Thursday, December 31, 2009

Comparative Travel, Part Two

A couple of adenda, and a few new categories, with Cambodia and
Thailand added to the previous list:

I'm simply amazed how easy it is to find an Internet connection pretty
much anywhere--from mountain passes in Vietnam to temples at Angkor
Wat, the cellular data networks are alive and well. Pair that with
Google's street-level maps of everything and real time triangulation,
and we were often directing our drivers to our destination. Would not
have been possible not so long ago. Of course...
Loser: Thailand, specifically Bangkok. Slow data rates, dropped
connections, or nothing at all. I'm writing this offline.

National Pride/Determination
Everyone feels like they're on the move, that life is better than it
was even a few years ago, and there's nowhere to go but up.
Winner: Despite Vietnam's rapid rise and rabid soccer fans, it's
India. They know they're the only ones who can take on China, and
they're determined to win.

Sometimes you play the game well, even if you know you can't win.
Winner: Cambodia. Everyone's an entreprenuer, from the young guys
setting up boutique hotels to the tuk-tuk drivers who will drive you
anywhere, ask if they should wait for you, provide you a list of
options of things to do next, and check to see if they should pick you
up tomorrow. This went on without exception. It's also the only place
we heard, "thank you for visiting our country; please tell your
friends back home to visit." And you should.

Since there's always a place to stay, it's more about what you like:
Mexico: fabulous art deco constructions in el DF, quaint rooms
surrounding private gardens and patios elsewhere.
India: grand, colonial, marblized establishments are the way to go.
Vietnam: Hanoi was our favorite--spacious, modern and in the middle of
Cambodia: all were nice, from the hipster Kool Hotel in Siem Reap to
PP's colonial Pavilion and ultra-modern Blue Lime.
Thailand: still working on getting it together in Chiang Mai, but
we've learned to splurge for the last one on any trip, and Bangkok's
Presidential Palace is the way to go for luxury at still reasonable

Being a guy, I just stand and deliver, so this has never really been a
big deal for me. Thus, I'll let Karen take over:
In terms of plumbing, Mexico and Soueast Asia are quite similar. The
plumbing systems are old and as a result you'll often find
wastebaskets near the toilet for depositing tissue. Southeast Asia has
often represented a particular challenge because of the traditional
Asian-style "squatty-potty." Not very user friendly for Westerners...

Another one for Karen as it makes me jittery:
Starbucks, in its continued quest for world domination, has
infultrated Mexico and Southeast Asia. We've seen Starbucks in
Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. Thankfully, both Mexico and Thailand
maintain vibrant independent coffee cultures. Thailand wins hands down
though. The Thais love their coffee, and good espresso can be found
everywhere--which is fabulous for the caffeine addicted!

Public Transportation
Even if it applies only to metropolitan areas, there's a range from
nothing at all to world-class subways.
Winner: Mexico City. Among the best anywhere.

Taxi Addenda
Bangkok is the only place I've ever been where the taxi drivers
habitually take you where they want to go, and not where you want to
go. I was about to punch someone.
Automatic Fail

Shopping Adenda
Ended up in the Bangkok mega mall yesterday, one of the largest in
Asia. America--land of merchandising and consumption--has nothing on

And finally...Food.

Dad asked in the comments of the last comparison why, after all the
food posts, we hadn't included it as a category. Good question. But we
still had two countries to go, and the Academy Awards never announces
Best Picture first. So, without further ado...

Food, real food, from modern and sophisticated to the last-meal
variety your mom and grandma made, can be found everywhere.
Huitlacoche enchiladas and epazote-queso fresco sandwiches in Oaxaca,
murgh makhani and samosas in Bangalore, bun bo hue and butabara in
Saigon, fish amok and pandanas tea in Siem Reap, and miang kum and tom
yum soup in Chiang Mai--all are exquisite, and for any foodie reason
enough to travel. But there is a clear winner:


Flavors, balance, presentation, ingredients, freshness, invention,
simplicity, variety--it goes on and on. In fact, it's the only place
I've ever been where I didn't start jonesing for a BLT or a benedict.
I could eat there, happily, forever.

So there you have it. Now get out and go somewhere.

Happy New Year!

Though it's only 9am on the west coast, in Bangkok it's 2010! And
we're on the 52nd floor of the Banyan, listening to some kind of Thai
remix of Who Let the Dogs Out. Nice views, though. Q

Spot the Sex Tourist!

On Soi Cowboy, at least, the correct answer is "all of them."

And this cross between Amsterdam's red light district and NOLA's
Bourbon St. is conveniently located three blocks from our hotel, on
the way to dinner. In case, you know, you need to work up an appetite.
Or satisfy a different one.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


Years ago, fellow former Zibite Rich Fox introduced me to this: Miang
Kum or Mienkham (and there's likely more variations on that). To this
day, it's one of my favorite apps, and I order it whenever it shows up
on a menu--rare in the States--so it's nice to experience it in its
country of origin.

It's a DIY kind of thing: take a betel leaf and fold into it ginger,
shallot, peanuts, dried shrimp, lime rind, Thai chili, toasted coconut
and tamarind sauce in roughly equal proportions. Eat it in one bite.
This is important: the experience is about all the flavors coming

When people first encounter it, they usually have the same objections:
the dried shrimp look funny, I don't eat chilis, can you eat the rind?
And there's only one reply: try it. The whole is more than the sum of
its parts.

Like I said, it's hard to find. In San Jose, try House of Siam, though
they substitute lettuce for the betel leaves. Same story in PDX at
Typhoon, but they use spinach, which is closer. In any case, seek it

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Fun with farangs

After the elephants and a visit to two more temples, my guide took me
to a local jungle market to explore. He and the vendors took great
delight in grossing out the vegetarian farang (farang being the Thai
descriptor for European-American foreigners). The market featured a
diversity of traditional Thai foods, from more common fruits and
vegetables to the more exotic: rats, frogs (both live and dead, just
their skins too), cockroaches, ant eggs, silk worm cocoons, buffalo
skin, and snakes. Yum!

Preserved elephants

While Michael was nursing his cooking class induced wounds back at the
hotel, I went off to experience the Thai Elephant Conservation Center,
one of several elephant zoos in the hills around Chiang Mai. I got a
chance to watch about 10 of the elephants of varying ages take their
morning bath in the lake. After that, it was time for the elephant
show, where the animals displayed their skills in log rolling,
xylophone playing and even painting (the results of which are
available for purchase in the gift shop). The highlight of the
excursion was definitely the hour-long elephant ride--through lakes,
hills, and narrow trails--on the grounds in the beautiful Northern
Thailand hills.

About Those Cooking Classes...

Definitely take them (I can't wait to put them into practice back
home), but go with the veg option: I've spent the last 24 having a
bed, bath and beyond experience. Karen's been unaffected.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Thai cooking and massage

Today, we took a half-day Thai cooking class. The session began with
an introduction to Thai ingredients and produce at the local market.
We then proceeded to make a few dishes: coconut tofu soup with
lemongrass and kefir lime, hot and sour soup with shrimp, pad Thai,
then green and red curry pastes to make two curry dishes. We were
quite amazed at how simple the dishes become if you have the right
ingedients--pad Thai, for example, was remarkably quick and easy.
And, everything tasted great. We look forward to hitting our local
Ranch 99 market when we return to try sone of these dishes at home.

In the afternoon, we treated ourselves to Thai massage. Michael, who
doesn't normally appreciate any type of spa experience, opted for a
Thai foot massage. I went for a traditional Thai body massage, which
was unlike anything I've experienced before. I was pushed, pummeled,
slapped and squished into positions I didn't think were possible. Even
with a base level of flexibilty from many years of yoga, I was still
stretched and pulled to extremes. The massage therapist ended up using
all parts of her body in the process. It was definitely an active
experience for me and very much a collaborative experience with the
therapist. I left feeling invigorated, although there may be bruises.
Something to be experienced, for sure, although my next Thai massage
may be what the call "oil massage," or more traditional Western variety.

Nope, wasn't kidding

About being eaten alive.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Chiang Mai Sunday Market

The concierge at our hotel provided explicit directions to the Sunday
Market: turn left out of the hotel, make a left at the light, and
you'll see it.

In truth, it would've been impossible to miss. Chiang Mai's old city
is about half a mile on a side, and thousands of vendors, walkers,
hawkers and shoppers turn out. The streets are so packed it's
impossible to move in any direction not defined by the unrelenting
crowds. It's wall to wall.

Everything is on display: clothing, bags, jewelry, velvet paintings,
statuary, lottery tickets, the local school band, handicrafts,
greeting cards, lamps, tableware, stuffed animals...and food.

The logistics are actually quite amazing. Vendors of sausages,
skewers, phad Thai, insects, larvae, ice cream, soup, fried bananas,
Chinese dumplings and more show up with not only the food, but the
cooking devices, which in some cases are not insignificant--the pad
Thai required a Mongolian BBQ four feet across, plus a heat source,
plus a garden of herbs and condiments. The ice cream entails mobile
freezers. All this starts arriving at four in the afternoon and
vanishes around ten.

Which is when the cushy furniture comes out and everyone gets
massaged. And here I thought the Mountain View farmers' market was

At one point--and this was kind of spooky--the loudspeaker, which had
previously been making announcements, stopped and music began to play.
Everyone--thousands of people--suddenly stopped in their tracks,
placed their arms at their sides, and gave a moment to the national
anthem. Then the chaos resumed.

The one downside to all these evening forays--and this has been
plaguing me since Vietnam--is that no matter how liberally I annoint
myself with DEET or the local herbal repellent, the Mosquitos love me.
I probably have two or three dozen bites on my legs alone at this
point. Karen has two. Fortunately, it's not malaria season and we've
been taking the drugs. But only time will tell.


After flying through Bangkok, we've now found ourselves in the
Northern city of Chiang Mai. After Vietnam and Cambodia, where
sidewalks are used for motorbike parking, informal restaurants, or
trash dumping grounds, or even living areas, forcing pedestrians to
take to the streets, dodging moving cars and motorbikes in the
process, it is refreshing to be in a city with real sidewalks!

We spent the afternoon walking on those wondrous sidewalks, checking
out a few of Chiang Mai's more than 300 temples.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Phnom Penh shopping

We were also surprised and delighted by the shopping here. I picked up
these earrings at a store called water lily. One whole wall of the
store was filled with shelves with jars of various beads. The artist
herself was manning the shop. Another shop on the same street featured
a clothing designer who was stitching away. Phnom Penh also features
the second outpost of US expat-owned Wanderlust (first one opened on
Siem Reap), which sells lots of Cambodian made tunics and dresses in
light cotton, perfect for the Cambodian heat.

Khmer food

Khmer food is a delicious hybrid of Vietnamese, Thai, and Indian
flavors, punctuated by unique surprises, such as star anise, as well
as others.

We've had numerous versions of amok--a traditional Khmer curry that is
often green in color and always mild in flavor. In Siem Reap, we had
fish amok and a tofu amok cooked in a squash shell. We even bought an
amok spice mix home with us.

Sometimes though, one craves the flavors of home. So the night before
last, we had pizza. Not bad: good crust, tasty sauce, lots of cheese
and special Cambodian herbs and spices.

In Phnom Penh, there are also numerous cafes and restaurants where you
can eat while supporting disadvantaged populations. We dined at
Friends, pictured here, last night. Friends provides vocational
training in restaurant and hospitality services to former street kids.
It was the most attentive service we had received in any bar or
restaurant in Cambodia hands down. Proceeds from the restaurant
support additional services to 1800 street kids every day. The
organization runs two restaurants, a couple of craft stores (some that
feature pieces made by the kids, another that sells the work of their
parents to prevent them from sending their kids to the streets to
support the family) and even a nail salon. And, by the way, they do
serve food--the pumpkin soup and shrimp wontons were particularly

To Clarify

Karen has asked me to make it clear that the previous post was mine
and mine alone. Any comments or reactions should be addressed to me.

So Whad'ya Do on Your Vacation?

Some people hit the beach. Others head for the slopes. For whatever
reason, we often find ourselves touring places like...Cambodia's
Killing Fields.

Located about 15 km south of town, the memorial that now sits atop the
Khmer Rouge's most infamous liquidation facility is impressive--and
haunting. If you've watched the movies and documentaries, or seen the
pictures, you'll recall the thousands of skulls piled on wooden bunks--
the remains of more than 8,000 victims of Pol Pot's regime at this
site alone. Today, they are encased in a 62 meter glass memorial
jutting skyward, a reminder of the evil that is genocide.

But there's more. This isn't Hitler's genocide, an efficient death
factory of gas chambers and ovens, nor even the modern Balkan
equivalent of mass shootings and mass graves. The Khmer Rouge abhorred
technology and thus dispatched their victims via severe trauma: flat-
headed hoes and cane knives were their preferred method, ensuring the
soon-to-be-deceased got that way as inefficiently and painfully as

Back in central Phnom Penh, S21, the primary detention facility for
victims on their way to a mass grave, relates the broader story of
this atrocity: prior to 1975 it was the largest school in the city,
but it's classrooms were quickly converted to row upon row of cells,
most not bigger than 1 x 2 meters. Here, the usual suspects--members
of the prior government, intellectuals, liberals, ethnic minorities,
homosexuals, women, children, the list goes on--were tortured into
confessing their "crimes" against the regime. In a bizarre
manifestation of ideology, prejudice, litigation and political
perversion, the Pol Pot regime seemed unwilling to brutally murder
people unless they'd first tortured them into false confessions.

And they kept meticulous records: the former cells are now lined with
mugshots of the murdered, thousands of them. Perhaps most chilling,
very few of these photographs depict the disappeared in a state of
panic or terror--they appear strangely resigned to their destiny. It's
both captivating and alien, a terrifying admission of the fate they
know is coming, a hope that the ordeal will soon be over, a self-
reflection on their own powerlessness, and an accusation against their

Accompanying the photos are the devices of torture, as well as
depictions of their use: fingernail extraction, nipple amputation via
forcep, simulated drowning, electical shocks and waterboarding.

If those last three sound familiar, it's because they were part of the
Bush Regime's standard operating procedure, and in clear violation of
the Geneva Conventions. Yes, the US tortured, it resorted to the same
tactics as Pol Pot and other dictators and regimes it constantly rails
against, and it relied on the same ethnic, religious and geopolitical
profiling as the bastards in the dark corners of the world.

More to the point, if you identify yourself as a Republican, or a
neocon, or a member of the Christian Right, you are party to these
ongoing atrocities. S21 and the Killing Fields occurred more than 30
years ago; today, the same manufactured horror is only now being shut
down at Gitmo.

Do me a favor: if you associate with any of the above American
political affiliations, please let me know so I can disassociate
myself from you now (permanently) and piss on your grave later. If
you're not convinced, waterboarding or electric shock might convince
you to recant--they're not really torture according to your view. Then
again, those are probably the tactics to which you'd resort (and have
recently) and I want no part of it.

Local Connections

We've been cheating, I'll admit, flying between destinations rather
than traveling by train or bus. On the other hand, there's so much to
see--and eat!--14-hour train rides from Hanoi to Hue, 18-hour trains
from Da Nang to Saigon, etc. just don't work out.

And so we fly in Karen's preferred way: double-prop local planes, in
this case an ATR-72. You can tell from the pic just how thrilled she
is about this.

We did take one bus from Hue to Hoi An--and the scenery was inspiring.
More on that once I get the main camera shots downloaded.

Phnom Penh hotels

We've stayed at two oustanding hotels here--The Pavilion and The Blue
Lime--both owned by the same group. The Pavilion is more traditional
in it's design while The Blue Lime is more contemporary--lots of cast
concrete furniture. Both feature great pools, outdoor bars and
lounging areas, little oasises in the chaos of the city.

(Those are Michael's dirty feet.)

FCC Cambodia

The Foreign Correspondents Club got its start in Phnom Penh as just
that--a gathering place for foreign journalists and expats. It now has
a location in Siem Reap, pictured here, which is right out of Miami
Beach. We enjoyed both locations for great cocktails in Cambodia.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Just to Clarify

I did sample them all. The pink ones were astoundingly epoxy-like,
identical to putting something in your mouth that is usually labeled,
"Use in a well-ventilated area," but it only got better from there.
The bun-shaped delicacies were flavorless, while the coral-like
creations resembled a cross between stale canoli and stale donuts. The
sesame seed-ensconced nibbles seemed to be fabricated from beef
bullion, and the ones wrapped in banana leaves provided a truly
exquisite experience: glutenous rice wrapped around something vaguely
marine. At one point I think I saw it move. Fascinating.

The last one proved the best--textured and hard like an old-school
granola bar, it tasted like the perfect peanut butter and honey
sandwich, a thing of beauty on which I subsisted until the age of
eleven, and which still holds a place in my heart (or stomach).

Wanted: One Cat

We hired a cat-sitter to look after Larsen in our absence. Today, we
woke up to this email:


No deal, though we did offer to bring her a monkey. No word back.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

More on the Cambodian wedding

Throughout the day-long celebration, hotel staff encouraged us to
participate and photograph. When we checked out at noon, things were
still going strong. As we left, we were offered a selection of
traditional wedding sweets, pictured here. Michael sends a warning
about the ones with the pink middle, saying they have the flavor of
model airplane glue.

Nuptials Cambodian style

Over the past two days, our hotel, The Kool hotel on a small side
street of the main Siem Reap road, had been tranformed. The occassion:
a traditional Cambodian wedding. They go all out for these and this
one featured elaborate pleated fabrics, flowers, and offerings
throughout the hotel. Best of all, the festivities started with
blasting Cambodian music at 6am. We had been warned when we checked
in--no apologies but instead the simple and profound statement, "it is
part of our culture."

Khmer Limericks

There once was a man from A. Wat
Who exclaimed, "These climes are too hot!
We need some AC,
Or a big, shady tree,
But we've neither thanks to Pol Pot."

Yeah, we're back in the airport again, biding our time.

Season's Greetings!

'Twas the night before Christmas
At Angkor Wat,
And here in the jungle
Who would've thought

That it's bigger than Giza,
Grander than Rome;
Three million people
Once called it home.

The malarial drugs
Are taking effect:
I'm feeling quite nauseous;
Karen's a bit wrecked.

But the people are lovely,
The kids are too cute:
One kid named "Tony"
Made off with my loot.

He had a great smile;
I couldn't send him away.
Most of these folks
Live on dollars a day.

Twenty thousand riel
And a couple of bucks
For him and his family
'Cuz their life kind of sucks.

It's nothing to us
But a whole lot to them,
And it's good to know
We've made some new friends.

Travel is good;
The world's full of new places
And wherever we've been
We've see friendly faces.

If we just could be
More compassionate and kind,
And see others' perspectives,
And keep them in mind,

The whole world would be
A much better place
For our families and friends
And the whole human race.

Have a great Christmas;
We'll see you soon.
Much love to all
From Kienzle and Moon.

More from Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm

More from Preah Khan

Preah Khan

Preah Khan

Terrace of the leper king

More from Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom

Angkor Wat

More temples

Day two at Angkor and it was amazing. We saw four today, including
the big ones: Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. More images to come.

Toilet signage

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

And What Did I Do Today?

Woke up at 2:30, nauseous from the malarone, then got up at five to catch a ride to the airport and promptly ran a gel pen through my thumb, twisted my ankles in all sorts of uncomfortable ways (remember those MBTs? great for walking; not so much for clambering around thousand-year-old ruins), got overrun by some kind of crazy ants while setting up a time-lapse shot, and tossed back a journalist's portion of Singapore Slings at the Foreign Correspondents' Club (one can always aspire). Wouldn't trade it for anything.


Temples waiting for sunset

Temples in the blistering sun

And yet more temples

And more temples

More temples

Sweating to the oldies

Our cab driver from the airport offered to be our transportation to
the temples. Our choice: air conditioned cab or motorcycle cart (tuk-
tuk). Today, we opted for the former. Our driver took us to five
temple sites slightly off the beaten path. All were amazing--more
images to come. Keep in mind we haven't even made it to the major
complexes at Angkor Wat or Angkor Tom. That's all tomorrow. Sorry
folks, but it's all about temples here in Siem Reap.

Did I mention that it is sweltering? Hence the sweaty part.

Welcome to Cambodia

After a quick flight from HCMC, we arrived in Siem Reap, Cambodia's
second largest city (population: one million).

Naturally, our entre into Cambodian culture is the food--we headed for
lunch first thing. Khmer Kitchen provided an excellent introduction.
We both had curries, mine a creamy pumpkin and Michael's green and
porky. A little milder than Thai curries, mine was almost Indian-like.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Dances with Snakes

I'm not sure why they're called cold-blooded animals. They're really
more like room temperature. And quite friendly, though Karen was
getting no where near it.

Raised for their meat and skin, they're also highly prized for the
contents of their gall bladders, which I'm told is "Good for man."

Around the Mekong Delta

Another day, another day trip. This one left Saigon at eight this
morning for parts south. I slept most of the way there except when
they woke us up for a pit stop. Funny thing about Vietnamese rest
areas--they all come with a local craft demonstration and gift shop.
This one, of all things, was dedicated to the difference between
sticky and not-sticky rice.

We arrived at My Tho--the farthest south either of us has ever been--
around 10:30 and boarded a couple small boats. The delta is massive,
four km wide at points, with smaller channels leading off in all
directions. In one of these, we got to see what local farming looks

It's a different environment, though in some ways similar to the
Louisiana bayou: when you exit the boat, you head up a gangway to
about six feet above the water. The farmers grow fruit trees and keep
a couple of chickens handy. Shrimp and frogs grow fat in hand-dug
containment pools and round out the menu. And of course, there's the
local band--just replace the banjo and washboard with a single-string
Vietnamese violin and a two-string Chinese mandolyn.

They even have crocodiles.

Of course, no trip is complete without more local crafts, the last one
being the coconut candy-making process. Good stuff, and it won't rip
out your fillings (not that I have any). You can purchase it plain,
chocolate, peanut or durian, or get the sampler pack, which we did.

I'll be bringing the durian to Duarte.

Dragon fruit cross section

And here is the interior. It is kind of like a mild kiwi, with a more
mealy texture and a mellower flavor.

Dragon fruit

We've enjoyed dragon fruit throughout Vietnam. This is what it looks
like on the outside.

Seasons greetings Saigon style

There are Xmas lights and displays all over Saigon, with throngs of
people photographing eachother against the festive backdrops. This
shot is from the rooftop bar of The Rex, looking down on the lights of
the main drag Le Loi. All the dots are motorbike riders queing up to
ride under the sparkly lights.


Last night we dined at Xu, an upscale contemporary Vietnamese place in
the heart of Saigon. The co-owner had been working in the food
industry since he was 15 and had been taken under the wing of a French
couple who expanded his culinary training. The food and decor were
stunning. We started with what has by far been our best cocktail in
Vietnam, a Ginger mojito with fresh ginger. Michael started with pea
ravioli with Vietnamese herbs, bacon, and parmesan, then experienced a
massive piece of pork belly (his favorite, and this piece was as big
as his head!) with cabbage and carmelized daikon. I had soft shell
crab rice wraps and seabass in traditional rice rolls.

We also got to try our first bite of durian in our profitorole sampler
dessert. Very distinctive and almost cheese-like. I think I'll try the
durian ice cream next.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Keeping in Touch

Aside from a few regular commenters (thanx for reading!), this has
been a mostly one-way communication. So, just in case there's an
earthquake, or the house burns down, or someone wins a Grammy/Nobel/
Junior Achievement Award, there are the usual means of getting in touch:

You can always send an email to; we'll get it and get
back to you.

You can also send a text, but don't expect an immediate reply as the
data network is unreliable.

Whatever you do, don't call; the roaming charges are insane.

But comments are the best. We love to hear from you, and other people
do, too.

Museum surprise

Earlier today at the Ho Chi Minh City Museum.

Eating in Saigon

We're increasingly finding that Saigon is an awesome food town. After
lunch at Ngon, a bustling restaurant in a colonial building where a
variety of chefs whip up street-style specialties to order, we headed
to Kem Bach Dang for ice cream. Making a decision was difficult--they
even have durian flavor. I opted for the four kinds--cashew, taro,
syrup,and strawberry. The perfect anecdote to the intense Saigon heat.

Shopping in Saigon

Scored a super cute bag made of recycled rice bags today too.