Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Five Plates of Yellow Crab Curry.

Since coming to Southeast Asia, I've been introduced to many new flavors and exciting dishes. As a result, the position of "favorite food" has gone through a lot of contenders. Massaman curry, haw mok, meang kham, dragonfruit, and squid with cashew nut have all held the top spot. My current favorite food is poo phat phong karii, yellow crab curry. It's an unbelievably tasty dish, and with its roots in Chinese cooking and Indian ingredients, it perfectly reflects Southeast Asia's diverse influences. Unlike most Thai curries, this dish uses curry powder- the result is a slightly lighter, though still rich dish.

1. I ate my first bowl of yellow crab curry for dinner on my 25th birthday, perhaps foreshadowing to the degree to which I would grow to love this dish. I was in Phnom Penh, and my boyfriend took me to the FCC for dinner. Though delicious, the dish didn't immediately get me hooked. The emphasis on their version (pictured at top of page) was more on the spicy leaves, which to some degree dominated the flavor of the meal.

2. My second dish came just a few weeks ago, at our beach-side hotel in Prachuap Khiri Khan. We had initially shrugged off the idea of eating dinner at our guesthouse, but once on the beach we decided that it might just be the easiest way to relax. The hotel's manager arranged for dinner to be delivered from a nearby restaurant, and when we arrived at the dinner table we were amazed by the spread. There was a whole crispy fried fish, a rich and spicy tom yum koong, a sweet and savory seafood stir-fryed cashew nuts, and a platter of yellow crab curry. Everything was delicious- the tum yum koong was the most flavorful I've ever had, and the seafood stir-fry had a number of creative ingredients, like sweet dates and crisp water chestnuts. But it was the yellow crab curry that left me stunned- fitting, since Prachuap Khiri Khan is famous for their crab.

3. A few weeks later, Bordeaux took me for Sunday lunch at a dark corner restaurant here in Bangkok. The dish (pictured above) wasn't much to look at, but it was extremely rich and flavorful, with more emphasis on the curry sauce than on the flavor of the vegetables.

4. Some friends of Bordeaux's came to town, and for dinner they decided to go to the Mango Tree- an attractive outdoor restaurant near Silom that caters to a mix of gay and straight tourists. The tables were strewn around an open house and a large garden, which was cluttered with Thai antiques. After reading some reviews of the restaurant online that stated that the kitchen staff tone down the spiciness of their dishes, I had come prepared for bland food and high prices. The prices were certainly high, but thankfully the food wasn't bland at all. The huge menu had a wide range of interesting Thai dishes- and though I came close to ordering a salad that was within my teacher's salary range, thankfully I eventually splurged on the yellow crab curry. The dish was unbelievable- by far the best I've had. The crab was tender, and the herbs and Chinese celery added a nice sharp note to the otherwise creamy curry.

5. The next day, I was looking for lunch on a market soi near my school when I came across a large pot of yellow crab curry (pictured below). The dish looked beautiful: red-and-white pebbled crabs and fresh vegetables, bathed in a creamy yellow sauce. The flavor, however, was unbelievably bland. To some degree, I was relieved- I might have had some regret had I paid several times more for the same dish the night before. Though I think finding a cheap, delicious yellow crab with curry three minutes walk from my schol would have made up for that.

Anyone else know where I can get a good dish of yellow crab curry?

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Working on Ko Samet.

I spent this weekend on Ko Samet, writing hotel reviews as a trial-run for a part time travel writing job. It was a lot of running around, looking into dingy cabanas, getting scraped up climbing down slippery rocks, and questioning surly managers. But still, not a bad place to spend the weekend working.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Bangkok Snapshot: Curbside jack-fruit.

One of the more surreal aspects of passing a major produce market on the route to work is the unexpected appearance of a mountain of primeval fruit in an otherwise conventional setting.

Monday, January 21, 2008

There are dangerous people there.

I held on the line, waiting for the woman at Greyhound’s call center to run my credit card numbers again. It was a bracing winter day in Johannesburg, the air lightly scented by the crisp woody smell of dry grass. As I waited to hear her voice, I distractedly scanned the nearly empty parking lot of the suburban condo complex. Like most residential spaces in Johannesburg, this community was gated, with a fortress-like barricade of burnt-ochre bricks surrounding it.

A heavy sigh on the line announced that she was back. “No, I’m sorry sir,” she said. “For some reason your credit card isn’t going through.”

I had been hoping to leave for Zimbabwe the next day, but nothing was working out as I had hoped. The earliest that a seat was available was on the following day, and now for some reason neither of my credit cards were working. “Well, can I pay in person somewhere?”

“Of course. You can come down to the ticket office at Park Station, but you must do it by tomorrow at 4 pm if you want this seat.”

I cringed. Park Station was in downtown Johannesburg. I was already nervous about going there- and now I’d have to do it two days in a row? “Can’t I just pay for the ticket when I come to board the bus?”

“Well, you can try to get a ticket then, but we can’t hold this one for you for that long. And I can almost guarantee that the bus will be full by then.” She seemed tired of dealing with me. “If I were you, I’d get downtown tomorrow.”

Few places terrify the suburban South African imagination as much as downtown Johannesburg. Though it had once been a lively grid of shopping streets and high-rise offices, many people now envisioned it as the epicenter of South Africa’s crime and violence. I was staying in Johannesburg with my friend Marc, and over dinner I told him of my plans. He was leaving early the next morning for a work trip, and wouldn’t be able to take me.
“Not that I’d go there with you if I could.” He shook his head. “First of all, I can’t believe you’re going to Zimbabwe. That place is a war zone.” Marc was prone to exaggeration, and a font of South African horror stories. “But you’re going to downtown Joburg? Man, you want to get killed. The people there are dangerous.”

Early the next morning, Marc dropped me at a guesthouse near central Johannesburg, and wished me luck. After checking into my room, I prepared for the trip downtown. I separated out some cash, took one credit card but left the other. Though I took people’s warnings about downtown Johannesburg with a measure of skepticism, in the back of my mind I kept the possibility that I was going to get mugged.

The day was starting to warm a little when I set out, the expansive blue of the sky not marred by even a single cloud. I walked to where I expected the bus stop to be, but once there, realized I had no idea which bus to take. Which direction was I going? I sat down to wait. After twenty minutes, I gave up. I wasn’t even sure if the bus I wanted stopped here. As I walked back toward my guesthouse, unsure of how to proceed, I saw the crowd of people waiting at the minibus taxi rank.

In Cape Town, I used minibus taxis all the time. To me, they seemed an ingenious system. The public bus network in Cape Town was terrible, so privately-owned minibus taxis plied the streets, an attendant shouting out their destinations and ushering passengers in. However, even in laid-back Cape Town, people gasped when they heard that I took the minibus taxis. To many white South Africans, they were little more than moving, metal coffins, associated with reckless drivers and fatal muggings. And this one would be going to downtown Johannesburg. I could imagine Marc’s reaction. “You’re taking a minibus- in Joburg?” But, as I saw it, I had no other choice.

I climbed into the first minibus that slowed to a stop, and ducked into a seat in the back. The attendant slammed the door shut, and we raced on. We zipped down the suburban expressway, through scratching tree branches and golden lawns. We stopped for more passengers: a young man in a corduroy blazer, and two round women in wool sweaters. We started up again, the women barely given time to squeeze in through the door before it was slammed shut. We curved through a neighborhood of quiet warehouses and factories, slid under a bridge, and suddenly arrived in downtown Joburg.

I had heard that all business had fled, leaving downtown Johannesburg deserted. From the ground, you’d never be able to tell. The sidewalks were packed to the point of over-spilling. Fast food outlets were doing a bust trade, and throngs of people were browsing between among shops and merchant’s stands.

I had tried to brush up on downtown’s layout in my guidebook, but looking out the window of the minibus taxi, I felt completely lost. Nothing in this urban chaos matched up to the layout sketched in my mind. I considered my options, and came up with only one: I would have to ask for help. It would label me as an outsider, make me vulnerable, but I didn’t have any other ideas. I leaned in toward the passenger sitting next to me, “Sorry, but are we going to be stopping at Park Station?”

“We won’t be stopping there, but we’ll be passing by.” He was an older man in a checked sweater, and he briefly studied my worried brow. “I’ll let you know when to hop off,” he offered.

We cut through the city blocks, between heavy traffic and crosswalks flooded with people. As we passed a dusty lot contained by chain-link, my fellow passenger called out to the driver, and let me know I should get off here. I jumped out as the taxi slowed, and found myself at a busy intersection, with no sense of direction. I couldn’t see Park Station over the shop’s awnings, and the road was to crowded for me to think. Suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder, and before I could react, I was pulled down an alleyway.

I turned to see the face of the young man in the corduroy jacket, who had been sitting in front of me in the minibus. “You’re going to Park Station?” he checked.


“Alright, come this way.” He lead me down the alleyway, where sunlight was blocked out by tarps shading vendor’s stands. Merchants sold books, purses, designer shoes; street stands turned out richly spiced food for seated patrons. We turned, and he pulled me through an inconspicuous doorway. I found myself in the grandly arched terminal of Park Station.

“So where are you going?” he asked.

“Well, I need to buy a bus ticket- I’m heading to Zimbabwe.”
He nodded, and led me through the chilly corridors of the station to the bus terminal. I expected him to leave me there, but he simply stood waiting as I purchased my ticket. Though he had helped me immensely, I guiltily contemplated why he was doing it. What was in it for him? If he were planning on mugging me, why would he have waited for me to buy a ticket first? Was he expecting me to pay him for helping me?

“Well, where are you going now?” he asked after I stepped away from the counter, my ticket to Zimbabwe in hand.

I told him that I needed to catch a bus back to my guesthouse, and he immediately indicated for me to follow him again. We walked out of Park Station, and through a narrow shopping arcade. As we walked, he told me about himself. He was a student in filmmaking, and he hoped eventually to work for television. He asked me about my plans to visit Zimbabwe, my studies, and how I liked life in Cape Town.

“Yeah, I wouldn’t mind living down there,” he reflected. “But I think I’ll need to stay here- first for studies, then for work.” He stopped, and looked around. We stood in a courtyard hemmed in by stately buildings, where several two-story buses waiting expectantly. “Well, here we are.”
As he shook my hand, I couldn’t help feel confused. Where was the con, the appeal for money?
He smiled again as he nodded goodbye, but suddenly paused as if remembering something.

“You’re coming back to catch the bus tomorrow?” I nodded. He glanced a look back over his shoulder toward Park Station. “You really need to be more careful, especially if you have your suitcase. There are dangerous people there.”

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

View of Lion's Head #5.

And while I'm on the subject of things I love about Cape Town...

South Africa has an amazing collection of ugly architecture. Some of my favorite examples of this are the kitsch brick apartment-blocks that sit below Lion's Head, crowding against the promenade in Sea Point.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Cape Town; for the birds.

I spent my first stay in Cape Town mainly in idle, quietly in awe of what an amazing city it was. On cool evenings I'd sit with a book on my apartment's balcony; the light would be seeping from between nearby Table Mountain and the apartment towers that hugged its base, and in the distance I could hear the broken-horn call of a flock of hadidas as they flapped down into a neighbor's yard. One of my favorite things about living in Cape Town was the incredible bird life. Though I strongly disagree with the suggestion that Cape Town is a piece of Europe on the African continent, I'm willing to concede that it gives that appearance. Though the city's calmly ordered streets, elegant sidewalk cafes, and charming homes give it a European atmosphere, the unusual birds that roost throughout Cape Town reveal the city's true exotic nature.

To some degree, it even seemed almost as though each neighborhood had it's own bird that reflected its character. Gardens had its hadidas, Sea Point had its seagulls, Rondebosch had its guinea fowl. Further afield, Vals Bay had its indiosyncratic African penguins, and Cape Point its delicately-exotic ostriches. I even hear that Flaminco Vlei actually gets flamingos in certain seasons; I imagine that with their awkward forms and garrish feathers, they'd fit in perfectly with the tasteless ostentation of the suburb.

After a long day of bird-spotting, Love Birds Cafe on Bree Street is the ideal spot to relax. The setting, aside from the prerecorded soundtrack of chirping birds, is serene, and the baked goods and coffee are incredible. The decor is simple yet sharply styled. The stark farm-house furnishings are contrasted with an odd collection of serving-ware that reflect the cafe's theme.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Sampling the savory flavors of Petchaburi.

The train from Bangkok to Petchaburi was slow and dragging. It left the Hua Lamphong Station almost forty minutes late; and once on its way, the train made no efforts to hurry as it casually glided out of the capital. Even so, the journey was beautiful. Out of Bangkok, we passed through groves of coconut palms and wooden houses perched over reed-choked canals. We stopped briefly at small town stations, where the tracks were hugged by busy market stands. We were sheltered in tunnels of jungle growth, and cut through expanses of rice paddies hemmed in by distant jutting hills. By the time our train finally rattled into the station, dusk was beginning to settle on Petchaburi; the sunlight cast on the hillside temples starting to glow a pale orange.

The three of us (Bordeaux, our friend Tim, and I) climbed into the back of a pick-up tuk tuk, and made our way across town to the Rabieng Guest House. At first glance, it looked ideal: a thin leafy alley lead onto the teak veranda of an old river house. But the rooms were less appealing- dark cells with sunken mattresses, swarms of mosquitoes listlessly swimming in the sticky trapped air. We crossed the bridge to the nearest guesthouse, the Chom Khlao hotel. While their lobby was a chaotic mess of mismatched furniture and motorbike parts, the rooms were surprisingly pleasant. Though the bathrooms were basic and the furnishings rather worn, the high ceilings and tall windows gave the rooms a sun-soaked appearance, and the room's pale blue doors opened to look out over the Petchaburi river.

The town of Petchaburi is dominated by the spires of its temples; they look down the town from hilltops, and rise out over the city’s rooftops. As the light seeped from the dark sky, we set out to look around town. We had time to visit only one temple, Wat Yai Suwannaram; in the fading purple twilight, we were barely able to make out the ornate features of the temple.

In search of dinner, we walked around the city's market, but found only a few forlorn roti stands and a cluster of unappealing noodle shops. We followed Bordeaux’s instinct until we came across a baby elephant being lead by it’s mahout; it in turn pointed us to the busy night market. There were numerous stands, offering simmering pots of curry, oily fried noodles, and of course, the famous Petchaburi sweets. We had no trouble putting together an impressive spread for dinner: a bowl of rich massaman curry, a deliciously fresh papaya salad, and a particularly flavorful haw mok (pictured above). Unlike most haw mok I’ve had, whose steamed fish custard was fragrantly seasoned with kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass, this one used strips of chili to give it a fiery, spicy burn.

The next morning, we found the town’s market much more active. Old ladies filled their shopping bags with fresh greens and recently butchered meat, and the local men gathered at corner coffee shops. We put together an ad hoc breakfast as we browsed. We stopped for rich Thai coffee, where we were treated to a plate of oily Chinese donuts. Attracted by the scent of fragrant charcoal smoke, Tim ordered some delicious marinated grilled chicken. Bordeaux stood in line for a bowl of johk (rice porridge). As we waited, we chatted with a Thai woman who had lived in Reno, Nevada. She told us that the first time she visited Las Vegas, she was so excited to see it that she got a speeding ticket. Just before she left on her motorbike, bag of porridge in hand, she told us that this stand was famous for having the best johk in town. When we finally tried ours, and tasted the savory hot porridge, we had to agree.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Xander in seven pieces.*

1. I came into the world blue. I was born in August of 1983, unable to breathe due to a collapsed lung.

2. I have a small scar left by a Catholic Saint. As a toddler, I broke a terra cotta statue of St Francis; a shard pierced the right corner of my upper lip, leaving a visible scar that I still have.

3. My favorite book growing up was Alice in Wonderland. To some degree, I credit it with imbuing in me the interest in strange cultures and customs that lead me to study anthropology.

4. For five years I was a vegetarian. Then when I was about 18, I decided to stop.

5. For most of my childhood and early teenage years, I was very overweight. Then when I was about 17, I decided to stop.

6. I get heat stroke fairly easily when I go hiking. This happens even when I drink lots of water, eat salty snacks, and remember to rest in the shade. For some reason, I have a tendency to get heat stroke at major cultural and natural sights. I have gotten sick in the shadow of a pyramid at Tikal in Guatemala, while climbing the Livingstone escarpment in Malawi, after leaving the stone city of Great Zimbabwe, while ascending a trail at the Grand Canyon, and, most recently, after a day of getting lost at Khao Yai National Park in Thailand. Despite this, I still love hiking.

7. One of my childhood goals was to live on on every continent**. So far I've visited 5, and lived on 3. I hope the numbers will continue to grow.

*This entry is in response to a tag by the stylish Aphrochic, and the inspiring Caroline Gavin.
**Antarctica excluded. Sorry penguins.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Siam Scrawlings.

Across the skytrain tracks from the glittering towers of the Siam Paragon Shopping Centre are a network of dingy alleys. These thin pedestrian roads are packed with tiny shops, which range from stands selling $5 t-shirts, to closet-sized boutiques stocking work by local designers. The area is very popular with hip Thai youth, and really is a great place to look out for new clothes. It's also a good place to look out for street art. Perhaps because the area sort of markets itself as being counter-culture (which, I guess, it almost is, if compared to the places across the street), most available walls and shutters are covered with the work of local street-artists.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Bangkok Snapshot: Condo high-rise on Thong Lo.

Does anyone else ever get excited by the anonymous face of bland architecture?

Monday, January 07, 2008

eatingCULTURE/eaten: Black Vanilla.

Though the delicious food in Thailand is undoubtedly one of the reasons that I moved to Bangkok, Thai sweets presented a strong challenge to my taste buds. Early on in my Thai travels, I often saw vendors at markets or on street corners selling trays of gelatinesque squares: unnatural looking blocks whose color ranged from ‘80s tints of hot pink and green, to brackish shades of mossy-black. I was hesitant to try them- not because I really had any reason to think that they would taste bad, but more than anything simply because they looked unappealing to me. I’m usually attracted to desserts like home made brownies and chocolate chip cookies: treats that look invitingly warm and doughy, and bear the loving irregularities of having been hand made. Many Thai sweets, on the other hand, looked to me cold and plastic, alarming in their neon colors and manufactured uniformity. Thankfully I got past my prejudices, and while I haven’t liked all of the ones that I’ve tried, I’ve had some really delicious surprises. Recently, I encountered a particularly tasty Thai sweet at the Chatuchak weekend market: a chao kuay treat called “Black Vanilla.”

I’d seen the stand several times on one of my favorite alleys in Chatuchak, a busy lane in section 3 that's packed with hip t-shirt stands, tiny design stores, and expensive shops stocking candles and fragrant oils. This bright-orange dessert stand specializes in a dessert they call “Black Vanilla”. It is made with chao kuay, black jelly. Chao kuay is made from a Chinese plant, and thus has the unexpected taste of fresh herbs. It can be a little medicinal on its own- and it in fact is said to have health properties. The stand has a steady stream of customers, but thankfully the dessert is quick to prepare. One woman takes orders, while another stands at the front, scooping crushed ice and powdery brown sugar onto fat slices of black jelly. With its granulated sweetness and grassy jellyness, the dessert combines strongly contrasting flavors and textures. Once the ice begins to melt, however, the different elements begin to blend together. Once mixed, the herb flavors of the black jelly and the syrupy sweetness of the brown sugar take on a refreshing taste, like the flavor of a natural root beer. It’s n enjoyable unusual modern Thai treat, and the perfect refreshment for an afternoon pushing through crowds at Chatuchak.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

A lazy Saturday afternoon at Greyhound.

After the rush of the Christmas holiday and the crush of our first week back at work, Bordeaux and I decided to spend our weekend relaxing. We chose to eat at a branch of the popular Greyhound Cafe, located in the J Avenue shopping centre on Thong Lor. Though we had been to another Greyhound location for coffee, we had never eaten anything more than dessert. I had long been curious about the food, but worried that the food at Greyhound might be lacking; the cafe resting simply on its hip image. Thankfully I was wrong, and the combination of flavorful food and hip atmosphere made this meal one of the nicest I've had out in Bangkok.

Like the branches in the Central Chitlom and the Emporium department stores, the atmosphere at Greyhound Thong Lo is hip and modern, with a black and white color palette that's warmed with wood tables and tweed chairs. The furniture is mod, and the decor minimal: a few posters on the bare wall, and a blackboard wall scrawled with the menu's highlights. The branch on Thong Lo is set apart, however, for offering outdoor seating: a row of tables that wrap around the cafe's windows in a leafy, shaded courtyard. Misters cooled the city's heat, and geckos explored the patio to the sound of distant birdsong. The result was an atmosphere that seems a reflection of Bangkok's dual sides: both urban and tropical. The menu is similarly multi-sided, most items a mix of Thai, East Asian, and Western inspiration. Among the diverse items on the menu were homemade pate, Italian mussel and clam soup, nam prik plaa (an Isaan dip of chili and fish), beef salad with chili sauce, and salmon sashimi. After deliberating, we each managed to choose.

Bordeaux ordered the complicated noodle, a take on fresh Vietnamese springolls. Sheets of sticky, fatty noodles were piled neatly next to a dish of ground pork filling. The springrolls could be wrapped with lettuce to change the texture, or seasoned with the addition of a garlic chili sauce and sprigs of fresh cilantro for an added bite. The freshness of the noodles and the seasonings worked well to off-set the richness of the ground pork, and with the crispness of the lettuce, created a clean, refreshing, tasty meal.

I had been craving seafood every since leaving the beach last week, so I chose the spicy Thai-style spaghetti with seafood. The shrimp were fat and juicy, the squid smooth, the clams well flavored. The pasta was deliciously oily, and mixed through with mushrooms and tomatoes, and enhanced with basil leaves, strips of red chili, and strands of fiery, fresh peppercorn. It was a perfect combination of flavors, both distinctly Thai, and yet comfortingly familiar.

We were feeling sated after the meal, but paged through the dessert menu out of curiosity. Like the rest of Greyhound's offerings, the desserts represented a mix of local and Western flavors. There were brownies, cheesecake, and and crepes, but also black jelly, and lod chod singapore. We gave in, but opted for the lightest option, the tub tim krob: pink water chestnuts on an coconut sorbet. It was the perfect choice to complete the meal. The water chestnuts had a crisp texture that contrasted with the slippery strands of fresh coconut. The sorbet, more an icy coconut slush, was subtly sweet and nicely cooling. It was a refreshing, exotic finish to a delicious afternoon out.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The 2008 Asia Travel Wish List.

I started this blog in early 2007 with a travel list, so I have decided to start 2008 with a new one. This isn't meant to replace the previous list, which was meant to be a world-spanning inventory of long term goals. Rather, the 2008 list reflects my current location and growing interest in Asia. These are the places that are currently on my mind, and with any luck, which I will get to see in 2008.

8. Northern Vietnam- Not at the bottom of my list because it draws me the least, but because it is the only destination that I am certain of visiting. On March 7th Bordeaux and I are flying to Hanoi for a ten day vacation. We'll be mainly enjoying an urban holiday, through hopefully we'll also get out to either Ha Long Bay or the Red River Delta. Though Ho Chi Minh was unquestionably alluring, Hanoi seems to be emerging as Vietnam's premier art-city: a lakeside capital of Soviet-style monuments, independent galleries, and informal cafes. I can already taste the pho, and the strong sludgy coffee.

7. Japan- I never would have expected that Japan would make my travel list, as for years I offered it very little thought. But several factors, like my increased interest in Asian cities, the advice of a friend, and a curiosity to explore the anonymous urban landscapes described by Haruki Murakami, have lead to me finally developing an interest in the country. I would love to see the galleries and monumental development of Tokyo, and the snow-piled towns of Hokkaido.

6. Cambodia- I actually visited Cambodia in 2007. However, I saw so little of the country, and was left with such a desire to see more, that it made its way onto this list. The few places I visited in Cambodia- colonial and jungley Siem Reap, elegant and sophisticated Phnom Penh, rural Mekong towns - certainly intrigued me. I would love to go back, to see the mangroves swamps and beaches of the south, the overgrown forests of the North-East, and the misty wild hills of Central Cambodia.

5. Singapore- As a resident of Bangkok, Singapore seems a prim and orderly neighbor- yet I'm drawn by visions of its elegant shopping streets and seething ethnic neighborhoods. It's a design capital in Southeast Asia, with elegant architecture, cleverly-styled cafes, and incredible museums. But most interesting to me is the way that Singapore represents a parallel vision of Urban Southeast Asia, and I'd love to compare life down on the straits to life up here on the Chao Phraya.

4. Hong Kong and Macau- Like Japan, China had intentionally been left off my travel list for most of my life. But the islands of Hong Kong and Macau stand out to me as intriguing anomalies: a pair of former European colonies, now a world powerhouse, that are equal parts exotic enclave and cutting edge metropolis. It's also a great place for food, with a distinct style of Chinese cooking, unusual street-food, and an inherited legacy of Portuguese pastries.

3. Kao Sok National Park, Thailand- Without question, the one place in Thailand I want to visit more than any other. As a child I was drawn to Thailand by images of pristine rainforests- though that was before I found out that 90% of the country has been deforested. Kao Sok represents one of the best preserved wild spices on Thailand's stretch of the Malay peninsula. It's home to many of Thailand's most distinctive inhabitants: tapirs, elephants, giant hornbills, and the bizarre rafflesia flower. It's also a rain-soaked landscape of limestone hills, mist-clad lakes, and towering trees shrouded in the song of the resident gibbons.

2. Assam, India- The place on my list furthest afield, and perhaps the spot which I am least likely to visit. India is too big for me to understand as a whole, so in my mind I have broken it into digestable pieces. The most appealing corner is Assam, the nearly geographically severed province to the east. In my imagination it is a landscape of lush tea plantations, towns grasping to the foothills of the Himalayas, and tigers and rhinos stalking through emerald shoulder-high grass.

1. Indonesia- In recent months, Indonesia has grabbed me with a strong curiosity. Few names evoke mystery and adventure as much as those in this archipelago: Java, Sumatra, Borneo. In many ways, Indonesia seems the most exotic corner in Southeast Asia, a wild kinsman to Thailand and Malaysia. Volcanic islands rising from turquoise Indian waters, a pulsing and polluted capital, Buddhist monuments and Hindu shrines, and ancient jungles shading orangutans and tigers.

The Top 7 Locales of 2007.

2007 has been an incredible year. It was a year of multiple residences, and a year of long travels in strange lands, both familiar and exotic. It was a year in which I was exposed to the wonders of Southeast Asia, and in which I came to grasp the beauty of my own dessert home. This list doesn't represent everywhere I visited this year, or even everywhere that touched me- notably absent are Cambodia, Cape Town, Taos, and a number of spots around Thailand. This list is simply a collection of the places that affected me the most, and have lingered in my mind the longest.

7. Gauteng. The placement of Gauteng at the bottom of my list represents, to a degree, my ambivalence about the place. The social character among many people is of fear: they've built up massive shopping malls and walled-in squares, where they can safely avoid having ever to go outdoors. In 2007 I spent a little time exploring Johannesburg on my own, and for the first time visited Pretoria. The architecture of the two cities cannot easily be described as beautiful, but has an odd ironic appeal. They're an uncomfortable mix of styles that represents so much about the contradicting values in South African culture: from the conservative monuments and boulevards of Pretoria, to burgeoning Urban redevelopment in a downtown Joburg reborn. Yet Gauteng is perhaps the most African of South African landscapes: a rapidly developing center that represents- both symbolically and literally- the financial aims of the continent. Perhaps as a result, one can see a distinctively African modern style in Gauteng, perhaps more easily than in Cape Town. For this reason, Egoli keeps me intrigued, and hopefully I will return to see more.

6. Southern Colorado. I visited Southern Colorado often as a child. Just several hours north of my home in New Mexico, it was an easy destination for weekends away or short family trips. But never before this visit have I been so astounded by what a place it is. Perhaps it was seeing through the lens of my foreign traveling companion, or a filter gained from years abroad; either way, Colorado seemed to me a distillation of all the classic images of America, free and glorious. There were horses running in wild overgrown fields, tremendous storms, and ice capped mountains crashing over the horizon of pine trees.

5. Ho Chi Minh City. The home that almost was. For a week I struggled in Ho Chi Minh, worrying about finding work and a place to live. It wasn't until just before I left to return to Bangkok that I was able to see what a truly beautiful, graceful city it is. Where Bangkok is tropical in its steamy, swampy overgrowth, Ho Chi Minh has refined its tropical heat into an elegant style, with pale painted walls, and ornately shuttered windows. The frantic pace of the city is visible in the motorbikes that swarm the street, and yet relaxation is offered in discretely hidden cafes, and in leafy courtyard restaurants. And though I had to choose not to live there in the end, it was undoubtedly one of the most intriguing cities I was lucky enough to visit in 2007.

4. The Deserts of Southwestern USA. On our way from Los Angeles to New Mexico, Bordeaux and I passed through the great deserts of the American Southwest. While it was in many ways a home-coming for me, I was struck for the first time what a bizarre and unusual landscape it was. I revisited some places, like Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon, but I also searched out new places I had never been to: Salton Sea, the mission at San Xavier, Sonoma, Organ Pipe National Park. I explored abandoned motels, drove through thunder storms, and slept under the gaze of kitt fox and kangaroo rats. From the neon wasteland of Las Vegas, to the austere grace of Spanish mission cathedrals, to wonderland cactus gardens, I came to see how the desert Southwest is undoubtedly one of the most exotic landscapes in the world.

3. The Mekong River. The exotic pleasures of Southeast Asia are given form in the meandering brown river called the Mekong. For almost a month we followed the river, from the overgrown hills of Northern Thailand, through the Oriental splendor of Laos, into the wild, dusty landscapes of Cambodia. The river is home to such incredible places as the elegant village of Louang Phrabang, the stylishly mod capital of Vientiane, and the frontier town of Kompong Cham. It was for me a river of untamed jungles, golden temples, and painted blue shutters. And traveling for two days on a slowboat, through tall lush forest and tiny bamboo-and-thatch villages, is unquestionably an experience that will stay with me long after 2007 has passed.

2. Los Angeles. It may seem odd to make a city where I lived from 2001 to 2005 my #2 spot for 2007, but I have reason. I spent most of 2006 in Cape Town; and though I love the Cape, I thought often of LA. I remembered places I missed, thought of neighborhoods I never got to explore, and lamented the fact that I had taken no photographs of the city. I had lived in LA while going to college, but I had never really gotten to know the city, never became a local. So when I returned to the US in late December, I took it as my second chance to get to know Los Angeles. I arrived in California on New Year's Eve, ready to start 2007 in LA. I got to know the city in ways I never had, discovering the styles of midtown, the charms of Little Ethiopia, and the grungy pleasures of Echo Park. I shopped at farmer's markets, used public transport, become a local at several cafes. I came to really enjoy the way that life existed somehow between asphalt reality and a fantasy vision that Hollywood had created of itself. In 2007, Los Angeles emerged for me as a place not just where I went to college, but as a city that I really know; a city from which I draw inspiration; and a city that I now think of as a distant, beckoning home.

1. Bangkok. The number one place for 2007 was, without question, Thailand's capital city. With it's addictive flavors, hip urban culture, and lush concrete landscapes, Bangkok grabbed me in a way no other city has. I arrived in Bangkok unsure of what to expect, prepared to hate the city. I had been told for years that the best strategy when traveling in Thailand was to fly into Bangkok, and quickly get out to anywhere else. But the moment my airplane lowered below the clouds and I took in the towering sky-scrapers, piercing wats, and python-curves of the Chao Phraya river, I was entranced, and I've only grown more fascinated since.