Friday, November 30, 2007

Yellow Chicken with Rice on Thanon Convent.

The thing that I love most about my job- more than shaping young minds, or the challenges of teaching- is my schedule. I have time after my job to relax and pursue other interests- and on Wednesday, I even have an extra long lunch in which to see what Bangkok is like during the work week.

On this past Wednesday, Bordeaux and I met in Sathorn, an attractive urban neighborhood. We headed down to Thanon Convent, a tree-lined street that is lined with cafes and street-food stands. We weaved among the queues of office workers, to a stand selling kao moek gkai: yellow rice with chicken. We were tempted by the sight of the yellow rice, which the chef scooped out of a giant metal drum. We placed our order, and a minute later the waiter set down two heaped plates in front of us. Of Southern Muslim origin, it is very similar to a biryani. The chicken was juicy, and the rice was richly spiced with tumeric and a suggestion of cinnamon. It came with a dish of sweet-spicy chili, a salad of cucumbers, and was garnished with a topping of carmelized shallots.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Breakfast at Lumphini.

Though I'm not nearly as nocturnal as I was in college, I'm still not an early riser. Waking up at 6:40 in order to commute to school is a fair challenge for me, nearly impossible without a strong cup of coffee. Yet last night when I read a note on the Nancy Chandler map mentioning breakfast stands in Lumphini Park, I convinced Bordeaux that we had to set our alarms for 5:45 in order to go.

Set beneath the high rise towers of Sathorn, Lumphini is the definition of urban-exotic, with unusual trees and tropical palms clustering along well laid out pedestrian paths, and with ornate pavilions and pagodas resting on the banks of a placid lake. As described in the guidebooks, the grounds of the park were crowded with people exercising in the pale early morning light. There were older women slowly moving their bodies through tai chi practice, young people biking, and dozens of older men in too-short running shorts. There were also less expected sights, like elderly women wielding swords, and several couples stepping through ballroom dance moves to a blaring big band record.

Though there was much to distract us in the park, we were in search of breakfast. We crossed the park, and stepped out onto Soi Sarasin, where a number of food stands clustered against the park's northern fence. We walked past several stands, who offered dim sum, noodle soups, porridges, and many other highly fragrant dishes under wide umbrellas. Coffee was our first priority, however, so we waited to choose one until we could find a stand brewing coffee in tin kettles.

We stopped at a roti stand, which featured a kitchen built into the back of a truck. Two girls were working in the back: one rolled out balls of roti dough, and the other flipped them onto the grill. Bordeaux asked if they had 'kaafae thung'- the thick, rich bag coffee- and one of the waitresses nodded yes. As we tried to figure out what to have for breakfast, a helpful jogger stopped to translate for us. He asked if we wanted coffee and, pointing to the grill, asked if we wanted the breakfast combo. There were several plates going out at the same time, so it was difficult to tell what we would be getting, but we hoped it would be something with roti.

Unfortunately, it was not. We were first brought the coffee, which was actually Nescafe. We were then brought our breakfast, two platters of an 'American style' breakfast of eggs, ham, and a sausage, clustered around a salad with mayonnaise dressing. While not terribly exciting or flavorful, the meal benefited greatly from a heavy dose of chili sauce, and was perfectly satisfying. We enjoyed the breakfast slowly, listening to the conversation of the old men and women sitting around us, and the calls of the lottery ticket sellers.

As we were eating, an older gentleman sat down at the table with us, and showed us what we should have ordered: a plate of scrambled egg and roti, dripping with condensed milk. After finishing our large breakfasts, we were feeling satisfied- but I was too curious to leave without ordering the roti scramble. Despite what the picture above suggests, it was incredibly delicious: buttery roti coated in fluffy scrambled eggs, sweetened with the syrupy milk. We managed to finish the whole plate without trouble.

Despite the challenge of waking up early, I'll certainly return; and next time I'll make sure to get a cup of real coffee, and to order the roti scramble.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Shawarma on Soi 3.

Somewhat peculiarly, one of my favorite Bangkok street foods isn't Thai, or even South-east Asian. The small alley off Sukhumvit known as 'Little Arabia' is distinctive for its abundance of Middle Eastern restaurants and businesses. Walking down the tightly packed alley, among the calls of touts and the sweet scent of hookah smoke, I feel more like I'm in Syria than in Bangkok. This atmosphere spills out of the crowded alley into the surrounding area, and along neighboring Soi 3 are scattered a number of Middle Eastern restaurants.

Down Soi 3, across the street from the Grace Hotel, a small Lebanese shawarma seller stands squeezed between the Bamboo Bar and a take-way pizza window. There are only two options, beef or chicken, but both are so delicious that you would never wish for anything else. After selecting, you take a seat at the metal sidewalk tables, while the sharply-dressed chef carves the meat, wraps it in two layers of pita, and grills it briefly to toast the outside of the wrap. The meat is perfectly flavored and textured, and significantly better than most 'Middle Easten' food stands in Bangkok. But most impressively, each sandwich comes with its own set of accoutrements: the beef is sweetened with a minty yogurt and a suggestion of parsley, and the chicken is complemented with pickled vegetables, crisp french fries, and a deliciously creamy garlic sauce. Such incredible attention to detail can only be the result of the chef's true love for shawarma, which will surely by shared by anyone else who eats here.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

View of Lion's Head #3.

I can't imagine that Sea Point would look nearly as glamorous without Lion's Head providing a surreal backdrop for its modern apartment blocks.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Photo Essay: Loy Krathong at the Golden Mount.

Though I missed Thanksgiving, I got to enjoy a Thai holiday this weekend: Loy Krathong, the festival of floating lights. Celebrated after Thailand's khlongs and rivers have been flooded with the rainy season's bounty, Loy Krathong is meant to pay respect to Phra Mae Khong Kha, the water goddess. To celebrate, people set adrift krathong, candles floating on bases made of either banana tree trunk, bread, or polysterene. Loy Krathong is most famously and scenically celebrated in Chiang Mai and Sukhothai, but can be seen all over the country.

Bordeaux and I spent the day walking around old Bangkok; from the moment we stepped off the Chao Phraya ferry, we began to encounter tables lined with krathong for sale. Throughout the day we explored Thonburi on foot, and encountered many temples fairs began set up; we saw carnival stands being erected at Wat Kanlanyamit, and crowds of teenagers at Wat Arun wearing t-shirts with anti-alcohol messages. In the evening, as we waited for the krathong to be set afloat, we got caught up in the temple fair at the Golden Mount. One of the most famous temple fairs in Bangkok, the narrow alleys and lanes were packed with carnival games, food stands, and masses of people. With the fair's throngs of people, neon lit amusements, and tables full of knock-off goods, it was an unusual introduction to the holiday.

We waited just long enough to see the krathong being set afloat on the green waters of the khlong. We watched the candles drifting and slowly burning out on the water, enjoying the peace and tranquility after the chaos and frenzy of the fair.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thanksgiving among Bedouins.

This year marks the third Thanksgiving that I have spent out of the Unites States. Last year I was in South Africa, and I barely noted the date as it passed by. The year previous, I was in Syria, halfway through a trip around the Middle East, and had a very memorable Thanksgiving in a desert oasis. I spent the evening having coffee with a small group of Bedouins, an all-white camel named Zenobia, and a mysterious German woman whose real name I never learned.

The day before, I had taken a minibus tour provided by my Hamas hotel out to see the Roman ruins of Afamia, and the crusader castle the Crac des Chevaliers. In the minibus with me there were several other guests from my hotel: two Danish men who were traveling together, an older Belgian man who was traveling alone, and a young German woman who introduced herself as Carmen.

"What do you do in Germany?" the Belgian man asked Carmen.

"I design blindfolds," she answered simply.

The ruins of Afamia were simple, but beautiful- as the early morning light filtered through the crowd cover, the columns stood strong in silhouette. We visited several small castles on the way to Crac des Chevaliers. Some looked tiny, their staunch bodies tightly fortified. Others had been used in the building of new towns, the old castle walls now providing sturdy foundations for modern housing.

Crac des Chevaliers itself was astounding, a massive complex of outer walls, inner sanctums, and a mix of Gothic and Romanesque details. Amazingly, we were the only people there; a small group of tourists in a vast and abandoned tourist site.

On the minibus ride back to Hamas, we discussed our onward travel plans. Carmen, the Danes and I were all planning on heading to Palmyra. The Belgian had already been.

"Palmyra is overrated," he stated dismissively.

"Oh, you would probably say that the pyramids are overrated," Carmen sighed.

"Yes- the pyramids are overrated," he responded.

Carmen leaned forward to my seat, and asked me how I was getting to Palmyra. "Perhaps we should travel together," she suggested.

Back at the hotel, we disbanded, Carmen and I setting up loose plans to meet in the morning. After dinner I returned to my hotel room; I switched on the tv, and found a channel showing English language programming. I settled in for an incongruous evening, watching Kindergarten Cop and revisiting the sights of the day in my head.

I woke up on Thanksgiving morning to find that Carmen had already departed, leaving me a note at reception. "I woke up early," it read, "but saw that the lights in your room were off, so I have gone ahead. Carmen."

I caught a taxi to the bus station, and caught a minibus to the transport hub of Homs. There, I caught a cab to from one bus station to another, and located the bus heading toward Palmyra. The inside of the bus was heavily decorated, with elaborate drapes, plastic fruit, and small painted cherubs. Two young boys sat at the drivers side; while we waited for bus to fill up, they asked me where I was from, and imitated the sound of bomber jets upon hearing my response.

Leaving Homs, the landscape abruptly transitioned from scrubby forest into harsh desert, the pines and craggy rocks thinning out as the horizon became a razor-edge of burning red sand.

Upon arriving in Palmyra, I located a cheap hotel at the edge of the ruins. After a short rest on one of the twin beds, I headed out to look around. As I walked through the lobby, the clerk stopped me, and handed me a slip of paper. Confused, I unfolded it.

"Ah, so we are staying at the same hotel! If you wish to have coffee in a Bedouin tent, meet me at 9 o' clock in front of the Hotel Zenobia. Carmen."

Palmyra, as it is called in English, is so named because it was founded at an oasis of Date Palms- also giving it its Arabic name, Tadmor, meaning place of dates. It was once the center of a vast trading network that stretched from China to Rome, and a cosmopolitan meeting place for disparate cultures.

Traveling in Syria gives one the sense of physically seeing the past, one layer piled upon another layer. Atop a distant hill sat a medieval castle, which looked down over the desert ruins below. The fragments of ancient Palmyra itself looked an odd cross of Egyptian and Roman- Western forms redone in a pale sandstone.

In the distance I saw two men talking; one was on foot, and the other sat astride a pure white camel. He approached me, and waved an arm to signal me hello. He introduced himself: he was Mahmoud, a Bedouin. He gave me his card, with his photo, cellphone, and fax. He offered his tours, and a homestay at his camp. I took the card, and told him that I would consider it for tomorrow, that I wasn't sure if I would stay in Palmyra for a second day.

I felt obliged to stay among the ruins until sunset, so I found an isolated spot and fixed my gaze on a distant pair of tombs. Nestled at the base of a hill, the two towers both had an unusual sloping form that made them look even more unreal than their setting already did.

Heading back into town, I looked around the main tourist drag for dinner, but found only empty dives decorated in Bedouin kitsch. Scanning them, I wondered which Bedouin tent Carmen wanted us to have coffee in. Each tourist diner had one, hoping to lure in visitors with their exotic florescent charm. Finding little that appealed to me, I bought a bag of dates, and headed back to my hotel room.

A few minutes before 9, I left my room and walked out to the Hotel Zenobia. It was so dark that all I could see was the faint silhouette of the ruins against the distant mountains.

I was wondering whether I should look inside the hotel when I saw her approaching, her bulbous down jacket looking so uneven on her thin legs.

Upon arriving, she explained to me that she had met a Bedouin man who had invited her for coffee, and she hadn't wanted to go alone.

"How did you know that I was staying in the same hotel as you?" I asked her as we waited.

She smiled coyly. "Haven't you ever heard of a woman's intuition?" She paused, and scanned the starry sky. "I saw your passport behind the front desk."

A motorbike puttered up the road, and into the drive. A handsome man with dark eyes stepped off the back, and the driver u-turned and headed back the way he came.

As he came nearer, I realized that it was Mahmoud- the man who had given me his card that afternoon. "Ah, Susan," the man said. She shot a look at me. "I'm glad you came."

We followed him through the darkened ruins back to his camp. Fragments of temples and shards of broken columns appeared out of the blackness, taking form as we grew near, and disappearing again as we walked further.

At his camp, we found three other men waiting for around a fire. Before taking us to join them, Mahmoud introduced us to his camels. He proudly introduced us to Zenobia, the white camel that I had seen him on earlier.

"She is a very special camel," Mahmoud told us. "My favorite. Very special to me."

"Because she's so beautiful?" I asked.

"Because she is so smart," he said, patting her on the neck.

The other men had prepared coffee for our arrival, and poured us each a cup as they warmly invited us to sit. The night air was already crisp, and the hot cup warmed my hands quickly. The coffee was thick, coarse and delicious, richly spiced with cardamom. From a distance, Zenobia and the other camels watched over our conversation.

"What do you do in Germany, Susan?" Mahmoud asked Carmen.

"I test drive speed boats," she answered simply.

Mahmoud impressed us with his language skills, offering phrases in German, Italian, Spanish, and French. He explained that while he had settled at Palmyra in order to make money off of the tourist trade, his parents were true Bedouins, who lived as nomads in the desert.

The evening grew late as we talked, and Carmen eventually indicated that we should head back to the hotel. We talked little as crossed the ruins again. She asked me my age, and raised her eyebrows exaggeratedly when I told her. "I could never have done what you're doing when I was your age," she said. She said that she was planning on staying in Palmyra another day. She wanted to see some of the further ruins, and perhaps to spend a night out in Mahmoud's camp. "Perhaps I'll see you around tomorrow," she said as we parted in the hotel hallway.

The next morning, I woke early and caught a bus heading toward Lebanon, leaving no notes behind.

Monday, November 19, 2007


One thing I love about Los Angeles is that every inch of the city is imbued with style. Check out these doors, for example. Each reflects to me a distinct aspect of the city, suggestive of its different cultures and lifestyles. The front entrance to a house is its first statement; what do these doors say?

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Escape Plan.

These photos were taken in Malawi, one of the strangest and most beautiful countries I've ever been to. The vast interior space of Africa- which I have barely edged against- has long intrigued and drawn me.

If you've visited this blog before, you may have noticed that I have trouble staying still for too long. It's a nasty habit, but when life gets frustrating, or I feel dissatisfied, or like I'm becoming too predictable, I tend to start researching travel routes across Africa. I call it my escape plan: to travel across Africa with my camera, visiting beautiful destinations like Ethiopia and Uganda, through desert and plains and jungles, and venturing to off-the-track destinations like Angola and the Central African Republic. It hasn't happened yet. The closest I've come to doing it was in 2005, when at the last minute I decided to travel around the Middle East instead. More recently, Bordeaux and I thought of flying up to Ethiopia and traveling back down to South Africa together, but in the end decided to move to Asia instead. At the very least, it's nice to have something like that to dream about, to hope for.

Do you have an escape plan?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Ho Chi Minh coconut stand.

Unfortunately, I have nowhere nearly enough photos of Ho Chi Minh City to start a 'colors of HCMC' series. Shame, because the city certainly deserves one. The entire city was dripping with beautiful color, like in the milky greens and blues of the alley cafes. The palettes of the city's old buildings were particularly lush, part of a style of bold colors and ornate ornamentation that is apparently referred to as Tropical Baroque. I found it interesting to see the same design principals brought out at this street side coconut stand, where patrons could sit on electric-blue seats around a patterned red-table.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

View of Lion's Head #2

When heavy fog spills over Table Mountain, Lion's Head disappears completely. Though I am sure it continues to glower down on Sea Point, even when it can't be seen.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Don't walk.

Sometimes the dullest settings grab me- like this composition of a crosswalk to a sun-bleached Cape Town apartment.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Bangkok Colors: Gold

On Monday mornings, gold becomes the color of the Bangkok as the sidewalks crowd with the yellow polo shirts of loyal Royalists, showing their support for the king. If there were any color that defines the contrasts of Bangkok's urban culture, it might be gold. It is the shade of tropical heat, and of rapid commercial development. It is the hue of devotion: to king, to god, to money, and to food. It glints in towering business complexes and ornate temple spires, and it glistens on ripe mangos and in sizzling phad thai noodles.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Satay in the news.

Though the phrase "Stop Global Warming" is popping up in my students' vocabulary, and knock-off "This is Not a Plastic Bag" totes are becoming ubiquitous at street stands, Bangkok is still a very wasteful city. I have an impossible time convincing the cashiers at 7/11 that I don't need three plastic bags when I buy an airtime card for my phone, and I attract a small crowd of amused onlookers at Tesco-Lotus every time I try to explain that I don't need a separate bag for each item in my grocery cart. So though I don't know why my satay needed it's own little bag, I was at least pleased that it came in a bag folded from recycled newspaper.

Friday, November 09, 2007

View of Lion's Head #1.

Though Table Mountain is most used as the icon for Cape Town, more symbolic of the city for me is Lion's Head. Its ruggedly sculpted dome and bestial name evoke the sense of what an isolated African outpost Cape Town once was, heightening the contrast between the wild peak and the chic modernist houses that cluster its slopes. So, as part of an irregular series, I'll be posting some of my photos of Lion's Head, to show how it defines and reflects one of my favorite cities.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Dashboard offerings.

At an informal station near the Ayutthaya market, Bordeaux and I encountered several rows of brightly painted metal buses. They were left abandoned, doors open, waiting to be explored. On the dashboards of each bus were a bright array of offerings; plastic garlands, fresh fruit, and luridly painted ceramic gods.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

A Market Lunch in Ayutthaya.

At the center of Ayutthaya is a busy covered market. Vendors' stands, piled with amulets, fresh fruit, cand discount appliances, curve around an ornate glittering shrine. Among the dark pathways and crowded sidewalks, one can buy kitchen wares, Buddhist antiques, or even small pets. Additionally, the market offers some of the tastiest food in Ayutthaya, served in an atmosphere that is far more engaging than at the town's tourist diners.

In a thin soi between fruit stands and flower stalls, Bordeaux and I found a number of open air kitchens. Feeling adventurous, we simply pointed to the first wok that looked intriguing; minutes later, we were brought a plate of hoy thod, a delicious fried mussel and egg dish.

Our second course was phat thai, a dish that is less adventurous, but was still delicious. To combat the heat of the steamy alley, we ordered two creamy Thai iced teas, which were served frosty in their glass mags.

Toward the end of our meal, a young girl calmly walked through the market crowds toward our table, a clutch of painted wooden birdcages hanging over her shoulder. Inside each cage was a bird, waiting to be purchased and released by a Buddhist person wanting to earn merit. The girl held out one of the cages to one of the market women; inside, a delicate songbird flapped and preened. The woman counted out some baht, and took the birdcage. She opened the cage door, and the bird quickly lept out, disappearing as a fluster of flapping wings into the sky.