Saturday, September 24, 2016

Shopping for Gems, Jade and Tea in Myanmar

If there is one thing that excites me on trips, it's visiting jewelry markets. While there is always a risk in buying from unknown sources, the excitement of finding unique stones at affordable prices trumps that.

My personal philosophy is, if sounds too good to be true, it must be, and I only buy stones that aren't too expensive if it doesn't come from a well known jewelry store. Myanmar is famous for rubies and sapphires, but that is too expensive and too big of a risk for me. 

My aunt who used to work for Unicef bought a ruby set for US$2,000 more than a decade or so ago (so that was really big money then), which was such a well-made fake that the Gem Institute in Thailand had a hard time authenticating it, until they finally decided it was not real. It was only because she was given a certificate and the store owner was afraid that she would report them to the government that they returned her money. So unless you're really an expert, you do need to be very careful and only spend what you don't mind losing. 

Bogyoke Market is lined with jewelers, unfortunately we arrived just before
closing time so we only had time to visit one store that my friend buys from.

My favorite hobby is buying loose stones based on certain designs I already have in mind. It's important that you're familiar with the general price per carat of the stones you want to buy, and you have a general idea of what the cheaper stones are vs the more expensive ones.

I wasn't really planning to buy anything for myself on this trip, and just look at what is available since my mom asked me to buy something. Famous last words, but of course I ended buying a handful of stones because on the flight to Yangon, I saw a ring in the magazine that I wanted to have made.

I love it when you ask the jeweler for the stones you want, and they big out a tray of gems for you to choose from. My general observation from the one store we visited was that the stones here were higher quality than the ones sold in the market in Cambodia because the stones were not heat treated to bring out the color. I also had to carefully look through the gems and pick the ones without visible inclusions. You can read my post on Gem Shopping in Siem Reap here to see the difference.

In addition to the ring I had in mind, I also wanted to have this sapphire ring
copied in spinel. Read: Sapphire = Expensive / Spinel = Affordable
This was another style peg I found, which in my mind
I knew I could put together with loose stones I bought
from previous trips.
Once you've made your choice, they weigh it, then the bargaining begins.
Happiness is jewelry shopping.

The Bogyoke Market houses the retail jewelry stores, but the real gem trading for the serious business buyers happen along the street in the tea houses outside. Here people seriously inspect the loose stones, and serious bargaining happens. How I'd love to be a fly on the wall. I wonder how they find each other. If I have a free day next time, I will sit here and observe.

On the more affordable part of the spectrum, Myanmar is also known as a source of Jade. In fact, China is one of its biggest buyers. I'm not really a Jade fan, but of course I couldn't leave without buying some. I had to use the excuse that I was buying them for gifts.
But maybe, this one, I will keep.

The other thing people buy from Myanmar to bring home is the instant Royal Milk Tea drink. Since I am trying to cut down on sugar, I opted to buy their local loose tea instead which I really enjoyed when they served it at a restaurant.


Now I can't wait to have my new rings set. That way I will know if I want to buy more gems the next time I go back. just saying.

Friday, September 23, 2016

A quick visit to Padang, the Foodie Capital of Indonesia

I travel to Indonesia quite a lot for work, but I've never visited Padang until last month. I was really looking forward to it because they say that the best Indonesian food comes from this region. Sort of like what Osaka is to Japan, which you can read about here, or what Lyon is to France which you can also read about here

Visiting Wet Markets is something I actually do for work, but I was just mesmerized by the chili peppers they had, and the fresh chili salsa, or what they locally refer to as sambal.
This is how the sambal is made.
Drool. I would have bought a lot to bring home, if I could only figure out
how to do it as I had to transit through Singapore.
One other thing about the market is everything is so fresh, you can choose
between a bloody carcass or if you want them to kill it right in front of you.
Que horror! If you're squeamish like me.

With such fresh food available in their markets, it does not come as a surprise that the food in the restaurant is a different level of fresh as well.

Typical Padang Style Restaurants have the dishes laid out on the table even before you arrive. You just help yourself to what you want, and they will bill you only for the dishes that you consume. 

My favorites include (sorry, I opted to stay away from Chicken this trip... on account of seeing and hearing them die... just before we had our meal!):
The best Beef Rendang in the world according to CNN.
Well cooked Rendang would be simmering on the stove for hours,
and melts in your mouth when you eat it,
with the sauce made from a rich concoction of spices and coconut milk.
My favorite dish has always been the Green Sambal salsa.
A new favorite is the puffed animal skin, served in tasty curry sauce.
Frozen Durian Pancakes to end the simple yet decadent meal.

The thing about Padang is that there is much more to it than just the food. There are a lot of things to see as well. 

We stopped by the Lambah Anai Waterfall which is on the way from Padang to Bukit Tinggi.

In Bukit Tinggi we walked to the center square, where the Jam Gadang or the local version of Big Ben is located. 


In Bukit Tinggi, we enjoyed their version of satay (using beef and beef tongue).
Each person gets their own plate of sauce (made of different spices including
tumeric) and sticky rice cubes. I refuse to disclose how many sticks I ate,
for fear that it may incriminate me. Hahaha.

Since we snacked quite a lot on the satay, dinner was a casual affair where we could snack on more satay, martabak (both sweet and savoury were available) and Indomie! All my favorites if I'm honest. Hahaha.
A different version of the beef satay.
The martabak was more traditional so they had Cheese, but not the more
modern Cheese-Chocolate (Keju Chocolate) version.
Light Dinner Fare 


The next day meant more wet market visits for us, and if I only knew there would be a really good traditional Martabak (sweet) stand, I would have skipped breakfast at the hotel. This vendor is a second generation Martabak stall owner.
They had plain pancakes that were so good and buttery, it must be the
Blue Band Margarine! Hahaha.
She was selling her freshly cooked sweet Martabak with chocolate filling at 5,000 Rupiahs (that's only 50 Singapore Cents!!!) and it was so good, it was clearly a steal!


We had a chance to visit Puncak Lawang where we were supposed to enjoy the nice view of the lake (similar to Taal Lake in Tagaytay) but it was so cloudy when we arrived that we couldn't see anything at all.

Good thing it cleared up as we were waiting for our Indomie and Teh Tarik. Yes, Indomie two days in a row makes it a very happy visit for me. It's never the same when you cook it at home.
We also had a good spread available for dessert and I'm glad it pictured
well, since I was attacked by a cat as I was styling this shot!
Buffalo Milk Curd is a delicacy. It tastes like yogurt, in case you're curious.
I've made a lot of good friends in Indonesia, and one
of them is this guy. I'll miss you Adek!!!
All the best in your new journey!

Lunch was another Padang-style favorite. But in this type of restaurant, you just point to what you want to eat, then they put it all on a plate for you. Unfortunately, since we just had Indomie, I had to explain that I only wanted one spoon of rice, and I couldn't point to a lot of things.
Burst of color on the plate, burst of flavor on the palate.
I hope I could have eaten more. My favorite were the crispy cassava chips
in the rendang sauce that tasted like crispy meat chunks.

Another sight we enjoyed was Harau Valley.
Hamming it up for the cam with my Indonesian sisters.
Of course, no stop is complete without snacking, and in this stop, we said no
to fried Indomie, but when someone's order arrived, it looked so good, we
each grabbed a fork and started to dig in! We did this to 4 or 5 dishes!
Demolished in no time, by people who weren't even hungry.
Ready, Set, Attack!
They also has luwak or Civet Cats that you can pet, but
I wasn't that brave. These are the cats that poop the best
coffee in the world. Or so they say.

Also close enough to our hotel in Bukit Tinggi was Panorama Park where monkeys run wild and you have a good view of Sianok Canyon.
Kudos to the breast feeding Mama Monkey!


Then we capped off the trip with a visit to the orphanage, we had home-cooked Nasi Goreng for breakfast with them.

We even had time to grab a Soto Ayam (Chicken Soup) at the airport
before flying home.
Padang is as beautiful on ground as it is from the air... and I heard they
have good surfing spots nearby too!

I can't believe we did all that in two and a half days, and the work we did isn't even captured in this post. Hahaha. No wonder I was dead tired when I finally got home. Eat well Travel often at it's finest.  just saying.