Smoky Streets: Vegetarian Festival in Thailand

IMG_4326The air is thick with smoke; it chokes the streets and shrinks visibility to just a few inches as I slowly pick my way through a crowd of white-clad teenagers in trances. The smell is heavily sulfuric and the hot, humid air creates a somewhat claustrophobic, sticky-sweater sensation. Suddenly out of nowhere a bang-pop and a flash of orange light, then another, then another until the sound is so deafening and the flashing so frequent that I have to turn and retrace my steps away from the smoggy mist.

IMG_4234Out of the cloud a delicate tap on my shoulder surprises me and I turn to find a small Thai woman offering two creamy-white cotton balls and pointing at her ears. At this same moment a delicate spray of blood stains a white shirt in front of me and a child carrying three plastic bags of half-burned fireworks pushes his way around my legs.

The blood is from a seemingly eye-ball-less man in a self-induced daze shaking his head vigorously and running the tip of his tongue over the sharp end of a shiny hatchet blade. Behind him others are doing the same. Further in the distance a woman with pink-scrunchied pigtails pushes a thick spear through her cheek and an elderly gentleman is swinging a large machete up and down over his head, narrowly missing the horde of bystanders as he dance-shimmies down the street.

As they pass the smoke begins to thicken again, and with it more pyrotechnics. People are throwing them from balconies and front stoops, in handfuls or sometimes just one at a time, onto the heads, and at the feet, of the procession in the street, now a group of young men stomping to the rhythm of a hand drum, swaying a large gold-painted spirit house between them.

IMG_4312These young guys began their day in perfect bleach-white but now look like unwashed street children in scorched brown and red stained costumes, raggedy at the pant hems, still sizzling from their last encounter with the popping mini-explosives through which they are dancing.

I am not sure exactly what any of it really means but it is fascinating to watch. And watching seems to be encouraged. As I make my way through the crowd old ladies and young men, even school children, push me into the street or drag me closer to the chaos encouraging the taking of photographs, the eating of blessed Jell-O and the general ogling of freaky self-mutilators.

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These hordes of Thai-Chinese-Buddhists are celebrating the Nine Emperor Gods Festival (known best to the western world as the Vegetarian Festival). This is an annual 9-day Taoist festival filled with all sorts of public festivities and fascinating rituals. Most famously these events can be viewed in Phuket Town, however there are smaller less tourist infiltrated events in many parts of Thailand (and elsewhere in Southeast Asia), like in the tiny old town of Takua Pa about 2 hours north of Phuket Town, where I find myself in the middle of the smoky, bloody incense-ridden insanity.

IMG_4305In the thick of it breathing is difficult, staring too long at bloody shredded tongues can cause goose bumps and the sweltering heat is oppressive and heavy, but the atmosphere is fanatic, the street food delicious and the photo opportunities endless. As there are almost no other western faces around me, the people are welcoming if not a little curious and possibly amused by my presence, although the cautious staring and mistakenly obvious whispers may also have something to do with the fact that I didn’t get the white-wardrobe memo and am the only person in head to toe black with blond hair! A mistake I will not make next time!IMG_4250

Food Around The World: Part I

PulledPork

Pulled Pork, El Salvador

NassiCampurNasi Campur, Indonesia

RotisseriChickenCaribbean Chicken, Honduras

goatandriceFried Goat, SenegalStewedBeef

Stewed Beef, Belize

VeggieRiceCurryVegetable Curries, Sri Lanka

PadThaiPakPad Thai, Thailand

ChickenKebabChicken Kebab, Turkey

IMG_2470Rotisseri Chicken, Mexico

FriedChickenFried Chicken, Belize

AssortedMeatAssorted Meats, Taiwan

BoiledChickenBoiled Chicken, Guatemala

VeggieDhalBahtDhal Bhat, Nepal

IMG_7382Chopped Roti, Sri Lanka

moleChicken Mole, Mexico

ChickenBBQBBQ Pork, Honduras

PotatoCurryDhalChicken Curry, Malaysia

VeggieDhalBaht3Veggie Dhal, Sri Lanka

P1010281Quesadillas, Mexico

You Can Do It Too

beach A lot of people assume that I support my travel habit with some hidden disposable income somewhere that I covertly draw from when no one is looking, or that I am a trust fund child on the loose. An ex-boyfriend of mine once accused me of having a secret bank account I refused to tell him about. Not so. The fact is that many people have an inflated idea of what traveling really is in a monetary sense. In 1997 my husband spent less than $900 over a period of 6-months traveling India, and while that level of budget madness is sadly no longer possible, you can still manage to spend very little while seeing a great deal. All it takes is a little patience, some ingenuity and a bit of imagination.

 Get Creative:

When buying your plane tickets look into alternative airports, and similarly, alternative transport. Often times your cheapest option is something you don’t ever think of. Do a little research about where you want to end up and how other people get there; you might find that flying into a country or city altogether different from your final destination and hopping a bus, boat or train can save you hundreds of dollars.

For instance, I travel too and from Thailand on a regular basis. When I am working in the south of Thailand it often makes more sense for me to fly into Kuala Lumpur (KL), Malaysia than Bangkok. A train from either city to my final destination is an equidistant and a similarly priced journey, allowing me greater variety when choosing flights. Likewise a flight on Air Asia from either city to Phuket, or Hat Yai (two cities that I frequently fly into) is roughly the same cost.

Another good example is Central America. A lot of people arrive through the obvious large ports of entry, Guatemala City, Belize, San Jose, etc. Whereas I have found that, it is often hundreds of dollars cheaper to fly into Cancun, Mexico and catch a bus south. This sort of knowledge comes with experience and luckily, if you don’t have your own, you can access other people’s by way of online blogs like this one or sites like the Lonely Planet Thorntree Forum, Tripadvisor and other travel related pages.

With a little pre-flight exploration you can save yourself hundreds on transport, which, along with accommodation, often makes up the bulk of any trip’s expenses.

Be persistent and be flexible:

Don’t buy the first plane ticket you search out, unless it’s a ridiculously awesome deal. Check budget booking sites like Kayak.com and Travelocity.com on a regular basis, air fair changes from day to day and is often at its cheapest mid-week, early afternoon and within 6 months of your departure date. Play with different combinations of dates, times and destinations, if you have a few days leeway in your travel plans you are a lot more likely to find a cheap deal. In similar fashion, if you have to book your hotel online ahead of time check out sites like bookings.com, asiarooms.com or agoda.com and check often, there are always new deals popping up. However as long as you are not arriving in the middle of the night, you will often find better deals on accommodation once you’re on the ground, especially in bargaining cultures like India, Indonesia and Thailand (though not at peek travel times like Christmas or Easter).

Pay attention to local festivities and peek seasons:

 Find out what’s going on where you’re headed. Local holidays, carnivals and festivals can mean a huge discrepancy in the price and availability of food, transport and accommodation. Likewise seasonal highs and lows will affect what you pay for things. During the annual camel fair in Pushkar, India you will run up against heavily-booked hotels at double or even triple the regular price, while traveling the west coast of Thailand in the low season means easy bargaining and cheaper digs.

Pack light:

Carry as little luggage as possible. I know girls that will travel with their entire bathroom and half their wardrobe, including 4 pairs of shoes and a blow dryer, for a 3-week vacation. Think before you pack. What do you really need and what will you actually use. Traveling light will save you money. Equipped with only a backpack you are capable of using public transport rather than springing for overpriced airport cabs, it also decreases the likelihood of theft and/or loss of luggage and allows you to take internal flights without paying the ever-increasing excess baggage fees. Plus it’s just easier!

Think outside the box:

If you are on a short trip you are likely not going to get too far outside the heavily touristed areas, in some places this is difficult even on longer journeys. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get inventive. Don’t go falling for those glossy package deals and the flashy poster-advertised mini-adventures you see on every street corner. Forced fun is a false experience anyway. Instead do a little digging. Find local guides and boat captains, book with companies directly rather than through an agent or your hotel and whenever possible go for the independent exploration angle. Often guides are a luxury, not a necessity, and armed with a map and a rental bike you can go it alone at a much lower cost and have a farm more unique experience.

Manage your inner party persona:

One of the easiest ways to watch your money dwindle is by drinking it. If alcohol is a must on your vacation consider the local 7-11; grab a six-pack and head to the beach. If that’s not enough for you, keep your eyes out for the worldwide Happy Hour phenomena. In most places, in Central America and Southeast Asia especially, you can often get a good deal if you go in for an early start.

The Lonely Planet is a guidebook not a bible:

The guidebooks published by the Lonely Planet and other travel franchises are a great resource when beginning your travel research. They are also useful for last minute, late arrival necessities, but don’t get too attached. There is only so much space in a guidebook so suggestions are just that, suggestions. Don’t be afraid to find your own restaurants, hotels and tour guides. Sticking strictly to Lonely Planet recommendations means that you are literally following in the footsteps of thousands of others, step by step by unimaginative step. It also means you are missing out on some great grub, cheap deals and fascinating experiences.

Misadventure of the Forensic Variety

Siriraj Medical MuseumI love Bangkok.

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While it’s not quite the obviously seedy underbelly of the world I had long hoped it would be, it certainly has its share of the strange and wonderful, odd and unexplainable. From lady-boy hookers to edible caterpillars, prison tourism to snake farms, Bangkok has an abundance of odd experiences and sights, some a little stranger than others.

Like mummified serial killers in baking trays.

Yep. One of my favorite places in Bangkok is the Siriraj Medical Museum, a Forensic delight. Crammed haphazardly into the middle of the Siriraj Hospital, the museum is a bizarre jumble of forensic mishaps. Difficult to find and hard for many to stomach the museum is a patchwork collection of all things medically, and not so medically curious.

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One room is occupied by shriveled but surprisingly well preserved Siamese twins sharing the scene with the bodies of long deceased babies boasting all sorts of pre and post-uterul disfigurations and diseases. Another displays elephantiasis in all its glory from deformed appendages to bloated testicles. There is a disturbing presentation involving Tsunami victims from the 2005 Boxing Day Tsunami and a hallway blotted, seemingly at random, with the photographs of fatalities from some of the most gruesome and atrocious motorway accidents that Thailand has seen.

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But it’s a little further into the museum where the real fun begins. Here is the final resting place (at least for now) of what is commonly accepted as Thailand’s first serial killer. This is not a photograph, not a clean sealed coffin, not even a wax interpretation. In a tall glass box that looks as if it might tip at any moment is the mummified remains of a murderer. Rather than stand he slouches into the glass panel of the box, like a broom leaning against a wall, his feet in what is basically a cookie tray, his post mortem juices congealing around his toes. Just for good measure you are also able to see photographs of his victims, some bloody evidence and a few of his successors.

4AC2426B1D764B2405C46A2D7FBFAAnd it doesn’t end there. Walls of bullet riddled skulls, pickled creatures and tropical diseases in all their glory are displayed chaotically, strewn about, poorly categorized and flimsily contained. The museum is unlike any other, morbidly enticing and absolutely stomach wrenching while surprisingly basic.

There are few places in the world which would allow such an odd experience to satisfy public curiosity and it is well worth a visit!

Recipe From Thailand: Kao Kah Moo

Screen shot 2013-06-09 at 18.28.52Kao Kah Moo is a traditional Thai pork dish. It is often served in street stalls and in shopping center cafeterias. Here is how to make it!

Ingredients:

1 pork shank about 2 lbs

3 cups peanut oil

6-8 cups water (enough to cover the meat)

5-6 fresh coriander plants (cilantro)

5-8 large garlic cloves

10 Sezchuan peppercorns

2 whole star anise

2 small cinnamon sticks

6 black peppercorns

1 teaspoon black soy sauce

3 tablespoons thin soy sauce

2 teaspoons course sea salt

2-4 tablespoons sugar (to your liking)

1 teaspoon Chinese five spice powder

5 hard-boiled eggs peeled (optional)

1.5 cups pickled mustard green

10 stems fresh bokchoy, steamed

2 cups steamed jasmine rice

Method:

Heat peanut oil in a wok or large pan over a medium heat. Add pork shank and turn up heat. Fry until golden brown on both sides. Remove shank from the oil.

Smash the garlic, peppercorns and cilantro into a fine paste and set aside.

Place the fried pig led into a pot and cover with water. Add garlic paste mixture, star anise, both soy sauces, cinnamon, salt, sugar, five-spice, and eggs.

Bring pot to a boil and then reduce the heat. Cook for another 2-3 hours or until the meat becomes tender.

While the pork is cooking, thinly slice the pickled mustard green and squeeze out the pickling juices. Then boil it 1 cup of water until water evaporates. Set aside.

Just before the meat if finished, cook off rice, steam bokchoy and put together chili sauce.

Chili Sauce Ingredients:                                                                                                                                                                                                    

2-3 Thai chili peppers

½ cup vinegar

1 teaspoon salt

Method:

Smash Thai chili peppers into paste and add to vinegar and salt in a small bowl.

Serve alongside the dish.

Serve:

Serve the cooked meat over steamed Rice, topped with pickled mustard green alongside steamed bokchoy, boiled eggs and chili sauce. Use the extra liquid from stewing the pork as gravy.

Thailand: Outside a Tourist World

Hat_YaiHat Yai, Thailand’s 4th largest city, is a dirty, sprawling metropolis in a province that has seen its fair share of terrorist bombings, religious uprisings and race-ridden ridiculousness. It is a scrappy town of seedy dive bars, aging expats and nervous Malaysian sex-tourists. It has more dentists than any town needs, a relatively unimpressive live animal market and a smattering of halfway decent street vendors. And its ugly.

There is absolutely nothing to attract tourism to Hat Yai and almost everything to deter it. But I love it.

khaokhamoo_v2lHat Yai is where I discovered Kao Ka Moo (a sickly sweet, fatty, slow-cooked pork dish usually served at street stalls or in shopping mall cafeterias). It’s where I came to terms with derelict squat toilets and found that bum guns are actually multi-purpose foot bathing, hand washing, dirty luggage cleaners. Its where I spend my nights between visa runs in a $10 concrete box in a repurposed utilitarian building which offers no amenities whatsoever, listening to the honking of midnight traffic. The only drink-able coffee is at the recently bombed-and-rebuilt McDonalds, but there is a surprisingly shiny sushi restaurant just out of town. And there isn’t much else. A few shopping malls, a pharmacy here and there and like everywhere in Thailand, a 7-11 on every street corner.

When you work in the Thai tourist industry as I do, you tend to get a little over-inundated with the unreal. Exaggerated smiles, yes mams and yes sirs, mamsir, sirmams. All around you there is an elevated and enforced desire to serve and please, but with a quiet undertone of resentment. You get used to tempered flavors, frustrated instructions and a habit of apologizing for you’re customers’ mis-managed behavior.

My semi-frequent mini-trips to Hat Yai are a refreshing dose of reality and welcome relief from forced civility. This is a city that is unapologetically genuine. And not in a travel brochure way. There is no pretense of “culture” here, no shiny resorts and very few western restaurants.1152_12991575794-tpfil02aw-3768

Hat Yai is nothing special in and of itself, it could be any of a hundred Thai towns just like it, but it reminds me of a different Thailand than the one I am accustomed to. It offers a glimpse into a the real lives of normal people who’s salaries and livelihoods don’t count on impressing me or coercing a sale out of me because of my foreign face; people who really don’t care that I am there at all. Despite being even more a minority in a place like this, I somehow feel less of an obvious target and I love it.