If it wasn’t for the palm trees I could imagine Huck Finn fishing the Mississippi on a lazy summer day, but this is a hazy March day on the Perfume River. Like Huck, the fishing isn’t just for fun, it’s dinner.
Like so many rivers that nourish lands holding ancient cultures, the Perfume River is the artery of central Vietnam and Hue. Twisting hundreds of miles from northern mountains, she spreads wide over the low plains before joining the Pacific just east of the city. In fickle March when morning fog turns into muggy afternoon, with or without chilly showers in between, the land is as emerald green as Ireland. Lush riverside farm gardens are worked by dozens of men and women with hand tools. The plots are postcard perfect and serious work for these farmers.
Every late summer and autumn, like all alluvial rivers, The Perfume floods for as far as your eye can determine a tree line or the second floor of sturdy buildings. Bamboo structures visible now near the fields are seasonal and will be gone in the floods. Therefore house boats are common for many who cannot afford housing on land at a safe distance from the river.
The practical resilience of river life is fascinating. Why not use it for both the wash and rinse cycles – especially when the boat’s in motion and tourists are up front.
The grittier side of commercial life on the Perfume is sand extraction. With endangered reserves of hard woods forcing Southeast Asian nations to restrict the forest industry, demand for concrete is high in this rapidly developing region. Since these rivers silt-up frequently they have been a convenient source of sand, but now demand is outstripping supply. Over dredging of the Perfume, due to the alluvial nature of the river, is a cause of worse than average floods within the past decade. These dredging operations are usually family run with simple power pumps to suck and filters to capture the dark gray sand from the river bottom – frequently mounted in their house boats. All day up and down the river are dozens of family operated sand ships. At the end of the day the owners sell their sand for a pittance to a central collector.
A river this tranquil, with misty mountains beyond green fields, attracted Vietnam’s wealthy and intellectual elite. Riverfront land became favored “suburban” home sites for 19th and 20th century professional families, many with connections at Court.
Called garden houses for their proliferation of individual fruit, flowering trees and plants on their 5 + acre plots, these affluent houses were the ultimate of upper middle class life. An Hien started as the home of an Imperial Princess (of a minor wife) over 135 years ago, passing to a high Court Mandarin and to the present generation of that family. It’s not only remarkable that the antique all exotic wood house with priceless family heirlooms survived wars but the Perfume River’s floods. Although set several hundred feet from the river bank, we were shown the 4 to 6 foot water levels of the last decade of floods! The traditional tile roofed 3-bay house, supported by intricately carved ironwood pillers and beams, contained the ancestrial altar and living quarters of the family, sans the kitchen, etc. Open to the lily pond through carved screen doors, these havens of peace for their busy professional owners were based on strict Confucuan design to maximize harmony and tranquility.
The gardens were prized for both their breadth of plant varieties and significance to agriculture and cooking. Jasmine, cinnamon, pomegranate, sunflowers, climbing and wild indigenous roses, exotic species of orchids, fruit trees characteristic of all of Vietnam’s regions: lychees, persimmon and pears from the north, mangosteen and durian from the south with pomelo, jackfruit and oranges plus almonds and the list goes on.
Is there an army of professional gardeners? No, simply the extended family members and in this case they range from California to London. Opening the house to visitors is purely voluntary and none of the Garden House owners receive compensation other than donations. In An Hien’s case the only “commercial” pitch were plant cuttings for sale. If I could only have brought some back to the States…
All respectable Vietnamese buildings based on Confucian design principles have an entrance gate opening onto a small space backed by a freestanding wall – the Spirit Wall. To enter the courtyard one simply walked a short distance to the right or left around the wall. Easy for humans but not evil spirits who cannot sail through so effortlessly. This would be especially useful for an imperial capital. The moat enclosed fortified walls of the 2-1/2 square mile Hue Imperial City was home to hundreds of buildings – palaces, temples, administrative offices and housing – lakes, gardens fountains and the Forbidden Purple City – home to the Imperial family. This vast complex was “Versailles” for the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1946). After years of war wresting control from feudal lords, Gia Long, first Nguyen emperor, established the modern boundaries of Vietnam – fatefully, with a little help from the French. Yet even double gates and fortified walls could not prevent floods, nor could meticulous planning under Confucian principles protect from bombs and artillery. Tempered by this reality, what remains of the vast UNESCO World Heritage Site with its ongoing restoration is beautiful, serene and haunting.
Wandering freely, after paying the admission of US$2.50 at the inner Ngo-Mon Gate, through palaces, gardens, ruins under restoration, past breathtaking decorated gates and crumbling walls, what struck me was the modern Vietnamese attitude toward the Imperial City. No matter that not all Nguyen family members were fondly remembered – to say the least – this was still the shrine to 144 years of national ancestors and therefore sacred ground. Even the 1933 tennis court of the last Emperor, playboy Bao Dai is being restored. The descriptions – written in French, English and Vietnamese – for the extensively restored Dien Tho Palace complex is nearly reverential.
Sadly there isn’t an army of restoration workers on site. Despite UNESCO designation, the projects are vast, requiring research, meticulous craftsmanship and lots of money. Germany and Japan are actively contributing to several current projects. Maintenance alone is a daunting task – this is 2-1/2 square miles of monuments.
The 1968 Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War (locally known as the American War) inflicted severe damage on the Imperial City, yet there are no vitriolic nationalist slogans, just a sober plaque describing the skeletal remains of a palace building within the Forbidden Purple City (bottom left).
Yet there are always the reminders that this is Vietnam where the practical tasks of everyday life are as important in Confucian thought as the lofty actions of State. Laundry drying on the Imperial City’s walled moat? As long as it’s feng shui…
Have you ever wished you could live in a postcard? You can if you cruise the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Halong Bay. Situated on Vietnam’s north east coast, it has been an important player in the nation’s history and economy for over a millennium. It doesn’t hurt being one of the most beautiful sites on the planet.
Hundreds of limestone island mountains have been sculpted by centuries of erosion. The bay itself opens to the Gulf of Tonkin, the port of Ha Phong and the vast Pacific. It has been an artery of wealth for Hanoi and north Vietnam, as well as the cultured pearl capital of the country. The bay, like so many expanses of water in Southeast Asia, contains floating villages. Unlike floating villages on lakes, Halong Bay’s are not as polluted or dangerous for residents, although the average family wage is less than US$800/year – owning your own floating house can run 20X that amount.
The main occupation is cultured pearl farming and it’s an extraordinary art. A thin slice of the oyster’s skin is dissected under microscopic glasses and transformed into “seeds” that are surgically inserted into the live oyster. Several seeds may be implanted in one oyster, but, after 3 to 7 years gestation – depending on the type and color – less than 20% will ever produce gem quality pearls. Packed in baskets suspended from bamboo floats, this important crop waits for the luxury world beyond.
Prior to the Indochina wars that ravaged Vietnam during the 20th century, Halong Bay’s limestone islands provided shelter for villages and isolated Confucian and Buddhist retreats. During the war they served as protection from air raids and today they are fascinating caves for everyone to explore. Several caves have been transformed into “tourist-friendly” sites complete with guides and dramatic multi-color theater lighting illuminating an otherworldly scene that takes on the look of an “otherworldly tourist attraction” – shapes of hanging feet, a large erection.. etc. (I keep on saying – the truth – that Southeast Asians are playful and NOT dour.) It’s fun to walk through the caves.
Halong Bay’s a year round destination but summer is its high season. March was still chilly and damp but added a mystical mist to the entire scene. There are islands that have summer beaches and there are a variety of ways to visit the bay. The most popular is by taking an overnight cruise on a small Chinese Junk-style ship carrying between 10 – 35 passengers. From the port of Halong City, the ships sail into the center of the bay – about one hour – and anchor. From there passengers are ferried to the floating villages, pearl farms, caves, kayaking through caves and to beaches. There are over 400 ships that ply the bay ranging from small day-trip boats to “luxury” cruise junks. I place the word “luxury” in quotes because it’s difficult to determine beforehand which ships fit that description. Our ship, the Hanoi Opera, booked through the highly recommended Explorer Tours, was a fine ship carrying 20+ passengers but whose beds were designed for ascetic monks – the futon mattress was perhaps 1.5 inches thick to be generous. Paying $US420/couple for 2 nights to sleep on a wooden pallet was very uncomfortable. We discovered that there were many other ships that offered a higher level of comfort at less cost. Having researched the options for a month before booking the cruise, and after extensive conversations with fellow travelers, I would not recommend booking ahead. With so many ships available for tours, the best options are: (1) stay overnight in Halong City and take a day excursion on the bay, or (2) stay overnight in Halong City and check out the overnight ships to see which ones offer real beds. A one-night cruise is sufficient and should run around US$150 – $165/couple, including meals.
The three hour bus trip from Hanoi to the Bay – included in the cruise fare – was equally interesting. Although not comfortable given the condition of Vietnamese roads, passing through rural countryside and old villages undergoing rapid middle-class changes was enlightening. Rice paddies with Water Buffalo pulling wooden plows are next to French/Vietnamese style “McMansions” of affluent Vietnamese. Anyone owning a house more than 9 feet wide is affluent since ancient real estate tax laws dictate high levies on any structure wider – although depth and height are excluded. Catholic churches towered over Confucian and Buddhist temples. Trash, dust and too much traffic for the narrow roads was typical. Nineteenth century farming and building techniques were side-by-side with 21st century office buildings, truck dealers and technical schools.
Of course, the bus does make a shopping stop at a stone carving studio. Vietnam has an abundance of both limestone and marble. Hand-made marble carvings, especially garden fountains and statues, in sizes that are quite large, are available and shipping can be arranged – don’t look for bargains, these are top-of-the-line. Silk embroidery – some of it quite fine – is an art that frequently employs the disabled and is widely available, as well as jewelry and women’s ready-to-wear clothing – as long as you’re a size 8 or less.
“Past error is no excuse for its own perpetuation.” Senator Robert F. Kennedy, 1968
There’s little visible evidence of Hanoi circa 1010 – the city was established by Chinese expanding southward on settlements along the Red River that had been there already for 2,000 years. Actually, there’s little evidence of Hanoi pre 1870’s. Confucian culture preserves the spirits of the ancestors, not their buildings. Even if decades of war and millions of tons of dropped bombs had not significantly damaged the city, ingrained capitalism would have dictated their presence superfluous. The drive from Hanoi’s dreary Noi Bai International Airport – 28 miles (45 km) from the city’s downtown – passes extensive rice paddies boardering high-rise office complexes, narrow mold-streaked French colonial-style town houses next to another BMW dealership before winding snake-like into the heart of Old Hanoi with it’s 21st century sensory overload.
“Charming” is a term to apply to Hanoi only if you believe Manhattan deserves the moniker as well. Frenetic is my description. The motor bike horns begin by 4:00 AM, followed by the publically broadcast music from the computer/TV store across the street starting at 8:00 AM, then the TV in the hotel’s breakfast room entertaining the owner’s young son with the Cartoon Network dubbed in Vietnamese. Outside is pandemonium if not prepared.
Hanoi is a city that would make Donald Trump proud. Everyone is an entrepreneur and quite aggressive in their selling methods whether it be a cyclo driver following you down the street because you really don’t want to walk (?), or stepping over and around another sidewalk café while saying “no” to the hundredth deep fried donut, peeling the hand of the seller off your arm because you really do not need another map of the city all the while being aware that you’re walking in the middle of the street, because there’s no sidewalk space, along with cars, motorbikes and bicycles. Everything is for sale and streets, not just in the Old City, are frequently dedicated to a product – silversmith, watches… The Hotel Ho Guom was located on the edge of the Old City and the French Quarter and most of the surrounding shops were computer and TV stores.
Street life is not attractive compared to Thailand and Laos. The city is dirty. In Thailand and Laos both the cities and countryside were virtually trash free and yet there was not an overabundance of trash cans. Residents and shop owners simply picked up after themselves. Not so in Hanoi. There is an air of freewheeling rampant capitalism with a “me-me” attitude. It is nearly impossible to simply stop on the side of the street when walking to take a photo without having to dodge a vehicle, a person, a pile of discarded greasy food or a hawker. Yet Hanoi is a rich city. It is Southeast Asia’s most expensive real estate, everyone is either working or eating (or both), Bentley, BMW and Mercedes cars share the streets with motor bikes, high rise buildings are going up and the lakes are beautiful – even if they’re still not havens of quiet.
It is not a tourist city, it’s for business. Evidence of the horrific wars that tore the country apart are nowhere to be seen except in the museums – none of which are worth seeing unless you’re really into war and politics. The most prominent statue to a political figure is the huge monument to Emperor Lý Thái Tổ(974-1028) who ended Chinese domination over Vietnam. One of the city’s largest structures is the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Joseph (1886). Over 15% of Vietnamese are Catholic and Saturday night Mass was packed.
The Temple of Learning, built in 1070, dedicated to Confucius, functioned for more than 700 years as Vietnam’s Imperial University educating the country’s nobles, royalty, mandarins and other elite. If after years of study and a month-long series of exams, a student graduated as a Mandarin their name was engraved on stone stele that sits on large stone turtles in the temple. Annually about 8 out of every 3,000 exam takers ever reached that loftiest of degrees. The temple consists of a series of five landscaped courtyards. The first two are primarily gardens including fanciful designs and topiary. The third one has a lotus pond and the stellae. The final courtyard holds the shrine to Confucius. The northern half of Vietnam has been Confucian for centuries. More a social and political philosophy based on ethics and behavior, and quite compatible with capitalism and central government, Confucian thought – although complex – does guide Vietnam today. Ancestor worship and offerings to the animistic spirits of nature by burning incense and leaving food and drink on alters, in trees and at monuments is as common in Vietnam as anywhere else in Southeast Asia.
Within the Old City are several privately owned houses many within the same family dating back several centuries and are open to the public. They give a glimpse of middle class merchant life that, in reality, still exists today. The front of the house was always the store, and directly above were the 2nd floor store rooms reached by a staircase. Behind the store is the residence dominated in front by the alter to the ancestors. At least two courtyards open the houses to outdoor light and rain water. Chinese architectural influence is paramount in these pre-19th century structures.
Most “tourist attractions” signal to me to “stay away,” but Hanoi’s Water Puppet Theater is unique and well worth the US$3.00 admission (for a front row seat). Started during ancient rice harvest festivals, the flooded rice paddies were transformed into magical puppet theaters. Puppets are a beloved form of entertainment throughout Asia, but these puppet masters control their elaborate characters from behind screens and actually under the water. Fire breathing dragons compete with dainty court dancers and palm tree climbing coconut collectors. A live orchestra in traditional dress playing on traditional instruments completes the experience as one of the best cultural venues in the city!
Cuisine is not Hanoi’s forte. There are a lot of places to eat and, as usual on this Earth, they’re mediocre. The finest restaurant in Hanoi is also the most fascinating. Koto, next to the Temple of Learning, is in an elegant, 3 story French art nouveau town house. Opening at 11:30 AM it is full within the hour. Founded 20 years ago by concerned Australians and Vietnamese, it is a culinary training school and refuge for disadvantaged/abused/orphaned young adults. If I had not known this in advance, I would have assumed it’s simply a superbly well trained staff serving creative dishes at moderate prices. It was the best meal I had in Hanoi. Cost for two was less than US$18.00
Unfortunately, many restaurants in Hanoi listed in guidebooks or on user reviewed travel sites were geared to tourists with Western taste (Australian beef burgers) and overpriced for the country. One important note of traveling in Vietnam is that it’s the least expensive of the Southeast Asian nations. A metered taxi (don’t travel any other way) is a couple of bucks anywhere within downtown, dinner for two with beer is under US$20, a first class hotel is overpriced if it’s rates are more than US$55-75, admission to any museum is a couple of bucks. I did have a very interesting, but not consistently well prepared, dinner at the top rated Highway 4, on a dark and dreary street north of the Water Puppet Theater. Deep fried crickets were fascinating – like eating feathery nuts, but beef flamed in foil was tough and other unexciting dishes were under seasoned. Although they advertise such exotic foods as Water Buffalo penis and fried scorpians, none of these were available. The Hotel Ho Guom, $55/double, was centrally located with an energetic and helpful staff – although the web site pics are better than reality. The room was comfortable and the breakfast provided a nice choice of traditional and Western foods.
Hanoi is not a comfortable city, and I’d suggest no more than a two day stay. Yet, for someone of my American generation it was an important visit. Barely avoiding the draft in the late 1960’s, brought up on ideas of “communist domination,” it was valuable to learn that it truly was all lies. If Vietnam is a “socialist” state, Wall Street’s full of socialist. The war was a nationalist independence movement to throw off Western domination so that they could resume the rampant capitalism Vietnam always enjoyed before the French imposed their colonial regime. Vietnam succeeded, and if, along with their Chinese cousins, they eventually dominate Southeast Asia it will be through capitalist investment not ideology.
The ceiling fan stirs the languid air as mosquitoes flirt in the shadows of verdant ferns and orchids. Roosters compete with motor bikes to break the dawn. The gray/pink haze illuminates the dust laden street with its fading blue and red tin roofed houses. A young man in his 20’s, shirtless, in red shorts, barefoot, opens a creaking gate to drag the motor bike out of the night-time safety of his house. He pauses, takes in the day – a day just like yesterday – the sun will break through and life will steam.
I sit on the rattan chair at the small dining table, close to the window away from the fluorescent ceiling lights and their harsh pools of blue/white light. The coffee is black, thick and sweetened with condensed milk, just as everyone in this ancient kingdom likes it – except me.
Other guests filter down the wide wooden staircase during the morning. Given the heat, humidity and sugar high from the coffee, I easily imagine a veritable cornucopia of characters from any number of 20th century expat-in-the-tropics novels. The fit German couple in the corner table – early 50’s but have that trekkers’ older look – bussed it overnight from the capital, 12 hours, no air-conditioning. I’ve been warned the overnight busses are not wise – theft, bandits, drivers falling asleep, other accidents. Relaxed they were with their pineapple juice, coffee and toast; they’ve faced worst dangers (?). There’s the eager well-scrubbed English 20-something travel companions planning their one-day schedule to see 14 temples, naive to the toll the jungle will take by temple # 3. The sullen early middle-aged North American couple, skin already too red from the sun, start the day badly due to the eggs (they were oddly undercooked in some sort of fat and sprinkled with ground cinnamon). Yet even though $20/night is nothing to spend on a hotel – ok, weak a/c, weaker WiFi and it’s the third world – it should include… Perhaps he needs to ask the Ta Prohm Strangler what life in the jungle should include.
Siem Reap, Cambodia, is not far from the 19th century. Just outside the town are dusty small villages still in that time warp. French annexation of the Angkor Wat region over a century ago assured its discovery as one of Earth’s great man-made sites, and Siem Reap developed a modest tourist industry. A few elegant hotels, such as the 1929 Grand Hotel d’Ankor, guest houses and a very modest Royal Residence were sprinkled on tree-lined streets in what was just a large village.
The survival of Angkor, and Siem Reap, through World War II, the French Indochina War, the Vietnam War, Pol Pot and the civil war (total war years: 1939 -1989) is miraculous although like all urban areas, the town and its population suffered greatly. Yet what is Siem Reap without Angkor, what is Angkor without the Khmer Empire, and what is empire without war?
The meters of bas-relief carved on many walls of the over 200 temple complexes at Angkor Thom tell the story that this was the center of an empire – political, military, economic and religious – as well as the home to thousands of people for hundreds of years. Since 1989, stability under the restored monarchy has made tourism safe again at Angkor. Still, visiting the UNESCO site at night is neither allowed nor advisable. Driving, or even being driven, at night for any long distance in rural areas outside Siem Reap is not a good idea. Bus travel to the Lao border a couple hundred miles north can take a full day. It has been this way for hundreds of years, ever since the Khmer Empire moved its capital south and the Ta Prohm Strangler moved in.
The expansionist Thais of Siam put an end to the westward growth of the Khmers in the 15th century by sacking and eventually occupying most of the Empire’s capital at Angkor Thom. Then the French took it from the Thais (1907) and gave it back to the new Khmer kingdom of Cambodia (under their “protection”). Except there’s still this issue over the 11th centuryPreah Vihear temple right on the border created after the French annexed the land so…
Siem Reap exploded during the last decade developing from a modest town into a chaotic jumble of village/tacky/new high-end without sufficient infrastructure. A new strip of luxury resort hotels, lining the road from the airport to town, seriously serving bus tours, seem incongruous interspersed with rice paddies and no beach. The old French Quarter’s charm is hidden behind questionable electrical lines and examples of exuberant marketing.
Dusty unpaved roads with small houses and even smaller tailor shops, fruit stands and tall narrow guest houses intersect with a boulevard and the ATM across the street. The night-time scene is classic: locals hawking cheap wares while children watch TV on someone’s laptop, “tuk-tuk? where are you going?” the smells of grilled meat and humid air, music thumping from dozens of open bar/restaurants, “2 dollars foot message?” lights of all shapes and colors illuminating a kaleidoscope of swirling Australians, French and Japanese dodging the motor bikes and tuk-tuks. The gods and demons of ancient Angkor would prefer if Siem Reap was grander, but I’m confident they’d approve the activity – after all, it is once again Cambodia’s cash cow. Could the Strangler be failing?
Creating a sustainable economy is difficult in a region both exhausted by strife and whose fame is based on ruins. Artisans d’Angkor operates both training facilities and retail outlets for high-end traditional Khmer silk, wood and stone arts and crafts. Training those with special physical needs is part of their mission as well. Touring both the craft shops and the silk farm is instructive and a pleasant break from tracking down the Ta Prohm Strangler.
Southeast Asians eat all the time – a grilled banana, nibble fresh pineapple, sip some cane juice, a fresh baked fish in salt, a coke, a few dried strawberries. There’s always food, and no one’s fat. Yet KFC’s here and Australian beef burgers but so are frog’s legs and sautéed freshly picked morning glory greens from the river bank.
There’s a quiet side, the banks of the Siem Reap River. The town’s best restaurant and small hotel, Bopha, is located at 512 Acharsva Street facing the east bank. It’s a haven of calm with rooms and the restaurant surrounding and within several lush tropical garden courtyards. A private pool adds to the relaxation of spending less than $US60/double and US$20/couple for haute Khmer cuisine (US$10-20/wine).
The lure is still the past – the Royal City of Angkor Thom, the vast complex of 243 temple cities once populated with over one million people ruling an empire covering much of present day Southeast Asia. Started by Khmer kings and Hindu priests in the 9th century, reaching its zenith in the 13th as the capital of a Buddhist empire, sacked by the Thais in the 15th century, it has been sustained and ultimately saved by monks from the strangulation of neglect, changing politics, wars and the jungle.
The Strangler Fig (strangler vine to the locals) sends dozens of roots deep into the ground around rocks and buildings for hundreds of feet. It encases and crushes whatever it encounters. To kill the vine, all roots must be severed. To restore a temple, the vines must be killed.
A metaphor for the restored Khmer Kingdom of Cambodia? Can all the destructive roots of the past 500 years be severed and the orderly, yet bloody, grandeur of nationhood be reborn? Or will Siem Reap be a new Khmer model: play it day-by-day, see what happens, hope, sweat and keep the Ta Prohm Strangler at bay.
Famous local saying: “We have three seasons in Thailand – hot, hotter, and hottest.”
Tom Kha Chicken
You could say the same about Thai cuisine. I’ve seen innocent tourists sitting in a Bougainvillea bedecked cafe terrace enjoying Tom Kha Chicken at breakfast – the incomparable Thai lemongrass infused stock and coconut milk soup. Small chunks of chicken float in a fragrant white sea and the diner, concentrating on the interplay of lime, green onion, cilantro, tomato and coconut, is oblivious to the decorative slivers of red and green until teeth involuntarily release their oils into the mouth. The shock has often been audible. Now I know why crisp, cold cucumber slices are frequently at every meal – they’re an “ice pact” to your burning mouth. Given the subtle ways Thai’s can hide chilies within a dish, it’s perhaps the secret to remaining the only Southeast Asia nation never colonized. You figure.
Yet not even locals constantly bombard their taste buds with numbing capsicum overloads. At a tiny local street café I had two common noodle dishes mild hot. Next to me were dishes of dry and fresh chilies, as well as fish sauce and lime, to add my own layer of heat. Rarely will a Thai dish be made without any chili, but as common is accommodating personal taste and not just for tourists. I find too much heat masks the other flavors. I enjoy a soft to mild after burn once I’ve tasted the fresh herbs, mushrooms, fish sauce, garlic, lime and lemongrass. (Thai restaurants in North America forget that the quantities of the previous ingredients need to be generous – not merely garnish). Those two dishes cost US$2.00, total.
Thai’s like to play with their food. We’re all used to the ubiquitous stir fry with beef (upper left) but have we given a thought to making a woven edible bowl out of tarot root for a chicken stir-fry (bottom right). A noon time salad of mushrooms, tomatoes is not uncommon, but adding porcelain white varieties that look like sea plants along with a light, lime, chili and sesame oil dressing raises the bar. The miniature little fruit off to the left? They are edible, painted and decorated sweet bean paste creations that can’t help but make you smile.
Ban Roi Mai Restaurant serves a good and varied menu of Thai cuisine in an attractive garden setting (bottom right). Live music plays at night. It’s easy to find by Tuk-tuk or walking since it’s only a couple blocks from the Night Market. (Top left) The “fried chicken” was a chopped flat disk nicely seasoned with cilantro, chili, onion, lightly browned and topped with a lime sour cream mayonnaise. The chicken was surrounded with a ruffle of dry green cellophane noodles. (Top right) Sautéed Snake in Red Curry Sauce was a surprisingly mild dish. Snake really is as mild as chicken, and the curry was exceptionally light on chili to the point where I added a few. (Bottom left) The typically spicy green papaya salad – a dish that can go to the height of heat – was spiked with steamed purple crabs. (Lunch for 2 w/beer: less than US$15.)
It’s hard to top Chiang Mai’s Pongyang Angdoi Resort & Restaurant for location: on a hillside surrounded by the protective mountains and forests of Doi Inthanon National Park. A waterfall that attracts many visitors in its own right is within unobstructed view of anyone dining on the multi level stone terrace. For a restaurant that’s on everyone’s list, the food is surprisingly fresh and imaginative. (Top right) A classic dish of seasoned ground pork with lime, chilies, fresh basil, cilantro in broth, to which fresh vegetables are added as it’s consumed, had a good balance of heat and cold. Note the side dishes of fresh marinating chillies and garlic – one’s in rice wine vinegar the other in a sweetened fish sauce. Fish Sauce, which so puts people off with its initial smell actually becomes sweet once added to food. Along with lime it’s a great flavor enhancer. (Bottom center) The stir-fry of calamari was tender. (Lunch for 2 w/beer, espresso, tip was less than US$20.)
There are less expensive hotels than the Rimping Village, but you’ll be hard pressed to find one with a more friendly and helpful staff. Situated in the quiet of Chiang Mai’s east bank of the Ping River within its own extensive walled garden, the hotel is a luxurious oasis for US$90/night/breakfast. The salt water pool is immaculate along with every other square inch of the facilities. Fresh flowers grace every room and in the massive rubber tree are small alters with burning incense just to thank its spirit for adding such useful shade. The open air restaurant serves a superb breakfast buffet of both Western and Thai dishes (which change daily): pastries, breads, cereals, juices, sticky rice, tropical fruits, green salad, a couple Thai hot dishes such as Pad Thai with shrimp, stir-fry rice with vegetables as well as choices of freshly made eggs, omelets and meats.
Take away the chilies and Thai cuisine is more subtle that other Southeast Asian cultures. All the herbs and spices are there but in quantities that add soft layers of flavor rather that explode in the mouth – unless it’s chile peppers. In previous articles I’ve written about the street food. It’s no cliché; that’s the real Thai food – simple grilled, marinated, fried – with fresh chilies. (I need to mention that it’s best to observe the street techniques but recreate the dish in your own kitchen unless you’re not bothered by a lack of certain elements of street sanitation). The natural flavors of the fruit and produce, of course, are intense. Few factory farms exist in this land of small farmers with abundant time for food to ripen and many markets to sell their goods at the peak of freshness.
His Majesty the King is said to enjoy the simple yet beloved egg tart sweet so much that it’s prominently advertised by KFC in Thailand.
Chiang Maiin a muggy late February haze: the ancient, once fortified, city still sits surrounded by a watery moat and the highest mountains in Thailand. The hills provided vantage points warning of potential invasions from its arch-enemy, the Burmese (and their Thai cousins from Ayutthaya in the south). Yet the Ping River that nourishes the valley’s abundant agriculture inexorably continues its cycle of – all too frequent for some – annual floods.
It’s no wonder that one of Thailand’s most sacred Buddhist temples (site selected by a White Elephant and whose golden chedi emblazons the Royal Standard) should top one of these mountains. Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep’s founding dates from the late 14th century. Inside the temple grounds, visitors must remove their shoes (like all temples the interior is immaculate) and must be appropriately dressed – no shorts, short skirts, sleeveless blouse or shirt. Within the site are pagodas, statues, bells and shrines displaying the eclectic mix of Hindu/Buddhist craftsmanship common in Thailand. Tourism and worship, even texting, blends seemlessly within the atmosphere of common respect temples generate.
Bhubing Palace is only a few miles from the Wat. Both are less than an hour’s drive up scenic Mount Doi Suthep through Doi Inthanon National Park (offering great outdoor activity potential). The extensive Palace gardens run the gamut from common perennials to roses, orchids and a tropical rain forest yet all are seemlessly blended within the natural landscape by a small army of professional gardeners. The gardens are open to the public whenever members of the Royal Family are not in residence (information is available through your hotel or the tourist offices in the city). The Palace itself is rather modest reflecting its role as a home to get away from it all. Bhubing Palace is a popular site for foreign and Thai tourists, and with Chiang Mai’s position next to ethnic hill tribes, there’s often a colorful mix of clothing.
Wiang Kum Kam had been a Buddhist settlement long before the late 13t century when it was chosen as the first capital for King Mangrai’s Lanna Kingdom (Kingdom of Million Rice Fields: 13th – 18th centuries). Yet frequent flooding caused even the King to move – Chiang Mai. With its rural complex of 20 temples and chedi, Wiang Kum Kam remained important throughout the Lanna period, but repeated assaults by the course-changing Ping River forced most of the temples to be abandoned during the 15th century.
With assistance from UNESCO, archeological excavations started in the 1980’s removing on average 3 – 4 feet (1 – 1.3 meters) of mud and silt deposited over the past 500 years. With on-going restoration and preservation, Wiang Kum Kam is an historical park. Surrounded by village houses and deep green rice paddies, you understand the allure of the rural countryside when crickets, birds, locust and the sound of horse’s hooves are louder in the hot humid air than any man made noise.
The ideal method for touring Wiang Kum Kam is by horse carriage. For less than US$5-7.00(inc. a tip) with driver/guide, a couple to 3 can tour the lost city in a style that adds to its sense of time-warp, despite its location only 5 miles south of Chiang Mai. Many of the sites are mere ruins yet a closer look reveals stories in the fragments – decorative carvings of sea snails as stair rails, sea monsters or evidence of mortar covering thick, wide brick construction. The Wat Chedi Liamis the starting/ending point for the carriages. Remarkably, this Wat survived the destructive floods over the centuries and has remained a living temple.
Moved and restored, the 19th/early 20th century farmers elevated house and barn is a fine example of life for many people in Wieng Kum Kam over the past 1500 years. Constructed almost entirely of light but flexible bamboo, including flooring, these elevated structures prevented both unwanted animals and moderate flooding from doing major damage to the home. Rice and grains were stored in the upper floor of the barn along with light tools, while larger tools remained on the open ground floor.
The Hmong, Yao, Lahu, Akha and Karen (otherwise known as the long neck people) are collectively the ancient hill tribes speaking pre-Lanna/Thai languages. Comprising nearly 15% of the Chiang Mai area’s population and known for their craft skills, they’ve become somewhat a tourist attraction. Standard tours to villages frequently are nothing more than staged shopping trips. Check around for alternative tours or best option is to arrange through your hotel a private car/driver/tour guide. This allows for custom designed touring avoiding what’s obviously staged and explotative. Cost for a 7 – 8 hour day average US$40/60 depending on itinerary. It’s the most comfortable way to travel as well.
On the ethnically diverse east bank of the Ping River is the venerable temple, monastery and school complex of Wat Gate Ket Karem and its museum. Established within the past decade in a renovated 19th century wooden building on the temple grounds, the museum is the gift of “Uncle Jack” Jarin Bain, an octogenarian who can still be seen offering his services as a docent. Many of the artifacts and collectables were acquired by an early 20th century German expat business man. A major source of knowledge on the artifacts come from the extensive writings of Prince Damrong Rajanpub (1862-1943) regarded as the father of Thai archaeology and history. In 1962 this 57th son of King Rama IV (1804-1868) was selected by UNESCO for its World’s Most Important Person’s List.
The Lanna Architectural Center’s Khum Chai Burirat house (1893/early 20th century renovations) is not only a fitting site for a museum of pre-20th century Thai architecture, but an excellent example of “ruen kalae” or mansion style. An extension of Lanna University’s architecture department, the house-museum is free and open most days. Sitting in a walled park just blocks from the Old City, Khum Chai Burirat house was donated to the University. The smooth highly polished teak hardwood, Buddhist chapel, curved main staircase, wide covered 2nd floor wraparound porch and wood lace decorative touches tell of a time when buildings compensated for the hot climate rather than attempted control. That rarely works; just ask the Ping River.
A quintessential Chinatown – winding narrow streets packed with people, motor vehicles and wooden carts, the ornate red and gilt gate, the smells of grilled meat and steaming soups, the sellers of dragon fruit, dried strawberries and grilled bananas, whole plucked chickens and spotted eggs, smoked ducks and dried fish, sunglasses, Apple iPods, Nike logo T-Shirts, apartment size refrigerators. Expect this isn’t part of San Francisco or New York; this is in Chiang Mai, the Kingdom of Thailand’s second largest city.
The Chinese have been investing in Southeast Asia long before its current economic boom. Since the 13th century they have been a major presence in the city on both sides of the Ping River. The market on the west bank is jammed with hundreds of vendors both in large indoor markets and nearly every square inch of the sidewalks selling literally, just about everything.
Chiang Mai, like many Southeast Asian cities, offer an abundance of shops offering custom-made clothing and shoes. Often high quality clothing can be made within 24 to 36 hours. Shops offering “2-hour” service make me question the quality of the product. The best shops offer a sizable selection of high quality materials and well designed clothing displayed on many mannequins giving you that essential “gut” feeling of confidence. The process of cloth selection, design choices, measurement and a minimum of two fittings, as well as good craftmanship, takes time (and if the store’s good they’re also busy). I was not aware that most of the sewing is accomplished using treadle machines – real hand/foot-made. It makes sense in a region of the world where power outages can be common and demand for the products are high. High quality custom hand-made clothing can frequently range 60 – 75%less than comparable ready-to-wear clothing in North America or Europe.
new Penguin treadle sewing machines for sale
No Southeast Asian city has only one market and that is certainly true of Chiang Mai. Starting at the Thapae Gate and running the length of cobble stoned Ratchadamnoen Road through the heart of the Old City, Chiang Mai’sSunday Night Market is a major attraction for both locals and visitors alike. The street is closed to traffic its entire length from 5:00 PM to midnight, but that does not mean a lack of congestion, except this time its only people.
Although touted as a venue to find quality handmade crafts I did not find this true. Most of the “crafts” were the same low quality souvenir trinkets found in abundance everywhere albeit with some imaginative displays such as the heart made of rice with inexpensive earrings on top. The market is more important as a citywide social gathering mixing expats, tourist and all age groups of locals. There’s traditional street food foods grilling and simmering and deserts rarely found on North American Thai menus. Try creamy sweetened steamed rice blended with banana, melon or pumpkin wrapped in a banana leaf cone (bottom center) or (bottom right) Kaw Tom Mud – sticky rice with sweetened coconut milk and banana or soy bean paste wrapped in a banana leaf package. Both are delicious. Most restaurants on this major Old City road are open late and become part of the market scene considering that with warm/hot evenings outside seating is common. Some of the oldest Buddhist Temples are open and beautiful to see at night.
Lights, live music and lots of sounds, aromas, colors, children scurrying about, yet there are poignant reminders of wars that past generations endured. A group of elderly musicians, playing traditional music. were raising funds for victims of land mines. The soft music and chants were in sharp contrast to the riot of noise in the market, but the real impact was the reality that the musicians were all land mine victim survivors. The yin and yang of reality, it’s all in the Sunday Night Market.
The Night Market is 7 days a week 5:00 PM – Midnight (not trafffic free) and is the real center of northern Thailand’s handmade crafts. Occupying a permanent space on the west bank of the Ping River just a couple blocks south of the Iron Bridge (great night-time views walking over the Ping River – there are sidewalks on the bridge), the market space has permanent shops, stalls, open air restaurants and live music on a central stage. Fine quality silks and decently made cotton and linen clothing are in abundance (I bought a pair of well made linen pants and a linen shirt – $10US total). Wood carvings, marionette puppets (a beloved craft), cut leather art works, some imaginative jewelry, an eclectic selection of old and new decorative art, lots of bright lamps, more smoked ducks – a lot of goods available. Of course there’s the food, and at the Night Market, fish and seafood are a specialty.
Giant prawns – as large as lobster tails – sea snails, calamari, oysters, a variety of fresh fish – many still swimming – Pacific lobsters and crabs are all available. A customer chooses exactly the specimen and quantity they want and pay by weight. The cost? Less than a third what it would be in North America or Europe. The preparation? Grilled with garlic and fresh herbs, steamed and added to an entrée salad with cucumbers, tomatoes and fresh herbs, stir-fried with fresh vegetables and/or a variety of mushrooms, deep-fat fried tempura style – you can decide, you can create. Add an ice-cold local beer and enjoy the warm night.
After dinner perhaps you’ll want a massage – outdoors (I didn’t so I can’t comment on their quality). A foot massage may cost $2.00US (30 – 60 minutes) whereas a Thai massage – more like an hour on the rack without death – does limber your muscles and may cost as much as $7.00US/hour. Gentler Swedish or Shiatsu methods are available if you don’t want to plunge too soon into a Thai massage. Or how about tiny little fish nibbling on your feet and legs? I didn’t try it – return trip – but devotees swear that it not only feels terrific, it’s more effective than a pumice stone – and I guess fun…
(Next: Chiang Mai Part 3 – attractions in the countryside)
PS: (1) spicy chicken feet are akin to chicken wings and summer b-b-q season’s soon.
(2) take normal precaution eating raw foods in a hot, humid climate.
Actually the Buddha never visited Chiang Mai no less move there, but legions of his devotees have over the centuries from around the world – India, Laos, Vietnam, China, Australia, France, England, Canada, America. Not all of these expats are Buddhist. Hinduism from India arrived first, a few thousand years ago, followed by Buddhism somewhere around 500 AD, and all had no real issue with local Animist practices, Confucianism brought by Chinese merchants and Christianity when Europeans arrived after 1500 AD. After all, what we know today as Chiang Mai has been an important city since its turbulent days as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom, wars with its arch-enemy Burma, Japanese occupation during World War II, its rise as the cultural heart of ancient northern Thailand and even the onslaught of overfed Western expats looking for a low cost of living and cheap facelifts.
As flexible as Buddhism is, modern Thai’s have few issues with Starbucks, cell phones or even fat expats, but the shorts for sale in the upper right picture are strictly for foreign women (unless you want to be a Thai woman with a tarnished reputation) and no Thai guy would go shirtless unless at the beach – which is no where close to Chaing Mai. That said, Chiang Mai is not an attractive city. Many of its old teakwood structures are found scrunched tightly among mold stained concrete buildings of more recent vintage. Like most Southeast Asian cities, sidewalks crumble under persistent floods of the Ping River during rainy season, their primary use as motor bike parking lots and spontaneous “stores” for sellers of everything from sunglasses to spicy hot chicken feet.
Like most of regions of the world with hot sunny weather, walking would seem to be the obvious choice to see the city, but this is Southeast Asia. Although many people do walk – certainly far more than any American city – “pedestrian friendly” is a concept that’s not part of Asian consciousness. With few walkable sidewalks, one shares the often narrow streets with cars, trucks, motor bikes and other forms of public transportation in a devil-may-care free-for-all. Chiang Mai has few traffic lights, except in some places on the modern expressways in the new outer parts of the city, and fewer police to calm the constant rushing traffic. To cross the street a pedestrian simply crosses the street into the traffic which frequently comes from all directions. Although daunting at first, this is exactly what the on-coming traffic expects as it, usually, avoids both pedestrians and other vehicles with deft agility. The worst action a pedestrian can take is to get spooked and hesitate halfway across several lanes of traffic – that’s when the cars and motor bikes get spooked and “problems” occur.
Most Thai’s without their own transportation ride the Songthaews – converted small trucks that carry up to a dozen people at a fixed rate along fixed routes like buses. They’re cheap at about $.35 – $.70 US a ride. The Saamlors and Tuk-Tuks are for short distances especially within the Old City and its immediate surroundings. There is no problem getting a Saamlor or Tuk-Tuk because their drivers “believe” that no one wants to see the city by walking. They are everywhere, and you’ll be asked by nearly every one during your walk if you “want a ride?” “where are you going?” and “one hour to see the city?” The trouble is that there are no set rates and no meters and the “one hour tour” is to any number of shops selling items you do not want but for which the driver gets a cut. To say there is a “sliding scale” on the rate is an understatement. Locals know the game quite well and the distance. What will be quoted to a local frequently is 50% – 75% less than to an obvious foreign visitor. If one does not haggle over the fare before the ride expect to pay as much as the driver believes you’re gullable, or guilty enough, to pay and be asked about “a tour” or “a good shop…” (Actually you’ll be asked this even if you do settle on a price but just be firm because the shops are rarely ones you would visit on your own.) Never expect to pay the same rate for any two rides to or from the same place. Yet in 95 degree (F) heat at 3:00 PM you might not care about the fare. On the other hand, any fare over 100 BHT ($3.00 US) to just about anywhere within center city is too much. Taxis with meters exist but your hotel must call them. They’re rarely available to flag down.
So why visit such a chaotic city? The people for one thing. The average Thai is friendly and gracious even if they’re scamming you or you’re not buying something. They’re so industrious – and I’ll add the Laotians, Cambodians and Vietnamese – they make the average workaholic American seem lazy. Nearly every building is a store with family living quarters in the back or above. Motor bikes and bicycles are movable stores or “freight” haulers. Where there isn’t a motor bike parked on the sidewalk there’s most likely someone who has set up a “café,” or selling jewelry and T-shirts, or water and soda, or even making fresh dumpling pot stickers. Whether the nation’s a monarchy or a “socialist” republic, Southeast Asians can’t count on a pension (unless they’re the favored few that work for large corporations) and “social security” is an unknown concept. The extended family is one’s social security and the ability to be creative with work.
There is the beautiful green countryside with villages, farms, mountains, waterfalls – and tourist traps (oh well…). It’s not surprising that as a national medical center (and for an American inexpensive care), slightly lower temperatures than steamy Bangkok, especially November through February, along with a cost of living less than half that of North America and Europe, Chiang Mai attracts one million tourist a year, over 10,000 permanent expats and numerous seasonal residents. Like everything in Southeast Asia, Chiang Mai’s an experience worth a return visit.
Question: “If we follow the Eight Precepts of Buddhism, especially the one that prohibits having sex, after 100 years the human race will become extinct.”
Response: “As a matter of fact, this question is asked about something impossible and it is quite useless to discuss about such an absurd subject. But to satisfy our intellectual curiosity, we may do some guesswork about it. Of course, if all human beings on Earth observed the Eight Precepts and abstained from sex, mankind would become extinct within 100 years. Even if that happened, there should be no cause to lament or to worry unless you were the only human being that remained and lived alone in the whole world.” (from Questions and Answers In Buddhism, Professor Saeng Chandngarm, Mahamakut Buddhist University, Lanna Campus, Chiang Mai, Thailand)
The Eight Precepts of Buddhism
Refrain from destroying living creatures.
Refrain from taking that which is not given.
Refrain from sexual activity.
Refrain from incorrect speech.
Refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.
Refrain from eating at the forbidden time (after 12:00 noon)
Refrain from dancing, singing, music, going to see entertainments, wearing garlands, using perfumes, and beautifying the body with cosmetics.
Refrain from lying on a high or luxurious sleeping place.
Whow…that’s heavy – no sex, no drinking, no drugs, no dancing – no FUN! No…not exactly. “Refrain” actually means “resist” – it does not mean “Thou shalt not…” Semantics? Only in the Judeo-Christian sense – and actually, only in the Middle Eastern ancestry of the Christian sense of absolute “good/evil.” Otherwise, Buddhism recognizes humans as merely one of over 30 life forms searching for the ultimate release from the cycle of life – reincarnation – through enlightenment. When’s that ultimate release? It’s up to you. Now THAT’S heavy!
To Westerners, people walking around in saffron robes is intimidating, yet we’re use to Catholic priests, nuns and Protestant ministers wearing odd clothing. Clothing, obviously, does not make the person and Chiang Mai’s Buddhist Temples and monasteries have intelligently created time within the day for the Monk Chat. It’s a chance to sit down with these men and discover that, OMG, there just like us – Apple laptop and all. At two different Temples – the magnificent Phra Dhatu Chedi Luang and the unique Silver Ubosoth – we had the opportunity of conversing and deepening our knowledge of this 2500 year old religion.
The all-inclusive Buddhist lifestyle and, to the Western tradition, its seeming contradictions, have always been an enigma. In a classic, and somewhat humorous manner the monks patiently explain a way of life that baffles many people. “Life” is not just human life and even that concept does not mean that animals and plants are simply sacred. One’s life encompasses millenniums of reincarnation through many forms – hence sacredness – before, at some point, in a human life form, the soul, through the Eight Precepts, achieves enlightenment and nirvana.
So every Buddhist Monk will achieve nirvana? Hardly. Male children as young 7 years old can enter the monasteries and receive a free education until 20 – first few years of university. For poor children this is truly a “god-send.” At 20 they may choose to study further for their university degree and ordination as a monk. At that point it’s a life-long committment? No. A novice and a monk may leave the monastery any time they wish. They may marry, have children, become a farmer or a banker. Do they then go to “hell” when they die? No. Buddhist do not believe in that concect of retribution – they believe in reincarnation until the achievement of enlightenment and nirvana. A former novice or monk (if married they must now be a widower) may reenter the monastery at any time – and may leave again if that’s their wish. We were told that many people will enter the monastery for a year or two as an adult, like a sabbatical, just to enrich their personal and spiritual life, and then return to their business life.
The Lord Buddha’s attitude toward women…a sticking point among modern Western thinkers. Buddhist nuns are, like in the Catholic Church, not equal to monks and are cloistered. I will turn once more to Professor Chandngarm’s explanation and make no claim, as a Quaker, that I fully understand the concept.
“According to the monastic rules, the most important rule for monks, as well as for Buddhists, is to keep celibate. Since womanhood is the natural opponent to celibacy, so women are a stain for chastity. The Buddha did not keep women in a lower level or in inferiority than men. He only recognized the differences between men and women. Monkhood in the Buddha’s time was very hard. Right after ordination, monks would be sent away to live and practice alone in caves and forests, in the wilderness in deserted huts. He had to eat whatever. sometimes they were beaten and robbed, or didn’t eat for days. The Buddha hardly expected women to do that. When monks and nuns live close together another kind of trouble breaks out – and you can imagine what it is. Not because of women’s evil, but because of man’s natural weakness and the overwhelming charm of women. As far as intelligence and attaining Enlightenment, the Lord Buddha saw no difference between the two genders.”
Have I now told you everything you need to know in order to understand a belief system that affects the lives and politics of more than a dozen cultures, governments and millions of individuals? I hope not, or else you will not want to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity to chat with these intelligent and gentle monks in the 2,000 year old spiritual and Royal center, Chiang Mai (of the Lanna Kingdom and Thailand).