Friday, 6 March 2015

Vegan in Chiang Mai - Part One

Oh hello! I'm in Chiang Mai right now and despite the temperature gauge hitting 43˚C yesterday I am loving it here.

Some cities have a pull about them that just keep me wanting more, NYC, Portland, Tokyo to name a few, and now I can add Chiang Mai to the ever-growing list. Nick and I were here for one night before our amazing week at Elephant Nature Park and then for four nights afterwards. That should've been it if we had stuck to our super-vague plan but after leaving to check out Pai (more about that adventure soon) we then came right back here again for what we'd initially decided would be just a couple more nights and has swiftly turned into a week. This is without a doubt the best thing about long term travel, if I don't want to leave somewhere I don't have to. Within reason of course, other cities and countries are calling my name and my visa totally expires soon so I know that moving on has to happen eventually.

How walkable Chiang Mai is is definitely a big draw, despite the heat city explorations on foot have been a breeze (Oh, if only there were a real breeze!) and I love (LOVE!) seeing Wats popping up from behind brick walls as I aimlessly wander the city streets.

Stumbling upon somewhere fun and unexpected whilst walking without a destination in mind is one of my favourite travel activities and Ung Polaroid, Handmade Shop and Gallery was one of these finds. 

Ung is located at one end of Khang Ruan Jum Road and is the home to photography exhibits, a store with some great polaroid postcards, and much more. There was even a cat to play with.

Food wise the city has been treating us right and I am over the moon with the range of options available. Taste From Heaven was our first stop as it was located near the first place we stayed and right next to this book store which we were more than happy to browse in. 

Of course I ordered the Pad See Ew. I almost always order the Pad See Ew! It's been my favourite Thai dish since I first tasted it at Pukk in New York City and I've never regretted an order of the sweet noodles. Taste From Heaven's take includes TVP and whilst I would prefer tofu or perhaps mock duck it's still beyond decent. 

I have since tried other things including this plate of Rard-Na Noodles with veggies and textured soya protein in a soya bean sauce which was the perfect comfort foodie meal on a day where I woke up with an inexplicable craving for biscuits and gravy. I blame Instagram. 

The Fresh Spring Rolls are another of my go-to orders, I've ordered them literally every single time I've visited (Oh Parks and Rec I'm gonna miss you). Crisp lettuce and crunchy veggies paired with fresh flavourful herbs will always be a favourite of mine and I loooove that these come with a sweet tamarind sauce. Also, tofu. Love.

I'm always pleased when somewhere does a great job with a vegan dessert and oh boy does Taste From Heaven do it well. This is described on the menu as a brownie but it's really more like a superb slab of chocolate cake.

It's served hot so the chocolate chips are all melty and perfect, it's sharable but if you're hungry I'd strongly recommend keeping it to yourself. 

Amrita Garden is one of my very favourite place in Chiang Mai. I'm a huge Japanese food aficionado, my travels there last year just amplified the situation, and I love Amrita Garden's take on everything from the super traditional to the Japanese twists on Western classics. Their burger, for example, is made up of a delicately flavoured vegetable patty topped with homemade tofu mayo, ketchup and mustard.

I feel bad showing you this next (terrible) picture but the fried tempeh is just so outstanding that I had to share, it's lightly flavoured with a shio-kouji sauce, made from fermented rice and salt, that tastes a lot better than the sum of it's parts. The cucumber on the side actually compliments the dish rather than being a random garnish.

The cold soba broth is delicately flavoured with kombu, shiitake, soy sauce and sweet rice wine, it's absolute perfection in a bowl. I've never had quite such amazing noodles, they must be homemade.

Dessert wise they've got it going on and the green tea brownie is pretty much the best ever. Matcha and Almond are a dream team and I've been eating more of these than I could possibly count.

They also sell a Dark Cacao brownie topped with cashews which I don't love as much as the matcha brownie but Nick wanted me to let you know that it's his fave'. If cookies are more your scene Amrita Garden have you sorted on that front too with Oatmeal Raisin Cookies from Pim or Bitter Chocolate Cookies from Healthy Sweets. 

These are both delicious and hit very different spots, the oatmeal raisin are your straight up classic cookie whilst the bitter chocolate biccies hover at the more sophisticated end of the spectrum. You need to watch out here because some of the goodies on sale at Amrita Garden have the vegan label but contain honey, just flip them over and read the ingredients before you buy. I wonder when everyone'll understand that if it came from an animal (including a bee!) that it just Is. Not. Vegan. Full stop. No further discussion.

One afternoon, fuelled up with plenty of energy from all of the delicious food, Nick and I made the trip out to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep which is 15km outside of the city with a couple of the new friends we made at Elephant Nature Park. It's truly stunning up there, especially on a clear day, and it's the perfect spot to avoid the hustle and bustle of the city below and to breathe some cleaner, fresher air. 

At the end of our adventures we were rewarded with this wonderful surprise as we were leaving, a tiny puppy chewing a tiny shoe. Good lard. It really was too much.

Until next time friends! I'll catch you for part two soon.

Monday, 2 March 2015

My Week as a Volunteer at Elephant Nature Park.

I was recently lucky enough to spend a week volunteering at Elephant Nature Park just north of Chiang Mai in Thailand and I can honestly say that it was one of the best weeks of my life. ENP is a sanctuary for elephants who have been abused, mistreated and oppressed at the hands of humans. I went into my week at the park knowing that I wholeheartedly disagreed with riding elephants, elephant painting, the circus, and using elephants for logging but I didn't comprehend the full extent of what these beautiful creatures go through to end up in these situations. The process of breaking an elephant, otherwise known as phajaan or crushing the elephant's spirit, is crueler than you could ever imagine and this is coming from someone who has watched many videos of how cows are treated in dairy farms and what happens to the baby chicks who are ground up whilst they're still alive just so that humans can consume eggs. Watching the videos, this one especially, was incredibly difficult and I have spent hours and hours trying to process my feelings of sadness. Rage came next and, in the long run, I hope to turn my feelings into productivity which I guess is what's happening right now! I am really glad that I was able to gain this insight into an area of animal rights that I wasn't previously well versed on and I hope to be a better ambassador for elephants from now on.

Days at ENP start at 7am with breakfast which means setting an alarm for 6:30 and there was no snoozing because the walls were so thin that I'd have felt like the rudest asshole alive if someone had been forced to listen to Radar more than once. I'd heard that breakfast was the most challenging meal for vegans at the sanctuary so I came well prepared with a stash of bars and crackers. The daily vegan fare at breakfast consisted of cornflakes (the bad D vit's haven't made it over here yet!), soya or rice milk, peanut butter and fruit. One day there were sausages too which I got pretty overexcited about.

The week's large group of volunteers were split into four teams and daily tasks included scooping poop, quite a big task when an elephant's involved; elephant food which meant unloading and washing truck after truck of watermelons, pumpkins and bananas; cutting grass and banana trees down at the roadside; helping to create a fire break and cleaning up the park. Fire break was by far the hardest task as it meant clearing a huge swathe of forest in the heat of the day with various tools, I think hoeing or raking were my favourite tasks but hacking down bushes with a machete was also kinda fun. Overall working in the ele' kitchen was my absolute favourite task, passing the fruit and veg down the line from the truck is the kind of repetitive task I can totally get down with and I liked that you got a real idea of just how much food it takes to feed an elephant. 

Human food wise everything at the park is vegetarian and if you can find a volunteer co-ordinator who gets your veganism they'll be able to tell you which things on the buffet to avoid. Pro-tips: the bread at ENP contains egg and dairy and you'll need to be on the look out for sneaky egg in both the pad thai and pad see ew, there are also some obvious yellow noodles that contain egg. Here are a few examples of the meals I ate from the amazing lunch buffet. The food would have definitely been more varied if I wasn't contending with a chilli allergy but the fact that even I could eat this well says a lot.

Once our work for the day was done we were lucky enough to be able to take part in fun activities like washing the elephants. We learnt a lot about how to go about this before we were let loose with buckets of water. Pouring water down the elephants' face is a huge no-no as is getting water into the ears... this makes so much sense. I certainly wouldn't enjoy someone throwing water at my face!

One afternoon after our chores were done a small group of volunteers were lucky enough to sit with ENP founder Lek and hear her speak about not only the process of breaking an elephant but also the hideousness of forced breeding programs. It didn't surprise me to hear that Lek is vegan herself as this process is not dissimilar to the the one dairy cows are forced to go through when their calves are ripped away from them and shoved into veal crates. Elephants and cows, just like humans, mourn the loss of their babies and it makes me so angry that humans are willing to put animals through this stuff for their own gratification. 

Hearing the elephant's stories was a definite highlight of my time there despite how harrowing the majority of them are, remember that almost every elephant here has been through the breaking process and much more in their pre-ENP lives. Jokia's story was one that hit me the hardest. Rescued from a heartbreaking and tortuous existence at an illegal logging operation in 1999 she came to ENP after being deliberately blinded in both eyes by her mahout for refusing to work after miscarrying whilst dragging a log uphill. On arrival at the park Mae Perm, the first elephant ever rescued by Lek, took her under her wing and became her best friend. They go everywhere together and Mae Perm acts as Jokia's eyes leading her to play and towards food.

We were also able to spend time sitting beneath an elephant to feed her which, Lek explained, she encouraged us to do to help to show people that elephants are gentle creatures who, when they aren't being abused and when they are in the sanctuary environment, see humans as friends - especially when we're accompanied by a bag of tamarind. Getting to sit underneath this beautiful lady was one of the most amazing moments of the week and, believe me, there were many!

One evening Lek spoke with us about her life and her journey to build ENP up to what it is today and wow, I have been around many inspiring feminists in my time but Lek kinda blew my mind. As well as selflessly working to make life better for all elephants with her brand of positive, patient and passionate activism she has also made a world of difference to the lives of women from local hill tribe villages by employing them in her kitchen, as massage therapists for the guests of ENP and much more. The amount of positive change one woman has created is truly inspiring. 

I loved being surrounded by all of the animals that call ENP their home. There are cats and dogs everywhere as well as elephants, water buffalo and cows. Cat Kingdom was a great place to chill and there was one kitty who came to our room to hang out (and to try to climb our mosquito net) daily. What a beauty.

One day when we were taking a fire break break a dog came to hang with us, (s)he seemed super thirsty so I offered up some water in the cap of my bottle and they lapped it up. I think I shared it 50/50 in the end and was rewarded with a lot of face licks from my new pup friend.

As well as loving being surrounded by animals and having a chance to connect with and understand elephants to a greater extent I also enjoyed the peace and beauty of the surrounding countryside and getting to meet wonderful like minded people. I even managed to tune out the people moaning about the lack of meat without shouting "it's for a week, shut up and deal with it" at them which I thought was rather restrained!

Elephants are a much loved part of Thai culture and Elephant Nature Park is the perfect place to connect with them without causing them any harm so whether you're vegan, vegetarian, or neither (yet!) I'd say volunteering here is a must during your time in Thailand.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Mallrats of Bangkok!

Let's get real for a second, Thailand is hot. Bangkok is hotter. I'm not a person who is particularly good at dealing with the heat. Having grown up in the UK you might expect this but before I embarked upon this adventure other Brit's kept telling me that I'd acclimatise. I am still waiting for the magical acclimatisation date (40 days and counting!) and I'll share just one story with you lest you think I'm exaggerating... When I arrived at the check in desk of a hotel a week or so ago the receptionist looked at me wide eyed and enquired as to whether it was currently raining? Nope, I'm just that sweaty! Good times! My bright red face and I are happily persevering with the heat sitch but in the meantime I have grown to love malls. I know right! Malls! I never thought I'd say it either, I hate shopping, but in Bangkok malls are different. In Bangkok malls are special. Air con aside some malls, like Siam Paragon, are so upscale they're verging on the ridiculous and some, like the fantastic Terminal 21, have amazing concepts. Terminal 21 is like an airport and boy have they committed to that theme, each floor has a city theme with accompanying models and signage, pertinent mall info is displayed on departure boards and even the information assistants are dressed like cabin crew. It's so fun!

Am I in Japan? No! I'm at Terminal 21!

The other great thing about the malls here is that there's vegan food everywhere! There are gourmet markets, supermarkets, food halls and restaurants and as someone who can happily wander around supermarkets for hours on end marvelling at new and exciting fruits and veggies and reading the ingredients on the most implausible things (I've hit the jackpot doing this on so many occasions that I will never stop!) they're a pretty fun place to be.

Anyway, without further ado, here's my guide to Bangkok's malls which are all conveniently located in the Sukhumvit area along the BTS Skytrain line.

Mercury Ville

As well as being the location of Veganerie vegan bakery (which I blogged about here) you can also grab a a soya based milkshake (you just need to ask about honey) from Soya Soyum or a pre-dessert salad at Dressed. I went off menu at Dressed and used the fun salad creating device to throw together a salad that included two types of greens, mandarins, almonds, tofu, grated carrot and avocado. I also went with a blueberry vinegarette dressing that complimented my salad choices nicely. The only downside being that it was freaking expensive, like, 300THB / £6 / $9 expensive which for Bangkok is a little ridic. Also the tofu was plain, cubed and silken which I'm okay with but I know a lot of people would be hating. I'd probably eat it again despite the price because it was super fresh and totally cured my weird salad craving.

Central World

Talalask in the food court (back left hand corner) of Central World Mall was listed on Happy Cow as vegan until I rocked up and saw them making spaghetti carbonara with cows milk. Everything else was vegan though and it's your classic cheap Thai fare - fried rice, pad thai and, oddly, some Japanese gyoza which I loved and ordered every time we swung by. 

Both the Pad Thai and Pad See Ew were good, I've definitely had better but this place wins points for both convenience and people watching.

The Central Food Hall here is also pretty great especially if you're craving the taste of home. I found these Fox's Chunkie Cookies there and daaaaamn are they good cookies! I also picked up some Nature Valley Crunchy Peanut Butter granola bars which are the kind without the honey. Yay!

MBK Centre

I wasn't a huge fan of the veggie place located in the food court at the MBK Centre but that had a lot to do with me hardly having any choices due to my allergies and the things I chose were definitely on the bland side. If you're looking for the cheapest plate of food this is the one for you.

Terminal 21

Okay so Pala Pizza Romana isn't exactly in Teminal 21 but it is attached to the outside so I'm totally counting it. I discovered this place when I googled "vegan pizza Bangkok" after listening to Nick whinge about his pizza craving for about an hour. I totally get weird cravings too and I'll never say no to pizza so we headed one sky train stop away to Pala and fell in love. I adore faux cheeses and mock meats but sometimes a simple marinara pizza is so perfect that it's hard to fault it. This place is generous with the garlic and they serve by the slice, half meter or meter. Geniuses!

There are also vegan labelled salads on the menu as well as a bean soup although I was sad to hear that the marinara slice topped with truffle oil had been discontinued.

The Gourmet Market located on the ground floor of T21, otherwise known as Rome, is the only place I've found in Thailand selling soy yoghurts. Joya brand were already a favourite of mine after trips to Vienna and I'd have bought many more of these for in-room breakfasts if the place I was staying in had had a fridge.

Siam Paragon

This is the spot where I bought some egg and dairy free bread that I described as "a crime against bread" in my last post. Sadness. As an aside Veganerie is the spot for all of your bread based needs. Siam Paragon isn't all shiny cars and sad bread though and I managed to hunt down some vegan umeboshi onigiri from a little Japanese stand opposite the Gourmet Food Court's checkouts.

Siam Paragon also has a Dressed if you're in the market for some (expensive) veggies.

I even managed to find Mintons in the imported gluten free foods section here. Mintons! I've never seen these in a store before. Sadly this traveller is now on a budget and I couldn't justify what works out at £4.20 for a pack despite these essentially being a vegan yoyo!

I did of course scope out Bangkok's non mall based vegan food scene but that's a whole 'nother post.

I'm currently writing this from Chiang Mai where I've just returned from spending a week volunteering at Elephant Nature Park so expect some seriously squee-worthy animal pictures in my next post. If you want to keep 100% up to date with my travels I'm trying to post to my Instagram daily when wifi will allow.