Burkas and the Art of Roti Canai

Twenty years ago, the markets of southern Thailand and Malaysia were visually stunning events marked by the colorful silk robes and wispy conical headscarves worn by ethnic Malay women. Eye-popping floral prints and soothing pastels greeted visitors as did the hospitable smiles of chatty sales women. But not-so-subtle changes reveal the allure and the sway of more fundamental Arab influences on the once moderate Islam of Southeast Asia.

Increasingly, we are seeing fully veiled women, and much of the colorful clothing has been replaced with solemn shades of black and grey. Equally noticeable is the more conservative behavior of these women. Interestingly, outside of conservative Aceh in northern Sumatra, this kind of clothing was virtually absent the first time I came to Southeast Asia in 1990. The visible shift in style along with references such as this disturbing menu in Penang can leave visitors somewhat uneasy.

For Thomas and me, these shifts can be unsettling for various reasons, most importantly some residual fears after being caught up in the attack on Mumbai. More severe Islamic clothing still sends a shiver down my spine, whether it’s fair or not. Muslim friends we meet along the way assure us that clothes are  just clothes. On several occasions, I have heard Muslim men swoon with memories of their veiled mothers cooking delicious meals for them as a child. These recollections have been completely incomprehensible to me… until now Continue…

Wet’n Wild on Songkran

Thais celebrate their New Year’s Day with quite a splash. While Chinese New Year centers around food, Songkran is all about throwing water on friends, family, neighbors, or unsuspecting passers-by. Watery street battles with hoses, water guns, buckets, and paper cups take place during the hottest part of the year, which makes the ice-water ammunition all the more painful. (Although, luckily, not nearly as painful as Holi in India.)

We’ve put together a short video of the Songkran celebrations in Khao Lak to give you an idea of the one-day spectacle. Keep in mind when visiting Thailand that Songkran can last up to a week in the northern provinces. That’s a lot of ice water down your shirt!

For culture buffs, there’s a much deeper meaning behind Songkran. Traditionally, water used to clean Buddha statues on New Year’s Day was gently poured over family members to show them respect and wish them good fortune. This tradition has obviously morphed into what Songkran is today: a wild water battle.

Nothing to Write Home About

We normally like to showcase the most interesting, the most mind-boggling, or the most exciting facts and places on our blog. Rarely do we talk about areas which have no appeal to travelers what-so-ever. Places which might be considered boring. Fact is, I often fall in love with mid-size towns, functional cities, and transportation hubs with zero tourist attractions. Why? Because there is Continue…

Penang Pictorial

Twenty years ago, I passed through Penang on my way to Sumatra. My two days here were enjoyable, but now I realize that I saw absolutely nothing during my short stay. Wow, did I underestimate this place.

Fortunately, Thomas and I had the opportunity to return and take some time to explore Penang’s amazing cultural and natural heritage. It takes time to appreciate the depth of Penang. No place more deserves the title of World Heritage Site. For that reason, I’ve put together a pictorial to share Penang’s treasures with everyone.

Food and Family

Because we travel constantly and life is one continuous string of new experiences, it would be easy for visitors to our site to dismiss our stay here in Penang as yet another stop on the traveler’s trail. It is not.

Penang is a vastly more personal experience for us because we are meeting our Malaysian family, the family of my stepfather Ken, for the first time. For years, we have heard stories about Ken’s mom, Jimmy, Ken, Mei Ling, David and Stephen and their respective families. Getting to know the people behind these names is unquestionably a highlight of our travels so far. They have greeted us with open arms and more food than anyone could ever possibly eat in a lifetime. Oh my god, people, you’ve never seen so much food!!!

We ate and ate and talked, and then we had a snack before we went to dinner. After dessert, we stopped to try a local specialty. The next day, we ate and ate some more. I have literally never eaten so much food in my life – and I have loved every bite. In Chinese culture, food is Continue…

Send in the Clowns

This is just a normal day in Bangkok : TnT being swamped by a band of colorful clowns. Seriously, Tony’s always helping me get over my “irrational” fears. This time, I’m helping him get over his coultrophobia. 😉

New Year’s Prayers

Bangkok locals are racing to the city’s temples to ring in the New Year with prayers for success, prosperity, and – major afterthought – a little guidance on the path towards enlightenment. Disconnecting from the material world is a tough sell in the city of a thousand malls, but for just $9.95, a monk can help you with that.

But seriously, New Year’s is a phenomenal, if somewhat crowded, time to check out the city’s temples with all the ritual and celebration that takes place.  We just can’t get enough.  By the way, does anyone out there know what’s up with the Borg-like string ritual at the Wat Pathum Wanaram?

Northern Vietnam

Our amazing time in Vietnam is slowly coming to an end. From the traditional hill tribes of Bac Ha and Can Cau to hip Hanoi to magnificent Halong Bay, the North is just as impressive as South and Central Vietnam. Although we are sad to leave, we are more than happy to have explored this diverse region. Follow along in our 4-minute video and see for yourself, why you should definitely be planning a trip to Vietnam in the near future.

Chu, Powerfrau

For many visitors, beautiful Sapa can be a little annoying with all the tribal women accosting you in the streets to buy souvenirs. But behind the sales pitch are real people struggling to make a living in a world that offers little opportunity for tribal communities. Chu, a feisty little Black Hmong woman, followed us through the streets trying to sell us bracelets, postcards, whatever. She tried all her cleverly designed sales pitches and edgy one-liners without any success. Somehow, our resistance to her spiel seemed to intrigue her. She even labeled me “Mr. No.” Over the course of the day, we encountered her several times and eventually spent some time talking to her.

What struck me most was how intelligent and witty she was. Her English language skills were exceptional and, in another world, she would have been a high-powered business woman, a politician, or a scientist. Instead, she travels the long distance from her village to Sapa every day to stalk tourists and earn a little money to help maintain her family. Good for you, Chu.