Monthly Archives: January 2018

Cambodia and Thailand – We Gave It Wat Pho

We stood at a stall in Bangkok’s Chatuchak market, flipping through piles of small fabric pouches with bright stitching and wavering between the cobalt blue with leaf green accents, the orange-pink flowers or the purple-red elephants. Despite being tagged at 100 Thai bahts each (about $4 Cdn) we steeled ourselves to barter. D and I were already licking our wounds after the rookiest of rookie mistakes – leaving the hotel in a cab that hadn’t switched on the meter without first negotiating a price, resulting in double the going fare.

At the stall, we spoke like gangsters, low and crooked-mouthed. “What do you think, 4 for the price of 3?” “Let’s go lower, 280 bahts for 4?” “Yeah, 280, hold firm! Be prepared to walk away.”

D set her shoulders and turned to the seller, “How much for 4?” The woman barely glanced at us and tossed out, “250.” We jumped on it before we talked ourselves into paying more. We are so bad at this.

D and I had decided to travel sans guide in Thailand. Guides had worked well in Vietnam but I’d grown tired of the well-meaning chatterbox we hired in Cambodia. He was enthusiastic and knowledgeable and efficient, able to rattle off historical names and dates and always smiling. Having an air conditioned car waiting with a driver proffering ice-cold water and facecloths was worth it alone, given the 34-feels-like-38 degree weather. But he also felt the need to explain every chisel mark of every bas-relief so when he gestured to a long wall showing monkeys fighting demons and said that it was one of eight different panels, we had to awkwardly convert our horrified “oh no’s” into fake-appreciative “ooh’s.”

Guide or no guide, the temples of Cambodia around Siem Reap show distinct personalities despite being just a few kilometres from each other. Bayon Temple in Angkor Thom compares to the Mexican architecture of Tikal or Chichen Itza, pyramidy with stairs up the face. The Banteay Srei temple mixes Hindu and Buddhist elements into intricate, curly designs in red sandstone, and the funeral temple of Pre Rup looks like a series of termite mounds made of brick.

Angkor Wat is the matriarch, an extensive complex with beehive towers surrounded by an immense moat. Walking around in the hot, damp air you feel like you are soaking in the atmosphere through your pores. Your breath catches when you watch the sun slide down behind the gates one day, then silhouette the towers as it rises again way too early the next morning, turning the sky from dark purple to light blue and then to yellow and orange.

But the standout temple was Ta Prohm, taken over by the jungle and left that way, with crumbling stone, giant balsa trees growing from the tops of walls and roots creeping down their faces like melted candle wax.

While I was grateful for the richer understanding that came with using a guide, his fate, and that of his Thai brothers, was sealed when, presumably having run dry of history, he explained how the spiders on the ruins spun webs to catch flies.

Between research and recommendations from friends, we made a loose plan for Thailand. Chatuchak was our first stop. The market has a permanent structure of stalls with walls, glass sliding doors and air conditioning along with Home Depot style signage: home furnishings, wood products and pet accessories. We backed up quickly when we stumbled into the puppy mill aisle and plunged instead into party favours. Out into the sunshine of the rickety weekend market and back in for glassware and the colourful fabric bags where we bought the pouches. We tried to double back at one point and got hopelessly lost in another adjacent market that was strictly local, with stall after stall of dead birds and live aquarium fish.

A visit to the night market near our hotel brought offers to watch women do unspeakable things with ping pong balls. We passed. But on the walk home found a local restaurant with the best panang beef curry I’ve ever had.

Our last day, we set out with confidence. The metered taxi cost a quarter of the previous day’s price and we dispatched the Golden Buddha temple with great efficiency, amusing ourselves by creating our own narrative for the friezes.

We avoided the sketchy tuk tuk driver who wanted to take us to three different places instead of where we’d asked to go and prided ourselves for the deal on the next one, negotiating only a short detour to the cheap ferry so we could continue by boat up the Chao Phraya river, something on our list.

Unfortunately, guides aren’t the only ones adept at hostage tourism and our tuk tuk driver diverted us to a private boat demanding $120 Cdn for a 1 hr tour. This, in a country where a 30 min taxi costs $3. I guess the sucker stamp from the Vietnamese pearl farm was indelible.

Old hands, we out-stubborned them down to $20 per person and eventually made our way to Wat Pho, now in the top five list of sights for this trip so far.

Wat Pho is the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, a bright gold Buddha, 150 feet long by 49 feet high, stretching out gracefully on his side. Outside, is a wonderland of stupa pillars and buildings with walls and roofs decorated in exquisite multi-coloured mosaics, eaves of gold-sequined dragons and galleries repeating Buddhas infinitely down each hallway.

We wandered in and out, trying to capture every view with each one more spectacular than the last. Living in the moment, with no one yapping at us, and promising ourselves to read all about it. Later.

Siem Reap

Chao Phraya river

Wat Pho Bangkok

Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City to the Mekong Delta – Mekong es Sukong

We sat low in a wooden sampan between water coconut trees that crowded in on us as we glided down the narrow, silty canal. Our boatman’s oar dipped in and out of the water, birds chattered like monkeys among the fronds and roosters crowed to each other as if warning those ahead of our intrusion.

I posted a 10-sec video on Instagram and a friend back home likened it to Apocalypse Now. Apt comparison that I was surprised hadn’t occurred to me since a lot of the tourist experience in Vietnam revolves around discussing the War.

The day we spent in the Mekong Delta, though, was a break from war talk as we focused on the life of the coconut farmer and the red tilapia or catfish fisherman. Earlier that morning, before rowing down the canal, we’d driven a few hours south of Ho Chi Minh City to take a half hour motor boat ride on one of the nine river tributaries that meet in the delta.

Fishing nets are strung up onto posts, and little tiki huts along the banks serve as additional traps. Our guide told us they were chicken traps but when I exclaimed, “Chicken traps!” D quietly repeated that the man was “checking. the. traps.”

Our pilot cut the motor as we approached a lone fisherman anchored in the river, and called out to him in Vietnamese. The guy grinned and pulled a green net bag out of the water, twice the size of the ones our moms used to take shopping. We put down our coconut-water-in-a-coconut drink to congratulate him on his catch of a single squilla, which looks like a spindly lobster or a gargantuan shrimp. After reading up, I’m not entirely sure squilla live in the Mekong, so there’s a good chance I once again misheard the guide, or that fisherman kept one as a pet that he showed off to tourists.

Our destination was a coconut farm and we clambered off the boat onto a springy pile of coconut husks. As we watched, a worker impaled a young green coconut onto a comically large spear sticking straight up from the ground and with a few quick twists, tossed the husk on one pile and the coconut core on the other. That is step one of many in the mostly manual process of this farm. The hairy coconuts go to a group of women who further strip them of fibre and pass them on to stages which might include draining the coconut water or pressing the meat for milk or oil. The fibre gets spun into rope and the husks are used to help grow orchids. The leaves and wood of coconut trees (palm trees are different) are dried and used as fuel. It’s nose to tail coconut tree production.

After the coconut farm, we bumped along a track in the back of an open-framed cattle cart to a local house for fresh mango, pineapple, pomelo and banana, then took the Apocalypse Now canal ride to another house. There, the owner prepared a multi-course lunch of noodle soup, flaky spring rolls, do-it-yourself rice paper rolls with flesh pulled from a whole baked fish, rice and noodle dishes and finished with mini bananas (called bananas here) before returning to the city.

Heading back to Ho Chi Minh City is to leave the peace and hospitality of the Mekong behind and pick up talk of the War. Although I’ve purposely stayed away from discussing it here (our short time as tourists in no way qualifies me to understand its complexities), it was fascinating to hear the varied local perspectives as we moved from north to south. What everyone agreed on, however, is that Ho Chi Minh City is still called Saigon although the reasons might range from expediency (it is shorter than the official name) to minor political rebellion. Even that is layered: a newspaper headline the day of our Mekong trip was “Thief from Saigon caught by Ho Chi Minh police.”

Mekong Delta

Mekong Boaty MacBoatface

Vietnam: Hanoi to Hue – Monkey Spies and Mamazu

The trade-off with hiring a local guide and driver in Vietnam, as with anywhere else, is that at some point you are taken hostage, driven to a workshop for lacquer paintings or pottery or marble statues and trailed by sales people until you buy something. It is expected and even understandable, yet we were surprised when our guide led us to a young woman in a white lab coat and mask, holding surgical tools and peering through a magnifying glass. We’d landed at a pearl farm.

A petite hostess standing nearby explained that they catch oysters in Ha Long Bay, pry them open and remove a piece of the membrane. The membrane is combined with a white ball-bearing-sized core, she continued demurely, and then shoved into the oyster’s gonad. Sure enough, the oyster surgeon had clamped the shell open with a speculum and was inseminating it using tweezers. D and I nodded along as if we weren’t at all surprised that male oysters are made to give birth to cultured pearls.

The impregnated oysters are then strung on racks and lowered back into the bay where they get follow ups every two years to monitor the growth of the pearl baby.

She explained the quality rating system (lowest B to highest AAA) and led us over to the next station where she pulled out a two-year oyster and extracted the pearl toddler. She held it up, “What do you think?” We answered in Canadian, “Oh, what a lovely pearl, pretty colour, unusual shape” until she tossed it offhand into a beaker and said, “This is the worst, not good for jewelry, we grind it and eat it” and then stamped “suckers” on our foreheads and sent us into the shop.

While mercantile tourism might sometimes be the downside to using a guide, the upside is getting to chat at length with locals and gain even some small insight into life in Vietnam.

In Hanoi and Ha Long in North Vietnam, we talked about the 1000 years of Chinese rule, the 100 years of French occupation and the American War, as it is called here. And while Canadians default to weather (it’s been cold and damp here being rainy season), Vietnamese small talk revolves around traffic. Population of cities is given in people and scooters, so how big is Hanoi? 8 million people and 5 million scooters.

Hanoi itself is a hectic, slightly dingy city with mostly uncontrolled intersections where scooters, cars and pedestrians mix together like cement and wood (the Vietnamese equivalent to oil and water). They slide by each other without sticking. To cross the road, our northern guide advised us to “walk slowly and confidently” with predictability of movement being the key to not getting squished. Our charming guide in Central Vietnam would instead call out, “Sticky rice! Be sticky rice” when it was time to cross.

In the cities, Vietnamese houses are 9 feet wide and 3-4 storeys tall to maximize a family’s storefront access, literally, since every house turns their first floor into a store. It allows the family to make a little additional income. Only the front is decorated, primarily in the French Colonial style with pastel colours, dormer windows and ornately balustraded balconies. The long sides are unrelieved, windowless cement in resignation of the neighbour who will build right up against it. The houses are powered by external cables that tangle into elaborate spider webs netting the city and hooked into boxes mounted on poles on each corner. If power goes out, another cable is added since it would be impossible to isolate the specific faulty line.

The 4-hr drive from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay was a string of house-shops pretty much the entire way so D and I played silent bingo of how many times our guide mentioned the year a highway was constructed (usually after having been bombed by the Americans); what unusual item was being carried on a scooter (live chickens to propane tanks to 3ft bonsai trees); and the location of the monkey spies (the human radar traps police set up in treehouse blinds to hunt speeders).

Hoi An in Central Vietnam is completely different. It’s a small, charming place made up of two ancient towns that Japanese and Chinese traders settled across the river from each other, to become the second last stop on the Silk Road. The old town is filled with tailors and restaurants, and is strung with colourful lanterns that cause you to bump into each other as you walk around with faces lifted at night.

The walking bridge over the river that originally separated the two towns is called the Japanese Bridge and holds a Chinese temple where people pray for a peaceful Mamazu, a dragonlike sea monster with a head in India that causes droughts, a tail in Japan responsible for earthquakes and the body in Vietnam causing floods.

Mamazu is often angry, though, as floods submerge the Old Town once or twice every year. The floodline from this past November was higher than my fingerstips when my arm was extended straight over my head. They are deadly since according to our guide, 75% of Vietnamese can’t swim. She said parents are too busy scratching out a living to teach the kids and with the East Sea (South China Sea on the map) nearby and rivers all around, they keep the kids safe by convincing them there are monsters in the water. A project started where foreigners come to Vietnam to teach swimming lessons to lower the death toll, since on average 10 children drown every day in Vietnam. The name of the project: Monster Swimming.

Vietnam is a mix of modern and traditional, a small narrow country with 95 million people that fits 30 times into Canada and whose people differ in personality, accent and sometimes language from north to south. It is fiercely independent and incredibly resilient. Mamazu, eat your heart out.

Hong Kong – What a Souprise

It was worth the three flights and missing-luggage scare to discover soup dumplings on our first full day in Hong Kong. Not any old-hat dumplings bobbing in soup but pleated pouches of XiaoLongBao that contain a soupçon, as it were, of ambrosial broth within the wrapper as an extra special soup-rise (see what I did there?).

There is a ritual to eating XiaoLongBao that is detailed on the quick reference instruction card that comes with your order. You transfer the plump packets to a spoon and gingerly bring spoon and dumpling to your bowl. Then you dip them carefully in a mix of soy sauce and vinegar with shredded ginger before poking a hole in the top. You can let the fragrant liquid drain into the spoon, mixing with the soy-vinegar-ginger and taste it delicately, or you can fall on the dumpling like a sucker fish cleaning barnacles off a whale, slurp up the broth and gobble the pork dumpling in one bite. This was how I started a month in Asia-Oceania with my travel pal, D.

It began as a trip to Vietnam but spread out once we looked at a map with Cambodia-is-right-there, and look-how-close-Thailand-is, followed by since-we’re-here-how-about-Australia, capped off with we-have-to-go-through-Hong-Kong-we-might-as-well-stop-over.

We knew we were in for a treat when the actors on the Taiwanese airline videos from Seattle to Taipei to Hong Kong explained the safety instructions gravely in Chinese then broke into interpretive dance when it was time to review them in English.

Two days in Hong Kong is too short but still allows for a good sampling of food. The XiaoLongBao set a high bar that was met by successive meals of braised, charred short ribs; dim sum of har gow, siu mai, and black pepper squid tentacles well worth the 90-min wait; and topped off by a seafood restaurant that ferries you 30 min to an island, feeds you whole snapper, steamed shrimp in garlic sauce and butter-drenched fried lobster all freshly killed and cooked to order before shipping you back to Hong Kong Island.

The city itself isn’t what I expected. Not a slick, shiny metropolis, but a bustling, grittier city with towers stepping on top of each other forming a ring that creeps up and around the island, and spills across the bay into Kowloon. It has cramped alleys with signs that jockey for position up into the sky; crowded markets dedicated to ladies’ wares or flowers or textiles; and big sprawling malls with high end brand names and architecturally spectacular washrooms. The city is shrouded in a mysterious, smoggy glow by day and puts on a light show every night to rival Times Square or Picadilly Circus.

We did what I love best which is walk around the city to get a feel for the life there. Our lovely hosts, childhood friends of D, knew the best places to go including a stop at the (free) exhibit of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority on an upper floor of the second tallest building. We went for the view but got caught up in the Science World-like games including a full-body interactive one about whether Hong Kong should peg its currency to the Chinese renminbi or the US dollar. I played it energetically enough that I caught the eye of the poor woman charged with surveying the few visitors and felt compelled to answer her questions with extreme enthusiasm including whether I would tell others to go visit (“Of course!”). So now I’ve kept my promise. Go see it.

My favourite part of this first leg of our trip, aside from the freshly baked pain au chocolat our hostess made every morning, was riding up the escalators from Central at the waterline to the Mid-Levels where we were staying. There are 21 escalators and inclined moving sidewalks that make up the longest covered outdoor escalator system in the world. Incredible people watching as you glide by crooked streets and busy stalls and glance into peoples’ kitchens.

I feel like I should wrap this up by using the XiaoLongBao as a metaphor for Hong Kong with its flexible wrapping, pleated streets and meaty deliciousness surrounded by the salty Kowloon Bay broth but that is just ridiculous. Maybe instead, I can just say this is the best way to start a new year – Gong Hey Fat Choy!