Monday, December 7, 2009

the best for last

Tucked away at the end of a side street, away from the maddening noise of the traffic and the bustle of commerce you'll find an oasis called the Jim Thompson House. The house is actually a collection of several teak houses which were relocated to Bangkok in 1959 by the American architect Jim Thompson. Intelligence work brought Thompson to Asia in WWII and he returned to make his home in Thailand after the war. Working closely with local silk weavers he revitalized the Thai silk trade. An avid collector of Asian arts and crafts, he filled his glorious teak house with his finds. His own story is mysterious. He disappeared without a trace while in Malaysia and his remains were never discovered. The house is now a museum and even though I have visited it a few times, it's always on my list of must-sees.

The house backs on the khlong or canal and Thompson's place is covered by the large Flamboyant Tree on the right side of this photo. His weavers lived on the left side and he would have gone across the khlong by boat to see his weavers.

There were many canals until the 1960s but they have gradually been filled in and roads take their place. This khlong is very extensive and is part of the Saen Saep ferry system and it wasn't long before one of the boats came blasting up the khlong sending a large wake slapping up the canal side walls.

The ticket takers are wearing brimmed hard hats. Probably to protect their noggins from over hanging tree branches.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

country fairs, thai style

Prang Sam Yot, the 1,000 year old Khmer temple is the main attraction in Lopburi.

In recent emails to friends, I mentioned that I had gone to a Monkey Festival last weekend and thinking it was somehow self explanatory, I did not elaborate. When they immediately wrote back...Monkey Festival?????...and wanted to know what, exactly, was a Monkey Festival, I knew that I had achieved a certain degree of cultural acclimatization. Welcome to Thailand where amazing happenings are an everyday thing. The monkey festival is basically a tourist attraction but at its heart is the buddhist practice of making merit or Tamboon. To gain points you feed monks, help the sick, release captives or look after animals. The big event at the monkey festival is feeding the macaque monkeys that live around the temple.

The trip to Lopburi where the Festival was being held was sparked by a plan to rendezvous with my friend's charming neice who has a 6 month teaching stint in Thailand. She was going to the festival with some friends, so I thought it would make a good place to meet. My friends Bon and Mike made arrangements for the hire their brother-in-law's brand spanking new taxi and I talked them into coming along for the ride. I had companionship, Thai interpretation, tour guide services and a stream of interesting conversation. All the makings of a perfect road trip.

As we got closer, I wondered if we had the right temple. I didn't see any monkeys.

And then I saw the stonework move. The little critters were everywhere.

The place was infested. Crawling with 'em. I could hardly tell what was monkey body and what was stone.

Ever since the great 1993 Pant Removal Incident in Bali, when my shorts got between a monkey and a pocketful of peanuts, I have given monkeys a pretty wide berth. Their teeth are sharp and they know how to use them. One of them briefly used me a springboard while I was busy taking a photo but I kept my shorts on.

I really should have been worried about the monkeys without hair. While I was taking this shot, someone was busy slicing open my bag with a razor. Miraculously, they did not get a thing. Camera, money and phone...all remained in the bag.

Bon led us in to pay our respects at another temple where we lit incense and placed little gold leaf squares on the Buddha figures.

The monkey festival coincided with the Sunflower festival and we drove through fields of yellow.

Sunflower fairgrounds were set up along the roadside where the fields were in bloom. Like other fall fairs, it's all about the harvest and tables were set out selling toasted sunflowers hot out of the wok, rice wine and all manner of sunflower bric-a-brac.

Instead of wagon rides, you climbed up on an elephant for an amble. I just caught the top of this guy.

And they had birdmen too. I was hoping to come across one of these merit salesmen in my Thailand travels. These guys do a steady trade in catch and release. They get these little sparrows into cages and you pay for the privilege of giving them their freedom. Talk about a business with a low environmental impact. I put my baht down for a box of three and Bon went whole hog and bought a half dozen.

Bon told me I had to make a wish before I let them go, so I thought of Susan who has been so recently released from the cage of her loneliness. I wished that she will fly free in the clear blue sky until the end of time.

the mother of all markets

now entering Dante's 10th circle

Chatuchak Weekend Market covers 35 acres and is divided into 15,000 stalls which are visited by over 200,000 people every weekend. It sells everything from live chipmunks to full size bronze horses. The crowd moves along like a fast rushing stream. If you see something you like, you must pull yourself out of the flow or else you will be swept along by the crush of people behind you. "Buy it when you see it" the guidebooks advise. You may never find it again in the labyrinth of narrow alleys packed to the rafters with goods and people. I spent the afternoon there today and I am still trying to decide whether it is a shopper's heaven or a shopaholic's hell. You can check in but you can never leave.
Just what you need...thingies in glass boxes
And how about those textiles...there must be 500 stalls just like this.
rambutans and mangosteens
The original Dollar Store has been found. It's been hiding out at Chatuchak.
snack on the ubiquitous Thai fishball
why buy one elephant purse when you can buy a half dozen?
Just be careful with that swinging handbag.
No bulls allowed in this china shop.
the ring road around the stalls is not as claustrophobic as the alleyways.
what colour do you want?
and you wanted a necklace?...only about 6,000 stalls selling beads, pearls and adornments.
fresh young coconut milk which you can drink straight out of the original package.
Cowboys!! I told you they sell everything. Susan sees cowboys in clouds, but I wasn't seeing things. Listen to the Blue Mountain Boys picking and singing here.

Friday, December 4, 2009

cooking with Bon

Every meal begins with marketing and we started off the day with a trip to Bon's favourite stalls.

When I asked my friend Bon if she could suggest a place to take a Thai cooking class, she jumped right in and generously offered to teach me a few basic dishes. Bon's culinary skills are legendary in my circle of friends. You just have to mention her name and people start salivating. Their faces get dreamy and they say "Bon's an amazing cook you know". The glazed look in their eyes tells you that they have left your presence and are now mentally savoring every taste and smell of the last meal that they had at Bon's table. I knew I was a lucky girl to get an offer to watch her whip around the kitchen.

She asked me what I would like to make and threw in a couple of extras. We spent last Saturday afternoon whipping up Tom Kha Gai (lemongrass flavoured coconut soup with chicken), Pad Thai (fried noodle), Kaeng Keow Wan Gai (green curry with chicken), Som Tam (spicy green papaya salad) and Pork with Oyster Sauce.

The veg selection came first and Bon heaped her basket full of fresh greens, buttery mushrooms, herbs and peppers.

I don't speak Thai but even I could understand that Bon was selecting the tender chicken thighs for her curry.

I need to send this whole stall back home. It's spice heaven. We stopped to get some grated coconut. She threw a few chunks into her magic machine and out shot a fresh and fragrant pile of coconut snow. Just add hot water, squeeze through cheesecloth ét voila, coconut milk.

The spice lady dug into huge spice paste mounds and concocted curries for each dish.

Soup flavourings come already bundled...a few stalks of lemon grass, several kaffir lime leaves and a woody slice of galangal. Tom Kha Gai and Tom Yam use these staples ingredients as a base.

Bon uses these mini green eggplant-y things in her green curry. She says that zucchini is a perfect substitute.

Pounding up the chili and garlic for the Som Tam

Spicy SomTam is quick to make and is sold on almost every street corner. The Thai staple is fantastic with BBQ chicken.

The photos don't do the food justice Big Shamu. You would have approved of the flavour though.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

banking in the elephant

Yesterday I walked over to the bank on Phahonyothin Road. Lauchie's branch is pretty easy to find. It's the one in the elephant building and there aren't many of those around. This fellow towers over the traffic and can be spotted for miles.

Friday, November 27, 2009

plant envy

The Chatuchak Park complex is the green space just beyond the overpass. X marks the Sun Tower office complex where Lauchie worked for a several years.

Looking southwest.

Before I start waxing on about plants and gardens, I need to put things in perspective. Clicking through the last few pages of this blog, I see that my bias is building a very unbalanced image of Thailand. You might be beginning to think the place is full of gardens, clean open spaces, sea views and historic buildings. I need to set up this post with some urban context. The photos above are taken from the top of Lauchie's building in Lat Phrao. Skyscrapers as far as the eye can see. To get a feel for the density, go to this map and scroll around. Imagine deafening traffic sounds and a beating hot sun reflecting off of every surface. Parks are few and concrete is the hands-down winner in the most acres covered category. Despite the heat and pollution, the plants struggle up through every gap in the pavement and with the slightest bit of encouragement they can produce magnificent blooms. Yesterday I strolled through Chatuchak Park and marveled at the tropical plants. The variety and hardiness of these growing things is incredible. Too bad I can't take these back and make them work in Zone 1.

Several Parks make up the Chatuchak Park complex. And yes the water really does look that brown.

I know it's ho-hum for you southeners, but It's always a bit mind blowing for us snow people to see houseplants turned into bedding plants.

A curtain of aerial roots hung down from the branches of this tree.

The graphic and fragrant Frangipani.

Long suffering Bougainvillea thrives everywhere.

These three plants must be the holy triumvirate of the tropical landscaper's toolkit. Every boulevard seems to sport a swath of it. The dark green one will grow over anything, turning vertical concrete into living walls.
Here they are set out as a border.

And here's the green one trained into a topiary elephant.

What in the heck is this? The fruits looked liked cannonballs...

and it had long strips of buds on scary looking branches.

The downside of all of this tremendous growth is the leaf matter which falls constantly. (Just think of it Dad, raking season never ever ends.) Parks employ armies of sweepers who constantly clean up after these messy trees and beat the jungle back into submission.