Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Hopeful Orchiding

Thailand is full of orchids of every shape, color and variety. I am constantly amazed by the seemingly endless possibilities when it comes to orchids. Rich purple stripes, yellows that fade to violet, vibrant blues, majestic magentas. The way the face of an orchid falls open in such unique patterns, thick petals twisting and curling. They have a light, citrusy scent that doesn’t overpower. Gorgeous.

I have been lured into buying these exquisite plants from several vendors at street and flower markets in Chiang Rai, and I have learned one thing: orchids are hard to keep alive. This must be why they charge so much for them in America.

My first attempt at keeping orchids alive was a miserable failure. I purchased three plants, meant to be hung, long roots akimbo in the air. Within a week, I was flowerless. The roots were dry, the leaves stiff, and the flowers dead. The plants haven’t given up completely; I have kept them alive, albeit in a vegetative state, but without hope of once again having flowers.

Second time around, I got a small orchid for fifty baht from the local flower market. Its little flowers, heads about the size of a quarter, yellow and spotted, seemed slightly neglected and covered in spiderwebs, but struck me as resilient. In a ceramic pot, rather than plastic or a wooden box, moisture seemed to last longer. Roots and flowers seemed happier. And, as time passed, new flowers replaced old, even as many as five at a time.

This has given me great confidence in my orchid-tending abilities. And then an amazing thing happened: I discovered a stall at the flow market where some lovely Thai ladies were selling full-sized, living orchids for 40 baht apiece. That’s right, less than $1.50. So, I bought three, potted and boxed them as best I could (they get very top-heavy), and I am hoping for the best. 

I might be overly ambitious due to my recent orchid success. I know virtually nothing about tending to orchids. But at that price, I can afford to fail. So, I will just keep doing what I did with my successful little guy and hope for the best. And, in the meantime, our porch is brimming with big, beautiful orchids. 

Friday, August 26, 2011

White Temple

After spending a year in a Buddhist country, we are used to seeing temples everywhere, with very little variation in appearance. They come in different sizes, some with a chedi, some are perched atop a hill, they feature Buddha-themed murals or statues in a variety of positions. But, for the most part, the variations are slight. The White Temple, however, is in a category of its own.

Designed and built by Thai artist Chaloemchai Khositphiphat, Chiang Rai’s White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) is a standout in a city, and a country, saturated with Buddhist temples. A quick motorbike ride outside of town, only thirteen kilometers or so, the White Temple is easy to see on a weekend afternoon. Not to mention, easy to spot.

Construction on the White Temple began in 1998, and is expected to continue for the next fifty or so years in order to complete Khositphiphat’s vision. Donations to the temple help to fund further construction.

The temple design is based on the artist’s interpretation of Buddhist Enlightenment, hence its pure white fa├žade. Covered top to bottom in stark white stucco and glittering mirror fragments, the temple was stunning, in the early evening sunlight.

Surrounding the temple is a pit filled with writhing, demonic-looking figures reaching up toward visitors, also all white. These statues are meant to depict the struggles and trials involved in reaching Enlightenment. It’s hard to be a Buddhist.

A white Naga-topped bridge arches over the pool of misery and anguish, leading to the main hall. 
While foreigners are forbidden to enter the temple without a Thai guide present, we went in anyhow. In typical Thai fashion, the walls were floor to ceiling murals of scenes of the Buddha’s life (one of which inexplicably had a little painted Doraemon whizzing by with a jet pack on).

Thus far, the main hall is all that has been constructed, aside from a gift shop/art gallery and an extremely elaborate bathroom, decked out in glittering gold mirrors, rather than white. Wouldn’t want to confuse the temple and the toilet. Even incomplete, the White Temple is majestic and dazzling. 

Thai Fruit: Gaton

This week seems to be the season for gaton, and everyone we have come across has been determined to make sure we try it. Disclaimer* I have no idea if that is the real name of the fruit, and it is almost certainly not how you would spell it in English (kratong, gauton, kartaun, who knows).

While searching for a very sneaky bunny, I instead came across a Thai wearing a giant floppy hat and work gloves and using a big stick to whack fruit from the trees in the lot behind us. Seeing me, she came over and started chatting away in Thai. Between the fragments of Thai that I can understand and the fact that she was reaching out, fruit in hand, I realized she wanted me to try the freshly picked fruit. I was instructed to cut the fruit into four pieces to eat it, although I am not sure why it had to be four. Then she remembered that two farang live in the house, went back to her bag, and came back with another and handed them both to me over the fence between us. Two fruit for two foreigners. Luckily, I know how to say ‘eat,’ numbers, and ‘thank you’ in Thai, so it was a pretty successful conversation.

In addition to this random exchange, we have been given them at school and at a local restaurant we frequent. Also known as wild mangosteen, gaton have become the hot item at the local markets now that they are in season. 

So we tried it. Fuzzy orange-brown on the outside, a soft pale-orange inside, it was reminiscent of the theoretical offspring of peaches and mangosteen, but a bit on the tart side. I wouldn’t go out of my way for it. But it’s not the worst fruit to have force-shared by random Thai strangers in our backyard. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Slug Bug!

Throughout our travels, Win has been playing Slug Bug, with me as the unwilling loser. Granted, the occasions to actually call ‘Slug Bug’ are pretty rare in the land of motorbikes and Hondas, but they do happen.

Every time I see one of the Beetles cruising around town I can’t help but wonder how difficult it must be to drive a 60s or 70s Volkswagon in a country where they drive on the left. If memory serves, I believe that the shifting isn’t the same as in most cars (something with the placement of reverse?). Put that on top of driving on the left hand side and having to shift with you left hand, all while anticipating the antics of Thai drivers. It’s mindboggling.

I haven’t seen so many VW Bugs in one place as I have since we arrived in Chiang Rai. There are so many here that occasionally (when Win is distracted or driving) I actually manage to win. In reality, we are probably dealing with a max of a dozen, just seen in different locations. But in a country where the motorbikes vastly outnumber the cars, this is still a bizarrely high proportion. There’s a wide variety of colors, and they all seem to be in pristine condition. How did they end up with so many Beetles in Thailand?  

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Little Fishes Galore

Between a hardware store (tubs), the weekend walking street (fish), two pet stores (still more fish), the flower market (water plants), and a water lily store (seriously, just water lilies), we have assembled a makeshift pond on our porch.

It was a lovely weekend project, involving many, many motorbike trips. Our pond is surrounded by multiple potted plants, including a five-foot tall papyrus, and contains roughly sixty fish. Or did, we’ve been having a big fish die off, but that will hopefully clear up.

The water lilies open up to the occasional spot of sunlight. Tiny fish flicker and shimmer, tails and fins iridescent and black, darting in and out of plants. We already have baby fish in black, gray, and orange. And, we’re thinking of adding a turtle pond as well. It has made our porch feel like the relaxing post-school haven that it should be.

The Underwear Bandit and My Misadventures as a Thai XL

We are lucky enough at our house in Chiang Rai to have a washing machine. Last semester, when we were living in Ratchaburi, we weren’t so fortunate. Win would bungee the full laundry basket to the basket on his bike and precariously bike the clothes to and from a laundry mat (some lady who washes clothes).

Having our very own washing machine makes everything much easier. I get up on sunny weekend mornings, throw in a load of clothes, wait an hour, and then hang them outside. I don’t think that dryers even exist in Thailand, so we have adapted to Thai-style drying: a moveable rack that goes into to the sun when possible, and out of the rain when it inevitably starts raining. It’s a bit of a pain, but our clothes smell of sunshine (unless of course they smell of mildew, then it’s back into the washer they go).

I thought this was a lovely, borderline-flawless system. Then, disaster struck.

While moving some still-damp clothes back into the sun, I noticed something peculiar. A large quantity of my underwear and a strapless bra were missing. Since everything else was intact, I began looking around, thinking surely the wind was to blame. But they were nowhere to be seen. Underwear, gone. Clothes pins still in place, I knew this had to be the work of a human. Some human who deemed it acceptable to come into our yard and thong-nap my cute American underwear, lace and all. But, they were courteous enough to leave two pairs.

Two pairs. A person cannot live with two pairs of underwear. Now, none of this would be a problem were I living in America. It might cost a lot replacing nearly every pair of underwear you own, but it’s not an unjumpable hurtle.

But here I am, in Thailand, Land of the World’s Tiniest Women. I don’t know where the fat ladies get their underwear here (or clothes in general), but it can’t just be at any old store. I know. I go into stores and am told “Oh, very big size. No have.” I am a Thai XL.

So I venture into the local underwear store, and it’s like a Victoria’s Secret for malnourished children. I peruse the bras. Nothing over a 34/75, which I have learned through comparison shopping, will almost hold Win’s chest if he doesn’t breathe. Out of luck in the bra department, I head over to the underwear to give that a try. I ask, as I have grown accustomed to, for the large sizes. “Free size,” the girl behind the counter responds, glancing up her magazine. This is Thai Engrish for One Size Fits All.

I bought the stretchiest, biggest underwear they had in the place, steering clear of those with patterns acceptable only for eight-year-olds. They were cheap: I got 12 pairs for 240 baht (8 dollars), and thank goodness for that. About half of them turned out to be acceptable, the other half not so much. Although I suppose that if I sewed about four pairs together I could get one regular-sized pair of underwear.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Bartholomew C. Rabbit

With the heavy monsoon rains that last until October or so, our yard becomes unruly and overgrown in a hurry. Lawnmowers are expensive. So we came up with our own solution. We bought a bunny.

At the night market about two months ago, there was a pet shop stand selling bunnies at a hundred baht a pop. Having no way to transport a rabbit easily on a motorbike, we put it off till the next week. But they weren’t there the next week, or the week after. Or the week after that.

Eventually, two months later, we drove past a pet store. It turned out they had bunnies, and the cutest ones were the cheapest as well. So we picked out a chocolate brown rabbit. Mr. (we’re guessing here) Bartholomew C. Rabbit.

At first, I was a hesitant new pet owner. Would bunny be okay outside on its own? What about the heavy rains? Won’t it be scared at night?

But my fears were unfounded.  Just by allowing the bunny to have free reign in the yard, we created a monster. Our bunny is a derelict. It doesn’t care about rain or mud. It slips under our gate and wanders out of the yard. And it eats nonstop like it’s a fuzzy little lawnmower. And even if Bartholomew happens to go M.I.A., well there aren’t any other animals living on our street, so it should be alright. Right? 

The World's Most Awkward Birds

On a recent weekend excursion around Chiang Rai, we chanced to see something slightly different on the map. Along the route we had planned for the day, there was a tiny red star indicating the Wana Ostrich Farm. Wana Ostrich Farm? You bet we wanna.

With the twenty-foot tall ostrich statues standing guard over its entrance, Wana Farm would be hard to miss. We entered through the gift shop – purses and lamps made from monstrously large eggs – and walked back to the “farm.”

Ostriches aside, the farm itself was a bit on the average side. A handful of sheep, some very large and very sleepy rabbits, a couple of horses. But of course, then there were the ostriches. Probably a dozen, ranging in size, trotted awkwardly around a couple of pens, gangly and befuddled.

Now, I can say without hesitation, ostriches have to be some of the goofiest creatures on the face of the earth.  Dr. Seuss characters come to life; they have wings, but cannot fly. They have a long, awkward neck, but none of the grace or fluidity of a giraffe. They loll their heads about on their stringy necks, and try to eat everything within mouth-range. And, while we didn’t see it in real life, cartoons tell me that they are dumb enough to try to hide by sticking only their head underground, giant ass in full view. Their huge, curious eyes would be lovely if not for the expression of pure stupidity. Their feathers lack any color or beauty, nothing more than floppy brown tassels. Their feet are easily three times the logical size, perhaps to keep them from keeling over, and have to be lifted all the way up to their stomach and then flung forward in order to induce forward momentum. Never have I seen such an awkward creature.

But then, Win was offered the opportunity to ride an ostrich, and all awkwardness increased exponentially.

The understandably reluctant ostrich was cornered and a burlap sack tossed over its head, like putting blinders on a horse. Before having Win climb up, the Thais gave a full demonstration on the proper technique: climb from a stool onto the beast’s back, wrap your legs around it, grab the wings (as they are useless anyhow), lean back, and hold on for dear life.

When they removed the bag, the ostrich began trotting around the pen. The ringleader of the whole setup, standing safely outside the pen with me, leaned over and said to me, “It can go faster. You wan to go fast?” Of course I want to go fast, I’m sitting on the sidelines rather than on the ostrich. Everytime I would say “fast” he would yell to the Thais inside. Apparently the way to make an ostrich go faster is to chase it with a stick. Think reverse rodeo clown. So, around went the Thai with a stick, around went the ostrich with Win, and around went the second, riderless ostrich. Faster and faster, at my behest.

“Run” is probably not the word for the movement of an ostrich. Horses gallop. Gazelles bound. Giraffes lope in slow motion. Ostriches … garlumph. Yes, that has the right ring to it. Their big floppy feet are pulled all the way up to their chest, their legs swing wildly, and their whole body plops from side to side, their head bobbing and swaying atop their spaghetti neck in opposite rhythm. Ostriches garlumph along at relatively high speeds. 

And there was Win perched atop this swaying bobbing, swinging mass running away from a stick. Except, Win’s legs, being much longer than those of Asians, didn’t exactly wrap snuggly around the chest of an ostrich.

Shoes were lost, mud was flying, feathers were sticking to his sweaty palms in clumps. It was the best hundred baht we have spent in Thailand. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Thai Fruit: Dragonfruit

With a name like dragonfruit, how could you go wrong? Holy crap, it’s hot pink with what appear to be solidified neon green flames coming off of it! This has to be the coolest fruit ever.

Inside, either white or violet with tiny black seeds, similar to those in a kiwi. Delight. Excitement. Anticipation at what this wondrous fruit of dragons will taste like.


 It tastes like nothing. It’s the texture of kiwi, but without any flavor.  Just the color white with seeds. I feel lied to. Betrayed. Dragonfruit? With a name like that it should taste rich, sweet, tangy, like fruit made from tropical fire. How can something with such potential fall so short?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

And Burma Makes Ten

For our first “visa run” (when we pop into and out of another country to renew our entry stamp) we spent a week in Laos for Christmas. The second time around, we were off cavorting around Southeast Asia for two months. This time, given our proximity to Burma, and the fact that we are practically out of countries to see, that was the clear choice.

Crossing the border at Mae Sai, the northernmost point of Thailand, is relatively simple. We hopped a bus from Chiang Rai, took a tuk-tuk to the border, and walked through customs checkpoints. On the Burmese side, things are a bit strict. They take your picture and give you a temporary pass. Your passport is left at the border. At this border crossing, tourists are given permission to stay in Burma for up to 14 days, but only to enter a specific string of villages, and you’re required to check in at checkpoints along the way.

As soon as we stepped foot on Burmese soil, with its relative lack of tourism, we were immediately inundated with offers from tuk-tuk drivers to drive us around the town at moderately steep prices. Some of them literally came running at us. Our plan, however, was simply to have lunch and head back, new entry stamp in hand.

The border town on the Burmese side, Takhilek, is practically Thai. They use Thai baht as currency since it is more stable. So many Thais come through there for shopping or immigration that many of the town’s residents speak at least functional Thai. However, in Thailand rarely do you see pickup trucks full of uniformed men carrying machine guns.

Over lunch, we were even more of a spectacle than we have come accustomed to. Especially me; I was the only female in the restaurant who wasn’t serving food (and without my face painted in a tribal fashion, white squares and circles blooming across cheeks and foreheads). 

As we were finishing up our Myanmar beer, one of the many staring men walked past our table, did a double take and sat down, striking up a conversation. He was a non-government tour guide (which may or may not be illegal there). He was also adamant in using only the new name “Myanmar” for both the people and the country, no “Burma” for him. And he was exclusively pro-Myanmar; shushing Win whenever he asked a slightly critical question of the government or the country. His fear of being overheard daggled in the air.

Clearly, we hired this illegal tour guide. We stopped by several temples, many of which were similar to what we see on a regular basis in Thailand; the only exceptions being a Chan temple (more ornately carved and decorated), a meter-tall Buddha made from weaved bamboo, and a Chinese temple. Also, our tour guide got so drunk off the one beer we bought him that he forgot his shoes at a temple.

Interestingly enough, the Burmese people are some of the nicest we have come across, generally speaking. They also speak some of the best English we've heard outside of the English-speaking countries like Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. They are gearing up for a full tourism explosion in the near future. 

Now, it might not have been a full-scale, in-depth exploration of Burma/Myanmar. But it was what we could do with a small time frame and while avoiding giving excessive amounts of money to the government there, of which no one is in favor.

More impressive, Burma marks a milestone in my career as a traveler: country number ten. Double digits. Now, I know that ten isn’t the biggest of numbers, but for a girl who has yet to go to Canada, Mexico, or Europe, I’d say it’s not too shabby. And, it's not everyone who has a Burma/Myanmar stamp in their passport. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Islanding, Cheap and Rustic

While our New Mexicans were here, the final thing on their Thailand Bucket List – tigers, ruins, elephants, and monkeys accomplished – was to spend some time on a beach or an island. And, as islands are something that Thailand has in abundance, but travel time was something we were short on, we decided on Koh Chang at the strong recommendation of some friends.

Relatively undisturbed in terms of development and tourism, Koh Chang is far quieter than anywhere we had been in Southern Thailand, although not for lack of effort. The majority of the island is covered in vast complex cliffs and meandering evergreen and jungle mountains. The road that rushes along the perimeter of the island, although failing to make a full, connecting circuit, is something akin to a rollercoaster, with its steep inclines and hairpin turns.

The lack of development has led to a spike in the number of luxury resorts on the island, intentional on the part of the developers with an eye for big bucks. However, if you venture slightly farther to Lonely Beach, cheap accommodation and moderately priced meals abound. A decent beachfront (or had there been more beach and less boulders, what would have been beachfront) bungalow ran us 300 baht a night, and even included a mosquito net over the bed and a hammock out front. We fell asleep to melodious waves lapping at our doorstep, our wallets not suffering horribly.

We did a full day of snorkeling, this time with no major catastrophes. Win and Ansel rented motorbikes to cruise around the little island, while Jenny and I hopped a taxi to the resort-quality beaches to lounge, read, and have some lunch. It was over-cast, but as we were both slightly burnt, it was perfect. It was a lovely, relaxing way to finish off our unpaid vacation, and it cost far less than a trip to the other islands.