The girl in purple with a hovering peaked cap peers out from behind the pillar as Tom tries to shoot the stone gate. He grumbles impatiently – it’s a futile task trying to take authentic pictures without people when there are so many visitors like us traipsing about. Even this smaller temple, Banteay Kdei, magnetises a bus-load of tourists who insist on papping away at every corner with their giant heads lodged in each frame, ignoring the stone versions that draw them to Angkor in the first place.
As we pass into a doorway that had stood for eight hundred years, the girl blows on a crudely cut piece of wood that sings like a didgeridoo. I smile at her, and she quickly responds with the speedy sales rhetoric of all her young accomplices selling one dollar magnets of godly heads, postcards and red string bracelets. ‘Where you from?’ ‘England.’ ‘Lovely jubbly, top banana!’ The incense smokes heavily and I let my eyes follow the prayer flags in the haze. But then she plays a new card: ‘You buy one and get ten free.’ I laugh, thinking this is a ridiculous marketing ploy for her to make money from, but once we get talking I find myself fighting the urge to politely shake her off with a few dollars, which disconcertingly becomes second nature as you travel around Cambodia.
The girl is sixteen and named Borromey, meaning full moon. She is the seventh daughter of eleven siblings, and was sent away from them all at age eight to live with her grandparents who maintained the temple. Her grandfather passed away a decade ago, and her grandmother, who blessed visitors to the shrines with incense, incantations and a customary bracelet for a dollar donation, retired at 87 years old. She says that being the seventh is lucky, and you cannot discern any bitterness from her separation from her siblings.
Borromey leads me through the flooded corridors, occasionally pointing out defaced Buddhist markings on the wall. Banteay Kdei is believed to have been erected as a Mahayana Buddhist temple around the end of the 12th century by the King Jayavarman VII. Once known as “Kuti”, this was a place where religious rituals were performed, including sacrificial ceremonies. In the mid 13th century, the Khmer ruler Jayavarman VIII reinstated the Hindu focus of the earlier Khmer Empire and converted Angkor away from Buddhism and back to Hinduism. Buddhist monuments, such as Buddha sitting atop headless nagas, were desecrated but their original positions are still evident today. At the end of the 13th century, Buddhism was reinstated but it was no longer the sole religion enforced.
Borromey ushers me up on to a raised stone that faces a pile of large rubble. Spinning me, she points upwards. There, locked in the roof of the opposite doorway, sits a elephant wearing a cow bell defending his position against an elephant enemy. This Buddhist relic was preserved for the reason that if it was removed, the walls would have caved in and demolished the library.
A cold stone room just four feet squared houses a small wooden statue dressed in a gold scarf. She tells me this was where she lived when her grandparents tended to the temple. The flat white square of stone in the centre shows that something significant had sat there before – a Buddha sitting on a faithful naga. She stands next to me, our backs flat against the wall. She beats her hand to her chest, and a sonorous boom escapes to the tiny hole of sunlight above. Three times she strikes: one for good luck to your family, one for your health, and one more for your work and travels.
We step into the bleached outdoors and red sandstone oozes into our sandals. Taking me around the corner, she points to a monstrous tree strangling the wall with its thick roots. She shows me the vantage point where National Geographic bagged a cover photo of a crumbling stone corridor. Jagged towers leap away from us towards the Apsara dance hall, and these are guarded by a sombre head with four faces that take in the whole panoramic scene. Angelina Jolie filmed a section here for her Tomb Raider movie, and Borromey recounts her leaping across three towers. She smiles as she explains in a whisper that she didn’t really jump. The actress gave her US$25, and when I asked what she was like, she replied ‘Too skinny but with a big laugh.”
For a young girl, Borromey dreams big. She aspires to set up a free English school as she wants to encourage other children working at the temples to go to school full time. She has to pay US$45 a month to learn, and works part time around her studies. Although she concedes that the money here is not as plentiful as in the night market, she is much safer and happier and is able to practise her English and German with tourists. However, she jokes that she can make a few extra dollars from her makeshift wooden instruments as Japanese customers cannot haggle very well in English.
National Geographic Banteay Kdei photograph, May 1982, http://vintagenatgeographic.tumblr.com/post/39790774121/banteay-kdei-temple-in-cambodia-national
‘Recycling Monuments: The Hinduism/Buddhism Switch at Angkor’ by Ashley M. Richter, http://archive.cyark.org/recycling-monuments-the-hinduismbuddhism-switch-at-angkor-blog
‘Musee Come Discovery’,http://www.autoriteapsara.org/en/apsara/musee_angkor/museum_come_discovery.html
Borromey appears on a the Visit Angkor website, written by Inga Palme: http://www.visit-angkor.org/blog/2013/08/03/borromey-shows-us-the-banteay-kdei-temple-at-angkor/
Troops of dancers in foil trousers leapt down from the open truck, determined to celebrate the mid-Autumn festival despite the rising river. Metal poles were hastily erected whilst the two halves of the lion psyched themselves up, springing like elastic into the night. The bulbous masked face of the lion trainer was fanned as a blur of people ran around him. An unconvincing drag queen elaborately drew in the crowd with her white gloved arms. Full Chang beers were abandoned on the tables as people ducked under the umbrellas to watch.
The music began. The heavy drums and shimmering cymbals shook the lion to life, and his curved eyebrows danced in delight to reveal glowing ruby eyes. His mouth gaped wide open under long whiskers as he jumped across the uneven poles. One misstep and the show was over. The crowd soon hungered for more and the lion doubled in height, revealing his acrobatic puppeteers who now stood on one pair of legs. There was a visible slip of a foot. A quick recovery but one that caused the spectators to look at each other. Water covered us all and it was a futile effort to keep the poles wiped dry.
The drums expanded to fill the silence. The trainer jumped up and furiously swung his fan to spur his beast on. The lion’s eyebrows were raised in surprise as he contemplated the task ahead. Without warning, he nimbly ran across the jagged line on his hind legs, before launching back down to all fours. The lion’s bottom waggled as he spat fireworks and the crowd roared.
Step 1. Buy a scorpion on a stick on Kaoh San Road, Bangkok.
Step 2. Make sure the stinger has been removed.
Step 3. Grab a large Chang, or splash out on a Singha beer.
Step 4. Think of anything except that black spiky thing in front of you.
Step 5. Be brave and chomp down on the entire thing.
Step 6. Swig lots of beer and crunch away.
Step 7. Drink more beer to remove the bitter taste.
Step 8. Avoid vomiting.
Step 9. Never repeat ever again.
Step 10. Encourage your friends to try.
‘More chilli, more sexy.’ I shovelled five more mini red chillies into my curry under my instructor’s watchful eye, before sabotaging my cooking partner’s dish with secret spice – much to my instructor’s approval. My bravado was something I’d regret later.
We’d selected our ingredients from the local market where spiky durian, swollen purple aubergines, stalks of pak choi, dried salty sardines in bamboo baskets and fanned meats steaks were laid out on blue plastic canvas sheets. Our guide, who was at pains to have us pronounce his name as ‘Shet’, showed us how to select the freshest vegetables, herbs and spices we would need to cook up some authentic Thai cuisine.
On the shopping list was lemongrass, bean sprouts, elephant ear mushrooms, three types of basil, white onions, hot galangal roots, coriander, garlic, baby corn, kaffir limes, mint, tamarind, eggs, chicken, shrimp, tofu, squishy mangoes, coconut milk, glass noodles, sticky rice and of course, red and green chillies.
We prepared everything from scratch, mashing up the famous red and green curry pastes with a pestle and mortar, and finishing dishes by sprinkling in the vital fish sauce, ground peanuts, sugar and lime for flavour. We created the favourites of chicken pad Thai, deep fried vegetable spring rolls, hot and sour fish soup, spicy seafood Tom yam soup, coconut milk curries, with mango sticky rice for dessert.
Below are a few recipes for you to recreate your own, with some alternatives if you can’t source all the ingredients. Don’t forget to be sexy!
Chiangmai Smart Cook Thai Cookery School, 400 Baht (£8) for 4 hours and three courses. Visit their website at
Hundreds of turtles clamber over each other to escape the murky pond. The slippery rocks betray them, sending not one but dozens back into the shallow pool. The lucky ones rest in the dry heat, their dark shells cracked like eggs against their stripy yellow skin. The Chinese who maintain the temple had intended the water feature to be a place of quiet reflection, and not the sanctuary for deformed reptiles it had become.
The Buddhist temple of Thean Hou is dedicated to the Queen of Heaven who protects sea-faring people. The animals of the Chinese zodiac are animated in the garden with hopeful visitors flocking to the horn-backed dragon or snarling tiger. Many Chinese tourists head to the dragon, but not by accident – birth rates soar in the dragon years as it is believed to be the luckiest and most prosperous sign. A few dejected tourists pose with the albino plastic rabbit.
Inside the temple courtyard, Buddhist monks create a mist of rosewood that cannot take the edge off the primary colours of the pillars. Metallic sheens mix with the rich patterns on the ceiling to create visions so intoxicating that Van Gogh wouldn’t have needed absinthe to capture it. In the centre, a black smoking cauldron with dragons twisting up its sides has incense burning in its sandy belly. A long gong flies around the corridors and is intercepted by low chants. Piles of shoes lay abandoned on the white stone steps as pink candle wax drips down – their owners inside the shrine are having their fortunes told. Warriors guard the doorway with scimitars that threaten to chop their long black beards. Inside, golden women as high as the heavy doors serenely offer their palm, and miniature statues trapped in glass vending machines wait patiently for the next loyal worshippers with a few Ringgits spare.
A guide leads me to a silver cylinder with a stack of sticks in the centre, and asks me to pick them up with both hands before dropping them. I let go, watching the brown lollipop sticks bounce at different speeds. He catches the stick that remained the highest, and pulls it from the rest. My stick is number 44, which the superstitious Chinese would consider doubly unlucky as the number ‘four’ (四 [sì]) is similar to the word for ‘death’ (死 亡 [sĭwáng] ). The drawer marked ’44′ held my fate on a small card. It told me the usual jargon of being at a crossroads and having to choose between love and work, before damning me to a life without marriage or financial security.
At least I’m a cunning snake and not a docile rabbit or struggling turtle, so I may be able to change my destiny yet.
Thean Hou Temple, Kuala Lumpur, http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g298570-d457134-Reviews-Thean_Hou_Temple-Kuala_Lumpur_Wilayah_Persekutuan.html
Fortune telling sticks, http://www.malaysia.com/galleries-thean-hou-temple-4.html
‘Seven wonders of Kuala Lumpur’ day tour minibus, booked through our hostel Reggae Mansion for RM70.
Children riding water buffalo in Jun village
Local children on rice wine farm
A baby girl is strapped to her mother
Rebuilt dam next to original that was destroyed by American bombs
‘Monkey bridge’ of strong bamboo
Sharing the road with water buffalo
Ethnic minority village with girl riding oversized bicycle
Looking out into the Elephant Falls
Riding with the experienced Hieu
The low clouds clung to the slopes like wispy threads of web as we hurtled towards Pai in our minibus. Cold air slapped sticky cheeks, and horns honked as fresh skid marks were laid around sharp corners. Our bus slammed to a halt, and only laughs were exchanged between the drivers. Route 1095 from Chiangmai offers some spectacular scenery, with tall green pine trees curving down into deep ravines, but if you’re driving you will not want to take your eyes off the road for a second.
The roads around Pai were far less terrifying. We rented a motorbike from the local Aya transport hub*, and set off for our own exploration of the countryside armed with a free map (see below). Here’s our top ten places to visit:
1) Passing through the Chinese village of Santichon, and clambering up the steep hill to the Yun Lai viewpoint. Up in the clouds, you can enjoy the mountain ranges with some complimentary herbal tea in decorative ceramic pots. Note: The motorbike ignition will not work if the kickstand is down. Also, if like us you’re not an experienced rider, you might be better off walking down the sheer vertical track. Keep an eye out for chickens and dogs whipping across the road!
2) Sliding down the Mor Paeng waterfall into the icy pool below. Some locals showed us where to sit before the stream launched you down the slippery rock face, and we even found a free guard dog to watch our belongings. The winding road there offers some cheap wholesome eats, and plenty of emerald paddy fields with farmers donning the fashionable conical hats.
3) Rolling up and down the roller coaster like road heading south east to the Pam Bok waterfall. The smooth tarmac, minimal traffic and long dips makes it feel like you’re heading the pack in a game of Mario Kart. You’ll find plenty of hostels on this stretch, and luckily the petrol stations are never far away.
4) Falling upon the Land Split en route to the Pam Bok waterfall. This is a site that’s making the best of a bad situation- after being hit by two mysterious land splits in 2008 and 2011, the farming family who owns the land can no longer grow crops. They opened their property to passing tourists to survey the lengthy crack, revealing deep red earth metres down. A giant swing and dancing tree are also entertaining but it is the family’s hospitality that is most memorable. They generously served us a feast of freshly grown passion fruit, dried bananas, nuts, homemade jam, dried dates, roselle juice and a moderate sample of their special roselle liqueur. In return, you are expected to make any donation which we happily did.
5) The Pam Bok waterfall is a raging cascade of water down a high rock face, which explodes into a sliver of river below. To reach it, you must walk over slimy rocks and wooden bridges, before slowly edging down the rocks to a curve where you can view the fall in all it’s awesome glory. If you’re feeling daring, continue up the road (literally, there is a huge hill) to another viewpoint.
6) The Pai Canyon offers a heady thrill of a trail where you follow a circular path around the red and sandy rocks. The paths can get extremely narrow at times as it is carved by water tracks and exposed tree roots, and sections have washed away making it necessary to leap across. Not recommended if you’ve had one too many Chang beers the night before (in which case you also probably shouldn’t be driving)!
7) The WWII Memorial bridge offers a slice of nostalgia, but don’t be fooled- the original bridge built by Japanese soldiers during the war was demolished. The Thai government deemed a new bridge was necessary, so this memorial bridge was constructed after the war and stands next to a modern concrete crossing. Two old-style rickshaws dressed with flowers sit forlornly on the wooden slats, and the river view is obstructed by hundreds of wires.
8) The Tha Pai hot springs are a great way to unwind after time in the saddle. The National Park charges a small fee for entry, but as we found out it closes at around 17:30 and the guard offered us a jump in a muddy puddle nearby as compensation. Instead, try the local resorts which offer a more luxurious spa treatment, with hot pools alternating with cooler pools for just 80Baht.
9) The Wat Mae Yen temple offers the typical toothy dragons, warriors and serpents that you’d expect on a Chinese temple. There is an impressive view from the hilltop, and an antique gong that sits there tempting visitors to strike it. Our visit was made more exciting by a truckload of Buddhist monks singing and laughing their way up to the top, before bounding out into solemn silence as they went to pray.
10) The Mae Yen waterfall eluded us. We drove down a track that led us into the river, so we set off to find it by a 4km hike. We trekked for 90mins along the edge of a field, through overgrown jungle and across rapids to reach it, but it remained ever further away. We spotted brown signs in Thai stapled to trees that might have directed us to it, but equally they may have read ‘Private property, trespassers will be shot.’ An exciting trek with some big tropical butterflies, but otherwise a failed venture.
A well-loved map of Pai:
*We paid 100Baht per day for the motorbike hire, with an optional 80Baht full insurance cover. You also have to leave a 100Baht deposit for the helmet hire, which is compulsory for all riders in Pai. We quickly ran low on fuel and had to double back on ourselves, and I think it’s best to assume you need to fill up immediately.
Giant limestone karsts erupt from the water,
Green clings to rock and escapes into the sea,
A sea dog barks on a floating market,
Wooden boats glide without making waves.
Mountains of stacked volumes that tumble,
Orange dragons hide in giant caves,
A conical hat, two paddles and a boat,
Macaques fling down from branches up high.
Flying fish skim the surface like rain,
Junk boat sails bleed over peeling white decks,
A lost world looms over us as we pass by,
Gradients of blue fade into the haze.
Phantoms of fat pulsating jellyfish,
Sky of lilac and gold spills under helms,
Silhouettes stretch their shadows towards us,
Mercury oozes from the wake as darkness falls.
Edible flowers, rice and pink shrimp,
Fork lightning with powerful rumbles,
Futile effort to capture some squid,
Local Dalat wine with a sell by date.
Dusky dawn that is smudged by lead clouds,
Hundreds of boats at rest in the bay,
Formations that shape imaginative beasts,
The ethereal play of light and shade.
‘A wonder that you cannot impart to others.’ – Ho Chi Minh [date unknown].
UNESCO, World Heritage, http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/672
Fantasea Cruise 2 days and 1 night tour, US$75, http://halongfantaseacruise.com/en/ha-long-bay-information.htm
Susan the pink water buffalo greeted us by promptly defecating, and the knee high mud we were in suddenly seemed more suspect. The large swell of her stomach announced her pregnancy, but with six months remaining she was destined to balloon much further. We were at the Living Land farm, where local farmers demonstrate how to harvest rice to educate tourists, and in turn support the local farming families with their schooling and medical needs.
Each of us were issued with a woven bamboo conical hat and set to work in the waterlogged green fields. Our guide, Laut Lee, showed us the various stages of rice production and introduced us to the art of being a rice conoisseur. We first ploughed a mud pit with Susan strapped to a traditional rotating metal contraption to upheave the soil and expose the natural compost. She slowly circled to four commands, and was apparently anti-hipster as she stopped walking at the sound of ‘Yo’.
Everything is organic on the farm, and no pesticides are used to control the insects and birds that want to feast on the crops. Instead, bamboo models of hawks are used to scare away russet sparrows, citronella plants repel insects and marigolds distract other pesky animals (and the flowers are later donated to Buddhist shrines). A compost heap kept the snails happy, a special log hive is cultivated for bees, and sacrificial plots are used to save the more important crops. Traps are used on the paddy fields to catch tasty birds, crabs, snails and eels that create a hearty lunch for the farmer.
‘In Laos, the question is what don’t we eat?’
We planted some seedlings in what was almost a pond, and the excess water would be drained away a few weeks later to encourage roots to grow. Despite the monsoon rainfall, the little seedlings hold fast and do not wash away. A woven spirit sign guards the field, and the farmers sacrifice a chicken or duck if they receive two good harvests of rice a year. The rice cycle of the four sticky rice types farmed here had a production cycle of 3 months. The average Laos adult consumes 20kg of sticky rice a month, so it really is their staple food. Seven families in total worked and depended on this farm, with four (soon to be five) water buffalo, and one motorised plough for emergency harvesting. Many young students visited the farm at weekends to practice their skills in craftsmanship and improve their English with the flux of tourists that the farm initiative attracted.
Once the leaves begin to turn golden, the rice is ready to be cut. Using a rebar steel sickle forged by the flames inside his house, he expertly trimmed the stalks and bunched them together until he had a large leafy bouquet. The rice was still locked inside, so we had to extract the grains by beating the bundles downwards and splitting the cocoons. Once the grains were released, they were smashed with a giant pestle and mortar for almost an hour. The husks and grains were all mixed, so a process of sifting them in a pan was used to separate off the husks in dusty clouds, leaving unsplit grains and creamy rice. The quality of rice was tested by sinking the good stuff in saltwater, and the floating grains were rinsed with fresh water and fed to the chickens to reduce waste. The washed sticky rice grains could then be used as they are, or ground using giant turning stones into flour for cooking.
We crushed our own delicious sugar cane juice using a giant hard wood wheel system that was over a century old, before sitting down to enjoy a dinner of salted rice cakes, sweet rice crispy waffles, fresh sticky rice, crispy rice coated in caramelised molasses and light sugar rice cones, served with the obligatory red chilli paste. It will be difficult to leave Laos, but we will return to find out whether Laut Lee named the new calf Tom or Daisy based on our suggestions!
The Living Land experience, Phong Van village near Luang Prabang. We paid 344,000 Kip ($45) each for 4 hour morning. Visitors are treated to a hands-on, fun and informative tour, which educates tourists whilst supporting the local community.
I’ve sampled both a Thai and Laos full body massage, and here’s how they compare:
My sister and I signed up for a traditional Thai massage in the reggae-infused town of Krabi, Thailand. We’d spent a day climbing clay cliffs and swimming in caves at Railay beach, and after a few long bus journeys felt we needed a muscle detox. I made the retrospectively error of striking a deal with the owner, paying 550 Baht (£11) for the both of us to enjoy an hour long massage against the marked price of 650 Baht (£13). It was accepted with a smile, and we were led directly into the parlour and given partitioned beds to lie down on.
In Luang Prabang, my boyfriend and I opted for different treatments after a 22 hour frog-leaping bus from across the Thai/Laos border. Having never received a massage, he wanted a head and shoulder massage for just 30mins at the set price of 30,000 Kip (£2.40), fearing boredom at sitting there for longer. I opted for a full hour oil massage at 50,000 Kip (£4), hoping to shake off the ache of fever that had followed me through a week of trekking, sliding down waterfalls and riding as the passenger (read: mudguard) on the motorbike in mountainous Pai.
In the particular parlour we visited in Krabi, the walls were painted deep purple and incense was drifting in from another room. Popular Thai ballads were playing from a radio outside, and beyond the red velvet curtains, an American man receiving a manicure insisted that it was his first time too many times to be convincing.
The massage house in Luang Prabang offered a simple setting, with eight white padded mats on the floor covered in red frayed towels. The floor was laid with dark bamboo and bright daylight streamed in, filling the room despite the falling rain. The massage room was upstairs which felt more private. No music played, and only the herby tamarind aromas of the oil danced with the senses (I’ll cover pain receptors shortly).
As my sister began to doze off, our Thai masseuses entered and began on our shoulders. My sister received a different set of moves although the general order remained the same. My masseuse started down my spine, isolating each vertebrate and squeezing the muscles around it. Her fingers disappeared deep into my flesh and I worried they might resurface with my organs attached to her fingers. She brushed the muscles over my shoulder blades, clicking them slowly in sweeping arcs. After holding and pushing my back in order to crack it, but failing to as I was unwillingly tensing against her, she moved to my arms. She tugged down, rubbing in between the muscles so that they separated, working all the way to my wrist. My fingers were each pulled in turn, but had no pop to satisfy her so she repeated to no avail. My neck was pressed into the pillow, my face temporarily becoming smothered. Her forearms were used heavily up and down my body, before she fully kneeled her whole body weight on my legs. My knees were bent so that my toes touched my bottom, and she repeated the heavy pressure down my thighs to my ankles. The massage finished after a short head massage, where she sat behind me and looped her hands under my arms. Her fingers, not moisturised, made the Golden Arches on my forehead, starting at the middle of my brow and completing in a firm temple grip.
The Laos massage was not intended to be a traditional Laos massage. I have been poorly and achey so I asked for a gentle warming oil massage. I think my request was lost in translation. I laid down and she started at my feet which was unexpected. She tapped the palm of her hand so hard on to the balls and arch of my feet that I actually turned expecting to see her wielding a hammer. She began crawling up my legs, but my tight calf sent a twitch down which cramped my foot and I had to concede. She then applied oil and ran up each leg in long washes, applauding herself along the way (or rather removing the excess oil in claps). She sat on me as she pulled at my neck in the Vulcan grip, and I couldn’t help realising how vulnerable I was as she whipped away my ponytail. My shoulders were clamped between her fingers and thumbs in turn, and threatened to migrate north of my body. Not forgetting my arms, I was asked to roll over so that I faced the ceiling. Each finger was stroked, yanked, and each nail pressed in between the fast click of her fingers meeting. My hand were flexed and the tendons slid across in a Mexican wave. My forearm winced as she found the edges of each muscle group, and took this knowledge to my upper arm. The whole arm was treated to strong downward forces, before a playful punch or ten. This applied to all my limbs. I was sat upright and treated to what felt like donkey kicks down my back. In my suffering, I was cradled from behind, before being swung 120 degrees to the side. One rotation was accompanied with a pleasing twig branch of cracks from my spine, but the other side held fast and would not make a sound. To complete the hour, her dry fingers massaged my head and entered my temples, before circling the origin of my jaw and finishing once more with the Vulcan grip.
I suspect that my middle-aged Thai masseuse was also well trained in the arts of the popular Muay Thai judging by the force of the locks she was getting me into. She tried to tear off my arm, then had a go with the other. I realised I was tensing and breathing irregularly, so I began furiously exhaling at every painful move but soon became lightheaded. I knew relaxing would make it more enjoyable, but was flinching almost constantly as she shifted my muscles around. My sister on the other hand enjoyed hers immensely, and found only some parts uncomfortable!
I am ashamed to admit that I chose a teenage girl to massage me this time, based on the fact I didn’t want a deep tissue massage. How wrong I was to assume that this girl did not have the strength in her hands to inflict damage! She absolutely laid into me, punching and slapping, grabbing at my shoulders and quadriceps with powerful crab pincers. It made me giggle, hearing the sound of a tenderiser softening a steak, but at the same time I wished I too had signed up for 30mins.
The traditional Thai massage left no lasting impressions or aches. My muscles did not feel tight, but I would be lying if I said that I felt relaxed and better for it.
The oil massage in Laos left me feeling a bit tender, with my sides feeling like I’d done too many hulas with a hoop. Considering the amount of punching involved, it does my masseuse credit that I have no bruises or lasting aches elsewhere.
Set price? Some friendly advice
Never haggle for a Thai massage unless you want to resemble Stretch Armstrong and have your arms hang down past your knees.
Want a relaxing massage?
If you want to be coaxed into a dribbling gooey mess, opt for a more expensive Swedish massage. Some massage parlours are open plan, so if you prefer privacy or want to avoid chafing against your clothes choose one with curtain partitions. Make sure you ask for some kind of oil as they do seem to try to massage you dry otherwise. If you are brave enough to try a traditional style massage, don’t be afraid to tell them to stop or go easy on you if it is causing you pain. Otherwise breathe, relax and smile!
History of the traditional Thai massage,http://www.thaimassageworx.com/traditional_thai_massage_2.html
Two wheels is the way to ride in Thailand. Whole families jump aboard, young teens skid off burning tyres trying to impress their sweethearts, and food vendors attach their stalls as side carts and trundle up busy roads.
We decided to have a go at in the relaxed river town of Krabi. Out of the three of us, none had any experience riding a moped or motorcycle. Tom and I could legally drive, but despite having a license for five years, I had no road experience to speak of. Carla has never attempted to drive.
With that glittering track record, we set off to hire some bikes. 150 Baht for the entire day each, no license necessary and no questions asked. We signed waivers which stated a fine of B37,500 if we lost or damaged any of the bikes. We were granted a quick tuition of how to ignite the engine and park across the road, then told to select a helmet if we wanted one.
We set off gingerly around the block, keeping to the left lane and occasionally driving around food stalls and stray dogs. The traffic spilled fluidly over three lanes, with bikes swerving in and out and large vans beeping consistently as they sped past. After a quick stop to fill up on petrol, Tom accidentally started up too energetically and veered across 2 lanes. Luckily there was no traffic and not many witnesses to his blunder. Nevertheless, we decided a break was in order and parked the bikes up to explore a local market.
The dark cool aisles led you past green vegetables, ochre spices, freshly squeezed juice in plastic goldfish bags, blue clawed crabs and squirming catfish. The stall owners smiled as we passed and joked with each other as they expertly scaled and sliced their food, or sat fanning themselves in slow motion.
The leather was hot as we swung back on to the bikes, and confidently set off towards the motorway. We followed Tom up ahead, and took it in turns to shout at each other as we accidentally left our indicators flashing and tried to make it through the traffic lights together. We sped up and felt the wind whip up our chin straps (of course we’d opted for helmets), and let the white noise fill our ears. A hard shoulder was specifically left for bikes, and we felt safer out of the way of the faster trucks, although we did encounter the odd motorist going the wrong way.
After a few more kilometres, Tom’s bike began to struggle uphill and spluttered into early retirement. A young girl who manned a roadside stall seemed shyly amused by our predicament, and we left Carla in her company whilst we rode off with the two working bikes to find fuel. Not far down the motorway, we came across a petrol station and asked for a can. The girl looked blankly at us before fetching a litre Fanta bottle. The fuel she filled it with was also bright orange. As I set off, I jammed my hand between the accelerator handle and the mirror and bucked madly across the forecourt. After seeing Tom do the same novice move and thinking how he could’ve just let go of the handle, I felt a bit stunned at my loss of control. We then had to drive back down the motorway the wrong way after failing to find a place to do the local’s favourite U-turn, but were soon reunited and ready to go again.
We finally found the turning to the Tiger Temple after a few wrong attempts (note: follow signs for Wat Tham Sua), and ditched the bikes to explore the Buddhist temple. The coolness of the dark cave, the gold statues and the orange robed monks and shaved headed nuns calmed our nerves after the stressful experience of getting there. We trekked up over 1,200 steps to arrive at the glowing golden mountaintop shrine, and understood why this place is a meditation centre.
The return journey took only 35mins, compared to the outward trip of over 2 hours. It was thankfully uneventful, and although we anticipated that it was Carla’s turn to bomb it wildly, she rode sensibly for the most part. As we pulled over to return the bikes, Carla rode straight past the bike shop, up the hill and out of sight.
Koh Tao is full of great dive sites for scuba divers of all abilities: the shallow coral bays of Japanese Gardens and Mango Bay where reef sharks frequently hang out, night diving in White Rock with turtles and hunting giant barracuda, deep diving in Chumphon where whale sharks have been spotted recently, and exploring the newly instated WWII Sattakut wreck.
We gained our sea legs this week with Big Blue Diving, a school that has a relaxed friendly approach to teaching you the basics and getting you out there to explore the sites. After completing the 4 day SSI Open Water certification with 4 dives, we immediately signed up for the Advanced Adventurer course to get 5 more dives in over 2 days with the same instructors Kevin and Rich. The Advanced course teaches you the specialities of deep diving, wreck diving, navigation, night diving with limited visibility and the art of perfect buoyancy. With just 3 in our group for the Advanced, with 2 instructors we were spoiled and could be shown lots of wildlife including camouflaged scorpion fish, swimming blue-spotted stingray, white-eyed moray eels and territorial titan triggerfish. We even found Nemo timidly hovering above some sea anemones before ducking to safety.
After learning the basics of responsible diving and protecting the sea life, breathing effectively underwater (sip the air, don’t be Darth Vader), assembling the kit and communicating with hand signals (warning: thumbs up for ‘ok’ results in beer fines!), we set out for our first open water dive. Here are a few highlights:
1) Diving down vertically next to a steep coral ridge to 30m, swimming through schools of juvenile golden trevally into darkness.
2) Cracking eggs open at 25m down to see how pressure affects them. Three golden wobbling spheres floated around us, sifting through our fingers before an opportunistic fish swallowed them in big greedy gulps. Then spotting a naked diver down at the wreck, swimming free on his 100th dive.
3) Navigating through the coral in the dark armed with a small torch, with silver bubbles framing every glance and flashes of pink and white fins in my peripheral vision. Watching the monstrous giant orange sea cucumbers pulsing across the sand and a blue spotted stingray flap by in hunt for food. Cancelling out our torch light and waving our free hand in front, stirring up the luminous phosphorescent particles similar to Avatar.
4) Ascending to the surface slowly and rising towards daylight, watching the waves rocking as the world slowly comes into watery focus and feeling the bubbles of other people’s regulators tickling your skin. Listening to the eery echo of boat engines rumbling on the surface which burst into your ears as you break through the surface.
5) Mango Bay delivered us a fantastic first dive filled with colourful parrotfish, moon wrasse, the goofy-looking red-breasted wrasse, paired angel fish and long-finned banner fish. At Japanese Gardens a school of yellow-tailed barracuda fish swam with us, flitting in unison to surround us for a few minutes before disappearing into the blue once more.
6) During our last dive, a curious striped remora (a small black fish which usually hitches a ride with sharks) latched on to my arm, leg, then my oxygen cylinder for the duration of the dive. We also spotted a speckled giant grouper fish with a protruding lower lip hovered in a huge barrel sponge which looked like a gramophone speaker.
7) We saw how the light spectrum changed as you dived deeper, with reds altering at 30m to become more green/blue, but returning to red under torch light.
8) The colourful blue, orange and pink Christmas tree worms on the coral that sucked themselves away when you click your fingers nearby. Hovering above them and making them hide suddenly was very entertaining.
9) Performing loop-de-loops and feats upside down at the buoyancy playground near Twins Rock, where there are hoops to swim through and giant octopus legs to glide between, along with more games to improve your hovering skills underwater.
10) Having an underwater horse race in pairs on the sandy bottom (no sea horses involved)!
This is the story of a boat that was painted in the colours of the ocean, but found her home in the jungle.
Tioman Island, Malaysia
The men on Tioman island are natural fisherman. For thousands of years, the Malays have plucked the tropical bounty from their shores, wading out past the coral reef to find flitting mosaics of rainbow wrasse, bumphead parrot fish, barracuda, red snappers, tuna, jewel puffer fish, golden trevally, nudibranchs, grouper and mackerel. Experienced fisherman can catch sharks, sailfish, and attempt to land the elusive marlin fish that caught the imagination of Ernest Hemingway.
But this story is not about the fish, or fisherman. It is about a wooden boat that was conceived from the hardwood of the rainforest.
The boat’s bones lay on the ground, and the splintered ribs were forged into soft curves by fire. Each day as the sun arrived and departed, hands smoothed its rawness away to reveal marbled swirls of tawny gold. The wide hull was laid down, and tiny cylindrical pins protruded like veins that attached themselves to the next layer of wood. Caulking bark skin sealed the body and the boat continued to grow upwards until the shape of her was formed. Her sides curved into a slender bow that softened the wideness of her hips. She was dressed in licks of emerald and sky blue paint, inspired by the ocean that she would fearlessly ride.
During her birth, she was carried into the soft waves which rushed to welcome her before playfully forcing her back. But their salty touches washed off her: she was ready to join the sea. The men gave her strength to ride past the frolicking waves and out over the coral reefs. Relinquishing its fight, the water embraced her and no longer pulled her back to the shore. She was free to glide where liquid met air. The men silently rocked the boat as they bowed their heads to peer into the moving depths below.
She quickly learned the tricks of the sea and could counter the rocking tides and shallow rocks. An eternity was spent on that gently swaying surface, and she would have happily drifted out into endless water, never quite reaching the horizon. Every morning and evening she was dragged out and left to burn and creak uncomfortably in the sticky sand. She had aged. The sun had stripped away the glory of her satin greens and blues and left the naked wood exposed beneath. Her name had peeled off and she had forgotten it altogether. Secretly, she enjoyed being reminded of the time when she was part of that exotic rainforest that stood stoically against the shore, but that was another life.
One day as she lay languidly on the beach, waiting to be released back into the water, the men stood around her. These were her oldest friends: the hands that crafted her, the hands that stole the treasures of the sea and left their flopping bodies in her own, giving her purpose. As they lifted her up and carried her along the beach, she anticipated the cool wash rushing over her. But she never would taste the ocean again.
The jungle canopy swallowed her whole, reclaiming her body once more. She was abandoned in a dark stagnant pool that was fringed with heavy foliage. The sunlight could not reach her, and the breeze could not comfort her. Curious insects crawled all over her and strange fish brushed against her before darting away.
Years passed and she was never rescued. The trees began to lift the boat where it rested, splaying thick roots underneath her and steadily draining the pool into its thirsty mouth. She was no longer afraid, and did not yearn for the open sea any longer. For this was freedom, she thought as the twisted vines slowly tore into her hull, this is the unknown. Many boats know the sea, and many better boats rode waves far further than I ever did. Her body began to rip apart, but it was so gradual that she barely noticed it. Yes, it was right to end here. Her side collapsed and thin branches moved in. As she sat in the shallow pool she gave the illusion of floating above the surface.
Angling in Tioman, http://www.tiomanferry.com/angling.html
The Wooden Working Boats of Indochina, http://www.boatsandrice.com
Traditional Malaysian boats,http://www.diethelmtravel.com/malaysia/PDF/Naga%20Pelangi%202%20-%20History.pdf
The food festival is a month long celebration showcasing the vast range of culinary dishes available in Singapore. Established in 1994 to promote Singapore’s gourmet arsenal, it has since become an annual festival to celebrate its hawker food heritage. This year, the food village at Marina Bay opened from 12th until 21st July. Featuring 40 stalls including Singapore’s ‘top 20′, it boasts local favourites such as barbecued stingray, fish head curry, chilli crab and oyster omelettes.
For the hungry, there were heady Indian curries with ochre pastes, satay skewers of chicken and beef, and full roast ducks hung by their necks. Seafood enthusiasts could choose from giant orange crabs with chilli or black pepper, scallops, oysters and clay pot shark. Sweeter tooths were catered for with creamy soy desserts flavoured with almond or mango, green tea iced yoghurt, egg tarts or bright green rice and kaya jellied confectionary. All this could be washed down with Taiwan beer, peach flavoured green tea or sweetened lime juice. Of course, durian made an inevitable appearance with one stall serving it in every form – durian fondue, pancakes, cheese, sandwiches, icecream…But no matter how you dress it up (see below), it will always be pungent durian.
Visit the organiser’s site for more details and the list of food outlets that participated this year.
Low branches hang from prehistoric trees, almost skimming the camo green waters of the Singapore River. Boats pass each other sluggishly, with only the occasional tourist standing on deck to take photographs in the midday sun. The rest look contently through the smeared glass, with a guide describing how the banks looked a century ago, with ox carts, traders and not so many sky scrapers.
Great green fronds sprout from the base of each branch, and the thick trunk is decorated in lace-like delicate lime moss. Small flitting leaves catch the light like glitter, and fall amongst red slithers of dry foliage to create a carpet of cereal on the ground. Workers doze in the shade, using jackets as makeshift pillows for their slumbering heads.
Watching the river, almost hidden in the leaves of the outstretched branch, sit two blue kingfishers a metre apart. Alert eyes, assessing the fish below. One swiftly departs as the other turns his head, proudly presenting his black conical beak against the white marble columns of the grandly colonial Fullerton Hotel. Unlike humans, birds only look good in profile. His protruding belly is white in contrast to the azure feathers, which rivals the bright blue of the Swedish flag that flaps lazily behind him. Without warning, he swoops down to the water surface, fully submerging himself in a splash, and emerges with a wriggling silvery blue fish the size of his own body. Effortlessly he flies away with his prize, and it seems impossible that he can carry that much in his mouth and be airborne simultaneously.
I’m left to finish my lunch in the company of the menial birds that frequent the park. Crows with pointy long beaks play chicken over my head, diving in arcs so close that I must duck to avoid their wings and claws. I notice one is staring down at me from the joint of a branch, it’s feet planted and mouth gaping open. Another noisily scratches his feet on the metal lamppost behind me, and calls like a robotic toy running out of battery. They continue to flap at me and displace one another from their positions until the hope of feasting on the remains of my picnic becomes slim, and they move three benches along to torment the next potential feeder. A puffed up pigeon, with shabby ruffled feathers, chases an elegant pigeon in circles. She has a blush of green and purple infused on her throat as she playfully hops away from her suitor, eventually flying off to continue the pursuit privately elsewhere.
Unfortunately my photographs of the kingfishers were abominable. So, image courtesy of Deseonocturno http://deseonocturno.deviantart.com/art/White-collared-Kingfisher-353446201
‘White collared kingfisher’ by Eunice Low, Singapore Infopedia,http://infopedia.nl.sg/articles/SIP_1509_2009-04-21.html
It has been the talk of the nation and it even made international news. The Singapore haze descended on us last Monday, and the acrid yellow bonfire smoke has only just started to desist. I am suffering from cabin fever and my local pool is still closed, with the National Environmental Agency continuing to encourage residents go stay indoors. The smog reached over 400 on the Pollution Standard Index (PSI) yesterday, which is the most toxic air Singapore has ever recorded, and it seems as though the problem may stick around for weeks longer.
Smog shrouding the Marina Bay Sands hotel yesterday (via Getty Images):
What is causing the smog?
The local news sites are mainly focusing on two things – the cause and who is responsible. The annual deforestation in Indonesia has caused some environmental concerns before, especially in 1997 where Singapore suffered a similar bout of smoggy skies. This time round, farmers near Sumatra are illegally burning the land in order to prepare it for crops at minimum expense, but at the cost of polluting the air in Indonesia and neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore. In order to reduce the smoke in the air, Indonesian authorities have deployed choppers spraying water, and are also attempting ‘cloud-seeding’ techniques to produce rain clouds and douse the flames. However, as it is the dry season in this part of SE Asia, the smog may continue ‘for weeks’ according to Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Tensions are growing between Indonesia and Singapore after a political regroup in Jakarta on Thursday, where the Indonesian Coordinating Minister for Peoples’ Welfare told Singaporeans to stop ‘acting like children’ to the haze epidemic.
Face masks are the new must-have accessory, with smog even seeping into our office:
Effects of the smog
Although Singaporeans initially responded with some humour, the longer the skies remain hazy the more concerned its residents are becoming for their health. Common symptoms include sore eyes, throats and trouble breathing. Face masks and eye drops were so high in demand that pharmaceutical stores sold out. School children were sent home and their outdoor activities have been postponed until after June. Even the army was forced to abandon its outdoor drills. Family businesses who rely on the popular al fresco food courts suffered as citizens stayed inside, and the fast food delivery chains like McDonald’s and KFC cancelled their home delivery services to protect their moped-driving staff. To appease those stuck inside, national media tycoon StarHub offered free previews of channels on their cable service. It’s estimated that Singapore stands to lose billions in tourism revenue, with visitors cutting short their stay and others cancelling flights in favour of destinations with fresher air, and parks and swimming pools that are safe for the public to use.
A potential remedy that my local supermarket was promoting:
‘Businesses hit as Singapore haze moves in’, by Paneet Pal Singh, BBC Business News,http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-22999205
‘Indonesia says Singapore ‘acting like a child’ over smog,’ by unknown author, New Straits Times, http://www.nst.com.my/latest/indonesia-says-singapore-behaving-like-a-child-over-haze-1.304002
‘Apocalyptic scenes as smog engulfs Singapore,’ by unknown author, MSN News,http://news.xin.msn.com/en/photos-apocalyptic-scenes-as-smog-engulfs-singapore-6#image=1
‘Singapore smog reaches ‘hazardous’ all time high on fires,’ by Kyunghee Park and Jasmine Ng, Bloomberg News, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-06-19/singapore-urges-indonesia-to-name-firms-in-worst-smog-since-1997.html
‘How to make jokes about the Singapore smog,’ by Natalie Kay-Es-El, WordPress,http://nkayesel.wordpress.com/2013/06/18/how-to-make-jokes-about-the-sg-haze/
‘Singapore haze craze lights a fire on social media,’ by Steven Millward, Tech in Asia,http://www.techinasia.com/singapore-haze-infographic/
I crave these two fluffy white local cuisines on a daily basis:
1) Kueh Tutu is a traditional Singaporean delicacy which is sadly facing distinction due to lack of local demand. However, in a stroke of good fortune, we have a legend here in Clementi in the shape of a white haired elderly lady named Tan. She is continuing the legacy of her family by producing her famous tutu coconut cakes. Below is an image courtesy of local food blogger ‘I Eat, I Shoot, I Post,’ depicting the second generation of Tans steaming up a culinary storm:
Tucked away around the corner of the food court and behind the supermarket FairPrice, her modest stall is hidden to the undiscerning eye. Despite her age, Tan’s hands are faster than Usain Bolt on red bull and deftly move around her tiny workspace. The ‘fluff’ exterior is made from rice flour or glutinous rice, and is filled with syrupy shredded coconut. For those of you who leave those little blue Quality Street for the rest of us, fear not: peanut butter is also available. The parcels are thrown into the steamer whilst pandan leave beds are whipped on to the bases of the next batch to add fragrance. The cakes she makes are larger than the traditional versions, and for that I’m eternally grateful. It costs S$3 for 5 which is good as I’ve demolished three whilst writing this paragraph. There’s no room in my belly for guilt though as I’m helping to save a Singaporean institution.
2) Lotus Paste Dim Sum is a dessert addition to the usual Cantonese steamed treats in woven baskets which were traditionally designed as breakfast for travellers on the go, but is now widely adopted as a sit-down meal or take-out. Dim sum is usually consumed with Chinese tea, harking back to the old tea tasting custom of ‘yum cha’.
The ‘fluff’ of the buns pictured above (bao/pau) is a steamed yeast-leavened dough filled with gooey caramel-coloured lotus bean paste. Lotus paste dim sum is not to be confused with savoury dim sum, although if you were to have a mishap with your chopsticks, it is strangely tasty with sweet chilli sauce. Translated, it means ‘a little bit of heart’ according to the China History Forum, which seems entirely fitting now that I’m a little bit in love
‘Tan’s Kueh Tutu’, ‘I Eat, I Shoot, I Post,‘ http://ieatishootipost.sg/2012/07/tans-tutu-coconut-cakes-kueh-tutu-is.html
‘Dim Sum – A Little Bit of Heart,’ China History Forum,http://www.chinahistoryforum.com/index.php?/topic/2991-dim-sum-a-little-bit-of-heart-beginners-guide/
Here’s a collection of shots from the last fortnight:
Flower ‘mala’ necklaces in Little India
Rainbow shutters on the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts, Clarke Quay
Grapefruit, watermelon and green tea breakfast
Traditional architecture near Chinatown
Sunset at Sentosa Island beach
Two hungry chicks waiting to be fed
Park Royal Tower, with 15,000 sq meters of green space
Larry, the pink gecko who lives in our bathroom
First taste of mangosteen
Having been here for over a month now, I’ve noticed some interesting things about Singapore:
1) ‘Kiasu’ is something ex-pats and tourists will learn about very quickly here. It describes the local ‘fear of losing,’ and this mentality of ‘not coming last’ causes people to ignore queues, politely shove you out of the way and gently push you down escalators.
2) I am both a ‘Sir’ and a ‘Maam’ in Singapore. I didn’t know my look was so androgynous, but I am called ‘Sirmam’ wherever I go.
3) There is a beloved breed of bird here called an Asian Koel. It sings in repetitive ascending scales every morning around 6am. See / hear it for yourself:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SIssAHyay0I
4) Children wear shoes that sound like squeaky toys. Every step is accompanied with a high pitched squeak which reassures their parents as to where they are. Luckily even I can out-stride a toddler.
5) When handing over money, you should always use both hands to pass it to avoid hiding anything with the hand that is out of view. This is tricky when you’re juggling bags, but always try.
6) Spitting is a natural sport. Hawkers has developed a whole new meaning.
7) On finishing your meal, never stand your chopsticks upright. According to Chinese manners, if you do not set your chopsticks down you are wishing death upon an elder present at the table. The chopsticks emulate the funeral shrine, where two lit incense sticks are placed standing in a bowl of rice or sand.
8) CandyCrush is the most popular pastime on the morning commute.
9) The secret to staying young is to eat sheep placentas, according to my new favourite hairdresser.
10) Durian is the local tropical fruit which smells diabolical but is a favourite with Singaporeans, especially in pancakes and as a flavour ice cream. This is how Victorian explorer Wallace described it:
“[The] pulp is the eatable part, and its consistency and flavour are indescribable. A rich butter-like custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but intermingled with it come wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, brown-sherry, and other incongruities. Then there is a rich glutinous smoothness in the pulp which nothing else possesses, but which adds to its delicacy. It is neither acid, nor sweet, nor juicy; yet one feels the want of none of these qualities, for it is perfect as it is. It produces no nausea or other bad effect, and the more you eat of it the less you feel inclined to stop. In fact, to eat durions, is a new sensation worth a voyage to the East to experience.” (From Wallace’s 1869 book The Malay Archipelago).
(To be sung to tune of My Favourite Things):
Fish balls and tofu, bean curd and kiwis,
Quail eggs and Chang beer, noodles, shiitake,
Fresh crab with chilli, starfruit and choc mousse,
And let’s not forget about Kickapoo juice!
Dim sum and chicken, durian and Tiger,
Fish crackers, kopi, lemongrass and kaya,
Fried wonton and pak choi, teh tarik, mango,
And all the kids love a large glass of Milo.
They sell shark steak.
Put pork floss on cakes.
So many different Asian delights,
But some are not to my taste!
The man slaps a lump of white dough on his metal work surface. Behind him, his wife tends to bubbling pots of miso soup, and dunks metal nets of noodles into boiling water. He sprinkles some flour on top of the dough and begins to stretch it from both ends, until it has white streaky lines that threaten to split. He continues to pull until it is as long as the workshop surface, then he drops it, takes a knife and cuts them neatly into five equal sections. Discarding four, he works on the selected piece, pulling and wrapping around one stationary hand until the dough becomes stringy. Two more rounds and the noodles have taken shape, all in the space of a couple of minutes. He tosses the noodles to his wife, who drops them into the water whilst she prepares the bowls, adding oily red Harissa paste and spices to the crispy wanton packages, and mixing in sweet green and red chillies. Thirty seconds later, we are handed two bowls of flavoursome miso soup the colour of strained tea, with large white fleshy dumplings sunk at the bottom like ghostly ships. The noodles are topped with meat strips covered in black sauce. The next customers have already sat down beside us with their chopsticks and miso soup spoons ready. Fast food at its best.