Thursday, February 28, 2008

Thaksin's Return Over Breakfast


Breakfast was a simple and unremarkable khao mun gai. One my right was a scrawled upon picture of Thaksin Shinawatra looking an awful lot like Adolf Hitler, and on my left upon the wall was a television showing supporters and detractors of his gathering at the airport awaiting his imminent return.



For those of you who do not follow Thai politics, Thaksin Shinawatra is the twice elected former prime minister who was overthrown in a military coup back in September 2006. The coup was mostly cheered by the middle and upper classes in Bangkok, while elsewhere there were some other opinions. Thaksin's proxy party, the People Power Party (PPP), handily won the recent elections, even after a pretty good effort by the military junta to suppress the vote. Here we go again.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

What to do in Sangkhlaburi


One of the things you must do when you visit the town of Sangkhlaburi is cross the longest wooden bridge in Thailand. The bridge connects the town of Sangkhlaburi to the Mon village across the lake. All the travel literature points you in that direction with the end goal of visiting a Mon market. I've visited twice and found the market tiny and hardly worth checking out really. Maybe I'm too late in the day, or maybe what is there is so small it doesn't seem worth the effort.

I'm not complaining by the way. I'm usually underwhelmed by hyped destinations and places that people are directed towards. I know it's an old cliche, but it's the journey, not the destination. A lot of people claim to live by this rule, but with the increased visitations to the world's historical and natural attractions, it seems like empty rhetoric.

One of the things in this world that makes me the most content is having a nice beverage. At the very small market I started with a cup of chaa ron, or hot Thai tea with a generous pour of the evil yet delicious sweetened condensed milk.


Because this is Thailand, if you are in a local place, you get tea with your tea.

This is a really nice variation of the coffee ritual that I am used to, and it's one I have fallen in love with in SE Asia.
Perhaps this is as good a time as any to contrast this with the importation and emerging popularity of western style coffee houses, spearheaded by Starbucks. I'm not a fan of Starbucks, for reasons which deserve another post, and I'm also of the same mind when it comes to the local clones such as Coffee World or Black canyon coffee.

Many before me have heralded Thailand's ability to incorporate outside influences and make them uniquely Thai. The "traditional" style market coffee stands do this nicely, as do the new and "modern" style coffee shops that bring the Thai sensibilities along with the newly bought espresso machines. The coffee houses popularized in the Northwestern United States bring only that culture with them. Also, your coffee always passes through there regardless of where you are in the world drinking your double tall, skinny, non fat, mocha frappachino. In addition: I'd rather not listen to the newest Paul McCartney disc thank you very much. No, there's nothing wrong with you for wanting your coffee how you like your coffee, and your coffee house how you like your coffee house, but maybe there is something wrong with Starbucks.

Where was I? Oh:
After my tea and my tea we walked around and did a little bit of browsing at some local shops. I plopped down at a table in a store when I saw coffee on the burner. My addiction was getting the best of me...

I opted for a cafe boran, sweetened only ever so slightly by the sweetened condensed milk. Of course, there was also tea.


This was a nice a and relaxing day, even with the high caffeine levels. If my memory serves me correctly, this was Christmas day. Not a bad way to spend the birth of some people's lord.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Maha Chai

One of the skills of any travel writer has to be the ability to make the most mundane sound exciting, and nudge the underwhelming into the realm of the spiritual. I'm not a gifted writer nor am I an exaggerator. These facts make my trip to Maha Chai difficult to write about.

Another weekend meant another opportunity to get the hell out of the city and pedal around a more peaceful and beautiful stretch of the country, without having to travel far. Our goal was to catch the train in Thonburi at Wongwian Yai, and travel for an hour or so to Maha Chai, the first end of the line in Samut Sakhon on the Maekhlong Railway line. You can actually go an hour further after getting off the train, boarding a ferry to cross the river, and get on a different train on the other side. Anyhow, once getting off the train at Maha Chai, we could explore the market and pedal to our little hearts content, happy in the knowledge that with a little effort we'd be handsomely rewarded with a lovely day.

Things started off quite nicely as we rode from our humble abode in the Sathorn Road area over into Thonburi toward the train station. We arrived without incident and bought our tickets.

A quick ride helped me develop a big appetite. I ordered a bowl of kuay jap.

I'm no expert on this dish but I do know that it hit the spot. I was in need of some salt after a bit of riding and this bowl delivered. E had a bowl oh khao tom; no photo for you!

We boarded the train and paid the extra 20 baht a piece to take our bikes. The train ride was pretty hot and uncomfortable, but still very pretty.

When we arrived at the terminal station we were in the midst of a rather huge and busy seafood market. I was pushing a bike and a little too overwhelmed to capture it, but it's a very good market. If finding squid to eat is a measure of success, then I am a champion because it seems that grilled squid is a specialty of this market.

I started off with three little ones for five baht a piece.

Next we proceeded to find a place to sit and nurse two large bags of chaa manao, or lime tea. We settled in at a Chinese temple by the river when I spotted some real monster squid. It was becoming a squid day.

It was bigger than a baby's arm. Actually, it was bigger than some babies. There were three options, 120, 140, or 160 baht. A real high price, but a real big squid.

We went for one for 120 Baht. It was really massive. It was also very expertly cooked, and the sauce was spicy enough to kill some people I have known.


After this meal of sorts we decided to go for a ride. We had read about a mangrove reserve a few kilometers out of town. Unfortunately we seemed to have forgotten the name of the road we were looking for. No matter, we could just pedal our way out of town and be in a magical green area, right? Of course not. Samut Sakhon was certainly a much larger town than I had imagined. We rode in circles, ended up on roads that looked a lot like expressways, and got generally frustrated. On one very busy road I looked across the river and saw maybe the largest pile of trash I have ever seen. This was not what I had imagined for the day's ride. At one point E remembered the name of our road, asked a group of people for directions, and got a strange answer. They pointed us to a place 90 kilometers away. That certainly wasn't what we were looking for.

After riding around in the heat we ended up back at the market with our tails between our legs. We bought more snacks and moped around a bit. I came across many Ma Prang sellers and picked up a bag. i was going to do a blog post all about these a couple weeks ago with the title "The most expensivve fruit in Bangkok." I saw them on my soi for 220 baht a kilo. This day they were going for a range of prices in the double digits. I picked up a kilo for sixty.
marian plum
Here they are in my kitchen.

Ma Prang, or marian plums, look a bit like a mini mango. I read somewhere that they are distantly related cousins. To me they taste like a mix between an apricot, a plum, and a mango. They're mind blowingly delicious. About two years ago I tasted my first marian plumb and loved it. Last year, I did not see even one for sale. A bit of a mystery.

Back to my story: We hopped the train and returned to Bangkok without incident. I've got to admit, the day was a bit of a failure. At least we enjoyed our marian plumbs when we got home.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Mojitos

Mojito

This Friday night I was feeling festive. Mojitos were on the menu. Yeah, I bet many of you wanted to hear about street food, or something more uniquely Thai. Well, my life isn't only noodles and street meats. I wanted a mojito and I wasn't going to pay some exorbitant amount for one at some fancy-schmancy bar. Also, I didn't want to put pants on, and I like making drinks.

While you can't just walk down to the corner and buy a fun and fancy drink, you can but some very nice ingredients to point you in the right direction. For a mojito you need rum, soda, lime, mint, and sugar. A quick trip to the street market gets the fresh ingredients. Luckily I had rum and soda on hand. Who doesn't have a little sugar? For best results, you need caster sugar. I put brown sugar in a food processor to get the fine consistency that is ideal for cocktails.
Drink makins

One of my fondest memories of enjoying mojitos was at a street cafe in the beautiful Grenada, Nicaragua. Nicaragua is the home of Flor De CaƱa, one of the world's finest rums. Unfortunately, I've never seen it anywhere outside of Nicaragua. What's an American to do? I bought a bottle of Havana Club.
rum
Havana Club is one of the fine rums of Cuba. It's a spirit one will not find in America due to the long standing trade embargo of the small communist island. The government of the recently retired Fidel Castro doesn't think much of political freedoms. For decades Cuba has rightly been accused of human rights violations. Recently, America has also had a recent spate of bad publicity for torturing "enemy combatants" at Guantanamo Bay Naval base. You've gotta watch out for that free press.

Anyhow, after a round of thoroughly enjoyed mojitos, the hunger had gotten out of control. I wanted to walk as little as possible to the nearest food stall. Just in front of my building was a bami cart I visit on occasion. Lucky me.

A bowl of bami haeng was procured to ward off the post cocktail haze. If you think that this is a strange pairing, you're right. Regardless, this was a much needed and enjoyed bowl of noodles.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Surprise Meal in Sangkhlaburi

Sangklaburi is one of my favorite places to visit in Thailand. It's not only an incredibly beautiful place, but there is an interesting and diverse mix of people comprised of Thai, Burmese, and various Hill Tribes. It's also a place where I've had mixed results where food is concerned.

One afternoon at the very nice market, a curiosity was spotted. I don't know what we saw first. Maybe it was the fried roti, or maybe it was the shirtless man doing the cooking.



Who is this man? He was a bit of a mystery really. My guess is that he is a Burmese Muslim. He spoke Thai more or less. He clearly wasn’t a native speaker. We were a bit perplexed about the food situation. When we inquired about getting a meal, he told us that there was dahl and nan. Perfect, but unusual.



As usual, I started to poke around to see what was cooking. He had just made some nan and was getting to work on the roti.



We put in a further order of some vegetables as we were deficient in that particularly important food group.



What came was fried rice. Oops. These things do happen.

From my experience, this is not a common market meal, but it was a pleasant and delicious surprise.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Somewhere outside the city


The goal for Saturday was to take a bicycle ride from central Bangkok out into the boonies. We were shooting for nowhere specifically, just toward the ocean. Reachable yes, but not really the destination. We crossed the river at Sathorn and rode into Thonburi.

As you exit central Bangkok, you enter what I call the endless outskirts. They seem to go on forever. You pass through many communities full of life and commerce that you'd likely never have reason to visit. You also see the places where the marginalized temporarily put down roots before being pushed somewhere else once again.

The further we rode, the hungrier we got of course. Luckily, as you get farther from the center of town, the better the food often is. I can't swear by this as there are gems everywhere, but my better dining exploits are almost always outside of the center proper.

On Rama II soi 33 we spied a busy open-air affair along side one of the many khlongs spotted along our ride. Large tables surrounded by city dwellers suggested that people had traveled far for a meal at this particular restaurant.

We started simple with som tam Thai sai pu: papaya salad with dried shrimp, peanuts, and fermented crab. This is how I usually order my som tam these days.

Next we tried something new. It was a sour chicken soup, but I've forgotten the name. Something like "home chicken" in Thai. A little help? Seasoned with galangal, shallots, chilies, and tamarind shoots, this soup packed a nice spicy/sour kick. This soup is worth returning for.


Last we got a plaa chon thod, whole fried snakehead fish with tamarind sauce. You can probably see all the great things covering this monster. It was covered in a sweet and sour tamarind sauce with garlic, shallots, ginger, chili, lime, lime leaf, peanuts, and dried shrimp. It was kind of like eating a fried fish covered in miang kham. Maybe that sounds weird but it was certainly excellent.

This is not the only time I've had a dish such as this. I've also had it with sea bass, which is also excellent. It's beautiful and really a full on dish with many quintessential Thai flavors. It does sit heavy though.

Hello fish. If having to look your fish in the eye as you eat makes you uncomfortable, you probably shouldn't be eating it. When you cut pieces off before cooking, you really lose a lot when you get your finished product. Just because the eyes are gone when you eat, doesn't mean that they were not there at one time.

I absolutely love a good Thai dessert. I was not to be disappointed. We spied someone eating lod chong so we ordered away.

What arrived was beautiful and delicious. The flavor from the mix of the palm sugar and coconut milk was perfect. Simply the best I'd ever had.

After lunch we headed further out towards the abyss. Actually, we were heading toward a place on the map where it appeared that the development ended, and the tidal flats began. As we approached the general region we started to hit a mix of the pristine and the encroaching development. We passed signs advertising new housing developments, a couple of 18th century style palaces (unbelievable but true). and the shanties of the workers building them. The contrasting images of garish palatial monstrosities, and a man on the side of the road sifting through a smoldering rubbish pile for either food or valuables is as good an argument for a redistribution of wealth as I can imagine.

As we rode along an overflowing khlong, or maybe it was a fishpond, we spied a large temple worth inspecting. When we got closer we were surprised to recognize the place from a recent newspaper article. It was wat Hua Krabeu, a place where the Abbot in residence has been collecting buffalo skulls for 35 years to eventually construct a shrine for the animal, made entirely of skulls of course. He also collects antique Mercedes Limousines. He was once investigated by his superiors for acquiring such things, an apparent violation of his vows. After much bad publicity, he was exonerated. Supposedly the cars are collected for novices to learn auto repair, so if and when they leave the monkhood, they will have a marketable skill.



That was the farthest we would go, as we were satisfied that we had in fact gotten far away from where we had begun. The way home took us passed large expanses of water where a variety of sea creatures were being farmed on the tidal flats. We saw many stalls set up selling mussels, cockles, and crabs. Carrying a festering bag of seafood a couple dozen kilometers into the city by bicycle sounded less that ideal. We gave it a miss.

Somewhere on Pracha U-Thit road we happened along a very large market and festival at a mosque. It was really just a refueling stop before the last ten or so kilometers. We did a double take at a roti stand. They seemed quite large. One had to be purchased.

It seemed that these rotis were not pounded out as flat as usual nor were they cooked with as much oil as I'm used to. I guess you could call it a healthier roti.

It had a nice thick doughy texture. It wasn't so oily, but it certainly had plenty of sweetened condensed milk to keep the calorie count high.

After a lovely day of riding, nothing seemed more perfect than an evening of eating in Chinatown. The camera stayed at home.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Train rides, train snacks!

I have always been a train person. When I was a kid I used to regale in the opening lines of Merle Haggard's Mama Tried. I would ride my horse on springs enthusiastically to this opening:

The first thing I remember knowing,
Was a lonesome whistle blowing,
And a young un's dream of growing up to ride;
On a freight train leaving town,
Not knowing where I'm bound,
No one could change my mind but Mama tried.


Being an American has meant either riding the poor excuse for a train, which is Amtrak, or leaving America entirely for a ride on the rails. Thailand does not disappoint. Not only are the rides beautiful, they are also full of snacks. A match made in heaven really.

To give you the impression that train rides in Thailand are just a day in heaven is misleading though. They are slow, hot, and crowded. They are usually late, and feel longer than they should. So why ride at all? Everything and anything edible comes aboard the third class train: rice meals, meat sticks, coffee, even durian. You just need to sit back and see what comes your way. Watch the beautiful scenery, watch for snacks. It really is quite fun. If you have a white face, vendors will offer you beer at all hours of the morning because everybody knows that westerners are all alcoholics.

The above refers to the third class trains. If you take a second class or a first class, you'll have aircon and closed windows. To have closed windows makes it feel like you are in the car. Car travel is something I might wish upon an enemy of mine. Sometimes the windows are even frosted so you cannot see out! Also, they do not let the vendors on. Oh my god.

I never take food on the train, but if for some reason I do, it is food that I've bought on the platform, not some packaged junk at 7-11.

On a recent trip to Kanchanaburi, we spotted a lovely kai palo in a banana leaf.

This dish is cooked in large pots of sweet broth flavored with cloves. The above includes an egg and tofu. The above is lacking in the pork department, otherwise it would be called moo palo.


E's mother D was keen on this one, and we quickly snatched up a couple to tide us over until the next vendor passed our way.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Jawa Mosque Street Fair

Today I received a text message from N alerting me to the yearly street fair at the local mosque. Bring your camera he urged.

This was a great street fair. The small street was crowded with people and food stalls. My idea of a good time. I am certainly an exciting fellow.

As a rule I don't usually take photos of things I don't consume, but I liked the looks of these chickens. These chickens are placed whole into a fryer then hung out to dry.

I gravitated toward a roti mataba stand. There was a curisoity though. An unfamiliar sweet version was being prepared. The woman told me that it was banana, but I think it also had jack fruit or mango as well as dried fruit.

Unfortauntely, I had already reached my sweets quota for the day, so I opted for the chicken version.

It was certainly excellent. This snack is often bland and greasy on the street. This one was fresh and strong on the spices.

E saw a shawarma stand and couldn't say no. Can you really blame her?

Initially I was jealous about this one. The wrap included a generous ladle full of yogurt sauce and hot sauce on top of the obligatory beef, lettuce, and tomatoes. Looks were deceiving. It was very poor, but so what? This was a great community event. People brought the kids, the old folks in wheelchairs, and their little doggies. What could be better? On the way home a couple of old guys stopped us and wanted to know if we'd had a good time. I was touched. As a foreigner you're constantly reminded of how you stick out and don't really fit in. It is always nice to be made to feel welcome.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Happy Chinese New Year

Happy Year of the Rat to all of you. May it be good and not entirely full of misery and despair.

I spent yesterday in Chinatown getting sweaty and claustrophobic on the wonderfully crowded and bustling sois. My photographic endeavours produced some less than thrilling results so a write up complete with pretty pictures is not going to happen. Also, I had no appetite. Snacking did not occur. Strange.

Worry not. While thinking about how for the second year in a row I have not managed a quality post about Chinese New Year, I remembered how I never posted about my New Years Eve spent eating in Chinatown.

E's mother and father were here (all the way from Oregon) for a visit and they had not yet visited Chinatown. On our way back into town after spending a few days in Sangklahburi and then Saraburi to visit friends, we stopped in Chinatown along with friends F and Muk.

We started with a bowl of duck noodles. We went to a duck stand that I adore. Apparently I'm not the only one.

This photo doesn't really tell the whole story. This stand is often very busy, and this evening was no exception. We had to fight other patrons for a table. Luckily I am very strong.

The man behind the duck is really something else to watch. Very fast. I tried to listen to him and his wait staff and figure out how in the world they remembered all the orders. I casually walked up and ordered six bowls of dry duck noodles with dumplings. No problem.

I had forgotten how rich duck can be. This bowl packs a serious kick in terms of richness. To me, duck always tastes something like turkey, but only the dark meat, and richer. That's an endorsement for some, and maybe not for others. I like it. I can and will eat two bowls of this, but took a pass this particular evening.

Next we plopped down at a table near a dessert stand.

We were greatly looking forward to a very delicious bowl of bua loy nam king.

Denied. What were we to do? F made another order and we waited.

Muk appeared out of nowhere to place a large box of chestnuts in front of us. We would eat these for days to come.

We were given icy desserts of some kind, which were new to me. Stir and reveal the little surprises!


Hmm. Doesn't look like what most people would think of as dessert. Excellent. It had: white fungus, jujubes, gingko nuts, lotus root, and black jelly. A taste experience that is sweet, rich, nutty, and unique.

Lastly, Muk wanted to get us some kuay jap. Unfortunately, his favorite place was closed for the evening. Instead, he had already put in an order at an alternate and very busy establishment before we had even eaten noodles. It was time to go back and wait a little longer.

There was certainly a lot of crispy pork to be had, and lot of hungry diners.

I yelled something and luckily Muk was the only one to look at the camera. Smile! We got it to go as we were quite full.

Sometime after midnight I poured the almost room temperature noodles, broth, crispy pork, and kidney into a bowl and tried my very best to put a dent in this formidable meal.

I can't claim to be much of a fan, but this was not consumed under ideal circumstances. We've been promised another outing to visit Muk's favorite kuay jap place. I can't wait.