Plane Spotting at Don Mueang Airport

It has been a while since I’ve shared some aviation porn, so thought I would post pictures from my trip to Mae Sot, Thailand last December. I flew from Don Mueang Airport (DMK) in Bangkok, the older of the city’s two airports.

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Originally reopened as a domestic-only airport, DMK was served primarily by Nok Air and Orient Thai airlines. For some sections of the city, it is more easily accessible than the new airport, although from where I live, it is equally far.

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“Nok” means “bird” in Thai and this airline (with its colorful Boeing 737s) flies domestic routes and is half-owned by THAI Airways International, the country’s flag carrier.

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Airports of Thailand, the organization that runs the major airports, eventually decided to open DMK for international traffic, too, as a reliever to the newer airport, Suvarnabhumi, which despite opening just over seven years ago, long ago reached its design capacity. With that, Air Asia relocated its operations to DMK.

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Nok and Air Asia (which actually is a conglomeration of separate airlines operating under a common brand name) now provide the majority of service to DMK and Nok has recently added a limited number of international destinations.

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One very recent addition to Thailand’s crowded “low cost carrier” scene is Thai Lion Air. Just in the same way that Air Asia is a group of separate but related airlines, Thai Lion Air is the second affiliate for Indonesia-based Lion Air. They are operating brand new Boeing B737-900ER “extended range” aircraft and flying to Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur internationally and Chiang Mai domestically. Their plan is to expand rapidly, which should provide the traveling public with downwards pressure on already low ticket prices.

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My flight was on a “Nok Mini” Saab 340. While branded as Nok Air, these mini flights are operated by Siam General Aviation. Some people don’t enjoy flying turboprops, I think they are fun and feel more like the “good old days” of early aviation. The plane is actually very stable and given that the flights are usually no longer than an hour, the seats are comfortable enough. The only challenge is the lavatory, which is tiny!

P1280066DMK is also the repository for a variety of oddball aircraft and airlines. Here is a row of airplanes in various stages of their lives. The Orient Thai B747-300 in the front and their Boeing 767 just beyond may still be used for some charter flights in the middle east, but the THAI Airways jets to the right have been pulled from service and are awaiting either buyers or scrapping. On the distance on the left are two City Airways Boeing 737s, part of an obscure charter airline that mostly runs flights to China.

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Another Boeing 737 operating under the City Airways name, although I’m sure many people would recognize the US Airways color scheme that still covers the plane. The interesting thing to notice is that on the very rear of the tail, the flag on the US Airways’ logo has not been painted over. This is because it lies on the rudder, the movable fin that controls the aircraft’s yaw. It is so finely balanced that adding a layer of paint over the logo would throw it out of balance, so a slap-dash paint job cannot be done.

P1280072A shot of the cockpit of my Saab 340 upon arrival at Mae Sot airport.

P1280074And a final shot on the tarmac at Mae Sot, of the Nok Mini Saab 340 against the setting Winter sun. Hope you enjoyed the photos. Food will return soon!

 

Lunch at Quince Bangkok

Recently, I stopped by Quince restaurant in Bangkok for a weekday lunch, a long-overdue chance to revisit a restaurant that features thoughtful food in a pleasant space. Tucked behind a furniture shop on Sukhumvit Road, Quince has gone through at least two chefs in about eighteen months. Originally helmed by Jess Barnes, now at the excellent Opposite Mess Hall, the menu at Quince continues to impress.

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This being lunch and dining with only one other person, I didn’t get a chance to try a broad selection. This special, a beetroot risotto with asparagus, parsley, and feta, was nicely composed and properly cooked. I would have preferred the beetroot to have been diced and folded in at the last moment instead of being pureed into the dish, but you have to admit that the scarlet color is striking.

P1280677From the regular menu, the ricotta gnocchi with zucchini, green pea, lemon, mint, and chili was nicely executed, bright flavors with good attention to the vegetables not being overcooked.

The interior of the restaurant continues to be one of my favorite in Bangkok – lots of light without being overly bright, different rooms have different types of energy. It is an especially good place for lunch or brunch, simply because it isn’t as crowded. I look forward to another return visit soon.

Christmas in Mae Sot

With just a few days left before I begin my new job, I took the opportunity to join a group of friends from Project LOVE Asia for four nights of volunteering in Mae Sot, a town along the Thai-Myanmar border. Our job was to help bring Christmas to the children at the Heavenly Home orphanage and the young adults at the Love & Care learning center.

Let me share some pictures and some brief notes about the experience.

Day 1

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The first day, we went to a “day care” that is run by the orphanage. Located a few miles away in the midst of rice paddies, the structure is just a shack and a broad roof over a packed-dirt floor. Volunteers provide free lunch and basic education for the children of itinerant farmers and laborers four days a week.

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Our group of volunteers (who are not the normal day-to-day volunteers at the day care) played games with the children and then before lunch, gave them a lesson in proper hand-washing technique including teaching them the “hand washing song”.

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Given that these children mostly speak Burmese or a local dialect based on their ethnic group (mostly Shan or Karen), I’m not sure they learned the song. But hopefully the basic lesson of the importance of good hand-washing was learned.

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This day for lunch, the children had rice with chicken and curry. Most of the time, the orphanage cannot afford to feed them meat so today’s lunch was a special treat. The children’s parents, who are dirt-poor, do not have to pay for this day care. It is provided by donations to the orphanage.

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In the afternoon, after finishing at the day care, our vans drove for nearly an hour over bumpy roads until we arrived at the middle of the provincial dump. There, we met families of illegal immigrants who earn a living sorting through the refuse and selling materials for recycling.

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Their rickety shacks line the roads and their children, who are now able to receive some education thanks to a nearby school recently built by an NGO, were happy to see us and receive some Christmas treats.

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That evening in the guest house while we were debriefing the day, the sound of Christmas carolers filled the air. A group of students from the Love & Care secondary school (which we would visit on Day 3) had come to sing us songs. I felt so bad for them as they had piled in the back of a pickup truck and driven 20 minutes in the chilly weather. It was a lovely surprise, though, and quite festive.

Day 2

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The next day we spent at the Heavenly Home orphanage, playing with the children, organizing games, bathing and feeding them, and singing songs.

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This was a particularly rewarding experience because the children are used to visitors and are very eager to play with them. It wasn’t unusual to have four youngsters balanced on my knees with another two or three trying to climb up.

P1040805The founders of the orphanage, Thantzin and his wife Lily, are a Burmese couple who lived many years in Singapore. Unable to have their own children, they felt called by their faith to help the children of Burmese refugees and migrants in Thailand.

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What started initially as a day care has expanded and they now care for more than 50 children whose parents have given them up as well as another dozen whose parents pick them up each evening.

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While children can stay up to the age of 18, right now they only have children from the age of 3 months up to about 12 years old.

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Our primary mission was to spread the spirit of Christmas so early on the evening of the 23rd, after the children had eaten their dinner and been bathed, dried, and dressed, they lined up for cake. We then went upstairs to sing songs and give gifts.

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The happy family of Heavenly Home orphanage, crowded into the upstairs living area, which is also the girls’ bedroom. It was a chilly evening so everyone was bundled tight, happy at having such a fun evening.

Day 3

Our final full day was spent at Love & Care, a secondary learning center about 15 minutes outside of Mae Sot. Burmese migrants and refugees face a challenge: undocumented in Thailand, they cannot attend local public schools, but they education they may have received in Myanmar isn’t sufficient for meaningful work in Thailand. Love & Care is one of many learning centers (not “schools” as they don’t follow the curriculum of the Thai Ministry of Education) serving this group.

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About 70 students live at the school, which boards all its students. They range in age from about 16-21 and many have already matriculated from secondary school in Myanmar. Love & Care offers grades 10-12 taught in Burmese, English, and Thai.

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While there, I did interviews of several of the students and faculty. Their parents are almost uniformly farmers or laborers and one common thread is that none of them seem to be the oldest child. While I didn’t clarify why this is, I would guess that the oldest child is needed to help on the farm and it is only once you have several children that you can consider sending them for education.

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We played many games with the students, mostly focused on team-building and other types of skills. After the games, we talked a bit about the lessons learned. A common theme among these students is that they came from different tribes – Karen, Shan, etc. – and it was at Love & Care that they first met people different from themselves and learned that people are all basically the same. Perhaps the most important lesson they have learned, considering they come from a place where deep-seeded animosity exists between different ethnic groups.

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In the afternoon, we did an exercise where each student created a dream board, using paper, pens, old magazines, etc. The objective was to illustrate the dream they hold for their future. They then took turns sharing their dreams with each other. Most wanted to be doctors, nurses, teachers, or other professions that would enable them to return to their communities and help others. It is easy to imagine what a powerful impact these young people will have on the future of Myanmar.

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In the evening, about half the children from Heavenly Home joined us and we had a large Christmas show. Different groups of students and children performed, gifts were given, and songs were sung. By the end of the day, many of the students had asked to connect with me on Facebook and I left with many new friends.

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In the days after this trip, I’ve had several people say nice things about how generous I am, how nice it is that I did this trip, etc. In truth, it is the children and students who have been so generous and I have to admit that I’ve taken a great deal from the experience.

Each visit to Mae Sot serves as a reminder that it takes precious little to be happy in life, and that so many people barely have that. Our common humanity binds us and there is great power in showing compassion and sharing love.

Painting Smiling Faces

Catching up on the events of the past month or two, in late October I attended an annual Halloween party at the Mercy Center in the Bangkok neighborhood Khlong Toei. Mercy Center, founded by a Catholic priest who has been a longtime fixture in the surrounding slums, provides extracurricular activities and ongoing education for local children. The Halloween party is pulled together by several business owners associated with the American Chamber of Commerce.

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This was the second time I volunteered and this year I scored the assignment of working the face-painting table. While we had lots of face paint, our tools were limited and the children had high expectations: Zombie! Dracula! Ghost!

As you can imagine, over time the ghosts started to look more like vampires and the zombies started to look more like children with green faces. I was thrown for a loop when one girl asked to be a butterfly. It wasn’t until I looked at one of the face painting kits that I realized that there was a picture of a girl with a very elaborate butterfly on her.

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Regretfully, I hadn’t the tools to make her as beautiful a butterfly as on the package, but she seemed pleased with the results. I tried my best and next year will be sure to bring some proper makeup sponges (instead of just using the random foam sponges we had access to) and brushes.

Still, it was a fun time and the 300 or so children seemed to really enjoy themselves. It is neat that there are so many people who come together to create these sort of opportunities for children.

 

Afternoon Tea at Four Seasons Chiang Mai

While in Chiang Mai a few weeks ago with visiting guests, I made a stop at the Four Seasons resort for afternoon tea. The resort is located about a thirty-minute drive north of town, which only enhances its feeling of being in the middle of nowhere. The resort is gorgeous and the afternoon tea is a worthwhile splurge for an hour or two of pampering yourself.

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The resort is arranged around a pond designed to look like a Northern Thai village complete with rice paddies. The only buildings you see are those belonging to the resort and with the mountains in the distance, you could easily be forgiven for thinking you had been transported to some magical Thai Brigadoon. At 5:00, the “farmers” (resort employees dressed in traditional Northern Thai farmer’s clothes) paraded across the paddies to the rhythm of a gong, “returning” to the village, a touch that was a bit kitschy but also fun.

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Trish, Allen, and I pose for a picture at the Sala Mae Rim restaurant. We didn’t make reservations but fortunately were able to get a prime table, perhaps because it was the midst of rainy season and the slowest time for tourists. We ordered one tea set (designed for two) plus an extra pot of tea, which was more than enough food for the three of us. The total price was approximately US$50, more than I would usually spend but certainly a worthwhile treat while on holiday.

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The top plate in the tea set featured mango sticky rice with a palm sugar floss; crisp water chestnuts in sweet coconut milk; Parisian macaroons, and chocolate truffle cake.

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The middle plate in the set featured finger sandwiches (ham and cheese, cucumber, and smoked salmon); fried shrimps wrapped in egg noodles, miang kham (a Thai snack of betel leaves wrapped around savory fillings); and krathong tong (literally “golden baskets” – crispy shells filled with minced chicken and shrimp).

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The final plate in the set featured kaffir-lime and raisin scones, served with clotted cream and strawberry jam. All the food was fantastic and the portions were more than adequate for the three of us.

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After almost two hours of indulgence, we finally left paradise to return to the city. Without a doubt, the Four Seasons is on my list for future visits. While it may be too far away from the city to actually stay at (unless you specifically want to escape from the world), it is worth a visit for tea.

 

Views Around Chiang Mai

While up in Chiang Mai with visitors last week, I took several pictures that I want to share. It is the height of rainy season and the surrounding countryside was particularly verdant.

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On the way up Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest mountain, we pulled over to snap this picture of rice paddies terraced in a small valley.

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Further up the mountain, we visited the Royal Agricultural Project, which over the last few decades has helped local hill tribes transition from growing poppies (which were used to make heroin) to growing a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and flowers. The higher elevation provides a climate suitable for select vegetables that could otherwise not be grown in Thailand. The pictures of flowers below are from the display gardens at the project.

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By visiting during the weekdays of the rainiest month of the year, we enjoyed not only the beautiful flora but also the smallest crowds of tourists I have ever seen. In fact, “crowds” is not the correct term. “Handfuls” would be more apt.

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We also visited Doi Suthep, the mountain immediately to the west of Chiang Mai, which houses a spectacular temple with a golden chedi, or stuppa. This is the second time I’ve visited the temple on an overcast and damp day. The effect is interesting because the gilding is not as bright as on a sunny day, but it contrasts beautifully with the grey skies. In the above picture, I focused on a row of bells the line the temple buildings. Bells are purchased with donations and the donors can write wishes or prayers on the metal leaf hanging from the clapper.

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On our final afternoon, we drove  north of Chiang Mai to the Four Seasons Resort to enjoy afternoon tea overlooking their property, which is designed to look like a rice farming village. I’ll share the pictures of the gorgeous tea service in another post but wanted to share this view of their pretty property.

 

Food in Chiang Mai: Burmese Restaurant

Along Niemenhamen Road, the artsy district of Chiang Mai located near Chiang Mai University, sits a nondescript restaurant with a utilitarian name: Burmese Restaurant. Recommended by a friend who moved to Chiang Mai recently, a recommendation confirmed by several Burmese staff members of the hotel at which we stayed, I went for dinner.

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The restaurant sits directly on the street at the corner of Soi 8, the cooking area and one dining area located outdoors, another dining area indoors. The crowd of diners was very light this Friday evening, maybe due to the impending rain. The friendly staff welcomed us and offered us a table indoors, turning on fans to ensure our comfort.

There are two menus, each a single page with about thirty items. One menu features Burmese dishes. The other menu features Thai/Chinese style dishes. We ordered from the Burmese menu with the exception of one vegetable dish. Unfortunately, several items we ordered were not available either because they were out already or the dish is not offered every day.

Here is a look at the dishes we ate – all of which were tasty. The entire bill for five diners was less than US$20. Needless to say, I’ll be back next time I am in Chiang Mai.

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We had ordered a curried fish soup that is the national dish of Burma. Sadly, it was not on the menu so we instead ordered this bean soup, which was tasty although not very distinctive.

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The goat curry, which our local friend enthused about, was also not available that day so we chose the chicken and potato curry instead. While it may not look particularly attractive, especially because of the oil slick on top, the curry was very flavorful and we ordered a second serving.

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The stand-out dish was this tamarind leaf salad, one of several salads on the menu made with what I would consider “unusual” ingredients. This salad was refreshing and it is difficult to describe the flavor of the leaves. The flavor is entirely pleasant and entirely unlike the taste of the tamarind fruit. One blogger described it as “eating al dente ferns”, which is about right. The salad is sweet and sour and salty with chopped peanuts and tomatoes.

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We also ordered a tomato salad, which was a pleasant surprise. With the exception of cherry tomatoes, which are generally very red and sweet, tomatoes in Thailand are usually pale pink and crunchy. These were anything but, and with onions and cilantro, they made for a refreshing dish.

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The menu contained many items translated into English as “curries” that are different from what you might expect, especially if you consider a curry as something with coconut milk in it. Instead, these curries feature a variety of spices but lighter sauces. The above picture is of an eggplant curry dish that was very nice.

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There was also a boiled duck egg curry dish that was tasty. While you see a lot of chilies in this (and other) dishes, they were not particularly spicy at least by the standards of Thai cuisine. As one Burmese friend described it, the food is more similar to Northern Thai cuisine than the super-spicy Northeastern or Southern Thai cuisines.

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The only item we ordered off the secondary menu was this simple stir-fry of greens and pork. While the salads we ordered had lots of greens, it felt like another dish of vegetables would help balance things out.

This is probably only the third or fourth time I have eaten Burmese food, and the first time in more than a dozen years. Without a doubt, I need to seek it out more often!