Author Archives: Cate Lindsay

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Khao San Road – Where is the love?

Tags :

Category : Thailand

Travelers, tourists, expats and travel writer types, we need a chat. I am not feeling the Khao San Road love and I don’t understand why. What is so wrong with big, bad Khao San Road?

Look, sure, there’s the taxi driver mafia and touts to navigate, and the occasional drunk snoozing in front of a 7/11. You’re likely to find the reason why your home country has the reputation it does there. You won’t be “seen” on the infamous backpacker party strip. There’s no denying that Khao San Road has a few less-than-desirable features. It’s not off the beaten track, it’s not sleek and it’s “touristy”. I, however, maintain that the gauntlet that is Khao San Road is a Bangkok rite of passage.

Khao San Road by night. 

Everyone has a Khao San Road story. 

We took a group of friends to Khao San Road on their first trip to Bangkok. Within minutes of arriving on the strip, a particularly shouty tout made a beeline for Georgette* with his palm card. “You want one!?!” He screamed at her, thrusting his list of services under her nose. Georgette, in all her sweet Bangkok naievity, stopped for a millisecond to read the explicit details  – and promptly turned an attractive shade of lobster red. On a return lap of the street, the same shouty tout thrust the same seedy list in Georgette’s face. “Damnit dude, do I look like like I need one?!” she had shouted as the rest of us rolled around clutching our sides in laughter. The phrase ‘you want one!’ became the most shouted on that trip, to Georgette’s mild annoyance and our great amusement. 

 My first trip to Thailand was my first as a grown up, and I was terrified and naive. In my overly-anxious state, I convinced myself it was a dangerous place to visit (how wrong I was!). My first trip to Khao San Road came after several cheap Singhas beside the fish pond in Soi Rambuttri, waiting for some friends to finish work. We took up residence on the balcony of the Silk Bar (rest its soul) and as the night progressed, tequila appeared. My travel partner, Dylan*, got sufficiently sozzled, and needed assistance to make it back to hostel. The sight of myself and our two skinny Burmese friends trying to steer him was too much; we dissolved into hysterical giggling. Dylan is yet to live that night down. And while it might read like a drunken escapade, the many hours we spent drinking, eating, laughing and solving the world’s problems are some of my favourite spent in Bangkok. 

Where do your local mates want to go for late night booze?

If your mates are anything like mine, they’ll be keen for post work brews once they knock off work at the suit shops. And where do they always want to meet? “Khao San Road, Cate! Let’s party!” Our group of four grew steadily larger as friends of friends finished work and joined us on the strip. We took up tables on balconies overlooking the street, watching the heaving mass of humanity below in its uninhibited glory, or we sprawled across tiny street bars with half warm beers. You might not finish the night on Khao San Road, but it makes for a great place to start. 

One of my favourite things about Khao San Road – noodles and banana rotis! So delicious! 

Drinking and partying not your thing?

The loud party scene is not everyone’s thing; in fact, it can be an overwhelming wave of noise, lights and scents. Khao San’s quieter neighbour, Soi Rambuttri features plenty of relaxed dining, chilled out bars and beauty salons. Feet aching from pounding the pavement of Bangkok all day? Pull up a spot at a street side massage stall and get those tootsies taken care of for only a couple of bucks. If you can’t sit still that long, browse the shops and street side markets for the ubiquitous tourist trinkets of Singha singlets and Bangkok postcards. You don’t have to partake in the hectic party scene offered by Khao San Road; Rambuttri offers plenty of laid back options!

Not a fan of the party scene? Treat your feet and head for the massage stalls on Soi Rambuttri, Khao San Road’s relaxed neighbour. RC. 

Location! Location! Location!

There can be no denying that the infamous party strip is perfectly located, with many of Bangkok’s historical and religious sites just a short tuk tuk ride away. The Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew, as well as Wat Pho are about a half hour walk away if you’re looking to up your step count. Take in the Giant Swing, Democracy Monument and Phra Sumen fort. Make use of the proximity to the Chao Phraya by hopping on a boat and crossing to Siriraj Hospital, where you’ll find Wanglang market waiting to dish you the best BBQ pork and stuffed pancakes for lunch. Back on the other side of the river, you can see the Monk’s Bowl Village, Loha Prasat and the Golden Mount before stopping by the legendary Pad Thai Tip Samai for dinner too – all within a short distance of Khao San Road. 

If you’re in the region prior to the end of November 2017, you can catch a glimpse of late king’s crematorium at Sanam Luang. Richard Barrow, a teacher-by-day and blogger-by-night, has written a great piece with all the information you’ll need if you’re planning to visit this site! 

Wat Pho is a beautiful temple not far from Khao San Road. 

So, traveling types, I’m planting my flag. I’m digging my heels in for Khao San Road. I know it’s not hip, and I know its got its unsavoury side (so does Sukhumvit… Nana, anyone?). But truth be told, its that one guilty pleasure that we all have a secret soft spot for. We were all once drunken fools, daring each other to eat deep fried scorpions. We were all once financially challenged “twatpackers” looking for a cheap beer and cheap accommodation. Once, Khao San Road was the place to be. 

* names have been changed to protect their identities. 

 


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Saving a Cultural Treasure: Htwe Oo Myanmar

Tags :

Category : Myanmar

The evening air was warm and sticky as we climbed the narrow stairs to Htwe Oo Myanmar Puppet Theatre. Honking traffic and pedestrian chatter fell away we were ushered into the cool, dark theatre. Dressed in a crisp maroon shirt and black longyi, Mr Htwe’s wide grin gave me a sense of his infectious energy and desire to preserve this cultural gem of Myanmar. 

Mr Htwe spoke with so much passion for his craft. He explained that while working aboard a ship, he realised that the pursuit of money would never end, and decided to follow his heart. After battling political instability, money troubles due to a crumbling tourism industry, and the after effects of Cyclone Nagis, Mr Htwe and his wife Mrs Oo finally opened the theatre. 

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The Performance

Htwe Oo Myanmar has cherry picked the best parts of traditional Burmese stories and opera for their shows. Mr Htee explained that Burmese opera can go for many hours, involving an enormous cast of both puppets and puppeteers. The story is engaging and action packed, and Mr Htwe ensures that all sections are translated or explained to his foreign audience. 

Told in traditional Burmese style, this classic tale of princes, princesses, villains and heroes also picks up on themes from Burmese and Buddhist mythology.  Brightly coloured sets and loud, powerful Burmese music complete the experience.

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The Puppets

Each puppet used by Htwe Oo Myanmar is hand made using local materials and local artists. Costumes are brightly coloured and incredibly intricate, often closely mimicking the costumes worn by Burmese royals and depicted in murals splashed across temples. 

Even more intricate is the system of strings and hand movements required to make the puppets move. The puppeteers make these characters come alive in the opera. From amazingly deft small movements to convey a thought or emotion, to acrobatics that would leave my attempts in knots. Watch for the moment in the show… you’ll know it – it took my breath away!

At the end of the show, the puppeteers bring out puppets for audience members to try their hand at. I discovered I am not destined for the puppeteer life. While I managed to get a few dance moves out of the marionette, they were far too jerky and static – much to the amusement of the Htwe Oo puppeteers. 

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The Passion

Htwe Oo Myanmar is overwhelmingly passionate about preserving and promoting the art of traditional Burmese puppetry. Mr Htwe and his troupe haven’t just travel the length and breadth of their home country. They’ve even traveled overseas to perform at cultural exhibitions and puppetry competitions. While supporting puppetry masters around the country, the company also aims to engage and educate a younger breed of puppeteers. Mr Htwe and Mrs Oo’s own children also participate in the shows as part-time puppeteers, picking up secrets from the company’s own master puppeteers. 

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Details – Htwe Oo Myanmar 

This show is an absolute must see when you’re in Yangon, Myanmar. Bookings are essential, and Htwe Oo ask that you book at least one day in advance. The theatre only holds a small number, so audiences are small and intimate. We booked our spot by emailing Htwe Oo – details below.

Htwe Oo Myanmar has moved to new premises at Ahlone Township, about a 15 minute drive from the Sule Pagoda.

No. 12, First floor
Yama Street
Ahlone Township, Yangon. 

Mobile: (959) 512 7271
Email: booking@htweoomyanmar.com

Website: http://www.htweoomyanmar.com/
Facebook: www.facebook.com/htweoomyanmarpuppetryhome

It’s about a 15 minute drive from the Sule Pagoda to Htwe Oo Myanmar’s new theatre in Ahlone Township.


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Travelling when you’re the “fat girl”

Category : Thoughts

I’ve always been a bit round; soft and doughy in the middle with thick thighs and a wide backside. Sprinters legs, football legs. But as always, thin seems to be in. Despite all the talk about accepting bodies of all shapes and sizes, there’s still a lot of judging and whispering going on. 

Airline seats

It seems all airlines are constantly battling to design the world’s worst torture rack seat. The arm rests are getting closer, and the legroom is continually shrinking. This is hardly a fat girl problem though… this is everyone’s problem. I’m thoroughly convinced this is ploy from airlines to sell you the premium economy seats, or even business class.

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Aboard our flight to Thursday Island. No business class on this flight!

I’ve only flown business class once, with Thai Airways, and it was so glorious it almost ruined travel for me…. What do you mean I have to go back to cattle class?! 

The eye rolling/snorts of derision/loud sighing

Why do some people think us “big girls” are deaf and blind? Why, when we sit down beside them, do they think its appropriate to snort loudly or sigh with annoyance at our presence? I can see you and hear you doing that! Don’t worry, mate, I’m just as uncomfortable as you right now. And I am working hard to keep my errant limbs and love handles from encroaching on your space. 

Its a long haul flight in economy, no one is going to be comfortable. Let’s just agree to be civil and hope our choice in meal isn’t gone by the time the trolley gets to us, okay?

Shopping is both hilarious and traumatic

Shopping for clothes for myself is by far my least favourite activity. Each brand is so different in their sizing that I can run a 16 (Aus) in one brand and a 22 in another. The lack of consistency is infuriating. Getting stuck in high necked, non-stretchy tops and dresses is a common occurrence, and there is much flailing of arms and weird wriggling to get out.

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Shopping in Ubud. Found a new shoulder bag I had to have…

In Asia, I hardly bother. Everything is too small. Occasionally, I strike a stall catering for bigger westerners but the pickings can be slim. Those cute patterned mini shorts with the pom poms? I wouldn’t even get them past my knees. That knock off Ralph polo is more like a midriff on me – très chic. And my favourite: “I have big size, wide size for you madam!”

My food choices are critiqued and judged

I love food and I love to eat. There is no calorie counting going on here, just pure enjoyment of the dish (or dishes) in front of me. And yet, I can tell people are judging me and my size as I slurp down my noodles or pick out pieces of bacon at the breakfast buffett. I see them looking, but pretending not to look. Some people even take it upon themselves to pass comment while I eat. ‘You’ll need to work that off later!’ Yeah cheers mate, but I’ve got a date with the beach and the sun. You definitely ain’t invited.

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Time to chow down on babi guling (bbq suckling pig) and satay ayam (chicken satay).

Talk at the table often turns to gym work outs or new diets. I’m sorry, I can’t hear you over the sound of me enjoying my food (and not counting the carbs)!

People like to stare at the beach

Looks peeps. I’m just here to enjoy the sun and the surf, and I’m not about to apologise to you if you were expecting Miranda Kerr. I can actually see through these sunnies, and I did notice the sideways glances and pointing. Besides, I am here with my husband (and/or friends) enjoying myself. I’m not here for your viewing pleasure – I don’t really care what you think. What I’m wearing on the beach isn’t really any of your damn business!

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Sky’s out? Thighs out! At Pink Beach, Lombok.

My biggest worry on the beach is not sizzling myself to a crisp – slip, slop, slap people! 

I look hella cute in my winter gear

Queenstown, New Zealand, was my jam! This bubble butt was built for tights, skinny jeans, boots and fluffy coats. DONE. Watch me strut. 

But you know the saddest part of all this?

In grand scheme of things, I’m really not “that fat”. I’m pretty damn average on the scale of Australian women’s bodies for my height and age. After a long battle with my own self confidence and body image demons, I’ve come to accept myself. To love myself. 

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Deliriously happy in Bagan. I could hardly believe where I was.

I love sunbathing by the pool and snorkeling over reefs. I love wading through creeks to waterfalls, riding in tuk tuks and chowing down on delicious street food. These days I hardly give a thought to what others around might be thinking or saying around me. If they are so pre-occupied with judging who I am, then they clearly aren’t enjoying their holiday enough!

Although sometimes, occasionally, I do wish people would just accept me the way I am. 


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Paradise found in Bali

Or, How I learned (again) not to judge a book by its cover. 

Bali isn’t a great place to visit. There’s too many touts and scammers. It’s full of drunk, self-entitled Australians looking to ‘find themselves’ (at the bottom of a Bintang stubbie apparently), and is the site of many footy off-season indiscretions. If I wanted that, I’d go to the Gold Coast during Schoolies week. 

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Padang Padang beach. #sunsout #gunsout

I WAS WRONG. 

That is not Bali. Long before I got there, I had Bali pegged as an awful place and somewhere I didn’t really have any interest in visiting. My husband (then fiance) booked cheap air fares for a pre-wedding getaway, so we could relax and forget about the planning stress for a while. I went, expecting to just laze in the sun and drink cocktails, hiding from my embarrassing compatriots. Here are three places in Bali that I absolutely love. 

Padangbai

Turns out I didn’t need to hide; Padangbai isn’t exactly on the map for most travelers. Most pass through, leaping onto the fast boats that leave several times a day to the Gili islands. I think they’re missing out on a small treasure. Padangbai is tiny, there are no great five-star resorts here. The streets are dusty and quiet, save for a few kids playing soccer. We wake each morning with the sound of the call to prayer echoing from the nearby mosque, and spend our nights bobbing along to lazy reggae tunes with the locals at the Sunshine Bar. Our tiny guest house made us a wonderful breakfast each morning, and the coffee! Oh the coffee! Strong, black but not bitter – the best coffee I’ve ever had. 

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The quiet streets of Padangbai in the early afternoon.

When we were feeling particularly adventurous, we decided to head over the headland to White Sand Beach. We got terrifically lost (somehow) on our way and were rescued by a local on a scooter. After that, we shared the entire White Sand Beach with one local folding her washing. Another day, we walked the other direction over another headland. I cursed the blazing heat and sun the whole way, but we were rewarded by the cool waters of the glorious Blue Lagoon beach. We staked our claim on a piece of sand and even got a beach side massage. 

After a long night bopping along to Marley in the Sunshine Bar, we met a friend of the bar owner who was willing to take us out snorkelling. He took us out to Telung Jepun and the Blue Lagoon, just us and a German couple. We spent hours paddling alongside the boat and floating calmly over reefs. Although there are sometimes questions raised over the eco-friendliness of the island, the reefs were surprisingly healthy and full of life.   

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Padangbai beach at sunset.

In the afternoon, kids swam among the boats tied up just off the beach. Still salty and covered in sand, we joined Ketut and a few locals for farewell drinks. Padangbai was my diamond in the rough; here, I decided, would be where I disappeared to if I decided to go off the grid. Maybe I could work at the Sunshine Bar? 

Ubud

Ubud was one of the places I was keen to see. Not because it had become part of popular culture via ‘Eat Pray Love’, but because I thought it would be laid back, artsy and full of hippies. It was sort of like that, but after the relative silence of Padangbai the constant stream of scooters and cars through the streets of Ubud was a bit of a shock. We didn’t find ourselves a medicine man named Ketut, but we did find the local market, a Cuban-themed pub and more palaces and temples we could poke a stick at.

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Pura Taman Saraswati – the Water Palace in Ubud.

Ubud is also ridiculously picturesque – I needed another two days and my head on a swivel to see everything! Walking is one of the best ways to see the town, but you can also rent scooters or bicycles. There are a number of temples and palaces around with amazing gardens, sculptures and water features. Cafe Lotus features fantastic views of Pura Taman Saraswati (the Water Palace) and the water lilies, and we spent a few hours lazing on their cushions watching a steady flow of visitors to the palace. 

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Early morning scooter parking lot in Ubud.

One morning, we got up before the sun and made our way down to the market. The streets were sleepy, but the market was a riot of colour and noise. Locals were stocking up for day. Fresh and dried fish, fresh vegetables and fruit, whole pigs, pastes, spices and herbs were stacked in baskets across the floor, on shelves and on make shift tables. Ladies in sarongs watched over enormous baskets filled colourful flowers while they weaved smaller baskets from palm frond. It was a refreshing look at life ‘behind the scenes’ of Bali, as the locals started their day well before the tourists did. 

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Morning market colour. Locals buy and sell their goods for the day.

Sanur

Admittedly, I didn’t spend long in Sanur but I loved it. Its the older luxury beachside area on the island, with plenty of accommodation, restaurants, shopping and nightspots, yet still relaxed and quiet. Its cool and chilled out; absolutely my idea of an expat’s paradise. 

Views out over the clear blue water are spectacular and the long yellow-white stretch of sand is dotted with warungs selling cold beer and noodles. There’s a beachfront cycle path which stretches for five kilometers along the beach, weaving past the resorts and around warungs. Street side, things are a little busier with cars and vans trying to share the same skinny road. Market stalls abound, and what was particularly exciting for me, almost all stocked clothing in foreigner large sizes (thankfully, as my clean clothing stocks were running low). 

A favourite spot of mine was the Blue Cafe, perched on a corner and overlooking the busy main street of Sanur. It was the perfect spot to sip cocktails and indulge in some people watching. After the sun sets, there’s live music to set the mood. 

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Traffic chaos in Sanur… which somehow seems to flow!

 

 

 


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How to mildly annoy your work mates

I was nominated by my boss to write a piece for the office newsletter about my global gallivanting… 

I work with a phenomenal team, really. The amount of work they churn out in a short period is truly astonishing. They love a good morning tea and appreciate tolerate my bad jokes. But I’m pretty sure they’re losing patience with me. I’ve discovered, accidentally, how to mildly annoy my work mates.

Turns out I just need to travel, and count some days.

In March, I hit Yangon, Myanmar. Having visited a few years ago while the country was still under the rule of its military dictator, I loved seeing how much the country had changed with its new found freedom. The people were so beautiful, and now so talkative. Great discussions about politics, religion and the Burmese economy raged around me in eateries and restaurants. I trawled through markets and museums, visited temples, palaces and mosques, and ate more barbequed seafood than I’d care to admit.

Standing in front of the glittering Shwedagon Pagoda. Yangon, Myanmar.

Standing in front of the glittering Shwedagon Pagoda. Yangon, Myanmar.

When I returned to work, I started The Countdown. How many working days until I was off on my next adventure? I thought it was great! A motivating factor for Mondays and my university studies. My work mates weren’t as thrilled, and declared they would be living vicariously through me. No worries, I can take one for the team!

After a while, I announced it was zero working days until my next holiday, and flew to the Torres Strait to camp on Cape York with my family. It was fantastic. I spent the week four wheel driving and bush walking, amongst other things like roasting marshmallows, fishing and checking the under the dunny seat for frogs and/or spiders. My family and I climbed the headland and stood on the very pointy northern bit of Queensland, which was kind of surreal and emotional. It was a trip my parents had planned for a long time.

Spectacular views from the helicopter over Cape York. Queensland.

Spectacular views from the helicopter over Cape York. Queensland.

But then, it was back to work. Only 15 working days on The Countdown this time and I was off to Queenstown. To be honest, this probably wasn’t very fair and my incessant chattering about the New Zealand adventure hardly did me any favours. This is what happens when you make friends with people who have a penchant for destination weddings.

New Zealand was perfect! Amazing! Breath-taking! Queenstown, in case you were curious, is a great place to eat and bar-hop. Craft beer fans, look no further! The wedding was glorious, and I managed to ski for the first time ever without breaking any limbs or causing any calamitous collisions on the beginners run. Hashtag winning. I cruised Milford Sound in absolute blazing sunshine, and spotted penguins, dolphins and fur seals. It could not have been any better (except maybe minus the blizzard that closed the ski fields for a day).

Blizzard fun at Cardrona. Queenstown, New Zealand.

Blizzard fun at Cardrona. Queenstown, New Zealand.

So now I’m back, and my wonderful work mates have moved my desk to its new location in the Magistrates Court. They’re training me in my new role and have been nothing but supportive. I told you, they’re amazing!

… but in case anyone is curious, its 21 working days until I jet off to Bangkok!


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The Beauty of Street Food

Street food is one of my favourite things about travelling. I love different dining cultures and cuisines around the world, and I believe food is one of the greatest ways to learn about a country and its people.

Fresh and flavourful

Street food is delicious! I love the piles of fresh produce on the carts and tables; being able to pick your seafood from a pile of ice for cooking is pretty awesome. Dishes are whipped up continuously with amazing speed. Food is pounded, chopped, stir-fried and grilled, imbibing each dish with a unique flavour. Whether you’re a lover of charcoal grilled meat on sticks, stir-fried noodles or zesty spicey som tam, you will find something delicious to eat.

A lady making som tam bu at Fisherman's Village, Koh Samui.

A lady making som tam bu at Fisherman’s Village, Koh Samui.

No fuss

Street food is the great leveler. Here, no one is above another. Everyone sits on plastic stools of questionable structural integrity, at steel tables stabilised by a folded up beer coaster. Your food will arrive on newspaper, paper plates or communal melamine plates. Linen napkins? Not here, just a roll of tissue or toilet paper perched on the table. Stall holders will greet you with loud shouts of “sawatdee!” or “mingalaba!”. There’s no fluff and pomp, but there is cold beer and everyone is happy.

Plastic plates, stainless steel tables, beer and river prawns. What more could you ask for! 19th Street, Yangon.

Plastic plates, stainless steel tables, beer and river prawns. What more could you ask for! 19th Street, Yangon.

A bit of everything

You can find just about anything your heart desires at street carts and restaurants. Ice cream sandwiches? Yep. Noodles? All over it. Banana roti? You better believe it. All manner of stir-fried meat, tofu and vegetable combinations can be found on the street, and even fried insects are available in some neighbourhoods. Fresh cut fruit is popular – make like the locals and get green mango with sugar and chili flakes for a refreshing kick. Alternatively, grab an oyster omelette, the ultimate in greasy, heavy, salty deliciousness. Counterbalance it with some spicy som tam or grilled corn. There is so much to choose from, so make sure you pick a bit of everything!

Seafood galore at street stall in Ao Nang.

Seafood galore at street stall in Ao Nang.

It’s available at any time of day

If you know where to look. Street food vendors are an enterprising bunch, setting up shop outside hospitals, universities, and office towers. Come breakfast or lunch time, they’re a flurry of noise and colour as they serve up their wares with unbelievable efficiency. As the sun starts to dip, seafood restaurants pop up on the sidewalk as though the carts are spring loaded. Walking home turns into an obstacle as diners spread out on the pavement. After dark, you can find banana rotis and noodle stalls outside nightclubs and bars to feed hungry partiers as they make their way home. Late night/early morning pad see ew beats the pants off late night/early morning kebabs, trust me.

Late banana roti vendor on Khao San Road, Bangkok.

Late banana roti vendor on Khao San Road, Bangkok.

And the atmosphere…

One of the things I love most about street food is the atmosphere that surrounds it. Stall holders gossip noisily as they wait for customers. Some even nap balanced on their motorbikes! Its incredibly relaxed and social. Tables, chairs and plates are all shared, and people get together just to eat, drink and talk – non-stop! To me, there’s nothing better than digging into a pile of fresh cooked pad thai while the streets bustle around you, after a long day walking, sightseeing and shopping. Extra points for ordering in the local language, and assuming the local squat position on the footpath (which is harder than it looks!).

19th Street, Yangon is popular with locals looking to hang out, eat and talk.

19th Street, Yangon is popular with locals looking to hang out, eat and talk.

What’s your favourite thing about street food? Let me know in the comments below!


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Wat Phra Kaew & the Grand Palace

Category : Thailand

At the centre of Bangkok’s medley of tourist sightseeing locations, lies the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew; two of Thailand’s most important cultural and religious sites. Here’s why the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew should be on your Bangkok itinerary.

The stupas of Wat Phra Kaew.

The stupas of Wat Phra Kaew.

Rich in history

I’m a huge history nerd, and I absolutely loved the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew for this reason! So much of Thailand’s dramatic past is tied up in this beautiful place. The Palace and temple were built in 1782, and initially were made of wood. King Rama I took control of the kingdom and moved the capital to the other side of the river, to the area now known as Rattanakosin.

"Phra Thinang Chakri Maha Prasat" - this one of the main buildings of the Grand Palace.

“Phra Thinang Chakri Maha Prasat” – this one of the main buildings of the Grand Palace.

For centuries, the Palace was the centre of Thai culture and home to the monarchy and Buddhist religion in Thailand. Great tales of love, murder, hatred and power have played out in these courtyards. You can see the buildings where the royal family previously resided and where court was held in the immense throne hall. Our tour guide also pointed out, quite casually, the enormous building and courtyard where the concubines and their children once lived.

One of my favourite documentaries about Thailand and the current Thai monarch, King Rama IX can be found on YouTube here. Produced by the BBC in 1979, it is anti-communist propaganda film, but it does give a unique insight into His Majesty’s life at that time. This version does cut off short, and I am yet to find a copy of the full production…

Crowds gather outside the Grand Palace.

Crowds gather outside the Grand Palace.

All that glitters…

Wat Phra Kaew is home to the most revered Buddhist image in Thailand, and it is only appropriate that it resides in a temple that matches its importance with its beauty. This was the first temple I visited in Thailand and I was blown away by the colours. Every surface is lavished with gold, blue, green and red tile mosaics. The nagas, garudas and monkeys make for excellent photos. You absolutely should stop and strike a pose!

The Emerald Buddha itself is trimmed in gold and precious stones, sitting high on a plinth decorated with more gold and glittering stones. I was awestruck, standing in the dark and staring at this comparatively small statue surrounded by mountains of gold, stones, flowers and incense.

Colours and gold abound in the temple.

Colours and gold abound in the temple.

Attention to detail

I love the fine details of Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace. In addition to the fine tile mosaics across the temple and halls, there is also a scale model of Angkor Wat. This model was moved to the Palace on the orders of King Mongkut, following tensions with neighbouring kingdoms. It’s an unusual sight within the temple grounds, but gives you a sense of the immense scale of Cambodia’s most sacred temple.

The temple is also surrounded by beautifully painted and intricate murals, which tell the Thai story “Ramakian”. Even the murals feature details in gold leaf, adding to the decadence of the temple. If you hire a guide, they should be able to to explain each section of the mural – the story is quite incredible.

Strike a pose!

Strike a pose!

The Grand Palace is not your standard enormous mansion set in rolling green gardens. Here, East meets West in a clash of architecture. The main throne hall walls are built in western colonial style, but are topped by a sloping roof and tall spires similar to a stupa. If you happen to be visiting at around 10am, you will see the changing of the guard ceremony at the Palace.

Is the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew on your itinerary? Here’s what you’ll need to know…

To enter the temple and Grand Palace grounds you must dress appropriately, so absolutely no bikinis or singlets! Shoulders need to be covered, and you need to cover your legs as well. I throw a sarong and a light shirt in my bag so I can put them on over the top.

One of the things I loved most about Wat Phra Kaew was the number locals find a moment of peace and quiet amongst the bustling crowds. Locals still pray and make offerings at this temple, so be respectful. Don’t interrupt them, and give them space. This is their temple and their beliefs… don’t intrude. Follow the signs so make sure you take your shoes off before entering the Wat Phra Kaew temple. Be aware that no photos or video are allowed inside the temple. If you decide to sit down, don’t point your feet toward anyone or anything. It’s considered highly disrespectful, so tuck them to the side or underneath yourself.

Locals worship smaller figures around the temple too.

Locals worship smaller figures around the temple too.

Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace are unfortunately hot spots for tuk tuk scams. People claiming to be tourist police (complete with fake badges!) are known to approach tourists and convince them the Palace is closed. Before you know it, you’re packed into a tuk-tuk and taken to several ‘hidden’ temples… via a few gem shops. If anyone approaches you and tells you the Palace is closed for cleaning, a special holiday or ‘just for the afternoon’, ignore them. Head straight for the entrance (on Na Phra Lan Rd, follow the crowds!) and don’t get in any tuk tuks.

Getting to the Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace is quite easy. You can take a taxi or the Chao Phraya Express boat which stops at the nearby Tha Chang pier. Boats with orange and green flags, as well as boats with no flags stop here. The pier is a short walk through some markets to Na Phra Lan Rd and up to the entrance.

 


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Newbies Guide to Chatuchak Market

Category : Thailand

Chatuchak Market is one of the best places to shop in Bangkok. Its variety is some of the best around, but its immense size can be daunting for first time visitors. Here is your guide to Chatuchak Market and getting the best out of it!

Getting to Chatuchak Market

Chatuchak is easy to get to! Catching public transport like the BTS (skytrain) or the MRT (subway) is cheap and convenient. If you catch the BTS, Mo Chit station is a short walk from the market. If you’re traveling on the MRT, get off at Khampaengphet station – its closer than Chatuchak Park station. The BTS website has great, easy to read maps and even shows the MRT line. If you hop on the BTS Sukhumvit line, just ride to Mo Chit station and hop off there. If you’re the BTS Silom line, change for the Sukhumvit line at Siam station. Should you be staying near the Chao Phraya river, catch a boat to Sathorn pier and you can catch the BTS at Saphan Taksin which is only a minute away – just follow the signs overhead.

Almost every taxi and tuk tuk driver in the city will know how to get to Chatuchak market, so hopping a taxi will not be a problem. You can expect to pay upwards of 100 baht, so it is an expensive option. Keep the Bangkok traffic in mind too, but I haven’t found it to be a real problem. After hours of shopping and more purchases than you can carry, sometimes a taxi home is a good option.

Bangkok BTS Skytrain

Early morning sun in Bangkok, waiting for the BTS (skytrain).

How to navigate Chatuchak

To be honest, I have no secrets of my own to navigating Chatuchak Market; I’m more than happy to wander back and forth through the rows of aisles. However, I am definitely a browser. My husband also has a fantastic sense of direction, and manages to find his way through the market by, I suspect, the scent of food or beer in the air. Maps are available from the information centre, near Gate 1 on the western side of the market. They’re colour coded and detail what is available in each section. Blayne from Leaves From The Vine recommends using OffMaps, to navigate. OffMaps doesn’t require internet or wi-fi connection and you can drop pins to remind yourself where certain shops are. You can find Blayne’s post about her Chatuchak journey here. In my opinion, the number one rule of Chatuchak navigation? If you see something you like, buy it then and there. The chances of making it back find it later are slim – you’ll get distracted by everything else on offer here!

One of the sois in Chatuchak Market.

One of the sois in Chatuchak Market.

What to buy at Chatuchak

This is one of the best places to shop in Bangkok, and stock so much more than the usual tourist souvenirs. The market is particularly good for vintage and retro items, as well as local designers. Think less ‘Same Same’ t-shirts and more quirky and funky designs from local up and coming labels. Jeans, skirts and dresses appear in every imagination at Chatuchak. Sizes do run small for women (as with most of Thailand) so don’t get disheartened. Children’s clothing is a great for the little ones in your family – super cute and super bright patterns, baby harem pants and elephant print everything. Jewellery is also popular, and not the gold of questionable authenticity kind. Hand made, braided, beaded and woven pieces are popular, cheap and quite well made. There are also quite a few shop selling stands of beads in every form imaginable, including jade. I always buy some to take home to my mum, for her jewellery label. Chatuchak is also a great place to buy souvenirs or gifts, with plenty of cute embroidered purses, colourful scarves, elephant key rings, stationery and magnets. If you’re looking to design your own clothes, you can buy beautiful material by the metre as well. Looking to adorn more than yourself? you can find an amazing array of homewares at the market, including statues, rugs, furniture and artwork. Fancy decking out your kitchen? There are all the woks, pans and utensils you can think of available for purchase too. And if you’ve bought too much or too big to fit in your suitcase, you can swing by the UPS or TNT office at the market to box your purchases up and mail them home.

One of the many sois of Chatuchak market.

One of the many sois of Chatuchak market.

JJ Mall – air conditioned paradise right next door!

If the heat becomes unbearable, take refuge at JJ Mall, just to the north of Chatuchak market. JJ Mall sells a lot of fare similar to what you’ll find at the markets, but there are also stalls catering to locals including some very expensive and impressive looking paintings and sculptures. You will find wedding supply stores and shops selling incense in every scent and form imaginable. Need a foot massage after traipsing through the markets? JJ Mall has that too. You’ll also find a large, clean food court inside JJ Mall. I can recommend egg noodles with barbeque pork, combination fried rice and wonton soup. Vendors in the food court do not accept cash, instead you put baht on a reusable card at the service desk near the food court. Use this to buy your food and drinks at the food court and any unused baht on the card will be given back to you.

Dried chillies and spices on sale at Chatuchak market.

Dried chillies and spices on sale at Chatuchak market.

What I love most about Chatuchak Market

The people watching at Chatuchak Market is excellent. Thai locals come to shop and socialise at the market, and if you’re visiting around holidays there is often dancing, music and local groups showcasing their talents. Pull up a seat at one of the small bars or coffee shops around the market, take a breather and watch the market bustle around you. Teens shop for the latest fashions, grandmothers haul bags of spices and plastic trays though the skinny aisles, men continually rearrange their shop fonts. Its a riot of colour and sounds and scents, which will overwhelm and delight you.


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Lessons on life in Yangon

Tags :

Category : Myanmar

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things” – Henry Miller

They say travel will change your life. They’re not lying. Travel will also change you. It will challenge all of your preconceived ideas, teach you about yourself, break your heart and mend it again. Some experiences you won’t forget, and others you’ll never stop thinking about.

We’d been kicking back in the shaded courtyard of Zawgyi House in Yangon, when a small girl’s face popped up over the wall.

“Hello, miss! Postcard for you? Where are you from?”
This tiny thing, with shining eyes and brilliant smile, was clutching a plastic wallet full of painted cards in one hand and the hand of a small boy in the other.
“Hello, miss! Would you like a postcard? Thank you for coming to my country! What do you think of Myanmar?” she chirped, like rapid fire.
“Mingalaba!” I called back, “I love your country – you are all so friendly and happy.”
She flashed me a dazzling grin as I bought one of her postcards and she skipped off down the footpath, the small boy in tow. I didn’t think much of it until a few days later when Patrick and I got separated from our mate John inside the maze of Bogyoke Market.

Maudreyou and her little brother, Ngenge.

Maudreyou and her little brother, Ngenge.

While we were trying to work out which direction we should head to search, the small girl appeared at Patrick’s side, tugging on his hand.
“Mister, I know your friend! I will help you!”
We waited by the main entrance and watched in awe as she took off back into the market and returned a minute later with John in tow. She introduced herself as Maudreyou – well, that’s my best guess at the English spelling – and her brothers Ngenge, the small boy from a few days before, and Keto, slightly older and cautious. After a whirlwind shopping trip through Bogyoke Market, where the children chatted non-stop and bargained fiercely for us, we offered to buy them dinner as a thank you, and they shyly accepted.

John shopping with Maudreyou and Keto.

John shopping with Maudreyou and Keto.

While we waited for the food, Keto and Maudreyou told us about their family and what life was like for them. It wasn’t a happy story. The family lived at the nearby Yangon train station, bribing the staff and police to let them stay. Their father was an army officer, who had been injured in conflict and promptly booted out by the junta. He couldn’t stand for long or walk long distances, and relied on the children’s mother to take care of him.  By day, the kids sold postcards and bamboo fans (and cigarettes in Keto’s case) to make the money they needed.

We all sat silent in a state of shock and sadness, as these three beautiful children devoured the noodles and rice they had chosen. John asked what we were all thinking – do mum and dad to have enough money to feed you? Keto looked embarassed and continued slurping down noodles. Maudreyou answered carefully – “we have food, but not as nice as this”. She beamed. I simply could not believe the happiness that radiated from this tiny being. After life had thrown at her, she was still so cheery and lovely. She wanted to go to school, to be a nurse, “or maybe a tourist person!” (tour guide, I think). She explained she liked talking to tourists, it helped her with her English. I was filled with hope and hopelessness; I wanted to help.

This sweet girl was so full of happiness, it was infectious.

This sweet girl was so full of happiness, it was infectious.

We ordered ice cream for them to share, and they stared at it in complete confusion. They had absolutely no idea what to do with ice cream… but I had never seen children eat ice cream as fast as they did once Patrick showed them. I realised at that moment, that I had unknowingly taken every single thing in my life for granted until that point. At the risk of sounding cliched, I had a bed and a nice inner city apartment, a good education, plenty of food and I was so incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to travel. I wasn’t naive enough to think that people did not live in poverty, however it was the first time I had been confronted with it in such a raw and physical form. What Maudreyou and her siblings did have though, was a loving family. Half way through our dinner, Mum and Dad arrived in a panic because the children hadn’t made their way home. They were incredibly grateful to find them sitting up at the table with us, chowing down on noodles and chicken.

Mum, Dad and their kids.

Mum, Dad and their kids. Keto had borrowed our camera and took lots of photos.

Truth be told, I was ready to adopt those children then and there. I wanted to take them home with me, give them a proper bed and send them to school. I wanted to sell everything I owned and move to Yangon, to do something – start a school, start a program to help Maudreyou, Keto and Ngenge. The situation these children were in, the exhaustion and despair written into the faces of their parents broke my heart. I was also angry that in a world where I could book flights on a mobile phone, there were kids like these three selling postcards to make a measly living. It’s hard for me to accurately put into words; I knew this occurred all over the world, but this was the first time the issue had been given a face, and a giggle, and a smile… and hopes and dreams. Since leaving Yangon, I have thought often of Maudreyou, Keto and Ngenge. I wonder what has happened to them, if they still live at the train station, or if they have gone to school. I am forever thankful to fate/karma/your preferred deity that I met them. Our encounter changed my life and my outlook on it, and I feel guilty that I didn’t do more for them.  When we return to Yangon later this year, I have all the hope in the world their situation has improved and the kids are happy and healthy.

Maudreyou, Ngenge and Keto.

Maudreyou, Ngenge and Keto.

The experience served as a reminder to me of what can happen if you are open while you travel. Talk to the locals, share in their culture, listen to their stories, maybe even share a meal with them. I can guarantee you’ll walk away with a different sense of the world, and at the very least, some amazing memories.


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Amazing Yunnanese food in Mae Salong, Chiang Rai!

Perched high in the mountains of the northern Chiang Rai province, is a tiny town, where life moves at a slower pace and the air feels a little lighter.

Surrounded by vast sloping fields of tea plantations, Doi Mae Salong is a beauiful town with a rich Yunnan Chinese influence. Red Chinese lanterns hang from the telephone wires that zig-zag across the road, as ladies pick fresh tea leaves in the fields below. The town itself is built all higgledy piggledy – houses of cement and brick with clay tile roofs, built almost on top of each other. Old ladies sat outside shops, smoking and flashing us toothy grins as we drove past. I watched pedestrians making their way along the side of the road; one lady dressed in bright woven clothing was carrying a large bundle on her head and small child in a sling on her back. Our guide explained she had come down from a hill tribe village to sell things at the local market.

The dusk view from our guesthouse.

The dusk view from our guesthouse.

Our guesthouse had amazing views of the town and the mountain range, even in the hot season when the crops were ablaze and the smoke was thick in the air. After a long day driving, we made a beeline to the small bar, and took over the bench which faced out to the valley below. The owner was cheery and very friendly, bringing us his coldest beers and glasses of ice. As the sun disappeared, a gentle bamboo flute tune trickled down the hills, followed a reading of the daily news in Chinese for residents without televisions or radios.

It would have been very easy to sink deep into the old lounges on the balcony at the guesthouse bar and let the cool darkness swallows us, but we had a dinner date at a local Yunnanese restaurant.

Ping Ping Restaurant

Next to the markets near the turn off for Hongfu Boutique Resort, in a neat little building open on two sides, you will find Ping Ping Restaurant. Run by a local family, this little restaurant serves up amazing Yunnan Chinese cuisine in big portions for little dosh. A teenage girl in pink and white Hello Kitty slippers served us beers while our guide ‘A’ ordered a spread of dishes for us to share. The prize dish was a whopping plate of braised pork leg, with a divine, meaty broth that tasted of star anise and salt. There was no wrangling this dish, the meat simply fell off the bone when you tapped it with your spoon. Instead of rice, we sopped up the broth with slightly sweet steamed buns. I could have only eaten the pork leg and been totally satisfied, it was one of my favourite dishes!

Look at that braised pork leg! Delicious!

Look at that braised pork leg! Delicious!

There was also a plate of barbequed duck that was extremely tasty. Cooked to perfection, with crispy skin and delicious juicy meat. If I had’ve ordered, it probably would not have made its way on to our table, as duck is not my favourite barbequed meat. However, it was delicious all the same. A surprising favourite of mine was stir fried mushrooms in soy sauce, garlic and chilies. The mushrooms and the duck together were divine – salty and succulent, chased with icy cold beer.

Another dish arrived at the table – stir fried ostrich with chili, garlic and handfuls of coriander. It looked a bit like pad gra pao, but the meat was different. To me it was like a cross between beef and chicken. The flavour came from the chilies and garlic, and the coriander added a fresh kick. I had to concentrate on not thinking about the long legged bird running in a paddock outside in the dark. I wondered if they kept these ostriches out the back, or if it was lost in translation. Or maybe they were just pulling our collective leg?

Stir fried ostrich mince, with chili, garlic and coriander.

Stir fried ostrich mince, with chili, garlic and coriander.

Once we’d eaten our fill, and watched ‘A’ and Ehk stack more and more roasted chilies onto their steamed buns, we left with our bellies full and smiles on our faces. The bill was unbelievably cheap; we made the girl in slippers double check it as we were sure it wasn’t enough. She returned to the table nodding and grinning, handing the bill over to my husband. In the end, it worked out to be about $15(AUD) a head for the whole feast. We still suspect they missed some beers.

If you’re in Mae Salong and looking for somewhere to eat, make sure you pop into Ping Ping Restaurant. Their menu is huge, and the service is lovely. It’s a proper, family run restaurant and you’d mad to miss it!

Where have you eaten the best food? Tell me below!