Red Shirt Leaders Surrender, Mobs Set Fire to City

Additional updates

Wednesday 8:30 pm – The curfew has started.  Hopefully overnight the army is able to bring order to the city.  The internet has proved to be a very valuable tool for spreading information.  If you turn on the Thai TV or radio right now, it is just patriotic pictures and music – just like when we have a coup!  It seems the government doesn’t want people seeing how bad things are, or thinking about joining the mob.

I’m going to share more pictures with you.  None of these are mine.  There is also a Thai language website you can go to HERE that has a lot of pictures.  Fair warning: the pictures on that website include some very greusome ones.

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Plaza in front of Zen department store at Central World, the second largest mall in Asia.  You can see this same area in a video I posted showing Bangkok Thunderstorms a few months ago.

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Same building, opposite side.

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View from (probably) the Intercontinental Hotel looking at the Zen department store at Central World.  You can see the flames all along the ground floor and out of the roof.  Most likely, the department store and most of the mall has been / will be totally destroyed.

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Looking towards Siam Square.  You see the Novotel Hotel on the left.  The smoke is rising from the area around the Siam Theatre, which has been destroyed.

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Red Shirts also torched city halls in at least two provincial capitals in the northeast.  This is Ubon Ratchatani.

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Finally, a view from the Thonburi side of the river, looking back towards the Grand Palace.  The smoke you see is coming primarily from the Siam Square / Ratchaprasong area.

To share some perspective, as I’m talking with Tawn and with friends, and judging from Facebook comments, etc. the mood here in Bangkok reminds me very much with the mood in the US the morning of September 11, 2001.  Now, please, nobody jump all over me about the number of deaths there versus here, etc.  The point I’m making is that right now, these Bangkok residents are looking on in utter disbelief as their home, their city is going up in flames.  The scale is so large that it is almost inconceivable.

Previous to today, I was handling the situation pretty well.  Today, I’m drained.  I can’t believe that even the angriest of protesters would do this.  While I had initially believed that the Red Shirts had some legitimate grievances that should be taken into consideration, these actions make it hard for me to feel any sympathy for them.  They are anarchists, not “defenders of democracy.”

 

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Wednesday 6:20 – Thai-ASEAN News Network reports:

A number of fires and chaotic incidents broke out in Bangkok after the red-shirt core leaders have called off the red-shirt protest earlier today. The firefighting department has been able to put the fire under control at some areas but others remain unreachable and unsafe for firemen to entire. These areas include;

1. Siam Square and Paragon: firefighters are unable to enter the area, red-shirt protesters are armed and are shooting at will.  Siam and Scala cinemas destroyed.
2. Centara Grand Hotel: fire has been put out
3. Stock Exchange of Thailand office: firemen unable to enter the area
4. Mahachon Plaza (entrance of Wireless Rd at Ploenchit Rd): firemen also unable to approach the area
5. Krung Thai and Bangkok Bank (Asoke Branch near Rama IV)
6. Narcotics Control Board
7. Bangkok Bank (Din Daeng): fire under control
8. Maleenont Building: firemen unable to enter the area
9. Bangkok Bank and Lotus Rama 4: firemen unable to get in
10. EGAT Klongtoey: fire under control
11. Central World Mall: Destroyed.
12. Bangkok Bank (Victory Monument)

Wednesday 5:25 – Reports from reliable sources indicate that both the Siam and Scala theatres, and presumably many of the adjacent shops, are burned down.  Central World Plaza, pictured above, is engulfed in smoke and it looks like damage may be extensive and, possibly, total.  The building with the waterslide-like lighting on it is where I had dinner a few months ago with visiting friends.

Wednesday 4:35 – Man with covered face set fire to ground floor of Channel 3 TV station, located on Rama IV directly south of our area of town.  People trapped inside.  Set fire also to Bangkok Bank branch in the lobby.

Protesters set fire to shops in the Siam Square area.  Siam Theatre (one of the few independent cinemas in town and a favorite of mine) has collapsed.  Fire is still burning but protesters won’t let firefighting crews fight the fire.

Bangkok Post, Post Today, and The Nation have evacuated their buildings as Red Shirts reportedly believe that the media was on the government’s side.  They have been actively targetting journalists in the last 24 hours.

There are numerous helicopters and police planes circling overhead, keeping an eye on things.

Curfew tonight 8pm – 6am.

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Taken by another friend of a friend. 

Wednesday 3:30 – Additional fires have been set in various areas of the city.  Reportedly a large fire at the Stock Exchange, corner of Rama IV and Asoke, very close to where I used to live.  Can see the smoke – lots of it – from our current balcony.  Also some white smoke, which I take to mean that the firemen are getting water on it.

A reliable source reports that Red Shirt radio is encouraging listeners to set fire to any local bank branch near them.  “You are your own leader now” they are saying. 

Curfew reportedly in place for tonight so army can clean up.

This morning (Wednesday 5/19) the Thai army broke down the Red Shirts’ barricade at the Silom/Rama IV intersection and within two hours had taken back about a half-mile stretch of Ratchadamri Road, all of Lumpini Park, and most of Wireless/Whittahyu Road.

The army stopped about a half-mile short of the main rally site at the Ratchaprasong Intersection.  During this operation, all reports indicate that the army used great restraint however it seems the Red Shirts were targeting foreign and Thai journalists.  Several were shot and at least one, an Italian, is dead.

At 1:15 the Red Shirt leaders surrendered to the Royal Thai Police after speaking to their supporters and asking them to go home.  Unfortunately, there are several thousand angry Red Shirt protesters who are too amped up right now and they are directed their anger in a variety of ways.

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(Taken by a friend of a friend on Facebook)

As of 2:41 there are numerous confirmed reports of fires burning at Central World Mall and possibly also at Gaysorn Plaza and Siam Paragon.  This, in addition to fires set to the tyre barricades elsewhere in the protest zone, have turned that part of Bangkok into something that looks post-apocolyptic.

I will provide updates to this entry throughout the day as more news and photos become available.

As bad as this looks, I think the fact that the Red Shirt leaders have surrendered means that we’re nearing the end of this mess.

Food in BKK – Ruen Mallika

Protests be damned – one still has to eat.  With a couple of friends in town from San Francisco, we headed out Saturday evening to Ruen Mallika, a long-standing Sukhumvit area restaurant that specializes in Palace Cuisine, a particularly rarified form of Thai cooking that reflects the highest levels of attention to detail and quality.

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Located in a rambling old home that dates back over 100 years deep down Soi Sukhumvit 22, Ruen Mallika is hidden in a corner of the Asoke neighborhood that reminds you that Bangkok isn’t all Skytrain stations and air conditioned malls.  Still, there is an air of sophistication and traditional Thai hospitality at the restaurant, which is beautifully decorated, that makes you feel like your are a guest of honor in a court regent’s home.

The menu is a huge binder with the largest, glossiest, sexiest photos of Thai food I have ever seen.  Even a strong man will risk back strain with this menu.  Tawn ordered for us, a bit too much food but perfectly balanced choices that, together, formed an exquisite dining experience and a wonderful final night with which to celebrate our visiting friends’ engagement.

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After being seated in the fan-cooled garden, the kitchen sent us an amuse bouche of gratong tong, “golden baskets” – crispy fried shells filled with corn, green onions, ground pork, and pepper.

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As an appetizer, we ordered a platter of chan chu butsaba – literally “My name is flower” – a selection of flower tempura in a long dish that fills the center of the table.

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These delicate blossoms, served with a sweet and spicy chili sauce, include (from the purple, clockwise) dok gulap (rose), dok kajorn (asclepiadaceae), dok khem (needle flower) and dok leelawadee (plumeria or frangiapani).

Interesting story about the plumeria:  When Tawn was growing up the flowering tree was called ton donlantom, which means “very deep sorrow tree”, and was often planted near graves.  But people liked the beautiful flowers and the shape of the tree, especially in the beach provinces where it is common (it is the flower of Phetchaburi Province) so the tree was rebranded by the Royal family as ton leelawadee, which means “beautiful motion tree”.  This is well-suited to the graceful shape of the branches.

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Our first course was a curry – Penang plaa salmon – Salmon Penang curry which is not very spicy but has a rich flavor enhanced by the thinly-sliced Kaffir lime leaves.  Something that sets Royal (or Palace) Thai cuisine apart from regular Thai food is that the dishes have more complex layers of flavor.  For example, the Kaffir lime adds a subtle citrus note to the top of the deep bass of the curry. 

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The salmon arrived with khao pad Amphawa – Amphawa style fried rice.  Amphawa (home of the nighttime floating market I’ve written about) is a town in Samut Songkhram province known for its coconuts.  This fried rice includes mixed seafood and fresh young coconut meat served in a coconut shell.  Notice the beautiful “flower” garnish, which is carved from a pumpkin.  This dish is served with a glass of fresh coconut juice, which was poured from the coconut before the rice is served.

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We then enjoyed the soup course, a variation on a classic Thai soup called tomka plaasalid.  You may recognize this as the “tom ka gai” soup – chicken and coconut milk soup – that you enjoy at your local Thai restaurant.  However, this version has a special Royal Thai cuisine twist: it is made with plaasalid, a sundried small whitefish that gives the soup a distinctive smoky flavor, and tamarind leaf tips, which give a sour, tangy flavor to the soup.  To top it off, this soup was made with freshly squeezed coconut milk, which is every bit as rich as cream.

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We then enjoyed kai tune – a baked egg custard that has a shrimp, pork, thousand-year old egg, and garlic mixture on top.  Very delicate and silky, this dish was simple in construction but rich in flavor.

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We had a second curry, this one a gaeng ped pbed yang, a grilled duck curry.  This dish has grapes (or sometimes lychee) in it, providing a foil to the gamey flavor of the duck.  The small green spheres are baby eggplants (not green peas as some foreigners expect) which lend a bitter crunch to the dish.

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For dessert, classic “street vendor” style ice cream.  Homemade coconut ice cream served on a sweet bread bun with kidney beans, palm hearts, and candied sweet potato.  This is often served with a splash of sweetened condensed milk, although in this case the restaurant kept it plain.

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And of course, being the tail end of hot season, how could we not enjoy some khao niaw mamuang – sticky rice with mango?

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Paul, his fiancee Hey Jung, and Tawn battle over dessert.

 

Some Needed Perspective on the Bangkok Protests

Lots of friends, family, and other people have inquired as to my wellbeing.  “We saw the news,” they say, “and it looks like a civil war has broken out in Bangkok.”  While I appreciate the concern, I would like to add some perspective to what you are reading and seeing in the news in your respective countries.

The New York Times’ Thomas Fuller posted an article today that gives the impression of living in a war zone:

“Over the past two months, as a debilitating protest in Bangkok took hold and shadowy groups have operated with impunity, I have crouched behind furniture in hotels when grenades exploded on the street outside. I stood on a wide avenue as dozens of dead and wounded protesters were carried from the carnage of a failed military crackdown. I hid behind a telephone pole during an hourlong crackling barrage of gunfire. And on Thursday, a man I was interviewing was struck in the head by an assassin’s bullet and collapsed at my feet.”

What Mr. Fuller hasn’t made clear is that this isn’t the typical scene in Bangkok.  It is the scene he has faced by choosing professionally to put himself in dangerous places in order to capture the story.  While I greatly respect his dedication to his work, I think it presents a very misleading impression of the city.

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Above: (my picture) Smoke from the Bon Kai neighborhood on Rama IV Road where protesters set a large number of tires on fire, accidentally sparking a blaze that consumed a nearby convenience store.  The new Airport Express station is in the foreground and Asoke Road is on the left side of the picture.  Below is an image (near as I can figure) of the same fire, taken by the Bangkok Post.
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First off (and I swear, I’ve written an entry like this before), Tawn and I are fine.  We are at home, located in a safe section of the city a few miles away from where the military action is.  Our neighborhood is pretty much business as usual, although not quite as busy as normal.  The government has announced a curfew at 6pm tonight for certain sections of the city, although it is not clear that our area will be included.

5-16-2010 Map

Second, while I want to acknowledge the seriousness of what is happening and my worry for the wellbeing of all those involved in (and living near) this conflict, I want to also stress that this is not out and out anarchy.  Here’s the long and short of the situation:

After forty days of occupying the Ratchaprasong shopping district and agreeing to, and then backing out of, a negotiated settlement with the government, the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD / “Red Shirts”) have reached the end of the line.  Amid increasing impatience from the residents of Bangkok, the government has set up a perimeter around the one-square mile protest area, blocking entry of people and supplies.  Protesters and residents are allowed to exit but cannot enter.

In the first three days of the military’s blockade, UDD’s numbers have reduced to an estimated 6,000.  There have been a dozen or so skirmishes leaving about two dozen people dead.  Several barricades of tires have been set aflame and dozens more people are injured.

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Above, an iconic image of a motorcycle taxi driver facing off against a line of army troops.  The flyover in the background goes over Sathorn Road.  Image from The Nation.

At this time, the military has not moved to actively clear the protesters out of their area, content to cut supplies and weaken their morale.  From what we hear, the government this morning announced that protesters have until 3pm Monday to clear out of the area.  They are offering to provide transportation home for anyone who is willing to leave the area before then and will not charge them with criminal acts.

No word on what happens after 3pm Monday.  Presumably after that point the military will begin to actively break up the protest.

We’re staying out of the way and have stocked up on food, water, and other supplies in case we have to stay home for several days.  Nonetheless, I don’t think any of you need to worry.  We just had visitors in town who left this morning to continue their journey.  They were able to see the sights and we just worked around the protest area.  We had friends over this weekend for dinner.  They were able to come and go without incident.  On the whole, life is continuing.

I hold out hope that a peaceful settlement is reached and all sides agree to step back from the brink.  In the meantime, though, it is good to understand what is going on from a beyond the headlines perspective.

That’s my perspective on things.  I hope it helps you place the news you are reading in context.

 

Second Attempt at Mozzarella Cheesemaking

A week ago I tried making homemade mozzarella cheese, using milk bought at the local grocery store.  The results didn’t come together – literally.  Analyzing it, I figured it was either due to an insufficient amount of rennet, the enzyme that helps the proteins in the milk coagulate, or else it was due to the milk being pasteurized at too high a heat.  Undaunted, I wanted to try again and learn how to do this.

While I originally put more weight in theory that the pasteurization was the cause, now that I look back on what I’ve learned, I suspect the insufficient rennet was probably more likely the problem.  But hindsight, as they say, is 20-20.

In the wake of my first attempt, a German-Thai friend suggested I try buying milk from Murrah Dairy, the only water buffalo dairy in Thailand.  Great idea, especially considering that the original Italian mozzarella is mozzarella di bufala – buffalo milk mozzarella.  So I ended up driving to their retail store and bought five litres of raw buffalo milk.  The best way to address the pasteurization issue is to use unpasteurized milk, right?

Sadly, I don’t have many pictures of the second attempt.  You’re welcome to watch the video and/or read the description below.

After sanitizing everything in the kitchen, I started heating the milk.  One challenge I encountered was that my recipe is in imperial measurements but the dairy sold the milk in metric measurements.  Being an American (even a fairy metric-savvy one) I made a few errors in calculation and initially thought I was working with two gallons of milk, when in fact I had only about one gallon.  Because of this, I prepared citric acid and rennet solutions that were twice as strong as necessary.

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Thankfully, I realized this before adding the solutions into the milk, and added only about half of each solution.  The proteins came together much more nicely than in the first attempt, although they still didn’t have the nearly-solid, soft tofu-like consistency shown in the recipe’s pictures.  I strained the curds from the whey and ended up with a pretty nice mass to work with.

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My next problem came from a lack of understanding of what was meant to happen in the next step.  As a learner, it is helpful for me to know not only what a particular step is but the rationale behind the step.  The recipe told me to either microwave the curds and then knead them, or else to put the curds in hot water (about 170 F) and use a spoon to fold them together, then pull them out and knead them.

The problem was two-fold.  First, I don’t have a microwave.  There goes the easy option. Second, I was hesitant to put the curds in the water because I thought they would just dissolve.  Knowing what I know now, I realize that the whole point of microwaving or putting them in the water is that the cheese begins to melt a bit, helping it form more elasticky strands that you can knead.  No heat and no melting means no kneading.

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Before I figured this out, I tried placing the curds, still in the cheesecloth, above some boiling water – kind of a bain-marie.  This resulted in the bottom of the curds melting into the cheesecloth, while the tops of the curds didn’t change.  Finally, I figured it out and put the curds into the water and used a spoon to shape them.

Of course, I didn’t have rubber gloves, so kneading the hot cheese was a little painful!  Long story short, having a microwave would have been a huge help.

In the end, I wound up with a ball of mozzarella that was a bit tough and overworked, not nearly as elastic as it should be, and it had picked up a little bit of a greyish cast, possibly from the bread board I was using to knead it on.  Also, cleanup was a pain as the curds cling to everything, especially the metal utensils!

The important question is, how did it taste?

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Well, after a few hours soaking in a brine/whey solution, the cheese turned out okay. I used it on a pizza in a taste test, half of the pizza covered with my cheese and half with the Murrah Dairy’s cheese.  My cheese was much more rubbery and not as bright white, but it actually tasted fine, like real mozzarella cheese.

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Conclusion: This is a product that is probably worth buying in the store, even if it is a bit pricey.  Making it is very time and effort consuming.  That said, I’m kind of curious to try another time using store-bought milk, just to confirm my new understanding that the pasteurization wasn’t the issue.  I still like the idea of making my own cheese, and if I had an opportunity to apprentice with a cheese-maker, I would jump at it.  But the constraints of my Bangkok condo kitchen are such that I don’t think I’ll become a regular cheese-maker.

Okay, what’s the next thing to try?

 

 

Food in BKK – Foon Talob

Results of the second cheesemaking attempt is coming soon… thank you for your patience.  In the meantime:

After returning from our trip to the US in late March, Tawn and I had a conversation about the food in Bangkok that we really miss when we are away.  In my mind, this list is much shorter than the list of food from San Francisco I miss now that I live here.  One of the Bangkok foods that did come to mind was the gai tod (fried chicken) and som tam (green papaya salad) served at Foon Talob (ฝุ่นตลบ) at the Chatuchak (sometimes “Jatujak”) Weekend Market.

As a special treat, Tawn agreed to serve as host for our video visit.  You can watch him introducing the cuisine of Foon Talob here:

Otherwise you can read about it and see the pictures below:

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Foon talob translates as “dust all over” and the idea is of a Northeastern Thai (Issan) style roadside restaurant, a place where there would be dust all over the place.  The restaurant is open air but covered, adjacent to a paved walkway and rows of stalls.  In the hot season it is quite warm.  But even then it is quite popular, filling up by early afternoon with everyone sitting shoulder to shoulder and back to back in the tightly spaced rows of tables and stools.

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Next to the open air kitchen is a little offering for the gods, a bit of food, sticky rice, and water with the ashes of incense scattered on the plate, a request for good fortune and business success that day.

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I’m inclined to think that fried chicken is one of the most universal foods.  So many cultures have fried chicken … even before KFC arrived!  Here, freshly butchered chicken is breaded in a heavily seasoned coating and then dropped into a wok of boiling oil.  The end result is crispy on the outside but tender and juicy on the inside.  It is served with two sauces: The one in the back is really spicy and the one in the front is mostly sweet with only a little spice.  Always, always, always, the fried chicken is eaten with a bowl of sticky (glutinous) rice.

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Fried chicken just isn’t Issan fried chicken without a side dish of som tam or green papaya salad.  Hundreds of green papayas are shredded each day to serve the customers.

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To the green papaya is added lime, tomatoes, dried shrimp, peanuts, sugar, fish sauce, and chilies.  The mixture is pounded with a mortar and pestle, making a sound that in Thai is described as “pok pok…” providing a handy synonym for som tam.

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The end result is a tangy, sour, slightly salty, and often very spicy salad that is really refreshing in the hot weather.

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Another popular side dish is laab (sometimes Anglicized as “larb”).  Usually made with ground pork (although you can make it with other meats) the salad has ground toasted rice grains, shallots, green onions, lime juice, fish sauce, and chili flakes fried together then served on a bed of basil and mint.  Varying degrees of spice but always a very flavorful dish.

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For a special treat, we ordered a grilled Northern Style pork sausage.  The meat is heavily spiced and flavorful.

After lunch we headed across the walkway to a vendor serving homemade coconut ice cream.  Their twist is that they serve the ice cream in half a young coconut shell with the meat from the coconut shaved out to accompany your ice cream.

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You can choose from a variety of toppings: boiled water chestnuts, hearts of palm, peanuts, condensed milk, etc.

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Coconut ice cream with young coconut meat, hearts of palm, and peanuts.  Refreshing!

 

Riding the Rails to Mae Klong

If you’ve watched the Thailand episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, then you are familiar with the Mae Klong Railway.  This tiny single track line runs from the west side of Bangkok, completely detached from the rest of the State Railway network, to Mae Klong in Samut Songkhram province.  Along the way the line ends on one side of the river in Mahachai in Samut Sakhon province and you have to take a ferry across the river to resume your journey.

Mae Klong Railway Map

A highlight of the journey is the last few hundred meters of the line, which run right through the center of the Mae Klong wet market.  Vendors scurry to pull back their trays, tables, and canopies so the train can pass through.  No sooner has the train passed then the vendors slide everything back out, just like a giant zipper closing along the tracks.

P1020833 The reason I took this journey, besides the fact that I’ve heard about it for several years and been curious to take it, was to evaluate its suitability for some guests who will be arriving in the coming months. 

The terminus of the railway is just a short drive from the Amphawa nighttime floating market, about which I’ve written several times (here and here).  The idea is that I could combine this train ride with a visit to the floating market, and then catch a bus or van back to Bangkok.

Right: Fellow traveler on the Mae Klong line.

For this adventure, I invited Bill, an American who moved here recently.  He’s spent extended periods here before and I know he has a taste of adventure.  In fact, he was here during the September 2006 coup and went out to shoot some great nighttime photos of the tanks.  He seemed well suited for what could potentially end up as a “and how do we get home?” sort of adventure.

If you’d like to just watch the movie version of this entry, the ten-minute video is here:

Otherwise, keep reading!

Railway Stations

The first challenge is that the train to Mae Klong departs at a tiny neighborhood station in Thonburi, on the west bank of Bangkok’s Chao Praya River instead of at the main Hualamphong Station.  Thankfully, six months ago the BTS Skytrain opened an extension across the river and the current terminus station is at Wongwian Yai, just a fifteen-minute walk (or five-minute taxi ride) from the Wongwian Yai Railway Station.

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You would be forgiven if you miss the station, which is located down the soi (alley) on the left with the small white sign.  In the distance is a large traffic circle, in the center of which is a statue of King Taksin (not the same spelling or pronunciation as the former Prime Minister Thaksin), the only king who ruled Siam from the capital here in Thonburi.  The capital was in Thonburi only 15 years before Taksin’s successor, King Rama I, moved the capital to the east bank where present-day Krungthep (Bangkok) is.

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The train sitting in Wongwian Yai Station with beautiful tropical foliage at the end of the line.

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Like all the terminal stations on the Mae Klong line, Wongwian Yai station is located in the midst of the market area.  Rows of vendors sell all sorts of fresh goods and other vendors sell food and drink to the locals and the commuters.  Despite this being a small, single-track line, it carries a lot of traffic including commuters into the city as well as both shoppers and sellers on their way to and from the market.

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An hour and about eight stops later, we arrived in Mahachai, the local name for the administrative seat of Samut Sakhon province.  Here, too, we found a market surrounding the station.  But in this case it was starting to spill over, with vendors who had to move each hour as the trains arrive and depart.

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Samut Sakhon is mostly a fishing town situated on the Tha Chin Klong River, which opens into the Gulf of Thailand.  There is a large fishing fleet which brings in large catches of many different types of seafood, most prominently the local delicacy plaatoo – mackerel. 

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A short walk from the Mahachai train station is the main ferry pier and next to that is a prominent six- or seven-story seafood restaurant.  My friend Stuart, who has done this trip twice before, suggested a stop here for lunch and since we had about three hours between trains (the trains on the second line run just four times a day versus hourly on the first line), Bill and I decided to try it.

The top several stories are air conditioned but there was a wonderful breeze so we opted to sit in one of the open-air seating areas.  What beautiful weather for enjoying a fresh seafood meal.  Here’s what we had – way too much food for just two people!

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Typical condiments: lime, green onions, cucumber (to cool the spice), fish sauce with chili (small dish) and seafood dipping sauce which is made from tons of chilies, fish sauce, lime juice, and palm sugar, all blended together.

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Deep fried omelet with crab meat.  Sweet chili dipping sauce.

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Stir-fried mixed vegetables.

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Gaeng Som – orange soup, moderately spicy and made with tamarind paste.

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Closeup of the soup, with shrimp and pieces of omelet made with a strong-flavored green that grows along the river banks.  Has the same effect as asparagus.

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Fried rice with salted fish and crab.

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The big finale were two large grilled river prawns with some of that super-hot dipping sauce from the first picture.  So fresh!

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How fresh, you ask?  Right out of the tank and onto the fire.  Now that’s fresh!

Want to take a guess at the price of the meal?  All that food (plus beer for me) was 1100 baht – about US$34.  And I think about half that price went just for the prawns.  Wow, what a great meal.

After the meal we headed out to find the ferry to the Ban Laem train station on the far side of the river.  It turns out that the main ferry departing from the pier adjacent to the restaurant will drop you on the correct side of the river, but several blocks from the train station.  The ticket attendant indicated that there was another ferry we could take, motioning behind the restaurant.

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Bill and I headed around the building, past a warehouse where fish were being processed, and found this really rickety looking pier with a small ferry docked at it.  We boarded and asked the few people sitting on the ferry if the ferry was going to Ban Laem Railway Station.  They nodded.  I tried to pay my fare and they laughed and said that they were passengers, too.  A few minutes later it became clear who the captain was as he stuck his head into the engine compartment at the rear of the boat to fire up the engine.  His dog, seemingly high on caffeine, was running around the boat like crazy, wrestling with the mooring line.

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It took about ten minutes to slowly chug our way up the river.  The west side of the river at this point is actually a bulbous isthmus, so while it took a lot of time, we weren’t really covering much ground.  Looking at the map later, I think we would have been fine to take the main ferry and then just walk a few blocks to the train station, but no matter.  The view was pleasant.  The tide was out and any number of fishing vessels sat on the mud, their vibrant colors fading in the sun.

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As we pulled up to the pier in Ban Laem, it wasn’t clear how we were going to disembark as the pier was fully out of the water.  The captain nudged the bow of his boat up to the pier and we clambered off over the bow, landing on more rickety wooden decking.  In this picture you can actually see one of the trains at the station, right below the temple’s roof.  Talk about integrated transit – the train line ends right next to the boat pier.

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The hour journey from Ban Laem up to Mae Klong was a lot less comfortable than the first segment from Bangkok.  The tracks seemed less even and we were rocking and rolling.  The train filled as we approached Mae Klong, so there wasn’t any room to spread out.  We were getting tired and weary from the heat and the endless salt evaporation ponds made for monotonous viewing.

As we pulled into Mae Klong, we passed through what seemed to be a forest of canvas as the market vendors’ awnings were pulled back, making walls that nearly blinded us as we rolled through.  From were we were sitting, we couldn’t see the vendors themselves.

Upon our arrival we had one hour before the train – the last train of they day – headed back.  We did a quick walk around downtown Mae Klong, a town I’m actually pretty familiar with as it is the administrative seat of Samut Songkhram, the province in which I spent more than a year volunteering as an English teacher at a small elementary school.

We were back about twenty minutes before departure and had to fight to get some seats.  Everyone wanted to be on the last train of the day, it seemed.  On the way into Mae Klong, I noticed that some other tourists (Thai tourists, though) were at the back of the train taking pictures out the open rear door.  A few minutes before we headed out, I decided to go to the back of the train (which had been the front of the train when we arrived) and see if I could open the door to take pictures of the market as we passed through it.

I couldn’t open the door – it seemed fixed shut – but some of the local ladies sitting at that end of the train engaged me in conversation and told me to go ahead and sit in the engineer’s compartment.  Not sure if I should or not, I decided that “they told me I could” was an adequate excuse and went ahead and sat down.  Carefully holding the camera out the window while looking in the rearview mirror for any obstacles that would slice off my hand, I filmed our trip out of the station and through the market.

It was amazing, watching the vendors push their trays and wares and awnings back in place not two seconds after the train had passed.  As I wrote earlier, it was just like a zipper closing up over the railway tracks.  Next time I take that train I’m going to figure out how to open the door so I can get a good view of it.

The ride home was anticlimactic.  We had seen the landscape before and including the three-hour layover the entire journey had taken more than eight hours.  My conclusion is that doing just the first half of the trip is probably plenty – take the train out to Mahachai for lunch and then take it back.  Samut Songkhram province and the Amphawa floating market is best reached by car or van.

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By the time we made it back to the Wongwian Yai Skytrain station, the sun had set and a beautiful early evening sky glowed above the city.  Another fun and exciting adventure in Thailand.

 

First Attempt at Making Mozzarella Cheese

As you may know, a lot of my choices of what to cook are dictated by my desire to try new things, to understand the characteristics of individual ingredients and the techniques used to coax the most flavor out of them.  Recently, I’ve been keen to try my hand at cheesemaking.

My aunt’s sister Jan makes homemade mozzarella cheese and, assuring me that it is easy, sent me back to Thailand armed with baggies of citric acid and cheese salt (I swear, customs officer, that white powder is not what it looks like!) and some tablets of rennet.

Yesterday, I invited Ken over to help me.  An American retiree, Ken has this dream of starting a goat farm up in Lampang province near Chiang Mai.  He’s convinced there is an untapped market for chèvre.

Jan recommended a recipe for 30-minute mozzarella from cheesemaking.com.  It is pretty straight-forward, except for the fact that I don’t have a microwave at home.  They had an alternate recipe for those of us without microwaves, so I was pretty eager to give it a try.  The big question mark that was facing me: could I make the cheese from the milk we have here in Thailand?

The recipe’s author insists you can use store bought pasteurized milk, so long it is not UHT (“ultra high temperature”) pasteurized, as this destroys the milk’s ability to curdle properly.  But inspecting the labels of milk here in Thailand, there is no information about what type of pasteurization process is used, only that the milk is in fact pasteurized.  Figuring I could afford a few dollars and an hour of time to experiment, I started with four litres (two gallons) of Foremost brand milk.

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The process is pretty easy: you heat the gallon of milk combined with 1.5 teaspoons of citric acid diluted in a small amount of water.  Once it gets to 90 F you add a quarter tablet of rennet which has also been diluted in some water.  Thirty seconds of stirring to distribute the rennet evenly, then you cover and let the milk sit undisturbed for five minutes.

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By this time, what you are supposed to have is the curd (milk solids) separating from the whey (liquid) in a pretty solid, tofu-like substance.  Unfortunately, even after trying some of the suggested remedies, my curds never came together any more than runny cottage cheese.

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I went ahead and scooped them out to drain, but most of them just ran through the colander.  There wasn’t anything solid enough to handle.

Conclusion?  Either I didn’t use enough rennet (although I did follow the recipe) or, more likely, the milk is UHT pasteurized.

Options: Try again with another brand of milk, give up, or be thankful that a smart Thai-German friend left a comment on my facebook page asking if I’d considered buying buffalo milk from Murrah Dairy, a local outfit that specialized in a breed of milking buffaloes from India.

What luck!  They have a small cafe/retail outlet out near the airport, even though their farm is about a two hour drive east of the city.  Tawn and I drove out there Sunday afternoon and located the shop in the midst of an old housing estate.

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Murrah Cafe and Bistro: The first buffalo farm in Thailand.  In Thai, it reads “The cheese restaurant that is the first and only in the country.  You must stop by then you’ll know why.”  Yeah, it doesn’t sound as compelling when you read it in English.

Talking with the owner’s daughter, it looks like although they don’t regularly open the farms for visitors, we could call and arrange a tour.  She agreed that my problem with making the cheese was probably related to the pasteurization.  As it turns out, they sell raw buffalo milk so I placed an order for 5 litres to pick up this Tuesday afternoon.

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The cafe is cute but tiny.  Lots of cheese and milk for sale and all of their espresso drinks are made with buffalo milk.  Here’s the best thing about buffalo milk: 18% fat versus 4% for regular Jersey cow milk.  Yum!

Since we were there and it was lunchtime, we ordered some food.  The menu is mostly Italian and makes liberal use of buffalo milk products.  (Worth noting, by the way, that their price for a container of mozzarella is 140 baht – US$4.40 – versus a minimum of 180 baht for the other locally made cow’s milk mozzarella and 250+ baht for imported.  That in itself makes it almost worth the drive.) 

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What better way to really experience their excellent fresh mozzarella than on a caprese salad?  Except for the fact that Thailand’s tomatoes are chronically anemic, it was wonderful.

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Baked ziti in tomato sauce with… you guessed it – Mozzarella cheese!

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And, finally, an excellent thin-crust Pizza Margherita.  This was a small pizza and had a nicely charred, crisp-edged crust.  Just like the real deal in Italy.

So here’s where I stand with the cheesemaking experiment: first attempt was a failure but I’m going to drive back out to Ramkamhaeng on Tuesday afternoon, but the raw buffalo milk, and then make a second attempt at the cheese.  Stay tuned…