Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Thursday, September 23, 2010

QUOTE FOR TODAY

"Travel is good for many things, not the least of which is testing your national values against those of other countries."

(from Timothy Egan's editorial in the NYTimes)

Monday, June 28, 2010

MALAYSIA (Part 2): KUCHING, BORNEO


I had a toothache on the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Kuching, the capital of Malaysian Borneo, and by the time we landedI needed a dentist. We sped off in a cab to Dr. Roki’s clinic which was about to close for the weekend. Any thoughts of cannibals and wild jungle animals were quickly dispelled by the drab new strip malls and walled residential compounds that spread far out for miles from the old center of town. You can still find Indian spice traders and vendors of local handicrafts in the old part of town by the riverfront, but the new world has elbowed its way in, as KFC franchises and bulky new hotels along the riverside promenade attest.

The area around Carpenter Street is the most attractive part of the old town, best for exploring on foot. Old shop houses line the streets, providing shaded arcades for passing shoppers, who are buying everything from food and spices to dishes, gowns and tires. We snacked on dim sum, curried meat patties, and rich Sarawak coffee as we rambled through the neighborhood.

After exploring the downtown streets we crossed the river in a small wooden commuter boat, and found an old area of colorful wooden houses built on stilts, gardens lush with banana and palm trees, and surprised, but welcoming residents. It seems that few tourists cross to the far side of the river.

The city has enough sights to keep you busy for a few days (long enough to add a few extra meals).The Sarawak Museum has a small but excellent collection of tribal arts, featuring flamboyant carved doorways, finely woven baskets and mats and replicas of traditional houses. The Textile Museum has an collection of native textile arts, and also explains some of the culutral contexts (like weddings) for which these elaborate textiles were made. Air conditioning enhances the art in both places.

A row of colonial-era buildings facing the river is filled with shops selling local handicrafts and trinkets. Baskets, bronzes, bamboo furniture, t-shirts and key chains all glorify the indigenous tribes of Borneo. But the most beautiful handmade item I saw was the sarawak cake, a colorful, mosaic-like loaf, whose densely layered designs suggest embroidery or inlaid wood. A free sample test of the dense, sugary cake was enough for me—I just wanted to buy one and wear it.

Kuching is noted for its food, and it lived up to its reputation. Spices are everywhere: cinnamon, coriander,cardamom, anise, saffron, turmeric, ginger, cumin, nutmeg, poppyseeds and peppercorns are easily found among the myriad other exoticofferings. There isn’t a lot of street food here (ice cream served in a hamburger bun was the most unusual). Instead vendors have been gathered into hawker stalls, where we ate great local cuisine at reasonable prices. This is where you’ll find a traditional bowl of laksa, a coconut-rich noodle soup with tamarind, shrimp paste and fresh herbs, that is one of the local specialties.

While doing research for this trip, we met Annie and Nate through their great food blog. They’d just moved to Kuching a few weeks before our arrival. Annie was born in Malaysia, but for the past 15 years has lived in California, where she married Nate and had two beautiful children. They took us on a jaunt to the weekend market, a street sprawling with vendors of vegetables, meat, candies, sneakers, plants, and of course, the exotic fruits common to Borneo.

Annie knew her stuff, pointing out local produce, and haggling with the merchants in Malay (one of 5 languages she speaks). With her guidance, I had my first real taste of fresh durian, that spiky orb of forbidden fruit (it is not allowed on airplanes and some hotels and public buildings) whose pulpy pellets emit a creamy, flowery, cheesey taste unlike anything I’d eaten before. It has a short season and is highly prized by locals. When she saw them, Annie’s eyes grew wide with a delight that could only have been learned in childhood.

I had experienced the flavor of durian in ice cream and cakes in Thailand, but the real fruit is another thing altogether. I didn’t notice the strong, repellent odor I’d heard so much about, but the sensation in my mouth--taste, texture, delayed overtones of flavor—was one of the strangest culinary experiences I’ve had. I popped a thumb-sized node of durian into my mouth and felt a brief electric jolt go through my body. It was at once intoxicatingly aromatic and shockingly repugnant. The texture was a big surprise, at once familiar and completely new, very creamy, like warm fois gras, melted marshmallows, a sticky, fruity pudding quivering between pleasure and regret. I can’t wait to try it again.


************************************************

TRAVEL INFORMATION

Air Asia has flights all over the region.

www.fireflyz.com.my has flights between points in Malaysia.

http://my.countrysearch.tradekey.com/palm-oil.htm
for economic information about Malaysia

‘House of Annie’ food blog: http://chezannies.blogspot.com/

Malaysia travel guide http://www.kuching-hotels.com/travel-guide.htm


KUCHING TIPS

The Riverfront Hotel is in an old converted house—simple and inexpensive, good location. Look on google for information (no website at time of writing).

The Top Spot Food Court is a casual open-air place offering a vast array of fresh seafood, cooked to order.

Monday, June 14, 2010

CAIRO: GUT REACTIONS


We’d been out in the glaring sun for hours, exploring the back streets of Cairo, when we reached the remnants of the old city walls. In the shadow of the massive mud-brick fortifications an animal market was winding down. Men in desert-colored robes tended a few tired looking donkeys and horses. Cabbage leaves and bruised tomatoes lay on the ground nearby, the last traces of a morning vegetable market. Passing through a wide gap where the old gates once stood, we found ourselves in the abattoir, Cairo’s meat slaughtering district.




Dark skinned workers with blood stained aprons lifted entire cows from open trucks. Row of sheeps' heads, impaled on sharp metal spikes, decorated wooden tables laden with lamb shanks, recently shorn. Glistening strands of something white—like skeins of wool dipped in rubber--hung in clumps everywhere. Tendons? Cartilege? Intestines? I was never quite sure, but it was nothing I'd seen at the markets back home. A donkey cart passed, piled high with a cargo of fresh viscera. The sharp mid-day sun glinted off the shiny surface of the mound of organs, creating an impression they were still pulsing. Chopping blocks made from huge tree trunks, along with hundreds of knives, cleavers, scrapers and saws were on sale nearby. The sound of metal whacking against wood provided a background rhythm, its beat irregular.

Revolted but fascinated, I felt far away from the plastic wrapped beefsteaks of an American supermarket. We’d seen lots of animals in Cairo—a flock of sheep around the corner from the Nile Hilton, a few scraggly goats passing by the mosque of Ibn Tulun, a lone camel tethered near the busy Nasser metro stop. The bloody, raw images of slaughtered meat seemed a natural part of this teeming metropolis, where the line between rural village and cosmopolitan city is blurred.

Far from our hotel--totally lost in fact--we finally waved down a cab. Exhausted by our long walk and the confrontation with so many carcasses, we exchanged salaams with our driver and settled into the back seat of the taxi to relax. Suddenly a familiar voice rang out from the radio. “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me” It was Aretha, the Queen of Soul, in Cairo! As surprising as it was welcome, it made the ache in my legs disappear. “Whip it to me!” The voice soared higher, but reached deeper, down into the gut, the viscera, where the true meaning of the song exists. As we sped by the last of the slaughtered animals, Aretha's raw gospel sound wafted out the window, like a farewell paean. “Sock it to me, sock it to me!”
--Jim Johnston, May 2010

Aretha Franklin at Obama's inauguration
Click HERE for more Aretha






Thursday, June 3, 2010

GREECE: ANCIENT CERAMICS AND A BOWL OF SALAD


We landed in Athens just as Greece was making international headlines for its financial debacle.
The Plaka area was filled with young, sun-glass clad Athenians sipping five-euro iced coffees--What, me worry? was all I could feel there.  A group of placard-toting protesters in Omonia square seemed tired and ready to go home.  I kept trying to find the Greek-ness in Greece. Athens sports a euro-genic facade, a blurring around the edges, a striving eastward that feels like the country's on the edge of its seat.

But the Greek salads, and the ceramics at the Archeology Museum were knockouts!  Take a look:



MALAYSIA (Part 1): KUALA LUMPUR


     We ended up in Malaysia by chance. The offer from AirAsia.com to fly their new route from London to Kuala Lumpur for under $400 round-trip was too good to pass up.  We bought the tickets and organized our trip backwards.  The little I’d heard about Malaysia had not engaged my enthusiam, but once arrived in KL we decided to stay and check out Kuching, Penang and Melacca as well as KL.

     The population is a mix of native Malay, Chinese, Indian, and various other immigrants. In a store in Malacca owned by Pakistanis, I met the Japanese saleswoman, Mitsuko. “I live with my American husband in a neighborhood with a Muslim mosque, a Chinese temple, and an Anglican church. Everyone gets along well here.” Malaysia has an inspiring ‘we-are-the-world’ feel, a rainbow coalition, although the darkest skinned people still work most menial jobs, and gays are left in the cold due to conservative religious views and prohibitive colonial era laws.

     The country was unified in 1963, having been a checkerboard of English colonial governments for two hundred years. It’s rich in natural resources (palm oil and rubber are the main exports), and is listed as one of seventeen megadiverse countries by the UN. An economic boom in the late 20th century sent Malaysia rocketing into modernity, and now a hefty portion of it’s income is from manufacturing of domestic electronics and cars. I saw a thriving middle class in Malaysia--the shopping mania that fuels much of Southeast Asia is in full force here. There’s a spic-and-span, new-money feel to some of Malaysia, although poverty and decay are never far out of sight. There’s little in the way of ancestral ruins like Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, but enough new construction to suggest a boom. The shiny new buildings of Malaysia cast their shadows on bamboo huts; it feels like a culture seeking to define itself, continually working out its recipe for coexistence.

KUALA LUMPUR

     Kuala Lumpur (or simply ‘KL’), Malaysia’s largest city (1.7 million), is a decidedly unromantic place, a hodge-podge of a town, with a handful of English colonial buildings, a moderate sized Chinatown, and a gleaming new, hi-rise business zone, to provide sufficient brochure photos to attract the tourists.

     In our hotel room, we watched soap operas in Hindi, and snacked on green pandan cakes.  Our 8th floor view encompassed schoolkids in neat blue and white uniforms, a sober Methodist church, and the Petronas Towers, KL’s signature structure, a genuine architectural marvel. It’s image put KL on the map the way the opera house did for Sidney, and the Guggenheim for Bilbao—it’s trophy architecture, today’s boar’s tooth necklace. Although in this case, the building is not raised to the arts, but to commerce. These glitzy, stainless steel phalli evoke gothic cathedrals, Hindu temples, science fiction space stations, the Chrysler Building, and a pair of corn cobs. It’s architecture that is funny, elegant, and a bit trashy—and it looks like it cost a fortune. There’s a busy food court on the 4th floor of the stunning shopping mall in Petronas Towers, which works well as a visual dictionary of local cuisine.  (Click here for a slide show of Malaysian food.)

     Public transportation is limited, and taxis are expensive in KL. I recommend taking the tourist bus, which loops around the city. You can hop on and off all day for $10.

     We took the efficient monorail to the Chow Kit market, a rare remnant of Malay village life in the heart of the city. At night, Bintang Walk is the liveliest part of town, but it has a dreary sleeze factor. On the nearby street Jalan Alor, however, the night food market was in full swing--the food we had here was the best in KL. 

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

     If you’re traveling with AirAsia, you may end up in KL, their hub city. Malacca makes a more pleasant stop than KL if you’re traveling through, but bus service from the airport is erratic—check at the information desk. You can take a taxi (about $60 each way) or go to KL central station and change to Malacca bus (cheaper but longer) if the direct bus to Malacca is not running.

HOTELS, RESTAURANTS

We stayed at the Ancasa Hotel which was comfortable and near to Chinatown.

I kept looking for a more desirable neighborhood, but didn’t really find one. 

Two more that I saw that looked like possibilities for the next time are:

 
 
The best food was on Jalan Alor, mentioned above. 

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

GAY TRAVEL IN INDIA

An article in The New York Times reports new efforts on the part of the tourism industry to court gay travelers.

The website IndjaPink has more information:
http://www.indjapink.co.in/index1.html#

Monday, May 24, 2010

TRAVEL PHOTOS

Just back from Athens, Cairo, Barcelona & Paris. I'll have more to say later, but meanwhile, you can click HERE to see some photos.

RANGOON


-->
YANGON (Burma)

(December 2008)


     The first sign that something’s different here is the time—Myanmar (still called Burma by many) is 30 minutes behind its neighbor Thailand. But the airport and the drive into town were surprisingly unsurprising. The road was good. We passed large homes, office buildings, and schools, painted white with plants in front. A few billboards showed happy consumers using soap or shampoo like anywhere else.
     When we reached downtown Yangon my first reaction was a mixture of horror and fascination, like seeing an accident on the highway—you don’t know whether to look or turn away. The pavement is broken into so many little pieces that walking down the street is like crossing a stream, hopping from rock to rock. Once-lovely colonial buildings are abandoned, grimy and crumbling. Sidewalks are clogged with vendors of cheap merchandise from China, bits of hardware, or fried crickets. Food stalls with smoking charcoal stoves appear at every corner, as though someone’s kitchen had just fallen onto the street. Garbage is swept into corners and tossed into airshafts of office buildings. Most electricity comes from private generators noisily whining on the sidewalk, and at night, dark side streets look ominous. Central Yangon suggests the aftermath of a war. It’s filled with reminders of former glory, but the present speaks of struggle and drudgery.
     So why do I keep thinking of this place and dreaming about when I can return?
    Travel to painful places follows Buddhism’s oldest parable. The young Buddha leaves his father’s luxurious palace and sets out to witness poverty, disease, old age, and death, the first step toward his Enlightenment. By that standard, Burma is the perfect travel destination.
     In many ways Burma doesn’t seem to have entered the modern world. Monks in burgundy robes and glimpses of gilded shrines affirm the calming, 2500-year old presence of Buddha. But that calm is offset by a certain third-world hysteria. At times it’s like being inside a pinball machine, lights flashing and bells ringing. It’s very much alive.
     Once past the ominous visuals of the place, the open warmth of the people alleviates any apprehension. Having read about the repressive military dictatorship, I expected armed soldiers at every corner, but saw none. Myanmar is considered the safest country in all of southeast Asia, an extremely friendly and comfortable country to visit.   
     The mix of people here recalls the exotic bar scene from ‘Star Wars’. I saw men in ankle-length longyis, women with towels wrapped around their heads, faces daubed with yellow thanaka paste, stern looking Muslim men in long white robes and knit caps, beards dyed Lucille Ball red, blue-black Sri Lankans with baseball caps, monks with shaved heads in autumn-toned robes, women balancing baskets of watermelon wedges on their heads, a man chopping slabs of raw beef on the street, his teeth stained red from chewing betel nuts, people wearing Chinese coolie hats selling dragon fruit, a pair of teenage nuns in baby-pink robes, a Dutch tourist in khaki shorts with a backpack and a Lonely Planet guide—it would be hard not to fit in here.
     Although Myanmar lacks many freedoms we take for granted, complete religious tolerance is a notable feature of life in Yangon. The golden Sule Pagoda dominates the center of downtown, but soon you’re passing mosques, Hindu temples, and Anglican churches. On our first night we came across a full moon ceremony at a Hindu temple, a densely sculpted structure painted in gaudy enamels. We were invited to watch as several men scaled the temple gate, crawling over the sculpted facade, relaying an oil lamp to its peak.

     Numerous Buddhist temples, covered in acres of gold leaf, provide oases of luxury and religious calm amidst the hubbub and squalor. In spite of the apparent poverty, a report in a local newspaper (published in English by the government) told of a neighborhood in Yangon which raised $15,000 to buy gold leaf for their local temple.



     In the morning light, the gold of the famous Shwedagon Pagoda is blinding. The most sacred shrine in all of Myanmar is located a few miles north of downtown, isolated from the urban matrix by trees and parks, and illuminated at night like a golden space ship. It’s a mix of religious theme park and Buddhist Fort Knox, with a history that goes back 2500 years. Having survived years of earthquakes, fires and war, it remains one of mankind’s most powerful monuments to the soul. Dominating a vast raised terrace is a golden bell-shaped dome, 300 feet tall, said to contain strands of the Buddha’s hair. This central zedi is surrounded by dozens of smaller shrines, many completely covered in gold leaf, where people are seen praying, lighting candles and incense, offering flowers, talking and eating. All Burmese hope to get here at least once in their lifetime, and it’s one of the few places where civilians, soldiers, monks and tourists of all economic levels meet.
     Beyond the Shwedagon Pagoda, outside the dense grid of old downtown, new Yangon spreads out for miles to the north, where politicians and rich Chinese businessmen live. Shopping malls, fancy hotels, the university, even a gated golf-course community are found here, but it’s hard to see without a car.
     The transition from city to village happens abruptly in Yangon, and you’ll find yourself shifting from one to the other at the turn of a corner. Shortly after leaving the Shwedagon Pagoda we found ourselves on a dirt path lined with bamboo huts and little gardens with banana and palm trees. Across from the railroad station we saw goats grazing.
     We took a slow commuter train on a 3-hour ride that circles greater Yangon. Thirty minutes after leaving the station the tin roofs of city housing start disappearing. Palm leaf-covered bamboo huts dot the landscape, small rice paddies and village markets seem far away from the urban tangle of downtown.
     As the only non-Burmese people on the train we were put behind a rope near the conductor. We got a few stares, a few ‘mingalabas’(‘good day’) and one “Merry Christmas!” from a young man with red teeth who looked very stoned.
     As food adventure travellers, we ended up visiting just about every market in Yangon. At dusk, vendors fill the streets along Anawratha Road with baskets of meats, fish, fruits and vegetables, selling into the night for as long as their candles burn.
     The big, scrappy Thirimingala  Zei market, a few miles north of downtown, is a multi-storied warehouse bustling with everything edible. You’ll see mountains of fresh ginger root being unloaded from trucks, tens of thousands of bananas still hanging on their stems, artfully arranged baskets of tiny eggplants and wing-beans. We passed what appeared to be an auction of boxes of oranges, lots of yelling and pointing. But the real oddity in this mammoth warehouse is upstairs. A huge amusement park, with rides and games covers the entire fourth floor. It was eerily vacant on the Sunday we went, but I couldn’t resist the ‘Tunnel of Horrors’ train ride full of kitschy paper maché monsters and skeletons.
     The British ruled Burma for over 100 years, leaving behind a decaying architectural legacy and lots of English words. All over Asia you can sense the eagerness to have a command of English, the language of computers and business and money. Signs for hotels, railroad and police stations, and the supermarket are in English. Billboards and product labels mix Anglo words like ‘Digital Video Editing Center’, ‘Happy Cow condensed milk’, ‘VIP room’, ‘weather report’, and ‘anti-dandruff shampoo’ with cursive Burmese-style script.
     The internet has increased the use of English, but finding a place to read our email was not so easy.  We were directed to a place called ‘The Spider Web’, a non-air conditioned space hidden down a labyrinth of hallways in an office building, where young Burmese were busily at work at 40 computer stations. Google, Yahoo and Hotmail are not legally accessible in Burma, but here a young assistant typed in a few numbers, and voilá! –we were in touch with the rest of the planet. In the one fancy hotel we stayed at, they could not do this, confirming our suspicions that it was a clandestine activity at ‘The Spider Web’.
     Burma has no ATM’s, and credit cards are accepted only at a few high-end hotels, which charge up to 30% commission. Even airline tickets must be paid for in cash, which led to a few problems by the end of our trip. We’d booked our last night in Yangon on-line at the luxurious Kandawgyi Lake Hotel. On arrival, we learned that the internet reservation we’d made a week earlier had not arrived. Our credit card didn’t work. We managed to scrape together enough US dollars, along with a few Thai baht and some Hong Kong dollars to pay for the room and one last meal. So, here’s the advice: bring enough US dollars for your whole trip. Bills must be clean, no tears, no marks of any kind.
     After walking 8 to 10 hours a day, the lure of night life didn’t go far beyond the mattress. We were tempted by the numerous cinemas, wildly popular in a country without much television (one night the local channels offered us a choice of a military parade, a long musical number about a hydroelectric plant, or ‘The World’s Richest People’ dubbed in Bamar).
     Lots of Indian films were playing, mixed with Burmese movies that looked like silly sit-coms (funny wigs, big glasses), as well as the new James Bond thriller. Most of the large, gaudy billboards were roughly painted by hand, sporting massive images of starry-eyed lovers in jeweled tiaras.
     One night we went to a club on the roof of a former department store, a massive old building from the days of British rule that seems now like a perfect location for a movie set in a post-nuclear future. A small shaky elevator took us up to ‘Zero Zone’, a pleasant plant-filled terrace with views of the city. We enjoyed the cheap beer and good Chinese/Malaysian food, and then the show started. Asians have an affinity for karaoke that I don’t understand. A heavy-set, middle aged man in a brown longyi and a baseball cap, sort of a Burmese Burl Ives, massacred a few Beatles songs, then was joined by a thin young girl, who sang like a cat in heat, for a duet of the country and western favorite, ‘ The Green Green Grass of Home’.  “It sounds like the cast album for ‘Night of the Living Dead—The Musical’, Nick quipped as we ordered more beer. Then there was the fashion show, apparently a standard feature in Burmese night-club entertainment. Seven girls in Pucci-print dresses moved forward, then moved backward, then disappeared. So did we.  
     Burma offers lots of culinary adventure. “Very interesting,”or “weird” were words we used frequently to described the Burmese food we ate, but “delicious” was not far behind, and, only once or twice did a  “yuk!” pass our lips. 
     For breakfast we ate mohinga, served at street stalls everywhere. For about fifty cents, you get your choice of brothy noodles, (wide, skinny, rice, wheat) perked up with bits of herbs, nuts, spices, chicken or fish. Every one was different, and every one was delicious.
     For lunch and dinner, things got more complicated. It’s hard to find ‘nice’ Burmese restaurants (the fancy ones are Chinese or European), so we ended up eating at simple hole-in-the-wall places, or sitting on tiny plastic stools on the sidewalk (for the record, my only digestive problem occurred after the 15-hour return flight from Hong Kong to New York).
     The national cuisine, which mixes influences from India, Thailand, and China among others, has a color problem. Meats, fish or vegetables are often cooked in thick sauces or curries, with a layer of oil floating on top (for flavor as well as protection against bacteria in the heat). Ox-blood reds, sludgy browns, grayish-greens, and murky yellows predominate in these concoctions, which are usually spread out buffet-style, so you can point and choose easily. Meals come with mountains of white rice, a plate of raw mixed greens (often lettuce, cabbage, string beans, okra, mint and other herbs unknown to us), stewed lentils (like Indian dal), a clear soup, often flavored with black pepper, and several dishes of chili pastes and other dips made with fermented fish sauce (these were the most pallate-challenging parts of the meal). Sometimes there were as many as 16 plates on our table. As the influences suggest, the tastes were often Indian-like, Thai-like, or Chinese-like, but the part that is un-like anything dominates—Burmese food is in a class of its own. Highly spiced (but not hot—that’s added with the side dishes of chili paste), fragrant, and occasionally sweet, the flavors were something new. And food in Myanmar is cheap--our meals rarely cost more than two dollars. 
     The night market on 19th Street in the so-called ‘Chinatown’ of Yangon proved to be the culinary highlight. It’s a lively scene with lots of young people out for some fun and good, inexpensive food. Tables with the ubiquitous plastic stools are set up near barbeque grills all along 19th street near Mahabandoola Road. You pick from a wide variety of meat, fish, vegetables and tofu on skewers and hand them to the cook, who bathes them with a thick dark sauce and sticks them on the grill. You can also choose from lots of vegetables for a delicious stir fry, or get a whole fish  stuffed with green herbs and rubbed with a black spicy mixture—Burmese meets Cajun—that was one of the most delicious things I’ve eaten in my life.
    There’s a tempting variety of street food snacks in Yangon, too. We sampled Muslim noodle dishes, sweet sticky-rice cakes, deep-fried vegetable samosas, Indian milk and coconut candies, fresh squeezed sugar cane juice, and  refreshing jackfruit. We skipped the frightening apples from China (millions of them all over town, each one suspiciously perfect in size and color). But one taste experience remains with me, calling me back to Yangon--a drink is called shwe-yin-aye (which means ‘to cool down the golden chest’), which I found on the busy corner of Mahabandoola and Pagoda Roads. Even my hair felt hot that day in the relentless mid-day sun, when I spied relief: a pretty young girl scooping a handful of crushed ice into a glass mug. A ladle-full of baby doll pink liquid, heavy with tiny green and white dots of tapioca, was poured over the ice and handed to a smiling customer. It looked like a liquid Christmas present. I squatted down on the kindergarten-size plastic stool and pointed. “One of those please.”  When the cool, delicious strawberry and coconut milk concoction reached my palate, something happened. At that moment, I learned a simple Buddhist trick of coping with the chaos, the dirt, the fumes, the noise, the rats, the traffic, the vendors, the beggars, the decay, the spitting of red betel-juice laden saliva on the broken pavement of downtown Yangon. I focused on the now. I stared into the rosy mug, hunched my shoulders slightly to create a personal cave, closed my eyes, and felt perfectly alive and happy.
    I come from a family of six children, which might explain why I’m compelled to understand how people manage to live together in tight spaces and end up happy.  Living most of my life in New York City and Mexico City, I’ve had time to observe different urban life styles. Burma is a wounded civilization, and Yangon, its biggest city, has some of the biggest scars. But while the cruel politics of Burma might define the country, is does not define its people. Yangon is like a motherless child, sad and aching, but also attracting tenderness and love, and admiration for its survival.

**********************************************************************

IF YOU GO:  Buy the Lonely Planet Guide. It’s one of their best.
There are no direct flights to Myanmar from the U.S.
Air Asia (www.airasia.com)  and Yangon Air ( www.yangonair.com ) both fly
from Bangkok for around $150 R/T
HOTELS: We wanted to be in the thick of things downtown. There are lots of cheap and simple guest houses. We tried one (the Okinawa) but left because the A/C didn’t work.
The Thamada Hotel is clean and attractive (teak floors) and costs about $30/night.  The Central Hotel is about the same price, with a slightly better location, but had musty carpeting.
The Kandawgyi Palace Hotel is lovely and luxurious,with a nice pool and gardens, but you must take taxis to get anywhere.
We poked into the fabled Strand Hotel to use the facilities. The place was spookily empty, which didn’t help, but it was dull, the lobby decor uninspired, lacking in luxury that the $300-a-night price tag had led me to imagine. And no pool, the one real luxury you’ll want here.
Use www.asiarooms.com or www.agoda.com for booking hotels in Asia.
Excellent travel information is available through www.myanmargoodnewstravel.com, a Yangon-based travel agency. He can plan your whole trip.
Sandy’s Myanmar Cuisine is the only ‘nice’ Burmese restaurant we found. It’s right next door to the Kandawgyi Palace Hotel. We had our first and our last meal there.
We loved our first meal, but by the end it struck us both as ‘dumbed down’ for foreign palates--but worth a try for sure.  The only other place we ate in that was fancy enough to have a business card was Danuphyu Daw Saw Yee Restaurant, No 15 Mahabawga Street, tel. 500159 (a taxi ride from downtown). Everything else we ate was street or market food, which we chose just by seeing what looked good, or seeing which stands had crowds. You’ll find simple Indian restaurants around when you get tired of Burmese food.
EXCHANGING MONEY: Most likely your taxi driver from the airport can supply you with anything—hotel, airline tickets, money.  He took us to the main market to exchange dollars.  It seemed creepy at first, but we went back several times and it’s just fine, and seemingly legal. Don’t change money on the street. I repeat this advice:
bring enough clean, unmarked U.S.dollars for your entire trip.

Food article: http://grantourismotravels.com/2015/07/27/what-to-eat-in-myanmar/

Saturday, March 6, 2010

MOM IN MOROCCO

The travel website perceptivetravel.com  has just published another of my stories, this time about a recent visit with my mother in Morocco,
where she's working as a Peace Corps volunteer.

Click HERE to read the story (the link does not work from your email--you must go to my blog first).

If you're interested in following more of Mom's adventures, check out her blog at www.muriel-morocco.blogspot.com

Monday, February 15, 2010

TRAVEL TIPS

When researching flights I usually try two things--www.kayak.com
which compares various search engines offering airline tickets, and I also go directly to the website of the airlines themselves, where I've often found better rates.  However, budget airlines, like Easy Jet, Ryan Air, Air Asia, etc. are often not included on major search engines.  Finally I found a site that includes them--keep this one for your files:

www.momondo.com 


Another website I use frequently is  www.tripadvisor.com to compare hotels.  It contains reviews from readers with a point-rating system.  

Buen viaje!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

SAIGON (2009)



     Riding into town from the airport in Ho Chi Minh City (hereafter Saigon, as many still call it) I was struck by the modernity of it all. Glitzy stores named (in English) Love Affair, Itsy-Bitsy, Peek-a-Boo, Splash and Soho appear amidst old-fashioned Vietnamese shops and food stalls, run by village women wearing conical straw hats. Expensive condo developments entice you with names like The Lancaster, The Legend, and The Heritage. The sidewalks feel as though they’re being laid in front of you as you walk. There’s construction everywhere, a surge of economic uplift (which disappears quickly as you leave the city) along with aggressive mercantile energy.  There’s little feel of Communist severity here these days. It’s a lively place, bordering on the chaotic, but the mood is upbeat and the place is colorful--many buildings are painted blue and pink, red, yellow, and green (it looks like Mexico City from the air). 

     When I think of Saigon, I can’t get the traffic out of my head.  It’s one of the most fascinating displays of human adaptive behavior I’ve witnessed anywhere, a fusion of stock car racing and ballet. Motor bikes—thousands and thousands of them-- far outnumber cars (the few you do see are often exceedingly expensive BMWs, Mercedes and bulky sport vans). The city is filled with constantly flowing traffic, helmet-clad drivers beeping and honking ceaselessly like a flock of flatulent sheep. 

     The traffic moves like a school of fish heading downstream, tilting, veering, swarming, speeding up and slowing down, sliding in and out, directed by an unconcious voice of the collective. I saw a man holding his infant son with one arm as he drove, engraving the motion into the boy’s body.  People hop on, side-saddle, and zip off with ease, like slipping on a pair of flip-flops and going for a stroll. I saw no accidents (except my own, when I got knicked by a bike going the wrong way), few applications of brakes, and a paucity of traffic lights to control the frenzy. It appears to control itself. The show is amazing, especially at traffic circles.

     Crossing the street or riding on the back of a motorbike provided some of the thrill of being in Saigon, something akin to the mixture of fear and fun that you get in an amusement park. At many intersections, one must simply walk into a gap in the traffic and hope that the waters will part as you inch your way across the street. My technique was to stand near a sturdy local, take a deep breath and enter the fray with them.

     On Saturday night along the park the kids line up their scooters, front wheels pointing toward the street, and hang out around their bikes near the Ben Than Market. As many people undoubtedly live in tightly confined spaces, one’s motorbike can become an extension of home. Even when it pours, thin plastic hooded raincoats come out, and the traffic roars on. Few people walk, and pedestrians have minority status.

     The visceral thrill of the traffic make Saigon’s other attractions seem tame. Most of what’s interesting to tourists is located in District One. It’s surprisingly fancy, with designer stores, swanky high-rise hotels, and small, well-kept parks. The old Rex Hotel was fun for a drink; you can imagine Saigon in it’s colonial days. But we found a more intriguing view of Saigon outside the center. We hunted for a street market we’d noted on the map and ended up at Cho Ng Th.Trung (off Dai Lo Tran Hung Dao in District 5). Passing by an area of casket makers, their shops decorated with colorful funeral adornments, we saw a woman making paper lanterns, carefully painting their caligraphic images, and we saw enough nurseries to suggest that house plants are a popular here. We had one of the best meals of our stay at this neighborhood market—a noodle soup brightened with a pile of mixed aromatic herbs heaped on just before eating. The fact that the fresh noodle factory was just across the street guaranteed their freshness.


     Although there seem to be hundreds of tour companies offering trips outside the city, we opted to visit the Cao Dai Temple, about 3 hours north, on our own (with the help of a hired car and driver).  There are no expressways in Saigon, so it took almost 2 hours of driving before we reached true countryside. The blur of urban construction was fairly uniform and modern, its most distinctive feature being sheer expanse.


      Cao Dai, founded only in 1926, is an eclectic mix of religion, philosophy and mysticism whose deities incude Jesus, Joan of Arc and Victor Hugo. It claims millions of adherents and at one point was so powerful that it had its own army. We arrived in time for the daily noon service, in which hundreds of white clad men and women chanted in unison amidst gaudy, Disney-goes-Hindu décor.

                                ***************************************

     The mania for learning English makes it fairly easy for western travellers in Saigon. We met Kim, a 24-year old health insurance salesman, who also runs a small guest house where he hosts a weekly English club on his rooftop terrace. He urged us to come as it was Halloween and he wanted help with decorations and make-up. I sat next to four bright eyed thirteen-year old girls with black Halloween smudges on their faces.  Their English was impressive. “So what do you think of Obama?” I asked. “I like Bush better,” one of them answered. “My aunt lives in Missouri and she told me he was better because he sends out a lot of Christmas cards.” I don’t know how I missed that fact during the presidential debates, but I tried to suggest that maybe thinking about a dishonestly begun war and the deaths of thousands would provide a better standard of judgement.  Her eyes opened wide and she replied, “Yes, maybe I should think about that.” While most of the English students were quite young, I sat next to one older woman who was missing a few teeth.  She is a maid who cleans the house of a couple from Bulgaria. I wondered how many maids in other countries were learning English. 
 
FOOD
 At Quan Loan (at the corner of Hai Ba Trung and Ly Tu Trong) we sat on little plastic stools along with other guys drinking beer and downing snacks.  The pickled vegetable fried with garlic, grilled okra and whole fish with miso dip, the beef satay, and the shrimp “sweet leaves” salad were all expertly prepared. So good, in fact, that we didn't notice the fumes of passing motorbikes.
Quan An Ngon (160 Pasteur) is an attractive and popular (with tourists and locals) upscale restaurant  where you can see the food being prepared, street stall style. It's a good place to try traditional dishes in a nicer-than-market setting.
Dín Ký (137 C. Nguyen Trai) restaurant is worth a visit just to read the menu: crocodile, chicken testicles, ox penis and deer tendon were just a few of the oddities you’ll find. We ordered the 'black chicken' which came whole in its truly black broth in a little crock.
     Other Saigon food highlights include the already-mentioned Ben Than Market, which has numerous food stalls with photo menus. One stand offering an amazing variety of shellfish served juicy scallops tossed with chile and herbs that was outstanding.

     Ché cháp cam (“sweet soup”) was another market treat—we had a different one each day. These colorful drinks combine coconut with a wide array of small additions: tapioca pearls, sago buttons, beans, corn and more providing curious textural contrasts. 

HOTELS
We first stayed at the Sophia Hotel (about $50 per bnight) which was clean and neat, rooms a bit small but well appointed, nice bathroom, free internet. Later we switched to the Duna Hotel.  The top floor room 901 has great views. The free tube of toothpaste at the Duna was the smallest I've ever seen, barely one good squeeze, its color  a frightening emerald green, the texture a mix of window putty and gummy bears. But how surprised I was to see it, tucked into its white cardboard carton along with a perfectly serviceable toothbrush, at a $25 dollar a night hotel.  The place had charm, if not elegance.  I liked the area better than that of the Sophia.

 A few other highlights of Saigon are:
The Reunification Palace, designed by Paris-trained architect  Ngo Viet Thu is a designer's dream-come-true of high 1960’s style.
The Museum of Fine Arts is notable for its fine colonial architecture, but the art collection itself (especially the newer stuff) is almost a joke. 
Check out Nguyen Trai street at night for a glimpse of what young, trendy Saigonese are up to. 
The  zoo and botanical gardens offer atractive relief from the steam heat. 

While Hanoi definitely trumps Saigon in terms of charms, I found the brassy energy of the place extremely seductive, the food great, and the people, as all over Vietnam, warm, welcoming, and inquisitive.  
 

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

BANGKOK


BANGKOK

Jim's Bangkok Tips (updated Jan. 2017)

Important! Check that your passport has 6 months left on it from the date of your arrival in Thailand, a requirement for entry.

Get the app MAPS.ME on your iPhone, then download the map of Thailand. I just discovered this recently and found it incredibly helpful getting around Bangkok, a very complicated city.

Get Nancy Chandler’s map of Bangkok on Amazon. The graphics are a bit cutesy but it’s full of great information.  Updates--lots of good info--are posted here:  http://www.nancychandler.net/bangkok-updates.html


At the airport, ignore anyone offering you taxi services and follow signs downstairs to 'public taxis'. Tell the dispatcher where you're going. You get a ticket and will be shown to a metered cab. You pay 2 tolls in addition the the meter fare if the taxi takes the freeway (say yes if he asks). Give money to the driver at the tollbooths (around 40 baht each).

Check www.kayak.com for flights to Asia, www.airasia.com for cheap flights within the region; also www.silkair.com and www.nokair.com—these small airlines often do not show up on sites like Travelocity.
www.fireflyz.com.my is a Malaysia based airline serving smaller towns in SE Asia.

A good website about Bangkok—
http://www.thaizer.com


Drink lots of water and have a good supply of moist towlettes--it's hot and humid there.


WHERE TO STAY

Check this website--http://www.thaizer.com/accommodation/where-to-stay-in-bangkok/ which describes the various areas of Bangkok with hotel recommendations.

Check www.asiarooms.com for all hotel bookings in Asia. www.agoda.com is another hotel site I frequently use. Booking online is almost always lots cheaper than just walking into a hotel.

When booking a hotel, try to get something near to public transportation--the Skytrain (known as BTS, which, when spoken as in English, most taxi drivers will understand), metro or the riverboat.

You may have heard of Khao San Road, but don't stay there unless the idea of a non-stop international frat party sounds good. For single travelers, it might be fun.

We've stayed all over town, but we often return to the Bossotel, which is close to both Skytrain (Saphan Taksim stop) and river boat (Sathorn stop), reasonably priced and quite comfy, with a pool and nice breakfast--around $50/night. Hotels in Bangkok can be great bargains. Make sure to get a room with windows facing the street--some face interior airshafts. 
Another charming place we liked, near to the Grand Palace is the Baan Dinso, in an old wooden house. (Make sure it's the Baan Dinso on Trok Sin--they have a branch nearby but not as good). 
Staying in Chinatown is fun, especially since it avoids the trouble of getting a cab out of there at night---drivers are notorious for overcharging. The area between Yowarat Road and the river is great for exploring. We stayed here and loved it: https://www.shanghaimansion.com
We liked the somewhat old fashioned, large Asia Hotel, near to Siam Square. You can walk directly from the hotel onto the skytrain. The area behind the hotel is good for exploring. http://www.asiahotel.co.th/asia_bangkok/
Right across the street from Wat Pho is the Royal Tha Tien Village---nothing royal about it, but it's quite nice (lots of wood) and a real bargain--great coffee at their nearby café. http://www.theroyalthatien.com/en-gb/

I plan to stay here on my next trip:  www.loylalong.com I've noticed this old wooden house perched over the river for years, and now it's a B&B. And it's located inside the grounds of a Buddhist temple!

TRANSPORTATION

Taxis are very cheap, but you might spend lots of time sitting in traffic. Tuk-tuks are fun once, and then you realize they cost way more than taxis, you don't see much because of the low roofs, and you get to breathe in all the exhaust fumes. The above ground Skytrain (BTS) and underground metro (MRT) are very useful as is the riverboat.

SIGHTS

Any guidebook will give you the greatest hits (Grand Palace, Jim Thompson House, Chinatown, e.g.), but here's my list than includes some Top 10 stuff, plus other off-the-beaten-track suggestions. What I love to do most in Bangkok is just wander through different neighborhoods. There is always a surprise. (Find these all on google maps or maps.me)

Don't miss Wat Pho, the best of all the temples (you'll be templed-out fast) which is covered in ceramic tiles. 

Not far from Wat Pho is the lovely Saranrom Park for a chill-out moment.

One of my favorite things to do is to take the public canal boat from behind the Golden Mount (also known as Wat Sakhet) along the klong (canal) Saen Saep to the commercial shopping district (Pratanum stop). 

Shopping malls: I can't imagine recommending a visit to a shopping mall anywhere else in the world, but those in Bangkok are exceptional--like going to an amusement park. My favorite is Central World (be sure to visit the supermarket in the 7th floor!), which is best approached from the Chit Lom sky train stop. You can enter the mall from the elevated walkways--very sic-fi. 

Behind Central World is the Centara Grand Hotel, whose Red Sky Bar has amazing views--go before sunset. Very James Bond. 

The Erawan Shrine, across from Central World is a Buddhist shrine where you can see traditional dancing around 6pm every night. It's quite a sight, right in the midst of the busiest part of the city.

Pak Klong Talat is the wholesale flower market, which comes to life very late at night--nice after-dinner outing. 

Don’t miss the Bangkokian Museum, in an old house—a slice of the past. 273 Soi Charoendrung 43, Bangrak (open Wed.-Sun. 10 to 4). If you’re lucky (and she’s still alive) you’ll meet the elderly owner. This was our favorite of the old houses.
M.R. Kukrit’s house is another good one, more elegant, as is Jim Thompson’s house.


Bumrungrad International Hospital is a stop on the 'medical tourism' route, and where you should go if you have any health problems.

FOOD

After years of experience, we've learned that the best Thai food is found on the streets. We have never gotten sick. You will see food being sold all over. My advice is--if you seem something tempting, try it! At worst, I've had some dull food, but often it's great. Something I eat every day in Thailand (sometimes twice a day) is green papaya salad (som tom), sold from pushcarts on the street. They will ask how many chilies you want--my limit is two (and I like hot food, but those Thai chilies are HOT!).

Lots of places set up a night with tables and chairs on the street--ask at your hotel for best street food areas, or you will just see them--if it's busy, it means it's good. 

The Chatuchak Weekend Market is fun for craft-y shopping (get there before noon). There's lots of food here, but just a few blocks away is the Or Kor Tor Market , an amazing display of all kinds of food, which you can eat there. It's right at the Kamphaeng Phet metro stop (the underground metro is known as MRT). 

In terms of 'real' restaurants, I can't think of one that has truly impressed me. Many Thai restaurants seem to be mostly for tourists (I think when Thais go out they want Italian or Chinese food) and it's often 'dumbed down' (less spicy). We did have a good meal at Baan Chiang, not far from the Bossotel--in an old wooden house. 

Check out this article: https://www.eatingthaifood.com/best-restaurants-bangkok-2016/


BEYOND BANGKOK

We finally went to Ayutthaya, the former capital of Thailand, on this last trip and loved it. We took the train (90 minutes). The best part of the visit was staying at this hotel:
Ruen Tub Tim, is on a no-car island just a short boat ride from the main attractions. It was a magical experience to stay in this old Thai house (some attached rooms are new but in the same traditional style). The food at the night market at the boat stop was fantastic. If you go by train, call ahead to arrange for them to meet you at the riverboat dock, which is just a block away from the train station. Arrange for a boat ride around the big island to visit the old temples and palaces.

A FEW USEFUL WORDS

SOI means alley or small road. Important roads (Samsen, Charoen Krung, Silom, Sukhumvit) have lots of sois off them in numerical order--odd numbers on one side, even on the other, so an address might read ’12 Samsen soi 4’, which means building number 12 on the 4th soi off Samsen Road. Most address just have the soi number, not the building number—you just head down the soi until you see what you are looking for.
THA means pier.
THANON is another word for road
TALAT means market