Browsing Date

January 2012

Bangkok, Thailand January 31, 2012

On Sexy Buddha and Underestimating Bangkok

We didn’t have a long list of things to do in Bangkok. My brother and I arrived in Bangkok, the first city in our SE Asia trip, with only one thing in mind:

Eat Thai food

We quickly realised it wasn’t an ambitious enough list. Not by a long shot.

The thing is, I sort of underestimated Bangkok: To be honest, I was expecting Bangkok to be your typical Asian capital city: hot and dusty, legendary traffic jams, uninspiring and dusty concrete buildings…

But Bangkok surprised us. (Even though the hot part and the traffic jam parts are also true).

The thing about having an unambitious to-do list is that all the other extra stuff we ended up enjoying about Bangkok was just extra bonus points.

The Grand Palace was a wow-zer in its over the top way – Bonus point!

Thai Grand Palace complex

Thai Grand Palace

Bangkok Grand Palace

The giant reclining Buddha was well… big and horizontal. Very cool, indeed. Bonus point!

The fact that Buddha has a come-hither look that makes this the sexiest Buddha statue I’ve ever seen? Double bonus point!

Bangkok Giant Reclining Buddha

Sexy Buddha

Many of Bangkok’s points of interest are located within walking distance from Chao Phraya river. You can jump on a public boat and get on and off at any pier that looks interesting all for 15 Baht (50 cents) a trip – Bonus point!

We took a trip on a long boat tour through the residential part of Bangkok canals. The idea is that you get to see the life of those who live by the river. It would’ve been interesting, but we must’ve picked a bad time because we didn’t see any ‘life’ so to speak. The only people we saw on this trip were people in the laughable ‘floating market’ – 3 boats selling overpriced bananas. This was just ok and does not merit a bonus point.

And then there’s the famous Bangkok’s nightlife. I took my brother out to a bar on Nana district. We saw men the age of our fathers acting like frat boys: going crazy on the dance floor with beer in one hand and a young Asian girl my brother’s age on the other. Rocking it, grinding it, and in general having a grand old time. I found it all very fascinating. My brother found it shocking. I almost can never shock my brother so – Bonus point!

And of course we ate a bunch of Thai food. The wonderful Thai people makes it so easy. Empty sidewalk is considered a disgrace and when not taken by souvenir stalls, it’s filled with stands selling fresh fruit, fish cake, grilled fish, grilled meat and other types of deliciousness that makes my mouth water just writing about it – GIANT Bonus point!

Delicious Thai spring rolls

Delicious Thai spring rolls - one of our nibbles

My brother and I have adapted a grazing style of eating while we were there. We never sat down to eat, we just kind of… nibbled. A little bit here and there.

So many things about Bangkok came as a pleasant surprise.

The only thing that was NOT a pleasant surprise? The heat and the humidity. My brother and I are probably the only non heat-resistant Asians out there. In Bangkok’s relentless humidity, my face turns into an oil slick OPEC would be interested in. My brother sweats so much he often looks like he’s just fallen into one of the canals.

People say you’ll get used to it. We’re still waiting for it to happen. (Our guide at the Grand Palace said that Bangkok has 3 seasons: hot, hotter, and hottest).

Despite the heat, I have to say I kind of like Bangkok. It’s a fun city and I never thought I’d say that about any capital city in Asia. As we’re traveling through Cambodia and Vietnam (where we’re currently at) – we keep saying to each other: “Oh, can’t wait to get back to Bangkok!”


TLDR: Bangkok


1 hr long boat trip: 300 Baht a person
Bangkok Grand Palace admission fee: 400 Baht
Bangkok Reclining Buddha admission fee: 100 Baht
A tip on which area to stay in Bangkok: We stayed in Sukhumvit district and loved it! Staying close to a BTS station makes a huge difference.

Fes, Morocco January 11, 2012

Moroccan Souks – Crazy and Beautiful (Plus Sanity Tips)

Morocco

One of things I was most looking forward to on our visit to Morocco was exploring its famous souks. I’ve seen pictures and they always seemed so exotic. So foreign! People in strange dresses and stores selling strange things. I knew right away I’d love them. I’m glad to say that Moroccan souks managed to live up to a pretty high expectation.

A souk is the part of the medina (old town) of an Arab city where most of the stores congregate. A market if you will. It’s often informally divided into sections based on what’s being sold: leather goods, Berber traditional medicines, so on and so forth.

They’re almost always crowded, almost always run by men, and they’re always fun to explore. Each souk has its own personality and I got along with some of them better than the others. The funnest souk I went to in Morocco was in Fes. Followed by Marrakech, than Essaouira.

Marrakech souk feels more ‘airy’ – it has wider alleys and more tourists clogging them. It feels less threatening. The merchants ignore you more in Marrakech which makes window shopping in Marrakech a less-stressful affair. Relatively speaking.

The entrance to the Moroccan souk.

The entrance to the Moroccan souk

While Marrakech’s is deservedly popular, my heart belongs to crazy Fes. Fes and its maze of alleys, so narrow that at any given time the buildings around them cast a shadow over the cobbled lanes.

Fes medina

Fes

I love Fes because it’s everything I imagined Morocco to be: chaotic and overwhelming. Bright colors, weird smells, and foreign sounds. Skinned goat carcasses and camel heads. Donkey poo and urine stench.

Fes is mysterious. Fes is dark. It was the first time I felt out of the element, it was the first time I felt I was truly in a ‘foreign’ place, and it was the first time I felt that I had had inadvertently stepped back in time – however cliche it sounds.

Maybe it’s not so much I like Fes better, but Fes being the more memorable of any other souks we visited. It surely gave a whopping punch of first impression.

Djemaa Al Fna, Marrakech, Morocco

Djemaa Al Fna, Marrakech, Morocco

My favorite type of store to oggle and photograph in a souk is the leather slipper (or babouches) stores (by the way, don’t miss out on the tannery in Fes!). Arrays of brightly dyed sandals glimmer and sparkle under a dim lightbulb. Some can be quite detailed in its designs. I didn’t get any and I’m kind of regretting it right now. They’d make great souvenirs.

Not to mention they’re so purrrty!

Leather shoes at the souk in Fes, Morocco

Leather shoes at the souk in Fes, Morocco

Shopping in a Moroccan souk

Shopping wise, going shopping in Morocco can be an amusing experience. How can one not be amused when an opening price of 100 Dirham ended up in a final price of 12? All in about 30 seconds of haggling?

Haggling is an extreme sports for these Moroccan merchants. At least that’s what it seemed like. They like to start with as ridiculous of a price as they can get away with. Whatever else you do, just laugh at whatever price they first tell you and aim for 1/4 to 1/5 of that. The shock on their face is a well-practiced reaction.

Shopping in Morocco is not for the faint of heart, I’m telling you.

Tip on haggling in Morocco

One tip is take note if other stores sell the same item you’re interested in (most likely they will), and use the first store to get a gauge at how low they’re willing to go. All you have to do is walk away and they’ll quickly shout back a lower and lower price.

Trinkets sold at Moroccan souks

Trinkets sold at Moroccan souks

Horror stories

I’ve heard stories about people being overwhelmed and frustrated when navigating Moroccan souks (to the point they just pack up and leave the very same day). I can so totally see that happening. People call out to you all the time and they often don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Not the first ‘no’, nor the second or third.

But don’t let these stories scare you. I was terrified to step foot past the main gate of Fes only to feel mildly disappointed that nobody paid us any attention. No carpet sellers tried (too hard) to get us to buy their carpets. No mint tea offered. Wth?

Having said that, we still found Morocco to be an exhausting country to travel. We were told that Moroccan touts have calmed down a bit in the past years. We find it hard to imagine what it must’ve been like years ago.

A Berber pharmacy, Morocco

A Berber pharmacy, Morocco

Tips on Enjoying Your Moroccan Souk Experience

Ease yourself to it. The souk in Rabat and Essaouira are relatively laid back compared to Marrakech and Fes. So start there. While between Marrakech and Fes, the latter definitely has the higher ‘crazy’ factor.

Ask before taking pictures of displayed merchandise. Surprisingly about 1 in 4 people would actually NOT allow you to take pictures – either of themselves or of their goods. So, always ask and if they say ‘no’, smile and walk away.

If you get lost, ask someone who has a ‘job’ – someone working in a restaurant, a store owner, or a woman (not to be sexist, but Moroccan women always seem so busy they probably won’t have time to try to mislead you).

Stay in a riad. Many of these old palaces with inner gardes or courtyards have been converted into boutique hotels. It was such a nice feeling to end a hectic day in a private and quiet comfort of a beautiful courtyard.

If pressured to offer a price for something you innocently pick up but not necessarily want – screaming “Name your price! What’s your budget?! TELL ME!!” while blocking the entrance – as happened to me in Marrakech, just name something ridiculously low. So low that he’ll most likely get offended and shoo you away from the store. Offer him something close to reasonable, and you’ll most likely walk out with an item you don’t really want.

But more importantly, don’t feel pressured to like the experience. When it gets too much, go back to your hotel to take a breather, hang out at a restaurant to people watch, or go check out the local hammam. Morocco is so much more than the souks of Marrakech and Fes.


I love markets and I make a point of visiting the main market in every city, but there’s nothing that can prepare you for these Moroccan souks. I think it’s the closest thing to a true adventure in an urban setting.

Arm yourself with a healthy sense of humor and resilience, and be prepared to be charmed and exhausted at the end of the day.

Tell us:

How do you think you’ll like a Moroccan souk? Threatening or intriguing?

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia January 4, 2012

Vegetarian Guide to Ethiopian Food – More than just Shiro

Ethiopia

Coming to Ethiopia as a vegetarian, I knew that eating would not be a problem. I can tolerate injera – crepe like thing of the color and taste of a washcloth – which Ethiopians seem to eat with everything (they even eat injera WITH injera).

Vegetarianism itself is not such a foreign concept to Ethiopians even though they don’t necessarily call it by that name. The majority of Ethiopians are Orthodox Ethiopians and they don’t eat meat on Wednesdays and Fridays. On these days, non-meat fasting food can be found easily in restaurants.

But even on non-fasting days, any restaurant can be asked to prepare Shiro (pureed chickpeas in Berber sauce) at a moment’s notice.

Eating Shiro every day does get old every day though (and after a week of it, it can start to look like… nevermind). This is where Bayenetu comes in.

Bayenetu is a collection of meat-free dishes served over a plate of big round injera. Think of a sampler plate. What those dishes are depend on the restaurant. Each prepares it slightly differently:

Bayenetu

Bayenetu from Habesha Restaurant, Addis Ababa

Bayenetu from Unique Restaurant, Lalibela

Bayenetu from Unique Restaurant, Lalibela

Some dishes regularly found on Bayenetus include:
Aterkik Alitcha – yellow peas in sauce (my favorite!)
Atkilt Wot – cabbage, carrots, potatoes in sauce
Gomen – collard green cooked to perfection with spices
Misir Wot – pureed red lentil in berbere sauce

One thing they do have in common: shiro is always one of the dishes found on a Bayenetu. So yeah, you can’t escape Shiro altogether.

By the way, a fun thing to do in Addis Ababa is to go to Habesha Restaurant for dinner. They make the best Bayenetu I had in Ethiopia which goes so well with the house’s super strong Tej. Tej is Ethiopian wine made of fermented honey. It’s often served in glass beakers that look like they should belong in a Chemistry lab. Watch out. It packs quite a punch.

Habesha Restaurant, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Having Tej at Habesha

But the best part of going to Habesha is that you get to see a performance of Ethiopian dances every evening. Audience participation isn’t only encouraged, it’s practically mandatory. Check out the video to get a taste to Ethiopian music.

As a very last resort, spaghetti with tomato sauce is also very commonly served in Ethiopia. Expecting a sad looking pasta drenched in ketchup like sauce, I was constantly surprised. It might be a culinary skill left by the Italians during occupation decades ago, but I had some of the best spaghetti sauce here in Ethiopia. No kidding.

The sauce is always freshly made, a little spicy, and the pasta is always al dente – the way it’s supposed to be.

Fruit wise, I wasn’t too impressed by the varieties (I guess I’m spoiled). Juice of avocado, mango, strawberry, guava can be found in many restaurants. Try a mixed version of everything. It’s colorful and it’s really good. You don’t even need to tell them not to add sugar. Which I did and got a blank look from the waiter as a result. I know what he’s thinking too – ‘Duh, it’s fruit. Why would you add sugar?’ Thank you. Exactly. Can someone tell that to South Americans?

As a vegetarian traveling in Ethiopia, you won’t starve. But the lack of varieties can get to you after awhile. Thankfully, rumor has it Addis Ababa does have a few international restaurants like Thai (unable to find it), Indian (still an uncorroborated rumor), and I even saw a sign once for a Japanese restaurant (on Haile Gebrselassie Rd towards the airport if you’re so inclined to look for it). Finding them is a different matter.

(They don’t use street numbers, you can have to go by landmarks which makes finding anything feel like a treasure hunt.)

An unexpected side-effect of too much Ethiopian food?

I woke up one day and all I could think about was how to get my hands on a basket of fish and chips. Afterwards, I drooled at the thought of Mc Donald’s Egg McMuffin and hashbrowns. Then I thought of pizzas. I don’t even like pizzas.

See, Ethiopian food seems to be so low in fat and salt that after 2 weeks I craved for something just completely the opposite. The greasier the better. Thankfully, it was easily fixed by a quick stroll to Kaldi’s Coffee (Ethiopian version of Starbucks).

French fries and tiramisu never tasted sooo good. I even went for seconds. I guess there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing after all.