Food Trippin’ through Bangkok

As some people would know, the husband (V), is busy eating his way through the world. He even has a chart a la a second grade Science textbook of the Animal Kingdom that organizes all the species he’s managed to consume thus far. It’s therefore not terribly surprising he wanted to go to Bangkok for his birthday, with the sole objective of adding to this chart. I’ve been to Bangkok before, and done the touristy stuff like the Buddha temples, Ayuthaya, cruising down the Chao Phraya and more. If you’re looking to read about those, this blogpost isn’t it. If you’re interested in knowing about eating your way through the streets of Bangkok (and eating weird food), you should keep reading. For those with sensitive stomachs, consider yourself warned before you read this!

Day 1 – Khao-ing at Khao San 

We landed super early in the morning (cheap ticket alert), and spent 2 hours waiting for the visa on arrival. For anyone who decides to go to Bangkok because of the visa on arrival, I strongly recommend getting it in advance because the disorganized queue is no fun. We had about an hour to kill before checking in to our AirBNB, and so we chose to go to a mall that the owners recommended. This was a local mall in Sukhumvit, clearly not a tourist hangout – in order to get some bubble tea, we had to wait till the iPad on the table played the ad for bubble tea and point.

Once we’d checked in, and cleaned up, we headed out to our first stop – Khao San Road. We started our food explorations at the street vendors near Soi Rambuttri and sampled our way through Pad Thai and rice with two kinds of curry. We walked down the length of the Soi and picked from carts that looked most interesting.

 

 

V considered buying a scorpion on a stick, but skipped it because the 200Baht price was too expensive (yes, he knows how much insects on a stick should cost). Given how muggy it was, we decided to sample some local beer at Khao San road and then began the hunt for the insect cart (top of V’s agenda).

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I recommend Chang for those who like lighter beers.

We found a cart almost as soon as we started looking, and she created a mixed box of insects (grasshoppers, silk worms, bamboo worms, beetles, crickets, waterbugs, frogs) for 200Baht. She also sold him a centipede for 100 baht, a spider for 200 baht and a snake for 500 baht; and threw in a discount for such a top-end customer (AND we weren’t charged 10baht for a photo of the cart).

V’s Verdict: Unfortunately, all insects tasted the same, and of the overused oil they’d been fried in. Of course each had its own texture, so V might be able to blind taste and identify them next time (or so he claims). V’s tip – buy insects from a wholesale market and fry them yourself. Overall, we recommend eating at the street stalls at Soi Rambuttri. We also ate at one of the restaurants at Khao San, but the food was nowhere near as good.

Day 2 – Khlong Tooey Wet Market

We planned to wake up super early and head to Khlong Tooey wet market, the largest wholesale market in the region. We overslept, but still chose to visit the market. We took a direct train from the Phra Rang 9 MRT station to Khlong Tooey. It took us some wandering around on the roads before we found the market, though. At Khlong Tooey, we found every possible species of fruit, vegetable and meat in an infinite maze of shops and alleys. Basically in the absence of a zoo or botanical garden, this market can be visited.

The market explorations started with what sounded like squid in banana leaf (per the vendor’s sign language), but was likely some other kind of fish in banana leaf (per V’s expert opinion).

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Can you identify the fish?

The highlight, however, was finding a lady selling ant-eggs, which was one of the reasons why V wanted to visit this market. He believes he has amazing luck with finding food, because the market was ginormous and we only spent a couple of hours, yet he was able to find what he wanted. He bought about 100g of ant eggs as well as a 100g combo of ants and wasps for 100 baht. The transaction was conducted almost entirely in sign language, and pointing at calculators and weighing scales. When we started, we thought she was selling a kilo of ant eggs for 5 Baht. This turned out to have been a kilo for 50o Baht, so clearly some sort of translation app would have been beneficial! And these aren’t the tiny ants you find scurrying about aimlessly in our homes or yards, these are big-ass ants, of the size of wasps, and I’m sure they would be roaming around with serious business out there in the wild.

While we were heading out from this section (that also had chicken and other meats that I was trying to avoid looking at), V happened to find yet another delicacy that comes from the villages of the area – rats. I’d like to think he didn’t buy any because I couldn’t stand the thought of walking around with one and then cooking it. But actually, I guess he didn’t buy it because he couldn’t have possibly cut, cooked and cleaned it in the AirBnb. So that’s one weird food that remains off the list, thanks to me.

 

From Khlong Tooey, we headed to do some regular site-seeing because I couldn’t possibly let V leave Bangkok without seeing ANY Buddhas. I highly recommend the directions in this post to make your way to Wat Pho and then Wat Arun, like we did. Between the two temples, we had more bubble tea, and a very special dish of Thailand – the Boat Noodles – as always, presented in an especially deep bowl as it was traditionally a dish sold and had on the wobbling boats by the boatmen. In addition to seeing the Golden Buddha, and climbing up Wat Arun, V was able to sample some street side squid. I really liked how the street vendors presented the food – it was MasterChef level plating, complete with the flower.

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Once we were done with the site-seeing portion of the day, we moved on to Chinatown, in search of Birds’ Nest Soup. If you Google Chinatown, there are many restaurants recommended to try out this dish, and we chose to head to Hua Seng Hong. For those who haven’t been part of a quizzing circuit, let me remind you that birds’ nest soup is a delicacy which gets its semi-sweet taste from the birds’ saliva used to make the nest.

While we were hunting through restaurant recommendations, I read about a street vendor who made awesome toast, but it was really hard to locate the guy. Until, I spotted a group of teenagers eating it. I couldn’t help but ask where they’d bought it, and I was given directions (and also a look of ‘doesn’t the crazy lady have a map?’) to the toast guy. This toast is so popular, there’s a huge line of people on the sidewalk just waiting to be served. They have a set of chits with numbers on them, so one needs to enter their name + order and drop it into a bucket. The servers pick these up and call out the number when the order is ready. We tried some toast with a local jaggery like paste. If, like me, you’re a mere spectator to the weird food eating, I highly recommend the toast to accompany your explorations. I also managed to pick up some Green Tea KitKat Icecream (verdict: weird, but yummy) at the 7-11 before we headed back.

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At home, V finally got to cook the ant-eggs he’d bought. I also did him the favor of squishing (“pre-cracking”) the eggs as a result of carrying them in my bag all day (I had a book in the bag that I was speed reading, because I’d found it at the AirBnb and wanted to finish it before we left). He stir fried the eggs in butter, and added some soy sauce for flavor.

V’s Verdict: “The most tasty egg bhurji ever!” As a bonus, there were some wasps sized ants that got cooked in with the eggs, for added protein, flavor and crunchiness. The ant eggs had an inherent lemony taste, which he says comes from mango leaves that are a part of the ant’s diet.

Day 3 – Feeling Fishy at the Floating Market

Bangkok has many floating markets, which are large tourist attractions. Our research pointed us toward Taling Chan Floating Market which isn’t touristy, but is frequented by locals. So that’s where we headed. V thought he was being super prepared and had a Google maps shot of the destination, with Thai directions that he shared with the cab driver. However, it turned out that the words “market” on a Saturday meant only one thing to the cab driver who clearly did not know a word of English (and definitely didn’t read Thai) – Chatuchak Market, the giant flea market that tourists flock to in droves. We planned to go there, but only after we’d eaten at Taling Chan. So we were forced to get off at Chatuchak and find another cab that actually knew where to take us.

When we first got to Taling Chan, we were surprised to see that there were no boats. Just a bunch of stalls on a dock. We thought that we were so delayed that we’d missed the floating stalls. We were standing on the dock, when we noticed boats with vendors further ahead. We walked on to discover the actual floating market – clearly Taling Chan floating market has led to this dock that calls itself ‘Wat Taling Chan market’ for unsuspecting tourists who aren’t quite sure where they want to go.

The actual market had a bunch of street stalls before you head onto a giant boat with different stalls. Each stall buys produce and fish from a boat by the side – there’s everything from variations of the papaya salad, to different varieties of fish, mussels and other sea food. They also had variations of Thai Iced Tea to go with the food. And for dessert, there’s the famous Mango + Sticky Rice combination, to make the most of being in Bangkok during mango season.

 

We opted for a grilled fish and a plate of shellfish, both extremely tasty. Once we’d stuffed ourselves at Taling Chan, we headed back to follow the tourist path and explore Chatuchak Market.

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While I busied myself buying random things that I will never end up using, V managed to find squid eggs at the food stalls near the homeware section of the market. We also had still more bubble tea, and a strawberry cooler while we roamed around in the heat. The highlight of Chatuchak for me, though, was the amazing foot massage at a stall near the apparel section of the market.

V’s Verdict: “Foods taste best in their natural place of occurrence. What’s better than buying fish from someone sitting on a boat? Chatuchak is a flea market with food options too, so neither were the expectations, nor was the experience high on the food dimension”. He is happy that he had a new species’ eggs and is now planning to make a separate egg chart. He claims he has had eggs of enough different kinds to start one.

So that’s 3 days of weird eating (and a LOT of bubble tea drinking) at Bangkok. If you’re interested in seeing V’s chart, let me know in the comments and I’ll share where he’s at in his quest to eat his way around the world. And if you’d like to know more about planning a trip to Bangkok, I can help with that, too!

 

Weekend Getaways from Delhi

Now that everyone’s done with the long weekend, here’s a way to plan for the next long weekend. It’s been a while since I’ve been to any of these places, given that I haven’t been in Delhi since 2012,but, I would still recommend each of these places (I am willing to bet they’re as awesome now, as they were a few years ago). So if you’re lost for ideas for your next long weekend, try some of thes –

1. Two Chimneys, Gethia – This has to be one of my favorite places from the region. It’s a longish drive from Gurgaon, about 10 hours but it’s totally worth it. The drive may be quicker now than it was a few years ago, because at the time there was a TON of roadwork going on. I highly recommend the Oak Room, which is where me and my friends stayed. Two Chimneys has an amazing library, and tons of games and is a perfect place to just chill out and do nothing (my favorite kind of long weekend). You will especially enjoy lounging around doing nothing if you choose to drive down – it helps you recover from the lack of roads. I also highly recommend the grape jelly they serve for breakfast (and pretty much everything else they cook, really). At night, remember to go up on the roof to get a beautiful view of the valley. With the stars above, and flickering lights below, it’s a beauty!

2. Writer’s Hill, Nahan – A friend suggested this place for one of our trips, and I was sold the minute I saw their room’s were named after books (shows amazingly good taste!). I was totally bowled over when I got there, and walked into ‘No Orchids for Miss Blandish’ – a beautiful yellow room with a bookshelf, and a reproduction of Ravi Varma’s ‘Lady in the Moonlight’, one of my favorite paintings. There’s not much to do in Nahan, but Writer’s Hill offers a bunch of board games (we played Monopoly all day long). There’s also the river Renuka nearby, and one can attempt a fishing expedition. Yet another one of those chill and do nothing places.

3. Suryavilas, Simla – This is a little different from my usual homestay type place recommendation. I got to go there because a friend of a friend was giving away a free trip. It’s just a little away from Simla, and is a beautiful property. Very luxurious, with great views.

4. Glasshouse on the Ganges – This was on my list of places to visit, and though I haven’t been there myself, I have heard enough about it from friends to know that it’s fantastic. They have rooms that open out right onto the river. I also hear that the food there is amazing! And of course, when in Rishikesh, there’s no way you can miss out on the rafting.

5. Raju’s Guesthouse, Tirthan Valley – Yet another one of those places on my list that I didn’t get to, despite my best efforts. I highly suggest Googling the place and looking for the reviews. It involves a sort of boat-cum-rope expedition to get to, that sounds highly interesting. And if you do get there, please please leave me a comment to tell me more. Hopefully, I will get there someday!

6. Chokhi Dani, Jaipur – I LOVE driving the Gurgaon – Jaipur route. It is one of the best highway routes I’ve driven on in India. Chokhi Dani is an awesome place to get an ‘authentic’ experience of sorts. They have hut-style rooms and they have a mela that happens every day (with camels, ferris wheels et all). During peak season it’s pretty expensive, but if you think you can deal with some heat, go in August, when it’s pretty affordable. While in Chokhi Dani, you should spend most of your time on the premises just soaking in the experience there. If you would prefer to stay closer to the city, and also during the peak period, I suggest Hotel Amer View which has a great view of Amber fort.

So that’s my list of quick getaway places for the next long weekend, for all those of you in the NCR. Feel free to let me know of more such hidden gems, if you’ve got any recommendations!

There’s more to Turkey than Istanbul…

Everytime I hear someone mention that they’re going to Turkey, I feel compelled to tell them to go beyond Istanbul. I have written multiple emails / FB messages listing out the top things to see and do in Turkey, so I think it’s time to write a blogpost that I can refer to, instead. So, here’s what you do if you can spend more than a week in Turkey.

1. Istanbul – this is a no-brainer. But remember that there’s more to Istanbul than the obvious suspects like the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque and Grand Bazaar. There’s more.

2. Ephesus – if you are a fan of history, this has to be on your list. And please, remember to go see the one remaining column of the Temple of Diana at Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. (Pro tip – stay at Nazar Hotel. The owner used to own a travel agency in Istanbul and knows a LOT!) Also make sure you go on the trip to Serinje this little village nearby – they have the most amazing fruit wine.

3. Pamukkale – you may be wondering what places to pick, and which ones to drop when you plan your trip. Pamukkale can NOT be missed. Spend a few hours there (during the day time), but you absolutely must see the travertines (just Google this, and you will know what I’m talking about). I’ve seen pictures, and I can assure you the reality beats every photo hollow. I am not a natural beauty type person AT ALL (as anyone who knows me even a teeny bit can tell you), but this is still top on my list of places you must visit before you die. While you are there, remember to eat at Mustafa. The food was good, but what really got me was how the owner described the food – “My wife she make everything. She is the best cook I have known.” I also recommend staying at Kervansaray.

4. Antalya – there are many beaches in Turkey (including Fethiye which is known to be a party place). We chose to visit Antalya because of how our travel was planned. The Mediterranean sea is gorgeous, and I would definitely suggest breaking your Turkish journey with a beach visit amidst all the sight-seeing!

5. Cappadocia – the very first issue of Lonely Planet India featured an image of hot air baloons flying over the fairy chimneys in Cappadocia, and that was when I knew I just HAD to go there. The hot air baloon experience is one more of those things that is even better in reality than it is in the most perfectly Photoshopped image. I also recommend the city tour of Cappadocia that allows you to explore the natural landscape. Make sure that you stay at a cave hotel while you are in Cappadocia. There are many options ranging from the super fancy to the more affordable Hills Cave hotel. When you make your reservation, ask them to also arrange the hot air balooning for you.

And, if your curious about how to get to each of these places, this is what I recommend:
Fly into Istanbul –> Fly to Izmir (near Ephesus) –> take a bus tour to Pamukkale (ask Nazar Hotel about this) –> take a bus to Antalya –> take an overnight bus to Cappadocia –> fly to Istanbul.
I loved the public transportation in Turkey, and I will highly recommend it!

There are many more places to see in Turkey that I didn’t get to, but I think this is a pretty solid itinerary (it took us 12 days). Here’s hoping you see more of Turkey than just Istanbul!

Crowdfunded Travel?

The latest rage on Facebook is this website thats collecting email IDs for a beta test of what they claim will be a crowd-funded travel portal. A bunch of my friends have been sharing this link and ooh-ing over it. I, for one, just cannot understand why on God’s earth anybody would be willing to pay for someone else’s travel, even if it is an inspirational trip of a lifetime.

The argument that the same rationale that applies for crowdfunding a movie, or contributing on Wikipedia does not hold good, to my mind atleast. If I fund a part of a crowd-funded movie, I eventually get to watch the creative output and enjoy it. The same goes for Wikipedia, where I get to read on sujects I don’t know of (I don’t want to get into the depths of Wikipedia’s contribution mechanism because that will send me off on a whole other rant).

But if I fund a part of your travel, I get to be inspired by your, um photos? Given that research has shown that the biggest source of unhappiness out of Facebook is the envy caused by travel photos, does this mean that we are now paying to make ourselves unhappier? I am totally on board with the idea that someone should pay for my travel (hey, free vacation!), but do I really want to pay for someone else to see the Northern Lights (I’m picking this example cos a friend went recently and it was the most inspiring trip I’ve seen pictures of) and share a beautiful set of pictures, when all it does is remind me that I cannot go there right now because I’m stuck at school, or work or whatever? I don’t know, something here just doesn’t add up, for me.

I guess I’ll register and see how they take this product forward, and then decide whether or not I believe this behavioral intervention of sorts works.

PS – I discovered the reason for virality. The minute you give them your email ID to be a beta tester, they claim they will give you $50 toward your first trip if you get atleast 3 more people to join. This gets more and more interesting, given that you are essentially advocating an idea that gives you a delayed monetary benefit of sorts. Now the marketer in me is intrigued.

For those who don’t yet know this, I’m an info geek, who enjoys thinking about products, design and behavioral economics.

Istanbul Top 10

Now may not be the best time to write posts about Turkey, given the situation in the region, but Istanbul is on the must-see list for many people, so I’m just going to list out my top ten. Disclaimer: I am not going to mention night clubs, and partying because that’s not my area of expertise. This list is in reverse order of preference (I like saving the best for the last).

10. Taksim Square: No matter what time of the night it was, this place was bustling and alive. I don’t know how the vibe of the place is right now, but while I was there in May it was just brilliant to watch.

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9. Public Transport: I love it when the public transport system in a city is easy to use and well connected. I loved the street trains that took you to all corners of Istanbul. It was great fun to explore the city with them.

8. The Blue Mosque: You’re going to read reams and reams about this from elsewhere, but let me just add my two cents and say you definitely must check it out.

7. Restaurants under the Galata Bridge: When you walk by the Galata brige during the day, you will see people taking time off to fish. And then under the bridge, you’ll get accosted by servers from the numerous restaurants. The way they were lined up, I think you should just go and eat at the one that gives you the best deal, because I’m fairly sure most of them had the same owner / kitchen! Eating on the banks of the river is pretty awesome though.

Galata Bridge at night

6. Street Food: There is no point spending money in restaurants in Turkey. The street food is way better than anything else you’re likely to get at a restaurant. Turkish pizza (called pide), is quite yummy and you can get the plain cheese version or the one with all kinds of meats thrown onto it. And of course, there are the kebabs too.

5. Turkish Hamams: At some point I will dedicate a whole other post to the hamam experience, but at this time all I will say is, put aside your modesty and try it out. You’ll come out feeling more squeaky clean and relaxed than you’ve felt in a long while.

4. Ayran: This may just be my Middle East upbringing, but if you’ve not tried Ayran, you should. Nothing beats a cold glass of buttermilk on a hot day. You are going to get more sight seeing done if you take the time out to drink some of this!

3. Nargile: Istanbul is filled with cafes that have Nargile, the water pipe. If you’re with friends, I’d strongly recommend spending some time catching up over Nargile and hot Turkish tea. Before you know it, the afternoon would have passed by and it will be dinner time.

2. The Bosphorous Cruise: Before I went to Turkey a friend of mine told me that if there is one thing I must do there, it’s to go on this cruise, and boy was he right! The cruise is beautiful and you get to see a lot of the sights too. Also, if someone tells you to go to Princes Islands, give it a miss because it’s extremely crowded and not worth the trip.

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1. Basilica Cistern: This is hands down the best thing I saw in Turkey. The effect of the lights over water underground is surreal and just beautiful. As a bonus, you get to see a statue of Medusa (if, like me, you’ve spent half your life being compared to her, it’s fun to stand next to the signboard that says ‘Medusa’ with the arrow pointing to you).

Basilica Cistern

I must end by saying that while Istanbul is a great city, it still wasn’t the best place I visited in Turkey. So if you decide to plan a trip, make sure you go beyond Istanbul, and explore more of the country (and hopefully, I will get around to posting my favorites from the other parts of Turkey too).

Of buildings, urban art and breathtaking views (Chicago)

So you’re in Chicago, and you’re contemplating a visit to the numerous museums (oh the T-Rex, and the White Whale and what-not), maybe the Lincoln Park Zoo, and of course you want your picture on the Skydeck Ledge. But wait. Are you one of those people who went to NYC and skipped the Natural History museum for the Met? Are you thinking of spending a day at the Art Institute?

I’d suggest you start out by taking what is probably the best way to walk through Chicago – the Art Loop tour on Wikitravel. It’s free, and allows you to see how urban spaces are used by people. If you have an architect friend to show you her favorite picks, that’s even better! I personally loved the Picasso statue and the Flamingo (both of which are mentioned on this itinerary). And I really liked the humongous US Post Office building (that I only got to see because of my friend). In times where most forms of offline communication (the telegraph) are being discontinued, this building highlights the resilience of the postal system.

Once you are done walking through the streets and checking out the sculptures, including the usual suspects like ‘The Bean’ and Crown Fountain, you are ready to go spend an entire day at the Art Institute. There’s an Impressionism and Fashion exhibit going on right now that’s getting great reviews (I skipped it here because I saw it at the Met a few months ago). If you’re short on time, the Art Institute provides you with a one hour highlights option. Be sure to spend some time in their sculpture garden.

If you are still not in love with this city, I recommend the River and Lake combined cruise that gives you an insight into the stories behind the skyscrapers. And then, you are finally ready to be a regular tourist and go to the Skydeck Ledge (so over-rated!) and the Hancock Center (tip – go to the Signature Lounge, get a drink and enjoy the views. Don’t bother paying for the observatory. Also, if you are a woman, the Ladies Restroom has the BEST view). You can also get a great view from the top of the Ferris Wheel at Navy Pier. But be warned – unlike the Seattle Ferris Wheel, this one only does one rotation. Go to Chicago for the art and the architecture. Stay away from the deep dish pizza (so over rated!).

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Of Safety in India and Abroad

I’ve been seeing this story / blogpost shared on FB which describes the life of a girl in India and how she faces harassment at different stages of her life. The post goes on to describe her relief at being abroad, and how she breaks down when she realizes she has to move back to India with her baby daughter. Somehow, I cannot read this and agree that I feel safer just because I’m not in India (and this is coming from someone who spent 4 years in the NCR, widely known as the most unsafe place for women).

There are parts of town I wouldn’t venture to by myself even in the US, and there are transit systems I wouldn’t take (my relatives in Chicago just told me not to take public transport here at night). A friend of mine was approached by a guy who said “Will you give me a hug?” at a bus stop at 10AM – none of the bystanders batted an eyelid when she said no, and when he kept hanging around waiting for her to change her mind. A guy who kept repeating “Why won’t you look at me, beautiful?” followed me from the exit at a BART station till I got into a waiting car just outside. The guy who slyly stares at me on the BART and then quietly moves away when I glare at him. Maybe these are all harmless incidents, maybe not, but the point I am trying to make is that all this media hype makes me feel as though people truly believe India is the most unsafe country for a woman (and that isn’t true). Which is why I feel like this article is a far more balanced view on the subject.

Yes, we need to protest about ensuring that molesters and rapists don’t go away scot-free. But we should also acknowledge that the root cause of the issue lies in societal structures, as she rightly points out. And so I’d like to ask the people who write these maudlin posts whether they truly believe that they are safer abroad (and if so, what do they say when they read about what happened to this poor guy?) or whether they’d just like to believe that. More importantly, maybe it’s time we examined the issue of blaming the victim, and tried to address the root causes instead.