Monday, April 01, 2013

Dessert town

We were quite sad to leave Ban Krut, we enjoyed a very relaxing week there but we were also excited to move on, see new places and eat street food again - while there were a few regular food carts around town selling dried squid, pancakes and grilled chicken, Ban Krut was very much a restaurant kind of place (albeit a delicious seafoody one).

We took another longish train journey to Surat Thani (which is where I ate bugs last time). Based on the awesomeness of the markets, Surat Thani would be worth a few days' stay, however it's a bit too big for us and the hotels are a little lacking - I struggled to find a hotel not reviewed as grim or noisy, and the one we did stay in was OK but sat on top of a karaoke bar which kept going until 1am! It's the kind of place where people stop over one night on their way to beachier destinations, so I suppose there's little incentive to run a hotel where people might want to stay longer.

However, we did make an exciting discovery on Surat Thani's night market: rolled up ice cream! Your choice of ice cream flavour (green tea) is mixed up with your choice of stuff (brownie), it's all mixed up together, spread out on a coldplate and scraped off into little rolls. The ice cream flavour wasn't all that great but it was exciting nonetheless!

Ice cream rolls!

We moved on swiftly next morning to Khanom, a town on the coast about 50 miles east of Surat. Perhaps some of the appeal was based Khanom being the Thai word for dessert, but it was described as a quiet fishing town with a couple of markets and nice beaches - sounds good to us!

Our bus arrived in the centre of town and headed straight for the seafront, which turned out to be a couple of kilometres' hot sweaty walk - it turns out Khanom is a pretty spread out kind of place! We stayed in the Golden Beach hotel, a slightly odd place with birds nesting in the corridors and a constant stream of horrible cheesy love songs playing in the reception and restaurant - we ate there the first night as it was quite a long walk to town but the music was so awful we avoided it after that.

Golden beach hotel - birds live here

We found a beautiful big  (and apparently seven-legged) orb weaver spider hanging off the phone wires - South East Asia has plenty of spiders although we have encountered very few of them and this is the biggest we've seen by far - her body was a couple of inches long. I tried to get Dgym to stand nice and close to give a proper sense of scale but he wasn't having any of it.

Orb weaver spider

We also met quite a few football fans in this part of the country. Quite understandable - football's popular all over the world, but what we found curious was that they mostly seemed to be Manchester United supporters. Most people think of London when we say we're from the UK but here the default assumption was that we might be from Manchester! (Alternatively, the conversation goes "Where are you from?" "England" "Ahhh.... David Beckham!") We were a bit bewildered to meet so many Thai fans supporting an English team, but then again neither of us really "get" football.

And as if he hadn't had enough animal encounters this holiday, Dgym had his foot mauled by tiny puppies:

Khanom was a nice town with a good beach but not quite what we were looking for for our last week in Thailand, so we moved on after a couple of days. We were kindly offered a lift into town by another hotel visitor, a Man United fan of course, so we crammed into the back of his pick up truck - what with both of us carrying backpacks and the five kids and a bicycle already in the truck it was a bit of a squeeze so we perched on the end, tried not to crush any children and held tight for the couple of kilometres' ride, hoping there would be no sudden acceleration!

We weren't quite sure how to catch the bus back out of town but after a couple of minutes of standing by the side of the road looking confused, we were soon offered help by a motorbike taxi driver who kindly phoned the minibus people so they knew to pick us up.

Khanom beach

Khanom town

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Ban Krut

Ban Krut was recommended to us by two separate Thai people, so we felt it was probably worth checking out. It also happened to be a couple of stops further down the train line and turned out to be a relaxed little beach town full of resorts, seafood restaurants and beach bars. Most importantly, it had a 7/11 and a pancake man.

It was here that we happened upon a delightful new snack, green tea flavoured Sponge Crunch - which turned out to be very tasty little crunchy sponge rings. They also come in chocolate and strawberry flavour, but the chocolate wasn't up to much and who likes strawberry flavoured anything?

We spent a week in Ban Krut. There's not a lot happening in the area - local attractions include a temple on a hill, a big gold Buddha on a hill, a cave full of buddhas, a couple more temples, the beach and some very pretty scenery. However, there is a lot of seafood to be eaten and we did our best, falling into a daily routine of swimming, bike rides, tasty food and hiding from the midday sun. The beach was lovely with nice sand, gentle waves and incredibly warm water.

We went up the hill to see the Buddha - the resort had free bikes which were single gear and often in quite a state - you'd be lucky to get one brake, let alone two, so while going up the hill was hard work, coming back down again was plain scary (also, very squeaky). However, it was worth the trip - the Buddha statue was very impressive and we got some lovely sunset views over the surrounding mountains and coconut plantations.

Coconuts and mountains

Big gold Buddha

Another ride took us south along the coast towards Bang Saphan and then inland through some beautiful countryside - we saw cows, fields, coconut trees and also found some baby pineapples.


Dgym marvels at a pina colada plantation

I really wish I had a better picture of this - this guy rode past us carrying two enormous long poles, each several metres long. We were busy being impressed by that when his passenger came into view. You see that on the back of the motorbike? That's a monkey.

Monkey on a motorbike

More pictures from Ban Krut:

Beach bar

Temple lit up at night

Beach swings

Stormy day

Squid snacks


Cow and bird

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Prachuap Khiri Khan

We previously spent a week in Prachuap before went to Vietnam - seeing as we were headed back that way and it was so lovely the first time round, we couldn't resist stopping in for another few days. Unfortunately we had hit the start of the long weekend for Makha Bucha day, a Buddhist festival. Being a nice bit of coast a few hours' drive from Bangkok, long weekends transform this area from a sleepy seaside town into party central and all the hotels fill up.

After a long hot sweaty walk around town we had no room, and realised we probably should have pre-booked. I sat on the sea wall to use the wifi of a hotel we'd previously stayed in and search some booking sites, while Dgym headed to the bike shop to try and rent a scooter to look further afield.

It turned out the bike shop owner had a contact with a spare room in a cheap guesthouse near the station so we reconvened and were tuktuked over there. The guesthouse turned out to be a small cottage with kitchen and living areas, owned by a German-Thai couple who had lived in Germany for 40 years and then moved back - neither spoke much English so we found ourselves thoroughly confused by trying to recall scraps of German while also trying to use and expand our Thai vocabulary.

Still, we enjoyed spending another three days in Prachuap - despite being kept up at night by trains, dogs and on the last morning woken by some kind of heavy duty blender being operated on the other side of the wall from our heads at 8am! The pier and temples were all lit up, the seafront was full of people and there were sand sculptures and a fire spinner on the beach. There was also an interesting looking market on the seafront but it turned out to be mostly wooden furniture and plants, neither of which we are looking to take home as souvenirs.

We spent most of our time in the Ao Manao area, which is where Dgym was bitten last time we stayed. We revisited the monkey area (with Dgym keeping a healthy distance from the offending furballs) and "walked" up Khao Lommuak, a 275m high hill on the headland between the Prachuap and Manao bays.

There is a reason for the quote marks around the word walked. The path up the hill started out as steps. They were quite steep and we found ourselves quite hot and sweaty after no time at all. The steps stopped about two thirds of the way up and the route continued as a roped rocky path. No worries,we were wearing reasonable shoes and can handle a bit of rough terrain!

It got steeper and more technical as the "path" continued up. The rope was strong and well secured but there came a point when we realised that we were going up pretty much vertically and in any sane situation we'd be double roped and wearing helmets, climbing shoes and harnesses. That and other things like we probably should have set out with more water and also it was going to be even more interesting getting back down. Fortunately we both did a few sessions of indoor climbing a few years ago so obviously knew exactly what we were doing.

Well, we made it to the top. There was a little pagoda and some smashing views over the local bays. There were some little oranges on the pagoda which would have made an ideal hilltop snack, but they'd been offered up to the Buddha and it probably would have been bad karma to eat them.

We made it back down again, with some abseiling and careful use of footholds - Dgym's legs were trembling by the time we reached the bottom, at almost exactly the same spot where he'd fainted a couple of weeks previously! Can't take him anywhere... well, at least not there apparently.

Apart from that, our two beach days were pretty relaxing. Ao Manao is really a very lovely beach - the water is warm, the waves are gentle and it is owned and controlled by the Air Force, meaning it's kept nice and clean and also is unlikely to get overdeveloped. The northern end has pretty little pink seashells and tiny digging crabs:

North end of Ao Manao

Digging crab

Also, feet-sized seashells

At the southern end there are plenty of deckchairs, umbrellas and little restaurants serving delicious seafood.

Check out those suckers!

The Air Force run some kind of activity sessions for teenagers at weekends which seem very popular - we saw hundreds of kids running back and forth along the beach and playing silly games like bottom shuffling races down to the sea, everybody lying end to end, and getting spun around several times then seeing if you can still run in a straight line.

End to end
Ao Manao is a couple of miles out of Prachuap. We really enjoyed the town itself which has some lovely sunrises and sunsets:

Sunrise over islands in Prachuap Bay

Sunset from Wat Thammikaram (Monkey Mountain)

It also has two populations of monkeys - the nice monkeys, one of which bit Dgym, and the mean monkeys, who didn't actually do anything wrong.

"Nice" monkey

Guilty looking "mean" monkey
Prachuap also has morning and evening markets, some great restaurants, bicycle rental and some pretty cheap hotels. It is very popular with Thais on long weekends and otherwise has a low level of non-Thai tourism A lot of the restaurants have a translated menu and there's even a couple of pizza places but most visitors seemed to be there to have a quiet time and appreciate the place for what it is. We'd definitely recommend it if you want to go somewhere genuinely Thai, eat nice Thai food and relax for a while!

We first heard about Prachuap just before we left the UK, my dad sent me a Guardian article about Thai beach hotels - so thanks Dad!

Monday, March 04, 2013

Pak Nam Pran

We're back in Thailand now. Whereas Vietnamese food is very nice and the coffee's way better, Thai food still wins hands down, and that includes the awesome snacks. One of the first things we did on our return to Bangkok was to hit 7/11, where I found an appropriately-named (and also very tasty) snack for Dgym:

It's true.
(His injections have all gone well, one more to go and he hasn't started foaming at the mouth yet).

We have spent the past couple of weeks train-hopping our way south to explore the Gulf coast some more - before we headed out to Vietnam we'd spent a very enjoyable week in Prachuap Khiri Khan, a pleasant and sleepy little seaside town, and we decided to explore that stretch of coast some more.

Riding 4th class

Our first stop was Hua Hin - we arrived about 8pm, our train having been due in at 5 (not at all unusual with Thai trains) and after wandering around and finding a hotel we made a snap judgement that this wasn't our kind of place.

A little hasty perhaps but expat bars and burger joints everywhere isn't a good sign for us - not to mention very few Thai people in sight - and wherever Thai people go, good Thai food is never far behind! So we weren't too keen to hang around and made a "swift" exit next morning by means of sitting around for a couple of hours waiting for the next train to show up.

We got off at Pran Buri, a small quiet town which was actually too quiet and so untouristy we actually had to use hand gestures to get a drink from a street stall - which is fine, we're gradually learning Thai at a rate of about one word per day, but we saw no sign of anywhere to stay... so we found a taxi to take us to Pak Nam Pran, a nearby seaside town which we'd previously noted on the map and looked as if it may have some potential.

Pak Nam Pran turned out to be to be the dried squid capital of Thailand, with racks and racks of flattened squid drying in the sun all the way along the seafront. The smell was quite something - I was quite delighted to see so many squid in one place, although Dgym was less impressed.


Dried squid on a string makes a lovely decoration and won't add much to our baggage weight, so our friends and family will be delighted to learn we are bringing one home for everybody!

Squid shop

The town centre lacked our kind of cheap & comfortable hotel so we ended up in a resort about a 10 minute walk away from the centre and we took the day off from hot sweaty travelling to use the lovely swimming pool, catch up on laundry, explore the town a bit and figure out what to do next.

It seemed like a nice little town with plenty of cheap street food, a nice clean beach and a big 7/11 which made us most happy (I won the find-the-weirdest-food contest by picking up a packet of chocolate bacon flavour sunflower seeds). We weren't the only tourists but felt like it at times - we were stared at and waved at quite a bit and although there are quite a few resorts nearby, either they were quite empty or their occupants weren't venturing into the town much.

Lovely beach and broken pier at Pak Nam Pran

Beautiful wooden houses

One of the nice things about being here at this time of year is that it's spring - back home that's when we get lambs but apparently around here it's baby gecko time! I found this tiny fella trying to sneak into our room:


We spent two nights in Pak Nam Pran and then decided to move on. While waiting for the train out of town we stopped at a food stall and, by the tried and tested means of "pointing at yummy stuff", we obtained these lovely dumpling-pancake things - the orange one was shrimp flavour, the other contained some kind of leafy vegetable

Dumpling things

Monday, February 25, 2013

bye bye Vietnam

We hired bikes in Hoi An and rode through some beautiful countryside to to the beach, which was clean, sandy and full of Vietnamese families enjoying their weekend. We spent a couple of afternoons there chilling out, reading, drinking cold drinks and eating tasty seafood.

I rode into town a couple of times which was a bit scarier - junctions are slightly terrifying when you're in a huge crowd of motorbikes and wanting to turn left. There's also a stream of people riding bikes and scooters against the flow of traffic on the left hand side.. hey, if you're going that way and want something on the other side of the road then why not? It's crazy, you need eyes in the front, back and both sides of your head at all times but I survived!

I did a sunrise photography workshop which involved getting up insanely early (5am pickup - Dgym is not into photography or mornings so funnily enough he opted out), piled into a minibus with five other sleepy tourists and driven out of town to catch a ferry to a nearby fishing village. Fortunately this involved the intake of some lovely Vietnamese coffee and a gorgeous sunrise as we crossed the water, so everybody perked up pretty quickly. We were taken to see and photograph the fishing boats coming in to shore, women coming to meet the boats and fight and haggle over their contents, seafood being weighed and packed up, huge blocks of ice being chipped to keep the produce fresh.

We were given some very useful advice on how to photograph people, how to approach them and make sure it's OK to do so, show them the photograph afterwards and tell them "Dep!" (Beautiful) which often raises a smile. (Although you don't do this with busy fisherwomen) We were then led on a walk through the village followed by a visit to a fish sauce factory which gave us the opportunity to practise low light photography - i.e. steadying a camera / operating a tripod whilst also holding our noses!

I learned a lot anyway - it was well worth getting up hideously early for, and as if I didn't already have hundreds of photos to sort through when we get home, I now have hundreds more!

We flew out of Vietnam last week, having spent about a week and a half there. It's a tiny amount of time for such a big country and I think we barely scratched the surface of what it has to offer. We arrived with a few preconceptions, mostly about it being less laid back, busier and less friendly than other countries in the region.

It's certainly noisier. The constant horn beeping in Saigon is insane, it got a lot less in Hoi An where there was much less traffic, but still the default state of most drivers is to be beeping as often as possible. It's not at all an angry beeping you might get in, say, the UK or the US - it's very much what beeping is actually meant for, saying "I'm here". Some might say it loses its meaning amid the hundreds of others also saying "I'm here" but hey.

We didn't find it at all unfriendly - we met many lovely smiley and friendly people in Vietnam, especially once we got away from the city. There was probably a little price gouging but we did find in some cases repeat business quickly started to earn discounts, so maybe it's not so much prices for locals but prices for regulars.

However, the taxi drivers need to start behaving themselves! We were aware of various scams when we arrived, so made sure to arrange for a taxi from a desk in the airport, and on the streets only pick up taxis from companies we "knew" to be reputable. Unfortunately we were still screwed over for about a tenner by a Mai Linh driver who decided the meter value (which read 40.0 or something for a 10 minute journey, meaning 40,000 dong which is about £1.20) should be multiplied up with an extra zero and we owed him about 400,000 dong. We were new to all these zeroes, and pretty sure he was having a laugh but didn't have much to back us up so we paid up, scowled a bit and moved on. Some taxis come with a sticker that make it unambiguous, this one didn't. Oh well... other journeys we took were fine but it pays to agree a price beforehand, or be very clear about how the meter works.

To end on a positive note about Vietnam: we are missing the coffee!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Vietnamese spam

More than a week after the Year of the Snake began, the Vietnamese were still wishing everybody seasons greetings and listening to Abba's"Happy New Year" which is now firmly stuck in my head.

We spent five days in Hoi An, a small town about half way up between North and South. It's quite touristy, with a very photogenic old town full of pretty buildings, colourful lanterns and little old ladies with pointy hats and fruit baskets. Westernised restaurants are common, with full english menu and the opportunity to have a hamburger or pizza.

However, it's not hard to find proper Vietnamese food in the form of street restaurants, which are much like Thai ones except the seats are much lower - think those little foot stools you stand on to get to a high shelf. The Vietnamese are short, but not that short! People throw their napkins and food scraps on the floor, apparently a holdover from when they had pigs snuffling around cleaning it all up, only they stopped using the pigs.

We had plenty of pho - I say too much, I'm not a big fan of the delicate aromatic flavour and prefer a Bun Bo Huey, which is a spicy noodle soup with beef, pork and lemongrass - it has a similar hot & sour flavour to Thailand's Tom Yum. Baguettes were a little disappointing, in the UK a Vietnamese baguette (Banh Mi) has meat or eggs or whatever and lots of crunchy vegetables like grated carrot, beansprouts etc. The ones we had in Vietnam were less crunchy and really just a strongly flavoured meaty sandwich which didn't really suit our tastes.

Spring rolls were a particular favourite with us, especially the rice pancake variety which are filled with lovely crunchy vegetables, shrimp etc. I tried the local noodle speciality Cao Lau, in which the noodles are cooked three times in a special kind of water that you only find in Hoi An - they had quite a delicate, unique flavour.

I went on a food tour which was pretty interesting - this involved a tour of the market, a walk around the streets of Hoi An, and sampling of approximately forty different foods and drinks spread over five hours. I had no breakfast and set out hungry, which seemed like a good plan but after about six foods I was ready to stop - I'd particularly enjoyed the first few things which included half a freshly made spring roll and a delicious sweet black sesame soup called Xi Ma - it looks like motor oil or tar in a steaming bucket on the street but I love black sesame flavour and it was delicious so I foolishly opted for a second helpings.

I made it through the full forty foods anyway, trying to pace myself and just get a taste of everything, settling into a steady pace of continuous low-level eating. By the end, I wasn't even particularly full and was ready for lunch a couple of hours later!

Other highlights included silken tofu melted into ginger syrup (so smooth and creamy), rice pancakes with minced wood mushroom, crispy wontons (another local specialty, they're topped with salsa and taste like a cross between wontons, nachos and pizza).

We learned some curious things about Vietnamese tastes - during the war, Vietnamese soldiers got very hungry and started stealing cans of spam from US army bases. Somehow the delicious spammy flavour caught on and it became popular after the war finished. Native versions are produced these days, and if you sit down in a Vietnamese restaurant and see a pile of long thin banana leaf parcels on the table, those might well be spam sausages to be snacked on while you wait for the real food. We had the opportunity to try both the beef and pork flavour of these and... well, let's just say I've never really got into the spongey meat scene. (I've also sadly never tried the real thing so couldn't possibly compare).

Monday, February 11, 2013

Happy New Year of the Snake!

Being in Vietnam over the Lunar New Year has its good and its bad points. Quite a lot of shops and restaurants are closed, tours unavailable etc. It's crazy-busy, especially in the evenings. I don't know how much busier than usual. On the plus side, the atmosphere is pretty amazing - so many people, it's mayhem but it's good mayhem.

I feel I have become one with the constant horn beeping. I'm normally quite averse to crowds but these ones are very non-threatening, no pushing or elbowing, and I think it helps being relatively tall here (Vietnamese are among the world's shortest people and at 5'4" I'm the same height as the average man!) Dgym is spending a lot of time hiding out in the hotel until either all the beeping goes away or we do.

We arrived in time to see the beautiful flower displays on Nguyen Hue, a wide street which has been closed to traffic for the celebrations. It seems a popular activity for young women at this time of year is to dress up in your prettiest dress (and there are some very pretty dresses) and smile your sweetest smile while posing for photographs in front of flower displays, fountains, bonsai trees and whatever else happens to be nearby.

Flower street

On New Year's Eve we went down to the flower street to join in celebrations and see the fireworks. The street was full of people sitting down eating sausages on sticks and chatting. Midnight came and there were fifteen minutes of fireworks - it was a bit weird not having Big Ben to tell us when the moment had arrived, although there was some beeping from nearby speakers. After the display was over everybody walked back very slowly and smelling of fireworks.

New Year's Eve, Saigon style

Next day I visited the Spring Flower Festival, quite accidentally - I wanted to check out a park on the way to the War Remnants Museum. It looked as if something interesting was going on in the park, and the something interesting only cost 20,000 dong (about 60p) to get in. Museum could wait! It turned out to be... well, an assortment of things but mainly bonsai trees, ranging in size from small to really small. Also some bonsai islands - big slabs of stone modelled into tiny worlds with trees, waterfalls, tiny people, pagodas and bridges. This turns out to be a Vietnamese specialty called Hòn Non Bộ and there were some really stunning displays. There were also a few more flower displays and some cacti which seemed to be a more permanent part of the park but it was really all about the bonsai.

Bonsai scenery

Friday, February 08, 2013

Crazy traffic

We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, a few hours ago. First impressions are that they do a lot of beeping here, and the coffee is insanely awesome, and we wonder whether there is some connection there. It is extra-crazy here due to the upcoming New Year - the streets are beautifully lit up, I'm hoping we'll see some flower displays tomorrow and everywhere people are carrying balloons and giant plants around on their motorbikes.

We were kind of expecting the traffic - it sounds like it makes a strong impression on everybody who comes to Vietnam. The advice normally given when crossing the road is to close your eyes, step out and let the traffic weave around you. You'll grow old and die on the pavement if you wait for a clear moment. What nobody mentioned is that the same rules appear to apply for cars and motorbikes at major junctions, either that or our taxi driver was a maniac. Bangkok traffic is already beginning to look tame.

We have, however, had a lovely dinner at the Pho 24 chain (with insanely awesome coffee), followed by a couple of delightfully crunchy spring rolls and what can only be described as very thin, crispy caramelised sheets of sliced banana.

Dgym's rabies situation is under control, in that he hasn't developed any yet and has an appointment for his day-3 shot tomorrow morning. (You have to be injected on days 1, 3, 7, 14 and 30) His hand is a little bit hurty but otherwise he is fine. I've never been fainted on before, and it would have been a whole lot less terrifying had I known it was perfectly normal to roll your eyes back and convulse for a couple of seconds when you faint.

I was actually taking photos when he was bitten. One minute it was "Aww, he has a monkey friend on his shoulder, that will make a lovely picture". By the time the camera was pointed and firing away, he had a second monkey not-really-a-friend jumping up and snapping at his hand. I'm not unkind enough to post that on the internet. As consolation, here are pictures of both of us disguised as spectacled monkeys: