Aug 2013

Asia, Blog


Barkeep, Another Mekong Please

Brad sat with his back to the Mekong River and I watched his face slowly darken to a silhouette of black. The sky was smeared with the most brilliant blues while the dark clouds seemingly sat on an invisible sheet of glass. We rested here, along the Mekong River on one of the many balconies that hung from the side of Chiang Khan’s traditional timber houses.

Fishermen in cone hats floated down the river in their long tail boats. I was thrilled to be where we were, and feeling like I had just met a celebrity because the Mekong is just that—more popular than Leonardo or Oprah in this part of the world. The same water that flowed past us originated on the Tibetan Plateau in China and is said to be, after the Amazon, the world’s second most aquatically bio-diverse river. As a result it is also the lifeline and trading route for millions of people.

As the sun set, the fishermen made their way back to their respective shore. Since the river forms the border between Laos and Thailand, some of these fishermen went home to Thailand for the night while others went to Laos. The two sides of the river represent two uniquely different worlds, cultures, and faces.

Brad hummed the lyrics of “Mekong” by The Refreshments, a local band from Arizona, and ordered a beer.

Barkeep, Another Mekong please

Yes of course you can keep the change

A new glass here for this new friend of mine

Forgive me I forgot your name

Being that we were along the Laos-Thai border it was decision time. We were at a loss for what to do next: cross into Laos at the Thai-Lao Friendship bridge (just a mere hour away) or follow the Mekong for another couple hundred miles South and then drive back up the other side in Laos?

Thailand had been really good to us with more mountains, elephants, temples, spicy food, beaches and bioluminescent creatures of the sea than we could ask for. Yet we agreed it was time for a new adventure.

For our last miles in Thailand we passed through the country’s spring-roll-wrapper and rice noodle production capitals. We made a quick stop for lunch at a rice noodle stand, snapped an obligatory photo of Nacho next to the King and crossed the border towards Vientiane.

Oh joy. Capital city time.

If there is one thing we hate doing it is driving in capital cities.

We were ready. I paused the music and cleared the emergency break of jammed books and water bottles and Brad tightened his grip on the wheel, prepared to swerve around dogs and children and motorcycles if need be.

But then the most amazing thing happened: the unrelenting chaos never came. We passed Patuxai, the city’s war monument and  then all of a sudden were cruising down the capital’s main avenue. It was strangely peaceful. We could hardly believe that this was the country’s capital. There was even street parking! Well kind of. We did as the Laotians do and launched our bus on the pedestrian sidewalk and parked.

“Pepe, we’re here.” Five minutes after hanging up the phone we met Pepe, another friend of a friend of a friend of a friend in the Volkswagen community.

Reason #168 for choosing a Volkswagen for around-the-world travel: instant friends.

Pepe was not a native Laotian but was originally from Thailand. He had however married a Loatian woman, had a child, and had now lived in Laos for the last 20 odd years. He also owned a gas station where he stored his Volkswagens, which he had temporarily put to use as storage containers for boxes and boards and other materials. The gas station was also a great place for Brad to change the oil in Nacho. Pepe introduced us to his young son, who wasted no time in naming his dad’s 1960’s-era VW bus “Nacholine”. Next, we all watched as smoke mysteriously wafted up from under our floorboards—something that Brad discovered minutes later to be the controller for our UV water purifier in self-destruct mode.

The guys talked car stuff for most of the afternoon and when dinner rolled around Pepe led us to a Vietnamese joint. Despite the capital’s petite size, its selection of international food was fantastic: Laotian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian and because of former French rule in Laos, French food. There was even French-Lao fusion food on the streets such as the baguette fully loaded with cucumber, meat, pickles, radish, green papaya, meat pâté, sweet chile sauce, spicy hot sauce and topped with cilantro and spring onions.

As for dinner, Vietnamese food was new to us so Pepe did the ordering: cut-up fried spring rolls, sausage, a plate heaping of vegetables and herbs, rice noodles and rice paper wrappers, and many, many bowls of dipping sauces.

“Watch.” Pepe pulled a sheet of rice paper from under the lettuce stack and cupped it in his hand. He added a small piece of lettuce as the next layer.

“Always cover the rice paper with lettuce, that way they won’t dry out. Next take one piece of everything on the plate: a slice of cucumber, some bean sprouts, a little bit of rice noodles, basil, mint, cilantro, some bitter herbs, and a bit of sauce. And last, add a slice of sausage or fried spring roll if you want.”

While he talked I built my own supersized lettuce wrap.

“You put the entire thing in your mouth. This way you will get all of the flavors in one bite.”

I tightened my wrap to condense its size and stuffed it in my mouth. I was in heaven. This was what I was looking for. Not only was the mixture of flavors amazingly fresh and good but the scene around me was something entirely new: men eating lettuce wraps. I couldn’t ask for anything more. Nothing turns an ordinary man into a beefcake like a lettuce wrap in hand.

For the next few days, with our umbrellas at our side we explored Vientiane’s temples, the massive gold stupa, the night market, and riverside boardwalk. The women in Laos all wore traditional sarongs, even if working office jobs, paired with a collared blouse and high heels. I can’t describe how or why, but life felt different on this side of the river.

On one of our last evenings, Pepe took us to a fancy Laotian restaurant where he said important people from the embassies and government take their visitors. At the front of the restaurant a small stage was set up where a male college student played the khaen, a traditional Laotian wind instrument made of a double row of bamboo-like reeds. Girls with porcelain faces and cone-shaped buns atop their heads performed the national folk dance of lamvong, extending their arms and legs in deliberate movements while their hands swayed back and forth, their fingers arched back towards their wrists.

Pepe told us that the arch of the fingers in Laotian and Thai dancers is very important; a symbol of the dancers experience and abilities. Dancers start training at a young age, beginning with their parents bending their fingers back in attempt to mold the bone. As a result many dancers are extraordinarily elastic and able to bend their fingers backwards almost to the wrist. The young Laotian dancers and musicians at the restaurant were all students at a local music school, practicing here as part of their program. At the end of each dance, each girl would bow and then quickly race off to the back in a fit of giggles.

While we watched the girls dance we ate sticky rice,a food that can easily be described as every Laotian’s staple: eaten as the base for every single meal in Laos. This translates into a consumption rate of 240 pounds of rice per year per person! In comparison, the average American consumes 20 pounds.

Pepe showed us the proper way to eat sticky rice. He pulled a chunk of rice from the clumped mass in the bamboo container and held it between his fingers. “What you do is squeeze the rice between your fingers.” While he talked, he continued to squeeze and pinch. “Many foreigners don’t do this correctly. Some of the eat it with a fork!” He looked surprised and disgusted. “They don’t understand that the more you squeeze, the better the sticky rice will taste. Once you are ready you just dip your sticky rice into your curry or soup.”

I pulled off a chunk of the sticky rice.

Without going into the history of my dislike for rice I will say that I didn’t believe kneading this bland hunk of rice between my fingers would make me like it any more. Yet I followed procedure. I pinched and I kneaded and I eventually turned my rice into an unrecognizable ball of white putty.  It was moist and chewy and delicious. I realized I was beginning to fall in love.

In the evening we left the restaurant and returned to our sleeping headquarters. We had parked Nacho along the Mekong River across from the Grand Hotel. Just a few steps away, a long row of clothing vendors had set up on the boardwalk for the night market. People walked around selling snacks, and mobile pedicurists each carried a stool and a shallow tub for washing feet and carrying manicure tools, ready to start scrubbing with the wave of a hand. Yes, we live in our van down by the river. But it’s the Mekong River, so we’ll drink to that.

[grooveshark width=”580″ id=”1332702″ autoplay=”0″ style=”metal”]Mekong by The Refreshments on Grooveshark[/grooveshark]

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Jul 2013

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 18 Comments

Searching for a Piece of Burma

In the past I’ve mentioned my undying love for Anthony Bourdain, host of No Reservations. Just a few months ago he came out with a new show on CNN called Parts Unknown. He said that he accepted the offer because it would gain him access to places that American TV cameras rarely get to visit. Guess where the show debuted? Burma.

Bourdain said, “If we had come a year earlier, we would have been deported. Almost overnight, people there were free to say what they want. Press restrictions had been lifted. That was an extraordinary thing to witness.”

I thought about this particular episode as Brad and I skirted alongside the Thai and Burmese border. Besides Anthony’s show on Burma, the only other footage I had ever seen of the country was from a documentary called Burma VJ. This followed the disturbing story of the 2007 protests against the Burmese military regime. The smuggled footage clearly displayed the people’s frustration with their government’s censorship and control over them.

Today however, Burma is in the midst of reinventing itself. In just a short period of time things have changed quickly; censorship has stopped and the borders have opened. Despite the country’s claim to open borders, it is still not so easy to travel within the country. Currently the government has designated specific zones as “tourist appropriate”, leaving the remainder of the country absolutely off limits to the wandering eye of the foreigner. For us, given the restrictions to certain provinces, driving from East to West through the country to reach India would clearly be impossible.

So we couldn’t exactly get into Burma, but we could get pretty dang close. We stopped in the town of Mae Sot; the main point of entry for more than 180,000 Burmese refugees who have fled into Thailand to live and work in the region. These circumstances, as unpleasant as they may be, have created a mix of faces and culture unlike anything we had seen to date in Thailand.

Our first Burmese experience began with Bobo and Ma Yae. Bobo was a handsome Burmese with deep brown eyes, a wide jawbone and black tattoos which ran up his forearms and crept under his sleeves. At his side was Ma Yae, another native Burmese. She had shiny black hair that rested at her shoulders and was as cute as a button in her red collared shirt sprinkled with Mickey Mouse faces. In just a week’s time she’d be returning to Burma to attend her sister’s wedding.

Today, we followed the two of them down to the Y in the road and then right towards the Burmese market. We had signed up for a cooking class and step number one was hunting down the ingredients. Given that it was the morning time, the market was in full swing. As we moved from the outer streets inward, the paths transitioned into a high speed raceway. There were obstacles everywhere and I stumbled between them. The locals were smooth and fluid, weaving in and around each other. Bikes and motorcycles sputtered by, women carried platters of fruit on top of their heads and others crouched down next to their buckets of eels, fish and frogs, bins of steamed roaches next to mangoes, worms, and bags of rice. Under the overhangs of roofs packets of spices and prepackaged goods hung from strings and scattered about the tables were eggplants the size of peas, wing beans in bamboo baskets, bundles of holy basil, and everything else imaginable. Working the stands were men in coned hats, Indo-Burmese Muslim men in plaid sarongs, Karen tribal women, and Burmese natives with their faces brushed  in circular swirls, stripes and speckles with the yellowish-white paste known as thanaka cream.

This Burmese tradition has existed for centuries and serves as a cosmetic and a protectant from the sun. At the market it could be bought in paste or powder form, or in its most natural state as a piece of wood. To apply it, the thanaka wood is rubbed against a circular stone called a kyauk pyin and then a few drops of water are added to form the paste. It is then added to the face in whatever manner the person wishes to wear it. I was completely captivated by the uniqueness of this idea and could have easily spent the day just staring at faces. I was surprised to find that what I thought looked bizarre at first looked quite normal and beautiful by the end of the morning.

Halfway through the morning we stopped for intermission at a traditional Burmese tea shop. It was an atmospheric place: loud, busy, and filled with tiny tables and chairs. Once we settled in we were served a complimentary pot of plain green tea, always free and always bottomless at a Burmese tea shop. Next we ordered vegetable samosas and phyllo dough pastries and a round of lapae yea. This is a black tea mixed with a heavy dose of sweetened condensed milk, so much I might add that it sunk to the bottom of my cup like a thick white custard. Sweet like candy and delicious.

As we made our way out of the market, we watched a woman prepare a dozen or so betel leaves in an assembly line fashion. Brad had read about this very thing in a Paul Theroux book. The author had admitted to his hatred of the habit, complaining that the users were constantly spitting red juice everywhere. The thing is this is really popular stuff and people have been spitting it for the last 4,000 years throughout much of Asia and Oceania. It is an addictive stimulant that causes a warming sensation in the body and increased alertness and it has also been declared by The International Agency for Research on Cancer to be carcinogenic to humans.

So of course we were intrigued by this woman, who used her spatula to apply a paste of calcium to the leaves.  After covering the leaves in a sticky goo, she opened a half dozen calcium-smeared containers, reached in and sprinkled their contents on top of the leaves: whole cardamom seeds, clove, catechu, slices of betel nut and so forth. She then folded them over into bundles and handed them to us.

“If you start to feel dizzy after a minute or two, please stop and spit it out. Do not swallow it.” Bobo was clearly wanting to avoid any potential international health incidents. “Place the whole thing in your mouth. Chew on it and spit it out once you’ve released all of the juices and flavors from the inside. And please, if you start to feel dizzy, spit it out!

Brad and I each had one and so did Ma Yee.  She also took one to go, tightly wrapped and secured with a rubber band. And the flavor? It mostly just tasted like a leaf filled with toothpaste and a hint Indian spices. One was enough for us.

For the remainder of the afternoon we made an exquisite meal of potato dumplings, Mandalay noodle salad, Karen pumpkin curry, and lime basil juice. We learned new preparation and cooking techniques and enjoyed the results. Surprisingly the lime basil juice was the winner for the afternoon. In addition to these dishes, I had also made a special request to Bobo earlier in the day.

I had read that Burma is one of the only countries in the world where people not only drink tea but also eat the  leaves. They are eaten either as a pickled tea leaf salad or served in the center of a shallow dish (also pickled) along with fried garlic, peas and peanuts, toasted sesame, dried shrimp, preserved shredded ginger and fried shredded coconut. I was eager to make the former and Bobo was willing to show me how.  We did a little bit of re-hydrating , crushing in the pestle and mortar, and then tossing the leaves with tomatoes, cabbage, fried nuts, and seeds. The resulting flavor was something entirely new. I loved it.  The tea leaves were pungent and spicy, mixing perfectly with the crunchy nuts and mild vegetables.

We enjoyed our meal at a picnic table behind the café. It was peaceful and serene and everything just felt good. A perfect afternoon. I wondered what would come of Mae Sot in the future. I had asked Bobo what the community was like here and if most people knew each other and his response surprised me.

“No, I do not recognize most of the faces here. People are always coming and going. This isn’t really anyone’s home. Now that things are getting better in Burma, many of the NGOs in town are starting to disappear. People are even beginning to return home”.

It was a little sad to think Mae Sot was changing so quickly, but more than anything it made me happy. People deserve to live with their families, live in peace, know their neighbors, and enjoy the sunrise and sunset from within their own country.


Squeeze the juice from two medium sized limes. Detach the leaves from 5 stalks of lime basil (this is important) and discard the stems and flowers. Put the lime juice, basil leaves, 3-4 tablespoons of liquid sugar, and 1 cup of water in a blender and mix well. With a strainer, run the juice through the filter and serve with ice!


Preparing the tea leaves: Rehydrate 2 tablespoons of dried green tea leaf with warm water for a few minutes. With a pestle and mortar, pound together the tea leaves, 4 small green chiles, 2 cloves of garlic, 1/3 teaspoon of salt, ½ teaspoon of sugar, and the juice of one lime. Set aside. In a small pan, roast or fry a ¼ cup mixture of sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, peanuts, and broad nuts (if you can find them). Set aside.  On a plate, add ¼ cup of finely shredded cabbage, ½ tomato thinly sliced, the tea leaf mixture, nut mixture, a pinch of salt and the juice from one lime.

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