Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Service Interruption: Myanmar Edition

I hoped I wouldn't have to do this, but my hands are tied.

The good news is that we finally got our visas to Myanmar after considerable stress when the visa agency temporarily lost our passports (!). All's well that ends well though, and we are currently in Yangon (Rangoon). We will travel in Myanmar for the next three weeks before returning to Bangkok on the 7th of August.

So that's the good news.

The bad news is that a decent internet connection is nearly impossible to find in Myanmar, especially outside of Yangon, so unfortunately, I won't be able to blog for the next few weeks.

I am really sorry for the interruption, but be assured knowing that this hurts me more than it hurts you. We will still take loads of pictures and I'll be documenting our experiences offline so that come August 7th, the blog will explode with new entries (not really, but I need to offer some consolation, don't I?).

Thanks as always for your readership and this time, thanks in particular for your patience. I promise that I will cover both Bangkok and Myanmar as soon as I can.

See you August 7th!

Friday, 13 July 2012

Asia 101

We’re back at it.

After the first world comfort of Australia and New Zealand (and Chile and Argentina, for that matter) and the privacy and freedom of camping, we are back to backpacking in the developing world, with all of the craziness that goes with it.

And, even better, we’re in Asia.

I’ve been ridiculously excited about going to Asia since we started planning this trip. It was the last continent that I’d never been to (except Antarctica, but I’ll get there one of these days) and the culture is of course unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t wait to experience the people, the colors, the religions, all of it.

But there was one reason above all others that made the continent particularly enticing; a reason that can be summed up in two words:

Street Food.

Now, if you’ve been reading this blog for a while (and if so, thank you!), you know just how much I adore street food. I love that food is the only focus, unimpaired by the rest of the stuff that usually comes with a dining experience. At a food stall on the sidewalk, there are no decorations, no mood music, no friendly wait staff to distract you. There is nothing for the food to hide behind, which is why street food is often the best food. I would even go as far as to say that often the best dishes you can find while travelling will be eaten either standing up or sitting on a plastic stool on a sidewalk. When you see someone, usually an older someone, making their living serving only one dish that they have probably been serving for years, you know it’s not going to suck.

Illustrating just how deeply I adhere to this belief, you should know that we were in Singapore and Malaysia for six days and did not step foot in a restaurant even once.

We started our Asian adventure in Singapore, which, I think I can now safely say, is one of the best places to eat in the world. Singapore’s vast mix of cultures- Chinese, Malaysian, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Korean and so on- make it the perfect introduction to Asia, and, of course, Asian cuisine.

Singapore is a country, a city and an island all in one, and its cultural diversity is evidenced everywhere you look. While it remains very Asian, its official language is English (a throw-back to the old days of the British Empire) and it’s an international economic powerhouse. The country is very clean and famously rigid with its rules: drug smuggling carries a mandatory death penalty and chewing gum is outlawed. There are bustling cultural enclaves- Chinatown, Little India, Arab Street and the like- but its cosmopolitan culture extends beyond the East. American and European chain stores crowd out local shops in the giant air-conditioned shopping malls that seem to be on every corner and skyscrapers tower over the city in every direction.

Just a few of Singapore's many rules on its Metro. No stinky durians is my personal fave.
Really? The root of ALL evils???

Yet despite its obvious globalization and modernity, Singapore was a delight to visit.

And by visit, I mean eat in.

Years ago, as in the rest of Asia, Singapore’s food vendors operated out of carts on the streets. Then, in a stroke of visionary genius, the city officials moved all of the vendors, or hawkers, into indoor food courts called hawker centers. With this one controversial move, the city managed to clean up the congested streets, raise the level of food hygiene among the hawker stalls and create temples of eating where you can find any food your heart desires. From experience, I can say that the result is glorious.

Imagine walking into a food court with immeasurable eating options, only instead of McDonalds, Taco Bell and Sparro’s, you have stall after stall of specialty dishes from the best cooks in the area. Everything is fresh and flavorful and made by someone who has been perfecting those dishes for decades. And since it is all in the same place, you can mix and match as you please to create a diverse, delicious multi-course meal without ever leaving the food court. And lest you be thinking that the hawker centers are just sterilized, colorless bastardizations of real eating communities, please see below.

Hawker center in Little India with people lining up 10-deep for delicious Mutton Biryani
No chance of getting our own table in the busy centers, so we needed to share
Can you spot the white guy who is super excited about his chicken rice?
My wonton noodle stand

I was a hawker center convert. That is, until we went to Malaysia.

While one can find a food court here and there, Malaysia’s food vendors are still in the streets with their carts, and, as we found out, are still making awesome food. I could go on and on describing all of the incredible things we have been eating in the past six days, but this is a travel blog, not a food blog, so I’ll restrain myself. If you do like to dabble in food porn every once in a while, visit our Eating page to get your fix.

I may have spared you the food play by play, but I won’t stop myself from indulging in pictures of the places we have been eating and the people who have been feeding us in Singapore and the Malaysian cities of Kuala Lumpur and Georgetown in Penang.

Waiting patiently for my coconut curry grilled corn
Durians, the famously stinky SE Asian fruit. They are so smelly that they are banned from confined public spaces!
The adorable little lady who made our rojak, a salad of fried tofu, cucumbers and pineapple tossed in a sweet soy and shrimp sauce and topped with crushed peanuts, lime juice and scallions.
The chef of an amazing fish dish we had with spicy black bean, chili, garlic and ginger sauce.
328 Katong Laksa, home of the best laksa in Singapore (and that's our rojak lady behind the stall to the left!)
Loving his hawker stall mutton biryani.

Malaysia, like Singapore, is extremely ethnically diverse: only about 55% of the population is Malay, while the rest is Chinese, Indian and others. The result is a crazy cohabitation of religion, culture and cuisine.

In both Singapore and Malaysia, Buddhist and Hindu temples sit side by side on the same street, as if competing for the architectural awe of passersby. An adhan, or Islamic call to prayer, rings out from the loud speaker of a minaret, while across the street, I kid you not, a Thai streetwalker shimmies to the melodic chanting. 

Apart from the occasional blaspheming hooker, all of these cultures coexist in a fascinating, colorful, mashed-up harmony. It's incredible.

We awkwardly stumbled into a Buddhist ceremony at a temple in Singapore
A wall of the Buddhist temple lined with hundreds of Buddha statues, all of them unique.

The temple's exterior
Dried sea creatures at the Chinatown market in Singapore
A dance group at a Malay heritage celebration in Singapore
A Hindu temple in Singapore
The heavily-adorned roof of a Hindu temple
  More Hindu deities
A mosque in Singapore

Despite the undeniable Asian-ness of both countries, Singapore and Malaysia remain very modern, developed and Westernized. There are 7/11’s on the corners and KFC’s in the shopping malls. This is still Asia 101.

Next up, Intermediate Asia.

From Penang, we took an overnight train to Bangkok, which, as long as you stay well away from the tourist ghetto, is much more of a culture shock than any of the Asian cities we've been to so far. After Bangkok, we hope to head to Advanced Asia: Myanmar (formerly Burma), Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, pending visas and monsoons.

Now if you would excuse me, there’s some street food outside with my name on it.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

My Apologies to Australia

I feel bad.

Looking back at my blog posts during our Australian road trip, I realized that we kind-of gave Australia the shaft. In two posts about the experience, there is a grand total of one picture of something other than our van or me being creeped out by possums.

I am not impressed with myself.

Since my last few posts have been pretty text heavy, this post will be dedicated to a sad little group of pictures that do no justice at all to the great time we had, but which happen to be the only pictures we took.

First up, the Aussie wildlife we encountered. You will notice that we did finally see a few kangaroos who weren't cold and lifeless on the side of the highway. It was a nice surprise since I was starting to think live kangaroos were a myth.

These wild parakeets were everywhere. They may be beautiful, but their call is like fingernails on a chalkboard.
A large (around one meter long) Monitor Lizard

Fun-hating beach crocodiles (granted, we didn't actually see any of them)
Our first (living) kangaroo sighting!

And now, the landscapes! You have already seen my one picture of the bush, here now are the beaches and rainforest! (The exclamation points make it more exciting!!!)

My little bush man

Aaaand, that's all I got. We have nothing else to show for ourselves after two and a half weeks of travelling around one of Australia's most beautiful and diverse regions. Now, you may be wondering how we managed to so utterly and completely drop the ball on such a wonderful country.

As explanation, may I present to you Exhibits A and B:

Sorry, Australia.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Camping Culture

You know, maybe being homeless wouldn’t be that bad.

I don’t mean sleeping-on-the-street homeless, but rather living without a house or an apartment. Living as a nomad. Living on the road. 

Living out of a van. 

Two months ago, that would have sounded like my personal hell, but it’s amazing what some nice weather and a few good personal encounters can do to a girl.

As you may have guessed, we are still travelling around Australia in our camper van and are continuing to enjoy it immensely. What has changed, however, is that we have recently become aware of just how spoiled we are with our nice home on wheels, complete with standing room, electricity and running water. We were feeling pretty adventurous indeed until we met some real campers, ones who put our perceived discomfort to shame. These guys weren’t camping for a week or two, or even a month or two; they were camping for a year. 

And get this: they- the two of them- were living out of a hatchback car.

That, my friends, is some badass homelessness.

If their lifestyle was out of necessity, I probably wouldn’t be waxing poetic about their life choices, but this couple was choosing to live extremely simply (and cheaply) so that they could travel indefinitely. Two web designers with their own company, they tour around Australia with their laptops and a wireless modem so as to work remotely along the way. They stay at free campsites or wild camp in the bush and only spend money on gas and food, the expense of which is minimal as they often fish or gather wild produce for meals.  As a result of their simple lifestyle, they are actually saving money while they travel. 

Needless to say, we want to be them.

True, they live in a car, but since they essentially follow the warm season, their converted car only serves as a bed. Their kitchen is a beach-side barbeque pit or a camp fire in the bush, their living room is whatever naturally fetching place they decide to call home for a few days. (For the more practically-minded, rest assured that there are plenty of public bathrooms and showers available for those who look for them.) Some days, they work for their business, but often their time is spent fishing, hiking, reading and cooking- all outdoors.

Tell me that doesn’t sound like the life.

Now, if they were the only ones living that way, we might not feel so pampered in our big van (yes, the same one that I complained was uncomfortably cramped a week ago), but they are by no means an anomaly. At the same campsite where we met these guys, we also met not one, not two, but three different couples- who, coincidentally, were all French- who were doing long-term camping stints out of a van. And not a camper van. A van van.

And what, you may ask, did we, the embarrassingly non-adventurous, painfully pampered quasi-campers do when confronted with the real thing?

We faked it, of course.

Basically, we pretended to be way more hardcore then we actually are, or in truth, will probably ever be. While the others were comparing stories about sneaking into hostels to shower, lamenting about being stuck in the bush for ten days after a flood and sharing which public sports complex was best to camp in, Vincent and I were nodding gravely and sharing knowing looks, while silently making a mental note never to complain about the capacity of our camper’s water tank ever again.

But you can’t blame us, these people were awesome. We would have renounced our giant camper van Chunk just to be part of their little camping community.

That’s another thing we loved about pretending to be homeless: the sense of camaraderie among the campers in the free sites. You see, at the expensive ($30 a night!) caravan parks, we see only vacationers and rich retirees: hardly the most interesting of the camping world. I guess that’s the price you pay for hot showers and laundry facilities. But at the free campsites, you get the lifers, the gray nomads, the homeless. All of those who literally live, full time, out of their vehicles. Be it a hatchback or a converted bus, these people are at once perplexing and inspiring. We kinda wish we were that cool.

The homes of the homeless

But, alas, we are not. At least not on this trip.

It does make you think though. We’ve met several couples of all ages, even some families with kids, who own nothing but what they can fit in their mobile home and live a nomadic life in the truest sense of the word. They travel around Australia in complete freedom, going wherever they please, spending the days how they want, stopping when the view is good and creating new friendships at each campsite.  When you consider all of that, even living in a bus sounds oddly tempting. We have loved travelling around in a camper van, maybe living out of one wouldn’t be all that bad.

Sorry Vincent, a Crocodile Dundee hat does not make you a real camper.

But before you start thinking that we are going to give up all of our worldly possessions and live in a van down by the river, let it be known that we just dropped a small fortune (by backpacking standards, at least) on Aboriginal art to send back home.

You know, for our van.