The foodie’s guide to eating it all in Chiang Mai

Deep fried crispy egg noodles delicately mingling with boiled egg noodles, seasoned with pickled mustard greens, shallots, lime and spicy ground chillies fried in oil, and your choice of succulent meat, doused in a tangy Massaman curry-like sauce containing coconut milk—Northern Thai Khao Soi, served on every street corner and most restaurants in Chiang Mai city, is one of the most popular dishes in Northern Thai cuisine. And one of the most delectable, if cooked-well, setting the bar high for our culinary expectations of the city. As you can tell, I’m quite invested (and picky) in food – on holiday, and at home. Luckily for me, Chiang Mai fulfilled every craving – from incessant yearnings for noodles, the hunt for the perfect meat on a stick, to the longing for a good-old Western snack to the sudden, and unprecedented yen for pizza. The best part? The food in Chiang Mai is extremely budget friendly, be it at the markets or any of the restaurants suggested below. So if you’re planning a trip, on need a reason to, read on for our round-up of the supper stops you have to make.

 

  • Kanjana restaurant: “Eat here and never die”, proudly exclaims a sign in the quaint Thai restaurant established in 1997 – while we’re not sure if they’re promising hygienic food or imminent immortality, their extensive menu and beyond delectable food sure were life-giving. The Khao Soi is well made, and a nice way to introduce yourself to the peculiar dish that can take some getting used to, while our favourite dishes included the cashew chicken, stir-fried morning glory and fried noodle kee-mao (hot!). While the ancient Thai ice cream dessert featured not-so-ancient oreo flavoured ice cream, we give it high points for its mix of peanuts, rice and fruit. Full disclosure, we went back the next day to make the most of this Chiang-Mai gem’s immense menu.
  • Chilled Coffee House: We stumbled upon this chilled little coffee house a few hours after we landed in Chiang Mai … a short walk from the old Moat, its doors were thrown open and it was the scent of spicy soya noodles that lured us in – a pork-based broth, a lush plate of morning glory and of course, the seductive soy noodles made our first meal in Chiang Mai a very memorable one.

    The food court served us well at Kalare Night Bazaar
  • Kalare Night Bazaar
    While its range of product stalls is fascinating enough, the Kalare Night Bazaar food court in Chiang Mai is a thing of beauty – a melting pot of cultures, from Little Istanbul to Naina Indian Food, it’s range of cuisines is remarkable, but the winner remained the local Thai stalls. Meander through the market, and pick your poison based on the stalls favourited by locals – that’s where you’re likely to find the most authentic local food. Pair your meal with a local brew (Changs, Leo, Singha) and enjoy locals singing under the hundreds of lights in the bustling market. Don’t miss their chicken and pork satays – which make convenient and easy-to-carry snacks as you meander through the markets.

    Mint chocolate chip at Ploen Ruedee to end a long evening of bazaar-hopping
  • Ploen Ruedee night market
    Down the road from Kalare, Ploen Ruedee night market can be characterized by its more Western-suited offerings – the international food park has a range of fancier (therefore pricier) stalls, along with cool cocktail bars on wheels and fancy ice cream parlours. We had our meal at Kalare, and washed it down with decadent Mint Chocolate Chip and Swiss Chocolate ice cream at Ploen Ruedee, Chiang Mai.

    Over ordering? What’s that? My spread by the lake.
  • Huay Tung Tao Lake eateries
    With a view of the mountains in the distance, straw huts on stilts and of course, the soft ripples and endless views of the silent lake, Huay Tung Tao Lake, a 20-minute drive away from Chiang Mai city, is an urban utopia and an ideal way to spend a day like the locals. About 20 or more restaurants surrounding the lake serve well-priced food and drinks, including fresh fish in little huts made of bamboo and grass – carry along your speakers, a book and make no plans for the day – you can easily while away a sleepy afternoon making the most of this serene locale, not-so-often-frequented by tourists (yet.) Try and get there earlier than lunch time on a weekend as the huts fill up quickly.

    Carrot cake of my dreams
  • Angel’s Secrets
    A vintage-style bakery of our dreams, stop by after you’ve had enough time to recover from a big meal because you’re going to want to make the most of their incredible bakes and desserts. Set aside an hour or so to make the most of their cutesy furniture and vintage-vibe, screen doors and cushion-covered seats et al. Our pick is the #bestselling Carrot Cake paired with their homemade vanilla ice cream (ordered separately). And if that doesn’t get your sugar fix sorted, take home some of their double chocolate cookies for a Chiang Mai-style midnight snack.

    Basil chicken with chilli vinegar #easyonthechilli
  • Lucky Too
    If you’ve had your fill of authentic Thai cuisine (can you really have enough?) whilst in Chiang Mai and are craving good old pizza, this is the place for you. Designed for a more Western palate, its Thai specials are palatable but low on the seasoning and spice while its fusion pizza (Basil chicken, doused with chilli vinegar) and classics, including fries and sandwiches hit the homesick hunger-spot.
  • Special mentions: When in Thailand, do it Thai-style… and make sure you stop over at the 7/11s that are conveniently located every few metres, try the frozen-bottled fresh juices (Orange FTW) and tiny, local breakfast places in Chiang Mai city that serve up the most fulfilling breakfast broths for the hungry soul.

 

Fact file

Location: Chiang Mai City, Chiang Mai Province, Thailand
Getting there: Easily accessible via road and rail (Approx 685 kms from Bangkok, overnight bus and train, booked prior to travel is your best bet – you can get tickets on the day of travel, if you are lucky) and air (closest airport: Chiang Mai International Airport CNX)
Best time to visit: October – April
Things to do: Visit Buddhist Temples, National Parks, Night Bazaars
Recommended eateries: The Good View, Tong Bar & Restaurant, Khun Kae’s Juice Bar

A version of this article was previously published on Vogue.in

Winter is coming – Our top 5 must visit winter wonderlands

When someone tells you that you “have to go to Amsterdam” in winter you don’t moan about how cold and windy it’s going to be, instead you pack all the warm clothes you possibly have and make the most of a winter vacation. I’ve always despised the cold, I mean who doesn’t love Margaritas on a beach but skiing on a mountain or sipping on mulled wine in a quaint little town in Switzerland is equally (or more) impressive. Each vacation, whatever the weather may be relies on what you do and how you experience it and a little tip, once you’re in the minuses example -1 and survived; all the minuses are endurable.

Where the wild things are: a weekend at Wild Brook Retreat

 

Camp on Krakatoa, a volcanic island in the middle of nowhere. Yes, please. Stroll into a cave filled with a million cockroaches and bats glaring at you in Borneo? Sounds wild. Break into a haunted house in Mussoorie in the dead of the night? Hey there, Casper.

While daredevil might be a bit of stretch, when it comes to doing something exciting (or life threatening, according to our parents), my answer is always yes. So, when I heard of eco-lodge Wild Brook Retreat, cut off from the power-grid, set in a wild-life infested jungle in Uttarakhand, prone to leopard and panther drop ins, I planned a weekend getaway just as winter was coming.

Mission Scuba – 3 reasons why Borneo turned us in to scuba junkies

With seventy per cent of the planet underwater, you mustn’t think twice before plunging in to the deep blue waters of any ocean. What awaits is a whole new world for you to immerse yourself in sans crowds, pollution and any form of mundane you’re used to. We’re talking abut scuba diving.

Blessed with some of the most marine-rich waters in the world, Borneo (Malaysia) promises to deliver those exhilarating experiences of swimming with hammerheads, cruising alongside turtles and gliding by the swirling tornadoes of barracudas. Not convinced yet? Read on

On the animal trail in Borneo

Chasing crocodiles, hanging with bats and monkeying around with orangutans, living out our very own animal song

Baby proboscis monkeys look exactly like human babies – in fact, they even cling miserably to their protective mothers the same way irritable kids do when faced with a barrage of strangers; in the dead of the night, it’s the red-glow of crocodile eyes that give away their stealthy presence; orangutans, classified as one of the most intelligent primates, appear smarter than most politicians (re: a certain orange-skinned world leader) and if you venture into a cave full of “one million cockroaches” – make sure your gag reflex is super controllable (and you take your guide literally). Animal world, indeed.

Into the wild

The giant island of Borneo, shared by Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei is home to one of the oldest rainforests in the world – making it ideal for seeking out our animal friends in their natural habitat, and human-created conservation/ rehabilitation centres. It accounts for just 1 per cent of the world’s land mass, but accounts for 6 per cent of the globe’s bio-diversity ! After three days of exploring the underwater world in Mabul, an island off the coast of Sabah, we ventured back to the mainland of Malaysian-Borneo – we began by exploring orangutan and Bornean sun bear country, spent three days on the Kinabatangan river and finished up by paying a visit to the long-nosed proboscis monkey.

Bear with us, as we Monkey around

Sepilok Jungle Resort

We began our animal song, with a short flight from Tawau  to Semporna. Here, we sought refuge at Sepilok Jungle Resort. The rooms are small and basic, with barely functioning air conditioning, while the food is average – the resort’s USP however is its spectacular and animal-friendly landscape (think bridges over water, and lots of greenery) and proximity to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabiliation Centre and the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation centre (both within walking distance).

Orangutan song

The best time to head down to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabiliation Centre is a little before feeding time (10 am and 3pm), so you have the chance to saunter around and see the orangutans in peace – as once the feeding frenzy begins, so does the crowd’s need to get click happy. More than 43km of protected land along the edge of Kabili Sepilok Forest Reserve is home for creatures that have been orphaned or confiscated, leading to debates whether it really is the best environment for these wild animals. Detractors wonder why the government isn’t focused more on protecting the rainforests, but we strongly believe any step towards protection is a step in the right direction – and currently, the space is home to over 60 orangutans who have been rescued from inhumane conditions.

At the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre

Bear necessities
The next stop on our wildlife tour was the neigbouring Bornean Sun Bear Conservation centre (9am-3:30pm) – home to the world’s smallest bear. The bears at the centre are orphaned and/or ex-captive bears, brought into their natural environment in the Sepilok-Kabili Forest Reserve. Currently, about 43 bears reside at the centre and we’d be lying if we said we didn’t feel the urge to cuddle the large-dog resembling bears, after gazing into their watery eyes. It was hard to say goodbye to the animals, but we did – as a 3hour long bus ride took us to Kinabatangan, which is abundant in fauna.

Monkeying around at the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre

Like a river flows… so do we

And after a 2min boat ride, we made it to eco-lodge Bilit Adventure Resort, our home on the banks of the Sabah’s longest river Kinabatangan. We were welcomed by log cabins on stilts, the sudden arrival of rain clouds and the as precipitous disappearance, the defeaning silence of nature, the twitter of unnamed birds and the hissing of unknown predators.

Our jungle home

Cruisin’ along

Our mornings and evenings were spent on the river cruise spotting a barrage of wildlife in their natural habitat – think Proboscis monkeys, hornbills, kingfishers, Malaysian flycatchers and lots more. It was the intrigue, and attraction of spying the crocodile that sent us on an awe-inspiring night cruise – the night was dark, and full of stars – as before the moon rose, we were treated to a sky full of stars, a blanket of twinkling lights which was soon cloaked by darkness. It was in this quietude, and under sparse torchlight and the expert guidance and bravado of Moose, our local guide who himself had an uncle, carried away by a crocodile on the river, that led us to spying two baby crocodiles slinking away as quickly, as they appeared. Those glowing red eyes are not a sight we’re likely to forget soon.

The next night, we ventured around the property on foot. With Blair Witch-like jungle vibes to keep us scared, and the thrill of trudging along led by torchlight to keep us going we were rewarded by sightings of moon rats, minuscule (and speedy) jungle cats and a barrage of birds. Afternoons were spent basking in the sun with cans of Snow Beer, views of the endless river – while we returned to our cosy quarters (ac-ed and comfortable) sweaty and satisfied, each night. It was with a very heavy heart that we said goodbye to Mother nature, and the peace that no-network brings.

Caving in

The cockroach and bat infested Gomantong Caves

But our wild adventure hadn’t ended yet, and on our way to the airport for the next leg of our trip, we drove to the Gomantong Caves. The hill is the largest limestone outcrop in the Lower Kinabatangan area, set in a Sabah Forestry Department forest reserve, the caves and the surrounding areas are a protected area for wildlife, especially orangutans – and we were lucky enough to spy one hanging around as we made our way out. Inside, the stench of a million cockroaches awaits as the cave system is home to massive populations of cockroaches and bats. Walls covered in cockroaches, floors strewn with the insects scurrying about, and a glance at the ceiling revealed colonies of bats, in all their glory. The Gomantong Caves are also well-known for their valuable edible swiftlet nests, which are harvested for bird’s nest soup. Half our party abandoned us on this adventure, as the sight, and smell of the creatures proved too much to handle.

Monkey see, monkey do
But then, we were on the sunshine trail again as we made our way to the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary – nestled in the centre of the mangrove forest along the coastal land near Samawang Village at Labuk Bay, Sandakan. Here, we witnessed families of proboscis monkeys, leaping from one tree to another and feeding. We have to confess, we spent 30 minutes mesmerised, watching as a minuscule monkey was schooled on life (and leaping) by the elders of the group. And thinking, they did it better than most humans.

The proboscis monkeys at feeding time

Vacations always teach us something – sometimes it’s the fact that we need to slow down and relax. Often, it is to disassociate with what’s troubling us. This one, reminded us quite powerfully to be aware of the world we’re living in – that the concrete world of ours is simply creating a wall, shutting us out from the real world – where nature is fighting to survive. And animals, are not that different from us – we’d all like to survive, and leave legacies for generations to witness. Because a world without trees, fresh air, the silence of nature and survival of essential species – is literally no world at all. And are we really ready to lose our world?

 

 

Borneo – the undiscovered paradise

Chasing tigers at Ranthambore National Park, India, scuba diving with fishies in Indonesia and road tripping through the snow-capped mountains of Kashmir, India—  we love adventurous vacations and we’re lucky to have a group of friends as crazy about them as we are. This year, our motley crew was on the lookout for something pocket friendly yet mega exciting and we found our match in…

… *Drumroll*  BORNEO, the land of rain forests, idyllic islands, noodles, hot curries and super-welcoming people! Borneo is the largest non-continental island in the world shared by the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, Indonesian Kalimantan and the tiny nation of Brunei. Known for its rugged landscapes, world famous dive-sites, orangutans, clouded leopards and unusual wildlife; Borneo was a no-brainer.

Here, we’re giving you a day-wise itinerary for those thrill seekers ready for an adventure like no other.

The Isle of Capri – How to spend your summer like a boss

The search for my heaven is over. The waters are clearer than a crystal ball and the cliffs jagged and daunting, while the marina is filled with little boats bobbing in the calm waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Welcome to the drop dead gorgeous Isle of Capri. Located just off the shoreline of Naples on the Amalfi coast where quaint island streets smell like jasmine and orange blossoms. Popular among the rich and famous, the isle can be your slice of heaven too.

Below you’ll find top of the line bait—enough to lure you in for a summer adventure at this island haven.

Unleash your inner royal at the city of Lakes, Udaipur

Walls of flowers softly grazing your face as you walk through a sweeping 200-acre odd property; panoramic views of the hills, and peacock and deer outside your bedroom window – a vintage-style boudoir fitted with wooden floors, old-brick walls and sheer lace curtains, ones that gets served a platter of whatever it is you desire, with a ding of a bell.

Trek to the highest point at SGNP, Mumbai

Like human version of sardines squashed in a can, Mumbai’s crowded streets are overflowing to the brim. The high-rises far outnumber the trees, or so it appears. And while forced interactions on streets, chosen communications in person or frivolous contact via social media may lead us to believe we’re connected, loneliness isn’t too far even in this age of over-communication.

Solitude, on the other hand, is far more difficult to achieve as we solder on in our desperate attempt to be more, achieve more and feel more connected 24/7. But there are places in the city, certain experiences, that are just a car ride away—reminding you that walking the tightrope between loneliness and solitude – and disconnecting might be the best way to connect with the most important person in your life – you. And one of those places is Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Mumbai.

SGNP, Mumbai
The starting point of our trek at SGNP, Mumbai

The terrain: Formerly known as Borivali National Park, it is 104km large protected area in the northern part of Mumbai city. Being one of the major national parks existing within a metropolis (India’s most populous) limit makes it one of the most visited parks in the world. And 27 years after living in the city, I finally traipsed down there. Resplendent in flora and fauna, it’s home to Vihar and Tulsi Lake, more than 1,300 plant species, a range of reptiles, wild mammals that include hare, hyena, spotted deer, the lone sambar and even the infamous leopard while bird watchers can find everything from the Whitebellied Sea Eagles to the Paradise Flycatcher. That’s right, fellow Mumbai citizens, you don’t have to fly to Gir or Ranthambore to get a whiff of nature. Or trek to Kheerganga to get your juices flowing. All you have to do is find a trek, book said trek, book a guide and get on your merry way (early in the am if you’d like to miss the waterfall loving, transparent t-shirt wearing crowds).

SGNP, Mumbai
Heart shaped leaves seen on our trek at SGNP, Mumbai

The trek: While there are a number of trek routes within the park, we decided to aim for the top. A trek that went from the historic Kanheri Caves all the way to the highest point in the park. According to our enthusiastic guide Jagdish Vakale, (biology professor for 11th-12th graders, so much adept at dealing with teenagers with short attention spans and a propensity for silly questions, or 20-something year olds who refuse to grow up and spend the trek comparing hiking stick lengths) these Buddhist carved caves are allegedly the largest in the world to be carved out of a single block of stone. This group of caves and rock-cut monuments contain Buddhist sculptures and relief carvings, paintings and inscriptions, dating from the 1st century BCE to the 10th century CE. From the caves, the top is an easy 2hour walk uphill, where you’re likely to stumble upon all variety of spiders, anthills, birds, the odd monkey and a somewhat uneasy sense that no matter where you going you’re being watched by the predatory leopard. While a bit slippery in the rain, the clouds rolling in every few feet make the uphill walk easier. Once at the top, you climb a watchtower and marvel at the sublime view of the two lakes and the silent stillness of being surrounded by foliage while in the maximum city of Mumbai.

SGNP, Mumbai
A moment of solitude at SGNP, Mumbai

The taleteller: Trails can be found via the SGNP website, and guides can be booked via the NIC (Nature Information Center). Since we trekked in the monsoon, a busy period, we booked a guide in advance (recommended) and got lucky with Mr Vakale. A father who worked in the forest department meant he had fostered 26 cats, 6 owls, one cuckoo and a leopard cub named Krishna (who lived with them for a year and a half) that loved dairy milk chocolates and was petrified of one of the older cats. Vakale also spent a few years tracking leopards within the park, and spoke of the wild cats as a friendly neighbourhood puppy, trekked in slippers and mimicked bird calls so adeptly that the birds were fooled enough to reply. While Mumbai is well-known for its chaotic night life and endless range of city-related activities (monuments, heritage walks, bar crawls, the famed human-traffic), there is a whole new world closer to city limits — while from the second highest point you can still see high rises emerging from the clouds, if you turn your head to the other side, you’ll find endless skies and the kind of stillness that hills tucked far away from humanity offer up. A testimony, perhaps to Mumbai’s dichotomy – and the promise than no matter how well you think you know the city, if you let it – it will surprise you, and envelop you in that solitude you so desperately seek.

Fact file

  • Getting there: car, bus or train ride to Borivali
  • Kanheri Caves are a substantial walk up from the main gate (approx. 6km), so you can rent a car from the NIC office, catch a BEST bus or cycle your way up and down from the caves.
  • Summer isn’t ideal to trek in, as it gets terribly hot. The monsoon season (June-Sept) will give you misty clouds to trek in while Mumbai’s short, mild winter (Nov-Jan) is ideal to trek in
  • Make sure to carry a change of clothes, a rain-cover for your bag and be prepared for no phone coverage for most of the trek
  • The NIC organises nature trails, bird-watching excursions, butterfly watch, treks and overnight camps led by experts, so reach out to them in advance to select a trek. Book a week in advance – approximate rates are INR 300/person

This article is part of our series on Mumbai. Follow the link to read on our winter visitors: the flamingos

One day in Barcelona: Eating your way through the city

We touched-down in Barcelona on a day that wasn’t sure if it was going to be sunny or cloudy – but one look at the bi-polar sky, the Gaudi-strewn streets and the air of easy nonchalance, we were sure we’d love the city.

And with burgers for brunch, mini-sandwiches for lunch, gelato for a snack and sit-down meals (Asian to Spanish) for dinner – Barcelona is a virtual potpourri of cultures. If all you have is 24 hours in the city, we show you how to make the most of gourmet offerings. Join us on a cross-city culinary chase.

Marmalade, las Ramblas

While their Bloody Mary is simply rumoured to be the best in town, we can vouch for it. The ideal companion to a brunch that’s heavy on the calories and the cheer, head down to the cool, chic restaurant and cocktail bar for your first meal in Barcelona – choose from the succulent hamburgers or classic breakfast offerings (eggs, bagels, pancakes). If you’re looking to end your evening here, we suggest you try the sangria, pair it with the delectable fully loaded nachos (that we couldn’t stop eating) – and that incredible ramen burger. Ah, Barcelona! Marmaladebarcelona.com

Txapela, Passeig de Gracia

Passeig De Gracia, one of the most luxe streets in the city is home to an array of designer stores and restaurants – if you’re tired from all the walking through Barcelona city, Txapela is the place for you. Described as an authentic Basque tavern, we prefer the outdoor seating so you can make the most of the summer (or winter) sun and settle down to choose from their extensive range of pintxos (small snacks, of which they have 51 on the menu).  Think everything from mini baguettes filled with salmon to fried eggs and Iberian ham ensconsced between the softest bread. We tried at least 15 of the 51, and we’re definitely going back for more. For breakfast fiends, they have a menu that includes donuts, croissants and mini sandwiches, naturally. Txapelarestaurant.com

Restaurante Nuria, las Ramblas

If you’re hankering for a dose of authentic tapas in the midst of the frenetic las Ramblas of Barcelona, head down to Nuria – which dates back to 1926. Set in quirky, cheery interiors, the well-lit space is perfect for a glass of wine and range of tapas.  On Nuria’s side is its ace location and quick service – topping our list were the fried calamari and assortment of sausages. The Paella is super fishy and only meant for those who have developed a taste for the deep and lasting intense flavour. Nuria.com

Santagustina, El Born

Set in Barcelona’s beautiful El Born district, we headed down here for a few drinks – and ended up staying for tapas and dinner. The bartender’s friendly wine advice and great selection of cheese, coupled with the relaxed environment and moody music were the key factors – set in quaint, kind of rustic interiors, we loved the friendly vibe (even if the tables were a little too close together) and service. All in all, leaving us with an intimate, fun experience. And wine connoisseurs, you’re going to have plenty to choose from – making this the perfect place to while away a boozy evening at. Santagustina.es

Bananas, El Born

Specialists in “international cuisine with orientalized touch” , the offerings at Bananas restaurant in the heart of El Born are global and yet fusion. The fried duck wontons were the best we’ve ever tasted and the Nasi Goreng could give any Indonesian restaurant a run for its money – the Desperado on offer didn’t hurt either. Bananas-barcelona.com

Gelato, Italiano, In Espana

If you can’t quite make it to your Italian sojourn, worry not – you can satiate your gelato cravings at any of Italian chain Amorino’s many outlets in Barcelona. The fact that you can mix more than two flavours (we pick Belgian chocolate and dulce de leche) that are then decorated adorably into a rose flower – makes this ice-cream adventure more an experience that just a snack. Perfect mid-morning, mid-afternoon or midnight snack if you ask us. Amorino.com