08 June 2013

The Macabre and the Delicious - Lunch in Bangkok

The Thai Colonel - Colonel San Ha.

Bangkok is a city that vibrates with energy, and you all know that I just lurve the "City of Angels." Whenever I get the chance, I extend my inevitable layovers to and from South Asia in order to make what would be a 3 hour pain in the ass a lovely short vacation.

This time around I was leaving Nepal, and my heart and mind were filled with conflicting, bittersweet emotions. I was planning to connect in Bangkok without leaving the airport, but news that one of my BFFs, Ben Newcombe, and my good pal Loren were going to be in the city made me rethink my flight plan and schedule my tenth - TENTH - visit to Krung Thep.
What better to remedy this confusing sludge of anxiety, nostalgia, financial panic and heartsickness than, you guessed it - one night in Bangkok?

Turns out - nothing. Nothing could be better than Thai street food, that is! I made a pact to the boys and to myself that I would only consume cheap local food for the 24 hours - and it was a promise I made good on.


We spent my one night in town drinking buckets, dancing and attending a ladyboy show, finishing up at 2am with some delicious streetside chicken rice. For my one full day, I wanted to visit some of the more bizarre attractions in the city, things I had always put off for "next time" on every other visit. 

After a breakfast of pork noodle soup, we paid a visit to the Jim Thompson House, a meticulously preserved Thai teak house once owned by the American architect and designer. He is said to have saved the dying Thai silk industry in the '50s - until he vanished without a trace in Malaysia and was never heard from again. The house is stylish, creatively designed and slightly subversive - I loved it. 

 A long line up at the chicken and som tam stall - the busiest in the food court.

We built up quite an appetite and needed to have a hearty lunch before heading to the macabre Siriraj Medical Museum (so. many. dead. babies. in. jars.) and the sinisterly stuck-in-time Nightingale Olympic Department Store (although, in retrospect, an empty stomach at the medical museum would not have been such a bad thing). Loren led the charge to a side street Thai food court he had visited earlier in the week, promising cheap, delicious local street eats.

The food court is located in a covered alley in Siam Square, and despite the hoards of farang tourists in the nearby vicinity, we were the only non-Thais in the place. Ben and Loren opted for some choices from the smorgasbord of curries, meats and stir fries, but something a little different caught my eye - fried chicken and som tam.

Who can take a rainbow, spinkle it with glee - the Som Tam Man can!

Just the previous evening, a new pal had been telling me about a famous joint near Lumpini Park that only sells delicious, crispy fried chicken and som tam, a papaya salad that is said to be one of the spiciest Thai dishes. I was intrigued by the combination, and here it was, fortuitously right in front of me. 

An older gentleman was mixing what I recognized as the fiery salad with a big mortar and pestle, and I gestured that I would like one of the same.  I also pointed to a skewer jabbed through two fried chicken breasts and watched as he prepared my plates in a flurry of chillies, peanuts, dried shrimp and fish sauce.

I don't understand the point of life without Thai street food. WHAT WOULD BE THE POINT?

Less than a minute later I was taking my seat with two delicious, complementary plates in front of me - all for 60 baht (2 dollars).

The fried chicken was crispy, salty and juicy, each piece dipped in a sweet soy sauce mixed with a hint of cilantro. The rich, salty umami flavour of the chicken and sauce was perfectly matched with the sour and spicy som tam, the fishiness of the tiny shrimps and fish sauce helping to cut through the oiliness of the chicken. 

Initially I exclaimed that I had "enough food for two people!", but I licked my fingers, dug in and plowed through both plates. I finished my lunch with the perfect feeling - rather than stuffed silly and filled with remorse, I was glowing and happy, having eaten the perfect amount.

It was a wonderful night - and day - in Bangkok, aided by a wonderful lunch. I had a happy feeling in my tummy and a spring in my step... 
 ....that is, until all of the deformed babies in formaldehyde and mummified criminals.

Some things, like chicken and som tam, are simply just a better combination than others. 

Being a "good eater" is a lovely compliment, Violet - for a baby.

06 June 2013

Sit and Spin - Kathmandu's Ferris Wheel

 No. It's not safe. And that's what makes it fun!

I had seen it from afar too many times to count, each sighting sending a chill up my spine.

I could see it poking up over some trees and buildings each time my taxi crossed the overpass between Ratna Park and the back way through Tapathali to the Bagmati Bridge, and I would mutter to myself, or to anyone else nearby: "I will ride that Ferris Wheel before I leave Kathmandu."

The problem was, I could never actually find it. The wheel in the distance looked positively monolithic from that one road, but no Nepali I asked seemed to know what I was talking about. As my days began to count down other priorities took over, and to be honest, I sort of forgot about my carnival goal. 

Until a few weeks ago. Kalina and I were drinking soda pop and attending a fair trade event at Exhibition Park when all of the sudden I could hear the delightful sound of children screaming in equal parts terror and glee. "I know that sound." I said, and as we turned a corner, there it was, looming up ahead - the ricketiest, tallest, positively scariest Ferris Wheel I had ever seen.

However, it soon became clear that this was a case of "so close, yet so far." The heat was unbearable, and Kalina and I already felt nauseous. We were rapidly losing our ability to withstand the muggy, woozy sun of midday, and we sadly turned back toward Lazimpath. "We'll come back!" We both exclaimed, but there was a part of me that knew that it wasn't going to happen.

That, my friends, is the look of glee. Glee!

A few weeks later I was gearing up to leave Kathmandu during my final week. The boy was back in town, and I was determined to show him some of the reasons that I find the city magical. We wandered through the back lanes between Thamel, Indra Chowk and Durbar Square and saw the Kumari Devi's house, the Tooth Fairy shrine and a 2000 year old Buddha. As we began to meander down New Road and we randomly happened to bump into Kalina and her roommate Katie.

It was still early, about 3pm, and we were all in good spirits, happy to be together hanging out with the lion's share of the afternoon stretched out in front of us. "Should we get a coffee?" I asked. Kalina's face lit up.

"Let's go. To. The Ferris Wheel!" It was settled. We started off on the sweaty walk to Exhibition Park.

Step right up, step right up. But mind the giant holes in the ground....

From just outside the gate, we realized that this was not simply a standalone Ferris Wheel - no, it was a small amusement park! There was a scrambler, a small dragon coaster, bumper cars and a merry go round...

....and there was the wheel itself. 

Up close, we could see that this was not just a normal Ferris Wheel - it was operating at roughly double the speed and the carts were wildly swinging back and forth. This was actually like, a ride, not just some county fair, Fern and Avery, easy-does-it, old timey snooze. My knees began to grow weak and a mix of excitement and dread - the amusement park feeling - began to build at the base of my neck.

I look like I am saying, "Ole!"

Once inside I was greeted by another wonderful surprise - an abandoned ride, its parts scattered on the ground. Now, I love beautiful old abandoned buildings, everyone knows that - but an abandoned carnival ride has got to be one of the most gloriously unsettling things I can imagine. I scampered over and immediately began exclaiming "Wow!" loudly, over and over again as I clambered on top and inside of the cars.  Ben, Katie and Kalina waited patiently as I examined them and fawned over the cogs and wheels like they were precious works of art. When I had finally had my fill, we walked over the the star of the show, the behemoth Ferris Wheel.

The child in the red harness was screaming and crying like she was being tortured, and it made me laugh like some sort of horrible sadist. But man, it was funny. I'm laughing just thinking about it.

I believe that it was at this point that Kalinka looked up and said simply, "Nope." No amount of cajoling or pleading could get her on that ride, but the boy and I were feeling more brave. We paid for our tickets on what was being hailed as the "Joint Wheel" and eagerly boarded the ride.

"This is either going to be much scarier or much less scary than we are expecting it to be." I announced.

The "Vaporizer" Wheel was closed due to neglect.

The Wheel began to spin, and within minutes Ben and I were calmly approaching the highest point of the axis. The view was stunning, as the ride reaches taller than most of the city's buildings, and we could see the entire expanse of the Kathmandu and into the valley.

"Um, I think it's getting faster." I said suspiciously, and he nodded.
"Yeah, the operator winked at me the last time we passed him."
"Oh god! Not a wink! You never want a carny to wink at you! It's like a gypsy kiss! BAD THINGS HAPPEN."

The ride did indeed pick up speed, and I was starting to examine the rusted joints, the extremely young, slackjawed staff and the flimsy pin holding our cart to the wheel. In a country that sits on a huge earthquake faultline and that has no safety inspections and no government, the last thing you want to start contemplating is the sturdiness of the 6 story Ferris Wheel that you are actually sitting on at the time.

My stomach began to drop each time we began the descent, and I was starting to feel nauseous, but at that point it finally began to slow down. As we neared the top for one final spin, I told Ben about the North American tradition of kissing your date at the top of the Ferris Wheel. He obliged, choosing a moment when none of the children or families on the ride were looking, as even a chaste peck is scandalous when in public in Nepal (totally fine to hold hands - or junk - with your buddies, though). 

When it was all said and done, I was happy to have gone on the Joint Wheel - but equally happy to get off of the Joint Wheel. While it may not be the largest, or the cleanest, or the safest - Kathmandu Fun Park offers thrills, one way or another. Now about those safety inspections.....

Public romance in Nepal? Verboten. Public bromance in Nepal? A-OK!

03 June 2013

A Vagabond Leaves Lazimpath

Bijay and Rajkumar, my Nepali brothers and staff members at Tings.

These are my last few minutes living in Lazimpath. I am packing my belongings and preparing to spend the night at Kalinka's house for two nights before heading first to Bangkok and then to Vancouver. These disorientingly nomadic days are probably a good preview of my summer, as I will be crashing with friends or heading to the deepest, darkest suburbs to stay with my Mum. Three months is simply not enough time to bother with renting a flat, and I am planning to sell all of my belongings anyway. It's time to let those go and prepare to be a vagabond expat 4EVA.

... but let's be honest, while it feels important to mark this occasion even I don't want to hear myself have another heartwrenching epiphany, so let's not be too melodramatic. Should be easy, as I feel a bit numb. 

Sure, there were tears in my eyes when I walked away from Gertie and The Keg, leaving them expectantly wagging their tails. And yes, last night I got a bit emotional at my al fresco leaving party at Tings, the sad happy that occurs when you are surrounded by people you care for and to whom you are saying goodbye. Of course I am sad to leave the apartment where I had some great times and suffered through a cold winter (ok, so I am not sad about that part at all). But overall, no matter how much I try to make this all seem real, it just hasn't sunk in yet. I'm oddly stoic about the whole thing, and I can't decide whether that is because it is simply time to leave or because I am in denial. Either way, it's going to happen. I am leaving the 'Du.

I will miss Lazimpath, and I will miss Kathmandu. The vibrancy of everything, the chaos, the splendour -  the manic highs and dark lows of this city are addictive, and I know that while I will be dazzled by Vancouver's pretty face for a few weeks, quite soon it will start to seem dull.

I will attempt walk in traffic and navigate the streets too closely to moving cars.

I will marvel at the high speed wifi and the existence of bathtubs.

I will carry napkins to the washroom with me, forgetting that they all have toilet paper.

I will gain five pounds eating ALL OF THE THINGS and drinking ALL OF THE BEER.

I will never cease to be amazed by drinkable tap water and the cleanliness of public space.

I will gawk at the amount of food thrown in the garbage.

Most importantly, I will be able to begin reflecting on this experience and truly start to understand what it all meant to me. Right now I am too in it, submerged in the swirling, complicated emotions of long distance romance, farewells to friends and what some Buddhists call "the suffering of change." But once I am back in Vancouver and have seen my pals and eaten some sushi, the excitement of being home will wear off and I will have time to pause and meditate on what Kathmandu changed inside my heart and mind. That process is at once scary and comforting but ultimately necessary.

So while right now I feel calm and ready to leave, in two days time when I cab to the airport who knows what I will be feeling (I do have a history of crying in taxis). I might be teary eyed and mournful or excited and optimistic, but I will have my head held high and my gaze pointed forward, because that's where I am going whether I want to or not. Time passes.

Boy, does it ever.

02 June 2013

Momos - Nepali Comfort Food

Please sir, can I have some 'mo?

Today is a big, emotional day. The boy just left (yes, again - and for real this time. After my last blog, he came back to Kathmandu for a week to solve some technical difficulties with the bike and paperwork) and I am having a small going away get together at my home away from home, Tings. The farewell to the boy is less fraught with complicated emotions than the last time, as we have decided to just say "fuck it" and make sure we see eachother again. But it's still sad.

So I am going to take what could potentially be a rich source for a yearning, wanky paean to time-passing, goodbyes and romance and instead write about something extremely uncomplicated: Momos.

Pork kothey momos - to die for.

I have a theory that every culture adores dumplings. Seriously - whether it's the Peruvian empanada, the Ukrainian perogy or the Chinese xiao long bao, people around the world love them some stuffed dough - and who can blame them? Dumplings in any form are one of life's simplest and most delicious comfort foods, and momos - the Tibetan/Nepali contribution - are no exception.

When I visited - and ate my way through - Beijing, I very nearly got a tattoo of the Chinese character for "dumpling" on the side of my ass, thinking of all of the delightful exchanges that would follow:
           Chinese speaker: "You know that means dumpling, right? Not 'peace.'
           Me: "I know. I just really like dumplings."

Nearly every restaurant in Kathmandu serves momos. From a streetside stall hawking 40 rupee bowls to a gourmet serving that costs 400 rupees at the Hyatt, you can always count on one thing - they will be delicious. That's the thing about momos - even when they aren't very good, they're still pretty good.

The most common fillings include buff (the Nepali colloquial term for water buffalo, a beef substitute in this Hindu country), chicken and veg, but more daring establishments will offer paneer, pork (when religiously appropriate), potato and even chocolate or fruit. A local chain called "Bakery Cafe" hosts an annual event called Momo Mania - and this year they had eighteen different flavours!

Momos are traditionally served steamed, but they are also popular pan-fried (one side, called 'kothey' or both sides) or deep fried, and are sometimes sauteed with chili sauce, onions and peppers and called "C-Momo."

After a walk around Patan's Durbar Square yesterday afternoon, we decided to grab some plates of 'mos as an afternoon snack (which is when Nepalis normally eat them). Royal Saino Momos is an institution on Durbar Marg, famous for their offbeat flavours (mushroom and peanut!) and their sauces. The sauce is an integral part of the experience, and it's usually spicy and sweet with a little bit of masala flavour.

Ta Da!

We ordered a plate of kothey pork and a steamed basket of veg momos and they were delicious - the kothey perfectly golden on one side and dripping with tasty oil and the steamed veg all gingery and chewy in exactly the right way.

Royal Saino is a little bit more expensive that the norm, with a plate of momos costing about 150 rupees (average is more like 80 - 100) but they are really, really good. Add an Everest Beer and you have the perfect 3pm combination.

Meet your meat.... or meat and greet?

So while I will miss Nepal - and I will definitely miss the boy - wherever I go in the world I will be able to find comfort food that will remind me of this place and the amazing times I had here.

Gyoza. Sui Mai. Vareniki. Ravioli. Wontons.

And of course, momos.

Just call me l'il dumpling. But don't actually.