Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Eat, Drink, Northern Thailand

I've just returned from northern Thailand and have seen many interesting things. But as we all know, a visit to Thailand revolves around the food.

Thai cuisine has a massive repertoire of dishes; no matter how often you visit, you're always encountering more.

Here are a few of the foodie highlights of my visit to the north...

1. Northern spice. This dish at the Doi Tung royal project came with a selection of northern dips as appetisers. Not quite as we expect Western dips to be, however - two of these were dry rather than wet:

2. Deconstructed fish. At the same meal we had this fish dish. I love the way Thais often cook fish in pieces then form it decoratively back into its original shape:

3. Village eats. Lunch the next day was cooked in this amazing kitchen - a traditonal hearth within the Kee Lek village way up on the hilltops past Chiang Rai (we had to take a truck up a steep mountain road for an hour just to get there from the nearest paved road). The visit was part of a new "Green Route" tour titled At the Cultural Crossroads, available via Wild Thailand at

4. Bon appetit. And here's the lunch we had in the village, eating while seated on the timber floor of the hut. A cat behind us was getting passed the occasional furtive scrap by a few of us...

5. Khao Soy road. This is Khao Soy, once a humble northern street dish but now becoming more widely served. It's basically an egg noodle dish served with beef or chicken, and then you add by hand the various condiments you can see around the platter here. Mine was the spicy version with beef, which was very good, eaten at the aptly-named Just Khao Soy restaurant in Chiang Mai:

6. DIY Thai. Finally, at the Suanthip Wana Resort between Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai, I turned my hand to creating my own Thai food as part of a basic cooking class. Here's my Pad Thai - not bad for a first attempt, I think!

Disclosure time... on this trip I'm being hosted by the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

What Wat? Chiang Rai's Funky White Temple

Every traveller to Thailand has spent time in a temple complex (or wat); they're an essential element of this Buddhist country. But there's no temple quite like the one I visited today, Wat Rong Kun in northern Chiang Rai.

A modern temple still in the process of creation, its mastermind is the artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, who has ingeniously pieced together a structure which is a meld of ancient tradition and quirky modern references.

The first of these I encountered was none other than Predator, the alien hunter from the movies. Chalermchai apparently likes to depict the battle between good and evil using pop culture characters, and here was a scary one:

The temple itself, standing nearby, is a marvellous confection in white. It put me in mind of a wedding cake:

The temple is approached via a bridge, beneath which is this sea of hands stretching desperately up from hell:

Beyond the hands are fearsome guardians such as this one:

And there are beautiful pieces of art along the way, glinting with strips of mirrored glass:

I couldn't take photos inside the temple itself, which contained both a traditional Buddha statue and a wall-sized painting including such modern-day heroes as Batman, a Na'vi from Avatar, and even an Angry Bird.

However, on the way out I spotted this - possibly the world's mot extravagant toilet block:

Disclosure time... on this trip I'm being hosted by the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

By Kayak Through Borneo

This week's blog post is about one of my most memorable experiences in Asia

It's also the introduction to a competition in celebration of my Twitter feed passing 1000 followers. 

The prize is a copy of Lonely Planet's brand new 11th edition of its popular Vietnam guidebook. Read on, then learn how to enter below..

Enter Borneo

It’s a Monday, and I’m experiencing an unconventional afternoon at work. I’m at the front of a two-person kayak courtesy of Tourism Malaysia, paddling and sometimes drifting down the Sarawak Kiri River in Borneo, on my first-ever kayaking foray.

The humidity is relatively low, it’s a hot sunny day, and I’m moving past lush green banks that show no sign of human habitation. If only I could get my balance right, I’d be in paradise.

My Borneo interlude had started on dry land the previous day, when I’d touched down at Kuching, the capital of Sarawak. Sarawak is one of two Malaysian states on the world’s third largest island, and is the least crowded with tourists.

Already today our small group has visited wild orangutans in the forest south of Kuching; now we’re experiencing the aquatic aspect of Borneo’s natural attractions.

Village life

Before taking to the water, we’re shown through a kampung, a traditional village. Here we’re met by Jackson Chan and Ivy Chin of Borneo Trek & Kayak Adventure, a husband and wife team who regularly conduct kayaking trips downriver. As we’re led through the laneways and courtyards that separate the low-rise dwellings, our hosts point out the crops being grown by the locals.

In the sunshine, peppercorns are slowly drying on a mat, and there are trees scattered through the township bearing tropical fruit.

Some, like the soursop, are unknown to me; others, like the cocoa pod, give a new perspective to a familiar item - in this case, chocolate. Outside one building we’re introduced to a palm civet, a cat-sized mammal that vaguely resembles a possum. It’s completely tame, and to our amusement runs up and down members of our group and perches on hats.

Kayak time

But it’s time for the moment I’ve been dreading: getting out on the river. I’m a complete novice on the water, being the kind of traveller who usually hangs around cities investigating art galleries and bars, so there’s tension in the air as we walk down to the sandy shore below the village.

Luckily these are two-person kayaks, and I’ll have the able Ivy behind me as captain of the vessel, to guide us safely over the (admittedly tiny) set of rapids we’ll encounter en route. I’m still concerned about capsizing, but between wobbly moments, as I get the hang of paddling and we cut through the slow-moving water, I’m able to reflect on our surrounds.

They’re very beautiful. Each bank of the river is densely vegetated, and the skyline is punctuated by impressive mountains, the most prominent of which looks like a giant green bell. As the paddling required isn’t that vigorous, there’s time to take the odd shot from my waterproof camera. I’m surprised by just how much water flows in and out of a kayak, and realise why we were advised to not wear shoes.

On the river

Chatting with Ivy, I discover she has grown-up children and is in her fifties, though she looks much younger. Clearly, kayaking every day is good for one’s health. She’s possessed of a great deal of calmness, obviously a good trait to have with a nervous passenger at the front of your boat.

Nearing the end of our hour-long journey, we round a gentle curve and see a large white sandbank with a shade tent set up on it. Beneath it, people are bustling around a table. They’re residents of the next village, putting together a freshly-prepared lunch which is available as an extra on the tour.

At one end they’re laying out barbecued fish wrapped in aluminium foil, next to an extravagant selection of tropical fruit. The soursop, whose bumpy green exterior we’d sighted in the first village, turns out to have a chewy white, sweet interior. More impressive, however, is the dragonfruit, whose soft tasty innards are a lurid violet shade.

Lunch and relief

We lunch while sitting on rocky outcrops located conveniently just above the sand, as if placed there for the purpose.

Gazing out over the water and the greenery above the rocks on the opposite bank, I reflect for a moment on the alternating adrenaline surges and relaxing moments of the day. I didn’t capsize, despite my worse fears, and have to admit that the view from the river’s surface was soothingly attractive.

And most of all, I reflect, it’s not often you spend a Monday afternoon on the water. Or realise that the most important element of the work/life balance is staying afloat.


OK, now it's your turn. Tell me about your most memorable travel experience in Asia and you'll be in the running to win a copy of the newly-published Lonely Planet: Vietnam, edition 11 (valued at $39.99 and kindly donated by Lonely Planet). Your entry can be any word length, and by submitting you give me permission to display it on my website indefinitely.

To enter, email me at by 29 February 2012, with the story of your most memorable Asian experience. I look forward to hearing from you!

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Pictures of Przemyśl

One attractive Polish city I've never written a travel article about is Przemyśl. It lies in the southeast of the country in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, and has a mighty river (the San) running through it.

It shares the experience of many Polish places in having belonged to many nations in its history. In its early existence, Przemyśl (pronounced pzhem-ishl) was variously claimed by Moravia, Hungary, Kievan Rus and Poland, then had a long period of prosperity within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth before being absorbed into the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Since the 1920s it's been part of modern Poland, though for a period in World War II it was divided along the San River between the occupation forces of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

All these cultures have left their mark on the place, so it's a good city in which to wander around with an eye for an interesting image. Here's a selection of shots I've taken there during my Lonely Planet research trips...

1. King on a plinth. This is a statue of King Jan III Sobieski, who in 1683 achieved a seeming miracle in leading his troops to a defeat of the Turkish army at the Battle of Vienna.

It marked the furthest point the Ottoman Empire would ever reach in its conquest of Europe. He was a fairly local lad, having been born a little further east near Lwów (now Lviv, Ukraine).

2. Ukrainian connection. The border between Poland and Ukraine was shifted dramatically westward at the end of World War II, and is now only about 15km to the east of Przemyśl. Hence you see some Ukrainian language on signage around town, in the Cyrillic script. This sign, at the bus station, indicates where to buy tickets:

3. Papal monument. This statue of Pope John Paul II in the main city square struck me as notable because it showed the late pontiff as he appeared late in his life, rather than as an idealised heroic figure:

4. Pipe dreams. Also in the market square (or Rynek in Polish) is this curious piece of street art. It's symbolic, it turns out, of Przemyśl's historic renown as the manufacturer of pipes. Not far away, in fact, is the Museum of Bells and Pipes.

5. Soldier in the square. Another feature of the sprawling Rynek is this statue of the title character of The Good Soldier Švejk, the satirical comic novel by Czech author Jaroslav Hašek.

It focuses on the soldier's misadventures as a member of the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I, summing up the futility of war. Švejk spent some time in Przemyśl in the story, hence his presence here:


6. The good pizza.
And finally, here's Švejk recommending a local pizzeria:

This post was sponsored by Grata Apartments in Kiev, Ukraine. Check out its site for deals on accommodation in Kiev.