Where The River Goes

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Exploring one of the three Ksamil Islands

I’m afraid the internet has been pretty horrendous along the Albanian coast so I’m only getting a moment to update now. We managed to drive 40 minutes from our place in Dhermi to find a working ATM. The next issue was then finding a place that served food! Most were only selling drinks as it seems eating out isn’t popular with the locals and there aren’t any tourists around! Being the only tourists around definitely did have its perks, though.

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It’s been quite surreal at times, partly because half the buildings appear to have been abandonned mid construction and are now ‘shitet’ (a sign which kept popping up repeatedly all over the place and we now think means ‘for sale’). Another surreal feature of the landscape is the bunkers scattered about in the most bizarre places, ranging from the middle of town to cliffs on the coast and fields in the countryside. Apparently they’re remnants from a ‘bunkerisation’ initiative led by Enver Hoxha’s communist government in the latter half of the 20th century. He wanted the entire country prepped and ready for attack from all sides and a wide range of potential enemies, installing around 750,000  of the things all over the country!  No wonder we saw so many. Kids were trained from the age of 12, apparently, to man the bunkers in an attempt to militarize civilians and be constantly vigilant against intruders. Talk about paranoia! All, of course, abandonned with the fall of communism in the 90s. If you’re interested, check out some of David Galjaard’s bunker photography collection: http://www.slate.com/blogs/behold/2014/01/24/david_galjaard_photographs_albanian_bunkers_in_his_photo_book_concresco.html

I think the best way to summarise our exploring will be through providing some highlights, in case anyone’s looking for any tips or recommendations for Albania trips.

1. Ksamil – just south of Sarandë. This little village has some incredibly beautiful little beaches facing out to three little islands (within swimming distance!) Corfu gets very close at this point of the coast so it looks like mountains in the sea.

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2. Blue Eye – East of Sarandë. This was a rather unexpected gem. You pay (equivalent of around £1) to enter the area and follow a river to it’s magical source: a deep and incredibly clear spring aptly named the ‘Blue eye’ of the river. The surrounding hiking trails are beautiful this time of year. Well worth heading out to if you’re anywhere near Sarandë.

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3. Gjupi beach and Livadhi beach. A couple of examples of the options available along the lengthy coast! The colour of the clear water is just jaw dropping. Bear in mind that these photos are straight from my phone therefore not edited, believe it or not!

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Gjupe

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4. Butrint – another hidden treasure, the ruins if the ancient city of Butrint span across an incredible time period, dating back to the Hellenstic era (Greek influence). Legends say that the city was founded by Helenus and Andromache fleeing the destruction of Troy, but it appears it was inhabited long before -right back to prehistoric times. It was later taken over by the Romans in 228 BC before being swept up in the Byzantine Empire. The Venetians put their stamp on it when they purchased the land in 1386 before it was taken over by the Ottoman Empire in 1799! It’s been through a lot! Relics and remnants from all these eras remain at the site. Really interesting – and we were the only people there bar one or two fellow tourists.

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5. The coastal drive between Vlores and Sarandë. The roads themselves were stunning, carving through the mountains which drop down to the sea. There were so many great little spots to stop at along the way.

Dhermi beach

Dhermi beach

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Fun little restaurant built over a waterfall – Ujivara

Porto Palermo castle

Porto Palermo Castle 

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And finally, here’s a delicious trileche pud in Sarandë that I must try to make once we’re back!

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Bring it on Down

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“I’m on a diet, so I had only five extra helpings.”

– Gagamaru, Sumo Champion 2010.

It seems bizarre to invent a sport that requires its competitors to become clinically obese to stand a chance against their opponents. One of the professionals in this stable was a whopping 192kg.  It was, however, fascinating to watch. Our guide was a lady called Noriko, who takes tourists to watch Sumos in their early morning practices in Ryogoku. There are fairly strict rules that you have to follow in order to watch the practice including complete silence and not moving off the cushion on the floor for the full three hours: Fair bit of pins and needles engendered, as you can imagine. It was incredible how elaborate and ritualistic the practices are, starting with training of the lowest ranking members of the ‘stable’ then working up to the professionals, in white Mawashi (pants).

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Cleaning up the sand ring in between sessions

Cleaning up the sand ring in between sessions

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Surprisingly flexible!

Surprisingly flexible!

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Being back in the Ryogoku area, where we stayed the first time we were in Tokyo, we couldn’t resist visiting our favourite bakery down the road. Was just as fresh and delicious as I remembered. Here’s a bean cake and raisin bun.IMG_7128

With only a couple of days left we then decided to whiz off to Asakusa, one of the top tourist areas of the city with the ‘sky tree’ tower attraction and Sensoki temple. It was however absolutely rammed full of people and not nearly as spectacular as the Kyoto temples, in my opinion.

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Here you can see the sky tower and some bizarre piece of architecture which sort of resembles a gold-plated dog turd...

Here you can see the sky tower and some bizarre piece of architecture which sort of resembles a gold-plated dog turd…

 To cap off our busy day we headed to the Roppongi district of the city, where we had a long awaited reservation at Sukiyabashi Jiro. If you haven’t heard of Jiro before, he is an 88 year old sushi master, who’s spent his life perfecting the art of sushi, now running a three Michelin star restaurant underground in Ginza. Unfortunately, after many failed attempts, it became apparent that booking reservations for Jiro Ono’s own restaurant is next to impossible unless you’re local. (Much Thanks to Sheena for all her help with the attempted booking!). We instead made a reservation for his son, Takashi’s two Michelin star branch of the restaurant in Roppongi. Here’s a link to an advert for the film made about Jiro’s life’s work: ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi‘.

We arrived a little early for our reservation time and were the only people in the restaurant. Takashi then proceeded to cut, shape, paint with soy sauce and present to us 19 courses of individual pieces of sushi. These ranged from ‘needle fish’ to sea urchin. My favourites were the medium fatty tuna and, much to my surprise, the giant clam which I was fully expecting to hate. It was bizarre how things which I would normally not even dream about eating were made perfectly palatable, such as roe and sea eel. With only two (and eventually another two) people joining us in the restaurant it felt like a private interview with Takashi who prepared the course, watched us eat it then prepared the next pieces. The sushi is served at the perfect temperature for each individual fish and you’re not supposed to add any soy or ginger. I made the heinous mistake of trying to add a little ginger to the octopus, being pretty squeamish about eating it, and Takashi actually said no and picked off the ginger himself. Overall, yes, It was incredibly good, and it did make me try things that I would otherwise never have tasted but in all honesty I really don’t think it’s worth the absolutely ridiculous price tag. On this occasion I was extraordinarily lucky enough to be treated to the meal, though, so obviously can’t complain! Would definitely NOT recommend this for a budget trip I’m afraid. Certainly a fascinating experience though. Only at the very end did Takashi break his rather stony, serious exterior and come out for a photo with us and to shake our hands.

A rather inconspicuous exterior in the middle of the otherwise highly ostentatious Roppongi hills shopping mall.

A rather inconspicuous exterior in the middle of the otherwise highly ostentatious Roppongi hills shopping mall.

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Sea Urchin

Sea Urchin

Whole shrimp

Whole shrimp

5 (6)

Salmon Roe

Salmon Roe

Medium fatty tuna

Medium fatty tuna

Long Way Down

Lake Kawaguchi Mount Fuji
“Aspire to be like Mt. Fuji, with such a broad and solid foundation that the strongest earthquake cannot move you, and so tall that the greatest enterprises of common men seem insignificant from your lofty perspective. With your mind as high as Mt Fuji you can see all things clearly. And you can see all the forces that shape events; not just the things happening near to you.”
– Miyamoto Musashi (Japanese Martial Arts master, one of the world’s greatest swordsmen, 1584-1645)

I had my last dip in the Osaka Onsen yesterday morning before we headed out on a long and complicated train journey, with 6 stages, to Lake Kawaguchi in the shadow of the majestic, snow-capped Mount-fuji.

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Tried my second bento box en route – a bit of a mixed bucket as some compartments have delicious little rice dishes or Japanese sweets or omlette. Others had some less appealing surprises, for example a whole tiny little octopus…

Fuji-san, Japan’s national emblem, suddenly appeared as if out of nowhere out of the train windows, much larger than I’d anticipated. We’re staying in a traditional inn or ‘Ryokan’ next to Lake Kawaguchi. It is a fairly rural tourist-based town which, to my frustration, hasn’t been hit by the wave of blossom yet.

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Onsenji Ryokan

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Breakfast was served in our room by a lovely traditionally dressed Japanese woman. It was a spread of various, fish, rice miso soup, lots of bizarre things that I just couldn't place, these 'fish cake' omlette things and of course copious amounts of green tea.

Breakfast was served in our room by a lovely traditionally dressed Japanese woman. It was a spread of various fish, rice, miso soup, lots of bizarre things that I just couldn’t place, these ‘fish cake’ omlette things and of course copious amounts of green tea.

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We were very fortunate to arrive to a fantastically clear sky for the sunset. Today we haven’t had such luck. We decided to head out to Fuji-Q Highland, famous for it’s spectacular views of the mountain. Fuji-Q is home to some fairly jaw-dropping roller coasters: Fujiyama, once the tallest in the world – still in the top 10 tallest and longest roller coasters; Dodonpa – once the world’s fastest, now the 4th fastest but still will the highest acceleration at launch time – from 0-172Km/h in 1.8 seconds after starting (just incredible!); Eejanaika 4D with 14 inversions; and Takabisha, officially the steepest roller coaster in the world with a 121 degrees vertical freefall. I fairly fairly dizzy after all that, to say the least, but it was just mind-blowing!

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Gone in the Morning/ Tokyo Midnight

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“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.”

– Cesare Pavese

So I’m off again! The use of the student loan is now getting increasingly ridiculous  as I’ve actually started at UCL now…anyway, practicalities aside, I headed out from London Gatwick yesterday at around midday and after a couple of flights and brief stopover, a luxury I’m not really accustomed to, arrived in Tokyo, losing 8 hours in the process. The Air China flights were pretty interesting- first time I’ve encountered air hostesses who can’t speak any English. Ended up with some very bizarre food – classic example would be the ‘marinated egg’ I was treated to for breakfast: Imagine a dark brown coloured egg that’s incredibly chewy and you can’t really place what exactly it has been marinated in…maybe something sweet? If that’s not to your fancy then maybe the ‘pickled mustard tubers’ might hit the spot. Don’t even ask – I have no idea.

The elderly Japanese lady sitting next to me on the second of my flights immediately affirmed all that I’d heard about the Japanese being incredibly friendly. Without speaking a word of English she gave me half the brioche that she was eating then after I thanked her she gave me what I thought was a stringy cheese stick, only to find it was some form of processed meat on biting into it. Disgusting. But sweet of her all the same. The bowing/head bowing thing everyone does here is really charming, it’s nice to be able to communicate so much through a gesture without having to worry if I’m pronouncing the little Japanese that I know correctly. People were so keen to help, though, that it was almost comical. One lady noticed me looking at my map and swerved over to the other side of the road and jumped off her bike to help me. She didn’t even speak English – just very eager to help! When I then got lost following her hand drawn map another lady walked me half the way to my hotel – outstanding!

The jet lag resulted, rather inevitably, in me crashing pretty soon after navigating the metro to my hotel. First though I took a moment to explore the area. Found a very sweet little Japanese bakery and enjoyed the blossoms which just seem to be omnipresent. Can’t wait to get out to the parks tomorrow.

Japan Ryogoku Blossom

Ryogoku

Ryogoku, by the station

Blossom Ryogoku

Japanese Bakery Ryogoku

No English in the bakery so had to just pick something that looked vaguely vegetarian – luckily managed to get this delicious cheese loaf thing…

Ryogoku blossom

 

 

 

Outro

Lotus Flowers

“Summer ends, and Autumn comes, and he who would have it otherwise would have high tide always and a full moon every night.”
 – Hal Borland

The time has finally come for my summer to draw to a close. Bangkok has whizzed past in a blur of alcohol and cheap massages.

I’m not viewing my homecoming as the end, per say, more like a new start in a different place. To be perfectly honest I’d been looking forward to escaping the omnipotent smell of fish sauce.

Khao San Road - great spot for a big of haggling over typical backpacker goodies: baggy clothes, jewellery, pirated dvds etc etc

Khao San Road – great spot for a big of haggling over typical backpacker goodies: baggy clothes, jewellery, pirated dvds etc etc

Don't be alarmed - it's not me. Sandra, my mexican room mate, decided on a slightly clichéed visit to one of the multiple Bangkok tattoo parlours.

Don’t be alarmed – it’s not me. Sandra, my Mexican room mate, decided on a, slightly clichéd, visit to one of the multiple Bangkok tattoo parlours.

 

As has come to be a habit when visiting new cities, I took a trip to the National Art Gallery. It was in pretty bad condition; It appeared of going through some sort of construction work, with most of the building empty. However there was an inspiring little exhibition in an odd set-up outside of the main building. I was rather taken with a duo of intricate and lively collages by a man called Sittichoke Wichian entitled ‘Living Ways, Bonds and Happiness’. Here’s one of the two:
Bangkok National art gallery

Below is another piece which caught my eye as it reflected the craftsmanship that’s typical throughout South East Asia – silk weaving. It depicts a series of poses of a shrouded nun, through gaps in the indigo silk work.

Bangkok national art gallery

I’ve also tried to make the most of the fantastic street food in the last few days. My staple diet of curry, pad thai, Mango sticky rice and tofu stir fry extended into breakfast. Here’s my eight a.m tofu green curry!

I have to admit though, birds eye chillies in a green curry first thing in the morning are not so easy on the stomach.

I have to admit though, birds eye chillies in a green curry first thing in the morning are not so easy on the stomach.

I’m still not entirely won over by Bangkok, being a little put off by the overly aggressive approach of some of the vendors and the slight sketchy feeling you get from certain places at night time. However, I can’t deny that it’s a fun place to visit. It’s particularly great at the end of a trip as you can stock up on souvenir’s and $10 full body massages before heading back to reality. In my case, the return was a lavish three day journey, the highlight being the night spent on the stone floor of Mumbai airport.

Needless to say, it’s good to be home. It was a bit of a shock to the system to descend into the freezing grey ‘mizzle’ but as Steinbeck wisely puts it in his ‘Travels with Charley‘ “What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.” I’m heading out on a whole new adventure in a few short days as I move up to London to finally re-start university. This is by no means the end – more like a respite from excessing moving about the place  – with any luck there will be many more summers to come so WATCH THIS SPACE!

I really want to thank-you all for being such a huge support to me throughout this adventure – I really do appreciate it more than I can say. I’ll leave you with a quote from the brilliant Albert Camus as I attempt to descend once again into the charted waters of the bitter cold. Let’s hope the unpleasant days of the 2011 winter, the last one that I was around to experience, are behind me.

“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”

~Albert Camus

Khao San Road by day

Hot Hot Hot

Buddhist gathering, chang mai

There’s a huge array of tourist-orientated excursions and activities available in Chang Mai. One of the nicer things to do, in my personal opinion, is to simply wander about the city checking out a couple of the Wats or popping in for a three dollar massage in one of the numerous establishments. Today I indulged in an hour long traditional Thai massage. It was quite bizarre: a little like some sort of eccentric physiotherapy session with the masseuse wrapping herself around me to twist my limbs into the strangest contortions. At times it was verging on being quite unbearable in terms of the intense pressure levels – she would dig in her elbows into your muscle with her full body weight, bringing me to the brink of what I like to call ‘hysterical pain laughter’.

The night bazaar is also definitely worth a visit. It’s basically an extensive network of vendor stalls interwoven with street food, live music, bikes selling delicious coconut ice-cream, the odd boxing ring, delicious smoothies etc. Be prepared to bargain hard, though. Most of the prices originally quoted to me were brought down by at least two thirds!

This morning I headed out with a couple of the girls to take on my second cooking course, this time in Thai cuisine. We started off with a shop in the local farmer’s market where the lady conducting the class explained some of the crucial ingredients to us.

small aubergine/ eggplant

This is actually a kind of aubergine on a bed of holy basil. You can see where the american ‘eggplant’ came from as it’s actually about the size and shape of an egg.

We each made four dishes of our choice, but as we chose different options it allowed us to see how to make quite a large number of meals! Here are the recipes with rough measurements for one portion size. Like with the Vietnamese recipes, I’m not sure if they’ll be of any practical use to anyone but I hope they might be vaguely interesting, if nothing else!

Pad Thai

Ingredients:

50g Narrow rice noodles
(50g sliced chicken/prawns– small strips) – Substitute with extra tofu for vegetarians.
20g tofu, sliced into small pieces
10g Chinese chives or spring onion cut into 3cm lengths
30g bean sprouts
1 tsp chopped garlic
1 egg
2 tbsp cooking oil
1 ½ tbsp oyster sauce (For Veggies: mushroom sauce)
½ tbsp fish sauce (Veg: soy sauce)
1 tsp sugar
¼ cup water

You can also add 1 tbsp tamarind sauce/ some red dried shrimp to get the authentic Thai feel, although these ingredients aren’t so easy to get your hands on! Birds eye chillies can be added to taste.

Pad Thai ingredients

1. Fry tofu in the oil until lightly golden. Add garlic. If adding chicken/prawns, put them in shortly after the garlic and fry until cooked through.
2. Push the tofu, garlic and meat over to one side of the pan/wok and break in an egg. Scramble slightly then mix in as it whitens.

Cooking pad thai
3. Lower the heat a little. Add the water, sauces and sugar followed by the noodles and stir until the noodles have gone tender (can cut with the spatula/spoon)
4. Add the bean sprouts and chives and stir in for around a minute.

Cooking Pad Thai
5. Serve with peanuts, fresh lime and chilli powder!

Pad Thai

Tom Kha Kai (Chicken/Tofu in coconut milk soup)

50g boneless chicken breast/ Tofu, sliced around 3cm thick
1 lemon grass cut into 3-4 1 inch pieces
3-4 1 inch pieces of thinly sliced galangal (Thai ginger – can use ordinary ginger)
2 kaffir lime leaves torn in half
1-3 fresh birds eye chillies, crushed
Half a large onion, quartered
Half a medium sized tomato cut into quarters
A large oyster mushroom torn into pieces
½ tbsp sliced coriander
1 ½ tsp sugar
1 ½ tbsp lemon/lime juice
1 tbsp fish or soy sauce
1 ½ cup coconut milk

Coconut soup ingredients

1. Boil coconut milk in a pot. Add lemon grass, ginger, kaffir lime leaves and chillies.
2. Add the chicken/tofu oyster mushrooms and large onion and wait until cooked.

Cooking coconut chicken or tofu soup
3. Add tomatoes and the seasoning/sauces
4. Serve with coriander sprinkled on top.

Coconut and Tom Yam soup
Tom Yam soup (on the left) is actually very similar to this but with stock water in place of coconut milk. Also straw mushrooms can be used instead of the oysters. The same process applies. If using prawns in place of chicken/tofu add these later with the tomatoes.

Here's a lighter, vegetarian alternative with chinese cabbage, carrot and soft tofu.

Here’s a lighter, vegetarian alternative with Chinese cabbage, carrot and soft tofu.

Green Curry paste
7 fresh birds eye green chillies
2tbsp chopped garlic
1 tbsp chopped shallots
1 tbsp chopped lemon grass
½ tsp chopped galangal/ginger
1 tsp chopped coriander root
½ tsp chopped kaffir lime peel
1tsp turmeric
½ tsp roasted peppercorns
2 tsp roasted coriander seeds
1 tsp roasted cumin seeds
½ tsp salt
½ tsp shrimp paste
All ground together in a mortar – peppercorns and seeds are best to do first.

Alternatively you could just by pre-made paste to speed up the process. Having it fresh though really does make the difference!

Green Curry (Kaenf khiaw-waan kai)

50g boneless chicken breasts or tofu thick sliced
30g of egg sized variety of the aubergine – not sure how easy they’ll be to find. Cut into wedges
30g baby sweet corn (or carrot), sliced.
2 kaffir lime leaves – torn
6 sweet basil leaves
1 tbsp green curry paste
1 ½ cup coconut milk
1 ½ tbsp oil
1 tsp sugar
1 tbsp fish or soy sauce

1. Put oil in a pan, on low heat add green curry paste (rub into the oil with the back of your spoon/spatula)– bring to simmer. Add half the coconut milk and stir in well.
2. Add chicken/tofu and stir until cooked

Green Curry
3. Add remaining coconut milk, aubergine, sweet corn/carrot and kaffir lime leaves.
4. Season with the sugar and sauce
5. Sprinkle sweet basil leaves then turn off the heat. Serve with steamed rice.
(Simply substitute a red curry paste for the green for a red curry)

Other items on the cooking menu include the likes of spring rolls, Phanaeng curry and sticky rice pudding with mango (absolute heaven). Unfortunately I feel adding in all the recipes learnt today would be a bit of an overload so I’ve tried to rein it in a little.

Spring rolls

Thai spring rolls

Phanaeng curry ingredients

The basic phanaeng curry ingredients, including mini aubergines!

cooking phanaeng curry

Cooking phanaeng curry.

Following the class, I ventured out to the old town district in the centre of the city, surrounded by the remains of a city wall and moat. By lucky coincidence my visit overlapped with some sort of Buddhist ‘mass’ or prayer session in one of the central temples. It began with a slow stream of monks trickling in and kneeling in neat lines along the floor. In the blink of an eye the entire temple was filled.

Temple in old town chang mai

Monks in Chang Mai

The Importance Of Being Idle

Vang Vieng Rice Paddy, Laos

“It is important from time to time to slow down, to go away by yourself, and simply be.”
 – Eileen Caddy

I’ve become so infuriated by organised group activities and general ‘tourism’ that today I decided to break away from the gang. We arrived into Vang Vieng in the monsoon rains last night, so this morning I indulged in a lie in, which was absolutely glorious. Eventually emerging at around eleven, I donned my hiking boots for the first time since leaving home and strode out in a general ‘countryside’ direction.

Vang Vieng, being essentially a backpacker haven, is mostly known for tubing and kayaking tours. I don’t find either option remotely appealing, largely due to the fact that I’ve done both a number of times with far more freedom and with far fewer crowds. One particularly fond memory is of heading out across the French vineyards near Carcassonne, one summer, fully equipped with all of the inflatables from the pool. We floated down the river on assorted lilos and rubber rings, occasionally getting caught on the odd bit of shallow water, having a hilariously good time. In comparison, heading out with three tour guides, full instructions, routes mapped, proper equipment etc seems somewhat less spontaneous.

Exploring the local area, however, was incredibly rewarding. The general landscape out of town is absolutely breath-taking. Limestone ‘karsts’ are dotted about the place, very much like Ha Long Bay but with vividly green rice paddies replacing the ocean. You can wander out on the magical little paths through the paddies, with precarious bamboo bridges and rivers that you have to jump across (almost inevitably resulting in mud splattering all the way up your legs). Mesmerising arrays of butterflies and dragonflies are chasing and courting each other all around you and the soothing noise of the running water pouring out of bamboo structures creates the epitome of tranquillity.

Vang Vieng Rice Paddy, Laos

One of the more lacklustre of the bunch...

One of the more lacklustre of the bunch…

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Vang Vieng, Laos

After ambling down a dirt road for a while I decided to follow a very poorly translated signpost which pointed towards a cave “where you bath”. This took me down a tiny little path winding through banana plantations and lush wilderness which was actually a little disconcerting as there wasn’t a soul in sight and the tight turns resulted in very poor visibility. What’s more, the screeches of the crickets were quite alarming; they were exactly like that horrible sound you make when you scrape cutlery across an empty plate. Round one tight corner I spotted an incredibly bizarre snake – around a metre and a half long but so thin that it can’t have been more than a centimetre or two wide. It reared up, with some little creature in its mouth that was screaming its heart out, and darted quickly into the jungle. I’m not sure what it was exactly, but having looked online the closest I’ve come is a ‘painted bronzeback’. By this stage, my stomach was obstinately reminding me that it was lunchtime, so I decided to give up on the rather unnerving trail and head back to the open space!

A small herd of cattle, blocking the route back to the road - thankfully they were very docile!

A small herd of cattle, blocking the route back to the road – thankfully they were very docile!

Calf seeking shelter from the heat.

Calf seeking shelter from the heat.

Vang Vieng , Laos

Rambling about the place was such a fantastic opportunity to get a sneak peek into the genuine lives of the locals: families gathered in the dark of their bamboo huts around a pot of steamed rice, farmers tending the cattle and paddies, little kids splashing about in the mud whilst the fishermen work their traditional nets in the rivers, young boys proudly sporting their smart uniforms as they cycled to and from school. One boy, perched up on a tiny little branch at the top of a tree, like a sparrow, shouting out ‘sa bai dee’ (hello), jumped down and ran over to me to offer his half eaten guava, which was rather adorable. Such a shame that I was unable to communicate in any way – hello and thank-you are the extent of my Laos linguistic abilities, unsurprisingly!

Bridge across the fast-moving river.

Bridge across the fast-moving river.

Vang Vieng River

Laos fisherman

Vang Vieng road

 

Boy in tree Vang Vieng

I’m getting to grips with the local street food increasingly as time passes – the basic concept initially was just entirely foreign to me and nobody explained it, so it’s taken a while! You get the basic ‘canvas’ of the meal given to you, most often rice noodle soup, and then you’re able to choose all the flavours and seasoning yourself from the things available to you on the table – what I initially mistook for a salad is pot of fresh herbs: here it’s mint and a strange lemony tasting leaf that looks a little like basil. Then there are sauces – in this case an additional delicious thick peanut/chilli sauce, chillis, garlic, curry powder etc

The basic 'noodle soup' has morphed into varying forms in the different countries.  Here in Vang Vieng it came with a sort of dark gelatinous tofu, a side of fresh bean sprouts and topped with fried garlic.

The basic ‘noodle soup’ has morphed into varying forms in the different countries. Here in Vang Vieng it came with a sort of dark gelatinous tofu, a side of fresh bean sprouts and topped with fried garlic.

Rice Paddies, Vang Vieng, Laos

 

Going On

Frangipani flower, Laos

Dok Champa a.k.a. the frangipani – national flower of Laos & symbol of joy and sincerity.

“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”
 – Walt Disney

Yesterday we bade farewell to Vietnam and set off on a short flight South West to Vientiane – Capital of Laos. The difference between the two countries is not immediately distinguishable, expect perhaps that the number of motorbikes on the streets has suddenly decreased dramatically! Another slight difference is that the prices are marginally higher here, probably due to the fact that the country’s land-locked. The French influence is still prominent; Vientiane even has it’s own ‘arc de triomphe’!

Vientiane's 'arc de triomphe'

We headed out to the ‘Buddha Park’ this morning: a sculpture park crammed full of 200 Buddhist and Hindu statues. Although the park was only started in 1958 the statues create the illusion of being centuries old, giving the park a mysterious and almost chilling atmosphere!

Buddha Park, Vientiane

Buddha Park, Vientiane

water lily

Buddha Park, Vientiane

Buddha Park, Vientiane

One particularly unusual sculpture, in the form of a giant pumpkin, allows you to go inside into a kind of labyrinth with three levels representing hell, earth and heaven. You enter through the mouth of a three metre tall demon head and climb up from hell to heaven, with smaller sculptures inside the maze on each level.

Buddha Park, Vientiane

The view from 'heaven'.

The view from ‘heaven’.

Vientiane also brings back memories of Yangon due to the ‘Stupas’ throughout the city which strongly resemble the Myanmar Pagodas. Pha That Luang Stupa is generally viewed as the most important national monument in Laos.

Temple at Pha That Luang Stupa.

Temple at Pha That Luang Stupa.

I've always had a soft spot for interesting translations!

I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for poor translations…

 

In terms of food, I haven't notice too much of a difference from Vietnam yet, rice and noodles obviously being the staples throughout Indochina. One thing that is apparent here that was absent beforehand is sticky rice. Here are some bizarre sticky rice 'lollypops' dipped in egg yolk and cooked on a bbq!

In terms of food, I haven’t notice too much of a difference from Vietnam yet, rice and noodles obviously being the staples throughout Indochina. One thing that is apparent here that was absent beforehand is sticky rice. Here are some bizarre sticky rice ‘lollypops’ dipped in egg yolk and cooked on a bbq!

 

 

Sugar and Spice

‘Hue’ seems like another fairly standard example of what I’ve come to expect of a Vietnamese city – alive and buzzing, with roads that you have to be virtually suicidal to cross. Pam and I walked out along the river to the Thien Mu pagoda, supposedly the biggest one in Vietnam. After a near on two hour walk along a busy road, we were not too sure it was worth it. Perhaps this is just in comparison to the jaw-dropping pagodas of Yangon. By happy coincidence we arrived just in time for the sunset, though, which improved the situation a little. Exhausted and hungry in the dark we were then treated with a nice dose of sods law: In every city you get constantly hounded, as a foreigner, by moto-taxi owners asking “you wan’ motorbike?” The one time we actually wanted a bloody ride there were none to be seen.  We walked nearly half the way back before we were able to barter a lift. It was pretty fun, though – particularly adrenaline spiking as the helmet, being three times to big, was about as much use as a swimming cap. The traffic was absurd, as usual, although somehow it doesn’t seem so intimidating when you’re part of it (despite the fact that I’ve already witnessed two crashes already). They drive hilariously close to each other on the roads to the extent that you’re practically rubbing thighs with the person on the bike next to you! I’m surprised that they’re not constantly clipping each other…perhaps they are!

Hue Sunset

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This morning I arranged a cooking class with a restaurant down the road called ‘Kangaroo Hue’ (not quite sure of the relevance of the Kangaroo, but never mind). Most of the dishes which we made were adapted from the original to be made vegetarian, me being the only ‘student’. I’ll include the meat/shrimp versions as well though, for the sake of everyone else. They’re not particularly specific as a large amount of the cooking relied on what ‘looked right’ or was to personal taste so forgive the vagueness. In terms of quantities these are all made out for roughly one portion (of lots of little bits in some cases)– perhaps two.

We started off with making the local steamed rice cakes (Hue Beo):

  • rice flour,
  • tapioca flour,
  • water,
  • spring onion,
  • shallot,
  • vegetable oil,
  • tofu or shrimp

Put 5 tbsp of rice flour in a bowl with ½ tbsp tapioca flour then around 3 tbsp hot water. Mix a little then add another rough 10 tbsp of cold water and stir well until all is a smooth liquid. Preferably leave for around 20-30 mins.

Steamed Rice Cakes stage 1

Chop a small shallot v. finely and fry in quite a lot of vegetable oil until yellow – add a little salt – pour onion and oil mix into small bowl and add a few finely chopped spring onions.

Boil the tofu then cut very finely and grind into a sort of powder which you then fry briefly until brown (alternatively boil the shrimps for around 5 mins then remove the shells and again grind into a sort of powder)

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Put a little of the oil from the shallots into little clay bowls in a steamer pan (Can use a spring onion as a brush!) leave them in the steam pot for around a minute before pouring in the flour mixture so that the little bowls are each around half full. Steam for around 3 mins then the cakes should have puffed out and be totally white (will sink down pretty instantly)

Pre-steaming prepared bowls.

Pre-steaming prepared bowls.

Put in a little of the onion mix then top with the powdered tofu or shrimp.

 Serve with a fish sauce – 5 tbsp fish/soy sauce, 2 tbsp sugar, 4 tbsp water.

Hue fried pancake:

  • Rice flour
  • Shrimp/pork or tofu
  • Egg (just the yolk)
  • Bean sprouts, carrot (cut relativey finely)
  • Straw mushrooms
  • Stock powder, sugar, vegetable oil

Put 2 1/2 tbsp rice flour in bowl with 1 egg yolk, 1 tbsp stock powder, ½ tbsp sugar, 2 tbsp water – stir well until liquid.

Fry the tofu/shrimp/pork for around 3 mins

Put plenty of oil in a deepish frying pan and wait until relly hot then pour in mixture so covers entire pan up to the edges and fry for around a minute (submerged in oil)

Put the bean sprouts, carrot, mushroom and tofu/pork/shrimp on one side of the pancake then fold over the free side. Carefully flip over– when crispy take it out and drain off excess oil.

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Serve with salad of bean sprouts, lettuce, mint, v finely chopped cabbage and peanut sauce

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Peanut Sauce:

  • Fried peanuts,
  • Fried sesame seeds
  • Peanut butter
  • Stock powder
  • Fish/soy sauce
  • Sugar
  • Oil
  • Onion/shallot
  • Garlic

Grind the peanuts and sesames to a powder
Chop the shallot/garlic very finely and fry in oil – once yellow add a tbsp or less of peanut butter, 1 tbsp stock, 2 tbsp sugar, 1 tbsp fish sauce and half small bowl of water
Cook for around 5 minutes until thicker consistency

 

Royal fresh spring roll (nem cuon tuoi):

 

  • Rice paper
  • Cabbage, carrot, big ear mushrooms, glass noodles
  • Onion/shallot, spring onion, garlic
  • Egg
  • Stock powder, sugar, pepper

 

Soak glass noodles in water for 10 mins. Cut all the filling as finely as possible and add 1 tbsp stock, 1 pepper, ½ sugar and mix well.
Cook oil until hot then add all the filling and fry for around 10 mins with some water added.

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When done move into bowl.
Wet rice paper (using fingers or brush) on both sides – mustn’t get too wet! Put on plate and add a little filling to one side
Fold in the sides on either side of the filling then roll it along the length of the paper to make a sealed roll.

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Serve with fish sauce:
1tbsp sugar, 1 rice vinegar, 2 fish sauce, 1 water – cook for about 2 mins – chop fresh chilli and garlic and mix in.

 

Tofu noodle soup :

 

Boil water with lemon grass, 2 tbsp chilli powder, a few cloves, 2 tbsp stock powder, 2 fish sauce, ½ sugar, chilli. Add tofu, tomato, potato (pre boiled),carrot, cabbage, pak choi and onion.

 

Serve with rice noodles and sprinkle of chopped spring onion and pepper.

 

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They use a surprisingly large amount of sugar and oil! I guess for healthier options get rid of the sugar/only use as much oil  as needed to fry not the inch or so used locally!

Anyway those were a bit haphazard – not sure if anyone will be able to get any real use out of them, but they may give you a bit of an idea about what and how people cook here in Hue.

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I also found it interesting how they use large ‘cooking’ chopsticks instead of our usual wooden spoons etc.

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Octopus’s Garden

Nha Trang Coral Reef

“The ocean is a mighty harmonist.”
 – William Wordsworth

Despite being warned that the snorkelling here at Nha Trang wasn’t that great I decided to head out on a motorboat to check it out for myself.

I love the coral formation's resemblance to roses when the colour's removed.

Aquatic ‘rose garden’.

Nha Trang Coral Bed

Yes, ok – it’s no Maldives but you can still find incredibly beautiful arrays of vividly coloured coral beds. All the usual suspects are flashing about for you to admire: Parrot, trigger, butterfly and clown fish etc (despite their irritating talent for dodging the camera). There were also a variety of stunning live cowries – relishing, no doubt, the absence of any avid shell collectors.

Nha Trang Coral

Nha Trang blue starfish

Cornetfish

I enjoyed the presence of the slightly more unusual cornet and trumpet fish – two of the more ridiculous looking creatures on the planet –  with hilariously elongated ‘noses’ . I also love the way the Moorish idols (what a lot of people, including me, inaccurately call angel-fish) seem to leave little white scribbles behind them in the water as they dart about.

The trip out on the boat also provided the opportunity to find more natural, secluded spots than the bustle of the main beach. One of the stops was a tiny little island, complete with miniature Buddhist shrine. Another interesting sighting were little fishing villages built to entirely float on the water. Built largely out of corrugated iron, they weren’t particularly photogenic, but a novelty nevertheless.

An example of some of the houses precariously built onto the cliffside.

An example of some of the houses precariously built onto the cliffside.

Getting out of the town allowed me to see a more endearing side of the Nha Trang area. It was sorely needed. Particularly after being practically mugged by an old lady demanding money in the street in an incredibly violent way – grabbing my arm in a vice-like pincer grip and trying to pull my bag off my back! Not what you’d expect from an innocent looking ‘grandma’.

This is to satisfy any curiosity as to what the inside of a dragon fruit looks like. The inside's just as unexpected as the out.

This (served up on the boat) is to satisfy any curiosity as to what the inside of a dragon fruit looks like. The inside’s just as unexpected as the out.

The camera doesn't quite capture the incredible neon florescence of this coral. Love how the rock in the middle looks like an artist's used paint pallet though.

The camera doesn’t quite capture the incredible neon florescence of this coral. Love how the rock in the middle looks like an artist’s used paint pallet, though.

 

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