Monday, June 27, 2016

Timeless Thailand: Floating Raft Houses in Khao Sok National Park

Yes, Thailand can look like this (which was taken in Koh Samui)
 Sure, Thailand has some wildly gorgeous white sand beaches with cute Australian bartenders making vibrant fruity cocktails and shacks on the sand where you can buy the best noodles of your life for two dollars. But my favorite part of the country is Khao Sok, a national park comprised of a dense tangle of jungle a little over 300 miles south of Bangkok.

Because we visited Thailand on our honeymoon, we uncharacteristically stayed at five star hotels all over the country—and this is a place to do that, because even the bougiest places have rooms for under $200 a night. But there are no JW Mariotts in Surat Thani, a hub town built mostly of parking lot that tourists only buzz through on their way to either the jungles or the islands, so we stayed at a concrete box called the S Tara Grand. It was $30 for the night. When we walked in, there was an illustrated sign that said “No Smoking No Pet No Durian.”

Overall, very good advice, I think
We got hour long foot massages at the spa in the lobby, occasionally visited by a little gecko. Then we had some (delicious) noodles and a large Chang beer in the restaurant, which was empty except for us and a young Thai couple with a newborn, and turned in early to prepare for our adventure the next morning.

This was Christmas Eve. It was surreal and funny and magical and there was blessedly no durian.
is this what heaven looks like?
At six the next morning, a van picked us up at the hotel to drive into the jungle. The driver wished us Merry Christmas and offered no explanation for the teenage girl asleep in the front seat. About an hour into the ride, he dropped her off on the side of the road, and as we drove away I watched out the back window as she began to set up a food stall. (Getting into cars with strangers and riding until they motioned for us to get out was a real theme in Thailand. In these situations, I usually say something to Jared like, “At least if this is how we die, it’s an interesting story,” which I do not think he finds particularly reassuring.)

After some time and a stop at a Thai 7-11 for coffee and teeth-crackingly crunchy snacks, we pulled up to a Jungle themed treehouse hotel very well camouflaged in the middle of the jungle. Here, we had breakfast and then got into another van driven by a stranger who told us to call him “Big Man” (it was an appropriate moniker), who turned out to be our guide for the ensuing adventure. We drove to Cheow Lan Lake, left the vast majority of our worldly possessions in the back of the van, and got into a long tail boat. It was pouring rain as we took off into a magical world out of Fern Gully or Jurassic Park; Khao Sok is older than the Amazon.

Two hours later and soaked to the bone, we arrived at our floating raft houses. A thatched roofed, open walled dining space opened off of the long-tail boat parking lot. Two bright yellow kayaks floated in the green water, and a long line of wooden huts stretched along a rough-hewn walkway built of planks lashed together with rope. Inside each hut was a queen-sized mattress and a tent of mosquito netting. The bathroom was up a hill and we were told there were only two hours of electricity a night.
Big Man builds some ducks
Almost immediately upon arrival, Big Man loaded us back into the long tail boat and we headed out on a hike. After snaking through muddy trails, we came to a cave, which he helpfully told us would have water “to here,” indicating his waist, “to here,” indicating his chest, and “to here,” holding his hand above his head. I spent 45 minutes feeling like a badass aquatic version of SpiderMan, shimmying up pitch black waterfalls and swimming between slick boulders, before Big Man shined his flashlight on a wall to kindly illuminate a spider bigger than my head. And then we entered the bat cave.
hard pass on the bats, thanks
There were just millions of bats hanging around stalactites. I did not prefer the bats myself, but Rosa, the seven year old German girl in our group, plowed ahead gleefully at Big Man’s side.
A haiku:
Dirty hand, cold Chang
It's Khao Sok in a nutshell
Yes please, I'll take two
After two more hours of hiking, which included Jared wiping out down a muddy hill and finding a leech setting up shop on his ankle, and me being a super cool and fearless lady explorer who would charge anywhere through this verdant jungle as long as the bouncing seven year old and a guide doing the whole hike barefoot led the way, our long tail sliced back through the still waters to our huts. We drank some Changs on our tiny front porch and then dove right into the water for a swim. Toucans and macaques spotted the prehistoric trees. For dinner, we shared a whole fish with a Parisian couple who explained the underground Paris rap scene to us in French. It was still Christmas. At 10pm, our two hours of electricity expended, the string lights clicked off and we fell asleep in the middle of a profound darkness.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Do the Grk: White Wine on Korcula, Croatia

this is what your life looks like all the time too, right?
Let me tell you about a place: It’s an island. The old town is all made of winding corridors of white stone. Purportedly, it was the birthplace of Marco Polo. Now Bill Gates docks his mega yacht in its marina. The signature dish is dumplings in truffle cream sauce. There is a bar atop a stone turret that you enter by climbing a ladder, and where the drinks are served via pulley system. And forty minutes out of the town center by bike, there are a few little vineyards that are the only places in the world you can get Grk, a tingy white wine made from grapes that only grow in the sandy soil of this little spit of land.

surprisingly this scene was not animated by Disney
We very nearly didn’t make it to this place, which is called Korčula (pronounced CORE-chu-la), and is one of thousands of islands along the whimsically named Dalmatian Coast. Some combination of road closures and torrential downpours nearly stranded us in Dubrovnik; we missed two ferries and eventually had to take a long and bumpy bus ride up the coast of Croatia. The bus itself eventually drove onto a ferry to make the crossing from the mainland, so that should give you some sense of how large this watercraft was. It was dwarfed by the yachts as we pulled into the marina.

What we found as we stepped off the boat was my favorite place in Croatia. Downtown felt like a mini Dubrovnik, minus the hordes of Game of Thrones fans searching for landmarks from King’s Landing. The al fresco restaurants down small stone alleyways reminded me of Greece. The late summer special around the Adriatic is black truffle, and I would be lying to you if I said I didn’t have something truffled for dinner every night for a week.

kayaking to work off all that truffle cream sauce
On our last day on the island, we rented bikes and rode the four or so miles to Lumbarda, the wine making town south of the marina. We were seeking Grk, mostly because I think the name is funny and if someone tells me this is the only place in the world I can do something, I’m sold. We turned off at the first rough hewn, hand painted “Grk” sign we saw, and wheeled our bikes past low stone walls, up a road that wound through fields of green vines, until we arrived at a terrace masked by winding tendrils and hanging leaves. A few wooden picnic tables sat empty overlooking the acres of vineyards, dotted with red-roofed buildings. A big, tired white mutt lounged in the open doorway.

team grk!
As we entered the small tasting room, a guy in his early thirties poked his head around a wall and greeted us as though he’d invited us to stop by anytime. “Want to taste some wine?”

As he pulled bottle after bottle of Grk (pronounced “Gerk,” which I find very amusing), Pošip, and the red Plavac Mali from the shelves, he chatted about his family’s history of running the vineyard. The dog, whom we learned was 18, had heard it all before, and kept napping at the entrance. Eventually, the proprietor father showed up and said something to his son, who suddenly sprinted from the premises, yelling back that he had forgotten his mother somewhere and had to go retrieve her.

les vines and les clouds
Though the day had been gorgeous, dark clouds were starting to gather on the horizon, but we were unfazed as we had five hours until our ferry to Split, and nothing else planned past the short bike ride back into town. We settled on the terrace with a decanter of Grk and our books, willfully forgetting our near disastrous experience with the Croatian summer rainstorms in Dubrovnik. And then the skies opened.

hello from the other side
We moved nearly as quickly as the ancient dog to get back inside, reassuring each other that this would pass in plenty of time to get home on our bikes. Hours passed. We slowly drank another bottle of wine. And then we had to face the music. And by face the music, I mean construct full suits out of trash bags and ride four miles back into town in the pouring rain tipsy and barefoot.

As we coasted back into Korčula town soaked and wearing bright blue garbage bag capes, a mega yacht called Paraffin was gliding into the marina. I Googled the Paraffin on our plebian ferry to Split, which we made in plenty of time (not to brag, but we even got window seats.) It’s 160 meters long and sleeps 12. It’s owned by the scion of Yankee Candle Company. You can rent it for $410,000 a week.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Vegetarian Gluttony in Friedrichshain, Berlin

the park next to our Friedrichshain apartment. overwhelming hipness.
Friedrichshain is too hip for me. Everyone is young and cool and wearing interesting clothes and riding a bike while carrying a guitar and drinking a helles from a stubby. The apartment we rented for a month lent one of its building walls to a street art park, so the landscape would change overnight. Over the course of the month we stayed there, our façade started white and ended completely covered in a mural of Marlene Dietrich, Jimmy Hendrix, and Arnold Bocklin.

our welcoming committee
Berlin, and Friedrichshain in particular, is perfect for vegetarians and vegans. You can stuff yourself cheaply, which is basically my idea of heaven. So go to the corner store, buy a 1€ beer, have them open it with the bottle opener they keep at every cash register in this eminently reasonable and enjoyable city, and take a long stroll through this lively young part of town. (You can’t do this all in one day unless you eat like Michael Phelps, so choose wisely.)

cuteness matters
Go to Silo. Order the Master Wolf Cold Brew, which is served in a crystal rocks glass with one giant ice cube, like good scotch. Have the Avocado Smashed Toast with manchego and poached eggs (give the bacon to a friend and watch them suddenly become a better friend. It’s one of the magical powers that come with vegetarianism.) Read your book, absorb the hipness.

Go to Aunt Benny. Have the iced Americano, which is made with coffee ice cubes so your drink doesn’t get diluted. Have a toasted bagel with jalapeno red onion cream cheese. Sit outside, be impressed with the cool young parents who just strap their kids to their bikes and still manage to look insouciant.

vegan + doner = voner. VERY CLEVER
Go to Voner. Doners are huge in Berlin—and I mean that they are both very popular and enormous. Voner makes one so big that I would split it with my 200+ pound husband and we’d both be full. And it’s vegan, so even though you are stuffed, somehow you will still have room to feel smug. There’s even a Bikram yoga studio around the corner, so I guess you could do that first, though after a few classes I decided Bikram is the Emperor’s New Clothes of workouts, except instead of being naked I was just really sweaty and couldn’t stop thinking about how much I could have accomplished in 90 minutes in a weight room.
the end of our street, aka the view on the way to Voner
Go to Hot Dog Soup. Hot Dog Soup is a genius establishment that is the size of the interior of a Peugeot. I’ll give you two guesses what they serve. You can feed two for under 10€, including beer. They have vegan hot dogs, and several of their daily soups are also always meat-free. We can order any sort of food at any time of day in New York and have it delivered to our door, but you would not believe how often I say to Jared, “Man, I’m really in the mood for Hot Dog Soup,” and then get sad that this weird little anomaly is so far away.

Go to Lemongrass. The best Thai food I’ve had outside of Thailand is in Berlin. Good Thai food is light and zingy, and while there’s a time and place for the greasy, heavy sponge of American Thai takeout (like, around noon after a night on the town in the dead of winter, while sitting on the couch in your pajamas watching a DVRed episode of the Amazing Race), Lemongrass has the delicate, aromatic curries that remind you that Thai can be a warm-weather cuisine. Also, it goes really well with Hefeweisse, so Thai in Berlin just makes sense.

Go to Spatzel & Knodel. While Berlin is great for vegetarians, German food is full of meat. Spatzel & Knodel is your classic dark-wood paneled German haunt where you can get giant plates of spatzel (little noodle-like dumplings, usually with cheese and caramelized onion) or my personal favorite German vegetarian option, the Huge Bread Ball (technical name: Semmelknodel.) They are literally made of old bread soaked in milk, squished up into a ball, sauted in butter, and covered in gravy. If you’re looking to murder someone, dump them in a river, and have them sink straight to the bottom, no need to encase their feet in cement. Just feed them a Semmelknodel and a couple of pints of Dunkelweisse. This is winter food, so save it for one of those chilly Berlin nights.

sometimes for fun we match our beers to our hair colors
Go to Hops and Barley. It’s basically next door to Spatzel & Knodel, and it’s a raucous microbrewery that also makes an awesome cider, in case you need a break from German beer.

Go to Caramello. I am not a sweets person, but I became obsessed with this ice cream shop because of its huge variety of vegan ice creams in occasionally offbeat flavors (sesame was my favorite). I made Jared go so often that it started embarrassing him and he stopped making eye contact with the proprietor. Like, at least 20 of the 30 nights we lived there often. Sorry, Jared! (But not really because it was delicious.)

I know you feel fat after doing this, but tomorrow you can rent a bike and do a few laps of the Tiergarten. Or go on a city-wide search for matching Birkenstocks with your husband.
how do you say "drinking the kool aid" in German?