Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Thailand: Chiang Mai - eats

To me Chiang Mai has it all; old Thai charm, culture and history as well as a modern scene with great cafes, bars and restaurants. I posted a while back about what to do in Chiang Mai, deciding to do a separate post on our favourite eating spots.

As a disclaimer, this is by no means an 'ultimate guide' to Chiang Mai's restaurant scene.

In total we spent just over two weeks in Thailand's northern capital, and tasted a lot of what it had to offer - but by no means all! That said, there are so many delicious places I just have to share with you, I'm having to split this post in to two parts; lunch eats and dinner eats. By lunch eats I mean places we'd stop in for brunch, lunch, or a quick bite to eat/drink to catch a break from temple hopping and exploring the city. Many of these are also open for dinner, but not all. And when it came to lunch we almost always craved western food. Brunch is definitely becoming a thing in CM and as a result its not hard to find places serving eggs benny or sandwiches and the like. Dinner was when we went Thai, which I'll save for another time.

Artisan Cafe
About a fifteen minute walk from the old town, Artisan is towards the end of Saturday Walking Street. Nordic cafe style at it's best, it screams 'take photos of me and upload to Instagram immediately'. You know the type! Gorgeous interior, great coffee and delicious brunch options. We loved the eggs benedict and pancakes. (Facebook page)

Just within the Old Town, south of Tha Phae Gate, Overstand was a hit and just a five minute walk from our hotel. I definitely didn't feel cool enough to be here! These guys are so good they've won the 'best breakfast in Chiang Mai' accolade two years running, and for good reason. I had the sourdough with tomatoes, pesto and feta topped with an egg, and Rich had an incredible pulled pork sandwich which was *dreamy*. Super friendly folks, cool art littered about and some old school hip hop for good measure. (Website)

Good Morning Chiang Mai
We stumbled upon this on our first morning in CM and it immediately gave us a taste of the city's cool cafe scene. Not only does it serve up delicious food at a good price, they also offer accommodation and a relaxing spot to chill within the Old Town. You really get your money's worth here with good portions at fair prices. It was the first decent iced coffee we'd had in weeks so we were happy to unwind here, whilst mapping out our day of exploring. (Website)

The Hideout
This place was awesome. Delicious! We trekked all the way across the Old Town on a Monday to have lunch here, only to find it open Tues - Sunday. I can confirm that hunger and 42 degree heat are not compatible! After this it became our mission to visit when it was open, and indeed we did on our second stay in CM. The breakfasts here are incredible, my favourite being the french toast made with challah bread - warning it is huge. I'm literally drooling at the thought! The sandwiches are also great (try the greek chicken salad sarnie), and they can make you some to takeaway for lunch if you're off adventuring for the day. Definitely worth travelling up to the far north east corner of the Old Town, where The Hideout sits just outside. (Facebook page)

Rustic and Blue
Nestled in the super trendy student area of Nimmanhaemin, Rustic and Blue is open from dawn to dusk boasting 'artisan' food in a gorgeous setting. I went for the chorizo tomato salad and Rich the tacos; R&B serve good quality, nutritious food. There's a real emphasis on homegrown ingredients, and more vegetables than I saw in most of my time in Thailand! Avocados were out of season when we were visiting (April) and this was the only place we were able to order them. Happy faces all round! (Facebook page).

The Larder Cafe
Another Nimmanhaemin favourite, this is tucked away off the main road and served me the best eggs I had in Thailand; I know, a big claim. Not just any old eggs either, Parmesan scrambled eggs with smoked salmon, fresh tomatoes and crusty bread. Yes, it really was as delicious as it sounds! Rich went for some sausage and toast number and we left happy travellers with our cravings for western breakfasts sated. (Facebook page). 

See You Soon Cafe
Located right next to Wat Chedi Luang in the heart of the old town, See You Soon became our go-to when we were hot, exhausted and/or seeking caffeine! It was also where we went to seek shelter from Songkran madness (a giant waterfight celebrating the new year) for which I am forever grateful. This place does it all; great coffee, ice cream, wine, Thai food and western food. You can see why we came back! It also has a nice little gift shop attached where I browsed for things I couldn't afford and definitely wouldn't fit in my backpack... No change there. They also have rooms. (Website)

Fresh & Wraps
Last but not least, this one we found right at the end of our time in Chiang Mai and turned out to be the perfect lunch spot near Tha Phae Gate. We went for quesadillas and juices; both were tasty and slightly different from the other CM offerings. The menu has a load of brunch options including pancakes and eggs, as well as salads and sandwiches (no sweet bread here, hurrah!) etc. As ever, the moden bistro style design attracts tourists, expats and the younger Thai crowd and is great for those days when you can't stomach any more phad thai. I felt healthier just being here! (Facebook page).


Monday, 15 August 2016

Returning home

At the risk of sounding clich├ęd; doesn't time fly!

Since leaving the UK in February we have visited eight countries, stayed in over seventy ho(s)tels, checked in to nineteen flights and travelled on countless buses up, down and around South East Asia.

But as they say, all good things must come to an end. I write this from my parents' kitchen, where I am taking up residence (not solely in the kitchen) until we find somewhere to live again. We're back home, and although thinking back to days spent lazing on Gili T or mud-bathing elephants in Chiang Mai most definitely make me feel more than a little blue, it is good to be home. I really thought I'd have the worst blues, but I feel six months was the perfect time frame for us. We were able to totally submerge ourselves in that lifestyle, forget about the stresses of home and take some time to refocus. And yes it was completely blissful! We had lots of 'is this real?' moments, and I can remember back to the beginning of our trip and being terrified of it moving too quickly and being over too soon. Even at the half way point I was no-where near ready to consider calling it a day, it wasn't until around 5 months when we started to accept impending doom the reality of going home.  But being home is lovely; I've seen so many friends and family in the last week or so which has been the perfect antidote to those pesky home-time blues. Throw in a couple of hen do's and it's like I've never been away!

For those wondering...
Favourite country? Vietnam. Loved it.
Favourite thing to eat out there? Bahn Mi or Tom Kha Gai.
The most unforgettable experience? Mud-bathing elephants or motorbiking North Vietnam.
Best beach? Any in El Nido, Palawan (Philippines).
Best hotel? Reverie Siam in Pai, Thailand. Blissful.
Craziest moment? Songkran in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Recommendations for others? Street food tours and cookery classes!
Best pool day? Jungle Fish, Ubud, Bali.

And what did I miss the most? Sausages (unexpected), good coffee, girl talk, singing in my car (listening to music with headphones on in public transport kills me), fresh milk, feeling cold. And of course my friends and family... although FaceTime makes being away heaps easier!

Now we've got that bit out of the way - I can't tell you how many times I've answered those questions - I'm looking forward to sharing more of our adventure with you. I started documenting the different places we visited whilst I was out there, but quickly grew tired of the snails-pace wifi. I'm hoping the process will me cathartic for me, rather than opening a can of oh-my-god-why-did-i-leave-paradise worms. That, and I've got over five thousand photos to sift through... I'm trying to convince myself this will be a logical and effective way of condensing them into something more manageable!

As always, drop me an email/comment/tweet if you have any travel-related questions, I'll do my best to help.

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!

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