This oversized grenade of a fruit is a love/hate affair. It has a nasty reputation for smelling like trash, but durian fans are willing to overlook its scent's peculiar similarity to dumpster air in order to enjoy the sweet, rich, custard-like meat.
Our introduction to the fruit was in ice cream format in Myanmar, where we concluded that it tasted and smelled like onions, and was not exactly the after-lunch sweet treat we were looking for. But we gave it another shot in its unprocessed form and ended up really liking and even craving it. It can be found at most markets where other fruit is sold throughout southeast Asia, and can often be bought in sections since it can be quite a large fruit and has a heftier price tag than most other fruits. The taste is sweet and floral, not unlike the mighty jackfruit, but the consistency is what really got us hooked: it's creamy, almost like souffle or pudding, and the sections are big enough that you can take huge bites of it at once, without pesky skin or pits getting in your way. Just don't leave it in your room like we did once for a few hours...afterward the whole place smelled of restaurant trash!
The great thing about eating in Bangkok is you never have to look very hard for delicious food. There are stands and makeshift restaurants on every street corner selling all kinds of yummy snacks, from the ubiquitous and filling pad thai to roasted crickets to coconut-based desserts. Here is a sampling of the food we grazed on as we wandered the streets of Thailand's capital.
We spent an evening doing a food tour on Rangnam Road (near Victory Monument) after seeing an article in Travelfish that made our mouths water. By the end of our little tour we had eaten a noodle and veg soup with roasted pork, a roasted pork salad with sticky rice, margaritas, and a dessert that consisted of a green tea shake poured over soft white bread cubes and topped with condensed milk (tasted better than it sounds!).
We also spent a couple days filling our bellies by grazing on small snacks as we wandered around Bangkok during Songkran (the country-wide water fight celebration for the New Year). Some of the snacks we ate include:
Steamed dumplings, filled with different kinds of meat or veggies (about $0.60 for 6)
Next up were these thick, fried pancakes (about $0.30 each). There's nothing in the center-- they just pop up like that while being fried.
These little quail eggs are cracked into a pan with tiny egg-sized indentations and fried. Sometimes there is a thin layer of rice flour on the outside, and two are stacked facing each other with some chopped tomatoes or chilis in the middle, making a golf ball-sized croquet. (You get about 12 halves or 6 croquettes for $1)
These little snacks were coconut-based desserts had a texture somewhere between jelly and pudding. They're steamed in tiny porcelain cups and then scooped out and sold by the dozen (for about $1).
Finally, here's a snack we did not gather enough courage to try: roasted bugs. Nick was actually quite close to trying a grasshopper (or was it a cricket?), but right before he ordered, he saw the pile of 2-3 inch long locusts (which looked like Texas roaches to me), and quickly bailed on the whole idea. Thankfully!
Bugs aside, if you're ever in Bangkok, don't bother eating at the restaurants-- grazing on street food is much more fun, cheap, and delicious!
It's simple: you put your feet in a tank full of fish that nibble on dead skin. Dozens of the little guys attack your feet and ankles, feeding off tiny particles of dead skin. Fifteen minutes later, you pull your feet out, and they are softer and smoother than they've been in a long time. Plus, the fish are full and happy, so it's a win-win!
Now, it's not exactly for the squeamish, as it is incredibly ticklish at the beginning! But once you get used to it, it's just kind of funny. Plus, it was the perfect break from getting soaked during the Songkran celebrations.
We finally succeeded in being in the right place at the right time: not only were we in Myanmar for their election day, but we also managed to take part in New Year celebrations in both Myanmar and Thailand. The (lunar) New Year is celebrated over several days in mid-April in these two countries as well as Cambodia and Laos. It's probably their biggest national holiday (in many places everything closes and everyone is off work) and it basically involves a multi-day no holds barred water fight. Kids take to the streets with buckets, pouring them on passers-by, people stand outside their houses with hoses and take aim at passing vehicles, and huge Super Soakers help fuel an all out water battle. Everyone participates-- adults, children, grannies, cops-- and no one is spared a soaking, not even farang (white people/foreigners).
However, Myanmar and Thailand certainly differ a bit in their celebrations. In Yangon (Myanmar), where the celebration is called Thingyan, huge stages are set up along the main streets and decked out with dozens of high-pressure waterhoses. Concerts are held on the stages and partiers take control of the hoses, spraying the crowds below. These parites last for FIVE days, which is incredible. The entire country shuts down for Thingyan and literally every man, woman and child participates in the waterfights. We caught the first day of the holiday, so we were drenched with water from kids with bowls, teenagers with waterguns and some of the stages whose hoses were already up and running. We left the country that evening, so we missed the first big night of concerts, but we got the idea. I left wishing that it was always Thingyan in steamy Yangon; being hosed down with cold water actually felt great in that heat!
Songkran, as it's called in Thailand, was a completely different affair than Thingyan. We made the mistake of having already booked and paid for a hotel room on Khao San Road in Bangkok, where Songkran celebrations are at their craziest (this is about as smart a decision as staying in a hotel room on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras). When we arrived to our hotel after our Yangon-Bangkok flight, we had to push our way through hundreds of already wasted partiers, dancing wall-to-wall on the blocked-off street, squirting at us with huge Super Soakers and coating our faces with a chalk-like substance. The walk from where the cab had to drop us off was less than a block, but we were a mess upon arrival. We quickly realized that we had better just get into it, because it's the type of thing that is only enjoyable if you just embrace it and participate; there is no option to stand on the sidelines and observe because you will get soaked!
So we spent the next few days walking around Bangkok, getting soaked, watching water fights between groups of people dousing each other from the sidewalk, balconies, and the backs of trucks, and stumbling upon outdoor concerts. Leaving our hotel room at any hour of the day meant walking directly into the middle of the city's biggest party, which at times was fun, but at other times made us feel a bit like hostages since there was no way to go outside without being instantly messy. But we still wandered around our crazy neighborhood, stopping to eat street food or grab a can of beer when the mood struck. By the time we left Bangkok though, I was more than ready to stay dry and not have to push my way through huge crowds of drunk people every time we left the building!
We're glad we caught the celebrations in two different countries; it was definitely an experience, to say the least, but our advice to you: don't book a hotel smack in the middle of the country's biggest party! I still have Black Eyed Peas ringing in my ears from the same song being pumped all day for three days straight...
Please excuse our rather minimal number of photos. This was a raging water fight, and we didn't want to ruin one more camera on this trip...
Are you a bro on spring break from college looking to score? Then you're going to love this place! Let me back up...
We took the overnight bus from Krabi to Bangkok, and arrived at the unfortunate hour of 5:30 am. As we walked down Khao San Road toward our hotel, the smells of beer-stained asphalt, leftover pad thai and desperation hung heavy in the humid air. It was still dark, some bars and clubs were still thumping to the beat of crappy techno, drunk guidbros who look like they are still mourning not making the cut for Jersey Shore were stumbling down the block, street cleaners were sweeping up broken beer bottles, and ladies of the night were looking for their last customers of the evening. I was thrilled when we entered our seemingly clean, safe, and stylish hotel lobby. Little did I know, there is no safe haven on Khao San Road, the legendary ground zero of Southeast Asia's backpacker scene. The place is basically Cancun, minus the refreshing sea breeze and somewhat clear ocean water. Here's a timeline of the scene that unfolded before us:
5:50 am Nick and Claudia arrive to the hotel fresh off a tiring overnight bus ride; our room is obviously not ready so we take a seat in the hotel lobby.
5:55 am A short, rotund man walks into lobby with a very tall lady-boy and pays for a room.
6:00 am The lady-boy leaves the hotel.
6:10 am Two young American men come down to the lobby and check out of their room. They call their other two friends who were staying in a different room, beacuse it is time for them to take a taxi to the airport. The receptionist, while giggling, tells the two young men that their friends "took two ladies up a few hours ago!"
6:20 am The other two young men arrive in the lobby with huge grins on their faces. We do not feel it would be appropriate to transcribe the conversation that ensued among the four young men, but suffice it to say there were some gems. Among other things, they were discussing one of the young men's certainty with regard to the prostitute's anatomy. They all leave for the airport while high-fiving.
[6:25 am Claudia takes out the laptop to write about this scene.]
6:45 am A young man enters the lobby with a prostitute; they check into a room on the ground floor.
6:50 am The young man leaves the hotel.
6:55 am The young man returns to the hotel with a small bottle of milk.
7:00 am A wholesome looking couple comes down to the lobby from their room. I realize the female half of the couple is the first woman I've seen in this hotel lobby who is not a prostitute.
7:15 am We're let into our room and are comforted by the printed sign on the wall laying out the hotel's rules. Among them, "Do not bring prostitutes in the hotel" and "No person with infectious diseases are allowed to stay."
This, my friends, is Khao San Road, Bangkok. All the hand sanitizer in the world can't come close to making this place anything but filthy.
*Note: There is no photo gallery for this post. You're welcome.
Are you a bro on spring break from college looking to score? Then you're going to hate this place! Which is exactly why we loved it. After the overdevelopment (and the relatively high prices and lack of pristine surroundings that come with it) of Koh Tao, we set our sights further south and on the other side of Thailand's peninsula, on the Andaman sea. We picked Railay, a cluster of beaches on a penninsula that is cut off from the mainland by immense limestone cliffs rising right out of the ocean, and thus only accessible by longtail boat.
This physical protection seems to have cut down on some of the problems of overdevelopment and unsavory clientele that plague many of the world's beaches, although it is by no means an undiscovered spot. There are four distinct beaches on this relatively small peninsula, and we made our home on Tonsai beach, the mellow collection of basic bungalows, food shacks, and laid-back beach bars inhabited mainly by a few dozen rock climbers worshipping the world-class limestone and filled our days with the perfect mix of climbing, sunbathing, and massages.
The climbing was truly unique, challenging us with large, globular formations, huge stalactites, and imposing caves, and the puzzling discovery of seashells embedded in the rockface hundreds of feet up (the cliffs used to comprise the seafloor, many geologic ages ago). While we only visited three sites, we could easily see how many climbers happily spend months or years here without even scratching the surface of the available routes. Claudia got some pointers from one of the island's legendary climbers, Wee, who also showed her some bouldering moves to help up her skills, while I enjoyed some of the many rewarding routes, and struggled up a truly challenging one featuring a tricky move using a stalactite to exit the roof of a small cave.
After climbing in the morning, we spent our afternoons lazing on the beach and admiring the huge cliffs in every direction. At night, we feasted on delicious, fresh seafood and Thai curries, and passed the time at the most relaxed bar scene we've ever seen, where beachside hammocks, fire juggling, and exchanging stories about the day's climbs replaced 80s music, bright lights, and bikini contests.
India and Nepal left us a bit disheveled. Well, mostly it was just India, but we never had the chance to catch up on comfort and relaxation while trekking in Nepal. So we made a beeline for a beach in Thailand. We needed a major recharging of our batteries so that we could genuinely enjoy what Southeast Asia has to offer during our last three months of travel.
There are hundreds of mainland beaches and islands in Thailand, so we sought some advice from fellow travelers who have traveled there often. In the end, we chose to book a few days in a bungalow on the island of Koh Tao, on the Gulf of Thailand. You may have heard of its more famous neighbors Koh Samui (whose overdevelopment was quite negatively portrayed in the movie The Beach) and Koh Phangan, best known for its insane full-moon parties attended by thousands every month. Koh Tao is the smallest of the three, and is popular for divers: it issues the largest number of Open Water diving certificates in the world. So we picked a bungalow near the water, and spent a few days doing not much at all.
I hadn't realized that there are not that many actual stretches of sand on the island, but it didn't matter too much. We were generally lazy, but we did manage to take a kayak out to the neighboring bay, which had a great stretch of sand and okay snorkeling, and I also did two dives. We learned quickly that these islands are pretty overdeveloped, obvious by the large piles of plastic water bottles that have nowhere to go, and the alarming amount of rubbish in the water, floating in the bays and washing up on our resort's tiny beach area (you'll have to take my word for it, because I did not take photos of that). From the little I've seen and read, it seems that beach development in Thailand has gotten out of control, and there doesn't seem to be much, if any, trend towards sustainable tourism in certain parts. Many of Thailand's beaches and islands are even designated as National Parks, but this seems to make little difference and development still runs rampant; the authorities seem to look the other way. Koh Tao itself looks lovely from afar, covered in dense jungle, with rocky bays and little coves, and narrow stretches of white sand fringed with palm trees. It's just too bad that when you look closely, it appears to be in major need of a clean-up day and a reality check on the seemingly unchecked development.
- We stayed in Chalok Baan Kao Bay, on the south end of the island. While the beaches were nothing special, if you find yourself in that area of the island, make sure to check out Babaloo (an incredibly chill and awesomely decorated beach bar), Alvaro's Diving School, and Taraporn Restaurant (legitimately delicious sandwiches on brown bread, along with the usual Thai dishes). The beach at Thian Og (the next bay over, where Haad Thien resort is located) is one of the nicest stretches of sand on the island.