My week in a Taipei love motel

I travel frequently for work. Sometimes, this leads to some exciting adventures and unexpected, delightful discoveries. Hidden treasures, if you will. This last trip to Taipei included an altogether un-delightful discovery: I had booked myself into a love motel.

For those of you not in the know, a love motel is a place where couples, married and otherwise, can book some private quality time. It seems such places are more common in Asia where multiple generations live together and you might not be able to find as much privacy.

This place, the Mulan Motel in Taipei, is located very close to my office. After some disappointing experiences at other nearby hotels, I searched on booking.com and found the Mulan. “Ah yes,” I thought, “I’ve passed by that several times. It looks quite decent.”

Sure enough, the photos and reviews on booking.com were quite positive and the price was reasonable – only about US$130 a night. So I booked it.

Being a price-sensitive traveller, always trying to save my company money, I took the train in from the airport and walked the 800 meters from the station to my hotel. My first clue that this was not your average hotel was the lack of a lobby. Instead, you descended a driveway into a subterranean car park. The only office was a larger-than-normal guard box.

I also noticed that all of the parking spaces had a curtain that could be pulled around the car. “Perhaps to keep the dust off?” I optimistically thought.

Taking the lift to my room, I noticed the interior was quite dark and gaudy. Clearly a different decorating scheme than a conventional hotel. Then I found my room and opened the door:

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The room was quite large, with high ceilings and ostentatious decorations. A large bed sat in the middle of the room, with a large television and speaker system across from it. The light did not get any brighter and mood music played automatically. The far wall was solid glass with a heavy black curtain blocking the view to the bathroom.

My first clue that this might not be a long-stay hotel was the lack of a closet in which to hang my clothes. The second clue were the condoms in a bowl by the side of the bed. “Well,” I thought, “maybe the expectations are a bit different in the Taiwanese culture?”

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The bathroom was almost as large as the bedroom with a deep bathtub and a glass shower. There were towels and the usual amenities but it all felt a little off. Everything was clean, though.

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Oddly, there were no windows. Or, rather, the windows were covered with a black plastic film that, I discovered the next morning, had exotic butterfly shapes cut out in them so the morning sun would stream through them in a not-quite-claustrophobic way.

The staff seemed to sense my confusion. They struggled to create a proper invoice for me – unlikely that any of their guests have asked for proof of payment! They were friendly, though, and directed me to the restaurant where a sorry set breakfast was available included in the price of my room.

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The only upside to this hotel was the location. It was a two-minute walk from Starbucks, a three-minute walk from the office, and a five-minute run from a beautiful park along the river, where I ran two mornings with a colleague.

Thankfully, my week at the love motel was only three nights. I ended up unharmed and unmolested and upon my return wrote a strongly worded review on booking.com that this hotel should not be listed there as it is appropriate for neither business travelers nor families.

 

Visiting Tong Hua Night Market in Taipei

Last week I was in Taipei on business. One of my rules of business travel is, whenever possible, to explore the city and eat at least one meal out and about, so I come away with at least some sense of the city. Thankfully, Taipei is a familiar city and I was fortunate to have two friends join me for a trip to the Tong Hua Street Market in Da’an District.

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The objective of this visit was to locate a popular restaurant that serves gua bao, the steamed buns filled with braised pork belly and other goodies that I’ve previously tried making¬†and have enjoyed at Little Bao in Hong Kong.

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Thankfully, one of the local HR team members did some research for me and found a helpful article on the Lauhound food blog. The target restaurant was Shi Jia Gua Bao, a local chain famous for their gua bao.

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The menu is limited: basically there are steamed gua bao with a few different types of fillings, a baked bagel-like bun with a more limited selection of fillings, and the Taiwanese version of xiao long bao, a steamed pork bun.

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The shop manager was friendly and more than happy for me to take pictures. Vats of steaming buns and all the ingredients sat at the ready, ensuring us of a freshly-made, high-quality meal.

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The basic gua bao features both slices of fatty belly and slices of leaner meat. The size of the bao is larger than I have seen at some places: about the size of a McDonald’s hamburger. While a little messy to eat, the flavor was rich and satisfying.

Prices range from 50-65 New Taiwan Dollars, or less than US$2. Quite a bargain for the quantity and quality of food.

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The baked version, somewhat akin to a bagel, was not as enjoyable. While filled with the same tasty ingredients, the baked bun was dry and brittle, leaving me thirsty. Better to stick with the steamed version.

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Another interesting item was the xiao long bao. The Shanghainese version with which I am familiar (think of the ones at Din Tai Fung restaurant) feature as paper-thin noodle skin and the filling includes not only pork but a cube of flavorful gelatinized stock that melts when the bun is steamed, producing hot soup that will gush all over if you do not eat it carefully.

In contrast, the traditional Taiwanese version is made with a thicker bread dough so there is no stock inside, as it would only be absorbed by the bread. This was much less satisfying, although the pork filling was tasty enough.

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Wandering through the rest of the market, we encountered a stinky tofu vendor. The tofu was stinky, not the vendor! Made by fermenting the tofu in a brine that can contain all manner of ingredients, the smell of stink tofu is as strong as that of blue cheese. It sparks similar responses, with some people loving it and others repulsed by it. Also similar to blue cheese, the flavor and the smell are different.

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Here, the tofu is served lightly deep fried with a healthy dose of chili oil and pickled cabbage as a garnish. It was a very satisfying dish to try, although the bottom pieces, thoroughly soaked in the chili oil, were blindingly spicy.

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My friends Nathan and Andrew (aka loserstepaside here in WordPress) join me at the Tong Hua night market. The stinky tofu was Andrew’s idea.

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At the far end of the market was a vendor selling sheng jian bao, a pan-fried bun that I fell in love with in Shanghai, where I ate several times at Yang’s Buns.

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The skins are moderately thick, not as much as the gua bao but not so thin as gyoza. However, like gyoza they are fried on a cast iron pan that is filled with a generous amount of water, covered, and allowed to steam. The cover is removed after about five minutes and the remained of the liquid boils off.

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The sheng jian bao are served in a box of ten or a bag of five, sprinkled with sesame seeds and, in some places, chopped green onions.

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The insides are still steaming hot and the pork, ginger, and green onion filling is juicy and salty. These are a mess to eat but worth it, as the combination of crunchy bottom, pillowy soft wides, and warm, juice filling is too much to resist.

All in all, the Tong Hua market will give you many great things to see, do, and eat!

Also known as the Linjiang Street Night Market, located near Xinyi Anhe MRT station.

Trying My Hand at Making Bao Burgers

After a long while, I finally had the opportunity to try making my own Chinese-style bao burgers. The verdict? Pretty tasty and easier than I expected!

One of my favorite restaurants in the word is Little Bao in Hong Kong. (Read my review of it.) They are one in a crowd of restaurants doing more modern twists on the Chinese (specifically, Taiwanese) gua bao, steamed flour buns folded in half around pork belly, braised chicken, or other fillings.

P1280602A spicy fried chicken with garlic black bean mayo and scallion coleslaw bao from Little Bao in Hong Kong.

The conceit at Little Bao is that instead of a folded bun, they make their bao more like hamburger buns. This makes it possible to include more tasty fillings, offering a better balance of bread to filling. It was that hamburger-like quality that I wanted to achieve.

Day One

I worked with my friend Chow (aka the Bangkok Glutton), my frequent co-conspirator in the kitchen. The basic recipe for the bao is simple: flour, water, yeast, a bit of baking powder and a bit of salt. Some versions have some milk added for softness – I didn’t try that this time. You let the dough rise a few times, punching it down between rises but trying to avoid over-working it, because bao are meant to be soft, not chewy.

IMG_4867The first day, we made bao the traditional way, rolling them out into an oblong shape and them folding them in half over a piece of wax paper. This allows them to be opened and stuffed more easily. They are then steamed for about 8-10 minutes and can either be served warm or kept covered and reheated if necessary.

As for the red decoration, I found that trick in one online recipe. You use red food coloring and the tip of a chopstick to decorate the buns just before steaming. Looks pretty professional! Our kitchen assistants became more creative and so we ended up with all sorts of designs on our bao.

IMG_4872For the first day’s bao, we used some braised pork belly, homemade radish pickles, some braised cabbage, and some Italian parsley. It turned out okay, but the bao were a bit flat, brittle at the fold, and the fillings were underwhelming in flavor. All in all, though, a good first attempt.

Day Two

The second day we let the dough rise more and also shaped it into balls, making it more like a hamburger bun. This worked better although I think we over-worked the dough a bit, as it was tough.

IMG_4928The pictures don’t do justice, but the fillings were a great deal better this time around. We tried a different recipe for the pork belly, which had much more flavor than the original recipe.

IMG_4933We also did a duck breast, which I paired with the seasonings I had used the day before for the pork belly. This, too, was very nice.

IMG_4939The star of the show was a more traditional Taiwanese version with chicken thigh meat braised in Chinese rice wine and soy sauce served with chopped peanuts. This was so tasty, I could have eaten a half-dozen and I will have to try it again soon.

IMG_4937As an added bonus, since I was also teaching two friends’ children to cook, we made a homemade chicken noodle soup with both the broth and the noodles from scratch. I think the noodles came out a bit too “spaetzle-like” but they were tasty and the broth was the first time I’ve made a chicken broth that really wowed me.

Stay tuned for more from the kitchen.

 

Dining in Taipei: Kiki Restaurant

This last trip to Taipei marked my third time dining at Kiki Restaurant. Despite being owned by a celebrity (usually a black mark) and having multiple branches (often tough to maintain quality), Kiki Restaurant serves very good Szechuan-inspired food in a pleasant setting with attentive service. Each of my visits has been to the branch on Fuxing South Road in the Zhongshan District.

Crispy deep-fried egg tofu. Egg tofu is literally a type of tofu that has eggs incorporated before the soy milk is coagulated. When fried, the inside has a creamy, custard-like texture that is very pleasant to eat. This dish was not oily at all and was a very enjoyable start to the meal.

The second dish was a marinated chicken dish. While the chicken is cooked, the dish is served cold. This is a bit of an acquired taste for some people as the chicken skin has a texture that might be described as “rubbery but not chewy”. The flavor is excellent – Taiwanese chickens are the most flavorful I have eaten anywhere. The seasoning was chili oil, peanuts, and green onions.

The third dish was stir fried minced pork with Chinese chives and fermented black beans. This was a fantastic dish, lots of umami thanks to the black beans. Visually, it is eye-catching, too!

Our fourth dish was Szechuan style spicy noodles with minced pork, also known as “dan dan noodles”. Made with Szechuan peppercorns as well as chilies, this dish gently numbs the tongue while also setting it on fire. The key to this dish is to achieve the right balance. Too many of the peppercorns and your tongue ends up useless.

What might be one of the most popular Szechuan dishes worldwide, four season beans with minced pork and Chinese spices. Cooked in a blazing hot wok, the beans are seared quickly, locking in their flavor and freshness.

We also consumed several orders of the “home-style” Chinese bread roll, a very simple wheat flour roll served either steamed or deep fried with a side of sweetened condensed milk. Sugi and Tawn both liked the deep fried version. I found it a little oily and preferred the steamed version.

As always, we benefitted greatly from Andy (yang1815) handling the ordering. Andy’s good taste and enthusiasm for food is infectious and makes traveling with him a blast.

 

Pastry in Taipei – Boîte de Bijou

While in Taipei for Andy and Sugi’s wedding banquet, I visited a cute little patisserie called Boîte de Bijou (“Jewel Box”). Both visits were to their second location on AnHe Road in the Da’An district, just across the street from Far Eastern Plaza mall. The first visit was fantastic. The second visit was a disaster.

This location is not very large but has a stylish, modern decoration that mostly showcases the beautiful pastries they create. You can select many of your own items and fancier, more delicate items (cakes, for example), can be selected at the counter.

Indoor seating is limited to one communal table and a half-dozen seats at the counter at the coffee bar. With beautiful marble-lined walls and a great view of the barrista, who is preparing most of the dishes on the menu, the counter is a good place to be.

The pastries are fantastic. Beautiful, well-executed, and nicely presented. This blueberry tart featured beautiful ripe berries and inside the tart was a hidden pocket of jam.

This pistachio cake was beautiful to look at and had a delicate foamy texture with a cookie crumb base and a raspberry filling. 

A surprise find was kouign amann, a Brittany-style pastry that has been gaining popularity worldwide. It is made similar to croissant dough except that sugar is sprinkled on each layer as it is folded and rolled out, making for a sweeter, more caramelized treat. The kouign amann here was a little tough and not as special as the other desserts.

Andy, Sugi, and I had a very pleasant afternoon break while Tawn was back at the hotel, taking a nap. Sadly, when I returned with Tawn a few days later, eager to share this cute little find with him, we ended up with a bad taste in our mouth.

Most of the seating at Boîte de Bijou is in an outdoor patio. When we arrived the second time, all the tables were occupied except one. Tawn sat down and I went inside to order pastries. As those were being prepared, I went to the coffee bar to order some drinks. The (manager? supervisor? random employee?) asked me where I was sitting and when I said we were sitting outside, she said that there was no room outside. I assured her we already had a table and even walked outside with her to show that Tawn was already sitting at the table.

In the next sixty seconds, my pleasant feelings about this patisserie melted away like spun sugar in a warm mouth. 

“Oh, that table is reserved,” she said. When we asked why there was no sign or any other indication that the table was reserved, she simply repeated that the table was reserved. When I asked where we should sit instead, she replied that they were full. “But I’ve already ordered our food,” I explained. “We’re busy today,” was her response.

I understand that there was probably a bit of a language barrier. We didn’t speak Mandarin and English is probably not her first language. But for so classy a shop, there was absolutely no class to their service. No apology, no attempt to accommodate us, nothing. The ideal solution would have been something like, “I’m so sorry we forgot to put a sign on that table. Since you’ve ordered your food already, could we prepare it to go and I’d be happy to give you your drinks for free to make up for your inconvenience.” 

Instead, she seemed uninterested in helping us, so we decided to leave. No food, no payment, just walked out the door, abandoning our pastries.

So if you make it to Taipei, there’s a really cute patisserie down a small lane. But before you go, be aware that their customer service lags behind their baking skills.

 

Yang Wedding Banquet in Taipei

We were fortunate to be part of Andy (yang1815) and Sugi’s wedding banquet in Taipei last weekend. Here are some pictures from the banquet (especially the food!), which was hosted at the very nice Regent Taipei Hotel.

Andy and Sugi pose with their nephews in the greeting room just outside the banquet hall. We had met the middle of the three nephews at the wedding in Maui last year and enjoyed meeting the other two on this trip. 

There was a large ice sculpture of two cupids about to kiss, melting quickly underneath the lightbulbs. It wasn’t until the way out that someone pointed out to me that the “male” cupid was anatomically correct and, I suppose, less well endowed after two hours than he was at the start of the banquet.

Andy’s father speaks to the guests while Sugi’s father, Sugi, and Andy sit at the table and await the first course. Chinese banquets are elaborate affairs. Usually about a dozen courses and great care is taken to choose the best (read: “expensive”) ingredients as a matter of showing a good “face” to the guests. The Yangs certainly were outstanding hosts as this was one of the finest banquets I’ve attended and every course was impressive. Here they are in the order they arrived.  

The first plate (everything at this banquets was plated for us, not served off common platters) was an appetizer salad of smoked goose breast. The orange ingredient is a kind of solid “cake” of fish eggs, if I understand correctly, the saltiness of which paired nicely with the tender, smoky goose.

The next course was a small bowl of slightly sweet mochi (sticky rice) dumplings with longan fruit. This was an interesting dish that is similar to desserts I have eaten in Thailand. It seemed strange that something dessert-like would be served as a second course, but the dish was tasty. 

Third course was abalone. This is one of those big-ticket ingredients that impresses guests and this particular succeeded in doing so. The abalone was tender and flavorful, a really good example of why the price tag is so high. 

The fourth course was braised scallops. In general, scallops are one of my favorite ingredients and these particular scallops were cooked really nicely. 

The next course was shark’s fin soup. Yes, this is an unpopular ingredient these days as most shark fins are harvested in a horrific manner. While I don’t know the source of these particular fins, I can say that this was the best shark fin soup I’ve had. Normally, the fins are cut into very thin strips and the broth is murky with cornstarch. This was a clear-broth soup and the fins were in large pieces. A good example of why this dish is considered a must-have on Chinese banquet menus. 

The sixth course was steamed sea bream with scallions. Chinese know how to cook fish and this captured the reason why: steaming keeps the fish moist, captures all the sweetness of fresh seafood, and avoids overcooking.

The seventh course was braised pork tendons with okra and chestnuts. The gelatinous texture of pork tendons doesn’t appeal to everyone, I’m sure, but it is hard to beat the flavor! 

The eighth course was something I’ve never seen before, a pork chop that has been cooked confit style and crusted with what I swear were Doritos and corn flakes. The meat was tender and very tasty. Definitely unusual. 

The ninth course was a chicken soup made with “black bone” chicken. This type of chicken has black skin but tastes like any other chicken. One truth, though, is that chickens in Asia (in general, and Taiwan in particular) are so much tastier than the chickens in the United States. The broth had the type of flavor that you always imagine chicken soup should have, but rarely does. 

The tenth course was a small bundle of glutinous rice with Chinese sausage, mushrooms, and lotus seeds, steamed in taro leaf. This is a dim sum staple and provided a little starch to help fill you up, just incase the previous nine courses had left you hungry! 

 

The eleventh course (the first dessert course) was actually two types of pastries, the left one filled with sweetened daikon radish and the right one filled with barbecued pork. These are familiar to anyone who goes to dim sum.

We concluded with a platter of fresh fruit, something sweet but refreshing to conclude the banquet. By this point, nobody had the appetite to do more than just nibble!

Congratulations to Andy and Sugi and thanks to the Yangs for their very generous hospitality! 

 

Taipei Wrap Up

Despite traveling from one end of Taiwan to the other on the High Speed Rail, I was back in Taipei by ten minutes after noon.  I rushed to one of the subway lines and a few minutes later, met my friend Jay for lunch at a large hotel.

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Jay and I worked together during the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival many years ago.  He has since moved back to Taiwan and is running a company that produces and distributes various media with an emphasis on television channels.  After lunch, he invited me to attend a press conference that was being held to promote a competition held by the Syfy channel.

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Lin Yu-hsien, Director of the 2011 Taiwanese hit film Jump Ashin, appeared at the press event with two young ladies who, if I understand correctly, work with the tourism board and produce all sorts of internet media.  Their “thing” is that they plank all over the place in Taiwan.  Why anyone would choose to lie face down on a hotel conference room’s carpeting is beyond me.  How they relate to the Syfy channel contest is beyond me, too.  Made for an interesting experience, though.

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Afterwards, Jay and I embarked on a somewhat whirlwind series of events.  First stop, the Taipei Fine Arts Museum where we breezed through several exhibits including one featuring works by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei.  Maybe we weren’t in much of an art mood, but neither Jay nor I were particularly impressed by the artist’s works.  The one above, “Forever Bicycles,” is perhaps the best-known work in the exhibit.  It is visually interesting but I’m not sure that it really says all that much. 

We also stopped for coffee at the downtown Taipei airport and hung out on the observation deck, which has good views of flights coming and going for “near international” destinations like Tokyo and Shanghai. 

I headed back out to Taoyuan Airport, the main international airport, using the high speed train and bus connection.  As our schedules worked out well, I was able to meet Xangan Jack (made2order), who had just returned to Taipei a week earlier and was helping a chef friend at the Novotel airport hotel conduct a cooking class.  No pictures, unfortunately, but enjoyed talking food and cooking with him and the chef friend, an Indian man who has worked in Taipei several years.

Back at the airport, I zoomed through security and immigration and headed to the lounge, where my carry-on bag was waiting for me in the locker.  Enough time to shower again, change clothes, and catch my breath before boarding the flight to Bangkok.

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As I mentioned in my previous post, I used miles to upgrade to business class on this final segment of my trip.  I did this primarily to make sure I had access to the airline lounge, lest I end up stuck at the airport for my entire 15-hour layover.  The other benefit, of course, was that my final three-hour flight was an extremely comfortable one!

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Menus were distributed before takeoff along with glasses of Champagne.   EVA has started distributing menus for the economy class on long-haul flights, too, which seems a little silly but at least you end up feeling like your choice of meals is a bit nicer than just “chicken or beef”.

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Business class cabin on the A330.  The load on this flight, which continues from Bangkok to Vienna, was light, maybe 40% in business class and not much more in economy.  The man sitting across the aisle from me was also taking lots of pictures so I guess someone else has blogged about this flight, too.

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Appetizer of a chicken pate served in crust with salmon roe and salad.

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Choice of various breads including garlic toast.  The one of the right is a rustic whole grain bread.

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My selection for dinner, poached noodles with braised beef shank and tendon served in superior sauce.  Very tasty, although a little bit of tendon goes a long way for me.

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On-board espresso machine produces lattes and other drinks to order with a rock sugar stir stick.

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Dessert was a modest fruit plate.

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Business class passengers were given an immigration priority lane pass, which was really pointless for a 2:30 am arrival as that is after the last wave of arriving flights and there are no lines at the immigration counters.  That said, I breezed through and was the first to arrive at the baggage claim.  I then had to wait fifteen minutes for the bags to start arriving.  Thankfully, mine were among the first few bags to come off the belt!

Catching a taxi home, I was in bed by 4:00 am, exhausted from my more than fifty hour journey from Kansas City.

Riding the Taiwan High Speed Rail

When booking my flight back to Bangkok, I was able to find a cheaper fare if I included a 15-hour layover in Taipei.  Not only did this save money, it also afforded me enough time to finally take a ride on Taiwan’s High Speed Rail system.

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A trio of trains sits in the winter sun at Zuoying station, the southern terminus of the Taiwan High Speed Rail. 

I’ve prepared a seven-minute video that tells the whole story, embedded below.  Or else you can just browse a selection of pictures and descriptions below.  Your choice.

After a nearly 15-hour flight from Los Angeles, of which I managed to sleep more than 10, I arrived in Taipei a few minutes before 6:00 in the morning.  My extended layover had caught the attention of EVA staff, who met me at the entrance to the security screening for connecting passengers.  The agent wanted to know what I was going to do for that length of time.  If I was going to go into the city, she explained, they wanted my boarding pass back.  That way they would know when I had returned and checked in again, reducing the uncertainty of a potentially missing connecting passenger.

Not keen on doing that, I explained that I was going to go through security and wait in the lounge.  “Okay,” the agent said, “but if you come back please stop by the customer service counter and give us your boarding pass.”

“Sure,” I lied.

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For this final leg of the trip, I cashed in some miles and upgraded to business class.  The only reason to do this is that the lounge facilities are nicer and there was a risk I’d end up having to stay in the lounge the whole time if my plans to go into the city went awry. 

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First thing upon arriving in the empty lounge was to take a shower.  My tote bag contained three changes of clothes: one for the previous night in LA, one for this morning after arrival in Taipei, and a third for the end of the day before heading home to Bangkok.  One key to comfortable long-haul travel is to be able to change your clothes every so often.  Fifty hours is too long for one outfit!

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After the shower and a shave I enjoyed a spot of breakfast from the lounge.  The food is better than you might expect and there is a variety of both western and Asian food.  A latte helped wake me from my drug-induced drowsiness and steeled me for my day ahead.

On the way out of the lounge, I explained that I was going to go out for a while and inquired whether I would have any problem re-entering the lounge since they had already taken my invitation card.  “No worries, sir,” I was told.  “Do you want to leave your bag in a locker?”

That was a helpful offer as I would otherwise have had to pay for a rental locker in the main terminal building, something that isn’t very expensive but made for one more step.  My bag securely stored in a complimentary locker in the lounge, I walked back downstairs through security (explaining to the guard that I had gone the wrong way and had meant to go to immigration), passed the EVA agent who had spoken to me about getting my boarding pass (didn’t make eye contact; just kept walking), and continued to Immigration, where I was the last person in a modest queue.

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After breezing through Immigration and Customs, I followed the signs to the High Speed Rail shuttle bus.  This is U-bus number 705.  The ticket counter is inside the doors and the service, which runs every 20 minutes or so, was just 30 NTD (about US$1).  Interestingly, I had thought that it was a free service, but it seems to only be free for the return portion.

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The Taoyuan HSR station is a ten-minute drive from the airport.  The station itself isn’t much to look at from the outside, although the interior is clean and inviting.

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Across from the HSR station is the construction site for the Taoyuan Airport MRT line, which will provide direct rail service to the airport starting in 2013.  This will ease some of the load off the High Speed Rail as there seem to be many passengers who use the HSR to connect to and from the city, causing a surge of passengers on this approximately 36 km portion of the route.  Once the MRT line is open, the High Speed Rail will be used by the longer distance passengers while local passengers can just use the MRT.  It will also provide an easier connection for passengers riding the HSR from points south and then connecting to the airport, eliminating the bus ride.

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The interior of the Taoyuan station, modern but plain.  Lots of clear signage, though.

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The Zuoying station, the southern terminus of the HSR, has a much more spacious looking terminal, similar to many recently built airport terminals.  

After purchasing my tickets and stopping by Starbucks for another latte (they have Starbucks at each of the HSR stations, save one, as I learned in the seat back pocket magazine), I descended to the platform and waited less than five minutes for my train to arrive.  Service seems to run about once every half-hour, although there are some express trains that run in between, skipping many of the stations on the route.

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For the southbound journey, I bought a ticket in the economy cabin for NTD 1330, or about US$ 44.  This is for a roughly 300km journey that took 1 hour, 40 minutes.  An airline ticket (although the HSR has resulted in a significantly reduced the number of flights offered each day) is about twice that much and takes about one hour, not including check-in time, etc.

The seating is five-abreast in seats very comparable to airline economy class seats.  With the exception of three of the cars, seats are assigned.  Unassigned seats cost NTD 1260, a modest discount.

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While I haven’t done a lot of train travel, I can understand the appeal.  These seats are similar to an airplane’s but have much more legroom and the ability to get up and move around the cabin any time you want.  Compared to the experience on an airplane these days, the train sure looks like a nicer way to travel. 

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The train also offers two cars of business class, which I tried on the return trip.  The fare for the same Taoyuan to Zuoying is NTD 1760, a 32% premium over economy class.  For the money you get a wider seat – only two-by-two seating – and several other features.  Notice, though, that the carpet in the aisle is badly worn.

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Legroom is even greater than in economy, with wide armrests to ensure you aren’t elbowing your seatmate.  The footrest confused me a bit.  The only position it folded to was nearly on the floor of the train, which doesn’t raise your feet very comfortably.

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Several channels of music are available, although you have to bring your own headset.  In this day and age, I wonder if anyone is not already traveling with their own digital music player?

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The business class seats also come with power plugs in case you want to recharge your digital music player, phone, etc.  Interesting that they are not the three-prong grounded plug.

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The back of each tray table has a map showing the amenities on the twelve-car train.  These include a trio of vending machines as well as several lavatories.  There are also phone booths but they do not actually have any telephones in them.  Maybe just a quiet spot in case you need to make a call?

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Attendants roll up and down the aisles with snack carts, featuring drinks and food items.

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My business class ticket entitled me to a free beverage (coffee – not too bad, actually), snack mix, and a chocolate cake/cookie thing.

My overall impression of the system, which reaches its fifth anniversary on January 5, is very positive.  The timing was perfect, as I had listened to a KQED podcast about California’s High Speed Rail Commission just a few days before and was thinking about the pros and cons of building a high speed rail system there.  There is also an initiative here in Thailand to get Chinese investment to help build four high speed rail routes, so I was very keen to have the chance to actually try high speed rail.

Ultimately, high speed rail is an expensive proposition.  But it is also one that can be very convenient to use and bring a lot of benefits to a state or country, not the least of which is a reduction in automobile and aircraft trips, which are less efficient than rail.  I’m not saying that high speed rail is necessarily the right choice for California or for Thailand, but it is certainly worth exploring.

 

Food in BKK: Din Tai Fung

After a year’s delay caused by the May 2010 political protests and subsequent fires, Taiwanese dumpling chain Din Tai Fung recently opened its first branch in Thailand at the Central World Plaza mall at the Ratchaprasong intersection.  Last week, Tawn and I made a trip there to see how well it upholds the chain’s reputation.  The results?  Overall, positive, but a little bland.

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I almost didn’t write this entry because, well, how many times do I need to post pictures of food from Din Tai Fung?  I’ve been twice in Taipei and then again in Hong Kong and Singapore.  The pictures never look that different.  But I waited more than a year for this branch to open and I thought it would be a shame not to give it due consideration.

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One feature of Din Tai Fung locations is that the kitchen, or at least the dumpling making portion, is very visible.  The company takes pride in how they operate and their cleanliness is a sign of quality.  Plus, the army of cooks making thousands of dumplings is impressive to watch.  Here are some photos I took, which I think looked a little more interesting in black and white.

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The dining area faces large windows overlooking the Big C Supercenter across the street, letting in lots of natural light.  Another seating area is open to the rest of the mall, which leaves you feeling a bit exposed.

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The logos on the spoon and napkin have the Chinese, English, Japanese, and Thai versions of the restaurant’s name.  The lady working the front counter, taking names, and coordinating orders was from the Singapore branch, leaving me curious about how they manage operations in different countries.  Is this a franchise location or is it owned directly by the original company in Taiwan?

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We started with a special “Oriental Salad in Vinegar Dressing,” which is a combination of seaweed, sprouts, mung bean noodles, and thinly sliced vegetables.  While a tasty combination, it was underseasoned and benefitted greatly from a hearty splash of soy sauce.

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Sliced ginger in a mixture of soy sauce and vinegar, the ideal condiment into which you should dip your bao, or dumplings.

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The original Xiao Long Bao, steamed pork dumplings.  Here in Bangkok, as well as in the Hong Kong location, I felt that the filling was under-seasoned.  My memory from Taipei is that the dumplings were full of flavor, but perhaps I need to go back and test that memory.

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Another variation on the dumplings, this one with vegetables and pork.  The filling was more flavorful than with the original Xiao Long Bao.

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Perhaps my favorite dish, the wontons with black vinegar and chilli oil.  Stuffed with shrimp, these lightly sweet dumplings are served in a sauce that is not as frighteningly spicy as you might imagine. 

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A good concluding dish was the fried rice topped with pork chop.  The lack of flavor in the bao was made up for by the pork chop, which was liberally dusted in salt and pepper.

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If you are thinking of ordering dessert at the Bangkok branch, be advised that nothing is yet available.  I didn’t ask why but perhaps one day they will fix whatever problem they are having.

All told, the quality continues to be high and the Din Tai Fung company can be confident that their good name will be upheld here.  I’m left with the lingering question of whether the blandness in their dumplings is something that I just didn’t notice at the original locations in Taipei and the Singapore location, too, or are the dumplings actually less flavorful here and in Hong Kong?  Further tests will have to be conducted!

Meanwhile, I am glad our wait for Din Tai Fung is over.

 

So Do You Believe in Karmic Retribution?

For the first time ever, I’ve had to select a rating for my blog entry tougher than “A – All Ages Allowed”.  Shocking?  Yes.  But you’ll see why in a moment…

There are those who, whatever their religious persuasion or lack thereof, hold a general belief in the concept of karmic retribution.  Whether expressed as “what goes around, comes around” or simply an understanding that those who send negative energy out into the world eventually find themselves on the receiving end of that same energy, I wish to submit the following bit of evidence for your consideration.

My friends Otto and Han were in town from Singapore last weekend and they shared this story and the accompanying pictures with me, from a vacation they recently took to Taiwan.  Many thanks to them for letting me share the pictures with you!

PARENTS: PROTECT YOUR CHILDREN’S TENDER SENSIBILITIES AND LET THEM READ NO FURTHER!

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The setting is a beach on the outskirts of Taipei.  The weather is warm, the tide is out, and families and people of all ages are catching some sun and playing on the sand bars.

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Unfortunately, though, one man – perhaps a bit of a naturist – decided to bare all.  But it wasn’t a nude beach and, to the best of my understanding, the Taiwanese aren’t the type who embrace (if you’ll excuse the pun) those who take a clothing-optional approach to beachwear.

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It turns out that the man was a bit more than a naturist.  More of an exhibitionist, really, or what you might more commonly call a pervert.  He bothered a few groups of beachgoers, not just showing his itty bits but enlarging himself, too, if you catch my drift.  This pair of ladies tried to shoo him away and then quickly gathered their things to leave the area.

(This is probably about the right time to assure you that Otto and Han were merely bystanders on the beach who happened to observe this and captured it with their zoom lens.  Neither of them is the man pictured above!)

Now, I can imagine you are wondering where the evidence of karmic retribution is.  Well, see the dog in the picture above?

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After the man bothered those two ladies, the dog ran to where the man had left his clothes sitting on a piece of driftwood.  And then peed on them.

Now, whether you think that God set his wrath upon the man in the form of dog urine, or whether you think that the nature of good and evil finally found its level, I submit that this is clear and incontrovertible evidence of karmic retribution.

What say you?

And in case you are curious…

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here is a picture of me, Tawn, Kar Wai, Han, and Otto after dinner here in Bangkok.  Many thanks again to Otto and Han, for without them, this story would never have been told for your edification.