Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A pizza connection in Phuket

After some delightful days in Singapore, it was time to get to our last an most relaxing stop in our travels: Thailand. We decided that after three months of traveling and touring, it was time to take a break and relax on the beaches of a beautiful tropical island. Phuket was our choice.
Phuket turned out to be much more populated and touristy than we had expected. Plenty of foreigners infested all the streets, "lady-boys" attracted some eccentric audience, bars were everywhere and alcohol was certainly not missing. International food was more readily available than local food sometimes, and pizza places were certainly dominating the market. We took advantage of that, and made friends with our hotel host and his friend, a Pizzaiolo from Rome. He taught me how he made pizzas, and his secret recipes for sausages.
We took advantage of the location to go for some excursions. We saw Phi Phi island, and its surrounding beaches populated by monkeys. We snorkeled in the blue waters of the Indian ocean, and eventually we scuba dived too. It was amazing to see how much life thrives among the corals. It's a real pity that the Thai government does not do much to preserve its natural resources from wild western investments and savage tourism.

After scuba diving, Suzie felt a bit sick. We went for a check-up at a local hospital and they thought it was nothing. She kept feeling worse during the night and so we went to the specialized hospital early in the morning, where she was visited more accurately. The hospital was more like a resort. It made most of its money from esthetical surgery to western clients, that came over to Thailand due to the competitive prices. Suzie got her own luxury room, way more luxurious than any hotel we had stayed in the whole trip. Personal TV, internet, satellite channels, nice meals, and even a masseuse were included in the price. I slept on the couch for a couple of nights. It was comfortable too. Suzie turned out to have a decompression sickness, so she went into the hyperbaric room twice. I really hoped the insurance would cover that because the hospital thing was going to cost more than the whole three months traveling in Asia. Thankfully, after a lot of checking procedures, they did.
So the last week of relaxing holidays turned out to be shorter than we hoped. I flew to Sydney on the day we had planned, while Suzie enjoyed a couple more sunny days in Thailand before joining me in our new place. I cannot believe the holiday is over. It feels like it has been a dream and I am now back to reality. All I can think of right now is organizing our next trip!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Chinatown in Singapore

Singapore has a lot to offer. Because of its history of immigration, there are several distinctive areas where one ethnicity prevails. This is the case of Little India, where we slept, and Chinatown, that we explored a bit more in depth.

Chinatown changed a lot in recent years. Travelers who went there just ten years ago found it unrecognizable. A local guide had us walk in lots of back streets, where life used to happen. Tens of thousands of Chinese illegal immigrants used to live there, ending up as Rickshaw pullers or prostitutes. With a lot of skill, the guide summoned vivid images of their hard lives, dominated by exploitation, ruled by a strict society and eased only by heavy use of opium.

There are still remnants of those times though, such as isolated, disguised and still active brothels and local museums. Prostitution, in fact, is not completely illegal in Singapore. After the failure of prohibition, the government got more pragmatic and decided to regulate it instead of banning it. Brothels are allowed to exist only in designated areas, and Chinatown is one of these. Chinatown is unique in this though, because brothels open in that area have licenses that will expire with their owner, and they cannot be sold, and new ones are not granted. Therefore there are less and less, and the "faithful" customers get older and older, and so do the prostitutes inside. Perhaps not surprisingly, those brothels now close at 10pm.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

A fine city for shopping

Our original plan was to go through Cambodia on the Mekong river. We decided to change our plan. It turned out that the only affordable way to get to Thailand in an acceptable amount of time was to go through Singapore! I have always been curious about Singapore. It is a metropolis, a country, a little island, a commercial heaven and an amazing mix of cultures and technology.

Although the majority of people are Chinese, there is very little in common with the vibe of Chinese cities. The sky is reasonably clear, people are polite and the streets are absolutely spotless. There are plenty of rules regulating everything and an army of fines and punishments awaiting the trespassers. There are signs all around announcing such fines and that is probably why Singapore is such a Fine City.

It surely is a fine city for shopping! The Singaporean economy has brought the price of technology to very competitive prices, and the Singaporean government allows tourists to claim the taxes back on their shopping. Plus, we got in the city during a festival, that basically put the whole city on special sales! Only tourists had a chance to get free local food samplings and special discounts on pretty much anything!

We certainly took advantage of this and bought two computers and lots of accessories, ate a lot, and enjoyed this unique city, a blend of East and West.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Living on the edge of the Mekong river

From Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon), we took a few trips to the surrounding areas. One of them took us up the murky delta waters of the Mekong river. Located in the south of Vietnam, the river flows to the border with Cambodia and then onwards to other countries. We decided not to venture that far, since time constraints would have prevented us from seeing other places (and in fact getting home on time!). Still, we took a two day trip on the Mekong.

Since the beginning, the weather did not bless this trip. Heavy rain poured on us while we were on a small canoe and the only protection we had was our conic hat, which proved exceptionally useful both under the sun and under the rain.

We took refuge several times along the way under some cute huts, made with bamboo and leaves. There we could see the local production of coconut candies, taste some tea and tropical fruits, and see -again- how they make rice paper.

We stayed overnight with a family who lives in a big old house on one of the branches of the delta. At dinner we had some delicious vietnamese rice rolls, that we filled with herbs, vegetables, rice noodles and fried elephant fish, caught the same day from the neighbour who had a little fish farm. Mosquitoes were everywhere and their bites hurt like hell here, so we got to sleep on beds similar to the Chinese Qing style beds we had in Pingyao under a hanging cloth to be protected.

The next morning, after a nice sunrise walk on the edge of the river, we got a boat and went to the floating market. That's right! a whole market on the river, floating on boats, where customers and merchants move on their own little boats. You could recognize what each boat was selling from hanging samples of their products (e.g. Pineapples) on tall sticks in the back of the boat. That was fun!

Before heading back to the city, we had lunch with noodles and snake. The snake was heavily marinated, so it would be hard to tell what it tastes like... I'd say something like fish and in the mouth feels like chicken...?

Dalla principale citta' settentrionale del Vietnam, Saigon, abbiamo fatto un paio di viaggetti nei dintorni. Uno di questi viaggi ci ha portato nelle acque fangose del misterioso fiume Mekong. Situato al sud del Vietnam, percorrendo il fiume a ritroso si arriva fino nelle profondita' della Cambogia. Tuttavia, abbiamo deciso di non avventurarci cosi' lontano, a causa di limiti di tempo che ci avrebbero impedito di vedere altri posti. Ma lo stesso, abbiamo fatto una scampagnata di due giorni sul fiume.

Fin dall'inizio, il tempo non ci ha sorriso. Pioggia a catinelle ci ha accompagnati mentre eravamo su una piccola canoa e la sola protezione che avevamo era il nostro cappello conico, che si e' dimostrato eccezionale sia sotto il Sole sia sotto la pioggia.

Abbiamo trovato rifugio diverse volte presso il fiume sotto casupole di bamboo e foglie di banano. In questi posti abbiamo potuto visitare la produzione locale di caramelle fatte con latte di cocco, abbiamo provato del te' locale e frutta tropicale, ed abbiamo visto - di nuovo - come fanno la carta di riso.

Abbiamo dormito poi presso una famiglia locale che vive in una grande casa sulla sponda di uno dei rami del delta. A cena abbiamo mangiato dei deliziosi involtini vietnamiti, che abbiamo imbottito con spaghetti di riso, erbe, verdure e pesce elefante, direttamente pescato dal laghetto del vicino di casa. Le zanzare la facevano da padrona, ed i loro morsi qui fanno un male cane, per cui ci siamo addormentati sotto un baldacchino fatto di zanzariere, su un letto simile allo stile cinese della dinastia Qing su cui abbiamo dormito a Pingyao.

La mattina successiva, dopo una bella passeggiata sul fiume all'alba, abbiamo ripreso la barca e siamo andati al mercato galleggiante. Esatto! Un intero mercato costruito su navette e barchette, dove ciascun cliente deve navigare fino al mercante che gli interessa. I mercanti possono essere riconosciuti anche da lontano dato che appendono esempi dei loro prodotti su alti pali, sulla cima della nave. E' stato divertente!

Prima di tornare in citta', abbiamo fatto pranzo con spaghetti e serpente. La carne del serpente era pesantemente preservata e marinata per cui sarebbe difficile descriverne il sapore originale... Direi qualcosa come il sapore di pesce e la consistenza del pollo? (E no Andrea, anche se siamo in Tailandia non sapeva de Cocco!)

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Out of the wall

Finally we're outside the great firewall of China! We're in Vietnam! Yay! We spent two very quick days in Ha Noi, the capital city of Vietnam and a lot of differences immediately stroke us coming out of China.

First, maybe the most important: the Sun! Vietnam energy provision is not as heavily reliant on burning coal, or maybe the energy demand per person is much lower. But the fact is that the Sun is much brighter in this country, even in a polluted city such as Ha Noi. The side effect of the cleaner air is that people do not suffer from breathing problems like in China. Therefore they don't spit or snot on the ground as much!

Ha Noi is a pretty big city, but most of the streets feel like we are in a ultra-busy small town. Small lanes crowded with speeding scooters are the main landscape in the city centre, and crossing the street can involve several heart attacks. The right technique is to walk in front of the traffic slowly and staring at the coming people, making your way across the street. Never run to avoid the scooters, as such sudden movements are hard for them to read and could have disastrous effects. Even when not crossing, walking along the streets requires attention, because all sidewalks are completely used up by parked scooters, so people have to walk on the street.

Scooters are not just the main private medium of transport. They greatly outnumber taxis for public transport too. We got one to go to the ethnic museum after bargaining a lot. And when I say "we got one", I mean that on one scooter there was the driver, me and Suzie squeezing on the seat. Being in three is not that bad though. We even saw a family of five once on a single scooter. It was fun, except the driver had no idea where to go and got us lost. Plus, I burnt myself on the muffler. Hurray.

Fruit in Vietnam is really delicious, and coming from London the difference is so strong that it feels like I had eaten rubber fruit for two years. Actually... most food gets more tasty coming out of London...

We didn't actually do too much in Ha Noi. We couldn't skip the Ethnic Minorities Museum though, where we got to see the countless nationalities that live in Vietnam. Some are specialised in hunting, others in making hats but the important thing is that: the Viet grow rice, the Thai grow rice, the Miao grow rice, and so do the other 20 or so groups... I wonder why they have to specify that each single ethnic group grows rice since they all do!

In the evening we had dinner in a peculiar type of restaurant. It was mixed cuisine, Viet and western, and all cooks and waiters are very young people taken from the streets and trained to give them a better future. None of them were Suor Germana or Gordon Ramsay, but the food was ok and we felt like we did some good at the end of the night.

The timing for visiting Vietnam was probably not the best, as this is rainy season. And when I say rainy I don't mean those annoying drops that fall in London, not enough for an umbrella but enough to keep the mood grumpy. I mean the whole black sky falls down for about one hour, before the Sun shines again! These are the tropics!

Finalmente, siamo fuori dal firewall cinese! siamo in Vietnam! Abbiamo passato due giorni veloci ad Hanoi, capitale del Vietnam, e siamo stati colpiti da un sacco di cambiamenti rispetto la Cina.

Primo, forse il piu' importante... il Sole! La provvigione energetica vietnamita non si basa sul carbone o forse la richiesta per persona e' piu' bassa... fatto sta che il sole qui e' molto piu' brillante, perfino in una metropoli inquinata come Hanoi. Un'altro effetto dell'aria piu' pulita e' che la gente non soffre di problemi respiratori e quindi non scatarra per terra altrettanto!

Hanoi e' una citta' piuttosto grossa, ma la maggior parte delle strade la fanno sembrare un paesino affollato. Piccoli vicoli pieni di gente e di motorini sono il paesaggio tipico nel centro citta', e attraversare la strada puo' comportare piu' attacchi di cuore che metri attraversati. La tecnica corretta consiste nel camminare davanti al traffico lentamente e regolarmente, guardando attentamente se passare prima o dopo ciascun mezzo. Mai correre per evitare i mezzi, dato che i movimenti improvvisi sono difficili da prevedere, e potrebbero avere effetti disastrosi. Anche quando non si sta attraversando, camminare lungo la strada richiede una certa attenzione dato che tutti i marciapiedi sono interamente ricoperti di motorini parcheggiati e bisogna camminare sulla strada.

I motorini non sono soltanto un mezzo di trasporto privato, ma fungono anche da taxi. Ne abbiamo preso uno per andare al museo, e quando dico "ne abbiamo preso uno", intendo dire che eravamo in tre sul motorino, l'autista e noi due. Ma non e' poi tanto male. Abbiamo visto perfino famiglie di sei su un singolo sellino. E' stato divertente, eccetto che l'autista non aveva idea di dove andare e ha finito col farci perdere. In piu' mi sono bruciato il polpaccio con la marmitta dato che non c'erano poggiapiedi a sufficienza per tutti.

La frutta in Vietnam e' veramente deliziosa, e venendo da Londra la differenza diventa cosi' grande che sembra di aver mangiato gomma per due anni. In realta', la maggior parte dei prodotti freschi sono assolutamente piu gustosi di quelli inglesi.

Non abbiamo fatto poi granche' in Hanoi. Non ci siamo persi tuttavia il museo delle minoranze etniche, dove abbiamo potuto vedere le miriadi di nazionalita che convivono in Vietnam. Alcune sono specializzate nella caccia, altre nel fabbricare cappelli, ma la cosa piu importante e' che i Viet coltivano riso, i Thai coltivano riso, i Miao coltivano riso, gli Han coltivano riso, e cosi' fanno tutte le altre. Ora indovinate su cosa si e' basata la nostra dieta? Bravi.

In serata siamo andati a cenare in ristorante particolare. La cucina era mista, Vietnamita ed occidentale (e fin li nulla di strano, a Roma ho visto dei ristoranti indiani servire sushi), ma ciascun cuoco e cameriere erano giovani presi dalle strade ed addestrati perche' potessero avere un futuro migliore. Nessuno di loro era Suor Germana, o Gordon Ramsay, ma il cibo non era malaccio e ci siam sentiti di aver fatto qualcosa di buono.

La stagione in cui abbiamo visitato il Vietnam non e' probabilmente la migliore, e' la stagione delle piogge. E quando dico piogge non intendo quelle goccioline fastidiose che cadono a Londra, non abbastanza per aprire l'ombrello e troppe per arrivare a casa asciutto. Voglio dire che qui in mezz'ora cade l'intero cielo nero in terra, prima che il Sole splenda poi di nuovo. Questi sono i tropici!