Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Thai Food

Before leaving for my trip, one of the things I was most excited about was three weeks of delicious Thai food. I have always liked the type of Thai food we get in the US, and I was curious to see how it compared the authentic stuff.

For the most part, food in Thailand is fairly similar to what we can get at Thai restaurants in the US - Pad Thai, red and green curries, spicy coconut milk soups, noodle dishes, etc. The flavors were generally quite similar to what you find here, but with more spiciness and a little more complexity, probably due to the different herbs and spices that aren't as readily available here in the US.

Some of the best food we ate throughout the trip came from street vendors or small local shops where you can get a delicious and filling meal for $1 or $2. Roti, which is like a type of pancake or crepe, was another favorite. They make both sweet and savory versions with all different types of fillings that you can get from a street vendor for less than $1.

In much of Thailand, especially the south, there is tons of seafood. I tried tons of seafood dishes - prawn curries, crab omelettes, squid fried rice, whole fish, you name it. My favorite was probably a dish I had at a market in Patong, Phuket - green curry mussels. It was just a giant plate of mussels soaking in a green curry broth with lots of herbs and a side of steamed rice. My love for French-style mussels led me to order it, and I must say the Thai style is just as good!

Another interesting thing about food in Thailand is the different condiments that come along with your meal. There is usually sweet chili sauce, spicy dried powdered chili, spicy chili oil (thinly sliced red and green chilis floating in oil), sugar, and msg salt. I impressed most of the other Westerners with my abundant use of chili oil, but it was nothing compared to the Thai people's love for spiciness.

In Chiang Mai I took a cooking class where I learned how to prepare soups, curries, pad thai and other noodle dishes, spring rolls, and some desserts. Cooking these dishes was actually easier than I anticipated, but they require a lot of prep time (chopping, etc.). I can't wait to start testing the recipes and seeing if I can re-create all that spicy goodness.

I think it speaks volumes that after three weeks I wasn't sick of eating spicy noodles and rice for three meals a day.

Thai Buddhist Temples

While in Thailand, I had the privilege of visiting a few Buddhist temples, including Wat Pho in Bangkok, and Wat Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai (Wat means temple in Thai).

Most of the temples I saw were fairly similar to each other. The first thing I noticed was an incredible amount of gold - gold statues, gold stupas, gold bells, etc. Other than that, the outside of most temples tended to have white-washed walls, with red, green and yellow tiled roofs. Each had many statues of monks, as well as statues of the numerous images of Buddha. As Buddhism developed from Hinduism, there would also be statues of Hindu gods, like Ganesh.

The temple of Wat Pho in Bangkok is known for the statue of the "Reclining Buddha". Measuring 43 meters long and 15 meters high, the statue is the largest of its kind in the world. It was incredibly impressive to see.

Most of the temples feature a number of different small structures on the property, with one central building. It is custom for Buddhists to walk in a circle around the main building 3 times while reciting their prayers. Each rotation represents one of the 3 jewels of Buddhism: Buddha, his teachings, and the monks. There are also a lot of stations where followers can light candles and incense to honor Buddha and his teachings.

I find Buddhism really interesting because it seems to focus more on general guidelines for living a good life and reaching enlightenment, rather than a strict set of rules and principles. Our guide, who is Buddhist, summed up his feelings on faith by saying that we must concentrate on what we can do in the present, and instructed us to "Do better today than you did yesterday." I think that is great advice that all of us - no matter what our faith - could be well served to follow.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Koh Phi Phi

Koh Phi Phi is an an island in the Andaman Sea, about halfway between Phuket and Krabi. The island is technically called Phi Phi Don, with the neighboring island of Phi Phi Ley.

Phi Pho is only accessible by boat, and when you come around the rock face of the island, you can see the cove at Tonsai Harbor filled with boats - everything from longtails to ferries to small yachts and speedboats. Once you get off the pier and into the village of Tonsai, the most noticeable thing is that there is no motor traffic, only pedestrians and bicycles. The streets are very narrow and winding and filled with shops, bars, restaurants and hostels. The village is small and lies on a sandy isthmus in between the rocky mountainsides that make up the majority of the island.

Opposite the harbor on the other side of the village is the beach, which is a wide sandy cove with a small opening between rock faces to access the open sea. After a few minutes on the beach, I noticed that 95% of the people there were between the ages of 20-27. I've never really seen a place with such a high concentration of people my age from all over the world. There were loads of Aussies as usual, but also a ton of Europeans and a handful of fellow Americans. I guess it must be kind of like spring break, but much less obnoxious and a lot more international.

Nightlife in Phi Phi is entirely different from Patong and more reminiscent of Phangan. No sign of the seediness of Patong. The beach bars and restaurants lay bean bag chairs all over the beach at night for people to hang out in between bouts of dancing to the mostly European-style dance music that is blasted on the beach. The buckets that we enjoyed so much at the Full Moon Party are also widely available in Phi Phi. There are a ton of bars in town that range from relaxed to wild. One called Reggae Bar has a Muay Thai boxing ring in it where real fighters show off their skills and any eager bar patrons can also volunteer to fight. It was pretty cool to watch. A lot of the amateurs were pretty awful, but the Thais were impressive with the way they can knock their opponent down with a powerful kick to the face. I had a great time partying in Phi Phi and met a ton of great people from all over the world.

The area around both Phi Phi islands is one of the most beautiful I've ever seen. If you have seen the movie "The Beach," starring the one and only Leonardo DiCaprio, this is where that was filmed. There is some of the best snorkeling and diving around the Phi Phi islands. It's incredibly picturesque and the weather is perfect.

If it weren't for our pre-booked trek starting in the north, I would definitely change my travel plans and stay in Phi Phi for a few more days!

Photo 1: Tonsai village
Photo 2: Tonsai beach
Photo 3: Slinky's Beach Bar

Sent from my iPhone

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Patong, Phuket

Before even planning this trip to Thailand, I had heard of Phuket and pictured it as a kind of beach paradise. An island off the southwest coast of Thailand in the Andaman Sea (part of the Indian Ocean), Phuket is certainly an idyllic setting, but definitely not what I pictured.

Patong is one of the main towns on Phuket. It is incredibly commercial an touristy, filled mostly with Aussies an Russians, plus a handful of Europeans. The beach is packed and filled with chairs and umbrellas for rent as FAS as the eye can see. But you can try to close your eyes and picture what it looked like probably 20 years ago without the throngs of people and construction, just leaving the crystal clear water, long tails and palm trees.

Perhaps what Patong is most known for is its nightlife, particularly on the infamous Bangla Road. Bangla road is a short stretch of road perpendicular to the beach in the center of town that is filled entirely with bars and clubs and is shut down to all motor traffic at nighttime. Prostitution runs rampant and it is quite easy to spot who has taken up the services of a Thai hooker. Most of the bars and clubs have some kind of dancers or strippers, many of whom are "ladyboys", the Thai phenomenon of cross-dressing or transsexual teen and 20-something boys. In a good number of cases, it can be pretty difficult to tell the ladies from the ladyboys.

We stuck mostly to the bars, but we're approached about every 10 feet walking down the street to see if we wanted to go to a "ping pong show" (you can google it if you don't know what that means; I'd rather not discuss it) or a number of other different types of "shows" that we immediately declined. The number of strippers and hookers in Patong puts Vegas to shame easily.

It's kind of sad to walk around there at night and see that there is such a market for this type of thing. We kept wondering what it's like for these Thai people and if that really is the only, or the best, way that they can manage to make a living.

All in all, despite some nightlife oddities, we had a great time in Patong, but are definitely looking forward to moving on to our next destination!

Photo 1: Patong Beach
Photo 2: Bangla Road
Photo 3: Inside a bar on Bangla Rd.

Monday, January 9, 2012

First Impressions of Bangkok

Before leaving for Thailand, I wasn't really sure what to expect of Bangkok. I pictured a lot of hustle and bustle and lots of people on the streets and stalls selling noodles, but I purposely didn't really look up any pictures of the city so that I would be surprised. And no, I haven't seen The Hangover 2 (I've been asked many times) so I didn't have that as a reference either.

I was spot-on with the hustle and bustle. The hum of the hot pink and yellow taxis, motorbikes and tuk-tuks whizzing by is constant (a tuk-tuk is a type of taxi that is like a motorbike with a wagon in back for passengers).

There are many food vendors in the streets. Walking down a block, the smell is changing constantly, from curries to fresh fruit to grilled meats. At each stall you can get a meal for around 35 baht (about $1) or less. There are also other vendors selling souvenirs and things. Unlike some other cities I've been to, none of these vendors heckle you as you walk by or pressure you to buy their products. They just sit and wait for their next customer, or chat with the other vendors nearby.

The city is a really interesting mixture of traditional and modern styles. There are hundreds of Buddhist temples around the city, some incredibly old, but there are also many modern high-rise buildings. One interesting thing that we learned was that it is a Thai custom to build a "spirit house" on the property of any new construction. These houses are usually modeled on traditional Thai architecture and stand about 3 feet tall and posted up on a pole somewhere out of the shadow of the new building. Thais believe that these structures house the souls that were disturbed from the ground by the new construction. Every single day, incense, flowers, and sometimes food, are placed at the spirit house to appease the souls. Once we learned about sprit houses, we started noticing them everywhere - outside houses, hotels, malls and all kinds of buildings.

One of Thailand's nicknames is the "Land of Smiles" and I've definitely been able to see why. All of the people here are so nice and helpful. They seem genuinely happy to have tourists here and to want to help them experience their country in the best way possible. We haven't met a single person who was unwilling to help or chat with you about the area.

I'm really looking forward to going back to Bangkok on Saturday to see more of the city!

Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan

Our expectations were high, and so were our BACs.

Around 5 pm Rachel and I strolled into the village of Thong Nai Pan Noi to procure a ride to Haad Rin on the other side of the island of Koh Phangan where the Full Moon Party is held. We successfully bartered a deal, and after a delicious dinner of spicy noodles and curry and a couple of beers, we were on our way to the very hyped FMP.

We piled into the back of our new Thai friend's pickup truck, along with a fun British couple and a handful of chatty Russians that we couldn't understand. Koh Phangan is a very mountainous island with mostly dirt roads, so the drive there was a bit frightening. Our driver was quite speedy and the roads were "bloody mental," to quote one of our British companions. The death grip I had on the side of the truck dulled my buzz a bit, but that all changed once we finally got to Haad Rin Nok.

As soon as we got out of the truck, we were bombarded by vendors selling all kinds of food, t shirts, and the famous liquor buckets (literally beach buckets full of liquor) and body paint that the party is known for. These stalls lined the streets and the beach. The beachfront area is full of bars and nightclubs that were pumping their music onto the beach for the thousands of partygoers (they estimate 8,000-30,000 people at each FMP depending on the tourist season).

Once we got through the crowd and onto the sand, we grabbed a bucket of rum and coke and started wandering down the beach. There were performers every hundred yards or so juggling flaming batons or swinging flaming jump ropes for everyone to test their luck with. I've never seen anything like it before. Reckless does not begin the describe the activities that we partook in... Oops I mean that we witnessed (sorry Mom). While watching one such fire performance, we met a couple of Aussie bros who would turn out to be our companions for the rest of the night.

One bucket down, we decided to go down a waterslide through flaming hoops (lots of fire at this party, if you haven't picked up on that). Next we spotted a platform in the middle of the beach that was about 7 feet off the ground and just knew that we needed to dance on it. After getting a refill on our buckets, the four of us climbed up on the platform and danced the night away for at least an hour an a half (my sense of time wasn't all that clear at this point).

The rest of the night was filled with much of the same - fire, buckets, dancing and Aussies. I had been skeptical of whether the FMP would live up to the hype, and I must say it exceeded my expectations. If you can make it happen, I highly recommend you head to Koh Phangan at the next full moon.

If you do make it here, a word of advice - don't book a 2 hour ferry and 6 hour bus ride for the next day. It doesn't mix with the bucket-induced hangover very well.

Sent from my iPhone

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Welcome to Thailand!

After about 24 hours of travel time and almost missing a connecting flight, I have finally arrived in Bangkok! So far I have been really impressed by the kindness and helpfulness of the Thai people. I'm looking forward to being able to explore more of the city and the country. Over the next 3 weeks I'll be posting info and photos from my travels across Thailand that will take me to such places as: Bangkok, Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Phuket, Koh Phi Phi, Chiang Mai and the Northern Highlands.

Check back for more posts coming soon!