Friday, April 1, 2011

Back to Thailand

It was nice to arrive back at the airport in Bangkok and have it feel familiar. Just over 3 weeks ago, I was mildly shocked at leaving Korea and being in another new country. But it was already routine coming here, knowing where things were and hopping on the train to the city. It was a crazy day of travel, since the night before I had taken an overnight bus from Nha Trang, Vietnam, back to Saigon. I got in around 7am and had just enough time to say goodbye to Jacklyn one more time and take a shower before doing an organized tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels at 8:15. These are a huge underground tunnel system where Viet Cong hid during the war. I returned to in time to grab some lunch and get a taxi to the airport, catch my flight, and then try to make my way to the Northern Bus Terminal in Bangkok for yet another overnight bus. It was sort of a ridiculous day to plan into my trip, and I was prepared for something to go wrong, but amazingly nothing did. Instead, I got to the bus station at 9pm with a bus leaving in half and hour, so it was perfect. I managed to get a decent amount of sleep, and when I woke up was in the northern city of Chiang Mai.
I had heard a lot of good things about Chiang Mai, and even in the blue early-morning light, the place had a good feel. Markets were getting going, monks were walking in a line of red fabric down the sidewalk from one of numerous wats, and the side streets were narrow with small, cute restaurants, cafes, tour agencies, spas, and guesthouses. I checked into a hostel and had a mellow day walking around the city, visiting temples and eating good food.
The next day I took a one-day cooking class at the Thai Farm Cooking School, which was awesome. They picked up the 9 students from our various hotels, and in the end we had Americans, Swiss, Canadians, Germans, and a Singaporean. First we went to a local market where the instructor explained many key ingredients in Thai cooking. Then we drove out of the city to the lovely property and took a stroll through their gardens. We smelled kaffir lime, ate bitter eggplant, and compared different kinds of basil. We were making 5 courses, and for each course could choose from 3 different options. We could make green, yellow, or red curry from scratch, and with the paste make a chicken or tofu coconut curry. We also made a soup and salad, with most of the vegetables somewhat prepped so we were able to make the dishes fairly quickly. The instructor spoke great English and was very thorough and informative, and always reminded us to smile while cooking. We made our dishes, then all sat down to lunch outside on the terrace overlooking a pond. It was a feast, with our 3 dishes, plus jasmine rice, sticky rice, and other students sharing what they made. There was built-in siesta time to wander the farm or lay in the grass, which was much needed. In the afternoon we made another dish (spring rolls, pad thai, or pad see ew) that was meant as take-home food, in what the instructor called "Thai tupperware", referring to a plastic bag. Finally we made dessert, mango with sticky rice for me, and sat down together for our respective desserts and tea from the garden, while the instructor handed out the cookbooks and answered questions.
It was a really lovely day, well organized, with a good flow and a healthy, happy vibe. I thought I would never eat again, but I managed some street food when I went to the night market later that evening. I rented a motorbike and did some shopping before calling it a day. The next morning I headed just out of town to do a hike up to a small temple on a hillside. It was one of my favorite temples I've seen, with an ancient, tucked away, and not-at-all ostentatious feel to it. I couldn't have picked a better place to go on my last full day in Thailand. I was the only Westerner there, and struck up a conversation with an older Thai man. He was incredibly sweet as he asked me about the US and Korea. He asked me about my family and how old my parents were. "I'm same age as your dad! I can be like your dad!" he said. The monks were lining up for lunch at a long table lined with different dishes. The man explained that they had just finished a 15-day session, and at 11am the community serves them lunch in a sort of potluck-style. "After monks, eat, we can all eat too," he said. I told him I didn't want to intrude. "No, but you're like daughter! You have to eat with us!" he insisted. So I enjoyed rice, noodle dishes, eggs, cashew chicken, mixed veggies, fruit, and rice cakes while my new friend nodded happily.

I had to hurry down the mountain to return the motorbike and get to the train that evening. I took the overnight train which was quite comfortable, with full-sized sleeping bunks. While it had been fairly cool in Chiang Mai, I was greeted with a blast of heat in Bangkok. I spent the day drinking mango smoothies, iced coffee, walking by shrines, getting a massage, and checking out the Bangkok Art and Cultural Center, which was amazing. I haven't seen so much local art for, well, over a year. I met a new friend at the hostel to have dinner with before catching the flight. We talked about farming and our favorite types of heirloom tomatoes, and it made me excited to be back in the Pacific Northwest. I enjoyed my last plate of real Thai basil chicken, then headed to the airport for 28 hour trip home.

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