Normal Fruit and Luxury Fruit

After being in SE Asia for a few weeks, I’ve learned something interesting: all fruit is created equal, but some fruit is more equal than others.

By that, what I mean is that in SE Asia, there (as far as I can tell) are two classes of fruit: fruit, and luxury fruit. Fruit is composed of just about what you would expect: all the fruits you have heard of, and many other types of tropical fruit that we don’t get in the states much. Pineapple, mango, starfruit, orange, green orange, papaya, apple, rose apple, dragonfruit, coconut are all examples of “normal” fruit.

You’ll see normal fruit all over the place: market stalls, street vendors, etc. Particularly, you’ll see normal fruit at fruit shake vendors, who just have a little stand with a blender, ice, and racks of fresh fruit, and the’ll juice-slash-blend whatever you want to order. (Yum.)

But then, there’s Luxury Fruit.

Luxury fruit includes durian, mangosteen, jackfruit, and often lychee. Luxury fruit is kept separate from the normal fruit. You will see street-side vendors selling these fruits, but often the vendor will be dedicated to just one of these fruits: just selling durian, or just selling mangosteen. If they sell multiple types, the “luxury” fruit will be kept separate from the rest of the fruit, usually in its own reverent pyramid. You’ll never seen a fruit shake vendor with any of these fruits.

So why the separation? Well, it’s probably pretty obvious: cost. The luxury fruits cost a lot more, perhaps 5x-10x as much as the normal fruit. (I’ll try to do some quantitative analysis next time I’m lugging a 20kg bag and pouring sweat down onto the sidewalk.) The normal fruits have different costs, but as far as something like a fruit shake go, they basically have one cost: pretty cheap.

The other reason for separation, I think (which relates to cost) is seasonality and freshness. The class of luxury fruits spoil very quickly, I believe, and fresh vs. not-fresh ones are tremendously different. So it makes sense to dedicate your business to these products.

This second reason is also the reason why you almost never see any of these fruits in the US (with the occasional exception of lychee).

And this has been your extremely concise introduction to the Periodic Table of Luxury Fruit.

Does Chiang Mai suck?

If you’ve ever planned an extended trip around southeast Asia, you may know that Lonely Planet’s “Southeast Asia on a Shoestring” offers several proposed itineraries. One focuses on beaches, another on the former spice-trade route around Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore – and then there’s what they call the traditional southeast Asian tour, starting in Bangkok, wending east through Cambodia and then taking Vietnam from the bottom to the top, flying west into Laos and circling back south through Chiang Mai to Bangkok, before flying further south to either Malaysia or Singapore. This latter course is more or less the one we followed.

Sometimes we’d feel self-conscious about traveling by the book – and it’s true that we did occasionally see some white faces in a new city that we’d already glimpsed in a previous one. But it saved us a lot of research and planning time, and when we wanted to deviate, of course, we did.

Our first port of call – and first deviation from the traditional route — was the gorgeous, mosquito-replete isle of Ko Phi Phi, off the west coast of south-central Thailand. We were just getting our legs under us at that point, working through jet lag and figuring out how to say hello and thank you in Thai. We made limited conversation with the hotel staff, all of whom seemed to work six 16-hour days a week. Our favorite was Pai, a sort of morose waiter guy. We’d sit looking out at the water before dinner, and he would shuffle over like Eeyore, if Eeyore could carry a tray of beers. We did not have a lot of shared language in common, so it was hard to get to know him very well. (Added to the fact that we were just two in a constant revolving door of foreign hotel guests arriving on his shore, and probably not of great individual interest to him.) But we did manage to learn that yes, he worked a lot. And that for travel in Thailand, he recommended visiting the north: Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai. So, two votes for Chiang Mai (and surrounds).

Fast forward a couple of weeks, and we’re in Luang Prabang, assessing our options. Turns out there’s a daily LP—>Chiang Mai flight on a smallish prop plane belonging to Laos Airlines, which Lonely Planet endorses as having “a rapidly improving safety record.” I gave myself a stern talking-to and climbed aboard. (And it was fine, obviously, as it always is, but a phobia is as intransigent as a two-year-old, and requires a lot of cajoling and discipline.)

Annnnd — our first day in Chiang Mai was not a huge success. The city had been described to us as the cultural heart of Thailand, with an old walled city center and a good university. But upon arrival it seemed kind of like an endless strip mall with temples, and chockablock with advertisements for things to do outside Chiang Mai. Economically, the city seemed oriented around helping tourists go bungee jumping. Or pay for sex. All the sex tourists we had been told to expect but ultimately not encountered in Phnom Penh — possibly due to Khmer New Year— were out in force in Chiang Mai, flirting creepily with dressed-up Thai ladies in the bars and massage parlors that exist for this purpose. I’d rather that sex commerce be legal and regulated than clandestine, so officially all this should be fine with me, but these particular examples of the phenomenon felt gross.

Plus, I stupidly tripped on some obstacle-course feature of the sidewalk and twisted my ankle, painfully though not seriously. I was still able to walk, but being minorly injured took most outdoorsy activities off the table.

We did have some delicious khao soy and some tasty curries that day, and located the train station and procured second-class tickets on a night train to Bangkok for later in the week. After these modest successes, though, we got some beers and — with apologies to Pai — debated whether we should leave early.

However, as you may have guessed, matters improved. And, having managed to overcome our bad attitudes and enjoy Chiang Mai, I think we developed extra affection for it. Chiang Mai was our underdog, falling in the late middle of our nomadic April, and when we found things to love it felt like we and the city had achieved a mutual triumph.

So, here’s what to do in Chiang Mai, if you ever happen to be a) there and b) us.


Visit temples. Really! We almost didn’t get it up to visit many temples in Chiang Mai, having seen our fair share over the previous couple of weeks. But the ones we visited in Chiang Mai were interesting and unusual, and among our favorites of the trip. I think this may be part of the “cultural heart of Thailand” thing we failed to notice initially. Gorgeous murals, a beautiful teak-and-gilt temple that was one of the most beautiful we’d ever seen, and the stupifyingly huge, 600-year-old stupa of Wat Chedi Luang. The stupa was once the tallest building in the Lanna kingdom, and has a wonderful palpable eerie energy.


Take songthaew. Taxis in Chiang Mai are savvy about overcharging tourists, and tuk-tuks are fine but not really up to the traffic and scope of the city. Plus they’re not much cheaper. Enter the songthaew, basically a covered pickup truck with benches in the back – they’re cheap, they’re everywhere, and locals actually take them. And you can watch the world go by out the back of the truck. Really really fun.


Find the local eating establishment with the least pleasant ambience and eat there. While in Chiang Mai Kevin and I talked about our respective traveling strengths and weaknesses. I would say that my strengths are a decent knack for languages and for the pidgin-and-miming communication that kicks in when language runs out; and a facility for tasks related to planning and organizing. My weaknesses are significant: I am anxious in the face of the unknown and often assume that things will go wrong; I get shy at all the wrong moments and hate bargaining; I have a tendency to want to throw money at all problems; and I want stuff to be cute.

All of which is to say: When in Thailand, do not let me pick your restaurant. I had one of the best meals of my life in one of the least attractive settings: a humid, windowless, semi-underground concrete food court in the Warorot market. At one point one of the exceedingly nice Thai cook ladies came over and took one of my forks, gave it a cursory wipe with a sodden rag, and handed it to another customer. But the food was just transcendently fantastic, and I’m so glad I didn’t miss it. (So maybe there is one more strength to add to my list: I am tolerant of mystery meats, and not overly concerned about hygiene.)

Anyway, here are all of our pictures of Chiang Mai, culminating abruptly in our visit to this very food court.

P.S. What are Kevin’s strengths and weaknesses, you ask? Well. I would list his strengths as: A big supply of dogged persistence in the face of obstacles, which often makes the difference between having an awesome new experience and missing it. A chivalrous generosity to his travel partner, whether in the form of offering to carry her extra stuff or willingness to ask for directions, make restaurant bookings and bargain about fares, despite the fact that it’s harder for him to understand what people are saying. A contagious excitement and appetite for new experiences, particularly those that relate to food. And an openness to being moved by things, whether beautiful or awful. Weaknesses: Not very organization-minded and inclined to leave his dirty clothes on the floor; sometimes too attached to a particular vision of how things might go and thus inflexible when the need for a change of plan arises; reluctant to snack if the snack options are less than spectacular; and – this becomes problematic more often than you’d think – totally intolerant of bath gel. It’s soap or nothing, baby, and that’s just the way it is. On the whole, though, I think you can tell that I’m getting the good end of this deal.

So today I rode on an elephant's neck, NBD

We couldn’t decide whether to schedule an elephant ride. What if it seemed exploitative, or just tacky?

Obviously, we went for it. There’s a sustainable-tourism outfit in Luang Prabang that centers around a sanctuary for former logging elephants, so we went out there. The elephants seemed to be treated very affectionately, and we learned lots of interesting facts: elephants can carry almost half their body weight; they eat hundreds of pounds of food and drink dozens of gallons of water a day; they gestate for about two years and elephant calves are milk-dependent for three years after birth! We also got to view a comparison poster contrasting Asian and African elephants — apparently Asian elephants are “wrinkly” and African elephants are “very wrinkly.” We’ll report back.

The guides kept suggesting that, in addition to the standard thing of riding in a little basket tied to the elephant’s back, we could also climb down to the elephant’s neck, which is usually where the guide, or mahout, sits. We tried to convey how very appreciative we were of this opportunity while politely refusing. This approach… was not successful.

I would say that sitting on an elephant’s neck is exhilarating, somewhat terrifying, and a fantastic inner-thigh workout.

Also, in a group of basically docile animals, our elephant was mutinous and badly behaved. Everybody else would be walking politely in a line and our elephant would try to overtake on the narrow path, or swing abruptly over to some especially delicious-looking bushes and start ripping them apart with her trunk and eating them. This was occasionally alarming but also pretty adorable.

Post-ride, we got to hang out with the elephants and feed them. Elephants have poor eyesight but fantastic sense of smell, and they knew exactly where the bananas were at all times. We’d stand there and these huge fleshy hoses would rear toward us, and we’d hold out an unpeeled banana or even several, and they would snorf them up with the wet toothless mouths at the ends of their trunks, deposit them in their actual mouths, and then immediately reextend the trunks for more food. MORE FOOD NOW! I felt a strong urge to hug them, but I mastered myself.

In the post-game recap over some Beers Laos, we got all grandiose about Luang Prabang, envisioning coming back with our hypothetical 10-year-olds some years hence. Who knows, but it’s definitely high on the list of places to return.

Paradise Laos'd

Let’s begin with the most important thing: Laos puns.

Regardless of whether you pronounce Laos to rhyme with the Yao in Yao Ming, or to rhyme with Taos as in Taos, New Mexico, Laos really lends itself to a punny blog-post title. But I’m not sure I’m doing justice to this opportunity. The problem is not just my limited pun-imagination, but also the apparent lack of consensus on proper pronunciation. “Laos-d and clear” only really works if Laos rhymes with Yao; if, instead, Laos rhymes with Taos, “All Laos’d up” might be a better way to go. Unfortunately, we kept getting conflicting reports on which was correct. And also neither of my sample puns makes any sense. So the rather poor Paradise Laos’d it is, but if you guys think of some greater Laos pun, please chime in.

As you may have guessed, we loved Laos, at least what we saw of it. We were not in the country that long — only three nights in Luang Prabang — and we almost didn’t make it at all, because our schedule was feeling tight. But luckily my former San Francisco roommate, Sabrina, had traveled extensively in southeast Asia, and said Laos had been her favorite destination. Thank goodness we were in possession of her recommendation, because LAOS IS AWESOME.

Or at the very least, Luang Prabang is awesome. Most tourists stay in the old town, which is on a peninsula created by the meeting of the Mekong and Mae Kok rivers*, and which feels like Martha’s Vineyard in the jungle, except with approximately one temple for every three non-temple buildings. It’s sleepy and mostly pedestrian, with picket fences and low-key colonial architecture (so, cute n’ breezy two- and three-story brick and clapboard buildings, rather than the magisterial We Will Rock You form that colonial architecture sometimes takes). There are businesses that cater exclusively to tourists, but they’re right alongside the ones that cater mainly to locals. There aren’t any big hotels or chain businesses or tour buses pulling up. After the bustle of Hanoi, crossing the street in Luang Prabang felt like crossing my bedroom.

Every night on the quiet, cafe-dotted main drag of the old town, there’s a night market — featuring mostly clothing and jewelry and wood carvings and paintings and stuff, and patronized mostly by tourists. But there was this weird differentiating factor separating this market from others of its type: I actually wanted to buy things. The things I would have picked up for you guys if there’d been space in my bag! Awesome cloth handbags with wonderful embroidery and pom poms, beautiful silk things, cute little slippers with bells for all your babies, and embroidered skirts for your daughters. I’m not doing justice with my description — I guess the best I can come up with is that I think Anna Sui has been to this region a time or two. And that the color combinations remind me of those you see in images of Tibet, but leavened with some kind of linen-y neutrals? Anyway, I wanted to mow through the place souvenir-shopping, but for space reasons I refrained.

Instead we drank coffee in sidewalk cafes, drank beers at picnic tables overlooking the rivers, took sweaty walks, talked to a cute young monk who wanted to practice his English, tried lots of Laotian food — and, oh yeah, rode an elephant. More on that in a sec.

For now, though, an emphatic tourist bulletin: Laos, you’ll love it! Heartily endorsed. But don’t take my word for it — here are all of our Luang Prabang pictures. (Duh-nuh-DUN!)

* I know, I know, Mae Kok. Laos is brutal in its expectation that you will not make juvenile jokes about the names of things. Don’t even get me started on Mt. Phousi.

Discontinuity

You guys, I have to confess a thing. Which is: In the time-honored tradition of blogs everywhere, our blog is behind. We have recently gotten safely to Nairobi, while our blog is still maybe in Vietnam.

This delay owes partly to some spotty internet connections, but mostly to the pace of our first month. We kept arriving in each new place without having anything for our next destination booked, and so most of our internet time was spent on onward arrangements. Consequently, we have stored up anecdotes from Laos and Thailand: Part 2: This Time It’s Personal to share with you guys! As well as reports from Malaysia and Singapore, which will consist almost entirely of food photos.

But I wanted to send up a “we made it!” flare. A mere 19 hours of travel, and we swapped swanky Singapore for a simple but nice hotel in Nairobi, where we have a window with a view of a field. Today we looked at some prospective rental apartments, had Indian food for lunch, got lost walking around looking for a shopping center (which you are NOT supposed to do, safety-wise, but nothing sinister befell us this time), and then triumphantly and with deep relief found said shopping center and made use of it for our water/newspaper/cash withdrawal/city map/cookie-purchase needs. Despite this modest slate of accomplishments I feel proud and tired, as though I had done a strenuous workout and then done my taxes with itemized expenses.

Preliminary observations:

  • It is so deliciously cool here after a month in southeast Asia. Which is to say it’s like 80 degrees. I can almost imagine wearing socks and liking it.
  • After a month on the Kevin Gibbs southeast Asian chili sauce express, I tried my jeans on today. It’s a squeeze, but they zip. So, I mean, where would I be without all those hour-long walks in 96-degree heat, right? Jeansless, that’s where.
  • It’s Swahili time! I am doing some Rosetta Stone, which means I am beginning with useful phrases like “boy under plane” and “girl with socks.” For those of you unfamiliar with the language, I can report that most of the nouns seem to begin with M or N, and most of the verbs seem to begin with A. Other than that, it’s all mvulana chini ya ndege,* dudes.
  • Each taxi we take seems to have one working seatbelt.
  • On the way home from the shopping we passed a sign for something like the Kenya Prisons Supplies Center — which, if we read the sign correctly, is open to the public? Like a showroom for incarceration aids? If we make it there, we definitely will let you know.

* Yep. “Boy under plane.”

"No Promises"

I kept hearing this song on the radio in Vietnam, both on stations that mostly played songs in English and on stations that otherwise didn’t seem to play songs in English. I was totally tickled by its borderline nonsensical generic-ballad lyrics, and assumed I was experiencing some Asian boy-band phenomenon. Like:

“I don’t wanna run away,
You’re the one I need tonight.
No promises.
Baby — now I need to hold you tight.
I just wanna die in your arms…

I don’t wanna run away,
I don’t wanna be alone.
No promises.
Baby, now I need to hold you tight, now and forever my love.”

... and, listening, I figured, presumably no one involved in the making of this song is solid on the meaning of “no promises,” right? Like, if I am the only one you want and you want to be with me forever and it is your preference to die in my arms, I think we may be entering commitment territory. I pictured some lithe dudes with asymmetrical haircuts, soulfully crooning lyrics that were written by a computer program.

But then with a free moment I looked it up. And no! The person who is not solid on what “promises” means is actually English pop sensation Shayne Ward. (Although — why I am wasting my time on this is anyone’s guess — according to Wikipedia the song is originally by some dude Bryan Rice; Shayne Ward is merely covering it. And with a classic like this, who can blame him.)

I mean, the brass cojones of this song. “You’re the only one I want — but if by some chance I DON’T drop dead in the midst of this evening’s passionate lovemaking, you know. No promises.”

Anyway this guy and his shifty overtures are huge in Vietnam. And the video is a masterpiece of its genre. What is that girl wearing?

San Francisco giants

So, we are tall people. And naturally we have felt extra-tall when traveling around southeast Asia. Sometimes it comes in handy, like when we need to locate one another in a crowded market or metro station. Sometimes it’s less convenient – Kevin has a collection of lumps on his head from banging it on things. But for the most part it hasn’t been a big deal, and our height has largely gone unremarked.

Until Hanoi, where we arrived to find ourselves CELEBRITIES OF TALLNESS. We’d be picking our way down the street — trying to avoid laying waste to the city’s zillion small sidewalk businesses or tripping over a broken walkway tile and pitching into the path of an oncoming motorbike — and find people poking their friends and pointing at us. Old ladies would make meaningful eye contact with me and point at Kevin, and then gesture way above their own heads. Yes, I would attempt to convey with my answering smile and nod. He is tall!

The best, though, was at the local sights and museums. In the Ho Chi Minh Museum – which is flabbergastingly bizarre, and you should go there – a young woman tailed us for a while, taking our picture when she thought we weren’t looking. One maybe 10-year-old girl came up and very politely asked if she could pose with us for a photo. And several different times we encountered big groups of elementary and middle-school kids on class trips — all in uniform, white shirts with red sailor ties — and they would goggle at us. Then — invariably! — some kid would shout out “Hello!” And we’d shout back “hello!” And then, every single kid would start yelling “hello, hello, hello!” And we would yell back “hello, hello!” And this feedback loop would continue for a bit, with us grinning foolishly at the kids, and the kids obviously getting a huge kick out of discovering and conversing with these huge zoo animals.

With one group we met – in which the kids were slightly older, maybe early high school – several members approached us, one at a time, to measure their height against ours and then say “wow.” One woman, who I think was a teacher or chaperone, squeezed my forearm, and then laughed as if to say “weird, it’s real!”

Strangely, being a traveling sideshow attraction was a really nice experience. I guess because people seemed so psyched, it made for a pleasantly reciprocal-feeling tourist experience. Here we are, checking out your cool city, and here you are, gawking at some of the more gargantuan foreigners you’ve seen lately. We go home and talk about how weird the Ho Chi Minh museum was; you go home and tell your family about how you saw this ENORMOUS dude. Everybody high-five!

It's all about the Ho Chi Mins

Hanoi. As our plane was landing, I’d really done no research, and I had no idea what to expect. A lot of things I’d read suggested that Saigon was really where it’s at, and that Hanoi was more drab, less cultural, less romantic. I wondered aloud to Page if perhaps we were making a mistake by going there, that perhaps I wouldn’t enjoy it at all.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

I had the time of my life in Hanoi. Something about the city and I really clicked. Clearly, a lot of it was the food, which I’ll get to in a bit. But, it wasn’t just that. There’s something about the city. Nearly everyone who visits stays in the old town area, but it’s not a cordoned off Ghirardelli Square-like contraption, or some Colonial Williamsburg spin-off. It’s very much alive, and no matter how many white-dreadlocked hippy backpackers show up, there’s far more locals. It’s a hive of specialized shops, streets devoted to doorknobs or purses or dried fish, and all that life is spilling out onto the streets at every corner, with vendors, food stalls, and just people hanging out.

Beyond that, there’s a lot else going for it. The city is quite pretty. The lake of the old market area, Hoan Kiem, is beautiful, and there’s a lot of other lakes and parks across town. The city is surprisingly walkable, perhaps the most walkable we’ve been in Asia yet. Everyone we met was tremendously friendly and kind, and it often didn’t feel like like a weird service relationship (which is mostly what you encounter in Asia as a white ATM).

There’s a number of fun activities, too. The Ho Chi Minh Museum, with accompanying hoverport, definitely opened my eyes to the Power of Communism like no other. The Museum of Ethnology was perhaps the best done museum we’ve seen in Asia yet: well organized, informative, crazy awesome structures, and the first place that I felt like I was able to get a grip on what the quilt of cultural-ethnic groups of SE Asia are like. Plus, the 8,000 thirteen-year-old school children there really liked Page. I mean, really.

I’ll probably never forget that Hanoi was where I was introduced to:

  • Cha Ca: Cubes of fish, fried dangerously at your table with mega dill.
  • Banh Cuon: The slippery dumplings with soup and crunchy fried bits of your dreams.
  • Bun Bo Nam Bo: Beefy beefy mega-beef noodle comfort soup.
  • Banh My Doner: Contender for Page’s favorite food of the trip. Cinnamon melty fat mayo-spicy goodness.
  • Mien Xao Luon: You didn’t know cellophane noodles could be this hot goody dangerous crab yes.

As well as a ton of amazing renditions of dishes that I already knew.

More than anything, though, my favorite moment in Hanoi was having Bia Hoi Ha Noi on street corners. This is a essentially local, essentially Hanoi thing to do. Thanks to some beautiful happenstance (thanks, Sandals Guy), a Czech brewer introduced beer brewing in Hanoi in 1960 or so, and hit upon a great recipe for a pilsner-like brew that seems to cry, to weep, to be served out of a keg.

So the people obliged. And all over the city, there’s a culture, unlike anywhere else I’ve seen yet in Asia, of Bia Hoi vendors, which just set up shop on a busy street corner, with a stack of red plastic chairs, and serve the beer by the mug, out of the keg, made fresh from the brewery that day, for a quarter a glass.

Every corner is a Zeitgeist, and every corner is full of locals and meanderthals alike. And it’s beautiful. You can just sit on a maze-like street corner of the old town, enjoying some peanuts or sunflower seeds, with your cold mug of clear-yellow-almost-green Bia Hoi Ha Noi, watching the world go by, not a care in the world.

And when the lady asks if you’d like another mug, you’ll say yes.

(Credits: Thank you, Gastronomer.)

Things you cannot transport on a scooter

Not much, man. Vietnam seethes with scooters, and in Hanoi – which, as far as I can tell, is the traffic- and fire-unsafety capital of the world – the locals’ transportational ingenuity seems to know no bounds. Here is an incomplete list of somewhat surprising things we’ve seen go by on the back – or front, or side – of somebody’s motorbike:

  • Five cases of wine.
  • A keg of beer.
  • A ladder.
  • 20 big clear plastic bags, each containing water and two or three sizeable live goldfish.
  • An armoire.
  • A floral arrangement the size of the driver’s torso, plus a huge bunch of 75 or so balloons shaped like ships and cats and stuff.
  • A weed-whacker.
  • Assorted mannequin parts.
  • Several huge bags of concrete.
  • Two dogs. Each approximately 50 pounds, just riding on the seat, one in front of the driver and one behind.
  • Nine full water-cooler jugs of water.
  • Four children.
  • A bowl of soup. That the driver was eating.
  • A stove. Not a camping stove. A regular, full-size, Western-style range.

Things we are waiting to see transported on a scooter.

  • Another scooter.
  • A coffin.
  • Ho Chi Minh.
  • A pool table.
  • A palm tree.
  • Geena Davis.
  • A goat.

When it sinks in that you're living abroad

When you get your hair cut in a foreign country.

Pros: The $5 cut by a very professional stylist compares favorably to the $50 cut you usually get in San Francisco.
Cons: It also comes with an unexpected, semi-consensual 20-minute face massage, with lotion, in a darkened room. (15 minutes in, Page was fairly sure I was being held for ransom.)