Thursday, 31 March 2016

cute and casual: sawasdee chiang rai cat cafe

Sawasdee Chiang Rai Cat Cafe.

On our way back to Chiang Rai from Mae Salong, we stopped by the Sawasdee Chiang Rai Cat Cafe.

Part cat shelter, part cafe-restaurant, this place is slightly off the beaten track, but not too difficult to find with the help of GPS - we made a turn off the highway and then it just took a bit of navigating the village roads to get to our destination. If you type "Sawasdee Chiang Rai Cat Cafe" into Google Maps, it should come up with the location, and you can go on from there.

I think I immediately fell in love with this cat upon our arrival, because how could you not.

Look at zee adorable stance and expression on zee adorable tortoiseshell kitty with its cup of milk.

In some ways this isn't a fully integrated cat cafe like some others that we have been to - it feels more like there is a cafe-restaurant and then there is a cat shelter just next to it, and when the cats are out and about, they would wander wherever they please, be it in the cafe or in the surrounding garden area. Additionally, I think they usher the cats back into the shelter during midday for rest and shade when the weather gets hot.

So do keep in mind, you are not guaranteed to have cats all around you when you are dining at this cat cafe. However, when I think about it, I quite like this way of doing things - it seems to provide a more relaxed and comfortable lifestyle balance for the cats, where they are not cooped up in close quarters with a bunch of eager humans all the time, as can be an issue with some very commercial cat cafes.

Such a pretty cat.

We had an early lunch here, and Simon opted for some sort of Thai-Western fusion dish - spaghetti with fried chicken and green curry. He seemed quite happy with it.

Green curry spaghetti with fried chicken. Not bad apparently!

I went for what seems like a more traditional Thai dish, stir-fried pork with basil, chilli, garlic, and lime leaves. It was tasty, and definitely hit the spot.

Don't quite remember what the Thai name is for this dish, but it was delicious!

I could not resist taking more pictures of my favourite tortoiseshell cat. Is it just my imagination or does it have unusually short front legs? There is just something about this kitty that enthralls and delights me.

So cute.

After finishing our lunch, we went out to the garden, where we patted more cats. Yay!

We both enjoyed our time at Sawasdee Chiang Rai Cat Cafe. It is certainly a cat cafe that is a bit different to the rest - a somewhat "free range" cat cafe where the kitties may roam in and out in a reasonably safe environment, made possible due to the more rural and idyllic location. Plus, the food here is pretty good, too!

Cat in the Sawasdee Chiang Rai Cat Cafe garden.

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Friday, 25 March 2016

mae salong / santikhiri: the photogenic thai village

Dawn at Mae Salong.

Love mountain scenery, tea plantations and peaceful villages? If you ever find yourself in Chiang Rai and you know how to ride a scooter, do yourself a favour, and take a side trip to Mae Salong.

The official name of the village these days is Santikhiri, but it seems that everyone still refers to it as Mae Salong. Whatever you want to call it, this place makes for a wonderful getaway from the hustle and bustle of city life. We were here for only two or three days, but it was such a rejuvenating experience.

The morning market is where we would begin our day.

Mae Salong morning market.

We had dumplings for breakfast. Yes, dumplings! At times, in Mae Salong, it feels as though we have transported ourselves to a little Chinese village. This is where Kuomintang soldiers from Yunnan settled down with their families some decades ago, and to this day, you can still see how they have retained elements of the Chinese culture. Many of the residents here speak both Thai and Mandarin, and given that I know only a few Thai words (and most of what I know is food related, ha!), I happily interacted with the villagers in Mandarin whenever the opportunity arose.

Dumplings. Delicious dumplings.

We would tuck into our tasty pan-fried dumplings, dipping them into a tangy, spicy, herb-and-sesame-studded dipping sauce before popping them into our eager mouths.

And we would observe the world go by.

Young monks going on their morning alms.

Then, we zoomed around the narrow, winding roads, checking out the nearby Akha hilltribe villages and taking in the fabulous scenery. I wish I have pictures to share, but it's not easy (and not safe!) to take photographs while clinging on to the back seat of a scooter on those hilly roads, even at a slow-to-moderate pace. Moreover, there are times when I just want to enjoy the moment - the breeze in my face, the smile of a stranger - without fiddling around with my camera, and let's face it, given my limited skills, those pictures probably wouldn't have turned out great, anyway!

We wanted to get dessert, coffee and tea from Sweet Mae Salong Cafe, but unfortunately, they were closed. At least we caught a glimpse of their darling little dog.

A fluffy creature at the Sweet Mae Salong Cafe.

We found this spot that appeared to be a tourism center at some point in the past, but it seems to be all but abandoned these days.

Why? Who knows. Those giant lion sculptures are interesting, though.

Giant lion statues. You can see our tiny scooter parked on the left side.

And the giant teapots are certainly charming.

Giant teapot.

Also, behold these quirky teapots that look as though they're suspended in the air.

More teapot sculptures.

We took a walk in the tea plantations.

Lush, verdant tea plants (camellia sinensis).

Seriously, this place really is ridiculously photogenic.

View from the tea plantations.

And it's green like you wouldn't believe.

Fifty shades of green, am I right?

I was so ecstatic to see this hen and her chicks, and to capture a photo of them pecking away merrily. I used to have chickens that are similar to these ones, in which the babies are either all black or chipmunk-like (golden brown with dark chocolate and cream stripes), and they are just the cutest things ever.

Adorable chicken family.

Aside from indulging in dumplings wherever we could find them in Mae Salong, there is this casual and cheerful little bakery-cafe-restaurant near our guesthouse that became one of our favourite places to hang out for snacks and drinks.

New Era Bakery Food & Drink - also known as Xin Shi Dai Bakery.

True to their name - New Era Bakery Food & Drink - they do a nice variety of scrumptious baked goods. Upon showing our interest in what they had to offer, they brought out more treats, and we ended up purchasing a bunch of different things to bring back to our guesthouse so we could have something to munch on whenever we were feeling peckish.

Muffins!

But also, it is nice to just lounge around in their rattan chairs, and sip on a delightful smoothie or two.

I think this was a mango smoothie.

Additionally, they offer both Thai and Chinese cuisine on their menu. Obviously, I jumped on the larb gai.

Isaan-style larb gai - minced chicken salad with chilli, lime juice, herbs and shallots.

I got to talking with the owner of the place. He is pleasantly down-to-earth, and we conversed easily in Mandarin. He talked about wanting to drum up more business and asked me for ideas, so I suggested listing his place on TripAdvisor as well as using social media platforms such as Facebook (and I see that the place has built up a small online presence since then!). Now that I've finally gotten around to writing this blog post, hopefully it comes in helpful, too - you never know if the occasional traveller might do a keyword search for where to eat in Mae Salong, and they might end up with my recommendation here!

A quaint view of village life from the vantage point of the bakery cafe.

There isn't a lot to do in the evenings in Mae Salong, aside from finding a place to eat dinner. After our meal, we might walk to the 7-Eleven convenience store to grab some random tidbits, or pop by the bakery again, before heading back to our guesthouse and entertaining ourselves by going through our photos for the day on our digital cameras, and playing games, watching videos, and browsing the internet on our tablets.

Bye bye, Mae Salong.

Even though we were in Mae Salong for only a very short time, it is unquestionably a memorable part of our trip to Thailand. As someone who grew up in Malaysia with a Chinese heritage, I think the intriguing Thai-Chinese combination here has an appeal that is at once fascinating and familiar to me. Plus, of course, there's that stunning scenery. It's definitely worth a look if you're ever in the area.

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Sunday, 20 March 2016

chiang rai, thailand: white temple, black house, and more...

A temple that we stumbled upon while wandering around Chiang Rai city.

I should probably note that my Thailand blog post series isn't in a strictly chronological order. Our trip to Chiang Rai was actually towards the end of our time in Thailand, and by this time, we were slowing down to a pretty lazy pace. However, as you will see, we still managed to fit in a decent amount of sightseeing... we just spread that out over several days instead of cramming it all into one day!

Chez Nous, a charming guesthouse in Chiang Rai.

We found a sweet and affordable homestay-style guesthouse that made a great base for our explorations in Chiang Rai. While we usually go out to try food at different places, we did have breakfast here once or twice. The lovely owner dishes up a delectable pancake with lemon and sugar.

A crepe-style pancake with lemon and sugar.

We would investigate the city on a scooter, stopping anywhere that took our fancy.

One time, we stumbled upon a local market.

Lovely cat at the market.

Some of the items look familiar, such as these crabs - I think they're the little crabs from rice paddy fields that the Thais brine and then add to dishes - I've seen vendors pound them before incorporating them to my som tum (green papaya salad) on more than one occasion.

Salted crabs.

This market also sells frogs and insects, as well as many other things that are a complete mystery to me.

What is this?

We would seek out good food wherever we could. On one occasion, we took the advice from our Lonely Planet e-book travel guide for Thailand, and visited a modest little food shack called Lung Eed for their larb gai (spicy minced chicken salad with herbs). Simon and I both absolutely adore larb gai, and the one here is different to the others we've had up to now - meatier, less plant matter, and loads of crunchiness from the deep-fried chicken skin and shallots piled on top. There is also a fish version. Very interesting, and very nice, too!

Larb gai at Lung Eed in Chiang Rai.

And, of course, you can't really visit Chiang Rai for the first time and not check out Wat Rong Khun, the white temple. This is not so much a traditional place of worship, but more of a modern exhibit created by Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. The building was partially damaged by an earthquake in mid-2014, but it was up and running again by the time we visited later that same year.

As you can see, it is quite stunning, like something out of a fairytale.

The beautiful white temple, Wat Rong Khun.

And with fascinating details. After all, a fairytale has got to have its macabre elements.

Interesting sculptures.

Yes, it looks beguilingly pristine from afar, but get closer and you'll definitely see its darker side. The indoor murals are also amusing, with depictions that you are bound to recognise from popular culture. Go see it for yourself.

Also fabulous from the other angle.

On another day, we visited the Baandam Museum, also known as the Black House. Being skillful procrastinators, we somehow managed to languidly fritter most of our day away before finally hopping on our scooter and making our way there late in the afternoon, reaching it about half an hour before closing time. Do not be like us, as you will live to regret it.

Firstly, there was a lady selling incredibly delicious ice cream just outside the Black House. We each purchased one, thought they were amazing and wanted to get more, but then I frantically said to Simon that we really had to look around before they closed the premises, and we could get another ice cream when we're done.

But no. By the time we emerged from the museum grounds, the ice cream lady was gone. Pure devastation.

I will always remember this rich, flavourful, melt-in-my-mouth Thai tea ice cream on a stick. Always. May we meet again, my love.

Delicious Thai tea ice cream - there are other fantastic flavours, too.

Secondly - dessert tragedy aside - the Black House is really quite something. Created by Thai artist Thawan Duchanee, who actually lived here till his final days, it is a morbid study in mortality.

Baan Dam - the Black House.

If you're not a fan of assorted animal remains, this is not the place for you. I read somewhere that Thawan procured all these from animals that died of natural causes, but I am unable to find the original source for that information, so don't cite me on that.

Skulls galore at the Black House museum grounds.

Even during the day, under the bright sun, you can't help but feel the the eerie vibe.

Jaws.

There is not just one single building here - there are several structures scattered all over, so you really need a good amount of time to have a proper look at everything. So, like I said, you really should get there well before it closes for the day, and not just for that ice cream.

More intricate architecture at Baan Dam.

And as for the night life in Chiang Rai? It's a fairly quiet place as far as cities go, but there were still enough things to keep us occupied. We're not the wild party types and we don't drink a lot, but we do like walking around and just looking at stuff.

The golden clock tower, designed by the same artist who brought us the white temple, comes to life with music and coloured lights in the evenings.

Chiang Rai's clock tower puts on a show at night.

One night, we found ourselves at Central Plaza shopping centre. I think we may have watched a movie there - I can't remember.

Central Plaza in Chiang Rai.

We would often visit the Chiang Rai Night Bazaar, which is close to our guesthouse. This is a night market that caters more to tourists, and it's a pleasant place to stroll around, but for some reason I don't really have any particularly significant pictures of it. It is not unusual for us to pop over to the nearby Swensen's ice cream parlour afterwards for a sweet treat. Trust me to have pictures of that.

Scoops of ice cream, yes!

And, finally, we visited the Sunday night market. I was quickly captivated by a stall selling a variety of beverages, and I opted for a blue pea flower drink. It was mild, sweet and refreshing. Back home in Malaysia, we use the blue pea flower to add colour to rice, but I have never thought about making a tea out of it. I will have to try that someday!

Blue pea flower drink.

Also, what even is this? Oh Thailand, you can be so crazy.

A quirky couple with dogs strapped on to their bodies, at a night market in Chiang Rai.

Anyway, that's our time in Chiang Rai. As far as cities go, this is a very laid-back one. Wat Rong Khun is the main drawcard for tourists - and Baan Dam, too, though perhaps less so, as it is probably not as well-known. Depending on your travel preferences, you could be satisfied with just a day trip here out of Chiang Mai, or you may choose to linger and dig a little deeper. Chiang Rai also served us well as an excellent jumping-off point for a side trip to Mae Salong - but that, my dear friends, is a subject for the next post!

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Thursday, 10 March 2016

lovely days in chiang dao, thailand

Beautiful Chiang Dao.

For this month of March, let's walk down the memory lane to revisit those sensational few weeks in Thailand back in late 2014 - you know, that time when Simon and I took a travel sabbatical in Asia and had months of incredible fun without a care in the world. In other words, only now am I getting around to sharing my pictures and experiences from a trip I made one-and-a-half years ago. But shhhhhh, we can pretend that everything is perfectly up-to-date.

I'll begin this Thailand travel series with our jaunt in Chiang Dao.

I love this place.

I mean, a typical day here would start off with us playing with the adorable resident puppy at Chan and Cees, the guesthouse where we stayed.

Puppy!

And then we'd make our way to the nearby restaurant, Model Farm, where I'd order a fantastically magenta mulberry smoothie. I think they add quite a generous pinch of salt to it, perhaps a little bit too much, but it's still a great smoothie.

An enticingly purple mulberry smoothie at Model Farm restaurant in Chiang Dao.

And we'd order whatever took our fancy that day. The food here is very nicely prepared with superbly fresh ingredients, and most of them range from 30 to 60 baht, so it's hard to go wrong. The pad thai is pretty awesome, and we had it on more than one occasion. By the way, I really fell in love with pad thai during this trip to North Thailand. Back in Australia, too many eateries fall into the trap of using too much sugar in their pad thai. Over here, however, the addition of sugar is subtle, or perhaps they forgo it entirely, and it's up to you to season your food to your own preferences by partaking from the nifty array of condiments available at your table, if you so wish.

Pad thai at Model Farm restaurant in Chiang Dao.

This spicy pork salad is memorable, not just because it was tasty, but also because of how breathtakingly spicy it was. You can see for yourself - the sliced grilled pork is basically buried under an avalanche of garlic and chilli!

Spicy pork salad with copious amounts of garlic and chilli, also at Model Farm restaurant in Chiang Dao.

Then we'd get on the road, and explore, explore, explore.

Villages, yes.

Venturing into the villages of Chiang Dao.

Temple ruins, why not?

Temples ruins near Chiang Dao Cave.

We also visited the gorgeous Wat Tham Pha Plong. As we meandered up the 500+ steps, signs carrying assorted pearls of wisdom entertain us.

One of the many signs at Wat Tham Pha Plong.

And every now and then, exquisite glimpses of the temple beckoned to us. It was so calm and peaceful up there, when we finally reached the top.

The graceful and elegant Wat Tham Pha Plong.

More random exploring.

Agricultural stuff.

Don't you just love those dreamy mountain views?

Rice paddies.

And how about a sunset like this one?

An incredible sunset in Chiang Dao. It looks like the clouds are on fire!

At night, we'd get dinner at any place that caught our eyes. The fun thing about Chiang Dao is that it is still wonderfully Thai in nature - that is to say, many businesses here do not use English as a communication medium. This makes eating out even more of an adventure. Guesswork, gesturing... all in a night's work. The street food vendors were delighted to see us. The appreciation is mutual.

Street food stall in Chiang Dao.

This is something that is at least somewhat familiar to me - the spicy, tangy Thai glass noodle salad, yum woon sen. Good stuff, which is really not surprising, given that Thai salads are generally magnificent. People who say you don't win friends with salad are clearly not well-acquainted with Thai salads. Their loss.

Nice, affordable yum woon sen.

The cool thing about Simon is that he's willing to try stuff that he can't see. I'm okay with trying stuff that I can't identify, but I usually prefer to, y'know, at least see what I'll be eating. Not him. I go along for the ride, and expand my horizons as a result. Mystery food wrapped up in banana leaves, that give no hint of the contents within? Bring it on.

Mystery parcel number one. Chicken, I think, in a herbaceous sauce.

Mystery food in banana leaf, take one.

Mystery parcel number two is similar to a frittata, or whatever. Note to self - it would probably be helpful to blog about something while it's still fresh in my mind.

Mystery food in banana leaf, take two.

Markets are also fun, and full of surprises. Where else do you purchase a sausage and bite into it with hungry carnivorous anticipation, only to find out it's actually a rice sausage? At markets, that's where.

A deceptive sausage.

We also stumbled upon khanom buang thai, which is like a crispy Thai crepe. These sweet little dessert snacks were quite charming. The light and crunchy crepes are filled with fluffy meringue as well as sweet shredded egg yolk or coconut, and they are petite enough that it is all too easy to keep popping them into your mouth, over and over again.

Thai crispy crepe - khanom buang.

So that's the summary of our time in Chiang Dao.

Chiang Dao isn't for everyone, of course. It isn't a party town, and I certainly hope it never goes down that path. Additionally, you won't get many options in terms of shopping, events, or entertainment here, but if you're looking for some peace and relaxation, and you enjoy getting in touch with nature, the serene mountain views in Chiang Dao offer a sublime backdrop for a sweet and simple down-to-earth existence. A few days here was just right for us!

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