Thursday, January 29, 2009

Scenes from Chiang Mai

I am having all kinds of weird emotions and thoughts right now. On the one hand, I think it is absolutely awesome that I'm living here, in Chaing Mai. It just sounds so exotic!

On the other hand, sometimes I just want some normal good old greasy American food, and my nice little car, and to go for a run that doesn't involve some combination of twisting my ankle on incredibly uneven sidewalks, almost being runover by 20998 motor-bikes, inhaling unhealthy quantities of carbon monoxide and god knows what else from said motor-bikes, and feeling like I'm going to pass out because it is so hot.

But, in all, I think this is worth it and I love my newly adopted city. Let me show you around.

When I want to go somewhere and not turn into a sweaty mess, I take one of these handy red trucks. I still haven't figured out exactly what they are called...something like songthaew? Anyway, there are always hundreds of them all over the place, going in every direction, and a ride is about 75 cents unless you are going really far, then it's a dollar.
Yep, the back is always open, and theoretically you could fall out at any second. They don't have quite the same liability issues here. And the ceilings are padded. It's a nice touch because the shocks on these...not so good.

One thing that never ceases to crack me up is the obsession with putting clothes on animals. Every day on my way to work I see dogs in pretty pink tutus or furry leopard print coats. Doesn't this cat look absolutely thrilled to be wearing this soccer shirt? Yeah, he'd probably be much happier with a Chelsea shirt.
I still love seeing wats everywhere I go. Wats and never forget how important Buddhism is here, and I like that.
The markets have their share of interesting foods. Like these sausages. I think somebody needs to tell the vendors that they will fly off the shelves a little more quickly if they weren't shaped like something so unbelievably unappetizing.
I'm sorry this picture is so bad, but I just could not resist. It's a plastic bag, obviously, full of LIVE FISH. I can't speak enough Thai to figure out what the purpose of these is, so if you have an idea, let me know. I don't think they are for eating (I hope...) and I'm not sure they are to keep as pets. It's a conundrum I must get to the bottom of.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Som Tham and a drink in a bag

Restaurants here aren't like ours. Usually there is a glass case featuring prominent ingredients (which may be vegetables, fried chicken, roasted duck, or cartons of eggs), and a couple huge cooking pans (that look like woks) on burners off to the side. If you're lucky, there will be a sign in English (of course, then you're probably in a touristy area and the prices will be twice what they should be). Otherwise, you just have to point to what you want.

Anytime I see a glass case shredded green papaya and tomatoes, I know I'm in the right place for one of my favorite Thai dishes of all time... Som Tham (or Papaya Salad).

The peanuts sprinkled on top were beautifully toasted and made this salad PERFECT. A delicious mix of salty, tangy and spicy, with the tomatoes to provide cool, juicy contrast to the crunchy green papaya.

The man I ordered it from on this particular occasion spoke some English.
"Spicy ok?" he asked skeptically.
"Yes! I love spicy food!" I enthusiastically replied.

He just kind of looked at me with glimmer of doubt in his eyes. I'm sure countless white people before me have declared the same thing, only to take one bite and protest, tears streaming, that it's too hot.
But since I've been "practicing" eating spicy food for months in preparation for this trip, I thought the level of spiciness was perfect. Of course, he probably toned it way down for me...but I still felt hardcore.

I loved the plate of vegetables that was served on the side of the salad. I'm not sure what I was supposed to do, but I basically just tore them all into bite-sized pieces with my hands and stirred them into the salad. It was delicious.

A few days ago I posted about ordering an iced coffee and being served the cup in a bag. Well this time, at one of the markets in Chiang Mai, I ordered an iced coffee and the person behind the counter scooped ice into a bag, poured coffee and milk over it, and handed it to me with a straw!

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Train and Chiang Mai

The train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai takes about 14 hours - from 7:35 pm to about 9:30 AM. We went in second class, which means we paid $25 each to sleep in a car lined with bunk beds on each side. The chairs in the picture turn into a lower bed, and another bed pulls down from the ceiling.

The "train attendant" (I don't know what the word for it is - the train equivalent of a flight attendant) was a lady-boy who wanted to be called Natalie and he was an absolute crack up. Sooo over the top femenine and animated! If you've never been to Thailand before, the lady-boy culture can be a little shocking, but you just get used to seeing guys dressed up and acting like women, and it is widely accepted. The best is watching a group of college-aged European tourists checking out a group of who they think are hot girls...only to realize a few minutes later that they are actually lady-boys. The reaction is priceless!

We bought some snacks for the train, including these delightful Nori Seaweed flavored Lays. They have a great variety of flavors here, including Shrimp and Mayonaise, and I plan on trying them all!
We found a market over by our new apartment that had piles of these. Yes, they are what you think they are, and of course we had to try them! Once you get past the fact that you are eating deep-fried grubs, they're really good! Light and crisp, with a delicate barbecue flavor. I have to say I recommend them, even if it's only for the shock value when you tell your friends you ate them.

Chiang Mai is a beautiful city absolutely full of wats (Bhuddist temples). They are everywhere you look - including right next to our hotel. I opened the curtains to see this impressive roof line. Bhuddism is everywhere here - shrines in front of every house and business, wats around almost every corner, and monks in bright orange robes walking all over the city.

I love this city, which is great, because I just got a job for 6 months! I will be working part time for a language school, teaching small group lessons in English conversation and helping prepare high school students for the TOEFL exam (required to get into American universities). I'm very excited!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

More Chinatown

In order to get to Pahurat from our hostel, we had to take the subway, then walk about a mile through Chinatown. It was a great chance to take some more pictures!

There were dozens of people painting gold symbols on red paper for Chinese New Year...
then hanging them up to dry.
Stall after stall had decorations...
And of course, the usual food vendors were lining the streets.  More plastic bags!
Dozens of men had numerous different talismans on display.  Shoppers would stop and get into very serious conversations about which they should buy.
There was durian - which smells absolutely horrendous but actually tastes pretty good.
The big prickly green fruits are pretty intimidating.  The vendor cuts them open with a machete, and pulls out the big fruit-covered sees.  Those are the yellow things on the styrofoam trays in the front.
Box after box of dried mushrooms...

Even a whole table full of dried squid!
I passed on the squid.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Pahurat - Bangkok's Little India

There is a Hindu temple right down the street from our hostel, and it is surrounded by a few Indian restaurants.  Last night, we had such a good meal that we decided to try and figure out where there were more Indian restaurants in the city.
A google search led me to Pahurat, which is a collection of Indian businesses and a market centered around a Sikh temple.  We made our way there today and were not disappointed!  

We had some naan, okra and potatoes, channa dal, and a salty lassi at a vegetarian restaurant.  Almost every restaurant we came across in the area was vegetarian.
Then we stopped by Punjab Sweets, which had an amazing glass case filled with all sorts of delicious little treats.

This little turnover was filled with nuts and tasted a lot like baklava.
A view of the inside:
This was a tender cake soaked in rose water, and filled with frosting
I bought a bag of candy-coated fennel seeds.  I love these!  They are like tiny little Good N Plenties!
They were from New Delhi!
We were commenting on how we always seek out Indian restaurants - we've eaten Indian food in a bunch of places in the states, plus Rome, Dublin, Bangkok, Chiang Mai... we just have to try it everywhere!


After my sample lesson this morning, we didn't have any plans for the rest of the day, so we headed to Chinatown for some food.
Chinatown in Bangkok is intense.  Huge, crowded with people and packed with stores selling everything imaginable.  The vendors are arranged by what they are selling, so one narrow alley will have 50 stalls selling wholesale shoes, the next will have all electronics, and another will have stall after stall filled to the top with bolts of every texture and color of fabric imaginable.  
My favorite section is clearly the one with all the food!  

This man was hacking away at giant fish with an ancient cleaver:
This stand was making fried pastries with meat and cabbage inside: 
The filling was wrapped up in two circles of dough which were pinched together, then fried
The end result was like a savory doughnut filled with vegetables.  Super greasy, but it was pretty good!

There were tons of stacks of Chinese longevity buns, which are shaped and colored to resemble peaches - the fruit associated with longevity.  These are common for celebrating birthdays of the elderly.
There are cats and dogs all over the city, and even though I'm not a cat person, these cats were  too cute not to take a picture of:

We got our lunch from this cart, which makes duck noodle soup.  You can tell the carts that make this by the cooked whole duck hanging in the glass case.

Some vegetables and noodles are put in a little basket then submerged in a big pot of boiling broth.  After about a minute, they are poured into a bowl with a few ladles of broth.  This is topped with some duck meat, and possibly a cube of liver. 
This big bowl of soup is 40 baht...or about $1.15
Continuing with the trend of all things being put in plastic bags: I got an iced coffee today, and the lady put a straw in the cup, then put the cup in a plastic bag.
Also, later, I bought some watermelon, which was put into a little cellophane sack. Then that was put into a slightly bigger plastic bag with handles. I just don't understand the plastic bag thing, but I am going to be more aggressive about taking what I buy without the bag, because I already feel horrible about my plastic consumption.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Change of plans...

The other day we spent some time wandering around the fanciest mall in the city and came across this awesome Treasure-Island themed display, made entirely out of balloons. Kids were super excited about this!
Outside the mall there were a bunch of displays about recycling, including a giant pyramid made out of Coke cans, and this tree made out of CDs:
This city is so much fun. I can understand why some tourists hate it because the air pollution is horrendous and it's just so crowded, but I thrive on chaos so I feel right at home!
One thing I love about the city is that you are never more than a few steps away from a food cart. They are everywhere, and they offer a huge variety of foods - served to you in a plastic bag.
Grilled chicken? Off the grill, into the bag. And the chili sauce comes in it's own little bag too!

Fresh pineapple? Cut into chunks, put into a bag, with a skewer to eat the pieces.

Soup to go? Into a plastic bag! I need to get a picture of this one - but it's quite a common occurrence.

This is my favorite soup ever. I could eat it every day, and that is actually my plan. I haven't had it out of a bag yet, but there's time! It's rice noodles in a rich, meaty broth, with thin pieces of pork and pork balls. I'm not sure what the green vegetable is, but I'm guessing it's something like choy sum.
When they hand the bowl to you, you top it with a handful of Thai basil, a spoon full of sugar, a spoon full of some sort of soaking liquid full of fresh red chilis, red pepper flakes, and a little fish sauce. It's HEAVEN!

And now for our change of plans: We have decided to take a stab at living in Chiang Mai! It's our favorite city in Thailand (that we've seen so far), and Mike talked to the guy in charge of the TEFL course at Chiang Mai University. With my American credential and the fact that I'm female (apparently there's a shortage of female teachers here), he said it should be pretty easy for me to find a job while Mike takes the course. We are really excited about this! We're taking the train up early next week to scope out a place to live.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Day One

We wasted no time at all settling into our room... As you can see it is pretty small, but it has bright red bunk beds, a desk, and a nice big window.  The bathroom is down the hall.  I LOVE this hostel, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for safe, cheap accomodation in Bangkok.  It's my first hostel experience, and it has been amazing so far.  It's really close to the train, and it's on a fun shopping street with tons of restaurants.  I'm not even being paid for this: Lub-D. Take a look!

The great thing about the fact that we've been here before is that we don't feel obligated to see the sights, because we've already seen them.  We went straight to the mall for our first meal, because the food court there is amazing (and clean!) Don't worry - we'll be eating like locals really soon.
I got a stack of multi-colored rice:
A trio of dishes - Green curry chicken, Tom Yum Gai (Hot and sour coconut chicken soup), and a beef stir fry that had baby corn in it.  But FRESH baby corn. I didn't even know it existed.  I had only ever had the canned variety.  But now I'm completely hooked on fresh baby corn and I need some more! It's crunchy and sweet, and if I ever have to eat the canned stuff again I'll probably cry.
One of my favorite things ever: Fresh Salad rolls!

A little irony for you from the bathroom at the mall.  The sign is indicating that you should do your part to reduce global warming by using less toilet paper.  Great in concept, but the minute you walk outside and see the hazy brown sky due to the million motorbikes and tuk tuks, you realize there might need to be a little more effort put into reducing global warming than just taking a few fewer squares of toilet paper.
But I guess it's the thought that counts...

Today I'm off to two interviews... keep your fingers crossed for me!