Extravagasia

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Massage...Boom-Boom!...Massage Boom Boom!?!?!

Tiffany and I have done nearly everything together on this trip. As boring and over-involved as that might sound, it makes sense, partly because we are traveling for the same reasons (seeing sights like the Angkor temples, enjoying food in India, etc), but also because we tend to have the same threshold. After 4 total days hiking around temples in over 95 degree heat, substantial humidity, and most of all, punishing (that IS the right word) sunshine, we both where "templed out" in a major way.

But I digress. Before we did all this, I was trying to find us a good guide and/or driver for all of this. Now, it's not as if it's hard to find either, with people shouting such services at you from every street corner in town. But what about credibility, english skills, and experience? I was trying to contact a guide recommended on an internet site, so I needed to call him. It was perhaps 10pm and since we don't have our own cell phone set up in cambodia, I needed to walk to any of the "phone booths" you can find on the street, which have an aluminum and plexiglas box which looks like a phone booth, but is to small to actually stand in, and is often filled with junk anyway. However, somewhere nearby to all of these, you will find somebody willing to charge you around 500 riel per minute to use their cell phone. Usually this person is involved in a shop or some other business.

So, I go out to make this call, Tiffany stays in the hotel room where it is cooler and cleaner as there is no need for her to come along. I need to walk only about 600m to the phone booth. I am wearing REI-ish pants and an orange t-shirt with no printing, as I recall. very "normal". so, I walk out of the hotel and immediately, as expected, a moto driver asks me if I want a ride "moto, moto?" I respond "no, thank you, just walking". He comes a little closer "You want smoke?" and again "no, thanks" I hadn't gotten this one before but had heard that many moto drivers would know where to find pot. Next, "you want girl tonight?" I laugh..~> read more

 "No, thank you" and apparently he has run out of his script.

In Bangkok and Phnom Penh and to a lesser extent Siem Reap you see a lot of western men, usually between their late 40s and early 60s, out at restaurants and bars with khmer (cambodian) or thai young ladies (early 20s usually). The lady is their "date" though it is quite unlikely they aren't being paid. It is also hard to miss the massage parlors around town, particularly in siem reap, which according to our lonely planet guidebook are rarely 100% "above board" so to speak. However, there are many tourists seeking a foot massage after the temple hikes. There are also a number of bars that "freelancers" (prostitutes sans madame) hang out at to pick up business. Whatever our judgements on this, it is certainly present.

Anyhow, I walk past the shady karaoke-massage place on our street (yes, really) past a few more offers from moto drivers, past another massage place and a gay oriented western owned place that I think offers food and booze as well as massage ???, and I spot a public phone booth. Great! However, you need a prepaid phone card to use the booth. ok, there is a sign next to the booth pointing directly in between two storefronts saying "prepaid card sold here". One storefront seems to be a bar, but here in SE asia you really can't rule out a bar selling prepaid phone cards. the other store is closed, but there's a lady sitting out front on a bench. I approach the lady, asking about phone cards. she isn't understanding me, but beckons me closer. I come over and say it again. still no luck, but she strokes my arm sensually. Huh. There is a moto-driver or security guard coming over, so I bring him over to the sign and just point to it, because it says "phone card here" in khmer as well. "no, no" sounds like the place is closed. ok, so now I'm noticing that the bar has way too many ladies hanging out near the front. uh-huh. time to find another phone booth. as I walk away a young lady sitting on a motorbike strokes my arm again, saying something nice. I think this one might have been a lady-boy but that's another story and certainly a tough call.

So yeah, on down the street. 30m further and I see the plexi-aluminum non-phonebooth I'm seeking. turns out the phone owner runs a fruit stand here. she motions for me to sit down. doesn't speak a bit of english but I have the phone number printed out on paper. we dial. it rings a bit then tones I don't recognize. huh. she seems to want me to wait. OK, I don't need to leave right away. Pretty soon, an attractive middle aged khmer lady with a tight tank top and red underwear sticking out the top of her jeans (in the front) comes up and starts arguing/asking about how ripe various durian sitting there are. I look behind me to see a stack of durian husks, now that must be where the somewhat vomitous smell is coming from. A western guy in his late 40s, (I think american) that looks like he has smoked a dump truck full of weed and cigarettes at led zeppelin concerts shows up, with a pushy-acting khmer girl in her 20s. she seems to want to show off how cheaply she can buy fruit. red-underwear-in-the-front lady gets into a conversation with the (other) pushy girl. Seems to be an argument but those high sharp springy tones in the khmer language could make a friendly greeting sound like an argument.

we try the phone number one more time, same tones. A younger khmer guy comes over and listens. He tells me in great english that the mobile phone I am calling is probably turned off. OK, maybe my guide has gone to bed. I thank the english speaker and the fruit lady and head back, moving quickly past "zanzi bar" which I now suspect to be a freelancer joint.

However, I was quite done yet. As I was about to dip into the hotel gate, a moto driver pulled up. "Massage...Boom Boom!...Massage Boom Boom!?!?!

What can you buy for a US Dollar anymore?

Well, not much, where it's printed. But if you're in Cambodia, quite a lot! You see, Cambodia uses primarily the US Dollar as currency, even though next door neighbor Thailand, for example, has its own currency system (Baht) as you would expect. $1 buys 2 hours at an internet cafe in Phnom Penh (but only 1 hour if the cafe has A/C. A single G.W. can also net you 8 1 liter bottles of water, believe it or not. If you're in the mood for fruit, you can easily get 2 full pineapples, perfectly cut to remove the hard core and those annoying fibrous dimples around the outside, for a single buck. To rent a 100cc Scooter (the primary mode of transportation for everyone) you'll need 3 of the smallest U.S. greenback, and to stay in a nice hotel room with TV, fridge, sometimes DVD player, and hot water, you'll need 8, 12 if you want to turn on the A/C (which is impossible to resist sometimes).

However, anything less than a dollar is guaranteed to be handled in an entirely different currency. oh no, you won't find quarters, dimes, or any coin, in fact, around here.~> read more

 While the official exchange rate isn't exact, everyone treats 1 USD as 4000 cambodian riel. Therefore, if you want to buy a Coca cola (a bit of a luxury around here, though beer can be the same price), you'll need 2 1000 riel bills to cover the $.50 price that may be marked in the cooler. You'll also find 500 riel bills quite commonly (worth 12.5 cents each), and even 100 riel bills, which are equivalent to 2.5 cents. these bills look like it cost well over 2.5 cents to print them, they are usually quite nice in contrast to some of the other denominations. Again, no coins at all, in fact, when we got into the more touristed town of Siem Reap, a restaurant tried to farm off a quarter on us probably left by an american tourist to angkor wat. Fat chance, that quarter went straight into the tip.

The final complication is that the government is for some reason still printing 5000 and 10000 riel notes, though we haven't seen anything larger than that. These bills are 1.25 and 2.50 respectively. Also, since there isn't a reserve bank to exchange old USD notes as there is in the US, you have to be extremely careful not to accept a bill in change with even the slightest tear, even if the tear is sneakily taped, as we once had, because nobody will accept it. Older, distressed bills can face the same problem but are easier to spot.

Therefore, you might imagine that when you get a bill for 2.90, and you can pay it with:

two US dollars, three 1000 riel notes, one 500 riel note, and one 100 riel note

or, if you have the riel, it's better to use that, so:

one 10000 riel note (or 2 5000 notes), one 1000 riel note, one 500 riel note, and 1 100 riel note

but if you only have one 5000 riel note, it's:

one US dollar, one 5000 riel note, 2 1000 riel notes, one 500 riel note, and 1 100 riel note.

It can be a riel challenge to manage all of those bills!

How we take photos

This isn't a description of where we've been, or the people we've seen. But since you've probably looked at many of our photos, I wanted to say a few things about the way we take them.

Namely, we take them together! No, I don't mean the photos with the two of us in them, I mean we hand the camera back and forth to take a few shots. We have 1 "body" and 4 lenses, and we're certainly not going to carry double that! We find it's pretty easy to share, when one of us gets an idea the other is more than happy to hand it over.

So, how can you tell who took a given photo? The short answer is, you can't. You might have made the assumption that I take all of them, with Tiffany handling most of the prose on this site. However, while I take more than half of the photos, I think she takes more than half of the good ones.

In any case, it's a collaborative effort, and if you see an interesting or fun photo, you can rest assured we took it together, no matter who was directly behind the lens!

all our photos from this trip: http://bitjug.com/gallery/AsiaTrip

Short Gallery from Phnom Penh

I wanted to post a short gallery of photos we took in Phnom Penh; don't miss the dead chickens!

http://bitjug.com/gallery/PhnomPenh

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Smells of Occheuteal Beach

We're certain the sounds of a tropical beach are familiar to your ears: surf crashing rhythmically on sand, squeals of delight, wind whistling gently through palm trees, and a collective, happy gasp as the sun sinks pinkly into the sea.

For the sights, we have some photos here: http://bitjug.com/gallery/Sihanoukville

But what about the smells?

Cambodia's beaches offered our noses something far beyond your typcial salt air and we had to share. Sitting, sunning, shading and floating on Occheuteal Beach was kind of like attending a sports event with exotic food hawkers. Cambodians don't mess around with boring stuff like popcorn or cotton candy; even a can of beer isn't Budweiser-boring -- here, they offer it from the countries of Malaysia, Cambodia and Singapore.

Ladies wander up and down the narrow strip of sand carrying a yoke-like contraption that involves a narrow stick about five feet long and a triangular set of wires on each end that hold a giant round platter.~> read more

 It's kind of like those scales in the produce department at Safeway, only twice the size, hanging off the rod in your closet. Sometimes, one end of the yoke has a fire pit on it that the women use to barbeque you up something fresh!

Other ladies and girls carry only a giant bowl on their heads, carefully balanced in a round pillow made of the checkered krama scarf material, with pounds of fruit or fried this-or-that, and wield a giant cleaver to fresh cut whatever you desire. Watching a seven-year-old whack pineapple from its pesky skin for $0.25, while balancing on her knees and tipping nothing into the sand, was a nerve wracking site, trust me!

All day, women balance the yokes and platters effortlessly as they plod along the beach belting out their buffet items. Wish you were with us to taste the flavors!

- BBQ squid -- fresh from the Gulf, barbeque-cum-blackened up right in front of you.

- Sweet pineapple -- hot sun ripens the so-fresh fruit, which is cut to eat...yum!

- Steamed dumplings -- the warm doughy smell of steamed rice flour dumplings interrupts sun bathing, for sure!

- Roasted Peanuts -- warm, salty, nutty goodness wrapped in newspaper cones.

- Grilled Coconut -- chopped, cooked and rolled into a spring roll with peanuts, mung beans and palm sugar. SO good!

- Durian -- horrible, foul, custard-vomit smelling durian. We're not fans of the fruit!

- BBQ Bananas -- peeled and grilled to perfection; these in Cambodia have a denser, deeper flavor and you get a bunch rolled in a plastic bag for snacking.

- Apple-Rubber-Honey -- otherwise known as Jack Fruit. Gotta try it once.

- Salt-Brine-Fish-in-the-Sun -- just like it sounds. Tiny fish and tiny mollusks are sold, mostly to locals, for munching. Smell usually triggers nose wrinkling. Also triggers question of: "How long have those been sitting in the sun, unrefrigerated?"

- Fried doughnuts and sun-melty-chocolate -- doughnut-like-crisps with gooey tops of chocolate and nutella. Probably remnant of something French, but many good things are here in Cambodia.

Sun, Serendipity & No Straying Off Path

Southwestern Cambodia borders the Gulf of Thailand is supposedly the "next Southern Thailand" with its sleepy sand 'n surf towns, beachfront dining by palm-oil lantern light and uninhabitated coastal islands. Andy and I decided it our moral duty as independent travelers to check the area out before it's awash in even more Lonely Planet backpackers and, gasp, dreaded "package tour" travelers, so we headed south on the bus.

Yes, the bus -- we got brave again after India since the Cambodian coaches have a small blast of air that circulates throughout (small...petite, tiny, wee...but better than nothing!) and they only sit four across instead of five or six. However, please note, buses don't have a bathroom and if you have the misfortune of needing relief on a ride, you must politely pantomime to the driver, get him to stop and squat near the bus with its big windows and main road!!!~> read more

 NOT, I repeat not, in the privacy of the trees or a shrouded path away from the bus.

Why? Because Cambodia is still riven with landmines and it's dangerous to pee off-path. How weird and sad is that??? History is alive and killing even today in Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge, Vietnam War and Vietnamese intervention of the 1970's and 1980s. Many of the scars of its horriffic past are buried only inches under the soil around the country, and millions of land mines laid by various guerrilla groups that terrorized the country are still unknown and unexploded. Yes, millions -- Cambodia has somewhere between 4 - 6 million dotting its rice field, roads and countryside. The complexity and expense of finding them is too much for this little country and the landmines still kill about 45 people a month. Thus, one is advised to stay on path when temple or tinkle seeking, and it's imperative to stay on marked roads and rice paddies whenever exploring.

I'm sure this concept seems difficult to comprehend -- we read it in the "LP" and were kind of dubious -- but all you need to do is walk out of your guest house and see the first limbless beggar asking for money and you know it's real. Sadly, there are so many of these people on the beach and street, you can't give to all of them but it's hard...nothing stops you in your traveler tracks like someone hobbling on crutches without their lower arms and left leg.

Anyway, on a lighter note, we disembarked in Sihanoukville and jumped on a moto, giant backpacks, little day packs and all, and started exploring its myriad beach areas. Serendipity, Victory, Sokha, Occheuteal and Koh Pos greeted us with warm, beige sand and sea-green water that was our warmest yet! I'd say bath water, but I haven't had a bath in months and we're now trading hot water in favor of A/C so that's an analogy which triggers yearning. ;)

We spent most of our week on Serendipity and Occheuteal beaches, staying in a guest house only a short palm-lined walk away for $10, and soaked up the atmosphere. The area is full of charming bungalow restaurants with rattan lounge seating on the beach and free black rubber inner-tubes for riding the wives, and while there are some travelers, it's not the hordes you see in the Thai islands. But, things are happening, and we both feel Cambodia's coast will be wildly different in one year.

You can see and smell the changes afoot, as structures are going up haphazardly -- if you're not careful you might catch a spark from a welder in the eye while the smell of fresh asphalt grinds in your nose when you're suddenly walking or riding on it. (No, not kidding!) Guest houses are appearing nearly overnight, trees are disappearing overnight and we saw crews of krama-covered workers toiling in the heat, digging, paving and laying brick by hand in three stretches of the same main road of Sihanoukville. (the krama is a protective scarf very popular and indigenous here. you see it used in many ways)

In many ways, land development and land mines sum up Cambodia...progress and tragedy mingled in one movement that has positive yet precarious momentum. The country has struggled so long and hard against war, famine, freedom and stability that it's desperate for a prosperous economy and tourism is the seducing light at the end of the tunnel. It often feels like everyone is out for a piece of it -- and subsequently a piece of you, as a traveler. Everything is for sale or going to be, and everyone is selling. We're enjoying ourselves, but the lure of constant potential and a voracious appetite for the dollar means that in Cambodia, we always have to watch our step.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Seven Deadly Reasons Why We Like Phnom Penh



{Women wearing pyjamas in the street (See: ENVY)}

I could go on and on about where the time went in Phnom Penh, but here's a fun little list of things we believe are reasons why we stayed a whole week.

For some reason, it felt sinful to have this kind of time in a foreign city when one knows there's more of a country to see. But our intentions were virtuous and I think there's a bit of honor in traveling with a touch of temperance, don't you? :D

{SLOTH] = Toilets are most everywhere -- and most even have pale pink toilet paper. Truth be told, the constant squat can make one overwrought!

[GREED] = The US Dollar ($) is the de facto currency -- no kidding! Here, we understand how much we're spending, and how cheap it is! (Cambodia has its own currency, the Riel, but it went to hell with the Khmer Rouge and somehow the dollar emerged as stable years ago. Geez, have we seen some ancient dollar bills!)

[PRIDE] = Cambodians drive on the left, pass on the left and we look right when crossing. Now, that's a system we can master with confidence. It's so easy being a pedestrian!

[ENVY] = Women wear pajamas in the street!!!~> read more

 Again, not kidding. And, I don't have mine with me! We don't have a clue about how this came to pass but it's completely normal to see Cambodian women and girls out in the street working, selling, walking, shopping...and all wearing two-piece cotton pajamas sets complete with piping and pockets, and with floral, Hello Kitty! or sleepytime bears cutting Zzzzzzz's on them. It's hilarious. I'm bitter I don't have any with me. And, why isn't this a viable fashion option in the States?

[GLUTTONY] = Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) that make you feel good about eating and spending. Because of Cambodia's horrific past, NGOs and the UN have a strong presence here and are trying to help the country make good in this new era of hope and tourism. Many opened restaurants that assist local street children, artists, impoverished mothers, AIDS victims and more by giving them jobs, education, skills and such in the food industry. You just feel good eating at these places and it's so great to know that when a sweet smile on a young teen made your meal all that more enjoyable, your extra tip...of maybe only $1...makes a big difference in their lives. Plus, on a selfish note, the NGOs are run by a wildly international staff of volunteers so each menu involves foods that ex-pats desperately miss in Cambodia and include so much, much more than rice.

[LUST] = Kampot black pepper and squid salad. Outrageous, original, pure yumminess! Kampot is a southwestern province in Cambodia that grows exquisite black peppercorns which are salty, zingy, zesty and smoky. So much more than any grocery-store black pepper. In fact, Kampot pepper was a delicacy for French tables during the mid-19th century, but the Khmer Rouge period wiped it out as an export in the 1970's. However, and thankfully, you find it locally and when paired with grilled squid, fresh mint and basil, lemongrass, ginger, chilies, lime, crushed peanuts, lettuce and sugar, you have something special! (and yes, I'm now thinking it might be interesting to become a Kampot peppercorn grower and exporter!)

[ANGER] = No taxis...just moto taxis! Which means a scooter carries three adults at wild angles here and brings new meaning to "Look, Ma! No hands!". Not to be a car-loving American, but this was unexpected. Actually, this means Andy is thrilled and not angry, as here it seems "practical" for us to rent our own. But while this means there are far fewer cars to dodge when crossing the street, we did have to call our insurance company and cajole, then pay to increase the policy to include "hazardous coverage" since we can't get to and from major destinations or arrival points without riding a moto.

Cambodian Daze



{You didn't think we'd miss out on this legacy of the French, did you?}

We landed in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and somehow didn't leave until a full week later!

(note: for those curious, it's "PUH-nahm-penn" pronunciation-wise)

I'm not sure what happened, but think we were sucked in to the city's mellow, hopeful, happening vibe and just wanted to stay. Honestly, we're probably still recalibrating from India and what seems restrained to us might be chaotic to a newly-arrived-in-Cambo traveler, but we're thrilled the moto drivers only ask once and beggars don't touch when motioning for food.

Somehow, Andy and I whiled away hours in Phnom Penh...slouching in giant, silk-cushioned, rattan chairs anchored under swirling ceiling fans sipping fresh~> read more

 juice shakes or iced black tea laced with lemon, mint and palm sugar. And loved every second of it!

And, most probably, French Imperialism also had something to do with it. Inarguably, the French know a thing or two about making a city great and their influence on Phnom Penh is no different. Creamy cafe-au-lait buildings with curly-cue, wrought-iron balconies line the streets, the boulevards are wide with sidewalks and grassy islands of monuments, and there are distinct quarters throughout the city, including one rife with Art Deco. Personally, I can take or leave the baguette, but it's entertaining to see that loaf as the national bread of Cambodia. Plus, where there's French bread, there are good chefs unafraid of baking with wheat flour and the liberal use of salt and pepper. YES...rice is nice, but wheat is sweet! Perhaps most importantly, we owe the luxuries of drinkable, crunchable, cold ice and imported cabernet sauvignon to the French colonists of Cambodia--two things which definitely take the edge off a day of exploration in the hot sun.

Phnom Penh sits on the banks of a confluence of the Tonle Sap, Tonle Bassac and mighty Mekong rivers, and it's an inviting waterfront with Art Nouveau lamps, billowing flags and fruit sellers which beckons a daily promenade. Thankfully, a cooling breeze flows off the water and tempers the city's electic mix of people as there is little shade in Phnom Penh and it's, shall we say, 'Asia' hot here these days. Western-dressed working Cambodians, rural Khmer laboreres (their heads swaddled by the native, gingham-like-checked kramas/scarves), aid workers in linen--albeit wrinkled--business attire, travelers in cargo pants and shoeless children, who should be in school but are instead selling photocopied books (like Lonely Planet and Dan Brown), mix on the streets. And most all are smiling. It's an easy aura for blending, plus there's an energy that things are just happening here. Now.

One of the coolest places to hang out in Phnom Penh, watch the sunset colors reflect off the rivers and catch the first cooling winds off the Mekong is The Foreign Correspondents Club (or The F for those in the know). During the crazy, cruel, schizophrenic times of the monarchy, the Vietnam war and the Khmer Rouge, journalists from all over the world sat in wicker chairs at The F, perched right along its multi-level, open-air, free-fall-to-street balconies and watched the days go by. Literally.

From stories above, foreign correspondents watched the feet on the streets of Phnom Penh and imbibed gin and scotch -- whole bottles are for sale even today -- to loosen the flow of words for deadline. The giant sails of ceiling fans cooled, and still cool, heated debates on whatever zeitgeist issue, and the ever-so-faint aroma of cigarettes past tickles your nose today. Newspapers from world-round are available for a leisure read and there's no rush to plow through a dense article; perhaps the club's only distraction is the static of numerous foreign accents that prick one's ear with curiousity or familiarity. We loved The F and rubbed knees against the balconies, the same which have seen and survived decades of Cambodia's newsy riots and bloodshed, on numerous occasions...sipping French burgundy and soaking up the ghosts of correspondents past.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Dishing On Bangkok Restaurants



...AND THE VIEW...



(more photos here): http://bitjug.com/gallery/BKK2dinners

Thailand is known for its unique cuisine -- savory yet sweet in every bite, sauces smooth as Thai silk and a spiciness that emulates its hot climate -- and Bangkok's restaurant scene is no less unique or phenomenal. With Michael, we experienced some of the best the city has to offer one dish, drink and location at a time, and we simply HAD to share the details!

Bangkok has one restaurant in particular which takes 'atmosphere' to a new level.~> read more

 At the top of the Banyan Tree Hotel rests "Vertigo", a restaurant and bar soaring above the building's 58 floors with nothing to stop you from touching the stars but the smoky curtain of Bangkok's pollution. You arrive via elevator at Floor 58, then wind up two chic, narrow staircases lined with Asian art and alight on the roof, where the view and sheer surprise of its open atmosphere take your breath away...possibly even giving you vertigo. Never, ever before have I been somewhere so elegant and so quiet, so elevated and so open to the world! OHSA wouldn't like it, but we loved it and couldn't get over the fact we were dining at silk covered tables in between four beacons of lighted red warning beacons to aircraft!!!

Every small touch at Vertigo was incredible and memorable...from the gently folded cream petals of a single lotus stem hanging delicately from the ice bucket, to the hammered silver chargers which caught and tumbled the city's jeweled-skyline reflection at your plate...from a menu featuring Tasmanian salmon, Japanese beef and Phuket lobster, to frosty jasmine-scented towels which were seemingly delivered on silent wish-command by servers in white silk and the perfect temperature to cool and refresh one's humid neck. At the end of our experience -- and it was that, much more than just a meal -- we wandered around the candle-lit and skyline-lit roof, looked over the edge and 60 stories down, and tasted chocolate (from their surprise dessert finale of an exquisite truffle) instead of fear. Definitely the most enjoyable case of Vertigo on record!

The Oriental is Bangkok's most fabled hotel, a remnant of the Kingdom of Siam and a posh place to recover from the jungle (like Somerset Maugham did in the Bamboo Bar) or get cured from writer's block to finish a grand novel (like Joseph Conrad did in The Author's Wing). It's beautiful, serene, full of artful touches and dining at The Oriental rolls all of the aforementioned adjectives into one...but with even more flare and lotus flowers.

We dined at The Verandah, which spills gracefully onto the hotel's edge along the Chao Praya, a river whose inky black water serves as a startling, impossible mirror to the surrounding buildings and city lights. Reflections dance off the busy water in front of The Verandah, and a steady stream of twinkle-lit teak dinner boats full of group tourists entertain your eyes and ears. And your nose, not to be left unattended, inhales gentle wafts of jasmine, frangipane and orchid from swaying tree blooms scenting the darkness. Cream table linens dotted by mulberry-paper candle lanterns are neither damp nor wrinkled like we are from the moist heat, and a turquoise, perfume-bottle-shaped resin vase holds a solitary lotus bloom. Simply sitting down at the table and absorbing its sensory beauty was captivating at The Verandah, and we hadn't even ordered yet! Its is an atmosphere of another, less vertical nature, but equally intoxicating.

Honestly, only in Asia, does one find restaurants with this type of elegant serenity and such uncanny attention to detail. Without attitude, no less, and always with grace. Here, it's all about small pleasures performed by hidden hands and quiet smiles...to the most exquisite degree. Despite dense population and urban chaos, eating in Bangkok is never rushed, never just a motion or means to an end. I think some of this unique style has to do with the pervasive Buddhist spirituality that demands notice, offerings and thanks on a daily basis -- many people here just know how to look for and create beauty in the every day. I think this translates to a harmony between life, art, pleasure and the organic which is quite tangible to those who are willing to slow down and live in the moment. Which as Americans, even ones abroad, is not easy to do. But when possible, so rewarding and good for the soul.

** (...So, ironically, The Verandah's drink menu reads much like a Denny's menu! Each plastic page has photos of the Oriental's fabulous, famous cocktails in vivid color and it's easy to simply forego speaking Thai and instead point out one of the Singapore Sling-Bamboo Cooler-Thai Mango Teaser concoction images to the waitress.

However, their garnishes are far from a Denny's pickle or parsley. At The Oriental, there are special fruit and vegetable carvers whose job is solely to adorn food and decorate plates! They make lotus flowers out of carrot, banana-leaf origami animals, watermelon landscapes, pineapple boats and more. We have a photo of them working on their canvasses of fruit in The Gallery. Check it out -- what they can do with a radish or mango in one hour is incredible!) **

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Teakin' Out at a Fave Bangkok Destination (w/ family!)



(more photos here): http://bitjug.com/gallery/JimThompson

Besides comparative solitude, our return to Bangkok brought a special guest star to Extravagasia: my cousin-in-law, Michael Diederich. What a treat!!! He does market research for Microsoft and the planets aligned so his focus groups and our tarriance matched on the calendar.

Andy and I got to hang out and tour with Michael, speak English full time to someone other than each other, share and compare travel stories (he was just in Cairo for business and worked in a few of China's megacities), get perspective on what's up in the US and more. It was awesome!

And, a public shout out to Michael: I owe you big time for bringing me a little fix of In Style, SPF 55, sprinkled sugar cookies AND, most importantly, for lugging back a big-ass bag full of India purchases. I'm not sure who's more grateful -- me or Andy, because he was a gentleman and hauled the woven plastic monstrosity through train stations. Ironically, in India, the sherpa gig is less glamorous than Nepal. So I am now bag-free and aware big belts are "IT" for 2006.

Michael, Andy and I visited one of my most favorite sites in Bangkok from a previous trip, the Jim Thompson House, and it did not disappoint. Even for the boys...and I was so relieved as it's all about~> read more

 art, architecture, gardens and silk. Jim Thompson was an American who returned to Thailand post-WW2 and both revived and revolutionized its ailing silk industry. He single-handedly sold Thai silk to the world and made it a desired staple of the Milan fashion houses, thus creating a profitable industry for struggling Thailand and its skilled but uneducated weavers. And, he was a gifted architect and art collector whose eye for objets d'art and preservation gave Thailand's indigenous art history notice to scholars worldwide.

Jim Thompson's house is a teak extravaganza of six native, old homes that were lifted, transported and preserved on his canal-side property, and surrounded by the most lush, tranquil garden of lotus flowers, orchid vines, koi ponds plus a near jungle of elegant tropical plants. The deep cinnabar brown of the six 'A-frame-with-a-twist' roof lines, all perched on stilts, blends yet contrasts in harmony with the waxy green of the jungle plants. Giant urns hold clear green water, alive with tiny minnows and the bright buds of water lilies, along pebbled paths which crunch ever-so-slightly under flip-flopped feet. Ponds bloom with delicate lotus petals, pale pink or cream yellow, their exquisite upside-down-heart-shape blossom and slender stem so different from our garden variety plants of the West. As one meanders through the garden, busts of Buddha with meditative poses and almond eyes peak out at you and the only startling sound is that of tequila-sunrise colored koi jumping in a pond. It is truly one of the most magical places I've visited, especially when you think a city bursting with 9 million people surrounds it.

The six houses were connected into one large, open-air retreat and decorated lovingly with Thai silk and Asian antiquities. Like many places in SE Asia, the feet are considered unclean and you're asked to remove your shoes before entering in a mandartory small-group tour. Thus, padding around barefoot on the dark, slick teak floors, you really feel like you're visiting his home for a small party instead of a museum tour. Stepping up between each room is imperative because Thais believe evil spirits lurk on the floor and traditional homes have tall, teak borders (like 6" - 8") between each room, thus preventing little gremlins from moving into the next room as well as trapping investigative, crawling children in one area. Clever, yet definitely hazardous for us from the West!

Chinese porcelain, life-size Buddha statues, epic silk paintings and the most intricate, carved teak screens decorate the rooms and all were selected by Jim Thompson himself. The overall whole gives one a sense of the unique, artistic beauty that was Siam, Angkor, Burma and more in the mid-centuries, and an immediate appreciation for all that we rarely see in Western museums. Jim Thompson disappeared mysteriously in the highlands of Malaysia in 1967 but luckily, his vision of beauty and industry live on, as well as his bewithcing home. (I've attached a link to their site so you can all see more!): http://www.jimthompsonhouse.com

Michael, Andy and I also rode squished and precarious on a khlong (canal) taxi through one of Bangkok's myriad waterways which are used for everything from commuting and commerce to bathing and fishing. Some people refer to Bangkok as the "Venice of Asia" and while that's a bit of an overstatement, it does provide the context to understand that it's not just your basic modern Asian city. Bangkok has a network of water that is alive with everyday use, so alive that you wouldn't believe the white caps and swells the primtive fan boats with giant diesel V-8 engines generate along its murky shallowness. The water gets so rough that the boat drivers and ticket takers wear snowboard helmets!!! (no, I am not kidding)

And this is water you neither want to touch nor splashed upon you. Trust me. As I was! The khlong taxi is narrow and tightly packed with bench seating for Asian-sized people, so I took the small seat along the side of the boat. Poor Michael and Andy were sardined into the bench aisles which weren't even wide enough to accommodate their bent legs! However, riding along the open side meant I was vulnerable to the green-brown-gray water and protected only by the camping-tarp-canopy-curtain-thing the helmeted boat workers tried to drop in time to block the sloshing splash of a passing khlong boat. Unfortunately, it's solution that doesn't quite hold water. And that water did not dry clear on my glasses or shirt. Ugh!

We also took in some of the other teak around Bangkok, which is plentiful and varied in style -- including furniture, temples, palaces and pavilions. Sadly, some of the teak was influenced by Europe's Victorian age and its rich luster painted over in pastels (blech!), but much of it is untouched from anything but design and natural elements. The three of us are big fans of teak now and have all sorts of ideas for building a pavilion in our backyard, maybe some garden furniture or even getting into screen carving.

If anyone sees an ad on eBay for teak overruns, definitely let us know! ;)

All Quiet on the SE Asian Front

We landed in Bangkok at 5:00am and thought maybe it just seemed quiet because it was early morning. After flying all day through Delhi, Bombay and Chennai and then all night to Bangkok, Andy and I crashed...figuring the noise of Bangkok around our guesthouse would wake us up.

Wrong!!!

After the din, decibels, clatter and chaos that is India, Thailand is tame and our senses are imploring us for a little more stimulation. Bangkok seems a bit boring to them!

We walk down a street and no pack of moustached men accost us for rickshaw rides, there's one variety of horn and many taxis are too polite to even use it, no cute kid deviously sells primitive drums to dumb Westerners on every corner, and no cows graze the streets.

This reverse culture shock is madness...but in lovely, relaxing way!

Plus Seven-Eleven is everywhere! And I don't even like slurpees. But, somehow, just knowing it's there is comforting, not to mention the fact they play their "muzak" so quietly we barely register the Thai version of "With or Without You".

So, what do you do in this situation? Savor it. Literally and figuratively. Bangkok is our haven post-India and a delicious change of pace. Pad Thai without a side of ear plugs is quietly rocking our world!

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Lucky not to be on the menu



...but perhaps not so lucky otherwise.

You may have heard from other travelers to India. Cows are EVERYWHERE. They are, of course, sacred to the Hindus and therefore have "free reign". We read that they were treated somewhat as pets, but it is not often that you see these urban cows being taken care of. Seeing them eat garbage is the toughest part, and you see it all the time.

here's a short gallery with a few other strange photos of cows in india:

http://bitjug.com/gallery/Cows

Indian Trains

This photo doesn't really fit anywhere else, but I wanted to post it to show what an indian train is like:



Items to note are: The versatility of the sari (pod woman sleeping), the open-ness of the train car (no private cabins at all), the triple-stack facing accomodations (there is a second level that folds up above the pod woman, the gentlemen facing each other are in a higher class that is only a 2-stack), lots of blue vinyl, and tiffany's feet resting on the pod's bunk. It is not considered polite to put your feet on the floor because it is viewed as dirty.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

A queston of Moustache



As we made our way through southern india, up the west coast, then to northern india, we certainly noticed a lot of moustaches on men. This was of course popular in the US in the 70s, but isn't very popular now so it caught our attention in India.

Per the title of this post, our "question of moustache" was, why is it so popular in India? We don't see it as so flattering (see picture above), but we certainly acknowledge that ideals of beauty vary widely across cultures. However, we never really got an answer to this question. However, we did find that in the north, today's Rajastanis in particular have a rich heritage of moustache-wearing from the Rajputs, provincial warlords of sorts that ruled in Rajastan, in the east they were conquered by the Mughals (or at least allied with them), but in Udaipur the Rajputs held out until the British rule. Please forgive if my Rajastan history isn't perfect. The Rajputs certainly wore moustaches, as even their symbol shows:



In any case, even today, in the tradition of the Rajputs and their kings (the Maharajas), an issue of honour is referred to in the hindi language as "a question of moustache!"

You are invited to view a few modern and historical moustaches we viewed along the way:

http://bitjug.com/gallery/Moustaches

Pashminas & Poverty: Probably Ready To Leave India

In Rajasthan, both Andy and I felt a bit of India's charm rubbing off. Sometimes literally on us, as beggars constantly grabbed our bare arms asking for rupees or we stepped in livestock crap in the street when looking up to admire a temple. Other times, it wasn't as literal but getting asked at least 53 times a day whether you need or want to buy something, and having to haggle for every price and every rickshaw ride gets tiring.

India is fantastical, colorful, chaotic and complex. And sad. The masses of humanity, their deformities and smiles, their poverty and diverse daily routines, the jarring intersections of primitive and modern are hard to digest, let alone ignore. Andy and I agree most everywhere else will be tame after India.

Yet, I loved seeing the relics of its fairy tale history, I deeply respect the fact varied spirituality is present everywhere in everyday life, and the magic of Indian spices and cooking will live in me for a lifetime. Children in markets and beaches greeted us with disarming smiles, shared their snack food and screamed "photo, photo" with glee, and adults helped us get the right rickshaw at the right price at 4:00am after 14 hours on a train.

But, it's not easy travel. India is a feast for your senses with a very dark side.

Never, ever have I seen so many stinking, horrific piles of trash...with cows and goats grazing on its decaying remains! It gave us both pause and was tough to take. I simply have to admit it. Especially seeing cows and goats, which I love, eating their daily meals from disgusting garbage. It just doesn't seem right that livestock has to make a meal from a tossed bag of potato chips, rotting fruit and paper waste--and then make milk for human consumption.

I actually kind of lost it a bit when I saw an autorickshaw laden with boxes trying to squeeze by a cow on a narrow road and its cargo hit the cow hard in her side. Involuntarily, I yelled loudly and angrily at the driver: "That was a cow!!! You hit something alive!"

After that outburst I felt like it might be time to go. Not home, but at least somewhere that is a change up in culture and country as to rest from all that is India. And reflect. Which feels to me a little like I've failed as a traveler. Yet, rationally I know that's not true because I'm here, I'm experiencing India instead of drinking at Club Med. But, still...it triggers a lot of complicated thoughts.

The Jaipur train station was one of the last places we spent an unexpected few hours and it reaked of urine, dirt and hot oil. So much urine you thought it must actually be embedded in the stone walls. Temperatures hovered around 40 degrees, which is extremely cold for Rajasthan, and every person--male or female--was bundled in a pashmina, its wool length snaking around their heads and then wrapping their bodies tight for warmth and survival. Pashminas, the same accessory we use in the West more frivolously for warmth and flair.

And these people lay everywhere, inside and outside the station, most without train tickets, and some fortunate few with a primitive fire for heat. It was really something, yet I noticed a touch of desensitivity to it. And that's what scared me! Six weeks there and still not a world away, I knew this is just how things are at times in India, especially North India, and you kind of grin, bare it and walk around them with your backpack.

I guess I don't want to be desensitized to it, yet at many times, that is a necessary way of survival. If we give all of our money away to the omnipresent askers, we don't travel and don't experience more. And do we even make a difference?

But...are hardened hearts, averted eyes and minds that don't process, the answer? I don't know. Neither does Andy.

We got on a plane back to Bangkok without answers, but seduced by all of the thoughts. Perhaps that is the magic of India I questioned upon arrival...? It's the potent 'masala' of thinking which India triggers, and the reflection that its blend of horror, beauty, history, color and humanity demands. One that pinches the heart and opens the eyes.

Whatever it is and whatever the answer, we're grateful for India and the unforgettable perspective now sharply awake in our consciences. And truthfully, even more grateful that it's not our reality.

In the Shadow of the Taj Mahal



Our first glimpse of the Taj Mahal was in silhouette at dawn. Smokey lavender-gray marble curves and the most elegant, iconic dome rising alone along a river bank and puncturing the pink sky. Seeing it for real was like a coffee table book photo coming alive and reaching out to take your breath away. It was really, really cool and for that first moment, unreal -- actually seeing it in sun and shadow, you thought you'd arrived in Vegas instead of Agra as it just couldn't be true.

But then you looked around and saw Agra, a congested mess of a city thrown amongst majestic forts, palaces and tombs like trash, and remembered it was real...and it was India.

We spent our first day seeing the Taj Mahal at dawn and dusk, which we dually agree was our favorite. There's a small park that rests across the Jamuna River, which is mostly dried up right now due to a lack of monsoons, and from it you get the most magnificent view. Totally to yourselves! When we visited, there were no more than six others roaming around the outdoors and we sat quietly in the shadow of the Taj, watching the sun set and the marble change from white-gray to lavender with bits of pink and orange, and then charcoal in reflection. In a stroke of pure genius, the Taj Mahal was designed on a platform and thus, from every direction you look, it seems to almost float in the sky against its ever-changing blue background.

Perfectly symmetrical and just kind of perfect, the Taj Mahal's energy is one of solitude and quiet adoration. It was built in memorial by Shah Jahan for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child(!) in 1631, and took 22 years to build. Somehow, the atmosphere created by its shape and setting relays this and we had one of the best moments of our trip sitting on some old ruins in the park holding hands and gazing at it. While that may sound sappy, I think that's actually the power of this monument. Built with such intense devotion and beauty, the Taj compels you to touch a bit and express love, and truly enjoy the moment.

More photos of the Taj and Agra are here, we hope you enjoy them:

http://bitjug.com/gallery/Agra

Friday, February 03, 2006

Photos from Jaipur!

We are catching up a bit on the blog, and now have some photos from Jaipur to share. A couple of examples:

The hawa mahal:



a water palace:



and some new "friends":



please view the rest here!: http://bitjug.com/gallery/Jaipur

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Almost Tickled Pink In Jaipur

For a further fix of Rajasthan's colorful history and architecture, we headed north to Jaipur...India's supposed "pink city". You can just imagine how that called to me like a siren's song! I was picturing primrose palaces, tall blush buildings and magenta monuments. After all, this is India, pink is the color that symbolizes hospitality and a Maharaja had painted the town pink to honor a Prince of Wales visit in 1876, then made it mandatory to maintain. I was excited!!!

However, once we arrived and I caught a glimpse of its color, there was a touch of disappointment. The city was a creamy terra cotta, maybe rose at best, and not the fuchsia I was looking for...damn. The funny thing is that I have a MAC blush that's nearly the exact color of Jaipur's city which is called "Desert Rose" so maybe those make-up namers know what they're doing after all.

Nevertheless, Jaipur has a vivid, variegated history of Maharajas and warring Rajput-Mughal kingdoms, and its landscape reflects this in every way. We started off with a walking tour of the not-so-Pink City, and spent a day wandering through its walled bazaars, city palace, harem and more. It definitely has the an old city feel as every place you enter into the bustling central has intact, 20 meter high terra-cotta gates--some arches are wide enough to fit a car while others only fit a pedestrian or autorickshaw. Unfortunately, these entrace gates are massively congested with cars, camels, oxen, autorickshaws, decorated horses, bicyles, bicycle rickshaws and people. Jaipur's traffic was truly astonishing, not to mention the fact you could see the black pollution staining its pink walls gray.

Our walking tour was a treat as we investigated the bazaars at our own pace, deftly avoiding aggressive salesmen, and each tiny set of shops had a theme of goods for sale. The cloth market is wildly colorful as swaths of scarlet, canary, acid green and indigo fabrics waft in the wind, while the silver market has eager vendors who peddle their wares on the street as if to blind you into buying with the shiny reflections. Jaipur is famous for handmade shoes and literally thousands of jeweled, sequined and velvet harem shoes, all with pointy, rolled toes like an elf slipper, spill colorfully out of stalls on to cobbled streets. These shoes or "jootis" are a legacy from the Rajput royalty and embody every exotic notion of the harem and posh palace life. After our travels here, I think 18th century Rajasthan as a Mughal queen would not be a bad stop on the time machine!

Pushing on through the traffic, touts and utter chaos of Jaipur, we stopped to climb around the Hawa Mahal, or 'Palace of the Winds', and adored its splendid, unique design. This was a Zenana (place for courtly women and concubines) and soars five, slim yet somehow bulbous stories of Jaipur pink and cream into the blue sky. Cupolas, arches, turrets and dramatic screen windows covered its crenelated front, which faces onto a main boulevard of old Jaipur, the street where kings and warriors would parade upon return from battle.

The Hawa Mahal allowed women to witness all of this pomp and splendor from behind veiled palace walls yet remain invisible to the outer world as was custom. Each window, cupola or turret has a tiny little door, no bigger than a face, that opens inward so the queen and harem could chastely gaze out. Not wanting to waste a lot of grandeur or comfort on the women, the "Palace of the Winds" is extremely narrow on the upper levels and only a few bodies in width since the women needed only to press up against the veiled opening and look out upon their men. Thus, it has a breezy, almost eerie feel as you explore because it's high above traffic and quiet except for the wind. The views were truly incredible when we pushed our heads out of the small openings or looked through stucco screens: perched on every hill are old forts or palaces and below we saw painted elephants braving the busy streets. Rajasthan has the most unbelievable landscape!

After some bottled water, a banana and bikis (what Indians call biscuits/wafer cookies which are always safe to eat), we continued our tour, passing a minaret to heaven" that was as tall as a light house, a wild, raised sundial with a full set of stairs next to it that helped Jai Singh (first city leader) consult the stars for battle and entered at the City Palace. Along the way we passed livestock of all types eating from piles of trash, witnessed men relieving themselves against walls without hesitation, saw a monkey steal a banana bunch from a fruit seller and watched locals weigh each other on giant scales that puncuated the center of each block. Sadly, this often smelly chaos was not unique to Jaipur. Ahh, Rajasthan and its mighty views!

At Jaipur's City Palace, we were greeted by mightily moustached guards wearing navy Nehru jackets, white puffy jodphur pants and tomato red turbans with a tail that flowed down their backs. They proudly posed with us for ten rupees each, so please check out our photos of their faces and turbans which are so very endemic to Rajasthan!

We learned that many of the Maharajas were quite fat, one of them being a cuddly 2 meters tall, 1.2 meters wide and weighing close to 250 kilos!! You should have seen his clothes in the textile museum--truly magnificent ten-person-tent-sized fabrics. The palace itself is a blend of Mughal and Hindu architecture so there are elegant, scalloped arches butting up to crazy-colored gates adorned with peacocks and elephants. You especially see the Mughal/Persian influence in the decorative screens that hang over entries and shroud windows. They're made from intricately carved, light-colored sandstone or marble, and look so delicate, almost like a hollowed out version of those lacy Italian wafer cookies (pizelle?) at Christmas.

Andy and I loved taking photos of all of the shapes and shadows that fell in the courtyards and explored majestic receiving pavilions tiled, mirrored and chandeliered to capacity. Definitely a decorating style I can appreciate! At sunset, we watched our favorite tomato turbans spread across the palace like polka dots, locking giant doors and drawing heavy gates closed, and exited to brave our way through the Pink City's traffic...looking both ways for cars, camels, cows and more.