Tuesday, May 18, 2010

24 hours in Vientiane (Vieng Chan), Laos

Break your fast with an the omelet special or a flaky pastry at the Scandinavian Bakery near the fountain in the center of town, taking in a week old Bangkok Post, or splash out for the latest Vientiane Times, available at the register. After you've had your fill, head to the morning market (Dalat Sao) for a spot of shopping. This is the best place to pick up a stunning Laos style sarong, a bottle of local liquor with a snake in it, or a bronze cast Buddha.

When the haggling wears you down, regain your serenity at the 16th century temple Haw Phra Kaow . If your nerves need additional calming (and you're not templed out), the nearby Wat Si Saket offers further sanctuary from the pushy tuk tuk drivers outside.

By now it's time for lunch, and in Vientiane you're spoiled for options. Take your pick from excellent (and cheap!) Indian, French, Italian, Laos, and Thai options everywhere you turn.

The weirdest and some would say most interesting sight in the vicinity is the Buddha Park (Xieng Khuan) some 24 km away from central Vientiane, past the friendship bridge. A grassy field strewn with surreal concrete Buddha's, this place is one of a kind and a definite must see. To get there rent a motorbike and drive yourself or get ready to put those bargaining skills to use with a tuk tuk driver.

Next, beat the afternoon heat and practice that butterfly stroke at the Vientiane Swimming Pool near the stadium. Entrance costs 10,000 kip (around $1.20).

As sunset approaches, treat your weary muscles to a super hot sauna and massage with the monks at Wat Sok Pa Luang. It might seem odd to have a sauna in such heat, but it relaxes.

By now it's time for dinner so head to Kop Chai Deu near the fountain for some tasty Laos food and Beer Laos on tap.

Laos nightlife is picking up these days, so head to Samlor Pub for a spot of mixing and dancing, or grab some pals and go for bowling at one of the popular venues. When you've bowled your last frame, head to Future Tech to mingle with a young Laos crowd, or to Don Chan Palace, popular with both Laos and foreigners and open until 4 AM on the weekends.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Off to the Desert

After much contemplation and mind-changing, I'm fully in the depths of the process of obtaining a visa for Saudi Arabia to take a job teaching university students. I'll be in the States for a few weeks more while the kinks get worked out and pieces are put together, and should hopefully be on my at the end of the month.

If you're in the US and want to hang out before I go, please submit a notarized copy of your birth certificate along with a copy of your passport, signed and with a raised seal from the Secretary of State of your state, a recent VD test result, a letter of intent as to why you would like to hang out, a money order for $16.22 and a self addressed stamp envelope, express USPS mail only, to me. Thank you.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

An Alcoholic's Guide to Asia

Next up in our beverages-in-Asia theme is beer, which is a bit of a sad story. Getting anything other than a pissy lager can be next to impossible - though for intrepid explorers there are some tasty microbrews hiding away in the big cities. For this post however, I'll be focusing only on the widely available beers. Once again, from worst to best:

10. South Korea
I never meant for this to be a Korea bash, but there's just no way around it. Korea's two widely available beers, Cass and Hite, are just awful. Drink it quick and chase it with a bite of bulgogi, and you'll be just fine. Be on the look out for Red Rock, which is as cheap as the others, and better, but not nearly as widely available. One tip: drink some soju (Korean firewater) with your meal, then when you switch to beer you won't be able to taste it as much.

9. India
In India, beer and other alcohol are sold in "wine shops" which are super dodgy-looking counters usually with some sketchy drunk guys hanging around outside. It can feel a bit like you're buying horse or something. In many parts of India alcohol is not easy to get. I didn't really drink much there, but I can remember the beer being nothing at all to write home about. Kingfischer seemed to be the most popular, with a whole slew of indistinguishable others. It's pissy lager. It's said that Indian beer contains glycerine, a preservative which can give you a headache, and to rid the beer of it before consuming you should dunk the top upside-down into a glass of water until the syrupy substance drains out. I've also heard that this is rubbish and doesn't work.

8. Myanmar (Burma)

Myanmar's only local beer, also called Myanmar, is not only crap but also a joint venture with the thuggish government. Better to avoid the stuff and limit your support. If you want to get pissed, find some local palm toddy or rice wine and enjoy with the locals. Even better, you could use Myanmar as an opportunity to get clean for a while, you stinking drunk.

7. Japan
If only as punishment for making happoshu, a kind of beer flavored drink designed to circumvent Japanese high taxes on malt-containing beer, Japan will come next. The beer itself is not THAT bad. Asahi, Sapporo, Kirin, Suntory, take your pick, they're all essentially the same: lame pissy beers.

6. Cambodia
Things start getting blurry around this point, not because I've been sampling each beer as I write, but because the quality of the beers are really indistinguishable. It's a bit like two of Cambodia's beers: Angkor, named after Angkor Wat, and Anchor which is pronounced like anchor, as in boat anchor, presumably because the name Angkor was already taken. Confusing.

5. Thailand
I'm giving Thailand relatively high ratings for the presence of a wide variety of brews. Plenty of imports like Heineken and Tiger, plus the local beers, the most widely available of which are Chang, Leo, and Singh. Chang is notable for it's cheap price and high alcohol content, 6.9% if memory serves. Leo is usually the same price with a slightly lower alcohol content and slightly better taste. Singh has a distinctive taste, and a tamer 5% alcohol. My Thai teacher once told me he drinks Chang because he's "kikiat chee", lazy to piss.

4. Singapore
For me, Singapore's national brew Tiger ranks highly on the pissy-beer scale. Your taste buds may or may not agree.

3. Laos
Most travelers in SE Asia swear by Beer Laos. It does seem to have a fresher, cleaner taste than a lot of the others. As we say back in Olympia, "It's the Water".

2. Indonesia
Bintang is the name of Indonesia's surprisingly tasty suds. For a Muslim country, they know how to whip up some good booze.

1. Philippines
San Miguel is from the Philippines, and while it might not be the absolute top beer on this list, it gets extra points for being really cheap. It tastes good, comes in several varieties including extra-strong "Red Horse" (be careful), and is available everywhere. Goodonya, Philippines.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

A Coffee Addict's Guide to Asia

I admit it, I'm hopelessly addicted to coffee, and if you're like me then you need your fix as much when you're bunking with New Guinean natives as when you're at home base. What follows are the results of years of research in the East. Starting from the worst and leading to the best, I'll take you through the ins and outs of coffee drinking in six Asian countries.

6. South Korea (kopi)
Far and away the worst of all Asian coffee destinations, and possibly the earth, Korea lands dead last for joe-hounds. What's worse, coffee isn't some obscure drink overshadowed by a superior local beverage - coffee is actually extremely popular here, and widely available in all sorts of crappy varieties. In general, it's instant coffee, the most popular being the 3-in-1 coffee, cream, and sugar mix. Just add water and if no spoon is available, stir with the unopened end of the stick shaped pouch. It only goes downhill from there, leading ultimately to the machine coffee found at the entrance of most restaurants. All the machine does is take extremely crappy instant coffee, and mixes in cream and sugar according to your choice. This stuff is the bottom of the barrel. It tastes like ass. It would be nice if you could just swear off coffee in Korea, but trust me, you're really going to need it in Korea to get through your day.

Stay well away from: Any and all machine coffee. It tastes like instant coffee made yesterday, mixed with sour milk and ball sweat.
Your best bet: Espresso-style coffee is making serious headway in Korea, and if you're willing to splash out you can get a good cup at Starbucks or one of the local varients like Holly's. They are super expensive though, often more than in the US. For a better price-to-quality ratio try Dunkin Donuts or, gulp, McDonalds.

5. Japan (kohi)
Welcome to the land of canned coffee. The variety is astounding: Black, sweet, milky, strong, weak, and available hot or cold from vending machines and conbini's (convenience stores) everywhere. The stuff is crap but might grow on you if you stay long enough.

Stay well away from: The coffee-flavored tea available in conbinis. OK, it's sold as coffee, but it's just a tea bag with coffee grounds, to be added to hot water, making what amounts to yes, coffee flavored tea. Beware.
Your best bet: It might be worthwhile to spring for the chains here. In addition to plentiful Starbucks there are a handful of local varients. A bit more affordable, comparatively, than Korea.

4: India (coffee)
In the north of India, tea (called chai) is king, but in the south coffee is drunk side by side at the tea-and-coffee wallas. It's all instant, and is really more coffee flavored than actual coffee. Like the chai, it's made with copious amounts of milk and sugar, rendering it quite unrecognizable as coffee. Still, it's pretty tasty.

Stay well away from: Unboiled water.
Your best bet: You'll probably do better just sticking to the tasty chai here.

3: Thailand (Ga-fae)
Coffee comes in many varieties in Thailand, the oldest (and cheapest) way being "bag coffee" (ga-fae tung). It's a dirty looking bag of coffee grounds dipped in hot water, making quite a strong brew, and mixed with large amounts of condensed milk. This takes some serious getting used to, but some, including myself, have come to enjoy it. You can, and probably should, ask for less than the full dose of condensed milk (sai nom nit noi). Otherwise, streetside espresso is catching like wildfire, or for a cooler environment for drinking, try any of the chain places.

Stay well away from: Stale beans. It sometimes pays to give the merchandise a sniff for freshness if the place looks like they don't do much business.
Your best bet: It's often worthwhile in Thailand to just go for that latte at the classy joint. It still won't be that expensive.

2. Vietnam/Cambodia/Laos
Laos and Cambodia have mostly followed the Vietnamese style of brewing coffee, which involves brewing individual cups drip style in a little metal apparatus which sits on top of the cup. Here coffee stands out for the quality of the beans, and Vietnam and Laos grow their own stuff. Vietnam is a huge coffee exporter, though mostly of the cheaper robusta variety. Here it's generally served up black so you can doctor it the way you like it.

Stay well away from: Anything that seems expensive, because this stuff should be super cheap.
Your best bet: It's all good here. Drink up!

1: Indonesia (Kopi)
Aaaah, the promised land of Asian coffee, it doesn't get better than Indonesia. Sumatra is famous the world over, but there are dozens of islands with their own distinctive bean, and they're all fiercly proud of it. Sample them all! Here coffee is drunk in the Turkish style - ground to a powder and mixed with boiling water, so don't drink that last bit!

Stay well away from: Yes it's good, but resist the urge to polish off that last sip unless you like eating mud.
Your best bet: It's so good you'll want to take a bag home with you - so go for it!

Hope you found it helpful. Did I miss something? Leave a comment!

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Some Like it Hot

Who amongst us hasn't dreamed of seeing lava close up, to witness with our eyes that blood of the earth in it's pure, liquid form? Enter Volcan Pacaya, a highly active volcano within striking distance of Antigua, that touristy anomaly outside of Guatemala's capital. To get there involves a short ride to the volcano and a hike of about one and a half hours to the top, where you can get within feet of a veritable river of lava. Some in our group brought marshmallows to roast - I brought hot dogs, inciting the furious envy of many. They cook quickly, as one might expect them to over molten rock.

At the top we were free to roam around, throw objects into the lava, leap between crevices with lava glowing brightly below, melting the soles of our shoes. The smallest hiccup of the volcano could send lava gushing into the air, falling from the sky in some apocalyptic nightmare, and this has all happened before, but today we have luck, and the volcano behaves itself.

The guides struggled to pull us away from the lava and get us back to safety. The rain was coming and the night falling. Half of the descent was in dark and fog, and only a few had flashlights. We all managed to make it back as the night took hold, and in the distance we could see now, in the pitch black, the glowing orange oozing down the side of the mountain. We rode back to Antigua soaked from the rain and wishing we could have taken a lava souvenir with us to warm the ride.