K-Pop River Tourism in Vietnam

The most recent Engaging With Vietnam conference (the 9th) focused on the topics of tourism, development, sustainability, and the preservation of heritage/culture. In the case of Vietnam, these topics are particularly fascinating and relevant ones as over the past two decades the country has witnessed a massive expansion of the tourism sector as business people have sought to cater to the ever-growing number of both domestic and international tourists.

Such a transformation of course brings both positive and negative changes, and this in turn highlights the many issues that the development of tourism encompasses, and the many questions the development of tourism raises.

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More Thai 7-11 Curiosities

So the other day as I was faithfully drinking a beer in Bangkok with a straw which the 7-11 cashier had provided me with, I started to read the information on a package of a snack I bought to eat with my beer.

The snack was “Peanuts and Mixed Anchovy” (that’s right, just one anchovy. . . albeit a “mixed” one). I bought it because the package said that it is “fit 4 active lifestyle” and that it is “spicy.” That all fits the kind of life I like to live, so I decided to give it a try.

I liked it, and as I was eating it, I started to read the back of the package, pausing at times to sip my beer through the straw thoughtfully provided by the 7-11 cashier.

The ingredients were listed as follows: peanuts, seasoned anchovys (sic.) [ah, so there is more than one!!] (white sesame, sugar, salt, chilli [sic.]), fried garlic, palm olein (sic.), dry chilli (sic.), kaffir lime leaf, lemongrass and salt.

That’s a good combination, and indeed, the snack does taste pretty good.

After taking another sip of my beer through the straw, I then read a section called “allergy information.” That section stated the following:

“Product contains fish, sesame seeds and peanuts. Produced in a facility that also produces gluten (wheat) and other tree nuts. May contain gluten and other tree nuts.”

Now that is a fascinating statement!! Basically what this company – Tong Garden Food, with operations in Malaysia and Singapore – is saying is something like the following:

“So this product is supposed to have certain ingredients in it, but we make other products at our factory, and we don’t always clean the equipment, so it’s anyone’s guess what you might actually be eating right now.”

However, as the package states, “If you are not completely satisfied with our products, we gladly replace  your purchase.”

What will they replace it with? God only knows, as they themselves apparently have no control over what it is that they are actually producing. It could be “Peanuts Mixed Anchovy” or it might in fact be “Gluten Mixed Tree Nuts Anchovy.”

Ah but at least they are honest.

And in the end, whatever this is, it tastes pretty good, at least when accompanying beer through a straw. So give it a try the next time you are in Bangkok, or wherever else Tong Garden Food’s fine products are sold, and beer is drunk through a straw.

The Thai 7-11 Straw Fetish

Every time I purchase something which comes in liquid form at a 7-11 in Bangkok, the cashier always gives me a straw. It does not matter what the liquid is, or what the size of the container is. Each liquid item gets a straw.

I have to wonder though – do Thais really consume all of these items with straws? Do Thais drink beer through straws?? Do they drink water from big bottles like this one through straws??

I’ve never seen any Thais doing this. So why do 7-11 employees give me straws when I buy beer? Is this some kind of plot? If so, what is the purpose? I’m really confused.

Drinking Beer in Thailand

Maybe I’m naive, but I don’t think of beer as being political. It is of course highly individual, and is often an expression of personal identity. Many people drink the kind of beer which they feel reflects the kind of person they think they are, and to some extent that can include one’s political orientation. Nonetheless, when I order or purchase a beer in the US, I don’t immediately associate it with a particular political party. Yes, I suppose that you could say that more Republicans drink Budweiser and Miller than Democrats, and Democrats are probably the only people who drink a beer like Stella Artois. However, then there are people like me who will drink a Stella or a microbrew first, and then follow it with a Miller because it all tastes the same after the first bottle anyway, so you might as well go for the cheaper beer starting from bottle #2 onward.

In any case, while I suppose there is an indirect relationship between beer and politics, somehow it feels a bit more direct here in Thailand. I always think of Chang Beer as the Thai “working man’s” beer. It’s the “bia thi khon Thai tham eng,” the beer which Thais make themselves. Of course Singha is too, but that’s not how they market their beer.

Chang started getting involved in soccer in 2004 when they began sponsoring and working with the English football club, Everton. Then Singha did the same in 2007 when former prime minister Thaksin bought Manchester City. Then this summer, Chang was a sponsor of the World Cup.

The political scene in Thailand right now is of course very complex. When I reach for a beer, I often do so in an effort to escape complexity for a while. This then makes me wonder what happens when a Thai picks up a Singha and sees that it is an official partner of Manchester City. I would think that many of the Red Shirts, working men and women that they are, would prefer Chang over Singha, but do the Thaksin supporters among them drink Singha? And I would think that Yellow Shirts would prefer Singha over Chang, but do they avoid it now because of it’s obvious links to Thaksin and his business dealings?

Whatever the case may be, the Thais need to solve this political crisis. Choosing a beer should not be this difficult.

This Arrow Points to. . . Somalia Maybe?

Indonesian hotels have these arrows on their ceilings which point in the direction of Mecca so that people will know which direction to face when they pray. Recently, however, there has been confusion in Indonesia as the highest Islamic authorities have stated that their previous calculation of the direction of Mecca was incorrect, and that it pointed to an area to the south, like perhaps Somalia. So I’m not sure where this arrow actually points, but I’ve read that it is ok to pray in the wrong direction as long as you do not intentionally do so. Still, I wonder what places like hotels are doing about this.

Sumatran Civet Cats and their Coffee Beans

So kopi luwak is all the rage these days. Its been introduced on the Oprah Winfrey Show, and country singer Brad Paisley reportedly brews it on his tour bus. What is it? It is coffee made from coffee beans which have been eaten and then defecated by a civet cat. It comes from two main places – the island of Sumatra and places on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. People are not sure if what makes it taste so good is the fact that it passes through the civet cat’s body and some kind of chemical change takes place in the process or if it is because the civet cats only eat the best coffee beans. Either way, it is expensive! The coffee above is only “2% civet-cat-defecated.” So it’s cheap. But the container says that the company has been around since 1969. So kopi luwak has been a well-kept secret for a long time. That makes me wonder what other animal-defecated delicacies might still be out there which the wider world has yet to discover. . .

The Sheep and Goats of Ratu Boko

When tourists visit Yogyakarta, they usually make a trip out to see the great Buddhist monument of Borobudur.

There they can wind their way around the levels of the temple and observe the magnificent murals which teach first about all of the vices and temptations which human beings face.

Then they can learn about the noble path of Buddhism, and follow the story of the Buddha’s quest for enlightenment.

And at the top they can then contemplate the meaning of all of this. Or if you are an historian, hearing the Muslim call to prayer echoing from the villages below as you stand atop this Buddhist monument can symbolically put into perspective the religious changes that have taken place on Java over the centuries.

From Borobudur, many tourists then visit the temple complex of Prambanan to marvel at the temples dedicated to Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu.

While these structures are magnificent to behold, I found that there was another site which was even more pleasing, and that was the hilltop ruins of Ratu Boko.

Although not much remains of the original structures, the location is magnificent, with views of Mount Merapi, Prambanan and Yogyakarta. Even better, however, were its “inhabitants.”

Wandering around, keeping the grass short so that local kids can play soccer and tourists and visitors can walk about with ease, are sheep.

They chill out on the ruins, and chomp away at the grass.

And sometimes hang out with some goat friends.

This family below is particularly friendly and inquisitive.

Well one of the kids was a little camera shy.

So Borobudur and Prambanan are both magnificent, but if you want to experience bliss, I think that Ratu Boko is the more likely place where that will happen.

The Penang White House

I was walking down Jalan Penang, which gets a little bit sleazy down near the end, when I saw this kind of creepy-looking middle-aged Chinese man go into a doorway and up some stairs. I looked at the sign above the door, and was pleased to see that he had entered “the White House,” and that even better, it’s air-conditioned.

I crossed the street to get a better view of the White House, and was confronted with true beauty. I absolutely love this kind of decrepit 1970s-esque architecture that “free Chinese” built in places like Hong Kong, Taiwan and Southeast Asia. It’s clear that they made an effort to be “international” and “hip,” but it was a 1970s Chinese sense of coolness, and I don’t know who ever thought that it was cool, but now it is so seedy and retro that you have to love it. One can only imagine some of the things which must have gone down in the rooms of the White House over the years. . .

This Hotel Central (below) is on the same street. It’s not as charming as the White House, but it still has a cool retro feel to it. I don’t know what it is, but there’s just something about sleazy cement hotels melting in the tropical heat that I find very attractive. . .

Tiger Balm Temple

So I went to see Kek Lok Si (極樂寺), a famous temple and tourist site on the island of Penang (above). It was ok, but I was much more excited to find this simple temple below.

This temple is on the street below Kek Lok Si, next to a 7-11. It is very simple, but what impressed me is that the sign over the gate indicated that it had been built by Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par. Those are the two brothers who created the Tiger Balm empire. If I remember correctly, they moved from Burma to Singapore, which is where they really became rich. I don’t know what they connection with Penang was, but clearly there must have been one.