Chang Mai

Chang Mai is a city in Northern Thailand. I recently spent a few nights there with my wife and eldest child as part of a 2 week trip to Thailand.

Chang Mai is easily accessible by air from Bangkok and the airfare is very cheap. Certainly it is worth the few extra € to get there in an hour rather than the overnight train from Bangkok which will inevitably cost you a chunk of your holiday either in time travelling or time recovering.

All levels of accommodation are available in the city and all of it is cheap by European standards. We booked an air bnb for three people for three nights for less than €200 in a very central location.

Chang Mai itself is best considered as a good base to explore the North of Thailand, rather than a destination in and of itself. In the city there are plenty of things to do and you will get the same array of markets and street food that you will find throughout Thailand, although Bangkok puts it in the hae’pennyplace for markets and street food.

The night market is worth a walk around for atmosphere but there is nothing particularly special about it, especially when compared to some of the larger markets in Bangkok such as Chatuchak. The food stalls are decent but not spectacular. Overall it is very touristy and the prices, while cheap compared to home, are inflated above what they are in other parts of the city.

Within the city there are a massive number of temples, so if temple gazing is your thing, you won’t be short of them in Chang Mai. You can and should visit Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, its one of the best temples in Thailand and the stairs going up to the entrance are worth the visit alone. The road up is twisty and windy and very steep in parts, but the surface is good. If you’re nervous about such things don’t get one of the Songteaw type taxi’s, get a proper cab instead. Either way, your fare will be cheap. The Songteaw’s are an experience in themselves, essentially they are a pickup truck with a roof and some primitive seats screwed onto the back.

There are spectacular views from the temple back over the city. Again, it is very touristy so don’t go expecting to get a half hour of peaceful contemplation on your re-incarnation prospects, its not going to happen.

If you really want to chill out in a temple find one of the ones that isn’t on a tourist map and just wander in. No-one will kick you out and you will find a lot more peace and plenty to look at, including large golden and jade Buddha’s and some pretty spectacular artwork on the walls. Chang Mai has so many temples, there is one on nearly every street so get off the tourist trail and take the time to wander round one of the quite and peaceful ones if you want to get a feel for what these places are supposed to be like.

Speaking of temples, do be aware that you will have to cover your shoulders and your legs to below the knee. You will also have to remove your shoes when you go into any of the buildings so flip-flops are a good idea for ease of use. Don’t be a jackass about it, it’s their culture and you’re a visitor so respect their way of doing things.

There are two other locations within the city that I can recommend. The first is the restaurant Blue Mango. It has a humble enough appearance, a sort of beach cafe vibe but the food is top-notch and very reasonably priced. For a fraction above street food prices you’ll be well fed with really good quality Thai cuisine. The Deep Fried fish is excellent as is the Massaman Curry and the Pad Thai. The Mango Sticky rice was the best I had in Thailand. It’s maybe a ten minute walk from the Tha Pae gate and is well worth the stroll. The Tha Pae gate is not a historic monument. It was rebuilt in the 80’s as a tourist attraction. The only thing worth doing there is strolling past and having a quite giggle to yourself at the people who let the rat-birds land on them.

The second location in the city I can recommend is the Lila Thai Massage. We got a one hour foot massage for 250 Bhat and we liked it so much we went back the next date for a full body massage. For 350 Bhat (€9) you can get an 90 minute full body massage that was the best we had in Thailand. The staff are former female convicts who have completed training and are then employed by the company in an effort to rehab them into normal society. The prices are a shade above some of the places around, but the quality and service is excellent as is the surrounding and the atmosphere.

In addition to the above locations there are no end of little coffee shops and restaurants you can sit and people watch over a smoothie, some very nice coffee or some excellent ice-cream.

There are many other things to do in the vicinity of Chang Mai, but the following two I can recommend from personal experience.

The first is zip-lining in the jungle around the city. We went with Flight of the Gibbon. They are a very professional outfit and the claim to have the longest zip in South East Asia at 800 meters. It’s about an hours drive outside the city. They will come and pick you up in an air-conditioned mini-bus, drive you to the location and back to your accommodation. Maximum group size is 12 but my personal advice is to book the earliest session you can in the day. We got a 6:30 pick up and ended up in a group of 5 people. This means that you get through the activity much faster and negate some of the standing around waiting you would have to do if you are in a large group. As a result you get more of your day back, measured in hours, to go do other stuff. Once the zip-lining is complete you are served lunch in the village restaurant. It’s not great to be honest, you definitely get the feeling they are mailing it in because us westerners don’t know the difference between good and bad Thai food. There is an opportunity to visit a large local waterfall which is worth doing for some great photos and do take the time to walk through the jungle and look at and smell the many amazing flowers that you will see. Life is better when you stop to smell the flowers.

The second activity is to visit the elephants. Please do your research and try to book with one of the ethical service providers. Don’t go to one of the places that lets you ride the elephants or any of the places that you can see along the road where the elephants are chained to a tree and are put to work in logging when the tourists aren’t around. We went with Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. They purport to be a rescue outfit who take elephants from the less reputable places and give them a decent standard of living. From what we saw these Elephants appear to have a great quality of life. Lots of space, plenty of food and they aren’t worked in any way, other than to stand around and let the tourists feed and photo them.

We were picked up in one of the aforementioned pick-up type vehicles and we were taken to camp two. The drive was one of the highlights of the whole trip. The Thai countryside is beautiful and you will get a taste of it as you leave the city and drive out into the jungle. The last part of the journey was on a dirt road down a steep hill, it’s a bit scary, but absolutely worth it. Just close your eyes if you’re nervous about such things once you leave the tarmac road.

I definitely recommend the full day trip. You will get to feed the elephants, spend a decent amount of time with them, give them a mud-bath and wash them off in the waterfall and stream on site. I had a great day, as did our eldest son and my wife has said repeatedly since we were there that it was one of the best days of her life.

Edrating: 8/10

The temples and the activities on the fringes of the city are amazing and there is lots to see and do. But the core of the city itself doesn’t have much to make it stand out from a lot of other cities and it feels a bit like a place that is searching for its identity. That is a mad thing to say about a city that is over 500 years old. It’s a temple heavy city in the mountains and you get the feel that if tourism didn’t exist, it would be largely populated by monks and people who make a living supporting the monks. You should definitely visit if you’re going to Thailand, and I’m glad I went. However I don’t see a scenario that would bring me back to Chang Mai now that I’ve been there once.

 

The Defiant Ones

The Defiant Ones is a HBO show currently available on Netflix. The show revolves around Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre and tells the story of both of them coming up from completely different backgrounds and successes and failures they enjoyed along the way.

I’m not going to go into the ins and outs of what is contained in the show, but the story is compelling and its weaved together in such a way as to pull the viewer in and it just keeps bouncing along. As happens with anything good on Netflix, you binge watch it over a day or two and it’s done. You know its good when it’s one am in the morning and you’re on your couch and you can’t stop yourself from putting on the next episode.

It’s a documentary in several parts which a huge number of music stars have contributed to in the form of long interviews. One of the things that is revealed, which would not be apparent to armchair music fans like me, who like music but aren’t regular readers of Rolling Stone, is the incredible web of talent that Jimmy Iovine has been involved with, everything from Bruce Springsteen, U2, to Gwen Stefani, Nine-Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson. Each of them make a meaningful contribution to the show although some make a more involved contribution than others, Bono, I’m looking at you.

The other thing it shed some light on for me that I was not particularly aware of is the whole East Coast / West Coast Rap rivalry thing that took place in the late 90’s and early 00’s. I was aware of it vaguely but the show gets into some detail that again, unless you were reading Rolling Stone or were massively into hip-hop, you won’t be aware of.

Backed by an amazing soundtrack of hits from the RnB and Rock and Pop world, the show is as much a feast for the ears as it is for the eyes. You’ll find yourself humming along over and over again to songs by artists you weren’t aware were even vaguely connected.

If I was to make a minor criticism, it is certainly a bit hagiographic, especially in relation to Dr. Dre. and Snoop Dogg. Both men have a chequered past, violence against women, shootings, and jail time, which while covered and talked about, are moved on from fairly quickly and sort of brushed away a little bit under the guise of that was back then, or that was a crazy time. It’s also worth noting that the death of 2-Pac is covered but the death of Biggy Small is completely ignored, I’m not sure why. It certainly fits with the narrative of violence and gangster lifestyle that the show largely revolves around. It strikes me that it was a decision made by a lawyer somewhere and there is tape related to it on a cutting room floor somewhere.

One of the interesting narratives that comes through is the repeated end of humanity that seems to come around with each new generation of musicians that become popular. Gangster Rap was corrupting the youth, then Nine Inch Nails, then Marilyn Manson, then Eminem. It goes back further than that of course, right back to the 50’s when Rock & Roll was being described as Satan’s music by the church, but it is interesting to see it laid out in sequence as it is in this show. It’s one of the criticisms of modern music is that it’s not offensive to middle aged white guys as I have become. My teenager listens to nothing that I find vaguely offensive, because that music just doesn’t get made anymore. Why? Because Spotify and Apple Music and the likes don’t want the controversy and are happy making billions selling Justin Timberlake and Ed Sheeran records. Anyway, I digress.

 

 

Ed Rating: 9/10

Fabulously entertaining, it sucks you in and as with all good shows on Netflix, you can’t help yourself but to watch several episodes in a row late into the early hours of the morning. Is it perfect, no it’s not. But it is a ripping good watch and you won’t regret putting a few hours into it.

Veganism

Veganism is the practice of living a lifestyle that uses no animal products. There are varying shades of veganism from people who are extremely activist and believe all use of animals for everything should be banned through to the other end of the spectrum of people who won’t use any animal products in their diet when they are at home, but do not seek to insist that others (friends, family, restaurants) accommodate their needs. Within that there are various shades from people who won’t eat anything that is an obvious animal product, e.g. cheese, to those who are obsessive packet readers who won’t use any product that has sugar in it because the sugar is likely processed using bone char.

For a period of about three months I have been experimenting with veganism. Early on I made the decision that I was not going to be the activist obsessive packet reader. It was to be an entirely personal experiment to see if it worked for me. Even within my experiment I did not stick to it with religious fervour. I allowed some deviation at weekends and when I was out and about.

The first thing that struck me was how genuinely easy it was in the initial stages. Honestly I thought I would be craving meat, cheese, eggs, milk, chocolate, and all the things I love to eat. Not so. In the first few weeks I stayed away from the “vegan alternatives” to the traditional ingredients and stuck to whole foods. Vegetables, nuts, rice and replaced milk in tea with Soy milk.

After reading a number of blogs and consulting the university of YouTube as well as talking with the one friend I have who is vegan, I got myself a B12 supplement and some national yeast and I was all set.

The transition was easy and for about a month it was totally fine. I missed cheese a little, did not miss meat at all which really surprised me. I did start to crave milk though. A little background is needed here. I’m Irish. Having milk with your meal is the done thing in Ireland and it has been forever. It was drilled into me as a child. To an Irish person there is nothing more refreshing than freezing cold milk. I did not, at any time in my vegan experiment, find an alternative that worked for me. I tried all of the milk substitutes, oat, hemp, rice, soy, almond…the list was endless. None of them stood up to the taste test when drank on their own.

All was not lost. I resolved to having Tea with my meals, the only acceptable alternative in Ireland. As with the milk, a love of tea is bate into us in childhood. I’ve been drinking tea since I was probably four years old.

As I moved into month two and on into month three, things started to go downhill. The energy that is often ascribed to being a benefit of a plant based diet was not forthcoming. In fact the opposite was true. I had no energy, really had to fight to get out of bed in the morning. I’ve never been a spring up and go sort of guy but generally one press of the snooze button is enough. It got to the point however where I was still lying in bed an hour after the alarm went off trying to dream up a plausible reason to go back to sleep.

My health wasn’t going well either. I hadn’t lost the weight that every blog and Youtuber you meet says you will lose when you make the transition. My weight stayed basically constant throughout. Due to the lack of energy I wasn’t exercising with my normal vigour. I was still cycling to work every day, because that’s what I do, but it wasn’t anything you could call training. My stomach became irritable. Frequent, often fairly urgent, trips to the bathroom became the norm. Sorry, TMI, I know.

My mood suffered as well. Again, I can be inclined to get a bit morose in the winter but a spin on the bike or a bit of sunshine at the weekend usually sorts me out. Not so this winter. Low motivation. No vigour. I was grumpy and unhappy all the time.

After three months I called a halt and went back to my normal eating habits about a week ago. All of the issues above have resolved. My mood is lifted, my energy has returned and I’m no longer walking around like I’m stuck in an exceptionally depressing Leonard Cohen album.

Ed Rating: 6/10

I am glad I tried the experiment. Veganism isn’t for me. I could put up with the restricted diet if it did not have the negative side effects I experienced. I took some positives away from it. Overnight Oats with soy milk are delicious. Scrambled Tofu is awesome. Soy cream with onions, mushrooms, pepper and pasta is divine. I have also become keenly aware how I can do without meat for extended periods without issue. It just wasn’t something I missed.

The reasons for going vegan are many and varied from ethical animal cruelty reasons, to environmental reasons, to health reasons, the environment and even religious beliefs. I admire and have a great respect for those who can sustain the lifestyle. Ethically it’s hard to defend doing anything else, from an environmental and an animal cruelty point of view it is the morally correct position to be in. Hats off to all the vegans out there who are making it work.

French Cooking Academy

French Cooking Academy is a YouTube channel run by a Frenchman named Stephane. It is essentially a string of instructional videos presented in a simple fashion.

The channel is very different from many of the home kitchen cooking channels you will find on YouTube, usually run by American presenters which go out of their way to be happy, smiley and frankly a bit annoying. This channel is not about the presenter, it’s about the food.

The presenter demonstrates a respect for the food, for the ingredients, for the tradition that is not present on most channels. I don’t mean to suggest that it is stuffy or dry or dull, far from it. Stephane in his calm presenting style puts you at ease and shows how it is possible to create elements of French cuisine that you might have thought were beyond the home chef.

He has a number of videos about creating base sauces and others about how to do simple things like create a Roux and explaining the difference between a white, yellow, brown Roux and what you might want to do with these.

There are more advanced recipes demonstrated, but nothing that should be out of reach of an enthusiastic home chef. There are even demonstrations of how to make Michelin Star food at home, bringing this very high end food in reach of the ordinary home chef. Why we put so much stock in Michelin Star food is something I could rant about. See what I did there? Stock…food… never mind, I’ll get my coat.

The whole thing started as a guidebook in France to tell a motorist where he could stop to get some food while his car was being refilled and his tyres pumped. One star was acceptable, two stars were worth a diversion, and three stars were worth a special trip. Why we want a tyre company to rate our food is a mystery to me.

Anyway, back on topic, I have made a number of his recipes, my favourite is the Rustic French Tart, cause who doesn’t like a bit of Rustic French Tart. The taste is phenomenal and the instructions were easy to follow. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VdbJqMd0CX0

This morning I made his crustless cheesecake. Picture of my effort at the top. Again, excellent flavours, minimal fuss. This is a good one to make with the kids as well, lots of measuring, stirring and mixing and breaking eggs and all the other things kids like to get involved in when cooking. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VqBFPc-nmrw

The ingredients Stephane uses are generally items you will have at home or if not they are easily obtained in your local supermarket, even here in a small city on the Western edge of Europe.

Ed Rating: 8/10

This is an excellent channel if you are keen to explore and learn a different cuisine. If you are a keen home chef you will take things from here and incorporate them into your standard repertoire as go-to recipes forever. If you are just learning out the helpful explainers on making sauces and roux will be great building blocks you need to have in place to expand your culinary craft.

Kilkenny Castle

I visited Kilkenny Castle on December 23rd 2017 with my family including members of my extended family who were visiting for Christmas.

Kilkenny Castle is a castle in Kilkenny City, Ireland, dating back to the 12th Century. It was home to Earl of Ormond and his ancestors for hundreds of years dating back through some of the most important periods in Irish history including the Cromwellian period, the English Civil Wars, the plantation period, penal laws and the Norman invasion. Its original purpose as a defence structure and garrison for troops gave way in later years to being a home for the Irish nobility and landed gentry.

The Castle itself is not a large castle compared to for example Windsor Castle in the UK. It is however a large castle by Irish standards. The gardens are extensive with some impressive fountains. On a summer day I expect the gardens would make for a very pleasant walk or a run if that’s your thing.

The tour is an interesting one and the tour guide did a good job of covering the main points of the rooms shown. Access to the castle is by guided tour only. This a bug bear of mine. While I have no objection to a guided tour I would prefer a lower entry-only price to be available for those who prefer a self-guided or more affordable option. I expect there is an element of wanting to keep people corralled and supervised due to the large numbers paintings and other historical artefacts which are on display and in easy arms reach.

The tour itself was of a good standard and the guide seemed genuinely interested in the subject matter and knowledgeable of same. The tour guide was a local person which is always a nice bonus I find. The tour lasts about 45 minutes.

The highlights of the tour include the Moorish Staircase, the Library and Drawing rooms and most of all the incredibly impressive main dining hall. There are few places that you walk into a room and genuinely have a large intake of breath and an “oh my gosh” moment. The dining hall in Kilkenny castle is one of those moments.

The restoration of the castle and in particular the interior of the rooms is immaculate. The castle fell partially into ruin in the 1950’s and thankfully has been saved for future generations. It is one of the best restoration jobs I have encountered.

Family ticket of two adults and two children is €20. In the scheme of Irish prices this could not be described as excessive. Certainly if you take the time to wander the gardens and do the tour you will get value. A picnic in the gardens on a summer’s day would be lovely.

There is a cafe on site but we did not use it so I can’t pass comment on its value or quality. There is no on-site parking but parking is readily available in the city. The castle cannot be entirely accessed by wheelchair or if you have a pram. One of our party had to carry a three month old for duration of the tour. This would be completely unacceptable in a modern building, but this is not a modern building and I do not believe we should be ripping apart an important nationally historic building to install lifts. It’s all about balance.

Ed Rating: 7/10

Value is reasonable, a lower priced self-guide option would be nice. The castle is impressive and immaculately restored. A visit to Kilkenny is not complete without a visit to the Castle.