Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Yes, we're still alive!

Sorry we haven't been writing, but between me being sick twice and being in the care of a protective mother in Hanoi for 5 days, we haven't had much time to update the blog. We're really behind now and we probably won't catch up before we come home. Expect updates to be sparse at best for the rest of our trip. Don't worry, we'll catch you all up when we get back.

Sunday, February 11, 2007


We decided to stop at Phrae on our way back south from Chiang Rai and we aren't sorry about our decision to take a different route. Phrae was another small, manageable city surrounded by city walls and seeming to specialize in copy centers and computer stores. Our place for the night was the first real hotel that we have stayed in. We were able to determine this by the small foyer between the door to our room and the actual bedroom as pretty much every American hotel has. The most amazing thing about the room was the way the lights worked. To turn them on, the magnetic key fob needed to be inserted into a slot next to the light switches. Our hotel was just outside the city walls and we arrived there late enough for the area to seem dead so we waited until the next morning to venture out.

We decided to see some of the city's attractions and headed for the small morning market. The market contained mostly produce and meat rather than prepared food so we bought some fruit and ate some noodles elsewhere instead. The small shop charged us 12.5 baht each for our bowls which was the first time we were ever charged half of a baht for anything. We continued to walk to the Vongburi house, a teakwood building that was the former home of Phrae's last prince. A nice woman gave us a quick tour of the many rooms and artifacts despite the little English she spoke.

We then stopped at another example of teakwood architecture which we walked through on our own.

Next we walked to the bus station and, after some confusion with translation, we chartered a songtow to Phae Muang Phi, meaning city of ghosts. The forest park contains unique rock formations often characterized as mushroom-like. They were different from anything I have seen before, so I took lots of photos.

Unfortunately few of the signs were written in English leaving us with many questions. We had time to hike down the paths surrounding the formations and spotted many trees coated in lines of mud created by termites.

When we tired of exploring the park, we returned to the city to explore again. The area is known for their indigo-dyed clothing, in addition to the teakwood, so we each bought a shirt from this nice Indian couple who spoke very good English.

The man, who had lived in Thailand all his life, told us of his plans to send his daughter to the U.S. as an engineer and where to go for the best trekking in Thailand. Because of his recommendations, we decided to travel to Nan before heading to Loei in northeastern Thailand. The next morning we packed our bags and set out for Nan with plans for adventure.

Food in Chiang Mai

Probably my favorite restaurant that we have eaten at so far is Heuan Phen in Chiang Mai. This place has more atmosphere than any other restaurant that we have been to. There was nice wooden furniture and wooden antiques and plants all around. Their specialty is northern Thai food which is served with sticky rice which is meant to be dipped into a dish's sauce. We had been anxious to try banana flower so we ordered a pork and and banana flower soup and also a grilled eggplant salad. The pork broth was simple but delicious and was more bland than other Thai soups that we have tried. We dipped balls of sticky rice, served in straw boxes to keep from drying out, into it.

The salad was also excellent with small pieces of grilled green eggplant. As we were eating, we noticed another list of appetizers on our table and spotted fried, stuffed bamboo shoots. They were greasy and hot but great too. Each of the three shoots were filled with pork and covered in like flakes of breading.

After all of that we were too stuffed to think about trying dessert.

Another Chiang Mai specialty is a bowl of noodles called Khao Sawy. Although it is a well-known dish, we had a hard time finding a place that actually served it. Our search was worth it and we finally found them near Chiang Mai's mosque as it is originally a Thai Muslim dish. The noodles are similar to baa mii (egg noodles) but thick and chewy and come served in a rich curry broth. They are served with crispy fried noodles on top and with lime, raw sliced shallots, and pickled cabbage on the side. Khao Sawy commonly contains chicken or pork and ours came with chicken. The broth turned out to be much sweeter than I expected so I added lots of lime, but it was very flavorful without the addition and the noodles were a great texture.

Also in Chiang Mai, we had a variation on Sukothai style noodles which we had missed out on while in Sukothai. They are served with all sorts of delicious sides including green beans, pickled cabbage, pork rinds, coriander, peanuts, green onions, and chilis. I liked these even better than Khao Sawy partly because the woman who served them to us was very friendly.

Okay, while I am on the topic I might as well tell you about one of my favorite types of noodles, baa-mii, even though they are not specific to the north. As much as I love rice noodles, these fresh thin egg noodles are wonderful in soup. What makes them even better is that they are often served with small dumplings made with a similar egg wrapper. These dumplings contain just a small circle of meat with the wrapper folded up around it. They also come with pieces of morning glory and what is called red pork in Thailand but what I would call cha-siu. These thin pork slices are tender and flavorful. The broth is slightly sweet and fragrant. We had these noodles for the first time in Sukothai when we went out of a late-night snack. Although we had already eaten noodles twice that day, we couldn't pass up this vendor whose tables were packed with happy customers.

I hope this catches you up on northern foods for a while.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Updated Finally!

We finally got a chance to finish the Chiang Mai entry, so scroll down and check it out. We also added pictures to the Bangkok entry a while ago and did some editing of our other posts. Thanks for reading.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Chiang Saen

The next morning we went on what we thought would be a day trip to Chiang Saen and the Golden Triangle. The Golden Triangle is the area where the Thai, Laotian, and Burmese borders meet, and it's most famous (or rather infamous) for its history of opium production.

After getting off the bus in Chiang Saen, we walked 2 kilometers to a guest house that rented out bikes (it was only 10 km to the actual Golden Triangle area), but they were all out of bikes. Slightly annoyed, and getting hungry, we waited for one of the infrequent songtaos to take us the rest of the way. We got some pad si ew and stir-fried morning glory and walked about 2 more kilometers to the Hall of Opium. This was a top-notch museum. Everything was translated to English, and it had great modern architecture and good exhibit design. It even had a super fancy introduction video that showed the location of all the fire exits. The exhibit was really informative--did you know it was the British that introduced opium smoking to the Chinese and not the other way around?

After the museum, we walked around Sop Ruak, the town that has made itself the Golden Triangle. It was less than spectacular. There was a lot of touristy photo opportunity type stuff.

This fat Buddha was kind of neat.

You put coins in a funnel and they rolled down a ramp into his belly.

We got back to Chiang Saen and it was already pretty late. We were a little worried about missing our bus back to Chiang Rai, but I really wanted to see some of the ruins there because they seemed very different from the Sukkothai and Ayuthaya period ruins we had seen before. We walked down to some ruins and on the way back, while arguing over whether we should wait on the street for the bus, or walk back to the main bus stop, we missed the last bus.

After some crying, we made it to a guest house where we cried some more. That night, this bowl of noodles cheered us up.

We pointed to a bowl of pork blood and the vendor motioned whit his hand that he would leave it out for us. "No! Yes! We want that! Good! Dii! Arawy arawy!" He looked at us like "Really? OK..." I know it sounds gross, but pork blood makes the broth so much better. You really should try it if you ever have the opportunity. I hear some Pho places have the option of pork blood in the broth.

After those noodles and a bowl of soy milk, we had forgotten all our troubles.

Chiang Rai

Chiang Rai was a good city. It seemed to attract younger tourists than Chiang Mai and definitely seemed to attract more hippies. This is probably because one of the main attractions here is trekking. There are a lot of hill tribe villages in the area and it is quite popular to visit them on 2 or 3 day treks by hiking, boating, elephant riding, or a combination thereof.

We stayed at a very quiet guesthouse called Boonbundan and there was this awesome rasta Thai dude selling handmade leather crafts down the street. His name was At and when we told him we were from California, he invited us to toss around the Frisbee sometime after dark when the traffic would die down.

Our first stop in Chiang Rai was a really great cultural museum called Hill Tribe Museum and Education Center run by Population and Community Development Association (PDA). In addition to the collection of artifacts and a great time line about the history of opium they had a narrated powerpoint presentation and a video about the different hill tribes in the province and how they were impacted by tourism. The PDA also ran culturally sensitive treks from an office there and we were pretty excited to finally find a trek we felt good about. We especially wanted to visit a village called Ban Lorcha that is the only community supported hill tribe tourism operation in Thailand. That means that the guides are people from that village and all the money goes to the village. This means you get a more genuine educational experience, and that you're not supporting begging or the near slavery of some of the other hill tribe tourist traps (for example, all the long neck Karen in Thailand are physically imported and forced to live in "rustic" settings as tourist attractions). Unfortunately, none of the treks they were booking looked interesting to us, and none of them visited that village, so we passed on the trekking.

Downstairs was a branch of the restaurant called "Cabbages and Condoms."

The profits of this restaurant go toward making condoms as easy to find as cabbages in Thailand. It was here that we had one of the most delicious dishes I've had so far in Thailand (Lyndsay was not nearly excited as me for some reason). It was hor mok served in a young coconut.

Hor mok is a souffle-like seafood curry usually made with fish and served in a banana leaf packet. This one featured squid, shrimp, and big delicious fish balls. Oh, and the young coconut meat had been scraped out and cooked in the hor mok. My mouth is watering thinking about it again. We also had some little fried chicken nuggets wrapped in pandan leaves. They were very good but a little fatty.

That night we went to the night bazaar, which is similar to the one in Chiang Mai, except with much more unique souvenirs. We were still pretty full from the hor mok so we just got a sausage on a stick. The sausage I picked turned out to be this one they make by mixing ground pork with lots of garlic and lime juice and wrapping it in a banana leaf packet. This packet is then left out to sit for something like 3 days and gets "cooked" by the acid in the lime juice. Don't worry, this one was grilled in addition to its lime juice cooking.

Later we got the spiciest som tam (papaya salad) we've had so far. The cook held out a handful of chillies and we shook out heads until she was only holding three. One and a half chillies per person was enough to make our mouths burn painfully.

On our way back to our hotel we stopped for dessert and ran into Aaron Mandel, a fellow Whitman graduate in our class. We were not too surprised to run into him since we knew he and a bunch of his friends were going to be traveling in Thailand at some point, although we though they had already returned by then. Turns out they had already been traveling for three months and are still planning to visit Lao and Vietnam (they'll be in Hanoi at the same time as us). Here is their travel blog.

Aaron told us lots of good stories about a guesthouse named Mr. Whisky run by an alcoholic with a cat named "Meow." We also heard good stories about Adam Sachs (another Whittie) including his week-long Buddhist retreat, him crashing a motorcycle into a parked tuk tuk, and him falling out of the bed of a pickup truck.

They all happened to be staying at the same guesthouse as us, but no one was in their room when we checked before going to sleep. Oh, and on our way home, we saw that At had lost his Frisbee on the roof, so we didn't get to play with him.


This popular dessert deserved its own short entry. Roti vendors are usually seen after dark near night markets and bazaars. Tourists seem to all like them, so they are also common in other touristy areas. Oh, we've also noticed that Muslims seem to have a corner on the roti market. OK, on to the juicy (and buttery) details!

Most people that have eaten at an Indian restaurant know roti as a whole wheat, pan fried, flat bread. In Thailand, roti is not nearly as healthy. I've outlined the process of making the most "standard" type of roti below. We may post a video later.

Step 1: The vendor puts some oil in the very flat wok used to cook the roti.

Step 2: He grabs a ball of dough that has been soaking in oil and makes the dough into a very thin pancake with some fancy flicks of the wrist. He then trows this on the wok.

Step 3: A banana gets sliced up and mixed up with an egg. Then this filling gets poured on top of the sizzling pancake.

Step 4: He folds up the pancake into a square packet and flips it to cook on the other side. At this point about a Tbsp of yellow butter gets thrown in the wok.

Step 5: Once the roti is cooked it gets cut into squares and topped with sugar and sweetened condensed milk, and sometimes even chocolate.

Step 6: Eat!

Oil, butter, egg, sugar, and condensed milk! This snack is not to be eaten alone unless you plan for it to be a meal. Lyndsay and I are usually finished off for the night after sharing one.

Chiang Mai

We did so much in Chiang Mai that I will break it up by day and tell about only the highlights. But first, I will describe the city itself. We had expected it to be large and overwhelming like Bangkok, but it was very manageable. The main part of the city is square and still surrounded by old brick walls which prevented us from ever getting too lost. We were also able to walk to all of the sights that we visited within the city. The overall atmosphere was much nicer than in Bangkok.

Almost every night after returning from our day's adventures we visited Chiang Mai's night markets. Chiang Mai has a popular night bazaar which was not for us. It was full of stands all selling the same souvenirs like lighters, knives, elephant t-shirts, and crafts supposedly made by hill tribes. The bazaar had some food but it was mostly beer snacks like spring rolls or french fries. Eventually we discovered a market north of the bazaar called Warorot. Although our book claimed that it was mainly a morning market, it was still active at night. There, we found plenty of food stands and lots of clothing with poorly-translated English.

Day 1
Baan Thai Cooking School


Our class was comprised of a french couple with moderate English skills, a danish girl named Denise who spoke near perfect English, and a Spaniard named Diego who spoke very little English.

Then or course there was Lyndsay and I and our instructor, Boom. Boom means dimples in Thai. Boom was very nice and spoke English very well which gave us a chance to ask her about fruits and veggies we were curious about when we walked to the market to shop for ingredients. She also let us choose 2 sweets and 3 fruits from the market to try as a class. We decided on black sticky rice with egg custard, banana leaf packets of sweet rice and banana, mangosteen (no one but us had tried it yet!), dragon fruit, and jackfruit. She taught us about different veggies and herbs as well as noodles and rice.

When we returned to our classroom, we prepared a Thai welcome snack.

To make the snack, you take a leaf (something related to the black pepper plant) and fold it into a cone. Then you put a piece of shallot, a piece of ginger, a dried shrimp, some toasted coconut, ground peanut, and a piece of lime with the peel in. Then you top it with some sauce made of all the same ingredients minus the lime and plus plenty of palm sugar. Then you pop the whole thing in your mouth and enjoy. Very delicious.

We then got a chance to try some of the fruits and sweets.

Lyndsay and I were the only pair that ate our whole plate of snacks. They threw away so much tasty stuff! Thank god they saved the jackfruit for the whole meal. Dragon fruit was pretty good. It's a little like a kiwi, but not as tart and a little softer in texture. The texture was a little like a cantaloupe.

The first thing we cooked was chicken with fried cashews. We did all the preparation on the floor using tamarind wood chopping blocks and small cleavers.

The meat in the dishes was always prepared for us, so we just had to chop up the veggies. Lyndsay and I both agree that Thai garlic is really great. They are much smaller cloves than the garlic we get in America, but you can eat the peel because it's so thin so you don't have to peel them. This dish also included fresh jelly mushrooms and fresh baby corn, which were both delicious and both things I've never had fresh. The whole dish was really easy to prepare and was delicious.

After eating the cashew chicken we prepared ingredients for tom kha kai, a coconut milk soup and one of my favorite Thai dishes. We prepared yam woonsen (glass noodle salad) at the same time because it had many similar ingredients. The tom kha had fresh oyster mushrooms in it and the yam woonsen had more jelly mushrooms--this time uncooked.

After eating our second course (third if you count the snacks) we took a break to rest and digest. We took this time to chat with our classmates about Thailand. Poor Diego got left out a lot because he didn't really understand us most of the time.

Our next challenge was making namphrik gaeng phet--red curry paste. We divided up the ingredients among the classmates to be minced finely before being put in the mortar and pestle. Lyndsay chopped shallots and I chopped kra-chai, or wild ginger. The others chopped up lemon grass, garlic, galangal, coriander root, and kaffir lime peel. Boom dealt with the soaked dried chillies. Everyone took turns pounding our paste in the mortar and pestle.

We used the curry paste to make red curry with chicken and delicious fried fish cakes. We ate our curry over rice and a kind of noodle called khanom jinn which is made with slightly fermented sticky rice. The khanom jinn was my request.

We had some jackfruit for dessert and took of with Denise toward Wat Chedi Luang.
You can see some more pictures of our cooking class here.

Wat Chedi Luang was super cool. We went because a young monk had talked with us the night before after I offered him the rest of my fried grasshoppers.

They were good, but too oily. He told us monks weren't allowed to eat after noon, and then he just kept talking to us. He invited us to the wat because it had a program called Monk Chat, where monks like himself got an opportunity to practice English and you could ask them questions about Buddhism, Thailand, or whatever. He said it also had a beautiful chedi. He was right about that!

This chedi was unlike any other we had seen before in Thailand. It was built in the Lana style, which is older than Ayuthaya or Sukkothai and its most notable feature was the four naga staircases.

At the top of each staircase there was a Buddha sitting under a bodhi tree. We couldn't go up the stairs because the chedi was being restored. If you're planning on going to Chiang Mai, do not miss this wat.

Day 2
Royal Flora Ratchaphruek 2006


This exposition was organized by His Majesty the King. We were expecting it to be a collection of exotic and native plants that were exciting or rare. Like a lot of things in Thailand, there was a lot of flare, but not much in the way of content. Like other royal projects, for example the hall of opium we mention in the Chaing Saen entry, it was oddly well organized and almost out of place in Thailand. It was set up almost like an amusement park, with trams going from place to place, and fancy trashcans that looked like logs.

The garden design was really the highlight and we did learn about some pretty cool plants. Our favorite was a plant called miracle berry. When you eat one of its somewhat tasteless fruits, it numbs your sour taste buds for several hours so everything you eat tastes sweet! We did not get to try it because there were no fruits on the tree. There was a bonsai competition, a houseplant competition, a garden design competition, and various orchid competitions. There was also a rubber tree forest, a tropical greenhouse, a fruit exhibit, an insect exhibit and butterfly hall, and gardens representing around 20 different countries. There was a temperate greenhouse, which is something you don't often find in the US. There were tulips growing here and the Thais were all super excited about them. Everyone was practically lined up to take pictures.

At the rubber tree forest, we watched a guy making rubber balloons by hand and we got this one that looks like an apple.

At the entry there was a bronze bodhi tree for the king.

You could make a donation to buy a leaf to hang on it, and at the end of the event they melted down all the leaves to cast a Buddha in his honor. We saw clips of the casting on TV. There was also a spectacular palace at the center built for the king. The interior walls had murals depicting the king helping farmers and visiting remote villages.

This palace seemed to be the main attraction for the Thai visitors.

Overall the experience was good but we decided the place was a little weird.

Day 3
Doi Sutep


To get to Wat Phra That Doi Sutep, a famous temple outside of Chiang Mai, we caught a songtow. The ride up the mountain was one of the best deals we have gotten from a songtow driver because it was scenic and mostly uphill. We went to see the three-hundred step naga (serpent) staircase. Later, we realized that the naga staircase is common among northern Thai wats.

One of the other unique things about the wat is its golden umbrellas. Eric walked around the golden chedi ringing the bells.

After visiting the temple, we explored the road around the mountain to see if we could find some hiking paths without having to pay the fee to enter the national park below. We failed but ended up enjoying young coconuts and feeding pieces of the coconut flesh to some chickens.

We also stumbled upon the orchid jade factory which had large touristy signs. They gave us glasses of cold tea, had us watch a video, took us on a quick tour, and then watched us as we examined all of the jade they had for sale. We had fun watching people sculpt the jade and learning about the different colors and qualities of the stone. There were plenty of food and souvenir vendors along the road, but after trying some very starchy grilled bananas we decided to give up on hiking and returned by songtow to Chiang Mai.

Day 4
Doi Inthanon


Eric and I came to Thailand hoping to visit a few of the national parks, but we had not realized how difficult finding transportation to them can be. Because I didn't want to try to figure out how to get to Doi Inthanon, one of Thailand's most well-known, we booked a tour to the park. The best part of the trip may have been the people we met rather than what we saw. Our group included 5 Thais and 2 Australians. One of the Thai women had studied at Cal State Long Beach so she talked to me for a while about California and Thailand. The one Thai man in the group talked more than anyone I have ever seen. Our entire time in the van and all throught lunch he talked loudly and monotonously without any of his family seeming to respond. Once in a while we caught English words like Philipino, stem cell research, and samurai. The Australians were funny, both wearing shorts, tank tops, and silly sunglasses to one of the coldest places in Thailand. One of them asked the guide questions like "Why do people love the king so much?" and "Is this village very poor?" Our guide Tony tried hard to make jokes and to hold together the odd group.

Unfortunately we were unable to hike around the park. We stopped off to see a waterfall then to take a photo in front of a sign that said "highest spot in Thailand."

We then visited the two royal pagodas, one for the king and one for the queen.

They are surrounded by beautiful gardens filled with flowers rare in Thailand but common to us like pansies, snap dragons, fuscias, and California poppies.

The highlights of the day included a catapillar sighting and our lunch which included generous portions of tom kha (coconut milk soup), fried fish, stir-fried vegetables, omlettes, rice, and fresh fruit