Sunday Chardonnay

We hosted brunch on Sunday for a small group: just four guests plus ourselves.  Our table seats six (or eight with great intimacy) so the invitation list was judiciously selected and I had to take care not to mention the brunch to those not invited, for fear of upsetting them.

We could invite larger groups but I find if we have more than the six or tight eight, the party has to become a buffet where people are sitting on the couch and elsewhere to eat.  That is an unwieldy thing to do, limiting the menu options and increasing the work for the hosts.  I like brunch to be an easy, fun affair.

We invited Ken and Chai, Roka and Doug, the same group who joined for Christmas Eve dinner at Bacco Italian restaurant.  The conversation had been lively, ranging across myriad topics and especially literature and travel, so I wanted to resurrect the spirit of that evening but in an afternoon setting.

The menu was mostly make-ahead:

  • 24-hour omelet from Cook’s Illustrated “The Best Make-Ahead Recipe” cookbook
  • Mixed greens salad with sesame dressing
  • Steamed artichokes with balsamic mayonnaise sauce
  • Mixed breads
  • Chunky lemon meringue pie from Sunset Magazine

Omelet

The 24-hour omelet is similar to a strata, but with less bread, and is combined in a dish and refrigerated overnight so all the work is done in advance.  I managed to not follow the recipe carefully and had to do a little improvisation halfway through, resulting in a little drier, breadier dish than it is supposed to be.

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Top: Ingredients are assembled including buttered sandwich bread, eggs, cheese, roasted green chilies, minced onion, and milk.  I managed to forget the milk so after assembly had to mix two more eggs and some milk together and pour it on top of the dish, poking holes with a fork so it would soak into the bread.  Ultimately, too many eggs and not enough milk.  I’ll follow the recipe correctly next time.

Above left and right: The dish right after assembly and then the dish after a night soaking in the refrigerator.

Below: The finished product, crispy and cheesy and puffed up and golden brown.  And some cookies behind it for the guests to take home.

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Chunky Lemon Meringue Pie

Sunset magazine is a staple of my childhood and young adulthood living in the Western United States (“Living in the West” is their tagline) and I continue to subscribe to it because it captures a lifestyle and way of living that is appealing to me.  This lifestyle is exemplified by the patio, and outdoor space that in most Western US states you can spend much of your time throughout the year, entertaining, barbecueing, having drinks, etc.

The recipe for chunky lemon meringue pie caught my eye because I like lemon meringue but often feel the lemon filling is a bit monotone when it comes to texture.  The idea of macerating very thinly sliced lemons for twenty-four hours until they became edible was an interesting twist. 

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Sadly, lemons in Thailand (imported from somewhere despite our abundance of home grown limes) don’t seem to be the same as lemons in the US and despite my best efforts to slice them as thin as possible, the pie ended up a little too chunky and a little too tart, even with two cups of sugar added! 

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Also, the recipe didn’t specify the doneness the lemon filling should be at before removing it from the oven, only a time and temperature.  When I pulled it out, it was still a little soft in the center, but I rationalized that since there was another 25 minutes to cook once the meringue was added, maybe it would set up during that time.  In fact, I should have cooked it until it was more set, maybe with only the slightest of jiggles in the center.

Below left: Before baking.  Below right: After baking.

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P1050300 The result of this not-set center was that when the pie was served, it all just kind of collapsed.  Right is a shot of the best looking slice and it is nothing to write home about.

You can see how the center of the pie has oozed out and not held its shape, so the meringue, when being cut, didn’t have any support underneath and crushed into nothingness.

 

The meringue was also interesting because the recipe called for adding both brown and white sugars, resulting in a tan colored meringue that was visually less appealing than the usual contrast between the bright white interior and the browned exterior.

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Despite the challenges, the look was impressive after it was all finished, below.

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So the cooking of the brunch proved to be much less interesting than the brunch itself.  We still had leftover flowers from the photo shoot, so decoration was very easy.  The conversation ran smoothly and we had an enjoyable time all the way until the guests left about three hours later.  The two bottles of Chardonnay were tasty, one from Napa and the other from the Santa Cruz Mountains and they were so different, despite being grown just 100 miles apart, and gave the afternoon sort of a hazy quality that Anita and Colleen (two of my roommates in San Francisco) liked to as Chardonnay Sunday.

appassionata The entertainment for the day came from Chai , for whom coming to eat at my house must be torture.  He had never seen a whole artichoke nor had any idea what to do with it.  When I was growing up, since I grew up just 30 miles from the artichoke capital of the world, we would steam artichokes and eat them with melted butter for dinner.

Chai just looked at the thistle as if I were a crazy man for even suggesting that he try it.

Below we have a picture of Ken pointing to one of the leaves of the choke, trying to convince Chai that it is in fact edible.  I think he tried one leaf and that was enough.

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Also, once the chunky lemon pie arrived he was busily scraping out the chunky pieces and saying to Tawn, in Thai, that he had never eaten something like that before – so bitter and so many pieces you couldn’t chew.  I promised him that next time I’ll stick with more standard food! 

Now, before anyone pulls out the Miss Manners book and talks about being a good guest, let me just say in Chai’s defense that I like having friends who will be appreciative of the work I’ve put into the meal but will also share with me their honest thoughts.  That helps me improve my cooking and choose foods that are appropriate for my diverse group of guests.

P1050284 Finally, while we were setting up for the party, Tawn asked me to take a picture of him with his favorite guru, Ina Garten.  For any of you who don’t know, Garten is a contemporary of Martha Stewart with a series of cookbooks and a TV show on the Food Network. 

The difference that I perceive between Garten and Stewart is that Stewart is more about meticulous perfection, whereas Garten is willing to take shortcuts (frozen pastry dough, for example) so long as the quality remains high.  As she points out, if you can’t have fun at your own parties because you’re busy running around, then there’s no point in having parties.

Garten started out with a store called Barefoot Contessa in East Hampton, NY.  I became familiar with the store (which was shown in early scenes in the 2003 Nancy Meyers’ film starring Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson, Something’s Gotta Give) the two years I worked as an operations manager at the Hampton International Film Festival.  Sadly, the store closed in 2004 although the brand lives on through cookbooks.

Anyhow, I’d debate that Tawn is probably more Martha Stewart and I am more Ina Garten, but at least we agree on the ideals of simplicity and enjoyment when entertaining.  And one of these days we’ll actually achieve those ideals! 

The Elle Ultimatum

P1050215 Following up on the Elle Decoration (which Vic, being a gay man of few stereotypically gay characteristics, misunderstood as a Spanish language publication called El Decoration) photo shoot Friday, first let me thank all of you for your comments and feedback.  The “banishment” to the balcony – as I humorously referred to is – worked out okay as it ultimately allowed both Tawn and I to both maintain our respective values and priorities.  There was also an opportunity the following morning for a good follow-up conversation and, as these types of situations provide, we were able to better understand each other afterwards, right.

Still, I’m thankful that I was out and about instead of at home for the photo shoot, as it was every bit as much of a stressful mess as I had imagined.  I’ve never done photo shoots but I have experience with film and video shoots, and I know that especially for interior shots there is one area of perfection surrounded by a whirlwind of chaos just outside the camera’s field of view.

So it was with our condo.  Tawn had spent the better part of Thursday arranging the entire place so that it was neat, tidy, and decorated to the nines.

First though, doing another flashback, on Wednesday our contractor delivered the replacement bookshelves.  You may recall that in December I wrote about the china cabinets that arrived according to a design change that I had unwittingly agreed to.  Upon their arrival, we discovered that these cabinets were not only not the design that I wanted – my mistake because I had agreed to their change – but they were also not built to the dimensions that Tawn and the designer, Ble, had agreed to.  Each dimension – height, width, and depth – was incorrect.  I had a vision in my mind of a cross eyed carpenter with coke bottle bottom glasses trying to read the tape measure as he reinterpreted the designer’s dimensions.

Ble was not happy and the contractor, with whom he works on most his projects, had to rebuild the cabinets for us at his own cost.

The new cabinets arrived this Wednesday.  This time the cabinets were of the correct dimension and, as you’ll see from the picture below they seem to fit the space much more nicely.  The new one is on the right.

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The new cabinets also contain an interior light, which was part of the design but had been omitted in the original shelves.  These still aren’t bookshelves, although we’ve agreed to mostly place books in them, but they look a lot nicer than the previous ones.

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Thus ready for the photo shoot, Tawn had prepared everything with the expectation that the designer would arrive with a few additional props, maybe move a few things around, and then the photographer would take the pictures and go.

Ah, but nothing is that easy.  For starters, Ble arrived with his assistant Eddy, and several large pieces of furniture including two porcelain Chinese stools, a large steamer trunk, and two large bedside lamps.

Below right, Ble looks on as Eddy and another assistant move pieces around according to his direction.

Tawn’s tidy setting was quickly untidied and descended into chaos as pieces were arranged.  Our bedside lamps, out.  New bedside lamps, in, below left.

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The photographer was tasked by the editor with shooting twelve different scenes.  In a small place like ours – only 68 square meters – that’s quite a challenge.  Instead of shooting whole rooms, many of these shots were tightly composed – of a bedside table with decorations, for example.

Ble was a perfectionist for details, below.  The bed was not made neatly enough and the original tea arrangement Tawn set out was not what he had in mind so he switched the tray.

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Tawn had asked his mother to come over (she has never seen the place before) and to bring two of his dogs, in case the photographer wanted some dogs to dress a scene.  Which is kind of funny, considering that his dogs are so skittish that they would come out blurred in an exposure at even the fasted shutter speed.

Left, Khun Nui surveys the scene as shots are taken in the bedroom.  Right, now that Khun Chris has left the balcony, the dogs are banished there instead.

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Above: Ble takes a break as Eddy makes calls.  The photographer’s case is on the kitchen floor and a section of the counter that won’t be in any pictures is packed with things.

Below left: The photographer’s assistant takes a meter reading for the bathroom shot.  Right: What the photographer sees, a mirror image of the shot.

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After several hours of shooting, seven shots were complete with five to go.  Eventually, the team moved to the living room where the table had been set for a tea party.  The theme of the April issue will be “throwing a party” and my understanding is that each house that is being shot is decorated with a party theme.  The picture below gives you an idea of how chaotic things are just for one perfect picture.

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The final shots were taken in the kitchen area.  Tawn had pitched the story of this house as “A Baker’s House… Inspired by San Francisco” or something to that affect.  I had baked a double batch of cookie dough, rolled it into logs and stored them in the refrigerator as Tawn could actually bake cookies for the shoot.  The final shot below is of one showing him in his apron – ever the baker – pulling some cookies out of the oven for his guests.

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New babies

P1050209 Among Tawn’s close group of friends, about half are straight girls and the other half are gay boys.  Most of the girls have married and as of this week have three of the five have had their first child. 

The boys are having an interesting time adjusting to their friends’ procreativity.  Tawn wonders how this will affect the long-term dynamics of the group.

For example, at the hospital on Friday to see Saa and Job’s new baby boy Jae Jae (right) delivered by c-section on Valentine’s Day – Eddy and Jack were more interested in discussing the latest gossip about the pornographic pictures portraying Hong Kong superstar Edison Chen while everyone else was talking about the delivery and how long it will take Saa to recover.  Talk about being in different galaxies.

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Clockwise from Tawn: Mon, me, Saa (in blue), Dao, Eddy, Jaa, and Jack.  Job (the father) was taking the picture.

P1050196 Tawn imagines that we’ll have family get-togethers where he and I will dote on the children.  I imagine that we’ll get together every Saturday and I’ll teach the children English (although all their parents speak it well) and English children’s songs.  Maybe one day we’ll have children of our own to go with theirs.

In addition to Saa’s Valentine’s birth, Jaa and her husband Tuk gave birth to a daughter just a month ago.   

On the left is a picture of me with little Nam Ing and her mother Jaa.  She’s so precious and was very low key.  No crying, no fussing, and completely happy to be held by whomever.  She had the hiccups, though, which was immensely funny as they seemed just as strong as an adult’s hiccups, so she bounced whenever she hiccupped. 

 

Waiting for Elle to Freeze Over

Friday morning and I find myself banished to our balcony.  The weather is pleasant – 24 C / 75 F – so I don’t mind being banished to the balcony, although I’d like to get a shower and get started with my day.

I’m banished here because Tawn is rushing around the house preparing for a photo shoot later this morning by Elle Decoration magazine.  There are pictures I’ll share tomorrow or the next day of the whirlwind of activity, but suffice it to say that it is kind of like being on a movie set, except it is a movie set in which I live.

Things are tidied up and arranged “just so”.  The theme behind the shoot is “preparing for a tea party” so there are dishes and platters set up and I was requested to bake scones and cookies so as to support the way Tawn pitched the article: “A baker’s house… inspired by life in San Francisco.”

I have mixed feelings about this photo shoot.  Actually, the feelings about the photo shoot itself are not mixed – I’m not in favor of doing it.  The mixed feelings come from wanting to do what makes Tawn happy while staying true to my values.  Bear with me and I’ll try to explain.

We live in a condo that is much nicer – fancier, at least – than anywhere I’ve ever lived.  And the rest of my life has been blessed with great good fortune.  I have a family who has been supportive of my relationship and my decision to move to Thailand; many, many friends of good character both here and abroad, who have true hearts and thoughtful minds; and a work arrangement that allows me to do my job remotely from Thailand and provides me with tremendous flexibility.  In all that, I feel like fate has been undeservedly good to me.

And that is why I’m against the photo shoot.

I was raised by middle-class parents with Midwestern values; values that included modesty.  To show off my house in a glossy magazine, and particularly to be named as an owner, seems akin to begging fate to take my good fortune from me.  Better to be modest about it, to keep a low profile so fate just minds its own business.

Yes, you’re bound to point out what appears to be a contradiction: I post pictures of my condo in both this blog and on my Facebook profile.  “What happened to your modesty?” you ask.  The difference is that in both this blog and on Facebook, I can exercise control over who sees what, and ultimately I can remove the pictures entirely.  With a magazine photo shoot, I cede control of the images and the accompanying story to someone else entirely, letting my life be portrayed in a way that might be immodest.

In attempting to balance my feelings with what Tawn wants, I’ve tried to consider the reasons for doing the shoot.  This photo shoot is mostly going to feature our designer (many of his jobs have been featured in magazines and he has a new store opening) and as he gave us a very good price as his friends, I can’t begrudge him the opportunity to advertise his work.  Also, as Tawn develops his career as a Public Relations professional – someone who may eventually start his own concern – there is a value to him building a certain public profile.  His guest column last month in Elle was an example of this.

So we agreed to a bit of a compromise: the photo shoot and subsequent article in Elle Decoration will take place, but without any mention of me in either word or picture.

Is this a good compromise?  Am I being unnecessarily stubborn?  Should I have further stood my ground?  I don’t know.  One of the challenges of living in another culture, particularly one that values the concept of “face” so much, is that I can’t always tell where personal values intersect with cultural norms.  In either case, hopefully the photo shoot will go well, Tawn will be happy with the coverage, and I can continue to enjoy my good fortune in life without interruption.

In an attempt to help that last thing to happen, while the photo shoot is happening I’ll be driving to the school in Bangkhonthiinai to visit the children and distribute some gifts.  Maybe it will earn some merit for me.

 

Trip to Chiang Rai, Part 3

Despite the revelry on Saturday night, Phan is still a country town so we found the celebrations wrapping up just after nine and by ten, things were quiet.  We decided to call it a night so we could get an early start Sunday morning and see a few more sights before heading back to Khrungthep.

Sleeping on a coconut husk mattress, though, does not make for a good night’s sleep.  I awoke earlier than the sun and, recalling the stunning sunset the pervious night, decided to pull on some clothes and head to the roof to see if the sunrise was equally spectacular.  It was.

First the sky was very dark, then very pink, then the sky lightened and there was an intense contrast between the pink lined clouds and the blue sky.  Then the entire sky took a yellowish cast before the sun finally appeared on the hazy horizon.

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Being on the rooftop all alone, listening to the birds and the insects and the barking dogs, filled me with a certain sense of peace.  Sunrises are beautiful things and, I suppose because I am a morning person, I find it very satisfying to bear witness to the start of a new day.  The moments just after the day breaks contain a whole world of possibilities and offer an open door to another opportunity to live our lives the way we mean to, rather than the way we sometimes end up living them.  If life is all about making choices, a new day gives us the chance to make new choices.

As hotel workers arrived to disassemble the remnants of last evening’s banquet, the reflective moment was shattered and so I headed back to the room and found Tawn stirring.  We met Kobfa in the lobby at seven-thirty, packed and ready to hit the road.

P1040915 On the way out of Phan we stopped at a hilltop temple on the northern edge of town.  A ten-metre tall statue of the Buddha stands in front of the temple on an overlook, the entire town and surrounding fields lying under its gaze in the hazy valley below.

Interestingly, the posture of the statue is known as the “Preventing Calamities” or “Stop the Relatives Fighting” pose, with one hand raised with the palm facing outwards.  Does this statue protect Phan from natural disasters, keep family feuds to a minimum, or both?

Thais associate eight different Buddha poses with the different days of the week (two for Wednesday).  The most comprehensive information I’ve found on this in one place is at Richard Barrow’s website.  

Mr. Barrow is kind of the father of expat blogging in Thailand, a teacher who brought computer education to Samut Phrakan province southeast of Khrungthep.  Using the above link, you can explore all sorts of interesting entries and other websites he has been integral in starting.

Below, a view of what the Buddha statue sees in the hazy valley below the overlook, as well as a picture of Tawn practicing his yoga sun salutations.

 

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We drove back towards Chiang Rai, Sophie Millman playing on the stereo and Tawn and Kobfa napping as I enjoyed the drive.

Time shifting just a bit – all the good stories have flashbacks, right? – we passed by Wat Rong Khun on the southern outskirts of Chiang Rai, which we had visited on Saturday afternoon before the banquet began. 

Known by many as “The White Temple”, Wat Rong Khun is the vision of Thai religious artist Chalermchai Kositpipat.  Khun Chalermchai, who turns 53 this Friday, is a native son of Chiang Rai province whose Buddhist art is known for its more contemporary look and feel.

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This work in progress, which Chalermchai estimates will take several additional decades and for which he is training dozens of apprentices, is a work of passion and conviction.  It is a real temple, complete with monk’s quarters, which is being built bit by bit as a reflection of the artist’s vision of what heaven would look like here on earth.

The most inspiring piece, which is still only 70% complete, is the main shrine hall – the ubosot, pictured above  Strikingly white (symbolizing the Buddha’s purity) and outlined in mirrored mosaic tiles (symbolizing how the Buddha’s wisdom shines over the entire earth), the ubosot is as detailed as any gothic cathedral in Europe and is just so incredibly white in the mid-day sun.

Visitors walk a pathway over “hell”, symbolized by the upstretched hands in the moat pictured below, in order to reach “heaven”, which the ubosot represents. 

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The detail work on the main building is incredible, shown below.

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Inside the ubosot is a series of partially-completed murals.  The mural on the side with the main Buddha statue, finished in a matte silver color rather than the traditional gold, is more complete.  It is the mural on the back side of the entry door wall that is most fascinating, though.  It is a depiction of the evil in the world, sort of a coming armageddon, and in it you’ll find all sorts of interestingly contemporary images such as machine guns, mobile telephones, and a small picture of Keanu Reeves’ character from The Matrix.  It would be hard not to read his work as a critique of modern culture.

Below, Tawn and I pose in front of the ubosot.  The chedi on the back side shows you what the unfinished structure looks like – the clean lines are evocative of Japanese temple architecture.  The ornamentation is added later.

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P1040713 Two other interesting images from the temple.  To the right is the post near the entrance that warns against drunk people entering the temple grounds.  Below is the elaborate toilet building.  The entire grounds are kept spotless by the staff, making it one of the cleanest public places in Thailand.

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There are several other buildings on the ground in various stages of completion.  In the end there are supposed to be nine main buildings, but the artist anticipates this will take as many as sixty more years to complete.  One of the final ones is to be a crematorium, a common feature at local temples, which he plans on using when the end of his life comes.

Flashing back to Sunday morning, we drove past the exit to Wat Rong Khun and could see the white spires reflecting the grey overcast as we continued on our way to Chiang Rai. 

Sunday mornings are sleepy in Chiang Rai.  Nearly everything was closed and it proved to be a challenge to find breakfast.  We finally ate at a coffee shop at one of the hotels, being served something that was called an American Breakfast but that somehow didn’t ring familiar.

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Food had been easier to find on Saturday afternoon when we visited a well-known and busy khao soi restaurant, above.  This curried rice noodle dish (below left) is popular in the north, featuring a rich and flavorful curry broth that isn’t terribly spicy.  Usually served with chicken or beef, these noodles are very satisfying.  We had them with a side of sai oua – the herbed pork sausage, below right

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With an additional side of som tam – green papaya salad – we had a complete meal for about 45 baht each.  There are still values to be had in Thailand!

After our “American” breakfast on Sunday morning we drove north from Chiang Rai to visit Doi Tung.  This peak is less than an hour away from the city and was the home of the Princess Mother from 1987 until her death in 1995. 

P1040944 Her Royal Highness was the mother of His Majesty King Rama IX (the current King of Thailand) and one of her main activities was helping redirect hill tribes and other people of the north from the cultivation of poppies to other sources of income. 

In addition to stopping the deforestation of the Golden Triangle (as this area is known, owing to the convergence of Burma, Thailand and Laos), her works improved the health and welfare of people in this area as new cottage industries were created. 

Today you can purchase very good coffee, tea and macadamia nuts from this region along with a wide range of handicrafts such as silk and cotton fabrics, handmade papers, and beautiful pottery.

P1040939 Her house, a two-level villa that combined aspects of northern Thai and Swiss architecture (she spent much of her life living in the Swiss Alps), features beautiful gardens and it showcases many of the development projects she oversaw in her life.

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Below, the magnificent view looking northwards from the balcony of the villa towards Burma.

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P1040999 We could have spent another few hours there to fully appreciate the gardens and see more of the attractions, but our time was running short.  We descended the mountain and had just enough time for a second visit to Salungkam, the restaurant where we ate dinner on Friday night.

After we had filled ourselves once more with northern culinary delights, we headed to the airport to catch our Nok Air flight home.

Left, Tawn prepares to board “Nok Sabai” – the Bird of Contentment – for our hour-long flight back to Don Meuang Airport.

It was nice having a weekend get away and each time we take one, I’m reminded of how much more exploring we should do in Thailand.  Many areas of the Kingdom are easily accessed and each offers its own unique sights, sounds, and tastes.

 

Trip to Chiang Rai, Part 2

We arrived in Phan, the head town in the district of the same name, about 10:00 Friday evening.  Phan is a town of about 20,000 inhabitants, with another 100,000 in the surrounding area.  There is one main street and one main hotel – the Chiang Rung – where we were to stay.  At five stories with a rooftop restaurant, the Chiang Rung Hotel is one of the tallest buildings in town with a commanding view of downtown, below.

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We checked into our rooms on the fourth floor.  They were small and the decoration tired but at least they were clean.  The mattress and pillows were stuffed with coconut husks, supposedly good for your back but they proved to be the bane of our next two nights’ existence as neither Tawn nor I could sleep worth a darn.  That was the only low point of the trip so I’ll move beyond it quickly.

The six o’clock alarm came all too soon as the auspicious time for the Buddhist ceremony had been fixed at seven o’clock.  We got ready and then met Kobfa and Markus and Tam, who had arrived in Phan ahead of us.  First stop was the nearby temple to pick up the monks for the ceremony.  They were still out on their rounds collecting food donations, the first sign that time moves at a different pace in a small northern town.  By comparison, residents of Bangkok are positively Astro-Hungarian in their timeliness.

With Kobfa and I singing “Life in a Northern Town” by The Dream Academy, we departed the temple monk-less and headed to Tam and Pune’s mother’s house two blocks away.  Her two-story house, a solidly built wood structure well designed as older Thai houses are to take advantage of natural air circulation to keep it comfortable, was across the street from a morning market.  After a few minutes we determined that the ceremony was not going to start anytime soon so we headed across the street to the market, below.

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P1040685 This market is the real deal and would make fans of the farmers’ markets in the United States drool with excitement.  Small growers displayed their produce, whatever was in season.  Most of it had been picked just a few hours earlier or in the case of the meat products, slaughtered.

We stopped at the closest thing to a Starbucks that Phan has – the soybean milk vendor, right.

Warm soybean milk in the morning is as evocative for many Thais as Cap’n Crunch cereal is for Americans… although not for me as I was never allowed anything sweeter than Raisin Bran, much to my dentist’s delight.

P1040692 As someone raised on cow’s milk, soybean milk has never quite lived up to its visual promise.  It looks like milk and my tongue is expecting that richness – that fat feeling on the tongue – that soybean cannot provide.  At best is is watery in comparison and at worst, chalky.  Still, I know it is good for you so I don’t disparage it.  I just drink coffee instead!

The sun was not yet over the horizon and there was just a slight chill to the air.  But only a slight one, not really one worthy of the scarf that Kobfa had fashionably wrapped around his neck, right.

Along with our soybean milk and coffee, we enjoyed an order to ba tong goh – Chinese donuts.  Sometimes served lightly sweetened, this unleavened bread fries up nice and light and, when the oil is fresh and properly hot, they are almost free of any trace of grease.

Of course, when the oil is not fresh or is too cool, they are an oily, soggy and thoroughly disgusting mess.

Thankfully, we were there early in the morning and the cook was well experienced in her frying so we enjoyed these light and tasty treats, with just a hint of sesame from the seeds scattered throughout the dough.

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We were back at Tam and Pune’s mother’s house about eight o’clock as close friends and family members filled the second floor of the house for the ceremony.  There were eight or nine monks lining the walls with a lay person – a friend of the family – sort of filling the role of master of ceremonies.  Pune and Detlev were sitting at the front of the room to receive the blessing of the monks.

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Thai Buddhist ceremonies are remarkably casual affairs.  I’ve seen this at weddings and funerals I’ve attended.  While people will have their hands folded in prayer, for the most part they chat quietly amongst themselves except for a few key prayers that everyone knows by heart.  I think those are equivalent to the Lord’s Prayer in Christian churches that are learned by rote memorization in childhood and are repeated not so much with thought given to each word as it is spoken, but instead as a string of syllables that follow one another in a particular order.

Of course, some people give much more consideration as they say the prayers.

I learned from Kobfa that the number of monks at a ceremony does not have to be an odd number.  It was my previous understanding that the number was always odd with five or more, and that you only used four monks at funerals.  He corrected my understanding and told me that four is the minimum number of monks needed to conduct a ceremony, sort of a quorum.

P1040708 Some of the monks also take things pretty casually.  One of the younger monks answered a mobile phone call during the early part of the ceremony, when only the head monk was speaking.  He was discreet about it, though, using part of the sleeve of his robe to muffle the conversation.

Right: Pune, Tam and their mother.  She has not been well as she advances in years and is sometimes not fully lucid.  It appeared that she really enjoyed the ceremony and that it meant a lot to her.  I know it was important to Pune that she hold this ceremony with her mother present, and I’m sure the extra effort in having it in Phan was worth it.

The ceremony lasted about an hour and then afterwards a large meal was served to everyone in the downstairs area.  It was a simple but tasty meal and it gave us all a chance to visit some more.  A large contingent of Pune’s colleagues had rented a van and come up from Khrungthep, so she had lots of people to visit with!

In the afternoon we had some time to spend before the evening ceremony.  We actually took a trip back up to Chiang Rai but I’ll cover that in Part 3 of the entry as it fits better there.

P1040758 Before the evening ceremony, Tawn and I went with Markus and Tam to look for wine.  Normally, a Thai wedding banquet has whisky, soda water, and some sort of soft drink on the table.  There were a group of us who are not whisky drinkers so we found a small liquor shop that had about two dozen bottles of wine sitting on a back shelf.  We bought four bottles, which seemed enough to get us through the festivities.

Left, Tawn waits on the curb as we figure out which questionable bottle of wine is the least risky to try.  In the end, both the Chilean Merlot and the French Cabernet were good values and tasty.

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P1040707 The reception was held on the rooftop restaurant at the hotel.  This is a nice space that covers the entire roof, with the central area covered and the sides open to the breeze.  There were lovely flowers and the view of the sunrise was spectacular. 

Even though things were supposed to begin at six, the guests were running on Chiang Rai time and it was nearly seven before the tables were filled.  There were about 100 people there, so it wasn’t a small event by any means.

We had a little time before the ceremony to shoot some pictures, with Kobfa trying to capture Tawn and me with the orange glow of the sunset illuminating our faces.

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Before dinner started I caught a few pictures of one of the appetizers, guaitiaw luie suan – garden vegetables (in this case with minced pork) wrapped in rice noodles.  I didn’t take pictures of everything else at dinner (awww…) instead deciding to just enjoy the celebration.

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Some pictures from the evening’s festivities:

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Above: The evening started with Detlev and Pune being introduced to the guests and taking their places at the head of the restaurant.  Family and friends – by group – were invited to come up and perform the Northern Thai style blessing ritual.  Elsewhere in Thailand you bless the newlyweds by pouring a small amount of water over their hands.  In the north, you tie a string around their wrist.  Needless to say, by the end of the day Detlev and Pune had a lot of strings around their wrists!

There were the obligatory speeches by various phu yai – literally, “big people”.  In this case a longtime family friend, Pune’s boss, and Markus all had remarks to say.  Interestingly, the lady doing translations took many liberties with Markus’ speech.  Originally there had been a little bit of a debate between Markus and Tam over how their relationship should be identified to the guests.  Would Markus say he was Tam’s partner, his friend, or something else entirely? 

This is an interesting question because from a Western perspective it is rife with personal and political implications.  The implications get lost in the translation, though, as the equivalent Thai words do not carry the same meanings.  Ultimately, it was a moot point because the translator introduced Markus as Detlev’s cousin and never really explained his relationship to Tam instead explaining that Markus was a friend of Pune’s.

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P1040818 Above, Pune and Detlev, wrists full of string, take a moment to relax in the midst of the night’s proceedings.  After the speeches, Markus played two slide shows that he had made showing pictures of the bride and groom’s childhoods and the time they’ve spent together since meeting.  This is a great example of how technology has become pervasive enough that everyone can have such “high tech” features to their weddings. 

While the presentations were finishing up, I noticed that on the terrace of the restaurant there were a few cowboy-looking types tuning their fiddle and banjo.  Sure enough, they were joined by three others and the evening soon erupted into what can best be described as somewhere between Thai bluegrass and country music

Different from the Issan folk music popular in the country’s northeast region, the cowboy mentality of the north has borrowed heavily from the cowboy music and folklore of the western United States.  Jeans are Wranglers, belt buckles are big, and the music is an acoustic string quintet in which all the players sing.

Many of the songs were in Thai but a surprising number were American country standards, including this version of “Take Me Home, Country Roads“, John Denver’s breakthrough single. 

The guests were enthusiastically clapping, stomping and enjoying the party long past the point where, at a typical Thai wedding banquet, they would have had their fill of dinner and have departed.  Things reached a crescendo when Pune and Detlev started dancing to the music, to the guests’ enjoyment.

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It was a fun evening for all involved and while this was one of the smallest and lowest-key weddings I’ve been to here in Thailand (and Tawn and I seem to go to quite a few of them), it was one of the most fun and sincere, held for the enjoyment of the bride and groom and their loved ones instead of just just to build up the face of their families.

In Part 3 I’ll talk about our final day in Chiang Rai.

 

Trip to Chiang Rai, Part 1

This weekend Tawn and I flew to Chiang Rai, in the far north of Thailand, to attend Pune and Detlev’s wedding.  Pune is Tam’s sister and Detlev is Markus’ cousin, and they were introduced a year and a half ago at a small dinner at Tam and Markus’ apartment at which Tawn and I were present, when Detlev came to Thailand on holiday.

This was the first of three “weddings” that will occur, the other two being a civil service and then a Lutheran religious service in Germany.  Pune and Tam’s mother still lives in their hometown of Phan (an aspirated “p” sound, not an “f” at the beginning), a district in the south of Chiang Rai province.  As their mother’s health has not been so good, the decision was made to hold the Buddhist and Thai wedding in Phan rather than try to bring her down to Khrungthep.

The first entry in this series will be about our trip up to Chiang Rai.  The second will be about the wedding day itself.  The third will be about the trip home.

A little about Chiang Rai.  Located 700 km (435 miles) north of Khrungthep, Chiang Rai is the 12th largest and 13th most inhabited of Thailand’s 76 provinces.  The main town of Chiang Rai has about 65,000 inhabitants, with about 225,000 in the surrounding area.  This compares with about 7-8 million people in Khrungthep and about 700,000 in the greater Chiang Mai area.

We chose to fly to the north as we would otherwise have to take a very long bus ride or a combination train (to Chiang Mai) then bus ride, also quite long.  The flight is just over an hour and while not nearly as well-served as Chiang Mai, there are almost a dozen daily flights from which to choose.

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Above: Our taxi driver’s tricked-out taxi with covers for the gear shift, parking brake, turn indicator, and windshield wiper stalk, all knit from optic yellow yarn.  Along the way we stopped at Ble’s to drop off some color samples and arrived at the old Don Meuang Airport – now used exclusively for domestic flights – about ninety minutes before departure time.

Kobfa joined us for the trip, coordinating his travel plans to match with ours, and we conveniently arrived at the airport at the same time.  Below: Tawn and Kobfa waiting in the bag security screening line.

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Before departure we had enough time to eat lunch, which featured the soggiest pad thai noodles I’ve ever seen and a waitress who seemed completely unable to comprehend my Thai.  If translated, it would have sounded like this:

Chris: “I’ll have a lime soda, please.”

Waitress: “A spaghetti?”

Chris: “No, a lime soda, please.”

Waitress: “Plain water?”

Chris: “No, soda.  Lime.  Lime Soda, please.”

Tawn confirmed afterwards that it wasn’t my pronunciation. Kobfa thought that the waitress just wasn’t expecting me to order in Thai, but it continued when I ordered my food as well.

Our flight up to Chiang Rai was smooth.  We took Nok Air, a budget airline that is partially owned by THAI Airways.  Like most budget carriers here, there isn’t a lot of service.  The flight was on time, the crew was friendly, no outside food and drink was allowed but they were happy to sell you snacks and beverages.  One thing good about Nok is that they allow you to make seat assignments online at no added cost.  A full trip report will be ready soon for posting on Airliners.net.

P1040625 We arrived at Chiang Rai to find it unchanged from our last visit in September 2000.  There is one runway, no taxiways, and a small four-gate terminal, two of which have jetways.  We disembarked through airstairs, allowing plenty of photo taking opportunities as we made our way to the terminal, right.

Our Hertz car rental representative was waiting for us outside the baggage claim and took us to a nearby resort hotel where they base their operations.  We rented a Honda Jazz, a car that I’ve considered as a candidate for when we replace our current car in the next few years.  Based on our rental, I don’t think I would buy it.  While it performs well and gets good mileage, the layout of the driver area is not so good, with a center console that rubs against your leg.

Bill and Ken were already in Chiang Rai, completing the final few days of a ten-day holiday to the north of the country.  Bill and his friend Kom had headed up to the Burmese border but Ken was free, so we picked him up at his hotel and had coffee with him then explored the town.  Below: Tawn, Chris, Kobfa and Ken at a bakery/coffee shop in downtown Chiang Rai.

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Nearing sunset we stopped by a hilltop temple in the northwest corner of town.  I think that Tawn and I visited this temple last time we were here but after a while it is difficult to distinguish them.  As we arrived the monks were completing circumambulations of the chedi – walking around the gold-painted pagoda as they chanted, below right.  The chedis usually contain relics, either of the Buddha, royalty, or some prominent person like a monk.

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We paid our respects to the Buddha images while a big black labrador rested on the mat, above left.

Afterwards, we went back to Ken’s hotel, Laluna Resort, where we met up with Bill and Kom, who had returned from their run to the border’s edge.  Below, Tawn horses around (“turtles around”?) by the side of the hotel’s pool.

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P1040659 Wanting to try some of the Northern Thai culinary specialties for dinner, Tawn had asked the people working the Hertz counter for recommendations.  The recommendation was Salungkam, a famous restaurant that once we arrived, we realized we had eaten at years ago.

Salungkham is in all the guide books and does a good trade in tour bus business.  Don’t let this turn you off, though, as it is worth of its reputation.

The food was so good that we actually returned on Sunday before our flight for seconds.  I’ll combine the pictures from both meals so you can see the tasty things we enjoyed!

Left: One of the North’s most famous foods is Sai Oua, a pork sausage that is heavily flavored with local herbs.  It is served grilled with a spicy red chili and garlic sauce.  Salungkam has its grill set up right at the front of the restaurant, your assurance that the sausage, pork belly, and spare ribs on the menu are as fresh as can be!

The restaurant has both an indoor seating area as well as a beautiful garden which, with the slightly cooler evenings there, make for a pleasant place to eat your evening meal.

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From top left across: The grill is loaded with tasty meats which come out as this mixed grill platter of sai oua (herbed sausage) and spare ribs; pla chon na tod – fried catfish that is caught from rice paddies; nam prik ong – a sauce made from fire-roasted green chilies served with dipping vegetables and fried pork skins and a side dish of fried snow peas and shitake mushrooms; gang mapraw on gai baan – a mild Northern style soup that is not as spicy as it looks, made with young coconut palm shoots and homegrown chicken; fruit platter featuring young pineapples, which is also a northern specialty.

We ate our fill but saved room for a trip to the night market for dessert!  The night market in Chiang Rai is much smaller than the well-known one in Chiang Mai.  Nonetheless, it features the same trinkets, which seem to be imported from some central “night market trinket factory”, probably located in China.

There were two notable desserts, though: roti – a Muslim delicacy that is akin to a crepe.  Normally served with an egg, this vendor was aiming for the dessert crowd by offering many sweet toppings.  We went for roti drizzled with chocolate sauce and a little sweetened condensed milk.

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Tawn also found a bua loy vendor, below.  This dish, which is akin to small gnocchi served warm in sweetened coconut milk, was done differently here, served cool with two scoops of coconut ice cream, shavings of fresh young coconut, and toasted sesame seeds.

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At this point, we were completely stuffed.  Not knowing exactly how long it would take us to drive to Phan, we piled everyone back into the car (there were six of us in what is decidedly a four-seater!) and drove Ken, Bill and Kom back to their hotel.  From there, Tawn, Kobfa and I headed down the smoothly paved, wide Highway One on what turned out to be an easy thirty-minute drive down to Phan.

I’ll pick up this entry tomorrow and tell you more about Phan and Pune and Detlev’s wedding.