Monday, June 21, 2010

SFO to Hong Kong to Bangkok

20 hours on a plane. Actually, ever since I can put 16gigs of books, music, podcasts, and videos on my iPhone, it’s far less painful than it used to be. I watched 4 hours of SciFi’s Tin Man which wasn’t bad at all, listened to a few hours of Car Talk, Sex with Emiliy, and the BBC, slept for 10 hours and landed in Hong Kong. Cathy Pacific was nice and on time. One more thing that really helps with sleeping is taking out the noise cancelling in-ear headphones and putting in foam ear plugs. It gets the plane noise down to almost nothing—sitting at the back of the plane far from the engines also helped.The Hong Kong airport was a bit of a letdown, though. From all the hype I’ve heard, I expected some wonder of engineering and convenience, but it’s really a pretty average FRA or ORD-style airport with overpriced and mediocre food and the usual empty luxury stores in a so-so building. At least they had reliable and free WiFi.

Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport on the other hand is a complete knockout—from the tent-like architecture to the food and the stores.
They actually have almost every store twice in the departure hall—Gucci, Prada etc.--one on each end so guests don't have to walk that far. It really recalls a classier time of air travel: spotless, clean, sparkling, and every salesperson dressed to the nines.

Since my 20 year old memory of Bangkok consisted of horrible traffic jams as well as the things I heard about the red shirts and riots, I actually booked an airport transfer for the first time in my life. Big expensive mistake. The trip to the hotel took less than 25 minutes on a mostly Sunday afternoon deserted 8 lane highway. Ironically, just about the first thing I saw on the highway was a 50 foot Kyocera printer ad. Made me really feel at home. Without going to the business center, the only signs were some cops and military camping out on the highway--literally, they brought tents and coolers and gazebos. Given that it was about 42C and 100% humidity probably a smart choice.
Bangkok had changed so much that I had trouble reconciling my memories with the new reality. Instead of a chaotic, exhaust-y mess, the area around the main train station where I stayed for the night was almost indistinguishable from Tokyo or Osaka—clean, no more tuk-tuks, and drivers even sort-of obeyed traffic signs and red lights. Unfortunately, I only had time for a shower and a quick nap before meeting the others.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

So, Cambodia and Laos

Wow, I really haven't blogged in quite a while. I did go to Cambodia and Laos in May, so lets start catching up with an FAQ (or maybe just questions I keep asking myself):

Why Cambodia and Laos?

Basically because I like South East Asia, and both countries are about as far off the map as you can go without supporting the Myanmar dictators. From what I've heard, Laos was like "Thailand before the tourists came". I also wanted to scratch Ankor Wat off my life list.

Why not Vietnam?

I'd love to go to Vietnam at some point, but I didn't have the time. Also, the $100 visa fee was somewhat of a turn off. And since Cambodia is allegedly changing rapidly, I wanted to get there before it was just like Thailand.

Just like Thailand?

Somewhat funny, because Thailand—or at least Bangkok and the few towns I saw on the way to the Cambodian border and the way back from Laos was nothing like I remembered from 20 years ago when I was there the last time. Bangkok nowadays more or less looks like Tokyo or any other large Japanese city. Very clean, very organized, and—at least on the weekends—no more of the traffic hell of bikes, carts and tuk-tuks. The food is still stellar, and the heat and humidity is still amazing. Oh, and the new airport is the most beautiful and impressive one I've ever seen. It makes Hong Kong International look old, dated and dingy.

So, Bangkok, wasn't that dangerous with all the riots?

Not really, it was confined to a few blocks in the business center, and nowhere near where my hotel was. There were no signs that anything was going on, everything was normal and as quiet as Bangkok gets. Also, most Thais I talked to expected this to wind down peacefully. They and I were really shocked when it exploded into a violent confrontation about a week after I got back to the US.

So, is it really different from the rest of South East Asia?

Unbelievably so. Crossing the border from Thailand to Cambodia is like stepping back 30 years or more. For starters, you can't drive across the border, because Thailand drives on the left and Cambodia on the right—and also to cut down on smuggling. So you walk from the air-conditioned Thai border post through a huge French colonial gate to a couple of huts with anemic fans on the Cambodian side while your luggage rides a human powered wooden cart straight out of 17th century central casting right past the guys selling pickled snails. The next impression is just the emptiness—Cambodia and Laos combined have less than the population of Bangkok. And once you leave Phnom Penh and Siam Riap behind, everything gets poorer and more backward. The biggest shock to the system—apart from S-21—was a rural farmers market that sold everything from live frogs and lizards to 7 kinds of spiders and bugs. Unfortunately all the protein many rural Cambodians can afford, even with the UNICEF food program helping out.

What was the food like?

Well, I stayed away from the bush meat, so I might have missed out on some stuff. Thai food was obviously stellar (unrelated side note: can someone please tell Thai restaurants in the US to cut out the sugar???). The Cambodian and Laotian weren't bad, but a bit monotonous, rice, noodles, ginger, garlic, and a bit of meat. Not very spicy, and after a week it all tasted the same. Still much better than American chain food, though. Thanks to the French, the baguettes are excellent, as well. When we crossed back into Thailand, the guys hit KFC hard and out Thai guide and I did some real damage at the Thai food court.

One exception was a restaurant in Larang Prabang that was owned by the former royal cook—probably the best meal I had in a year. Hard to describe, but it was basically a huge dumpling filled with chicken in a coconut milk mousse with tons of spices. The other thing I've never eaten before were mulberry leaves which were all the rage in Vang Vien. Tasted like blackberry leaves and made awesome milkshakes.