Songkran – in and around Bangkok

Last Songkran we tirelessly splashed our way around Hua Hin, Samut Prakan and Bangkok, getting different feelings in each place, so we want to share some experiences from our week-long adventure and tips for this year.

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The idea:

No doubt this is one of the most exciting New Year celebrations in the world, so there are over a million (?) of visitors coming to Thailand just for this. For the majority of tourists it’s just a huge water fight, but for a large number of Thais it’s an important family celebration, and many don’t step a foot outside! Not because it’s too hot, but because this ceremonial, subtle and respectful event is gradually evolving into a real-life Call of Duty where you are often terrorised and/or assassinated by clueless young drunk foreigners and Thais alike with high-pressure ice-cold water filled guns spraying straight into your already pink, stinging eyes.

Tieland to Thailand have described it pretty accurately: “Everyone has a super soaker. Although you make an attempt at playful water fights, some people in the crowd go way overboard. Your orifices have never been so violated and you wish you had been smart enough to wear goggles, ear plugs, or better yet, a full faced anti-riot mask. Two days later you’ve developed a serious case of pink eye and an ear infection. You pay more than a few bucks to get these treated at the clinic.”

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Regardless of whether you’re Thai, an expat or a visitor, everyone has their own preferences of partying. For example, students go for loud music and drinks offers, families go for cultural stuff, and couples want a bit of both. So here we go.

Hua Hin, April 12-13:

We took a 3rd class train from Hua Lamphong to Hua Hin. It was only 90 baht, and we didn’t have to buy the tickets in advance, but we were advised that we may have to stand throughout the 3-hour ride. The four of us found seats together, yaay! Now, it’s illegal to consume alcohol on the train, but we were in a holiday mood and didn’t mind joining our friends for a sneaky drink. We had McDonald’s Coca-Cola cups topped up with whiskey and it was fun for a while, until a young family sat next to us and we realized we were the only people misbehaving on the whole packed train! We also played “I went to the store and bought…” – that was so much fun!

Once in Hua Hin it took us ages to find our hotel, but only because we ignored all the tuktuks and walked a lot. It’s a nice seaside town with lots of beaches, restaurants, shops, and many visitors, but most of the places to stay are quite pricey. It was IMPOSSIBLE to stay dry. Even before we arrived people were shooting at the train. It was our first time to witness trucks loaded with people dancing to blasting music, endless sprinklers mounted to the middle of the road, sidewalks with barrels of water outside almost every shop, and people randomly approaching you to apply coloured chalk on your face. Wow.

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We were pretty dry most of the day, but in the evening tried to find a restaurant and both sides of this tiny alley had water stations, so we got soaked prior to buying that one essential item – a waterproof wallet. This was our first time diving into a swimming pool without the actual diving or the swimming pool. The fights didn’t stop until who knows when, but basically we could hear music all night even though we stayed further from busy places. We also went to the beach which was pretty fun even though it was cloudy. There were so many people just chilling out with their Changs and families were having food together. If I had to go to Hua Hin again, I would, because I really enjoyed the more relaxed “fights”, it’s just that the hotels are overpriced.

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Streets of Bangkok (13-14 April)

This was the most fun, exciting, and authentic experience of Songkran so far. We basically filled our plastic water guns, and a spray-bottle and just went outside. We didn’t go to any of the busy places, just walked through local streets and alleys in Samrong (Bearing side of Bangkok). Why was it so fun?

Just as we walked out of our condo, we bumped into a random parade with lots of people, police cars and a fire truck! All the locals were spending time with their families, they were super kind and welcoming, and very gentle with the water. Everyone was happy to see two foreigners NOT wearing Singha tank tops. And carrying a spray-bottle. That was the cutest naughty water gun you can find!

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We took a bus into Bangkok, because no water was allowed on the BTS. It was hot, but also intense as the bus became a big slow moving target. In one of the sois a family of partying Thais took pictures with us and invited to eat and drink with them. We stayed and played for a while, and it was so much fun attacking the passing-by tuktuks together!

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We had to go to Silom, because we thought we’ll have to check it off our list at some point anyway. I’m glad we did it then as we won’t go there this year!

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Silom Road, April 14:

If you’re between 18 and 21 there’s a 95% chance that you’ll go to Khao San Road or Silom. Or both. My key words to describe these locations would be: young, single, inconsiderate, horny, alcohol, too loud, rude, masses, mainstream, time-consuming, cold. Yes, cold. The Silom Road had a greenhouse-type tunnel constructed for the festival, which you’d expect to make you warm since it’s got the word greenhouse in it, right? In the afternoon the sun was hiding behind the BTS line, so all the icy water, little clothing and massive non-moving crowds resulted in shivers and discoloured lips.

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We haven’t been to Khao San Road or RCA for Songkran, but from what I’ve heard it’s supposed to be more fun, because there are more open-plan bars and restaurants with drinks and music, whereas in Silom it’s all indoors. But it could also be used as an advantage – to hide from all the water for a bit.

Ancient City in Samut Prakan, April 15:

On the last official day of celebrations we went to the Ancient City as we heard rumours the entrance was free during Songkran. Not bad since original fare for foreigners is like 700 baht! As it turns out it wasn’t free for foreigners, but it was half-price, so still not bad.

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It was fun, peaceful and very family-friendly. Most of the visitors (like 99%) were Thai families with kids and grandparents. Since it’s such a huge complex, there were no crowds whatsoever.

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There were still water guns and music going on, but all the water fights were very polite. In fact we could walk with our camera taken out of the waterproof case!

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We rented bicycles for the day, and it took us like over 6 hours to ride around exploring the objects. If you’re taking pictures more professionally, 6 hours will not be enough. The coolest part was the temple at the top of a big hill where you could see A LOT. The sun was setting so the lighting was very good for photos, or just sitting down to take a rest.

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Where are we heading for Songkran this year? We’ll be checking out the Water Festival in the temples along Chaophraya river to see the cultural side of the celebration. More info about the riverside events here.

If you’re into partying, then check out this BK magazine article and this one.

Tips:

  • BTS does not allow any water to be carried through security, you have to empty your guns there and then.
  • Consider taking extra water as this year (2016) the water stations will be limited due to efforts to save water (it’s a drought after all).
  • Don’t be THAT GUY and shoot everyone in the face. Everyone’s got a gun, but it’s not about hurting others, it’s about making others feel good. And no one likes being shot in the face.
  • If on Silom Road, there is a million people turnaround, literally, so the crowds move at a pace of like 10 metres per minute. It’s a long road too. And it’s cold.
  • Wear Songkran glasses (welder’s glasses) – sunglasses will NOT protect your eyes.
  • Having a jumper or even a large towel in your backpack (wrapped safely in several layers of plastic bags) will save you from getting a cold on that freezing BTS ride back home.
  • In Thailand, in local shops and 7-11’s you can buy booze only from 11.00 until 14.00 and from 17.00 – 24.00, so plan your drinks with friends. Bars and restaurants serve booze all day.

Have fun and be nice!

Overnight train: Bangkok – Surat Thani

Last April, just after Songkran, we took a night train to the south of Thailand. It wasn’t our first overnight train and definitely not the last – we love trains! So we want to share this with those who are planning their Thai train trips.

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The best option is to book seats on a 2nd class sleeper train (fan) at Hua Lamphong train station, roughly two weeks ahead of your trip. South of Thailand has many popular destinations, so tickets do sell out. This time the lady at the counter offered me a joint ticket consisting of a train to Surat Thani and bus service to Krabi, and back. I agreed, but was later disappointed as upon our return from Krabi the transfer service had some organisational issues, as the bus company wasn’t informed that they had to transfer us from Surat Thani bus station to the train station. So next time we will just book the joint ticket one-way, as it’s generally organised, and it costs roughly the same as it would if you did all the legs on your own (which is more fun and adventurous if you have time).

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We go to the station with at least an hour to spare. We’re kind of cautious now as I’ve seen public transport leave slightly ahead of schedule. Nobody would be bothered if the train left a bit early, so keep that in mind. Both at the station and inside the train felt like there was some government campaign going on – there were yellow posters reading ‘NO ALCOHOL ON THE TRAIN’. You can find videos on Youtube of young westerners partying on a night train and drinking excessively, but that’s history now.

I suppose once you close your curtain for the night you could have a sneaky beer or something, but you can only fit two people comfortably in the sleeper seat, plus there are train guards patrolling throughout the night. Actually I thought of booking just a lower bunk-bed because Auste and I both fit in that one bed alright, including our two 30+ litre Ospreys! And we’re not even that skinny. Well, sort of. But I just can’t picture myself trying to explain this sort of arrangement to the ticket officer. Well, even with two tickets, we both sleep in that one bed anyway. In general, the train is very organised, and they have shower cabins, squat toilets (with toilet paper!), sinks, bins, and some trains even have women-only carriages as there have been some accidents in the past.

The tickets cost us 500 for the upper bed and 550 for the lower bed. That is for the fan carriage, not air-con. We have travelled in air-con trains before and they turn too damn cold, where the blanket which they provide isn’t enough and you can’t go back to sleep for the rest of the night. The fan-carriages are really warm, and the fans are actually useless apart from their monotonous hypnotising noise that they make. A few hours into the ride though you get a nice breeze through the window.

The lower bed is more expensive because you can open the window for some air, but it does let a few mosquitos in. You’re still actually sweating for the first half of the night, because the train is extremely slow and keeps stopping every two minutes to give way to faster trains. Those, by the way, scare the hell out of me even when I’m sleeping, as they fly-by at the speed of light and it feels as if it’s going to hit the old rusty sleeper. Half-way through the journey it gets cooler and you need to use the blanket.

The upper bed has no window, you can smell the fumes, and you see the light all night, and you are closer to the noisy fan, and you feel more motion, and there’s less leg room – that is why we both sleep in the lower bed. It isn’t as comfortable, but it’s better than the upper bunk, at least for me. Regardless of where you sleep, in the morning your nose will be blocked and full of dark substance.

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The staff usually start making the beds almost as soon as the train starts moving at around 8 PM. They tend to be pretty frustrated and rude, but they have to make a lot of beds! You can also buy (overpriced and not really fresh clingfilm-wrapped) food from the restaurant, and staff distribute the menus throughout the train. They also come round in the morning offering coffee. It’s a shame they don’t let hawkers into 1st and 2nd class carriages, as they usually have interesting foods for sale. When we travel 3rd class, it’s different though, where hawkers jump on at one stop while the train is moving, jump off at another, just trying to sell their dishes.

I see overnight train travel as a good alternative to taking a van with a crazy driver, or flying (which works out roughly twice more expensive). I love train travel – you see good sights, save on accommodation, and it’s fun, it’s kind of romantic and has some glamour to it. Sometimes the trains can be on time, sometimes a bit late, and sometimes very late. And by very late I mean 4 hours, so don’t plan any other connections straight after the scheduled arrival time.

Our train travel inspiration comes from http://seat61.com/

Kind of up-to-date and accurate prices, routes, and times at http://thairailways.com/

Toby’s coffee and brunch in Thong Lo, Bangkok

DO NOT walk from the BTS – that’s a rookie mistake.

On Google maps the distance looked way too short for a motorbike taxi, so a thirty-minute walk later we arrived hot and moist. We got to see how pretty Soi 38 is though: there were very few cars or in fact even people, there were fenced private properties with nice gardens, and stunning new developments. Before our destination there were actually a few more coffee places that looked very promising.

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It was a nice Saturday afternoon and we were about to meet a friend who texted us:”I’m there. Waiting for a table”. Whaaat? It’s either a coincidence or the place is THAT good, we thought. Toby’s has been featured on BK Magazine; I don’t know the criteria to be picked for their site, but it is a real boost for businesses in Bangkok. As many others, we wouldn’t have known about it otherwise.Toby's Bangkok

We ordered the “Smashed Avocado”, which was delicious! It was a lightly toasted sourdough bread with some gently seasoned avocado and a poached egg on top. Roasted cherry tomatoes and fresh tender leaf salad were also gorgeous – all the flavours and textures were perfectly paired as you can guess. The sad part was that I only had one bite as Auste “Hulk” Treciakauskaite ate the whole plate. It’s supposed to come with chorizo, but they were happy enough to cater for vegetarians, and it was still good.

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The crafty lattes were silky smooth, and my guess is that they used proper full-fat milk as they were very creamy, without any of the coffee bitterness you get from many other places. Auste loves them, and I prefer the more roasty ones. The cake display was very tempting, as always is, but every item seemed to be different: bacon donuts, flourless chocolate cake, and the one I tried I forgot the name of. But it was like a chocolate chip sticky toffee caramel nutty datey “walk the plank” (is that it’s name??) pudding thing. It was sweet, but not overwhelming, and it had everything you can ask for in a dessert (except peanut butter!). Price-wise it was on the high end, but it’s Thong Lo.

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The exterior was very pleasing to the eye. It looked like a modern Norwegian terrace with red brick walls, brown wooden tiles reflecting the setting sun, and the tall grass moving to the gentle sea breeze. There was no sea though, just a humid downtown BKK waft. The interior was just what you’d expect from such place: high ceiling with hanging lamps, white walls with tiny plant inceptions, brand new wooden furniture and cosy seats with pillows.

All in all, we had a typical IG-friendly experience, but for me the most different part was the outdoor area giving a definite non-BKK feel.

Toby's Bangkok

Raw Vegan Buckwheat Porridge with Raspberry Jam

First thing’s first: It’s tasty, and we’re not even vegan.

It just happens that nearly half the time when we make food, it turns out to be vegan. We aim for having fresh/healthy ingredients in our kitchen at all times. There are exceptions, of course.

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Maybe you can relate to this too (Friday evening after a looong week):

-“Honeeeyyyy, look at all the goodness I’ve bought! We’ve got some nice broccoli, cauliflower, salad, cherry tomatoes, ripe bananas, juicy mangos, fresh coconuts – I can’t even name half the stuff!”

-“Oooh, sounds delicious! We could make a nice big bowl of salad for dinner, what do you think?”

-“I’m pretty tired to cook anything though, and I could do with some comfort food. What about a pizza?”

-“Awwwhhh, pizza! It’s been ages since we had one. And a beer!?”

-“Yeah, a nice cold dark beer!!” (mutual agreement reached)

-“We’ve got quite a number of fresh groceries though, you think they’ll keep until tomorrow?”

-“I’m pretty sure they will”. (mutual agreement reaffirmed)

Two days of 7-11 sandwiches, three nights of eating-out and 2 new coffee-shop discoveries later you look at the salad wilted ONTO the side of the refrigerator… Fortunately this only happens occasionally.

Auste has been trying out some raw porridge recipes, and the first time I took a bite, I was less than amazed as it didn’t have a specific taste. It had a texture of what would could be a ground cashew nut porridge. However with every spoonful of this textury mix with raspberry-honey sauce, I wanted more. It still didn’t reveal any distinctive taste, but I just couldn’t stop. It had minor hints of vanilla, oats, and cinnamon – all in one. I only ate it cold, and didn’t even consider heating it up.

It is also suitable to take for lunch to a refrigerator-less office. Tested twice.

buckwheat porridge raw vegan breakfast

For the porridge (adapted from Oh She Glows):

3/4 cup buckwheat groats (they have to be raw, not roasted)

1 1/2 cup of water for soaking

400 ml milk (I used soy milk cause that’s what I had at hand, but I imagine almond milk would work even better with the flavours here)

3 tbsp chia seeds

1 tbsp honey (or Agave syrup for a raw version)

1 tsp vanilla extract (or you can use vanilla pods – even better)

1 tsp cinnamon

For the jam:

1 cup raspberries (frozen or fresh)

1 tbsp honey

raw vegan raspberry jam breakfast

1. Soak the buckwheat groats overnight. They will be slimy and smell a bit strange in the morning, so you have to rinse them a couple of times and they’ll be ready to use.

2. Mix the buckwheat groats with the other ingredients and blend until smooth.

3. Taste it. If you can feel the buckwheat and you don’t like the texture – add more milk with chia seeds and more honey / vanilla / cinnamon to taste. Make it a little bit more liquid than you would like it to be and let it sit in the fridge for about an hour.

4. Make the raspberry jam. Simply crush the raspberries using a fork and mix them with honey. If you want the consistency to be a bit more jam-like add some chia seeds.

5. Take the porridge out of the fridge, pour the raspberry jam on top, add fresh berries, nuts or anything else you fancy and enjoy!