Archive for the ‘food’ Category

hello old friend

January 5, 2017

Hopping in to heinous beers that are awesome on holiday sees a reappearance of beer blogging. Haywards 5000 was a companion of mine in southern India where its high ABV eased many a day on the road in that incredible place.

haywards-5000

Who knew it was available outside India, why is it available outside India?

The best memories I have looking back now are from a scruffy hotel, in a fairly unremarkable town that had a NASA theme subterranean bar.

We still talk about India all the time, we often joke ‘it all comes back to India in the end’. We are living out the often heard  Indian travel truism – you start to forgive the place as soon as you leave.

While some may think that Dad and I were in Melbs for the GF, essentially we were there on a eat and drink a-thon. A big highlight of which was the awesome Delhi Streets.  There is even a tiny hipster coffee place in the lane next door, run of course by a chap from Perth.

That hit of chemical alcohol took me back to the good days,  very much like how the smell of a drain reminds me of happy times on the road.

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what $40 buys (or doesn’t buy) you in beirut

July 31, 2010
We arrived in Beirut geared up for a good time, having devoted a tragic amount of online research to ferreting out the best restaurants and bars on offer in the city once known as “the Paris of the East.” Giddy with excitement, we even splurged – wait for it – on a US$40 room. But it soon became clear we were little fish in a big pond, no longer in the truly developing world where even budget travellers are situated disproportionately at the top of the capitalist food chain. As it turns out, in Beirut $40 buys you nothing more than a windowless box with a seatless toilet and such proximity to a drum ‘n’ bass club that we could feel the vibrations through our pillows until 9:30 the next morning. I now feel like I have some insight into what it would be like to be a Guantanamo Bay inmate.
 
There’s a lot of money being thrown around in Beirut – the Lebanese are apparently notorious for living beyond their means. Ferraris and Land Rovers squeal around corners driven by preened trophy wives with pink spangly Blackberrys glued to their ears. A Filipino nanny seems to be the latest fashion accessory – restaurants advertise half-price meals for yours if you bring her along to mind the little darlings while you lunch – and you can buy Cohibas and Bombay Sapphire at the petrol station. For the first few days, I think we were actually labouring under a certain degree of culture shock. It’s easy to reject the trappings of consumerism when a) there’s nothing on offer that you want to buy, and b) you’re really just pretending that you don’t have much money, knowing that “you could call your dad and he’d stop it all” and you can waltz into the best establishments in town with impunity, solely by virtue of being foreign. It’s not so easy when turbo capitalism is in your face 24/7 and you’re just one of the crowd. For the first time in ages, we felt poor and shabby and it dealt a bit of a blow to our morale. That, and a night glued to the seatless toilet, care of whatever I ate that didn’t agree with me.
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Thankfully, it didn’t take us long to find a hotel that included toilet seats in the room rate and to learn to laugh at ourselves again. Reliably informed by Taste of Beirut, we set out for the Souk el Tayeb farmer’s market and had our spirits immediately lifted by homemade arak enthusiasts and the wares of Georgina the Tabbouleh Queen. Actually, if ever there was a case for the benefits of comfort eating, we made it as our mood was buoyed with each bite of everything we’d been missing (roast beef and caramelised beetroot sandwiches; sushi; 70% cocoa Lindt) and everything we quickly grew to love (Armenian spicy sausage; fattouch; anything with zaatar), all washed down with many glasses of crisp, chilled rose. Actually, that might have been what buoyed our mood. It certainly wasn’t my haircut, which I had been so looking forward to and was so disappointed by. Somewhat akin to the haircut I had when I was two years old, I now bear a remarkable resemblance to Julie Bishop.
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Still, the way Beirut has risen like a phoenix from the ashes is undeniably impressive. The city’s nightlife is second-to-none – reservations essential at the rooftop clubs that have revellers dancing on the tabletops ’til dawn, sandwiched between the mountains and the Mediterranean – although we could barely afford to sip a few glasses of cheap plonk in the dive-iest of Gemmayzeh’s bars; the renovated downtown area is superbly glamorous although the ghost-like shell of the nearby Holiday Inn, its walls riddled with bullet holes, belies its recent history. Wealthy Lebanese diaspora are returning in droves and we frequently heard American and Australian accents pop up in this comfortably trilingual city.
 
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Thankfully, after a day of dodging Aston Martins and covering up religiously while everyone else on the beach slathers coconut oil on their bronzed, buff bodies, strolling along the Corniche at sunset is free.

rogue states with tasty intestines

July 15, 2010

Syria’s happy quirks do a lot to contradict its status as a rogue state. Our room in Aleppo was freakishly furnished like my childhood at Gran’s place; the groans of Hama’s famous water wheels sound like a track from Dark Side of the Moon; Palmyra town, despite its distinct post-apocalyptic flavour, happens to be home to the nicest manager of the worst hotel in the Middle East. And Mark Twain has the final word on Damascus:

Damascus measures time not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise and prosper and crumble to ruin. She is a type of immortality. She has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires, and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies.

Aleppo is a great town and, as we’ve mentioned previously, the souk is really where it’s at, with every twist and turn of its winding alleyways revealing another pungent aroma, tasty morsel or incongruous spectacle. Apart from taking a tour of every ATM in the Old City, we spent an intriguing morning visiting the many churches of the Christian Quarter, which are as beautiful as they are thought-provoking. In a nice display of ecumenical spirit, the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Armenian Catholic churches share the same courtyard where there is a small museum housing ecclesiastical treasures that escaped the genocide in Turkey. We spent about half an hour chatting to the attendant, a passionate and proud Armenian woman, discussing Aleppo’s absorption of the tens of thousands of Armenians refugees from that time.

From Aleppo, we took a day-trip to the Dead Cities and St Simeon Basilica, which commemorates the ascetic “pillar-hermit” who spent 36 years sitting atop an obelisk. Not much of the pillar remains, thanks to centuries of pilgrims souveniring chunks of it, but much of the beautiful Crusader-era structure is still standing, making it easy to picture the former grandeur that, no doubt, its namesake would have utterly disapproved of. The Dead Cities are not best appreciated whilst wearing Havaianas, but fascinating nonetheless.


Hama was our base for a road trip to Crac des Chevaliers and the Roman ruins of Apamea. Crac des Chevaliers is often described as a castle of childhood imaginings, which pretty much nails it – our juvenile behaviour belied our ever-advancing age as we ran around the ramparts keeping an eye out for the armies of Mordor. Apamea impresses with its rows of Roman columns and ruts in the stone road where caravans and chariots from millennia past have left their impression; try as we might to get a photo, it still just looks like a bunch of flagstones.

More of Syria’s oddities include: an omnipresent, dynastic ophthalmologist president-for-life; chicken shwarma with way too much pickle and mayo; more conspiracy theories than a busload of backpacking Frenchmen, and the infamous “waterfall wash technique.” Dust, dirt or debris in your building? Don’t vacuum, sweep or mop! Just hook up a hose at the top of the stairs, turn it on and sit back for a few hours. Darn any damage to carpet, guests’ bags, adjoining businesses and the technique’s inability to actually clean anything – you’ve just made yourself an indoor water feature!

Sunrise is a visiting time often recommended by sites around the world. Sometimes it works out and sometimes you’re at the Taj Mahal for five hours, waiting for the fog to lift. Palmyra looked glorious from a hill high above – it felt like our own little piece of Syria. Nice and cool too – by 11am, the whole place is a furnace. We spent the rest of the day avoiding sandstorms and amorous Bedouins who’d taken a shine to our dorm mate, talking World Cup with the overwhelmingly hospitable Mohammed and sipping tea.

In Damascus, we managed to meet up with some friends from Annapurna, the lovely Megumi and Nev. Not surprisingly, much of the evening consisted of exchanges of “how bad was [insert thing in India]?!?!” It won’t surprise many of you that my statements became increasingly “bold” and “imaginative” as the evening wore on and the arak set in. I’ve since found out that the pour here is none of this homogeneous “standard measure” banality but, at the very least, 1:1. Yikes. Thankfully, Megumi and Nev are forgiving types.

Thanks to the great resource of Syrian Foodie, we enjoyed many a gourmet adventure in Damascus. Al-Mouselli shwarma was a favourite – unlike the usual mutton or chook, the meat on offer is beef which is served with a rather wonderful sour pomegranate sauce and lashings of extras. It was so good we started involuntarily making those Maeve O’Meara-style “mmmmm, ahhhh” noises so hated by Tommy Bell and, presumably, everyone else. Second on the list and only just passing the “French test”* was seja’at (rice stuffed goat intestines), the real highlight of which was the funky cooking broth served alongside. We were both pretty excited about the Narenj Restaurant, reputedly one of the best in Syria, where we had a “tonight cost three nights in our hotel” meal.** Perhaps our expectations were too high or we didn’t order well but it was a little disappointing; a barn of a place, it seemed like half of Damascus was there, although the night was somewhat rescued late in the piece by absurdly large plates of fruit and sweets, on the house, and spying on nearby courting couples.

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* When pondering a meal, ask yourself: “Would the French eat this?” If yes, tuck in. If no, it’s not worth eating. Test failures include bugs, vermin and eyeballs. No one needs that.

** Admittedly, given our fiscally-challenged state, it’s not hard to accumulate a bill of such proportions and given we had a few hefty glasses of wine too, still very reasonable.

southern grub

April 11, 2010

I’m not too proud to admit that at first, we were a little cavalier about Indian eating.* It didn’t take long before we were forced to learn a few hard gastrointestinal lessons and the famous “Lindsay & Catie Tripartite Test for Restaurant Selection” was quickly revised for the Indian market.** Thankfully, it didn’t take long for us to overcome The Fear and we have since made it our business to sample as much of the local fare as possible.  My big brother wasn’t far off the mark when he recently remarked that all we seem to do in India is eat and helpfully pointed out that it’s good we’ve engaged in a bit of physical activity because we might otherwise have grown to be the size of small mountain cottages.

What has delighted us most is the diversity of food on offer, which is sadly overlooked by most Indian restaurants at home. We were barely aware of the differences between north and south Indian food before we came here, which is hardly surprising given that our only frames of reference were boozy nights at d’Tandoor and the occasional lunch with my Indian relatives. You can now consider yourselves reliably informed that the food on your local Indian menu at home is almost entirely northern – the usual suspects of butter chicken, palak paneer, rogan josh – influenced by the omnivorous Muslim and Sikh communities and laced with fairly shocking amounts of butter and cream.

By comparison, the food of the south goes easy on the dairy and is almost entirely veg or “pure veg” (eggless). Not completely without vice – most meals contain at least one fried component – we have found it a lot more enjoyable to eat on a daily basis than northern food. I know some of you will find this hard to believe***, but it is possibly to tire of butter chicken after a while.

And now, for your appetitive pleasure, I bring you the Food of the South:

I’m not sure who this restaurant thought they were fooling when they named this set the “mini breakfast.” This is like a “who’s who” of southern cuisine – idli, vada, sambar, poori, utthappam, pongal and, of course, coconut chutney – two kinds here (red and white). Linds has meticulously labelled all the elements on Flickr, so I’ll save you the repetition here.

The ubiquitous dosa – this big guy is a paper dosa, which I think roughly translates to “really, really big.” Masala dosa comes accompanied with spicy potato. Sometimes rolled into a cylinder, sometimes folded into a parcel. Always with sambar and coconut chutney. You can get these in Perth at Maya Masala.

Poori set, with coconut chutney and sabji (miscellaneous veg dish). Fresh pooris will come out too hot to touch and puffed up like a pillow of deep-fried goodness, deflating as they cool. Hangover food from the Gods.

Bhel puri is a native snack of Bombay, although we were way too chicken to eat it on the street there. Puffed rice, potato, onion, chutney, papri (small discs of fried dough), sev (fried chickpea flour noodles), coriander and lemon. It’s like there’s a party in your mouth and everyone’s invited.

Idli: the steamed snack that powers millions. Usually a breakfast food, but some places serve it all day. Idli is good friends with vada (savoury doughnut) and they are often served together. Again, always with sambar and coconut chutney. This one is rava idli, which is made with semolina instead of the usual rice and lentil mix. The normal ones don’t usually have tomato and bits baked into them either.

Appam, or a study in white. Bowl-shaped and soft. This one was sweet-ish and served with coconut cream for dipping.

The poori that ate Paris. Channa batura, or chole puri – poori with chickpeas. My research has just informed me that this is actually a Punjabi breakfast dish, so not from the south. But tasty all the same.

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*  Just to clarify – eating Indian food, not Indians themselves.

** For the uninitiated:

  1. Restaurant must be busy. Queuing and having to wait a while for your food are good things.
  2. The fewer whiteys, the better.
  3. Must be at least one other female customer. Extra points for women dining with kids and female staff.

These are essentially listed in order of priority: Rule #1 is, and has always been, the most important consideration, while Rules #2 & 3 can be reversed as required. The basic tenet of the Indian revision is that customers must also be firmly rooted in the middle classes. Call us weak, but we’ve found that the extra 15 rupees you pay for your meal generally buys a higher standard of hygiene. Key indicators are men in business attire and groups of college-educated youths giggling loudly and shouting “Nooo! Get out of town!”

*** Marsha and Drew, this means you.

on the move in vietnam

September 7, 2009

After spending a fair bit of languid time waiting around for things in places we’d already been, it was time to get a wriggle on and get some serious Vietnamese kilometres under our belt.

A few days back in Phnom Penh saw us collect our visas, both Vietnamese and Chinese, and head on our merry way. The visa application process, or lack thereof, perfectly embodies how things “work” in Cambodia. No forms; no details; no signature – just pay the fee to the right person (in this case, chihuahua-lover and hands-down winner of the Asia’s Most Efficient Man Award, Sem, at Exotissimo Travel) and it somehow magically happens. The other way things work is that people are incredibly kind, from the four generations of family that lived in the lobby of our hotel to the delightful Veary, who kept us well fed and watered at Aw’-Kun.

 

A few more days back in Saigon saw us welcome newly-arrived expat and “Business Development Manager”, James Kirton. After sending him to work hungover a few times and bestowing upon him our limited culinary expertise on the city, it was time to move on again and revisit that which we swore we’d never do again: the long-haul sleeper bus. Thankfully, it was “only” 23 hours this time and catching a magnificent blood-red sunrise over verdant rice paddies almost made it worth the trauma. Dodd decided to put the rest of the time to good use and listen to Captain Beefheart on a continuous loop.  Bat Chain Puller. Puller, puller.

 

 

Hoi An, where the livin’ is easy. To cope with the Luciferian heat, we decided it was only prudent to adopt a Spanish lifestyle – wake on the later side of early; stagger around in the heat until midday; snooze away the afternoon and rouse ourselves in the evening for cocktail hour. Our last couple of days saw us enjoy what has been our first and will likely be our last bit of beach for quite some time, and it was glorious. Deckchair, swim. Deckchair, swim. Repeat. Sorry Kizza and Janeo. At the risk of copping huge amounts of abuse from our gainfully employed readers, and perfectly timed to coincide with my own decision to resign from work, I’ll mention that the most taxing task of those couple of days was deciding whether or not to order a second serving of crunchy squid from the friendly beachside seafood vendors.

 

Hue: We felt we had a bit of unfinished business in Hue, it having been our first stop in Vietnam many weeks ago and the embarkation point of the original bus ride from hell. Imperial history, more blazing heat, more bikes. Cue lots of raised eyebrows and chuckling at the outlandish antics of two Hue personalities: the lady touts on motorbikes who see fit to slowly putt alongside of you while you’re wheezing your way up a hill on a bike with no gears; and the pint-sized Emperor Tu Duc, who was taller than some things, including chairs and women on their sides, and who pre-emptively ordered the execution of all 200 workers involved in his burial so as to forever conceal the location of his tomb.

The 13-hour train journey to Hanoi was a walk in the park, albeit a highly populated one, replete with endless people-watching opportunities – communist-clad septuagenarians with wispy beards; young, urbane Mac-toters; and toddlers who wandered the aisles sitting on strangers’ laps and helping themselves to their drinks and snacks. We had been quite proud of our own collection of snacks which included a box of sugar-free digestive biscuits – that was until we noticed the warning that “excess consumption may have a laxative effect.” After we’d munched down about 10 each. Woops. Thankfully, that doesn’t fall into the category of excess consumption, but it certainly had us worried for a while.
 
Hanoi is a city in love with the open flame. Although technically prohibited, the streets are usually filled with smoke of one kind or another – grilling meat; burning rubbish; or ceremonial fires where photocopied US dollars are burned as spiritual offerings (honestly, do they really think the spirits are that gullible?). We found our spiritual home in a four-storey BBQ barn where every kind of goat is ceremonially barbecued and devoured. Call us weak, but we bypassed the goat testicle and goat blood liquor for the more sedate offerings of goat fillet and goat “breast”, or udder. Although we were the only foreigners in the whole barn, we suspect they must have had a few problems with others setting things on fire as we were highly supervised throughout the whole goaty experience. I’ll just say “goat” a few more times for good measure: goat, goat, goat.
 
After the sweeping boulevards of Saigon, there is a definite charm to the narrow winding streets of Hanoi’s old quarter, which are named according to the goods traditionally sold there – silk street; pickled fish; coffins. It is also a city dominated by the personality cult of Ho Chi Minh and we paid a visit to his mausoleum and the sort of Uncle Ho theme park that surrounds it, which includes a Soviet-funded museum with psychedelic exhibits explaining the factors influencing the rise of communism. Despite the thronging crowds, the mausoleum and surrounding park complex are quite serene. People even manage to queue in an uncharacteristically orderly fashion, such is the power of Uncle Ho (and the bayonet-wielding military guards).
 
We recently tallied up the number of hostelries we’ve stayed in since we left home – quite a rogue’s gallery of the good, the bad and the ugly. Check out the wild climb to #55, our current digs, which thankfully fall into the “good” category.

kampottering

August 18, 2009

This tiny town sure gave us a lot to talk about.

We spent a fair proportion of our time in Kampot indulging in two of the less frequented meats of our diet – pork and crab. It’s not that we don’t enjoy these meats – quite to the contrary, in fact – but too much of the former has, at times, been known to upset the Dodd guts and as for the latter, expense, lack of education and can’t-be-arsedness (edible meat of most crab is estimated at only 15% of the total weight) has limited our consumption. In these parts, there ain’t no picked-for-your-convenience crab meat or purpose-designed crab wrangling tools – it’s you, the whole beast and a spoon: a little intimidating.

But with a little bit of internet-enabled help, we’ve broken through the crab barrier. As it was, the crab came out already portioned but our new skills still enabled us to extract every skerrick of edible goodness. Sweet flesh with fresh green peppercorns, another local specialty, it was perfectly accompanied by a grilled and seasoned fishy friend and a few icy Angkors. Yum.

As for the pork, the baby back ribs at The Rusty Keyhole are justifiably famous in these parts. The affable Brit that runs the place must single-handedly keep the local piggery afloat. Double yum.

Meat aside, most people come to Kampot to visit Bokor, a former French hill station and “national park”. But it’s a strange sort of national park where the government accepts the paltry sum of US$100m in exchange for a 99-year lease to Cambodia’s largest business conglomerate with plans afoot for a golf resort and casino. But that just seems to be how things work here – check out this article from the Guardian which details how the Cambodian government has happily sold off other large chunks of land in a similar fashion.

And now for the “physical challenge” part.* Control of the site by Sokhimex explains why the cost of visiting Bokor has skyrocketed, as local tourism operators now have to pay considerable bribes to be allowed to lead visitors onto the site. And it also explains why we had to hike halfway up the mountain, which was previously accessible by road, led by a young guy toting a rusty AK47.

Its worth noting at this point just how many tourists in this part of the world are French. They seemingly still hold some sort of colonial fondness for Indochina and they’re everywhere. Notably, their government seems to pour a lot of money into funding archaeological digs and French cultural centres, while the Australians and Kiwis waste their time with more frivolous matters such as targeting child sex tourism and public health campaigns, but I digress…

Most of our hiking group was French and, as became obvious, fairly urbane. When we enquired about the tour, we were specifically told it would involve 2.5 hours of hiking each way and thus, we should be suitably attired. If you’re French, “suitably attired” means dainty sandals, a long flowing skirt and a silk scarf. “But zere will be mud? Quelle horreur!” Thankfully, the girls managed to rustle up some other clothes and footwear, but the guys persisted with Birkenstock slip-ons/thongs which were quickly discarded in favour of bare feet. Hmm, does anyone know the French word for “hookworm”? At least the trip back down the muddy embankment in bare feet may have resembled an activity more familiar to them: downhill skiing. All this, of course, only enhanced their stereotypically grumpy demeanour as they sulkily puffed away on their fags at each rest stop.

But enough French-bashing. At just over 1000m above sea level, Bokor is refreshingly cold and usually shrouded in mist, which gives a suitably eerie feeling to the abandoned buildings – a church, post office and hotel, which would have been particularly grand in its day. No pics, as it was raining and we’re still treating the camera with kid gloves but there’s heaps online.

The final word must go to our guide Cheung Try who, at 51 and with 5 children, looks barely a day over 35. We had heard him stick the boot into the government in an earlier monologue about Bokor’s history and wanted to ask him some questions about the sale of the national park, which then progressed into a telling of his own history. Cheung Try was 18 when his family were murdered by the Khmer Rouge; their crime was that his father had once been an officer in the Republican army. He managed to escape his captors and fled to the jungle where he hid for many months. Eventually he made his way to the border and joined the Vietnamese-backed resistance. He fought to take that very hill station from the KR who used it as a command post and his leg is scarred from the injuries he sustained. After the Vietnamese liberated Cambodia, he stayed in the army and continued to fight against the KR in the north until 1991. He then worked for the UN for seven years, clearing mines in the Kampot region. He learned English while working alongside Australian soldiers, who sent him money long after they left so he could educate his kids. Despite nearly 20 years of active service, he receives no pension and now contracts his services as a guide to local tourism operators.

As Cheung Try sat on a pile of gravel, talking and noshing on his lunch, we were both reminded of our days in East Timor where everyone we met had a story of loss to tell. There’s not a lot you can do or say in response, except be humbled.

*Hilarious reference to late 80s/early 90s children’s game show Double Dare – “Dare! Double Dare! Physical challenge!!” – “Yum! Double yum! Physical challenge!!” Get it? Never mind…

we heart lao

June 29, 2009

Travellers joke that the “PDR” in Lao’s official title stands not for “People’s Democratic Republic” but for “People Don’t Run”. If Thailand is laid-back, then Lao is entirely horizontal.

For the most part, this quality is included in the “pro” column (world’s softest touts)  – except when it comes to bus travel. Shocking roads + PDR = very, very long days of travel. This equation already has journeys of a mere 120km taking about four hours and that doesn’t even make allowance for various statistical outliers, the value of which is X (unknown): waiting for enough passengers to accumulate so bus is filled to bursting point (they even carry plastic stools so that aisle space can be converted to seating space); waiting while driver jumps out and delivers bags of cucumbers/wads of cash to people he doesn’t know and therefore has to locate; waiting while bus is refuelled and tyres are changed; general waiting for reasons which are not at all apparent; and – our favourite – waiting while driver disappears for a rather lengthy “number two” stop. Even the Lao passengers got antsy at that delay.

That aside, there is a lot to love about Lao. Beautiful countryside, friendly people, tasty food. And the unit of currency is the cute-sounding and sleep-related “kip”.

Lots of photos in this post; we’ve been going snap-crazy.

Luang Nam Tha: Stifling heat and humidity confine us to being bantam-weight hikers these days, so we hired a guide for a very manageable one-day trek through the surrounding countryside. Leech count: 3; all on me. A really big one nestled happily in my boot and the sight of its engorged body even drew a small gasp from our guide, Pongse. Hard core. In addition to learning about the culture of local ethnic groups, we were also educated in one of the finer points of modern Laotian society: wrong number love. Nothing to do with numerology; rather, it is common and perfectly legitimate to strike up a courtship with someone when they accidentally call you after dialling a wrong number. There you go.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/catieandlinds/3661733515/

Nong Khiaw: Despite having already sacrificed many days on the altar of waterside lounging, we couldn’t help but kill a few more here.

bread

Luang Prabang: Or “the town that could do no wrong”. There’s a lot of hype about this place but it doesn’t disappoint – we adored it so much, it ached. Lots of nooks to explore and beautifully restored colonial architecture on every corner. Indulged ourselves daily with treats both local (BBQ chicken on a stick! fish in banana leaf!) and colonial (wine! rillettes! baguettes!) and thanks to the Stay Another Day organisation, we were able to ferret out some unique sights, including the wonderful Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre, My Library and a great photographic exhibition. Stay Another Day promotes “destination-friendly tourism” and we have been quite impressed with careful and genuine efforts throughout Lao to encourage fair trade, cultural preservation and sustainability in tourism, particularly in such a poor country where one might expect there to be an all-out, free-for-all grab for tourist dollars.

Notable mention has to be made of the Royal Palace Museum which proudly exhibits official and personal belongings of the royal family… who the State exiled to caves in the north where they starved to death in the early 80s. A little awkward, but no matter – perhaps easier to gloss over this minor indiscretion by simply stating that the palace (miraculously!) became a museum in 1975. Ah, that’s better.

On the upside, the museum does contain an eclectic collection of 1950s and 60s diplomatic gifts. Personal favourites include a to-scale model of Apollo 11 and a few crumbs of “moon rock” from President Nixon and what appears to be a set of hideous, opal-encrusted sardine tins presented by our very own Prime Minister Harold Holt. Hmmm… his future was about as bleak as the royal family’s.

Phonsavan: Ah, scenic Phonsavan. Home to the Plain of Jars – Lao’s answer to Stonehenge. No one knows what they are or where they came from. Cue Linds confusing amusing the other tour participants with jokes about Spinal Tap. And he wonders why we don’t make any buddies on the road. Thank God Kieran and Jane are meeting us in Saigon next week to deliver us from our social isolation.

bangkok stinks

May 28, 2009

Literally. Every step yields a new olfactory assault: smoking coals; sewage; diesel fumes; sun-dried squid; miscellaneous South East Asian smell that has lingered in our nostrils since East Timor.

Nevertheless, we found this strangely endearing. It’s been a while since we’ve been in a big city and even then, Singapore and KL are positively sanitised by comparison. We had a hunger for some grit and Bangkok certainly delivers on grit. The traffic literally snarls and it’s one of the only cities in the world where you can be run over by a shop.*

Speaking of shops, it might sound a little strange but we often had difficulty identifying them. In Australia, there is a very wide differential between a shop and, say, a living room. Not so in Bangkok, where families frequently attempt to make an extra baht by merging the two. Our powers of observation and deduction were tested daily as we peered through doorways wondering if the items on display were family trinkets or goods for sale. Significant failure on one occasion when we wandered into someone’s living area, foolishly mistaking it for a thoroughfare.

After spending over a month in the tourist-dominated south, where menus mostly comprise the same handful of dishes tailored to farang tastes, we were also hankering for some authentic cuisine. We managed to track down a few items on the hit-list, including yam hua plii, miang kham and sangkhayaa fak thawng (what?), as well as lots of incidental noodles and some chocolate cake. Also revelled in the wide availability and usage of ingredients that are difficult to find and heinously expensive at home – most notably limes and exotic mushrooms. Just wishing I could get my hands on a wok.

Similar to the Phi Phi dilemma, we debated long and hard over whether to visit Bangkok’s the infamous Khao San Road, hallowed mother of all backpacker ghettos and highest concentration of neon signs outside Vegas. We skirted around it a few times and one fateful Saturday night, decided to plunge head first into the abyss. Like most things we think we’re too cool for, once we gave it a try, it was actually quite fun.** There wasn’t as much shockingly bad behaviour on display as we had expected and there were actually quite a lot of Thais out for a big night too, perhaps on account of this guy who was performing in a free concert. But take heed young grasshopper: it didn’t end well.

* I must attribute this incredibly witty remark to someone else, although I can’t remember who. I read it somewhere (yeah, good story Catie).
** Note, however, that this will not deter us from being too cool for most things in the future.

malaysia round up

May 6, 2009

At various points during our trip, we’ve tried to implement a plan of rising early to sightsee before retiring to our guesthouse to seek refuge from the midday heat. Despite the apparent simplicity of this plan, our efforts have been consistently thwarted by various factors. During our stay in Penang, such factors included sensory deprivation (our room had no windows and hence, it appeared to be midnight at all hours) and the fact that using an alarm clock whilst on holiday offends our sense of morality. And so we slipped into a far less sensible routine of shuffling around in the boiling sun until the inevitable collapse into a roadside stall for a restorative lime juice.

All afternoon recovery efforts were focussed on preparing to seek out our evening meal. Hawker eating in Georgetown is quite excellent. Every few metres, a collection of carts offers up endless varieties of tasty treats. Fellow shoe-stringer and kindred appetite Colleen had sought expert advice from a Malaysian friend and before we could say “Old Trafford Burger“, we were on the bus to Gurney Drive. Announcement of our destination earned us sage nods of respect from the bus driver and fellow passengers. We adopted a “divide and conquer” approach and later regrouped to share our culinary loot. Thanks Colleen – we wouldn’t have ventured out there without you.

(We must digress at this point to say that Penang bus travel is at odds with the previously mentioned “abandon hope” strategy: it is seamlessly efficient and simple. And the vehicles don’t look like they were made in People’s Albania during the immediate post war period.)

Our day trip to Batu Ferringhi gifted us the rare sight of a woman parasailing in full burqa. We also dabbled in an activity which is quickly becoming habitual: trespassing upon the grounds of 5-star resorts and imagining ourselves happily ensconced therein. Not sure if the excuse of “my parents honeymooned here” would have cut it with security at the Rasa Sayang, but thankfully we never found out.

And so we said goodbye to Malaysia. We had only planned to spend a couple of weeks here, but it ended up being about six. In summary: diverse, absolutely hassle-free and yet to reach the critical mass of tourists that turns taxi drivers into rabid animals.

We read a lot of newspapers in Malaysia and aside from now being full bottle on the constitutional crisis in Perak state, we were also pleasantly surprised with the standard and frankness of a lot of reporting and commentary. It’s also worth checking out the New Internationalist’s recently published country profile of Malaysia. Perhaps a little bit harsh, but unfortunately for Malaysia when they get it wrong, they get it really, really wrong.

Of vague final interest is that Tourism Malaysia is the Carlton Blues’ joint major sponsor for 2009. But don’t let this stop you going there.

hammock o’clock

February 15, 2009

There was much talk of hammocks in the lead-up to our departure on this trip. So after sweating it out in Singapore and Melaka, the time had come to channel our inner beach bums and induce some serious loafing.

A smelly, noisy local bus (archetypal feature of our travels so far) ferried us to Cherating. Lonely Planet occasionally hits the nail on the head with its descriptions: “This is truly nowhere; how delightful.” Surrounded by a strip of resorts, Cherating proper is solely comprised of a few shops; a handful of A-frame chalets; an eatery or two, and not much else. The surf apparently rips in the monsoon (Cherating was host to a Billabong Pro Am competition in December) but we only splish-splashed around in shallow, warm waters.

Our place at Cherating was not unlike, say, the Kalbarri caravan park and in our experience, such places tend to attract the sorts of mildly crazy characters who rolled in one day a decade ago and never quite got around to leaving. If you were writing a novel about such a place, you might like to consider including characters such as:

Our near neighbour, David, who has rented his chalet for “cheap” (uh, dude, it’s cheap anyway…) for the better part of 8 years in exchange for keeping the gardens tidy. Upper-crust British accent and slightly wonky eye. Regaled us numerous times with tales of his encounters with wild pigs and other “beasties” while mountain biking through the jungle. The guys who run the place buy him half a dozen boxes of Raisin Bran on their regular trips to Kuantan. Always clean shaven but we didn’t see him don a shirt in our entire week there. Not once.

The Canadian organic vegie farmer, Taj, who has been spending the winter in Cherating for the past few years. Lived in Jamaica for 14 years before that. A wardrobe solely consisting of lurid boardies and friendship bracelets. Used to be a quarterback in his youth. Friends with Douglas (see below). Loves “Flight of the Conchords” (what a champion).

“Douglas from Perth”. Bought a house in Leederville about 30 years ago; the rent keeps him happily making friendship bracelets and selling them by the beach.

We were lucky enough to befriend a Frenchman, Samir, who gave Catie some welcome relief from “Dodd rants”. Bonded over shared passions for politics-talk and rising late.

We also befriended the proprietors of the next door Payung Cafe who kindly invited us to their 17th wedding anniversary/daughter’s 10th birthday celebrations on our last night. Wonderful hospitality, tasty BBQ and they also make the best scrambled eggs in town.

As much as we would’ve liked to, it might have been a bit tragic if we’d fallen victim to the “never quite got around to leaving” syndrome so early in our travels. So we set off north for Malaysia’s showpiece islands, the Perhentians.

(Insert mildly annoying incident involving a wayward ATM machine and Catie’s card, resulting in an unforeseen overnight stay in Kemaman: home to the world’s most helpful bank employees and smelliest meat ‘n’ fish market. Needless to say, we ate vego while we were there.)

pulau-kecil

The Perhentians are the stuff of postcards. The clearest water we’ve ever seen; no joke. Highlights included a daily breakfast of roti canai (the Malaysian relative of the formerly mentioned roti prata) and snorkelling with leatherback turtles and reef sharks.

The main characters in “Trapped in Paradise” included the hilarious/exasperating “manager” (for want of a better word) of our guesthouse: think a Malay Basil Fawlty. Oh, and some really, really hot Swedes.

Thanks to an ideally-located hammock but 2 metres from the sand, we chowed through a small smorgasbord of books and will soon be adding a list of our literary conquests to the blog.

Back to mainland civilisation today and a few days in the unassuming town of Kota Bharu (friendliest city-folk to date) before hopping aboard the ominously titled “Jungle Railway” to Malaysia’s premier national park, Taman Negara.