Monday, October 31, 2011

Eating my way through Chengdu

After the entrancing post-Soviet kitsch of Almaty, Kazakhstan and the crumbling walls of the Old Muslim Quarter in Kashgar, China, we headed east.  In fact, we had a ticket booked to fly out of Chengdu, China in late August.  We, however, underestimated the distance (over 4,300km from Kashgar) and  overestimated the availability of transport in the region (limited).  Once we left Xinjiang province, all movement west was accompanied with increasingly more crowds and tourists  - and  ultimately sold out train tickets.

Travel west was piecemeal, a series of transfers and glimpses of desert towns strung along a circuit in the Northern Taklamakan Desert.  Since the China train system does not  have centralized booking, we had to wait until we arrived in the city to buy tickets from that city onto to the next destination.  Okay...  We would arrive in a city in the early morning and head straight to the ticket counter, hoping that transport to the next destination was available within a day or so.  If we were lucky, we'd get tickets for later that evening, drop our bags at the luggage deposit, and set out to explore the small towns for the day, eating our way through local treats.

The most difficult day we had was in Lanzhou.  We had arrived via a 36-hour (or something equally taxing) hard seat train trip from Dunhuang, I think.  Upon arrival, we realized that the train to Chengdu was sold out for weeks!  Worse yet, there are no direct buses from Lanzhou to Chengdu.  Weird. 

Further compounding my annoyance, access to any pertinent internet information was limited because all the information about bus travel (or lack thereof) from Lanzhou was on Blogger-supported sites, which are blocked in China.   We were left with two options: (1) Take the tenuous route through Sichuan province, through small Tibetan towns with haphazard bus schedules; or (2) take a train to Xian, which is further west still, and hope that connections via bus or train could be made there.  And, we were running out of time.

We opted for Xian, and yes there was a bus connection there!

Long story short:  We eventually made it to Chengdu and had a few days to spare.  We settled at Sim's Guesthouse, a cozy little gem of a place, and explored the city, lamenting the end of our trip.  It was a wonderful few days of Chongqing hot-potting, dumpling eating, and Tibetan sweet yak milk drinking.  

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Packing for Kep

Yes, it's another holiday in Cambodia.   For the King's birthday, Ethan and I are off to Kep, a coastal town about 3-4 hours from Phnom Penh, for some lazy days and seaside adventures. As much as I love travel, I really hate packing. I hesitate for ages and it's rare that I'm not up late or awake early before a flight, frantically throwing things into my luggage and cursing my procrastination.

I'm trying to remedy that right now. But, as you can see, I'm not quite done. I've limited myself to one striped thing so far - also very uncharacteristic of me.

Tonight, I have a farewell party and a birthday party to attend.  I dislike goodbyes in general, but this one is to a dear friend and colleague, who has helped me keep my sanity at work for the past year.  He leaves for Australia and then NYC!  I'm sad.

Happy weekend, everyone.

Camera Repair and Cats.

I took my camera, which is really old and functions on double A batteries, to a repair shop in Phnom Penh.  The camera repairman took one look, shook his head, and told me there is nothing wrong with it.  I insisted there was indeed something wrong - it dies after, like, 10 shots; the images are blurry; there's an unreasonable delay in the shutter speed- all new ailments.  He placed new batteries in the camera, and we came to a compromise: I have to snap a bunch of pictures until the camera "dies" again.  Then, I can run back to the shop and have it repaired.


Here are shots from my day, mostly from lunch. (The last shot is of a vintage dress that is currently undergoing alterations at Russian Market.)  I frequent Soran, a small Japanese restaurant next to Boeung Keng Kang Market, at least once a week for their $4 USD lunch specials, which includes an entree (today: curry and rice), miso soup, a small dish (usually something pickled), tea, and iced coffee.  It's simple food, but it's good food.  More importantly, however, the owner loves cats.  She has three of the fattest cats I've seen in Cambodia, and she even has a few interesting kitty photos hanging in the bathroom. Some friends think it's a little bizarre, but the crazy cat lady in me gets it.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Right Now.

 via lovely blog Sunday Photo

I am aching for autumn.

I am also cooking up my second batch of ratatouille!  The kitchen smells wonderful.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Pursat Railway Communities

I meant to post pictures from this trip a few weeks ago, but never got the chance because I was off to Thailand and elsewhere immediately thereafter.  This community lives in and around a small station about 30km south of Pursat station, on the Northern Line  - the line that is intended to connect Cambodia with Thailand.  I don't know what is going to happen to these people.  The Project-sponsored resettlement site is chock-full, and eventually these people, who have built tailor shops and makeshift grocery stores on the station grounds, will have to move.  Where will they go?  After speaking to them a bit, we realized they have no clue - no clue about whether they will be forced to move, no clue about this project that will  inevitably displace them.

And, as in other land sector cases, these people will probably be given minimal (I'm talking like a month) notice of being relocated, as they are told to thumbprint (people don't typically use signatures here; they thumbprint documents) some contract or statement that they won't quite understand, before finally being required to move.  Many settled in the area after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979.

There's an early Tuesday morning rant.

By the way, aren't those old sewing machines rad?  They're everywhere here.

Monday, October 24, 2011

On the topic of sunscreen

I'm going to start by saying that I am an Asian American woman. I have olive skin and a sprinkling of freckles across my cheeks and nose that has plagued me since I was a child.  If I spend too much time under the sun, I sunburn.  I do not like whitening products. Moreso, I absolutely hate the pressure in Asia and elsewhere to beautify by whitening my skin and bleaching my freckles.

Even in Cambodia, where presumably there's less disposable income to throw at whitening products, the pressure to whiten remains in full force.  On my trip to Thailand two weeks ago, I received several requests from colleagues, who wanted this or that version of whitening lotion. It was hilarious actually, if not a little sad.

I've explain to my colleagues that their tanned skin is beautiful - hell, even the rage in the United States. I've also urged them to take care of their skin by wearing sunscreen, everyday.  But the notion of wearing sun protection, sans whitening, has not caught on.

Until recently, I've stayed away from sunscreens in Asia, most of which are whitening.  I brought two bottles of my trusted Jan Marini Antioxidant Daily Face Protectant SPF30 with me from back home. Though it worked wonders for me in United States climate, it began to feel greasy in this tropical climate. Since I spent a considerable amount of my time this year in the field, I also needed more sun protection.

Reluctantly, I made the jump to Japanese-brand Kanebo IC Impress Brightening Sun Protectant, with its whopping SPF50. I was hesitant because of the "brightening" tag, but I was assured that it is not a whitener. The texture, light and milky, was also ideal. Nearly five months into daily usage, I can report that my freckles have not faded (yay), and I have non-sunburnt, quite hydrated skin.

Perhaps I should look at other Asian market products after all. To be continued ...

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Cause of Progress

The Cause of Progress Film Trailer from Little Ease Films on Vimeo.

About a year ago, I traveled to Siem Reap to monitor the trials at Chi Kreng community, which placed me on a "human rights bus" with a few folks, including an Irish filmmaker and an activist monk.  The filmmaker was making a documentary about forced evictions in Cambodia.  At the time, he had been living in Cambodia for a year, following these stories.  When I think about that trip now, I remember, more than anything else, feeling elated, emotionally-reactive, alive.

On Saturday, more than a year later, I saw a trailer for the film.  It showed at Meta House, amidst a lively crowd of Boeung Kak Lake residents, mothers and children - all of whom peered at the screen for shots of their daily lives.   

After the film, Gayla and Ethan both turned to me and asked me how I continued to work in this field.  Even though Ethan lives in Phnom Penh and has heard so much about these communities from my constant rants, the images really struck him. 

I've been seeing these images for over a year and a half now.  Out of  necessity, I've grown accustomed to them, perhaps even numb.  But something on Saturday evening, something about seeing it from another person's eyes, jerked at me and brought back the waves of overwhelming feelings that gripped me during my first months in Cambodia. 

In any case, The Cause of Progress tells the stories of three Cambodians caught up in forced evictions and development in Cambodia.  This is just a glimpse.  I believe the final cut will be very powerful.

Saturday, October 22, 2011


via Making Chicken Salad

Shoemaker Beatrice Valenzuela's home in Echo Park. Love the colors and textures - they remind of the textures and colors that dotted my childhood. More pictures here.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Natasha's ratatouille recipe really hit the spot.  Despite my hunger pains, I let the veggies simmer and stew for two hours, as she recommended.  And, something at the hour-and-a-half mark just turned the whole diced mess into magic.  Admittedly, I didn't have pepper or parsley, nor a bay leaf at hand, and so I was a little worried.  I used basil instead and a few bits of rosemary and then cheated by throwing in a tiny, tiny dash of balsamic.  I topped a bowl-full off with freshly torn pieces of basil, before savoring it with a crunchy baguette. This is a definite re-do for me. 


This is a rather late response to news that Mociun is closing shop.  Mociun has been one of my favorite artisans, with her beautiful textiles and easy shapes.  I brought only one of her pieces with me to Cambodia, but a few dresses, including my favorite ikat tie-front dress, sits, waiting for me, in Los Angeles.  My sister, Jennifer, has another Mociun dress from a later season, which I have been stalking for a few years now.  When I am back home this winter, I hope to convince her to give it to me.  She never wears it.  What a waste.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

365 days, week #41

A week in Thailand. Visiting and talking with contract farmers. Learning from Thai and Laotian sugar farmers, academics, NGOs, and other international and local lawyers working on environmental and human rights issues. A crucial exchange of stories.  Meals in a sacred shine, which once served as a communist base.  So much sticky rice, som tam (papaya salad), and Thai iced tea!  Long car rides in the dark.  Avoiding the floods.  A press conference in Bangkok. An afternoon wandering off the Siam exit on BTS. 

Friday, October 14, 2011

Isetan in Bangkok

In my two short visits to Tokyo, I was lost, each time, in Isetan, a massive Japanese department store, which has a brilliant food court, stocked with Japanese goodies and sweets.

I almost entirely forgot about Isetan, until today, when I wandered in for the afternoon, looking for an electric oven.  From my cursory review, there are two major distinctions between the Japanese and Thai stores. First, the Japanese store, as I recall, was much more forward with its fashion offerings.  Second, the Thai store is more accommodating with its food - there are seats and benches galore that entice you stay and have that matcha scone with clotted cream, or that mango yoghurt, or that salmon onigiri, or that hot-off-the-griddle okonomiyaki.  At the time of my visits, that was not the case in Tokyo - no one was eating.  How?  I do remember being irked several times in the Isetan in Tokyo, as I had to slink away to sample my store-bought treats.  (I just realized that, when traveling, I spend a fair amount of time slinking away to eat.)

In other news, the flooding is getting worse in Bangkok.  In order to meet a colleague for dinner, I spent an unfortunate part of my evening traversing a dark, very flooded section of the city. And, I never found the place! 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


Thailand is great, except for the flooding right now.  The past few days have left me well-fed and amazed by the tenacity and courage of farm workers in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, who often face hardships and evictions from what appear to be unconscionable contracts signed with sugar industry giants.  Seriously, how do they do it?

In unrelated matters, I picked up this Circle Top by SFS, after reading Cheryl's raves.  Although I could send it to my California address, I opted to have it shipped to Cambodia. Let's see if it makes it there.  I hope it does. This top is made by Shinobu Sering, in San Francisco.  And, it was on sale.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The week ahead

1.  I leave for Thailand tomorrow morning.  My colleague, Dom, has dengue fever (poor thing) and I have to go in his stead to attend a workshop he coordinated with Thai partners working on displaced sugar communities.  While I love Bangkok and cannot help but think this might be my opportunity to hit up Chatuchak Market for shoes and a sampling of sticky rice and fried chicken, me thinks this will seriously hamper my writing this week.

2. We moved house last week and have been busy buying furniture and plants.  Yesterday, I bought a small lime tree and a chili plant.  Both sit on my terrace, where I've  quickly grown accustomed to writing as the sun sets against the silhouette of palm trees.

3. Also, this new space has inspired me to have more early morning breakfasts.  What's happening to me?  The pictures below, from fellow bloggers, have my mind racing with morning ideas.

[first image via Popcorn Plays;  second via Simply Breakfast]

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Note to Self: Remember this time.

Even though it doesn't always feel like it these days, you will look back on this time, many years from now, and appreciate it for what it was: an incredible and challenging opportunity; a time in your life when  you were surrounded by some of the most inspired people you've ever known; a period in your life when you felt alive , though somedays raw.

And this remains the case despite the daily frustrations that give you pause and make you shake your head.  Remember this when you cannot understand why Cambodian street food can't be as tasty or clean as its Thai and Vietnamese counterparts, or when you cannot comprehend the lack of order and infrastructure in light of the foreign money pouring into this country, or why good cheese  is so expensive  in this country and baking ovens such a household rarity, or when the realities of working in this country continue to wear on you, when the divide continues to engulf and push. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The one that got away

Mayle, I can't quit you, as much as I try and even though I live and work in conditions that aren't exactly conducive to delicate frocks.  I'm still looking for the Mayle Elvira, years later.  The last big Mayle find I had was in the week following my decision to leave Portland and pare down for Cambodia.  I was at a consignment shop in NW Portland and there it was, a Frederica in Amalfi hanging behind the desk, not even processed and not quite my size.  I didn't hesitate.  It was one of the few pieces I brought to Phnom Penh,  one that instantly picks me up when I'm feeling and -- and let's be honest here -- looking like crap. These days, those small comforts are invaluable. 

Renne's recent post was a good reminder of mindful consumerism and how and why I choose to spend my money in the way that I do. 

Saturday, October 1, 2011

My Sunday Inspiration

Currently inspired by this color palette (green, deep purple) and the idea of a delicious breakfast.  Ethan and I are moving house today, and I'm sick.  And attempting to write.  Argghh. 

[Images link to source.]

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