Friday, February 26, 2010

Islands of the South China Sea.

Though it feels like we just got to Taiwan (I guess we sort of did), we're departing again early tomorrow morning. We had a great time here-- so great that I spent more time just enjoying myself than blogging-- and have firmly made up our minds to come back in June, to spend at least one year here. This will be a return to an old home for Bordeaux, but a new one for me, and I'm looking forward to the opportunities it will present.

Our last time in Asia, we were based in Bangkok, which we used to great effect as a base for exploring continental Southeast Asia-- we covered lots of ground in the Mekong river basin, from the far reaches of Thailand, all the way down Laos, across Cambodia, and up the length of Vietnam.

This time, I'm hoping to get to know the islands of Southeast Asia. The quirky individuality of life in Taiwan has really given me an appreciation of island life, and I'm now eager to see what it's like on the neighbouring atolls. I'm hoping to explore new spaces, like Indonesia, Hong Kong, the Philippines, and the islands of the Straits. Altogether, the South China Sea makes up a strangely disparate community-- from the wild spaces of Borneo, to the gleaming emporiums of Singapore, to the high rises of Hong Kong.

We're getting an early start tomorrow: we're heading to Sabah, on Malaysian Borneo, for about two weeks before we continue on to visit family in ZA and the USA. We've done a little research, but we're doing this pretty blindly, to be honest. We're open to what we encounter, and looking forward to new suprises. Blogging will of course be irregular, but I'm looking forward to sharing a little of it with you as we go.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

(a little less) chop chop.

One habit we've picked up in adapting to a lifestyle in the East is carrying around our own chopsticks wherever we go. It might feel super-nerdy pulling out a pair of one's own chopsticks, but the wood saved with habitual use is well worth the effort.

Pictured above: Muji Chopsticks with case, 190NT (appx. $6).

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

eatingCULTURE/eaten: Papaya Milk.

The first thing I consumed after arriving in Taipei back in 2008, Papaya Milk remains one of my favorite Taiwan treats. Ripe papaya is blended with milk for a creamy, earthy, sweet-but-not-too-sweet smoothie. It's available fresh, from night market stalls or from fast-food style vendors, or pre-made at 7-11s, where it's sold in fantastically retro packaging. It's perfect for a steamy summer's afternoon in the southern town of Kaohsiung (where the drink is recognized as a local treasure)-- but as I found out this month, is just as delicious on a drizzly Chinese New Year's holiday in chilly Hsinchu.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Redressed in Taiwan.

After a year of not getting any new clothes in South Africa (where they were too expensive and mainly dull), we quickly got back into shopping upon our return in Asia. In Taiwan, we're playing around with the local nerdy fashion-- a mix of retro preppy and street styles.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Style shopping in Bangkok.

Bangkok can be an ideal destination for shopping, but great style and prices aren't always easy to find. A few extra tips will ensure that you leave Krungthep with a happier suitcase.

Bordeaux, re-styled after a day in Bkk.

1. Check out the malls, even if you never take out your wallet. Bangkok has some of the most incredible shopping malls in the world-- like the elegant and high-end Gaysorn, hip and funky Central World, and classic Siam Paragon. The shops are a mix of international labels, with some local talent thrown in-- check out Greyhound (at Paragon) for offbeat Thai fashions, Thann (flagship store at Gaysorn) for incredible spa products, and Vanilla Industry (across from Siam Centre toward the back of Siam Square) for great lattes and cupcakes. But perhaps the best part of a day spent among these malls is the people watching-- it's a great way to get a sense of Bangkok style.

2. Give MBK a miss: At some point, the MBK shopping mall developed a reputation for being a great place for cheap shopping. Tourists weren't the only ones in on this secret however, and the vendors caught on. The result is that most of the clothing at MBK is aimed solely at tourists, and is not only overpriced, but severely lacking in style-- you'll see about twenty stalls selling an identical selection of tacky Beer Chang t-shirts.

3. Get to the Platinum Fashion Mall, and give yourself some time: The Platinum Fashion Mall is-- for now, anyway-- everything that people expect from MBK. The selection is staggering, and the prices are terribly low. It's a little harder to get to than MBK, being a bit of a walk up from Phloen Chit MRT Station on Phetchaburi Road, but it's worth the effort. But give yourself time to search-- the shops at this massive wholesale shopping mall are incredibly varied, though not all are worth a browse. Among the aisles and aisles of shops, you'll find hip clothes, particularly some great warddrobe basics, like simple cardigans, sunglasses, belts, and t-shirts in solid colors. It takes searching, but the clothes and their prices are worth it-- especially if you buy more than two or three pieces from a vendor, thereby earning a decent wholesale discount.

4. Hit up Chatuchak Market, but be selective: Spending a day at the Chatuchak Weekend Market (also known as the Jatujak Market, or the JJ Market) can easily go one of two ways: it can be a fantastic day of picking up style from hip Thai designers, or it can be a sensory overload of too much stuff that you have no interest in. The trick is knowing the layout of the market. The vast bulk at the centre of the market is of little interest for most shoppers, and many visitors get tripped up by simply heading inward and getting majorly overwhelmed in the process. For hip clothes, focus on the lane running parallel to Kamphangphet Road (the far left side of the market when viewed from the BTS station)-- it's particularly good for funky t-shirts and boutique stalls, with designers like the local Hey Pilgrim!. Later, head to the far opposite corner, where some small cafes are tucked in among artist's galleries.

5. If you can't make JJ, get to Suan Lum: It's not the same experience, and the prices are higher, but the Suan Lum Night Bazaar is certainly convenient. Firstly, it's right in the centre of Bangkok, being right up the stairs from the Lumphini MRT station. Secondly, it's open every night, so you don't have to time your visit to a weekend. Thirdly, the crowds are not as intense as at Chatuchak. So while the shopping may not be as rewarding, it's perhaps a more relaxed spot to pick up some t-shirts and a new pair of sunglasses.

So enjoy the city, bargain well-- and let me know if you find a local designer particularly worth seeking out.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Thursday, February 18, 2010

eatingCULTURE/eaten: Kraw-coo-ka-pi.

One of the last things I ate before leaving Bangkok was one of the first things I ate when I got back-- kraw-coo-ka-pi (to use the spelling provided on their sign). In this salad, a pile of brown rice is topped with a diverse mix of ingredients: coriander, chopped chili, strips of egg, spring onion, shallots, little dried shrimp, candied pork sausage and whole dried chili. A well scooped bite is a mix of fresh, salty, sharp, and spicy, with a tiny hint of sweetness. As a dish, it neatly sums up what I love about Thai food, and what I missed while I was away: fresh, distinctive flavors are combined to startlingly delicious results.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

eatingCULTURE/eaten: Salt Encrusted Fish.

Our return to Bangkok was of course an excuse to indulge in some of our old favorite dishes, but it was also an opportunity to try a few things we'd always been curious about. With its body entirely coated in coarse salt, the grilled salt-encrusted fish had always intrigued me, but I'd never found the chance to try it. So when we passed by a stand that seemed to specialize in them, we took the hint, ordered one, and grabbed a table. The fish arrived with its salty-skin already peeled back for us, and accompanied by a small bowl of a spicy chili sauce. The fish's mouth had been stuffed with lemongrass, which gave a gentle flavor to its delicate white flesh. And the salt, somewhat strangely, gave the fish an added moisture-- by first leaching the moisture out of it, and then gently infusing it back in.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Happy New Year (for reals this time)!

When 2010 came in on January 1, Bordeaux and I were both in bed, willfully sleeping out the last minutes of the previous year. 2009 turned out not to be so great, and we were so glad to have it end that we didn't really have the energy to celebrate the new year. Maybe as a residual effect of these feelings, January still felt like it belonged to the previous year-- we spent the first month of 2010 still stuck in South Africa, facing the same frustrations and annoyances that bogged us down in 2009.

Luckily, we got a second chance to start the year out right. Our return to Taiwan coincided with the biggest holiday of the year here, Chinese New Year. And thankfully, we faced this one with a lot more optimism. As the sun went down and the fire-crackers started popping, we jumped on our bike and zipped through the streets of Hsinchu, keeping an eye upward to watch the burst of the fireworks announcing that the year of the tiger was starting.

So I can say, with honesty this time, happy new year! And on that note, we're heading up to Taipei for some shopping, eating, and hot-springing.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Back in Asia.

We've made it safely back to Asia. That rather silent gap you may have noticed has been filled with seeing old friends, shopping, and eating some incredible food. And mainly, just really, really enjoying being back. Getting back here feels just so right, in ways I wouldn't have expected.

There will of course be some entries on our short stay in Bangkok, and on life in Taiwan, once I get my act together.

Pictured above is the East Gate in Hsinchu, Taiwan, our home for the month-- and possibly longer.