Bougie Bangkok

When I think of Southeast Asia, I picture floating markets. Floating markets revolve around rivers and canals where boats sell produce, food, and goods, and date back to the times when waterways used to serve as trade and transportation hubs. Nowadays, these markets boost tourism and generate income for local communities.

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Amphawa Floating Market

Last week I visited Amphawa Floating Market. There are several floating markets around Bangkok, notably Damnoen Saduak, Amphawa, Khlong Lat Mayom, Taling Chan, and Bang Nam Phueng. Amphawa is the second largest floating market, and is known for being an authentic market frequently visited by Thais from Bangkok on the weekends.

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Entrance to Amphawa

Imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon what I can best describe as a hipster’s paradise. Polished wooden docks boasted rows of boutique stores selling handcrafted lotions, cosmetics, and soaps; trendy t-shirts; chic crochet covers; inventive handicrafts; and hip electronic accessories. In between the stores were cute coffee shops, swank resorts, and ritzy bars. Behind the docks I found a farmer’s market and a community garden.

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Signs pointing the way to  the community garden and other income-generating projects
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Community coconut grove

I had envisioned Amphawa as a rustic reminder of days gone by; instead I found the Thai version of Chelsea Market. There were a few boats in the water cooking seafood and noodle dishes and some crowded streets alongside the canal with hawkers peddling street food and cheap knick-knacks, but the majority of the market was undeniably upscale.

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Designer t-shirts
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Clay crafts

I remember having a similar experience while floating down the Li River in Guangxi, China. Wooden rafts with photo printers and laminators printing souvenirs for tourists drifted alongside rafts selling fruits and vegetables. Having visited various Asian countries throughout my life, I am always impressed by their seamless blending of tradition with modernity.

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Pad thai, a classic Thai street food, packaged in a neat banana leaf take-out container
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Grilled seafood

 

Later that same day, I spotted a number of American-style food trucks preparing sandwiches, burgers, and fried chicken outside of MBK Center, a distinctly Asian-style mall (i.e. one large vertical department store). It appears that Bangkok and its denizens are on the rise.

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Chilling outside of one of the resorts

 

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A Vegetarian Guide to Boracay

Filipinos love their meat. Chicken, pork, and beef dishes such as adobo (chicken or pork in soy sauce), tapa (dried beef), inasal na manok (grilled chicken in vinegar), crispy pata (fried pork legs), lumpia (pork and vegetable spring rolls), lechón (roasted pig), and sisig (fried pig’s head and liver) are the mainstays of Pinoy cuisine. This can make life difficult for the traveling vegan, vegetarian, or pescatarian.

The exception to the rule is Boracay, the major tourist destination in the Philippines. Due to its international draw and its large community of expats, Boracay boasts a number of intercontinental and Filipino restaurants which can accommodate travelers with a range of dietary restrictions. The good news is that as tourism to the Philippines and domestic health consciousness increase, more sites across the country will offer gastronomic options for the non-carnivorous consumer.

Here are the best places in Boracay for great food that can satisfy any diet.

Consistently offering terrific food and superior service, Cyma Greek Taverna may easily be the best restaurant in Boracay Island. Cyma’s Mediterranean menu is replete with vegetarian-friendly dips served with pita, green salads, pastas with creamy sauces, and vegetable-based side dishes, all of which are indicated on the menu, and a staff that is willing to customize dishes to suit vegetarian needs (customization is a rarity in Southeast Asia, particularly the Philippines). While vegan dishes are not demarcated, Cyma does offer a few meat- and dairy-free dishes. Pescatarians have plenty of options as Cyma offers some of the best prepared seafood on the island. Cyma is expensive, but its food is worth it. Read my full review of Cyma here.

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Cyma’s Menu

For vegetarians looking to try Filipino food, look no farther than Ti Braz/Damianas/Fuel. Ti Braz is my go-to lunch place for its welcoming staff and healthy bites. The restaurant has three menus: Ti Braz serves savory and dessert crepes (50% off on Tuesdays and Thursdays), Damianas serves Filipino food including kare-kare (a peanut-based curry) and ginataang gulay (vegetables cooked in coconut milk), and Fuel serves green smoothies, healthy juices (try the beet-based Detox or the papaya-based Cleanse), and raw and vegan snacks. Not only is Ti Braz affordable, but it specifically labels items as vegetarian on its menus. Sounds like a winner to me!

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Kare-kare from Damianas menu

There are quite a few places to eat pizza in Boracay, but my favorite by far is Aplaya for the quality of its pizzas and its atmosphere. Aplaya offers delicious thin-crust pizzas which you can enjoy while lounging on a bean bag chair on the sand, listening to DJs play chill electronic or lounge music, and watching Boracay fire dancers perform their electric routines. Aplaya is equally great for pre-dinner drinks or post-dinner hookah.

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Ti Braz Creperie

If you’re more in the mood for takeout, then stop by Project Pie where you can build your own salad or pizza or choose from a list of gourmet pizzas and salads – customizations welcome. My Boracay card holders receive a free dessert pizza with their order of a regular pizza. The S’mores pizza, topped with marshmallows and Nutella, is a sweet, gooey end to any meal.

No trip to Boracay is complete without an evening watching the sunset from Spider House Resort. Located on Diniwid Beach, Spider House’s system of terraces present the most picturesque view of Boracay’s exquisite sunsets. The drinks are nothing to write home about, but the customizable pizza is good. Pescatarians should try the Spider House special, a sashimi with tuna so fresh that it melts in your mouth. Whether you decide to stay for dinner or drinks, make sure to arrive at Spider House no later than two hours before the sunset in order to secure a prime viewing spot.

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Sunset at Spider House Resort

Another of my favorite spots to watch the resplendent sunset is Discovery Shores at the far end of Station 1. While the happy hour menu is uninspiring, the drinks and Filipino snacks are exceptional. Try the bibingka, a sweet rice flour cake topped with an egg, or the bilo bilo, the warm version of halo halo – coconut milk or cream with cooked sweet potato, ube (purple yam), plaintain or cardaba banana, jackfruit, and sago pearls (tapioca) – reminiscent of Indian milk pudding. The passion fruit mojito, lychee shake, guayabano (soursop) shake, pandan (screw-pine plant – similar to lemongrass) juice, and protein shake are unparalleled in Boracay, surpassed only by Jonah’s Shakes.

Lemon Café serves salads, soups, sandwiches, and cakes throughout the day, but it is celebrated by locals and tourists alike for its Western breakfast items, for instance coconut pancakes, vanilla French toast, freshly baked bread and pastries, homemade jam, and an array of egg dishes including egg and egg white omelets, eggs benedict, and salmon and eggs on toast with lemon hollandaise. The eggs are consistently light and fluffy, the hollandaise is rich and creamy, and the French toast is browned to perfection. Fresh juices, fruit crushes, natural smoothies, and really good coffee are the perfect compliments to any meal. The dalandan juice or the Calamansi, Orange, and Papaya Crush followed by a decaf latte always helps me start my day on the right note.

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Vanilla French Toast and a Calamansi, Orange, and Papaya Crush at Lemon Cafe

Vying with Lemon Café for the title of best breakfast on the island is Sunny Side Café, which offers a variety of egg dishes including eggs Florentine, omelets, and salmon and eggs, as well as a long list of pancakes including Original, Chocolate, Mango, Espresso and Caramel, and Red Velvet pancakes. The portions are sizeable so if you can’t decide between the pancakes and eggs, persuade a friend to share an egg dish and a half order of pancakes – one large pancake as opposed to two – with you. There are also soups, salads, and sandwiches, notably the grilled cheese which comes with cheese and jam sandwiched between two thick slabs of toast and the Sunny Side Salad which tops leafy greens and other vegetables with a fried egg. For drinks, there are fruit juices and shakes, coffee drinks, and rich Belgian hot chocolate. Be prepared to take a snooze on the beach after brunch at Sunny Side Café to handle your food coma while getting quality beach time.

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Eggs Florentine at Sunny Side Cafe

 

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French toast at Sunny Side Cafe

Thai Basil serves authentic Thai food with several vegetarian options. The best bang for your buck is the Massaman Curry lunch special which comprises a vegetarian curry, vegetarian summer rolls, tofu salad, rice, fruit, and iced tea or the Panang Curry lunch special which contains a fish curry, spring rolls, papaya salad, rice, mango sticky rice, and iced tea.

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Panang Curry lunch special at Thai Basil

Visitors to Boracay quickly learn that one of the island’s main attractions is D’Talipapa, the wet market where you can select fresh seafood and then have it cooked at a nearby restaurant. While this is an obvious choice for pescatarians, vegetarians don’t be disheartened. You can purchase vegetables from one of the many produce stalls in the market and ask the restaurants offering cooking services to prepare them for you in one of a number of styles including Stir Fry, Chopsuey, and Pinakbet (ask them to make it without the pork).

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Sababi Boracay, one of the cooking services in D’Talipapa which can prepare meat, seafood, or vegetables to your tastes

After a long night out – and there are many nights in Boracay spent partying until the wee hours of the morning – I often crave greasy comfort food. For a hamburger, fries, and a milkshake, go to Johnny Rockets. While this American fast food chain charges U.S. prices, it can substitute a veggie burger for any of its beef burgers. A cheaper, more local option is Jammers with its Killer Fish burger, onion rings and fries, and ice cream floats.

Kasbah offers a variety of Moroccan dishes, such as dips, vegetable and seafood skewers, and stews, each abounding with a host of spices and aromas to satisfy the most discriminating palate. Travelers looking for healthier food options will be delighted by the wide selection of raw and cooked salads, including the Greek salad, fattoush, tabbouleh, watermelon and feta salad, and the citrus couscous and chickpea salad. Kasbah is on the pricier side, but its large number of meat-free options have convinced many vegans, vegetarians, and pescatarians to frequent the restaurant repeatedly during their stay in Boracay.

Last but not least, Aria serves high-quality salads, soups, and pastas suitable for vegans, vegetarians, pescatarians. Finish your meal on a sweet note with fresh and creamy gelato next door at Aria Gelato.

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Chocolate-covered gelato from Aria Gelato – looks like a bear claw, tastes delicious!

Now that you have a list of the best places in Boracay offering vegan, vegetarian, and pescatarian options, I wish you happy travels and even happier eating!

Why You Should Spend Your Next Christmas in the Philippines

When I began my adventures in Southeast Asia earlier this month, I planned to spend December in Thailand. Less than a week into my travels, I decided that the Philippines was the perfect spot to spend Christmas and New Year’s. Here are the top five reasons why you should spend your next holiday season in the Philippines.

  1. You want to spend your holidays relaxing on a beach with a drink in your hand. While the idea of a tropical Christmas may not appeal to everyone, those looking to escape the cold should look no farther than the Philippines. With 7,107 islands, the Philippines abounds with beautiful beaches, including the beaches of El Nido, Camarines Norte, Malapascua, Dumaguete, Bantayan Island, and Siargao. The jewel of the crown is of course Boracay, voted as the best island in the world by Travel + Leisure.

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    Sipping a pina colada on the beach
  2. You love Christmas traditions. If you don’t want to miss out on your favorite Christmas traditions while traveling in Southeast Asia, then the Philippines is the place for you. Filipinos, 82.9% of whom are Catholic, get very into Christmas. Bright lights dot the streets and illuminate palm trees, while sand sculptures of snowmen and Minions wearing Santa hats cover the beach. Carolers sing traditional Western Christmas carols, as well as Philippine carols. Fans of WHAM!’S “Last Christmas,” Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” and Michael Buble’s “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas,” will love listening to Filipinos enthusiastically sing along to Christmas pop songs in Tagalog. Catholics can attend one of the many Christmas services taking place all over the island, where in addition to witnessing mass in Tagalog they can view a pre-mass cultural program consisting of skits and musical performances.

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    Merry Christmas Boracay!
  1. You’re ready to experience sensational Christmas party games. If the most exciting thing about your office holiday party is the cheese selection and open bar, then you need to experience a Filipino office Christmas party. Filipinos love to entertain, and their penchant for singing and dancing becomes evident during the holiday season. The main event of most Filipino office Christmas parties is a staff dance competition. Filipinos get highly competitive about the competition, often spending weeks practicing for it. Filipino Christmas parties also feature a variety of scandalous games. In one game, men attach balloons to their butts with a string tied around their waists. Their male co-workers have to pop the balloon by humping (ahem, bumping) their behinds. While the “balloon bump” I witnessed finished in less than thirty seconds, the men were shaking their behinds and grinding against each other for a full twenty minutes before the start of the game. In a variation of a traditional eating contest, same-sex teams strive to be the fastest to devour a hanging apple. As their hands are tied behind their backs, they have to rely on their teammates to hold the apple steady with their heads, necks, or chests. You can imagine the hilarity that ensues when one teammate is forced to neck with his co-worker in order to eat the apple as quickly as possible. Another game involves male teams stripping down to their underwear and then racing to create the longest line with their bodies and attire. Creative participants will use not only their shirts and pants, but also their belts, necklaces, sneakers, and shoelaces to lengthen the line. The bravest among them may even decide to use their underwear. Talk about bonding with your co-workers!
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    Staff made matching t-shirts for their work Christmas party

    You want to share an intimate meal with family, friends, or complete strangers. A family that “Boodle Fights” together, stays together. The Boodle Fight is a tradition of the Philippine military where soldiers and officers alike would gather around long tables covered with food and engage in “eating combat,” devouring as much as possible with their bare hands. Boodle Fights involve a mess of seafood, meat, rice, and vegetables stacked atop a banana leaf. The boodle fights prepared by my hostel on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve consisted of a large grilled tuna surrounded by rice topped with eggplant salad and grilled squid, pork, and shrimp. The Ensaladang Talong, or eggplant salad, contained grilled eggplant and fresh cucumber, ginger, and onion in a dressing of vinegar and soy sauce. The hostel owner kept some of the eggplant salad aside for the vegetarians in residence, and graciously prepared a meatless tofu dish and a cucumber salad as well.

     

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    Boodle Fight on Christmas Eve
  3. You want to celebrate the holidays in the most spectacular fashion. If you’re sick of low-key holidays spent at home and are looking for a thrilling alternative, then Boracay is the place for you. While Boracay’s beaches are beautiful by day, one of the island’s biggest draws is its nightlife. Bars, restaurants, hotels, and clubs offering drinks, food, and entertainment line White Beach. On Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, a number of these venues offer dinner buffets. The buffets tend to be overpriced, but most feature concerts or a Boracay special, fire dancing. After dinner, you can party until sunrise at one of the many bars or clubs. Let’s not forget the fireworks on the beach. There are few better ways to ring in the New Year than while wading in the ocean with the electrifying sound of fireworks exploding overhead.

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    Fireworks on the beach on New Year’s Eve

Ready for your next adventure in the Philippines? Read more about places to eat in Boracay here.

 

 

 

 

A Love Letter to Cyma Boracay

My first trip to the Philippines had me convinced that there was no good food to be found in the Philippines, apart from a few select international restaurants in Manila. Cyma Boracay singlehandedly changed that opinion for the better.

Cyma Greek Taverna Boracay is a Greek/Mediterranean restaurant located in the hectic D’Mall, in Station 2 of Boracay’s White Beach. An unexpected series of events first led me to Cyma. Following rumors of morning beach yoga, I dragged myself out of bed my first full day in Boracay and wandered the beach in search of a yoga class. Instead of a class, I found a corporate team from Manila engaged in a team workout. They explained that they began every morning with a team workout – either circuit training or yoga – and invited me to train with them.

After the workout, I spent the rest of the day with the various team members lounging at the pool of one of Boracay’s best five-star resorts. I joined them for their Christmas lunch at Cyma, where we had the opportunity to taste nearly a dozen of Cyma’s appetizers and entrees served family style. The owner, gracious as always, suggested a number of vegetarian dishes to appeal to my palate, before proceeding to dine with us, insisting that her job was to ensure “quality control” of the food. That Christmas lunch can best be summed up by the word “divine.”

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Enjoying Christmas Dinner at Cyma

I spent the next few days, sheltering myself from the multiple typhoons hitting the island by sitting at a small table in the midst of the packed restaurant, dining with the owner – a foodie after my own heart, and sampling as many of the restaurant’s dishes as I could consume. Here are reviews of my favorite dishes.

Appetizers

If you order nothing else, you must order Saganaki, the flaming cheese. While the Kefalogaria cheese has a more distinctive flavor, the mozzarella cheese combines the elegance of extra virgin olive oil with the comfort of a cheese pizza.

Continue reading A Love Letter to Cyma Boracay