XVA Cafe, Dubai

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In Dubai, a city akin to Las Vegas without sin, the boyfriend and I found something unexpected: an artistic, unassuming restaurant serving pan-Arabian vegetarian food worth twice what we paid. Not sin, but not unlike it.

We had been increasily weary and hungry, walking along the Dubai Creek under the midday sun, and ground to a standstill outside a government building and a mosque. Neither promised respite for two pale, agnostic, famished civilians. Forcing ourselves onward, around a bend in the creek, we walked straight into the Old Dubai complex that harbours the Al Fahidi neighbourhood. This cool stone warren of walls and pathways guided us through artworks and smelled vaguely of coffee. We wandered into the heart and discovered the exquisite XVA Cafe, hotel and galleries, nestled among other restaurants, a coffee museum, and Dubai’s architectural society.

IMG_2903The cafe is in airy courtyard shielded overhead by long, billowing strips of fabric. The Arab sun, even in winter, can be keel-inducing, but here ex-pats, locals and tourists alike languoured comfortably at wood and rattan tables and chairs, reflecting the calm of their surroundings. A tree in the courtyard’s centre had become the site of an art installation; small colourful dresses hung from its branches. In fact, artwork was everywhere to be seen, along the outer perimeter of the courtyard—in galleries and shops toeing the line between Middle Eastern and American sensibilities. XVA’s owner is an American, and I imagine she sensed a need for somewhere breezy, light and inspiring in a city dominated by, on the one hand, glass and steel, and on the other, ornate Arabian decor and the thick smoke of shisha pipes.

IMG_2904I asked for a mint lemonade, and our waiter smiled shyly, pointing at our placemats. Turns out my random choice has widespread appeal: the placemats were laminated pages from the XVA guestbook that bore several scrawled love letters to the epic lemonade. Vivid green rather than yellow, this nouveau slushie came with a whole mint leave surfing its icy peak. Despite the intense colour, the flavour was somehow delicately lemony and a perfect blend of sour and sweet. Vitality restored!

For a light lunch I chose the tabbouleh and, on the side, caramelised-onion hummous and pita bread, which was more than enough for an average-sized, albeit exceptionally hungry, patron. Homemade hummous was also on the boyfriend’s plate—the red pepper variety—and both kinds were far superior to any I’ve tasted outside the Middle East. His order was bean-cakes, resembling two smooth, charred pancakes and boasting a tender bite with beautiful seasoning. A salad of feta, cucumber and tomato sat side-saddle on his plate.

IMG_2905Meat seemed quintessential to nearly every other restaurant we visited while in Dubai. But at XVA, the abundance and freshness of cuisine would leave only the most cavernous carnivorous appetite unabated. And for us—staunch vegetarian sympathizers—XVA was like finding Mecca.

Service was flawless, and we spent a happy half-hour undisturbed after our meal…sitting back, feeling a light breeze, gaining back our strength. It was Valentine’s Day, and although that fact had escaped us until we saw the staff setting up decorations for dinner, we felt justifiably romanced. I would have chosen no other setting for an intimate meal far from home.

Al Fahidi Neighborhood, Bur Dubai, United Arab Emirates


Help me fight Alzheimer’s for my mother: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society

The Crooked Well, London

IMG_2878 England has mastered the pub, but it’s America that has mastered the gastropub. Since moving to London I’ve spent the past five years fighting depression every time I scan the menu of a gastropub (so much promise in the name! so much disaster on the plate!). The Crooked Well seems to have been hiding in plain sight from me in Camberwell, South London. Here is a pub that combines high-calibre cuisine with the ubiquitous neighbourhood comfort of every English watering hole.

The boyfriend remarked to me that it felt like someone’s home. Three connected rooms all have tables and seats, but with a slightly different vibe: the “dining room” (tables for four, standard restaurant set-up), the “kitchen” in the middle (tall tables and a bar where you can watch the mixologists) and the “living room”, with plush seats pulled up to low tables.

IMG_2873It may be homey, but it’s not your parents’ home. The whole place has an air of artless cool to it…rough-hewn wood tables and old lighting fixtures, twee wallpaper, line drawings of common fish and insects, an old railway map, and a small library perched among large mason jars of pickled things. It’s like the home of your hip older sister who runs a vintage stall and makes her own furniture and killer cocktails.

Enough visual feasting; the drinks arrived and we tucked into some sublime salt-and-pepper squid with spiced mayonnaise. Most calamari should be ashamed of itself, dripping with oil or suffocated with batter. This struck the right balance of texture and didn’t fill us up before the second act. At this point we noticed random twos and threes of swanky-looking customers floating down from a back staircase. Turns out there are rooms upstairs you can hire. There’s also supposed to be live jazz and other happenings, but the website’s out of date on this point.

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Salt-and-pepper squid starter

I can’t really emphasise how pleasant the staff were. Not that “we’re-English-so-we’re-always-polite-but-just-masking-our-menace” — but, like, genuinely pleasant and dispatching the kind of elegant table service that made me forget I was in, essentially, a pub. We didn’t have to visit the bar once, although that is an option if you’re just there for drinks. A small crowd idled by the bar for hours, chatting and watching the bartenders shake the living daylights out of designer spirits.

My sea trout steak made its entrance on a broad glass plate, balancing itself against a stack of stiff crushed potato and festooned with a sprig of greens. The pink flesh fell apart neatly with the touch of a fork, cooked to perfect moistness — the little pot of creamy butter sauce was there only for added flavour. Small cubes of gummy lemon were scattered about the scene. You could take away most of the players here and still have a fresh, tasty meal but the full cast made it outstanding.

IMG_2876IMG_2875The boyfriend ordered the no-nonsense chargrilled picanha, or rump cap as we call it in the States. You have to admire a dish with only three ingredients, two of them arguably condiments. It was all about the steak, which delivered tenderness and rich flavour. A dish of cafe de paris butter was at the ready for slathering, a blend of 16 ingredients. A lone roast tomato completed this simple spread, which the boyfriend supplemented with pommes frites in a moment of panic at the prospect of a one-item meal. The fries were a welcome addition and big enough to share.

Camberwell has some really nice choices for foreign cuisine, but there’s a shortage of droolworthy upmarket English food anywhere in South London. I’m hoping this means the Crooked Well has secured its niche for a long future. I’ll wander back even if I’m not hungry — they have a Thursday Night Cocktail Club, and your hip older sister makes a mean Peruvian Shakedown.

16 Grove Lane, Camberwell, London SE5 8SY


Help me fight Alzheimer’s for my mother: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society

S’Mac, New York City

S'Mac I walked into Sarita’s Macaroni + Cheese, aka S’Mac, with eyes wide open. I walked out really, really full. Like, 8-hours-later-not-a-hint-of-hunger full. That night I finally forced myself to have a hot dog around 11 pm because I was drinking beer and didn’t want to lose my head. I regret nothing.

My sister told me about this East Village branch of the two-restaurant chain. I can’t always get past the kitsch factor of some NYC restaurants, like Peanut Butter & Co, another invention of S’Mac’s founders, but this is mac-and-cheese. This is one of America’s greatest culinary offerings. And this is all that’s on the menu. Well, there is a mixed green salad to be had on the side but why kid ourselves?

S’Mac offers mac-and-cheese in every beatific form you could envision. If none of the 12 suggested flavor combos strike the right note, you can build your own with toppings that borrow inspiration from Italian cuisine….andouille sausage, roasted garlic, kalamata olives, fresh basil and figs. That’s right: FIGS. Do not try this at home with Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. You need quality macaroni and quality cheese to bear up under the irony of a delicate fruit. S’mac delivered. (And delivers, apparently!)

The boyfriend and I didn’t trust our building skills that day; I’ll have to live with never knowing if buffalo sauce complements tuna. We ordered the Mediterranean, the Parisienne, and the down-and-dirty 4-Cheese, in three “nosh”-sized portions to share. Upgrading even one dish to “major munch”, “mongo” or “partay!” size seemed like it actually might create problems walking out the door later. As it happens, even a “nosh” size of that much pasta and cheese should probably come with a warning for those with a heart condition.

Deceptively dainty cast-iron skillets were placed at our window counter seat with tiny custom oven mitts. Hot slabs of sunshine on a chilly day, in three skillets with two forks. NO REGRETS. The Parisienne kind of blew them all away for me, with brie, figs, roasted shiitake mushrooms, and fresh rosemary, but it was hard not to return to the siren song of the 4-Cheese…there’s something about an all-cheese m&c. In this case, replacing American hyper-orange cheez with grown-up dignitaries (cheddar, muenster, gruyere and pecorino) transports the dish leagues away from your college dorm room.

The Mediterranean was a lovely balance of goat cheese, sauteed spinach, kalamata olives and roasted garlic, equally at home here as on a pizza. S’Mac takes a basic homestyle dish to a transcendental level, but I liked that they kept the decor sort of old-style fast-food joint…plastic orange and yellow chairs and tables, root beer, ordering at the counter. Everything this satisfying should be this simple.

345 East 12th Street, New York, New York 10003 USA

Delivery/take-and-bake available!


Help me fight Alzheimer’s for my mother: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society

Ekachai, London

Ekachai-dining roomI had wheedled my way out of a group dinner for my friend’s birthday, and offered to take her out solo instead. My objective was a price range that belied quality of cuisine, and close proximity to my physical therapist so I could hobble there after my appointment. Out of four options I presented to my friend, she picked Ekachai, the Liverpool Street location of this small chain.

London’s City financial district has a cornucopia of banker’s budget restaurants, fast-lunch options, and Ekachai, nestled in an unglamorous arcade by Liverpool Street underground. The menu claims to offer Southeast Asian street-style food, but I’d have to be a much more graceful eater to consume a hefty bowl of curry on a sidewalk.

A Monday night visit required no reservation. The restaurant has two floors of seating but that evening only saw about 15 customers at any given time, which meant the wait staff was attentive and forgiving. Bare wood tables and metal chairs don’t scream relaxation, but this space had feng shui in spades; I felt at peace in the roomy downstairs dining room.

We ordered a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and took our time ordering food, drawing out the process after choosing “soft shelled” crab to start. (The soft shell was intact, so I’m chalking this up to a grammatical mishap on the menu.) Our waitress came back again and again with the same patient smile, until we decided on our main courses.

Ekachai-soft shell crab

The crab starter was diminutive but divine. A whole soft-shell crab was lightly breaded and deep fried, then laid on a leaf beside a pot of sambal chili sauce. Apprehension about how to approach sharing gave way to raw desire. We tore the little guy in half and spent the next 90 seconds crunching happily. The chili sauce was potent and I went easy on dipping, leaving my palate open for the sublime subtlety of fresh crab meat.

Ekachai-kitchenOnce agreed upon, the main dishes took less than 10 minutes to reach our table. Mine was a steaming, golden bowl of Malaysian Kapitan Chicken curry. I chose egg-fried rice to accompany it and surprised myself by stopping just short of wolfing it all down. A good curry often goes down faster than my stomach can protest, but this was quite a generous portion. The light curry broth boasted great depth of flavor through roasted coconut and lemongrass.

My friend had an equally gratifying—if stodgier— main: the Char Kway Teow. She opted for prawns over tofu, which came tangled on a smoky brown bed of flat rice noodles. Like the ubiquitous Pad Thai loved by Westerners worldwide, this dish merged a rich sauce with satisfying bite. Egg and bean sprouts sang back-up for this crowd-pleaser.

We scraped back our chairs and sipped our wine, letting the enzymes do their thing. Our waitress gave us time and space to linger. We took a quick trip upstairs and discovered a bathroom so comically small we had to take turns closing our cubicle doors. Disappearing out the door, I was struck again by the drab interior of the arcade and how this bright spot had brightened my evening. Here is a little capsule of a Southeast Asian canteen in the heart of London, and for those missing Thailand on dark days, it’s a happy escape.

 9-10 Arcade Liverpool Street, London EC2M 7PN


Help me fight Alzheimer’s for my mother: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society

El Vez, Philadelphia

El VezI occasionally wake up in a cold sweat, craving fish tacos. Sometimes chicken. With guacamole. I moved to London from California five years ago and it’s an anomaly anywhere in Europe to eat at a restaurant with actual Mexicans in the kitchen. Last October I was on a mission to consume my weight in tacos before my East Coast US trip was over.

El Vez seemed the perfect mix of fun and tasty for me (vacationer with a low threshold for spice), my boyfriend (Londoner wary of the south-of-the-border culinary unknown), and my old friend (married a Mexican, knows her enchiladas). This joint keeps the menu short and punchy, focusing on Cali-Mexi street food and eschewing any complicated flavors from lesser-known regions of Mexico.

The restaurant is tucked into a pleasingly thriving little pocket of Central Philly, on 13th Street. A lot of little boutiques, restaurants and wine bars have converged here in recent years and lent this part of 13th style and return appeal. El Vez is the big, flashy place on the corner, with the roar of voices leaping out each time someone opens the door.

The atmosphere is a bit of a nuevo rockabilly joyride…colorful and eager to draw out the playful side of patrons either starting out a big night or ending it with a solid meal. This is a Stephen Starr endeavor, and anyone who knows the style of this acclaimed Philadelphia restaurateur is familiar with his penchant for taking a theme and running with it (other favorites: Pod and Buddakan). If the theme here seems ambiguous (are tricked-out low-rider bikes specific to Mexico?), you can boil it down to one critical element: good times. The evidence is in hundreds of photo portraits in a busy mosaic lining the entire back wall, and the lively crowd circling the bar and getting glam in the photo booth.

My posse was not out for a wild Saturday night, but found El Vez equally accommodating of those wanting serious conversation over seriously fresh, flavorful food. The din that permeates the main floor and bar area dissolved when we were seated in a windowside booth by the door. Our server (Mexican!) was personable but not in-your-face—recommending when prompted, hanging back to allow decision, appearing in a snap as my empty margarita glass hit the table.

The classic El Vez Margarita, made with homemade lime puree, is a beautiful way to start your meal with quintessential chips-and-guac. The Indian Red Lopez guacamole jumped out at me from the menu. It’s made with spicy crab, cilantro and salsa roja, and crab is not a choice I care to deliberate. If you put it on the menu—especially in huge delicate chunks in a sea of avocado—it’s going in my mouth. I didn’t even flinch at the “spicy”; it was mild, and beautifully brought out the fresh seafood taste. The Indian Red Lopez became one of the highlights of my entire two-week trip.

El Vez 2

We all ordered tacos for our main dishes. The boyfriend’s were vegetarian colache, delivering a great hit of umami with smoky roasted veggies and queso fresco. I went for the absolutely lovely-lovely mahi-mahi—light and crispy, with a punch of tangy chili remoulade. The friend had the best of all worlds with the taco tasting platter; each little beauty was rolled, folded or stacked in artful contrast to its brother: mahi-mahi; sea bass, with sweet potato and scallions; beef; chicken; and carnitas.

Given the “fun” hard at work at El Vez, I was thrilled that the low-key menu took itself seriously. The basic flavors and components of Mexican cuisine can be kept simple, but need freshness and balance to achieve excellence. The few things we sampled on El Vez’s menu checked all of these boxes. Back in London, late at night, I savor the memories.

121 South 13th Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19107, USA


Photography by Amanda Tallen

Help me fight Alzheimer’s for my mother: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society

Shanghai, China

The way out of Shanghai made the biggest impression on me. A dull rain battered the taxi’s windshield as we flew along the highway towards the airport. Ubiquitous tall apartment buildings – skyscrapers, by another city’s standards – huddled together on either side for miles and miles and miles in an endless parade. My amazement grew when I began to consider how many people must inhabit them. And they wouldn’t be single occupants; Chinese people live with their families. I multiplied all the buildings by all the highways by all the residents, and realised firsthand the enormity of just this one Chinese city’s population.

bull in china shop

Bull in a China shop

The density of occupants hadn’t phased me much as I roamed the Shanghai streets the previous three days. I’ve spent enough time in New York not to feel oppressed by crowds. I was in town for two days of work but had a free Sunday to myself. Although I stayed around the central core of the city, I was able to see quite a bit in even one day, on foot. I had never been somewhere that felt so exotic; I could have been on Mars, and I loved that feeling of being so far out of my comfort zone.

Each night, however, I found myself well within my comfort zone at the luxury-oozing Four Seasons Shanghai. I forgave its near-total ignorance of Asian culture and decor when I was able to watch TV from my iPod on the treadmill’s screen. People stay at a Four Seasons for a taste of their Western-world home, not to be immersed in a foreign one. When an Italian businessman told me he barely left the hotel whenever his work took him to Shanghai, I nearly empathized. But then…I was in China! I flew out the front door an hour after dropping off my suitcase.

Darkness had already fallen as the concierge hailed me a cab. I had been warned that most people don’t speak English, so getting around in Shanghai would be different from, say, Zurich, where a kindly multilingual local could steer you back on course.The hotel concierge had written my destination in Chinese on a piece of paper, Tianzifang, as well as the name and address of the Four Seasons for my return journey.

My taxi got caught in a traffic jam caused by something unseen ahead. My driver gesticulated and ranted in Chinese, and I tried helpfully to translate. “Lots of traffic? Yes.” He glared, pointing at me, then the sidewalk nearby. Cars were everywhere, honking and intersecting each other. I couldn’t see any street signs and resolved to stay in the car. “I…you want me to get out here and walk? No…TIANZIFANG, please.” He glared again, apparently understanding my intent. Fifteen minutes later we steered around a stalled truck and he pulled over, 50 yards from where he had first pointed. Tianzifang.

tianzifang

Tianzifang

This utterly charming network of narrow lanes harbors shops, restaurants and art galleries. I browsed through the teapots, hats, jewellery, art, loose-leaf tea, chopsticks, and a million other things of extreme interest to non-Martians. I justified the purchase of a cheap pair of “pleather” gloves by telling myself at least they’re made in this country.

Tianzifang borders Shanghai’s French Concession district, and old-world French influence beautifully complements Chinese. For dinner I pointed at a picture of a steaming noodle dish on a menu in an old French saloon-looking restaurant. The place still allowed smoking, but I later realized this is not uncommon anywhere in China, or Asia, for that matter.

pig facesThe next morning I set off from the Four Seasons, in Puxi, and walked slightly north, past the former home of Chairman Mao, to Nanjing Road. This main drag would take me all the way east to the Bund waterfront. Plenty of mainstream shopping opportunities lay on the way; major Asian stores compete with American Eagle and the like. They were easier to ignore than a five-floor department store that beckoned me in with cheap Chinese snacks of questionable origin. This mega-market offered every kind of household good, item of apparel and gadget I could want. This is China, after all, manufacturing capital of the world. I forged through the aisles of innovative products and modern luxuries looking for the ladies’ room. When I found it, I ended up a line next to the meat counter, trying to ignore the flattened pigs’ faces on display. Squatting over the ceramic hole in the floor of the ladies’ room stall, I thought about Shanghai’s sharp contrasts. High-tech meets old world in many corners of this city.

marriage mktFurther along Nanjing Road I found the People’s Park. Six days a week, it’s just a park. I was lucky enough to wander in on the seventh day and beheld the Sunday Marriage Market. I was puzzled at first, strolling past many open umbrellas along the paths. An umbrella sale? Or advertisements for something else? Around the umbrellas temporary walls were covered with paper blowing in the breeze. Mostly elderly couples and families paused to read them as they walked slowly through.

I noticed one of the papers featured a photo of a young man, and felt like a bolt of martian lightning had struck: this man was “for sale”. He and hundreds of other young, eligible Chinese were being advertised. The target audience? Parents, grandparents and other family members entrusted with matching children to suitable mates, by description alone…I saw only that single photograph among all the hundreds of notices.

The Bund, at the end of Nanjing Road, is the area along Shanghai’s Huangpu River waterfront. From the western side you can gape through the smog at futuristic skyscrapers on the opposite riverbank. Buildings on the west side of the Bund are all old European colonial, but the financial district across the water looks like a 1960s sci-fi illustrator’s dream.

view from the Bund

Financial district as seen from the Bund. Jetpacks included?

yuyuan gardensJust a few blocks south of the Bund, you can enter Gucheng Park and head west, eventually reaching the justly famous Yu’yuan Garden. All my Asian-vacation daydreams were realized here, with a cheap ticket to explore the meandering stone paths. Little rounded bridges zigzagged koi streams and led up to quiet little temples holding totems of devotion. Huge chunks of jade sat patiently for generations of visitors, as incense burned in brass sculptures. Around the curved limbs of ancient trees I found cool stone caves and wooden doorways leading to more of the same. There were tourists aplenty, but who cares? This is old China. This is what the West cannot ever fully recreate, no matter how many bonsais we trim or cups of green tea we brew.

tea snackThe garden’s teahouse, by the way, does not require an entrance fee and is a magical place to spend an hour steeping your earthy tea selected from the lengthy list. I became a fan of pu-er, said to offer life-giving properties, and of the snack of hard-boiled tea-soaked quail eggs.

tea house. jpgThis part of town is teeming with old Chinese architecture and charming attractions, including a temple to the city god (ticket required). I’d held on to my shopping money up to this point, and was rewarded by the area just south-west of the gardens, Fangbang Road, and its myriad offerings of traditional Chinese gifts.  Here are teas and colourful pots, silk slippers and brocaded, sequined fish. Chinese dresses can be bought without irony, and glass-bead bracelets can be had for pennies. I would never return to Shanghai without spending time in this bustling area; I’m sure it wouldn’t exist without tourists, but as one of them, I was grateful for the shopkeepers who bargained with me and humored me as I tried on six pairs of embroidered shoes.

old and new shanghai 2

Old and new Shanghai

Shanghai is growing, fast. Construction projects that would last more than a year in other cities take a matter of months. From the vantage of a high building, you can look down and see evidence of the city’s past. Red-shingled rooftops top small houses clustered together, little fortresses from the past that will imminently fall to the future. Look close enough and you’ll see barefoot women hang their washing on the lines, and old men throw out water from their chamber pots in alleyways. In this cutting-edge climate of progress, these moments are a reminder of how far the Chinese have come, and what is possible.

shanghai stStaring at the rain-soaked apartment buildings on my ride to the airport, I thought about real China and the one presented to people like me, who duck in and out for a long weekend. As in so many cities, I was aware there is a front constructed for my benefit, and my dollars. That’s the part you can see in movies, and photographs. Actually being there – walking through the crowds, eating in random noodle shops and buying deodorant at a pharmacy – you get a glimpse of what it really means to exist here. The Chinese aren’t everything we’re shown by the media, and they’re no longer martians to me.


REMEMBER:

  • Ignore offers to take you to a teahouse or sell you a handbag
  • Fa Piao (“fah peeow”) means “receipt”, if you need to request one
  • Take your heavy coat and gloves, if it’s winter; like the Western world, Shanghai gets cold in February/March

FORGET:

  • Asking for directions if you get lost; most locals won’t speak your language
  • Wandering around without a map; luckily they’re printed with English and Chinese names, as are street signs and subway stations
  • Your dress size as you know it; a US size 6 was a Large in Shanghai

Help me fight Alzheimer’s for my mother: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society

Singapore

The landing card I filled out on the plane to Singapore assured me that death was the worst-case scenario if I falsified any answers. Point taken. This is a city-state that like its rules; rules keep it sparkly clean, orderly and conservative. It doesn’t lack personality, but it lacks one I could get cozy with. I like a splash of danger with my urban imbibement. I mean, even Washington, DC has some rough outer edges for all its clean-cut khakis and oxfords.

singapore bldgs

Office complex anomaly

I regret that I didn’t get to see more of Singapore, as most of my time there was spent working. Having just arrived from Thailand, the chilling wind that greeted my boyfriend and I in the Grand Park hotel lobby felt like a slap in the face. We had spent eight days shoeless and largely unclothed in island heat, and had now drifted into a place that compelled us to get dressed, for god’s sake, and act respectably. This is Singapore. This is a place where people have melded (compromised?) their many cultures to co-exist and make boatloads of money and raise their kids away from crime. As for the rest of us, we are to toe the line and leave our chewing gum at home or there will be consequences.

We may have left Thailand, but Singapore was just as steamy, and at midday the streets can be unbearably hot. Malls, the backbone of the city center, entice passersby with crisp air-conditioned microclimates. They stretch for blocks and even allow you to cross the street without surfacing for real air, being connected by underground walkways. I loathe malls but, because many restaurants are located inside them, I got more than a good glimpse. The plethora of high-end shops cater to Singapore’s residents; 9% to 10% of them are millionaires, so why stop with one franchise? I saw three Prada stores in the same mall. And why build small? I saw an above-water walkway leading to a Louis Vuitton store that could be mistaken for a museum. An expatriate friend living there told me sadly that her colleagues judged her for only owning one brand-name handbag. I don’t like shopping, so you can guess I don’t care about brands. This was a losing battle; even if I ended up loving Singapore, it would surely never love me back.

The ship-like Marina Bay Sands and lotus-like ArtScience Museum in Singapore harbor

I appreciated the miles of clean pavement and statues amid whitewashed buildings and a glitzy waterfront. The riverfront area of Clarke Quay was pleasant for a stroll-through, but something about the restaurants, gleaming fountains and carefully placed vista points reminded me too much of America. Singapore isn’t new – it was settled in the second century – but it seems to work hard to be seen as new, on par with the most attractive and entertaining cities of the modern age. The historic home of Stamford Raffles, Singapore’s “modern founder”, was deserted when we trudged up to it in Fort Canning Park. Marina Bay Sands, however, Singapore’s dazzling resort (and the world’s second-most expensive building) is teeming with life. It rises like a three-pronged deity above the bay, topped with a ship-like casino that offers free entry to visitors…permanent residents pay $80.

0106e9008e669fa00ffd742a862e4b6f8147161f22Singaporeans are mostly of Indian, Chinese and Malay descent. In the plethora of good food halls and hawker stalls dotting the city, you can get a taste for these cultures. If you look hard enough, you can also find pockets of surprises. Little India was a welcome, colorful treat. My boyfriend and I passed about a hundred bicycle rickshaws before spotting a nighttime street market marking the beginning of Little India. Vendors strung and sold garlands of flowers to Hindus; the scent of jasmine stayed with me until we were lured into an old restaurant by the smell of cardamom and cumin. I was pleased to find peeling blue paint and pictures of Hindu gods inside. Men huddled at long tables and Bollywood music videos blared from a TV. This felt like real life: a bit dirty, a bit fun.

little india

Little India

A steaming plate of vegetarian thali sent my spice tolerance meter off the chart, but was so worth it and easily pacified with cold Tiger beer. We copied the other diners and ate with our hands. I watched the TV, savoring the saccharine Bollywood fix and absorbing the intense smells, flavors and colors around me.

This was only my brief, Thailand-tainted glimpse of Singapore, and I respect my English colleagues’ appreciation of their adopted city-state. The schools are good, they tell me, and there are flights to everywhere in Asia from the astonishing, orchid-filled Changi Airport. Ex-pats make good money and can afford live-in nannies. One friend told me a monkey once paid a visit to his balcony and left a lighter as a present, and I thought gloomily of the boring squirrels back home. I get the appeal. Who wouldn’t want to sample life far from home while still enjoying home comforts? Might as well do it in balmy Singapore, unless you’re looking to stir up trouble.


REMEMBER:

  • Hawker centers offer great eating in a food-hall setting
  • The Singapore Sling cocktail at Raffles Hotel is about $20 but it’s a lovely setting to enjoy a historic building right in the city’s center
  • The airport is touted the best in the world, and it’s a welcome hub to spend a few hours if you’re en route to East Asia

FORGET:

  • Smoking outside; do you really think this is acceptable if you can’t chew gum in public?
  • Seeing a crazy band play at a loud nightclub and stumbling home at 3 am

Help me fight Alzheimer’s for my mother: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society

Ko Lanta, Andaman Islands, Thailand

lanta marina 2Thailand went from a wisp of an idea to a sharp hit of hot air upon entry at Krabi Airport. I love a place that seems exotic in every respect, reminding me every minute I’m not at home through smell, sight and a general sense of unfamiliarity. But I thrive in the heat, and I happily stripped off layers, anticipating sea breezes and cold drinks. My boyfriend and I boarded a bus for Krabi town, then joined a haphazard line of other dazed travelers waiting for a shuttle van that would take us to the pier.

The cold drinks were a bit further in our future than we would have liked. We had to take one more shuttle and two ferry rides to reach our Andaman Island of choice, Ko Lanta. That was before I learned that everything in Thailand takes longer than expected. The Thais are in no rush, and neither should we be. If your shuttle driver feels like stopping for take-out food, you’ll catch another ferry after the one he was aiming to make. If you have to wait an hour for that next ferry at the pier, you’ll while away an hour watching feral cats play. The sooner I let go of the idea of a timetable, the happier I was.

Porch life at Lanta Marina

Porch life at Lanta Marina

Long Beach (Phra Ae Beach) stretches most of the way down the west coast of Ko Lanta (Lanta Island). It is about a ten-minute ride by van or tuk-tuk from Saladan port. All the way down at the south end of the beach is the very best place we stayed: Lanta Marina Resort. A simple thatched-roof beach bungalow quickly felt like home.

We spent halycon days soaking in the Andaman Sea and drying on the hot sand. We ate fresh curries at restaurants on the beach at sunset. The same old sun we see every day all over the world draws worshipful devotees as it descends into the sea here. We turned to face it each day – on our towels, at our restaurant tables, on the massage platforms, on yoga mats – watching it slowly swell, redden, and disappear below the horizon.

beach barThere are rocks in the water at this southernmost tip of Long Beach, which isolate it a bit. This made it feel wonderfully special as compared to the rest of the beach, which gets a lot of (bare)foot traffic. It does mean that you’d have to swim past them to access the rest of the beach (we didn’t find the need), or don some rugged shoes to cross them at low tide, or walk north inland a few hundred yards.

Cheap massages (about $5) are available up and down the beach, but the first one I found was right “next door”. After an hour stretched on the open-air platform, I floated to my feet and joined my boyfriend on a cushion 30 paces south-west at the beach bar,  to worship the latest miraculous sunset.

Beach platform: yoga by day, restaurant by night

Beach platform: yoga by day, restaurant by night

Near the north end of Long Beach is Blue Sky Resort. For our second stay on Ko Lanta we hadn’t pre-booked, and the online rumors are true: you can just rock up and find a place to stay for $15 to $25 a night. We found another idyllic beach bungalow with little effort, and booked the last available air-conditioned hut. Two short rows of huts were divided by a sand path leading 100 yards directly to the beach. An AC unit wasn’t a requirement for us, but I can’t imagine our time there without it now; my stomach reacted badly to a benign-looking mango lassi, and I spent an evening dragging myself from toilet to cool bed.

sunset rebirthjpgThe next morning I felt much improved, and by sundown felt well enough to take a barefoot run along the beach. The foamy surf marked my finish line, and I plunged in gratefully to float,  pant, and feel my muscles let go. The sky had turned this little world pink and perfect, and I felt a small but essential part of it.

We began to wear less and less as the week went on, due to minor sunburn and the sweaty discomfort of fabric, and the mere realization that it’s pointless to wear clothes when you are in the ocean 75% of the day. Shoes are actually discouraged indoors, and we quickly learned to leave them outside when entering the small market in our “neighborhood”.

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I think the only other place I’ve ever found too hot to drink alcohol in daylight was Palm Springs, California. The pro of such a con is that you can stay hydrated, if you’re conscientious, and not pass out before nightfall. Our nightlife was mellow but just stimulating enough on this north end of the beach. The beachfront bar-clubs have DJs and colorful cocktails that could make a supreme vacation night out, but you can opt to walk the beach or lie in your front porch hammock; the sounds of revellers are barely audible as the waves make their foamy ascent and descent. We passed hours sitting and sipping beers, idly listening to the many languages of our beach hut neighbors whispered from other front porches.

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Blue Sky Resort entrance

This area is primarily jungle and wetlands cut back for the beachside resorts. Behind those is a network of dirt roads and small tin-roofed establishments – bike and scooter rentals, ice-cream stands, shops with beach toys and sun lotion.

If you want more life, you can hire a tuk-tuk or ride a bicycle to the port town of Saladan. We chose sea life over human, and booked a day snorkeling trip through one of the small shops on the beach. A large speedboat picked us up the next morning and we set sail for Koh Rok. Along the way there were two places we stopped to anchor and snorkel. Brilliantly colored anenome and fish loitered near the rocks of passing islands. Sunlight filtered through the water and reflected off technicolor fins. The journey was turning out to seem better than the destination, except for the life we found on Ko Rok.

IMG_1666Our crew parked the boat on the island’s south shore and set about making a fire for our lunch. The island is home to monitor lizards, which no one told us about beforehand but you can easily Google and watch amusing encounters on YouTube. Two of them lazily approached our group and hung at the outskirts, flicking their forked tongues. Our crew warned us not to get close, as their tails can cause serious damage when used as a whip. But they don’t seem to pose much of a threat, considering a public campsite is in their backyard and boatloads of people visit this shore all day. After lunch we spent a blissful hour walking the long expanse of white beach and napping in the shade.

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What sets Ko Lanta apart from other Andaman Islands is its perfect symbiosis of activity and tranquility. We wanted peacefulness and privacy, but also a meal and a cocktail each evening. We wanted to buy beach balls and towels, without tons of shops and customers. We wanted to live sparsely but still be able to shower. Here we could pamper ourselves without luxury. Most importantly, we found pockets of solitude to remind ourselves what a very special time and place this will always be.

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REMEMBER:

  • SPF 30 sunscreen for sun-up, Jungle Formula insect repellant for sun-down
  • Cash machines aren’t everywhere; take advantage when you see one
  • Remove your shoes before entering a business or home

FORGET:

  • Packing anything more than essential clothing; you’ll hardly wear it
  • Drinking the water, and don’t eat ice, salads or raw fruit unless it can be peeled
  • Blowing your nose in public; it’s rude

Help me fight Alzheimer’s for my mother: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society

Phuket and Khao Sok, Thailand

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Khao Sok jungle. But first, Phuket…

The guidebooks said nothing about techno tuk-tuks. Our driver zipped us through the busy roads of Phuket’s main city, away from the airport, and headed to the west coast of the island. This tuk-tuk, dubbed “Tiger Kingdom”, was operated by a man who regarded booming bass and heavy synths as essential to transit and he made me a believer. We flew past families on scooters, trucks, and other tuk-tuks with staring passengers, our soundtrack a blaring beat-riddled “Mr. Sandman” (if you can possibly imagine).

IMG_1535Phuket struck me as crowded and a bit dirty, but people rave about the raves, and the beach resorts. My boyfriend and I weren’t up for its iconic full-moon parties, but this Andaman Island was on our way to the Thai jungle, further north, and we were ready for some some nice cocktails and good food. I figured Phuket must have earned its reputation with more than pills and parties. I was half-right.

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Kata Garden Resort

After the hot tuk-tuk journey we dragged our bags down a main beachside road that featured expensive hotels and zero character. It took us close to an hour to find a cool restaurant to sit down in and recharge, coming up short in the search for a room for the night. The beach hut we left behind in Ko Lanta was seeming more and more like a dream. We eventually only slumped into the restaurant to avoid heatstroke and reconsider our options. I used the free wifi to find a decently priced hotel up the road, and after some icy drinks we hopped into an oddly silent tuk-tuk and rode up to the Kata Garden Resort.

The grounds were lush with tropical flowers, a big, beautiful swimming pool and curving wooden stairs that climbed far up a hillside to our room. After a rest we set out on a short walk down to Kata Yai Beach. The journey was lined with cheap touristy shops and sidewalks crowded with Westerners. The beach-goers were beginning to thin out when we arrived and the sun began to set. We bought beers from a stand and settled onto plastic loungers to pay tribute. What followed ended up being the most incredible sunset I have ever witnessed. Just to our left were about a hundred people packing up their towels and throwing out their trash, and here was the Sun, easing its way down between the coast and a small island, beyond long-tail boats that had docked for the night.

phuket sunsetAt dusk we walked south, all the way to the end of the beach, and ate lobster at a restaurant perched on a seaside cliff. It was a perfect, tranquil evening in a place that seemed otherwise hectic, touristy and overpriced. Upon returning to our hotel, a live band was playing in the restaurant. We lingered to listen, dangling our feet in a small pool off the lobby, savoring the warm night.

The next morning we ordered a tuk-tuk and headed for the bus station, bound for the jungle. Our bus followed the coastline north for about an hour before veering inland, up heavily forested mountain roads. It was a fast and comfortable way to travel, and we slowed only to allow some passengers off and to make way for an elephant and his leader.

The Khao Sok National Park area is pretty vast, and it’s not even necessary to enter the park proper to enjoy this beautiful region. We had pre-booked accommodations, but our shuttle from the bus stop outside the park passed several good options. Ours was a treehouse at My Jungle House, a wood shack built into a tree beside a quiet river with hanging rope swings.

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I was looking forward to the canoe tour we booked, as well as evenings in the open-air treehouse bar and meals below on the veranda, but I won’t lie: my primary interest was monkeys. I’d never seen one outside a zoo, and my research told me this jungle was filled with gibbons and spectacled langurs. I was green with envy overhearing some guests talking about monkeys breaking into their treehouse while they were out, stealing food and vandalising their belongings. “What’s mine is yours, comrades,” I thought. “Just show yourselves.”

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Monkeys?

A crudely drawn map led us on a nature trail around the resort’s property. Faint wooden markers were nailed to trees to guide us, and the map pointed out semi-obvious landmarks like “giant banana tree”. Just when we suspected we were lost, and no monkeys in sight, the boyfriend walked into an enormous spider web. Gasping, he broke free by lunging backward as the occupant scuttered up the web and froze, awaiting our next move. Mine was towards the camera. Richard’s was to dance around in horror, brushing imaginary web filaments off him and yelling. We ended up having to dash underneath the web, as it stretched entirely over our path, and the spider seemed nonplussed. Back at the resort, they told us it was a golden orb web spider; large, but harmless to humans as its hooked appendages can’t penetrate human skin.

Monkeys!

Monkeys!

The next morning I got what I was waiting for. I heard a noise at dawn and crept out to our deck to watch a band of marauding monkeys descend on our neighbors’ deck. They loped and swung in from various angles, checking the locked door and sniffing around before moving on through the treetops, looking for another target to hit. I was thrilled, and was rewarded again later, when we went swimming down the river and walked home down a dirt road canopied by trees and swinging monkeys.

Thailand let me live out an adventurous fantasy in Khao Sok, after days of living out a peaceful beach fantasy. Not since Hawaii have I been in a place so like paradise. Only on this side of the world, paradise is dirt cheap and decidedly un-American.

 


REMEMBER:

  • Pre-booking accommodations seems a good idea on Phuket
  • Long pants and sleeves are best for jungle walks, to avoid bugs and plants
  • Take a flashlight if you’re staying in the jungle

 FORGET:

  • Beautiful accommodations are not dirt cheap in Phuket; you can pay quite a bit if you’re not careful

Help me fight Alzheimer’s for my mother: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society