Monday, November 30, 2009

Chiangkhan: Serenity in a weekend…

I took off on a whim this past weekend upon an invitation to visit Chiangkhan. Friday night was our departure date to this mysterious place up to the northeast. The bus trip was trying, and I was smart enough to neglect to pack any sort of warm clothing. On the bus I daresay we were locked in a human fridge of sorts. Furthermore, the neck and every body part become aware of itself and its heaviness. I only actually fell asleep about 15 minutes before arrival.

I would definitely recommend the VIP bus – note: you must book a seat on the bus at least 6 hours prior to departure – but even if you do, keep in mind that the locals may take a more “sabay sabay” attitude toward traveling home. If they see a seat they like, they take it, and the bus driver, feeling shy and not wanting anyone to lose face, will take the “mai pen rai” stance and allow the seats to fill without following assigned seating rules. As a farang inclined to strict Anglo-Saxon rules of assigned seating, this may be frustrating. But then again, when in Rome…

After I had managed one wink of sleep, I woke up in a dream to Chiangkhan. Outside, the air was completely cold. Quite a shock, as ‘Thailand’ and ‘cold’ are two words that I do not associate together. Miracles do occur, I guess. It was warmer outside than inside the refrigerated bus, but not by much. We stepped into a cloud – the 6am fog was heavy, but all my exhaustion faded upon opening my lungs to the cool, mountain air. I felt, for a second, that I was in Colorado in the summertime…

Our group was chilled and was headed for a coffee shop – but made a detour to the fresh morning market, which is completely charming. What they’ve got are local fruits, vegetables, freshly-killed meat, locally-caught fish, and so much more. I sought out the sweatshirts and found local bargains – 180 Baht ($6 USD) for a warm polar fleece zip-up, and 10 Baht ($0.25) for socks, gloves, and etcetera. It is the bargain shopper’s paradise. The happiness circulating in the market – from the local people and ourselves – warmed us up inside, though we still required some hot beverages.

The coffee shop is just down the street, featuring two live roosters outside. The place is dual-function, and is also an antique movie theater, previewing old-school Thai movies for 7 Baht. Downstairs in the café area is an assortment of antiques and all sorts of knick-knacks giving a tint of nostalgia. On the menu is an egg breakfast, circa Vietnam War era when American soldiers stationed in the area introduced their typical egg menu.

Now for the early morning activity: alms-giving to the monks. For the first time, I sat on my knees and warmed my fingers placing sticky rice in the offering jar. The Chiangkhan temple is of interest and we passed it on our way to Loogmai Guesthouse, further down the soi. A most pleasant guesthouse it is indeed – the outside is colonial-style according to the rounded doorways and wide open spaces in the rooms with high ceilings. This place books up quickly, so – same goes as for the bus – reserve in advance. Here you may also rent new bicycles, which we did.

As the fog lifted, a magnificent view spread out – heavenly indeed. The Mekong River lay ahead and Laos was a stone’s throw away, the only thing separating us was the Mighty Mekong, where the early-morning fishing activity was already in action. Goats grazed on the hillside and longboats were winding downstream and I smiled to myself, happy to be upcountry. The day warmed up as the minutes passed. It was bike time.

In December it’s quite easy to get around town via bicycle. A lovely walkway follows the Mekong – so we took this route, heading 6 Km out of town to see an interesting rock formation. The river here is shallower and actually looks as if it’s drying up, for we were able to walk out on the rocks halfway across. My friends were telling me this is due to the large dams they’re building up in China, requiring enormous amounts of water, providing no leftovers to their neighbors to the south. As time passes, this will be a worrying situation for the local people.

After seeing the water – or lack thereof – I was brought back to reality that perhaps for me the weekend was a dream, a getaway to an upcountry town, but for the inhabitants, their life here will soon face a problematic situation of water shortage. Chiangkhan could be one of those places talked about in the news – in documentaries and such. Could it perhaps be a place where an uprising could occur? My imagination sort of took over, and I tried not to make my head explode with ideas.

Getting on the bikes again, we headed back, passing stands selling local goods. We stopped to get some coconut peel – Grade A, Grade B, Grade C. The Grade B batch is harder, crunchier, covered in sugar, and enjoyable to eat, so I bought the 70 Baht bag while my friends all enjoyed Grade A indeed.

We spent the remainder of the day in Chiangkhan itself, savoring the local foods and sipping coffee. The town is so charming like in a fairytale and we were the characters in the tale. We toured the little gift shops whose keepers were not lacking creativity. Each shop had an artistic edge to it although everything for sale was similar: t-shirts, post-cards, scarves and such.

Sunset touched Chiangkhan, the air cooled down, and I felt great. Here things seemed so familiar, though so far away from my home. The people all so friendly – it was if we already had some new friends in town and everyone knew us. Sort of a nice feeling: even though you are a stranger, you can be accepted. I got the same feeling the next day, when it was time for us to head back to Bangkok. As we headed to the bus station, shopkeepers and passers-by wished us good luck and said goodbye.

I am already prepared to say hello to them again, and I miss the place already.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The bountiful banana

Banana trees, found throughout Thailand, are actually not trees; they are classified herbaceous flowering plants or ‘pseudostems’. The banana plant has one main upright pseudostem which produces flowers (one is pictured above): a male flower and a female flower. The male banana flower grows on each stem of the plant, while the female banana flower grows further up on the banana plant and produces the actual banana fruit without requiring fertilization. Each pseudostem produces a bunch of bananas and then dies. Then the plant regenerates itself and grows more pseudostems, with the process continuing in a cycle.

The great benefit of bananas is that the banana plant can produce fruit year-round. There is no “banana season” in Thailand; the bananas grow on an unlimited basis. This versatile plant also has useful leaves: traditionally in Thailand, street vendors wrap sticky rice and other ‘khanom’ (sweets) in banana leaves, keeping food fresh and minimizing waste. What’s more, the banana flower itself is edible and plays a role in Thai cuisine, in a banana flower salad known as “Yam hua plee” which involves a mix of shallots, fish sauce, garlic and chili placed in the banana flower, which functions as the ‘outer shell’ of the dish.

In Thailand, some of the more popular uses of the banana besides eating them fresh are fried banana chips, which can be flavored and spiced up with chili peppers, pizza flavor or really anything imaginable; and sun-dried, honey-sweetened bananas. Green, unripe bananas are also used as a garnish in some dishes, although the taste of green banana is an acquired one. There are so many uses for the multi-talented banana, a plant full of untapped potential which has yet to be explored.

Don't blame the buffalo

With its unmatched strength and ability to plough the muddy rice paddies, the Thai buffalo is the traditional heart and soul of the rice farming industry. These beasts of burden are quite often on the receiving end of Thai jokes and in this culture, calling someone a buffalo is rather an insult because the beasts are considered unintelligent and stubborn. Nevertheless, the Thai buffalo is not a laughing matter, especially since throughout the years it has been the traditional backbone of the farming industry.

Weighing up to 900 kilograms and measuring up to two meters tall, the buffaloes in Asia have been domesticated for 5,000 years. There are variations of wild buffaloes as well; however these are becoming rarer as they are being cross-bred with domesticated buffaloes.

In Thailand, the number of these beasts is on the decline, according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). This is due in part to the shift in the way of life of the Thai people. Thailand, originally an agriculture-based society, is shifting toward a Western-style society, and people are moving from the countryside in search of fortune in the big cities, namely Bangkok and Chiang Mai, for example. Furthermore, machines are replacing farm animals for work purposes, as farmers are being introduced to new technology. Farmers are finding that new equipment is faster and more efficient than the traditional, stubborn buffalo, and they can turn higher profits with the new farm equipment.

Nevertheless, the Thai buffalo is not going to disappear and most likely will stay around for generations to come. One of the most famous Thai music groups, Carabao, has modeled their logo after the buffalo. Their band was molded after the symbol of the carabao (as it is referred to in the Philippines). They look at the symbol of the buffalo in another way: as a sign of courage, strength, and power, and their logo is known to all Thais and foreigners alike.

Therefore, we should not watch the Thai buffalo go out of style. Buffaloes are the soul of Thai country life, and we should keep them that way. We should not fall to our knees and sink to the levels of heavy machinery taking over the rice fields. In a land where there is no rush for anything, why are we in such a hurry?

Goldfish in a Tiger Temple

Sometimes I feel like a fish in a bowl, therefore I must escape into
the sea. The weekends are my escape route and the nights are streams
that lead to bigger rivers. Each day I circle my fishbowl and look
for the new escape route for a new source of inspiration, for a new
lesson to learn, a new idea, a new mix to the potion of life.

Last Saturday was one of those escapes from the fishbowl.
Destination: Tiger Temple, which has little information available
online. Supposedly the best way to get there is by taking a tour
starting on Kao San Road, however those begin far too early for me –
6:30 a.m. – on a Saturday morning, no thank you, really. Of course by
going “free lance” I am also making the trip a bit more difficult for
myself, but being an independent young lady I can do these things on
my own.

So I met with my friend at the minivan parking lot at Victory
Monument, where a lot of progress has been made in the past year.
This “minivan port” has become a real hub for minivans, and it’s
become much more user-friendly with the signs written in both Thai and
English. You pay at the desk of the destination you’d like to reach –
destinations include Petchaburi, Cha Am, Hua Hin, Nakon Sawan,
Kanchanaburi, Rayong, Chantaburi, and maybe a couple more.

The van ride to Kanchanaburi city is about two and a half hours long.
It’s really quite a pastoral setting to drive through – the usual
banana trees, rice paddies, lush, green fields and such. Approaching
closer to Kanchanaburi province, hills appear in the distance. My
friend and I were the last two in the minivan by the time we’d arrived
in the town and we had the chance that our driver connected us with
another minivan to take us to the famous Tiger Temple, an additional
38 Km away (although it seems longer).

Just looking at the Tiger Temple brochure, it states that prices for
taxi from the bus station cost more than 250 Baht, which seems about
right because my friend and I paid 900 Baht combined for a personal
minivan, and our driver stopped to let us eat lunch and waited two
hours while we visited the tigers, and returned us directly to the
minivan we needed to get back into Bangkok.

Entrance fees to the Tiger Temple are 500 Baht for foreigners – I
stupidly forgot my Thai work permit – not only that, but I was also
wearing a skirt, which although covering my knees was not permitted,
meaning that I had to fork out an additional 200 Baht to purchase
these ridiculous diaper-pants that were hot and sweaty. What a
blistering heat at the Tiger Temple!

You enter the Tiger Temple on foot – red dirt and some wild boars
roaming around. This place is a wildlife sanctuary and the presence
of the wild boars is due to back when the monastery was established in
1994 and “an injured wild boar stumbled into the monastery and the
monks cared for him until he could be released back into the forest”,
says the brochure. His friends and family must have followed him back
to the temple along with other species of deer, buffalo, horses and
wild goats that freely roam the monastery grounds.

The Tiger Temple has become a sanctuary for tigers whose family
members are victims of poaching on the Thai-Myanmar border. The adult
tigers are poached for their skins, which fetch very generous prices,
and the cubs are left in the wild to fend for themselves. Back in
1999 the first tiger cub was introduced into the Tiger Temple and it
has become what it is today ever since.

So my friend and I walked about 350 meters to the “Tiger Canyon” where
a large cluster of male and female adult tigers attempt to cat nap
while being bombarded by both Thai and foreign tourists keen on
getting their pictures taken with them. From the start I realized the
commercial interest of the volunteers as I was approached by a young
Australian my age who attempted to convince me of the unique
experience of watching these tigers play in the water for an
additional 500 Baht. Perhaps this money will be passed on to an
interesting fund for feeding the tigers or helping to build their new
tiger island, however I wasn’t buying into it. You find yourself
surrounded by volunteers who take you by the hand as they take your
picture with the tigers who are chained to the ground in what seems to
me an inhumane fashion. And folks – for an additional 1,000 Baht, you
can get an extra-special photo taken with the tigers.

Of course it is a unique experience to touch these beautiful beasts
and take your picture with them, it is my opinion that this must all
be taken with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, you cannot discount the
experience of visiting this interesting place. Whether you are an
animal lover or a pure tourist, whatever your motivation, you can gain
something new by witnessing the Tiger Temple. Although it is not so
simple to get there, it is more or less a recommended place to visit
if you have the extra time – at least one day dedicated to going there
– and you are prepared to sit in public transport for many hours. And
anyway, if you don’t escape your fish bowl, you will never see the

Thursday, November 19, 2009

the land to the east of Thai -

I just returned from a three-day weekend in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city. To see the city properly, you will only really require about two days, as much of the sites are clustered in one general area. On day one, Friday, having dropped off the bags at the simple but correct Paragon hotel (facing the Tonlé Sap river confluence, where much activity is occurring on the river’s edge), after being hassled, practically bombarded by Tuk Tuk drivers trying to negotiate a couple (or much more) bucks to take you to the Killing Fields, we settled for the smiley, cute-faced Tuk Tuk driver who hung out in our hotel lobby and seemed to be regular pals with the receptionists.

We originally settled on a fare of $15 to take us to the Killing Fields and Genocide Museum, feeling skeptical about the price we were told. Although only 15 km (about 9 miles) away from the capital, getting to the Killing Fields by Tuk Tuk was rather trying. Luckily, I have already spent one year in Bangkok; I have sat in various forms of transportation through Bangkok traffic and on upcountry roads, so I can more or less safely say that I am “acclimated” to the driving and traffic rules (which, may I add, are rather nonexistent) of Southeast Asia, however, nothing in Thailand could have prepared me for the kind of happenings on the road that took place in Phnom Penh. While crossing the road in the Tuk Tuk, the driver (from what I could tell, all drivers) paid no heed to pedestrians, other vehicles, or any other stationary objects in the road. Anything goes, really, and it seems like you can drive on sidewalks, too, if your vehicle permits. Cambodians seem to be car-horn (or Tuk-Tuk horn) friendly, applying the hand frequently, for no reason in particular, but just to signal that they are coming.

Despite the insanity taking place on the road, I was able to see a bit Phnom Penh and its outskirts relatively well via Tuk Tuk. I quite enjoyed the airflow that came through journeying by Tuk Tuk, although it didn’t manage to dry my soaking self off much. There are some lovely parts to the city, such as where the government offices are located, near the independence monument, and the street in front of the Grand Palace. Seeing the run-down colonial architecture brought a sense that there is a great amount of history to the place; although at times I felt as though the city is still caught up in its own history and has not yet had the opportunity to move forward.

Throughout my three days in the capital city, I daresay I’ve never seen more naked children running around. There were a huge amount of kids selling photocopied books in a basket around their neck, carrying baby ducks, looking for the smile of a foreign tourist and a few bucks; and a lot of desperation and hands reaching out to you like you have the solution, which you don’t, as the token tourist. Outside the Killing Fields, swarms of kids ran up to us begging for our plastic $1 raincoats, and they held on to the Tuk Tuk until it took off, leaving them behind and yourself with a sad feeling.

Other points of interest in Phnom Penh besides the harrowing Killing Fields include the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, which features numerous head-shots of victims killed by the Khmer Rouge. If you don’t know much about this period in Cambodian history, books are readily available, although it might be wise to think twice before buying books from the children in the street as it is questionable who is profiting from this business.

The National Museum is also a nice stop-off place in Phnom Penh. The building itself is beautiful, built in 1917 under the inspiration of Khmer architecture. The museum is home to bits of Khmer history, including sculpture, bronzes, and religious relics. Just up the street and facing the wide river is the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Cambodia (FCCC), a fantastic resting point that offers happy hour nightly from 5-7 pm and features tasteful red and white wines from Chile. They have a menu of Western and Khmer food, so why not try the ‘fish amok’, one of the more popular dishes you’ll see on the menus of the capital.

You could spend most of your day at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club, or any café on the quay, for that matter, cozied up with an iced coffee or an Angkor Beer, simply people-watching and soaking up so much of the culture. Life travels by as you sit and watch the Cambodian people who have so many stories to tell; so much history and have endured so much of life.