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JAMIE'S PHUKET: Tha Sai Seafood, Phang Nga
Friday 23 March 2012, 11:09AM
Sometimes we eat at a restaurant for the first time, and instantly add it to our list of favourites. Places such as Tha Sai Seafood, which we visited on March 3 for a late lunch, feeling hungry and thirsty after spending half a day exploring caves, a very odd temple, and a forest park with waterfalls. We parked hesitantly by the restaurant while the local village idiot tried to suggest we park in a different spot. It looked rather quiet, and from the road did not look like anything amazing really. Then we walked through the entrance, and suddenly we were wowed. Not obvious from the road, the restaurant is actually right next to a wide mangrove river. There are several levels of seating, and we chose a table lower down. What a beautiful spot. “We're coming here again, so long as the food is good!” I said. We had not even ordered, and a return visit was already being planned! As we pondered the menu, a longtail boat chugged its way past the restaurant out into Phang Nga Bay. Being a late lunch, there were only a few tables occupied, though I saw plenty of staff around, which indicates that is is a popular place. And a popular place in the middle of nowhere has to mean that people are willing to drive a bit for good food. And yes, the food was good.We ordered all kinds of dishes. One of my favourites was a dish called yam pla dook foo, or fluffy fried catfish salad. Another one of my new favourites – thanks to my wife who insisted I try it – was poo nim – soft shelled crab fried with garlic. And it goes just perfectly with a cold beer, served with ice of course. It was one of those happy afternoons: find a new restaurant, enjoy great food and views. While Thai Sai Seafood is a bit far to drive from Phuket just for lunch (about 1.5 hours), it’s worth visiting if you’re already exploring Phang Nga. Days like this remind me how lucky we are to live here...   Jamie Monk works at liveaboard dive specialists Sunrise Divers. For more information call: 084 626 4646 or visit: sunrise-divers.com You can read more about Phuket on Jamie's Phuket Blog or follow Jamie on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Flickr.
Burmese dreams: Young chefs aim to be ingredient of nation’s success
Friday 23 March 2012, 10:45AM
As Myanmar (Burma) opens up to the world, one cooking school is giving chefs a chance to shine in the bustling kitchens of Yangon as the city prepares for an influx of foreign visitors. Trainees at the Shwe Sa Bwe, or “Golden Table”, cookery school are learning how to whip up a gazpacho soup, flip crèpes and perfectly grill juicy chunks of chicken – all on the menu du jour for paying guests. The centre, in a quiet upmarket area just north of Yangon’s Inya Lake, offers free courses to underprivileged young Burmese, giving them the chance to learn French-based cuisine or restaurant hospitality. François Stoupan, the Frenchman behind the project, says his aim is for the trainees “to be part of the economy and the growth of the country” after their nine months of training. “Before I only knew about Myanmar’s food but now I’m learning about European food, which is very different,” said 26-year-old Win Mu. “It’s a little bit difficult, especially making the sauces. It takes time.” Set up in November and now with 14 students, the project has come at an apposite time for Myanmar’s underdeveloped commercial hub, which is struggling to accommodate a visitor boom. After decades of outright military rule, dramatic changes over the past year have encouraged foreign tourists, diplomats and business people to pile into the city’s hotels, where Shwe Sa Bwe’s students hope eventually to work. “It’s corresponding to a moment in Myanmar’s history and a period of opening up,” said Stoupan. Tourist arrivals hit a record high for a second year running in 2011, rising more than 20 per cent, the Myanmar Times weekly said in January, quoting figures from the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism. The trend is set to continue as it becomes ever easier to obtain an entry visa, and with Myanmar ranked as a top travel destination for 2012 by publications including the New York Times and Condé Nast Traveller. Such attention is highlighting the culinary potential of Yangon. “There are fresh ingredients – very fresh – local ingredients. If you go to the market early at six in the morning, the fish are still alive, still moving,” said Jeoffrey Offer, the French head chef at Shwe Sa Bwe. Experiments with locally-sourced produce are already thriving in the former colonial capital, as wealthy Burmese become more adventurous in their tastes.Sharky’s, a delicatessen and restaurant business, initially targeted wealthy expatriates but is seeing its clientèle diversify “because of the changing situation, the economy, everything,” said operations director Thaw Tar. “We want to be like Bangkok or more than Bangkok. This is our dream, but who knows if it can happen?” said Thaw Tar, whose eatery sells foods grown, farmed and prepared in Myanmar, from air-dried meats and artisan cheeses to gourmet burgers and ice-cream. Traditional dishes, which have long languished in the shadows of neighbouring Thailand and India’s world-renowned flavours, are also getting their time in the sun.The unofficial national dish, mohinga, featured highly in a new Lonely Planet guide to the world’s best street food. “This comforting noodle soup exemplifies the earthy flavours of the country’s cuisine,” Lonely Planet said of the dish. All in all, say local restaurateurs, there is plenty to excite the taste buds. “Everybody knows Thai dishes, so we think we should come out more so the world knows Myanmar’s food,” said Phyu Phyu Tin, owner of Monsoon, one of a handful of restaurants in the city that combine a chic dining experience with Burmese dishes such as wether acho chet, a sweet and rich pork curry. The restaurant’s manager, Aung Moe Winn, says that Myanmar has historically lost many of its energetic young workers to overseas cities with booming service sectors – a trend he hopes will now change. “We want them to use their qualities and skills to develop our country,” he said.At Shwe Sa Bwe, the students were chosen partly for their willingness to stay in Myanmar, and already they are devising ambitious plans to develop their country’s cuisine. After a stint in a Yangon hotel, Win Mu hopes to set up a fusion restaurant near her family home in northeastern Shan state, serving a blend of European and Burmese dishes. It is perhaps the ideal recipe to match Myanmar’s growing interaction with the outside world – even if Gallic cuisine sometimes baffles the Burmese. “Myanmar people eat their beef well-done but the French eat it raw. That’s how foreigners like it! For me, that’s really strange,” said Win Mu. –AFP
Phi Phi on the horizon
Thursday 15 March 2012, 03:01PM
It’s only 8.30am on a Thursday morning, but already the five large ferries, docked three abreast at Rassada Pier in Phuket Town, are full with passengers. Hundreds of expectant tourists form this formidable friendly invasion force, heading for the two islands of Phi Phi, those small and fragile natural jewels all on their own in the pristine Andaman Sea. Judging by the languages I hear around me on the boat ride over, today hordes of Chinese, Russian and French visitors, all in assorted beach gear, are ready for sun and sea. They all disembark en masse onto the narrow jetty at Phi Phi Don, the larger of the two islands, before streaming into the narrow lanes of the holiday village already packed with tourists. The beach is lined by longtail boats; a couple of them are already noisily reversing with their passengers on board, escaping to a less-crowded stretch of sand on the other side of the island. Meanwhile, sleek speedboats power in with more visitors, their row of large outboard engines revving. Blond Scandinavian men sit, somewhat bored, in the many dive shops near the beach, ready to teach people how to dive down to see the richness of the coral reefs under the crystal clear water. Signs on almost all hotels and guesthouses read “FULL.” It is after all high-season on Phi Phi. In the fierce afternoon heat, the many air-conditioned convenience stores offer cool respite for passersby. On a rough field, against a striking backdrop of lush green hills, teams of young men compete in a football championship, with much laughter and cheering. Village life goes on after work is done. Just offshore, a particularly eye-catching longtail wooden boat, built of thick old exposed timber, waits to take other villagers home. It’s has been a long day for them too, catering to the international tourists who bring in a daily baht bonanza for the islanders. Back onshore, a troupe of wiry young men limber up and twine cotton strips around their hoops and twirling sticks ready to be lit for their fire dancing and juggling, once the sun dips below the horizon. In the glow of sunset, viewed from the deserted curving end of the beach I find myself in, the bright lights and flags of the throbbing tourist village in the near distance sit in contrast with the blue-green steep timbered cliffs. A couple of swimmers float in the warm sea, now turned bright red by the sunset.I wonder, what was this island like before it was developed? Why in the world have visitors come here in such numbers? And have they all found what they were seeking? So many questions to answer. Meanwhile, Phi Phi settles down to relax for the evening. It needs its rest, for tomorrow is another busy day.Getting there: Passenger ferries leave at 8.30am and at 1.30pm for Phi Phi from Rassada Pier southeast of Phuket Town. Costs vary but expect to pay about B600 for a return ticket. While good accommodation can be found on arrival, it’s best to book ahead during high season.
JAMIE'S PHUKET: Rang Hill temple
Sunday 4 March 2012, 08:50AM
Imagine a bright, sunny morning and I’m driving through Phuket Town with my wife. The kids have been dropped off at school, and we’ve put in a broken laptop for repairs. We’re driving on familiar roads, heading north near the Vachira hospital. There is a little-used side road by the hospital that heads up to the top of Rang Hill. My wife asks – do you know the temple up this road? Indeed I do not. I’m sure I’ve driven this way before, but seem to have missed Rang Hill Temple (Wat Khao Rang) every single time. It’s a shame, as hidden from view up the small side road by the hospital is something quite impressive – there’s more than one Big Buddha in Phuket. We arrived at the temple late morning, but I did not have my camera with me (we hadn’t planned to stop anywhere that day), so instead we had a quick look, bumped into a local photographer I know, then dashed home, picked up the kids, and told them we were going to a temple. Hooray, they said! Well, perhaps not quite, but at least this temple was one they’d never seen before.Rang Hill Temple was founded by a monk called Luang Pu Supha, who some claim to be the world’s oldest man (a fact not ratified by Guinness World Records). His image can be found on amulets for sale at the temple, though the supposed 115-year-old now lives at the temple named after him, Wat Luang Pu Supha, also located in Phuket. Beyond the Big Buddha there is a new temple building, which looks to have been recently completed and is reached by a separate staircase lined by Naga snakes guarding the entrance. Unfortunately I didn’t enter as the rest of the family had seen enough and were already waiting in the car. In any case I will return sometime soon.   Jamie Monk works at liveaboard dive specialists Sunrise Divers. For more information call: 084 626 4646 or visit: sunrise-divers.com You can read more about Phuket on Jamie's Phuket Blog or follow Jamie on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Flickr.
Mobile café on a roll
Sunday 4 March 2012, 08:46AM
Malisa & Me mobile café owners Dan and Malisa Shults have found a niche market in Phuket, delivering a tasty variety of food and drink to customers around the island from the comfort of their travelling food truck. Their unique food truck was specially made in Bangkok. Dan says the trucks are incredibly popular in the United States, so when looking to start up a business, they figured the same idea might work here. Malisa has worked in the tourism industry, and Dan is a student at Prince of Songkla University studying hospitality management, but the couple were looking for a new business venture. The simple but great-tasting sandwiches are reasonably priced, with the pair offering vegetable or chicken quesadillas, grilled sandwiches (including pizza, mexican, tuna and bacon, barbecued pork), plus s’mores (B85) and the famous American peanut butter and jelly sandwich (B70). Malisa and Dan also make great iced drinks – all created using homemade syrup –including the unique pumpkin flavoured ice latte. The couple have big plans for the business, including perhaps a franchise over the next few years. But for the meantime they are happy driving around the streets of Naiharn and wider Phuket, ready to deliver fresh, home-made food to eager customers. Disclaimer: the mobile café is on its way to becoming an institution at The Phuket News’ Kathu office, where Dan and Malisa arrive to feed the hungry staff twice a week.Malisa & Me: 081-956-8635, malisaandme@mail.com; facebook.com/malisaandme
JAMIE'S PHUKET: Phuket Old Town Festival 2012
Friday 17 February 2012, 11:45AM
The end of January was a busy time for festivals and fairs in Phuket. We had the lively Chalong Temple Fair, then a food fair at Saphan Hin (the south end of Phuket Town), it was Chinese New Year on the 23rd (welcome all to the Year of the Dragon) and from January 28-30 there was the Phuket Old Town Festival; three great nights of street fair, food stalls, stage performances in the old part of Phuket Town along Thalang Road and in the Queen Sirikit Park next to the TAT office. We headed into town on Saturday 28 and Sunday 29 in the evening. A bit late on Saturday actually as there was a street procession with people dressed up in old style Chinese clothing, and we missed that. But there were plenty of people dressed up along Thalang Road. Phuket has large Chinese influence, with a lot of Chinese-Thai people due to large-scale immigration during the 19th century when Phuket went through a major tin-mining boom. But there's not exactly a ‘China Town’ in Phuket. Thalang Road is very mixed, there are Muslim shops, old Chinese hardware stores and printers, the old herb shop and a Chinese shrine which is right next door to the Christian Assembly. The old town is a place I always like, but it looks especially good at festival time. In these articles I keep using the term "real Phuket", which is hard to define, since Phuket has many sides, but in the old section of Phuket Town there is certainly plenty to interest visitors. I'm not going to knock someone for spending two weeks on the beach, but I've been doing this blog for years now, trying to show that Phuket is so much more than beaches. I guess the "real Phuket" is what you make of it.   Jamie Monk works at liveaboard dive specialists Sunrise Divers. For more information call: 084 626 4646 or visit: sunrise-divers.com You can read more about Phuket on Jamie's Phuket Blog or follow Jamie on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Flickr.
JAMIE'S PHUKET: Ride of a lifetime
Friday 10 February 2012, 04:06PM
First off, I should admit I've never actually been on an elephant ride. There are elephant trekking places all over Phuket. Some are close to the main beaches, while others get a bit more off the beaten track (and are much better in my opinion –  after all, I don't want to be trekking with a view of Patong or within earshot of a busy road). And it's good business for sure – riding an elephant is on many tourists ‘must do’ list. My parents have been over here a number of times, and it was on their second visit in 2004 that they went for an elephant ride. I recently asked mum to write about her experience. Here’s an abbreviated version of ‘My Elephant Experience’, by Paula Monk. “When I was a child, I would look through my books and see pictures of far away, wonderful lands. I was fascinated by them, but in the 1950s, growing up in post war Britain, it didn't seem possible that I would ever see any of those places for myself. “I was filled with wonder at the sights of children riding on elephants, and imagined how it would feel. That little dream lay dormant for almost a lifetime. "The world has moved on during that lifetime and people travel far and wide – ordinary people like me. “Now we have family in Thailand (it was called Siam in my childhood) and on one of our visits I was determined to fulfil my childhood dream. I can't now tell you the name of the place where we went for our elephant ride. "It was in the rural south of the island, in hilly terrain. I feel there couldn't have been a better place – the elephants were well looked after and so were we – my husband and I. The jungle was thick and lush and the views from the hill tops were superb. “Slowly we moved off. I was all grins and happiness! At first the ride seemed fairly smooth, but soon we were traversing the slopes of the jungle through narrow pathways. It was like a fair ground ride – I was thrilled and exited and scared stiff at the same time. “Going down hill it almost felt like we would be lurched forward and roll over the beautiful elephants head, but we hung on tight and enjoyed the thrill. Mostly our elephant strolled slowly along the familiar paths – sometimes she broke into almost a trot, accompanied by gasps and squeals from us. “Our ride lasted for a long time – about an hour we recall. As we realised we were coming to the end of the ride we became aware that we felt physically tired. “It is hard work to keep the body stiff and alert and to be holding on tight. But above all, we felt exhilaration that in our 60s we had taken the chance to fulfil a dream.” Jamie Monk works at liveaboard dive specialists Sunrise Divers. For more information call: 084 626 4646 or visit: sunrise-divers.com You can read more about Phuket on Jamie's Phuket Blog or follow Jamie on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Flickr.
A very cool Christmas
Friday 3 February 2012, 04:18PM
TRAVEL: "Let’s have Christmas somewhere cool,” said someone in the family. “Where?” was the next logical question. “How about the Cameron Highlands?” said I, reviving pleasant memories of a few cool and picturesque days spent on that elevated valley in the Malaysian mountains many years ago. The late-evening Air Asia flight lifted off from Phuket airport, taking us on a two-hour flight on this rather crazy rushed long-weekend trip to Kuala Lumpur. Even the long walk from our aircraft to Air Asia’s own bustling terminal, which is separate from the KL international one, did not dampen our enthusiasm for this short break in a different country. Nor was the fact that the airport was some 60 kilometres from the city, meaning we still had an hour and a half of late-night bus travel in front of us to reach the business district of the city where we had booked our little hotel for the night. For late Thursday night, KL was alive with diners eating in the many bright street restaurants that wafted delightful aromas into the warm night. We were surprised to come across one cosy street as liberally supplied with ladyboys as Bangla Rd. Our view of the green and pleasant capital the next day was mostly from the windows of the monorail and a suburban train, as we headed for our weekend rental car. But the pace of the city was definitely slower and more relaxed. If only Bangkok were like this. On the pleasant three-hour drive to the highlands, the comfortable black Malaysian-made Proton Saga cruised easily on the freeway north and climbed the mountain on the narrow winding road that was quite a historical engineering feat, cutting through tall dense tropical jungle. As the traffic thickened we began to realise that many, many Malaysian families had also said to themselves that, for the long-weekend holiday, they too would spend Christmas in the Cameron Highlands. Traffic was bumper-to-bumper on the narrow roads. But the little village of Tanah Rata was as I remember it. The row of old colonial-style shops on its main street always reminded of old photos of Darjeeling or Simla where the British colonial rulers and plains people escaped up to cool air and mountain views. One memorable meal was relived at the Mutiara Indian street restaurant that I had visited before: fresh-made roti, mutton and vegetable curries of all sorts and friendly staff warmly welcomed us. The oddly-named multi-storey Hotel de la Ferns, with its faux Tudor facade, gave us a fantastic room, high up. Mist blew across the balcony, which looked along the lush valley of this veritable Eden. A green golf course nestled among trees. Pine trees in the little village park bordered a clear mountain stream, and cosy houses with their white plaster and black timber imitation Tudor architecture hid away in the misty jungle at vantage points on hill tops. England is far away but a valley of it has been lovingly duplicated here. Christmas Eve saw well-to-do Indian, Chinese and Malay families enjoying traditional Christmas dinners offered at all the guesthouses and hotels, complete with turkey and plum pudding, if not much ham – this is, after all a Muslim country. A bright-green valley, patterned by low tea bushes as far as the eye could see provided a picturesque backdrop to the steaming cups of the best that the old Boh Tea Plantation could offer. Tea pickers were “plucking” away in the distance. Strawberries were overflowing from the tunnels of plastic greenhouses in nearby plantations, in this mountain land of plenty. Walking among hills rising to the mist, we were very grateful for our very cool Cameron Christmas. –Norachai Thavisin GETTING THERE: Air Asia flies from Phuket to Kuala Lumpur for less than B2,000 one way. Car rental is B1,500 a day, and petrol in Malaysia is cheaper. WHERE TO STAY: A double room at the Hotel De La Ferns (hoteldelaferns.com.my) cost about B5,000 a night.
JAMIE'S PHUKET: Phuket Mining Museum
Friday 13 January 2012, 01:59PM
If anyone is at all interested in the history of Phuket, and at the same time interested in getting a little off the beaten track, the often-overlooked Phuket Mining Museum is very much worth a look. The location is a bit odd – on a road that many people don’t know about that winds through the hills between Loch Palm Golf Club and the British International School. However, it’s great for children. Located around the large central courtyard are rooms that have been lovingly decorated and made to look like old streets or filled with old pictures and dioramas of mining techniques. Phuket made its fortune through tin mining (as well as rubber plantations and fishing) well before any tourists first arrived. There’s no mining any more, but it was tin that made Phuket, built Phuket Town and changed the face of Phuket, with many immigrants heading here from China. In the first room is a traditional island bus, while the next room is filled with old furniture, and displays of old household items. Then you have the real meat of the museum: a very well presented educational section all about geology, with information presented in both English and Thai.This leads through to the history of mining, with models of stone age people banging rocks together, and more specific information and life size dioramas about local tin mining techniques. From mining, you then move onto tin processing, a room full of technical information and photos, as well as a big bench full of rocks for kids to look at. I was very pleased when my boy agreed that sand, viewed with a magnifying glass, looks like little rocks – I love watching my kids learn. However, my wife’s favourite part of the museum is a mock up of old Phuket, a whole street with shops, a little café, a shrine and much more. It’s very well done, and you can see that the people involved in the museum must take a lot of pride in their work. The artwork is very good, with many walls painted with street scenes that have receding perspectives, so you feel like you could almost just step into the painting and take a walk through old Phuket. My daughter even tried... One of the best things about the museum is the low entry fee, although, if you’re a tourist reading this, it’s not the kind of place a tuk-tuk driver will want to take you (no commissions!). In sum, the museum suits those who want to learn something and see more than just beaches. Jamie Monk works at liveaboard dive specialists Sunrise Divers. For more information call: 084 626 4646 or visit: sunrise-divers.com You can read more about Phuket on Jamie's Phuket Blog or follow Jamie on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Flickr.