Monthly Archives: April 2010

Stupas of Nepal

There is not much respite from the chaos of the Kathmandu streets.  Ducking into a small tea shop or a used bookstore is always a good option, but for a quick urban getaway, try exploring the many stupas of the city.  Stupas, both small and large, are tucked in many hidden nooks (of which there are many) in Kathmandu.  Just when you least expect to find one, a looming white dome painted with Buddha eyes pops out of nowhere. So, what are these stupas?  What are their religious significance in Nepal and in other countries in Asia?

Components of a Stupa:

A stupa in the heart of Kathmandu.

There are several components of a Nepali stupa. Stupas can also be found in other regions of Asia like Sri Lanka, India and Thailand, and they are all slightly different.  The following components are very distinctly Nepali.

The stupa consists of a white dome that is often recovered with layers of whitewash to keep it looking fresh and bright. Out of the top of the dome comes a decorated, golden spire-like structure.  At the base of the golden spire is painted a set of mystical, half-closed Buddha eyes. Lengths of colorful prayer flags cascade down from the top of the spire to the surrounding edges. One many of the stupa domes, there are arcs of dried yellow paint.  Surrounding the base of the stupa are rows of carved prayer wheels, which spin when turned.  Devotees walk around the stupa spinning the prayer wheels as they go. Some Buddhists even do prostrations around the stupa. Rows of butter lamps burn near the stupa, which are lit be visitors or monks. Visitors can give the groundskeeper or monk a donation, and they will light a butter lamp for you.

A collection of lit butter lamps at a stupa in Nepal.

A monk refills butter lamps outside a stupa.

Trekking in Northern Laos

Trek

Trekking routes in Northern Laos remain virtually untouched by tourists.

Traveling in Asian cities is an undeniable thrill. The food, the nightlife, the chaos and the people make wandering through Asia’s big cities like Hanoi and Bangkok an endless maze of discovery. But, for many of us, experiencing the true soul of a country means getting out of the cities and getting into the more rural places. Especially for countries like Thailand and Laos, which house vast hills and deep jungles, experiencing these places means further understanding the country. A fun and exhilarating way to experience the hills, jungles and forests of Asia is to trek through them. Trekking tours are often led by a guide who speaks the local language and can easily set up lodging and meals. While some travelers prefer to trek alone, traveling through rural parts of Asia with a guide is a very good choice. Being able to communicate with other locals through an interpreter makes the experience all the richer.

Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai have become trekking hot-spots over the past decade. Travelers are drawn to these two Northern Thailand cities because of their easy access to trekking routes and jungle trails. For the truly adventurous who want to surpass Northern Thailand and find a trekking route that is largely untouched by tourists, there is one great option: trekking in Northern Laos.

One of the main starting points for a trek Northern Laos is the city of Phongsali. Phongsali is a tiny town nestled high in the hills near the Chinese border. The town has a distinctly sleepy vibe: there are few cars or motorbikes, dogs wander around the streets and the few restaurants in the town close around 9 pm (a warning to late-night snackers!) The town, due to its proximity to China, is home to many Chinese settlers who came to Northern Laos to start businesses. Chinese snacks and beer have an equal representation to Laos foods in the restaurants.

Getting to Phongsali:

Getting to Phongsali is not easy and is not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. The journey entails a 9 hour+ bus ride from Oudomxai, a busting and slightly-mediocre Chinese trading town. The local bus station is close by most of the guesthouses, so catching transport North is easy and cheap. Be aware that if there aren’t enough passengers who buy a ticket, the bus company will simply cancel the route until the next day. This means you should be ready to spend a day or two in Oudomxai.

The bus ride from Oudomxai takes a full day, with several stops included for restroom breaks and food. The road is mostly un-paved, which makes for a very bumpy ride. The roads are very windy, but the scenery is spectacular. The road passes by dozens of tiny traditional Laos villages dotted with small thatched-roof huts. The rest stops are quick, but the small vendors are equipped to satisfy hungry travelers. Most sell packets of sticky rice (white and black), grilled meat (anything from chicken to rat) and soft drinks.

Once you arrive in Phongsali, you’ll need to take a motorbike taxi into town, or else walk with your bags for about 30 minutes.

Arranging the Trek:

There aren’t many tour agencies (maybe one or two) in town, but it’s easy to find them and arrange your trek. Hiring a trekking guide is highly recommended for treks in this area. Most need to be accessed by a boat, which is difficult to figure out without a guide. The guides know the best starting and stopping points for the boat and can arrange for a boat to pick you up and take you back to town after the trek is over. Trekking solo in this region would be extremely difficult and is only recommended for highly experienced trekkers and mountaineers. The trails are often not clear because of the light foot-traffic and getting lost in Northern Laos would be easy, and would likely have disastrous results. You are likely going to be paying about $25 USD per day for a trek in Northern Laos with a trekking guide. This should include transportation, the guide’s services, food along the way and lodging during the trek. It is also highly recommended that before you depart, you leave anything of value with the hotel. Trekking guides in this area have been known to steal money from trekkers’ bags in the middle of the night.

*Travel Tip: Leave your valuables at your hotel before you depart!

The Trek:

Trekking in Northern Laos is sometimes strenuous, but is also an amazing window into the cultures and the hill tribes would call these hills home. Depending on the length of your trek, you will see between five and fifteen different Akha villages. The Akha people, who inhabit the Northern Laos hills, are also spread out between Myanmar, China and Northern Thailand (Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai area).

Southeast Asia’s Best Coffee

Caffeine addicts will have no reason to fret while traveling in Southeast Asia.  Delicious, heavenly, earth-shatteringly good coffee is never more than a stone’s throw away.  Coffee in Southeast Asia, which is often sold by vendors on the street, is much different than what Westerners may be used to. Coffee sizes in the U.S. generally are between 12 ounces (smallest) to 20 ounces (largest). Even a 12 ounce coffee is gargantuous compared to coffee cups in Southeast Asia. Two of the best places for coffee in the region are Singapore and Vietnam.

Vietnamese Coffee

*Travel language tip: Make sure to specify which variety of coffee you want when ordering.

Coffee: “cà phê” (ca-fe)

Iced-Coffee: “cà phê s?a ?á” (ca-fe-sooa-da)

Coffee

Vietnamese Coffee Set (import.com)

History:

Vietnamese coffee is world famous for its rich, buttery flavor.  The country hasn’t been a coffee growing and exporting hub, for the French colonialists introduced the drink to Vietnam in the 19th century.  Now, Vietnam exports hundreds of thousands of tons of coffee every year and is the number two coffee exporting country in the world.

Where to find it:

Vietnamese coffee is almost as ubiquitous in the country as are steaming bowls of pho. Coffee vendors often line the streets and tiny cafes are tucked away in all corners of Vietnamese cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Keep your eyes peeled for people sitting on small plastic stools around vendor carts. For a more laid back coffee experience, try one of the street vendors. The coffee is guaranteed to be cheap and delicious. For a more restaurant-like experience, find a cafe. Cafes in Vietnam, which also serve a smattering of sweet pastries, have a very French vibe. If you were to close your eyes for a moment, it would be easy to image yourself sitting at a street-side cafe in Paris.

Vietnamese Coffee Filter (via importfood.com)

How It’s Made:

Vietnamese coffee is often served complete with a Vietnamese metal coffee filter on top of the cup (See image above). Beans are ground and placed in the cup-like apparatus with holes in the bottom. The metal filter is placed on top of the cup and water is poured in. The coffee slowly trickles down to the cup below. This is truly fresh coffee: watching it brew right before your eyes.

Sweet Milk:

Coffee with sweet milk

Coffee with sweet milk (via ehow.com)

Although you can get your coffee black, most Vietnamese prefer theirs with sweet milk mixed in. The sweet milk (also known as condensed milk) is a syrupy and creamy, and makes the coffee incredibly sweet. Sweet tooths will rejoice, but those who prefer their coffee black might be taken aback at the extreme sweetness of Vietnamese coffee.  The vendor will serve the cup with sweet milk already at the bottom, so when the coffee is done filtering you can simply stir it up and enjoy.

Singaporean Coffee

*Travel language tip: Make sure to specify whether you want black coffee or coffee with milk when ordering.

Singaporean coffee, similar to Vietnamese coffee, packs a big punch in a small package.  The coffee shop, also known as a “kopi tiam,” is about as ubiquitous in Singapore as shiny high rises and sparkling Mercedes taxis.  Kopi tiams can be found in the bottom floors of office buildings, in malls, in hawker centers, in MRT stations, on street corners and in bookstores.  In a word, you’re probably never more than a block away from coffee while in Singapore.

Unique Beans:

Although not all kopi tiams uphold this method, coffee beans in Singapore are traditionally roasted with butter to enhance the flavor and oily qualities that make the taste incredibly rich.  Once the beans are roasted, they are brewed in a metal pot to create a powerful, black elixir.  The price for a mug full of Singaporean coffee is very reasonable, depending on where the kopi tiam is located, a cup could cost anywhere from 25 cents to $1.50 (USD).

How To Order:

(from numbnymph.blogspot.com)

There are specific ways that coffee must be order to get the desired brew.  Singaporean coffee traditionally either comes black or with sweet, condensed milk.  It you want to  consume in the kopi tiam or hawker center, it will be served in a glass mug that will be collected when you leave.  The other option is to order the coffee “to-go” if you’d like to drink it on the run to school or to work.  Here is how to properly order your drink:

Black coffee (no sugar, no sweet milk):  “kopi-O” (ko-pee)

Black coffee with sugar and sweet milk: “kopi”

Coffee to-go (will be served in a plastic bag): “kopi-O take-away”