Decidedly urban couple who quit their jobs and successfully backpacked their way through Asia for a year. They met Buddha, drank baijiu and learned to master the squat toilet. Now appearing in a new life as ex-pats in Singapore.

Monthly archive May, 2011
Solo scooting the Mae Hong Son loop

Solo scooting the Mae Hong Son loop

It’s pretty hard to tear yourself away from Chiang Mai, it’s almost the perfect place to vacation. There are fabulous ancient temples ready to explore, decent MEXICAN food and dozens of spas that charge US$3  for an hour-long painfully relaxing Thai massage.

A common sight in Chiang Mai – Buddhist Chedi

But I am not on vacation, I am backpacking! I don’t need nice hotels, delicious burritos and relaxation! Instead of enjoying the soft life, I set out on a four-day adventure through the back roads of Northern Thailand. The Mae Hong Son Loop is a famous, tremendously steep and winding road that runs through national parks, hill tribe villages and into the heart of hippie-dom in Thailand. The 600 km stretch of highway is known as road of 1,000 turns and it sounded like just the thing for another scoot adventure!

And before the monsoon rains kicked in on day 2, I had a great time.

Mae Klang Waterfall, Doi Inthanon

Mae Klang Waterfall, Doi Inthanon

The first thing to get used to was driving on the “other” (ahem, the wrong) side of the road. I can barely cross the street with traffic whizzing by from the left, so learning to make a lane-crossing left hand turn was particularly nerve racking.

After nervously fighting my way out a surprisingly congested Chiang Mai, scooting through Doi Inthanon was dream. The national park is full of small Karen villages, stunning waterfalls and towering mountain cliffs. But the park map is bull shit.

After scooting for several hours, my first inkling that perhaps I was headed in the wrong direction struck when I noticed a severe change in both temperatue and altitude. The clouds has set in, it was freezing cold and I could see Burma in the distance. Instead of heading through Doi Inthanon park, I was heading straight up the Doi Inthanon peak.

Mae Hong Son loop, scoot

Steep and cloudy with a 100% chance of rain

Little known fact: Scooters don’t go uphill. They certainly can’t make a 2,500m climb. Second little known fact: it’s very hard to turn a scooter around on a steep hill.

I learned both of these little known facts as my scooter stalled 100 meters away from the top of Thailand’s tallest peak. As I attempted a dicey turn on a 90 degree incline sans gas, both the scooter and I fell to the ground, skidding down the hill. Luckily scooters don’t need much gas to go straight down hill and the park is peppered with hill tribe villages.

It’s an odd day when dropping in on the local Karen village to buy a glass bottle of petrol feels normal. Welcome to Asia.

mae hong son, doi inathnon loop

Just walk up and ask for gas!

Fill ‘er up!

I had a tankful of gas but I was nowhere near Mae Sariang, the next town.

The twisting roads were beginning to lose their appeal, they sky was ready to let loose and I started to get nervous about finding a place to stay. Although 70 kilometers doesn’t sound like a lot, it is, particularly on a scooter. And that’s how far I had to go.

Suddenly there it was! The Navasorn Resort!

Gross lodging along the way, part of the fun?

The manicured hotel in the woods certainly looked fancy and I had exactly US$25 (a fortune in Thailand but certainly not enough for gas, a meal and fancy digs). I didn’t have much of a choice when I scooted up and boldly asked for their cheapest room. After 8 months in Asia I was ready to bargain but I didn’t have to try. Instead the woman in charge led me past their fancy guest bungalows and showed me into a filthy windowless back room complete with an outdoor insect-infested squat toilet. For my added enjoyment, there were free used porn mags. The room cost 10 bucks – well within my budget though pretty far outside my comfort zone.**

I slept in my clothes without touching the blanket and woke up at 8am the next morning ready to hit the road. I still had three more days of scooting ahead of me and the rain was about to begin.

The perfect place for sexy time

** This is before I found out that porn mags in cheap hotels are par for the course.

There is no ketchup in Pad Thai!

There is no ketchup in Pad Thai!

It’s not unusual to sit down in a new country, take the first bite of food and discover that it tastes completely different than we expected.

Unexpectedly massive and delicious Dosa!

It’s shocking to taste just how badly we Westerners have butchered a recipe and created a less tasty, more fattening version or the original.  Here are some of our more egregious errors:

* There is no duck sauce in China. In fact there is very little orange colored food in Asia – including sweet and sour anything. General Tso must have served in US military because he’s an American creation. We can all cry fat tears into our third chin because Chinese food as we know it was created for us by Mao Zedong in a long tail effort to eliminate the US  imperialist enemy.

* There is more than BBQ meat in Korea. The cuisine also includes soup, rice, and even the occasional Chinese cabbage. Surprisingly there is one key ingredient that we don’t use in the US. Korean food includes a not un-substantial amount of added flavor from blood. Ox blood, duck blood, blood-blood.  In America we generally don’t use blood as a topping.

* And now I have discovered that Pad Thai is not made with ketchup and peanut butter. Somehow I always knew that 1,068 people that reviewed Osha Thai Noodle were as dumb as they look when they dine on a plate of neon orange, sugary sweet $15 pad thai and sip their overpriced ‘Hott Pink’ soju martini. PS Assholes: Soju is Korean, go drink it and dine on ox blood soup.

This is how you drink Soju in the ROK.

ANYWAY.

Way back in the glory days of 2006 when I started to enjoy cooking, I decided that I would master the art of Thai food. I failed miserably, notably because I used half a jar of crunchy peanut butter and ended up with peanut noodle soup. But now thanks to the help of the best cooking school in Chiang Mai, I have  learned the secret to Pad Thai!

A Lot of Thai's van

Yui and her husband picked me up in her VW van and we spent an entire day cooking my favorite Thai food. We shopped, chopped, and stir fried until the rain came pouring into our outdoor kitchen. Yui and her family are awesome! Her daughter threw a tantrum in her tutu and her son ate my spring rolls. It actually felt like I was cooking in a real kitchen for a real family.

But beyond the family atmosphere, Yui is also one fantastic teacher. Generally speaking, I am not a consummate stir fry queen, (I’m more of a soup and sauces kind of girl). To be honest woks kind of scare me. But I overcame my fear of lid-less cookware and since we had to use a Wok for all of the 5 dishes, I think I may have actually learned how to mitigate a smoking, burning stove top.

Hint: Vegetable oil is your friend. Keep that Wok well oiled!

Master Chef Kristine

So what you’re really asking is, if peanut butter and ketchup don’t make an appearance in Pad Thai, what makes it orange?  Let me share the secret – Tamarind Sauce!

Here is Yui’s recipe (it’s also in her cookbook and on her website). If you happen to be in Chiang Mai, stop by and learn how to make the real thing.  Yui is awesome and the class was a blast.

Pad Thai - I made this!

Yui’s Pad Thai from A Lot of Thai cooking school in Chiang Mai

3 tbsp cooking oil

1/4 Tofu (cut into itty bitty pieces)

1 tbsp Shallot – chopped

1 tbsp Garlic- chopped

50 g Minced Pork (Yes! Mince it! The pork should be in tiny pieces)

1 tbsp Fish sauce

1 tbsp Light soy sauce (Hint: light does not mean less salty it means light in color)**

2 tbsp Tamarind paste

1 1/2 tbsp Palm sugar (Palm sugar is nutty and less sweet.  This may be the place where we go wrong in the US)

200 g Fresh narrow rice noodles -or- 150 g  Dried rice noodles

4-6 tbsp water or chicken stock

100 g Bean sprouts

1/2 cup Chinese chive (cut diagonally into bite sized pieces)

2 tbsp Ground Roasted peanuts

Optional and delicious

1 tbsp dried shrimp

1 tbsp sweet turnip

Directions:

If using  dried noodles, place them in water and let them soak until they’re almost bite-able. They will soften more during cooking.

Fry tofu in 2 tbsp of hot oil over medium heat.

Cooking school hint: Add the oil, tofu at the same time and then turn on the heat.

When the tofu starts of change color add garlic and shallots

When your kitchen begins to smell of delicious garlic and shallots, add pork and turnip. Cook for about one minute.

Cooking school hint: Make some room in the wok.  Push all the cooked ingredients to the top of your wok and make room for the noodles.

Add the noodles and then immediately add water. Cook until noodles are soft.

Cooking school hint: Email me if you want noodles that aren’t sticky.  This is Yui’s huge secret and I don’t want to put it on the ‘net!

When the noodles are soft, mix all the noodle with the other ingredients in the wok.

Add fish sauce, soy sauce, tamarind puree and palm sugar.  Cook for about one minute.

Add bean sprouts and cook until soft-ish, then add the Chinese chive.

When the Chinese chive turns bright green, move all the ingredients over to the side of the wok.

Add 1 tbsp cooking oil and cook the egg.  When the egg is nearly cooked (but still a little runny), mix in the noodles once again.

Turn off the heat and add roasted peanuts.

Garnish with a lime, cabbage and bean sprints

To Serve

At this point your job as a chef is done, it’s all up to the people eating your food to customize their Pad Thai.  Every meal in Thailand is served with the following accompaniments: chili flakes, sugar, salt, pepper, chili sauce and two varieties of fish sauce.

The Pad Thai that you just whipped up is probably less spicy, less sugary, less salty, less whatever than you expected. But it should be.  Let your guests add their preferred amount of heat or sweet.  That’s how it’s done!

Thanks Yui!

A lot of Thai and an Urban Hiker

** If you’re in the States, you may want to try Aloha light soy sauce or Pearl River Bridge light soy sauce.  Or if you really want to discuss light and dark soy sauces, join the intense conversation over at Chowhound! There is something for everyone on the internets.

The fast boat to hell

The fast boat to hell

Vinnie had escaped to Singapore. I was alone and needed to get out of Laos as fast as possible: everything I put in my mouth made me sick, the hotel was infested with little mice and the smell of goat had begun to permeate into the very fabric of my being.

There was only one choice: The Fast Boat.

Fast boat outta Laos

The Fast Boat in Laos has something of a reputation: it’s incredibly unsafe, uncomfortable and unreliable.  The word ‘deadly’ is thrown around a lot. At this point, I was willing to take the physical challenge.  I would survive anything just to get out of Laos.

It turns out that this journey wasn’t about survival, it was about endurance. The fast boat isn’t even a proper boat, it’s a flimsy fiberglass canoe that’s outfit with a high speed industrial motor. I waited at the dock as an after-market special boat smoked into port. The men threw my bag into the shallow hull and pointed to an empty spot that measured exactly one foot wide by one foot tall.

Photographic evidence of our fast boat misery

I looked in at my fellow passengers: seven fully grown adults who had forced their aging bodies into unnatural, space-defying contortions. They sat in pairs with their backs against wooded planks, their feet awkwardly turned inwards and knees tucked under their chin. Half the people were given motocycle helmets and life jackets. The rest of us were left to deal with what comes.

It’s like a freaking dirty joke:  A girl gets in a boat with a Chinese couple, two 50-year-old Korean men and a German backpacker.  What can go wrong?

Answer: Everything!

Smiling as the boatman paddles away

#1 The boat broke down

#2 The driver pulled over to the side of the river.  He motioned for us to get off and began to take the engine apart. As our eclectic group of eight looked on, the boatman dismantled a wooden seat, and used it as a paddle to push the boat away from shore.  Without a single word he had abandoned us on the side of the freaking Mekong river.

Stranded on the rocks

#3 Half the group decide to hike to safety.  After several hours of waiting on rocks the Korean man began to get agitated. He stood on the rocks jumping, waving and calling to passing speedboats. The only thing that I  – as a native English speaker – could recognize was “Hey-uh! Need Boat-uh! BOAT-UH!”

Kris and the German

The Korean man became so agitated and his garbled english became so compelling that he convinced all the Asians in the group to abandon the space on the rocks and walk to the nearest village. There was no way that I was going hiking through the Laos jungle and lent my shoes to the Chinese man had left his on the boat. They were too big for him.

The closest "village"

Now it was only me and the German. Several hours passed. The sun began to set. It became clear that we were NOT going to make it to the Thai border on time, and we were going to be abandoned on this freaking rock over night. And just as the German and I began to build our shelter for the night, we heard a familiar roar. Our boat was back. In it were the Korean men and the Chinese couple.

Spot the Korean (Hint: it wasn't raining.)

#4 Of course we didn’t make it to Thailand. We didn’t even make it to port. Our boat driver pulled over at a random location close to the lights of a small downtown. He roped the boat to a steep, muddy embankment and pointed for us to get off.

View from the boat

The hill was covered with mud, thorny plants and waste by-product run off. It was a real life Japanese game show:  The Chinese girl slid down the hill and wiped me out, together we rolled  into the German who fell backwards into the Korean. After 40 minutes of sliding down a 30 foot hill, we finally got to the top, covered in mud and nowhere near any semblance of a town. And for the first time in Asia, there were no Tuk-tuks.

The Korean man found a store, walked in, pointed to his Korean guide book and began saying “ho-tel-uh! ho-tel-uh!”

People in Laos don’t generally speak English and they certainly can’t read Korean. Instead of a hotel, someone led us to a local Karaoke bar.

I nearly cried. At this point I had been traveling for 11 hours.

Somehow we made it to town. A town without an ATM and we were a group without cash. The German and I, who had already been through so much, decided to share a room. A small, dirty twin bed room where the German proceeded to strip off all his clothes and sleep in a pair of bright pink briefs. After a miserable 12 hours of traveling and now having seen him nearly naked, I finally asked his name.

Get me the eff outta Laos!

 

 

Super Happy Singapore

Super Happy Singapore

In addition to momentous battles with jungle foliage and struggling to find inner peace, Vinnie has spent the last three months planning Singapore’s first Super Happy Dev House.

Huh? Work?

Jack Sparrow and his band of miscreants

People in Silicon Valley have a sneak peak into the cutting-edge concepts and technologies that are destined to change the way we communicate. Even better that just passively observing, anyone with a little gusto can jump in and take part. It’s an exciting place to be and a difficult place to leave.

Co-co-co-coding.

The stress of not working and being away from Silicon Valley was just too much for Vinnie to bear and by mid-January he was connecting with far-flung Valley-types who, oddly enough, all seemed to be based in Singapore.

And in typical Vinnie fashion, he went from casual conversation about Asia’s tech scene to becoming directly involved, and within days he was planning Singapore’s first hack fest, getting in on some early stage investing, and flying off to Hong Kong to judge South East Asia’s best new startups.

While I was hard at working scooting around Vietnam, Vinnie was planning Asia’s first Super Happy Dev House.

This is how we party in AMERICA!

Tonight was the culmination of three months of work; hundreds of geeks, hackers, business-y and not so business-y people showed up to discuss new ideas and quickly code them into reality. They dined, they drank and they developed technology that you might just find yourself using one day.

It was pretty freaking cool and, judging from what folks are saying, a resounding success. Huge congrats to Vinnie, Adrianna and Jason for throwing a kick ass party.

Kicking it old skool with MEETRO!

PS: Someone showed up in a MEETRO shirt.  Rep-re-sent.

 

Luang Pra-longed Sickness

Luang Pra-longed Sickness

There is nothing like a food borne illness from raw meat to ruin a trip to new country. We’ve become unusually accustomed to the toilet situation in Asia- the lack of toilet paper, the need to squat in the middle of an open room and the general inability to actually flush your waste. It’s gross. But you know what’s worse: a week of the runs in one of the least developed countries in the world. Laos. Damn you Laos!

Shit happens but it’s not nice.

But you know what is nice: Luang Prabang, a World Heritage site full of temples, novice monks and American standard toilets.

Wat wat?

Blue skies and green insides.

Wat!

Out for a stroll

Taxi in Laos

I spy Buddha

 

 

Raw meat and Moonshine with the Akha People

Raw meat and Moonshine with the Akha People

After an entire day of mud-surfing our way through the jungle we finally reached our destination: a large, remote Akha village deep in the middle of nowhere.  And we arrived just in time. The entire village was gearing up for a massive party. A party that could rival any full moon rage fest on any beach in South East Asia.  The village was just wired with electricty and this made everyone very, very excited. It was time to celebrate.

Birds eye view of the village

Very Excited!

The village was in a state of mass preparation. Pigs, chickens and naked children ran around unattended while men stood at large caludrons, stirring bubbling vats of fatty meat. The women, some topless, watched from the windows of their houses. Even the little girls were in on the excitement. They huddled around small huts watching an Akha village dance on the brand new TV and practiced for their upcoming performance.

I joined in.

Prepping for our dance

It seemed like the only people not getting ready were the village teenagers; they had something more important to prepare for – impressing each other. Akha people have a very progressive way of encouraging reproduction. Every night teenage boys and girls meet at the designated ‘flirting area’  to chat and get it on. The ‘get it on’ part is highly encouraged. Boys of  ‘getting it on’ age build love shacks where they can wisk away the girl (or boy) of their choice and enjoy a sexy evening full of pre-marital baby making.

If a baby is made, the couple marry.  If, after some time, there is no baby, the girl and boy break up and hit the loveshack with someone else.

In our Akha village there were dozens of love shacks, and the teenagers were clearly dressed to impress.

Love shack!

Akha ladies looking good for the men!

Looking sharp for the ladies - the local barber shop

The next morning Vinnie and I started out early. The rest of our group was hesitant to explore the town but we wanted to mingle. Within minutes Vinnie and I found ourselves at the village chief’s house right as he was sitting down for breakfast. He invited us in.

Breakfast was served on a long tarp on the ground. Small bowls were laid out with serving spoons. We weren’t sure exactly what the floating brown meat could be and honestly, it didn’t look that appetizing.

Chief saw us deliberating and took matters into his own hands. He spooned up a chunk of red meat, motioned for us to open our mouth and spooned it in.  We chewed slowly, trying to process the texture, the flavor, the temperature of the meat. It was RAW.

It was at that moment when I noticed the giant skinned buffalo head in the corner of the room. We were eating him. RAW.

Of course, the perfect accompaniment to raw meat is Lao-lao.  Moonshine. Laos rice whiskey. Poison. Chief was ready to celebrate and wanted us to feel welcome in his house; he began to pour shots.  Chief didn’t speak english and we don’t speak Akha but with a little moonshine you don’t need words. It was 8Am.  I was drunk. Vinnie was eating raw meat. Could the day get any better!?!

A Breakfast of Champions

Buffalo head in the house

Shots and a cigarette for breakfast
After breakfasting with the Chief we wandered around to see what was going on. And with our inhibitions at a drunken low, we were able to easily chat with everyone and anyone. Vinnie headed off to play cards with the men while I made friends with women. Both of us soon had our own posse of kids who followed us around town, clamering to look at a little picture book or laugh at us when we tried to communicate.

One styling Akha baby.

Grandma!

Vinnie charming the ladies

Kris and the kids

Akha Village

It was NOT a good idea to befriend the villagers.  Just as the Lao-lao was wearing off, the party was starting to begin; our new friends wanted to make sure that we had an amazing time.

The men who had spent the morning cooking buffalo and setting up for the party were now seated and ready to be served. Bowls of meat were placed in the middle of every table, alongside them sat a huge bottles of Lao-lao.  We knew the party began when dozens of colorfully clad young women entered the tent.  Everyone applauded and the drinking began.

The girls each carried their own bottle of Lao-lao and a small plastic cup.  They began at the head of the table, filling the cup with clear whiskey and handing it to someone, encouraging him to quickly drink the shot. At first we all took the glass, shot it back and smiled. But the shots continued and the girls woudn’t take no for an answer.  The only revenge was have each girl take a reciropcal shot, which she would spit onto the ground.

The world started to spin. Chief fed us more meat. We drank more lao-lao.

The Akha party spread

You will drink this lao-lao

Drinking with the styling teenage boys

No more Lao-Lao for Kristine!

We clearly were not in any shape to manage a jungle trek back to Luang Namta. When we were sober it took us ove six hours through difficult, slippery terrain to reach the village. Happily (because he was also drunk), our guide confessed there was a shortcut – a bumpy, unpaved dirt road that would take just four hours to hike down.

By the time we reached town the lao-lao had worn off, but the hangover from hell was just beginning. It was 4:00pm.

Drunk and happy

Jungle Trek: Leeches and Ticks

Jungle Trek: Leeches and Ticks

Luang NamTa in northern Laos has a reputation for being a trekking paradise. The one-street town is filled with hiking outposts, saloons, and a large variety of farmyard animals. People don’t come to Luang NamTa to explore the urban jungle, they’re looking for the real thing.

I suppose that somewhere along the way Vinnie and I forgot that we strongly dislike the great outdoors and that hiking is not something we adore. We came to our senses a little too late – three hours into a two-day hike.

Making our way to the jungle

It started out just like any other day: waking up in another new time zone, accidentally arriving an hour early for our group outing, eating spicy meatball soup for breakfast to pass the time. But the day did not progress as planned.

This may appear to be easy. It wasn't.

In Luang NamTa, foreigners are asked not to trek through the jungle or to visit local tribes without a guide.  So we hired a guide.  His name was Pet and he had a massive machete strapped to his leg.  I didn’t have to wait very long before discovering why he carried freaking machete. And why foreigners aren’t permitted to wander around all by themselves.

We began in soggy rice fields and soon found ourselves skirting huge swaths of burning jungle.  It turns out that, unlike in Borneo where companies seem to be doing the most damage, in Laos it’s the people who are tearing down the rain forests so they can feed their families.  Burning is the easiest way to clear the land to make room for rubber plantations and rice terraces.  It’s pretty sad all around – the people are so poor and the environment is being destroyed.

Good bye rainforest, hello dolla dolla bills

The smoldering landscape soon gave way to a dense forest with towering palm trees and a thick underbrush. This was not a leisurely hike through the woods on a defined path, in fact, there was no path.  Pet took out his huge machete and with sweeping blows, took out the trees, bushes and branches to clear the way.

Our guides cutting a path through the jungle

In the jungle there is no north or south,  no graffiti trail marker pointing out the path – nothing but green trees and insects and rain. We had no idea where we were or how to get out. Not that we could have planned our escape from the jungle, the ground was so slick with mud and discarded palm fronds that we couldn’t even stand up.

You couldn’t call what we did hiking.  You could call it falling, or mud surfing, or even slip-and-sliding. Whatever you call it, we spent half the trek on our ass, sliding down steep embankments or falling over each other to grab the nearest plant as someone wiped out into you.

Our second guide made me a walking stick

Occasionally we would take a short break.  Pet would stand at the front waiting for everyone to catch up, while the rest of us stood frozen, clinging to tree trunks, hoping to God that the end was in sight.  The end was never in sight, instead Pet would point out to a fruit or a seed and say, “Don’t eat this.  You be dead.” Once he reached into thin air and pulled back a huge colorful bug that our second guide held on to for lunch.

Lunch!

But it wasn’t the colorful giant bugs that we were most worried about, it was the brown slimy snail-like creatures that jumped onto your skin and sucked away as you waded through a sea of mud and plants. LEECHES.

After an hour of jungle trekking we were covered with them. Nasty, heat-seeking, blood sucking Leeches.

I hate them. I hate the jungle.  I hate hiking. And I have officially sworn off trekking in any form.