Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Lahu Tribe and our incredible Guide; Homie.

One of the most alluring reasons to travel to Chang Rai, a tiny morsel of a city, is its proximity to the various Hill tribes of Thailand’s northern forest region and the opportunity to experience them. When planning this type of overnight trek it is critical to have a tour operator and a guide that not only knows the area but can offer intimate experiences with the tribes (often done by speaking the elusive hill tribe languages).  Information about the history of the region is always a welcomed bonus. Upon settling in at the modest yet comfortable Golden Triangle Inn in Chang Rai, we set out on foot to interview the various tour operators and see which one fit the bill. 

After interviewing two tour operators who seemed to be more reluctant than eager to book our tour (not the best sign) we came across “Tourist Informations”, a Family-owned and operated tour service with the clever tag line, “We are honest in servicing & everything possible!”.  After speaking with Ane, the niece of the owner, we had a good feeling about the legitimacy of the tour. Ane allowed us to choose from two tour guides – Luu Niem, a young, vivacious and adventurous 25-year-old tour guide, or Homie, an experienced and incredibly knowledgeable 64-year-old guide who spoke the indigenous hill tribe languages and has been doing tours for 30+ years. We instantly connected with the idea of having Homie as our guide. Undoubtedly his pace would be a bit slower but that sat just fine with Michael and myself.

Our instructions were simple,: Bring a small bag with one change of clothes, bug repellant, some snacks, a bathing suit and flip-flops.  When asking Ane, “Are you sure there is nothing else we need to bring?”, she responded, “Well, yes… be sure to bring your heart.” At that moment my excitement solidified. We were about to wander the forests of Thailand and meet native tribes…finally!

We took off the next morning at about 10am and drove two hours outside of Chang Rai. Homie decided to take us up the back route and make a stop at one of his closest friend’s restaurants along the way for a home cooked meal. Who were we to argue? After

trekking for a few hours, we came across the roadside food stop, owned by Homie's friends, young couple who had their newborn baby along with them. She quickly whipped us up some delicious chicken fried rice and allowed me in the kitchen while she cooked. Michael and I fueled up and took to the road once again.  

Just a few hours later we arrived at the Lahu village. We entered an incredibly modest home 

and placed our backpacks down. The Madam of the village, also our hostess, welcomed us with a bucket of frosty beers and chilled water. We were eternally grateful. Homie suggested that we take a walk around the village to soak it all in while he take a small break from our trek. 

The sights were simply overwhelming. The village consisted of several small huts built up on stilts and covered by thick, woven bamboo roofs. Homie told us that if built correctly, the bamboo roofing could last close to five years.  Livestock, consisting of chickens and their young chicklets,

pigs, and family dogs all shared the same space as the children, teenagers and parents.  Hens sped across the paths protecting their black-tailed young as we wandered around. We received a mixed welcome from the members of the village. Some villagers seemed curious as to why we were there, some acted celebratory and others seemed flat out irritated, snarfing at our attempts to say hello. An extremely friendly woman who was in the midst of

preparing her banana tree leaves in bundles for next day's market wanted to take a picture with us. One glance at her T-shirt and and we couldn't refuse as it read, "New York, I love you but you're bringin' me down."!!! You simply can't make something like that up.

**As an aside, we completely understood the villagers varied responses to our presence, after all its not every day that someone walks into my apartment, says hello in a language I do not recognize and asks to take pictures of my daily routine.  We were careful to be as respectful and sensitive of their privacy as we possibly could. 

After moseying around the village and meeting just about everyone we headed back to our hut to prepare for dinner.  I took a glance inside the hut’s kitchen and immediately wanted to dive in 

and help!  I asked Homie if I could assist, he found this request rather odd.  I explained my love for cooking so he (a bit reluctantly) started to give me small tasks, peeling and chopping fresh cucumbers, onions and tomatoes. The kitchen smelled delicious. A raw fire was burning straight in the middle of the room as wrought iron pots and pans slowly brought oil and water to a sizzle and a steam.  My chopping board was a raw slab of tree trunk chopped perpendicularly.  The smell of the wood permeated each slice of vegetable. I had died and gone to heaven. After an hour or so of prep work Homie insisted that we take a break. Sounds of children playing right outside our hut

made the transition painless for me and I gladly agreed. I exited the kitchen to a view of the most precious kids I’ve ever seen!  Smiling and glowing faces, pure child-like joy, imaginations unfettered by afternoons in front of televisions, computers or video games, bounced up to say hello.  We played for what seemed like hours, never tiring of games such as low-five, high-five and three-rocks.

When we finally worked up a good appetite, dinner was served.  We dug into several dishes, consisting of fresh eggs with chopped chicken, tomato/cucumber/onion garnish, “American"

French fries, fried lima beans with a salty crust, chicken wings with spicy Lahu sauce and a boiled potato/onion dish. The tastes were indescribable! The family gathered round and we all dug in. The children gobbled up their food and the wives and husbands laughed as they took breaks to take sips from their beer and drags from freshly rolled tobacco cigarettes.  We were surrounded by love, happiness and delicious basic food and drink. It was one of the best meals of my life.

After about three hours 'round the dinner table it was time for bed. I could hardly wait for the morning. The thought of being woken up by the sound of a rooster and a crackling fire burning in time to prepare breakfast brought a smile to my face. Ane was absolutely right. We brought our hearts to the village and certainly left a piece of it behind.


Monday, March 30, 2009

Connect Four... and... Whores?

In stark contrast to the ever peaceful and serene surroundings at the beaches of Phuket, about a half an hour taxi ride away, lies Patong, the backpacker haven filled with tourist targeted restaurants, sleezy bars, filthy clubs and of course, the ever prevalent Thai lady bar.

After spending a few days in Bangkok and now arriving in Patong, I’ve quickly learned how commonplace the Thai lady bar and Thai prostitute really is.  While I consider myself a moderate, both politically and socially; and an undoubtedly independent woman, I found this completely shocking and disturbing at first.  The streets of Patong were bursting at the seams with women scantily clad and willing to sell their services at the drop of a hat, no questions asked. In speaking with one of the prostitutes we quickly learned that they pretty much lead a double life. The money that this profession affords them greatly out pays any other basic 9-5pm job and allows them to support their families and in some cases even purchase and invest in property. 

 Earlier in the evening at the hotel we befriended a group of Finnish travelers. We all decided to meet up at the club Seduction owned by an acquaintance of theirs from back home in Helsinki around 11:30 that night. After grabbing a burger and fries at Patong’s “McFadden’s Bar” we strolled over to Seduction and approached the bar to order a drink. We happily found our Finnish friends and made some new Russian ones along the way. The club oozed of smoke that enhanced the purple neon glow lights emanating from the built-in ceiling fixtures. The bartender approached us and requested our drink order…Enter the Thai booze bucket.

In an incredible feat of efficiency, the Thai booze bucket enables its victim to order and ingest what would normally be between 3-4 alcoholic drinks in just one sitting, and for the grand total of a mere 90 Baht ($2.85 USD). After downing a bucket each and lighting

some Sambuca on fire with our new Russian friends we decided to take a walk around town.       

While passing through the Patong’s main strip we decided to stroll into a Thai lady bar and see it for ourselves. The men brushed it off as “research” and us girls were willing to play along.  After ordering up a couple of orange breezers hugged by foam coolers to keep our drinks nice and cold, we took a look around. Thai prostitutes slung around the bar enticing foreign men to dance, talk or have a drink.  At first we all felt a bit uncomfortable, our new Finnish friends and myself exchanged glances of “can you believe this?"

“this is outrageous”, etc. while the men stood around simply mesmerized by the exhaustive selection of available women.  After a while we were able to ignore our surroundings and just have some fun.  As it turned out the DJ was actually great! 

We danced until the wee hours of the night and I just about lost all place of where I was when out of the corner of my eye…. There it was.  A shiny, innocent game of connect four; yellow plastic frame with red and black chips replaced by a the more exotic black

plastic frame, neon pink chips, neon green chips version! A Thai prostitute and a gentleman started playing the game! One of my favorite childhood board games was being used as a lure tactic! We all turned around and realized that Connect Four was set up on tables all around us. With no other reaction possible at that point we all burst into uncontrollable laughter.  After all, we had just survived the Thai Lady bar, Connect Four and all.


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Phuket has returned… and so have the pirates.

After spending a few days in Bangkok I was particularly ready for some beachside relief.  On the southern tip of Thailand, on the coast of the Andaman Sea, lies the beach town of Phuket, famous for its decimation during the December 2005 Tsunami. I can vividly remember watching as the tragic events of the Tsunami unfolded and as innocent tourists and locals alike were swept away from their morning breakfasts. Recently, I heard reports that Phuket’s infrastructure had been revitalized – I was eager to visit the island and see for myself the progress that had been made.

While both Mike and myself are traveling on restricted budgets, we decided to weave that in with a few luxury experiences to rejuvenate and recharge our engines. Enter the Sheraton Grand Laguna Phuket http://www.phuket.com/sheraton/. The luxury Starwood resort featured beautifully manicured gardens, a river of pools ideal for swimming laps, a main entranceway fit for Thai royalty and beautiful white sand beaches. 

As soon as we arrived I dropped my bags in the room and made a dash for the beach. Skipping over Sheraton’s selection of “fine dining restaurants” in search of an authentic and budget friendly meal, I came across Lazaro’s, a simple and rustic food stand that allowed me to enjoy my meal with toes in sand.  Upon exploring the site I noticed they kept their seafood incredibly fresh, and by fresh I mean alive. Massive blue buckets connected by flimsy oxygen tubes were kept alongside the teak bar with live and swimming sea bass, red snapper, lobster, and other types of fish indigenous to Phuket. I was admittedly impressed.
After a quick dish of spicy Thai beef salad – a lovely dish of seared beef, slices of fresh onion and tomato, garnished by cilantro, lime and Thai parsley, I took to exploring the shoreline.

The expansive shoreline of Phuket featured several quaint and seemingly authentic open-aired beachside food outposts, rickety bars preparing themselves for the afternoon happy hour crowd and locals fishing and enjoying peaceful family gatherings in the shade of short palm trees.

After walking for what felt like another hour or so I came across Casnaria Bar, which undoubtedly had a gnarly pirate vibe to it. This was right up my alley. My entire life (whether consciously or subconsciously) I’ve had an obsession with pirates and a love for their dangerous freewheeling lifestyles (enter Captain Jack Sparrow). Here it was, live in the flesh right in front of me! A secret pirate hideaway on the sleepy beaches of Phuket! I felt as though I had stumbled upon my buried treasure! 

The pirates (restaurant staff) quickly exited Casnaria Bar and headed towards the surf. 

Their bodies were as smooth as beach rock; polished and perfected by the pounding of gentle waves. They flashed me a smile and hopped into a long tailed boat docked right off shore, waving as they took off. They motioned to the ocean, revved their engine and sailed away before I even had a chance to say goodbye... taking my heart and mind with them...

... as I’ve always dreamed a pirate could do.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Sticky Chicken Fried Rice

Upon leaving New York I felt both eager and apprehensive about relying on a range of food from Southeast Asia for close to 5 weeks.  When frequenting seemingly authentic restaurants in New York I often leave with a bit of a heavy and sometimes even lethargic feeling after feeding on foods sauteed or fried in "brown sauce" and "peanut curry".  I was relieved to discover that the meals to follow were anything but heavy; on the contrary, Thai food has left me feeling invigorated, energized and surprisingly healthy, a parallel experience to one recently had on my trip to Mexico, documented by our Hungry Roach at http://thehungryroach.blogspot.com/2009/03/mexican-chicas-dont-get-fat.html.

Thailand is the number one producer and exporter of rice in the world. I feel safe in assuming that their rice supply is therefore one of the freshest and varied ones around. The variety that is used to create Thai sticky rice (white grain aged for a few months to increase water retention upon steaming) has become almost an addiction for me. While I have always been a lover of all things leavened, rice may just as well become my carb of choice. 

After wandering through the buzzing streets of Bangkok for several hours during the peak of midday sun, we found ourselves completely exhausted, dehydrated and hungry. Luckily we came
across Harmonique, a lovely and serene restaurant with light and easy lunch options. At around only 80 Baht a dish ($2.50 USD) the price was right. As soon as the menus landed in our laps my glance went directly to the Limenade.  Sweet, tangy and refreshing the limenade was a welcomed alternative to lemonade. I quickly placed an order for 
chicken fried rice and Mike ordered up spicy chicken with cashews. The coconut chicken fried rice arrived in a perfect portion with garnishes of lime wedges, fresh cucumber sticks, chives and a spicy lime sauce for good measure.  The dish had a light, airy and tangy quality to it that enabled me to gobble it up in no more than 10 minutes. Mike dug into his dish just as quickly and found that it contained bits of sauteed onions
 and cabbage... a welcomed surprised. For anyone who knows us both and is aware of our ability to talk, at times a bit too much, I can safely say that for the first time on the trip there was complete silence. Eating this dish as my introduction to Thai food sparked a curiosity that I knew would only be quelled by taking at least a few Thai cooking classes along the way. "I have to take this experience home with me! Dinner parties must consist of food like this!"  
I was sold. Fresh sustenance, Thai style.  

Friday, March 20, 2009

Really Thai Taxi Drivers? Really?

Let's face it. Having lived in New York for close to five years now I know first hand what it is like to deal with the occasional "bad attitude" cab driver. Troublesome taxi experiences have run the gamut from Joe "Won't make more than one stop", to Bob "grunts when selecting the credit card form of payment", to Pete "acts as if you are interrupting my cell phone conversation to give me an address" (who are they talking to all day anyway?) to the ever frustrating 4pm Bill "I'm only heading downtown.. sorry ma'am."

While my travel to third world countries, albeit limited, has given me some insight to the slippery set of urban taxi drivers, nothing... absolutely nothing could have prepared me for the hysterical habits of Bangkok's own breed of cabbies. They deserve their own reality show. Really.

Taxi hailed for trip from hotel to The Grand Palace. Mind you The Grand Palace is one of the biggest if not the most frequented locations in the great city of Bangkok for tourists and locals alike. Mike and myself entered the cab to a confirmation of a fast an easy route there, negotiated a fair price - 400 Baht - and zoomed off. Three minutes into the cab ride the driver turned around and, while giggling, told us he had no idea where he was going!! Smile and all!! 
Luckily we took out a map we had on hand and pointed out the route to him. He began to nod with reassurance and just as our confidence returned, he leaned over to the glove compartment and pulled out a magnifying glass to take another glance at our map! It was absolutely perfect. At that point we could not decide what was worse, that he did not know the way to the Grand Palace or that he needed a magnifying glass to see!!

Taxi hailed from Chinatown to Hotel. Being well aware of the challenging Thai taxi system our hotel prepared us well with cards featuring its address in both english and Thai. What it did not prepare us for were the ever enterprising freestanding stores, predominantly in the Gem and Tailor business, who have an incredibly organized system to encourage taxi drivers to bring tourists to their shops.  

Our taxi driver explained to us that if he could simply bring us to a specific tailor store that employed his services to encourage tourists to shop there, he would get one stamp that would bring him closer to redeeming a bonus of sorts. The bonus would be provided by the shop and could range anywhere from cash to a tailor made shirt to a bottle of fine whiskey.  The stores even had "stamp cards" as a way of accumulating and tracking stamps. Once redeemed, the stamp card would be replaced by a new, fresh one ready to be filled. Talk about organized labor! He even went so far as to tell us that we did not have to buy anything, simply feign interest in order for him to redeem a stamp! This is exactly the type of cut throat thinking we need in times like these!!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Grand Palace, Bangkok, Thailand

While in Bangkok one should make a point of visiting The Grand Palace, a magnificent and expansive collection of structures comprised of Thai pagodas, palaces, halls of government and beautifully adorned houses of Buddhist worship. Visiting the palace is not a passive suggestion made by our Thai friends.  I've learned that Thai culture is rich with superstition and it is believed that you will encounter years of bad luck if you pass through Bangkok without paying your respects at the palace.  Being one not to tempt fate, particularly during my first trip to Southeast Asia, I passed through to honor this timely Thai tradition.

The Grand Palace lies on the east coast of the Chao Phraya River. Built over the course of three years - 1782 to 1785, King Rama I desired it to serve as a hall of government, a residence for Thai royalty and perhaps most importantly, a vast and protected center for worship.  

Today the palace is still in use; principally for ritual purposes performed by the King such as symbolic water celebrations during the Thai New Year, coronations, royal funerals, marriages and state banquets. It is no longer the center for government nor is it the main residence for the royal family.  King Rama IX transferred their main residence to the Chitralanda Palace in 1945 after a mysterious death inside the palace walls.
One of the most impressive structures within the Palace walls was the Phra Sri Ratana Chedi.  This site of worship is covered from top to bottom in minuscule hand-layed tiles of 14 karat gold. Only the King may enter this site and specifically to pay his respects to Lord Buddha himself. 

While taking the time to walk through the palace grounds we noticed many families coming to the palace to pay their respects to Lord Buddha and give him offerings in the form of lotus flowers and orchid garlands.  When making an offering to Lord Buddha one enters a palace shrine (after removing one's shoes) and sits with one's feet pointed away from Lord Buddha and places ones offering on a dish specifically there for that purpose.  Photographs were not allowed but experiencing this offering ritual first hand was particularly moving. The meditative quality to the entire palace grounds is something that I recommend experiencing as it stays with you even after you leave.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

First Stop: Bangkok, Thailand

After several weeks of anticipation and planning, I have finally arrived in Bangkok, Thailand, otherwise known as the Gateway to Southeast Asia.  For the purposes of my blog I've decided to use my middle name Darcy, to not only be a bit silly, but also to represent what feels like an intermission in my life, and a superb one at that!

While planning our getaway, Mike and I had one clear vision in mind.  We wanted an authentic experience.  One free of tourist traps, "remote village day trips" that pretty much double as village camps manufactured by the Thai Gov., and so on.  On my trip from the airport to our hotel I experienced first hand what Mike meant by "authentic".  Our hotel, DREAM Bangkok -http://www.dreambkk.com/, is located in Bangkok's very own Red Light district!  My heart raced as my driver drove through the dark, 
foreign city's narrow passageways while Thai women approached the car.  I was certain that doom was eminent.  A plan of action ensued - passport down the pants, camera chip in bra and pepper spray in hand. I was armed and ready.  

Never fear, after what seemed like a few more left and right turns, I finally arrived at DREAM - an oasis in the desert of female trafficking!  (I clearly had watched too many movies before taking my trip here, one of them being Liam Neeson's new film, TAKEN).

After settling in we decided to throw on some flip flops and go explore Bangkok's infamous nightlife.  My mood quickly changed from fear and trepidation to curiosity and excitement, a welcome change at that!  Bangkok's streets were alive and roaring with food vendors, mini-liquor-club carts decorated with holiday lighting, flourescent pink taxis, putting tuk-tuks (small motor led carts) and young backpackers.  I was on sensory overload and enjoying every moment of it.  Just as we turned the corner to stop and grab a beer Mike shouted out - Elephant on the street!!  I turned my head and sure enough, trodding down the city's bustling street right in between two shiny pink taxi cabs was a baby elephant making its way home.  I knew then and there this would be the beginning of a trip of a lifetime.