Nov 2013

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 12 Comments

India or Bust

It’s a bright morning in Bangkok, and a beam of light reflects in just such a way from the rooftop of the drug factory across the way as to awaken me from my bear-like hibernation. We’ve been living in this apartment just down the street from the Bang Chak Skytrain station for a month, and we’ve finally accomplished everything that we wanted to accomplish here; Nacho has a new engine, we’ve published our book, we’ve made lots of friends, and we’ve begun to see Bangkok from residents’ eyes.

The previous evening after a dinner on the Arab Soi we wandered the back alleys past shops selling spices and fabric, past an Iraqi restaurant and rows of turban-clad men loitering around shisha pipes. We reached Sukhumvit Street and crossed over a pedestrian bridge with a view of the city. We stood there for a while watching people and cars go by before the backdrop of the city that now felt so familiar. We could imagine living long term in Bangkok, despite the fact that we’re small town mountain-loving people. But we have the itch to move on. We still have a long way to drive.

We had wanted to drive to India from Southeast Asia, but the task has proven impossible. To get there, we would have to drive through either China or Burma. Burma is a no-go; the government has made moves to open up to the outside world, but the borders remain closed at the time of our arrival. China is also a bust, as the Chinese government requests $8,500 in fees for us to cross from Laos to Nepal. With no overland options available, we’ve resorted to our favorite activity: vehicle shipping.

Our apartment is situated only five minutes from Bangkok Port, but we’ve just received word from our shipping agent that container loading has been moved to Laem Chabang Port, 100 kilometers away. Helpful as always, our agents at Hellmann Logistics offer to drive out to the port with us for container loading, and the give us a ride back to our apartment—a full day of work and half a tank of gas, and at no charge. But when our Thai friend Gak catches word of this, he simply won’t have it. If anyone is to accompany us to the port, it will be him! We let Hellmann off the hook and follow Gak, in his 1960’s VW bus, to Laem Chabang.

When we arrive in Laem Chabang, we’re met for lunch by more Hellmann agents, and then we all roll out to the port together. We stop shortly at the port entry gate while our agent goes inside to get clearance, and then we all hop in Nacho and drive into the port. When we get there the container is waiting and open, and I slowly, ceremoniously drive Nacho inside. I would say that it seems like only yesterday that we drove Nacho out of the container in Malaysia, but I’d be lying. It seems like an eternity ago. We’ve learned a lot since arriving in Asia, and this feels more like a capstone than the next step in a journey.

Our shipping agents feel it too. We’ve only just met, but they get caught up in it just like we do, snapping photos of us, Nacho, and each other for posterity. It’s a far cry from our first shipping experience. And did we ever mention how much we love Thai people?

We finish bidding ado to Nacho and then load up in Gak’s VW to head back to Bangkok. Gak has led us to believe that he is a better candidate than our shipping agent to bring us back to the city, and this is his time to shine. We cruise to the gas station and buy a couple of Cokes. A good start. It’s late in the afternoon when we turn off of the main highway and head toward the ocean.

We wind through small beachside communities and pull off at an overlook above Chon Buri where we try to hide our intense fear of the monkeys that lurk about, and then we’re off again, toward the fishing wharves on the outskirts of Bangkok city. We find our way onto one of the docks and drive the bus out to the end where workers shuck clams. We’re welcomed by the happy workers, who tell us they’re from Burma. Several people collect the clam meat, while others place the shells in bags to be sold and ground down into bulk raw material.

The work looks terribly difficult, and the workers receive very little compensation for their hard work. During our time in Southeast Asia we’ve come to meet many Burmese laborers; immigrants from Burma typically perform the low-pay manual labor and servant work for the surrounding countries of greater wealth, much in the way of some Latin-American immigrants in the United States. The difference here is the pay scale and the often extreme working conditions that they must endure. Still, they remain happy and smiling, and they send much of their meager income home to support their families.

After forty five minutes of hanging out with the Burmese workers, the sun begins to set and they call it a day. Despite the workers neither speaking Thai nor English, we somehow manage to have a lengthy conversation of charades and guesswork, and come away feeling that they’re a happy group of people.

With Nacho gone, we’re on our own. The ship will take 16 days to go from Bangkok to Chennai, stopping once in Singapore. We decide to spend one more week in Bangkok, and then move on to Chennai to get our affairs in order before Nacho arrives. Task at hand: one week to be as carefree as possible.

As a great stroke of good luck and coincidence, our friends Ben and Chelsea just so happen to be passing through Bangkok for a couple of days as a part of their vacation. I met Ben when he was a senior university student when he came to work as my engineering intern at Gore. We became good friends with both Ben and his wife Chelsea, but haven’t seen them since they left Flagstaff.

For two days we re-explore Bangkok’s tourist areas with our American friends: boat taxi rides up and down the river to visit temples, another trip to the Grand Palace, strolling Khao San Road and Old Bangkok, and some good meals at some of our favorite restaurants.

After having been on the road for so long, we’ve forgotten what it’s like to be on a time-limited vacation, and sometimes feel that we make terrible tour guides. We usually just go about our life and strange and interesting things just seem to happen. But when people come to visit, as in the case of my mom, or Ben and Chelsea, we have to figure out fun things to do. And when we can’t remember what normal people consider to be fun, it makes our job prone to failure. In the end, though, I think we have succeeded in entertaining our friends.

Ben and Chelsea’s last night in Bangkok also happens to be our last, and we know it has to be special. But what to do? Sheena and I are terrible at planning fun things, so we do the only thing that we can think of: we call our trusty friends Pat and Gak for guidance. They’ll have an idea!

Gak and Pat agree that the best thing would be for all of us to meet for one final dinner at Bangkok’s best hole-in-the-wall Pad Thai restaurant, which also happens to have Bangkok’s best fresh-squeezed orange juice. Aha! Why didn’t I think of that? I remind myself that I lack the ability to proactively plan fun things.

We take a cab to the general vicinity of the restaurant with Ben and Chelsea, and get out at a very large roundabout. I call Gak to see where we should meet, and he tells me he’ll call right back. In the interim, my phone runs out of credit and so Gak never calls back. Meanwhile we find ourselves sitting in the middle of the roundabout watching a large rat eat a small pile of rice. It starts to rain. We feel the evening slipping away, free of fun. This won’t do! I think to myself. In a moment of clarity I decide to top up my phone, after which everything falls into place, and we find ourselves riding in the back of Gak’s bus to the Pad Thai restaurant.

It turns out that Pat and Gak are correct that this place has the best orange juice in all of Thailand. The Pad Thai is also good, and comes wrapped in a little package of fried egg. Nice touch. It feels good to be together with all of these people. After all of these months in Asia, Pat and Gak have become our family, and it’s tough to leave them behind. Pat keeps us laughing with his quirky explanations of Thai social antics. He explains that in Thailand it’s not considered rude to tell someone that they look fat.

“Why would it be strange?” he says, “They already know they’re fat.”

“Yes, but aren’t there Thai people who are trying to shed some pounds, who might be self-conscious about their weight?”

“Of course there are people who want to lose weight, but they still know they’re fat. It’s normal!”

“Even women?”

“Yes, women can be fat, too.”

Pat then goes on to tell Gak that he’s fat.

“Hey Fat Gak, do you only eat and never shit? Ha! See?”

Gak smiles and laughs. It would seem implausible that the idea of being self-conscious were so foreign to Thais, were it not for other conversations we’d had with our expat friends in Bangkok that verified this. We all have a good laugh and feel a little insensitive and politically incorrect.

At the end of dinner, we ask Pat to read the note he’s made in our book. His family runs a publishing business, and he has run off a copy of Drive Nacho Drive for us to keep in Nacho’s onboard library. We had asked him to write something for us on our dedications page. He had started writing in English, but then switched to Thai script in order to fully express himself. “You can read it after you learn to speak Thai,” he says, and then reads it aloud. His words are the distillation of all of the kindness and friendship we’ve come to know in our group of Thai friends. We’ll keep it forever so we can always remember our friends.

Gak has brought his copy, which he ordered online, and asks us to sign the dedications page as well. We can’t seem to capture our feelings as eloquently as Pat has, but we do our best. And with that we leave. After six months in Southeast Asia it’s time to move on, away from what we know, and straight into the unfamiliar madness of India.

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Nov 2013

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 17 Comments

The Rally Crashers

One thing we’ve come to appreciate about our Southeast Asian friends is their ability to coerce us into doing unusual activities that we would never otherwise do. This subtle trickery is achieved through nonchalance and a sprinkling of urgency, such as the time that TengTsen Khoo made us appear on The Apprentice, unclean, unshaven, and in my case, in desperate need of a haircut.

We should have recognized the signs when our Thai friend Pat called us one Saturday morning as we lounged around our Bangkok apartment.

“Hi Brad, are you guys busy today?” (Testing the waters.)

“I’m wearing my underwear, and planned to do so until dinner time. Why, what’s up?” (Naïveté.)

“There’s a classic car show today. Do you guys want to go with me?” (Trickery, coercion.)

“Sure, we’ll go. Sounds like fun! ” (Fell for it.)

“All right, meet me at the National Museum. You might see a couple of people in Volkswagens.” (Lies, all lies.)

After winding our way through Bangkok traffic, we find our way to the National museum. The casual manner in which Pat mentioned this opportunity has given us a false sense of calm. We turn into the National Museum and slam on the brakes. Something smells fishy.

There aren’t many Volkswagens around, though there are dozens of shiny classic cars; Bentleys, Rolls Royces, MGs, Porsches. A small boy walks by wearing some kind of 1920’s pantaloon shorts with suspenders and a driving cap. This, incidentally, is a perfect match to the 1920’s roadster that he’s arrived in.

Seeing our confusion, a young man—one of Pat’s accomplices—approaches.

“Hi Brad and Sheena! You can park over there. My name is Kaeg. No Sheena, that’s not how you say it. No, it’s not Keg either. Look, just call me Samurai, I think it’s easier for Americans to pronounce. Follow me, I’ll show you where to register and get your number plate.”

Samurai points to a parking space in between a classic Austin Healey and a Rolls Royce, and he’s dead serious. The cars are so shiny that as I pass by I can see my reflection in the paint, and I look like a total sucker. A sucker driving a mud-coated van with a rusty steel box hanging on the bumper.

Since arriving in back in Thailand, we haven’t found the time to wash Nacho. This means that our white paint is invisible under various layers of brown Cambodian mud, applied as if to a Jackson Pollock canvas over weeks of driving sloppy roads of brown Cambodian mud.

Sheena wants to hide. She pleads for me to take her home where she can crawl under the covers of our fluffy white bed, but It’s too late. Everybody stands around a flagpole and we listen to the King’s Anthem, and then official photographs are taken of the drivers of the classic cars, ourselves included. People take pictures of the cars, and Nacho succeeds in ruining all of the photos. We’re ushered back to our cars and we’re on the street, a big classic car train winding through Bangkok traffic—a classic car train with a fat, brown, 1984 caboose with a rusty box bolted on the back.

We drive out of the city and find our way to a temple in the countryside. Pat innocently joins the rally driving his VW Syncro Doka as if nothing were amiss. As if he weren’t taking the mickey out of poor, muddy, slightly ugly Nacho.

“Hi Brad and Sheena, you made it!”

“Yeah, here we are. Now, when you said that we were going to a car show, you might have forgotten to mention that we were in the car show.”

“What? Hey, do you know how to grease a CV joint? ” An underhanded subject change, no doubt. He knows that I have a soft spot for working on CV joints in parking lots. While I get under way, Sheena is snatched away by Samurai.

“Hello Sheena! Come with me, I’ll give you a tour.”

And with this, Sheena is whisked away for a tour of the temple, where she will spend the next ten minutes looking at sacred stuff, eating coconut ice cream, and buying little Buddha idols. Pat hands me paper towels to wipe the foul-smelling grease from my arms, and he correctly guesses that I prefer this to looking at temples.

Nacho ruins several more photographs and then it’s time to move on to the next stop. I still feel uneasy about sullying the clean image of this show.

“Pat, so, this is a classic car rally, right?”

“Yes! Are you having a good time?”

“Yes, it’s wonderful, but do you think that we really belong here? I mean, Nacho is from 1984.”

“Oh look, everyone’s leaving!”

Before we know it we’ve parked at another location and are climbing into a double decker London bus, which is to take us to lunch. Our new friend Dcim (Sim) is snapping photos and I’m minding my own business when all of a sudden an electrical wire shoots out of nowhere and its trajectory promises to decapitate Dcim from behind. My head-ducking reflex is faster than my verbal warning reflex, and I only manage to warn Dcim about the wire after he’s been clothes-lined by it. Oopsies!

Moments later, while observing the young boy in pantaloon shorts, my world temporarily goes black when a stationary tree branch collides with my temple. Double decker busing in Thailand is not for faint-hearted or the elderly. We wise up and put more emphasis on safety. We pass under several more low power lines, but this time we have an appointed powerline carrier to walk the length of the bus carrying the dangerous wires in his bare hands. Safety first!

At lunch, a troop of highly decorated dancing Thai children entertains us over tea and an elaborate Thai buffet. As is becoming a theme, we round out our meal with even more coconut ice cream. Before we know it we’re back on the bus, back in our cars, and jetting off to Jesada: an auto museum containing the collection of one eccentric collector.

The final stop of the day is at a university back in the city. We all park in a long line and go inside. Another buffet has been erected, which is divided into separate sections to represent the food from each region of Thailand. We gorge ourselves on more food, demarcating each course with coconut ice cream served inside of actual coconuts. Students from the university’s fine arts department take the stage and perform a traditional Thai dance.

And then it’s time for the awards ceremony.

The awards ceremony?

The awards ceremony. I listen to a barrage, many minutes long, of incomprehensible Thai language, listening for my name. Each person goes to the stage, and then I hear it.

“Ching who bing chang dee doh—Brad Van Orden—dingo chan—semi-ugly Volkswagen.”

I accept my award for ruining all of the classic car club’s photos, I forget to bow to my gracious host, and walk off the stage, where I proceed to the coconut ice cream stand to lose myself in more substance abuse.

A moment later, as I whip my tongue across my chin trying to mop up a few stray drops of liquidy coconut, Pat approaches.

“Hi Brad! I see you really like the coconut ice cream.” He pauses for a moment, and then continues. “You’re going on TV in four minutes.” And with that, he turns and begins walking away.

“Pat! Huh!?” By now I’ve forgotten about the ice cream on my chin and I fire off a barrage of questions as I trail behind Pat.

“On TV? But why? Do you know what kind of show? Is it, like, local or national?” I don’t even know where to start. Three minutes.

“Do you see that guy over there who looks like Elvis Presley? Every person in Thailand knows who he is. You’re going on his show. It’s the most famous car show in Thailand.” I shoot a worried look over to Sheena, my unfailing moral supporter—the woman who stands by my side through thick and thin.

“Leave me out of this!” she wails, and then turns her back on me.

Before I know what’s happening, I’m standing next to Elvis Presley, who goes by the name Sheeva, answering questions about our world trip. I can still smell the coconut ice cream on my own breath and out of the corner of my eye I see Sheena with a smug look on her face, and she’s eating—can it be? A fresh coconut full of ice cream! The scheming weasel!

“Problems? Oh yes, we’ve had many problems on our trip…”—I hope the coconut ice cream lady is still operational when this interview is over—“in Colombia our transmission failed…”—if she got the last coconut, I swear to God—“our brakes failed, our wheel bearings failed…”—Is that? No! The coconut lady! Where are you going?!

Here’s the interview; our section starts at 9:20.

When the interview wraps up, we stand around talking to Sheeva as dusk settles in. He’s passionate about classic cars with larger-than-life style, and he flips through photos on his iPhone, showing us the cars he’s designed and built himself. The Chevy he’s driving today is of his own design. As he talks, he thinks of something and his eyes light up. He opens the back door to his truck and rummages around for a minute, finally emerging with a bottle of his namesake rum, Sheeva WOP—WOP being an acronym for World of Peace, not a derogatory war-time slur for an Italian person. We happily add the Sheeva WOP to Nacho’s onboard mini bar.

As night settles on the parking lot, the rest of the car club has gone home. Now it’s only Sheeva and his camera guys; Pat, his wife and son; Dcim; the curator of the Jesada car museum; Sheena and me. As we begin parting ways, Sheeva tells us to wait. He runs to his Chevy, opens the door, and grabs the dreamcatcher that hangs from his rearview mirror; we later learn that this dreamcatcher is a part of his brand persona, appearing in several of his TV intro clips for his show. He presents the dreamcatcher to us and wishes us luck on our trip.

Just before we all head our part ways, the curator of the Jesada museum has exciting news to share with us.

“We are so happy to have you in Bangkok,” he begins “and as you know, next week is the Queen’s birthday.” True, true, we did know this. Go on. “So the Jesada Museum would like to invite you and Sheena to drive a historic miniature car from the museum in the Queen’s birthday parade.” My first instinct is to shoot a glance at Pat to see if he has anything to do with this. No, I think to myself, Pat’s brand of trickery is far more subtle.

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Nov 2013

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 13 Comments

Nacho’s New Heart

The forklift driver carefully maneuvered the arm in front of Nacho’s sliding door. The engine hung idly from a chain as the driver used the controls to square up the arm with the opening in the side of the van. Just then the skies opened up and Bangkok was engulfed in a thunderous downpour. Water immediately gushed from the middle of our rain gutter, drenching our maple floor. Things got tense quickly. With one hand I tried to divert the flow of water away from our floor, while the other held the rubber tire in place on our living room floor so that our new engine could be set down without gouging anything.

“Watch the cabinets! A little higher! Okay, set it down!” Nobody spoke any English, so I might as well have been yelling Shel Silverstein poems.

“Did you hear about Ticklish Tom? He got tickled by his mom! Wiggled and giggled and fell on the floor! Laughed and rolled right out the door!”

About a year ago when we arrived in Tierra del Fuego, Nacho’s engine started idle surfing worse than usual. At idle, the engine would cycle between 800 and 2,000 RPM repeatedly. Sheena would sit in the passenger seat and imitate the sound so as not to go crazy herself.


“Sheena, get ahold of yourself! Come on now, my love, snap out of it!”


Normally I would simply adjust the throttle position switch or the air mix screw, or else replace the Temp II sensor to fix this. This time, the problem remained. Upon removing the throttle body it became clear that it was too worn out to any longer control the air flowing through its various gaps.  We idle surfed our way to Buenos Aires, Kuala Lumpur, and all throughout Southeast Asia.

I began to worry about our engine, so I looked to online forums for reassurance. “These engines are great—they’ll last upwards of 190k miles,” they would say. At over 200k miles, Nacho had the heart of a smoking octogenarian.

In Northern Thailand there were two occasions when the roads proved too steep for us to drive up, and we were unable to proceed. We had to back down the hills and find other ways to our destinations. This happened several times in the Americas as well, and we began to feel nervous for our own safety as the Himalayas loomed closer. It seemed Nacho’s 5,800lb FUPA was no match for our 95 horsepower smoking octogenarian engine.

As I sat in Sukothai, Thailand replacing every one of our engine wires after they were melted into a ball by a near engine-fire I cried uncle. Nacho needed a new engine. It just so happened that we knew a guy who knew a guy. Meet Pat: our Thai Volkswagen ambassador and knower of all things important. He selflessly offered himself up as our engine swap guru.

Pat quickly sprung into action by contacting a garage just outside of Bangkok that specializes in, get this, putting Subaru engines into Volkswagen Vanagons. The garage has done around 50 conversions already, and with great success. And cheap. Everything was set up—all I had to do was show up with an engine. The swap would take 10 days.

Without our trusty steed, we’d need a place to stay. Rather than paying double price for a seedy hostel, we opted to pay half price for a sweet apartment of our own. We would do the engine swap while using the apartment as our headquarters for publishing our first book. At the end of the stay we’d ship out for India. It would be perfect.

First things first: it was time to find an engine. But where to find a Subaru engine in Bangkok? Simple, Pat assured us. We’d simply go to the place that sells Subaru engines. Bangkok has everything.

Pat swung by and I followed him in what would be the first of several long trips to various places around the city. We wound our way through highways and surface streets to the autoparts district, and found the place with dozens of Subaru engines stacked atop each other. Pat had called ahead, so they had already pulled down two EJ25 engines for us to choose from. I pulled out my compression tester and we went to work.

The first engine fired right up, but sounded a little rough. I did the compression test and found one cylinder to be a little bit low. The next engine purred like an abnormally silent kitten, and tested at 152psi all the way around. Perfectly balanced, and with only 62k miles on it. Bingo!

Due to very strict emissions and mileage allowances in Japan, car owners must frequently replace their engines or buy new cars to keep up. This creates a surplus of lightly-used engines which must be disposed of. Thailand has a program to import these engines at a very low cost; our engine was imported as a part of this program.

I paid the man and he loaded it into Nacho’s living room while the sky released a flash flood onto Nacho’s maple floor. Once the rain subsided I lashed it down with a ratchet strap and we were GTG (good to go).

We had always heard rumors about performing engine swaps in Thailand. It was meant to be very cheap. A standard conversion to an EJ25 engine stateside typically runs somewhere in the neighborhood of $9,000 all said and done, often more. We’ve even seen cases where the van owner does the work himself, and still spends over $10,000. We had heard that in Thailand it could be done for around $3,000. But what of the workmanship? Would this be a beer can and bubble gum job?

When we got to Bangkok a couple of months earlier and met with the VW Club of Bangkok, we were amazed to find that almost every one of the T3 vans had been converted to Subaru engines, and everyone loved them. We were sold.

We left the engine store and drove to the outskirts of town to Soonthorn Garage, where Nacho would live for the next 10 days.

A couple of days later, Pat picked me up at our apartment in Bang Chak and drove me out to the garage to check on the progress. The mechanic had removed our poor old engine and we found it in the middle of the floor alongside its replacement. The old engine looked sort of like a dead hobo tangled up in a fishing net, while the new engine looked like a freshly manufactured Kalashnikov killing machine. Still, I found myself sitting and staring at the old engine, remembering all we’d been through. I’d pretty much replaced or fixed everything on that old engine. I knew it inside and out. I could almost hear its surfing idle.


We dropped off a new set of head gaskets and other assorted doo-dads that I’d ordered from the States so that our engine would be totally fresh. I handed a new clutch throwout bearing to the mechanic, took one last look and we went on our way, back to the city to write.

Back in the city, Sheena and I fell into a routine of writing in the mornings, and then heading out for lunch. Our apartment was situated next door to a pharmaceutical factory, and every day a group of street food carts would congregate outside to feed the workers. This was our usual lunch for the duration of our stay in Bangkok. In the afternoons there was more writing, and then in the evenings we’d head out. Sometimes we’d go to our neighborhood night market to buy food to bring back for a night in, while other nights we’d head out on the town. You know, to the Italian Film Festival, or to the mall, where you can buy a Hello Kitty backpack or a $1.1 million dollar car.

The mechanic called on the final day and mentioned that I’d need a new starter. Thinking that I knew best, I ensured him that our starter was fine, and that I’d replaced it in Colombia as a part of our mass car parts smuggling operation. He begrudgingly agreed to keep it, and told me I could come check out Nacho’s new heart.

The ever-generous Pat took another afternoon off of work to pick me up at the apartment and bring me the 40 kilometers out to the garage. When we arrived Nacho was out having some final welding done for the modified bumper mount. The old mount used the engine brace to support the weight of the bumper, but the engine brace had been moved to accept the new engine, so some handy work was required. Within a few minutes we heard the faint purring of a smoother-than-usual baby kitten, and knew it must be little Nachito.

I was ready to go. It was test drive time. I walked over to Nacho, hopped in, and turned the key. The starter emitted a shrieking noise like a dying hyena, and then remained engaged with the flywheel, producing a deadly grinding noise. I killed it and shot a glance at the mechanic. He looked uneasy. I hit the key again and heard nothing but a light zipping noise.

As it turns out, the mechanic knew what he was talking about. My starter had 9 teeth, which engaged perfectly with the VW flywheel. The new Subaru flywheel required a 10 tooth starter, meaning that the old model wouldn’t work. The old starter succeeded in a few starts, but then the mismatch in gears finally sheared off the head of the starter motor gear. Pat brought me home.

The next morning I took a taxi onto the motorway, where I was picked up by Pat’s company van on its way to work. I waited at Pat’s work until he was finished with his meeting, and then the van took us to the garage. Having arrived at lunch time, I went with the chauffeur and workers who had accompanied us in the van to the food stall down the road for some fried rice and congealed-blood soup. And then it was time.

We walked to the garage and found Nacho ready to go. I turned the key and the engine jumped to life, and then assumed a low purr. In fact, the engine idled so silently that from the driver’s seat it was impossible to tell if the car was even running. No vibration, no sound; the engine was perfectly balanced and perfectly tuned. The only evidence of life was seen by reading the tachometer.

Driving the van was like a dream. When I pulled out of the driveway it was clear that things had changed. Stepping on the gas no longer produced a delayed, slow acceleration, but rather a sharp and powerful forward jump. I pulled onto a country road and gunned it. The van accelerated like a small performance car. I could feel myself pressing back into the seat from the acceleration. On the motorway back to the apartment I decided to see how fast it’d go. I pressed the accelerator and effortlessly reached 90 miles per hour, but thought better of it and backed off. Nacho’s still morbidly obese, after all.

Nacho was a power machine! The Chuck Norris of slightly ugly 1980’s camper vans!


Old engine, by the numbers: 2.1L Volkswagen Wasserboxer

  • Year mf’d: 1986
  • Power: 95hp
  • Torque: 117 lb-ft
  • Fuel economy: 17mpg – highway

New engine, by the numbers: 2.5L Subaru EJ25D

  • Year mf’d: 1997
  • Power: 165hp (74% improvement)
  • Torque: 162 lb-ft (38% improvement)
  • Fuel economy: 21mpg – highway (24% improvement)


The van drove like a dream right from day one. We had heard issues with the old radiator not being able to cool the engine adequately, but our new engine runs cooler than our old one. When our engine speed gets over 4k RPM the engine cuts in and out. This is a safety feature, and I believe that it’s meant to be overcome by having a neutral sensor to tell the engine that it’s not in neutral, which the Vanagon doesn’t have. I’m now in the process of building a neutral sensor to overcome this, but it’s not a problem for daily driving. The one downside I can think of is the loss in ground clearance caused by a low-hanging oil pan. This can be remedied by a $400 low profile oil pan, but I think I’ll wait until I get home to swap it out.


This is what everyone really wants to know. Remember that the average cost for this conversion back home is around $9k, and often involves lots of DIY work. This conversion was completely hands-off, turn-key, and was performed flawlessly.

Engine + wiring harness: $910


Speed sensor: $69

Labor, misc parts: $2,436

TOTAL: $3,705

And for this extreme bargain (according to me), or hefty frivolity (according to Sheena), I have promised my wife that I will use Nacho as my daily driver for the next forty years. I was already planning to do so, but seriously, Sheena. For this steal of a price you damn me to a future of driving the most awesome car in all the world, a future of lunchtime parking lot siestas, of style and luxury and power? I bite my thumb at you, dear Sheena, for I am the winner here. I am biting my thumb now, and it tastes like sweet victory.

And speaking of sweet victory, we published our book shortly after Nacho’s heart transplant. If you haven’t read it yet, click here to go to it. If you already have, help us out by leaving a review for it on Amazon, because reviews sell books. Thanks!

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Aug 2013

Asia, Blog


Barkeep, Another Mekong Please

Brad sat with his back to the Mekong River and I watched his face slowly darken to a silhouette of black. The sky was smeared with the most brilliant blues while the dark clouds seemingly sat on an invisible sheet of glass. We rested here, along the Mekong River on one of the many balconies that hung from the side of Chiang Khan’s traditional timber houses.

Fishermen in cone hats floated down the river in their long tail boats. I was thrilled to be where we were, and feeling like I had just met a celebrity because the Mekong is just that—more popular than Leonardo or Oprah in this part of the world. The same water that flowed past us originated on the Tibetan Plateau in China and is said to be, after the Amazon, the world’s second most aquatically bio-diverse river. As a result it is also the lifeline and trading route for millions of people.

As the sun set, the fishermen made their way back to their respective shore. Since the river forms the border between Laos and Thailand, some of these fishermen went home to Thailand for the night while others went to Laos. The two sides of the river represent two uniquely different worlds, cultures, and faces.

Brad hummed the lyrics of “Mekong” by The Refreshments, a local band from Arizona, and ordered a beer.

Barkeep, Another Mekong please

Yes of course you can keep the change

A new glass here for this new friend of mine

Forgive me I forgot your name

Being that we were along the Laos-Thai border it was decision time. We were at a loss for what to do next: cross into Laos at the Thai-Lao Friendship bridge (just a mere hour away) or follow the Mekong for another couple hundred miles South and then drive back up the other side in Laos?

Thailand had been really good to us with more mountains, elephants, temples, spicy food, beaches and bioluminescent creatures of the sea than we could ask for. Yet we agreed it was time for a new adventure.

For our last miles in Thailand we passed through the country’s spring-roll-wrapper and rice noodle production capitals. We made a quick stop for lunch at a rice noodle stand, snapped an obligatory photo of Nacho next to the King and crossed the border towards Vientiane.

Oh joy. Capital city time.

If there is one thing we hate doing it is driving in capital cities.

We were ready. I paused the music and cleared the emergency break of jammed books and water bottles and Brad tightened his grip on the wheel, prepared to swerve around dogs and children and motorcycles if need be.

But then the most amazing thing happened: the unrelenting chaos never came. We passed Patuxai, the city’s war monument and  then all of a sudden were cruising down the capital’s main avenue. It was strangely peaceful. We could hardly believe that this was the country’s capital. There was even street parking! Well kind of. We did as the Laotians do and launched our bus on the pedestrian sidewalk and parked.

“Pepe, we’re here.” Five minutes after hanging up the phone we met Pepe, another friend of a friend of a friend of a friend in the Volkswagen community.

Reason #168 for choosing a Volkswagen for around-the-world travel: instant friends.

Pepe was not a native Laotian but was originally from Thailand. He had however married a Loatian woman, had a child, and had now lived in Laos for the last 20 odd years. He also owned a gas station where he stored his Volkswagens, which he had temporarily put to use as storage containers for boxes and boards and other materials. The gas station was also a great place for Brad to change the oil in Nacho. Pepe introduced us to his young son, who wasted no time in naming his dad’s 1960’s-era VW bus “Nacholine”. Next, we all watched as smoke mysteriously wafted up from under our floorboards—something that Brad discovered minutes later to be the controller for our UV water purifier in self-destruct mode.

The guys talked car stuff for most of the afternoon and when dinner rolled around Pepe led us to a Vietnamese joint. Despite the capital’s petite size, its selection of international food was fantastic: Laotian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian and because of former French rule in Laos, French food. There was even French-Lao fusion food on the streets such as the baguette fully loaded with cucumber, meat, pickles, radish, green papaya, meat pâté, sweet chile sauce, spicy hot sauce and topped with cilantro and spring onions.

As for dinner, Vietnamese food was new to us so Pepe did the ordering: cut-up fried spring rolls, sausage, a plate heaping of vegetables and herbs, rice noodles and rice paper wrappers, and many, many bowls of dipping sauces.

“Watch.” Pepe pulled a sheet of rice paper from under the lettuce stack and cupped it in his hand. He added a small piece of lettuce as the next layer.

“Always cover the rice paper with lettuce, that way they won’t dry out. Next take one piece of everything on the plate: a slice of cucumber, some bean sprouts, a little bit of rice noodles, basil, mint, cilantro, some bitter herbs, and a bit of sauce. And last, add a slice of sausage or fried spring roll if you want.”

While he talked I built my own supersized lettuce wrap.

“You put the entire thing in your mouth. This way you will get all of the flavors in one bite.”

I tightened my wrap to condense its size and stuffed it in my mouth. I was in heaven. This was what I was looking for. Not only was the mixture of flavors amazingly fresh and good but the scene around me was something entirely new: men eating lettuce wraps. I couldn’t ask for anything more. Nothing turns an ordinary man into a beefcake like a lettuce wrap in hand.

For the next few days, with our umbrellas at our side we explored Vientiane’s temples, the massive gold stupa, the night market, and riverside boardwalk. The women in Laos all wore traditional sarongs, even if working office jobs, paired with a collared blouse and high heels. I can’t describe how or why, but life felt different on this side of the river.

On one of our last evenings, Pepe took us to a fancy Laotian restaurant where he said important people from the embassies and government take their visitors. At the front of the restaurant a small stage was set up where a male college student played the khaen, a traditional Laotian wind instrument made of a double row of bamboo-like reeds. Girls with porcelain faces and cone-shaped buns atop their heads performed the national folk dance of lamvong, extending their arms and legs in deliberate movements while their hands swayed back and forth, their fingers arched back towards their wrists.

Pepe told us that the arch of the fingers in Laotian and Thai dancers is very important; a symbol of the dancers experience and abilities. Dancers start training at a young age, beginning with their parents bending their fingers back in attempt to mold the bone. As a result many dancers are extraordinarily elastic and able to bend their fingers backwards almost to the wrist. The young Laotian dancers and musicians at the restaurant were all students at a local music school, practicing here as part of their program. At the end of each dance, each girl would bow and then quickly race off to the back in a fit of giggles.

While we watched the girls dance we ate sticky rice,a food that can easily be described as every Laotian’s staple: eaten as the base for every single meal in Laos. This translates into a consumption rate of 240 pounds of rice per year per person! In comparison, the average American consumes 20 pounds.

Pepe showed us the proper way to eat sticky rice. He pulled a chunk of rice from the clumped mass in the bamboo container and held it between his fingers. “What you do is squeeze the rice between your fingers.” While he talked, he continued to squeeze and pinch. “Many foreigners don’t do this correctly. Some of the eat it with a fork!” He looked surprised and disgusted. “They don’t understand that the more you squeeze, the better the sticky rice will taste. Once you are ready you just dip your sticky rice into your curry or soup.”

I pulled off a chunk of the sticky rice.

Without going into the history of my dislike for rice I will say that I didn’t believe kneading this bland hunk of rice between my fingers would make me like it any more. Yet I followed procedure. I pinched and I kneaded and I eventually turned my rice into an unrecognizable ball of white putty.  It was moist and chewy and delicious. I realized I was beginning to fall in love.

In the evening we left the restaurant and returned to our sleeping headquarters. We had parked Nacho along the Mekong River across from the Grand Hotel. Just a few steps away, a long row of clothing vendors had set up on the boardwalk for the night market. People walked around selling snacks, and mobile pedicurists each carried a stool and a shallow tub for washing feet and carrying manicure tools, ready to start scrubbing with the wave of a hand. Yes, we live in our van down by the river. But it’s the Mekong River, so we’ll drink to that.

[grooveshark width=”580″ id=”1332702″ autoplay=”0″ style=”metal”]Mekong by The Refreshments on Grooveshark[/grooveshark]

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Aug 2013

Asia, Blog


A Series of Unfortunate Events

It all started with a little bump.

“What on Earth was that?” Sheena asked, wide-eyed and alarmed. “Just a little bump,” I said reassuringly.

As dictated by Murphy’s Law, it was 92 kilometers into a 100 kilometer diversion off of Thailand’s northwestern mountain circuit that would have taken us to a high mountaintop campsite next to a glistening lake, when the road turned up at an unnaturally steep gradient. As we rounded the bend we saw the road kick straight up and we knew it was over before it began. I gunned it, we slowed, I kept the pedal on the floor, we slowed more, I feathered the clutch, and then the engine died.

“Bloody hell.” Just a few days prior we’d come within 10 kilometers of the highest point in Thailand before we were forced to turn around for lack of power. Nacho weighs 5,800 pounds and we have a 90 horsepower engine. Solid.

Without engine power to boost our brakes I couldn’t hold Nacho there on the hill for long, so I slowly guided us backwards until we came to a small side road. I wedged Nacho up onto the path and started the back-and-forth motion of a 36 point turn, Austin Powers style. Finally, I pulled onto the road, but when I did, the steepness of the side road exceeded our exit angle and our exhaust pipe and rear bumper slammed into the ground.

“Probably nothing!” I said as we carried on. I made a mental note to check that out later. Two days later I finally remembered to look at it, and found that we’d dented our bumper a little, but the exhaust pipe looked fine. When the exhaust pipe fell off the next day, it became clear that, in fact, the exhaust pipe was not fine.

All right, no exhaust pipe. The muffler was still there, so seemingly the only difference was that exhaust gases would come out the side of the van instead of being diverted backwards. We carried on through Chiang Mai, and drove a few hundred kilometers south to the town of Sukothai where we imagined ourselves passing our days strolling among ancient temple ruins.

“The idle’s a bit erratic,” I told Sheena. “I’m going in for a closer look.” We’d checked into a guesthouse, and that’s where I left Sheena as I walked to the field next door to see why Nacho was misbehaving. I removed everything from the back and popped the engine lid for a closer look.

Lots of dirt, little bit of oil—normal.

Throttle position switch still clicks—good to go.

No loose connections, no broken hoses—sweet action.

A big charred ball of wires stuck to the exhaust heat shield…hmmm.

My mind went into analytical mode, recounting the possibilities. Oh yes. Mmhmm. Oh, of course. That’s bad. Soon enough I’d realized why engineers invented exhaust pipes in the first place. Whenever I sat at idle, the heat from our muffler had been wafting straight up into the engine compartment rather than being diverted safely out the back. This had caused the heat shield to become red hot, which in turn melted our main engine wiring harness, which was inexplicably strung right across the heat shield. I picked it up and inspected it, but it was obvious that all of the wires had melted and shorted together, causing all 14 of them to become one big charred mess. It’s a miracle Nacho didn’t burst into flames, as this charred ball sat directly under our brittle plastic semi-leaky fuel rail from 1984.

I hopped on a little girl’s bike that I found at the guesthouse, and pedaled it to the nearest home supply store, where I bought 30 meters of monofilament wire. Not exactly “the right stuff”, but one can’t be picky when one’s engine is in shambles and one’s wife is contentedly sitting in her comfortable guesthouse, unaware that she might have reason to be discontented.

And that’s the story of how I came to be sitting in the hot field in Sukothai for the whole day rewiring our entire engine. Thank goodness for multimeters and beer.

Being that we were still on Earth, and thus still under the constant pull of gravity and Murphy’s law, it started to rain just as I was finishing up. And boy did it rain. And rain. And rain. I opted to save the test drive for the next morning, when we would jet out of town to explore the nearby temple ruins.

When morning rolled around we loaded Nacho up and crossed our fingers. I turned the key, and to our collective delight Nacho whimpered to life, stuttered, nearly died, and then resumed an unhealthy idle fluttering between 800 and 1500 RPM. Yes! Back to normal!

I threw it in reverse and pressed the gas. Rather than moving backwards, as expected, we traveled straight down, approximately eight inches, into the ground, which was unexpected. Huh.

As it turned out, the heavy rain had turned our field into somewhat of a soil crème brûlée. The slightest movement of our tires had caused us to break through the crispy top layer and sink into the clay custard below. Out came the sand ladders, out came the shovel.

Damn you, Murphy!

The white guy with the tiny shovel caused quite a sensation, and soon we had a small audience of old Thai ladies and seemingly helpless backpackers from the guesthouse who must have forgotten that it’s customary to offer one’s help when a fellow countryman finds himself stuck in the mud.

After several nearly successful tries, which saw our tires slipping deeper and deeper into the custard, the little old Thai ladies decided that we would not be successful without their help. They sprang into action, throwing bits of debris into our tire holes, and then motioned for me to fire it up. I delicately put it in reverse and slowly released the clutch. Seeing little promise of success, the little old Thai ladies started pushing. The bigger of the two pushed on the front bumper, while the smaller one, weighing in at around 75 pounds, placed her hand on my door handle and pulled with all of her might.

Slowly Nacho crept backwards, and soon I was crawling out of the quagmire, trying not to run over the skinny lady, who was still holding onto my door handle. Success! The backpackers went back to their coconut waters and their books, the old ladies helped us wash off our sand ladders in the well, and soon we were on our way to the welder to get a new exhaust pipe.

What a cluster. And to think, this all started with a little bump.

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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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