Khao San Road – Where is the love?

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Khao San Road – Where is the love?

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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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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.


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.


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!


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. 


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. 


Padang Padang beach. #sunsout #gunsout


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. 


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.   


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 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.


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. 


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. 


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


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. 


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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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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Air Bagan or Air Mandalay? – Choosing a domestic airline in Myanmar

“Are you sure?”
“If you don’t book it now, I’ll change my mind!”
– Patrick checking for the umpteenth time that I was still keen on going to Myanmar.

That’s it, we were going. With one swift click, we sealed the deal on the second leg of our trip. Our confirmation and e-tickets promptly arrived in Patrick’s inbox. We would soon realise how much we took that for granted.

Having decided on our Myanmar itinerary – Yangon for three days, Bagan for two days and Mandalay for two days – our next debate was how we would travel between the three. Information on trains and buses seemed contradictory and given it was our very first visit to Myanmar and we have absolutely no idea what we’re in for, we decided to fly. Quicker, convenient and safer – we hoped.

Flying within Myanmar presented us with a choice of two airlines – Air Bagan or Mandalay. Patrick has a bit of a fear of flying, so his research into each airline was intense and thorough. Both airlines seemed to be privately owned, with very small fleets. Air Bagan has a fleet of five aircraft including one Fokker 100, two ATR 72 and two ATR 42; whilst Air Mandalay owns and operates three aircraft including two ATR 72 and one ATR 42.

Patrick quickly discovered that Air Bagan had links to the military junta and the U.S prohibits its citizens from dealing with the airline due to sanctions imposed by the U.S against the junta. Whilst safety records aren’t published freely, he spied an alarming amount of news reports about Air Bagan plane crashes.

Air Mandalay on the other hand read much better. We couldn’t find any mention of sanctions or links to the junta. There were less reports of Air Mandalay aircraft being involved in crashes (in fact, at April 2011, Air Mandalay had been operating for 16 years without incident – the only Myanmar airline to do so). Also worth noting for those trying to decide on an airline is Air Mandalay’s company profile in which the proudly and openly disclose the European standards their aircraft are maintained to, and that the fleet and maintenance hanger are inspected once a year by the Direction General de l’Aviation Civile (DGAC) of France. For us, the choice seemed obvious – Air Mandalay.

Booking with them was a whole other experience. Where we in the West can book and pay for an entire holidays in a few mouse clicks, it was rare to find a Myanmar company that has the ability to do this.

To book with Air Mandalay, we selected our desired flights (much the same as you would booking with Air Asia) and the dates we wanted to fly. Instead of being taken to the usual credit card details page, we were taken to a “Travel Booking Request Form”. Patrick filled out all of our details and clicked send. We were still unsure of what was happening. The page told us our request had been sent to Air Mandalay’s booking office and we would receive an email shortly. Sure enough, about an hour later Patrick received an email informing us our tickets had been reserved and instructing us that we would need to pay for and collect our tickets from Air Mandalay’s head office in Yangon.

What? No tickets in my inbox? Help! Whilst experiences like this are all part of the adventure, I would have felt a lot more comfortable if we had our tickets right away. Perhaps it is a symptom of my generation, or perhaps its my lack of travel-before-credit-cards-and-internet experience? All I know is e-tickets and the internet are the greatest invention known to mankind and I will never take them for granted again! I was tad terrified that they would lose our reservation, but was also slightly comforted by the knowledge that we are were the very first tourists to Myanmar and if it were too hard, nobody would bother.

On our arrival in Yangon, we asked our taxi driver to take us to Air Mandalay’s head office on the way to our hotel, so we could collect the tickets. We arrived at what could have been mistaken for an enormous white rendered house, and Patrick went in to pay and collect. After what seemed an extraordinary amount of time, John and I went to investigate (we had stayed with the taxi, basking in the heat and admiring this country we had come to be in). We found Patrick waiting patiently while the Air Mandalay staff hand wrote each of our air tickets. Hand written air tickets!

While Lonely Planet notes it is perfectly fine to book the tickets once you are on the ground in Yangon, I would argue that it is better to plan ahead and book/reserve your tickets online. Both airlines only run limited flights in the morning, as the hot air is too thin for the planes to take off later in the day. With the current tourist boom in the country, flights fill up quickly. If you are planning to fly on domestic airlines in Myanmar, save yourself a headache and book ahead. While we were picking up our tickets in Yangon, there were two backpackers trying to get on a flight the next day – already full, much to their dismay!

Side note – On 25 December 2012, Air Bagan’s Fokker 100, flying from Yangon to Heho, crashed on a road after mistaking the road for the Heho Airport runway in heavy fog and striking powerlines on decent. Two people were killed, including one on the ground, and 11 people were injured, including two Australians, two Britons, two Americans and a Korean. That pretty much sold it for us – Air Mandalay!

Who did you fly with in Myanmar? Have the online booking facilities been updated since our venture into Myanmar in 2013? Drop me a comment below and let me know.

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Football in Bangkok – Muang Thong United v Bangkok Glass (or that time we got into a totally sold out stadium!)

“Yes, sir! Miss! Please!”
I clutched my camera as the crowd heaved and I was shoved toward the voice calling out to me. A ticket stub was pushed into my husband’s hands and we were ushered through the gate.

It was match day in Nonthaburi, Muang Thong United against Bangkok Glass, and SCG Stadium was sold out. As avid football fans ourselves, my husband and I thought we’d try to squeeze in a match on a trip to Bangkok. Patrick had found some details about the match on Twitter the week before, but we were not expecting it to be so popular or such chaos! We caught the BTS to Mo Chit station and, having failed to locate one of the stadium shuttle buses we had read about on Twitter, hailed a cab to take us the rest of the way. The driver did not speak a lot of English, but enthusiastically gave us the thumbs up when we mentioned Manchester United. Once we crawled our way through the traffic, we jumped out at SCG Stadium and were instantly blown away. It. Was. Packed.

Muangthong United supporters.

First thing was to find tickets. Patrick battled his way through the crowd to a small ticket booth near the main road. I was busy watching the locals. Singing, dancing, drumming. There were people selling match programs, scarves and jerseys. Singha and Chang beers were passed around and soft drinks were handed out. It all seemed like a huge, out of control party, with everyone wearing black and red jerseys. Patrick was not having much luck, as the girls at the ticket booth kept shaking their heads.
“Sold out!” they said.

Bitterly disappointed, we stood and watched the crowds swell while trying to work out what we should do. One of the girls from the ticket booth appeared and asked us to follow her friend, gesturing to a grinning man in a Muang Thong United jersey.
“Yes! You will go to the football! Follow me!” he shouted. Righto, Football Fairy Godmother.

I still don’t know where the ticket stubs came from, but I think they had already been checked by the gate staff – who waved us through happily as our Football Fairy Godmother lead us through the crowd. Inside the stadium the noise grew, as the supporters chanted and waved flags madly. Almost all the seats were filled with giggling, excited Thais.

Muangthong United players on the pitch.

“Here, you sit here! My friends will look after you!”
The Football Fairy Godmother pointed to the steps in the aisle at the northern end of the east stand and gestured to some Thais around us. Other Thais were sitting on the steps further up the stand and waved to us happily. This was obviously the “done thing”, so we followed suit and pulled up a spot on the steps. Every few minutes, more Thais elegantly picked their way between us and filled the steps behind. After about 15 minutes, the entire stand was packed; some Thais were squeezed three across in the narrow aisles! More people filed in and sat across the walk way at the bottom of the stand. The entire southern stand was occupied by “Ultra Muang Thong”, a very coordinated and loud group of supporters. The northern stand was occupied by “N Zone”, a rhythmically quick and noisy group lead by a few shirtless Thai men with Muang Thong scarves tied around their neck. Not to be outdone, the Bangkok Glass supporters took over part of the western stand, clad in green and waving enormous flags with carrots on them (no, I am not kidding – Bangkok Glass’ emblem features a white rabbit).

The match itself was equally dramatic. The crowd rose as one as Muang Thong players ran at goal, and howled with disappointment at each missed opportunity. The was much arm waving, and hand gesturing, as the locals questioned the referee’s decisions (or his parentage, my Thai swear words are not that good). The drumming, singing and flags did not stop for the whole match. The crowd booed as the opposition coach kicked water bottles onto the pitch as a decision went against his team, and his bench argued with the fourth official. Eventually, Bangkok Glass broke the deadlock and the ball swished into the back of the net. The crowd wailed collectively, as the away supporters celebrated wildly. Muang Thong United returned fire not long after, slotting home a penalty at the southern end. The stadium exploded with noise, as Thais and farangs alike celebrated.

Muangthong United supporters.

After 90 minutes, Muang Thong United had slipped to their first defeat in an extraordinary number of matches – we appeared to be a bad luck curse. The singing and chanting continued well after the final whistle, as N Zone and the Bangkok Glass supporters chanted back and forth to each other. Ultra Muang Thong held their scarves aloft and gave rendition that sounded like a Thai version ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ (in all seriousness, I don’t know what the song was, but if you do, please drop me a comment below and clue me in!). As locals clambered down the stands and headed for the exits, they chattered excitedly –
“Miss, did you enjoy the game? It was very good! Sorry we did not win, today we tried very hard!”
I had thoroughly enjoyed the game – it was very good to watch, and the atmosphere was fantastic as neutral spectator. My husband declared himself a Muang Thong United supporter, and received many high fives and hand shakes.

Bangkok Glass supporters

Outside the stadium, we met our next challenge – getting back to Bangkok. We followed the crowd to the main road – aptly named “Popular Road” – and tried in vain to hail a cab. Traffic was at a crawl, and every available cab and mototaxi was occupied. Also mysteriously missing were the shuttles back to Mo Chit BTS station. After a while, and no more luck, we walked back toward the Novotel Bangkok Impact Hotel, about 10 minutes away. Here we thought we would be out of the traffic, and would have a better chance at flagging a cab to take us back to Rambuttri. It took another 10 minutes of trying to wave down an empty cab before we found a driver willing to pull over for us. There must be an easier way to get back to Bangkok, or at least Mo Chit BTS, from SCG Stadium – I am still convinced we were looking in the wrong spot. However, standing outside the Novotel did make it slightly easier to hail a cab.

Muangthong United supporters.

Football at SGC Stadium in Nonthaburi is a crazy, squeezy and noisy experience. I can guarantee you will have a great time – just go with the flow and let yourself get swept up in the hype. Book ahead though, you can buy tickets online from Thai Ticket Major. Tickets cost between 120 and 200 baht, depending what ticket level you purchase or where you want to sit in the stadium. Beer and street food is available around the outside of the stadium, and consumed by locals with reckless abandon.

(excuse the shaky camera word, it was tricky to film and wriggle out the way of people trying to climb down the steps!)

The details:

  • Muang Thong United plays out of SCG Stadium, in Nonthaburi. The stadium is about 30kms from Sukhumvit, Bangkok. Take the MRT to Chatuchak Park, or BTS to Mo Chit station. Then take a cab from there to SCG Stadium – on the meter, this should be about 150 baht.
  • Buy your tickets from Thai Ticket Major, or risk it being sold out once you arrive!
  • Beer here isn’t the cheapest, but you can buy it in huge quantities… bucket of Singha, anyone? There is also small food carts, soft drinks and water outside the stadium.
  • Getting home – try to jag a cab close to the stadium (you might even split a fare with some locals). If you are on your own, there are plenty of motorcycle taxis around. If you struggle, walk back toward to the Novotel so you are a bit further from the traffic and main rush of people. A taxi on the meter back to Sukhumvit is about 300 baht (it is a 30km trip after all!).

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Bangkok bike tour: from Chinatown to the plantations

I ask you, what idjit would do a half day bike and boat tour of Bangkok in the hot season? That idjit would be me (and my husband). On a sweltering 38°C afternoon, we took to the back alleys of Bangkok on some rather funky little bicycles as part of our tour with Co Van Kessel.

The tour was the first time I had ridden a bike in about ten years, but its true what they say… you never forget (but you still get the speed wobbles). After setting off from Co Van Kessels offices, our first stop was a beautiful and intricately decorated Chinese temple off a tiny, weaving soi in Chinatown. The temple was built using only interlocking slabs of wood and decorated with brightly-coloured murals. Incense hung heavy in the air as our guides quickly showed the prayer ritual. Some quick drinks before we hit the pavement again to catch the cross river ferry and more pedal to pavement. The ride from the Din Daeng cross river ferry terminal to Wat Kalayanamitr was probably the hottest slog of our ride, as we were facing right into the blazing sun, but our guides bought plenty of cool water for us.

IMG_6360 Figures inside a Chinese temple, downtown Bangkok.

Wat Kalayanamitr is home to one of the largest seated gold Buddhas in the country. It was a beautiful temple, and since we were visiting close to a Buddhist holiday there were lots of Thais lighting incense and making offerings outside. The gold Buddha is enormously tall, dwarfing all his worshipers below as he looked down on them with a perfect serene face. It was an interesting temple to visit, it somehow seemed more real than other that are swarming with noisy, excited tourists.

Once we’d caught our breath in the shade, we rode through Bangkok Yai and head for the long boat pier for our trip the Bangkok Yai khlong. Our group split in two, half going in the first boat with Mr Paksoi and our half going with Amy. The long boast were fast and it was wonderfully cool after our hard slog in the sun. I couldn’t tell you exactly where we ended up – the journey took so many twists and turns, and I was too busy to take notice, admiring the beautiful (and beautifully dilapidated) wooden homes on stilts right on the edge of the khlong. We passed monks standing at the fence of their temple, and people feeding catfish and lizards from the balcony of their stilted home. Amy pointed out local ladies in tiny wooden boats, selling green vegetables, lunch dishes and plastic baskets. I unashamedly waved at everyone, and they all waved back, calling out ‘Sawadee Kha!’.

IMG_6402 Riding up the Bangkok Yai khlong.

Somewhere in outer Bangkok, we left the long boats behind and hit the pavement again, riding past small school children who chattered excitedly and giggled as we went. Some more weaving past small houses and tiny local stores and we came to the plantations and rice fields. It was much cooler out here, and the greenery made for a wonderful change of scenery. The pathway was raised, with no railings and quite thin – maybe two meters wide. At first I had to concentrate hard on staying in the middle of the path and not stacking it, but after a few minutes I had the hang of it. Paksoi and Amy pointed out different plants along the way and waited patiently while we stopped half a dozen times to take photos.

IMG_3927 In rice fields of Bangkok! Lush and tranquil.

We stopped for lunch at a tiny local restaurant perched on the side of a khlong. Spread across a long table were so many dishes there was hardly room for our water bottles. There was massaman curry, pad ka prao gai, clear soup with vegetables and tofu, Thai omlettes and sweet and sour chicken, all made from scratch in the small kitchen behind us. The owner was so lovely and friendly, with a huge grin as she brought us Cokes and water from the seemingly bottomless ice chest on the floor. My favourites were the omelettes and the soup.

After lunch, we set off again weaving through the small streets heading back toward Bangkok. Some of the paths we followed ran along side a khlong and were very thin – thank goodness these ones has railings or I might have ended up swimming with my bike! By this time, the sun had gone down and the temperature had dropped off nicely, and it wasn’t too long before we had arrived at the pier to get the long boat back down the khlong and out to the Chao Phraya.

IMG_6436 Locals on the khlong. Sawadee kah!

The half day tour was fantastic and we were so ‘on the go’ the whole time, it seemed to fly! Paksoi and Amy were fantastic, patient and extremely helpful. We did have a group member who was feeling unwell after riding in the sun, however Paksoi and Amy arranged for her to take a long boat back to the office early, and she was well looked after. She was almost back to her normal self by the time we had cycled all the way back to the offices. The tour gave us a great insight into local life behind the big streets and skyscrapers of Bangkok, and we got to see so many great places. The food was brilliant, and we were supplied with more than enough cold water along the way. The bikes were in very good condition – when we returned from our tour, we dropped them at the maintenance shed so they could be checked over and service before they went back out again. If you’re looking for something different to do in Bangkok, a bike and boat tour is a great option! I highly recommend it. It’s hot work, but so rewarding – I had a great sense of accomplishment by the time I got back!

The details:

Co Van Kessel
Co Combo – 5 hour bike/boat tour (1650 baht each)
Mountain or standard city bikes available, helmets available on request.

Meal, water, bike hire and boat fares included.

Head to Co Van Kessel for more information.