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.

 

Blacks of Kinsale – Worlds End Chocolate Vanilla Imperial Stout

Worlds End Chocolate Vanilla Imperial Stout is a sweet dark stout beer made by Blacks of Kinsale Brewery. Upon opening the bottle the smell of chocolate is immediate. It is quickly followed by a vanilla undertone. The taste of the beer is not complex but it is powerful. It’s a sweet dark chocolate flavour with almost no trace of malt and absolutely no trace of Hops. It is reminiscent of the Narwhal sampled a few weeks ago, but with the volume turned down to a more tolerable level. It’s very much a sipping beer to work your way through over a period of time and probably one is enough given the sweetness. One is probably enough anyway given the 8.5% ABV. It would do well to be paired with food, the sweetness is heavy work on its own after a while.

In the glass the beer is a dark black beer, there is only the merest hint of a red colour around the edges when held up to the light. There is no fizz to speak of and no head at all. The bottle is well enough presented, albeit the label is a little busy. The raven on the label is becoming more and more familiar site in off-licenses and supermarkets as they expand their range and find themselves in a wider and wider range of outlets. It currently retails at €4.50 in O’Brien’s off-license, making it at the upper end of the price range.

Blacks are a proper craft brewery, newly established in 2013, no doubt aided by the rise in popularity of non-mainstream beers. It’s a family run establishment that grew from a hobby into a livelihood and it’s great to see an Irish business like that doing well. Their avowed aim is to produce beers with passion and personality and they have certainly achieved that with this beer. Yours truly appreciates that they haven’t attempted to tart up the beer with a convoluted nonsense backstory like we see with many of the craft beers that are out there.

It’s not knocking my socks off if I’m completely honest. As with the Narwhal it’s something you’re either going to like or you’re not. I respect it for what it is, it’s a beer with a point, with a genuine attempt to make a statement with flavour. It’s afraid of what it is, it knows some people won’t like it and it’s unapologetic for it. It’s not my cup of tea, if someone handed it to me I’d drink it but I won’t be rushing out to buy another one.

Final Score: 6/10

I really wanted to like this beer more, it ticks a lot of boxes for me, Irish made, family business, really bold flavours, but the chocolate-sweet thing really isn’t my bag.

 

 

 

CUTE HOOR IRISH PALE ALE

Cute Hoor Irish Pale Ale is an ale brewed and distributed by Heineken Ireland. Here we have another “craft” beer on the market that is in fact a beer made by a massive international drinks consortium trying to cash in on the ever growing craft beer market. The eponymous lager produced by Heineken is to fine craft beer as a Big Mac is to fine dining.

However, that’s not the fault of the beer that it’s made by Heineken, so I won’t ramble on any more about the evils of globalisation and the crushing rigidity and conformity of the marketing machine that drives everything toward the safest, banal, middle ground in an effort to maximise shareholder value by pedalling as much mass appeal product as possible.

The beer itself is a pleasant enough drink. It’s well balanced between hops and malt, with the hops slightly coming out on top. You can definitely taste a roast flavour off it, it would work well with a Sunday lunch. Its light enough that you could work your way through a few pints without that bloated feeling you get sometimes from heavy beer.

The colour is a dark golden colour with a pale head which doesn’t disappear.

The bottle is reasonably well presented. A “cute hoor” is an expression used in Ireland to describe a sneaky person who is out for personal gain while maintaining an innocent face to the public. Many politicians fall into this category. The sort of chap who says for example they are going to get strong on guns but at the same time are the head of a party that receives massive donations from the National Rifle Association. Sorry, I’ve come over all political in this blog post.

Anyway, back to the beer. As I mentioned above it is pleasant enough, but it’s not anything to write home about. It’s the sort of thing that you would be happy enough to drink if someone handed you a bottle of it for free, the sort of thing you might be glad to find at the back of the fridge when you discover you’re out of beer you actually like.

Ed Rating: 5/10

A beer that is trying to appeal to craft beer enthusiasts but fails because it doesn’t offer up any particularly strong or appealing flavours. This is not an adventurous beer, it’s built to appeal to Heineken drinkers who might be craft curious. If you’re a fan of bold flavours you’ll be disappointed. It’s not unpleasant but it is very middle of the road.

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.

Alpro Raspberry-Cranberry & Blackberry Yogurt

Alpro Raspberry-Cranberry & Blackberry Yogurt is a plant based yogurt alternative made by the Alpro company. Alpro are a Belgian based company making plant based dairy alternative products. They are the Coca-Cola of this fringe market insofar as they control 43% of the market. Anyone who frequents supermarkets will be familiar with their range of milk alternatives and more recently yogurt alternatives.

I picked up a 4 pack of the Raspberry-Cranberry & Blackberry in Tesco for €2. I was sceptical having tried dairy free yogurts before and found them to taste either like a cardboard box, or be so over sweet as to have lost all flavour. Not what you want from a yogurt which should have a little bit of zing on the back end of the flavour from the tartness given by the cultures within.

These yogurts were a step up from what I had tried previously. There is decent size chunks of fruit in them and they do at least taste like a yogurt should taste like. Think a less sweet version of a Yoplait yogurt. There is no sugar, always a bonus, but there is a list of ingredients that you’ll have to google if you want to understand what they are. That applies to regular yogurt as well so whateves. On the upside for the vegans among you, they have B12 added so that’s pretty handy.

I’ve tried them on their own and also mixed in with overnight oats which was really excellent. They are not 100% exactly the same as a full on natural dairy yogurt but they are 95% of the way there, which is a lot further along than any of the milk alternatives in the Alpro (or any other brand) range.

They do come packaged in a single use plastic container so down with that sort of thing. On the upside if you’re the sort of person who worries about such things you will be the sort of person that turns the yogurt pot into a pot for germinating seeds so maybe it evens out. Failing that they are great for arts and crafts with the kids, they hold fiddly bits of Lego, loom bands if they are still a thing, or work great as tiny kids paint pots.

Ed Rating: 8/10

Look, it’s a tub of yogurt, so it’s not going to change your life. You don’t have to be vegan curious or actively trying to reduce dairy to try these things. They are good enough to stand on their own, I’d take the Pepsi challenge between these and a regular yogurt any day of the week. At €2 for four you lose nothing by giving them a try.