Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Eating our way round Luang Prabang

We've been going for walks in this small city famous for its French colonial architecture. Last night we walked up Phu Si hill in between the two rivers that border the city: the Mekong and Nam Khan. The hill has three Buddhist temples and offers lovely views all around the city. However, as you'll see from the photo, a few other tourists had read the same paragraph in the guidebook. The temple had an Escher-like staircase. One of those staircase which you walk down and find yourself at the top again.

This morning, we explored the new town and found a lovely sunny spot on the bank where the two rivers merge. While we were watching the world go by, a large chunk of the riverbank fell into the Nam Khan river. I guess it's not very stable then. We also passed the tiny airport and watched a Lao Airlines plane fly really low over the houses as it was landing.

You may not think of doughnuts when you think of Laos, but we've found some divine ones in the markets. The round sugar doughnuts with a custard filling are so good that Jen was trying to eat it in one piece.

The hunt for dinner began in earnest. We skipped the pig head and trotters on offer and headed straight for the lady with the barbecue. For our supper, we had barbecued fish with sticky rice and Beerlao. The fish was very simple but absolutely delicious. Its skin had been rubbed with salt and belly stuffed with lemon grass. A home made sweet chilli sauce arrived for dipping. Who could ask for more?

Walking back through the market, every fourth stall sold the same items. Tourists haggled with sellers, who punched out the prices on oversized calculators. This photo makes the market look far more atmospheric than it really was.

And a Happy New Year to everyone. We'll be bringing in the bells with one or two Beerlao. Hope you have a good time, whatever you're doing and wherever you are.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Boat trip on the Mekong - Huay Xai to Luang Prabang

Read our previous posting.

The next morning (28th December) we boarded our boat. Ironically, the most comfortable seats in the boat were a dozen or so (narrow) bus seats, identical to those we had sat on the previous day. The remaining seats were little more than church pews, but without the prayer cushions. (Cushions were purchased separately and were well worth the pound). Ensuring a comfortable seat for the journey meant arriving painfully early for the boat, cancelling out the benefit of the better seat.

The journey consisted of six hours to Pak Beng (day one) and eight hours to Luang Prabang (day two). The scenery along the river was stunning and got more varied the closer to Luang Prabang we got.

Our most vivid memories from the journey are:
  • The boat being boarded by hyperactive child sellers, trying to tempt us with snacks.
  • To kill some time, Andy decided to chat with the man next to him. He turned out to be a complete know-it-all, and Andy regretted starting the conversation within the first five minutes. Ooops.
  • Watching our boat load of tourists unleash their bulky Canon cameras with long lenses every time the boat got within two metres of the riverbank. Unsuspecting locals were greeted by an onslaught of photography.
  • Watching some people take the most mundane photos and videos that clearly wouldn't inspire anyone. The girl in front of us must have taken well over a thousand 'river and jungle' snapshots. A posh camera is no substitute for a good eye for photography.
  • Feeling sorry for an eight-year-old girl who was having a maths lesson on a boat full of distractions. Why did her parents feel this was necessary, particularly during the Christmas vacation?

Our backsides are still sore from the hard seats, but the trip was well worth the pain. It was very relaxing to float down the river for a couple of days just taking in the scenery. We had expected to be on a boat packed full of locals, but the majority of fellow passengers were tourists. Luckily there was one motorbike, a bamboo cage of chickens and a handful of locals to make it feel a bit more authentic.

Against Foreign Office advice, the speedboat might look like a fun and attractive way for thrill seekers to zip down the river. However, we could certainly appreciate the high risk of death - fatalities are apparently “not uncommon”. There were lots of rocks which we could see (and many we probably couldn't) lurking in the water. The current and the whirlpools would certainly have spiced up the journey too. In the picture, some people are wearing crash helmets for 'protection'.

Bus trip to the Laos Border - Chiang Mai to Huay Xai

The buses to Chiang Khong, and the Laos border, were fully booked on the 26th and so we relaxed for an extra day in Chiang Mai. It's amazing how wanderlust can be tamed with 24hr cable TV, in room fast internet and good local food located just around the corner.

On the following day, we made the six-hour bus journey to Chiang Khong. The bus was remarkable for having five (narrow) seats in a row. We laughed at the broad shouldered Australian man who was uncomfortably sandwiched between his girlfriend and a stockily built Thai soldier for most of the journey.

After arriving, we had a pit stop in the local market for an excellent noodle soup. We got our exit stamps at the Thai border and made the short boat trip across the Mekong River to Huay Xai in Laos.

Huay Xai was a pleasant place to spend the evening, and the lady in our guest house was a real character. She had a real penchant for money. The picture shows her holding four million Kip (the Laos currency), worth about 300 pounds.

We also paid a visit to our first temple in Laos. It was very chilled, with excellent views over the river. There were also some Monks' robes drying in the setting sun.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Happy Christmas

Wishing you all a Merry Christmas. Hope you have a lovely day.

We had a great time posing in front of the Christmas displays in Hong Kong and Macau. Some were more tasteful than others.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Elephant Nature Park

We gave ourselves a very nice Christmas present - a little early - and went for a day visit to the Elephant Nature Park. It's a sanctuary for 35 Asian elephants rescued from neglect and/or abuse at the hands of loggers, elephant trekking operations and people who use them for begging on the streets of Bangkok. The youngest one is a 7-month old male calf that was born in the park.

We did quite a bit of research into the elephant parks around Chiang Mai and came to the conclusion that Elephant Nature Park seemed to be the only park that doens't do elephant shows. In the shows, elephants are shown painting and doing all sorts of tricks. What the audience doens't know is that all these elephants have gone through an extremely painful and traumatising training that is designed to break its spirit completely. We saw a video of the training, and it was very distressing.

Luckily the elephants in the sanctuary are now happily roaming free within the confines of the park. We got to feed them sweetcorn, bananas and pumpkin. It was messy! We also helped give some of the gentle giants a bath and a scrub in the river. It was exhilarating seeing these majestic creatures go belly up and floating down the stream with smiles on their faces. A cheeky juvenile sprayed a couple of the park visitors and gave everyone brave enough to take it a very wet and slubbery kiss.

The scars on the elephants' bodies undoubtedly act as a reminder of the sad fates of many Asian elephants in Thailand. These individuals are the lucky ones who have found respite in this wonderful park. We felt very privileged to spend time with the herd and loved every minute of it!

Monday, 22 December 2008

Masterchef goes Thai

At last a chance to use phrases such as "This competition just keeps on getting tougher" and "well seasoned" in a real culinary environment. First off, we had a trip to the market to buy our fresh ingredients. We learnt all about Dragon Fruits, different types of ginger and green vegetables. Our instructor Tom held his morning glory in his hands (it's a leafy green vegetable by the way).

Next, the cooking started in earnest. Andy doused his stir fry in water at the very end, ruining the dish. Oops. Steaming off the excess just over-cooked the prawns (which only needed 30 seconds to start off with).

In Jen's class, one Irish gentleman was cutting chillies but needed the toilet. Unfortunately he forgot to wash his hands beforehand. This resulted in a nasty burning sensation and serious pain where you wouldn't want it. First Aid required the application of ice cubes to the affected area (which worked a treat). Contrary to popular belief, coconut milk, salt or sugar doesn't help.

We ate what we cooked which meant we were absolutely stuffed for most of the day. The food tasted great though. Thais use sugar like we use salt. Instead of salt, they use fish sauce. Chillies, lemon grass and ginger also feature prominently. Jen's favourite dishes were the green curry and sticky rice with mango. Andy liked everything.

Baan Thai Cookery School

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai, in Northern Thailand, is the place to spend time and relax. However, it's a little bit too relaxed at the moment and there seems to have been a slump in tourist numbers. We've busied ourselves with a bit of planning - Thai cooking class tomorrow followed by a day at an elephant sanctuary - and some sightseeing.

The food markets are as good as ever in Chiang Mai. We'll be visiting them again as part of our cooking course, stocking up on fresh ingredients.

Chiang Mia local market

Yesterday's temple - Wat Phra Singh - was short and sweet. The temple is said to be an excellent example of Lanna architecture. Jen says it was different from other temples, although this was lost a bit on Andy. Even some of the dogs seemed to be suffering from temple fatigue.

Around Doi Suthep Inside Wat Phra Singh temple

Dogs with temple fatigue

Today was a trip up the mountain (1,600m) to Doi Suthep, home to a(nother) Buddhist temple. The great views of Chiang Mai were unfortunately obscured by the pollution. The Chedi was also undergoing some repairs, hence the gold scaffolding. (Junior Reader's competition - can you spot Jen in one of the photos below?).

The bellsDonations

Doi Suthep temple

The weekly Sunday Night Market is a very popular event. The streets are gridlocked with shoppers looking for a bargain - and there are many to be had. Jen got a pair of shorts (2 GBP) and a bag (1.20 GBP). Instead of shopping, Andy donated to the local hospital and got to pose with these two 'lovely ladies'.

More donationsSunday Night Market in Chiang Mai

Thanks to Jens and Alexandr for sending us some photos. We've added them to the following pages:

Ascent of Island Peak (6,189m)

Dhaulagiri Icefall