Tag Archives: Asia

If I had an elephant, I’d call it Nelly

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For the record, Thailand is actually REALLY LONG. Coming from our fair isle (fair, but also fairly small), Thailand seems huge. And with it’s size comes a lot of diversity.

Post-Bangkok, we both took our full bellies and newly acquired viruses (how you manage to get a stinking cold in 36 degree heat escapes us) up to the northern city of Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai and Pai

If you have the opportunity to go to the north of Thailand, go. With a mountainous backdrop, cooler climate and calmer pace of life, it couldn’t be further away from the heat of the islands and the chaos of the capital. There are only 174,000 inhabitants in Chiang Mai, a village compared to Bangkok’s 9 million, and the city is dominated by a walled and moated old town – picturesque indeed. It is awash with temples, historic buildings and even a Buddhist University, so seeing a monk with his alms bowl at dawn is a common occurrence. This seemingly sleepy place comes alive at night with the sprawling Night Bazaar, for which Chiang Mai is renowned. It is also famed for being the gateway to the hills – there’s an abundance of treks and organised outings for those who want to explore the surrounding jungle.

Chiang Mai Night Bazaar

Chiang Mai Night Bazaar

NOTE: Be CAREFUL with the treks – it’s a huge gamble choosing a tour operator and a lot of travelers end up disappointed. We met a couple who’d forked out for a 3-day jungle trek and didn’t quite realise that it was no country amble, it was a Thai-Army-Action-Commando-style adventure. The jungle here is pretty much straight out of Jumanji, so if you’re stuck there battling spiders the size of your hand and burning leeches off your ankles, it’s not so much fun.

Of course, Cel and I did LOADS of research and asked LOADS of people … (or maybe just picked a place with a nice looking lady who was really chatty and had nice pictures in the office). Regardless, we plumped for a one-day-er and for a pittance we rode elephants, visited a hill tribe village, swam in a waterfall, walked alongside paddy fields, (dubiously) shot a crossbow, made our way down a river on bamboo rafts… WIN!

It was an absolutely fantastic day, if not quite an experience in places. For example, despite feeding the elephants about 4 tonnes of bananas, it was hard to shake the feeling that they might not be leading the happiest of lives. Although there are a plethora of eco-friendly ‘Elephant Camps’ in Thailand – where elephants live in comfort and luxury and are treated fantastically by well-trained ‘Mahout’ (handlers) – there are a hell of a lot more which rake in the cash from gullible tourists (such as ourselves), and work the elephants a little too hard and use elephant hooks a little too liberally. To be honest, it is hard to judge as we couldn’t understand what the guides were saying and we don’t know anything about the training and handling of animals, but if you go with gut feeling, I think we both felt rather guilty. Lesson learnt – when animals are involved, don’t go for the cheap option.

Hungry nelly-phant

Hungry nelly-phant

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Having a drink to cool off

Having a drink to cool off

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Meeting the kids of the Karen tribe...

Meeting the kids of the Karen tribe…

..who have learnt to be extremely photogenic

..who have learnt to be extremely photogenic

The bamboo rafting was probably the most unforgettable, namely because our ‘driver’ was an absolute legend. Each raft was made up of about 5 or 6 thick tubes of bamboo strung together with strips of old tyre. (Ace Ventura, eat your heart out. ) You can fit 5 people on it, four farang and one driver, who essentially punts at the front using a long stick of bamboo. However, he didn’t last long and soon gave up, consigning charge of the raft to Cel and another lad. He him sat back and barked instructions, shouting ‘Rie..rie…control rie. Mmmmmm. Lef..LEF! LEFCONTROL LEF!!’ before we got absolutely annihilated by rocks and rapids. Anther catchphrase of his was, ‘no wet no fun’, which he’d mutter to himself before he soaked us and encouraged local children who were playing along the river to do the same. All Cel’s hard work and manual labour paid off as we rounded a corner of the river and in front of us three elephants and their baby ambled across the water in front of us. They were silhouetted against the low sun and as they reached the other side they stopped and started splashing themselves in the river, spraying themselves and cooling down. Corny as it sounds, it was genuinely magical.

Take a look at the map at the top, and the star up a bit and to the left of Chiang Mai was our next destination – Pai. So the road there might have been horrendously mountainous and we may have spent the journey clutching onto our seats and repeating rosaries, but as soon as we arrived it was clear that this was our kind of place. It has a population of just 2,000 and is set in a mountain fortressed valley; a perfect setting for the laid-back hippy lifestyle that Pai nurtures. The best thing to do there, aside from relax and take in the town, is to make your way up another hair-raising hill climb to the Yun Lai view point, which towers above the valley. We were on a scooter and only JUST managed it – Cel was driving and Imogen actually made a quick exit by jumping off the back halfway up the hill… lighten the load and all that! The view from the top is stunning. The mountains look fake – coloured in various shades of purple and green, you can see all the hillside villages with the wonky houses and bamboo roofs, and best of all, it is utterly silent up there. As you arrive, an old Chinese man (it is above the Chinese village of Santichon) shuffles towards you with a beautifully decorated pot of tea and two tiny mugs. You sit in the shade, sipping your piping hot tea and looking out over the valley.. it’s bliss. I guess the calmness and serenity of the viewpoint kind of summed up our experience in Pai; not only is it extremely chilled, but it feels like you are experiencing how Thai people live. Tourists are secondary here –  the Thais just carry on with their lives and we are lucky enough to get a sneaky peek.

Decorations at a strawberry farm just outside Pai

Decorations at a strawberry farm just outside Pai

Yun Lai Viewpoint

Yun Lai Viewpoint

Tea time

Tea time

An elephant we met on the road to Pai..

An elephant we met on the road to Pai..

Chinese influence at Yun Lai

Chinese influence at Yun Lai

At first she was a bit apprehensive...

…at first she was a bit apprehensive…

...but then she became extremely friendly!

…but she became extremely friendly!

Pai Canyon

Pai Canyon + intrepid explorer

Next stop, Laos. Heading up to the border (past Chiang Rai) and slow boat down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang.

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A Culinary Tour of Bangkok

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Oh, Bangkok. Not only do you have a hilarious name, but you also have a bit of a hilarious reputation. People who haven’t been to Bangkok are convinced that it really is the home of the debauched chaos oh so delicately portrayed in cinematic classics such as ‘The Hangover’ and that-scene-where-Tilda-Swinton-and-Leo-get-together from ‘The Beach’; and those who have been often feel that they deserve some sort of medal for surviving it.

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And surviving is the right verb. Bangkok is like nothing else. Home to 9.1 million people and sprawling over a 1569 square kilometre area, it is MENTAL. Honestly, we cannot even begin to describe how hectic it is. There are people everywhere and they are always trying to sell you something or entice you to come with them or get a taxi. The streets are packed with myriad clothes stalls and food stalls, patronised by dazed looking farang, sweating more than should be humanly possible. When people say ‘an assault on the senses’, you can completely understand what they mean; you are constantly marvelling at new sights, wrinkling up your nose at the smell of an open drain before catching a delicious whiff of fresh Pad Thai, getting an aural medley (it sounds nicer than it is) from the vying sound systems of bars spilling out onto the streets, being blinded by laser pens (of all things) wielded aggressively at you by curiously dressed street sellers.

Not that this is all a bad thing, it is the Bangkok way. And as we found out, a lot of it is due to the fact that we were frequenting the heavily trodden tourist territories. Get out of Kaoh San Road and the surrounding LP sights, and you’ve got a totally different story.

Fortunately for us, after one or two days getting lost in the city, we found our very own tour guide, Wan; who I had the pleasure to teach last year during her 9-month stint at EC Bristol. What a difference it makes to have some insider knowledge! After plying us with gifts – including traditional Thai soaps, beautiful bracelets, mango and durian biscuits and crab crisps – she ushered us into her car and took it upon herself to show us (the poor ignorant farang) the REAL Bangkok. Like many Thais, she was keen to show visitors that Thailand is more than drink and dirt, ladyboys and scammers. And she more than won us over…

The lovely Wan

The lovely Wan

First stop, Koh Kret – an island in the Chao Phraya river about 30-40 minutes outside the city. She described the area (which is essentially a small satellite town) in relation to Bangkok as Bath is to Bristol (although you’d have to SERIOUSLY multiply the scale.) Koh Kret is home to a Buddhist temple, complete with a Pisa-esque leaning tower, and lots of winding streets filled with traditional Thai food and an extensive arts and crafts market. As Wan pointed out, only Thai people come here, which became immediately evident in both the demographic and the prices.

The leaning tower of Koh Kret

The leaning tower of Koh Kret

Young Thai dancer and musicians.. just another day at Koh Kret

Young Thai dancer and musicians.. just another day at Koh Kret

Now, just as a word of warning, Wan told us that in order to show us the traditional Thailand, we had to eat all the traditional food. The Thais are extremely proud of their cuisine and it’s no secret that Thai food is renowned throughout the world. We were warned early in the day not to get too full too quickly (it was so hard!) as we had A LOT of eating to do…

We started off with some traditional sweets. Perching on wooden stools at a market café, we were given a plate of small ceramic cups filled with a white gelatinous substance. You were also given a flat wooden spatula in which to scoop them out – round the sides, under the bottom and into your mouth in one go. They were double-layered, with thick white paste on the top and a thicker yellow goo underneath and an unusual consistency; similar to Chinese dumplings, but sweet. I loved them, but I think Celyn was having a few reservations.

His taste buds were satisfied, however, with the accompanying snack of breaded fried fish. They were small, like a sardine, but full of fish eggs (does this mean that they were preggers when they were cooked??!). Kind of like fish fingers filled with caviar. Plus an accompanying spicy sauce. NYOM!

Next stop, lunch. Finding a place in the market, we shared some bowls of Tom Yam – a spicy soup which is extremely popular in Thailand. This was a bit of a variation on Tom Yam as there were thick rice noodles in the soup mix (and one bowl wasn’t as spicy because I am a spice-weakling). Still, it was delicious – all crumbly meat, crunchy veg and thick noodles drenched in spicy sauce.

As if this wasn’t enough, we passed a traditional Thai sweet stall on our way out and Wan stocked up! The sweets were more like works of art – each brightly coloured, meticulously decorated and almost too beautiful to eat.

The sweetie assortment

We still ate them.

Our collection of sweets.. they didn''t last too long

Our collection of sweets.. they didn’t last too long

Thai sweets may be sweet, but they’re not overly sugary and have a strange flavour that sits right in between sweet and savoury. They like mixing the two here, as is evident from their world famous sweet-and-sour dishes, their sausage-in-a-sweet-pancake stalls and penchant for having sugar in their bread. The sweets, as with the cup dessert we had just tasted, had a doughy consistency (like suet, perhaps?) and came in more designs than we thought possible. There were perfumed jelly roses, sticky rice with egg custard in a banana leaf, fondant frosted fruit, cinnamon-y cups, orange coloured marzipan baskets and pearls…

We told Wan that we’d get fat, but she assured us that it didn’t matter. Well, not today, at least! We heaved our full bellies off the island and drove towards Bang Bua Thong – a suburb of Bangkok – to Leng Nein Lee, the Chinese Buddhist temple. As with many cities in SE Asia, there is a large and lively Chinese population and the scale of this temple was paramount to the strength and closeness of the Chinese community.

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Wan and I outside the Chinese Temple

Wan and I outside the Chinese Temple

Buddha and a framed photo of the King and Queen

Buddha and a framed photo of the King and Queen

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From the temple, we headed towards Bangkok city centre – all glistening malls and upmarket restaurants. This was not unlike Bukit Bitang in Kuala Lumpur – you know, that place of a thousand malls that Cel and I managed to lose ourselves (literally) in. She took us to the Siam Centre and Discovery and we all just wandered open mouthed along the brightly lit marble floors, gawping at shop displays which seemed more like modern art than consumer culture.

Seeing as we hadn’t eaten in a few hours, it was time for another meal. Naturally. We scooted above the heaving roads on a concrete skywalk and found ourselves in Central Plaza. Yet another mall with yet more square metres of shop, we bypassed Hermes and Gucci and headed to the restaurant area. I hesitate to say ‘food court’ because that conjures up images of Millie’s Cookies and dirty McDonald’s seating – this was far nicer.

Seated comfortably in MK restaurant, we were treated to another Thai favourite – Suki Yaki. I think it may have originated in Japan but it has been wholeheartedly adopted in Thailand and has become the quintessential pan-Asian feed. Basically, you choose a variety of raw meats, fish and veggies. You all sit around a table with a hob in the middle and are provided with a pan filled with stock. As the dishes arrive, you add them one by one to the bubbling stock pot, crack an egg over it when you’re done and… voila: your meal! You can put anything and everything into the pot – crab meat, pork balls, tofu, jellyfish, pak choi, cabbage, raw sliced pork, mushrooms… whatever takes your fancy. The secret (and most important) ingredient is Suki Yaki sauce – a semi-spicy thick relish that you ladle over your steaming broth before you eat it.

Wan persuing the menu

Wan persuing the menu

Can't believe his luck!

Can’t believe his luck!

It is DELICIOUS, and a really sociable way to eat too. If you want the recipe, have a look at the bottom of the page…

Post-food coma

Post-meal lethargy

As if this wasn’t enough, Wan insisted that we try an egg tart in the Siam Paragon as well as a milk tea shake with tapioca. Again, the egg tart was that strange mix of sweet and savoury – sweet pastry but just an egg in the middle. It’s not half bad you know, perhaps we should write to Greggs…!

By this point you can imagine how full our stomachs were. Even Celyn (eater extraordinaire) was getting a bit of a straining gut so although we were tempted by all sorts of weird and wonderful smells as we went on an evening stroll through China Town, we couldn’t eat another thing.

Actually, that’s a lie. We had some roasted chestnuts. Chinese special apparently so it’d have been rude to say no.

Nursing our swollen stomachs, we parted ways and headed home. But what an experience we had had in Bangkok. We are so grateful to Wan for her kindness and generosity and for all the amazing tastes we have discovered. Without her, we would most certainly have left Bangkok with a less tasteful (‘scuse the pun) impression of the city, not to mention far fewer memories.

Wan, thank you once again and remember that you are always welcome to stay in the U.K. Although not sure how haggis compares to Suki Yaki…

RECIPE:

Suki Yaki

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Ingredients:

300 grams of sliced beef
1 Carrot – sliced
1 Onion – sliced
250 grams of Shiitake mushrooms whole
250 grams of tofu
2/3 cup of chopped cabbage
100 grams of Enoki mushrooms
1 cup of chopped morning glory
100 grams of Pak Choi (Chinese cabbage)
2 cubes of chicken oxo
1 package of glass noodles
1 larger turnip chopped

Cooking Instructions:

1: In a large pot, boil the turnip, carrots and chicken stock for 30 minutes

2: Drain the water from the pot into a large wok

3: Bring the water to a boil and begin to add the meat and vegetables.

4: When the vegetables are almost cooked, add the glass noodles.

5: Turn off the heat source and let sit for a few minutes.

6: Serve in a bowl with Suki sauce (sweet spicy Thai chili sauce) – available in most Chinese and Asian shops in the UK. This is INDISPENSABLE so don’t sack it off!

PS. This is most definitely a GUIDELINE.. add what you want!

Truly Asia

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Get any Malaysia Air flight and you’ll be treated to this a little gem, or something of a similar ilk.

 

 

OK, so the video might be a bit cringe and there is a rather high white-foreigner to Malaysian ration, but after having it on repeat during a 10-hour flight, you get the idea; Malaysia IS truly Asia.

This is quite a big claim to fame, and they’re obviously very proud of it. But what the hair oil are they on about? What is a true representation of Asia?

 

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Frankly, I haven’t a clue. But if the slogan is correct and if Kuala Lumpur is anything to go by, then I guess it’s all about sheer contrasts and diversity; an exhausting mix of bustling street stalls and new-age high-risers, samosas on the roadside and a Starbucks on every corner, temples and mosques and the occasional church thrown in for good measure.

Let’s put this into context. So we arrived sleepy and smelly into Kuala Lumpur late in the evening not really knowing what to expect, hop onto the train to the city centre and notice that this is probably the smartest train that either of us have ever caught. All the other passengers are well-dressed and smothered in electronics, there are flat-screen TVs at the end of each carriage with yet more advertisements proclaiming Malaysia’s Asian-ness, each stop is announced and clearly marked on an LED board with every station, the train is more refrigerated than air-conditioned, the stations have glass doors between the train and the platform so suicidal passengers don’t upset the timetable. In short, this is high-quality stuff. Yet, alighting in Chinatown, the area where we were staying, we walk straight into a night market. It’s similar to stumbling upon five different children’s parties happening simultaneously while someone slaps your face with a damp towel and shines a light in your eyes. The stalls are so close to one another that there is hardly room to pass between them, and glorious smells of cooked meat drift between the racks of fake sunglasses and Abercrombie T-shirts.  Hawkers beckon us into their stalls with promises of ‘good price’ and ‘gifts for lady’. Obviously we are awestruck, we never know quite which way to turn, we keep bumping into one another. Hectic, yes, but hilarious.

This contrast wasn’t a one off. Take the following day, for example. Suffering from mild jetlag, we spent the first morning sweltering our way up the 272 steps to the Batu Cave Indian Temple – a Hindu shrine in the cavernous interior of a limestone outcrop, frequented by bona fide Hindus, hoards of tourists, and a bunch of extraordinarily bold monkeys who are surprisingly adept at nicking your lunch. At the top, we were casually asking a bystander about the meanings of the various marks being painted on the worshippers heads, and we suddenly found ourselves ushered to the front of the temple to receive a blessing. Pretty moving stuff.

The 40-something metre high statue of Lord Murugan at the Batu Caves

The 40-something metre high statue of Lord Murugan at the Batu Caves

 

Starting the climb...

Starting the climb…

Inside the caves

Inside the caves

Monkey plus stolen goods

Monkey plus stolen goods

Compare this with the afternoon, where we found ourselves in hedonist heaven Bukit Bintang. This is an area of the city devoted to shopping malls, as in a WHOLE AREA THAT IS JUST MALL AFTER MALL AFTER MALL. No joke, this makes Oxford Street look like the ‘Reduced to Clear’ section of Tescos. For anyone that knows Celyn and I, we were TOTALLY lost. We’re not really that accustomed to shopping, even window shopping, and now we were being faced with square miles of brightly lit consumer culture. Sorry guys, but we were a little overwhelmed. We got lost in one mall, the Sungei Wang centre, which was actually TERRIFYING. It was like one of those scenes from a horror film where no matter which way they turn, they always end up at the same place. In a horror film, they are trying to escape from some sort of mad axe murderer, in our case we were trying to escape from the crazy ladies who wanted us to buy some sort of skin-lightening moisturizer. They KEPT RUBBING OUR HANDS. Weird.

In all seriousness, this area is phenomenal. There is just so much evident wealth. One shopping centre, the Starhill Gallery was more like a hotel, or a museum showcasing how millionaires spend their time. There was a jazz band in the foyer playing to no-one, the escalators were red a la red-carpets and the lifts had no numbers for the floors, just enigmatic labels such as ‘Relish’ and ‘Adorn’. What the..?!

Starhill Gallery Shopping Mall / Museum / Playground for the rich

Starhill Gallery Shopping Mall / Museum / Playground for the rich

Developing expensive tastes...

Developing expensive tastes…

Chef in a lift

Chef in a lift

 

??

?? 

Anyway shopping-mall-stress aside, we’ve come to see that this is what Kuala Lumpur is all about; contrast. And despite being a truly modern cyber-city, it is clear that it’s still managed to retain every ounce of the integrity and tradition from which it was originally built.

 

And we’ll leave you with a few more pics…

 

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Early morning at the Petronas Towers.

The view from the Skybridge of the Petronas Towers - 170m up

The view from the Skybridge of the Petronas Towers – 170m up

Building on fire?? View of a high-rise bank taken from floor 88 of the Petronas Towers

Building on fire?? View of a high-rise bank taken from floor 88 of the Petronas Towers

Some of the flower garlands sold on the streets which can be bought as temple offerings

Some of the flower garlands sold on the streets which can be bought as temple offerings

 

Lord M again

Lord M again

One of the malls even had a HARRODS!

One of the malls even had a HARRODS! (Quite enjoying the ‘Please do not touch me’ sign)

PTs again.

PTs again.

 

What time is it?

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Safely touched down in Kuala Lumpur (or KL if you’ve been here before and are a travel snob). Pretty standard flight… Had too many meals, a fair few G&Ts, and not enough sleep. Thankfully there was a hefty film choice – (out of My Sister’s Sister and Spider-Man, guess who watched what?)

So, Celyn’s watch reads 12.05; our flight leaves in an hour, which is 21.45 (naturally); the sun is setting; and we can’t work out which meal we just ate. Seriously, which day is it? And WHAT TIME IS IT?

Hopefully we’ll find out in Auckland…