Thailand: from busy metropolis to quiet oasis

Thailand was one of our few mini/honey moons. It was a welcomed break after having a wedding for relatives abroad which we felt obliged to do as a dutiful son and daughter in law.

We were afraid Thailand would be too crowded and touristy so it was a pleasant surprise that we enjoyed it more than expected.

Top row: various shots on Long Beach. Middle left: beachside dining at Thai Cat. Middle right: curry from Uncle O. Bottom row: Snorkelling day trip; note the queue of people waiting to board other boats near the end of the day.

For our beach getaway, we picked Ko Lanta, a small island near Krabi which takes about 3 hours to get to in the car and via a car ferry. It’s a bit of a journey compared to other more accessible beaches but that is probably why the island wasn’t too crowded. In fact, there weren’t many tourists at all even though we went in early December.

We stayed near Long beach which was known for shallow waters and being family friendly. Whilst the beaches weren’t the most clear or turquoise we’ve ever seen, there is nothing more relaxing than swimming in the sea, beachside dining, followed by a massage on the beach and drifting to sleep listening to the sound of waves. The restaurants were fairly empty and we enjoyed dining at Thai Cat so much that we went there twice.

We booked a day trip on one of the more luxurious boats to take us out for snorkelling. The boat stopped about three times where guests can jump off and snorkel. Twice, the boat was quite far out from shore and the water was quite deep and a bit rough. We could see some tiny fish but nothing extraordinary. Certainly not compared to the last time I was in Phuket more than 15 years ago.

The last stop was at a remote beach where all the tour boats seem to stop so there is a bit of a crowd. The water has been sectioned off so there was only a limited area where we could snorkel. Sadly, the closer we were to the shore, the more coral bleaching we saw. Although we’ve watched the documentary “Chasing Coral” and understand what has been happening to coral reefs around the world, this was the first time that we saw it close up. The impact of climate change has never been more visible.

Top left: breakfast at Marriott Queen’s Park. Top right: fruit stall at Chatuchak market. Bottom left: durian stall at Or Tor Kor fruit market. Bottom right: beautiful book store in an upscale shopping mall.

We also stopped at Bangkok for a couple days. The city has a great combination of luxury and affordable hedonistic pleasures. We splurged to stay at Marriott Queen’s Park after a quick Google suggested that the hotel has one of the best buffet breakfasts in Bangkok. It did indeed live up to expectations. We were spoiled with choice – the buffet had everything including an egg station, waffle station, fresh juice station, fruit station, Indian food, dim sum, continental food, roasted meat. Though that didn’t stop some of us from consuming the cheap eats such as congee.

We did the usual touristy things in Bangkok. Chatuchak market was impressively massive; apparently it’s the biggest in Asia. We only spent a few hours there as it was extremely hot but we were happy with our purchase of an elephant painting from a local artist which now sits nicely in our new home. After visting Chatuchak market, we headed to Or Tor Kor fruit market nearby where we bought many packets of dried mango as souvenirs.

We enjoyed the combination of beaches, Thai food and affordable luxuries so much that we joke about moving there. But until then, we will certainly be back!

Where to go for your mini moon in November

November in London could be rainy and dreary so Seville was a quick and sunny getaway, perfect as our first “mini moon” trip. It did not require significant planning either as the city was very walkable. We more of less followed this 3-day itinerary from Tripadvisor and adapted it as we like.

Seville central

The highlights of Seville were definitely:

Biking tour with See by Bike – We did both a ‘free’ walking tour and biking tour but we much preferred the biking tour, partly because we couldn’t fully understand our guide’s heavily accented English on the walking tour. We lucked out with a private biking tour as we were the only people joining the English tour. Our friendly guide took us around the city and we saw many of the landmarks. It was a good way to get oriented with the city and later revisit the places that we like to spend more time at. Bike tour was reasonable at €50 for two of us.

Real Alcazar – This must-see attraction lived up to its name. It was a very impressive architecture which reminded us of the ones in Marrakech, e.g. Bahia Palace, Ben Youssef Madrasa. Besides the architecture, our favourite part was the orange trees in the courtyard which made for excellent photo opportunities.

General admission is €11.50 per person but we managed to book ahead for Monday 4pm tickets that allowed us to enter at €1 per person. The latest update from the official website seems to have an even better deal: Monday from 18:00 to 19:00. from April to September, and from 16:00 to 17:00 from October to March: Free. Whatever you go for, our main advice is to book ahead because there were long queues for tickets when we were there.

Barrio Santa Cruz – Located near Real Alcazar, this is the city’s Jewish quarter filled with colourful houses and lively plazas which again, made for excellent photo opportunities.

Parque de Maria Luisa – We came upon this park via the bike tour. While the grass wasn’t maintained like a Royal Park in London, there was the most gorgeous architecture that was picture perfect, i.e. the architecture reflected symmetrically in the water set in front of it. We took a break at the cafe in the park and had some tortilla and jamon. We enjoyed it so much that we went back again the next day! Highly recommended.

Parque de Maria Luisa

Parque de Maria Luisa

Plaza de Espana – The postcard shot of Plaza de Espana was probably one of the things that put Seville on our list of ‘must visit’ cities. We loved the mosaics in the tiled walls and benches. Each alcove has its own unique mosaics and represents a province in Spain. Plaza de Espana is located inside Parque de Maria Luisa so you can head there on the same day.

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We tried to take the postcard shot, still a long way off!

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One of the many alcoves along the half circle.

Flamenco show – We watched a traditional flamenco show at the Museo del baile flamenco. We are probably not the best people to be able to appreciate it but the intricate costumes and the super fast tempo to which the dancers danced were highly impressive. Best to arrive early if you want front row seats as there was no allocated seating with tickets.

Metropol Parasol – This is a wooden structure that looks like a giant mushroom. Makes for some beautiful photography especially at dusk. Interesting fact: this structure was built at a cost of €100 million. I am guessing it will take them forever to break even as it costed a few euros to ride the elevator to the top.

Metropol Parasol

Delicious food – There’s no shortage of food options when in Seville or Spain in general. Among all the tortilla, fried fish and pulpo we ate, our favourite restaurant of all was ConTenedor, a ‘slow food’ restaurant which uses organic produce sourced from the Andalusia region. We had the most tasty rice dish with the most succulent prawn ever. And that was all I remember from this meal. We were lucky to score a table for lunch when we walked in.

ConTendor Seville

This was probably the best prawn we’ve ever had.

Wet shoes

It was worth trekking all the way in the rain and getting our shoes wet just to eat the rice with prawn dish.

The largest flea market in Europe: Braderie de Lille

I always used to say, “why would I go back to the same place when I could go somewhere I haven’t been before?” I’ve now officially found a city that I would happily return to same time next year. And that is to visit the Braderie de Lille which is 1 hr 30 mins away from London on the Eurostar.

Taking place on the first weekend of every September, the flea market is the largest in Europe. There are over 100km of sidewalks occupied by stallholders, ranging from professional ones selling vintage furniture to your neighbour selling their bric-a-brac. We enjoyed the convivial atmosphere while browsing the goods. Having seen our fair share of antique shops in U.K., we were impressed with the sheer amount and variety of goods on offer. It seemed like the whole city is out on the streets browsing or eating ‘moules frites’ (mussels with fries). We particularly liked that the event was not full of drunken people that you might see in a city-wide event. Just music on the streets and people out and about enjoying themselves!

Some seriously talented musicians could be found at the square!

No shortage of friteries 😉

The first day (Saturday) is the busiest and probably the best day to be there if you’re hoping to find some hidden gems. As the market is very big, the key is to get a map of the market and identify the zone that you’re interested in and head there straight away.

It was fascinating to see all the goods on offer, even though we didn’t particular appreciate taxidermy.

Finally, we found our own hidden gem – this beautiful stool which is now multi-functional in our new home. After a few eyebrow raises from security as it was X-rayed, we breathed a sign of relief when we brought it safely onboard the Eurostar and finally home!

This stool served as a handy mobile rest stop after miles of exploring all the wares. Well worth it.

The food was nothing to write home about since every restaurant (even a Thai restaurant) was serving mussels and fries. The food was also not particularly vegetarian friendly. However, we did enjoy our fair share of pastries and patisseries!

We thoroughly enjoyed our first Braderie and we will most certainly be coming back. Hopefully the stall selling industrial pieces from dismantled Hungarian factories is still there!

Meteora and Thessaloniki 5 days itinerary

This is a long overdue post but here is a recap of our Greece holiday over the late May bank holiday weekend.
 
“If we only have 1 euro left in our pocket, we rather go out and spend it with friends than stay at home and feel sorry for ourselves”. This was the motto of one guy we met during our five day stay. And this was seemingly apparent as we walked around the streets of Thessaloniki and Kalambaka. Restaurants and bars were filled to the brim every day and night. Shops were closed for 3 out of 5 days we were there. It makes you wonder, how do the locals make money?
 
Day 1 – Flying from London to Thessaloniki
 

We arrived at Thessaloniki late in the evening and crashed at Hotel Atlantis. It was a small and basic room but it was 15 minutes walk from the train station where we would take the train to Kalambaka early the next morning. We were surprised that a number of cafes and restaurants were still open at 11pm. We couldn’t resist and bought a ‘pastry with cheese’. It was disappointing that the pastry was literally 200 grams of feta cheese wrapped in several layers of filo pastry.

 
Tip: All the websites we looked at say to take bus 78 from Thessaloniki airport to town. Bus 78 didn’t exist! Take bus X1 during daytime and N1 during nighttime.
 
Day 2 – Travelling from Thessaloniki to Kalambaka
 
Our impressions of filo pastry were redeemed when we bought a leek filo pastry pie for breakfast from the train station.
 

 
The train journey takes about 3 hours but there was no direct train from Thessaloniki to Kalambaka. We had to change at Paleofornos station which felt like a deserted station in the middle of nowhere. The train guard doubles up as a mechanic as we saw him running across the track with some tools to connect the train carts. All signs were in Greek and the departure boards were not working. As we talked to a local later, we learned that train stations were running out of cash, perhaps that’s why they don’t bother turning on the departure boards to save money. Luckily, most locals were very friendly and proactively asked us if we needed help when we looked slightly lost or were simply consulting a map.
 
Paleofornos train station where we interchanged for a train to Kalambaka.
We arrived at Monastiri Guest House where our room had an amazing view of Meteora. The owner was very friendly and even gave us a ride into town even though it was only 10 minutes’ walk away. We didn’t utilise the outdoor swimming pool but it looked very relaxing.
 
Lunch was at Meteora Restaurant where we had an excellent spinach, strawberry and sesame seed salad. It was so tasty that we later tried to recreate it at home.
 
We joined a sunset tour in the afternoon where we checked out St Stephen’s Monastery.
 
Dinner was at Yamas Taverna where we had typical Greek food such as calamari, stuffed peppers and chicken souvlaki.
 
Day 3 – Hiking in Meteora (means ‘floating in air’)
 

This was the one thing we absolutely wanted to do prior to visiting Meteora and it was definitely the highlight of this trip. As the weather forecast predicted rain, we were very lucky that it was actually sunny on the morning of the hike. The hike lasted for around 4.5 hours on gentle terrain. Apparently every rock has its own name based on their shape or physical characteristics. The Great Meteoron Monastery was very impressive especially when we learned that it took 100 years to build and 7 years just to bring the materials up to the mountain. We saw many caves; the story goes that hermits who lived in caves had to rely on locals for help as their muscles atrophied over time.

In the afternoon, we took a bus back to Thessaloniki which lasted approximately 2.5 hours. Dinner was at Frutti di Mare where we had the most delicious shrimp wrapped and fried in potatoes. Portions were generous and they gave us some very strong liquor after our meal free of charge.

Thessaloniki accommodation: Grey Studios. Great place with a simple Scandi decor. The owners seem to be interior designers.

 

Day 4 – Walking around Thessaloniki city

Woke up at 11am! We had breakfast at Estrella, a cafe with dishes like 64 degrees eggs and vibes that make you think you could be in Shoreditch, London.

There was not many ‘must see’ sights in Thessaloniki so we simply walked around town, ate ice cream, and walked along the seafront where we watched the sunset. For dinner, we tried Crete food for the first time at a restaurant called Charoupi. The taste was similar to Mediterranean style. Portions were large and we had the dessert on the house again. In general, we find that desserts are always complementary and service charge is not included in the bill.

It was quite relaxing to walk along the promenade in Thessaloniki and watch the sunset.
We walked up to Ano Poli, Thessaloniki’s old town. Great views!

Day 5 – Thessaloniki

This day happened to be Whit Monday, a public holiday so nearly all shops were closed. Our favourite discovery of the day was a tahini cannoli from Ergon, a cafe/deli/shop. We loved it so much that we brought some back for the office. It was only a few months later that we discovered, to our delight, that there is actually an Ergon in London!

Shortly after we took this photo, somebody dropped the remaining half of this baklava on the ground before the other had a chance to try it!

Day trip from London to Whitstable

For the first May Bank holiday weekend, we had a staycation instead and went to Whitstable, a small seaside town about 1.5 hours train from London Victoria. Our first impression was that this is a very ‘white’ town with few international tourists. As you walk down the main street, there are loads of bars, charity shops and some independent shops. As it was around the time of the Royal wedding, there were all sorts of Harry and Meghan bunting and memorabilia.

This pub had some live music, making for a lively atmosphere.

It was a sunny day so we spent it walking by the seaside, where many families and kids played on the rock ‘beach’ while seagulls flew about.

We walked back and forth and back and forth until we decided The Forge was the seafood shack worthy of our stomach space and money. Naturally there was a queue – we queued for about 15 minutes and ordered half a dozen oysters and then sat at their outdoor tables to enjoy them.

Then we had coffee at Blueprint Coffee, a cute artisan cafe that sources their coffee beans from Ozone Roastery in London. It came with London prices but we loved it nonetheless, especially the banana bread which had a nice caramelised crunch to it.

Dinner was at Birdies restaurant, a French bistro with red checkered table cloths where we had a delicious lobster bisque and some tasty seafood. Definitely make a reservation as we saw guests being turned away.

All in all, Whitstable is a nice day out from London once you’ve exhausted the other towns like Oxford, Cambridge and Bath. We will be back though, as we spotted some pretty and one-of-a-kind furniture by independent artists.