expression and neon pattern. Judging from the number of giraffes I've spotted on design blogs lately, I know I'm not the only one bringing a giraffe into my home. While they aren't likely to displace birds or owls as the new style animal, giraffes seem to be featured in a lot of design pieces lately, from hip clothing, to kitsch wall decor, to stylish lamps. Though I've always been inspired by them, I can't help but wonder what makes them such appealing creatures for design. In part, there seems to be a parallel in their pattern of blotchy spots, and the current trend for ornate patterned wallpaper- a point touched upon in these wall decals. Beyond that, I can only imagine that some designers see the same inelegant beauty in these creatures that I do. That through all of their faults, their knobby knees, sloping shoulders, and bulging eyes, they have a strange, unbalanced charm.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Fine Time Cafe.

Several weeks ago, on the way to Chinatown, Bordeaux and I noticed a beautiful, vacant building on the u-shaped end of a city block on Rama III road. As usual when we see a strange or charming vacant property, I told him that we should open a coffee shop in it. This past Saturday, while crossing through Chinatown on the way to the fabric market, we passed the same vacant u-shaped property. Only now, part of it had been sectioned off into a coffee shop called Fine Time Cafe. I was so shocked (did someone hear me last time? how did they put it in so quickly?), that we had to stop in for a coffee. Only twenty minutes later, while enjoying a vanilla moccacino, did I realize that we were actually on Thanon Maitri Chit, across the street from the empty space I had seen the first time.
But, I'm glad I made the mistake. Fine Time Cafe is a sweet little space, decorated to look a bit like a retro family rec room. Across from the coffee counter is a working record player, which, judging from the gold-hued album covers displayed on the wall above, seems to only play music from the 1970s: The Beegees, Andy Williams, the Carpenters. The shop is run by a very cute couple, who were extremely friendly, and wore coordinating aprons. And, best of all, the vanilla moccacinos Bordeaux and I ordered were delicious, creamy, and very cheap. I'd been hoping to find a relaxed, comfortable cafe in Bangkok, and while Fine Time Cafe isn't exactly in my neighborhood, it's definitely worth the trip.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Tiny street pancakes.

There are crowds of food stands on all the streets near the school where I teach. They make all sorts of things, like iced coffee, cashew samosas, and tiny oyster omelettes. Last week, Bordeaux bought a bag of kanom paeng jee, tiny coconut pancakes, from one of these street-vendors. They came in two shades and flavors, one crimson, the other white. Both were delicious, though you might not know it from my expression in the last photo.

In related news, Bordeaux has launched a new blog at Marita Says. He provides a parallel account of our life in Bangkok, offers a lot of creative recipes, and showcases his latest design projects. Stop by to get an idea of how well I'm eating.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Windows of Beirut.

Few cities I know have as much inherent style and character as Beirut. I was lucky enough to spend a week there between November and December 2005, months before this recent spate of unluckiness began. I had long had the preconception that Beirut was a war-torn wasteland, so I was amazed when I arrived and found it to be a stylish Mediterranean enclave, with a vibrant arts culture, streets lined with hip bars, and a number of chic coffee shops. Even the simple details of the city itself seemed to have some effortless style- present in the '60s curve of the letters in a sign's shop, to the pistachio green taxis, to the careless clutter of powerlines. It all seemed to embody the attitude of the town, which has seen so much violence and destruction, but seemed to shrug it off with an ironic smile. For some reason, my adoration of the city worked itself out through my amassing a photographic collection of the town's windows. I'm not sure what they meant to me then, but hopefully they'll give you a sense of the beauty of the city. And hopefully when I return to visit, they'll all still be there.

Friday, September 21, 2007

A rainy sunday at the Dasa Book Cafe.

This past Sunday morning was gray and rainy, the perfect weather for browsing among used paperbacks at the cozy Dasa Book Cafe. Most used bookstores that I've seen in Bangkok seem aimed solely at tourists, with stacks of Lonely Planet and dog-eared copies of The Beach. But Dasa has a comfortable, neighborhood bookshop atmosphere, a warm interior and piles and piles of books in topics ranging from fiction to history, to gay and lesbian, to chick-lit. After browsing for an hour, I picked up two books: The Souls of Black Folks by WEB DuBois, and The 100 Secret Senses by Amy Tan. Since it was still drizzling outside, I paged through them while sipping a creamy Thai Iced Tea in the cafe.

Thursday, September 20, 2007


The new title banner comes from the above photograph, taken of a beautiful old motel in Northern Arizona. In searching for a new banner for Primitive Culture, I was tempted at first to use an image from Southeast Asia to reflect my current locale, or of Africa to reflect my favorite continent. But there was something about this old motel sign that I loved, so in the end I went with something a little closer to my origins. On my last big American roadtrip, I collected photographs of desert motels from all over California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico. Here are some of my favorites.
Gila, Arizona
The two on the left are from Las Vegas, NV, the other is from Hollywood, CA
Amboy, Mojave Desert, CA
Albuquerque, NM
Albuquerque, NM

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Cafes of Vientiane

When we left for Laos, I was hoping that the rainy season would have passed through already. I imagined warm sunny weather, and clear blue skies perfect for photographing the city. My dream didn't last long. Within an hour of crossing the border, the gray sky released a torrent of pounding rain, setting the tone for our short visit. It actually wasn't such a bad thing. It turned out to be the perfect excuse for us to spend our time in Vientiane hanging out indoors, enjoying the many inviting cafes the capital has to offer.

Our first stop upon reaching the city center was at JoMa, a coffeeshop and bakery we'd be longing for since we last left Laos. We ordered two lattes, which were just as rich and creamy as we remembered. Bordeaux ordered a slice of smoked chicken pizza, which came on a home made crust and was flavored with a nice mix of peppers and onions. I ordered the tuna melt on rye, knowing it was the only place in Asia to satisfy my craving for my favorite comfort food. We grabbed a few issues of the Vientiane Times, and grabbed a table upstairs by the window. As we savored our coffee we watched the pouring rain and flooding streets, comfortable inside the sleek urban cafe.
As much as we were tempted, we decided not to spend our entire visit lounging inside JoMa. We decided to visit the Scandinavian Bakery, which we didn't get to during our last trip across Laos. It's alledgedly the most popular coffee shop in Vientiane, and I was curious to see whether it deserved that honor. We each ordered a mug of coffee, and we split a large chocolate muffin. The coffee was passable, but rather bland and a little too acidic. And despite have a small courtyard right across from the central fountain, I wasn't impressed by the atmosphere. The chocolate muffin, however, was rather good. It was topped with cashews, and sprinkled with confectioners sugar. It seemed at first as though it was going to be rather dry, but it became nicely soft and moist the closer to the center we got, and there was an unexpected center of strawberry jam. So while the coffee and the ambiance might not be deserving of a visit, the pastries alone might make it worth while.

For lunch on our last day we tried another cafe, Le Banneton. I was first drawn to it after seeing someone leaving the shop with armfuls of fresh, crusty sesame covered baguettes. The atmosphere inside was warm and inviting; with glowing yellow lights and dark wood furniture. There were a wide range of breads and pastries behind the counter, and some hip photographs of Lao people on the walls, creating a nice combination of European style and local flavor. Bordeaux ordered a grilled panini, made with curried chicken and apple. I had a rustic baguette sandwich, filled with an omelette, oyster mushrooms, and slices of potato. The bread used in our sandwiches was incredible, and the fillings were delicious; impressive in a city where Western food is rarely more than a passable imitation.

Not only does Vientiane have a wide range of European cafes and American coffee houses, but it also offers the chance to sample the local Lao coffee. This is brewed in metal pitchers, and served in short glasses with a thick layer of condensed milk at the bottom. I had tried Lao Coffee numerous times throughout my last visit, and had rarely been impressed. It was often too strong and bitter, turning into a bitter goo when stirred together with the condensed milk. Walking through the city center on our first day we passed a sweet looking foodstand that appeared to be quite popular. Seeing their boiling coffee pots, I became curious to give Lao coffee another try. We ordered two glasses, and took a seat at one of the plastic tables inside. Amazingly, the coffee was actually quite incredible. It had a smooth, rich texture, creamy like melted chocolate. The coffee brew itself was rich and strong, with hints of cocoa.

Despite the incredible range of cafes we'd found, and the others that we still hadn't tried, when it was time to leave, we made one last stop at JoMa. We got two last lattes and a few delicious pastries- the perfect treat to tide us over until we return.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Tuk-tuk style.

Though there are a few ancient taxicabs plying the streets of Vientiane, the main method of public transport is in little vehicles called tuk-tuks. A bit different than the tuk-tuks in Bangkok, the Lao models are a little like pickup truck beds fitted with benches and attached to the back of a motorbike. What I like most about them is the elaborate decorations they sport. They're usually painted in metallic green or blue, and tattooed with stickers, many of which advertise a Western-commodified masculinity. They feature tigers, lions, and wolves, Marlboro men and Rambo like gunmen.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Weekend Getaway: Visa-run to the Lao capital

At the end of this past week, Bordeaux and I traveled to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. It's a quiet capital city, with a laid back atmosphere that flows from the muddy Mekong river to the wide untrafficed boulevards. Our visit was primarily for bureaucratic purposes, as we needed to apply for 60 day visas at the Thai embassy, but we took the opportunity to have a mini-holiday. Two days gave us just the right amount of time to enjoy the understated urban-exotic pleasures of the Lao capital.
Vientiane is a strange city, hard to describe as either exotic or beautiful, though I think it is both. The city is set among green forest on a bend of the Mekong, looking across the brown waters at Thailand. There aren't too many grand sights worth seeing, but there is still a lot to see. There are traveling vendors, pushing carts loaded with bananas or durian. There are several impressive wats, with golden chedis glittering beneath coconut palms. Perhaps best of all, it has an incredible number of charming cafes and delicious bakeries. Between hours spent in cafes, we managed to find a little time for sight-seeing. We woke up early on the second day to visit The National Museum, which we had missed on our first visit. It was a strange mix of natural history and nationalist sentiment; the dimly lit halls were crowded with concrete dinosaurs, socialist propaganda, and moldy displays on ethnic crafts. There were crude paintings of noble Lao villagers being tormented by French colonialists, and dozens of black-and white photographs labeled to identify 'American Imperialists.' A little later in the day, we visited the city market. Unfortunately, the crafts on sale weren't too interesting, especially compared to what you can find further north in Luang Phabang.
The first thing that struck me about Vientiane when I first visited in July was the architecture. There are mod 1960s shopfronts, all spare lines and angled windows, and there are graceful colonial villas, wooden shutters and banana palm shaded balconies. And unlike in Luang Prabang, where many of the old buildings have been pristinely restored, most of Vientiane's relics are quietly moldering and crumbling. Even the rather stately colonial mansions that are scattered around the city center seem to be neglected, growing mossy in their overgrown gardens. This gives the city a tone of languid timelessness, of being neither perfectly preserved nor of being wiped out for new development. For our only dinner in Vientiane, we enjoyed a Lao feast by the river. At night, a number of food stands set up shop on the escarpment overlooking the Mekong. After finishing a large bottle of Beer Lao from one stand, we searched out another with a fresher looking kitchen. Since everything is out in the open, it's easy to get a quick glimpse of the state of their ingredients and cooking skills. We found a decent looking place that had a busy grill, and a lot of fresh vegetables behind the counter. We ordered a big Lao meal of grilled chicken, spicy papaya salad, and namkhao. The highlight of the meal for me was the the barbecue chicken. While it may not sound too exciting, it is actually a specialty of the area. I had first seen it in Thailand's Isaan region, which shares a similar history, and thus cuisine, with Laos. If bought to-go, it's usually sold with the whole chicken's body splayed on skewers. Since we were eating in, they kindly cut it up and presented it on a plate. There was nothing particularly exotic or distinctly Lao about it; it just tasted like very delicious barbecued chicken. A bit more distinctive perhaps was the namkhao, a dish of brown rice, coconut, vermicelli noodles, and spring onion. It was sprinkled with dry roasted red chilies, which added a smoky spicy flavor, and served with a plate of fresh greens.
Our two days passed quickly, and after picking up our passports from the consulate we had just enough time for a final stop at our favorite cafe. Before heading for the border, we bought a delicious pate baguette sandwich and two bottles of Beer Lao Dark to enjoy as a last Lao treat on the train. As we crossed the border, we were wished a fond farewell by the brewers of Beer Lao, who wished us to have a "pleasure trip." We certainly did.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

A little Morocco in my Bangkok apartment.

This might be a sign that I'm overly suggestible, but a day after reading about Urban Outfitter's Moroccan lanterns at Domino Magazine's Daily Dose blog, I came across these lanterns on sale at the Emporium department store. They had a wide range of colors, from a chic matte black, to a creamy pale green, to a bold magenta. I chose the large blue one because it perfectly fits with the color pallet of our kitchen/living room. Had there been a small green one, I probably would have bought that; I'm actually kind of glad there wasn't, as the orange adds a vibrant note of contrast, and gives the room a little energy.

I briefly wondered whether a little Moroccan influence would fit with the overall desired look of the apartment, but I think it should work. When I lived in Cape Town, I made a point to avoid any overtly Afrocentric style in my apartment- so it's fun having some influence from the continent now that I'm in Asia. And hey, it feels kind of nice having some decoration in our under-decorated apartment.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Tomorrow night Bordeaux and I are taking the train to Vientiane, in order to extend our Thai visas. It's a bit of a mission, but a nice excuse for a quick vacation. We'll be able to revisit a favorite old coffee shop, enjoy some Lao beer, and admire the Mekong once again.
While searching online for hotels in Vientiane, I came across the rather dreary website for the Lane-Xang hotel. I know it's impossible, but their website seriously looks as though it had been created in the late 1960s, and not updated since. Then again, that could almost describe Vientiane itself.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Fish tote-bag.

With the current trend for going green (in appearance, anyway), it seems like everyone now has a tote-bag. Mine is an oversized recycled bag that Bordeaux gave me for my birthday. He bought it in Cambodia, though from the writing on the bag we've surmised that the original sack came from Vietnam. It has two big catfish swirling on the outside, which only adds more mystery to what the original bag might have contained. Aside from the aquatic print that I love, the best thing about this bag is how big it is. I've bought tote bags from Trader Joe's in LA, and Woolworth's in Cape Town; both had the problem of getting overly full on major shopping trips. With this one, I can make it back from the weekend market without any problems.