Banging the wok in Bangkok

It’s a long flight from Australia to the UK, which is why I am exiting Bangkok’s airport at midnight into a wall of pleasant heat for a twenty four hour stopover. First priority is to get to the hotel and sleep. Now that its morning, I am relaxed, refreshed and ready to jump into my cooking class, or more specifically jump into the free transport van which is waiting to take me to the BaiPai Thai cooking school in a lovely two-storey house in the suburbs.  Downstairs is a big open air but roofed, custom built cooking area. There’s a huge central bench where the whole class (up to 10) sit around and watch the chefs demonstrate each dish, there’s even an overhead mirror to make sure we can see every bit of the action.
Bai Pai cooking school Thailand
Then there are 10 separate cooking stations, with our own gas ring, wok and implements, where we attempt to create the same dishes. On the side are beautifully set tables where we sit and dine on each course as soon as we have finished cooking. I am looking forward to this stage, having skipped breakfast on the assumption I am going to be doing lots of eating.

Bangkok Cooking Class – Deep Frying.

They throw us straight into making Kra-tong Thong, Crispy Golden Cups. This one scares me – its involves large amounts of very hot oil and an extremely steady hand. I’ve made the batter, now I pick up a brass utensil that looks like a tiny tart tin on a long handle. I dip it into the batter, the goal is to evenly coat the outside of the shape with batter, right up to the lip, but not letting any get over the top to the inside. Then I thrust it into the wok of hot oil, holding it just barely submerged for 3 seconds, then pushing it gently to the bottom of the wok and holding there for a few more seconds until the little fried pie crust pops off the tool as I release it from the bottom, and I quickly scoop it out, put on the side to drain and then start the very precise process all over again. If I get it wrong it either sticks to the mould, or breaks into little pieces. Due to my expert supervisor, I manage to make my six more easily than I had imagined. We now make a quick tasty stirfry filling with pork and sweetcorn, and with an audible sigh of relief, sit down to savour our crispy golden cups.


Bai Pai cooking school Thailand

Bangkok Cooking Class – Noodles.

Our next dish,  Yam Woon Sen, (glass noodles), is a more gentle option of a simple light five-minute meal. The glass noodles are “cooked” by standing in boiling water. We use the wok  to make a light minced pork & mushrooms mixture, seasoned with celery, shallots and spring onions, and pop in the prawns at the end to quickly cook. As I have repeatedly learned in asian cooking classes, the trick to the wok is to toss and swirl the ingredients as I stir-fry, and not to push them around with a spoon – use the arm and wrist muscles and the stir-fry won’t stick or burn. I add the now transparent and drained noodles to the pork & prawn mix for about 20 seconds, tip onto my plate, and add a dressing of chillies, lime juice, fish sauce, and sugar. Its so light its like eating spicy air.

Bangkok Cooking Class – Curry & Chilli

Finally its time for the chillies and curries. First is Nuea Pad Prik, a beef chilli stirfry. I thinly slice my beef, green and red chillies and onion, and add garlic, oyster sauce, soy sauce, a splash of broth, and a touch of sugar to balance it out, and toss around the wok till just cooked. This is where the individual cooking stations come into their own – I love chilli and some of my classmates don’t, so we each make and eat our own with our own preferred level of heat. Finally we tackle the rich yellow chicken curry, Gang Ka-ree Gai. Having pounded my own yellow curry paste of red chillies, salt, ginger, galangal, shallots, garlic, curry powder and turmeric in the stone mortar, I now add it to fried onions, with a mix of coconut milk and coconut cream. I add chicken meat with diced potato and carrot, and surrender my senses to the rich aromas and glossy yellow thickness of this curry as it quickly cooks. A side relish of cucumber, shallot and chillies in rice vinegar, water, sugar and salt is a fresh contrast to the big taste of the curry. Although this is now the equivalent of eating four dinner mains, I have to finish off the whole bowl, it’s addictive.
Bai Pai cooking school Thailand

Bangkok sightseeing

I am amazed we have achieved all that in half a day, thanks to the very friendly, professional and helpful approach of the class chefs. So clutching the glossy little pack of recipe cards for the dishes I have cooked, covered in my scribbled notes, I am happy to roll back into the van and head off back to my hotel with a very full belly indeed. And I still have about eight hours left before I head back to the airport. This is where getting a very late check-out is essential. It means I can walk off all that food in the steamy heat, explore Wat Pho, home to the world’s largest reclining buddha, neighbouring Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace, and nearby Chinatown, get a massage and still have a hotel room for a final shower, change and then head off to the airport in the middle of the night feeling fresh and relaxed.

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.

If you want the best snorkeling in Ko Phi Phi – first get yourself a diver!

Usually snorkeling and diving don’t mix in the same spot – divers want to go deep to find their beauty and snorkelers want shallow water with all the goodies close to the surface. The one exception I have found to this rule is Ko Phi Phi, a mecca for divers and snorkelers alike. In fact the keys spots are so popular for snorkelling that they are ruined by too many snorkelers– if you book a day trip then you will probably find yourself on a 50-100 person mega boat, with compulsory wearing of life jackets as many of the snorkelers cant swim. In other words, my version of snorkeling hell.

the Beach, Maya Bay, Ko Phi Phi Leh, Thailand
the Beach, Maya Bay, Ko Phi Phi Leh, Thailand

Ko Phi Phi – overcrowded snorkeling.

Dive trips are very popular too and there are many operators but most boats are taking around 8 to 12 divers, so the scale of overcrowding is nowhere near as bad. And the key dive spots are reserved for dive boats only, the snorkelers have to go to their own designated sites, mainly in shallow bays rather than around the karst chimneys.

snorkelling at Ko Bida Nok, Thailand
snorkelling at Ko Bida Nok, Thailand
So there seems to be two ways to achieve your snorkelling pleasure. The first is to rent your own long tail boat and do your own itinerary – even better if you can figure out the big boats’ timetables and arrive at the best spots when they are least likely to be there. But this can be an expensive option. Or, grab yourself a diver, and when they book their dive trip, book yourself on as the travelling buddy of the diver and then they will let you come along as a “non-diving” companion, who can then jump off the boat and go for a snorkel – for a bargain price. Good thing Travelling Sis is a diver, otherwise I would’ve had to scour the bars for a diver to accompany.

Ko Phi Phi – best snorkeling spots

One of the most common dive trips from Ko Phi Phi is a two-dive trip to Ko Bida Nok (a karst massif just south of Ko Phi Phi Leh, which itself is about 1.5 km south of Ko Phi Phi), and Malong, a section of the external karst walls of Ko Phi Phi Leh. At both these sites you are diving along these karst walls – near vertical sandstone cliffs, which means it is just as interesting on the surface for the snorkeler as it is 15m down for the diver – and I had a great view of the divers below me at times too. And of the languid turtle who swam over the heads of the divers and floated straight under me. There’s coral and huge amounts of colourful fish and anemone life close to the surface, the water temp is a languid 31 degrees, and there are usually no surface currents, especially in the morning. And I have all this to myself for nearly two hours.

snorkelling off Ko Phi Phi, Thailand
snorkelling off Ko Phi Phi, Thailand

Maya Bay – paradise wrecked

Between the two dive stops we stop off at Maya Bay on Ko Phi Phi Leh – the famous location of the filming of The Beach. It is possible that it is still a gorgeous bay, but very hard to tell through the line up of dozens of jet boats, dozens of long tails, and 3 or 4 big 100 person tourist boats, which combined with the people disgorged, makes it almost impossible to see any part of the green waters or white sand. I hear there is an overnight beach camping trip, if so, this may be the only way to experience the original beauty of this bay. Were you lucky enough to see Maya Bay before it was overrun, or have you found a great snorkeling experience from Ko Phi Phi? If so, please leave a comment.



What would James Bond think of all this?

James Bond Island in Phang Nga Bay, Thailand

36 years after The Man with the Golden Gun, tourism in Thailand is still making a mint out of the iconic view of Scaramanga’s hideaway. The karst pillar in Phang Nga Bay originally known as Ko Tapu, has been called “James Bond Island” ever since. It seems that every day there are hundreds of long tail and speed boats ferrying tourists out to have a look, and today, I am on one of those long tail boats.

We are dropped on the small karst island next door (Ko Phing Kan), and walk about 30 metres through a ravine completely filled with market stalls of the usual trinkets. We emerge on a tiny 20 metre wide beach, and there it is, straight in front of us, James Bond Island, about 50 metres out in the middle of the bay. This is the viewing spot, from this angle it looks completely stand alone with its huge backdrop of sea and other karst islands in the distance.

The de rigueur smug shot here is to be photographed as though you are holding the island in the palm of your hand. This seems a bit lacking in originality, perhaps a gun stance surrounded by bikini babes would be more appropriate, or perhaps a beach stall selling martini’s ,shaken not stirred, balancing the island on its roof? Or maybe I should just take a photo of the island, no tricks.

Sea canoeing in Thai caves and islands

Our longtail also takes us about 10 minutes away to Ko Talu Nok for some cave canoeing. I am disappointed that I am not allowed to paddle my own canoe. We sit in the front while a local guide paddles at the back. But it’s enjoyable enough as we spend the next half hour lying back and looking up at cave roofs 10 cm above our faces, up sheer cliffs of internal lagoons accessed through caves and covered in rainforest, and at sea worn karsts shaped like skulls, alligators and more.

Like all the karsts in this area, the sea erodes from the base in, so all the karats look narrowest at sea level. At Talu in particular the sea has worn away a lot of caves and tunnels to internal lagoons, with towering cliffs and glimpses of the sky from the middle of the island.

All of this is in Phang Nga bay area, where we originally boarded our long tail boat.  The tour operators insist on everyone wearing lifejackets but as the water is generally about one metre deep and the life jackets are a “one size fits no-one” and rather hot in this weather, most of us ditch the lifejackets as soon as we leave shore.

We also eat well at the floating village on the Ko Panyee, known as the Muslim Village. Lunch is a banquet including chilli fish, deep fried prawns, chicken and cashews, tom yum soup, omelette, spicy chicken legs, stir fried veges and fresh pineapple. And there is an interesting little craft market to explore, with a side of voyeurism into the village life.
As we leave James Bond Island we see a group of people arrive on a speedboat named James Bond, and I realise that I have only scratched the surface of the James Bond experience – next time!