Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Sleeping to Bangkok

Before departing Thailand we thought we might visit a place that most people start at - Bangkok. From Chiang Mai, a 13 hour train ride in a sleeper carriage suited us just fine, even more so when we found we had bought two of the last tickets, only available after someone had cancelled. We had never been on a sleeper train before, plus it meant an extra night's accommodation we didn't have to think about. With tickets in hand, we jumped onto the train rather excited.

The train rolled out of Chiang Mai station and was soon in the countryside. It was a pleasant journey as the train worked its way south. The upper berth beds in second class, despite being our only option, were surprisingly roomy and comfortable, although I was glad blankets were provided to shield against subzero air-conditioning. During the day, all passengers sat on the lower seats that would be converted at night into the lower berth beds. The setting sun mesmerised us with rays of orange as we gazed out of the window, while tucking into a yummy seafood dinner prepared by the kitchen carriage.

On our way to Bangkok on the overnight train.

We thought briefly about an early night's sleep, but instead struck up a conversation with our lower-berth-bed-neighbour Zu, who had been scrawling what seemed to be an essay in his journal and taking some artfully composed photos through the window. Zu was a Malaysian freelance journalist who wrote a weekly column for a Malaysian/Singaporean chinese language newspaper, and had just gotten over a one month bout of writer's block (hooray for train journeys!). He had been a traveller for over ten years and the fascinating stories and places he described made us want to see both more of the world and more of Thailand, all at the same time. He confessed to not being a true Malaysian foodie (I suppose not everyone hankers after the piquancy of chilli padi) but he more than made up for it with his ability and passion for picking up languages, an enviable skill. A few hours later we were interrupted, “Please keep it down, some people are trying to sleep”, to which Zu was able to apologise wholeheartedly in Thai on our behalf, before we said goodnight and closed our berth curtains.

We awoke to scenes of the outskirts of Bangkok. It is interesting looking out the windows here as people build so close to the railway; it would easily be less than half a meter between train and buildings. But this is Bangkok, where train lines simply appear to be taking up land that could be used for something else.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Thai Cooking is Good for Your Man

We've been told that a cooking class is a must as part of a stay in Chiang Mai. So today we woke up nice and early to partake in this essential activity. There were certainly more than enough cooking schools throughout town to warrant doing a course; to escape the city again, we chose one that took us out to an organic farm.

A songthaew collected us from our B&B, together with a quiet French couple, a laughing Quebec couple, a knowledgable pair of Macquarie University linguistics researchers from Sydney, and a chatty Chinese girl who was looking to open her own cafe one day. First stop, a trip to the market to learn about some of the ingredients we will be using.

Dried Chillies at a Market in Chiang Mai
Flowers at a market in Chiang Mai
Loads of Onions - Chiang Mai
We arrived at the farm and Embee, our eccentric teacher for the day, showed us our cooking stations.

Our teacher - Cooking class, Chiang Mai
She pointed out the essential amenities: cooking utensils here, washing up sink there, and "oh, the toilet is over back there, just in front of the happy room, you know what a happy room is right?" We glanced at each other in mild surprise. Giggling, she nodded and continued " … and you can use the happy room any time you want!" Hmm, at least its organic right?

Christina geting ready to Cook
Donning sombreros, we were guided through the garden to observe how many traditional Thai ingredients are grown. We picked and ate fresh chillies and eggplants, and smelled the heady aromas of crushed kaffir lime leaves, Thai parsley, and garlic chives. "Garlic chives are good for your man" Embee advised the ladies, "Feed it to him and no other woman will kiss him!" As we were introduced to all the herbs and vegetables, everything appeared to be "Good for your man!", except for one. We tasted the intense bitterness of neem last, a herb sprinkled on various salads and other dishes, also used in combination with tobacco for pest control on the farm thus eliminating the need for chemical pesticides. Strangely enough I didn't mind the bitterness; Embee said many Thai's find it tasty too and it's "Good for woman!" but most of our group spat it out, which probably didn't help the plight of women. Everyone did agreed that baby pineapples were cute though.

Baby Pineapple
Back at our workstations, we got to cooking. We pounded up our own curry pastes from fresh ingredients in stone mortar and pestles, with Embee dropping as many extra chillies into the mortars as dared by each individual.

Ben's Green Curry Paste
I cautiously went for a medium Thai heat, worried about recreating the heat of a certain bamboo chicken dish that we endured not long ago. Thankfully my yellow curry turned out quite satisfactory.

Tia's Yellow Curry
I have to say, I make a mean tom yam goong, and my pad thai is out-of-this-world, provided someone gets me all the ingredients, provides me with a well seasoned wok on a roaring fire, and guides me each step of the way. Oh, and they also have to do the dishes for me.

Pad Thai in the Making
After eating four of the five dishes we cooked during the day, including dessert, we were well and truly full. "Thai Airways!" Embee proclaimed as she taught us the tricks to packing plastic takeaway bags typical of most southeast asian street stalls. Immensely proud of our achievements that day, we cradled our tasty bundles back to town, feeling like masterchefs.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Riding on Borders - Day Six

See Map for Day Six

Another temple and another cave.
We climbed the 509 steps past numerous Buddhist sayings tagged to tree trunks to Wat Tham Pha Plong, more to justify the morning's pancake breakfast than anything else, although the Thais do pick some good locations for their wats.

Chedi at Samnak Song Tham Pha Plong

We marvelled at the limestone formations decorating the network of Chiang Dao Caves, despite lamenting the cheesy tourism that had taken over the place, before heading back to Chiang Mai. It was a crazy ride, ten times busier than when we left. The cars didn’t seem to follow the same rules as they had before; I started getting frustrated and needed a break to cool my head. Lunch was a welcoming moment, but I worried about the 30 kilometres that still remained ahead. Surprisingly after bread the road seemed a bit easier, and we made it into Chiang Mai without dramas. Back to our favorite accommodation, Early Bird B&B where we finally changed into a clean set of clothes…

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Riding on Borders - Day Five

See Map for Day Five

I woke up early to explore and capture the grounds of the Mae Saelong homestay in the morning light.

Thatched Roof - Mae Saelong, Chiang Rai Province

Flowers - Mae Saelong, Chiang Rai Province

Flower - Mae Saelong, Chiang Rai Province

Firewood - Mae Saelong, Chiang Rai Province

We said our goodbyes and were soon off the hill roads and onto the main highway. We stopped for a short visit to the nine levels of Wat Tha Ton, the guidebook advising us that it would be a 30 minute walk covering 3 kilometres. So off we went up the hill. It was bloody steep and we quickly worked up a sweat in the searing hot sun. 30 minutes came and went, and we only made it to the 8th level before having to rest in the shade and take stock of where we were.

The eighth level - a Chedi at Wat Tha Ton.

I checked the GPS. We had done 3 kilometres, but with all the rests and looking at the religious structures at other levels, we had already been walking for over an hour. I could see the final ninth level wat off to the distance behind two more hills ... screw that, I’m going back to my bike.

Doi Chiang Dao

We discovered the little Chiang Dao cave village at the foot of Doi Chiang Dao after confidently losing our way through farmland. We found accommodation which miraculously managed to satisfy both our cravings at a bargain price (Tia wanted a pool and I wanted a hammock), and we spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing and reading books, followed by a romantic candlelit fusion dinner for two.

Our most expensive meal in Thailand (1055 baht).

Monday, 20 February 2012

Riding on Borders - Day Four

See Map of Day Four

We passed the famous meeting of the Ruak and Mekong rivers, dubbed the Golden Triangle by tourist agencies, and continued to skim the Thai border, this time with Myanmar (Burma) on the other side. We rode past the town of Mae Sai and ventured through the forest. It appeared that the poppy plantations had been replaced by another addictive crop ... coffee.

Ben on the bike - coffee plantation, Chiang Rai Province

Here we also explored Tham Luang, one of the many caves dotted around the Doi Tung area. The caverns were impressive, and I loved the fact that it was just a cave, with no one else about, no fixed lights to show you the way, and nothing to stop you from hurting your self. This is where our head torches came handy. A cute little black puppy dog bounded ahead of us into the cave, probably thinking that he could guide us, but I had to carry him over the steep parts, and he didn’t like it when we turned off our lights to survey the pitch blackness. The mapped section of the cave was 800m long and after that there was a sign that read "DIFFICULT". We continued past it, with puppy getting worried, and went as far as we could. However we soon found the jumbled rocks impassible, and we headed back out into the daylight, much to the relief of our furry friend.

Our seeing eye dog who can't see in the dark - caving with a puppy.

We decided to hit up the back streets and travelled along some narrow but exciting roads, right along the Thai-Myanmar border. This did mean spotting more than a few groups of armed military personnel. This worried us a little as Tia had left her passport behind with the motorcycle hire company. We made sure to slow down, keep our visors up and our smiles cheerful whenever we rode past, but it's unnerving when you turn a corner to find a bunch of men walking towards you with unholstered handguns and M16s.

Remote areas on the bike - Chiang Rai Province

Then we came across a checkpoint with the boom gate down, a signal that we had to stop. My heart leaped into my throat, although that may have been because Tia was driving and had slammed on the brakes in a panic. What are we going to do when they discover we're missing a passport? Language was a problem again, but it turned out good in a way as we tried to communicate in the worst Thai ever, and we all started to laugh about it. They asked about our travel plans, and checked our bags; I guessed it was for drugs, seeing as every medication container got opened as well. Then they asked for ID, and lucky for us they only asked for mine. After more hand gesturing and a couple of photos they let us through, warning that the upcoming road was steep and winding.

Military border crossing. Turn left Thailand, turn right Burma

We headed off the border and rode through some of the best hairpins of the trip, ...

Hairpins after Hairpins - a great road.Found Here

Hairpins after Hairpins - a great road.Found Here

... before finding a friendly homestay among the tea plantations just outside of Mae Saelong.

It was a good day of riding, but the biggest highlight was by far the news that my niece Jude had just been born. Welcome to the world Jude, it’s a big place with plenty to see and many friendly people to meet.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Riding on Borders - Day Three

See Map for Day Three

We started the day early, riding to the mountainous section of the Thai-Laos border. We climbed to a viewpoint at the top of a rocky outcrop to view the cliffs lining the border north to south into the distance, framing the misty Laos valleys below. These stunning hills and cliff faces created an impressive landscape, and I was really looking forward to the ride to come.

To the left Thailand, to the right Laos.
A couple of little girls in traditional dress from a nearby Hmong village were about, entertaining themselves with the Hmong version of Miss Mary Mack.

Some kids from a nearby Hmong village keeping entertained.
We continued riding the windy hills before stopping at a cafe with a great view and a beautiful young family who were busy sorting the morning's strawberries into punnets. With a menu only in Thai, the nevertheless welcoming hostess guided us into her kitchen to show us what was on offer. It was a very simple brekkie, a delicious slow cooked pork that was shredded, put on a bed of rice and served with a homemade chilli dipping sauce; but it tasted wonderful.

When you cannot talk Thai, cannot read Thai, sometimes you dont know what you are going to be eating. But this was an amazing breakfast.
To top it all off they gave us a complimentary plate of small strawberries, possibly too small for sale in the punnets, but they were the most perfectly shaped strawberries I'd seen and the intensity of flavour in these tiny morsels blew us away. They must have been organic or something, and picked just ripe; we couldn’t get enough of them and ended up buying a massive punnet for the road, which we fixed to our motorbike basket.

Chiang Rai Province strawberries
We continued along the windy border road, which started to get bumpy with potholes appearing every now and then to challenge us. The sun continued to rise and the countryside views continued to impress as we wound our way down from the mountains towards the Mekong.

Clouds through the haze.
Build me a house here please - a hut in the hills along the Thai-Laos border.
About three hours later we were on the banks of the mighty Mekong River. Not thinking about it too much, we stopped at a nice viewing area and took out our punnet of strawberries. Oh no! Our lovely strawberries had turned into a juicy mess. The heat and vibration of the ride had bruised their delicate skins and they were now swimming in a rich red syrup. I hesitatingly tasted one, went "Mmm!" with surprise and then, with the red juice staining our hands, we finished the lot. It was an amazing way to eat them, they tasted extra sweet, yum …

The best way to eat strawberries. Buy a big box for 50 baht, put them on the front of the bike in the sun, ride on bumpy roads for 2-3 hours. Then eat.
The rest of the day was a solid ride, as we wanted to get to Sop Ruak to see the Hall of Opium exhibition before it closed. We made it on time and the interactive and informative exhibition was worth it, even though I'm not usually one for museums. I knew a little about the British influence in China around the time but not in this way. Opium was an illegal substance in China, but that didn’t stop the British East Indian Company from smuggling it in (long story short, this happened as Britain wanted to buy Chinese tea and preferred to pay for it in opium rather than silver). When China decided to put their foot down and stop the smuggling, Britain went to war. China lost and a treaty was signed. China was forced to make opium legal and among other things, was also forced to give Hong Kong to the Queen of England for 99 years. This basically destroyed China. With an estimated 27 percent of adult males addicted to opium, added to the two opium wars and losing some of their territory, its easy to see why. All because Britain wanted tea …

BBQ - Chiang Saen Style
Staying at Chiang Saen, a border town on the Mekong River, we ate dinner at one of the many street stalls opposite our guesthouse. We reclined on mats beside the river, trying a local chicken dish where the juicy meat is placed inside a joint of bamboo with herbs and fresh spices, sealed at the ends with thick wads of banana leaves and cooked over an open charcoal fire. For me it was a form of torture. It was the most fragrant, flavoursome, tastiest thing I had eaten on this trip, but beneath this seemingly innocent layer dwelt a danger that I'd never experienced before. So it goes like this: you take a bite, are amazed by the flavours and want more. Another couple of mouthfuls and the delayed chilli heat kicks in, but you don't initially know what it is from; usually you've had something like a freshly spiced som dam or roast pork crackling dipped in roasted chilli sauce, in between. So you keep eating, and the delayed but unyielding burn just keeps building up upon itself. You finally realise it's the damn chicken, so you pause eating it, but by now its too late. Your eyelids are sweating, you mouth has become numb, you cannot hear anything, and your head feels like you've drunk too much. But here comes the strangest part - you still feel like you want more! And so you take another bite after painful bite ... torture ...

Bamboo Chicken - a form of torture, its the most fragrant, juicy, tasty tender chicken, with searingly strong delayed chilli heat.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Riding on Borders - Day Two

See Map for Day Two

We woke up realising we could cover more ground on a bike than we thought (we have tough bottoms!). So the initial plan went out the window, and we headed towards the Laos border. The roads near the border were really impressive, very windy and tight, and the hills were steep. I loved it.

Just another bend in the road

The endless winding road

The winding roads were great fun on the bike.

Reflections

For lunch we picked up some snacks and had a scenic picnic beside a waterfall, amusing ourselves watching kids playing in the water. By early afternoon we were tired (maybe not so tough bottoms) and found a nice place right up in the hills to call home for the night. It also had a great view to the west, although the sunset was rather obscured by the seasonal haze.

A typical view over Thailand during burning season. Lots of Haze.

Dinner was very interesting. Our waitress couldn’t speak English, and our Thai hadn't really gone past
sawadeekrap (hello) and khopkunkrap (thankyou). In the end, with hand signals and laughs, I think we basically asked them to cook whatever they wanted, and we would eat it. She walked back to the kitchen and we heard lots more laughing. We were now a little worried. It could go two ways: on one hand, we could get a disappointingly bland westernised fried rice, on the other hand it could go extreme and we'd get the barbequed rat that we found on the coals yesterday. The meal arrived and we couldn’t be more relieved. It was all we could have asked for, if we knew how to ask - a simple, healthy local meal superbly prepared with a variety of flavours. If only we knew the names of what we were eating; we would have ordered it again.

When you cannot talk Thai, cannot read Thai, sometimes you dont know what you are going to be eating. But this was a tasty dinner.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Riding on Borders - Day One

View Map For Day One

We decided a long time ago that we would use motorbikes as much as possible to travel, especially to the more remote places. I have always liked riding motorbikes, since growing up on a farm where I had my own bike to ride around. There is a much greater sense of your environment when you are riding, compared to a driving a car. It is not hard to understand why when you feel the chill of the air as you enter a valley, or the heat beating off the plains. You can smell the scent of flowers, and the whiff of animals that didn't quite make it across the road. Basically you have more senses interacting with your surroundings. Plus people seem to be friendlier towards you when you are on a bike.

Chiang Mai is a great launching pad for a big road trip. There is lots to see in the city itself, some great maps are available and there are bike rental shops aplenty, so you can pick up any type of bike that you need, from 100cc step through scooters, to 250cc dirt bikes, to even 900cc road bikes. It took a couple of rental stores to find our perfect bike, in this case a Honda Dream 125. We rented it for 6 days and picked up a map of the area we intended to travel to. Next problem was luggage. We couldn't carry all our gear, not even a quarter of it. We had to pack very light and it had to all fit into a 24 litre daypack.

Originally we planned to do a 500km loop to Chiang Rai with rough goals for each night but nothing booked. Heading east to start, the plan was to simply ride. If we saw something nice, we would stop, and ride for as long as our bottoms could handle it. We took an e-travel bible with us, i.e. Lonely Planet on Kindle, in-case there was something off the road that was worth looking at.

Breakfast at Early Bird B&B - Chiang Mai

After running around all morning getting everything together and the all-important breakfast of pork in noodle soup with pork crackling (nothing like a bit of crispy fat to kickstart the day), we headed off with the wind in our hair, and bugs in our mouths. Making our way out of the city was surprisingly easy. The formula was: stick to the left and let the cars go past. I found keeping my speed the same as the other motorbikes was the safest way to ride. It wasn't long before we were out of the city limits and the roads began to turn windy. Leaning over into the corners and powering out is great fun even if you only have a little 125. We rarely stopped on the first day, but there wasn't really much to see or eat, well nothing I was going to eat ...

What's for lunch? - Golden Triangle Loop

We decided to spend the night at Phayao town, allegedly the capital of Phayao Province, but you would never be able to tell its status from the vibes. It was a very laid back town on the west side of Phayao lake, which holds a submerged temple beneath its surface.

Fisherman - Lake Phayao

We thought it was a nice enough place, but we were dog-tired and didn’t get to check out the bars that had live bands etc. We settled for a good night's sleep instead.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

To Chiang Mai With Haste

Thailand was not originally on the plan. When we slipped a few weeks of it into the itinerary at the last minute we figured it was going to be a well touristed country that we'd get over quickly; see it, tick the box and move on.

Five days stretched to two weeks roaming just a fraction of the Andaman coast, and we have learned that it is not possible to see everything. We have been lured in, overwhelmed and captivated, then left pining for more. However unless we were to take a dive and follow the footsteps of numerous expats ditching their professional lives back home for life akin to a sea-gypsy, we needed to move on, and with that thought we realised we had to make up for time that had simply sailed by.

A journey from Phuket to Chiang Mai by buses and trains promised a minimum of 36 travelling hours, not to mention the time and pain of transfers and stopovers. Baulking at this, we realised our destination was actually quite far; with budget flights comparatively cheap we figured surely we'll be forgiven for choosing to fly. And so we did.

Chiang Mai Street Graffiti

Chiang Mai's photogenic city streets welcomed us as we found our way to a bed and breakfast located centre of the historic old town.

Fabrics in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai in the Morning Light

Teak Temple in Chiang Mai glowing in the morning light.

Icy Poles Thai style - Chiang Mai

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

The Calm Side of Phuket

We stopped at Phuket for a quick break to catch up with ourselves. We were so busy trying to make the most of our time on the relatively expensive islands that we had a number of errands accumulating. We stayed in Phuket town, which was the first proper town we had seen for a few weeks, complete with bitumen roads, traffic lights and camera stores! We hit up the local markets for something to eat and ended up spending 114 baht, approximately 4 aussie dollars, for a satisfying meal of four dishes and two drinks. I decided the traffic wasn't too bad here, so we rented a motorbike to get around. We went to some of the bigger shopping centres, trying to recover my losses; to find an adapter ring for my camera's Lee filter set, and to find some good quality sunglasses. It seemed that the no-one in Southeast Asia stocked the adapter ring I needed, and none of the sunglasses suited me. Disappointed with shopping, we rode down past Rawai to Laem Promthep at the southern end of Phuket to join another crowd gathered for sunset. Riding back, my strategy for a romantic Valentine's day dinner was this; find a place with lots of motorbikes parked on the front, and eat there.

Scooters outside the restaurant - Rawai, Phuket

Lucky for me it turned out to be superb - an open air do-it-yourself, all-you-can-eat restaurant with a twist.

Hot charcoals - Rawai, Phuket

They put on your table a clay pot of hot, fiery charcoal topped with a cooking implement that works as a barbeque in the middle, surrounded by a moat-like bowl that you fill with soup. You then pick what you want from a bunch of ingredients (meat, vegetables, noodles, seafood etc.) and cook away, choosing to either barbeque or poach (steamboat-style) your chosen ingredients.

BBQ steamboat - Rawai, Phuket

They give you a nice square of pork fat to oil your barbeque, and the soup comes in a handy teapot so you can keep your soup levels topped up.

BBQ with a side of steamboat - Rawai, Phuket

We certainly had fun enjoying this delicious meal, and rode back to town more than satisfied.