Thursday, September 28, 2006

Bangkok '06 : Chatuchak Weekend Market

No visit to Bangkok is complete without spending a day at the Chatuchak Weekend Market. The grounds is the size of ten football fields, with stalls crammed into every small space available, selling just about everything you could imagine, from t-shirts to t-bone steaks, from fake Rolex watches to real live puppies, from artistic carvings of Buddha to kitschy Hello Kitty tote bags.
There is even an inspiring football player for sale.... hehehe. Actually, this guy's really quite talented. He's performing balancing tricks with his football in order to earn his way to a football school in Europe. Who knows, this could be the next Ronaldo.

Section 4 - the arts corner. Here, you can find highly imaginative original works by local artists in various media - oil on canvas, watercolour, sculptures, pottery and much more. However, most western tourists seem only interested in images of Buddha. Hence, there's a whole lot of busts and wood carvings and oils of the sage in a variety of styles and colours.

If you ever get thirsty, there's plenty of refreshment to choose from. My favourite is fresh coconut water in ice. At 10 baht, what more can one ask for?

I bought my Crocs slippers for S$120 last year. I never would have thought that their knockoffs would get here just one year later and selling for just 120 Baht!!!!

Not exactly Soontra, but these fruit juices are also quite delicious albeit a tad too sweet. thais love their fruits and one can get fresh fruits in all forms from cut slices to juices to frappes, you name it, they have it.

Home furnishing is also a big draw here. I love their ideas in lighting, bedding, curtains and candles. But this is the ultimate no no for me. Crocodile skin as a sofa accessory, anyone?

Ooo... my sisters would love this. Accessories to adorn each and every part of thier body. Let's see...there's stuff for the neck, wrist, head, ears, tongue, arms, ankles......

Ok... everybody now.... 1, 2,3... AAAAAAWWWWWWWWWWWWW!!!!!!

Ok. I'm confused. Do I let them lick or not? Can anybody who reads thai clear this up?

Arguable the best bargains here are the t-shirts. You can hear people shouting at the top of their voices, attracting buyers' attention to their stalls. Competition is stiff in t-shirt land and prices have been slashed to 69 baht...59 baht....39 baht..... and that's before you even start to bargain with them.

Food's great and cheap here too. Simple and delicious. Like this bowl of kuay teow with pork balls. Heavenly!

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Bangkok '06: Gourmet S#@t!!!

In the words of my good friend, Nic Ong, Thai food is serious gourmet s#@t! A melange of different Asian influences from Indochina, China, India and Southeast Asia , has produced a heady concoction of spices, chillies and aromas that is distinctly thai and globally appealing.

Kway Teow - the staple thai mid-day snack is a chinese influenced flat noodle boiled or fried to perfection. One can either have it 'dry' or 'wet' - the option being a light savoury broth that is either served on the side or poured directly into the bowl of noodles. Either way you have it, it's delicious.

And if you wish to enhance the flavour, you often have a quartet of condiments at your disposal: hot, sour, salty and sweet. From left clockwise, we have nam som prik, which is cut green chilli in vinegar, which obviously gives you the sour taste; prik nam blaa, which is salty fish sauce; prik pon which is basically dried chilli either in flake or ground powder form; and finally, namtaan, or its less exotic name, sugar; which obviously but yet strangely is to sweeten the savoury noodles.

Thai street food is everywhere. Anywhere where there is a square foot of free empty real estate, inevitable will be occupied by a vendor selling noodles, cakes, fruits, vegetables and even fried insects, I kid you not.

Soontra. Remember that name. That is the brand of untra delicious pure unsweetened fruit juice that we couldn't get enough of. It's a bit on the expensive side (30 - 50 baht) but once you taste it, you'll keep coming back for me. The vendor we always frequented is at the Saphan Taksin station and two really lovely ladies.. er.. man the stall till around eight in the evening. The fruit juices come in a variety of flavours from the common orange and apple to the more exotic lemongrass and beetroot (ok, technically these aren't fruits but what the hey). Try one, try them all.

Every morning, as we walked out from the hotel to the BTS station, we have to fight the temptation to just grab all these wonderful knick knacks on sale . They're all so cheap, all so delicious, all so fattening. Hehehe

But if there's one particular snack that'll weaken my resolve , it's this: grilled banana. There is this old lady at the corner who serves up the most delicious (and piping hot) charcoal grilled morsels of delight that you see in the above pic, for only 5 baht each. Be careful you don't burn your tongue, tho.

In the evenings, nothing satisfies better than a plate of pad thai, a local version of fried noodles packed with garlic, onions, pork bits and bean sprouts, garnished with basil and lemongrass. Yummy!

In the land of Buddha and muay thai, halal food (read: no pork) can be hard to come by. Poor Fai who is muslim had to make do with whatever 'halal' food scraps he could get outside of McDonalds (heck even McD has pork in their hamburgers here!). When we found a roadside stall selling beef noodles (a rarity in buddhist Bangkok), we just had to indulge him and well, it wasn't bad. In fact, quite flavourful, actually.

Someone asked me what was it about Bangkok that keeps me going back for more. Is it the shopping? The seedy nightlife? Thai massage?

Well, I can't say for anyone else, but for me, its the food. Glorious thai cuisine that is so unique and yet so universally loved. From grilled banana to sliced corn, and from pad thai to succulent thai mango, there's just so many different types of flavours and aromas to suit anyone and everyone's palate.

Bangkok '06: Wat Vistas

Bangkok is a diverse and cosmopolitan city like no other. Modern skyscrapers share the skyline with majestic Buddhist temples. Tucked away in hidden corners are tranquil spas and boutiques hotels while their brazen sister establishments, the massage parlours and all-night pubs, hog the limelight on main shopping thouroughfares. Ordinary Thais in the smart western suits share the same BTS (subway) carriage as saffron-yellow robed monks and wide-eyed foreign tourists in sweaty t-shirts and baggy pants.

In the old city area, Wat Poh is one of the largest temples in Bangkok and boasts the largest reclining Buddha in the world. Hmmm ... and I thought that claim belongs to Penang's Reclining Buddha temple.

Regardless, I have to admit that it really was very, very long. Even the toes (all ten of them stacked up together) were at least as high as a two storey building. As life-like as it was, it wasn't anatomically correct though.They're of the same size and shape. I guess the sculptors figured nobody would be too bothered with the feet as most would have dropped their jaws at the head and torso - because it's completely covered in GOLD. Opulent, gaudy and strangely beguiling.

In the main bot (main hall) a group of monks were holding their daily prayer session. No shoes were allowed, and cameras also weren't encouraged, but everybody were busily snapping away, at times distracting the monks from their trance-like meditation.

Employing a cornucopia of strong earthy colours, and inspiringly imaginative motifs, traditional Thai architecture spares no expense to impress, eg. the antelope-like chofahs on the roofs. Jes says they look more like birds' wings.

These strange structures are chedis, bell shaped towers that
actually house the remains of monks, or kings. Some may even contain relics of the Buddha. And I thought they were merely to provide shade for us poor tourists. haha.

A lot of the treasures recovered from ships that sink in the Gulf of Thailand are given to the temple authorities. Because most of the ships are chinese junks, a lot of medieval chinese sculptures are recovered as well, like this pair of dragons that stand guard at the entrance to a small wiharn (small prayer hall).

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Bangkok '06 : Day One

"Sawadee kha...." went the petite hotel receptionist with her palms closed together in a prayer-like gesture. We sawadee-khrap'ed back, at once relieved and excited on arriving at the hotel that was to be our home for the next four days. The jasmine scent wafted through the air bestowing us with a strangely calming sensation. Yes, I could already sense that this trip to Bangkok was going to be a pleasant one, not that a trip to Thailand was ever anything less than pleasant.

Our travel company on this trip included Fai, KK, Jes and yours truly, with Jes' mom joining us over the weekend. As soon as Fai was done checking us in, the four of us troopped up to the sixth floor to room 608 or as the thais would say hok-suun-paet. After a short rest and freshening up, we hit the streets of Bangkok en route to our first destination of the trip - Mae Nam Chao Phraya for a river cruise.

The Chao Phraya is the lifeline of Bangkok. People still use it to commute to and from work, partly because it is quite reliable and cheap (about 20 baht to anywhere one way). I can't help but feel that there is a certain romantic value to it despite its perpetual 'kopi susu' colour and run down jetties that dot the river bank.

It can get quite crowded especially during rush hour and the boat conductor seems oblivious to the amount of people he lets into the boat. Yet, no matter how crowded, the passengers will never fail to give up their seat for a monk should he come aboard. In fact, they even put up a sign that says "Seat reserved for monks". That's nice.

As the boat slowly makes its way up (or down) the river, we, the tourists, are given a glimpse into authentic life in Bangkok, warts and all. Yes, there are people still living in makeshift houses on stilts and clothes flap away on the clothesline in the backyards that open out into the river.

Sharing the riverside vista are majestic temples (wat) that are at once awe inspiring and serene in its tranquility. That's what's so magical about Bangkok - a busy cosmopolitan city that is still very much in touch with its own spirituality. I can't help but smile whenever I see ordinary Bangkok folk who, while busily jostle ahead on their way, would pause and say a short prayer whenever they pass by a shrine or temple.

By far the most beautiful sight on the river cruise is the temple complex of Wat Arun. Named after the Indian deity Aruna, this temple is one of the largest in Thailand and truly a magnificent example of Indochinese architecture and civilisation.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Layang Layang Pics 4: Fish

South East Asia boasts of an enormous variety of fish, corals and other sea creatures due to its unique geography of warm, shallow waters and countless island archipelagoes which form coral havens and mangrove swamps that act as shelters for various species of juvenile fish from predators.

Everywhere you look, there are a multitude of fish, soft corals, hard corals, crustasceans, sponges.... the list goes on and on. If you know where to look for them. The name of the game here is camouflage for beneath the deceivingly tranquil blue waters lies a world as vicious as the gladiatorial arena of ancient Rome - kill or be killed.

In order to protect itself from predators, a lot of sea creatures resort to camouflage using biology and tricks of light resulting in a wonderous and spectacular array of body shapes, behaviour and physiology that one would previously think belongs to the world of science fiction.

One of my favourite activites while diving is snapping pictures of fish that I've never seen before and then referring to the fish charts and pictorials to find out what group and species they belong to. Like this one. Usually more common in Carribean waters, this is a juvenile Picasso Trigger fish and is one of the most aggressive types of fish. Trigger fish is very territorial and will not hesitate to attack anything or anyone who wanders too close to its nesting grounds.

Usually most of the fish can be found in the shallow sun drenched waters between 5 - 15 feet deep. Here one can see colourful coral gardens as far as the eyes can see and where there's corals, there will be fish, seeking food and shelter. Like this very common sight - a lone racoon anglefish, probably looking for its mate.

Sometimes, you need to just stop at seemingly featureless coral mounds for a while before your eyes triumphs over this leaf fishes' attempt at camouflage.

Perhaps one of the most unsightly fishes you could ever find in these waters is the puffer fish aka blowfish aka fugu on the sushi table. Whether its in its puffed-up spine ridden form or in this unprovoked mild mannered disguise, it still is one really ugly fish.

Ah, looks can be so deceiving. This beautiful red lionfish is as beguiling to hold as it is poisonous. While it probably won't kill a human being, the poison found in its long flowing tentacle-like fins is strong enough to immobalise predators twice as large as itself within a matter of seconds... giving it time to plot an course of escape.

The scorpionfish pictured above doesn't really move much. It doesn't have to. Like the lionfish , it too has poison up its fins and after creating a false sense of security by blending perfectly into its surroundings, the scorpionfish uses it to stun its prey in lightning fast strikes. Blink and you'll miss it.

Layang Layang Pics 3

I can never forget the first time I saw a tornado - the term used to describe the way certain types of fish 'hover' together usually as a protection mechanism from their predators. There must have been close to a million jackfish in the formation just swimming round and round while a school of sharks waited nearby for their meal to be 'served'.

Corals too comes in all shapes and sizes. Like this one, of the Sinularia family. It's a soft coral (meaning it doesn't have a hard calcium shell) and often feeds on the rich soup of microorganisms within the sea, eg. phytoplankton, zooplankton, fish fry, larvae etc.

Ok, the next time you tuck into your ikan pari bakar at the local seafood restaurant, remember that the stingray once looked quite regal with its green 'cape' and was actually very hip because it sported iridescent blue tatoos all over its body.

Ok, to me, this looks like a cushion that my aunt would make for my cousin's housewarming. Hahaha. It's actually a type of starfish (Choriaster granulatus) and can grow to a maximum size of 3 feet.

This has got to be one of my favourite lucky shots of all time. I was trailing a box fish that was proving to be very elusive. As I was moving my camera from left to right trying to compose a decent shot, this little critter just burst into view on my viewfinder. Hope it hasn't ended up on somebody's dinner plate.

Forest of the sea. A collection of hard and soft corals perched on top of a rocky mound. Usually there will be lots of fish within this underwater maze but I think our presence kinda proved too distracting for them.

This is me getting bored and trying to act out my Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon pose. Hehehe. Looks more like Floating Octopus Flapping Turtle.
And yes, that's my trusty S80 that I am using in place of a stinging needle to throw at my opponent.

Everytime I look at this picture of a spotted morey eel, I can't help but think of that scene from "The Little Mermaid" where the hapless Ariel is lured by her evil aunt Ursula's two flunkey eels , Flotsam and Jetsam. It is so amazing the way the Disney animators capture the eel's facial expressions so accurately.

Awww.... don'tcha just wanna reach out and give the guy a hug? This shy little fishy is a juvenile blenny that is trying to hide from the evil clutches of Mr. Photographer. Mwahahahaha.

Just like in Sipadan, there are lots of turtles in the waters off Layang Layang. This is an adult green turtle making a meal out of some hard corals. I'll bet he's wondering why there's this wierdo staring at him chewing a mouthful of his delicious afternoon snack. Mmmmm.... looks yummy....NOT.

Ok, final picture for this instalment. You know I can't just leave without a pic of a nudibranch. Hehehe. This is a common nudibranch found all across South East Asia. It's of the chromodoris sp. and is easily identifiable because of the spiky tentacles at the top of its head which looks like it has punk leanings. :-)