Thursday, October 16, 2008

Karen Village Visit

As part of my tour of Thailand, we spent a day in a Karen village in Thong Pha Phum (close to the Kanchanaburi area). The Karen people are Tibetan in descent and live in both Burma and Thailand. In Thailand, they constitute the largest of the hill tribes. Although I couldn't understand their language, they appeared to be a kind, gracious tribe, eager to give foreigners a taste of their daily life and customs.

Like many tribes, the Karen women use the universal art forms of song and dance to tell traditional stories. The one we watched was a love story.

After the dance, we played games with the village kids (the good ol' Hokey Pokey never fails to entertain), and distributed fruit and drinks that we had bought from a market earlier in the day. The children were so well-mannered; they always said "thank you" both before and after taking the fruit. It brought a smile to my face when I saw how happy they were.

I think we could all benefit from practicing how to communicate with children. Even if you and the child speak the same language, the child will still be limited in terms of vocabulary, comprehension, and social cues. Consequently, we have to choose our words and gestures carefully to allow them to understand. We also have to really listen to what they're saying, and also what they're not saying, since their non-verbal signals can often clue us into their thought process. Maybe we adults can learn to be better listeners if we just pay more attention to the other person.

Next, one of the village women demonstrated the rice-making process. The rice is pounded repeatedly in a large stone bowl to loosen the husks from the grains. See the wooden contraption in the photo below? The woman stands on the far end of the wooden beam and uses her foot to push the lever up and down to pound the rice. It looked like quite a workout!

Then the woman collects the rice into a circular straw basket and sifts out the husks by tossing the rice into the air. The heavier husks fall to the ground (where they are quickly devoured by the village chickens), while the lighter grains fall back into the basket.

Trust me, this is much harder than it looks.

And finally, the women prepared a lovely lunch for us. This was one of my most memorable meals while traveling. It was just a nice reminder that simple homemade food can still be delicious. No fancy kitchen or expensive ingredients, but still an incredible meal with flavors that can only be found in these little villages tucked away in the Thai forests.

Our delicious lunch

A light broth with vermicelli, pork, and cilantro

Fried papaya - crispy and sweet

Fresh veggies right from the hills!

Corn cobs and fresh fruit for dessert

As cheesy as it sounds, traveling to these village areas really made me appreciate how "luxurious" my life is in the States. Even with "basic" things that we might not think about - like hot running water, flushing toilets, television, cars, education - these villagers may never have a chance to experience them. But from what I can tell, they are still leading good lives. Maybe we don't really need that much to be happy.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Bangkok Delicious

The first of my Thailand posts! I spent the longest time in this country on my Southeast Asia trip, and the cuisine here was by far the most memorable. In fact, I've steered clear of eating Thai food ever since I returned to the States, because it's just not going to taste the same. Kind of like how I went on a ramen hiatus after studying in Japan and avoided gelato upon my return from Venice. You just need to give your taste buds some time to forget how good they had it.

I traveled with a lovely tour group from Intrepid, but also booked a couple extra days in Bangkok so I could explore the city on my own. So, with the help of a hotel map, some friendly locals, and a curious stomach, I set out to see and taste what Bangkok had to offer.

A good day begins with a good breakfast, and the buffet at Viengtai Hotel was a great way to wake up. Scrambled eggs, sausage links, ham slices, french toast with honey, fresh fruit, and pad thai. Yup, pad thai for breakfast! And of course, endless cups of coffee and pineapple juice.

With a satsified stomach and a boost of morning energy, I started to wander around the area. Luckily, my hotel was only a short distance from many tourist attractions, including the Standing Buddha and the Temple of the Reclining Buddha.

Constructed by King Rama IV in the mid-1800s, the Standing Buddha was an astonishing height of over 100 feet. I was happy to see a roughly equal number of tourists and local Thais paying respects here.

The Temple of the Reclining Buddha had a similarly impressive statute of Buddha, about 150 feet long and 50 feet high, reclining on his side with his head propped up on one of his hands. His facial expression was intensely peaceful and was meant to capture his passage into nirvana. The temple grounds contained over 1000 images of Buddha, along with colorful spires and marble slabs.

I wouldn't mind living in one of these pretty spaces.

My favorite place in Bangkok, however, was the Grand Palace, a large complex of gorgeous buildings that served as the royal residence from the 18th century to the mid-20th century. I loved the architecture, which mixed Thai and European styles.

The Grand Palace

With so much sightseeing, my stomach was always growling pitifully by lunchtime. My hotel was also a block away from the famous Khao San Road, where tourists flocked to enjoy the numerous restaurants, bars, and street shopping.

This was a yummy green chicken curry I ordered at a restaurant on Khao San Road. It had the perfect blend of spicy green chili, sweet coconut milk, and fragrant basil. I love spicy food but unfortunately I often have to keep putting out the fire in my mouth. And what better way to do that than with ...

... a nice cold Singha beer!

While walking around during the day could get tiring, I never went hungry, thanks to the street food vendors who always seemed to appear when I was craving a quick and cheap snack. Or maybe it was just that every time I saw them, I immediately got hungry. A whiff or two of the tantalizing scents, and I was in line forking over baht for my street food and discarding my mother's warning of food poisoning.

Take your pick of noodles!

Finished pad thai - cheap and delicious!

These meat skewers were so tasty that I had at least one per day.

I wanted to get a bird's eye view of Bangkok, so I spent some time one day tracking down Breeze Restaurant in the State Tower. The open-air dining area had breathtaking views of the city, along with a spectacular glass Sky Bridge.

Dinner was always a good time to wind down with more great food, look through the ridiculous number of photos from the day, and reflect in only the way that travelers can.

Chicken fried rice

Pad see yew with chicken

And for dessert ... fresh sweet mango with sticky rice! The sticky rice, a.k.a. Thai sweet rice, is bathed in coconut milk and goes well with the sweetness of the mango slices.

Stay tuned for more entries about Thailand!