Office of Snacks

One of the things that has been a bit of a challenge working in a Thai office for my first time, is to get used to the sheer volume of snack foods that are around. Yes, I know that all offices have their share of snack foods, but it seems to reach new extremes here in Thailand.

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Conference tables are for snacks, not people.

Each business unit, department, or cluster of desks has a stash of snack foods, not including the fresh fruit and perishable snack items bought daily by my colleagues. And what makes it even worse is that most of these people are skinny to the point of looking malnourished.

After the first few weeks, I started to buck the trend and avoid the snacks. My trick is to eat a bit extra at lunch so that the munchies don’t come calling in the middle of the afternoon. But then my colleagues look at my lunch tray with two dishes on it and express dismay that I’m eating so much food!

 

Cooking Khao Soi with Chow

One of my favorite Thai dishes is khao soi, the curried noodles that hail from Northern Thailand. With a variety of textures and loads of rich broth, it makes a satisfying meal. Recently, my Bangkok Glutton friend Chow arranged for her aunt to share their family’s recipe for khao soi with us.

We returned to Chow’s kitchen to try our hand at recreating the recipe. While the results were good, it is safe to say that we are going to need a lot more practice before Chow’s aunt has anything to fear from our competition!

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Khao soi is made with egg noodles. There are a variety of types, but if you have an Asian market in your city, any fresh egg noodles will do. The noodles are split into two batches: one that is blanched in boiling water and the other that is fried to make a crunchy garnish.

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The fried noodles are easier to make than I expected, not requiring much oil at all. The resulting crispy noodles are addictive. Hard to not eat them before finishing the rest of the cooking!

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The base of the khao soi is a yellow curry combined with a fried mixture of ginger and shallots. You can use any yellow curry paste available at your local Asian market. The better the quality paste, the better the flavor, of course.

Like many curries, coconut milk is added to create richness. You can use a “lite” coconut milk or add some broth to thin it out. For the meat, you can use any type of meat you like. Beef and chicken are more traditional but pork or firm tofu would be fine. The flavor of the curry might overwhelm shellfish, though.

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Like all noodle dishes in Thailand, proper khao soi is served with a variety of condiments. Here, you have dried chili flakes, chopped green onions and coriander, fresh shallots, chili oil, minced pickled cabbage (rinse off some sauerkraut as an easy substitute), and fresh lime.

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The end result looked fantastic and tasted good. Getting the proper balance of flavors – fish sauce and sugar need to be added to taste – is where the secret of a true khao soi master lies. Again, Chow’s aunt has nothing to worry about!

Visiting an Orphanage in Mae Sot

Last weekend, I traveled to Mae Sot, the largest town in Tak Province, Thailand. Situated on the border with Myanmar, Mae Sot is home to an estimated 100,000 Burmese refugees and immigrants – a number equal to the official local population. The purpose of the trip was to visit an orphanage and secondary school supported by some of my Singaporean friends.

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The trip had a powerful impact on me and in the week since, I have spent a lot of time pondering how I can best contribute to improve the lives of these children. Perhaps the best way to share this experience with you is to post some pictures and write some explanatory thoughts.

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Mae Sot is not a particularly large town. Nestled next to the border, it is common to see Burmese script on many signs and plenty of people are dressed in traditional Burmese outfits. The mountains of Myanmar are on the horizon and the gathering storm clouds seem to speak to the challenges that people on that side of the border face.

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The orphanage is located in a residential neighborhood on one side of town. It is a typical Thai-style wooden house, built on stilts and with open windows for lots of ventilation. It cannot be much larger than 100 square meters (about 1000 square feet). The upstairs includes the kitchen, a small dining area, and two large rooms that are used as a multipurpose area and the girls’ dormitory. Downstairs, part of the area below the house has been bricked in and serves as the boys’ dormitory.

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Approximately 60 children live in the orphanage, ranging from just under one year old to about thirteen. Technically, children could stay until age eighteen but they currently have no children that old. The orphanage is run in a very organized manner. Here, the children neatly line up their flip-flops on the concrete pad at the base of the stairs. As with all houses in Thailand, you do not enter with your shoes on.

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The orphanage is run by a Chinese-Burmese couple who spent many years living in Singapore, which is the connection with my Singaporean friends. Perhaps their sense of organization comes from having lived in Singapore! With no children of their own, the couple and four hired helpers take care of the orphans. While there are chores to be done, there is also time for fun. “Papa” plays the guitar and leads the children in songs and dancing.

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Extra effort is required for some of the children including the four youngest (all at just around one year old), two children who have polio, and a few children who have some developmental disabilities. While the amount of work may seem daunting, the systems in place allow the orphanage to operate efficiently and all of the children seem satisfied, cared for, and know they are loved.

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The details of the systems and processes intrigued me. Here, a row of toothbrushes are laid out in preparation for the after-lunch tooth brushing. While they are a bit worn out, each child has his or her own brush (names are written on them) and good hygiene is stressed.

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An important part of the process is that the older children help with chores and take care of the younger children. Two of the boys – brothers who are nine and ten years old – are responsible for ensuring that each child brushes his or her teeth and they help the younger children who have not yet learned how to brush. Time and time again, I saw children who were only six or seven stepping up to care for a crying younger child without anyone having to ask them. It made me realize that children in higher socio-economic situations are generally spoiled and not asked to contribute very much to the family in comparison.

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The children do have a play area, protected from the sun and with a good breeze. Many toys have been donated so there are plenty to choose from. Interestingly, I did not see many arguments or disagreements about toys. The children seemed to share pretty well.

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One macabre sight was the rows of stuffed animals hanging from the ceiling, like the victims of political violence by the Cartoon Network. The couple explained that while there are more stuffed animals than there are children, the stuffed animals resulted in possessiveness with children fighting over them. Instead, they are now suspended from the ceiling so everyone can see and enjoy them but nobody can claim them as their own.

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While the older children (starting around age five) attend the local Thai public school, the younger children remain home all day. After their afternoon nap, they received a snack of crisps. They were generally quiet and reserved without the loud volume you might expect from a group of toddlers.

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The second afternoon there, we rode in the back of the orphanage’s covered pickup truck to collect the children at school. This is done in two batches since there isn’t enough room for everyone in a single batch. This two-batch method works okay because the younger children finish school about thirty minutes before the older children. This young boy with the two lunch boxes was especially cheerful, a constant giggler. While almost all the children were friendly, they were also a bit shy and some would sit in the corner and hesitate to play. My impression is that their life experiences may have led to some emotional damage and they may hesitate to connect with others for fear of abandonment. Perhaps I am over-psychoanalyzing, though.

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We also attended what could best be described as a day care. The couple responsible for the orphanage also set up a small outpost (a house and covered porch) on the other side of town, designed as a place to teach Burmese migrants to be community teachers. Most of the lessons they teach are Biblically-based but also include general life skills such as budgeting, parenting, etc. What they noticed was that children from the nearby families (all of whom are migrant laborers) would hang out at the covered porch and use it as a play space. So they engaged some volunteers to work as teachers and try to educate and feed the children every day.

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Since one of my Singaporean friends is a comic artist, he conducted a class for about forty children, teaching them to draw cartoon rabbits. The children enjoyed drawing and despite a lack of a common language, the instruction went well.

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All of these children speak only Burmese. Since their parents are mostly undocumented and are itinerant laborers, the children have no opportunity to attend school and, as such, will likely face a life of labor themselves. Not realizing at first that they didn’t have any formal schooling, I tried speaking to them in Thai but that wasn’t any more helpful than speaking to them in English. Here, I struggle to help one student sharpen his pencil with a cheap plastic pencil sharpener.

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The third place we visited is a secondary school or, more accurately, an official “learning center”. The school serves about 100 students, all of them the children of refugees or migrants. While licensed by the Thailand Ministry of Education, it isn’t an official school because they teach outside the proscribed curricula. Classes are conducted by five teachers in English and Burmese. A series of volunteer teachers also visit for month-long stints from universities in Hong Kong and elsewhere.

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The school boards all of its students. It is located on the outskirts of the city, past an immigration and police inspection checkpoint. Most of the students are undocumented so it is not practical for them to come to school each day so, instead, they just live there. The teachers prepare food for three meals a day. Here is a large batch of fried rice, a very simple lunch. Most weeks, there is the budget to only have meat – chicken bones, for example – about once a week.

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The school, along with the orphanage and day care, runs on a very tight budget. This picture is of an enameled metal bowl that is used in the school kitchen. It has been used so long that it has literally worn through in spots. Speaking with the schools’ volunteer director, a young European woman who has been there three years, the list of “nice to haves” include things like new bowls, plastic hangars, and sponges, but that they generally only have the money for necessities.

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On the afternoon of our departure, several of the older children from the orphanage rode with us to the airport, a chance for them to see an airplane and wave goodbye. As for me, I think it is not “goodbye” but “until next time” because I plan on returning soon.

More importantly, I am going to look for ways to help, whether that is by gathering funds and supplies or by raising awareness. Yes, the world is full of people who need help. These three places seem to be very well-run, doing good work with minimal (maybe even non-existent) overhead, and strike me as a good place to try to make a difference.

 

Rainy Season in Bangkok

About six months of the year. That’s how long our rainy season lasts here in Thailand. Starting in May and concluding in October, nearly every day sees some precipitation. 

A typical Bangkok afternoon this time of year looks like this. Big, ferocious clouds darken the skies. They move quickly, forming close to the ground like wisps of steam in reverse. The wind begins to pick up, a sure sign that rain is imminent. In fact, with the picture above, while I had a good view at least a kilometer down the tracks, within ten seconds (literally) of taking this picture, the rain had started and within thirty seconds, the view had diminished to what you see in the following picture.

The rain came down with such force that visibility was reduced to just a few hundred meters. Anything beyond that was lost in the grey mists. Thankfully, I was at the Skytrain station and could sought shelter. 

The intensity of our storms is often matched by a surprising brevity. I boarded the train within two minutes of the storm starting. It took eight minutes to travel west four stations (less than six kilometers). I exited at Phloen Chit finding the rain finished, very wet pavement and large puddles the only signs of its visit. That is the nature of our rainy season – one corner of town will receive a downpour and another corner is enjoying sunshine.

 

In terms of volume, there are peaks at either end of the season. So far this year, we have had pretty normal rainfall. Look out for September, though! While this amount of rain would probably drive lots of people (except those from Seattle) crazy, I actually like the rainy season. Yes, there are the flooded streets and the torrential rains for which an umbrella does absolutely no good. But the cloudy skies offer a respite from the otherwise cruel sun and the breeze usually picks up, helping lower the ambient temperature.

 

Islamic Arts Museum in Kuala Lumpur

This past week, I traveled to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to renew my non-immigrant visa at the Royal Thai Embassy. While there, I had a chance to visit with some friends and also to stop at the Islamic Arts Museum, something that has been on my to-see list since I first went to KL a few years ago.

The Islamic Arts Museum is located in a large park not far from the central train station. It is surrounded by expressways, though, making it very difficult to reach on foot. The museum is just up the street from the National Mosque, a beautiful blue-roofed complex that is worth a visit.

The collection is not as well-curated as I had hoped, although it covers a diverse range of subjects from architecture to textiles, ceramics to metals. Also, the collection represents all the major cultures in the Islamic world from Africa to the Middle East to India to Southeast and East Asia. Here is a selection of some of the pieces I saw.

There was a large selection of beautiful Quran. This book is the central religious text for Muslims and there is a wonderful tradition of hand-painting copies of the text, complete with exquisite illustrations, calligraphy, and gold-leaf decorations.

The exhibit also explained the different fonts of calligraphy – Arabic and otherwise – used in the displayed Quran. The scripts are beautiful, written from right to left, some highly stylized and others with more distinct characters. 

There were many examples of fine metal working, especially silver. My understanding is that Islamic art generally avoids representations of humans or animals and so there is a lot of emphasis on geometric patterns (which represent the perfection of creation) and floral patterns.

There were many ceramic pieces. Blue seems to be a popular color and this turquoise glazed three-legged pot was practically glowing, the color was so vibrant. If you look closely (sorry, hard to see clearly through the glass), there is stylized calligraphic script around the top band of the pot.

This example of cloisonné, metalwork decorated with enamel. Very fine detail and, again, very vibrant colors.

This piece, a painted glass bottle, is one of the few exceptions I found to the “no people, no animals” prohibition. A little bit of research while writing this entry and I discovered that this type of restriction is known as aniconism. New word for the day. 

The final piece I want to share with you is this finely sculpted chess set. The detail was amazing and I can only imagine the pressure the craftsman must have felt to not make a mistake and waste all the hard work completed so far.

I hope you enjoyed the selection of pieces from the museum. Sorry for not posting more while on the road. I’ve found the Xanga site to be uncooperative in the past few weeks, often freezing while a page is loading.  

 

Of Soi and Motorsai

Thailand is a country of cat-nappers. Wherever I travel, I see plenty of people who, in their boredom, lethargy, or exhaustion, take every opportunity to shut their eyes and rest. Maybe it is the heat and humidity?

On the list of jobs I would not want to have is the motorcycle taxi driver or khon kap rotmotorsai. While the offices of Bangkok are filled with women, the men from the countryside find jobs like this one. For a fee paid to the mafia and a license paid to the government, they receive a colored vest and an assigned stand at the mouth to one of the city’s many long soi or alleys. 

Inhospitable to pedestrians, the soi are usually too narrow, too winding, and too sparsely populated to justify mass transit. Instead, we flag down a rotmotorsai, hop on the back, and whiz our way to the mouth of the soi where we catch a taxi, bus, or train onward. Dangerous? Yes. I only ride the motorcycles on our soi, where the drivers recognize me as a regular and are familiar enough with the traffic on the street to know where caution must be paid. 

Why are our streets laid out in a network of long, narrow soi? It is thanks to the rice-growing past of the central plains of Thailand.

As you can see in the picture above, rice paddies were laid out in long, narrow strips that connected to a main canal or road. As the paddies were drained, paved, and developed (the housing developments are the strips of mostly red roofs) the streets followed the long, narrow contours of the agricultural past. A map of Bangkok shows that legacy: thoroughfares a kilometer or more apart with long, narrow streets stretching out from them. Few of those streets, though, connect the larger thoroughfares.

The result is that many of us live some distance away from major streets and if we aren’t driving, have to find our way out of the soi under an unforgiving sun. It’s enough to make you cave in an ride on a motorcycle taxi or, perhaps, to want to take a nap.

A Funny Sort of Safety Warning

The smaller streets and alleys in my neighborhood are known in Thai as soi (pronounced like “soy”). Many of them have no proper footpaths and pedestrians wobble along uneven pavement, avoiding traffic and obstacles as best they can. Around the corner from our condo is a utility pole whose guy wires rise almost invisibly from the concrete, forming a hazard that is hard to see when approached head-on.

Recently as I passed by, I noticed that some civic-minded person had tied two plastic bags to the wires at about eye level, increasing their visibility dramatically. This is the sort of MacGyver-like fix that I see frequently. A concrete utility hole cover breaks? Someone will place a stick into the hole with an empty plastic bottle on it as a warning to others. If a truck or bus breaks down on the road, someone will cut a small branch from a tree and stick it in the tailpipe of the vehicle, a green flag indicating the vehicle’s predicament. These sorts of solutions are interesting to see as they seem telling about how Thais approach problems given the limited resources available.