Friday, August 27, 2010

She sneaks around the world from Hong Kong to Saronida…

Where as the first two months were spent primarily within the city limits of Chiang Mai, during the month of August I seemed to have barely been in the city.

For our week long break for midterms (which coincided with the end of my dengue experience) I drove solo down to the city of Lamphun – a drive lined with majestic rubber trees and explored wats both new and well kept, and ancient. On the drive back I went in search of an elephant chedi I had read about where one could offer up bananas and sugar cane to the stone elephants. I discovered the chedi and I also discovered around forty men and women dancing in bright and shimmering outfits – I stayed to watch sitting on the seat of my bike.

The next day I embarked upon a spontaneous trip to Hong Kong to visit my Princeton roommate Shobi! It was the oddest thing to board a plane in Bangkok and arrive in Hong Kong three hours later when I’m used to trips to Asia taking 30 hours…but wait I’m already in Asia. So I landed, made it into the city and was met by Shobi’s husband and led to a restaurant where we had a Chinese feast: fried fish, fried rice, cooked unidentifiable leafy vegetables, and Peking duck – I love Thai food, but there is a lot to be said for variety. Shobi and I spent the entire time giggling and swapping stories and remarking upon how absurd it was that we were both sitting in a restaurant in Asia! The next two days consisted of one delicious meal after another – homemade Indian chai in the mornings, and absurd amount of pastries, muffins, croissants, and cheese, long thin rice noodles that were made in front of us, curly black and white leathery mushrooms that looked like ears, an entire Indian feast of six dishes that we cooked together at Shobi’s apartment during a torrential downpour. For dinner one night we sought out a small hole in the wall restaurant notable for its possession of a Michelin star – the former chef of the Four Season’s decided to make a high class dim sum place for the people. There we ordered practically half the menu and left clutching our stomachs. When not eating we explored fish markets glistening with still flopping fish and malls shiny with Prada and Gucci, we took a day trip out to the coast and a trip across the river to watch the city skyline turn into an enormous light show complete with coordinated music.

(A little piece of Princeton for the two recent Alums!)

Then suddenly I was back on a plane and back in Chiang Mai…but not for long. The next morning Riley and I boarded a three-hour bus (playing Thai slap-stick comedy shows the entire way) to Chiang Rai to visit the three PiA fellows up there. We spent a day exploring the city via the flimsiest bikes I have ever had occasion to sit on. The next morning all five of us caught a bus up into the mountains to the town of Mae Salong. The town is famous for the large quantity of opium that used to be cultivated on its slopes, but the government in an attempt to crack down has had the town switch to growing tea and coffee. The town was originally settled by people of the Hunan Province of China and it has retained much of its ancestry in the modern day – the people look more Chinese then Thai, the food served is Chinese and so is all the writing on the store fronts. To sample the local goods we sat down at a tea-shop and sipped tiny scalding cups of green and jasmine tea. It sounds so serene right? Sipping tea up in the mountains in a tiny sleepy town…think again…while that might have been our intention, no sooner had we sat down then a group of locals sat down for a boisterous lunch, two kids got on a computer and started up a shooting game with the volume cranked up and a Chinese tour group descended on the shop in search of tea. Here be Thailand! I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But we not only sampled the tea of the north, but also the nightlife. First it was off to a Thai’s birthday party we ended up being invited to where we were served plates and bowls of Thai curries and soups and then (because such a party would not be complete without it) a good hour of karaoke! But the night wasn’t over yet and it did not end until early in the morning after exploring a hopping club complete with dragon head statues, fog machines, and green strobe lights, and deciding not to explore two clubs invitingly (or uninvitingly) named: The Womb and The Sperm Pub.

(A Small shop in Mae Salong)

Then it was finally back to that thing called work and class…but don’t worry not for too long…three weeks later I found myself boarding another plane this time to Bangkok for a three day adventure with the other Chiang Mai PiA girls! From our base camp on the edge of the famous red light district we hailed pearly pink cabs (the primary vehicle of the city) to the renowned old palace that literally glows with the amount of gold used on the wats, statues, stairs.

We explored one of the fancy malls of the city and ran into the oldest princess of Thailand – well not really ran into her, but saw her walk out of an elevator dressed all in pink on her way to open some store in the mall. The next day we headed out to one of the markets in the city – its enormous and seems to encompass everything if you can just find it: clothes – both practical and fashionable, pottery, jewelry, plants, food, music, furniture, art, cloth, and the most memorable – animals (also the hardest for me to handle). I have been to animal markets in China that are much worse, but even with it being better I don’t think I will ever be comfortable with them. But we did see everything it seemed: puppies and kittens of all varieties, hamsters, little squirrels on leashes, every kind of fish imaginable, chickens, ducks, turtles – including palm sized albino ones, raccoons, a small crocodile. In a dark corner we found a large group of men circled around a ring where inside we found two cocks going at each other… Geertz would be at home here.

(Riley utilizing her shades against all the glitter and gold of the old palace)

From Bangkok I headed off to my biggest adventure yet: a week in Turkey and Greece with the family for the occasion of our great friends Manolis and Lucile’s wedding! The trip could not have started off on a more promising foot – arriving bleary eyed to the hotel at 7 am I was beckoned down stairs and outside where I found a seat overlooking the Bosporus and from where I was served: a plate of cheese, cold meats, cucumbers, tomatoes and olives, a large basket of warm pastries, a bowl of muesli and yogurt in which I drizzled honey, a plate of fruit, a large glass of fresh orange juice and two steaming mugs of tea one after the other. While staring in wonder at this feast in front of me (many portions which are very sadly lacking in my new home country) I glanced up to see dolphins jumping off shore…can it get better than this? I don’t think so…of course it did!

First of all it was amazing to see most of the family (Daniel was home because he already had started college) as well as Pardis and John who were traveling with us. Then of course there was the exploration of Istanbul itself! Every morning we would set sail from Asia in pursuit of Europe (the Bosporus runs along the meeting of the two continental plates allowing us the amusement of breakfast in Asia, lunch in Europe and dinner back in Asia). We wandered through the Grand Bazaar, craned our necks to get a good look at the painted interior domes of a number of mosques, strolled through the old Harem quarters of Tokapi Palace. To escape the sun we stepped into the dimly lit marble chambers of an old city Haman – possibly patronized by Ataturk and Florence Nightingaleand were led into octagonal heated rooms with geometric perforated ceilings and gushing fountains along the walls, where large Turkish women scrubbed years worth of dirt from your skin and sang songs that reverberated off the stone.

While wandering one afternoon in the Grand Bazaar we happened upon a backgammon game played by old Turkish men in a side silver workshop. (Backgammon is an unofficial national sport of the country and personally my favorite game). Staying to watch we were drawn into the folds of the game. Then suddenly I found myself warmly beckoned to the wooden stool and throwing dice with trepidation, with an older mentor at my side who would shake his head and re-move my pieces on occasion if he thought my moves unwise. Over the course of three rounds we drew thirteen more men around our table and at some point we were offered tea that I gulped in between moves – The men play incredibly fast seemingly having memorized every possible move and combination – I have thus since resolved to study hard before my next visit.

(David scaling an old Byzantine wall)

Then of course there was the food: I could go on and on about the wonders of cheese (and by the trips end it had become a running joke) however I will attempt to spare you and just say that there is a glorious amount of cheese and yogurt in Istanbul and I made it my duty to sample some at every meal and indeed between meals – a daunting task for sure, but utterly enjoyable! But besides just cheese it was simply amazing to not be consuming coconut milk, curries, and somtam (papaya salad). I have grown up partaking in the cuisine of a different country every night and it has been odd to limit myself to just one these past months. We ate: cheese borek, overstuffed potatoes, small Turkish dumplings smothered in yogurt, kefta, fresh fish – grilled and fried along the Bosphorus, cherries and meatballs, lentil soups, kebabs, baklava, honey cakes, Turkish double boiled tea, blackberries, figs and, the day before we flew to Greece – goat milk ice cream with the consistency of melting taffy, sweetened with tree pollen and flavored strongly with Turkish coffee grounds!

All to soon it we were grabbing our last cheese borek to go and boarding a plane to Athens, but our prospects were hardly gloomy for of course there was the main event of our trip still ahead of us. Friday night dinner consisted of an intimate family feast at Manolis’s parents’ summer house – an intimate feast of maybe forty people. Platters of lamb – including the local favorite – lamb innards, which taste just as succulent, tzatziki, fries, spinach dishes, trays of figs, Greek ice cream, French fruit pastry tarts…dinner.

The next day was one of recovery and utter laziness…sitting by the pool reading, swimming, exploring just far enough to find a cheese shop (you have probably gotten the impression that I might be harboring a not so secret obsession…you would be right) and a shady restaurant by the beach where we filled the table with food (we guessed that dinner wouldn’t be till quite late). Then it was off to the wedding where we sipped wine on the beach and applauded when the bride and groom emerged looking gorgeous. And then we were off in all our finery following the bride and groom as they led forty minutes along the beach and up into the hills to a tiny church, all the while the bright red sun slowly dipping into the ocean.

For all those who have seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding and wonders as to the validity of the service I can attest that it is relatively accurate. The church that Manolis and Lucile got married in was much more beautiful – all awash in floor to ceiling murals, and the priests were large, bearded and robed. After the service we processed in a leisurely fashion back to the house carrying small white lanterns that flickered in the semi-darkness. Then there was cocktails, speeches, pictures, movies, dinner (as we had surmised) was not served till midnight – but what a Greek feast it was! Dessert was not till 2 am, as was dancing. Despite the lure of 4 am swimming we said our good byes around 2:30 as all those west bound (everyone except me) had to get up again to catch their plane at 6 am! My plane did not leave till 2pm so I had a leisurely morning at the hotel – and yes stuffed down not one but two bowls of Greek yogurt and honey (can you blame me? I have to wait another six months before I’m likely to have any). And then I was off back to Asia.

And now finally I am home…it is still slightly odd to think that Thailand is home, but there is familiarity and comfort in being back in the city for sure. (That comfort started even before I unlocked the door of my apartment, when I ran into one of my students at the airport who then offered and gave me a ride home!) I am settling back into routines, though there are never fully formed routines here. I have taken on new projects to keep me busy (their description will come in a later post) and I am re-taking up older pursuits. And yes, I am already looking online and talking to friends about our next adventure – the semester ends in little less then a month, at which point we have a three week break…I still have much of Asia to explore!


  1. I loved your account, away from your home, Thailand, to the land sitting in East and West, Turkey over the summer. Eventually, to Friends wedding in Greece! Loved the photo of David climb on the Byzantine Wall, the wall Elizabeth climbed too. I enjoy all the writing, specially, your account of the young students in all activities including their arts.
    I am happy for you to experience all you are doing...stay healthy. Always in good humor too.
    Lots of love to you.

  2. I love your stories of cheese eating upon your arrival in Turkey and Greece. No such cheese in Thai cuisine? Of course not. It brings back to our summer on a visit to a French family in So of France. Cheese and cheese, after a great Fr dinner and before the desert, was in order. Elizabeth asked what cheese that was, that was new to her and us, Chip and Dalli.
    From Basque France, sheep cheese! Elizabeth is pretty respectful for others, but the cheese did it...she ate most of that Basque cheese, the whole wheel of that French Basque cheese! Not enough still. E promised herself, for her next travel,
    she'd like to return to our Fr Friend's family place in Bayone, Fr Basque on Atlantic, just to eat that cheese!! Jess, I am so glad you had a break for getting away from the sweet food land, Thailand, to the land of cheese in Turkey and Greece! Long live Cheese for us all!
    Chip and I are enjoying the goat cheese in GIW Goat Farm! I love your blogs...keep on writing, the best you do!
    Lots of love,