The Ville of Urban Eatery

A few weeks ago, I shared some pictures of signs I had seen in Shanghai that were good examples of odd translations into English. While the signs in Thailand are generally more accurately translated, I did just recently run into one that made me pause.

An office building across from Central Chidlom department store is being renovated and rebranded as The Mercury Ville @ Chidlom. The tag line: “The Ville of Urban Eatery. The Venue of Urban Dining Flagship in Town.” I have no idea what that means.

A Grand Wedding in Chiang Mai

This week we have been in Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand, to attend the wedding of two friends of ours. Both Thai, one of them is from Chiang Mai, so it seemed the perfect setting for them to start married life.

The wedding was held at the Rachamankha Hotel, a 24-room boutique hotel located in the old city walls. The entire hotel was taken over by the wedding party and we arrived a few days early to enjoy the setting.

The entrance to the hotel is flanked by a pair of buildings that are designed in an interesting blend of tropical, Chinese, and colonial styles.

The interior courtyards echo Lanna architecture, the kingdom that covered Northern Thailand from the 13th to 18th centuries. Most of the rooms line the two courtyards. Ours was to the left. The pavilion in the center offers comfortable seating and nice breezes.

One of the front buildings is covered with vines, giving an interesting European feel to the entrance area.

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The preparations for the wedding started two days before. The grooms’ friends provided many of the services: flower decorations, cupcakes, and in the case of Tawn, designs of the wedding party’s female members’ dresses. Above, Tawn and I pose with the beautiful floral decorations.

Tawn poses with the nieces (and nephew) of the groom. He designed the dresses for the girls.

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The day of the wedding began with a traditional Buddhist wedding ceremony. The wedding party and guests walked to the local temple at 6:45 am to feed the monks.

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Monks and novices after receiving their alms. They then chanted and blessed the wedding party.

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We returned to the hotel and later in the morning, performed a traditional ceremony in which the parents and elders pour water over the couple’s hands. The beautiful puang malai garlands were placed around the couple’s necks. And in a nod to northern Thai tradition, guests tied strings around the couple’s wrists to wish them good luck and happiness.

In the late afternoon, a traditional Christian ceremony was held by a friend of the grooms who is a minister. A few minutes before the guests were seated, I snapped this picture of the courtyard that was decorated for the ceremony. The flower arrangements were amazing. The small white flowers in the grasses at the front of the picture were added by the florist.

After the service, guests were invited to participate in a loi krathong ceremony, in which small rafts holding flowers, incense, and a candle are launched – usually in a river or lake but we made do with the swimming pool – as a way of sending away bad fortune.

The swimming pool filled with krathong.

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After dinner, guests participated in another version of loi krathong that is unique to the north: yii ping. These paper lanterns are launched in the same gesture as floating the rafts of flowers, incense, and candles. It is something I’ve always wanted to see in person as it strikes me as very beautiful.

Here are two short videos that show the guests launching the lanterns. They will give you a sense of how beautiful the tradition is.

This second video is in HD.

We had a wonderful time at the wedding, truly honored to be a part of this special moment in two friends’ lives. We wish them all the happiness and a long life together.

 

Airplane Food – China Eastern Airlines

For our flights to and from Shanghai, we flew China Eastern Airlines. The only reason we chose this carrier, which is a member of the Sky Team alliance, is that their price was 60% of any other carrier’s – the Shanghai market seems to command unreasonably high air fares. The flight was fine, although the flight attendants are frumpily dressed and are surly in their attitude. They make the flight attendants at US airlines look cheerful. The thing I found particularly odd was how the meal service differed on the outbound and return flights.

Our outbound flight left Bangkok at 2:00 am, arriving Shanghai at 7:00. I would have expected that there would be no meal service for this four-hour red eye flight but about an hour after our delayed departure, the flight attendants served a choice of hot entrees for a relatively substantial meal. This is the duck with wide rice noodles. 

Our return trip left Shanghai at about 9:40 pm, arriving Bangkok just before 1:00 am. Considering that you need to arrive at the airport a few hours before departure, I expected they would serve a hot meal service, similar to what they unexpectedly served on the outbound flight. Instead, we were served a plastic box of snack items: dinner roll, slice of banana bread, hickory kernels, apple chips, onion cookies “with original flavour,” and what I think were Oreo-flavored cookie bars. In short, a very sad selection of food.

In this day and age, I guess I shouldn’t have any expectations for food served in economy class anywhere in the world, but I was confused by the difference in service levels between the two flights on the same route.

Shanghai Maglev Train

The fastest way to get between Pudong International Airport and downtown Shanghai is the maglev train. In fact, at speeds up to 430 kilometers per hour (267 miles per hour), the Shanghai maglev train is the fastest airport transport on the planet.

Mag lev, short for “magnetic levitation,” is a system in which a series of magnets allow the train to actually levitate above the track and be propelled and slowed. This means that there are no wheels or rails and, subsequently, no friction. It is an expensive technology but one that, if the costs could be decreased, could have profound effects on rail systems across the globe.

Interested to try this technology, Tawn and I decided to ride the maglev train to the airport for our departure. It was a short and fast trip, but one that required a taxi ride to the station in Pudong, the newer side of the city on the east bank of the river. The maglev station is connected to the subway system, but bringing your luggage in the crowded Shanghai subway is not a fun prospect. You could argue that, if you are already in a taxi, it would be faster just to keep driving to the airport.

Once we arrived at the station, we found the system easy to use and the train ride itself was relatively smooth and, of course, incredibly fast! All in all, the maglev train is probably more useful if you are staying in the Pudong area or are traveling light enough to connect to and from the subway. Even if you aren’t, the maglev train is worth doing at least once, just for the experience.

Shanghai Odds and Ends

Oh, Shanghai, you really do have such interesting things to see, don’t you? My trip there was full of odd moments, funny signs (not all of which were intentional), beautiful scenes, and colorful images that I will long remember.

A trio of signs in a housing estate meant to encourage residents to respect the greenery. Translations into English were a bit questionable: “You need spicery and I protection” (maybe relative to variety being the spice of life?); “Meet with life and green counterparts”; and “Treat plants wall and get good return” (okay, I kind of understood that one).

“Assists the happy building?” Sorry, come again?

We saw several health clinics with rather blunt names. Here is the Diarrhea Clinic. Okay, I guess that is easier to say than “Gastrointestinal Distress Clinic”.

Random advertisement: “Have duck, must have suck!!”

Street food! We passed a shop specializing in ham. They were preparing for a delivery, strapping ten smoked and dried pig legs to the back of a bicycle.

 

Roasted corn and sweet potatoes sold on the street. Perfect for cool weather! On the right, Daniel tries one. Sadly, I forgot to get a picture of Jason, too.

Lots of modern vehicles in Shanghai, but also a lot of people using pretty old (and inventive) methods of conveyance.

Wait a minute, is that a large stuffed bear in that cart?

Almost anything can fit on the back of a bicycle, even if it means that the passenger has to walk alongside.

The antiques market (“antiques” really needs quotes around it because few things are really antiques) is a great place for kitsch. My favorite must-have item:

Yes, a portrait of Chinese Communist Party heroes that changes images as you move. From the left: Jiang Zemin, Mao Zedong, and Deng Xiaoping. I guess the American equivalent would be Lincoln, FDR, and Kennedy?

Bird ownership is very popular in Chinese culture. I passed this guy standing on the street and couldn’t figure out at first glance what was in his hands. 

Lots of effort made to beautify the city. In front of a new set of retail shops that are about to open, someone decided to build a little fence around a fire hydrant, which they must have thought to be unsightly. The beautify the fence, they tied small artificial plants to it. Of course the tags are still on the plants, making the whole thing as ugly as could be. Oh, and I checked: the artificial plants were made in the USA. No, just kidding… they were made in China.

There were lots of buildings being built and shops being remodeled. I found this one interesting just because of the mirror.

Beautiful small park in the midst of the French Concession. It definitely has a European feel to it, doesn’t it?

Maybe it was just the chilly autumn weather, but love was everywhere in Shanghai.

Lots of people were taking wedding photos. It is common in a lot of Asian cultures to take your wedding photos before the day of the wedding. Maybe there is a rush of weddings in the next few months, to sneak them in during the auspicious Year of the Dragon?

We wanted to get in on the action, too! 

Okay, one more Shanghai entry coming up (about the mag-lev train to the airport) and that wraps up that trip. Happy Thanksgiving to everyone in the United States.

A Visit to West Lake and Hangzhou

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On Sunday during our visit to Shanghai, Tawn’s cousins arranged for us to drive to West Lake, a freshwater lake in Hangzhou, about a two-hour drive from Shanghai. Hangzhou is a city of almost nine million people located on the Yangtze River Delta, famous for its natural beauty.

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Our first stop was the Lingyin Temple, a Buddhist temple that dates back almost 1700 years. It is a wealthy temple, with many buildings and famous stone grottoes that include religious rock carvings. Being a Sunday and the weather being pleasant, the temple grounds were full of worshipers and other visitors.

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The smoke of thousands of sticks of incense hung heavy in the air, a perfumed fog through which the strong morning sun filtered. 

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Devotees lit handfuls of incense, not the mere trio of sticks common in Thai Buddhist temples, and every so often an uncle or auntie, waving their still-flaming incense with abandon in an effort to extinguish the flames, would nearly set another person alight. 

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The temple grounds were full of striking images and saturated colors – brightly painted buildings, monks in vibrant robes… 

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…and the rich reds associated with good fortune in the Chinese culture.

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The Hall of the Five Hundred Arhats features a complex floor plan laid out like a Buddhist swastika. Along the arms are bronze statues of the arhats, or Buddhist spiritual practitioners who have been liberated and attained nirvana. Each of the statues is unique, as are the seats upon which they rest.

We founds one statue which Tawn thought resembled his father’s grumpy frown. 

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Escaping the crowded, smoky temple, we drove a short way to the shores of West Lake. Our lunch was at a restaurant owned by the son of Hangzhou’s mayor, a friend of one of Tawn’s cousin’s colleagues. Because of these three-degrees of separation, we were seated in a small dining villa that offered a lovely view.

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Hangzhou is known for a variety of pan-fried green tea known as longjing, which we were served at the restaurant. It is very gentle, almost sweet tea and pleasant to drink.

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One of the highlights of our meal, beggar’s chicken. This famous dish is a bit complex to make (see here for one blogger’s attempt) but it is basically a marinated chicken that is stuffed, wrapped in leaves, then covered with clay and baked. The clay seals in all the moisture so you are left with a very tender, juicy bird. It is presented to the table unopened and the server asks whether you want them to open it or whether you prefer to do it yourself. We let the experts crack the clack.

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The second dish to arrive (sadly, I didn’t capture the name) was this cold gelatin-like lotus root. The sauce was sticky and sweet and it seemed more like a dessert than an appropriate second course.

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Another stand-out dish was the “gold medal braised sliced pork” or, as I like to call it, the ziggurat of bacon. The thin slices of braised pork belly are wrapped around a mold to create a delicate pyramid that you slowly unwind, slice by tasty slice. 

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The inside of the ziggurat is stuffed with fermented greens (lotus root, maybe?) that are a wonderful compliment to the rich pork. Combine that with some of the steamed bok choy and you have a balanced meal.

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The pork arrived with green crepes in which to wrap the pork and fermented vegetables. Add a dash of sauce and you had a burrito of porky goodness.

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An elaborate dish that didn’t live up to its promise was the crab meat steamed inside an orange. As the plastic bag was unwrapped, the aroma or orange was mouth-watering and the exquisite carvings on the orange were beautiful, but the sweetness of the orange overpowered the crab meat and one or two bites was sufficient.

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Getting full, the dishes continued to arrive. This was a tasty dish of greens and tofu, something simple but refreshing. 

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Shortly after we thought we could take no more, a huge bowl of noodle soup arrived with hand-pulled noodles and bitter greens. It was very tasty but I couldn’t manage but a few bites before I had to be rolled out of the restaurant, too full to walk.

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After lunch, we did end up walking to burn off some of the calories we had consumed. The scenery around West Lake is beautiful. Ah, tranquility… looks like we are there by ourselves, doesn’t it? But that’s not the whole story.

As you can see in this brief video, there were hordes of tour groups from all around China, each of them with a group leader waving a flag and amplified with a portable speaker that echoed their explanations and instructions across the lake.

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Walkways were full of tour groups, moving like the packs of zombies in The Walking Dead. It was fascinating to watch as groups from different directions would converge, the tourists jostling through each other like salmon swimming upstream.

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While walking, I heard the chirps of birds only to discover that vendors were selling bamboo whistles to visitors. None of the bird chirps were real! 

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Still, if you turned and looked the other way, you could block much of the din of the crowd and enjoy the beautiful scenery, sights so beautiful they deserve to be painted and perhaps have been hundreds of times.

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There were even some spots where couples could enjoy their own private moment, something that must be a rare commodity in such a crowded city.

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On the western side of the lake, the trees were starting to show some autumn colors and the lotuses turned their leaves to the sky.

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Tawn’s cousins Paul and Nicha pose with us at West Lake. Interestingly, I was approached by two teenage girls who wanted to take their picture with me. Paul took a picture of that and I’ll have to see if I can get a copy to share with you. They either thought I was someone famous or, more likely, were from somewhere in the country and don’t see white people ever. Anyhow, it was an enjoyable trip!

President Obama’s Motorcade in Bangkok

President Obama was in Bangkok Sunday as part of a three-day tour of Southeast Asia. The primary purpose of his visit is to attend the East Asia summit in Cambodia this week, but he is fitting in short visits to Thailand and Myanmar (Burma) as well. As coincidence would have it, I was crossing Ratchaprasong intersection on the way to lunch at Central World Plaza just as his motorcade left the Four Seasons Hotel.

The thing that struck me as most interesting is that the police put fewer restrictions on traffic (see that commuter van hanging in the middle of the intersection, waiting to turn right) for President Obama’s motorcade than they do for the motorcades of some members of certain Thai VIPs. In fact, pedestrians are usually not allowed on the bridges when those VIP motorcades pass. That said, the entire block around the Four Seasons was full of Thai and US security personnel and there were checkpoints on the road heading both directions.

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My friend Doug de Weese received an invitation to the reception and dinner for President Obama held last night at Government House. These pictures are courtesy of him. Here we have the President and Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra posing with the performers from the reception. Notice how the children in the front row are dressed – it took me a while to figure out what was going on.

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In this picture, the President is greeting the performers. Oddly, the caucasian students are dressed as Thai farmers and the Thai students are dressed, I guess, as how Americans children are perceived to dress. The boys are dressed as punks (along with the one boy wearing a “I heart Hugs” shirt). In the pervious picture, you will see that the girls are all dressed in some vaguely 1980s Cyndi Lauper / Madonna look. Curious.