Wednesday, October 29, 2008

And Another Ayi Bites the Dust

No expat that I know of (with one exception; our CFO, who is notably tight) in Beijing is without an ayi, the term (which means "auntie") for a lady who comes in and cleans your house, does your laundry, looks after your kids, and takes care of general household chores for you. In the short time that we have been here we have already been through four.

Our first ayi, who did not last more than two months or so, we had to let go when we found that she had left the back door to the apartment wide open when she left for the day, resulting in the dogs running rampant in our little backyard, barking at anyone passing by. She also was too short to be able to reach our clothes dryer (which she did not know how to use anyway) and was generally not a good housekeeper.

The second ayi, who was by far our favorite so far and lasted the longest, and whom we would happily have kept forever, was a former taxi driver who could no longer sit behind the wheel of her cab without getting number below the waist. She had to leave when her mother-in-law was paralyzed and needed someone to take care of her.

Our third ayi also did not last long, since she had to go back to her village or something like that. But she also could not clean worth a damn so we did not miss her. I don't even remember her name.

The most recent ayi we hired through an agency that was founded by a former employee of my hospital. They promise to have vetted their ayis, trained them, and provide them with health care and all that. They cost a bit more, but the theory is that they're worth it. Well, I have proved them wrong, since this ayi just is very careless with her cleaning, refusing to move anything to dust underneath or behind, so that we have discovered mountainous dust bunnies under our sofas. She also has the habit of hiding things all over the house, and steadfastly refuses to clean out the lint filter of our dryer. I finally had enough of this and started looking for a replacement a few weeks ago.

Our next ayi starts on Monday; she currently works for another American expat who is about to either leave Beijing or have his new girlfriend take over the cleaning chores in his place, but he was effusive in his praise for his ayi, whom we interviewed on Sunday. She was very pleasant, and immediately started to clean out the lint filter in our dryer when she saw its sorry state (she subsequently even phoned me to say that she is going to help me get a new one, since the old ayi ruined it). She cooks, too, and seemed to be pretty good with the dogs. Stay tuned to see how she does!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

OK, OK, Some More on the Recent Trip

Regular readers of this blog will know that usually I go into excruciating detail on our trips around China and elsewhere, and may have been a bit surprised by the paucity of info on our recent trip to Xi'an and the Guilin area. As "Anonymous" points out, I have left out some crucial details, which I now plan to address:

Dealing with the Police

We had a number of interactions with the police on this trip. First of all, on the way from the airport to our apartment, I had the car stop at the local police station responsible for our street to register my sister and b-i-l as staying with me. This is now a requirement of all "aliens" who are residing anywhere other than a hotel while in China, and while it's been on the books for a while, it's only since the lead-up to the Olympics that it's been enforced. While we have never had a problem with not registering visitors, colleagues have (it's a fine and a bit of pain-in-the-ass is all) so we figure better safe than sorry. It does not (normally) take long, and the police station has come to know us fairly well, so no big deal.

The second interaction was when we were in Xi'an and my camera got stolen. Of course I did not actually expect the police to find the culprit, or retrieve my camera, but for the insurance to cover my loss I needed to get the paperwork done. To my great surprise, however, the police made the whole experience relatively pleasant, with all of them commiserating with me and trying to make the situation a bit less awful than it was. At the police station I was of course a source of great entertainment for everyone there that evening (there were a lot of other victims there, reporting their crimes--turns out that petty crime is not uncommon in Xi'an), with all of them commenting on my facility with the Chinese language, wondering aloud amongst themselves what sort of work I do in China (why not just ask me?) and then commenting on the cost of my camera equipment that was lost (more than most of them make in a year, or even two). When I was finished making my statement (which had to be handwritten by me--with the help of a kind fellow-victim--and then repeated in interview fashion by a cop, which also had to be jotted down by hand) I then had to use an inked finger to mark my testimony as being authentic, just like being fingerprinted. When I told them that in the West, it's usually just the culprit who is fingerprinted, not the victim, they thought that was very interesting, and pointed out that this was a surer way of proving that I made the testimony and agree to its contents. OK, I guess so.

The last police experience was in Yangshuo as we were about to take a little cruise on a bamboo raft from Yangshuo itself to the village of Fuli to see the market. After we boarded our launch and set off, we immediately returned to the shore, where we were told to get off, since a police boat was coming down the river and if they saw our boat with passengers (especially foreign passengers) they would fine the boat's owner and slice his boat in two. While that would have been interesting to see, I did not want to ruin this guy's livelihood so we complied. Before long we reboarded and set off again, only to pull over to a sandbank to get off again while the pilot checked for cops up ahead. But the cops ended up mooring right near where we had got off, on the opposite bank of the river, so we were forced to walk along the sandbank to a point further up where he could pick us up for the rest of the journey. It was a hot day, so this was not 100% pleasant, though it gave us the chance to get up close and personal with some water buffalos.

Meals

My sister wanted to try authentic Chinese food while in China, so we steadfastly refused to go to anything other than local places throughout her stay. However, with her not wanting anything too spicy, and my b-i-l not wanting anything with lamb or chicken in it, this was a bit of a challenge in some spots and limited to some degree where we could go (in particular, this was a challenge in Xi'an, since there are a lot of Muslims there, so a lot of the cuisine comprises lamb dishes, as well as chicken). But we managed to pull it off, I think, with a pretty good sampling of places. Here are some of the places we visited:

Beijing: Three Guizhou Men (one of our favorites); Ba Guo Bu Yi (for Sichuan food, with the face changing show); Golden Lily Roast Duck (for the mandatory Beijing duck); Ghost Street Hot Pot (for, you guessed it, hot pot); Wangfujing and Donghuamen food streets (for street snacks).
Xi'an: The night market near the mosque for street snacks and also a bowl of Beef Soup with Broken Bread (a traditional dish); De Fa Chang dumpling house (for the dumpling feast).
Yangshuo and Longji: We pretty much ate at the places we found that had the right balance of dinginess and hygiene. We were not going to go to any of the Westerner-friendly places that looked pretty but where the food would be dumbed-down, but at the same time we did not want to overdo the down-and-dirty thing, either. Our lunch in Yangshuo on the riverside in a small simple place was among the better meals we had, especially their fish dish, and was probably the cheapest, too.

Shopping

Most of our visitors spend a huge portion of their time shopping when they visit us. This trip was notable for the relative dearth of shopping activities, though there were some purchases made. In Xi'an (other than my purchase of a new camera ensemble) we also bought some dried fruits at the Muslim night market for noshing during our trip, and my sister bought some shirts. At the Beilin Forest of Steles we also bought a rubbing of one of the steles that miraculously survived getting soaked during its ascent in a suitcase on the back of a 70-year old lady at Longji.

Yangshuo is not much of a shopping town, so no surprise that they did not buy much, but we had hoped to visit our old tea shop and painter there to buy a disk of Pu'er tea and maybe a painting to go over the bed. Unfortunately, both of these shops were gone and we had no idea how to find them. Sad.

Most of the shopping was done in Beijing, with visits to the Liulichang Art Street and our teapot vendor friends, where some tea and a teapot were bought; the Panjiayuan Dirt Market were all sorts of purchases were made (a painting for me, and a teapot, some Christmas ornaments, and other assorted knick-knacks for them); and the Silk Street market, where they did some damage at our jewelry vendor friend's stand. Not a single visit to Yashow, our go-to place nearby for clothing, though it was through their visit that I discovered a new market. It's near the Laitai Flower Market and it's an electronics-maven's Mecca, with stall after stall of used and some new (but probably fallen off the back of a truck) phones, computers, cameras, stereo equipment and more. Definitely worth making a return visit to check it all out in detail.

Entertainment

We did not do any of the really tourist things like the acrobat show or anything similar. But we did do a few things, such as the face changing at the Ba Guo Bu Yi restaurant and a night of foot massage at Oriental Taipan in Beijing. In Yangshuo we went to the big Zhang Yimou show "Impressions: Liu San Jie", which people had been telling us to see for years but which, now that we have seen it, I think that they were just trying to get some other sucker to spend the hefty entry price so that they don't feel so gullible. Yes it was worth seeing, and it was stunning in many ways, but it was more spectacle than substance and it could have been WAY shorter. And yes, the walk from the theatre to the car was very long.

So there you have it. It was a fun trip, and they were excellent guests. They'd be welcome back anytime.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Trip Photos Uploaded!

I have uploaded highlights of our recent trip around China with my sister and brother-in-law, so go check them out:

Beijing photos are here
Xi'an photos are here
Yangshuo photos are here
Longji photos are here

Friday, October 24, 2008

Heading Back to Beijing

After a nice dinner at the hotel restaurant last night, during which we tried some local Zhuang nationality specialties, including sticky rice steam-roasted in a bamboo tube, bacon with bamboo shoots, and some excellent pumpkin, J2 and I went out for a foot massage while D & J rested in the hotel. By the time our massage was over, we were wiped out and fell fast asleep once we hit the pillow.

When we awoke in the morning (thanks to someone tapping on our door; D had thought I had knocked on hers...) it was raining and pretty foggy outside, so we did not rush to get out for a morning walk around the area. Instead we had a leisurely breakfast, made all the more leisurely by the incredibly slow service. The kitchen/waitress could not seem to manage to bring all the components of our breakfast sets all at once, so instead of having eggs with toast, bacon, hash browns and a beverage (as J and J2 had ordered) they instead had toast, followed by eggs, followed by something to drink, follwed by some sort of a potato (no bacon was available, as it turned out). Even my Chinese breakfast was served piecemeal, and was far more than one person could possibly eat. I also ordered the "oil tea", which was meant to be a local specialty, made with the leaves of the camellia bush that is used to extract camellia oil. But this turned out to be so much a tea to drink as a soup, served alongside puffed rice. Not bad, but not what I was expecting.

J2 and I took a walk with our guide after breakfast, but the rain persisted and the views were obstructed by the fog, so when we were done we decided to just take it easy and see if the weather would improve. By lunchtime it hadn't, so we decided to pack it in early and see if we could get an earlier flight to Beijing. The walk back down the mountain to the car was much easier with the two 70-year old women carrying our suitcases, though of course our ease was countered by concerns that these old ladies might slip on the wet stones and kill themselves, and we'd be responsible. Thank goodness that did not happen and our stuff made it down intact.

There were no earlier flights to be had to Beijing, so we are now ensconced in the business class lounge (thanks to my United Airlines status) waiting for our flight. Only 3 more hours to go, if it leaves on time...

Thursday, October 23, 2008

D's Trip Continued

I'm now writing from our hotel in the small town of Longji northwest of Guilin. We got here this afternoon from Yangshuo, where the incessant rain prompted us to leave a bit earlier than planned in hopes that the weather would be a bit better here, as it turned out to be. But let's start this story in Xi'an, where our little jaunt began.

We got to Xi'an on Monday morning, and were met by our driver at the airport for the drive to the Terra Cotta Soldiers, stopping along the way for lunch at a nice place right near the museum. We hired a guide at the museum, and unlike last time I did such a thing I did not have to translate this guide's English quite so much. D & J enjoyed the museum, it seemed, though they were starting to get tired so we left there for the hotel so they could have a break. J2 and I used that time to grab a snack (excellent street food of a roasted bread roll with tofu and vegetables stuffed inside) and a coffee (Starbucks) and to plan our evening. When D & J had finished resting we took them out to walk through the Night Market in the Muslim quarter and a peek at the foods on offer, and then for dinner at De Fa Chang dumpling restaurant, where we ordered the dumpling feast, consisting of 19 types of dumplings of various types, along with some cold side dishes.

The dumplings were good, but the meal was marred by the theft from out from under our feet (literally) of my beloved camera! Luckily I had downloaded the morning's photos, but my shots from the night market were thus lost, along of course with the camera and its accessories. What had happened was this: I had put the camera on the floor between my chair and J2's. A woman came and sat at the table behind us, which was occupied by a French couple, as though to make a cell phone call. When she was done, she dropped something, bent to pick it up, and left (we learned this from the French couple when they realized what had happened, and the next morning my brother in law said he noticed the same thing). Apparently she grabbed my camera when she bent over. We notified the police, who took a look around and then had me go to the station to make my report. Of course everyone in the station was fascinated by my ability to speak Chinese, so the process probably took longer than it had to (while I was doing this, J2 took D & J back to the hotel so J could rest, and then went back to the night market to wait for me). When I had finished with the police station, another cop wanted to see the scene of the crime, so I returned with him to the restaurant, where he noticed that they had surveillance cameras so he went to watch the tapes. When he came back he confirmed the French couple's story, and informed me that I'd have to go to the Foreign Affairs Office in the morning to convert my police report into something that my insurance company could accept for a claim.

So the next morning I did that while J2 took D & J around Xi'an. The officer who helped me turned out to be a Russian speaker, so we had a lovely chat and then he told me where to go to buy a new camera (conveniently near our hotel) so I headed there, chatting with my cab driver along the way about my unfortunate experience. At the camera store I also told them my plight and they gave me a good deal on a new camera, lens, CF card and spare battery (and incidentally it's a lens I was thinking of replacing my stolen lens with, so there's a silver lining!). Despite the bad situation, I really found the people of Xi'an (with one notable, and nameless, exception) to be very lovely and helpful, so it made a disaster turn out to be not so bad.

With new camera in hand, I caught up with the rest of us for a visit to the Great Mosque and lunch at the night market before getting our car for a drive to some other sites around town and the drive to the airport. Once we got to Guilin, we piled into another car to drive to Yangshuo, where we arrived around 10pm, so too late for D & J to eat, but not for J2 and me, so we had a few kebabs on the street and called it a day.

Our first day in Yangshuo turned out to be quite warm, though it started off relatively cool since we had a 6am departure time from the hotel for a private cruise down the Li River from Yangdi to Xingping, the most scenic portion of the river. We had breakfast in Xingping town, then walked around a bit before returning to our hotel in Yangshuo to wash up and then meet a guide to go to Fuli for the market and a general tour. Unfortunately it was quite hot by now, and D was not quite prepared for it, so we cut the tour short, grabbed lunch in Liugong town, and headed back to the hotel. After another rest, we had dinner and headed out to see Zhang Yimou's spectacle of light and sound on the riverside, which was also apparently attended by every other tourist in town, judging by the crowd. While I'm glad to have seen it, since I've been told over countless visits to Yangshuo that I HAD to see it, I kind of wished it was about half as long as it was.

And thus we get to our drive to Longji, and our arrival at this hotel. I did not know until this morning that the car could not drive to our hotel, nor that we would be climbing up a mountain to get to our hotel. Our guide advised me to hire a porter for our bags and a sedan chair for D & J, but when we arrived it did not seem so bad so we passed it up. Before too long the nice leisurely stroll up a gentle slope became a series of steep steps that were just fine for J2 and me (even with J2 carrying our suitcase), but D & J had more trouble (and a much bigger case) so we eventually hired a porter for their bag (mind you, the porter was a tiny woman easily in her 70s), though they were too proud to hire a sedan chair. Needless to say, they were seething when they arrived at our hotel, and none too excited to hear that our rooms were on the top (third) floor in a building with no elevator. Also needless to say, they passed up the chance to go gamboling around the mountain with our guide, an offer that J2 and I eagerly took up.

Unfortunately, it seems we got here 2 weeks too late, since the rice was harvested around the 10th of October, so now, instead of seeing golden rice terraces we instead see just green, though to us it's still stunning looking. We met some of the local minority people, and took scores of photos. It's really a lovely place, and we've already made plans to return during the "right" season. After our tour we regrouped with D & J for dinner, and then J2 and I walked around a bit more before returning to the hotel for some rest before tomorrow's hikes.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

My Sister's Visit So Far

My big sister arrived on Friday afternoon for her first visit to China. My instructions in planning her visit were to take her to see something of Beijing, something outside of Beijing that I have not visited, and the terra-cotta soldiers in Xi'an. So after I picked her and my brother in law up at the airport and got them registered with the police (required of all "aliens" who plan to reside anywhere other than a hotel), got them into the apartment, and divested them of all the things they brought for me from home (probably worth a whole post in itself...remind me to write that one day), and after J2 got home from work, it was soon time to take them out to dinner.

Our standard first-night-in-China dinner location, as many of you may already know, is the Gongti branch of Three Guizhou Men. This restaurant has the benefit of being a short walk away, serving food that is not usually found outside of China, and is very nice looking. I was a bit nervous that the food would be a bit spicy for them, and that they might have trouble with the chopsticks, but in the end these were not a problem at all. They certainly made it sound like they enjoyed it, as most of our guests do, and though I ordered an awful lot of food, we managed to finish almost all of it. One exception was a dish that we had never ordered before, and though it was delicious (it was basically a soup of assorted mushrooms) we simply could not finish it, since the portion was enormous.

They were starting to show signs of tiredness after the dinner, but we had to keep them awake in order not to have them fall asleep too early and then not be able to sleep through the night. So we took them for a bit of a walk through the neighborhood before getting back to the apartment, and then we arranged for Mr Ding, our tailor, to come over to do a fitting for us and see what they might want to order. By the time the tailor left, it was past 9pm and we let them go to sleep.

The next morning (Saturday) we all woke up relatively early so I took my sister on a quick walk-through of our local produce market and then we met our car for a 7:30 pick-up to go to the Great Wall. Whereas the previous evening was lovely--warm, clear, and pleasant--the weather had turned a bit cooler and the skies were a terrible shade of grey. I had hoped by the time we got to the Wall that the skied would be clearer, but in fact they were worse, so after a rather uncomfortable hour in the car, at the point where we were to exit the highway to go toward the Wall, we decided to go back to the city instead and visit the Forbidden City, where the state of the skies were less important to our ability to enjoy the visit.

Thus we got to the Forbidden City at around 9:45, and found that it was PACKED full of mostly Chinese tour groups. I had heard that the FC has been very crowded lately, but I had no idea just how crowded it could be. We were constantly being jostled by people, and they kept getting in the way of our photos, so it was perhaps not quite what D was hoping for, but the complex is still impressive, and it made getting out of there quite a relief!

For lunch we went to Noodle Loft, another of our go-to places, where the chefs make hand-made noodles in the middle of the dining room. By the time we came out of the restaurant, the skies had miraculously cleared and the sun was out, though this was entirely predictable, since I brought neither sunglasses nor a hat with me. But our next destination--the Lama Temple--looked fabulous in the dappled sunlight, though we walked through relatively quickly since all of us were starting to show signs of being tired.

After a brief break at home, during which the visitors fell SOUND asleep in no time, we woke them up and took them out again, this time heading to the Wangfujing shopping street near the Forbidden City. There we took them first to the fabric market, where I thought my sister would surely find something to buy, but where instead J2 and I bought some material for another couple of vests. Then we went to Wangfujing Snack Street to show them where you can buy skewered scorpion, seahorse, and silkworm larvae (oddly, they did not choose to try any), working our way up the street eventually to the Donghuamen Night Market, where dozens of vendors sell all sorts of Chinese street snacks, from dumplings and noodles to stinky tofu and sauteed tripe. J2 and I had a skewer of lamb kebab each from one of the Uyghur vendors, and I tried a soup dumpling (the kind where you drink the juices out with a straw, and throw away the rest--I ended up throwing just about all of it away).

When we were done with the market, we took a cab to the south gate of Houhai, the lake behind the Forbidden City that is now lined with bars and restaurants, and then walked to our restaurant for dinner, Ba Guo Bu Yi, a Sichuan chain that we like because they have very good spicy food and they do a face-changing show every evening at 8pm. Despite my instructions to the waiter that, with the exception of one dish that J2 and I wanted (called "Super Spicy Beef" in English on the menu, or 水煮牛肉in Chinese), all the other dishes should not be spicy, nevertheless one of our dishes turned out to be pretty hot (not to us, admittedly, though our guests found it so). I hope they enjoyed the face changing.

Our last stop for the evening was at Oriental Taipan for our favorite foot massage. Only my sister was interested in this, so we swung by the house to leave my brother in law at home. The foot massages (and my ear candling) were great, and since we had our two regular foot masseurs do J2 and me, we had a good time chatting and joking with them. We made it back home a bit late (around 11) considering our early departure for our second stab at the Great Wall in the morning.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Arrival!

My sister and brother in law have arrived! Their flight was a few minutes late, but still they seemed to come out of the customs and immigration procedure pretty quickly (though the fact that I ran into a colleague at the airport and was able to spend my time waiting chatting with her, probably made the time seem to go by faster). Unfortunately, the car I had arranged went to the wrong terminal of the airport to pick us up, so we had to wait for him to show up before we could be on our way. On the way home (no traffic!) we stopped at the police station to get the registration formalities taken care of, and within 90 minutes of their landing we were in the apartment, distributing the goodies they brought for us. And for those of you who are daunted in coming to China by the length of the flight--they report that the flight was very manageable, though around hour eight they started to get a bit bored. So stop your whining and get on over here!

On Tenterhooks

I could be on tenterhooks for a number of reasons. First, a friend and colleague of mine is undergoing spinal surgery as I write, and I am anxious to find out how she's doing. Second, it's only 19 days until the election, and having watched that last debate last night (between Joe the Plumber and William Ayers, I think it was) I am particularly anxious to get the drama over with so that we can look forward to a change of policies in the White House. But the real reason why I'm all antsy now is that it's only a bit more than 6 hours until my sister and brother-in-law arrive in Beijing for their first-ever visit to the Celestial Kingdom! We have quite an itinerary lined up for them, including visits to the key sights in Beijing (Mutianyu Great Wall, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Lama Temple, etc), meals at some of our favorite places (Golden Lily Beijing Duck, Three Guizhou Men, Noodle Loft, etc), shopping (Dirt Market, tailor, Liulichang, fabric market) and trips to some of our favorite places in the rest of the country (Xi'an and the Guilin/Yangshuo area), including one place I have never visited (the Longsheng rice terraces outside of Guilin). Of course I will be reporting on how the trip goes!

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Getting out the Vote

This afternoon on my way home from work I stopped by the US embassy and turned in our absentee ballots to vote in the 2008 Presidential Election. We have registered to vote in Connecticut, so our vote is not likely to change the outcome of the election, but since our elections seem to be decided by the slimmest of margins nowadays, I would have killed myself if Connecticut were to have gone "red" by only two votes!

We have been watching the debates, and particularly enjoying the Saturday Night Live spoofs (especially Tina Fey's Sarah Palin), and I have occasionally worn my Obama hat around Beijing, attracting a surprising number of people (mostly foreigners, chiefly Europeans) asking me in a particularly plaintive tone, if I really think he can win. It's hard for me to gauge, since I don't think I know more than two Americans here in China who plan to vote for McCain (or admit it, anyway), while countless others profess their plans to vote for Obama. Which makes the relatively close poll numbers we hear about on CNN a bit hard to fathom. I might have been able to stomach a McCain administration up until the point when he selected Sarah Palin as his running mate, but that woman scares the crap out of me and the thought of her being only a few feeble heartbeats away from the Oval Office is something too horrible to contemplate. So, if you're undecided, and are looking for my advice, please vote for Obama on November 4!

Travel in China

You think things are bad in the airline industry in the West? Can you imagine the following happening in Europe or North America??

The great heave forward... Chinese passengers are forced to get out and push their broken passenger plane

By John Garth
Last updated at 12:44 AM on 27th September 2008

Anyone who has ever used budget airlines know only too well how uncomfortable it can be: long queues, cramped seats and every tiny extra costs you.

But at least they are never told to get out and help push their plane.

That is exactly what happened to a group of passengers in China who were asked to get out and push after their plane broke down shortly after landing.

All together now: Passengers join airport staff to move the jet off the runway at Zhengzhou Airport
The Chinese Shandong airlines flight CRJ7 arrived safely at Zhengzhou from Guilin, but broke down before it could taxi to the passenger terminal.
Airport staff were called out to help push, but they had to ask some of the 69 passengers on board to help because the plane would not budge.
It took the group nearly two hours to shove the plane half a mile to a side lane.
One of the airport workers said: 'Thank God it was only a 20-ton medium-sized aeroplane. If it were a big plane, it would have knocked us out.'
The plane remained parked in the side lane on Friday night, waiting for technicians arriving on the next flight to fix the problem.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Bangkok Photos

In response to the overwhelming demand, here at last are the photos from our Bangkok trip: Click Here

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Bangkok Day Three

Once again we all met up for breakfast before heading out for our day’s adventures. Today started off with a ride from the hotel to Amphawa Floating Market, which our hotel concierge promised us would be a “real” market as opposed to one catering to tourists. After an hour’s drive we finally arrived at the pier where we were to board our long-tailed boats for the visit to the market. I first became nervous when they told us that we would be visiting a coconut caramel factory during the tour and had the option of seeing an elephant working in the fields. Sure enough, the market was geared 100% toward tourists, with our boat stopping alongside several vendors’ stalls where they sold wooden elephants, dolls, etc (reminding me very much of the scene in one of the Bond films [Live and Let Die?] where Bond goes to Bangkok and makes an escape from the bad guys with the help of a little Thai kid who was trying to sell him a carved elephant). We forewent the visit to the coconut caramel factory and the elephant farm, making our driver’s job particularly easy.

On the way back to town we decided not to return to the hotel, which is located rather far from the action of the city, but instead to go to Chinatown to scout out the area and wander around. Having been to Bangkok many times, I find that it’s not really the kind of city where there are a lot of must-see attractions (the exceptions being those things that we visited already on our previous two days), but rather one where the fun lies in wandering the streets and just seeing what you run into. Chinatown is one of the particularly fun areas to visit, with loads of markets, shops and vendors lining the roads. But no sooner did we arrive in Chinatown than it began to rain, putting a bit of a damper on our stroll.

In Chinatown we stumbled across the Siam Center, which was supposed to have a good food court on the third floor so we made that our lunch stop. Bangkok is in the midst of a vegetarian festival, so loads of restaurants and food vendors change their offerings in favor of vegetarian dishes, and several of the vendors in the food court followed suit. With no language in common with the vendors we resorted to pointing and gesticulating to get something to eat, and with only one exception (a soup that was a bit wan in my opinion) the food was very good. Best of all (naturally…) was what I had ordered, a dish that I had seen someone else who seemed like a foodie ordering made of noodles, vegetables and condiments that had a great, smoky, sour, hot flavor.

After lunch we wandered the Sampeng market and then grabbed a cab to head to Banglamphu, another good walking area in Bangkok. Traffic was atrocious, as it is wont to be in Bangkok, but we had no choice but to take a cab, since the Skytrain, which makes travel through much of the city much more pleasant, does not go to Banglamphu. The traffic was so bad that at one point we just told the driver to stop so we could walk the rest of the way. This had the happy result of putting us right at the beginning of a street-side market that had loads of interesting things to look at and sample. Even better, one of the vendors was selling something that I had been searching for since our arrival in Thailand, a dish called meang kam that I used to order back in Virginia whenever we went to Cajun Bangkok for dinner, but that I had never had in Thailand. Meang kam is a quintessential Thai street food, in which a leaf (at Cajun Bangkok it was circles of collard greens, whereas in Thailand it’s betel leaves) are formed into a cone into which you put little cubes of ginger, shallot, and lime, along with peanuts, shredded toasted coconut, chilies and a sweet-spicy sauce and then pop in your mouth. The vendor we found sold little meang kam kits so you could have them at home, so we bought a pack to have with drinks back at the hotel (it turned out to be even better than the version back in the US, thank goodness, considering the effort I put into looking for it). We also found little rice cakes topped with coconut caramel and more chili-fruit vendors, and I popped into the Nittaya curry shop to buy some spice pastes to bring back to Beijing.

We took another break at the hotel to give the boys a rest before dinner, during which time J2 and I visited the gym and plotted our dinner strategy. Thanks to Chowhound I found what seemed to be a very promising restaurant in a neighborhood that we had not yet visited on this trip, so after our club drink (and meang kam!) in the hotel we hopped in a cab. Traffic was abysmal, and we crawled along for about an hour before finally arriving at the restaurant. The restaurant is called Krua Rommai (also known as Khrua Rommai), and is on Sukhumvit Soi 36, in a lovely garden setting that makes you feel as though you’re in the jungle of northern Thailand. The cuisine is indeed that of northern Thailand (called Issan), though they also serve standard Thai fare. The owners are a friendly family who, though they speak no English, were able to communicate with us well enough, thanks largely to the bilingual menu. We ordered largely blindly, picking things out that sounded interesting, and ended up with five dishes: green papaya salad; chicken lard (ground chicken cooked up in a very spicy mix of chilies, shallots and lime); chicken curry “pa hot”; stir-fried morning glory; and nam prik noom (lightly poached vegetables served with a green chili paste dip, the sole dud of the evening). The flavors were amazingly fresh and bright, and went very well with the steamed rice that we ordered alongside (and the beer, which helped to tame the spice). And the whole meal cost only Bt 466 (around $15).

After dinner we decided to venture to the Suan Lum night market, which has been under threat of closure for several years but somehow keeps staying open. Unfortunately we again hit horrible traffic along the way and, fearing that we would take forever to get back to the hotel, we did not spend enough time there to get a real feel for the place, though my initial impression was that it was touristy and not very interesting. Still, it’d be a shame if it closed…

Bangkok Day Two

Our friends arrived late last night, and because of the jet lag from the flight from the East Coast, they were up early and met us at the gym and for breakfast before setting out for the day. We essentially did a repeat of our first day with them, taking them to see the same sights (Grand Palace, Wat Arun and Wat Pho) that we had done already, though this time, with the weather being slightly better (sunny, at least, in places), we got a slightly nicer view of the buildings. We also found a portion of the Grand Palace area that we had not seen before, which contained a miniature version of Cambodia's Angkor Wat, so that was interesting and nice to see.

Being unseasoned developing-world travelers, they were very wary of eating anything from the street markets, which is something we love to do more than just about anything while traveling. Thus when I stopped to get a snack at the ferry pier near the Grand Palace (which, by the way, we were led to by a guy who told us we could grab a ferry there to go across the river to Wat Arun; I was pretty sure you could not, and so was skeptical, but figured I would give it a try. Sure enough, when we got to the pier it became apparent that he wanted us to take a tourist boat for Bt 150 or more when the ferry at the next pier down the road would only cost Bt 3.50...), they were unenthusiastic about joining in. What I had bought was a sticky rice and banana sweet grilled over coals and wrapped in a banana leaf--lovely! After seeing me fail to collapse in a heap after eating it, they did summon up the courage to try some fried spring rolls and tofu from a nearby vendor, and then when I grabbed a bag of sliced up unripe mango with a chili-and-sugar dipping sauce, they also tried that (and incidentally, that is my new-found favorite thing--take some fruit, regardless of its state of ripeness, and dip in a paste made of chilies, salt, sugar and lime juice and dip the fruit in it--amazing!).

For lunch, we opted to go back to the same place we had eaten at the previous day; it was a known quantity, the food was good enough, and the best part was that it had fans and a clean bathroom. So what if the food was uninspiring, it was going to give them comfort and set us up for a good afternoon.

After our tour of the sights of Ko Ratanakosin we headed back to the hotel for a break, since we knew they'd get tired and we had plans to meet an old friend of mine for dinner in town. During our break J2 and I went to the pool for a bit, along with one of our friends, and had a drink, taking advantage of happy hour. And then before we headed to dinner we stopped at the Club Lounge to take advantage of our free cocktails and nibbles. We then met my friend and her two lovely daughters at the Conrad Hotel just as the skies burst open with torrential rain. We had a short walk to get from the hotel to lunch, and with seven people we’d never fit in one cab, so J2, one of our friends and I dashed through the rain to the restaurant, while our other friends and our friend’s two daughters, waited for a cab. We arrived soaking wet, but were able to dry off comfortably enough to enjoy our meal. (For those who read my blog for dining tips, our restaurant was Curries & More, which was located in a nice house-like building on a side street off of Wireless Road. The menu was outrageously extensive, which made me worry that nothing would be good (whereas a short menu means that the chef focuses on those things that he knows how to make well). Luckily I was proved wrong, since the food was very good, and since we way over-ordered we were quite satisfied by the time we left.
I’d have thought that our guests would be tired after dinner, but they insisted they were up for a night on the town, so we headed from dinner to the sights of Patpong, the notorious red-light-ish area of Bangkok. We had hoped to find a gay-friendly bar, and so went in search of a street that supposedly had some, but though we could find the street we did not see any bars that tempted us. And since I have a natural aversion to going anywhere that puts a tout on the street to reel you in, I paid no attention to the dozens of guys who approached us offering us every conceivable combination of sexual partners and perversions at their various establishments. We were appalled too by the shameless display of women available to cater to men’s whims, several of whom graphically depicted what they would offer to do in exchange for a few baht. After a little while we had had enough and went in search of a cab that would take us away from there, which in itself took some doing since the cab drivers here were particularly intent on not using the meter for our ride (we persevered though and finally found an honest driver, though he got hopelessly lost in a vain attempt to drive up the fare; he had no idea who he was dealing with!).
Back at the hotel we had a quick drink at the bar before finally putting an end to the day.

For lunch, we opted to go back to the same place we had eaten at the previous day; it was a known quantity, the food was good enough, and the best part was that it had fans and a clean bathroom. So what if the food was uninspiring, it was going to give them comfort and set us up for a good afternoon.

After our tour of the sights of Ko Ratanakosin we headed back to the hotel for a break, since we knew they'd get tired and we had plans to meet an old friend of mine for dinner in town. During our break J2 and I went to the pool for a bit, along with one of our friends, and had a drink, taking advantage of happy hour. And then before we headed to dinner we stopped at the Club Lounge to take advantage of our free cocktails and nibbles. We then met my friend and her two lovely daughters at the Conrad Hotel just as the skies burst open with torrential rain.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Bangkok Day One

When we checked the weather for Bangkok for our trip, it promised that Wednesday would see "tons of rain". Sure enough, when we woke it was raining, though not torrentially by any means. Still, given the weather, we figured there was no rush to get out of the hotel so we started our morning with a visit to the hotel's surprisingly nice gym (I guess we really have become fanatics when it comes to going to the gym) and then a stupendous breakfast at the hotel's restaurant. Lesson learned: always stay in a French-owned hotel when traveling--the croissants and coffee are well worth any additional cost!

Since we would be changing hotels in the afternoon, and did not want to have to commit to being back at any particular time to check out, we opted to check out early and just leave our stuff. Then, since the hotel was close to the Bangkok Sky Train (which for some reason is called the BTS), we just hopped on that to head into town for our day of touring before our friends join us. Since we needed to find a gingerbread house subject, we focused on the things that I thought had promise--the Royal Palace and nearby Wat Phra Keaow, Wat Arun and Wat Pho. Luckily, all are close together and make for an easy morning's tour. Also, the rain turned into a drizzle and could easily put up with it without even needing an umbrella or anything.

The Royal Palace and Wat Phra Keaow were easily the most impressive, and not least because of the added fun of having to rent baggy pants to wear over our shorts (no bare legs allowed, apparently). The complex is very attractive from a distance, where you cannot discern all the little tiles and mirrors that make up the design of the buildings, whereas up close they seem a bit over the top and kind of tacky. Despite the recent unrest in Thailand, there were a good number of tourists, many seemingly from China or other Chinese-speaking countries (there is no escaping them!) but also a lot of Europeans.

Wat Arun (temple of the dawn) is across the Chao Phraya river from the palace, so we walked a bit to the ferry pier for the ride over. The temple is festooned with broken porcelain that had been used as ballast in Chinese ships that would come to Thailand to trade way back when, with the result that, up close, it looks like someone raided their kitchen to come up with something to use to decorate the temple. But again, from a distance it looks pretty nice.

We then crossed back to the "right" side of the river to visit Wat Pho, another crockery-encrusted temple complex that is also home to Thailand's largest reclining Buddha. Although Thailand is known as the Land of Smiles, and are reputed to be extremely friendly, and although you'd think that people working at a Buddhist temple would be a tolerant bunch, the guy in charge of the shoe-removal station at the reclining Buddha was showing signs of stress, yelling at some visitors who could not make out the (admittedly very confusing) sign stating that the door next to where you remove your shoes is actually the exit, not the entrance.

We were both hungry by the time we finished with the Wat, so we found a place to eat nearby for a tasty and simple Thai lunch, and then headed toward Siam Square to take our friend Abdo's walking tour of the area near his favorite hotel in Bangkok. The attraction of the walk is that you can do your shopping without stepping into the heat of the Bangkok day, and since by now it had not only stopped raining but also the sun had more or less come out, it was getting steamy. The walk from the MBK mall through Siam Discovery Center mall, Siam Center Mall and finally Siam Paragon was all that Abdo promised it would be--lots of shopping opportunities, eateries, and things like that--and we even wound up with a few things to take home, including fabric to make some shirts, a book on Thai cookery (for use designing the menu to accompany our Thai-themed Christmas party) and on decorative vegetable carving (for J2), a case for our iPhones and some gourmet supplies. Not a bad haul.

We spent the rest of the afternoon collecting our things at the Pullman Hotel and relocating to the Marriott Resort. Once there, we settled into our lovely room (with a wrap-around veranda, no less!) and then booking ourselves a massage and body scrub at the hotel spa. But first we grabbed a phenomenal dish of Tom Yom Goong (Thai shrimp soup with red curry) at the shopping center adjoining the hotel. The massages were great--we both had a "ginger and lime" body scrub to start, to invigorate ourselves and detoxify (??) and then I had the Thai massage while J2 had some namby-pamby oil-based massage. I had never had a Thai massage, but found it to be very refreshing, though it also led me to realize that I was apparently a bit sore from my earlier workout...

After a complimentary drink and hors d'oeuvres at the Club Lounge of the hotel we crossed the river to get dinner at a place that was recommended by the concierge, called Naj over near Silom. A lovely restaurant, but a bit fancy for our needs, though the food was excellent (albeit served very slowly). By the time we were done with dinner it was past 10 and we were both knocked out, so we got back on the ferry and headed home for a relatively early night.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

In Bangkok

Just a quickie to say that we made it to Bangkok in one piece! The flight was pretty good, considering we were in economy and it lasted over 4 1/2 hours, but it was Thai Airways, so the service was very friendly (even if the food stank). We landed early, around 9pm, but it would have been worth taking a bit longer in the air to get a bit closer to the immigration counters--the walk from our gate to the immigration section through the new Suvarnabhumi Airport was extremely long! But processing was quick, and then our bags came through quickly, and there was no line to speak of for a cab, so we were on our way to town pretty quickly, too (though not as quick as it might have been, since our cab driver for some reason spent a good five minutes after we got in his car chatting with the other cab drivers about something or other.

The weather here is a welcome change from Beijing--whereas Beijing was getting a bit cool a bit too soon for me, here it was quite steamy even at 10pm. Shorts weather, for sure!

Once we checked into our hotel for the night (the very nice Pullman King Power hotel) we went out in search of something to eat, and happily found some street vendors nearby who offered all sorts of interesting looking things. In the end we went for the tried-and-true Pad Thai (stir fried noodles) which were just what we needed to stave off hunger. The price was right, too--less than $2 for the two of us!