Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Dinner Snapshot - Vegetable Risotto

Vegetable Risotto
adapted from Williams-Sonoma Weeknights
5 cups vegetable broth
1 1/2 cups dry white wine
1 tbs unsalted butter
3 tbs olive oil
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
2 cups Arborio rice
1 lb zuchinni, cut into 1/2 chunks
2 cups broccoli, cut into bite-sized pieces
1/4 cup fresh mint, minced
1 cup Parmesan cheese
kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
1. Cook the Risotto
In a saucepan over medium heat, bring the broth and wine to a gentle simmer, then maintain the simmer over low heat. Meanwhile, in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter with 1 tbs of the oil. Add the onion and saute until softened, about five minutes. Add the rice and cook, stirring constantly, until all gains are opaque and well coated with the fat, about 1 minute. Add 2 cups of the broth mixture and cook, stirring frequently (about every minute) until the liquid is absorbed, 3-4 minutes.
2. Saute the Vegetables
While the rice is cooking, in a frying pan over medium heat, warm the remaining 2 tbs of oil. Add the broccoli and cook 2 minutes. Add the zucchini and saute just until softened, about 4 minutes. Remove from heat.
3. Finish the Risotto
Stir the rice occassionally, about every three minutes. When the rice is tender and creamy but the grains are still al dente at the center, after about 22 minutes, stir in the sauteed vegetables and the mind and cook for 1 minute to heat through. Stir in the cheese. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve.
1. When stirring, make sure you are scraping up the stuff at the bottom. If you don't get it up, it will stick and burn. The best time to do this is when you add broth.
2. The receipe says that it takes 30 minutes start to finish. That's bull. Between David chopping vegetables at the beginning and both of us stirring rice and sauteeing vegetables at the same time, it took about an hour. The only way that this can be done in 30 minutes is if you have a sous chef prepare all the ingredients before hand and have the sous chef focus on stiring while you do all the other steps of the recipe. Martha Stewart must have created this recipe!
3. Risotto is not hard to prepare, so don't back away in fear. Just follow my stirring recommendations.
4. Although lengthy and labor intensive, this was a great dinner. Good for a Sunday night.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Koh Yao - Day Three

Once again, I was up before the birds. David had made it a habit to wake up with me as the best light for photography is at dawn. We patrolled the beach together, went swimming for a bit, ate breakfast, and headed off to the dock to take a longtail boat island hopping. It was a snorkeling trip to the different islands around the area so we packed up our sunscreen and iPods for a long day of relaxing.

Just roaming around on a longtail boat is my absolute favorite activity in Phang Nga bay so I was happy on the boat as well as off, oohing and ahhing over the amazing scenery and life on the water. The opportunities for pictures were abundant: fishermen on their longtails, trying to feed their family; a roving pack of fishermen that set up home on the beach while they roam like gypsies; sea birds perched on single rocks jutting out of the ocean; flying fish leaping out of the water as they rode next to our boat.

We started with Koh Hong (Room Island). As tide hadn’t fully come in, we couldn’t take a motorized longtail into the rooms…kayak depths only. Instead, we went to the other side of the island to relax on Pelay beach. I placed our blanket in the sand, our beach mats in the shade, slathered on the sunscreen and headed into the bay with my snorkel gear. The island is framed by limestone formations so it gives it an enclosed feel, like in that Leo movie The Beach. It was incredible.

More incredible than the surrounding view was the view underwater. The surface was boiling with tropical fish: puffer fish, butterfly fish, mackerel, crabs, lobsters, cuttlefish, parrotfish. I showed David the keys to snorkeling, leg movement and location. Always snorkel or dive near a shelf, wall, or reef! That’s where the life is! Keep your legs straight, power yourself along by using your hips to move your legs. Soon, we were being passed by jellyfish and diving down to play with giant clams and sea anemone.

When we were done snorkeling, we headed back to the beach to sunbathe. With very few people in this area, we had wide portions of beach to ourselves. While I dozed, David took photos. What I didn’t know about the island before I left was that they harvest cave swift nest’s for the making of bird’s nest soup. If I would have known that, I would have spent my time watching men climb bamboo poles to ridiculous heights in order to gather them. I could have slept another time. Like on the next island.

From Koh Hong, we stopped at a formation of three rocks between two islands. Putting our snorkel gear back on, we jumped in and swam around these rocks probably fifteen times. I’ve both dove and snorkeled in some amazing places but I have never seen colors like I did around these rocks. The coral was unbelievable and came in a phosphorescent green, electric blue, fiery orange, and Barbie pink. Sea fans in all shades of purple swayed in the current. Diving down, I found conch and sea snails hanging out in the crevices and would bring them to the surface to show David. It made me very excited about the prospect of having a child so that I can share nature’s wondrous things with her. After snorkeling in this spot, David determined that he wants to get dive certified.

As I had spent a good majority of the past few days in the water, I decided that it would be a good idea to inquire about sharks. “No, no sharks here. Only tiger sharks. No dangerous,” was the response I received. I replied that tiger sharks attack humans frequently and kill more of their attack victims than great whites. He laughed and laughed as if to say, “Ha ha. I couldn’t pull one over on you! You may die by tiger shark! Won’t that be amusing.”

We progressed on to another nearby island complete with its own set of fishing gypsies. We ate lunch under the palm trees, snorkeled a bit, and felt like a zoo animal as the fishermen watched us. I opted to take a nap. David opted to take photographs.

After five hours of snorkeling and sunbathing, I was feeling pretty sun-drenched and was slightly dismayed when I heard that there was one more island stop. At this point, a fish was just another fish and a beautiful island was just another island. I hung out in the shallows, sitting in the sand as the tide washed over me and a school of small fish tried to determine if I was food. Like a giant mirror, the ocean reflected that sun right back at me and I found myself not regretting a more liberal use of sunscreen throughout the day.

By the time that we got back to the Paradise, it took all of my strength to stay awake until dinner. We sat ourselves in one of two romantic pavilions, mainly because we were so exhausted that we wanted to be left alone. I had a delicious rack of lamb, David had an amazing seafood pasta dish. That’s pretty much all I can say about the evening considering we were asleep by 8:30!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Koh Yao - Day Two

I awoke just moments before the early morning light woke the birds. Sneaking out of bed, I raised the window coverings and crawled back under the blanket to watch the sun rise. As the multitudes of sea and jungle birds started what, at six a.m., can only be described as obnoxious squawking[1], David woke too. I stood up, gazed out at the beach and commented on how lovely the ocean looked. Suddenly, David was breezing past me while putting his swim trunks on. “Taking a dip in the pool?” I asked, thinking that he just stepping out the door to our private pool. “Screw the pool!” David yelled, beginning what would be our basic attitude from there on out. Screw the pool. With all that ocean, we were going to take advantage of something that we just don’t have. I struggled to quickly change into a bikini and grab our shockproof/waterproof camera before flying out the door after him. Soon, both of us were swimming, he freestyle while I favored the breaststroke and backstroke stopping occasionally to check out whatever new nick we had obtained from kicking a rock or coral.

There was just something so calming about swimming on my back, my eyes free to look at the lush greenery that surrounded me. From the water you can barely see the Paradise, so perfectly built into nature. Looking out to the sea, limestone islands covered in palm trees and thick with wildflowers. Wild, in Thailand, is a lot more interesting than your average wildflower.

While I floated along, David powered on out to the swimming platform right where the shelf drops off. It was a mile out and I didn’t have the desire to swim that far. I watched as David made it to the platform and took victorious pictures of himself with the islands making for the perfect background. They were going to be some neat photos. He did a dramatic dive into the water and swam back to meet me. We were about ¾ of the way back to the beach when David started furiously patting down his pockets. His tan face went pale. “Where’s the camera?” I asked, already knowing the answer. “It-was-in-my-pocket-and-I-zipped-it-up-before-jumping-off-the-platform,” he answered in a stream of consciousness that could only be described as panicked.

These are the times that try newlyweds, the times when men somehow blame it on the woman or the woman storms off in a quiet rage. We handled it amazingly well, although I did let one or two remarks slip about throwing away $500 or responsibility. As the camera was good up to depths of 10 feet and it had been pretty shallow most of the time, we agreed that we could do nothing more than grab some snorkel gear and do a sweep. We headed off to the recreation hut and were met by an employee who surprised us when we told him that we had lost our waterproof camera. “Olympus?” he asked, knowing his cameras very well…something that you don’t on a remote island. “You were the ones swimming early this morning? You made it out far. You swam long.” He said, smiling and handing us our snorkeling equipment.

We returned to the ocean optimistic…we had swum in a pretty straight line and the ocean was only about 5 feet deep for the majority of that time. With a final spit into our masks and the snap of a flipper, we set off on the Great Camera Snorkel of ’08. With tide coming in, the water was so filled with silt that I couldn’t even see my bright orange flippers if I stood up. There was no way in hell we were going to find the camera, but I continued on for an hour before giving in.

Meeting up with David, he mentioned that it probably came out of his pocket when he dove off the swimming platform. There was a deep shelf right there, reducing the odds of finding the camera. “Nemo’s totally taking photos of all his friends by now,” I said. With that, we returned to our villa to wash up for breakfast. All by 8:00 a.m.

By 8:15, I had let the camera go realizing that I hated the photos it took when it wasn’t under or on water. David agreed and for the next three days we attempted to throw away the camera charger while the housekeeping staff religiously pulled it out as if it had fallen in there. Three days in a row.

With the first morning came addiction to something so terribly delicious that I would die of an early coronary if was readily available to me every day of my life…coconut jam. Trust me, it is every bit as delicious as it sounds and I spent the next eight days paring it with other jams: banana, strawberry, lime, pineapple, apricot. I’m pleased to report that they all compliment coconut

When the tide goes out, it really goes out. The Paradise has a beach shuttle to take you to this beautiful little island that has two bays, a sandbar to another island, and plenty of sun and shade. This gives you a way to spend a day swimming at times when it is impossible at the Paradise. We had signed up for that day’s shuttle but threw in the towel and opted to stay at the Paradise when ten other people showed up for the excursion.

Right before our wedding, I had found this awesome beach bag with a large, lightweight beach blanket inside. I hauled it across the world with me and boy, was it nice. As we lay beachside, I would catch the long gazes from other guests as they struggled to keep off the sand on their beach towel. We spent an entire day doing nothing…reading, listening to our iPods, eating our daily fruit basket and snoozing to the sound of this tropical paradise.

We found ourselves alone, save one other couple positioned way down the beach. The tide was in that day making the beach shuttle unnecessary, yet only four of us opted to stay. It was our own private paradise.

I’ve always attributed my love of oceans and pools to my being a Pisces, a fish. I’ve discovered that David loves to be in the water as much as I do…he’s a Cancer, a crab. We spent so much time in the water every day of our trip that it was ridiculous. When the tide was out, it didn’t matter! There was still plenty to do in the tide pools and I would spend hours tromping around barefoot on the rocky reef. I love ocean creatures so I was always picking up a sea cucumber, starfish, mussel, oyster, conch or sea snail to show David. I would tromp back and forth the distance to him twice in the time that it would take him to reach me as he has very girlie feet. He would use his fancy camera to snap away at whatever I brought him and then I would gently return the creature to its home.

By four, we were exhausted and headed back inside to take a two hour nap. It is amazing how fast your day goes by when you do nothing but lounge around. It is also terribly exhausting. Once we were showered, it was off to the beach bar for some pre-dinner drinks and conversation. One of the most beautiful places to sit at the bar is at either of two high, long tables made out of fallen wood. The bench behind them faces the ocean…it is marvelous just to sit there and watch the setting sun change the sky pink.

As I sat there, leaf matter kept falling off of the tree above and onto my shirt. When some landed on my leg, I smacked it off. As I swatted, my hand registered that whatever I hit had depth to it. I was certain that I had just killed a gecko. Hopping down to the ground, I found this poor little gecko unconscious in the sand. “Oh no!” I exclaimed while repeatedly poking it in the stomach. The manager teased me that the island’s environmental police were going to jump out of the woods and arrest me for killing a gecko. I felt terrible yet continued to poke the gecko. Suddenly, it flipped itself over and scrambled up the tree like nothing had ever happened.

I went back to my fruity drink and broad beans
[2], ordering another drink to get over the shock of almost killing the poor little guy. You see, we love geckos. Everywhere tropical that we have ever traveled has had a house gecko in our room. While other guests may freak out, we welcome them for their mosquito-eating prowess and cute squeaking noises.

The rest of the night was a blur of tequila shots with those fun loving Turks, Gokce and Gokce. I’m surprised that I made it back to the room. This was not going to be a good start to our island hopping excursion the next day.

[1] Obnoxious Squaking: No, I am not one of those people that write on TripAdvisor that they didn’t like a hotel because there were too many bugs in the jungle or that the frogs were too loud after the rains. I love the birds, the birds are very pretty…just not at five a.m.
[2] Broad bean: a wide bean native to Southwest Asia and served fried and salted. It’s so delicious. I hate peanuts. Why can’t America use broad beans instead?

Friday, July 18, 2008

Koh Yao - Day One

No matter what, something bad always happens on our intra-country flights. When we went to Thailand in 2004, it happened on our flight from Chiang Mai (coming from a hotel that we loathed) to a remote island that we had built up in our minds as paradise. When we got to the Thai Airways boarding desk, they said that they gave our seats away because we didn’t call 24 hours in advance. Nothing on the boarding agreement said anything about that rule. Hours later, we negotiated our way on another flight and arrived in Phuket so late that we missed our transfer to the island and had to stay the night at another crappy hotel. In Guatemala in 2007, it was our flight from Flores to Guatemala City. We were leaving the jungle to go to this beautiful old Spanish-style city surrounded by volcanoes. When we got to the airport, we found out the early flight had been canceled and that they may cancel this one too. Just because. We ended up getting to Guatemala City two hours later than scheduled and then spent another three in the freezing cold luggage area with no bathroom while we waited for our luggage to go all the way back to Flores and return again, thus earning Taca Airlines the dubious nickname of Caca Airlines.

This time, I was prepared for the worst and planned for it as well. I packed emergency clothing in my carry-on (for an island, this meant one dress, one bathing suit, one pair of flip flops and two bottles of sunscreen), had the concierge call Thai Airlines 72 hours in advance to confirm our reservations, ensured that I had no hairspray, no lighter, no matches, no nail clippers and so forth in my purse, and headed off totally comfortable in the fact that we would be on that plane. Confident, we approached the ticketing agent who was all smiles. She found our reservation, went to print our boarding passes, and then said, “credit card?” I informed her that the tickets were paid. She politely informed me that the credit card that we made our reservation with was required to be shown before she gave us boarding passes. I, not so politely, informed here that absolutely nowhere on the boarding agreement did it say that. She wouldn’t budge. Also not so politely, I dropped the f-bomb at her. She recoiled and I immediately felt terrible. David took over and found out that we had to go to the ticketing department, purchase new tickets and have the old tickets refunded. Considering that I am still waiting for Thai Airways to refund $500 of tickets from May when I found that they had the tickets cheaper and bought them again (under their refund policy), I wasn’t quite convinced that I would see the money any time soon. We were traveling with our debit card only, so it was a damn good thing we had the flexibility to pay for that unexpected expense.

We made it through three security checkpoints and were going through our very last one with the gate in clear sight when David got stopped. “This is going to be bad,” I thought and it was. In the agent’s hands was a bottle of our favorite scotch, Glenmoragie 18 year, purchased for a pleasing price at Taiwan’s duty-free store. What ensued was 15 minutes of me, David, one agent, and three other agents that would occasionally come over to listen to the conversation while none of the agents actually spoke English. This made it very hard to communicate that it came from the duty-free store (even though it was in a duty-free bag). Eventually, someone got it and asked to see the receipt. David went pale, said that it was in his checked luggage, and this is how our plan to save money at the Paradise (by drinking our expensive scotch for cheap instead of the reverse at their beach bar) went into the garbage. The agents said that there was possibly no way that we could get his bag checked in time as the plane was leaving at any moment. With that, after trying to shove the bottle on the agent, I cringed as David threw it into the garbage. We then sat in the airport terminal for another hour while our flight was delayed.

We had a non-eventful but freezing-cold flight to Phuket where the immediate heat and humidity that greeted us was welcoming. We located our driver from the Paradise easily and were driven to the dock. I’d have to say that the Phuket airport is the prettiest ever, with lush tropical trees and beautiful ocean surrounding it (well, maybe a tie with the airport on the Big Island of Hawaii). Soon we were at the dock, much changed from the last time we were there. After a nice cup of tea, we were headed back to “what we see when we dream”.

David said that it felt like coming home. We knew the boat route, we knew which bluff we needed to go around to arrive at our destination. With no visible signs other than the shape of the island, we just knew. Our bodies remembered every feeling, every sight that they saw on our last trip and stored it away for future reference. This isn't like coming home to the same boring thing but instead is coming home to jade green waters, limestone formations jutting out of the ocean, sometimes with beaches and large terrain, sometimes with a single, fauna covered towering rock. I was happy to be headed back to my weakness.

We were met by familiar faces and enthusiastically met by Man, confirmation that we made an impression on him just like he did on us. When we travel, we’re usually the ones drinking or going clubbing with the staff. I think that it is our cultural understanding and genuine friendliness that allow us to make so many friends abroad.

I had requested room 282, a jacuzzi villa overlooking both bays. As there was construction nearby and we were return customers, they upgraded us to a pool villa. That made it entirely worth losing the scotch. It was the best of the villas, set back from the main path with gardens that were very private, an excellent view of the ocean from both in and out of the infinity view pool (5’5” deep, perfect for swimming). While the layout was similar to the jacuzzi villa, it was on a much grander scale. Huge shower room, dual sinks, a dressing room, a toilet room, a closet almost as large as my office. There was also the nice addition of an outdoor swinging bench, an outdoor bar, and plenty of outdoor seating.

First step, eat lunch. Second step, change into swimwear and camp out on the beach. We spent the first six hours of our time there between the ocean, the pool, and smoking Cubans on the loungers in the sun with nothing but the sounds of lapping waves and birds to keep us company. It is absolutely amazing how exhausting just lying around can be. We lounged away hours, playing in the sand, taking photographs.

The new general manager, Michael, had implemented a manager’s social night which happened to be on the night of our arrival. We showered, got dressed up a bit and popped on down to the beach bar for many rounds of the deliciously fruity and knock-your-socks-off house drink and plenty of appetizers. This was a nice addition as it provided an easy forum to socialize with other guests and get to know the general manager as it may come in handy later. Thai cuisine has these little lettuce wrap things are made with basil instead. I think that they are absolutely to die for and had to keep myself from parking out at the wrap station once I realized that they were serving them.

I would have camped out and not cared what anyone thought of me scarfing down wrap after wrap if I didn’t just have the feeling that I was being watched. There was a couple around our age sitting next to us at the bar and I just felt eyes piercing into me but, whenever I looked, neither of them were looking at me. David decided to improve the tension by taking the walk back to the room so he could get his camera and geek out with the professional photographer who was there. Alone I sat at the bar, twiddling my thumbs. The couple eventually joined the manager at a beach table but I still had this feeling of eyes piercing through me. I finally just got up, walked over, and said “My husband’s disappeared. Do you mind if I sit down?” And that is how we ended up meeting Gokce and Gokce, a Turkish couple married the day after us, that we dub handsome Gokce or beautiful Gokce to differentiate which one we are talking about what with their same names and all.

Beautiful Gokce, an English teacher, was absolutely engaging. Handsome Gokce, a civil engineer, was more reserved mainly due to his discomfort speaking English. As the night wore on, and the drinks kept coming on, handsome Gokce became less self-conscious and more talkative and all four of us were engaged in lively banter. Beautiful Gokce mentioned that she kept staring at me because of my eyes, a blue that she said she had never seen before and matched perfectly to my shirt. She kept saying a blessing in Turkish that was something about keeping curses away from my eyes.

After hours of drinks at the bar, we headed over to the main restaurant grabbing a table for four in the sand. Thai buffet night…we all dug in. Eventually, we were doing tequila shots. Round after round until David finally noticed that our server was ever-so-slightly pacing back and forth behind our table with a quiet demeanor common to the Thais. Well past closing time, we were the only guests left. Calling it a night, we drunkenly tromped back to our rooms. The Gokce’s were in a pool villa next to ours so we took their main path back, saying goodnight as we continued on. Right after their villa, the path ended and we had to tromp through the grass and bushes in the dark to get to our villa. Alas, we had taken a wrong turn. Not having seen a snake last time we were on the island, I felt confident that there would not be a snake in the bush. I’d save that for another night. In the meantime, we blew out all of the candles that had been lit by the staff and crawled into bed, mosquito netting firmly tucked in place. Day one was complete. We were at home, we were comfortable, and we had seven more days to look forward to.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Bangkok - Day Three - Part Three

We are terribly adept at accomplishing more in the morning before most people wake. David says that we're like the army. Keeping in tradition, we had already visited Lumphini Park and traveled to and from Ko Kret by 11:00 a.m. We were starving.

We had a leisurely lunch at our favorite sushi joint in town, sharing eight different kinds of sashimi. One interesting dish was some fish that I had never heard of. It was covered in kimchi
[1] and taught me a valuable lesson…Kimchi still tastes like kimchi even if you wrap it in delicious raw fish.

From there, it was on to Siam Paragon for some shopping. We had barely done any shopping so far, spending nary an hour at the mall right next to our hotel. A mall in which I couldn’t even afford to breathe in some stores. A mall that taught me a hard, fast lesson that La Perla should be avoided at all costs as you will want something and you will justify buying something and then you’ll walk outside and realize that your impulse could have fed an entire Thai family for two months.

The last time that we were in Bangkok there was only one mall, MBK. David described it as a ten-story flea market. I’d have to agree as navigating MBK was like navigating Bangkok’s Chinatown, complete with food carts and cheap knockoffs. We had been in search of something to wear out on the town as our friend Sunny was taking us out dancing. We finally broke down and asked someone in the mess of MBK where we could buy nicer clothes. A round of us speaking Engrish
[2] back and forth resulted in a lightbulb going on in her mind and she said, “Fat-in-a-bowl”? “Yes!” we replied, “Fashionable!” She smiled and said, “Siam Square!”

Siam Square was quite different than MBK. It was a side street with a smattering of nicely designed clothing and house wares, much more leisurely and up our alley. When it came time to finally put some shopping in this trip, we knew that Siam Square was our destination.

All the new things that I had read prior to this trip informed me that Siam Square had been renamed “Siam Paragon” and was now an actual brick and mortar mall. Imagine our surprise when we found that it wasn’t just a mall, it was the mall. Made up of ten levels, called “facets”, the mall had koi ponds with bridges, outdoor seating over the water, the most delicious-looking restaurants that made me regret eating sashimi earlier, and bathrooms that actually stopped me in my tracks and made me wish that I had a camera what with its super-sleek design and huge flat screen televisions everywhere and all. David, being all metro, loves to shop and I love to spend money so we set off to find anything worthwhile.

The mall was so huge that we couldn’t even make it to the Oceanarium which at least gives us something to do next time we are in town. After about two hours, we totally burned out on shopping, dropped off our packages at the hotel, and headed out for another Thai massage.

It was about six. We were getting hungry and went looking for my favorite noodle vendor. I got down to the ATM bank and she wasn’t there…drats. So we set off to find other food. It was seemingly too early for most vendors but we were drawn to a bustling cul-de-sac a few streets down Sukhumvit. Where people are, food is. Harmlessly looking for food, we had found ourselves in Nana Palace, the “good time” capital of Asia. Not being one to cop out of an experience just because very questionable women (and girlie boys) are offering my husband a good time, I just soaked in the sights. Girls sitting around tables playing cards, some smoking. Lots of young white men who had drank way too much leering at the women. One girl was polite enough to offer me a good time, at least offering equal opportunity prostitution. In the midst of this trashy hedonism, David found something that he had been looking for. Fortunately, it had more than two legs.

It was here that I found myself standing in front of a bug vendor. Bugs are a traditional food of the Northern Thai farming community. It is the daughters of these poor farmers that usually work in Nana Palace and the bug vendors work these streets to provide this comfort food of sorts to these girls. Giant or bite-sized cockroaches, fat grubs and extra-large crickets were all fried and selectively seasoned. David was thrilled to finally try some entomology cuisine, a quest he was not successful in completing on our last trip. I navigated him away from the grubs. He didn’t want to eat a cockroach because he thought it would be gooey but he was perfectly fine eating a lump of goo in the form of a grub. He finally saw my point and ordered a bag of the deep fried crickets as well as a scoop of what I can only describe as “an assorted ant stir-fry with green onion, basil, and peppers”.

We found that people stared at us a lot in Thailand and believe that it’s because we’re always parked at some food vendor of sorts. We pass the rest of the tourists sitting at restaurants with names like “The German Haus” , stepping over a puddle of what could possibly be urine in the process, to take a seat on a little plastic stool amid the filth and traffic to be fed the real thing. Thai’s take interest. If we catch their eye, they smile as if to say, “You different. You love our country.” Tourists look too but their eyes scream, “Don’t you know you shouldn’t eat that?! That water has ice in it. You could get a parasite! You don’t know what that meat is!” I don’t think that we’ve ever been looked at as much as when we were standing at the bug vendor. It seemed that every girl around had gathered to see if we were going to walk away empty handed. When David popped a large handful of crickets and declared them delicious, there was a collective gasp like, “Damn! The boy
[3] did it!”

“Tastes like potato chips,” David said. Eating handful after handful, we strolled back down toward the Thai massage place. He kept telling me that they were like the tastiest potato chip he had ever had and that I just had to try one. As I am not a fan of potato chips, that was exactly the wrong way to lure me. I promised to try one when we got back to the room. I didn’t want to vomit in public.

It was down our little Sukhumvit Soi 11 that I was just tromping along, looking at the street, when the second of three things that I have always wanted to see/hear in my life happened. I almost walked into the back of what I thought was now just a myth...something that existed at one time but was now just a legend. I looked up just in time to avoid ramming myself into the back of an elephant's behind. That's right, an elephant on the streets of Bangkok. We've been around elephants's just such a trip to see one on a street crowded with people and vendors. Street elephants are the elephants of poor famers who come into the city to beg for money with their elephant. Elephants are the pride of Thailand yet suffer much abuse by the hands of a desperate farmer who doesn't have any wood to farm for his elephant to earn its keep. Seeing it, I pulled out all of the money I had and just handed it to the mahoot. I didn't want a picture, I didn't want to feed it sugarcane (although I did), I just wanted to help this seemingly well-cared for elephant keep that way.

Two hours and another massage later, we were delighted to find that my favorite noodle vendor had set up shop. We filled our bellies one last time, memorizing her location in the hopes that she’ll be there upon our next return, and headed back to the hotel. As we walked into the room, David said that the crickets were spicy. That made all the difference to me. Tell me that something is spicy and I am totally down. As we set up the crickets for a photo shoot (and my eventual consumption), I noticed that they had beady red eyes, long fang-looking things, huge wings, and a two inch body. There was no way in hell that I was going to eat a single one. Besides, they were cold.

We spent the rest of the night packing. Going to bed at one only to be up at five, we made good use of our last night in Bangkok. In the morning, we put on our best in island wear. We were returning to our version of tropical paradise, Koh Yao, an island that David, when describing to locals how much he loves it there, waxed poetic with “It is what I see when I close my eyes and dream.”

[1] Kimchi: officially, a traditional Korean dish made with fermented vegetables and spices. Unofficially, it tastes like rotten vegetables in vinegar and smells just as bad.
[2] Engrish: a form of broken, grammatically incorrect, and often poorly spelled English that thrives in Asia.
[3] Boy: David sometimes gets carded for rated R movies and always gets carded for alcohol. No one thinks that he could quite possibly be 30 this Friday. On our trip, everyone thought that he was a student. It used to be cute. Now that I am married to him, I feel like a cougar and am kind of sick of people wondering if I am robbing the cradle.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Bangkok - Day Three - Part Two

Forty-five minutes later, we were still attempting to hail a cab. We were on a main street, passed by hundreds of cabs, none of which were stopping as they already had a fare or just couldn’t get to us. There was a very elderly Thai woman standing down from us that also couldn’t catch a cab. When a cab stopped for us, we ushered the woman into it and hailed down another for ourselves. Our destination was Ko Kret, a small island located on the Chao Prao River, located 13 miles north of Bangkok. I had heard that there were no cars and very little tourists and ignored the bits about it being the durian[1] capital of the world.

We had come into the habit of asking the concierge to write down what we wanted in Thai in order to get around. Most cabbies in Bangkok have no driving experience, came from Northern Thailand, and don’t really know their way around. Unless you are asking to go to the Grand Palace, be prepared to a) have a map to show them where you want to go b) have your destination written down in Thai by your concierge prior to hailing a cab or c) combine a and b as just having one or the other will usually not get you there and you’ll find yourself (or your spouse) directing your driver through the streets of Bangkok as you have come to know your way around in 72 hours better than the driver has in three years.

This habit came in handy when we asked the cabbie to take us to the island. He had no idea where it was but the concierge had thankfully written down the province as well, which assisted the cabbie in at least heading in the right direction. By the time that we got to Nonthaburi province, the cabbie was so out of his element that he would randomly stop the car in the middle of the street and track down other cabbies in the neighborhood for directions. If the cab he was headed to was empty, he would make exaggerated movements of frustration. He was very helpful once we arrived at the dark street leading to the pier, pulling his cab over and walking us down the dreary path assuring us that the pier would be at the end. With no common language between us, he fully managed to explain how to navigate the water taxi system.

A short boat ride later, we arrived at Ko Kret. Comparably, it was a place with nothing fantastic to look at when you have the competing splendors in just down the river in Bangkok, an island fact that keeps the crowds away. Ignoring an islander’s offer for a scooter rental (the only form of motorized transportation on Ko Kret), we headed off on foot to explore the island at a more gentle pace. We were the only foreigners on Ko Kret reveling on our island of no note while others of the travel breed queued up at Jim Thompson’s House[2].

A curious cat, a man sculpting dragons out of clay, a few dilapidated temples, and several cups of my dream Thai coffee (brewed strong, poured back and forth, and then over sweetened condensed milk) were the only things of note on Ko Kret. A simple chalk drawing of a home by local child was a reminder of how different we were, how much we stuck out yet how, at some level, we’ve all enjoyed similar childhoods. A Playboy bunny sticker on the basket of a bike was another reminder that Americana is never too far away.

Ko Kret would be a disappointing outing for most, but was a delightful one for two of us. Small walkways covered in green tarp made the main path with the occasional opportunity to walk down to a small pier or wander through overgrown temple grounds. This quiet island was a breath of fresh air, a fine example of how life can be exempt from the 24-hour bustle of ATM machines and 7-11’s that lie just 12 miles away.

[1] Durian: Supposedly, the king of fruits. More like the king of stink. Its smell can only be described as rotting flesh wrapped in sweaty socks. I, thankfully, found no sign of durian during our time on Ko Kret.
[2] Jim Thompson’s House: Jim Thompson is the man who revved up the Thai silk business during the mid-1900’s when Bangkok was still just a growing town amidst a large jungle. His traditional Thai home of six structures (designed by Jim himself, an architect as well as businessman) is now a museum and a place to bump sweaty elbows with a bunch of other tourists. This isn’t to say that I don’t want to bump sweaty elbows to view what is apparently the ex-pat dream home…it’s just to say that I’ll get around to it. Someday. In the meantime, don’t I feel a Thai massage coming on?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Dinner Snapshot - Mahi Mahi Salad with Garlic Bread

David's sister, Nyron, requested that we start posting the recipes with the photos of our dinners. Great idea!

Mahi Mahi Salad

8 oz Mahi Mahi
Sea salt
Fresh ground pepper
4 slices uncured, thick-sliced bacon chopped
Baby spinach (enough to feed two people)
4 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 large shallot, minced

Remove skin from mahi mahi. Cut flesh into small chunks and season with sea salt and pepper. Set aside.

Heat a large skillet over a medium flame. Add bacon and cook until most of the fat has cooked out and bacon is crisp. During cooking, maintain flame so that bacon grease remains in pan.

Meanwhile, combine the vinegar and shallot in a small bowl. Pepper to taste. Pour vinegar mixture over bowl of spinach.

When bacon is cooked, remove with a slotted spoon and put on top of spinach. Pour two tablespoons of the bacon grease over the spinach and toss.

Bring remaining bacon grease back to medium-high. Add mahi mahi and cook until opaque. Toss mahi mahi into salad and serve.

Garlic Bread

½ a baguette, sliced into ½ pieces
Olive oil for brushing
Three peeled garlic cloves, slightly crushed

Preheat oven to 400. Brush bread slices with olive oil and place on baking sheet. Bake for 5 minutes at 400. Increase heat to 500 and bake for another 5 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove from oven and rub each side of the bread with a garlic clove.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Bangkok - Day Three - Part One

Brought to you in several manageable sections as it was our last day and we had to make up for lost time. Besides, my continued jet lag makes it impossible to focus.

One congratulatory cake and twelve hours of sleep later, we rose before the sun, before the birds, and before the smog of Bangkok became so thick you could cut it with a knife. It seemed like time moved terribly slow…like when you wake up to go to the gym and then don’t arrive until an hour later. All you had to do was put on your clothes and shoes that you had so carefully laid out the night before! How could it have taken an hour?

We had decided to visit Lumphini Park that morning, Bangkok’s big breath of fresh air. Although it was less than a mile away, we took so long to get ready that we had to catch a cab (a cab!) to the park in order to make it by 7 a.m. Seven is the magical number in which the park really gets hopping, according to Fodder’s, Frommer’s, Lonely Planet and all those other guide books that I read.

At seven, there were definitely some fun sights in Lumphini but we couldn’t help feeling that things would have been a lot more active an hour earlier. You read me travel guides? Six! Six is the magical number! A lot of people were already packing it in to go to work. This reminds me…It seems like no one works in Bangkok as the streets are always packed. Cars, bikes, motorbikes, pedestrians…Don’t these people have some place to be?

The beloved King[1], encourages health and fitness among his people so people visit the park in droves. Once again, our early start made us the only tourists in a place packed with something exciting to take a photo of around every corner. Groups of men and women, young and old practicing fan dances, doing tai chi, jogging, practicing yoga, singing karaoke around built-in television sets or briskly walking around pumping their arms up and down in strange ways. My favorites? Two young women doing martial arts with swords in the middle of the path[2] or the lone elderly woman practicing tai chi on a bridge.

Although the national anthem plays daily at eight a.m. (at which time the park freezes), our stomachs led us to miss that sight in search of breakfast. By seven thirty, we were walking up and down two sides of the park analyzing each street vendor to pick our meal. Determining that it was too early for curry and fried chicken and eliminating everything with easily identifiable egg (hey, the only egg I’ll eat is scrambled really dry), we walked the length of those vendors twice before deciding on our original choice.

At home, we are dedicated pho[3] eaters, enjoying it four or five times a week during the winter and once or twice a week during the summer. We quickly found that we had a tendency to gravitate toward soups in Bangkok. This time, our noses guided us to a vendor serving a soup that smelled so tasty that we were pretty certain it would taste as good as it smelled. Without even wondering what was in it, we ordered two bowls. Rice, a delicious fish stock, about eight ounces of flaky whitefish and a smattering of green onions made up the bowl. We tossed in the traditional flavors of Thai food: a bit of sugar for the sweet, hot chilies for the spicy, soy sauce and shrimp paste for the salty, and lime juice for the sour. Digging in, we were pleased to discover that it was fish and not something frightening, like tripe (our motto, if it has gills, we’ll eat it.)[4] What a tasty fish soup it was. We both commented how we paid a grand total of $3.12 (100 baht) for such a wonderful dish. I only had a momentary flash back to the man fishing in the raw sewage that is the Chao Prao River the previous day. I then quickly added a few more spoonfuls of peppers to my soup, my version of spraying on Windex. Hungover? Have peppers! Open wound? Add peppers! Have a cold? Blow it out with peppers! They make anything better.

After breakfast, I located a Thai iced tea vendor and promptly ordered two. We watched as she brewed the dark tea, poured it back and forth with coconut milk, and then poured it into a little plastic bag filled with ice. After a few sips of it, I found a garbage can. It was the reminder that it is Thai coffee I like instead of the tea, not the fact that it was over street ice, which lead me to throw it away. David quickly followed suit, although I suspect that he was creeped out by the ice. It was time to hail a cab and move on to next part of our day.

[1] Long Live the King: The majority of Thais were wearing a yellow Livestrong type bracelet that said “Long Live the King” in English or Thai.
[2] I mean, really, swords? How cool is that! In the U.S., you’d be arrested for being in the park with a large weapon.
[3] Pho: Vietnamese noodle soup.
[4] Last year’s motto: “If it oinks, we’ll eat it.” We’ve definitely been refining our eating habits.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Bangkok - Day Two

Before leaving, I had meticulously planned out the plane route in order to determine exactly when we should take ambien. Four hours into our 13 hour flight to Taipei would put us at 20:00 Bangkok time, what we considered an acceptable time to fall asleep. Our flight left at 02:00 Utah time and it proved to be a challenge to staying up the additional four hours as the previous night had been our wedding night.

After the wedding ended, we went back to the majestic suite at Hotel Monoco to relax in the jacuzzi tub. Afterward, we put back on our wedding clothes and met up with David’s family down at Murphy’s. We drank until last call then headed back to uncle Reuben and auntie Helen’s room at the Monoco. We partied down with David’s mom’s side of the family. His sister, Stephanie, and I tangoed with Uncle Rueben until three a.m. at which point Stephanie stopped to order two of every sandwich on the menu. For the next hour Stephanie’s husband, Mike, kept interjecting all conversations with, “Can’t a brother get a sandwich?” or “What’s a brother got to do to get a sandwich up in these parts.” Needless to say, the sandwiches took a long time. By the time we got to bed, it was 04:30 on the day that we left for Thailand.

We ended up taking ambien an hour early so our first night in Bangkok saw us asleep by ten. Our first morning had us rising at 4:30, showered by 5:30, and pounding the Bangkok streets by 6:00. We found the streets to be empty, the temperature to be cool and headed out with the mission to see monks on their morning alms route
[1]. Heading in the direction of the Grand Palace, we stopped for bags of fresh pineapple chunks from the first vendor we spotted.

Moments later, we were completely lost. Whenever you find yourself in this situation in Bangkok, it is best to play what we call Follow that Monk! Wander until you find a monk, easy to spot in bright orange, and follow him because a) who’s going to jump you when a monk is around? b) he’s probably headed someplace that you’ve either been or want to see and c) will guarantee that you cross the road safely if you always position cars with a monk between you. Who’s going to hit a monk?

While the monk did help us avoid early morning traffic, he also lead us to a part of town where we immediately got even more lost. There was even a map near one building! None of the streets listed on the map were discoverable on our map of Bangkok, rendering the entire thing useless. After finding our way out of a twisted maze of streets, we hailed the first cab we could find and ordered it to the Grand Palace. Half a mile later, we were there. I had to laugh…If only we had kept walking.

Killing time until the Grand Palace opened, we headed over to Wat[2] Pho. As the origin of my beloved Thai massage, I was anxious to check the place out. We were steps away from the entrance when our path was blocked by a determined tuk tuk driver. “You need ride”, “Where you from?”, “Grand Palace closed today. I’ll take you to special clothing store instead.” I just walked away while David tried to shake him. When I could, I grabbed David’s hand and pulled him into the courtyard of Wat Pho.

We found ourselves alone, save twenty or so school children playing football on one side of the courtyard. There are three things that I’ve always wanted to hear or see in Thailand and the first occurred when we rounded a corner. From a building next to us came the deep monotone of thirty chanting monks and laid out before us were tables divided with equally offerings of their morning alms offerings. We stopped and took it all in. The chanting monks saying their morning prayers, the simple offerings, the temples glowing in the early morning light and not a single other tourist on the premises.

We emerged an hour and a half later, thirsty and starving. The hunt was on to find out which vendor would supply us with breakfast. Wandering up and down a main street in front of the Grand Palace, we settled on another soup vendor. This time, we were not only provided with beef balls and thin flank we were treated to crispy duck! The duck was from the crispy duck vendor across from our vendor, making it fun to see how they work together to make a livelihood.

After being harassed several times by tuk tuk drivers wanting to take us to “special clothing store”, our defenses were up when we were stopped by a man on the street. He introduced himself as a member of the Royal Thai Army and pointed to the nearby army building. He informed us of a few things we could do to not get ripped off by tuk tuk drivers and then informed us that the Grand Palace was closed to tourists until 1:30 that day. Damn tuk tuk harassers were telling the truth all along. He then pulled out our map and showed us several wats worth seeing that wouldn’t have many tourists. At that point, he called over a tuk tuk and showed him every wat that he wanted us to go to. The driver said “100 baht” and our guide said something in Thai about him being Royal Thai Army at which point the driver got wide-eyed, bowed a bunch, saluted him and said “40 baht” to us. This story is not only remarkable as it tells you how we got an entire day touring Bangkok for $1.18 but is remarkable as the Royal Army guy had the World’s Longest Mole Hair. Not kidding. The mole was just under his left eye and the hair went about ¼ inch past his chin. It wasn’t until afterward that I realized that David totally could have gotten a photo if I would have said something like, “Can I have a photo with our new friend?” A missed photo opportunity.

We were definitely not lead astray by our hairy friend. Temple of the Golden Buddha, Temple of the Golden Mount, Temple of the Four Buddhas, and one additional temple later, we were always by ourselves or the only foreigners. At the Temple of the Four Buddhas, the only other visitor was a 28 year old Thai man who was saying his morning prayers. He was fascinated that foreigners had decided to come there and ended up telling us the significance of all the monuments at the wat. He took us into a prayer room, explained the proper prayer method and then said a prayer with us. Being the skeptics that we are, we kept wondering when he was going to ask us to visit “very special clothing store”. All he wanted was to share his culture with two farangs who decided to travel off the beaten path.

By one p.m., the heat was stifling. As heat and I equal bad news, it was time to get me off the streets. Just as my condition was deteriorating, we were held hostage by our tuk tuk driver who refused to take us where we wanted to go. He just kept yelling at us that we must go to “special clothing store. You don’t need to buy. They give me coupon for gas.” After a shouting match between the three of us, David ordered him to pull over and caught us a proper taxi back to Soi 11 for another two hours of Thai massage. The ice cold room hit the spot.

We had planned on getting a bite to eat after the massage and then retiring to our room for a nap. We wanted to leave the crowded streets, people in every photo, and sweltering humidity to the inexperinced tourists. After all, the light was bad at that time of day anyway. What's the point of even taking out your camera?

Prior to our massage, we saw many street vendors right off of the main street, Sukhumvit. By the time we got out of our massage, all had packed it in as it was too hot to operate. Starving, we pounded the streets for a vendor, any vendor. We came across a green coconut vendor so we each stopped for fresh chilled coconut milk. After thirty minutes of finding nothing but more refreshments, we hailed a taxi back to the Four Seasons.

We deposited ourselves at their poolside restaurant and went hog wild. Mixed satay skewers, spring rolls, tofu pockets and plenty of Perrier. This story ended shortly with the heat putting me in bad shape. David got me back to the room and put me to bed. I slept until 20:00 at which point I woke David up for a dinner and a night in the Big Mango.

“No, I want to sleep.” He whined. “Come on, it’s a night in Bangkok.” I retorted. “Sleep tonight,” was his final word.

So I slept. Until 12:30 a.m. at which point I was wide awake and pretty irritated that he wanted to sleep through a night in Bangkok. I was thinking about all the missed opportunities. Would I have eaten the famed fried chicken in chili sauce from a vendor? Would we have ended up at that delicious Indian restaurant at Face Bar? Would we have spent a night shakin’ our groove thangs at Bed? As soon as he rolled over, I ensured that he was awake and miserable too. What could be done about it other than eat that yummy-looking congratulations cake that was put in our room and to get up early the following morning to enjoy the town without the rest of the world?

[1] Alms route: Thai’s make merit by providing food to the monks. Each morning, the monks come by with alms bowls and are provided with offerings. These offerings feed the monks for the day.
[2] Wat: Thai Temple.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Bangkok - Day One

Three plane changes, two games of dominoes, one book, and several movies later we arrived in Thailand without incident. Playing up the honeymooner card really helped out. It almost resulted in an upgrade to first class on the Air China flight to Taipei. At the last minute, someone paid to sit in those seats and we lost out. Just knowing that we could have flown first class pulled me through.

I think that we had good travel mojo going for us due to a good deed done in the SeaTac airport. We had already figured out where our gate was and went to explore the vastness that is SeaTac. On our way back, I saw a pilot trying to help out a Vietnamese family. I figured that he was attempting to tell them how to get to their gate and that they were probably on the same flight as us. That’s how we ended up adopting a six member Vietnamese family that spoke about six words of English, between the six of them. They latched on to us as we lead them to the gate. It was a very long distance from where we picked them up so they kept looking concerned. Eventually, the dad just handed David his luggage which was, we assume, packed with nothing but rocks. I looked over my shoulder and noticed that the young teenage girl was struggling along with her bag. As I had rollers, I just plopped hers on mine and soon discovered that her luggage was packed to the brim with rocks as well. Once we deposited them and their rocks at the gate, we sat down for a game of dominoes. It seemed to interest every Asian person in the terminal. The Vietnamese father even came over to offer David game advice. He was very disappointed when David lost to me. I, on the other hand, was happy to show my dominoes prowess to the world.

The last time arrived at BKK, we were among the throes of stressed out tourists trying to make sense of the maddening array of people offering you transport. At that moment, everything you read in the guidebook and filed away in the “come home alive” mental folder is lost. Was it the pink cabs with yellow license plates that have been known to murder people or was it the yellow cabs with blue license plates? Lessons learned last time (and the grace of picking the correctly colored cab) led us to book transport directly with the hotel.

We emerged from the baggage claim with all luggage in tact and was immediately met by a representative of the Four Seasons who took our luggage and called around the car. What a car it was. David says something about S Class Mercedes (or was that 5 Class…whatever). I just know that it was filled with ice cold bottles of water, chilled lemongrass scented towels, and these little coffee flavored hard candies that were to die for. He noted that the seats were fully adjustable by these five little buttons on the door. Want to recline like you are in a La-Z-Boy? Just touch a button!

As soon as we arrived, our bags were whisked away and we were sitting down to lunch at Spice Market, their Thai restaurant. Our choice of hotel this time around was due to a terrible hotel experience last time. During our last stay, our friend, Sonny, was staying at the Four Seasons and we would find refuge from our hotel hell by eating his daily fruit basket and relaxing on his non-lumpy mattress. This time, we wanted that for ourselves! We knew that it would be relaxing and that food would be good if we got there and had nothing available but room service. What we will do for a late night burger that doesn’t taste like dog food.

A leisurely lunch and a shower later, we were on the streets heading out to our favorite Thai massage joint. We found it easily thanks to my stellar mental filing system. Two hours and one fabulous Thai massage later, we had been smacked, thwacked, and cracked from foot to neck. Who knew that you could actually have your spine swung so far around that you could be staring at your own rear?

Emerging refreshed and starving, we headed up Soi 11 looking for a street vendor to fill our tummies. Right across from the ATM bank, we found what became my favorite vendor in all of Bangkok. It was the familiar smell of Vietnamese pho that lured us in but it was definitely its own Thai dish. We dined on a soup of beef balls, thinly sliced beef, and fatty flank. Self seasoned with fish sauce, chili peppers, sugar, and other spices it hit the spot. I shall dream about this soup until I return again.

The party animals that we are, we were back in our room by ten p.m. As we were about to find out, in Bangkok the early bird really gets the worm.