Posted in English, Europe, Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul – Day 2

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

04 February 2019

Today’s weather clearly demonstrated that February is February, and yesterday was just a gift to mark our arrival. Today was pretty windy, with almost no sun, and, according to the forecast, this is not going to be the worst day of our stay.

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We had a Bosphorus cruise planned for today, and at 8am we were picked up by a minibus. Apparently in order to prepare us for a boat ride, the minibus hurled us from side to side, rushing down narrow streets, past countless (for some reason!) shops selling lighting fixtures.

There were six of us in the group – a couple from Southeast Asia, two Indians, and us – the Azerbaijanis. The first item on our agenda was Misir Carsisi – or Spice Bazaar, aka Egyptian Bazaar, with beautiful gilded passages, tons and tons of spices, nuts, Turkish delights, gold and silver! We entered this kingdom of Middle-Eastern goods with a firm intention to just look around. But resourceful sellers immediately involved us in a “round dance” of offers, treats, promises of discounts, and we changed our determination to not but anything – anyway, we didn’t end up making any completely impulsive purchases: we bought sweets, spices, a cezve and silver jewelry. What contributed most to our purchases was, first of all, our understanding of Turkish (which allowed the sellers to elaborate extensively on the quality of their goods) and secondly, the fact that we accidentally came across our fellow countrywoman at one of the shops – she seemed to be either the administrator or the owner.

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Having left all our purchases in the minibus, with the kind consent of our guide, we transferred to the cruise boat, where there were a couple of other tourist groups apart from ours, but overall the boat was far from being full – apparently, it’s a low season now.

Yesterday the concierge at our hotel was trying to convince us to sign up for another cruise in the afternoon, scaring us with the usual morning fog, which would prevent us from seeing much. Fortunately, that turned out not to be the case. I mean, some fog was present indeed, but firstly, it didn’t really bother us, and besides, it didn’t dissipate in the afternoon either.

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The cruise starts at the Kabatas ferry port, and first goes along the European part of the city, past such attractions as the Dolmabahce Palace, the Rumeli Fortress and the Ciragan Palace, converted into a Kempinski hotel – the most expensive one in Istanbul. We made nice photos, but cannot really say that our delight went through the roof. By the way, we were accompanied by seagulls during the whole of our journey, however, compared to those at Galata Tower yesterday, these ones seemed smaller.

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What looked more interesting was the Asian part, which we sailed along when the ship turned around from the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge. And here, even more than the actual sights of interest, including the Anadolu fortress, the Beylerbeyi Palace, the Kucuksu pavilion, we enjoyed the coastline, strewn with variegated mansions. Their unique location with direct Bosphorus views makes them the most expensive real estate in Turkey, with prices reaching up to hundreds of millions of dollars.

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This morning we still had no exact plans for the afternoon: we had a thought to dedicate the day entirely to water travel and visit the Princes’ Islands. It was the weather that finally discouraged us. The Princes’ Islands are mostly good for walking around – there isn’t even any transport there, besides horse carts. Therefore, we changed our minds in favour of the Dolmabahce Palace, and we took an Uber there, which didn’t go perfectly well. He dropped us off near some beautiful (but locked!) palace gates and rushed off into the sunset. The street looked deserted, in particular, we didn’t see any crowds of tourists storming the palace.

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To our luck, literally the only passer-by, whom we naturally addressed, knew exactly where the palace entrance was (it turned out that we had just been dropped off in the wrong place) and kindly showed us the way. By the way, she herself turned out not to be local, but an Afghan living in the USA and working here just temporarily.

The location of the palace is simply amazing – the sultans did know a thing or two about choosing the perfect place. The carved fences and the garden gates overlook the Bosphorus. One can imagine the pleasure of walking in this garden!

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Dolmabahce is not the old residence of the sultans (which we aren’t going to see till tomorrow), but a 19th-century building, reflecting all of the contemporary European trends, which is especially noticeable in the furniture. Unfortunately, photography is prohibited inside the palace, and although not all visitors were quite law-abiding, we decided to comply.

There are two types of tickets: including and excluding a visit to the harem. Of course, the first type is preferable: in fact, the harem is much more interesting and luxurious than the rest of the palace, and better reflects the actual life of the sultan’s family. Along standard apartments of sultan’s wives, consisting of a bedroom, a living room and a bathroom (with a squat toilet, as everywhere in the palace!), there are also the luxurious and extensive apartments of Valide Sultan, the reigning sultan’s mother. The latter include a prayer room, a large reception room, a private room, and a spacious bedroom. Even the sultan’s own apartments in the harem are superior in luxury and decoration to his apartments in the official part of the palace.

The latter, of course, has beautifully furnished rooms, but the one that can be considered truly exclusive is the main hall with an incredibly painted domed ceiling. There are also two display rooms: the first one contains tableware and kitchenware, and the second one has medals, weapons, household and leisure items.

It’s interesting to note that after the fall of the monarchy, Atatürk chose Dolmabahce as his residence, and this is where he died – in one of the rooms (a very simple and modest one) of the former harem. This room is also open to visitors, and the bed in it is covered with a blanket representing the Turkish flag.

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We stayed in Dolmabahce almost until its closing time. From here we were supposed to go for dinner, to a fish restaurant, booked in advance, in the Cihangir area. And this suddenly turned into a whole adventure. We hadn’t ordered a taxi in advance, and tried to hail one in the street, but the cars were going in the opposite direction and the taxi driver refused to pick us. Google showed that the restaurant was relatively close, literally a 22-minute walk.

What Google didn’t show, however, is that we would have to climb countless stairs a good deal of the way. Possibly, I would even say most certainly, there should exist a longer way without stairs – I mean, cars do get there somehow! – but we, naively and recklessly, not realising how much we would have to climb, went up the stairs. It was a breathtaking experiment! The stairs were quite steep and chipped, some parts of the way had no handrails, occasionally a stair was interrupted by a sewer manhole. Afraid to look back and feel dizzy, we climbed up and up, like cats, who can climb only up trees, out of fear. Speaking of cats, their appearance was the pinnacle of the whole climb. Five of them simultaneously ditched their food bowls (apparently, kindly provided by residents of the houses located along the stairs) and rushed at our feet. They were meowing loudly and rubbing against us, a couple of cats even smacked each other, fighting for the right to get in our way, and then followed us for a long time. I struggle to imagine what that was. In that situation, they totally seemed like messengers from hell, but perhaps the poor animals were just trying to welcome us and cheer us up. They only left us at the very last part of the staircase. Alas, there are no photos of the cats – it was not the right moment to take pictures, you know.

After we successfully overcame this “hurdle”, we still had to meander a bit more more around the streets going up and down, but this felt more tolerable. We entered the restaurant totally exhausted. But then we were rewarded with a magnificent view of the city from the 8th floor, delicious fish, and excellent service.

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Posted in English, Europe, Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul – Day 1

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

03 February 2019

Surprising, but fact – I am a person who has seen quite a few countries, including far ones, but has never been to the neighbouring Turkey. Yet, every self-respecting Azerbaijani, who has the opportunity to travel abroad, has definitely been there. So I finally decided to fill this unforgivable gap, and here we are, flying to Istanbul!

The flight begins with mixed feelings: there is no online check-in, which is bad, but we end up without a seat neighbour, which is good; our seats are at the very rear of the aircraft, which is bad, but breakfast starts being served from the tail of the cabin, which is good. First we are flying over mountains – underneath us there is the majestic Caucasus, with its dazzling snowy peaks! – and then mostly over the Black Sea.

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The Istanbul Ataturk Airport is definitely worth a mention – the speed and the quality, which we observed while going through all the necessary stages of arrival, really impressed us. Such a contrast with, say, Heathrow, where you hang around for a good hour in an extremely slow queue at the passport control. The queue here isn’t any shorter, if not longer, but it’s moving speedily and cheerfully all the time.

At first glance, Istanbul didn’t strike us with anything extraordinary. We are going in a taxi, on our right side we see the Marmara Sea, and on our left side there are some buildings, not very expressive ones.

Our hotel is located in the Pera district in the European part of the city, and is literally a stone’s throw away from the central pedestrian street Istiklal Caddesi. In general, we were advised – and we also advise this in our turn – to choose a hotel in this particular part of the city, and definitely not in the Old Town, where most of the tourist attractions are. In fact the Old Town area is only lively during the daytime, while Istiklal Avenue and its surroundings provide the tourist with everything they need – food, drink, shopping, entertainment – at all times of the day and night. View from our hotel window:

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So Istiklal Avenue is where we start exploring Istanbul today. Our hotel’s location is such that if you walk a kilometre to the left, you will get to Taksim, and if you walk one (plus a bit more) to the right, you will reach the Galata Tower.

We first turned left. A historic tram line passes through Istiklal Caddesi, and this is the street’s only transport, apart from cleaning vehicles and police cars, which, by the way, also try to drive along the tramway track so as not to disturb pedestrians very much. For people from Baku, the best description of Istiklal Avenue is that it’s Istanbul’s “Torgovaya”, only a very long one.

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We are surprisingly lucky with the weather today: despite it being February, it is so warm during the daytime that we have to take off our outerwear every now and then. When we sit down on a bench on Taksim Square, the sun is literally scorching. The square itself does not seem very cozy. We sat there for a bit and looked at a mosque under construction, at the “Republic” monument with sculptures of Ataturk and other marshals, including the Soviet marshal Voroshilov, and then turned back to Istiklal Caddesi, more interested in the tram, with roller skater boys clinging to it, than in the square itself.

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Walking Istiklal Street is very pleasant. We are eating wonderful roasted chestnuts, which are sold at every corner, and dondurma – the special stretchy Turkish ice cream, which the seller scoops onto cones, using a long-handled paddle, and turning the whole thing into a real show.

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A separate paragraph should be devoted to the cats of Istanbul. There are lots of them, and this is the only place I have seen where cats are as beautiful as in Baku, but here they are loved and cherished much more. Almost every store or restaurant has food and drink bowls for cats, and often even a special little cat house. However, the most audacious cats prefer to settle in a chair right inside. There are quite ordinary-looking cats, and there are also simply outstanding examples of fluffiness and fatness. Dogs can also be found, though less often; all of them are microchipped and seemingly contented.

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What’s also interesting on Istiklal Caddesi is that there are quite a few Christian churches. We walked into one – the Basilica of St. Anthony of Padua, and, as it seemed to me, there were quite a few Turks praying in it, although I could be wrong.

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We reached the Galata Tower quite unexpectedly – for some reason I had the impression that it was in the opposite direction, and then suddenly we saw a signpost. It was about 5pm, and at first we decided to wait for the evening to take pictures of the tower in the evening light, and then thought that instead of idly waiting around we might as well go up to the observation deck (previously we were planning to do it tomorrow). The queue (maybe it’s a property of all the queues in Istanbul!), despite its impressive length, was moving rather quickly. We wondered if there was a lift inside the tower, or if we would have to climb a spiral staircase. There was a lift, yet we still had to climb the last two floors.

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I must say that a moderate wait in the queue and a dizzy climb up the eerie stairs were totally worth it. The view of Istanbul from all sides is magnificent! A special feature are the large seagulls, which land on stone balls from time to time, right at arm’s length, and observe the city, looking very smart and important. Obviously, just like the tourists here, they are admiring the Bosphorus, the Golden Horn Bay, the famous mosques in the Old City. The only slightly annoying bit is that there are too many people on such a narrow rim of the tower, especially when not everyone is following the instructions to move only clockwise, which leads to chaotic cramming.

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The tower also offers another entertainment – a simulation of a helicopter flight, which we didn’t find tempting though. However, we were taken a ton of pictures of, wearing historical costumes of harem dwellers. The poster advertising this attraction beckons you with a price of 30 liras (about 6 USD) per photo, but the ingenious photographer takes so many beautiful photos, with a variety of props, that you almost unwittingly end up forking out a lot more. But we still liked it!

To make sure we do get to see the Galata Tower in the evening light, we decided to have dinner in a restaurant directly opposite it. The weather and the heaters allowed us to sit comfortably outside (in February!) As for the restaurant, what can I say? Delicious kebabs, excellent service.

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Posted in Asia, English, Phi Phi, Phuket, Thailand

Thailand – Day 9

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

26 March 2018

Since we are now all on our own and we need to entertain ourselves somehow, we decided to go on a day tour of the nearby islands. The are two famous directions here: the Phi Phi islands and the islands of Phang Nga Bay (which include the famous James Bond Island).

We took a while to pick one – both seemed to be very good, but the first route included snorkeling and the second one included kayaking. As we had already tried kayaking in Vietnam, we decided to try snorkeling this time and finally chose Phi Phi.

So, at about 6.15am (!) we were picked up from our hotel by a minibus and taken to the pier with seven other passengers. The painfully early hour is a special feature of this company, intended to arrive to places before crowds of other tourists.

At the pier, we got a light breakfast (special kudos for the hot sandwiches!) and then headed to our boat with the guide – a very friendly guy called Wai. The speedboat was equipped with safety vests, which we were told to wear, as well as with snorkeling masks.

It took us about an hour to get to our first stop – the Phi Phi Lei island. We arrived around 9am, and there were already a lot of tourists, mostly Russians. On the Maya beach, known for The Beach movie with DiCaprio, no one was swimming, everyone was just taking photos.

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We took a few as well and then took a stroll among a crowd of Russian tourists to look at the picturesque Loh Samah Bay.

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Once back on the boat, we rounded the island and anchored in the Pi Leh bay, where we could swim, jumping (or descending the stairs) into the sea directly from the boat. Right next to us was a boat carrying lots and lots of Chinese tourists, who were swimming around us, wearing bright orange lifejackets.

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Our next stop was for snorkeling, again straight from the boat. Wai handed us the snorkeling masks, we pulled on our fins and got out into the water. It felt bizzarre at first, so I had to get my head above water every few seconds. But then I got used to it. The sensations are very interesting, as if you are right inside the Singapore aquarium – there are lots of colourful tropical fish swarming around and it seems like you can reach out and catch one. Except that when you do try to reach out, they dodge and very easily avoid being caught.

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Another attraction of the island is the so-called Viking Cave, containing some rock paintings. Previously, the cave used to be open to visitors, but now swallow nests are being harvested here (for food purposes), so tourists cannot get inside. So we just floated by. Quite a pity, as on the outside it didn’t look like anything special.

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We didn’y stop at the Monkey Island either, just came very close to it. Not that anyone minded though – the prospect of being attacked and robbed by long-tailed macaques was hardly tempting! It was much better to observe our distant relatives from the boat. And then, when one monkey, apparently a male, separated from the group, jumped on a rock closer to us and stared at us, it even started feeling a bit uncomfortable, so I preferred to go inside the boat.

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We stopped on the second major island, Phi Phi Don, for lunch at a local restaurant, with a big table already waiting for us with various dishes: curries, coconut soup, french fries, and some spicy vegetables.

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It already got very hot to the extent that walking on the sand became painful. We didn’t get to swim here, but our last stop on the Bamboo Island turned out very pleasant. We stopped at the back of the island, and Wai said that there were much fewer people here than at the front. Indeed, there was only one other boat anchored at beach, and then it left too.

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The sea bottom here was more suitable for snorkeling than for normal swimming, as there were lost of coral reefs. And again it was very interesting – there were colourful fish all around you in the crystal-clear water, there were sea sponges, contracting their bodies, there were some ugly creatures looking like sea cucumbers at the bottom.

Overall, we had a very good trip, with the cherry on the top being such an interesting activity as snorkeling.

We still have two and a half days to spend in Phuket, but I am not going to write any more posts, since all we are planning to do is lie on the beach.

Posted in Asia, English, Phuket, Thailand

Thailand – Day 8

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

25 March 2018

Despite yesterday’s worries, we made it to our last cooking class very smoothly. As it was indicated, we were picked up at 8am by a minibus and taken to the opposide coast of the peninsula, right through the town of Phuket. First we stopped at a market, where, just as during our previous classes, the instructor showed us variuos products, specific for Thai cuisine. But while neither in Bangkok nor in Chiangmai did we get to see a full-scale market, here we found ourselves right in one, with all its peculiar smells.

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The instructor explained that all the products that we were going to use today had been purchased here, except for meat and fish. The meat and fish here stay outside without a refrigerator all day, and, she said, while it is not a problem for a Thai stomach, ours would not necessarily appreciate it, that is why these products had been bought at a supermarket.

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From the market we headed to the cooking school, located right on the beach.

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To start with, we were treated to local desserts and exotic fruits, mostly familiar to us, except for the rose apple or chompoo, looking like a pear, very juicy, and not tasting anything like a proper apple. As for desserts, they all seemed to taste the same – just like the sticky rice that usually goes with mango.

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Our half-day course included cooking everything we were already familiar with: spring rolls, tom yum soup and sticky rice with mango. The difference between this course and the previous ones was that firstly, there were different instructors for different dishes and secondly, the process itself went like this: we sat in a room looking like a mini-lecture theatre, and the instructor demonstrated the whole cooking process from beginning to end, and then we had to repeat it on our own.

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Once again, we didn’t get to cook the sticky rice with mango, but were only shown how to do it. The reason is that this dessert is made in bulk rather than in individual portions: first you have to steam the glutinous rice and then top it with a sweet coconut sauce. But this time, the process of cooking the rice was explained very well and thoroughly.

We watched the instructor prepare the tom yum soup just like a theatre performance. He was totally killing it, supplying every action with jokes and funny faces.

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So now we can quite consider ourselves specialists in Thai cuisine!

After the class we were brought back to the hotel, and our tour programme was over. Now the travel agency would only need to safely take us to the airport in 4 days’ time, and for now we are completely left to ourselves. So I personally spent my afternoon by the infinity pool in our hotel, overlooking the sea. I got to see a gorgeous sunset – we are lucky to be staying in the west of the peninsula.

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Looking for a place to have seafood dinner, we wandered into a restaurant. First we were a bit confused about what to choose, and then the waiter told us that just for 2200 baht (about $70) we could get a crab, a lobster, a fish, mussels, shrimp and squid, and choose how to cook each of the beasts, which would be more than enough for two people. And we got a whole feast!

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Posted in Asia, Chiang Mai, English, Phuket, Thailand

Thailand – Day 7

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

24 March 2018

This post is also supposed to turn out short, as well as devoid of any particular enthusiasm. But anyway, the morning started pretty well. We got up, had a slow breakfast at the poolside (by the way, the breakfast in Chiang Mai is leading so far, compared to breakfasts in other cities: there’s more variety, the food is tastier and the place looks more pleasant overall), and went for a walk to the Old Town on our own.

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Basically, just as during our evening walk with the guide, we didn’t discover anything particularly remarkable in the Old Town. Well, there is a medieval city wall, but I’ve seen better walls. Otherwise, there are lots and lots of temples at literally every step – I think, Chiang Mai has around 300 of them, in fact, that is what it’s famous for.

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On the way we noticed an interesting procession. First we saw school-aged boys in identical white clothes. They were followed by girls, in the same type of clothes, only with skirts. Then we saw young monks of the same age in monastic robes of the same white colour. There were also occasional adults, dressed normally, but all carrying beautifully folded orange cloth in their hands – it looked as if they were carrying robes for monks as a gift. Some schoolchildren were carrying some flags or portraits of the king and members of the royal family. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to figure out what kind of event that was and where they were all heading.

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We didn’t get to do a long walk, as it became very hot, so we returned to the hotel, packed and came downstairs to the lobby to wait for our driver for our airport transfer. Kudos to the driver, he arrived exactly on time – it’s not for nothing that we liked him (moreover, in the driver-guide tandem, he was definitely our favourite).

The flight to Phuket itself was on time and went fine. But at the airport there was a surprise waiting for us – or rather, there wasn’t anyone waiting for us at all. Based on our experience working with this travel agency, this came completely unexpected, as neither in Vietnam, nor in Thailand so far had we faced such issues. We tried calling the agency, but no one responded – it was Saturday, after all. To our great luck, though, we had a business card from Vanna, our Bangkok guide. We called her, she followed up, and it turned out that there was someone waiting for us after all, but he didn’t have our names written on the paper, or maybe forgot about us completely. By the way, he wasn’t a personal guide, but merely a representative of the transfer company, and, having made us wait for some more time, finally organised a car with a driver for us. In total, we had to wait for at least 45 minutes. Honestly, it wasn’t the most pleasant experience, because while our Vietnam trip had left us with the impression that we were much better off taking a tour than if we’d organised the trip ourselves, in a situation like this we definitely felt that it would have been way easier for us to just get a taxi and not spend ages waiting.

As for tomorrow’s cooking class, no one left us any instructions either. Once again, many thanks to Vanna, who came to our rescue and found out everything: who would pick us up and when.

As a result, we arrived at the hotel already in the dark, and didn’t get to see much. The beach is right across our hotel, and there seem to be many different restaurants around. We wend to one of them straight away to have seafood and really enjoyed sitting on the terrace overlooking the sea (in the dark). The prices in Phuket are significantly higher than elsewhere and apparently, the restaurant itself wasn’t cheap as well. By the way, alcohol is relatively expensive throughout Thailand. A glass of wine or a cocktail here will cost the same as a main dish, if not more.

Posted in Asia, Chiang Mai, English, Thailand

Thailand – Day 6

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

23 March 2018

We had our second planned cooking class today in Chiang Mai. In the morning we got picked up from the hotel by the cooking school’s own car, along with the a few more people from two other hotels.

Once we arrived at the school, it took us a while to understand what was going on – for some reason we were seated at a table, while our fellow car travelers were left to wait at the entrance, and then were put on a different car together with another group of newcomers and taken somewhere. Only after seeing the school’s advertising leaflet, we realised that they were offering classes both here, at the school, and on a farm, and apparently those guys had booked a farm class.

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Eventually, our group was formed – apart from us, it consisted of a French couple and two different companies of Americans. We were then given the menu. Here the concept was slightly different from what we saw in Bangkok. Out of seven categories of dishes, we were supposed to cook five on our half-day class, and three of them – curry paste, curry and spring rolls – were pre-selected for us, so our group had to agree and choose two more out of the remaining four. We chose stir-fry and dessert, and did not choose soup and salad. And then, everyone could individually pick their own dish from each chosen category. For example, I chose hot basil stir fried chicken (many went for pad thai, but we had already made that in Bangkok); a local kind of curry called khaw soi and the respective curry paste; bananas in coconut milk for dessert; and as for spring rolls, there was only one variety.

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The school has its own vegetable garden, and we went there to see and smell the ingredients frequently used in Thai cuisine: green onions, leeks, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, various kinds of basil, roots of ginger, galangal, turmeric and ginseng.

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Then we walked all the way to the local market, passing by very interesting places with guest house and cafes, apparently for backpackers and other budget tourists.

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At the market, our instructor named Da showed us different spices, ready-made curry pastes, various kinds of noodles and rice. Here I found both a short-term and a long-term solution to my problem of the lack of vital ingerdients back home – and bought a pack of dried ingredients for tom yum soup, as well as kaffir lime seeds.

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And then we came back to the cooking school and got down to business. I must say, here we were given more independence and almost made everything by ourselves. By the way, before we started cooking, we were given a snack – leaves, in which we had to wrap peanuts, small pieces of ginger, onion, chili, roasted coconut, and add a spoonful of sweet sauce. Then everyone had to say ‘chok dee’ – which kind of means ‘good luck’ – and, however funny it may seem, toast each other by “clinking” the little wraps before putting them in our mouths.

The stir fries, as usual, were very quick and easy to make, and I got some pre-cooked rice to go with mine.

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Then, two volunteers were chosen from the group, and they made a slightly larger portion of a somewhat generic stir fry, for the spring roll filling. And everyone had to wrap the desired amount of this filling in a provided pancake and deep fry their spring roll.

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After that, we made the curry paste. It turned out that no one chose green curry, and for all the others – red curry, panang curry, khaw soi and massaman curry (nobody chose the last one either) – the base paste is exactly the same, with several different ingredients added later on.

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What goes into red curry paste is the following: pre-soaked dried chili peppers, garlic, turmeric, ginseng, kaffir lime zest and lemongrass. And then you would need to add dried curry powder to make khaw soi paste or crushed peanuts for panang curry paste.

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By the way, red curry itself is made just like green curry – i.e. with Thai eggplants and basil in addition to meat, curry paste, sauces and coconut milk. As for panang curry and khaw soi, they are made without the vegetables. My khaw soi was more liquid than the other curries and had to be served with noodles rather than rice. As I understood, that’s exactly what we ate and took for noodle soup in that roadside eatery the day before yesterday. I even added an extra spoonful of curry paste, since it wasn’t spicy enough!

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At some point between making the curry paste and the curry itself, we somehow managed to squeeze in the dessert preparation. In my case, this was a simple matter: I just had to boil sliced ​​bananas in coconut milk with sugar. Interestingly, while slicing this kind of bananas, we came across big black seeds which we had to pick out – I had never seen anything like that!

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In general, we really liked the Chiang Mai cooking class as well, especially its slightly higher level of complexity after the Bangkok one. There is yet another cooking class awaiting us in Phuket, we have to see what it’s going to be like!

Our guide and driver picked us up at the culinary school, and from there we drove to our last temple in Thailand, planned in the tour programme, on Mount Doi Suthep.

The temple and its surroundings are very croded (as usual, Chinese tourists predominate). To get to the temple itself, one has to walk up 306 stairs in the heat. Fortunately, there is a nice cool breeze atop the mountain.

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You walk into the temple – the golden shine all around makes your eyes hurt. The view is, of course, magnificent, but interestingly – and we agreed on this with my friend when sharing our impressions of the trip – the temples here don’t give you that sense of peacefull bliss, they seem too pompous for that. However, it’s quite possible that it’s just us being taken to such temples, and that somewhere in the mountains, hidden from the tourist’s eye, there are temples and monasteries where you’d find peace and tranquility and want to meditate. Here, even though there is a meditation corner, you don’t quite feel like using it as intended.

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The gilded stupa (or chedi, as they are also called here) in the center of the temple also contains a sacred Buddhist relic – a bone of Lord Buddha – and according to a legend, this relic was loaded on an elephant, which was given an opportunity to pick a spot for the temple, and so the animal came here.

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By the way, as I have already said, there are stupas scattered all around Indochina, which have a special symbolic significance for those born in a certain year of the Eastern zodiac. The local stupa is associated with the year of the goat.

There is also an observation deck on the territory of the temple, with a view of entire Chiang Mai, but it’s too foggy to see anything at all.

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And we’ve been seeing this foggy haze during all the time of our stay both in Chiang Mai and in Chiang Rai, to the extent that in the morning and closer to the sunset the sun looks like an orange tangerine in the sky.

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Once back at our hotel and having said goodbye to our guide, we rested for a bit and headed out to a massage parlor, which we had found based on Internet reviews and booked online. I must say, I liked it less than the one in Chiang Rai, although it was slightly more expensive.

For dinner, we chose a nice Japanese restaurant with a terrace on the second floor and a view over the night market, and sat down outside. But then the whole dinner nearly got ruined by a sudden rain – our first one in Thailand! – and while we waited to see whether it would stop quickly, all the outdoors tables under the canopy and decent tables inside were already occupied, so we had to sit at some tiny table in the corner inside. Luckily, the rain soon stopped and the waitresses kindly moved us back to a lovely table on the terrace.

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The only thing that brightened our time at the stupid corner table inside, was a funny episode at the next table: there was a young Chinese lady sitting there and waiting for her take-away. Suddenly, two older women approached her – perhaps, her mother and aunt, for example – and started showing her some harem pants they bought at the night market, with such delight and enthusiasm, almost jumping up and down with excitement, that we couldn’t help staring at them which made the younger woman quite embarassed, so she asked them to behave more quietly. I have to say, it’s not very often that you see such sincere and genuine joy, let alone when it’s caused by two pairs of pants! 🙂

Posted in Asia, Chiang Mai, English, Thailand

Thailand – Day 5

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22 March 2018

And once again we had to forget about our sundresses and put on our elephant harem pants purchased in Bangkok, as pretty much the whole of today is dedicated to temples in Chiang Rai and its environs.

In general, there are lots and lots of temples in Thailand, people seem much more religious than, for example, in Vietnam or China, and it’s much more common to see monks everywhere. That’s quite understandable – the country hasn’t been colonised recently, it has no communist past or present, so obviously, religion hasn’t been historically oppressed. And by the way, Buddhism here seems to contain elements of Hinduism.

The first temple we went to was Wat Phra Singh, founded in the 14th century. The name of this temple comes from the golden Buddha image, almost as famous (and as ‘well-traveled’) as the Emerald Buddha. Our guide Dino said that the temple’s architecture is in Burmese style.

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What was specifically remarkable about this temple is the large number of stray dogs that are fed here, apparently with rice, given their state of utter apathy; and sal trees, sacred to Buddhists, with large and very fragrant flowers.

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From here we headed to another temple – Wat Phra Keo, or the temple of the Emerald Buddha. Yes, yes, it has the same name as the one we saw in Bangkok. The temple is very old and was originally called something else, but in the 15th century, it was here, among the wreckage of a stupa split by a thunderbolt, that the Emerald Buddha statue, believed to be of divine origin, was found. Since the 18th century and up to this day, the statue is in Bangkok, just where we saw it, but before that it traveled a lot around the territories of Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia. Dino talked about the statue’s displacements in the most thorough details – who and when took/stole it, who robbed whom etc. – but we didn’t even try to memorise all this, especially since he wasn’t the most interesting narrator ever…

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The Chiang Rai temple currently has a jade replica of the Emerald Buddha (in fact, as you may remember, the original one is also made of jade) but at least, unlike in Bangkok, you can photograph it.

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Right here, on the territory of the temple, we noticed a pond with turtles and spent quite a while watching one particular small, but proud turtle trying to crawl towards the fence, walking on the heads of its fellow turtles.

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The third temple we saw was really the best – it was the White temple, very beautiful and unusual. It’s quite new, having been built in 1997, and in fact I would rather call it a modern art exhibit in the style of a Buddhist Temple.

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The white colour represents spiritual purity.

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To get into the temple itself, one has to walk along a bridge past the “hands of sinners” sticking out of the earth – very symbolic.

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Right next to the temple there’s a museum containing paintings by Chalermchai Kositpipat – the artist who built this temple with his own money. The paintings are quite interesting, many depict paradise with different buildings in the same style as the White Temple, or mythological animals.

The gorgeous gilded building on the territory of the temple is nothing more than the ‘happy room’ (or rather a whole happy palace!), that is, a toilet.

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Fortunately for us, the thickest crowds of tourists started arriving just as we were leaving – most probably from Chiang Mai – so we were really lucky to walk around and take pictures without them.

The White Temple was our last stop before we drove off to Chiang Mai – we had already checked out from our Chiang Rai hotel this morning and loaded our suitcases in the car. We stopped on our way for lunch, again in a cheap roadside cafe, with a hot spring next to it. In one fenced well, the water was boiling and bubbling up, another one was used for cooking eggs, and there was also a bigger section of the spring which was cool enough to put one’s legs into it, which is supposedly very good for health. Some people managed to sit knee-deep in the water, but I was barely able to dip my feet for a couple of seconds, as the water was very hot – around 50 degrees Celsius – the exact opposite situation of yesterday’s pool visit in Chiang Rai!

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We arrived at our hotel in Chiang Mai at about 3pm. The hotel is located next to the night market, so there are lots of market stalls, massage parlours and bars around.

The hotel has two excellent swimming pools, and this time we had better luck and managed to take a dip. And we knew right away that we’d be more lucky – unlike in Chiang Rai, the poolside area was full of people.

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Our tour programme for the evening included a trip to the street food market and dinner right there. We tried pork satay (i.e. pork skewers) with peanut sauce, snapper fish in salt and some pork dish with rice. It was quite tasty, although not necessarily much cheaper than in a restaurant.

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On the way back to the hotel our guide Dino took a longer route so that we could walk around the Old Town, which we didn’t enjoy much – there was little to see in the dark, plus we wanted to rest a bit and enjoy some guide-less time.

Once we said goodbye to him, we went for a drink at one of the bars near the hotel, but left very quickly – the place seemed a bit dodgy, with a few foreign men and a lot of half-naked local women (if they were all women, of course), rushing with open arms towards every white man in sight trying to lure him into the bar. It seems that all the bars around are like that, and many are even completely empty, except for the stacks of women waiting at the entrance.

Posted in Asia, Chiang Rai, English, Thailand

Thailand – Day 4

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21 March 2018

Today we left our hotel at 8am for our first excursion in Chiang Rai and headed up north, to the Doi Tung Royal villa with a beautiful garden.

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The garden is one of the successful projects of the late Queen Mother, who tried to combat drug trafficking in this dysfunctional region, bordering Myanmar, by increasing employment.

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And indeed, the garden is very beautiful. At an altitude of 1300 m above sea level, it is much cooler than Chiang Rai itself, and full of the most diverse flowers ever – predominantly European, but including some local orchids too.

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The actual royal villa, where the Queen Mother used to live, is located further uphill. We went up to the residence – again, strict dress code had to be followed there and we had to cover up – and went inside. I managed to take one photo before a lady from a French tourist group – the only tourists apart from us, I wonder where the crowds of Chinese tourists are? – warned me that this was prohibited.

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The residence is essentially a huge wooden hut, the entire interior is also made of wood. Some of the Queen’s personal belongings are exhibited, in particular tools for embroidery and pottery. The balcony provides stunning views of the garden that we saw before.

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There is another attraction at the very top of the Doi Tung mountain, where we had to get by car. These are two stupas in a typical Lanna style, erected as far back as the 10th century and containing Lord Buddha’s relics – namely, his collarbone.

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There is also a temple next to the stupas, very intricate from the outside, but not particularly remarkable inside. As for the stupas themselves, we couldn’t come close to them – women are not allowed to.

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By the way, our guide Dino told us that these stupas were especially sacred for people born in the year of the Pig (or Elephant) according to the Eastern Zodiac. And for each of the zodiacal animals, there are respective stupas all around Indochina. It is believed that everyone should visit the stupa corresponding to their zodiacal animals and pray there at least once during their lifetime.

On the way back down to our car we descended a stepped alley with lots and lots of bells of different sizes at the sides.

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It was already lunch time, and we stopped at some roadside eatery. I had read somewhere that in Thailand the most delicious food can be found right in such non-glamorous places (in China as well, by the way – as confirmed by myself), and it turned out to be exactly the case! We got two servings of spicy chicken noodle soup, and we liked it a lot. And it cost us 70 baht for two, which didn’t even make 3 USD!

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After lunch we drove to the town of Mae Sai at the very border with Myanmar. Dino said that Thai, Burmese, Indian, and Chinese people live here, and everyone gets along very well: Muslims, Buddhists, and Christians. In Mae Sai we visited a jade shop and walked past a street market, which, apparently, Dino himself was much more interested in than we were.

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But what was really interesting to see was the gate separating Thailand from Myanmar. We asked, how far away from here the Golgen Triangle was – that is, the place where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet. We were told that it was a 35-minute drive, for which we’d have to pay extra to the driver and that we’d still need to get permission to get on a Mekong tour boat.

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We decided that we didn’t want to go there and headed back to Chiang Rai. Once back at the hotel and left to ourselves, we went straight to the swimming pool, which we’d been drooling over for two days now. But it was no coincidence that the area around the pool was completely empty all the time, which we were really surprised about. The water turned out to be so icy cold that I could not even dip my toe in it, let alone get in there.

Mission unaccomplished! But we went again to get a wonderful massage in the same parlour as yesterday. There are plenty of such parlours on our street, but as we already tested this one yesterday and were very happy with it, we saw no point in looking for something else. And after the massage, as we were intending to go for dinner, we accidentally spotted a cat in the window of a small coffee shop, and then many more cats. We’d noticed this coffee shop, called Cat’n’Cup, yesterday, but somehow didn’t realise that it was a cat cafe. So how could we resist going in to have a frappe and to pet some furry purring felines!

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Well, the latter actually turned out a bummer: we were still smelling of massage oil with a citrus aroma, which by cat standards meant that we were stinking sickeningly! So they avoided us at all costs, although we did see one or two curious faces on our table!

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Then we went to have dinner in an open-air restaurant, right around the corner from the night market. It was a very pleasant place, and next to it there was a stage, from which we were entertained first with Chinese music, then with English-language guitar songs, and finally with Thai dances.

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Posted in Asia, Chiang Rai, English, Thailand

Thailand – Day 3

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20 March 2018

Today, I won’t be entertaining you guys with a long post: we are travelling. At 10 am, right after breakfast, the driver picked us up and took us to the airport. We’re going to Chiang Rai! We arrived at the airport pretty early, so we even had time to have a Japanese set with miso soup, spicy chicken, rice, kimchi (for some reason!) and coffee jelly for lunch.

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The flight took a little over an hour, and in Chiang Rai we were met by our local guide Dino and taken to our hotel. Chiang Rai is the ancient capital of the Lanna kingdom, later the capital was moved to Chiang Mai. It’s located in the north of Thailand, very close to the Myanmar border, and the climate difference with Bangkok is noticed immediately: it’s hotter and drier during the day, the vegetation is dominated by broad-leaved trees over palm trees, there are even conifers; and in the evening – I’m rushing ahead of myself – it’s cooler. The city itself is small, with pretty much one main street, where our hotel is located – this so reminded us of Hue in Vietnam that we even had a feeling of deja vu.

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At the hotel we noticed a swimming pool, but couldn’t make it there today. Actually, according to our tour programme we were supposed to have the afternoon free, but Dino volunteered to show us a park outside the city, and off we went. The park, to be honest, wasn’t anything special – it had wide lawns, a few flowers, a few tea bushes and a large gilt statue of a dragon, that’s all. Dino said that the entrance to the main part of the park wasn’t free so we would not go there, and that there was a large tea plantation nearby.

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After the park Dino was still enthusiastic to walk around the neighborhood with us, but we already wanted to relax, so instead we headed to the massage parlour, found on Google, right around the corner from the hotel, which we didn’t regret at all. Such a pleasure!

And then we had dinner in a restaurant on the same street, with huge portions of fish, and after that strolled a little around the night market.

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Posted in Asia, Bangkok, English, Thailand

Thailand – Day 2

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19 March 2018

Today we had to get up very early to have breakfast and head to the Damnoen Saduak floating market at 7am. It’s a bit hard to assess how far the place really is from Bangkok, since today is Monday and the traffic is simply incredible, the roads are much more packed than yesterday, and we had to spend ages in traffic jams which were aggravated by the very long waiting time at traffic lights.

On the way to the floating market we stopped to see how oil and sugar are produced from coconut – something similar to what we’d already seen in Vietnam.

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If I continue comparing with Vietnam, where the floating market didn’t quite meet our expectations, here it was the same. There were lots of boats, but most of them were carrying tourists, with only a couple boats here and there selling fruits and snacks.

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So we didn’t get to see that iconic postcard view of the canal crammed with boats full of colourful flowers and fruits. Maybe, again, we’d had to be here at 5am for that. On the other hand, along the banks of the canal there was a whole flea market kind of thing, with souvenirs, handicrafts and other stuff, so the boatman kept stopping every minute at one shop or another to get us to buy something off his friends. One of the sellers introduced herself as his wife and, when she faced our languid refusal to buy anything despite her persistence, she asked us to at least give tips to her husband at the end of our ride. Floating by another shop, we saw a woman washing her plate and hands right in the canal, which raised serious doubts as to the compliance of the food sold at the market with sanitary norms. Which is why, having got off the boat and having arrived to a local coffee shop, as agreed in advance with Vanna, we got hot coffee rather than the much desired iced coffee – common sense suggested that the ice could have also been made from frozen canal water, who knows?

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Another attraction at the market was the opportunity to take a picture with wild animals: sloths, loris and pythons. A thought flashed through my mind: maybe I should get a photo with a snake hanging around my neck? But I finally decided that I didn’t want to spend 200 baht (just under 7 USD) to support such a cruel business. Social responsibility, you know!

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What also deserves a separate mention in this place is the toilet. It’s a whole single-storey building with enticing inscriptions and a car park, the interior reminds of pharmacy, there are snacks sold inside and even a wi-fi hotspot!

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In short, we weren’t extremely impressed with the floating market, and we left for Bangkok well before 11am, which was our deadline in order to make it to our cooking class at 1.30pm. What cooking class? – you may ask. Well, actually the tour we chose is called ‘The Taste of Thailand’, so in addition to sightseeing and beach recreation, it also includes three cooking classes in different cities!

We were brought to the corner of some street in Bangkok and handed over to a guy, who assigned us to a group of 8 people and sent us off to the market nearby with his colleague – our current instructor.

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At the market, there were already baskets and a set of vegetables prepared for us, and we had to take them with us. That is, the market trip was a mock one – in fact, there was only one stall still open at this time as the market as such operates very early in the morning. It was just that the instructor – a very funny guy – took the opportunity to show us some essential ingredients, indispensable in Thai cuisine. As he explained, for example, the mushrooms or beans used here are, of course, local varieties, but can easily be replaced with any other variety, as they are used not for the taste, but for the texture, just like most other vegetables. As for galangal (a close relative of ginger), Thai basil, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves, though, they can’t be replaced even with closely related plants – it wouldn’t be Thai cuisine anymore. From this we concluded that it is unlikely that we would be able to hone our Thai chef skills in Baku: there’s no way we can find kaffir lime leaves there. He also pointed out the important difference between Thai and Indian curries – in Indian curries the flavour is created using dried herbs and spices, and in Thai curries – using fresh herbs and roots. For instance, ginger and turmeric are always used fresh, never dried and ground.

A funny episode – there was a very nice Colombian couple in the group with us, and right upfront the lady warned the instructor that she couldn’t stand onions or any related plants. The instructor joked that he would then pass onions off as cabbage, and so till the end of the class he continued referring to all kinds of onion-like plants as cabbage.

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Having picked up our baskets with vegetables and herbs, we headed back to the cooking school and immediately got down to work. We had five dishes to cook: Tom Yum soup, Pad Thai, green curry, spicy chicken salad and sticky rice with mango for dessert. Frankly speaking, we didn’t cook the last two ourselves, but rather simply observed the process. Our only contribution to the dessert was participation in making coconut milk from grated pulp, and the milk was then used for the soup and curry as well as for the dessert. We started actually doing something when we moved on to the Tom Yum soup.

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All we had to do was cut up the vegetables (tomatoes, green onions, mushrooms and chili peppers – I boldly took two), prep the “flavour ingredients”: lemongrass, galangal and kaffir lime leaves – these are the three ingredients that actually create that distinct Tom Yum flavour and that are not supposed to be eaten, by the way; all the rest can be replaced if necessary – and then put everything in our individual wok, and add fish sauce, chili paste and lime juice to taste. The fish sauce, which we first came across in Vietnam, features in absolutely every dish here, apart from sweets. It replaces salt and enhances the flavours, being a natural source of sodium glutamate. While we were cooking, the instructor was walking around, adding water and coconut milk, then adding shrimps. Generally, I noticed that we were only trusted with processing vegetables and greens, while all the meat was provided already prepped and added straight to our woks.

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Once we cooked and happily consumed our own Tom Yum soup portions, it was time to cook the Pad Thai. The instructor had pre-soaked the rice noodles in cold water, so we just had to cut up the tofu and leeks and return to our woks, already washed and seasoned with soybean oil for us. First of all we fried off some crushed garlic with tofu and spices (fish sauce, coconut sugar, chili flakes, ground peanuts and something like pickled radish). Then we broke an egg into the wok and gave it a quick fry too. Finally, in went the noodles, leeks and soybean sprouts. The instructor told us that in Thailand no one cooks Pad Thai at home, and this is exclusively street food. Interestingly, some type of sugar is added to almost any dish here.

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By the way, at some point the instructor told us that almost everyone in Thailand knows about Azerbaijan, due a lot of Thai players in our volleyball clubs, and since volleyball is the only team sports which Thais are good at, this fact is widely known. Good to know, as we were quite surprised that hearing about us being from Azerbaijan, no one here makes a puzzled face and asks what on Earth it is, like we’re used to.

After Pad Thai we tasted the spicy chicken salad prepared for us by the instructor, as mentioned, using onions, boiled minced chicken, chilis, ground roast rice and of course seasoned with fish sauce. And then we had to cook green curry. The instructor prepared the curry paste himself, explaining in the meantime that no one does it at home and everyone buys readily made paste. He mixed a lot of ingredients in the mortar – coriander and cumin seeds, the “holy trinity” (if you remember, that’s lemongrass, lime leaves and galangal), red and green chili peppers, turmeric root, garlic and something else, and then we took turns to mash it all with a pestle. Then, one last time, we returned to our woks, where coconut milk and chicken slices were already added for us, and cooked that with Thai eggplant, basil and finger root ginger with the addition of fish sauce, sugar and curry paste.

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At the very end we were served our dessert – a slightly salty sticky rice mass (yes, salt is added to desserts and not to savoury dishes here – for the latter this mission is given to fish sauce!) with fresh mango. We really liked the class overall: we acquired new skills, plus it was fun and tasty!

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For the evening we had a ladyboy cabaret show planned. It sounds a bit dubious, I understand, but there was absolutely nothing bawdy there. Just normal singing and dancing, the performance was pretty good: they were portraying Beyoncé and Marilyn Monroe, acting scenes in Chinese and Korean style, and for some reason dancing to “Hava Nagila”. If you don’t know they are ladyboys, you could totally take them for women.

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By the way, the show wasn’t included in our tour programme, therefore, even though Vanna kindly arranged tickets for us, even with a discount, we had to take a taxi ourselves. The cabaret is on the Asiatic embankment – it’s a very pleasant place with a ferris wheel, restaurants, shops and a night food market. We went for little walk after the show, and the street food looked very tempting to us, but firstly, we were still full after the cooking class, and secondly, we are still slightly apprehensive about street food.

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