Thai Cooking Lesson

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One activity many visitors to Thailand participate in is a cooking class. It is not that cooking a Thai dish is difficult – rather the opposite – it is more an opportunity to discover the joy of using fresh ingredients as well as learning about them, sharing an outdoor cooking experience and enjoying a wonderful meal with other travellers, all under the tutelage of a knowledgeable cook or chef. I shared the experience with my daughter, who had already done one class but agreed to go with me, as well as three others. We had a fun evening, our hostess, who runs We Cook – Thai Home Garden Cooking school@facebook.com, in Chiang Mai, was hilarious and knowledgeable.

 

First on our journey to Thai cooking, find a parking spot to go shopping for ingredients at a market. Everything we needed was available at this market: cilantro, various ginger roots, chillies of varying heat, fresh turmeric, lime, pea eggplant, tamarind! Some of these I have only found ground so I was already quite excited. In addition to the ingredients we were searching for there were many types of cooked fish, a bounty of vegetables: fresh, deep fried, pickled, chilli infused, barbecued, and soup form. Meat too, probably not pickled but otherwise sold in many other ways if one did not want to just take away a choice selection to cook at home. At one point my daughter disappeared – she had gone off to buy a pair of shoes, not only was food to feast on available for purchase.

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Once our groceries were purchased we piled into a Songthaew for the ride to the home of our chef. The baskets of food were whisked away by an assistant, we were invited to remove our shoes and enter the home for some cold water, a bit of relaxation and conversation, before beginning our class. This was a great way to get to know each other. We were a party of a married couple and three solo, female travellers. Four countries were represented. This is what travel should include, meeting people from where we go as well as from other countries. As the world becomes less isolated, therefore more a global village, there is still a glimmer of hope for overcoming divisiveness. (Every once in a while this topi was discussed while I was on my trip)

 

It was time to cook! Two currys, green and red, to go with our curry selections: mine menu included Penang Curry with Chicken, Khao Soi (Chiang Mai Noodle) – I was introduced to this dish my first night in Thailand and loved it – Tom Kaa Gai (soup), Som Tam (papaya salad), Pad Thai (how could I not?), and Mango Sticky Rice for the end of the meal.
We learned that the curry pastes are nearly always made fresh every day! I was looking forward to trying this at home. We were in for some gastronomical pleasure, new flavours, tasting, smells, cooking styles. By the end of a fun evening I still could not decide which dish was my favourite.

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Penang Curry was such an easy dish once the curry paste was done – best of all we controlled the level of heat from chillies in our dishes, I used to love spicy food, still do other than the tendency to go into coughing fits. This dish was an introduction to pea eggplant, tiny, round vegetable with a subtle flavour compared to the long Asian eggplant or the larger European one. I am also a fan of coconut cream and peanuts, I was extremely pleased with how is dish turned out.

Khan Soi noodles, this dish is special for its egg noodles in a rich sauce with a topping of deep fried noodles- somehow the combination of the two works marvels for the palate. A spritz of lime, a side serving of pickled cabbage, provides a delicious, shared (well, maybe) side serving or a filling lunch.

Chicken in Coconut Milk soup (Tom Kaa Gai), meant more coconut milk, so bad for me yet so marvellous. This was my introduction to galangal, a member of the ginger root family, a lighter flavour from what most of us are used to. A light soup, perfect for beginning the meal.

Papaya salad, this should be an easy dish but too often is poorly flavoured. This is when a chef might shout out, Fresh! Fresh!, Fresh! Then serve fairly soon after it has marinated just a little in the dressing – refreshing, tangy and a little heat.

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Pad Thai. This was the most difficult dish for me to make. It is extremely popular and another one of those dishes that can be a full meal or a side dish. The difficult part was adding the egg, then the rice noodles without letting everything become a congealed mess. Other than needing a gas stovetop I discovered the importance of balancing my (miniature) work slightly in its side and constantly mixing.

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The dessert was easy as the sticky rice was already cooked – it takes a while to make. I love mangos, there was no question about which dessert I would choose when even more coconut milk was in the offering as well as sticky rice – a favourite for me in China – along with delectable mango.

We shared dishes, we laughed, we ate, oh my did we eat. My daughter had warned me that I would put on weight in Thailand, that night she was pretty close to the truth. Best of all, at the end of the evening, all dishes had been whisked away, all we had to do was say a fond farewell to our hostess, climb aboard a Songthaew – a little more difficult perhaps – and enjoy the evening lights of Chiang Mai on the way back to our respective accommodations.

Chiang Rai: a whirl of a ride

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After two nights of languishing in our elevated digs we were sad to check out. The huge bathtub was a popular item for my daughter, I think she took three bubble baths. Sometimes one just has to spend a little more to enjoy a bit of the good life. By 11:00 we said a sad farewell, grabbed a tuk tuk and headed for the bus station to purchase tickets to Chiang Rai. We were given the privilege of seats together – at the back of the bus. The trip took at least six hours despite having read, and been told, it would take four. Fortunately there was air conditioning and we did make some stops along the way. Some of view were quite stunning and sneak peeks of temples were always interesting. I could not help but wonder how many months would be needed to travel in northern Thailand to visit all the out of way temples as well as the better known, accessible ones.

Our hotel was not close to the old section despite their advertising. Little to choose from for meals, a small restaurant on the premises or Central Plaza – in all the major cities in Thailand, and always far from the centre. We had dinner at the hotel one night, Japanese another, and a later lunch at a nice place on the river the day before we left. Fortunately breakfast was included in our stay and there was enough of a selection to satisfy anyone. Except the coffee was dreadful. (I will write more about places I stayed at, and what I ate in one of my final blogs)

We booked a tour for the following morning to see as many of the sites as possible while not wearing ourselves out trying to do it all on our own. My daughter had already been to several of them on her previous visit – by morning she just wanted to lounge about in the bathtub (she lucked out as we had been upgraded) – so, with a refund that is what she did. I joined four others for a full day of exploring. Of course we visited the White Temple.

Wat Rong Kuhn is a work in progress, started by the well-known Thai artist Ajarn Chalermchai about twenty years ago, and”…maybe in 60 to 90 years after after [his] death will the project be completed.” (Publication of Wat Rong Kuhn) He has complete control of what will be depicted, takes no funds from government nor large donations that might cause unwanted influence. The entry fee is very low, 50 THB, which means everyone contributes. Nice concept. The booklet I did pick up, free, does say there is no fee, I think if someone said they cannot pay that is also fine as the artist clearly stated he wants everyone to be able to visit.

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From a distance the temple appears to be silver, closer inspection it is the most stunning white I have ever seen. Mirror tiles and silvered edgings create a grandeur beyond ancient temples. Everything is sparkling. The grounds are meticulously kept; even the washrooms are a wonder to behold for the cleanliness and rather overstated beauty.

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The main temple is entered from a rather frightening bridge that crosses over a representation of what I would call the River Styx, seems to be a thing for me, with upraised hands, arms, heads reaching towards visitors. Mere words cannot provide enough of the vision now yet alone what is planned. Even many of the fish in the pond at the temple are white. There was a quiet that seemed to be infused in every person that entered, even without notices to remain quiet and respectful. A sweeping sense of wonder seemed to strike many visitors that slowed them down, made people actually look at the murals, sculptures and architecture and think about what they were seeing. I would have loved to spend more time visiting.

I was not happy to visit the Karen village, refused to even go in so sat with some other people who had gone the day before and some tour guides, rather fun hour that mainly consisted of all of us wondering if we should open a small back pack that had been left behind. One guide played out what if it blew up. We offered to let him do the honours while we moved, he did and we did not move. Rather anti climatic, only some clothes.
Then another place I was not pleased to visit, this time it was a temple teeming with monkeys. I do not like monkeys.

Rather than stay where they, the monkeys, were hanging around I thought I would try the 290 stairs to the cave where there was a Buddha. We were warned about what to do if monkeys attacked although they generally did not go up the stairs – I was fine until about half way when I was suddenly alone and slightly out of breath. My brain was saying, what will you do if a monkey comes now? I certainly could not run up nor down. So I turned around and inched my way to the bottom. The other two in our group who went up said there had been no monkeys.

Black Temple. Another well know artist was invited to build this, he invited the artist of the White Temple to help with some of the planning. Definitely more of a northern Thai influence and I do wonder, as I have with other cultures, how so many similarities in some designs do not prove we are not all united. Totems are what draw my attention. The extremely long, dried snake skins laid out on a table, laden down with coins, as well as the gigantic crocodiles, certainly made my wonder if I could ever go trekking in Thailand. The artist was also a collector. There were gigantic to very small baskets, various types of dugouts, drums, furnishings, many skulls o some horned beast and so much more behind doors of smaller temples we could not enter.

 

The Golden Triangle, despite its extreme tourism, was a highlight for the vista. We were standing in Thailand looking out to Myanmar and Laos. China was just up the river. The Mekong River is an important shipping route, including the drug trafficking trade although there is apparently more cracking down on this unsavoury side of trade.
We were then brought to yet another temple (by this time I was neglecting to take photos of names of each Wat) where there were far too many people, I was beginning to be ‘templed out’ when we went a bit off the beaten track and came across a temple that is falling to ruins but still in use. The shape of an stone elephant carving can still be found, worn steps lead to nowhere and timelessness, with a bit of sorrow shrouding the space. A final stop at Wat Pa Sak, (the Teak Forest Monastery) built around 1300, another temple fallen into ruins, with very little left to see of what must have been quite grand if judged by how vast an area it covered. It is difficult to justify walking the grounds when they should be preserved. However, it is also what could help with the preservation – we were the only ones there and it seemed to not always be on the tour route. A wonderful way to see the walls of the original city also.

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We returned one and a half hours late, I was exhausted. Dinner was at a forgettable Japanese place at the mall. (My indifferent daughter had had reception call the tour guide to find out where we were – she claimed she was getting hungry) I believe she revelled in the tiled tub a couple of times while I was on the tour.

The next day we did venture to the old city and ate lunch at a rather nice place called Melt In Your Mouth, overlooking the river. A bit more on that when I talk about food.

Ah Oui, Koh Phi Phi

Three nights planned for Koh Phi Phi. Despite being a rather small sized country, when compared to Canada or China, Thailand has challenges for getting from place to place. We flew out of Chiang Rai to Phuket, paid an exorbitant fare to get to the ‘old city’ (why are there so many old cities in Thailand?) where we would be staying overnight before catching a ferry to Koh Phi Phi. One goal of my daughter was to visit another cat cafe before we left – it was closed for that one day. Closures of places seem to be at the discretion of owners right now. A bit of hit and miss when looking for a meal, or, in my case thread and needles. I did find both.

Other than dinner, a walk around the block, in the rain, then soup needles for breakfast, most of my recollection of Phuket is a blur – perhaps the rain washed everything out. At 12:50 (in other words late) we were picked up to transfer to the ferry. A rather miserable trip over choppy waters – I took Gravol before we even left, my daughter finally gave in and took one before we were out twenty minutes. TIP! Take the bloody Gravol if it appears even a little rough. There were less fortunate passengers.

My first impression of Phi Phi Don was one of horror. Horror at how commercial it is, how many tourists there are, then how expensive everything is. It is an island after all so prices are fixed accordingly. Once we were checked in, bags dropped, stomachs less queasy and had more water (basically always have water nearby) we were ready to explore.

My first day I dabbled my toes in the ocean, there is a beach maybe three minutes down the path from us, we took the requisite photos of sand, water and rocky hills in the background then headed towards the busier, hustle section via the sandy beach. We are fortunate to have two directions from our room, the quiet path to a very quiet beach or, after the Muslim Prayer Room, (not a mosque – that is elsewhere) to the area where the hustling begins to encourage tourists to go on boat cruises before hitting little shops selling basically the same clothing, then restaurants, tattoo parlours, (I was only a little tempted) massage parlours and diving touts.

The latter includes foreigners who, for whatever reason, have decided to make a Koh Phi Phi a temporary residence. Population statistics are most likely skewed. According to Wikipedia and Wikitravel, as of 2013 the population was 2500-3000. 80% are Muslim. It is difficult to believe that the infrastructure of Phi Phi Don (the only populated island, other than park wardens at the National parks, of the six) was basically destroyed by the December 2004 tsunami.

The only way to see the stunning beauty of the islands is to go one of the tours. These range from long boat, 20 passenger speed boats, larger vessels and possibly even sailboats. The cost also varies depending on where you want to go, when you want to go, what you want to do. It was not until my daughter send me a message,from the pier, asking if I wanted to join her on a ‘booze cruise’ that I decided the only way I would see anything other than more people, was to jump at the invitation.

Not cheap, a slight discount for not drinking though, and I was most likely the oldest person aboard. There was one other woman who might have been around my age, and we are practically neighbours in Victoria! I think we were both wondering what we had got ourselves into, I wonder if alcohol makes it easier to do perilous activities.

 

What did we see and do? Monkey Island, wild monkeys, hungry monkeys, swimming monkeys, jumping from cliffs monkeys. Passengers were expected to don life jackets and jump into this madness. I am afraid of monkeys so stayed aboard and took some photos instead. Everyone survived. The cruise director (a very loose term) told us that there had been a ban placed on feeding the monkeys but three years later it appeared the poor creatures were starving. I never did figure out if there is still a ban and authorities just turn the other way or if caught the cruise companies pay a minor fine. Perhaps a little of both.

Scuba diving, no life jackets unless desired, mask and breathing apparatus, no flippers. I started to worry I was becoming a curmudgeon – stayed aboard again. I know my limitations and being sober I wanted to ensure they would not be crossed. It was still relatively early into the ties so too soon for any major drunkenness. I was also beginning to not feel too great – I live on an island but get seasick. They had medication for that. Soon after my daughter and some others were also taking the pills. Worked like a charm.

I cannot recall the name of our next stop, it was a lagoon of some sort, a dormant volcano far off in the distance, turquoise and blue water beneath us, soft wind, warm but not searing sun. Time to put on life jackets, this time like bulky, oversized diapers, and jump in. There were already about five boatloads of people bobbing up and down in the water although our group seemed to be the only one having beers tossed in or drinks provided via paddle board. Did I go in? Of course! I think by that time everyone was positive I would remain dry the whole trip. No bathing suit, just my skort and blouse.

The salt water helps to stay afloat, as does the diaper life jacket although it took some getting used to when my swimming memory wanted me to try swimming to stay above the water. Eventually I allowed my legs to remain vertical, arm ready to adjust direction if I felt I was drifting too far. Eventually two paddle boards were brought out, my daughter and one other passenger took over one and every once in a while I would hang onto the side or end of it. Idyllic hour.

Only once did I have trouble, a slight leg cramp, then I had to get back onto the boat – I was high-fived for success and the cramp worked itself away. It helped that there were crew members always ready to help! I finally told those who were concerned that I did know how to swim and had done so for many years when younger.

Then onto Maya Bay, where ‘The Beach'(Leonardo DiCaprio) was filmed. I had never heard of the movie. We entered from the far side lagoon (at this writing still had not found the name) where anyone crazy enough, and wanting to trek to the beach, would have to jump in the choppy water, swim to a rope net, climb said net, then scramble up to the platform.

To my utter horror I saw my, still seasick, daughter, jump in! I had not seen a crew member go with her and was frantically trying to find her bobbing up and down in the ocean. She was wearing a life vest. To my relief she was with someone – they let her go early because she was sick, except the information did not quite get to a couple of other crew members so they were also quite horrified. Then we were all donning our lifejackets, saying our prayers or whatever, and taking the plunge.

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It is important to remember that even with a life vest on that first hit to the water means going under. Then pop up, roll onto your back and do a frog stroke while maintaining some form of eye and ear contact with others. I am not saying it was easy. However, I made it, only had difficulty once I reached the rope as it was slimy under the water and I had not expected it to be suddenly underfoot.

We gathered our troops and headed to the beach. An hour of frolicking in the sun kissed, turquoise water, walking along the beach, and admiring the cliffs before we had to head back to the boat. It was a beautiful end to an adventurous afternoon. With one more ahead of us to get back to the boat. With a change of the tide we were able to go through the tunnel, or cave as some called it, not as easy as it sounded but, for me, less torturous than the rope net.

Careful placement of feet and hands, a bit of a careful slide down one section (just try doing a careful slide!) then step over a few ropes anchoring the net and pull oneself along the line back to the boat. Except I had the rather good looking Sebastian (French crew member) grab my life vest to pull me to the boat. Perhaps I was looking fatigued? Who am I to complain when a handsome young man wants to rescue me.

Yet Another Temple

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My second full day in Chiang Mai was one of contradictions. We headed to the old city where the old brick walls that once surrounded the city still stand along with some grand, somewhat tipsy, undetermined builds that may have been ramparts, temples or other structures with very thick walls. Everything seemed to have been built of a form of red brick. The compressed state of some of these, to my layperson’s eyes, actually show how well constructed they were. We had a lovely late breakfast/early lunch across from yet another well known temple. One note when travelling with anyone else, they will never be on the same clock as you. (Perhaps a spouse/partner might be different although inside I am sure one of you is seething at the hour/place/food/money at some time during any trip)

Of course I had to check out the temple as well as the teak temple next door. By far my favourite was the ancient Wat Chedi Luong, built around 1400 with its missing pieces, aged and blackened stair guard dragons and overall weathered but not beaten appearance. The famous Jade Buddha was once housed there but fear of earthquakes, after one in the 16th c., meant it was removed and eventually placed in Bangkok. (It is unlikely we will see it as many sites were closed in memory of the King). It was not until we had rounded the third corner that we discovered there had been elephants built into the upper section on all four sides. Sadly there are now only five full elephants and another with its trunk missing.

The teak temple was a simple structure with soaring beams and columns that managed to appear elegant despite their size. The floor is laid with lovely polished golden and green tiles leading to a large golden, sitting Buddha. Everything gleams in this temple when approaching the main entrance. I did not get many photos as there were adherents praying in front of the Buddha or being blessed by a monk sitting quietly to one side. He would respond to a prayer or supplication with his own verses, or possibly chants, then flick a a brush, wetted down with water, over the adherent. The water arced over each in a light spray then dissipated into a mist.

Another privileged time to be present.

Then we made the error of heading back to the little family owned hotel my daughter had been staying at for a few days prior to my arriving. (We were getting quite hot) Short back story, on the night I arrived my daughter accidentally pushed her phone between the bed and the wall. No problem, just move the bed. The bed that is cemented to the floor. The space the phone fell into was extremely thin – as are phones these days. We could not budge the phone nor the bed on our own. Naturally we sought assistance, which meant using some of my precious minutes to call for help as there was not anyone around.

Zip, gone, missing, all alone – except for other guests. After three calls, being hung up on twice, and finally my insisting someone come immediately one of the women who does general chores came. We showed the problem, as well as indicating an alarm would be going off – which it soon did, for the fifth time – and we needed to move rooms or get the phone out. So, three hours later, two staff plus us, the phone was out, slightly scratched case. End of story?

Back to our return. After spending two nights on the extremely hard bed I looked for the wife of the owner (the owner had had surgery the day before – which is why we had so much trouble finding help) to request an extra blanket. She lit into me about so much phoning and now, “complain about bed, you cause so much trouble. Your daughter come, no trouble. You come, all trouble.” I was completely taken aback. I explained it was not my phone that fell, only the one used to call them.

I also said all I wanted was a blanket. This went on for 15 minutes! She finally acquiesced nod had a blanket fetched for me. Then I told my daughter. Within 30 minutes we were packed, reimbursed for the remaining nights and on our way to a rather nice place right next door to a small temple and inside the old city. My daughter did not take too kindly to her mother being yelled at. Which was funny because if I had been on my own I would have been far less pleasant!

Ensconced in a room with a view of a temple right below is soothing. We headed for dinner at the night market. At Rebel Bites, operated by an American and his wife who is from Thailand, we heard the sad news that the King of Thailand had died. After that it was rather surreal when we already knew but many of the Thais were still unaware or just hearing about it. There were spots of laughter, merriment and normal night life along with a slight sombreness in some pockets of the streets as we headed back.

We did eat, I had a pulled pork sandwich, because where else in Thailand might I find one? Then I tried a roti, heaven wrapped up in a thin, thin pancake. Back to our room for the night. Other than Kunming, which was alright, i think it was the first time in a relatively comfortable bed since leaving home.

Oh my, Chiang Mai!

Flight attendants are worth their weight in gold. The flight from Kunming, China to Chiang Mai, a bare 1 1/2 hours, was disturbed by turbulence a few times making for tense periods. Each time we were told to relax, there was nothing to worry about – and, along with muttered prayers, it worked. I arrived, sailed through immigration and was greeted by my daughter. She fairly quickly decided to introduce d me to bargaining for a taxi in Thailand and the Thai Tuk Tuks – we have taken many of those in the past six days.

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Chiang Mai is a city of colour, pace, mayhem and loose structure – buildings, vehicles and people. Golden stupas, white, Jade, glass Buddhas, temples of stone, teak, brick. Greenery mixed in a cascade of purple, pink, white, yellow, orange flowers. Bells, chanting, light banter provide an undercurrent murmur.

Not all the time, just enough to pick it up every once in a while. Of note is how little drivers of any vehicle honk their horns – unless foolish Canadian visitors are unaware of which side of the rode they are on. Vehicles are driven opposite side as in Canada.

English is spoken by many people here, of course in varying degrees of ability, but quite useful for me as I did absolutely no research before heading here. I have since heard many visitors are even less prepared! I admit it has been rather nice to think in one language only; except I tend to be less willing to be forgiving when things are not seeming to be understood.

My first morning here I headed out alone and had noodle soup for breakfast from a small street side place. It was delicious!

img_2686I had gone in search of coffee with no success so. My daughter warned me that any poundal I may have shed after all my walking and stair climbing in China would most likely sneak back on. Then we headed to the Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, first in a Tuk Tuk then a Songthaew (translated: two benches), small red, open passengers vehicles that people wave down, say where to and negotiate a price.

We ended up getting onboard with eight Chinese young women – they were rather surprised when I asked where they were from in Mandarin. (I still love doing that so long as the conversation does not stray too far) we were told to return to the same Songthaew in one hour.

Perhaps the most famous and important temple in Chiang Mai, built on top of Doi Suthep Hill, about 1000metres above sea level, is the revered golden PhraThat (chedi) of Wat Phra. The temple was built in 1383 to enshrine Buddha’s relics. You can drive uphill to the higher platform but nearly everyone either walked up or down the 290 steps (some brave souls did both) up to the hilltop or took the funicular for an extra fee.

The funicular was rather disappointing as the only view is of the tracks and a wall. The views from the terrace are fabulous, I needed a panoramic camera. When we were there a shroud of mist started to cover the city of Chiang Mai town and surrounding countrysides then dispersed as though by magic.

“According to legend, a magical relic multiplied itself just before it was enshrined at Wat Suan Dok in Chiang Mai. A suitable place therefore had to be found to shelter the new relic.

Unable to decide on the site, the king placed the relic in a portal shrine on the back of a white elephant and waited to see where the animal would take it. Eventually, the elephant walked up to the top of Doi Suthep mountain, trumpeted three times, turned around three times, knelt down, and died. The temple was immediately built on the miraculously-chosen site.” (Sacred Destinations)

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As we were weaving our way through the food and tourist stalls, to go down the 290 steps, we came across a group of men readying a large, still wrapped, statue of Buddha, with ropes, a makeshift track and plenty of brawn, to be pulled up to the temple. We never did find out if they had been dragging and adjusting this from the bottom of the mountain although it was quite possible.

They allowed us to take some photos, very few onlookers were around and I felt rather privileged to see the beginning of the installation of yet another Buddha. It reminded me of when I first ever saw a totem pole raising. We may never know where the statue was eventually placed.

Our hour was up, we climbed down the 290 steps, piled into our Songthaew with the others in the group and headed down the mountain. My daughter and I decided we needed some coffee and kitty therapy at the Catmosphere. I was feeling quite lonely without Mozzy. We spent a lovely time enjoying coffee, coversation with a family from the U.S., and of ourse visiting cats.