Hi Mum, I’m in Chiang Mai

We were pretty relieved to be leaving Bangkok. It’s not that we had any antipathy towards the place, it was more that Bangkok is a bit too full on, a bit too demanding of your full attention all the time. So it was that we arrived in Thailand’s northern capital craving a more manageable and sedate destination, and Chiang Mai proved just the change of pace we needed.

After breaking through the scrum of taxi and tuk tuk drivers at the train station – one of the last vestiges of the Bangkok-style approach to tourists – we made it to our hotel to find our room ready for us (at 8.30am, a very pleasant surprise!). We were based in the old town of Chiang Mai, within the city’s ancient fortifications, a part of town that seems more immune to the traffic and fish ‘n’ chip restaurants than the area outside the walls. After a quick freshen up we were out on foot to explore the place and come to grips with it. We quickly took a shine to Chiang Mai – the lack of humidity, the lack of touts, the quiet leafy back streets and the friendly locals.

Our morning’s exertions had manifested in a thirst that could only be quenched by beer, so we repaired to a table on a laneway outside the local market where we could watch the traffic pass. Some of it stopped at this vendor opposite our table where people arrived in a steady stream to take away packages of what looked like fried chicken but turned out to be the most delicious banana fritters I’ve ever eaten. They weren’t the whole bananas that you typically see as fritters in Australian Chinese restaurants, but rather slices of banana coated in a batter made with coconut milk and sesame seeds. It was an outstanding accompaniment to our beer on the rocks (don’t judge us until you’ve tried it on a 35 degree day in situ).

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Once evening arrived, we decided to have a shufti at the shifty goods on offer at the night bazaar. Whilst most of the fakes on offer were of the same variety as those for sale in Bangkok and Batu Feringghi, I couldn’t help myself when it came to a Mont Blanc knockoff. I think I ended buying it mostly because I felt so proud that I’d knocked the price down from THB650 to 300.

The next day we were off to our first cooking class of the trip, in order to hone our Thai cooking skills. Whilst the class was pitched at a fairly basic level, the class we did was pretty good and hands on (even though we had to sneak ourselves the sharp knives). We threw together was we thought was a pretty passable couple of curries (red and green), stirfries, soups, spring rolls and desserts.

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In case you think we hadn’t had enough food tourism for one destination, Friday morning was the day we had planned to go to the weekly Chin Haw market. The Chin Haw are Chinese migrants (mostly from Yunnan province) who migrated to northern Thailand via Burma and Laos. We had read about this market on Eating Asia and in particular were very keen to try the Shan donuts – concoctions of black glutinous rice flour that are then deep fried and dunked in molasses.

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Utterly, deeply, delicious.

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Unfortunately, they are also dangerously drippy and it was while we were looking like complete dicks wiping molasses of ourselves and each other that I spied the authors of the Eating Asia blog, Robyn and Dave.

Like the sad, stalker fanboys that we are, Amanda and I went up to make their acquaintance and express our gratitude for all the wonderful eating experiences we’ve had so far. As it was, I think they were mildly creeped out by being recognised and accosted by a couple of molasses-covered Australians in an obscure Chiang Mai food market. Sorry guys. However, I suspect that if you actually knew how many of your recommendations we have visited so far, you might have made a run for it instead of giving us more tips for later on in our trip.

After we had stopped hyperventilating with excitement, it was time for some non food-related culture and we headed for the mountain-top temple of Doi Suthep. Our transport to the temple was in the local share taxis called songthaew – which are really just utes with bench seats in the back. They are a great way to travel round this part of Thailand. Just flag one down in the street, let the driver know which direction you’re going and, if he’s going there too, negotiate the price and get in.

Doi Suthep itself was nice – it’s at the top of a steep column of steps leading up the hillside and up the top, as expected, is … a temple. Guys, if you’re reading this blog expecting to come away with anything coherent or interesting about Buddhist culture or architecture, you may well be disappointed. It was relatively interesting, well touristed, extensively covered in gold (and bamboo scaffolding), strongly scented with incense and the view from the hill was nonexistent due to the pollution and haze covering the city.

In fact, the most interesting part may well be the trip back to the city in the songthaew. We travelled there and back with a Thai family – several possible aunts, a mum and dad, an infant of about 10 months (scarily passed from person to person as we hooned up a hillside in a backless ute) and a kid of about 4 years. On the way back down, all was silence, until about 3 minutes from the destination when the 4-year-old decided that all the rich food up at the temple didn’t agree with him, so he brought it all back up over himself and his mother. Next to Amanda. In multiple bursts. This started off a chain reaction of vomiting, not dissimilar to the scene in Stand By Me (“a complete and total barf-o-rama”) in which the kid’s auntie gestured frantically for a bag, then resorted to sticking her head out the window and being sick down the side of the songthaew. As we gratefully exited the taxi (Amanda even more gratefully, having narrowly missed the carnage entirely in her white dress), we saw the mother having a quiet sick into the roadside trees. Ah, songthaews – obviously the classy way to travel.

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The Challenge

Before we set off, I was set a challenge by one Robert Craig.

See the hat pictured below? That’s right, the one that I’m in doing my best impression of Chris from Masterchef. Well, Mr Craig is so convinced that the hat will be lost before we get to London that he has offered dinner, at a restaurant of my choice in Melbourne, as a reward for it’s safe return.

I do have form though, so he might be safe – the last hat I bought was left in a Heathrow airport lounge after a few too many drinks. Unfortunately for Rob, the hat is in Chiang Mai (along with me) and I will continue to post occasional photos of me in the hat until we either make it to London or the hat and I decide we can’t stand each other – just to prove I haven’t shipped it.

Hi Mum, I’m in Bangkok

We are definitely not the first people to make the insightful comment that Bangkok is seriously full-on. We were there for 2 and a half days and that was enough.

Happily, though, for once we arrived somewhere refreshed – the second class sleeper from Butterworth was neither frigid nor sweltering, and apart from Alex not quite fitting in the bed we had an enjoyable trip. Even broke out the Travel Scrabble (current tally: Alex 3 games, Amanda 2).

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Once in Bangkok we confused the tuk-tuk drivers by insisting on walking (a foolish errand in such ridiculous heat and humidity) and felt smug about avoiding obviously overpriced taxi rides (though they probably felt smug about not walking).

It seems that upon landing in the city, your options as a tourist are limited to:

– acting like a pathetic hippy by getting hennaed and braided down Khao San Road;

– acting like a complete twat and getting tattoos and dreadlocks that you’ll definitely regret (once you’ve eaten your 3am pad thai and started to sober up);

– visiting wats;

– visitng more wats;

– did we mention the wats?

A brief diversion re: pad thai – I’m sure it remains a classic Thai dish, but this stuff is everywhere, bland and pale and marketed (it seems) solely to tourists.

Anyway, skipping the braids, dreads, tattoos, henna and pad thai, we did indeed end up at Wat Pho. On our train trip from Malaysia we had been seated next to a crusty old Pom who was on his annual escape from the British winter. He was a quintessential ‘whinging Pom’ who seemed to have little good to say about the entirety of Southeast Asia.

“One thing about Europe is the architecture. Amazing! Not like here – looks like it was made by a remedial class using plasticine.”

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“Just boring. Just little gold bits on the ends.”

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Alex: “So what do you do for a crust?”

“Oh, I’m a bricklayer.”

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Anyway, we ignored his sagacious insight and had a lovely time at Wat Pho. We were almost tempted to throw away good money to have our palms read in the grounds of the temple, after watching a particularly gullible American woman listen with rapt attention to her fortune-teller and scribble down everything he said verbatim. This guy could have taught John Edwards a thing or two – he even began to pause and say ‘Write that down’ after delivering a particularly juicy piece of wisdom. Luckily we came to our senses and moved on.

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We were ‘watted out’ after our very first temple so instead headed across the Chao Praya river to Siriraj Hospital. Squirreled away lies a collection of museums, but the one we were there for was the Museum of Forensic Pathology. It was way more gory than it sounds. Photos of horrific accidents; dissected hearts, lungs, brains and other organs showing stab wounds (identified by red plastic arrows denoting the path of the knife) and the effects of strokes, sclerosis and cirrhosis; skulls with perfect bullet holes; more deformed foetuses than were strictly necessary; and, of course, some mummified serial killers. You’ll be thankful that the museum had a strict ‘No Photography’ rule. We were less thankful that we’d just eaten lunch.

It wouldn’t be a successful visit anywhere if we didn’t find some seriously good food. This time, it was at the out-of-the-way Nang Leong market where we found these delicious bite-sized desserts.

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They’re flavoured with coconut, mango, banana and pumpkin, and are steamed in tiny pandan-leaf baskets. An absolute steal at 10 for 25baht (about 85 cents).

Hi Mum, I’m in Penang

After the impersonality of Singapore and our brief stop in KL, it was great to arrive in Georgetown, the main town on the island of Penang.

Two things were immediately striking – what a perfect size the town is for just wandering, and how friendly everyone is.

At breakfast on our first morning (at a tiny offshoot of the Chowrasta market), our neighbours at the next table asked us eagerly what we planned to eat, gave recommendations, were excited to hear we were from Australia and then frustrated because they couldn’t immediately remember their cousin’s address in Melbourne. Being the only Westerners in the place we attracted a bit of attention but it all seemed relatively approving. Our breakfast of hokkien cha and keow teow theng was delicious and cheap.

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Like Singapore, Georgetown has it’s own Little India. This one was in the middle of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed old town and is really delightful. We can highly recommend the gulab jamun from NR Sweets – they’re off the hook.

The only disappointment of Little India was that the preponderance of street vendors selling spicy fried Indian snacks made us really want a beer to accompany them. Malaysia is a Muslim nation and alcohol isn’t manufactured in the country, meaning that it’s not widely sold and is relatively expensive (around 8 ringgit/$A2.60 for a small can).

Bemoaning our sobriety, we continued exploring. We were up near the very impressive law courts when we heard the telltale sound of drums and cymbals that accompany lion dancers. Now, I love lion dancers and had been a bit disappointed that we’d arrived just after Chinese New Year, so I was pretty excited.

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We stood across the road from the building the noise was coming from (a law firm), hoping the dancers would come out soon. As we waited, a woman who happened to be one of the firm’s managing partners came over, bringing us a mandarin each and inviting us inside to see the action.

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The two floors of the firm, filled with legal briefs tied up in pink ribbon, was crammed with office workers, other staff, children, musicians and two lions. The lions moved from desk to desk, “eating” the mandarins placed on each, and posing for photos with the staff. It was complete mayhem – some of the younger kids looked a bit scared and kept their fingers in their ears.

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We were given more gifts – mandarins, a red paper box and a jar of homemade peanut biscuits. Alex had a chat with one of the other partners, who was interested in his career and plans for London.

Once all the desks had been blessed we moved outside, but several people shouted at us not to leave. As we watched, the rest of the lion troup set up a series of platforms and a 12ft pole topped with flowers. The skill required by the lion to retrieve the flowers was pretty impressive.

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After all the excitement, our ears were ringing and we were ready for a siesta.

Later that afternoon we caught up with one of Alex’s old teachers, the head of music and orchestra conductor. He and his wife retired here last year and showed us around. The highlight was dinner at the Eastern and Oriental Hotel, a gorgeous place that was founded by the same Armenian brothers responsible for Raffles.

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The rest of our time in Penang was spent eating and exploring. We took a slow bus to the northern part of the island, a tourist ghetto known as Batu Ferringhi. The beach was packed with holiday makers (including lots of Muslim women in full burqas) riding quad bikes, parasailing, horseriding or showing off their sunburn. The street along the beach was jammed with stalls selling absolutely genuine Rolexes and DVDs. Apart from spending a wonderful and excruciating 15 minutes having the dead skin on our feet nibbled by little starving suckerfish, we didn’t last long in Batu Ferringhi.

Hi Mum, I’m in Malaysia

 While taking the  first of our overnight train journeys we discovered some of the quirks of travelling KTMB (Malaysia’s State train operator):

– It seems they only have two settings for their air conditioning: off and arctic;

They have a strange side-on arrangement for the beds which makes you feel as if you’re about to be thrown out of bed all night; and

– They also have a penchant for playing Boney M at full volume over the train’s loudspeakers at 6am.

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We arrived in Kuala Lumpur at 6.30am, not very refreshed, but with Boney M’s “One Way Ticket” lodged firmly as an earworm. We decided to walk from the station into the centre of town and both noticed how much greener and more interesting KL seemed when compared with Singapore. Much less sterile, full of chaotic traffic and the one thing sure to make us happy – street food vendors!  – ranging from old ladies selling nasi lemak to these guys who lured in with their colourful drinks.

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After breakfast at quite a traditional muslim restaurant (this became especially apparent when I was expected to speak and order for Amanda) we headed for the Petronas twin towers to get a better view of the city. The ride up to the skybridge on the 41st floor was free; however, Petronas extracted their pound of flesh by making us sit through indoctrination on why they are the world’s best corporate citizen while proudly showing off all the pies in which they have fingers. Jasper Fforde fans would have appreciated the similarities between Petronas and Goliath Corp.

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Corporate reeducation had exhausted us, so we decided it was time to take a nap in the beautifully manicured gardens surrounding the towers. Apparently this is a no-no in KL, as we were soon being whistled at by an officious uniformed lady whose job it seemed was to make rounds of the gardens and whistle, point and yell at people for having fun. We learnt our lesson and made way back into the centre for lunch.

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Lunch was at Hong Ngek, a little back-alley Malay Chinese restaurant we were keen to try. We sat down and were instantly given sage ordering advice by one of the two old dudes who run the floor there – the slow braised pork with chestnuts was a surprisingly delicious suggestion and though we thought we weren’t hungry, we powered through that along with some excellent side dishes and a couple of beers. Thanks to Eating Asia for the tip-off on this place, we’ll be following up on a few more as we make our way through Asia. 

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I know you’re all thinking at this point that we’re incredibly sad and food-obsessed. Well, we are. You can’t be that surprised, can you?

After lunch, we decided to do something a bit more cultural and made our way back across town for the museum of Islamic art. It’s a beautifully put together exhibition of Islamic architecture, art, calligraphy, clothing and every day items which cover the Muslim populations of Malaya, China and India. For someone like me who knows bugger all about Islamic culture, it’s a great introduction.

Finally, we were back at the train station and had a few hours to kill before boarding the train for Butterworth where we were to take the train for Penang. When we had to start rummaging round our packs for all our warm clothing in order to survive another night of overly zealous air conditioning, I was starting to wonder why we were dicking around with trains for three and a half months and didn’t just stay on the same plane we boarded in Melbourne…

Hi Mum, I’m in Singapore

Singapore, like Hong Kong, is a pretty weird place. Lucky we were adequately prepared.

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We spent just a couple of days here, smack bang in the middle of the Chinese New Year holiday. This meant that (presumably) ordinarily bustling areas such as Little India, Chinatown and Arab Street were mostly deserted.

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Except for occasional roaming bands of lion dancers.

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Of course, we hit the ground eating. I’ve surprised myself by adapting to savoury breakfasts pretty easily, mostly curries and breads. The rest of the food has been pretty great too. This is a good point at which to thank our friend Vanessa (who is spending the year studying here) for taking us out for an evening of dumplings and cocktails at the cheesy alcoholic Disneyland that is Clark Quay.

So why is Singapore weird? Well, we’ve found it difficult to get a handle ont he place. There are so many ex-pats and so many luxury shops and hotels that it feels a bit like the pulse of the city is measured in dollars and cents. That obviously works well for the place, but I suspect it’s not something that will draw us back very effectively. Unless, of course, we get to stay at the wonderfully opulent Raffles Hotel. In that case, I suspect that I wouldn’t get away with wearing ‘backpackers’ clothes’ – flowing dresses and linen suits would be required when taking high tea in the salon or cocktails on the lawn – the signature Singapore Sling being a relative steal at SGD29 a pop. It’s all quite silly and terribly old-fashioned, but it’s strangely seductive.

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Hi Mum, I’m not in Melbourne for much longer

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Well, this is almost it. Only about 10 days to go, and we’re at the point where we really do have to say goodbye to a lot of you (although we won’t be going anywhere unless the Russians decide to pull their fingers out and give us back our passports). It feels as though we’ve been putting off our parting remarks – labouring under the illusion that there will be enough time to see plenty of all of you before we bugger off. Unfortunately, with limited time and a rapidly filling dancecard, we do have to say our final farewells and may actually miss out on saying a proper goodbye to many of you. To those of you we do miss out on seeing, we say “Oh, well, umm, I guess I’ll see you in a few years…”.

The truth is that we will miss our friends and family and we do hope that plenty of you decide to make the trip to London. If you do, and you play your cards right, there may just be a bed and a lukewarm pint waiting for you.

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As opposed to these cold pints (modelled here by Mel)

Thanks to all of you who braved the gloriously variable Melbourne weather and came to our farewell drinks. Here are a few snaps from the day. More are/will be available on Flickr. You can link directly to our photostream from the sidebar on the right.

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Some of you will have grown up by the time we get back.

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And some of you probably won’t…

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