Category: Food

Wat Xienthong

Impressions of Luang Prabang

28/1 – 11/2/2019

 

After tiring flight from Auckland via Singapore on Singapore Airlines and SilkAir (SQ’s regional subsidiary), I arrived in the small city of Luang Prabang. 

As soon as you arrive, you know it’s small. The airport terminal building is one of the smallest I have landed in.  I think a 737 or a 320 is the largest aircraft that could be accommodated.  Immigration formalities and baggage collection (combined) took place in an area the size of a medium-sized business class lounge. One pays a fixed price in US Dollars + a $1 service charge for their Lao visa.  As an American, I paid $35+$1. Canadians pay one of the highest fees at $42. Poor fellows.

 

I changed a crisp Benjamin for 857,000 kip, a rather good rate. With some pocket money, I went over to the taxi desk where you pay 50k for a fixed-price ride into town.  Not the cheapest I have taken, as it’s only 5km, but whatever.

 

As you might expect, I was surprised when the people sitting next to me on the Silkair flight in town were in the cab along with another lady. We joked that a 200,000 kip cab (US$23.35) is exceptionally profitable. Whatever. C’est la guerre.

 

In a short time, I was in front of my Chinese-owned guesthouse, in its own way a tiny constituent part of China’s global “belt and road” activities. It was interesting having to use my rudimentary Chinese skills to explain how I booked and paid (Airbnb).  Meeting the other (mostly) Chinese guests was a rare glimpse for me into the on-the-ground realities. The guests were here for the future China-Laos railroad.

 

My guesthouse was almost on the Mekong, so I went for a stroll along the river to stretch my legs.  Many small “restaurants” are directly on the water’s edge.  They are little more than a small patio with a dozen or so tables, a stall with coolers/fridges of drinks, and a small kitchen across the street handling food prep.  The views, particularly at sunset, are incredible.  “My” little one does well-priced beer and tasty local food – mostly simple curries, rice, noodles, barbecue, and dessert.

The temples in Luang Prabang aren’t exactly large. I found that I never spent more than 20-30 minutes in any one, and that includes going up and down Mt Phousi.  Nonetheless, they are pleasant oases from the tuk-tuks and commerce in the streets.  Some are free to enter, while others are 10-20,000 kip.  The National Museum (aka Royal Palace) was an interesting visit for me, though I chuckled at the royal car collection. Three cars were gifts of the US government (I suspect to curry favor with any non-communist in the region) – two Lincoln Continentals and a Ford Edsel. Good God…why? Shouldn’t a diplomatic gift showcase your nation’s craftsmanship and esteem for the recipient?   

Wat Xienthong
Wat Xienthong

I do want to add a note about the money changers.  Yesterday, I went to exchange kip to US dollars to get some small denominations ahead of my Siem Reap trip. I found a booth selling dollars for 8,600 kip, the best rate in town.  I presented her with 817,000 kip – $95.  She tries to give me $91. After her English skills dramatically collapse when presented with mathematical reality, she hands me back the 817,000 and shoos me away. It’s 3pm, I am not a stoned/drunk gap yah, and I am one of billions that carries a multifunctional calculator (phone) in my pocket.  Not. Going. To. Work.

 

Much more common is the scam when you are buying local currency, and they slip 20,000 kip notes in lieu of 50,000. Every one of those they can fraudulently tender is worth approximately US$4.

 

Café lovers rejoice. Luang Prabang is loaded with options to enjoy coffee as well as Lao/SE Asian or Western food. My two favorites, unoriginally, are Joma and Saffron. Joma is a Canadian owned micro-chain in SE Asia and serves up a pretty healthy menu if you need a break from more indulgent or oil-laden local fare.

 

Breakfast at Zurich Bread cafe

Overall, the charm of this town is its sleepiness. There’s not much here.  The bars are shut by 11 or 11:30 at night.  The attractions are fairly simple (Kuang si waterfall is the most time-consuming, where you’ll want a half-day at least). Come here to rest, rejuvenate, think, reflect, etc.  I should add that if you’re coming from Thailand, Laos will feel as if you’re paying more for less in terms of food, transport, and accommodation.  If you like to sleep in, find lodging on a side street.  Lao people start their day early, and the street noise would have woken me by 6:30 AM if I weren’t up already.  Late risers, consider yourself warned.

Buddhists collecting alms at daybreak

Addedum: After a booking issue with my guesthouse, I moved to the Luang Prabang River Lodge Boutique, a small and charming hotel run by a Lao couple. I could look out my window and see the Mekong or go downstairs and enjoy coffee while banging away at the keyboard.

Picture of inari sushi and fresh salad

My Hosts Threw a Dinner Party: ‘Twas Lit

As I was tapping away at my keyboard, my host Hiro-san told me that a friend was coming from his home area – Toyama. This friend was going to bring freshly caught local fish and treat us to a sashimi dinner. I asked Hiro, “what fish is your area famous for?” 

 

“Buri (yellowtail/Hamachi) and aji (horse mackerel).”

 

Well butter my biscuits, err, teriyaki my chicken. Those are my favorite sushi/sashimi fish. Ever.

 

On the day, I realized that showing up empty-handed with an appetite rivalling the Sarlacc would be in poor taste. The Friend, Masa-san, turned up early in the day in time for the fish to arrive from Toyama. A crate of flying fish, aji, and the buri was in front of me – fresh caught the morning before and couriered to Tokyo. They smelled faintly of a sea breeze and looked incredible versus the fish I’d see at a US market.

 

 Knowing that Hiro-san would furnish the sake and Masa-san the fish, I opted to wander through the nearby Matsuya Department Store’s food halls in search of a dessert. The cream cakes seemed intensely heavy given the amount of sake and seafood we’d be having. A suitably sized lemon “Baumkuchen” (Forest Cake in German – basically a ring cake) presented itself. Marvelous. That would be a light treat to finish off what was promising to be a heavily-laden dinner table.

 

Our night began with a beer toast (when in Rome Tokyo!) and a kampei to Masa-san who’d be preparing the fish. The other guests furnished fruit, onirigi (rice balls), Scotch eggs (!!!), salad, BBQ chicken, and teriyaki bacon over the course of the night.

Masa-san joining us for a bit

 

Sparkling wine appeared, and Masa-san got down to work on the flying fish, doing a preparation of curing the sashimi in seaweed and putting it in the fridge. It would be ready when we forgot about it, he said. In the meantime, there was bubbly to attend to.

The master at work!

 

Hiro-san’s wife Erica had prepared inari-zushi – sushi rice packed in a bean curd pocket. Her variant used a special recipe of her mother’s that incorporated shrimp, green onion, and a little more mirin for a slightly sweet touch. They made for a delicious appetizer.

 

At this point, the sake came out. It was a balanced (between floral and dry) daiginjo (top quality) that had been specially bottled as a gift for when Hiro and Erica had opened Chapter Two back in March. Erica also started taking a collection of ¥1000 (US$9.12) per person to help cover Masa-san’s costs. Given what I saw in that box, I gladly chipped in.

 

Hiro displaying a bottle of Chapter 2 sake
Hiro-san and the Chapter 2 sake

And now it was aji-time! Aji is rather uncommon stateside, but it’s a sushi bar standard here in Japan. It tends to be inexpensive (¥150-200 per order at a normal-ish place). My guess is that it’s a nutritional goldmine considering its protein and fat content, while the small size of the fish means that it would be very low mercury (relative to a tuna). Yes, this is what I ponder during a party. 

Picture of inari sushi and fresh salad

For our next course in our Japanese dinner party adventure, Masa-san grilled a couple of the aji.  As great as the sashimi was, the cold-water richness of the aji really came through when pan fried with a wee bit of salt.  

 

The texture and taste were sublime – melt-in-the-mouth goodness with a freshness that you don’t find at Samurai Sushi & Steakhouse in Strip Mall, America. It emerged later in the night that when all was said and done, the aji was the crowd favorite.

 

At around 8:30 p.m., Nishi-san arrives bearing the Scotch eggs and teriyaki bacon. Total bro. Immediately, I like this guy. After a number of drinks, he complimented myself and another American Kevin on our wisdom in not rushing to get married. Oh, how I restrained myself, my reader. I didn’t feel like interrupting Masa-san (who lived in the Bay Area) to help with the idiomatic translation of “In the gay world, why buy the pig when it’s practically begging you indulge yourself for free?”

 

TERIYAKI BACON
TERIYKAI BACON

 

Having narrowly avoided traumatizing Nishi-san and Kevin, the buri was ready. Ah, buri. We go way back. I’ve been responsible for the demise of many of this fish’s kin over the years. Again, it’s a textural marvel.  Notably, this buri is wild-caught. In the US, yellowtail/hamachi is farmed. I found the wild caught buri of tonight to be of a firmer, meatier texture as opposed to the more buttery imported, farmed hamachi. 

Nishi-san giving Kevin (both left) and me the facts of life.

 

Oh the happy plateau. Masa-san took a quick break to enjoy some food, and Erica produced a bottle of nigori (unfiltered) sake after hearing that I wanted to try it. I had mentioned this to Masa-san when he was questioning me on my experience with Japanese food much earlier in the day. I was in full bashful mode at the thoughtfulness.   It speaks volumes of Hiro and Erica’s thoughtfulness. 

 

So, I sipped the nigori and was regaled with tales from Hiro and Erica’s guests – including two volunteer teachers who taught in Gabon, pre-war Syria, and Djibouti. I rapidly concluded that Hiro and Erica have interesting friends.

 

The fun soon continued when Masa took some leftover buri and produced a full-grilled version as well as aburi (seared) sashimi. Had I managed to go to heaven without the messy dying bit! I thought so.

 

To go with it, the final item was a bowl of fish soup (the soup having a heavy pour of sake in it) passed around the table, each of us taking a draught as if it were the Holy Grail. 

 

Three fish soup at the end of the night
Finale Soup

 

Finally, it was dessert time. My cake and Kevin’s cherries disappeared right quick. This wasn’t surprising, as both were delicious. Seeing that the mass of plates, glasses, and chopsticks in quantities more commonly seen in a military mess hall, I decided that Erica and one of the other ladies who attended could use some extra manpower in the cleanup, which they appreciated. 

 

By 12:45, I was a dead man, not even walking. I had been up since 5 AM, so I bid everyone goodnight (oyasumi) and marveled at my awesome, unplanned night.

Categories: Digital Nomad Dining Food

Miami & Key West – Trip Report – Part I

Behold, my inaugural post!

 

On a sunny March morning, I began my trip to south Florida – I was booked for a long weekend in Miami and Key West.  This particular trip mixed a bit of the old and the new.  I cashed in a stash of Hilton Honors points for a night at the Conrad Miami downtown and the Casa Marina resort in Key West. Further, I looked forward to meeting B – a digital nomad temporarily resident in Key West. How would St Patrick’s in Key West be?

 

My drive down to Miami was quite uneventful. The Florida Turnpike, while visually uninteresting, is never boring. The uninhabited stretch between Kissimmee and Fort Pierce usually sees traffic moving at 80-90 mph, versus the speed limit of 70. Mein Chariot (named Duncan) eagerly obliged.

 

Whenever I pass through Palm Beach County, I make an effort to stop at an Indian restaurant for lunch, Aroma. They specialize in southern Indian cuisine, and their lunch buffet is always excellent.  Chicken 65, baigan bharta, veggie biriyani, and kheer is the lunch of the gods. After 4 hours of driving, the lunch is a great little reminder that the end of the journey is near.  Miami is another 2 hours away.

 

I hop back on the turnpike and then merge into I-95, taking advantage of the express lanes (yay Sunpass!). As always, I had written down the directions on paper. While I can refer to my shorthand-directions, I find that the act of physically writing them commits them to memory.  Why do I bother? I religiously avoid using a mobile phone while driving (seemingly unique, especially in Florida), and I lost the navigation disks for the car. C’est la guerre.

 

I managed to not utterly cock up the process of getting into the Brickell neighborhood. In short order, I had off my car to the valet.  For an extra $9, I’ll let them deal with the parking garage at rush hour (it was now 5:30).

 

The Conrad Miami sports an interesting configuration. The street level houses the concierge and valet desk.  You go up the elevators to the check-in desk on the 25th floor (also where you’ll find the bar and restaurant).  I was given an upgraded Bay (of Biscayne) view room on the 18th floor.  Down I go in a separate bank of elevators.

 

After unwinding in the invigoratingly cold pool, I decided to take a stroll around Brickell. The neighborhood is very pleasant, and in an alternate life, I would not object to living there.  After a little repast of sushi at Doraku in the nearby and bustling The Shops at Mary Brickell village, it was time to unwind and sleep.

 

The next day, I went for a pleasant walk with Andrew, a fellow I met on Grindr.  I grabbed an Earl Grey tea for myself and a coffee for him from the self-serve complimentary coffee bar at the Conrad. We seemed to click. It’s rare I can talk cogently with anyone on about Venezuelan economic-collapse-politics, data analytics/methodologies, and hilarious sights around us.  Such is the joy of meeting other gay internet strangers.  The farewell smooching on US-1 was nice.

 

Thoroughly perked up by such PG-hijinks, I summoned my car, tipped the valet, and was soon off towards Key West.  I took the Turnpike towards Homestead, FL where it connects with US-1.

 

 – James out!

 

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