4 feet 2 mouths

walking and eating our way around the world

Archive for the tag “Big Cities”

Why Chongqing Hot Pot Has Ruined My Clothes And I Still Love It Anyway (by Nathan)

The glorious Chongqing hot pot

The glorious Chongqing hot pot

Hot pot is more than dinner, it is an experience, and in Chongqing, it is a ritual.  A huge pot gurgles and spits spicy broth in the middle of the table.  Countless plates of vegetables and meats are ordered and plopped in the broth.  The cooked treasures are then fished out with chopsticks then dunked in crushed garlic and sesame oil and shoveled into hungry mouths.  In our visit to Chongqing we were determined master eating hot pot, which to us, meant getting through the meal without dripping it on ourselves.  I was hopeless and I had to revise my goal to ten blotches; Carmen had amazing skill and grace until I accidentally flung a slippery piece of tofu into her bowl and splashed oil all over her shirt and pants.  Not good when we only packed two pairs of pants.

Chongqing apartment towers as seem from a cable car

Chongqing apartment towers as seem from a cable car

Tiny restaurants fill every nook and cranny

Tiny restaurants fill every nook and cranny

We have tried hot pot before, but no place compares to Chongqing.  This city is the ChongKING of hot pot and everyone in China knows it.  It is a signature dish of the city and hot pot shops around the world try to mimic the deliciousness that Chongqing residents have invented.  Hot pot shops are scattered all over the city.  They are everywhere, but several months ago there used to be even more of them.  A recent law made it illegal to sell hot pot on the sidewalk, thus destroying one of the signature street foods of the world and driving it indoors.  Nevertheless hotpot can still be found in lean-to shacks, high rise towers and even tucked into miniscule inhabitable spaces and bomb shelters.

More glorious hot pot with lotus root, bean sprouts, shaved beef and cauliflower

More glorious hot pot with lotus root, bean sprouts, shaved beef and cauliflower

The whole process starts with sitting down at a table in some run-down restaurant; we found two: YèfùHuǒguō and Dòngtíngxiān Huǒguō (in an old bomb shelter) in a guide book and decided to give both try.  The center of our table had a depression in it and there was a rubber tube coming out of the floor to pump the natural gas to the burner.  Immediately upon sitting down the waitress was hovering over us.  We ordered ours zhōng là which is medium/very spicy (around  7-8 out of 10).  She scurried off to the kitchen and came back with a thick red fluid with thirty or so of dried chilies and hundreds of Sichuan peppercorns. We attempted in both cases to communicate the types of meat, tofu and vegetables that we wanted.  When that failed we resorted to walking in the kitchen to point out a few items that we felt were essential.  Eight or so plates showed up heaped with vegetables and frozen slivers of meat.  Our favorites were the lotus root slices, long-shooted mushrooms, and Dòngtíngxiān Huǒguō had some tofu that was some of the best of my life.

Cooking the ingredients is simple: throw them in the boiling pot, wait, pull them out and eat.  The cooked ingredients come out dripping with flavor and sizzling with heat.  The bubbling spicy fire broth is so hot that I still have not figured out whether it is called hot pot because of temperature or spice, but there were plenty of both.  We enjoyed our feast with our mouths tingling on fire and accompanied by an essential beer.  We walked away dizzy from the heat, stuffed to the brim, with our mouths still numb from Sichuan peppercorns.

Arhat temple tucked within Chongqing highrises

Arhat temple tucked within Chongqing highrises

Arhat statue

Arhat statue

One fun sight to visit in Chongqing is the Arhat temple.  The tiny one-story complex is situated right in the center of town and surrounded by 100m skyscrapers.  The temple is one of the ancient structures in Chongqing at over 1000 years old complete with ancient stone carving and scary warrior gods.  There is a hall inside that houses hundreds of statues of arhats or monks that had found enlightenment.

Chickpea Noodle soup for breakfast

Chickpea Noodle soup for breakfast

Tofu, rice and pickled cabbage breakfast

Tofu, rice and pickled cabbage breakfast

Our hostel was at the bottom of the hill, but close to the garmet distribution market.  We found an excellent food stall around the corner that served up some of our favorite fare: noodles and tofu.  The noodles were pretty standard but impressively spicy and the added chickpeas were a nice change.  We watched the owner scoop out the tofu out of a huge tub filled with water, she served it with some white rice and picked cabbage.

Historic Chongqing housing

Historic Chongqing housing

Traditional four-story home still with residents

Traditional four-story home still with residents

The great hall and plaza of of the people

The great hall and plaza of of the people

Chongqing has a pleasant array of historic and new architecture.  The traditional houses were built from wood stilts that were up to four-stories.  Many of these buildings have been replaced by modern high-rises, but there are a few neighborhoods that have a few leaning and partially condemned buildings still in use.  There is a rather new plaza near the great hall of the people and the three gorges dam museum. The plaza is one of the few places in China that is good for people watching.  There were several groups of people exercising in a way we had never seen before.  They would spin a top on the plaza paving then slap it with a long whip to get it going faster.  The chatter of kids and people talking is shared with the cracking of whips every few seconds.

Two travelers

Two travelers

Man carrying huge package down the Chongqing hills

Man carrying huge package down the Chongqing hills

We immediately fell in love with Chongqing.  Maybe it is the hills, or the spicy food, but everything felt familiar and enjoyable throughout our stay.   I think it was that we were getting nostalgic for San Francisco.  Chongqing is both older and newer than San Francisco.  We watched several Chongqing men carrying enormous packages on their backs up and down the stairways and I wondered if that type of thing existed in SF a hundred and fifty years ago.  Chongqing is about as far away from fixie bike messengers as SF is to having an urban density anywhere close to Chongqing. Differences and similarities are broad, and there is never enough time explore either fully.

Carmen exploring a narrow alleyway

Carmen exploring a narrow alleyway

Yellow Húguang stairway

Yellow Húguang stairway

The city has its share of picturesque alleys, stairways and winding streets.  We roamed up and down the steep mountainside and sniffing at the air every time we passed spicy sizzling food.

Pan-fried Sichuan long beans

Pan-fried Sichuan long beans

Ma po dofu, ribs, rabbit dry pot and pastry; all spicy and delicious at Shùnfēng 123

Ma po dofu, ribs, rabbit dry pot and pastry; all spicy and delicious at Shùnfēng 123

We could not wait to get into the Sichuan region to the west.  Chongqing and Sichuan share their love for spicy food and for many years now Carmen and I have been obsessed with cooking and eating Sichuan.  So we went to a slightly more upper scale place than we are used to going.  I forgot all rules and ordered without abandon with the excellent picture menu. The Sichuan rabbit dry pot was fantastic, but too much work to pull off the meat from the shattered bones.  Long beans and ma po dofu remain one of my favorites and will continue to be ordered over the next few weeks.

Húguang Guild Hall

Húguang Guild Hall

Rooftop daemon

Rooftop daemon

Another cool sight is the Húguang Guild Hall.  This historic complex used to be a meeting place for local and regional merchants.  We explored the hillside buildings and opera stages and admired the ornate carvings and ornaments.

Crazy knife-shaved noodle shop

Crazy knife-shaved noodle shop

Chongqing is simply a great city.  There is history and culture, but few big sights to attract tons of tourists.  It has impressive density and charm that has definitely fascinated us and we will definitely return some day.  We are obviously attracted to crowded places and even more so when food is involved.  We passed this knife-shaved noodle place ten times while exploring Chongqing.  The day we decided to get the noodles happened to be our last few moments in the city.  With our backpacks on we pushed and shoved our way into the tiny restaurant.  We sat in the back and two bowls were dropped in front of us. The noodle was more of a thin sheet of pasta and the broth rich and tangy.  With our hunger filled we boarded the brand new subway to the high speed train station. It was finally time to enter Sichuan and one of our most anticipated cities- Chengdu.

Nathan at the doorway of Yangtze River Hostel

Nathan at the doorway of Yangtze River Hostel

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Feeling Free in Hong Kong (by Carmen)

Spectacular Hong Kong skyline

Spectacular Hong Kong skyline

Hong Kong was the first stop on our Asia trip in 2009 and we absolutely loved it. When people asked what our favorite city of the trip had been, the answer was obvious. From our first dim sum bite, the city enchanted us. With the sky high architecture, and we were awestruck. But just around the corner, amid all the modernity, we would find an old school market that would bring us back down to earth. I always said I could easily live in Hong Kong.

And yet, over time I began to feel a little jaded. Perhaps my memory of Hong Kong was colored by the fact that it was my first time outside the western world. Maybe as a more seasoned traveler, my second visit to Hong Kong would reveal that it was actually too congested or too westernized or too sanitized or just not to my liking anymore. That I had put it on a pedestal that it wasn’t really worthy of.

Hong Kong, how could I have ever doubted you? You are everything I remembered and more.

Dumplings boiled and fried

Dumplings boiled and fried

We needed some food fast when we got off the train and within our first block walking we were drawn to a dumpling restaurant. Backpacks and all, we squeezed our way in for some boiled kim chi dumplings. We also sampled some fried pork, leek and yellow curry varieties. They were simple, fast, great. Wow, HK. You had me at hello.

Our visit to HK was partially dictated by our need to reset our China visa. Because, really, this isn’t the best time to see the city. For one, the new year week is expensive as Chinese tourists flood the city. At the same time, all offices and many family owned shops and restaurants are closed. It’s a strange time. We decided to make use of our visit here to take full advantage of the fast, uncensored internet. Oh my god! It felt like I was re-entering the modern world. I didn’t realize how much I had missed posting on the blog, reading other blogs, reading BBC news, all my Google calendars, docs, etc. This excitement was compounded by what I saw on the street – Belgian beer bars, restaurants decorated with colors other than red and gold – it was exhilarating. Yes, some of these factors are simply the western influence on the city. Hong Kong is not considered “true” China.  All I know is that the city made me feel free.

Fireworks in the harbor

Fireworks in the harbor

There was one benefit of visiting during the new year – fireworks. Nathan and I saw the best fireworks show of our lives! It was even better than Nathan’s previous best at Mariachi USA :) They were plentiful, beautiful and well timed. All of it, of course, with the backdrop of HK Island skyscrapers.

Yumminess at Crystal Jade

Yumminess at Crystal Jade

Crystal Jade on the 3rd Floor

Crystal Jade on the 3rd Floor

There is so much to see in HK but this trip was not for sightseeing. We had a lot of work to do – blogging, wedding planning, trip planning all takes time. The slow internet in China wasn’t cutting it for us so things had piled up again. After a long day at the hostel computer we asked the receptionist for a restaurant recommendation. He directed us to a place just a couple blocks away. Nathan was skeptical, thinking that the rec. was based more on proximity than good quality. But he need not have worried. Crystal Jade, on the third floor of a mall, was delicious. We were seated right away, our tea cups were kept full and the Shanghai cuisine was delightful. Of course we had to eat the xiao long bao (soup dumplings) which are steamed pork dumplings with warm broth sealed inside. We complimented these with more pork in a sweet dough wrap. Then the noodles, with a thick savory sauce that we could thin to our liking with broth.

Honeymoon Desserts

Honeymoon Desserts

Fortunately, we saved room for dessert. Also near our hostel, we had noticed this place because of the crowds. It was a tiny dessert cafe called Honeymoon Desserts.  I opted for mango, pomelo, grass jelly and tapioca balls in a sweet soup topped with a scoop of green tea ice cream. Yum! Nathan had a warm walnut and black sesame soup. Inside hid a few glutinous rice balls filled with ground peanuts. Impressive stuff.

Entrance to Lin Heung

Entrance to Lin Heung

Lin Heung dim sum

Lin Heung dim sum

Siu mai

Siu mai

To start off another “work” day we went to one of our favorite places in Hong Kong. Lin Heung is the real deal. A little grungy, slightly grumpy service and excellent dim sum. On our first visit in 2009, it was a summer weekday. Old regulars were hanging out, reading the paper, as carts were pushed by. In that same trip we visited again on a weekend. The place was transformed into a madhouse of people pushing for dim sum. The carts barely made it out of the kitchen before being stripped bare. On this visit, things were pretty crazy again. The pushing was even more aggressive than I remember. Perhaps because there were more mainland Chinese holidaymakers? Not sure. The dim sum was predictably good but I am excited to visit again when it’s calm.

Under Bridge Spicy Crab

Crispy shrimp from Under Bridge Spicy Crab restaurant

The dim sum held us over until dinner, when we were ready to feast again. Again near our hostel, we went to Under Bridge Spicy Crab Restaurant. As we waited for our table we looked longingly at the crab covered in crispy fried garlic. That is, until we saw the price. A crab for two for $60 (USD). Must have been inflated for the holidays. We instead switched our sights to garlic crusted shrimp which turned out to be an excellent substitute.

Hokkaido Milk Restaurant

Hokkaido Milk Restaurant

Another one of our fave HK eateries is Australia Dairy Company which is unfortunately closed for the time we are here. It is an institution serving amazing fried eggs, toast, coffee, macaroni soup. Yes, doesn’t sound too exciting but there is magic in the way they make it here. To get our fix, we went to Hokkaido Milk Restaurant instead. We didn’t have high expectations but were pleasantly surprised! The eggs were perfectly cooked, still slightly runny in the center, the toast was well buttered, and the macaroni soup deceivingly rich. Made me very happy.

I could have spent more time in HK, but instead that would have to wait until the end of the trip, after the holidays were over. Therefore, we prepared ourselves to re-enter the wilds of China.  Watch out, Hunan, Chongqing and Sichuan here we come!

Our One Year Travel-versary in Guangzhou (by Carmen)

Peach blossoms for the new year

Peach blossoms for the new year

Guangzhou kind of gets a bad rap.  Yeah, it’s not that pretty and there aren’t a great many sights to see.  But I still liked it.  The area was a major trading post for centuries and one can still feel the influence from the mix cultures.  Another winning factor is that Guangzhou is a real city, geared more towards manufacturing than simply tourism.  Add an abundance of dim sum and an excellent subway system and I was sold.

Street side vegetarian dumplings

Street side vegetarian dumplings

BBQ Pork at Guangzhou Restaurant

BBQ Pork at Guangzhou Restaurant

From the beginning, Guangzhou took care of us.  After checking into our hotel and taking a nap I was very hungry.  Just before popping into the subway there was a lady selling dumplings! We bought a half dozen vegetarian dumplings for $0.50.  Good deal.  We then rode to downtown where we walked the lively shopping streets.  I had read a recommendation for an eatery in the area with a straightforward name – Guangzhou Restaurant.  We found it but the garish neon exterior wasn’t exactly welcoming.  We went inside anyway and found a good quality meal of BBQ pork, buns and Chinese greens in a light broth.

Dim sum at Panxi Restaurant

Dim sum at Panxi Restaurant

But what we were really excited for was dim sum.  Many a morning in SF were spent at our favorite dim sum restaurants with old ladies pushing carts of food for us to choose from.  We know the names of the classic dishes – ha gow (shrimp dumpling), cha siu bao (bbq pork steamed bun), siu mai (pork and shrimp dumpling topped with roe).  We were ready.  During our time in Guangzhou we were able to sample two of the most well known dim sum restaurants.  The first, Panxi, served up some excellent quality.  But there were no carts – we ordered from a menu.  Less fun, but even worse was waiting almost an hour for our food!  It’s never easy in China.  The second place was Tao Tao Ju Restaurant. This was also delicious (though we liked Panxi a tad more).  I did like the self-service counters where I could choose my dim sum.  I didn’t recognize anything in the dessert section so I randomly chose a group of deep fried mini-pastries.  To my surprise, it was filled with a warm, sweetened durian custard.  This was a perfect use of the pungent fruit and I hope I can find it at dim sum restaurants abroad.

Shopping street

Shopping street

Guangzhou alleyway

Guangzhou alleyway

Alligator at the market

Alligator at the market

We walked a bit around the shopping district again peeking into the narrow alleyways.  We passed one food market buzzing with customers and couldn’t resist perusing ourselves.  The Cantonese are known for eating everything and anything and this is definitely the first time I saw alligator at the market. But before long it was nap time again.  Nathan had unfortunately come down with a tough illness that required a lot of rest.

Naan at Nur Bostan

Naan at Nur Bostan

Spiced rice and dumplings

Spiced rice and dumplings

Gate of one of the world's oldest mosques

Gate of one of the world’s oldest mosques

But it was our one year travel anniversary!  So Nathan mustered the energy to go to a special restaurant.  Nur Bostan serves Uyghur cuisine from the far western regions of China.  The culture and food there are more closely linked to Central Asia than mainstream Chinese.  One of the biggest differences is their Muslim religion, meaning they don’t eat the pork found so ubiquitously in the rest of the country.  There is a longstanding Muslim community in Guangzhou that I found fascinating.  The people themselves, in their dress and face, looked like a mix of east and west.  We even went to visit the city’s mosque, one of the oldest in the world being founded in the 600s, shortly after Islam was founded.  As for the food, we enjoyed some fluffy naan, hummus, juicy lamb kababs and spiced rice.  An excellent way to celebrate our travel-veresary!

Wuzhanji

Wuzhanji

In the morning we fought for a table at Wuzhanji, recommended for its cheung fan (steamed rice noodle rolls) and congee.  The woman taking orders didn’t even want to deal with us but we persisted and were rewarded with some springy noodles.  We also got some congee with offal.  I think this was her version of revenge but little did she know we actually like offal.  So there.

Chen Clan Association Hall

Chen Clan Association Hall

Unbelievable carving on a minuscule piece of ivory

Unbelievable carving on a minuscule piece of ivory

Now I wasn’t expecting much more from the Chen Clan Association Hall than an atmospheric old building.  But lucky for us it now houses a recently completed folk art museum.  My favorite piece was in the ivory carving room.  There was a piece of ivory no bigger than a grain of rice with Chinese characters carved in red.  Seriously, these characters were too small for the eye to see.  You had to look through a magnifying glass.  What unbelievable skill on the part of the carvers!!  I will never look the same way at those fairground stands that advertise writing your name on a grain of rice.  They don’t even know what they’re up against.

Canton Tower

Canton Tower

Four Seasons Hotel atrium at the IFC Tower

Four Seasons Hotel atrium at the IFC Tower

From the old to the very new, we rode the subway to Guangzhou’s version of Canary Wharf.  Skyscrapers are under construction at every turn but we were here to see two in particular.  The first was the IFC Tower, the tenth tallest building in the world.  It was just finished last fall and feels brand spanking new.  We made our way to the glamorous Four Seasons Hotel lobby on the 70th floor for views over the city.  Too bad it was cloudy!  From the IFC Tower we could see the Canton Tower twisting into the sky.  Pretty spectacular stuff.

Night market crowds

Night market crowds

At night we braved some crowds at a pedestrian shopping street hosting a flower market for the new year.  We then hopped on the subway to our hotel.  At the stroke of midnight we were treated to a cacauphony of fireworks set off by local families (the city did not put on a show).  These were bigger than some of the shows we’ve seen in SF!  We had a great vantage point from our hotel room on the 7th floor of an apartment building.  Our new year’s day (the third in our trip so far after Mumbai and Hanoi!) was spent eating dim sum, reading and sharing a simple noodle dinner with the young hotel manager.  It was a good way to gear up for our next destination, one of the best cities in the world, Hong Kong.

George Washington Immortalized in China (by Nathan)

George Washington keeping an eye on China

George Washington keeping an eye on China

We sat in the stone forest admiring the towering rock pillars. Then our Irish friend pointed out George Washington staring down at us from above. I never expected to see this familiar face in China, but somehow I was not surprised that this curly wig and angular face found its natural way here. The strangest and most drastic natural rock formations have found there way to twist and grow out of China.  I was surprised that we did not have to pay extra to take this photo ;)

Overlooking the stone forest

Overlooking the stone forest

Nathan, Michael and Albert climbing to the top

Nathan, Michael and Albert climbing to the top

We had buffered a layover day in Kunming before traveling farther east in China. We had been enjoying hanging out with our new friends Albert and Michael so the four of us decided to travel to the Stone Forest. We found a unique landscape crowded with interesting rocks and hoards of Chinese tourists. To our benefit 95% of the people remained in 5% of the park, so it was easy to find paths for us to explore on our own.

Carmen and I in the forest

Carmen and I in the forest

Small pond

Small pond

The site of our beer break

The site of our beer break

We meandered around the park for several hours.  We roamed through miniature cantons and through passageways. The Chinese had actually spent a good effort paving and maintaining paths throughout the park. We found a nice perch to enjoy the scenery with a few beers.

Pig faces at the market

Pig faces at the market

Black footed chicken is popular

Black footed chicken is popular

During our layover in Kunming there was an essential visit for Carmen and me. We had to return Zhuanxin market for tofu noodles and mushroom buns. We roamed the market enjoying all the variety and freshness that only a Chinese market could offer. There were pig faces smoked and ready to take home as well as black footed chickens.

Kunming is a great city, at the heart of Yunnan.  We were well connected to some beautiful natural and historic sights. But after over three weeks of traveling solely in the Yunnan we packed our bags to explore the karst topography of Xingping in Guanxi province.

Spicy rice noodle tofu

Catching Up in Kunming (by Carmen)

Kunming airport

Kunming airport

Our welcome to China occurred at the Kunming International Airport, a brilliant new building held up by warm, sinuous supports. Nathan and I had been looking forward to returning to China ever since we first visited in 2009.  But, like India, we were also a little anxious. There are things we love about China. The incredible food, the vibrant street life, the beautiful historical architecture all enchanted us. But the intense traffic, incessant smoking and hacking, kids being allowed to piss and shit on the sidewalk, seriously unhygienic bathrooms, and the governments rapid destruction of the beautiful historic architecture were all turn offs. Trying to navigate everything with only a few key phrases of Chinese complicates everything as well.

China, put simply, is not for beginners. If you want to veer off the major shopping streets and get at the heart of the country and its people, it takes research, effort, patience and a whole lot of pointing. Nathan and I knew what we were getting into so we decided to take some time to warm up to China. We wanted to spend a few days in Kunming, the capital of the Yunnan province, to catch up on some things and better plan our trip through the rest of China. Unfortunately, our plan backfired a bit since the slow, censored Chinese internet did not take kindly to our research needs. But when the frustration got too much, walking the streets of laid back Kunming provided a welcome respite to breathe and regroup.

Tofu noodles

Tofu noodles

We were lucky. We got great recommendations from friends.  Our friend Adam had actually lived in Kunming a few years ago, he met his wife here, and has made numerous return visits. He was kind enough to give us a few recommendations on food and we excitedly worked our way down the list. The first item was dou hua mi xian jia mao (豆花米线加帽), a rice noodle dish that is topped with soft tofu, a savory red pork sauce, peanuts and chives. We found it at a little stall in the popular market near our hostel. The fresh tofu was so silky and you could taste the soy beans used to make it.

Mushroom steamed bun

Mushroom steamed bun

We had heard that mushrooms are the specialty of Yunnan and by luck we found a mushroom filled steamed bun while perusing the market after our noodles. Like the noodles, it was phenomenal with extremely rich, flavorful mushrooms mixed with minced onions. Oh yeah.

Grilled tofu

Grilled tofu

Main shopping square

Main shopping square

After doing a bit of work back at the hostel we ventured out again for some dinner. We ended at a grilled tofu stall that topped its tofu patties with a peanut sauce, chili sauce and some fried wonton bits. In a word, tasty. As we walked we also noticed a few Muslim Chinese restaurants. Yunnan hosts a large Muslim community with rocky historical relations with the Han Chinese. This may play a part in the current government’s redevelopment of the old Muslim quarter in Kunming, including the destruction of the 400 year old mosque. They did replace the mosque but I heard it was so garish that I didn’t bother to go see it. As Nathan and I walked on Kunming’s main shopping street we were close to the old Muslim neighborhood but traces were few and far between. Mostly, one is able to see a restaurant here and there. I hope that the community lives on somewhere and that I just can’t see the signs (literally, because they are written in mandarin).

Nathan and the seagulls

Nathan and the seagulls

Another day in Kunming decided to take a break from catching up and be tourists again. First we walked over to Green Lake Park, a green space with a series of islands linked by small bridges. In the winter flocks of red beaked seagulls spend their days in the park getting fat off the bread the locals feed them. Nathan was even able to have them pluck the food from his hands. We walked along the park, soaking up the sun for warmth. Since leaving the oppressing heat of Bangkok, we were quickly plunged into a crisp winter cold of 30 to 40 degrees. And there was no escaping it as nowhere has heaters – not our hostel, restaurants or cafes. Brrr!

Heavenly Manna restaurant

Heavenly Manna restaurant

Us with Yun

Us with Yun

After the park we had lunch plans with a friend of Adam’s who is from Kunming. Yun asked us to meet her at Heavenly Manna Restaurant on Wenhua Xiang. She told us about life in Kunming and her job helping foreign exchange students adjust to life in China. Meanwhile we devoured some amazing dishes. My absolute favorite was a cumin beef dish served with crispy fried mint leaves. It was so mouthwatering I could not stop myself from scooping thirds and fourths on my plate! We also sampled some stir fried greens, yellow corn fried with rich egg yolks and a light soup. At the end of our lunch, we thanked Yun for her stories and advice. But Nathan and I weren’t quite ready to brave a walk in the cold. So we went next door to Salvador’s, an expat owned bar owned serving some familiar favorites. Nathan splurged on Rouge River Amber Ale from Oregon to take a break from all the light beers Asia has to offer. I opted for a hot rum apple cider to take the chill off.

Yuantong Temple entrance

Yuantong Temple entrance

Intricate Chinese decorative painting

Intricate Chinese decorative painting

Center of Yuantong Temple

Center of Yuantong Temple

When we did finally leave we made our way to Yuantong Temple. It is one of the oldest and biggest Buddhist temples in Kunming and it was a thoroughly pleasant place to be. We encountered a group of monks chanting as part of a ceremony that we did not understand. But it certainly added to the ambiance.

Rice noodles in rich spicy broth

Rice noodles in rich spicy broth

Stir fried rice noodles

Stir fried rice noodles

As we left the temple we already had a dinner place in mind – a crowded restaurant serving variations of rice noodles. This involved a lot of pointing and bringing the woman taking orders around the restaurant in order to show exactly what we wanted. It worked!

Chinese doughnut with savory pudding

Chinese doughnut with savory pudding

We found another cheap joint for breakfast the next morning just north of our hostel. The man out front was frying up mounds of Chinese doughnuts, which are long wands of dough and aren’t sweet. From his wife, Nathan and I ordered two dipping sauces for our doughnuts. One was a warm sweetened soy milk and the other a thick savory pudding. It was plenty filling and cost a whole $1.13 for the both of us.

Walmart Supercenter

Walmart Supercenter

For dinner we went in a different direction, literally and figuratively. We boarded a bus to the southeast of the city and encountered the evidence of China’s rapid urbanization. Freeway overpasses appeared and streets got wider. We got dropped off on the edge of a highway and had to walk with others along the edge of the road, no sidewalk, until we got to some smaller, more manageable streets. In the new China, they do pay attention to the public transit infrastructure but the pedestrian connections to transit are unfortunately ignored.

We eventually found ourselves in a strange area that was felt like a business park but was interspersed with a few corporate looking strip malls and gigantic apartment blocks. It seemed like a very boring place to live. And in the middle of it all was a super center Walmart surrounded by a large parking lot. Just like in the US, it had everything you could want and more. They certainly cater to their market here as this Walmart is filled with all the local foods – smoked pig faces, fermented tofu and black footed chickens. It seemed extremely popular and does not bode well for all the mom and pop shops in Kunming. Not that the urban planners left much room for these types of family owned stores in the new parts of town.

Mushroom hot pot and sides at Dian Jun Wang

Mushroom hot pot and sides at Dian Jun Wang

But back to the food. Yun praised Dian Jun Wang which seems to be a local, high end chain. It was a good thing we were hungry when we sat down because we were in for a feast. The specific reason for our visit was mushroom hot pot. Yunnan is known for its bounty of mushrooms and we were ready for them. With a combination of pictures, pointing and guessing we ended up with a nice rounded meal. As a starter we were delivered a vinegary vegetable dish that had the the texture of softened pine needles and may have actually been pine needles. That may not sound appealing but it was very good. Then came the broth that was kept on a burner on our table, to which a selection of mushrooms was added. Once cooked, the mushrooms were spooned into our bowls and we could dip then in a spicy dipping sauce. Next, we cooked and ate rice cakes and cabbage. And finally, thinly shaved beef. We drank a much of the broth as we could but we were getting dangerously full.

Dian Jun Wang was a wonderful meal and we were well taken care of by the numerous staff. With tea, the bill came to $54. I believe it to be well worth the money, but the price did point out the dichotomy of rich and poor in China. Especially compared to our incredibly cheap breakfast that same day. The husband and wife making Chinese doughnuts could not afford to eat at Dian Jun Wang nor are they given space to work in these newly planned communities. Which is too bad because they are part of what makes China great! My favorite food is always in the hole-in-the-wall eateries anyway.

It was a good thing we took things slow for our first few days in China. It can be equal parts charming and frustrating and from the start we experienced both emotions. Two months in China? Bring it on!

One Night in Bangkok (by Nathan)

One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble
Not much between despair and ecstasy
One night in Bangkok and the tough guys tumble
Can’t be too careful with your company
I can feel the Devil walking next to me

Bangkok, Oriental setting
And the city don’t know what the city is getting
The creme de la creme of the chess world
In a show with everything but Yul Brynner

Time flies, doesn’t seem a minute
Since the Tirolean Spa had the chess boys in it
All change, don’t you know that when you
Play at this level, there’s no ordinary venue

One night in Bangkok and the world’s your oyster
The bars are temples but the pearls ain’t free
You’ll find a God in every golden cloister
And if you’re lucky then the God’s a she
I can feel an angel sliding up to me

by Murray Head

Bowls and bowls of boat noodles

Bowls and bowls of boat noodles

Yes, almost by circumstance I decided to relive one of my favorite 80’s songs, Murray Heads’s “One Night in Bangkok”. Our chess match involved all the the intricacies and intelligence of maneuvering around the world and the reward was a day to enjoy Thai food. Of all places to have a one-day layover, Bangkok is a delicious place to be stuck with twenty-four hours to burn. The epicenter of Thai food is guaranteed to tantalize with vibrant flavors and leave the mouth panting for more while the stomach pleads for it all to stop. Thus, as expected, we spent our last day in Thailand eating, walking and eating a bit more and fulfilling everything that 4feet2mouths can be.

Roadside golden Buddha

Roadside golden Buddha

The challenge of securing a Chinese visa is that proof-of-entrance and exit is required. Thus, six months ago we took a stab-in-the-dark and booked a flight to Kunming from Bangkok. In hindsight it would have been slightly easier and cheaper to just bus over from Northern Laos, but we would have had to fake a flight at the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco. Thus When we finally returned to Thailand, it felt very natural, and it was welcoming and exciting to be in a place that we had explored and enjoyed six weeks ago. Within 10 minutes of our hotel we were graced by a hundred Buddhas that were humbly meditating the streets and awaiting to be purchased and set into future Thai temples.

Green curry and crab soufflé at Krua Apsorn

Green curry and crab soufflé at Krua Apsorn

The deliciously simple miang khanna at Krua Apsorn

The deliciously simple miang khanna at Krua Apsorn

There was really one destination that we had in mind, Thanon Dinson. This two block street is all that you need to know for excellent Thai food. There is everything from noodles, barbecue, soups and rice dishes; and everything is excellent. Our first place was Krua Apsorn. this mid-range restaurant serves mostly central Thai cuisine of very high quality. We ordered a fish ball and baby eggplant green curry and crab soufflé. The star of the restaurant was the extremely simple and fresh appetizer called miang khanna. A platter arrived with lime wedges, ginger, chopped onion, peanuts, pork cracklings, dried shrimp, betel leaves and a tamarind sauce. We rolled up some of everything and took a bite that exploded with textures and flavors. We will definitely be recreating this one at home!

Boat noodle perfection

Boat noodle perfection

Literally across the street and to the right a little bit is a delicious spot for boat noodles. This is the birth place of our “dirty noodles” concept that the best soup shops are fast, cheap, and deserve with people. They pulled a couple bowls off the stack and added the noodle thickness of our choice. It was up to us to make it special with some added chili, vinegar and a dash of sugar.

Tranquil canal on Dipsom Road

Tranquil canal on Dipsom Road

We crossed the street again I and enjoyed the serene canal. It was a really warm, but peaceful day. We could not expect anything better on our last day in Thailand.

Colorful Thai traffic jam

Colorful Thai traffic jam

Riding the canal boat

Riding the canal boat

The Klong San Sap canal boat public transit in Bangkok is wonderful. There is an elevated rail and plently of colorful taxies, but the canal system is the more fun way to get around. We did not get to experience this on our first trip. But this time we conveniently found ourselves making trips from Old town to near the MBK mall. We loaded onto the thirty person boat and it roared down the twenty foot wide canal. At first I wondered why the ticket operator was wearing a helmet, then suddenly the whole roof of the boat collapsed swiftly to clear the bridge ahead. They had actually designed the boat so that the roof was hinged to drop the height three feet and at these brief moments the driver maneuvered the boat peering through the three inches of visible windshield. We gripped our seat for the first few times, but ultimately the experience proved enjoyable and entertaining.

The must-visit Thanon Mahannop fish soup shop.

The must-visit Thanon Mahannop fish soup shop.

Delectable Thai fish soup

Delectable Thai fish soup

Can you imagine the anxiety of eating your last Thai meal? What if you knew you could not have Thai food for eight weeks?  Funny, yes, but we took this very serious. Our final morning in Bangkok was spent roaming the streets for something that might sustain our memory of Thai cuisine.  We scoured the streets to find something that would be sour, spicy, sweet, salty and savory. Our first thought was the fabulous pad thai at Thip Sanai on 313 Thanon Mahachai, but it was closed! Thus, we drifted to our trusty Thanon Dinso. What we discovered was one of the best meals of all Thailand. We peered up a side street called Thanon Mahannop, just west of Thanon Dinso. We found a small crowd of people outside a tiny restaurant on the south side of the street. We snagged a table and pointed for two bowls of what everyone else was having…some sort of stew. The bowls arrived with a red broth packed with lemongrass and chunks of fish. This was the most intensely flavored wonderful dish. Any discussion of it and I watch Carmen lick her lips remembering the flavors. The stew was spicy, the fish tender and the sour lemongrass potent. This was an awesome find for our last Thai meal.

And just as quick as One Night in Bangkok came into existence, our layover was finished. Backpacks were cinched tight and thrown over our shoulders once more.  China, our final frontier, loomed just to the north.

A New Year’s Eve in Hanoi (by Nathan)

Hanoi night lights

Hanoi night lights

It is difficult to plan these long-term trips so that the right celebrations land in the right places.  Our Thanksgiving in Bangkok satisfied many of our Thai cravings, Carmen’s birthday in Koh Tao provided a much needed beach to relax and Christmas in Hoi An was spent with friends and gifts to ourselves from the tailor.  A New Year’s party in Hanoi just kind of fell in to place, and, how could we complain when draught beer is served on the sidewalk for 25 cents a glass!  So we pulled up a tiny stool, we pulled our jackets tight and enjoyed this wonderful historic city.

40 years since the bombings of Hanoi

40 years since the bombings of Hanoi

Immediately we noticed banners around town that celebrated the end of the war between the U.S. and Vietnam and most specifically to remember those that died when downtown Hanoi was partially destroyed during the “Christmas bombings” forty years ago.  Despite this history, the people throughout our journey in Vietnam have been welcoming and kind everywhere, including Hanoi.

Sidewalk bún óc stall

Sidewalk bún óc stall

Snail soup called bún óc

Snail soup called bún óc

Our first morning was bitterly cold and all that we wanted was some noodle soup.  We settled on a Hanoi speciality of bún óc, snail soup.  We watched as a woman picked out some 100 steamed snails for each bowl, then she topped it with a tomato broth, some green onions, cilantro, cooked mushrooms and some sliced tomatoes.  A bowl of mint and basil promptly landed on the center of the table with another bowl of roasted chillies in oil.  I have not had snails but a few times in my life, and these were delicious, a little chewy and holding the spicy flavor of the broth.

Scooters whizzing past intersection

Scooters whizzing past an Old Town intersection

We quickly realized that there is a deeper history in Hanoi than some of the other cities we have visited in Vietnam.  The architecture, the sights and the planning show evidence of centuries of development to become the big city that it is today.  We stayed in the old quarter that is vibrant with shops, street food and out-of-control scooters.  Crossing the road has been a bit tricky, but we are getting the hang of the “slow moving rock in the river of vehicles” strategy.  We all sighed with relief when we made it to Hoam Kiem Lake with its pedestrian walkway.

Legendary turtle at the Ngoc Son Temple

Legendary turtle at the Ngoc Son Temple

Julia, Jonathan and Nathan enjoying a temple conversation

Julia, Jonathan and Nathan enjoying a temple conversation

We walked around the lake, but unfortunately did not spot the 400lb tortoise that supposedly lives in it.  We did enjoy the Ngoc Son Temple that is ornamented with turtles that symbolize wisdom and longevity.  We toured the Women’s Museum that highlighted the female role in the development and sustenance of Vietnam.

Spring rolls at Quan Ngon

Spring rolls at Quan Ngon

If you want to be overcome with choices of things to eat, then try Quan Ngon.  There are about thirty kitchens in tiny stalls that surround this one restaurant.  The menu was enormous, but we went for some of the basics:fresh spring rolls, savory rice cakes, barbecued spare ribs and sweet jelly soup.

Temple of Literature gateway

Temple of Literature gateway

Temple of Literature guard dogs

Temple of Literature guard dogs

Then we explored the Temple of Literature dedicated to several Confucius disciples.  Each gate brought us closer to the inner sanctum of holy carvings.  I particularly liked these dogs that were cast in in the courtyard.

Ho Chi Minh's body is embalmed here

Ho Chi Minh’s body is embalmed here

As evening approached we made our way to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.  We did not go inside, but the outdoor plaza was vibrant with activity with hundreds of power-walking Vietnamese.

Carmen rolling pork spring rolls

Carmen rolling pork spring rolls

New Year’s Eve approached quickly and we had little planned.  We began the day with a cooking class taught by Anh Tuyet.  We learned how to make a Vietnamese-style papaya salad, fried pork spring rolls and a baked “no-stir” fish.  All of it was amazing.  Anh even snuck in some of her famous honey chicken and fried bananas leaving us enormously full and happy.

New Year's Eve feast of French-Vietnamese fusion

New Year’s Eve feast of French-Vietnamese fusion

Just as I was hoping to go crazy on the last night of 2012, I contracted a cold. Sickness is never fun while traveling.  I struggled to get through the cooking class and I ended up having to miss the day’s activities to sleep off the sickness.  I was able to get it together for a feast at a fusion restaurant.  The place made all types of pâtés and cold cut meats and served them with warm baguettes and a light salad.  The four of us, Carmen, Jonathan, Julia and I, chowed down and continued the celebration walking around the lake to people watch and enjoy the performance stages setup around the city.  All the biggest names of Hanoi Hip Hop were probably there, but we enjoyed some of the big-screens showing pop ballads, acrobatics and synchronized dance sequences.  The night ended with a few drinks a classy tiny bar in old quarter.  We rushed to see the Ho Chi Minh City ball drop on the television at the hotel, cheers to friends, cheers to the last night of 2012, and cheers to our last night in Vietnam.

Bún Châ

Bún Châ

I woke up feeling like crap; drinking and being sick equals more sick.  Our friends were gone and we would be leaving Vietnam soon too.  It was difficult to stay positive when there was a 26 hour bus journey looming in front of us to Laos.  All this made me sad and frustrated, I really enjoyed everything about Vietnam, the variety of sights, terrain and cities.  The absolutely fabulous food is enough to visit Vietnam again soon.  Everyday we had phenomenal dishes and it was difficult to go wrong, everything we ate was delicious. Soups, sandwiches, noodles and barbecue, the Vietnamese make it all and make it better than most.  I wanted comfort food, and bún châ was it.  The little man outside was surrounded by smoke as he pounded and grilled pork in thin baskets. They sliced it up, added some rice noodles and some broth and served them to our table.  Instantly Carmen and I were feeling better. I’m going to miss Vietnam!

Num Num ‘Nam in Saigon (by Carmen)

Sidewalk vendor in cone hat

Sidewalk vendor in cone hat

We were especially excited for our first visit to Vietnam.  I have always enjoyed the fresh flavors of Vietnamese cuisine.  Crunchy herbs are a staple added to soups, noodles, eggs, sandwiches…everything really.  Overall, what we read and heard about Vietnam indicated that it was a country full of people who love to eat well.  And Vietnam is one of the few countries in Southeast Asia that has an abundance of locally brewed beer.  In short, our kind of place.  Armed with recommendations from our friend Tran and the Gastronomy blog, we were ready to take on Ho Chi Minh City (aka HCMC or Saigon).

A beautiful bahn mi sandwich

A beautiful bành mí sandwich

Bahn mi essentials: crowded place, various meats and enjoyment.

Bành mí essentials: crowded place, various meats and enjoyment.

On our first afternoon we wound through the park outside of our hotel. They happened to be holding a culinary festival, complete with wok masters dancing to some club beats while stir frying away.  We only paused to look because we were on a mission to get the best bành mí in the city.  We found it at Bành Mí Huynh Hoa, a well known and consistently crowded storefront.  Imagine six people stationed around a table rapidly chopping veggies and peppers while four others are assembling sandwiches at light speed.  There is no counter to queue at.  You simply nudge your way through the crowds towards one of the sandwich makers and get your order in.  You then hungrily watch them make your sandwich, wrap it a piece of paper, place it in a bag and finally hand it over.  And it was awesome.  The pickled cucumber and carrot blended perfectly with the mix of pâtés and meat, all on a fresh hot bread roll and with just the right amount of hot pepper slices.  Our first taste of Vietnam was already winning us over.

Hot steaming bowl of pho

Hot steaming bowl of pho

Next up on our list of Vietnamese favorites was phở, a comforting and delicious soup.  We selected Phở Hoa on Pasteur to do the honors. My beef pho came ready to be dressed up with basil, mint, bean sprouts and lots of lime, all of which are placed on the table for me.  The springy rice noodles were perfect.  We didn’t talk much as we enjoyed our soup among the many other patrons.

Fried chicken and garlic rice

Fried chicken and garlic rice

The perfect spring roll

The perfect spring roll

Over the days we followed the recommendations to more great eats.  This included an excellent fried chicken with garlic rice at Xoi Che. Then there was the fried spring roll which you wrap with herbs and lettuce and dip in a spicy sweet sauce at Banh Xeo 46A.  We even found the no name food stand with a blue awning that served rice and banana steamed in banana leaves and topped with coconut milk.  It was all just so good!

Chinese statue at Jade Emporer Pagoda

Chinese statue at Jade Emperer Pagoda

Amid the snacks, we pagoda hopped around the city.  Our favorite was the Jade Emperor Pagoda built in 1909.  It was small and intimate and loaded with various statues representing demons and spirits.  I watched quietly as people prayed with their incense.  One man was even using oracle sticks to get some answers.  We had a prayer too – to find delicious seafood.  Fortunately, it was answered.

Soft shell crab in tamarind sauce at Quan 94

Soft shell crab in tamarind sauce at Quan 94

At Quan 94, we tucked into a delicious soft shell crab in tamarind sauce.  This place smelled wonderfully of garlic such that my mouth watered as soon as I walked in.

Spicy pepper crab

Spicy pepper crab

Blood cockle in tamarind sauce

Blood cockle in tamarind sauce

More seafood was to be had a little further out from the city center where we found a collection of street cafes specializing in shell fish.  This time we got crab claws in a spicy pepper rub accompanied by blood cockles covered in tamarind and mussels with green garlic. Everything was amazing and well worth the trip to Saigon’s district four

Banh beo hue breakfast

Banh beo hue breakfast

Back in the city center for breakfast, at Thai Binh Market, we were aggressively accosted by the food vendors.  We finally settled on one with a large crowd around it. The stall happened to be selling banh beo hue, a variety of small rice dumplings and cakes doused with more spicy sweet sauce.

Street coffee, note the pajamas as street wear look

Street coffee, note the pajamas as street wear look

Breakfast was complete with streetside coffee.  As we sipped our brews sweetened with condensed milk, we watched the owner and his friend attempting to revive their prehistoric scooter.  They pushed each other up and down the sidewalk and we sat laughing with their wives each time they almost swerved into a tree or hole in the sidewalk.

Sky deck view of Saigon looking west

Sky deck view of Saigon looking west

While we walked around the city, we kept spotting a tall skyscraper in the distance. It was the Bitexco Financial Tower, Saigon’s tallest building at 68 stories.  We paid for tickets to the glamorous sky deck for vast views over the sprawling city.  While I was up there I kept thinking about the fact that this was a war zone 40 years ago.  Now, I was looking down at the busy city streets from an ultra-modern air conditioned perch high in the sky.  It amazes me how resilient cities and people are.

Banh can

Banh can

Salad with raw fish and crisp garlic

Salad with raw fish and crisp garlic

Our glamorous sky deck had to be followed up by a swanky restaurant, which we were treated to by our friend’s relative.  It was our first taste of banh can, which are little egg cups cooked over a fire.  But the star of the show was a salad plate lined with slivers of a small silvery fish lining the edge, all topped with crisp garlic.  All the sauces and herbs that accompanied our dishes delivered all the fresh flavors we love about vietnamese food.  We were also very grateful that we were able to meet up with a local for an insiders perspective.

Broken rice with pork pie

Broken rice with pork pie

Ok, one more breakfast. This one was called com tam, or broken rice.  I believe they grind the rice until it is a very short grain.  This makes the texture a little more like couscous.  Served with a slice of pork casserole, we found it to be very comforting.

Street scene in the Pham Ngu Lao

Street scene in the Pham Ngu Lao

Street scene with the ubiquitous hanging wires

Street scene with the ubiquitous hanging wires

Wow, this post was a little hard to write!  There was so many good eats it turned into more of a food diary than travelogue.  But I suppose that was our true experience of Saigon.  A sort of city wide restaurant hop where we would order small dishes to save room for the next great find around the corner.  Amid the tangle of traffic and electricity towers there are some great opportunities to find quiet pagodas, savory street snacks and boisterous beer halls.  And the snowmen, snow flakes and santas around town reminded us the Christmas was just around the corner, even if it was 30C outside.  The heat was intense and we were craving some cooler mountain air so we bid adieu to Saigon and wound our way into the mountains in Dalat.

Ho Chi Minh City snowmen

Ho Chi Minh City snowmen

Giving Thanks Thai Style in Bangkok (by Carmen)

Scrumptious snacks - pork over rice, coconut toast, chicken satay

Scrumptious snacks – pork over rice, coconut toast, chicken satay

Arriving from Delhi, Bangkok was a breath of fresh air.  Our smooth, air-conditioned taxi glided through the streets.  It was a stark contrast to the bumpy airport ride in the bare bones taxi in Delhi.  On the streets there were actual crosswalks to safely cross, vehicles often stopped for pedestrians, and there was comparatively no honking! It felt relatively quiet and welcoming – especially when we were received with a warm smile by our close friend, Nalat.  As we hugged our hellos a lone firework was set off nearby – an auspicious start to our reunion.  She ushered us in and fed us coconut pies made by her grandmother’s bakery, which she had just visited in northern Thailand.

Roast chicken with chili dipping sauce

Roast chicken with chili dipping sauce

The next day was thanksgiving.  Our late night the previous evening meant we got a late start to the day but that’s ok because we had a single, thanksgiving-appropriate goal: food.  Lip-smacking, finger-licking, irresistibly good food.

Nalat is a Bangkok native that we met during college.  Over the years we grew close over our mutual love of cooking and eventually started a bi-weekly dinner party with our friend Brenda.  So to spend the the next week and a half with a fellow foodie that can navigate Thai menus and food blogs and that you love spending time with – that’s striking gold!

Green papaya salad with crab

Green papaya salad with crab

Our first adventure was a local market, well-lit, white-tiled and filled with produce and hawker stalls.  First stop: crispy roast chicken with a sweet chili dipping sauce and tangy, crunchy papaya salad with crab.  We complemented this with green coconut based curry over rice noodles and sator, a large bean, stir fried with dried shrimp over rice.  The textures and bright flavors were exactly what we wanted in our first Thai meal.

Mangosteen

Mangosteen

We decided on a dessert of fruit.  Nathan and I were happy to be reunited with the delicious fruit we encountered on our first trip to Asia in 2009.  One of our favorites was mangosteen, which on the inside looks like garlic but tastes more like strawberry.  We also sampled a few pieces of durian, which were smooth, creamy and much less pungent than other varieties we had tried.

Boat noodles

Thick boat noodles

Thin boat noodles

Thin boat noodles

The three of us walked around Bangkok a bit stopping at Mont for hot toast slathered with coconut spread.  We eventually settled in a cafe for a few beers and lots of catch up talk. Soon enough it was time for dinner so we walked into a restaurant serving boat noodles.  Boat noodles are so called because they were once sold by floating vendors.  They refer to a simple dish of broth, noodles and a few pieces of meat or seafood.  Bowls are rather small so you can have multiple or just have one as a snack.  Nalat gave us a lesson on how to order with broth or dry (naam or haeng) and noodle width.  I prefer sen yai (thick) while Nathan opts for sen lai (thin).

Pad Thai deliciousness!

Pad Thai deliciousness!

Our boat noodles were a mere snack for the main dinner – pad thai.  This is the dish Thailand is known for.  The place we ate was churning out plate after plate of the good stuff mixed with your choice of meat or seafood.  You could even get your bundle of noodles wrapped in a thin layer of egg.  The traditional Thai flavors – salty, sweet, sour, spicy – were respectively represented on the table with fish sauce, sugar, vinegar and chili powder.  We customized the balance of taste in our pad Thai and dug in.  I like that at the end of the meal the waiter gave us a sticker that says something like “pad thai is flying yummy” alongside a winged plate of the noodles.

Weekend brunch - congee and chicken rice

Weekend brunch – congee and chicken rice

The next morning, Nalat and her mom greeted us with congee (rice porridge) and chicken rice.  We relaxed while we waited for another close friend, Nalat’s boyfriend, Tim to join us.  He arrived and there were more smiles and hugs.  Despite his 19 hour trip, Tim was ready to jump right in to Bangkok so off we went to explore.

Floating clovers at the Jim Thompson House

Floating clovers at the Jim Thompson House

Yes we did more than just eat!  Ok fine, first we had pork over rice and some excellent chicken satay. Then we went to the Jim Thompson House.  Thompson was a silk trader enamored with Thai culture and he built this elegant raised house mixing eastern and western styles.  Even the gardens were peaceful and artfully arranged.

Solid gold Buddha

Solid gold Buddha

Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho

Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho

Buddha's toes

Buddha’s toes

Afterwards, we explored a few buddhist wat (temples).  The first, Wat Traimit, was known for having a solid gold Buddha that weighs 5.5 tonnes!  Next we made our way to Wat Pho to see the famous reclining buddha.  He definitely looked at peace lying there. My favorite part were his mother of pearl decorated feet.

Bangkok Chinatown

Bangkok Chinatown

Duck noodle stand in Chinatown

Duck noodle stand in Chinatown

Duck noodles

Duck noodles

Chinatown had its own busy character distinct from the other neighborhoods of Bangkok.  Mandarin drifted out of the busy restaurants.  Sharks fin was advertised in restaurant windows.  We were here for duck noodles served up by a stand that had carved some space out from the busy central street.  The duck noodles were indeed delicious with their rich broth washed down with some Chang beers.

Wat Phra Kaew golden tiles

Wat Phra Kaew golden tiles

Wat Phra Kaew golden monkey and colorful temple

Wat Phra Kaew golden monkey and colorful temple

Traditional Thai costume session

Traditional Thai costume session

The four of us squeezed in more culture the next day with a visit to the grand palace and its associated Wat Phra Kaew.  It was laid out quite differently than a european palace – it was more of a jumble of different styles crammed in together.  We learned about the royal family, how Thailand avoided colonization and how some of the buildings were inspired by royal visits to Versailles and Buckingham Palace.  Then we got a chance to play dress up.

Crispy wonton noodles

Crispy wonton noodles

We followed up the palace with noodles served in pork broth with crispy bits of pork belly thrown in.  Extra crunch was provided by fried wonton. I, for one, can never get enough noodles so I am in heaven.  Especially when eaten on plastic stools in a narrow, dimly lit alleyway.

The Thai iced coffee and tea guru

The Thai iced coffee and tea guru

Moo Naam Tok (spicy pork)

Moo Naam Tok (spicy pork)

Our last day in Bangkok was market day.  In the morning we went to the sprawling Chatachuk weekend market.  It’s labyrinth of stalls has cool t shirts, jewelry, shoes, housewares and food all mixed up together.  We enjoyed some Thai tea and coffee from one steamy corner.  In another part of the market we ordered moo naam tok which was tangy and delicious.

Amphawa floating market

Amphawa floating market

Fried shrimp at floating market

Fried shrimp at floating market

The food didn’t stop there.  With Nalat’s mom, we all made the 2 hour ride to Amphawa for the floating market along a canal.  We sampled a variety of Thai snacks, my favorite being the deep fried garlic shrimp.  In the evening, as a few fire flies were lighting up we boarded a boat and received an hour long foot massage as we floated along the canal to a lazy river.  Pretty ideal for only $12.

Thailand is a wonderful place to spend thanksgiving weekend.  I missed some of my American favorites with family but am happy to have shared the holiday with Nalat and Tim.  I know I have much to be thankful for. Family to miss back home, friends to laugh with, a fiancée to hold hands with, and a world to explore.

THANKSGIVING CONVERSIONS
-Turkey with cranberry sauce – roast chicken with chili vinegar dipping sauce
-Stuffing – egg stuffed with pad Thai
-Mashed potatoes and gravy – rice noodles with coconut curry
-Green beans – satol beans with dried shrimp
-Salad – papaya salad with crab
-Pumpkin pie – coconut toast

Negotiating The Head Waggle In Delhi (by Nathan)

Delhi traffic jam

I had been trying to figure out the best way to describe India for weeks.  Delhi was our final city in an attempt to “see” India.  The country is enormous, the cultures varied and at best we simply “tasted” the pleasures that India has to offer.  I rolled over in bed after a thirteen hour nap and I asked Carmen “What is the opposite of tranquil?”. Urban India is intense, smothering and exhausting, but equally liberating, flavorful and exciting.

Non-stop people, cars, rickshaws, and buses

We were proud. Few Indian delights crossed our eyes without entering our mouths.  But finally we found the one-day gremlin that lurches in the tastiest of of banana-leafed bowls of street food.  The exhaustion of travel caught up with us and a mild case of “Delhi belly” sent us to bed (thankfully not the bathroom).  It was impossible to visit India on our terms; in no way could we control the bohemoth and not one day had worked out as planned.  Thus we submitted and embraced (again) seeing India’s India.  Being a tourist here has a steep learning curve; and we are fast learners.  During our last days we stuck with what we know best: the food, the history and the markets.

Fried dough breakfast

Fried dough with potato curry

Our success with food works on two principals: we are open-minded to eat what locals eat and stubbornly insistent to eat where there are locals eating.  Our morning stroll of dry spot and trash-free hopscotch was not interrupted by hacking, but by the slurping crunching sound of serious food enjoyment. We peered over some shoulders (not difficult because everyone is 3-4 inches shorter in India) and freshly fried four inch disks were moved from a mound to a bowl and topped with a thick potato mixture and mint chutney.  We used the disk to scoop up the potatoes as we ate standing up adjacent to the busy street.  We walked away happy with plans to return.

Drawing on a wall at the crafts museum

Chariot at the crafts museum

The craft museum was a welcome sight to view and learn about many of the various cultures across India.  We saw storyboards depicting the lives of gods, elaborate and delicately woven textiles and a huge wooden chariot.

Humayun’s Tomb

Me at Humayun’s Tomb

Baha’i Lotus Temple

The timeless architecture of India exists in two forms: imperial and religious.  Every sultan built a palace, or ten, and a tomb, and only one.  Across several millennia there have been several sultans, but the most grand of Delhi’s sights is Humayun’s Tomb.  This red sandstone and marble structure is surround by grass and palm trees south of the heart of Delhi.  The modern Baha’i Temple is an impressive concrete lotus flower and a welcome and cost-free sight.

Market street

Dried noodle vendor

It is the markets of India where Carmen and I embrace the craziness of India. Bumping shoulders and rubbernecking at the green beans, sarees or ugly sweaters is a perfect afternoon of entertainment.  Seriously, at the next ugly sweater party I only wish I had the outfit I saw on the subway- bleach-faded jeans, green striped dress shirt and a red, shag sweater vest that had an iridescent quality to it that could only be called glitter.  Everything is sold in markets, there are no big stores, only tiny road-side shacks, push-carts and tiny urban cubby storefronts.

Jalebi

Fried street treats

Aloo paratha on the griddle

Food is everywhere in India. And Delhi has one of the most elaborate and wonderful street-food scenes on the planet. We can’t walk anywhere without catching a scent of some delectable spice or cooking happening. We discovered these decadent fried fritters called jalebi as well as an array of almost tempura battered vegetables with a chickpea curry on the street near our hotel in Paharganj. For breakfast we frequented an aloo paratha stand serving potato filled wheat pancakes and daal (lentils).

Delicious fried puffs with chickpea curry

Calm moment in the crazy street scene of Delhi

One of our days was spent wondering through the streets as we walked from New Delhi to some of the major sights in Old Delhi. We found ourselves deep in a Muslim neighborhood that saw few visitors, but everyone was kind. The trek was all worth it when we saw twenty people crammed in this tiny room eating one of our favorite Indian dishes. Chana bhatura is a large puffy dough ball that is peeled apart and eaten with spicy chickpeas. With a couple gulab jumun (honey-soaked dough-nuts) we walked out of the place having spent $1.20. There is something magical about restaurants that focus on one specific dish, cooking it to perfection everyday for many years. This was one of these special places that everyone knew about and where the best was expected. Now full, we clamored our way through the streets towards the mosque.

Jama Masjid

View from the minaret

Giggling girls getting camera shy at the Jama Masjid

The gem of Old Delhi is the Jama Masjid Mosque.  This enormous complex can support 25,000 worshippers and was built over 350 years ago.  We explored the prayer halls, the plaza and even climbed the south minaret for a smoggy, but enjoyable view of the city.  On several occasions we took photos alongside families, or with a small child in my arms or with a group of teenage girls.  The locals must like my blond hair. In the photo above, the girls appear to be mad-dogging me, but just minutes earlier they were giggling to take my photo.

The favorite pastime, cricket

India has created a mix of emotions within me. I love it and I hate it, there are so many wonderful things about it and others that disgust me. Because I am an engineer, here are the numbers:
22 days total (too little to experience or really “know” India).
16 make-shift cricket matches encountered on plazas, alleys and dirt courts.
30 auto rickshaws taken.
400 times we were asked to take a Rickshaw
4 times Nathan stepped in shit, with sandals.
5-1/2 hours waiting in line for a single train ticket in New Delhi (5 attempts).
70 people insisted on taking photos with us.
15 of those were successfully convinced to take a jumping photo.
200 times asked “which country? What is your name? How are you?”
20 wonderfully complete and various thali meals eaten.
60 chapatis, tandoori roti and naan eaten.
22 miniature bananas eaten.
Countless super nice, helpful and friendly Indian people.
45 tourists seen wearing funny parachute pants.
50 successful negotiations (10 losses)

I have walked away with a greater appreciation of India. The vast amount of people and the complexities of spices used in so many foods is amazing. We have had no trouble learning how to eat here, but it is the nuances of the culture that have intrigued and challenged us. We have become masters of negotiation. Everything is negotiable in India, and by the end of our trip I was haggling with hotel owners,Rickshaw drivers, fruit vendors and tailors. If someone wanted to sell me something we were going to bargain dance. The follow-up to any agreement would be the proper head waggle. There is a subtle motion that Indians make with there head that is not quite side-to-side, or up-and-down, but more a bobble head motion describing that we have an undstanding. With great yearning we asked our Indian-American friends to teach us this skill. They refused! Deep in the trenches of restaurant and market communication Carmen and I waggled our way to understanding. For those that are interested in this art,the most elegant and direct head waggle is achieved by drawing an six inch horizontal figure eight with your chin two to four times. Repeat as necessary.

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