Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Of street food and mall food, Bangkok

McDonalds, Bangkok
iPhone Hispstamatic

Even in Bangkok, Thailand, can you not escape fast food.  Ronald McDonald offers a wai as a greeting to you.  A thin and rather good looking Thai girl advertises "I'm Loving It!" in the background.  On average a Big Mac meal is around 130 Baht or around 4 dollars.  That's significantly cheaper than what is in the USA which is more like 7 dollars.  The menu is modified to fit the local sense.  For breakfast, they have a thing called jook, which is like rice porridge.

Jook is not a joke.

For the most part, it was passable as far as jook is concerned.  This item cost me 29 baht, or basically a dollar.  The jook I'm used to has stuff that I normally wouldn't eat like liver and kidney.  It's the only way I would eat that stuff.  This item is probably not going to make it to the US.    

Regular Thai people are in a different income range.  You have some who make about 5,000 Baht a month.  Essentially that equates to about 160 dollars a month in terms of earned wages.  Many Thais only make about 200 baht a day.  Most of the workforce therefore tends to cater to street food vendors. 

Papaya Salad being made on the street.

For the most part, everyone works in Thailand.  If you get fired, you open up a stall by the corner and start to cook if you got any sort of ability.  Most focus on one dish.  The stall above pretty much only does papaya salad.  That's all they do.  You walk to another vendor for noodles.  Let's say you want noodles.  Go to a 7/11 or Family Mart.  Chances are a noodle vendor will be parked directly in front of the door.  Again, not possible in the US.  But then, this might be why Thailand's unemployment rate is well under 3%.    

Thai Noodles in front of a Family Mart store. 

There is a large variety of foods available on the streets of Bangkok.  Because of the ungodly heat during the day, many Thais come out at night.  In fact, this city doesn't sleep.  You see Thai people sitting in front of a 7/11 store having noodles with a Leo Beer that they bought in the 7/11.  No open container law here.  By the way, contrary to belief, I see Thais drinking Leo more than Singha.  Chang is really high on the consumption list.  Here are a few more shots of some of the stalls that I saw.  

How most Bangkok Thai eat.

Some street food on display.

Other options for picky visitors?  Answer:  The Mall.  Now, the mall in Thailand is not like the mall in the USA.  It is much more than just a mall.  US malls lack a variety of stores.  In fact, the sense of choice in a US mall is less than in Bangkok.  The Food Court alone in any of the malls in Bangkok make the US malls look like the deserted mall parking lot in Back to the Future.  The Food Court in Central is a good example of how behind the US is in terms of this sort of stuff.  Go to Siam Square, or Paragon for a better idea.  In a small local food court mall, you can get anything you like.  In fact, the mall concept makes sense in Thailand.  Why?  The HEAT.  Malls have AC!  Have street food but not bake into a skewer of meat.   

Fried Bananas at a mall

Pulled Pork in a Mall

If you are a tourist, or don't have a good sense of judgment about food, you can grab essentially what is street food in the mall.  Now the food police in America wouldn't approve of some of the temperature monitoring and other things, but if you are paranoid about that fact, why did you go to SE Asia in the darn first place.  The people eat this stuff all the time.  Any yes, the Thai food is different than in the US.  Like anything, it is uneven.  But then, if you didn't like a meal, you only blew a dollar versus 10 buckaroos.    

Friday, August 5, 2011

Vietnam to invest major tourism bucks in Central Vietnam, Hue

Central Vietnam, 2010

According to Vietnam News, Central Vietnam, specifically the area around Hue, is going to get about a million buckaroos to boost tourism for 2012.  The goal apparently is to boost the amount of tourism by about 7 to 8 million visitors.

Tourism is a big economic booster in SE Asia.  The only hope is that you get the "good" tourists versus some of the "bad" tourists.  On my way back from Hanoi, I noticed some very seedy "farangs" with really disheveled looks.  Some actually sort of smelled a little too.  Hue is a beautiful city.  There are also a lot of really nice spots there.  

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Walkabout in Hanoi with an iPhone

iPhone 4, Pano 

Hot diggity dog with extra mustard!  Not all my Hanoi iPhone pics were lost.  Apparently, the Picasa program that I use to organize my travel photos managed to copy the pictures into a folder.  It was labeled 2010, but it turned out to be the iPhone photo library.  So, I get to show you some stuff that I shot with the gadget.  The above shot was taken from the restaurant.  I've also located my videos for Hanoi traffic, but I need to figure out a way to edit those things.  

Discreteness.  One of the things that I am using more and more is the iPhone to capture what I observe in my travels around Hanoi.  People are not intimidated by a person shooting pictures with it.  The little gadget has a few advantages over my point and shoot, which I used during the last visit to Hanoi.  It doesn't scream out, CAMERA.  With the phone, I was more discrete.  In other words, I wasn't broadcasting myself as the "Stupid American Tourist" with big call signs with an DSLR rig like a Canon or Nikon around your neck.  I love the wide angle lens of my Nikon D80, but there are some advantages to the photography apps that I was able to use.  I observed people feeling their personal space being violated by these huge cameras with huge lenses.  With the iPhone, I just sort of shot street scenes.    

The Hipstamatic app is pretty much what I am using for these shots.  It produces some interesting effects. This is a shot of the train station in Hanoi.  From here, I went with some friends to Sapa.  Traveling like other Vietnamese is enlightening.  Let's say when you travel in Vietnam, it isn't like taking AMTRAC or the MTA Blue Line in Los Angeles.  

What I tried to do is to take shots of the Old Quarter as I walked about the area.  The little Hisptamatic app seems to accentuate a particular type of feel in the images.  Taking shots with this thing felt more like using a Polaroid, since the pics were usually squarish.  So here are my results, along with my random thoughts of gibberish.       

This gate is older than America.  There are buildings in Hanoi that predate the USA by well . . . you know.  Vietnam is an old country.  There were a number of banners and flags celebrating the 1000 year birthday of the city.  That's right, 1000 years.  My home in Long Beach is considered to be "Historical" because it was built in 1918.  Hanoi, specifically the Old Quarter, was founded in 1010.  

The Hanoi of 2011is a bustling city accentuated by the cacaphony of honking horns, motorbikes, and the general hum of a living and breathing city.  It is so not Los Angeles.  People walk.  The traffic is well, let's say, unique.  I walked around the Old Quarter, and the age of the city becomes very apparent.  Sections of streets sell specific products.  There was one street that only sold hammocks.  

As you can tell, the streets are narrow, and the shops are also narrow but deep.  I remember that the explanation was that you were taxed based on how much space the building front took up.  Essentially, these places are the Vietnamese equivalent of shop houses.  

Commerce is very prominent in Hanoi.  Vendors of all kinds sell many things.  I remember when I took the train ride from the Sapa region back to Hanoi, there were vendors selling baguettes.  The Vietnamese take chunks of bread and dip them in condensed milk.  I just like bread, so no condensed milk for me. 

The one thing that I found really nice is that you can have a lot of foot traffic in the Old Quarter.  In fact, I rarely saw any vacant stores.  All the stores were active, and in addition to that, there were vendors selling items on the street itself.  Realistically, this wouldn't happen in the USA.  We have so many regulations in terms of commerce, but then you don't have the shadow of the censorship.  You are free to say anything, except stuff about the government.  It is sort of like Thailand.  You say anything bad about the King, and you are in big trouble.  

The city is alive.  However, unlike Bangkok, the city does sleep.  Effectively many of the shops close after about 11PM.  There are sections of the city that still seem to bustle.  Bangkok on the other hand seems to become active at 11PM during the evening.  

Things are wrapped around the old in Hanoi.  The electrical grid seems to be an ad hoc experiment in how quickly can you make an octopus wiring problem.  The modern and the ancient collapse upon each other in Hanoi.  

There are these quaint alleyways that zig zag through this part of the city.  The scooters are ever present, reminding you that you are not looking at an old photograph of an ancient city.  It is an ancient city with various levels of adaptations.  The scooter is a good example.  Hanoi is a city that I would call scooter town.  The scooters average about 150cc, and they are pretty good with mileage.  The bigger thing is that having a big car is not an advantage in Hanoi.  It is hard to maneuver in certain parts of Hanoi in anything bigger than a scooter.  The city was not designed around the car, like Los Angeles. 

As you can tell.  Cars are not really a popular item here.  Part of it is the cost.  It is very expensive for the average Vietnamese to buy a car.  In fact, even in Thailand, a car is an expensive thing.  In certain parts of Thailand, a house costs the same as a car.  So, it makes perfect sense for the scooter to be the primary form of transportation here.  

A person asked me, can you live here?  I said.  Maybe.  There are advantages and disadvantages to all places.   

Thailand Khao Lak, Waterfall. Location of tsunami aquaphobia sessions

I've decided to try out the videolog aspect of blogging.  I usually don't like to get photographed.  I'm not into that sort of thing.  But then, I guess people want to get more of a clear idea on what we did in the past as part of working with my fledgling NGO.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Children of Sapa, 2011

One of the things that is troubling is that many of the children of Sapa work the streets selling items.  This little girl approached us to sell some textile goods, but we noticed that she was carrying a sleeping baby as well.  We gave her a drink and told her to take a break and relax.  

Essentially, there is no child labor law in this part of the world.  Everyone works including the children.  The irony is that despite their situation, most of these hill tribe kids have a rudimentary level of English speaking skills.  Of course they speak Vietnamese too.  

Back in Thailand, July August 2011

iPhone Hipstamatic shot

We were taking a road trip back to Phang Nga. On the way, there is essentially a rest area that is about half way between Bangkok and Phang Nga.  As usual, there is a 7/11.  7/11 is very prominent in Thailand.  They serve as your go to store as there is one every few blocks.  Well, I call this the Buddha of 7/11.  It is right in front of the store. 

When you drive through Thailand, this is what you see.  Green. When I tell people Thailand is green, they underestimate how green it is.  

Sapa, Vietnam. Hill Tribe Dance

iPhone Pano shot from balcony.   Not the best, but you get the picture.

When I was an undergrad, I actually studied a little bit about Marx.  One of the things that I remember is that he noted that the means of production governs the means of existence.  Essentially, your economic structure often influences how you conduct your life.  Now, after several years, I was actually really able to see how that change could be transparently clear.

In the Sapa region, the means of production is directly tied into a growing tourism industry.  The problem about this situation is that it has changed the very fabric of how people live in Sapa.  The hill tribe people were primarily subsistence farmers, but because of the tourism industry, they have modified their lives in order to maximize their ability to sell.  The first thing that will happen is that you will be immediately greeted by young women in indigo clothes trying to sell food, jewelry, linen, and other clothing items.

In this part of the region, I hardly encountered any Americans.  Most of the people I encountered were French or Australians.  Pretty much, in this part of the world, the Aussies are all over the place.  It is raining in this picture.  

One of the things that the hill tribes have done is to use their traditions as a tourist attraction.  At the Cat Cat Village location, there is a small performance space for them to show their various dances. This is the entrance to it.  

The performances were pretty nice.  The flag of Vietnam is displayed pretty prominently here.

The Region of Sapa, Vietnam

Sapa, Vietnam.  Using iPhone 4 Pano application

During the dog days of Summer in Hanoi, the Vietnamese take bus or train trips up to the Sapa region of North West Vietnam.  It is known for the terraced rice farming.  This sort of farming can also be found in China. 

Terraced farming is pretty much the norm in Sapa.  Similar forms of farming also occurs in Southern China, and it also called "step up" farming in Japan.  Essentially it is a form of adaptation to the agricultural limitations of the area. Sapa is largely an area entirely devoted to the growing of rice.  The fields turn yellow when the rice is close to being harvested.  Water is also heavily managed in the area with a series of canals, paddy fields and other water effects.  This is a water pump.

This was taken using my Olympus EPL1.  Effectively, I've ditched the DSLR for the sake of weight.  Some of my shots are not being composed and shot using the iPhone4.  Still, you do need a full format camera lens to get any sort of detail.  Below is a shot of a loom in a shop/house.  This is located in a location called Cat Cat. Most of the hotels are also called Cat Cat by the way.  What you will see is that the tourism component of the region has expanded drastically.  It has changed the way the Hmong live now too.

Another economic engine for the area is textile.  Most of the Hmong can be observed wearing their distinct indigo blue clothes.  They also have converted their villages into tourist destinations.  This is an example of showcasing their textiles.  When you arrive, Hmong follow you around trying to sell you textiles, silver bracelets and other stuff.    

Street food is quite evident throughout the area.  Here, the local villager is grilling sticky rice that has been stuffed into bamboo.  It is actually quite tasty. 

Sapa is actually very unique in Vietnam.  The area is largely populated by the hill tribes, but they have adapted to the tourism component.  

This man is making sculptures out of a soft white rock here.  The tools of the trade are displayed before him.  Again, with the new economic model set by Doi Moi policy changes, commerce is emerging in all parts of Vietnam.  But with such changes, life has also changed for many.  It has extended to the hill tribe people, who converted their homes into a tourist attraction.