It’s all about the food

Smell and taste teach as much about a place as what you see.

One of our favorite aspects of travel is food. The preparation, presentation and flavors, even how you eat, say a lot about a country and its people. That said, Southeast Asia is an amazingly appetizing smorgasbord of cultural experience!

Our stays in various countries ranged from three to 30 days so this is by no means a complete or authoritative guide to Southeast Asian cuisine. It’s simply our tasty compilation of grazing moments . . .

Japan

We were delighted to find that Japan is much more than rice and sushi . . .

On a foodie side note, there is a whole industry based around plastic food. Most Japanese restaurants showcase menu offerings  in outdoor display windows and cases. They are eerily realistic!

Thailand

Thai food has always been one of our favorites. We were fascinated by the floating food market/food court outside Bangkok.

We enjoyed one especially good dinner at Bangkok’s Tealicious restaurant.

Cambodia

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Fish Amok – fish in a savory curry sauce served over sticky rice.

Singapore

The food scene in Singapore is much more ethnically diverse than other Southeast Asian countries we visited. As mentioned in my previous blog, Singapore is multi-racial and multi-cultural. Their cultural goal of “integration, not assimilation,” is deliciously evident in their plethora of food offerings.

Despite being one of the most expensive city/countries in the world, one can find good, inexpensive food if you know where to look. Frank and I had some of our best cheap eats within the ethnic conclaves of Little India and Arab Street and at hawker centers (open air complexes housing inexpensive food stalls).  In fact, the cheapest Michelin rated restaurant is still located in a Singapore hawker center!

Malaysia

Singapore was part of Malaysia until 1965. Malays make up 15% of Singapore’s population and we enjoyed a lot of wonderful Malaysian food while we were there. When early Chinese migrants married local Malays, they also wedded their culinary ingredients and spices to create Nyonya cuisine. It’s aromatic. It’s spicy. It’s delicious. Many of those dishes (i.e. Rendang, Laksa, Mee Siam) were featured in the Singapore section above. We visited two Malaysian cities, Melaka and Penang, where we discovered a few more standout dishes.

And the award for best food goes to . . .

Vietnam

What can I say? We loved everything we tried here!

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Faces and more places

Those trains . . .

IMG_6367You can’t talk about Japan without talking about the trains. In many ways, the system is a microcosm of Japanese culture — technologically advanced, punctual, efficient, orderly, clean. We purchased a Japan Rail Pass, which provided access to a network of local, regional and the amazing Shinkansen “bullet” trains. We traveled by rail almost every day of our three-week trip. The efficiency of arriving just minutes before our train allowed us extra time to tour, sleep, eat, shop or whatever. For long trips, we reserved seats. There couldn’t have been a more convenient and reliable way to travel everywhere we needed to go in Japan.

 

 

Observations

“The Japanese think of everything.” If we said it once, we said it fifty times on this trip. From heated toilet seats to no-fog mirrors to purse baskets at restaurants, we were in a constant state of amazement. Of course, Frank couldn’t stop raving about the train system (but that’s another post!).

The Japanese people are very polite and have a keen sense of awareness for the people around them. The train stations provide a good example. Rush hour with hundreds of people heading to and from trains is a mob scene — but only due to the number of people. It’s busy but calm at the same time. If you stop to listen, all you hear are footsteps. Trains can be packed like sardines but, again, it’s eerily quiet. No one is talking loudly on cellphones or shouting above each other. If people are talking, it’s in hushed tones.

Japan is a fascinating country with kind, gracious people. Throughout our trip, there were so many things that struck as unique, charming, interesting, or just plain funny…

Kimono and geisha

Kyoto - Gion Geisha District

Arriving at Tokyo’s Ueno Park for the cherry blossom festival, I spotted a woman in a kimono. “Is that a geisha?” I wondered. Then I saw kimono-clad women and girls everywhere. Ever more curious, I questioned our guide and learned some interesting facts about kimonos and geisha.

“Oh no,” she said. “Geishas are elusive and we’ll be lucky if we see any. Many of these are Japanese celebrating the festival and graduations. But most are tourists who have rented a kimono for the day.”

Looking closer, it was obvious. The Japanese women wearing kimono carried themselves with ease and grace. The non-Japanese? Not as much. Our tour offered an opportunity to wear a kimono but I knew I, like them, could never pull it off!

The word kimono simply means a “thing to wear” (ki = wear and mono = thing), kind of ironic for something so beautiful. There is a basic version for everyday but most Japanese now only wear kimono for special occasions, i.e. graduations, weddings and local festivals like the one we were attending.

The geisha kimono is even more ornate and has a unique characteristic — the back is open to expose the neckline. In Japanese culture, this is considered the most sensual part of a woman. The length of the kimono and associated shoes differ with the level of training.

Aside from the kimono, a trademark of a geisha is their white make-up. Did you know that at one time, it was lead-based and poisonous?! Now, of course, it’s harmless.

In the 1920s, there were 80,000 registered geisha. Today, there are fewer than 1,000. Frank was an honored guest at a genuine geisha house twenty-some years ago. Even at that time, it was a rare opportunity as most Japanese are unable to afford the very costly and unique experience. Frank always tells people that, “It’s not what a lot of people think; geisha are NOT prostitutes.” They are highly skilled entertainers who have trained for years in traditional Japanese arts.

This exclusivity, along with their dwindling numbers, has created a practice of “geisha spotting,” particularly in Kyoto, which has the highest concentration of geisha. Sometimes things get carried away. We heard horror stories of lone geisha aggressively mobbed by groups of tourists angling for a photo. Many are now hesitant to go out. Japan has begun a campaign to encourage tourists to treat the geisha, or person of art, with respect and to give them space.

I have to admit, I was super exited when I came across not one, but three(!), during a walk through Kyoto’s Gion district. Naturally, I took photos — but no, I didn’t crowd or block their way!

 

I believe in . . .

Tokyo - Senso-ji

There’s a popular saying in Japan, “People are born Shinto, get married Christian and die Buddhist.” This can make sense because religion in Japan is not so much practiced or preached as it is lived.

Basically, Shintoism is the spirituality of this world and life, while Buddhism is more about the soul and the afterlife. That’s why the two religions can work together. To celebrate a birth or marriage, or to pray for a good harvest, the Japanese turn to Shintoism. Funerals, on the other hand, are usually Buddhist ceremonies.

So where does Christianity come in? Only a small percentage of Japanese are Christian, but when it comes to weddings, it’s an obsession. Modern couples want all the western traditions, including an expensive white dress, exchange of rings and even a giant cross hanging in the background during the ceremony. The key component? A minister who looks the part — in other words, a white person. The term for this is a “white wedding.” Many of these ministers aren’t even religious. Our guide had a friend who went into this business. He does six weddings a week and makes big money!

Like cathedrals in Europe, it seems every time you turn a corner in Japan, you run into a shrine or temple. Generally, shrines are Shinto and temples are Buddhist. Some religious compounds have both so it gets confusing. One can easily get “templed out” but each of these structures is unique and each play a big part in Japan’s history and present day life.

 

Play Ball!

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My ears are still ringing from the clamor of last night’s Japanese baseball game! While the game itself is similar to American baseball, the atmosphere is as charged as a college football game. The cheering NEVER stops. Crowds cheer wildly and loudly during their team’s entire turn at bat. When the opponents are up, their fans cheer. Fans whack these small hollow bats together, creating a thunderous cacophony. Those mini bats inevitably result in a headache for the uninitiated — but isn’t that what beer (and sake) are for!

Cherry Blossoms!!!

Nara

One of our favorite days involved a long bike ride through neighborhoods among the cherry blossoms.

We could not have come to Japan at a better time. The cherry blossoms are in full bloom everywhere we go! The Japanese have a tradition called hanami, where friends and families celebrate the beauty of sakura (cherry blossoms) by gathering under the trees for food, drink and conversation.

 

Penang, Malaysia

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The urban island of Penang, Malaysia always ranks in the world’s top ten places to retire. Low cost of living, first-rate healthcare, nice beaches and ease of language contribute to its long list of amenities.
The island was a busy southeast Asia  trading post for over 500 years, under the control of various conquerors. Penang remains a mixed culture of different races (Chinese, Malays, Indians, Mamaks, Eurasians and Thais). This fusion has resulted in the its reputation as a foodie destination.

Georgetown (the capital and largest city), was founded in 1786 and remained a British colony until its independence in 1957. Today, colonial and traditional-style buildings mix with modern day skyscrapers.

Our original plan was to be here a month but our other adventures landed us on the island with just five days. We did our best to make the most of them.

Although I had done some research on Penang, Frank and I were shocked on our ride from the airport. It was night and we passed high rise after high rise. We never realized there were over two million people here!
Our hotel in Georgetown was recommended by some friends. The location was a perfect base from which to explore . . .

Bangkok

When people ask my favorite travel destination, I usually mention the last place I went. Not so much with Bangkok. To be fair, we only had a few days. But those few days really made us wonder.

There were some interesting things to see. The floating markets outside of town were lively and vibrant and the local pride at the colorful “James Bond” boats was endearing. Our hotel room’s amazing view of the Chao Phraya River “water highway” provided endless fascination and entertainment. There were some unique temples and the Royal Palace was unlike anything we have ever seen – stunning and elaborately over the top.

The not so good? Bangkok is a city of 14 million people and it seemed that half of them — from an over-zealous bellhop to an overcharging rickshaw operator to a Buddhist monk (what?!) — seemed to have their hand out. A cab driver left us confused and frustrated when he dropped us a few blocks past our destination and two private tours we took were, how should I say, a bit “misrepresented.” (In the spirit of complete disclosure, however, the sight and smell of raw meat sitting out in 95 degree heat had me secretly grateful our guide skipped over the “authentic street food” portion of our local neighborhood tour!) It was all pretty exasperating as this was all in two days!

Friends have visited or lived in Bangkok and loved it. “Give it another chance,” they say. The “quick stop” isn’t our typical travel routine so I won’t rule it out. Next time, though, we will do it with someone who knows their way around or, in the least, give it a bit more time.