June in Thailand: Chiang Mai Street Scenes

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After getting the obligatory temple sightseeing out of the way, I felt freer to poke around and enjoy the little sights and sounds that make a city special. Here was an imaginatively vandalised street sign that to me seemed to add to the sign rather than turn it into a nuisance.

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The monkey head was cute, but I also liked how the authorities didn’t do anything to clean up the sign, leaving pop culture to do its thang here.

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Then there were the curiously well-meaning signs like the “Dangerous Zone” one below. There really wasn’t much to that area except that a pipe had probably been recently cemented over, creating probably the tiniest bump ever on the road. Exactly why it was a dangerous zone, I’d never know.

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Now more interesting was the famous night market down one of the main streets of Chiang Mai. There was of course a huge variety of items on sale, but the most exciting thing for me were the stall selling deep fried creepy crawlies.

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There was an incredible selection of the stuff from bamboo worms to crickets to scorpions, sold either loose by weight or in pre-packed portions.

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Erico was completely game for the variety fun pack that had crickets, bamboo worms and I can’t quite remember what other insects inside. They were all deep fried to a crisp and tasted of not much else aside from oil, really. Still, I couldn’t handle it and only barely managed to swallow the crunchy bits of bamboo worm. There wasn’t much to it except that bits of the carapace got stuck in my throat. Erico quite happily ate the rest and wasn’t too impressed by the taste of the frying oil. Seems like none of the insects tasted of anything much at all!

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Fear factor over, on other days we had the famous Chiang Mai noodles, khao soi, which were completely different from the Lao version of the same name. It was a sort of chicken curry with yellow noodles, except that the broth was more thin soup than thick curry, and was served with herbs, salted preserved vegetables (yum!) and topped with deep fried crispy shredded wanton skin.

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Chiang Mai is also home to the world-renown mango sticky rice. Here, it was both cheap and very, very good. No matter where you go in Thailand and especially Chiang ,Mai the rice is always perfectly steamed till just past al dente and the mango always sweet and perfumey.

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Ramen Showdown: Baikohken

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Tym and I had ramen at one of her favourite places. She’s been there so many times she’d completed her rewards card and redeemed a free gyoza side for our appetiser. These small morsels were quite decent, crisp on the outside and juicy on the inside. The dough was a bit too sticky and I couldn’t shake off the feeling that these were probably  factory frozen.

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We both had the regular shio ramen with agitama (boiled egg with runny yolk). There was so much steam rising from the noodles that I had difficulty taking a good picture. Many blurred pictures later, Tym helped by blowing the steam out of the way. Another good reason to dine with a friend!

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The first thing I noticed was the odd looking egg perched on my noodles. Taking a tentative bite, I realised that there was something wrong with the texture and sent it back. Thankfully, they replaced it quickly with a proper egg , which was just fine. I’m not sure why the chef didn’t spot the bad egg (!) in the first place since the egg was an extra order. It says a lot about their quality control since something so obviously wrong got through.

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I liked the noodles and the chashu. The noodles were springy and had good bite while the chashu was incredibly tender and surprisingly not very fatty for its tenderness. That’s a plus in my books. The menma (preserved bamboo shoots) was OK although I’d prefer them in smaller, more manageable chunks. I wasn’t too keen on the shio soup base. It tasted too much like Nissin instant noodle base. Maybe next time I’ll order the miso or shoyu version.

This lunch cost us $27.80 for two shio ramen with extra egg and free gyoza. I think Ken’s still makes better ramen.

Baihoken
7 North Canal Road


August in China: Zhuang and Dong Food

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In the Zhuang village, one of the local specialties was bamboo sticky rice. Glutinous rice was soaked in water and mixed with corn, mushroom and carrot. The mixture was then stuffed into a bamboo section then roasted over a charcoal fire. The fragrant rice would swell to fill up the whole container and form a delicate layer of rice paper coating the entire length of bamboo. It was delicious.

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It’s probably one of the earliest convenience foods. Locals would take the prepared raw bamboo packets with them as they went into the forest to work. For lunch, they would build a fire and cook the bamboo packets. Et voila! Lunch on the go. The best part was that the packaging is biodegradable and left in the forest. Free hands to take timber back to the village.

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For the tourists’ bamboo rice, grills were put behind the restaurant. Check out the nifty built-in handle carved out of the bamboo.

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At the Dong village, we ducked into this little noodle shop for lunch.  It was the only food shop in the vicinity and it had only one dish on the menu. The best part was watching our noodles made before our eyes outside the little shack. This was mingling with the locals at its best.

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As we eagerly waited for our noodles, this group of boys happily slurped theirs down. They were eating with such gusto, it had to be good.

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And it was! This version was slightly lighter than the one in Yangshuo. It had far more fresh vegetables (pumpkin shoots, very yummy) in it and there was the option of adding extra chilli to taste. Wonderful. It cost all of ¥3 per bowl.

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August in China: Cormorant Fishing

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In Yangshuo, there’s nothing much to do after dark except to go cormorant fishing. We started off at the boat landing and got into a rickety wooden boat. Thankfully there was shelter as it soon started to rain. It was far too dark to take decent photos. (At that point my point and shoot camera was one of the crappier models.)

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Our cormorant fisherman came up on his bamboo raft, feathery helpers in tow. The poor fellow had to put on waterproofs because of the drizzle. He unhooked each of his five cormorants from its perch on the raft and tossed them into the water. They went racing underwater and all bets were off for which side of the boat a bird would next pop up from.

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Upon surfacing, a bird would often have a fish or two in its mouth. It would attempt to swallow them whole but a ring around its neck prevented the fish from sliding down. This was when the fishermen would skilfully hook the bird by the foot, grab it and turn it upside down to empty the cormorant of fish. After that, the bird was tossed back into the water to continue its quest. It was a rather odd sight!

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When the show was over, the fisherman caught each bird and put them back in place on the raft. They were so well-trained that they just stood there and made no attempt to go back in the water. All this one did was to show off by flapping its wings open. I suppose they need to dry out somehow!

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Here’s the rather meagre catch of the evening. I suppose they’ll go to the cormorants for their supper! Nobody fishes for the fish here, it’s all for the tourist dollar. Just as well, so the cormorants won’t go too hungry. I asked the fisherman whether it took a lot of skill to fish this way. It was quite funny the way he pooh-poohed the idea, saying that anyone could learn very easily. I’d probably fall off the raft trying to hook a cormorant!

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At the end, we posed for pictures with the nicest cormorant. The fisherman said that this was his best bird and that it was very guai (literally: well-behaved) and that it didn’t bite or steal things. Still, it was a bit intimidating to have a big bird flap its wings open on my shoulder!

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August in China: Bicycle Trip in the Karst

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In the morning, Tortoise and I decided to brave the rain and go cycling in the karst area.  Sure, the weather wasn’t the best but the clouds, while obscuring the view slightly, made it even more romantic and atmospheric. There were a few intriguing sights to see and of course a few calories to burn.

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It all looked rather lovely and we almost forgot that we were living in modern civilisation. Almost forgot until we almost got run over by this tour bus!

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We passed by a few atrocities like this ghastly butterfly advertising some Butterfly Springs. We wisely ignored it and headed on.

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After a couple hours on our extraordinarily slow single gear bikes, with everyone and his mum overtaking us, we finally made it to our destination. This is Yue Liang Shan (Moon Hill), with the oddest circular archway I’ve ever seen.

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It was a slippery one-hour climb up. Thankfully the monotony of climbing the steps was broken by the fun-with-English signs along the way.

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I suppose in their concern for the safety of tourists, they forgot that people might fall over from laughing at their odd translations!

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After coming back down from the hill, we cycled back in the rain, happy that we were on the way back instead of on the way there, like these people here.

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We also passed by another section of the Li River and where there was more bamboo rafting and water shooting going on.

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With the hills looming and the river flowing placidly alongside the colourful umbrellas, it was a lovely sight. No wonder so many tourists visited.

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August in China: Yangshuo

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Tortoise and I headed over to Yangshuo, which was about a couple of hours away by coach. While still touristy, this place certainly has a lot more charm than Guilin. It has slightly cheesy but very atmospheric restored ancient street, complete with old-style inns and dining places. It was fantastic walking down the street and looking up to see the hills looming above.

Still, there was no escaping the tourists. Check out the number of tour buses and coaches in the small tourist parking area.

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We made arrangements through our guest house for a trip on the Li River. After about an hour on public transport in a packed minibus and then a modified jumbo tuk-tuk of sorts, we came face to face with one of the most famous images in China.

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This appears on the back of a ¥20 note so we had no choice but to follow the lead of the domestic tourists to whip out our prepared notes for a photo!

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We then got onto our private bamboo raft and chugged up the river. It’s a pity that the sun was in our eyes and the light wasn’t good for photos. You’ll just have to make do with the ones here.

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The limestone formations here covered the gamut of weird and wonderful. Our map described a good 10 names of features we could hardly make out. After a couple of times shouting over the phut-phut of the engine to our raft driver, we gave up trying to figure out which name corresponded to which spot. It was all starting to look the same kinds of weird to us.

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Before long, other rafts carrying domestic tourists came by and starting spraying water on us. They’d bought plastic spray guns from street vendors and indiscriminately drenched passing rafts. We beseeched our bewildered raftman to avoid them as far as possible. He probably wondered why we didn’t want to have fun playing in the magical murky waters. No good pictures of the water fights for fear of getting too close and then being caught in the crossfire!

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