Laos: Another Boat Ride

After spending a night in Luang Prabang we decided to head off again and postpone our time in Luang Prabang for a few days. We decided on Mong Ngoi, following a recommendation from a friend who was there last year. Mong Ngoi is only accessible by boat so after a several-hour van ride to a small town called Nong Khiaw we managed to get on one of the last boats going to Mong Ngoi, which happened to be full of children heading back to their river-side villages after school. It was great to experience some local culture and beautiful scenery–and we got to make use of the cushions we had bought for the Mekong River ride, as these seats really were just thin wooden slabs!

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Laos: Slow Boat to Luang Prabang

One of the most popular activities in Laos is to take the two-day boat ride along the Mekong River from Huay Xi by the border with Thailand to the World Heritage city of Luang Prabang. While in Chiang Mai, Thailand, after much deliberation we decided to go with a tour company rather than cobble together the itinerary on public transportation ourselves. The company took us from Chiang Mai to Chiang Kong, via Chiang Rai and the White Temple. We were then put up at an extremely average hotel in Chiang Kong for the night, and the next morning made the border crossing into Huay Xi, Laos, without much assistance. The price included the ticket for the two-day slow boat ride to Luang Prabang from Huay Xi and for this part we were glad to have the guidance as things were rather confusing. There are dozens of companies offering this package in Chiang Mai and we investigated quite a few–as far as we could tell they all seem basically the same for the same price, which is only a little bit more than if we had done it ourselves via public transportation.

Mother and child in Huay Xi.

Liquor bottles with snakes and other creatures were for sale in Huay Xi–a little apertif for the boat ride!

Once in Huay Xi, we and our new Norwegian friends were determined to get to the boats early–we had all read many accounts of how uncomfortable the slow boats could be and that if you didn’t get there early you’d get stuck sitting on the floor in the back next to the very loud engine. We had even bought cushions in Chiang Kong in anticipation of the wooden seats we had heard were so uncomfortable. But all our rushing across the border (which is done by boat across the Mekong) and beating the lines were for naught; we then simply had to wait on the other side for the rest of our group.

When we finally got to the docks, we saw that there were multiple boats with not only plenty of room but real, cushioned seats! Upon closer inspection, these seats turned out to be car seats that had simply been lined up inside the boat–they weren’t nailed down to the floor in any way. We quickly grabbed seats and moved them as far back as possible to give ourselves maximum leg room, and also realized the cushions we’d bought in Thailand were completely unnecessary. Nice racket they got going, though.

The ride itself was smooth and pleasant and there was some very beautiful scenery along the way. Beer and a a few simple snacks are for sale on the boat, but all in all there’s not much to do besides read, chat, and play cards–our Norwegian friends introduced us to the game 500, which quickly became a staple of our trip. At the end of the first day the boat moors in the small town of Pak Beng. There’s really not much to see or do there except have dinner and find a cheap and not too disgusting place to spend the night!

The boats leave very early the next day to complete the journey to Luang Prabang, the beautiful ex-capital city. These boats are a great way to relax and take in the Laotian scenery along the Mekong. It was perfect for us because my foot was still healing so it gave us an excuse to stay still for a few days–something that’s not so easy for us!

There are definitely fancier (and more expensive) cruises you can take, and there is also a fast boat that will get you to Luang Prabang in a few hours, but we read multiple accounts of the danger of the fast boats. These simple slow boats are affordable and a comfortable enough way to travel down the Mekong, a classic activity when in Laos.

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Thailand: Wat Rong Khun aka The White Temple

We finally left Chiang Mai after five days and began our journey to Laos. After much deliberation of whether to go with a packaged tour or make the journey via public transportation, we decided to try one of the dozens of tour companies offering transportation to the Thai border town of Chiang Kong, an overnight stay at a hotel there, and then crossing the border to Huay Xai, Laos the next morning to get on an early morning boat. Our goal was to cross the border and take the popular two day “slow boat” ride down the Mekong River from Huay Xai to the UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang and using a tour company seemed like the easiest way and was only a little bit more money that using public transport.

When we purchased the package we were informed it included a stop at Wat Rong Khun, also known as the White Temple, in Chiang Rai along the way. At first were annoyed at having to stop, plus we were feeling a little templed-out, but my friend Mike assured us it would be worth it.

The temple is an ongoing project by the artist Chalermchai Kositpipa and it is quite fascinating. The grounds have all sorts of ghoulish sculptures and you have to cross a bridge to get to the Abode of Buddha, representing the cycle of rebirth with the depths of hell below. There are all kinds of creepy creatures who haven’t managed to obtain entrance to the Abode of Buddha yet, as well as hands reaching out to escape from Hell. But once you cross the bridge, you reach the gate of heaven, guarded by Death, and the temple in all it’s white and silver glory. I’ll allow the pictures to speak for themselves:

The world’s most resplendent public toilets? I think so.

Pictures weren’t allowed inside the main temple, but things got even weirder, with murals of the 9/11 attacks, scenes from Avatar, and even Michael Jackson. Construction is ongoing at the complex and only time will tell what new, other-worldly creations will be added.

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Thailand: Chiang Mai Cooking Class

The food we had in Thailand was so fantastic we thought it would be fun to take a cooking class to learn some of the recipes. I love to cook and especially enjoy trying new things, but I had never tried to cook any Thai food before so it seemed like a good idea. Plus, the class we chose–Thai Farm Cooking–was a whole day affair with a visit to the market first and then the day spent on their farm.

With an early start we were off to the market. There, we learned about different types of rice, condiments typical of a Thai kitchen (think fish sauce and chili paste), and we got to see the curry pastes we would soon be making by hand. Then we got a chance to stroll around the market ourselves; we were most fascinated with the chicken and meat on display, including a pig head!

Next we drove about an hour outside the city to the farm, which was quite idyllic. We went for a quick tour around the grounds and saw all the fruits and vegetables grown on the premises, including jackfruit, rose apples, strawberries, kaffir limes, tons of herbs and lemongrass, squashes, and much more.

We got to snack on the rose apples while we cooked.

Now it was down to business! First we learned how too cook jasmine rice and steam sticky rice. I loved the beautiful straw steamers they use!

Our stations were all set up for us to make our choice of red or green curry. That was one of the best parts about this class–you got to choose between a large variety of recipes and there was always a vegetarian option. So Manor and I each tried to make something different so we would have more things to learn–and eat! It was also really fun and interesting to learn about ingredients I hadn’t known about or how to use before, like fresh turmeric, which looks like orange ginger, pandan, which adds a sweet, vanilla-like flavor to desserts, and galangal, in the ginger family. Hopefully I can find these ingredients back in New York!

Next we had the choice of making either Tom Yum soup or coconut soup, so we each made one. They were both delicious!

Tom Yum ingredients.

Tom Yum soup.

Coconut soup.

Next we used our curry to create a chicken or tofu dish. And then we made another stir-fry dish with either cashews or basil.

Hard at work!

After all that cooking and eating everyone was exhausted! So we got to have a little break, which most people used to nap in the shade. Then we came back to make appetizers: spring rolls and pad thai!

And of course, we had to have dessert: mango with sticky rice and pumpkin cooked in coconut milk. Yum!!

Since not everyone can get to Thailand to take a cooking class, here’s one of our favorite recipes! As you can see, the recipe is fairly easy and fast, which is why I like Thai cooking so much!

Chicken or Tofu with Cashew Nuts

80 grams of sliced chicken or tofu
1/4 cup of roasted cashew nuts
1/4 cup of sliced carrots
1/4 cup of sliced onions
2 sliced roasted and dried chillis, without seeds
1/4 cup of chopped spring onions
1/4 cup of mushrooms
2 tbsp. of soybean oil
a pinch of salt
1 tsp. of fish sauce or soy sauce
1/2 tsp. of sugar
1 tbsp. of oyster sauce (there is a vegetarian version of this made from mushrooms)
2 tbsp. of water

Heat the oil in the wok. Fry the chicken or tofu until golden brown. Add carrots, onions, mushrooms and water. Stir fry until almost cooked. Add oyster sauce, fish or soy sauce, sugar,  salt, and spring onions. Stir fry again until mixed well. When done, turn off the heat and add cashew nuts and roasted chilli. Serve with rice.

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Thailand: Exploring Chiang Mai

We rented a motorscooter while in Chiang Mai; it’s the easiest and most fun way to get around–until you get into an accident. But we still recommend it!

Our time in Thailand was largely spent in Chiang Mai, a popular city in the north of the country, not far from the borders with Burma and Laos. My old friend Mike has been living there for eight years and we decided it was time to take it easy and spend a long time in one place and just relax. Aside from all the amazing food we had in Chiang Mai, we also took advantage of some the sights. We actually did intend to see more, but a minor motorscooter injury sidelined us a bit. (Don’t worry, we are fine! I just bruised a ligament on my foot that made walking a lot a bit difficult. And, as Mike pointed out, we got to experience a Thai hospital!)

Mike was an excellent host.

The first thing we did was take advantage of the cheap, yet excellent massages on offer on just about every street. For about $3 you can get an excellent 60 minute Thai massage. Heaven! We also spent some time perusing the old walled city of Chaing Mai which is chock full of temples, or wats, both old and new.

A popular tourist destination is Doi Suthep, a temple on top of a mountain that affords a lovely view. Because of my injury we couldn’t walk up the hill so Mike suggested Doi Kham instead, which is very similar but you can drive up the hill instead of walk. The large Buddha at the top of the hill was imposing but peaceful and there was a nice view, too.

While we were in Chiang Mai a large international flower show was taking place so we checked it out one day. It was actually pretty cheesy, but we did get to see some lovely orchids.

The King must be honored everywhere!

They love bunnies in Thailand!

And of course, we had to see some elephants! We went to the Mae Sa Elephant Camp where we saw a cheesy show involving elephants playing soccer and painting–actually the painting was kind of cool. Then we rode an elephant, which didn’t quite live up to hype because you are actually sitting in a wooden box on top of the elephant. But after our ride we wandered around the grounds and we got to see some elephants getting a bath and I even got to get a kiss from one–FYI, elephant saliva smells disgusting!!!!

Our elephant got very friendly with the woman in front of us!

On the way home we stopped at a strawberry field  in the hopes of picking some, but the field was pretty much picked clean!

One of the best parts of Chiang Mai is its markets. We talked about the awesome food we had there in our last post, but the shopping is great, too. The University Night Market near Nimmanhaemin is a great place to find unique fashion.

You can get any design painted on to shoes.

I’ll leave you with this adorable picture of an incredibly tiny dog we saw outside the market. Mike and Manor had to drag me away…

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Thailand: Fantastic Eats in Chiang Mai

After our short stay in Bangkok we headed up north to Chiang Mai, a popular travel destination, and more importantly, home to my friend Mike for the last seven years!

Mike lives in the cool university district and wasted no time showing us around. While there is a lot to see in and around Chiang Mai, we were exhausted from the last month of nonstop travel and opted to relax. Our decision was made even easier when we had a minor motorscooter accident and I injured my foot. More on that later!

We decided to take full advantage of the fact that Mike had been living in Chiang Mai for so long and knew where all the best restaurants were, what to order, and of course where to get the best street food. Let’s just say we ate extremely well for those five days!

Our first night, we went to Khun Churn on Soi 17, Th Nimmanhaemin. This restaurant is all vegetarian, which makes it a great option for those not into strange meats. Plus, it’s delicious! We went for dinner, but they apparently have an amazing all-you-can-eat lunch buffet. We started with some beautiful fresh spring rolls, which just scream Thailand to me:

We also had a delicious mushroom and fried tofu dish, filled with several different kinds of mushrooms, including shiitake and hen of the woods.

On Mike’s recommendation we ordered the Lad Na, a kind of thickened vegetable soup. The broth is so thick it’s more like a jelly than a soup–but I promise it’s good!

For dessert we went to the nearby I-Berry (Th Nimmanhaemin lane off Soi 17) for yummy ice-cream. I tasted the durian flavor but it really was gross! If you haven’t heard of it, durian is a popular but controversial fruit in SE Asia. It smells terrible, but many people swear it tastes delicious if you close your nose. We opted for safer flavors like blueberry mango and caramel.

Somehow, later that night we were hungry again so we stopped off at a mini outdoor area with some food carts for some pad see ew, my go-to favorite whenever I have Thai food at home. Not surprisingly, this was way better. It had a lot more of a complex flavor instead of just the sweetness the dish has in America. And the Chinese broccoli was super fresh.

The next day Manor and I went to lunch at the restaurant right across the street from Khun Churn. I couldn’t resist ordering the black pepper mushroom and tofu dish and Manor decided to see what Pad Thai tastes like in Thailand. The answer is: delicious.

And of course I had to order a Thai iced tea, which was rich and tasty.

One of the best thing about Chiang Mai is the night markets. There are several in various locations and at various times, but one of the best is the Sunday night market starting at Tha Phae Gate. We found some of the items for sale to be kind of cheesy, but the food on offer is fantastic. The best stuff is found inside the temples. We snacked on fried quail eggs, a pad Thai omelet (pad Thai noodles cooked inside an egg–yum!), green curry, and some mango with sticky rice and taro flavored ice cream (that was rectangular!) for dessert. We also got to try some exotic juices, our favorite was bael juice. One of the best parts of the market is that most dishes are served in banana leaves–a great way to save paper!

We had some really great fruit while we were in Chiang Mai, but our favorite new discovery were rose apples. They’re kind of bell pepper-shaped, and they have a similar consistency to apples, but are much juicier. Strawberries were also in season, and they were super juicy and sweet. Even the dried ones we bought from a market were fantastic–not actually “dry” tasting at all, they were gooey and super sweet.

Fresh strawberry juice.

Aside from the markets, there are food trucks and carts everywhere. The most ubiquitous cart is for rotis. Unlike Indian rotis, these rotis are dessert: fried dough that can then be topped with various selections. Our favorite was bananas with chocolate and sweetened condensed milk. AMAZING. Mike also told us about a special bun cart that hangs out near Wat Suandok on Suthep Road. We had the black bean and custard. The custard was so good we went back for seconds! We also tried fried bananas one night. They don’t look so exciting but they make a great late night snack–the ultimate greasy post-drinking food. We’ve learned that bananas outside of America are much more flavorful. They are often smaller and juicier (yes, bananas can be juicy!). I guess Dole and Chiquita bananas are all about the looks and not the taste, unfortunately.

Shahrukh Khan followed us from India! Many of the roti carts are run by Muslims and I guess they love Shahrukh Khan too!

One morning when we were out on our bike we rode past a local market, so of course we stopped in. All we ate where some rose apples, but we loved checking out was for sale.

Our favorite meal was at the vegetarian restaurant Pun Pun, which is in the back of a temple called Wat Suandok on Suthep Road. The temple itself is quite beautiful, and the restaurant is in a lovely corner behind it. Mike insisted we order the edible flower salad and we were not sorry. Aside from being beautiful, it was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten, chock full of fried leaves and flowers alongside fresh vegetables.

We also had excellent fried spring rolls and a fantastic red curry.  I washed it down with a black sesame shake that was out of this world.

Other tasty tidbits: okonomiyaki (a Japanese savory pancake) from a sushi restaurant and tofu nuway, a traditional Burmese tofu soup.

Honestly, I could go on and on about the food! We ate so well; thanks to Mike we didn’t have to do any guesswork about what to order and where to go. I’m salivating just thinking about all this….

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Thailand: Grand Palace in Bangkok

Because we only had one real day in Bangkok we decided to spend it at the Grand Palace, which we’d been told not to miss. Luckily, our friend Mike warned us not to listen to anyone who tried to tell us the palace was closed. As if on cue, as soon as we got out of our rickshaw near the palace a man claiming to be an official tour guide (he showed us his ID tags and everything) tried to convince us the palace was closed until after 1 pm and we should go with him to see the Reclining Buddha in the meantime. Just as we were starting to believe him I remembered what Mike said and we quickly realized people were still streaming into the entrance. As we started to pay attention we heard an announcement on loudspeakers stating the hours of the palace on repeat. I guess people claiming the palace is closed is a serious problem there!

A few minutes later we noticed the same man talking to an older couple so I quickly went over to tell them not to listen to him and that the palace was open! It felt good to do my good deed for the day. You also have to be dressed conservatively (long pants and sleeves), but you can rent clothes inside the palace. Although wearing so much clothing in the sticky heat of Bangkok is no fun!

The Palace is indeed beautiful and we enjoyed wandering around the massive grounds and seeing so much gold! It was also very special to see the emerald Buddha (which you are not allowed to photograph!) inside the Wat Phra Kaew temple. It’s actually made from jade and is a beautiful deep green color.

Can you glimpse the Emerald Buddha inside? It’s cloaked in gold.

Five-headed Naga.

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