Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Headed Home

The longtail boat was waiting for us to take us to the taxi. The sun shone brightly on the karsts surrounding the beach at Railai. It was the beginning of the journey home.

Typical Thai Meal

One of the highlights of our stay in Railai Beach was the meal cooked for us by the local cook. Noy negotiated a veritable FEAST of southern Thai dishes with her the day before. By noon the next day she had returned by boat with the fresh, fresh fish and veggies. From noon until 2:30 she was busy getting things all set up for our 7:30 PM meal.

First there was the soup Tom Yam Talay that was chock full of tasty shrimp and squid. I had eaten a Tom Yam with pork in it in Luang Prabang ... but Jim told me it was a pale imitation of the Tom Yam I would find in Southern Thailand. He was right. The cook did hold off on the spices for my sake. We each had little bowls and ceramic spoons and Noy served us out of the communal bowl. It was a very traditional serving.

Also at the table was a Pak Bung Fai Daeng. It is a stir fried version of the fresh water morning glory blossoms that I have come to love. This one was made particularly special by the addition of fermented soy beans. Outstanding!

There was also an "experiemental" dish for western tastes: Gaeng Tai Pla. It is curried fish innards and I have to admit it was tasty ! Very rich but very tasty. I think that like sausage, Gaeng Tai Pla isn't something you should watch being prepared.

And finally Cow Phad Poo was the crab fried rice. The cook said the secret was to have a very very hot wok into which to toss the fresh crabmeat and that our stove was not up to the task.

Thank-you Jim, Fah, Chow and Noy for arranging this wonderfully authentic taste of Thailand.

Monday, January 28, 2008

A Tribute to Street Food

Knock on wood I have not had one bad encounter with street food here in Thailand or in Laos. While I haven't tried everything pictured below, I have sampled many wonderful soups and tibits.
a northern Thai sort of dim sum

Chiang Mai Sausages

some kind of green food drying in Luang Prabang a soup stand in Chiang Mai
ANOTHER soup stand in Luang Prabang
and its menu
banana and chocolate roti

green lipped mussels
fried bananas
soup stand

at first I though they were drumsticks ... ummm try a little lower onthe birddon't ask ... don't tell

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Southern Thailand

It is my first morning in Krabi. A gentle sea breeze is lifting from the water. Our little cove in Railai is dwarfed by sheer mountain cliffs. We arrived by boat well after 10 pm last night and the beach was awash in the light of the full moon and these cliffs had the feel of romantic sentinels. Now in the light of day I am wondering what do you do when the tsunami hits here. I find a little plastic covered set of instructions hanging from a peg in the kitchen on how to find the way to higher ground. Semper paratus
a different kind of Zen

No monks in THIS village. This is all about tourism. Our home here is a three bedroom house open to the elements. There is a center living and eating area and then each bedroom is off in its own separate wing each with its own wrap around deck. We only have electricity from 6 at night to 6 in the morning.

The long tail boat in which we arrived was an experience. There was no dock and you had to wade out into the water and hoist yourself over the gunnels. It was a wonderful start to this beach adventure.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Turning toward the morning

The morning fog and the chill off the water created a mood of contemplation. We were headed up river on the Mekong, and I was thinking about how each step of this trip has been a journey deeper and deeper into strange territory. From the familiarity of Sydney, to the outback and then the rain forest and the Great Barrier Reef … then to the rural world of New Zealand … then to the bustle and strangeness of Bangkok … the northern Thai feel of Chiang Mai … the time warp that is Luang Prabang … and now a journey on the Mekong into rural Laos. After today will be a denouement of sorts. This is as deep as it goes.

The three of us have hired a low slung river boat for the morning. There are high water markers on rock formations in the river, and I find it hard to imagine the sweep of this river in the rainy season. The crops are planted in this rich alluvial soil once the river has receded. I see beans and corn that look like early to mid July by MY agricultural calendar. There are bamboo fences up around some of the plots … perhaps the water buffalo are the deer of the Mekong?

There ARE rough dirt roads to these villages … many of them along the river have electricity (sad to report that TV is front and center in the Lao living room.) WE are dropped in a village said to be known for its textiles. I go off in search of a craftsman … a loom … some evidence that these lovely silks are made here. Finally in the back of the village I find a woman with a silk loom. She, however, is working on embroidery on a black background which she says will take her 2 months to complete.

This issue about where the silk comes from is hard to unravel. There is a shop called Ock Pop Tok in Luang Prabang where the owners focus on Laotian silk and return a fair price to the weavers. We bought several pieces there. But here in this village up the river I see the same sad tale of sales. Little girls who SHOULD be in school are greeting the boats with little key rings made in China. It is hard to walk past them. I found one little girl in the corner of the village Wat and I exchanged the dollar for her little key chain. Since I know that a government bureaucrat in Vientiane makes $40 dollars a month, I wonder what this “day’s pay” will mean to this little girl and her family. I would love to put a homing device on my greenback and see in whose hands it ends up. Next it is off to the cave of the Buddhas called Pak Ou. Steep concrete stairs have been built in to the side of the cliff. At the very top we see thousands of statues of the Buddha. Exactly why they are stored here is not clear … but once it started, thousands more came. There are seven poses that a Buddha figure can take. All of these are represented here in the cave. We descend the stairs and board our boat again. The swift downstream current delivers us back to Luang Prabang in no time. The journey back to the familiar has begun.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Luang Prabang

Look to the left
Look to the right

This is a town that is changing rapidly. Simple village housing is being replaced by hotels and guest houses. Dirt alley ways are being paved with bricks. Street food is being replaced by tourist food (spaghetti bolognaise is always a bad sign). Come and see it now before it changes anymore.

Silk is everywhere. Very little of it is made in Laos. Most of it is from China. Nonetheless, it is lovely and it is very, very cheap. The night market is filled with acres of sameness. If you ask who made it, she will say “I did” … but she didn’t.

But this is not to suggest that the town lacks charm. It is a three street town. The main street runs down the middle of town. The other two run along one of two rivers : the Mekong or the Nahm. It is these side streets that capture the charm of life in Luang Prabang. Tonight we ate at a Lao restaurant along the Mekong … everything came to $16. It was basically a street place, but it was a romantic setting along the river with a wide selection of menu items. Earlier today we wandered along another side street and saw rack after rack of tortilla like items out to dry. We bought a bag and it turns out it is a kind of banana flat bread … lightly sweet and delicious.
Early this morning I awoke to witness one of the morning rituals of this town … the offering of food to the monks. On the whole I would say that the practice is still pretty pure. The faithful gather with fruits or vegetables or rice and when the monks approach with their bowls, they place the food into the bowl. There is a fair collection of tourists who come to watch and for the most part they are respectful. There was also a busload of tourists who came to make offerings to the monks. They were pretty loud as they were waiting, but when the time came, they were respectful of the moment.

I had done the same thing when I was in Chiang Mai. There the practice is more practical and less touristic. The monks carry their bowls mostly as a symbol, but basically they move among the market stalls well before sunrise and return to the Wat with plastic shopping bags filled with yesterday’s produce that has been offered by the market people. I did see one interaction where two women had brought food they had made at home, and they were kneeling in front of the monks as they made their offerings. Offering food to a monk is a way to “make merit.” When done in the proper spirit, it is an act of humility.

Khao soy

Our last night in Chiang Mai we tasted THE typical dish of the north called khao soy. It is a noodle dish with a chicken stock base to which vegetables and spices are added. You make a choice from among various meat combinations, whether you want round or flat noodles and whether you prefer the thicker coconut milk curry broth (quite spicy) or the thinner Yunnanese style broth. It CAN be sloppy to eat, so as a precaution you are outfitted with a bib.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Thai Massage

Our final day in Chiang Mai I had my first Thai massage. The name of the Spa was not some mysterious Asian name … no, it was called Let’s Relax. The woman who massaged me was very well trained, and I got to experience the “real thing.”

I changed into a pair of loose fitting pajamas and was asked to lie on my back. I learned fast that this was NOT about relaxation but about therapeutic pressure. The more you needed the therapy, the more uncomfortable it was. At the same time I did feel my ligaments and tendons becoming more supple and the pressure points were releasing SOMETHING because it hurt less as she applied pressure over time in the same spot.

In my mind’s eye I recalled the teaching panels at Wat Po in Bangkok and trusted that this was eastern wisdom tested over the ages.Despite the fact that you are fully clothed, this is the most intimate massage I have ever had. I felt as though she had crawled into bed with me as she used her body … the scissor pressure of her legs on mine … the weight of her body on my back … to address the pressure points on my body. There was one point when I was lying face down when she laid on top of me like a 100 pound praying mantis with her elbows planted deeply in my lower back and her ankles entwined with mine and just rested her weight there. Then the praying mantis started to move her elbows up my back.

This kind of massage, done by a well trained therapist, is not for the faint of heart. It hurt. It still hurts today. BUT I feel a sense of deep groundedness and release. I would do it again.

The King and I

I don’t know exactly when it started. Maybe I found myself lingering over a 20 Baht note a little too lovingly. But suddenly I realized it … I have a crush on the King. There is something so vulnerable about him with his glasses and his shyness. And the reverse side of the 1,000 baht note where he is wearing the camera … it just makes me swoon.

But then I realized that I am not alone. Everyone loves the King. And, of course his image is everywhere. Every shop has a calendar with his picture. And if you ask people if you can take a picture of THEIR picture of the king they are THRILLED. SO I got all sorts of pictures.

The king when he was a monk

...and shall you be my new romance ... On the clear understanding that this kind of thing can happen ....

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Still composing ...

Some Pictoral Highlights from Saturday in Chiang Mai

We went to the parasol festival outside of town yesterday.

A "parasol painter" asked if I would like a butterfly on my "Tilley" hat.