The World in A Teacup

Think about it. Every culture in the world has some kind of tea they call their own. It’s not just a bunch of tea leaves taken from a tree! There’s thousands of varieties and ways to prepare the drink, all with special cultural significance to their own people. Here’s a few you might not have known or thought about!

Yak Tea

Found in the grass plains of Tibet, this is made with loose black tea, thoughthere seemed to be more of the stalks in this than leaves. Yak milk is then boiled in a pot over a fire, the tea added, then served into rice-bowl sized tea cups. It tastes more of the milk than it does the tea, and is very filling because of it.


Mate

One of South America’s favourite drinks is often passed around and shared. Made from a herbal leaf, it’s crushed up and put into a small pot, and water poured over it. I love the metal straw-crossed-strainer it’s drunk from! If you’ve not seen one yet, have a Google!

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Above image courtesey of http://www.annahar.com

Saffron Tea

It is of course common to have herbal teas. However, saffron is such an expensive spice outside of Iran that most people wouldn’t consider putting it in a tea. Saffron is very abundant and relatively cheap in Iran. The tea is a dark orangey colour, and has a wonderful earthy flavour. Iranians love teahouses, and they’re often the places to hangout with friends and family after dark. They serve all sorts of teas, including cinnamon and cardamom teas, which came in a close second and third to saffron! Tea is served in small glass cups, and often served with small cakes – and if you’re up for it, sheesha.

Above: Even in the smallest of Iranian villages, you can still find a teahouse!

Artichoke Tea

In the ex-resort town of Da Lat, Vietnam’s French connection is highlighted in its architecture and food. Butter is used more often in cooking, some wines are grown in the region, and the climate is better for European fruit and vegetables like strawberries and artichokes. It’s here that the unusual artichoke tea can be found, a local speciality that crosses Vietnamese tea culture with French influences.

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Above: The market in Da Lat is one of the few places you can sample artichoke tea.

Masala tea

Perhaps this isn’t unusual, but it is interesting to note how far this way of making tea has travelled! Originating from India, this spiced tea brewed in warmed milk has become the traditional way of making tea in Oman and East Africa, despite the distances. The sweetness and blend of spices can change a little between cultures and families. A delicious way to prove how small the world is!

Russian Samovar

The Samovar is a Russian invention that was spread by their empire throughout Central Asia, and neighbouring countries such as Iran and Turkey. It is essentially a big urn, usually heated by coal. Long before the office kitchenette had hot water instantly available, these samovars were a staple in Russian homes, and were an easy way to boil water quickly and prepare tea.


Above: Russian samovars were imported the world over, including to the Persian Shah. (See large silver samovar on back table.)

Tea with Tea Cake and Tea Ice Cream

I love matcha. Since matcha powder came along, there’s been green tea flavoured everything popping up, from ice cream to KitKats. When you think about it, it’s crazy that tea can be put into so many things, and not just drunk – the humble drink has come a long way, and promoted itself to food! There are a lot of matcha cafes opening up, with matcha powder based drinks and goods for sale. A few of my favourites include matcha and Oreo frappe from a place in Sydney. When in Korea, a friend recommended this place, O Sulloc’s, apparently quite famous for the tea products made on Jejo island. Since I was only in the place once, I went all out: a green tea latte, with green tea ice cream, and green tea cake!

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There are hundreds more of course, but these are a just few of my favourites. Others that caught my attention included insect poo tea (don’t think I could bring myself to drink that!), the luxurious gold coated tea (don’t think I could afford that), chocolate tea (don’t think I won’t try that) and the banana tea which my sister found for me in Sri Lanka. This wonderful drink we call tea is incredibly versatile, and clearly loved worldwide.

Know of any other weird and wonderful tea varieties or ways of brewing? Comment below!

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Food in Oman

Oman is a big country with a small population. With only four million people, and an expat population of over fifty percent, it is surprisingly less Arab than it appears. The architecture and art is most definitely Arab, but when it comes to food, the average visitor will have a hard time finding local food.

Omanis have long had a strong connection with India, having traded spices with them for centuries. Perhaps this is why the south Asian community have found it easy to make a home in Oman, and have managed to dominate the restaurant scene. Not once did I come across an Omani restaurant – every restaurant I saw was owned by South Asians, and served chicken tikka and curry. I was of course only there a few days, but it seemed to me that the choices when eating out in Oman were fast food pizza and burgers, kebab (often underneath the tikka option), or curry. Even in the tiny town of Tiwi, the two restaraunts on offer were south Asian, in a town of probably less than 150 people.


I did love the tea in Oman though. We stopped to take a break from driving in a few places, and pulled over in small roadside petrol stations. Many of these stops had a few different shops, including tea houses. These tea houses were not for sitting in, but a waiter would come out to the cars who pulled up, knock on the window and ask if we’d like anything. You’d then order, they’d go into their shop and brew the tea, and then they’d bring out the take away cups on a serving tray and pass it through your car window. It was almost like a drive through café! It made sense, people being able to stay in the air conditioned cars, and pick up a quick snack before heading back on the road, and I quite enjoyed these short breaks over my two days travelling around with Badar. 

In one such place, I had my only real taste of Omani specialities. It was similar to a crepe, a very thing type of flat bad, folded over and fried. I chose to have it with cheese, which was deliciously creamy, surpringly filling. I think it may have been goats cheese. An easy, healthy take away snack for the road!


Dates are a big deal for Omanis. I ate dates straight from the tree, surpringly fresh and delicious considering I had been unsure about the very yellow colour of this variety. In the market in Nizwa, people had whole shops dedicated to the fruits, with all sorts of varieties. I’ve never seen so many. Here was where I met one of the nicest, warmest people of Oman. I wandered into one such shop filled with dates, and was immediately offered to take a seat and sip on some Arabic coffee. Several times, I was offered dates to sample, and to have my cup refilled. The owner was busy entertaining two kids, who were giggling in the corner by the counter. After resting a moment, I said I’d return in a few minutes to buy some dates. The man asked me which I’d like, and then refused to take payment for them. I walked out with some dried dates with cumin, a delicious gift from a complete stranger.

The above pictures in this post are not my own

Going With The Flow Meant We Didn’t Go

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’m not the biggest fans of cities. I’d choose a national park over a national monument any day. But this was the day I look back on and wish I had’ve had a little more time to appreciate the architecture and vista of Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers.

In this day and age, there’s a strange romanticisation of backpacking, braving it solo, and being free to ‘wing it.’ There’s all those blog posts and Facebook travellers who tell you that backpacking is always the best way to go. Friends of friends always seem to be telling people not to book anything until you get there. Whilst I agree that it’s nice to arrive into a place and then sort yourself out, and plan according to your level of fatigue or eagerness on any given day, when time is limited it’s certainly not the answer!

We didn’t have a lot of spare time in KL, and due to a few mishaps, I only ended up buying a red bean shaved iced drink, attempting to shop for an hour on a very tight schedule, and making a hopeful attempt at getting tickets to go up the Towers to see the cityscape. This was one of those occasions where  going with the flow didn’t work out in our favour – turns out we needed tickets to go get to the top, and since we’d not done a lot of research, we hadn’t heard we need to pre-book to secure them. I had about 5 minutes to try to take a good shot of these iconic landmarks before we rushed back to the station for our respective trains and flights.

The Petronas Towers themselves are interesting enough, but there are plenty of other other skyscrapers with a similar iconic reputation. What I had been looking forward to was the view of the city. I wanted to get to see the entire city laid out, all the attractions I’d run out of time to visit laid out in one place, so I could say I’d seen them all in the one spare day we had left. So for me, now the Petronas Towers signifies a lesson.

I planned this trip extremely last minute, and we really only booked our flights and accommodation. We didn’t think we’d need that much time in KL, choosing to spend more of our time in Penang and Kuching. We gave ourselves too little time in Penang because it rained on and off for the 3 days we were there. We could’ve used an extra day in Kuching to try to see Orangutangs a second time when it didn’t work out on the first. And in KL, we never got to try the top rated Escape Room experience we’d been excited about, or to go up the Towers. We still enjoyed our holiday of course, and did some fantastic things, but a little more time, pre-booking and pre-planning would definitely have helped us! I took this photo in the last ten minutes we had in Kuala Lumpur before heading straight back to the airport. I think I got to appreciate the architecture and design of Towers more from this photo after I left, compared to when I saw them in person!

The Forgotten Kingdom

 

It fascinates me the way that some parts of history are ‘lost’ in the popular narrative. There are a variety of reasons of course, but even those reasons are constantly changing and evolving, reshaping what greater society pays attention to, and what we collectively ignore.

“Fetch you a hair off the great Cham’s beard.” —Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing

Champa is one such example. Once, Champa was one of the prominent kingdoms of Southeast Asia. They were well known for their skill in ship building. They had great connections with kingdoms worldwide, so much so that even Shakespeare referenced them. Despite the famous art and inscriptions all over Cambodia’s Angkor depicting the various clashes with the Cham, most tourists leave the Khmer temples and monuments with several photographs of a battle scene and no memory of who was fighting whom.

The Cham occupied most of what is now southern Vietnam. After decades of being sandwiched between the Viet and Khmer kingdoms, they were eventually overtaken by the Vietnamese. However, there are still many Cham structures in Vietnam. Pictured above are the towers near Phan Thiet. Interestingly, right next to these towers, a Vietnamese Buddhist monastery has been built. It was a noticeable irony when we visited these towers, the chanting of the monks ringing out across the site where the old Hindu monuments were crumbling away.

The best display of Cham buildings are those at My Son, just outside of Hoi An. The average traveller doesn’t even know that they are there, just twenty minutes away by car. These structures were severely damaged by US bombing raids during the war, but are still considered the best remaining examples of Cham architecture.

Feature image taken in Phan Thiet province, just outside of Mui Ne, images directlly above taken at My Son temple complex.

There’s a strange confluence of the information that we have access to and that which we are exposed to. In this day and age, we have no excuse but the sheer overwhelming wealth of knowledge at our fingertips; ignorance seems almost lazy once it’s put in perspective. And yet, if you did not know to take a taxi ride for just twenty minutes outside of the tourist hub Hoi An, the average traveller could easily spend their given three days shopping at the famous tailors, or relaxing on a riverboat ride that doesn’t go quite far enough south to reach the My Son sanctuary. As archaeology in Vietnam and the wider Southeast Asian area has boomed in the last century, the access to information about lesser known sites has certainly increased and become available in several languages, but it has taken a lot more time for this to filter down into the tourism industry. Even now, when the Northeast of Vietnam is famed for it’s hilltribe trekking experiences with ethnic minorities – as are northern Thailand, Burma and Laos – people (travellers included) do not associate these nations with being multicultural on a day to day basis. Our ideas of modern geography are so entrenched that it has perhaps allowed us to forget that states rise and fall, and that borders can shift between battles.

I often wonder in these changing times of globalisation if the general narrative of history is widening or closing. With more and more visitors travelling to Vietnam each year, are these lesser known sites becoming more exposed, and their cultural heritages coming fully out into the open? Will the trends on Facebook and hashtags on Instagram lead more people to seek out these monuments, or just cement them in the ‘exotic other’ category where only seasoned travellers avoiding tourist hot spots will visit? Or will they be appreciated visually and not historically, as more and more visitors travel by photo?

 

Experience Over Bucket Lists: An Authentic Laotian Baci Ceremony

I think one of the most common things people get wrong in life is to do something for the sake of doing it. That’s not to say that it’s not good to be spontaneous or adventurous, nor to do something just for the pleasure of it. But I think far too often in life we do things for no real reason other than it is what is expected, or simply because it is what everyone else has done.

Particularly when I’ve travelled, I try to take the time to do something a little different, a little off the beaten track each time. To take an extra day or two in a place to relax and enjoy it, to see something that isn’t on Trip Advisor’s “Top 10 Things To Do” when I can, and to try to learn something new about each place I visit.

When travelling down the Mekong from Thailand to Laos, I got to visit the village of Ban Pak Nguay. Most travellers break up the 1-3 day journey to Luang Prabang from the Thai Border towns of Chiang Khong (Thai side) or Houay Xai (Lao border side ) at a small hotel based on the banks of the Mekong, or further south in the town of Pak Beng. While these places looked lovely when we passed them the next day, I was certainly glad to have had the experience I did!

When our boat docked, there were already beaming faces. We were welcomed with flowers by village elders, and led up to the road (which they proudly explained had only been built a year or so before) to be shown around the village. We played with the kids, ate delicious food, swam in the river, tried to join in with their dancing (and failed miserably), and sipped some extremely potent home brewed rice whisky.

The most magical part of the night was the Baci ceremony. This is something that is honestly hard to put into words. The ceremony itself is usually reserved for special occassions, such as marriage or in our case, welcoming guests into the village. Everyone sits around a central tabel with prayer offerings, with the guests of the ceremony closest to the centre. After introductions and a few prayers, we were gestured at to turn outwards to face the villagers. Each village elder had several pieces of string ready in their hands. Then, after a few smiles and giggles at our slightly confused and unsure faces, one by one they shuffled around to wish us well, and tie their blessings on our wrists with a piece of string. At times there were two to three people tying these blessings on me at once. Other times someone was adjusting and neatening them for me, gesturing how I should better align the knots. The room was humming with murmurings of good will from fifty or so strangers, letting us glimpse into their lives, while they all made they way around the circle.

But that’s just the process. That’s just the details. The hard empirical evidence of this was the photo I took of my wrists the next day, and the one band I’ve still managed to keep after we cut them off on the third day as ritual dictates. The experience we had – well, that was something else. I think everyone shared it differently, and I think it was a very personal one for most of our group. For me, I found it to be an almost spiritual experience, a beautiful human-to-human sharing of kindness. There was an overwhelming sense of openness and unabashed generosity, all from a simple sentence or two and some string. And though we couldn’t understand the words they spoke, as each person took our hands and looked at us in the eye, you just knew it was something positive. Later, we were told that most of the blessings were welcoming us into their village, and wishing us a good stay, safe travels, and a long life. To have that repeated forty or so times is a wonderful feeling! I suppose it was like being complimented once, and then a second time, and then continually for the rest of the day. Perhaps you’d have brushed off the first, maybe even the second, but by the tenth the day has certainly been good, and by lunch time nothing will bring you down!

We slept that night on the floor in their houses. As I lay down, I noticed my cheeks were slightly sore from having smiled so much that afternoon. I was glad I’d come here and not taken the hotel option just fourty or so minutes down river. And I was thankful I spent as much of it being present and simply enjoying it.

I had the pleasure of travelling with Stray Asia in November 2015, who take pride in their local homestay experiences across their network. Read about swimming in the Mekong at the village of Ban Pak Nguay here! http://blog.straytravel.asia/2016/03/14/swimming-in-the-mekong-river/

Learning Some Roots

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I’m a sucker for sunsets, I’ll admit. But this is something else. This is just nature, as it has been for millions of years, nothing but two or three roads cut into her surface and some tents huddled into one of her corners. There are people here, yes, but only ever temporarily. And somehow, you can almost feel that timelessness. You can feel the way the land stretches out for kilometers, flat and unending towards the horizon. You know that the red earth will stay there for another few centuries more, and that men will never really tame this vastness.

It’s times like this where I begin to understand the spirituality that’s tied up in nature. It’s far easier to begin an appreciation for indigenous cultures and histories by being here, and to be glad they never did try to tame or hinder her. Being here is definitely a better starting point to an education, rather than half a dozen bullet points in a text book. People need to experience something like this for themselves! Perhaps it’s also a little easier to envisage spirits and ancestors living out here in the spinifex than next to an inner city storm water drain.

 

Pictures: Outback Sunset, Red Earth, West MacDonnell Ranges, Uluru

After The Rain…

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One of thebest times to go for a walk in the park is at dusk, when the light is starting to fade, and the people start to peter out. Not only do you get treated to a great view, but you’re suddenly granted a lot more space to yourself. You can sing a little louder, look a little ugly, and care just that little bit less about what the world around you is thinking if you decided to run for only 10 paces, then jump high in the air, just for the sheer joy of it.

But the best time to go for a walk in the park is just after it’s rained. Or sometimes even while it’s raining. Because then no one is around. Everyone else is too scared of a little water to brave the world outside, too convinced that they will catch a cold. And, while I’m sure the cold did contribute to my getting sick on a few occassions, I did enjoy something most people missed. There’s a wonderful kind of quietness; just the rain, and the absence of other footsteps and traffic. Almost like the way the it would sound if humans hadn’t built cities and engines. A nice, comforting kind of calm.

I took this photo when walking down Black Mountain. I’d started to climb the mountain just before it started pouring down, and got drenched. Once the rain had cleared up a little, I started back down, and had the whole trail to myself. I sang at the top of my lungs the whole way down, and took my time soaking up the wonderful view.