Friday, 12 May 2017

How To Get Hired: The Chatteris Careers Evening

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If there is one thing more terrifying than the fact I am leaving in Hong Kong in three weeks, it would have to be the word ‘career’.  I’m not on my own either.  Millennials are famously angsty when it comes to the world of work and, believe me, one way to prolong the inevitable soul-searching is to hop on a plane to Hong Kong and see what happens.  Having said that, no matter how many beaches I find myself on, the reality of settling on a career path is due to hit soon.  And so with that and my fellow Chatteris Native English Teachers (CNETs) in mind, I joined the team organising this year’s Careers Evenings.


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The first event of the year was held back in November at the Chatteris office.  Chatteris has been running since 1990 and since Hong Kong isn’t an easy place to let go of there are plenty of alumni still living and working in the city.  We were very happy that six of them were eager to come and talk to this year’s recruits and pass on some of their tips.  

Two of our alumna had worked as Native English Teachers in the Hong Kong education system after leaving Chatteris and both now run their own companies; a Play Therapy service for children and an events and entertainment business operating some of Hong Kong’s notorious junk boats.  The boys meanwhile came to represent shipping, finance and advertising and we were also joined by a recruitment expert who had plenty of advice on how to get noticed by employers.  It was a great way to hear about the range of careers out there and get really tangible advice on how to get hired by using your Chatteris experience.

Setting our sights higher for the second round, we started organising a networking event to give CNETs aiming to stay in Hong Kong a leg up on the competition.  Realising what a passionate bunch us Chatteris lot are, we wanted to focus in on how to transition our youthful earnestness into a meaningful career.  So we settled on our theme: turning your passion into a career.  Maybe it was the achingly cool venue or the promise of mozzarella sticks but however we did it, we were very grateful to have five amazing guests to share their experiences of how to not just get hired, but to make a career out of what you love.  


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For CNETs interested in education, of which there are many, we heard how Karen Arkell has followed her passion for social justice - to Teach First and now as Director of Development of Teach For China.   We also heard from Pol Fabrega, owner of social enterprise, Rooftop Republic, and Matt Rumple who has turned his passion for entertainment into a company with some of the best performers in Hong Kong. Those interested in StartUps, FinTech or Venture Capital (yup, that went over my head too) had plenty to learn from Brian Chan, who leads research at Oddup, a StartUp about StartUps, apparently.  And, last but certainly not least, you can catch one of our favourite speakers and ‘the funniest balloon man in the world’, Andrew Smith, in his Ted Talk  for yourself here.

There was plenty to think on as we munched those mozzarella sticks and listened to live jazz after the event.  Hong Kong is a place that attracts entrepreneurs and people willing to work for their dreams.  Its melting pot culture and status as Asia’s world city means people from all walks of life are part of your daily interactions here.  

Hearing different perspectives and expanding your horizons is a key part of the Chatteris experience and it was exciting for this to be translated into the professional realm for us.  This year has given me not just my first full time job but a range of professional training (blog writing, event planning?!) that will stay with me long after Hong Kong.  But more than that, it has given me a network of seventy friends that will be there along the way.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Animal Magic

Borneo's lush rainforest is one of its main draws and we were eager to sample it after arriving in Sabah (the Eastern side of Malaysian Borneo) for our Easter break. After touching down in Kota Kinabalu (KK), the province's capital, we headed straight to the Kinabatangan River to sample the natural wonders this incredible part of the world had to offer.

To get there required a bus, van and boat journey of epic proportions. We took the 9am bus but it was beset with problems, culminating in it breaking down for about 2 hours which wasn't so fun in the baking heat. It was still better than taking an Arriva bus in the UK though.

Once we finally got moving, we jumped off at Sukau junction about 7 hours later where we were met by a disgruntled van driver who had been waiting for us for a very long time. He drove us to the rainforest from where we hopped on a boat to get to Osman's place, our quaint home for the next 2 nights. 


Home sweet home.

Osman was a great host and I'd absolutely recommend him for a Kinabantagan tour. He's friendly, funny and knows his stuff (having toured David Attenborough around no less) and is much cheaper than the other tours in the area. Osman is an incredibly warm man with a big, booming laugh and a gazillion outlandish stories to tell. He speaks with such conviction when he tells them that it's almost impossible to tell whether they're fact or fiction. Certainly, be prepared to hear a lot about the sex habits of various jungle dwellers, himself included.


What sets Osman way above the others is his ability to find nature amongst the vast rainforest. From our boat, he was able to spot animals I never would have seen in a million years. On our first morning cruise alone, we spotted proboscis monkeys, macaques, rhinoceros hornbills, a snake (hovering precariously above the boat on a branch) and an insane number of elephants. Apparently the elephants don't normally hang out so close to the water so early in the morning so we got really lucky. I was like an 8 year old when one of the elephants let out a distinctive hoot from its trunk. It was very, very exciting.
Just a casual wild elephant...
It was a complete privilege to see these animals in their own territory where they are most comfortable. I'd seen more exotic wild animals than ever before in my life and I hadn't even had breakfast yet. What a start to the day!
There was a more tragic undercurrent to this sighting though since Osman told us 10 years ago, you'd be lucky to see one elephant eating by the river. Deforestation and the construction of palm oil sites has shrunk the rainforest drastically and forced the elephants to the river. Borneo's rainforest is one of the most incredible natural wonders in Asia and, through greed and power, humans are steadily destroying it. Hopefully there will be a U-turn soon. This jungle is too precious to waste.
Macaque Presents: Vogue 2017
The morning tour was one of three we took that day, with an afternoon boat cruise that saw us come face to face with dozens of elephants, more bizarre proboscis monkeys and an orangutan sighting that was akin to playing 'Where's Wally?'. After heading back to Osman's to dinner, we then ventured out for the night safari. I was a little sceptical about this - how much would we really be able to see in the pitch darkness?
I was immediately proved wrong in what was probably my favourite experience of the whole trip. The jungle takes on a completely different hue at night. The fantastic thing about the night trip was that we were practically the only boat on the river so the jungle was giving us a personal show. 
Osman was adamant he'd be able to catch us a crocodile and he didn't disappoint. The trick is, he explained, to go for the back of the head since this prevents them snapping at you. Unfortunately, he mistimed his catch and got the tail meaning he had to ham-fistedly release the (admittedly small) crocodile into the boat. This obviously prompted much hysterical screaming and jumping up from our party though things eventually calmed down and we all got a go holding the crocodile before returning it to its home which was fun. 
Nightfall
We found several more crocs, each increasing alarmingly in size, but our safari wasn't just limited to reptiles. Osman's insanely good vision found us owls, flying foxes, some sleeping kingfishers and a civet cat, best known for its role in Vietnam's renowned 'weasel coffee'. This was extraordinary since I'd never even seen most of these creatures before, let alone got up close to them. The night setting made us feel more like explorers, as if we were stumbling across things nobody had ever found before. It wasn't true of course but, as mentioned earlier, there was something so childlike about us sitting in that boat with no idea of what incredible species we were going to stumble across next.
It's a trek to get to but if you do one thing in Sabah, please do this. I've run out of adjectives to describe how good it was. There is not a single sanctuary or zoo I have visited that can compare even in the slightest to seeing these animals in the jungle where they belong. In fact, I daresay I won't visit such a place again. Because it doesn't matter where I go - the greatest zoo on earth or the best sanctuary on TripAdvisor - nothing will get my spine tingling quite like the wonders of the Borneo jungle.
Flights to Kota Kinabalu from Hong Kong are super cheap all year round. To get in touch with Osman and arrange a few nights at his homestay, you can contact him or his wife Yanti on Whatsapp on +60 19-841 5259.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Chatteris Refugee Children’s Programme: the Hong Kong Society for Asylum Seekers and Refugees

As part of Chatteris’ community outreach programme, teaching volunteers across all programmes run interactive storytelling sessions for refugee children at HKSASR (the Hong Kong Society for Asylum Seekers and Refugees). On the last Sunday of each month, volunteers go to Kam Sheong Road to meet the society and run these sessions, which aim to engage with disadvantaged children in Hong Kong society and increase Chatteris’ cross-cultural connections. These sessions ultimately provide a fun and relaxing environment for refugee children to play in, whilst allowing CNET’s to interact with a diverse aspect of Hong Kong life which is often in need of such support.

Upon arrival at Kam Sheong Road, we were brought to the house of one of the refugees who kindly let us and the children use his home for the sessions. Dr Isabella Fung of the Education University of Hong Kong was also present as one of the co-founders of the society, introducing us to mothers and their children and helping the sessions run smoothly. When the mothers and children began to arrive, we were met with a mix of very excited children ranging from babies to toddlers from a variety of cultural backgrounds.

The sessions are often broken down into different playful experiences, with many fun songs sung together and some cute animal puppets used to perform them which the children loved to play with. We also used interactive storytelling, reading through old classics like the ‘Hungry Caterpillar’ and ‘Ben’s Bath’ as a group and encouraging the children in their playing. Finally, we finish the sessions often with some creative craft making to leave them with something to take home. Whether through making paper bunny ears, or just the act of storytelling, it’s clear to see the value and fun that the children, mothers and CNET’s take away from it and enjoy from having such sessions.   

As the day wound down, we got to meet and speak more with the mothers and interact with some of the more overly excited children. Sessions like these ultimately provide a fun and relaxed environment for children,mothers and CNET’s to enjoy whilst providing a platform for interaction between CNET’s and refugees. The benefits of this community work in action are clear for all to see. Such community work is something that can only make our understanding of different people in these situations stronger, and in a diverse city like Hong Kong, it is important to interact with all aspects of our society in order to create greater compassion between different communities.

All pictures from the sessions and more information on HKSASR can be found on their facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/HKSASR/

Friday, 28 April 2017

The Island Life for Me




My favourite place in Hong Kong is aboard the Star Ferry.  It’s an eight minute journey that takes you across Victoria Harbour from Tsim Sha Tsui to either the Wan Chai Convention Centre or Central Pier 7.  I have done this journey in glorious sunshine, fog, a rainstorm, after a night out and just for the hell of it - you name it, the Star Ferry beats on against the current.  It is an integral part of Hong Kong’s heritage and culture, carrying over 70,000 passengers a day.  Twice in its 129 year history have protests erupted over proposed changes to its operation; in 1966 over fare charges and as recently as 2006 when its docking point was moved.  

One of the reasons I love the Star Ferry so much is that it links Hong Kong’s two worlds: Hong Kong Island and ‘the Kowloon side’.  I work and live on the Island and can’t imagine doing otherwise.  Equally, those in Kowloon feel the same.  Stereotypes tend to hold true; the Island can be more polished, Westernised and expensive, Kowloon has a rawer edge and $5 (50p) dumplings on almost every corner.  

In many ways, it seems appropriate that a city which prides itself on being the place where East meets West should have such a geographical divide (although in this case, it’s South meets North).  On the other hand, it is, of course, an arbitrary distinction.  Hong Kong’s melting pot of cultural habits spills out everywhere.  In Sheung Wan, a young expat enclave, live fish flap on the cutting boards of market stalls while just next door you can enter a speakeasy restaurant named for an international burlesque dancer and enjoy ‘Thai Western Cuisine’ - whatever that may be.  

Choice is the Island’s watchword and raison d’etre.  Everything is on offer.  The joy of living in Hong Kong is that nothing ever has to give - although sometimes it’s helpful to let go of any claustrophobia.  Studying in Edinburgh, I had to forgo the sensation of warmth for almost four years and, more significantly, I had to give up Mexican food because it simply wasn’t there.  In Hong Kong, it’s all there, jumbled up next to each other or on top of each other and ready for your custom.


Hong Kong Island condenses this idea: it’s the place where anything and anyone goes and whatever you choose is on offer.  A beauty pageant organised by Filipino domestic workers right outside the HSBC building, one of the most striking and famous towers of Hong Kong?  Sure!  Why not?  This is one of the reasons I have fallen in love with Hong Kong.  It is unadulterated and unapologetic in its inclusivity and variety.  It sits in a precarious political position but its people are welcoming and its society always seem to have their arms open wide to innovators, businesses, entrepreneurs and even native English teachers.

Every time I take the Star Ferry from Tsim Sha Tsui, I’m reminded of this sentiment.  I always hang my head out the window to try and grasp the magnitude of the skyscrapers lining up before me, inviting me to take my pick and welcoming me to the place where you can have whatever you want.



Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Hong Kong's 10 Hottest Holidays


And here we are, in the Hong Kong Chatteris Office, gearing up for the Easter holidays and the question on everyone’s lips - where are you going?

  1. Philippines
    1. Step into your desktop screensaver and feel the white sand and turquoise waters all around you. Although the sky may not always be clear blue because you really are in the tropics, the Philippines has so much to offer and is perfect if you need to budget. Top tip: go diving, but avoid the unfriendly whale shark tourist traps.

  1. Taiwan
    1. Ideal for a short break or a weekend get away. You’ll find some of the best night markets ever, complete with dumplings, bubble tea and lots of games - games which you can actually win! The food is also next level and very interesting. Top tip: taste everything.

        

  1. Thailand
    1. The backpacker cliché which everyone tries to avoid but secretly loves. Don’t be ashamed, you get that bucket and take an ‘ironic’ selfie and have a great time. Also great for scuba diving, with islands such as Koh Tao offering some of the best and cheapest diving in the world. Top tip: settle a taxi price at the start of the journey.
  2. Vietnam
    1. Pho sure, you gotta go and try everything from fresh rice paper rolls to local Saigon beer. If you’re a confident driver then join in the fun and rent a motorbike (at your own risk), if not just take a bicycle and ride through the beautiful villages in Hoi An. Top tip: leave room in your suitcase to get some clothes made.

      
  1. Staycation
    1. Why bother leaving? Everything you need is right here on your doorstep, go camping in Sai Kung Country Park with the cows, or rent an AirBnB on Cheung Chau island and you’ll feel miles from the city whilst only having to endure a 30 minute boat ride. Top tip: do your research, because rent prices around here can be silly!
  2. China
    1. Bare with the lines at immigration, get yourself a visa and cross the border into the Middle Kingdom. Catch a train into the countryside of Guilin, discover the vast history of Beijing or simply cross the border and visit Shenzen’s 24 hour spa. Top tip: Get your visa in advance.
  3. South Korea
    1. Seoul is a big hotspot for Hong-Kongers and I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t recommended it tremendously. Get ready to feel uncool and eat lots of fried chicken and don’t forget your polaroid. Top tip: Save some money to buy some clothes because once you see the fashion you’ll want a piece of it.
  4. Australia
    1. Save up, spread your wings and head straight south to the land of day drinking and high UV rays. Find the great barrier reef before it disappears or get your edges out in Melbourne. Top tip: wear suncream and check their immigration laws.


  1. Myanmar
    1. Experience breathtaking temples at sunrise and beautiful landscapes as Myanmar undergoes a historic change. Top tip: do your research and keep up to date as things are changing quickly.
  2. Macau
    1. A little different to others, jump on a one hour ferry ride and get lost in the vast hotels and casinos or head over to the old town for some history. Don’t think you can walk between these because you can’t, and the casinos do tend to be a little more serious than others you may have had the pleasure of visiting! Top tip: try an egg tart.




Sunday, 26 March 2017

Weekend Wander: Braemar Hill

Hong Kong is more than just a concrete jungle. In fact, the ease at which you can hop from bustling cityscapes to natural landscapes is one of Hong Kong's most endearing features. And with around 70% of the region being covered in lush countryside, there's no shortage of hikes to escape on.



Hike Name: Braemar Hill
Duration: 2 hours
Difficulty: Easy
I’m always on the lookout for great sunset spots in Hong Kong and I was delighted to add this one to my list recently. It’s rare in Hong Kong to be able to get a vantage point encompassing both sides of the harbour and the setting sun but Braemar Hill manages to achieve it. What’s even more impressive is that it’s a very gentle stroll to get there. If you want to bag the really spectacular views, there’s a bit of off-road scrambling to be done but it’s nothing too strenuous and the reward is more than worth it. Bring a book, a beer, some headphones - anything that helps you relax - and thank your lucky stars you chose such a breathtaking place to live.



 

Getting there: Go to Admiralty MTR station (Island Line/Tsuen Wan Line/South Island Line) and take Exit A. Turn left and take minibus 24M to the terminus. Then follow Mount Butler Road/Sir Cecil's Ride to the vantage point. After soaking up the view, you can either retrace your steps and return on the 24M or follow the trail all the way to Tai Koo MTR station.

The 'Bible' of hiking in Hong Kong - Hike Hong Kong - is one of the best resources out there for budding hikers in the region. There are a wealth of hikes on there with easy-to-follow directions and pictures to each one.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Weekend Wander: Tai O Heritage Trail

Hong Kong is more than just a concrete jungle. In fact, the ease at which you can hop from bustling cityscapes to natural landscapes is one of Hong Kong's most endearing features. And with around 70% of the region being covered in lush countryside, there's no shortage of hikes to escape on.


Hike Name: Tai O Heritage Trail
Duration: 4-5 hours
Difficulty: Medium
Lantau Island is an unexplored frontier for me as far as hiking is concerned. There are loads of fantastic hiking opportunities on Hong Kong’s biggest island and some of Hong Kong’s most arduous treks can be found here. The Tai O Heritage Trail is one of the less strenuous but longer choices available on the island. It runs for 16km from Lantau’s main town of Tung Chung all the way to the charming fishing village of Tai O in the south, snaking through mini villages, temples, sweeping hills and the eerily gigantic Hong Kong – Macau bridge that is being constructed. It’s long but makes for a fantastic Sunday walk.



Getting there: Take the MTR to Tung Chung (orange Tung Chung line), Exit B and head down Yu Tung Road. You should see signs for the trail and Hau Wong Temple which signals the beginning of your hike. At Tai O, you can hop on bus 11 back to Tung Chung. Be aware that the queue will be very, very, very long on weekends, especially Sunday.
The 'Bible' of hiking in Hong Kong - Hike Hong Kong - is one of the best resources out there for budding hikers in the region. There are a wealth of hikes on there with easy-to-follow directions and pictures to each one.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

A Taste of Sham Shui Po



Since my spectacular fall from the vegetarian wagon during an overly exuberant Cumbrian Christmas, Sham Shui Po, a district in Kowloon, has started to look a little different. When I first moved here I was distinctly unimpressed by its garish displays of neon lights and the promises of foot massages on every corner. Perhaps this is unsurprising given my only previous exposure to cosmopolitan living has come in the form of Shrewsbury and the leafy suburbs of South Dublin, however in recent months I have come to appreciate all of her perks and count myself very lucky to live here. Mingling with the bankers and insurance brokers on my rugby team who reside in the more traditional expat enclaves, I have begun to see just how unique our experiences as CNETs are. We have an opportunity to live and work in areas rarely seen by outsiders, allowing us to sample a true taste of Hong Kong life.
Sham Shui Po (hereafter referred to as The Po) fits this bill entirely. I have always found a certain pleasure in wandering around aimlessly but, being conscious of the lack of time that I have perhaps left in Hong Kong, I have decided to make these meanderings a little less aimless by coupling them with my search for exciting and authentic food. In doing so I hope to gain a clearer picture of the unique and eclectic place that I have called home for the past seven months.
Whilst traipsing around The Po I am reminded of my impatient seven year old self, already three years into a relentless Haribo addiction that would refuse to release its nectarous embrace until my teenage years. I remember the huge crowds of people blocking my path to Space Mountain on a family holiday to Disneyland and my mother leaning towards me and saying ‘Queues are a good sign, you know.’ This was too much for my sugar-addled brain to handle at the time however when I saw the snaking line outside Lau Sum Kee I finally understood what the poor woman had been talking about. In The Po long queues are your Tripadvisor, your bread and butter, your Church. They are the embodiment of a pleasure worth waiting for although, in retrospect, Space Mountain was rubbish.
Lau Sum Kee, however, is not. A Kowloon institution, be prepared to share a cramped table with complete strangers. In true Po fashion the atmosphere is convivial and lively, it’s a great place to people watch and to eavesdrop on conversations that you have no hope of understanding. They are particularly well known for their shrimp roe noodles and slow-cooked beef brisket. Being the maverick and trend-setting figure that I am, I went for neither of these options, instead opting for a wonton soup. For around 30 dollars it was a steal so I even treated myself to a Coke (other carbonated beverages are available). The soup itself was laden with an impressive depth of flavour reminiscent of long simmered beef and an array of spices. This cacophony of deliciousness was complimented well by the homemade pickled radishes whose jars adorn every table. They even have an English menu for those of you who don’t like to adhere to the point and hope method of food ordering.
Next on my culinary Hajj was the Kashmir Curry House on Yen Chow Street. The Po has a large South Asian community and as such is one of the best places in Hong Kong to sample some fare less commonly available, in a setting less foreboding, than the den of iniquity that is Chungking Mansions. For more information on Chungking Mansions please see also ‘Inferno’ by D. Alighieri.  I was originally attracted to this unassuming place as they had some nice looking samosas and parathas outside and the friendly proprietor was only too happy to stop and have a chat when she saw my admiring glances (at the samosas not her you understand). The restaurant itself is fairly cramped but the food more than makes up for this with its hearty portions and excellent service. As for its authenticity, please remember that this article was written by someone who was once a regular at University rugby socials held at the Curry Lounge, Nottingham. Needless to say I am an expert and Kashmir Curry House definitely gets my highly sought-after seal of approval.
For those, like myself, who have Mediterranean blood, there are also some al-fresco dining options to be enjoyed in The Po. One such place is Keung Kee, a traditional ‘dai pai dong’ street food restaurant and one of the few left in Hong Kong. Essentially this means that you might end up enjoying your food in the close proximity of an overflowing skip so be warned. The skip aside, I feel that these places encompass all that is so special about Hong Kong and The Po in particular. The tables on the street are packed every night of the week with families and friends laughing and joking over plates of shared food. It reminds me of a Madrid tapas bar or an Irish dinner table where the social aspects of eating are really emphasised, perhaps something that is missing in a more conventional restaurant atmosphere. This is a place to bring a few friends on a warm evening, order a few bottles of Blue Girl and have a good old giggle.
So there you have it, not an exhaustive list admittedly but hopefully some food for thought. If you missed the pun, re-read the last sentence. Happy eating.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Weekend Wander: Wilson Trail (Section 2)

Hong Kong is more than just a concrete jungle. In fact, the ease at which you can hop from bustling cityscapes to natural landscapes is one of Hong Kong's most endearing features. And with around 70% of the region being covered in lush countryside, there's no shortage of hikes to escape on.



Hike Name: Wilson Trail (Section 2)

Duration: 3 hours

Difficulty: Medium

There are a number of huge trails that span across Hong Kong, leading to them being split up into various sections. The Wilson Trail is one of these, meandering all the way from the south of Hong Kong Island up to the border with China, 78 km in total. Section 2, however, stays on the island and I love this section because it’s got a bit of everything. It kicks off with a gradual incline up to Jardine’s Lookout (above) with sweeping views of Hong Kong’s harbour. Then, to your right, you get equally gorgeous views of Tai Tam Reservoir. Finally it snakes up over a dam and provides you with a bit more of a workout. It’s the hike that keeps on giving.





Getting there: Take bus number 6 from Exchange Square (Central) and alight at Wong Nai Chung Reservoir Park stop and then there's sign posts most of the way. The trail finishes at Tai Koo MTR station (Island Line).

The 'Bible' of hiking in Hong Kong - Hike Hong Kong - is one of the best resources out there for budding hikers in the region. There are a wealth of hikes on there with easy-to-follow directions and pictures to each one.

Friday, 10 March 2017

24 Hours in Bangkok

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If you, like me, have friends who took a year to ‘find themselves’ before university then the title “24 hours in Bangkok” may well conjure up some unfavourable images.  In my head, Bangkok was a sin city of Ping Pong shows and Lady Boys, packed into seedy bars on the Khao San Road and best epitomised by scenes from ‘The Beach’.  So as we planned our Christmas trip around Thailand, I was keen to keep our time there to a minimum: 24 hours to be precise.


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Christmas Day on Koh Jum Island


We arrived from the beaches of the Andaman Sea and an incredibly chilled Christmas swinging from the hammocks of our beachside bungalows.  Dumping our bags at the hostel, we set off in scorching heat to the Jim Thompson House.  Not your average first port of call in the Thai capital, the museum houses the furniture and art collection of an American entrepreneur who mysteriously disappeared in the late 1960s.  It’s an architectural and design gem with an excellent cafe to boot.  Already, Bangkok was defying my expectations.


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From there we hopped on the water bus and sped along an offshoot of the Chao Praya, for the princely sum of 5 pence, to arrive at the Grand Palace.  There we were greeted by thousands of mourners, all in full black despite the glorious sunshine, paying their respects to the late King Bhumibol.  

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Mourners in a procession outside The Grand Palace, Bangkok.

It was a strangely humbling moment to see and a privileged glimpse into the depth of Thai cultural sentiment.  Too often Thailand seems to be synonymous with Full Moon Parties, scamming Tuk Tuk drivers and Brits abroad.  Watching the mourners felt like a peek behind the tourist facade and into a deeply rich nation imbibed by its history as one of few Southeast Asian countries not to fall under colonial control.  

That evening we did, I admit, brave the Khao San Road and indulge in a bucket or two of G&Ts.  The experience was far less heady than I had anticipated and a shadow of the iniquitous ‘Pub Street’ (Pham Ngu Lao) in Ho Chi Minh City.


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Chaos on the Khao San Road


But the real highlight of my 24 hours was an early morning trip to MOCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the following day.  With a flight looming, I set off in an Uber to the outskirts of Bangkok.  Now, Bangkok traffic is perhaps best described as cacophonic.  A discordant symphony of hot pink taxis, Tuk Tuks, songthaews and precarious bikes laden with street food all wind through the chaotic streets and creep slowly onto an eternally gridlocked toll road.   The gallery is an enormous white structure set just off this highway and after forty minutes of horn honking and hair raising lane shifts, I was beginning to see my outing as a bit of a pilgrimage.  

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This feeling continued as I entered the gallery, its first visitor of the day, and encountered the vastness of its five floors.  I wandered the gallery in complete awe.  Much of the collection plays with Western tropes but much also exposes traditional Thai art forms.  It’s a celebration of both artistic lineage and the mind-bending trends of cutting edge contemporary art. In one installation, you enter a dark corridor strewn with small lights that echo the night sky.  By the time you’ve wrapped your head around the fact that the walls are actually velvet, you’re spat out into a perfectly white space - picture, if you can, one of those movie scenes where a character wakes up in a hospital bed, blinking to dizzying light.  I stood there for five minutes, staring in all directions, before I realised I was in a something spherical, which turned out to be an egg.  It’s as weird as it sounds and the experience is as extraordinary as the rest of the gallery.  
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Art work at MOCA Bangkok.  From left to right, ‘The Passage Across the Universe’ (aka. the egg), ‘The Travelling of King Rama IX’ (1963) by Sathit Thimvattanabunthoeng, ‘Violin’ (2006) by Prateep Khochabua.  


I rejoined the gang for our fifteenth Pad Thai of the week in an adorable restaurant hidden behind Pratunam market.  From there it was time for the airport again and on to Chiang Mai for elephant bathing and temples galore.

Bangkok had surprised me.  It remains a backpacker’s mecca and a place where anything goes but it is also burgeoning with millennial creativity.  It took almost no effort to scratch beneath the gap year veneer and experience a dynamic Asian city, bursting with history and ready for the future.