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Original World Insights has published another article by Marc d’Entremont

Forest Retreat Laos & author
Forest Retreat Laos & author

Thailand, Lao & Vietnam: Restaurants on a Mission in Southeast Asia.

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OWI is a publication by Original World Tours “providing discriminating travelers with “Hand Crafted Journeys to Traditional Cultures since 1997 – extraordinary journeys, news and notes of interest to serious cultural adventurers, and unique personal journals from Original World clients on the road in India, Asia, Africa, Middle East, and Eastern Europe.”

KOTO, Hanoi
KOTO, Hanoi

Restaurants can do more than just make fine food.

north Laos
north Laos

 They can help make fine lives.

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Marc d’Entremont is a contributing author for Original World Insights

New Southeast Asian Cuisine: from Galangal to Philly Cheese Steak

galangal, on left, is darker, related but not the same as ginger, on right

Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam have been on the Asian trade routes to Europe for millennium. Southeast Asia was adept at fusing earlier European, Chinese and Japanese culinary influences and a century of Western colonial cuisine. The kitchens at restaurants of today’s tourist route destinations continue to preserve the past as well as innovate.

Laotian cuisine, like the nation, is much more than that land between Thailand and Vietnam. Neither as sweet nor spicy as its neighbors, the dishes of Laos are multi-layered creations of herbs, greens, meats, fish, vegetables and spices not used in Western cooking. Yum Kai Tom is one such dish that’s both easy to master as well as being quintessential Laos.

ingredients for Yum Kai Tom
Arthouse Cafe

There’s no lack of fine restaurants in Laos’ UNESCO World Heritage City of Luang Prabang. Once the royal and spiritual capital of several southeast Asian kingdoms, Luang Prabang epitomizes tropical post-colonial romanticism. The historic core rests high on a peninsula and restaurants take advantage of the spectacular mountain scenery of northern Laos. The Arthouse Cafe, on Kingkitsarath Road, is no exception.

Purple sticky rice

Luang Prabang’s popular and excellent Tamarind Restaurant makes a terrific Khao Gam.

Stuffed Lemongrass is delicious, as the lemongrass permeates the meat with its citrus flavor.

Stuffed Lemongrass

Vientiane, the capital of Laos, has no lack of interesting dining opportunities from a vibrant street food scene to the legendary Mekong River at sunset providing a stunning backdrop for a relaxing dinner at the Kong View Restaurant.

Kong View restaurant, Vientiane, Laos

A tuk-tuk full of saffron robed monks pass by the entrance to Ban Vilaylac. Their Wat is directly across the street. Appropriate location since Ban Vilaylac’s potted garden entrance bridges centuries of traditional Vientiane and French colonial Laos cuisine. Next door, reservations for either lunch or dinner are hard to come by at Makphet Restaurant, yet there are no celebrity chefs, yet the lines of appreciative diners can be long.

view from the Charming Lao Hotel

Much overlooked, Laos north central town of Oudomxai is surrounded by stunning scenery to view while enjoying good Laotian cuisine at The Charming Lao Hotel.

Stuffed squid at Dibuk Restaurant

In a building as old as many bistros in Paris, under ceiling fans stirring the languid tropical air, guests of the Dibuk Restaurant in Thailand’s old Phuket Town can spend time dining with the Indian Ocean lapping nearby.

Tom Kha Gai and its ingredients
Chef Wan at Look-In restaurant

The Look-in Restaurant, just off Bangkok’s busy Sukhumvit Road, is not on most visitors’ tourist map – not yet.

Tom Kha Gai, Thailand’s incomparable coconut soup with chicken and flavored with galangal is a Look-in knockout.

The finest restaurant in Vietnam’s capital of Hanoi is also its most fascinating. Koto, next to the Temple of Learning, is in an elegant, three-story French Art Nouveau townhouse.

Koto, Hanoi, Vietnam

There’s a quiet side to Cambodia’s bustling Siem Reap, home to Angkor Wat, on 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.

at Bopha, Siem Reap, Cambodia: traditional fish stew
Pho at La Viet

The Italian Market/Queen Village district, to any resident of Philadelphia, is inexorably morphing into a little Southeast Asia.  A stroll through these historic colonial neighborhoods provides visual evidence of Asian grocery stores, restaurants and professional offices catering to this increasing community. The area around 11th Street and Washington Avenue includes a sizable number of Asian businesses and one very good Vietnamese fine dining restaurant, Le Viet.

Butterfish at Kinnaree restaurant

Set in an unassuming strip mall in suburban Philadelphia, Kinnaree Thai French Cuisine balances traditional Thai dishes with centuries old French influences.

 

 

 

 

You can read more articles by Marc d’Entremont at:

Hellenic News of America

Travel Pen and Palate Argentina

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Southern Laos’ Ecotourism Future

From post-revolutionary obscurity, the once ancient kingdom of Champasak is at the center of southern Laos’ eco-tourism incentive.

On Don Khone, the Siphandon, Champasak Province, Laos

Cheap airfares, especially from Australia, and even cheaper cost of living attracted budget seekers of alternative vacations in the early 1990’s to the sleepy isolated islands of the Siphandon.

The Siphandon (4,000 Islands), from Don Khong, Champasak Province, Laos

Just 25 miles from the Cambodian border, Laos’ Mekong spreads up to 8 miles wide creating a delta-like region, the Siphandon, sheltering human and wildlife.

Hotel Senesothxeune and the Siphandon

Don Deth and Don Khone epitomize the Western vision of a tropical existence, sleeping in a hammock with mosquito netting, playing the guitar at night, picking fruit and spending as little money as possible.

Purple sticky rice: this nutty deep purple variety of Laos’ ubiquitous grain is usually reserved for desserts. Although a festive addition to dinner and delicious even when not sweetened, I was reminded of my favorite recipe for Purple Sticky Rice in Coconut Sauce.

varieties of sticky rice

You can read about all these topics in my latest articles on Suite101:

Southern Laos’ Eco Tourism Future

The Siphandon: Laos Mekong River Oasis

Purple Sticky Rice with Coconut Sauce: Laotian Khao Gam

Laos is an ancient land that is being rediscovered one (trekking) step at a time.

Silk – Thread of Empire

silk scarves from Laos © Marc d’Entremont
silk scarves from Laos © Marc d’Entremont

“With time and patience the mulberry leaf becomes a silk gown.”  ancient Chinese proverb.

The allure of silk: its soft feel, its shimmer, its character to absorb vibrant colors, its legend of luxury, its power. No other fabric has caused the rise and fall of empires or led legions of adventurous merchants to risk life and fortune. For centuries the Silk Road linked the fabled kingdom’s of Asia with the Mediterranean and Western Europe. The expensive, arduous and dangerous journey fed into the mystique of an enigmatic Orient – a land of meditation and mass murder, tea and opium, the Buddha and Pol Pot.

Silk: (top left) Mulberry Trees, (bottom left) silk cacoons, (center) cacoons on bundles of sticks and (top right) circular basket, (bottom right) silk worms munching on Mulberry leaves
Silk: (top left) Mulberry Trees, (bottom left) silk cacoons, (center) cacoons on bundles of sticks and (top right) circular basket, (bottom right) silk worms munching on Mulberry leaves

Yet during 19th and 20th century domination by European empires over Asia’s economies, silk was overshadowed by more lucrative commodities – opium, tea, rubber. By the end of the Second World War, large scale manufacture of silk cloth in Southeast Asia had been reduced to a cottage industry, a victim of hard economic times, war and changing fashion – synthetics. It took an entrepreneurial visionary – a risk taker –  to revive Asian silk.

Jim Thompson

As an artist Jim Thompson was drawn to the rich colors and expressive designs of what was by the mid-1940’s a tiny cottage industry in the Muslim provinces of southern Thailand and northern Malaysian jungle villages.  These villagers were using centuries old silk worm farming techniques, natural dyes and ancient tools to produce stunning yards of intricately woven fabric – and selling them for a pittance.

Born into a Delaware clothing manufacturing family in 1906, educated at prestigious schools, a successful and well connected  architect and designer, Jim Thompson chucked it all after becoming disillusioned with life by the late 1930’s. Joining the army at the start of World War II, he was recruited into the OSS, forerunner of the CIA. Sent to Thailand late in the war to infiltrate the Japanese occupation, he was assigned to head American intelligence in Bangkok. The war ended shortly after parachutting into the country, but Thompson liked Bangkok and made the decision to stay. That’s when he discovered the Muslim silk weavers.

(from Top left) silk worm, eating Mulberry leaves, mature cocoons boiling, (from bottom left) strand of silk fiber being pulled from cocoon, fresh silk thread

Jim Thompson cultivated personal relationships with the village weavers assuring them of markets for their cloth which did not yet exist. He encouraged the weavers not to give up the old methods and tweaked traditional designs for western clientele. (He later established a Muslim weaving quarter next to his compound across the canal. Today, wandering the Thompson House grounds, you can clearly hear the daily calls to prayer). Ensconced in Bangkok’s legendary Oriental Hotel, he effortlessly, it’s said, schmoozed with wealthy ex-patriots and visitors personally marketing Thai silk cloth. Within a few years his Thai Silk Company attracted the patronage of Vogue magazine and Irene Sharaff, fashion designer for the musical The King and I. By the early 1950’s Thai silk was an international rage, silk weaving was once again a vibrant home industry and Jim Thompson was dubbed the Silk King.

Muslim weavers quarter across the canal from the Thompson “House on the Klong”

Thompson became a celebrity in Bangkok and a confidant to the rich and famous. His parties at the unique compound he created in the city were frequent with an eclectic mix of the business and art worlds. Using his considerable skills in architecture and design, he melded together six antique teak wood houses brought from various areas of Thailand into a compound including his home, workshops and retail space. It doesn’t hurt that he filled the grounds with gardens, pools and priceless Oriental antiques.

Jim Thompson’s House on the Klong, Bangkok, Thailand
living room at House on the Klong
Jim Thompson silks and designer gowns

Although Thai Silk Company products are legendary today and available in elegant shops, Jim Thompson himself is simply a legend – or an enigma. In 1967 while visiting friends at their country house in northern Malaysia, Thompson went for a walk and within minutes had disappeared. No word was ever heard, his body never found. Speculation/conspiracy theories run rampant even today – a truck hit him and the driver took the body, a large animal ate him, he was still working for the CIA and was either eliminated by them or Communist guerillas (although he questioned the wisdom of the Vietnam war), or perhaps he simply wanted to chuck it all again and went native. Oddly, only 6-months later his wealthy sister was mysteriously murdered at her Pennsylvania estate – no robbery, no alarm, even her dogs didn’t bark.

natural dyes for silk thread

 

Lao Textiles, Vientiane, Laos

Carol Cassidy, on the other hand, is hearty, alive and well in Vientiane, Laos. When I met her for the first time a couple of months ago, she took me back to the workshop with a very worried expression saying she’d ruined a run of silk. Not the first words I expected from one of the world’s most renowned women in the art. She showed me this beautiful skein of shimmering teal silk. That was a mistake?? It just wasn’t the exact shade she wanted for the project, and considering silk is made by a worm, it’s not like she can run down to the local 7/11. Traditional arts for a contemporary clientele are long, serious work.

one-of-a-kind Carol Cassidy shawl

The scion of a prominent Connecticut family, Carol was the first American allowed to establish a business in post-1975 Laos, Lao Textiles, in 1990. This was after a career with a variety of NGO’s world-wide as a textile expert. Although she’s frequently compared to Jim Thompson’s Thai Silk Co., their business model is the only similarity. Both use traditionally trained weavers, pay fair wages and build personal relationships with the craftspeople. Yet where Thai Silk’s designs are for a mainstream international market, Cassidy specializes in made-to-order art hangings and clothing utilizing traditional Lao patterns. This carries over to the very limited runs of products available in the atmospheric 19th century French Villa showroom/workshop. Most are one of a kind Carol Cassidy wearable art in Lao silk and a terrific memory of that beautiful country.

hand bag with silk balls, Phontong Handicraft Cooperative

Local non-profit organizations dedicated to the preservation of traditional arts exist in all Southeast Asian countries. In Vientiane, the capital of Laos, the Phontong Handicraft Cooperative has been organizing village craftspeople and marketing their work since 1976.

Artisans d’Angkor in Siem Reap, Cambodia, has a large vocational school complex for carving and graphic arts in town and a sizable silk farm and weaving operation just outside the city. The school particularly trains the disabled.

silk weaver at Artisans d’Angkor
monk and silk dresses

Whether it’s adventure, fortune, art or simply a way to make a living, silk has never ceased to fascinate:

“Upon them shall be garments of fine green silk and thick silk interwoven with gold, and they shall be adorned with bracelets of silver, and their Lord shall make them drink a pure drink.” ~the Quran 

“He who has little silver in his pouch must have the more silk on his tongue.”~ Edward Bulwer-Lytton   (1803 – 1873)

“Once a guy starts wearing silk pajamas it’s hard to get up early” ~ Eddie Arcaro (1916 – 1997)

“A good start…is to be a Buddhist.”

monks in Luang Prabang, Laos

That’s two-time Academy Award winning actor, Sir Michael Caine,* listening to a profound statement on the necessity of Western intellectuals to adopt an enlightened vision of the future…no. It’s the response on asking a resident of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) the best way to cross the street. From recent personal experience, this is a profound – some might say life affirming Q & A.”

Although far more people walk than in any American city I know – pedestrian friendly is an alien concept in Asian consciousness. Sidewalks do exist but, even if they are wide, nearly every square meter is occupied by vendors or motor bikes using the space as parking lots. Congestion on these sidewalks frequently made me use the street sharing the often narrow space with cars, trucks, motor bikes and other forms of public transportation in a devil-may-care free-for-all.

Hanoi, Vietnam

To cross the street a pedestrian simply crosses the street into the traffic which on the many 2-way streets or 3-street intersections 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 gentleman’s response to Michael Caine’s question was not flippant. It takes a sturdy centeredness gained through Buddhism, or tenacity, to calmly sense the correct timing and enter the traffic. 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 accidents occur.

 
crossing street in Chaing Mai, Thailand and forms of public transportation

I knew none of this when I arrived in Bangkok. Six weeks later, leaving Saigon, perhaps I’d become a Buddhist as I simply spent no more than a ½-second contemplating my move across the street.

Hanoi, Old City, Vietnam

My wife, on the other hand, followed  Michael Caine’s plan of action, “We looked for groups of Buddhist, inserted ourselves into the very center of them and crossed when they did. If I was going to be mowed down, at least I’d be in the right company.” * Except Jill looked for any vendor pulling (yes, pulling) a cart – frequently old women – and, using them as a human shield, crossed when they did.

Was it fun at first?  No. Did I react negatively? Yes. I “threw the finger” at one SUV in Hanoi, after a particularly disappointing meal. He was shocked. After all, he was only going 35/mph 10 feet from me, but I lost my cool and failed to realize he’d never want to splatter me across the street – not as long as the Lord Buddha was watching over us all.

bus in Bangkok - less than $.05/ride

 

* The Elephant to Hollywood,” by Sir Michael Caine

Hot, Hotter, Hottest: Chiang Mai Thai Cuisine

chilies at market - just a small selection

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.

small local cafe, noodles with a meat sauce, glass noodle soup with fish balls

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.

from faux fruit at Rimping Village Hotel to tarot bowls, stir fry and salad at Antique House Restaurant

  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 Rom Mai Restaurant, Chiang Mai

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.)

Pongyang Angdoi Resort & Restaurant

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.)

Rimping Village Hotel, Chiang Mai

  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.

breakfast at the Rimping Village Hotel

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 Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX, King of Thailand

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.

Palace, Temple, Farmer’s House: Chiang Mai

 

Chiang Mai from Doi Inthanon National Park (right) Symbol of the Nation: PHRATHAT DOI SUTHEP

Chiang Mai in 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.

prayer, cash offerings,, gongs and frescos
Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep

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.

Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep: replica of Bangkok's Emerald Buddha

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.

Bhubing Palace and gardens, (bottom left) the Royal Standard

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.

examples of the temple complex at Wiang Kum Kam: (bottom center: horse cart with driver/guide at Wat Chedi Liam, the Chedi of Wat E-Kang, Wat Chang Kum - one of 2 operating temple sites - with the god Garuda.

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. 

Wat Chedi Liam

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 Liam is the starting/ending point for the carriages. Remarkably, this Wat survived the destructive floods over the centuries and has remained a living temple.

19th/early 20th century properous farmer's elevated house and barn

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.

at the Winter Palace gardens

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.

(Top from left) fountain w/children in prayer, Shiva - late 19th c., the Buddhist Scripture Hall/library - 1878 - built and funded by generations of local Chinese-Thai families, (center & top right) decorative temple elements of multi-colored mirrors, mother-of-perals inlay, (bottom from left) statue of a 19th c. officier on horseback, entrance to Wat Gate Ket Karem Museum - late 18th century monks residences, measures for opium, Narod the Hermit (19th c. in wood) the Hindu father of witchcraft
Prince Damrong Rajanpub

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.

Lanna Architecture Center, Ratchadamnoen Road, at the junction with Phra Pok Klao Road

Chicken Feet to iPods: The Markets of Chiang Mai

Chinatown Market in Chiang Mai

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.

Confucian temple in Chinatown market

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’s Sunday 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.

The Sunday Night Market

  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.

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.

Night Market seafood: choose the item you want the restaurant to prepare

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…

Night Market massages

(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.

Buddha and Other Expats in the Royal City of Chiang Mai

the many faces of Siddhārtha Gautama, the Lord Buddha

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.

the Western Buddha??

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.

attractive old and modern architecture (why take pics of majority ugly buildings)

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.

Transportation: (top) trying to cross the street, Songthaews (bottom) Saamlors and Tuk-Tuks

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.

(top left) gathering morning glory greens on the banks of the Ping River, (top right) grases for anomal feed, (bottom left) broom seller, (bottom center) threshing rice - photos by Boonserm Satrebhaya (Chiang Mai Then and Now, 2010)
motor bike outfitted to transport propane gas tanks

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.

Dumpling Pot Sticker street stand: rice flour mixture is steamed on cheese cloth, minced pork mixture added, 8 dumplings are packaged with fresh greens and cilantro: $.65 US

 There are the 300 Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai and the surrounding countryside that are oasis of calm in a busy city as well as repositories for a millennium of stunning art, architecture and knowledge. Nearly all are open to the public most hours of the day.

(left) Wat Cheitta, 15th century, (center) protective Naga snake, (right) 14th century Phra Dhautu Chedi Luang

 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.

(Part II – attractions, markets and Thai cuisine)

Monk Chat at the Silver Ubosoth: Chiang Mai

bas relief at the Silver Ubosoth, Chiang Mai, Thailand

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.

animals - real and in art - in temples

Refrain from taking that which is not given.

The Silver Ubosoth (in construction - will take 5 more years)

Refrain from sexual activity.

no women allowed within the Silver Ubosoth (ordination hall)

Refrain from incorrect speech.

Silver Ubosoth workers: hand stamping the bas reliefs and paper stencil

Refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.

Refrain from eating at the forbidden time (after 12:00 noon)

Waves representing the oceans on the exterior floors of the Silver Ubosoth

Refrain from dancing, singing, music, going to see entertainments, wearing garlands, using perfumes, and beautifying the body with cosmetics.

novices working in 95 degree (F) heat and listening to Thai modern pop music

Refrain from lying on a high or luxurious sleeping place.

temple dogs - refuge, care and reverance

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!

Phri Dhatu Chedi Luang founded 1391 - Chedi tower (and elephants) toppled by an earthquake in 1546

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.

Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep (founded late 14th century) and Thailand's most revered Buddhist site

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.

men wearing shorts/tank tops and women wearing shorts/short skirts/bare shoulders are never allowed in Temples without donning borrowed temple clothing

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.

Temple city of Wiang Kum Kam founded 8th century, destroyed by floods in the 1300's, excavations and revival in the 1980's as an active Buddhist site

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).

the Ping River, the Royal City of Chiang Mai