Sunday, July 28, 2013

Cooking Class

Our gorgeous spread of veggies from the market.
The small chefs, distributing the ingredients to each of our cooking/prep stations
One of the incredible things about being in Thailand is of course eating THAI FOOD.  We thought it impractical (tho not unreasonable) to bring back a suitcase full of green papaya salad, a second one full of sticky rice and mangoes, and a third with piping hot Tom Kah Gai and Phad Thai Noodles.  Guessing they would not travel well we opted for a cooking class. A wonderful Thai Lanna woman who has lived and traveled the world over, Suwanee, returned home to Chiang Rai and opened an informal cooking school.
Suwanee and the boys, in action
Offering all-day experience for tourists, Suwanee fills the day with interesting activities including a trip to the market to buy all the ingredients for a select 5-course menu, explain all the unfamiliar fruits and veggies, sample some uncommon snacks, watch specialty foods being made, and meet some market vendors. We took a detour to visit a temple that is nearby the market.  And on the way back to Chiang Rai, we did a big detour to the White Temple (Wat Rung Kohn).

 PFPJ also carried on with his mission to locate and use all of Thailand's bathrooms.

A favorite of everyone: Green Papaya Salad.  Can't you almost taste it? 
Ingredients for another favorite, Tom Kah Gai (Thai lemongrass/coconut soup)
My cooking station -- I was trying to film and photograph so I think my dishes suffered a bit of neglect. We enjoyed sampling each-other's dishes.  We each had to make some choices about how much of different ingredients to add even tho we were all making the 'same' entrees.  We made a menu of things not only that we liked but that we thought we could make back in Zambia:  green papaya salad, tom ka gai, steamed banana cakes, ginger chicken, and something we are all forgetting right now.  We need to check the video clips to refresh our memory!
mashing bananas for our little, steamed cake packets
They could tell mine by the diagonal skewer.  I did not follow directions, apparently.

Taking a deserved break.  Cooking is hard work.

Wat Rong Khun, the monkless White Temple

Construction on Thai artist/architect Chalermchai Khositpipat's life-long project, Wat Ron Khun, the White Temple, outside the city of Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand started in 1997 and is slated to continue for three generations.  As explained by our host, Chef Suwanee, the temple not only provides commentary about Thai culture, Buddhism and the artist's personal artistic vision, it also provides jobs and training for thousands in the area, in the arts, in the tourism sector, in the trades.  It is not only a temple to Buddhism but a legacy for the community.

While most temples are gold and gilt and red and green and blue and every color of the rainbow, the White Temple is....uh, white. It's decorated with glass and mirrors, silver and tin.  Khoitpipat feels that gold is representative of greed, corruption and temptation while white represents purity and truth. The only gold structure on the 5 acre site is building housing the toilets.  Also unique to Wat Rong Khun is that it is maintained by staff and volunteers and not by monks.

A turret from the golden restroom building next alongside one of the many umbrella/tree turrets.

"I am determined to return my life to my country, my religion, and all people around the world.  It was my strong intention to build a temple in imitation of heaven. I wanted it to be a heaven on earth.  I built a main building in the Buddhist monastery. I wanted it to be like a house of the Buddha with white color representing His purity and white glass representing His wisdom shining all over the earth and the universe." Chamlermchai Khosipipat

Posing with the artist...rather, posing with a plastic cut-out of the artist.  He was in Bangkok the day we were there. We're wearing matching Lanna-fisherman pants.  We are so cool.

ever-ongoing construction.  all part of his plan.

It's quite impossible to capture the scale of the project -- the sheer size of the temples and grounds as well as the enormous attention to detail. It's massive and yet every last tiny little thing is clean, decorated, painted, and adorned.

There is no admission fee.  Visitors can make small donations to the project (nor more than 10,000 Bhat $330 and there are no plaques acknowledging any donations anywhere as is common practice), and purchase artwork -- on the grounds is also a huge exhibition of his 'Masterworks' collection of paintings and sculptures.  Visitors can also contribute in another way that we found really touching, by buying a silver ornament (for 30 Bhat, $1, which I doubt even covers the cost); you add to the others.  When I say others, I mean the hundreds of thousands of others.  If you look up at the covered walkways you'll see them hanging overhead.  See?  There are a few. 

O, taking a moment to write and hang a message

The wat grounds has the 9 traditional temple structures but it also has man contemporary art pieces incorporated into the traditional design.  As you approach the main temple, for example, you must first pass thru a piece called 'Hell.' (To get to heaven you have to go thru Hell) The path is flanked by two seas of hands -- grotesque outstretched arms making desperate gestures and clawing their way to the surface. I noticed this quiet, pleading pair.

Before you set foot on the serpent fenced bridge over the ponds that surround the main temple you pass by two 2.5 m tall guards. Just a wee-bit intimidating.  Also intimidating are the temples' staff urging you via a public address megaphone to "Move along!" "ONE WAY!' "KEEP MOVING!" It wasn't busy so we did not get much scolding as I dallied with my camera waiting for the rest of the fam to catch up.

Inside the temple, traditional rules of etiquette are observed:  no photography, (bare) feet tucked under (mermaid style) if you sit, revered silence out of respect to those worshipping, covered shoulders and legs.  The temple interior is full of scaffolding and you can watch a team of artists at work on traditional murals and....very untraditional murals.  This is one of the things the White Temple is famous for -- the juxtaposition of images of Buddah, his story, paintings of Thai life and culture and also....George W. Bush riding a missle, Osama Bin Ladden's face peering out of a giant skeleton's eye socket. Superman.  Many Star Wars characters doing battle, etc.  All apparently a commentary on human fascination with good vs. evil and the fact that ancient religions and modern life are one, part and parcel.

There were two fans running in the temple and sitting in front of the fans were Thai worshippers....enjoying the gentle breeze and texting on their smartphones.

Saturday, July 27, 2013


Perhaps related the the previously mentioned 'snapshot' informal survey of the tourism sector was the way that the boys were treated, Thing 2 especially.  Blond haired blue eyed little boys are virtually nonexistent everywhere we went.  And so, PFPJ was treated like royalty.

It was a bit disorienting to be in a country where people (apprently) don't mind being randomly photographed.  This is definitely not the case in Zambia and so I'm way out of the habit of taking peoples' portraits without their explicit permission and I'm really unaccustomed to being ASKED to take someone's picture!

(Above) I was actually wanting to take a picture of the psychedelic orange and yellow fuel and mixing contraption at the gas station (that was for the motorbikes?) but the attendant kept sneaking into the frame so I could take her picture.  Granted, clearly we were foreign tourists and traveling some kind of tourism circuit, so the expectation was there that we wanted to take photos was already there.  Still, I'm not sure what behavior was expected.  There were many photos that we wanted to take (the young monks goofing around and working at a temple construction side, launching loads of scrap timbers+bamboo over a cliff...)

There are rules about photography in Thailand that had be on edge.  For example, you can't take photos of Buddha.  At the airport and driving from the airport there are huge signs and billboards warning (in English) that you should not take photos, you should not buy trinkets of Buddha or buy statues to use to decorate your house ("Buddha is not furniture" proclaims one and shows pictures of Buddha heads for sale at a market and another shows how a ginormous Buddha statue is used to as decor at a hipster nightclub.)  But when you go to the temple of the famous reclining Buddha (Wat Pho) in Bangkok, that is what everyone is doing.  They sell tickets so you can go in and take photos of this statue.  Odd, right?

The reclining Buddha.  It's big and it's housed in a tiny little temple so it's actually quite impossible to get a photo of it. So TJ took pictures of people taking pictures.

The giant reclining Buddha's toes.  The feet are 3 m (12 feet) high and 4.5 (13.5 feet) long. The original Big Foot?

Another tourist trying to find a detail to focus on b/c you truly can't capture the massiveness of this statue.
Mother of pearl inlay detail on the Reclining Buddha's feet. In addition to this rosette on the soles of his feet there are 108 'panels' showing the auspicious characteristics of the Buddha.

(Above) Testing lenses at the Sony store.  The salesman kept insisting on being photographed.  (This is my new 50mm/1.8.  Why have I never owned this lens?? So fun)

This monk's interpreter/handler basically forced O to take this photo.  O studied Buddhism all thru Year  6 and was surprised to see that a monk was walking around this temple (as a tourist himself, b/c this particular temple does not have monks, that's another blog post) with an iPad when he learned that a monk can't even handle money much less have possessions like the latest iPad, so he asked.  Basically, if a monk is given something he can have it.  This isn't quite true, a monk can't accept anything ridiculous or lavish or something considered a luxury but the "rules" are a bit flexible and up for interpretation.  Things are not so clear cut.  

Journey to the year 2556

For many reasons we decided to forgo our annual pilgrimage to the mother land.  How fun to think that instead we engaged in time travel (to the year 2556) for our summer vacation, but we did!  How did we manage? Easy. We went to Thailand.

This photo was taken in the national park outside of Chiang Mai where we had an incredible adventure.  Our guide was answering the question "What does this sign say?" It's along the road to little village where a ziplining/adventure park company is based.  The company supports the village thru employment and they live a relatively 'traditional' lifestyle while benefitting from this small and relatively low impact tourism operation.  As far as the sign, it is basically just about the road, how it was funded, when it was started, when it was completed, how it is maintained.  Boring stuff, but this is when we said, "Uh, what do you mean it was started in the year 2552?"

Thailand (along with Cambodia, Laos, Burma and Sri Lanka) uses a Buddhist calendar as opposed to (or in addition to) the Gregorian calendar.  The simplified explanation is that the Thai Buddist year 0 is counted from the year Buddha attained complete nirvana, post 'awakening' (bodhi) and upon the death of his physical body.  In Thailand this was in March 545 BCE but for some reason was fixed at 543. The new year is April.  The calendar also factoring in the lunar cycle (counting the days of the month in two halves: waxing and waning) and the signs of the zodiac so the days don't match up always with the Gregorian calendar.  If we lived there we'd hopefully learn more about this.

We really missed out on a lot by not being able to read and not having someone to translate the many signs and brochures that were printed only in Thai script.  We left so many sites with unanswered questions and I'm sure missed out on so many things simply because we were basically illiterate there except when there was english script.  Where we were traveling and the kind of travel we were doing (not Euro/American backpacker tourism) the guides all said that their clients were 75% chinese 15% Thai and the rest Japanese, European with a few Americans.  Interesting.

One bit of script worth learning:

Tuesday, July 23, 2013


Our grand holiday posts will have to wait until I can make sense of things (or figure a way to mainline coffee?)  This is the only one you're clamoring for anyway, right?  We nearly ran out of time....we snuck in a haircut for Thing 1 in our last few days in Bangkok.

The trip sometimes seemed like we were actually taking the kids HAIR on vacation.  

O and Hair in a longboat we took on the Mae Kok River from the tiny town of Than Ton at the Burma-Thailand border down to Chiang Rai, a 4.5 hour jaunt, a very cool way to travel.  Hair really enjoyed itself. So did we.

O and Hair on a pretty hideous train ride overnight ++ where we all had flashbacks to our  Johannesburg to Capetown trip where we sat on the still, silent, 'overnight' train all night long and came to Cape Town a full 10 hours behind schedule.  Oof.  I woke up from a sweaty fitful sleep on a tiny top bunk somewhere between Nakhon Sawan and Uthai Thani (a genuinely wild guess) realizing we were sitting on the track and would continue to site for another 3+ hours I was worried.  Did I mention sweaty?  I don't know if Hair enjoyed this particular trip or not but let's put the second class, non-AC overnight train in the 'experience' category.  We will not repeat it.  (The Jozzi to CT trip?  would do again in a heartbeat.) The posh and much cheaper overnight BUS experience?  Incredible!

Alright already, are you ready for what's next?  Hold onto your hats.

Time to make a change. A big change.

 Pre NVSC, here is TJ making a ceremonial pony tail -- making a bunch-o-bunches meant we could have longer pony tails to send in. More is better in wig-making, as you might imagine.

I have to insert this photo from LAST YEAR (below) when his BFF got his hair cut in Seattle. They even dressed alike for the event. I bet that made a gorgeous wig! (Seriously, that is a different boy!)

 Me, pausing....but only for a second!

 WHHHHAAAAAAA!  This was fun!! (you can read below if you want to know why mumsy did the cutting)

 bunches of bunches

Getting the bunches ready to ship to "Wigs for Kids" (read more about hair donations below) 

 ... at the bangkok salon and Thai street fashion mecca "Never Say Cutz" where "friends don't let friends get a bad haircut." we showed the guys the pics from earlier to explain the total hack job he walked in with. They LOVED it, wished they had been able to do the whole job. Arggh, but it really didn't make sense and in the end it all worked out.  I cut it to maximize the donation but also so these characters would have enough to 'work with.' They worked it.

O above and his buddy below.  Oh I love these boys. 

 PFPJ got in on the act, too.

Thing 2, looking gorgeous (and very serious -- on purpose, trust me, he knows what those blue eyes can get him:  nearly nearly anything.  And when they are brimming with crocodile tears?  Absolutely ANYTHING.) 
LOVE the sprinkling of nose freckles. (but stocked up on kids sun cream, don't worry.)

and...the big reveal. Cool kid.

The backstory:
Hair has defined our oldest son’s life for a long time. Since he was a toddler, his hair has been a thing of wonder.  Beautiful bouncy blonde curls adorned his little toddler head and has attracted attention from old and young, men and women, boys and girls.  His locks defied gravity, they shone from within, and they were rarely brushed or touched so they remained lovely. His hair GLOWED.

Somewhere along the way, he had  falling out with the barber shop (like after 4 consecutive bad hair cuts in Z barbershops); then he lost his affections for the salon where the only option was to give him a layered Claudia Shieffer.  "Claude WHO?"  Never mind, son, never you mind.

One day.  He said, out of the blue.  

"I think I’d like to get my hair cut." he told his father one night when he went in to say god night. TJ said he kind of stood there holding his breath.  "Really?"

"In Thailand."

And so, we booked tickets.

Just kidding, the trip came first and the request to cut the hair was filed away on the long, long, very long list of ‘things to do in Bangkok’.  

The trip went off and we nearly ran out of time.  

Right before we left, we looked up the guidelines for donating O’s hair.  Please don’t think that he grew his hair to donate it (some people do set out on the hair growing plan with that in mind from the get-go), or that he had some big altruistic plan in mind when he decided not to cut his hair.  In fact, if anything, he wanted to sell it.  If he could have organised to sell it, I’m sure he’d have cut it sooner.  We did think up an elaborate plan to have an auction....he could have made a lot of money putting on some kind of raffle....selling the ‘right’ to cut it, and in the process could have raised a lot of cash.  Ironically, the whole thing of his having long hair was more of a way to NOT draw attention to himself.  And because he does not like change.  The psychology behind it was fascinating.

People had some strange and strong opinions about O’s hair.  I think it was starting to bug him that his hair was becoming a defining feature of his was getting annoying.  (To all of us!)  

Why NOT try to profit? And why not make people put their money where their mouth was?  He loved this idea but it would have drawn far too much attention to himself.  “Much to flashy, not my style.”  True.  Silent & strong, that’s his modus operendi. And in true to O form, he stuck to his guns. Damn that kid is STUBBORN.  Not at all like his parents......HA! 

The people who set out to grow their hair so they can donate it truly amaze me.  It's a wonderful gesture and can mean so much. We know so many who have lost their hair in the process of treating their cancer (which means....they lost the hair but have their lives!! YeaH!) and other situations....we hope that the donation, however it gets there will be appreciated.  (actually, this donation is traveling to the US right now via Korea with the friends we stayed with in Bangkok -- no tricky customs issues there:  "have you been asked to pack anything in your luggage by someone....." This hair could be the most travelled hair ever set into a wig!  Zambia, Thailand, Zanzibar, Cape Town, Paris, London, Dubai...good grief! This assumes our friends dont' get stopped for trafficking human body parts.)

At any rate, we researched donating his hair on the sly. And this week did so - to “Wigs for Kids” which asks for 12-inch ponytails -- his more than qualified in the end.  The other contender was Pantene’s “Beautiful Lengths” program (requiring 8inch pony tails and also having a different target market for the wigs they make).  

So many people use ‘Locks for Love’ but in looking at their policies (what they do with the hair they receive and how they deal with donations and mainly, who are the recipients of the wigs, etc,) decided that was not in line with what we wanted.  We also considered the recommendations from the American Cancer Society, decided that the policies for ‘Wigs for Kids’ were fair and reasonable.  And, uh, totally awesome. If you are in the mood to donate -- please do the research and decide for yourself!  

After dreaming up some funny plans for how to communicate in English with way-too-hip Thai barber shop about needing to follow certain guidelines, O suggested the obvious -- “can’t you just cut it?”


And so, we made 8 ponytails, binding them at the top, where they would be cut, and again in the middle.  One giant ponytail in the back would have required a chain-saw to cut thru (it’s so thick) and by having many small ones all over his head meant the hair could be contained better and that we could get longer ponytails to send away. PFPJ did the filming, we have yet to process the video, sorry, that will come much much much later.

And now that it’s cut -- “Does he miss it?” is the question everyone asks.  “Miss what?”  For him it’s been such a non-issue, it’s been the rest of us getting so worked up about it. Long, short, he really does not care.  But -- he did buy some hair gel the other day: “Mommy, I want the kind for MEN.” 

Oh, help.

We did some other things in Thailand: ziplining, abseiling, rock climbing, surfing, cooking lessons, temple-trekking, snorkeling, ice skating, cycling, swimming, lots of eating and a wee bit of shopping. But we had to get this post out of the way.  Kob kun mak man.

kob kun mak man
(which means 'thank you vey much" not "how scary-creepy is this, dude?")

PS Now that the hair is cut and being styled daily with that funky-cute TinTin do in the front, we're remembering that it's the back that was always the sticks up on it's own just like the front -- he's like a little peacock-head or a bower-bird.

PPS Owen recently received these kind words of support and encouragement from Wigs 4 Kids:

"This is one of the most unique stories we have received and we appreciate the time spent informing others how a difference can be made in the lives of children experiencing hair loss. We are fortunate to receive hair from around the world, as people like you recognize that this is not a local or national problem, it is universal. 

We are so grateful that you chose Wigs 4 Kids as your charity of choice to donate to. We will look forward to receiving your son’s hair and are inspired by his example as this program is all about kids helping other kids. It is very important to the young men in our program that other boys donate their hair as well."