The Mekong river flows steadily below my veranda, muddy and expansive, treacherous and mesmerizing. In the warm mists of early morning, a lone fisherman balances on the deck of his long tailed boat, a giant rod held horizontally as nets are cast. He drifts with the fast moving current.
The day opens gently in Chiang Khan: the oppressive heat of the afternoon is a distant thought. In the teak guest house next door, the sounds of Thai opera waft across the deck, and a man lounging on a daybed sings along. We are close to a Wat: the early morning prayer and response is suitably soporific. Over the way lies Laos, so close and yet, at this point in the river, so different from Thailand. The village on the opposite bank is enclosed by dense jungle and hills: shanty villages with early morning cooking smoke rising above the trees, and the familiar pointed roof of a Wat just visible in the distance.
At this point, crossings to Laos are not possible: there are few signs that the locals bother either, although locals with border passes may do so. International tourists require a visa: from this part of Northern Thailand, obtainable at Nong Khai to Vientiane or further west at Chong Mek to Vang Tao.
I have always yearned to take the great travel adventure of a lifetime, travelling on all forms of river transport down the length of the mighty Mekong through five countries, but I suspect that time has run out.
Ten years ago we spent time on the Mekong in Luang Prabang, one of the finest spots in Laos, and then travelled by long tailed boat for two days up the Nam Ou river, a tributary of the Mekong, then stayed for a week in the village of Mung Ngoi in simple bamboo huts by the river. I hear that life is still the same in that lush, tropical valley, where young men travel up stream in the dark, watching for the glow of tiger eyes along the banks.
On that journey, we also caught up with the Mekong at Phnom Penh in Cambodia, a town that has changed for the better over the last ten years. My photos of this era have sadly been lost.
If I had ‘world enough and time’, I would chase that Mekong river from its source in Tibet, down through five countries, to its wide delta in Vietnam, but I doubt that this will happen; I am content with the river running by me now.
I make many assumptions when writing about Thailand- one of the worst slips is to lapse into local terminology for things, assuming that they are common words in English, and then I realise that they probably aren’t.
The following little guide is for Chiang Mai and regional cities throughout Thailand. Thai beaches in Phuket and other beaches tend to be very westernised places catering to foreign needs. Thai culture is almost lost in these towns. This list is for the traveller, not the beach sun baker or the resort frequenter.
What is a Wat?
Temples are called Wats, coming from the Sanskrit word for enclosure, and are places of worship for Buddhists. In northern Thailand, especially around Chiang Mai and Lampang, Wats are distinguished by the Lanna style of architecture. You will notice many similar features to the Pagodas of Burma and the Wats of Laos.
Wats will usually contain a golden Chedi, a conical or bell-shaped building, similar to the Nepalese Stupa , which often contains sacred relics. The Chedi is usually in the grounds of the enclosure and is separate from the temple or temples.
Wats are often large compounds containing schools for monks, a monastery, a garden, a large Bodhi tree and shaded areas to sit and relax. They are relaxed places and provide a welcome shady break from the busy streets.
Wats often also house museums, sometimes a cafe, and stalls selling religious items such as amulets, candles and flowers. They are really busy on the weekend so consider visiting Wats dring the week.
They are public spaces and welcome foreigners. It is polite to make a small donation ( say around 20 Baht) and to drop your spare coins in the ‘days of the week’ boxes or monks’ bowls.
Notes for Travellers visiting a Wat in Thailand.
You must remove your shoes before entering a Wat. Consider the type of footwear you will wear when doing a day touring the wats. Shoes with ties or elabourate clasps will become annoying. Wear thongs or scuffs. This is the preferred daytime footwear of the locals.
Shoes are also removed when visiting people’s homes, in guesthouses, many shops and businesses but keep them on in restaurants. Be guided by what you see.
Spotto the annoying shoes in these photos below.
Dress modestly. This applies in the churches of Europe: the same respect applies to the temples (Buddhist or other) in Asia. Modest dress is a sign of humility. Put the shorts and singlets away and keep them for the beach. Most temples will, for a small fee, supply some cover up clothing for those who have turned up in their beach wear. It is much better and simpler to be conscious of the customs of the country you are visiting. Below, a sign outside a Wat, and a young European couple, oblivious to the offence they cause. Cultural ignorance or cultural arrogance? I wonder sometimes.
You will often find a well signed toilet within the grounds. Handy information! Always carry your own tissues, however most Thai toilets now have paper, are super clean and modern.
Sometimes scammers hang around temples. They are usually very well dressed and have an excellent grasp of English. This used to happen around Chiang Mai but I haven’t noticed any on this trip. They are still rife in Bangkok. Don’t respond to any unsolicited, polite greetings, just don’t acknowledge them. Breaking out into another language, real or made up, is another strategy.
Inside the walls.
When choosing a place to stay, look at the map of Chiang Mai before choosing. Chiang Mai’s ancient city lies inside a square, the city’s ancient walls still visible here and there, along with a moat. Most of Chiang Mai’s attractions lie within these walls: great restaurants, good footpaths, parks, markets, the sunday walking Market, the Saturday night market, a hundred Wats, and a vibrant cosmopolitan and artistic community.
Big international resort hotels are not located in the ancient city. They are out in the busy traffic clogged suburbs or along the Ping River. You might like the look of these western places but will be forced to negotiate daily or thrice daily for a tuk-tuk to and fro back into the old city. If you like the thrill of spontaneous wandering and discovery, choose a place to suit your budget within the old city walls.
Below, Map of Chiang Mai, showing the walls of the old city and outskirts near the Ping River.
A little bit of Thai language.
These two phrases go a long way.
Hello – Sawa dee
Spoken by males – Cup / Females – Ka (“sawadee ka” for females and “sawadee cup” for males)
If you are female, draw our the ka with a long breathy sound: if male, the cup sound is very clipped.
Thank you very much
kob kun cup (male) , kob koon Ka (female)
Cup / Ka, can be said at the end of any sentence, it is a sign of respect and regarded as the polite form of these expressions.
Just call me a creature of habit, but when I find a lovely place to stay, there really isn’t any reason to ‘shop around’. In Chiang Mai I always return to the 3 Sis Vacation Lodge. This modest sized boutique hotel is run by three charming sisters who are helpful, humourous and genuinely interested in the needs of their guests.
The hotel is ideally situated inside the walls of the old city and opposite Wat Chedi Luang. Despite its central location, it is quiet, especially the rooms located along Phrapokkload Rd, Soi 8. Choosing can present a dilemma. The rooms in the front building facing the main road can be a little noisy in the morning, but then, imagine a room looking down on a golden Chedi below, with the sound of morning bells and gongs (7 am) and Wat Doi Suthep shining on the mountain in the distance? Double happiness.
The upstairs rooms in the back section along Soi 8 ( soi means lane), have windows fronting a quiet residential area with French windows opening onto the greenery below. Very Graham Green-esque! Squeeze a fresh lime into that Vodka or Gin, open the shutters and let the warm air work its afternoon magic. Another Wat bell rings: to sleep or to read, that is the question.
The decor is clean and uncluttered, with beautiful Lanna (Northern Thai) decor. The beds are large and comfortable, the breakfast is sensible without being overwhelming, and the price suits my budget.
Downstairs the lobby area is airy and inviting, a place to plonk oneself after long days of walking, temple visiting, or feasting.
On Sundays, the famous walking market begins outside the front door of the 3 Sis. This popular market sees the main streets ‘pedestrianised’ after 4pm, as thousands of stall holders set up their stalls for the highlight of the week. There is music, street food, wandering blind singers, tourist nick nacks, herbal medicine, deep-fried crickets and other bugs, sweets and all sorts of wonders, from North Thailand to Laos, for sale. It is popular with the locals as well as tourists. After the long slow stroll, worn out and over stimulated, it is so nice to come back to a gentle lobby and familiar faces.
Today was a very good day, but then, every day is special in my favourite Asian city. We’re in Chiang Mai again, and each time I visit, my heart grows fonder. Like an old lover, Chiang Mai unfolds slowly and deserves many visits. It’s no wonder that so many expats call this town home.
Today we ate at a remarkable Thai vegetarian restaurant, and since we have discovered the word Jeh, along with the little yellow and red flag displaying this symbol, เจ, we then found some more.
Thai Vegetarian and Vegan food is not at all boring and holy. You won’t miss onions, meat or eggs when you taste these treats. Deep fried shitake mushroom sate with peanut sauce, minced tofu larb studded with dried chilli and basil leaf, a refreshing drink of crushed lemongrass on ice, and so much more. I wanted to order everything from the menu at Pun Pun Slow FoodVegetarian Restaurant. Visit and be delighted by this wonderful temple cafe. Cost, around AU$10 for two.
That evening, following a siesta and another temple visit, it was off to Taste From Heaven. Deep-fried mushrooms, coated in a sesame seed batter, made an excellent appetizer to go with a cold beer (Chang, of course). The rain bucketed down outside, and we continued to order. Next a rice noodle dish, a vegetarian version of a Pad See Ew arrived. I love big fresh rice noodles: smoked by the breath of a hot wok, the dish was classic comfort food and went well with the rain. Another dish, a deep-fried tempura morning glory vine, kangkung, with cashew nuts and tofu, was a surprising twist on the meal. All were helped along by a generous portion of red rice. Vegan chocolate brownie? Yes indeed, and a little fork war followed.
My glorious day will be followed by more, I know. But today was the day of the Jeh restaurant discovery. I’m in heaven.
Pun Pun Restaurant, Wat Suan Dok temple, Suthep Road, Chiang Mai. Or see other locations here. http://punpunthailand.org/restaurant/index.html
Taste from Heaven, Ratmakka Road, Chiang Mai. or see http://taste-from-heaven.com/
Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand, is the most beautiful city in Asia and an important centre for Lanna culture and Buddhist temples, with over 200 temples in and around the city. One of my favourite temples is Wat Chedi Luang, which sits at the centre of the old walled city. I like to base myself nearby so that I can visit old Chedi often. It is always the first temple I visit before wandering the town endlessly, discovering new delights. Gleaming with golden Buddhas, colourful prayer flags drift from the ceiling and Lanna glass mosaics line the walls.
Focaccia is one of the culinary delights of Liguria and what better place to try a lovely green oily version than in the Cinque Terre. The five villages of this area, Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso, perch precariously along the edge of the Ligurian sea and at the base of steep terraced hills. These towns are connected by a wonderful little train which travels through tunnels carved into the mountains, with an occasional glimpse at the wild sea through gaps in the tunnels along the way. They are also connected by walking trails and by sea.
I first tried green oil drenched, salty focaccia in 1985 in one of these towns. Other Ligurian specialties from that era included spaghetti al pesto, spaghetti con vongole and a very young dry white wine that I can still taste. Above the five towns, with colourful houses that tumble down to the sea, a steep walk takes one to a rural district with spectacular views of the coast. In those days, the towns petered out quickly: rural life was still in full swing: steeply terraced vines were well-tended, the tall irregular trellises constructed of hand hewn wood. Vineyards then led to further terraces of olive groves above.
I haven’t returned to the Cinque Terre since then- I don’t wish to spoil good memories. The terraces are now, apparently, poorly maintained and the vines untended: there is more money in tourism than farming. The area was also severely damaged by floods and mudslides in 2011. It is very popular and heavily touristed in the Italian summer months. The Cinque Terre National Park and the towns are now a Unesco World Heritage Site: there are attempts to preserve the unique aspects of this area.
I follow Carol Field’s recipe when making focaccia, however I tend to use left over pizza doughthat has been rising for another day in the fridge.
After returning the once risen dough back to room temperature, I roll it into a rectangular shape to suit the size of my baking tin – in this case, a tin with sides, such as a old fashioned lamington tin.
The tin is well oiled, the dough is pressed in with fingers and left to rise again under a damp cloth. The damp cloth trick seems to produce the right moist texture that I recall from all those years ago. The cloth needs to be very well dampened but sit slightly above the dough so that it doesn’t stick.
After 40 minutes or so, the dough is dimpled by pressing indentations with your fingers. These will catch the oil. Very therapeutic and a good task for little ones.
Lots of Extra Virgin olive oil is applied, followed by salt crystals (coarsely ground sea salt or rock salt), then sage leaves are pressed onto the dough.
The focaccia is then baked in a preheated oven, 220c, for around 20 minutes or until it looks done.
Cool, remove from tin, and slice into rectangle pieces or slices. I guarantee that the bread will not have time to go stale. It doesn’t hang around for long.
The green olive version from Liguria is also rather nice.
This forms part of Leah’s The Cookbook Guru, where we are spending a month or two looking at one of my favourite cookbooks, Carol Field’s The Italian Baker.
And I hope it brings back a few travel memories for my three children, who will always remember Signore Andrea P. Poggi, and that screaming cat below the sea wall at Vernazza!
The best laid plans often go awry, especially when travelling economy class on a budget airline. Just go with the awful flow is my advice. This was aptly demonstrated recently when Mr Tranquillo studied the seating layout of the plane a day before departure and re- assigned our seats, so that we would be surrounded by fields of empty space, rows to colonise, restful rows on which to loll and spread. Foolish man. He hadn’t factored in those travellers who had left their seat allocation to chance at check in. I am now left wondering how peaceful our original chosen seats might have been.
The Melbourne to Thailand flight, on a good day, takes just over 8 hours, not exactly a short trip. Behind us we have a mother with two small children who enjoy the healthy pastime of kicking of the seat in front of them – ours. In front we have three women who enjoy a few cans of Bourbon and Coke, their seats fully reclined by 3.30 pm, shortly after take off, and who are partial to random bursts of shrillness. Their partners have taken up the standing room between the toilet and the plane door exit: they are enjoying their own beer festival for four hours. I am so pleased we not sitting in that leg spacious area.
Being prepared, we look forward to our longish flight with one pre-ordered meal. It arrives 40 minutes after take off, at 3.45 pm. I ask politely if it could stay warm somewhere until a more reasonable eating hour, such as, say 6 pm. No, that was not possible. OK, could the meal be kept somewhere until we are ready to eat it, warm or cold. No, he couldn’t do that either. I then suggested curtly that he could stick the meal in the rubbish bin (I promise I did not preface the word ‘bin’ with any expletive beginning with the letter F ). Mr Tranquillo, known for his inner calm and reasonable approach in the most annoying situations, intervened and told the young male attendant that the food would stay warm, and that we would like it in two hours. End of story. How did he do that? Flight attendant whisperer?
The kicking from the rear continues with a persistent rhythm, thumpthumpthumpety thump_thumpthump_THUMP, directed at my lower back. I ask the father could he tell ‘the child’ to stop. Not long after, Mr Tranquillo, who is being kicked constantly by the other little darling, half stands, turns and firmly addresses the mother with the same request, a distinct edge to his voice. I smile inwardly. Not so tranquillo after all! The kids finally stop. They take up singing and loud games with their Mother, which is lovely, really, except that the din drowns out all sound from our earphones.
We finally ask for our meal at 6 pm: the packet is still super hot, and the ice cream melted. I don’t mind melted ice cream, although the exploding affect, when removing the puffed up foil lid, produced a sticky foamy spray over me, my clothes and the back of the seat- but not on the kids behind, who by this stage, had found a way to pull my hair as they climb the back of the seat.
Note. If you don’t pay $24 for a pre-ordered meal, you can eat a $10 meal any time at all: just press the button and along comes a bit of industrial fodder from the Pie Face company, a slab of ham and pineapple thing vaguely resembling a pizza, or a vacuum packed salad that purports to have health properties.
We resort to wine, a saviour in situations like these. There is an attractive picture of a barrique on the back of the food brochure where the words ‘cellar selection’ are mentioned. The choices are- Sauvignon blanc or Shiraz. Hmm great, how much do I dislike Sauvignon blanc, let me count the ways. The cheap red slides down well enough although the desired effect, relaxation, is replaced by headache. No water bottle is delivered at any stage throughout the flight: a purchased meal is accompanied by a miniature foil topped container of water, such fun to open. I notice that the Bourbon women are now drinking water from tiny paper cups from the toilet and I consider doing the same.
I try to meditate, to think more calmly, to recall a few Dalai Lama quotes of the day. “The ultimate source of comfort is within ourselves”, he advises on his Facebook page, but it’s not working and besides, I am sure HH travels business class. I watch ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ or rather, I see it mimed: fortunately Hardy’s story hasn’t changed in all those years of remakes, the cad is deliciously rakish and the good guy, in the end, wins.
My advice for travelling on budget airlines?
Don’t plan anything and consider taking calming or sleep-producing substances.
Buy noise reducing headphones which won’t work in the Jetstar sockets unless you get a double pronged plug attachment that happens to match.
Have your own media loaded onto your own device using your top quality earphones.
Take an empty large plastic bottle in your hand luggage. Filtered water bottle filling stations can be found in various spots throughout Melbourne’s international airport.
Prior to departure buy your own food for the flight, such as packed sushi, mixed nuts, biscuits and cheese, or home made slices and sandwiches.
If travelling as a couple, choose an aisle seat and a window seat. Very rarely is the centre seat filled.
If you have paid for Jetstar’s media ($10), note that this prepayment will be loaded into your allocated seat. If you move, you may lose your media.
Card players of Langzhong meet to relax on a hot evening in summer. The mood is mellow and the pace is slow.
Langzhong is situated in the North East of Sichuan Province, China. It is one of the best preserved ancient cities in the area, home to many well restored Tang dynasty houses, cobblestoned lanes and temples. The traffic remains outside the city walls, making street life more appealing for all.
A weekend post, responding to a themed challenge from Ailsa in Ireland, allowing me the indulgence of vicarious travel as I search through my digital files.
This month I have returned to breads made with yeast, particularly those from one of my favourite reads, The Italian Baker, by Carol Field. Carol Field journeyed through villages and homes throughout the Italian countryside to collect recipes. They were then published in her original volume in 1985. This classic was revised in 2011. Few photos or glossy styled food shots adorn this book. It is a pleasure to read even if you never bake from it. It is often assumed, because of its title and appealing photo of ciabatta on the front cover, that it deals solely with bead: in fact, there are numerous chapters on cakes, biscuits and pastry, some of the latter collected from Nonne in remote villages, recipes that are tinged with nostalgia e memorie.
A good egg enriched cheese bread is not a daily offering but a special treat to go with a creamy soup, a celery velouté, for example. I followed Field’s recipe for this, but decided to make dinner rolls and a little bâtard with the final dough. The recipe is simple and precise, but next time, I might use all the little odds and ends of leftover cheese residing in boxes in the fridge.
The recipe includes details for making the bread by hand, by mixer and food processor. Each method is a little different. I am using a stand mixer, because I am lucky enough to have one: it gets a good workout every week and was a worthwhile investment.
Pane al Formaggio– Cheese bread.
2½ or 7 g active dry yeast
1 cup warm water
2 large eggs at room temperature
2 tablespoons or 30 g olive oil
3¾ cups or 500 g unbleached bakers flour
2 teaspoons or 10 g salt
½ cup or 75 g grated parmesan cheese
1/2 cup or 50 g grated pecorino cheese
I large egg white, beaten, for glazing.
Method By Stand Mixer
Stir the yeast into the water in a mixer bowl; let stand until creamy, about 10 minutes. Mix in the eggs and oil with the paddle, then the flour, salt and cheeses. Change to the dough hook and knead until firm, velvety and elastic, 3- 4 minutes. The texture may be slightly grainy from the cheeses.
Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise until doubled, about 2 hours.
Second Rise and shaping.
Punch the dough down on a lightly floured surface and knead briefly. Cut the dough in half and shape each piece into a round loaf or batârd shape. Place on a baking sheet or peel sprinkled with cornmeal, cover with a towel and let rise until doubled, about 1 hour.
Thirty minutes before baking, preheat the oven with a baking stone ( if you have one) to 220c. Just before baking, baste the loaves with the egg white. Slash the long loaves with three parallel cuts. Sprinkle the stone with cornmeal and slide the loaves onto it. Bake for 40 minutes, spraying the oven three tines with water in the first 10 minutes. Cool on a rack.
The Italian Baker, revised. Carol Field, 2011. Ten Speed Press.