Month: January 2015

BANGKOK BANQUET

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What a brilliant surprise Bangkok has been!! I was expecting a seedy, dirty, chaotic city full of travellers seeking out all the worst aspects. Instead I found a modern, vibrant city with so much more to offer than ping pong shows.

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By far the greatest treat has been the variety of food on offer and how amazing it tastes. There are food stalls on most streets serving up all kinds of fast food and lots of little cafes and restaurants frequented by locals and tourists alike. I’ve never seen such an array of food, at least half of which I did not know existed until this week.

We had seafood Tom Yum at a street stall and it was fresh, zingy and filled with lots of little sea critters. There are dozens of papaya salads to choose from; those we have tried have been spicy and delicious. Then there’s the roasted or grilled or BBQ meat which is better than I have ever tasted. I could go on but I’m sure you get the picture.

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All this for £2.20.

The second biggest delight has been seeing the diverse society and apparent acceptance amongst Thais. I’ve seen more lesbians in the past week than you can shake a stick at. For once I felt like part of the crowd and not someone that stands out. There are also lots of transsexual people holding down generic jobs and not working in the sex industry as tired cliches would have us believe.

Of course there is still the underbelly of sex shows and prostitution but it is in its own area of the city for those who want to experience it and seemingly absent from most other parts. We passed through this area on our way to the neighbouring gay village where we had a few gins with a friend of Maura’s, Tim.

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As is part of the traveller experience we bumped into friends we made somewhere else in the world – Danny and Teresa from Spain who we met in India. Together we headed to one of Bangkok’s night markets called Talad Rot Fai (the Train Market). The place was HUGE!! It was about the size of Spitalfields + Camden + Borough Market x 2 and covered the same range of goodies i.e. food, clothes, furniture and curiosities.

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Finally I just need to mention the giant lizards we saw today loafing by the river. I have no idea what they were but the biggest was over one metre long and a foot wide and was terrifying.

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NOTES ON INDIA

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DELHI > RISHIKESH > DELHI > VARANASI > AGRA > JAIPUR > BUNDI > MUMBAI > MANDREM > PANJIM > PALOLEM > GOKARNA > HAMPI > MYSORE > BANDIPUR > COIMBATORE > FORT KOCHI > ALLEPPEY > MUNNAR > KOCHI > PALOLEM > MUMBAI

We did it! We ‘survived’ India and even escaped a bout of the infamous Delhi belly. India is close to undefinable, but the best description would be a total sensory overload. Nothing can prepare you for the smells, confusion, shocking sights, startling efficiency and bonkers disorganisation, deafening street sounds and the explosion of colour. Nothing.

However, we had heard so many horror stories before we had stepped off the plane, that, not only were we prepared for all the scam methods, it just wasn’t as ‘bad’ as everyone said. Begging wasn’t as in-your-face as you’d expect, I’ve seen much worse toilets on the M4 motorway, we ate anything, everywhere and anywhere, yes, including meat and, apart from one morning of stomach cramps, we had zero illness, we loved being asked for our photo and no one tried to touch us up on the train.

Without a tiny whisper of a doubt, the highlight of India is the people, yes, the food is a very close second, but the people are the friendliest, craziest, silliest, kindest and hardest working-est people we have come across on our travels.

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We absolutely loved it and are already talking about when we can go back. Here are some of our observations from the 75 days we spent in India:

PHLEGM: hocking up the contents of nose, throat and lungs occurs loudly and regularly. Particularly bad in the mornings.

NAMASTE: the beaming smile you often get when you say ‘Namaste’ to an older Indian lady that has been staring at you inquisitively.

THALI: different in every town, the best way to try lots of different curries, and they give you free refills. In the South, it is served on a banana leaf which you have to actually fold up to stop them piling on the food. Average price £1.00.

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LIES: ask an Indian anything and he will give you the answer he thinks you want or the answer he can be bothered to give. eg: ME:Is that the Amber Fort (whilst pointing at Blue Fort)? THEM: Yes. OR, do you know where we can make international calls? THEM: No. ME: what about this place that you are sat outside of that has a sign saying international calls? THEM: No.

POO: staring wistfully out the train window as Indian countryside glides past only to spot a man crouching down doing a poo. This on repeat for much of Northern India. 

1.21 BILLION: people. People everywhere. Personal space does not exist and queuing can be unpredictable with lots of pusher in-ers.

PANEER: Paneer. Paneer Masala. Paneer Kati Roll. Paneer Pakoras (or Pakodas as they call them). Paneer Tikka Kebab. Paneer with Paneer and some more Paneer on the side please.

WARM AND WELCOMING and so friendly. Indians are a chatty lot and, because the majority speak at least basic English, it is very easy to talk with people and find out a bit about their lives. Plus, they are super inquisitive and want to know everything about you too.

MONKEYS: more common in Northern India, they are pretty aggressive and freaking scary. However, when they do human-like stuff such as turning on a tap and drinking from it – that, THAT is amazing.

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BEDS: oh the beds, the beds are awful. Thin mattresses are commonplace – well, not really a mattress, more of a 8cm thick piece of material.

MEN LOVE MEN: technically homosexuality is illegal in India, which is pretty ironic given how tactile men are with each other. Holding hands, stroking each others faces, leaning on each other. Guess that is what happens when you make public displays of affection between the sexes is taboo – you have to get your physical contact from somewhere. Mind you, the ladies aren’t at it…

WATER: geez, it’s not until you cannot drink tap water that you take for granted how brilliant clean drinking water is. I started dreaming of the day that I could brush my teeth without a warm and old bottle of mineral water.

BREAD: Naans, chappati, parartha, roti and puri all served hot and with optional delicious fillings or covered in butter and garlic. They are light, thin and not doughy like the squidgy ones we get at home. One naan will set you back 30p, 10p extra if you want garlic.

HOLY COW: if one thing defines India, it has to be this. Cows. Every where (apart from Mumbai). Seriously. Cows lying down in the fast lane on busy main roads, cows knocking at doors with their horns to get food, cows causing traffics jams down narrow lanes, cows, cows, cows.

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CURRY: think you’ve tried them all? Nu ah. It’s impossible. My favourite was Kadhi Paneer, which is a spicy red sauce with tomatoes and red peppers. Mind you, the best bet was often just vegetable curry. One portion will set you back 80p. Add in a chappati, that’s a £1 for your dinner.

LIME SODA: is the national drink of India and costs 30p. Approx 1 whole lime goes into each glass which is almost enough for me, the lime enthusiast. Rubbish for Angela as she is allergic to citrus. I drank her quota.

MOPEDS: the transport o’choice for the modern Indian. Unlimited amounts of people allowed on at one time and tiny children actively encouraged to ride precariously perched on the back or on the handle bars and definitely with no helmet.

THE SUN: due to pollution, the sun turns into a big orange red ball at about 3pm every day. Very ‘end of days’ and very beautiful.

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SHOPPING: This happens at least 27 times a day: “Hey madam, come see my shop, you look, you like, you buy.” Oh great, thanks for explaining the concept of shopping.

LOVELY JUBBLY: and other really old English sayings. Also popular is no worry, no hurry, chicken curry. Or, in Goa, fish curry.

BRITISH EMPIRE: the majority of the Indians we met were very complimentary about the British occupation. Weird. Initially we were a bit cautious about telling people where we were from but further conversations proved that they credited British with some of the things they love about India, which is basically the railways.

TRAINS: one of our favourite things about India. It really is just like a Palin documentary: you do meet amazing people, you can hang out of the open doors and the chai is the best in India.

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DRIVING: like they want to kill you. Yup, it’s bad and we’ve seen some crappy driving in South America. If there is a car in front they must overtake. Even if the car is going normal speed, you are on a blind bend and there are five cars in front. 

BREAKFAST: very nearly became my favourite meal. Particularly in Southern India where Masala Dosas are involved. Paper thin pancake things wrapped around spicy potatoes and onion and served with sambar, a spicy and sour curry, and coconut chutney. Add a masala chai into the mix and that’s a dream breakfast right there.

PRINCE LENIN: an actual person we met on a train from Dehli to Varanasi. He is a lawyer who devotes his time and money to taking cases against the state, basically the Indian Erin Brokovich, and he has been quoted in The Independent. Hero.

MASALA CHAI: chai, lovely chai. Controversial, I know, but Indian tea is better than English. Hot, milky, sweet and spicy, it is served in small glasses or paper cups. The best chai is from the chai wallas on the trains and costs between 10 – 20p.

BUSES: see above about driving and then add in rickety old bus with no suspension and from the sounds of it no break pads either. Also, seats are scarce and when available require squeezing three people into a two person seat. Well, mind you, Indians are much smaller and thinner than us Westerners, so probably is a three-seater for them…

HOLY MEN: the dudes with the long beards, hair and dressed in orange are men who have renounced their worldly life, said goodbye to both their possessions and their families, and now lead a life of celibacy, ascetic yoga, and a search for enlightenment. Except the ones that are actually criminals on the run…. Also, Indians swear that Sadhus never ask for money, but almost every Sadhu we saw held his hand out for money.

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TOILETS: not as bad as we thought they’d be. More Western crappers than expected too. Sure, there were some shockers, particularly at train stations, but not the horror show we had imagined.

HONK YOUR HORN: In India you beep your horn to let the driver in front know you are there. It’s almost like the rules on ski slopes – you basically only have to worry about what’s in front. There are a lot of cars and there is a lot of mental driving manoeuvres, ergo a lot of horns honking. In Delhi, when we were fresh off the plane, it was overwhelming to the point of exhaustion.

RUBBISH: everywhere. This has got to be the most shocking part of life in India. Refuse collection is almost non-existent, bins are a rare site and the sun heats it all up to nice stinky levels. Seemingly a community agrees to all dump it in one area, at the end of the road or a random corner somewhere. Mind you, people drop litter everywhere. Once on a train, Angela asked the train guard where we should put our thali trays and he simply opened the door and flung them out. 

CLEAN: means something different in India. There is a lot of washing, rinsing, sluicing but not much scrubbing. 

YOGA: despite it being absolutely everywhere, Angela and I managed to get to just two classes in two and a half months.

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A VERY GOAN CHRISTMAS

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The North and South of India are very different. The North is crowded and chaotic, with cities overrun with monkeys and historic forts and palaces everywhere. The south is calmer, cleaner and has more natural beauty than historic buildings. Goa is in the south but is different again from the surrounding southern states.

We got the impression that there is a lot of disdain amongst Indians for this tiny southern state. It is known for being full of westerners who like to party hard and have different morals from most Indians. I think Goa also has a bit of a bad rep with some westerners too, for similar reasons to many Indians.

We spent almost 3 weeks in a beach town called Palolem and exploring the surrounding area. The Portugese ran Goa until the sixties and they have left behind big villas and a Christian following. As it was Christmas there were stars hanging outside houses and nativity scenes that had been lovingly created. Still, in the 30 plus degree heat it didn’t feel quite like Christmas for two Brits. The locals wear western style clothes and are not bothered by tourists flashing the flesh in bikinis and skimpy clothes. There are also more restaurants and bars catering to western tastes.

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Although the place felt less indian the differences were enjoyable: being able to walk around in shorts and a vest in the heat was a welcome relief; after having curry every meal for 50 days straight I was ready for a full English with Heinz beans and HP sauce and the decorations hung outside our beach hut helped us with missing home at Christmas.

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Christmas Day started well…

Goa has been in a state of flux recently due to the state clamping down on noise and beach parties. Now the de rigueur is for headphone parties / silent discos. Although there were a fair amount of young people there to party there were also families and older folk. The most outrageous pissed up behaviour we saw was from the hordes of young indian men on New Year’s Eve who were taking full advantage of the occasion to run up to western women to give them full body hugs. Other than that Palolem was quite tame and not somewhere to head if you’re solely looking to rave it up.

Albeit somewhat western due to the booze, beans and boobies you still know you are in India when a couple of cows slowly shuffle past you on the sand looking for some shade behind a fishing boat, or someone sets off a firework a few metres from a restaurant which inevitably goes wrong and explodes on the floor showering everyone in pretty little flames and when the fresh seafood options include fish tikka, tandoori whole fish and Goan prawn curry.

cows on the beach

Photograph courtesy of Anthony Foster

more cows

Photograph courtesy of Anthony Foster


I should also mention that the beaches are stunning with golden sand, gentle waves and palm trees. Also we were extremely lucky to have a small gang of new friends with us – Zowie, Anthony, Russell and Tiffany – and the family from whom we rented the beach hut from were very generous and friendly e.g. cooking us dinner and taking us to a wedding. Needless to say we had an amazing time flip flopping about, chilling on the beach and eating some amazing seafood. Goa is now number one on our honeymoon destination shortlist!

Goan gang

Our little gang. Tiffany & Russell on the left and Anthony & Zowie on the right.

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Our home for almost 3 weeks.

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Sofia, Anthony, Swagger (with bread roll in mouth) & Samuel (with the big eyes)

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They get married so young in India….

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Only kidding…here are the real size Bride and Groom, Belina & Melvin.

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The buffet with at least 8 different types of curry.

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Day trip to Kola Beach – sea is red because of the sand (we hope).

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Freshwater lagoon at Kola Beach.

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Our favourite beach, Patnem.

Xmas gang

The Christmas crew: (L-R) Anthony; Zowie; Russell; Maura; and me.

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Sunset at Palolem. This on repeat for 3 weeks. Not bad, eh?

COOKING UP AN INDIAN STORM

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Whilst we were in Goa, Anthony, Zowie and I spent a morning with ex-chef Rahul learning five different dishes, cooking them all from scratch and then getting to eat it all. Perfect.

We chose to make the following dishes:

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The most surprising thing about cooking all these dishes in two hours was that everything required very little cooking. Sure, there was lots of marinading and mixing up about eight different spices, but I thought everything would need to cook for hours to get all the spices to ‘marry’. It was a great experience and Rahul was relaxed and very patient with us. Looking forward to trying to recreate this menu when I am back home…

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See all that garlic? We used ALL of it.

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The marinader

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Goan fish curry paste.

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Red Snapper fillets.

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Pureed spinach for the Palak Paneer.

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Cooking my favourite thing: Paneer.

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Beating up the dough for the stuffed paratha.

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Zowie getting stuck in.

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The winner of the 2014 newcomer for stuffed paratha roller.

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Finishing touches to the Biryani.

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Goan Fish Curry

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Tangadi Chicken (tastes better than it looks)

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Vegetable Biryani

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MAGICAL MISTY MUNNAR

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Munnar, famed for its tea plantations, has a surprising lack of tea tasting opportunities, but they put on a pretty good trek. We spent a day rambling up through the tea fields and down through spice farms with an eclectic mix of travellers, including the lovely Rosie from our girl gang in Hampi.

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The trekking crew.

We started in the early morning when mist was still hugging the ground. It soon cleared up and revealed beautiful views of pristine plantations. At mid morning we reached the peak of the journey and stopped for boiled eggs and bread. Yum! By the time we’d finished our grub we were engulfed in dense clouds, which made for some cool pics.

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Those tiny white dots in the middle are tea pickers.

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Before.

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After.

The way down was a bit treacherous as it was slippy and difficult to see the ground, consequently there were a few trips but none more spectacular than the young French women doing a sliding tackle on an older British guy and taking him out. He didn’t see the funny side.

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The beginning of the end.

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Magical floating poisonous caterpillar.

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SPIDER

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Taken shortly before the infamous British/French collision of 2014.

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The new Twinnings advert.

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Snacks and a rest at 1pm, still another 2.5 hours to go…

The trek ended back at our lovely cottage wedged into the side of a hill, where we were all rewarded with some more food and time to discuss our scrapes and swollen knees.

Also staying at the cottage was a French women (not the faller-overer) with her Rajasthani boyfriend. The guy was a serious dope smoker and had lots of cool stories which were pumped full of hilarious exaggeration and drama. The French women, who was much more low key had to rein him in on occasion.

Overall Munnar was a really cool place to chill out, catch up with new friends and make even newer ones. Its definitely worth sticking on the list.

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The view from our balcony.

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The view from our balcony.

KERALA: LIFE ON THE BACKWATERS

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Everyone goes on and on about how diverse India is. It wasn’t until we arrived in Kerala that I began to understand quite how stunningly different this enormous crazy country really is.

Southern India is: men in sarongs; spicy and sour food; fish, fried or curried with everything; palm trees; big houses; less bread and bigger rice; very Christian with enormous churches and shrines; and less crowded and well, pungent.

We spent a few days in Fort Kochi wandering along the waterfront, trying to work out how the hell the massive chinese fishing nets worked, watching a traditional Kathakali dance and going for a fancy meal with friends from home, Tram-Anh and Brendan.

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Chinese Fishing Nets

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Spice shop

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Camels and a church

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Kathakali dance performers putting on a bit of slap.

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Super posh dinner with Tram-Anh and Brendan.

Then came the thing I had been waiting for: cruising around the Keralan backwaters on a houseboat. This was very kindly funded by my sister, Katie, and we spent two very blissful days gliding past the palm trees and rice fields. We had a captain and our very own chef who made us the most amazing meals, including the now favourite, beetroot curry.

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On the first evening we went a little ‘off piste’ and stopped off to visit the chef’s village. As the light was fading we walked about 20 minutes away from the river to arrive as a surprise for his family. It was certainly a surprise – for us and for them – the whole village turned out to have a look at us. We were made to sit like royalty on the only two seats in the house as about 30 women and children looked on with shyness that soon gave way to giggling. We later found out that most of them had never seen white people before.

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The chef with his mother, sister and her two children (the little one was only one week old).

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We spent two days pootling along in our little houseboat and, despite the captain loosing his way a few times and almost crashing into overhead cables, I don’t think I have ever been so relaxed. Though it’s quiet, life along the river banks is colourful and incredible: washing, swimming, fishing, it all goes on in the dark green waters. Eagles soared above us and the green of the trees and rice fields bounced off the bright sunlight. We even saw some men in boats herding ducks.

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Duck herding

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These two were adorable. They kept calling me Auntie.

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Our floating palace.

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Fish thali: (L-R clockwise from rear) raitha; pickle; salad of coconut, spices and cabbage; pineapple curry; spicy green beans; fried fish; rice with dal on top; and papads.

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Captain (middle) and Chef (right)

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Our thrones.

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Relaxation levels reach new highs.

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Ever wondered what a boat full of nuns looks like? Here you go.

Our Keralan experience continued at a homestay north of Kochi on an island in the backwaters. We stayed with Benny and his gorgeous family and ate delicious home-cooked meals with them, they took us out on their boat to see their prawn farm, showed us how the chinese fishing nets work and even drove us into Kochin town so that Angela could meet Benny’s friend who is also a lawyer.

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Benny, his wife and their little girl, Carol (named after Christmas carol since she was born in December).

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They made us wear hats…

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Prawn farm

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The view from our balcony.

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Fishing with the chinese fishing nets.

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Sorting the prawns from the tiny fish.

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Our catch.

WE SAW A TIGER!

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We went to Bandipur National Park and saw an actual real-life tiger. It was amazing. We also saw a range of other furry things and elephants too.

First here are some more tiger shots:

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Frida Kahlo the deer.

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Pumba from Lion King made an appearance.

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Wild elephant (obvs)

Sambar Deer - biggest deer in India. Fact.

Sambar Deer – biggest deer in India. Fact.

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Peacock

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Bison

Up close with an elephant

Up close with an elephant

Monkey

Monkey

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Our jeep. Please note the small children in the rear seats. These children screamed and cried their way around the park making all the animals run for cover. Thanks kids.