Monday, December 30, 2013

To Another Island City

Happy New Year everyone! For my last post of the year I'm writing about the beginnings of my visit to China a week ago. I flew into Hong Kong from Singapore and spent a very short day and a half there getting to know the city. Hong Kong draws many interesting parallels to Singapore, both being large port cities situated on a drop of land, a blend of East and West, dominated by the finance and services industry, fairly modern with high standards of living. 

Yet I found Hong Kong to have more of a historic feel (obviously, as it has a much longer history compared to Singapore's five decades), and an almost old-New-York atmosphere throughout its narrow streets and markets. 

I arrived in the Kowloon area early evening after taking a shuttle from the airport. One difference I noticed immediately - Hong Kong may still be in a tropical area, but it gets much colder than Singapore! The December damp and chill had settled onto the island - it was around 40 degrees Fahrenheit, compared to the high 80s I experienced only a few hours ago.

We began walking around, looking for dinner. The streets were packed full of people doing last minute holiday shopping. I noticed that the colors in the scenes all around me were so vibrant, from the bright neon lights to diverse colors of umbrellas to the deep red of the meats sold by shops along the streets. 

We eventually ducked into a hole-in-the-wall noodle shop along one of the quieter side streets which appeared mostly frequented by locals. I ordered a tofu and vegetable noodle soup that came with one of my favorite foods, woodear mushroom. 

After we ate we continued wandering along the streets and alleyways, taking in the sights, smells, and sounds. Hong Kong has a slightly grittier feel than Singapore, with more older, dilapidated buildings, and a confusing array of streets and languages. Unlike Singapore, where you can expect people to use English as the default, in Hong Kong there many people speak Cantonese, though they usually can understand Mandarin and to some extent English. I never knew how to respond when people began speaking to me in Cantonese - Mandarin or English?

The next day we decided to take a bus tour of the city. The main pick-off and drop-off point offered a view of the harbor, crisp and clear in the morning cold. 

We picked Rickshaw Tours, which I do not recommend! There were hardly any other people on the bus, and the audio was not functioning for most of the time. Additionally, the bus driver was extremely unfriendly and did not drive very smoothly. I felt as if I were taking a public bus - which might have been even more interesting, in that I could observe people. 

We got off at the Times Square, where there were many shopping options. Most of our short trip unfortunately consisted of only shopping and eating, as I had not done too much research and did not really know what else to do. I was also with my elderly grandparents, so we wanted to take it easy and not do too many strenuous activities. 

We ended up eating lunch at Crystal Jade in the basement, a restaurant known for its noodles and dim sum. I ordered a wonton soup as well as some steamed bread. At the time my stomach had still not fully recovered from the food poisoning I got in Myanmar, so I wanted to err on the cautious side. 

That afternoon, we headed into mainland China! To be continued...

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Burmese Food - Curries and Such

Burmese food as I've experienced it is an interesting blend of Chinese and South Asian flavors, much like other Southeast Asian cuisines. It tends to be rather heavy and oily, but deliciously so, with lots of savory and fragrant dishes.

Mohinga is the famous national dish, noodles cooked in a spicy and pungent fish curry, flavored with lime and coriander among other herbs. Our host at the guesthouse made us her version of mohinga for breakfast one morning, claiming that she makes the best in all of Myanmar! I have to admit it was really good.

The photo below is of another curried noodle dish that I ate at a large roadside restaurant called the Lucky Flower. The Lucky Flower caters almost exclusively to locals. We only ended up there because we had just made friends with a local travel agent who brought us to lunch. There was very little pretense - simple dishes, cheap prices, minimal service. I'm not sure exactly what was in my bowl - some sort of meat and egg, and it was certainly not the most presentable in terms of appearance, but the broth was great!  

We also had the chance to experience some higher-end restaurants, including House of Memories, a restaurant inside a historical colonial house that contains the secret office used by Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi. Here I ordered really great grilled prawns with vegetables and pineapple.

One memorable meal was at a place that our driver took us to. It had an easy way of ordering - all the dishes that are available are presented behind a glass counter, and you just point at whatever looks good and the server will bring it in a small portion to your table. We picked a variety of different curried meats, seafood, and vegetables.

Fruits are for sale by vendors all over the city. There are giant durians, dragon fruit, and an abundance of citrus fruits. Lots of little stands offer fresh squeezed fruit smoothies.

On one of our last days we went to the popular restaurant called Feel Myanmar, which has a similar system of ordering where you look at all the dishes on offer and point. Again, we picked out a variety of foods that looked good. 

Fish, or other seafood, was always a staple in our meals! 

All the food is served with a big vegetable platter made of lightly steamed greens with a type of fish dip. These platters usually include green beans, leafy greens, and sometimes eggplant.

On our last night we experienced a Yangon Food Tour, where a local guide takes you across different eateries throughout a night and you can enjoy four courses across the range of Burmese food. Our first course consisted of fried appetizers - fried corn, potato, tofu, and pennywort leaves, eaten at a casual restaurant near the shores of Inya Lake. 

Then we went to a seafood restaurant and had some prawns and soft-shell crab. 

Our third stop was at a tiny roadside shop famous for its various salads. I think this may have been where we contracted food poisoning, due to eating raw vegetables, so do be careful if you ever want to try these dishes! They were delicious and spicy though - very very spicy! All of us were sweating and tearing up due to the raw chilis and peppers. In order to combat the spice, our last stop at a teahouse allowed us to enjoy avocado shakes and lime juice. 

Across my five days I got to experience a lot of different parts of Burmese cuisine - many unique dishes that I can't find authentic versions of elsewhere. There isn't too much of a possibility of eating other foods, since due to the economic sanctions on the country, you can't find many of the multinational chains that have spread to much of Asia, including McDonalds and Starbucks. At the most, we saw some regional smaller fast food places that I've seen in Singapore, but nothing that would be recognizable by people in other parts of the world. 

The sanctions have also prevented the import of many western products. When I fell ill from food poisoning, I went to a higher end grocery store, something reminiscent of Whole Foods, where I found Vitamin Water and other foreign made items. However, upon reading the label of the bottle of Vitamin Water I found that it had been made and marketed for Singapore. I suppose that Myanmar had imported the product from Singapore. Some of the other things I bought, such as a small box of cornflakes and a package of saltines, I later discovered had been expired for several months. With the gradual lifting of some sanctions, I hope the situation will improve, though hopefully in a way that does not erode the traditional cuisine.  

Saturday, December 28, 2013

City Full of Nooks and Crannies

On our second day in Yangon we headed to the bustling Bogjoke Aun Sang Market in the downtown area. This market is the main shopping destination for tourists, though not exclusively so - there were still plenty of locals. Prices tend to be higher in the businesses that line the perimeter of the market, and these shops also appear to cater more to tourists and sell knick knacks and souvenirs. You have to wander in to get to the good stuff! However, as noted in my last post, most shopkeepers were very friendly and don't aggressively hawk their wares. 

A big indoor section of the market sold gold and jewelry. I don't have any skills in distinguishing good quality gems and metals from fakes, so I mostly just walked through this area without really looking closely. 

We came to an inner area with tightly-spaced shops that sold lots of fabrics. Many of the shops have tailors that they know who will create a longyi (the long skirt) for you out of a fabric that you choose. The fabrics come in a dizzying array of colors, patterns, and material. I ended up buying a hand-sewn bright green longyi with flowers along the border for about $15 USD, plus a tailoring fee of $5. There are many cheaper options; you can buy fabric for less than $5, but in this case I was willing to spend more for the quality. 

It amazed me how many nooks and crannies are taken over by tiny businesses. In the photo below, you see people eating snacks and drinking tea at a myriad of street side makeshift shops. Teashops are very popular in Myanmar, whether they are these ones out in the open with plastic chairs and tables, or nicer restaurant styles. The tea is very similar to teh in Singapore, which is brewed black tea with lots of condensed milk - a highly sweet and rich drink.

Many of these vendors are mobile, one-man businesses, as seen below. I think the guy was selling some sort of noodles. They probably are officially required to have some sort of permit, but I'm not sure how closely regulations are enforced.

On the second floor of one of the buildings is a fascinated array of little service shops, such as tailors and mechanics of various types. Most dealt with clothing. It was a mini-economy up there, with everything crammed up side by side, and some businesses catering to other businesses in the same space. We even wandered across another little tea shop upstairs with room for exactly four customers to sit.

The side streets along the downtown area were also very crammed - people using space efficiently!

And there were lots of street side restaurants, even near hectic main thoroughfares. All the food looked and smelled delicious but we often did not know what things were! Also, food sanitation is a concern as well. Though we didn't eat anything at these little vendors we all ended up with food poisoning in the end!  

Outside of the busyness of the city, there are a few parks and lakes where you can enjoy some peace. We went to Kandawgi Lake (below) and Inya Lake (not to be confused with Inle Lake, which is located in northern Myanmar. Often times we would see lots of couples hanging out by the lake or taking long strolls. Sometimes young people also bring along a guitar and start strumming along and singing in a group. It's a really nice atmosphere and also provides some pretty scenic views, especially near sunset. 

It's good to know that there is still lots of natural beauty in such a large city. Not all of it is well kept and maintained, though I hope these patches continue to exist, even as Myanmar develops economically in the future. 

The Golden Land

I'll begin my account of my travels in Burma with the first site that we visited upon touching down in Yangon and after setting our things down at our guesthouse. We went to the famous Shwedagon Pagoda, a very important religious site for the Burmese and perhaps the biggest attraction that Yangon offers. 

Tourists pay a small fee for entering and must wear very conservative clothing. If you are wearing shorts or an above-the-knee skirt, then you are asked to wear a longyi, which is a traditional cloth folded into a skirt that both men and women wear. Additionally, we had to take off our shoes before entering the pagoda. We went right around sunset, the best time as the fading sunlight catches upon the golden temples and statues quite beautifully! 

There are several entrances to the pagoda. I forgot which side we entered from but the doors were guarded by two enormous lion statues. There is a great hall, and escalators inside to take visitors up into the actual pagoda area. I was not sure what to expect at all.  

It's simply stunning. At the top of all the escalators is a surreal land of shiny temples, statues, Buddhas. Local Burmese families mix with tourists from all countries. People mill about, some praying, engaging in religious rituals, taking photos. Reverence fills the air.

Everywhere I looked, the architecture was breathtaking. There were almost too many points of interests - I couldn't focus on any one object since there were hundreds more to look at - shiny, carved rooftops, temples, various deities, fountains, burning incense. Everything was so detailed and intricate, and full of symbolism that I sadly did not understand. 

The golden pagoda, the one at the center, is the main religious feature of the whole area. It's the building at the left in my photo below. The photo doesn't depict the scale accurately, but it's enormous and towers over most of the surrounding area. It's about 100 meters tall! There is a large diamond bud at the top. 

Shwedagon was at once peaceful and bustling with people. We spent about an hour there, looking around at the architecture. At dusk we sat down before one of the temples and watch the play of light on the pagoda as the sun slowly set. Later, we went back down to collect our shoes and to wash off our feet, which had by that time collected a pretty thick layer of dirt and dust! 

I wish I could have gone back at night time, as it must be a completely different visual experience. The pagoda does open until 10pm. 

The popularity of the pagoda reflects the highly religious nature of Burmese society. I've never seen such a high concentration of monks before in general public. The men wear dark crimson flowing robes, and I later saw some female monks wearing bright pink robes. Some cite these strong Buddhist beliefs as a reason why the country is relatively safe. 

I definitely felt very safe walking around Yangon, even alone. I find in a lot of countries where I stick out as a tourist, people will notice me and try to aggressively sell me things or offer me a ride in a taxi or tuk tuk - for example, in Cambodia. In this type of atmosphere I often feel defensive and stressed when walking around, and do not feel like interacting much. It's natural - no one wants to feel taken advantage of! 

In contrast, in Myanmar, though I did stand out, people mostly paid me attention out of curiosity or a desire to learn more about me, or to help me find my way to a place. I was greeted most often with a simple "min-ga-la-ba," which means hello. People were really kind and gentle, and I felt that most people did not try to take advantage of the fact that I was a foreigner - besides some taxi drivers who maybe would try to charge me 1000kyat ($1) more than they would a local. 

Perhaps this is the case because the country is still opening up and a tourist industry has not fully formed yet - I'm not sure! I like it the way it is now though; I was able to comfortably interact with and talk to more Burmese people. Who knows what will happen in a few years though?

Monday, December 16, 2013

Pit Stop in Singapore

I'm in Singapore for about 48 hours before heading off to Hong Kong and then China. I had an amazing six days in Myanmar, but unfortunately don't have much time to write about it, especially since I suffered a pretty severe bout of food poisoning on my last day there. I should have been more careful, but frequent traveling, and especially traveling with groups of friends, has made me too complacent and careless when it comes to sanitation. 

Anyways, I'll leave you with this picture taken at Kandawgi Lake in Yangon, the largest city of Myanmar, as the sun was setting. It's such a gorgeous country, and in a very unique place in history as it finally opens up to the outside world.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

A Lighter Heart

Lest you think otherwise from the last post, Phnom Penh does have some lighter-hearted activities and entertainment, and overall provided a nice relaxing weekend.

One of the gems we stumbled upon - a hole-in-wall cafe located near the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The owner is Vietnamese and served us authentic Vietnamese iced coffee, which is iced coffee with lots of sweet condensed milk, a very rich drink. 3 large iced coffees, a pot of tea, and a quiet place to sit and relax out of the sun, only cost us $2.50 USD. 

One afternoon we made a stop at Wat Phnom, one of the top-rated locations in Phnom Penh. It is an large and ancient Buddhist temple that sits a top a hill. Gorgeous artwork covers the walls and the ceiling of the interior of the temple. Tourists from many different places roam around the grounds of the temple, though there were also Buddhist monks dressed in bright orange robes. 

Another fun night we spent at the Flicks 2 Movie House. Flicks Movie Houses are small cinemas that show a variety of films and only ask for $3.50 for a whole day of viewing. The screening room is really small and cozy, with big cushions and pillows to sprawl across. We showed up at the Riverside location for a 6:30pm showing of the indie movie Frances Ha, and basically had the whole room to ourselves. A great way to relax and get out of the sun or the hectic streets! 

We also visited the beautiful red National Museum, which contains many varieties of sculptures and carvings in both the Buddhist and Hindu traditions. Unfortunately photography is not allowed in the interior of the museum. The museum could have been better curated, as little description accompanied each display, and I didn't feel as if I understood most of the context of the artwork. 

On another night we went to the Sovanna Phum Arts Association, where we saw a performance of traditional shadow puppets. The talented young artists treated us to an hour-long story of the epic Ramayana, using traditional dance, live music, and beautifully designed puppets. 

The Association promotes and preserves local art forms and provides opportunities for aspiring young people who want to work in art and dance. The performances are not only for the entertainment of foreigners, though. Traveling troupes also go around the country and hold shows with educational messages about health and domestic violence. What a great way to use art for the public good!

Besides these activities, we also found relaxation and fun in shopping in markets, sipping coffee at local cafes, and getting nice massages and spa treatments. I do think that Phnom Penh is a little underrated compared to Siem Reap. The capital city offers a variety of historical and artistic attractions, and isn't quite overrun with tourists yet. While the infrastructure needs a lot of work, Phnom Penh has undergone dramatic developments recently and I'm sure will continue to improve its sanitation and transport systems. It's an interesting, charming place in its own way, and is definitely worth a visit in my opinion. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

A Sobering History

Cambodia has had a very heavy history for the past few decades. After a civil war in the 1970s, the country was taken over by the Khymer Rouge led by Pol Pot. A staunch communist, Pol Pot forced citizens out of the cities and into the countries into agricultural collectives, where many of them died of starvation and strenuous labor. He also engaged in a campaign of violence, torture, and mass murder, eliminating those considered "enemies" of his regime. 3 out of every 8 people in Cambodia died during this time.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also known as S 21, is an infamous site where many prisoners, maybe 20,000, were held and tortured. It had been a school before it was taken over by the Khymer Rouge and transformed into a place of horror. The original structure has been preserved as a musuem to honor the memories of those who lost their lives.

We took a short tuk tuk ride to S 21 on our first morning in Phnom Pehn. The site is quite chilling - the blocks are made of individual rooms, first used as classrooms and subsequently as cells for detainment and torture. 

All of the cells are open - some contain the metal frame of a bed and a photo of a prisoner. Visitors walked along in silence along the halls and pathways, peering into rooms, imagining the past.

I found myself unable to walk more than a few steps into a room, as if it were still haunted by the evils of the past. I did not go past the barbed wire in the second block of the prison, which housed tiny brick cells within each room.

The Khymer Rouge, like the Nazis, were quite systematic about documenting the records and lives of their victims. In the third block were entire rooms full of photos of these individuals whose lives were so cruelly taken. The museum is an important place to visit to learn about Cambodia's history, but I would caution those that are very sensitive to be prepared. 

We had planned to go directly from the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, a site outside of Phnom Penh where the massacres actually took place and where the victims were buried. However, we decided to shelve the trip at that moment, in order to give ourselves some time to internalize and reflect upon the tragedies that we had glimpsed already.

Therefore, it was not until our last morning that we ventured out to the Killing Fields. Be warned - it is a very bumpy ride from town! We hired a tuk tuk driver to take us there, and travelled for about an hour over dusty, crowded, and bumpy roads. I recommend wearing sunglasses and a mask over your nose and mouth.

We took a very well-made audio tour of the grounds, which both explains the significance of different sites on the Killing Fields and some of the deeper history of Khymer Rouge. Interlaced with this information are personal stories of survivors.

The fields are eerily serene, with the green grass, beautiful trees, and chickens roaming around the paths. All of the original buildings used by the Khymer Rouge were torn down shortly after the Killing Fields were discovered, but the audio tour direct you to signs that indicate what had passed at the spot. 

Visitors wander up the paths and around a peaceful lake, and everyone is silent because they are listening to the audio guide, with the exception of a occasional school tour. It's difficult to believe that nearly 10,000 people were killed and buried on this site. 

Most of the graves have been excavated, though after each rainy season the soil gets sifted around and bones and pieces of cloth surface. Museum guides clean up these remains every few months, so it is very likely for visitors to spot remains on the ground. We found a tooth half buried in one of the dirt paths.

The tour, which lasts about an hour, takes you around the entire area. The last stop is the stupa that memorializes the victims. If you take off your shoes, you can enter the inner area, which contains 5,000 skulls that were found on the site.  

Again, an important place to visit, but not for the especially squeamish. 

It's hard to imagine how people could do this to each other, and to their own countrymen. Pol Pot was never punished for his crimes - he lived to past 80 years of age. The Khymer Rouge continued to be recognized as the official government for a number of years after the genocide had occurred. At that time, this outrage could have been partially due to the fact that little was known about what had happened in Cambodia. 

We hope that by learning about these atrocities in history, we can be better informed to make sure that they do not repeat themselves, yet there is still much amiss in the world today that cannot be blamed by lack of knowledge. I wonder if in 10 years, 20 years, we will look back at events that are happening now and question how we could have let it happen.