Monday, January 25, 2010

The Nine Best Ideas in South East Asia

Last night we went out for a little escapist pleasure and saw Sherlock Holmes in Bangkok's Siam Square. After 128 days of continuous travel, it was nice to sit in a cool theater, get sucked into American entertainment, and forget that we were supposed to be engaging in rewarding cross-cultural experiences. The movie was excellent, and started after only two trailers and a 90 second homage to King Bhumipol. Check it out if you get the chance. Everyone in the theater stands while this is playing.

We've got about 36 hours left in Thailand before we fly to Bhutan, via Kolkata. Julie's getting some highlights while I do laundry and hunt down some paperback books. Over our last few pitchers of Beer Chang, we've had time to consider some of the best ideas to come out of South East Asia. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Street Food. Okay, this might actually be the best thing in South East Asia. Street food is sold from wheeled carts and grilled or fried immediately as you order it, so it's often more sanitary than the restaurant meals that may have been sitting for hours in the corner of a dodgy kitchen. There are hundreds of options, it costs a fraction of what you'd spend anyplace else, gives you a chance to banter and practice your language skills with the vendor, and you know your money is supporting people at the bottom of the economy struggling to get a leg up. Yay, street food!

2. Tuk-tuks. Named after the sound of their motors: "tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk...." You can cross Phnom Penh from North to South for about $0.75. In Thailand, they look like a green, three-wheeled egg. In Laos and Cambodia, they're usually just a motorcycle with a carriage hitch.

3. Fresh, Green Pepper. Not chili pepper, but "pepper" pepper. It's cooked fresh with your meal: soft, ripe, and about the size of tobiko caviar. Fresh pepper pops in your mouth, and the flavor is strong like bitter dark chocolate.

4. Mortar and Pestle. Grinding spices releases and blends flavors more effectively than a food processor. The twenty minutes it takes to mash raw ingredients into curry paste is well worth it. If you don't have one at home, go get a large, wooden mortar for your kitchen.

5. The Wai. Put both hands together in a prayer position at your forehead and give a little bow. For over a billion people in Southeast Asia and India it means "Hello," "Goodbye," "Thank you," and "Welcome." More humble and less ambiguous than a handshake.

6. Monks. Most Thai, Lao, and Khmer men are expected to spend a period of their lives in a monastery. Some serve only 6 months, while others train for 10 to 20 years. Monks perform acts of charity, prayers for their communities, and give daily blessings in return for alms. They live off of nothing that is not given to them.

7. Constitutional Monarchies. Thai people really love their king, and are fiercely patriotic. Check out this video. Most of it is in Thai, but it's still fascinating.

8. Haggling. Even in some department stores, there's no set price. The disadvantage is that there's usually tiered pricing: one for locals and one for foreigners.

9. Geckos. They're small and green, and they chirp and eat mosquitoes. What's not to like?

Mark and Juliah

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