Thursday, February 28, 2013

Climbing Railay...and beyond

Day 1.

So what activities did we get ourselves up to on this first day of beautaeous Railay, you ask?

Ohhhh boy.

Let's just say maybe we were a little overzealous, since we weren't sure how many days we would get to spend here. We had at the most 3 days (half day arrival plus half day from when our flight left for Bangkok from the Krabi airport), and we were going to spend those days to their fullest.

So, the first day we were there we went to their Walking Street (literally, that's what it's called), and saw who had what to offer. There was a lot they had to offer.

Climbing expeditions, deep water soloing, snorkeling, sea kayaking, night swimming, scuba diving, sailing, and just about any other sea activity you could imagine.

But the climbing here was supposed to be fantastic. No, unfathomable. So, climbing is what we went for first.

As we were fairly certain we were going to do a half day of climbing, another activity caught my eye - sunset snorkeling and night swimming in phosphorescent waters.

Apparently that's a big thing here - swimming in the phosphorescent waters at night.

...I'm sorry, what? Phosphorescent waters who?

According to various advertisements (and our tour book), Leonardo DiCaprio made swimming in phosphorescent night waters in the movie The Beach a big thing. This, as it happens, is a movie that my sister and I have both not seen. So the significance was completely lost on both of us. But well, everyone kept stressing the point so it must have been something cool. And I love me some good snorkeling in awesome ocean, so, well, I was sold and it didn't take long to convince my sister that this is probably something worthwhile too. Who doesn't love swimming with the fishes?

So, that was our schedule for the first full day we had in Railay. Morning till noon full of climbing, afternoon until 8pm of snorkeling and then some night swimming in phosphorescent waters. Pretty dec, right?

Definitely right. The climbing was fabulous, as it was promised to be. The terrain really is perfect for climbing, and boy did we get our climbing on.

We climbed right over the sandy beach (on the gross non-fabulous beach side of the island, where all of the good problems/cliffs are). And it was wonderful. The rock here is such that there are natural hand and foot holds everywhere. Even without chalk (which we did use), it wasn't too sharp and it didn't crumble at all, no matter what you did. It was like it was made to be climbed.

The wonderful thing about it was there was a nice range of problems - there were people in our class who had never climbed before and others who climbed all the time. Just depended on what you were looking for. Should you want something more difficult all you had to do is move over a little and suddenly you were in more difficult territory. There were bouldering areas all over the island where people set up and just started climbing.

We were out climbing for a few hours and got a good 5-6 climbs in before it was time to call it quits. I hadn't been on a wall in probably 6 months and it felt good to be back. Just gives me enthusiasm to get back into it once I have a steady situation again. Here's hoping that Don has good climbing gyms. ;) Hey, if Finn had them, why wouldn't Don, right?

After a quick stop back at our hotel to change and apply more sunscreen, we caught a fast lunch then met up with our snorkeling crew.

We bought a cheap underwater camera for this portion of our trip, as you could imagine (and especially after my sister accidentally killed her iPhone after leaving it in her pants during our elephant bathing session), but here are a few quick shots we got off with the digital camera while on the boat:

The waters were just as warm here, and even more beautiful than the ones we had swum in off of Koh Phangan. I can't imagine waters any more wonderful than these.

Our only point of issue (which also slightly haunted us the next day): jellyfish. These little buggers were everywhere. Luckily during our snorkeling phase it was just of the small, clear, annoyingly painful variety, not of the poisonous flesh-searing sort, but it was still unduly irritating to one's skin and uncomfortable to say the least. You could barely see them in the water (they were like floating lightbulbs the size of small icicle radishes) and they would sting you but leave no mark, just a very unpleasant stinging sensation on your skin. I was stung numerous times on my back, neck, ears, and arms. They floated right near the surface. Nothing to do but ignore them if you were enjoying the fish and other creatures, which were wonderful - especially the multi-colored clams.

As our snorkeling wound down (we went to several locations), we were brought to an island a little further out where a large bat cave was - one of the biggest known in the area. A bit after sunset we were told to look towards the horizon. For the next twenty minutes thousands of bats swarmed out of their cave and went out into the night to hunt. It was beautiful. Like right out of a Planet Earth documentary...though infinitely more silent.

I don't know if you can see them in this picture, but know that they're there, in the thousands. No one (i.e. our guide) seemed to know much about them, but they come out every night like clockwork and return at dawn. It was wonderful.

After this we waited a little bit until it was dark enough (and we caught a free fire show that was happening on the shore near where our boat was waiting) then we headed out for some night swimming.

I've never been a comfortable ocean swimmer. Just in general. Despite being a strong swimmer (I competed in the two longest distances available all through high school), somehow deep water has never sat well with me - no matter if I could see the bottom of it or not. Swimming in a pool has even freaked me out from time to time. Something about sea creatures and the possibilities of them sneaking up on me from behind or below (yes, my rational mind understands sea creatures cannot live in pool water...this does not assuage my fear).

Anyway, even during the daylight this can get the better of me and make me get out of the water. But for whatever reason Thailand's ocean waters have had the exact opposite effect on me. I wanted to stay in the water as long as possible. Yes their temperature probably helps, but there's no end to the dangerous creatures in their waters, so it's not like that should have eased my mind. They certainly had jellyfish (even of the poisonous, dangerous variety, as we found later in the day and the next day), even some sharks and I believe rays...and squid fishing is a definite nighttime activity. So, what was it?

I actually don't have an answer for you. Maybe the place is just magic. But whatever it is about Thailand and its waters - I believe in it. It stopped me from holding my fears about water and allowed me to relax. It's the first time I can remember being able to fully relax in water in a long time. I hope I can hold onto this feeling for as long as possible. Maybe it's just that I'm letting go of other things in my life as well. Whatever it is, it feels good.

Anyhow, back to the story. Night swimming does not usually help my fear of deep water. I have a love of horror movies but it doesn't make things like night swimming better. I just know more about potential bad situations. Or it makes my imagination more creative. There were a couple of thoughts that crossed my mind regarding this and I wondered if at the end of the day, I would be able to stay in the water for more than a couple of seconds.

Once again I needn't have worried. Thailand's magical waters soothed my soul and I stayed in and was the second to last person back in the boat.

Oh and the phosphorescent waters? Incredible. You splash around underwater and all your bubbles glow blue green. It was like being in the glowing red tide of San Diego but without all of the unnecessary disgusting bacterial danger.

After we swam in the glowing waters we headed back in silence. There are just some things better left unsaid about some experiences, and this was one of those times.

And that is what we did on Day 1.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

tSH goes to Thailiand: Railay

The next day was a day of extreme travel. It went something like this: get up at 6am, take a taxi, ferry, bus, bus, ferry, walk, water taxi, arrive.

I think we eventually got to our destination of Railay around 3pm. It was exhausting to say the least but we still had enough energy to vaguely roam around our new island home and then collapse to start exciting activities that we had scoped out.

Railay is a little peninsula near Krabi, off the west side of Thailand.

The west side is where all the gorgeous beaches and expensive resorts are - you see extremely picturesque crystal clear waters and beautiful islands. This is where you can literally lay in the water all day and forget that the world exists. If I had had another day in Railay this is where I would have been, doing exactly that. It is wonderful. When we arrived we walked through this part and that is exactly what most people were doing.

Hilariously the east side of the island is exactly the opposite - its beaches are muddy, rocky, and generally unpleasant during anything but high tide (when the water is high enough to reach the pleasant sandy part of the beach and you can wade into the water without stumbling on something and hurting yourself). This is the side of the island where the hippies and backpackers go, where you can enjoy practicing things like fire poi and staffs all night long (yes, I'm looking at you again Marc), and is actually completely inaccessible at night except by a horrible rocky path through the water during low tide or a mosquito-ridden jungle path that goes up and down a mountain (that's no joke - my sister and I ended up doing both of them the first day and they're both say the least). Btw, it's BYOF (bring your own flashlight...or in our case, cellphone with a flashlight app).

Here is a picture of the rocky path through the water during low tide (think clouds of sand gnats, sharp sea rock and general traveling to Mordor but not hot, just damp):

There is a path that cuts through the middle of the peninsula, as you can see on the map, but generally speaking if you happen to be on the beach doing something real you'll be not that near this area. So there you have it. The rest is jungle. Untamed mountainous jungle.

Which is awesome if you're into things like climbing, because it has terrain that is perfect for climbing. And as luck would have it, my sister and I love climbing. So you can guess what we ended up doing. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Railay in itself though, was definitely voted as our favorite place out of all the places we went on this trip. And I think you'll see why as I dig a little deeper.

Anyway, general summary of the place: a little something for everyone. Gorgeous beaches, climbing, snorkeling, resorts, beach huts (on the backpacker side of things), and activities galore.

Yes Railay, you will not soon be forgotten, that's for damned sure.

More detail on the flipside.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The foods of Koh Phangan

The first meal I had on Koh Phangan was unsurprisingly at our hotel. We had just checked out our digs and were spending a few hours chilling out before getting ready for the Full Moon Party. What better way to fuel up than by eating more Thai food? I can't think of a better way.

We decided to check out our hotel's restaurant because well, not knowing how severe this Full Moon Party situation was, it's possible that the next day this is as far as we were going to make it from our room. And what better way to know how good that food was than to test it the day before? Seems logical, right? Right.

Having still not yet tasted the delightfulness of curry on our trip I decided to go slightly adventurous and order green curry with chicken. I had asked the waiter if he was a fan of the green curry versus the red curry, and of course not really understanding the reasoning behind my question (i.e. which one tasted better) he asked me what I liked more. In the end the green curry was decided on. Just for the hell of it.

It had chicken, carrots, green beans, some veggie resembling very large peas (but sure didn't taste like peas, but I'll get to that), and something else green that looked a lot like round green figs. Moral of the story was: there was a lot of veggie action going on in this curry that I had no knowledge of whatsoever. And that's a little confusing. I mean most veggies I can still at least identify with a little semblance of recognition, but nope, no sir, not today.

The bottomline about this curry was that it was tasty and spicy (surprisingly spicy), but the veggie action got the better of me. Those things that looked like peas? Not peas. Not in the least bit anything like peas. First off, they were really bitter. And they had a decent consistency like peas...but they had a slight resistance (like peas) but then were sort of mushy on the inside. Sort of like the mix between frozen petite peas and canned peas. But again, not really like any peas I had had.

And the green fig things? Not like anything I'd had again, and once again, bitter. I don't know what was going on here - either my taste buds were going haywire (it's possible, I suppose, though not likely) or I'd stumbled upon some vegetation I'd never experienced (very possible). In either case, I left some veggies on the side of my plate...for the first time in decades.

The other thing we ordered was shrimp and baby corn. This was fabulous, and clearly the winner between the two. Just goes to show, sometimes simplicity really is best.

The gravy was incredible and savory and I ended up mixing the rest of it with my curry to add even more flavor (and to cut the spice a little), but the shrimp itself was perfection. Plump, juicy, and cooked to just the right place. No scary unknown veggies here.

I washed the whole thing down with a banana lassi. Much to my surprise lassies are a big thing here - guess they enjoy the yogurt drinks too, to cut the spice. And I'm in total agreement that this is a great idea. Lassies - big win. This banana one was fabulous - creamy, luscious, spice-cutting, and just what I wanted. In my opinion, better than a milkshake (but then again I've never been a huge fan of perhaps I'm biased).

Our next meal wasn't until the next day, after we rolled out of bed at noon. We walked down the beach a ways and ate at one of the many beachside cafes. It was wonderful - table made out of sea-smoothed driftwood, sitting under an umbrella in the warm sunshine, watching the blue blue sea. What could be better than this? Uhh, the food.

This time I decided to go super Californian and get pad thai. I was also very curious to see how much we'd bastardized it by bringing it over the sea. The general answer: not as much as I'd thought!

It was still generally sweet and fish saucy, had pretty similar noodles...and overall very delicious with peanuts and bean sprouts! High five to California for not changing something beyond recognition!

My sister ordered something visually similar, though taste-wise it was completely different. On the menu it read something like "fried noodles with chicken" but it looked like this:

You're thinking it's the same, right? Wrong! It had thinner noodles and a completely different sauce (well, flavor in this case, no saucy sauce). It was savory instead of sweet, had eggs thrown into the mix and was in essence, totally different. Yes there was still bean sprouts and maybe some of the same veggies, but alas my friends, not the same. And still scrumptious! I don't know how they do it! (Well generally speaking actually I do, but I will claim no such thing because it's genius).

And I washed the whole thing down with fresh coconut juice.

Yes, straight out of a carved coconut. I had several of these on the trip. They really are like this, and yes, they really are blissful. Better than anything you can get out of a tetra pak (though those are awesome too so I'm not going to shut those down).

That night we decided to spoil ourselves with something we'd seen the previous night before heading out: beachside seafood bbq. Several of the resorts (including our own) bring in the day's freshest catch and allow you to pick and choose what you'd like and fresh bbq it for you right on the grill. Then there's an all-you-can-eat salad bar and voila! Dinner on the beach with candlelight and everything. Fabulous? Yes.

We did this at one of the resorts down the beach, not wanting to dine at our own resort again (especially after the unusual veggie fiasco, though that was not particularly the reason we didn't want to eat at our own resort again). Ours seemed a little more touristy than some of the others and well, some of the others just had better locales. So, done and done.

The all-you-can-eat salad bar was pretty tasty, not gonna lie. Simple fare, it just had mixed cabbage, sliced tomatoes, cucumber, and onions with dressing, but it was wonderfully fresh against the day's catch.

(As you can tell I always go a little overzealous with the sauces and dressings...just the way that I am apparently...oh well. ~_~).

Anyway, so the principle of the thing is simple - point at what you want, eat salad and wait at your table and 20 minutes later, it comes to your table grilled to perfection with some side sauces!

Here is what the typical catch bar looks like. Pretty beautiful display of what you can choose from. We decided on sea bass, two of the most jumbo shrimp we'd ever seen in our lives (like almost length of my forearm large), and fresh cobs of corn. Yummers.

The fresh shrimp came out while we were still feasting on our second (small) plates of salad. Beautifully butterflied and grilled with all their accouterments. You know they'd been caught that day as they came straight out of the shell, no problem whatsoever. I love it when that happens.

The sauce, in case you were curious, was a spicy lemongrass citrus of some kind. Very spicy and tasty. They gave us unsalted butter with the corn and I ended up mixing these together for an amazing spread (like a fatass). I spread this mixed sauce on all of my seafood and corn. Yeah, that American at the restaurant. ^_^

Sea bass was next, filleted with most of the bones removed, though the skin (with scales) was still on. Everything was pretty easy to remove though (since it was so fresh) so eating was pretty breezy, despite the little "extras" pile that collected. It was so incredibly fresh, no wonder people eat seafood so often here...I would too.

This, all washed down with an ice cold Chang beer.

Chang beers are pretty refreshing - they remind me a lot of Tiger beer though they're a bit sweeter and leave less of an after taste. All in all a very drinkable beer with not much going against it. Perfect for spicy seafood, that much I'll definitely say. Spicy any food. And fried food. Alright, good all-around beer. I'd vote for it. ;)

And thus ended our culinary adventures on Koh Phangan. Overall I'd vote it pretty high, but then again when does super fresh seafood ever get voted poorly? And when you've had food you love at home reaffirmed positively, well, I think that's just a double-win. :)

Friday, February 22, 2013

Recovering on Party Island

So what did we do the next day you wonder? We got home late in the night (or in the morning, as you could imagine, being an hour away from the party and the party lasting until the wee hours of the morning) and waking up midday, hauled our butts down to the beach and...

..did nothing but sun our selves, get Thai massage, and eat.

No really, that's what we did.

I thanked our planning foresight in booking a hotel that was away from the sh*t storm that we would have otherwise have woken up in if we had stayed where the partying was the night before. Yes we wouldn't have had to deal with getting transported home, but we would have had to deal with the muck and mire. Thanks, but no thanks. I have a job for a reason - so I can pay my way out of situations like that (yes, sir, thank you very much).

The beach was exactly what beaches are like in your best dreams - the water was the temperature of warm bath water, crystal clean and with soft sand. Little fish were around and didn't bite you (unlike in the waters of Greece where they actually peck at your skin because there is no sustenance for them to eat). You could wade out as far as you wanted and you feel perfectly at ease. I have never felt so comfortable in any ocean. Ever. Well, until I went to Railay but I'll save that story for when we get there.

It was a perfect day of sunning. And yes, I was a little overzealous with the sunscreen, but whatever. At least I won't look like a saddlebag when I'm 50! :D

Here are some shots from the day we spent lounging around and did literally nothing (which was perfect):

Thursday, February 21, 2013

tSH goes to Thailand: Koh Phangan

Our next stop was Party Island. Otherwise known as Koh Phangan.

Apparently Thailand has a secret. And these secrets are called Full Moon Parties.

Well actually these aren't a secret. It's just that ridiculous people who live under rocks (like me) don't know about fabulous things like Full Moon Parties so when we find out about them we have no idea how such a thing could possibly exist in the world.

But they do.

Think of the largest rave you can imagine, on a beach, once a month, to celebrate the full moon. Now take that, on one specific island in the middle of Thailand, add glow in the dark/black-light reactive body paint, a lot of alcohol, and you've kind of got the picture.

Did I mention that the emphasis is on electronica as well?

Anyway, that's why we were heading to Koh Phangan - to check out the world-famous Full Moon Party that was happening on the 27th (when the full moon was happening).

I'd read a little bit about these parties before I left and generally, it sounded a little daunting. The official website for the event gave foreigners/first timers advice:

  1. Wear closed-toed shoes - there may be broken glass or other nasties in the sand and it's better to protect your feet.
  2. Wear a sweater - before you know you it the sun will come up and you will either get cold or very sunburned.
  3. Don't bring your actual ID, only a photocopy of your ID. (In my mind this really commented more about the looseness of their age-checking, rather than anything).
  4. Only bring the equivalent of about 500 baht. If you spend more than that, you're spending too much and will likely get yourself into regrettable trouble (Thought this piece of advice was the most interesting...really? You're gonna tell me how much I should reasonably stop spending at? Interesting...).
  5. Don't bring anything of value - it will get lost or stolen in the shuffle.
Basically that was the gist of things. Don't bring anything you're not okay with losing, don't bring anything of value, basically be okay with surviving for one night, making it home in one piece should be counted as a resounding success.

Hmph. Well then. I can play this game. Survival 101. Gotcha.

So we got ready that night after spending a day checking out our newest digs (the Haad Yao Bay View Resort and Spa - we decided to stay a good 45 minutes drive away from party/puke central and this was one of the few places that had a 3-night minimum stay for full moon times rather than a 5-night minimum stay) and headed over after arranging a rather convenient shuttle service from our hotel (obviously this is a once a month ordeal for them, so the path has been deeply grooved by now).

The conclusion?

Not as bad as it was made out to be. Granted, one should still be careful, but I would rate it as "not dangerous if you've got common sense."

Seemingly however, this still turned out to be not as large a percentage as one would hope. The States may have an average IQ of 100, but what's the world's IQ at places like these, I wonder?

...especially when the mean age seems to be about 19? And incredibly intoxicated? And you see wonderfully intelligent things like this:

Yes, I'm sure your sandals were so uncomfortable that you needed to wear them around your legs. Yes, sandals, ugh, so impractical (that's sarcasm).

I'm sure it didn't help when the drink of choice was buckets.

Yes you read that right. Buckets. Buckets of booze. Example:

This guy was selling his wares at our hotel. It's that prevalent. It comes with a bottle of booze, a mixer (which ranges in class from anything like unfiltered mango juice to glass bottles of Red Bull and little bottles of soda), and your very own bucket! Usually they'll fill it with ice so you can then mix your booze bucket yourself.

And carry it around with the appropriate amount of straws (appropriate meaning you can have more straws to invite strangers to drink from your bucket as well - yes, these are not necessarily just individual beverages).

Just so you know, there are about 30 baht to the $1 and 40 baht to the 1euro. The prices were all pretty standardized on the island so this guy wasn't particularly more expensive than anyone else we saw when we actually got there.

Important clues on how the Thais know their target audience also? English translations. The drink menus gave it away: Thai whisky, Smirnoff, mojito, vodka. Oh yes, when something as simple as "cheap vodka" plain and simple is written on the menu, you know you're in for a night of that. Yes, you should be wearing those closed toed shoes. You may not be walking on glass, but pretty sure you're almost guaranteed to walk into something you're not gonna like at some point or another.

Jesting aside most people there were actually pretty well-behaved. Throwing up or otherwise lewd behavior was at a surprising minimum. And since Thais are pretty conservative themselves (both in behavior and in dress), I think most people kept it pretty classy, considering. The only exceptional minor points were the large amount of people running out to the shore to relieve themselves...but I imagine this happens basically anytime you have a beach party and there aren't poisonous creatures in the sea at night and you have thousands of people drinking.

Anywhere, here is an image summary of what the party looked like. And yes, for you Marc, there was fire dancing of various kinds. Pretty sure I know where various friend groups of mine would have gotten stuck.

All in all it was worth the experience and I'm glad I went. I don't need to go again, but it was something I'm glad to say I've gone to.

I think the fun phrase to tie to this event: what has been seen can never be unseen. ;)

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The food of Chiang Mai

Oh yes, the post you've all been waiting for - the post about the foods of Thailand. :) I'll be doing one of these for each of the places we visited because well, the food was not necessarily different for each place but I feel it should be spotlighted in every place either way.

As I stated before, Thailand has now tied Japan for first place in my world food list. That's quite a statement. I absolutely loved Japan's food, and it blew all of the other food I'd ever had anywhere else completely out of the water. Crazy enough, Thailand was the same way.

Now obviously I'd had Thai food before - California has Thai food, even Finland has Thai food. And it's always good. It's one of the few cuisines that you really can't mess up no matter where you are. I'm not sure how they do it, but they're sort of like McDonalds in that way - good no matter where you have it.

But it doesn't compare at all to the original thing. There really is nothing like authentic Thai food. And man did my sister and I get our fill of it when we were there.

Note: I don't think we ever spent more than say, $10 total on any meal. That's no joke. Granted we ate most of our meals off of street food carts (because it always looked good and well, we were usually walking around), but we just couldn't imagine that the food restaurants served could be that much better. How do you beat a guy who's making things fresh from scratch in front of you on a jet engine stove? Pretty sure you can't. (Well, you can...but we weren't really interested in it...oddly enough).

Anyway, without further ado, here is the food we had in Chiang Mai:

1. Admittedly my first meal in Thailand was in BKK, the Bangkok airport. After horrendously missing our first flight and needing to stick around the airport for another two hours, even after the 10-15 hour flights we'd both had and the incredible amount of airplane meals we'd been fed, we were surprisingly both hungry. So what did we do since we couldn't actually leave the airport? We ate at the food court in one of the terminals.

Not so surprisingly there was no real authentic Thai cuisine there, or at least not that we could tell, so our choices were pretty standard commercialized fare. There was Burger King (which I really did seriously consider...I do love Burger King that much and I still miss it), Popeye's fried chicken, pizza of some kind, Japanese, commercialized Thai, two donut shops (which we thought was interesting because they were right next to each other), and maybe a sandwich shop. Nothing to be bowled over by.

Now, this is something I'm a bit loathe to admit, but I've actually never had Popeye's chicken before. I know I know, this is horribly embarrassing, coming from America, but it's actually true. I also can't remember the last time I've had KFC. The latter I care a little less about.

So, to Popeye's we went. My sister loves Popeye's and I had heard nothing but rave reviews about it all my life. Apparently it is that much better than KFC and it was about time I'd had that experience for myself.

The verdict? It's all true, all of it. It really is quality fried chicken. A lot better than KFC.

I washed the entire thing down with coleslaw (delicious) and cold Thai chocolate milk that unfortunately I've lost the name of but was quite refreshed by - it was like Nesquik but not as sweet.

I know it's kind of sacrilege to have as my first meal in Thailand, but well, had to eat. And my meals after that were all legit, so, hopefully that gives me some sort of credit.

2. Breakfast the next day: fried noodles with egg and green veggie

Our first foray into street food was a complete and utter success. Wanting to get breakfast before our big day with the elephants, we wandered down the street from our hostel and sought out the first place that looked and smelled good. There were lots of school children in uniform gathered around this street cart, so we took a seat and ordered two plates of whatever everyone else was having. This is what came to us.

It was fantastic. Salty ramen-like noodles covered in egg with crunchy veggies (sorry, I don't know what they are) and bits of meat, most likely pork. It was spicy and I loved it. The woman who was cooking didn't speak any English but was very friendly and everything got sorted just fine.

3. Elephant day lunch

After feeding, commanding, and washing the elephants, it was our time to nosh, and nosh hard. Little did we know that our full-day tour also included a completely homemade lunch. And boy were we in for a treat. Our lunch started off with fried eggrolls:

They came with a delicious tangy-sweet sauce and were fried to perfection. Inside was meat and veggies as one would expect - nothing that strayed from a normal but absolutely delicious eggroll.

Next came the soup and stir fry with accompanying plate of rice. We ate like kings and were stuffed by the end.

The soup had clear noodles, enoki mushrooms, carrots, celery, and some sort of egg jello that had been cut into chunks. When we asked our tour guide what it was he claimed it was tofu but we think there just maybe wasn't a better word for it. It was definitely not tofu and tasted like egg but it was tasty so we let it go. The broth itself was pretty subtle - clean, very light with the sweet hints of celery and carrot and nothing else.

The stir fry, in my opinion, was the all-star of the lunch, and I ate heartily of it.

Massive carrots, chicken, pineapple, cucumbers (which were a surprise to me because I had assumed they were zucchini on first glance), cherry tomatoes and onions all in a wonderful savory sauce. Fabulous. I could eat this all the time, everyday. I ate the dish clean not knowing that in Thai tradition it's expected that you're supposed to leave a little something on the plate, otherwise it means you're still hungry. So just when I thought I had done good and was done and full, the guide came over and refilled the plate! Well I just had to eat a little of it to not be impolite (jeez man, pulling my leg here).

All said and done it was a hugely filling lunch and I almost fell asleep in the sun (something I also was completely taking advantage of, having not seen the sun in its real, glorious form in almost a year).

Were the elephants themselves not already a top notch experience I'd almost recommend doing a day with the elephants just for the lunch. That awesome.

4. Pork belly and soft egg

After resting on the zen deck at the hostel for awhile and gathering our strengths, we went to go buy some fruit for our visits to the wats the next morning and stumbled across a rather excellent square of food vendors selling their wares.

Well I couldn't be passing them all by and get nothing, right?

So I stopped and got pork belly. Oh god, delicious pork belly. And a soft egg.

Admittedly I have a recent soft spot for pork belly. My family has started experimenting with making it at home since a recent experience with it at a restaurant involving a clay pot and some amazing squash we found out about called kabocha. Anyway, long story short, I was clearly buying this dish, and bought it was.

This was no mistake by far. It was melt-in-your-mouth amazing. Savory, sweet, little hints of five spice and other delicate aromas. Oh it was heaven. All saucy and soft. There was a little bit of stewed collard greens on the side for flavor and texture (sort of vinegared and rough in comparison) and a deliciously poached soft egg just because.

Oh the soft egg. I have a soft spot for these as well. I have no idea how to make them, but I'm pretty sure one of these days (probably sometime very soon), I will look it up on the interwebs and start going through eggs in my apartment like normal people go through chocolate bars.

Here is a not-great close-up shot of that glorious egg.

Do you see how meltingly awesome that yolk still is? Yes, that kind of egg. Perfection.

5. Sweet strange desserts

Later that night we wandered the night bazaar and decided it was time to nibble on some snacks. Surprisingly the entire time I was in Thailand I didn't buy myself snacks. Considering I absolutely love to snack normally, this is quite a shock. I think it was the fact that I was getting normal food (amazing food, I should say) three times or so a day, so perhaps it was that I was genuinely not hungry all the time, but I do sort of feel sad that I didn't get to explore Thai snack food a little more.

Anyway, when we were out on this particular night, we decided to check out the sweet desserts scene. There were many vendors selling various sweet snacks, so we chose a sweet bun and something else not quite identifiable (the man didn't speak English and actually couldn't tell us what it was).

The bun was pretty much what we expected - like a Chinese bao - sweet rice flour that's been steamed into a slightly sweet white bread with an awesome (in this case) sweet black sesame filling on the inside. It was just what we wanted and was amazingly satiating.

The second dessert, while also equally satisfying, was a bit more...well, weird. We didn't know what it was (and sorry for the horrible picture), but was good.

It was sort of like a steamed white rice cake that had then been slightly baked or lightly pan fried (but wasn't greasy). It was then sandwiched with some sort of green goo on the inside. We actually couldn't, for the life of us, identify this green goo. It didn't taste like anything in particular - just generic sweet, like white sugar and maybe some rice flour mixed together into a thick consistency. Sometimes I thought it might have a hint of coconut in it, but we voted against the coconut version of the sweet dessert sandwich so I'm pretty sure it didn't actually have coconut in it.

So the mystery remains. I have no idea to this day what we consumed. It was tasty though, and I enjoyed it either way.

6. The last meal before a change of location

And so the next day we wandered around temples and gave our offerings of fruit to monks. After we had finished with this we decided to hit up the street vendors one more time for a meal before heading to the airport for our flight to Koh Samui.

I, true to form, had crispy pork belly. Just can't seem to get off that habit apparently.

Although this was still good, it definitely wasn't of the caliber of the previous night's offering, and I finished it feeling like I should probably get off my pork belly horse and move onto a different type of food next time. This one was heavy on the flavoring and the sauce was a bit too cloying. The crunchy fried skin texture was delightful though, and provided good contrast to the sauce.

My sister chose a little more wisely, and went with something we hadn't, until that point, had yet:

Noodle soup with meat balls. It was clean, delicious, made with egg noodles. She decided to check out the spice offerings that were on the table (there is a standard set of four that usually graces any table - a dry red spice mix, a vinegar mix with floating chilis in it, and then the remaining two seem to vary by region). She sprinkled in a very small amount of the dry mix, wanting to turn it up a notch.

Unfortunately this was a bit much, despite the fact that only the tiniest bit had gone into the broth. Just goes to show the potency of their spices.

And thus ended our food adventures of Chiang Mai. Tasty and tastier. It was only going to continue being amazing from here on out.

(Btw we were also fed heavily on every plane ride we went on between locations...I won't document them here but know that they were filling and usually quite good...guess those Thais really do know how to eat...all the time, and everywhere).

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Checking out Chiang Mai

After our wonderful day with the elephants we were dropped back at the hostel for some rest and relaxation. Our original plan had been to then go check out Chiang Mai's famous wats (temples), but exhaustion took over and we ended up lazing about the relaxation platform in the middle of our hostel and reading/napping until sunset.

Then it was time for the night bazaar. I love sister tolerates my love of night markets.

This night market was pretty fabulous though, and we had a good time, overwhelmingly large as it was. We ended up buying things like wood framed paper lanterns for our new apartments (as both she and I are going to be moving into new apartments soon after we get back...and how cute is it that we'll have matching items in both of our houses, half a world away from each other?), handmade silver earrings (gorgeous, and extraordinarily cheap, especially after my sister's haggling), and other small items.

But the amount and types of things you could buy at this market was seemingly endless. There was an amazing assortment of knockoff watches and purses, clothes of every design and quality, souvenir items, handicrafts, and just general awesomeness for one's house. If I'd had the time, cash, and suitcase space, I would have brought so much back with me. As this was the beginning of the trip though, we decided to pace ourselves, knowing that there would be other markets (such as the famous Floating Marketing, a bit out of Bangkok) and other times for buying.

And thus ended our first and last full day in Chiang Mai. Sadly we didn't have much time in this wonderful city because of scheduling (we had planned it around the Full Moon Party happening just a few days after landing), but it would really have been lovely to spend more time.

We spent the entirety of the next morning before our flight (we got up early) visiting wats and giving fruit donations to the monks who meditated within them. There really are some spectacular things to see.

Unfortunately I can't recall all of the names of the wats we saw, and it's likely I did not take pictures of all of them either, but hopefully just having been to them and showing you a few, you'll get an idea of what is there. In comparison to what we saw in Bangkok later, these are more modest, but I would also say in a lot of ways, they're more real and authentic as well. We could see the monks praying and meditating in each of these (we were also there in the morning, when this would be happening) and see the communities that were gathering to do their activities for the weekend. It was sweet and wonderful.

Perfect way to wrap up our time in Chiang Mai before heading off to party island.