Sunday, May 29, 2011

Cooking and Silkworms

This is the last post in our series about Chiang Mai. If you missed one of the earlier posts you can use the links on the right hand side of this page to view those posts as well.

Thai food is awesome. If you've ever had any, you know what I'm talking about. Thai food in Thailand is even better! So, we had to take a cooking class to show us how to make authentic Thai food. Here's Jennifer - with a knife! We had to chop up a lot of really unique ingredients, like lemon grass, turmeric, galengal, finger ginger, and of course super-hot Thai chilies!

The standard Thai cooking method is stir-fry in a wok. We all got to have a chance to cook our own food in a wok. For those of you that have never cooked in a wok - it's really fun! You should definitely try it!!

The first thing we made was phad thai, or fried noodles. Here is a picture of my finished product. I cooked it, then I ate it, and I lived to tell the tale.

We also made the most famous of all thai dishes - green curry! A pre-requisite for authentic green curry is, of course, green curry paste. I took a turn mashing the lemon grass, chilies, scallions, and varieties of ginger root in this stone mortar and pestal. Cool hat, huh?

The other main ingredient in green curry is coconut milk. We milked our own coconuts by soaking the flesh in water and then squeezing the milk through a cheese cloth. Here is Jennifer as a coconut milk maid! Her mom would be proud!

In case you're wondering, Craig was not interested in cooking. Instead, he provided entertainment to the staff by showing them how to use the iBabysitter (iPad to all the rest of you).

Can't you just smell the yummy spicy but sweet with baby eggplant, corn, chicken galengal, turmeric, finger ginger and lemongrass goodness? Okay, gotta run to eat some of that stuff!

Okay, I'm back! Chaing Mai is part of the Silk Road due to it's close proximity to the Golden Triangle (where Thailand, Laos, and China all intersect). As such, there are many silk villages nearby that still produce silk products. We got to see how Thai silk is made. It all begins when a silk moth lays a small egg. Those small yellow specs are actually silkworm eggs!

Eventually that small little dot hatches into tiny silkworms or caterpillars, that eat mulberry leaves. These worms just eat and eat and eat, until they get to me about an inch and a half in length.

Once they are big enough they start to spin their cocoon. The cocoon is made of a long, thin, continuous strand of pure silk.

Next comes the part where humans take the cocoons and turn it into silk yarn. The process starts with boiling the cocoons to kill the worms. Then, the silk is pulled out of the pot and wound into a bundle of yarn using a spindle.

Here's craig next to a pile of silk yarn. The yellow colored silk is raw, untreated silk. The blue and white bundles have been dyed.

So, that concludes the 5 post series about Chiang Mai! We did so much in just a few days there, that it took this many posts just to give you a sense of how much fun we had. Stay tuned for more posts from Hong Kong, Bali, and other places in Thailand and Malaysia!!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Welcome to the Jungle

This is the fourth post about Chiang Mai. If you've missed one of the others, you can view them by using the links on the right hand side of this web page.

Northern Thailand is covered in misty mountains and green jungles. We took advantage of the nearby wilderness areas to interact with nature and some of the indiginous people who live there.

Southeast Asia is known for its tigers. They are smaller than the large Siberian tigers, but they are still big. We visited a tiger sanctuary, where we got to pet the tigers. This tiger is four months old, and already larger than most dogs! Craig was a bit nervous, even though the tiger mostly lounged around and ignored us. I guess there is some housecat in there somewhere...

Here is Craig next to a sleeping tiger. Tigers are pretty sleepy during the day and are most active at night. They don't really react when kids poke and prod them while they're napping - kinda like most grandpa's I know.

Near to the tiger sanctuary is a small long neck village. These ladies wear brass rings around their necks and knees. They add rings each year, so that over time, their necks become elongated. They aren't allowed to own property under Thai law, so they work in these villages by selling scarves and other handicrafts that they make themselves. Here is Jennifer with a lady from the village.

Here is Craig next to a younger girl in the long neck village. You can tell they start neck stretching while they're young! You can also see the knee rings in this picture. Craig is holding his pet tiger from the tiger sanctuary.

We also communed with the trees in an exciting fasion - jungle zip line! We flew from tree to tree via a series of 21 platforms connected only by zip cables.

Here is Tarzan, er, Craig. He acted like Tarzan anyway! On the shorter lines he was allowed to zip all alone, but on the longer ones, he had to zip with an instructor. He loved every second, and pounded his chest while shouting like Tarzen the whole way!

Here is Jane of the Jungle, er, Jennifer. This is one of the longer zips - some of them were over 400 meters! If you click on the picture you can see a larger version of this photo. You'll be able to see the Mae Taeng river and get a better sense of how high we really were.

On a few platforms we went down, not across. Here I am being lowered onto another platform. Now I know how Spider-man feels!

This was the scariest zip for Jennifer. It wasn't the longest, or the fastest. It wasn't even the highest. It was the zip line that allowed two people to zip side by side over the river. Jennifer zipped with Craig, and realized that we were taking our son on 21 flights through the jungle dangling from a small set of ropes and metal equipment. Well, good thing this was the last zip!

Near to the jungle zip adventure was an elephant preserve. Elephants have always been a big part of Thai culture. Sculptures of elephants adorn important buildings such as wats and palaces. White elephants are considered royal poperty of the king. Farmers use elephants as an all-purpose tool to clear land, plow fields, and move heavy loads. As modern technology is adopted in rural areas, elephants and their trainers, or mahouts, are being displaced. This elephant sanctuary provides a home for the elephants where they can live a comfortable live with their mahouts while using their great strength to give jungle tours. Here is Craig feeding one of the elephants.

Elephants are very smart and can use their trunk to do lots of things, including painting! Here is proof that elephants can paint! RaNae, you owe me five bucks!

Here is Craig with Suda, who painted the picture he's holding.

We ran into the vetrinarian who is on staff at the sanctuary, and she brought us over to see a special little elephant newborn. Here is the small little elephant boy, who was only a few hours old! We didn't get too close - his mom was very protective and we didn't want to be at the wrong end of that misunderstanding.

While we were looking at the newborn, another elephant lumbered up out of the river nearby and decided to pay a visit to the new mom and her little boy. It was a very polite visit from one experienced mom to another.

Stay tuned for the last post about Chiang Mai!!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Wats in Chiang Mai

This is the third in a series of posts about Chiang Mai. If you missed one of the earlier posts, you can use the links in the Blog Archive located on the right hand side of this page to view them too.

Chiang Mai is the capital of Northern Thailand. It is the second most important city in the country, next to Bangkok. It is home to a major university, an international airport, and about 300 wats. A wat is a Buddhist temple. Thais have their own style of Buddhist temple design that has influences from  Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and China. In Chiang Mai, the wats are a bit more rustic, with more features built from teak wood and roof lines that dip farther into the walls. Here is an account of some of the notable wats we visited in Chiang Mai.

The oldest wat in Chiang Mai is Chiang Man, which was built around 1300. The "chedi" or "stupa" tower in the back of the wat rests on the backs of 13 stucco elephants. All around the wats you can find vendors selling various things you can use for offerings. They sell lots of different things, from orange monk robes to pink lotus shaped candles to live birds. Jennifer set the live birds free for good luck.

The next wat of note that we visited was Phra Singh, which is considered the main wat of Chiang Mai. Here is Craig and I in front of the main wat next to one of the guardian nagas. A naga is a sort of snake that can have from one to seven heads. If you have read our post on Cambodia, then you already know all about them. In Chiang Mai, the naga statues usually only have one head, and they are shown emerging from the mouth of another dragon. Look closely next to Craig's shoulder - those white spikes are the teeth of another dragon that the naga emerges from!

Inside we met some monks. In Thailand, most men are expected to serve for a time as a monk at the local wat. You can serve as a monk for any duration of time, from a few days to a few years. Even the King of Thailand served as a monk for a few weeks. The young monks pictured below are novice monks.

There was a lot of activity during the Songkran holiday season. One tradition is to build miniature chedis out of sand and baskets in the grounds of the wat. Here is Jennifer and Craig in front of some small sand chedis. The flags have the horoscope animals on it, plus an elephant.

Each wat actually houses multiple buildings, each with exquisite carvings and gold-leafed statues. This doorway is covered in tiny intricate carvings and then covered with gold leaf.

This next wat is Chedi Luang, which at one point was home to the famous Emerald Buddha. The Emerald Buddha is actually made out of green jade, and is now housed in Royal Palace in Bangkok. The chedi in this wat was destroyed by an earthquake in the 1500's. It was restored recently by some Japanese researchers, however they stopped before building the tower. The reason they stopped is that no one really knows what the rest of the chedi should look like, so they couldn't agree on how to finish it.

Just behind the main chedi is a small chapel made of dark-stained teak wood and decorated with inlaid stones and jewelled glass. It's something we haven't seen before in Thailand, where most wats are covered in gold leaf and the wood is painted white.

Wats typically have bells located somewhere on the grounds. Worshippers will ring each bell in succession for good luck. Craig rang them because we said it was okay - it's not often it's acceptable for a six-year-old to make noise!

The most famous wat near Chiang Mai is Phrathat Doi Suthep. Phrathat Doi Suthep is the second most important wat in Thailand, next to the wats near the Royal Palace in Bangkok. This wat is located high in the mountains just to the west of Chiang Mai. It is said that an ancient monk came into possession of one of Buddha's bone fragments. This artifact had several convenient magical powers, among them the power to be invisible or the power to replicate itself. The monk placed this fragment on an elephant and released it into the hills. Once the elephant found the spot for the wat, it trumpeted three times and died on the spot. It was definitely a long hike to the top of the mountain for the elephant. The stairs from the base of the hill where Phrathat Doi Suthep is built have over 300 steps, with a seven-headed naga lining each side.

The top of the hill offers great views of Chiang Mai, and also a nice setting to enjoy a refreshing beverage. Do you recognize this brand? There really isn't anything more American than a blue-eyed, blond-haired beauty drinking โคก, is there?

Here is Jennifer ringing the bells at Phrathat Doi Suthep. I guess adults like to make noise, too.

In the middle of the wat is this gold-clad chedi, which houses the Buddha artifact somewhere inside (it's likely in an invisible state right now). We were happy for the cloud cover and the high altitude, all of that gold reflection can be very hot in full sun!

Here is Jennifer standing near the chedi.

That night we thought we were done with wats. However, while wondering the streets of Chiang Mai, we stumbled onto this little cooking stand. We had stir-fired basil with rice, and kaw soy noodles. It was the best food we had all day - and it cost literally pennies!

The table wasn't decorated very fancy, but the setting was right next to a wat made entirely of dark-stained teak wood with a brilliant white chedi behind it.

Well, now you know a bit about wats in Chiang Mai. Check back to see pictures of our visit to a silk farm, an elephant preseve, a jungle zipline adventure, and Thai cooking school.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Chiang Mai Bosan Umbrella Village

By now you should have read about Songkran, which is Thai new year. If you missed that post, you can use the Blog Archive links on the right side of this page to view it. We were in Chiang Mai for Songkran, but we also had time to see the area and experience some new things before we got all wet.

My Grandma Nita suggested that we visit Chiang Mai. She's been there before, and remembers the elephants, hill tribes, and painted umbrellas. She loved the painted umbrellas, so we made sure to visit a bosan umbrella village, where we got to see how umbrellas are made.

The umbrellas are framed with bamboo and covered in either cloth or saa paper. Saa paper is the really thin but sturdy paper that theThais make from saa tree pulp. Here is Craig standing next to a saa tree.

The first step to make saa paper is to pound the pulp until it is soft.

The next step is to soak the pulp in water, stirring occasionally. This will separate the fibers used to make paper from the rest of the tree.

After a few hours, the paper fibers float to the top of the water. A sieve is used to skip the white paper fibers from the water.

The final step is to allow the white pulp to dry, after which it is formed into a sheet of saa paper!

Artisans use the paper as the canopy material for the bamboo umbrellas. The bamboo is cut and assembled by hand. Here is one artisan assembling a bamboo frame.

Here is another pasting the saa paper canopy onto the bamboo frame.

Craig really enjoyed the umbrella making, and even decided he wanted to learn a bit more about how to make them. So, he sat himself down next to one of the artisans and took an improptu lesson. The artisan happily obliged, and taught Craig how to put the finishing touches onto a pink umbrella (because Mommy's favorite color is pink).

Along with umbrella making, the village also has umbrella painting. You can choose to have your umbrella painted with just about anything, from elephants... dragons...

...or orchids.

You can even get your clothes painted. Craig wanted a dragon painted on his pants. His mom let him do it (not me!)

Here is Dragon Craig!

The umbrella village was really cool. The craftsmanship was top notch and the artisans were all really friendly and happy to teach us a little about this unique trade.