Striking Street Art in Ratchaburi City

When Steven and I first arrived in Ratchaburi, we came across these giant poster images of people in mostly jeans with masks covering their faces. I didn’t pay much attention at first, because I honestly thought it was a Levi’s advertisement. The next day, however, when we were more awake and had the sunlight on our side, I started to realize that these weren’t advertisements at all. It was our first introduction to street art in Ratchaburi!

Tooten RCA Ratchaburi

That’s kind of how things go in Ratchaburi. If you’re paying attention, you’ll realize that almost every street corner plays host to a bit of magnificent street art. In fact, Ratchaburi caters to the artsy group quite well, filled with quirky cafes and museums that provide the right combination of color and caffeine to get the creative juices flowing.

So what about those giant posters? They’re actually the remnants of an open-air exhibition by Ralf Tooten titled, R.C.A. (Ratchaburi Construction Workers).” The stars of the prints that I had mistakenly pinned as models are actually real-life construction workers pulled from the building sites of high-rise condos and expensive offices.

Their face coverings are alluring, and to be honest, lend them a hip kind of rebel look at a glance… but the reality is much more sobering than that. Not only do many workers need facial covering to protect themselves from dust and debris, but many of them also need to protect their identities. Did you know that there are over a million undocumented migrant workers in Thailand? About 75% of these come from Myanmar. Even those that happen to be completely legal live in fear of being harassed, physically abused, or arrested by the Thai police.

Tooten’s street art in Ratchaburi highlights these workers by putting the unseen on a pedestal where you’re forced to take notice. Say hello to the underbelly of globalization and modernization!

There’s plenty more street art where that came from, though! If you want to check out a sweet little modern art gallery where you can chill with an artsy-fartsy magazine and shoot the breeze with impossibly hip Thai baristas, hit up D Kunst Gallery & Cafe.

d Kunst gallery ratchaburi

On our visit the artwork seemed to consist primarily of photographs of Ratchaburi and the surrounding area, but it was worth a visit if for nothing other than the delicious lattes served up in handmade ceramic mugs. The barista will be sure to give you pointers on where to find the best street art in Ratchaburi on your way out.

drinks at d kunst gallery ratchaburi

I promise, you won’t have to go far. Just across the street from D Kunst, the Mae Klong riverside embankment is covered with gorgeous (albeit fading) street art murals. A lot of pretty big names have made their way to this lazier city just outside of Bangkok, including P7, Mamafaka, and Alex Face–if you’re not already familiar with their work, take a look at this article on BUKRUK: Bangkok Street Art Festival.

There are plenty of other pieces of street art to be found, though. Take a look at my favorites here, and then go find your own! One of the beautiful things about street art is that it’s ever-changing, and it’s the one thing that seems to be going fast in slow-paced Ratchaburi. Just another reason to love this place!

Alex face ratchaburi street art

street art ratchaburi

street art ratchaburi 2

street art ratchaburi 3

street art ratchaburi 4

hello street art ratchaburi

The Art of Khao Soi

If you haven’t been to Northern Thailand, you probably haven’t even heard of it. Shame. Khao soi is without a doubt the most iconic dish hailing from Chiang Mai. Rich, spicy, and complex, it’s also one of the most fun foods I’ve recently eaten. That’s because khao soi isn’t just a meal… it’s an art form.

Khao Soi

This dish is Northern Thai via Burma via South China. The details are murky. Whatever the more distant history, khao soi arrived to the Chiang Mai area through Yunnanese Muslim immigrants. Originally, rice would be ground, boiled, dried, and then sliced into the long noodles, giving the dish it’s characteristic name… “khao soi” translates as “cut rice.”

Now, khao soi is served with a visually appealing and texturally exciting double-layer of noodle goodness. Soft noodles swim in the broth below, topped with crispy deep-fried noodles balanced on top. And that’s what this bowl is all about, really:  balance.

For our first exploration, we did the one thing I never do… we went to a pretty sterilized restaurant with lots of shiny English menus and other Westerners. I know, I know. I’m already asking for it on this one. But here’s the thing. You don’t just eat khao soy. I knew we were going to need a little help here, if we were going to avoid looking like total farang ding dong.

Not convinced? Then take a look at this roadmap:

Sen Khao Soi diagram

We started by picking our meat (we both went with free-range chicken on the bone), spice level, and type of noodles. All of that comes served up and simmered in a soupy deep red curry and coconut sauce. OMG.

That’s not all. At Just Khao Soy, each bowl is appropriately brought to the table on an artist’s palette, surrounded by decadent little dishes to help you get the balance just right for your tastes. From fresh bananas and extra coconut milk to my favorites, shallots and pickled cabbage, we really got to play around with the essential flavors of Thai food–sweet, salty, sour and spicy.

Maybe it takes a little bit of everything to make a masterpiece, but when it’s done right, it’s done right. Delicious.

eating khao soi

 

The Details

  • Just Khao Soy
    108/2 Th Charoen Prathet
    Chiang Mai
    (pretty much just a hop, skip, and a jump from the riverside)
  • Expect to pay about 100-200 baht/bowl
  • If you’re like me and are used to eating street food (read, for Thais), beware. This was one of those places where the waiter thinks it’s funny that you order it spicy and so makes it extra spicy and sniggers in the background when your nose barely runs. Miraculously, I’m not dying, and funnily enough, I do see you over there!

Lopburi Monkey Town Madness

Lopburi isn’t too far outside of Bangkok, but it offers a glimpse into an older, smaller town. It’s pretty interesting historically speaking, dating back to over 1,000 years ago, and it even once stood as a Khmer stronghold. But I’ll be completely honest… I didn’t come for any of that. For once, I jumped on the tourist bandwagon and came to see the famous Lopburi monkeys!

Lopburi Monkey Collage

I have no idea how or why the famed macaques decided to take over the ruins in Lopburi, but take over they did! Giant monkey statues greeted us as our train pulled up to the Lopburi station, immediately announcing that we were now in the monkeys’ domain. All along the streets, I caught little scurrying feet, and above my head, even more monkeys scampered across electric lines and street signs. But it wasn’t until we checked into our cute little room at Sri Indra that I realized just how many monkeys were in Lopburi!

Lopburi city monkeys

Barely having settled our things in the room and checking for sneaky roaches, we threw open the curtains to let in the evening breeze.  Sliding the glass pane to the side, we saw that an extensive network of chain link fence had been mounted just above the rooftops and along the walls of this side of Lopburi. Hovering just a couple of feet above and outside, the fence provided a complete alternate universe that belonged not to us, but the monkeys. They would run, climb, leap, and laze about, sometimes shaking the whole expanse with a fury I couldn’t decide was meant to express anger at being kept out, or at feeling caged in…

As I watched the scene with amazement, the sun sinking in the distance with the notorious deep hues of a SE Asian skyline, a rather large macaque attached himself just beyond our window, not 6 inches from our faces. We rushed for our cameras, but after a mistaken flash, the cute little furry fellow reminded us that these are not domestic friends, these are wild animals. He shook the fence with dangerous swaying, howling and hollering as he tried to reach us.

Monkey in the Window Lopburi

A timely warning I suppose, because our plans for the next day included nothing but getting up to some serious monkey business at Phra Prang Sam Yot, or as tourists appropriately call it, the Monkey Temple. This is the Holy Grail of Lopburi, the most-photographed and most-visited landmark of the city. Standing out with its golden monkey statues and three Khmer styled prangs, or towers, the temple is also the favorite resting place and home to hundreds of monkeys.

Phra Prang Sam Yot

Here, there is little question as to who holds the upper hand. Upon entering the dark, cool corridors inside the temple walls, we got a chance to feel what it’s like to be caged in, the roles suddenly reversed. We trampled through the narrow spaces as monkeys ogled us through the bars, sticking fingers in to poke or prod us, curious as we looked out from within our temporary cage.

Behind bars Lopburi

But it’s outside these walls that monkey mayhem really takes over. And can I say cuteness overload?? Especially the little baby monkeys, examining little cobs of corn or pulling tails, with their scrunched up old man faces and large, soulful eyes.

Cute little monkey in Lopburi

Most of the young monkeys seemed to flock to one of the Buddha statues, tumbling and careening down the smooth sides, or having a little mass wrestling match in the Buddha’s folded arms and lap. They seriously are cheeky little monkeys! We stood around this spot for ages watching them play with each other, as the adults sat around the perimeter looking on.

Monkeys in Lopburi

At one point, we were interrupted by a shrill shout… “Pi kah! Pi kah! Mister, mister, pi kahhh!” Two tourist girls who had been posing in the sidelines, with giant straw hats and requisite Asian peace signs, were outsmarted by one brave little guy who took off with her hat! I barely captured him as he stole away, the girls hollering and tour guide in mid-chase! In case you were wondering, she did eventually get her hat back…

Cheeky monkey in Lopburi

As cute as they were, I nearly jumped out of my skin the first time one of the monkeys leapt onto my back! I have heard horror stories about vicious bites and rabies, and in a moment of flushed fear, I absolutely froze on the spot. Truthfully, the young monkeys were relatively harmless, much more interested in figuring out how to open my yellow purse or snapping the hair ties on my wrist than anything else. Some of the older monkeys are much more aggressive though, and I was sure to stay clear. Overfeeding from tourist hands most likely has something to do with that, and so I neglected to take part in the hustle of buying corn or sweet red juice to tempt little monkey tempers.

Monkeys on me in Lopburi

Actually, there’s a reason why feeding these wild monkeys is considered acceptable in Lopburi, where the monkey king/god Hanuman (with the head of a monkey and body of a man) is greatly revered. The city of Lopburi itself was supposedly granted to Hanuman as a thank-you gift for fighting along with Rama against the great demon, Ravana. Locals believe that the monkeys, as descendants of Hanuman, are thus a sign of superior good luck and good fortune. In fact, they host a giant monkey banquet once a year in which over 4 tons of food are gifted to the wily macaques. P.S. — we missed the banquet by one day. One day! Special thanks to the misinformation that often appears on the internet…

At any rate, some of these guys have obviously taken full advantage of the feeding frenzies. We saw a few monkeys like the one below, not looking especially comfortable in their extra layers during roasting hot afternoons. When a monkey like this wants to eat, all others clear the way and only come out for a bite once he’s had his fill.

Big monkey at Lopburi

So anyway, I’m fully aware that Lopburi is a bit of a tourist trap. But seeing the hordes of monkeys was totally worth a quick day or two in the town. Seriously, where else are you going to have sights like this everywhere you turn?

Lopburi Monkey

Monkeys in Lopburi

The Details

  • Lopburi is a perfect stop if you’re heading North toward Chiang Mai. Take a break, stay one night, and then head on your way. The train stops right down the street from the guesthouses, street market, and most of the temples.
  • If you don’t want monkeys jumping all over you, especially the big ones, don’t feed the monkeys! Always remember that they are wild animals first and foremost, and can be dangerous. Also, keep in mind that looking them in the eyes too long can be interpreted as a threat.
  • Where to stay? If you’re looking for a lively spot where you can have a few drinks and swap stories with other travelers, check out Noom Guesthouse. Prices here are cheap, ranging from about 150-350 baht. The guesthouse is in a restored, older Thai-style home with loads of character but impossibly thin walls. If you want something quieter, check out Sri Indra, just down the street from Prang Sam Yot. Expect a very clean, hotel-style room with ensuite bathroom for under 300 baht, and views of those monkeys clambering on rooftops!
  • You’ll find some wimpy Western food directed at tourists in Lopburi for sure, but please please opt for something local! Pick up a few bites at the market on the main strip, or even better, take a seat at Khao Tom Hor. Never mind if you don’t see a sign, it’s the busiest place on the street, and every plate is as delicious as the last!

Goong Ten: “Dancing Shrimp” in Northern Thailand

Everyone loves Thai food for it’s gorgeous aromas, fresh ingredients, and amazing presentation. Well, guess what? This ain’t your momma’s Thai food! Even some Thais are repulsed by the thought of goong ten, but up in the Northeast, it’s a culinary delight. Let me tell you, this dish is alive. No, I mean literally–it’s main ingredient is live, jumping, squirming baby shrimp!

Goong ten actually loosely translates as “dancing shrimp,” referring to the way these transparent little critters try to squirm away from you–even while eating. To make this odd salad, the little baby shrimp are tossed with seasoning, fish sauce, ground roasted dry chili, coriander, and a bit of onion. Lime juice is squeezed all over the top just before placing the lid on the container, and served with various sorts of leaves.

Goong Ten presentation

So what’s the deal with the lid? As soon as the lime juice hits the shrimp, they start going CRAZY! I’m not talking a little wriggling here and there, I mean the moment you barely lift that lid, they start leaping out in search of freedom. You can even hear the goong ten banging around against the ceramic walls of the pot. It’s an adventure before you even get them near your mouth! Once you’re ready, you just tear off a bit of a leaf and snatch some shrimp before they leap off the table, then shovel them in.

Goong ten in Northern Thailand

Once you do get them inside your maw (if you do manage to get that far), you’ll also get a little tickle from the odd antenna or two moving against your nose or chin, and the tiny tango continues on your tongue. The feel and texture of the goong ten is entertaining to say the least, but then there’s the taste! Like all Thai salads, you get the salty, sour, and spicy–but the way it happens is incredible. The slight saltiness of the immature shrimp ruptures on your tongue, complimented by a slight crunchiness, and finishing with the searing heat of that typical Northern dried chili.

Watch us try it for the first time, and if you look closely, you’ll catch a shrimp leap clear across the screen just before I taste mine!

So. Would I eat it again? … Maybe. To be honest, the flavor is great, and the feeling just… Interesting, as long as you can get past the idea of putting a live shrimp in your mouth.

Bon appetit!

 

The Details:

  • Goong ten is primarily served in the North/Northeast. We had our go at Huay Teung Thao Reservoir, just outside of Chiang Mai. The easiest (and best) way to get there is just to rent a motorbike and go!
  • I’ve been told you can also find it on the streets of Bangkok from time to time, but I have doubts about the freshness. Hey, go for it if you like!
  • Beware, you will attract quite a few stares and giggles from the Thais! All in good fun, of course 🙂

Tasty Thai Oyster Omelettes (Hoy Tod)

Oyster omelettes. Oh yeah, I know what you’re thinking. The first time I saw oyster omelettes listed as a must-try dish in Thailand, I probably screwed my face up into something ridiculous. The idea of oysters and eggs didn’t exactly strike me as a heavenly combination. But trust me. Sticking to that kind of inclination is bound to leave you seriously missing out on a unique and delicious nosh.

First of all, this isn’t really an omelette in the strictest sense, some even translate hoy tod as oyster pancakes. Instead, it’s a lethal combination of eggs, oysters, garlic, chili, green onions, and maybe even a bit of coriander (cilantro. I’m beginning to have a major identity crisis here!). What gives it that extra oomph, though, is the addition of a starchy solution that provides the whole thing with a delightful crunch.

Steven and I had the chance to play audience to an oyster omelette chef at a local market in Ratchaburi city. With expertise, she first splattered a few spoonfuls of the starchy solution, usually made from a mixture of rice flour and water, on to the flat grill. For each omelette, she then grabbed a hefty handful of fresh oysters and placed them in the center.

Oyster Omelettes 1

Next, she just cracked an egg directly on top. The mixture is left to sit for awhile, allowing that solution to provide the oysters and egg a lovely crispy brown before flipping. This is key, people. Also, can I just point out that this lady cracks eggs like a boss? No need to crack it lightly on an edge. No, no, she just picks that thing up and smashes it one-handed. Seriously.

Oyster Omelettes 2

Next, she used her ninja skills to chop through and mix the egg and oysters a bit with a metal spatula. She then added a bit more of the starchy batter to the omelets, flipping them over to brown further. Without all that crispiness, the omelette can turn into a bit of a soggy mess.

Oyster Omelettes 3

Once it’s nice and oily and brown and cooked through, the omelette is once again chopped up a bit, this time with chili, garlic, and all that other goodness added in. It’s then dressed with green onion, cilantro, and bean sprouts, and brought to the table.

hoy tod in Ratchaburi

But even though at this point I’m usually happily drooling and ready to dive in head first, I usually douse this thing with some sweet chili sauce–the ‘ketchup’ of Southeast Asia. There’s something magical that happens here… somehow the forces of these simple ingredients combine into something magnificently rich and complex. Soft, briny oysters are bonded by the sweet chili to the crackling, battery-egg mixture. Fireworks explode. It’s that amazing. Get one, ASAP!

The Details

  • I got mine at Ratchaburi central market, easily found in the complex under the yellow clock tower near the river. But you can get yours just about anywhere on the street, especially in Bangkok. Want to check out one of the best? Go to Nai Mong Hoi Tod, 539 Thanon Phlap Phla Chai, Bangkok. Yes, that’s in Chinatown, and yes, you might get lost trying to find it. It’s worth it, I promise.
  • Expect to pay a bit more for this dish than others–it will usually set you back about 65-70 baht. Remember, we’re talking loads of oysters here. That’s still a steal.
  • Extra crispy? Yes, please!

Running with Dragons: Why Getting Lost is Awesome

The recent holiday, Chinese New Year, has had me thinking of dragons. And while those long, shimmery versions that danced all around Manchester were pretty cool, they just can’t beat one of my favorite dragon stories. This story doesn’t involve anything extreme. It wasn’t in a big city, there wasn’t a big crowd, and let’s be honest, I really didn’t even know what was going on. But this dragon story has a moral to it:  getting lost might be some of the best travel moments.

One afternoon, in Ratchaburi town, Ste and I were out admiring the street art on the riverfront. Like usual, I had a little list of well-researched spots that I had in mind to visit, and we slowly checked them off, one by one. After stopping for a much-needed iced coffee break at a hip cafe, we headed to the last spot on the list. But, it just wasn’t where it should have been…

Posing in Ratchaburi town center

We came to a fork in the road. One direction headed back to the center of town where our guesthouse was located. The other meandered near the river into the unknown. For a second, we kicked the rocks around a little with our toes, trying to figure out where I’d went wrong on my little map, how we’d ended up getting lost. And then we just decided to turn and walk away from the town. And walk we did. The sun was accosting us with typical mid-afternoon fervor, our cheeks and shoulders taking on a burnt red hue. At first, we walked in silence, mostly because I was a bit frustrated for losing our way (I promise, it never happens).

But then, the streets started to come to life. To the left, I caught a housewife lazily lounging in her open living room watching some obnoxious daytime television. To the right, cats prowled around some newly hatched chickens. Motorbikes slowly roared past us, with giant smiles and waves and big “hello”s. We weren’t near any shops, or restaurants, or anything really… we were just ambling down tiny residential streets, suddenly showing our white faces amidst the day to day lives of the local Thais.

After turning around a giant bend in the road, we were suddenly accosted by hoots and hollers from a house to our right. We peeked through the tall bushes and found a clearing, and came face to face with a giant blue dragon lying on its side. A troop of boys hurried round and round his body, attaching sequins or fur, and another group hung off the rungs of the top porch of the Thai home.

Ratchaburi Dragon

They laughed at our confusion and surprise, then asked to pose for some pictures, which we were happy to oblige. We stayed for a few moments, trying desperately to make conversation and figure out what was up with the dragon, and eventually continued on our path through the countryside.

happy faces and cheeky grins

Later that day, and by later I mean literally hours later, Ste and I were relaxing in the guesthouse, trying desperately to make up for the energy the sun had sucked from us all afternoon. As we lay next to the open windows, the slow whir-whir-whir of the fan blades was interjected with another sound. It started with just a slow and steady boom… boom and soon I could hear the whine of an electric guitar. Confused, I stepped into the hall for a second, before lying back down. “I wonder what the neighbor is doing in his room that he needs the tv turned up so stupidly loud,” I said. “You think that’s really what it is?” “I don’t know what else it could be, and it’s much louder in the hall.”

We lay quietly again, trying to block out the noise. Finally I jumped to my feet, “I can’t take this noise anymore! How can he turn his music up so loud!? It’s ridiculous!” And then suddenly I walked to the window, and looked at Ste. “…That’s not the neighbor is it? COME ON! Grab your shoes! I think it’s a parade!”

We hurriedly ran down the four floors of stairs, afraid we’d miss it, and burst out the door to find this amazing, colorful, smiling parade! We hurried over to the sidelines, laughing as we realized we were the only foreigners present. Every dancing lady that went past, or banging drummer, turned to pose for our cameras as if we were some hoity-toity media representatives.

Ratchaburi Parade

Then, as the parade was nearing an end, I spotted a sparkly blue at the back of the street. We both had the same thought at the same moment, and sure enough, there was our dragon from earlier in the day! The boys went crazy with excitement when they saw us, yelling at us, waving, and even stopping to do a little special dragon dance just in front of us! It was incredible! One of the boys even danced away with a flutter of his eyelashes, yelling as he went, “I love you!!!”

Ratchaburi Dragon Parade

Maybe it was all a major case of coincidence, but if you ask me, it just goes to show you why getting lost while traveling is sometimes the best policy. Here’s to more unexpected dragons in our path!

Dragon Parade

7 Reasons Why You Should Visit Ratchaburi City, Now!

If you’ve been to Thailand, you might have heard of Ratchaburi province. In fact, you very well may have been there to see one of the iconic floating markets outside of Bangkok. But I’m willing to bet that you’ve never even heard of Ratchaburi city…

Ratchaburi, which means “land of the king,” is apparently one of the most wealthy provinces in Thailand. The city itself, while small, is a gorgeous little respite for anyone needing a weekend away from Bangkok, or travelers just wanting to get off the beaten path.

These are the top 7 reasons why you should visit Ratchaburi city… NOW!

 

1. The buzzing art scene

Street art in an abandoned shopfront

Ratchaburi has a distinctly hipster vibe, somehow made even cooler by the old school feel of the town and the impossible number of dog grooming shops. (Seriously. I’ve never seen so many dog-groomers!) That vibe is helped out by street art lining the Mae Klong riverside and any empty buildings along the streets. The proximity to Bangkok has meant that loads of notorious artists have also skipped over to make their mark, leading to an array of colors brightening up the area.

Besides the riverside, the impeccably chic d Kunst Gallery with its photograph gallery and the Ratchaburi National Museum provide even more inspiration for the artistically inclined… or those just working up a nice waxed mustache, you know.

 

2. Insanely amazing food

hoy tod in Ratchaburi

Ratchaburi town is like Thai foodie heaven–where variety, freshness, and flavor join forces in the best of ways. Not only can you catch some delicious eats at age old restaurants like Guaytiew Kai (read more about this place here), but the market in the center of town will offer you just about anything you’re craving. Follow your nose and your eyes, and with a bit of confidence you’ll be ordering some of the best hoy tod or steaming bowl of noodles you’ve had in Thailand…

 

3. Best mountainside Buddha you didn’t know existed

Buddha at Khao Ngu Park

It may take over an hour to get to some greenery from Bangkok’s concrete haven, but not so in Ratchaburi! It only takes about 10 minutes before you’re surrounded by gorgeous countryside with jutting limestone cliffs. Keep on for about 5 minutes more and the shimmer of a beautiful golden Buddha, carved into the side of one of those gorgeous cliffs, slowly starts appearing in the horizon. This is Khao Ngu Park, and I’m willing to guarantee you’ll be about the only tourist on the grounds.

Take the road a bit farther up for amazing views and encounters with monkeys that are far less aggressive than their cousins over in Lopburi. It’s pretty incredible.

 

4. Most awesome nickname of any Thai city

Ratchaburi jars

This is JARTOWN. And people love it! All over the town, little signs and graffiti proclaim, “I <3 Jartown!”

The name derives from Ratchaburi’s status as a major manufacturer of these amazing ceramic jars, usually designed with the trademark dragon figure gracing the sides. Originally meant for the holding of water, they are now exported around the world and throughout Southeast Asia for all sorts of purposes, such as gardening.

 

5. Friendliest locals

happy faces and cheeky grins
happy faces and cheeky grins

So, I’m not saying Thais aren’t friendly… it is the Land of Smiles after all, right?! But after living in Bangkok for some time, I got used to the odd tuk tuk driver kindly helping me out. In exchange for 350 baht. I started to feel like everyone was after something, unfortunately enough.

I couldn’t believe it when, walking down the street in the morning, we were greeted with cheery hellos and good mornings with every step. We were greeted by teenagers building a dragon for a parade, chatted up by young adults practicing their English, and even helped onto a quickly passing bus by a random motorbike driver on the street. If you want to meet real locals who haven’t yet been jaded by tourism… well, here’s the spot!

 

6. Proximity to mega-tourist destinations

credits: http://blog.siampedia.org
credits: http://blog.siampedia.org

While I think Ratchaburi town has plenty to offer on its own, I can’t get by without mentioning its proximity to a whole ton of attractions that may be top of a traveler’s list. Here’s just a few:

Damnoen Saduak Floating Market (yes, that’s the famous one), elephant trekking in neighboring Kanchanaburi, Siam Culture Park, and of course all sorts of cave tours and bats!

 

7. …Without the tourist fuss (or prices)!

 

me in Ratchaburi

Despite the fact that Ratchaburi is a perfect place to visit, with so many attractions and a laid back cool vibe, it’s virtually nonexistent on the tourist track. Ratchaburi town isn’t even mentioned in Lonely Planet books, and it’s even a bit difficult to find information about it online. But take my word for it–that is just more reason why you should get there today! While it does mean the guesthouses are scant and a bit rundown, the trade-off is well worth it. If you’ve always envisioned a city not yet tarnished by the evils of tourism, here’s your spot!

So what are you waiting for? This secret won’t keep for long…!

The Details:

  • Take a bus from Bangkok’s Southern terminal, or a train from Hua Lamphong Station. It only takes about two hours and 100 baht to get to Ratchaburi city, and there’s a nice view of the giant golden chedi in Nakhon Pathom from the train window along the way.
  • Head to Kraipetch Road and you’ll find about the only two guesthouses in the town (just about anyone will direct you if you ask). We paid about 250 baht for a room with a fan. Just don’t expect any bells or whistles!
  • It’s a great idea and super easy to catch a bus from here to Lopburi or Ayutthaya.

Old School Thai Eats in Ratchaburi City: Guay Tiew Gai

Ratchaburi might be famous among Thais for its variety of ridiculously good food, but it’s definitely kept a secret from the few foreigners that find themselves roaming the artsy riverside city. The signature dish at Guaytiew Khai Khun Mam, guay tiew gai, stands out as one of the best around.

These noodles are what I’d like to call perfection– they’re still slightly chewy without being undercooked or too soggy. Plus, there’s way more meat than meets the eye swimming in that bowl, although the barbecued pork steals the show. Thinly sliced, tender, and with that signature red color that just screams delicious! Don’t forget to opt for the soft-boiled egg if you really want to get things right. The other ingredients aren’t to be glossed over, either:  fresh coriander and bean sprouts add the perfect accompaniment to a broth more fragrant than most, toying with your tongue by combining sweet, sour, and spice all in one bite.

But don’t stop there!

pork satay

Stay awhile, relax, and order some moo satay to keep you busy after you’ve finished your noodles. You’ll get a hefty plate of marinated pork on skewers–none of that skimpy stuff you might find at other stalls! These skewers are barbecued on a charcoal grill until flavorful and tender, served with the traditional red peanut-y sauce and white vinegar cucumber/onion compilation, ajad. This yummy side reminds me of summers at home in the Midwest, when dad would whip up a bowl of fresh sliced cucumbers from the garden with vinegar. Translation:  better make sure I’m not around when it’s ordered, or it’ll be gone in a heartbeat!

Guaytiew Khai Khun Mam is impeccably clean and cute besides, exuding that old-time Thai style that gives you the warm and fuzzies. Rightfully so, it’s earned its place as a local favorite in town, so you’ll want to be sure and snag a spot quickly when you can. There are also pre-prepared options around the front counter, and loads of packaged sweets to pick up for a riverside snack later.

And want to know a secret? This is, no kidding, one of the best Thai dishes I’ve ever eaten. Maybe keeping secrets isn’t such a bad thing…

The Details

  • Guaytiew Khai Khun Mam is located right next to Prompaet Hospital on Ratyindee Road (not far from the big clock tower thing or the train station, if you’re more into landmarks)
  • The restaurant is open daily, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Sniffing Out the Rubber Plantations on Koh Yao Noi

You don’t have to walk far from anywhere on this little island, Koh Yao Noi, before your nose hairs start twitching at the scent of a peculiarly acrid odor. That’s because, as I was surprised to learn, there are seriously tons of rubber plantations on Koh Yao Noi! Mmmm… the smell of fresh latex… In fact, rubber is one of the main trades for the island’s largely Muslim population, along with fishing and farming.

rubber-plantation-koh-yao-noi

These stinky, speckled trees stand tall in long, straight lines all along the roads. Beneath the bark, the tree contains the viscous white goo which is latex. Once treated with a kind of acid, this latex forms natural rubber. When we looked closer at the trees, we could see the coiling incisions (a process called ‘tapping’) on the trunk of the tree used to draw off the runny latex into little buckets for later collection.

rubber-tree-koh-yao-noi

The latex coagulates in the bucket, called simply enough “cup lump.” I was way too curious to know what it felt like, so I dipped my fingers in, not really knowing what to expect. It was raining, so as you can see there was a bit of milky-looking water hanging around on top, but the white part felt just like the rubber as you know it! I was surprised how much it felt like a processed rubber product right out of the tree! Pretty cool…

natural-rubber

I’m not exactly sure what they do after collection, because the plantations looked pretty rudimentary. But it looked as if they process the coagulated latex somehow and then roll it out with these contraptions:

rolling-out-natural-rubber

All along the path to our secret little beach, we saw these rubber mats hanging on lines to dry. Some were new and white as snow, others coated with the thick red dust of the area. I assume that these mats will later be picked up from the rubber plantations on Koh Yao Noi for shipment to some distant factory where they become the bottom of our shoes… or… who knows!

natural-rubber-kho-yao-noi

 

Did you know?

  • Rubber trees must grow for about seven years before they can produce latex.
  • Brazil provided the world with the rubber tree, but  no longer plays any significant part in the world’s natural rubber trade.
  • The tapper is very often at the bottom of the educational scale; many are women; illiteracy is high; pay is low.

  • Around 42 percent of the rubber consumed worldwide in 2013 will come from rubber trees.

A (Wet) Trip to Koh Yao Noi: When it Rains in Paradise

I made a decision early on that somewhere between finishing my thesis and the looming defense, my boyfriend and I were going to escape to the islands. But not just any island, no… I wanted an escape from tourists, hooting tuk-tuk drivers, scamming taxis, and trash on the sides of the road. I wanted everything that was not my pessimistic view of Bangkok at the time (even Bangkok becomes a cloud of gloom when you’re writing over 12 hours a day!).

So, I set to work researching the perfect idyllic little island, nay, deserted island, where I could spend the days wistfully lounging on empty stretching beaches, paddling around in crystal blue waters, and eating fresh, delicious food with locals who would actually smile with me. And guess what? I found that place.

As soon as I saw a picture and read a little blurb, I knew that Koh Yao Noi was the place for me. It really is relatively untouched by tourism, still filled with jungles, and smack dab in the middle of Phang Nga Bay where tiny rock islands jut out all over the horizon. Gorgeous! So I booked a beautiful little bamboo bungalow, and waited with anticipation for weeks to finally step out into my own little paradise. Ah, paradise… 

bungalows-on-koh-yao-noi

Well, what can I say? It would have been the perfect spot. But. BUT. We flew into Phuket and landed in a bunch of rain and clouds. Not your typical monsoon-esque rain, that like a kind house guest dips in for polite appearances and then takes off before becoming a nuisance. No, this rain overstayed its welcome. It rained from the moment we stepped out of the airport until the moment we stepped back in to fly back to Bangkok, with increasing ferocity, dipping temperatures, and gusty winds–not to mention the most terrifying boat ride of my life! SIGH.

Oddly enough, all the little things that would make this the perfect sunny getaway are what made it the worst place to be in a storm. There was NOTHING to do! No boats were going out for little island tours. We weren’t about to attempt fighting massively rough tides in cheap kayaks. And nearly all the restaurants were a good 10 minute motorbike ride away! The worst part? Those beautiful beaches were swallowed by the high water, and we were severely under dressed for the impossible cool weather that settled on the Southern Thai island. Boohoo.

At any rate, we did what we do best–put on a smile (even when forced!) and did our best to turn the situation into something good…

 

We found the beauty in the hazy blues of stormy views.

Even though the view wasn’t quite I had imagined or seen in other pictures, missing the sun and crystal-clear sea water, the rainy gales gave the distant islands a layered look in this crazy blue hue that really was quite captivating.

phang-nga-bay

We fawned over seashells on the seashore.

One benefit of high tides and rough waters is that all those shells and pieces of coral get turned up and washed ashore. I enjoyed walking along the beach, picking out smoothed down shells and whole arms of long, bumpy coral.

seashells-on-koh-yao-noi

We amused ourselves with the silly scuttle of lonely crabs.

Down by the pier, the crabs were out in full force. It was kind of a game, sneaking down as quietly as possible–because one accidental squeak would send the crabs scurrying off with lightning speed! They were really fun to watch.

scuttling-crab-on-koh-yao-noi

We admired the dewy fauna of the jungles.

The rain always seem to bring out the colors of flowers and other plants, and this was no exception. The natural fauna on Koh Yao Noi is astounding, so many gorgeous tropical species to ogle!

fauna-on-koh-yao-noi

We cuddled indoors with new furry friends.

The bungalows where we stayed had quite a few cats and kittens wandering around, and we made friends with one brave little black kitten. She would literally crawl up the walls of the bungalow and jump through the gap between the walls and roof to crawl into bed with us. Her little purrs and furry body helped keep us warm on the surprisingly chilly nights!

kitty-on-koh-yao-noi

We trekked muddy paths to get to that secret beach, anyway.

We finally decided to brave the rain and check out this hidden beach, without really realizing what we were getting into! We walked (in flip flops, mind you!) up and down steep hills of sinking mud for an hour and a half or so, through cool views of bleating goats, massive palm tree jungles, and rubber plantations. Finally, we reached the beach, and even though the tide was nearly up to the tree line and the water was pretty cold, that beach was OURS for the afternoon. It was really cool, but I can only imagine how much better would be in nicer weather!

path-to-had-yao-beach-on-koh-yao-noi

koh yao noi beach

And you know what? It was lovely.

Even if it wasn’t what I had hoped for, Koh Yao Noi was still gorgeous. Now I just have to figure out how to get back during sunshine!

The Top 10 Things I Learned Living in Thailand

It’s been a long time since my last post. Like, a really long time.

But in that time, a lot of pretty awesome things have happened, and a lot of equally awesome things came to a bittersweet end. Such as… finishing my Master’s degree! Yes, please refer to me as Master Amber at all times now, thank you. And more importantly (is this weird to say?), I said goodbye to Thailand, the wonderful country that became my amazing and gorgeous home for the past year and a half. For the last couple of weeks, I took off to some places that were on my wish list around the country because I figured, if you’re going to go out, you gotta go out in style, right? There will be posts coming up about all of that soon.

But today, what would be more fitting than a post in honor of the past year and a half spent in such a lovely country? And that’s why I’ve put together a list of the top 10 things I learned living in Thailand…

 

1.  Street food ALWAYS trumps restaurant food.

A lot of people who have never been to Thailand always tell me how much they just looove Thai food, and I kind of just nod and smile, nod and smile. Look, I know you love the pad thai at your local spot—you know, the sort of bland version that’s been perfectly altered to match your Western tastes?—but you just don’t know Thai food until you’ve sat sweating at a street stall crammed onto a foot and a half high red plastic stool. You just haven’t.

There are so many different foods you can find on the street, and every single thing is just as tasty and full of flavor as the last. It’s incredible, and definitely one of the things I will miss more than anything about my life in Thailand. Just remember—follow the locals. If there are a ton of foreigners eating there, it’s more than likely Westernized and overpriced. Even if your Thai is less than mediocre, pick the local-est of local spots and just go for it! Pointing surpasses all languages! And dare I forget to mention the price? I always expect to pay from 30-60 baht for a hefty meal. Not too shabby, Thailand…

bamee-soi-38

2.  Nothing beats the local buses. Except maybe trains.

Your average travelers might pick up overnight VIP bus tickets on Khao San for a thousand baht or so and think they’ve got a deal. Don’t be fooled. I learned in my experiences that these buses are generally cut out for the VIP indeed—“very ignorant person.” In general, it’s a total rip-off, takes freaking ages to get anywhere as you’re shuffled around like cattle and switch buses in the middle of the night for no apparent reason, and hey, it’s pretty common for your things to be stolen while you sleep. But… they look cool.

Not so with the less than glamorous local buses. They’re usually a bit dirty, with broken fans, half-open windows, wooden slat floors, and the odd chicken or two… but so worth it. You can get just about anywhere you want to go on these buses, they stop nearly everywhere, and they are as cheap as dirt. For about 30 baht, we got as far as a four hour trip! Besides that, riding the local buses gives you an actual authentic experience. You get to interact with timid teenagers dying to practice their limited English, witness the monks on their iPhones, and smile with that funny toothless lady who keeps staring at you. Whatever, it totally beats sitting around in a foreign country with … more foreigners. And trains—same story. Plus the sleepers rock.

weary travelers on a Thai train

 

3.  Songkran is the best festival. EVER!

In the West, New Year is usually filled with ridiculous expectations for some glittery, glitzy event where everyone looks perfect, the food is perfect, the drinks are perfect, and you have the perfect kiss at the stroke of midnight. In reality, it usually ends up with a bunch of people not really knowing what to do, mulling around a dingy bar, and then waking up with a massive hangover the next day swearing next year they’ll stay at home with grandma and watch the ball drop on television.

Enter Thailand. This New Year falls in April, and foregoes all the snooty stuff for a down and dirty party that hits all the right spots. Basically, the whole country shuts down for the most enormous water fight—Super Soakers at the ready! Sorry, but nothing—I mean NOTHING—beats that!

yup, lots of water, folks!

 

4.  Learning a little bit of Thai is the quickest way to save a buck.

Self-explanatory, I guess, but probably one of the most vital things about living in Thailand long-term. I know that Thai is like so hard to learn, but putting a little work into memorizing things like numbers and phrases such as “how much” makes life a million times easier and cheaper. Don’t kid yourself into thinking that everyone in Bangkok speaks English (they don’t). Adding a little of actual Thai language to your expertise at charades will benefit you greatly. I pay at least half the price I would without a bit of Thai, on average. Besides, at least trying to learn the language demonstrates a respect for the country that will indubitably gain a few more smiles than usual.

understanding each other can be helpful, to say the least!

 

5.  7/11 might as well be the national symbol of Thailand.

Seriously. There’s at least three 7/11s on every street block, or more! Thai 7/11s aren’t your average stop and shop joint. No, these stores have been my savior on many occasions. Walk in and in just a few minutes you can pay your electricity bill, put some more minutes on your phone plan, and have the cashier grill you up a delicious ham and cheese toastie. Presto. I’m happy. Now will someone please tell me when we’re going to get that kind of service at 7/11s in the US?

thai-711

6.  Embrace the mai bpen rai attitude. AKA don’t sweat the small stuff.

Mai bpen rai basically means something like “never mind,” “it’s okay,” or “no worries.” Or as I like to put it, it’s the “hakuna matata” of Thailand. If you know me personally you know that I’m slightly (okay, moderately?) OCD. I like things to run smoothly, efficiently, and on time. Things in Thailand, though, rarely fit such strict standards. I’ll never forget the first time I was in a minibus running 5 hours behind schedule… I kept trying unsuccessfully to mouth at the driver, pouted, crossed my arms, sighed, and by the time I made it to my destination, was near tears. I can only laugh at this reaction now, because this is truly one of the biggest ways that living in Thailand changed me. I learned to say, “mai bpen rai.” Guess what? You and I can’t control everything. So why freak out about it? This is one of the things I appreciate the most about Thai culture… even though I would still prefer not to be 5 hours late on a bus trip!

Friends in Samui

7.  I can do without a proper toilet, but I really, really like hot showers.

I can go without a lot of modern conveniences. No toilet paper? I’m prepared! Squatty toilet? Bring it on! Heck, I’ve even peed in a shower… but I’ve learned that a steamy, hot shower (for bathing, not peeing!) is one convenience I’m VERY reluctant to forego. A couple weeks up North in Thai winter with no warm clothes and no hot water was not exactly… comfortable… Oh well, we all have that one little thing, right?

 

8.  Thailand is seriously tolerant of alternative sexualities.

For all our freedoms in the US, sexuality is still an incredibly divisive subject (speaking of, I was shocked to see how huge this Duck Dynasty debacle has become since arriving back in the States). In Thailand, however, sexuality is openly portrayed and integrated along with everyday culture. This is the product of an impressively progressive and nonchalant attitude about an individual’s choice regarding gender and sexual expression which doesn’t necessarily compromise other more conservative aspects of the culture.

But simply put, it makes for great people-watching and hilarious stories (how many of your friends accidentally fell for a lady boy?) that will almost make you forget the bigotry going on back home…

ladyboy pageant from Pattaya Picture
ladyboy pageant from Pattaya Picture

 

9.  But not so accepting of alternative appearances… don’t take anything too personally.

Nothing will cut you down to size like trying to buy a shirt at a market and the lady grabbing it out of your hands saying, “No! You too fat! No! No sell!” Yes, that’s happened to me. Fighting back the urge to either yell or cry, I politely pulled my loose sweatshirt as close to my skin as possible and said, “No, see? Fit.” Whether she believed me or not, I finally got the shirt. But guess what? The shirt was too small. The truth is I reacted out of pride and anger, and had this crazy desire to just prove her wrong. In the end, sometimes you just have to learn to accept it. Many Westerners are foreign to Thais on more than one level, and mainly we look a lot different. For me, I’m lucky in that I’m Thai height and fairly small… but my boyfriend experienced this to a much higher degree–he was scary because he had a beard, weird because he was tall, and people even refused to sit by him on public transportation. But getting upset doesn’t help anything. So, we both learned to laugh it off, roll with the punches, and move on to more important things.

Thai hair show

10.  Never take a single sight, smell, or moment for granted!

There were days when I thought I couldn’t stand another sniff of fish sauce… days when I just wanted to walk down a street without clambering over a million stalls and tourists… weeks where I prayed for anything other than rice!

But the truth is I already miss every single one of those things, and more. I even miss the annoying tuk-tuk drivers hassling me day and night for a ride! Somewhere in there as the leaving date loomed, I realized how amazing even the most gross and frustrating things were, what amazing stories and experiences this city and country had offered up to me. So what, I once stepped on a bloated rat. Who else can say they did that while splashing away from a table full of fresh-cooked Thai food on the way to pick up mango and sticky rice on a random night in Bangkok? So what, my a/c broke and I spent the day eyeing monitor lizards in the park. So what, so what, so what… I was lucky to be able to soak in the chaos of Bangkok and beauty of Thailand for so long, and I’ll always hold those days very, very close to my heart.

I miss you and love you, Thailand!!!

khao san craziness

My Favorite Temple in Bangkok: Wat Arun

Wat Arun towers over the Chao Phraya, commanding attention from the other two temples of the triumvirate, Wat Pho and Wat Phra Kaew. The temple is named after the Indian god of dawn, Aruna, and symbolizes the ‘dawn’ of the new Ayutthaya–when the old capitol was moved to its current place in Bangkok. The tower serves as quite an icon, the tallest of its kind in Bangkok. All of its 82 meters make for a gorgeous view over the river!

wat-arun-from-afar

Out front, you can often catch a tourist draped in traditional Thai costume, down to the intricate headgear and long, curled nails. You can join in, but it will cost you a pretty penny just for a few photos. I have to admit, I’ve always wanted to play dress up at the temples too, but photographing the other ladies suffices on my backpacker budget…

traditional-thai-at-wat-arun

When first walking into the grounds, you’re greeted by a giant, round, happy Buddha! Many of the Buddhas in Thailand are pretty slender, so I revel a bit in this jovial version.

wat-arun-buddha

The reason why Wat Arun steals the show for me when it comes to temples, though, is because it’s interactive. I love walking around the temples as much as the next guy, but after awhile it starts to feel a bit redundant. Not so at Wat Arun! It’s an adventure climbing up the impossibly steep staircases up to the top for a breathtaking view of the surrounding Chao Phraya area.

climbing-wat-arun

Along the way, you really gain more appreciation for the intricacies of this temple. The structure is covered in mosaic made from various pieces of broken Chinese porcelain. If you look closely, you can sometimes catch a glimpse of the curve of a dish, or the slight floral design peeking through.

wat-arun-mosaics

The farther you climb, the more you can see the architectural design of the temple. Every time I’ve visited, the smaller stupas guarding the corners (as you see in the photo below) are usually filled with lounging monks. This picture is only about half-way up the climb!

wat-arun-half-way

You might give your quads a little workout on the way up, but the view of the river and cityscape is definitely worth it. Check it out:

chao-phraya-from-wat-arun

chao-phraya-from-top-of-wat-arun

The only problem I have with Wat Arun is the way down… I’m not scared of heights or anything, but ever since I tumbled head-first down a flight of stairs in Budapest, I’m terrified of steep stairwells! Just read the fear on my face…

downstairs-at-wat-arun

…Okay, so, that might seem like the end of Wat Arun. But not so! Just next door is a small temple construct that is so dwarfed by Wat Arun’s towers as to be missed by throngs of tourists. Maybe that’s what makes it so alluring to me, that you can walk through in near solitude (a real feat at any Bangkok temple!).

Two giant guards stand at attention on either side of the entrance:

guards-to-temple-at-wat-arun

silhouette wat arun

After passing through the series of doors, the temple opens into a courtyard surrounding the smaller working temple where many Thais still visit. The courtyard is lined with the usual series of Buddhas, but also has a few elephant statues dotting the perimeter.

buddhas-wat-arun

elephant-at-wat-arun

temple-wat-arun

Inside the temple, a monk tied a small rattan bracelet around my wrist while chanting blessings as I left on my way.

All in all, Wat Arun is number one on my can’t miss list of Bangkok bests.

The Details:

  • You can get here by taking the Chao Phraya Express Ferry from Tha Thien Pier just outside Wat Pho to Wat Arun. It will cost you about 5 baht and takes about 5 minutes, although you may have to wait while the boat fills up.
  • Entrance fee is 50 baht
  • Like all temples, please dress respectfully. This means cover your knees and shoulders, girls. You can pay to rent a robe at the entrance, but I always just pack a light scarf for my shoulders to save a few baht. Plus, it never hurts to show cultural awareness!
  • Important note: Wat Arun is unfortunately closed… for the next three years! Apparently, some major renovations are underway. That’s okay, though, head over to the other side of the river at sunset to see another side of the Temple of Dawn which, ironically, looks extra beautiful at sunset!