BREAK ME OFF A PIECE OF THAT: Pad Thai Omelette

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As I mentioned in my last post, I’m starting a new series called, “Break Me Off a Piece of THAT”. I’ll be mentioning some of the favorite foods and restaurants that we encountered on our trip.

Today’s find is something that we stumbled on out of the blue. I don’t know if this dish is really “local”, or if it was created to fit the tastes of Americans, Western Europeans, and Aussies & Kiwis.

Whatever the deal is, it was so good that I ate these every night in Chiang Mai.

The Pad Thai Omelette is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: Pad Thai in an Omelette.

Do you like Pad Thai? Do you like omelettes? You’ve come to the right place then, my friend.

While in Chiang Mai, my husband, Scott, and I stumbled upon a little restaurant along Nimmanhaemin Road called G-long Burgers. It wasn’t some place that should’ve cried out to vegetarians. But, considering the best vegetarian fast food chain around SoCal is El Pollo Loco, we decided to take a look.

(Plus, they had lots of ice cream available. I’m a sucker for ice cream options.)

Lo and behold, I look at the menu and see that they have this mystical creation called the “Pad Thai Omelette”. Both Scott and I both did a simultaneous “air gasp”, as we saw it at the same time, which made our waitress jump a little.

One of my many quirks is I love things that are exactly what they sound like: “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter”, “Old Spaghetti Factory”, “Snakes on a Plane”, Barstow, etc.

So, I was inherently predisposed to like Pad Thai Omelette, because that’s what it is: Pad Thai in an Omelette.

But, that taste, the buttery taste straight out of the Paula Dean School of Cooking… well, let me just say if Pick Up Stix starts selling these, I’m in trouble.

And, at the US Dollar equivalent of $2.50, we were able to enjoy these for several meals… occasionally more than one a day.

Definitely make the most of your vacation in Thailand and dig in.

Cheers,
E

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Traveling While Vegetarian

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So, I’ve got this idea for a new section on this travel blog for the foodies and the vegetarians out there (and for me when I’m lazy and only want to type up a short blog post).

Traveling often poses many challenges for many reasons for my husband and me. But, because we’re both vegetarians, one of the main challenges that we face is food.

(Just for the record, we’re vegetarians for health reasons. Animal rights and environmental benefits are great secondary effects, but neither of us are blood-throwing lunatics.)

Not everywhere in the world is vegetarian-friendly. But, here are some tips to make traveling while vegetarian a lot easier.

TIP #1: Where You Travel

There are certain countries, and even specific cities within countries that are much easier for vegetarians.

Growing up in Los Angeles and now living for the past five years in San Diego, I can say that for anyone interested in coming the U.S., the entire coastal, Southern California region is very, very easy for vegetarians. Nearly everywhere has at least one vegetarian dish, and most places have some sort of selection.

I’ve noticed in the past couple of years that nearly all, major American cities have followed suit. So, traveling in the U.S. is much easier now as a vegetarian.

Outside of the States, certain parts of the world are much easier than others. Vietnam, Thailand, and India in particular were fantastic countries to travel in as a vegetarian, as vegetarian food is quite the norm out there.

By contrast, the most difficult countries to travel in as vegetarians were South Africa and Turkey. Lots of meat-lovers in those countries! But, even in carnivorous countries, there are still plenty of ways to find a good, vegetarian meal.

TIP #2: Pre-plan

Sure, it takes some of the fun and spontaneity out of just walking into a restaurant and trying something on a whim.

But, honestly, are you really that curious to find out exact what balut tastes like?

(If you do, more power to you. Just be aware squat toilets are the norm around Asia for when you vomit your guts out.)

I HIGHLY recommend the website HappyCow.net if you are a vegetarian or a vegan who is traveling. This is the most extensive site of its kind (at least that I’ve found) in its listings of vegetarian or vegetarian-friendly restaurants around the world.

A little pre-planning of where you can eat saves a lot of food trauma. (But, that’s another blog post for another day.)

TIP #3: Don’t be afraid to grocery shop & cook

Personally, I hate cooking.

Actually, it’s not so much that I hate cooking. I hate being a perfectionist, because when I cook it usually leads to a complete meltdown, broken kitchen appliances, and an exasperated husband trying to talk me out of a locked bathroom.

But, if you’re not an overly-sensitive, hot mess like I am, you may want to try grocery shopping & cooking for yourself. Most hostels have open cooking areas where you can prepare meals. And, it can be a great way to meet people and make friends.

Plus, I’ve found grocery areas to be highly colorful, and often some of the most interesting areas in different cities. And, it’s one of the best chances you can get for real interaction with the locals.

TIP #4:  When in doubt, ask the front desk.

Even if they don’t know of a specific restaurant in that area, they’ll know who to ask.

That being said, with vegetarianism and veganism being on the rise, particularly among the hippie travelers’ set, most hosts know of at least a couple of local options.

TIP #5: Just go!

One of the saddest things I ever heard came from my first set of bosses, a husband and wife team. Both of them were vegan, and we got on the subject of traveling to a trade show in Vegas. They said, “Oh, you’ll probably have to do that alone. We never get to travel because we don’t know what we’re going to eat.”

That still to this day breaks my heart! Don’t let dietary restrictions keep you from traveling! Whether you’re vegetarian, vegan, or diabetic, or on a gluten-free diet, you CAN make it work.

Yes, it may take a little more effort and planning. But, if you’re going to travel around the world, you’d better love planning anyway. You’re going to be doing a lot of it.

Just go! If all else fails, I’ve never found a place where you can’t buy rice… or Ramen noodles, for that matter. (Believe me, I WISH I could find a place to escape from the horrors of Ramen.)

In the meantime, back to the beginning of this post, I’m going to start a series called, “Break Me Off a Piece of THAT”. It’ll be about the different, yummy things we tried while we traveled around.

There’s plenty of good veggie eatin’ out there for the takin’! You just have to be prepared to make the effort to find it.

Cheers,
E

The Ubiquitous Water Buffalo

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I became obsessed with water buffalo on our trip around the world.

Mind you, I’ve got more than a slight case of “OCD” to begin with. I only eat candies (or anything that comes in multiples) in sets of even numbers; I have to hit the crosswalk button four times; if I scratch something on one side of my body, I have to scratch the exact same spot on the other side of my body. (You know, the typical crazies displayed by nervous wrecks.)

But, my obsession with water buffalo really came out of nowhere. It was as if the minute I stepped off the plane in Hanoi, I had water buffalo on the brain.

My first foray into water buffalo mania took place on our way out to Halong Bay. Yes, the limestone mountains and the bay were all very impressive. But, I couldn’t keep my eyes off of the lumbering beasts of burden, like little chocolate flecks in the lime green shimmer of the rice paddies.

The following day, we went to the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre back in Hanoi. While there were many amusing and even dramatic vignettes during the performance, the water buffalo puppets, and their much chagrined owners, definitely stole the show.

Little by little, as we traveled through Southeast Asia and India, I started to put the pieces together as to why I had fallen in love with the ubiquitous water buffalo.

EXOTIC COUSINS

Coming from the U.S., particularly from two extended families that live in or very close to large agricultural communities, I’ve always been very familiar with cattle.

When kids grow up in America, one of the first animals they learn of is “cow”. Not only is it because it’s an easy word without any funky, English spelling tricks, but it’s because it’s so prevalent in our society.

Beef, leather, cowboys, and just plain fevers with the only prescription being more cowbell, cattle are as American as Mom’s hot dog apple pie recipe. (Hey, Mom tried her best, folks.)

The water buffalo then seems so exotic, yet so recognizable at the same time. It’s like the cow, but not a cow. Watching them invoked both feelings of familiarity and foreignness. It made me feel far away from home, and yet comforted me in that it really wasn’t so different from what we’d see driving up the 5 North through the San Joaquin Valley.

But, unlike in the States where agriculture is far outside the norms of city life, there is no escaping the presence of water buffaloes in this part of the world.

THEY’RE EVERYWHERE!!!

No, seriously, they’re EVERYWHERE.

They’re in the fields. They’re in the houses. They’re in the streets. They’re in the temples. They’re in the rivers, the garbage heaps, the schools, and the restaurants.

Occasionally, they’re right beside you on your current form of transportation. (No sudden movements, people!)

Water buffaloes are as common to everyday life in Southeast Asia and India as dogs, cats, and parakeets are in America. It’s amazing how something so huge can just be hanging around with the rest of the family. But, water buffaloes do, and they’ve been doing so for the last 5,000 years of their domestication.

After spending several weeks around water buffaloes, I must say I wouldn’t mind having a few of them close to me… well, other than that pesky “stepping in buffalo poo on the way to the kitchen” problem.

PERSONALITY PLUS

I don’t know why water buffalo are so much cheekier than their American and African cousins, but man they are! Maybe hanging out with humans for thousands of years has caused them to adopt some of our mannerisms – or visa versa.

I know what some of you are thinking: “Oh, poor, simple-minded Elizabeth. She’s falling into the old trap of anthropomorphism.”

I assure you I am NOT! These water buffaloes are full-on sassy britches, and they don’t give a fudge who knows it! *sashays with a flick of its tail out of the room*

Take, for example, this photo I took of a water buffalo at the Ganges River in Varanasi. Anyone who has ever traveled to Varanasi recognizes this look. Why? Because it’s the exact look that every person has on their face traveling through Varanasi: a combination of, “Ewwwwww…” and, “Hmmm… I sense something suspicious going on here.”

Honey badger don’t care, and water buffalo don’t fall for your shady Varanasi scams. Oh, and stop dumping your dead goats in the river. Water buffalo is not amused.

Yes, the water buffalo is not afraid to show its displeasure, its disdain, or its bum. But, this personality plus is a big part of its charm. You never have to guess what a water buffalo is feeling.

ALWAYS SOMETHING THERE TO REMIND ME

Now, I’m back home, in a house bereft of water buffaloes. They don’t greet me on my drives around town any more. I don’t see them swimming around the local San Diego River, or scaring away the dogs at the beach with a low bellow and a charge.

All I have are my memories of their deep lowing, their spirited ways, and the days when I’d walk among the ubiquitous water buffaloes like I would any other human neighbor.

But, I did manage to buy these groovy coasters in Vietnam to bring a little of the spirit of the water buffalo home with me. (Thanks in advance for not judging my jacked up coffee table. Traveling doesn’t leave a lot of time – or budget – for outstanding home design.)

Cheers,
E

Safety in South Africa

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I made the really stupid decision to read some forum postings on “Warnings, Dangers, and Scams” on one of my forums before we left India to fly to South Africa.

“I was car jacked in broad daylight!”

“I don’t know anyone who’s been to South Africa who hasn’t gotten mugged.”

“You can’t park your car on the street with anything in it, or people will break into it. They’ll break in for an old pair of shoes.”

“Robbers down there shoot first and rob later.”

As I was on the plane flight from Mumbai to Johannesburg, my heart started racing as all of the warnings and quotes of borderline hysteria rang in my ears. I was starting to regret going to South Africa – and we weren’t even there, yet.

I am so happy to report that we had ZERO problems in South Africa. We were there twelve days, and somehow managed to not get carjacked, mugged, raped, or killed.

Actually, despite the hysterics of people who post of their unfortunate times in South Africa, it’s pretty darn easy to stay safe there, and to have a fantastic time, as well. Here’s how:

TIP #1: If a local tells you not to go into a certain part of town, DON’T GO INTO THAT CERTAIN PART OF TOWN.

It’s not brain surgery here, folks. Yet, 95% of the complaints I heard or read about South Africa started with some variation of, “I heard this part of town was really dangerous, but I decided to go anyway, because…”

And, lo and behold, something bad happens to those people.

If someone tells you not to go into a bad part of town, they’re not doing it because of a cross-town rivalry. They’re telling you that because violent crime is prevalent in that area, and they don’t want any more tourist horror stories circling the internet.

That being said, there are plenty of cities in America that have those same exact rules (New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington DC, Philadelphia – oh wait, every single major city). South Africa just gets a particularly bad rap as the bad areas in their major cities really do have extremely high crime rates, and they do tend to be very violent crimes.

I researched online what are the current worst areas in both Johannesburg and Cape Town. Click on the links to see where you’re currently advised to stay away from.

Another good idea is to ask at the front desk of your hotel/hostel/B&B what areas to stay away from. They’ll know what areas are safe and unsafe. (Many neighborhoods are gentrifying quickly, while others fall into disrepair.)

But, since I know so many of us don’t like being told what to do, and we all think we’re invincible, I’ll go ahead and segue right into Tip #2…

TIP #2: If you just have to go to a dangerous part of town, go with an organized tour.

You know you’re going to, anyway.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Why is it that when someone tells us, “Don’t do <fill-in-the-blank>,” all we can think about doing is <fill-in-the-blank>?

Here’s the deal: If you’re smart, you will avoid the areas locals tell you to avoid. If you were too voracious of a nose-picker as a child and left some mild scarring on the underside of your brain, then at least take an organized tour with a well-established (and reviewed) tour company.

I was, and continue to be an unabashed, voracious nose-picker, and I therefore scheduled tours all around Johannesburg and Cape Town, regardless of the truly terrible neighborhoods they were in, or that we had to drive through to get to our destination.

We never had any problems, because people realize that these tours bring much needed revenue into their areas. Why scare off tourists? Panicky, first-world, college students are already doing that for them.

TIP #3: Don’t look rich.

Do you really need to be trekking around town with your $500+ Gucci backpack filled with all of your clothes, money, and jewelry? Does Gucci even make a backpack?

Why are you even bringing jewelry on an around the world trip? I left my wedding rings at home, and bought a $20 knock-off just to ward off groping hands, and uncomfortable glances from judging-eyed hotel owners asking, “One bed or two?”

Sure, it turned my finger green. But, at least no one tried to steal it. (Plus, I seriously forgot my fake ring three times before I finally lost it for good a fourth time in London. Horrifying meltdown crisis averted!)

In fact, the only time anyone ever even tried to pull something over on us was when Scott and I were in Cape Town, walking with our completely filled backpacks down to a post office to ship some of our souvenirs back home.

Of course, some guy approached us, saying, “Hey! Hey you two, come here! I have something I want to show you.”

Because we have brains (albeit one of them being significantly scarred on the underside from overzealous nose-pickery), and we were able to put two and two together, we said, “No, we’re busy,” and walked away. But, it just proves that you are a walking target when you have a huge backpack full of “stuff”.

Now, the $500 the shipping company tried to charge us to ship our $300 worth of souvenirs back to the States, with NO tracking information provided – THAT was highway robbery. (We ended up waiting until we got to Amsterdam, and were able to ship it back for just over $100, including door-to-door tracking. I’ll include that story on a future blog RE: “Shipping”.)

TIP #4: Leave the credit and debit cards in the safe in your room.

Unless you’re going to the ATM to take out more cash, you don’t need them.

And, for that matter, don’t be carrying around huge wads of cash, anyway. Think about it: How much money do you walk around with on a daily basis at home? I would say anywhere from $50-$100 is the right amount, depending on what activities you have planned.

And, I mean it when I say leave it in your safe in your room. USE YOUR SAFE, PEOPLE! The hostels and hotels put them there for a reason.

That’s not just in South Africa, either. The only place we saw any crime (that didn’t involve ignored public beat downs, thank you India) on our whole trip was in Dublin. A group of college kids had their dorm room robbed by a fellow hostel mate. That’s by far the most common story of theft we heard of on our whole trip, too.

TIP #5: Don’t get drunk beyond all recognition.

Do I really have to say this? Apparently, yes, because it happens in every dang city. People go out drinking, then either get in fights, or find themselves alone with people they shouldn’t be alone with, and the horror stories just multiply from there.

Are you a drunken, belligerent horse’s patoot when you’re at home? Well, leave it there, then. Violent crime aside, you’re in a foreign country, and you’re representing your entire nation while you’re there, like it or not.

Save the money you’d spend on booze for something you can’t do at home – like illicit drugs and hookers. (Kidding, NSA, and any current or future employers! CIA, clearly you don’t care. See ya at Cartagena Spring Break 2013!)

TIP #6: Use taxis at night.

And, only metered ones. Lots of cities have unmetered cabs. If you’re traveling around the world, you may have gotten used to having to bargain for cabs.

Don’t do that in South Africa. There are so many safe, metered cabs now, there is seriously no point in bargaining.

TIP #7: Car Driving Safety

We never rented a car on our trip, and we had a lovely time being driven around on buses, subways, and trains. Public transportation is so much cheaper, and it’s better for the environment.

Plus, I’m an admitted stupid American, and I would never quite “get” which side of the road I’m supposed to be on in any given country. I just know this about myself.

But, hey, I’m from Southern California, so I know how addicting a car can be. If you’ve got to have a car to drive while in South Africa, make sure you:

A.)  Keep your windows rolled up.
B.)  Put your purses & all valuables in the trunk/boot.
C.)  Make sure you have a GPS; and,
D.) Drive safely!

As a side note, far more tourists are killed in South Africa in traffic accidents than in violent crime. So, don’t drink and drive, stay under the speed limit, and be aware of your surroundings – and the crazy drivers around you!

CLOSING TIP:

Basically, when you’re in South Africa, act like you would if you were at home. See? That’s not so hard!

I found the violence hype in South Africa to be very similar to the hype about Los Angeles’s crime rate in the 1990’s from people who were horrified that I lived there. There are really bad parts of LA, and there are really beautiful parts. It’s all about common sense, and knowing where you are.

If I have one piece of advice to sum this all up, it’s this: Don’t let the hype of South Africa’s crime rate keep you from going! South Africa was Scott’s and my biggest surprise country of the trip. We only went because it was a free stop included on our “Around the World” airline ticket, and we ended up falling in love with it. We definitely will go back!

If you let other people’s fear mongering and negativity keep you from going, you’ll miss out on amazing scenery like this:

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Or petting baby lions…
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Or getting serious attitude from a giraffe because you tried to pet it before it was ready. (I call it “Giraffitude”.)Image

Cheers,
E

We’re Huge in India

The first time it happened, we were at Qutb Minar in New Delhi.

Scott and I had booked a city tour with our guest house. Along with a fellow guest from London, we had our own driver and a car available to take us all around the city for the day to see all of the famous sites of New Delhi.

As the three of us were chatting and walking around the beautiful remains of Qutb Minar, a well-dressed, Indian businessman came up to us with a group of about ten other people.

“Excuse me, picture?” he asked.

But, instead of him handing us the camera to take a picture of him, we realized he wanted to take a picture with us.

All three of us just looked at each other, puzzled by the request, looking to one another as if to confirm that we understood him correctly. Not wanting to be rude, and being flattered by such a request, we all just shrugged our shoulders and said, “Sure!”

Within seconds, the group of ten people, all of whom I believe were related to this man, crowded around us, eager to get their photos taken with us. One person would take the picture, and then he or she would switch out with another person so that everyone could make sure they had their picture with us.

After all of the pictures were taken, they all wanted to shake our hands. “Where you from?” the Indian businessman asked our travel companion.

“I’m from London,” he replied.

“Oh! Very nice,” he said, with the famous Indian head-wigggle. (Is it a head nod, or it is shaking the head to say “no”? After three weeks in various parts of India, I don’t even think Indians know for sure.)

He turned to Scott and me, and continued, “Where you from?”

“We’re from America,” Scott answered.

“Ohhhhh, America. Big country. Obama,” he said with a smile.

“Where are you from?” I asked, trying to be polite and make conversation.

Apparently, he wasn’t prepared for us to ask him anything. He looked kind of wide-eyed at us for a minute, and turned to one of his family members. The family member translated what I said, and he answered, “Oh, South India.”

“OK!” I laughed.

He looked at us for a few more seconds, and we could see the wheels turning in his head and he was thinking of more things to ask us. Our British travel companion tried to get us all out of the awkward situation by saying, “Well, thanks for stopping by. It was very nice meeting you,” and shaking his hand.

The man looked a little disappointed that he couldn’t think of anything else to ask us; but, he politely smiled, shook all of our hands, did another little head-wiggle, and motioned for his family to keep going.

“What in the heck was that?” I couldn’t help laughing.

“Do they think we’re somebody famous?” our fellow Brit traveler asked.

Of course, being the smart aleck that I am, I said, “Maybe they think we’re the Black Eyed Peas!”

😉

After a few minutes of theorizing what that was all about (thinking we’re celebrities, practicing English, being surprised to see white people there, etc.), we went about our merry way, continuing our day tour of the city.

A few stops later, we ended up at Humayan’s Tomb. Again, a group of Indian guys, probably in their early 20’s, wanted to take a picture of us. We laughed and agreed again, and they snapped away.

Again, later in the day, two teenage guys came up to us to ask to take their picture with us… well, actually this time they just wanted to take turns taking their picture with me. (I can only imagine what the captions say on their Facebook profiles.)

What in the heck was going on?!

Scott and I thought the next day that without the third member of our Black Eyed Peas look-a-like group, people wouldn’t pay attention to us anymore. But, at every site we went to, more people came up to us to take pictures.

Not only that, but at every site we went to, for every one person who asked to take a picture with us, there were at least ten more just taking (at least what they thought were) candid photos of us on their cell phones.

(NOTE TO SELF: Upon spotting a celebrity, don’t try and take a candid cell phone picture. It’s more obvious than just asking to take a picture with him or her.)

Again, we thought once we left New Delhi, maybe the celebrity treatment would die down. But, the more we traveled to the tourist sites in Agra and Jaipur, the more we were asked to pose in other people’s photos, and the more cell phones we saw coming out.

At this point, Scott and I were convinced we had to look like someone famous in India. If you ever watch Bollywood movies or music videos, pay attention to the people in the background; you’ll notice that a good ¾ of them are white. We were convinced that we must look like two of the more famous white actors and actresses in the area.

Not content to be a Bollywood extra, though, this belief was further expanded upon in my mind when we went to the Amber Fort in Jaipur.

As we had now become used to, while walking through the fort, a man stopped me and said, “Oh! Could my daughter please take a picture with you? It would mean so much to her.”

Well, who wouldn’t acquiesce to such a heartfelt request! “Of course!” I agreed, drunk on the effects that my new-found star power was having on my ego.

The girl was probably between 10-12 years old. She came up to me shaking and wide-eyed. “Wow!” she cried.

As her dad snapped away, she looked up at me and said, “Oh wow, I want to kiss you!”

Well, chalk that up as a new experience!

Given that I am a whitey from the incredibly mild and dry climate of Southern California, and was subsequently now traveling through India in 95˚F heat with 95% humidity, I was sweating like I was going to win a prize for it at the end. I would have felt horrible if she got grossed out, so I said, “I don’t think you want to; I’m really sweaty.”

Her face fell, and she sadly sighed, “Ohhhhhhh.” I instantly felt bad that I had maybe hurt her feelings… or shattered the myth that white people don’t sweat. I mean, it was like I had just told her that Santa Claus eats reindeer jerky, people. =/

After that, I walked through Amber Fort convinced that I had to look like someone really famous – Hollywood famous. I went through my memories, trying to recall what all celebrities I’d been told I look like in my day.

Sandra Bullock was the most popular comparison in the early 2000’s, but I hadn’t gotten that in a while. Maybe she thought I was Jennifer Love Hewitt. (Anyone who has ever seen my chest knows that isn’t even a remote possibility.) Still, I was convinced that I had to look like someone famous.

When we got back to our car, as we had hired a driver for four days to take us around the Rajasthan area (VERY highly recommended, as I’ll cover in another blog), I determined that I should just stop all of the mystery and ask our driver what the deal was.

As soon as I explained the situation to him, he burst out laughing. “Oh yes, Indian people love taking picture with tourist. When they go on vacation, they take picture with European people to show, ‘See, I’m a tourist, too.’”

He continued, “I drove a very big government man around with his family last week, and he tell me before we go I must make sure to find white people for his daughter to take picture with. It was the one thing she was looking forward to on trip. The more white and more tourist they look, the better.”

Oh, cruel vanity! Oh, shame you have waxed upon my ego! Within minutes, I went from being Jennifer Love Hewitt in my own mind to just another obvious, blindingly white tourist.

Cheers,
E

PS: Scootz reminded me that I was handed a baby at Gateway of India. (I named it Carlos.) I said I had graduated from celebrity to politician at that point. 😉

Too Long in Siem Reap?

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All throughout the early part of our trip, we met fellow travelers who were planning their routes throughout Southeast Asia.

Every time we mentioned Siem Reap, people asked how long we were staying there. “Six days,” we’d reply.

“Wow! That’s a long time in Siem Reap. You’re going to get bored in six days there,” everyone would reply (or at least some variation thereof).

We started to get worried about what we could do for six days in Siem Reap. We knew we were going to get the three day pass for Angkor Wat ($40 for three non-consecutive days in a week, for the record); so, at least we had three days taken care of. But, what about the other three days?

I am happy to report, as is more common than not on this trip, people had no idea what they were talking about when giving us that advice.

Not only did we blow through those six days with plenty to do, we left with at least another week’s worth of activities that we wanted to do, but couldn’t because we didn’t have the time.

For anyone interested in going to Siem Reap (which I highly recommend, as it was my favorite city in all of Southeast Asia), here are reviews of three of our favorite things that did that had nothing to do with Angkor Wat.

SITE #1: Happy Ranch

Quit yer snickerin’, you dirty birdies! 😉

On our first day into Siem Reap, we got into town at an awkward time. It was too late in the day to waste one of our three days from our pass at Angkor Wat; but, it was too early for us to just eat dinner and go to bed.
After looking at the bulletin board at our lovely guest house (Happy Guest House), we saw an advertisement for horseback riding at the Happy Ranch.

We decided to head on over for an impromptu horseback ride through the Cambodian countryside.

It’s been one of the best split-second decisions we made on our trip thus far. Upon arriving at the beautiful and tranquil Happy Ranch, we were greeted by its interesting and very hospitable owner, Mr. Sary Pann.

Sary has lived a remarkable life. He was working at the US Embassy when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia. As a result, he was able to flee the country, and was granted refugee status in the US.

In 1975, he came to California, and lived there for over 30 years. But, as much as he loved the US and California, he decided it was time to come home to Cambodia.

He came back, and began collecting horses as a hobby. He fell in love with the equestrian life, and opened what he’s fairly certain is the only fully functioning, horseback riding ranch in the country.

We booked a 2-hour tour on the spot, and off we went into the countryside with our very competent guide, Jain. We rode through the farmlands and the rice paddies, passing villages, temples, and homes along the way.

At several points, children would run out of their homes and schools to wave, yell “Hello”, and try out their English on us. Dogs, chickens, and water buffaloes happily joined the melee as a light drizzle fell on the green rice paddies all around us.

It was a veritable Shangri-la, and my only regret is that my butt was too sore to hold up and book another two hours on the spot.

If anyone wants to do something in Siem Reap other that visit Angkor Wat, this is a fantastic choice. They offer everything from 1-hour to full day rides. For those not so confident with their horseback riding skills, they have an option to be pulled along in an ox cart, and they also offer private horseback riding lessons.

Prices are very reasonable, with horseback riding in the country at the time we went being about $19/hr per person. Our round-trip tuk-tuk ride was $12 (inclusive of tip).

SITE #2: Dinner and a Show

I’m not sure how anyone can come to Cambodia and not see a traditional Khmer dance. It’s like going to New York City and not seeing the Statue of Liberty – you have to make a concerted, planned effort in order to not do so.

Yet, apparently, people still don’t do this, as we heard over and over again, “Oh, six days is too long in Siem Reap. You’ll get bored.”

Again, thanks to the bulletin board at Happy Guesthouse, we found an ad for an evening tour down to a local restaurant. $10 included roundtrip transportation, all-you-can-eat buffet, and an hour-long, traditional Khmer dancing performance.

I wish I had remembered to write down the name of the restaurant, but I did not, unfortunately. Like I said, the “dinner & dancing” shows are a dime a dozen in Siem Reap. The one we went to had a really nice buffet with Khmer, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Western food available. (Drinks cost extra.)

And, it really is “all-you-can-eat”. They just take your plate, and you can go back as often as you want. (Although, a local gave me a good tip – he said go and get several plates at once before the show, so you don’t have to keep getting up in the middle of the performance. It was good advice, as we saw plenty of people having to do just that!)

After a good hour of eating, they start the performance. The dancing is broken up into four parts. The performance we went to had a traditional coconut dance, a piece of from the Ramayana (the most famous epic poem in the area), a fishing village dance (complete with some romance – oooooh!), and the beautiful Apsara dance (which the image above is from).

If you’re into eating, dancing, and/or stunning costumes (or women for that matter), then definitely put this on your itinerary.

SITE #3: Floating Villages

On our final day in Siem Reap, we still had a list of things that we wanted to do. But, seeing as it was our last day, and having only enough time to do one more activity, we made the choice to go out to the Floating Village of Kamphong Pluk. (The cost for everything, including the tuk-tuk ride and the boat, was $19/each. Tips are extra.)

We took an hour-long tuk tuk ride through Siem Reap and the surrounding countryside to a small harbor in the middle of the forest. We met up with a driver who took us out on his boat on a private tour.

After going through the water forest on the way out to the village, where trees seemed to grow right from the middle of the river, we finally saw the houses and buildings that make up Kamphong Pluk. Given the particularly heavy rainfall of that monsoon season, the water was right up under the buildings of the floating village.

It just so happened that the day we were there was a local festival (Pchum Ben). Our driver parked in front of his house, and said to us, “Need to make a stop – two minutes!”

As Scott and I tried not to grow paranoid, the driver’s family congregated around our boat, imploring us to come in. They proceeded to feed us all sorts of Cambodian dishes, as well as giving my husband plenty of beer. =)

Not everyone could speak English, but everyone knew how to “Cheers!” So, every time there was a five second pause, someone would yell out “CHEERS,” and laughter and beer can clinking would commence once again.

What started out as “two minutes” ended up being an hour long detour. But, it’s that sort of hospitality and unexpected kindness that helped us fall in love with Siem Reap.

Despite what others may say, there is plenty to do in Siem Reap to warrant a week-long trip there, or more. We had to leave without going to the Silk Farm, the “Senteurs d’Angkor” exhibit (which showcases the different scents and flavors you experience in different items in Cambodia), Tonle Sap Lake excursions, and any host of off-roading activities (motorbike rentals, quad biking, sky diving, etc.)

I would highly recommend anyone interested in a beautiful, friendly city where tourism from Westerners hasn’t yet completely ruined the local culture to give serious thought to time in Siem Reap.

Oh, and Angkor Wat isn’t half bad, either! 😉

Cheers,
E

Juicy Southeast Asia

One of my first purchases when I get a new job upon my arrival home will be a blender.

I’ve never needed nor wanted a high-powered blender. But, after several weeks of traveling through Vietnam and Cambodia, I’ve been hit with an unexpected side effect.

I’m completely OBSESSED with juice!

Southeast Asia is a mecca for tropical fruit lovers. With fruit being a major staple of people’s diets, and with so many busy people constantly on the move in the big cities of the area, there are more places selling juices, smoothies, and fruit shakes than you can possibly count.

Since I’ve been here, I’ve had the following fruit concoctions:

Guava, dragon fruit, lychee (where have you been all of my life???), watermelon, papaya, mango, banana (and anyone who knows me well knows I bloody HATE bananas – and I still had them here), rambutan, pineapple, lemon, lime, strawberry, coconut, and (my all-time personal favorite) passion fruit.

Pretty much the only thing I haven’t tried here is orange, because I’m a snobby Californian who knows they’re not going to get it better here than I already have it at home.

Here are some tips for “juicing” in Southeast Asia:

JUICE/SMOOTHIE/SHAKE?: In most places, they will offer options for juices and smoothies, and they’ll occasionally offer options for shakes.

Juice is usually the cheapest option. It’s literally the juice of whatever fruit you’ve ordered, and nearly always served “on the rocks”.

Smoothies in Southeast Asia are not like the Jamba Juice from back home. It’s just fruit and ice blended together. As a result, it’s the mid-range option in terms of pricing.

Shakes are the most expensive option, and aren’t served everywhere. A shake is basically the closest thing to an America smoothie, containing fruit, a dairy base, and sugar (though not nearly as much as back home).

Sometimes we’ve seen items advertised as “shakes” that didn’t contain dairy base. For example, I had a lemon shake at our Cambodian guest house. (Actually, when we checked out, the bill showed I had six. They’re super good.) But, it’s really a frozen lemonade.

That being said, given the price point ($1.00), it’s easy to tell it’s really a smoothie, and not a shake.

If you’re not sure about an item on a menu, just ask. They’ll nearly always know what all is in the mix.

PRICE: In both Vietnam & Cambodia, juice & smoothie costs vary from anywhere from $1-$2.50. If you’re paying more than $2-$2.50 for your treat, make sure it’s a shake (not a smoothie, a SHAKE, which should have added dairy base and sugar). Otherwise, you’re overpaying.

You can find shakes less than $2.50, though! My favorite one was a strawberry shake at a random, hole-in-the-wall restaurant. It was about $2.25, and it was the best strawberry shake of my LIFE! (It was completely different from the ones in the States. I think they added some sort of flower in the mix, potentially jasmine. Either way, it was seriously amazing.)

ICE OR NOT: We were warned from multiple sources not to have ice in Southeast Asia, because there is a popular misconception that it’s made from local water.

Almost all of it is not. One of the few good effects of French colonization in the area is they introduced a really effective way to make clean ice. (“Pasteurization”, after all, comes from the great Frenchman, Louis Pasteur.)

The only way ice gets contaminated is if it’s transferred long distances covered with dirty blankets (which does happen). But, if you’re in a sit-down restaurant with menus that have English translations, you should be good on the ice.

YOGURT: One of the favorite treats I’ve had on the trip thus far was iced yogurt with strawberries. If you like yogurt, definitely give this one a try.

SHOP AROUND: Nearly every restaurant sells a wide selection of juice. If you go to a new place, ask to see the menu first. If they’re overpriced, just turn around and leave. You’re not obligated to buy anything because you looked at their menu.

If after trying something there, you don’t like that place’s juice, or if you just didn’t like the new fruit you tried, keep shopping. Don’t let one or two bad experiences keep you from the plethora of amazing juice treats in the area!

Should you ever happen to find yourself on this end of the word, do yourself a favor and step out of your comfort zone. Try some new fruits and some new ways of serving your favorites from back home. You won’t regret it.

Happy juicing!

Cheers,
E

Hanoi vs. Saigon

Before coming to Vietnam, we spent a lot of time researching which cities to visit. While there are several cities worth going to that we didn’t have time to visit (Hue, Danang, and Hoi An in particular have been highly recommended), we made sure to spend some time in both Hanoi and Saigon (AKA: Ho Chi Minh City).

We didn’t realize how different the two cities would be, though. It’s not that we assumed they’d be the same. But, I guess we just assumed both would have a similar “feel” to them.

After spending several days in both, we’ve gotten a pretty good feel for both cities. Here are some of the main differences we’ve noticed between the two:

HANOI PROS:

1. TRADITIONAL: Hanoi just celebrated its 1,000th year anniversary. That’s right – one THOUSAND years.

And, it shows. The city streets are narrow, the buildings are hundreds of years old, and even just walking around the city, it’s easy to immediately sense the ancient vibe of the place.

Life is lived very similarly in the way that it has been for hundreds of years. Sure, there are the modern conveniences of motor bikes, rice cookers, and portable gas stoves. But, the charm of the city in its traditional style of dress, living outdoors, and the multi-generational families all working together to run the family business offers a 21st century window into an ancient past.

Which leads to point #2:

2. CHARACTER: I think this is the word that best summarizes Hanoi.

While on a city tour of Saigon, Scott and I were sitting next to a father and daughter on holiday from London. The daughter best summarized the #1 selling point that Hanoi has over Saigon: “Hanoi has far more character.”

Due to its age, there are far more beautiful, charming things to see in Hanoi. The twisting alleyways, the far off laughter and dull music coming from a radio in someone’s shop, buildings with French architectural influence next to historic Vietnamese buildings, and a traditional citizenry lends itself much more to a character filled city.

3. COUNTRYSIDE: While Saigon definitely has countryside readily available to it, Hanoi really is the hub to go see the greener side of Vietnam.

Side trips to Halong Bay, Cat Ba Island, Sapa, Perfume Pagoda, and so much more are easily, readily, and cheaply available everywhere. Practically every block has a travel agency ready to book a cheap tour for you, with as little notice as next day.

Of course, there is plenty to lend itself to recommending Saigon for a visit, as well. Here’s what we noticed about Saigon almost immediately upon arriving:

SAIGON PROS:

1. MODERN: Our tour guide explained (I think probably half-joking) that Hanoi is a very old city. By comparison, Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City is only 300+ years old. (Practically a baby, still!)

That being said, since so much of the city was bombed out during the war, there was alot of rebuilding that needed to happen around there. Whereas Hanoi is the governmental capital of Vietnam, Saigon is definitely the economic hub.

Nearly 70% of foreign businesses in Vietnam have their setup in Saigon. All of the foreign investment dollars has lent itself to a tech-savvy, much more commercial city than Hanoi.

This, of course, leads to selling point #2:

2. WESTERN INFLUENCE – INCLUDING GOODS: While Hanoi certainly still has a lot of its French, historical influence around the city, overall it’s a much more traditionally Vietnamese city.

Saigon, on the other hand, is very much influenced by Western culture, particularly the Americans. There are several shopping areas that if it weren’t for all of the Vietnamese signs and motorbikes could just as easily be a shopping area in San Francisco or Miami.

This makes it a lot easier for Westerners to get the comforts of home. Whereas we were just screwed if an electronic device broke in Hanoi (bye bye, international outlet converter), any necessary item is readily accessible in Saigon (as long as you know the right part of town to go to).

Because of the Western, and particularly the American influence, this leads to the third perk of Saigon:

3. ENGLISH SPOKEN HERE: In Hanoi, there were several times where fairly simple questions in English (“Train on time?”; “Where is the bathroom?”; “How much?”) were met with completely blank stares.

While enough people speak enough English that it shouldn’t ever be too much of an issue to get the basic necessities taken care of in Hanoi (food, boarding, and transportation), it does make it particularly difficult to bargain, or to meet and chat with locals.

In Saigon, though, everyone speaks English, and they speak it well. While there’s an occasional thick accent that might make it hard to understand some people, generally people can carry on a fairly detailed conversation in English. (It’s definitely American English, too.)

And, best of all, because English is so widely spoken here, it’s much easier to bargain when shopping. Combined with there being more businesses around and more readily available goods, prices overall in Saigon are noticeably cheaper than in Hanoi.

So, which is better: Hanoi or Saigon? I believe it depends on what exactly a person is looking for in their trip to Vietnam.

If a person had only one week to spend in Vietnam, and wanted to decide which city to go to, I’d ask which description sounds better:

A.)  PROS: A traditional, more authentically Vietnamese city with lots of ancient culture, charm, and character. There are lots of readily available day trips into the countryside. This is the city to visit for people who want beauty, charm, and a more genuine experience of the traditional Vietnam.

CONS: Dirtier and less services available. Can be difficult to navigate and to get good deals as English-speakers are limited in this area. Forget replacing wrecked high-tech gadgets here – you’re screwed.

B.)  PROS: Modern and much more cosmopolitan — it’s like New York City with a whole bunch of signs in Vietnamese. People are friendly and speak English well. It’s easy to get around; and, if you get lost, there’s always someone around who can help you find your way back. It’s much more convenient and feels much easier and comfortable for Westerners. A lot more places to eat and party.

CONS: Not nearly as charming or as much character. Because people can speak English so well, street vendors and shop owners are much more aggressive – lots of “hard selling” will await you.

If “A” sounds like your cup of tea, spend more time in Hanoi. If “B” is more up your alley, spend the bulk of your time in Saigon.

Personally, while I do like Saigon and all of its modern conveniences, I do think I still prefer Hanoi for its culture and charm. But, it’s a personal decision, and I can certainly see why someone would prefer Saigon.

At the end of the day, I’d recommend seeing both if at all possible. But, do yourself a favor and either fly, or take a train to Hue, Danang, or Hoi An and spend a couple of days there. The 33-hour train from Hanoi to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City is BRUTAL. But, that’s another blog for another day.

Cheers,
E

Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre

While researching things to do in Hanoi, I kept seeing the “Thang Long Water Puppet Theater” pop up. People who had visited Hanoi were saying it’s a “must-do” while in the city. But, no one was really verbalizing what was so great about it.

The pictures were even less helpful. All it looked like was some kitschy puppets dancing in a small pool of water. The website was also, at least at the time, very slow to load, and definitely didn’t “sell it” for me.

I just couldn’t see why everyone was so jazzed about the Thang Long Water Puppet Show. But, seeing that so many people had recommended it, and being of a most curious nature, we decided to give it a try.

After going to one of the hour-long shows, the best way I can explain it is this: going to the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater for the water puppets and the play is like going to the Sistine Chapel to see a really nice fresco. You’re missing the point of the experience.

As we sat down in our very tight seats, we were struck by how small the theater is. (It’s probably a maximum seating capacity of 400 people, which is probably why they have several showings every day.)

The stage is built in the style of a temple at the top, with a pool of water down at the bottom. There are some random props, like rice paddies in the water, and a coconut tree at the edge of the stage that are used in some of the acts.

Once everyone is seated (and it does take some time as it’s consistently a full house in there), the announcer explains that this is a very ancient art form, dating back to the 11th century.

During the flooding season, villages would help to entertain themselves by putting on water puppet shows, making good use of the already flooded area. The people would make beautiful puppets that instead of being hung on strings are placed on rods. The puppeteers then hide inside of the stage, and glide the puppets along the water to tell their stories.

Before the show starts, though, the musical performers are introduced, and they play a couple of opening pieces. The musical performers that they’ve hired really are top-notch, and are worth the price of admission alone.

The narrator explains the history of the centerpiece musician: the Đàn bầu player. The “dan bau” was traditionally an instrument only played by men. Everyone could listen to the dan bau music and enjoy it, except for young ladies. The reason was their parents were afraid that the music of the dan bau was so beautiful that it would enchant them, and they would fall in love with the dan bau player.

I am happy to report that I somehow managed to keep my underwear on throughout the performance. (It was quite beautiful and haunting, though, I must admit.)

Nowadays, the dan bau is open to anyone to learn. The player at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater is a very accomplished lady, and you could clearly see her love and passion for the instrument in her eyes, and in the way she played it.

After a couple of opening songs, the water puppets come out. The “play” was really a series of different scenes from daily life in the village.

Some of them were humorous, such as my personal favorite, the “Water Buffalo Fight”. (Oh, those mischievous water buffalo! Will they ever behave?)

Some scenes were romantic, like the man and woman signing a love song to one another – including a stolen kiss behind some palm tree leaves. Some were exciting, like the horse race between the men of the town. And, some were somber, like the procession honoring the local, village god.

The closing act is a recreating of the myth of the carp that became a dragon. It starts with an orange fish that swims and dances around in the water. After a couple of minutes, he disappears under the water.

About fifteen seconds later, filled with dramatic “changing” music, he reemerges as to dignified, sacred music as a brightly colored dragon. The singers start signing again as he glides along the entire lake, showing off his beautiful form.

For the grand finale, the puppeteer, using tricks of shadows and light to play tricks on the eyes, rises the dragon from the lake, where he proceeds to fly around the temple surrounding the stage, and off into the night in a brilliant splash of color.

It’s a lovely reminder that no matter how humble our beginnings, we can transform ourselves anew into something of great beauty, dignity, and power.

Don’t go to the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater for high-tech pyrotechnics, flashy puppets, and Tony-award winning theatrics. Go because it’s a quintessential part of Vietnamese history and culture.

It’s like riding the subways in Paris, or drinking wine in Tuscany, or haggling in a Moroccan spice market for the best price on saffron.  It’s not the destination that you’re going for, but rather the immersion into a whole different culture.

Cheers,
E

Hoan Kiem Lake

A beacon of calmness in the middle of the city, Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem Lake is an unmissable part of Hanoi.
 
Granted, it can’t be missed as it’s so big, and it’s in the middle of the downtown half of the city. But, anyone who comes to Hanoi should definitely plan at least a half of a day to spend walking around the area.
 
There’s no specific starting point to walking around the lake. Several major streets lead directly into it. There’s no specific direction in which it needs to be walked, either. Just find a route in, and start walking. It’s an easy path to follow.
 
With contrasting shades of green from the trees, plants, and the lake’s waters, Hoan Kiem Lake really is the quintessential “green space” of the city.
 
Walking around the lake, there are tons of different people selling any and everything – fresh fruits, juices in plastic bags with straws sticking out of them, used travel books, and shoe shining are the ones that seem to be the most common. But, there are plenty more items and services being hocked all around the lake.
 
Usually, a smile and a “no” are all that’s needed to indicate you’re not interested. But, if you are, start bargaining. Most items are marked up 3-5 times what they’re actually worth.
 
Hoan Kiem Lake is not just in the physical center of the city, but it’s also the center of public life. Police officers, college students, bank executives, touts, beggars, families, tourists, worshipers, and many more come with their own missions and intentions to its emerald shores.
 
In the middle of the lake is a beautiful, centuries old building called “Turtle Tower”. Legend has it that the ancient emperor, Lê Lợi, found a sword with which he successfully beat the enemy invaders.
 
One day, about ten years later, Lê Lợi was out on the lake (then known as Lục Thủy Lake, meaning “green water”). Out of the middle of the lake rose a giant tortoise. Reaching for his sword to destroy it, the tortoise ended up taking the sword from Lê Lợi, and took it back under the water to disappear forever.
 
Realizing that the god who lent him the sword for the battles to defeat the enemy now wanted it back, Lê Lợi renamed the lake “Hoàn Kiếm”, which translates to “returning the sword”.
 
There is also another island in the middle of the lake, which houses a small, yet popular temple: Temple of the Jade Mountain. Admission is very inexpensive (10,000 Dong per person, about $0.50). Scott and I decided to walk across the beautiful and aptly named Light of Dawn Bridge, and go see the temple.
 
 
The temple, while small, has plenty of foot traffic. This means the constant burning of incense. Buddhists believe that the incense helps connect this life with the next life. As it was explained to us, it’s a way of sending your prayers to Buddha, trying to get his attention with the beautiful smell of incense.
 
I’d recommend going to see the temple. The temple is lovely, the incense smells great, and it’s a great way to view the lake from a different perspective.
 
Back on the mainland, there is plenty of secular life going on all around. There are several police officers who patrol the lake. It’s a bit jarring to see them in their communist garb at first. But, they’re far more interested in the locals’ business than tourists’.
 
As we were walking along the edge of the lake, we saw two teenage girls sharing a ride on a bicycle. A police officer held up his finger and pointed right at them, blowing his jarring whistle, and giving them a stone cold stare. Immediately, they hopped off the bike and started walking, pushing the bike along in front of them.
 
No bike riding allowed in that particular section, apparently…
 
On the first day we went to Hoan Kiem Lake, it was a Sunday. Evidently, that’s the day to get wedding pictures taken at the lake, because we saw at least ten couples doing just that. Some of them were romantic and classy…
 
 
 
And some… well, hopefully they don’t quite make it into the album.
 
 
Hoan Kiem Lake is constantly buzzing day and night, always full of people and all of their stories. If you go to Hanoi and haven’t at least walked the shores of Hoan Kiem Lake… well, you might as well have not even left the airport. It’s the epicenter of Hanoi, encompassing the best that the city has to offer.
 
Cheers,
E