Saturday, 24 July 2010

The highlights of Paris

I went to Paris and only saw the main highlights (Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe etc), so what?! Everyone told me “oh you have to get off the beaten track, explore the little alleyways and side streets” etc etc.

Look, if you’ve been to Paris many times before or have weeks to spare then all well and good. I had never been before and only had five days. So I say, go to Paris and climb the Eiffel Tower, visit Notre Dame, take a boat tour along the Seine and be proud of it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to go back to Paris and explore some lesser known sights. But I always think on your first visit to a place like Paris, you should take in the major sights, because these are, after all, what makes the place famous and are a part of its past and its present.

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The growth of Koh Samet

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I have been to Koh Samet half a dozen times over the past 7 or 8 years, having fallen in love with the place on my first visit. My family and I stay at the same place every time, Sai Kaew Beach resort and it is by this resort that I measure the growth of tourism on Koh Samet.

Approaching Koh Samet

This island has a unique niche in the Thai beach industry. One, because of its location only 4 hours or so from Bangkok and two because of its unusually dry climate. But because it is so small and lacks the infrastructure and entertainment of a Koh Samui or Phuket. So for this reason it hadn’t made it onto the mass tourism trails until the last few years.

Sai Kaew Beach/White Sands Beach

In recent times the island has seen an explosion of business from Chinese tourists (mainland, Taiwan and Hong Kong) and also corporate day trips from Bangkok and surrounding provinces. This, added onto the popularity it already enjoyed from Western visitors and Bangkok weekenders means that Koh Samet seems to have finally “arrived”.

Buddha just behind the Sai Kaew Beach resort

Of course all of this means rising prices and development of existing resorts into more upscale, boutique places. And that applies more than anywhere to the Sai Kaew Beach resort. The prices have more than doubled from our first visit back in 2002 and on our last visit in late 2007 the resort had undergone a massive expansion, roughly doubling its size, and there was more construction underway. It is now so large that it operates a golf buggy system to ferry people around! Unfortunately the newer half of the resort doesn’t have direct access to a decent stretch of beach, so imagine my disappointment when we were plonked in a bungalow right at the far end of it! Having to catch a golf buggy to the beach every day somewhat detracted from my enjoyment of the resort, the price of progress.

Beach bar

There are certainly cheaper, more basic places to stay and, make no mistake, Koh Samet is still a beautiful place, but how long it can remain this way is in question. Look at the complete over development of places like Pattaya and Koh Samui and the strain on resources in those places. Samet has no fresh water supply, so fresh water has to be shipped in, along with non-seafood food supplies. Large generators chug along to try to supply the growing electricity demand. Koh Samet is officially a National Park, although you’d never know it from the amount of development down the Eastern side of the island and piles of construction waste lying around. The water around the island is certainly not as clear as it used to be, although still superior to most other places in Thailand. General litter on the beaches is also becoming more of a problem.

There was a time when you could visit Samet in the week and almost have a beach to yourself, save for a few backpacker types. This no longer seems to be the case as the constant stream of well-off young Chinese travellers grows. Weekends on Samet have always been busy, now there is so much demand that it makes it too expensive to bother with. As this demand grows, will we see more development and expansion?

Let’s hope not as the island is already pretty stretched. But as I’ve said, despite all this Samet still retains its beauty and its allure that draws me and my family back time after time. And no doubt it is this that draws the countless other visitors to the island. How long this can remain is a doubt, as this is Thailand and development and profit go way ahead of any environmental and sustainability concerns.

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Laos montage

A montage of photos from my trip to Vientiane, Laos:

Pha That Luang:

Ho Phra Kaew

Temple of a Thousand Buddhas


Downtown Vientiane!

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Eating out in Bangkok

Bangkok is one of the world’s greatest cities for food, it’s everywhere! You can take your pick from street vendor food, small family run restaurants, mid range chain restaurants in the shopping centres, international food, fast food and Michelin star restaurants.

Whether you want Pad Thai, chicken and rice, pizza, Indian curry or a Zinger burger…Bangkok has it all!

A lot of people I know return from Bangkok saying that the food wasn’t as cheap as they were expecting. When I ask where they ate the usual answer is, “oh in the hotel bar”. You can pay over the odds for food in Bangkok if you want, if you’re prepared to search and perhaps eat in the more plain looking family restaurants then you’ll find the legendary tasty and very cheap Thai food.

Here, I will try to give a rundown of the sort of thing you can expect to find in Bangkok along with a few personal recommendations.

Street vendor food

It is a bit clichéd, but it’s true that the best food in Bangkok is the street vendor food. Sure, the surroundings are less than salubrious, but I just love the atmosphere and the feel of eating food by the side of a busy road, sat on a plastic stool! You’ll find these set-ups all over the city, usually a group of people together each with their own speciality on their own cart. The most common dishes are chicken and rice (Khao man gai), red pork on rice (khao muu daeng), Pad Thai, many kinds of noodle soup and various curries. Just be adventurous and if you’re not confident with the language you can always point to what you want! Always have a glass of Thai-style icy milkshake on hand if something is unexpectedly spicy! I always find milk is much better than water at cooling your mouth down.

A good tip from a local if you’re not sure which vendor to choose, is go to the busier ones. That generally means the food is tastier and safe. I’ve never had any problems eating street food.

Other items for sale include various grilled meats on a stick and fruit portions. My personal favourite are the various vendors that line the wall of Lumpini Park in the evenings, in the car park area along Ratchadamri Road. The stalls in the Patpong/Silom area are also very popular/

Thai family restaurants

The Thai family restaurant is something that many foreigners never experience. A lot of people are put off by the bland appearance of these places, they are also quite hard to spot and many people just don’t know they’re there. At a glance it may look like someone’s house with the shutter doors left open. Look more closely and you may see the old aunt or grandmother of the family cooking noodles or chopping up chicken at the front of the shop! The décor is usually very basic, flimsy metal tables, plastic chairs and bare walls. The only decorations are spirit houses with the daily offering of Fanta and portraits of past and present royals will hang on the walls.

The food, however, is out of this world and always at a reasonable price. The menu choice is, of course, far more extensive than the street vendors. Always look out for the fish dishes, some are extra spicy! Yam Mun Sen (spicy sea food salad with noodles) is also a personal favourite.

A good choice in terms of location is Lek seafood, not far from Chong Nonsi skytrain station.

Chain restaurants

There are many good quality and fair priced chain restaurants around Bangkok, usually to be found in shopping centres and supermarkets. Listed here are the major ones:

Bar B Q Plaza – My personal favourite, I have to eat here every time I visit! Essentially you’re set up with a mini gas heated grill in the middle of your table, which also has a small moat of soupy water around the outside. You order plates of meat and veg and cook/boil it yourself. You will be given some dipping sauce, lime, garlic and chilli which you can mix to suit yourself.

Daidomon – Along similar lines to Bar B Q Plaza, except you actually get a small barbeque in your table instead!

Fuji – A hugely popular chain of Japanese restaurants, serving all the usual offerings of sushi, gyoza, tempura, curries and much more.

Oishi – Another big favourite with Thai’s. There are many variations on the theme, but it’s basically a Japanese style buffet restaurant, pay one price and eat all you like. The bigger ones serve sushi, teppanyaki (made to order) food and various Chinese foods that are rotated.

See Fah – Serves a good selection of Thai food.

Sizzler – Get there early because these places fill up fast! Popular with Thais and tourists, this is an American fill-ya-face steakhouse with an extensive western menu and unlimited salad bar. You could get seriously overweight if you ate here every day!

MK – Similar concept to Bar B Q Plaza, but here you boil all of your own food. They serve hot items off the menu too, the duck is a favourite.

Pizza Company - Despite the name, this is a Thai pizza chain, but they sell all the favourite pizza toppings, garlic bread etc. Similar standard to Pizza Hut and slightly overpriced for pizza, but it’s a good fill if you need a pizza fix!

I’m sure there are more that I’ve missed, but this covers the main choices!

International food

There are any number of Italian, French, British, American, Indian etc etc eateries around Bangkok and I won’t even attempt to categorize them here! Wherever you stay, you’ll more than likely have a few in your vicinity. The main concentration of European food is around the Silom and lower Sukhumvit areas. Great Japanese food is available on Soi Thaniya (Little Tokyo) just off Silom (near Pat Pong). This is also a great people watching spot, spend an hour in any of these Japanese eateries and you’ll see a never ending procession of Japanese executives coming and going, some in groups, some alone. Some reading newspapers, some reading comics (!!). All with a mobile phone or IPhone glued to their ears!

Arab and Indian food is plentiful around Ploen Chit and Nana skytrain stations and surround Sois. I like Mrs Balbir’s Indian restaurant, on Sukhumvit Soi 11/1 (Nana skytrain station). For a cracking pizza, try Bangkok Pizza on Sukhumvit Soi 26/1.

Fast Food

You can get your fix of KFC, McDonalds and Burger King all over Bangkok….enough said!

Upmarket eateries

If you fancy a splurge on upmarket eateries there is also plenty to choose from. For the location, try Vertigo on top of the Banyan Tree Hotel on Sathon Road (weather permitting of course!).

Baan Khanita (off Sukhumvit Soi 23) is an award winning Thai restaurant and La Normandie in the Oriental Hotel offers great food and great views of the Chao Phraya river.

There are many, many more but of course, I need to save up before I can afford to visit another!

Bad food experiences are rare in Bangkok, just be adventurous and don’t just settle for the hotel room service option, get out and about and explore what’s in your area. If you have any more tips to add to this list please feel free to let me know and I’ll happily add your contributions to my list.

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Thursday, 8 July 2010

Highgate cemetery

Cemeteries are a wonderful way to explore the history and culture of a city, none more so than Highgate in north London (10-15 minute walk from Archway tube station).

Some people give me strange looks when I say that I enjoy wandering around cemeteries, I have no problem with that. It’s not for everyone. But I find them peaceful and hugely atmospheric places, photo opportunities abound and some of the tombs and headstones are spectacular.

Entrance is by guided tour only and mostly focuses on the more famous West Cemetery. This contains the famous Circle of Lebanon and Egyptian Avenue, as well as the grave of Karl Marx with the huge and very lifelike bust on the top!

Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris is a common tourist attraction, probably because of the people buried there. Highgate doesn’t yet seem to have that reputation, probably because it’s out of the way of London’s major sights.

If you have the time to spare, Google it or pay a visit.

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Rayong – an alternative beach escape

Most people only enter Rayong province to catch the ferry from Ban Phe to Koh Samet. I am probably Samet’s biggest fan and can well understand why most people bypass Rayong itself, for the lure of “the island escape”.

However, after a dozen trips to Samet, I decided it was time for a change and gave Rayong a try. It’s a slightly shorter journey, given that there’s no ferry crossing involved. And you are greeted with the same beautiful white sand and warm, clear blue seas as you get in Samet, as of course they are only separated by a few miles of the same water. And if ferry crossings aren’t your thing then Rayong fits that bill too.

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The Ancient City – Muang Boran

Although technically not in Bangkok, it is mainly accessed by tourists taking a day trip from Bangkok. The Ancient City is well worth a day out of your hectic schedule if you can afford the time.

It is basically a collection of scaled down replica buildings, showcasing the very best of Thai architecture through the ages. It is all set in peaceful, well kept grounds in the shape of Thailand. I have been there twice, because it is so big I didn’t manage to see it all on the first trip.

There are such famous buildings as the Grand Palace, the White Temple of Chiang Mai, Preah Vihear, Sukothai era ruins and much more. It was so hot on both of my visits, that I wouldn’t recommend walking around, I was lucky to be able to be driven around the grounds.

It also isn’t that easy to get to by bus, so arrange a tour where you can. Here are a few photos from my visits, there are many more on my website,

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