Tuesday, August 28, 2012

An Ode to 7-Eleven

Before I went to Thailand I figured all 7-Eleven stores were the same. The ones where I live, in Toronto, stock junk food, soda, magazines and cigarettes and that's about it, so when I got to Bangkok I wondered why there would possibly be any need for one of these stores every block (or more). Boy, was I in for a surprise.
7-Eleven in Bangkok, from above

The "everything" store
While not every 7-Eleven in Thailand is created equal, most of them allow you to purchase anything from coffee, beer and junk food, to breakfast, lunch, dinner and makeup. Yes, makeup (not to mention shampoo, toothpaste, toilet paper and underwear). So basically, if you decided to take a trip to Thailand, but lost your luggage en route, you could just stop at a 7-Eleven and you'd be fine for at least a few days, if not longer.

What I bought
My boyfriend and I mostly used 7-Eleven stores as a place to stock up on water and beer. We often stayed in places that had a fridge, so we could ensure multiple bottles of each, which was convenient. However, I also bought a notebook (which I still use), face cleanser that cost me 90 bhat (about $3) for two -- one exfoliating wash, one foaming, which I ended up loving and obviously can't find here (they're called Berri Pops if you happen to come across them), snacks and a BB cream that was also about 90 bhat but something I couldn't/wouldn't use because it contained whitening ingredients. Most beauty products in Thailand claim to whiten, but I didn't notice this on first read-through of the products' claims (silly me). Full disclosure: I'm pretty pale and definitely not in need of skin whitening.

The bottom line
In Toronto you can't just go to the corner store or grocery store to buy beer (which you can in some provinces in Canada). There are special stores dedicated to booze and beer here, which is fine, but once you have access to beer anywhere you go (as in, every block), it's hard to be OK with making a separate trip just to get a 6-pack or bottle of wine. Plus, the snacks at the Thai 7-Elevens kick ass -- fun flavours of chips, dehydrated strawberries (pretty yummy) and a much more varied selection of treats than what gets stocked at the stores where I live.

I understand that the prevalence of the 7-Eleven brand means the decline of local culture and a dearth of anything "authentic" but I also get the fact that having access to what you need quickly and whenever you want is important to everyone, Thais and tourists alike.

What are your thoughts on the 7-Eleven stores every block in Thailand? Do you use them?

Monday, August 27, 2012

Cooking Class in Thailand

One of the things I really wanted to do while in Thailand was take a cooking class. My boyfriend and I love Thai food (or what we thought was Thai food before we actually went to Thailand), so we figured learning how to make the dishes we enjoyed would be a good idea. And it was.

Cooking in Krabi Town
Spring rolls and papaya salad!
We decided to make a stop in Krabi Town on the way to Khao Sok National Park, but our one night stay turned into three (what can I say, we liked the town). I happened to notice a brochure at our guesthouse for a cooking school and figured we could put our extra couple of days to good use. The school was Smart Cook Thai Cookery School and they offered a great afternoon of cooking (and lots of eating). 

To market
After getting picked up from our guesthouse (included in the price of the class) we hit a local market to buy supplies and learn about some of the major flavours in Thai cooking. We were taken around the market by our teacher, Bunnie (who was as adorable as her name), where she showed us all of the ingredients we would be using. We were then given an hour to wander before meeting back up to head to the school. Other than the "meat" room, which was not the best spot for a vegetarian, the market was colourful, lively and a great start to an afternoon of cooking.

Hot and sour soup, sweet and sour veg
We chose the Daily Course + Market Tour (1500 bhat), which meant choosing seven dishes. I chose spring rolls, coconut milk soup, papaya salad, red curry paste, tofu with curry and sticky rice with mango. My boyfriend went with the same, other than hot and sour soup and sweet and sour veggies. Anything with meat can be made with tofu, which was a bonus for us. 

There was only three of us in the class so Bunnie could easily make the rounds and help, and we all had a great view of when she was showing us something. We started with soup and salad, then onto spring rolls, curry paste, curry tofu and then dessert. I was insanely full afterwards, as you can imagine. The food was easier to make than I thought, but since Thai cooking is done so quickly at such high heat, as long as you have all of your ingredients on hand and prepared, getting it right is doable for most cooking levels.

We were given a cookbook at the end of class, which I can honestly say I've used a lot since being back. My favourite things to make are spring rolls, papaya salad and coconut soup. I have yet to attempt curry paste, but it's on the list!

Have you ever done a cooking class while traveling? What did you think?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Khao Sok National Park

One of the highlights of my recent trip to Thailand was the three days we spent in Khao Sok National Park. I had done  a lot of reading about it before deciding to add the park to our itinerary, and the experience exceeded expectation.

Our Jungle House
We stayed at the lovely Our Jungle House, where I had made a reservation online about a week prior to arriving. I can't recommend this resort enough -- it offers several types of accommodation including riverside bungalows and tree houses. I tried to book one of the tree houses (with no luck), but I loved our room all the same. It was just rustic enough (open air bathroom, complete with frogs, snails and other park critters), but clean, charming and full of character.  Great food, friendly, attentive staff and myriad tours that allow you to explore all areas of the park make it an ideal option if Khao Sok is on your list of must-sees (which it should be).

Lake trip
We opted for a full day tour of Cheow Lake, an awe-inspiring spot I didn't want to leave. It's touted as a must-do trip and although I try to make my own calls on where to spend my travel time and money, it really did live up to the hype. We started with a scenic long tail boat ride across the lake to a perfect swimming spot (think emerald water surrounded by limestone karsts) where you could take a dip or kayak. We were served a delicious lunch including lots of vegetarian options (perfect for us) and then came the hike to and through Namtaloo Cave. 

Getting to the cave involved a short boat ride an easy hike, but the trip through the cave itself was the fun part. First of all, it's dark (headlamps on, please) and it's full of water. So full of water that at times we were swimming through the cave (the water is also mighty cold). Oh, and there are lots of spiders and some slippery parts so athletic shoes are a must. But back to the spiders. If you hate them, you will not want to do the cave part of this tour. They're huge and they're everywhere. Luckily you can't really see them if you're not directing your headlamp on them, but knowing they're there is enough. Then it was back for fruit and more swimming before the return boat ride.

We also did a canoe trip and an afternoon at the nearby hot springs, which, in retrospect, might not have been the smartest call for such a hot country, but still relaxing.

Getting there
You can easily get to Khao Sok National Park from Khao Lak, which is a nice spot in itself for a few days. There are many tour operators that offer the two hour trip daily. While in Khao Lak we stayed at Jerung Guesthouse, a clean, friendly option right on the main road and only about a 6-7 minute walk to the beach. Khao Lak is great for avid divers (which I am not), but I still found if a nice three day stop.