Today, my best friend is getting married. And I’m not there.

This is the girl who I met on the first day of university and have been living life alongside ever since.

We have been through all your standard university trials – studies, boys, diets, housemates…

This is one of the very first photos we took together. We really had those myspace angles down.

And beyond, into real grown up life stuff; house purchase and renovations, proper jobs and career choices, sickness, bereavement, hurts, joys, choices, regrets. You name it. I’d do anything for this girl. She stood right by me as I got married almost 7 years ago now.

And yet, I won’t be there for hers.

The decision not to take the trip back to attend was a really, really tough one. Ultimately it was just unaffordable for me – tickets to the UK from Australia aren’t cheap, and I’d have had to take a decent chunk of unpaid leave as I’m so new in my job. I also didn’t think I’d be allowed to take so much time off so soon after starting my new job; thanks for sponsoring me to come out here Employer, now I’m just going to nick off back home for 2-3 weeks, that’s fine yeah?

Still, after all those very rational reasons, it is my best friend’s wedding. There’s just no getting away from that.

At my 21st birthday party. The theme was R (I’ll give you 3 guesses why). I was Royalty, Jen was a Rudegirl – this is her actual personality which made it all the funnier

It’s three months since I moved away from the UK and this is the first major event I am missing out on. I know there will be more in the future. I know other friends will get married, I know friends will have babies. I am hoping that there will be no deaths, but experience tells me that is a futile wish.

As well as the big things, there will be the slightly smaller things. Birthday celebrations, life milestones like new jobs or new houses, family events, the church fete… It’s easy to get misty eyed about all the things I’m missing out on whilst forgetting the privileged position I am in. I am very aware that I have absolutely no right to whinge about missing out on things because I chose this life for myself. I am the one who chose to move away. Right?

We do have an emergency fund set aside with enough money in it for two last minute air fares, should the worst happen. But over the past few days and weeks I have been plagued with the guilt that perhaps I should have used that money to fly to the wedding. Despite my seemingly rational decision, I couldn’t help myself.

Unfortunately, sometimes you can’t rationalise your way out of emotions. I know it wasn’t possible for me to go, but I am still devastated to be missing out.

Fellow expats, what do you do to mark occasions back home that you’re missing out on? How do you decide what to go back for?

-Rachel

Happy wedding day beautiful girl; a lifetime of happiness to you both x x x x

The dancer tilted her head, slowly, almost imperceptibly, and started to slide one foot along the tiled floor towards the bank of eager photographers. They bristled, cameras raising eagerly. The dancer’s eye twitched, ever so slightly. A gong sounded mournfully.

How admirable, I thought to myself, as the dancer slowly descended a set of steps towards the awaiting tourists. She has a completely straight face. I wonder how she does that?

We had come to the Kraton, a palace in the centre of Yogyakarta, to get a hit of Indonesian culture. That was the whole point of our trip to Yogyakarta, after all.

And what better way to get some decent culture than to see some traditional Javanese dancing accompanied by a gamelan, an Indonesian orchestra made of all sorts of metal instruments? Javanese dance, as it turns out, is formed of incredibly slow, deliberate movements performed by extremely glamorous dancers. The end result is elegant and captivating but my goodness it takes a long time. This performance was slated to go on for approximately two hours; after five minutes spent vainly trying to find respite from the intense heat under the pavilion like building, I had given up hope of ever feeling cool ever again.

I snuck around the side to get an action glimpse of the gamelan. Having played one myself when I studied music at school, I was intrigued to see the setup. The orchestra is formed of a variety of big hanging gongs, smaller kettle-type gongs, and xylophone things. I’m sure they all have proper names but I shan’t insult anyone by attempting them. There were also four singers sat at the front of the orchestra.

From memory, the musicians semi-improvise: they have a framework of notes that progress throughout the piece, but are free to play whatever they like around that. The higher, xylophone type instruments play fast and change notes often, the lower big gongs play infrequently and usually only for one note. This makes a compelling, driven melody over which you have up to four singers singing a traditional song that tells a particular story. The dancers illustrate the story.

The dancers and the orchestra were really what we came for. I was keen to experience some traditional Javanese culture, and this was laid on for free – well, aside from the entrance fee to the Kraton which was about $1.50. Yes, you read that correctly.

Taking a short walk around the rest of the grounds, we didn’t uncover too much of interest. There were some pretty buildings but they were all fenced off.

The free gamelan and dance is only on on a Sunday, so if your trip falls over this day I would highly recommend a visit. Don’t bother too much about the rest of the palace – we were underwhelmed. However, for the entrance fee, it’s worth taking a quick sweep around if historical buildings are your thing.

After seeing a large group of boys all dressed in matching beige shorts and Hawaiian shirts, we decided it was time to call it a day. Is group matching dressing a thing in Indonesia? I have no idea.

Further cultural adventures were to be found in Taman Sari, an ancient complex dating from the mid 18th century. This was built by the sultan as a rest and relaxation spot. Most of it has been lost to time but the concubine bathing pools remain. They’re absolutely beautiful.

The site is small but in the heat, we were glad of that. You can see the pools where the sultan, his concubines and children bathed. The changing and rest rooms remain. There is no information whatsoever about the site as you’re walking around, so I’d have a read up on what on earth is going on before you visit.

It was pretty busy, but I still managed to get some good pictures. People were good at ducking out of your shot or taking turns at posing in prime spots (like this one):

Just look at the colour of the water. Beautiful. I can’t tell you how hot and sweaty it was that day, but looking at the pictures makes me feel instantly calmed and refreshed – what a treat this must have been for bathers.

But just to bring things back to reality, here is the sultan’s changing and resting quarters. The tower is where he would look out over all his bathing beauties and make his choice. Nice.

It was quite a nice tower before I knew that.

Are you into traditional dance and/or music? Would you visit bathing pools that had a dubious former use, even though they’re stunning to look at?

Top Tips: Kraton

> This is a confusing site! There are two entrances. The one with the gamelan and dancing (where my pictures are from, marked Kraton Ngayogyakarta Hadiningrat on Google maps) is accessed via a south-westerly entrance. There is also an entrance to the north, just off the big grassy square (marked The Palace of Yogyakarta Keraton Yogyakarta on Google maps). They’re separate entrances to separate things, so an entrance fee is payable at both. We ended up going to the wrong one first, the Palace of Yogyakarta, and essentially wasting money – but as it was so little I wasn’t too fussed. We just wanted to get to the gamelan.

> If you want to take pictures or videos you will have to buy a permit to do so. It’s under 10c extra so I would recommend going for it even if you’re not sure. I wouldn’t want to be caught out…

> A guide offered his services to us at the first entrance, but as we realised we’d come to the wrong place we declined his offer. The guides are free, however I expect they’d like a tip at the end.

> The only loos on site are basic squat loos with no frills. Someone may try and get you to pay. I’d recommend not availing yourself of these facilities if at all possible.

> The area around the palace is full of tourists, and wherever there are tourists, there are scammers. Be on high alert – the variety and inventiveness is quite impressive.

Top Tips: Taman Sari

> The area Taman Sari is based in isn’t hugely walkable. It looks like it’s just around the corner from the Kraton, but it’s not. And there aren’t really any pavements. Take a taxi and make sure the taxi waits for you to return – it won’t cost too much as you’ll get around the site quite quickly.

> The way out takes you a super long way and, as ever in Indonesia, past lots of stalls etc (exit via the gift shop) trying to entice you into a purchase

> I already mentioned it, but research the site before you go. Not always the easiest to do, but we missed parts of the site because I didn’t know they existed. There are no signs or anything so be sure to explore fully!

> You may well get accosted by a group of schoolchildren doing a survey/practicing their English speaking. We participated and nothing bad happened (ie it’s not a scam) so if you’re asked and you can spare the time, go ahead.

-Rachel

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If my last couple of posts have just been far too long for your tastes, then fear not. This one will be nice and short*. Unfortunately for fellow coeliac and/or wheat and gluten intolerant folk, that means that no, I didn’t find much gluten free food in Bangkok. I really tried, but unfortunately it’s not a city that understands gluten free.

Here are the few places I did find, in order of recommendation.

*so I’ve just finished writing and turns out I wrote quite a lot again. soz.

Theera Gluten Free Bakery

This was my oasis in a city of things I can’t eat, and of course I only found it on my last day. It’s a slight ways out of the main tourist areas but it’s 100% worth the trip if you can’t eat gluten. They do a great breakfast and lunch, and they have some cakes, bread and energy ball type things to take away to tide you over until you find your next safe food venue. I ate all mine on my cheapo-air flight to Jakarta where no other food was provided. Woop!

Anyway, back to Theera. That day I had a fried breakfast with waffles, because waffles.

The waffles were good, but honestly I wish I’d had something else because it came up a bit short of a Traditional English. Which was only to be expected seeing as I was in Thailand.

S had a duck curry with rice. I tried a bit and it tasted just as good as it looked.

They also had exciting drinks on offer which were just right in the heat.

I soon moved on to the cake course, which was absolutely delicious. They gave me two forks, oh how naive.

No dry and crumbly cardboard here – this vanilla cake was rich and delicious. I don’t know what the icing was but it was light and airy. And, even though it was served with maple syrup drizzled over it, not too sickly.

The interior was comfortable, air conditioned (!), peaceful and clean. The staff were very friendly.

I highly recommend Theera and I’d go out of my way to visit it next time.

Kyochon Chicken

This Korean chicken joint is located at the back of Siam Square One, adjacent to Siam BTS station. It’s super convenient if you’ll be in the area doing some shopping. They have good value Korean fried chicken and rice which makes for an ideal lunch.

Just watch out for the following:

> Not all their dishes are gluten free and the ones that are aren’t marked. As far as I know, the Sal Sal chicken is the only gluten free chicken on the menu: they couldn’t vouch for the other types. Please re-check every time you go in case the recipe has changed and if in doubt… don’t eat it.

> They don’t have a website so I have no idea when they’re open. It’s a cafe so I’d suggest daytime rather than evening.

> There are no loos in the restaurant itself, you have to go into the main shopping centre where there are semi-western style toilets (western actual loos but BYO loo roll/take it from the one dispenser on the wall as you walk in).

> Try the strawberry salad dressing. It’s an experience.

La Tavola & Wine Bar

(inside Renaissance Bangkok Ratchaprasong Hotel)

I don’t know whether anyone else gets this, but after about a week surviving on boiled rice and plain stir fries I was desperate for some good ol’ western carbs. So I did a google and I found possibly the only Italian restaurant in Bangkok that serves gluten free food. It’s inside the Renaissance hotel, which is right next to the Chit Lom BTS stop. It was also walking distance to our hotel which was most convenient. So off we went.

We were the only people in the restaurant! It was nice though.

Imagine my rapture when they brought out real, live gluten free bread. Look. At. It. Boiled rice, in your face.

Again, the gluten free options weren’t noted on the menu but were offered by the staff on enquiry. They had gluten free pasta available (no pizza, sadly) and could do either penne or spaghetti with almost any of the sauces listed on the main menu.

I went for trad ragu, and it was delicious. There’s not too much more I can say than that, really.

Yes, it was a bit of a pricey restaurant. But seeing as we’d been eating in food courts up until that point we justified the splurge. And sometimes you just need a slice of bread, y’know?

Vistacafe

This place was right next door to our hotel, and it provided me with a chocolate cake in a time of need for which I will be forever grateful.

It’s a health food shop so you’ve got to watch out for the ‘low gluten’ type spelt things, but they do have a small selection of actual gluten free things. Mostly cake to be honest, I don’t think you could get an actual gluten free meal here from what I saw.

General tips

Unfortunately it’s just not that easy to get hold of gluten free food in Bangkok. You would think it would be, but soy sauce is so ever-present it’s a real nightmare to avoid. Sometimes they even put it in curries – you just never know. So, never assume.

> I got my hotel front desk to write out ‘no soy sauce, no oyster sauce’ in Thai on a piece of paper for me which I would brandish wherever we went. Sometimes it worked, sometimes I got blank looks, I adjusted my course as a consequence.

> We ate a lot in food courts, because there was usually something there I could eat, and no judgement if I ate something strange or ‘not a meal’ like a plate of plain boiled rice.

> Our hotel had no clue about gluten free, so if you can stay somewhere that does that would be an excellent start.

> There isn’t really any packaged gluten free food in the supermarkets, so find what you can that’s naturally gluten free and stock up on it. We found a place near us that had some prepackaged fruit and yoghurts so we ate those a lot.

> Look for the fresh fruit street vendors which are fairly common. They sometimes do juices and smoothies as well.

> This is a slightly left field suggestion, but go on a cooking course! The one we went on not only made sure I could eat all the food I cooked, but gave me a good understanding of how some common Thai dishes are made and what bits I would need to avoid. Plus, it was great fun.

And that’s it. Have you been to Bangkok? Anything to add to my rather paltry list?

-Rachel

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As a self professed and independently validated clumsy person, you might wonder why I would choose to spend the day exploring a city like Bangkok on something that can only be described as an oversized canoe.

Let me explain.

I like history. S likes boats. I had heard that the best way to see the older parts of Bangkok was via boat, because the city was originally built around a canal system. We had already seen quite enough of shopping malls, so we figured, why not?

We carefully selected a tour (not an affiliate or sponsored or anything) out of seemingly infinite options; do we want to go to a floating market? But they don’t run on the day we want to go. Do we go another day then? Or go to an orchid farm instead? How many temples should we visit? And so on.

After a very un-holidayish early start, we arrived at a remote BTS platform. Most of the other passengers on the train had already disembarked some time ago – where were we?!

It may have only been 8:30 am but it was already hot and sticky. We wound our way through residential streets, through one of the numerous temple forecourts, and there was an unassuming jetty with a boat and boat driver (pilot? captain?) waiting for us.

Now.

Did I mention I’m clumsy?

Embarking was a feat of gymnastics and between my husband, the guide and the boat director we all made it without capsizing. I’ll spare you the details.

So, safely ensconced in the boat, here are the stops we made.

Wat Paknam

This is a new Buddhist temple. It was very large and had the air of affluence around it. There were some people milling around the forecourt, and the faint sound of chanting wafted around the corner from a funeral service in progress.

We saw plenty of statues of Buddha, some of which were shrink wrapped. I’m still not sure why. This one wasn’t, and was sat directly opposite the entrance to the temple.

The grounds were small but well kept, with some lovely flower beds and some benches to sit in in the shade.

There was also a traditional library, built over water to stop the rats getting in and destroying the books. Some turtles had taken up residence in the pond. I think they had been released there by temple-goers to generate good karma.

There were beautifully embroidered fans mounted on the ceiling beams around the main temple. Apparently these are used by monks to hold in front of their faces whilst they’re performing ceremonies so they don’t get distracted. You can tell how important a monk is by the kind of fan they have. These fans are for regular, entry level monks and are provided by members of the community.

Next we moved into the giant stupa-shaped temple next door. This housed a big ceremonial room on the ground floor, complete with scary demons on the door to keep out ill-doers.

On the next two floors were museum items, with a further collection of fans. You can tell by the shape and quality of embroidery that these are for higher-up monks to use.

There were collections of all sorts of things, from what you might expect (statues of Buddhas, sacred texts) to those you might not (pocket watches donated by past visitors, giant gold statues of past abbots). It was quite interesting, but it was very hot in there.

Finally, we reached the top floor. I was definitely not expecting what greeted us there.

Yes, this is real. That’s a stupa made out of jade glass, specially lit with spotlights. The paintings on the domed ceiling were incredible. Up close, you could see the detail on the stupa – there was a small army of nagas and lit up lotus flowers at the base.

I just couldn’t get over the sheer scale of it. Honestly, I’m still not sure what to make of it. It doesn’t even look real.

Mind thoroughly blown, we stepped outside for a welcome breath of fresh air and admired the view over the rooftops. The district we were in is known as the temple district, and it’s easy to see why.

The contrast between old and new is quite strong, with the temple spires and traditional houses in the foreground (the ‘old’ way of living) and skyscrapers in the rear (the ‘new’ way of living). Our guide lamented how the youth of today now want to live near a BTS station, not a temple.

Back on the water, we began to see some traditional dwellings, built over the water. I love the fact that this one looks like it’s on the verge of collapsing into the water, but still has a satellite dish mounted on the roof.

The plant collections were often quite spectacular.

Houses were crammed in anywhere they could find space.

After some time with the wind in our hair (and trying not to inhale too much canal water), we arrived at our next stop.

Wat Pa Chaeng Lane

This was described to us as the ‘jungle temple’. The entrance to it was certainly more low-key than the first temple, and the whole experience felt more authentic. We were the only tourists there, and the monks and locals were all very friendly. We had a nice chat to some monks who wanted to know where we were from, what was our story, etc.

Oh and I now want a hanging wall of plants please.

The place was quiet, shady, and peaceful. Animals wandered across the boardwalks, and the whole place was raised above water. It was lovely.

Floating market

Now, we had unwittingly booked our excursion on a public holiday, so despite the fact it was a week day we were on a weekend tour schedule, and we were told the floating food market would probably be closed. In the end, a few stalls were open and there was plenty to eat. It probably turned out to be a slightly more chilled out experience, to be honest, as there was plenty to see even with just a few stalls open.

Our guide explained all of the dishes to us, and said that whatever we would like he would get for us. We really were too hot to eat a great deal, but we tried a few different dishes and enjoyed the view out over the canals while we ate.

The place wasn’t too touristy either, which was nice. If you just want the floating market foodie experience (you could spend a whole day here alone I expect, it was huge), you can get a water taxi here directly. There were some waiting on the jetties as we left.

The orchid nursery

Next stop: pretty flowers! I have no idea where we were because all the signs were in Thai. It was pretty far away though.

There’s not much to say about the orchid nursery other than how pretty it was. We were the only visitors at the time and the owner of the nursery was very patient in answering my nerdy questions (as translated by our guide). He also gave us a tour of the other interesting plants on his property and overall it was a plant enthusiasts’ playground.

Of course it was even hotter and more humid than everywhere else we’d been, on account of the fact they were growing in a greenhouse which was full of standing water. It was worth it though.

Artist’s House

I was really looking forward to this stop, as it was billed as a local community movement aiming to promote the local arts. Apparently it’s a series of old, traditional houses that were saved from demolition by artists moving in and setting up various shops selling their creations. There’s also a traditional puppet show. Sounds great, right?

Unfortunately, we only found one shop selling anything vaguely handicraft-y, and to my (untrained it has to be said) eyes it didn’t look like anything you couldn’t get in markets elsewhere. Perhaps most shops were closed due to the public holiday, I don’t know. There were a couple of shops selling food which you could feed to the giant catfish that live in the canal. You can see the huge bags of it hanging up in the photo above. It was fun watching kids feed the fish but that wasn’t really what we came for.

So we made our way to the traditional puppet show and bagged a super uncomfortable seat while we waited for the show to begin. The place was packed and we assumed we were in for a treat, however two unfortunate things happened. One, I remembered I hate puppets. Like, I really am a bit freaked out by them. So as soon as the show started I just wanted to leave. The puppets were intricately made, yes, but I just wasn’t on for them being moved about. And what’s with the freaky black masks?!

Secondly, we realised the show was a thinly disguised shakedown for tourists. Now, I hate shows where they single someone out from the audience to embarrass them, but this was even worse. The premise was they’d not only embarrass people but pretend to hold their (expensive!) belongings to ransom or not leave them alone until they donated. Then they went around the audience doing this to everyone. We were sat near the back and after some time had passed and it became obvious they weren’t going to stop until they’d been around every single person in the audience, we decided to scarper. I would have donated before, even though it freaked me out, but I certainly wasn’t after that performance. I’m assuming it isn’t traditional for puppet shows to extort tourists but hey, what do I know.

That left a bit of a bad taste in our mouth and I think our guide was a bit surprised to see us leaving so soon. We were just glad to get back on the boat and get out in the water. It was honestly so much fun seeing into the neighbourhoods from the boat.

We spotted some local wildlife, too. We even saw a giant monitor lizard sunning himself on someone’s back garden wall.

Overall, whilst there were some good bits and some strange bits and some totally out-there bits, I’m really glad we took the boat ride. Being on the water was just so much fun and I loved seeing a different side to the shiny modern bits of Bangkok we’d seen until that point. Would I recommend to a friend? Maybe, depending on the friend. I would offer the following tips though.

Tips

> Wear boat suitable clothing. I would not recommend a dress. Also make sure you have knees and shoulders covered to look around the temples.

> Wear plenty of sunscreen (and reapply). Also bring DEET or similar – we got quite bitten on the water.

> Bear in mind you’ll be outdoors all day and nowhere you visit will have AC. So, prepare to be very hot for 7+ hours! Make sure your tour will provide plenty of water (ours did) and bring your own just in case. I thought we were drinking enough but once we got back to the hotel we were basically useless for the rest of the day, so perhaps we didn’t do as good of a job as we thought.

> Read up on the various permutations of tour, and pick the itinerary that suits you. Some tour companies will even create a bespoke one for you. I particularly enjoyed the jungle temple and orchid farm, the floating market was fun and it was good to have a guide to talk us through all the food on offer, I frankly didn’t know what to make of the bling mountain, and was not impressed by the artisan’s house. Your opinion may differ, that’s just mine.

> Take small notes to tip your guide and driver

> There won’t be room for you to sit alongside each other – it is a narrow boat. That’s fine but don’t expect to be able to hold a conversation with each other while the boat is moving, over the sound of the motor and the wind you’ll be hard pressed to.

> Following on from that, don’t expect commentary from your guide as you’re actually moving along. You won’t be able to hear a word they’re saying. Of course, they’ll guide you around the stops – just not en route.

So I have to ask. Would you have given money to the puppet show?

-Rachel

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