Scenes from Bangkok’s Chinatown (part 2 of 3): Food

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All photos in this post are the author’s own

By Steve Fisher

When I wrote the tagline for this blog (“Thoughts on travel through this world”) I had a double meaning in mind. The most obvious of course is travel in the regular sense – in some of the posts I imagined sharing thoughts and photography on various places I travel.

However, I also like the Buddhist idea of this life as a world we travel through. I never imagined that this would be just a travel blog. I love this idea of life as a journey and from the beginning I imagined sharing thoughts on life, as a journey through this world. I planned to write about both travel and life, and also about the connections between them.

For me at least there are some neat parallels between life and travel in this world. First, with both I think it’s essential to enjoy the road, and not delay gratification until the destination.

And with life as with travel, it’s extremely helpful to do some planning and have an objective in mind. Where are we going? What are the steps to get there? On the other hand, we don’t want to be overly rigid. In both travel and life, it’s really helpful to take stock from time to time and make adjustments as necessary.

In both life and while traveling I sometimes ask myself, “Fisher, where are we? How do things look? Everything good? Or do we need to make some changes?” In travel and life more generally I find this sort of self-reflection extremely helpful.

And both travel and life, if done with some purpose and direction, involve continuous growth and new experiences.

Everyday is a journey.

I lived in and near Bangkok for about a year just before I moved to Saigon last autumn, and one of my favorite places there is Chinatown. When I’m in the city, I love to spend a half day on Sat or Sun in this area. Sometimes I’ll go with a friend or the street food Meetup I started in Bangkok. Other times I’ll go on my own with nothing more than my camera, a big bottle of water and a general plan – for example, find some great street food, take good photos and chat with locals.

Here in the second post on Bangkok’s Chinatown I share my best food photos from this great part of the city.

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(Above 8 photos) My favorite Chinatown noodle shops. One bowl is generally 30-40 Thai baht (0.75-1 USD)

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(Above 12 photos) Thailand (like most of Asia) is not an easy place for vegetarians, but Thai food is generally quite healthy, as is the cuisine in Vietnam, where I live now. In both countries the local food is amazing and eating it almost exclusively has definitely helped me stay in shape. The dishes above cost between 40-60 Thai baht (1-1.50 USD) for a plate.

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(Above 3 photos) You see sidewalk coffee stands like this everywhere in Thailand. With little overhead, the drinks are really cheap, about 20-30 Thai baht (0.50-0.75 USD) for a large espresso based drink. Thai style coffee is even cheaper but I’m not a fan because it’s made from instant coffee, artificial creamer and other processed ingredients.

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(Above 2 photos) Freshly squeezed juice stands are everywhere in Bangkok. Here are two in Chinatown. A large juice is about 40 baht (1 USD).

 

 

Scenes from Ha Giang – Defying Death on a Winding Mountain Road

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Just last week, in my other post about motorbiking around the mountains in northern Vietnam in the first half of November, I wrote that motorbiking around Southeast Asia isn’t inherently dangerous and that the risks can be largely mitigated by safe driving. In 3 years of riding around Bali, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam there have been some hair raising experiences though. I can’t share these photos of the mountains around Ha Giang, in the far north of Vietnam near the border with China, without relating one terrifying tale because it had a big impact on these photos.

On my first full day in Ha Giang, I was driving up the first mountain pass outside of the city when I found myself stuck behind an SUV, which was itself closely tailgating and desperately trying to pass a big ass truck (BAT) slowly moving up the steep and winding mountain road. I was enjoying the stunning scenery and not at all anxious to go faster, but the BAT was blocking much of my view and I was open to passing IF a safe opportunity presented itself. As I noted, all the actors in this story are moving up a steep, winding mountain road (see the top few photos below).

In person, the people I’ve encountered traveling and living in Southeast Asia are among the most friendly I’ve ever met. Behind the wheel or on a motorbike though they transform into aggressive strongmen, asserting their dominance over other drivers and pedestrians. The bigger the vehicle, the more powerful and menacing the strongman.

In developed countries, traffic is more or less governed by the rule of law. Think Sweden. In Vietnam and other countries in this region, drivers are more like rival warlords aggressively battling for dominance in a failed state. Think Somalia.

Like women and children in a country torn apart by civil war, pedestrians, cyclists and those on small motorbikes are the weakest and most vulnerable in this broken, battle-torn society. I’m always a lowly peasant as I walk a lot in Saigon and never rent anything larger than a 125 cc bike on my travels.

Back to the BAT tailgated by the SUV followed, much more cautiously, by me on a small Honda bike making our slow and winding way up this mountain near the border with China. Desperately wanting to pass, the SUV begins honking its horn loudly at the BAT, “Move over, Big Ass Truck, and let me pass!!” Minor warlords are not supposed to behave this way. I imagine it’s punished severely in Somalia or Afghanistan. In the US, with its out-of-control gun culture, it can probably get you shot. Happily, the BAT moved to the far right so the SUV could pass and the incident ended peacefully.

It’s what happened next that got my spine-tingling. When the BAT moved to the right, I took the opportunity to pass as well, after carefully looking to the left of both vehicles to make sure I had enough visibility and that there was no oncoming traffic (unbelievable as it seems most local drivers don’t do this!)

I’m pretty sure it was out of a general obliviousness toward the weak and the vulnerable, and not at all from any sense of maliciousness, but the BAT moved back toward the center of the road (the natural place for a BAT in this social system) and forced me off the road.

I was never in serious personal danger – I swear! – but the maneuver sent my camera (a Canon EOS 760d) flying out of my backpack and onto the road. Miraculously, the camera body survived and the Sigma telephoto lens still worked in manual focus mode, but the impact broke the lens’ autofocus motor.

I will need to buy a new lens soon but Ha Giang is the sort of small, charming provincial town where it’s difficult to find even basic toiletries like shaving cream. It’s not a place to shop for a DSLR lens. The encounter with the BAT was just a couple hours into my first day of riding in the mountains around Ha Giang so almost all of these photos were taken in old school manual focus mode, by turning the lens’ manual focus ring for each shot.

Which do you like better, the high speed autofocus shots of Sapa I shared last week, or these photos of Ha Giang taken with my wounded but still working lens?

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Don’t die, but also try to live – motorbiking the mountains of Vietnam

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All photos in this post are the author’s own

By Steve Fisher

I spent the first half of November motorbiking around the mountains in the north of Vietnam, including the areas around Sapa and Ha Giang near the border with China. In a country full of natural beauty, this area is one of the most spectacular, and I have lots of photos and thoughts to share.

Does motorbiking around the mountains in Vietnam strike you as dangerous? It can be, but crossing the street is potentially perilous as well, particularly if you look at your phone while doing it. For me at least, life is not worth living if I need to huddle in my room to feel completely safe.

The real risk in life, I think, is not doing what we want to do. 

The French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote that “all men’s miseries arise from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” Having motorbiked around Bali, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, I can tell you that almost all deaths and injuries from motorbike crashes arise from driving too fast, using a mobile phone while driving, not wearing a helmet, driving while intoxicated and other forms of stupidity.

Avoid stupidity, avoid death.

No matter how carefully you drive, however, there is of course the troublesome problem of other drivers, not all of whom have their own safety and yours in mind. To stay safe on a motorbike in Southeast Asia it’s best to drive safely but assume others will not. Rules of the road and concepts like right-of-way don’t apply at all in these countries and driving as if they do can get you hurt or killed.

Locals believe that as long as they make an effort not to hit people, animals or property, they can drive wherever they want, as fast as they want. Passing blind around a curve? You see this constantly in the mountains. Driving on the wrong side of the road? It’s accepted and common, both in cities and in rural areas. Bus drivers tapping out a text on a cheap Nokia phone while negotiating a winding mountain road with a bus full of passengers. You can’t go a few minutes without seeing this.

Drive safely but assume other drivers will not. Expect a large truck to fly around the curve in front of you halfway into your lane. 

There are additional challenges imposed by the road conditions. In much of the developed world, if you stay between the lines and observe traffic rules you’ll probably be okay. In mountainous and rural areas of Southeast Asia, it’s common to encounter craters in the road large enough to throw you off your motorbike if you hit them too fast. There are live cows and dead chickens. Furniture or other large objects fall off the back of trucks and onto the road. In short, you need to pay more attention to the surface of the road than you do in developed countries.

With this trip and with life in general I do avoid things that are extremely risky, but over-caution carries its own hazards – all the rich experiences and other rewards that are lost.

I think that all too often we greatly overemphasize the risk of doing something new, and under-appreciate the big rewards of doing so. When contemplating a potentially rewarding new experience I try to have a clear-eyed and realistic view of both the risks and the rewards. If the likely downsides are small and the potential benefits are great I’ll usually do it and this trip is an example of that.

Here are my favorite photos from motorbiking the area around Sapa and I’ll share photos from Ha Giang in a future post.

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(Above seven photos) Straight photos of scenery are not my favorite – anyone could take a lot of these photos or you could just google photos of Sapa – but readers will naturally want to know what the area looks like so I included a few of my favorite shots of the landscape.

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(Above six photos) Many of the ethnic minorities that live in the areas around Sapa make a living by selling small handmade souvenirs to tourists or by selling food or other necessities to locals. Some of my favorite photos are from interactions with these vendors.

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(Above six photos) Locals in the minority areas around Sapa get around mostly by walking and I had a lot of fun saying hello to people on the road and taking their photos.

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(Above three photos) Adults and children work really hard in these areas and most of the work is farm related and done by hand or with the help of oxen. You almost never seem farm machinery in these areas.

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(Above four photos) Wherever I travel, I find that no matter how poor, children find ways to play and have fun. In fact, children with fewer material comforts are often better at this.
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This photo of an old man resting in the doorway of his house in a small farming village is one of my favorites from the trip
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An ethnic minority grave site
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I’m not a fan of standard poses like this (or of selfies) but this woman guessed my age as 26 and for that she will forever have a place in my heart
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I met this fellow traveler, a professional chef from Madrid, when we were both lost in a minority village and we motorbiked around together for the rest of the day

Scenes from Bangkok’s Chinatown (part 1 of 3): People

By Steve Fisher

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When I travel, rather than “sightseeing”, I try to experience local life in my destination. With a few unmissable exceptions (Sagrada Familia, Angkor Wat), I’m just not that interested in most “sites” but extremely interested in ordinary life in the places I travel.

Local life is not all equally interesting of course though, so naturally there are choices to make. While I try to keep flexible and not over plan, before I arrive, I generally come up with at least 5-6 neighborhoods, markets, parks or other promising places to visit. Absolutely nothing against guidebooks, and I do buy one for many major destinations, but recently I prefer Wikitravel and TripAdvisor as sources of information because these online resources tend to go a lot deeper than physical guides.

While traveling, I spend much of my time walking around interesting neighborhoods, eating a lot of local food and chatting with locals. According to an iPhone activity tracker I use (Moves) I typically walk 15-20 km per day while traveling. While I eat all day when I travel, I typically loose weight on long trips because of all the extra physical activity.

I lived in Thailand for about a year before Vietnam and I still consider Bangkok one of my homes in the world. Whenever I’m in the city I try to spend a day in Chinatown, and I visited the area again on my trip to Bangkok last month. This is one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods and is full of great food, interesting people and unforgettable ambience. In this post I try to share some of the interesting people I see when I visit Chinatown, and I hope to do future posts on the delicious food and amazing atmosphere of this iconic Bangkok neighborhood.

Continue reading “Scenes from Bangkok’s Chinatown (part 1 of 3): People”

Pokemon Go in Saigon – all day and all night

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This photo is from an article on the web site Voice of Vietnam about Pokemon Go during the recent Autumn Festival in Vietnam. All photos in this post except this one are my own.

Anyone out there into Pokemon Go?

I’ll pass on my feelings about the game by way of a childhood memory. When I was around six years old, while most other boys were watching cartoons, playing video games and terrorizing small animals, I got really into chess at the after school day care I attended. In fact, I was playing chess regularly before I could pronounce it. Here’s a mortifying exchange I remember with my mother:

The author at 6: Mommy, can we play chest?
Mom: [big laugh] No, honey, no chest today.

Laugh away, mom, but I was beating you regularly by age 7.

Continue reading “Pokemon Go in Saigon – all day and all night”

Thoughts on keeping fit (on a Vietnamese noodle shop napkin)

Yes, it’s a bit glib, but that’s the point. I think that fitness, personal finance, happiness and other big life goals can be a lot simpler than we often make them.
All photos were taken at and around Nam Vang Hu Tieu noodle shop in Saigon on Aug. 28, 2016. Hu Tieu are a style of noodles popular in the south of Vietnam, and Nam Vang is the best I’ve tried in Saigon. For those who would like to visit, the address is on the shop awning in two of the photos below.
Nutrition experts recommend that half our meals consist of fruits and vegetables. Yet with western diets, few meals even come close. One reason I love this photo is that it’s a vivid example of an everyday meal that is actually over half fruit and vegetables. This popular local noodle dish is also cheap and delicious. Let me emphasize that this is not “health food” – other than the fresh vegetables and garnishes you see, everything is cooked in pork broth and the dish is topped with three different types of pork (though quantities are extremely modest). Meals like this though, heavy in fruits and vegetables and low in carbs, along with lots of physical activity (more from manual labor than from the gym) are a big reason that obesity is extremely low in Vietnam compared to the US and other western countries.
The interior of the shop
The noodle stand in front of the shop. The bowls of noodles are served from this cart, which is only about 1 x 2 meters.
A partially assembled bowl of noodles
Garnishes on the noodle stand
Some take-away customers order from their motorbikes
The seated man is a motorbike parking attendant working in front of the shop. Motorbike theft is a huge problem in Saigon and I’ve been told thieves can break the most advanced locks in 10 seconds. In exchange for a small tip, attendants like this man watch customers’ motorbikes in front of most Saigon shops.

(Above two photos) The front of the noodle shop.
A building near the noodle shop

A visit to a Bangkok fresh market (a photo essay)

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By Steve Fisher

I’m in Bangkok for a week and I hope to do 2-3 posts on local life here during and shortly after my trip. I lived in Bangkok and Hua Hin (a beach town a few hours south of the city) for about a year before Vietnam and have also traveled extensively in Thailand. Bangkok is one of my favorite cities in the world and I try to get back here once or twice a year.

Thoughts on lifestyle design: creating a great daily routine 

I typically travel between two and four months a year, and before each journey friends often wish me a great “holiday”. While I sincerely appreciate the kind words, I don’t think of any of my trips as vacations. Mostly, I’m just doing my work and other regular activities in a different place.

If we think about it, for most of us, life is full of a very large number of regular days and a much smaller number of holidays and other special days. So to my mind, what we do on the typical regular day is much more important than how we spend relatively rare special days. I try to create an appealing everyday life and work style that I have no desire to escape from with holidays and vacations. I care a great deal about the shape of my regular days, and don’t worry that much about what I’m doing for Christmas, New Year’s Eve, my birthday etc. (I think that these festive occasions are actually often a source of unhappiness and disappointment, because of the huge, frequently unsatisfied expectations built up around them.)

Whether I’m in Saigon or Bangkok or Barcelona, and whether it’s a weekday or a weekend or Christmas, my typical day is in many ways the same. My work is entirely location independent (Mac + internet + good coffee = office), and I finish before lunch on most days. Lunch is typically the amazing local street food they have in Saigon, Bangkok and many of the other places I’ve lived and traveled. After lunch, I’ll typically do meditation, message friends and set up plans to meet, and then go swimming or to the gym. At night I’ll meet up with friends, go to the spa or read. This routine is flexible, of course. Most days, I do my work first thing in the morning, but on the day I visited the market in these photos, I headed out as soon as I woke up, without a shower or breakfast, as these local markets are much more interesting in the morning.

Wherever I am and whatever the day, I try to do “happy things” (exercise, meeting friends, spending time outdoors, meditation etc.), and avoid “unhappy things” (working too much, stress, driving in city traffic, negative people etc.).

A walk in Khlong Toei fresh market

On my first full day in Bangkok I decided to visit Khlong Toei market, the largest fresh market in the city. Visiting local markets has always been one of my favorite things to do when I travel, and a long morning walk around this massive market seemed like a great way to get some exercise, and hopefully take some great photos for this blog. (Since starting this blog, I’ve found that I enjoy photography even more knowing I have a place to share any good shots I come up with.)

Continue reading “A visit to a Bangkok fresh market (a photo essay)”

Scenes from Saigon’s Chill Skybar (a photo essay)

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All photos taken at Saigon’s Chill Skybar on Aug. 19, 2016

When my friend and I first arrived at Chill Skybar, just before sunset, we loved the bar, but I wasn’t particularly happy with the images I was getting. Most were conventional “wow look at the pretty lights!” shots like the one above. Blah. Boring. Blah. To get more interesting images, I staring looking at smaller details in the bar and in the surrounding cityscape, and I share a few of my favorites below.

I think that if we look at the world with the right perspective, life is full of moments of interest and beauty. One of the things I do in this blog is try to suggest helpful alternative ways of looking at life and the world around us.

And with photography, depending on our way of seeing the world around us, the images we take from a given place and time can be beautiful or ugly, full of interest or boring, optimistic or gloomy.

With my photos, and in life in general, I’m looking for more beautiful and effective ways of seeing the world, and I share some of the ideas and images I come up with in this blog.

Continue reading “Scenes from Saigon’s Chill Skybar (a photo essay)”

Smiling at strangers as a social experiment

Authors: Fisher, Stephen Martin

 

 

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All photos taken in Tao Dan Park, Ho Chi Minh City District 3, Aug. 13, 2016

ABSTRACT: As a social experiment, the author tried smiling at strangers during a morning walk in Ho Chi Minh City, and observed the resulting emotions in both the subject and himself.

Methods: On the morning of Sat, Aug. 13, 2016, the author took a two hour walk in and around Tao Dan Park near his apartment in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and smiled at a random sample of strangers (n smile = ns = 23).

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In order to avoid experimental bias and long interruptions to the research, the author assiduously avoided smiling only at pretty girls. Every effort was made to keep the group of subjects as diverse as possible. He smiled at old men with canes and old ladies with missing teeth. He smiled at cheerful, laughing children and bad-tempered ones as well. He smiled at young scouts pitching tents and tying knots in the park. (The author would have been way more into scouting as a young boy if girls and boys mixed together as they do in Vietnamese scouting groups. What’s the fun of roughing it in the woods with a bunch of teenage boys?)

Continue reading “Smiling at strangers as a social experiment”