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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

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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

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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!

 

 

Bells Ring

Nha Trang BeachI assumed that an overnight bus would simply constitute an ordinary bus that travels at all hours. I was amusingly surprised, therefore, to discover that these buses are set up more like a moving dorm room, with seats set up in bunk bed fashion that recline almost to horizontal level. Needless to say that it was still pretty difficult to get any sleep with all the noise and changes in motion, but at least they tried!

Nha Trang is yet another bustling city but with the significant addition of a large beach. As city beaches go, it’s pretty fantastic, but having not researched into the location I was a little disappointed; I’d been expecting a more isolated haven like some of the idyllic beaches I’ve been spoilt with on previous trips. I’m not such a big fan of resorts, skyscraper backdrops and sunbeds as far as the eye can see. However, this disappointment was purely self inflicted, without preconceptions Nha Trang would have been a lovely surprise. The water is the perfect temperature – warm yet refreshing – and incredibly clean considering that it’s on the banks of a growing city.

One thing to be wary of is the danger of being ripped off along the sea front – as is the case with the majority of seaside resorts! A small sandwich can cost up to $10. There are plenty of smaller, more genuine Vietnamese restaurants just a couple of blocks back towards the city. For lunch, for example, I tried out the classic local ‘pho’ (rice noodle soup) for just $1.50. Granted, the salad stuff on the side looks a little dodgy (and salads should probably be avoided anyway due to the unclean water) but the soup itself was fantastically full of spice and flavour.

The town itself doesn’t have quite as much to offer in comparison to places like Ho Chi Minh but there are still a few places worth checking out if you can drag yourself off the beach. Long Son Pagoda, established in 1963 to honour the monks and nuns who died demonstrating against the Diem government, is a beautifully serene temple amidst the surrounding city chaos. You quite possibly might expend your life in the elaborate dance through the motorbikes across the road trying to get there but if successful then you’re in for a treat!

Long Son Pagoda

152 steps from the temple take you up to the white Buddha sitting on a hill which gives you the only views possible over the city. It’s definitely worth getting here in the morning though as around eleven it was starting to pack out with tours of people.

On stopping to photograph a monk ringing the bell systematically half way up the steps I was invited to sit inside the large bell whilst it sounded, accompanied by his chants.

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Long Son Pagoda

Coconut Skins

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Here’s evidence of the, almost obligatory, wearing of the cone hat as we were paddled downstream…

ImageWe headed out yesterday morning in the direction of the ‘mighty’ Mekong Delta. As far as ‘tourist-traps’ go, this was fairly high up on the list, but was, nevertheless, an interesting experience. We hopped on a motorboat and went first to see some of the local ‘coconut candy’ production – using the flesh of coconuts to make cream and then a sort of toffee which is actually rather good. The rate at which the team of ladies were wrapping each sweet was extraordinary.ImageWe then were herded into a cart pulled by an impossibly small horse and taken through the village to eat at a restaurant. The menu was pretty eccentric, including the delights of crocodile, snake and turtle.

I bumped into some Australian guys the day before who’d been to the restaurant and ordered snake. The staff brought out a live snake and proceeded to cut its head off with a pair of blunt scissors and pour its blood into shot glasses to drink. The still beating heart was placed on the table for them to watch as it slowly came to a standstill. This is all deadly serious– I had the pleasure of watching the video recording they’d taken of the whole gory scene. Obviously I stayed well clear of that dodgy side of the menu.

Another local speciality which we tried was their honey tea into which they mix the local honey with bee pollen and the juice of little Asian mandarins. (Of course the whole aim of the exercise was that we were then expected to buy a bottle or leave awkwardly, as ever.)

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Honey/pollen tea!

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They were also selling these bottles of some sort of coconut-based spirit with whole snakes inside – some with scorpions in their mouths! Disgusting!

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To break up the two hour return to Ho Chi Minh City we stopped off at our first Vietnamese temple. Although, to be frank, the inordinate number of Buddhist temples scattered across these countries is resulting in them already becoming a little repetitive!

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It seems that in an ironic way, the Dalai Lama would agree:

“This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”
 – Dalai Lama

That being said, they aren’t exactly an eyesore.

 

Eye of the Tiger

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The most magnificent creature in the entire world, the tiger is.”
 – Jack Hanna

Today had been extremely challenging in many ways but also worth the trouble. Having been up the entire night with a fresh bought of illness and fever I was very disinclined to carry on with the tour that I’d booked the previous evening. However, it was non-refundable. So I grabbed a toilet roll and off I went!

This was perhaps a little stupid. I proceeded to faint in the middle of the street on arriving at the Dumnoen Sadwak floating markets and then collapsed on the ‘squat’ style toilet. Not pleasant. Thankfully I managed to perk up fairly quickly with the help of some fellow tourists and a noodle soup, so I hopped on a little boat to float down the market. It was disappointingly swarming with tourists, which was a little frustrating – slightly idealised views of the markets off films also left me feeling ever so slightly disappointed. Highlights however included seeing giant monitor lizards swimming about in the rivers as we floated by!

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Floating market bangkok

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Dumnoen Saduak Floating Market Bangkok

Snake Dumnoen Saduak Floating Market Bangkok

Dumnoen Saduak Floating Market Bangkok

We then headed off to the bridge over the river Kwai which apparently is pretty famous, although I must admit I hadn’t actually heard of it until then. The bridge itself, part of the old rail track from Bangkok to Myanmar was fairly unexciting. Walking through the market, however, I found a man with a pet 8-month year old Jaguar which he was letting people feed for a small tip. I know you probably shouldn’t encourage these things but just look at it! Of course, I couldn’t resist!

Feeding a Jaguar

Young Jaguar

The last stop was ‘Tiger temple’. About two hours from Bangkok is a monastery (now steadily becoming a tourist attraction) which also doubles up as a wildlife rescue sanctuary. The ‘temple’ seems more like a miniature game park – except with the odd shrine, Buddha, monk and meditation centre dotted about. It gets its name as the monks reared tigers there by hand and, having increased in number, with cubs being thoroughly familiar with human company from the word ‘go’, has resulted in a huge number of incredibly docile beasts. At first I thought they must have been drugged but we were assured by the American volunteers at the sanctuary that they were just naturally lethargic in the afternoon heat and total unperturbed by humans. It was certainly a fantastically novel experience!

Tiger Temple Bangkok

Tiger Temple Meditation Centre

Tiger Temple Monk

Tiger Temple Buddha

I now have some serious sleep catching up to do – particularly as we’ve got an eight hour journey to Cambodia starting early tomorrow morning!

Gold on the Ceiling

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“Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.” – Buddha

So I managed to sort out my Myanmar visa and that evening headed off on my flight – panicking that I would have to do the same for my Vietnamese visa; All of my organisation seems to have been ripped to shreds! However, I’m now celebrating my victory over this mess whilst I can (i.e. before something else goes wrong) as I managed to find the Vietnamese embassy in Yangon and have sorted that out too. Phew! I have also managed to fit in an incredible amount of sightseeing.

Yangon is a breathtakingly beautiful city – a mixture of old British colonial architecture, tropical foliage mingled in and around the buildings, stalls, street food, markets and religious buildings –  largely dominated by the stunningly decorative Buddhist ‘pagodas’ scattered throughout. Buddhist Monasteries are everywhere – monks wander serenely around the city and the locals, namely the men, wear traditional yongi (like lap-laps) which further adds to the vibrant atmosphere.

Karaweik Palace on Lake Kandawgyi

Karaweik Palace on Lake Kandawgyi

Small Buddha Shrine at Botataung Pagoda. These small statues are for visitors to pour water on, showing their respect, as water symbolises the 'nectar' of Buddha's teachings.

Small Buddha Shrine at Botataung Pagoda. These small statues are for visitors to pour water on, showing their respect, as water symbolises the ‘nectar’ of Buddha’s teachings.

Shwedagon Pagoda has got to be one of the tourist highlights of Asia. It’s a bit early on in the game to be making such sweeping statements, I know, but the vast scale of each elaborately decorated temple is just extraordinary. There’s an entire village purely made of Pagodas, temples and shrines with the enormous Shwedagon Pagoda in the centre – at 99 metres high it dominates the skyline of the city and has relics of the last four Buddhas enshrined within. It’s crown is embellished with diamonds, emeralds, rubies, sapphires and other precious stones.(I was told this information by an elderly monk who then proceeded to give me his prayer beads which was rather heart-warming.) What’s more, according to legend the Pagoda has been around for more than 2600 years. The 6th-10th centuries are more likely but still, pretty impressive.

Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda

Giant Buddha at Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda

One thing that took a little getting used to is that all foot wear needs to be removed before entering any sort of pagoda or temple. Even small little areas with a tiny shrine don’t allow it. It’s a complete reversal from the societal norms back at home where I’ve been asked to leave a supermarket due to my bare feet. Imagine walking into a cathedral at home with no shoes on.

Again, it’s difficult to grasp the scale of this reclining Buddha at Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda - 65 meters long and 16 meters high.

Again, it’s difficult to grasp the scale of this reclining Buddha at Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda – 65 meters long and 16 meters high.

There’s a fantastically lively night-time food market going on all the way down the main road near my hostel. The number of fruit and vegetables that I’ve never seen before in my life is outstanding. I haven’t quite plucked up the courage to try the proper street food yet – largely due to a complete incapacity to communicate with the vendors, but being vegetarian doesn’t exactly facilitate things either. However, I did try out authentic ‘Myanmar cuisine’ for lunch. It seemed like a sort of hybrid between thai and indian:

Basically, when you arrive you’re presented with a plate of rice, a bowl of some sort of broth soup (let’s not lie – it was probably chicken) and some sauces and salad stuff (ginger, something that resembled cucumber and I’ve no idea about the rest),  then you proceed to the cooking area and ask point at different curries or vegetables that you want. Quite fun!

Basically, when you arrive you’re presented with a plate of rice, a bowl of some sort of broth soup (let’s not lie – it was probably chicken) and some sauces and salad stuff (ginger, something that resembled cucumber and I’ve no idea about the rest), then you proceed to the cooking area and ask point at different curries or vegetables that you want. Quite fun!

One of the traits that make this city so unique is the total absence of tourism. Apparently tourism has really taken off this year. That must simply be relative to beforehand as I barely came across a single tourist today and there was certainly no evidence of ‘westernisation’. Definitely no McDonalds here kids.

A small Buddhist shrine along the board walk of Lake Kandawgyi. Yet another quiet spot to get away from the hustle of down-town.

A small Buddhist shrine along the board walk of Lake Kandawgyi. Yet another quiet spot to get away from the hustle of down-town.