Improbably Happy and Incredibly Curious

“Nobody’s ever asked me about the people or their histories – just places to go and what to see.”

But, how can you truly see a place, really see anything if it has no context?

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The lights of Chiang Mai were a halo on the horizon from our candle-lit existence above.  To see the glow of the future and actively live in the flickering past must be strange indeed.  In recent years, Thailand’s hill tribes have become something of a circus act for curious westerners.  Yet, this poverty tour has had little effect on their basic existence.

It took a full day of uphill trekking to reach the mountaintop village of Hoi Kup Kop.  On an eight-man tour, we drove north from the moat-lined city of Chiang Mai leaving behind the old-world, gated opulence of the temple to temple city for the jungle.  We traded the bookish intellect of the jewel city of Thailand for the simple pleasures of life in the tribes.

Chiang Mai attracts a different kind of tourist than the beach-lined coasts of the south.  Travelers venture here to learn Thai massage, Thai cooking, muay Thai, or to embark on other intellectual pursuits.  Its peaceful Buddhist charm offers wanders a chance to be still, to breath, and to understand the country and its culture in ways not possible in the tropical south.  It also offers a surrounding landscape of tree-studded mountains with a people whose life has hardly been touched by modern times.

The teetering girl’s smile curled all the way up her face to her bow-topped bald head.  In her hand were four bunches of purple wildflowers, an impromptu welcome to her village.  Like everyone here, she was improbably happy and incredibly curious.

Six major hill tribes live separated into their own isolated pockets in the mountains of northern Thailand between the Burmese and Laos borders.  The Akha, Lahu, Karen, Hmong, Lisu, and Shen each have their own distinct language and culture.  The Lahu people, whose hospitality I enjoyed, are of Tibetan origin.  Forced out of Tibet, they migrated southeast to Burma where, faced with years of political turmoil, many crossed into northern Thailand.  There are several sub-groups of Lahu and each are known by the traditional color of their dress.  I slept in a village of Red Lahu, a self-sufficient group of farmers and crossbow hunters (also productive poppy farmers, opium producers, and spiritual smokers – a problem the Thai government struggles to control).

In the Lahu family tree, husbands and wives marry and divorce several times.  Polygamy is widely practiced in this community of 70 or so families.  As a result, clans of small children wander the red dirt roads and lounge in packs on haphazard cloth hammocks.  The football field was packed with barefoot, bare-chested boys cradling the ball towards a makeshift goal while girls sat on the side sifting dry beans on a large thatched disk.

On this three-day tribe trek, our guide’s name was Blake.  This had me questioning how Asians chose their Western names.  Nevertheless, Blake’s family was of the nearby Karen tribe (the most populous and prosperous in the region) although he was raised in downtown Chiang Mai.  He had a sister in San Francisco and dreamed of going there one day to listen to good American hip hop.  He was confused that I didn’t like 50 Cent, “but all Americans are hip hop,” he said with some obligatory gestures.

Blake led these tribe tours for poverty-curious Westerners when he wasn’t busy on the Thai/Burma frontier.  He worked as a guide in times of relative peace when his services as a Thai/English/Karen translator for UNICEF were put on hold.  Under the amber glow of a stick candle, Blake told of the KNPPP’s (Karenni National Progressive Party) armed rule over the northeastern corner of Burma along the Thai border.  In October, the KNPP attacked government troops based at Pon Bridge, completely destroying the structure.  His role was much tougher in the conflict zone and he explained that several times he has feared for his life.  Blake was most sad that he would never be able to visit his Karen family in Burma because of his work.  But the pay was good, “Verrrrrrry good!”

Not long after we parted with Blake, KNPP ambushed another Burmese military convoy of 20 government trucks, killing several technicians who were working on a nearby dam construction project.  I can only guess where Blake is now, acting as a guide for a different sort.

At midday, after a starlit evening in the Lahu village, we descended the far side of the mountain.  The brusque chill of the alpine night melted into blistering-blue sunshine as the mountaintop scrub grew into dense forest.  By early afternoon, we reached a village of the Hmong ethnic group.  Believed to have been the original inhabitants of the Yellow River Valley in ancient China, the expansion of neighboring Chinese and ensuing wars led the Hmong to migrate south.  Their riverside settlement had a distinct Chinese flair and small-scale bustle of modern China.

Further into the valley, we stopped to swim under the pounding force of a two-tiered waterfall.  Thatched houses nearby could barely contain the bouncing kids who sold refreshments while simultaneously begging for our snacks.

I sat for a late lunch by the river watching a chicken chase after frolicking yellow butterflies.  A small girl danced the butterflies away and joined me by the rocks.  Soon after, she stripped off her clothes and jumped cannonball into the water, collecting some drifting rubbish.  Returning to the riverbank, she sat with the trash like new toys, arranging each piece in its proper place in the sandbox.  She looked at me with a wild smile when suddenly she reached for a large stone and bashed her collection of new toys.  Giggling hysterically, she grabbed her clothes and ran away.

For our final night, we slept further down the river in a small camp run by local villagers.  With the Lahus, we had the distinct luxury of an automatic (cold) shower.  At the camp, we got a bucket of water and a scoop.  It was a refreshing touch of the true tribal life.

My trip into the hill tribes of northern Thailand was by no means a telling portrait of their world.  I was given a glimpse of the lives of groups who’ve opened their arms (and pockets) to tourism in hope of a better life – a glimpse at groups who’ve allowed themselves to become an exhibit.

From the start, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go on this trip.  There were freakshow photos of long-necked women in exotic attire hanging in glossy finish above every travel desk in Bangkok.  The intrigued travelers were bussed north on ridiculously cheap package tours with bamboo rafting and elephant rides to flesh out a busy itinerary when the cameras were not pointed squarely at naked babies and ethnic ladies.  Intrepid trekking groups were kept at a safe distance from each other to give the affair a dash more integrity, but it still felt under the big red tent.  In our shrinking world, it takes more homework to find a taste of the truly tribal.  Authenticity does not come so neatly packaged.  If anything, the hill tribes were an amuse bouche, a sample of what was to come as I stepped back in time and into Laos.

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Quickpost: Khao Sok – Ancient Jungle

To associate the words “peace and quiet” with nature is a misnomer.  Anyone who has found peace and quiet isn’t really listening.  A twenty-first century kid, I began taking notes on how natural sounds compare to those of our technocratic existence.  I found Khao Sok in south-central Thailand the perfect spot for this.

I will always remember the sound of my laptop – mid thesis – as I spilled a full bottle of hard lemonade.  Often times, this noise comes back to haunt me.  In Khao Sok, the electric popping of cicadas clung deep in my ear setting the knobby hairs of my inner lobe dancing in the frenzy of its electric charge.  No other noise in the jungle came close to the immensity, the overwhelming trumpet blow of the cicadas buzz.  At times a solid hum, and at times an electronic fritz, these hand-sized cicadas sounded like early Prodigy, searching for a dial tone for the World Wide Web.

There were the monkeys that frolicked above, snapping thin branches on their leaps of faith like ponderous typists.  Or, the swimming porcupine that warbled like an icemaker.  At nightfall, the rooftop bats spasmodically sucked from their hairy wild-eyed faces.  The result was a high-pitched screech that irritated like the sound of a static television.  A night in Khao Sok was a night of anthropomorphizing.

In terms of noise pollution, Khao Sok is the Bangkok of Thailand’s national parks.  Boasting a 160 million year old rainforest that it is older and richer than both the Amazon and central Africa, this teeming jungle is operatic.  Sharp limestone mountains trap and reflect the sound like the finest auditorium and from a front row seat in my floating bungalow, I shut my eyes and opened my ears.

Yet, not all of Khao Sok’s creatures were so boisterous.  The leeches were silent and stealthy, injecting a numbing spell and sucking pain-free and unnoticed.  Mute chameleons morphed into mossy branches.  And in the still of the night, mammalian eyes shimmered in the spotlight of high-output flashlights, scared and immobilized.

A large portion of Khao Sok’s virgin forest was buried under the Chiao Lan reservoir, a fingering lake created by the Ratchaprapha dam.  The captain steered our longtail boat around the lake atop the town where he was born – a town buried in a flooded valley back in 1982 when the dam was built.

On the banks of the lake, far from mankind, Khao Sok housed an exotic family.  Wild elephants, tigers, Malayan tapir, sunbears, gaur, pig-tailed macaque and white-headed gibbon lay stake to various parts of the park.  Its flora was equally impressive, with carnivorous pitcher plants and the world’s largest flower, the wild lotus Rafflesia, which can grow up to 90cm in diameter and weigh around 7kg.

Khao Sok was pure, pristine, and pondersom – but it was hardly peace and quiet.

Quickpost: Flamboyant Gibberish

They talked and talked – and I think they thought it was English – but I couldn’t understand a word.  I could only smile, take my gifts, sample what was given, and hope for the best.  The vendors of the Ao Nang night stall had a smart way of offering enough free gifts to guilt me into buying excessive amounts of exotic fruit.  By day two, I was considered a regular.  Leaving the stall unmanned, a purple plastic chair was propped up next to the fruits and the firestorm of babble began.  The two men periodically plucked fistfuls of lychee varietals and sliced up jackfruit, watching wide-eyed as I bit into the fleshy skin.  Soon, the younger one produced a baby-pink bottle with a toothy grin.  Its girlish appearance hid a potent potion.

For the novice, over-proof rice whiskey induced instant hick-ups and a pucker-lipped daze.  It also conjured a hardy laugh and an immediate round of seconds.

From what I could gather (or what was inherently clear) they were already drunk and kept this routine as a daily ritual.  Names were never clearly established, but the older one (presumably in his late ‘40s) kept a firm grip on my knee as he relayed tales of flamboyant gibberish.  Puffs of clove cigarettes added an aire of mystery to a cracked hand full of family photos.  What began with a smile parlayed into tears.  Yet, no sooner had his eyes watered he slapped my knee, shaking his head in laughter.

It started sprinkling so I excused myself with an expressive smile, collected my bags of curious fruits, and scurried home.  On the dark side of the street, stiletto-stomping girls screamed, “hello, welcome” from red-lit bars.  I hurried onwards to my guesthouse where I met the owner’s daughter sitting cross-legged in a beige swivel chair.  She cupped her hands around the karaoke microphone as she wailed Thai pop anthems to an empty street.  Like a comic book come to life, Ao Nang’s characters emerged with each turn. The garish town was full of storytellers muttering lavish songs to a confused world.

Top Chef Thailand

I’ve never been to a Canadian restaurant.  I’m sure that they exist, but I’m not sure what exactly they’d serve.  The international culinary map is marked with such thick borders.  We’re spoon-fed lentils from Morocco and finger our way into Ethiopia’s injera but don’t dare to sample from elsewhere in Africa.  We plow our way through a Brazilian barbecue and feast on Peruvian chicken, but would struggle to find South America’s other offerings.  Each continent has its culinary ambassadors and a country’s size is no judge of its membership into this élite world of global gastronomy (when was the last time you went to a Russian restaurant?).  In Asia you have the big guns India and China fighting over the buffet sector, Korean BBQ hitting the middle road, and Japan and Thailand reaching for upmarket chic.  Most countries whose food makes its way into our neighborhood shopping malls and big city streets are either rich and powerful or large and numerous.  There are obvious exceptions to this rule and I have always wondered why these small counties food gets noticed.  Are they that different from their neighbors?

If you asked me one year ago what my favorite food was (other than pizza), I would have said Thai food.  It’s funny how you can come to love this one thing about a country so much and have no idea of its origins, preparation, or even ingredients.  Why have I grown up eating Thai food and not Lao, Cambodian or Burmese?  After a month overdosing on rice and noodles and an intense day of cooking instruction, I have discovered some of the answers.

Appropriately, my lesson began in the market.  At a table lined with rice-filled bamboo baskets, we learned to differentiate the plain (red, brown, basmati, jasmine) from the sticky varieties – the refined from the unrefined.  Across the way, behind buckets of premade curry pastes in a traffic light formation of red, yellow, and green, a primitive machine squawked as it pressed and pumped out cream from furry brown coconuts.

Most Thai dishes begin with oil.  It is important to cook with the most tasteless oil available and we were shown palm and soy to use depending on the cooking temperature.  Our instructor Tommy, an unusually buff Thai, warned us never to succumb to our Western tendencies and overpower Asian cuisine with olive oil.  Teaching us where to shop in the curiously tidy market, Tommy led us around to another stall to locate Oyster, Mushroom and Fish sauce – the three main flavors in noodles and stir-fry.  He assured us that a hint of fish sauce is essential in every Thai dish.

From the market, we drove sixteen kilometers north of Thailand’s second city, Chiang Mai, to the organic farm.  It was at the farm that we would cook our dishes.  Wandering through the effervescent garden, Tommy pointed out the staple ingredients.  It was important to know the look, smell, and flavor of each item we used to tailor our dishes to our own personal taste.

“How do you call this?” Tommy asked, pointing to a lime.  “Right,” he continued, “Thais can’t pronounce that word so we call it a lemon.”  This made sense.  I’d been ordering lemon juice all over Thailand and got lime every time.  “Unlike the lemons you use back home, you cannot cook with a lime.  It turns to vinegar.  We use lime to flavor a dish once it has already been cooked.”

Thais use two kinds of lemons (limes), the traditional one found in our supermarkets and the lumpy Kaffir.  Each has a different purpose.  The traditional lime is utilized for its juice while the Kaffir’s leaves and skin add essential flavor to curries and noodles.

Around the garden we were introduced to roots and herbs both familiar and exotic – three types of basil (they favor holy), Thai ginger, ginseng, lemongrass, long bean, coriander, and most important – chili.  Thais are known for the heat infused into everything they cook.  Instead of salt and pepper, their tables have chili sauce and chili flakes.  Instead of catsup, they use chili paste… and the food is already hot.  The smallest chilies pack the most punch and the more you chop one up, the more the flavor disseminates.  If you don’t want the dish too spicy but still want the flavor, Tommy recommended choosing a larger chili pepper and removing the seeds.  In the end, the test of a well cooked meal is a spoonful with equal parts sweet, sour, salty, and spicy.

Thai men measure a woman’s prospects for marriage by her curry paste.  She must be strong and sturdy enough to pound a paste out of spurting roots and spices.  This is a tiresome task and I can attest that I would make a horrible Thai wife.  Muddling a paste with the pestle was the first step in our five course class and it was also the hardest.  Red curry is my absolute favorite Thai dish so I was doubly disappointed that it was my poorest result.  The coconut milk should be cooked on medium to maintain a liquid base and mine was as thick as peanut butter.  If you’d like to outdo me (and it won’t be hard) try the recipe at the end of this post.

In Thailand, there is no such thing as a low-carb diet.  Carbs are all there is to eat.  My five courses at cooking school included curry (with rice), coconut soup (with noodles), chicken stir-fry (over rice), spring rolls (with rice noodles), and mango (on a bed of sticky rice).  Rice and noodles!  In the month I spent in Thailand, each day’s big decision revolved around rice or noodles?  If you are curious what I ate this holiday season as you sent a toast of wine atop your honeyed ham, the answer is rice or noodles (with a toast of whiskey, rice whiskey!).

Stir-fry is a typical dish for most of us, so I thought I had this one down.  For me, stir-fry was a lazy process – a progression of vegetables based on cooking times.  The thought had never occurred to me to chop each vegetable in such a way that together they would cook equally.  In Thailand, this typical street food is fried on high for three minutes of dramatic flip-floppery by chefs who wield spatulas like weapons against popping oil and piping flame.  What took me thirty minutes should take three.  Stir-fry is a race against time and a talent I have yet to acquire.  I have no advice on this one because, again, mine was a mild failure.  If you’d like to try pad thai at home check out the recipe at the end of this post.

From the recipes below you may note to add the fresh herbs after the dish is cooked.  This was one of the most important lessons Tommy taught us, vital to every cooked dish.  He’d laugh and repeat, “Don’t worry.  Everything is in your cookbook… except me!”

After gobbling down some mango sticky rice and cleansing our palates with fresh lemongrass tea, the class was over.  We removed our red aprons, bagged up a stack of leftovers, and collected our recipe books with everything (except Tommy) inside.

This was my first cooking class, Thai or otherwise, and if I learned anything, it’s that I’ve been doing so many things wrong.  I am top chef of the casserole and master of the oven, but Asian cuisine is all about the stovetop and this is a whole different field of expertise.  It takes quick-thinking, a bit of flair, and a lot of rice and noodles.

As a populous democracy in an otherwise communist region, Thai food and culture has crossed its own borders and reached the world over with its fresh, unique, and accessible offerings.  Maybe we don’t eat Lao, Cambodian, or Burmese cuisine because they too have started eating Thai.  Once the nose-burning spices become bearable, they soon become desirable.  Western food begins to taste dull.  In Thailand, they don’t have many restaurants in our sense of the word.  This concept was dreamt up by someone else.  But, for us in the West, it makes a good platform for discovering this country’s amazing (and amazingly spicy) delicacies.  We go out for Thai food but rarely endeavor to cook it at home… now’s your chance to take up the challenge…

Red Curry:

***Unless you are an aspiring Thai wife, save yourself the trouble and buy red curry paste in the international section the supermarket!

Ingredients:

1 cup of sliced eggplants (or other vegetables like cauliflower, broccoli, or potato)

¼ cup of smaller pea-like eggplants

1/3 cup of sliced onion

70 grams of sliced chicken (substitute for another meat or tofu)

1 tsp. of sugar

1 tbsp. of fish sauce and soy sauce

3 kaffir lime leaves

2 stems of sweet basil

1 cup of coconut milk

1 cup of water

Cooking:

Pour the coconut milk in the pot and turn on to medium heat.  Stir until oil appears.  Add red curry paste and chicken and stir until almost done.  Add your vegetables, water, sugar, fish sauce, soy sauce, salt and turn the heat up.  Stir a little.  When everything is cooked, turn the heat off and put the sweet basil and lime leaves in.  Serve over rice.

Pad Thai:

Ingredients:

80 grams of rice noodles

1 cup of bean sprouts

2 tbsp. of tofu cut into small pieces

1 egg

1 tbsp. of chopped pickled white raddish

1 tbsp. of crushed roasted peanuts

2 tsp. of white vinegar mixed with 3tbsp. of water

1 tsp. of sugar

1 tsp. of fish or soy sauce

1 tsp. of leek or spring onion

1 tbsp. of shrimps (or chosen meat)

1 pinch of chili powder

3 tbsp. of oil

1 pinch of salt

3 cloves of crushed garlic

Cooking:

Heat up the oil on the wok on medium heat.  Place tofu and fry until crunchy.  Then, turn the heat down to low.  Add garlic, pickled radish, shrimps, chili powder and stir until fragrant.  Add vinegar mix and noodles and turn the heat up to medium.  Stir-fry until the noodles are soft.  Turn the heat down to low.  Make a place by moving the noodles to another side of the wok.  Add the egg and scramble.  Add fish sauce, sugar, salt, crushed peanuts, bean sprouts, and leek (or spring onion) and turn the heat up to high.  Stir-fry thoroughly until well mixed.  Serve with a piece of lemon (lime) and fresh salad.

Good Luck!

Quickpost: The Hidden Lagoon of Railay

Have you ever skimmed through a travel guidebook, honed in on the pictures section, and picked your destination?  Isn’t it funny how those spots are often the toughest, most far flung areas to get to?  It’s as if they’re showing us these images to say, “look, we got the picture so you don’t have too.”  The bottom of the photo references a page number, so you flip through the book and find out the hard truth – going there is “not recommended,” “seasonal,” “for the extremely adventurous,” or “only accessible with a guide if the weather has been good.”  But, if you’re like me, you go anyways.

Thais pointed me in the right direction, but Westerners warned me not to go.  From the overly comfortable beach town of Ao Nang, I caught a traditional longtail boat to the isolated isthmus of Railay.  Popular with rock climbing enthusiasts, Railay is an outcrop cut off from the mainland by massive limestone cliffs which are pocketed with caverns.  At the far end of the isthmus lay an eye-shaped cliff with an emerald green lagoon deep within its iris.  This was my destination – the place in the picture in the center section of the Thailand Beaches and Islands guidebook, the place they warned against going.

Departing the rocking, wooden boat at Ao Railay (west), I trekked across the flat, palm-lined center to Ao Railay (east).  Along the way, black-faced monkeys blocked my path.  By the looks of things, they’d been raiding the rubbish bins and were unperturbed by my presence in the middle of their family brawl.

Thanks to its isolation, Railey felt more like an island than an extension of the mainland. It’s car-less township edged up against the mangrove-lined beachlet of Ao  Railay (east).  Small up-market resorts and Thai cookeries beckoned vacationing yuppies, capitalizing on the shore’s rugged, palm-shaded mystique.

To reach the lagoon, I crossed back to the west side at the far end of the beach at Ao Railay (east).  On the other side of the isthmus, Phra Nang Cave loomed over the west coast’s most mesmerizing strip of sand.  But, I would stop halfway next to a slick, dangling rope resting on a muddy cliff.  An inconspicuous wooden plaque assured me that this was indeed the route, so I swapped sandals for boots and snagged the mud-soaked rope to begin my ascent.

I could have paid to go rock climbing nearby, have an instructor, and harness up in some nut-crunching apparatus.  Instead, I was relying on roots, rocks, and ragged ropes as well as the memory of glossy guidebook photo to heave myself uphill.  The relief I felt as I crest the top was instantly squashed upon realizing that this was no hilltop lagoon.  No, the lagoon was hidden twice as far down into the core of this conical hunk of karst.

Scrambling down a staircase of three sheer 20m drops, my heart pounded into my head.  I was now leading an expedition of four other tourists and it was with my word that they would proceed over each hurdle.  Arms and legs akimbo, I spider crawled down the wet rocks riddled with waterfalls until the emerald iris below swallowed me whole.

Floating on the thick pillow of murky green water, I stared up through the fan-leafed bushes towards the grey sky above.  My white clothes, draped over a bulging rock, appeared coffee-brown, stained in patterns of woven rope and printed hand.  Perched on a rock near the vertical entrance to the lagoon, I reached for my camera.  Yet, no matter what position I found myself in I could not capture the grandeur of the scene.  Through the lens of my camera, the lagoon may as well have been a pond in Florida.

Perhaps, the camera sensed my frustration.  After a few lackluster shots, the lens froze up and broke irreparably.  I never got the shot I came for.  But, I made it to the place in the picture.  Half of the fun of these photo sections is picking your destination.  The other half is pointing and bragging about it after you’ve returned.