In your finest shirt & Thai: Destination wedding in Phuket

For the second time in a month, we went to Phuket, this time to celebrate our friends’ wedding. The couple live in Singapore with us. She’s Thai, he’s French and their kids will undoubtedly be gorgeous.

We stayed at the Pullman Arcadia on Naithon Beach. It’s a pretty stretch of beach with a few bar/restaurants scattered along it. The Pullman is relatively new and while it’s still receiving a few finishing touches, it’s a very nice place to stay.

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My Thai friend, Chayada, married her French partner Olivier. The ceremony, evening cocktails and the reception had more colour than a bucket of fruit salad.

The ceremony itself began at 9.09am. In Thai culture, the number nine is auspicious and considered lucky. In the small but classy space where the ceremony was held, five Buddhist monks swathed in bright orange sat waiting for proceedings to begin. Any sense of tranquility that they had bestowed upon the place quickly evaporated as the bridal party made its way in, preceded by a vibrant, noisy display of customary local dancers accompanied by equally raucous Thai music. It was lively and fun, a refreshing change from the usual sound of a pipe organ echoing throughout a church as the bride walks in alone and solemnly (which I also enjoy and am not diminishing in any way, it was just a nice change).

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The ceremony took about half an hour. Blessings were bestowed upon the couple by the monks as they paid tribute to them with traditional offerings of food and respect. The monks chanted prayers for them in return. It was a simple yet beautiful ceremony: strict and austere at its core and bookended by colour and fanfare.

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We then moved to another salon where ornate, golden stools were set up along with flower arrangements and traditional Thai garlands. The happy coupled filed in through the crowd, welcomed by their friends and the music of a khim.

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After some brief words explaining this part of the ceremony, the bride and groom’s parents poured water from a silver conch over their hands and made a wish for them. The rest of us followed, pouring water over their hands and wishing them all the best. Both the bride and groom are golfers so I wished them a lifetime of low handicaps and happiness. The former will almost certainly facilitate the latter. Deep down, I’m a romantic (way, way, waaaay deep down, it seems).

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“May your tee shots have plenty of spin on them…”

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Photos and hugs followed before we broke off and waited for cocktails to start at 6pm. It was a great ceremony. I had never been to a Thai wedding before. It was a lively experience.

We had some hours to kill so group of us went to one of the restaurants on the beach for some lunch. Great Thai food, cheap beers, the sun on our shoulders and the sand between our toes. We were even joined by the bride and groom as they took a break from the festivities.

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Relaxing at the beach during the day.

It was a great day and I love weddings. Friends marry their best friends, they’re as happy as they’ve ever been, the alcohol flows freely, everyone’s dressed to the nines, everyone’s in a fantastic mood and the alcohol flows freely. And the alcohol is flowing freely which is always a nice touch. The day was shaping up nicely.

At 6pm we gathered at a deck near the resort’s pool.

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The backdrop was stunning

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As the sun set over the ocean – talk about a back drop – the bride and groom posed for photos with their guests for an hour or so and made the obligatory rounds before we moved into the reception hall. That’s where the fun really started.

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The lobster was fantastic. Sweet satay with a big wallop of hell-fire chili.

Grace, colour and energy, all at the same time.

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The reception was a little more on the Western side except for three things. One, we were served tasty Thai fare (fusion, really) served up in a very chic way. The main featured a delicious satay lobster with enough chili to burn your taste buds off. Two, a troupe of Thai dancers performed for us twice as we ate. The way that such grace and tradition can come together with such energy and vigor is beautiful. Third (and certainly not least) was the ladyboy show. Forget nudity and ping pong balls. I’m talking a rollicking stage show with three performances of lip-syncing magnificence. At this point, my camera’s battery went flat. I really need to start learning to shoot one good shot instead of rapid-firing a couple of dozen photos to find that one shot that I think is best.

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Grace, colour and energy, all at the same time.

First was a live version of Minnie Ripperton’s classic Loving You, performed in such a perfect way that at one point I actually wondered if it was being sung or mimed. A hilarious slapstick duo followed, one of whom looked like a slim Aretha Franklin. As they sashayed through the crowd, my enthralled girlfriend told one of them how beautiful she thought they were. Without hesitation, one of the performers grabbed my girlfriend by the hand and led her to the centre of the room where the three of them danced to a disco tune. After so many glasses of champagne and wine, you can imagine how loud I was cheering. The third performer was a Beyonce look alike. She danced with such energy that her surgically-formed bosom threatened to spill out of her top at any second. The crowd loved it. It added so much fun to what was already an incredible day.

We spent the rest of the night dancing wildly (I never dance), drinking champagne like it was water (I never drink champagne) and partying like it was 1999 (I was 23 in 1999  and I haven’t partied like that since then). We had such a great night. It was my first destination wedding and it was so much fun.

A warm congratulations goes to my good friend Khun Chayada and her husband Olivier. May your life be happy, may your love grow ever deeper and may your handicaps fall ever lower!

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Can’t wait for the next Thai wedding to roll around.

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The weight is over: time to diet (thanks a lot, Singapore)

I never thought my (previously) scrawny arse would ever have to say this but here goes:

I have to go on a diet.

When I moved to Singapore two years ago, I weighed a mere 66kg. A little on the slim side, perhaps, but I’m not very tall. I need to wear thick-soled shoes if I want to say that I’m 5’7″ and get away with it.

I was unhealthy back in Australia. I skipped lunch at work all the time, ate plenty of junk food, smoked too much and never exercised. Well, I did cycle now and then. But I did it on my motorcycle. That offers about as much physical benefit as a rubber bone offers a starving dog.

Then I moved to Singapore.

I’ve posted about how good the food is here but I probably haven’t made the point that hawker centres aren’t exactly founts of nutrition and good health. Roti prata, kway teow (fried noodles), chilli crab, char siew, and all sorts of mee goreng have made their way into my list of favourite foods but they’re about as healthy as being trampled by a group of drunken soccer hooligans heading home after a heavy loss. I need to drink beer all the time in Singapore (it’s always so hot… that’s my excuse and I’m going with it) which hasn’t exactly helped either. Add to that the fact that we travel a lot and love to try the food wherever we go, what happened is no surprise: slowly but surely, my wardrobe started to strain under the weight of my… uh… weight. So my girlfriend and I joined a gym.

"Please don't eat me!" I'll try, little buddy. I'll try...

“Please don’t eat me!”I’ll try, little buddy. I’ll try…

I worked hard for a few months and toned up a little. The few flabby kilos I’d put on turned to muscle and while images of me in boxer briefs weren’t about to grace packets of underwear, I was healthier than I’d ever been. But, as always happens when you hit the gym, my appetite swelled to insane proportions. I’d go to restaurants and ask if there was a course between the appetizer and the main. Steak became a side dish. I was always hungry but I worked hard and burned all those calories off before they had a chance to congeal into a rotund, pants-splitting arse. Life was good: I was healthy, I felt good and, for the first time in my life, I had biceps (albeit small ones). Then then I used up all the sessions I had with my personal trainer. He was great and I turned up religiously because I’d booked sessions in with him and I felt obliged to go but, once the sessions ran out, I got lazy.

Roti Prata. Ever notice how oily food makes paper wrappers become clear? Rub roti prata on a concrete floor and it will become clear.

Roti Prata. Absolutely delicious, but ever notice how oily food makes paper wrappers become clear? Rub roti prata on a concrete floor and it will become clear.

My workouts stopped but my gargantuan appetite just wouldn’t abate. That’s when I slid very ungracefully from ‘not about to grace packets of underwear’ to Michelin Man tryouts.

Except for socks, I outgrew every single piece of clothing I’d brought over from Australia including the tailored Hugo Boss suit that my girlfriend bought me as a present shortly before she left for Singapore (she got here four months before I did). It was, without question, the best fitting garment I had ever owned. Right now, my thighs can barely fit into the pants, my arms can’t get into the sleeves unless I coat my arms in butter and there is zero chance of buttoning up the jacket without sucking in my gut and holding my breath. If I relax and take a breath, chances are the button will fly off at ballistic speeds and blind someone.

When I brush my teeth in the morning, everything below my jawline jiggles like jelly being jack-hammered and it doesn’t stop until a good fifteen seconds after I’ve finished brushing. I went from being able to do fifty push ups with ease to being able to eat fifty of most things with ease. Chairs creak and groan audibly underneath me when I sit. ‘Could it really be that bad?’ you ask…

I weighed 66kg when I got here. I now weigh 84.5 kilograms. I’ve put on 18 kilograms since I got here in September, 2011. That’s 18kgs in 22 months, an increase in body weight of over 25%.

So I’ve had it. I’m going on a *sigh* diet. I’m going to *sigh* cut back on beer, sweets, chocolate and anything else that gives me any sort of *sigh* pleasure when I consume it. I’m going to start exercising and get healthy again. I’ve set myself a goal: I will shed 10kg in the next three months. That will get me to a half-decent weight for healthy guy at my height with my build. I’m yet to lay down a proper fitness regime or choose a specific diet but cutting out the roti prata and getting up off the couch every now and then would be a great place to start. I might even give up cigarettes but one thing at a time. My girlfriend always tells me that she’s worried that I’ll get sick if I keep smoking. Little does she know that it’s already happened: I’m sick of her asking me to stop. Besides, life is short. Why make it even shorter?

I’m going to share my progress with you as the weeks pass, dear reader. If you’re going through the same thing, let me know and share your experiences. I’ll be sharing mine so we can push each other along.

Note to gut: you’re finished. The Battle of the Bulge is on.

"Reckon you can give up my burgers? Good luck, buddy!"

“Reckon you can give up my burgers? Good f#cking luck, buddy!”

The sauce of all happiness: Satay at Lau Pa Sat

Lau Pa Sat Hawker Centre is a five minute walk from our apartment. If I had known this when my girlfriend signed our rental agreement, I wouldn’t have scoffed at the amount of rent we signed up to pay for the next couple of years.

Hawker centres are a huge part of the Singaporean culinary experience. Lau Pa Sat is also a part of its history.

Hawker centres are a huge part of the Singaporean culinary experience. Lau Pa Sat is also a part of its history.

The hawker centrea is actually called Telok Ayer Market but is known colloquially as Lau Pa Sat. There’s a bit of history about the place.

It first opened in 1825. Originally, it sat at the water’s edge but, due to land reclamation, is now a couple of kilometres inland in the middle of Singapore’s busy CBD. Back then, boats would pull up and unload produce directly into the market. Needing a serious upgrade from its weather-battered wooden beginnings, it underwent a drastic overhaul. A cast iron frame was shipped from Glasgow around a hundred and forty years ago, the same frame that holds it up to this day. In the 1970’s, it was converted from a market into a hawker centre.

Telok Ayer Market way back in the day. It's now two kilometres inland thanks to aggressive land reclamation.

Telok Ayer Market way back in the day. It’s now two kilometres inland thanks to aggressive land reclamation.

Lau Pa Sat comes alive at night when a section of road in front of it is closed off and tables are laid out. When the dozen or so stalls that pop up nightly set up their charcoal-fired grills and the smoky smell of barbecue fills the air, locals and tourists alike flock there to enjoy the food and the cool atmosphere.

Eating out on the street is so much fun. It gets smoky sometimes but it is worth it.

I usually can’t breathe properly by the time I leave, probably because of the strain my belly suffers when trying to hold over a dozen satay sticks plus all that beer.

Under the centre’s roof, dozens of stalls sell all manner of Asian food. At the centre of the hawker centre is a large dumpling stall that sells fried and steamed dumplings of all sorts. I often eat nothing but those. No rice, no sides. Just plates of dumplings, char siew bao (steamed pork buns), fried spring rolls and fried prawn dumplings as well as a few other bits and pieces that I don’t know the name of. I usually just point and say “I’ll have two of those, one of these and a plate of those please, auntie” (older people in Singapore are called ‘auntie’ or ‘uncle’ as a sign of respect). The dumpling stall is surrounded by scores of Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Malay and Italian eateries as well as places that specialize in BBQ, vegetarian dishes, noodles and anything else you can think of.

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My girlfriend and I had dinner there last night. She felt like some Korean from one of the stalls inside so I grabbed some tasty prawn dumplings. We sat down for what was really just an appetizer for me.

The fun really started when we moved outside a few minutes later and ordered a plate of satay sticks…

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Beef, chicken, mutton, pork and prawn satay are everywhere as well as a handful of other choices. Smoky-flavoured, juicy pieces of meat and prawns are sold at every stall lining the road although, personally, I can’t tell the difference between them.

They’re all fantastic but the sauce is what really keeps me coming back. It is so good that it’s drinkable. Sweet, sticky, spicy, thick and as tasty as food can get. I don’t really dip my sticks in the sauce. Rather, I pretend that my stick is a spoon by trying to scoop up as much sauce as it’s possible for one small piece of meat to hold. Grab a mug or jug of beer with your sticks and you’re set for a fantastic and surprisingly cheap meal. Sticks are sixty cents a pop, cheaper still if you order a set.

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It’s not just that the food is great. I love the lively atmosphere, the mix of tourists and locals (the presence of locals suggests quality!), the history of the place and the fact that it’s a five minute walk from home.

There is a segue into my next post here…

For dinner, I ate three prawn dumplings and – I can’t believe I’m about to admit this – fifteen satay sticks. I couldn’t help myself. They’re just so good! Unsurprisingly, I now weigh far too much. How much, I hear you ask? Since arriving in Singapore nearly two years ago, I’ve put on 18kg.

I’ve posted about my love of the local food and my adoption of Singapore’s passionate approach to all things culinary but things have to change so my next post will be about my effort to shed those kilos. Stay tuned!


Freebies: worth every penny (alternative title: Our Trip to Phuket’s Surin Beach)

‘Freebie’ is the sweetest word in the English dictionary. Well, it’s not actually in the dictionary but if Webster would just give it the go ahead, it would rank up there with with the best of them. My manager called me into a meeting nearly three weeks back, saying she wanted to have a word with me. I figured that either I’d done something I wasn’t supposed to or I hadn’t done something that I was supposed to. Turns out that she was pleased with my recent performance so, as a reward/incentive, she gave me three nights at Twin Palms Resort on Surin Beach in Phuket including airfares. The timing was perfect. My girlfriend has been working really hard over the last three months and was in dire need of a break. Needless to say, I scored enough brownie points to last me quite a while. Better still, when my manager tried to book it, the only available room was a penthouse.

I grudgingly accepted.

Twin Palms Resort in Surin Beach, Phuket

Twin Palms Resort in Surin Beach, Phuket. Stunning and the service is fantastic.

Twin Palms Resort is on Surin Beach in Phuket. About twenty minutes from Patong’s red-light madness, Twin Palms is beautiful and only a one minute walk from the beach. Surin is a gorgeous stretch of white sand with only a few bars, clubs and shops sprinkled along it. A few high-end resorts and some mansions up on the hill have baited some high-end eateries into staking claims in what is otherwise just a nice little village on a beautiful stretch of Thai beach. It certainly isn’t a party place like Patong or Pattaya and that suited us well. We just wanted to unwind for a few days. Besides, Patong’s only really any good if you’re single, with the boys and not scared of VDs.

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Surin Beach.

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My girlfriend and I are easy to please. We get happy over simple things like not having any dirty clothes in the laundry basket or finding out that they’re showing The Karate Kid on TV on a Saturday night (the original, of course) so a lavish penthouse a few metres from a spectacular Thai beach was enough to make us feel like temporary millionaires. Two stories, open-plan, luxuriously appointed, an in-room bar that has surely been responsible for many horrible hangovers and a private rooftop pool. What more could someone who can’t afford any of that ask for?

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We made the most of it all. Poolside cocktails, daily massages, a fancy yoghurt-coffee-sea salt-some-other-condiment scrub for my woman, swims in Surin’s beautiful turquoise waters, luscious lunches on the beach and in-room dinners were the norm for three and a half glorious days. The hotel’s club on the beach, the trendy Catch Beach Club, even served Leffe Blond which is, at the moment, my favourite beer (my favourite beers change quicker than the US government’s understanding of the fourth amendment).

Catch Beach Club. Location really is everything.

Catch Beach Club. Location really is everything.

Palm trees: they just make a beach ‘beachier’

On the third day we took a day trip on a lovely Chinese-style junk through Phang Nga Bay. June Bahtra Cruises run a great operation. They pick you up from your hotel in a nice mini-van, drop you off at the marina then it’s straight onto the boat. We motored out of the marina and cruised through Phang Nga’s green waters at a leisurely pace. As you head out, mangroves and tall green hills border the bay, providing a stunning backdrop to its emerald waters.

Once into Phang Nga bay, small but tall islands covered in greenery rise starkly from the water. After a couple of hours we traded the junk for a colourful long boat and motored onto our first stop, Kho Phing Kan. It is imaginatively called James Bond Island after a few scenes for The Man With The Golden Gun were shot there in 1974. Like most of Thailand’s famous (and gorgeous) islands, it was as crowded as an Irish pub on St. Patrick’s Day. Long boats pull up, dump their passengers and back out so that other long boats can squeeze into the same tiny speck of beach to do the same. The place, though, is absolutely stunning.

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There are a few stalls there that sell exactly the same things: shells, bracelets and typically gaudy souvenirs. Then it was onto our next stop. Koh Panyee is a small fishing village built on stilts over the water. The local population of one thousand are descendants of Indonesian fisherman who arrived two hundred years ago. They now speak Thai but have hung on to their Muslim roots. They rely largely on tourism dollars to survive, hence my reluctance to haggle with one of them over the price of a sarong that I bought as a birthday present for my sister (sis, if you’re reading this and I haven’t sent it to you yet, HAPPY BIRTHDAY!). I paid her more than she asked for. Good deed for the day: done.

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Clothing shops, jewellery hawkers and food vendors line the laneways. Locals rely largely on tourism for their income.

The gaps between building reveal more about the village than the laneways full of shops and food vendors

The gaps between building reveal more about the village than the laneways full of shops and food vendors. It’s just a small country village that just happens to sit three feet above the sea.

A huge mosque was being built. It’s the only building in the village built on solid ground. The rest of the village is on stilts over water. Even the small soccer field used by the two hundred local school kids rests on a bed of floating drums. Unfortunately, our camera’s battery called it quits as we toured the village but we managed to snap off a few photos first.

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A floating soccer field. Yes, it wobbles but it is an ingenious idea.

Cheeky local kids having fun

Cheeky local kids doing what kids do best: being cheeky.

On the return trip, the junk anchored and we were offered the opportunity to take a dip. Everyone seemed to procrastinate. As they stood around wondering what to do, I was mid-air, diving off the bow doing my best impersonation of Greg Louganis (sans cranial claret-leak). Before you know it, everyone was jumping off behind me, doing their best impersonation of Rodney Dangerfield in Back to School (sans The Triple Lindy). A few glorious minutes later and we were drying off and heading back to the marina.

That night was, sadly, our last. We returned to Singapore the next day but after three nights on Surin Beach, I finally understood why everyone loves Phuket. Up until then, Patong had been the only place I’d visited there. Its seedy atmosphere and endless opportunities to test your morals leave an acidic, hangover-ish taste in your mouth. Surin Beach, on the other hand, is a world away. It’s closer to the tropical paradise you see on Thai postcards and it’s free of… well, hordes of hookers, drunken revellers and chances to do things you’ll regret.

Surin Beach: what a place.

And ‘freebie’: what a word…