Back to School: Thai Cooking Class

Friday was one of the most enjoyable days in my travels – cooking class! I’d decided to go with Thai Farm Cooking School since my Lonely Planet guidebook mentioned that class was actually on the farm outside of the city, and the website was good. They didn’t disappoint!

I was picked up in their song-theow and met the other participants: three folks from the US, a lady from Hong Kong, and two young Dutch women. Personalities meshed pretty well, especially when adding our charming young teacher to the mix.

We started out at the market where we learned about the difference between coconut milk and coconut cream, jasmine rice and sticky rice. Then out to the farm where we got to see the plants we would be using. Who knew that turmeric was a root that is shaped a bit like ginger but is – surprise – yellow inside.

First up was making curry paste – easily the most difficult part of the day since you need to use a mortar and pestle. I don’t think I minced my ingredients finely enough, or I’m a weakling when it comes to blending in by hand!

After the chili paste was ready, we moved on to Tom Yum soup and chicken with hot basil so we could eat something.

The afternoon continued with the green curry and pad thai, wrapping up with mango and sticky rice. (I should note that everyone got to choose what fish they made per “course” and I’ve just listed what I picked. Others chose red curry, for example, for the curry course.)


I had an amazing day, and my pad thai looked good enough that the instructor asked for me to send a photo if I’d taken one!

Lots More Wats: Chiang Mai

I arrived at the bus station in Chiang Mai and took a tuk-tuk to my hotel. It’s the first time I’ve ridden in a tuk-tuk that actually makes the sound for which they were named!

Once safely arrived, I had much of the late afternoon free, so I decided to walk to the old city and take a leisurely walk around. Chiang Mai is essentially Thailand’s capital to the north: an ancient city filled with wats (over 300 I think I’ve read). Just walking to the northern gate of the old city, I passed two or three. They are quite impressively beautiful, with gables in jewel tones highlighted with gold.
Chiang Mai wat

Another Wat passed on my way into the moated old city:
image

Chiang Mai has a very specific feel. The old city felt a little like Kyoto with its narrow winding streets and mix of old and new, although it has many more new(ish) buildings. Newish compared to traditional Kyoto buildings, anyway! What struck me immediately, though, was how many westerners were around, backpackers and expats alike. Several restaurants advertised full English breakfast fry-ups and there are an astounding number of secondhand bookstores primarily specializing in English language books. One other thing I noticed, which detracts from the atmosphere, is the number of older western men with younger Thai women. It wasn’t as bad as I’d read – the women weren’t on the whole very young (I’d say most were in their twenties). I’m not judging relationships with big age disparities as I know several couples back home with age disparities and great marriages. The dynamic seems very different here, however, more on the mail-order Russian bride scheme of things.

The next day, fortified by a good night’s sleep, I headed in to orient myself by going to a few museums. First off was the Chiang Mai City Arts and Cultural Center, with engaging displays about the history, geography and traditional jobs and pastimes of Chiang Mai. Apparently Chiang Mai was founded by three kings – the statue in front of the museum reminded me of Yul Brenner in The King and I, so apparently score one for the research done by their costume designers.image

The Chiang Mai Historical Center is right behind the other museum and continues with a detailed discussion of the city’s history. I think I’d have been just as happy skipping this one. Since my feet were hurting after this museum, I grabbed some lunch and then went to the third covered by my museum pass, the Lanna Folklife Museum. This was hands-down my favorite, with a room full of textiles, another of the red and gold painting found on so many wats, another on the region’s different baskets, and so on. It really helped to put a context together for my Wat explorations.

Which I continued after the museum, heading to Wat Chedi Luang and the City Pillar. (There might be another Wat tucked in there too.)

It started pouring, so I ducked into a cafe for some tea and cake and headed out again once the rain had stopped. Here a few more pictures from the day, most from Wat Chiangmun.

Serene Buddhas and an Ancient Capital: Sukhothai

On Sunday, I headed up north, taking the train up to Sukhothai. The Sukhothai Historical Park houses the remnants of the 13th-14th century capital of arguably the first Thai (as opposed to Khmer) kingdom.

The train went to Phitsanolok, about an hour from Sukhothai. The trip was on a two-car special express train – I was rather puzzled to see the train because the car I was in seemed to be the engine! If you looked straight ahead down the middle of the car, you saw a door and the train tracks stretched ahead. I had bought a snack for the train, but surprisingly they served us complimentary cookies and coffee, and them later some curry for lunch.

Train curry!

Train curry!

The scenery was definitely interesting. We passed through Ayuthaya, another ancient capital, and could see tantalizing glimpses from the train tracks. Next we passed through Lopburi, where clustered around a shrine were more monkeys than I’ve ever seen before, in the shrine area, walking to it, in the street. Remember the deer in Nara? Well it’s the monkeys in Lopburi in much the same way.

We passed a lot of water, explaining why traditionally Thai houses are on stilts. We passed lots of those, too. There were many water lilies and more crane-like birds (herons, egrets, don’t know) than I’ve ever seen before. I saw some emaciated cow-like animals that seemed to have a hump (so I’m not sure if they were cows and I could just see bone structure normally hidden on a well-fed cow, or if they were some hybrid). I even saw a water buffalo!

I noticed a Western couple getting off the train at the same time so I asked whether they were going to Sukhothai and if so whether we could go in a group. As we stood looking at a map of Phitsanulok, a couple of guys speaking English joined us and we decided that a tuk-tuk to the bus station made sense. So five of us AND our luggage somehow squeezed into one tuk-tuk and away we went.

We found the bus to Sukhothai pretty easily and sat in the back by the luggage. It was a local bus, so it stopped frequently to let people on and off. A bunch of tiny older women got on, clearly coming back from selling their wares at the market. Our backpacks gradually were surrounded by piles of (probably handmade) baskets, bags of chili peppers, and finally a mesh bag of (live!) frogs. It was a great, if not terribly comfortable, trip.

The humidity in Sukhothai made the Bangkok-like heat feel 10-15 degrees hotter as we trekked to out hotel. (Turns out the first couple I had spoken to were staying at the same hotel.) Luckily, the hotel was beautiful (think teak cabins and beds with mosquito netting and a princessy feel) and, more importantly, had air conditioning. I really needed it after walking around – I’ve never been as sweaty in my entire life as during the few days spent in Sukhothai!

The following day, I set out to explore the center part of the historical part on foot. I started with the museum and then headed into the park. Some of the ruins are little more than that, while others have enough left (or reconstructed) that they are mind-blowingly beautiful. It’s just a bunch of pillars and water and serene Buddhas. I’m not sure whether some of the reconstructed ruins have been overly reconstructed, but it is a UNESCO heritage site and they do tend to be quite picky about that. Anyway, I loved it, despite being taken aback by how manicured the park is.

I had lunch at a noodle shop patronized by several of the pink-shirted park staff (delicious Sukhothai noodles) and then called it a day. I spent the afternoon reading and posting in the blissful air conditioning.

I had planned for two full days in Sukhothai, which let me be very leisurely. I booked a tuk-tuk to the northern part of the Historical Park since it seemed too far to walk in the heat. It was early enough that I beat the crowds, too. The Buddha at Wat Si Chum is beautiful. I’m so glad I didn’t miss that part of the park! My tuk-tuk driver was very sweet, off-roading a bit to get me as close to the monuments as possible. I’d have been fine with keeping our exhaust away from the ruins, but there wasn’t any way to communicate that so I accepted the offering with the spirit with which it was intended. He also picked up a turtle crossing a road so I could hold the poor creature – luckily we passed a later pond so I could set him free again!

It wasn’t even ten when I finished my tuk-tuk tour, so I wrote postcards and then walked a mile or more to the post office. People on the whole are so friendly here – I had some random people wave and yell “hello” to me in Thai and English!

I wrapped up the day with an oil massage. Massage is so cheap here!

During the Wet Season…It Rains

Yes, I know that’s rather a “duh” statement, but nevertheless it must be said. After all, it messed up my plans to visit temples on Friday, since it poured rather than simply rained. The hotel suggested I head to the MBK Shopping Center, and gave me a ride in the hotel tuk-tuk to the BTS station. I wasn’t in the mood to shop (or to carry any purchases around for two months when I was going to return to Bangkok), but I had heard that it had a great food court with essentially street food in a more sanitary environment than the street. (I really want to try some street food but most of the places I’ve seen so far look to have left out the food for a while in the heat.)

The food court really is great, with food from all over Thailand as well as some Chinese and Vietnamese options. (All this without even venturing to the floor below’s touted international food booths.) I put 200 baht on a food card and bought pad thai with glass noodles and mango with sticky rice – and still had money left over at the refund counter! The food was good and cheap enough that I actually went back the next day for some coconut milk curry chicken from southern Thailand.

Pad Thai with glass noodles

Pad Thai with glass noodles

MBK reminded me of the shopping center in Irkutsk – more little booths than shops. It may be a good place to find a tailor, since I saw several. There’s a movie theater there too, and I debated going to see a movie that afternoon. Instead I opted for some Thai massage at the hotel followed by blogging and figuring out my itinerary for the following week or so.

Thai massage is very different from the massages I’ve had in the US. They move your legs and arms all over to stretch them – I haven’t had such good turn out since I did ballet!

The next day, we had sun in the morning, so I hastened to the river to go temple touring while it lasted. I headed first to Wat Pho, home of the Temple of the Reclining Buddha as well as numerous of those bell-shaped structures that I now have learned are called chedi. The chedi were so ornate, it almost felt like being inside a box of cloisonné bells. The Reclining Buddha is enormous – 46 meters, if I remember correctly. It’s also easily the most touristy part of the complex.

After thoroughly exploring the complex, I headed to the ferry that crossed between Wat Pho and Wat Arun. It’s smaller than the Chao Phraya tourist boat and we felt the water’s choppiness much more. We made it across and I headed through the hawkers to the (what looks to me) Khmer-style Temple of the Dawn or Wat Arun. The heat was getting to me pretty badly, so I decided not to climb the ladder-like stairs, but I got my fill of the view from below.

My Hundredth Post Is from Bangkok

These demons look sad to be holding up the building

These demons look sad to be holding up the building

Can’t believe it, but I’m at post number 100! Thanks to everyone who has been reading along as I go on this journey!

Thursday was my first full day in Bangkok, so I felt that I should celebrate by heading to some of the main cannot-miss attractions. There are several of them, but I decided on the Grand Palace as the first. The Grand Palace complex includes the temple complex that houses the Emerald Buddha, so I visited that first. Not that I had much of a choice – the entrance line funnels the mobs into the temple complex as the first point of entry.

I had been worried that heading over to the Grand Palace might be difficult by public transportation, but in fact it’s quite simple. You take the BTS Skytrain to the Saphan Taksin stop by the river, get out and head to the pier following the signs for the Chao Phraya Express Boat. Buy your ticket for this tourist boat run by the transit company (it’s quite affordable) and simply wait for the boat to appear. The Grand Palace is “pier number nine”, so I got to see a bit of the sights of Bangkok from the river on the way. The tourist boats have a guide on each who points out sights. Some are more successfully understood than others, and not just due to the varying levels of accents. The varying microphone quality can’t be easy for them to work with.

First glimpse of the river in Bangkok

First glimpse of the river in Bangkok


The first pier you pass is the Oriental Pier, next to the famed (and pricey) Oriental Hotel that Conrad and Somerset Maugham stayed at, amongst other famous writers. Depending on the state of my finances when I return to Bangkok before heading home, I might go have high tea in the Author’s Wing, the original old building of the hotel. (There are a couple of modern additions that may add to the quality of the rooms but certainly detract from the quality of the ambiance, at least from the river view.) Of course, I’m not sure that I have dressy enough clothes for that – I’m rather one of the hoi polloi right now.

Taking the boat gives you a chance to appreciate the river, seeing sights you otherwise couldn’t see (at least not without a long bus ride). I enjoyed everything except getting river water in my face – it’s not exactly the cleanest water, although I did see living things in it, surprisingly (a crane or similar bird).

Appealing color, don't you think?

Appealing color, don’t you think?


We passed a number of colorful longtail boats. I think these are the boats which go on the canal tours, which sound like fun.

We made it to the pier and exited through a market with some incredible looking street food (and I mean “incredible” in multiple ways – I’m not sure that I’d want to eat all or even most of it, but the variety was astounding!) Once you exit through the market, you can see a great big, white wall that surrounds the palace. Taking our lives in our hands, we crossed. (I say “we” here because I always try to cross with a tour group. They hold up traffic so nicely, you see!) Signs posted along the wall warn of the scams of “wily strangers”. Apparently it’s quite common for someone to try to tell you the site is closed for the day and then to take you on either a gem selling scam or simply a shopping-and-the-driver-gets-commissions scam.

With all the tour groups around, I didn’t notice any wily strangers. I did manage to get into the site, despite the mobs of people.

Just a hint of the mob at the Grand Palace...

Just a hint of the mob at the Grand Palace…

The entrance is stunning, surrounded by these two-storey high statues of what I assume are some kind of guardian.

I wandered through the temple complex, seeing the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The Buddha is jade, I believe, not really emerald, and spent some time in its history in Laos when Thailand had a king of Laotian origin who returned to Laos. From my guidebook reading, I think the Laotians are still quite bitter the Thais took it back, so I may hear some more of the tale from a Laotian part of view when I get there.

The heat and humidity were pretty bad, so I was happy to take advantage of a stand selling actual mango juice (as opposed to mango nectar), which I haven’t had in years.

Real mango juice, not mango nectar!

Real mango juice, not mango nectar!


I then wandered through the Grand Palace courtyard, admiring various buildings.

It was starting to drizzle towards the end, so I popped into the Queen Sirikit Textile Museum, which is also part of the Grand Palace complex. There are some beautiful examples of Thai traditional dress in there. Apparently “modern traditional dress” was invented by the queen and her advisors in the late 1950s in preparation for the royal State visit to Europe and the US in 1960. Thai dress became heavily influenced by Western clothing in the 19th century, so traditional court dress no longer existed.

I spent a long time in the palace complex and museums, so was more than ready for lunch when I exited. I decided to head to the National Museum, which I wanted to see and which was supposed to have a decent restaurant. I had my first real Thai meal for the whopping price of 45 baht ($1.50)!

First Thai food. Mmm chili!

First Thai food. Mmm chili!

I then wandered around the museum, which was actually free because the 19th was apparently national museum day!

The National Museum is this really interesting hodgepodge of items, from a former queen’s dollhouse to Buddhas from the Sukhothai period to ornate bookcases and a life-sized model elephant. It was a great way to kill the rest of the afternoon.

Beware of Wily Strangers: Bangkok

This sign greeted me as I walked along the perimeter wall around the Grand Palace complex in Bangkok yesterday. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Monday night, I set out for Southeast Asia. First stop, Bangkok, arriving Wednesday morning since I got to cross the international date line!

I was flying Etihad Airlines, the official airline of the UAE, and had no idea what to expect since online reviews were so split. I found the flight from Washington, DC to Abu Dhabi to have exceptional service. (The flight attendants actually kept the coach bathroom clean and with the end of the roll of toilet paper folded into a little triangle, if you can believe it!) Best yet was the fact that the back of the plane was empty – a woman I started chatting with while boarding gave me the heads-up that I should try to move to the back, and I am very grateful for the advice. I ended up sitting by myself in a middle three-seater row, which meant that I could lie down and actually…sleep! It’s amazing what sleeping on a plane will do for preventing jet lag. The flight from Abu Dhabi to Bangkok was more crowded, so not as comfortable. Oh well, I got to catch up on the latest Star Trek movie, which I had been wanting to see for a while, so all was not lost!

Bangkok’s airport is fairly confusing, with multiple immigration entry points. Inexplicably we got herded to number 4, although our baggage was coming in on a carousel closer to a different immigration line. I went through pretty quickly, picked up my bags, and headed out to the taxi line. The same lady who had given me such good advice on moving to the back of the plane recommended that I take a taxi instead of the Airport Express train, since a cab wouldn’t cost much more and with the train I’d need to change multiple times and go up and down stairs. Well, people can’t always be right! I rather regret not taking the train in, despite the stairs, since I have a backpack to make stairs easy. (I’ve noticed in the couple of days I’ve been here in Bangkok that it doesn’t seem very accessible – the BTS Skytrain is very convenient, but I haven’t seen any elevators.) The nice lady was wrong about a taxi being cheap, perhaps because she inexplicably didn’t account for the traffic jams that Bangkok is notorious for. My cab from the airport cost almost $40, pretty steep in a country where so much is so very cheap.

I must admit that when I got into the cab, I was pretty sure I was getting scammed. My driver insisted on taking the paper ticket that they had given me when they assigned me a cab, and I thought that was the one piece of paper that was the rider’s proof of destination in order to prevent a scam. I sat there worried – and then philosophical – that I was going to be scammed, but I think I overreacted. I don’t know whether my driver took the most direct route or not, but I rather think he did. He pointed out where the airport train went. He told me to take it going back, because it would be much faster and cheaper. And he didn’t charge me the full, official airport charge of 50 baht, either. He seemed very surprised and grateful when I then gave him a 100 baht tip (about 10%).

I’m staying at the Courtyard Marriott since I have some Marriott points left (surprisingly, after using them all over the world this year!). I know it’s not the most atmospheric Thai hotel, but it’s very nice and just what I need to get over any jet lag and get acclimatized. It’s actually rather amusing being at breakfast and seeing the business-type folks in the business lounge, and knowing that I don’t have to work. And fresh guava juice at breakfast is a definite plus!

The hotel let me check in very early, so I spent a little time researching what I wanted to do on Wednesday (nothing too strenuous!) and then headed out. Since I’m only a few blocks from the Erawan Shrine, I headed there first. It’s a shrine on the street corner by the (extremely) high class Erawan Shopping Center. The shrine was built to reverse bad karma at the Erawan Hotel (and it’s apparently worked). A lot of people come to pray at the Hindu shrine, and there are Thai dancers there who are hired by the devout who have had a prayer answered. I sat for a little while, taking in the incense, the dancers and the devout, before moving on.

The devout in front of the Erawan Shrine, Bangkok

The devout in front of the Erawan Shrine, Bangkok

Incense at the Erawan Shrine

Incense at the Erawan Shrine

Next up was a search for an ATM, which I found in a mall. I checked the Erawan Mall first. It’s the first time I’ve seen as exclusive as Givenchy in a mall! However, no luck on an ATM, so I moved on to the one across the street, where I had better success.

I then went to the Jim Thompson House Museum. Jim Thompson was an American who first came to Thailand in WWII in his position with the OSS. He loved it so much that he moved here after the war, becoming fascinated in Thai handmade silk. He founded a business to bring Thai silks to the West – Jim Thompson Silk is now one of the best known names in the industry. As I learned during the tour of his house, his silks were used for the costumes in The King and I. I guess once Hollywood knows you, the rest of the world does, too!

Tours leave every 20 minutes or so, so I wandered around the garden for a little while and then sat on a bench to wait. The heat and, more importantly, the humidity, are taking some getting used to! The museum consists of his house (seven traditional Thai houses knocked together to form one big, semi-traditional house) along with a couple of smaller houses and his garden. Mr. Thompson collected beautiful Thai antiques, so I got to see numerous Buddha statues, some beautiful porcelain, and the houses themselves, made of beautiful dark wood. Thai houses are traditionally on stilts to avoid flooding and bases are wider than the tops of the houses to give better structural support.

After Jim Thompson’s House Museum, I was ready to head back to the air conditioning of the hotel. I was planning to pack in a full tourist day on Thursday, heading out to the Grand Palace (and being told to beware of wily strangers). And now that you’re hooked, I’ll tell you more tomorrow. See, I can be wily, too.

What’s next?

Well, my three weeks of silence (oops!) were due to my being back in the States, getting ready for my third, and last, two month adventure. I’m heading off to Southeast Asia next week, so will be pretty silent until I have safely arrived…and perhaps at least somewhat recovered from jet lag. Stay tuned for some fantastic times in Thailand!