Tag Archive | "Chiang Mai"

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Chiang Mai Food

Posted on 12 October 2011 by Alex Gunn

chiangmai_foodI’ve moved half way across the globe, from a sleepy rural village in the west of England to the buzzing city of Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand in order to eat better. I haven’t been disappointed.

I remember the food writer and TV celebrity chef Jamie Oliver saying that he dreams about herbs. Surprisingly it is the only sensible and normal sounding thing I have ever heard him say. It’s not unusual for me to spend days or weeks thinking, and dreaming about particular recipes or food, although I haven’t yet dreamed about herbs…I’m sure though it’s only a matter of time.

The foods available in Northern Thailand must rank amongst the most interesting and amazing in the world. There are influences from everywhere in Asia including China and India and the fragrant dishes of Malaysia, Indonesia, Lao, Vietnam and Southern Thailand (the old Siam). It’s a giddy mixture and a life’s work to get to know and understand them all…but I’m prepared to give it a go.

One of the biggest differences between shopping in the UK compared with Chiang Mai is the strong market culture. There are excellent fresh markets throughout this whole region that sell the freshest and bestest food anywhere on the planet. Huge piles of mangoes, cabbages, chilies, coriander, strawberries, jack fruit, limes, bananas (five different kinds), lemon grass and every other fruit or vegetable you can think of, fill the buzzing markets. There are times down at my local market when you literally can’t get in…it’s absolutely packed with hungry shoppers buying their dinner on their way home (Tescos eat your heart out).   banana sellers

The part of the market that I go to first is the rice section. Back in the UK rice is just something you buy and cook and don’t think a great deal about. Bang it in the microwave and it’s done in 2 minutes. In Chiang Mai rice is a revered commodity. There are endless types of rice available for sale, either piled high in big sacks, or already cooked in big steaming vats. My favorite and probably the most popular in this part of Chiang Mai is locally grown sticky rice. I had sticky rice once in London in a Thai restaurant and quickly wished I hadn’t. It was a bit like eating glue. The sticky rice here is completely different; it’s warm and soft…more like fluffy mashed potato than rice. It’s the kind of food that will always be eaten because, like mashed potatoes, it is so damn good.

Once I have my warm sticky rice I start to look for something to go with it.  There are different ways I can go from here. Either I could try some Thai soups or curries and dip the rice straight into it, or invest in a tiny pot of spicy dry chili sauce called “Nam Prik Ta Dem” which is popular all over Thailand made out of dark red dried chilis and salted fish. Some people do eat the rice and the dry sauce as a meal in itself…it’s the cheapest complete meal available at most markets that will set you back just 8 Baht (or one third of a Mars Bar using the International Confectionary Conversion table).

If though, I have a few baht left over, which I usually do, (unless I’m in the mood for two thirds of a Mars Bar) I usually think about getting something from the grilled section. Chiang Mai sausages are excellent and famous throughout Thailand, and the rest of the world if I had my way. There are also grilled fish which range from the excellent and locally farmed Catfish to the expensive Snake Head Fish with soft flaky flesh. There is also roast chicken, or honey marinated pork satay, or deep fried vegetable tempura,  or mini kebabs of roast garlic and red shallots or fresh water crab pate, or whole grilled squid with sharp and sour fresh lime sauce, or fried quails eggs, or crispy duck or any one of the most delicious and unusual foods in the world.

Today, when it’s market time I’m heading for the fresh fish and seafood section at the back of the market and I’m going to buy myself a big bag full of giant Tiger Prawns and perhaps some Soft Shell Crabs. I’ll then pop round to the fresh herb section and pick out some big bunches of Coriander, Lemon Grass, Basil and Spring Onions. I can’t wait to get cooking with all these fresh flavors.

If Jamie Oliver shopped down at my local market he’d find it difficult to work out the difference between when he was dreaming about herbs and wide awake!

Enjoy your food.

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Magical Mystery Food Tour around Chiang Mai

Posted on 26 May 2011 by Alex Gunn

Hang on to your hats, one way round no bumping…here we go. This is a whistle stop food tour for the serious food lover around the magical jungle city of Chiang Mai, Thailand. Not for the faint hearted.     chiang mai moat life coaching holiday

Our day starts early with fresh brewed local coffee at my good friend Khun Sonthaya’s Coffee House. Now this might not sound too impressive, but good coffee is not that easy to find in a city strangely obsessed with instant Nescafe and condensed milk. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big “condensed milk with everything” fan but first thing in the morning it doesn’t really cut the mustard, does it. Not for the likes of you or I anyway.

Khun Sonthaya only buys top class local coffee beans from a small company called HillKoff who grow their coffee on the humid mountain sides just outside of Chiang Mai. You can, as a special treat, ask Khun Sonthaya for the special Civet Poo Coffee that is now being locally produced by a small organic organisation up in the mountains. Let me explain.

At night wild Civets (a notoriously shy and illusive cat like mammal) emerge from their day time hidy holes to creep through the jungle feeding on whatever they can find…notably the freshest and ripest coffee beans which they are most partial to (apparently). As the coffee bean passes through their gut, acids remove the outer layer of the bean which gives the coffee a strong but smooth taste (I did say not for the faint hearted). In the morning a small team of poo hunters comb the mountain side for Civet poo in order to process it into tiny amounts of rare tasting coffee. The price as you can imagine is horrendous. In America it sells for between $35 and $50 dollars per cup.

After coffee, Khun Sonthaya will join us for the rest of our food tour. We’re all off to Ching Choo Chai breakfast restaurant on the outskirts of Chiang Mai. Don’t try to find it by yourself…you won’t. It’s out of town and in an odd location off the ring road. It’s a real “locals only” place frequented by everyone from traffic cops to bank managers. There’s no menu, no hanging about and no disappointment; it serves the best breakfast you will find anywhere in the world (and God knows I’ve looked hard). You have a choice of 3 things; pork and rice, pork ball soup and rice porridge with (you guessed it) pork. I’m going to treat you to pork and rice (Cow Ca Moo). The pork is braised for hours and is so tender it does actually feel like it melts in your mouth. The rice is local jasmine rice that is served with the cooking juices of the pork. To off set the smoothness of the pork it is served with a spoonful of home made pickled cabbage and wonderfully hot spicy red chilli sauce.

Apart from serving the best breakfast in the world Ching Choo Chai’s prices are fairly competitive. To eat breakfast here with me and Sonthaya it will set you back less than the price of a Mars Bar in the 7 Eleven. So, breakfasts on me. I am the last of the big spenders!

life coaching food at market

Okay, ready for lunch? We’ll warm up by stopping off at the side of the road to buy a massive bunch of fresh Lychees. We’ll munch our way through as we speed off in my old diesel truck to a lunch restaurant called “that Northern Thai chicken place next to the moat”. Every lunch time they roast hundreds of chickens on big outdoor grills made from old oil drums. We’ll order a couple of plump golden good’uns and some hot and sweet red chilli dipping sauce. As a special treat…just because you’re with us today I’ll treat you to what is literally translated as a “Pork Shower”. Great name isn’t it. It is a type of ground pork salad mined with spicy chillies and freshened with chopped coriander and mint. It’s a great accompaniment to anything. We’ll wash all of this down with iced lemon tea and some of their home made coconut ice cream.

Now then, lets have a walk along the tree lined moat to work up a proper appetite…the leafyness and coolness of which always, and rather romantically, reminds me of  Paris (sorry but it really does). To take our minds of Paris I’ll treat you to some mango and sticky rice as we walk along.

Finally, as the day is drawing to an end and the sun is slipping behind the ever present Suthep Mountain we’ll set off, back out of town to my favourite fish and sea food restaurant locally known as “That fish and sea food restaurant out of town”. It’s a big operation and incredibly popular with Thai families. It starts to fill up from 5pm onwards and is staffed by an incredibly efficient army of waiting staff. We’ll get a table over the big central pond near the fountain so the afternoon air is cool and fresh. Our smiling waitress won’t leave until we have ordered everything we want, so nobody gets left behind. We’ll let Khun Sonthaya order as it’ll be quicker. I’ll put in a request for both of us, what about; a whole Pomfret fish steamed with ginger, shallots and lime, stir fried spinney crab, a few oyster omelettes (just because they are so good), some rice and a spicy papaya salad, all washed down with a big iced jug of beer.

fish restaurant from counselling retreat

We’ll sit out late under the stars in the moonlit shadow of the mountains listening to the distant and strange whirring noise of the Nightjars watching the owls swoop down from the forests and the bats flitting about the street lights. We’ll relax and talk about food, maybe order a couple of Thai whiskies and think about where we should eat tomorrow. Or shall we just do it all the same again.?

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Chiang Mai Has Gone Bananas

Posted on 11 March 2011 by Alex Gunn

banana sellers

You may think the idea of having 5 different types of bananas to choose from is entirely normal. But, I can assure you that if you had grown up on the outskirts of London in the 1970s were it was unusual to buy fruit at all (unless someone was ill) you would also share my amazement. 

When we were kids a sign of extravagance was to have a bowl of fruit on the sideboard. At Christmas it was joined by a small bowl of walnuts. There were only ever 3 kinds of fruit in the bowl, apples, oranges and bananas. The apples were soft, the oranges bitter but the bananas were at least a bland non offensive alternative. They usually disappeared first, then the apples and the oranges were sometimes left untouched and alarmingly none the worse for several years.

How can it be that you can get to 40 something years old and not realize there are varieties of banana. You would think that someone might tell you along the way, in the same way that you get to realize that the moon is not really made from cheese or the school nurse tells every boy their eyesight is so good they could be a fighter pilot (I was eighteen when an optician nearly killed himself laughing).

When I moved to Chiang Mai I basically thought that bananas were bananas. I had some vague idea that I had seen tiny, miniature bananas in Harrods or somewhere posh like that, which cost about a million pounds, but just assumed they were some weird affectation of the rich and famous (“Jeeves….make my bananas smaller!”). It is therefore with childlike delight that I can walk down the road any time and peruse several varieties of banana in my local market.

At the moment the market looks like a banana festival on Planet Banana. There are tables full of bananas of every shape, size and hue of yellow. I love the tiny finger sized ones that come in enormous bunches of up to 20 fruit. What I particularly like is the fact that you get so much for only 20 Thai Baht and when you eat them you feel like a giant. The flesh of these tiny fun sized bananas is a pleasing dark yellow. As different to the white anemic tasteless things we grew up eating as you could possibly get.

The fact that they are so wonderfully small and good to eat really does get me. Imagine being able to eat little water melons or growing tiny little juicy apples on little fairy trees. Moving to Thailand must be as close as you can get to moving to a different universe.

Although the tiny bananas are a knock out they do not have as good a taste as the big traditional looking fellows. My Thai friend told me that the literal translation for this type of banana is “good smell” which is certainly well placed. When you peel them they are beautifully fragrant which makes them irresistible. Although the flesh is whiter than the small ones they are creamier in taste and not as grainy and seem to command much higher prices.

In between these 2 extremes there are what I call “everyday bananas”. I get the feeling that people don’t really like them, that they are a bit common, which suits me fine. They are certainly the cheapest, I can get a big bunch for just 10 Baht or even 5 Baht if they won’t keep too long. They tend to be fairly straight and modest in size. The last bunch that I bought had hard black seeds inside like lead shot. It was the first ever time I’ve eaten a banana that has got pips. Will the wonders of Thailand never cease?

I have a strange affliction whereby I will almost certainly cycle down to the market this evening completely certain that I don’t need to buy any more bananas only to return with another huge bunch feeling strangely proud. My children are beginning to develop a pale yellow tinge although luckily for me the novelty of banana sandwiches has yet to wear thin. Perhaps I’ll buy just one more bunch.

 banana trees in old house

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Loy Krathong 101

Posted on 29 October 2010 by Joel Quenby

Considered the most charming of all Thai festivals, Loy Krathong offers beauty, romance and renewal. But what exactly is the event, how did it start—and where should travelers experience the celebrations?

Keeping charming traditions afloat: Loy Krathong

Keeping charming traditions afloat: Loy Krathong

“It takes an endless amount of history to make even a little tradition.”—Henry James

Thailand loves festivals. Its relish for pageantry made it the world’s fifth-largest festival hotspot in 2008, according to Euromonitor International. And tied to national identity—therefore deserving its “sa-ngob (serenity) description”—Loy Krathong is probably the kingdom’s most charming celebration.

While the West generally associates full moons with sinister werewolf transformations and the like, the East sees its brightest nights as auspicious. The full moon of the twelfth lunar month signifies the end of Thailand’s main rice harvest. It is time to thank the Water Goddess Mae Nam Kongka (Mother Ganges) for her year’s supply—while symbolically setting misfortune adrift. This period of renewal sees couples wholeheartedly embrace romance.

FESTIVE FORM

Loy means “float,” while krathong refers to the trademark lotus-shaped receptacles that are floated in riverways and even at beaches across the country. These days, individuals, villages or provinces enter floats of myriad shapes and sizes—even motorized models—for competition. They all end up stocked with offerings of betel nuts, flowers, joss sticks, candles and coins then ritually launched onto canals, rivers and lakes nationwide. For couples, it can be an anxious time wondering if their respective floats will snuggle together or drift apart.

The magic, mystique and romance of Loy Krathong

The magic, mystique and romance of Loy Krathong

Supplementary activities depend on the location. Any combination of processions, musicians, and marching bands, dancers, costumed theatrics and fireworks may accompany proceedings. Most Thai festivals feature beauty-pageant face-offs in honor of Nang Noppamas, allegedly a 14th-century lovely who pioneered the event.

DISPUTED ORIGINS

Some claim the festival derives from a Hindu tribute to the Vishnu. Others, including Thai King Rama IV (writing in 1863), base it on the Brahman Deepavalee ritual. Thailand’s official version teaches that royal consort Noppamas pioneered the krathong for the King of Sukhothai 700 years ago.

However, in The Great ‘Loy Krathong’ Myth! (2007) Stephen Cleary argues that the “legend” was invented by the Department of Fine Arts for an 1850’s novel. The available evidence suggests Loy Krathong descended from Cambodia’s Loy Khom (Float the Lantern)” festival in the mid-eighteenth-century Ayutthaya era.

WHERE: SUKHOTHAI… Hailing heritage

Celebrations in the original Thai kingdom hark back to its glory days

Celebrations in the original Thai kingdom hark back to its glory days

The first Thai kingdom is where Loy Krathong supposedly originated. Thais accordingly consider the World Heritage-listed Sukhothai Historical Park the most significant location for Loy Krathong. They really go to town with a spectacular light and sound show following a procession of oversized krathong from 17 Northern provinces. Locals also reprise bygone folk dancing and costumed theatrics to evoke Sukhothai’s renowned cultural traditions.

WHERE: BANGKOK… Avoid the melee

The metropolis only affords a single day to Loy Krathong, compared with five days elsewhere. Human traffic overcrowding the capital’s canals and riversides can spoil the fun. Santi Chai Prakarn public park and the Chao Phraya River from Krungthep Bridge to Krungthon Bridge resemble rush hour on New Year’s Eve. Lumpini Park offers more sedate going (disregarding kids swimming out to retrieve coins from the floats). To guarantee avoiding the crush, however, any of the five-star riverside resorts conduct civilized festivities—though you will have to pay for the honor.

WHERE: CHIANG MAI… Raising lanterns

Yi Peng festival "khom loi" lanterns create magic in Chiang Mai

Yi Peng festival "khom loi" lanterns create magic in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai offers double the festival fun. Loy Krathong blends into the local Yi Peng revelry. The latter sends negativity skyward in Lanna-style khom loi lanterns. The sight of hundreds of fluorescent, jellyfish-like lamps gracefully floating overhead creates a magical atmosphere. Added to illuminated waterways, buildings, trees and gardens citywide, this makes the historic city a real crowd-puller during the festivals.

WHERE: MALAYSIA: Cross-border appeal…

Loy Krathong celebrations cross Thailand’s southern border to Kelantan in Malaysia, where celebrations focus in the Tumpat area. The festival reportedly draws lots of tourists, so is generously promoted by the ministry of tourism.

Eco-grumble:
Foam krathong harm the environment, so natural materials are preferable. Eco-responsible revelers increasingly head for small canals, even swimming pools, to avoid polluting rivers.

In Bangkok: November 21, 2010; nationwide: November 17–21, 2010

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The Mighty Thai Avocado – Setting The Record Straight.

Posted on 13 October 2010 by Alex Gunn

As regular readers of these articles know, I like to spend as much time as possible at Northern Thai food markets. They are unquestionably the best in the world, or so I reckon. The range and quality of foods on offer is unsurpassed. Mountains of golden mangoes, water melons, dainty pots of fresh water crab pate, grilled catfish and huge bundles of bright green asparagus all jostle for space amongst a never ending sea of shoppers and hawkers.   P1010074 for avacado

It’s tempting to tell you all the wonders of my local market but I fear that in my excitement I would ramble on for several hours if not days and forget why I started writing this in the first place, which is……setting the record straight on the mighty Thai Avocado.

Over the last 50 years agriculture in Thailand has undergone a huge revolution, largely, as far as I can work out, as a direct result from the incredible energy and vision of the King. Impoverished farming communities have been re-invigorated by impressive “Royal Projects” that grow and produce a wide range of unusual and organic foods; the Water Buffalo Mozzarella Cheese is particularly good, so too is the Smoked Rainbow Trout, the continental looking jars of Apricots In Brine, organic strawberry jam and the range of fresh fruit concentrates, my favourite being the earthy and salty Apricot (I’ve started to ramble). But one fruit, (or is it a vegetable) stands out in the markets, at the moment, as head and shoulders above the rest, and that is the mighty Thai Avocado.

I use the word “mighty” not as an exaggerated way to talk up this recent South American addition to the ever expanding Thai fruit and veg extravaganza, but as a way to describe accurately its massive size. I have never seen avocados this big in my life; they are the size of footballs. Had it not been for the fact that the word “avocado” is almost the same in Thai I really would have struggled to work out what it was (“Khun Alex want Awacaado”? Oh yes, Khun Alex certainly does).

The thing about them is not the size, although they really are whoppers, but the taste. Admittedly the super size ones have a more watery taste but the slightly smaller ones are unbelievably good with a super rich nutty flavour and a beautiful creamy texture.

At the moment I’m suffering from a mild case what might be called Avocado Madness. It’s a condition characterised by cycling to the market at the end of every day mumbling quietly to yourself “I wont buy any more avocados, I don’t need any more avocados…” and returning home in an elevated mood with a basket full of bright green “awacaados”. As all members of AA (Avocados Anonymous) know, it really is difficult to stop. One’s too many and a thousand is never enough. They’re so good and so cheap. I’ve made endless avocado dips which always seem quite special and remind me of Christmas, creamy coconut milk avocado curries and a wonderful pasta dish with avocados, cherry tomatoes, olive oil and basil. I’m nearing that stage where I think it’s perfectly normal to start most sentences with, “another great thing about Thai avocados is…..” and entertain the delusion that people really are interested. I think that soon I might have to detox on aubergines.

Unfortunately, and quite bizarrely, I have recently read that local home grown Thai avocados are of “inferior” quality to the imported Australian ones. As you can imagine I’m somewhat affected by this. I can only think there is some suspicious, underhand antipodeans food writing conspiracy going on. The local Thai ones are every bit as good if not vastly superior in quality and certainly in size and also of course in price than what I shall call from now on, the “New World Conspiracy Avocados”.  New world, old tricks.

So if you get a chance, wherever you are, trundle down to your local market and ask around for Thai avocados, they really are worth looking out for, especially if you’re reading this in Australia!

No, not avocados...strawberries!

No, not avocados...strawberries!

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The Twilight Tree Top Spear Fishermen of Chiang Mai

Posted on 18 August 2010 by Alex Gunn

As the sun begins to set over Suthep mountain a strange group of men emerge to congregate around the city moats of Chiang Mai; the Tree Top Spear Fishermen.

Growing up in the 1970s watching repeats of The Twilight Zone I have always associated this time when day melts into night with mystery and magic; a brief gap where it’s neither one thing nor another, where it’s betwixt and between. Ambiguity of every kind is more pronounced in Thailand than anywhere else in the world. It’s as though Thailand is forever plunged into a magical twilight zone where there really is a third sex, where tomorrow could mean next week, next week could mean next year and to have the most is also to have the least.

P1010003  fishermen 1

This ambiguous time of day, or is it night, the whole of Chiang Mai is at it’s most active. The heat of the day has gone but the light of the day still lingering. Parks and odd bits of waste land are packed with thousands of games of Tak Kraw, joggers and other assorted fitness fanatics. Food vendors swarm the streets, markets buzz into life and a million fairy lights begin to twinkle outside thousands of bars as hundreds of bar girls put on their lip stick. There is a dizzy aroma of incense and fried chicken as the traffic cops fight a loosing battle to maintain order over an entire city on the move.

During this magical time, unnoticed by the day time people and the night time people, a small group of twilight people come out. Their work can only take place between the end of day and the beginning of night, between the time the sun sets,  and as they say in Ireland, “the time when the green goes out of the grass”.

Fishermen the world over from Bangkok to Balham will know that during this time fish are at their most active and what’s more, the reflections from the surface of the water suddenly vanish. It’s as though a stage magician has suddenly whisked away the silk curtain exposing a dark watery world beneath.

As the traffic whirls around the moats, all within becomes still and transparent. This is what the fishermen have been waiting for all day. The reflective veil has lifted exposing large old catfish dozing just beneath the surface.

As the fishermen congregate around the moats they lash murderous looking spear guns and harpoons to their backs. Most of these are standard under water spear guns used for marine fish hunting,  but some are wonderful home made contraptions made out of bits of iron rod resembling huge cross bows,  the needle sharp tip of the spear protected by a bit of dirty polystyrene. Each gun is attached to its spear by a coiled length of strong nylon cord. To the uninitiated eye it’s all quite an arresting sight that wouldn’t look out of place in a fantasy battle scene from Lord of the Rings.

It’s what happens next that is really unusual. Instead of the fishermen slipping undetected into the water, as would be normal in spear gun fishing, they climb up into the huge old trees that overhang the water. They climb as high as they can so they have an excellent view down into the clear dark water. From these tree top eyries they sit motionless with spear gun at the ready focusing intently on the water, cutting an arresting silhouette against the darkening skies above.      P1010004 fishermen 2

Then suddenly, the still evening air is filled with movement … zooooom. The trigger is pulled and a flash of silver darts through the air at incredible speed with incredible power slicing into the water towards a poor unsuspecting catfish. All is action. Down on the ground the fishermen’s young accomplice dashes out from beneath the tree to retrieve the spear and the harpooned fish. The fish is despatched quickly and hidden in an old plastic bag and the nylon cord wound in and the spear re set ready for the next victim.

I have explained this story to several guests that have come to stay with us here in Chiang Mai. I can see them looking at me rather uncertainly wondering if it’s the heat or the Thai whisky that has got to me. I don’t mind if you don’t believe me either, but all I do ask is that if you find yourself in Chiang Mai walking along by the cool waters of the moat at the end of the day, even if you feel over come with heat, don’t, and I repeat don’t be tempted for an evening dip, especially under the big old overhanging trees.

P1010009  fishermen 3

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With a little help from Thai friends

Posted on 28 July 2010 by Joel Quenby

Cynics may deem it a desperate measure to combat dwindling tourism, but Thailand should be commended for promoting its emerging drug rehabilitation sector

By Joel Quenby

Landscaped gardens at Channah Thailand, Kanchanaburi province

Landscaped gardens at Channah Thailand, Kanchanaburi province

“Go Cold Turkey in Thailand!”—as the official slogan presumably won’t go. Admittedly, such a catchphrase would be a far cry from the usual tourist-board platitudes (excluding Australia’s inspired “So Where the Bloody Hell Are You?” campaign, naturally). “Rehab tourism,” though, is a logical extension of therapies already offered by Thailand’s acclaimed surgery and spa industries, which already draw growing numbers of medical tourists.

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"They tried to make me go to rehab, I said: Yes, please!" Channah's poolside guest villas

Spearheading the Thai rehab revolution are two upscale detoxification resortsChanna, located by the River Kwai, and Breathing Space, in the Chiang Mai mountains. Both are picturesque, secluded and decked out with designer on-site spa and fitness facilities.

Channa’s pampered “guests” stay in plush bungalows with private verandas, home cinemas and a maid service. Treatment-wise, they are offered a newfangled 28-day regime of psychotherapy, fitness coaching, counseling and group work—at less than half the price of a week at Britain’s celebrity recovery center, The Priory.

Channa boasts a 92 percent program completion rate, which is, “Among the very best results for any clinic in the world,” says the Tourism Authority of Thailand. Breathing Space, meanwhile, bases its treatments on the standard 12-step program practiced worldwide in Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

Somehow one imagines that celebrity posterboys/girls will be in short supply for this campaign. One person who definitely won’t be promoting it is disheveled Brit-rocker, the Libertines’ Pete Doherty.

At the height of his junkie shambling, Kate Moss’s ex was sent to Wat Thamkrabok temple in central Thailand in 2004 (by none other than Eastenders’ Dot Cotton or her doppelganger, actress June Brown, whose godson has been hooked on crack).

The Spartan Buddhist way station is reputedly the world’s toughest clinic. The grueling treatments dished out include medieval beatings with a bamboo cane and being force-fed a black concoction of herbs that induces all-day vomiting marathons to purge impurities. (Spectacular displays of projectile spewing draws clapping from spectators invited in to witness the wretched addicts grappling their demons in public “vomit shows.” Not so much kicking you while you’re down, as applauding.)

It may sound comparable to Guantànamo—guests are even accommodated in a communal septic tank (okay, I made that one up)—but, incredibly, almost 70 percent of the tens of thousands of troubled people treated at the temple since 1958 have managed to stay drug-free, according to one Australian study.

Flunked relinquishing junk: Pete Doherty

Flunked relinquishing junk: Pete Doherty

But it’s clearly a hardcore regime; a far, anguished cry from mollycoddling, celeb-friendly detox haunts. Predictably, lily-livered Doherty lasted just three days (before legging it back to heroin-induced oblivion).

“The singer seemed unwilling or unable to let go of his dark side,” Phra Hans, a Swiss spiritual counselor at Thamkrabok, told The Independent.

However, bearing testament to the medical establishment’s faith in Thai-style detox—and, if accurate, the temple’s astonishing success rate should speak for itself—the U.K.’s National Health Service sends selected patients to Thamkrabok.

It makes sense to me. Who would not prefer to “go tropical”—preferably in five-star style—for their discreet cleanup? It beats trembling it out in some dingy motel, stark detox clinic or damp rehab hideaway any day.

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Bangkok T+L’s World’s Best City … the why’s and how’s

Posted on 15 July 2010 by Matt Leppard

Bangkok regained the top spot in Travel + Leisure’s 2010 World’s Best Awards readers’ survey, announced last week, closely followed by Chiang Mai in the second. Meanwhile, 10 Asian hotels are placed in the top 100 hotels in the world, with Peninsula Bangkok (named as Asia’s number 1 city hotel) coming in at number 7 and Four Seasons Singapore at 14. Other Asian properties placed in the list’s top 50 include Shangri-La Singapore at number 20, the Four Seasons Resort in Chiang Mai (27), the Hotel de la Paix in Cambodia (29) and the Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi, also in Chiang Mai (45).

wbAlso scoring highly in the poll, voted for by readers of all six editions of Travel + Leisure, are Singapore Airlines (Top International Airline) and Bali (Top Asian Island and fourth in the Top Islands Overall category).”

The above is culled from our own T+L SEA press release, but it doesn’t delve into how Bangkok won, what it means, and how it should be interpreted. Some of the livelier forums, at least here in Bangkok, have been buzzing about this “honor,” with many users complaining that it’s inaccurate at best.

This is wrong-headed thinking, although it’s clear that some confusion has arisen as to the nature of the results. Well, it is what it is, to be honest. First off, the poll—accessible online by readers of the U.S. and international editions of T+L under stringent U.S. survey/polling regulations—is a reader survey (not a dubiously subjective editors’ opinion piece) of global travelers’ favorites.

In the Best City category, readers were asked to rate sights, culture/arts, restaurants/food, people, shopping, and value. It is not any sort of “livability” index, or any other imaginative interpretation of “World’s Best City.” It was also conducted from December 2009-March 2010, before the recent problems in Bangkok kicked off.

That said, the strong showing of Asian properties and destinations is really no surprise. Asia, and particularly Southeast Asia, continues to offer some of the most attractive world-class properties, located in such varied locations as exotic rain forests, vibrant cities, and even on water; with such a choice, Southeast Asia will remain one of the world’s most popular regions.

In addition, the fact that Bangkok has been voted in the top spot this year, as it was in 2008, is testament not only to the myriad attractions on offer and the variety of top-drawer hotels, but also to the Thai people and culture, both of which bring so much joy to travelers. My hope is that this win will further boost Bangkok tourism recovery efforts, which all of us are committed to.

The full results will be published in the August edition of Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, out August 1.

Now … Why don’t you let us know what you think of the results?

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Chiang Mai: Volunteering in the northern capital

Posted on 11 June 2010 by purple5@in

The 2000s will go down in the annals of marketing as the century tourism without a prefix went out of fashion. I’m told my ancestors justified their holidays with hard work and an ‘I’ve-earned-it’ attitude, but these days you feel obligated to buy carbon offsets just for a visa run to Mae Sai.

The buzz around eco-, agro- and volun- tourism, for all of its ad wizardry, does add a fresh dimension to travel in Thailand. While nature-based tours get plenty of attention through hotels in Chiang Mai, volunteer opportunities are too often overlooked. That’s too bad, because, in my experience, lending a hand to a worthy cause is one of the most rewarding ways to experience any city. It also puts you directly in contact with genuine locals that you wouldn’t otherwise meet.

Independent travelers can work out their own arrangements, but it’s hard getting in touch with the smaller charity foundations where the most interesting work is happening. Pay-to-play agencies make sense for short-term volunteers, and while paying to help out sounds a little backwards, these companies operate streamlined projects that can maximize the impact of short-term efforts.

Chiang Mai is overflowing with potential volunteer projects, but these are a few of the highlights:

Volunteer in an orphanage

wildflower-home1

Chiang Mai’s government-run orphanage, Viengping Children’s Home, is near the city hall, and they welcome foreign visitors who want play outside with the kids after school. These children come from every background imaginable. Some are true orphans; others have been abandoned or abused. Viengping is enormous and functional, if a little bleak, but the kids who stay here truly enjoy the chance to meet and interact with people from such far-off places.

Across from behemoths like Viengping are a host of small foundations and privately run facilities. These little places are always in need of assistance, though they’re usually reluctant to set up a revolving door for short-term volunteers to whisk in and out of the children’s lives. Many of these projects are funded by Christian foundations, and virtually all of them are more receptive to volunteers willing to make medium-term commitments – something like six weeks or more. Two of particular interest are the Agape Home for children with HIV/AIDS and the Wildflower Home, which is a shelter for single mothers in crisis.

Teach monks

monk

When booking accommodation in Chiang Mai, it’s hard to find room without a view of a temple. This city has dozens of monastery schools, where boys from rural or impoverished families get a free education. The students are all monks for the time being – saffron robes, shaved heads and all – but most return to the laity when they graduate. English is part of the daily regiment, and school administrators (also monks) are generally happy to bring a Westerner in to help with speaking and listening practice.

Worth it for the photo-op alone, teaching English in a monastery gives visitors a level of access they wouldn’t normally enjoy in these temples. Everything from morning meditation to the monastic version of school lunch makes this one of the most memorable travel experiences a person could have. And let’s face it: a cauldron of curry is way more appetizing than a steaming vat of taco meat.

Bathe elephants

elephant

In fairness, you do more than bathe them, but who hasn’t dreamed of leading an elephant to a jungle river and giving it a good scrub? I’ve probably said too much.

Chiang Mai’s elephants have a serious unemployment problem. In the old days, they hauled fresh-cut teak logs to the river for transport, but the advents of tractors and national parkland have taken their toll on elephant livelihood. Elephant conservation centers have sprung up around Thailand to give these beasts something to do, whether that means painting pictures (seriously), kicking footballs or taking more baths than the average adolescent boy.

They make a living by putting on daily shows for visitors, giving rides and by charging volunteers for the privilege to work with them. These places are businesses, but they do good work. A stand-out facility that is 100 percent dot-org is the Elephant Nature Park. It runs a volunteer program with positions for general helpers, veterinarians and veterinary students.

Intern professionally

Several institutes and NGOs in Chiang Mai are open to working with interns. Few offer any kind of salary, and most work through local agencies that charge a placement fee. The prospect of traveling halfway across the world and paying a company to hire them puts some travelers off, but it can do amazing things to a resume.

The best internships in Chiang Mai are for pre-med students. Several private hospitals near the city center take on students and pair them with an English-speaking doctor. Students are closely monitored, and they have opportunity to perform rounds, assist the doctor and observe medical procedures.

Qualified interns enjoy higher levels of responsibility, but the level of access across the board is high compared to internship programs in the West. I suppose that’s exciting or a little frightening depending on which end of the operation you’re on, but in either case, nothing happens outside of the strict supervision of the doctor.

The medical internship program run by Friends for Asia is well-organized. Its founder (a Peace Corps veteran) is an excellent resource for volunteers in Chiang Mai.

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What To Buy In Thai Food Markets.

Posted on 07 June 2010 by Alex Gunn

Thai food markets or “fresh” markets are the best in the world and right now is the best time to visit them. Here are the top 5 things to look out for in food markets in Thailand.

P1010014 food market title picture

Fresh Water Crab Pate.

This has to be top of my list at the moment. I love it. It’s Thailand’s answer to caviar. It has a strong earthy taste, is an appealing warm golden colour, is beautifully presented in tiny crab shells and the person who finds a way to import it and distribute it in “the west” will be a millionaire. It should be on the menu at top restaurants in London, Paris and New York and I’m amazed that it isn’t, I’m sure it’s just a matter of time. Because it’s seasonal you can’t find it all year round which makes its arrival in the markets all the more exciting. I have been buying the beautiful little shells full of golden pate for the past week and eating it with a tiny silver spoon that my Grandmother used to stir her tea. I’m sure she would approve. A pack of 4 little crab shells full of delicious fresh golden pate will cost you about 15 Baht.

Steamed Clams. P1010017 food market 2

I’ve cheated slightly because I want to mention two things at the same time; Steamed Green Lipped Mussels and Steamed Cockles. You can buy both in most markets all year round. The mussels are delicious steamed with Basil and Lemon Grass and come with a little bag of spicy sour sauce. The cockles are usually steamed on their own but a quick dip in the spicy sour source transforms them into a rare delicacy. Both are delicious, typically fragrant and extremely good indeed. These will set you back 20 Baht a bag.

Giant Lychee.

Fresh Lychee are available in the west at expensive food stores and cost a small fortune, down the road I can buy a bucket full for a handful of small change. But, they are nothing compared to the king of fruit, the Giant Lychee. Oh my goodness they are fantastic. It’s a bit like suddenly discovering that somebody has made chocolate even better. The Giant Lychees are just coming into the markets now. They are twice the price but that will drop over the next 2 weeks. I bought my first bundle with the bright green leaves still on the branches a few days ago and my 2 sons ate them without talking in 5 minutes flat (a very rare occurrence).

Deep Fried Whole Soft Shell Crab.

In every Thai food market up and down the country there will be a stall deep frying things in huge deep woks. The variety of what is fried is a small book in itself. If I only had 20 Baht on me, my money would go on a bag of deep fried small soft shell crabs fried in seconds with a thin crispy batter. They are delightfully crunchy and crabby, if you know what I mean.

Sapodilla

The Thai name for these are Lamut, or sometimes known as Naseberries (apparently) and have been around for a good few weeks now.  I only mention them as I have a slight obsession with an idea that I have yet to try out that I’ll tell you about in a minute. Firstly, just to say these delicious fruit are almost unknown in “the west”, probably because they bruise easily and have to be eaten at just the right moment. When they are ripe they have the most fantastic syrupy pear flavoured. I was recently working from a very expensive 5 star spa resort on Ko Samui that would serve a handful of these fruit as a complimentary snack on a little silver platter with eating instructions and nutritional content on a little accompanying card. What a great idea. I witnessed guests raving about them, they really were knocked out. I think some of them would re-book just for the complimentary Sapodilla moment.

My idea that I keep thinking about is the combination of Sapodillas and Thai whisky, I think they are made for each other. Split the fruit in half, de-seed and soak over night in a slightly sweetened syrup of Thai whisky. Serve with coconut ice cream. If you try it before I do let me know what it’s like.

P1010015 for food market 1

If you are interested in private tailor made tours of Thai food markets do let me know and I’ll point you in the right direction.

Happy food shopping and eating.

Alex

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Amy Ma

Food & Drink + Hong Kong

Amy is a regular contributor to the South China Morning Post and Wall Street Journal amongst other publications. [...]

Pua Mench

Hong Kong

Pua is a writing and traveling enthusiast based in Hong Kong, with a weakness for all things related to the culinary arts and healing modalities, and a passion for sustainable living. [...]

Kim Inglis

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Kim has been an editor and journalist for over 20 years, more than half of which has been spent in Asia. [...]

Nellie Huang

Travel Adventures + Singapore

Nellie has been published in Food & Travel magazine and Lifestyle, and is a contributing author of V!VA's Guatemala Guidebook. She writes to travel, and travels to write. [...]

Sarah Jane Evans

Travel Adventures + Borneo

She has published travel articles in Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia in publications including: Vacations and Travel magazine... [...]

Carrie Kellenberger

Photo Blog + Taiwan

She has traveled throughout Asia, finding work as a writer, editor, educator, voice over artist, photographer, and nightclub singer. [...]

Mark Lean

Kuala Lumpur

From writing about music, Mark expanded his focus to design, fashion, food and travel. In recent years, he has explored the highs and lows of Asia. [...]

Joel Quenby

Entertainment + Asia News

Joel is a British writer and journalist who's lived, worked and traveled in Southeast Asia since 2002. He's filed yarns for numerous publications...[...]

Alex Gunn

Chiang Mai

After several diverse careers as a circus performer, school teacher, psychotherapist, stunt pilot and university lecturer he can now be found poking about far flung markets, museums, restaurants and odd places in and around Chiang Mai.. [...]

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