Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Update on the Chiang Mai renovations

A little while back I promised you an update on how the renovations of our house in Chiang Mai were progressing. The property was purchased in October last year, but we were unable to visit it until August this year, so it was in need of some serious TLC.

Rather than bore you with a long post about mixing cement and choosing paint's easier if I show you some before and after pictures.



I'm glad to say that it's now fit for human habitation and as the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket's now so sanitary and squared-away that the Virgin Mary herself would be proud to go in my bathroom and take a dump!!!!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Thailand's vegetarian festival

The annual Thai Vegetarian Festival is now drawing to a close. This year in Pattaya it ran from the 7th- 17th October, but as it's a lunar celebration (held during the 9th lunar month of the Chinse calendar) the dates are different each year.

The festival is celebrated by Chinese communities throughout Thailand, although most of the attention is generally focused on Phuket with it's colourful parades and the vegetarian devotees, known as "Ma Song", who perform various feats of courage, such as walking on hot coals or piercing their skin with knives and other sharp objects.

Check out these guys........they are all 100% genuine and haven't been edited on photoshop!!!

Fortunately, we have not been carrying out any ritual acts of self-mutilation!! And the knitting needles were kept well away from my crown jewels, just in case the missus had any unusual urges!!!

We observed a vegan diet for the duration of the festival, that's right milk in my tea, no bacon sandwiches, no beer and that KFC had to wait too!!! But by eating only vegan food we got plenty of spiritual merit and good karma.......apparently!!!

The act of eating vegetarian is known as "kin Jay" and those who choose to strictly observe the tradition will dress in white and eat only vegetarian or vegan food. This is to cleanse themselves and bring good fortune to their households. Although it began life as solely a Chinese practice, a lot of non-Chinese Thai's now also choose to practice "kin jay".

I would like to report that I'm still alive and thankfully I haven't wasted away. Most of the food was actually very nice....not just tofu and nut roasts....which is what I associated with veganism in the UK!!!!

But....I have to admitt that I'm looking forward to an ice cold bottle of larger!!

If you're interested in learning more, the following websites provide lots of useful information about the celebrations.....

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Recycling Thai style

The monks from Wat Pa Maha Chedi Kaew in the North-Eastern Thai province of Sisaket have taken recycling to a whole new level by building a temple from more than 1 million glass bottles!!!

A friend here in Thailand emailed about this a little while ago and I thought it was time I featured it on the site.

The temple is in the town of Khun Han near the cambodian border and is affactionately known as "Wat Lan Kuat" or "the temple of a million bottles" and true to its moniker it is made from glass bottles throughout, even in the crematorium!!! That's a hell of a way to make your final journey, surrounded by bottles of amber nectar!!!

The holy men originally began collecting bottles, in 1984, with aim of using them as simple decorations within the temple grounds. But, one of the monks had a moment of inspiration and suggested using the bottles to construct new buildings on the site and as their collection grew so did their temple.

The temple has now become an interent sensation and is extremely popular with Thai and foreign tourists alike.

I hope you enjoyed the pictures and as always I will be on the look out for more weird and wonderful stories from the Land of Smiles.

For more more information about Wat Pa Maha Chedi Kaew please read the following websites......

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Penfold in Penang

Having just returned from a long weekend on the island of Penang and as it was my first visit to Malaysia, I thought it would be a good opportunity to share my thoughts on the destination.

I had read extensively about Malaysia on the internet prior to my trip and settled on Penang due to its proximity to Thailand and the fact it had plenty of tourist attractions and historical sights to visit.

We flew in style on Air Asia......I am joking of course!!! For those of you unfamiliar with Air Asia they are the Asian equivalent of EasyJet or Ryan Air, a no frills, budget airline who offer cheap flights but you pay for all the extras, including your food and baggage. Our 2 return flights with 2 pieces of checked in luggage weighing 15kg each, cost a little over 8,000 baht (about £170 at the current exchange rate).

British passport holders don't need a visa to enter Malaysia, if your stay is for leisure. All you have to do is complete the immigration form that is given to you by the airline staff and present it, together with your passport, to the immigration officials. You will then receive a stamp in your passport which entitles you to stay in Malaysia for up to 3 months.

On arrival in Penang, the queues for immigration were very short and it only took 5 minutes to get my entry stamp. The immigration officer was also happy and smiling which is a rare thing these days.

Our hotel, the Copthorne Orchid Penang, was in the resort of Tanjung Bungah and cost 1,500 baht (approximately £32) per night. It took about 30 minutes to get there in the taxi and the journey cost 52 ringgits (about £11 or 520 baht). The Malaysian's drive as badly as the Thai's and we saw 2 accidents en route!!!

On arrival at the hotel we were met by the porter who was friendly and chatty but the same can't be said for the check in staff. They had reserved my room under the wrong name and it took a while to resolve the problem. This was due to the staff members poor command of English. I also noticed that she didn't greet or even acknowledge my girlfriend, despite my girlfriend smiling at her several times.

However, we soon learnt that this was a common problem in Penang. Staff members in shops and restaurants, only spoke to me and this annoyed my girlfriend intensely.........and she made the point that Westerners "aren't God" and her money "is as good as anyone's".

Another problem we encountered was with the level of spoken English, both in the hotel and outside. Although English is widely spoken and most Malaysian's speak English better than their Thai counterparts, there were 4 occassions when people couldn't understand what I was saying!!! And it's not because I was drunk or have a heavy scouse or cockney accent. I like to think that I speak the Queen's English....except when I've had too much whiskey and coke!!! ,

The hotel itself was nice enough, our room was quite spacious, the bathroom was clean and we had a nice view. There was a decent pool area and a small beach. The beach wasn't the nicest I've ever seen, the water was cloudy and there were warnings about jellyfish, so we steered clear of swimming in the sea.

The service in the hotel's terrace restaurant was very slow and the staff seemed disinterested when guests came to dine and on 2 occassions I had to get up from the table to ask for a menu or order a drink.....but despite the poor service, the food at the evening buffet was very good and only cost 30 ringgits per person (about £6.45 or 300 baht). The price of drinks was quite high with a small bottle of tiger beer costing 15 ringgits (£3.20 or 150 baht)

Carrying on with the theme of food, I was drawn to Malaysia by the prospect of sampling some of the local cuisine, but I ended up being a bit disappointed.

We went to the Hawker stalls at Gurney Drive which is listed in all the guide books and travel websites as one of the best place to try Malaysian food, but I found the food on offer to be quite bland and uninspiring, except for some excellent chicken satay and delicious squid with a sweet chilli sauce.

The food was, however, reasonably priced at 7.50 ringgits (approximately £1.60 or 80 baht) for a plate of Nasi Goreng and a plate of Char Keow Teow, 5 ringgits for the Satay and 3 ringgits for the squid.

We also ate at several local restaurants and again I found the food to be uninspiring. At a restaurant in the food court of the Prangin Mall, I had a bowl of noodles with fish balls and my girlfriend had some Tom Yum Mee, but it didn't light my culinary fire!!!

We also went to a restaurant along Gurney Drive called Bali Hai, which specialised in seafood. Our meal of fried rice, mantis shrimps and fried grouper was nice but the price was eye-watering at 200 ringgits (about £43 or 2,000 baht). For the same price in Thailand you could eat for a week!!!! In the bars along Gurney Drive a large bottle of tiger beer cost between 12 and 15 ringgits (about £2.60-£3.20 or 120-150 baht ) which is significantly more than Thailand.

Penang and the capital Georgetown (a UNESCO listed city), are rich in history and there are plenty of attractions to keep vistors entertained. There is also a free shuttle service in Geortgetown called the "MPPP Rapid Penang CAT" which stops at many of the top sights and runs from 6am to 12 Midnight. We took this service from Prangin Shopping Mall to visit Fort Cornwallis.

The fort was built in 1786, by Captain Francis Light who took control of the island for the British East India company. It is now a popular tourist destination with bus loads of local school children and foreign visitors arriving daily. The admission was 3 rinngits (about 65 pence or 30 baht).

On our last day we took taxi tour and visited the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion also known as the "Blue Mansion" which is a 19th Century courtyard house built in the Chinese "Hakka-Teochew" style. This UNESCO recognised house is now used as a hotel. They run guided tours in English at 11am and 3pm everyday. We went on the 11am tour which cost 12 ringgits per person. Our guide was very informative and had a good presentation style. Unfortunately, they don't allow you to take photos inside the house, so I only have photos of the exterior.

Our tour also took in the Penang State Museum, where the entrance fee was an extortionate 1 ringgit (about 20 pence!!!), the Snake Temple with its resident Malaysian pit vipers and the Thai and Burmese Buddhist temples. The reclining Buddha at the Thai temple is 33 metres long and is one of the largest in South East Asia. I reserve a special mention for our taxi driver, who described Arabs as "Ali Babas" and burka wearing muslim women as "ninjas". I laughed so hard I almost wet myself!!!

If I was writing Penang's school report, it would read: "satisfactory but could do better" and I'd give it 6/10. The beaches aren't great but there's a lot of interesting history and some nice scenery. The food is very hit and miss and there wasn't much variety. The people are an unusual bunch, some are very approachable and friendly, while others are very curt and sour faced. The prices for food and drink were significantly cheaper than the UK but more expensive than in Thailand. I can now tick it off my list of places to visit and if I decide to go to Malaysia again it will almost certainly be to another destination.