Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Thailand: Chiang Mai

Visit Chiang Mai and prepare to fall in love with its traditional Thai nature with a modern twist.

We arrived in Chaing Mai by air; we flew direct from Krabi. The journey takes just under two hours and our flight at the end of March cost around 30GBP. You can probably also get there by train/bus, but when the flight is so cheap we thought we would save time and discomfort this way! When arriving at the airport we got a taxi from the desk in the arrivals hall, we were going to a guesthouse outside of the SE corner of the old town and the taxi cost 150B. We found taxis to be relatively expensive in Chiang Mai, seeing as you can catch a songthaew for 20B per person for most journeys within/around the old town. Songthaews are the red buses, and work on the principle of a regular taxi; you can hail them down anywhere and give the driver your destination and negotiate a price. They differ from a taxi however in that you can jump on a songthaew if there are already passengers on board - if the driver is going in the direction you are going, they will usually also take your fare. We found that all journeys within/around the old town (unless you're going somewhere further out) cost 20B per person. The drivers will try and charge you more, but if you state 20B per person they should accept. 

You can also get a tuk tuk, but aside from the novelty value they are overpriced and uncomfortable! 

We've visited Chiang Mai three times now, it's a great stop off between visiting Myanmar, Chiang Rai (and the north), and Laos so we've made the most of these opportunities and snuck in a few days each time. Of course, we've only explored a small portion of what CM has to offer, but here are some of the things we've loved and would recommend. 

Get a massage at the women's prison. This one is in the Lonely Planet Guide, so although it didn't seem busy when we arrived, we weren't surprised to find all the slots had booked up by about 1pm. Get there early and book a massage with an in-mate at the local women's prison - the scheme is used to help train offenders in massage so when they are released they have the skills needed to (hopefully) gain employment and prevent re-offending. This sort of rehabilitation seems like such a good idea to me, so we were keen to try it out. We paid 200B each for an hour's Thai massage. Although they speak very little English (there was nearly no interaction between prisoner and us) I was careful to ask for a 'gentle' massage... and I'm so glad I did! While I was enjoying a bit of careful limb manipulation, Rich appeared to be a world of pain with a small but powerful Thai lady pulling his arms into unnatural positions! Completely recommend. If you get there and they're booked up there is another facility round the corner which uses ex-offenders, a similar principle. 

Get a street-side massage. Yeh, any massage will do! We enjoyed stopping at one of the street-side massage spots down Loi Kroh Road on our way back to our hotel (watch out for the Go Go bars...). At 100B for a thirty minute foot massage you can't go wrong!

Ride the Samoeng loop. If you are brave enough to hire a motorbike/scooter in CM, be sure to make time to ride this 100km loop through the Mae Sa Valley, taking in the gorgeous countryside. We hired our bike from Tony's Big Bikes; owned by a British chap who provided full face helmets and bikes with some welly. Yes, we paid a little more, but worth it for a reliable, safe trip. Be sure to stop of at the Mae Sa waterfalls and walk up to all 10 levels, it's worth it! You can buy a picnic from the shops in the car park and they give you a basket to carry it in. We also stopped at Thachang Hill Cafe for a tasty lunch with great views. 

Doi Suthep. This can be done at the end of the Samoeng Loop, or hire a songthaew to take you there. Driving up the mountain on our scooter was a gorgeous experience in itself! Unfortunately we were in CM during the hazey season so didn't get great views, but you get an idea. At the top, climb the steps (or be lazy and get the funicular railway...probably not worth it) to the temple at the top. Great sunset views, even if the haze prevents good views over Chiang Mai. 

Wat hop. Chiang Mai is home to many, many wats (temples) and be sure to spend some time seeing as many as you can. Granted, we became 'templed-out', but it's worth seeing the main few at least. Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Phra Singh are the big two in the Old Town and both worth exploring. Ladies, make sure you are covering your knees and shoulders or risk being denied entry. Some offer the option to borrow scarves or robes for a small (10B) donation, but not all. You'll need to remove your shoes also upon entering

Saturday and Sunday Walking Streets. Arguably better than the night market held east of the old town each night, these markets start off (at least) far less busy and sell some really beautiful souvenirs, clothes and food. They kick off at around 5pm; get there early to avoid the crowds. Come 9pm it's hectic! If you want to escape the crowds for a time, we enjoyed a cold glass of wine in one of the restaurants lining the street (on both Saturday and Sunday, different streets) with some live music. The best way to do it! Wat Sum Pow Temple on Sunday Walking Street is dedicated to great street food; be sure to try a little of whatever you fancy! We had sushi, curry, noodles, gyoza...

See the elephants. Having ridden elephants in Bali several years ago and since becoming aware of how unethical this often is, we were keen to seek out an elephant sanctuary to visit and atone for my sins! In Bali I witnessed the elephants being chained up in small enclosures, the mahouts controlling them with metal prod and elephants being made to take part in a circus style show. In hindsight, what was I thinking? The most well-known sanctuary near Chiang Mai is the Elephant Nature Park, famed for rescuing and caring for mistreated elephants. We decided to visit a less well-known sanctuary; the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. A must for anyone who loves these beautiful beasts as much as I do! I'll be doing a separate post on our trip here. 

Chill out in Nimmanhaemin. This cool, student-y area of Chiang Mai is a great place to cafe-hop in the day and enjoy a few drinks in the evening. With a younger crowd than CM's Old Town, it's embraced the whole coffee shop chill vibe wholeheartedly; expect to see artistically designed little coffee shops on every corner.

Ploen Ruedee Night Market. Another night market; this time with more focus on food and live music than shopping. Nestled in the night bazaar, this place offers international street food; think burgers, burritos, sushi and more. It also has live music, hay bales to sit on and a great atmosphere to chill out in the evening. We ate sushi, chicken satay, curries and drank some great fruit shakes and cocktails... all for really cheap. We loved this place and wish we'd found it sooner!

Of course, there is so much more to do here than just these. Cafe-hop, check out the street food, take a day-trip trekking north of CM. This place has it all, in my opinion. See you again soon, Chiang Mai! 

Other Chiang Mai posts to come: lunch eats, dinner eats, elephant day trip and maybe a little Songkran post. We really did love it there. Stay tuned!


Sunday, 8 May 2016

Thailand: Pai

It's true what they say; you visit Pai and you fall in love. We completely did.

We booked a bus (van) ticket to Pai from a 'travel agent' in Chiang Mai (a little shop on the side of the road), costing 180B per person. This seems to be the going rate, but apparently there is also a local bus you can take which is even cheaper. A word about the bus journey... it's nuts. There are a famed 700 and something turns in the road between CM and Pai, and over the course of 3-4 hours we felt pretty nauseous. I'm not one for getting travel sick, but this was something else! Luckily we had a great bunch of people on our bus with us so the hours flew by, and we were able to pick up some invaluable tips about places we were due to visit. Our luggage was tied to the roof of the van so in all honesty I was just happy to arrive in one piece and with our bags still attached!

Where to stay? As I've said in previous posts, we're not backpacking as such but on this occasion we did stay in somewhere fairly low-cost, on our budget at least. If hostels are your thing, this may not be for you however. We stayed at the beautiful Pura Vida Resort; a good few miles out of the town but a totally manageable and scenic 15 minutes by scooter. We paid just 16GBP a night for our own private bungalow with breakfast included. Pura Vida is owned by a Thai woman called Noi and her husband - she was absolutely amazing and a fantastic host. We would recommend it without hesitation! We hired a scooter for about 200B a day, which was a must for exploring Pai and its surroundings. 

Unlike our friends from the bus, we stayed a good week in Pai. Most people we met were staying for a brief couple or few days, but as we have time on our side we decided to really chill here and make the most of the relaxation opportunities. As we read in the Lonely Planet guide, Pai is more of a place to chill rather than an activity and tour-packed experience. It was also Rich's birthday during our time here so it was the perfect excuse to vegetate. 

So, what is there to do in Pai?... 

Hire a bike. As I said, Pai is the perfect place to hire a scooter and really get to know the area. The roads are pretty easy to navigate, there is very little traffic and as long as you are sensible, you'll be just fine! We did see loads of Westerners around bandaged up like mummies, but most of their stories include speeding round corners and not checking blind spots. Do this and you shouldn't need to worry. 

Check out Pai Canyon. Not as spectacular as the US version (not that I've been) but great views nonetheless and a fun sunset spot. Go for an hour or so before sunset to explore the sandy trails and get yourself a quiet spot for when the sun goes down. Be careful, some of the tracks do get pretty slippery and there are no ropes, barriers or guide rails so wear decent footwear and prepare to get a bit dusty! 

Bike to the viewpoint. Perhaps best done when Pai isn't in its hazy season, as we did! Views: nil. That said, it's a fun journey there with some good scenery and you are greeted with a pot of Chinese green tea and bananas... naturally. 

Fluid pool. No pool at your accommodation? No worries! Fluid pool is a communal pool costing just 60B per person for a day of lounging and swimming in the hot Pai heat. Get there at a decent time (before midday) to get a good spot; you get a mat each to lie on but bring a towel/sarong. The best news is G&Ts cost like 50B all day! Thank me later...

Temple on the Hill. Be sure to check out Wat Phra That Mae Yen (Temple on the Hill) and the big buddha at the top of the hill! You can cycle to the bottom of the white steps, or climb the whole thing. Impressive views from the top and a huge Buddha to gape at. Great at sunset! 

Walking street. The main road through town transforms in the evening to be an incredible place to shop, eat and chat. There are some great places to buy handmade crafts, art work, clothes and food, so don't make dinner reservations and get lost in the (minimal) crowds.

Get a massage. Yes, I'll say this about everywhere we visit in Thailand! An hour foot massage for 200B... yes please. I can't remember the name of the place we visited but it was on the corner at the end of the main street in town, opposite Hotel des Artists. 

Eat, drink and be chilled. That's right, we spent most of our time mooching from one cafe to the next with our books in hand. Pai really hits the spot in this sense; lots of cafes serving (largely) good coffee and so many excellent lunch spots. These seem to dry up a little in the evening; most don't stay open for dinner and as a result the restaurant scene at night can be a bit lacking. 

Here are some of our favourite spots we found to eat and drink in Pai...

Om Garden Cafe. A huge menu with great homemade food, fruit shakes, coffee and more. The garden setting is spot on and the perfect place to lose a few hours reading your book with a drink. It gets pretty busy at lunch time, but come 2pm it's more peaceful. 

Cafecito. Who knew Pai would do good Mexican food?! A little out of town, this little cafe serves up the best quesadillas with a selection of hot sauces to try with. The ice cream cookie sandwich was out of this world! Rich particularly enjoyed the classic Hip Hop soundtrack... unexpected.

Espresso Bar by Prathom. Good coffee and shakes, and great for people watching!

Nong Beer. Good local food, nothing special but super cheap and good location. The food comes out quickly and fills a hole. Cheap beer was a definite plus!

Charlie and Leks. Again, good local food in a pretty basic setting. Would recommend the deep fried pork; sounds hideous, tastes delicious.

Reve Du Pai. Wine bar with kittens... well, at least when we visited! Friendly owners serve good wine, which believe me is a rarity in Thailand. Expect to pay more than you would else where, but in my opinion worth it. 

Silhouette. Want fine dining? This is the place. We stayed at Reverie Siam for Rich's birthday and it was just dreamy. The restaurant is open to non-guests also and is one of the few places in Pai for a proper restaurant experience. More expensive than the town, but delicious food. The cheeseboard was literal dreams. Oh, and the creme brulee. And the grilled meats. And great cocktails. And they have a huge selection of beers... worth a visit!

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Thai eats

After spending the best part of seven weeks in Thailand, I think I've tried a lot of what Thai cuisine has to offer.

Admittedly, I've never really been one for Thai food. After a particularly bad case of food poisoning (self-induced, I must admit) from a Green Chicken Curry whilst at university, I kind of stayed away. Obviously, that becomes fairly difficult when living in Thailand! So putting those memories to the back of my mind, I have been diving in and trying all Thailand has to offer. I thought I would share with you some of my favourites; some being dishes I'd never heard of or would never have tried unless someone hadn't recommended them to me.

1. Phad Thai
An obvious one maybe, but I still hadn't tried Phad Thai until just some months before leaving the UK. Wagas and Dim T both do a particularly tasty Phad Thai, but both quite different and it left me thinking - which was more authentic? Well it turns out almost anything goes when it comes to Phad Thai out here; some have the egg integrated into the noodles, some an omelette type affair on top, some have a strong fish flavour, others use tomato ketchup... yeh, really! Apart from the latter variant, the Phad Thai out here is great. The best? I think it had to be from Phad Thai Rock n Roll in Koh Lanta (Kantiang Bay). Delicious!

2. Tom Kha Gai
This is one I discovered on a Thai cookery course, and is not to be confused with Tom Yum which is super spicy! This is a delicious coconut milk based soup with galangal (a mild ginger flavour), lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and chicken. It often features mushrooms and onions too, and served with rice is the perfect light, fragrant and tasty meal. I'm hooked!

3. Khao Soi
A Northern Thai classic which we found in Chiang Mai; a curry noodle soup often served with on-the-bone chicken and topped with deep fried crispy noodles. Totally delicious and a nice change from the usual Penang / Massaman / Green and Red Thai curries which heavily feature coconut and/or peanut. It is a Burmese-influenced dish so I'm looking forward to tasting some similar curries when we visit Burma (now called Myanmar).

...and no, it's not traditionally served with a huge mocha frappe...

4. Morning Glory
The name makes me LOL every time! Morning Glory is a water spinach and looks a little like tenderstem broccoli... but tastes a whole lot better! Often cooked with oyster sauce in Thai cookery, it is a delicious accompaniment to grilled fish or served alone with steamed rice. Be sure to try it if you visit Thailand (particularly South Thailand where it seems more common), you'll be surprised!

5. Fish
Sounds a bit basic, right? Wrong! (ha). The fish in Thailand is delicious - try Red Snapper, White Snapper, Barracuda, Tuna, Tilapia... the list goes on. In my opinion it's best cooked on a BBQ or grilled and served simply with garlic butter. When we were in the South of Thailand, in particular the islands (Koh Lanta, Phi Phi, Phuket) fish was an obvious choice for dinner especially when we felt we couldn't face any more noodles!

6. Fruit Lassi
Not food as such, but the Thai take on smoothies. Fruit lassies actually originate from the Indian Subcontinent, but have taken on a life of their own in Thailand. Essentially it is a smoothie made with fruit and yoghurt, but they can also be served with salt rather than sugar. I've not been brave enough to try a salt lassi, but absolutely love a mixed fruit lassi with pineapple, mango and watermelon. Mango in smoothies is great as it creates a really smooth, thick blend.

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