Brendon Kearns

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Tag: Vegetarian

Saigon and Farewell to Vietnam

Our final stop in Vietnam was Saigon, a.k.a. Ho Chi Minh City. After being officially welcomed to the city by a cab driver who wanted to rip us off for an extra $15, we settled into our room at the Suite Backpackers Inn on the main tourist drag in District 1.

View from our hotel room

Saigon is so hot that everyone seems to spend most of their time outside in the street trying to catch a breeze. Shopkeepers hang out in front of their stores, chatting and fanning their faces. Men take off their shirts and allow their bellies to flop freely, while women wear cotton pajamas, often with face masks and gloves to combat the sun and keep their skin pale. Old people lie in hammocks, gently rocking.

Everyone talks about how crazy the traffic is, but we found it no worse than Hanoi. The drivers seemed less murderous and more laid back – perhaps it was the heat. There are also loads of little alleyways filled with shops, bars and restaurants, which provide a good escape from the full onslaught of rush hour traffic. We spent an afternoon in the dimly lit Boston Sports Bar while an extremely high American guy in sunglasses played Tupac videos and shouted enthusiastically to no one in particular. Just like the real thing.

Saigon is way more vegetarian-friendly than Hanoi, and we easily found a restaurant – Quán Chay Yêu Thương – within a few blocks of our hotel. Hidden away at the end of an alleyway off Lê Loi, the restaurant seems more catered to vegetarians as we know them in the west, rather than people observing Buddhist holidays and skipping meat for a night or two. They serve alcohol, which is unusual in Vietnamese vegetarian restaurants as it’s generally assumed you don’t eat meat for religious reasons and therefore don’t drink either. But for those who love animals and ice cold beer this place is worth checking out.

Mushroom seaweed rolls – everything’s better deep-fried

We walked home through the park and watched a huge group of women energetically dancing in sync, following their teacher, while a techno beat thumped out of massive speakers.

The next day we decided to check out Saigon Zoo. Little did we know that we would be the most exotic attraction. As we walked in we noticed heads turning, fingers pointing, and young children staring. ‘Tây!’ they exclaimed, looking at us in bewilderment. A group of teenagers rushed up to us, giggling excitedly. ‘Take picture?’, a girl asked Brendon. Puzzled, he offered to take a picture of the group. ‘No, take picture with us!’ they laughed, pulling us in. We got about four more of these requests throughout the day. I guess Brendon is pretty funny looking.

Bored zebras

Tâys’ day out

We checked out a pagoda and then spent the rest of the day looking for a few of ‘Saigon’s hidden coffee shops’ that were indeed extremely well-hidden – we didn’t find any of them. Instead we comforted ourselves with margaritas and bad nachos from a Mexican restaurant in the tourist stretch. After about four drinks our waiter came over and asked if we could correct his English – he was practicing his responses for a job interview the following day. We spent the next two hours delivering drunken career advice, explaining how sales commissions work and offering grammatical suggestions while he shirked the rest of his tables to hang out with us, joke around and listen to our ‘wisdom’. Eventually his manager told him he would be fired if he didn’t stop slacking off, but by this stage we were all sure he’d be a shoo-in for the job. Hope he’s out there selling furniture right now!

Maybe we’d adjusted after visiting Hanoi, or maybe it was because everyone had said that if we hated Hanoi we’d really hate Saigon, but we ended up kinda liking it. Perhaps it’s not as ‘pretty’, and there are less sites of historical interest, but the weather is nicer, the people are cooler, there’s better food and it’s generally easier to get around. We were only there for two nights but it has a certain charm that we didn’t find in Hanoi in two weeks.

All up we spent two months in Vietnam. We went from hating it to trying to accept it, to liking it, to hating it again, to loving it – sometimes all in the space of a day. At times it reminded us of the worst aspects of the US – the people could be loud and hard-headed and you constantly had to be on your guard to avoid being played for a sucker. We won’t miss the hawkers, the hustlers, the honking, the dog meat, the taxi drivers or the pointing and laughing. But we will definitely miss the food, the women cooking up amazing things in alleyways, the Vietnamese hipsters munching sunflower seeds, the sweet milk coffee for 70c, the girl from Muse Cafe who gave us friendship bracelets for being regulars, the cross-stitch obsession, the folk tales about awesome sword-wielding turtles, the super-kitschy names like ‘Miss Longlife’ and ‘City of Eternal Spring’, and everyone who helped us navigate the linguistic and cultural divide.

 

Hanoi

Hanoi reminded us of the futuristic dystopian Los Angeles of Blade Runner, but without the robots. The city felt loud and aggressive. Though we knew it would be winter we were unprepared for the constant drizzle and gloom. And being so in love with Luang Prabang only heightened the comedown. We spent most of our time eating, drinking and scurrying between hideouts.

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Hanoi by night

Hanoi by Day

Hanoi by day

We landed late on the evening of Feb 8, grabbed a cab and got to our hotel to check in. Welcome to Hanoi! Would we be going to Halong Bay during our stay?, the desk clerk enquired. Probably… Would we like to take a minute to look through a book of brochures? Er, not really, we’re pretty tired… Maybe tomorrow? Maybe.

The next morning my aunt’s friend Robbie and his wife Thu, who is Vietnamese, picked us up and took us for coffee. Stepping out of the hotel we noticed that the footpaths had been commandeered by shop-owners along with parked motorbikes and scooters. The gutter was where pedestrians walked and it was clear from the drivers’ countenances that it was where they felt we belonged.

What Footpath?
What footpath?

Traffic conditions in Hanoi can be summed up by a slogan we saw on a t-shirt: ‘Green: I can go. Orange: I can go. Red: I still can go.’ Pedestrian crossings and street lights have been installed in many places, but the drivers pay them no mind as they speed onward to their destination. Instead of road rules, Hanoians use their horns whenever one driver wants to pass another – which is constantly. Each driver seems responsible only for what is in front of them with minimal regard for what is going on behind or on either side. This applies to valets backing bikes off the sidewalk and into you as you walk through the gutter or drivers pulling out into traffic without looking. To add, the driving appeared to lack the flow of Thailand as not everyone went the same speed or exhibited the same patience but instead gunned past or weaved around one another.

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This sign didn’t seem to be working

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Transporting a festive peach blossom across town

Crossing the road requires a leap of faith. At the sign of a small break in traffic you have to step out and progress at a perfectly even pace so the drivers can weave around you. Robbie guided us across the road like little children. Over coffee he and Thu gave us some tips and ideas for places to visit. Thu is a travel agent so was a great help as our itinerary had no more detail than ‘Get to Hanoi. Head south.’ Robbie taught us key Vietnamese phrases like ‘Cảm ơn’ (thank you) and ‘Tôi không phải là gà!’ (‘I am not a chicken!’, to be said with hands on hips and a head waggle when quoted an inflated westerner price). Learning any Vietnamese is proving very difficult as it’s a tonal language – all words are one or two syllables and your inflection changes the meaning of the word. There are six different tones or accents so each word could have up to six meanings depending on how you say it and what the context is. Say ‘gà’ (chicken) slightly wrong and you could be saying ‘railway station’ or any number of other things that make it almost impossible for the listener to work out what you’re trying to communicate.

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Cyclo drivers and passengers

After coffee Brendon and I grabbed lunch at Phơ 24 and walked around Hoan Kiem Lake (no sign of the famous turtle). Cyclo drivers circled, shouting ‘HELLO!’. We headed back to our hotel till it was time to go to Robbie and Thu’s for dinner.

Thu cooked a huge meal for us and two French friends, Geoff and Natalie, who live in a village 20km away. They asked about our initial impressions of Hanoi. Chaos! we responded. It’s so intense compared to anywhere else we’ve been. They nodded. ‘Here, everything is forbidden but everything is possible,’ Geoff explained. Robbie noted that the concept of precautions (like safe driving and helmets) didn’t really fit with the Vietnamese way of looking at things – most people don’t understand why you would waste time worrying about something that hasn’t happened.

The next day we were on our own. On our way out of the hotel a different desk clerk asked how we were liking Hanoi. We tried to think of something nice to say. Yes, he cooed. And would we be going to Halong Bay during our visit? Not sure yet, we replied, and exited hastily. We had identified a cafe round the corner where we wanted to go for breakfast but getting there involved dodging not only speeding motorbikes but also ladies selling doughnuts, guys selling knockoff Zippos, women selling fruit and, worst of all, the sneaker shine guy. He could, I believe, sense our fear and, before I knew it, one of my All Stars had been wrested from my foot and he was applying super glue to the sides, scrubbing it with a soapy toothbrush and reheeling it with half a tyre. And where are you from? he chatted away happily. Can I please have my shoe back? I replied. But I’m fixing it for you, see? I have put some tyre here. And how much will that cost? I asked. 150,000 dong, he replied (about $7.50). For both? No, each. I yanked the shoe back and we handed over the cash. This chicken is now walking around with one ‘fixed’ sneaker and one normal one.

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We arrived at the Hanoi Social Club, a cafe/bar run by a guy from Melbourne, and ended up staying all day. We tried egg coffee (cà phê trứng), which was delicious, like a combination of coffee and eggnog. I can’t explain how excited I was to have a plate of lentil bolognaise after months in Asia. And of course we had a few Halidas! The cab driver who took us back to the hotel was awesome and taught us how to say ‘Oh my God!!’ (‘Oi troi oi!’, pronounced ‘Oi zoi oi’ in the north and ‘Oi joy oi’ down south), which Brendo has been using on a daily basis, much to everyone’s amusement.

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Mixed vermicelli, no meat (miến trộn không thịt)

On day three we toughened up and sought out some local street food. The first place we went is still my favourite. It was a small shop at 15 Ngõ Tràng Tiến, an alley in the French Quarter that fills with stalls from the morning till about 2pm. We ordered by showing the guy at the stall the words I’d typed into my phone, and received two huge bowls of miến trộn không thịt – vermicelli noodles with tofu, morning glory, lettuce leaves, shallots, herbs, bean sprouts, peanuts, fried garlic and a sauce involving fish sauce, sugar and chili. Usually this dish would also have beef but ‘không thịt’ means ‘no meat’ – asking for dishes this way is the only practical way to get vegetarian-friendly street food in Hanoi. It was 20,000 dong (~$1) per bowl and absolutely outstanding.

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After lunch we roamed around the French Quarter, which is the ritzy end of town where you’ll find luxury shopping malls, European restaurants and an Opera House built by the French in the early 1900s. Even in nice areas like this it was always easy to find cheap food and drink – we stopped down the road for Vietnamese coffees at Argento that were still only 22,000 dong each.

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In the afternoon Brendon went to get fitted for a suit for his friend Bilal’s upcoming wedding. The tailors laughed as they reached up to measure the tall American. The suit took about 4 days all up, and we were sort of stuck in Hanoi till it was complete, but the end product was definitely worth it.

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Strung out and ready for bún

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Shrimp pancakes

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Perhaps this sauce is an acquired taste…

Food highlights in Hanoi included bún bò nam bộ – beef, vermicelli, garlic, ginger, peanuts, herbs, lettuce and fish sauce, 55,000 dong (~$2.75) a bowl – from a well-known place at 67 Hàng Điếu, and a visit to Quán ăn Ngon, which is an outdoor food court with a huge menu of regional specialties. I got crispy shrimp pancakes and noodles with fried tofu in shrimp paste sauce – the dipping sauce smelt like the devil’s bungholio. Eventually a kind waiter took pity on me and brought me an alternative sauce to try! Brendon got fresh spring rolls with pork and prawn and a wild duck phơ. We weren’t blown away considering the cheaper and more flavourful street food we had already tried, but they have a huge range of dishes so maybe we just didn’t choose the right stuff. It ended up being 232,000 dong (~$11.50) for two entrees, two mains and two cokes.

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The best thing we tried, though, was the Mexican coffee buns from Anh Tú Bakery. (As far as we know these are not actually Mexican.) These huge, warm, doughy, sweet, crispy buns filled with runny chocolate became an integral part of our morning routine.

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Atrium at Cafe Phỏ Cổ

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Cashing out

These were generally chased with an intense Vietnamese coffee from Cafe Phỏ Cổ, which is like stepping into another world (or about three due to the number of terraces). You enter by walking between a t-shirt shop and a silk shop, then you come out into a big atrium. You order from the girl, head up one flight of stairs past the family altar, then up a spiral staircase to the verandah that looks out over the city and Hoan Kiem Lake.

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Many combinations of chicken and noodles on offer

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Brendon took a liking to our local chicken shack which served sliced chicken over sticky rice, chicken pho, chicken spring rolls and chicken miến trộn. All of these came with a dish of tasty pickled cucumbers.

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Bùn chả with pork patties and crab spring rolls from 67 Đường Thành Street

He went off on a solo mission to investigate a lead on crab spring rolls and pork bùn. He also made repeat visits to one food vendor on Lý Quốc Sư that sold a variety of deep-fried nibbles, including a vegetarian dumpling that, while containing no meat, also contained no vegetables and was really just a ball of fried dough.

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Detail from Thái Nguyên iron and steel complex (1962) by Búi Trang Chước

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Detail from Uncle Ho on a military campaign (1985) by Nguyễn Nghĩa Duyện

We didn’t visit many of Hanoi’s cultural venues (unless coffee shops count) but we did go to the Fine Art Museum. There was some interesting art with the coolest being the lacquer engravings.

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Once Brendon’s suit was finished we headed out to the post office to send it home. We stopped at the place with a big neon sign that read ‘Post Office’ out the front of it. It looked pretty small – one desk and a rack of postcards. ‘This must be it,’ I said trustingly. Brendon looked skeptical. ‘Is this the post office?’ he asked the woman inside. She looked at the big bag of stuff we wanted to post and then said, ‘Next building!’. Calling your knockoff business the name of the other, more popular business next door seems to be pretty standard practice here.

Bygone Days Before Motorbikes

Bygone days before motorbikes

With the suit finished and mailed off we were keen to get out of Hanoi. We wanted to go to a farmstay in Dong Hoi next, but they were booked up so we ended up sticking around town a few more days. When the staff at our hotel realised we wouldn’t be booking a Halong Bay tour with them they moved on to something different. As we came downstairs one morning the boss lady and one of the regular clerks asked how we were enjoying our stay. We nodded and said it was good. Boss Lady opened a drawer under the desk and pulled out an envelope. Would we write a positive review for the hotel on Trip Advisor? she asked, waving the envelope. Sure, we said. She smiled and handed the envelope to Brendon. It contained an ingratiating handwritten card wishing Mr Kearns a happy and prosperous new year. We headed out for the day. When we returned drunk hours later the desk clerk stopped us on our way up to our room. Have you written the review? he asked. We explained we’d do it later. You can use the computer right here! he exclaimed. You can do it now! We made our excuses and went up to bed. The following morning on our way out he asked again about the review. Then again when came home. Then again the next morning. And again when we got home. We flip-flopped between feeling annoyed and feeling bad – they were obviously doing what they thought was necessary to run a good business but they came off as so transparently insincere. And we still haven’t written the bloody review!

On our last day in Hanoi we went down to the train station to book our tickets to Dong Hoi (with a little help from The Man in Seat 61). We took a number and waited to be called to the ticketing window. The system was like what you’d see at an RTA or DMV office – press 1 for ticket purchase; press 2 for refund or exchange, etc. Hanoians, however, had their own systems, which involved either crowding around the ticket windows and talking over the person currently being served, or taking one ticket from each category and seeing which came up first. But, with a little time and patience, we successfully booked two bunks on the sleeper train outta town.

I don’t mean to sound like there was nothing enjoyable about Hanoi. If you have a strong constitution, you love shopping and bargaining, you visit at a different time of year and you stay no more than a week it could be a pretty fun place. But it just wasn’t for us.

Tạm biệt Hanoi! I don’t think we’ll see each other again soon.

Luang Prabang

As soon as we got off our tuk tuk from the pier we could tell Luang Prabang was different to other places in Southeast Asia. The motorbikes cruised by slowly. The street markets contained beautiful well-made things you might actually consider buying. The sellers were doing their job, but in a gentle, good-natured way. We had planned to stay in Luang Prabang for about a week but ended up staying over a month.

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The town is built around a number of impressive temples (wats), which are tended by a large number of Buddhist monks and novices. Monks are part of everyday life there and you see them everywhere – walking down the street on their way to school, crossing the bamboo bridges across the Rivers, at the pharmacy visiting a family member, at the local English literacy centre. The monkhood is a way for boys from poor families to get an education and many of the young guys we spoke to in Luang Prabang were ex-monks.

Each wat has its own large hanging drum, which is used to wake the monks each morning at 4am and often is struck again at 4pm for about 15 or 20 minutes. Locals get up early and walk down to the main street to give alms (food they have prepared at home) to the monks – the food they collect here is taken back, divided up, and will be the monks’ only food for the day.

Because Buddhism plays such a central role in life in Luang Prabang, modesty and respect are also very important. We noticed that Lao people always dressed well – the men wore collared shirts and long pants; the women wore long skirts with traditional embroidery at the hem. We found the modesty factor to be a welcome change from Thailand and started to enjoy covering up as it made it easy to pop in and out of temples whenever we saw one that looked interesting.

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Monks about town

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Signage at the ATMs is often ignored by westerners going for a morning jog

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Even the street crossing signs showed a nice well-dressed lady

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Lao dudes looking sharp

As nice as the city was, it still had a strong tourist presence, especially on the main drag through the old city which is lined with places that either crank out crap food at slightly inflated prices or offer more high end options priced closer to what you might pay at home.

We found that Luang Prabang drew in a fairly diverse crowd of tourists – it wasn’t unusual to see a geriatric daredevil wading out on a bicycle into the mass of motor scooters or to overhear a group of backpackers piecing together the night prior where one of them got bitten on the hand after tackling a purse snatcher in an alley at some hour of the morning beyond the town’s general curfew. It can even become visually surreal at times, like when we saw a girl in a bikini lay out her towel on the muddy bank of the Nam Khan next to a weathered old Lao man fixing a boat by hand.

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Luang Prabang’s main drag

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Local breakfast place after the morning rush

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Wat Sop Sickharam

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Lady on motor scooter

At dinner time the alley beside The Ancient Luang Prabang Hotel fills with food vendors selling anything from Mekong weed, dumplings and noodles to grilled fish and rodents. There are a couple of big vege buffets where you can load your plate for 10,000 kip (~$1.30) – it won’t be the most amazing meal you’ve ever had (we worked out that one item was deep-fried battered white bread) but it’s the most bang you’ll get for your buck. You can also grab a cheap beer and chat with other tourists at the tables, but don’t even think about hanging around once your plate is empty or you’ll be shooed away by the stall owners.

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Dig in you fat falang

The food culture in Luang Prabang is heavily French influenced, so there are excellent breads, cakes and pate as well as noodle soups, curries, stews and grilled meats.

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First bagel egg and cheese in two months

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Citron tart from La Banetton

In the centre of town is Phousi Hill (referred to as ‘Mount Pousi’ by the locals, which elicited a few snickers). The hill can be climbed via one of two long staircases. Two-thirds of the way up is a series of shrines and a small cave containing one of the Buddha’s footprints. In this area you can meet some of the young monks, who like to chill out here and practice their English with the tourists. We were really impressed by how good the monks’ English was – we spent quite a while talking to a 17-year-old called Jasmine who had fairly extensive knowledge of U.S. geography and made fun of us for not being married. If you climb all the way to the top you get a beautiful panoramic view of the town. On the way down is a big Bodhi tree in the middle of a quiet garden.

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Novice monks at the Buddha’s footprint

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Path up Phousi Hill

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View from the top

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Bodhi tree

We spent a lot of time playing rummy outside an Internet cafe that served cheap beers on the main drag. Afterwards we would go a few doors over to sit at Opera Bar as their wine was relatively cheap and it was a good central spot for people-watching. Apart from the joy of listening to the one CD of covers they played on repeat (Fields of Gold, anyone?), I loved looking out over the street and watching the antics of Mr Tok Tok, the angriest pug on earth. He lives in the travel agency and, when the mood takes him, likes to attack the legs of customers and staff. He went through a number of different outfits during our stay – from a regal red Chinese number to some pink and white Minnie Mouse pajamas.

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Tourist central

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Hating life

After a stint at Opera Bar we often ended up across the road at the Indian restaurant. It gets pretty busy in there and sometimes we needed to share a table. Sometimes this was fun, like when we were seated with a wasted New Zealand-American who jokingly called everyone ‘brew’ and told us stories about his time working as a labourer in Shitsville, Western Australia. Sometimes it was just bizarre, like the time we sat with an old Muslim Chinese man whose ancestors came from Tatarstan. He couldn’t speak a word of English, but this didn’t stop his vigorous attempts to communicate with Brendon about religion, food, his role as a torchbearer in the Beijing Olympics, and the fact that I should have my hair covered up. He communicated with the restaurant owners in sign language, made fun of them for being Hindus (despite them being Muslim), spat on their floor and then gave Brendon a big kiss on the head when he left.

The other main thing to do in town is visit the wats. The biggest and most impressive wat in town is Wat Xienthong, which is lavishly decorated with stencils, mosaics and wooden relief carvings.

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Stencilling at Wat Xiengthong

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Mosaic mural

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Luang Prabang is flanked by two rivers, the Khan and the Mekong. During the dry season local villagers build bamboo bridges between the banks to enable easy crossing. In the rainy season you have to use a boat to get across.

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Bamboo bridge from the point across the Nam Khan

We wanted to see where the locals did their shopping so we grabbed a tuk tuk out to Phosy Market, about 10 minutes out of town. Here you can buy everything – meat, clothing, snacks, homewares, shoes, beauty products, fabric – except underwear that fit a western man.

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Food in Laos is more expensive than elsewhere in Southeast Asia because most of it has to be imported from Thailand and Vietnam. But you can find cheap breakfast at the stalls along Sisavangvong which serve crepes, baguettes, fruit shakes and Lao coffee. The coffee is super-strong, dark and potent, with condensed milk in the bottom to sweeten it and it goes for as little as 5000 kip a cup (~65 cents). Our favourite breakfast here was a vege version of the Lao style baguette – tofu slices, cucumber, hard-boiled egg, onion and sweet chilli sauce for 10,000 kip. The meat version includes sliced chicken and pork floss and costs the same.

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Lao style sandwich

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Lao coffee

At first we found Lao food a bit bland after coming from Thailand. But over time we found lots of cool local dishes. Luang Prabang is very foreigner-friendly so it was also quite easy to find vegetarian food. You can even find vegetarian versions of some of the more popular Lao dishes like orlahm (buffalo stew). But Lao people don’t really understand why you’d bother. In Laos vegetarianism is associated with the Buddhist monks, who are all vegan. Being vego for non-religious reasons probably seems like another falang eccentricity.

Some of the best Lao food we had was from Dyen Sabai, an outdoor restaurant that you get to by crossing the second bamboo bridge across the Nam Khan.

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View front the bridge

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Jungle laundry

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Animals in the road by the restaurant

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When we ordered the tofu fondue the guy who served us asked if I was vego. I said yes, and he said, ‘No one from my village is vegetarian. They eat any animal – chicken, cow, rat, dog – they will kill it and cook it. Some even eat cat. I don’t ever want to eat cat.’

The tofu fondue was one of my favourite Lao dishes – they set up a stone pot of hot coals with a grill/pan on top at your table. You get a teapot of coconut broth, deep-fried battered eggplant, a basket of veges, noodles, herbs and eggs and a plate of tofu to grill. By the end you will be sweating like a bastard but it’s totally worth it, and for 70,000 kip (~ 9 bucks) it feeds two people. Brendon loved the orlahm (water buffalo stew) which contained a spicy bark native to the region. Lao Lao Garden offered a tofu version but it didn’t really compare in flavor.

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Basket of veggies ready to cook

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Orlahm soup at Dyen Sabai

A favourite Lao snack was meow mak keua – sort of like the Lao version of baba ghanoush, made with roasted eggplant and dill, which you eat with balls of sticky rice. Brendon liked L’etranger’s version best since it was a bit spicier than anywhere else we tried.

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Jeow mak keua at L’etranger

Larp is another Lao food we loved. Lao larp is something like Thai laab/larb, but in LP you can get it with chicken, fish, pork or tofu. The ground meat or cubed tofu is marinated in lime and fish sauce, fried and mixed with lemongrass and herbs. The best larp we found was the tofu larp at a small place called Cafe Toui. They also have a few banquet options, and their 80,000 kip (~$10 ) vege banquet includes fresh spring rolls, coconut curry, eggplant and mushroom steamed in a banana leaf (a veg version of Mok Pa, fish steamed in banana leaf) and the excellent tofu larp.

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Tofu larp from Cafe Toui

Luang Prabang sausage is a regional pork sausage variety that includes rice, lime, garlic, pepper, salt and lemongrass. It appears everywhere from on your breakfast bagel at Pilgrim Cafe to the Luang Prabang pizza at Biblio Bar, as well as on tasting platters at all the good restaurants. During the day you can see it drying on racks in the street.

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Luang Prabang sausage pizza with pineapple and peppers

We had read about an interesting hike across the Mekong river in the Chomphet District. After a late start we headed straight out to Wat Chomphet and from there cruised through the series of wats and shrines, climbed up inside a cave to make an offering, managed to get lost a few times in the jungle, dodged a few mean dogs, met some village kids and then walked it all over again when we realized that there isn’t necessarily a boat at the end at takes you back.

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Wat Chomphet

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Vat Nong Sakeo

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Shrines up the hill behind Vat Had Siaw

The wat we liked the most was in the town centre at the bottom of Phousi Hill. It’s not listed on the Hobo map of Luang Prabang that we relied on, and is falling into disrepair. Wat Pa Huak or “Monastery of the Bamboo Forest” was built in 1861 and its interior is covered in delicate murals.

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Detail from mural inside Wat Pa Huak

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When it became clear that we really didn’t want to leave Luang Prabang we decided to go to the immigration office to extend our visas – this only costs $2 per extra day. The immigration office is in the less touristy part of town and, as seems to be the custom in Laos, closes between 11:30 and 1:30 so its employees can have lunch. We arrived at the ‘Foreigner processing office’ just after 12, so spent a bit of time checking the area out.

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Watermelon stupa at Wat Visoun

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Laotian art gallery

We had a cheap lunch at Atsalin restaurant, where 40,000 kip (~$5) got lunch and drinks for two. We tried the vege sukiyaki soup and the veges with macaroni, which was surprisingly good. In Laos pasta is on a lot of the menus and is just treated like another type of stir fry noodle – which it is, I guess.

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Macaroni stir fry at Atsalin

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Less touristy end of town

Our accommodation was a mixed bag. Our first place – Nittaya Guesthouse @ 130,000 kip (~$16) – was nice but we knew we could find cheaper. Next we found a place that offered rooms for 80,000 kip (~$10) per night. The only drawbacks were: it was next door to a workaholic silversmith; at night strange vomiting sounds could be heard coming from the family who lived in the front half of the house; one of the girls appeared one morning with a mysterious black eye; I found blood drops outside our door; we had to walk through the family’s living room to get to our room; our room was never cleaned in the week we stayed there. I got a 5-day bout of food poisoning (probably from eating at the attached restaurant) and threw a tantrum, and we moved to the lovely Nam Sok 3 Guesthouse on Xotikhoumman Rd for the rest of our time in LP. This place is run by three women who know what they’re doing and also costs only 80,000 kip a night. Highly recommended.

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Ten dollar a night room at Nam Sok 3 Guest House

There were a couple of short blackouts in Luang Prabang while we were there. I had to override Brendon’s American impulse to deadbolt the door and stay inside in case of looters. Instead we sat on the verandah with a Beerlao and one of the women who ran the guesthouse brought us some candles.

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Romance

During the last week of our stay our friend Lisa took us to the Xiengthong Noodle Soup shop, up the end of Sakkaline across from Wat Xiengthong. This place has been there for over ten years and one woman makes all of the food. Lao people tend to go there for breakfast so she opens early and closes when the soup runs out, at about 2pm. The soup contains fat rice noodles, bok choy, chopped green onions and fried garlic. You can get it with pork and/or a poached egg. Then you add your own bean sprouts, lime, chili flakes, soy or fish sauce and ginger. Apparently it’s especially good if you get it with homemade rice crackers, but they had sold out both days due to a high volume of weddings in town after the Lunar New Year. The soup is made with pork stock but being a strict vegetarian out here is a losing game. It was so great we had to go back again the following day.

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Xiengthong Noodle Soup

Afterwards we adjourned to Halolao, the cafe next door, for a coffee and then a whiskey and coke. The guy who works there doesn’t speak English terribly well and when he can’t understand you he whispers, ‘What?’ as though you have said something offensive. In response to Lisa’s request for three whiskey and cokes he brought out three wine glasses full of whiskey and one can of coke. Lisa said in Lao that the glasses were too big – he took them inside and decanted the whiskey into highball glasses instead. Only one round was necessary!

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Playing Bananagrams with Lisa at Halolao

On the 7th of February we left Luang Prabang and took a minibus to Vientiane so we could fly to Hanoi. The 11-hour trip took us through winding mountain ranges and dry dusty highways. When we were driving to Pai in Thailand we had thought it funny when the driver stopped to pick up eggplants from a roadside stall; on the way to Vientiane the driver took things to another level when he pulled over and bought a large rodent from a woman in one of the mountain villages. The poor animal spent the rest of the journey in a sack at the feet of two Lao women who were riding shotgun, unphased.

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View of the scenery on the bus ride from Luang Prabang to Vientiane

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A large bamboo rat for dinner

Thai food wrap-up

Posted by Katie

We tried so much amazing Thai food – mostly vegetarian or ‘mang-sow-ee-rat’, with occasional seafood and accidental meat thrown in – that a post of observations and highlights seems appropriate. If looking at Instagram pix of people’s food pisses you off… you know what to do.

My favourite discovery was khao soi – a rich soup made with coconut milk, tomato, onion, chili and spices, rice noodles, potato pieces, sometimes tofu or sometimes gluten balls or mock meat, garnished with deep-fried egg noodles, fresh shallots and coconut cream. The meat version usually has chicken or pork. On the side, if you’re lucky, you’ll get a plate of kimchi, lime, chilli paste and red shallots. This dish originally comes from Burma but it’s also spread into northern Thailand and Laos. I’m totally hooked and try it everywhere. #1 place goes to Aum Vegetarian Restaurant in Chiang Mai, where I had my first. These women know how to garnish.

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The guy at the Curry Shack in Pai also makes a good one (and it’s very cheap – 50 baht), though he uses pre-packaged fried noodles for the topping. But he gains points for being a lone dude running a food stand – a total rarity in Thailand as far as we’ve seen – and serving his food with brown rice grown by the local hill tribes.

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The khao soi salad with tofu from Om Garden in Pai is also excellent.

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We learnt to make khao soi in our cooking class at Bamboo Bee so hopefully I’ll be serving this up at home in a few months. This is all the stuff we made – clockwise from left are spicy Isaan salad, healthy fried rice, khao soi, spicy mushrooms with cashews, and tofu with kimchi.

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We’ve been really impressed by the vegetarian and vegetarian-friendly restaurants in Thailand. In Chiang Mai we kept going back to Aum and Bamboo Bee, both of which serve a huge range of vege food from around the world – Thai soups, stir fries and curries, fresh Japanese sushi and gyoza, Chinese wonton soups and spring rolls, Mexican guacamole and American-style burgers with ‘french fried’.

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Wonton soup from Aum

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Fivespice vegetarian duck from Bamboo Bee

On the more gourmet end of the spectrum is Anchan Vegetarian Restaurant in Nimmin, Chiang Mai. We went for dinner with Jeanne and Joey and ordered pretty much everything on the menu. Stand-outs were the banana flower salad, eggplant miso stir fry and the massamun curry with mushrooms. We ate too quickly to get a pic.

We generally eat street food for dinner – it’s cheap, fresh and delicious. Each night the streets are lined with food stands selling amazing stuff for as little as 10 baht (~30c) or as much as 100 baht (~3 bucks).

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Thais will set up food stands absolutely anywhere – this was in front of a shopping centre in Chiang Mai

Finding vegetarian street food was a bit of a struggle at first, especially when we were shy about busting out our shithouse broken Thai. Our first major success came when we stumbled on the opening night of the Ayutthaya World Heritage Fair, which included a farang-friendly food market showcasing regional dishes, complete with English signage. This was a great way to get acquainted with different street foods and we tried some of the more unusual stuff like a dessert made from corn, coconut, rice, gluten balls, an egg and god knows what else – surprisingly tasty. I tried grilled fermented fish, which is about 500 times better than it sounds – crispy on the outside, juicy and vinegary on the inside, served with cabbage leaves and whole green chilies. Brendon’s favourite was the som tam (green papaya salad), though he felt a little disappointed when the cook, on seeing that he was a foreigner, pulled a bunch of chillis out of the dish. He’s since learnt how to ask for things ‘normal spicy’ – ‘phet tamadaa’.

Ayutthaya’s Pa Thon Road market also had some good stuff to eat. A stall down the end sells fresh mushroom soup made from all sorts of exotic mushrooms that would probably be too expensive to buy in Sydney if you could even find them. They throw big handfuls into a dark broth with some greens and herbs and mouth-numbing amounts of chilli. The lady selling the Thai fish cakes with cucumber and spicy sauce is also a winner, as is the squid on a stick.

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Things on sticks are very popular. Grilled sausages, mushrooms, bananas, squid, pork and chicken are just a few of the options on offer pretty much everywhere. Experienced eaters simply walk over and grab the exact skewer they want. Brendon is an enthusiastic sampler of all the Thai sausage varieties, which can be smelt sizzling away by the side of the road at any time of day. He learnt how to ask for them well-done – ‘suk-suk’ (said like ‘look-look’). The best was a chicken sausage with lemongrass, chilli and vermicelli from a stall outside the 7-Eleven in Sukhothai. The soi dogs hanging around the grill obviously couldn’t resist the aroma either.

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The street food in Pai was our favourite – as it’s a hippyish town with a small Muslim population there are lots of vege options, heaps of variety and everything is pretty well signposted. Each night we wandered down to the ‘walking street’ and grabbed whatever looked good.

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Coconut and shallot cakes (15 baht) and grilled mushrooms (25 baht, though available down the road for 10 as we found out a few minutes later)

On Christmas night, half-bagged, we discovered Yunnan fresh noodle soup (30 baht). We asked if it was ‘mang-sow-ee-rat’ (vegetarian) and the lady said yes. Brendon asked for it ‘kin phet’ (spicy) and we were very pleased with the result. The next day we went back and forgot to ask for it vegetarian and realised that the soup had chicken in it all along – I guess they just fished out the meat last time. Oops!

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When street stalls are looking a bit too meaty there are always the desserts. The best yet was a stall we found in Sukhothai where you get a bag (everything here comes in a plastic bag) of sticky rice, a bag of peeled jackfruit and a little bag of coconut and condensed milk sauce. You put the rice in the jackfruit, cover it in sauce and shove it in your mouth before it all falls apart. Roti stands run by Muslim Thais are also common – I recommend the banana and Nutella roti.

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Young stall-owners in Chiang Mai

In Pai I can vouch for the mini pancakes with chocolate (also available plain or with banana) that an Israeli kid on the street was evangelising about – a big helping will only set you back 20 baht if I remember right.

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Although Thai food is amazing, sometimes all you want is starchy, cheesy, doughy, comforting western food. Thai renditions of western dishes can be pretty hit or miss but we found some hits. Sham Poo’s baked potatoes from the night markets in Pai – kind of expensive at 100 baht but delicious and big enough to share – are one example. There are about 6 filling combinations to choose from. I went for a mix of pesto, corn, sprouts, cabbage, cheese and other veges.

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Honorable mentions go to Boutique della Pasta and Dada Cafe in Chiang Mai. BdP serves reasonable pizza and chilled red wine (just the way our dads like it); Dada serves juices, healthy breakfasts and the never-before-seen stuffed omelette. They also do avocado on toast, our breakfast staple back in Sydney.

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In Pai we were visiting Good Life and The Thai Kebab on the regular. TTK is a felafel and sabich joint owned by a Jewish American guy. Everything there is amazing and they give you free reign of the tahini sauce.

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In addition to all the food, there are plenty of great drinks to try in Thailand (apart from the obligatory Leos). Good Life is a tea house and cafe in Pai. It has a 90s doof herbal vibe and serves weird stuff like kombucha and kava tea as well as breakfast, sandwiches and snacks. The mint oolong tea and the orange-coloured Thai tea served hot with condensed milk were my favourites. Brendon was more adventurous and tried the kava kava (his favourite – it had a mild sedative effect that took away any anxiety without making you feel dumb) and the Lingzhi (‘medicine of kings, spiritual vegetable meal’ as it was listed in the menu). This arrived at the table with a weird piece of something sticking out of the cup – our server referred to it as ‘the dragon’s tongue’. Later research revealed that this was a slice of lingzhi mushroom. This tea is supposed to have medicinal properties like reducing body fat, increasing white blood cells and relieving pain. It tasted sooooo disgustingly bitter though – it must be really good for you…

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Lingzhi tea

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Thai milk tea

Fruit lassis (fruit, yoghurt/coconut milk and crushed ice) and fruit shakes (fruit and crushed ice) are also available everywhere in Thailand. The coconut lassi is another new discovery that I hold close to my heart.

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Dragonfruit lassi from The House Restaurant, Pai

There were a few key Thai foods we missed trying before we crossed the Laotian border on the 4th of January. These are on the list for next visit. One is ‘joke’, a rice porridge with ginger, shallots and optional pork that locals eat for breakfast. We had it recommended to us by a few people but I never seemed to drag myself out of bed early enough to get it before the stall-owners had packed up. Brendon also wanted to try ‘khao ka moo’ (pork shoulder with rice).

A summary of places we liked in each city…
Bangkok
Baan E-San Muang Yos, Sukhumvit Soi 31. Our favourite restaurant in Bangkok (see Bangkok post for photos). Get the grilled stuffed salted fish.
May Veggie Home, moving to Asok for 2014. Run by an older lady who might forget you’re there after a while, but the food is so good who cares?
Som Tam Nam, Siam Square, Soi 5. Looks to be the most popular som tam place in BKK. If you want vego make sure you check with the staff that there’s no meat in what you ordered to avoid ‘pork surprise’.
Full Stop Cafe, Soi 55. Great coffee and possibly the cleanest toilet in Thailand.
Imchan food stall, on Sukhumvit Rd near Phrom Phong station, and on Soi 55 and a few other places. Their slogan is ‘Good Thaifood, very cheap’. Sums it up really. Home of the 40 baht pad thai.

Ayutthaya
Pa Thon Road market. Good variety of fresh food options, as well as clothes, gifts and furniture.
Coffee Old City. Situated across from Wat Mahathat. Good for those mornings when you need a western breakfast. Also good for a cheap bevvy in the afternoon.

Sukkhothai
Pai Restaurant (part of the Pai Sukhothai Resort), Pravetnakorn Rd. Good quality Thai food including Sukkhothai noodle soup.
Poo Restaurant, 24/3 Th Jarot Withithong. Offers a surprising selection of European beers like Kwak and Delerium Tremens. Also serves a vego version of Sukhothai noodle soup (though it wasn’t as good as the 30 baht version I got from a food cart at the historical park).
Local Market, cross the bridge (walking away from Old Sukhothai) and take your second right. You’ll find a bunch of food stands with communal seating in the middle. Super-cheap, plenty of places with English menus and quite a few vego dishes on offer. I thought the selection here was actually better than the more popular Night Market.
Night Market, around the outside of Wat Rachathani. Popular with tourists and Thais – after work people will pull their motorbike up to a stall, grab a plastic bag of curry or noodles for dinner and drive away. Home of the jackfruit sticky rice guy.
Chopper Bar, Pravetnakorn Rd. Seemed to be the only bar in town. Pros: vege tempura, decent music, dogs dressed in bikinis. Cons: expensive drinks, dogs dressed in bikinis were not quite toilet-trained.

Chiang Mai
Aum Vegetarian Restaurant, 65 Th Moon Muang. Best khao soi in Thailand! Don’t miss it.
Bamboo Bee, 177 Ratchaphakhinai Rd. Fantastic range of vegetarian food. We tried a lot of the dishes and all were delicious. Also the best mango sticky rice I’ve had. The owner does everything herself and will tell you to go away and come back later if things are getting too hectic. Definitely come back.
Anchan Vegetarian Restaurant, Nimmanahaeminda Rd, between Lane 6 and 10, opposite Soi 13. One of the more upmarket vego places we tried in Chiang Mai but still very affordable. A little hard to find and out of the city centre in the uni area, which is great to hang out in. Their menu changes regularly.
Dada Cafe, Ratmakka Rd. Good breakfast spot with a lot of vego options.
Boutique della Pasta, 14 Rachadamnoen Rd, Soi 5. For your gluten and cheese fix. Run by an Italian dude who imports cheese from Italy, according to the menu. It’s no Gigi but it’ll do! The pastas also looked decent.
Sticky Rice Cafe, 33 Moonmuang Rd, Tae Pae Gate. The cheapest beers we found in Chiang Mai – 80 baht for large Leos.

Pai
Night markets, Chaisongkram Rd and Rangsiyanon Rd. A bit of everything – noodles, icecream, soups, Indian food, Islamic food, teas, stirfries, pancakes, mango sticky rice, meat skewers… We ate there almost every night and never got sick of it.
The Thai Kebab (TTK), Ratchadamrong Rd. Went here pretty much every second day. Felafel plate, sabich plate, shakshukah eggs all highly recommended.
Charlie & Lek, Rangsiyanon Rd. Went here for lunch on New Year’s Day and ended up having a feast. They serve all the usual Thai foods – stirfries, pad thais etc – but the ingredients are top quality and the execution is perfect. The prawn pad thai was killer.
Om Garden Cafe, walk along Ratchadamrong Rd past the high school towards town and take your second left (just after Na’s Kitchen). Lots of vego food and a few vegan things too from memory. Seems to be run by an English guy so the curries weren’t as spicy as we had grown used to, but food was still tasty. Try the home-made ginger ale and the khao soi salad with tofu. Cakes also looked fantastic.
Pai Country House, 83 Moo 1, Rangsayanon Rd. Restaurant attached to a hotel. Had the cheapest beers in town (large Leos for 60 baht) and the stirfries and fruit shakes were cheap and good. They also have decent wifi, which is a rarity.
The Curry Shack, Thedsaban Soi 2 (off Chaisongkram Rd). Cheap and tasty. He makes five types of curry – green, red, khao soi, massaman and coconut – with meat or tofu and brown rice.
Good Life, Teseban 1 Rd. Work your way through the exotic tea list.
The House Restaurant, Chaisongkram Rd opposite Wat Pha Kham. Great lassis and vege breakfast.

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