The dangers of speaking a foreign language!

I am always trying to ingratiate myself with the locals when I travel, by attempting to speak at least a few words in the local tongue. Whilst it often has a good effect sometimes it gets me into trouble, particularly in countries where the language is tonal in nature.
Cantonese for example has six tones (some say 9), none of which I can differentiate. While living in Hong Kong I often, while dining in a restaurant, ordered an egg at the end of a meal when what in fact I wanted was the bill, (luckily most Hong Kongers work out what that the stupid Gweilo murdering their language is saying, based on the context)
I have also during the monsoon, commented on a large fish when I wanted to say that it is raining heavily. It is for reasons like this I suspect that very few expats in HK ever really master the language.
The Thai language is also tonal with 5 tones and it caught me out on my last visit to Bangkok.
Visiting my friend’s office I met his secretary and remembering her name from a previous visit thought I would get into her good books by greeting her effusively in Thai. “Sawasdee Krup Khun Noi” (Hello Miss Noi) I pronounced while giving her the traditional wai (two palms pressed together in prayer position).
I noticed her looking a little unhappy while out of the corner of my eye caught my friend sniggering in the background.
Catching him alone a little later I asked him what I had done wrong. “You called her Khun Noi“ he said. “Isn’t that her name” I asked.
“Yes but you said Noi”
“Exactly” I said.
“No it’s pronounced Noi” to my ears sounding precisely the way I had said it.
“Well it surely doesn’t make much difference” I replied with more than a trace of irritation.
“Oh yes it does” he said. “You just called her Miss Pubic Hair!”

Another Thai food favourite – Erawan Tea Rooms

Erawan Tea RoomsAnother favourite food destination in Bangkok for Tommy, The Boss, and I, is the Erawan Tea Rooms at the Grand Hyatt Erawan.
A little more expensive by Thai standards, however it is worth every penny as the food is always excellent, they have a great range of teas, and their service is superb. The staff recognize us even after a break of 6 months, which adds a few more puffs of air to my already inflated ego.
They even do a Thai inspired High Tea with local snacks and desserts complete with scones with cream and Chiang Mai Strawberry jam.
This is what we had on our recent visit:

Yum Som O - Pomelo Salad

Yum Som O – Pomelo Salad. The Boss not even waiting for me to finish taking a photo!

Grilled Pork Neck

Grilled Pork Neck

Erawan Tea Rooms Food

 

 

Pad Pak Boong Fai Daeng (Stir fried Morning Glory), Tom Yum Koong (Clear and Spicy Prawn Soup) Brown Rice, and Pla Neung Ma Nao ( Steamed fish in a lime sauce).In the Erawan Tea Rooms they cleverly de-bone the whole fish making an already delicious dish even easier to eat!

Rice Dumplings in Coconut milkAnd finally, one of my favourites, Rice dumplings in hot sweet coconut milk.

 

A peaceful haven amidst Bangkok’s bustle

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For me, no trip to Bangkok is complete without a trip to the Erawan Shrine.

Located on the bustling Ratchprasong intersection in Sukhumvit, the shrine is a monument to the 4 faced Hindu god Brahma, known as Than Tao Mahaprom in Thai.

The shrine was built back in 1956 and the story goes that when what is now the Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel was under construction there were many problems and delays. An astrologer advised that the land spirits needed to be appeased and proposed that the shrine was built. Once the shrine was completed, the construction proceeded without any problems and the Hotel opened to great success.

Despite the hundreds of cars streaming past and the two layers of Sky-Train tracks above, it is always easy to find an element of peace here. The multitude of worshippers jostling for space, kneeling and praying, seeking solace, all melts away when you close your eyes, replaced instead with a tranquility you yearn to recapture long after leaving.

It is also said that any wish one makes at this shrine comes true, and I have to confess that this has happened for me. So whether it’s inner peace you seek or something more material pay the Shrine a visit next time you are in Bangkok.

In Bangkok I blow-dried my butt!

I’m not a big shopper, in fact I hate shopping most of the time. When the Boss suggests a trip to the mall, it is only to preserve marital harmony that I agree to accompany her. The Boss knows this and usually sweetens the deal with the promise of a nice meal and my friend Tommy then overrules any reluctance I have to join her.
However one place I do enjoy shopping is in Bangkok, mainly because they have such fancy malls.
One of my favorites is Terminal 21, located on the corner of Sukhumvit Soi 21. What appeals to me is not so much the shopping inside, rather the concept that the mall is based on. The ground floor is airport themed complete with the information staff dressed in pseudo flight attendant uniforms, and the maintenance staff looking like they have just come from refueling an Airbus in their bright orange Hi-Vis overalls.

Terminal 21 Sumo Wrestlers
Each floor above this is then themed as a different city. The detail to which the designers have gone to is quite phenomenal. The Japanese floor has paper lanterns, and Sumo Wrestler statues.

Terminal 21 Japanese Lanterns
The London floor has a double decker bus, red phone boxes, staff dressed like Buckingham Palace Guards, and the aisles between the shops are named after streets in London. There is an Istanbul floor, a Paris floor and right at the top, the food court is modeled after Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, complete with the Golden Gate Bridge, seals, and even man- hole covers in the floor inscribed with “City of San Francisco

Terminal 21 Golden Gate Bridge
I have visited the toilets on every floor, in the interests of architectural research of course, to see how far the designers have extended the theme and I am pleased to say they did not stint on these often neglected areas.

The Tokyo floor toilets are entered via a little Japanese garden with stone flooring and the plumbing is via bamboo pipes! The London toilet is modeled after a London Tube station complete with a train!

Japanese Toilet Terminal 21
However the best thing about the toilets is the high tech commodes. One enters the cubicle and sits down on the invariably pristine toilet seat (Thai Shopping mall toilets have to be the cleanest public toilets in the world!).

To your right is a control panel by which you can heat up the toilet seat to your desired temperature – it can get pretty toasty so be careful. If you can smell bacon burning it’s probably a good idea to turn it down. After completing the task for which you entered, you can press another button to heat up the water which is then sprayed on the required areas. Having a jet of cold water fired up the back door isn’t pleasant at the best of times so I was very grateful for this function.
Suitably cleansed one then presses the final button and a draught of warm air wafts gently back and forth across your buttocks ensuring it is safe to re-dress and venture back out into the mall. Practically hands-free!
If only I could fit one of these at home!

Possibly The Best Thai Food in Bangkok!

We discovered this little gem on a previous trip and made sure we scheduled a visit this time. In fact we ate here twice in 3 days.@North East Family

Located diagonally opposite terminal 21 at the Asok interchange in Sukhumvit, is @North East Family, a lovely little place that serves superb Isaan style food.

We have a visual test of a restaurant in Thailand before we enter. If it is full of Thais we eat there as we know the food will be traditional, however if it is full of Westerners we give it a miss. This place we discovered by chance one day and looking inside and seeing it packed with Thai office workers we decided to give it a try.

@North East Family Interior

The food is always delicious and remarkably cheap by Bangkok standards.

Here are some of our favourites ( I apologise for the quality of some of the pics. I was so excited to eat that I didnt check whether the photos were clear or not):

Som Tum, Pad Pak Boong, and Sticky Rice

Som Tum, Pad Pak Boong, and Sticky Rice

Grilled Chicken

Grilled Chicken

Barbecued Pork Neck

Barbecued Pork Neck

Salt Crusted Barbecued Snapper

Salt Crusted Barbecued Snapper

 

 

Culinary indulgence in Bangkok

We started our Bangkok food trip at the Intercontinental with the most deliciously presented coffee we have ever seen, complete with sugar on a stick!

This is how coffee should be served!

This is how coffee should be served!

White Tea and Matcha cookies

White Tea and Matcha cookies

Afternoon Tea at the Intercontinental Bangkok

We ended our trip with this: New Zealand Pinot Noir, Banana and Yoghurt smoothie, and a Coffee Cake. This was just mine, The Boss had a glass of water!

 

I flew to Bangkok for Lunch!

I flew to Bangkok for lunch!
I’ve always wanted to be able to say something like that. I remember as a kid reading about the fabulously rich arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi and how when he got the urge for pasta he would jump in his private jet and fly to Italy.
Apart from the private jet part, I almost did something similar.
Late last year The Boss and I had spent 3 months in Bangkok as a prelim to moving there. After 3 months we had come back to India to renew our visas planning to return to Thailand after a month, however a family member’s poor health had scuttled those plans and we remained in India. We had, though, left 2 suitcases full of possessions in a friend’s apartment and when it looked like we wouldn’t be returning anytime soon, had to organize a way of reuniting ourselves with our belongings.
Sending them by unaccompanied baggage or by courier was ridiculously expensive and I soon discovered that it would be cheaper for both of us to fly there, pick up the bags, satisfy our craving for Thai food and fly back again.
So the plan was hatched to catch the night time flight to Bangkok, arrive in the morning, pick up the bags, spend the day roaming Bangkok, stuff ourselves with every eatable we could find, and fly back in the evening.

But then I thought, why rush back? I had some hotel loyalty points so I booked us in to the Intercontinental for a free night (35,000 points) and off we went.
Normally when we go to Thailand we stay in pretty inexpensive hotels as you can get a nice clean place for not too much money. Although when we stayed for 3 months we were lucky that it coincided with a  Grand Mercure  50% off flash sale and we managed to get a serviced apartment for that period at a ridiculously cheap rate.
This would be the first time in a luxury hotel in Bangkok so I was pretty excited. I was feeling very proud of myself that we were staying for a night for free until I heard the young Arab gentleman beside me booking himself into a suite for 6 nights!
We arrived early morning so we were lucky a room was available and the check-in staff also upgraded us to the executive rooms. One look at the massive room they had given us on the 29th floor and Executive room at Intercontinental Bangkokwe decided to book another night!Executive room at Intercontinental Bangkok
I cannot recommend the Intercontinental highly enough. The staff are superb, the rooms are wonderful, and the location is excellent, right next to the Chidlom Sky Train Station, and walking distance to the major malls.
The executive rooms come with access to the lounge on the top floor. This is normally included in the price of the room but as we were staying free, we would have to pay extra. At first we wondered if it was worth it at THB1500 per person, but discovered it included breakfast, afternoon tea, and happy hour so decided to splurge. Reading the instructions and noting that a smart standard of dress is required; we dressed carefully and arrived for breakfast. The first person we saw was eating breakfast in her pajamas, and then we saw two other westerners, in un-ironed clothes and running shoes, their hair in the same shape it was when it was crushed against their pillows 15 minutes earlier!

View from the Intercontinental Bangkok
The views at breakfast were stunning. The lounge is on the 37th floor and there are no tall buildings around so one is afforded panoramic views of the city.
Breakfast was good, afternoon tea was ok, but the real value comes at happy hour. Unlimited drinks and snacks from 5.30pm til 8pm! I discovered they had a lovely New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and then sat back watching the sunset and ensured the New Zealand wine industry would not be going out of business any time soon. The Boss sipped on her fancy umbrella-adorned mocktail and filled up on satay and chicken samosas.
Thirst quenched and Tommy’s voracious appetite temporarily quelled, we entered the lift. A Singaporean guest stood inside and was staring at me intently. Assuming he was admiring my ravishing movie star good looks, I was disappointed to hear him say after about 30 secs of scrutiny “I thought you were Edward Snowden and I wondered how you had got here from Russia!”

Adventures on a Visa Run in Thailand!

I am writing this post out of sequence as I didn’t get the time to blog about it when I was travelling. I am a bit of a lazy blogger and get carried away enjoying my surroundings instead of blogging about it.
Now woefully behind in my posts and with a bit of spare time on my hands I am hoping to catch up.
Before leaving Thailand last month the Boss and I were faced with the dilemma of soon to be expiring visas. We could have gone to the immigration department and requested a 1 month extension. This would have been a pretty straightforward exercise involving a couple of hours and a fee of THB2000 each.
However as we had a double entry visa and always wanting to visit new places we thought we would follow in the footsteps of countless other expats in Thailand and do the “Visa Run”.
This involves crossing the border into a neighbouring country, in this case Cambodia and then reentering Thailand with another 2 month stamp on the passport.
Some people do all this in a day and as soon as they have set foot in Cambodia immediately turn around and re-enter Thailand.
To us though it seemed like a long way to go for a day and as the border crossing of choice, Poipet is close to Siem Reap, home of the world heritage site of Angkor Wat, a long time resident on my bucket list, we decided to make a proper trip of it and spend a few days exploring the ruins of Angkor.
The next decision was how to get there. Flying was immediately crossed off the list as at THB12000 each it was not an inexpensive option.
A quick search on Google threw up horror story after horror story about traveling to Cambodia by land and crossing through Poipet. The reports made Poipet sound like a rough and dangerous wild west town from the cowboy films of old.
Fearing for our lives, or at the least the contents of our wallets, we decided to approach a travel agent and find an organized tour. This also didn’t seem easy as it involved switching from private taxi, to minibus, to hot air balloon, then a 3 day trek by camel (just joking) and it also wasn’t cheap. Our research had shown that the cost of a Visa to Cambodia was only US$20 but the travel agent was quoting an amount equivalent to 3 times that amount.
Telling her we would think about it we wandered the streets in a confused daze before coming to the conclusion that we would give it a try on our own. How bad could it be after all? We like to consider ourselves seasoned travelers, and we have watched every episode of Scam City. What is the worse that can happen?
So the next morning we caught the 6.15am government bus from Ekkamai Bus stand for the princely sum of THB240 each (including a bottle of water! Bargain!) and enjoyed a very pleasant 5 hour journey through the Thai countryside to Poipet accompanied by mainly Thais and Cambodians but also a scattering of foreigners.
After a few stops at various country towns and also at an Army checkpoint where the very polite Military Policeman hauled off two Thais from the bus, we finally arrived in the border town of Aranyaprathet on the Thai side of the border. The bus pulled up outside a white building covered in signs saying “Cambodia Visa”. Being forewarned by the numerous scam reports on Tripadvisor we knew not to pay attention to these signs or the couple of touts half- heartedly beckoning us into the building. Come on guys, if you want to scam an innocent young tourist like me you are going to have to try harder than that!
Retrieving our bags from the luggage bay under the bus we headed off towards the Thai border post a couple of hundred metres away. This bit we knew to be straightforward, after all, the journey to the “dark side” would start once we had crossed into Cambodia (or so the internet reports would have us believe).
Receiving our exit stamp from the Thai authorities we nervously took our first steps into the no-man’s land between Thailand and Cambodia.
“Please cross the road and apply for your visa on the right hand side” we were told by a smiling friendly looking man standing outside.
We followed his directions and sure enough after about 50 metres we found the Cambodian Visa office. A number of foreign back packers were already there filling out forms and after completing ours we presented them to the Cambodian border official together with the required US$20 each. Pointing to a handwritten sign taped to the counter he told me I have to pay an extra THB100 each. Sensing that things would not go smoothly if I didn’t comply I handed over THB200 and he told me to wait a couple of minutes.
I told the Boss what had happened and we started to have a doubt as to whether anyone else was having to pay the “tea money”. It wasn’t the amount, just that we hate the idea of being the only ones to be conned. If everyone has been conned it is much more acceptable!
I asked a fellow traveler from Belgium if he had to pay and he said he had also paid. However he was a much more charitable soul then me and said “it doesn’t matter, these guys aren’t paid much. They need to supplement their income” (Note to self: must work on my Mother Teresa qualities).
Within 5 minutes our names were being called and we were handed back our passports with the Cambodia visa taking up a full page in our passports.
As we left the office the same helpful man was outside smiling and guiding us to the next office where we would get our visa stamped with the entry stamp. Feeling suspicious of anyone being helpful to me and on a heightened state of alert after reading the internet horror stories, I took a closer look at the man and noticed he was wearing a shirt with the logo of a tour bus company on the left breast. Ahhh, I thought to myself! His true colours will soon be revealed I am sure!
Joining a line of people at the immigration counter we waited for about 15 minutes as the two open counters seemed to take an interminable amount of time to stamp each visa. I also noticed some money being passed over to the immigration officials by some of the travelers. This seemed to reduce the time taken to stamp the visa significantly. Suddenly a senior looking officer entered the room and opened up a 3rd counter. The pace of the other two officers suddenly accelerated, visas were being stamped at a rapid speed and the requirement for additional cash to oil the wheels seemed no longer to be necessary!
Within a couple of minutes, visas duly stamped, we left the building to be greeted by our friendly guide who proceeded to lead us to the “official free shuttle bus” which would take us to the main bus stand from where we could catch a bus for the 3 hour journey to Siem Reap.
Forewarned is forearmed as they say and the internet had warned us that these buses are in fact overpriced and that if one walks another 3-400 metres away from the border, it would be possible to catch a taxi or bus at a “local” price. We duly informed the friendly guide that we wouldn’t be catching his bus and his personality underwent a sudden transformation, no longer the welcoming smiley guide of a few minutes ago, instead a red-faced angry man insisting that there are no other buses in all of Poipet and that we would end up walking the 250 kms to Siem Reap. Suspecting that this might not be true, we decided to take our chances and ventured out into the dusty wilderness, otherwise known as the border town of Poipet.
Accompanied by the Belgian backpacker from the Visa office we walked about 200 metres looking for the waiting buses and taxis eager to drive us to Siem Reap. What we hadn’t counted on was this day was the first day of Chinese New Year, surprisingly a popular festival in Cambodia! There wasn’t a bus or taxi to be seen anywhere. We walked further and further, getting hotter and dustier but still faintly optimistic that we would find someone and anyway determined not to give the bus tout the satisfaction of seeing us returning to his shuttle bus.
Finally a couple of guys approached us on motor bikes offering taxis for US$50 however we felt that we would find something cheaper as the going rate according to Tripadvisor was about US$7 per person. After about a kilometer a guy approached us and in a heavy American accent offered to take us for US$30. While debating whether to take him up on his offer a Cambodian family started loading up his taxi with piles of luggage brought over from Thailand (including 2 fighting Cocks in baskets!) Realising that 7 people ( and two roosters) was probably the limit of his Toyota Camry’s loading capacity and taking pity on us he phoned a few friends to see if they could take us but they were all celebrating Chinese New Year and slightly inebriated.
Apologising, he did advise us that the fair rate for a taxi was US$30 although some people would try to ask for more due to the holiday.
Taking his leave we headed off again further and further away from the border. We were now too far away to contemplate returning to the bus stand with our tails between our legs but Fortune smiled upon us and spotting another Camry by the side of the road ahead we approached the driver and asked him for a price. After a weak attempt to charge us $40 he succumbed to our superior negotiating skills and smilingly agreed to take us for $30.
There then followed a very pleasant and safely driven (again contradicting the internet doom merchants who frightened us with tales of terrifying driving) 3 hour drive to our hotel in Siem Reap. In fact so happy were we with our driver we took down his number and despite our lack of Khmer language and his equal lack of English ( we actually communicated in pidgin Thai!) informed him that we would call him for the ride back in a couple of days.
And so ended our first day in Cambodia. The first of 4 extremely pleasant days amongst a very friendly, smiling and welcoming people and a place we will definitely visit again (about more of which to come).
So much for the internet warnings. I never realized that not everything on the internet was true!

Sangria, Paella, and Spandex! What more do you need!

Aside

I always enjoy going to Chatuchak Market at the weekend as each time I go I discover a new treasure hidden in one of the many lanes.

The best time to get there is about 9.30. Most of the shops are open by then but the crowds haven’t arrived yet and the heat not too oppressive. I never go with an agenda but just wander aimlessly and despite having visited many times over the years there are still parts of the market I have yet to see, such is the vastness and the sheer number of stalls.

This last weekend though I discovered a great place to hang out and people watch while recharging your batteries for another couple of hours of roaming the stalls.

The place is called Viva Aviv and I stumbled upon it when I was looking for a place to sit for a while.   What caught my attention was the Spanish Chef standing in front tending to a large paella pan, not something one would expect in a market in Thailand.

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Feeling like a change from Thai food we sat down, discovered they also serve Sangria, and settled in for a bit of R&R. The chef is very entertaining and happily poses for photos and keeps the passing crowd entertained with his “aerial seasoning” of the paella ( by the end of the afternoon the ground is covered in salt!)

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If he isn’t entertaining enough the bar has a live DJ, which seems to change each week, and the combination of Sangria and the great music means that an intended half an hour stop stretches into a couple of hours and before you know it half the afternoon has passed.

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I wasn’t the only one this happened to. The Scandinavian couple next to us who had sat down for a cold can of coke soon graduated to a jug of Marguerita, whipped out their iPad and settled in for an afternoon of backgammon while dancing between moves!

And to top the afternoon off we were visited by a bunch of strange figures in black bodysuits who proceeded to do in impromptu dance in front of us!

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