Because our last few days in Paris were marked by stressful encounters with crowds and tight schedules, Mr T made me promise that our 4 days stopover in Bangkok would be a relaxing break.
While Anne and I have never been, he used to visit Thailand regularly during his working life in SE Asia years ago. His memory of Bangkok is of a fun and carefree yet chaotic and hazy city. “I am not looking forward to the traffic” he tells me gloomingly.
We arrive at lunch time at the beginning of a long weekend in celebration of Thailand’s new king, Maha Vajiralongkorn (otherwise known as Rama X) ‘s coronation. We didn’t plan this, but with 3 days of ceremonies involving processions and public audiences, it means that some landmarks and roads are closed near the palace and other popular areas of the city where the royal party is in residence. So, while our program needs slight modifications, the upside is that a lot of the locals have left town for the holiday making traffic a breeze by Bangkok standard. Mr T is pleasantly surprised!
We are staying at the Ramada Plaza Menam Riverside on the riverfront. The hotel location is ideal for us, close enough to town but in a quieter area by the water. A free shuttle boat takes guests from the hotel wharf to the main pier 10mn away. From there we could catch the train/transit all over Bangkok if we want to. We never get around to do that, however, preferring to stick to water travel (no traffic on the river!)
Our first day is spent recovering from our 15-hour flight from Paris. We’re made to wait a couple of hours before our room is ready, whiling away the time in the executive club with offers of cakes and snacks. Still, by the time we’re settled in, it takes a bit of coercing to go out and explore our surroundings. Admittedly our “room” is a spacious 2-bedroom suite with 2 bathrooms, a lounge room big enough to host a party of 50 and most importantly, a lovely view over the Phraya river and south Bangkok.
Anne and Mr T would be happy to laze around in the air-conditioning but it turns out that we are a 5mn walk from Asiatique the Riverfront, á night bazaar and a mall all rolled into one with more than a dozen eating places ranging from high end dining to street food stalls.
We end up buying prawns skewers, pad thai, some fried rice, and samples of grilled meats and retreat to the cool comfort of our suite.
Sleep comes easy that night.
The next morning, Anne and I hop on a tour bus at dawn to visit the ancient city of Ayutthaya while Mr T elects to sleep in and later chill by the pool. We don’t often split that way, but the prospect of “being herded along other tourists in 35C heat thru countless temples” is just too much to bear for him so we agree to disagree and go our own way. Turns out to be a wise decision, as it ends up being a very long day of driving, sightseeing and eating for us girls, and while we enjoyed it immensely, I know that Mr T would have hated it. By the time we return, late afternoon, he is waiting for us by the pool, a beer in his hand, his mood improved tenfold courtesy of a leisurely walk around his old haunting grounds and an in-house massage.
His appetite is back and he is really keen on a buffet dinner at the hotel. As Anne and I have just finished a buffet lunch earlier on the tour, the least we feel like is eating again, but we don’t have the heart to say no and guess what? Somehow we find the room to fit another buffet dinner! We just can’t resist these curries…
Jet lag kicks in with a vengeance the next day and it is my turn to ask to take it easy. Making the most of the in-house spa and massages, we laze around the swimming pool until we realise we should at least check out some part of downtown Bangkok. So we take the boat shuttle to the main pier, and walk along Chareon Krung Road.
This is the oldest road in Bangkok, running parallel to the river and home to 5-star hotels, antique shops, jewellers and cheap and cheerful food vendors. It leads north to the so called Creative District, an area hailed as a place where “the old meets the new, east meets west“ anchored around the Thai Creative and Design Centre. We don’t make it that far though, browsing at the Roberston’s mall instead, where Anne and I try to make sense of all the various Asian cosmetics on offer (white snail mask anyone?).
Mr T paces patiently, then declares it’s Happy Hour and we need to find a bar. “We’re in luck”, I say. “The Sky Bar is right around the corner! “We’re talking about the rooftop bar located on the 63rd floor of the Sky Tower building, made famous in The Hangover movie and notorious for offering some of the best views of the city.
We’re down for it, but unfortunately, we don’t even make it past the elevator. The dress code gets us: no shorts for men (what else would you wear in 35C heat?), no flip flops for ladies, no backpacks and no shopping bags (well, that rules us out, with my leather backpack and Anne’s shopping!) We’re annoyed but not that upset, looking at the bright side we’re glad to save ourselves spending mega dollars on cocktails and apparently, they don’t serve beer. Imagine that!
So we’re back on the boat shuttle and decide to try our luck at Asiatique again.
This time, we wander leisurely around the bazaar (that’s how it feels) before settling down at Baan Khanitha for dinner.
This restaurant offers traditional Thai food in sophisticated colonial-style settings. Rooms are decorated with wood-panelled furniture, delicate wood carvings and colorful orchids. The menu is extensive and it takes us quite a while to decide, eventually asking our waitress for recommendations.
We start with the mixed appetisers, playing it safe with a platter of deep-fried shrimp cakes, fish cakes, spring rolls and chicken wrapped in pandanus leaves. Yes, everything deep fried, though they each come with their own separate dipping sauces (soy and sesame, plum, chili garlic and fish sauce).
Our mains arrive all together: stir fried salt and pepper pork, deep fried sea bass smothered in sweet and sour sauce, pineapple special fried rice and a red curry with crispy mushrooms. While the first 3 dishes are familiar flavours, not very different to any Thai takeaway we’d find in Sydney, the latter dish is intriguing: it is a cross between a soup and a stew, full of flavour from the red curry, betel leaves and bamboo shoots but what blows me away is the texture of the mushrooms. They actually pop in your mouth, with a crunchy texture on the outside but soft and sweet inside. Called “hed poh” or Thai puffball mushrooms, these are wild fungi that only grow in Northern Thailand and are available during the rainy season. I make a mental note to look for them back in Australia, maybe in a can?
We decide to skip dessert, not only because we feel fairly full but Anne has spotted a gelato van further down the mall.
Annette Tuktuk sells handmade ice creams out of a custom built tuktuk. The gelato on sticks come with a variety of flavours and quirky designs. Each look like small toys, and Anne can’t resist the coconut cool cat. In fact, she enjoys it so much, she grins like a cheshire cat all the way back to the hotel. It was a fun night, though quite pricey by local standards.
There is no doubt that Asiatique is aimed at the tourists that we are, it feels like Disneyland with its large Ferris wheel, kids rides and souvenir shops. It’s all clean and organised, leaving Mr T in some sort of shock, wondering what happened to the traffic clogged city of his youth. Maybe times have changed. Or it is only temporary, being a long weekend…
Which brings me to our last day. The holiday weekend over, river access to the area around the Grand Palace is restored so I grab the opportunity to hop on one last river cruise. The Chao Phraya Tourist boat leaves from the main pier and runs a hop-on-hop-off service all day, stopping at 9 piers along the way, each one allowing access to different districts in the city. With a few hours before our flight home to Sydney, my plan is to catch the first boat out and cruise up to the Grand Palace then walk our way back down to the Pak Klong Taladd flower market before heading south back to the hotel.
I cannot believe how easy it is to travel by boat in this city. Traffic is light, bar a few longtail boats and river taxis. There are hardly a dozen people onboard and most get off at the Grand Palace, as we do. It is not a long walk from the pier to the Palace, however it is long enough to have hustlers offering their services as guides and when we decline, telling us we won’t get in as Anne is wearing shorts. Dress code again!
We both decide we’d rather stay outside the palace and walk along Maha Rat Road, mixing with locals instead of tourists. The road runs along the perimeter of Bangkok’s most revered historical attractions such as the Grand Palace, the temples of Wat Pho and Wat Phra Kaew, as well as the old learning centre Wat Mahatat.
While we can’t enter the premises, we certainly get a glimpse of the magnificent architecture and any disappointment we may have quickly dissipates as we wander down the wide tree lined avenues, pass traditional street food vendors, never mind that we get lost in the odd back alley…
That’s my fault, the flower market is further than I thought from the Grand Palace, and the lack of public transport makes it difficult to travel in the heat. We end up finding Tha Thien pier where we cross the river to Wat Arun, another landmark temple high on the tourists’ lists but we don’t have time for a visit, as we are already running to make the ferry to the flower market.
Pak Klong Taladd is the largest fresh flower market in Bangkok. It is at its busiest in the early hours of the morning, when flower traders from all over the country convene to offload their blossoms in bulk. It is rather sleepy when we arrive mid-morning, we obviously missed the trading action.
But that means a relaxed stroll amongst a kaleidoscope of colours and a heady mix of fragrances from chrysanthemums to orchids.
Behind the markets are dozens of tiny shops, stocked up with fresh produce. Now, this is the busiest I have seen Bangkok so far;
men loading their scooters with bags of fresh garlic,
human sized baskets filled with green leaves,
and chiles shining like jewels, …
I wish I didn’t have a plane to catch so I could follow them. But time is a funny concept here. With a couple of hours to spare, I feel that’s enough to explore Chinatown up the road and possibly fit in some shopping while still returning to the hotel on time. However, Anne reminds me of our propensity to lose ourselves and taking one look at the busy traffic, I decide to be a responsible parent and cautious traveller.
We walk through the Yodpiman River Walk, while waiting for the ferry, which is running late. The complex is relatively new, consisting mainly of tourist shops and a few restaurants.
Not much happens here during the day, the place is almost empty of visitors and after visiting a couple of jewellery shops we end up sitting in the waiting area, being serenaded by the local busker and enjoying the view of Wat Arun across the river.
I think of the many “unmissable” sights we could have fitted in, had we been prepared to hit the ground running faster than we have, but in the end, leisurely watching the world go by on the Chao Phraya seems a pretty fitting conclusion to our relaxing stopover.
A Thai friend, Vida, said before we left “3 days in Bangkok is not enough! ”. Now I know she was right.
For a very long time, this large cephalopod mollusc was a mystery. Some strange beast endowed with a horny beak on its head and 8 suckers lined tentacles. Add the fact that it must be beaten for a long time to tenderise its flesh, then blanched before use and you have me staying away from cooking it !
My parents must have thought the same, as growing up as a child, I can’t recall it ever being served at home. Not even the school canteen would offer it for lunch.
It would take me moving to Australia to experience my first cephalopod. It was a squid, also referred to as calamari, the octopus smaller cousin. Easier to cook and more tender, my first taste of it was as a heaped plate of deep fried calamari rings. It was love at first bite, and I have since sampled quite a few of these. Variations have included salt and pepper squids, marinated and barbecued squids, squids in salads…At some point, baby octopus was introduced to my plate ( probably sharing the same grilled fate as its calamari friend ) and became another regular on the seafood menu though I always preferred to order it in restaurants rather than cook it myself.
It wasn’t until well into our cruising days that I was “gifted” a freshly caught octopus and faced with the challenge of cooking it from scratch. We were laying at anchor in a small atoll in the Tuamotus, French Polynesia and we were supposed to go lobster hunting with the local fisherman. Bad weather conditions precluded us from doing so, and he kindly offered us an octopus instead that he’d just speared off the beach. That’s when I learnt to cook octopus.
We arrive at the house, open the door and can see the blue horizon peeking thru the end of the hallway. A few steps down to the living room and just then thru the window, I spot a big splash a mere 50 meters away in the ocean.
Forget unpacking the car, inspecting the rest of the house or turning the heater on. There is a whale and her calf playing right here an then, I don’t want to miss that. I don’t even reach for my camera bag, in fear of missing this precious moment.
In the background, I hear the distinctive noise of a beer opening and the popping of a champagne cork. Then Mr T is quietly slipping a glass in my hand as I am still staring out the window.
For a few minutes, we both stand still in silence, until Mum and Baby nonchalantly swim further along past the headland and out of our sight.
This is going to be a good 3 days and I can’t wait to sit on the couch and watch the whales.
We are in Fishermans Bay, a coastal hamlet tucked between Anna Bay and Nelson Bay, in Port Stephens, a 4 hour drive north of Sydney. Actually, you could do it in 3 hours, but it took us a little longer as our teenage daughter, Anne, was driving and being an L-plater, the speed limit was restricted to 90 klm/hour and Mr T made a couple of stops along the way in Newcastle.
This is the kind of destinations every Australian knows about, as I discover that every one I mention it to, somehow, has memories of either camping there as a child on summer holidays, boating in the Great Lakes or surfing along many of the golden beaches. Mr T reminds me that we anchored off Shoal Bay 30 years ago, seeking shelter from a nasty southerly storm. I vaguely recall being unimpressed then, since the weather was awful and the shore was looking grey and uninviting.
This time is different. The weather forecast for the next 3 days is for glorious sunshine and I have done my research. Apart from whale watching, we’ve also come for the sand dunes on nearby Stockton Beach and have a try at star photography.
Rather than a hotel, we chose to stay in a house as there are 3 of us and since we all love our space and privacy, it is much better value. “Ocean Views” took some efforts to find, but it lives up to its name. Sitting on the rocky waters edge, the home is exquisitely furnished in a comfortable Hampton style with nautical references and dozens of magazines and books. There is plenty of room for 8 ( I initially thought there would be 7 of us! ), 2 living rooms with TVs ( ideal for Mr T to watch the football in one while I followed Masterchef in the other one ), a large dining room overlooked by a full size kitchen.
Being a home rental, only basic cleaning and catering supplies are provided. We were asked to bring our own toiletries, linen and towels, which I didn’t mind but I can see how some people would find it off putting to have to make their own bed. Having brought my own groceries, I pack everything away and claim the best spot for whale watching during the day ( the lounge room ) and star gazing at night ( our bed! ). I already wish we’d book for a week rather than 3 nights.
“What’s to do?” asks Anne. Being in winter, swimming is out of the question ( though thick skinned surfers do, we’re just wimps! ) but there are a lot of other options.
We start the next day by a beach drive at the bottom of the Stockton Bight Sand Dunes. Part of the Worimi Conservation Lands and owned by the traditional aboriginal Worimi people, these cover 4200 hectares, including 32kms of the longest moving sand dunes in the southern hemisphere. They reach heights of over 30 meters with slopes of up to 60 degrees, forming an amazing landscape part-desert, part-lunar. Driving along the whole length of the beach by 4WD is allowed with the purchase of a permit ( $33 for 3 days ) and best done at low tide. Mr T introduced Anne to four wheel driving in soft sand, which I think she found challenging, muttering to herself “please don’t get bogged!”.
I didn’t help, requesting we make a few stops along the way to explore historic sites such as Tin City. Which is not a city at all, but rather a collection of ramshackle houses best described as shacks.
The story goes that a couple of them were originally built in the 19th century as shelters and provisioning sheds for shipwrecked sailors. Then during the 1930’s Depression era, homeless men came to construct more tin shacks in this isolated section of the beach, between industrial Newcastle to the south and resort town Nelson Bay to the north. After WW2, returned soldiers added to the settlement, in search for low cost housing. Today, 11 of these shacks remain, maintained as best they can by residents who constantly battle sand erosion from the sea as well as shifting sands from the dunes, leaving their huts often half buried.
Because Tin City is part of the Worimi Conservation Lands, the shacks cannot be rebuilt once destroyed by the elements or sold by anyone. They are merely passed on to family or friends of the residents. This sounds like a “handyman’s challenge” to me, but the curiosity factor seem to attract enough tourists to make it interesting.
Not far from the southern access road to the beach and located on the Royal Australian Air Force base in Williamstown, is Fighterworld, an aviation museum dedicated to preserving the history of the Royal Australian Airforce fighter aircraft operations.
As the name suggests, it is a place where old and famous fighter jets like a Mirage 3, an Avon Sabre, an F-111 or even a Mig-21 are on display. Along with a huge collection of hand build model airplanes, weapons and books, it is heaven for aviation enthusiasts, particularly top guns fans.
There is an observation deck where one can perch oneself and watch the various RAAF squadron jets take off and land ( in fact it is a prized spot for photographers and plane watchers alike ).
And if all this Top Gun stuff gets too much for you there is always the Fighter Beans cafe next door, where you can mingle with airforce personnel and enjoy a nice hot pie and a coffee or a massive chicken sandwich and a hot chocolate ( it was a cold day, we needed the sustenance! )
It is a short drive back to Port Stephens, stopping at the Gan Gan lookout for the compulsory panoramic view shot. This is where you get your bearing with the harbour entrance to the east, Tea Gardens to the north, Soldiers point and its oyster leases to the west and the golden sands of Stockton beach to the south. In hindsight we should have started and planned the trip from there.
Now that we know where we are and where we’re heading, we explore every single beach on the way back to Fisherman’s Bay, joining the dozens of tourists sitting on the rocky edges whale watching. As a matter of fact, you could spend an entire day staring at the ocean and spot whales and dolphins, there are so many of them at that time of the year.
However, after a while, the cold wind defeats us and I prefer to use the remaining daylight to set up for sunset shots back at Stockton Beach. Mr T is a trooper, driving along with me and shivering as the sun disappears behind the dunes.
It is so cold by then, I feel bad suggesting we go back into town for dinner, beside the football is on TV, so it is TV dinner and I settle for star photography from our terrace later on instead.
We wake up the following morning to more whale antics right outside our windows, and decide to go for another beach drive to try and find the Sygna shipwreck. Here is a story that goes back 45 years, when the Norwegian bulk carrier MV Sygna ran aground off Stockton beach during a massive storm in May 1974. Part of the ship was salvaged but the stern section sat off the beach for over 40 years, becoming much of a local landmark and a favourite spot for fishermen and photographers. Because the local tourist map shows the location of the wreck, we assumed that it would be easy to find and it never occurred to us that it could have been reclaimed by the ocean. But that’s exactly what happened!
What we spotted as emerging rocks at low tide turned out to be what remains of the wreck, which rusty bones had stood up for decades but eventually were swallowed away by the elements during a bad storm in 2016 ( All of this information, I would only read about after our trip of course, trying to figure out why we could not find the wreck. Mr T is now teasing me no end about the accuracy of my research ).
Feeling a little deflated and sandblown ( the wind has picked up quite a lot since yesterday ), we decide to shout ourselves a nice lunch in Port Stephens. Of course we all have different notions of a “nice lunch”, I picture mute table service in a cosy restaurant, Anne would like anything that is NOT a sandwich or a burger and Mr T only cares about enjoying a beer overlooking the water. So we compromise and end up at the Little Beach Boathouse.
This split level waterfront building is overlooking the bay and Little Beach, and houses a restaurant on the top floor and a bar on the bottom. One look at the white tables at the restaurant and I know we’ll head straight for the bar! But that’s perfectly fine, as the menu is perfect for a light casual lunch: Mr T discovers one of the local brews, Murray’s Angry Man while i find out what an Italian soda is: a mix of soda water, lychee sugar syrup and passion fruit. Super refreshing!
As usual, Mr T orders the oysters, they are Port Stephens Rock Oysters half served natural with yuzu juice and the other half served kilpatrick. They are nice and briny, Anne particularly likes the Kilpatrick dressing! She orders the Pork Belly San Chow Bao, small chunks of marinated pork belly served in cos lettuce leaves. We are reluctantly allowed a piece of it in exchange for a share of our fried calamari with wadashi seasoning and aioli. We all tuck into a plate of salt and pepper prawns with ponzu dressing, but the winner has to be the truffle and parmesan fries which are fought over to the last bite!
I look around and the place is pretty much full inside, the weather may be sunny but since it is blowing a gale and quite choppy out in the bay, dining on deck isn’t an option, except for the odd family who called in with a couple of dogs ( it is pet friendly in that way ). Needless to say that my suggestion to walk lunch off fall on deaf ears, as does the offer to board a whale watching trip. My crew is feeling as full as a carpet snake, and wants nothing but stay warm and cosy.
I do get my way, the next morning however. As we have time before heading back home, I drive up to Tomaree Head where you have a choice of 2 walks: one is relatively easy, as it takes you on a paved track around the lower slopes of the headland, leading to WW2 gun emplacements built in 1941 when Fort Tomaree played an important role in Australia’s east coast defence system during World War II.
Fort Tomaree included search light stations, a radar tower, torpedo tubes and barracks, where around 500 army, navy and air force personnel served. Most of the Fort’s buildings and guns have been removed; however the historic gun emplacements remain.
Army buff Mr T loved checking out the interpretive panels near the emplacements, declining to walk up the summit. Anne and I do take the Tomaree Head Summit walk to the summit of Tomaree Head. Described as an “invigorating” short walk, it is a gradual climb on a paved path followed by steep steel stairs and gravel tracks leading to a picturesque view of Port Stephens.
A reasonable amount of fitness is best, and I am glad we didn’t attempt this after lunch yesterday. Still, if young kids can do it, it is quite manageable and the view from the top is nothing short of spectacular.
And this wraps up our quick visit up the coast. Not the extensive food trip I was hoping for, but a very enjoyable getaway nonetheless. Anne has managed to clock up a few driving hours in her log book, I tried enough astro photography to know that I need a lot more practise and Mr T is already talking about coming back for another short break. In summer though, he’s had enough of that cold winter snap!!
July in Sydney means the dead of winter. It also happens to be the time when the French Food Festival is held in the city to celebrate French National Day ( known as Bastille Day in Australia ) and a lot of restaurants feature a French specialty dish for a month. Anne and I attended the festival one weekend and I dragged Mr T along to a large hotel’s buffet that advertised France’s most famous dishes. We were disappointed in both occasions. The Festival was crowded and pricey ( $5 for one canele, yes, one!!) while the buffet’s offering was quite limited and of some dubious quality.
So I decided to create my own French Food Festival at home last weekend and invited the family over. As usual, we had to have a theme, and I could not think of anything more fitting that French Alps cuisine, loosely inspired by apres-ski sessions during our past skiing holidays. I decked out the house in rustic “chalet” mode with vintage table clothes, plaided throws, sheep skin cushions, pine cones and board games for the kids. A patio heater substituted for an open fire while a few snowflakes window stickers hinted at the elusive snow. The mountains and the view over the Mont Blanc may have been missing, but the cold of a Sydney winter could certainly be felt. Ugg boots and shawls were handed around, along with welcome drinks!
I am standing in line at the reservation centre in Duisburg Central Railway Station, Germany. What is supposed to be a simple change of train with plenty of time for breakfast is turning into an exercise in frustration.
It all started earlier in the morning, shortly after boarding our Munich bound train in Amsterdam. Our tickets were checked and I was told that our Eurail passes were no good as I neglected to validate them before using them. I sheepishly admitted my mistake asking the attendant to validate them on the spot for me ( the passes were all paid for after all ) and was told in a very stern voice that it would cost 50 euros per person. Maybe it was the sight of my jaw dropping or the dread of entering an argument with Mr T, but she ended up telling me to go to the ticket window at the next station and validate our passes there to avoid further fines.
So, here we are in Duisburg. Behind the customer service counter, are 2 staff for a queue of a dozen travellers including me. Our connection for Munich is in 50 minutes and I calculate that it is doable as long they don’t spend more than 5min per person. Of course, that’s counting without the lady who decided to organise a multi-ticket trip and wants advice, some guy who wants a refund, or the young girl who just missed her connection and wants to know when the next train for wherever is…We all grow nervous in the queue, worried that we’ll miss our respective trains. It is Good Friday, our Deutchbahn officers on duty act as if they drew the short straw being here on a public holiday and subject the rest of us to the worst display of inefficiency: double checking of tickets and passport details, slow handwriting, refilling of ink pads, paper shuffling….Thanks to the really nice guy ahead of me letting me have his spot, we make our train with 5 min to spare. The remaining of the journey is much more pleasant, made so by the smiling train attendant handing out Easter chocolates every hour.