Archive | January, 2013

Australia day – 26 January

27 Jan

Yesterday was Australia Day and the women’s singles final.

Pei

To avoid having to eat the dreadful food at the Rod Laver Arena – imagine oil being heated at above 180C for 5-6 hours and burned potato wedges cooking for that long and producing a variety of carcinogens, the bad wine  – Jacob’s Creek is one of the big sponsors, we went to Pei, a Mark Best restuarant, at Collin’s place on the way down to the tennis.

Now, some of you may not have heard about the virtues of Australian food. Let me correct the impression of it all being bad rum (Bundaberg), cheap wine (the aforementioned Jacob’s Creek) and pies.  These all exist.  However, due to the influx of many nationalities (Thai, Chinese, Greek, Italian etc, etc), and the high quality fresh produce available, there is a wide range of good food available that can rival London’s.  Additionally, there is also a significant amount of good quality wine available, most of which never makes it way to London or further.  If it does, it retails at over £30 a bottle – for example, Charles Melton’s extremely excellent Nine Popes Shiraz.

At Pei, we gallumphed our way through a couple starters: pork chunks and prawns with crispy pork salt and roasted garlic puree:

Crispy pork chunks

Crispy pork chunks

Grilled prawn and pork salt

Grilled prawn and pork salt

We then trawled our way through the mains.  By this time, the wine was having an effect on me, so all I remember was lamb, steak king fish and a pretty great bottle of red.

Lamb with minted peas and braised lettuce

Lamb with minted peas and braised lettuce

KIngfish and courgettes

KIngfish and courgettes

Steak with polenta dumplings and spinach puree

Steak with polenta dumplings and spinach puree

 

Fully fed and watered, we walked down to the Rod Laver Arena and the women’s final.

Singles final, Australian Open 2013

Well what can I say? Azarenka won. She played some reasonable tennis as did Li Na and they were pretty evenly matched. Li Na’s improvement (post Carlos Rodriguez) is pretty interesting to note, although it was unfortunate that she made so many errors on her serve, which she did not against Sharapova.

Li Na arrives for the ladies' final

Li Na arrives for the ladies’ final

Azarenka arrives

Azarenka arrives

Neither one of them is really a match for an on-song Serena and it was very frustrating to watch their fastest serves as 161 kph – Serena’s is over 200 and even Sloane Stephens was often close to the 180 kph mark.

Li Na returns serve in the second set

Li Na returns serve in the second set

Still, the match was entertaining, notwithstanding Azarenka’s squealing arias.
There is something irritating about Azarenka, from the self-consciously “too cool for school” hoody, incongruously matched with the pedal pushers and grandma’s swimsuit top; yhe “rapper” Redfoo (Berry Gordy’s grandson, with the unkempt hair) in her cheering section;

Redfoo(l) still hasn't combed his hair

Redfoo(l) still hasn’t combed his hair

to her nickname VKA (or Vic-ahhhh) and the crocodile tears on her victory. (I won’t mention the noises again – I’ve said enough already).
Come back Serena – your presence is needed!!!

Up next, the men’s final….

Arriving in Melbourne and Ladies day

26 Jan

Well after a day’s travelling, I got to Melbourne on Wednesday 23rd, just in time to hear that Serena had been knocked out in the quarter-finals by American Sloane Stephens. Now I have been quite interested to see Stephens play…. But not interested for it to be at the cost of Serena. Anyway, you can only watch who is playing, so Stephens it is.

I have been staying on Queen Street in the commercial centre of Melbourne, at a hotel that charges you for internet connectivity. What a shock – I didn’t think those still existed. Well, at least the tennis (and the MCG, incidentally) are only a short walk away, along the picturesque Yarra river. I got up on Thursday morning to excitedly make my way down to the tennis, for Ladies day.

Walking along the Yarra River

Walking along the Yarra River

The final Thursday at the Australian open is called ladies day as both women’s semi-finals are played that day during the first session.   This was also a special day as it marked the 40th anniversary of the WTA.  The good and the great were there to celebrate.

40th Anniversary of the WTA

40th Anniversary of the WTA

The matches that are on are the Bryan brothers in the men’s doubles semi-finals, Li Na versus Maria Sharapova and then Victoria Azarenka versus Sloane Stephens. The nightmare outcome to my mind would be the shrieks of Sharapova versus the annoying whinnying of Azarenka. I am backing Li Na and Sloane Stephens.
Li Na played some surprisingly good tennis, relentlessly hitting the tramlines and making Sharapova work. Sharapova was not on good form and made a lot of unforced errors. Li Na duly won.

Li Na versus Maria Sharapova

Li Na versus Maria Sharapova

DSC_0054

Li Na Serves

Next up, Sloane Stephens versus Victoria Azarenka.

Azarenka in a hoody?

Azarenka in a hoody?

 

At the toss

At the toss

Well, you will undoubtedly have read a lot about this already. First of all, it was a very bad match of pretty low quality – I am very surprised that Sloane Stephens beat Serena, even on one leg. Azarenka for her part also did not play well but was definitely a lot better than Stephens.

Stephens returns

Stephens returns

 

The second set was comical with each of them breaking the other routinely. Sometime in the second set, funnily enough after a Stephens winner, Azarenka started limping and clutching her ankle. The crowd was not sympathetic. Anything Serena can do…..

Then after Stephens broke her serve yet again, she called for the trainer, who spent a lot of time examining and rotating her shoulder. After about 5 minutes of this, she went off for another ten minutes. Imagine my surprise when she claimed her knee and her back were giving trouble. Maybe in Belarus, the word for ankle is knee and the word for shoulder is back…. Anyway, she duly came back and broke Stephens’ serve. Now, Azarenka was already not popular with the crowd and was regularly mocked for the stupid noises that she makes but, even by her high standards, this was idiotic. Did anyone think that her games playing changed the outcome of the match? No. It may have taken a bit more effort and possibly even another set. But that is what made it even worse. The number one player versus the number twenty-nine, in a massively winning position has to resort to this? Shocker. Let’s hope Li Na gets her second grand slam. On the basis of their playing alone, at the semi-final, Li Na deserves it. On the basis of their behaviour, there is only one deserving winner.  Let’s see what happens tonight.

Where's my comb???

I came without combing my hair to see this???

Phuket

22 Jan

I spent just under a week in Phuket.  Like Koh Samui, Phuket is really a beach destination.  I stayed at the newly opened Crowne Plaza at Panwa.

Infinity pool at the Crowne Plaza, Phuket

Infinity pool at the Crowne Plaza, Phuket

Most of my time in Phuket was spent on the beach, eating seafood (which as you might imagine is really very good) and taking a long boat “down the islands”.  I tended to sit at the front of the boat (bow), which really is the most exciting ride.

On the way to the islands just off of Phuket

On the way to the islands just off of Phuket, with Thasanee and her mother

 

View of the long boat from the island

View of the long boat from the island

While I was there, I met a Thai chef, Thasanee, with whom I worked, at Jean Georges’ “V” and “Rama” restaurants in London.  I hadn’t seen her since 2005 and this was a great coincidence. We took the opportunity to hang out and catch up on what we have been doing and the chefs we worked with.

Thasanee and her mother

Thasanee and her mother

We ate dinner at a casual open air seafood restaurant just outside of the aquarium.

Dockside seafood restaurant

Dockside seafood restaurant

One of my favourite dishes there was deep fried breaded butter fish with mango salad.  I include a recipe below:

Deep fried butter fish with mango salad

Mango salad

Mango salad

 

Mango salad ingredients:

2 pinches of salt

6 bird’s eye chillies (scuds) – green and red

3 tablespoons white sugar

9 tablespoons lime juice

2 tablespoons palm sugar

4 tablespoons fish sauce

Dried shrimp – 2-3 T (if you are allergic to shrimp, just leave this ingredient out and adjust fish sauce)

Green mango – julienned

2 small tomatoes or 8-10 cherry tomatoes (chopped or quartered if using cherry tomatoes)

3 red shallots (small round shallots found in Thailand – they are slightly sweet)

2 T peanuts

Small bunch of coriander leaves

 

Fish ingredients:

Butter fish – 3 medium, filleted.

Seasoned flour

1-2 eggs

Dry breadcrumbs

 

Method:

Chop the shallots and chillies finely.  Lightly pound in mortar and pestle and add to the liquid ingredients, salt and sugars.  Mix well.

Lightly crush the dried shrimp and soak in the dressing made in step 1, until soft.  Some recipes suggest pounding the shrimp to a paste but I think it is nice to have integral pieces of shrimp.  They must be well softened though.

Mix the dressing with the julienned green mango and add the tomatoes.  Let sit for a few minutes.

Meanwhile, dip the fish fillets in seasoned flour, beaten egg and then breadcrumbs.  Deep fry until crisp on the outside, in hot oil at 180C.

Finish the salad with roasted peanuts and top with fresh coriander leaves.

Serve the salad with the deep fried fish.

 

Well, that’s the end of my Thailand journey for now.  My next post will be from Australia, as I am off to Melbourne to watch Serena!

Floating Market and the River Kwai

21 Jan

On my final day in Bangkok, I took a day trip to one of Bangkok’s floating markets and the River Kwae.  After a delayed start and near fight due to lack of communication (Aussie boy: I did not sign up for this tour – let me off the bus mate!), we got underway.

Floating Market: Dumnoen Saduak

There are a number of floating markets on the outskirts of Bangkok.  The one most often visited is the Dumnoen Saduak floating market, which is located about 110 km South West of Bangkok and is 1 to 2 hours drive outside of Bangkok in the Samut Sakhon province.

This market is quite touristy and there are apparently nicer markets, which you can get to by car, such as the Tha Kha market in the Samut Songhkram province: http://www.thai-blogs.com/2011/01/18/tha-kha-floating-market/ .  As I was short of time, I went to Dumnoen Saduak.

We stop at Sampang, where we take a long tailed boat (such as that used by James Bond in the man with the golden gun) to the market.  As the river canals can be quite shallow, these boats have engines attached to a long pole, which enables them to be easily lifted out of the water or even partially submerged, which makes manoeuvring the boat easier.

View from the long boat

View from the long boat

Along the way to the market, we passed several traditional houses along the side of the river.

Traditional Thai house

Traditional Thai house

There are also slow boats, which are paddled.  It is not uncommon to see very small Thai ladies deftly paddling boat loads of hefty Fareng through the canals around the market.

Long / Slow boat traffic

Long / Slow boat traffic

Bangkok was once known as the Venice of Thailand, until water pollution limited the commercial opportunities on the water.  The floating markets outside of Bangkok give some idea as to how trade was once carried out.  At the market, there are lots of vendors both dockside and in the water, selling a variety of foods (Mango sticky rice, Spring rolls, fried bananas, Noodles, fish etc.).

Deep fried bananas

Deep fried bananas

Selling Mango Sticky Rice at the floating market

Selling Mango Sticky Rice at the floating market

Kannom Krok - sweet rice "pancakes" served with sweet corn, pumpkin or.... spring onion?

Kannom Krok – sweet rice “pancakes” served with sweet corn, pumpkin or…. spring onion?

There are also a number of craft offerings, paintings and beautifully embroidered garments made from silk and cotton.  Unfortunately, there is also the same touristy rubbish that you see in many markets around Thailand.

After the market, we made our way to the River Kwae, via the craft market.

The craft market

Teak trees are commonly found in the North of Thailand and there is a large handicraft business based on the wood of these trees.  We stopped at the craft market to look at the various wooden carvings and furniture made of teak.

Carving teak

Carving teak

Mulberry trees are also found in North Thailand.  Chiang Mai is famous for Sa paper, which is made from the bark of the mulberry tree.  The bark is softened by soaking, pounded out until thin and then dried to produce paper.

Making Sa paper from Mulberry bark

Making Sa paper from Mulberry bark

Although this is nowadays more efficiently done by machine, the original process has been maintained at the craft market.

Mulberry trees are also instrumental in the production of silk as the silk worms feed on their leaves.

We left the craft market at about 11:00 to make our way to the Death Railway Museum and the River Kwai at Kanchanaburi province, which is approximately 130km NW of BKK.

The Death Railway Museum and Bridge over the River Kwai

We stopped at the Death Railway museum, the war graves cemetery at Kanchanaburi and then went on to the famous bridge over the Mae Klong River (Khwae Yai).

The film “The Bridge over the River Kwai” was loosely based on the building of the so-called death railway from Thailand to Burma.  The focus is on the building of the bridge over the Mae Klong river (Khwae Yai).

Bridge over Khwae Yai

Bridge over Khwae Yai

The railway was called the “death railway” because of the number of prisoners of war and other civilians that died building it.

The Death Railway

The Death Railway

The use and mistreatment of PoWs in this way was in contravention of the Geneva convention on treatment of prisoners of war, 27 July 1929: http://www.icrc.org/ihl.nsf/full/305?opendocument .

Note that this convention predates the United Nations and was instituted during the time of the League of Nations.  In particular, Article 2 of the general provisions of this 1929 document states that the prisoners of war “shall at all times be humanely treated and protected, particularly against acts of violence, from insults and from public curiosity”.

This was not honoured during the building of the railway, especially as the Japanese engineers in charge of building the railway came under greater and greater pressure to deliver.  While it has been alleged that much of the poor treatment came about as a result of this pressure and the fact that Japanese engineers (not professional army personnel) were in charge of the prisoners, what cannot be discounted is that there may have been cultural reasons for the poor treatment of the prisoners – it was alleged that the Japanese despised prisoners of war as they felt they should die rather than being captured.

Some of what made this work so difficult for the prisoners of war were poor facilities including medical, poor sanitation, limited medical equipment and inadequate amounts of food, particularly for Westerners, undertaking extremely difficult manual labour.  In addition, this work spanned both the dry and rainy seasons, with the heat and insects being extremely difficult for the prisoners of war.

I do not claim to be an historian and would welcome any comments which shed further light / clarify this.

Interesting points to note:

1.)    The prisoners were largely Dutch, Australian, English and American.  By far the greatest number of these prisoners were English.  However, a far greater number of Burmese and Malay civilians died.  This is supported by the following quotation from the Commonwealth Graves commission at Kanchanaburi and reproduced in Wikipedia: “The notorious Burma-Siam railway, built by Commonwealth, Dutch and American prisoners of war, was a Japanese project driven by the need for improved communications to support the large Japanese army in Burma. During its construction, approximately 13,000 prisoners of war died and were buried along the railway. An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 civilians also died in the course of the project, chiefly forced labour brought from Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, or conscripted in Siam (Thailand) and Burma. Two labour forces, one based in Siam and the other in Burma worked from opposite ends of the line towards the centre.”
http://www.cwgc.org/find-a-cemetery/cemetery/2017100/KANCHANABURI%20WAR%20CEMETERY

War Cemetery at Kanchanaburi

War Cemetery at Kanchanaburi

2.)    Many of the Japanese engineers were thought to have been trained by the British.  They make a point of saying that they did not need English / American help to build the bridge and that this is incorrectly portrayed in the movie.  They used an American engineering manual, issued to American troops.

3.)    The River is not the Kwai (pronounced: Kwhy) – Kwai means water buffalo – It is the Kwae Yai  (pronounced Kwey).  Kwae means river.

The next day, I left for Phuket.  There was much more to do in Bangkok than I had time to do and it is a city that I would definitely enjoy visiting again.

The Sois of Sukhumvit

18 Jan

Sukhumvit is readily accessible by sky train, with the most convenient stop being Nana.  A main road runs through the area, with a number of smaller streets or “sois” running at right angles off of it.

Soi 5
I first went exploring Soi 5 – this, like most of the other streets, is quite busy with a lot of bars. There is Gulliver’s sports bar which serves “Pharang” food and shows premier league football. There are pool tables and fusball machines. The bar is pretty standard and I didn’t spend too much time there.

Inside Gulliver's Bar

Inside Gulliver’s Bar

A number of taxis run up and down this road and there are vendors along the side selling coconuts and advertising clubs (Insomnia / Insanity). The Bangkok taxis are multicoloured and look like sweets (candy). The green and yellow taxis are independently run (one man, one taxi). The single coloured taxis – pink, orange etc. – belong to cab companies who own a fleet.

Bangkok taxis and coconut vendor

Bangkok taxis and coconut vendor

Pharang

Before we go on, let me explain the word “Pharang / Ferang”. Wikipedia defines this as “a generic Thai word for someone of European ancestry, no matter where they may come from”. Wait, does this mean that I am not a Pharang? Alas no – anyone who is not Thai can be called a Pharang.

My favourite Sois are 4 and 11 – they are the busiest and most interesting.

Soi 4
There are a number of food vendors along the side of the street, selling barbecued chicken, insects, noodle soup and Som Tam (green papaya salad). There are also a number of inexpensive and good restaurants (such as Charlie’s) along the side of the roads. There are busy walking areas and lots of bars. Soi 4 is also called Soi Nana as it houses the well known Nana entertainment plaza, which is reputed to be full of Go-go bars. (As I discovered, saying that you’d like “to dance” will often mean that you are asking to get up on a table.)

It is busy outside the "dancing" clubs

It is busy outside the “dancing” clubs

Bars in Soi 4
The bars in Soi 4 (and this may be true of the area in general) are owned / run by women, with key elements of their role being to look after the girls in the bar and to ensure that the men behave.  As part of this they generally have a good relationship with the police (in the event that men do not behave well). Many of the bars in Soi 4 are inhabited almost exclusively by Pharang men and Thai women.

At the bar in Soi 5

At the bar in Soi 4

Soi 11
Soi 11 rapidly became my favourite street – there are a number of really good (and more up-market) restaurants along this street. If you walk to the end of the road, there is “Chilli Culture” restaurant, where I had red duck curry. They serve the duck curry with lychees, which works beautifully – the sweet, light flavour of the lychees acting as a counterpoint to the hot, rich flavour of the curry sauce and the fattiness of the duck.

Chilli Culture Thai Restaurant

Chilli Culture Thai Kitchen

If you follow the road to the left, rather than stopping off to eat, you get to Le Fenix hotel, which is home to the Nest Bar. The Nest Bar is on the top floor of the hotel and gives great views of Bangkok. However, the key feature of the bar is its “beach” – about half the floor area of the bar is covered with sand and hooded straw “beds”, with tables, where you can lie down and have a few drinks. This was probably my favourite bar in Bangkok.

Nest Bar

At the entrance to Nest Bar

 

Chillin' in one of the "nests"

Chillin’ in one of the “nests”

Following the “Nest” experience, we went back around to the main drag of Soi 11. All along the road, there are number of the mobile VW bars that I love.

Mobile Volkswagen Bar

Mobile Volkswagen Bar

Apparently, these are licensed bars that park along the side of the road. The VWs have been modified, so that the sides can open and form a sort of a roof, when propped up. A bartender stays inside and mixes drinks, while there is usually another person who works as the waiter. You can get beers, mixed drinks and cocktails at these bars.

Mixing drinks in the VW bar

Mixing drinks in the VW bar

A number of plastic chairs and tables are set up next to the van for the bar’s clientele.
We sat at the bar and insisted that they crank up the music (something to do with Rhianna and me both being from the Caribbean…). Soon a number of people, on hearing the cool (and loud-ish) music, joined us, including these ladies.

"Laydeez" in Soi 11

Who is the prettiest of them all?

Er, did I say ladies? I meant lady-boys…..

 

You gotta love Sukhumvit……

Cabbages and Condoms

17 Jan

Having enjoyed my first night in BKK so much, how could I know it would get better?

On Saturday I met a friend (Khun Ooi) with whom the delightful Vaughan B kindly put me in touch.

First, she took me to JJ (Jatujuk) market.  This is a massive market that sells all the normal stuff plus fresh flowers – and great fruit (ok – they are not real).  What is special about this market is the range of goods sold – there are many great bargains to be had here – it is huge so you can do all your shopping at once.

Khun Ooi looking at flowers at JJ market

Khun Ooi looking at flowers at JJ market

DSC_0065

Fruit at JJ market (not really – they are plastic)

After the shopping experience, we went to the Cabbages and Condoms restaurant for lunch.

Cabbages and Condoms restaurant

Cabbages and Condoms restaurant

This restaurant has been set up by the PDA (Population and Community Development Association of Thailand). Their website is here: http://www.cabbagesandcondoms.com/index.php
Essentially, they operate a number of programs specifically targeting the poor of rural Thailand. The organisation was the first to, and remains active in, raising awareness of family planning. It was felt that condoms and their use should become as common as cabbage.
There are a number of statues and pieces made completely from condoms, including this one, which made me laugh my head off.

Did you, Tiger?

Did you, Tiger? (Love the Nike logo made of condoms)

The food was also very good. We had deep-fried soft shell crab in yellow curry (which while very tasty was slightly too greasy), stir fried vegetables and fish cakes.

Deep fried soft shell crab in yellow curry

Deep fried soft shell crab in yellow curry

Stir fried vegetables and Thai fish cakes (Tod Mun Pla)

Stir fried vegetables and Thai fish cakes (Tod Mun Pla)

This “Condoms and Cabbages” restaurant is in Sukhumvit.
In the evening, we returned to Sukhumvit, Soi 4, which I will talk about in my next post, along with the other “Sois”.

Bangkok – so much to see, so much to do

15 Jan

When I first arrived in Bangkok, the pilot in his welcome address, said that those visiting for the first time would love it as there is so much to see, so much to do. Having been here for a few days now, I would have to agree.
Shortly after arriving at the Siam Design Hotel – a pretty cool but self-conscious boutique hotel with an infinity pool on the 12th floor – I contacted Phumurng, a friend of Malcolm’s who is a student in Bangkok. He took me to a few of the recommended spots in Bangkok, Khao San road and Silom.

SIam @ Siam Design Hotel

SIam @ Siam Design Hotel

Khao San road
There isn’t much for me to say on this road. It is like a tackier, less interesting version of the walking street, with a number of unimpressive bars. We walked the length of the street and quickly moved off to Silom.

Silom
Silom is apparently the “Wall Street” of Bangkok during the day. During the night, there is a lot of buying and selling going on but nothing that you’d find on Wall Street! Again, there are a number shops and stalls selling clothes and a number of bars selling all sorts of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. There are a number of bars which open onto the pavement and side-walk vendors selling food. Somehow it is not as tacky as Khao San although it does something similar.

Silom - Bangkok's Wall Street

Silom – Bangkok’s Wall Street

Nothing that you'd find on Wall Street

Nothing that you’d find on Wall Street

Nope, nothing at all

Nope, nothing at all

Siam Square
As Silom is not far from my hotel, we made our way back via Siam Square. There are a number of high rise malls at Siam Square, which is one stop away from my hotel. (There is in fact quite a lot of high rise everything in Bangkok including the train – Thailand has come out of recession a lot faster than the West and there is construction going on everywhere.)

View of building work from Siam sky train stop

View of building work from Siam sky train stop

We went in to the malls only to find that they were closing as it approached 10pm. All except for the Siam Centre mall, which was having an opening party – and what a party that was! The party was full of scantily dressed male models, who spray you with perfume…

Here come the boys...!!

Here come the boys…!!

a live band….

Siam Center (Re?) Opening

Siam Center (Re?) Opening

DJs and models teetering on very, very high shoes. These guys know how to do malls – there is every designer shop that you can think of, plus a lot more. It was a pretty good “free” party, so we took advantage and “vogued” with the best of them at the Mac make-up stage.

Phumurng

Phumurng

Vogue!

Vogue!

We left and headed back to the hotel – what a cool first night in BKK.