Laos: My 100th country is slowly emerging from its poverty-stricken communist cocoon

Laos remains a center for Buddhist study despite communism's past efforts to curb religion.

Laos remains a center for Buddhist study despite communism’s past efforts to curb religion.

VIENTIANE, Laos — What do you call someone who’s been to 100 countries? Am I now a centenarian? A countriarian? It makes me sound so old. I guess I am. It’s 100 countries in 60 years. I need to include the caveat “(and territories).” Purists wouldn’t include Puerto Rico and Guam. Some wouldn’t include Scotland and Wales. The World Almanac recognizes Scotland and Wales. That’s good enough for me. Puerto Rico and Guam have their own governments and teams in the Olympics. That’s good enough for me, too.

Whatever, I’ve come a long way from graduating from college owning more cars in my life (one) than passports. From my first step across the British Columbia border after the Seattle World’s Fair in 1962 to landing in Laos on Feb. 4, 2017, I have hit about every corner of the globe. Considering I didn’t go to another foreign country from 1962-78, that is some serious globetrotting. I climbed Kilimanjaro and one of the Great Pyramids. I scuba dived with sharks in French Polynesia. I rafted with crocodiles in Costa Rica. I ate Chateaubriand in Chateaubriand and drank Chianti in Chianti.

Patuxai is Vientiane’s Arc de Triomphe replica built in 1969 with cement the U.S. donated earmarked for a new airport.

Based on the somewhat stodgy school of thought that you haven’t traveled unless you’ve suffered, well, I guess I’ve traveled. I caught typhoid in Thailand, got stuck in an underwater cave in Australia, got in a fistfight in Haiti, got chased out of a hotel room in Indonesia by giant wharf rats, had a machete pulled on me in Morocco, I thought I got kidnapped in Hungary and once stayed in a hotel in Egypt so filthy the shower and toilet shared the same drain. And once I even — and I shudder to even write this next sentence — woke up in Detroit!

In the realm of world travelers, 100 countries isn’t that many. The United Nations lists 195 member states. However, China blocks Taiwan from being a member. I do not. I have not been everywhere. I’ve missed all of southern and West Africa, the Persian Gulf, Central Asia and Antarctica. The oceans are dotted with lots of island nations I’ll never visit. I see no sense visiting an island with no beach unless you want to go to Kiribati and watch the locals drown stray kittens. (They really do. They say cats are bad luck.) I’m not into numbers. I only know it’s 100 because about 10 years ago I tired of people asking me. I finally counted. I didn’t even go to a new country in 2016. I revisited Hungary, Czech Republic and Belgium instead.

This year, No. 100 is attracting the same response from everyone.

“Why Laos?”

I always like that response. It means people know nothing about it. It’s the capital of one of the few communist countries left in the world. It has emerged from a past so provincial its economy as recently as the early ’90s was dependent almost totally on foreign aid.The government, following China’s lead, opened its arms to tourism and limited free enterprise in the 1990s under a reform called the New Economic Mechanism. The number of tourists jumped from 14,400 in 1990 to 4.68 million in 2015. According to Laos government records, revenue from tourism went from $2.25 million in 1991 to $406 million in 2011.

Yes, even communists need to eat.

Street stalls along the Mekong are where the locals in Vientiane eat.

Street stalls along the Mekong are where the locals in Vientiane eat.

From what I saw over four days, Vientiane, a city of 255,000, still has one rubber sandal stuck in its colonial past — which makes it one of the most charming capitals I’ve ever visited. It stretches languidly along the Mekong River separating Laos from Thailand. The narrow, quiet streets are void of many streetlights, let alone traffic jams. Street stalls share sidewalk space with family run noodle shops. The riverside is lined with locals selling fresh grilled fish and meats on a stick. You can eat fresh barbecued chicken for $1 then go upstairs to one of the many bars across the street and drink an ice-cold Beerlao while looking out over the Mekong.

From the moment my AsiaAir flight landed from Bangkok, I knew I’d like Vientiane. Its airport isn’t much bigger than some islands’ airfields in the Caribbean. Its immigration center is the size of a cafe. Standing in the long line waiting for my visa, I met a Canadian woman named Phillipa doing what I’d hear a lot of in Laos: She’s working in China and vacationing in Laos during the Chinese New Year which started Jan. 28. She’s been working in Shanghai for three years and still has that youthful exuberance of someone still excited about eating new foods and learning new languages. We met an Aussie who’s here for a six-month water maintenance project and a dour German woman who never paid me back for the cab we shared to our hotels. For nearly 20 years, Laos has become a haven for backpackers. Cheap beer. Sun. Good food. Laos has done something right.

The pool at my Vientiane Garden Hotel.

The pool at my Vientiane Garden Hotel.

We’re all on Sihome Road where the communist government put many backpacker hostels and hotels. It’s far from a gulag. My Vientiane Garden Hotel is set behind the girls’ Garden Hostel and an absolute palace for a budget traveler. I’m writing this near a pretty, little pool under the shade of huge trees and ferns. The hotel’s white concrete walls are set off by nice dark wood staircases and doors. A rusted barbell and two yellow buckets of empty Beerlao bottles in front of me are the only indication that this is still a developing country.

Actually, this is communism. During the Vietnam War, Laos had a neutral coalition government, whose Royal Lao Army the U.S. supplied with arms and money, while North Vietnam plied the communist Pathet Lao rebels. When the North won, Laos became the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, ending 650 years of monarchy. (Why do communist countries like German Democratic Republic and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea call themselves democratic when there’s not a hint of democracy?).

When the communists took over in 1975, they curtailed the private sector, forced the collectivization of agriculture and curbed religion. About 10 percent of the country fled. Those who stayed circled the drain of what became an Asian backwater. In 1991 the World Bank listed Laos among the 10 poorest countries in the world. Then it hit rock bottom during the global economic crisis of the late ‘90s. What does it tell you about a country’s economy when it must get bailed out by Vietnam?

A photo from the Lao National Museum of street protests in Vientiane during the '70s.

A photo from the Lao National Museum of street protests in Vientiane during the ’70s.

Laos also remained extraordinarily dangerous, not by gangs but bombs. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. conducted a “secret war” trying to keep Laos from becoming a communist domino. According to Legacies of War, a website dedicated to the memory of the Vietnam War, the U.S. dropped 2 million tons of bombs on Laos over 580,000 missions from 1964-73, many landing in the Plain of Jars in Northern Laos. Today, many of those bombs still rest in the countryside, hidden by overgrowth. Laos does nothing to hide the fact, even on maps. Anyone want to vacation in Bomb Village? Yes, that’s the name of a town near the Plain of Jars. Every year more than 60 Lao die from leftover bombs.

However, opening up the economic purse strings gave Laos a major financial injection. Here in the capital, they refurbished the waterfront and built new hotels and roads, mostly financed by China. Today Laos has one of the fastest growing economies in East Asia. From 2006-16, according to the World Bank, its poverty level dropped from 33.5 percent to 23.2 percent. More than half a million people were lifted out of poverty. Among the world’s poorest countries today, it’s not even in the top 25.

Vientiane now has the same relaxed vibe as during its days as a French colony from 1893 to 1953. I first noticed France’s lingering influence when I walked to dinner. On a dusty sidewalk, I walked past a tattered flag of the old USSR waving over a conference hall. In front of the hall stood a big clear glass case filled with gorgeous French pastries, some sprinkled with chocolate. And bread. Laos is crawling with bread, something I never had in Bangkok.

So the French left recipes, the Americans left bombs. Viva la France!

This goes back to answering the question, “Why Laos?” A big reason is food. While debating between Myanmar and Laos, Myanmar (formerly Burma) seemed like 90 percent pagodas and 10 percent human rights violations. I read virtually nothing about food. It makes sense. Who ever says, “Let’s go out for Burmese”? Laotian cuisine is heavily French influenced and I could tell by my first meal.

I took a local’s advice and went to Lao Kitchen. Walking past I saw it was clean and open air — and filled with tourists. The only Lao was a woman with a white guy. Maybe she was rented. Maybe they met on the Internet. I sat down next to three painfully young American girls scooping up their last bits of rice and nearly orgasming how great it was.

Laab at Lao Kitchen.

Laab at Lao Kitchen.

Whenever I enter a country for the first time, I try their national dish. In Laos it’s called Laab, or Lahp as Lonely Planet calls it. It’s either duck, chicken or beef mixed with fish sauce, shallots, mint leaves, lime juice, roasted ground rice and lots of chilies. It was one of the best national dishes I’ve had anywhere in Asia. It’s light, spicy and crunchy. The chilies didn’t overwhelm the lovely duck and the rice made for a nice crunchy substance. It was all of 40,000 kip ($5). My first Beerlao left me underwhelmed. It had the same industrialized taste as Singha or Budweiser. At 5 percent it didn’t give much of a wallop. But it was ice cold which means I can use it as a substitute for water the next three weeks.

I then found myself fed and lonely. I needed to talk. Two blocks away I found IBeam. IBeam is the perfect traveler’s bar. Arriving at about 9:30 p.m., I was one of only three Westerners. The rest were a bevy of gorgeous Lao women all dressed in skirts and heels. Not a single one winked at me or licked her lips. I didn’t have to learn the Lao term for “I have a girlfriend.” The bartender served me a Beerlao in a tall, elegant glass you’d find in Belgium and I settled back to watch a quartet called Black Magic play a nice collection of Western and Lao hits. While they played “Lady in Red,” “Desperado” and “Move Like Jagger,” I talked to a short, fit, bald American. He’s lived in Laos 16 years, right about the time of the economic explosion. I asked if he was happy.

“Not really,” he said. “I’m bored.”

He made Vientiane sound like a really small town, where places like the IBeam are the refuge after a long day battling communist bureaucracy. I asked him what he did for fun.

“This,” he said, raising his beer.

He works in ecotourism which has cleaned up its act over the last six or seven years. However, there’s a problem in going forward.

“They lack creativity here,” he said. “They never come up with anything new.”

He said the biggest problem facing Laos is lots of dam projects are threatening the livelihood of the rural fishermen who need the Mekong River, the 12th longest in the world, to make a living. Bridges are destroying the environment.

I left four beers and 80,000 kip later. That’s about $10. I wandered home, stopping briefly at an outdoor bar, one of the few allowed open past the 11:30 cutoff mark. Filled with expats and tourists, I nursed one last Beerlao and heard a Brit and French woman’s tale of their Danish friend thrown in a Chinese prison for two years for a murder he never committed. He’s still awaiting trial.

Communism isn’t dead yet, folks.

Touring Vientiane doesn’t take long which is why many travelers don’t stick around. Too bad. The relaxed atmosphere makes it feel like a giant fishing village. Vientiane is the only capital I’ve been to where you can count the street lights on two hands. Vientiane has a history going back 1,000 years with remnants still around through a 650-year-old kingdom, American imperialism and now full-fledged communism. But in pace, size and manageability, compared to Bangkok, Vientiane is color by numbers compared to Rubik’s Cube. I about walked the whole town in one afternoon, at least the central part.

Laos still drips with French influence such as Le Banneton cafe..

Laos still drips with French influence such as Le Banneton cafe..

I started the day at Le Banneton, a cafe right out of a back alley of Paris, no question built to remind the Lao that parts of the French yoke weren’t bad. I had a French chocolate pastry not much different than my fagottino back home in Rome and an espresso twice the size and just as tasty as mine. Lots of backpackers sat around reading Lonely Planet. Some expats sat inside from the growing heat working on their laptops. I couldn’t start the day any better.

Vientiane is lousy with pagodas. Unfortunately, none remain from its time in the sun: the 16th century when King Setthathirat moved the capital of the Lan Xang kingdom, Laos’ first monarchy dating to the 13th century, from Luang Prabang to Vientiane. Vientiane became a Buddhist mecca of sorts, attracting scholars from all over Southeast Asia.

But the Vietnamese, Burmese and Siamese took turns transforming the pagodas into so much kindling. The Lan Xang kingdom eventually crumbled and so did Vientiane’s period to shine. It became part of Siam’s empire in the late 18th century and Chao Anou, a Lao educated in Thailand, took over. He did a remake of the pagodas which is what dominate central Vientiane today.

It’s where I started my walk.

Wat Si Saket is one of the few temples in Vientiane not destroyed by the Siamese.

Wat Si Saket is one of the few temples in Vientiane not destroyed by the Siamese.

Wat Si Saket, built between 1818-1824, is a large block covering a bevy of temples. A long row of reclining gold Buddhas and black Buddhas are lined up on the side of the complex like sleeping sentries. The main temple has a sign that says, in English, that it’s due for a makeover — in 2014.

I guess Soviet-level efficiency hasn’t reached Laos.

The Presidential Palace once housed the French colonial governor.

The Presidential Palace once housed the French colonial governor.

Across the street stood the gargantuan Presidential Palace, as French as brie on a baguette. It’s what is called beaux arts and has three beautiful archways over an entrance. In a nod to the surroundings, the three steeples in the back give it a very Laotian taste.

I then strolled up Lan Xang Road, Vientiane’s main boulevard that is as wide as the Champs-Elysees. Here is where you feel the most French presence outside a bakery. At the end of Lan Xang stands the Patuxal. It’s similar to the Arc de Triomphe with a giant archway in the middle of a roundabout but the top deck is ringed with Oriental artwork and little pagoda domes. The American military gave it to the Lao government in 1969 to build a new airport. The Lao took the concrete and, instead, built a memorial to all the Lao who died in pre-revolutionary wars.

Thanks, Yanks.

The view from Patuxai.

The view from Patuxai.

The view isn’t bad. It’s just that there isn’t much to see. Vientiane is as flat as a rice paddy. I don’t think there’s a building more than five stories. It reminds me of Bangkok in the late ‘70s before foreign investment built a skyline and the new affluent Thai bought enough cars to ruin the air forever.

But some commercialization has ruined parts of Vientiane. Just past Talat Kua Din, a classic Asian fresh food market, stands Talat Sao. Apparently, for a generation, Talat Sao was Vientiane’s largest market and the place to go for famed Lao textiles. Now it’s just Vientiane’s largest market. A renovation turned 80 percent of it into a glittering mall. In the remaining 20 percent is stall after stall selling jewelry so gold it almost looked orange. In fact it’s about as valuable as fruit. An Indian shopkeeper told me it’s copper made in India. The famed textiles have been reduced to brightly colored wrap-around skirts with a sash, great if you’re going to an affair at an embassy here or filling some weird man’s fantasy but not appropriate anywhere in the Western world.

The walking took its toll. I tried looking for some place called Spirit House an allegedly classy cocktail bar perfect for sipping an overpriced cocktail as the sun sets on the Mekong. Instead, my thirst got me intercepted across the street at Chokdee. Chokdee means “Cheers” in Lao and the sign said, “Belgian Beer Bar.” The place was expensive. Imported beers were 35,000 ($4, about four times the price of your average Beerlao) but the lahb chicken with sticky rice was fantastic.

I kept a conversation with a retired Dutch guy named Andre. With the tired manner and frazzled hair of a world-weary old Asia hand, Andre spun a tale about his son who has lived in Laos for 18 years and runs textile factories. Andre told me you can get fined $2,000 if caught with a prostitute here. As in Thailand, it’s illegal; unlike in Thailand, it’s not overlooked.

Yes, despite the great French-laced food, quiet streets and meandering river scene, communist tyranny remains alive and well in Vientiane. The Vientiane Times is the English version of the communist rag that toes the party line. Laos has one TV station. It had endless video of government meetings with interviews of stoic officials talking about the coming rice crop. After watching for 45 minutes I thought I was in Pyongyang. Freedom of speech is strictly forbidden. The Lao are passive observers of a life that will never match that of neighboring Thailand. They don’t protest, not even to visitors. Then again, they know something.

Life in Laos could be worse.

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.

Taj Mahal is the beautiful face of India but so are ugly Indian trains

The Taj Mahal is 55 meters by 55 meters, just as high as it is wide.

The Taj Mahal is 55 meters by 55 meters, just as high as it is wide.

AGRA, India — It looks like a giant vanilla ice cream sundae when you first see it. It’s a great soft white dome surrounded by four smaller dollops. In the sun, they glitter. Or was that melting snow I saw?

I deny I’m making the association due to another tongue-swollen humid day in India. Delhi again was nice and cool. It wasn’t due to way too much time in India. Two weeks is a snapshot compared to the six, nine, 12 months the bedraggled, filthy Indiaphiles I saw tramping around on five euros a day.

It was due to one of the Seven Wonders of the World living up to its billing as the most beautiful building on earth. Eiffel Tower? Take a bow. Ever since I saw you stand over Paris like a Rockette on stage when I was a 22-year-old backpacker, you’ve been my No. 1 gal. Not now. Not after walking through a giant red sandstone gate which perfectly frames the Taj Mahal. It’s true, really. Every hardened traveler who treats crowds like immigration officials say pictures don’t do the “Taj” justice. It’s exactly as wide as it is tall, 55 meters x 55 meters. The four corner minarets make it look like a four-poster bed, providing a romantic image for a building built on love.

The Mughal emperor Shah Jahan built it as a mausoleum in honor of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal (from whence the name comes) who died in 1631 while giving birth to their 14th child, (a death which, in my book, can’t be too surprising). It took him eight years to build it and the complex was completed in 1653. Jahan’s son, Aurangzeb, overthrew him and imprisoned him in nearby Agra Fort, a good example of India’s cutthroat politics not to mention an example of how your family tension isn’t all that bad. For the rest of the Shah’s life, the Taj Mahal tortured him, knowing he could do no more than look at the gift he gave his wife. After he died in 1666, he was buried in the Taj next to her.

After the train ride out here, I nearly asked if they had room for a third.

My three-hour train ride cost $1.33 and I got what I paid for.

My three-hour train ride cost $1.33 and I got what I paid for.

Between cars
They say the Taj is just outside Delhi but it’s three hours away. That seems longer when you spend two of those hours standing up between train cars hoping one of the samosa vendors or giant bags of flour don’t knock you on to the garbage-strewn railroad tracks.

Along with the humidity and one bitchy Swede in Varkala, joining my list of negatives in India are Indian trains. I heard there’s something romantic about them. No question they are part of the fabric of Indian travel. They’re a rite of passage, if you will. You’re not a true Indiaphile unless you go a week without bathing then take a 24-hour train ride. It’s life among the masses. In India, masses takes a whole new definition. I have a new description.

Indian trains suck the great big green one.

I don’t know exactly what that means but it sounds pretty negative. I had a reader call me that once and I wondered if his level of hatred toward me matches my hatred for Indian trains. In truth, Indian trains are filthy, crowded, dark and spooky. Filled with sweaty arms, bodies hanging from shattered door frames and faces sticking through the blue metal bars covering the open windows, these trains look like they’re all headed to Auschwitz.

People sleeping in the Agra train station.

People sleeping in the Agra train station.

Indian trains are very confusing. The train stations seem like extensions of the cities. In Sri Lanka, stations look like time warps back to the British Empire. Station masters step out onto the platform in charming, white, pressed uniforms and blow a whistle. They’re right out of a Rudyard Kipling poem. Every station is neat and clean with clear destination signs. In India, they are slums. I walked into Agra’s train station and entire families slept under covers in the waiting lounge. Garbage littered the platform at Delhi’s Nizamuddin Station. In Agra, waiting for the train back to Delhi, rats — black, ugly, filthy, disease-carrying, vicious rats — scurried across the tracks, chasing any edible garbage people tossed through the windows. Indiaphiles want the true India?

Hang out in Agra’s train station.

Buying a ticket is like trying to find the right window in a game show. I didn’t know what I was getting. I counted six classifications: 1AC, 2AC, 3AC, chair car, sleeper car and general class. Everything but first class, chair car and sleeper are cheaper than a soda on Amtrak. My 2 ½-hour train ride from Alleppey to Kochi was $1.50. I bought a three-hour second-class ticket from Delhi to Agra for 85 rupees ($1.33). I tried asking the clerk what car I take but I could bare see him through the filthy glass window. I could barely hear due to him never turning my direction when he talked. Maybe he was beating away rats.

A couple of nice locals on the platform directed me to the Agra train and I sat in a sleeper car where I usually found myself on past trains. No one ever checked my ticket. No one seemed to care.

Keep in mind a sleeper car here isn’t like the Orient Express. No tuxedoed waiter knocked on my door to serve tea as I tucked myself under a comfy quilt on a cozy bunk bed. No. An Indian sleeper has small, steel platforms held to the wall by straps. Fans that apparently haven’t worked since Mahatma Gandhi rode around hung in the air behind wire cages. The car is lit like a prison cell. Slits of light burn through the windows between the iron bars. I saw no light bulbs anywhere.

Still, I found a comfortable bench next to an open window and tried to stay awake after getting three hours of sleep the night before. A family of seven, with three small children and two exhausted mothers in head scarves, eyed me curiously.

Suddenly, I was jostled awake by the first Indian train official I’d ever seen onboard. He carried a clipboard with dozens of pages, all showing lists. He took my ticket and started running his fingers up and down the sheets of paper. His bored expression never changed. I figured I was had. I thought of saying, “You won’t find me there” but instead I waited for the inevitable.

A bribe.

“Four hundred rupees,” he said. He should’ve had his hand out. Or a machete. I told him this is where they directed me. He sighed deeply and instead of further shaking me down, as how an Indonesian traffic cop did to me once, he gave me a go-away motion which I dejectedly took to the next car. However, iron bars blocked my path. Next to the locked door was a short, sharp-dressed man about 30 sitting on a pulled-out bench. He said his name was Marty.

“I was in the wrong car, too,” he said, like a kid sitting in the corner of the principal’s office. “We wait until the next stop and move to the next car.”

The “next car” was so packed, people hung out the door. I grabbed one rung of the ladder before the train started to pull away. Marty bulled his way through the crowd, creating a small opening for me to grab space between cars. An old, skinny woman with skin like cracked leather sat on two big bags of flour and looked at me with suspicion as if I was going to sneak one of the 25-kilo four sacks into my camera bag.

For the next two hours, this was my position. I shared space between railroad cars with 13 others. At least two dozen more were jammed into the corridor running along the compartment filled with dingy benches. I felt like I was on a flotilla. However, the passengers weren’t desperate and poor. They were all men, all in their 20s and 30s.

“I’ll do this for small journeys to save money,” said Marty who had a perpetual smile through the whole trip. “For more than three hours, I’ll get a reservation.”

Compounding the density were vendors squeezing through two dozen bodies shouting out their loot of peanuts or drinks long since gone warm and a sickly sugary Indian chunk candy that looked as if it was sweating. I had to bend inward to let them by while subtly touching my wallet to make sure they didn’t run off with the equivalent of their month’s salary. I had about $50.

After I inhaled to get more passengers in, a young guy with a pudgy face, glasses and easy going manner, turned to me and said with a smile, “India’s population is growing.”

Thank God I didn’t have to go to the bathroom. Thank God it was cool out. Thank God I only paid $1.33.

The red sandstone entrance to the Taj Mahal.

The red sandstone entrance to the Taj Mahal.

When we finally arrived in Agra, a taxi took me the three kilometers to the Taj Mahal grounds. I heard the biggest negative about visiting the Taj Mahal in Agra is having to visit Agra. It’s one of the vile hell holes in a country full of them. It does have a bevy of souvenir stands, around for decades to soak the 3 million annual tourists, twice Agra’s population. However, I found it aesthetically pleasing with its windy, narrow alleyways and smells of curry and coriander pouring out of little stalls. The streets form kind of a rat’s maze before spitting you out the other end where you get the big cheese: the Taj Mahal.
I don't do selfies. Instead, I found a nice Frenchwoman to take the obligatory Taj shot.

I don’t do selfies. Instead, I found a nice Frenchwoman to take the obligatory Taj shot.

Visiting the Taj Mahal isn’t a spiritual experience like the Vatican or Himalayas. It’s a tomb, for God’s sake. What blows you back when you first walk through the archway is just its sheer, uncompromising, jaw-dropping beauty. It is spectacular. They say the white marble shines as the sun changes. Unfortunately, the sun wasn’t out. However, the Shah built it with the Yamuna River behind it and nothing else. The massive monument’s total background is a brilliant blue sky.

And the view got better as I approached.

In the foreground of the Taj is one huge, long, shallow pool filled with crystal-clear water. On a brilliant day, you can see the Taj’s reflection in it. A traveler’s Kodak moment is clicking a picture that shows the real Taj Mahal and below the exact mirror image in the water. I had no sun but the overcast day did nothing to spoil the sight of a building that moved 19th century Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore to write, “The Taj Mahal rises above the banks of the river like a solitary tear suspended on the cheek of time.”

The Arabic letters are bigger at the top to give it a uniform look from below.

The Arabic letters are bigger at the top to give it a uniform look from below.

Once at the building, I noticed the brilliant detail that went into it. Most notable are what they call “pishtaqs.” They are arches on all four sides of the Taj. They provide depth. Each one is covered with a lattice marble screen that allows beautifully patterned light to illuminate the inside. The shadows look like Caravaggio paintings.

I stepped closer and rubbed my hand against the beautiful 400-year-old white marble. It felt like something Michelangelo would carve. Engraved in the marble are flowering plants which represent paradise. Going up the columns are Arabic calligraphy. The Islamic Mughai Empire ruled India from the 16th to the 18th century. In a spot of architectural and calligraphy brilliance, the letters get bigger as you look higher. Thus, all the letters look the same size from the naked eye below.

The Pietra Dura has 35 different precious and semiprecious stones in the marble.

The Pietra Dura has 35 different precious and semiprecious stones in the marble.

Then there is what they call the Pietra Dura. About 35 different precious and semiprecious stones created different colored flowers inlaid into the marble on the inside and outside of the walls.

Once inside, the Taj Mahal looks remarkably small. Except for the patterned shades of light coming through the lattice windows, it is pitch black. All that’s inside is what the Shah intended: two tombs, one of him and one of his wife. However, the tombs are fake. The real ones are buried in an underground vault and unavailable for viewing.

It wasn't much of a sunset but the building is beautiful at any hour.

It wasn’t much of a sunset but the building is beautiful at any hour.

Unlike touring most world-renowned monuments, this time I didn’t want to leave. I wound my way through the dusty alleys and found myself in the middle of a small but wild Hindu festival. People with faces painted in a rainbow of colors were dancing and singing — and throwing colored dust at everyone within range. That included me. I walked up to the rooftop restaurant of the Saniya Palace Hotel covered in orange and green and red. I looked like a tie-dye shirt. Even my camera was orange.
I don't know what this Hindu parade was about but I looked like them after they got through with me.

I don’t know what this Hindu parade was about but I looked like them after they got through with me.

I sat down on the roof with other tourists not caring that I could sprinkle red dust on their curry. I sat down and stared out at a gorgeous, rooftop vista of the Taj Mahal in the distance. The clouds prevented a sunset but you’d need a bomb to take away the view of this magnificent building. Conde Nast couldn’t have arranged for a better last day in South Asia for me. Here I sat, eating the best naan bread I’ve had in India, drinking my last ice-cold Kingfisher beer and staring out at the most beautiful building on earth. A muezzin’s call to prayer floated over the rooftops. The sky grew dark.
A couple enjoy a view of the Taj from the rooftop restaurant at the Saniya Palace Hotel.

A couple enjoy a view of the Taj from the rooftop restaurant at the Saniya Palace Hotel.

India’s locomotive economy is a beacon for critics and diplomats alike. The boom has both united the country and torn it apart, violence springing up as fast as high-rise condo buildings. I only saw a couple of the Indias. There are so many more to see in between the growingly wealthy upper castes and the expanding poverty. But India’s past is what will never change. A melting pot of religions, cultures and food has made India the mystery that it will remain forever.

The Taj Mahal is its face. Shah Jahan made it as beautiful as his wife. In every way it’s as beautiful as their country.

Birthday in Delhi means new friends and victory in Indian rum pong

Robert, Walia, Aga and myself at Delhi's Summer House celebrating my 59th birthday.

Robert, Walia, Aga and myself at Delhi’s Summer House celebrating my 59th birthday.

DELHI — Is it possible to spend your birthday with 18 million people and feel very alone? Yes, if you turn 59 in Delhi as I did yesterday, the second-most populated city in India can feel very lonely. Fortunately, I was saved by a kind Polish woman and her equally kind German boyfriend. Throw in a few of their friends from around the world, and I had a birthday for the ages.

I felt a lot younger than 59 although a sunburned face from an ill-fated safari Friday in Kumily made me look 69.

Delhi is as crazy and noisy as I’ve heard but a recent heat wave left town and it was mercifully cool when I landed at 10:30 a.m. It didn’t take long for Delhi’s famed scam artists to introduce themselves to me. A cab driver tried pushing me past the pre-paid taxi stand and charge me 780 rupees ($13) to my hotel. I didn’t even say no thank you. I just grabbed back my voucher and went to the taxi stand where I got a taxi for 400 ($7). When I told my new cabbie another one wanted 780, he got out of his taxi stand seat and said, “WHO?” I thought he was going to mistakenly shoot an innocent bystander next to me.

My hotel is in Old Delhi which shouldn’t be confused with New Delhi which is the administrative and government center the British built in the early 1900s. New Delhi is lined with white, ornate architecture and huge official-looking buildings where long ago the Indians moved out numerous statues of British dignitaries. Old Delhi is lined with grime, dust, cheap retail stores, construction, wild probably rabid dogs, crazy drivers and cheap hotels you can’t tell from scruffy garages.

My hotel was an absolute mystery to my baffled cab driver. He asked directions about six times, from auto rickshaw drivers who pointed him in opposite directions to vendors selling dodgy samosas from filthy street stalls. After 30 minutes going up and down the same dirty street, screeching past rickshaws and terrified dogs, we finally found C-Spot Hotel. It’s a single door under a vertical sign which could’ve said the Bates Motel and I wouldn’t have cared.

The hotel is fine and, at $20, is probably expensive for India. And this AirBnB was not someone’s house. It was a cheap hotel with a tiny front desk where a bevy of men in checked shirts hover over you like lampreys. The room is spacious and clean but one of the minions had to turn on the water for the toilet to flush and he had to be notified 10 minutes in advance to turn on the hot water.

I didn’t care. I threw my bags on the bed and went birthday shopping. Delhi’s auto rickshaw drivers are all connected with different retail shops. Walking the streets as a foreigner is like walking through a series of TV ads. Carpet shop here. Ceramics there. Spices over here.

The famed State Emporium where every state’s crafts are under one roof was closed so I went to Cottage Industries on a mission. I quickly settled on a gorgeous silk painting of a Hindu king being paraded through a street in Rajasthan in the 1500s. It has stone inlay, a cloth background and a gold frame. The old merchant wanted $175 and in a spirited negotiation session that had other merchants hovering around to watch, I got him down to $125. It was Sunday, dead and tourism is down, particularly since the rape-murder of the Canadian woman in 2012. I wanted to pamper myself.

(I’m writing this on a train platform waiting to go to the Taj Mahal. A kid in his early 20s standing right in front of a trash can drops an empty nut bag right on the ground. The lack of environmental awareness outside the West remains one of the most startling observations from my travels. Since I began traveling overseas in 1978, their collective consciousness has not changed.)

I found out the hard way that Delhi’s traffic is a cluster fuck. I took one of Delhi’s glittering subways (In the filth that is Delhi, the shiny, air-conditioned Metro stands out like a tuxedo in a Salvation Army.) to Hauz Khas station and an auto rickshaw to Hauz Khas Village, one of South Delhi’s nightlife areas. With about a mile to go, I could hear the beating music ahead. I could see Delhi’s wall of humanity walking toward it as if in a procession. And they kept walking past us. The rickshaw couldn’t move. I stepped out and saw nothing but red taillights ahead. The driver, as dispirited as I was, pointed to me, then the road and flicked the back of his hand toward it as if to say, “It’s better if you walk.”

So I walked. And walked. And walked. I walked at least a kilometer which is a kilometer more than any rickshaw had moved in 30 minutes. Hauz Khas is a glittery, ultra-modern complex chock-a-block with bars and restaurants all emblazoned with neon signs and more lighting than Yankee Stadium. Doormen stood in front of some of the more tony restaurants. This is the new India. It’s where the world’s second-fastest growing economy shows its wealth in its signage and real estate while 60 percent of the people in Mumbai, its largest city, still live in slums.

I received the invitation from Aga, a pretty young Polish woman I met in Varkala while waiting for my meditation session. She told me to meet her and her friends at a bar/restaurant called Summer House. I saw nothing. I asked a stocky doorman with a wispy moustache, a perfect haircut and a black blazer.

“It’s not here,” he said. “It’s in Arzblvtra Village,” or something like that. I didn’t have a clue. All I knew was it was a kilometer away. I had him repeat it three times before I finally had him spell out Aurobindo Market.

A desperate tuktuk driver took a cursing John Henderson against the grain where he dropped me off in the back of a dark parking lot. It was the back end of a bunch of cheap storefronts, none of which looked anything close to a place educated expats would hang out. A guy manning a snack cart pointed me around the corner where I saw “SUMMER HOUSE” lighting up a three-story building with beautiful people hanging out of the open-air bar. As I walked up, I saw a tall white guy who said, “You must be John.” Dave was Aga’s boyfriend whom I recognized on her Facebook page.

Aga was talking to an Asian woman and gave me a big birthday hug. “Your beers are waiting for you,” she said. Bottles of Kingfisher beer were lined up on a table where I sat with Dave, Aga and Walia, their Indian friend. All were in their late 20s. David and Aga have been in Delhi a year and a half, meeting one week after she arrived. David is from Dusseldorf and works for an online grocery outfit. He likes Delhi a little more than Aga who told me when we met, “Every two or three weeks you have to get out of Delhi.”

David said he really likes Delhi. It has softened him.

“In Germany, everything is just GO, GO GO!” he said. “Here everything takes a while. Before, I’d get so agitated. Now, I’m like, ‘Well, OK.’ I’m more patient.”

Walia is from one of the upper middle-class castes. I could tell. He went to an international school and has a “love marriage.” That’s what Indians call marriages that aren’t arranged. Yes, they still exist but with the higher economy and better education for women now, “Women have more say in the matter,” he said, with more respect than some Italians I’ve met.

Aga arranges wedding that can last up to five days, which is longer than some marriages I knew about in Las Vegas. Just as they did before the British arrived, Indian families still set up children with families of similar economic backgrounds. The caste system in India is caste in stone.

The expat community here is real strong. A lot of people I met were on six-month internships with various computer or software companies. I met a posse of them at a house party not far from the Summer House. A Frenchwoman named Fiori has her birthday on the 30th and we had a duel celebration. A tall Indian with a highly stylized haircut asked me, “You just turned 25? Congratulations! Another one said, “I think it was 21.” Do I owe these people money? Why are they being so nice?

I liked this group.

The apartment was small but decorated in kind of college Indian style. A carpet with a Hindu deity hung on the wall along with framed Bollywood posters. Tall plants gave the place some life. Fiori has been in Delhi five years. “So the plants have grown with me,” she said.

A Mexican named Javier was ending his six-month internship and was about ready to embark on an Asia tour.

“I’ve had a soft, easy life for six months,” he said. “It’s time I got back to the real world.”

Easy life? Has he ever taken a rickshaw around here?

On both ends of a coffee table were plastic cups lined up in formation, all a quarter filled with rum. A ping pong ball sat in a nearby cup of water. Javier and Francesco, a small, wiry Italian from Bologna with impeccable English, invited Aga and I to play what they called Indian rum pong. The game is as old as U.S. college education. It’s played in every fraternity and scruffy apartment on every college campus. If you bounce a ping pong ball in your opponent’s cup, he must chug whatever’s in the glass. If you bounce it in, both opponents drink. I haven’t played the game since … well, I’d never played. I actually worked weekends during my frat days, always arriving when the games long since ended and the beer too warm and putrid to look at, let alone chug.

My three earlier beers apparently hadn’t kicked in enough to affect my aim as I landed about four balls right into cups. The winner landed with such a splash, the cup spilled all over Francesco. Aga and I celebrated with a fist bump that traverses hemispheric borders.

I could live in Delhi if not for the weather. It’s in a cool spell now. The temperature didn’t top 75 yesterday. But Aga says in April to June it’s broiling. It’s dry but broiling, reaching 120 degrees some days.

“You take a shower and before you walk out of your house you need another shower,” she said. David added, “The poor who have no A-C soak towels in water and sleep with them over their heads.”

Soft life? God, I miss Rome.