The trip had been planned for almost a year. My friend Tommy organized the entire shebang; I was just a grateful-to-be-invited tagalong. The countries on our itinerary are places I have longed to see for much of my life: Thailand, Myanmar (formerly Burma), and Cambodia. When you are already enamored of a people and their cuisine, it is inevitable that you will fall more deeply in love when you are immersed in their culture.
We were four people, with strict self-imposed limits of one carry-on bag each. This was wise and prudent as our travels would entail a total of 12 plane rides in two weeks. Ironically, the only major screwup was in America, courtesy of United Airlines, which cost two of us a day and night in Bangkok, but gave us a full day and night in Narita, Japan. This day we spent exploring by foot in pouring rain, visiting a temple and sampling the local delicacy of grilled eel.
Bangkok was beautiful, hot, and very entertaining. It was something to see the massive effort put into Christmas decorations for the visiting Westerners. Our first hotel on the Chao Phraya River had a huge Christmas tree in the lobby composed entirely of baby’s breath blossoms, tiny white chrysanthemums, and sparkly stars. It also served one of the best breakfasts, a buffet of exotic fruits, rich custards, dim sum, noodles, omelets, fried rice, and the requisite dry cereals, bacon, and sausage for the less adventurous guests.
It can seem a little off-putting at first to start your day with oily fried rice full of porky cracklins topped with fried shallots, fish sauce loaded with sliced garlic and fiery bird chilis . . . accompanied by a regular old cup of joe. But this early wake-up call for our taste buds became a daily addiction.
After a visit to the Grand Palace, built by King Rama I in 1782 and home of the Emerald Buddha, we had our first introduction to pomelo salad with shredded chicken, a dish so light and refreshing it was the first thing I attempted to duplicate upon my return.
In spite of the Christmas decorations everywhere we went it was easy to forget what day it was and that we were away from home with holidays looming. On Christmas Eve we dined at a restaurant called Banh Kanitha, where I turned my friends on to my favorite dessert of all time, sticky rice with mango. It is essentially warm, lightly salty sticky rice topped with a sweet warm coconut milk sauce and surrounded with cool slices of ripe mango.º
Next stop, Yangon in Myanmar. At this point, we were accompanied by our awesome guide MinMin, who recommended a barbecue “restaurant” within walking distance of our hotel. This place was essentially a huge open-air garage with dogs and cats skulking between your legs and cars driving between the tables. A mysterious array of animal body parts and odd green vegetables were on display. You point at what you want, they cook it, you eat it. I’m pretty sure we had quail, okra, shrimp stuffed with ground pork, and something resembling beef negimaki — thin slices of beef wrapped around scallions and grilled. Every single table around us had a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red and water. This appeared to be the drink of choice with mystery meats.
Whenever we had an early flight to catch, the hotels would provide a boxed breakfast. This was always a carbohydrate lover’s dream. One morning it was three sweet pastries, half of a buttered cheese sandwich, and cake. The greatest surprise was that even at 5 or 6 a.m. in the airports, someone would be serving up a variety of dumplings with chili sauces.
Myanmar was my favorite country of the entire trip. The people are gracious, the food a revelation, the temples, stupas, and pagodas breathtaking. We had been warned ahead of time that no credit cards are accepted and only fresh, crisp, brand-spanking-new U.S. dollars are used for currency. There is no cellphone service and access to the Internet slow and spotty.
We visited bronze casting factories, lacquerware workshops, watched silk and lotus weaving, 24-karat gold-leaf pounding, peanut oil production, and jaggery sugar making. The workers were always young children or elderly women. The country is largely agricultural, the rivers and valleys providing fish, produce, and even wine.
Some of the local delicacies we tried would be impossible to duplicate, such as pennywort salad. The pennywort leaves, which resemble nasturtium leaves without the peppery bite, must be grown in a tropical environment. The leaves were combined with a bit of garlic, shrimp powder, shallots, toasted chickpea flour, and crushed peanuts. Another traditional salad is laphet thoke, a fermented green tea salad with toasted sesame seeds, roasted soybeans, wedges of tomato, shredded cabbage, garlic, lime juice, and fish sauce. Green papaya salad, which can easily be duplicated here, was sold at every single temple, street corner, and market we went to, all of the ingredients piled high and ready to be assembled to order.
Each of us was drawn to particular dishes. For Mike it was fish amok, a rich combination of white fish with vegetables and spices cooked in a banana leaf with coconut milk. For Fra it was any healthy vegetable preparation, for Tommy, all manner of salty and unidentifiable meats, for me, just about everything. And yes, at some point, one or the other of us may have gotten the “green apple quick step” as my mother used to so delicately call it.
By New Year’s Eve we were staying on Inle Lake, traveling by thin, long boats propelled by engines that shriek like go-carts. There was a compulsory dinner, expensive compared to all of our $25 meals for four, and it was almost comical in its splendor and excess. After a Shan dance performance by beautiful girls from a nearby university, we were served scallops and caviar, foie gras terrine, lobster cappuccino, venison, a cheese platter, and the ubiquitous molten chocolate cake.
Another memorable meal was lunch at a pizza restaurant in the middle of a forest by a river. The owner was thrilled to be able to offer Italian food and gave me a tour of the kitchen. He was also most proud that he could offer what to his mind were the three most important features of a successful restaurant: a bathroom, clean water, a kitchen. The fundamental things that we take for granted were his greatest achievements. The kitchen was, like most, open to the elements with dogs and cats wandering in and out. The tomato sauce was bubbling in a tiny pot on a one-burner electric “stove.” The pizza was delicious, topped with fresh basil and oregano they were growing outside in a dusty red-clay garden.
Our next stop was Siem Reap in Cambodia to see Angkor Wat. Like hundreds and hundreds of other people, we woke up early to witness the sunrise over this largest religious monument in the world. Built between 1113 and 1150 during the reign of Suryavarman II, Angkor Wat is considered a completely realized microcosm of the Hindu universe.
Everyone was waiting with cameras ready, outside the moat. Our foursome noticed that, in fact, there were clouds on the horizon and there would be no spectacular sunrise with the gray peaks of the temple reflected in the water. So we wandered into the massive galleries all alone, no guards, no police, no other tourists. We were able to explore each wing with carvings depicting the victory of Krishna over Bana, the churning of the Sea of Milk, heavens and hells, and many, many, many battles. It was still a bit dark outside, making the solitary tour both spooky and spiritual.
This trip with friends was 95 percent educational. We were always up at the crack of dawn ready to explore until late in the evening. My companions are so much more well-traveled than I. As a matter of fact, Fra is a professional travel guide. Mike was the best of us at trying to learn at least a little bit of the language in each country so he could say hello and thank you to everyone. He also took to wearing the traditional longyi, although it seemed to come untied and slide off his hips every 10 minutes. Tommy, who will admit this himself, has a short attention span (hence the 12 plane rides), and he was my partner in crime in finding the next best meal when we had tired of golden temples, austere monasteries, stupas, pagodas, and palaces.
Me, I was just enormously grateful to be included on this adventure of history, religion, ancient wars, and cultures. The people, sights, and tastes will remain with me forever. Arigato, Japan! Kob khun ka, Thailand, chei-zu tin-bar-te, Myanmar, and som orkun, Cambodia!