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City of Angels and Beyond

City of Angels and Beyond
City of Angels and Beyond
City of Angels and Beyond

Thailand has so much to see with so little time. Why not begin in Bangkok, a fast, busy, smokey and smothering city, with thousands of restaurants, shopping meccas and hotels that rank from ultra cheap to ultra extravagant. Start in ‘Bangers’ as it is known to Expats and experience the hustle and bustle; head on down to Khao San Road and experience the haggling among the street vendors.

Bangkok holds the record for the longest place name! In Thai, Bangkok is known as Krung Thep; and over time has been referred to as ‘The City Of Angels’ and enmasse Thailand as ‘the Land of the Smiles’ (as it’s citizens have that famous enduring smile). Why not also head north-west to Kanchanaburi City – where Australian, British, Dutch and American soldiers endured years of torment and hardship building the Thai-Burma Railway for the Japanese Imperial Army in 1942-5. Whilst there visit the Tiger Temple, Sai Yok Waterfall or drive to Sangklaburi and visit the Mon people on the border of Thailand and Burma. There is so much to see and do.

Sightseeing

The Grand Palace in Bangkok is pure opulence; Thai and western style buildings share the opulent rai’s (acres) and are utilised for ceremonial and administrative purposes alike. The gold leaf tiles and attention to every minor detail in design is exceptional – the man hours that are invested here is incredible, something a westerner could not probably fully understand nor would our unions allow. Guards stand out the front and are not permitted to move – the heat and humidity must be so oppressive standing to attention in all their regalia. There is a lot to see at the Grand Palace for your 200 baht entry cost, the palace has an area of 218,400 square metres, the length of the four walls totals 1900 metres where construction began in 1782. There is a group of canons that is worth a look as well as swords and weapons of a bygone era. You can visit an active Wat (temple) inside one of the Thai style temples and see how the locals pray and are humbled by their god – Lord Buddha. It is interesting to note that even Thai teenagers and younger Thai adults also participate in the religious homage in all of these and many other Thai Wats.

Wat Phra Kaeo is situated within the grounds of the Palace; it is a two storey Wat with many antiques and valuables to see; including scale models of the Palace grounds today and of a century ago – you can see how it has progressed over the years by the many influences of the Kings.

Wat Phra Kaeo houses the most revered Buddha image in all of Thailand – the Emerald Buddha (known in Thai as Phra Kaeo Morakot) it is carved from a large piece of Jade. The Emerald Buddha is 48.3cm in width across the lap and 66cm in height, the three seasonal costumes for the Emerald Buddha consist of those for the hot and rainy seasons donated by King Rama I and one for the cold season donated by King Rama III.    
  
Shopping

Pra-Tu-Nam is an excellent market and one you can easily get lost in – but this is a good thing right? It is basically below the Bai Yoke Sky Hotel and the silk, clothing, watches, and all other nick nacks etc are very cheap compared with other more ‘touristy’ venues, a lot of locals shop here so you know it is good value. For a side trip whilst at Pra-Tu-Nam, visit the Bai Yoke Sky Hotel and their observation deck on level 78 (cost 120 baht), there is an inside and outside deck with one revolving – the cityscape continues up there as far as the eye can see.

Silk products, especially silk in rolls for dressmaking etc can be purchased cheaply at ‘Porn Phaisal’ 288/6 Rajprarop Road, Opposite Golden Gate Plaza, Pra-Tu-Nam. On the way to Pra-Tu-Nam is a shopping centre called Panthip Plaza – this is a popular multi level shopping centre for all your electronic and computer related needs, including software and accessories, digital camera memory is very cheap here. Remember to haggle prices and keep receipts. The big daddy of all the tourist markets is of course Patpong Night Market. The name Patpong comes from the family who owns it, a must visit in Bangkok and whilst it caters for the tourists who flock here some bargains can be found but generally it is way overpriced. There are two alleys known as Soi’s dedicated for the market and it gets packed full of tourists on most nights especially weekends. Stop off at the Tip Top Restaurant (in the middle of Patpong 1) if the ambience of the market becomes too smothering, remember to haggle and offer a smile. Have a beer in a ‘bar’ there and you will see some interesting sites.

Remembering

Allied Prisoners of War were utilised as forced labour by the Japanese Army and sent by ship, train and marched to Kanchanaburi and beyond to begin the Thai-Burma Railway in 1942, to create a rail link from occupied Thailand to current day Myanmar – to feed supplies to the Japanese fighting in Burma. As a consequence 2,710 Australians died all along the railway and as one writer has said – ‘A Life for Every Sleeper.’ If it wasn’t for the Australian tenacity, mateship and medical legends such as Sir Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop and Sir Albert Coates, many more of our soldiers would have perished. Kanchanaburi is two hours by bus from Bangkok (from the Southern Bus Terminal), there is the Don Rak War Cemetery to see – the southern cemetery for the railway with approximately 7,000 war dead including 1,362 Australians. Adjacent the cemetery is the Thai-Burma Railway Centre, a museum on the railway with many wall panels etc describing events on the railway plus a cafeteria overlooking the cemetery. Two kilometres north is the Bridge Over the River Kwai – built by POWs and destroyed in 1945 by United States Air Force B24’s on a bombing mission. Next door to the bridge is a floating restaurant, spend a night having dinner here and have the famous bridge as a backdrop and toast the men who are still there. Another 80 kms north following the Kwai Noi River is the infamous Konyu Cutting or Hellfire Pass. It is said it got it’s name from POW’s standing at the top of the cutting looking down during the night with the bamboo bonfires and oil lamps burning with hundreds of men toiling in the balmy night and their captors ready to pounce with a bamboo stick at the ready – men likened this ‘to the jaws of hell’ where it subsequently became known as Hellfire Pass. It took three months to cut a way through this solid rock and it has been said cost some 700 lives. Without men of this calibre, tenacity and spirit we certainly could be speaking ‘A Different Brand Of English’.

Dining

‘Prik’ and ‘Phed’ or hot and spicy, that’s the way Bangkok food has been since the traders introduced chilli some centuries ago. One top restaurant among hundreds is the Nipa Thai Restaurant on level three inside the Landmark Hotel near Soi 5. Attention to detail at the Nipa Thai is to be commended; the Thai decorations down to the carpet make for a pleasant and classy surrounding. For AUD$50, two can dine until stuffed like a Christmas turkey, with several lagers to wash down the well presented and flavorsome Thai (aharn) food. This restaurant would make a small fortune if nestled in uptown Collins Place; this is one where any good Aussie Shiraz or Merlot would dazzle the palate against the spices of the Bangkok cooking. For starters try ‘Toon Ngern Yuang’ or Fried Minced Pork and Prawns wrapped in a Bean Curd Pastry’, these little packets come with plum or sweet and sour sauce for dipping and tantalize the taste buds, they are certainly equal to South Melbourne Market’s ‘Cricket Ball Dimmy’ only a smaller size but equal on taste. This restaurant out does itself with ‘Kao Ob Sabprarod’ or Fried Rice served in Pineapple, the half pineapple is finely cut by the chef and beautifully produced with other delicately sliced vegetables including carrots that resemble an award winning ‘David Austin Rose’ and finely shaped cucumber and tomato, perfectly laid out on a presentation Thai style plate with accompanying dipping sauces – perfect. These dishes alone would overprice such treats in Melbourne with all the time taken to present them with their intricately cut vegetables and service staff that hover like on-ballers at the centre bounce at the MCG. Don’t forget Thailand’s favourites like the Green Chicken Curry, the Panang and Musaman curries – delish.

If you enjoyed your dining experience and fell in love with the ‘Prik’ and ‘Phed’ of Thai aharn, then try the cooking course offered by this restaurant. You can choose the one day or full week of cooking all types of popular Thai cuisine, both fun and rewarding; where else could you cook, consume and learn without having to do the dishes? (Landmark Hotel at 138 Sukhumvit Road Bangkok, 10110, Thailand, Tel: (662) 254 0404).  

Staying

The Montien Hotel Bangkok is a four star hotel and was opened in 1967 by Queen Sirikit, inside it has been lovingly renovated and cared for – the grand staircase is golden, long and made of marble, it sweeps up to the business floor area adjacent the bar where they serve expensive but delicious cocktails. The doorman wears a white military style suite and pith helmet and the majestic lobby borrows the stately name ‘Montien’ meaning Royal Residence. This hotel has everything from an inviting pool to a bakery, Chinese Restaurant, all you can eat buffet breakfast which has all types of dishes from salmon to fresh local fruits and bacon – lots of bacon, Club 54 to it’s cigar bar and karaoke booths. It is a five minute walk to the Skytrain and is directly across the road from the market of Patpong – I mean you could throw a stone and hit a tout in the head (don’t get any ideas!) Travel brochures all mention the real estate catch phrase for this hotel: ‘location, location, location.’ This is the hotel that you can spend time in, swimming, smoking a cigar, having a smooth ‘Jack and Coke’ at the lobby bar listening to the ‘Tinglish’ piano singer whilst the Pong people set up their wares ready for you to start with your bargaining skills. This is relaxing!

When on the expressway heading for the airport, don’t look back; planning for your next Thailand adventure starts there – on that fast expressway home. Was it all an action packed dream? Mai Pen Rai (She’ll be right).

Andrew Mason is author of a published travel guide for Thailand, titled, ‘A Different Brand of English’ and is available at: www.poseidonbooks.com/a_different_brand_of_english.htm.

Full of security tips, travel advice and staying safe in Thailand and Singapore. It has what the other travel guides miss – heart & history.

Muay Thai

Muay ThaiI remember not so long ago, I was sat around a table with an American, a German, an Aussie and a Thai bloke. It had got to that stage of proceedings when we were missing our home lands and the ugly sceptre of patriotism raised its’ head. The theme of the conversation turned itself to what our homeland had brought to the world. Being a Brit I put soccer, rugby and cricket on the table. The American offered baseball, basketball and American Football, the Teutonic one offered BMW’s and lager, the Thai mentioned excellent food, Red Bull and Muay Thai. When it came to the Aussie’s turn he blushed a little and with more than a hint of embarrassment he muttered, “Errr. Well umm. Rolf Harris and Dame Edna.”

Now I could be evil and vent my sarcasm on a certain member of that group but because I’m in a good mood I’ll focus on my personal favourite sport of “Muay Thai” or “Thai Boxing” as it’s know in some quarters. It’s been described as the “Art and Science of Eight Limbs” and by another writer on a different site as “The most graceful way in the world of beating the snot out of some one”. Personally I wouldn’t have used the word snot, but I’m an ungracious Northerner. The Thai’s are justifiably very proud of their national sport and at some time in their lives, most schoolchildren will undergo some form of tuition in this ancient art. On a personal front Thai Boxing helped me stay on the straight and narrow when I could have got involved in less savoury parts of society, and when I’m in Thailand helps me work up a healthy thirst before I go out and undo all the good it’s done me.

Muay ThaiThe Muay Thai of today has undergone a metamorphosis from its original form. Its exact provenance is a little vague, as the country’s records were destroyed when some bad tempered guys from Burma decided to set a torch to the ancient capital of Siam (Ayuddhaya) in 1767, destroying the country’s Royal Archives, so what we know of the history of the sport is pieced together from manuscripts found in the adjacent countries.

The earliest written record is in 1411 up in Chiang Mai. After that the “fistic art” goes unmentioned until around 1590, when King Naresuen got a look in for heralding it as a form of self defence and unarmed combat against invaders, and documented some of the moves that characterise it today. In 1703 “The Tiger King” continued encouraging his countrymen to partake and was rumoured to fight himself (incognito) in a number of villages.

No article on Muay Thai would be complete without mentioning Nai Khanom Dtom, a Siamese soldier who famously won freedom by beating twelve of his Burmese captors and won national respect in doing so. From 1703 onwards the sport carried on merrily with the only change being the swapping of leather hand bindings for ones made of cloth, which if both parties agreed could be dipped in glue and ground glass. In the old days it was a sort of “last man standing” type of contest but in the 1930’s after a few too many fatalities they introduced rules and regulations, which have remained mainly unchanged to the modern day.

Muay ThaiThe changes of the 1930’s were to insist the contest took place in a ring, break the fight into five rounds of three minutes, replace the hand wraps with gloves, insist on mouth and groin guards and let a referee get in the ring to ensure fair play.

If you’re in Bangkok and want to enjoy the spectacle there are two different stadiums, Rajadamnern (five minutes walk from Khao Sarn Road) and Lumpinee where there are bouts staged most nights of the week. It’s a commonly held belief that the Lumpinee fights are of a slightly higher standard although it is hard to separate them. Whichever you chose, you’ll experience a night of true sporting excellence. The sport is still steeped in superstition and spiritualism. When the fighters enter the stadium, they’ll be dressed in silk gowns with garlands of orchids round their shoulders and a “Mongkon” (a ceremonial band) around their head.

On entering the ring (over the top rope if tradition is adhered to) they will remove the gown and perform what is known as a “Wai Kru” it’s a dance which is designed to pay homage to their mentors, family and Buddha but it also helps them focus and warm up. Often the competitors will have spent the day praying, meditating and being blessed by monks.

During the bout, the fighters wear a “Kruang Ruang” or “Ring of Charms” around their bicep, which usually contains a Buddha image. The fight itself is accompanied (as is the Wai Kru) by music from a three piece band made up of cymbals, drums and an oboe.

As the tempo of the fight raises and falls, so does the tempo of the music. Uninitiated spectators are often taken aback at what they see as the “brutality” of the fight. The competitors are allowed to strike each other with fists, feet, shins, elbows and knees. It can look a little scary, but the guys in the ring are highly trained in defensive techniques as well as offensive.

In the early rounds the fighters will typically “fell each other out” looking for gaps in their opponents defence. In the later rounds spectators are usually treated to a spectacular display of pugilist technique.

At the end of the five rounds if neither fighter is concussed, the winner (as in Western Boxing) is the one who has attacked and defended most effectively. Putting the fight’s themselves to one side for a moment it’s important to understand the enthusiasm of the crowd. The Thais live and breathe Muay Thai. When you attend the stadium the atmosphere is similar to a Premiership Football Game and if you chose to flick through the channels on a TV in Thailand, it’s unusual not to find at least one fight being shown.

Despite the brutality of the contest, the combatants have a great deal of respect for one another. They are highly trained sportsmen. Most of them start early, at the age of around seven or eight, and if they are accepted to a gym or “Camp” the Thai word is “Sit” they will often take on a “fight name” which encompasses the name of their gym or their mentor. They live in the gym under a Spartan regime and spend as much as seven or eight hours daily training.

To outsiders it may seem harsh, but Muay Thai offers an escape from poverty and a more healthy alternative to drugs or alcohol for a great many young Thais. The fighter’s career is often over by the time they’re in their mid twenties, with a successful fighter often having some two hundred fights under their belt. It’s hard to classify “Muay Thai” as either a “Martial Art” or “Sport”, I tend to put it in a box of it’s own and call it a “Martial Sport”. It differs from the more “conventional” Martial arts like Karate or Wing Chun, where participants receive grades and practice “forms”, it can seem a lot less formal, although the spiritual aspects of the fight separate it from a traditional sport.

On the international scene Muay Thai remained in the shadows for quiet a while, but films like “The Man With the Golden Gun” and “Kickboxer” have done a great deal of good in opening western minds to its potential.

If you’ve seen the James Bond classic, Golden Gun, 007 visits Lumpinee. The two fighters who were paid to perform for the cameras (Master Woody and Master Toddy) along with Master Sken were among the early pioneers to take the sport abroad. Towards the end of the seventies they settled in Manchester (where the rainfall must have reminded them of the monsoon, but I’m not sure what they made of the temperature) and went about training westerners in their art. They acted as ambassadors for Thailand, and have done a great deal of work in promoting the sport worldwide.

During the mid nineties Muay Thai was going through something of a slump, but was cast into the limelight again by Noong Tom, the famous lady boy boxer who competed wearing lipstick and nail varnish, until he was bared from competition when he underwent re assignment surgery.

In the martial arts field Muay Thai is universally respected as being one of the most complete forms, I don’t want to get into the “if a karate expert and a Thai boxer got in a scrap” type of conversation, but there are well documented examples of other disciplines trying to compete under Muay Thai rules and failing.

If having seen a few bouts and you fancy giving it a whirl there are plenty of gyms dotted around which welcome novices, and don’t be put of by the brutality of the contests. If you attend a gym the professional trainers are well versed in tailoring the sessions to an individuals capabilities. I can personally recommend Sor Vorapin on Chakrapong (the Gullivers World end of Kha Sarn behind the watch shop), Jitty’s (Soi 49 Sukumvit), Sityodthong (Nakula north of Pattaya), Sitpholek (Weekender Resort 2nd Rd Pattaya) and Jungle Gym (Haad Rin Kho Pha Ngan). Other’s which enjoy good reputations, that I can’t comment on personally are Fairtex (Trok Kai, Th Anuwong Bangkok), Chitlada (Rama IV Bangkok) and Lana (Chiang Mai). If you fancy competing you need to put aside a lot of time (years) to attain the levels Thais attain and foreigners don’t have good record of attaining a comparable level, although there are some noteable exceptions including Ronnie Green of England, Raymond Decker and Ivan Hippolyte of Holland, I also believe the Japanese are putting forward some serious contenders.

To conclude if you’re passing through Bangkok and want a taste of culture you could do a lot worse than to spend anevening of watching fights (lots of sexy bodies if you’re a lady and a good scrap if you’re a bloke) and if your worried about getting fat, pop down to a gym, they won’t hurt you but you might ache a bit the next day.

Dominic Lavin

The Vegetarian’s Guide to Thai Food

The Vegetarian's Guide to Thai Food
The Vegetarian's Guide to Thai Food
vegetarian_3

A beautiful asset to world travel is the chance to try exciting new foods. Of course, Thailand boasts a famous cuisine; healthy, full of exotic new flavours, intricately spiced. Any traveler worth his chopsticks will tell you it’s some of the best in the world.

But while most people can dive right in to local fare, tourists with dietary restrictions must weather a gamble each time they place an order. As a vegetarian, I’ve endured my share of food slip-ups. People who don’t know about the meat-free food movement often mistake my plea for, “no red meat – bring on the chicken,” or “I just really like vegetables – put some extra ones on top of the meat.”

Luckily, once you overcome small hurtles, Thailand is a vegetarian’s dream. Tasty local fruits and vegetables, delicious tofu, and thanks to Buddhism, some familiarity with meat-free cooking. Below is a guide for hungry vegetarians traveling in Thailand and ready to sample local fare:

Where to Get Food

To find the tastiest Thai food, get off the backpacker trail and go to where the Thais are eating. This can mean night markets, food stalls on the street, or food courts in tiny local malls. Guesthouse restaurants boast English menus and some comforts from home (baguette sandwiches, full American breakfasts). However, unless you pop into a vegetarian cafe, the meat-free options are usually slim. Markets are cheaper, fresher, and the food isn’t catered for western palettes (no diluted spices here!). Also, you can watch the cook prepare the dish before you, so it’s easy to indicate what you do and don’t want in your meal.

Travelers don’t need to worry about protein. Most Thai vegetarian dishes come with egg, mixed into the meal or else fried and placed on top of the dish. Also, Thai cuisine boasts a few different kinds of tofu; the firm type that’s common in the west; a looser egg-based tofu (usually the tastiest for tofu-skeptics), and a greyish fish-based tofu, often sold on skewers in market stalls.
 
If Thai tofu and fried eggs aren’t your style, pop into a local market (or any 7-Eleven) and load up on nuts and seeds to carry in your bag. Then, you can order lots of veggies at meals and on islands and beaches, guesthouses will offer barbecues with fresh fish. Vegetarians should load up on baked potatoes (a tasty rarity in Thailand), vegetables, rice and eggs. Also, most restaurants will keep their kitchen open during the barbecue, so there’s no harm in topping up your grilled veggies with a noodle or rice dish.
 
Travelers don’t need to worry about protein. Most Thai vegetarian dishes come with egg, mixed into the meal or else fried and placed on top of the dish. Also, Thai cuisine boasts a few different kinds of tofu; the firm type that’s common in the west; a looser egg-based tofu (usually the tastiest for tofu-skeptics), and a greyish fish-based tofu, often sold on skewers in market stalls
 
What to Say
 
“I don’t want meat” – “mai sai neua-sa”
 
“I don’t want fish” – “mai sai plah”
 
” – with tofu” – “sai tao-hoo”
 
“-with egg” – “sai kao”
 
“with vegetables” – “sai pak”
 
Some Favourite Vegetarian Dishes
 
phad thai -fried noodles, a basic Thai staple (note, to order without shrimp, simply ask for “phad thai jae”)
 
phad see ewe – wide, flat noodles, fried with egg and soy sauce
 
kao phad pak – vegetable fried rice
 
phad pak jae – simple fried vegetables in a mild sauce
 
phad kapow – spicy Thai basil fried with chilies
 
som tam jae – green papaya salad in a tangy, spicy peanut sauce
 
kai yad sai pak – an omelette with vegetables
 
yam kai dow – a tangy salad with boiled eggs, onion, and tomato
 
tom yam hedt – a spicy tomato-based soup made with mushrooms
 
tom khaa hed – coconut soup with mushrooms
 
phad priow waan pak – sweet and sour mixed vegetables
 
For Vegans
 
Vegans fare well in Thailand, because dairy is rarely used in Thai cuisine. Most creamy soups and sauces are cooked with healthy coconut milk. However, eggs are prevalent in main dishes like phad thai. Many Thai noodle dishes use egg for texture. Saying “mai sai kao” to the cook will ensure that your dish is egg-free. To play it safe, vegans should stick to rice dishes with vegetables and tofu.
 
Also, be wary of the soy milk sold in Thai convenience stores. Some brands use soy for the nutrients, but mix it with dairy milk for flavour. If you’re ordering a fruit smoothie or dessert in a restuarant, “mai sai nome” means “no milk.”
 
When looking for restaurants, keep an eye out for Buddhist eateries, which use zero animal products. The signs are bright yellow with bright red lettering, and you can judge by the dishes of other customers whether the vegan food looks tasty (trust us, it usually is).

Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com.