Posted in Asia, Chiang Rai, English, Thailand

Thailand – Day 3

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

20 March 2018

Today, I won’t be entertaining you guys with a long post: we are travelling. At 10 am, right after breakfast, the driver picked us up and took us to the airport. We’re going to Chiang Rai! We arrived at the airport pretty early, so we even had time to have a Japanese set with miso soup, spicy chicken, rice, kimchi (for some reason!) and coffee jelly for lunch.

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The flight took a little over an hour, and in Chiang Rai we were met by our local guide Dino and taken to our hotel. Chiang Rai is the ancient capital of the Lanna kingdom, later the capital was moved to Chiang Mai. It’s located in the north of Thailand, very close to the Myanmar border, and the climate difference with Bangkok is noticed immediately: it’s hotter and drier during the day, the vegetation is dominated by broad-leaved trees over palm trees, there are even conifers; and in the evening – I’m rushing ahead of myself – it’s cooler. The city itself is small, with pretty much one main street, where our hotel is located – this so reminded us of Hue in Vietnam that we even had a feeling of deja vu.

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At the hotel we noticed a swimming pool, but couldn’t make it there today. Actually, according to our tour programme we were supposed to have the afternoon free, but Dino volunteered to show us a park outside the city, and off we went. The park, to be honest, wasn’t anything special – it had wide lawns, a few flowers, a few tea bushes and a large gilt statue of a dragon, that’s all. Dino said that the entrance to the main part of the park wasn’t free so we would not go there, and that there was a large tea plantation nearby.

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After the park Dino was still enthusiastic to walk around the neighborhood with us, but we already wanted to relax, so instead we headed to the massage parlour, found on Google, right around the corner from the hotel, which we didn’t regret at all. Such a pleasure!

And then we had dinner in a restaurant on the same street, with huge portions of fish, and after that strolled a little around the night market.

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Posted in Asia, Bangkok, English, Thailand

Thailand – Day 2

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

19 March 2018

Today we had to get up very early to have breakfast and head to the Damnoen Saduak floating market at 7am. It’s a bit hard to assess how far the place really is from Bangkok, since today is Monday and the traffic is simply incredible, the roads are much more packed than yesterday, and we had to spend ages in traffic jams which were aggravated by the very long waiting time at traffic lights.

On the way to the floating market we stopped to see how oil and sugar are produced from coconut – something similar to what we’d already seen in Vietnam.

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If I continue comparing with Vietnam, where the floating market didn’t quite meet our expectations, here it was the same. There were lots of boats, but most of them were carrying tourists, with only a couple boats here and there selling fruits and snacks.

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So we didn’t get to see that iconic postcard view of the canal crammed with boats full of colourful flowers and fruits. Maybe, again, we’d had to be here at 5am for that. On the other hand, along the banks of the canal there was a whole flea market kind of thing, with souvenirs, handicrafts and other stuff, so the boatman kept stopping every minute at one shop or another to get us to buy something off his friends. One of the sellers introduced herself as his wife and, when she faced our languid refusal to buy anything despite her persistence, she asked us to at least give tips to her husband at the end of our ride. Floating by another shop, we saw a woman washing her plate and hands right in the canal, which raised serious doubts as to the compliance of the food sold at the market with sanitary norms. Which is why, having got off the boat and having arrived to a local coffee shop, as agreed in advance with Vanna, we got hot coffee rather than the much desired iced coffee – common sense suggested that the ice could have also been made from frozen canal water, who knows?

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Another attraction at the market was the opportunity to take a picture with wild animals: sloths, loris and pythons. A thought flashed through my mind: maybe I should get a photo with a snake hanging around my neck? But I finally decided that I didn’t want to spend 200 baht (just under 7 USD) to support such a cruel business. Social responsibility, you know!

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What also deserves a separate mention in this place is the toilet. It’s a whole single-storey building with enticing inscriptions and a car park, the interior reminds of pharmacy, there are snacks sold inside and even a wi-fi hotspot!

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In short, we weren’t extremely impressed with the floating market, and we left for Bangkok well before 11am, which was our deadline in order to make it to our cooking class at 1.30pm. What cooking class? – you may ask. Well, actually the tour we chose is called ‘The Taste of Thailand’, so in addition to sightseeing and beach recreation, it also includes three cooking classes in different cities!

We were brought to the corner of some street in Bangkok and handed over to a guy, who assigned us to a group of 8 people and sent us off to the market nearby with his colleague – our current instructor.

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At the market, there were already baskets and a set of vegetables prepared for us, and we had to take them with us. That is, the market trip was a mock one – in fact, there was only one stall still open at this time as the market as such operates very early in the morning. It was just that the instructor – a very funny guy – took the opportunity to show us some essential ingredients, indispensable in Thai cuisine. As he explained, for example, the mushrooms or beans used here are, of course, local varieties, but can easily be replaced with any other variety, as they are used not for the taste, but for the texture, just like most other vegetables. As for galangal (a close relative of ginger), Thai basil, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves, though, they can’t be replaced even with closely related plants – it wouldn’t be Thai cuisine anymore. From this we concluded that it is unlikely that we would be able to hone our Thai chef skills in Baku: there’s no way we can find kaffir lime leaves there. He also pointed out the important difference between Thai and Indian curries – in Indian curries the flavour is created using dried herbs and spices, and in Thai curries – using fresh herbs and roots. For instance, ginger and turmeric are always used fresh, never dried and ground.

A funny episode – there was a very nice Colombian couple in the group with us, and right upfront the lady warned the instructor that she couldn’t stand onions or any related plants. The instructor joked that he would then pass onions off as cabbage, and so till the end of the class he continued referring to all kinds of onion-like plants as cabbage.

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Having picked up our baskets with vegetables and herbs, we headed back to the cooking school and immediately got down to work. We had five dishes to cook: Tom Yum soup, Pad Thai, green curry, spicy chicken salad and sticky rice with mango for dessert. Frankly speaking, we didn’t cook the last two ourselves, but rather simply observed the process. Our only contribution to the dessert was participation in making coconut milk from grated pulp, and the milk was then used for the soup and curry as well as for the dessert. We started actually doing something when we moved on to the Tom Yum soup.

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All we had to do was cut up the vegetables (tomatoes, green onions, mushrooms and chili peppers – I boldly took two), prep the “flavour ingredients”: lemongrass, galangal and kaffir lime leaves – these are the three ingredients that actually create that distinct Tom Yum flavour and that are not supposed to be eaten, by the way; all the rest can be replaced if necessary – and then put everything in our individual wok, and add fish sauce, chili paste and lime juice to taste. The fish sauce, which we first came across in Vietnam, features in absolutely every dish here, apart from sweets. It replaces salt and enhances the flavours, being a natural source of sodium glutamate. While we were cooking, the instructor was walking around, adding water and coconut milk, then adding shrimps. Generally, I noticed that we were only trusted with processing vegetables and greens, while all the meat was provided already prepped and added straight to our woks.

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Once we cooked and happily consumed our own Tom Yum soup portions, it was time to cook the Pad Thai. The instructor had pre-soaked the rice noodles in cold water, so we just had to cut up the tofu and leeks and return to our woks, already washed and seasoned with soybean oil for us. First of all we fried off some crushed garlic with tofu and spices (fish sauce, coconut sugar, chili flakes, ground peanuts and something like pickled radish). Then we broke an egg into the wok and gave it a quick fry too. Finally, in went the noodles, leeks and soybean sprouts. The instructor told us that in Thailand no one cooks Pad Thai at home, and this is exclusively street food. Interestingly, some type of sugar is added to almost any dish here.

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By the way, at some point the instructor told us that almost everyone in Thailand knows about Azerbaijan, due a lot of Thai players in our volleyball clubs, and since volleyball is the only team sports which Thais are good at, this fact is widely known. Good to know, as we were quite surprised that hearing about us being from Azerbaijan, no one here makes a puzzled face and asks what on Earth it is, like we’re used to.

After Pad Thai we tasted the spicy chicken salad prepared for us by the instructor, as mentioned, using onions, boiled minced chicken, chilis, ground roast rice and of course seasoned with fish sauce. And then we had to cook green curry. The instructor prepared the curry paste himself, explaining in the meantime that no one does it at home and everyone buys readily made paste. He mixed a lot of ingredients in the mortar – coriander and cumin seeds, the “holy trinity” (if you remember, that’s lemongrass, lime leaves and galangal), red and green chili peppers, turmeric root, garlic and something else, and then we took turns to mash it all with a pestle. Then, one last time, we returned to our woks, where coconut milk and chicken slices were already added for us, and cooked that with Thai eggplant, basil and finger root ginger with the addition of fish sauce, sugar and curry paste.

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At the very end we were served our dessert – a slightly salty sticky rice mass (yes, salt is added to desserts and not to savoury dishes here – for the latter this mission is given to fish sauce!) with fresh mango. We really liked the class overall: we acquired new skills, plus it was fun and tasty!

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For the evening we had a ladyboy cabaret show planned. It sounds a bit dubious, I understand, but there was absolutely nothing bawdy there. Just normal singing and dancing, the performance was pretty good: they were portraying Beyoncé and Marilyn Monroe, acting scenes in Chinese and Korean style, and for some reason dancing to “Hava Nagila”. If you don’t know they are ladyboys, you could totally take them for women.

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By the way, the show wasn’t included in our tour programme, therefore, even though Vanna kindly arranged tickets for us, even with a discount, we had to take a taxi ourselves. The cabaret is on the Asiatic embankment – it’s a very pleasant place with a ferris wheel, restaurants, shops and a night food market. We went for little walk after the show, and the street food looked very tempting to us, but firstly, we were still full after the cooking class, and secondly, we are still slightly apprehensive about street food.

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Posted in Bangkok, Thailand

Thailand – Day 1

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

18 March 2018

Off we go to another Asian trip, with the same travel agency that organized our Vietnam tour – this time we are in Thailand! After the virtually sleepless overnight flight from Abu Dhabi (toddlers on board are an absolute evil!) we arrived in Bangkok at about 7am, found our way out of the enormous airport pretty quickly and met our guide – an elderly lady named Vanna.

Later she told us that she used to work for a large logistics company, and when she retired at 57, she entered the university and became a tour guide, so as not to sit around. She also learned to swim and play tennis at the age of 40 and driving a car at 45. We found her very nice, positive, full of energy and helpful.

First of all, we were taken to our hotel. Of course, on our way we kept staring around and comparing everything with the last Asian cities we had seen – that’s Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Bangkok looks (and indeed, is) much more developed in terms of infrastructure and economy. It’s a very green city, with lots of tropical vegetation and flowers.

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In the hotel we were offered breakfast right away, and it was quite good, but as we understood, unlike in Vietnam, here three stars mean exactly three stars, and you don’t get an abundance of all kinds of fruits, dim sums, sushi rolls and whatever else your soul may desire.

Then we were given 40 minutes to get ready, and right after that we went on a city tour. What immediately caught my eye were photographs of the late king, deceased two years ago, all around the city. Vanna said that he was not just a king for them, but almost like a father, as he cared a lot about the people. For a whole year after his death, the entire nation wore black and white as a sign of mourning – not because they were forced to, but voluntarily.

The first item of our programme was the Grand Palace – a complex of buildings, with temples and pavilions, built in the 18th century. There is a strict dress code on the premises: knees and shoulders must be covered. Given the thirty-plus degree heat, it doesn’t feel extremely nice but is not fatal. What spoils the impression a bit are crowds and crowds of people, mostly Chinese. I wrote this phrase – and felt deja vu, remembering how I had written the exact same thing about the Forbidden City in Beijing. Here as well, 99% of the tourists seem to be Chinese, Vanna said that it gets this crowded all year round, and even worse so during the Chinese New Year.

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The highlight of the palace complex is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (or Wat Phra Kaew), where taking photos was not allowed. The Emerald Buddha is actually made from a solid block of jade (as for emerald, it’s not even suitable for carving), his clothing varies depending on the season, which there are three of in Bangkok (winter, summer and rainy season), and it is the king himself who “dresses” the Buddha. In general, the statue is quite small, only 66 cm, and according to a legend, was found in the 15th century in Chiang Rai among the ruins of some pagoda, then transported to Chiang Mai (we are going to see both cities, but at that time they did not belong to Thailand) and to a bunch of other places, before finally making it to Bangkok. The figurine is highly revered in Thailand and even considered the Palladium of the Kingdom, which is said to stand for as long as the Emerald Buddha is in Thailand.

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Vanna keeps drawing our attention to elements of the architecture, as we are examining various stupas and pavilions. Everything is made by hand, whether it’s ceiling paintings or porcelain shard mosaic work.

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Some buildings are purely in Thai style – this is evident both from the shape of the roofs and the abundance of gold in the finish. Others are in Cambodian style, with more pointed domes and without gold, although also with a very rich finish. There is even a model of the Cambodian Angkor Wat temple.

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One group of buildings includes a newer palace built in European style in the 19th century – after a European trip, King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) wanted to demonstrate that in Thailand (or actually, Siam back in the days), which unlike its neighbours in Indochina and thanks to Chulalongkorn’s politics, wasn’t anybody’s colony, they could build at the same level as in Europe.

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At the exit from the Grand Palace, we saw numerous wall paintings from Indian mythology – in general, Indian influence is largely felt here, even Buddhism seems to be in its Indian form, not Chinese like in Vietnam.

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After the Grand Palace we took a boat across the river to the Temple of Dawn (or Wat Arun). Here we saw Buddhist monks, some of whom were young boys – probably novices – having lunch. They are allowed to eat only twice a day and only before noon, and also women aren’t allowed to touch them.

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The dome of the temple is in the Cambodian style and also decorated with porcelain shards. Vanna said that back in the days the royal court ordered porcelain tableware from China, and far from everything survived on the way, so this is how the broken crockery was utilised.

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Today’s last stop, not included in our tour programme, but suggested by Vanna, was a visit to a gem factory to purchase jewelry. We bought silver jewelry – gold was either too expensive, or too inconspicuous.

On the way to our hotel, we popped into a restaurant nearby and tasted the local versions of the famous tom yum soup and green curry. Delicious but spicy! And then, after a hearty lunch and a sleepless night, we immediately went to bed and slept for 2-3 hours, until it was time to get ready for the dinner cruise on the Chao Praya River. Vanna and the driver were already waiting for us, and we drove right to the pier.

There were quite lot of people on the cruise boat, but fortunately we had a table on the open upper deck, and not on the closed bottom one (although, perhaps, this wasn’t sheer luck, but rather what our ticket included). The cruise was very pleasant – there were small kerosene lamps burning on the tables, the buffet dinner was delicious, we passed by the Grand Palace and Wat Arun, which we had seen before and which were now magnificently illuminated, and in the meantime we were entertained by the cultural programme: the singer was singing famous languid ballads (including ones in Chinese – probably also famous, just not to us), and then we say a mini ladyboy cabaret show.

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Posted in Asia, English, Hanoi, Vietnam

Vietnam – Day 10

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14 June 2017

Here we got to our last day – or actually the last half-day – in Vietnam. We didn’t have much to do today, and the only plans we had were to walk around and possibly buy something.

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So we had a really slow breakfast, yet still managed to leave the hotel before 9am. Therefore, many clothing stores were still closed – and actually, we were pretty interested in local brands. A lot of other shops were open though: those selling household goods with buckets and mops; repair shops, littered with all sorts of junk; shops selling faxes or coils for electric stoves etc.

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That is why, we decided to walk to the lake again and try something we hadn’t tried yet: the famous egg coffee. This is a typical Hanoi invention and we headed straight to the Giang cafe, owned by a family which invented this drink back when cow’s milk was in short supply – so a certain Giang came up with the idea of ​​replacing it with egg yolk. The drink is very interesting, has a dense consistency and tastes like egg-flip, consisting of egg yolk, whipped with sugar, robusta coffee and condensed milk.

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Since we really liked the coffee in Vietnam in general – it’s so fragrant, not sure whether it’s because the Vietnamese drink mostly Robusta rather than Arabica or for some other reason – on our way we went to a coffee shop and bought coffee beans to take home with us.

We walked back along the same shopping street as before, and the clothing stores were already open, but on closer examination somehow didn’t impress us too much: it felt like the clothes were better in Saigon, where unfortunately, we didn’t have time to walk around shops.

But we did get to buy fruits to take home! We were looking for a street market, which we saw on the first day near our hotel, but didn’t find it – apparently they are off today – so we popped into an ordinary fruit shop and got pitahayas (dragon fruit), litchis, mangosteens and rambutans there.

Now we only had to have lunch, and we walked into a Japanese barbecue restaurant, where you could pay 300,000 VND (about 13-14 US dollars) and get an unlimited amount of meat and seafood, which you had to grill right in the centre of the table. Unfortunately, our stomachs have limited capacity, so pretty soon we had to ask to stop bringing food and just serve the dessert (which, along with bottomless beer, was also included in the price).

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Then we returned to the hotel, took a quick shower and went to check out. The staff of the hotel were very nice to us: we were seen off by pretty much all of the reception staff, who even gave us hanging decorations with rag birds as gifts! At half past two in the afternoon the travel agency car picked us up and took us to the airport.

Goodbye, beautiful country of delicious food, fragrant coffee, wonderful massage, rich history and culture, stunning nature, crazy traffic and lovely people!

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Posted in Asia, English, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Vietnam – Day 2

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

6 June 2017

I may well be unoriginal and repeat what I’ve said before, but I will say it again: what’s particularly nice about breakfasts in Asian hotels is that apart from the usual boring cheeses/sausages/croissants/toasts you can get stir-fried veggies, noodles, dim sum and even pho! Which is exactly what we did before heading down to the reception at 8 am, where our tour guide Phuoc was already waiting for us, ready for the Mekong Delta excursion.

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First of all, we took a two-hour drive in a comfortable SUV to the town of Cai Be in the Mekong Delta region. As we were driving out of Ho Chi Minh City, and also afterwards, I was thinking of my impressions about the surroundings. There are places which make you say “so beautiful that it takes my breath away”. This is not the case. The Vietnam, which we have seen so far, is best described by the epithet “charming”. And in many respects, it’s charming precisely by its imperfection, including chaos on the roads; assemblages of narrow buildings, sometimes shabby, not wider than a single window; street vendors on the sidewalks, and so on.

On the way, Phuoc was telling us how people live in country – about low salaries, about taxes and cases of tax evasion, about how, with the emergence of a free market economy, many are striving to own a business, even if a very small one, and that often all family members, including the elderly, need to work as it’s very difficult to make ends meet otherwise.

At some point, we started talking about dogs and the fact that in Northern Vietnam people still eat them despite the government’s attempts to ban this. In 1945, a terrible famine raged in the north of the country and it were dogs that helped many people survive (not by their own will though!), so some still believe that eating a dog brings good luck. At the same time, this doesn’t prevent the Vietnamese from treating the dog as a man’s best friend and even to welcome stray dogs in their shops or cafes – it turns out that dog barking somehow sounds similar to the Vietnamese word meaning wealth, so again it’s believed that dogs bring good luck, even without being eaten. As for cats, the situation is exactly the opposite, since their ‘meow’ is consonant with the word meaning poverty.

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On the way, we stopped to visit the “happy room” (that’s the euphemism used here for toilet, which is quite logical for travellers) in some interesting place, looking like either a garden or a restaurant. Through Phuoc’s efforts, the stop turned for us into something like a botanical lecture: she basically showed us every plant and explained how and for what purposes it’s used. We really got the impression that the Vietnamese eat almost any stems, leaves, fruits and roots (well, except for poisonous ones obviously), including banana tree stems, and literally every part of the lotus. Then, already back in the car, she showed us some books about tropical plants, flowers and fruits.

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Another fifteen minutes’ drive – and we arrived at Cai Be, where we had to get on a boat and continue the journey on it. The boat was big – like a sampan – enough for 10 people, but it was just for our mini-group. First, we headed off to see the famous fruit and vegetable floating market. The population in the Mekong Delta area is mainly engaged in farming, and growing fruit is a very profitable business. The local climate and fertile land definitely help. But as for rice, for example, growing it is not that financially rewarding – the market price of one tonne barely covers the labour costs of the workers involved in producing this very tonne. Coming back to our floating market, we were told that in the early morning there are particularly many boats selling goods, and by 10 am (which is the time when we arrived), mostly everything is already sold out with only a few boats remaining. That is, to enjoy the floating market in all its glory, we would have had to spend a night in Cai Be.

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Our first stop is a local village with several family businesses. Here, for example, they make coconut candy by boiling coconut milk with sugar and sometimes flavour additives like coffee and chocolate. Coconuts, by the way, are used very extensively here – pulp and milk are used for food, and the shell is used as fuel, for crafts or even for activated charcoal production.

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And here there’s clearly a rice business. A woman is making edible rice paper on a brazier. Not far away, rice alcohol is being produced and there are big jars of alcohol infused on bananas, lychees and even venomous snakes. Rice is also used for making pictures – every rice grain gets painted in the appropriate colour and used for the kind of mosaic as in one of the pictures below.

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And a little bit further they are making puffed rice, frying it on a hot pan with hot black sand. Further on, this rice is mixed with various additives – sugar, salt or ginger, and even pieces of pork or beef – and pressed into something similar to the rice cakes that we know.

I have to say, all these braziers and pans make me feel like in hell in this not-very-cool weather, I sweat a ton, but finally we are sat under fans for a cup of jasmine tea with different sweets made of banana, ginger, sesame and peanuts. Jasmine tea here is very special, much more fragrant than, say, in China or elsewhere. Phuoc explains this by a higher proportion of jasmine flowers relative to tea. Enjoying the tea, we look around and notice that they sell all sorts of things here – coconut oil, crafts made of coconut and other trees, some ointment with cobra venom and even the famous Tiger Balm, although not in the familiar little red tin.

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After the tea break, we again board the boat and drive on to the An Binh island, where we are supposed to enjoy fresh fruit and local music. Just as we take a step off the boat and onto the ground, we immediately feel knocked down by the smell of durian, and in a minute, we understand why: right in front of us there are durian trees, laden with large “fragrant” fruits.

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Fortunately, we aren’t offered any, instead on our plate we have pieces of ordinary watermelon, exotic but familiar pineapple and mango and quite unusual guava (something like feijoa and, as it turned out, closely related to it) and jackfruit (similar to durian, a bit smelly too, but, oddly enough, belongs to the mulberry family, and the pulp is bright orange, slippery and sugary-sweet, tasting like either melon or bubble-gum). At the same time, several performers entertain us with Vietnamese songs accompanied by guitar and some kind of folk instrument, and even with small performances.

The next item on our schedule is a ride on a traditional flat-bottomed rowing boat along a narrow canal. There are cork trees growing right in the water, which, according to Phuoc, protect the soil from erosion. Generally all the vegetation around is pretty luxuriant, often covered with unfamiliar fruits. Behind the plants one can see houses on stilts. Some of them look better – obviously, the owners are making good money by growing durians – and some are pretty shabby. And yet, as I already said above, there is a particular charm to all of this, especially when you pass by a house where a nice-looking middle-aged lady is sweeping her terrace to the sound of some Vietnamese song playing at full blast.

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Not counting the Vietnamese song, there is a peaceful silence around, broken only by the splash of water under the oars and by boats occasionally passing by.

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Meanwhile, the helmsman on our sampan is already waiting with young coconuts for us. Once again, so far we are very impressed with our tour, everything seems to be arranged at the highest level! And so, sipping refreshing coconut water, we headed back to the island, moored and walked to an eco-tourism complex with an orchard, where we were served lunch. The lunch was home-cooked and pretty tasty, consisting of fish that had to be wrapped with vegetables in rice paper and dipped into fish sauce, deep-fried spring rolls, grilled shrimps, vegetable soup (we liked it the least) and pork with rice. Fish sauce, I must say, is an extremely smelly substance, but it tastes a lot better than it smells. Phuoc said that the Vietnamese fish sauce is much better than the Thai one, because it is made of anchovies, while in Thailand it’s made of mackerel.

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We washed it all down with Vietnamese coffee, stronger than many varieties of coffee, but less strong than Turkish coffee. That’s when Phuoc told us that the tradition of drinking coffee is a French colonial heritage, as well as colonial architecture and baguettes, and this, in her opinion apparently shared by many Vietnamese, exhausts the list of positive effects of colonisation, absolutely not offsetting the complete plundering of royal treasures.

We also starting talking about the Vietnam War – how Saigon was much more developed, more or less in step with Singapore and Hong Kong, and then, destroyed by the war and the communist regime, fell hopelessly behind – and about relations with China, which are much better than in the 80s, but, according to Phuoc, quite dangerous and could potentially lead to the occupation of Vietnam by China.

Actually, we went into these lengthy conversations for one simple reason: while we were having lunch (luckily, under a canopy), a heavy downpour started. I have to say that we’d been lucky with the rain from the very beginning – all weather websites I know were forecasting it right in the morning and for the whole day. And it only started when we’d already finished sightseeing.

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After lunch, the only thing left was a boat ride to the town of Vinh Long, where our driver should have already been waiting for us. The rain kept pouring. Fortunately, the boat also had a canopy (unlike the flat rowing boat we were on literally a couple of hours ago), but at some point a wind broke out forcing us to put on raincoats so as not to get wet. Because of the rain, we didn’t stop at the Vinh Long market, and headed straight to the pier. As there were only a few metres remaining to the pier, the waves became so strong, making the boat reel so much that I seriously feared that it would scoop up water and capsize. But thank God, it didn’t, and we drove off back to Ho Chi Minh City. The rain was pouring non-stop throughout the whole two-and-a-half-hour drive, but not as intensely as before.

Today we decided to have dinner at the Ngon restaurant, recommended by Phuoc, which turned out to be a good choice. The restaurant is a ten minute walk from our hotel and is located in that fancier area we didn’t reach yesterday. The interior is very pretty with palm trees everywhere. The menu has several sections: Japanese, Thai, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese, and of course we went for the latter – aren’t we in Vietnam after all? I had bun bo hue (spicy beef soup with rice vermicelli and greens – more precisely, it is the chili pepper served separately that makes it spicy), chicken thighs barbecue and for dessert, something like banana cake with coconut milk – not sweet at all, which I really liked. Generally, I’m enjoying the Vietnamese cuisine and finding it somewhat less intrusive compared to, say, Chinese (which I like as well but tend to have had enough of soon) – mainly because dishes taste precisely like their ingredients and all sorts of sauces and spices are served separately: you can add/dip/sprinkle if you want, but you don’t have to. It all cost us twice as much as yesterday’s dinner (almost 30 USD) – it’s a fancy restaurant after all, but we also ate a lot more.

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Posted in Europe, Georgia

Georgia – Day 2

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

27 December 2014

We dedicated our second day to a tour of Tbilisi. First of all, we were taken to the Turtle lake which is located in the posh Vake district. The lake is called like that for a very obvious reason – there are small turtles on its shores. The lake was coated with a thin layer of ice, and the park impressed us with its clean pine air and the sources thereof.

Yesterday we thought that Tbilisi was pretty small, but when we were taken to see it from one of the highest points today, so that not only the old part, but also the new districts were visible, it turned out that the sizes are much larger and the city, extended in length, lies in the cleft between the mountains. In short, the size of the city could be seen well, but the details could not really be made out – it was very foggy. On the way to this lookout point we saw a very original building of the 112 rescue service in the form of a flying saucer.

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One of the planned visits was the Pantheon – the burial place of famous Georgian figures of culture, science and politics – situated on the slopes of Mount Mtatsminda. More precisely, it was our guide who told us about the Pantheon, as we only knew about the graves of Griboyedov and his wife, Nina Chavchavadze. It turns out that these very graves initiated the Pantheon. We came as close as we could by car, and then had to walk, making pretty steep climbs. The guide was encouraging us by showing the place of destination. From this high point, we looked at Tbilisi again, from a different perspective now, and suddenly it turned out that the grave of Griboyedov was just behind us. The grave had a very touching monument to a weeping woman clinging to a cross, and a no less touching famous inscription: “Your spirit and achievements will be remembered forever. Why still does my love outlive you?” With regard to the Pantheon itself, I found all the graves interesting, even though I had only known the names of Stalin’s mother, Zviad Gamsakhurdia and Nodar Dumbadze.

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After such a spiritual visit we moved on to a purely prosaic activity – food consumption, for the purpose of which we were taken to the Agmashenebeli avenue (former Plekhanov street). By the way, I really liked the avenue, even more than the Rustaveli ave. I can’t now recall the name of the small restaurant we went to, but the interior was purely Georgian, with antique items, such as cameras and phonographs, and reproductions of Pirosmani’s paintings on the walls (we ate our khachapuris right next to the famous “Feast of Five Princes”).

If yesterday we visited ancient churches and temples, today, having driven us through a quarter that was very reminiscent of the Kubinka and generally the area of Teze Bazar in Baku, Zviad brought us to a modern temple, visible from almost any point of Tbilisi – Tsminda Sameba, the Holy Trinity Cathedral. It occupies a large area, around which you can still see construction works, like columns being built and stone carving works going on.

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Apparently, the plan of our guide consisted of alternating spiritual visits with pure entertainment – undoubtedly the cableway to the Narikala forthress at the same Mount Mtatsminda was part of the latter. It is not at all scary here – unlike the one I took to the Great Wall in China, where you literally float over the abyss, risking dropping your shoes there (while also afraid to drop yourself!). Here you just sit in a closed cabin for 5-6 people and peacefully look at the Kura and its banks underneath. We didn’t get to see the fortress, but had the opportunity to be photographed with a falcon, and then descended to the Europe Square using the same cableway. We saw a few people dressed as Santa Clauses riding bicycles, and also something that made me really emotional – street vendors of roasted peanuts and sunflower seeds, which are measured with a large or a small faceted glass and then sold in paper cornets: where are the days when we had the exact same thing in Baku?..

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Both today and yesterday we saw a lot of purely Tbilisian houses, clinging on the steep cliffs over the Kura, with a lot of balconies. Today we also went into one of the old quarters. Here we found the famous sulfur baths, which we could sense even from afar for the very specific smell of hydrogen sulphide. We walked up to a waterfall in a narrow crevice.

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Ever since yesterday we really wanted to buy churchkhela – the traditional sausage-shaped candy made of grape must with nuts, but Zviad had told us not to buy it not just anywhere but in trusted places, and so he took us to one. The tiny convenience store seemed to have a whole market squeezed in it: they had meat, and cheese, and pickles, and a variety of fruit-vegetables, and well, of course, the coveted churchkhela. Unluckily, we had to wait for the sales assistant of this particular department for quite a while – it turned out that he had been queueing at a supermarket nearby to buy a box of champagne.

Towards the end of the day we went up the Mtatsminda for the third time, this time by a cable car. The first stop was near the pantheon we’d already seen, and the second one led us to a large park, with lots of swings and carousels, with New Year’s songs coming from the speakers, with a house with upturned balconies – as if it was standing upside down. And again I was wrapped in nostalgia – the Baku Boulevard in the days of my childhood looked exactly like this, even the benches were similar. But it’s not that I’m trying to say that anything around looks old and shabby, straight from those times – the park is exactly maintained like this, just as the buildings are restored, as I said before.

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Overflowing with impressions, we ended the day in the khinkali restaurant right near the hotel, where we tried different kinds of khinkali: with meat, mushrooms, cheese – and were very pleased. Thus, our stay in Tbilisi was brief, but very impressive.

Posted in English, Europe, Georgia

Georgia – Day 1

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

27 December 2014

We arrived last night, and found Zviad, the guide meeting us, very easily, so logistic-wise everything went really smoothly. The smooth start actually began at the passport control, where each of us was handed a bottle of Saperavi wine – turns out, they are given out to all foreigners entering the country, isn’t that surprising? Zviad drove us a bit around the night Tbilisi, which immediately aroused nostalgia – the non-central streets seemed very similar to the Baku of my childhood. We got particularly excited when shown the river Kura and then the Avlabari neighbourhood, and started quoting the Khanuma movie.

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It was decided that on the first day we would make a sortie out of Tbilisi and leave the city sightseeing for the second one. The weather promised to be nice (and honestly fulfilled the promise), even though it was quite chilly near the Jvari (meaning ‘cross’) monastery where we headed first, and the puddles were flecked with ice. The monastery is located atop a rocky mountain, from which one can see the Mtskheta town and also exactly what was described in Lermontov’s poem ‘The Novice’ (‘Mtsyri’): “…where soundingly together flow Aragva and Kura – the place, where, like two sisters, they embrace…”, i.e. where the blue Aragvi merges with the yellow Kura, and the line separating these waters is very clearly noticeable. The reason why the monastery is called the Holy Cross monastery is not because it has the shape of a cross, as one might expect, but because it was here where St. Nino of Georgia, a female evangelist, erected a cross. The legend says that this very cross lies in the foundation of the monastery.

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We drove off along Aragvi, on the Georgian Military Highway, to see the ancient fortress of Ananuri. The places around were very picturesque, even though it’s not the best season now – in autumn or spring it must look absolutely spectacular! On our way we took pictures of the Zhinvali reservoir from various angles. It’s also very beautiful, but that’s somewhat overshadowed by the fact that to create this beauty (which of course has practical use too!) three villages had to be flooded. We visited one of the churches in the castle complex, while the other one was closed. Zviad told us that once all the walls in the first church were painted with frescoes, but then during the stay of a Russian garrison in the fortress, they were all covered with a thick layer of lime. Relatively recently a small area was cleared and a really impressive fresco of St. George was discovered. I climbed to the top of the tower, which was quite difficult and scary, considering the narrow passages and steep, broken stairs. But I got the chance to look out of a loophole, although it was so narrow that I couldn’t really see much.

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From here we drove back to Mtskheta and stopped in the old part of the city. In general, as we noted, it is peculiar to Georgia that most of the ancient and old buildings are restored in their original form. Therefore, all the houses are colorful, neat, with traditional Georgian balconies and look very good. There are little shops selling souvenirs, wine, churchkhela (Georgian sweet “sausages” made of fruit and nuts) with sellers strongly beckoning tourists to drink with them all along the road to the Cathedral of Mtskheta. Our guide even argued with someone, reproaching him for trying to “recapture” his guests.

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The Cathedral of Mtskheta, or Svetitskhoveli (translated as “the life-giving pillar”) is a patriarchal cathedral with the seat of the Patriarch standing right in the centre thereof. It’s a burial place of the last kings of Georgia and various princes, including a few from the Mukhrani branch of the famous Bagrationi dynasty. The Cathedral is one of the three main cathedral in country, symbolising the central Georgia, or the Kartli region. The Alaverdi temple in Kakheti, respectively, represents the east of Georgia and the Bagrat temple in Kutaisi represents the west. Even in Soviet times, it was common among the youth of Tbilisi to wed in Svetitskhoveli, so every spring after Easter endless wedding processions stretched from Tbilisi.

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Instead of the anticipated three hours we spent five on the road, by the end of which we were absolutely starving. We wanted to taste some proper Georgian cuisine, and on our return to Tbilisi we were taken to a restaurant called “Zakhar Zakharich”. The food there was really delicious. Our menu consisted of the kharcho soup, Imeretian khachapuri (cheese pie), aubergines with walnuts, ojakhuri (roasted pork with potatoes and onions), shkmeruli (fried chicken with lots of garlic) and jigar (liver) on the grid. As for the wine, we had red Saperavi in pitchers. In short, we had a great treat and only paid 127 GEL for four of us, which makes about 70 USD , or 54 AZN.

The only thing we could do after that was taking a two-hour nap. In the evening, we walked along the holiday-decorated Rustaveli Avenue, which was right around the corner from our hotel. It was beautiful, but in many ways reminded of Baku – potholes here and there, lots of construction, cars on the sidewalks, cigarette smoke everywhere – as most of the population seems to smoke. However, the walk was still nice.