Thailand – Going coastal & catapult chicken in Bangkok

31.03.2013 – 31.03.2013

So we left Chiang Mai, with the added excitement of our taxi driver reversing into a bus outside Margaret and Don’s hotel. Luckily it didn’t delay us, just baffle us, and the days travelling went really smoothly. We flew to Bangkok then was met by a driver with a mini van who then drove us the few hours south to Hua Hin. It was really a great way to travel. Cost effective when there’s 4 of you, probably not so much if there’s only 2. Would definitely recommend Oriental Escape for anyone who’s nervous about travel in Bangkok or who wants a simple and safe way to get from a to b.

Hua Hin

We returned to Hua Hin as we were trying to find a beach resort so Margaret and Don could enjoy that side of Thailand. Most of the other beach resorts that we could reach were either on the seedy side or really awkward to get to. Hua Hin is a couple of hours by car from Bangkok and is a popular resort with the Thais and having been there before, we had more of an idea of what we were getting.

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It’s definitely a pretty place down by the sea with the various piers you can sit on to drink and eat. It’s got an old side to part of it which are quite characterful. Though of course it has modern and cheesy parts like anywhere – burger king and girlie bars. But in Hua Hin you can easily avoid that side.
We stayed right in middle of town, whilst Margaret and Don were out at a resort further out of town. We realised that actually being in town was not that ideal as food was more expensive and generally not as good. It’s a funny place Hua Hin. Most of the seafront is taken up by hotels and apartments so although it has a beautiful white sandy beach, you can’t really use it unless you’re staying somewhere with access. The small patches of private beach have so many loungers on it you’d be practically cuddling the person next to you. Seeing as that would likely be a lobster red, half naked, rotund old german guy – not ideal.

Our guest house was german or swiss run, wasn’t sure which and was ok but a bit odd. The guy who runs it just sits around all day as does his grumpy Thai wife. There’s a large young lady with a moustache who cleans the rooms and who I managed to bond with a little over our time there by giving her big smiles whenever I saw her which she reciprocated enthusiastically. They were all so miserable there and I figured she needed a bit of niceness.
Now our room was big and (must be the german efficiency thing) had everything we needed – lots of plug sockets in convenient places – you have no idea how rare this is! But we didn’t have a top sheet and when we asked they gave us a blanket. Ok. Bit odd when it’s over 30 degrees C out there. But the thing that was really terrible was that after cleaning the room sweet moustache lady would stand in the doorway and spray air freshener into it for a good 20 seconds. I have witnessed her do this on another room. The result being, when you return to your room you open the door to a chemical bio-hazard. I’d have to sit out on the steps outside the room for 10 minutes while it de-toxified (thank god we could open the windows there).

We were lucky to catch some of the Chinese New Year celebrations which had fire-crackers going off quite terrifyingly and then lots of lights and cheesy singing. Unfortunately we literally did stumble on it on the way home and Margaret and Don had already gone on their shuttle bus home so missed it,

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Eating or drinking at one of the pier restaurants was always nice as it would be cool and really atmospheric.

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After a couple of nights eating down by the pier, we tried up by the night market, which had a totally different vibe to it and was a great people watching spot. The food was pretty expensive so generally just drooled over the amazing lobsters on offer.

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It was Margaret’s birthday while we were there so they invited us up to their hotel for dinner which, her birthday being Valentines day, had a special menu and was all dressed up. We went early to enjoy their access to the sea and their swimming pool which was a real treat having spent much of our time holed up in our guesthouse. The sea was lovely as was the pool area. The hotel were very sweet and delivered her a cake. Rained on our parade as we had brought a little incy one with us – it looked like the cake’s poor cousin. But we did have everlasting candles which is ALWAYS funny and we did have to laugh as the cake they made said to ‘Mr Hatter’ on it.

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We had a fun meal with some good music and even dancing by the sea.

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Our absolute saving grace in Hua Hin was a little cafe we discovered called Homestyle Hua Hin which had been opened by a lovely lady who had quit the rat-race of Bangkok to open her cafe by the sea. In a place full of mediocre, overpriced and bad-attituded (I know that’s not english) restaurants in Hua Hin, this really was a diamond in the rough. She gave us a few things to try as well and we learned about a great Thai desert to take the edge off after a hot curry. She also does the most amazing wholemeal roti which we had every single time. Her Khau Soi, Mark’s favourite Chiang Mai speciality, was incredible. She’d apparently studied (chemistry I think) at Chiang Mai which is why this was part of her repertoire. This, without doubt, was the best one I’d ever tasted.
If you’re ever in Hua Hin, find this place, it’s a treat.

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Bangkok

Bangkok is great and annoying at the same time. There’s so much available there – but it’s hot and a bugger to get about.
The traffic is just mental. I don’t know how anyone every got anywhere before they built the sky train. I’m a big fan of the skytrain – it doesn’t cover a great distance and certainly isn’t a proper public transport system for the city but it does get you further afield cheaply, quickly and in amazing air conditioning.

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We stayed in the main shopping area of Bangkok, mainly because we’d stayed nearby before and don’t really know any other areas. It’s pretty full on staying here – it’s crazy busy. The main downside I would say is that there isn’t a great deal of cheap decent eats about the place and certainly no where to have a quick cheap drink. Now that I’ve spent a bit of time in Bangkok I definitely know better areas to stay for next time where you’re close to things but yet get some peace and quiet.

Lizards in Lumpini
Lumpini park is a short walk away from where we were staying. However in the heat of Bangkok, a short walk like that is very hard going. Luckily it was worth it as not only is it a lovely park in the middle of the craziness, it is cooler there than on the streets and best of all it’s full of massive monitor lizards.
We’d gone in search of them and hoped just to spot one so were surprised to find one almost immediately – there are quite a lot there so you can’t really miss them. They can be quite camouflaged, I nearly stepped on one that was blended into the lake edge.

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There’s always something going on in Bangkok and something to look at. There were amazing decorations and lights setup for chinese new year.

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There are also lots of mini shrines setup in the main shopping thoroughfares.

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When we left a massive street art festival was going on – we were gutted to not see the finished results – it’s the amazing street paintings which create 3d like effects and they had some of the best artists in the world there for it.

Vietnamese
I wanted to find a Vietnamese restaurant in Bangkok as, it being on of our favourite places, I wanted to share just a tiny bit of this with Margaret and Don as we weren’t able to take them to the country itself. Siagon Recipe restaurant is really good and a lot of food for good prices too. It’s not in the thick of things, you have to make an effort to get to, but it is in a pretty afluent neighbourhood so it’s cool walking round there – you can find it off Soi Sukhumvit49. The bun cha was amazing.

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Flying Chicken Restaurant

Now I had to drag everybody a bit further out of central Bangkok for this one and we had a hairy moment when we got off the skytrain to realise there was no where to get a taxi and we were in the middle of nowhere. Luckily we were on a busy dual carriageway so, slightly ropey as it was for him to stop a taxi did come over to get us. We then had to try to explain to him where it was. We had assumed that there would be local taxis and everyone would know about this place but I think this guy was passing through. We kept saying chicken (later realising that Mark knows Thai for chicken but hadn’t thought to use it). I’d come prepared with telephone numbers etc so he phoned them up and as he dropped us off outside with the huge statue of a cockerill outside, the taxi driver just laughed and was like “ahh CHICKEN!!!”.

So, the Flying Chicken restaurant (Ka-tron) does what it says on the tin and then some. If you order the flying chicken then you will get a whole chicken, but only after it has been lit on fire, fired out of a catapult and caught (if they are successful) on a spike on the head of a unicyclist. Yep, you read that correct. Fantastic eh? It was honestly such a blast, one of most fun things have done in Thailand.

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Mark had a go at catching a bake potato on his head, with the spiked helmet on, I might add, and without the unicycle. He was rubbish!

They had the perfect setup for a photo – this unicycle is on a pole which they stick into the ground and so you can sit on it perfectly balanced for your photo shoot – genius!

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The pictures don’t really do it justice – check it out on Mark’s youtube video which also has other crazy Thai footage from our last weeks.
I particularly like the bit where they’re throwing potatoes at Mark’s head and I can be heard shouting “I hope it hits him in the face” and “Man-up”. Aren’t I the BEST girlfriend? ;)

So, as we bade farewell to Margaret and Don, we welcomed our friend Elena from Singapore. She had met us in Phuket in our first week in Thailand so it seems fitting she’d meet us for our last.

She was staying in a serviced apartment about 15 minutes walk from us and from the moment she arrived we basically bummed around her flat having lazy fun. We were knackered from all the running around we’d been doing and she was just back from travelling half way round the world so we were all happy to be sloth like. Well Mark and I were sloth like, it’s impossible for Elena to be, or if she was she’d do it in heels!!

We discovered the freezer worked a little bit too well in that when we took a bottle out of the freezer and put it in the icebucket, the ice set on the bottle and didn’t defrost for ages. Was quite fascinating.

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We took the opportunity to use the apartment and it’s proximity to some good supermarkets to have a couple of great feasts with much non asian contraband involved – mucho meat and cheese.

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There was a great view from the apartment and we spotted that there was a tennis court on one of the buildings roofs.

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We did venture out, but not far up the road to the most amazing restaurant that Elena and friends had stumbled upon a while back.
Gaggan’s was setup by a chef who used to work at El Bulli so when Elena asked if I’d like to go I confirmed by jumping up and down excitedly. I love travel eating and discovering food that way but I have always loved a good restaurant and have really missed that part of my old life.
So the setting was divine in a colonial style oasis down a side street, all beautifully lit with a lovely atmosphere.
The food is described as ‘Indian progressive’ – using indian flavours with various fine dining and moleculary techniques. We went for the 10 course taster menu. Who wouldn’t?

The first thing that really blew my mind was the lamb burger. Take a look at the picture below. The pink thing which looks like a macaron? That was the lamb burger. The outside melted in your mouth and although your brain was telling you that it should be something sweet, the flavour engulfs you and you can kind of taste seaside type lamb burger – ketchup and mustard. Tastebud-tabulous!

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Other course included oysters with foam, mussels, a soft souffle in an egg shell, soup, tempura style chillies, a chick and egg combo with an egg somehow poached in a sauce – another mind blower.
We also ordered a coriander tandoori chicken which was an amazing mix of Indian and Thai flavours.

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The main course was a curry with various style naan breads. Never had anything like it. Also, having not had a decent Indian curry since we’ve been away, it was a most welcome flavour of home. Our dessert was an ice-cream type thing (I think they might have used the old liquid nitrogen for this. It was a little hard so the quite mad and delightful maitre’d broke it up and started to spoon feed us. Sounds odd but was very funny (and we’d have a very few at this point).

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My absolute ‘clap hands like a child’ moment came with the course which had a glass dome containing smoke, the aroma of which adds to you detectible delights. Always wanted to try one. Comes from watching too much Heston.

Our second best bit of fun, after the meal, was the amazing ‘lobby cam’. One of the channels on the TV showed live footage from the reception, I guess so you can see who’s coming to visit you etc. In our fragile states and for lack of any other entertainment, we ended up quite addicted to watching this. Most of the time nothing happened. It got exciting when someone came in to look at the cakes. Nothing would happen for ages then suddenly you’d get 3 checkins at once. Oh the excitement. And the guess the nationality game was fun too. Forget Big Brother – Lobby Cam is the way forward.

So after sending Elena on her way and a bit of last minute shopping, so ended our time (almost a year) in South East Asia.

Thailand – Elephantastic & Bye Bye Chiang Mai

by Kt

29.03.2013

So after spending many, many months in Chiang Mai it was finally time to leave for good. After months of a very quiet life, doing online work and ticking by, our last couple of weeks in Chiang Mai and in fact Thailand were a whirlwind of activity and craziness.

We took advantage of the fact that dental work in Chiang Mai is both cheap but also of a really high standard. Lots of people fly there specifically to have dental work as it can be cheaper than doing it in their own country. The dentist even had a little coffee shop at the front and a fish tank in the shape of a tooth. You can’t go wrong with that can you? I was really impressed and for the amount of work we had done (well Mark mainly), can’t believe the cost.
Having never had a filling as an adult, I didn’t really know what it would involve when I was told that I needed one and I’m still amazed now you can’t see a thing. Good job amazing dentist lady.

I was very put out that the most amazing restaurant and bar opened in our last couple of weeks just down the road from us. Bam 7 has korean food, good wine and amazing seating – all mid-century design and comfy as hell. They have cool live music too. Their menu was also a cook book. A really interesting, creative and cool place – was gutted it had not been there the whole time.

Social interaction and that
After over a year seeing no-one from the UK, we saw 2 lots of people in the space of a week. So nice to hit the town, not just the 2 of us.
First up Dawn and Mark had been hopping around Thailand and Chiang Mai was their last stop before heading home. I have been away with Dawn a couple of time and we are good socialising (read drinking) buddies, and after months of abstinence I was very much looking forward to it.
We only had a couple of days, but we managed to go to a few classic Chiang Mai places – Ginger & Kafe and the River Market and put ourselves about a bit. Dawn was hobbling around having sustained an injury at the Thai boxing in Koh Samui. No, it wasn’t in a fight, she just fell over on the way out!

I gratefully received a massive pack of Yorkshire tea, as well as some green and black, the dark chocolate one of which I was so looking forward to, but Mark polished off when drunk. Not impressed would be the understatement of the year.

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One of the nights we went into town to meet up was particularly fun as, in a tuk tuk on the way, the heavens opened and we were completely drenched by the time we arrived at their hotel. We then had to stay in for a while as it was blowing a gale outside. The glass panes of the hotel were shaking. When we eventually went out the streets around us had flooded, but luckily the River Market, which I’d intended to take them to was not too far away and luckily they had enough backup lights and candles to deal with the power cut the storm had caused. So the 4 of us had a romantic evening.

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We also shared a Thailand first with Dawn and Mark, in that in the nearby, slightly seedy, drinking area we got to see a dwarf thai boxing, watched on by ladyboys with dancing chihuahuas (don’t ask). We also experienced the worst toilets of the trip in a gay bar near their hotel. Made rural Laos look positively civilised! It was a great couple of days and for some reason, I don’t seem to have any photos. Probably a good thing.

Crossing over with Dawn and Mark briefly, we also had Mark’s mum, Margaret and her partner Don, over for a longer visit. They were staying slap bang in the middle of the old city which definitely turned out to be a great idea as they got to walk all over exploring all the Wats and wonder inside the city walls. Much to my delight we got to take them to various other Chiang Mai places as well as going back a second time to Ginger & Kafe and the River Market. Had to get my moneys worth before we left! It was great ordering things to share too – getting to try anything that we hadn’t gotten around to.

I also got a load of these. Happy days! I had marmite on toast everyday for a week.

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It was nice to introduce everybody to our neighbourhood as well – to see where we have lived most of this time and to see the difference in where we live as compared to the touristic old city. And of course to visit the crazy garden haven of iBerry ice-cream shop.

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Margaret and Don timed it well as there was a week of celebrations for the flower festival. There was lots of things going on at the gate and they got to see a parade on one day. There was a show on one night with all the kids performing dances and best of all little comedy sketches. The cutest thing ever!
They were also there long enough to enjoy a sunday night walking street and all the tasty treats that involves. And shopping – boy did they enjoy the shopping.


Elephantastic!

One of the things we knew we wanted to do before we left, and decided to do with Margaret and Don, was an elephant experience.
Now, there are a lot of elephant experiences available in Thailand. There’s elephant shows, there’s still elephants traipsed around the streets of cities (thankfully at least banned in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, though we have seen a baby elephant on the streets of Phuket). The main thing you get up in the Chiang Mai countryside is the outdoor elephant experience. Most of these places offer elephant riding of one description or another. To be honest, when we first went there I wasn’t really aware this was a problem. I suppose you see pictures over the years of mahoots on elephants and of people riding them on safari or royalty even in India. However, I wanted to make sure that I went to the most sound and decent choice and upon looking into this I realised that actually riding on elephants might be a bit of a dream for people but it’s certainly no dream for the elephants and some of the elephants are treated very badly – either just by not being fed enough, worked too hard or in even more unpleasant ways. Without doubt the Elephant Nature Park has the seal of approval as a place that puts the elephant first. In fact, it’s not really about the tourist at all, it is a rescue centre and I’m sure if they could get by without the tourists they would, but it’s a happy bedfellow to get people to come and experience the place and pay towards it’s upkeep. In fact, lots of people stay for a week or more as volunteers and pay for the privilege. I think there is one other elephant place in the area which has the thumbs up, the rest are just not ideal and it’s more about the money than the animals. So if you visit, please do your research as it really, really does matter.

The woman who runs the place is, as Dawn, who’d visited the week before us, quite rightly says, inspirational. Lek came from a small village, where her grandfather was the local medicine man (for want of a better description). She has an affinity with elephants and made it her life’s work to rescue them.

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She has animals from all over at her place – some rescued from Burma (where they still are used for work – this has been banned in the rest of South East Asia) and some from Cambodia where they’d been injured by land mines. If she hears of an animal in trouble, she does what she can to get to it. They even provide healthcare for all the elephants in the area (unfortunately helping the cheap owners who use them to make money from tourists but who won’t look after them properly). She also has a massive kennels on the property where they have hundreds (if not near thousands) of dogs, most of whom were rescued from the Bangkok flooding a few years ago.

So what to our ‘experience’? Well, it started badly. We decided not to take much with us and so we locked up most of our money and cards in our backpack cage, only to realise we had also locked in BOTH keys. It was at least both our faults which I think prevented murder. In the end we realised we couldn’t do anything about it until we got home so we just got on with the day. However, we were not particularly welcoming (and key fiasco or not this would have grated) to the ladies on the mini bus with the ukeles. Luckily we had a video for much of the journey so they stayed pretty quiet, though somebody was trying to play along to the theme tune I believe until Mark gave them a dirty look.
I won’t mention this group of woman again, so as not to focus on the negative of what was an amazing day, but ukele lady and her friends were a pain in the backside. Very loud and look at me-ish. They’d get in everyone else’s way and their photos of their experience was the priority of the day. And as for the ukele playing and loud singing during break times. Seriously – this wonderful place was peaceful and there were people sat around in various areas contemplating life the universe and everything – only to have this peace ruined by these dappy mares. I think the icing on the cake was on the way back when one of them said we should all put in money to buy a ukele for our guide (who she’d already explained to that her $100 ukelele was entry level back in the USA to). She did this in front of him and there was an awkward silence where at least one of their party suggested that perhaps it was up to the individuals and they should talk about it later. The worst thing about this was the guy was in the van with us and can here all this. Now if there’s one thing you should learn about Thais (particularly men) before visiting their country is that they are proud and that losing face is the worst possible thing for them. This guy was clearly not pleased and I don’t blame him. My blood was boiling. I mean he wasn’t exactly poor or anything anyway – he has a good job that he clearly loves – how patronising to assume he couldn’t buy himself such a luxury if he wanted. These weren’t young people by the way – it was a group of older ladies who should flipping well know better. It did remind us why we don’t go on trips very often!

Anyhow, now that I vented about the bad manners of our other group members, I can assure you that nothing so banal could detract from the amazingness of this place.
The grounds are huge, set between the mountains, jungle and a river, the huge expanse gives the elephants all the space they need.

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The areas you walk around as a day tourist are actually quite small in the percentage of the size of the land. They have built a large wooden covered area on the edge, from which you can go to viewing platforms and walkways that are up high and in the shade.

The walkways can also be used as big scratching posts too:

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You can feed the elephants (under supervision) from these main area. You never get elephants walking about without a mahoot/caretaker nearby to keep an eye on things. They also only bring them out towards the public in shifts and for limited periods of time. If you look at photos taken at the park because everyone would have elephants and people in them it would look like you constantly have elephants and people interacting and they are everywhere, but that’s so not the case – it’s just when everyone takes the photos. The small groups are spread out in time and area and the animals are never swamped with too many people. They pretty much do their own thing. If they don’t want to hang around, they won’t. Of course, when they are being fed, they are pretty likely to! You get taught how to hand the food to sit in their trunk for them to throw into their mouths.

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The stories of the various elephants are heartbreaking. There are many blind and partially blind elephants there, not least because traditionally the working animals are usually controlled by violence and a stick in the eye is pretty effective it seems.
The lady in the photo below, Medo, was mistreated in that the owner tried to mate her with a bull elephant way, way, way too big for her as she was too young. The result? A broken back and hips. You can’t fix an elephant with injuries like that, so this is how she lives. Heartbreaking! But she is a lovely lady and is the one I gravitated towards – she totally stole my heart.

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One of the other highlights is bath time. You literally go into the river with them and a bucket and help give em a good wash. They love it.
Now let me tell you, at 5 foot 1 and a half, throwing up a bucket of water at an elephant isn’t going to be all that effective. Didn’t manage much higher than mid ear!

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The day ends with a video, a wake up call and a laugh – you’ll have to go to find out what I mean.

If you ever want to donate to a good cause or just educate yourself some, then please look at www.elephantnaturepark.org/

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Feel Good With Traditional World Music Festivals (from guest blogger Jenny O’ Conner)

In order to get the most out of your travel experiences it is important to really embrace the true culture of a destination. There are plenty of ways to do this from learning the language to sampling the local cuisine. However, one of the most feel-good ways of truly getting to know the deep-rooted history of a culture is through its music. Music conveys emotions and tells a story in a unique way that can really express the hidden nuances of a culture. However, it is not always that easy to come across (let alone identify) true traditional music. A great way around this is to be savvy on your traditional world music festival knowledge and plan your travels so that you get to hit a music festival along the way. To help you out, here is a list of five of the world’s greatest roots, folk and traditional music festivals from all four corners of the globe. Read more…