Jul 2013

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 12 Comments

The Sheena Stewart Show

We gathered around the table covered by a cloth imprinted with cappuccino cups and fluffy croissants. I would have imagined that we were somewhere in Italy, yet the dishes in the center of the table were all of Thai origin, cooked with basil, ginger, galanga, chili paste, lemongrass, and plenty of fish sauce. I had survived my introductory course in Thai home cooking under the watchful and experienced eyes of Karn’s mother, Nid.

Had I pulled all of the legs off the prawns? Did I rip the kaffir lime leaves correctly? Did I crush the chilies well enough with the pestle? These questions nagged at me as we prepped together in her kitchen.

We had met Karn just a few days prior, another member of the Volkswagen community in Asia. He was now the fourth degree of separation between TengTsen—also known as “Ten Cents “—our first VW contact in Asia. We had been instructed by Karn to wait alongside the moat that wrapped around the old city; from there we’d follow him back to his house and park Nacho for the next few days.

The moat, supported by a massive brick wall, was just a version of its prior self. Over the centuries the ground had let go underneath it and its once clean lines of stacked brick had morphed into a spine of drooping and wavelike rows. While it was no longer used as a defense line it still served a purpose, albeit less grandiose, adding a unique beauty to the city and providing meeting points for travelers and locals alike.

That evening we made our way to the neighborhood market to pick up items for an impromptu picnic. We followed Karn’s blue and white VW kombi as it bounced down a dirt road ahead of us, eventually pulling off and parking on the banks of a quaint pond within the University’s vast acreage. We lined up a bamboo mat and a faux grass mat between our two vans—the perfect spot for an evening of food discovery: homemade sausage and sticky rice, fish coconut soufflé in banana leaf bowls, roe filled crab heads, fried pork skin, eggplant curry, purple mangosteen and red rambutans.

“I’m always watching television,” Karn said between bites of curry. As it turns out, Karn is a television show translator, bringing American TV to the Thai audience. “Not too long ago I finished translating The Bachelor but now I’m doing the Martha Stewart Show.” Despite being the man behind the curtain of some of the top American TV shows in Thailand, he spoke with nonchalance. “I know everything about Martha. Did you know that every dish on her show is her favorite?” In a Martha voice he cried out “Oh my! This apple pie is just my faaavorite! This blueberry tart is just my faaavorite! This chocolate chip recipe is my all time faaavorite!”

One evening we found ourselves at a bar in Chiang Mai’s hip downtown district. Inside, the bartender concocted our drinks inside of a rusty blue and white Volkswagen bus that had been converted into a bar. Besides the bar’s special blue cocktail, we snacked on standard Thai bar food. You know, the usual sampling of raw peanuts, kebabs, fried crickets, and bamboo worms.

These bugs seemed tame compared to my last encounter. As we waited at a roadside restaurant for our lunch of lahp koo-a just a week prior, we were served a very special  “appetizer ” by a very excited local. It was a bowl of hideously huge insects accompanied by a bowl of red dipping sauce. They reminded me of some mutated version of a roach and cicada, having eyes the size of beads, legs like strands of thick wire, and their lower bodies hollow and crisp. The locals encouraged us to try. We must try! Try! Try!

For some unknown reason, on this day I was feeling more adventurous than I had in months. And truth be told, I just didn’t know how to refuse this man’s kind offerings. He would be so disappointed, so sad, so confused. The locals popped them in their mouths like Skittles, shrugging their shoulders, asking us, why don’t you try? Try! Try! So I picked one up and held it at eye level. I examined its shiny back and glazed eyes, its tentacles, its mandible and I wondered where it was found. Was it scurrying about in the grass? Was it found under an upturned log? Was it local or was it in the midst of a seasonal migration to another land? It was all so bizarre. As I closed my eyes, I envisioned Kit Kat bars and peanut brittle and then I ate it. Brad told me he’d never kiss me again.

So back at the Volkswagen bar, locals chomped bugs like Skittles, shrugging their shoulders and asking us why don’t you try? Try! Try! And so it went, I held the bugs up at eye level and questioned how they came to be nestled atop this fine layer of faux grass on my foam tray. I thought of more candy and then ate them too. I did it this time, though, for the sheer comedy in knowing that Brad would be forced to do the deed as well. The crickets were palatable, like little citrus infused burnt bits left in the bottom of a pan. The worms however, they were gag inducing: like collapsing sponges that leaked their foul juices with each chew. Was it worth it just to watch Brad’s face? Yes, yes it was.

Besides the bugs, we also tried some other local dishes in Chiang Mai such as Kow Soy; a dish made of egg noodles in a spicy coconut broth, topped with crispy noodles, and served with a dish of lime, pickled cabbage, and red onion. I’m not like Martha Stewart and I don’t claim to love every dish, but this was simply out of this world amazing. In all of Asia so far, it was truly one of my favorites.

When I think back on Chiang Mai, my most memorable experience will be cooking with Karn’s Mom, Nid. I had mentioned to Karn that I had wanted to take a cooking class and he had responded in saying  “It is no problem. My Mom will show you how to make Thai food .”

We followed Yui, Karn’s wife as she scoured through the neighborhood market, grabbing bags of minced pork, basil, lemongrass, and chilies. She picked out the prettiest blue prawns in the seafood section while the rest of us stood around watching the dozens of homemade propeller devices swing in the air like fans; a fancy trick for keeping the bugs away from the food.

Back at the house we started to set up. Karn stood by as we began to cook. Being the translator for Martha Stewart had prepared him well for this occasion as translator for our very own cross-cultural cooking experience.

“Today we’re making three things: steamed eggs, tom yam soup, and a basil stir fry. These are all quick and easy dishes, but the first thing we do is make rice. It’s the base for every meal, every day. After that, we will make my Mom’s steamed eggs. This is a very popular recipe but every household has their own version.”

After we loaded the massive rice cooker and hit go, we began on the eggs. Nid walked me through the steps as we mixed egg and water, rehydrated dried shrimp and mushrooms, added pork, onions, shallots and seasonings, and then gave it all a good beating. We placed the mixture in a bowl on the steaming rack above a covered pot of boiling water.

It was quick and easy to move around the kitchen, reminding me of our dollhouse back in Flagstaff. One wall comprised a long countertop and the other was set up with a tabletop stove shielded on three sides by aluminum. Underneath the stove sat an exposed propane tank, and back on the other counter a bin of cooking ingredients, a sink, and the rice cooker sat in the corner.

As the eggs steamed, Nid wandered outside and came back with a dozen or so freshly picked kaffir lime leaves for the tom yam soup. We made a broth of lemongrass, kaffir leaves, chilies, galanga and lime juice and let it simmer as we prepared our prawns, pulling off their crustacean layers, snapping their heads, breaking their legs, and slicing their backs to devein. We added the prawns and a few handfuls of strangely shaped straw mushrooms for just a few minutes before turning off the heat.

Our last dish of the evening was a pork basil leaf stir fry. It was simple: a quick stir fry of onion, garlic, pork, and a heaping mound of basil. The flavor was delightful—the meat provided a rich depth of flavor while the holy basil added a sharp, mentholated aroma and taste.

So here we were, gathered around the round table covered by a vinyl cloth imprinted with cappuccino cups and fluffy croissants. Grandma was holding baby Phuphing while the family’s French bulldog spread its body against the cool tiled floor.

While scooping rice onto each of our plates, Karn said  “In a Thai home, all dishes are communal. This is what we do.” Demonstrating the Thai way of eating, he held his fork with his left hand and his big spoon in his right. “You just push a little rice onto your spoon with your fork. The fork is only a tool for moving food. We don’t eat with it. Get some rice on your spoon, and then, from the dishes in the center, just scoop a little soup or curry onto your spoon. One scoop at a time.”

One scoop at a time?! One scoop at a time?! Now I understood how Thai people stay so thin!

With my fork, I nuzzled a little rice onto my spoon and then lowered it down into the communal bowl of tom yam soup. The food was just wonderful, and especially those eggs! Dare I say that recipe is one of my favorites?

Boiled Eggs

1 egg

2 TBSP of dried shrimp (soaked in hot water until rehydrated)

1 dried shitake mushroom (soaked in cold water for 3 hours, then cut in slices)

4 shallots (minced)

2 green onions (green part only, minced)

¼ cup of pork (minced)

2 cups of water

4 TBSP soybean sauce

½ TBSP soy sauce

Pinch of pepper

3-4 cloves (sliced)

In a serving bowl add egg, shrimp, shallots, mushroom, green onions, and pork. Whisk vigorously for 3 -5 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients and whisk.

In a large pot with a steaming tray, add a few inches of water and bring to a boil. Place the bowl on the steaming tray, reduce the heat to medium and cover. Steam the mixture for 15 minutes or until the eggs are cooked through. Note that water will remain visible in the bowl even after the eggs have finished cooking.

In a sauce pan fry the cloves.

Garnish with cloves before serving.

Tom Yam Soup

6 kaffir lime leaves (ripped down the center)

2 stalks of lemongrass (chopped into 1 ” pieces)

2 1” slabs of galanga root (julienned)

Tom yam paste (optional)

2 limes (cut into ¼ pieces)

5 small green bird chilies (pounded in a bag)

1 cup of straw mushrooms (broken into pieces)

1 dozen large prawn (peeled and deveined)

½ tsp of fish sauce

Chili paste (optional)

1 TBSP of cilantro

10 strands of green onion (cut in 1” pieces)

Package of tom yam paste (optional)

Bring 3 cups of water to a boil and add lemongrass, galangal root, and kaffir leaves. Add tom yam paste and cook for 3 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium. Add shrimp, mushrooms, and 3-5 chilies and cook until the shrimp is done (just a few minutes). Add the lime juice, fish sauce, and chili paste (to preference).Garnish with cilantro and green onion before serving.

Stir Fry Basil Leaf

3 garlic cloves (minced)

2 small white onions (sliced)

¾ cup of minced pork

3 cups of packed holy basil leaves (this is not the same as Thai basil)

3 TBSP oyster sauce

1 tsp of sweet soy sauce

1 tsp sugar

3 TBSP of water

In a large sauce pan add a dash of vegetable oil, onions, and garlic and cook for 3 – 5 minutes on medium heat. Add the pork and cook for another 3 – 4 minutes or until the meat is cooked through. While stirring constantly, add the basil leaves and chilies, cooking until the basil leaves have wilted. Add the oyster sauce, sweet soy sauce, sugar and water and cook for another minute.

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Jul 2013

Asia, Blog


The Human Zoo

On a Tuesday afternoon Sheena and I boarded Nacho and set off in search of a human zoo. “A human zoo,” you say? It must be so, for it says it right here in our guidebook.

“The villages are often derided as human zoos, and there are certainly elements of this, but we find them more like bizarre rural markets, with the women earning much of their money by selling tacky souvenirs and drinks.”

The villages that the guidebook refers to are Kayan Burmese refugee camps in the hills outside of Mae Hong Son, just a few kilometers away from Burma on the Thailand side. The Kayan people are known to tourists as “longneck tribes”, because the women have unusually long necks adorned with stacked brass rings.

The women’s necks aren’t actually “stretched” as most people believe. Rather, by adding rings over time their collarbones and upper ribs begin to tilt downward, giving the illusion of a longer neck – a sign of beauty and tribal identity in Kayan culture. And in a quickly modernizing Asia where Abercrombie & Fitch has largely replaced tribal sarongs, it’s amazing that such customs still exist. But not everyone seems to appreciate this fact. Still, our guidebook finds the villages pitiable.

“The Kayan we’ve talked to claim to be happy with their current situation, but the stateless position they share with all Burmese refugees is nothing to be envied.” – Our guidebook

“You guys went to a longneck village? No…way. I would NE-VER go to one of those places. The women are like, forced to stand around like animals selling, like, drinks and tacky souvenirs and stuff. And they force little girls to put these rings around their necks like slaves instead of going to school. I heard they’re, like, human zoos.”

There is a distinct subset of backpackers out there who revere travel guidebooks as holy testaments. If it’s not in the book, then it doesn’t exist. And if it is in there, then it must be true.

“Hi, I’m Tyler. Oh nice to meet you Brad, and what was it? Sheila? I’ve been backpacking around for like eight weeks. I trained as an elephant mahout when I was in Thailand and I kayaked down the Mekong and only ate at floating markets. Did I mention I’m a trained elephant mahout? You’re from where? I don’t believe in homes, and neither does my yoga guru. I may never go back to the States. Did I mention I live on only $1.85 per day? Oh, by the way, do you have anything I can eat?  What, you went to a longneck village? I would never go to one. I basically think of them as human zoos.”

Since going to the Kayan village of Ban Huai Seau Tao, we’ve told about six people about it. And six times we’ve heard: “Longneck village? Those places are human zoos.”

Sorry, but did anyone ever stop and consider the possibility of cultivating an original thought based on real experience, uninfluenced by any all-knowing guidebook overlord? If I hear one more person say…

From Mae Hong Son we drove along a stream through a densely wooded forest. After the third or fourth stream crossing we saw a couple of elephants leashed to trees in the shade to graze and drink from the stream; elephants in this remote corner of Thailand are still used as field animals to haul loads or pull plows, much in the same way that water buffalo or cows are used elsewhere. Finally we arrived at the Kayan village and parked just outside. Before being allowed to enter on foot we were asked to pay a few dollars each to support the village – another thing that gets backpackers all riled up. (“It’s a human zoo!”)

There are several Burmese refugee camps along the border, and most of them deliver a relatively low standard of living. By restoring their dying cultural customs, the Kayan have given rise to a means of generating their own revenue, and by doing so, have improved their standard of living relative to the other camps, reducing their reliance on outside aid.

We paid up and walked into the village. After crossing a stream on a small bridge we came to the main thoroughfare in town, a small walking path between thatched huts. The village was very small, and there were a couple dozen shops set up on the path, each tended by one or two Kayan women. More than half of the women wore traditional brass rings around their necks, and all of them wore their tribe’s traditional vibrant sarongs, woven tops, and colorful scarves.

The most popular items for sale were hand woven sarongs and scarves. Many of the women sat on wooden benches inside of their huts weaving on looms stretched between their waists and wooden posts. Each sarong takes several days to complete, and the prices were surprisingly fair – only a few dollars each. Four or five other tourists meandered around the shops, giving the place the feel of, gosh, what would I call it? Crowded strip mall? An international airport? No, that’s not right. Oh, a zoo! Of course! A human zoo!

We left the main walkway and headed up the hill to where Italian missionaries had long ago built a catholic church in an effort to save these villagers from their sinful, tribal ways. Based on the condition of the church and the traditional feel of the village, it would appear as though the mission had failed. But the numbers say otherwise. Two thirds of Kayan villagers have given up their spirituality and now identify as Roman Catholics.

The Burmese government also made attempts to quell Kayan traditions in order to look more modern by encouraging the villagers to stop wearing their traditional neck coils, and many villagers obliged. More young Kayan removed their coils to fit in with modern society after fleeing to Thailand. The odds are stacked against the Kayan and their customs, but for now it’s pleasing to see the old traditions kicking and struggling to stay afloat in a quickly modernizing world.

Before leaving the village we bought a couple of cold drinks and enjoyed them in the shade of a tamarind tree. Sitting there with a cold drink in hand, the sun’s intense rays filtered by the fair leaves of the tamarind, I thought I felt something. What is this feeling, I wondered. I retrieved our guidebook from my backpack and consulted the index to see what it was, but I found no mention of tamarind trees or cold drinks. I placed the book back in my pack and zipped it up. Must have been nothing, I figured.

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Jul 2013

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 11 Comments

Coffee Shop Hermits

Brad and I are certainly two people who love our morning coffee. Brad says I get angry without it but I wouldn’t go that far. When we lived at home we ordered green beans from Sweet Marias in Oakland and roasted a pound of coffee every week. We like it fresh. Yet, when we got to Argentina whole roasted beans got really expensive ($25-$50 a pound) and so we did something unspeakable: we drank instant coffee every day for nearly a quarter of a year. And after a while it sort of became palatable. When we arrived in Thailand I couldn’t believe my eyes: around every corner was a coffee shop ranging from a full on espresso bar to a small table set up on the sidewalk with a charcoal stove, a pot of water and a sock-like sieve used for brewing coffee. Scattered among this latter set up was usually a variety of plastic containers filled with flavored powders and a towering pyramid of sweetened condensed milk – the base for most Thai style coffees.

When we pulled into Mae Hong Son and I saw that we had the opportunity to actually sleep in a coffee shop I was all over it. What made it even better was that this was one of those legit coffee shops with a shiny burr grinder, a wide espresso machine and classy white ceramic cups. The walls were decorated with Burmese puppet dolls, a library of books, comfy sofas and hand woven local garments for sale on a rack. At the back end of the building were four guest rooms, with our room situated literally ten feet from the barista. The indigenous Shan girls who worked the counter wore traditional embroidered tops, quite similar to a tighter and more fashionable version of a Mexican poncho. One of the girls held her baby at her waist and another’s child played games on the communal computer.

That night the monsoon season showed its crazy face, beginning with a cool breeze and then quickly transitioning into something more violent: blowing chairs and a seemingly endless flow of water from the sky. The sound of the rain was deafening under the café’s wide tin roof. The next morning I thanked the wonderful rain for dampening the day’s heat, making our little quest to the morning market quite a bit more enjoyable. We were about to embark on a rigorous search for something I had been desiring for quite some time. We passed the produce drivers who rested on their tailgates and followed the long line of wooden covered stalls down the road. We walked all the way through, eventually retracing our steps until we found a promising stand.

In order to avoid any confusion, I pulled a piece of paper from my pocket and read from it. “Sawatdee ka! Do you sell thoo ah oon?” Sadly, this only prompted a blank stare, the universal sign of complete confusion. No matter how many ways I pronounced the word, nothing was getting through.

We had been warned by our friend Pat in Bangkok that the Thai language was very difficult for foreigners to learn. The funny thing is I wasn’t trying to learn anything, I just wanted to communicate one very important word.

Pat had told us, “Thai is a tonal language. While English has three tones, the Thai language has five. You must be very careful how you pronounce words. Many words, if you say them wrong will mean something entirely different.” He went through the five different tones, only three of which I could differentiate. I couldn’t believe we were of the same species.

So really, who knew what I was saying to this lady. My stomach began to grumble, but while I stood there observing the scene, I realized this just had to be the place. So we pointed to a customer’s breakfast and gave her the piece sign.

“Two please!”

In front of the pots, plastic containers, and general mess ran a long counter and a wooden bench. Had we been Asian, we would have fit perfectly in this little nook, but for us it was hilariously small. After a great deal of maneuvering, Brad somehow shimmied his spider-like long legs in place. The petite locals giggled and then a few seats were cleared for us at the big boy’s table.

Once we were settled in, we watched the cook place a tangle of thick rice noodles into our bowls and then envelop them with a heaping scoop of a thick yellow sauce. It was a Burmese dish called “thua oon” or warm beans, and this mysterious yellow sauce was made from chickpea flour and water. Scissored atop the porridge were bite size pieces of fry bread and small spoonfuls of sugar, peanuts, chopped cilantro, hot pepper, and a dark syrupy sauce.

It looked crazy exotic. A young girl who sat nearby curiously watched us. I don’t know exactly what sparked this girl’s desire to help us (perhaps she wanted us to enjoy the meal properly) but she got up, went behind the counter and passed us plastic mugs with water, chili sauce for dipping and a bowl of fried chickpea flour cakes and tofu. I mimicked the girls every motion, twisting the noodles around my chopsticks like spaghetti on a fork. It was heaven.

The following afternoon we tried out another local joint. We had heard of Aunt Khai, a woman in her 80’s who was still making rice noodles by hand. She was the cutest little thing (camera shy, unfortunately) but quickly popped out of her house when we appeared. Under the overhang of her home were plastic tables and chairs, and in the center of each table was the ubiquitous caddy of standard Thai condiments: fish sauce, chili powder, chili slices in vinegar, and white sugar. A picture of the King hung from the bare wall and against it was a self service table for filling water cups. The King’s photo in Aunt Khai’s home was not unusual; his photo was literally present in almost every Thai person’s home and business. It seemed that nearly every person we asked loved the King.

“Why should we not? The King has done so much for the people” one Thai told me. While this may be true, it is interesting to mention that it is illegal for anyone to speak negatively of the King in Thailand. Yes. Illegal.

As for the meal: Aunt Khai made us a delicious bowl of clear broth noodle soup with pork. She worked behind three charcoal grills, each one big enough to hold a single pot. She took her basket sieve, filled it with her handmade rice noodles and then lowered it into a pot of water. Once they were done and in our bowls she added a broth and then garnished with thin slices of red dyed pork, bean sprouts, cabbage, green onions, cilantro and a spoonful of ground peanut. It was true grandmother style cooking.

This town was such a delight. It wasn’t just the unique food that made it this way, but the charming people and atmosphere. We let a few days slip away, watching the routine of the locals and observing the rhythms of the day. The main street was a strip of beautifully preserved wooden shop houses with the ground floors reserved for commercial purposes. The families who ran the stores lived on the first floor, and often times their personal possessions spilled out into the commercial space below.

In the early morning orange robed monks would walk in a line down the street, accepting food from the locals that was to be used to make their only meal of the day. I must admit I’ve been spoiled by the frequency of seeing monks on the streets. They’ve become a common site, yet nevertheless I’m always taken aback by their beauty. They glow in the distance. They walk with purpose and dignity, their shoulders back and head held high. They exude an inner peace that is viral, and strangely while I believe that everyone has bad days, I have yet to see a monk frown. By early morning in Mae Hong Son the monks have been out and so have the locals; off to the market to get the freshest produce and to stop for breakfast at one of the many stands. One such breakfast place was right next to our little coffee shop in an empty plaza. Every morning they would set out their rugs, tables and condiments for another proper Burmese breakfast of rice vermicelli noodles and kahn pomg, a Shan snack of battered and deep-fried vegetables.

By afternoon the local children dressed in their school uniforms would cruise down the main road on their 100cc motorcycles, stopping at the smoothie shop before continuing home. At the shop’s entrance they’d slip off their shoes and pile into a booth to laugh and sip on their fruit drinks spiked with chunks of Jell-O. As night approached the heat would let up and the families who had been hiding out inside all day would migrate to the front of their shops for dinner. Afterwards they would watch television or simply point their chairs out towards the street. We were their entertainment, and they were ours. Other people would set up impromptu parties; the men in front of the frame shop were the liveliest group. In the evenings they would pull out their tiny guitars and play beautiful melodies, always in unison while singing and smiling.

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Jul 2013

Asia, Blog


What Josh is Doing

Brigit and Bret lived in a modest house on Grand Canyon Avenue. A few bicycles accented the front porch, which overlooked the street and a front garden filled with mint, strawberries, lemongrass, and a peach tree. Brigit was the most fashionable of all of the scientists at work, always looking like she’d just stepped out of a scene in The Great Gatsby before ducking into the lab to analyze compounds in the mass spectrometer. Sometimes I’d swing by the house on my way to work to pick her up on our vintage Vespa wearing the leather shoes I bought in Italy. She wore a scarf to fend off the morning chill, and we’d zip away in a Euro-inspired carpool to work in the lumberjack mountain town of Flagstaff, Arizona.

Bret had a friendly smile, a firm handshake, and a knack for crafting lemon squares that could change your life; confections that made you question everything you ever knew about food, joy, religion, and the universe. Brigit and Bret comprised twenty two percent of our weekly dinner club. It was filled out by the Helders, the Franklins, and Josh.

Drifting through the mountains along the Burmese border in northern Thailand, Sheena and I were lost in a reverie. Sometimes when we drive it’s nice to let our minds wander, and when they wander they often go back home. We might pass someone riding a Vespa with their scarf whipping in the wind, and I wonder what Brigit and Bret must be doing at that particular instant. With our windows down, the mountain air wafted through the van just like it did back in Flagstaff. Mumford & Sons flowed from the stereo speakers, drowning out the low moan of our engine. A banjo riff brought me back two years in an instant to our beloved group of friends with whom we had shared our weekly dinners. It was Josh who had played the banjo.

Curtis, Mike and Josh were roommates. Curtis and Mike were brothers, hailing from Michigan. The first things you noticed about them were their maniacal smiles, and the fact that despite being two years apart, they look just like twins. Josh was from Maryland, had a compact frame and great posture, red hair. He played the banjo with reckless abandon and was in love with Tammy. We were all engineers at W. L. Gore & Associates, better known for their magical expanded polytetrafluoroethylene membrane called Gore-Tex. That’s how we came to know Curtis and Mike and Josh.

After a couple of days spent exploring the small border town of Mae Sot, Sheena and I pointed Nacho northward and began snaking through the mountains along Thailand’s border with Burma. For the first time since reaching Southeast Asia the air was fresh and cool. I held my arm out the window and let the breeze wash over it. As we rounded a bend we began to see indigenous people lining the roadside. Some carried baskets, while others pushed bicycles or walked with their children. In the meadow to the left of the road the jungle gave way to a thick tangle of makeshift wooden huts built on stilts with roofs made out of leaves. Food was being unloaded from a large truck. We peered through the trees and into the tangle of muddy paths between the homes, clothes drying on lines, women in vibrant sarongs tending to their children or cooking. A small boy rode his bicycle in circles in a clearing carrying his little brother on the back, and when he noticed I was watching he laughed and rode faster. This was a Burmese refugee camp.

When Burma gained independence in 1948, many of the hill tribes attempted to break away to form their own independent country. When the military took control of Burma they violently quelled these attempts, burning over 3,000 villages and attacking the minority tribespeople. Since then, over 700,000 indigenous minorities have fled the country, and many live in a series of nine refugee camps in northern Thailand. This was one of them. Many of the people living at this camp had been here for twenty years, and a new generation is being born in the camp, never having known a normal life.

In America, you don’t have to throw the stone very far to hit someone angrily ranting about some unthinkable atrocity being carried out beneath our very noses. The Republicans are killing health care! The Democrats want to take our guns! Marriage is between a man and a woman! The President is a Muslim! Breastfeeding in public is a crime against humanity! Driving through the refugee camp made us think about how embarrassingly frivolous most of our problems are.

The previous day while talking to a Burmese man, the topic of health care had come up. He had described how expensive procedures are relative to the income of the population, and how most low income Burmese don’t even understand the concept of health insurance. I found myself getting ready to say, “Oh yes, it’s similar in the United States…” but then I caught myself. Truthfully, I have no business complaining about health care to a Burmese refugee. In fact, very few of us have any business complaining about much of anything at all. Sometimes you just have to talk to someone who has fled their homeland due to legitimate fear of personal harm to put things into perspective.

In the late afternoon we turned off of the main road in search of a camping place. Our Garmin showed a winding appendage of a road taking off into the mountains and coming to a dead end, so we took it. The road pitched up at around a 25% grade, testing Nacho’s climbing legs. At the top of the mountain, the road turned downward and descended the far side through the jungle with equal steepness, whereupon we were deposited into a small indigenous village. We wove our way slowly past wooden huts built on stilts with roofs thatched in dry leaves, just like the refugee camp. Indigenous women walked along the road in tribal clothing, corncob pipes hanging from the corners of their mouths. We followed the road a few hundred meters to its end, where a meandering stream emerged from the wide, dark mouth of an enormous limestone cavern.

We crossed the river on foot and entered the cave. As daylight disappeared behind us we passed a group of local teens sitting in a circle in the sand next to the river in the dark. We explored for a half an hour, and reemerged from the cave into a torrential rainstorm. The view from the mouth of the cave and the rain against a jungle and river backdrop was unreal. Night settled on our camp as the bugs and frogs bellowed out a symphony from the natural amphitheater surrounding our van and heavy rain drops tapped out a rhythm on Nacho’s roof.

Sheena never had rhythm. We all intrinsically knew it, but had never spoken about it or assigned a label to it. It had been right there before our eyes the whole time, but it was Josh who had finally brought it to light. One evening after dinner at Curtis and Mike and Josh’s house, already having eaten dessert but not wanting to leave, our hosts broke out their instruments. Josh was already well versed in the banjo, while Mike and Curtis were learning to play the guitar and bass, respectively. They frequently played songs for us, and we took to calling them “The House Band”. Mostly because they all lived in a house, and they were a band.

On this occasion, The House Band wanted audience interaction, and as we settled onto the couches in the living room, Mike handed out the auxiliary instruments. Sheena and I were to play the egg shakers: basically little plastic eggs full of beads. Mike showed us an example of how to keep the background rhythm going with the shakers, and then picked up his guitar. The House Band began its rendition of Wagon Wheel, and Sheena and I began shaking our eggs.

“Whoa, whoa,” Josh said, stopping mid-verse. His voice had a gentle frankness. “What was that?” He was looking at Sheena.

“Umm…I’m shaking the egg,” Sheena said.

“Sheena, look. When we play the song, you go ‘chick-a-chak, chick-a-chak, chick-a-chak’, got it? Easy, just a simple up and down motion.”

“Okay, I’ll make the egg go ‘chick-a-chak‘,” Sheena said.

The House Band restarted its rendition of Wagon Wheel, and on our cue we began shaking. Sheena might as well have started the couch on fire.

“Okay, everybody stop. Wait, wait, wait – stop. Now Sheena, you’re supposed to be going ‘chick-a-chak, chick-a-chak’, but instead you’re going ‘chick-chick-chick-ch-ch-ch-ch-chak’, do you see?” He was speaking with the kind tone that a father might use to address his disappointment of a child.

“I’m sorry, I don’t have any rhythm,” she said, and then surrendered her weapon of musical destruction.

Shortly before we left on our trip, The House Band dissolved. Curtis and Mike traded Flagstaff for Denver, moving there within a few months of one another. Brigit and Bret left a short time later for the chill and fog and high culture of San Francisco. Josh had decided to move back East to study infectious diseases and to marry Tammy. We gave him a stethoscope as a going away present (the one we bought after reading this guide) on his very last dinner club night. We didn’t want him to leave, even though we knew that we, ourselves, would be leaving in due time.

In the morning, Sheena and I were startled awake. The sun peeked through the window of Nacho’s pop top tent, and when my eyes focused I could see a herd of water buffalo right outside of our van rolling around in the mud puddles left by the previous night’s storm. Two or three buffaloes would roll around, legs in the air, radiating pure bovine joy as the muddy water coated their skin, and then they would move aside and make way for the next bathers. It occurred to me that it was a Thursday morning, and that most of my friends would be waking up to a very different agenda on this day. I rolled onto my back, inhaled the fragrant morning air, and thought about how lucky we were to be able to go to sleep near an indigenous village at the mouth of a cave, to wake up to bathing water buffaloes, to drive through refugee camps and freely drive out of them.

We packed up our camp, fired up the engine and made our way back toward the small village. Cool air filled the van, indigenous ladies smoked their pipes, a banjo riff floated from our stereo, and I thought to myself, I wonder what Josh is doing?

[grooveshark width=”580″ height=”50″ id=”38828935″ autoplay=”0″ style=”metal”]Little Lion Man by Mumford & Sons on Grooveshark

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Jul 2013

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 18 Comments

Searching for a Piece of Burma

In the past I’ve mentioned my undying love for Anthony Bourdain, host of No Reservations. Just a few months ago he came out with a new show on CNN called Parts Unknown. He said that he accepted the offer because it would gain him access to places that American TV cameras rarely get to visit. Guess where the show debuted? Burma.

Bourdain said, “If we had come a year earlier, we would have been deported. Almost overnight, people there were free to say what they want. Press restrictions had been lifted. That was an extraordinary thing to witness.”

I thought about this particular episode as Brad and I skirted alongside the Thai and Burmese border. Besides Anthony’s show on Burma, the only other footage I had ever seen of the country was from a documentary called Burma VJ. This followed the disturbing story of the 2007 protests against the Burmese military regime. The smuggled footage clearly displayed the people’s frustration with their government’s censorship and control over them.

Today however, Burma is in the midst of reinventing itself. In just a short period of time things have changed quickly; censorship has stopped and the borders have opened. Despite the country’s claim to open borders, it is still not so easy to travel within the country. Currently the government has designated specific zones as “tourist appropriate”, leaving the remainder of the country absolutely off limits to the wandering eye of the foreigner. For us, given the restrictions to certain provinces, driving from East to West through the country to reach India would clearly be impossible.

So we couldn’t exactly get into Burma, but we could get pretty dang close. We stopped in the town of Mae Sot; the main point of entry for more than 180,000 Burmese refugees who have fled into Thailand to live and work in the region. These circumstances, as unpleasant as they may be, have created a mix of faces and culture unlike anything we had seen to date in Thailand.

Our first Burmese experience began with Bobo and Ma Yae. Bobo was a handsome Burmese with deep brown eyes, a wide jawbone and black tattoos which ran up his forearms and crept under his sleeves. At his side was Ma Yae, another native Burmese. She had shiny black hair that rested at her shoulders and was as cute as a button in her red collared shirt sprinkled with Mickey Mouse faces. In just a week’s time she’d be returning to Burma to attend her sister’s wedding.

Today, we followed the two of them down to the Y in the road and then right towards the Burmese market. We had signed up for a cooking class and step number one was hunting down the ingredients. Given that it was the morning time, the market was in full swing. As we moved from the outer streets inward, the paths transitioned into a high speed raceway. There were obstacles everywhere and I stumbled between them. The locals were smooth and fluid, weaving in and around each other. Bikes and motorcycles sputtered by, women carried platters of fruit on top of their heads and others crouched down next to their buckets of eels, fish and frogs, bins of steamed roaches next to mangoes, worms, and bags of rice. Under the overhangs of roofs packets of spices and prepackaged goods hung from strings and scattered about the tables were eggplants the size of peas, wing beans in bamboo baskets, bundles of holy basil, and everything else imaginable. Working the stands were men in coned hats, Indo-Burmese Muslim men in plaid sarongs, Karen tribal women, and Burmese natives with their faces brushed  in circular swirls, stripes and speckles with the yellowish-white paste known as thanaka cream.

This Burmese tradition has existed for centuries and serves as a cosmetic and a protectant from the sun. At the market it could be bought in paste or powder form, or in its most natural state as a piece of wood. To apply it, the thanaka wood is rubbed against a circular stone called a kyauk pyin and then a few drops of water are added to form the paste. It is then added to the face in whatever manner the person wishes to wear it. I was completely captivated by the uniqueness of this idea and could have easily spent the day just staring at faces. I was surprised to find that what I thought looked bizarre at first looked quite normal and beautiful by the end of the morning.

Halfway through the morning we stopped for intermission at a traditional Burmese tea shop. It was an atmospheric place: loud, busy, and filled with tiny tables and chairs. Once we settled in we were served a complimentary pot of plain green tea, always free and always bottomless at a Burmese tea shop. Next we ordered vegetable samosas and phyllo dough pastries and a round of lapae yea. This is a black tea mixed with a heavy dose of sweetened condensed milk, so much I might add that it sunk to the bottom of my cup like a thick white custard. Sweet like candy and delicious.

As we made our way out of the market, we watched a woman prepare a dozen or so betel leaves in an assembly line fashion. Brad had read about this very thing in a Paul Theroux book. The author had admitted to his hatred of the habit, complaining that the users were constantly spitting red juice everywhere. The thing is this is really popular stuff and people have been spitting it for the last 4,000 years throughout much of Asia and Oceania. It is an addictive stimulant that causes a warming sensation in the body and increased alertness and it has also been declared by The International Agency for Research on Cancer to be carcinogenic to humans.

So of course we were intrigued by this woman, who used her spatula to apply a paste of calcium to the leaves.  After covering the leaves in a sticky goo, she opened a half dozen calcium-smeared containers, reached in and sprinkled their contents on top of the leaves: whole cardamom seeds, clove, catechu, slices of betel nut and so forth. She then folded them over into bundles and handed them to us.

“If you start to feel dizzy after a minute or two, please stop and spit it out. Do not swallow it.” Bobo was clearly wanting to avoid any potential international health incidents. “Place the whole thing in your mouth. Chew on it and spit it out once you’ve released all of the juices and flavors from the inside. And please, if you start to feel dizzy, spit it out!

Brad and I each had one and so did Ma Yee.  She also took one to go, tightly wrapped and secured with a rubber band. And the flavor? It mostly just tasted like a leaf filled with toothpaste and a hint Indian spices. One was enough for us.

For the remainder of the afternoon we made an exquisite meal of potato dumplings, Mandalay noodle salad, Karen pumpkin curry, and lime basil juice. We learned new preparation and cooking techniques and enjoyed the results. Surprisingly the lime basil juice was the winner for the afternoon. In addition to these dishes, I had also made a special request to Bobo earlier in the day.

I had read that Burma is one of the only countries in the world where people not only drink tea but also eat the  leaves. They are eaten either as a pickled tea leaf salad or served in the center of a shallow dish (also pickled) along with fried garlic, peas and peanuts, toasted sesame, dried shrimp, preserved shredded ginger and fried shredded coconut. I was eager to make the former and Bobo was willing to show me how.  We did a little bit of re-hydrating , crushing in the pestle and mortar, and then tossing the leaves with tomatoes, cabbage, fried nuts, and seeds. The resulting flavor was something entirely new. I loved it.  The tea leaves were pungent and spicy, mixing perfectly with the crunchy nuts and mild vegetables.

We enjoyed our meal at a picnic table behind the café. It was peaceful and serene and everything just felt good. A perfect afternoon. I wondered what would come of Mae Sot in the future. I had asked Bobo what the community was like here and if most people knew each other and his response surprised me.

“No, I do not recognize most of the faces here. People are always coming and going. This isn’t really anyone’s home. Now that things are getting better in Burma, many of the NGOs in town are starting to disappear. People are even beginning to return home”.

It was a little sad to think Mae Sot was changing so quickly, but more than anything it made me happy. People deserve to live with their families, live in peace, know their neighbors, and enjoy the sunrise and sunset from within their own country.


Squeeze the juice from two medium sized limes. Detach the leaves from 5 stalks of lime basil (this is important) and discard the stems and flowers. Put the lime juice, basil leaves, 3-4 tablespoons of liquid sugar, and 1 cup of water in a blender and mix well. With a strainer, run the juice through the filter and serve with ice!


Preparing the tea leaves: Rehydrate 2 tablespoons of dried green tea leaf with warm water for a few minutes. With a pestle and mortar, pound together the tea leaves, 4 small green chiles, 2 cloves of garlic, 1/3 teaspoon of salt, ½ teaspoon of sugar, and the juice of one lime. Set aside. In a small pan, roast or fry a ¼ cup mixture of sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, peanuts, and broad nuts (if you can find them). Set aside.  On a plate, add ¼ cup of finely shredded cabbage, ½ tomato thinly sliced, the tea leaf mixture, nut mixture, a pinch of salt and the juice from one lime.

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