Asia

Chiang Mai, Thailand: Thai Farm Cooking School

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I’m actually not a huge fan of Thai food, or Asian food in general, mainly because my diet is mostly based around bread, cheese, and pasta, and I don’t really like rice.  However, I love cooking, so I was happy to go along to a Thai cooking class on a farm outside of Chiang Mai.  The course cost 1100 baht per person, which is around 22 pounds, but included all the food, and transport to and from our hotel, so was really pretty reasonable.  The “Thai Farm” provided transport out to the farm in the form of a pick up truck with covered benches installed in the back (it was hot back there!); after everyone had been picked up, we were instructed to choose the dishes we wanted to cook – we had a choice of three different dishes for each of the five courses, all of which had a vegetarian/vegan option available.  Once our selections had been made, we proceeded to a market to pick up some of the ingredients for the recipes; all the produce would come from their organic farm.

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We were given a brief tour around the market, and received an explanation of some of the ingredients, and then given a little time to wander.  The market shared the interesting smells of the West Side Market, but because it was in an open sided building, there were a lot more bugs (also the meat section was kind of scary, not in terms of the animals they were selling, but sanitation wise)!  Some of the fruit looked amazing, and there was a stand selling crepes filled with your choice of sweets that seemed awfully tempting, but I figured we’d be eating enough throughout the day, so didn’t buy anything.

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We then headed to the farm, about an half an hour drive from the market down a long, winding dirt road; upon arrival, we were greeted with cold drinking water (much appreciated) and Thai hats and aprons to wear during our cooking session.  Our instructor then gave us a very lengthy tour of the farm, encouraging us to smell and taste many of the herbs and vegetables we’d be using; though he was very engaging, the tour lasted for an hour, and it was probably the hottest day of our trip, so even with the hat and loads of slathered-on sunscreen for protection, I was pretty desperate to get back in the shade.  Alas, the cooking session took place in a kind of hut, with gas stoves that got very hot, but no air conditioning, not even a fan, so even in the shade, things weren’t much better.

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However, once we started cooking, I could for the most part ignore my discomfort, as I was interested in learning some new recipes and techniques.  There were ten cooking stations, one for each of us in the class, with our instructor in the middle of the room so we could observe what he was doing.  We began by learning to make curry paste from scratch, either green, yellow, or red, our choice.  I had opted for red, which gets its colour from long red chillies, which are nowhere near as hot as the small ones, and includes a crapload of other exotic ingredients, like kaffir lime and Thai ginseng.  I really enjoyed using the massive mortar and pestle to grind it up; these were super heavy-duty ones, and it was great fun to bash out my frustrations on the paste.  That done, we learned how to make our choice of soup, which we then took outside to eat for the first course.  I am a total spice wuss (my favourite comfort food is homemade spaetzle sauteed in a bit of butter and lots of salt, so yeah, I tend to go for bland, yet salty foods), so I only put one chili in my Tom Yum, even though the instructor said to use two for mild.  Word of warning for wusses like me: it was so damn spicy, avoid the little peppers!  I think I might have just got a freak chili, because my boyfriend had put four in his, and said his soup was nowhere near as spicy as mine, but I seriously couldn’t even eat it without having an embarrassing coughing fit.  I didn’t put the little chillies in anything after that.  Lesson learned.

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We returned to the kitchen after soup o’clock to prepare the main dishes, including finishing the curry with the curry paste we made in the morning.  I was super excited to get to put tofu in my curry AND my stirfry, because I’d been counting on eating a lot of it on the trip, as it’s one of the few Asian foods I do really like, but had only seen it in vegetarian restaurants thus far (which I was really surprised about because Thai restaurants in the US and UK always have it on their menus, so I expected the same in Thailand, but it’s not as prevalent there as I’d been led to believe).  I was also pumped to use a beat-up, yet well-seasoned wok and shovel stirring thing, because I use a nonstick wok at home with a wooden spoon, which does the trick, but isn’t terribly authentic.  The flame kept burning my hand though, so I couldn’t keep the heat up quite as high as the instructor wanted me to.  So yeah, we cooked our curry and a tofu (or meat) stirfry with holy basil, and then sat down for the main part of the feast, accompanied by plain steamed rice, sticky rice, and papaya salad (which was again too spicy for my stupid weiner mouth, even though the instructor said he’d used light spicing).  Another word of advice; I took a bunch of regular rice because I didn’t know there’d be sticky rice, and I wanted to make sure I’d be full in case I didn’t like my curry (which was not a problem, since the curry rocked, and yes, I dislike rice, but at least it’s reliably edible), but sticky rice is like a gazillion times better, and then I was stuck eating a bunch of crappy regular rice, so don’t make my mistake.

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After lunch, we were given a little time to wander the grounds, and digest.  There was a nice little pond in the middle of the huts (there were four of them, and they all had a cooking class going on at the same time as ours), and a sleepy cat.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that even though the toilets were in another hut, they were clean and normal (non-squat) toilets, since after Phuket, I was kind of suspicious of any that weren’t in a city or hotel.  We were so full after lunch that I think we all felt a little sick at the thought of doing more cooking and eating, but our instructor assured us we could take the rest of the food to go if we wanted, so we all consented to cook the last two courses.

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These consisted of a noodle dish of our choice (pad thai, pad see ew, or spring rolls) made with fresh noodles from the market.  I went with pad see ew because it’s one of the few Thai dishes I really enjoy, because the noodles are so big and tasty, and it doesn’t have chili!  After cooking that and putting it in takeaway bags, we made pudding, which was either mango with sticky rice or bananas in coconut milk.  That was a tough call for me because I don’t like mango or cooked banana (unless it’s mushed up in something like banana bread where I don’t have to experience the texture), but I went with the sticky rice in the end because I figured I could at least eat the rice part.  We flavoured the rice with coconut milk and palm sugar, and oh my god, palm sugar is amazing!  It tasted like fudge (as in British sugary fudge, not chocolate) with more complexity, and I took a super huge blob just so I could sneak bites when no one was looking.  The finished dish made me feel extremely ill after I ate it, but that was probably far more to do with gobbling down all the palm sugar than the unpleasantness of the mango (I also don’t normally like pineapple, but Thai pineapple is amazing, so I thought Thai mango would be better too, but nope, still horrible).  Thankfully, our instructor served us delicious lemongrass tea that was meant to help with digestion immediately after.

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Even though I wasn’t crazy about all the food (which was not the fault of the farm, just my own weird palate and dislike of veg), I loved getting to learn how to cook new things, and I managed to survive the extreme heat of the day without air con, I was so engrossed!  I think it’s a fun experience for anyone with an interest in cooking or hell, eating, and Sawat (our instructor, who also appears to be the owner) was really friendly and helpful.  This is not going to turn into a cooking blog (not because I don’t like them; I actually read a tonne of cooking blogs, but because I wouldn’t want to take on all that work of recipe testing myself), but I thought just this one time, I’d include one of the recipes we learnt in class (I think it’s ok because they have them up on their website), for Pad See Ew, both because it’s tasty, and doesn’t have a lot of hard-to-find ingredients.  My own comments are in parentheses.

Stir Fried Big Noodles (Pad See Ew), from the Thai Farm Cooking School Cookbook

Serves 1-2

Ingredients:

200 grams big fresh noodles (about 7 ounces, though you can probably get away with using 8 if it’s easier, see note below)

100 grams sliced tofu (3.5 oz, I’d error on the generous side and throw in more, see note below)

1/3 cup sliced long beans

1/4 cup of sliced carrot

2 cloves of chopped garlic (again, I’d probably use more, but only because I love garlic)

1 egg

1 tsp of fish sauce or soy sauce

1 tsp of dark sweet soy sauce (if you can only find regular dark soy, that’s ok too)

1 1/2 tsp of sugar

1 1/2 tbsp soybean or vegetable oil

1 stem of chopped spring onion

Mix dark sweet soy sauce with big fresh noodles first and set aside.  Heat the oil in the wok.  Fry tofu until golden brown.  Add garlic, long beans, and carrot.  Stir fry until fragrant.  Push the vegetables to the side of the wok and add beaten egg.  Once they begin to set, quickly scramble them and stir through the vegetables.  Add noodles, and season with fish or soy sauce and sugar.  Add spring onion and stir fry thoroughly until well mixed.

Notes: By “big fresh noodles” they mean pad see ew noodles, or, as I usually see them sold, Thai rice sticks. I can never find the fresh in the UK, and have to go to Chinatown to find even the dried kind.  I buy the XL width ones, or the thickest kind I can find.  They usually come in 400 gram packets.  Just rehydrate in freshly boiled water for about five minutes, or whatever the packet says, before using in a stir fry if you’re using the dried kind.  Also if you’re using the dried kind, either only rehydrate 100 grams to end up with 200 grams of cooked noodles, or use the full 200 grams dried, but double or triple all the other ingredients to make sure you have enough – 200 grams of dried noodles that have been cooked is a lotta noodles!

They don’t specify, but when I cook any kind of stir fry with tofu, I use the extra-firm or firm kind (sold packed in water in the refrigerated section, not the shelf-stable silken kind), and press it for at least an hour to improve the texture, by wrapping it in a towel and weighting it down with a heavy pan, flipping halfway through.  I also love to bake it in a marinade first to improve the flavour, usually using the recipe in Vegan Eats World (I’m not vegan by any means, but it’s a great cookbook).  I also use WAY more than 3-4 oz if I’m cooking this as a main course, more like an entire 14 oz packet for two people, but I don’t really put veg in, and I love tofu, so use your own discretion.  I have to confess that my standard Pad See Ew recipe also comes from Vegan Eats World, and I love it (and admittedly prefer it to this version), but this one is probably more authentic, so give it a try.

And this is why I don’t have a recipe blog, because I can’t leave well enough alone and ramble on for three hours about ingredients.  Next week, I’ll be back to my regularly scheduled museums and historic homes, don’t worry!

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Bangkok, Thailand: Siriraj Medical Museum, Escape Hunt, and Madame Tussaud’s

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I do love a good compilation post, don’t you?  This one is to wrap up my time in Bangkok by covering all the other random crap I did.  First of all, the Siriraj Medical Museum, which I read about on another travel blog (sorry, I can’t remember which one it was, if it was yours let me know!) a few months ago, and mentally noted, even though I had no plans to visit Thailand at the time. So when I did end up there, it was the one thing I insisted on seeing.  Siriraj Hospital was on the opposite side of Bangkok from where we were staying (Sukhumvit 26), and was one riverboat stop past the Grand Palace, on the other riverbank.  Once you get inside the hospital complex, it’s fairly tricky to find the correct building, so take advantage of the maps they have posted around the place.  I’m not sure where to advise you to go first, as the Congdon Anatomical Museum and Prehistory Museum (which are in the same building) both shut at 12 for an hour or so (at least on the day we visited), but you have to buy tickets in the other building, with the Parasitology and Criminology Museums, so either get there early (or late, I guess), or buy a ticket and then head over to the other building.  They’re only a couple of streets apart so it’s not that hard getting from one to the other, or at least it wouldn’t be if it wasn’t a million degrees outside and if the building numbers went in order.  Admission is 300 baht for all museums (about 6 quid), or 200 for the museums in the main building only. (Warning: I’m going to get into reasonably graphic descriptions of corpses and body parts, so if that kind of stuff nauseates you, maybe skip down to the text below the ice cream pictures) The museums include the four I’ve already mentioned, plus one that was all in Thai that appeared to be about health, and a special exhibit on the tsunami.  I was imagining it would take hours to see them, but none of them are that big, so we were done in an hour and half.  They do have a strict no-photos policy, so I can’t show you the awesome things there, but I will of course describe them.  The highlights of the collection are the pickled serial killers in big glass cases; I think they have six of them.  One of them was actually a baby-killing cannibal, so you really don’t have to feel guilty about gawping at his flayed corpse.  These are definitely not for the faint-hearted, as all kinds of fat was poking through the corpses, and they had trays underneath to catch the moisture, which were filled with horrible red and yellow fluid and things that looked like worms.  Naturally, I loved it, but if you have a weak stomach, I’d avoid this part.  They also had a most splendid collection of jarred fetuses, including the usual cast of conditions; hydrocephaly, anencephaly, harlequin ichthyosis, and conjoined twins, but quite a few examples of each, more than the average medical museum.  There were also some diseased organs in this section and very graphic photos showing suicide victims.  Aside from the tsunami exhibit, almost nothing was in English, but most of the stuff was fairly self-explanatory, at least if you frequent medical museums like I do.

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The Parasitology Museum fortunately did have English descriptions of each kind of parasite, which was useful in helping me gauge the sorts of things I might be picking up on the trip (just kidding, sort of).  After finishing up in the main building, we rushed over to see the Anatomical Museum before it closed.  It was very hot in that building, as there was no air conditioning, and I ended up hanging out in front of a fan, with all the skeletons (as seen above).  This part was more about bones and individual organs, though they also had quite a few fetuses here, and a male and female corpse-couple.  We tried to go downstairs to check out the Prehistory Museum, but it was closing for lunch, and I heard they were also closed earlier in the morning, so I’m not sure what the best time to visit them is.  Maybe early afternoon?  Honestly, Prehistory was the museum I cared least about, so I wasn’t that bothered.  Although it wasn’t as large and extensive as I’d been led to believe, the Siriraj Museum nonetheless had some impressive things in its collection, namely the corpses and fetuses, so I’d still recommend it if you’re fascinated by that sort of stuff as much as I am. Seeing the museum had worked up quite an appetite (yes, I am weird), so we went to this ice cream chain called Swensen’s that had a shop right by the riverboat dock (also right by the random street dinosaurs shown above).  They turned out to have awesome American-style sundaes (makes sense since it appears to be an American chain, albeit one I’ve never heard of), which I was most pleased by, since I can’t get proper sundaes in London for some reason, and I miss them like crazy.  I had some kind of oreo and brownie concoction in a waffle bowl, which was super delicious (the other picture is of a sundae I had at a different location of Swensen’s, also amazing).

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Whilst I was in Bangkok, I also went to this thing called Escape Hunt, which was basically a sort of murder mystery thing, only without cheesy actors!  You go to their headquarters in the basement of some tower, and they lock you and your fellow sleuths (you can book a room with up to 4 of your friends) in a room, and you have to solve a mystery to escape (it’s much nicer and less sketchy than it sounds, I promise).  One of the women who work there serves as your guide, and will pop in from time to time to offer hints, if you need them.  We had to figure out who murdered a businesswoman using the clues in the room, and I have to say, it was really really fun.  I especially liked that we had a private room, so you didn’t have to embarrass yourself in front of everyone (which is why I’ve never been to a murder mystery).  The whole experience was surprisingly great (albeit pricy), including being served tea after, and then being photographed in sexy Sherlock Holmes outfits (although Benedict’s Sherlock is sexy in any outfit), and I definitely recommend it if you’ve done all the sightseeing around Bangkok, and want something different and fun (and air-conditioned) to do (I just had a look at their website, and they’re meant to be opening one in London this summer, which will be awesome if I can find some friends by then!).

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Badly cropped pic of me as a super sleuth

Finally, although it was just a Madame Tussaud’s, and therefore probably not that different from the one in London (though I don’t know since I’ve never been, due to it costing mega-money and only being for tourists), I thought I’d throw in some pictures of Bangkok’s wax museum (wow, waxworks and stuff in jars in one post.  Throw in some authentic smells and we’d have the trifecta of stuff Jessica loves!).  It was cheaper than the London one, but still hella expensive by Thailand standards, at around 16 quid.

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Ok, that last one is George Clooney. He looks pretty bad, so I thought I’d better caption it.  They did have lots of Asian stars who I’d never heard of here, which I guess is the main difference between this one and the London one (also there was no Chamber of Horrors, more’s the pity!).

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And the last one here is Madame Tussaud herself, not Marie Antoinette.  I have to say that I adored the malls in Bangkok (and the one in Phuket, which had an amazing food hall); they were really fancy, and had doughnut and ice cream shops inside, so I was in heaven.  I didn’t even do any shopping, I just liked wandering around in the air conditioning and eating.  And going to Madame Tussaud’s, which is inside the massive Siam Mall in Bangkok.  Maybe I should have spent more time exploring outside, but I wilt in the heat, and the malls were a welcome respite from that, so I don’t regret it!

Bangkok, Thailand: The Grand Palace and Wat Pho

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On yet another hot and bright morning (like every day in Thailand), everyone decided to visit the Grand Palace, meaning I had to risk burning my pasty skin again by spending yet another day out in the sun (I am not cut out for hot climes. I end up cranky and looking greasy at all times thanks to my overzealous application of sunscreen). The voyage there was also quite involved, albeit far more pleasant than the trek to Ayutthaya, as we decided to take the river boat part of the way which I found quite fun (and there was a bit of a breeze, which helped matters).  Also unlike Ayutthaya, there is a strictly enforced dress code to enter the Grand Palace, which is very similar to the one at the Vatican, if not a bit stricter. However, if you show up with uncovered shoulders or knees (very likely because of the extreme heat), at least the Grand Palace has got you covered (literally), as the Textile Museum loans out rather pretty skirts and shawls to the skimpily attired.

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At around 500 baht (about a tenner), admission is quite expensive by Thai standards, but I decided it was probably worth the money upon spying the giant demon statues guarding the place.  Thai demons > ruins as far as I’m concerned.  I do feel woefully ignorant of the history of the palace, indeed, non-Western history in general (for that matter, I’m sketchy on anything that’s not Britain or America), so I can’t provide any background here as I usually like to do, but I guess that’s why the internet exists; so you can look it up yourself if you’re interested (yes, I could also look it up I suppose, but I have a lot more writing to get through, so am just cracking on with it).  I wish I’d had more time to visit actual museums when I was in Thailand, as that might have helped to fill in some of the gaps, but I was only there for ten days, and we had a busy schedule as it was.

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The Grand Palace is a working palace, and only a small portion is open to the public, but the parts you can see are pure gilded-fantasticness.  There’s the Temple of the Emerald Buddha to wander into (well, you can’t really just wander in, as you have to remove your shoes first and brave the searing hot pavement on the way in, but you know what I mean) and lots and lots of glorious statues.

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However, the main things to note are the murals that line the walls around the edges of the courtyard, which are fabulous.  I especially enjoyed the various monsters.

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I was also quite enchanted with those little guys “holding up” the temple, and the animal statues strewn about the place.  It’s all about those little touches, and they provided a much needed accent to all the gold.

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There are a museum of coins and a museum of textiles on the premises, but when it came down to visiting the museums or eating ice cream, even though it was only overpriced Haagen-Dazs, you can probably guess what I opted for (I have a weak spot where cookies n cream is concerned, even Haagen-Dazs’s lame attempt).  Plus it was so damn hot, and heat makes me even lazier than normal.

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After revelling in the bling of the Grand Palace for a sufficiently long time, we decided to see more in the form of the shiny gold Buddha inside Wat Pho, a nearby temple (after winding our way through the narrow pavements absolutely jam-packed with street vendors; fortunately, unlike the ones in Rome, they weren’t at all pushy, and actually sold useful things, like cold drinks, and an excellent looking book of t-shirt transfers circa 1985.  I regret passing that up.).

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Wat Pho charges a modest admission fee, but they do give you a free bottle of water, which is a nice touch.  They also loan you a nifty little bag to put your shoes in while you’re inside the temple, so you don’t have to worry about anyone stealing your shoes (not that anyone wanted my disgusting filthy flip flops, but it’s still thoughtful of them).

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Golden Buddhas are cool and all, but the best part of Wat Pho is that they have a massage school on the premises!  I’d never had a Thai massage before (or any kind of massage, because I am always broke) but I couldn’t pass one up at those prices (it was the equivalent of 8 quid for an hour-long massage, which I’m pretty sure is an awesome deal).  They gave us these special shorts to put on before the massage, which were super comfy, even though I couldn’t figure out how to tie them correctly.  The massage itself was painful, but awesome…I’m scared I may have developed a taste for Thai massage, which is unfortunate since I’ll never be able to afford one again.  Highly recommended.

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There were a lot of street cats and dogs in Thailand, mostly very sleepy because of the heat, but they did all appear to be well-fed, and relatively friendly, or perhaps too lethargic from the sun to be grumpy, like the cute cat above who was hanging around Wat Pho.

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I have to say, although I was as always reluctant to get up early to head out there, I enjoyed it very much more than Ayutthaya (and not just because of the massage).  If you visit, do make sure you take time to examine all the murals, because it seems like most people were just concentrated around the central buildings, and were missing out on some of the good stuff.  Because I loved them so much, I’m going to leave you with even more mural pictures.  Enjoy!

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Ayutthaya, Thailand: City of Ruins and Temples

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Ayutthaya, about an hour and a half (traffic pending) north of Bangkok, appears to be a city with a fascinating history (although it’s not really explained in English at any of the temples, so Wikipedia is sadly my main source for this), and an awful lot of ruins, primarily of Buddhist temples.  Ruins aren’t really my thing (I say this about a lot of things, and I feel like someone is eventually going to call me out and ask what is my thing then, and the answer is books mainly, and ice cream, and other stuff that doesn’t require me to go outside), but it was a Tuesday in Bangkok in the middle of Songkran, so everything in the city was shut, and my travelling companions were keen to see Ayutthaya, so that’s where I found myself on yet another boiling hot Thai day.

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Naturally, getting to Ayutthaya was not exactly easy, and involved a trip to the end of the Sky Train line (I have to say that I do love the Sky Train; it is air conditioned, and they show hilarious Thai adverts on little TV screens above the seats), and a hair-raising taxi ride (as there wasn’t enough seats, and I had to perch precariously on my boyfriend’s lap) to the bus station, where we hired a minivan to take us to Ayutthaya.  Of course, the driver certainly wasn’t going to let those empty seats go to waste, so we had to detour to every bus stop on the way until the bus filled up, some of the stops lasting upwards of fifteen minutes whilst the driver tried to attract passengers, which made the drive out there much longer than the return trip (I know this is a lot of complaining, but the travel guides aren’t going to tell it like it is, so you have to get the inside scoop from somewhere).  Immediately upon arrival, we were approached by a man trying to sell us a tour around the sites, which, short of having your own car (probably not a great idea) or booking an organised tour, seems to be the only way to see everything.  Our conveyance was essentially a tuktuk, but with two benches running vertically instead of one horizontal one (they have a specific name, but I forget what it is), and made for a slightly hair-raising ride with five people crammed in the back.

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Though we paid a fee for the transport, we also had to pay individually to enter each temple; it was only 20-50 baht per temple (there’s about 50 baht to the pound) but as we went to so many of them, it started to add up (still a modest fee by Western standards, admittedly).  Now, the first temple we went to was pretty rad, and would turn out to be my favourite one of the day, but after that, everything started to blur together.  So I can’t tell you the names of the sites, but I’m fairly sure any tour booked there will take you to the same places.  The first temple also had the nicest toilets we’d see all day (toilets cost extra), and curiously, an adorable cat who appeared to live in the bathroom, so let it all out while you can!  The highlight of this temple was the giant reclining Buddha outside, though there is also a shrine inside the temple (accessed by a million uneven steps) where you can apply gold leaf to the Buddha for an additional fee. wat stich 3   P1110060

The complete tour takes around 4 hours, so you will get hungry and thirsty en route, fortunately, all of the larger sites did a roaring trade in food and drink outside.  I highly recommend the coconut ice cream, served in a young coconut – the young coconut was kind of weird and gelatinous and not really to my taste, but the ice cream was amazing.  The pineapple fruit shakes were also extremely refreshing and delicious.  I did try a banana roti, but it was unfortunately pre-made and contained scrambled egg – egg covered in Nutella and sweetened condensed milk was just straight-up nasty, so I’d stick to roti places that make them to order.  At any rate, there’s enough stalls around that you won’t go hungry.

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Also of note, but only because our visit was during Songkran (Thai New Year, which is celebrated with water fights), is that travelling in an open sided vehicle was not the smartest move.  People in Bangkok were definitely really into water fights, but Ayutthaya was possibly even more gung-ho, and we got absolutely drenched by people bearing buckets and hoses by the side of the road.  Some paint too, which appeared to just be talcum powder and water, so it easily washed off.  Although initially refreshing, it is rather unpleasant being soaking wet for the rest of the day (even though it’s extremely hot, clothes take forever to dry because of the humidity), so choosing a different mode of transport might be advisable if you’re visiting in mid-April.

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Post-drenching

I honestly lost track of how many temples we visited, but it had to be at least 7 of them.  One of them had some kind of elephant attraction out front that we specifically asked not to be taken to, but it was unavoidable because there was a temple behind it.  It was not pleasant to see because they made the elephants stand in this weird pavilion and dance whilst loud-ass music was blasted at them, and also take people for rides by walking on hot gravel all day.  It was not an ideal way to see elephants, for sure.  However, the temple behind it was quite large, and had an impressive array of stalls, and I’m not really sure how to see one without seeing the other, although at least the elephant part had a separate admission fee, so you’re not forced to give them any money.

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There were definitely some cool details at these ruins, like the Buddha head in the tree trunk, and the temples were in different architectural styles, and of differing levels of preservation, so I imagine the average person who is into Buddhist architecture would love it.  The whole experience was for me reminiscent of Pompeii; as in, wandering around a bunch of crumbling stones that all kind of looked the same, under the searing sun, when I was dying for air conditioning, or at least shade.  Then again, I am not at all a fan of the heat, so it was about what I expected.

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I think I’ve probably rambled and complained enough, so I’ll just leave you with a bunch more pictures of various temples (don’t ask me which is which), so you can make up your own mind whether Ayutthaya is something you’d like to see.  Again, if you like temples and Thai history, you’ll probably love it, but if Roman ruins and the like bore you to tears, Ayutthaya is not really any better, just different.

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Thailand: Island Hopping In Phuket, including James Bond Island

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I’m back from Thailand, so now you all have to hear about it (yay?)!   I’d never been to Asia before, so the whole thing was pretty exciting, though I did find the encroachment of American franchises to be surprising, yet strangely comforting (I only say this because I no longer live in America, and it was nice to be able to get some foods I miss; I think if I wasn’t an expat, my opinion would be rather different).  Anyway, I’m going to start off in Phuket, with a bit of island hopping – ultimate destination, James Bond Island, where The Man with the Golden Gun was filmed.

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In what would be a common theme on the holiday, we had to wake up extremely early (which I think is contributing to my lingering jet lag) so that we could be picked up by a fabulously pimped out mini-van bus, and get taken down to the docks.  The charming boat pictured at the start of the post is not what we were riding in, rather, we were in what was described as a “cruise boat” which is DEFINITELY NOT to be confused with a cruise ship.  It was basically a fairly open structure with some benches on the top deck, a storage place below for the inflatable canoes that would transport us to each island, a kitchen, and some pretty horrific toilets (if your bladder is as small as mine, it might be better just to risk dehydration and hold back on the water for the day.  Though on second thought, don’t do that, I don’t want to be blamed for causing sunstroke.).

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We pootled around for about an hour before reaching the first island, where we were allotted an hour or so for swimming and “relaxation.”  Unfortunately, as the boat had to moor quite far away from the shore due to the shallow water, we had to transfer into the aforementioned canoes to be rowed ashore.  Happily, we didn’t have to row our own canoes (or I probably never would have made it ashore), but jumping down into a flimsy canoe from the back of a boat was nonetheless scary, because I can’t swim, and there were no life jackets.  I guess the water was usually shallow enough that I would have been ok, but it still freaked me out.  I did go for a dip in the bay (I think it was technically a bay), but kind of regretted it, as the water was extremely salty and I had to sit around in wet salty clothes for the rest of the day.  Also there were crabs in the water, and crabs scare the crap out of me (this whole post is going to read like a collection of my phobias).  Worst of all though, were the toilets onshore.  I’ve literally had nightmares that featured toilets like this (what, doesn’t everyone have nightmares about public restrooms?).  Not only were they squat toilets, which I could have dealt with had they been appropriately equipped, but there was no toilet paper, soap, or running water, and the floor was covered in a couple inches of horrible brown water that you couldn’t avoid stepping in.  So yeah, don’t plan on rinsing off after a swim.

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We went to maybe three other islands after, but on those we didn’t even get out of the canoes, as we were paddled around various grottoes and stone formations.  That part was actually quite relaxing, except for having to duck all the way down to get inside the caves, so that my head ended up on my boyfriend’s lap (so make sure you get in a canoe with someone you like!).  Our guide pointed out to us the “male trees” on one island (close up below, so you can probably spot why they were “male”).

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The islands were all fairly similar, but they were still pretty cool to see.  I do like a good grotto, particularly if I don’t have to do anything (like rowing or paddling) to see it.  The quality of the tour did depend on which canoe you got into, as some guides were much friendlier than others.

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Of course, the part of the excursion we were all waiting for was James Bond Island, which they saved til the end.  I am a Sean Connery kind of girl, but I do stand by my assertion that Roger Moore’s films are more watchable, in that they seem to drag on less, so I was enthused to see Scaramanga’s lair.  However, the island was kind of a bust.  The giant rock thing in the middle is cool, and you must get an obligatory Bond pose photo in front of it, but it was so damn touristy.  The only things on the island were tourists themselves, and a million crappy stalls selling the worst kind of tat.  It was all beads and necklaces and crap, not even any decent postcards.  I think they would have been better off trying to recreate some Bond stuff, or at least having a Roger Moore statue or something.

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After James Bond Island, we were given lunch on the boat, and than sat around for a good couple hours whilst we travelled back.  It didn’t feel like we had gone that far, but it seriously took about three hours to get back to the pier, and we all fell asleep en route.  Which was probably for the best, as it meant I didn’t have to use the boat toilet again.

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All in all, I think it was a decent excursion, but not really something I’d do again (not least because of the toilets, and it was also weirdly exhausting, even though we were just conveyed around the whole time). In the end, the other islands ended up being far more picturesque than the tourist trap that was James Bond Island (which was of course billed as the high point of the tour), so if you can get a cheaper tour that doesn’t include James Bond Island, I’d go for that, unless you’re a diehard Bond fan! A lot of my Thailand posts are going to be on random non-museum topics like this, since I only visited one museum whilst I was there, so I hope no one minds the brief departure from my usual subject matter (maybe you’ll at least enjoy the pictures?).

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I was wearing a wet bikini under my shirt – that is not boob sweat!