Almaty: Kazakhstan’s former capital a beacon of post-Soviet modernization — if only the government kept step

Almaty, a city of 1.7 million, has four ski resorts and countless hiking trails within 30 kilometers.

(Second of a four-part series on a three-week trip through Central Asia)

ALMATY, Kazakhstan — I was sitting in what can only be described as an Arabic gazebo. My table sat under a pointed roof with drapes on four sides pulled back like on a square four-poster bed. It looked more like a harem tent in the Sahara than a dining table in Central Asia.

But then came the food. Then more food. And more food. From meat dumplings to cheese soup, from horse jerky to camel’s milk, I dined like a true Arab prince. After chewing laboriously on mutton in Kyrgyzstan, I had found the culinary capital of Central Asia.

Almaty represents what happens when former Soviet republics discover their own natural riches and spend them lavishly. The largest city and economic engine of the world’s ninth-largest country is awash in high-end restaurants, rollicking nightclubs, shiny shopping malls, leafy boulevards, efficient public transportation and cozy cafes. It’s what likely came to mind 30 years ago when oppressed subjects of the old USSR dreamed about a future democracy.

The national government? Well, it hasn’t caught up on the democracy scale, as 700 protesters confirmed this week when they were arrested over what they viewed as mock elections. Kazakhstan is like one of the shiny SUVs I saw cruising up tree-lined Nazarbaev, one of Almaty’s many pretty streets. The SUV looks great from the outside but inside grinds the engine of a 1965 Trabant.

Still, from the outside? Oh, that body!

I had an eight-hour layover in Almaty on my Almaty Airlines flight from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, to Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Thanks to Kazakhstan’s no-visa policy for Americans, I cruised right out of the airport skipping past immigration and customs and had a pleasant afternoon in one of the world’s most underrated cities.

High-rise apartment houses have popped up all over Almaty since independence in 1991.

Almaty, a city of 1.7 million people, is blessed with some of Asia’s most breathtaking urban scenery. On the ride into downtown, the snow-capped Zailiysky Alatau mountains seemingly came right up to the road’s guardrails. If I had more time I would’ve taken a bus to the city’s outskirts and some of the country’s best hiking, some leading to 4,000-meter peaks. Or if it was winter, I could go to one of the four ski resorts within about 30 kilometers of the city.

But it was a dry, sunny 80 degrees. I had six hours before getting back to the airport. For a quick look at the city, I took a gondola up to Kok-Tobe, Almaty’s landmark playground hill that was built in 2006. Up top, I walked around restaurants with outdoor seating, crafts stores, a kiddie playground, tame carnival rides, a rollicking sled ride and a life-size bronze statue of the Beatles, the only sculpture in the world featuring all four together. Just past a small zoo where male peacocks displayed a massive spread of white feathers about three meters across, I stood under the 372-meter TV tower that can be seen from all over the region.

On Kok-Tobe, the recreational playground established atop a mountain in 2006.

However, I came up for the views. They were spectacular and showed a modern city blending new world wealth with old Soviet-style architecture. In 2016, Kazakhstan was the world’s No. 16 oil producer, pumping out 1.6 million barrels a day. Below me were what rose from seeds planted: glittery, high-rise apartment houses, the windows all sparkling in the sun. Just past them stood some trademark Soviet-era buildings like the 26-story Hotel Kazakhstan, built in 1977 with a spiked, pointy roof, like a Soviet spaceship ready to take off; the egalitarian-named Central State Museum, with its beautiful sky blue dome built in 1985; and the blockish, yellow Kazakhstan Academy of Sciences, boasting of Soviet technology since 1946.

The city has the most interesting ethnic mix of any I saw through four Central Asian countries. Kazakhstan’s population of 17.8 million, by far the largest in Central Asia, is 65 percent Kazakhs whose Asian features are much more delicate than the Kyrgyz. While a Muslim country, Kazakhstan has much heavier Russian influence. Concerned about the Nazis overrunning his factories along the European borders, Joseph Stalin moved thousands of workers and factories to Kazakhstan. When old Russians talked about a prison “in the middle of nowhere,” they may not have been talking about Siberia. Kazakhstan was second only to Siberia in the number of gulags.

Talk to some locals today and you think maybe the country hasn’t changed much.

This week’s massive protests and arrests that made international news centered around elections that have become comical. Like many other ex-Soviet republics that put in charge the old communist guard following independence, Kazakhstan put in place Nursultan Nazarbayev. The son of a poor laborer and growing up in the mountains, Nazarbayev had been an old Soviet hand who became Kazakhstan’s first secretary of its communist party in 1989. Still clinging on to the communist apron strings in Moscow, he did not want the USSR to collapse and, thus, Kazakhstan became the last Central Asian country to become independent.

Nursultan Nazarbayev, left, ruled Kazakhstan from 1989 until he abruptly resigned in March. His hand-picked successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, right, won Sunday’s election with 71 percent of the vote. Al Jazeera photo

Since then, he has engineered Kazakhstan into the forefront of progressive ex-Soviet republics. In 1998 he moved the capital from Almaty to the more centrally located Astana and poured money into a glittery new skyline that has attracted the world’s top architects. Using oil resources and an eye on tourism, Kazakhstan has grown into an urban paradise rivaling many Western European countries and a trendy off-the-beaten-path destination for intrepid travelers.

However, in openly admitting he favors economics over democracy, he has won a string of five-term elections that have been nothing short of formalities. In his last election in 2015, he won 98 percent of the vote. The other 2 percent, apparently, voted for themselves.

Then in March, he resigned. No one knows exactly why but it came one month after he fired his entire government for economic growth that didn’t meet his expectations. In response, the capital of Astana was renamed, in his honor, Nur-Sultan.

The people hoped for true open elections for the first time since independence. Instead, interim president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Nazarbayev’s handpicked successor, took 71 percent of the vote Sunday. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe has refused to recognize Kazakhstan’s elections as fully democratic. Police have raided homes of activists; journalists have been detained.

The people took to the streets in protests despite a law against protests. With exiled activists promising more demonstrations soon, Tokayev was sworn in Wednesday with Nazarbayev expected to wield plenty of power as head of his Nur-Otan political party

Fortunately, I caught Almaty in the calm before the storm.

The hammock and dining areas at Qamaq.

Nothing can be calmer than sitting in said makeshift tent dining on a vast array of local cuisine. Qamaq is one of the new gems on the Almaty restaurant scene. Opened just last year, it is the place to go for an introduction into Kazakh food.

Not to say Qamaq’s atmosphere is laid back but there’s a hammock by the bar, perhaps for food comas.

Thankfully in the shade, I ordered a Line, one of Kazakhstan’s fine national beers. I should’ve saved room for food. The intake was massive. First came a warm salad of green vegetables that tasted a little like chop suey. Second were little cheese balls called kurt, so dry and chewy I needed an entire Line to get one down. It was, however, quite delicious and surely should come soon to taverns in the American South.

Karta, top, and beshbarmak, two of Kazakhstan’s favorite horse meat dishes.

Later came a bowl of what looked like horse jerky. They were little round shavings of dark maroon horse meat called karta. I like horse meat and it’s naturally popular in Kazakhstan where Genghis Khan once raped, pillaged and plundered while leaving only the Mongol cuisine behind. I’m not particularly fond of horses. Thus, I had no problem devouring the entire bowl. It tastes like venison but not nearly as gamey.

Them came the main horse. The national dish of beshbarmak is a bowl filled with huge chunks of horsemeat on a bed of flat, square noodles. Next was a soup, kind of a bouillabaisse, in which I added a dollop of cream cheese. Then came the samsan, fried triangle square filled with meat.

When in Kazakhstan, pass on the fermented camel’s milk.

By this time, after snacking on fried dough in a dill dip, I was about ready to explode. What better way to wash it all down but with …

… fermented camel’s milk.

It’s called shubat and came in a small bowl that looked like something I’d give a cat — preferably a starving cat. I picked it up, took one sip and made a face that looked like I swallowed mating cockroaches. It was as sour as a lemon and room temperature. In a lifetime of eating weird foods in weird places, camel’s milk made my bottom 10.

Qamaq is one reason Almaty is the culinary capital of Central Asia.

At the end of a long layover, it was one step back after many steps forward, kind of like Kazakhstan. As the country pulls itself off the Russian steppe, let’s see if its new motor is a BMW or a Trabant.

Beirut: A birthday celebration in a war zone turned peaceful destination for the intrepid traveler

Me walking along the Corniche, Beirut’s 5-kilometer long boardwalk. Photo by Marina Pascucci

BEIRUT — The bar manager in the white suit hovered over our table by the sea. In between making Marina and I feel welcome, he directed his minions carrying buckets of white-hot coals for the hookah pipes at each table. With a 60-meter lighthouse hovering over us, we looked out through the glass-enclosed outdoor bar toward the cobalt-blue Mediterranean. Surrounding us was a smartly dressed international crowd sipping French wine, cold beer and frosty cocktails. The setting could only have been more ideal if it was under a summer sun and not spring clouds.

Then the manager blew the mood.

“I remember two Apache helicopters out there shooting at the lighthouse,” he said, pointing to the air above the sea. “Everyone dove under tables.”

Welcome to Beirut.

This is a city that has shed a violent past for a peaceful present. Nearly 30 years after a civil war that claimed 120,000 lives and displaced 76,000 others and 13 years after a one-month war with Israel, Beirut is showing signs of its heyday from the middle of the 20th century. That’s when “The Paris of the Middle East” attracted a jet set crowd who swam in a warm sea, ate great meals with views and danced until dawn.

In Beirut, it’s back to the future.

Beirut has enjoyed 13 years of peace but problems remain. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Marina shocked me once during our many discussions about future travel. She always wanted to visit Beirut. It was always on my bucket list and went higher every time I met a friendly Lebanese who raved about the new peace. A liberated, street-smart, third-generation Roman, Marina surprisingly didn’t bristle at Islam’s oft-misrepresented attitudes toward women. I knew better. I’d been to about 10 Muslim countries. Not all of them stone rape victims.

So for my recent birthday she took me to Beirut, a much more romantic destination than many Islamophobe Americans can imagine. Smoking green-apple flavored nargile (the Lebanese hookah) on a bar high atop a seaside cliff. Eating marinated chicken taouk in a 19th-century Ottoman house. Walking hand in hand along the Corniche, Beirut’s five-kilometer-long waterfront.

Our long weekend was lifted right out of “Arabian Nights,” where romantic tales are littered through stories from the Islamic Golden Age. But with every story dripping with romance, “Arabian Nights” has chapters of violence and tragedy.

So does Beirut.

Beirut is filled with construction sites building new apartment houses. Photo by Marina Pascucci

As we walked back long the Corniche from that Manara Palace Cafe on the sea, we saw across the street the new Beirut. It’s a string of high-rise, modern apartment buildings all built since the end of the civil war in 1990. All had big balconies with million-dollar views of the sea to match their price tags.

But peeking out from behind the skyscrapers was the old Beirut. These buildings were gray and black monoliths, skeletal remains of the shelling that lasted from 1975-90. Collapsed balconies. Crumbling concrete. Blown-out windows. These are the memories of a war that never seems too long ago.

Beirut’s waterfront looks like Miami Beach with Aleppo as a backdrop.

One of Beirut’s many blown-out buildings. Photo by Marina Pascucci

We stayed right smack dab in the middle of the contradiction. Our Warwick Palm Beach Hotel is a four-star, seven-story hotel at the start of the Corniche. It boasts one of the best Indian restaurants in Beirut and a high-end cocktail lounge that was booked for private parties every night we were there.

But directly across the street occupying a narrow corner stood the remains of a triangular hotel. The vertical letters P-E-R-L-A were smoke blackened and alternated with blown-out windows. Below, its badly scarred brick wall stood next to a glitzy ad for a Moroccan massage.

We walked by this every day during our romantic walks along the Corniche. We’d both been to Havana and Miami Beach and agreed Beirut’s boardwalk — clean, scenic and diverse — topped them all. The tile walkway shined in the setting sun. Lovers walked hand in hand next to Muslim women in burqas taking selfies. Beautiful joggers in short shorts ran by. The Corniche has no sandy beach. The huge rocks below provide adequate seating and diving platforms during the steaming summer months.

Scenes from the Corniche. Photos by Marina Pascucci

Even with steady traffic, we could hear the gentle waves lapping up against the rocks.

One day we took a taxi to the end of the Corniche and around the corner. Up a long hill were a string of cliffside restaurants, all offering incredible views of the sea. We walked into Al Falamanki Raouche, run by one of Beirut’s major bon vivants during its Golden Age. It’s filled with overstuffed couches and big chairs. We sat down by the wall and ordered apple and grapefruit nargiles. I’ve never smoked a cigarette but the nargile is slightly addicting. It’s a big brass stand about four-feet high with a container at the top holding the coals. You suck on the pipe like it’s a straw and let the “flavored water” seep into your lungs.

It’s quite tasty and after about 10 minutes of hits I admit to a touch of lightheadedness if not the wild desire to eat two kilos of hummus you get from pot. I asked the waiter if it’s unhealthy.

“It’s better than cigarettes,” he said.

Marina and I with the nargiles at Al Falamanki Raoucheh.

Beirut’s Piigeon’s Rock neighborhood. Photo by Marina Pascucci

It wasn’t just sea vistas and new smoking habits that brought us to Beirut. We wanted to see the history, however ugly. We didn’t want to wander through Beirut with blinders. Surprisingly, it has no war memorial museum. There is no place to read a chronological history in photos of what happened. The Barakat building, a yellow edifice that was bombed past recognition, has been targeted as a future museum — since 2003 — but it is years from completion. No one in Beirut seems in a terrible hurry to see it happen, either. Thirty years after the war ended, it’s still not taught in Beirut schools. Talking to young Beirutis, they don’t seem to know much more than I do. They all spoke perfect English. The schools get an A for foreign languages and an F for history.

The general feeling is neither the Christian or Muslim side can decide what the correct history is. Thus, neither side is revealed, to its citizens or outsiders. It is called “state-sponsored amnesia.”

As I began my international travels in the 1970s, I followed the war from a distance. Before the war, this 5,000-year-old city stood at peace, despite a Sunni and Christian majority along the sea and a Shia minority in the south and east. In the mountains to the north lived the Druze ethnic minority.

A lone fisherman off the Corniche.

The Christians ruled and in the mid-70s the Muslims began bristling under the pro-Western government. During the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 100,000 Palestinians emigrated to Lebanon. The Soviet Union aligned itself with Arab countries and Lebanon’s Muslim minority. You could see some sparks starting to fly.

When the Christians and Palestinian Liberation Organization fought in ‘75, the powder keg exploded. Arab nations sided with the Muslims. Israel sided with the Christians. The war was set.

In 1989 the Tarif Agreement began the end of the fighting and in March 1991 the Lebanese Parliament pardoned all political crimes. But before then, Lebanon — a country just slightly bigger than Maryland — was the biggest war zone in the world.

Just up from the hill from our hotel stands the Holiday Inn, the famed American-based hotel that was the main symbol for East vs. West conflict and remains the most bombed building in Beirut. Both sides used the rooftop of the 26-story building to throw off opponents. Today it is a gray blight on the landscape with every window blackened like a thousand eyes that saw too much grief. Like so many other buildings, this one is owned by dueling corporations who can’t decide what to do with it.

The Mohammad al-Amin Mosque. Photo by Marina Pascucci

One of the prettiest buildings in the Middle East is Beirut’s Mohammad al-Amin Mosque. It’s a beautiful palace made of yellow Saudi stone with four minarets and sky blue domes. Marina and I walked inside, sans shoes, and stood on a giant red, blue and yellow Persian carpet under a six-ton glass chandelier. Next door stands St. George Greek Orthodox Cathedral, symbolic of Beirut’s current peaceful co-existence. Yet right across the street in Nehmeh Square, Martyrs’ Statue features two men, one holding a flame, and the other missing an arm — and both covered in bullet holes.

A block away stands The Egg, a huge concrete oval built in the 1960s as a proposed cinema but now is a charred, broken shell from years of civil war bombardment.

Martyrs’ Statue. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Beirut is littered with 30-year-old black eyes.

Yet talking to the people, it’s as if these sites are invisible. They’re too busy drinking, eating and dancing to talk about the past, let alone worry about it. Beirut’s nightlife may be the most underrated in the world. Who knew this former war zone has some of the best nightclubs in the world? Get up early for a pre-dawn airport taxi and you might see cafes crowded with late-night revelers eating breakfast.

I loathe nightclubs. They’re the same from Barstow to Bangkok. Instead, Marina and I went into Hamra, the neighborhood near our hotel and teeming with neighborhood bars and local restaurants. We went to one of Beirut’s best dive bars. Li Beirut is a dark, small, narrow hovel with black-and-white photos of old Lebanese musicians on the wall and soft Lebanese music playing on the loudspeaker.

The Egg. Photo by Marina Pascucci

It’s here where we met our friend from Rome. Dallin Van Leuven is a 33-year-old Roberts, Idaho, native who lived in Beirut from 2016-18 as a peace-and-conflict worker for an international non-profit organization. He later married an Italian he met in Beirut and moved to Rome last year. I met him at Expats Living in Rome, Rome’s expat Meetup group. He joined the long line of Beirutis who lauded the city, from its food to its peace to its people, especially the people.

He was back in Beirut giving a lecture and Li Beirut was his old hangout. We ordered tall glasses of arak, Lebanon’s deadly licorice-flavored liqueur, and he took a savory sip.

“Beirut, not to say the rest of Lebanon, is the most alcoholic place I’ve ever been,” he said. “You can have a beer in your hand and jump in a taxi. And sometimes the taxi driver’s drinking, too.”

At Li Beirut, from left: me, Charbel Abou Halloun, waiter, Stephanie, Dallin Van Leuven, Marina and friend.

Van Leuven, who added that it is illegal to drink and drive in Lebanon, has heard all the stereotypes about Beirut. It’s as if the outside world still thinks locals are dodging mortar shells. He became part of the community. He made Lebanese friends, dated Lebanese women. This small-town Idaho boy felt at home here.

“Like most Middle Eastern countries, Lebanese people love Americans,” he said. “They have issues with American foreign policy, for sure, but they can disengage our politics from our people.”

I asked what’s the best part about living in Beirut.

“Lebanon’s a small country but it has a lot of variety,” he said. “You can hike in the mountains, can go camping on the beach, can go snorkeling, float on the river. You can do so much here. You can ski. There’s something to offer all the time.”

Lebanon also seems more open sexually. Each Muslim country has its own sexual and social mores but in Lebanon things are slowly changing. Besides women dressing as sexy as they do in Rome, attitudes are changing. During our weekend they held the 2019 Women’s Race where hundreds of women ran races of 10, 5 and 2 kilometers to raise funds for such causes as cancer awareness and Ahaad, a women’s rights NGO. That same day, Lebanon’s top military prosecutor decided not to prosecute a case of “sodomy,” stating that homosexuality is not a crime even though Lebanon’s Penal Code states, “any sexual act contrary to nature is punishable by imprisonment of one year.” Judge Peter Germanos told the Daily Star, Beirut’s English-language newspaper, that the law doesn’t spell out what’s considered “contrary to nature.”

Sexual mores are changing as this mural in an alley suggests. Photo by Marina Pascucci

“Homosexuality is still illegal here, but I have plenty of gay Lebanese friends who may or may not practice openly,” Van Leuven said. “It’s more accepted here but it’s still a crime. They have drag shows here.”

Soon, three of Van Leuven’s old Lebanese friends entered Li Beirut. These young people represented the new Lebanese, the upwardly mobile, outwardly friendly, English-speaking yuppies. Charbel Abou Halloun is 22 years old and hails from the northern Lebanese city of Akkar. He’s a civil engineer and moved to Beirut in 2004, well after the civil war ended.

Talking to him, he could’ve been from Milan or Santa Monica.

Me and Marina on the Corniche.

“The new generation learned from our fathers that, for example, this religion is this and this religion is that,” he said. “So we have stereotypes. We know our history. We have to live together so you forget everything and you live new. It’s our parents who had to go through the war. Not us.”

Still, the old generation has its say. Halloun is a Christian and said he couldn’t marry a Muslim woman.

“Because of my parents,” he said. “Some people, they do it but their parents don’t accept it. So they live alone without their parents’ support.”

Still, Lebanese show displays of public affection. While no man bent a woman over a fruit cart as I often see in Rome, I did see women in hijabs holding hands with men. In the spacious Main Street Cocktail Bar, Beirut’s closest thing to a sports bar, a beautiful blonde in skin-tight black leather pants nuzzled the neck of her boyfriend wearing a Yankees ballcap. She’s a Lebanese atheist divorcee.

Divorced? In Lebanon?

“Yes,” she said with a smile, “and it’s easy.”

I won’t get pollyannish on one of my new favorite countries. Lebanon still has plenty of problems. It has an $80 billion debt, third largest in the world behind Greece and Japan. Recently the head of the World Bank Middle East said the Lebanese economy “is defying gravity.” His organization won’t give a single shekel until the country fixes its electricity problem. As I read this over our hotel breakfast buffet, the lights went out.

Beirut’s tourism numbers have risen five years in a row. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Also, Lebanon has a population of 6 million people. That includes 1.5 million Syrian refugees, 80 percent of whom have no legal status. It’s a growing source of tension among Lebanese who complain about crowded buses and drained public resources.

The plethora of political parties are fractured and stories of corruption are the worst-kept secret in town. In the wine room of the Bread Republic, a bakery oddly connected to an enoteca, I talked to three attractive Beirutis about modern life in Lebanon. They wouldn’t give their names but said life in Beirut isn’t as beautiful as it seems on a long weekend. It certainly seemed pleasant. Young, smiling, well-dressed people stood outside the wine bar sipping Lebanese and French wine.

I told them I heard Beirut’s legendary garbage problem had improved.

“That’s better,” the man said. “But we have a lot of garbage in politics you can have.”

As a traveler, you can ignore politics. However, you can’t ignore Beirut’s biggest problem: the world’s worst public transportation. It’s like Albania in 1994 after the communist government fell and the ban on cars had just been lifted. Street signs and building numbers are mere rumors. Maps are as worthless as last week’s Daily Star. Formal addresses weren’t given until after independence in 1943 and remain fairly invisible. Cab drivers know only major points of interest and drop you off in a neighborhood for you to fend on your own. GPS is highly advisable. Buses are small, old and infrequent. On a long weekend, I think we saw three.

Liza is in a 19th century Ottoman house.

On my birthday, we went to a restaurant Conde Nast Traveler billed as “One of the most beautiful restaurants in the world.” You’d think Liza would be well known to cabbies. We had two cab drivers who had no idea where it was. Nor could they find it. Our first cab driver was a grizzled, old man with a scraggly beard and a nasty habit of spitting out his window every two blocks. He had to ask two old men on the street where it was and still couldn’t follow the directions.

We jumped out, paid him 10,000 Lebanese pounds (about $6.60) and a young driver who spoke English finally got us in the stylish, leafy Achrafieh neighborhood. After 10 minutes of driving around in circles, we got out and used Marina’s GPS to find Liza four blocks away.

The search was worth it. Lebanese food is always worth it. We are both huge fans of Middle Eastern cuisine and Lebanese is the queen of the Middle East kitchen. Sizzling lamb kabobs. Creamy hummus. Grilled meats. You can live alone off the mezes, Lebanese hors d’oeuvres that range from olives to ghanoush, mashed cooked eggplant with toasted sesame seeds.

Liza lived up to its billing. Inside a home built during the Ottoman occupation in the 19th century, Liza drips romance. Its white-decorated tables with candles sit atop elaborately tiled floors. Murals of Beirut’s skyline adorn the walls. I had halloun, pan-fried local cheese with tomato jam and sesame seeds. My entree was chicken taouk, marinated chicken with thyme and garlic. They tasted as good as they sound.

Kabob Habiba at Karamna.

After touring the mosque we stumbled onto a wide walking mall where we had lunch at Karamna, a huge restaurant of yellow sandstone walls. Patrons smoked nargiles, filling the air with scents of green apple and jasmine. I knew Beirut had a sophisticated drinking culture when the waiter brought my Almaza, Lebanon’s national beer, in a frosted mug. We munched on mezes of carrot sticks in lemon, salt and cumin and also tabbouleh, a tangy salad of parsley, tomatoes and onions. The main course of kabob habiba was three long, lamb sausages under slabs of bread in chilies. Along with a plate of hummus for extra bread dipping, we nearly waddled out.

However, the friendly owner intercepted us and sat us at one of the outdoor tables, under cover from the rain. He brought us homemade almond saffron cookies and basil tea, all on the house. Coming from Rome where dining is more of an art than a function of life, we were blown away.

A bakery in the Armenian neighborhood of Bourj Hammoud. Photo by Marina Pascucci

We had read Beirut is famous for its Armenian food. In fact, the entire neighborhood of Bourj Hammoud is Armenian. It has been this way since the Turkish genocide in the 1920s when Armenians flooded into the east end of Beirut and stayed. It’s a mishmash of narrow streets packed with open-air bakeries, jewelry shops and haberdashers. A blackberry bush of electrical wires hangs over every small intersection. Armenian flags and language fill the air.

The Badguer restaurant doubles as an Armenian cultural center but the restaurant is Bourj Hammoud’s main attraction. Where else can you get the delightfully named fish net kebab, meatballs in a thick wild cherry sauce and covered in pieces of fried bread? With a glass of Armenian wine, and a table full of Danish tourists nearby, we chatted with the waiter, 24-year-old Chris Koudouzian, a Lebanese-born Armenian, about Beirut’s fractured image.

“I hear this all the time: Outside Beirut people think it’s a scary place,” he said. “It’s not like all the Arabian countries. You come here to relax. Lebanon is a peaceful country now. Are we surrounded by war? Yes. But it hasn’t affected Lebanon yet.”

Despite all the attractions, Beirut doesn’t feel touristy. It remains off the beaten path and is only a mecca for the intrepid traveler. In fact, it’s hard to find a postcard, let alone souvenirs. However, we did find the perfect memory. In a little art store called Plan Bey, where they sell posters and postcards of old Lebanese films, I bought a poster of a Lebanese flag. It’s a giant photograph taken by Fouad Elkoury, a Lebanese war correspondent. It has the red and white stripes and the trademark green cedar tree. Sounds boring? It isn’t.

The flag is completely covered with bullet holes.

Bangkok: After 30-year absence, tastes remain the same in Sodom & Gomorrah East

Wat Arun, "The Temple of Dawn," symbolizes Thailand's Buddhist foundation but underneath lies a pulsating sub-culture.

Wat Arun, “The Temple of Dawn,” symbolizes Thailand’s Buddhist foundation but underneath lies a pulsating sub-culture.

“One night in Bangkok makes the hard man humble.
Not much between despair and ecstasy.
One night in Bangkok makes the tough guys tumble.
Can’t be too careful with your company.
I can feel the devil walking next to me.”
— “One Night in Bangkok” by Murray Head

BANGKOK, Thailand — Welcome to the land that morality forgot. Bangkok is where visions are blurred, not only through the haze of too many Singha beers but the vast tolerance of a Buddhist culture and tourist industry run amok. It’s where a he is a she and a she can do things I didn’t learn on the streets of Eugene, Ore.

When I started traveling in 1978, Bangkok became my gateway to the extremes of Asia travel. It guided me through an education that hardened me on my way to visit 100 countries. It nurtured me while racked with a vicious case of typhoid that cost me 20 pounds in eight days. It’s where I smoked Thai stick in a bamboo home over a pond and hallucinated about snakes wrapping around my ankles until my Thai host said, “You’re not hallucinating. They’re real.” Where else could I watch a woman fire darts out of her vagina and pop balloons held by men ringing her stage then have her sit on my lap and ask to come home with me?

Chicken on a stick at a typical street stall.

Chicken on a stick at a typical street stall.

But it’s also where the perpetual sweet smell of fish sauce and chilies led me around every corner looking for the next cheap, delicious street stall. It’s where the warm air blew across my face as I darted around the streets in tuk-tuks, Thailand’s charming little three-wheeled, open-aired taxis. It’s where I learned the bad rap given the beautiful Thai women, the vast majority of whom are among the most advanced in South Asia.
Malaysia Hotel

Malaysia Hotel

Malaysia pool

Malaysia pool

It is here where I returned last month for the first time in 30 years. Bangkok wasn’t a destination. It was a base to come and go sandwiched around a three-week journey through Laos. Being gone from Bangkok for so long, I wanted some familiarity. So I booked two stays at the ol’ Malaysia Hotel. I still call the Malaysia my old stomping grounds. I spent so much time here in three previous visits, I should’ve received enough points to get a free week’s stay. Or, at least, a free lap dance. As it is, you don’t really need points at the Malaysia. It has always been one of the best bargains in Thailand. I’m paying only $28 a night. That’s for a great room and swimming pool in Lumphini, the neighborhood with Bangkok’s biggest park and most expensive bar. So if you want to save your money for larcenously priced drinks to impress a lady, the Malaysia is the place for you.

In my past visits to the Malaysia, the way you impressed a lady was buy her breakfast the next morning. The Malaysia’s whory reputation was known to every male with a passport and a drop of testosterone. It became famous in the ‘60s as the R&R destination for battle-fatigued and horny American soldiers. By the time I arrived the first time in 1978, it had become nothing less than a pseudo brothel, a hangout for hookers, hippies, backpackers, short-term workers and the occasional world-weary expat. At 22 years old, I had to cut through the hookers in the lobby like the entrance of an NFL stadium just to reach the elevator. I remember one time a young, lithe thing in stilettos was dry humping an Aussie’s leg as they entered the elevator. I stood back looking, expressionless from sexual overload common in Bangkok. The woman rested her head on the man’s shoulder, winked at me and licked her bright red lips.

The Malaysia has changed quite a bit in 30 years. The swimming pool, complete with a balcony deck where a gay Thai tried chatting me up once in ‘79, is still the same. Also left over is the sign on the elevator that no one ever read, saying, “Anyone not a guest must register at the front desk before entering elevator.”

But I’m writing this outside next to a koi pond where a squadron of big, fat white fish float motionless under a big fern. The bar has moved to the other side of the lobby and a big screen TV is showing CNN’s preview of the Six Nations Rugby tournament. Some old men, looking tired and bored, sit over half-filled orange juice glasses and coffee rapidly cooling in the pleasant winter morning. I can’t help but think of what Thai teenager they violated last night. Bangkok does that to you. I have become a sexual cynic. As it turns out, I was right. Later in the lobby, I heard too older men, one New Zealander and the other Aussie, talk about their experiences with Asian men on Tinder. They were later joined by a chubby, pale American man in his 50s with his Thai boyfriend in his ’30s.

The Malaysia has turned into, at least those days, as a gathering place for old queens.

The neighborhood changed, too. In ‘78, I went around the corner to a courtyard of cheap open-air restaurants. I’d sit with Aussies and Dutch and eat passable French toast for $1. I’d overhear tales of their “cure.” That was the catch-all word for post-sexual trysts in Bangkok. This was pre-AIDS 1978. Nearly every corner in Lumphini had a VD clinic on it. The “cure” was sticking a needle down your dick. Even at 22, underloved and oversexed, I didn’t care how beautiful a woman was. I didn’t want sex if the price was getting a needle stuck down my dick. (While writing that sentence, I just subconsciously crossed my legs and bent over.)

Today, the neighborhood has gone to a higher-end tourist. Down the street is an Ibis hotel and some ugly high-rise hotels. Across the street is a 7-Eleven, one of 2,700 that have sprouted in Bangkok. I didn’t recognize the place. The Thailand I remember was a Thailand of the streets. Everything was outdoors: eating, drinking, sometimes shtoinking. Now the gross over saturation of tourism I saw in the ‘70s, 40 years later, has vomited up a sick concrete jungle.

However, the smell of Bangkok hasn’t changed. The aromas of tangy fish sauce, firecracker chilies and grilled fish swirled in the air as soon as I left Bangkok’s sparkling Suvarnabhumi Airport, built only 11 years ago. In fact, all of Bangkok’s public transportation has transformed over the last 30 years. When I first arrived at 22 on a trip around the world, I walked out of grimy, gray, Don Muang Airport and piled into a public bus so packed I had to sit on one end of my duffel bag, like a golf fan sitting on one of those stick-type seats. When I left Suvarnabhumi, I took the Airport Link train to the MRT, Bangkok’s subway, and took it to Lumphini station. Cost for two train tickets? Two dollars.

I emerged from the MRT with an Aussie on his first overseas experience. He’s 50. This I found odd. Aussies are born with wanderlust. They do their first “OE (Overseas Experience),” or “walkabout,” at 22 or 18. They’re the most traveled people in the world. No wonder their xenophobia is lower. But this guy was on his first journey.

“I had two jobs, worked my whole life, wife, two kids,” he said, almost exhaling in relief. I didn’t have to ask what happened to the marriage. He arrived in Bangkok two days earlier and had the same over-the-top exuberance I had when I first arrived in Asia. He was hopping around like a puppy.

I clued him in on some key Thai words I still remember from 30 years ago: “Korp kun cow” (Thank you), “Sawadee” (Hello) and “I don’t pay” (My jai.).

This really isn’t fair to Thai women. An estimated 2 million Thais work in the sex industry. That’s both women, men and men pretending to be women. A couple in the countryside has an attractive daughter and they send her to Bangkok to send money back home. For some reason, there’s a particularly fertile breeding ground of beautiful young girls in northeast Thailand.

However, the Thai women who aren’t hookers, the vast, VAST majority, are great, modernized women. When I was here in the ‘70s, there were more female college students than men. According to the Harvard International Review, last year 80 percent of the total employment of Thailand’s 10 largest export industries were women. Rural Thai women have always been the central bread winners and have owned land since the decree of King Rama V (1853-1910). Last year Thai women had the fifth most PhDs compared to men (57 percent) in the world and made up 51 percent of science researchers. I have often talked to Thai women business owners. During a short stint with The Associated Press in Bangkok, I worked with a female journalist.

And they’re not promiscuous. I dated a couple Thai women in the ‘70s and they adhere to Buddhist morals. In Buddhism, premarital sex is tolerated but not condemned. The average Thai woman wants the same thing any other woman in the world wants first.


They did have an odd dating ritual. After I met my translator for a beer after covering the Asian Games, the tuk-tuk driver dropped me off at the Malaysia. I didn’t ask her in. Instead, she handed me a piece of paper. I noticed that she was writing on it before we left. “It’s a Thai custom to write something about a person when you first meet,” she said sweetly.
In the lobby I read it and wasn’t sure if I was more impressed with her sharp observations or command of the English language when I read, “You are a truly evil troll and really only worthy of extermination.” (I made up the line but not the custom.)

The Moon Bar occupies the 63rd floor of the Banyan Tree Hotel.

The Moon Bar occupies the 63rd floor of the Banyan Tree Hotel.

The beauty of returning to destinations is you get to peel away another layer of culture. I spent a month in Thailand in 1978, a week in ’79, a smattering of days in ’87. I’ve seen the reclining Buddha and the Grand Palace. I wanted to see the new, modern Bangkok. So I went to the Moon Bar. It advertises itself as having the best view in the city and I wanted a place to hang out before diving into Bangkok’s culinary delights.

Getting there was an adventure. In previous trips, the mode of city transport was the tuk-tuk, these motorized trishaws that cost maybe 50 cents or a buck to go a kilometer or two. They have evolved into a blatant tourist trap. For the tourists who want the novelty, not to mention selfie, of the tuk-tuk experience, they charge more than an air-conditioned taxi and negotiate prices as if they’re down to their last dollar.. Instead, I got directed to a guy in a gray and orange vest leaning against his motorcycle. I negotiated his price from 40 baht ($1.15) to 30 (90 cents) and we whizzed around cars, my knee barely missing their side mirrors. We went down modern, wide Soi 1 to the Banyan Tree Hotel. It was right out of Lower Manhattan, a 63-story skyscraper with doormen, guards and a fountain at the entrance. Two elevators later, I was on the top floor weaving my way through candlelit dinner tables to the elevated bar. It was a square, back-lit bar with a mind-boggling 360-view of modern Bangkok. This isn’t your father’s, or my Bangkok. Skyscrapers stuck up haphazardly all over downtown. The architecture is something out of an acid trip. One skyscraper even taller than the Banyan Tree zigzagged up toward the sky with uneven sides. It looked like a Lego structure missing some Legos. Another skyscraper had a swirling outer wall like giant snake.

Me with my $16 Moon Bar Mojito

Me with my $16 Moon Bar Mojito.

But I don’t know if I was more blown away by the view or the prices. One of the cute, young cocktail waitresses with a blouse off one shoulder handed me a drink menu. The cheapest cocktail was 580 baht ($16). I turned to a young American blonde and said, “I don’t know if I’m secure enough in my manhood to order a Lychee Ginger Smack.”

“Sure you are,” she said. “I’ll order it and slide it over to you.”

I went with the Moon Bar Mojito, not only because it sounded a little more manly but also it was the cheapest drink on the menu. It was Absolut Mandarin, Pampero rum, vanilla, mango, mint and lime all of which cancelled each other out to where I was basically drinking slightly flavored crushed ice. It was a $16 Slurpee.

The blonde was one of three San Diego women who had been all over Southeast Asia for three weeks. This was their last night in Bangkok and were splurging at the Banyan Tree. They were drinking a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon which the waiter poured with a thick, white napkin wrapped around it. Price: 23,000 baht ($65). When I first visited Bangkok, I lived on $5 a day. Think about it. We talked about the usual traveler banter. Best island: Ko Ngai. Best food: Vietnam. Nicest people: Thailand. We were joined by a skinny kid in his 20s who’d traveled around Thailand alone between jobs.

“I’m tired of traveling alone,” he said. I wanted to say, “You’d better get used to it. Southeast Asia isn’t for everyone.” It isn’t. Not everything is the Moon Bar. It’s hot, real crowded, chaotic. Bangkok has no visible street signs.

Pad Thai at Uncle John.

Pad Thai at Uncle John.

However, like Rome, when Bangkok gives you a headache and you’re exhausted and frustrated, there’s always dinner to look forward to. A guy on InterNations Bangkok told me to go to a restaurant called Uncle John. The name alone told me to stay away but locals know where to find two things: women and food. Uncle John is on a smaller street off Rama IV and was the typical rudimentary Thai restaurant. Crude white plastic chairs were set up outside with a cheap, dirty yellow sign reading “UNCLE JOHN: Thai and French cuisine.” A tired middle-aged woman in an unfortunate short haircut stood behind a busy desk where she poured multi-hued syrup onto shaved ice for locals seeking dessert. The place wasn’t crowded. I almost got up and walked across the street to the street stall with a sign in Thai and the place packed with locals. But they were all eating soup, a food I can not stomach in the tropics.

I went with my usual habit for a first meal: the national dish. I ordered the pad thai which was better than anything I had in the States: long, flat noodles with big, fat chunks of chicken and bits of green onion and ringed with peanuts. That and an ice-cold Chang beer was all of $7.



Uncle John is a Michelin star restaurant compared to where I went the next night. Bangkok’s Chinatown may be the biggest in Asia outside China. I tried eating in one of Bangkok’s plethora of Western shopping malls but I couldn’t handle eating next to an escalator and on a Pokemon placemat. I returned to the heart of where locals go: Chinatown. It’s smack dab in the middle of the city, not far from my hotel. The main drag of Chakrawat Road is lit up like the Las Vegas Strip with vertical neon signs flashing giant Chinese characters. It may be the brightest street in Southeast Asia. The sidewalk was lined chock-a-block with cheap, hole-in-the-wall restaurants. The tables were covered with large iron-frying surfaces sizzling with crayfish, chicken and whole fresh fish, their eyes, still open, staring off at the diners packing the sidewalk. Bangkok’s air may be dirty but the air in Chinatown may be the most delicious in Asia. Fish sauce. Chilies. Grilled chicken. It all blended together to make me crave wherever my nose took me. I wasn’t hungry when I arrived. One block out of the taxi I was starving.

I’m here during Chinese New Year and Thais packed nearly every stall. At one on the corner, a line snaked around the side of dozens of tables filled by sweating, devouring humans. Occasionally I’d see the white face of a bedraggled backpacker or some savvy old Asian hands going native.

I skirted my way up a side street, each one I passed becoming a little less crowded. By the time I reached the corner, I was hopelessly lost. The streets in this part of Chinatown have no signs. The main streets are in two languages, neither of them English. I asked a man selling fruit from darkened stalls for a restaurant called Nai Mong Hoi Thod. Like many Thai place names, it sounds like a cat that gets its paw stuck in a lawnmower. But down three stores there it was, home to reputedly the best fried oysters and mussels in Bangkok. I took a plastic chair outside and a 30ish guy with bushy black hair handed me a grease-soaked, plastic covered menu. He said he’s out of mussels but nodded when I pointed to the fried oysters in oyster sauce. I thought, I’d better like oysters.

Just then an old Thai man at the table next to me saw me writing in my notebook.

“You a food critic?” he asked in remarkable English.

“I write about food,” I said. “Damn. You caught me. Usually I read a newspaper while I’m taking notes. I can’t really get away with that with a Thai newspaper. Good food here?”

He waved his hand back and forth.

“Overrated,” he said. “I know two places better …”

Fried oysters at Nai Mong Hoi Thod.

Fried oysters at Nai Mong Hoi Thod.

He went on to give me directions that would confuse Indiana Jones. Also, he was full of shit. The fried oysters were great. They were little greasy, gray balls in a brownish-gray glue that looked absolutely disgusting, like polyps from a cancer dying cancer patient. But I’ve never had a more flavorful oyster. And the sauce gave it a thick gravy that exploded in my mouth.

Unfortunately, its price of 150 baht ($4) also reflected the size. I was still hungry when I squeezed my way through the mob trying to find a seat, any seat, in the mass of sweating humanity. It’s been pleasantly cool in Bangkok. About 80 and dry. Here in Chinatown at night with all the flavors and steam filling the air, it felt like the inside of a pressure cooker. Not finding a single seat, I wandered up a side street and saw an old man hawking whole slabs of gray crabs tied with string. A huge iron barrel held clams. A young cook was grilling crayfish. I asked the price for the clams.

Chinatown seafood.

Chinatown seafood.

“One hundred fifty,” the old man said.

“What? One fifty for one?” I said. What else could it be?

“No. 150” and he formed a circle with his forefinger. Four dollars for a whole plate of clams.

I took a seat in the back and sweated like a pig heading to slaughter. I drained half the liter bottle of Chang beer in one gulp until the fans mercifully turned on. The clams were small but good. However, about a third of them were steamed shut. My greasy fingers couldn’t get purchase trying to pry them open with the fat forks. They were clams basically telling me, “Fuck you!” Then again, what should I expect from a seafood restaurant that uses a roll of toilet paper for napkins?
You see, Thailand has so much to offer than sex. (I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence.) I’ve read that Patpong, the neighborhood of more flying testosterone and sperm than any in Asia, has devolved into somewhat of a sexual theme park. The girly bars are still there but it’s more of a place to view its seedy past than lay any seed. The last time I was there, a billboard outside a bar called Mary Queen of Scots listed the following: “Dart throw. Ping pong toss. Signatures. Bottle opener.” Use your imagination. Yes, it was all true.

I had no interest in returning to a scene that made me flaccid at 22. I took another local’s advice and took a taxi clear across town to Zak’s, which he billed as a great place to meet locals and expats alike. It was along Sua 17 off Ploenchit Road where the apartment buildings grew bigger and nicer. This is definitely where the Thai white-collar class lives. Soi 17 was lined with upscale bars, all with modern signs and big glass windows and soft lighting. Zak’s, more of a restaurant, was dead, forcing me next door to the culture-killing establishment, curiously named the German Beer Bar. At least I knew Thais ran the thing. Cute waitresses in Germany’s red, yellow and black colors skirted around with big pint mugs of beer. It was happy hour until 1:30 a.m. and I sat between a young couple and two young Swedes.

Gary, the guy in the couple, was a white Hong Kong native. He spoke fluent Cantonese and Mandarin and English with a slight British accent. He chatted with me in English and his Chinese girlfriend in a smattering mishmash of English and Cantonese. He misses Hong Kong. The UK’s relinquishment of it to China in 1999 didn’t change it politically. It’s a free democracy with a free press. Unfortunately, Gary has an export business and is stuck in some small town four hours north of Shanghai. They watch movies at home for fun. He was clearly clinging to the happiness that his lovely, curvy Chinese girlfriend gave him. Of course, I had to ask.
“What does China think of Donald Trump?”

“Ha! I was afraid to bring him up,” he said. “They hate him. They’re worried. He’s going to make it worse for both countries.”

Hey, maybe Trump will bring both Chinese and American people together. Maybe we’ll all celebrate the Chinese New Year in a joint effort to erase that motherfucker from the face of the earth. We toasted to the death of Trump, which I repeated with the two Swedes who said, “Only 2 percent of Sweden likes him.”

“Two percent?” I exclaimed. “WHAT 2 percent?”

They were 19 and on one of Sweden’s many government-sponsored holidays. They had traveled around Cambodia and the Thai islands, drinking a lot of beer and oggling at the flying vaginas all over Thailand. I asked one of them, a skinny kid in a tanktop with hair the color of straw, about what he thinks of the supermarket displays of sex.

“I’m too inexperienced,” he said. He then went on to describe a lady boy show where a boy dressed like a woman gyrated on stage for customers obviously wondering about the vagueness of man.

The other Swede, a tall, handsome, rakish kid with two cheap island necklaces, said, “I’m all for expressing your sexuality. But when you become a tourist attraction …”

The novelty has long since worn off on me. I no longer see if Thai women make eye contact with me. I don’t spend boring time alone trying to figure out if a woman is a woman or a man. Across the bar sat two women, one with dangling diamond earrings and gorgeous, thick, black hair and the eyes of a doe. She was also skinny as a rake. She was staring at me. Her friend had the high cheekbones that transvestites just can not hide, no matter how much surgery they have. I asked the Swede to weigh in.

“Why don’t you go find out?” he asked.

“I don’t WANT to find out,” I said.

At the corner of the bar was a late middle-aged man, with graying hair and bulky stomach. Resting on his shoulder, maybe asleep, was a reasonably attractive Thai woman no more than 20. He tried to talk to her but her English was strictly rudimentary, “blowjob talk” as expats call it here. He. Talked. Like. This. To her. She looked bored with him and only gave him the ubiquitous smile that basically said, “Hurry up and pay me.”

Starving as the bar closed at 1:30, I went across the street to an all-night diner. Over some fantastic chicken fried rice in chili paste, I saw four couples, all old Western men with young, lithe Thai women, each one more bored than the last. No affection. No connection. No communication. The women were eye candy and an orgasm at the end of the night. The men were a way to get them to the next day.

On the bright side, Thailand is the one place in the world where geeky, ugly Western guys can get a pretty girlfriend. It’s also where pretty women can get out of poverty real fast and easy. It’s a trade off that has less communication than animals in the Serengeti.

As I took a long tuk-tuk ride back with a driver who had no clue where my hotel was, I thought of my Marina back in Rome. I don’t remember missing a woman more than I did then.

The City of Dreams Manila is helping elevate Filipino food to a new audience

The City of Dreams Manila casino resort opened in 2014 and offers a wide variety of Filipino dishes in the five-star complex.

The City of Dreams Manila casino resort opened in 2014 and offers a wide variety of Filipino dishes in the five-star complex.

Henderson note: This is a guest blog by English journalist Daniel Smalling who discovered a place in Manila where Filipino food isn’t so limiting. I was intrigued as I rang in the new Millennium in the Philippines and found you could list the entire cuisine on the margins of one page in Lonely Planet. The City of Dreams Manila doesn’t sound very traditional but it does sound delicious. I’ll go and that’s why I’m running this blog.

MANILA — Filipino food is a melting pot of different influences. Authentic Filipino food is influenced heavily by the Spanish, Malay and Chinese cultures. However, more contemporary Filipino food has taken on American, German and Japanese influences over the last 20 years.

The colonial era when Spain governed the Philippines was a major reason why the country still has a connection to its previous European governors. Some even consider Filipino food to be made up 80 percent Spanish influenced ingredients and culinary flair.

But outside the country, Filipino food is rarely talked about. And because of the influx of many Western-themed restaurants, authentic Filipino food is often buried under a sea of chain and fast food restaurants.

However, since the opening of the City of Dreams Manila in December 2014
by the famous Melco Crown Group, authentic and contemporary Filipino food has been given a new platform whereby international travelers will be able to sample the best Filipino dishes in the five-star casino resort.

The casino and resort is a multi-purpose site, which has gained worldwide acclaim for its variety of live entertainment, huge gaming floors that even include Marvel-themed games like its online counterparts
and the aforementioned slew of popular high-end Filipino restaurants. The City of Dreams is also full of retail shops and purpose built concert halls.

But, for us foodies, it’s the restaurants that prick our ears. The Café at the Hyatt Hotel has a wonderful buffet
that has quickly become very popular, serving many famous Filipino dishes like the ever-popular lechon and many forms of sisig (pork, chicken, tuna, beef). Additionally, Red Ginger also has many famous Filipino dishes while serving a bevy of Asian-inspired meals. Noodl8 also brings Filipino food to the fore with their take on noodle dishes with spices and culinary styles from the country infusing them with the country’s varied cooking styles.

If anything, the City of Dreams will look to give Filipino food a new market to please. With more and more restaurants popping up inside the resort that sell diners the best contemporary food, international travelers will be able to sample dishes from the best up and coming Filipino chefs in the industry.

Author Bio:

Daniel Smalling has been a journalist for several years. After leaving the University of Manchester in 2008 he embarked on a year-long trip across Southeast Asia. He now returns to the region when he can, while contributing to many online and print publications. Daniel also enjoys golf and walking his dogs.

Kerala’s Backwaters a 900-kilometer labyrinth through quiet India

For centuries Kerala's Backwaters were used for transportation and are still used by most of the area's 10,000 residents.

For centuries Kerala’s Backwaters were used for transportation and are still used by most of the area’s 10,000 residents.

ALLEPPEY, India — One doesn’t have a lot of quiet time in India. It has the world’s seventh largest land mass yet you wonder if it’s big enough for its 1.2 billion people. It always seems ready to burst at the borders, like Grape Nuts falling out of a cereal bowl. Even here in Kerala, India’s least densely populated state, people appear on top of each other. Passengers hang from the steps of trains.

But next to my guesthouse in Alleppey, 150 miles north of India’s southern tip, may be the quietest place in India. It’s where you can hear eagles squawk from miles around, where women in saris gossip quietly across canals and where the tiny ripples from boat paddles have a rhythm all their own.

The Backwaters consists of five lakes and 38 rivers.

The Backwaters consists of five lakes and 38 rivers.

This was the reason I came to South Asia. They are called the Backwaters. They are a 900-kilometer maze of canals that meander through a thick forest of palm trees. Glassy-smooth lakes flow into rivers that flow into canals so narrow you can touch both sides of the shore. With the lime green palm trees against a turquoise sky, it looks like you combined French Polynesia with Venice and kept out all the tourists.

But you kept the gondolas.

I met my boat captain at 6:30 a.m. I never understood his name but he was a tall, lean man with a gray moustache and gray hair he brushed back atop a long face. He curiously wore a white dress shirt over a black print sarong the Indian men wear tied up like long, baggy shorts. He spoke virtually no English.

My distinguished boat captain.

My distinguished boat captain.

My guesthouse is right along the canal so our commute consisted of merely walking behind the house and hopping into his boat. It was about 20 feet long and as narrow as an Olympic scull. But it had the comfort of a gondola. I settled into a padded brown leather seat covered in a colorful print. A long canopy provided a nice cool, shady viewing position. I slipped off my flip flops, put up my feet, took out my camera and got set for the quietest, most beautiful four hours you can spend in India. National Geographic Traveler in 1999 listed it among the 50 Destinations of a Lifetime.

For centuries, the villagers here have used these Backwaters for transportation. Running parallel just about three miles from the Arabian Sea, they consist of five large lakes and 38 rivers. The Backwaters stretch half the length of Kerala state — including practically to my doorstep.

Fishing remains one of the main occupations in the Backwaters.

Fishing remains one of the main occupations in the Backwaters.

Using a long paddle, the captain wiggled through the narrow canal by my guesthouse and we entered the large canal. It was about 50 meters wide and so quiet I could hear water ripple as he pushed the boat along. The brilliant orange ball of the sun peeked under the giant leaf of a palm tree to the east. It was just getting light and mercifully cool after nearly two weeks of skin-glistening humidity. We passed lone fishermen cruising out in their boats with tiny outboard motors manned by a long stick in the boat’s stern.

At least they had boats. I saw heads bobbing up and down in the water. I thought they were coconuts. They were humans. Men crawled down long round poles deep in the water and coming up holding small fishing nets.

The sun rises over the Backwaters at 7 a.m.

The sun rises over the Backwaters at 7 a.m.

As we cruised along, the sun began to rise over the palm trees, finally illuminating the gray sky with color. Off in the distance I heard the piercing sounds of Hindu music over a loudspeaker. It sounded a bit like a long, melodic prayer but more like a really bad lounge act.

“Temple,” said the pilot as he pointed to a round structure in orange and yellow beyond the palm trees. It was about the only irritating noise I heard all day.

As we made our way down the wide canal, India’s wildlife seemed to wake at the same time. Low-flying birds buzzed our canopy. Kites with their long, glider-like wings, floated aimlessly. Cormorants with their tall regal heads floated low to the water before making quick dives for fish swimming too high to the surface. I heard roosters crowing, more fishing boats buzzing and my pilot’s paddle slowly lapping the water behind me. Maybe this is what Ullas, my meditation instructor, meant when he talked about a “meditative state.” I was halfway between bliss and heaven.

The Backwaters isn’t a Indo Disney ride. For centuries these waters were Kerala’s lone means of transportation. Most of the 10,000 residents along these canals still get around by boat rather than car. Every home, despite the size, seemed to have some kind of craft nearby. Some of the boats were on blocks or had holes sharks could swim through but they were there.

This is life on the river. As we slowly paddled by, women pounded laundry on rocks. Teen-age girls meticulously washed their hair over the water. Shirtless men in their sarong shorts brushed their teeth. The water was not clear but it was not the sludge I’ve seen in other Third World countries. I would swim in it. It was certainly warm enough. When I dipped my hand over the boat, I had to look at the water to see when my hand changed from air to liquid.

Many cruises are done in the lap of houseboat luxury.

Many cruises are done in the lap of houseboat luxury.

This also is not off the beaten path. Big on these waters are houseboats. Yes, you can have a romantic honeymoon in India. Rent a houseboat, complete with rounded bamboo roof, lanais chairs, dining room tables and comfy cabins. Or get two or three couples and share one. I passed some where fat, sunburned Brits held their iPhones up to video the scenes. The houseboat’s handicap, however, is it’s too big to get through the narrow canals which is the Backwaters’ charm.

The other charm is the Backwaters seem totally unspoiled. Except for the pink monolith that is the Ramada Hotel off in the distance, the Backwaters are void of lodgings, restaurants and souvenir stands. We stopped for lunch at a broken-down wooden shack with no sign. A tarp covered a locked fence where a young, well-groomed man in his 30s emerged. In very broken English, he said food was coming in five minutes. In the meantime, he walked into his house and emerged with his pet resting on his shoulder: a white eagle.

Me and the Backwaters café cook's pet white eagle.

Me and the Backwaters café cook’s pet white eagle.

Yes, eagles are pets here. He said they are not endangered. In fact, as he put it precariously on my shoulder for some schlocky photos, it made the same, “caw! CAWWWWWWW!” sound I heard all day at my beach bungalow in Varkala. Eagles fly around here like crows.

Soon, a middle-aged woman in a tiny motor boat docked and brought a round flat fish to the “cafe” owner. He showed me how he cut off the fins and got it ready for grilling. He fried it in a curry sauce that was just spicy enough to not need anything ice cold. I saw nothing that amounted to a refrigerator. But for a riverside lunch in the middle of rural India, I’ve had worse meals in suburban Denver.

Lunch on the Backwaters.

Lunch on the Backwaters.

Fish lunch
After lunch, the rising sun had slowly turned the gray sky blue. And the heat began socking us in. The pilot put on a multi-colored umbrella hat to keep himself cool. But I couldn’t stay in the shade too long. I crawled to the bow
seat as we slowly meandered down the narrowest of canals. Middle-aged men in immaculate saris squatted on the bank, waving at me as I passed. Then they returned to talking on their cell phones. I wondered what the two attractive women in their 20s were discussing as they laughed at each other’s comments from across the canal.

While this neighborhood is missing amenities, it was by no means poverty stricken. I saw no raw sewage. I smelled nothing but grilled fish. And the foliage was as thick as a jungle. Palm trees, Pandanus shrubs and gargantuan bushes covered the canals in shade. We had to slow our floating to a crawl to get through the narrow passages.

Despite a state-wide sanitation project, pollution still plagues the Backwaters and affects the fishing industry.

Despite a state-wide sanitation project, pollution still plagues the Backwaters and affects the fishing industry.

However, my guide offered no guidance other than a couple of monosyllabic answers to basic questions. Even if he was fluent, I doubt he’d give me the straight scoop on the truth behind the Backwaters’ environment. It isn’t pretty. Less than half the villagers treat the water which has quietly been polluted by, among others, houseboats. Fishermen have complained to authorities that fuel, sewage and floating plastic are affecting the fish and prawn catches. Despite a state-wide sanitation campaign in 2012, the village of Chakkamkandam reportedly is engulfed with raw sewage from the neighboring temple town of Guruvayur.
The Backwaters is a self-contained community.

The Backwaters is a self-contained community.

Backwaters childrenMen, Backwaters bank
But as I floated past such a serene neighborhood, I didn’t notice much civil unrest. By late morning, all of the Backwaters had awakened. Women bathed their naked children in the river. Teen-aged boys in sport shirts gawked and waved at me from the banks.

As we pulled in four hours after departing, it wasn’t even 11 a.m. yet. I sat on my porch and looked out over the tiny canal that took me on a ride I’ll never forget. In a country with more than a billion people, all screaming to be heard over this disparity of wealth, somewhere under the din is the squawk of an eagle over a rising sun.