Wednesday, January 16, 2013


The scenic reward for the long and winding drive to the top of Doi Phu Khua National Park. 
Like Parisians and New Yorkers, many Bangkokians break for the border during the tourism high season. Post-Christmas, we headed north to Nan Province for a three-day/two-night road trip.

Renowned for its stunning scenery, mountainous areas, cool December climes, and slow, low-fi pace of life, Nan is touted as a rising star vacation destination (though the long, winding and hilly drive to Nan remains a barrier for the masses). However, the perseverance and effort delivers a huge payoff - in fact, we screwed up by not allowing enough time to enjoy the region's abundant attractions. Hopefully there will be rafting, hiking, dining, and camping trips to be enjoyed in the future.

A "whispering themed" painting - one of many to be found in Nan, Phrae and Pua.
Beyond Lampang, Nan Province shares the same scenic look, and folky feel of Isaan not so far away. As well as vibrant green rice paddy fields and rocky outcrops, there are vast forests, water falls, national parks, and the ever present Nan River.

Though our visit was brief we fell in love with the region's natural beauty. And without getting deep and meaningful, the trip offered a glimpse and reminder (for us city dwellers) of Thailand's scale, diversity and cultural, social and economic differences. While it's best enjoyed over a week or longer, here are some of the things we enjoyed..

Doi Phu Khua National Park - the park's 2,000 metre peaks were the anticipated star attraction of our trip and they didn't disappoint. The panoramic views from the top, atmospheric morning mist, chilly 10 degree temps, massive forest areas, and clean air was a wonderful combination. Equally enjoyable was the slow, winding road trip up through the forest - a must drive/ride for motorbike enthusiasts and sports car drivers.

Pua's Walking Street - you'd think a town that celebrates beetles would have little going for it. But Pua is recommended as a layover destination for two great reasons - it's close proximity to Doi Phu Khua and the town's night market (the only market in the world to be bookended by breakdancing teens at one end, and senior citizens showcasing their best mor lam dance moves at the other). In between is some of the best street food that I've ever seen and eaten in Thailand.

BBQ Phrae style - go big or go home..
A highlight was the impressive BBQ stand about three quarters of the way down. While nose-to-tail dining is de rigueur in many poncy, fancy dan eateries around the world right now, I reckon it's always been in style here. The calf on the grill was tender, juicy, smoky and delicious - forget dining at the local restaurants - head straight to the market and its magnificent melange of flavours and eats including sai krok (Isan styled sausage), rice cakes, chicken legs and wings, thai deserts, fried quail eggs, freshly squeezed orange juice, and much more.

Phae Mueang Phi - billed as a mini Grand Canyon, the amazing mushroom shaped rock formations (formed by subsidence and erosion) in the Phae Mueang Phi national park are a must see.

About 18 kms from Phrae, the Phae Mueang Phi - the rock formations at the national park were my trip highlight.
They're especially spectacular during sunset when the orange sky offers a terrific backdrop to the bronze/yellow rock formations. For further exploring, there are walking tracks nearby, and for a cheap laugh, the signs explaining the park's "ghost story" offer a few chuckles.

Nan Riverside Art Gallery - You'd be hard pressed to find an art gallery/art space with a better setting. As the name suggests, the spacious, bright, and airy gallery sits beside the river and if the art pieces (a good mix of modern and traditional Thai works) are not your bag of thrills, take a seat outside, order a coffee, ice cream or soft drink, to enjoy the view and detox your polluted city lungs. Other attractive and interesting spots include:
  • Phrae's iconic Bomb noodle and coffee shop as well as its Bavarian designed train station
  • The many well-maintained old Thai homes in Nan City  
  • The fabled and mystical dik deam tree in Pua's main temple
  • The very cool Phrae Farmstay Hotel that offers tremendous value for money

Pitch Perfect

Aca-tastic, aca-brilliant, aca-fabulous and aca-awesome...

Most holiday season films are bland, boring, bloated, trite, shite, over-cooked, sentimental and long. This year, the trend was bucked with Pitch Perfect, a gem of comedy.

While it follows a standard Hollywood "underdogs come good" story line, Pitch Perfect rocks hard with energy, sass, spunk, lots of bad ass singing and dancing, and the right level of bad taste.

The riff-off scene is one of the best 4-5 minutes of cinema that I've seen in a long time. Indeed, a cappella has never sounded so good (to my ears) - as good as Andy Bernard's efforts in The Office.

In addition, funny as hell Aussie comedian/musician, Rebel Wilson steals every scene she's in. Equally good is Adam DeVine who plays a slimy, creepy, needy character to perfection (very similar in fact, to his Adam role in Workaholics.  

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

2012 Rewind

A year in which R&B, soul, dance/electronic music, jazz and hip hop topped my personal pop charts. If you'll indulge me, a few favourites...

Solange's "Losing You" is the the pop song of the year. Love its 80s Madonna influences, beautiful melody, and stunning video.

Chromatics - Kill For Love - a late in the year discovery and by christ, better late than never. Love their mix of melody, mood, mystery, and low-key menace (bit like the film Drive which they helped soundtrack).

Thank fuck for fearless Frank in 2012. I love this song, but could have picked any track from the sensational Channel Orange (CO). CO re-sparked my interest in long players - every track was a winner, even the preposterously long Pyramids (a nine minute + single that didn't suck). God, Allah, Jah, Buddah etc bless Frank Orange. 

An insanely catchy, clever, tune that puts a smile on my face whenever I hear it. The video is pretty wonderful as well.

Finally, a slow-burning charmer (a Miguel cover) that provided a perfect accompaniment for crowded sky train rides home during the rainy season - some songs fit certain moods/scenes/activities. Look forward to listening to more of their good stuff.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Best Cheap Eats in Bangkok

Chef Boonlert - the man, the legend behind Gold Bay Leaves.
While the best eats are not always the cheapest, Bangkok is home to loads of restaurants serving extraordinary food for just a few dollars.

If you don't have the budget to eat this pricy bowl of rad na, don't fret because fantastic and affordable food is around most corners of the capital.  And not just Thai food.  Here are a few of our favourite "cheap but good" places...

A recent trip to the old school, and much vaunted, Royal India (tucked away in probably the most famous alley in Pahurat), was disappointing.  Lucky for me, my good dining buddy Adam put me onto Namuskaar on Sukhumvit Soi 8 a little while back.  It's the 'dog's bollocks' for North Indian cuisine and their chickpea curry, daal makani and many other plates are sensational.  The owners are also super friendly, and as long as you're not seated too close to American tourists bragging about their trip adventures it's always a great spot for a bloody good eating night out.

Chennai Kitchen's finest.
A block away on Soi 14 is Istanbul, a new'ish Turkish restaurant serving big plates of Turkish staples.  Istanbul's eggplant and tomato casserole is terrific - balancing savoury and sweet flavours well.  Also recommended is the lamb stew, falafel and variety of salads.  Sure it feels, and looks like a mobster's joint, and the menu is unreadable (three languages crammed in) - but don't be intimidated you are in Planet Nana after all.  And Istanbul is miles better than many awful Middle Eastern places on Sukhumvit Soi 3.

I waxed lyrical about Gold Bay Leaves last year and it has been "well and truly discovered" judging by the packed house during our last visit.  Chef Boonlert deserves his success because the food is sublime and cheap - offering maximum culinary bang for the buck.  Where else are you going to get a beautifully cooked fish for around 250-280 baht?  Just a small quibble (and it's minor), service could do with a tune-up to better meet the increased popularity.

Ok, Pala is not a cheap charlie sort of place but its pizza is better than the rest.  If you're going to pay over the odds for a slice of pie in Bangkok (as you do in most places) you may as well eat the best.  Pala is the only pizzeria in the Kingdom to serve square slices of pizza - Rome style I believe.  Every slice is a crunchy, cheesy, herby winner, as are their magnificent and generous antipasto plates.

Finally in lower Silom - an under the radar sort of area - you'll find the tiny Chennai Kitchen (about 50 metres from the landmark Hindu Temple) famed for its South Indian vegetarian delights including dosas, utappam, poori, chappathi, and masala tea.  While the food is super tasty and low priced, service varies depending on the mood of the owners (this is part of its charm as well).

And two blocks down on Silom Soi 19 is Lo Strabacco, my latest budget blockbusting find.  Run by a couple of Italian gents, Lo Strobbaco is a trattoria serving Italian basics prepared superbly.  Their pizzas, pastas and sauces are heavy on flavour and quality, but light on the wallet.  Their robust and flavoursome tomato soup is the best I've had in Thailand and their lunch set menus are generous to say the least and siesta will beckon after dining.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Blue Genius

Christmas is coming early with this Blue Lines 21st anniversary box set arriving in a few days.

All great music takes you back to the first time you heard it, how it got absorbed into your bloodstream and stayed forever. I was living in London when Blue Lines came out and to my ears, it totally captured the temper of the times and was big favourite with bunch of friends living in Pimlico.

I brought it as part of a three-album purchase - along with Nirvana's Nevermind and Prince's Diamonds and PearlsNevermind got played once (I hate Nirvana); Diamonds and Pearls quite often, and Blue Lines every day. I loved the albums diversity and brilliant fusion of sounds and influences - dub, reggae, hip-hop beats, rhymes, epic soundtrack influences and stunning vocals from Shara Nelson and Horace Andy. And it sounded uniquely British - their sound (don't get me started on trip-hop) couldn't have come from anywhere else.

And every track is a stone cold-classic - I remember walking down Tokyo's Ginza a few years back with Five Man Army booming through the headphones, grinning like a Cheshire cat when I heard these lines...
Tokyo city's one place that we toured
Four technic plus two mixer board
Sharper than a Wilkinson razor sword

Anyways, my new purchase got me thinking about all things blue (musically) and how many bands, songs, and album titles - with blue in it - are brilliant - here's my blue list of brilliance....
  • Kind of Blue - one of Miles Davis' masterworks and regularly named as best jazz album ever
  • Blue - Joni Mitchell's critically acclaimed opus
  • Blue Monday - best selling 12 inch single ever
  • Blue Suede Shoes & Blue Moon - big Elvis hits
  • Blue Nile - lazy-ass, genius Scot-synth band
  • Mr Blue Sky - ELO's pop genius moment - a song that pops up regularly in TV ads and movies
  • Tangled Up in Blue & It's All Over Now Baby Blue - great Dylan track
  • Blue Bayou - Big O's contribution to the blue cannon
  • Blue Velvet - Bobby Vinton's classic immortalised/terrorised by David Lynch
Feel free to add more...

And here are some great Blue Lines write ups here, here and here.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Fearless Frank

God bless Frank Ocean.

Just as I was on the brink of giving up on albums forever, up pops Frank with the most coherent, relevant, socially-aware, honest, groovy, and soulful record (Channel Orange) in many a year.

Such is his poise, talent, and all-round game, it's hard to believe he's only 24.

Yes, the production is slick and smooth, but Frank's songs, to my ears anyways, share the same spirit, fire, and vision as Stevie Wonder, Prince, Marvin Gaye and Donny Hatthaway at their respective peaks.

Above all else, Frank is an incredible story teller and Super Rich Kids, Sweet Life and Pyramids are terrific examples of this. Nobody else in the R&B world is telling it like it is in 2012 like Frank and it's fantastic that he has found a sizable audience and long list of celebrity admirers.

You know a song/s are great when they keep popping up in your head, day and night, and this has been the case for me since I brought Channel Orange two weeks ago.

And judging by this video, he's smart, grounded and ready, willing, and capable of delivering much more - god bless you Frank and look forward to more audio greatness in the near future.

Monday, October 29, 2012

RIP Terry Callier

Travel light and well Mr Callier and thanks for some of the most heartfelt, beautiful, emotional, and melodic jazz/soul sounds ever including this gem .. still the most played track on my iPod.

and these..