Two reasons to pause in Pindaya, Burma

Pindaya, Burma
Markets, fresh pancakes
I found two very good reasons to stop and explore the little town of Pindaya. It’s in the picturesque Shan State in Myanmar, on the edge of a beautiful lake in a valley.

The Market.

There is always something endlessly fascinating to me about a true local market. One that has nothing to do with tourism.  The market (held every five days) in Pindaya is one of those markets, so we just had to stop and explore for a few hours. The variety of food stuffs was fascinating, from deep fried tofu to multicoloured rice crackers of many shapes, from fresh fish and fruit to dozens of varieties of dried fish.

My favourite though was what I called the “coconut crumpets”, being freshly made in front of us on a table that seemed filthy with splattered pancake mix, but the cooking pans themselves were very clean. The pancake batter included shredded coconut, and when they came out of the pan they were warm and light and full of holes like a crumpet, and absolutely delicious. Sadly we never found them anywhere else in Myanmar. If anyone has a recipe please let me know!

Pindaya, Burma
entrance to Buddha Caves, Pindaya, Burma

Browsing through the rest of the market was like having a nosy through a local home, there was clothing, bedding, electronics and plastics, music, a hairdresser, flowers and bicycles.

The Buddha Caves.

On a hill just outside Pindaya is the Shwe U Min pagoda, commonly know as the Buddha Caves. We drove part way up the hill to the entry hall to the pagoda. Bizarrely there is a giant fake spider guarding the entrance, based on a very old (pre buddhist) local fable. From there it’s about 300 steps up to the main part of the pagoda, which extends into the mountainside through numerous caves.

Pindaya, burma
sign of the day

There are reputed to be 8000 buddha images in these caves – 4000 are “miniatures” forming a few larger sculptures, the other 4000 are from inches to metres in height, and a multiple of styles and ages. In one cave there is a maze, in other caves there are hidden meditation chambers. And being in caves is pleasantly cool compared to the temperature outside in the sun.

There’s a great sign at the entrance to the cave, which clearly meant to remind visitors to remove their shoes, proudly announcing  “Foot-Wearing Prohibited”

We then walked the longer set of steps right to the bottom of the hill so that we could avoid walking out past the legs of the giant spider. At the bottom of the hill is also a shop selling homemade paper, beautifully made with petals and leaves scattered through it, a nice souvenir.

Street Art of Shoreditch, London

I have always thought that one of the classic signs of the gentrification of a previously run-down urban area is the commercialisation of graffiti. When there is as much quality street art as there is tagging, and when local businesses hire street artists to do their branding, then I’m fairly sure I am in a trendy area with edge (and good cafes). Which usually makes for a fun and interesting urban streetscape. Shoreditch is a great example, I love walking the streets here, checking out the creativity of the street art as well as the hipster score of the bars and cafes.

great place to park a train?

 

The local businesses definitely embrace and commercialise the grit and grunge successfully.

 

To transition from grunge to upmarket, I wander down the street to the beautiful architecture of Spitalfields market. Originally the site of the leading fresh fruit and vegetable market in London, it keep expanding for 309 years until finally being forced out into a new location in 1991 (New Spitalfields Market, 23 Sherrin Road, Leyton, London, E10 5SQ).
Meanwhile Old SpitalFields Market (Brushfield Street, Spitalfields, London E1 6AA, Liverpool St tube) has developed into a 7-day a week upmarket arts and crafts market, particularly good for jewellery and hipster clothing, in the heart of the banking district of London.
The appropriate finish for this transition to trendy mass market Shoreditch is surely to pull up a seat at Jamie Oliver’s Canteen in Spitalfields- I recommend a home made pie washed down with artisanal cider. 

 

Columbia Road Markets – more than just a flowery story

I need to start with a confession – I lived in London for 10 years and I never visited Columbia Rd Markets. So on this short stopover, I finally find out what I’ve been missing. And I am impressed.

 

I find the Columbia Road markets, perhaps not so surprisingly, on a blocked off part of Columbia Rd on a sunny autumn Sunday morning in the East End of London (every Sunday from 8am to 3pmish is the official line). For a few blocks it is a crowded lane of wall to wall flower stalls, ringing with the calls of the charismatic stall holders – plenty of cockney, and maybe a little bit of mockney, but who cares, it’s all atmosphere! And on this unusually sunny day, the flowers seemed to glow with a brightness and depth of colour that seemed more tropical than english, a beautiful way to calm a hangover. But it is popular, and therefore quite crowded, so it’s best to just go with the flow of the crowd.

 

Also lining the street, behind the stalls, are rows of wonderful old terrace houses with brightly colourful shops lining the street level, just like another row of flowers. There is plenty enough to keep me browsing the art, craft, fashion, jewellery and homewares for hours, and most are boutique and unique, not high street chain stores. My favourite part is Ezra St, branching off from Colombia Rd, with more pubs and cafes to enjoy. And clearly many people come here for a sunday brunch, a catch up with friends, a coffee in the sun; it all helps create a very friendly relaxed vibe. I settle into a communal table outside Lili Vanilli bakery, a cafe with lovely coffee and food, and a charmingly disorganised and chaotic atmosphere – is this the Fawlty’s of Columbia Road markets? I think I’ll get another coffee and have a think about that.

Shanghai Stirfry

Wet markets are brilliant, all that fresh produce, some so fresh they are still alive, at least until you pick them out from the display. This local market in Shanghai has live chickens, fish, crabs and frogs amongst others.  And lets not be squeamish about this, the floor is very wet from the constant hosing off of blood and guts as we pick out our live ingredients and the stall owner dispatches them quickly into whatever serving size and shape we find appropriate. Add to that the array of fresh and exotic fruit, veges and spices and we soon have all the ingredients for our cooking lessons. Luckily we are not cooking frogs, or even the black chickens that I saw, the strangest things – their skin and flesh (raw) is completely black. All in all a lot more fun than a supermarket.
Shanghai Wet markets

Shanghai Stirfry Cooking Class.

We make our way back  a couple of blocks to an edgy industrial Shikumen block that has been converted into a maze of small creative businesses. This is where the Chinese Cooking Workshop has one of it’s two classrooms, near the centre of Shanghai.  We all share one large central bench to prepare, and each have a dedicated gas burner and wok to cook with. The classroom is on the top floor of the building, and we can climb out the sash windows onto a roof terrace to take a break and take in the view. We have Chef Huang teaching us stirfry dishes today, and I am excited. The wok has been a staple in my kitchen since my student days, it’s quick one-dish cooking at its best. But I know there is a big difference between cooking in a wok and creating a genuine chinese dish, and I am hoping to bridge that gap a bit today.


Shanghai Cooking School
Colourful Fish Strifry.

We start with San Se Yu Si, which translates literally as colourful sliced fish. It’s a simple dish of thinly sliced fish with red and green peppers. This is when we learn that pretty much every stirfry in Shanghai has a base seasoning of salt, sugar, pepper and chinese cooking wine, only small amounts, maybe half a teaspoon each of the salt, sugar and pepper per serving size, and a splash of cooking wine. In the same way, most will be finished with a last minute addition of corn starch (half a tablespoon) in cooking wine, to thicken any juices and create a glossy glaze so that the meal presents well. We slice the fish up into small strips by removing the skin, and then slicing the fillet into two layers about one cm thick each, and then slice across the fillet to create even strips one cm wide as well. Then we slice the the peppers into strips of the same size, as we strive to create the visual appearance of balance, so important in chinese cooking. Now its time to practise our wok skills, getting it really hot over the gas, first adding some green onion and ginger and then the peppers and fish, keeping the wok moving, tossing the ingredients around constantly. A quick final swirl of the cornstarch/cooking wine mix, and we serve up and sit down to eat our own creations. Now this is delicious,  it looks and tastes better than any stirfry I have cooked before, and is one I want to try again at home.


Shanghai Cooking School
Shanghai stir-fried mushrooms.

Now we move onto Chao Shuang Gu, two mushrooms with oyster sauce, another descriptive name. This time we dunk the mushrooms and bok choy in boiling water briefly first, then start the stirfry with the salt, sugar, pepper and cooking wine, add oyster sauce and mushrooms, then the corn starch. Plate up with the bok choy and a dash of sesame oil. Another chance to sit down and eat our own efforts, and its also a good opportunity to hear about the life of Chef Huang and his family in Shanghai.
Shanghai Cooking School

Shanghai Chaomain.

Our final dish is also a classic, Shanghai Chaomian. This follows the methods and techniques already learned, except we boil the noodles first, then stirfry shredded pork, baby bok choy, mushrooms with both light and dark soy sauce, and then mix through the noodles. This dish is so filling, on top of the two plates that I have already eaten, that I can’t even finish it, but it does taste delicious as well.

And all too soon our half day is over, our bellies are full, our cooking skills improved. I want to make sure I remember my salt/sugar/pepper/cooking wine seasoning mix as the base of each dish, the dash of starch/cooking wine at the end to make it shine, and the need to constantly throw the ingredients around by agitating the wok continuously over the flame, using my wrist, not by stirring. These are my souvenirs to take home and put into practice. Now it’s time to explore all the studios in all the alleyways in this Shikumen building, full of all sorts of intriguing creative studios and businesses.

Marrakech – seventeen years between tagines

Marrakech first seduced me when I visited in 1988. So it might seem surprising it took me over seventeen years to get there a second time – what can I say, so many countries, so little time! And it just confirmed to me all over again, how much Marrakech enchants me. So what makes it so special? Marrakech

The colour pink.

How can you not love a city where all buildings are required to be an acceptable shade of pink. A dusky pink that mirrors the earth it is built on, the sand that blows through it. A shade of weathered pink that I imagine has survived hundreds of years, many sandstorms and a good few camel trains. In 1988 there was a lot more dust coating the average pink dwelling, by 2005 there is clearly a lot more renovation and repainting going on, but both create a feeling of being in a different time and place, a romantic vision of old explorers.

The food ( and drink )

Tagines – both the classic cone shaped lid and casserole, and the delicious melt in the mouth meat (or vege these days) stews with mouth watering spices, perhaps some softened dried apricots, soaked up with a good couscous. In 1988 I bought a solid terra-cotta glazed pottery tagine and have lugged it around every country I have lived in since, still using it regularly every winter.

Marrakech

BBQ’d garlic snails – this may not be the food most people associate with Marrakech, but it is for me. It’s partly the French influence – it also means the coffee is great and there are surprisingly good croissants and pastries. Like many towns, the night markets in Marrakech have all sorts of interesting food stalls.

I remember watching snails being grilled in their shells, and being dared by one of my fellow travelers to try one. Bear in mind this was a guy from England who had strong views on food – he would only eat meat and potatoes, no other veggies, and hated any herbs or spices, only salt – he wouldn’t even add tomato sauce. I certainly wasn’t going to let him win a food bet. The stall owner showed me how to fork the snail out of it shell, dripping in garlic butter, and savor it as it slid down my throat. Not expecting to like it, I found myself demolishing a dozen and coming back again the next night.

Oranges, dates, apricots and pistachios. Morocco is a fruit bowl slightly at odds with it’s reputation as a dessert destination, but I guess that where the oasis’ come in. The selection is much wider than I have mentioned but suffice to say, I have never taster sweeter dried apricots or dates, more delicious fresh orange juice or more moreish pistachios before or since. My mouth is watering just remembering that five years later.

The Souks of the Medina

You may have figured by now that I love a good market, and the souk in the walled old town in Marrakech is a good one indeed. It’s a maze of crooked alleys lined by stalls, occasionally opening onto a small square open to the sun, before you dive back into the covered alleyways again. The range of things to buy is endless, embracing tradition and more modern interpretations, and yet stays definitively Moroccan. It rarely falls into the generic “backpackers market craft” that turns up in so many markets around the world.

There are literal aladdin’s caves of bright multicolored and bejeweled pottery, while another stall is all minimalist pottery designs available only in bright red. There are traditional carved and punched leather belts and buckles, and studded punk inspired versions. There are stalls selling centuries old (dodgy) medicinal remedies along with chameleons and scorpions and bugs I don’t want to identify, and there are stalls of organic soaps and lotions worthy of any five star spa.

There are still donkeys carting in the market supplies, but vastly outnumbered by mobile phones for communication with suppliers, and credit cards are readily accepted.

On this trip I buy two kilims, strongly colored in the reds and blues of the land and sky, woven in intricate traditional patterns. Although new, they smell strongly of old dust and camel piss, a marketing trick I suspect, to make the whole buying prices strangely more evocative. Sealed tightly in thick plastic bags for the rest of my trip, to try and avoid stinking out my bag and clothes, I have to hang them in the sun for a week and then leave them on the garage floor for six months when I get home, before they can be safely brought inside. I think they look fantastic in my hallway.


Marrakech

The Djemaa el Fna

The famous central square of the old walled city is no square, it’s a huge crazy zigzagged open space, surrounded by buildings with great rooftop vantage points, usually on the third floor, many cafes, and the start of dozens of alleyways into the souks which surround three sides of the Djemaa el Fna. The open space fills up with stalls no more than a blanket on the ground and food stalls with tables and chairs to accommodate the local families who congregate every evening. Rows of juice stands are all arguing that their wares are the best, and for the tourists there are snake charmers and watch salesmen in equal quantities.

Every night the square is full of locals promenading, it’s like Edwardian England crossed with Arabian nights, it’s fantastic people watching. It’s a delicious and very cheap place to eat a wonderfully fresh dinner, and of course it’s where I originally experimented with snails.


Marrakech

The Riads and the people.

Accommodation options were a lot more limited in 1988, although given that usually we were sleeping in bunks in a double decker bus, the plain square room with a roof terrace overlooking the markets was a real luxury back then.

But now the old city is brimming with restored riads, the traditional housing, often three stories high around a central courtyard, which might hold a fountain or even a pool, and a roof terrace with billowing fabric overhead to give shade while lounging on the day beds. Most have been painstakingly restored, with beautiful mosaics of tiles, wrought iron and plush fabrics. They are some of the most glorious B& B’s I have found anywhere, and there is wide price range for just about any budget. And they are found in all the hidden lanes of the souk, but are cool and quiet as soon as you close the door to the street.

There are no vehicles in the medina, so your riad will send someone to meet your taxi at the medina gate, and wheel your bags through the medina to their front door, which gives you instant immersion into the culture. Don’t even think about staying in a hotel outside the walls of the old city, get online and book yourself a riad and ensure a unique and relaxing experience.

And as true here as anywhere, what ultimately makes the experience for me is the people. The Moroccans I encounter are friendly, shy, intriguing, hospitable,enthusiastic, and charming, and they make Marrakech great.

Fez, Morocco – how I got the travel bug

Like many young Kiwi’s arriving in London in 1987 for my O.E. (overseas experience, common kiwi slang for heading to London to earn pounds and travel the world for a couple of years), I had vague ideas about working in London for a few months, saving my pounds, and in summer heading off to see Rome, Paris, Amsterdam and bits in between. It’s just what we did at that time, so even though I resigned my job, sold my car and jumped on a plane to fly 24 hours to the opposite end of the world, I had no real plan at all.

My expectations of England were mainly based on Coronation Street, a long running soap featuring rows of grimy terraced houses and interminable rain. An impression quickly reinforced as I arrived into a dull grey rainy day. I very quickly found myself a home in a two-bedroom basement flat in Lancaster Gate, sharing with four other aussies and kiwis (not counting the ones dossing in the lounge) and catching the tube to Brixton where I had picked up a job earning a good hourly rate.

Three months later I was hating it, and all due to the weather. It was now December, and while the parties and the lit up street decorations were fun, it had become progressively darker, colder and more damp every week. The continual chilling damp never left me, whether it was a rainy day or not, and I couldn’t stand it.

Morocco, it must be warmer?

“If I am going to freeze, I may as well do it properly!” I told myself, and promptly headed to the Austrian alps for some skiing over the New Year. Which was fantastic, but didn’t make me feel any better about chilly London on my return. “OK, head south for warmer weather” I told myself, and not brave enough to travel by myself yet, I signed up for a Top Deck tours “Spain, Portugal, Morocco” trip – after all, that is definitely heading south, and Morocco is in Africa, so that must be warm, right? Well, almost right, but January is still winter in these countries. At least we got some “t-shirt” days even if it was “winter woolies” nights. Top Deck was hilariously corny, but a surprisingly practical way to travel. Take an old double decker bus, put bunks in the top deck to turn it into one big dormitory, and put a kitchen, tables and chairs in the bottom level for living, and voila!, a combi on steroids, no tents required.

Morocco, here I come.

The stand-out memories heading south through France and down the eastern coast of Spain were: a foolish drunken midnight wander across the Pont du Gard, a roman aqueduct in the south of France, 50m high and 300 m long (more on that another day); the unfinished insane beauty of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona; and the “arabian nights” air of Granada and the Alhambra in the south of Spain. Unfortunately at that time of the year there is not a lot of “sol” in Costa del Sol, it was raincoats all the way. Which then lead us to our first stop in Morocco, the ancient walled city of Fez.
Fez, for me, is all about the medina in the old walled city. It is reputed (by wikipedia) to be the largest contiguous car-free urban area in the world – in other words it is a really big centuries old market, a byzantian maze of covered alleyways zigzagging in every direction, with people lugging goods on foot, on trolleys, or by donkey through dark and narrow streets. It is a place to lose one’s sense of direction, and then one’s self, so us girls on the tour banded together and hired “Good One” as our guide – clearly the name he had adopted for the tourists.

Fez, exploring the Medina.

I learned many things that I previously hadn’t known about myself that day. One was that I have a great innate sense of direction in markets – the more overcrowded, twisted, busy, loud and out of control the market, the more at home I feel. I can still get lost, but I always seem to find my way to a point I recognise without too much trouble. I must have been some kind of gypsy market brat in a former life. It certainly signalled the start of a lifetime love affair with markets throughout the world.

Good One walked us through the medina pointing out all the interesting areas – the olive market, the spice market, the jewellery market, the copper market, the carpet shops and the tannery. The tannery is a complete and unpleasant assault on the senses, but it is also a visual feast. I could smell it long before I saw it, indeed it is the permanent undernote to the smell of Fez itself. The tannery is the oldest in the world, dating from, and seemingly unchanged from the 11th century.
It is a honeycomb of stone vats through which the animal skins are transformed into leather. Fresh sheep and goat skins are softened in vats of diluted acidic pigeon excrement (so they say), and then coloured in various vats of natural vegetable dies, like henna and saffron, and hung out to dry. From the balcony where tourists can enter and look over the tannery, you simultaneously taste it and smell it as the acid sears your throat so that the dead animal smell can penetrate that little bit more. The tannery workers’ arms and legs are permanently stained as they physically haul hides in and out of the vats while standing in them. It is hard to imagine that this is a healthy occupation. Strangely none of this seems to dampen our ardour for shopping for the leather bags and wallets that Morocco is famous for.

Fez: finding our own way around.

Being cash strapped backpackers, we only hired Good One for a couple of hours, and after lunch we flung ourselves back into the medina unescorted. It was soon clear that even if I didn’t need Good One for a sense of direction, he had been extremely useful in keeping the touts at bay. On our own, they pounced, and were unshakeable, and at any time I would have two or three fighting for my attention, grabbing my arm to try and escort me, and if I showed interest in any particular stall they were quickly clamouring to the owner that they were the one that had brought me there and if I bought anything they were owed a commission.
A couple of the girls found the throng too intense and retired hurt, but the rest of us just went with it. Although it was intrusive and loud and relentless, we never felt unsafe or threatened. So we developed our own rules, giving a polite “no thanks” on the first approach of each tout and then politely ignoring them from then on, and always clearly indicating to a stall owner that no tout was our guide – not a straight forward task given the language barriers, but we quickly learned how effective body language could be. As soon as a tout trailing us started talking to a stall owner, we would loudly state “no, no, not with us” while vigorously shaking our heads and pointing at them – given the sulky looks we got from the touts, the message seemed to well understood by the stall holders. On a return visit to Morocco many years later, I discovered that touts had been effectively outlawed, and while an occasional one would approach you in a medina, they would disappear at the first “no thanks” – a huge change indeed.

Haggling in the Fez medina.

I also learned that I loved the process of bargaining. An early piece of advice from Good One helped – he told me “if they are still talking to you, they know they can still make a profit; if they turn their back on you, you have gone too low and they will make a loss”. The joy in haggling is not getting the lowest price per se, its the whole ritual. Its drawing it out for ten minutes, half an hour, or even a number of hours if its a pricey item like a carpet. It starts with exchanging pleasantries, names, where we are from, how much we enjoy this country/city, extends into discussion of alternative purchases that might better suit my budget, and will have moments of mock horror at how ridiculously high/low the price suggested is.

It may well involve clearing goods off a stool for me to sit on, and showing me the family photos, perhaps an offer of a cup of the local tea. If you embrace the process, then usually you part the best of friends, whether you have in the end purchased or not. The pinnacle of market haggling of course is carpets, and although I didn’t buy a carpet this time (not enough money to even try), this did sow the seed for twenty plus years of happily buying handwoven carpets and kilims in markets around the world.

In amongst the haggling, we lapped up almond milkshakes, and had handmade kohl makeup applied to our faces by the local, male “make-up artists” – not sure they are ready for a career in Hollywood yet. When finally exhausted we headed into the hamman, the local “turkish bathhouse”. Having never been in one before, this was the most confronting experience of all, getting naked and then being grabbed by one of the older woman working there, pushed to the ground in the few inches of slimy green water in the pool, and scrubbed abrasively, as if with pot scourers, until I just wanted to swear out loud. Definitely not a relaxing day spa here then! However it did remove several layers of built up backpackers dirt, and the soak in a deeper pool afterwards was relaxing, although still a bit greener and slimier than I would’ve preferred.

Catching the travel bug in Fez.

While eating a fragrant tagine that night for dinner, I realised that I had just well and truly acquired a travel bug. I wanted more of this feeling of excitement and immersion and being outside my comfort zone, whether from the sounds, the smells, the food, the art, the culture, the music, the natural beauty, or the people. Little did I know that I would now stay in London for a total of ten years, and my list of interesting places I wanted to visit kept growing and growing – the more places I travelled to, the more I wanted to keep going.

 

Kata Yai – the best beach in Phuket

Imagine opening the door to your balcony, stepping out into the humid night air, lowering yourself down the pool ladder and submersing yourself into the deliciously cool water of the black tiled infinity pool, with tiny colourful night lights in the bottom. When they call this a “pool access” room they really mean it, and after a nine hour flight arriving in the middle of the night, this is the perfect antidote.
I have arrived at SugarPalm Grand Hillside in Kata Beach, which is just south of Karon and Patong, on Phuket Island. Not only do the rooms cascade down the hillside at the southern end of the beach, so do a total of eleven black tiled pools, with the water flowing between each level via waterfalls. My room opens directly into the one with the swim up bar – for a random internet booking, this could not have worked out any better. The benefit of coming in the low season is that great hotels are really cheap.

the black pools at Sugar Palm Grand Hillside, Kata Yai, Phuket
the black pools at Sugar Palm Grand Hillside, Kata Yai, Phuket

Kata Beach, the perfect Thai beach?

Kata Beach is the archetypal curve of white sand and turquoise waters of Thailand. It’s on the west coast of Phuket, looking out to the Andaman sea, so the seas can reputedly get large and dangerous in the monsoon months from May to October. But I am in luck this year, its unseasonably good weather, nothing but sunshine for the first seven days of May and then only a couple of midnight rains since, not the daily thunderstorms expected this time of the year. It is however, intensely hot and humid.

The ocean is a lagoon most days, and deliciously warm at 31 C but still cooler than the sun. Kata is not as overdeveloped as many Thai beaches, but this is not the place for a desert island fantasy. There is a continuous line of sun-lounges under the palms from one end of the beach to the other, but the rest of the sand is open for all. “Lady, lady, wanna massage, buy watch, coconut, sarong…” is always going to be a constant refrain, but a polite no thanks and they happily move to the next sun-lounge.

beach at Kata Yai, Phuket
beach at Kata Yai, Phuket

My only complaint is that the beautiful clarity of water makes it impossible to ignore the rubbish left behind by at least some of the tourists – a regular tide of cans, bottle, plastic wrap, chocolate wrappers, even cigarette lighters wash past each time you swim.

It’s so hot that the day turns into a series of swims – pool, breakfast, beach, pool, beach, pool, until its time for sunset drinks and dinner and probably another late night swim. Most of the development is on the two headlands at either end of the beach, because a gigantic Club Med sprawls over the flat in the middle – including golf course and circus aerial trapeze lessons. I find it amusing that the “girly bar” area of Kata (very mild compared to Patong) runs right along the street behind Club Med, very family friendly indeed. On the headlands there is a fine selection of tailors, massages (about $10 for an hour of reflexology), shops, bars and restaurants.

My favourite food and cocktails in Kata Beach:

  • Best beer – a cold Singha in a stubby holder during happy hour in the swim up bar (happy hour somewhat strangely being between noon and 4pm)
  • Most refreshing cocktail: the Boathouse Lemonade – run, triple sec, lime juice, blended with ginger and mint, topped with soda water
  • Best Mojitos (note: too many Thai bars ruin cocktails by adding lots of extra sugar, the following ones didn’t): Kata BBQ – perfect beachside table to watch the sunset and extra marks for the fresh prawn crisps; Boathouse – luxe sunset watching and a very civilised Mojito; Bella Vista, on a treehouse platform above the rocks on the south end of the beach, this superstrength mojito I dedicate to Rach and Dennis, as after one of these delicious “Cuban pour your own” superstrength drinks, you may not be able to get back down the stairs again.
  • Best Iced Coffee- the Italian Job – great for icecream too.
  • Worst for Icecream, the Tangerine with iberry icecream, next to the Kata Hotel – the icecream smelled of fish and tasted of bitter chemicals – avoid at all costs.
  • Best all round ambience: Dino Park –this dinosaur themed “Fred Flintsone meets Tiki Bar” food/drink/mini golf emporium should be terrible but it is brilliant. At the north end of beach on the headland to Karon, it has “rock” tables and chairs scattered amongst rain forest, fish ponds, bridges, an erupting volcano and dinosaur skeletons, with staff in Fred Flintstone uniforms. The top of the trees emit a cooling mist to combat the heat. There’s a great selection of cocktails and good local food, reasonably priced. I still don’t know how, or why, but there was a young elephant wandering around the bar last night. Yes, a real one, and no, I was still on my first drink!
  • Best Pork with Hot Chilli Basil – Bella Vista wins hands down, they do an excellent spicy version
  • Best food any day, any time – banana pancakes, from any of the roadside stalls, always perfect

    Chatachuk market, Phuket
    Chatachuk market, Phuket

Kata Noi – the other half of Kata Beach.

A five minute walk over the headland south of Kata Yai is Kata Noi, a smaller very quiet bay with a handful of upmarket resorts, the beach, and not much else. It’s a great bay to escape to for uncrowded sunbathing and swimming. And on the rocky headland between sits Mom Tri’s Kitchen. This is a great stopping off point for a cooling drink or a lunch on some of the best food in the area – it’s the “little sister” to the Boathouse restaurant and is much better value.

Phuket: Best market

It is possible to shop while lying on the beach, and on every road near every beach on Phuket, all touts and stalls selling pretty much the same stuff. But the hands down winner is the huge Chatuchak night market held Saturday and Sunday from 4.30pm to 10pm. All the other night markets in Phuket pale into insignificance when compared to the 1000+ stalls at this weekend market on the outskirts of Phuket Town -it has everything you’ve seen before and a whole lot more. On the edge of the market are an amazing array of food stalls, perfect for dinner, while the circular open bar right in the middle of the market is a great place for a refreshing beer break half way through. Come early as it gets really, really busy as the night goes on.