South East Asia Part 3: Thailand

15 Dec

I actually didn’t spend that much time (about 4 days total) in Thailand, so this isn’t going to be an insanely comprehensive guide. Then again, I use this blog as a diary, so how comprehensive it is really doesn’t matter.

Thailand is a beautiful country – far more Westernised than either Vietnam or Laos. Why the hell you’d want to eat anything other than Thai cuisine in Thailand I have no idea, but there are Western food options, English is spoken well (and widely) and there are far more tourists here than I found elsewhere on my tour of South East Asia (then again, I didn’t  make it to ex-pat haven Singapore..)

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Chang Rai
EAT: Ok, so Thai food is amazing. Cheap, tasty and hot. However, if you want something which isn’t actually hot then g for Pad Thai. It’s predominantly fishy and nutty and is delicious no matter where you order it. A big plate will rarely set you back more than the equivalent of £1-£2. However, it’s not something locals really eat that much – so how they make it taste so I good I have no idea.
Anyway. In Thailand, make sure you eat where the locals do. Due to the huge number of tourists coming through Thailand now, places off the beaten track are the ones where you’re more likely to get authentic cuisine.

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SEE: Wat Rong Khun – a.k.a The White Temple – is magnificent. Unlike other Wats in Asia, it’s modern and a critical statement on the culture of our time, rather than a place which has been created for religious reasons.  It was designed by Chalermchai Kositpipat in 1997 and, as well as being a Buddhist Temple, it’s the kind of the place you can just marvel at for hours. Not only is the temple intricately designed, but its surroundings are also fascinating.

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Hanging outside the temple and flaming no-smoking signs, hanging heads of fictional pop culture icons and as you walk towards the temple you’re met with a mini lake/pond and a scene which looks like the little grubs in The Little Mermaid – y’know, when Ursula turns people into those little grey things, stuck to the ocean floor, grasping at the merfolk who swim above them?

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I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside the temple, obviously, but it’s basically a huge mural, filled with pop culture icons: cartoons, political figures and a huge red demon taking up a huge section of the interior. In one eye of the demon is George Bush. In the other is Osama Bin Laden.  Perfect setting for a little worship. And a must-visit if you’re in Northern Thailand.

Chang Mai
EAT: The Blue Diamond Breakfast Club is incredible. It’s one of the best cafes I’ve ever been to, let alone the best cafe in Chang Mai. It’s healthy but not in the ‘fuck me they’re banging on about kale and spinach again’ way (you know what I mean). Fresh juice, great coffee, English and Continental breakfasts – I had cinnamon French toast with maple syrup. All organic. They offer veggie, vegan, dairy-free and gluten-free options, so if you have specific tastes then this is the place for you.

They have an outside dining area with a mini waterfall and the place is actually quite tucked away, so you can actually relax while you eat. The full english looked really good too and they have all kinds of stuff for sale in the shop as well. Gluten free cookies, gluten free croissants (NEVER seen these before, but they actually looked good) and, of course, I went for the non-healthy peanut butter cookies.

Basically – this is THE place to go for breakfast in Chang Mai. Don’t miss it off your list, it’s a must-do.

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EAT/SEE: The Asia Scenic Cooking Course was one of the highlights of my trip. Genuinely – the food I was taught to cook here was better than a lot of food I had in restaurants! I was picked up at my hotel and taken to a lovely undercover cooking patio. The instructor was lovely – really patient and more than happy to cater for veggies, vegans, etc.

We started by visited the market and were taught not only the recipes, but about the different kinds of food, finding them in markets and how the food in Thailand varies from what we have in the UK. The group (there’ll be about 12 of you) gets to choose 3 courses (either salad, soups, stir fry or dessert) and everyone has to make a curry of some sort. You get a tour of their garden, where they also grow a lot of their ingredients and you chop, cook and do everything with your group and it’s really fun!

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I made Pad Thai, Spring Rolls, Coconut rice with mango and red curry. It was all LOVELY, but make sure you’re hungry before you go as there’s a lot of food! The cookbook you get given is amazing too – all the recipes are in there and really easily laid out. Go and have an amazing time. I’ve cooked the meals I learned to make in this class countless times since returning to the UK.

SEE: In Thailand you have to get a Thai massage. Although an ex-convict isn’t usually the first person you’d turn to for said massage. However, I decided to visit the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution, where female prisoners are trained in the art of massage to give them skills for when they’ve done their time.

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The massage was cheap (a few quid for an hour) and the location is right in the heart of Chang Mai’s old town. The atmosphere is lovely. Lightly scented, cosy and comfortable. You’re given what looks like a prison uniform to wear and you meet your masseuse and have an hour of the least relaxing massage ever. That’s the point by the way – Thai massages are all about pressure points – they’re meant to hurt. And it’s wonderful. GO.

Bangkok
EAT: Ok, so there’s a million places to eat in Bangkok. Lots of them have English menus. Lots of them automatically make the food less spicy if they see you’re white. You need to find the places which are the places where the locals eat. They’re cheaper and just way better. Sounds pretentious, but with food as great as Thai food is, you may as well get it right.

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One of the best places I ate was a tiny cafe with one chef cooking in the middle of the room. The room was actually planks of wood, as it was right next to where tourist boats pull up. The water surrounding it is full of rubbish and banana leaves. The menu is simple, cheap and when I went in there the only people perched at the wooden tables were a few locals and a monk. A monk who when I started to eat my Pad Thai with my chopsticks burst out laughing and taught me how to use them properly. The owner of the cafe attacked me with praise as she loved my maxi dress (and nearly died when I told her what it cost in Thai currency – £20 in Thailand is a LOT of money).

Service is quick. Food is great. Grab a bit before you get on a local boat down the river. You’ll find the cafe at the river stop at the back of the Grand Palace and in line with Wat Pho.

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SEE:  My two favourite Wats in Bangkok are Wat Pho & Wat Arun. The Grand Palace isn’t worth seeing in my opinion – it’s expensive, crowded and there’s so much to see in Bangkok it;s worth seeing other Temples instead.

Firstly, get the boat to the East side of the river to see Wat Arun (above). CLIMB IT. It’s steep and scary but the views are totally worth it.

Secondly, set aside a few hours to explore Wat Pho (below). It’s where the Reclining Buddha – a 43m huge bronze statue, lives. It’s the Buddha all other reclining are based on and it’s quite impressive.

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Elsewhere in Wat Pho you can find exhibits which tell you about the history of the temple, mini temples, lots of buddhas and you can also find the birthplace of the Thai massage. The massage I had here was hardcore – very tough, really hurt and I felt like it did me a WORLD of good despite being in quite a lot of pain afterwards.

SEE: See the city. The whole city. Not just the little bit within a few miles of your hotel. Check off the old Town, the Wats, the shopping district, the river markets, the weekend market in the north part of the city. Jump on the cheap public boats and ride up and down the river. Get off at every stop and just see what you find.

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My aimless wandering meant I encountered markets (both food, clothes and odds and ends – one was exclusively selling Nokia phones from what I could see). I discovered loads of wicked places to eat, great bars, endless shops, off the beaten track temples and managed to cross a motorway roundabout on foot in blazing heat THREE TIMES.

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Jump in a tuk tuk (arrange the price first, they’ll rip you off in a heartbeat) and make sure you’re sipping on a coconut when you’re there. Try to hide your disgust when you see desperate white men with Thai prostitutes (difficult, I know) and try not to hide your joy when you stumble across a hidden canal, a beautiful bridge… you get the picture. Just make sure you have a day set aside to wander and do nothing in particular.

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