Friday, July 25, 2014

Thai wine. It's a real thing.

It was another rough day in the travel writing business: wine-tasting at 11am, who would choose to do that? But, conscientious as ever, there I was with the others at the PB Valley winery, slurping and sloshing - though not spitting. Well, there was no bucket supplied, so what else were we to do, but swallow? And it was no penance, as it turned out. Thai wine is not the main topic of conversation wherever oenologists foregather, but actually there's no reason why not, since it's really pretty good. We tasted chenin blanc, rose, shiraz and tempranillo, and it was all eminently drinkable, even before lunch. Don't go looking for it down at the bottle store, though: it goes to Japan mainly; and it's also a bit expensive. Not for us today, though, hooray!

After what was an unsurprisingly jolly lunch at the winery, we were off to an organic mushroom farm where they grow varieties with names like Ear, Angel Wing and Monkey Brain. I don't know what the one was that they cooked up for us in a light batter, but it was very moreish. The mushroom-shaped accommodation and swimming pool were perhaps a little over the top, but there's no faulting their enthusiasm for the fungus, which managed to survive even - presumably - Google Translate in their literature: "We have a good sniff exactly it helps people live longer with healthy."

Pausing briefly at Palio, a quite bizarre Italianate shopping centre, complete with golden Thai shrine, bronze greyhounds and a shop selling Halloween costumes, we ended the day at a massage parlour. It was an everyday, unpretentious sort of set-up, nothing like the elaborate rituals of hotel spas: a team of small women directed us to battered loungers or mattresses on the floor depending on our wants, and proceeded to knead and poke with hard fingers and thumbs for an hour, or two. There was wincing, there was giggling and there was also, incredibly, given what I perceived to be a barely tolerable level of pain, snoring. But it was cheap, and I walked back to the nearby hotel on fluffed-up feet, to paddle in the infinity pool and gaze out over manicured gardens to the wild hills, which are about to be visited by a multi-billion baht development of hotels, shopping mall and water park.  

Here's Duncan's video version of today.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Lots of treats and two disappointments

Most of today was spent sitting - but on a wide variety of vehicles. First there was our usual coach, a fancy big black thing with massage seats that whisked us from Korat along a wide motorway through farmland with rice fields, small herds of water buffalo, little towns lined with shops, fruit stalls piled with durians and mangosteens, and, finally, hills. Here we went first to a pottery village which we toured in a sort of tram. Everyone there is involved in producing and selling all sorts of goods, from huge tasteful garden urns to garishly painted and infectiously smiling figures. We watched one of the former being made, in a dim shed by a man smeared in clay, the pot rising from a lump to a beautiful simple shape in just minutes. As mesmerising now as it ever was in the black and white days of the TV Interlude.

[Speaking of TV, here's a YouTube clip about today posted by Duncan of Duncan's Thai Kitchen. You may glimpse me in the background!]

Then came a silk-weaving village, where we were feted guests, and saw all the work that goes into producing a length of fabric: one barefooted man walks 10km a day, back and forth eight metres turning 120 of the finest threads into weavable thickness. Most of their machinery is so simple, wood and nails and wire, but the looms are something else entirely. I'm full of admiration for their skill.

Next we arrived at our very flash 5-star hotel for two nights - Botanica in Khao Yai, an elegant modern glass affair with views over the lumpy wooded hills. We drove further into them, a long way, to see a waterfall much talked-up by our guide Suree which was, almost inevitably, a bit of a disappointment - big, roaring, a torrent of brown water, sure, and reached by flights of the most astonishingly steep and narrow steps I've ever seen, but no match for Iguassu, naturally. Never mind, it was good to get the exercise. And the huge millipede, and the leeches attached to the specially issued anti-leech socks were something of a sensation.

More genuinely disappointing was not seeing any elephants, especially after driving past the yellow diamond warning sign Danger: Wild Elephants. We went on a night safari on the back of a ute, our plastic macs flapping, the warm rain slanting down in the light from our spotter's torch, but all we found were some barking deer and a big black-tailed squirrel in a tree. No elephants. So we had to make do with the photo taken by the guide just yesterday, right outside the national park headquarters. Sigh.

Dinner at Botanica's restaurant Tempo (curiously, reached via golf cart through the underground car park) was a consolation though, especially dessert: banana, mango, papaya and white chocolate mousse. Yum!

Second city delights

Today we headed north out of Bangkok towards its second city of Korat, along a wide, modern highway past rice fields, a big dam, small busy towns, men watching small herds of Brahman cattle or water buffalo, people sitting at stalls selling fruit and sweetcorn, and some hills - "mountains" according to Suree.

On the far side of the city we visited Khmer ruins at Phimai, a smaller but older version of Angkor Wat, which lies at the other end of a road that starts there. There was some history, of a pre-Thailand, the usual thing of shifting borders and exchanges of power; but mostly we wandered freely around the ancient stone, 1000 years old, carved and weathered, red and white sandstone blackened with age and set off by neat green grass being trimmed by women with big knives.

There was more eating today, of course, first a lunch of crispy fish and duck, with tangy papaya salad and delicious Pad Thai, in an open-sided restaurant where an eager cat flitted around under the table, shamelessly begging. Then tonight we had a succession of interesting dishes laid before us in another unpretentious place of formica and neon strip lights: fresh-tasting varied things frequently unidentifiable, but all hot and crisp and delicious. There were lotus stalks and a spicy peanut mix to wrap inside leaves, more fish and chicken and sweetcorn fritters, soup and rices, salads and noodles. We had all complained about over-feeding as we entered, but there were no complaints once the food started coming, and not much of it left at the end.

Then we went to a night market, which was really good: authentic, non-touristy, non-pushy, relaxed and lively. One side was food stalls, the other clothes, bags, shoes, electronics, a lot of it second-hand, and most of the customers and stall-holders young people, all enjoying the social side of the event as much as the chance to buy or sell. Everyone was friendly and smiling, the night was warm with a pleasant breeze, there was music, live and canned...  I even bought a gold watch, with Thai numbers, since I forgot to bring mine. It cost 100 baht! That's about $3.60. What a lovely way to finish the day.

[If you're interested, Duncan's YouTube post about the day is here.]

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Not just the day that was full

A day that begins with waking at 4.30am is always going to be long, but this one was remarkably busy, too. Mainly, it seemed, spent eating. There was breakfast, with a temptingly wide selection at the Sukosol hotel's breakfast buffet (though I was faithful, as ever, to my old love Bircher muesli). Then there was lunch, at Sala, a sleek, shiny modern place directly across the river from the Wat Arun, with glorious fresh and tasty Thai food and an even better sticky rice dessert with coconut cream and fabulously ripe, delicate, yellow mango.

Later there was sampling of mangosteens and rambutans at a market, and guava and roasted apple which was neither roasted nor apple but tasted just like it, and then chestnuts. That was all on our way to having dinner in Chinatown, walking past stall after stall cooking and selling bananas, fish, skewers, rice dishes, chicken, duck... We had a Lazy Susan full of different things - pork, chicken, cashew nuts and peanuts, Chinese kale and other greenery, a whole fish, still sizzling, dim sum, several sorts of rice, and Singha beer. Then we had to attend a reception with the hotel owner, a lovely little intense lady (Thai and lively), and management (German and serious) which was canap├ęs then dinner with special dishes beautifully presented, and an international buffet. Augh. They were happy to see the 22 of us, mostly Aussies, since their occupancy rate should be 80% but is currently only 30% because of the coup and the curfew. Neither applies any more, but the media have omitted to do the follow-up to their stories of riots and containment, and government advisories are still in place meaning that travel insurance won't apply - so no-one's coming, and they want us to get the word out.

We've seen no sign of military rule - the closest we got was a ceremonial guard change at the Grand Palace, with lots of slapping and stamping from painfully tightly white-uniformed soldiers. We were dutifully doing Bangkok's sights: palaces, temples, markets, canals, Chinatown. Also getting stuck in traffic, learning that water monitors actually are a monitor of water quality, feeding huge but surprisingly gentle catfish for good luck, and having a really interesting conversation with guide Suree about Buddhism as we sat rather uncomfortably on the floor beneath the Gold Buddha.

Though I had seen most of today's sights before, twice, it was still good to visit them again, and enjoy the colour and detail, the refinement and the squalor, the real and the imagined, and hear the stories and the background. Though - and I'm sorry to seem churlish -  a bit less food would have been preferable.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Travelling hopefully

Here I go, off again. I'm at the airport, slumming it in a coffee shop like the unprivileged masses because - as indicated by the neck pillow stowed on my trusty backpack - I'm travelling economy today, sigh. All it takes is one business class flight to spoil you forever, and I've been lucky to have had many over the last few years, including very recently. Oh well, it's only eleven hours or so to Bangkok, and daylight too, so it shouldn't be too much of a penance.

What's slightly more concerning is that the Sunday papers today are of course full of MH17, with affecting photos of toys and travel books scattered on the ground, and plenty of graphic detail about what it would have been like for those on board when the plane was hit. The last time I was here at the airport - no, the time before (it's been a busy year) - I took a photo of the tails of several aircraft parked outside which included a Malaysian Airlines plane. I smugly noted that I wasn't flying with them, but with Air Tahiti Nui. That was soon after MH370 disappeared - who could possibly have thought that the airline would have another tragedy, let alone so soon?

Perhaps that's why I keep hearing a PA announcement for a passenger who's not gone to the gate to board MH130 - is that a last-minute chickening-out happening there?

I'm flying with Thai Airways today and have no cause for concern but, despite knowing (and being able to see, on various apps) how many aircraft are in flight at any moment of the day, flying safely, it still makes you think as you strap yourself in, what a precarious and unnatural thing it is, to fly.

See you on the other side! I hope.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Air Tahiti Nui - Paris to Auckland, business class

This was the biggest, and pleasantest surprise, on the flight back home with Air Tahiti Nui. Dog on a plane! Who knew? This is Zorro, a long-haired chihuahua, and he was accompanying his doting owner on the sector from Paris (where else?) to Los Angeles (where else?). And no, she didn't have to buy his own seat, it was conveniently empty - it actually cost her only $150, plus rather a lot of paperwork, for him to come along. He was no trouble, spending most of the time inside his padded bag, and many of the other passengers in Business probably didn't know he was there. And yes, I did ask about toileting - she brought a pad for him to use in the loo "But he doesn't like to go when anyone is watching".

The less appealing surprises were that when we did get to LA, we spent the entire hour or so on the ground sitting on a bus, trailing along corridors and up and down stairs, going through immigration, submitting ourselves to the hostile rigours of the US security check, and then getting back on the bus again - all this, despite being in transit. I'm guessing it's because ATN is a small airline and gets shoved to the outskirts of the terminal, without access to a transit lounge like Air New Zealand gets to use. Not their fault, but it sure messes with your enjoyment of the trip.
Similarly, when we got to Papeete, at 4am, for some insane reason we had to queue in the wilting humidity to wait to file past the immigration desk (where one person was working while three others stood behind her, watching) - I tell you, you can get pretty soon sick of listening to jangling ukuleles in those circumstances. Then we had to claim our baggage off the carousel and queue again to check in, to go through security, and to get back on the plane. We spent an hour sweating and shuffling that we could have passed in the airconditioned business lounge eating dinky cubes of Laughing Cow cheese. Why the clerk at Paris wasn't able to check us all the way through to Auckland, I have no idea.

Also, we were unlucky that the two longest sectors were on the older A340-300 plane, Nuku Hiva, with the hard seats, no USB ports and the clunky armrest-TV arrangement. After that, getting onto the smart new Rangiroa for the last bit to Auckland was a real treat. It seems to be the luck of the draw, which one you get.

So, Air Tahiti Nui - would I fly with them again? Probably. The service is friendly and good, and the fares are very competitive (just ask Zorro). They can't help what happens in LA, and surely our Papeete experience was a mistake. They don't compare to Air New Zealand, of course - but then, who does?

Monday, June 30, 2014


That's a not so secret vice of writers, and rightfully scorned - but sometimes it's hard to resist. Like today, driving on a gift of a brilliantly sunny morning on a circuit around the Forest of Bowland (a forest does not always mean lots of trees, you may be surprised to learn), which included, besides the sunshine, shaggy sheep, cycles, sports cars, stone walls, streams, shadows and a service. ("Ooh look! There must be an event on at that church, with all those cars outside," we said, and then remembered it was Sunday).

It was a weather-related decision, to retrace our path, having had grey skies previously, and it was a good one. The fancy photographers can keep their moody photos: I like sun to bring out the colours, and today the green of the new bracken was vibrant, and the clouds were bright white in a blue sky. Simple things, but it made all the difference.
Hay-making is almost over, but the one last field being turned made a refreshing change, odour-wise, from the slurry that's also being busily spread this time of year. That was in Quiet Lane, from Slaidburn to Higher Bentham, over the fells past farms and foxgloves, where there were also riders of both horses and motorbikes - the latter, like the convertibles, all powered by middle-aged men recreating a dream from their youth (and thoroughly enjoying it, judging by the bluff Yorkshireman with white beard and leathers I chatted to at a cattle stop).

At Devil's Bridge, at Kirkby Lonsdale, the scene was so English it was almost ridiculous: flat-capped men with small dogs on leads watched cricket on the green, people picnicked by the river, where small boys dipped shrimp nets, bigger boys dared each other to jump from the rocks into the undoubtedly chilly river, and on the 13th century stone bridge above it, people bought mugs of tea from a caravan, and licked icecream cones.

It was a lovely way to finish my tour of northern England and southern Scotland. There's just one day to go now before the long trip home, back to winter, and self-cooked meals, and turning all these sights and experiences into saleable stories. Super!


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