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BURN THE HOUSE DOWN

Miss USA Sisters go to cooking school

sunny

Today was easily a Top 10 day for me on this trip. We had agreed months ago that if we made it to Thailand we would sign up for a cooking class. Way to go, past selves, that was an excellent call. I chose Silom Thai Cooking School based on its TripAdvisor reviews, and they served me well. Anyone reading this who plans or dreams of traveling to Thailand--take note. Silom Thai Cooking School, ask for Jay's class. He was the best part. We loved him from the second he stepped into the spotlight with his big personality and tiny stature.
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First was the market tour, which was the only iffy part. It wasn't so much a tour as much as us standing in front of one stall with wicker baskets as Jay explained the heap of leaves and tubers piled on a table. Thai ingredients may seem familiar to us, but they are unique and often irreplaceable in Thai cooking (for example, we hear "Thai ginger" and think, okay yeah, ginger. But Thai ginger is different from the ginger we Americans are familiar with, and they give off different flavors. So if you can't find fresh Thai ginger, use powered Thai ginger rather than replacing it with regular ginger. Same for Thai basil, etc. some you can switch though, like Thai lemongrass with regular lemongrass). My favorite were the eggplants. Thai cuisine has many types of eggplant, most of them smaller than an egg, some as small as a blueberry. They don't have the corpulent aubergine eggplant that we know.
There were eleven of us in the class, and we rode to the school from the market in tuktuks, with all of the fresh ingredients in our baskets. Silom Cooking School sits down a narrow and unassuming alleyway, in a small but deep two-story building. Downstairs were three tables set with colorful Thai silk placemats and thick books about Thai culture. We flipped through these as Jay and his helpers finished setting up the prep table in the middle of the room. This was set with prep dishes, big circles of wood for cutting boards, knives and a wide, shallow basket for all of the produce we just bought. Everything was beautiful. Even the scrap bins on the table were intricately carved and embellished with chips of glass.
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We all stepped back to make way for Jay's personality. He doesn't hold anything back. He reminded us of Frank, if anyone has seen Father of the Bride II. He called both me and Gina "Miss USA" until he found out we are sisters (a fact that we have to tell people outright, as very few people can tell we are even related) then we became "Miss USA Sister." He called everyone else by their home country: three from Korea, one from Thailand, one from Taiwan, two from Portugal, and finally two "Mr Dubai"s. He would swish to the front of the group and say things like, "None of you recognize this, riiiight? (holding up a very large carrot) HAHA of course it's carrot, same as your carrot, not different carrot. But this very large carrot, old woman could put it in her purse then if anyone try to talk to her on the bus, she just smack him with it."
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Once everything was ready, we followed Jay upstairs and lined up in front of sets of two bowls. I was partnered with a Korean, Gina was with Mr. Taiwan, and we poured warm water over freshly grated coconut, squeezing the coconut meat in our fists repeatedly until the water became coconut cream. We then poured the mash into a shallow basket with handles and used that to sieve the cream away from the meat, which we then dumped back in the bowl for mashing and squeezing round two. The first squeezing produces coconut cream--a heavier liquid with more coconut matter in it--and the second squeezing produces coconut milk, which has a higher ratio of water. But both went into the second bowl via the basket sieve, and finally all into one massive group bowl. This then went into the fridge where it will separate into the heavy coconut cream on the bottom and the watery coconut milk on top. Isn't that cool? Now we all know how to make fresh coconut cream and milk.
Then we traipsed downstairs where we each claimed a wooden stool around the prep table so Jay could walk us through tom yum goong, a spicy, deeply savory soup with shrimp, lemongrass and bites of ginger made slightly milky with coconut. First he passed around a bowl of Thai chilis, which are about the size of your pinky finger and a brilliant red. "You choose," he shouted. "One chili, okay. Two chili, yum, still okay, slightly spicy. Three chili, uh oh your stomach he start to wake up and talk to you. Four chili? Volcano. Volcano in the toilet. Not good. We don't want that."
SO that will be ONE chili for me Jay, thanks.
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We chopped our ingredients as instructed and marched upstairs to the long line of woks set up on gas burners. Jay shouted instructions to us as he paced the line in front of the woks. "Ready? One! Two! Aaaaaand......BURN THE HOUSE DOWN!" (Turn your gas on high). "AND WE'RE ADDING THE VEGETABLE! ALL THE VEGETABLE! NOW THE FISH SAUCE AND LIME JUICE! TOGETHER! COUNT TO TWENTY FIVE! WHEN I GIVE YOU SHRIMP, COUNT TO THIRTY FIVE AND TURN OFF! Otherwise, your shrimp too tough," he added, quieter and with a wink. Oh I could just put him in my pocket. I want him to come home with me so we can be besties and go shopping together.
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The Korean guy next to me (whom I suspect is a chef, by his technique) suddenly started coughing and sputtering as soon as we added our chopped vegetables to the wok. Tough Guy had cut up at least 5 or 6 chilis for his soup (which is a single portion by the way; we were only making enough for ourselves) and they released the hounds as soon as they hit the hot wok. He had to save face by eating the entire bowl a few minutes later, after we had dished up our finished product and taken them downstairs to eat. There was much coughing all around by then, it was quite spicy. I am a wuss when it comes to hot food, and I was struggling with my one bitty chili, I can't imagine five. But the soup was delicious (of course. I mean, look at the beautiful chef). Thais like sweet and spicy and sour all in one go and tom yum goong definitely achieves that. It's sweet from the coconut milk, tangy and sour from the lime juice and leaves, and savory from the fish sauce. There's only a hint of seafood from the shrimp, and the ginger definitely has a lot of muscle. It would be really good for when you have a cold and want to just smoke it out.
By now our coconut cream had separated from the milk, and our sticky rice had been steaming in its special basket. In a small saucepan I stirred the cream with pandannas leaves so it wouldn't burn as Jay, with much fanfare, threw in a heaping tablespoon of salt and held aloft a bowl of sugar about the size of my palm. "How much?" He asked. "How much you think? One? Two?" He ladled in two tablespoons of the sugar. "No! Whole thing!" He dumped in the whole bowl to our horror and delight. "Mango sticky rice is VERY SWEET!" He took the saucepan from me and poured the caloric concoction over the rice, leaving it to soak some more.
Without wasting a moment, Jay scooted us right into pad thai. Who doesn't love pad thai? And who hasn't struggled to make it as good as the Thai restaurant around the corner? Unfortunately during our culinary escapades today I learned an unfortunate fact. Thai people eat more sugar per capita than that of any other country. I had no idea. They load it into unexpected places, like pad thai, which explains why I like it so much. Damnit. Thai people love desserts, sweet curries and stir fries, and the most sugary drinks they can find. Thai tea has two guns--table sugar and sweetened condensed milk--and sometimes comes with jellies or coconut chunks in it. They will even straight up sprinkle pad thai and other dishes with granulated sugar, and many of the street food carts have a bowl ready as a condiment, right next to the chili sauce and crushed peanuts. How everyone still has most of their teeth and weighs no more than a cocker spaniel I have no idea. Teach me your ways.
The sugar in pad thai is added both as a paste during cooking and granulated sprinkled on top before eating. Damn you pad thai and your cavity inducing deliciousness.
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We soaked our noodles ("Warm water! Not hot! WARM!") and Jay loudly guided us through frying our garlic, adding our tofu and shrimp, along with the bean sprouts and spring onions. "KEEP STIRRING KEEP STIRRING KEEP STIRRING! In cooking school we do things fast, you have to be fast! High heat! Keep stirring!" He demonstrated thwacking our eggs over the woks with the spatula, keeping all of the shell in your left hand. Gina was burned as the Korean chick catapulted her egg into the searing wok, splitting hot oil all over her station. "KEEP STIRRING KEEP STIRRING KEEP STIRRING! Add everything else! Everything!" He heaped a pile of softened noodles into each wok. "Make sure to melt your palm sugar first! It's what makes good pad thai noodles BROWN!"
We rushed to turn off our heat and plate our dishes like we were competing on Masterchef, filing down the stairs double quick time. At our table we sprinkled the noodles with chopped peanuts, fresh bean sprouts, lime juice, powdered chili, and of course, more sugar. At each placemat was a Coke, ready and beading with perspiration. Oh sweet diabetic coma delight.
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Next we marched right into the green curry. Gina and I were part of the team adding eggplants, lime leaves, etc to the woks upstairs while the other team chopped green spur chilis. After they had a big pile of bits Jay loaded them into a mortar the size of a small bird bath and one by one we mastered the pestle and ground the chilis into oblivion. "FASTER! Gentlemen, this will give you nice, big arm muscles! Ladies, it will take care of those wings, so when you go goooodbyyye there is no more flapflapflap! HAHAHA!"
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One of the Misters Dubai roasted coriander seeds in a wok over high heat. Then we back at our woks, stirring, stirring, stirring. "If it bubbles, that okay! We want to burn off all the water! Turn over your chicken! TURN IT!" In no time at all we were pouring the green curry with chicken and vegetables onto its own plate with a ready pat of rice. Jay said most Thai cooking is fast. Maybe that's why it's such a successful street food.
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I quite liked the green curry as it was, but Gina and most of the group said it needed a little kick. I noticed the Korean guy didn't say anything though--maybe his tom yum goong put him of red Thai chilis for a while.
I was quite full by this point. We had been at it for over four hours, but they flew by, and between all of the dishes we just made as well as the chicken salad Jay whipped up for us to try, it was a lot of food already. But Gina and I adhere to a very strict life principle that now came into play.
There is always, always room for mango sticky rice. I was unaware that she had developed quite the habit in Washington D.C--living the life of a junkie, sometimes ordering as many as three at a time.
Mango sticky rice is not complicated but it's also not that easy to make in an American kitchen unless provided with the proper equipment. Sticky rice is also known as glutinous rice (glutinous is not an appetizing adjective) and it is a long grain rice that when cooked becomes really, well, sticky. And of course the Thais love it sweet. Sometimes you can order it with other fruits but so far I've have mostly seen it paired with mango, and the rice is first steamed in a special reed basket over a boiling pot to keep it moist and soft. Then it is soaked in a coconut sugar torrent like the one we prepared earlier, with over a cup of white sugar, less than a quart of coconut cream. Granted, this pot was for the whole class but still, that's an incredible ratio. The rice becomes this creamy mass of coconut goodness, and you top that with deep fried mung beans, for a nice bit of crunch. So you see between finding pandanna leaves (which are not essential though) and glutinous rice, acquiring a steaming basket and deep frying mung beans, making mango sticky rice at home might be slightly problematic. Gina said she will buy a rice basket in Chiang Mai if she has to strap it to her body on the plane to get it home. Jay assured us that, if you can find the rice at an Asian market or something, a conventional steamer will probably work, but more like a vegetable steamer pot, with the holes in the bottom, not a rice cooker, which they use for jasmine rice. Also the mung beans are not essential just a nice touch, but I would suggest finding something crunchy for the topping as it is just delightful.
I for one ate my dessert very slowly. Not just because it was a taste explosion but also because I didn't want the class to be over. I could have spent all week with that hilarious tiny man. And I haven't taken his measurements yet to see how he will fit in my carry-on.
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But end it must, and Jay presented each of us with a small book of recipes as a graduation certificate. This was a nice bonus as it included all of the basic recipes, not just the ones covered today, in a lovely little booklet rife with the spelling and language errors of a non-native speaker. But it is because I have acquired these gems that I can now pass them onto you. Attack them with gusto, they are not as hard and they might seem.
Note: anything listed with an *asterisk is an essential ingredient that cannot be omitted and/or cannot be replaced with the American version. But most towns these days have an Asian market wedged somewhere and it might just surprise you with what they have available.
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Tom Yum Goong (hot and sour prawn soup, creamy style)

Serves 1-2 (perhaps best not to consume the leaves, lemongrass or ginger. These are added more for flavor than direct consumption)

1/2c medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 straw mushroom (or any type), cut into quarters
1 stalk Thai lemongrass,* cut into large pieces
3 kaffir lime leaves* torn in half
1 knob galangal Thai ginger*, chopped into large chunks
1/2 TB fish sauce* (Veg Heads can sub soy sauce if desired)
1/4 TB Thai lime juice
1c water or chicken stock
1/2 tomato, cut into four wedges
1 TB fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves, chopped
1 TB green onions, chopped
1/2 TB roasted Thai chili paste* (nam prik pow)
2 TB coconut milk*
1-3 Thai birds eye chilis, according to spicy preference.

In wok, bring lemongrass, ginger, lime leaves, mushrooms, chilis and tomato to a boil in water. Cook until tender on medium high heat. Add the prawns and cook for 35 seconds or until tender. Add coconut milk, lime juice, fish sauce and Thai chili paste. Serve hot garnished with fresh coriander and green onions.
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Green Curry Paste (nam prik gaeng kheao wan)

15 green spur chilis*, chopped
4 green bird's eye chilis*, chopped
4 red bird's eye chilis*, chopped
2 TB lemongrass*, thick bottom third only, outer layers removed, inner part sliced
1 1/2 tsp Thai galangal ginger*, finely sliced
1/2 tsp kaffir lime rind*, chopped
2 TB shallot, finely sliced
2 TB Thai garlic, finely sliced
2 TB coriander root, chopped
1 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp roasted coriander seeds
1/2 tsp roasted cumin seeds
1/2 tsp roasted black pepper
1 tsp shrimp paste (optional)

Pound everything together with a mortar and pestle to form a fine paste. You can use a food processor and process until smooth but using a mortar and pestle allows the ingredients to release their flavors better and the granite keeps the curry paste cool, enhancing the taste. Once prepared, either use immediately for a stir fry or store in a jar with a little vegetable oil. Keeps well in the fridge for several months.
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Green Curry with Chicken (kang khiao wan gai)
Serves 1-2

1/4 c sliced chicken or mushroom (Vegetarians can substitute tofu or mushrooms)
1 TB green curry paste*
1/4 any type of Thai eggplant or purple aubergine, cut into bite size pieces
2 TB vegetable oil or coconut cream*
1 c coconut milk*
20 leaves sweet Thai basil*
3 kaffir lime leaves*, torn in half
2 TB finger ginger*, shredded
1 pinch palm or white sugar
1/2 TB fish sauce (Vegetarians can sub soy sauce)
1 TB tamarind paste

Put oil or coconut cream into the wok over low heat. Add curry paste and stir continuously until fragrant. Add chicken. Add coconut milk, lime leaves, finger ginger, eggplants, sugar, tamarind paste and fish sauce. Stir constantly until the chicken is cooked. Continue to cook and stir until the sauce is reduced and thickened. Add sweet basil. Remove from heat and serve with rice.
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Pad Thai (pad Thai sai kai)
Serves 1-2

100 grams dried rice noodles, pre-soaked in warm (not hot) water until soft, then drained
5 medium sized shrimp, peeled and deveined (sub tofu, mushrooms, or other meat)
2 TB vegetable oil (not olive or sesame)
1/8 c chives or green onions, cut into 3cm pieces
1 TB palm or brown sugar (white sugar can be used but noodles won't turn brown)
2 tsp fish sauce (sub soy sauce)
1 egg
1/4 c raw bean sprouts or cabbage
1 TB Thai garlic, minced
1/3 c extra firm tofu, cut into pieces
1 TB tamarind paste or white vinegar
1 TB pickled white radish finely chopped or pickled cabbage
1 TB ground roasted peanuts or cashews
1/2 tsp ground dried red chili powder

Heat oil over low heat, add garlic and fry until fragrant. Add shrimp, tofu, bean sprouts, and chives. Stir until shrimp are cooked. Crack the egg straight into the wok. Stir rapidly until becomes scrambled and dried. Add noodles and season with fish sauce, palm sugar, ground roasted peanut, dried chili powder, tamarind paste and pickled radish. Mix everything together and keep frying. When noodles become softened and translucent, switch off the heat. Serve with fresh vegetables (such as bean sprouts), and top with ground peanuts and dried chili powder.
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Mango Sticky Rice (khao neaw ma muang)
Serves 1-2

1 c hot cooked sticky rice*
2 TB white or palm sugar*
1 pinch salt*
1/2 c coconut milk*
1 ripe mango, peeled (or other fruit)
1/2 deep fried mung beans
1/4 c pandannas leaves cut into 3cm pieces

Heat the coconut milk and pandannas leaves in a pot over medium heat. Stir constantly and let coconut milk simmer. Add sugar and salt. Stir constantly until incorporated. Remove from heat. Pour hot coconut milk over hot sticky rice. Mix together. Let sit for 15-20 minutes. The sticky rice should, absorb all of the coconut milk. The rice should be a little mushy. Serve warm with chilled mango and topped with deep fried mung beans.

Posted by Chloeah 03:31 Archived in Thailand Comments (1)

What is it? I'll take two.

Eating our way out of Bangkok

sunny

Thursday we switched from Laksameenarai Guesthouse to the lovely home of Gina's friend Tae. Tae is a Bangkok native and she and Gina used to work together in Washington DC. Now Tae is back in Bangkok with her family and surpriiiiiiiiise guess who came to visit. Remember what I said about us taking people up on their offers to stay with them? I'm dead serious. Tae and her mom picked us up near the BTS station early Thursday afternoon, then they took us out for Japanese food. Both are stunning, intelligent and generous, and a delight to chat with. We also got to meet Tae's sister later, who also takes after her mother.
They suggested that we go visit the Jim Thompson house that afternoon. It's a traditional Thai teakwood house, or rather several cobbled together into one mega-house for a rich American. Jim Thompson single-handedly revived the trade and manufacture of silk textiles in Thailand, and he immigrated from the U.S. in the 1950s after falling in love with Thai culture. He only lived in it for about 11 years though before he went to visit friends in Malaysia and went for a walk, never to be seen again. No one ever figured out what happened to him. The house is largely open-air and it is gorgeous, filled with antiques and rare pieces of art. But there's this faint air of sadness in it, as you are very aware that its owner met a tragic end in some way.
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Many homes here also have a Spirit House. They believe there are spirits living in the ground, so if you build yourself a house, you should also build a small spirit house for them to live in, since you've displaced them. It should stand somewhere where the shadow of the big house will not fall on it, and individuals leave offerings daily, from incense and candles to flower garlands and drinks.
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Friday we went to cooking school, but that was so amazing it will get its own post. Saturday we actually woke up early so Tae could drop us off at the BTS (Sky Train) station, and we took the train and a tuktuk to get out to the Vimanmek Mansion. This was another traditional teakwood mansion--a former royal palace completed in 1901.
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Sadly, no pictures allowed inside again. But I did snap a few of this beauty:
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Gina had a tank top and leggings on, so she knew that she would have to cover up. She assumed (wrongly) that there would be a rental booth like there was at the Grand Palace. While there was a booth, they required that you purchase the items, not rent them. And the selection was singular. Tourist tshirt with rainbow sarong, whether you're a man or a woman. There was a lot of people in rainbow sarongs around the grounds.
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After the mansion (neoclassical meets traditional Thai interior) we crossed the Dusit Palace complex to the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall. Here it was communicated to me that all women needed to wear skirts on the premises, so I had to cover my long pants with a sad, thick blue sarong.
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The throne hall now houses the works of Queen Sirikit Institute--an organization founded by the current Queen to revive and stimulate traditional Thai art forms. There is a ton of gold--from elephant seats for the royal couple to miniature ships and barges--the most amazing wood carving I've ever seen--mostly in the form of huge wood panels several meters high with traditional stories carved into them--and needlework--enormous embroidered murals or smaller award winning pieces so intricate they look like they must be paint. My favorite though is the beetle wing work. Beetle wings! They take the wings of these green iridescent beetles and slice them into pieces the size of match heads and cover huge works of art with them, from tall screens to chandeliers the size of a Volkswagon. It's absolutely stunning. Beetles! And they won't let you take pictures!
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Here's what I could pull off the internet but it doesn't even hold a candle to the real thing.
Then we took a taxi to Mo Chit station to find a market near there. We all know how Gina and I feel about markets. It's probably for the best that we got there so late and it closed at six, because significant damage could have been done. But we did get some yummy snacks.
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Not that we needed it. The food Tae's housekeeper Niang makes is to die for. And that night she made mango sticky rice for dessert because she heard Gina is addicted.
Sunday was our last day in Bangkok. We are headed for the Surin Elephant Project tomorrow, and we don't know what the internet situation will be like for the next two and a half weeks. So nobody freak out if you don't hear from us. For our last day in Bangkok, Tae and Niang took us to Chinatown (the rest of the family is away this weekend). It's the vegetarian festival this week and food stalls stretch as far as the eye can see. I think Tae mistook our silence for distaste or confusion at first, but really we were just trying to work out where to start.
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In the end we each bought a few things and there was a lot of trading around. My favorite was the coconut ice cream, served in half a young coconut shell with the meat still inside. I also liked these little gems
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Which were soybean paste which is colored and then dipped in gel. Gina was on the fence about those but I liked them. I also liked these tiny little cakes, made by pouring coconut cream into a hot mold until just the edge is crispy and the inside is creamy and spongy at the same time. Each one gets a little fruit or some kernels of sweet corn in the center.
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We also finally tried durian--a smelly fruit favored in Southeast Asia. I had heard terrible things--that it tastes like smelly feet, mainly--and while it did have a faint odor, it wasn't anything to lose heart over. I wasn't crazy about the taste (eggy mango with a hint of chili?), it again wasn't anything to get worked up over.
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There was also a parade for the festival, complete with Buddhist monks blessing people with holy water, acrobats performing with lion and dragon costumes, and traditional music.
We then wound our way through some of the food markets in Chinatown, which were jammed tight between the buildings. It's a complete assault on the senses. On the one hand, you want to look and take in all of the strange new things, but on the other you're being carried along by the crowds, somewhat helplessly. Some smells are heavenly, then the next second you get a whiff of something that's just short of vomit-inducing. I recognized almost none of the products apart from basic spices and mushrooms and things.
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We called it a day rather early as we have to pack and I have so much blogging to catch up on. I wanted to be completely up to date before we disappear off the face of the earth into Elephant Land. Like I said, if you don't hear from us, don't immediately be alarmed. We are in Surin until the 25th, then we switch to the Mindfulness Project in Khon Kaen. I doubt that will have wifi either, and we will be there until the 5th. Love you all, xoxo.

Posted by Chloeah 15:39 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Today I was eaten by carnivorous fish

Bangkok Grand Palace, clean pores, yummy feet

sunny

We finally made it to the Grand Palace complex. We were going to go the other day but we got as far as the gate and a guard stopped Gina and said her pants (cut to mid calf) weren't appropriate so we came back with different clothes. The Grand Palace refers to another huge compound of buildings, including the palace itself, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and the throne room.
Bring on the crowds. It's getting hard to stay out of the path of the huge tour groups. Part of the problem is that, due to the nature of these sites, there is no clear direction. So if you're at say Schonbrunn in Vienna or the Sydney Opera House, there is a clear tour path everyone follows and then you all get out alive. But these grounds have buildings scattered everywhere so it's a free for all and you have to get a little pushy sometimes.
We started with the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew).
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It is the most sacred Buddhist temple in Thailand. You couldn't take pictures inside but it was a long room with high ceilings, and silks and murals covering the walls and rafters. At the far side was the emerald (jade) Buddha clad currently in his rainy season robes. He's at the top of an elaborate shrine, which includes several other Buddha statues and is almost entirely in gold.
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Outside across the courtyard is a dais with a huge gold chedi (with more ashes in it), Phra Mondop library and a pantheon (with more ashes). There's also a cool scale model of Angkor Wat up there, a religious site in what is now Cambodia (and our reason for including Cambodia in this trip).
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Everything is glittering and glorious like at Wat Pho yesterday but perhaps even grander. The temple complex is surrounded by a double cloister filled with Buddha statues and murals depicting battles and legends. In the courtyard facing the temple itself is a huge offering site, about the size of a two car garage, with big bowls filled with sand a sticks of incense, trays of Faygo, big urns of lotus flowers, long taper candles, etc. This is all protected from the elements with cafe umbrellas which state, "Buddha is for respecting. Not for furniture. Not for tattoos." I can very much understand how frustrating it must be when people use a sacred image such as the Buddha as trendy home decor (Buddha heads are not allowed. It's considered disrespectful. Take note, Pier 1). It's one thing if you have respect for an image you're facing or have purchased, it's another if you're placing that statue on your credenza because it looks foreign and artsy.
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I was disappointed that you can't go inside the Grand Palace itself. You can go in the throne room (which is still used on ceremonial occasions) and there's a small weapons museum, but the enormous palace was off limits.
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We did get to see the museum of coins and regalia though, which was small but it was cool to see some of the royals diadems and spires. But the time we finished the palace complex we were hot, tired, and dehydrated. What does that spell? THAI MASSAGE.
We had already tried the hour long foot/leg one earlier, which in turn Gina hated but I loved. So this time we got facials (about eight dollars)--thirty minutes of laying on a table while a sadistic woman dig out your pores with a metal tool and rubs cream in your face, finally laying huge juicy strips of cucumber over you and leaving you to stew in your own salad. Still, there is something quite satisfying about clean pores. Those poor women had to dig six countries out of ours. Then we tried the fish pedicure. I have always wanted to try one ever since I saw it on the Travel Channel years ago, and this was my chance.
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You dip your legs into a tank of tiny, ravenous fish who make a beeline for your supple flesh and star snacking on your dermis as soon as they can wrap their little lips around you.
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It was super weird. The sensation was a lot stronger than I had imagined, like little mice feet running up your legs or a thousand feathers tickling you at once. If you refused to let your mind dwell directly on it, it felt like your legs were vibrating. And that is the trick: don't dwell on it. Gina mastered it sooner than I could; I sat there for a good five minutes cringing and holding my legs out, parallel to the surface of the water, unable to submerge them for more than a few seconds,
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It took a lot of concentration and distraction at the same time. I made Gina keep talking to me so I wouldn't overthink it. I mean, I was being eaten alive. I paid 200 baht to be eaten alive for twenty minutes. On the upside though, my feet felt brand new in the morning.
This place was on Khao San Rd, a very touristy strip half a block from our hostel. It was like a Thai version of Cancun. Cocktail buckets, massages, street food and souvenirs. The street food was amazing though. Maybe it was cliche to get pad Thai but I love it so I don't care, and it was the best pad Thai of my life. It is amazing how people can make these dishes in huge amounts on a cart the size of a small card table.
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We went home as things were starting to get crazy. The club scene is not really our thing and we were in desperate need of our air conditioned room.

Posted by Chloeah 04:01 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Wat Pho, Bangkok

It's Thailand time

semi-overcast

Well we made it to Bangkok, which makes this our sixth country and third continent on this trip. Crazy, right? I'd be lying if I said we weren't feeling the miles by this point. But we're in Thailand! No time for being tired.
Our plane landed at 1:00am, and by the time we cleared immigration and got a cab across town, it was after 3:00am as we rang the bell for Laksameenarai Guesthouse.
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It's the yellow and green building behind all of the stuff. We sprang for a private room, even though it meant sharing a bed again. The privacy was so worth a few more American dollars. Laksameenarai is a traditional Thai style house so it's all teakwood and lots of decorative carvings. Unfortunately the small alley is pretty crowded so most of the front view is blocked. It's visual appeal had a lot to do with why we booked it though, plus it's down a quiet alley but super close to a lot of the touristy things we wanted to do.
We were not prepared for the heat. And it's not even the hot season! We're at the tail end of the rainy season so it was pouring when we got here and big fat clouds appear every day for a least a few hours, though they have graciously held off. It's hard to believe that a little over a week ago we were on a glacier and now the air is so hot and humid you feel like you could bite into it.
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We took a little boat ride down the canals for about an hour, past a lot of homes and a few temples. The boats are long and shallow and decorated in many colors. Catfish crowd the water in many places and we saw several huge dinosaur-like lizards flicking their tongues at us from the water's edge.
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We joined the throngs of people headed for Wat Pho (the Temple of the Reclining Buddha). We knew Bangkok was going to be beautiful but were unprepared for how glittering and gorgeous the temples are. They are dripping in mosaics made from reflective glass chips and glazed pottery pieces. They form intricate designs as well as flowers or flames licking the roofs.
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The tourists create a sort of chaos as they mill around--there is no logical flow to these compounds and most people stop every two feet to brain someone with their selfie sticks or block the way with elaborate group photos. We even saw one woman assist her son to pee in a water bottle in plain sight, right in the shadow of the temple.
You would think that one of the dozens of guards would have drawn the line there. The temples command respect, and you are asked to please show that by removing your shoes before entering the temple itself (or in any Thai house, for that matter), no shorts or bare shoulders are allowed, or really any excessive skin. Visitors who are not properly dressed are asked to please buy/rent/borrow a garment that will temporarily cover them while on the grounds. But Gina and I passed muster so we got to skip that step.
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Wat Pho's official name is Wat Phra Chetuphon Vimolmangklararm Rajwaramahaviharn. I'll stick with Wat Pho. It is the "first in the list of six temples in Thailand classed as the highest grade of the first class Royal temples." It's golden reclining Buddha is 150' long.
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These pointy structures are chedis. There are 71 small ones and they contain ashes of the royal family (Thailand has a constitutional monarchy). There are 20 larger chedis that contain relics of the Buddha--who has, incidentally, over one thousand statues of him on this complex alone.
It is considered the first public university in Thailand, as there are buildings and cloisters where students could learn literature, science and religion. There is still a school of Thai massage and medicine there.
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We dove into Thai massage culture headfirst. Massage isn't a treat here, it's a way of life, and I support that 100%. That night we got got 1 hour head/neck/back massages for 250 baht, or roughly $7 usd. SEVEN DOLLARS. SIGN. ME. UP.
We were ushered upstairs to a big, dimly lit room where we claimed two mats up on a small dais. All around the room other people were sitting or laying with their eyes closed as the masseurs went to town. Gina and I were pulled, pounded, and generally beaten into submission on our mats (forcefully but with less violence than I am perhaps representing). She loved it, but I have some knots that are decades old and I cling to them like old friends. My guy was having none of that. After a while I noticed that I had inched my way away from him on the mat and was practically on the floor. Still. I would do it again.
Street food is abundant here--stalls teeter on the cub sides and are crammed into every possible space in front the buildings. Gina and I ate pad see ew and Thai tea at a small market near Wat Pho. They had stalls and carts with noodle dishes, fresh juice, souvenirs, and heaps of fruit. Our favorite are the pineapples, which are smaller than an average woman's fist and cut in a spiral to remove the skin and seeds. You buy it by the bag and eat it with a skewer.
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Ginabought a bag of dragon fruit and we sipped on green coconuts as we flagged a tuktuk to take us back to the guesthouse. A tuktuk is a vehicle that is part motorcycle, part golf cart, part Formula 1 race car.
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Posted by Chloeah 02:13 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Re-Store Christchurch

Grinning pigs and frogs in bras in New Zealand.

sunny

New Zealand, we have met your most adorable citizen. Her name is Denise. I want to take her home in my pocket.
Gina and I arrived in Christchurch, our last stop in New Zealand, Friday afternoon. We met Denise on Saturday morning as we were strolling towards the Canterbury Museum. Denise is 89 and feisty; she sets up shop every week on someone's front lawn, across the street from the university. She paints watercolors and sells them, spread out on the grass and piled in wicker baskets. We had paused to browse them on our way to the botanical gardens. Denise hobbled over with her cane and proceeded to dazzle us with her charm. She has been painting watercolors for 65 years and selling them in that spot for 60. Her husband used to sit with her there every weekend, talking to passers-by and peddling his wife's art. She was so sweet when she talked about her late husband that Gina and I were literally seconds away from tears. She even mentioned "how fortunate" she was to get to sit in this spot, directly facing the university building where she met her husband over 60 years ago. "He was a wonderful man," she said. "Perfect teeth."
Denise's art wasn't the best I had ever seen. But within one minute of talking with her both Gina and I silently knew that we were buying paintings. She was just so cute. And it was heartbreaking to listen to her talk about how she loves Saturday because she can leave the assisted living facility and come back to her spot, where the locals love her and the trolley drivers wave every time they pass. She said she loves painting, it helps her forget about living in the home, but she will probably not be able to do it much longer. My heart pretty much leaked out of my chest at this point. But she was so chipper! She talked about each painting, stabbing them one by one with the tip of her cane as she talked. There were lots of the NZ countryside, Queenstown's Remarkables and Chrsitchurch Cathedral. Our favorites though were in the little section of animals. "Everyone was so sad you see, after the earthquake, so I thought I would start painting friendly animals to make us smile." These included a Percy the Pig ("Look at his smile! It makes me laugh!") a frog in a bra ("I painted this frog and thought gosh, it looks kind of feminine, so I put a bra on 'im!") and some even some portraits of flapper girls ("We women can do anything, can't we?") I was tempted to buy Percy the Pig but I felt like I couldn't take him from her if she looks at him when she's sad, so instead I chose Oscar, the cat with one fang. "It's why he's so grumpy," Denise said. "He's only got one fang! Lookit 'im!
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I said I would love to buy Oscar but only if I could take her picture with him. She said certainly, but she will have to stay standing in the one spot because she's 89 you know...
Gina chose a small painting of penguins. Denise chuckled about how the penguins are silly, dancing like that, as she wrapped it up. Gina and I seriously just wanted to cart her home with us. She was such a delight to talk to and while there was a definite tinge of sadness (what with her deceased husband that she loved so much, not liking the home, and suspecting she will have to give up painting), she was still a ray of sunshine. "The gentlemen at the home like to talk to me," Denise said with a twinkle. "They told me that they like having a person there that doesn't about their illnesses or their grandchildren. I said no, I like to talk about politics and finance!" Oh God Denise. All the feels.
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We only had one full day in Christchurch. The earthquake Denise was referring to was actually two large scale quakes, one in late 2010 followed by a second in early 2011. The first one wasn't terribly destructive but unfortunately it did weaken the infrastructure significantly, so that when the big one hit in 2011( a 6.3 on the Richter scale), it was made that much worse. 185 people died, and the core of the disaster was right where where we stood with Denise, and only about two blocks from our hostel. It looked like they were building a city from scratch. On any given block in a large swathe of downtown, most of the lots were reduced to gravel and perhaps a wall or two. The building's left stand stood alone, bare shouldered and stark.
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Part of the reason for the bareness was because after the twin quakes the city evaluated the safety of each building. Unfortunately most of them did not pass, especially many of the historical gems. So they were pulled down and their rubble was carted away just like the ones that crumbled. It looks like they are trying to save some of the historical facades, as they are being held up by stacks of shipping crates--presumably until a building can be constructed behind them.
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The spirit of Christchurch is undaunted though. The impression that we got was that the quake was something they got through together, and they are looking towards the future and building a new, stronger Christchurch, both socially and structurally.
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Unfortunately one of the saddest losses was the almost total destruction of Christchurch Cathedral--a traditional Gothic structure that is the icon of the city. They plan to piece it back together somehow, but as it stands today it is a sad sight. Pigeons roost in the rafters and shingles jut out everywhere like broken teeth.
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One of the cool things that came out of that was Re-Store. One of the buildings affected the most was the Cashel Mall. It has since been completely removed and the new steel skeleton is starting to go up. But in order to save the businesses, more shipping containers were brought in as stand-in shops. The businesses were allowed a container or two, arranged in a sort of impromptu piazza, complete with food trucks and public art. Since they're in a space the size of a semi-truck the shops are small but the atmosphere is funky and fun.
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So goodbye, New Zealand. You clutched our hearts much more than we ever even expected. We're taking Denise with us, and with a lifetime supply of chocolate fish and sausage rolls. Oh and Penguinos Gelato. That is definitely moving stateside.
Stay beautiful, New Zealand, we love ya.
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Posted by Chloeah 06:52 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

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