Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Blake's Racing for Burmese Education!

In less than 25 days I'm running a half-marathon in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Did I mention that I have zero training and I'm going to be... “barefoot”? 


For the past 2 ½ years I've been teaching English in Thailand. Recently, I left the sun and islands of the south for a small town on the northern Thai-Burmese border. For the next three months, I'll be volunteering my time, teaching English to Burmese immigrants-- economic, educational, and political refugees-- that fled their country to escape human rights abuses and to pursue the opportunity of receiving a proper education. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Baan Thai Cookery School in Chiang Mai

          After fending off unruly Canadians in Chiang Rai, my tour of the north continued by backtracking three hours by bus to Chiang Mai. The last time I was in Thailand's “City of the North” was over two years ago and in an entirely different situation.

During Songkran, you can run but you can't hide!
(photo credit: tlcthai.com)
          In April of 2010, I first visited Chiang Mai with a couple of friends during songkran on our way to Laos and Vietnam. Songkran is the annual water festival held in celebration of the Thai New Year. Chiang Mai happens to be home to the biggest and wildest songkran hullabaloo (I love that word) in all of Thailand. What was once a simple and traditional celebration has grown to be a week-long music and beer fueled water war. Every April thousands of Thais and foreigners, young and old, pillage Thailand's old capital for six or more days of drenched revelry. Unfortunately, this time my stay in Chiang Mai would accommodate no such debauchery.

Songkran insanity!
photo credit: Thaimedicalnews.com
          No jungle trekking, no Muay Thai fights, and no late nights staring down empty beer bottles. Nope. This time, my four days in Chiang Mai were spent relaxing, reading, writing this blog, and hammocking in the garden of my guesthouse (Choke Dee Guesthouse- 350 baht/night). In fact, the most exciting thing that I did was take a cooking class. Scoff away, but taking a Thai cooking class is something I've wanted to do for a long time. I've mentioned many times that one of my favorite parts of living in Thailand is the incredible food, and it would be a shame to leave the country without at least attempting to acquire some of it's culinary wizardry.

          For 700 baht (about $22 USD) I attended a 4-hour "half-day" course at Baan Thai Cookery School. It was great. First, the instructor walked us through the local day market and showed us how to find the different fresh ingredients that we'd need for each dish. When we returned to Baan Thai we broke up into groups depending on what dishes we were cooking. There were three courses in all. We started with an appetizer, then a soup along with a rice or noodle dish, and with a curry for the grand finale. For each dish, the instructor showed us how to prepare the ingredients and follow the recipe. Then... Cook. Eat. Repeat.

the new sauce boss
For my appetizer I made som tam (shredded, unripened papaya salad with lime juice, fresh-ground chillies, peanuts, fish sauce, and palm sugar).  And for my soup creation, I made tom kha gai (chicken soup with coconut milk, basil, ginger, lemongrass, and chilli paste, lime juice, and cilantro)...
tom kha gai (left) and som tam (right)
Next, I mastered Thailand's most renowned noodle-dish, pad Thai (Thai-style stir-fried noodles with egg, shrimp, peanuts, coriander, lime, and fish sauce)...
not even flexing.
I finished strong with my masterpiece-curry, khao soi gai (a northern-style curry famous in Chiang Mai, made with egg noodles, Indian curry paste, coconut milk, pickled cabbage, and ground chillies fried in oil). One of my favorite dishes in Thailand the world...
food porn
After we cooked each dish we took it back to the table to taste test our creations. By the end of the class I had learned how to cook four awesome Thai meals, in less than four hours total, and devoured every one of them.  I was stuffed. 
imm maak maak!  Sooo full...
It was a fun experience and I'm glad I did it.  Not only did I get to eat some awesome food, but I learned a lot.  We even got to keep our own got our own copies of the cookbooks we used.  What's that old saying?  You can shear a sheep once, but if you teach it how to fish you'll never be hungry... yeah, something like that.  I know that one day the time will come when I'm somewhere else in the world, and I'll have an insatiable som tam craving but can no longer walk across the street and buy a plate for a buck.  I'll be ready!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Blake vs. the Canadians in Chiang Rai

          A busy October. Back to America for three weeks for my dad's wedding and to visit some friends and family. Then, just as the jet lag was wearing off it was back to Thailand, half-way around the globe. I spent a few days in Bangkok at some old haunts near the oh so infamous Khao San Road, met my girlfriend's parents for the first time, and showed them around the city hitting the Grand Palace and several other tourist spots. Having packed up all my belongings and moved out of my house in Surat, I still had three and half weeks to kill before orientation for my new job. After four days in the city, I was already dying to get away from the noise and stink of Bangkok, so north I went. First stop: Chiang Rai.
Chiang Rai

          It took 15 hours on a sleeper train from Bangkok, then another three hour bus ride, and finally a 10 minute tuk-tuk to reach my accommodation (Chat Guesthouse) in Chiang Rai town. I checked in and paid for a night (90 baht/person/night for a double bed), took a hot shower, and went to sleep.
          At 5:30 am Mother Nature sounded the alarm clock in the form of several screeching roosters just below my window. My goal for the day was to see what Chiang Rai had to offer without breaking my budget (I'm paycheckless for the foreseeable future). For 150 baht (about $5 USD) I rented a motorbike for the day and followed the free map I got from the tourism authority to Chiang Rai's famous Wat Rong Khun (the White Temple).
Wat Rong Khun
Narnia/Chiang Rai, Thailand.

The White Temple

          Reminiscent of a Narnian castle, Wat Rong Khun is a Buddhist and Hindu temple as well as a seemingly never-ending art project for its creator, the artist Ajarn Chalermchai Kositpipat. Funded entirely by public donations, the project began in 1997 with a projected completion date for the year 2070. The inside of the White Temple (which is not allowed to be photographed) is somewhat of a social commentary and features scraps of pop culture painted atop of traditionally designed Buddhist walls. Aside from the beautiful and unique architecture there's also a gallery with paintings, drawings, and sculptures by Kositpipat.
Britt's new friends
          After Wat Rong Khun, Britt and I hopped on our trusty two-wheeled rental and sputtered another 20 km down a scenic connection of badly paved mountain roads until we found Khun Korn Waterfall.   From the entrance of the park it was a 45-minute hike up and down a muddy trail cutting though bamboo thickets and jungle. Brittany was immediately befriended by three little Thai girls that were in absolute awe that a foreigner could speak their language so well. The mist from the waterfall cooled us off as we took some photos, then back down the trail to the motorbike we went.
Khun Korn Waterfall
Chiang Rai, Thailand

          We only wanted to pay for the bike for 24 hours, so the next day we were on foot. In the morning, we checked out Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha). Guess what I saw? A temple. And an emerald Buddha.
          We killed some time in the afternoon at the Hilltribe Museum and got our learn on about the local native cultures and the history of opium in the region... welcome to the Golden Triangle.

          Finally, just before dusk, we were picked up in an ancient Land Rover-style 4-wheel drive SUV by Nok, the owner of Bamboo Nest Guesthouse where we'd be staying for the next two nights. About 30 km outside of town, we turned on to an unpaved driving path and it was all off-road and uphill from there. Upon arrival at Bamboo Nest we dropped our bags in our private bamboo bungalow and followed the moonlit trail back to the common area for a home-cooked Thai dinner. There were six other travelers there but unfortunately four of them were Canadian so conversation wasn't exactly electrifying.
          Noi, Nok's husband and co-owner of Bamboo Nest, lit us a fire in the fire pit. Britt called it a night and went to bed. I made the ill-considered decision to stay up drinking cheap Thai beer with the Canadians and two others. I was outnumbered and ended up defending America as the subject of a relentless interrogation. They bombarded me with an unending barrage of half-witted questions like,  “Why do we know the name of you're president, but you don't who Stephen Harper is?”
“Stephen Harper? Hmmm. You mean the guy in the wheel-chair with the robot voice that's always talking about space and time travel and worm holes? Oh. No. Wait. That's Stephen Hawking,” I half-jokingly answered. 
          In truth, I had no idea who Stephen Harper is (the Canadian Prime Minister-- thanks Google). Didn't know. Didn't Care. I don't go around asking stupid questions to Canadian people like, “Why do you think its okay to wear denim shirts?” or “Are you growing that mustache because you lost a bet or are you actually serious?”
          Outnumbered as I was, I easily fended off these haters from the land of snow and syrup. The truth is, Canadians are jealous of Americans. Robin Williams said it best, “Canada is like a loft apartment over a really great party”. While things were still in good spirits I said goodnight to Joni Mitchell and the other hippies and went to bed.  
          I woke up the next morning with a slight headache and a dry mouth. It all disappeared when I stepped on to the bamboo balcony outside of my bungalow. It was a comfortably cool morning and the sun sparkled off the shiny green jungle, still wet with mountain dew. Leftover mist trapped in the valley blanketed rice paddies in the distance. Otherwise it was clear. This is the type of scenery that Northern Thailand is renowned for. It was an entirely different kind of beautiful than what I am used to in the south. The guesthouse was appropriately named. It really is like a Bamboo Nest in the side of the mountain.
          I spent the rest of the day exploring the compound a bit, but mostly laying around in the hammock on my bamboo porch. Nok had done a superb job with the landscaping and there were various flowers, plants, and trees strategically placed to add that much more to the already naturally impressive terrain. There's an abundance to do at Bamboo Nest. They offer jungle treks and 4x4 off-roading. It's only an hour's hike to a waterfall and natural hot springs. If that's too far, a ten minute stroll down the mountain will bring you to a Lahu hilltribe village.
          Since I've been back in Thailand, the two days I spent at Bamboo Nest de Chiang Rai have been by far my favorite and the most relaxing. It's easily one of my top 3 places I've stayed in all of my travels. I could go on and on into more detail about Bamboo Nest, but I figured the best way to show how great it is would be to show you with a quick video. Here's the newest Blake's World episode... Enjoy!

Want to see what it's like at Bamboo Nest de Chiang Rai?  Watch the video above!
my porch view

photo credit: Britt D

Old Whitey

Thursday, November 1, 2012

My Shipping Container/Jungle House in Thailand

          I've lived in a lot of different places since I made move to Thailand in 2010.  In Bangkok I had a small apartment in a great part of the city.  In Surat Thani, I lived in three different houses with a handful of awesome roommates.  But, by far, the most interesting place that I've lived (and my favorite) is a shipping container in the jungle.
          It's not exactly as it sounds.  It's actually two shipping containers welded together in the middle and renovated into a small "house" complete with electricity and running water.   It stands on stilts over a pond in the jungle, just 5 minutes across the river from town.  Living in the jungle was an adventure in itself.  I'd routinely see giant monitor lizards lazily crawling through the tall grasses and there was monkey that lived a stone's throw away.  Not to mention all the cool flora and fauna.
          After six great months in the jungle and almost two years of living and teaching in Surat, it's time to move on.  I'm trading the sun and the islands of Thailand's south for the cool, green mountains of the north.  Surat Thani, you will be missed.

Here's a quick video of the jungle crib...  (not the best quality)...

And some snapshots...
front porch

you may enter...

living room area

Britt's art room... I wanted a gym.

And some cool plants growing around the house...

*not pictured: bedroom, bathroom, drawbridge.