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A Temple and Food Crawl in Kathmandu, Nepal

A Temple and Food Crawl in Kathmandu, Nepal

Well, the good news is that we survived our first night in Nepal. It was dark (as I suppose most nights are) and frigid enough to preserve a mammoth, but hey…we lived. I was pretty darn relieved when I woke up alive in the morning!

Breakfast was a simple meal of eggs, toast, coffee, and tea in our guesthouse. Then we stepped outside and into a taxi to head over to the Royal Thai Embassy – first things first, gotta get those visas renewed! We wound through the narrow little streets and more than a few traffic jams (in something resembling roundabouts) before we turned onto a little dirt road and bumped along past a few other embassies. Then we noticed…

It was closed.

Big metal gates loomed ominously at the entrance, blocking our view of the inside. A kindly looking Nepalese man was sitting outside and informed us that the embassy was closed today – and tomorrow – for the New Year’s holiday. (It’s January 2nd, by the way.)

Well. This puts a big ol’ monkey wrench in our travel plans! With the processing time, we were already looking at spending 4 of our 10 days in Nepal in Kathmandu, which – don’t get me wrong, it’s a cool city – was not exactly the reason we came here. The mountains are calling!! If we waited 2 more days and then sat around for another 3 days while they processed our visas, we’d be spending almost our entire trip here in the city.

Not gonna happen. Not when I’m so close to mountains like Everest and Annapurna.

So, alas, we won’t be renewing our Thai visas in Nepal. Better luck next time, amigos!

We called our soon-to-be friends, Elise and Cameron, and informed them that our morning at the embassy took MUCH less time than anticipated! They gave us a spot to meet up, and we returned to our loyally waiting taxi driver. Fifteen minutes later (with temperatures still hovering around 40F, or 5C), we arrived at the gate of Boudha Stupa.

Boudha Stupa

Not to sound stupa (haha), but what exactly is a stupa? Don’t worry, we asked the same question. “Stupa” is a Sanskrit word meaning “heap,” and is a large mound-like structure containing some sort of relics (usually remains of Buddhist monks) that is revered as a holy site and used as a place of worship and meditation. This one, incidentally, is the largest stupa in all of Asia and the holiest Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of Tibet.

Got all that? Good. Moving on.

Boudha Stupa is quite the impressive sight. Long fluttering lines of prayer flags stretch out from every corner of the square and attach at the top of a massive (118 feet or 36m high) golden spire perched atop a semi-circular white mound. On every side of the spire, you see colorful painted eyes staring back at you – the eyes of Buddha, or the “Wisdom Eyes,” gazing in all four directions to remind believers that Buddha is all-seeing and all-knowing.

The sight of the Stupa, the long rows of prayer wheels, the altars and sweet-smelling incense, and the devotees circling the complex (one man was literally crawling on his belly around the perimeter, kissing the ground with each crawl forward) is a vivid reminder that you are in a very, VERY foreign land.

This sweet old couple was VERY excited to take a photo with us!

We crossed the street to visit the “mini” Boudhanath – basically a smaller replica of the stupa – which provided some nice uninterrupted photo ops.

After getting our fill of temples for the day, our friends led us on a food crawl to some of their favorite local eating spots. First up was a plate full of spicy, crispy vegetable pakodas – something akin to a fritter – with a yummy cilantro and chili dipping sauce.

We washed that down with an entire tandoori roasted chicken, for a little less than $6US.

With our appetites whetted, we wandered down the dusty streets to eatery #2. Here we feasted on mountains of garlic naan bread, fresh from the tandoori oven at the entrance, along with cumin-spiced Jeera rice and our first bowl of dal baht – a lentil and tomato based “stew” that is a staple of the Nepalese diet.

Everything was tasty, but it paled next to the star of the show: butter paneer masala. This is not the sweetish orange goopy butter masala you get at Indian restaurants. Oh, no, my friends. These are the biggest, freshest chunks of paneer cheese (made from water buffalo milk) you’ve ever imagined, drowning in a rich, creamy gravy that – I kid you not – has an entire STICK of butter sitting on top, slowly melting into the spicy goodness.

Julia Child would have been proud.

In a dairy-induced coma, we stumble onward, this time boarding a local shuttle (translation = ancient, rickety minivan) that eventually had TWENTY people crammed inside. (Yes, I counted.)

We breathed in gallons of dust (is dust measured in gallons?) as we maneuvered through the endless traffic, eventually stopping a few blocks away from Durbar Square. We were definitely in one of the busiest neighborhoods of the city!

 

Busy Kantipath Road

women selling fruit, kathmandu, nepal

Tea shop, Kathmandu, Nepal
Tea shop

shopping, kathmandu, nepal

shopping, kathmandu, nepal
Do you suppose they meant “Adidas?”

Durbar Square

After laughing at some of the knockoff name brands, we headed south (breathing in more dust) towards Durbar Square. As far back as the year 1069, this was the site of the Kathmandu Kingdom Royal Palace. The palace, temples, and surrounding buildings have been rebuilt and replaced countless times over the centuries due to earthquakes – the most recent of which was April 25, 2015. An earthquake measuring 7.8 in magnitude rocked the Kathmandu Valley, killing 9,000 people and injuring an additional 22,000.

All over the city, you see grim reminders of the recent Nepal quake. Wide gaps exist where storefronts or homes once stood, little more than a pile of bricks and rubble – even two years later. The magnificent structures around Durbar Square – the ones that survived the quake – are covered in scaffolding and supported from the ground by enormous wooden beams.

Entrance to Durbar Square, kathmandu, nepal
Entrance to Durbar Square

earthquake damage, durbar square, kathmandu, nepal

earthquake damage, durbar square, kathmandu, nepal

pigeons in durbar square, kathmandu, nepal

hindu god, kathmandu, nepal
Hindu carving, Durbar Square

hindu carving, kathmandu, nepal

bricks for rebuilding in kathmandu, nepal

I can only imagine how beautiful it must have looked before this recent quake…and how many times it’s been rebuilt before this last episode!

On our way through the Square, we snagged tiny cups of AMAZING masala Chai tea mixed with water buffalo milk, which gave the spicy concoction a very rich, buttery flavor.

Warmed up and caffeinated from our tea, we meandered until dusk through Durbar Square and the narrow neighboring streets of Indra Chowk.

narrow streets of Indra Chowk, Kathmandu, Nepal

Saree shop, Indra Chowk, Kathmandu, Nepal
Saree shop
Beads galore in Indra Chowk, Kathmandu, Nepal
Beads galore in Indra Chowk
"Secret" attic shop, Indra Chowk, Kathmandu, Nepal
“Secret” attic shop, Indra Chowk

Indrachok, kathmandu, nepal

As the temperature started to drop, Elise and Cameron took us for one final Nepal specialty to try – a sweet Lassi (yogurt drink) with dried fruit and pistachios.

And the verdict? The perfect end to a perfect day of sightseeing in Nepal!

Introduction to Nepal: Exploring the Colorful Streets of Kathmandu

Introduction to Nepal: Exploring the Colorful Streets of Kathmandu

I’m currently sitting under 2 duvets, wearing 3 pairs of socks, a furry beanie, and 4 layers of long-sleeved shirts. I’m doing this because the hotel I’m staying in – like nearly all structures in Nepal – has NO HEAT.

By the way, did I mention it’s the first of January? Whose brilliant idea was it to come to Nepal – the “rooftop of the world” – in JANUARY?

Oh, wait. It was my idea.

Stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive…

And it seemed like a brilliant idea at the time. Because I’m telling ya…eighteen months of nonstop 90F (30C) weather in Thailand and Malaysia makes a week of “cooler” weather sound mighty appealing.

At the moment, though, it’s about 40F (4C) outside, and it feels like about MINUS 40 inside this icebox of a hotel room. That brilliant idea I had to escape the heat of Bangkok is suddenly sounding more like a suicide mission. If this blog ends halfway through, assume the worst…that I am a frozen cadaver, a lanky blond icicle somewhere in downtown Kathmandu.

But I digress.

You might be shocked to learn that Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal (and, if today is any indication, one of the coldest cities on earth), is less than a 3-hour plane ride from Bangkok (which is literally the HOTTEST city on earth, mean temperature). This is especially surprising that Nepal sits at the same latitude (27 degrees north) as the sunny, tropical state of Florida.

Don’t believe me? Check a map!

Anyway, the flight out of Bangkok takes you through scenic northern Thailand, skirts the turquoise blue coastline of Myanmar and the gray haze of Bangladesh, and finally descends over the surprisingly green Kathmandu Valley and the foothills of the Himalayas. Then again, maybe all the green shouldn’t be so surprising – this is a tropical country. It just happens to have the world’s tallest mountains in its backyard!

Over the Myanmar Coast
Kathmandu Valley
Landing in Kathmandu

Immigration was a breeze, too – one of the fastest and most efficient I’ve seen anywhere. You enter the quiet, cozy airport and queue up at a row of kiosks, where you scan your passport and enter all pertinent info. Then you walk over to the payment counter and hand over US$25 for a 15-day tourist visa. Finally you head over to the Mr. Nepalese Customs Officer, who places a shiny little sticker in your passport and wishes you a pleasant stay in his country.

The whole process took less than 15 minutes. Brilliant.

Exiting the airport wasn’t as much of a zoo as I’d expected, and while there were a handful of touts offering taxis and hotels, they were far less aggressive than those you find in other Asian locales. Our guesthouse arranged a free pickup for us, and we were delighted to find a smiling man holding up a sign that read “Amy Rogers.”

Easy as 1, 2, 3.

It was a disappointingly cloudy day as we climbed into the waiting car, but the gray skies did little to diminish from the vibrant colors that surrounded us. From silk scarves to prayer flags, from brightly painted guesthouses and temples to shops full of trekking gear and handicrafts – even on a gray winter day, the city of Kathmandu was bustling with color and energy.

Before we even reached our guesthouse, we knew we were going to love it here.

We chose to stay near Thamel, the backpacker quarter, for easy access to restaurants, shops, and the Thai Embassy (which we will visit tomorrow to renew our visas). Our check-in at Kathmandu Madhuban Guesthouse (conveniently located next to the top-ranked restaurant in Kathmandu) was just as painless as the rest of the journey, where we were quickly whisked up to our simple (and freezing) but clean and spacious room.

Kathmandu Madhuban Guesthouse
Rooftop of Madhuban Guesthouse
I have no idea what’s up with the random shoe…

Lunch (and dinner, for that matter) were next door at Blueberry Kitchen, a new restaurant known for its awesome selection of both traditional Nepalese and Italian/American offerings. We warmed ourselves with a delicious masala chai tea and honey latte before our first meals in Nepal arrived.

I’d chosen a fusion dish of homemade tagliatelle with eggplant, peppers, and yak cheese. Don’t let the yak scare you; it’s mild, salty, and creamy, very much like a fresh mozzarella.

Jeremy chose a local dish, chicken chiolla – basically a spicy “stew” of grilled chicken, garlic, and ginger, served with steamed rice.

Fantastic.

Dinner was just as good (maybe even better). We went all local this time with dishes of chicken and vegetable momos (spicy pan fried dumplings, not totally unlike perogies), butter paneer masala, and aloo sadeko (a cold, spicy potato salad). Dessert was a homemade yogurt-based cheesecake with graham cracker crust and a drizzle of chocolate.

I now officially understand why this humble little establishment has been ranked and reviewed so highly. The food and service were both OUTSTANDING.

The little bit of time that remained was spent wandering the narrow, colorful streets of Thamel, past all sorts of touristy shops, cafes, hotels, and tour companies.

Although Kathmandu is undeniably busy (and a little dirty), it’s nowhere near the scale of activity you’d find in a city like, say, New Delhi or Ho Chi Minh City. It’s a “good” level of energy – enough to invigorate you as a traveler without overwhelming or exhausting you.

The people are just lovely, too, and the level of spoken English here is impressive. After more than a year of struggling to understand (and be understood) in Bangkok, it’s a breath of fresh air to come to Kathmandu and be able to have a real, meaningful conversation with the locals. Everyone we’ve met so far has been polite, quiet, and friendly, always with a smile on their face.

Aside from the imminent threat of hypothermia, what’s not to love?

My Love Affair With Singapore (And Its Food)

My Love Affair With Singapore (And Its Food)

Allow me to warn you in advance that I may start waxing poetic during this blog. After a 6 year absence, I’ve just spent 3 days in one of my favorite countries, and the love affair with Singapore has started up all over again. So please forgive me if I start overusing such words as love, awesome, beautiful, spectacular, delicious, perfect, and incredible.

Because, well…Singapore just naturally IS all of those things.

downtown singapore

It can’t help itself. We’re talking about an independent country that is actually just a big city on a tiny island at the southern tip of Malaysia. Does 5.5 million people on an island that’s only 276 square miles (half the size of LA or NYC) sound like total and utter chaos to you? If it were anywhere else, it probably would be.

But not Singapore. Singapore is an incredible (overused adjective #1) blend of very different cultures – Chinese, Indian, Malay, and British – that has somehow produced the cleanest, quietest, safest, and most orderly city on the planet. Sound boring or dull? It’s just the opposite. The effortless blend of so many cultures, the unique and impressive feats of architecture, the vibrant colors of perfectly manicured lawns, gardens, and tropical trees, and a mouth-watering array of the freshest, spiciest, most flavorful dishes you’ve ever tasted…

singapore

Hey! Put that suitcase down. You can buy your plane ticket and pack your bags AFTER you finish reading this, thank you very much. Besides, I haven’t even told you one of the best parts. Guess what the official language of Singapore is?

Yep. It’s English. Not the broken-sorta-kinda-maybe-a-little English you get in Malaysia or India, but straight up, first language, fluent (British) English. So forget the language barrier, because there is NONE. That makes navigating this little island-city-paradise a total breeze!

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes. Saying how awesome (overused adjective #37) this place is.

The historic Raffles Hotel
The historic Raffles Hotel

Singapore Food Crawl 101

We touched down in Singapore on Friday after a smooth 2-hour flight from Bangkok. Our friend SherMay was there to greet us and escort us to lunch – because, after all, the official pastime of Singapore is EATING. You think Americans eat a lot? Ha! We got nothin’ on the Singaporeans. They eat a minimum of 5 meals a day, not to mention all the snacks in-between. They wander from hawker center to hawker center like devotees making pilgrimages to holy sites, because let’s face it…in Singapore, food IS the national religion.

So we sit down in a blissfully air conditioned restaurant and jump right into the good stuff. SherMay orders a very traditional Singaporean starter called ota, basically a spicy fish “cake” made out of chopped up mackerel and lots of chili. Entrees arrive in the form of char kway teow (thick rice noodles with shrimp, clams, egg, sprouts, scallions, and chili, wok fried until slightly charred) and assam laksa (a spicy, sour fish soup with rice vermicelli). Dessert is cendol, a colorful blend of shaved ice, grass jelly, red beans, assorted fruit, and a generous, heavenly dollop of gula melaka (sweet palm sugar). We waddle out of the restaurant in food-induced comas, stuffed to the gills but already eagerly anticipating our next meals.

Char Kway Teow
Char Kway Teow

By the way, we haven’t even left the AIRPORT yet.

When we do at last venture to the outside world, we’re greeted with a blast of humidity and warm (but not TOO hot) tropical air. At only 2 degrees north of the equator, Singapore is the epitome of endless summer. Currently they’re moving into their rainiest season, which made for some killer thunderstorms and cooler temperatures (translation = 85 instead of 95).

singapore rain tree

We drive down a gorgeous tree-lined (rain trees, I later learned) road that looks like it belongs in a Disney theme park. Seriously, not a single blade of grass was out of place. To our left was a narrow strip of beach and dozens of enormous cargo ships and, off on the horizon, the Indonesian island of Batam. A short drive took us to our Airbnb accommodation for the weekend, where we dumped our bags and proceeded to head almost immediately to dinner.

Because, you know, it had been about 2 hours since we last ate. That’s like 2 days in Singapore time!

Singapore Strait
Singapore Strait

So SherMay and her husband Fred take us to a nearby Chinese restaurant, assuring us that it was more “Singaporean Chinese” than “China Chinese.” This is no small point; the Singaporeans take great pride in their unique and delicious food, as they should!

Over a pot of freshly brewed chrysanthemum tea, we savor course after course of Singaporean specialties – BBQ-honey fried pork, cereal shrimp (as the name suggests, it is shrimp rolled in crushed breakfast cereal and deep fried to a perfect crisp), olive fried rice (had to try that one), ginger-glazed grouper, and broccoli sautéed with fresh lump crab meat.

singapore dinner

Dessert was a warm yam paste topped with cashews and sweetened condensed milk – think an Asian version of sweet potato casserole, and you’re on the right track.

The verdict? AMAZING. (Overused adjective #62).

After a night in our Airbnb under neon pink Minion sheets (hey, it’s budget accommodation, okay?) we awaken to a truly awesome thunderstorm. Fred is kind enough to dash over to our building with an umbrella before we journey down the street for breakfast in a VERY local hawker center (translation = I haven’t been stared at that much since India). In case the term is unfamiliar, hawker centers are simply a collection of street food vendors that have been moved into one big area (like an outdoor cafeteria) so that they can be monitored for quality and food safety. Works for me – less walking, better food!

sinagpore

So Fred takes us on the grand culinary tour of Lot 16 Hawker Center, from Singaporean to Indian to Chinese to Muslim Malay. Some of it, like nasi lemak, we know very well from our time in Malaysia. Other dishes, like fried carrot cake, are totally new to us.

Wait a second, did you say…FRIED CARROT CAKE?

Yes, I did, although let me add that it’s not the frosting-covered carrot cake you’re picturing from home. Singaporean fried carrot cake is, in fact, a delectable blend of white carrots (or white radish) and rice flour, pounded into a neat cake-like texture, then wok-fried to a slight char with egg, scallions, and plenty of hot chili.

Singaporean fried carrot cake
Singaporean fried carrot cake

Sound delicious? IT IS. So much, in fact, that I nearly cried when I couldn’t find it for lunch yesterday.

After breakfast, we bid farewell to Fred and took the train downtown to play tourists for the day. The sights were all wonderfully familiar to us – the jaw-dropping skyline of the business district, the water spewing out of the mouth of the Merlion fountain, the flying “ship” atop Marina Bay Sands Hotel, the colorful, quirky eateries at Clarke Quay, and the nostalgia of the century-old Raffles Hotel, where writers like Ernest Hemingway used to frequent.

Singapore Harbor and Marina Sands Hotel
Singapore Harbor and Marina Bay Sands Hotel
"Cloud Nine" Contemporary Art
“Cloud Nine” Contemporary Art
Singapore River
Singapore River
Clarke Quay
Clarke Quay
Traveler's palms in the courtyard of Raffles Hotel
Traveler’s palms in the courtyard of Raffles Hotel

(Fun fact: Ever heard of a cocktail called the Singapore Sling? It was invented by a bartender at the Raffles in 1915, back when men hung out at the bar and drank in droves but it was still socially unacceptable for women to consume alcohol in public. The bartender invented a delicious concoction of gin, cherry brandy, Cointreau, fruit juices, and grenadine for the ladies to drink, and because of its bright pink color, everyone just assumed the girls were drinking juice. BRILLIANT.)

Anyway, strolling through the tree-lined streets of Singapore was like visiting an old friend. We were struck all over again by how clean and quiet and orderly it is. There’s no graffiti, no honking horns, no litter, nothing to spoil the perfection of its appearance. With so little land area to work with, the city is almost entirely vertical, with glittering high-rise hotels and office buildings as far as the eye can see. Down below, you can still catch a glimpse of the Singapore of old – a tucked-away Chinese restaurant with bright red lanterns dangling at the entrance, or a long row of joined townhouses with slanted rooves and brightly painted shutters.

singapore

singapore

St. Andrew's Cathedral
St. Andrew’s Cathedral

It doesn’t matter where you look or which street you turn down. There’s no perfect city on earth, but if there WAS one, it would be Singapore.

We wandered the city streets for hours – snapping pictures, enjoying the views, and grabbing $1 cups of sweet yam and red bean ice cream from a street vendor (because we hadn’t already eaten 4 times that day).

singapore

Dinner was at a new upscale hawker center called Glutton’s Bay – appropriate, since Singapore turns you into a glutton as soon as you arrive. Jeremy got a gargantuan portion of Peking duck fried rice (pausing here to allow you to wipe the drool from your screen) while I sampled one of Singapore’s most famous dishes…chili crabs! We’re talking massive Sri Lankan crabs swimming in a pool of tomato-based “gravy” loaded with chili and other delectable spices. Fiery hot, slightly sweet, perfectly savory…in a word, DELICIOUS (overused adjective #88).

gluttons-bay-hawker-center-singapore

chili crabs singapore

In case you haven’t noticed yet, we like the food in Singapore. A LOT. Why there isn’t a Singaporean restaurant on every corner in every city around the globe, I’ll never know. The world is seriously missing out!!

singapore

Yesterday we hung out with SherMay and Fred and (you guessed it) ate more food. For breakfast I tried wheat toast with kaya spread (a locally made coconut jam). Then we wandered through a local grocery store for a while before we found a goldmine of imported New Zealand-made Cadbury chocolate, including our two favorite flavors – Mint Bubbly, and Hokey Pokey (crispy butterscotch bits in milk chocolate). We bought embarrassingly large bars for ourselves and will be eating Cadbury for weeks (okay, maybe a few days) to come.

Last night included (shockingly) more culinary exploration. Because of Jeremy’s gluten allergy, we’ve never wandered into any of those steamed bun/dumpling places that are all over Asia. Last night I grabbed a few steamed BBQ pork buns and OH MY…where have they been all my life??

singapore pork bun

I washed them down with a Malaysian dish of nasi lemak – fragrant pandan rice cooked in coconut milk, topped with fried chicken, fried eggs, peanuts, and a red hot sambal sauce. Taste bud heaven.

Jeremy snagged a dish we’ve been wanting to try for a long time now – black chicken soup! No, it’s not black soup; the CHICKEN is black. The breed is a Chinese silky, and if you look it up, you will see that the chicken’s feathers and skin are naturally ALL BLACK. The Chinese traditionally use it in a “healthy” soup filled with lots of yummy vegetables and herbs.

black chicken soup singapore

Verdict? Insanely good. (And yes…black chicken tastes like chicken!)

To sum it all up: We love, love, LOVE Singapore, and it’s always sad when we have to leave. If money were no object, we’d be living there in a heartbeat and I’d need a wheelchair to roll my morbidly obese body from hawker center to hawker center. (Seriously, how do the locals stay so thin? All they do is eat!)

Anyway, I’m rambling. I tend to do that. And if I haven’t convinced you by now that Singapore is an awesome place, then I have failed as a writer. I should just quit and stick to what I’m good at.

Which is…ummmmm…eating?

Seriously, though, Singapore rocks, and it belongs at the top of the list of any trip through Southeast Asia. It may not be as cheap as its neighbors to the north, but trust me, guys…it’s worth it. Factor a weekend into your budget and go for it. You will most definitely NOT be disappointed.

singapore