Web Exclusives: Letter from Hong Kong
a PAW web exclusive column by Ed Finn ’02 edfinn@alumni.princeton.edu

October 23, 2002

Delectations of the Far East
When fabulous food and Princeton-in-Asia come together

They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, and if that’s true Thailand certainly had me by the epicurean cockles of my food-loving core. The very night that I flew into Bangkok from Hong Kong, I wandered into a Cantonese restaurant (so the culture shock wouldn’t be too severe, you understand), where for about $20 I had a sumptuous meal for four all to myself. The soup and dessert were one serving each, but the massive fish I mistakenly ordered, much to the consternation of the staff, was clearly intended to feed more than one. Fortunately, it was so unconscionably tasty that I picked its leviathan carcass clean of flesh (and many bones) using only chopsticks and an uninterrupted supply of clean plates.

The great thing about Thailand is that it makes the most hapless, naïve traveler feel like a skilled restaurant diviner because pretty much all the food there is delicious. You can walk into the dingiest roadside café — and believe me, I did — and wind up with a delicious noodle meal. Of course, this cornucopia doesn’t come without its risks: I spent one excruciating day trying to convince my innards not to secede. But everything looks so good, tastes so great and costs so little that it’s hard to resist gorging yourself, bacteria be damned.

I did manage to see some of the countryside in between meals, wandering the ubiquitous wats and touring the city of Bangkok. I took advantage of my Princeton-in-Asia connections to visit some of the local crowd, and had another excellent meal at Bangkok’s very own German brewery with Dwight Crabtree ’02, Dave Whitelaw ’01, Bryan Walsh ’01, and Laura Vanderkam ’01. During the day we trammeled the well-trod paths of the intensively manicured temple areas and took a boat tour of Bangkok’s maze-like network of canals. The highlight of our boating adventure was a visit to the Holy Carp, a school of fish tended by Buddhist monks which appeared to survive solely upon over-priced loaves of bread we were required to purchase and then hurl into the water. Alas, there was to be no talk of catching and eating the sanctified creatures.

The rest of my trip was spent taking the train up to Chiang Mai, a smaller hill city long known as a hub for hikers and hippies. I arrived there on an over-night train from Bangkok’s Hualamphong Station, which is as chaotic as it is fun to say. The sleeper car to Chiang Mai was a surreal, colonial experience, complete with an attendant whose sole responsibility was to arrange our bedding at night and remove it in the morning. As I watched lush paddies and palm trees stream past the window in a chlorophyll blur, I felt like a gallery viewer of an Asian pastel done up in teak soil and jade leaf.

After such a soothing journey, my arrival in Chiang Mai was a bit of a shock. Verdant panoramas were replaced by a red brick square radiating heat off old walls bracketing the old city gate. This is where I met two local PiA interns, Peter Dowling ’02 and Nick Ordway ’02, who put me up, took me out, and ferried me everywhere on their Honda Dream motorcycles. The sight of one foreigner tootling along was funny enough; seeing my 6’4” frame clinging desperately to the back of a bike as one of my guides steered us confidently through diesel-obscured lanes of death was, it seems, incredibly amusing.

The train back to Bangkok was less exciting, since I took it during the daytime and hence there was no official to carry out the ceremony of bed-making. Instead, I spent my time looking out the window, seeing Thailand’s rolling plains one more time. As I stepped off the train back in the hullabaloo of Hualamphong Station, I took off my glasses to clean them, and they fell apart in my hands. Stumbling through the madding crowds of con artists and pickpockets the guidebooks warn you about, I made my way to the microbe-laden restroom and put in my contacts with a level of sanitary neglect so profound it is a miracle I can see today.

But see I can, and I spent my flight back to Hong Kong with my nose pressed to the porthole. Now every patch of green in this Chinese steel jungle brings back visions of that trip up the leafy tributaries of Asia’s overflowing foliage. During the week I spent there, every moment spent gazing out at soft late-summer rain was like a month of relaxation. Seeing my two friends in Chiang Mai really gave me a sense of what I’m missing from the much-touted Asian Experience. Pete and Nick live in rural splendor in a small town with lots of visitors, apartments with nice views and jobs with easy working hours. A lot of times I enjoy the hustle of Hong Kong, but every once in a while I day-dream about sitting there in the kingdom of a thousand rice paddies, spending my days eating, gazing, reading, writing. And the beer’s pretty good too. But then the next New Thing comes whizzing by me on the sidewalk, and I snap back into my busybody world.

Ed Finn ’02 works for Time in Hong Kong and can be reached at edfinn@alumni.princeton.edu