Saturday, July 11, 2015

Cooking Class: Laos

As what you expect in most Asian destinations, there is an abundance of cooking schools to choose from. We based our choice off the actual restaurant itself that the cooking classes were attached to.

The restaurant was Tamarind  and the cooking class was called Tamarind Restaurant's Cooking School. Every time we walked past the restaurant it was always full and reservations were highly recommended. The day we put our deposit down for the cooking class we also put our name down for one of the last open spots during their dinner service.

The restaurant itself had a great atmosphere, attentive staff and delicious Laotian meals. If the cooking class was as this high a standard, then we were in for a treat. This restaurant was definitely a higher standard than  most that were in the area, but price-wise it was very reasonable and didn't break the bank.

The cooking class:
This cost us 280,000 KIP, which, back then, was equivalent to USD35. We did end up reserving our spot online first via their website, but required a deposit no later than a couple days out from the intended date. It looked like the max number in any group was about 12 to 15. We had 12 in our group. 

We were told to meet at the restaurant by a certain time. Here we paid the balance of our class and then was served Laos Iced Tea. We were then taken by tuk-tuk to the morning markets; the largest markets in Luang Prabang. They sold all sorts of things from vegetables and spices to toys and socket plugs. We were taken to certain stalls, ones that the restaurants directly deal with, and here there were explanations of what each spice, herb or vegetable was- how it could be used in cooking.  We were also introduced to local Laotian snacks and taken through the meat section where our chef explained how locals eat nearly all parts of the animal. For example, buffalo meat. They will eat the skin, all the meat and the insides. Typically, the meat is quite gamey but the insides (being the liver, kidneys etc) are fleshier, healthier and tastier and thereby are more expensive than the meat itself.

Once we were finished with the market, the actual location of the cooking school was another 15 to 20 minute drive away through local farm lands and fields. The set up is pretty brilliant and here they grow their own vegetables to use for the classes itself. The owner of the Tamarind empire, Joy, was actually on site with us, which I thought was very neat. The chef did majority of the explanations but Joy was there to help on the side. They also gave us a quick background as to who Joy was and how he came to start up the school and restaurant. It was a very humbling story.

The class consisted of us cooking 3 main Laos dishes: Buffalo mince, Lemongrass stuffed chicken and Tilapia wrapped in banana leaves. For dessert we made purple sticky rice. The whole process was very interactive and the chef was very helpful and hands on. It was all explained very well and I think everyone in our group had a great time. Also, I think everyone was able to cook all the dishes without any disasters and we were all very satisfied at the end, and our hunger satiated. 

We were told to meet at 830am at the restaurant and we got back around 3pm. A very long day but well worth the time and money.  They do also have a shorter option where it is their evening cooking classes and you just make one less dish.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

5 Caving Adventures in One

I am super surprised I'm still awake after the adrenaline rush I had earlier today!

My finance's stint in New Zealand is slowly coming to an end and he had not done one adventurous thing while here.  I was told bungy jumping and sky diving was out of the question, and we had missed out on the shotover jet in Queenstown so I told him the other thing he could do was blackwater tubing in the Waitomo Caves. He was keen on this idea, so I did some research as to which company was best to go with (and which had discounts as we were on a tight budget) and I came across a company called Kiwi Cave Rafting. They offered the traditional glowworm tubing but also upped the anti. This wasn't your typical tour of the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. This company offered a 5 hour tour which involved:
- abseiling 27 metres down into the cave,
- blackwater caving and tubing through glowworm caves,
- squeezing through some tight crevices, and
- a moderate rock climb back up to the service.
Also, they treated you to a nice, hot cup of soup at the end of the tour to help warm you up while you viewed the photos your guide took while on the trip.

I think the normal price for this tour was around $200-250, but, we managed to find a good deal on which definitely saved us a bit of money. No matter though, it is definitely worth the money you pay for. The whole tour is interactive and the guide is great. They are friendly, approachable, informative and most importantly- they make you feel like you're in great hands.

We went in July which is nearing the end of Winter. After a week of terrible weather we got a beautiful, clear day. Never the less it was still chilly, especially in the wind, but funnily enough it was much, much warmer in the caves. Plus they give you great gear which keeps you quite warm despite the crisp water. Also, after a bit of exploring our guide (Rachel) sat us down for a bit of a break and handed out hot juice and some chocolate to keep our energy levels up. This was unexpected as they didn't mention this on any brochure so I thought this was a nice touch.

We would definitely recommend this to anyone wanting a  bit of adventure. It does test your fitness a bit, but in saying that, this tour is for all levels of athleticism. The guide is great and they will do all they can to make you feel comfortable and safe.


Saturday, June 13, 2015

Batu Caves, Kuala Lumpur

One of the highlights and most visited sights in Kuala Lumpur are the Batu Caves. It is an easy tourist spot to get to as one of the train lines end right outside the gates of this attraction. As we were staying at Reggae Mansion the closest station to us was Masjid Jamek where we had to head to KL Sentral and transfer to get on the train heading to Batu Caves Komuter station. It may sound confusing but everything is easily sign-posted (in English) and all the transport staff were very helpful if you did need to ask a question.

Cost: Masjid Jamek - KL Sentral = 1.30 per person / KL Sentral - Batu Caves = 2.00 per person

Within one of the Hindu temples.
You purchase your entry ticket at the gates (3.00MYK fee) and the moment you step through there are different sized caves to your left and right. It was amazing! The statues and the colours are electric and the story they tell are so mesmerising you could easily spend 3 or more hours here. Even if it was just to sit down and take everything in; watch all the tourists, hawkers or locals interact, everything about this place seemed magical. The only gripe I had was that there were no English signs explaining what each little display meant but it made it more fun trying to come up with your own conclusions.

Within one of the Hindu temples.
A little walk to the right of the entrance is the main sight- the Batu Caves. This is apparently 400 million years old and has about 272 steps leading to the top. It is also home to many thieving monkeys that are very, very used to close human contact. While they aren't aggressive (if not provoked) just do be careful because they are still very wild.

Inside the Dark Cave
One thing that a lot of people miss as they don't advertise it wildly, is that about halfway to three-quarters of the way up the steps there is a mini cave to the left- the Dark Cave. Here they offer a 45 minute tour (35MYR) every 20 minutes. The groups are kept relatively small and you get given a torch and helmet before entering. The guides are very professional and informative. They give you a rundown about the history of the cave, it's exploration, foundation, the environment and it's habitants. Very interesting and very well worth the money. Also, it is a good reprieve from the hot and humid Malaysian weather.

Walking towards the main attraction.

The actual Batu Cave itself is pretty grand in size but unfortunately not in appearance. I didn't think it was well maintained and unfortunately they couldn't get rid of all the pigeons that must call this place home. Consequently, a large number of pigeons also meant a large amount of bird droppings all over the place- even on statues and carvings. I guess they don't really want to "modernise" or change the authenticity of the place, as it is very sacred to the community, but a little cleanup here and there wouldn't go amiss.
A truly wonderful sight.

All in all, the Dark Cave was definitely my highlight here at this place but overall it is a great tourist attraction and definitely an iconic landmark for Kuala Lumpur or Malaysia in general.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Burleigh Heads - health, fitness and surfing

 Burleigh Heads is situated halfway between Coolangatta Airport and Gold Coast. Mainly famous for it's surf conditions (which attracts all levels of surfers to the area) it is starting to grow in popularity due to it's location and increasing devotion to health and fitness centred lifestyles. Families, couples and solo travellers flock here for the near nightly free events at the Burleigh Heads Surf Club and the pristine beaches that are never as packed as Surfers Paradise.

Also, as it is only a 10-15 minute ride to the Gold Coast tourists can easily access the lively nightlife that is Surfers or get away from the havoc and relax in peace in Burleigh. The Gold Coast Highway is always in an easy walking distance so getting a bus in either direction is effortless. The buses run very frequently and hit all major tourist attractions.

The one thing I did notice as soon as I arrived was just how active people were. From five in the morning right into the evening there were people of all ages either running, walking, working out on the fitness equipments provided by the government or MILFs practicing group yoga on the beachside as their young ones amused themselves on the playground nearby. Also, every fifth or so restaurant I walked past was an organic, health-food or paleo store. They even had an amazing farmers market held in their local school grounds that sold a variety fruit, vegetables, meat, takeaways plus arts and crafts. Don't think that this place is super hippy with angry vegans running amok, but a town full of locals that are conscious about staying healthy and wanting to live a long, awesome life. Because of this, it has produced a very calm, relaxed vibe - perfect for a relaxing retreat from the real world or a cure to a hard night of club hopping in Surfers Paradise.

Burleigh Heads is definitely the place to be next time you are in Queensland. Just pack your paddle board, running shoes, some acai berries and coconut water and you'll be one of the locals in no time!

View from the top of Burleigh Heads National Park

View from Burleigh Heads Surf Club to Surfers Paradise

View from Solnamara Beachfront Apartments

Burleigh Head bugs