Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Bangkok, Over and Out

We took the overnight train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok which left at 4pm and arrived at 6:30am. The four of us shared a sleeper with four bunks and depending if you reserved upper or lower each 2nd class ticket ran about $22, not bad Thailand!

The train was fine but they had the air conditioning cranked and it was freezing. Everyone on the train was completely bundled up and shivering. Not the best experience but what can you do except pile on as many layers as possible.

For this second Bangkok visit we booked in at the Aetas Bangkok Hotel. Not only did they have our rooms ready even though we arrived so early in the morning but they upgraded us to suites, too bad we were only going to be there for one night!

We were all starving and saw a food cart across the street so we headed over for some delicious pork noodles. Al fresco dining at its finest.
We grabbed a cab and headed to the Royal Palace for a morning of sightseeing. Forest and I had both brought scarves to wear around our shoulders but the palace was having none of that and we were forced to rent shirts if we wanted to enter. And of course they were very fashionable.
The palace grounds are absolutely incredible. Opulent is an understatement. Even having visited numerous temples at this point we were all ooohing and ahhhing.
Wat Phra Kaew on the palace grounds houses the Emerald Buddha which, just like the Mona Lisa is smaller than expected, but still beautiful.

We left the palace after a couple of hours and headed to Wat Pho home of the Reclining Buddha. Unfortunately it was closed for lunch hours. The heat was absolutely baking so we headed back to the hotel for some refreshing pool time, a much needed nap, and then cocktails in the hotel bar before heading out for the night.

Our destination was 38 Soi, a small street lined with all sorts of food stands. We grazed on noodles, grilled chicken, and mango sticky rice (served in a plastic bag of course).
Nightcaps were had at the popular WTF cocktail bar, which was ok, and then later nightcaps at the bar in our hotel and more in our hotel room. Hey, our trip was almost over! Don't judge!

The next morning we took the skytrain to meet up with a small group for the Bangkok Food Tours. We had booked a 9am-1:30pm walking tour and immediately were so happy to have our guide Mot as she was knowledgable, friendly, and a foodie!

We tried the specialties at four different restaurants as well as various street stalls, having about 15 dishes overall. Mot was also great about pointing out buildings, temples, etc. that were interesting and giving us a bit of history.

A few standouts were the roasted wild duck with rice at 50-year old and 3rd generation run Charoen Wieng Pochana.
Absolutely addictive curry noodle and stuffed roti (mataba) at a Muslim restaurant. Tasting a selection of interesting sweets from a street vendor. Traveling across the river by pedestrian ferry to get green papaya salad, fried catfish, and fried chicken at Yum Rod Sab. Heavenly banana pancakes from another street vendor. Pan Lee Bakery for BBQ pork bao and Thai ice tea. And this gorgeous green curry chicken with savory roti at Kalpapruek.
 To say we were stuffed would be an understatement! I highly recommend taking one of these food tasting tours, we tried to get one earlier in our trip but they were booked up. Make a reservation for your first full day and you'll learn what to search out the rest of your time there!

We were thirsty after all that eating so we headed near by to the super posh Mandarin Oriental for a drink at The Veranda Bar (the Bamboo Bar is only open at night) where two Hemingway Daiquiris put Forest and I back about $22. Not bad if you are in the states but figure that was about the same price as each of our train tickets from Chiang Mai!

We had paid extra at our hotel for a 6pm checkout so we headed back to cool off by the pool and pack before dinner. As our dinner that night was inside the Metropolitan Hotel we just took our luggage with us and checked them with the bellhop.

We were very excited for dinner at what is reviewed as one of the best restaurants in Thailand, Nahm, currently #22 on the World's 50 Best list and holding a Michelin star.  The space and service were fantastic and all the dishes were really interesting modern takes on regional classics. Having had so much fantastic street food over the last two weeks, it was tough to say what was better! Much different set up than the street tables though!

We all shared a cab to the airport, Thibault and Forest caught their flight home while we stayed at the airport Novatel. Our flight left at 7am the next morning so it was incredibly handy to have the hotel connected to the airport.

All Bangkok photos here.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Elephants and Tigers, Oh My!

We left the beaches of Phuket and flew north to the hills of Chiang Mai. Just a 2-hour flight but a world away as far as the terrain goes. On the flight I had Khao Soi served from the flight attendant's cart, it was surprisingly good which made me even more excited to eat it in the city which is known for it.

We took a cab from the airport to the 3 Sis Hotel, this hotel is in a great location for exploring Chiang Mai. There is a beautiful, airy lobby, breakfast is included at the connected cafe (which also has a great patio perfect for drinking beers on), and the rooms are clean and spacious, if a bit on the basic side. The Sunday Market sets up on the street right in front, it's a HUGE street market with everything from clothing, live music, touristy stuff, and of course food. Lots and lots of delicious food!!
Of the three night markets we went to-- Wualai Road Saturday Market, Sunday Market, and The Night Bazaar-- my favorite was the Sunday. Whether you go to one or all, you will see a lot of the same stuff but they each have a different vibe. And each of them had outdoor massage chairs so Forest and I could continue with our hour-foot-massage-a-day routine.

The two main ways to get around in town (besides walking of course) are tuk tuks or red trucks. Both should be negotiated before riding! In red trucks you just climb in the covered back where there are bench seats. It may stop and pick up others along the agreed upon route as you go. Tuk tuks can be a bit dangerous for four people as someone will have to ride up front next to the driver, where there may or may not be a seat, as Thibault found out one night. He had to perch precariously!
Chiang Mai has a lot of wats (temples), monks, and Buddhas. The wats are everywhere with many of the locations having multiple temples. Sometimes it is hard to figure out which was which. We visited quite a few; 6 of the most well known ones. You remove your shoes before entering and make sure shoulders are covered and well as your legs to the knees.

There are Buddhas housed in wats and others that are outside. There are huge ones, reclining ones, crystal ones, ugly ones, the list goes on.

The temples were mysterious places to us, there are so many ways that people are worshipping; leaving money, paying for gold leaf and affixing to a Buddha, buying ribbons, leaving food. We even saw at least one wat that did not allow women!

And then there were the statues of monks, some so realistic they look like they had been mummified. Who knows, maybe they were!!
Next to Wat Chedi Luang there is an area called Monk Chat where you can sit and talk to the monks, we didn't do this but it seems like it could be interesting. And the only way women would be allowed to interact with monks.

It seems that everyone who goes to Chiang Mai takes a cooking class and we were no exception. We booked a half day course with Thai Kitchen Cookery Center, which included being picked up from our hotel, a trip to a food market and then cooking instruction, and lunch of our dishes. We each got to pick different items to make and then taste them all which was fun. Although we all had a good time, and got a cute little cookbook to take home, I don't think any of us thought it was a 'must-do' on limited time.

Our favorite day in Chiang Mai was the day we had booked with Blue Elephant Camp. We did a lot of research on excursions as we were really interested in interacting with the elephants but we didn't want to spend time at a camp where they are treated badly, forced to put on a show, worked by people who weren't concerned about elephant welfare, etc.

We were picked up before sunrise and had quite a long drive north towards the mountains (the camp is actually quite close to the boarder of Myanmar). Right at sunrise we stopped at a large food market to pick up things for both ours and the elephant's breakfast. Our guide was great as he also showed us many fruits and vegetables that we weren't familiar with.

After a quick stop for coffee (thank god!) we continued on, finally arriving in the most beautiful river valley. We changed into our mahout outfits (elephant trainers) and while eating fried chicken and fruit had a lesson in giving elephant commands in Thai. Blue Elephant works with different camps and we were at Bobby's Elephant Home. The owner of the camp was very serious about us being able to command the elephant with words, the handlers here did not use hooks on the animals. I can not recommend this camp more highly. It was amazing! After our breakfast we were introduced to the elephants and fed them in order to get them familiar with us. Our guide took our cameras for us so that we could enjoy the experience but still get great shots.

After introducing ourselves to these giant creatures we each had to use our newly learned commands to have the elephant help us up, then move about forward and backwards, left and right. As you can see we chose to go with a bareback camp as the chairs you see are really awful for the animals. It was scary to be up so high!

After class we rode the elephants for a while, through a river and some forest land. I'm not gonna lie, it is not the most comfortable way to travel! On our way back through the river we got to bath them, which was fantastic!

After we returned to camp we had some refreshing coconut water and fruit and then fed the elephants the leftovers (they love whole tamarind pods and also will crack a coconut in their jaws!). We had some more photo ops and also got to hang out with the pregnant elephant, who we could watch the unborn baby moving around from side to side in her belly! Finally we said our goodbyes and thanked the camp owner who you can see really loves his elephants!
Next up was a visit to the Tiger Kingdom. Tiger Kingdom breeds and raises tigers in captivity. Because the tigers are raised and trained to be around humans from birth you are allowed to interact with them. When you buy your ticket you choose if you are going to visit them all or just a certain size. We chose Smallest and Biggest. While we waited for our timed entry we strolled around and saw the nursery where the tiger cubs were just a few weeks old as well as some that were maybe a month old being fed by a trainer. We also so some of the really big cats watching the raw chicken truck arrive from their cages. Amazing animals!

And then we got to snuggle with cubs!!
There were about 8 cubs in a playroom type area and each has a handler. Some were snoozing in the heat of the day while others were running around and playing. Look at the size of those paws!

After we went to visit the Biggest. Holy shit that is crazy to be next to such a large animal, even though they are use to people I have a cat and know she goes from deep sleep to swiping at me in a minute!
I know some people think the cats are drugged but I have to say that I really just feel that they are so use to this and they also get disciplined when they get aggressive. We saw many tigers being taken out of the common areas after their appointed time. This felt like a petting zoo, with tigers.

We absolutely loved our day of elephants and tigers, we couldn't stop gushing about it for the rest of the night!

As I mentioned in the very beginning of this long post, Chiang Mai is know for the noodle soup dish called Khao Soi. We had a few bowls in various places but the best two were the very authentic one served at Lamduon Fahrm which has been dishing it up in the original location for over 70 years. This restaurant is bare bones and Khao Soi is pretty much all they serve, it was delicious!

The other one was at Khao Soi Nimman which is in the trendy Nimmanhaemin Road area, full of hip cafes and shops. Nimman serves 9 variations on the classic, like mine which included duck breast, in a more modern style restaurant that has a great outdoor patio.

Our other favorite meal was at SP Chicken, I'd recommend getting there early before they run out of things! And we found some pretty decent cocktails at the DeLanna Hotel, where we were able to sit outside under trees lit with lanterns (I'd also think to check this hotel out if you might like more swanky accommodations!)

We packed a lot of stuff into our 3 1/2 day visit to Chiang Mai, we could have easily spent another few days! But it was time to pack up so we grabbed a red truck to the train station and boarded our overnight train back to Bangkok.

All Chiang Mai photos here.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Sun and Sand in Phuket

We had a night flight from Bangkok to Phuket on AirAsia that left from the smaller Donmueang Airport (DMK). Forest and Thibault met us at the gate as they had just flown into BKK from Paris and had to rush to make it to the airport in time.

It was 1 1/2 hours to Phuket and we arrived about 10:30pm. We then picked up our rental car and drove what was suppose to be about an hour to the southern most town of Rawai. Unfortunately it was quite dark, there were few if any street lights or signs, and no one we stopped to ask seemed to either understand us or know where we were headed. We finally found the Modern Thai Villas and thank goodness they were even lovelier than we had hoped for!

Our villa was in a little community, each one gated and fenced off for privacy. The house was an L shape with two spacious bedrooms and ensuite bathrooms at either end, and a big living room and kitchen in the middle. Outside was a beautiful lap pool and covered gazebo. Breakfast was included and was held just across the street from our villa, buffet style featuring both Thai and American style options. There was also a mattress store and buses of Japanese tourists arrived daily to shop at it. We never could quite figure that one out.

After a morning swim we drove to the area of Chalong Pier to explore and have some lunch at Fon Fon restaurant, randomly picked but very good. We just got a peak of the long boats coming in from the bay and of the Big Buddha on the hill before a huge storm came through. I am talking monsoon style rain storm.

We took advantage of the weather to do a big shopping trip at the local grocery store Tesco. Grocery shopping is one of my favorite things to do in foreign countries as there are so many things that I see and have no idea what they are, as well as the way stores display their items can be disturbing to say the least. Like this meat section where it was just out in the open and you scooped up what you needed. Pass.
Booze, snacks, and pool toys acquired we headed home, waited out the storm, had aperos, and headed to the Rawai Beach area for dinner. Toes in the sand, breeze off the ocean, outside on wooden tables and benches. Perfect.

We spent the next few days doing what you do on Phuket; we sunbathed and went swimming in the warm lovely waters of Nai Harn and Kata beaches. We explored the Gypsy village and fish market in Rawai. We took in sunset at Phromthep Cape lookout (along with a couple getting their wedding photos). 

Forest and I had hour long foot massages every chance we got. We visited the Chalong Bay rum distillery. We swam in our pool. We had lunch on an uninhabited island and celebrated New Years Eve.

And of course we ate lots of delicious Thai food in all sorts of environments.  In Phuket Town we had dinner at the modern fusion restaurant Suay which was ok but not a must visit. In Rawai we had beautiful green mussels and green papaya salad with raw crab al fresco at Nikka restaurant. We also had a fantastic dinner outside at Sa La Loi farther down on the waterfront, some of the spiciest dishes were here! 

We had an incredibly unique lunch near Chalong Bay at MoMu Dong, a collection of private and communal huts set over mud flats. Even with one of the very few English menus we really had no idea what we were ordering but our server helped us the best she could and we had a phenomenal meal. This was some of the most authentic regional cuisine we ate.  

We also discovered the incredibly delicious banana roti (or pancakes) served with condensed milk and sold by street vendors. Heaven. 

On our last full day on Phuket we booked a tour through Asian Dolphins to visit the famous Phi Phi Island area. The trip was an 8-hour excursion that included multiple stops.

It didn't start out well unfortunately as they never showed to pick us up. I get a little cranky when I have to be ready for something at 7:30am and then it doesn't happen. After some tense phone calls we hurriedly drove ourselves to the marina and just made it in time. They did comp us each 5% off the price.

We took a large speedboat out to our first stop Pi Leh Lagoon, about an hour and a half trip across the bay. The limestone cliffs that circle the lagoon are incredible. And the color of the water was just amazing. And the number of other boats and tourists made me wish I had visited this area about 20 years earlier. 

We all jumped in and had some time to swim around and enjoy the scenery. Photos really do not do any of these places justice. 

Next we headed to Maya Bay, this is where "The Beach" was shot and tourists flock to it. In fact when we arrived there were so many tourists on the beach that no one could sit, they were all just packed on it, standing. Our driver offered us the choice to head to a little different spot where we could enjoy some beach time which we all happily agreed to!

Next stop was Monkey Island and just as the name implies the place is over run with monkeys. They were funny and cute to watch, which is way more than could be said for the tourists who fed them sugary drinks and people food instead of fruit just to have a "funny" picture. 

We continued to pass beautiful rock outcroppings and small islands as we headed towards Phi Phi Island for lunch. We stopped just outside for some good snorkeling; warm water and lots of fish. Lunch was a big buffet set up for all the tourist boats, nothing even remotely unique or authentic. We finished quickly and grabbed a drink while taking in the view. 

Our last stop of the day was to Bamboo Island for more beach time. It was a lovely beach that wasn't very crowded. Although the water was warm and gorgeous there was too much coral and it was too shallow to snorkel. But it was perfect for a sand siesta!

It was a full day and the sun was getting low in the sky as we headed back to the marina. We drove home to our villa in Rawai to pack, make some pool drinks, and take a last swim. That night we ordered dinner from the resort and it ended up being up there with some of the best food we had had in Phuket! An added bonus and a great way to wrap up our time on the island.
All Phuket photos here

Sunday, December 13, 2015

More Than One Night in Bangkok

Now that I've got that song stuck in your head...

It takes a long time to get to Thailand, no one really talks about that. I left on noon on Christmas day last year and landed midnight on Dec 26th. In fact by the time I got to the hotel ( I hired a car from the hotel to pick me up for $50) it was just after 1am on the 27th. That damn dateline!

Everyone suggested that I get in and out of Bangkok relatively quickly during my Thailand vacation, but I ended up being disappointed that I was only there two days in the beginning and two days at the end. If you love big cities I'd suggest planning a few more days if you can. There is so much to see and do there!

For this first leg, I stayed at the Chatrium Hotel Riverside, where they upgraded me to an executive suite because I asked nicely. The room was huge with a separate kitchen, living room, balcony, and had amazing views of the city. When the smog wasn't hiding it. The hotel is at the southwest end of the river, you have to take their boat one stop to the main express river boat stop, but it was easy and free so no problem.

Thank god for 24 hour room service, cold beer, and comfy pillows. When I woke later that morning I headed down to the pool to relax, unwind, and soak up some sun and river views.

When I got hungry I walked down Chan Road and picked a random noodle stand/stall which was busy with locals. I literally had no idea what the woman was serving except there was broth and there were noodles. As I stood there pointing she thought maybe I wanted it to go and started to fill a plastic bag. I waved that off and then she tried to find out which color bowl I wanted; did it matter? They looked the same except for one was blue and one was pink. I shrugged and pointed at her and smiled. Then she added noodles and again tried to find out which choices of additions I wanted. I recognized the fried pork skin and then just randomly pointed at some other things, reading her face for approval as I went. She ladled on the broth and another woman took my bowl and led me to a plastic table. Seeing that all the locals were drinking a mysterious beverage from communal Tupperware pitchers I asked for a dietCoke. Then I dug in to my first delicious bowl of noodles in Thailand. I had done it! I had ordered lunch! I had no idea exactly what I was eating but it was good and the locals were watching me slurp and they were nodding and smiling.

When I was done I made the international sign for "check please" and stared blankly at the man who told me the price in Thai. I held out my smallest Baht currency, a 1000 Baht bill which is about $25. The man looked at me, I made the "I'm sorry" face and he left to cross the street where he entered a flower shop. Shortly after he returned with my change, which I then figured out my entire lunch had cost the equivalent of $1.50. Note: change to small Baht!!

Dayne arrived later that day and in the evening we took the express boat to the flower market, Pak Khlong Talat. It was absolute mayhem! Food stands everywhere selling things that we couldn't always figure out; a maze of flower stalls with amazing arrangements; smells of exotic blooms mixed with gasoline, food, and people; and more marigold leis, called phuang malai, than you can imagine. Everyone buys these daily as symbols of luck and a form of protection, so they are the biggest seller at the market. Add to all this a dizzying number of motorcycles, scooters, cars, and tuk tuks driving wildly. Lanes? Who needs them!

I loved it! I have never seen anything like it! The market is pretty much open 24 hours a day, I hear it is busiest pre-dawn so if you are up around that time in Bangkok go take a look!

We grabbed a tuk tuk and after a lot of misunderstandings found the Amarosa Bar which sits on the rooftop of the Arun Residence. There is nothing special about the bar itself, certainly not the drinks or the service. I was there for this absolutely outstanding view of the Wat Arun.
Drinks drunk, we grabbed a taxi, negotiated an off meter price of 250 Baht (about $7) and headed across town to Soul Food Mahanakorn. This place serves contemporary Thai food (like this crispy fried morning glory & squid salad) and fantastic cocktails. It's definitely more spendy than what you get on the street but we both thought it was really, really good.
The next morning we had planned to visit the floating market but for reasons I still don't know it was closed. We hired a longtail boat for a shared 2 hour tour of the canals for 2000 Baht (about $55) from our hotel pier. Our first stop was the Wat Arun where we could go off on our own to explore the grounds and climb the outside of the temple. I hadn't planned for a temple visit that day so I had to buy a sarong to wrap around my shorts and rent a scarf to put over my bare shoulders. Coupled with the broken china tiling of the temple there were a lot of patterns happening!
The canal tour was cool as we got to see lots of little "neighborhoods", scores of smaller temples, floating houses, water moniters, and even went through the locks.
We were hungry when we were dropped off at our hotel pier so we jumped in a cab and headed to Soi Covent, which is a street littered with all kinds of food carts, for lunch. We had an absolutely delicious meal of fried fish, spicy green papaya salad, and rice while sitting on tiny plastic stools on a side street.
After exploring more food stalls, we grabbed another taxi down to the river and took the express boat to the Amulet Market. The streets here are lined with vendors selling everything from cheap touristy amulets to very rare and expensive ones. Each Buddha brings a different kind of luck; romance, wealth, health, etc. Men perch with magnifying glasses to search out the authentic and antique, and haggle over prices.  

There is a large food market at the express boat ramp so we explored that before heading back to the hotel via the river. We'd have to wait a little more than a week to see more of Bangkok, for now we had just enough time to catch sunset and a cocktail before heading to the airport to meet Forest and Thibault for our flight to Phuket
Bangkok photos here.

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