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A Chiang Mai Tour in Northern Thailand

Chiang Mai is the largest city in northern Thailand and is a lovely place with a very laid back vibe. There are plenty of things to see and these aren’t just confined to the city itself. There are loads of activities to suit all interests – whether cultural or natural – both around town and into the wider countryside. It’s definitely worth spending time exploring this lovely city and surrounds, whether on an organised Chiang Mai tour or exploring independently. We spent five days in and around the region and combined our own exploration with some guided walks which were great for understanding the history of this delightful city.

An Old City With Walls and A Moat

Chiang Mai was founded by the Lanna King, Mangrai, in 1296. The Lanna people were from Northern Thailand and the name translates to ‘Kingdom of a Million Rice Fields.’ Mangrai had established the city of Chiang Rai in 1262 as the capital of his kingdom and later, following both friendship pacts and wars with other local kingdoms, he moved further south. Due to its location Chiang Mai was vulnerable to invasion from the Taungoo Dynasty of the Bamar People (from Myanmar) and the Mongol empire. As a result it was heavily fortified with both a moat and a high city wall, which remain to this day. The old city is surrounded by an extremely pretty walled canal with four gates.

Chiang Mai city wall and moat
Chiang Mai city wall and moat
Chiang Mai city wall gate

Old Town Chiang Mai Temples

Chiang Mai has well over a hundred temples and it is a pleasure just wandering through the city to discover the many gems that the city to offer.

Wat Chiang Man

Wat Chiang Man is the city’s oldest temple, located by the north east corner of the walled old city. It was constructed at the behest of King Mengrai.

Wat Chiang Man Chiang Mai tour

The wihan of a temple is the assembly hall and there are two at Wat Chiang Man. Both contain very old and highly revered Buddhas.

Wat Chiang Man Chiang Mai tour

The chedi, also known as a stupa, is traditionally the oldest part of a temple. Wat Chiang Man has an elephant chedi, called Chedi Chang Lom, where fifteen stone elephants support the golden relic chamber.

Chiang Mai Tour Chedi Chang Lom

Wat Phra Singh

Another important temple, Wat Phra Singh, was constructed in 1345 by King Phayu, the fifth Mangrai king, who wanted to build a chedi for his late father’s ashes. It was enjoying a face-lift when we visited, so we didn’t see it in its full glory.

Wat Phra Singh

Wat Phra Singh Wihan Lai Kham was constructed to house the precious Phra Buddha Singh statue.

Wat Phra Singh Wihan Lai Kham
Phra Buddha Singh

The interior also contains some fascinating murals.

Wat Phra Singh mural

A common – and striking – characteristic of many temples in Thailand are the naga – semi-divine creatures that are a cross between a human and serpent. These are the guardians of the temple – they may look dramatic and a scary but their purpose is generally thought to be protective. It wouldn’t be appropriate to have a holy place guarded by demons.

Wat Phra Singh Wihan Luang Chiang Mai

The roofs of many of the temple buildings are beautiful- highly decorative and elaborate.

Chiang Mai Tour

Chiang Mai Cultural Centre

Slightly out of town on the Prapoklao Road is the Chiang Mai Arts and Cultural Centre which used to be the royal hall. It runs evenings showcasing northern Thai food and culture. You can join in to enjoy a delicious meal followed by entertainment such as dancing, martial arts and traditional games.

This delicious Northern Thai dinner comprised a number of dishes including Hin-Lay curry (pork), minced pork in a chilli-tomato paste, crispy-fried pork skin, crispy noodles, fried chicken, stir-fried vegetables and fried banana and pumpkin.

Then the entertainment started with some dancing and martial arts…

Chiang Mai cultural evening
Chiang Mai cultural evening

…before we moved outside to see some fire-based martial arts and a cute lion dance.

It is a bit touristy but was a fun evening out and an introduction to the culture of the region.

Temples Further Afield

If you don’t get templed out in Chiang Mai itself, there are many more wats to visit in the area surrounding the city. If you don’t have a pre-arranged tour, it’s possible to reach them by taxi. These can easily be arranged with local hotels and hostels. It’s worth agreeing a price first and consider asking for a round trip where the taxi driver will wait for you to explore the temple before taking you back. Both Wat Inthrawat and Wiang Kum Kam, located a few kilometres from the city centre, were definitely worth exploring.

Wat Inthrawat

Wat Inthrawat is one of the best preserved wooden temples in the region. It’s located in the Hang Dong district around 10 km south of Chiang Mai, in the village of Ban Ton Kwen. Small, but perfectly formed, this temple is still in its original state.

Wat Inthrawat Chiang Mai

It has a wihan built in the Lanna style with typical nagas at the entrance steps.

Wat Inthrawat nagas

The roof has three tiers and also features some impressive and very decorative features at the tips of each tier. The quality of the craftsmanship is remarkable.

Wat Inthrawat Chiang Mai

Wiang Kum Kam

Around 5km southeast of Chiang Mai lies the archaeological site of Wiang Kum Kam. This former city was built by King Magram. It was originally the capital of the Lanna in the 13th century but Magram decided to relocate to Chiang Mai, situated at an altitude 12m higher, due to serious flooding at this site. Although the area remained inhabited for several centuries it was finally abandoned after a massive flood which deposited a huge amount of sediment over the buildings. Much of the city has now been excavated and it’s possible to explore the ruins. It’s an extensive area and you can ride around the site in a horse drawn cart or tram. It has a visitor centre, located on Rte 3029, which has loads of information about the site and that’s also the place where you can pick up transportation. It’s possible to visit several temple complexes.

Chiang Mai Tour Wiang Kum Kam
Wiang Kum Kam
Chiang Mai tour Wiang Kum Kam

Wat Chedi Liam is the highlight of the complex. At over 30m tall, and taking the form of a pyramid structure, it has five main tiers. Each of these contain twelve Buddhas, three on each side, located inside their own alcove. It remained relatively unaffected by the floods over the centuries and remains a working temple.

Wat Chedi Liam

Activities in Chiang Mai’s Wider Area

Although it’s possible to spend quite some time exploring the city there are also loads of trips to take in the surrounding area.

This orchid farm was a pretty distraction for short while on the way to Mae Sa.

Chiang Mai orchid farm

Mae Sa Waterfalls

Located in the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park, around 30km from Chiang Mai, Mae Sa offers a series of ten waterfalls spaced a few hundred metres apart. You can follow the pathway alongside the falls to enjoy a pleasant walk and swimming in the pools is allowed, if you desire. It’s not a challenging hike at all – just a pleasant stroll up a gentle incline. It gets quite crowded at the start of the trail but as you hike towards the upper falls the crowds melt away and you can enjoy the beauty of the surroundings. There are picnic spots along the way, so it’s possible to pack bathing suits and some tasty food to make a day trip if you fancy having a more relaxing time.

Mae Sae waterfalls
Mae Sae waterfalls
Mae Sae waterfalls

Elephant Sanctuary Visit

Visiting an elephant sanctuary is a very popular activity. There are loads in the area but do check which are responsible and ethical and make sure that they do not exploit the elephants. Many sanctuaries no longer allow elephant rides but focus on caring for and interacting with these remarkable creatures.

We visited a sanctuary a couple of hours away from Chiang Mai which is home to several elephants, all of whom have been rescued from the logging industry or from giving rides to tourists on iron chairs, a practice that really damages the elephants’ backs. When the sanctuary learns about elephants that are being mistreated they locate the creature and offer as much money as they can afford to convince the owners/abusers to sell their elephants. Each elephant has its own mahout (handler) who is responsible for its welfare. Set in 135 acres, the majority of the land is dedicated to growing food for the elephants. Tourists help provide much needed income to support the work of the sanctuary. Elephant riding (even bareback) is no longer allowed. We were able to meet the elephants and hand feed them – although some just helped themselves.

Chiang Mai elephant

Elephants are highly intelligent creatures. Their brains weigh about 5kg. They are also emotionally intelligent; they recognise and interact with other elephants and have likes and dislikes just as we do. In fact, elephants that really hate each other need to be kept separated at the sanctuary. They also make judgements about the humans they interact with and, if they decide they don’t like someone, will refuse to co-operate with that person. Also – those cliches about elephants are true. They really have terrific memories. Thai people believe that you can judge an elephant’s character by the shape and quantity of its tail hair. Indeed, tail hairs are considered a sign of good fortune (and are sometimes kept as a lucky charm).

Thai elephant sanctuary

We went for a walk with an elephant called Tom Parr, a large male with long tusks. Tom Parr was very calm and co-operative, but was apparently scared of chickens and cars. He adored going into the jungle – many elephants who have been rescued from the logging industry have been traumatised and refuse to go back into the forest; they are never forced to go where they do not wish to.

Tom Parr knew very well that we had some sugar cane on him.

Chiang Mai elephant

All the elephants are bathed at the sanctuary at least once a day. Tom Parr was very much looking forward to his bath and eagerly walked into the water and sat himself down. We joined him in the pool, which is fed by a local river, to give him a well-deserved wash. We showered him with water and scrubbed his skin and tusks. He was so happy. If he had been a cat, he would have been purring.

Throughout the experience we had been wondering whether we would need to ‘muck out’ the elephants at any time, something we had been quite prepared to do. However, the sanctuary had made arrangements such that the tourists’ exposure to poo was minimised. In fact, they even had a pooper-scooper chap on hand at the pond, ready to scoop any errant dung that the elephants generated into a bag and prevent the tourists getting too filthy. The sanctuary offers showers so you can wash down afterwards and change into your own clothes. The dung is often used to make paper.

A Chiang Mai Tour – Street Food and Markets

Back in the city, you’ll find that there are a number of bustling markets to explore, notably the night market which is a short walk away from the old city. On some nights of the week certain streets are closed to traffic and stalls pop up. These are really popular so expect crowds.

Of course, markets wouldn’t be markets without food stalls and Thai street food is amazing. The markets often have plastic tables and chairs nearby – they are not necessarily associated with any particular stall – so you can order your food and then take it to any table to enjoy at leisure.

Chiang Mai street food

One of the best street food dishes is som tam – green papaya salad. Green papaya is shredded into a large wooden bowl and then pounded with beans, carrots and tomatoes. Sometimes little shrimp are added although you can ask for them to be excluded if you are vegetarian. Chillies, lime juice, palm sugar and fish sauce are added to the mix and pounded to release the flavours giving that characteristic Thai combination of sweet, sour, salt and spice. Be warned though, those teeny Thai chillies are hot! The dish is then adorned with crushed toasted peanuts for added crunch. On a warm, humid evening, it’s the perfect dish for a refreshing snack, preferably accompanied with a nice cold beer.

Som Tam

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Noodle Review: President Fuku Beef

BRAND: President
FLAVOUR: Fuku Beef
TYPE: Normal (bowl)
No. OF SACHETS: Three – soupbase, flavour oil/paste and dried veg
WEIGHT: 85g
COUNTRY: Thailand

President Fuku Beef with a plastic fork noodles

Under license from Hong Kong the handily packaged Beef flavour certainly aims to please. There’s a reasonable portion and there’s even a fork provided which proves robust but I eventually ditched in favour of ‘old faithful’. Naturally cooking is never a problem with the all in ones but what of the all important taste considerations? Well there’s a nice spicy tang to the dish and a solid beefy flavour, crunchy veg and good noodles. But what’s that? Do I spot the dreaded noodle bowl downfall, the TVP chunks? No! They may look like TVP but they are bits of steak with just the right chew and lashings of flavour. Add that little pinch of Bonito powder to the proceedings and you have a great lunch, marred only by the slightest of plastic aftertastes. Take a good sniff though and the aftertaste disappears. Take one camping to be the envy of your friends.

https://www.verytastyworld.com/category/posts-about-food-from-all-over-the-world/instant-gratification/noodle-news-with-instant-reviews/

RECIPE: How to Make Umeboshi

A typical Japanese breakfast will comprise of a bowl of rice, some grilled fish and pickles accompanied by a bowl of miso soup. What a lovely way to start the day. And at the Japanese breakfast table you will often come across a bowl of pink, wrinkly fruit, roughly the size of an apricot.

How to make umeboshi

These are umeboshi, incredibly sour and salty ume fruit, which are like small plums or apricots, and are absolutely guaranteed to wake you up. They are also reputed to be a hangover cure, especially good if you are a salaryman who has had a late night out in the city. Or tourists who have had a late night in the city which involved chatting with all sorts of very interesting people in random bars and drinking quite a lot of booze.

Beware the stone, especially if you have a hangover.

Umeboshi are tsukemono, literally “pickled things” which  brined and therefore fermented, so they will last for ages. Some will even last decades. If they turn black, they should be chucked. We always bring some back from our trips to Japan and rationed them so had some in our fridge for about 5 years – they were still pink and wrinkly and utterly delicious. Most Japanese meals have tsukemono as an accompaniment but umeboshi are most often eaten at breakfast. They are also used in onigiri (rice balls) as a flavouring and can be converted into a paste to add plentiful salty/fruity flavour to a variety of dishes.

Some Japanese households make their own umeboshi. If you are lucky enough to be offered these, don’t be polite. Well, do be polite because that would be the right thing to do, but don’t hesitate to take your host up on their offer. Home-made umeboshi are absolutely delicious. The pink colour derives from red shiso – also known as perilla – which is a herb added during the pickling process. Shiso is a very common herb used a lot in Japanese cuisine. Green shiso is often the herb that garnishes a sushi platter.

It is possible to make sort-of-umeboshi in western countries. The ume fruit is not usually available, but you can have a bash using plums and salt.

We treated ourselves to a Japanese pickle press a while ago but it should be possible to make umeboshi using a wide-mouthed jar, just as long as you have something heavy that will fit inside the jar to weigh the plums down and a utensil that can extract them (tongs should be fine) as you will need to take them in and out of the jar after the fermentation.

Japanese pickle press
How to make umeboshi

We use plums from our allotment. They have the delightful name Warwickshire Droopers. The great thing is that we can assess how ripe our plums are and pick them. This year the plum tree has been very generous. If you don’t have a plum tree your local market or greengrocer may well have a variety of plums for you to choose from.

Warwickshire Drooper plums

You want the plums to be ripe but not over-ripe, they need to have a degree of firmness.

How to make umeboshi

How to Make Umeboshi

Ingredients

Plums – enough to fill your container but leaving enough space to add a weight. If using a press, make sure the press can close and provide enough pressure.

Salt – 8% of the weight of the plums. Try not to use table salt, as this contains anti-caking agents. We prefer Himalayan pink salt but any pure salt will be fine.

2 red shiso leaves (optional)


Method

Wash your plums and pat them dry. Weigh the plums.

Measure out your salt – the total should be around 8% of the plum weight. This is a lot of salt but most of it will leach into the juice during the pressing process.

Massage the salt into the plums

salting plums

Place in the press. Add the shiso/perilla leaves if you are using them.

Attach the lid and screw the pressure plate down as far as it will go. If you are using a jar, put a clean weight (you can put a weight inside a plastic bag) that puts pressure on the plums.

How to make umeboshi

This ferment doesn’t use a brine. The pressure of the weight will release juice from the plums.

How to make umeboshi

Leave in a cool, dark place for 2-3 weeks. Check the plums occasionally. You will start to see juice appearing in the bottom of the press.

(As with all ferments, if you ever see any mould on the fruit you should throw it away as the spores could cause illness if you consume the plums. It is unlikely that mould will develop with an 8% salt mix as that is lot of salt.)

The next step requires a bit of luck with the weather. Ideally you want a warm, sunny day. In fact, you need three warm, sunny days.

On your sunny day, remove all the plums and place them on a mat, or some kitchen paper, in the sunshine to dry. Place them back in the juicy brine at the end of the day.

How to make umeboshi

Repeat for a further two days. They don’t need to be consecutive days but it would be helpful if you can dry the plums over the course of a week.

How to make umeboshi

After the third day, you can place the plums in a jar or a plastic container, or even a plastic bag. They will last for months and months. That’s if you don’t scoff them…or have too many hangovers to cure!

Save the Brine!

We hate food waste so we have devised a way to re-use the salty plum juice brine.

We use it to pickle ginger.

Peel the ginger and cut into matchsticks.

Place them in a jar and cover them with the brine. After a couple of weeks they will be deliciously sour and salty. We use them to add some zing to rice and noodle dishes or as a garnish.

Actually, we have been known to open the jar and sneak a matchstick or two for a quick snack.

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Visit Angkor Wat, Cambodia

The remarkable temples of Angkor Wat are undoubtedly the main draw for visitors to Cambodia. Although there are many other places to visit in this wonderful country and its neighbours in South East Asia, the temples from the Khmer empire, lost to the jungle for centuries, are astonishing in their scale and construction. If you visit Angkor Wat we recommend spending at least three days in the region.

 

The nearest town to the main temple complex is Siem Reap, which is around 5.5 km from Angkor Wat and caters to the tourists that come to visit. There is a variety of accommodation from budget to luxury and there are loads of shops and restaurants, notably on ‘Pub Street’ where you can sample the local food. Our hotel was about 2km from the centre of Siem Reap and, while we walked back and forth most of the time, there were plentiful tuk-tuk drivers to transport us if we needed.

History of Angkor Wat

Angkor means ‘city’ and Wat means ‘temple’ – so Angkor Wat literally means ‘City Temple’. The temple complex is believed to be the world’s largest religious building.

Angkor was the central city for the Khmer kings between the 9th and 13th centuries. The Khmer Empire was vast and one of the most sophisticated kingdoms in South East Asia. Many buildings and temples were constructed by the Khmers over the centuries. At the height of their civilisation, Angkor Wat was the biggest construction, built in the early 12th century at the behest of Suryavaram II as a dedication to the Hindu God Vishnu. The temple complex is said to represent Mount Meru, the home of the gods, with the surrounding walls and moats symbolising mountains and oceans. The walls are covered with bas-reliefs, stretching for almost one kilometre they tell of tales from Hindu mythology and of the glories of the Khmer empire.

Angkor was sacked in 1177 and Jayavarman VII decided to build a new capital a short distance away, at Angkor Thom. This was, again, a religious complex, but this time a Buddhist temple. Angkor was sacked by the Thai people and then abandoned in the 15th Century, becoming a ‘lost’ city, a city of legends, to be ‘rediscovered’ by French explorer Henri Mouhot in 1860. In 1908 restoration of the complex began. It ground to a halt during the 1970s during the political unrest during the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge and when work resumed in the 1980s extensive repairs were required. Angkor Wat became a UNESCO site in 1992 and restoration work has continued to this day.

Visiting Angkor Wat – Practicalities

You need to have a ticket in order to visit Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. While it is possible to visit the main temple and Angkor Thom in a day, as both are located quite close to each other, we chose the 3 day ticket so that we could explore some of the other temples in the region. It is also worth finding a guide and transportation as many of the temples are located several kilometres apart. There are various options for getting a guide. We had one lined up prior to arriving in the nearby town of Siem Reap but you should be able to find a reputable, certified guide via your hotel. There will also be many guides around Siem Reap who will offer their services, which may or may not be reliable. And, of course, you can find online tours, which will usually have reviews, so you can check those out. The best guides will know when to visit the attractions in order to avoid the worst of the crowds, will be able to show you the ideal photo spots and, most importantly, will also have loads of information about the history of the sites.

If you don’t wish to have a guide you will still need transportation especially if you plan to visit some of the temples that are further away. Tuk-tuks are easy to find in Siem Reap and are a great way of getting around. You can negotiate a price with the driver.

You cannot get into Angkor or the surrounding temples without a ticket which you buy at the official ticketing centre. The tickets are non-transferable and will have your photo printed onto them. Click here for the latest info and prices.

You can get 1 day, 3 day or 7 day passes. They don’t have to be used on consecutive days. The 3 day pass can be used over the course of a week and the 7 day pass can be used over a month. We had a 3 day pass which enabled us to visit a number of the temples.

There is also a code of conduct for visitors, which are basically a matter of common courtesy:

Wear appropriate clothing (i.e. be respectful, very short shorts and sleeveless shirts are not suitable).

Do not touch the monuments.

Refrain from talking loudly.

Do not enter prohibited areas. These are clearly marked and are usually there for safety reasons.

No smoking.

Do not buy souvenirs from children – they should be in school.

Do not take photos of monks, unless you ask their permission. Also, do not touch monks. (But, honestly, why would you?)

Angkor Wat – The Main Attraction

Seeing Angkor Wat at sunrise is an essential activity. Unfortunately this is an essential activity for all visitors so it does get really crowded. There are two tips to make the sunrise visit easier.

The night before your visit, ask your hotel or hostel to prepare a packed breakfast for you or stock up on some food from any of the many stores in Siem Reap. Then set your alarm and get an early night. Try to get to the site as early as possible. The site will be open from 5am. (N.B. Most other sites are open from 7:30am so Angkor Wat is an exception.) If you are with a guide, they will often know the best spots from which to view the sunrise. It’s worth the wait as the darkness fades and anticipation mounts as the sun begins to appear.

Visit Angkor Wat sunrise

Once the sun has risen and the assembled throng have sighed their admiration, most people will go back to their hotels for breakfast. If you have your breakfast with you, you can enjoy it whilst admiring the view before the temple itself opens and then be first – or at least amongst the first – in the queue to explore the complex properly. It made a huge difference to us – exploring the temple with only a few other people around.

As time goes by, it’s a possibility that increasing numbers of visitors will cotton on to this tactic so it’s always worth checking with the guides or your hotel to find out when is the best time to visit. And, having enjoyed a peaceful exploration of Angkor Wat, when we went into Angkor Thom the Bayon was swarming with visitors.

The Angkor Wat complex is surrounded by a large moat.

The temple itself is located on a raised terrace with three galleries, each increasing in height, surrounding a central tower.

Visit Angkor Wat

Each corner of the temple has a tower.

Visit Angkor Wat

The temple façade is covered with beautiful and intricate bas-relief carvings, showing gods and figures from Buddhist and Hindu scriptures, even depicting scenes from the Hindu texts the Mahabarata and the Ramayana. The carvings were created with the intention of viewing them in an anti-clockwise direction.

Visit Angkor Wat bas relief

It is possible to enter the central tower. We were quite surprised to find images of Budhha inside, particularly as Angkor Wat was constructed as a Hindu temple.

Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom was our next stop. Located a couple of kilometres away from Angkor Wat, it was the final capital city of the Khmer Empire. Established in the late 12th century by King Jayavarman VII, it covers an area of 9km² and was the most enduring of all the sites. Jayavarman was a Buddhist so the temples at Angkor Thom were dedicated to Buddhism. Indeed, during the king’s reign the Khmer people converted from Hinduism to Buddhism.

Angkor Thom includes sights such as the South Gate, a wonderful way to enter the complex, with its grand – and quite grotesque – guardians of the bridge as you cross the moat.

Angkor Thom south gate

The Bayon is a remarkable structure. It is covered with the stone heads of Bodhisattva Avilokiteshvara, smiling serenely and was the last great temple built at Angkor.

Visit Angkor Wat Angkor Thom bayon

Moving into the Royal Enclosure, …the Terrace of Elephants was originally an extension of the palace of Phimeanakas and was the place from which Jayavarman VII could view his armies as they returned victorious.

Angkor Thom terrace of elephants

The Terrace of the Leper King was built by Jayavarman VII but the name has an unusual derivation.

A sculpture found at the site was believed to have been created in the 15th century, had deteriorated and was covered in moss which gave the appearance of leprosy. There is also a link to the legend of King Yasovarman I who was believed to have suffered from leprosy.

Visiting Angkor Wat – Other Temples to Explore

While Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom are the main attractions in the area there are so many other temples and buildings to visit.

Ta Prohm

A particular favourite of ours was Ta Prohm, just down the road from Angkor Thom.

It was another temple constructed at the behest of Jayavarman VII (the creator of Angkor Thom) in the late 12th century and was originally called Rajavcihara. Apparently designed for the king’s mother it was a lavish temple, once covered in pearls, precious stones and gold, and home to over 12,000 people. However it was abandoned after the fall of the Khmer empire and lost to the jungle for centuries.

Visit Angkor Wat Ta Prohm

The design of the temple is typically Khmer, with a concentric design of square or rectangular temples  – the enclosing walls encasing an inner sanctum. But, unlike many of the other temples in the region, this hasn’t been cleared and restored and the trees of the jungle have remained, forming a beautiful symbiosis with the buildings.

visit Angkor Wat Ta Prohm
Visit Angkor Wat Ta Prohm

Banteay Srei

The Khmer Temple of Shiva at Banteay Srei, dating back to the 11th century, is the Citadel of Women. It has some remarkable sandstone decorations, friezes and lintels which are some of the best preserved in the region.

Banteay Srei
visit Angkor Wat
Visit Angkor Wat Banteay Srei

Kbal Spean

Kbal Spean is a Hindu Pilgrimage site set deep in the jungle to the North East of Angkor. It actually pre-dates the Angkor Temples by around 200 years and is the oldest site in the region.

After hiking for around a kilometre through the jungle you reach the River of a Thousand Lingas, amazing sculptures that are actually located in the river bed.

visit Angkor Wat kbal spean
visit Angkor Wat

The Roulos Group

And finally, the other temples we visited were the Roulos group which are older and date from the 9th and 10th centuries. They are located around 15km south-east of Siem Reap in the former city of Hariharalaya. King Jayavarman II founded the Khmer empire in 802 CE. His successor was his nephew, Indravarman I, who initiated the construction of the temples here.

Preah Ko was the first. The name means ‘sacred bull.’

Visit Angkor Wat Roulos Preah Ko
visit Angkor Wat

Bakong was next and is considered to be the first Khmer temple mountain. It is the most impressive of the structures in this group. This was King Indravarman’s official temple. The pyramid has five levels and is surrounded by two towers on each of its sides.

Visit Angkor Wat Roulos Bakong
visit Angkor Wat

The Lolei temples are grouped together. These are of a brick construction and represented King Yasovarman’s  parents and grandparents. The taller towers are for his grandparents and the front towers are for the males in the family.

Après Sightseeing – Siem Reap

After all the sightseeing we would wander into Siem Reap. Pub Street is the place to find restaurants and bars in the evening – perfect for relaxing after a long day’s sightseeing. It is possible to visit markets, enjoy cookery courses and, of course, eat traditional Cambodian cuisine. This platter included spring roll, mango salad, fish amok (a fragrant curry), green curry, cha tu kuong (stir-fried water spinach) and steamed rice.

Other Excursions

Although our primary purpose of the trip was to visit Angkor Wat, there are other activities in the area. Siem Reap is located close to Lake Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia. It’s a fascinating lake because it is part of the Mekong river system. The Mekong and surrounding catchment feeds it during the wet season and the lake’s water level will rise to around 11m. But during the dry season the lake feeds the Mekong and water levels can get as low as 1m before the rains arrive. It’s a lake where local people live and work and it’s possible to take a boat trip and visit some of the floating villages.

Tonle Sap lake

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Mekong Delta River Cruise in Vietnam

Fruits of the Dragons

As the mighty Mekong river reaches Vietnam and approaches the South China Sea the main waterway splits into a maze of rivers that form the Mekong Delta. The region is known locally as Cuu Long, or “Nine Dragons”, representing the nine main tributaries. Located just a few hours away from Ho Chi Minh City, enjoying a Mekong Delta river cruise is a lovely excursion when visiting south Vietnam.

The delta region covers an area of around 40,500 square kilometres in south-western Vietnam. It is the mouth of the Mekong, Asia’s third longest river, which has run nearly 5000km from its source in the Tibetan plateau, through China, Myanmar, Lao PDR, Thailand, Cambodia and finally into Vietnam.

Mekong Delta River Cruise map

River Cruise

Three to four hours’ drive away from the relentlessly loud and energetic Ho Chi Minh City, the hectic urban hubbub slowly transitions to rural rice fields. It is possible to undertake a river cruise along the Mekong Delta from a number of locations in the area; there are plenty of choices with various levels of indulgence. It’s a lovely way to see the country from a very different perspective and at a pace that is much more laid back. We chose a two day journey from Cần Thơ to Cái Bè starting along the Sông Hậu branch of the river and sailing into the Mekong.

Depending on budget there are different boats available. Some are rather splendid – we travelled on a traditional style Bassac boat. These are wooden vessels with private cabins and a decks with seating so that you can enjoy the view.

Mekong Delta river cruise

The cabins are compact, but had all the facilities we needed, including a teeny en-suite shower room.

Mekong Delta River Cruise

A Slow Journey Along the Mekong Delta

Cruising along the Mekong can best be described as ‘leisurely.’ We saw all sorts of vessels, large and small, as we travelled along.

Mekong Delta river cruiseMekong Delta boat
Mekong Delta river cruise

All along the journey we saw water hyacinth floating gently by. This is a fast growing plant that floats freely in the river. It is a bit of a problem in the delta as it can get clogged up in a motor boat’s propellers and is also somewhat invasive, preventing other life thriving on the river. It is apparently edible (not sure we’d want to fish it out of the river and have a munch and, anyway, it needs to be cooked first) but it can also be collected and processed in order to make woven products such as mats, bags and baskets, which local people can sell.

Palm trees on the mekongMekong Delta river cruise

Mekong Delta River Cruise – A Land Excursion

Many of the boat trips offer excursions to various attractions along the way. It is also possible to visit some of the onshore villages in the area and to explore them on foot, visiting local farmers and learning about the food that’s produced there.

The area is extremely fertile and rice is the major crop grown. Due to the climate in South Vietnam it is possible to achieve three crops per year.

There are no cemeteries in Vietnam so families set up graveyards in the fields.

There are also a number of fruit trees that grow in the region. Some are familiar.

Pineapple
coconut in Mekong Delta
Coconut
Banana (with its amazing flower)
Wild lime

Jackfruit has become hugely popular in recent years as a ‘meat substitute’. Its texture and ability to absorb flavours make it incredibly versatile for vegetarians and vegans – mock ‘pulled pork’ is a particular favourite. But actually it is very tasty as a fruit in its own right.

Tapioca is the starch derived from the roots of the cassava trees and often used in puddings (which are far more delicious than school dinners).

Some of the residents are happy to open up their houses and it is possible to do home stays with local families. If you’re just on a day trip, visitors are sometimes offered some of the amazing fruits grown on the island.

This platter was exceptional. There is an sequence to eating the fruit in order to gain maximum enjoyment: Always start with the fruit with sour flavours and finish with the sweet.

One plate that was a particular revelation was the pineapple. Of course, fresh pineapple is utterly scrumptious, especially when it hasn’t travelled half-way around the globe, but it was served by sprinkling a little chilli and salt on each piece and was a taste sensation. It makes sense: like a lot of Vietnamese food it includes sweet and sour flavours (which the pineapple provides) plus an additional salty dimension and a good dose of heat from the chilli.

Banana leaves are not only functional, they can also be decorative – just look at this lovely banana leaf ‘origami’ grasshopper.

It was late afternoon by the time we returned to our boat.

Mekong Delta river cruise

Time for a delicious, decadent seafood dinner…

…followed by after-dinner drinks watching the sun set over the Mekong.

Mekong Delta River Cruise

Journey to Cái Bè

Our boat docked at Tra On for an overnight stay onboard. The following morning we headed towards Cái Bè. The Mekong becomes much more of a working river and we passed by many riverside emporia and floating shops.

Mekong Delta river cruise
Mekong Delta river cruise_11

Cái Bè has a Catholic church – an unusual structure to see in the region. Dating from 1929-1932 apparently it has the tallest bell tower in the province.

Mekong Delta river cruise

The local boats have eyes painted on them which reputedly scares away the crocodiles.

Mekong delta river cruise

On arrival at Cái Bè we disembarked and visited a factory which made rice products – rice paper and rice cakes – as well as candies.

rice paper
Rice paper

In making coconut candy, shredded coconut is used to make coconut milk and cream which is combined with sugar and malt syrup and then heated and mixed together.

Whilst still warm, the mixture is then laid into strips to cool and then they are cut into bite-sized candy pieces.

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The Leh to Manali Highway

No Bridge Over Troubled Water

See the sublime splendour of the Indian Himalayas, the majestic snow-capped peaks, the stark and ethereal beauty of the world’s highest and most romantic mountain range! The magnificence of nature revealed in all its craggy, towering glory, waiting just for us. After a wonderful few days exploring Ladakh, we were to travel the long and winding Leh to Manali highway to take us from lofty Ladakh to the lush valleys of Himachal Pradesh.

Indus and Zanskar

It’s just that the holiday sales pitch promotes the magisterial tranquillity of the experience without fully explaining the other, less expected, ‘joys’ that await the hapless tourist on their journey of a lifetime. It’s the laws of physics applied in a wider context, as every action has an equal and opposite reaction so every experience of aesthetic perfection must necessarily be tempered with some form of discomfort or inconvenience.

Travelling the Leh to Manali highway is a remarkable journey that takes three days. Our mode of transport for this illustrious road trip was a coach. If you are travelling in a coach on a long and winding road be aware that it could be bumpy. Don’t, whatever you do, sit in the back seats – you may want to relive those school trips where the cool kids all sat at the back of the bus, but the suspension and the road will have you bouncing around all over the place.  

Leh to Sarchu

Soon after we left Leh we crossed the Taglang La – the second highest road in the world (at the time) at 5328m. When the road marker stated, ‘Unbelievable is not it?’ we couldn’t help but agree.

Taglang La pass

Then we wound our way through the Gata loops, a series of 21 hair-pin bends, which required the coach to engage in some mildly terrifying 3-point turns in order get around each curve, with the driver’s assistant getting out at each bend to take the vehicle’s wheels to the very edge of the road with its precipice below. Indeed much of the journey involved travelling along single track roads which skirted long drops to the valley below.

Leh Manali highway edge of the road

It is a lonely, desolate road, but also a strangely beautiful road.

Leh Manali highway

But it can be a dangerous road. All along the highway we saw evidence of vehicles that had not stayed on the highway and had plummeted several hundred metres into the valley below and were gently rusting in the river.

Leh Manali highway crashed lorry

Along the route are camps where it’s possible to get a break and a cup of tea or a snack. We would see many workers whose job it was to maintain the road each year.

Leh to Manali rest stop

We were headed for Sarchu where we camped at 4200m.

Camping at Sarchu

Considering the remoteness of the location the accommodation was good – our tent even had an en-suite toilet, basically a long drop loo with a seat. There was no shower but no need even to think about showering, or even getting undressed, as the temperature was very cold indeed. This was the highest altitude we have ever spent the night and, although we both had slight headaches, were generally fine.

Sarchu to Jispa

The following day would involve the long and winding road climbing to 4891m at the top of the Baralacha La Pass and then descending to Jispa which was a pretty place to stop for the night. It was possible to have a walk around the area – much needed after sitting on a coach for hours on end.

Jispa stupa
Jispa

Jispa to Manali

The next day would offer something altogether unexpected. The Leh to Manali highway is a beautiful one and a treacherous one, but it is also the only one. Maintained for the short window of the year that it is actually traversable, the long and winding road is a marvel of man against nature. Except nature always, always wins. A case in point: scattered along the expansive road are a number of bridges crossing unfeasibly deep gorges through which the mighty Indus flows, plunging hundreds of feet into foaming rivers of kinetic danger. These bridges, as innumerable signs tell you, can only take one – that is one – vehicle at a time at a maximum speed of 5mph. So naturally a mini-convoy of four articulated trucks decided to play Indy 5000 across a particularly vulnerable bridge with inevitable girder-crashing results.

Leh Manali highway damaged bridge

The result? One non-bridge slap-bang in the middle of the one of the world’s most inhospitable roads with ‘no-go’ season rapidly approaching and little opportunity to retrace our steps.

We had already travelled for two days. There wasn’t really any going back. It started raining. The ravine approached, with its considerable drop to rocks and fast flowing river, strewn with debris in busted and rusted decay. When we finally arrived at the crossing, the bridge was being slowly reassembled to make it safe to travel across the fissure of fear. Unfortunately it wouldn’t be ready in time for us to cross. But cross we must. Fortunately there was a solution.

Crossing the Indus

A petrifying solution that made rickety wobbling across a rusty bridge inside a heavy coach utter bliss compared to what was on offer: A cage. An open metal cage. A cage that needed to be accessed from the edge of a slippery jetty over a rocky fall. And then it was hoisted across the raging river on a rope, with the claustrophobic couple of passengers squished in together, along with their possessions, suddenly wishing they had packed less and not eaten so much. Horrifying consequences consolidated in the imagination as we were compacted in the cage of doom and pulled across the ravine in abject terror.

Fortunately these concerns proved to be unfounded as the cage glided across the turbulent torrent and deposited both human cargo and their luggage at the destination. Safe at last and on terra firma, rather than experiencing terror further. Soaked to the skin but with our lives and luggage intact, we dripped with joy. It’s a shame the coach didn’t make it (there was no cage and rope for the vehicle) but a back-up had been made available on the other side.

Leh Manali highway

The experience had left us in much need of recovery sustenance. Fortunately for the ravenous rescuees there was a roadside café that offered a vat of dal and a plethora of freshly made chapatis that beckoned consumption. After such an ordeal any food may have been welcome, but this was the best tasting dal experience ever, the spice a delight, the texture a perfect consistency, with the forever welcome taste of fresh chapati allowing for distribution of the soupy lentil joy to instigate itself on the palette and in the stomach. Survival dal! A memorable meal.

Then it was simply a drive over the Rohtang pass (3977m)…

Rohtang pass

…and into the lush valleys of Himachal Pradesh towards Manali.

Leh Manali highway

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Osaka Restaurants Japan – Kuidaore on Dotonbori

We visited Osaka (pronounced O-saka rather than o-SAR-ka) on our very first trip to Japan many years ago. We had already spent time exploring Tokyo, Hakone and Kamakura and it was following an afternoon and evening in Osaka, exploring the neon arcades and playing video games, taking silly photos in the print club booths, riding the Hep 5 big wheel and singing our socks off in a karaoke bar (where you get a private booth rather than have to sing in front of complete strangers), that we realised that we had fallen in love with Japan. The following day we visited the Dotonbori area in the Namba district and discovered Osaka’s restaurants. We decided that Osaka was our favourite place in the world.

Osaka restaurants Japan

We’ve returned to Osaka many times over the years and we always make a beeline for Dotonbori. We’ve often stayed in business hotels close by. It’s a short walk away from the JR Namba Station Exit 14 (Yamatoji line), which is especially useful if you are using your JR Pass. Be aware that Namba is a big station. If you are arriving on the shinkansen (bullet train) you can get there from Shin-Osaka using the subway Midosuji line to Shinsaibashi Exit 4-B. (N.B. you can’t use your JR Pass on the subway.)

Osaka is known for being one of Japan’s centres of commerce, indeed there’s a phrase that many salarymen use as a greeting: ‘mokari makka’ which means ‘are you making money?’ The residents of Osaka speak Kansai Ben, the dialect of the region. It’s quite different to the Japanese we’ve learned in classes. For example, Osaka residents will say, ‘okini’ as thanks instead of ‘arigato’; although arigato will absolutely be understood you may well receive a big smile if you use ‘okini.’

Dotonbori History

Dotonbori means ‘Doton Canal’ and the history of the area goes back several hundred years to 1612 when Yasui Doton, a local merchant, started constructing a canal system in the area to link the Kizugawa river to the Umezu river. However, he was killed in 1615 during the Siege of Osaka and his cousins completed the canal project, naming it after Doton. Following completion, the area thrived, trade increased due to the better transportation along the canal and Dotonburi became an entertainment district, with theatres, teahouses and restaurants. It’s a fantastic place to visit, especially for foodies!

Osaka restaurant japan

The district is defined by street between the Dotonboribashi Bridge to Nipponbashi Bridge. Probably the most iconic image of the area is that of the Glico running man – and it’s essential to see him at night, brightly lit in neon. Glico is a sweet manufacturer established in 1922 and famous across Japan. They are probably best know for those delicious Pocky coated biscuit sticks.

Osaka restaurants Japan Dotonburi

Dotonbori is one street, but actually the surrounding streets are also full of excellent bars and restaurants. We’ve had some of our best nights out in Osaka by wandering into random bars in the area. Locals and tourists alike are very friendly and we’ve often just started chatting with people. There was one particularly memorable night when a pair of airline pilots decided to buy Jagermeister bombs (a Jagermeister shot inside a glass of Red Bull) for the denizens of the entire bar which resulted in a highly caffeinated boozy evening and us sleeping in so late that we missed much of a planned excursion to Kobe the following day!

Osaka Restaurants Japan

The word ‘kuidaore’ means to go bankrupt by extravagant spending on food and Dotonbori would be a place where you could have a really good attempt at achieving this as it is chock full of excellent restaurants.

Osaka restaurant japan
Takoyaki
Osaka restaurants Japan
Osaka restaurants Japan
Osaka restaurants Japan

One thing to remember when visiting cities in Japan is to look up! In the UK most shops and restaurants are located at ground level but Japan is a country with high rise buildings. Very often shops and restaurants will be located on multiple levels within the same building. You will often see boards outside the building advertising various emporia: F1, F2 etc to go up, B1, B2 etc to go down. (N.B. floor levels in Japan match the American model where the ground floor is called the first floor, unlike in the UK where the ‘ground floor’ is at street level and the next floor up is the ‘first floor’.)

Essential Osaka Restaurants Japan

Takoyaki – The Best Street Food

Takoyaki is quintessential Osaka street food. It comprises spherical octopus pieces in a batter which are cooked en masse in a griddle.

Takoyaki

The takoyaki maker expertly and deftly turns each octopus ball by hand so that they are cooked evenly.

Cooking takoyaki

Served with mayonnaise, takoyaki sauce (which is similar to brown sauce) and bonito flakes (skipjack tuna flakes shaved to wafer thin slices – which are rich in umami and are often used to make Japanese dashi stock), which undulate gently in the heat of the takoyaki. You just have to wait a little while before scoffing because they will be extremely hot as soon as they come out of the griddle.

Osaka restaurants Japan

Okonomiyaki – As You Like It

Okonomiyaki, which translates as ‘as you like it’, is often described as a cross between a pancake and a pizza. It’s a cabbage based batter (but don’t let that put you off – it’s really delicious) with multiple fillings and toppings. Some establishments have a chef prepare the okonomiyaki, others will let you sit at the griddle and you can cook it yourself.

Osaka restaurants Japan

The basic batter mixture is prepared and cooked on the griddle.

okonomiyaki

Then you have a choice of toppings – meat and prawns are popular choices and veggie options, such as kimchi are also available.

cooking okonomiyaki

The okonomiyaki will be garnished with a variety of yummy things, including mayo, okonomiyaki sauce (similar to takoyaki sauce/brown sauce), flakes of nori seaweed and those delightful undulating bonito flakes. Chilli sauce may also be available. The chef will embellish your okonomiyaki in the most delightful way. And of course, when the chef asks you what garnish you would like, the correct answer is EVERYTHING!

Osaka restaurants Japan
Osaka restaurants Japan

Fugu – Dare You Try Puffer Fish?

Fugu is the fish that has a formidable reputation – it’s the puffer fish, parts of which are deadly poison particularly the liver, the ovaries, eyes, and skin. The toxin basically paralyses you and you asphyxiate while still conscious. Not very nice at all.

But fugu is also a prized delicacy. The non-poisonous bits are fine to eat but absolutely can only be prepared by a licenced chef who has trained for several years. You can eat fugu all over Japan but it was at Zubora-ya, with its highly distinctive sign comprising a giant pufferfish lantern outside the restaurant, that we first tasted this fearsome fish.

Osaka restaurants Japan

We thoroughly enjoyed a set menu at Zubora-ya – sushi and sashimi is the conventional way to enjoy fugu. It has a mild flavour and a firm texture that is something like a cross between squid and monkfish. It was delicious. And we survived!

Osaka restaurants Japan

Sadly, Zubora-ya had to close during the pandemic and has not reopened.

Kani – Crab Heaven

Kani Doraku is another distinctive restaurant which has a model of a giant crab waving its pincers on the outside wall, beckoning you inside (well, that’s our interpretation!).

Osaka restaurants Japan Kani

We have eaten here several times and always had a hugely enjoyable meal. Again, it’s a multi-storey building and, depending on how busy it is you may eat within the restaurant or be taken to a private room with tatami mat flooring and a telephone. The telephone was a bit daunting first time around but we picked up the phone and said, ‘kite kudasai,’ (please come here) and someone came along to take our order – which largely involved pointing at a picture menu. Even though it’s a large restaurant it’s very popular these days so it’s worth booking. There are actually multiple restaurants of this chain along Dotonbori, so check out the others if the first one you try is full. (The most popular is closest to the Glico Man.) The set menus aren’t cheap but they are good value and the food is utterly delicious.

crab gratin
crab gratin
crab sushi
crab legs
crab tempura
Osaka restaurants Japan
Osaka restaurants Japan

We’ve enjoyed crab sushi and sashimi, crab chawan mushi (steamed egg custard), crab tempura and crab gratin with a clear soup and matcha ice cream for dessert. Utterly delicious.

Osaka Restaurants Japan – Other Dotonbori Establishments

There are loads of other restaurants along Dotonbori and the surrounding area. Kuidaore was an enormous eight storey restaurant founded in 1949. It was recognisable by its iconic Kuidaore Taro Clown, a vaguely creepy mechanical drumming puppet at the entrance. Sadly it closed some years ago but the building was populated by different shops and restaurants in what’s now known as the Nakaza Cui-daore Building.

If you like ramen noodles (and who doesn’t?) there are three Kinryu restaurants along the street. Kinryu translates as ‘golden dragon’ and the restaurants can easily be found by their distinctive dragons on the hoardings above the shopfront.

Osaka restaurant japan
Osaka restaurant japan Kinryu

And even the standard restaurants on Dotonbori, those without the amazing neon signs, are worth checking out. One of the great things about dining in Osaka – and indeed throughout Japan – is that you don’t need to speak or read Japanese. Many restaurants will have an English, Chinese or Korean menu and those that don’t will often have a picture menu or, better, realistic models of the food in the window, usually with prices. You can take a photo of your desired dish or even take your food server outside and point to the dish you want.

Osaka restaurants Japan

The models of the food are surprisingly realistic and many are made in Osaka. We managed to find a shop that sold them but they are hideously expensive, so we treated ourselves to a couple of sushi fridge magnets as a souvenir.

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RECIPE: Japanese Fried Chicken Karaage

Fried chicken is one of life’s great pleasures. And Japanese fried chicken karaage is no exception. In Japan, it is a tradition to eat fried chicken from KFC on Christmas Day before the traditional new year celebrations commence. However, we feel that JFC offers far superior fried chicken.

Always use chicken thigh meat. It has so much more flavour than breast meat and is guaranteed to be juicier and more succulent.

Japanese Fried Chicken Karaage

Making karaage isn’t difficult but it also isn’t a quick process. However the results are definitely worth taking the time to make the dish. The chicken absolutely needs to be marinated – this adds so much flavour. The word karaage refers to the cooking technique, that is frying the food in oil. You don’t need equipment such as a deep fat fryer – a frying pan will be just fine.

Recipe for Japanese fried chicken karaage:

INGREDIENTS

Serves 4

800g boneless chicken thigh (skin-on is fine), each thigh cut into 4 pieces

For the marinade

4 tbs soy sauce

1 tbs mirin (if you can’t get this, add a little more sake/wine and a tsp of sugar)

1 tbs cooking sake (or white wine if you can’t get that)

1 inch of ginger (finely grated)

1-2 cloves of garlic (finely grated) depending on how garlicky you like your food

For the coating

Potato starch. If you can’t get this, fine rice flour or even cornflour will be fine. (Icing sugar would not!) We didn’t have quite enough potato starch so mixed in a little rice flour. About a cup’s worth (275ml) – as much as you need to coat all the chicken.

For the cooking

Vegetable oil (enough to get about 1 cm depth of oil in your pan)

METHOD

Place the chicken thigh pieces in a bowl and add the soy sauce, mirin, sake, ginger and garlic. Mix well and leave to marinate for at least an hour.

Japanese Fried Chicken Karaage

Pour the oil into a frying pan until it’s about 1 cm deep. Heat up. The oil will be hot enough when you put a little flour into it and it sizzles.

When the chicken has had a chance to acquire those lovely flavours pour the potato starch into a bowl.

Take each piece of chicken, dip both sides in the flour, shake any excess off, and then carefully place in the oil.

Japanese Fried Chicken frying

Repeat for further pieces of chicken. Do not overfill the pan – this is a process whereby the chicken should be cooked in batches. We tend to use a clock method – put a piece of chicken at the top, then go round the pan putting further pieces in in a clockwise direction so we know which piece was put in first. Cook the chicken for 5-7 minutes, turning occasionally, until the pieces are golden brown.

Then remove from the oil and place on kitchen paper to soak up excess oil. You can transfer the chicken from the first batches into a heatproof bowl in the oven set on a low heat to keep them warm.

Japanese Fried Chicken Karaage

Start the next batch and repeat until all the chicken has been cooked.

Japanese Fried Chicken Karaage

Serve with Japanese mayo. It’s not at all healthy but it’s oh, so decadent and delicious! If you’re feeling more health conscious, shredded cabbage is a popular accompaniment.

Japanese Fried Chicken Karaage

Karaage chicken is also yummy cold the following day. It often features in bento boxes.

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Places to Visit in Munnar, Kerala

One of the most striking things about the state of Kerala in Southern India is how very green it is. A popular place to visit, it has spectacular scenery, interesting wildlife, fascinating culture and fantastic food. It’s no wonder that the locals call it ‘God’s Own Country.’ We toured the area for a week, visiting Athirappilly, Thekkady and Kumarakom, where we spent a very pleasant afternoon on a houseboat in the backwaters. The hill station near Munnar has the perfect climate and landscape for growing tea. At an elevation of 1500m the temperature is much more comfortable than the searing temperatures closer to sea level. There are lots of places to visit in Munnar and the surrounding area.

Places to Visit in Munnar

Places to visit in Munnar – Eravikulam National Park

The Eravikulam National Park is one of five national parks in Kerala and is home to a lots of wildlife, including the Nilgiri Thar, a type of goat which is seriously endangered and can only be found in any significant numbers in this area. There also are deer, monkeys, wild dogs, otters, mongooses, martens and porcupine as well as many species of bird and butterflies.

The park used to be a British game reserve during colonial times and was known for its rich hunting grounds. Later, the Kannan Devan Hill Produce Company managed the lands which were handed to the Kerala Government in the early 1970s. The Nilgiri Tahr had become almost extinct by 1972 and was placed on the endangered list so the park became a conservation area and achieved national park status in 1978.

The park is located around 15km away from central Munnar and you can either get a cab or hire a car/driver to reach it. Buses are available but less convenient. You can’t walk or drive around the area, private cars are not allowed inside the park and you have to catch a bus from the entrance car park. Just buy your tickets at the kiosk and join the queue. Beware that the queue may be long as it’s a popular place to visit. The bus ride is very scenic as it climbs the hill via a number of hairpin bends.

Place

The wildlife wasn’t co-operating when we visited but the trip nevertheless offered a lovely walk with spectacular views.

Places to Visit in Munnar landscape
Munnar landscape

Visit the Rose garden

The Floriculture Centre, more commonly known as the Rose Garden, is worth a short visit if flowers and plants are your thing. You can wander through the terraces and have a look at the local flowers and plants.

Places to Visit in Munnar Rose Garden
Munnar Rose garden
Places to Visit in Munnar Rose Garden

After lunch (you can read about thali here) we headed out through the countryside to visit the Mattupetty Dam and Kundala Dams. On the way to the Kundala Lake, we spotted a bunch of people gathering at the roadside with cameras and phones out and most definitely pointing in a particular direction. It’s always worth stopping to see what the crowds are looking at. And we were rewarded with the sight of a couple of wild elephants sauntering through the fields.

Places to Visit in Munnar Elephant
Munnary elephants

It’s possible to walk in the forests surrounding the lakes and across the dams.

Kundala dam Munnar
Kundala dam
Munnar dams
Munnar dam forest

Tea and Spices

Tea plantations adorn the surrounding hills in all directions, each individual tea plant creating a pattern that dominates the landscape.

Munnar tea

Tea plants like receiving lots of water but don’t like sitting in water, hence the plentiful rainfall in Kerala provides plenty of hydration and the hilly landscape is ideal for perfect drainage.

The tea is picked by hand. Only the top three leaves, which are the most tender, are used. There are a number of processing plants around Munnar. We didn’t have time to visit a tea plantation but did bring back some Munnar tea as a souvenir.

Munnar picking tea

Kerala is also famous for its spices. Keralan cuisine is amazingly good – all the dishes we tried were beautifully flavoured. Many of the spices grown can be used in both savoury and sweet dishes. We visited a spice plantation, in the pouring rain (thankfully they loaned us umbrellas) and saw a number of plants that are used for culinary and medicinal purposes.

Munnar Spice plantation cinnamon

Cinnamon comes from the bark of the tree. Peel it off and it curls up into those familiar scrolls.

Allspice is a very apt name. If you smell and taste: think of nutmeg. Yes! Think of cinnamon. Yes! Think of cloves. Yes! It really has a flavour that can emulate many different spices and is a great all-rounder.

Cardamon is an amazingly aromatic spice. It actually grows at the base of the plant in little pods.

Places to Visit in Munnar Spice plantation cardamon
Places to Visit in Munnar Spice plantation

Nutmeg and mace. Mace is the outer ‘skin’ of the nutmeg – you get a milder nutmeg taste with a more citrusy flavour.

Cloves add a real fragrance to savoury dishes. They also have a numbing effect and are a traditional remedy for toothache.

Munnar Spice plantation cloves
Places to Visit in Munnar Spice plantation pepper tree

Peppercorns are native to Kerala and have been used in Indian cooking since at least 2000 BCE. Once the most valuable spice in the world, pepper can be eaten in its many different forms (albeit the same fruit of the tree): green peppercorns are the unripe fruit of the pepper tree. When they turn red they are ripe. Black and white peppercorns are, likewise, both the same fruit of the pepper plant, but are processed differently. Black peppercorns are picked when the fruit is almost ripe and then they are sun-dried, and this turns the outer layer black. White pepper is the peppercorn without the skin. It’s the black skin that has the distinctly peppery flavour elements. If you want heat but not the flavour, white peppercorns are the one to use.

We purchased some of the spices, particularly those that are expensive to buy at home. They make ideal souvenirs as they easily slip into any spaces your backpack and ours have been used extensively since our return home.

Places to Visit in Munnar – Kathakali and Kalaripayattu performance

We made our way to the Punarjani traditional village to see a Kathakali and Kalaripayattu performance in the early evening.

Kathakali is a form of classical Indian dance which tells a story, often based on traditional legends, Hindu mythology and Indian epic stories. There is a narrative but no dialogue – dance, mime and song are the means by which the story is told. Artists spend several years training at specialist schools in order to develop their skills. The expressive performance is emphasised by the spectacular costumes and make-up, which can take around 3-5 hours to apply.

Munnar Kathakali make-up

It is worth arriving early for the performance because you are often allowed backstage to watch the performers apply their remarkable make-up.

Places to Visit in Munnar Kathakali
Places to Visit in Munnar Kathakali

You have a choice of seating and if you sit in the stalls there’s a possibility that you may be called up on stage to take part in the performance. It’s largely mime-based so no need to worry about any language skills.

Kathakali performance
Kathakali performance
Places to Visit in Munnar Kathakali performance

The Kathakali lasts around an hour and, if you wish, you can then watch a Kalaripayattu performance in an adjoining theatre. This is a form of Indian martial art, indeed it is one of the world’s oldest martial arts, and is spectacular to watch. It is highly acrobatic and uses a number of weapons. The demonstration is lively, exciting and occasionally scary!

Kalaripayattu
Places to visit Munnar Kalaripayattu performance

Eating in Kerala

All the meals we ate in Kerala were completely brilliant. Because of the diversity of the region both vegetarian and non-vegetarian meals, featuring fish, poultry and red meat, are readily available. The fish dishes are particularly good, using locally caught fish from the rivers and the sea. The food is delicately flavoured with local spices – all the spices we encountered at the plantation featured heavily, notably black pepper, clove, cardamon, cinnamon and ginger. Here are some of the dishes we tried.

ularthivathu
Meen ularthivathu – fish fried with shallots and strips of coconut with small green chillies (not massively hot) and tomatoes.
muthuvan kudi meen
Muthuvan kudi meen – a tangy fish curry flavoured with lovely sour tamarind.
mutton and peppercorns
Mutton pacha kurumulagu peralan – mutton with green peppercorns
cashew coconut rice
Coconut and cashew rice
mutton biryani
Mutton biryani
chicken chettinadu
Chicken chettinadu

Munnar has so many things to offer the visitor – nature, wildlife, culture and, of course, the most delicious food.

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Noodle Review: Nissin Instant Noodle Miso

BRAND: Nissin Instant Noodle
FLAVOUR: Miso
TYPE: Normal
No. OF SACHETS: Two – Soupbase and Flavour Powder
WEIGHT: 100g
COUNTRY: Hong Kong

Nissin Instant Noodle Miso Review

Strange. The packaging leads one to believe that this is Nissin Holland, complete with Noodleboy® and his Steaming Box®, but it’s a subtle ploy, a sleight of hand, for this is Nissin Hong Kong and what a Herculean task they have set themselves. First take the soup of a nation, pack it with a serious portion of noodles and expect it to work. There’s more. Instead of providing a miso paste, surely the logical thing to do, instead they offer a double powder combination. Madness surely? Well, yes and no.

The noodles are as good as ever, and they do not swamp the flavour, a real surprise. The flavour itself is definitely miso with a reasonable touch of a mildly fermented feel, but something is not quite right. There is a meaty undercurrent that feels incongruous and a vague scent of roast sesame that seems to have come from a different packet. Closer examination of the package reveals pork, chicken and beef, so not one for vegans as you may have initially thought. Top class tasty product that far exceeded expectations but irritatingly fell at the last fence. Write to your MP and demand a veggie version.

*Retro noodle packet