Last spotted in San Francisco, USA on March 28, 2003, 1:23 pm
Who is he? Where is he going? Where has he been? David Barrett / Quinthar

The World's Best Cup of Tea

A cup of tea is much more than a beverage: it's a social experience. The collection of boiling water, unfurled leaves, scented steam, and exquisite taste -- while fantastic in their own right -- constitute but a small part of the larger event a cup of tea creates. Beyond the cup are the sights, sounds, and smells of the world in which it exists. There are people with which to speak, conversations to eavesdrop, music to listen, and beauty to admire. In short, the steaming drink itself is just one critical component of a larger panorama. That complete panorama is what I call "a cup of tea".

With this in mind, I've made it a priority on this trip to scour the world for the best cup of tea. Being a full sensory experience, I've tried with each cup to capture the complete range of sights, sounds, and smells for your enjoyment.

Overlooking one of the taxi stops I bash against daily is a modern coffeeshop that I cannot pass up. One day I stop in for a cup of tea, and find a comfortable seat and clean table gazing over the night river. While there, minding my own business and writing in my notebook, I'm brazenly flirted with by two very young Thai girls - I'm guessing 16, though that probably means they are much younger. They speak almost no English, and I even less Thai, so there isn't much of a conversation going. Yet they insist on getting my phone number (I have none) and my email address (which I supply), and that seems to satisfy them. I don't get the sense they were really trying to seduce me or actually get to know me, but I don't know what their game was. Perhaps it's just the reverse equivalent of the "how many phone numbers can you get" game that college guys supposedly do at bars.
It's always unusual to see a brand name in a remote and exotic country, especially when it's obviously more successful there than here. I mean, I've heard of and eaten Haagen-Dazs my whole life. It's always in the freezer section at any supermarket. But have you ever seen a Haagen-Dazs ice cream shop? In an upscale shopping district? With two floors filled with swanky, stylish furniture, attractive waitresses, and with a live jazz band? Nor had I, until Bangkok.
Way across town from where I am staying is my favorite cafe, a quaint boutique of tea and snacks and antique furniture run by an English expatriate. Though a long trek, I made it frequently in order to enjoy a quiet cup of Earl Grey with fruit tarts and biscuits and whipped cream.

Next to this cafe was a Bank of America, which I was overjoyed to discover due to (what I perceived to be) a banking irregularity with my checking account (which turned out to just be me spending my money faster than expected). I went to the BoA and asked for some help. The conversation went something like this:

"Hi there, my bank card claims I have no money, but I'm sure I do. Could you check my record to see what happened?"
"I'm sorry, we can't do that here. You'll have to call the central office."
"Oh, ok. Can you call them from here and figure out what's the problem?"
"No, we can't call from here. We don't know the number."
"... I'm sorry, did you say you don't ... [more]
Once the steel shutter is drawn down garage-style over this storefront entrance on a main road in Krabi town, a series of large, overlapping rugs with low tables are laid out onto the sidewalk, along with a huge rear-projection TV screen. Spider senses tingling, I sit down and order myself an overly sugary and really quite terrible drink so as to be supplied with a pot of free Thai tea. Onto the screen is played some Arnold Schwarzenegger film that I hadn't before seen but involved, surprisingly enough, lots of explosions. (The movie was shown in Thai, without English subtitles, but I had absolutely no trouble following along. I actually quite enjoyed listening to a Thai dub of Arnold's voice, complete with thick eastern European accent!)

Because I can't help myself, I was flirting with one of the ubiquitous pretty Thai waitresses, and she joined me at my table as we both talked (to the degree we were capable) and sketched pictures in my notebook. I really wanted to ask her out as, co... [more]
This picture was taken while sitting in the lobby of a very classy resort after I convinced the friendly staff there to serve me hot tea outside their bland restaurant and instead in their comfortable lobby chairs. So there I am, sipping away, and in the distance I can slowly see the sun setting. It looks pretty, but I've seen so many sunsets at this point I can barely be bothered to pay attention. Eventually, however, I decide that my book can wait and I head back to the beach to take a look.
I decided to be adventurous and rent a motorscooter on the island, and I have to say that this is an absolute must. On my first day with the scooter I managed to see a small sign for a restaurant on the beach by the river, aptly named "River Restaurant". I hadn't quite mastered the scooter at this point so the jungle/driveway was a bit tricky to negotiate but the result was well worth the effort. Two raised, covered platforms sat near a small patio restaurant where a mother sat playing with her son. I picked the platform nearest the restaurant, slipped off my sandals, and stretched my legs on the mat floor, leaning back on the supplied prism-shaped cushion. Not knowing anything else about Thai food I ordered a curry, rice, and the ever-present cup of tea, and began to soak in the scenery.

The restaurant was indeed, as advertised, next to a small river. The river carves its way through the beach to create a tiny embankment and gurgling creek before mixing with the salty sea. To my le... [more]
A nice cafe is in the KLCC mall overlooking the fountain pond called the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. As the name implies, you can get drinks made from both coffee beans and tea leaves at this cafe, and a good variety of both. However, the Malaysian heat during the day was just overpowering the tallest-building-in-the-world's air conditioning, and after this picture was taken I moved a safe distance away from the death orb casting its evil rays from the sky.
At the base of the twin towers is a world-class shopping mall that rivals any in terms of opulence, if not size. What I found particularly pleasing about this mall was its Cinnabun shop it had three stories beneath the camera in this picture. Yumm!
Malacca is home to a really great coffeeshop called the Geographers Cafe. It's clean and cheap, has decent food and a great view. It even has an electric plug for the laptop! Outside the window, at which I sit on a stool and drink my tea, is a vendor selling tofu fried rice. Normally I'd always figured tofu was a pretty healthy thing, and that fried rice - not that it was particularly healthy, but better than a sharp stick in the eye. Well, all vague thoughts of health have been banished from my mind watching this man prepare his dish. He has this huge wok lit from beneath by a constant flame, and into the wok he pours something like a gallon of cooking oil. It must be at least this, as the entire wok was filled perhaps two-inches deep with the stuff. This he heats to its critical point, when he adds the tofu. Instantly, as if I blinked and he were performing a magic trick, all the oil is gone and he's just cooking tofu. Er... huh? To this he adds even more oil, which is soaked up by the rice he... [more]
Because you can never have enough, even if you're a tiny island nation, Singapore opened a huge new mall while I was in town. This mall, which also has an opera house and theatre, houses a large and modern public library, adjoining which is a nice cafe called Art Digest. I'd come there a few times to enjoy their comfortable seating and nice atmosphere, and when I finally decided to take some pictures I was watched carefully by the man in the foreground. After I sat back down we struck up a nice conversation about modern Singapore, and he started talking about how he though Singapore was really doing very well and how the stereotype of Singapore being a politically repressed country were overblown. Though there is only one real political party, he said that anybody is free to talk about politics and criticize however they like. He did admit that things were much more strict back in the day, but that over time control over the press has loosened and that now it's really pretty good. I don't have any way... [more]
In one of Singapore's countless beautiful lobbies is a cafe overlooking a huge granite sphere with lightly-etched dragons engraved on its sides. The sphere slowly rotates under force of water jets set beneath, and people are (presumably) welcome to try their hand at spinning it faster. I did my best and tiptoed the slick rock fountain surface, laying my hands on the cool, slick surface of the rock. The entire thing is perhaps four-feet in diameter, so it's really a large rock that I could never hope to move in other circumstances. Even were it just resting on a flat surface, I'm not sure if I could make it roll. However, suspended by the frictionless jets, I could slowly pull it off its steady spin and take a new course, hand over hand bending it to my will. Eventually it had it spinning at a nice clip and I walked back to take a seat, watching as my will slowly evaporated and it returned to its natural path.
Across the river from downtown Singapore is a collection of hip restaurants and cafes set on the waterfront and guarded by its own tiny Merlion. As the sun presumably set (I never actually saw it due to the haze) the seaside (or riverside?) cafe became a cool and pleasant place for a cup of tea.
Wandering to a corner of the town previously overlooked, I eventually settled into an expensive Japanese restaurant for a cup of tea. Before me was a large window that, when lit just right (as it was that night), reflects an amount of light just about equal to that which it transmits. After a few tries with the camera, I managed to catch a shot that I liked. Of course, posing for pictures of yourself in the middle of a fancy restaurant definitely turns some heads.
I wandered into this stylish corner cafe on its opening day and was immediately embraced by the eager staff. It's really a great place - good tea, great food, and the happy vibe of a new and optimistic restaurant. Every dinner was served with a perfume sample (available for sale), rounding out the theme completely. As for the food, it was very good, and I was one of the first customers to taste it. Thus, I became a bit of a guinea pig for the Western fare, peppering me with questions as to the proper spicing and flavors. I was happy to oblige. For my troubles and extensive patronage I was even awarded a VIP discount card -- I think I may have been the first to win such an honor.
Inconceivably, the best seat in the restaurant went continually unused: a balcony table overlooking a busy corner. Rectifying this gross injustice, I spent many hours drinking malsala tea and Tiger beer in equal proportions while watching the workers mill about after a hard day.
Wellington is a town that everyone I met just raved about, but for some reason just didn't do it for me. Of course most people saw Christchurch as a "one-day max" stop (I spent perhaps ten and wanted more), so maybe we're all just into different things. Regardless, Wellington does have a stellar museum called the Te Papa, a large fraction of which is dedicated to Maori culture and the history of Maori/English conflict and resolution. The exhibits are large and welcoming, and the building's architecture is an incredible mix of airy balconies and secluded corners. Set on the third floor is a nice cafe where, of course, I visited first. In the middle of the cafe is a colorful racing bike which the placard claims was invented literally in the garage of a local bike enthusiast. Furthermore, the bike sports a radically innovative design, is built almost entirely from plastic composites, and competes extremely well against the best bikes produced by Honda, Ducati, and the likes. Sadly, they weren't for sale ... [more]
Despite having wandered about the city for many days and many nights, exploring what I thought was most every nook and cranny, I stumbled across another great coffeeshop on my final day in Christchurch. Yet another reason to call Christchurch a cafe-lover's paradise. The delightfully-understated Cafe is equipped with a somewhat standard tea selection but an unusually-welcoming sitting green on which to drink it. That, and it appears to be across from a film or art school, filling Cafe with a young, hip crowd of fashionable students that made me almost embarrassed to be wearing what I wear. Almost.

On a side note, the clothes I wore from the outset finally exceeded even my tolerance for the "worn in" look (large holes were appearing in exactly the wrong places). Thus, in a shopping binge I purchased a new pair of Levi's and a stylish (I think) beige short-sleeve British India collared shirt. I've found that it's a lot of fun to walk into a store wearing one outfit and walk out with ano... [more]
Set back on a steep hill overlooking the Christchurch valley is Cup with a View, easily the most scenic cafe I could find in the entire country. It was my last day with the Red Baron and after driving since early dawn I decided to take one last trip up into the hills before returning him back to the agency. I was taken on the same route a week earlier by Chris, a friendly Kiwi, when I spotted Cup with a View and added it to my mental databases of coffeeshops to investigate. Ever the diligent detective, I was very pleased to be rewarded with a fantastic experience with - as the name accurately implies - a great view. Furthermore, I was able to solve a pressing mystery facing me for some time: what is this strange "bubbles and squeak" that I see on all the breakfast menus? Well, it turns out that it's actually a mix of potatoes, onions, and I think ham, among other things, fried on a skillet and served like a diner's hash browns. Despite its entirely unmasculine name, it was a hearty breakfast for my man... [more]
Having slept in the Red Baron the night before, I awoke ridiculously early (like, before noon) and decided to make up for it by indulging in a fantastic breakfast. Hemner Springs, I might add, is a town surrounding a set of hot springs converted into a series of modern swimming pools of various shapes and temperatures. Being a big fan of hot springs I spent a goodly amount of time lounging in the shallow waters and watching the townsfolk wander in and out on their daily rituals.
Though lacking the potential of the Green Turtle, in practice a local chain called The Coffee Connection (I think) was the best place to hang and drink tea. Not only did they have better tea, they had the largest gummy-candy I've ever seen in my life. I mean, when's the last time you were served a gummy-worm on its own plate? That's right, never. It's things like that that make The Coffee Connection the best cup of tea in Christchurch.
World's Best...

Copyright 2017 - David Barrett -