A Travellerspoint blog

February 2012

Scooting Around Chiang Rai

Site-seeing via scooter

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Chiang Rai is the most Northern Province in Thailand and has easy access to the border town of Chiang Khong to take a river boat into Laos. Our plan was to stay four nights, but we fell in love with the small, safe, laidback city and stayed for an extra night making this the longest stint in a single hotel in our trip so far! Being in Chiang Rai over the weekend, we were able to visit the Saturday and Sunday street evening markets that were full of entertainment, food, and stalls selling local crafts. We scouted out the most powerful manual scooter we could find and headed into the country roads along the river, stopped at a few rice fields and then headed up a Buddhist temple lookout for the sunset.

We heard people talking about how an independent artist built a white Buddhist temple called Wat Rong Khun with ‘crazy murals’ and ‘totally different than any other temple you’ll see’. Well that sounds like our kinda temple! So the next morning we scooted off to see what all the fuss was about.

The temple was more than peculiar and unconventional; it was big, bad and furious. The pathway takes you through sculls and arms reaching out at you from hell, and inside the temple there is a mural that incorporates modern movie heroes and 9/11… it’s a story about how all these heroes and role models are created, but how they have been unable to save us from ourselves. It was definitely well done and worth the visit. One our way home we stopped for a 5k hike to the Khunkorn waterfall where it was just us and another couple before the tour bus showed up.

We didn’t carry our whole family, or any huge bales of hay with live chickens piled on top of our scooter, but we did order a coffee (with straw!) to go in a small plastic bag to dangle off the handle bars :-)

Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 04:16 Archived in Thailand Tagged chiang scooter rai Comments (0)

Thai Cooking Class

A lesson in Thai cooking and culture

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Chiang Rai is a peaceful town full of bustling markets. We booked a cooking class with Suwannee, and luck had it that we were the only ones to show up that day! So began our private trip to the local market to pick up ingredients for cooking with. This market didn’t show up on any tourist/westerner (felong) map so we were right in the thick of things. We sat down to discuss recipes at a local coffee stall and had the best coffee we’ve had in all of Thailand. The 5 Baht (17 cents) Akaa coffee was uniquely brewed (sort of like French pressed only never pressed – ‘same same, but different’ as they say here). Strangely it was served with a complimentary glass of tea, a glass of sugar and a glass of condensed milk. Suwanee was determined to teach us how to support the local market so that we could fend for ourselves the next day by avoiding the tourist traps and escalated prices (a felong priced instant coffee goes for ~30 Baht ($1). The market was a hoot (as hanh would say)! People were selling rice next to t-shirts, meat next to tea, and driving scooters through the hallways.

While having coffee we agreed on 4 different Thai dishes to shop for and then proceeded through the market to collect our ingredients. Our menu consisted of:

Papaya Salad

Green Chicken Curry

Sweet and Sour Tofu

Pumpkin in Coconut Milk

Suwanee took us to an area of the market that was only for hill tribe venders. She explained how the government lets them sell in this area without charge to try and entice them to grow market worthy products instead of opium. She continued to point out all the local nuances and explained some of the history of the 17ish different cultures in Chiang Rai due to its proximity to the golden triangle border of Myamar, Burma, and Laos. While shopping we sampled a variety of coconut sticky rice, donut looking rice balls that had a chunk of sweet potato in the middle, and a few different fruits. One of the highlights of the market was purchasing coconut cream from a stall where we watched them husk, and press fresh coconuts.

Suwanee’s style of cooking is to use your own taste to determine how much is needed of each ingredient. We never measured anything while cooking; we just tasted and decided whether or not we liked it. If we wanted more salt…add fish sauce, if we wanted more spice…add chilli, want it sweeter...add sugar, and so forth. Robin also learned how powerful a small chili can be; just one chili in her papaya salad was plenty! For the sweet and sour tofu, we used a “secret sauce” composed of 1:1 ketchup and sweet chili sauce. Using this sauce and slightly crushing the pineapples was all we needed to make the most amazing sweet and sour tofu!!

We ended the class by feasting on the dishes that we had just prepared, and Suwannee surprised us with a fridge full of beer to wash it down!

Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 04:11 Archived in Thailand Tagged food culture cooking thai class hilltribe Comments (0)


A laid back stay in a big city

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Normally we aren’t into overcrowded cities but we had to stay a few extra days in Bangkok to make sure our Vietnamese visas had enough time to process. It is pretty amazing to see how well Bangkok has cleaned up and recovered from the serious floods that occurred about 3 months ago. Locals told us that the city was basically under water for about a month and shelves were stripped of food and beverages. There was still evidence of sand bags around buildings and plastic bags stuck high up on branches from when in high water. We were lucky to meet Kitt and stayed at his place for a couple of nights -- fortunately for us, he had a roof top deck and a pool to relax in after a hard day’s work of sightseeing.

We thought the Grand Palace was sorta like visiting Disneyland because there were so many tourists, and loud speakers telling you how to enter. To enter the Grand Palace, you have to cover your shoulders and wear either a long skirts or trousers. Luckily, for a deposit, you can borrow clothes to go inside. Unfortunately, they have chosen the MOST unbearably hot clothes for people to wear  Kevin still managed to get blessed by a monk with ‘lotus good fortune water’ despite sagging his formal pants. Tip to perspective visitors; the entrance fee to the Grand Palace also gets you into the Museum of Royal Decorations and Coins, which although the entrance is hard to find, is upstairs with full blast air con (so definitely pay this place a visit after you tour the Palace since they allow you to take your formal wear off.

From Kitt we learned about a series of museums (including anatomy, pathology and criminal investigations) that was housed in the Siriraj Hospital complex. We had a great time looking at preserved body parts and various soft tissue injuries that packed the shelves of this dusty old university biology room. In the main museum there were also mummified bodies of past serial killers and murder victims… creepy but cool. One mummy, who was held standing by a wire around his waist, slowly leaned forward over time until his forehead hit the protective glass and left a long streak of goop. The exhibit could be compared to “The Bodies” road show that we have in The States, but in a much more raw form.

Bangkok is infamous for high end shopping, where we managed to find Robin a pair of real running shoes (knockoffs were all over the city but these required a true shop). Of course we also stayed true to our bargain hunting skills, and managed to find a bunch of street markets and a humongous local mall called BMK (8 stories of little stalls similar to an outside market, but with aircon).

On our way home from shopping, we stopped by 7-11 for some brews and picked up a couple of bottles of each variety… turns out what we though was going to be cheap 8% beer was actually un-carbonated rice wine called Siam Sato that that tastes a bit like Carlo Rossi mixed with a wine cooler. Kevin quickly added this to the list of ‘what to brew when we get home!’ We have started keeping track some of the best places, foods etc… and Bangkok now holds the title of ‘weirdest thing we’ve eaten so far.’ You might think it would be a creepy crawly or some strange animal part to hold this title, but strange enough, it was a plant based quiche with the sharpest thorns we’ve ever tried to chew and swallow. Imagine cutting up a thorny bush in to pieces (without sautéing or softening) and then mixing it into some egg-like substance and then baking it. It was definitely an uncomfortable surprise when chewing and swallowing and couldn’t help but wonder what would happen the next morning on their way “out”.

Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 23:50 Archived in Thailand Tagged bangkok Comments (1)

Kanchanaburi, Thailand

A history of Thai culture and the Buddhist religion

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We took a side trip from Bangkok out to Kanchanaburi to visit John and his girlfriend Ann. Kanchanaburi is a small provincial capital about two hours outside of Bangkok that receives only a few tourists who come to see the Bridge over the River Kwai. John has basically gone native and tries to live the way the Thai people do, and thus, has vast knowledge about Thai culture, customs, religion and local dentists (which we used for a 6mo cleaning). He was an amazing tour guide with a plethora of knowledge spanning from traditional way of life for the Thai people to internet security :) He showed us around the obligatory tourist sites including the Bridge over the River Kwai and the war museum…

…and also took us out of the city to spend some time with kids at the Moo Baan alternative education community for orphans, in a temple (where we encountered our first king kong sized buddah) and in a local watering hole where we swam with the fishes under multiple waterfalls. Some locals (and Robin) actually encourage the fish to suck on their leg to remove dead skin as a therapeutic massage.
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..the highlight of the trip was when we brushed up on our motor biking skills while scooting around the countryside looking at cows with big floppy ears, rice fields, banana plantations, papaya trees, cave temples and beautiful mountains.

Lucky for us, Ann has many skills including masseuse, furniture maker and amazing cook. Robin didn’t hesitate to receive some extra pampering from with a Thai massage one night, and a foot scrub another. We watched and learned how she prepared Tom Yom soup and BBQ Tilapia fish with here outside Thai style kitchen. John also showed us his BBQ pork ribs trick by creating a make-shift sauce from ketchup, vinegar, garlic, and Thai sweet chili sauce.

We were really lucky to have John and Ann as such gracious hosts and tour guides, it was really nice to have some time away from the tourist life to learn more about the way people traditionally live.

Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 23:42 Archived in Thailand Tagged cooking thai scooters kanchanaburi Comments (1)

Ton Sai, Thailand

A rock climber’s paradise

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Many movies like The Beach and Hangover 2 were filmed around Phi Phi Island and Riley Peninsula because of its absolutely stunning scenery. The rocks rise out of the water like ancient creatures and the water is a beautiful hue of blue. The beaches have soft sand, and the drinks are cheap. We stayed in a rustic (ok, barren might be a better word) bungalow in a garden behind a rock climbing school. Our room consisted of a bed with mosquito net, a fan, and a rock floor bathroom that gave you the feeling that you were outside. We had electricity from 6pm to 1am, a nice stoop with hammock, a cold water tap, and a run in with the largest hairiest spider we’ve ever seen.

This being our first stop in Thailand we had to sample all of the beer options and discovered Chang Beer (6.4%) and Chicken Naan from our new Canadian friends. Chicken Naan is like a burrito made with Naan, chicken breast strips, and lots of mayo and ketchup… it was a great break from the Chinese style noodles that have recently dominated the menu. The beach is setup perfectly for climbers with routes available right from the beach. We enjoyed watching the hard core overhang climbers while eating thai pancakes :-) At night the ramshackle of a town becomes filled with drinks, stories, slack lines, reggae music and locals training for a fire twirling competition.

We tested our rock climbing skills on a deep water soloing trip. We took a boat out with ‘Base Camp’ outfitters for the day. This type of climbing doesn’t involve ropes or carabiners; you just free climb until you fall (or jump) into the water below. It was so much fun and we met a bunch of cool Canadians (aren’t all Canadians cool?) from Montreal. Kevin got over his fear of heights with his “massive” 25 foot leap into the water below (most of the folks were upwards of 65ft).

We also went on a sunset snorkeling cruise that took us to 4 islands and dropped us at a fifth island for a seafood BBQ dinner on a remote beach. The trip was a little disorganized to say the least but we did manage to come out with some tall tales and some good snorkeling.

Near the end of our cruise we arrived near the beach for our BBQ dinner but the boat was unable to dock due to currents and other nautical jive. When they were talking about shuttling us over with a long tail we asked the skipper if we could swim to shore, against the current and then float back to the boat prior to dinner. So it began… we and two others jumped out and swam ashore. After a little wandering along the most amazing remote beach/sand bar, we started to swim back to the boat so we could pick up our camera for the sunset. To our surprise when we got to where the boat was supposed to be … it was gone! Talk about your open water experience! We eventually swim back to the shore against the current but never saw the other two swimmers. Alone on the beach without a boat in site we enjoyed the sunset. Just as the sun fell off the horizon a long tail boat arrived with our tour guide and a few unhappy tourists… minus the other two swimmers! A few minutes passed and a private dingy pulls onto the beach with the missing swimmers who apparently had swam to a sailboat down current to seek refuge. The experience created amusing conversations over dinner, and for the rest of the night. As the horizon darkened against the islands, we watched what seemed like an endless supply of enormous fruit bats flying from their nesting island to find their dinner on the mainland. Our tour concluded with what was truly an amazing night snorkel to see the phosphorescence algae glowing all around us in the water. This is definitely a must do and was the highlight of our trip! As we aqua jogged in the water we looked like glowing silhouettes from the movie Tron.

We stayed our last night in southern Thailand in Krabi so that we could catch our 9am flight to Bangkok. We had low expectations for this town, but actually really enjoyed it. Luckily, we met a couple on our longtail boat ride who recommended staying in a place called Blue Juice. For just $6 a night, we were living it up with a proper bed, clean sheets, and fantastic food in the restaurant downstairs.

Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 07:19 Archived in Thailand Tagged beach krabi rock climbing snorkeling tonsai Comments (0)

3 Months Down

What we intend to do next... we think.

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Before we left on our trip, we had planned out a three month journey that got us to Robin’s Uncle’s house in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. We have now been traveling for ¼ of a year and it still feels like we’ve been on an extended vacation from work; it’s almost unreal that we are now planning our next three months. For those who are curious, our next leg of the journey looks like this:

Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 22:45 Archived in Thailand Tagged planning Comments (1)

Malaysian Road Trip

Heading out of the big city

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Having an extended stay in Malaysia with the fam enabled us to take a road trip outside of Kuala Lumpur.

Malacca is just 2 hours south of KL along the coast. It’s is old settlement that was conquered multiple times due to its location on the spice route so it is full of history. Malacca is beautiful by night with lots of lights, especially along Jonker Street which was prettied up for the Lunar New Year. Our only complaint in Malacca was that we were served pints of Guinness in very small glasses. When we told the waitress that we had ordered pints, she replied “our pints are served in half-pint glasses.” Needless to say, we did not order another round. Aside from stumbling on a chocolate confectioners shop blasting the A/C, the best part (and must see if you ever get to Malacca) was walking through and up the hills of Bukit Cina, the largest Chinese cemetery outside of China.

We drove north of KL into the cool dry air of the Cameron Highlands and felt like we were living the life of luxury; enjoying a G&T outside in the Casa De La Rosa’s garden without the need for air conditioning. The highlands are rolling in jungle but it’s slowly being replaced with fruit and leafy green crops due to the cool arid climate.

There is only one road through the towns and its spilling over with markets and tea shops. Navigating through these windy overcrowded roads was a feat within itself. The hills are full of trails and although they are poorly marked and difficult to find, we managed to trek one morning from Gunung Perdah peak to Gunung Jasar peak and were rewarded with an awesome view of the valley.

One of the major crops being grown in the mountains is tea. We took a tour of the Boh Tea factory and had a go with some of the local tea picker’s gear.

We packed up and headed East to Taman Negara, which boasts being the oldest tropical rain forest on Earth. We stayed inside the national park near Kuala Tahan, which was pretty sweet b/c there isn’t a clear cut road into the forest… instead we had to cross the river via boat and hoof it to our lodging. Being inside the park, it was not uncommon to see monkeys, deer, peasants, wild boars, and a tapir right from the doorstep of our bungalow.

The park was filled with adventures; on our way to hiking up Bukit Teresek, we walked 40m high within the canopy on 530 meters of the longest canopy walk in the world. We also took a boat up the river to a swimming hole called Lata Berkoh where we swam the rapids with beautiful Kingfisher birds.

On our way back from the road trip we explored a 10k hash through a durian infested bamboo forest near Genting Highlands, and just when we thought we were worn out, we got up early the next day for a Skytrex tree top adventure which is similar to a ropes course in the United States with flying foxes, only less protective gear :-)

Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 22:40 Archived in Malaysia Tagged road trip course rope Comments (1)

Hashing in Malaysia

Drinkers with a running problem (hash house harriers)

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Robin’s uncle, Charles, has long been a dedicated member of a few Hash House Harrier chapters and he didn’t hesitate to immerse us into the culture by planning our stay around hashes :-) Hashing originated in Kuala Lumpur in 1938 and is home of the Mother Hash. There are 2-3 Hash chapters running per day in KL but so far we have attended only the Harriettes, Petaling, and the Full Moon Hashes (chapters vary in size from 20 to 200 participating hashers). A hash run is a secret route that is set by a Hare, who makes check points in the trail so the front runners are slowed down (while they figure out which way the route continues) enough to regroup with the rest of the hashers. These runs are typically set in the middle of palm plantations, bamboo forests or unmarked jungles and it is not uncommon to have to bushwhack. A good hash is set in such a way to keep runners of all speeds together in a pack and still be able to keep a good clip. This requires the Hare to make many planning trips with a gps at the run site for some reconnaissance they call a recce (pronounced recky) We went with Charles on a recce and blazed our way through rubber, palm and jungle, but the most fun was all of the many hash tales (some of which contained machetes and pythons).

While running with the hash chapter, there is specific terminology that is used to find your way, or to let others know where to go:

On-On! --> I am on the defined route and can visibly see the Hare’s route markings.
Checking! --> The route markings have ended at a checkpoint and I am searching for the next set of markings.
Are You? --> Where are you? Used to vocally find the front runners who could be spread out searching for the next set of markings.
On-Check! --> I am at the checkpoint.
Back-Check! --> I am requesting help checking backwards on the trail to see if the next set of markings are actually behind us.
On-Call! --> I am following someone who found the next set of markings and has called ‘On-On’ somewhere in front of me
On paper! --> I am now following the markings, and am confirming the previous ‘On-On’

Some of the hash runs we did were on trails through parks, and others were more of a bushwack through the jungle on steep trail-less terrain with thorny branches, stream crossings, leaches, monkeys, giant monitor lizards, and wild boars. On our first run, we showed up in the typical city running gear, and were definitely underdressed... but we quickly got the hang of hash style:
Most hashers wore long soccer like socks to avoid the jungle plants scratching up your shins and 80’s style headbands to keep the sweat out of their eyes. By the end of the hash we had completely drenched our clothes with sweat (dom arroyo style) and were fairly muddy. Uncle Charles had quite the setup for rinsing off; he rigged up a ten gallon jug of water with a mini pump + shower head that he had powered via the DC outlet.

The run culminates at a beer van containing plenty of hydration options including Tiger beer, Anchor beer and 6.8% export strength Guinness (we think there were also sodas and water available).

The hashes are fairly well organized; after the run, shower, and copious beer, the runners get into a circle and start “charging” people for any silly actions that they might have done before, during, or after the run (typically they are humorous things like getting lost, forgetting shoes or wearing new clothes). A charge consists of the charged person standing on a box or chair in the middle of the circle with a ¼ pint of beer. The charger then tells a tale of why this person deserves the public ridicule and then the entire circle sings an appropriate drinking song which concludes with “drink it down down down down…” at which point the charged person in the middle downs the beer.

After the circle, there is feast, which is called the On-On, and is either at the run site with a caterer, or at a local restaurant. We were very lucky to be able to attend so many hashes while in KL, something that we hope to find in other countries while we continue our travels.

Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 07:19 Archived in Malaysia Tagged run hash hasing Comments (0)

Authentic Malaysian

Spending some time with the fam

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Auntie Soo grew up in Malaysia and Uncle Charles has lived in Kuala Lumpur for the past 12 years, so while staying with them in KL we’ve been able to get the inside scoop and juicy gossip on the locals. They have also been extremely gracious hosts, giving us the royal treatment by chauffeuring us around town, taking us on road trips and giving us help with planning the next phase of our trip through SE Asia.

KL used to be entirely jungle, but is now overrun with palm oil plantations and large apartment complexes. We are taken back with how many high buildings and apartment complexes there are here, but with speculation and investments going sour we were told that the vacancy rate is about 50% with some apartment buildings obviously vacated. There is a stark contrast between vacated buildings and the tallest twin structures in the world (The Petronas Towers).

Malaysia is a melting pot of Chinese, Indian and Malay. With the Muslim Malay in control of government, there is an eerie call to prayer broadcasted 5 times a day throughout the city. We learned to avoid the Malay restaurants if we wanted a beer with dinner and were impressed to see prayer rooms available at gas stations and in the middle of jungles. We spent some time visiting a Hindu Temple in Batu Caves, the Jamek Islamic Mosque and a Chinese Tao Buddhist temple to get a closer look at the local religions.

In order to reach the Temple in Batu Caves, visitors must climb 227 stairs that are guarded by cheeky monkeys that attack tourists for food. We of course came in appropriate running attire and ran multiple sets past the ‘normal’ tourists still trying to get up for the first time.

We also ran through the KL Lake Gardens, and visited the butterfly and deer parks, which were okay for a run but glad we didn’t go there for a tourist walk since they weren’t of much interest. As with many places in Malaysia there is a huge problem with littering and the overcast sticky heat makes all the buildings look old and weathered, but not in an interesting/historic sort of way. We took a short trip out of town to the FRIM (Forest Reserve Institute Malaysia) where they built a jungle canopy walk where you could see the contrast between the untouched beauty of the jungle and the sky scraping city in the distance.

For Robin’s birthday, we went up to the revolving restaurant at the top of the KL tower for afternoon tea. Although it started to piss with rain right when we got there, we still managed to get some great views and took this panorama to point out where we were staying with Uncle Charles and Auntie Soo.

In addition to tea at the top of the KL Tower, Kevin surprised Robin with an Authentic Malay Cooking Class that was taught out of a home in KL. In the class we made prawn fritters, beef randang, spicy cucumber salad, and XXXX. It was our first cooking class and we had a blast with the mini woks and personal sized stoves.

This Lunar New Year has been a special one with the turn to the year of the dragon b/c it’s the only mythical creature in the zodiac. The Lunar New Year decorations have been quite spectacular with all the towns dressed in red lanterns, dragons and slews of special tidbits (cookies, snacks and soft jerky) being sold. The hashers lit off books of fire crackers to start their runs and hosted gigantic feasts afterwards. All the shops offer free ‘gung hay fat choi’ oranges and the malls are done up with extravagant details with special performances of traditional drums and dragon dances. The amount of decoration, folklore and tradition is equivalent/comparable to the Christmas efforts we are used to in the U.S. and spending time with family is a big part. We were fortunate enough to attend a New Year dinner with Soo’s entire family who were all in town for the holiday.

The Malaysian Chinese have a fun confetti like way to kick off the meal; it’s a dish called Yee Sang (which translates to Raw Fish) that was an exciting treat for us. It is a raw fish salad with colorful sweet noodles that is tossed on the table by everyone using their chopsticks. We were told that the higher you can drop the food onto the plate, the better fortune you will have in the new year (+1 for being tall with long arms).

We are now headed out for a road trip to the highlands and are looking forward to some low humidity mountain fresh air :-)

Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 07:04 Archived in Malaysia Tagged tower kuala new year cooking chinese lumpur kl sang yee Comments (1)

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