Bundi is a regional capital in Rajasthan, one of our favorite stops in the whole state. It felt much less densely populated compared to Jaipur (let alone New Delhi), but it was still teeming with over 100, 000 souls. We managed to escape the hardcore bustle of small-town India by taking an auto rickshaw out to a nearby village. Our young driver took us to visit a friend of his whose family runs a brisk pottery trade in this corner of the desert. We were treated to a demonstration. Low tech and no frills, this kid could effortlessly produce a clay vessel with a few offhanded flicks of a finger.
We opened the window to get a little fresh air going through — if hotel rooms are anything it’s stuffy — and a few seconds later a tiny man jumps on our windowsill. He sees me and shrieks. Then I see him and shriek. As it turns out, it was not a tiny, hairy man with a tail, but a monkey. About three minutes later, I hear Eric shriek followed closely by monkey shriek. Eric makes the astute observation that any other animal, encountering a very recently surprised human, will run/fly/crawl/slither away. But monkeys act just like us and grab their cheeks and scream, then turn and run. It’s clear we’re related.
I’ve had a few surprising encounters in Pushkar. This morning at breakfast I saw a planter sprout legs and walk away. It wasn’t the bhang lassi but a turtle, taken as a pet from the ghats I think.
Walking down to the ghats and around Pushkar Lake, a Brahman priest ran up to us — which I’d read might mean a hefty donation. But it actually turned out to be a fun and uplifting mini ceremony. He wished us both good luck and we threw flowers into the lake ridding ourselves of bad kharma. Then put some red powder on our foreheads. Which prompted others to wish us good luck on the walk home.
I’m also excited to report I have found sweets in Pushkar. There are many sweet shops with milk sweets and sweets soaked in syrup. I picked out a few and they were wrapped in a bag (handmade from newspapers) and handed over.
In India, people make do. At the post office they don’t have boxes, but they sew up whatever you want to mail in a canvas sack — no extra charge. Samosas and sweets are delivered in newspaper. Plastic bottles are used for all kinds of things. Your restaurant leftovers go out the front door to cows and pigs. Our current lodging — the Pink Floyd Hotel — has bicycle tires framing each rattan chair, and old blankets have been turned into ottomans.
Oh and the masala! I’m not sure yet what ‘masala’ really is, but whatever you order in Pushkar is Masala. Omelet is masala. Tea is masala. Pizza us masala. Spaghetti is masala. Lucky for me, I think it’s delicious. In fact, I’m trying not to think of a time when my pizza/sandwhich/tea is not masala or I become sad.
We had planned to stay only two nights in Pushkar, but with the perfect weather, sweets, and masala-everything, I asked to stay another night. Our host replied, “Stay forever.” Why not.
This young Afghan guy and his friend were quite friendly and promptly began taking unsolicited photos of us at the Red Fort and I, disoriented American new to India and indoctrinated with fear of central Asia, was made profoundly uncomfortable and was probably not especially polite. Within a week I realized that getting our pictures taken was just part of the deal being a honky in Delhi.
A last-minute stop on our jouney, Siem Reap and Angkor Wat impressed me as a tourism destination that really has its act together. Cambodia is a very poor country whose people too recently suffered brutal violence and torture by the Khmer Rouge.
In light of this, it seemed almost disrespectful to want to have a good time there and enjoy the Khmer culture and ruins. But one thing I believe is that tourism can lift a country up as well as give its people international visibility. Recent floods in Thailand were all over the news in the U.S. because so many people vacation there.
With this in mind, Eric and I headed out on our daily food hunt to “Pub Street.” Pub Street was obviously set up just for tourists, but doesn’t feel like a tourist ghetto in the same way as Khao San Road in Bangkok. Several friendly looking places offered “Khmer BBQ” so we decided to try it.
We ordered the BBQ and a flurry of activity commenced. A waiter brought a giant silver vessel to the table that looked a lot like a hubcap. The center had several perforated tiers rising up over a small flame; the bottom was a deep ring.
Waiters came with several dishes and pointed: “Crocodile … snake … beef … frog’s legs.” A few dishes of vegetables and eggs were also set out. Our waiter then began to build a soup in the ring with vegetables, hot water, a lightly beaten egg and frog’s legs. Next, the meats — all cut into thin strips about two inches long — were stuck onto the tiers.
The waiter left us to watch our meat sizzle. It quickly set in that we had no idea the safe cooking time for crocodile over sterno. I poked at the pieces and turned them: not done. The waiter came to our rescue pulling frog’s legs out of the soup and throwing them on the grill, then ladling the soup and pulling off some snake.
I have a feeling this setup is idiot-proof. I just kept peeling meats off the cooker and chewing them down. Everything was cooked perfectly. Frog’s legs were delicious. Crocodile had a nice flavor. Snake was very chewy and not the favorite. The egg-flower-frog soup was slightly sweet and delicious. We washed it down with some Angkor beers.
According to other travellers, there was nothing to like about Pattaya, Thailand. I told Eric we needed to go there as an approach to the Cambodia border and Angkor Wat. Really, it was because I read it had a Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum and a “miniature world.” The mention of casinos didn’t hurt either.
Getting there wasn’t much fun. We had a lot of trouble finding the right bus station in Bangkok, despite its being clearly marked and directly across from a Metro exit that we descended … I guess we just like wandering the sweltering streets of Bangkok.
On our belated arrival in Pattaya, we caught a “songathew,” or bhat bus to the hotel. These are little mini trucks where you crowd into the back with 10 other people and then jump out where you want and toss the driver a few baht. I thought they were a great alternative to tuk-tuks because there’s no explaining to the driver where you want to go; the baht buses just go up and down one road.
Our hotel on the famous Walking Street was a real dive. The owner had a parrot with several perches around the reception area. He didn’t speak any English — the parrot, of course. Our room had a window with a stunning view of a concrete wall about 4 inches from the glass.
The Ripley’s musuem was all I had hoped. Everything in it was collected by Ripley on his travels in the early 20th century — much of which matched things Eric and I had recently seen. Of course, I’m extremely jealous that Ripley was able to purchase a shrunken head in Ecuador and I could only view them in a museum in Cuenca. He also had an etching of the Seattle Skyline on the head of a pin which, when viewed under a microscope, made me a bit homesick. Ripley himself, as a life-sized hologram who spins a globe on his desk, introduces the museum. Eric and I watched it over and over in wonder.
We got lost again trying to find Mini Siam, the miniature world. We would have given up if not for two things which reinvigorated me: 1) We happened upon a store with ample shade and cold fizzy drinks, and 2) A drag queen mounting the back of a motorcyle across the street threw me a kiss. Minutes later, Mini Siam appeared from out of nowhere. Eric and I slipped in (after a rare lunch at McDonald’s) and were soon wandering the wonders of the world.
A bhat bus back to Pattaya town and the scene was heating up. Blaring rock bands competed with hip-hop DJsin every other bar on Walking Street. We listened to a band do a few pretty good ACDC covers and tried not to watch the balding fat men at every table canoodle tiny Thai women.
Over the music, we hear a short Russian guy yelling into his cellphone, “I don’t care. You just get it on plane and then you get here!” Pattaya really is a town of shrunken pleasures and pleasure-seekers. Where dirty deeds are done dirt cheap.