Tag Archives: Markets

Thailand – Land of Smiles, Lemongrass and Corianger

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It’s reputation precedes it… Sexy, seedy, scorching. Thousands of travellers (young and old) flock there every year – the Land of smiles, Lady Boys, Ping-Pong shows, Thai Brides, Full Moon Parties and “The Islands”…To be honest, it all felt a bit daunting.

However, my first foray as a “Farang” helped me see a completely different side to the traveller stereotype and gave me a taste of Thai life as a local (well sort of). Thanks to the amazing volunteering organization Lemongrass, I spent an incredible two weeks teaching English at a Government school in Surin (a seven hour bus ride north east of Bangkok).

Possibly the most reasonably priced volunteering scheme around, Lemongrass provides its volunteers with a very comfortable home, full teaching support and the best tour guide in Thailand (thanks June) to see the local sights by scooter or local truck (or bike if you can ride one!).

Trip highlights included the Thasawang Silk Village where you can see intricate Thai silk being woven by hand; the Ta Klang Elephant Village in Tha Toom District with four-legged  film stars and footballers and the Khwao Sinarin silver making village, where it’s impossible not to be mesmorised by the hand made beads being fashioned from makeshift tools, under the shelter of a stilted, wooden house.  And, that’s without even mentioning the local markets, the odd Rice Convention (did you know there are over 120,000 types of rice?) and a Thai Country and Western Karaoke.

But we were there to actually teach…Every morning the Tuk Tuk rumbled and spluttered outside the house, we took the 15 minute ride to school to be met with the wide smiles and eagerly expectant eyes of our students. Having not experienced many native westerners before, the pupils were fascinated by our hair, skin, the way we spoke and the games they knew we’d be playing throughout the lessons – Bingo was a particular favourite!

Staying through rainy season we experienced floods, waded through knee deep water to get to the noodle shack across the road and watched the fish swim across the driveway. During downtime we’d wave to the local elephant as he made his daily walk by the house selling (and eating) sugar cane, got to grips with a great number of geckos and learnt to cook Thai food – June’s fish can salad has a mean kick!

Although I enjoyed learning to cook, Thai food was my stumbling block. Despite sampling a full range of Thai cuisine from roadside Pad Thai, Pork Satay, a plethora of noodle soups; the school canteen’s ground, minced and fried frog and super spicy papaya salad; plus hotel A la Carte curries, I am still not a Thai food convert. This is due to my absolute hatred of coriander – the standard ingredient of most Thai food. This menu translation for fried fish summed up my feelings and gave us a titter!

Anyway, apart from my food foibles, suburban and rural Thailand is beautiful and completely different from the decadent and debauched ditties of many a traveller. The Lemongrass experience was amazing. I have made some great friends, been humbled by the kindness and generosity of wonderful students and learnt to appreciate a totally different way of life.

Lemongrass are always looking for volunteers, so get involved and have yourself a unique Thai experience you’ll cherish forever…


Miss Saigon, miss out

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Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known (and still referred to by the locals) as Saigon is a must see place – even if you hate it, as many do – just so you can believe the traffic!

With a population of 10million (and an estimated 7million motorbikes), it is busy, hectic, filthy (in parts) and only the brave survive crossing the road.

Despite following the ‘walk slowly, do not stop or hesitate’ rules, on my first solo road crossing only a Matrix style hips-forward manoeuvre helped me to narrowly escape being run over by a moped who’s driver was picking his feet rather than avoiding petrified pedestrians!

First day there I wasn’t impressed and, although I still feel Saigon lacks soul, after a few days settling in it grew on me and I enjoyed the contrast with the rest of Vietnam.

Walking is the best way to get around (if you are brave enough to cross the road), but regularly repeated warnings of bag snatchings and pickpockets mean minimal valuables are advised.

A US$15 bus trip and guide to the gruesome and impressively masterminded Cu Chi Tunnels (where the Viet Cong lived during the war) and then a drop off at the war remnants museum is a fascinating  and spine chilling day out, as well as a lesson in propaganda at its best .

The beautiful architecture of the Colonial Post Office and the Catholic Cathedral are worth a trip, as is the hidden gem of an Art Museum. It’s 30,000 Vietnamese Dong (about £1) entrance fee gives you admission to two buildings of exhibits, which are impressive enough without the paintings. And, out through the courtyard are four or five smaller commercial galleries are all worth a look.

The Imperial Palace could be given a miss, unless Soviet style war strategy basements and 70’s architecture are your thing. And, if you’ve been to China, the central market doesn’t offer much variation – only in attitude and it’s not more positive!

For a treat and a glimpse of expat Saigon, the rooftop bar at The Rex hotel is great, but not cheap and the opera house, tourist information and high-end shops are close by.

On the flip side, Pho 2000 does some of the best (and cheapest) beef noodles in town – without the frills!

I had high hopes for Ho Chi Minh City and am happy to say I’ve seen Saigon, but three days were probably enough to soak it up.

Hong Kong highlights

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I LOVED Hong Kong. Despite a traumatic arrival, it was a place where acquaintances became life-long friends, I was re-energised to tackle the world and, above all, I had a really, really great time.

After being put in touch with an old school mate through a mutual friend (Facebook does have some benefits), a suggested catch up for coffee turned into two weeks of home comforts, family feasts and an expert expat take on the best of Hong Kong that I will never forget.

There was so much to do and such diversity of culture and landscape… Whether it was tasting life as an expat in Sai Kung or bunking down with the backpackers in Causeway Bay, I could wax lyrical about Hong Kong all day long, so here’s the condensed version…

Hong Kong Island…

Vibrant, bustling and cosmopolitan – a rich blend of Asian alley ways, western consumer culture and corporate skyscrapers.  Whether it’s brand name shopping, top notch cuisine, an evening’s entertainment, a visa run or a walk along the waterfront, you’ll find everything around Causeway Bay, Central and Wanchai.

Lang Kwai Fong and Soho, in and around Central/Mid-Levels (ingenious escalators), are the places the rich kids hang out. It ain’t cheap, but so many great spots to soak up the after work drinkers vibe, sample menus from all over the world, take in the antique streets and meandering markets. You’ll also find Asia’s first comedy club – which is a very entertaining night out indeed!

For a unique experience, the funicular tram up Victoria Peak is fantastic way to see the city and beyond. Not to mention the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co restaurant at the top (which fellow Forrest Gump Fans will find fabulous!), that has some of the best views over Hong Kong from its bar. Nearby, the Zoological and Botanical Gardens offer respite from the tourist trail and is home to many plant and animal species.

Happy Valley Races are a must for any racing fan (or horse racing virgins). At HK$10 for a ticket on Sundays and Wednesdays, it’s a great night out on the cheap and you might even get lucky backing the winner!

In the south, a short bus ride to Stanley, passing Repulse and Discovery Bays on your way, is a relaxing way to escape the city, check out the market, get some beach action and see a slower side of Hong Kong life.

And that’s just the Island, I haven’t even got started about the other stuff!

For a more authentic Asian experience, Kowloon offers up even more delights – from the Rolex and Gucci lined Nathan Road and the infamous Chungking Mansions (where I had the best curry ever – thanks Jordan), to the markets of Mong Kok and Temple Street. There’s also a LA style ‘Avenue of Stars’ with a free light show every evening that illuminates Hong Kong in musically accompanied neon lights!

Over on Lantau there’s the Ngong  Ping 360 cable car taking you to the Big Buddha Temple (and that is one massive Buddha)and an illegal drive (apparently you should have a permit) takes you to the quaint and quirky fishing village of  Tai O.

Towards the New Territories there‘s the lesser known, but fascinating Ten Thousand Buddha Monastery in Sha Tin and for a bit of nature there’s the  beautiful Sai Kung Country Park.

Then there’s the food, the trams, the Star Ferry and so much more…take your walking shoes, extra memory cards and go and see for yourself!

Dedicated to Family Atko…you are the best and I can’t ever thank you enough for making a good trip GREAT x x x

Beijing’s best bits (Part 2)

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If you’re after arts and nightlife, in between sightseeing, there’s plenty on offer in Beijing…

798 Art District – An interesting attempt at showcasing contemporary art, set in an old industrial part of Beijing, about an hour away from the centre. Relaxed, cosmopolitan café’s, large open gallery spaces and some interesting sculptures, but nothing groundbreaking and perhaps a little contrived. Worth a visit though, even just to avoid the smoggy, city streets for an afternoon.

BarsSanlitun ‘bar street’ and its workers stadium setting of super bars and clubs is where the Embassy rich kids hang out – strutting their stuff to techno, sipping exorbitantly priced cocktails and nibbling on sculptured fruit platters. ‘Vics’ eleventh birthday party was no exception and as an unsuitably dressed backpacker on a budget, the red carpet, Vogue-esque entrance should have been enough to tell me it wasn’t my kind of place! The Village, a strip of bars and DVD shops nearby is cheaper, more vibrant and has a decidedly more relaxed feel.

There’s also Houhai Lake ‘bar street’, good for live music, karaoke and a party atmosphere. From the outside the neon lit venues look inviting and intriguing. Appearances can be deceptive and be selective (toilets were the worst I’ve some across yet!). Check out the Reggae bar at the end before the bridge for the cheapest Mojitos and best beats in town.

The famous Peking Duck is plentiful and can be found everywhere and to suit any budget – even the most touristy restaurants didn’t cost more than 100Yuan per head (about £10) for beers, Beijing duck and mains with rice. The range of food is incredible and often the dirtier looking the restaurant the tastier the food – head for the Hutongs and don’t be put off by the plastic chairs and shrink wrapped plates.

Entertainment in the form of acrobatics, Kung Fu and Peking Opera is on daily, with shows starting at around 7pm and costing upwards of 150Yuan for a ticket. It’s easy to buy tickets from any hostel, hotel or theatre, but touts also operate so check you get the real deal.

For more sightseeing there’s The Summer Palace – Reportedly beautiful and a “must see” , but after half an hour on the subway, an hour on a bus, asking several people for directions and being yelled at by passing drivers we aborted our trip and returned to Beijing, irritable and annoyed . Better luck next time.

And, last but by no means least, you’re only an hour from the Great Wall.

So much to do… if you can, allow yourself a minimum of a week!

Beijing’s best bits (Part 1)

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Once you have adjusted to its size, culture shock has kicked in and you are emerging from the other side, Beijing boasts a veritable banquet of history, culture, communism and capitalism all rolled into one.

There’s the amazing Hutongs – narrow alleyways and courtyards crammed with character, dirty looking restaurants serving the most amazing food, curious Chinese families and the ever-present laundry hanging out on bamboo poles from upstairs windows (the laundry not the families, they sit on little stools and play marjiang or Japanese chess!).

Despite the damage done by the Cultural Revolution there are some transformed temples…The Temple of Heaven was a personal favourite, where emperors would hold gatherings and pray for crop yields in the forthcoming harvest. For me it was a peaceful and serene place with impressive architecture and calming grounds.

The Lama Temple, known as Yonghe Gong, was more of a working temple. Met with the overpowering smell of burning incense, there were literally hundreds of Chinese worshippers leaving offerings and lighting incense sticks and kneeling in front of the many gold Buddhas encased in ornate wooden structures.

If it’s a glimpse into the Communist Party’s beating heart you’re after then Tiananmen Square is a must. Imposing, concrete, cold and creepy, it is where the Party’s head honchos address the masses and Mao Tse Tung officially declared the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Site of the 1989 student massacre  – widely reported internationally, but still publicly unspoken in China itself.

Opposite is the Forbidden City (which is literally an ancient city within the city that the rest of Beijing was built around). Home to emperors from the Ming and Qing Dynasties and their closest comrades and concubines, local people were forbidden to enter and led an impoverished life on its boundary. Allow a good few hours for a walk from the West to the East Gate (or vice versa) – Chinglish audio book or over enthusiastic local guide are optional extras.

If shopping is more your thing, the famous Wangfujing area hosts a range of big name brands and designer goods. Or, if you want big name brands (of dubious origin) and bargain basement prices the multi storey Silk Street and Pearl markets are a must. However, have an idea of want you want before you go, be prepared for sensory overload and some serious bartering. Running the gauntlet of Louis Vitton and Gucci knock-offs is a stressful experience for even the savviest of shoppers!

There’s also the 2008 Olympic legacy to take in. With the iconic Bird’s Nest stadium, the Water Cube (with a really cool wave machine and slide area, so take your cozzie!) and the Olympic village square. Ironically the only place to eat in this tribute to international athletiscism is MacDonald’s, so eat before you go!

Entry fees for attractions range from free to around 60Yuan/RMB (£6), but expect to pay more for overpriced souvenirs and the ability to take photos/video and the Olympic Park.  Bartering is completely expected on everything except the entrance fee and be prepared to share your experiences with the masses…

Live scorpion skewers and Mao Tse Tung tat

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Whilst travelling I have lived by the rule that I would try anything once, maybe not a second time, but I would at least give it a go. However, I broke my own rule instantly at the Donghuamen night market in Beijing, with snacks on offer to turn even the sturdiest of stomachs…

Everyday from around 4pm until 9pm the market in the Doncheng District is alive (quite literally) with a plethora of creatures, cured meats and candied fruit kebabs.

“Miss, do you like penis?” was shouted from a side stall, to which we all tittered, until we realised we were being offered a dog penis skewer (brings a whole new take on the Skegness’ famed “Cock on a stick” eh?).

The sights, smells and sounds were an assault on the senses and I couldn’t bring myself to sample the live scorpion skewers (still wriggling), beetle BBQ sticks, dried tortoise, whole baby pigeons, fish heads and pig trotters.

The long row of stalls offered fried noodles, an array of spiced tofu, huge fresh fruit portions and the most popular dish on the street seemed to be the giant toffee apple style fruit kebabs. A few of us sampled, but after witnessing the washing of fruit in filthy water at the roadside and an upturned rubbish bin with potential live critters crawling out, I was ready for a change of scenery!

After walking through Beijing’s famous shopping area, Wangfujing, in awe of the neon skyscrapers boasting the best brand names and towering shopping malls, we stumbled upon another night market with a similar assortment of weird and wonderful food, as well as a wealth of Mao Zedong (Tse Tung) memorabilia! It was tat heaven!

The bustling market had the offensive aroma of fried tofu, mixed with sweaty bodies and the sweet smell of hawthorn kebabs and candy floss. Traders touted their wares, giving cries of “Looky, looky”, “I give you good price”.

There was everything you could think of from replicas of Mao’s little red book of quotations, waving Mao watches, Mao hats, bags, T-Shirts, lighters in the shape of burgers, chewing gum, cigarettes and even naked women. There were tea sets, playing cards, post cards, handbags, posters, watches, smiling buddhas. All set amongst tea shops, shoe shops, restaurants and massage parlours, in the smallest space imaginable.

Definitely worth a visit – even if you aren’t hungry (probably better that way) and great for souvenirs (if a bit more expensive than other markets)…go with an open mind and a guarded wallet!