Don’t Fear A Visit To Myanmar

Despite hearing glowing stories about visits to Myanmar (formerly called Burma) from friends, it was with some trepidation and a significant sense of adventure that I booked the ticket for my brother and I from Copenhagen to Myanmar’s former capital, Yangon (formerly Rangoon). Most articles about Myanmar right now either focus on the drug trade/Golden Triangle, armed conflict in several of the remote regions, or gush about the importance of, “visiting Myanmar before it’s ruined”.

Frankly, we didn’t know what to expect. Was it going to be dangerous? Was it going to be massively under-developed? Was there any tourist infrastructure at all? Would the visa process be a nightmare? Would we need armed guards to guide us around the country or military minders ala North Korea? Were food poisoning and feces stained walls surrounding filthy squattypotties lurking around every corner?

Inle Lake - Myanmar - Alex Berger

As usual, it was ignorant pigswill.

Myanmar is spectacular and the sooner you can visit the better.  The people are wonderful. The tourist circle; Yangon to Bagan to Mandalay to Inle Lake and back to Yangon could not be safer. The food is decent. The culture is vibrant. The tourist infrastructure is rapidly evolving (perhaps too rapidly). Getting around isn’t difficult.  It’s relatively affordable. The historical, natural and cultural beauty is spectacular.

Southeast Asia – What I Expected vs. What I Experienced

I felt the grinding sound of the landing gear lowering below my feet. That hydraulic rumble that reminds me you’re most of the way through your descent and about to return to terra firma. The palms of my hands were starting to sweat and I felt a rock in my stomach.  Despite previous trips, my last foray into a wildly different culture had been a couple years previous and done with family. This time, I was alone and couldn’t help by second guess my decision.

Exploring Koh Lanta

As the ground raced up to greet me, I looked out over Ho Chi Minh’s skyline.  It was strange…dry….brown…it almost looked familiar.  In fact, it reminded me of landing in Mexico. The buildings, their angularity, their coloration and the semi-organized chaos.

The Four Island Tour

Then with a bump, we made contact. The fear and second guessing subsided, replaced by excitement and acceptance. No matter if I’d made a good choice or not, what would follow would be roughly 19 days of exploration, wandering, and discover.

Lost in Bangkok - Thailand

Though elements of Ho Chi Minh continued to remind me of parts of Mexico – in no small part due to the mixture of humidity, heat, and oft-present sun – Vietnam quickly differentiated itself.  In this post I’ll share a few random observations that stuck out for me as I made my way through the trip, tasting Vietnam, skipping through Cambodia, and swimming just off the beaches of Southern Thailand.

The Restaurant by Kroun – Exciting Nordic Cuisine in Copenhagen

Copenhagen’s culinary scene grows increasingly exciting with each passing month.  The once somewhat one-dimensional Nordic culinary landscape has been revolutionized over the last 15 years. While this renaissance has been most visible at the higher echelons of the local food scene, the diversity, depth, and breadth of culinary options in Copenhagen has gradually grown. The team at Noma which is most often credited for launching the New Nordic movement, now more commonly just referenced simply as Nordic Cuisine, deserves a large part of the credit. However, there have been other long-standing bastions generating fine food, excellent chefs, and fantastic Sommeliers for years such as Kong Hans’ Kælder, which has served as Copenhagen’s culinary benchmark since the 80s. Many of the most exciting new restaurants in Copenhagen are those which pull expertise from a variety of sources to craft an exciting new fusion that wonderfully walks the delicate line between too traditional and too creative, too artistic and too utilitarian, too complex or too simple, and overly formal or casual to the point of utterly lacking service.

Nordic Cuisine at the Restaurant by Kroun

Recently, the Restaurant by Kroun, which is the newly opened restaurant (March 2016) launched at Kurhotel Skodsborg, invited me to join them for dinner. The restaurant is a collaboration between head chef and namesake Erik Kroun, who honed his craft at Michelin-starred restaurants, including Kong Hans’ Kælder, Søllerød Kro and Sletten Kro, and Martin Troelsen who previously served as Restaurant Manager at Michelin-starred Marchal, situated in Copenhagen’s five star Hotel D’Angleterre and is a well recognized Sommelier.  The meal and overall experience lived up to their pedigree, making it easily one of the best meals I’ve had in Copenhagen.  Based on the experience I had during my visit, the quality of the food, flavor, and overall experience, I suspect that Restaurant by Kroun will be thundering onto the local culinary scene and you’ll quickly be hearing a lot about it.

Kurhotel Skodsborg

The restaurant itself is situated in a cozy carpeted room decorated with grand old deer antlers that pay homage to the hotel’s long-standing heritage as a spa and lodge. Kurhotel Skodsborg, where the Restaurant is located, is situated just off the northeast corner of the recently christened UNESCO World Heritage Dyrehaven (Deer Park) and previously served as a royal residence. Situated as it is, nestled between Copenhagen’s greatest green space and the calm waters of the Øresund sea, I was initially concerned that it would be somewhat inconvenient to access from Central Copenhagen.  As it turns out, the hotel and restaurant are perfectly situated. The sea is a 30-second walk from the hotel, the Dyrehaven just a minute away, and the Skodsborg train station is just a three- minute walk and a brief 15-minute ride from Norreport station in Central Copenhagen.

Nordic Cuisine at the Restaurant by Kroun

We left dinner in our host’s hands. This meant that we’d be doing their “Full On” menu – champagne, a signature eight course meal, full wine pairing, water, coffee and then an extensive selection of sweets. Before diving into the specifics, I want to reiterate how incredibly impressed I was by the wine pairing. In total, there were four of us at our table and every single one of us loved every single wine. The champagne was good, the whites great, the reds fantastic, and the sweet desert wines a treat for the senses. The wines were beautifully aromatic and none had the strong taste of new wood which I often find sours the wine. I also have a small quirk, where I like to keep a small portion of wine from the previous pairing in reserve from serving to serving  which I can use to compare and contrast. I’m sure some find it utterly ridiculous, but I find having the two side by side lets me compare their aromas and brings to life entirely fresh scents, nuances and flavors as I finish one round of wine and transition into the next pairing.

Holy Shit, I Just Ate A Massive Cockroach

One of the semi-cliche things to do when you visit Southeast Asia is to eat bugs.  In some ways it’s a bit of a coming of age sort of thing. Heading to Florence, Italy? You’ve gotta eat Gelato on the Ponte Vecchio. England? Fish and Chips. Thailand? A portion of creepy-crawlies. But, more than that, it’s also a great opportunity to push our boundaries and try a future-food. What do I mean by future-food? Moving forward bugs will be an increasingly important part of our diets as they’re a valuable, easy, and slightly more ethical alternative to other types of meats. We’ve already started to see bugs pop up in high-end supermarkets such as Denmark’s Irma chain, and dried caterpillars and termites are cornerstones of Sub-Saharan African diets. So, I decided to push my limits and give the bugs a go. Every crunchy, goose-bump inspiring, bite is covered in this video, so…enjoy!

P.S. – I hope you’re hungry!

For this video I found a small food cart at Bangkok’s Sunday Market. The cart was situated in the very back of the market where few tourists go on the other side of the pet/fish section. It was an old woman selling the bugs which I purchased from the vendor immediately after a local woman had picked up a hearty bag of crispy eats. Are bugs a regular part of your average Thai’s diet? Probably not. At least not in Bangkok. But, at least it brought with it some semblance of local flavor.

Unfortunately, as is the case with a lot of fried food around the world, I suspect the bugs could have actually been quite decent if not cooked in a rather old-tasting shrimp sauce and oil. Either way, some were surprisingly good and believe it or not, the cockroach was one of the best! Next time, I’ll be aiming to get them fresh and to try cooking them my way. After all, there’s nothing a bit of salt, olive oil, butter and garlic can’t fix! Still hungry? Don’t miss these videos about bizarre foods here, here and here.

Dear Restaurateur Your Fancy Sorbet Sucks

Based in Copenhagen, I’ve found myself seated in one of the world’s hotbeds for culinary innovation and inspiration over the last few years. The rise of first New Nordic and later Nordic Cuisine has been swift, powerful, and delicious. The farm-to-table movement and the re-discovery and integration of traditional ways of preserving foods, cuts of meats, and greens has also been a delightful infusion of fresh flavors and diverse culinary footprints.

It’s great. It’s delicious. I love it.

Except, that is. That high end restaurants: Nordic, New Nordic, or otherwise, continue to all make the same tongue abusing, mouth assaulting mistake.

I’m lactose intolerant. It’s annoying. It’s not severe, which means I can handle butter and milk when it is used to cook baked goods. What I can’t handle is ice cream, many cheeses, cheesecake or anything slathered in lots of cream. I’m not alone. There are a ton of us (25% in the US, 65% of people globally). Especially in the millennial generation where, perhaps thanks to our own choices or those of our parents who embraced alternatives to milk in our teens, the problem is particularly prevalent.We’re the silent majority. One largely ignored, perhaps because it’s inconvenient and a bit embarrassing to say, “No, I won’t get hives and no my throat isn’t likely to block off my breathing – I’ll just get explosive diarrhea so nauseatingly painful that I may also vomit in the process”.

Of course, there are pills. They help. But they’re far from reliable. They’re also inconvenient.

What does this have to do with fine dining?

Amazing Local Thai Food Just Off Khao San Road in Bangkok

One of my absolute must-dos for Bangkok was to sync up with fellow Arizonan expat, and travel foodie master blogger and YouTube sensation Mark Wiens of Migrationology. His food updates from Asia over the last few years have inspired me, and left my mouth hankering for a visit to Southeast Asia. Of the various folks who inspired me to make the trip to Asia and got me VERY excited about eating my way across the region, the two at the forefront were Mark (Migrationology) and Jodi (Legal Nomads).

So, when it turned out Mark was going to be in town and free to grab a quick meal, I was thrilled. After a meetup down in the Khao San Road area, we set out to find and introduce me to some fantastic local Thai eats.

The place Mark and his lovely wife/co-camera woman took me to was situated about 5 minutes walk from the tourist district, fully authentic and situated at roughly at 243 Phra Sumen Rd.

We settled in and I left the ordering to them. What followed was a mouth-watering, aromatic, eye watering, flame breathing culinary adventure and intro to a number of new dishes I hadn’t had the opportunity to explore yet.

It was good, it was fresh, at times it was spicy and just like a good dish always inspires, I was left struggling not to pick up and lick every plate along the way.

I also learned some great advice and wisdom: Know all those veggies in many Thai soups? They’re there mostly for flavoring, not consumption. Turns out, all these years, I’ve essentially been eating the equivalent of the garnish and wondering why it was so intense and pallet annihilating.

So, without further adieu, here’s Mark introducing the dishes we tried. For more bite-by-bite introductions to amazing foods from the region hit up Mark’s blog. Even if you’re not a food person, you’re going to find yourself watching more than a few videos.

 

Follow Mark at Migrationology or jump straight to his YouTube Channel.

You can also see Mark and Andrew Zimmern take on Bangkok’s food scene here in his video here.

The Stupid Myths We Believe as Western Travelers Time and Time Again

I’m narrowing in on accomplishing a major life goal on my bucket list. Before I turn 31 my aim is to have visited 50 countries…and yet, fresh back from my 45th, 46th, and 47th, I’ve just had a profoundly eye-opening and humbling experience. I had, once again, ignored the lesson I’ve learned time and time again, and bought into/believed the enormous pile of bullshit I’ve been fed by the western travel narrative about non-western destinations.

Worse than that, I realized quite vividly that I’d been gobbling down, consuming, and allowing myself to be poisoned by said bullshit for years. I always get annoyed when people tell me they can’t travel because it’s unsafe (my chances of getting robbed, stabbed, shot, or killed are far worse in Arizona than when wandering Europe) or when I read announcements like the US’s recent worldwide terror alert which only served to scare people while delivering virtually none of the context needed or adding any real value. But, the real truth highlighted for me time and time again is that I buy into my own version of this nonsense. The part that really pisses me off about the whole thing is that it keeps me from embracing amazing experiences, makes me stand-offish, much more conservative in my approach when I start, and adds bucket-loads of anxiety.

AsiaBlogPost-2916

I’ve talked about misconceptions a few times in the past, such as how wrong my preconceptions about Turkey were, or my African travel fears series looking at how Africa wasn’t nearly the life-threatening-bodily traumatizing disaster adventure I had anticipated. But unfortunately, I still hadn’t learned my lesson.  I’m going to do my best after my latest trip to really finally internalize this lesson and hope you’ll all join me in identifying, acknowledging, and then utterly dismissing the stories and nonsense that we’re spoon fed. It’s also worth noting that I think travel bloggers, myself included, bear some of the responsibility for perpetuating these myths.

As some long-term readers will know, up until two weeks ago, I had never been to Eastern Asia. While this is a very common and popular region for many travelers, especially budget travelers, it has for a long time been my “dark region” in that I had never been. Why? There are a number of factors which range from simple fear, lack of interest, cost, and then desire to protect and cherish the novelty. What do I mean?

  • Fear: Simply put, the Asia I had built in my mind was a very alien place where getting around using English would be difficult, where everything would be deeply exotic, and where even the most basic of daily activities would be challenging. Add to that a fear of a large amount of human and animal suffering. It was a part of the world I always had very mixed feelings about.
  • Lack of Interest: When I was younger I had a very strong interest in Greco-Roman and Medieval history. I find for many young people, tend to be drawn in strongly by Asia or Europe, while others sort out to Latin America, or Africa to a lesser extent. There were elements of ancient history in these other regions that offered passing interest, but beyond that I felt minimal draw. I felt their history was somewhat uninteresting, was not enamored from a cultural dating perspective, and had only minimal interest in cultural creations like anime and food.  As I’ve traveled more, learned more history, been exposed to more culture, and pivoted more to an interest in food, much of this has changed and Asia has increasingly grown in appeal and draw.
  • Cost: This is an odd one, as SEA (Southeast Asia) has always been extremely popular because of its relatively low cost areas. It’s why regions such as Vietnam and Thailand are thick with travel bloggers and has been a major tourist draw for decades. But, the flights from the US were usually fairly significant and even once I got to Denmark, prices and availability when I looked at SEA as a destination never seemed to work out. In 2010 I almost booked a trip to Thailand but, at the last minute, opted for South America (Argentina) instead based on pricing. Had the other factors mentioned in this section not also been weighing on me, perhaps I would have prioritized it.  Never the less I didn’t and the rest is history.
  • Novelty: This is a tricky one to convey. I’ve written in the past about how important it is to travel and experience things NOW in THIS MOMENT because the destination will change and evolve just as you do. You will never see or experience a place the same way as you would have if you went now and the more we travel and are exposed to, the more our relationship with novelty and novel cultures evolves. Globally, if we stereotype regional cultures down to geo-cultural macro-groups there are regions that share some (albeit very limited) cultural characteristics. As my travels took me to different continents and exposed me to different cultures, I felt a shred of sadness as the fear, novelty, excitement and sense of pure discovery that came from exploring an entirely new culture faded away. As I got a taste of Europe, Central America, South America, the Middle East, and Africa, I felt as though the last great region to explore and discover became Asia and perhaps as a separate entity Eastern Eurasia and India. While I still have an enormous amount of exploration, discovery and novel cultural exploration to do in all of these areas, I found myself keeping Asia to the side as one of my quasi-last opportunities for that utter sense of the unknown.

But, this winter I decided it was time to explore. I opted for a teaser trip to SEA which started purely by coincidence in Ho Chi Mihn Vietnam. Somehow I would then touch base in Cambodia’s Siem Reap region to see Angkor Wat, and then terminate from Bangkok with a few days in either the north or south to explore. This was far too much ground to cover properly in 19 days, but the goal was to test the waters, explore a bit, see how I coped, and if I liked it/where I wanted to go back.

AsiaBlogPost-0310

The Myths

I mentioned that for years I’d been very resistant to a visit to SEA because of different fear-based factors. Eventhough I ultimately found these to be greatly exaggerated, that is not to say that if you go into rural areas, have bad luck, or are in the heart of a heavy tourist area some of these won’t hold some truth, but they are far from the prevalent, unavoidable, and highly experientially potent experiences we’ve been led to believe.

The Sound of Music, The Taste of Coffee and a Miniature Wonderland

Music

It was the day after the Paris attacks and the world was still numb with shock. It was mid-afternoon after a fantastic day spent exploring and I found myself standing in the rain, surrounded by police officers, as a long procession of people made their way past. Despite the police, the mood was relaxed and positive. The protesters streaming by advocated for the rights and humane treatment of refugees. Their rhetoric was one of love, of inclusion, of tolerance, and of being our brother’s keeper. As the tail of the march passed, the officers, who were largely there to ensure the safety of the protesters, jumped on their bikes or horses and made their way forward. Soggy, I continued across the intersection and into the Laeiszhalle.  This building has served as host to some of Germany’s best concerts since it opened its doors in 1908 and was a lovely, elegant structure with a charming interior.

Hamburg's HafenCity

Teatime Classics

Damp from the rain, I made my way to the coat check anticipating that the show, Teatime Classics featuring Trio Adorno, would be a traditional trio performance in the main concert hall. Of course, as you might guess from the name, it was actually a brilliantly different experience.  In place of the main stage in the concert hall, it was held in the bar/reception area. Beneath beautifully decorated vaulted ceilings, a hap-hazard assemblage seating, a piano, and two chairs had been setup at one edge of the room just before the door to the northern wing of the concert house.

As we settled in to enjoy the concert, still a bit unsure what to expect, I sipped one of Hamburg’s signature beverages – the Fritz-Kola, which as it turns out has roughly double the caffeine dosage of your average soda. Eyes wide, I watched the assembled mixture of young children, middle-aged folks, and elderly couples enjoy their cakes, coffee, soda and wine before glasses and empty plates were put to rest and the trio took their positions.