Thai Food

I wasn’t sure I was going to like Thailand, but one thing was certain: I was going to eat well while there.  Why, Thai food is my favorite and when in doubt what to eat, I choose Thai.  That’s why it came as a shock that I hardly had a good meal in Thailand!  Granted, in every place, you have to know where to eat, but in France, Italy, and Vietnam we had good food just about everywhere!

Let’s start with my favorite, tom yum.  Granted, in the States, my all times favorite is Land on the UWS, but I had decent tom yums in other Thai restaurants.  Of the seven tom yums here, I had one excellent, two decent ones, and four mediocre to poor.

The fruit.  I’m shocked.  In a tropical country, I expected ripe tropical fruit.  What we get here is watermelon (not even nearly as sugary as what we get in the States when they are in season), melon, pineapple, and dragon fruit.  Even though strawberries are in season now, hotels don’t serve them (“too expensive”. said a guide.  Really?  For high end hotels?  At less than $3 a kilo?)  Neither do they serve pomelos, leeches, rambutans, or passion fruit (they did in Vietnam)!  Street food in Bangkok was thoroughly unappealing.  It looked better in Chiang Mai – less fried, more made to order.  The noodles are often overcooked and congealed together.

In Bangkok, we were taken to hotel buffet lunches for two days, and they were awful.  We rebelled and asked to be taken to local restaurants.  So in the first, very local restaurant, the fish I ordered smelled fishy, was salty and deep-dried.  In the next restaurant, also very local, I ordered green chicken curry.  The chicken in the curry was a chopped up chicken part: bones, fat, and skin.  The chicken must have been sacrificed at an advanced age; there was hardly any meat on those bones – mostly fat and skin.

Even rice isn’t the same here as in the US.  It’s drier and less flavorful.  Sticky rice was just that – sticky but dry.  Sticky rice with mango is cooked in coconut milk in the US.  Here, it was just that – dry sticky rice, not sweet, accompanied by a not very sweet mango.

Yes, I had an exceptional tom yum once here, and a very tasty Northern Thai noodle speciality Khao Soi.  We also had a great meal at a high end French/Thai restaurant in Chiang Mai and a tasty homemade meal in a Chiang Rai b&b, but those were few and far between in the sea of average or substandard meals.

I am so sad!

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Racha

So we goofed.  We were looking for a resort on Phuket to book with points, and most resorts weren’t on the beach.  So when we saw The Racha, which was right on the beach, we booked it. Right before leaving for Thailand, we realized that The Racha wasn’t on Phuket but on a separate island, in fact, called Racha, and to get there from the Phuket airport we had to drive the length of the island for an hour to the harbor, from where we took a boat to Racha (which run only 3 times a day).  So between getting to the airport in Chiang Mai, waiting for the plane, flying to Bangkok, waiting for the second plane to Phuket, riding in a car in Phuket, waiting for the boat, and taking the boat to the island, we got to our hotel at 6PM (left our hotel in Chiang Mai at 8:30 am).  But our mistake turned out to be a blessing in disguise.  This island is small, secluded, and picturesque.  The hotel is luxury – we have half of a cottage with an indoor and outdoor showers and a porch.  The interior is sleek and modern.  When we arrived, we witnessed one of the most beautiful sunsets ever, with the sky becoming a Japanese painting and the water of the bay turning turquoise in the setting sun.

The hotel is set in a cove framed by huge boulders.  The beach is white sand, and the water is crystal clear.  I even went swimming (which is not really my thing) and shared the crystal-clear water with several schools of tropical fish.  In the morning, we took a walk around the island with a guide.  THe island is tiny but there are three more hotels here, those are simple, down to earth backpacker hotels.  On our walk, we saw two more beautiful coves flanked by boulders and nestling rather rocky beaches.

The island outside the resort is quite unspoiled, with a small permanent human population.  We passed small groups of water buffalo peacefully sharing space with white herons.  The largest wild animals on the island are huge lizards.

Still, I’m not a beach person and as beautiful as it is, I am already bored.

I signed up for a massage in the resort’s beautiful spa.  It is pricey, 10 times what you pay in the cities, but I’m done with the cheap massage joints.  You don’t know who was lying on those recliners before you – they might have had cooties.  And even if the massage therapists there are as good as in the fancy hotels, it is not relaxing to receive a massage in the crowd of dubious strangers stretched out all around you.  I’ll bite the bullet and pay up for the privacy.

The Golden Triangle

I am happily reporting that we finally had a good meal in Thailand!

In a small cafe near the White Temple, I had a superb bowl of tom yum soup loaded with lemongrass, galangal, and fresh kefir leaves, and I mean, loaded!  That huge amount of aromatic herbs gave the soup the most exquisite flavor, and the wild mushrooms completed the picture.  We also had the local Northern Thai speciality, khao soi, which is noodles in rich broth reminiscent of the broth in roti kanai, which was also flavorful and delicious.

But I’m going to backtrack to the beginning of the day, which started with a visit to the point where the Mekong river meets the Ruak river at the intersection of three countries: Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar.  That’s the eponymous triangle.  “Golden” stands for the black gold, aka opium, as said area once was the center of the opium trade.

We took a boat to the Laotian island, to which no visas a required to enter.  So I officially added another country to my “have been” list.

The island had nothing but shops mostly stocked with cheap chinese goods, but they also sold one local speciality: whisky infused with various things beneficial to your wellbeing, such as ginseng, cobra, scorpio, or tiger penis.  Take your pick.  I chose a small bottle with a little cobra holding a huge scorpio in its mouth.  I hope i can bring into the States.  If not, I’m out $5.

After that, we went for the last visit with the tribal people, in another united village similar to the one in Chiang Mai.  Still have mixed feelings about the whole thing, but went anyway – gotta feed my addiction!  We took photos, admired their clothes, told them they were beautiful, and asked them how old they were.

Here, in addition to the long necked Karen Padang and the Akha, we met a very friendly group of Mien people.  Had a long talk with them, and found out that one of them was now a Christian.  When we said our good byes, she ran after us and gave me a hand-embroidered phone case as a gift to a fellow Christian.  And said “God bless you”.  So I thanked her profusely and wished her that God blesses her too.  Didn’t have the heart to reveal my true identity.  They just presume here that if you are white, you are a christian.  Just like when we stayed at the resort filled with chinese and russian tourists, Kenny was addressed in Russian several times.  Well, he wasn’t Chinese, so he had to be Russian!

Our next stop was the White Temple.  Just like I had said, I’m not a fan of Buddhist temples, but this one was different.   It was designed by a famous Thai artist who initially financed the whole thing himself, but in the recent years started taking small donations; only small, so no big donor could demand an impact on his artistic decisions.  The temple is blindingly white, decorated with mirror shards, and looks a bit phantasmagoric. The artist wanted to get away from the traditional gold (couldn’t agree with him more) as gold represents greed; and did his temple in white as the color of purity, while the mirrors represented the Buddha’s reflections. Before you enter the temple, you see trees decorated with repulsive plaster heads of corrupt politicians.  Farther up, you climb a small arched bridge over scenes of hell out of Dante: more ugly plaster heads with bulging eyes and gaping mouths, hands stretching up to the sky from the abyss.

The bridge leads you to the entrance of the temple itself (“don’t stop, keep moving”) and you see the lord Buddha sitting in front of you.  The other three walls are decorated with murals.  Now those murals needed intense examining, as they weren’t depicting your grandfather’s religious figures.  Among them, were the superheros (such as SUperman, Batman, etc.), Michael Jackson, Harry Potter, and modern cartoon characters.  If you stand with your back to the Buddha, and face the door you have just entered, you see that on this wall, the artist painted a monster with the door as its mouth.  If you stare into the monster’s eyes, you see that each one of them hides a portrait of a man.  As it turned out, one of these men is George W. Bush, and the other – Osama Bin Laden (joined forever in life and death).  The artist equated them as two sides of the same evil: people with too much power who caused death of a lot of people.

A very atypical painting in a religious institution, I’d say!

The last stop was at a hot water spring, where you could dip your tired feet into the steaming stinky water.  I was in my own personal Nirvana for about 10 min. until a bus of Chinese arrived.  They broke the serenity of the place with their harsh voices.  They took over the spring.  One woman plopped next to me and said “You are beautiful”.  Then I saw that the Chinese men started snapping photos of me. They said something to her.  She translated “They said you are beautiful.

How old are you?”

TEA, AKHA, AND THE OPIUM TRADE

We started the day visiting a picturesque tea plantation high up in the mountains, operated by a Chinese family that employs local tribal people to harvest the tea leaves.  Interestingly, out of the whole huge bush, only the tiny top buds and two upper leaves are harvested, and harvested by hand no less!  We had tea tasting, but I didn’t like the tea.  It was mostly green, and I’m not a fan.

From there, we drove to a village populated by the tribal Akha people.  We entered the village via the spirit gate (“look but don’t touch!”), pass two guardians: a man and a woman carved out of wood, with their reproductive organs on a ready: a huge erect penis on the male and a hole for the vagina on the female.  The sculptor took great care to be realistic, carefully carving even their pubic hair.

We entered the village at the time of a funeral procession.  That wasn’t lucky for the dead but lucky for us as the funeral gathering gave us a chance to see many women and some men dressed in their traditional garb.  Particularly beautiful was one woman, in full regalia, with an especially exceptional headdress.  Akha headdresses are made by their owners out of solid silver pieces and other materials selected by the maker.  I was so enamored of these headdresses, I wanted to buy one off one of the women but she quoted a price of 100000 bhat, which is more than $3000.  Besides, she wasn’t selling it anyway.  Apparently, Akha women are buried with these headdresses on, and most probably only have one.  What a shame!  I almost considered becoming a grave raider for a day…

From the Akha village, we drove to the Myanmar border and looked over the river to the Burmese mountains on the other side.  The bridge connecting the two countries was packed with the Burmese in motor vehicles and on foot scurrying to and from Thailand loaded with goods.  The town at the border is a bustling shopping center: one side of the street sells Burmese souvenirs and products brought over from Myanmar, and the other – is a market selling loads of cheap Chinese goods, for which the Burmese cross this border.  Here, we happened on a group of Burmese tribal people in black embroidered outfits and enormous black shawls wrapped around women’s heads.  They were all women shepherded by a single male.  They came from their village in Myanmar to pay homage to a venerable monk who lives in the border  town.  Once done with their spiritual business, they had to attend to the material one, and did some damage in the Chinese mall on the Thai side of the river.

In this corner of Thailand, there is the infamous Golden Triangle – an area covering parts of three countries : Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos, in where for many years, opium poppies were grown, harvested, and turned into the deadly drug.  This area was once a domaine of drug lords – the most dangerous and deadliest region in this country.  The person who solved the drug problem was the elderly mother of the last Thai king.  Veni, vidi, vici.

The princess mother put money and effort into reeducating the farmers who grew the deadly poppies, convincing them to replace them with coffee and other honorable crops that would afford them the same standard of living as the opium puppies.

We visited an opium museum, a well designed and informative center to educate people about the history of opium trade, opium addictions, and opium wars.

And we ended the day at our b&b with a home-cooked dinner.

 

From Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai

We headed into the mountains today, en route to the Kok river; stopping on the way to explore a cave turned a Buddhist temple, at the foot of a gorgeous mountain.  I’m yet to like a Buddhist temple.  The thing is they are all rather crude, especially the buddhas.  The Thai go for the size and for the gold, not for the refinement.  No attention to detail, no artistic touch, no work of a great artist.  I just don’t feel anything in these temples.  They are like cheaply decorated Chinese restaurants.  Sorry guys, not my thing.

The scenery here up north, though, got much better; quite beautiful indeed.  We were in a valley inside a lush forest covering surrounding hills and mountains.  We boarded a long-tail  boat and motored down the Kok river.  It felt like we were the fist humans entering this pristine and unspoiled territory.  Thus floating, we finally docked near a Lahu people village.  We were greeted by three dirty little kids, two boys and a girl, who tried to sell us handicrafts before we even set foot on land, but even though we refused, the tiny girl  offered us her little hand to help us out of the boat.

Ashore, we  walked through the village accosted by stray dogs, chicken, and hogs, until we happened upon an ancient wench smoking a cigar she rolled from the corn husk  and filled with tobacco she personally grew.  She was wearing a traditional Lahu outfit.  SHe invited us to her hut on stilts and tried to sell us a brand new Lahu outfit she made herself.  She was very gracious when we refused and proudly informed us she was told she was going to live to be a hundred (gee, and I had thought she was about that!), but she was only 70.

I guess smoking is bad for your skin, indeed!

Further down the river, we docked at the Karen and Akha village, where people looked pretty modern except one another septuagenarian, all decked out in her traditional garb, with headdress decorated with solid silver – stunning and, undoubtedly,  very heavy.  She let us take her picture, but for a price.

The Karen people operate an elephant camp, to which we arrived just when the last elephant was fed after a hard day’s work.  I had never been so close to an elephant before.  It was cool to see him picking up the food with his trunk (sugar cane first,  as that was his favorite, bananas last), but it was also sad to see him chained.  It appeared though, that his handlers truly cared for him, and he seemed to care about his mahout.  As soon as the mahout called him, he turned around and followed him to the jungle for some free time playing.

We finished the trip docking at our hotel’s own dock.  What a way to arrive in style!

LAMPANG, LAMPHUN, AND THE TRIBAL PEOPLE

I always thought of buddhism as more of a spiritual creed than a religion; religion lite, if you will. Not so in Thailand. The Thai seem to be zealous above and beyond their fellow buddhists in other countries we visited. They flock to their temples on all holidays; before, after, and during important events in their lives; and just when feeling uncertain or depressed. They pray, light candles, seek advice and blessings from the monks, and deposit money in contribution boxes set all over the temple grounds. They don’t make any major decisions without consulting the monks first.  Buddhism, the religion, seem to guide their lives completely and fully.
That’s why, the main sites to see in this country are buddhist temples.
Aside from the Thai, we were the only visitors to the temples of Lampang and Lamphun.  The temples here had less gold and more architecture than Bangkok and Chiang Mai temples.  The spare usage of gold and smaller size of their buddhas made these temples feel more spiritual for me.   They wee less gaudy or ostentatious and more refined.

But I came to the north not for the temples but for the tribes that live in this mountainous district.  The tribes came to this region from Burma, Tibet, and China years ago.  We went to the village created by the government  as a showcase of the local tribes.  The village is both artificial and real.  It is artificial in that it’s a village of the people from several tribes living in one community.  It is real because the families from different tribes live the life they used to live in their original villages.

I had mixed feeling about this venture.  At first, I felt that it treated the people as if they were animals in the zoo, with visitors coming to look at them them as they would look at exotic animals.  But then I saw how proud these tribesmen (mostly, tribeswomen, though) were of their heritage, and how much they wanted to showcase their customs, costumes, and traditions to the rest of the world, and I changed my mind.  Theirs is a disappearing world.  Young people don’t follow their ways of life, and in 20-30 years, there will no longer be long-necked women, graceful and colorful like exotic birds; there will no longer be women with long earlobes stretching almost to their shoulders (those, I must say, freaked me out!), there will be no more heavy brass rings worn on the ankles and knees, and no more elaborate headdresses.  I consider myself lucky to have seen them in real life.  I must say, in Vietnam in Myanmar, such tribe still exist in the wild, and I’m thrilled to have seen them there in their natural habitat.

And as a token to remember, I bought the longest brass ring set I could find from a 67-old woman, to match the one she was wearing.  She was as beautiful as an orchid, with her small round head topping the neck brace like a button.  She moved gracefully despite the weight of the brass rings on her legs, and wore elaborate hat and dress.  Here chest, ears, and wrists were adorned with silver and brass jewelry, and she sang a song for us accompanying herself on a four-string guitar.

KWAI, KANCHANBURY, AND AYUTHAYA

We happily left Bangkok today and headed out of the city into the countryside. Our first stop  was the infamous bridge over the river Kwai.  I saw the movie as a teenager and it made an impression, so I was interested in seeing it.

The bridge was built by the POWs captured by the Japanese during WWII, and the entire affair was infamous for the brutality of the Japanese and inhuman conditions under which the captives were kept.  Many thousands servicemen perished from malnutrition, excessive heat, tropical diseases, and the cruel treatment by their Japanese captors.
Today, the site could appear idillic (a pretty bridge over a muddy river in the midst of a jungle) save for the hordes of Chinese tourists filling the bridge to the rim. We gave up trying to cross it, navigating through the mass of the pushing, shoving, selfie-taking mob.
Thankfully, we found refuge from them in the nearby museum, which they shunned owing to the entrance fee.  The museum had several photographs of the prisoners after the liberation.  Japanese favored the use of Caucasian slave labor because their big-boned bodies gave the impression of strength compared to their delicately built Asian counterparts.  The photographs of the survivors showed anything but strength: emaciated bodies with perturbing ribcages and sunk-in stomachs reminiscent of the concentration camp survivors.  Well, on the other hand, how else could they look? This was another type of a concentration camp.

At the nearby cemetery, where the expired and murdered young men were interred in neatly arranged rows of graves, the Chinese were back in action: grinning happily, making funny faces, and sticking their fingers up in the air forming V-signs for the selfies, in which they were trying to incorporates as many images of graves as they could to serve as the background.

After this “inspiring” experience, we retreated to our hotel for the night: a bunch of bungalows set smack on the river Kwai.
The setting was scenic: the bungalows were built on top of the rushing waters encased by high river banks, with milky mist settled on their chest. But no. The bungalows had seen better days, and the entire property was overrun by Chinese and Russian tour groups. That was New Year’s Eve, and we had a banquet in the open air in the unwelcome company of both groups.
We had to endure another meal of greasy and deep-fried food. It got to the point that the only thing I ate was plain white rice, and even that wasn’t the rice served in the US THai restaurants: moist and fragrant, but rather dry and bland rice kernels.

The next day we visited the ruins of the ancient temples in Ayutthaya. They were actually quite impressive. Stripped of the crude white paint generously slapped on many temples here, and devoid of all its gold, the brick remains acquired a noble patina of age. These ruins were distant Asian cousins of Greek and Roman ruins, and could hold their own in the pantheon of ancient sites.

For lunch, we rebelled against another buffet and requested a traditional restaurant. We got it, and landed at a local joint by the river with no other Caucasians in sight. The food was the most authentic and… fried!
I am completely baffled. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Thailand, but one thing i did expect was good food. What’s going on???