Thailand, Summer 2007
Monday, June 25, 2007
Arrival and baggage claim at Chiang Mai International airport went smoothly. I had arranged with the hotel to pick me up and I was looking forward to walking into the public areas and seeing someone hold up a sign with my name on it. Unfortunately, there was no one waiting for me and I had to call the hotel and tell them to pick me up. The driver arrived in about ten minutes and quickly got me to the hotel where the desk clerk told me that they had a pickup for another customer named Peter an hour later and never considered that there could be two people named Peter. The appropriate Thai expression for this situation and many others is mai pen rai (my bpen rye with the "pb" sounding somewhere between a b and a p). It means, roughly, it doesn't matter. This expression is also used where we would say "you're welcome." It is also a common attitude when you want something faster then someone wants to do it or you want it done better than they want to do it.
By they way, nobody over here can pronounce Peter correctly. It's always pee-Terrrrr with the accent on the second syllable. Mai pen rai.
I didn't write anything in this journal while I was in Chiang Mai so I have some catching up to do. My room there had only 2-prong sockets and my power supply has 3-prong. Thinking that I wouldn't need it, I left my adapter with my large suitcase in Bangkok. I used up almost all of my battery reserves in the Bangkok airport finishing up the last chapter so no luck there. I was forced to actually DO something interesting with my time and I did.
When I was in Bangkok a few days earlier, I found several cooking classes in Chiang Mai (lots in Bangkok too) and booked myself into two full days, Thursday and Friday, at A Lot of Thai cooking school. This turned out to be a great choice but I'll get into that later.
Thursday morning I waited in the hotel lobby until being picked up by Kwan. I was surprised when he recognized me but figured that I was the only farang (westerner) waiting so I must be the right person. Later, Yui, Kwan's wife and my instructor, told me that when I sent the email to book the class, they noticed that my last name was the same as my email domain name and went to my web page to learn something about me. There they found my picture so they knew who to look for.
The school is a family business run out of their home on the outskirts of the city about ten minutes from my hotel. A large covered patio is where they've set up several cooking stations, each with a preparation area complete with cutting board and cleaver. There is also a wok on a high output burner. There are different menus for different days and Thursday's lineup included Pad-Thai, hot and sour soup with shrimp, spring rolls, green curry with chicken, stir-fried chicken with cashews, and sweet sticky rice with mango (yes!).
On my first day, I was the only student and so had the full attention of the delightful Yui, teacher extraordinaire.
Much of the prep work was done for me by a women who cut up the meats and some of the vegetables. When it was instructive, we did it in class. First Yui would make the dish explaining everything she did and why. She also explained the whys and wherefores of the different seasonings including the different kinds of chilies. Then she watched while I did mine. We tasted each other's dishes to see how they compared. Then I was given time to eat shat I had prepared.
Halfway through the day, around noon, Kwan took me to the local market and explained the different kinds of foods they had. There are so many kinds of fruit and vegetables here that one never sees in the U.S. One of the more important of them in Thai cooking is Kefir limes. Mostly we used the lime leaves which are very different than the limes we have back home, including the small Key limes. Kefir lime leaves are in two sections and after removing the backbone, they can be used whole or thinly sliced. At home I have powered dried leaves that are ok but don't impart as intense a lime flavor as the fresh leaves.
We also used fresh basil of which they have thee kinds here: lemon basil, sweet basil, and holy basil. The latter is a purple basil with slightly hairy stalks and a flavor subtly different than sweet basil.
In addition to fresh basil, we used a lot of coriander leaves which we call Cilantro in the U.S. It's the same plant from which we get coriander seeds. Also from this same plant, we used the root which has a flavor much like the leaves. The root is somewhat woody so it is used ground into a paste in curries and other dishes.
When he picked me up in the morning Kwan gave me a very nice and professional cookbook he and Yui put together with all of the recipes used in their classes. I'm glad I don't have to rely solely on my memory.
Friday's class was much like Thursday's except for different dishes and one extra student, Claudia from New Orleans. Friday's fare consisted of fried rice with Thai herbs, stuffed cucumber soup (wonderful), papaya salad, Panaeng curry with chicken, stir fried glass noodles with vegetables, and fried bananas.
Most of the ingredients can be found at home; some at many supermarkets and much of the rest at Asian markets. For the rest, one can substitute or omit.
Everything was terrific, though papaya salad is not my favorite. I wish I could send the flavors over the web like I can with the photos. Alas, you'll just have to drop some none-too-subtle hints that you would love to try my Thai cooking. I love to cook for people. Hmmm, I think I know what I'll be making for treats at my monthly milongas.
Friday's market tour included both Yui and Kwan. Yui wanted to introduce me to a women working there who was single and looking to change that. She had started using an online dating service but had yet to meet someone. Yui said she'd introduce her to eligible bachelors and I guess I fit the bill.
For Saturday, I booked a guided tour billed as an elephant safari. I was picked up at my hotel about 8:30 and was later joined by four young women from Fort Lauderdale, Crystal, Ivana, and Lilly. About 45 minutes outside Chiang Mai we found ourselves at an elephant camp where we were first treated to close up and personal contact with several baby and young elephants. After a while a large group of the huge pachyderms waded into the nearby river for a scrub-down as the tourists, myself included, stood on the banks and took photos.
After the communal elephant bath, the tourists were herded to seats in front of an arena for the show. The show consisted of elephants doing a variety of tasks getting progressively more difficult as the show progressed. They started by showing us how elephants were used to carry and move logs both singly and as a group for moving particularly large logs. Things got more whimsical from there as the animals played musical instruments: harmonica, drums, symbols, and maybe one or two others. Then there was a demonstration of an elephant playing soccer by doing several free kicks into a goal they had set up. The elephant made it past the goalie two out of three tries. It then picked up the ball in its trunk and threw it over its head to kick it with a back leg. While his aim when kicking the ball in this manner was not so good, it was remarkable that he was able to do it at all. The really amazing feat however was an elephant painting a picture. With a brush in its trunk, this huge beast painted a flowering tree and even signed its name (Ora Chai) on the bottom. A variety of elephant paintings were, of course, available for purchase in the souvenir shop.
In Thailand, these magnificent animals could easily go extinct if they cannot earn their keep. There is an elephant preserve that is supported, so far as I know, by private donations with perhaps some government support a well. We were told that tee are about seven thousand Asian elephants remaining in the world, about five thousand of them in Thailand and one thousand of those in the wild—I wonder where in this highly populated country one could hide a thousand wild elephants. So while I eschew circuses with animals and even zoos to some degree, elephant camps like this actually help keep the elephants alive and even provides some stimulating activities for the elephants.
Immediately after the show, our party of four divided into groups of two and mounted elephants for our "Safari" through the jungle. They selected one of the largest beasts for my partner and me because of my size. Crystal and I were behind Lilly and Ivana and the first thing we did was cross the river. Fortunately, it wasn't quite deep enough for us to get wet but it was an interesting crossing. More exciting than the river crossings, however, were the steep up and down portions of the trail. Plus, I was on a big elephant with long legs and a driver who wanted to pass everyone in sight, even on some of these steep places. Click on the links to see photos.
We ended up in what had been billed as a village of one of Thailand's hill tribes. These tribes include the Hmong and the long neck tribe, so called because of the gold rings added to the necks of young women so that their necks become stretched and quite long. The village, of one could really call it that appeared to be just another camp of sorts with little of interest. We left the elephants and got onto ox carts pulled by Brahma bulls, though their docile nature makes me think they were probably cows rather than bulls.
These carts meandered over a very uneven dirt road back to the elephant camp where we were served a quite delicious buffet lunch with a nice selection of Thai dishes and we ate in the relative cool of the open-air restaurant.
The final activity in the elephant camp was our departure on bamboo rafts which, fortunately, held four passengers in addition to the two with long bamboo poles, one fore and one aft. The river flowed quietly and they let each of us have a turn with the front pole. Of course, as any canoeist knows, it is the guy in the rear who does almost all the steering.
One thing I hadn't the foresight to do was put on sunscreen and several days later my arms are still a little read from the sunburn. At least it was only my arms and they did not burn badly. The back of my neck, which would ordinarily be uncomfortably seared was spared by my upturned shirt collar. The girls informed me that this was the current cool style, perhaps the only thing about me that one might consider cool.
Our day wasn't over yet. The official tour included a stop at an orchid and butterfly farm. But first we were given the opportunity for an additional stop at a nearby monkey habitat. It sounded like fun so we agreed and it was even more fun than it sounded. They had a couple of young Makak monkeys we could play with. Part of this play consisted of trying to stop the monkeys from grabbing anything loose they could reach such as glasses, cell phones, hair, etc. One little guy wanted to bite and after watching one of the handlers let the monkey chew on his fingers, I did the same. The bite was hard but not too hard and certainly not hard enough to break the skin. He really like the fleshy web between my thumb and forefinger. The other one was smaller and younger and he would climb up and sit in my outstretched palm. Then they brought out an older fellow named Dan who would crawl into a lap and cuddle. We all liked that.
Finally, like with the elephants, they did a short show with the monkeys shooting hoops—50% from the free throw line—swimming to the bottom of a murky pool to retrieve a wristwatch and other interesting tasks. Overall this was a fun stop.
On to the orchid farm where there were rows on rows of beautifully colored orchids of varieties with which I was unfamiliar. They were grown hanging about five feet above the ground with their roots dangling below. A screened canopy provided partial sun and sprayers mounted at the top would, presumably, deliver moisture and nutrients.
After being delivered back to my hotel, I went for a swim, in large part, to cool off and soothe some of the discomfort of my sunburned arms. In the pool I met a delightful young Aussie couple, Drew and Becky. They had just returned from an amazing two week tour of Cambodia and had several more weeks to spend in Thailand. We met again for dinner and a "taxi" ride to the Saturday night market.
A couple of asides are in order here. The taxis in Chiang Mai are like those in Pattaya, small pickup trucks with covered bench seating in the back. They have a regular route and you find one that's going where you want to go and hop in the back. You pay when you get off, usually 10 to 20 Baht—about 30 to 60 cents. All of these vehicles in Chiang Mai are painted red and some even have their destination, at least one end of their route, painted on in white as well.
The other aside is about the night bazaar. My hotel sat on the edge of a large market, perhaps a square kilometer, that opened at night. It included some restaurants and other businesses that were also open during the ay but mostly it came alive after 7pm when all the vendors opened their stalls. And when I say all, I mean hundreds if not thousands. One web site describing the Chiang Mai night bazaar described their wares as trinkets and, for the most part, that's what you see. Hundreds selling tee shirts, caps, cheap replicas of famous name watches, things carved our of wood, inexpensive jewelry, local handicrafts—some which are well made, and, of course, food and drinks. This last is interesting—when isn't food interesting?—because of the variety of tastes available. My favorite are the various grilled meats on a stick and the freshly squeezed tangerine juice. Chiang Mai is noted for its spicy sausages and I tried some on a stick and hot off a grill; delicious. I also once again availed myself of a foot massage. There are massage places everywhere you go and a foot massage after a long day of walking around can be quite pleasant.
On each of my evenings in Chiang Mai, I spend most of my hours wandering the night markets. The Saturday and Sunday night markets cater more to the locals and so are a little less touristy. I was able to experience only the Saturday version because my departure was late Sunday afternoon.
Sunday, an interesting and delightful experience. My friend Wawa—a nickname—, and called Katie—another nickname—by her family, is one the Thai students who studied at Oregon State this year and stayed in my friend Darla's house near campus. She and her brother, Victor, picked me up at my hotel about 1pm and took me to another hotel where the family was hosting a lunch for not only their family and me but a group of about a dozen teachers from the Fresno area of California. Wawa's mother Varee (pronounced Wah-ree) started a school in Chiang Mai and it has grown to include elementary through high school. It is housed in a beautiful new complex and is being expanded further. Anyway, I think the American teachers have a sort of sister city relationship with Varee's school. After lunch I got a brief drive-through tour of the school.
From there, we drove to Doi Suthep, a temple sitting high on a mountain right above the city. The last part is a climb up 174 or so—I lost count when we stopped to take pictures—steep steps to the top. They have an elevator but it is tradition to climb on your first visit so climb I did. From the top, there is not only a beautiful gold-leaf covered temple, there is also a magnificent view of the city below.
As the time was getting late for me to get to the airport, we drive straight there from Doi Suthep and I caught my plane back to Bangkok in plenty of time. I didn't mention it in my last chapter but on my round trip to Chiang Mai, I flew first-class for the first time—heck, it only cost about $20 extra round trip and it allowed me to change my reservations, which I did, for only about fifty cents instead of ten dollars. I must say, I like flying in the big comfortable seats and the extra attentions of the flight attendants. Considering the added cost on most of my other flights, it's hard to justify so I fly cattle-car instead.
This brings me to the end of this chapter. I hope you found it as amusing to read as I did living it.