Faine Opines

Southeast Asia, liberation technology, drones, and pontification

The Weirdness of Haw Par Villa – Singapore

haw par villa gate

Singapore is not a place renowned for its eccentricity, its exoticism. This gleaming, modern city where everybody is above average (or would like to be) takes great pains to be pleasant – and pleasant, as most of us are aware, is the direct enemy of the funky, exotic, and surreal.

So it is a great irony that within a city that appears to be striving to become a heavily-populated offshoot of Disney World, there resides what is one of the more freaky tourist attractions I’ve ever come across: Haw Par Villa, the vanity project of the man who gave the world Tiger Balm.

Kids love it.

Kids love it.

Haw Par Villa is a theme park in the early 20th century sense, before over-priced rides $80 entrance tickets became the standard way of things. Brothers Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par, of Burmese-Chinese descent, decided to use some of their fortune gleaned from Tiger Balm sales to construct the place, framing it as a place to teach traditional Chinese values to the good people of Singapore.

The brothers commissioned a entire park full of large, gaudily colored statues portraying Chinese legends from the Journey of the West to the Legend of the White Snake, with added portrayals of the Buddha (in various forms), huge white stupas devoted to the duo’s parents, and ponds full of ferociously reproducing water turtles.

Horse demons. For the kids, see.

Horse demons. For the kids, see.

All fine enough – and eternally overshadowed by the park’s portrayal of the Ten Courts of Hell, a remarkably graphic romp through what happens to very, very naughty boys and girls. Middle-aged, Singaporeans, I’ve been told, seem to share a collective memory of being dragged through these subterranean chambers and summarily lightly traumatized at very young ages.

Which, you can kind of understand why from looking at these pictures. As I peered at the various layers of hell and contemplated why “refusal to pay rent” is considered a much more serious crime than “inflicting physical injury,” I watched a Chinese father guide his small array of children through the exhibits.

The Volcano Full of Prostitutes. No, really, that's what it is.

The Volcano Full of Whores. No, really, that’s what it is.

“See, THIS is what happens if you lie,” he said, pointing to a portrayal of little clay people being poked to death by colorful, fanged demons with pronounced eyebrows.  The kids look worried.

In alignment with wimpy modern sensibilities, signs now warn unsuspecting parents of the impending trauma that awaits them from venturing into the Hell dioramas. The strategic problem with this is that the rest of the park is just about as baffling and potentially distressing to anyone under the age of 10 who has yet to deeply contemplate sin, mortality, and what happens when you take psychedelic drugs for extended periods.

haw par tiger car

For example: I was particularly struck by Aw Boon Haw’s tiger-themed car, which does in fact feature a molded tiger head, orange and black paint, and a horn that emits roaring sounds when pressed. It’s a 1925 Buick Californian Hardtop, in case you are one of the weirdos who keeps track of these things. This is weird, and yet, not even the weirdest thing by a long shot.

 

animal war

While I wandered, I came across this particular nightmare fodder tableaux, which portrays adorable woodland creatures warring with one another, complete with gore.

If you are the type of parent who is eager to fill your offspring in on certain harsh Darwinian realities of life, it’s hard to imagine a better pedagogical tool than this type of thing – the perfect antidote to friendly, singing animals in Disney movies that always stop short of showing the gore.

“This is the true face of existence,” one can imagine this parent telling their little child, as the two of them look stone-faced upon furry animals murdering one another. “Being adorable will not save you from terror.”

Thanks, Aw Boon Haw.

cricket elephants

Right around the corner from Adorable Rodent Mutually Assured Destruction, there was this quite frankly baffling scene.Far as I can tell, it portrays tiny elephants in Dad outfits forcing horrifyingly large crickets to kiss one another, as mean looking rat men look on and jeer.

Maybe it’s a metaphor.

crab people haw par

A major theme of Haw Par Garden’s exhibits is people who are also crabs, or perhaps crabs who are also people. They are joined by turtle men, fish ladies, and other examples of people fusing with animals in distinctly unsettling ways. I have no idea if this is a theme of Chinese literature but it’s probably going to regularly haunt my dreams.

turtle man fish woman

Haw Par Gardens is, rather sadly, declining in popularity, as modern parents conclude they’d rather not outsource teaching morals to their kids by way of distressingly graphic visual aids.I was just about the only person there on the weekday on which I visited, with a small smattering of mainland Chinese tourists wandering through the exhibits with me. It’s still free to enter the park, and it’s conveniently located off its very own Singapore Metro stop.

As for Haw Par Villa’s appropriateness for children. Of course it is appropriate for children, especially those children who are prone to dark, horrifying ruminations on the nature of existence – which is pretty much all children with an IQ higher than that possessed by a celery stalk.

Here is a man fighting a dangerous Muppet.

Here is a man fighting a dangerous Muppet.

If I had been brought here as a small child, I would have likely experienced a month of existential terror, and come out of it on the other end with nothing but fond, rosy memories and warped sensibilities.

I mean, I was taken to the Salvador Dali Museum on multiple occasions when I was very small and there’s nothing even vaguely weird about me.  Take the kids to Haw Par Villa, and do report back on the ensuing conversations.

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The Joy of Padang Food – Singapore

nasi padang yay

Nasi Padang at Sabar Menanti.

“What the hell is Padang food?” you may ask yourself one day, if you happen to be looking for lunch in Singapore, Indonesia, or Malaysia. “Does this have something to do with Penang?”

Ah, you fool, it has jack-all to do with a charming city in Malaysia, but in fact describes a style of cuisine typical of the Minangkabau people of  Western Sumatra, one of Indonesia’s largest islands. Typified by robust spices, long cooking times to ensure maximum flavor, and considerable quantities of coconut, it’s a style that many overseas associate with all Indonesian food. Padang food is available just about everywhere in Indonesia, and is exceedingly popular at lunch time.

The title “nasi padang” usually describes restaurants that function rather like point-and-shoot buffets: a wide array of items are presented behind a glass counter, and you point at what you want to flavor your rice, which is usually served in a whimsical cone shape. Prices are low, service is instant, and it’s a marvelous way to inexpensively sample a wide array of different Indonesian flavors. Some up-scale restaurants will bring all the dishes to your table right off the bat, and you only pay for what you actually touch.

Singapore, thank God, has a healthy assortment of Padang restaurants, and you’ll find most of them in the antique and pleasantly walkable Kompong Glam neighborhood, an easy stroll from multiple metro stops.Certainly Singapore’s most well-known Padang joints are clustered here, and working stiffs on their lunch breaks filter into the area in packs starting around 11:00 AM on any given day. Kompong Glam, with its candy-colored shop houses and beautiful old mosque, is well worth a visit in and of itself.

Selection at Sabar Menanti.

Selection at Sabar Menanti.

SABAR MENANTI

  • 778 Northbridge Road, Singapore
  • +65 6294 4805

I wanted to try a new padang place this visit to Singapore, and a quick perusal of the usual Internet food-related forums convinced me to give this one a go – based on its reputation for fresh food, and its remarkable 50-year longevity. No one, of course, had mentioned that it moved. I went to the old location on Kandahar Street, stared at it for a bit in bovine, hunger-induced confusion, and decided to wander around Kompong Glam’s profusion of fancy carpet and fabric shops for a while.

sabar menanti

Quite accidentally, I found myself at the new storefront, where a chipper, seeming member of the family that owns the place just about pounced at me when I paused outside the door. I had found the right spot, and everyone seemed very happy to see me. All of this struck me as particularly pertinent, considering that the restaurant name translates roughly into “Good things come to those who wait”. (They could stand to do a better job of communicating to their public that they’ve moved).

I’m terribly glad I stopped, because Sabar Menanti is serving just about the best padang food I’ve ever had – and it’s not even in Indonesia.  Chew mussels were cooked in a slightly sweet red chili sauce, while cucumber and carrots were sliced up and tossed in a rich, eggy yellow concoction.

I was particularly delighted by the three kinds of fresh sambal on offer: a chunky red chili paste, a smooth, vibrant classic red sambal, and an incendiary green variant. The entire plate was delightful to look at and entirely irresistible: I inhaled it within 10 minutes, and briefly considered seconds.

Anthony Bourdain, who gives me minor rage headaches, seems to agree: he’s got a signed plaque on the wall. I vaguely recall that episode of No Reservations but I believe I’ve blocked it out. Bourdain phobia aside, I highly suggest you give this place a whirl when you’re in the area.

minang storefront

RUMAH MAKAN MINANG

  • 18 & 18A Kandahar Street, Singapore, 198884
  • +65 6294 4805

 

Rumah Makan Minang is one of the stalwart Nasi Padang joints in Kompong Glam and certainly seems to attract the longest, most devoted lines. I clearly remember first  stumbling upon this place during a gloamy evening in 2010 and thinking “I have got to eat here.” Everyone seems to feel the same way, considering that it’s been in operation since 1954 with little sign of lacking in popularity.

Which I did and do, seemingly whenever I return to the area. Minang specializes particularly in Indonesian tofu dishes and beef rendang, but this time around, I simply ordered from what was behind the window.

A man at the next table and his friend were digging into a gigantic concoction I had always wondered about but had never ordered, and I asked him, as I walked to my table, what it was.

“You must have some!” he demanded, placing some on my plate. He then pretended to take some of my chicken, and we all laughed at each other. It was in fact an excellent and monumental rendition of Tahu Telor, fried tofu mixed with eggs, topped with bean sprouts and carrot, and served with dark soy sauce.

Standouts included stir-fried greens with sambal belacan (shrimp paste), braised chicken in sweet soy sauce with a hint of chili, and flaky tofu with chili. Still, it wasn’t as good as Sabar Menanti: the flavors weren’t as fresh, and there wasn’t as much variety. Perhaps I’ll try ordering off the menu here next time, especially if the rendang isn’t up at the counter.

minang plate

Beyond these two stand-bys, there are sundry great padang options in Singapore, and it’s not to be missed if you’re in the city and want to try something different.

I maintain that the first person to realize that padang food is profoundly marketable to obnoxious Silicon Valley types will get obscenely rich – especially if they serve their food out of a graffiti-adorned food truck at music festivals.

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Some Things I Approve Of in Chiang Mai – Sausage, Khao Soi, Night Markets

khao soi accompaniments

Khao Soi

Khao soi is my favorite noodle dish in Asia, and that’s really saying quite a lot, considering the dizzying biodiversity of noodle soups in this region of the world. Thought to be of Burmese origin, the dish has been modified in Northern Thailand, and is, I think, superior to the original.

The essential deal here is a combo of spicy and richly flavored coconut milk broth flavored with a pungent curry paste, tender chicken or pork, chewy yellow noodles, and a topping of crispy deep fried noodles, sometimes substituted with fried pork skins. With a bowl of khao soi, you’re also given pickled cabbage, raw shallot, lime juice, and usually additional chili paste, which can be applied to taste.

Yes please.

Yes please.

The final result, with plenty of lime juice and supplemental chili in my case, is among the more sublime lunch specialties in the world – a perfect mix of spicy, sweet, tangy, and crunchy. I’ve found myself managing to work in two bowls of the stuff a day in khao soi country, especially as every restaurant seems to make it in a slightly different way. Chicken is usually the more common variety on offer, especially as it’s considered a Muslim-influenced dish, but I’m partial to the pork version when I can get it. Sometimes, chunks of blood are also thrown into the broth as well, especially up near Chiang Rai. You are welcome to quietly pick them out.

Hunting good khao soi is a pleasant endeavor, but I can suggest a little cafe right off the city wall with excellent khao soi. I didn’t get the name, but you’ll see it on the left if you are headed towards Arak Road Lane 5 on the main Arak Road (on the side of the city walls), right after you pass Sinharat Road Lane 2.  Here’s a Google Maps link to the approximate location.

I came upon the place after unsuccessfully hunting another khao soi joint, and was glad I gave it a whirl: deliciously flavored, thick broth, and pork chunks as well as meatballs in the soup. I believe I *maybe* paid the equivalent of $3.

chiang mai art market

Saturday Night Market

Chiang Mai is home to a number of well-known universities, and with higher education, comes hipster kids with weird aesthetics and  a burning desire for pocket money. This means that while the Saturday Night Market on Wualai Road (near the Chiang Mai Gate) does contain the usual assortment of generic Thai crapola – wooden frogs, obscene key-chains, those horrid elephant pants – there’s also a pleasing variety of interesting stuff, produced by young, local artists.

I usually come away from here with a pleasant selection of eccentric, cheap things. This time, it was a tote bag with watercolor paintings of fish on it and the word “Mackerel,” as well as a large sticker of a tiger’s head with “FUCK COMIC SANS” written on it. It’s the vastest night market I’ve ever run across in Asia, bustling along until well after 10:30 PM, and walkable for what seems like almost a mile. Tentacles of night time commerce spread off into the side streets from the main event, prompting pleasant wandering out of the heat of the day.

Soup seller at the Saturday Night Market.

Soup seller at the Saturday Night Market.

The Saturday Night Market also has a nice selection of food stalls, with authentic Thai specialties and not-so-authentic, as well as buskers and performances. The vibe of the event is perhaps its biggest selling point, with a particular, local energy that is quite fun to jump into as a visitor. Finally, there’s spectacular people-watching — well, if you like seeing backpackers clash with Thai hipsters, annoyed looking elderly food sellers, and befuddled looking middle-aged Aussies in singlets. And of course you like that, everyone with any taste likes that.

chiang mai sausages better

Died and found myself alighting in Pork Heaven.

 A Dizzying Array of Delicious Pork Products

chiang mai pork rinds

Thai pork rinds.

My family hails from the Southern United States, a part of the world with a deep, spiritual relationship with eating pigs. Northern Thailand shares this intense porcine affinity with Appalachia, and Chiang Mai’s food markets offer a delightful array of pork products, all at highly reasonable prices and with intense flavoring.

A particular standout is sai ua or Northern Thai sausage, produced with a combination of minced pork, curry paste, herbs, and Thai spices. The end result is a delightfully fresh and unexpected snack that is likely unlike anything you’ve tasted before, at least if you hail from the West. Sai ua is usually sold in long links, and is typically eaten plain, although some clever person needs to take this Thai hot dog concept to the slavering, food-truck besotted masses of Silicon Valley or Portland.

Yet another delightful Northern sausage product is fermented pork sausage (sai krok Isan), which is made with a combination of pork and rice – for you Louisiana people, it’s essentially Thai boudin with a tangy, funky additional kick from the fermentation process. It’s completely addictive and I find it very difficult to step away from stalls that sell it, usually packed into small balls that can easily be scooped up with a cabbage leaf and a fresh, incendiary green chili.

Also worth seeking out are meaty pork rinds, which are of course nothing more or less than deep-fried pork skin. Much of the world seems to find the idea of merrily consuming fried pig epidermis to be deeply disturbing, but both my noble Southern ancestors and the people of Northern Thailand consider them to be a marvelous delicacy, perfect with a beer or three. Not all pork rinds are created equal – some are fresher and meatier than others, while some feature a nice dusting of spicy chili – so it’s worth experimenting from Chiang Mai’s sundry meat-selling ladies. If I can, I like to toss them with some vinegar-based hot sauce, in the finest New Orleans style, but they’re quite delectable without.

Tamarind leaf salad.

Tamarind leaf salad.

Isaan Food

It’s tragic, but the Isaan food typical of Northern Thailand and adjoining regions of Laos is very little known outside of Southeast Asia. True: it’s spicy and often features ingredients that can charitably be described as eccentric, but I’m very partial to its freshness and unabashedly pungent nature. Pungent, rustic-style fish sauce, chili, pickles all sorts, fresh herbs, sticky rice, and smoky flavors are all typical of Isaan food, as well as “jungle” curries more reliant on herbs than they are on rich coconut milk and large quantities of meat.

If you’ve had and enjoyed tangy, eye-bleedingly spicy papaya salad (som tum) before, you’ve had a bit of exposure to Isaan food. In the Lao and Northern style, it’s made with more fish sauce and chili than the versions you’ll find in the South. It’s been written that Isaan food is so aggressively flavored in an effort to make residents of the traditionally poor region be content with padding their meals out primarily with sticky rice. It sounds legitimate enough, especially when one takes into account the fact that sticky rice has a habit of expanding in one’s stomach.

Pleasingly, Chiang Mai is a great, central place to sample good Isaan food in all its variety, and there’s tons of restaurants to choose from. Some places may bill themselves as Lanna or Northern Thai in lieu of Isaan, but there’s considerable overlap in style between them.

Nam phrik (Thai dip or "salsa) with tomato and eggplant.

Nam phrik (Thai dip or “salsa) with tomato and eggplant.

Considering that most Isaan restaurants are fluorescent lit mom-and-pop affairs – which is fine, but sometimes you’re perversely interested in a hint of ambiance, or at least clean tables – I was particularly impressed with the contemporary design of Tong Tem Toh, a Northern Thai restaurant located close to Chiang Mai University.

Up the almost painfully hip 11 Nimman Haeminda Soi 13, it’s popular with young Thais, and has an extensive menu of dishes that are distinctly hard to find elsewhere – though in the evening, there’s plenty of charcoal grilled meats on offer for those in your group with cowardly palates. Always be sure to emphasize that you want your food spicy when dining as a Westerner in Isaan establishments,, as Thais, usually correctly, assume that foreigners can’t hang.

I’m fascinated by the array of nam phrik (Thai “dip” or “salsa”) specialties available in the North, which are a handy answer to Mexican-style salsa bars. Here, we enjoyed a bowl of nam phrik ong, which is best described as Thai bolognese: minced pork, tomato, and smoky chili, served with fresh vegetables for dipping and scooping. It was entirely addictive and I’m learning to make it. The menu also has nam phrik num, a green Thai “salsa” made with roasted green chiles that would fit in beautifully on any given enchilada.

issan bamboo shoots

Bamboo shoots in coconut milk with pork.

We also tried fresh, herbaceous tamarind leaf salad with a fish sauce dressing and a liberal topping of pork rinds, as well as bamboo shoots cooked pork and a little bit of coconut milk and chili (which could have been a little warmer). Joining these dishes was a tasty serving of egg, rice, and pork sausage (jeen som mok kai) with peanuts and fresh garlic on the side, as well as a tasty version of sai ua with lots of pungent flavor.

Best of all was the Northern style pork belly curry, with big chunks of tender, fatty pork in a complex, smoky-tasting sauce, with peanuts and tamarind juice and a bit of coconut milk. We offset everything with little balls of sticky rice from nice woven bamboo containers, and a hefty quantity of Chang beer.

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No Real People – Comic

I always think this when somebody makes this comment at a bar.

no-real-people-man

Part of another comic, expressing what I think is a common 20-something sentiment.

Screen Shot 2014-10-21 at 9.12.47 AM

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Flying the Drone at Wat Umong in Chiang Mai

wat u mong stupa

Wat Umong is definitely my favorite temple in Chiang Mai. Set a bit outside of the center of town in a lush forest, the 700-year-old Buddhist temple attracts relatively few tourists and has a delightfully jewel-like, slightly eccentric character – commemorative stupas overgrown with greenery, a curious worship area dug into an underground tunnel, and gardens set with tiny, crumbling effigies of both the Buddha and Thailand’s venerated King.

I came here with my Phantom 2 UAV (drone) fully expecting to not be allowed to use it. Much to my surprise, when we asked a monk if it was OK to fly it near the main stupa, he shrugged and gave his assent – and in fact, kept on sweeping leaves off the ground surrounding the stupa with nothing more than a vaguely disinterested glance in its direction once or twice. Noted.

Naga statue at Wat Umong.

Naga statue at Wat Umong.

Here’s the aerial photos. The flat area above the stupa in the image is the roof of the underground tunnels, which were said to have been built by the Lanna King to help keep an absent-minded (or likely dementia afflicted) monk from wandering off. Indeed, the word “umong” translates into tunnel, naming the temple for its most curious feature. The walls of the tunnels, so it’s said, were even helpfully painted with botanical scenes to complete the illusion for the wayward monk.I haven’t the slightest idea if this is true or not, but it’s a good story – and the tunnels are a nice, cool place to poke around for a while.

wat umong
And another, with a slightly better view of the tunnels and their ventilation outlets.

wat umong straight down stupa

Wat Umong is also home to a remarkable variety of animals, from cats to dogs to chickens to ducks, all of them kept to a fat and luxurious standard. The dogs wander from place to place accepting head pats from monks and tourists, and perching themselves luxuriously on the mossy walls of the old temple structures. (Their ranks included a purebred bull terrier on my latest visit, whose origin I would love to know more about).

wat u mong chicken

There are also an unusual number of pretty, pugnacious roosters here, which squabble with one another noisily at random intervals, making for excellent photo ops. Cats and kittens emerge at random intervals from the bushes to push their foreheads against your leg and demand you stop this photography bullshit immediately. Animal lovers will be fond of Wat Umong.

Chicken and stupa.

Chicken and stupa.

It’s also popular for Westerners who are out to learn to mediate, as I figured out a bit embarrassingly late in the game while wondering about the number of silent, confused looking foreigners ambling around the grounds. I can’t say I’ve ever felt a burning desire to do so myself – I mean, you can’t use the Internet – but here’s the link if you feel so inclined.

wat u mong trinkets

My favorite part of Wat Umong is the dilapidated and wonderful garden of small Buddha and royal figurines to the right of the entrance to the tunnels. It’s a weird, jewel-box like place and makes for great photography experiments. A Thai group was filming what appeared to be a soap opera here when I visited, allowing me to view a pretty Thai woman pretending to have a hair-rending mental breakdown over a Buddha image. Then, cut. And she did it again, and again. I admire the energy of actors. for it all looked exceedingly exhausting.

Faceless stone Buddhas.

Faceless stone Buddhas.

Please do visit Wat Umong if you’re in Chiang Mai, encumbered with a drone or otherwise. It is a delightfully peaceful, eccentric little place, one that is in some respects made for a decent book and a sojourn with a friendly dog or a cat, or at least a minimally judgmental chicken. There is even a man who sells ice cream. There is not much more you can ask for in this life.

Hidden Buddha in the trees.

Hidden Buddha in the trees.

 

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An Ode to the Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders in Chiang Mai

lovecraftian insect museum
I have been entranced by the Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders in Chiang Mai since I first set foot in the place four years ago, drawn in by a terse Lonely Planet entry, and a large wire-frame statues of mosquitoes and dragonflies stuck to the top of the brick building it sits in.

It is not so much a museum as it is a collection: encompassing a formidable array of preserved insects, a litany of arcane and useful information on mosquitoes, shells, psychedelic paintings, and various editorial notes from the owners. It is one of the strangest and at the same time most genuinely charming attractions – or collections – I have ever come across. You must at least poke your head in if you are in the area.

kissing mosquitoes

The Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders is owned by Manop and Dr Rampa Rattanarithikul, a  now-elderly Thai couple who rank among the planet’s foremost experts on disease-carrying mosquitoes. Their careers in medical entomology have ranged across Southeast Asia to the Smithsonian in Washington DC and all the way to Osaka, where Dr. Rampa earned her PHD in the 1990s. Dr Rattanarithikul eventually published one of the seminal texts to which all who battle and study mosquitoes refers to – and she has named over half of the Smithsonian Institution’s mosquito species herself. It is rare to encounter a couple on this earth who are so singularly devoted to another organism, and at that, one of the planet’s least charismatic ones.

The museum has two floors, the first with a display describing both the benefits and the various nasty things mosquitoes do to people, including vivid images of the fell effects of elephantiasis and hemorrhagic dengue fever. A porch has a remarkable assemblage of hornets and bees nest, as well as “art” created by the incessant nibbling of ants onto wood. There are also Manop’s psychedelic, cheerily neon-colored paintings of pretty girls, his wife, and the natural world, interspersed with Christian themes. The entire effect is slightly Lovecraftian – twisting natural forms, crawling things, tentacled things, and the papery nests of flying insects – and yet, entirely affectionate in its intention. The couple love these weird and terrible things, and wish to convey this love to you.

Manop and Rampa in their youth.

Manop and Rampa in their youth.

It is to this end that Manops’s cheerily optimistic and slightly maniacal writings have been tacked up all over the place, printed out near whatever object seems to warrant it – rumination on the benefits of mosquitoes to humanity (hard as they are to see), how he and his wife met, a stone his grandmother had given him to get him to sit still for an archaic camera, and various anecdotes and musings and slightly twee poems.

When I was there the first time, Mr. Manop Rattanarithikul was wandering the museum chatting with profound animation about the stuff he and his wife had amassed. I lingered at the stag horn beetles, which I have always loved, and he eventually appeared besides me and began describing their many positive features. “You know, I’ve always wondered where I can catch one,” I said, quite sincerely – giving voice to a long time, vague childhood dream that had been helped along by a library of natural science books and a particularly vivid jigsaw puzzle.

Stick insects, sundry.

Stick insects, sundry.

“Oh, it’s easy, especially around here. You must go into the bamboo forest and shake the bamboo,” he said. “When they feel the vibration, they go Eeengh! and stiffen up, and they fall out of the bamboo and onto the ground. You can collect them that way.”

Thus began a good four years of my surreptitiously shaking bamboo plants whenever I see them. This practice did not result in any fruit for a good long while, and I attributed it to a lack of technique, quite realistically. Until I visited the Bamboo Sea in Sichuan in August, a place that is lousy with both bamboo, and as I joyously discovered, stag horn beetles. I spent a long evening collecting them from light sources and letting the immensely heavy, charming things crawl up my arms, to the shrieking bemusement of the Chinese people drinking beer at my hotel restaurant. Anyway, that day I thought of Mr. Manop Rattanarithikul, and his museum. Partially that is why I came back.

Moth and bird.

Moth and bird.

During my visit last month, Dr. Manop Rattanarithikul  was sitting in the foyer wrapping silk purses in plastic with one of her museum employees. She welcomed me warmly, only appearing a bit disappointed when I admitted I was not actually a entomologist but a journalist. I came down from the museum and we chatted briefly about Chikungunya Fever, which I told her in the spirit of chipper scientific endeavor that I had come down with in Manila last year.

She was quite interested in this, and we discussed how Chikungunya is most prevalant in areas with lots of sugar palms – perhaps the swampy aspect of the Manila suburb of Quezon City, where I was staying, explained my little brush with malignant mosquito disease.

A sampling of Manop's prose style.

A sampling of Manop’s prose style.

I felt comfortable enough to ask her why she and her husband had decided to devote their retirements to their singular, wonderful museum. “We always liked collecting things, me and my husband, and we opened the museum,” she said when I asked her about their motivations. “We didn’t really expect it would come to this.”

But so it has, and their efforts are a singular, small monument to eccentricity and to the natural world. It is, I think, a little more than just a love letter to weird things that creep and buzz and bite. More than that, being inside the museum is rather like walking into the collective consciousness of two people who have lived long and very intertwined lives: Dr. Rampa’s work and touch combining with Manop’s weird, exuberant, art and writing.

beetle on a stick

It is, one imagines, the natural result of two dedicated, single-minded old people deciding to render their innermost beings into the real world – and for this very reason, it is fascinating to a degree far beyond the rather erratic sum of its parts. It has flaws, heavens knows: it is rather small, and costs perhaps a bit too much to get inside. It could use a tank of living insects or reptiles or some sort of creature to counteract the dusty deadness of most of the other occupants. But that is not, entirely the point – the specimens themselves are less the point then the representation of two long, curious lives.

The museum, in summary, is a delightful paean to not only insects but also to all-encompassing human weirdness. May the  Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders last forever, and may you go pay it a visit if you are ever in Chiang Mai.

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Anti-Vietnam Protests in Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Oct 6th

monk iphone pics better

Protests against a Vietnamese officials statement about the historical ownership of Kampuchea Krom – what is now Southern Vietnam – continued into a third day on Monday, as members of various groups allied against the Vietnamese presence in Cambodia gathered outside the Vietnamese Embassy on Monivong Boulevard.

By my estimation, around 100 people were at the Embassy by 11:00 AM, and I was told that other activists had convened at the French Embassy and at the National Assembly – I’d appreciate it if someone could verify that for me.

Monks pose with an image of Kampuchea Krom hero Son Kuy.

Monks pose with an image of Kampuchea Krom hero Son Kuy.

Many monks had turned out to support the nationalist cause, and they had brought sundry burnable items with them. First to go was a flag, set ablaze to shouts denigrating the “Youn,” a term for the Vietnamese many feel is pejorative. (One of the monks told the Phnom Penh Post that the flag burning, while effectively symbolic, was also rather expensive).

People smiled and laughed as the flag burned, snapping photos with their mobile phones and tablets. The monks added a rather showman-like element to the burnings, posing dramatically for the cameras, and shouting their complaints about the Vietnamese and their spokesman’s statements about Kampuchea Krom into a large white microphone.

Riot police seemed disinterested.

Riot police seemed disinterested.

As the day wore on – punctuated with occasionally bouts of heavy rain – the monks brought out a sheaf of conical hats, meant to represent Vietnam, and proceeded to write upon then destroy them. “This blood is black blood” read the hats, which were alternately sat upon, spat on, and crushed beneath the sandaled, sticker-adorned feet of the activists present.

A young boy shouts his anger at the Vietnamese into a loudspeaker.

A young boy shouts his anger at the Vietnamese into a loudspeaker.

I chatted with a few of the activists who were present there, including 26-year-old aluminum factory worker Rakin Sok, who told me he works in South Korea and recently returned to participate in the protests.  “Cambodia is not a free country – it’s Communist like Iran or China,” he said, noting that the government prioritizes benefits for foreigners (such as the Vietnamese) over those doled out to its own people.

“If we don’t have negotiations, we will burn the Embassy,” 45-year-old retiree Pearun Nuon told me, taking a harder tack that has been stated publicly before by the activists. “All Cambodian people, they don’t like Vietnamese people, you know – they’re thieves, they stole my country, they stole my land.”

Stamping upon a conical hat, a serious insult in Khmer culture.

Stamping upon a conical hat, a serious insult in Khmer culture.

There is, perhaps, some precedent here: in 2003, the Thai Embassy in Cambodia was sacked and partially burned, after a Khmer newspaper claimed that a Thai actress said Angkor Wat historically belonged to Thailand.

Nuon told me that there are “now around 4 million Vietnamese” illegally living in Cambodia, and expressed his desire that the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party take power in the next national election. “I hope some future new government will send them back to their country,” he said.

Chantou, a 29-year-old local government volunteer for the Chankarmon district, claimed that the Vietnamese largely control the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and by proxy, Prime Minister Hun Sen. “Ho Chi Minh always tried to drive away the government of Vietnam, to get Cambodia to belong to Vietnam,” he said.

Monk tending a conical hat bonfire.

Monk tending a conical hat bonfire.

While he believes that the Vietnamese enjoy special privileges, he prefers that the problem be brought to the Hague, rather than violently dealt with. A new government might help accomplish that, he said, albeit with the people’s consent. “Sam Rainsy has lots of promise, but if he doesn’t follow that promise, the people will protest, and Mr Sam Rainsy will stop his powers.”

Eighteen-year-old Em Chhuna told me he’d come to demand an apology from Vietnamese officials, claiming that the government is “under the slavery of the Vietnamese.”

Preparing to stomp on hats.

Preparing to stomp on hats.

“Last year I read a book by William Shawcross,” he said. “Even my King, Hun Sen, and others, they vote for Vietnam. Everything is prepared by Vietnam. I absolutely want Vietnam to leave Cambodia.”

Chhuna lamented that his neighborhood along the Tonle Sap in Phnom Penh was being taken over by the Vietnamese, but said he would be willing to accept a small number of Vietnamese immigrants if they arrived legally.

What does he think of these protest tactics? “It could become a violent demonstration,” he told me.

“Are you OK with violence?” I asked him.

“Maybe,” he said, with a thoughtful look.

Burning paper Vietnamese flags.

Burning paper Vietnamese flags.

 

 

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Anti-Vietnamese Protests in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Woman pretends a Cambodian flag is a gun at the Vietnamese Embassy.

Woman pretends a Cambodian flag is a gun at the Vietnamese Embassy.

Anti Vietnamese sentiment has been part of Cambodian culture for an exceedingly long time, and has only been on the rise since the hotly contested 2013 elections, in which the opposition CNRP party made animosity towards the Vietnamese, and their supposed colonial desires, a central tenet of its platform.

Spearheaded by Khmer Krom minority groups, anti-Vietnamese Cambodians announced five days of protests at the end of this September, demanding apology from a Vietnamese embassy spokesman for his remarks about the ownership of the Mekong River Delta area.

Anti Vietnam sticker on a car.

Anti Vietnam sticker on a car.

Some context, perhaps, would be useful here. Kampuchea Krom people hail from what is now Southern Vietnam, a region that once was part of the Cambodian Empire prior to the 1600s. The Vietnamese began to settle there and eventually took Prey Nokor – now Saigon – from Cambodian administration. The French partitioned the region to Vietnam in 1949, and it was deemed part of South Vietnam by the 1954 Geneva Accords – a state of affairs that the Kampuchea Krom population has never accepted. anti vietnam kid BW

Distinctly unwisely considering the current political climate, Vietnamese Embassy first counselor Tran Van Thong commented in June that Kampuchea Krom had been part of Vietnam for a “very long time” prior the French hand-over, enraging many Kampuchea Krom people, and Cambodians who believe that Vietnam continues to hold colonial designs on their territory.

Today’s protest was the second of a planned five days of protest against the Vietnamese at the Vietnamese Embassy on Norodom Boulevard in Phnom Penh. A mixed crowd of various ages, genders, and professions – monks to motodops – gathered on Norodom Boulevard and were not allowed to pass past Street 240.

Teacher salaries and anti-Vietnamese sentiment.

Teacher salaries and anti-Vietnamese sentiment.

The group convened at the park near Wat Botum, speaking for a while about the need for teachers to recieve higher salaries. They then proceeded down Sothearos Boulevard, walking all the way to Mao Tse Tung Boulevard and the turn-off to the Vietnamese Embassy. With no evident plans to threaten Hun Sen or government offices, authorities let them pass unhindered, and permitted them to block traffic as they passed.

Protesters advance down Sothearos Boulevard.

Protesters advance down Sothearos Boulevard.

A metal roadblock had been set up at the rather French colonial looking Vietnamese Embassy, blocking direct access to the front. However, only a few police were in evidence, many napping, most looking rather under-stimulated. The authorities have promised to crack down on the protest, per the Phnom Penh Post, but there was rather little evidence of this on display at the Vietnamese Embassy this afternoon.

Butts against Vietnam.

Butts against Vietnam.

As the protest wore on and hundreds of people milled around curiously, someone burned a Vietnamese flag, and others stamped on Vietnamese flags, a sign of profound disrespect in Southeast Asian culture. Someone had made enormous quantities of anti-Vietnamese stickers, and they were being slapped with abandon on trucks, motorbikes, and, quite popularly, people’s asses and ankles. The stickers reminded me of the common 969 Movement stickers one sees constantly in Yangon, stuck on taxi-cabs, food carts, and lamp posts.

Protesters draped anti-Vietnamese posters over the barricades, and some derisively threw discarded boxes of rice and water bottles over them and onto the street. The police leaned on the barricades by the sidewalk and looked on with mild interest, some taking naps on the sidewalk by the embassy interest.

Bored riot police at Wat Botum.

Bored riot police at Wat Botum.

Tellingly, a massive police presence in full riot gear had been assigned to the area near Hun Sen’s House at Independence Monument – indicating that the Cambodian authorities are considerably more concerned about challenges to the ruling party than they are about threats to the Vietnamese.

Where is all this going, and how will Vietnam respond?

anti vietnam kid colors

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Flying a Drone at Olympic Stadium – Cambodia

olympic stadiums construction bw

Phnom Penh’s Olympic stadium is saddled with a bit of a misnomer. Begun in 1963, the earthworks-heavy structure was crafted by revered Khmer architect Vann Molyvann, and was originally intended to host the 1963 Southeast Asian Peninsular Games. Politics got in the way, but the stadium and its 50,000 person capacity persist to this day.

Probably the most colorful incident in its history took place in 1965, when the now deceased King Norodom Sihanouk offered up the place for the FIFA World Cup.

the pitch olympic edited

The reason? North Korea, to the shock of everyone, faced Australia in a qualifier, and few countries were diplomatically suitable to receive the DPRK delegation. Sihanouk, a long time friend of North Korea, proved to be a handy go-between. Olympic Stadium hosted the matches in November of 1965, and in incidents that should prove rather awkward for Australian national pride, the DPRK won them both.

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Some of its history is rather more dark. Prior to the Khmer Rouge invasion and during the troubled Lon Nol period, it served as a refugee camp and field hospital (per the records I’ve dug up), providing some measure of shelter to the thousands upon thousands of refugees who streamed into Phnom Penh from the countryside during this period. Upon the Khmer Rouge take-over of the city on April 17th of 1975, numerous military officers were taken to the stadium to be publicly executed.

Nowadays, the stadium is a pleasant spot in the center of the city that is particular favored by local Cambodians in curious spandex get-ups, footballers of various nationalities, and kids playing pick-up games. I admit I’d never been there before I got my Phantom 2, driving by it constantly but never managing to carve out the time or motivation to hop off the bike and have a look. Now, I’ve got a certain new-found appreciation for one of Phnom Penh’s architectural landmarks.

Screen Shot 2014-10-03 at 6.41.05 PM

I shot (most) of these images during Pchum Ben, when the city was pleasingly quiet and empty as a result of the extended religious holiday. If you’re keen to do the same with your own UAV, it’s responsible to shoot at a time when the stadium is relatively empty. The security guards seemed profoundly disinterested in what I was up to, but I’d keep an eye out. It was also surprisingly windy around the stadium in late September, but once I was above 20 feet or so, it slackened a bit and the UAV proved easy to control.

Screen Shot 2014-10-03 at 6.41.16 PM

 

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Some Thoughts on TEDx Chiang Mai

What I always thought TEDx was like.

What I always thought TEDx was like.

I have somehow never attended a TEDx conference before. TEDx is the independent wing of the TED Conference, which was founded by Chris Anderson and other Silicon Valley illuminati types back in 1984, and have been gathering in repute and international popularity ever since.

Owned by the nonprofit Sapling Foundation, the motto of TEDx is “Ideas Worth Spreading” – a moniker that is both positive and makes it sound vaguely like something to do with getting a cold. The events, wherever they’re held, seek to create an environment where a lot of people who are interested in innovation, big-picture ideas, and wearing avant-garde turtlenecks can meet each other. Technology experts, social change agents, artists, performers, and the merely curious are all mean to mix under one big tent.

Selife time at TEDx.

Selife time at TEDx.

The format, if you’ve been hiding under a rock somewhere, is pretty simple: people get up and talk for a limited amount of time about something they’re really passionate about. Invited by event organizers, their talks are usually accompanied by slides, and there’s no Q&A period. Dramatic music plays as each attendee mounts the stage, and there’s atmospheric, moody lighting. TED talks of various kinds are collected online and transcribed, and many have become exceedingly popular and influential on the Internet – you’ve seen them, trust me.

The event was first brought to Chiang Mai four years ago as two neighborhood events, whose attendance are capped at under 100, per organizer Rob Evans, a long-time expat who helped the first events come into being. The first full-scale TEDx Chiang Mai, permitted to use the city name, took place in 2013, and the 2014 edition saw almost 700 attendees, with a good mix of Thai and foreign attendees.

Per the press release, TEDx Chiang Mai was out to “create a portfolio – an overall good composition.” And it was intentional that some of the speakers were more obscure. “We want you to hear their ideas, connect with them, and connect with each other,” as the release went.

TEDx organizers.

TEDx organizers.

What did I think of it? I only stayed for the talks during the first portion of the day, but I liked the relatively fast, punchy nature of the talks – they didn’t drag on too long, and time limits were strictly enforced. It was interesting to hear from Thai designers, business people, and entrepreneurs, and I gained a lot of info about people I should reach out for further stories about the entrepreneurship scene here. It was reemphasized to me once again that Chiang Mai is a surprisingly cool little city – sort of the Boulder of Thailand, with slightly fewer hipster beards.

Screen Shot 2014-10-01 at 8.03.25 AM

Particular shout-outs to Puey Ounjai, who discussed the benefits of combining an artistic sensibility with art – his engaging style and anecdote about a friend introducing him at bars as a “sperm expert” were much appreciated. I also got a kick out of Thai designer Ploypan Theerachai and her THINKK Studio, who discussed her design firm’s emphasis on light-hearted play, as well as designer Pitupong (Jack) Chaowakul of Supermachine Studio, whose droll observations on the nature of Bangkok urbanity – right down to those ubiquitous, slightly intimidating wires over the streets – were very amusing and well received.

This saxophone is made of plastic and I love it.

This saxophone is made of plastic and I love it.

However, I think the TedX format is TOO talk-heavy. More networking time is always a plus. If connectivity and networking are the goal, it’d be nice to have either a longer lunch break or slightly more commodious breaks in between sessions to chase people down and hand out business cards. The after-party was a good time but the booze did run out rather quickly. Regardless, I got some good connections and am looking forward to following up. Also, there was this fantastic plastic saxophone that sounded exactly like the real thing….

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