Monthly Archives: February 2014

Thai food and cooking for ourselves

Thailand is famous all over the world for its delicious cuisine. We’ve been fortunate to spend three months in the country which has given us time to explore the different elements of it and even try cooking it for ourselves.


Rice noodles are a big part of Thai cuisine, often being eaten for breakfast or lunch. The stalls and restaurants selling them usually have quite a small menu meaning that they are served up very quickly after you order – real fast food. They come in two basic forms; in a soup, of which there are many varieties, or stir-fried, the most common form of which is Pad Thai.

The basic noodle soup is similar to noodle soups we’ve had across SE Asia, a clear broth with rice noodles, meat, maybe some greens, and a choice of seasonings. Flavourings such as chilli flakes, garlic and chillies in vinegar, peanuts, sugar, and fish sauce are provided separately so that you can spice the dish to your own taste – a definite plus point if, like us, your chilli tolerance is nowhere near to Thai levels. We’ve also had more complex variants of the noodle soup including a particularly memorable one with crispy pork wontons.

20140211-150908.jpgThai noodle soup of many different kinds

20140211-150918.jpgKhao Soi is a local specialty of Chiang Mai, a curry flavoured soup with fresh noodles and meat, topped with crispy noodles. It’s typically served with pickled vegetables.

Pad Thai noodles are coated with a tamarind based sauce and then stir-fried with small pieces of firm tofu, fresh egg, dried prawns and beansprouts, occasionally with the addition of chicken or fresh prawns. They are served with fresh beansprouts, a wedge of lime and a slice of banana flower.

20140211-151949.jpgPad Thai, on the grill, and on the plate


If you’re not eating noodles in Thailand then chances are your meal will be served with rice. Steamed white rice is the most common. Order it as a side in a restaurant and it will cost you about £0.30. Fried rice is another easy fast food that we love, it’s available practically everywhere and is a safe option if you’re not feeling too adventurous.

Sticky rice is a different variety, more common in northern than southern Thailand. It is usually found in parcels – either barbecued in a banana leaf or in a bamboo stem.

20140213-171150.jpgA meal served with steamed rice, chicken fried rice for breakfast, opening a parcel of white and purple sticky rice


Spices are really important in Thai foods and there’s an emphasis on fresh spices and herbs rather than dried roots or seeds. This results in food which tastes fresh and bright. Common flavourings are lemongrass, galangal, turmeric root, kaffir lime leaves, coconut milk and herbs such as Thai basil, as well as lots of fresh chillies. Seasoning and depth of flavour comes from fish sauce and soy sauce.

The different spices are combined together in curry pastes which you can buy by the scoopful from the market (on a kind of pot luck basis as the vendors don’t usually speak English) or in sachets in the supermarket with enough for one meal. If you want to make your own curry paste then of course it’s possible to buy the whole spices and we’ve often seen them sold as little bundles with a bit of everything.

20140216-094159.jpgCurry pastes for sale in the market

We’ve tried various different types of curry and have found the green curry to be the most fearsome in terms of heat. The curries are often quite soupy with lots of coconut milk sauce, or sometimes with a clear spicy soup like Tom Yum. They are usually made with meat but are just as delicious made with tofu or vegetables as we found at Pun Pun vegetarian restaurant.



On one of our first forays to the market we were surprised to see big coils of sausage being cooked and sold. When we were offered a piece to try we were pleased to find that it was not a heavily processed pureed paste sausage but a proper meaty sausage, the Thai twist being the addition of lemongrass, chilli and other spices, this is another Chiang Mai specialty and is called Sai Aua. Another product that is usually sold alongside the sausage is Kaeb Mu which is fried pork rind, aka pork scratchings.

20140212-122259.jpgOne of our favourite sausage vendors, she always plied us with free samples!

Chicken, pork and beef are all fairly common as are meat or fish balls, made from pureed meat with no discernible meaty texture – they always make me worry slightly about what might be in them. Even more worryingly, they’re sometimes shaped and coloured to look like Angry Birds characters – our cookery class teacher told us this was to make them more appealing to children… It’s rare to be offered a knife to eat with so meat is always in bite-size pieces and if you order roast belly pork (Andrew’s favourite) or roast duck it will be chopped before being served.

We haven’t eaten a lot of fish but we’ve seen quite a few whole barbecued fish for sale and prawns are usually available as an option when ordering curry.

20140213-180335.jpgClockwise from top left: Butcher in Tonlamyai market, slices of roast duck with rice, beef Panaeng curry, pork with garlic and black pepper

Fruit, vegetables and salads

The hills around Chiang Mai are cool enough to grow temperate fruits so strawberries and apples are just as common in the markets here as local tropical fruits – oranges, papayas, bananas and the dreaded durian. The first hotel that we stayed at in Bangkok actually had a sign on the door forbidding guests from bringing durian into their rooms – it is that stinky! Limes are used for everything from savoury sauces to refreshing sodas.

20140220-215747.jpgForbidden fruit – no durian in Bangkok’s metro, fruit peeled and ready to eat from a street cart, choice of fruit for making fruit shakes

Spicy sour salads made from shredded green papaya or green mango are found everywhere. They’re called som tam and are a delicious fresh way to wake up your tastebuds but frequently spicy enough to make me cry… Vegetarians should beware of these as they usually contain dried prawns as well as the ubiquitous fish sauce.

Vegetables are often served stir-fried with soy or oyster sauce. These can be a mixture of carrots, cauliflower, baby corn and broccoli, or quantities of greens, there’s a type of spinach called morning glory and a type of kale which is very similar to choi sum. There are many kinds of aubergine (eggplant) available in Thailand not just the big purple ones that we’re used to. Everything from tiny ones that look like peas to stripy ones the size of eggs to big green and purple ones.

20140221-175742.jpgVegetables (clockwise from top left): Papaya salad, morning glory with garlic, aubergines in the market, stir-fried vegetables with oyster sauce

Sweet stuff

The most common dessert that we’ve seen in Thailand is mango sticky rice, which as the name suggests is sticky rice with fresh sliced mango and a generous drizzle of coconut milk. There are also lots of street carts selling rotees which are somewhere between a flatbread and a pancake. They’re made from dough stretched incredibly thin and then fried and folded around the filling of your choice – we like banana drizzled with chocolate sauce.

20140211-161607.jpgMango sticky rice, coconut pie, night-time rotee van, banana chocolate rotee

Cakes tend to be very light and well aerated, milk cake is damp and almost dripping with milk while coconut pie is a bit like lemon meringue pie but made with pieces of coconut flesh in the curd.

20140220-215922.jpgCoconut cake and green tea cake (it was late in the day and there was no other choice…) at a cafe in Chiang Saen

Street food snacks

There are always lots of stalls selling snack foods when you visit a night market. Mini omelettes, barbecued meat on wooden skewers, and takoyaki, a puffed ball of dough containing octopus, crab stick or other fillings, are all common.


Cooking for ourselves

Having our own kitchen for two months in Chiang Mai has been great for me. I’ve really missed cooking while we’ve been in Asia and it’s always more fun to visit markets when you can buy ingredients to take home rather than just looking and taking photos.

The kitchen in our apartment was small, just two hobs and a microwave with no oven and not many utensils so I’ve been slightly limited by what I can make. Pasta is always a good fall back but fried rice has become a favourite in the rotation and we’ve taken advantage of the curry paste sachets to make various curries as well as pad thai noodles. Buying whole pumpkins a couple of times required creativity to use up, soup and fritters were favourites.

20140220-220205.jpgHomemade food (clockwise from top left): fried rice, yellow curry and rice, pumpkin fritters, penne carbonara

Not having an oven really stunted my abilities to make cakes and desserts although we’ve had a few batches of drop scones and also ‘Cake in a Mug’ which is a bit like steamed chocolate sponge but made in a microwave, as well as relying on bought Magnums and Lindt chocolate to satisfy our sweet cravings.

20140220-215932.jpg‘Cake in a Mug’


Coffee is common and frequently high quality coming from the local area. As well as the espresso type coffees that we’re used to, it is also often iced, served with condensed and evaporated milk, cooling on a hot day but not as sweet as the ones we tried in Vietnam or Cambodia. Tea is also served iced and milky sweet. Street stalls everywhere serve up fresh fruit shakes which are a great cooler.

High import taxes mean that wine and foreign beers can be prohibitively expensive. We did treat ourselves to London Porter at our favourite pub once a week or so but for the most part we stuck to our favourite local brew, Chang (that’s Thai for elephant you know) or made ourselves a cocktail with local rum mixed with iced ginger tea, lime juice and brown sugar.

20140224-135827.jpgWatermelon shake, iced coffees, Chang at a street bar in Bangkok

UrbExing in Chiang Mai – Space Roller

I’ve always felt a strong curiosity towards buildings and secret places; an “I wonder what’s in there, or behind that door, or down that hallway” and yes, I realise that means I’ll meet an horrific end if I’m ever cast in a horror movie.

Dilapidated buildings, especially functional ones like old factories, banks, warehouses and bunkers get my imagination and intrigue going – I start thinking about how they’re laid out inside, picturing what they would have looked like when they were in use and what kind of people would have been there. I imagine myself being there in that time too, watching the machinery in action and the people going about their business.

It was not until I read the twitter profile of a friend at work, that I found out my propensity to explore man-made structures was not only shared, but it has a name: Urban Exploring, or UrbExing for short. When I next saw my friend and asked him about it, his eyes lit up with excitement like someone sharing a heretofore secret passion (like making up strange sandwich combinations – bacon & banana anyone?), and he told me that not only is UrbExing a “thing”, but there’s also an organisation called SubBrit – Subterranea Britannica – that organises exploration of underground sites (usually WW2 bunkers) for its members. Fantastic – how hadn’t I heard about this before?

Legitimised, I now make a point of stopping to explore urban structures when I can, and on the way to the main Arcade Bus Station in Chiang Mai is, or rather, was, the Space Roller..


Space Roller – extreme sports & techno games. Time for some extreme UrbExing!

In the building that probably gave the Arcade Bus Station its name, this long-since closed arcade of shops and restaurants is now in a very sorry state of repair.


I guess this was the old arcade, Chiang Mai

The ground floor is completely gutted, with bare concrete floor and no obvious sign of its former purpose. The furthest left hand-side looks to have been taken over by squatters, and there are scooters and cars parked outside. I stepped over an old electrical cable that was strung over the foot of the right-hand staircase, and made my way up the main entrance.
The futuristic styling is straight out of 70’s and 80’s sci-fi, or more recently the cartoon series Futurama, with silver curved supports set against electric blue and cigarette-butt yellow curved or conical walls. The future is reflective and curvy.

Inside, it’s clear this has been deserted for a long time. Holes in the roof have led to the almost complete collapse of the interior false roof, which has destroyed the once smooth wooden rollerskating surface below.


The rollerskating track. Looks pretty extreme to me – big concave central oval with an outside banked racing loop and enclosed downhill tunnel on the right that looks like a lot of fun


The old counter where they rented rollerskates. The wall behind is floor to ceiling boxes for skates and shoe storage, just like in bowling alleys


The upstairs bar; The lockers; The curvy grand staircase to the viewing gallery, bar, and small private rooms (what could they be for?); Cobwebs on the dirty floor

It was fun exploring the shell of this once exciting rollerskating venue, sadly now a remnant of a bygone era given today’s ubiquitous electronic and hi-tech entertainment.

Elephant owners for a day

The Asian elephant is the national animal of Thailand, and they have been used for years as working animals, hauling logs in the forest. Nowadays mechanisation is taking over from this work but Thais have realised the appeal to tourists of the elephant and there are camps all over the country where you can go to meet and interact with these beautiful creatures. There seems to be a particular concentration of these camps around Chiang Mai and although we wavered for a while about whether it was something we wanted to do (in particular as there are reports of bad treatment of the elephants at some of the camps), eventually after a lot of research we contacted Patara Elephant Farm and booked onto their ‘Elephant Owner For A Day’ program.

The day started very early with pick up at 7.30am (how on earth did I ever get myself to work before 8am five days a week…?). And after collecting a few others around the city we were driven 29km south west of Chiang Mai to the farm. The first activity was meeting the baby elephants. Over the last few years the farm has averaged about four new babies a year and when we visited there were two who were just a few months old. They were extremely cute, quite playful and like small, very solid trains if they decided to walk into you!

20140208-143710.jpgMum and baby

20140211-160357.jpgSo cute…but don’t get in their way!

After saying goodbye to the babies, the group of about twenty visitors was split into two and taken to separate areas where each person was allocated an elephant. Our group’s leader, Atip, was responsible for teaching us about the elephants, and answering any questions that the elephant handlers (who generally only spoke basic English) couldn’t help with.

Firstly we had to make friends with our elephant. This took the form of bribery by feeding them bananas and chunks of sugar cane, and we learnt our first two elephant commands, ‘Buun’ which tells the elephant to lift their trunk and open their mouth, and ‘Deedee’ which means well done. Andrew’s elephant was Merjensai, a 23 year old female with a mischievous 2 year old baby, Yuli. My elephant was Bunjun, a 17 year old male, the only bull elephant in the group and absolutely enormous although very gentle.

20140208-144405.jpgAndrew and Merjensai

20140208-144418.jpgJulie and Bunjun

If you really owned an elephant, you’d need to know how to check she was healthy. There are four things to check.

  1. Her ears should flap and she should swish her tail approximately once per minute. This keeps flying insects off, not doing it might indicate a more serious underlying illness.
  2. Healthy elephants sleep lying down – check for patches of dirt on the side of the face and down the side of the body – both sides should be dirty as the elephant needs to turn over roughly once an hour
  3. Elephants only sweat between their toenails – sweating means she is properly hydrated
  4. Dung inspection – elephants eat almost constantly, by checking their poop you can make sure that their digestion is working properly
    • She should make at least five pieces of dung every 2-3 hours
    • Squeeze a piece, water should come out – the elephant is well hydrated
    • It should consist of small fibres – if you find whole or partial leaves the elephant might have a problem with its teeth (also happens with older elephants when they start to lose their teeth)
    • Smell it – it should smell OK, not unpleasant, this means it hasn’t been hanging around the elephant’s digestive system for ages

20140208-155415.jpgHealth check: ears are definitely flapping, sweaty between the toes, Andrew checking the dung

Having made sure that the elephant was suitably dirty from sleeping on the ground last night, we brushed them down with a bunch of twigs (the elephant used for demonstration made us laugh by eating the brush after being cleaned!), washed them off with a hose and gave them a drink – Bunjun liked to have his trunk filled from the hose which he then transferred to his mouth, Merjensai was a bit more direct and just took the hose directly into her mouth!

20140208-155407.jpgJulie brushing Bunjun’s back, and hosing him down

There are a few different ways of getting onto the elephant – by stepping onto the centre of the trunk and having them lift you up onto their head, by commanding the elephant to lie down and then scrambling up, or by stepping onto their right foreleg and hauling yourself from there onto their back. Most people chose the latter method, some managing it more gracefully than others! The correct place to sit is on the elephant’s neck, almost on top of their head with your knees supported by the ears. We were surprised by how much hair the elephants have, and how stiff and bristly it is.

Once we were all up, we set off for the hour long ride through the jungle to the river. The group was well spread out and as the elephants walk with a very slow and steady gait it was very peaceful. Merjensai’s baby, Yuli, was very wilful during the walk, often stopping dead in the path or trying to pull bark off trees.

20140208-151228.jpgPausing during the ride through the jungle

On reaching the river, everyone changed into their swimming gear and got ready to scrub the elephants. Atip explained that this was like elephant skincare and was an important part of keeping the elephant healthy by removing parasites.

20140208-153509.jpgThe splashing about in the river ended with a group photo and elephants spraying us with water

After a tasty lunch of barbecued meat, sticky rice and fresh fruit, the day ended with a short ride back to the roadside where the vans were parked ready to take us back to our hotels.

We were really pleased that we chose Patara, not only is the program extremely well run and all of the elephants we saw seemed well cared for, but they take heaps of photos and videos (and they’re very good at making sure they get everyone) which you then receive on DVD at the end of the day. The elephant handlers are also great at taking your own camera and snapping you with your elephant so you’re pretty much guaranteed to come away with some fantastic pictures to help you relive the memories.

Slowing down, or why we paused in Chiang Mai for 2 months

Before we started out on this two year adventure, the first and most common question we were asked about intending to travel for so long was “where are you going?” Our typical answer was to reel off a bucket list of destinations that went something like this:

Visas necessitated the planning up to the end of the Trans-Siberian as we wanted more than a month to travel across Russia, but beyond its borders our plan was pretty vague at the outset.

Sitting at the end of 2 months recuperation in Chiang Mai, we’ve had plenty of time to reflect on why we felt we needed to stay put for a while after 8 months of continuous travel. Now, I’m in no way trying to garner any form of sympathy here.. “oh, you poor things – travelling the world must be so exhausting!” I hear you cry.

And yes, I know you said that sarcastically.

Catching up on the blog writing, with a glass of wine in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Catching up on the blog writing, with a glass of wine in Chiang Mai, Thailand

When we were in the beautiful, ancient walled city of Pingyao in China, we got chatting to a couple from the UK who had moved to County Donegal a few years prior. During the conversation Steve said that his philosophy of travel is when he starts thinking of the next meal (instead of appreciating where he currently is), he knows it’s time to go home. We can honestly say that in the now 10 months since we left home, we haven’t reached that stage, but we were getting a little too accustomed to the ‘new-ness’ of everywhere.

A huge reason for travelling is to appreciate the differences. The differences in the people, their customs, their dress, their language, their beliefs, and their food. In the architecture, the infrastructure, the systems, the government, and the history – I know these words have many connotations but I use them here in their purest, neutral sense, without bias – to travel for me is to observe, experience, immerse and interact with the world. To revel in the differences. To make a connection with fellow man and to see the world anew.

For 8 months straight, we’ve typically spent no longer than 4 nights in a single place, every day doing something new, something different.

It’s been amazing, and we’ve experienced so much, but it’s also been exhausting. The cumulative and constant difference weighed on me like a 3rd rucksack and it started to dull my wonder and excitement for where we were.

We knew we needed some time to recharge, we needed the familiarity of the routine. We needed somewhere to completely unpack.

A flower in the swimming pool at our apartment in Chiang Mai

A flower in the swimming pool at our apartment in Chiang Mai

And so, for the past two months we made a little home-from-home in a very pleasant apartment in Chiang Mai. We’ve shopped regularly in the markets and supermarkets, cooked for ourselves and counted our laps of the swimming pool in Thai. We can navigate the city without a map, and we’re on first name terms with both our Thai masseuses and the staff at our local pub.

We’ve rested, we’ve recuperated, and now we’re ready to continue the adventure. We just hope it all fits back into the rucksacks!

Vive la différence!

And relax…our experience of Thai massage

Our first experience of Thai massage was in the rather unlikely location of Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal, Russia. We’d both previously had the kind of massage usual in the UK where you strip off to your underwear and the therapist uses oil to smooth the knots from your muscles. So we were surprised to find ourselves just taking off our shoes and lying on the floor while the therapist stretched our limbs and worked with pressure on our muscles.

Six months later we arrived in Bangkok where we visited Wat Pho, the birthplace of traditional Thai massage and the site of a renowned school where you can learn the skills for yourself. We’ve heard it described as “yoga for lazy people” and I can see where that comes from as a lot of the focus does seem to be on improving flexibility and range of motion. Wikipedia has a nice description of the practice:

The massage recipient changes into loose, comfortable clothes and lies on a mat or firm mattress on the floor. It can be done solo or in a group of a dozen or so patients in the same large room. The receiver may be positioned in a variety of yoga-like positions during the course of the massage, but deep static and rhythmic pressures form the core of the massage.

20140205-102833.jpgMassage is carried out on thin mattresses on the floor

When we got to Chiang Mai we soon realised that there are more massage shops than it would seem that any town could support and it’s impossible to walk very far without a lady calling out ‘hello, massage?’. All that competition means that prices are ridiculously low, in the area around our apartment 200฿ (£4.00) for a one hour massage is the going rate, but we’ve seen places in the centre of town for 150฿ and even occasionally 120฿ an hour! Not long after settling into our apartment here we found a friendly shop that we’ve been patronising at least weekly. Our 200฿ even includes a cup of hot tea afterwards, and they usually try to force a banana on us as well.

Thai massage is pretty physical for the therapists. They don’t just use their hands and arms but their feet, knees and frequently their own body weight as well. I’ve had a small Thai lady standing on the back of my thighs and using her weight on my shoulders and upper back, or sitting behind me using her knees to straighten out my spine. It often also includes pulling of fingers and toes to make them crack and twisting and straightening of the spine for those satisfying spinal adjustments.

20140205-102847.jpgUs in the massage clothes provided at our favourite massage shop (this was taken on Christmas Day hence Andrew’s unusual headwear)

If you have particularly knotty muscles (umm, that’ll be me then) Tiger balm is applied. I’ve become so addicted to the tingle of it on my neck and shoulders that I bought myself a pot. It’s good to stop insect bites itching too.