Tuesday 28 January 2014

Koh Chang, Thailand

January is miserable. The excitement and indulgence of Christmas is over, the weather is shit, there is a tendency to feel grotesquely obese, and everyone around you is harping on about how hard they're finding their detox / juice cleanse / teetotalism. It's even worse if they ask for sponsorship - sponsorship! To stop drinking booze! - I think you have a problem, buddy. 

It was decided last year that we would run for the sun instead. I spent a lot of time flip-flopping around which island in Thailand we should go and visit. Long gone are the likes of Koh Samui being an exotic, deserted island. Islands are seemingly geared towards full moon parties, teenagers on gap yahs, honeymooning couples or families with small children, none of which we were, and all of which we'd prefer to avoid. Koh Chang, a 5 hour bus ride away near the border of Cambodia, seemed a good fit; relatively untouched by the big resorts, and after finding this website and particularly the guesthouse to stay at, I was sold. 

Situated riverside, with wooden walkways in amongst mangroves, Baan Rim Nam is the perfect place to stay if you want to avoid large, soulless and expensive resorts. The 'budget' room, at £18 a night, was all they had left of their five rooms when I booked and it suited us just fine; clean, air conditioned, a comfortable bed. They had an open air and a covered deck, with kayaks available for the 10 minute paddle down-river and round the corner to Klong Prao beach. An honesty fridge full of beers and water was available to all, and the owners, Ian (from Yorkshire, no less) and Mam were on hand to book us jungle treks and snorkel trips. 

For food, we stuck to Klong Prao as it was nearest where we were staying. We ventured to Kati Culinary on our first night with high expectations as it was recommended by our hosts as the best food on the island. It was, indeed, very good - especially this incendiary tom yum seafood soup, made with shavings of young coconut - but we were within earshot of pair of dour women, intoning dully about their divorced parents and their L.A lives. Perhaps it was from having come from Bangkok that day, where we sat on rickety plastic stools and happily slurped bowls of noodles costing less than £1, but the whole experience felt a little characterless. The food is very good though, and they also run cooking classes.

Kati Culinary48/7 Moo 4, Klong Prao Beach

After a rather fraught kayaking 'adventure' the next evening (apparently if you kayak round to the beach to see the sunset the sun, well, sets and then it's dark and then you get lost at sea in a kayak for TWO HOURS) we set off to dinner rather late. We happened upon a little street side set-up with plenty of Thais eating there. I'm afraid it had no name that I can remember (but is apparently called Always Delicious in Thai), but was on the right hand side as you're heading south. Largely Issarn food, which originates from the North-East of Thailand, they talked us into their special soup for the evening. A terracotta pot on top of a ferocious flame bubbled away, and we were instructed to get everything in there - Thai basil, coriander, Chinese cabbage leaves, glass noodles, an egg and some beef. In it went and it turned into an incredibly fragrant, herbal and soothing broth. 

Grilled pork neck (right of the top picture) was served with a deceptively sweet and freaking spicy-as-hell sauce, so addictive you couldn't stop dipping until your nose streamed. Fried chicken were crisp nuggets of wing and leg, chopped straight through the bone to nibble on. Minced duck laarb (bottom picture) was pleasingly crunchy with toasted ground rice, though could have been spicier - I don't think they believed us when we said we could have spicy. With so much beer ordered that we had to give some away, our dinner set us back a laughable £11 or so.

We found another Issarn restaurant on our last night - just past the edge of Klong Prao on the lefthand side (the sign reads E-Sarn). The cutest child you'll ever see bounced around the restaurant, clambering on our laps. A catfish soup, clear and broth-like was unlike anything I've had in Thailand; spicy, sour and scented heavily with dill. Beef and apple aubergine salad used mint leaves liberally, with a tangy, salty dressing. 

And then there was another salad, from the 'minced spicy salad' section of the menu. We chose pork and it turned up, raw, mixed well with ground toasted rice and chilli flakes. I was scared. I ate it. It was tasty but all I could think about was my impending death. I feared the morning, but lo! I survived. 

Being that we were on an island, we were keen to try some seafood and Jae Eiw Restaurant was recommended to us by our trekking guide as the place where Thais go, for seafood at local prices. After 8 hours of scrambling up and down the second highest mountain on Koh Chang, we arrived ravenous and aching. Blank prices per kilo should have set off alarm bells especially as we weren't asked how many we wanted, but they were the biggest and sweetest prawns, dunked in a fiery chilli and fish sauce dip. There were so many of them that by the end of the meal I was convinced I would pop. 

Mantis prawns or rock lobster as per the menu were cooked with salt and chilli, delicious spooned over rice, but were such a faff to extract the (admittedly delicious) flesh I wondered if they were worth bothering with. Our most expensive meal yet at 2000 baht (with beers and tom yum soup and rice and fishcakes and a stir fry and now you see my greed) but the seafood was of obvious high quality. 

Jae Eiw Restaurant, 22/9 Moo 4 Baan Khlong Phrao

Breakfast, often a mine-field of disappointing cereal and soggy muesli is anything but in Thailand. On the right hand side as you enter Klong Prao from the north, a cluster of stalls are gathered by the roadside. One sells deep fried things - banana, coconut rice balls, that sort of thing - while the other sells noodles. 

Tom yum or clear, we opted for one of each of breakfast. These may well have been the best bowl of noodles I had on the trip (and I really had quite a few); the noodles were elastic and chewy, the deep fried wonton skin becoming soft in the broth, which was creamy, spicy and sour. The fish balls came in different shapes, with a welcome vegetable addition of sweet stewed carrot and radish slices. It cost 40 baht (it's 50 to the £). 

Ahh banana rotis. Sold street-side, with pineapple, mango and coconut as options but none better than banana, made me go running for them. The dough is stretched and slapped against an oiled counter, and then placed on a concave hot plate to cook in clarified butter. Banana is chopped into it, before the whole thing folded into a parcel, sliced into pieces, and - crucially - drizzled with condensed milk. It's crispy, a little salty, intensely sweet, and uh.. banana-y. It's amazing. 

Koh Chang Travel Tips: 

- The Government bus from Bangkok is infinitely preferable to the minibuses that also go to and from. Either way it takes 5 hours, but the Government bus is cheaper and more comfortable - the minibuses are bumpy and a little sick-inducing. The downside is that they are seldom. Bus times available here.

- We did our trek with Tan Trekking - Tan was brilliant; hugely knowledgeable and friendly. Would highly recommend it. 

- Get a scooter and explore the island, there's a road that runs all the way around it - though doesn't quite connect. The undeveloped east side is very interesting to see, and Bang Bao fishing village is good to have a nose at, as well as all the other beaches and waterfalls. 

Thursday 2 January 2014

Posh Breakfasting: Aqua Shard

We were nearing Christmas time. The fourth month of Posh Breakfasting needed to be somewhere special, to mark the festivities of the season. An administrative error meant that Claridges was fully booked before we got a chance to put our names down. Panic ensued. Aqua Shard came to the rescue. 

It's certainly a different vibe to the old world charm of Claridges, but you can't go up 31 floors of The Shard at sunrise and not be blown away by it. I mean, LOOK. 

We kicked off with breakfast cocktails because that is a totally fine thing to do on a Wednesday morning at 8am. Between us, we ordered the lobster eggs benedict, the salmon kedgeree and the tattie scones with kippers and black pudding, so we were obviously in a strong stomached sort of mood. The lobster eggs benedict was a beautiful thing, with plenty of sweet lobster meat hidden under a perfectly poached egg. This is no light breakfast, and I was glad I was sharing. 

The salmon of the kedgeree was confit'd so that it was soft and buttery. A fried egg balanced precariously on top of lightly curry-scented rice, and I liked the added touch of the salmon eggs too. 

Tattie scones with black pudding was a belt-buster of a dish - poached eggs came atop a slice of toast, and the smoked Manx kippers were actually within the scones itself, rather than served with it. If I'm honest it was my least favourite; the black pudding a bit too abundant, the tattie scones a touch greasy. I've never been a great lover of black pudding, though. 

Not your cheapest breakfast, at £33 a head but we did order the most expensive things, as well as a cocktail each and coffee. Service was calm and patient, perfect for that hour. I sat down at my desk at 9:30am incredibly well sated. Maybe a little tipsy. 

Aqua Shard

Level 31, The Shard
31 St Thomas Street
London SE1 9RY

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