Monthly Archives: March 2009

Did you know…

We have come to the third country in our journey, and I have compiled several observations in no particular order.

DID YOU KNOW….

1) That folks in Thailand drive on the left?

2) That monkeys can swim?  I have proof.

3) That silk worms taste like corn and are commonly eaten in Cambodia?

4) That patterns in silk are created by tie-dying individual threads?

5) That if you hack off the spiky parts of a pineapple, make a handle out of the top, and flip it over you have an pineapple popsicle?

6) That Cambodia’s primary currency is the US Dollar?

7) That Vietnam is the primary exporter of pepper?

8) That Jingle Bells is actually a traditional song of the Mekong Delta?  (Actually, this probably is not true, but some Mekong locals did play it for us)

9) That the Khrama, the traditional Khmer scarf can be used as a headdress, a scarf, a towel, underwear, a baby hammock, a purse, and a sweat rag?

10) That it took 300,000 people and 6000 elephants to build Angkor Wat?

11) That the Mekong River changes direction at the Tonle Sap Lake during the wet season and it was this phenomenon that made the building of Angkor possible?

12) That diabetics can eat Palm sugar safely?

14) That there are no fat people in Hanoi?

15) That most of South East Asia uses no toilet paper but rather a kind of hand-held bidet?

16) That antibacterial soap is extremely hard to find?

17) That travelers smoke a lot?

18) That Asians smoke a lot?

19) That elephants have very bristly hair on their skin?

20) That there are many 7 11s in Thailand?

I will have more later, but the Internet place is closing.

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Pimp My Tuk Tuk

Tuk Tuks on Parade

Tuk Tuks on Parade

The best way to get around Cambodia for short distances is via Tuk Tuk. A Tuk Tuk is a motorbike with a rickety, little carriage attached on back. Finding a Tuk Tuk is never difficult, as you will likely get twenty offers for Tuk Tuk hire walking down a single street in Siem Reap. But I recommend that you turn all of them down. All except one. Only one.

His name is Boray and he has been a Tuk Tuk driver for the past few years. Dressed in Dockers, a black, skin-tight muscle shirt and a fedora with an ‘I Heart Kiwi Girls’ button, Boray bears a contagious smile as he greets you with a firm handshake and the promise that he only wants to make you happy. The funny thing is that he is better equipped than anyone in Siem Reap to do it. Wiser than any of his Tuk Tuk counterparts in the ways of the tourist and what makes them happy, Boray equipped his Tuk Tuk with a DVD player, a stereo system, and a microphone making his Tuk Tuk the only Rock and Roll Karaoke Tuk Tuk in the Siem Reap province if not all of Cambodia.

Why would you want any other Tuk Tuk? It would be absurd to make another choice. You can even plug in your MP3 player and create your own soundtrack for the day as you tour the Ancient Temples of Angkor. If you get weary from the sun, Boray can pull over in the shade and turn on a movie for you–he has several different pirated films including a TLC documentary on the mysteries of Ancient Angkor. This movie came in very useful as our guide book left a lot of questions unanswered about the giant monuments surrounding us. If you get hungry, Boray will take you to a decent restaurant, or even feed you Cambodian snacks like Palm sugar cubes, sticky rice in a Banana leaf, or Coconut fruit. If you get bored (which is unlikey), have no fear. Boray keeps up the energy by regularly yelling through his microphone, “Welcome my friends to the Rock and Roll Tuk Tuk, Welcome! Whoooooooo hooooooo! The Only One in town!”

Boray’s English was not so hot, but it didn’t matter. We spend two days touring with him and our faces got tired from smiling so much. Over and over again Boray shared his belief that that tourists only come to Cambodia to be happy, so he figures happiness is what he will give them. But it is not only tourists who benefit from his energy and equipment. Everywhere we went Cambodians and tourists alike would light up in joy as The Rock and Roll Tuk Tuk motored by. Boray was famous. Everywhere we stopped Boray knew someone. Many folks came up to us and said, “You very lucky. He iz da only one,” to which Boray would reply laughing, “Only one!” When we would come down from a Temple, we would always know which Tuk Tuk was Boray’s because, not only was it the only one blasting music, or the only one with plastic flowers attached in a magnetic vase, but because it was always surrounded by a throng of people. Children got really excited as he drove up, knowing that he was the man with the funny movies. We returned from one visit to find about fifteen children pinned to the Tuk Tuk, each of them trying to catch a glimpse of the film, the title of which, roughly translated, means “The Adventures of the bald, fat boys.” They were utterly delighted. We couldn’t bear to pull them away until the movie was over.

Boray entertains

Boray entertains

We gave Boray the gift of Bob Marley. He approved.

If ever you visit Siem Reap, find this man. He will likely be hanging around Pub Street. You can email him at boreyflowertuktuk@yahoo.com. If you can’t find him, pay another Tuk Tuk to bring you to him. It’s worth it.

I’ve never been on the party bus before. But who needs a bus when you have a karaoke Tuk Tuk?

ONLY ONE!

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Street Food, Saigon

I have no idea what this is

I have no idea what this is

Saigon is called the culinary capitol of the country, and with good reason.  There is food everywhere.  Everywhere you go there are people cooking and eating in the street at all times of day.  All of the restaurant menus look just as good as their neighbors, so finding a place to eat is a difficult decision, though there is usually very little risk involved.  Thing is, though, as tempted as you are to sit in a nice restaurant, the best and cheapest food thus far has been found on the street.  To prove this, I will walk you through a day of eating in Saigon.

Wake up early in the morning and prepare yourself for a culinary extravaganza.  For breakfast, you could just walk downstairs and partake of your hotel’s included fare of a small loaf of fresh bread with butter and jam, an omelet, juice and tea.  But this is only is offered at some of the hotels.  In the event your hotel is stingy, head out to the street where vendors eagerly await your rumbling tummy.  There you can buy fruit of all kinds, freshly chopped for you and put into little baggies with a fondue stick to eat it with on the go.  Add to this some pastries off the neighboring cart:  cream puffs, chocolate cream puffs, croissants, and meat pies.   From here, continue on with your morning’s activities.

Around noon you will start to get peckish again.  Head to the big market in District one, where an entire open-air building is full of vendors selling all kind of things from silk scarves to dried squid.  On one side of the building there are between ten and fifteen mini-kitchens with benches all around where locals and internationals alike sit happily munching on Vietnamese fare.  It may take some time to pick which of the booths to choose, particularly because each of them has their own extremely aggressive marketer pushing her menu in your face and pointing to an open table.  Be assertive with what you want and make the rounds before you decide.  Look at what the other people are eating and make your choice that way.

When you finally do sit down, I recommend partaking of either the fresh or the fried spring rolls: very different experiences with the same name.  The fried spring rolls differ from place to place, but the best ones I’ve had so far are wrapped in what tastes like crispy lace.  Chew this slowly and meditate on the complexity and delicacy of a thousand quiet crunches.  The insides can be full of whatever you wish, be it meat or veggies or shellfish or some kind of combination.  If they are sprinkled with black pepper, prepare yourself for a treat.  Dip them into soy sauce for a little bit of heaven.  The fresh spring rolls are made with magical rice paper.  Rice paper is deceptive, for at first it is tough and crackly, like paper.  When it gets wet, it turns soft and moist and delectable.  Inside a fresh spring roll are some vermicelli noodles, rice, shrimp, a strip of pork, lemongrass and Thai basil.  Find yourself some of the dipping sauce made out of hoisin and peanuts to complete the perfect spring roll experience.

For a main course, try something a little out there.  I got myself a dish called tiny pork with udon and a special coconut sauce.  The coconut has a might power, friend, and it works unexplainable wonders when added to fish sauce.  The noodles were thick and worm like, but don’t let this deter you from slurping each one with the same satisfaction as Pumba enjoyed when eating grub in the Lion King.  The little strips of pork added nuggets of protein, the basil strips slices of bursting flavor.

The afternoons in Siagon are the hottest time of day.  Your body will become sluggish and weary, particularly if you just visited the war museum.  You see around you that many of the locals happily sip iced coffee on the sides of the road.  Ask them where they got it, and they will point you to a guy on a motorbike.  Order one of these and will return a minute later carrying iced coffees dangling on trays hanging from the sides of his bike, each cup full of swirling, sweetened, condensed milk .  Stir, sip, stir, sip, stir, sip, be happy.

At dinner time, head back to the market.  Restaurants have set up stands at the night market on the streets outside the main building.  As with lunch, prepare yourself for the same level of marketing agression, but also as with lunch, do not succumb to the pressure.  Go to the restaurants where a guy is grilling on the outside.  Check out his sizzling bbq’ed beef and pork and shrimp and then find some dish that puts that on top of vermicelli noodles or fried rice.  Order some of the garlic greens on the side and one of the local beers to top it off.  Don’t be afraid to pour all of the fish sauce on your dish.  That stuff is magical, I swear:  spicy, savory and sweet all at the same time.  I heard one of the Top Chef winners used it on everything and it was to fish sauce that he acreditted his victory.

Vermacelli noodles, I find, are one of the most satisfying foods on the planet.  They slurp so well.  I think this is why everyone in Vietnam eats them for three meals a day.  They also take on the flavor of whatever sauce they are in, no matter how long they have been there.  They are good dry, wet, and fried.  The feeling of having your mouth overflowing with delicious noodles is one of the best food experiences of my life, and here I can have it as often as I please.

And this, my friend, is a day in Saigon.

Oh, and might I add, something that makes all of this taste even better is that each meal costs just about $2.  Boo ya.

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Hanoing

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Vietnam, from our window

GOOOOOD MORNING VIETNAM! (Is it too corny to say that?  Oh well.  I think I just did.)

We arrived in Vietnam last Wednesday morning.  I decided that the previous Tuesday just simply did not exist.  We skipped right over it.  We beat time.  I think I am a day younger than everyone else.

A bit on the groggy side, we waddled out of the airport prepared to haggle for the price of a taxi.  Set price of $15.  Haggling would have to wait.

Thrilled to be on the ground, we took a look at our surroundings.  To be honest, my first thought was just this:

My God, What have I done?

I really had very few expectations of what Vietnam would be like.  I hadn’t envisioned anything I was about to see.  The plane rides had passed by without any epiphany of purpose or any realization of just how far away our destination was from home.   Then suddenly in the taxi I found myself surrounded by hundreds, thousands of Vietnamese motorists, bicyclists, and rickshaw drivers, all going down the road in what initially seemed to be a rule-less road of chaos.  We all felt the need to close our eyes at times because a bus full of children would merge no more than two feet in front of our cab.  The architecture along the sides of the road was unlike anything I had ever seen: A combination of french colonial and Chinese pagodas painted in Caribbean colors.  Where there were no buildings, there were only rice fields: giant, watery squares stretching outwards for miles, interrupted only by billboards advertising coca cola or displaying Communist propaganda.  Every once in a while we could spot women working in the fields, hunched over and wearing straw, conical hats.

As we got closer to Hanoi, the buildings became more frequent and the motorcycles more numerous.  As we watched the drivers, the madness did seem to have a method to it: a kind of ebb and flow of a tide, or perhaps like a crowded ski slope where the skiers in front have right of way.  When on the slopes, you yell out to the folks in front of you to alert them that you are passing by.  It seemed to be the same on the Vietnamese street, but instead of yelling, everyone tooted their horns.  It is very odd to be in a place where using your car horn is the polite thing to do.  The city rings night and day with horns of all kinds.  I suppose one could call it musical…then again, not really.

Hanoi

Crossing the street is another matter entirely.  It’s all about confidence.  I would recommend not dwelling for too long on this activity’s resemblance to Frogger.  Do your best to make eye contact with the vehicles, and maintain a steady pace as you cross.  Use your peripheral vision to guard yourself from oncoming peril.  If it would make you feel better, hold somebody’s hand.

I am coming to a new understanding of the word, ‘foreign.’  Previous to this trip, my most exotic traveling experience was still in the West, and usually included a language I spoke.  The streets of Hanoi introduced new images in my head of how different lifestyles can be.  All around the city, there were new noises, new smells, new scenes of daily life, none of which I had ever imagined.  Walking around the old part of the city fascinated, and in some cases startled, the senses.  Almost everyone spent their days in the street or cooped up on sidewalks sitting on chairs so small I would rather expect to see a six-year-old using them to host her stuffed animals in a tea party.  Everyone cooked on the ground and ate right on the sidewalk.  Some people burned their garbage while others slept on mats in their storefront.  Everywhere women walked carrying heavy loads.  Frequently, they balanced two baskets dangling from the ends of a long stick across their shoulders.  They offered to sell you a chance to hold this contraption for a photo-op.  Everywhere men follow you offering a motorbike ride.

Sidewalk life

Sidewalk life

It is easy to  dismiss Hanoi as dirty, noisy, and overall unpleasant, and most certainly no place to take your Grandma.  But somehow I remembered that despite the cultural differences that cause immediate discomfort, God works through the differences.  He created diversity on purpose, and to travel and see the range of differences can be an illuminating form of worship.  Though I recognized so little, I knew that because God knows no bounds, He must be at home everywhere.

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What time is it in Hanoi?

Next week I head off to Vietnam.  I will be there Tuesday/Wednesday.  I write the slash because I have no idea what time/day it will be back in the USA.  I should figure that out.  Regardless, next week sometime I will be perusing the streets of Hanoi, touring floating markets, hiking the northern mountains, sailing Hao Long Bay, and seriously contemplating taking a sip of snake wine just for the bragging rights.snake-wine21

Given my new surroundings, my posts to this blog will likely read more like a travel journal than the collection of random thoughts it normally comprises.  Just a heads up.   I am still figuring out how to post photos efficiently and prettily, and will have an announcement about that when I make it work.  As of now, please visit my Picasa site.  

This trip has been so long in the making it feels CRAZY it will actually begin next week. We start in Hanoi then will gradually make our way through Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia over the course of six weeks.  Other than this rough sketch, we have no set itinerary.  This is real ‘flying by the seat of our pants’ traveling.

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