Food Glorious Food

One of the problems with  rapid tourist growth on an island is that things get thrown up in an hurry to meet the ever growing demand. Here on Phu Quoc the “strip” from what was the old sleepy fishing village  down to the end of Long Beach is just that a strip lined with restaurants and travel agents selling excursions. The local catch here is squid and prawns plus some local king fish. The rest is brought in from the mainland by boat.  So the locals who threw up a shack with tables and chairs and a makeshift kitchen with the loo in the middle of it were somewhat hampered for choice. Some bright spark ( all puns intended) came up with the idea of cooking the three staples on a BBQ and then tossing some rice or noodles onto the plate and serving it. The rest quickly followed and that is the choice down almost the entire strip. Great for a backpacker getting a few days of rays after a long trek through Vietnam before heading off to Cambodia some 3 hours away but not so great for the two week holiday maker. Then try us on our 4th week here and you realise why we are leaving before planned and also heading off into Cambodia.

I really haven’t been good at recommending places to eat on this blog unlike many other bloggers. One man’s meat is another man’s etc etc. But let me assure you that we have had to kiss an awful lot of frogs to get to being able to say where we most like to eat and we have suffered during the night and often all the next day in that quest to find a prince. Most Vietnamese just don’t know how to BBQ and of course what they don’t use that night goes back in a freezer and then is defrosted again the next day and so on until it is sold. health and safety would have a field day here.

However before we eat we have to have a sundowner or three so where do we go for those? Most restaurants are happy that you sit and just have beer but the majority are on the increasing busy main road so we look on the beach.

This one should be the king of all bars

Headland bar

 

it sits on the headland between the two parts of Long Beach and gets the cooling winds as well as some great views and sunsets

Sunset on Phu Quoc

 

It should be packed but it is run by a gloriously inefficient Vietnamese lady who rushes about doing almost nothing. 20 mins to order a beer and then 20mins for it to arrive. Who knows where she goes or what she does. It is a fact of life and maybe an endearing feature of the local people that they have no memory at all. It is not even the last person they talked to syndrome. Ten paces from the table they took the order it has gone from the mind as if it were never there they wander away and start on some other task and you sit there expecting within minutes a couple of cold bottles of beer to arrive. 10 mins later they wander past your table without a flicker of memory that they ever took an order from you. So you need a bar where the bar person  is close to you and the supply with no distractions in-between. This one is rough and ready but hits the two key objectives

Sundowner bar

 

Yes those are infant school class room chairs and yes you sit on them. It is like being back at the parent teacher meetings where the teacher in oder to rush you along sits you in little Freddies chair so you can view his scribblings, but the beer cooler is 5 paces away and the guy sits within feet of you and has nothing else to do and no real distractions. You can even get squids and fish from him and his BBQ is clever

BBQ

 

a kitchen sink !!! Now before i discovered the delights of an outside wood oven I used to do a load of BBQ and have a Webber at home. I went one time to buy the attachment they sell that gives you a workspace on the BBQ and realised that to buy it i would need to take out a fourth mortgage on the house. This local lad has solved that problem instantly clever fellow.  I’ve never been brave enough to eat anything from him but have seen others do it though to be fair i have never seen them ever again.

So after the sunset and the beer to the restaurant

Canadianand there is the champion after 4 weeks of testing. It is just by La Veranda Resort if you are ever down this way. The place is run by a Vietnamese family but they have a Canadian ex restauranteur as an advisor. He sold his house in Vancouver at the height of the housing bubble and bought a motor home for the summer to tour around visiting friends in Canada and invested the rest to pay for winters in the sun on Phu Quoc. He stayed at one of the cottages the family rent and offered to help out in return for beer and food. He also bought with him his 250,000 tune music library and each day he compiles two playlists one for lunch and one for dinner. As he says the music therefore matches his mood or hangover and we have sat there some evenings feeling maybe he wants everyone to cut their wrists. However the food is good, not a BBQ in sight and because as he in a very unCanadian way boasts that his place is by far the most popular on the beach or on the strip the turnover in food is very rapid.

A second place mention must go to Ganesh the indian restaurant who not only serve great curries but prove that you can take locals and turn them into good waiters. They bring in teams of Nepalese managers, head cooks and supervisors and train the local workforce. it is an impressive organisation with staff eager to serve you and never once forgetting why they are in a restaurant and wandering off to look at the sky.

All this is making me thirsty and hungry so I’m off

 

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Yellow is the Colour…

Near this hotel is the Silom Complex mall . It is not a big mall but has lots of western shops including a Boots, Marks and Spenser and a big department store. It is also where the front desk sends you for anything you ask their advise on. ” Go Silom Complex” they say especially when it is clear they haven’t understood a word of your question. God only knows what they have sent unsuspecting guests up there to try to purchase.

There is also a large Starbucks and it was there I was sent this morning while Geraldine went shopping. I am barred from such expeditions , mind you I go willingly to sit them out.

So today I sat with my Bangkok Post newspaper and a Grande Capuccio for company. I was reading about yesterday’s protests at the government building and congratulating myself on a sound choice of hotel away from the main protest area when I started to hear whistles and car horns growing louder. Soon a full protest by the Yellows was in full swing down Silom road and right past my Mall indeed inches from my table. From the mall people came pouring as they did from office blocks and lunch stalls to cheer them on and for 20 minutes they filed past waiving Thai flags and dressed in riot type fatigues. So my first view of a protest and me almost on the front line though with so much support around them they just seemed pleased to be the focus of attention and it all seemed very friendly and well Thai I guess.

After the excitement everyone came back and continued doing what they had been doing before and the protesters went on to seize the Royal Thai Police Compound down the road. In yet another change in direction the government has said that the protesters can now occupy any government building they want without any opposition. This is to supposedly defuse the tension of the last two days. The police are back to handing out flowers to them as they march in. Fine I guess as long as they don’t wander off to the two major airports here and occupy them.

At the table alongside me a large Nigerian guy settled down and was soon joined by a Thai lady for a business meeting. I couldn’t help but overhear the entire thing ( by leaning close and hiding behind my paper ) but I’m not nosey despite what Geraldine says.

He was a buyer of some sort and what ever the product was it was being made near Bangkok. I was fascinated when he started by saying his bosses were interested in buying lots more product but were worried about the level of English spoken by the office staff at the factories so making conversation difficult and leading constantly to misunderstandings on the production line. It has been something we have noticed this time. The explosion in call centres, major hotels and tourism generally has not been kept up with by the Thai education system. Indeed Thailand sinks dramatically each year in the Asian table of English ability. Rightly or wrongly English is the language of trade now throughout the world and to be a player a country needs to have plenty of students with the ability to speak it well.

Despite the poor english on the front desk here at The Siri Sathorn ( english lessons ? Go Si Lom Complex ) it is a nice place to rest your head. Let me canter you through our place

Entrance hall

Hallway Siri Sathorn

Living Area 1

living Siri Sathorn

Kitchen Area

Kitchen Siri SathornAnother area of living stuff

More Living Siri Sathorn

and a separate bedroom and bathroom

Bedroom Siri Sathorn

What I love is the big workstation

Work Desk Siri Sathorn

Loads of cable channels and a full stereo system as well and all that for €85 a night. Now when I think what I get in Italy or France for that price well it is mind blowing. The gym has every machine a fitness fanatic could ever dream of and the pool is huge as well.

Thursday when we fly is also the King’s birthday and is a national holiday here. The protesters had originally said that if they had not succeeded in toppling the government by then they would stop. However today they said that as they had made progress but not yet achieved their goal they will fight on.

The Royla Family here is much revered and almost worshipped so I am hoping that it will be after the birthday that they start again.

Bus, Plane, Taxi

Travel day today. We drove the 3 hours back down to Chiang Mai from the Mea Kok River Resort and headed to the airport.

Any lingering thoughts of Chiang Mai as a sleepy northern town were dispelled by the 6 lane highway complete with under passes and fly overs to the airport. With 8 feeder lanes running alongside it it is bigger than the motorway in from the main airport in Bangkok. How soon before we see a sky train here?

Air Asia surprised us again by offering food and drink this time slowly wheeling a trolley the length of the aircraft. Michael O’Leary of Ryanair would be tearing his hair out at the lack of sales technique but at least you could buy a drink if you wanted.

There is now almost a half hourly service between Chiang Mai and Bangkok. Air Asia have been joined by Nok Air and another new entrant Lion ( check them out by clicking here ). A couple we met in Chiang Mai last week had just bought their tickets on Lion for US$15 each including taxes for the week after next.  Nok Air have cleverly at Bangkok grabbed the internet rights at the terminal and so you need a booking number on them if you want to connect while waiting at the Low Cost Airport here ( it’s the old airport that closed and then re-opened in 2010 ).

The taxi into town took 25 mins to the Siri Sathorn and even though we passed the Ministry of Energy we saw no protesters. Disappointingly there was no visible security at the airport when we left it . In 2008 protesters seized it and held it for 3 weeks forcing people to trains, buses and ferries to get to an airport in another country to get home.

I will be checking out a few happy hours in the area around the hotel to pick up any news on how things are going and let you know.

I booked an early morning call for 7.30 this morning at The Maekok Resort and at 7.40 the guy was knocking on the door to collect the bags ! Now there’s speedy packing but that was expecting quite a lot considering the car was booked for 9 a.m.

Bryan was on parade to wave us goodbye and told me Christmas week they are full to the gills. Having seen it struggle with 26 of us quite how they handle 72 I have no idea. Still the school was quite something.

Nice Weather for Ducks

The Germans and two other small groups left yesterday after breakfast so today it was good to go back to a menu instead of the buffet that had been on offer for two days during their stay.

I’m not a great lover of buffets myself. Too many sales conferences and Travel Agent functions over the years as well as when at Thomas Cooks visiting loads of all inclusive hotels throughout the Caribbean ( tough life but someone had to do it).

Firstly I tend to get greedy and take more than I ever intended and more importantly there is always a nagging feeling as to how long it has all been hanging around in those big containers with little candles underneath them keeping them tepidly warm .

Most non inclusive hotels tried to get away from buffet breakfast for similar reasons. They could better control customers and costs by controlling what went on the plate. Lots of people me included tend to look at a breakfast buffet where no other meal is included in the cost as a way of saving on lunch and therefore bring commodious bags to breakfast to load up with stuff to eat at lunchtime. Hardly what the hotel had in mind when it thought it might save the cost of a few staff. These guys have yet to learn that lesson and especially when here labour is one of their lowest costs whereas boat loads of american bacon isn’t.

The weather that was bad  yesterday decided to show it’s ugly side today as some Chinese high pressure system sweeps through from the east. Buckets of rain all night and all through the day today . I found a place to sit undercover and started on my third book since we got here on the trusty Kindle and thank god. The books people have left here are clearly ones they just didn’t want at all and dumped. I said yesterday that with over 20 people the Resort couldn’t cope but let me add in the rain there is nothing to do at all except sit and watch it come down. Even a gym would be good or maybe some DVDs.

Just after lunch it stopped for a while and having just said to one of the staff lovely day for ducks they duly obliged

ducks

They seemed to really enjoy the pool though as the heavens opened again they too retreated under cover.

I had by yesterday taken a few photos of the gardens. They are quite lovely if you are into gardens though I guess being near water and with a soil made up of silt  anything you plant grows like a weed here especially given the rainfall !

The resort boasts a croquet pitch

IMG_0170

which I have to say I haven’t seen anywhere else except in old country house hotels in the UK. Mind you they also do tea and scones at 4 p.m. here as well.  Croquet is apparently quite a nasty game the object being to send your opponents ball off into the nearest hedge row at every opportunity nothing refined and gentile about it at all.

Gardens 1

There are pleasant walks with lots of arches  both to walk under and dispatch your opponents ball to but apart from some very hard wooden benches no where to sit or better still lie and enjoy them when the sun is out.

We had hoped to take one of these out today

Longboat

You can do an hour long cruise to the Burma border and back. I think going up must take about 45 mins against a really strong current and back down about 10 mins. However even when not raining the air temp at just 16C would have prevented it. We haven’t got the right gear with us. Amazingly two other guests that arrived late last night appeared to go on their boat trip looking like they had been decked out by the Royal Lifeboat Association or the by the crew of a Newfoundland cod trawler . Where did they get it all I wonder and what on earth will they do with it all for the rest of their trip around Thailand. It’s 36C in Bangkok today so they might look just a little out of place there or on the beach in Ko Samui.

The riots are worse in Bangkok today with tear gas etc being used. We head there tomorrow so can give you first hand info on the situation. I, like war correspondences of old will position myself in a suitable watering hole and as the beer and scotch flow compose more and more exciting reports than I can see on the local TV station in said bar whilst keeping the bills for expenses and await my nomination for a Pulizer .

A Lunchtime in Bangkok

If you are waiting for glorious pictures of the temples of Bangkok don’t hold your breath please. I did the temple tour in 1989 . The temples haven’t changed but the numbers visiting certainly has. The main temple is now the 17th most visited site in the world. I won’t be adding to their numbers on this trip.

Instead I went off to see where the Thais have lunch around this area and found one place that seems to typify the rest. A barn of a place and packed to the gunnels from 11.30 a.m. until about 1.15 p.m. for the lunch break. Thais seem to spend a great deal of time eating yet are almost all stick thin which is somewhat depressing . It is chilli hot food with lots of soup based dishes and very little meat.

This place has food stalls around three sides of the corrugated roofed building . Here you order your food of choice or multi choice.

Food Stalls BKK

Then you go find somewhere to sit clutching your purchase as you look. Uniformed girls help out by moving people and chairs to accommodate the steady stream of eaters looking for somewhere and elderly wrinkled old guys ( ex wokers too old to stir fry ) clean the debris away and clean the tables. It is run like a military operation and given the numbers it needs to be.

Eating Area

Fancy something to drink ? Then you head off to a centre island where the drinks are dispensed

Drink Centre BKK

Finally having had your fill of food and swilled down your juice what else is there to do during lunch but some retail therapy. Well they have that covered too. at the other end of the vast hall are stalls selling mainly female stuff, make up, shoes ,clothes and baby clothes.

Clothes BKK

The stalls are for females because the vast majority of eaters are female. indeed as you walk the streets at lunchtime it is really noticeable that 80% of the people around you are 20 something girls all in office clothes. It is rather like Washington D.C. in the 1970s when  the government secretary jobs were female and women out numbered men about 5 to 1 at that time. The British Airways office was in a building that housed some of the World Bank and 90% were female doing jobs that computers do now. The BA office was on the third floor and a bachelor colleague at the time managed every week day to get a date from a girl in the elevator during the short 2 floor ride up. Sunday was his day off when he made another 6 day batch of a stew he called Boef a La Jardinaire to wow them with at dinner at his apartment. I guess the Thai males here are doing the same with Pad Thai in the freezer.

We are near the old red-light district of Patong where years ago there were hundreds of girly bars on the ground floor and live sex shows on the first floor. That has all changed and only about 20 now survive. There are however quite a few of the elderly  western guys still  wandering the streets like some kind of flotsam from another era . They are now sad people with hangdog looks and I guess the life they came for years ago has now passed them by. You meet them in bars around the area moaning about most things but determined never to go “home”.

The trade for men to find Thai girls for their holiday  these days is more internet based I would imagine but is obviously still alive and well. Lots of, to me, rather sad old fellows with stupidly young girls hanging on to their arms. The bigger business seems now to be the gay scene.

This trade in girls mainly from the poor north of the country is one aspect of Thailand that leaves a very sour taste in the mouth and in certain areas like the truly awful resort of Pattaya it is totally off putting.

Last night in our very luxurious but only £75 a night one bedroom apartment we ate fresh salad and cold meats washed down with a few bottles of Leo beer. Around the corner there is a Tops supermarket which seems a little like Whole Foods in the USA. All very fresh and no additives etc. Each of their locations has a large salad bar in the centre and you pick up your container and walk around filling it with salad goodies. Made a nice change for once from Thai food.

The Wheels on the Train

go round and round.

So last sunday morning we were deposited by taxi outside Hua Lampong Train Station in Bangkok. The train didn’t go till 0805 hrs so we were early, a very unusual thing in our household. The night before I asked the ever friendly reception staff at The Cabochon Hotel how long it would take by cab to the station. The three of them considered the question and then came up with , one hour, 30 minutes and 15 minutes. Sunday morning I said, yes but all stuck to their guns. 7 kms by road I said but they were not for turning. take the Skytrain and the metro said the guy in charge. you will carry the bags I asked and we were back on taxis . In the end we went with 7a.m. and 10 minutes later we were on the platform ! Mind you the cab driver obviously freed on a Sunday morning from the usual gridlocked traffic system decided to show us his Sebastian Vettel aggressive driving techniques and we took on all challengers including a few buses in our dash there. Still 80 baht ( £1.60 ) seemed a bargain and we had time for a coffee before the train left.

At 8 a.m. there was no sign of the train as we and crowds of others stood looking expectantly up the line. This train goes all the way south to Surat Thani arriving there at about 5 p.m. so I expected something pretty substantial to come in with loads of carriages and some huge engine at the front. I was surprised when in chugged a three carriage little diesel train. you know the ones with the diesel engine under each carriage that do little commuter routes in the UK ? Can’t be it I said knowledgeably to Geraldine they must be changing the platform . No one else shared my view and belongings were being gathered as it came to an halt.

I don’t know if you have seen Dr. Zhivargo  but there is a scene in that when the train arrives at Moscow station and people start to rush to the doors to get on the cattle trucks . This was like that. You would have had no idea we all held tickets with seat numbers already reserved. People were throwing children up the stairs lobbing suitcases up there anything to get themselves on the train. It is of course infective and I almost threw Geraldine into carriage 1. Our reserved seats were taken by a couple of Scots who seemed reluctant to move to their allocated seats and spent the rest of  trip glaring at us from two rows back as if some how we had managed to get one up on them.

The train is air conditioned and each carriage has about 74 seats plus a galley with a stewardess . The ground staff load a microwave into each one and a load of pre packed food and by 8.15 we were on our way.

Like almost every main line station route out of any huge city this one is equally depressing. Rows and rows of shanty town wooden huts and small houses nestle right up to the track . Each however had a satellite dish on the roof. Quickly the trolley was out and coffee and water served . Not bad for £10 I said to Geraldine . Rail fares are cheap in Thailand.

The train cantered through downtown Bangkok stopping at unpronouncable stations and a few more passengers joined . Then once in the open countryside like the Master of the Titanic the driver obviously said to his three colleagues ( there is also some overmanning on Thai railways)” let her have her legs lets see what she can do first officer” or the equivalent in Thai and we increased our speed to some 45 MPH .

We chugged through endless paddy fields as the train slipped further and further behind schedule ( Thai trains don’t run on time) . Lunch was wheeled out on the trolley and everyone got an airline style meal cooked in the microwave. The carriage is  set up 2 seats by 2 seats and everyone has a fold  down tray except the bulkhead seats. No guesses where we were seating. Bulkheaders balance their meal, glass of water, hot coffee etc on their knees as the train sways along down the track. We declined the meal as I tend to drop that kind of thing according to Geraldine. The Scots continued to bore holes in our backs even though we clearly had the infirior seats. Train to Baan Krut

The view from the back and you can see the bulkhead seats, on the right is the galley.

The air conditioning is vicious and if you do the trip take a sweater to wear. in fact the only thing that prevents the entire train going down with frost bite is the that it only really works when the train is bouncing along at full tilt. Any change in engine pitch like slowing down or speeding up is clearly too much for the system and it goes off. Thank god I have to say as I hadn’t got a sweater and had no hot food to help either having declined the meal . Mind you I dread to think the mess I might have made.

By Hua Hin we were 40 minutes behind schedule. Loads got off there but all the seats were quickly replaced this time by mainly back packing foreigners heading south to Phuket and Ko Samui  I was somewhat amazed to find that Baan Krut our destination was still 90 minutes away. Where on earth had I managed to book. Still they said in the blurb it was unspoilt I said to a sceptical Geraldine.

The loo is not an hole in the floor but flushing is by using an hose which on a train rocking and rolling south can lead to a  rather wet pool like floor and fitments. Add to this the male propensity to stand even though the train is leaping about and it is probably not somewhere for girls to go.

the loo

But hey I’ve seen a lot worse than this one haven’t you ?

We arrived at Baan Krut 60 minutes late and were met by two hotel staff and stacked into the back of a small truck .The town was almost non existent and soon we were out on an empty road heading for the Ban Montra Resort ( can I find them ).

As we arrived a taxi was pulling up and from it came an Aussie and his Thai wife . ” Where the expletive are we ?” he asked . “jesus Christ this is the bloody back of beyond.” They had booked it thinking it was just outside Hua Hin and instead of the 3,000 baht they had agreed with  the cab guy in Bangkok he now wanted 8,000 baht ( £170 ). More good old Aussie expletives and they and we were checked in. The four of us were the only people in the hotel as it turned out. Well they said it was quiet.

Internet

On my other blog I do a fair amount of complaining about internet speeds and simple access to the net down in Puglia. Well The Cabochon Hotel in Bangkok really was no better than some of the off days the net has there. Watching paint dry comes to mind and after getting the last post away I was unable to get enough connection to do anymore.

I had hoped that our journey south might improve things and I could catch up but we have been without connection until today .

The Cabochon tries to capture the era of the old large houses in Bangkok circa 1920 with lots of teak and ceiling fans. Fondly I imagined that perhaps the service too would reflect that bygone era and so with hope in my heart I went to reception to ask about trains south from Bangkok. I had said to Geraldine that I would probably tell them what I wanted and they would despatch a lad to the train station to queue and collect the tickets while we enjoyed the rather fine roof top pool.

Cabochon hotel BKK Roof top pool

The very friendly reception guy listen to my request with interest and  turned away to I thought issue a stream of instructions to a likely lad nearby finishing with the Thai equivalent of “and make it snappy”.

How wrong I was instead he reached for a skytrain map and a map of the metro. He spread them on the desk and pointed out where we were and how far we had to walk. Then where we could change on to the metro and finally , proudly pointed to the main railway station and said that is where you buy tickets. To  try to save a little face for my return to our room I did ask if there might be someone around who might complete the task. Ah he said we used to be able to make bookings for guests on the Thai Train website but no longer. As I went back into the elevator I unkindly thought that maybe they still could if they had a decent internet connection.

So up the steep stairs we went and found the Skytrain. Actually thinking about that they would be steep wouldn’t they if you call your train line by that name. Clutching my new map I went to the ticket desk and asked for the connecting stop. It seems you can’t interchange tickets between the two. Rather strangely they gave me change to go back to the ticket machine with to get the ticket.

The connection was easy and on the metro the ticket office issues the tickets rather than give you a fist full of change. So 20 minutes later we emerged from the bowels of the metro up into the main train station Hua Lampong .

Now I have to tell you that unlike many other main train line station experiences this really was a piece of cake. The information desk is positioned almost in front to the main entrance making them and you unable not to link up. The super friendly Thai attendent asked where we were going and sent us to a window that had no line in front of it. in fact almost all the windows had not a soul in front of them. The clerk happily printed off the tickets , went through all the information on it with us and we were heading back down to the metro 5 minutes after emerging from it.

That night faith was also restored when we found several small streets off our main drag filled with stalls selling Thai food with the bonus of an happy hour bar almost alongside.

Street Stall

I know lousy quality but I had been to happy hour and am using one of the oldest iPhones known to man.

Our room at the Cabochon has a balcony unlike the more more swanky rooms that use the space as an enclosed sitting room . Ours overlooked the car park for the local Toyota dealer that was at the back of his on street showroom. About 10 people spent their entire day there cleaning the cars and trucks both inside and out. Given that we were still in the throws of the tail end of the Typhoon that did such devastation to the Philippines it seemed an almost pointless task as once they were clean it rained and they started again. However one thing that really upset them was the trees on our side of the fence that dropped their leaves on the cars every time the wind blew and trust me it blew.

By Saturday they had had enough and moved all the cars away which as I sat watching this with my morning cuppa seemed sensible. I of course am however used to Health and Safety. Not these guys, quite quickly up climber a lad with an huge machette to give the trees a going over. no ropes, no luminous jackets, no briefing of al the workers on the dangers of standing under trees being cut etc.  Boy did he make short work of it too though I think if I was 30 feet up a tree with a concrete car park under it hanging on by one hand while hacking and hewing with the other I might have tried to get it done fast. He was a very friendly guy and posed for the camera .

Tree Feller