Wednesday 28 January 2015

Hill House, Koh Yao Noi

After settling on Koh Yao Noi as our first stop in Thailand we wanted to find somewhere comfortable, convenient and affordable to spend the first week. Our accommodation budget for SE Asia taps out at around 1100THB which works out at around £21 / $32. I'm sure we'll spend less a lot of the time, I'm writing this from a 700THB / £14 / $21 room by the beach in Koh Lanta, and a little more on occasion when we're feeling the need for a fancier bathroom or hear of somewhere spectacular or with great vegan breakfast options. We stumbled upon Hill House during one of many Google / Trip Advisor searches and it sounded perfect and just squeezed within the confines of the budget.

It was exactly as beautiful as it looked online. Oh how I love it when that happens! We stayed in Bungalow Lek 1 which is located right at the top of the hill meaning it has truly amazing views out across the bay. I spent a lot of time reading in the hammock on our balcony or just watching the squirrels running, and in some cases flying, in-between the trees.

The room itself is pretty open to the elements with open walls in the bathroom as well as slatted windows and sliding doors. We loved this after we got over the initial five minutes of mosquito / bug panic. The bed was huge and comfortable despite being quite hard and the mosquito net they provide is great and more like a tent than a regular mozzie net. We liked that there were curtains across the back of the room separating the bathroom and wardrobe area from the rest of the space which meant that you could get dressed without worrying about shutting all of the other windows, doors and curtains.

Breakfast isn't included in the room rate but it is available for 160THB / £3 / $4.50 and for vegans it includes fresh fruit, mango sticky rice and unlimited tea or coffee.

Sadly all of the bread on the island (and almost everywhere else in Thailand so far) seems to have eggs, milk or honey so there was no toast for us. We only partook in breakfast a couple of times because as non coffee / tea drinkers (I tried that first day as you can see in the picture!) it worked out a little better for us to buy fruit in town. The mango sticky rice was totally delicious though and these breakfasts definitely sparked a new love affair for me.

The view from the cafe area is ridiculously beautiful whether the tide is in or out. In this photo the tide is in but sometimes it goes all the way out to the little island you can see in the middle of the picture.

One thing I read over and over in guidebooks and on websites before visiting Koh Yao Noi was that the beaches aren't that great. We thought they were pretty epic especially the one right outside Hill House, yes sometimes you had to walk quite far to reach the sea but it's all sand and not stone or rocks like on some of Koh Yao Noi's other beaches so it's totally walkable and I had one of the most serene and breathtaking moments ever when I floated out there in the shallows with Nick at dusk one evening. The sea was super still and there was just something amazing about the light and the way that it illuminated the limestone karsts that dotted the horizon. It was almost unbelievably beautiful. You'll have to go and check it out for yourself one day.

The lovely people at Hill House were also happy to rent us a scooter for 200THB / £4 / $6 a day despite seeing Nick get off to a pretty shaky start trying to ride the thing. I braved getting on the back and aside from some minor incidents (You totally cannot put your feet down to stop when travelling at speed on a scooter, it is not like a bicycle! Dirt tracks are dangerously bumpy! ) it wasn't too terrifying and it made getting around the island super easy. Koh Yao Noi is actually a great place to learn to ride a scooter because it's relatively quiet and there aren't that many other new-to-scootering tourists haring about the place. Here's Nick getting gas...

One day they also organised for us to borrow a kayak for a super reasonable 500THB / £9 / $15 for the whole day. 

We set off around 9am and kayaked both into the wind and against the tide for a couple of hours before stopping at a secluded beach which also happened to be a- totally empty and b- a nature reserve. It was covered in crabs, big and small, and it was so fun to watch them scurrying about doing whatever it is that crabs do. 

After a quick dip in the sea to cool off we were off to the next beach which was just around the corner and again it was not only mind blowingly beautiful but almost totally empty. There was one other couple at the far end of the beach but we couldn't even see them from where we were sitting. It was the perfect place to enjoy the lunch our hosts had made us. They totally understood our request for a strict vegetarian meal with no egg, fish sauce, oyster sauce or shrimp and clarified that soy was okay. This simple looking veggie fried rice dish was super delicious, seasoned with white pepper and lime juice it's one of the best things we've eaten on the trip so far.

It was so good that we decided to eat dinner at the Hill House cafe one night, they do food to order but you need to let them know what you'd like for dinner at breakfast or lunch if you want dinner that day and at dinner time if you'd like lunch the next day. The menu is in the pink folder under the desk in reception. We wished we'd eaten dinner there sooner because the veggie fried rice and veganised Pad See Ew meal we shared was wonderful and I could have happily eaten there night after night.

As you can tell I really loved Hill House, our stay there was the perfect welcome to Thailand and we'd love to return one day. If you'd like to read more about our experiences in Koh Yao Noi you can check out my earlier blog post here.

Thursday 22 January 2015

Koh Yao Noi, Thailand

I made it! Everything I own is in storage, there are officially people living in mine & Nick's house (which totally feels weird!) and for the next four months I'll be exploring SE Asia!!! The jet lag has subsided and given away to a cold but what better place to have a cold than in the hammock of a gorgeous bungalow on a beautiful island? No complaints here!

Despite the plan for the majority of this part of the trip being There is No Plan Nick and I spent a fairly decent amount of time researching our first stop. As well as wanting to strike the right balance between having some infrastructure (a hospital!) and not being overdeveloped (full of teenage backpackers!) we wanted pretty beaches and some shops where we'd be fairly certain we could stock up on snacks. Thanks 7/11! Koh Yao Noi really seemed like it would hit that sweet spot and we haven't been disappointed. Just in case you haven't heard of it (I had a lot of blank looks when I was telling people where we were headed first) Koh Yao Noi (or Ko Yao Noi as Lonely Planet would have it) is a small island off of the Andaman Coast closet to Phuket and not too far from Ao Nang and Krabi. We arrived by boat from Phuket's Bang Rong Pier which you can get to by taking a taxi ride (around 600THB / £12 / $18) from Phuket airport. The boat thankfully only costs 200THB / £4 / $6.

The island's population is mostly muslim meaning that a lot of the stores don't sell alcohol and there's no real nightlife to speak of - perfect for us! It also means that you need to dress conservatively away from the beaches which is something some of our fellow travellers seem to be having issues with - seeing people wandering around the town centre topless or in short shorts and bikini tops when the majority of the locals are covered from head to toe or at least shoulder to ankle is pretty icky to say the least. We've heard from locals and people living here a long time that the island's much busier than it used to be and you can see that it's rapidly changing just because of the amount of construction happening on the west coast but it does't seem busy at all. We've spent most of our time on deserted beaches and the roads were even quiet enough for Nick to brave learning to ride a scooter (I don't have a driving licence) and for me to give in and just hop on the back despite my fears / abject terror after seeing him try to stop once already...let's just say we got off to a wobbly start & now I only think we're going to crash into the bushes once a day!

Despite there being no Happy Cow listings for Ko Yao Noi (don't worry, I'm on it!) vegan restaurant eats have been relatively easy to come by although we have become obsessed with the vegan Jay labelled frozen ready meals from 7/11 to the extent that we've actually eaten them all. Not all as in we've tried them all, all as in there are none left on the island. Oops.

We're especially loving the Vegetarian Fried Rice but the mock meat and tofu filled vegetarian Chinese Five Spice Stewed with Rice is also a fun meal. There are a couple of others, including Red Curry and Stir Fried Basil with Vegetarian Protein, but being allergic to chilli means I have to pass on them. They're pretty simple meals but at around 38THB / 80p / $1.20 each they're budget friendly as well as tasty and filling.

Rice Paddy was one of the first restaurants we tried as it had both good reviews and was listed as having veggie options on Trip Advisor. The German owner totally understood both veganism and my allergies and was able to recommend dishes from their vegetarian menu. The veg menu includes both oyster and fish sauce as they're considered veggie here but there's a note at the top of the menu reminding you to specify if you want to avoid fish, oyster or eggs.

We picked the Pad Pak Ruam, vegetable stir fry, which we had stir fried in soy sauce. We also ordered a Sweet & Sour Seafood dish minus the peppers and a couple of sides of rice.

On one visit I also tried the vegetarian lamb which is made from mushrooms rather than wheat gluten. It was peppery and delicious but no good for Nick who may be the world's biggest mushroom hater - this works out well for me though!

The Pad Pak Ruam was our favourite dish overall and I especially loved the freshness of the snap peas and the inclusion of so many kinds of mushroom. The Sweet & Sour Seafood was fun, and I loved the prawns themselves, but I don't think I'll ever be a huge fan of warm cucumber.

A classic vegan treat in Thailand is mango sticky rice that, as far as my research tells me, needs no modifications. I wasn't in love with this version as I found the addition of coconut cream a little cloying but Nick loved it.

If you're on Koh Yao I would definitely recommend Rice Paddy especially as it actually overlooks a rice paddy. We saw water buffalo there one afternoon and on another there were loads of fun birds doing their thang.

We ended up at Italian run spot La Luna for dinner one night mainly because it was the only place with obviously veganisable food within walking distance of where we were staying. It's only around 15 minutes away which at night, as there are no pavements or lights, is about as far as I'd like to venture on foot. The pizza wasn't exceptional, the crust was a little on the thin side and they could have ladled on a little more tomato, but I was pleased that they were pretty generous with the veggie toppings.

One thing we did get excited about was the dessert menu, we assumed we wouldn't be ordering anything but a whole page of it was devoted to homemade, fruit based, vegan ice cream! Now I know that I've ranted about frozen banana not being ice cream in the past, and I do still stand by that, but this raw banana based sorbet / gelato hybrid was totally refreshing and actually quite delicious as well as being unexpected. We tried banana strawberry and banana raspberry and the raspberry was my favourite. No pictures because it was really dark by then and slightly melty fruit doesn't look good after dusk!

Pyramid Bar was another easy but western leaning place to get a vegan meal. Pizza without cheese again as their pasta is made with egg, I preferred the pizza from La Luna because they had more plentiful toppings but we loved the side of chips we ordered (they reminded me of the ones from Voner in Berlin!) and were excited that they were happy to whip us up some garlic bread with olive oil rather than the usual butter.

It was SUPER garlicky, we rode home on the scooter we hired and with the visor of my helmet down I felt like I was in a delicious garlic bubble!

Chaba Cafe and Gallery is a veg friendly spot that we ended up visiting a couple of times after I was originally lured in by the "Vegetarian Food" sign outside!

When we went for lunch earlier I had a big mixed salad with a slice of bread on the side (they make their own) and some fried potatoes with tomatoes and onion. Nick had fried potatoes too as well as some toast with peanut butter.

The salad was epic, I'm not usually a huge salad person but this was so fresh and delicious and totally different to anything else we'd eaten since we arrived. It came with lettuce, shredded red cabbage, grated carrot, cucumber and two types of tomato and I added olives and went with the olive oil mustard balsamic dressing which was perfect. Sadly I think the potatoes were cooked in paprika or maybe even a really mild chilli oil which I can't eat so as soon as I realised I handed them over to Nick. Sadness. They were delicious! I had a little nibble of Nick's PB Toast to make up for it which was really great. I totally miss toast already and I think we'll probably head there for breakfast tomorrow before we leave the island.

Chaba also sell raw energy + protein bars which are actually made on the island and you can grab them to go from the fridge in the little shop onsite.

Unsurprisingly I much preferred the date, cacao, almond and cinnamon to the broccoli, quinoa and chia seed one - I frankly don't know what I was thinking when I picked it! Too healthy for me I think.  Speaking of healthy I've been eating SO MUCH fruit since we got here. I'm in love with mangoes. They taste a million times better here than they do in the UK (duh!) and there's a fruit stall opposite 7/11 where we've been stocking up on bananas, oranges and the aforementioned mangoes daily. I'm yet to be convinced about starfruit though and I feel pretty meh about dragon fruit - it's so pretty but there's something about it that I'm not quite feeling yet.

I'll be back soon with a review of our guesthouse, Hill House, and the vegan food they've been making us as well as some fun pictures from our kayaking excursion.

Saturday 17 January 2015

Gimme Chocolate!

I sat down to write this blog post and ended up in a BABYMETAL You Tube hole so here's one of their songs, Gimme Chocolate, which is a great soundtrack to this post as well as being one of my favourite songs of the moment.

I first discovered Pana Chocolate a week after London Veg Fest (this is not a VegFest endorsement, just a fact) when I went to my friend Justine's house to hang out and play with her kitties. She was kind enough to share a bar of Orange Pana Chocolate with me and "OMG yum" were the first two words out of my mouth after taking a bite. I'm not usually a huge raw chocolate fan, most of it is either too bitter, too coconutty or the texture is off but this chocolate is seriously great. You definitely wouldn't mistake it for regular chocolate, this is new and different and my favourite flavours were texturally reminiscent of the insides of a gooey brownie.

After I was unable to find any Pana Chocolate in my local health food store, Infinity Foods, I contacted Pana Chocolate themselves to see if they'd consider sending me any to review and to my delight they not only said yes but sent me a whole box full with 8 new flavours to try (alongside my favourite orange bar) all the way from Australia.

I decided not to dig into these alone and over the last month I've invited all sorts of people over to try them, vegans, vegetarians, and even a health conscious gluten free omnivore. Across the board people were seriously impressed. Okay, my vegan chocolate obsessed friend Josh wasn't won over but that's only one person out of ten or so people. I'd say if you've liked any raw chocolate in the past or are a dark chocolate fan then you'll love these. As well as being delicious the packaging's gorgeous dontcha think? 

I enjoyed almost all of the flavours (I still hate goji berries!) but Orange and Sour Cherry & Vanilla were definitely my favourites closely followed by Mint and then Raw Cacao which all sit at the 60% cacao mark. The Sour Cherry & Vanilla bar is full of big cherry chunks which I loved and they aren't kidding about the sour part. I could have easily eaten the whole bar in one go. Mint on the other hand packs such an intensely minty punch that one square makes the most perfect after dinner nibble.

Pana Chocolate's motto is "Love Your Insides, Love The Earth" and it's stamped all over their bars, they take the motto seriously and all of their packaging is recycled or recyclable and printed with vegetable inks. Everything they make is vegan and their chocolate bars are made from fair trade certified, raw, organic ingredients with no refined sugars.

Pana Chocolate can be found at Brighton's Sunny Foods and Eastbourne's Pathway Pantry as well as at As Nature Intended and Planet Organic stores in London and all over Australia. I'm really hoping to be able to visit one of the Pana Chocolate stores in Sydney or Melbourne next year especially as I just noticed they make a rose flavour, yum!

Saturday 10 January 2015

The Final Nail, Brighton.

I don't consider myself to be a make up person. I gave up wearing make up years and years ago just to see if I could, and because in summer my allergies are so bad that I'd spend 90% of the time looking like a panda anyway, and I went years without it. Now I occasionally wear a little eye sparkle, mascara or lip colour for fun but it's nice to not feel like I need it y'know. Nail polish is a whole 'nother thing, I don't really even see nail polish as make up, it's just another way to add a pop of colour to my day to day look and I love colours and patterns and glitter! Nail polish is totally one of the things I'm going to miss whilst I'm travelling as those little glass bottles aren't carry-on compatible...I totally stashed a couple of bottles of polish and a box of Superdrug's nail polish removing wipes amongst the extra stuff I'll be taking in the van though and boy was picking those two colours a challenge!

I'm super conscientious when I'm choosing nail products because animal testing was at the forefront of my veganism. For me veganism definitely isn't just about what I'm eating, it's what I'm wearing and where my money's going when I shop too. I actually stopped buying animal tested household, make up & personal care products years before I quit dairy, eggs and honey but I would still say that it's the the most challenging part about being vegan. Why? Because big companies and corporations are shady as hell when it comes to animal testing! They make confusing statements which will insist that they didn't test the product on animals (so, they paid someone else to) or that the final product wasn't tested (read: but we did test the individual ingredients / paid someone else to do so on our behalf) and then there are the parent company issues which mean that even Vegan Society certified products like Original Source aren't actually cruelty free because they're owned by PZ Cuzzons one of the worlds biggest animal testers. Amimals die in horrific ways in laboratories every day and buying products from a company who are owned by someone who tests on animals, like with The Body Shop and L'oreal or Tom's of Maine and Colgate, means that your money is supporting that. Same in the case of companies like Urban Decay who made the decision to sell in China despite knowing it meant that they would need to test on animals, to simplify that decision they basically chose profits over bunnies which isn't cool at all. 

I definitely know vegans who think that these parent company issues don't matter and I think it's up to you as an individual to draw your own line but these issues matter to me and I think I'm showing that it is possible to avoid giving money to these companies if that's what you want to do. I'm not claiming to be perfect (I still haven't found an acceptable alternative to Mitchum's antiperspirant deodorant - update! Yes I have. In love with Lush's Aromaco!) but this is an ideal that I strive towards. To find out more check out this guide from Uncaged or come and chat to the beauty obsessed peep's in The Mall area of The PPK forums.

The reasons I've just laid out are why I was so happy when I got an e-mail from local salon The Final Nail a few days ago letting me know that after 6 months of research and sourcing products they are now the place to go in Brighton if you want a 100% vegan & cruelty free manicure or pedicure. How awesome! I've actually e-mailed many local salons in the last two or three years trying to find someone to fancy up my nails and had come up with nothing, sure there are some places with vegan nail polishes if you're willing to let the cruelty free thing slide or places where yep they know what's in the polishes and they're ok from a cruelty free perspective but they have no idea about polish removers, hand creams etc. The Final Nail is refreshingly different and I could tell after a quick e-mail convo that they knew what they were talking about, excitingly they also use Floss Gloss, a brand I'd been dying to try for a while.

I went in yesterday for a complimentary mani pedi from Alex and Lilli the ladies behind this alternative salon where piercings and coloured hair are a-ok.

We started with the manicure and after Alex put on the Orly base coat I picked Floss Gloss's Con Limon which I luuurve. It's SO BRIGHT which is getting me extra excited about it only being six days until I'll be lying on a beach in the sun. It was topped off with Seche Vite's topcoat which is what I use at home thanks to my make up loving buddy Sal's expert recommendation. 

Tofu 4 Lyfe

Having a pedicure was just as lovely as getting a manicure and I chose Floss Gloss's Wet which just so happens to match the flowers I have tattooed on my feet. Perfect.

Despite having wanted to give having a mani pedi a go for a while I was a little nervous about the whole experience but Alex and Lilli were ridiculously easy to talk to and soon an hour and a half had whizzed by and my nails had been all fancied up!

The Final Nail is located below PORTA at 4 Bond Street which is wonderfully close to all sorts of vegan friendly eateries including Infinity Foods Kitchen, Larder, and Gelato Gusto. Vegan manicures start at £25 and they also do vegan and cruelty free Gelicure manicures and nail art. You can find The Final Nail on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook