Sunday, December 26, 2010

Chiang Mai: Wonderful Food, Markets and an Elephant Camp Visit

We made our way to Chiang Mai on Christmas Eve, and it was the perfect city to spend Christmas - a small, quaint city, we felt comfortable as soon as we arrived. As they say, "location is everything," and our hotel, Le Meridien, had the perfect location right by the popular night bazaar. Our days in Chiang Mai started great, with our dinner the first night at Just Khao Soy. Khao Soy is a northern noodle dish, noodles in a rich curry-like soup base with coconut milk. Several sites we had read recommended this restaurant, including the Nancy Chandler map, known to provide some unique local details. We found this homey restaurant not far from our hotel, and were welcomed into the air conditioned room for our dinner. Imagine sitting at a fancy noodle bar - that's what our experience was like. The restaurant is a full experience and education on khao soy, a must visit for anyone in Chiang Mai. Our menus were a guide to what and how to order: what kind of broth, thick or round noodles, and toppings etc. It's even vegetarian and allergy friendly! I chose chicken with bone broth while Tony had seafood. The meal that came was comprehensive and exciting, accompanied by assorted side dishes that small, street stalls also serve, but here, I had the benefit of a great placemat educating me what each item was for. Our side dishes included bananas to help sooth the mouth of spicy flavours, coconut milk to make the soup more mild as needed, pickled vegetables, onions, sugar, lime, fish sauce and more. It was a great learning experience to eat at Just Khao Soy, I think I could have eaten there everyday! We also had mango sticky rice for dessert, and unique assorted ice cream (basil, coconut and amaretto). A great first meal really set the tone for our trip!

We spent Christmas Day at an elephant camp north of the city.
We saw an elephant show that demonstrated how smart the animals are (playing soccer looked kind of fun!). We also had a very "chill" bamboo raft ride through the valley and an elephant ride on a trail through the mountains. It was nice to spend the day outside and in the beautiful valley. We probably could have done probably without raft ride or the elephant ride all together because the highlight was just playing with the elephants before the show - they were playful, gentle and kind. We were careful about choosing the elephant camp initially, some are better than others in how they treat the animals; but ultimately, they are still animals in captivity. If we had to choose again, we would go to the elephant sanctuary instead where they rehabilitate elephants because we really enjoyed just feeding and playing with then. Nonetheless, I think we developed a greater appreciation for elephants by going.

After returning to the city, we had a fabulous Christmas dinner at Sila Aat, a great restaurant in the Kalare Night Bazaar a stone's throw from our hotel. The open restaurant is known for its seafood, so we took our server's recommendation on the fresh catch of the day, red snapper (steamed with lemon and was AMAZING!). I also had shrimp khao soy and Tony had an order of seafood with flat noodles. I can't recall if I had mentioned it before, but we discovered that squid tastes incredible in Thailand, and we tried to have it as much as we could. And of course, we had to finish with some mango sticky rice - here I think we had the biggest mango to sticky rice serving so far!

On our last day in Chiang Mai, we decided we should visit the Doi Suthep Temple on the mountain overlooking the city. The spot for the temple was chosen many years ago, apparently by sending an elephant (believed to be holy) up the mountain and the site was chosen where-ever the elephant stopped. Honestly, after going to Angkor Wat and seeing the fantastic temples in Bangkok, we didn't expect to be overwhelmed by this temple, but what we did experience was Sunday worship. It was fun to experience the lively and festive crowds. After visiting the temple in the morning, we went to an afternoon cooking class at Smart Cook. Chiang Mai is known for its many cooking classes and schools - the one I had originally read up on at the Four Seasons was ridiculously expensive but we wanted to have th experience anyhow. Smart Cook was a good choice for us, it is a quaint teak house with a garden kitchen (we each had our own cooking station) and prep area - perfect for a small group. We started with a market tour, and because Tony and I were starving, the lovely owner stopped to pick up some fresh pork and red bean buns for us. These were seriously some of the best buns I have ever had! The market was an essential part of the cooking class, our teacher told us about the different vegetables that make up the lovely fragrant flavours of Thai food (and finally we learned what some of the mysterious vegetables we had seen in our food!). Did you know there are some 6 or 7 types of eggplant? And the only one they DO NOT cook with are the ones we have in North America! I think a cooking class without the market tour would be a real miss. The class was intimate and lovely, we each got to choose 4 dishes to make. I made tom ka gai soup, pad thai, green curry (from scratch!) and mango sticky rice. Tony made shrimp tom yum soup, cashew chicken, red curry and spring rolls. The class gave us an even deeper appreciation for Thai cooking - it is always made to individual servings with fresh ingredients. We ate what we made, and it was delicious (whew!). It was kind of fool proof to be honest! There are also full-day classes available but the half day was already a full experience for me.

We had our last meal in Chiang Mai at Huen Phen,
a restaurant in an old northern Thai house decorated with an abundance of cultural artifacts. We had Burmese spicy pork, which was quite good but was kind of like spicy bolognaise. We also had banana flower and pork rib soup - which was spicy although it did not look it. It reminded me of clear Chinese pork bone soup with some spiciness from Thai vegetables. Although spicy I couldn't get enough! We also had a unique papaya salad with local salty crab - it was a very different mix of flavours, salty, sweet and sour at the same time. Finally, we finished with a young coconut sorbet and Chinese grass jelly - both perfectly refreshing for the end of a hot day. On a side note, the funny thing about all the spicy food is that because it is made fresh, our stomachs never got upset - it is all very "clean" flavours!

We really loved our short stay in Chiang Mai and would happily go back again. The night bazaar was fantastic itself - everything was cheaper AND nicer than other markets we had been (Chiang Mai is an artisan center!), and we also braved the Saturday and Sunday markets with the locals, which seemed to go on forever and were PACKED. We thought we'd be "done" with markets, but each are different in some way and have a different feel and character to them. The markets of Chiang Mai had great finds for half of what you'd find even at the night bazaar, and good food! We picked up some great items like bamboo placemats and silk pillow cases for a mere fraction of what we'd have to pay here in Canada....all well made and beautiful. Chiang Mai is definitely worth a visit if you are going to Thailand - we have no regrets skipping the beaches of the south and making our way North to this lovely city instead!

Bangkok: Highlights in Eating

We did not get to eat around Bangkok as much as we would have liked, using the city to fly in and out of other destinations meant we were often rushed or too tired to be super adventurous; but nonetheless, we did have a couple great meals found with minimal effort and here are the highlights:

One of our first nights in town, we decided to check out a Chinese seafood restaurant nearby our hotel, Lebua. Somboon was probably a hidden gem at some point, but is now very tourist friendly....not that it's a terrible thing, but good in a different way. We were welcomed into a bright, clean restaurant with an extensive seafood menu (with bright colourful pictures!). Everything looked so good we didn't know where to start! Of course, we had to have the well-known curry crab (regular followers will recall our love for curry crab at Saigon Star in Toronto). This curry crab was prepared a bit different - less heart-stopping rich, but still very delicious. The crab came cracked, and the curry chilis were mixed with egg that toned down the "hotness". The fresh chilis used also tasted wonderful, without the awful mouth burning we sometimes experience from chili oils. We also had steamed sea bass and a small plate of grilled squid...yes, we were on our way to a trip of very high cholesterol! The food was very affordable and we wanted to eat it all!

Best value: $4 meal at food stall outside Tha Chang pier. The seafood fried rice with shrimp paste and egg is still one of the best dishes Tony had on this trip, and I loved my bowl of fish maw noodle soup. I regret not having another bowl!

Best "sit down" meal: Taling Pling - the most delicious spicy soft shell crab and butterflied fried sea bass with fish sauce. Although I initially wanted to stay away from fried food, I could have eaten the whole plate of spicy soft shell crab by myself, every bite was crispy and tasty. We couldn't possibly go a meal without curry, so we had red curry with duck breast, which was very tender albeit a tad spicy for me. While it's tucked on a quiet street by night, the area is completely safe and Taling Pling is definitely worth checking out, great food in a comfy restaurant at of course, very reasonable prices!

Best Tom Ka Gai soup (coconut chicken): food stall at Soi Pradit Market. This street lined with food stalls was a short walk from our hotel so it was one of our early stops for a meal. We stopped in for lunch the second day we were in Bangkok, and just randomly stopped in one of the many lining the street. We had a delicious bowl of coconut chicken soup, full of incredible fresh flavours - lemon grass, cilantro, bay leaves, ginger peppers and more (I can't name it all!). The flavours all blended beautifully and tasted great! That was one of the most amazing things about eating at food stalls - the food is all made to order, made fresh, and has a wonderful complexity of hot, sweet and sour purely from the fresh vegetables used. This was one of the first instances we really appreciated Thai cuisine and its true complexity.

We really learn about Thai cuisine and what makes up the fragrant flavours when we take a cooking class in Chiang Mai...but more on that later!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Siem Reap: Food, Shops and a Visit to the Spa

note: updated 12/26/10 with pictures!

Our sole focus in Siem Reap was really to see Angkor Wat, as with most visitors, but we were lucky to cram our planned destinations in our first 36 hours, which left us plenty of time just to wander the town. Here are some of the highlights:

First the food: When we first arrived, we ate at a nice, comfy restaurant called Champey. It offered traditional Khmer fare, but was a bit pricey vs "local" menus (the far simpler restaurant across the street offered meals for $1USD while our meal came to over $20). We had Siem Reap sour soup, amok (local coconut curry flavour) with fish, and bar fish with vermicelli in a clay pot, which had a lovely onion sweet both. It really hit the spot as we were starving from landing after lunch. The restaurant, like many in town, offers AC upstairs, but we were happily cool sitting downstairs in the open restaurant. Champey was also our first realization that Siem Reap operates in USD - there was no need to change money!

Our 2nd day in the city was our visit to Angkor, which started at 5AM. We had a breakfast stop after the sunrise back in town at a Chinese-Cambodian restaurant called Thida Spean Neak. We were happy to wolf down a delicious hot breakfast: I had Chinese noodle soup with shrimp (which ironically, boasted the flavour of "Cambodian noodles" I have often had at pho restaurants in Calgary). The noodles were some of the best I've had - in addition to the great soup flavour I love, the egg noodles were freshly made...I suppose that is a great side benefit of eating food where ingredients are made fresh everyday because preservatives/freezers are not so common. Tony had a local dish, loc lac, which consisted of beef cubes marinated with a black pepper gravy, served with rice and a fried egg. We made a second trip back to this place on our way out of Siem Reap (around the corner from our hotel) and although I had different noodles, they were still incredibly fresh and the broth very tasty. This was definitely an unexpected, yet simple, highlight the city!

Our day of hanging out in town started with lunch at Red Piano on Pub Street (or Bar Street) in town. This entire lane is filled with restuarants targetted at tourists - there is almost always AC upstairs, and always an English menu (with some propped up prices as well). We chose the Red Piano because I was sold by the Tomb Raider drink on the menu, created in honour Angelina Jolie who visited while filming. Although I did not end up having the drink, the restaurant was good - I had crab fried rice which was hot and tasty. It never ceases to amaze me that food that sounds so unhealthy comes rather light on oil vs what we usually get in North America.

After lunch, we wandered up and down the few lanes of Siem Reap. A great discovery were the cute boutiques in The Alley, one street over from Pub Street. The lane is quiet and lined with many individual and unique shops, not just tourist trinkets and souvenirs. I will warn you that these unique designer items also came with Western prices. Two of my favourites were the cheeky store Poetry and jewlery from Garden of Delight. It was great just to wander in and out of the local designer shops, a nice escape from the heat and the hustle of the rest of town.

As in any hot city (can't believe it's winter here!), a couple hours of wandering around meant we needed a pit stop to cool off and re-energize. We decided to stop in the popular Blue Pumpkin, which has a cute bakery downstairs and a "cooling" lounge with a fusion menu upstairs. We were happy to plop down along the white couches and let our bodies rest. We also had a taste from the menu, an Amok Fish Ravioli, which I LOVED! I don't know if I was just really hungry, or the fusion was a welcome change, but I basically inhaled the delicious dish and would be happy to return for a taste again. Yums! Plus, Blue Pumpkin boasts free wifi, a great bonus!

Speaking of wifi, the first night we were in town, we ended up hanging out at Island Bar found in the night market. We were exhausted from walking around and just wanted a couple beers...but also found free wifi while hanging out on our daybeds lined with mats. Who needs to pay $15 a day for internet at the hotel when I can hang out over a couple beers with internet for $5?? It was amazing, and chilling out at Island Bar will be one of those "small" treasured moments from our trip.

Back to our day in the city - our day did not end at Blue Pumpkin. We had plans to hit a dinner show to see Cambodian dance, but had an hour to better way than to visit the spa! We hopped next door to the Bodia Spa, which was a GREAT choice. The spa was beautiful, with excellent service. It's a little pricier than some smaller and simpler massage places around town, but our couples massage was still only about $20 each, so a great deal anyhow. It also gave me a laugh to discover that the face cream I have been using was $15 cheaper than at Sephora in Siem Reap! Imagine that. We LOVED Bodia and recommend anyone who is visiting to stop in for some R&R. The service and ambiance were both fantastic.

As I mentioned, we had decided to have our last dinner in Siem Reap at a dinner show. We chose The Dining Room at Le Residence de Angkor for the a la carte menu vs buffet at other places. The restaurant, not unexpectedly, was quite ritzy. In fact, the crowd seemed a little snotty, but we decided to stay anyhow. There was a reasonable 3 course meal for $35 (mind you, a $35 meal in Siem Reap is more than we had spent on any meal to date), but we opted for a couple items that peaked our interest on the menu. I started with a fish soup, that came with a tower of fresh fish served with a lobster froth. It was also served with shredded cheese, and all combined was delicious, I couldn't get enough. Unfortunately, that was the best part of our meal. Tony had a crab risotto to start, and although the crab was fresh, the risotto was a bit hard and even truffle oil couldn't save the dish for me. Our mains were king crab legs (the feature) with wasabi mayonnaise, which was too heavy for the crab. We also had a wok of seafood in Cambodian coconut broth, which came with an abundance of beautiful vegetables...but it was actually too much and in the end, I did not enjoy it. Overall, we were disappointed by our experience, even though the dance show was lovely. The people of Siem Reap work so hard for every penny, and our "lavish" meal just didn't seem worth what we spent.

We loved being in Siem Reap, and although we still have more to travel in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, expect that it will be a highlight in our trip. It has become a bit of a tourist town, with most businesses catering exclusively to tourists, so there is a weird economy. Bring lots of USD, especially $1 bills - it is the default denomination and while little to us, means so much to the people of Siem Reap! Tip generously, the people depend on tourism for a living and your generosity rewards how hard they work for every penny. And finally, haggle with a smile at the markets, it'll go a long way and be more fun for everyone :)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Siem Reap: An Eye Opening Experience at Chong Kneas Floating Village

As if visiting Angkor Wat wasn't enough excitement for a day, we made our way to Tonle Sap lake in the late afternoon to see the floating village of Chong Kneas. It's a small ways from central Siem Reap but a very worthwhile trip. As we made our way towards the lake we began to see what we were about to experience - very poor villagers living in one room huts and large families with children born to help the family sustain a living. We were a little unprepared for the floating village.

Our guide from Angkor Wat, Thy, helped us secure a private boat and came with our for the visit. The water level changes significantly between dry and wet season, changing how far the road stretches into the village on land and where Chong Kneas is found in the water. As our boat made its way through the village, the "novelty" quickly melted away and life on the lake dawned on us. Power is run from car batteries and tv from antennas. Fish are pulled in on individual long boats with nets. The boathouses are one room homes, with the lake as their livelihood and wash basin; some homes were barely staying afloat. Children paddled around in wash tubs and played with snakes hanging around their necks. Women paddled around with kids in their boats, appealing to tourists to give them money for taking their photos. I was overwhelmed by all that I saw and made me reflect on how we live in North America, how much we have and how fortunate we are. I just wanted to give them everything...take it all! But as much as it tugged on our heart strings, we didn't want to encourage the women who were throwing their children at us for money, the kids who were foregoing school to help their families survive...the only life they know. I will profoundly remember the little boy who was barely old enough to walk or to speak, but knew on cue in front of tourists and at the sight of a camera to stretch his little hands out and boldly ask for money.

We were overwhelmed by what we saw at Chong Kneas, a reality that we know little of in North America. I guess this is why we travel, to get in touch with the world and reflect on the fortunes we have in our lives. I highly recommend a visit to the floating village - this is something we all need to experience. I also suggest donating to reputable charities to ensure your money is going to the right people for the right causes. I am no expert on "good charities," but we were touched by the work at Kantha Bopha Children's Hospital in Siem Reap, founded by Swiss doctor Beat Richner (provides free medicare to children, one of 5 across the country). We saw women carry their children in from rural areas before dawn to line-up for care. They have had great success, so if you can help, consider this a good cause. And of course, there is always World Vision Cambodia.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Siem Reap: The Wonder and Majesty of Angkor Wat

Despite mild panic the morning we left Bangkok (we didn't have photos for visa to Cambodia - which we did get, but would have just cost an extra dollar at the border), we arrived safely in Siem Reap, home to UNESCO World Heritage Site, Angkor Wat.

Our first day in the city, we made our way to Angkor to see the sunset at Phnom Bakheng temple (getting a pass at 5pm is valid for next day entry!). It turned out to be a bit of a hike up the mountain (runners are key!), and we were joining hundreds of other tourists making the trek. It was possibly a nice experience at some point in time, but when you're fighting crowds, it doesn't exactly feel serene. A tip for those who still insist on going, there are stairs around back, they were useful for us to avoid the hordes trying to leave - the stairs were fairly steep and I didn't trust the crowds not to push me down in the mad rush to leave! Following the disappointing sunset view, we head back into town for an early start to the night market. Nothing compares to the amazing market in Bangkok, but we did duck into the Island Bar for some beers and food while hanging out on comfortable Thai mats. Did I mention free wifi?? Was perfect!

We had an early start the next day with our driver, Pop, who we hired after chatting with him en route from airport. He seemed like a nice guy and you never know who you might get from the hotel randomly. He was also happy to recommend a licensed tour guide, which was convenient for us as well. He picked us up just after 5AM so we could see the sunrise at Angkor Wat, one of those "once in a lifetime" experiences. We just hoped it wouldn't be crazy like the night before! We got there early enough to get a "front row" seat at the tip of the north pool, known to be the best spot. It was busy, but relatively thin crowds - takes some serious dedication to wake up that early and trek in through the dark! But it was totally worth it - was incredible watching the sun slowly rise behind the majestic towers of Angkor Wat. It truly is oen of those "wow" moments. After taking in the grand view, we made our way back to town for breakfast (yummy Cambodian noodle soup) and to pick up our guide, Thy. Our first visit of the day would be Angkor Wat itself (tour groups usually do Angkor Thom first so this seemed like a brilliant plan to avoid the big crowds!). We spent 2 hours or so walking the grounds. Thy told us about how the Wat is literally a representation of heaven on earth, about its Hindu origins in honour of Vishna (uncommon), and its transformation eventually into a Buddhist temple while maintaining the original designs and structures. The etchings and carvings were incredibly detailed, from the dancing aspara to simple designs on the walls. Thy also showed us cool little things like the one dancing aspara that smiles with teeth showing, took us to the echo chamber, and told us the legend of the churning of the ocean of milk (suddenly a lot of statues we've seen even in Thailand made a lot more sense!). One thing that stood out to me was on the 2nd level of the Wat, the meditation level, that had 4 pools (now dry of course) representing the 4 major elements: earth, wind, fire and water. Patrons were to cleanse themselves at the pool matched to their astrological sign before meditation, a real testament to how big astrology was. We also climbed to the third level, historically meant just for the King, and got to experience the wonder from above (note: you must be properly dressed as it is a religious site). It was beautiful and peaceful, and as access is regulated, you can afford to spend some quiet time admiring the towers and the view all around. Other than up the highest point, there are many paths to explore the expansive Angkor Wat, and many places to sit and take in the beauty and incredible work...or just as relief from the heat. The sheer enormity of the Wat is amazing to take did they possibly build it?? Oh right, 40 years and 400,000 people!

Our next stop was the ancient city of Angkor Thom, once a capital, and centered by the temple Banyon. Banyon's highlights are the 4 faced towers, said to resemble a combination of the King and his god (no modesty here). It is a much smaller temple vs Angkor Wat, but details make up for what it lacks in majestic size. Our walk through Angkor Thom was about a kilometer and although we made a brief stop at another temple on the way out, I was wiped by the time we were through...exhausted mentally from taking in all that our awesome guide was telling us and physically from hiking the temple grounds in the heat. We had a very welcome lunch break nearby, and we were grateful that our guide and driver took us to a restaurant NOT packed with tour groups.

After a long leisurely lunch, much needed for us to recuperate and re-energize, we made our way to the much anticipated Ta Phrom, commonly recognized for a scene in Tomb Raider (although in reality, scenes were shot at various temples). Ta Phrom is widely known as the jungle temple, seemingly overgrown by moss and trees - these amazing spung trees that over time, grew on the boulders of the temple with its massive roots stretching over and on top of the walls. The tree is light enough not to crush the temple completely, but certainly a lot of damage was done. Ta Phrom was probably the most "tourist friendly" of the temples, as it is flat, and had wood boardwalks throughout the ruins. We could see why this temple is a favourite spot to visit, it was beautiful and almost a bit magical - it felt like you were seeing the temple just as it was discovered, hidden away in the trees for thousands of years.

I can see why there is need to get a multi-day pass for Angkor Wat, we only made it to the main temples and were exhausted by the time we finished at Ta Phrom. They varied in structure and design, and were all incredible in different ways with different stories. It was also interesting to see the restoration work in progress, truly a world effort with projects done largely by the French, but also the Japanese, Germans and others. It's amazing in itself to think of the world coming together to preserve this wonder. I also can't imagine what it would have been like for Henri Mahout, the naturalist and explorer that "stumbled" on Angkor Wat and helped popularize the temple. This eventually lead to further French exploration of the area and discovery of the other temples. We were also blessed to have our guide, Thy, who had a real passion for the history of Angkor and knew nooks and crannies that we never would have found ourselves; in fact, I'm pretty sure we wouldn't have made it past just Angkor Wat! He kept us engaged and learning the whole way - I highly recommend him for any future travelers! And our driver, Pop, too, was also great, so all in all, our experience was really made by the great people we met.

For an awesome English speaking guide: Thy - email: (855) 12 933 730

Friendly English speaking driver: Pop (real name Kosal) - email: (855) 97 57 57 572

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Bangkok: A Day for Shopping

Although we did not quite plan it 0ut, Saturday was our only "weekend" in the city of Bangkok, so without a doubt, we made our way to Chatuchak Weekend Market. Although our guidebooks told us it was the biggest and most intense market, we were still surprised by the sheer size! And because everything we do in travel reminds us of some adventure on amazing race, we felt JUST like we were embarking on our next challenge - to find something.

We made our way to the market on the wonderful BTS skytrain, fairly new and super convenient. Our first stop was the tourist information center to secure a general map of the market. We knew right away there was no way we could see everything, so we centered in on the clothing, massage and art areas. The market was sort of orderly, but also CRAZY! You can walk around the outsides and enjoy drinks and snacks along the way, or brave the smaller thoroughfares to escape the sun and heat. There is something to be found for everyone, this wasn't a junky market of trinkets but full of things you need (or don't need) and is a showcase for local designers. it really wasa great shopping destination. I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of people and stalls but still managed to find a good bargain for silk scarves (typical, I know...but when in Rome!). After a couple hours of wandering we also stopped for a 45min massage, a relaxing and welcome break for my feet right in the middle of the market. On our way out, we made our way to the art section, and I was more than pleasantly surprised. I was expecting some typical cheesy "tourist" art, but the art corridors were really like exploring an art show, every stall was unique. We saw some great art we'd love to take home...oh but the trouble. Overall, I am so glad to made our way to the market, despite my initial hesitation to brave the crowds. Chatuchak Weekend Market is definitely a must-see in Bangkok, even if you don't need/want to buy anything, it's an adventure just to look around and experience the orderly chaos!

It was dark by the time we left the market, you can really get lost in time just walking around. And since malls here are open until 10pm, we decided to stop in Siam on our way home to check out some of the mega department store complexes. We decided on Paragon Shopping Centre, which was ridiculously big! After stopping for a quick bite, we started to explore. I don't know if I was just "shopped" out or it was just too much, because the store just seemed too sparkly and full of product that I had no interest in really "shopping." We did some walking around, but like walking around a museum you're not that interested in. Paragon is well known for carrying interational and high end brands, which was actually a little boring. Why would I buy Nine West shoes in Thailand?? Nonetheless, I can vouch for the shopping mecca that Siam is, it certainly was a sight to see.

What a day we've had of "shopping," although not actually a lot of buying (probably a good thing). We're off to Cambodia tomorrow and will be back to Bangkok in a couple days for more city adventures :)

Bangkok: A Day on the Chao Phraya River

After 20 hours of travel, Toronto -> Zurich -> Bangkok, we arrived to Winter in Thailand...and this I can certainly deal with, a balmy 20+ degrees for WINTER! Our first day in the city was perfect for sightseeing: not too hot or humid. We wasted no time and set on our way to power through our jet lag with a busy day of exploration.

The Chao Phraya River is central to the way of life, and so it was only appropriate that we embarked on our day of sightseeing by getting a boat day pass to hop-on-hop-off, much like bus tours in other cities. We started with the Grand Palace, also home to Wat Phra Kaew, Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The temple grounds were extraordinary - from the murals surrounding the grounds to the colourful and intricate halls and monuments, it was all beautiful and picture perfect. We found the Emerald Buddha seated high in the main hall, dressed in "winter" robes and surrounded by spectacular murals - the King himself changes the monastic robes draped on the Emerald Buddha every season.

Next we made our way to Wat Pho, featuring a 46m reclining gold Buddha! It was quite impressive in person and definitely worth the visit. A little more time in the area would allow indulging in a massage at the temple, but hunger simply took over so we head on our way. We found ourselves at the food stalls right outside Tha Chang pier. After a quick look around, we settled where a nice lady waved us in. I was sold on the duck noddle soup, which unfortunately ended up being sold out; but, it took me no time to settle on the too-honestly named "gastric fish stew." The lady at the front was sweet and took me over to the simmering fish maw stew to ensure I knew what I was getting into - no problem at all! It was a bowl of gooey goodness with vermicelli. Tony had shrimp paste fried rice with seafood, which was hot out of the wok and realy hit the spot after our hours of temple wandering. The best part, was that our meal (plus a bottle of Pepsi), cost $4 CAD! Amazing.

After the food energy boost, we decided to contiue our day of exploration. As dragonboat nerds, we decided to make our way to the Royal Barge Museum. This was an interesting adventure - our "river guide" was a little off describing where exactly the museum was. It ended up being quite a zig zag trek through a riverside neighbourhood, although we were encouraged along the way by signs telling us we were not lost. It allowed us a glimpse of how some local Thais live. The modest museum (I'm being generous here) showcased some of the famous royal barges, still used for traditional processions along the river. The boats really were beautiful, but our trek to the museum was probably more interesting given that there were only 5 or 6 barges parked for us to walk around and admire. There were some "survivors" of the world war...which I think it would have been obvious that the teak boats wouldn't hold up well to guns and canons??

We decided we still had energy for one more stop before we head back to our hotel, so we made our final stop for the day at Wat Arun, a temple very different from the lavishness of Wat Phra Kaew or Wat Pho. Truthfully, Wat Arun was more impressive from afar because of its architecture, similar in style to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. We were able to climb the stupa and get a great view up and down the river; plus up close, I could see the interesting china detail. The stairs were a short but steep climb, worth the careful effort.

As the sun was beginning to set, it was time for us to put our feet up on a day of historical sightseeing along the river. We hopped on the express river boat with tourists and locals alike and made our way back to central pier. We were grateful to have seen some wonderful sights, ate some delicious food, and experienced the gentle kindness of the Thai people along the way.

Thanks for a great first day Bangkok!