Saturday, December 20, 2014

Day Tripper

I'm not a big believer in guided tours.  At best, they're the most expedient way of getting from point A to point B.  At worst, they're misinformative and don't give you enough time to see the things you really want to see.  However, (as I've said before) sometimes they are the only way to see what you really want to see, so I found myself getting in a minibus with 12 other foreigners Wednesday morning, bound for Chiang Rai.

I did not care about seeing the hot spring along the way.  You know I love hot springs, probably more than a lot of you, but a quick foot soak doesn't begin to cut it for me.  I had a look around at all the shops, used the loo, and ate a banana pancake (because someone didn't have time for breakfast) but it wasn't doing it for me.

I was similarly unimpressed with the Myanmar border and the Golden Triangle, a place on the Mekong River where Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos meet up.  I've crossed land borders before and I saw Israel on the other side of the Dead Sea, and besides, I was going to Myanmar the next day.  Those two stops were two hours of my life I would have rather spent differently.

The Black House, on the other hand, was an interesting surprise.
Thawan Duchanee, the recently deceased Thai artist, designed the place as an interpretation of hell (this is even more interesting when you realize that his teacher was Chalermchai Kositpipat, who designed the real reason I signed up for this tour).  There are actually a lot of buildings on the grounds, all of them painted black with red tiles on the roof and filled with all sorts of pointy bits.  It also has a lot of dead animals.  Like, a LOT.  Supposedly the all died of natural causes, but still.  I have a dog skull given to me by Fire Marshall on my desk - I teach Georgia O'Keeffe, it works - and it still makes me a little squeamish if I think about it too much.  The buffalo horns, crocodile skin, and even elephant skeleton definitely help you to feel like you've landed yourself in hell...as do the carvings on the doors of human-ish creatures with a stranger assortment of penises than you'll find in a Korean bathhouse...

There were two things I actually went into this tour for - hill tribes and the White Temple.  Sadly, we didn't spend too much time with either or them.  On our way to the Myanmar border, we turned off onto a dirt road, which we followed a way between rice paddies.  Up here the bright red clay used to be poppy country, although Thailand was successful in promoting other crops.  The people we visited are the Kayan Lahwi, and were originally from Burma (which I've been calling Myanmar because that's what it is now), but many now hold Thai passports.  For a variety of reasons the practice is fading out, but we still saw plenty of children wearing them.
I probably don't think as hard as I should about things before I do them - Heaven knows it's something my Dad's complained about for a good three decades.  At lunch (which we finally got to eat around 3 o'clock!) I was talking with some of the other women on the tour, one of whom hadn't gone to see the Kayan in protest to the fact that they were somewhat exploited.  I can see what she's saying, although I don't know what the truth is.  Are they happy to be a tourist attraction?  Do they have choice in their lives?  I'm not sure.  I tried to be respectful, and I made sure to buy some of their handicrafts.  Whether or not that's enough, I'm not sure, but I'm still glad I got to see them.
And that, good friends, brings me to the absolute highlight of my tour: Wat Rong Khun, or the White Temple.  (By the way, if you were wondering, no, this is not the order we did things in - just the arbitrary way I'm writing about it).  I'd seen pictures of the White Temple before and thought it was just about the most amazing thing I'd ever seen.  And then I got there and got to actually see it.
Wat Rong Khun is Chalermchai Kositpipat's interpretation of the rebirth cycle, including Heaven and Hell.  The amount of detail on this monster is just unbelievable.  The front of the temple has this installation, which seems like a pond, but has no water, just about a billion grasping hands.  Around the sides of the pond are a variety of demonic creatures gnawing on whatever they got, 'cause demons don't give a ----.  You go over the bridge leading to the actual temple, and find yourself in a much calmer place, closer to enlightenment.

Pictures aren't allowed in the interior of the temple itself, which continues the external themes in a much more colorful way.  It was damaged earlier this year by an earthquake, but fortunately was open and in the process of restoration.  It was interesting to see the artists working on repairing the murals inside the temple.  I was particularly intrigued by the Hell portion, which was on the side with the door you enter through, as it had a variety of pop culture icons - a Minion, Neo from the Matrix, Superman, and Ben Ten, among others that I can't remember now.  I think I could have spent all day there, but I only had thirty minutes.

All that said, I think the best moment came when we were on our way back to Chiang Mai.  Night was fallen and it was dark as we hurried back along the roads, when we passed a typical, Northern Thai temple.  It was not lit up, but all the mirrors used to decorate it were catching light from everywhere - street lights, car lights, moon light.  As we zoomed past, it sparkled, like a mirage, like fragments of a dream.  And this is the worst thing about tours: the fact that you can't just demand that they stop the car, let you get out and take a look, take a photo - there are 11 other passengers (not counting the guide's sister who had her hands all over the driver, ewww) who are ready to get back to their hotel for the night.  Bummer.  But if I'm lucky when I get back to Chiang Mai on the 28th I'll be able to track down one to shoot.  There's certainly enough that I should find one if I persist...

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Ohhhh Maiiiii!

Well, my brain demanded it, demanded that instead of going to bed early like I probably should, I get started writing about my trip.  When I bought my tablet netbook thing I justified it by telling myself how easy it would be to bring on trips and I'd never need an internet cafe again!  Well, it hasn't exactly worked out that way.  Here I am on this trip, and while I should have been updating faithfully - the computer is all systems go, I have the right memory card, blah blah blah - I have another piece of writing I've been working on, and that's been like pulling teeth.  So.  Ahem.  On with the blogging.
Monday night I finally made it to Chiang Mai.  It was not exactly the smoothest...well, I guess I can't call it a start since I'd already been out of Mongolia three days at that point.  I didn't arrive on a good note, I guess.  The flight was delayed about a half hour and when my luggage FINALLY appeared on the carousel, I was done.  Brand-new Carlos Ruiz-Zafon book in hand, I grabbed it and rushed off to get a cab to the guesthouse I was staying at for the first night.  He took me to the place Dougie-Poo had suggested, a guesthouse he'd stayed at way back in the day called Julie's.  I'd emailed ahead of time and they said they had a single room with shared bathroom available.  However, when I got there, that was not the case.  The guy I'd talked to said I should have contacted them in advance, that they didn't check their email that often, and although I was livid that they made it MY fault in spite of the fact that they had a room that morning (not to mention the fact that they told a single woman to go wandering looking for different digs at 11 at night), there was not much I could do except go to their next-door competitor, JJ Guesthouse, where - once I managed to drag someone out of sleep long enough to ask - they were happy to put me up.  It was only when I was settling unto my room that I realized I'd left Marina, my brand new book, behind at some point.  Damn.

When I finally got up and started wandering the old city, I found Chiang Mai very much to my liking.  It doesn't have that unmanageable, hectic feel to it that Bangkok does; it's much more laid back.  I wandered around in a loop from JJ's, stopping into temples and keeping an eye out for someplace to eat.  Eventually I made my way back to where I started and sat down to eat basically everything on the menu at the Mickeybunny cafe, which had smelled appealing when I first got going.  While I ate ALL THE FOODS! I spent some time trying to figure out where I was going until 3, when I was set to meet Dougie-Poo, and eventually made a plan to get out of the city the next day.  Dougie-Poo and his wife were still working (like pretty much everyone in education except us), and I decided if I wanted to get out of the city for a day - and I kind of did - that it would be better to do it the next day rather than waiting until I came back through, when they were off work.  I saw a few more temples, then came back to the guesthouse, booked the next day's trip, and caught a tuk-tuk to Dara Academy, where I met up with my friends.
Dougie-Poo and I worked together back in Korea.  He's been living in Chiang Mai for about a billion years, minus a couple of stints in Korea to save money.  As we talked that evening, we both agreed that there was something about GDA - I've seen more of the people I worked with there since leaving than I have anywhere else, although that could just be the Stockholm Syndrome working its magic.  At any rate, Dougie-Poo and his lovely wife were gracious enough to put me up and feed me and take me back to the guesthouse at oh-dark-hundred the next day, and I'm looking forward to seeing them for realz when I get back to Chiang Mai on the 28th.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Grub Club: Silk Road Reboot

This is the last grub club post I need to do before I'm totally caught up and can let the vacay blogging begin.  I'm pretty sure that it was Champ who picked Azurro for us to try that night, but when Blondie got there (ahead of us - Engrish, Champ, Lil' Miss Catwalk, and I all had meetings that went way too late), they were closed, and the general consensus was that we'd try Silk Road again.
The closed down in the last half year or so to remodel, and some of us hadn't been there since (Champ and Lil' Miss Catwalk had, and I think that's why they decided to go there instead of some other good choices...they were hoping for a win).  Some of the food was delicious.
Since it's been a freaking long time since this all happened I can't actually tell you about all the dishes.  People were generally quite satisfied with what they'd ordered, and we liked the ambiance in general, although it was kind of cold, especially in the bathroom, which you actually kind of needed a coat to use.
I went for the pulled pork sandwich.  I'm a sucker for a good pulled pork, but this one was just so-so.  I mean, don't get me wrong, it's better than noodles and mutton, but it didn't give me that euphoric feeling of invinicibility that I sometimes get from really good food (ask me about my trip to On the Border and Krispy Kreme last Sunday in Seoul...mmmm...)  At any rate the overall impression was that they'd improved since our original visit and that we'd go again.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Bang-COCK!


If you've been reading my blog for any length of time, you've probably already got a good idea of the fact that I am not a luxury traveler.  I have a hierarchy of traveling needs when booking hotels:
1. Safety
2. Cost
3. Cleanliness
4. Convenience
Here's the thing - why would I spend a hundred dollars on a posh hotel when I could stay five nights in a basic guesthouse for the same price?  It doesn't add up.  And people who talk about "pampering" themselves make me cringe.  I hate that word - I'm not a big baby.  I prefer the term indulge.

Well, my hierarchy of traveling needs led me to choose to indulge on this, my day in Bangkok en route to Chiang Mai.  I've done Khao San Road - in a former, non-blogging life with my friend Curly Sue - and while it's a fun place, I chose to go all out with a night in the Swissotel.  It's possible that it was because the idea of staying here appealed to the blood of Swiss ancestors flowing through my veins...but it's more likely due to the fact that the Chao Mae Tuptim shrine is in their parking lot.
Either way, I was delighted with my choice to indulge when I got in from the airport last night at 11:30 (thank you, delayed flight).  The room was impeccable, the bed was softer than my own, the towels were fluffy, and the internet was fast.  After a shower and a nightcap of coke (which I did NOT drink out of the can like a barbarian for the first time in forever, and it actually tasted fine), I got to sleep.  This morning I decided to splash out on their breakfast buffet.  It was not included in the price of my room, but what the hell did I care?  I am on va.  Ca.  Tion.  I am choosing to indulge.
After breakfast I wandered through the lush green grounds on the way back to the shrine.  It's a little hard to find but here's a good video on YouTube that shows you how to get there from the lobby of the hotel.  It's quite small compared to some of the other shrines I've been to - I'd make a joke about how this is Asia, but then, the other two were in Korea and Japan...
The little house is meant to hold the spirit of Chao Mae Tuptim, which may or may not have something to do with a large ficus tree in the shrine.  The details on the sign were vague, and had only the barest allusion to the huge wooden penises strewn about.
I was particularly intrigued by the lingams sitting between the tiny, doll-like shrine attendants.  I know enough about Hindu symbolism to recognize Shiva's schlong.  I've always connected Thailand with Buddhism, which has its roots in Hinduism, admittedly, but apparently there are still a fair number of believers in Thailand, mostly in the cities.  I thought about bringing an offering, but couldn't convince myself to hit InsaDONG (where I've seen phalli for sale before) yesterday, and only thought of the candle I brought back from the Kanamara Matsuri when I was on the flight here from Korea.
The Chao Mae Tuptim shrine may not be the biggest penis shrine I've been to, but we all know it's not the size that matters, but how you use it, right?  In this case, I used it for a good excuse to stay at a posh hotel.  I'm going to need to go check out in a minute, but I have the rest of the day to laze by their pool, which is beautiful and with all the trees has plenty of shade for us vampiric ginger types.  Indulge?  Indeed.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Grub Club: The Town


Thanks to my superb procrastinating skills and the fact that school strangely seems to just keep getting hellabusier, I'm sitting here in the Sunae Starbucks writing you about a meal I enjoyed over a month ago.  For those of you who haven't just picked up on the fact that there are no Starbucks in Mongolia, Sunae is in Bundang, South Korea, my old digs, yo.  I got in at around 9 last night, took the bus over roads so smooth they seem as though they shouldn't exist down to the 'Dang and walked through a night that can barely be called chilly to the sauna that has become "mine," got all clean, and slept (sorta...there's a limit to how much actual sleep one can get staying in a sauna, but I pretended for about six hours, at any rate).  This morning I enjoyed a stroll through the clean morning air and ate breakfast at Macca's before deciding I needed a frappuccino (mostly because McDonald's was too cold).  When I finish this post, Imma go find myself a pay phone and see if I can rouse my Dark Lord and Master.  Life is good.
But back to Mongolia.  Just a little to the west of the circus, beyond Tsuki House but before you get to Merkuri, is a little gem of a restaurant called The Town.  Engrish had read good reviews of it on UB Foodies, and we actually tried to go before, but they were closed for a private party.  This time, though, we had great success.
Engrish got pretty high marks for this one.  The soups were soupy, the salads, saladry.  If my high school AP Lit teacher, Drim, was reading this one, she could use her "Bullshit!" stamp about now.  The food was delicious, but c'mon guys - it's been like a month since we ate there, and since I don't often eat soups or salads, and we're not all sharesies like we were back in the day, I've got nothin'.
I can tell you about this one, though, because it was mine.  I decided to throw caution to the wind and try their burrito, with amazing results.  I'm not sure about the salad that came with it.  It was fresh and tasty, but had a slight sweetness to it that didn't jive with my expectations for a suitable side to go with my burrito.  However, the burrito itself was fantastic!  The flavors were spot on, and the side of salsa was nice and spicy!
The ambience was nice - it had a sort of European cafe feel - but I didn't give it super high marks in that category.  The lighting could be better - I was sitting in the hot seat, as it were, and felt like I was being interrogated over the course of my dinner.  However, for that burrito, I kind of feel like it was worth it.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Grub Club: London Pub


Yeah, yeah, I know I've been derelict in my duties.  Blame it on my Season and the fact that I haven't done anything very exciting lately - other than teaching, fundraising, and getting creative with the occasional morning announcement.  The changing of the guard, so to speak, has been harder on me this year than it has in many years, so even though it only got properly cold (and I mean that as a Mongolian now instead of someone from America's Heartland) this last week, I've been up and down for a couple of months now.  But time keeps marching on, so we've only got two weeks left til Christmas break, and I'm pretty sure eventually I'll make it out on the other side into spring.

TL; DR:  I'm depressed because it's winter, but eventually I'll get over it.

Two weeks ago was supposed to be Engrish's pick, but she had to keep up her celebrity status by visiting with friends from the UK.  Blondie, Champ, Lil' Miss Catwalk and I responded by visiting the UK via London Pub.  We've been there before, a few times by now, and originally it was one of Blondie's picks, back when we were trying and failing to get started again.  It's one of the better choices that opened up in Buddha Vista up here on the hill last spring.
That first time (and every time since) I ordered the...chicken sandwich thingy.  Sorry, I don't remember what it's actually called.  Succulent and savory, it's only flaw is the grilled outside.  I'm not a big fan of overly crunchy bread unless it's a crouton, but my chicken sammich is deeeelish.
Champ went for a burger.  For some reason, some sandwiches come with fries and others come with those Lincoln-log potatoes.  Apparently they still tasted good, but were too much potato for me. 
And these were definitely too much!  Who purposely orders something like this?  My friends, that's who.  These are the jacket potatoes.  They seem exactly like something the British would come up with.
Finally, there was Blondie's pizza.  I'm always wary of pub pizza, particularly in Mongolia where we don't understand that spam is not pepperoni.  However, Blondie's margherita pizza had a light tender crust and was just oozing with cheese - in short, it was a little slice of Italy. 

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Grub Club: Seoul Restaurant

I don't know what it is (a longing for my second home, perhaps?  Or maybe just the deeply ingrained belief that Korean food makes me skinny?), but I've been eating a lot of Korean food this fall.  Thus, it makes sense that we'd end up at a Korean restaurant for my first successful Grub Club pick of the school year.

Seoul Restaurant is not just any Korean restaurant, though - it was the #1 Korean place as chosen by UB Foodies, and the 12th restaurant out of 169 UB restaurants on TripAdvisor.  It is on the grounds of the Children's Park, just after Tumen Ekh, in an unassuming round building.

We were wowed from the beginning by the decor.  The central area of the restaurant is decorated in cool light and wedding palace grandeur, not to mention lots of naked people - I was a particular fan of the diving naked men fountain on the walls as you go up the stairs.  There's also a more rustic, hunting lodge seating area around the outside front, with a moose mounted on the wall at one end and a deer at the other, grills if you're there for galbi (we weren't), and much warmer light.
Once we were seated (at a table by a glass window that looked into the interior of the restaurant, where a young-ish couple sat and made googly eyes at each other for part of our meal), we were presented with five menus.  FIVE.  Seoul offers not only Korean but Chinese, Japanese, Western, and threw in a separate menu for side dishes.  The side dishes are also listed on the corresponding menus, so I had to wonder exactly why they needed their own menu, but hey, it is a Korean restaurant, and we all know how Koreans feel about the number 4, right?*
I was super excited to see one of my favorite anju (drinking snacks) on said side menu - dubu kimchi.  It's firm tofu, sliced and steamed, served with a fry-up of kimchi, peppers, and pork.  I ordered it for everyone but ended up eating most of it myself (everyone liked it - I was just greedy and scarfed most of it down myself, even before I could get a photo).
Blondie has a broccoli addiction, so this dish off the Chinese menu was right up her alley, in spite of the mushrooms in it.  She shared this one and the next with Engrish.
I sniped a bite of their crispy chicken dish, and it was perfection.  A lot of times when you order Chinese chicken it is a fatty mess, or filled with little bits of bone, so you can't just strap it on like a feedbag (one of Blondie's sayings, for those of you wondering).  The crispy chicken, though, was exactly what you would dream it to be - lots of savory little bites of chicken wrapped up in crunchy goodness.  Her dining experience was so good that Blondie gave me 10's across the board.
I also ordered the fried mandu and dolsot bibimbap (not pictured).  The mandu were tasty, but just a little too big.  The bibimbap...well, it was just okay.  I gave the food a 9, thanks to the bibimbap - I've had better, even here.  Champ and Lil' Miss Catwalk also ordered Korean food - ramyeon and kimbap for the former and bulgogi for the latter - and they seemed to like it alright, but were not as effusive as me and Blondie.  At any rate, it was a delicious meal and I can understand why Seoul ranks as highly as it does.  And now - off to brave the Black Market in search of silk and coffee cups.

*It's bad luck.  The word for death sounds very similar to the word for 4.