Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Videos uploaded to my YouTube page.

I have uploaded some of the video clips I took in Thailand to YouTube.com. The quality is not great, since they are taken with my regular digital still camera, but some of them are kind of fun. I'll be posting more there in the future, too, so stay tuned. If you are interested see my YouTube user page.



Monday, February 18, 2008

Day 12: Back to Bangkok and then home.

Today we had a leisurely breakfast and got ready to head back to BKK. I paid the tab for the hotel, and the owner called us a cab to the airport.

The flight was uneventful and we arrived at the hotel in BKK in the middle afternoon. There is only one hotel in the immediate vicinity of the airport, the Novotel. While it was pretty expensive, at least for Thailand, at around $150 a night, I thought it was worth it since it is adjacent to the airport. It was a good choice.

This is an extremely nice hotel. The bathroom was amazing, and it also had a beautiful courtyard. It was worth every penny.

The bathroom, which, by the way, had an independently operated speaker for the TV you you didn't have to miss your program, or at least the audio portion.

Me chilling in the room.
The view of the courtyard from our window.We were really tired, and it really didn't seem to be worth the hassle of going back into town, so we decided to just hang out and rest for the rest of the day. We had dinner at the hotel and tried to psyche ourselves up for the flight back. Since we were going with the prevailing winds, the flight home is actually quite a bit faster than the flight there. It was not that bad, but we were certainly glad to get home.

I hope you have enjoyed this trip report. I will probably do at least one more Thailand post talking about some other things and giving overall impressions. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned to this blog when you hear be blabbing about our next trip, since I will almost certainly do this again. Right now the two big competitors for the next trip are Sorrento, Italy (which we have been to and both dearly love) and Spain. We have plenty of time to decide, so we are in no hurry.

If you are reading this and would like to see more of our photos, I have put them all online using Google's Picasa web folders. Just send me an email and I will send you the links to view them.

Day 11: A Lot of Thai cooking class

Today was our cooking class, which was given at A Lot of Thai. There are a lot of cooking classes in Chiang Mai, and I picked this one for two reasons. First, it had good reviews on tripadvisor.com and, second, it was taught in the woman's home, and therefore was restricted to a maximum of eight people. I liked the idea of a more intimate class.

I had forgotten to charge the camera batteries the night before, so I was low on battery. Consequently, I didn't take as many pictures this day as normal. Apologies for that, but there are plenty to give you the idea.

It turns out that A Lot of Thai was an excellent choice. The instructor, Yui, and her husband, Kwan, picked us up at the hotel in their blue VW microbus, which, to say the least, is a little unusual for Thailand.
We took the short ride to their home, and the class starts immediately. Each person has their own cooking station, utensils, ingredients, etc. This is very important if you are ever picking a cooking class.
First, we all gather aroud Yui's station, and she shows us the ingredients, and tells us about them. Then she shows us how to cook what we are cooking.
After this, everyone goes back to their station and cooks thier own batch.
And then you all gather around the table and eat what you just cooked.
Our group was pretty good, for the most part. We had a couple of guys from Canada, a married couple from Quebec, a girl from Hong Kong, and an Israeli woman. Everyone got along fine.

The first dish we made was a simple stir fry with chicken and cashews. It was quite good. That's mine shown above with the wok.

We then learned to make green curry with chicken, which is one of my favorite dishes, and one which I had frequently while we were there. It again came out really well, and I finally got something spicy.

I have not mentioned this before, but I should say that, contrary to the reputation, the food I got in Thailand was not really spicy. I understood from guide books and websites that the people making the food automatically tone it down for farangs, and this was my experience. I finally took to explicitly telling the server I wanted it spicy, which helped some. I did get some things that were pretty spicy, but I never got anything that I considered really hot. However, I do have a high tolerance for spicy food, and I love it, so someone with different tastes might consider it spicy. I never had anything where I thought "Holy crap, this is too spicy." Now, when I am a Thai places here, I order my food hot, but not Thai hot. Maybe one step below that, a 9 out of 10, so YMMV, of course.

Anyway, my green curry was pretty spicy. The curry paste was homemade by Yui and it was excellent.

The next dish was the famous pad thai. It was really cool to learn to make this famous dish. We are hoping to get to the big Chinese market this weekend to pick up some ingredients that we can't get at the regular grocery store. We'll need some good fish sauce, which is in almost all Thai food, some tamarind past, some palm sugar, kafir lime leaves, some chio bo, which is preserved turnip, and a couple of other minor things. I figure there are Thai restaurants here, so they must be getting these ingredients somewhere.

After the third dish, we took a tour of a local market near the house. This was a very fun tour. It was a real, local market, and we were the only non-Thai people I saw there. The prices and selection reflected this, too. There was everything from flip-flops to toothpaste to cakes of coagulated chicken blood to flattened dried squid to cutting boards to vegetables to incense to, well, pretty much anything. And, of course, this being Thailand, there were a ton of food vendors.

Yui took us around to several of the vendors and showed us ingredients, explaining their use. We saw many fun and exotic things. Afterwards, we were given a little while to wander the market. I got a new wok spatula, which cost me 60 baht, or $2. I probably overpaid, but that's OK, I guess.

Here are some of the pictures I took there. Some of them are a little grainy since I had the flash turned off, but they get the point across, I think.

Overall picture of the market, food vendor area.

There are many varieties of rice in Thailand. These are between 16 and 21 baht a kilogram, or between 22 and 29 cents a pound. Pretty good deal.
Nice fresh eggs.
Pre made curry powder. I would have so bought some of this if I could have figured a way to get it back in the country. It is 5 baht, or 15 cents, for 100 grams.

Mmmmm...chilies.Dried pressed squid. There was a lot of dried seafood.
The veggies were so fresh looking. Better than anything I have ever seen here, at least outside of the farmer's market.

Here's me drinking a really good Thai coffee. It is very sweet, and quite delicious. Note the bag. When you get a drink in Thailand that is not prepackaged, particularly when you are in an area frequented by locals, it comes in a little bag like this. The vendor puts some ice in there, your drink, inserts a straw, and ties a very handy rubber band to close it and to use as a handle. It's a cool system.

After the market tour, we learned to make egg rolls, the famous spicy tom yum goong soup, and sticky rice with mango. All of mine turned out really well, but I must say the sticky rice with mango was a learning experience. I wish I had known how good this is, so I could have been eating it the whole time. Must find some sticky rice and make it here.

The class lasted from 9:30 am to 3:30 pm, and cost us about $30 each. Pretty much the bargain of the trip, in my opinion.

Here is the group we took the class with.

We didn't do a lot else after that. After eating all day we really didn't want a huge dinner. We packed up for the flight back to BKK the next day. Since our departing flight on Thursday was at 6:40 am, we had long ago decided to fly back to BKK on Wednesday, and stay overnight at the airport hotel.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Day 10: Elephant Nature Park

Today was Elephant Nature Park (ENP), really a highlight of the entire trip (other links here and here). This place is simply amazing. First off, it is very different from many of the other elephant camps. The elephants are not there to be ridden or to do stupid tricks. The whole purpose of the camp is conservation and education. The founder, a woman named Sangduen "Lek" Chailert, has dedicated her life to helping elephants and to education people about the plight of the Asian elephant in Thailand. The park takes in abused and injured elephants, and allows them to live like elephants. They are allowed to roam at will, form their own family groups, etc. There are not tricks and no riding. These things are bad, as the howdahs used in riding can injure an elephant, particularly one that is pregnant. They do not make them do tricks because the methods used to get them to do tricks are brutal. You watch a film where they show the process of breaking an elephant, and it is hard to watch. They put it in a thing called a 'press' which is about what it sounds like, and basically torture it for 4 to 7 days. It is not nice. Many, although not all, of the elephants at ENP have gone through this process.

However, the issue is not as cut and dried as it appears at first glance, and the people at ENP acknowledge that. Since the logging industry in Thailand is no longer in (legal, at least) operation, elephants no longer have any work. There is also almost no real habitat left for them. I get the sense that they were not completely opposed to the types of elephant camps where you ride, etc. They just want to educate people about them, and insure that the elephants working there are treated as well as possible. They provide medical services to many of these places, and also take in elephants that can no longer work. They do single out for special scorn those who bring elephants into bug cities, such as Bangkok, to use in getting money for tourists. This is bad for everyone, aside from the owners making the money off of them. We never saw anyone in BKK begging with an elephant, which was good.

Anyway, it's an amazing place, and I would like to go back there and volunteer for a week. There were many people there doing just that, for periods of up to a month or more.

OK, enough of the unpleasant parts, on to the fun pictures.

First you are picked up in the ENP van at your hotel. You then go to a market and load up the vans and trucks with a lot of fruit. And I mean a lot. I have never seen so many bags of watermelons, which are apparently a favorite.

After loading the trucks, you ride up to the park, which is about an hour north of Chiang Mai. It is actually a pleasant ride, as you get to see some of the countryside, which was lush and beautiful.

After arriving at the park, everyone gets the safety talk. This is very important, and these are, in fact, dangerous animals. There are very specific rules about how to feed them, about never going down to the grounds alone, watching out for the babies, etc. Apparently the babies like to 'bowl with humans', in which we are the pins and they are they bowling balls. We were taught how to deal with this should it happen. As you may know, the females in an elephant group are generally all related, and all of the 'aunties' and they called them will help in the raising of the young. They are, like most animals, very protective of them. In short, leave the babies alone. We were also informed about a couple of elephants that we were not to go near, mainly the alpha male, named BK, and also another male, who killed his last mahout before coming to ENP. Really, it's hard to imagine anything like ENP in the US because of the liability issues. I mean, we can't even have lawn darts, for crying out loud.

While we were getting the safety lecture, the mahouts were preparing the food for the elephants. Each one has favorites, and so each has a laundry basket filled with his or her favorite fruits and veggies. When all is ready, everyone goes down to the feeding platform and feeds the elephants.

Here is the central area of the feeding platform.
Our elephant was named Lily. She had been force fed amphetamines by her previous owner so that she could work almost all the time. She was still feeling the effects of coming down off of them, almost a year later. As a result, she ate really slowly. Her basket consisted of watermelon and squash.

After feeding the elephants it was time to feed the people. There was a huge buffet lunch for everyone. To be honest, I kind of expected it to be not very good. However, we were pleasantly surprised to find that it was actually really, really good. There were probably 15 dishes, and every one that I tried was uniformly excellent. There were two places to sit while eating, and it seems like we ended up eating with the volunteers. There was a really nice eating area.

After lunch, it was time to take the elephants down to the river for a bath. This was really fun. The mahouts lead the elephants into the river, where they lie down. We then get our buckets and our scrub brushes and go to work on the elephants. The elephants seem to enjoy this as much as the humans. The funny part was dodging the frequent chinks of elephant poop floating down the river. I didn't care about it, but it seemed to bother a couple of people. Whatever.

After the bath, the elephants immediately head into their mud bath. This functions as both a natural sunscreen and insect repellent.

After the first river bath, you have a couple of hours to just hang out at the feeding platform and watch the elephants. This is a very pleasant time, and the elephants just kind of wander around doing their thing.

After a while, you go down for a second bath before leaving. This one is a little shorter. Afterwards, the mahout had one of the elephants demonstrate blowing water from his trunk.

The same elephant also gave people 'kisses'. This felt really weird, like having a vacuum cleaner attached to your face. This elephant was named Hope, and he is the most gentle of them. He was raised from a baby by Lek, and has never been through the brutal breaking process. Because of this, he is much more trusting of people. He is a case study by Lek and the mahouts demonstrating that elephants can also be trained and tamed using positive reenforcement, not punishment.

In addition to 31 elephants, there are also a lot of dogs (somewhere around 50 I think) and a few cats at ENP, not to mention some cows and water buffalo. Lek is obviously a real animal lover and can not resist helping any creature that needs it.

Funny thing, too. The dogs are obviously fond of sleeping on the feeding platform, like these.
More than once, I saw an elephant come up and just make the dogs move for no reason. It was really funny. The dogs weren't real happy about it but what are they going to do? Elephant beats dog.

Here are a couple of videos.

First, the elephants in the mud bath. WARNING: This video contains extreme levels of animal cuteness. You have been warned.


Next, Eric feeding Lily.


After the second bath, we loaded up for the ride back to the hotel. All in all, L and I agreed that this was one of the funnest things we have ever done on vacation. For me it was right at the top of the list with Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast bus ride that I have told some of you about. If you are ever in Thailand, I strongly recommend you go to Elephant Nature Park. If you are concerned about the plight of the Asian elephant in Thailand, I urge you to send them a donation. They are doing good work and could use your support.

Tomorrow, A Lot of Thai cooking class.