Friday, 26 April 2013

Volunteers Wanted!

Well, I hope all my friends in Thailand have recovered from the madness of Songkran ... no one celebrates quite like the Thais, and the New Year water festivities are loads of fun if you don't mind being wet for days on end!

But as with all parties, someone has to clean up afterwards. Unfortunately, Thailand's rivers are often the receptacle for a whole lot crap following major events, which impacts hugely on the whole environment.

A friend living in Chiang Mai just posted this fantastic community event on Facebook that's coming up on May 2 - a clean up on the Mae Wang river, an hour's drive into the mountains from Chiang Mai. The event is being held by the people at Chai Lai Orchid Nature Bungalows, and they are offering volunteers a day of free bamboo rafting, a Thai BBQ and snacks in return for pitching in and helping to clean up the river.

Sounds like an awesome cause, and a fun day to boot.

*NB - rafting is at your own risk ... and even though Thailand's rivers are generally pretty tame, there are snags and little rapids that can make it quite hazardous. My daughter once went bamboo rafting near Chiang Mai - her raft was 'steered' by an eight-year-old boy, who took them straight though the middle of a rapid. The raft snapped in two, everybody fell off, some of the customers couldn't swim, and my daughter lost her Haviana thongs ... devo. Just a cautionary tale...

HOWEVER, this does sound like a fantastic, worthwhile event, so if you're in the Chiang Mai region, get yourself down to the Mae Wang River.

Anyone interested in volunteering should email:

Monday, 8 April 2013

The Genius of Thai Low-End Fusion Cuisine

While ex-pat chefs bring traditional Thai food back to the Thais, the Thais are doing their bit in reinventing western cuisine. Culinary master Oliver Benjamin reports on the latest taste sensations...

When most people find out I now live permanently in Thailand, most knowingly wink and poke me in the ribs with an elbow and say “I bet I know why,” they say, conspiratorially, “…the food.” 

And yes, I suppose it’s true. There are many countries in South-East Asia with friendly people, warm weather and stunning scenery. But none of them can match Thailand for the anticipation that a hunger pang can produce. But what my friends back home don’t know is that they don’t know that half of it. What they think of as “Thai food” is just a tiny smidgen of what this vast culinary empire can whip up, seemingly out of thin (or in Bangkok, thick) air. 

I’m not just talking about the really weird stuff that strikes fear in the heart of the average meat-and-potatoes Western tourist. Upon visiting a local market, most visitors soon find out that beyond pad thai and tom yum goong, some Thais also fancy snacking on deep fried insects, blood tofu and pig’s ear. In fairness, these selfsame finger-pointers see nothing wrong in eating varieties of spoiled dairy products. As the French say, chacun a son gout, which is appropriate, given that they eat snails. 

Yet what I find even more fascinatingly bizarre (and, to my palate, more tasty) are the inventive concoctions that Thai cooks can come up with when trying to interpret certain staples of Western cuisine. Of course there are many authentic Italian and American restaurants here; I’m talking about the ones that are wilfully inauthentic. 

I will list my favourites here, dishes I wish I could get back at any of the zillion Thai restaurants in the West that serve exactly the same narrow sliver of dishes available in this extraordinary country. 

Thai Style Fried Macaroni
: At first blush, one can see something vaguely Italian about this dish, but appearances can be deceiving. First of all, that rich looking tomato sauce is actually sweet and sour sauce made with ketchup and soy sauce. Containing chicken, bell peppers, onion, scrambled egg and shallots, one might see some allusions to the Israeli dish “shakshuka” but Jewish influence on Thai culture, admittedly, has been minimal. Nevertheless, it is an unexpectedly delicious concoction, unless the chef takes the homage one step too far and covers it with slices of processed cheese, effectively destroying the dish. 

Thai-style Fried Macaroni - so good, it's blurry!
American Fried Rice: 
It sounds like the beginning of a joke, but it’s not, and what’s more, it’s awesome. Not only delicious, but a veiled social commentary on a plate, this ketchup-fried rice with raisins, accompanied by a fried chicken leg, hot dogs and a fried egg on top seems to aspire to the unfettered caloric ambition of most American fast-food restaurants. The raisins may seem an odd choice, but they add a piquant sweetness that perfectly complements the various layers of delicious saturated fat. 

American fried rice. The orange faecal matter is a Thai hot dog, cut into 'flowers'

The sticky rice burger
: Normally only found at the ubiquitous 7-11 convenience stores (originally a Texan company that was bought by a Japanese company which has had its greatest success in Thailand – Viva Internationalism!). Grilled pork and sticky rice is a popular dish from rural North-eastern Thailand, but who has the time for a sit-down meal? Even Isaanese farmers are finding their schedules increasingly accelerated these days. And so, the engineers at 7-11 created a pork patty sandwiched between two “buns” made of shaped sticky rice for the agrarian-on-the-go. You can even add ketchup (In case you haven’t noticed, ketchup is arguably more popular here than in the United States.) 

Special mention: 
Woe to the backpacking tourist who leaves the bosom of the beach to find that their favourite snack, the oddly-monikered “No Name” is nowhere to be found. But there is hope! These deep fried vegetable and starch balls served with sweet chili sauce are actually a Thai version of the Indian pakora. So you see, it’s not just Western favourites that Thailand has skillfully adapted into uniquely curious menu items. Japanese sushi, Taiwanese bubble tea, Korean barbecue and Chinese bao have all been given a Thai makeover here, sometimes with inspiring results (and of course, let’s be fair, sometimes not). 

In closing, let me say that if there’s one thing that separates Thai culture from most other world cultures, it’s that it is so resolutely un-separate. They have long been unafraid to incorporate elements of the outside world and make it uniquely their own. One may not always appreciate the results, but one has to admire their ingenuity, courage, and (perhaps) sense of humour. 

Okay, I think I’ve earned a scoop of Thai iced tea ice cream. Yes, you’re correct, it is as insanely delicious as it sounds.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Places in the Heart - Malibu Beach, Koh Phangan

I'm in the process of buying a house, which has got me thinking about special places in this world, places that grab you by the short and curlies, tug at heart-strings and hold a special nook in your soul. There are several locations in Thailand that are particularly important to me, places that have left an indelible impression on my heart and mind, places I yearn for when I need 'me' time. Over the next few weeks, I'll share a couple of these with my readers, which will hopefully also be a cathartic exercise for me! 

First up, one of my favourite beaches ... Malibu Beach in Koh Phangan.

" Bob Marley," Meen swears, in a most unladylike, and very un-Thai fashion. "I'm so sick of it, day after day after day!"

My daughter and I can't help but giggle - even though we are a little shocked at our massage therapist's outburst, we can't help but agree - the reggae music on 24/7 rotation at Malibu Beach Bungalows can wear a little thin. And dear little Meen, whose massage sala is idyllically located right on the beach, cops it constantly.

Soundtrack aside, life at Malibu Beach is sweet. Very sweet. For visitors like us, the Marley soundtrack pumped from the beach bar seems appropriate, the perfect accompaniment to the relaxed, super-chilled vibe of this near-perfect Thai beach. 

Located in the north of Koh Phangan, Malibu Beach is a popular hangout for day-trippers from the southern beaches, as well as the residents of the attached resort. My daughter and I have chosen to stay here, well away from the Full Moon party crowds of Haad Rin, but just a walk from the rustic fishing village of Chaloklum where there are plenty of restaurants and bars.

Not that we need them - Malibu Beach has its own beach restaurant and bar, where we tend to spend day-time meals at least. It's pretty deserted at night once the day-trippers leave, so our nights are usually spent either in the village or on the west coast beaches such as Haad Salad.

The day-time ambience at Malibu, however, is unbeatable. With its powder white sand and warm blue bay water, this is Thailand at its most pristine. Jo and I park ourselves under the shade of a coconut palm, and spend each day doing absolutely nothing. Occasionally we drag ourselves down to the water to swim. Then we make our way to the restaurant to eat and have a beer. Perhaps a massage at Meen's beach sala. Then a nap on the deck of our cabin, swinging in the hammock. Checking the internet on the free wi-fi (a major plus!). Reading a book. 

Life doesn't get much better than this.

The most basic bungalows at Malibu Beach start from 1000 baht a night in low season, up to 1400 over the Christmas peak season. They are pretty rustic - just a double bed (mosquito net and linen provided), and an en suite bathroom with hot and cold water. No room to swing a cat, though the hammock on the deck is a nice touch. There are bigger, more luxurious bungalows available from 2500 baht a night, but we were quite happy with what we had. 

There's also a pool at the resort - nice if you want a change from the beach - and scooters are available for hire. 

Ah, Malibu Beach. So beautiful. Man, I wish I was there right now ... lying under that coconut palm, listening to "I'm Jammin'" ...