Turkey-less in Thailand

Tonight we had Thanksgiving dinner with our Burmese friends in Mae Hong Son. It was their first time celebrating Thanksgiving (they hadn’t even heard of the holiday until we mentioned it last week), and they were honored to be involved. The menu was quite different from our Thanksgiving in India, as there are no turkeys to be had in these parts. Our main course was “snake” in banana leaves, which took the better part of the day to prepare. We also had a side of papaya pancakes and the full set of accoutrements (including lots of chilies, of course). For dessert we had a ridiculous cake we picked up from a new bakery in town. The sweet shop owners asked if we wanted any writing on the cake (they usually do birthday cakes), so we acquiesced to a “Happy Thanksgiving” flourish.

After our food was all prepared, our Burmese friends asked us if we were going to give a speech before dinner or if we had any traditions on this holiday. So we went upstairs, sat around in a circle, and talked about thanks. Lauren gave a brief history of Thanksgiving and then many of us around the circle talked about what we were thankful for. One of our Burmese friends was thankful that we introduced them to Thanksgiving and shared our holiday with them. We’re thankful that we were able to share Thanksgiving with our small but growing family, and our adopted family here in Mae Hong Son.

Our Burmese Thanksgiving spread
Special Mae Hong Son Thanksgiving dinner

Dessert
Our festive dessert

Broken Ethics

As luck would have it, I connected with a friend of ours from Thailand this morning. Matt is in Oslo to launch EarthRights International’s new report, which details how 15 multi-national oil and gas companies are contributing to human rights violations in Burma.

I attended his press conference this morning where he called Norway to task for their investments (~$4.7 billion) in these companies. While Norway has in place a very laudable set of Ethical Guidelines, Matt’s report details how their investments in these companies violate those guidelines. The hope is that the Council on Ethics will act on this information to evaluate whether the companies should be put under observation or potentially even excluded from their fund.

While there has not been a response from the Council quite yet, the report has received a good amount of coverage over the past few hours. Articles have appeared in Bloomberg and The Independent, as well as more traditional Burma-focused press outlets such as the Irrawaddy and Democratic Voice of Burma. For those who speak Norwegian, there is additional content here and here.

It felt great discussing the Burma situation all afternoon and reliving some of my activist days; it also reminded me how much I miss our Burmese friends in Thailand, how complicated the situation is, and  how much work remains before the Burmese can live a life free of human rights violations.

Hanging out at the Litteraturhuset
Hanging out at the Litteraturhuset before Matt’s BBC interview

Lon Hoi Thot

Rating:

A few weeks ago, we discovered a delicious purveyor of Easy Thai near the Sunday Market, next to the Toyota dealership. Of the three small rarn ar harn dtarm sang located there, Lon Hoi Thot is the northernmost one (furthest from the market and directly across from the 7-11). They have an English menu available to foreigners, and of course all of the easy Thai classics are available even if they aren’t listed there. One of the family members, Koi, speaks excellent English and has provided me with a lot of pronunciation tips for ordering Thai food.

All of the food at Lon Hoi Thot is fresh and served very quickly from their two cooking stations. My favorite dish of theirs is gai kratiem prik thai (chicken with garlic and pepper). Lon Hoi Thot adds more garlic and chili to the dish than most places, which makes it the best one I’ve had in Thailand. I also really like their pad prik giang (vegetables in red curry sauce), either gai (with chicken) or jai (with tofu and extra vegetables).

When we took Lauren’s family here for lunch a few weeks ago, their comment after the meal was “is this place open for dinner? We want to come back tonight.” Unfortunately Lon Hoi Thot is only open until 4PM, but I took them on a repeat visit for lunch the next day.

The dishes at Lon Hoi Thot are priced similarly to other food stalls in town (about $1), the quality is very high, and the kratiem prik thai is completely addictive. We had some for lunch both yesterday and today, and I may have to stop by tomorrow (our final day in Mae Hong Son) for one more hit.

UPDATE (12/1/2011): I discovered on our return trip to Mae Hong Son that Lon Hoi Thot is now open for dinner! Oh, and the food remains as delicious as I remember it.

Lon Hoi Thot
Look for the big yellow sign, your smiling hostess Koi (in the glasses), and her mom the amazing chef

The chef at work
Cooking up pad prik giang

Chicken with garlic and pepper
Gai kratiem prik thai kai dao – it’s like crack

Pad prik geang
Pad prik geang kai dao

Pad thai sen yaiPad kra pao
Pad thai sen yai jay and pad kra pao gai

Lauren enjoying pad thai sen yai

Lon Hoi Thot
East side of Khunlumpraphat Road/Hwy 108
Across from the 7-11 and the Sunday Market
Mae Hong Son, Thailand
+66 (0) 5362-0690
Daily: Breakfast, Lunch (8:00AM-4:00PM)

Puzzled in Mae Hong Son

On the first Friday of every month, the ex-pat community in Mae Hong Son organizes a “quiz night,” similar to the trivia nights you find at bars in the US. Janis, the unofficial social coordinator of Mae Hong Son and the driving force behind quiz night, depends on volunteers from the ex-pat community to help run the event.

In an attempt to do our part to help, six weeks ago Lauren and I offered to host a quiz night for our final Friday in Mae Hong Son. There was one condition to our offer – we wanted to have the evening be more puzzle-like, and less pure trivia. Janis said “sure” and we were on the calendar. Of course, although we had almost two months of advance notice, it wasn’t until last weekend that we started writing puzzles, so we spent most of our free time this week preparing material for the event.

We had two 45-minute rounds, separated by a 30-minute intermission. At the beginning of each round we handed out two puzzles, worth 10 points each with a bonus of 2 points for the fastest correct answer. The first round puzzles were:

Intermission was sourced from Peter Sarrett’s puzzle Googolplex used in Microsoft Puzzlehunt 123. The presentation format was an “all play” where Lauren and I would read a movie description and the first team to shout out the correct answer received one point.

Round 2 was slightly more difficult:

  • Is That a Banana – A honeycomb-formatted crossword, with clues referencing Mae Hong Son and Thailand
  • Mae Hong Son Social Network – our creativity highlight of the night, a logic puzzle presented as a Facebook feed

The puzzles are posted here. If you want to try them out, note that a few of the clues require local knowledge of Mae Hong Son. The answers are also posted if you get stumped.

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Puzzlers at work

The winning team
Team Blink: Coming from behind to tie for first place

Things We Will Miss

  • Easy Thai, especially Rarn P Dam, where Kenny eats lunch every weekday.
  • Super spicy delicious Burmese ethnic minority cuisine.
  • Mango and sticky rice.
  • Now that I mention it, mango with anything. Or mango with nothing.
  • Lychees, rambutans, and mangosteens.
  • Free community yoga twice a week.
  • Riding my bicycle everywhere and never worrying about traffic.
  • The fact that the highway, which runs right behind our apartment, generally has more joggers on it than cars.
  • Our co-workers, who have also become good friends.
  • Swimming in the Nam Pai on hot days.
  • Eating delicious fruits and vegetables every day that come from our own farm.
  • Living the easy life in our peaceful town, nestled in a beautiful valley.
  • Frogs, geckos, roosters, and other fun neighbors. Well, maybe not the roosters so much. They are pretty, but it will be nice to sleep in past 5am.
  • Drawing on our software engineering experience to contribute to the fight for democracy in Burma.

Kenny biking to Nai SoiLake wat

Mango and sticky riceNai Soi

Gorging on fruitThe farm

Coffee, Tea, Etc.

Rating:

When we were on our initial conference call with AJWS and the other SE Asia volunteers, one of the questions asked was, “can I get good coffee?” The response was something to the effect of “this volunteering assignment is a good opportunity to kick your coffee habit.”

While Lauren and I certainly appreciate a good cup of coffee, we also have no problem going coffee-less for months on end. Given that we aren’t in an ex-French colony, we were happy to subsist on tea for our occasional morning beverage. Then we sampled Coffee, Tea, Etc. on the main drag of Mae Hong Son, located in P Nik’s building. Who knew that you could find Seattle-quality cappuccinos in our little provincial town?

The coffee beans used at Coffee, Tea, Etc. are grown locally in Mae Hong Son. They also serve a delicious tea made from Mae Hong Son tea leaves. Gwang, the barista/owner, is a friendly young Thai man who speaks excellent English. Gwang has given us a lot of advice and information during our stay, such as where to make key copies, and the name of my favorite Thai food-to-order stall (Rarn P Dam, located across the street). It’s common for P Dam to deliver breakfast to Gwang, and for Gwang to drop off coffee drinks for P Dam and her husband.

For 30 Baht (under $1), you can enjoy a delicious cappuccino at Coffee, Tea, Etc. with friendly service and free wireless. It turns out that rather than being a place to kick your coffee habit, Mae Hong Son may be a place to develop one.

Lauren enjoying a morning cappuccino
Happy way to start the day

Cappuccino
Our very first cappucino at Coffee, Tea, Etc.

Breakfast
Cross-cultural breakfast: our favorite Thai food with our favorite cappuccino

Coffee, Tea, Etc.
NE Corner of Singhanart Bamrung and Phadit Joncume
Mae Hong Son, Thailand
Daily: 7:00AM-7:00PM

Rarn P Dam

Rating:

Across the street from P Nik’s, and next to the CP Fresh Mart, is my favorite Thai food vendor in Mae Hong Son. The setting is basic, though on the larger end for a rarn ar harn dtarm sang, and the food is fantastic. It’s run by a friendly Thai lady, P Dam, and her family.  She serves all of the Easy Thai dishes at their finest, and the lunchtime the operation is a sight to behold. Customers come up and give a verbal order, and somehow P Dam keeps all of the requests in her head, even when the queue is more than a dozen people long.

I’ve been going to Rarn P Dam for lunch almost every weekday since I discovered it, and I’m usually the only farang eating there. P Dam also knows that I like spicy food, so I can be assured of ample chilies. Unfortunately, Rarn P Dam is not open for dinner, and they are closed on Sundays, so Lauren wasn’t able to try their food for a few weeks (she lunches with her NGO during the week).

Over Songkran I was finally able to introduce Lauren to Rarn P Dam, and since then we’ve been going for Saturday lunches and the occasional weekday breakfast. All of the dishes are 25-30 Baht (less than $1), the vegetables are fresh and generously portioned, and P Dam is an ace with the wok.

Today, in preparation for this writing, I finally found out the name of my “Thai food stall across from Nik’s.” If you are in Mae Hong Son, you should definitely pencil in a lunch or two at Rarn P Dam. Lauren’s family ate here three times while they were visiting, and I’ll be stopping by for my daily fix until we leave next week. Yum!

P Dam at work
P Dam frying up pad thai sen yai

Assembly line for a bulk order
The happy family at work on a bulk lunch order of pad kra pao moo

Rarn P Dam
Fresh ingredients on display

Pad Thai sen yai jay
The best pad thai (sen yai) I’ve ever had

Pad kra pao jay kai dao
Pad kra pao jay kai dao (spicy vegetables with chili, basil and a fried egg on top), my favorite dish at P Dam

Pad see ew Kao jeow
Pad prik geang Pad kra pao jay
An assortment of other dishes available for 25 Baht

Lauren enjoying pad kra pao kai dao
Lauren enjoying her first P Dam experience

Rarn P Dam
SE Corner of Singhanart Bamrung and Phadit Joncume
Mae Hong Son, Thailand
Daily: Breakfast, Lunch (7:00AM-4:00PM)
+66 (0)84-3688533

Mae Hong Son Night Market

The first few times we tried to find the Mae Hong Son night food market, we ended up at the cheesy tourist night market on Jongkham Lake. We knew this couldn’t be right, as our friends kept telling us that the  night market was a great place to go for noodles, but all we found were over-priced T-shirts and woven hill tribe purses. Eventually we realized that we needed to continue south down the main road, past the library, where we found a cluster of food carts set up in front of a municipal building.

On our first visit, we sampled dishes from a few stalls, including pad thai, khao soi, a few different steamed glutinous rice snacks in banana leaves, a sinfully-delicious fried papaya snack called “khaangpong” (translated on the sign as “the papaya fries herbs”), and a savory crepe with chili sauce. Yum!

Khao soi gai
Khao soi gai

Sticky rice snacksSticky rice snacks
Bundles of joy

Pad thai
Whipping up fresh pad thai jay

Lauren eating pad thai
Enjoying delicious pad thai on the grass

On later visits we learned that the night market is actually a bit hit-or-miss: on many nights, none of the three noodle stalls are present (it seems to be an all-or-nothing deal), and there is just less selection in general. We haven’t figured out the pattern, as the decreased selection doesn’t seem to be tied to any particular night of the week. But even on nights when the noodles are absent, we find we are able to make do if we look hard enough. At some point, we discovered a lady who makes decent som tam (spicy papaya salad) and vegetarian rice-paper rolls.

We took my family to the night market while they were here, with nearby Fern Restaurant as a backstop in case it was an off night. Unfortunately the noodle carts were indeed absent, but there was good enough selection from among our other favorite carts to scrounge up a decent (if greasy) meal. While we made food selections, Kenny took a quick run to the 7-11 and picked out one of each of the beers on offer (and a bottle opener so we could enjoy them), so our dinner turned into a Thai-snacks-and-Thai-beer sampler platter. Fortunately we still had room for our favorite dessert: mango and sticky rice near home.

Dad at night market
Dad considers a fish

Fried papaya snacks
Tasty fried papaya snacks, or “Khaangpong”

Thai snacks and beer sampler
Thai snacks and Thai beer sampler

Fern Restaurant

Rating:

Fern Restaurant, on the main road of Mae Hong Son near the night market, is a funny place. The main dining area is immense, with a smaller area in the front and a large recessed section in the back that seems targeted to tour groups. However, it’s no longer high season, and we’ve had the restaurant mostly to ourselves on our visits.

The LP describes Fern Restaurant as “Mae Hong Son’s most upscale restaurant, but remember, this is Mae Hong Son.” This doesn’t quite give you the correct impression though. While the prices are higher than most in town, they still average under 150 Baht (<$5), and the setting is much more relaxed and low-key than you might expect. The staff are clearly used to foreigners, speak excellent English, and provide great table service. The tall ceilings, endless pitchers of ice water, and strategically placed fans provide welcome relief from the heat.

The food at the Fern is mixed. Our first meal was a bi-polar experience. We loved the fern salad, a house specialty mix of ferns, carrots, tofu, and peanuts with a chili-lime-coconut dressing. The dressing, reminiscent of that used in the wing bean salad at Bon Kitchen, is so addictive that we used the cabbage garnish and our leftover rice to soak up any remains. On the other extreme, the northern curry was a pungent, sour soup that we couldn’t force ourselves to finish.

Since then, we’ve always included the fern salad in our meal and it’s consistently delicious. Their green curry is also quite tasty, almost at the level of Rom Jinda’s. The red curry was decent but not as good as the  green curry. Take a pass on ginger chicken with black mushrooms unless you like very bland dishes.

Overall, Fern Restaurant is worth an occasional visit if you have an extended stay in Mae Hong Son. While Rom Jinda offers a more intimate atmosphere, better food, and generally cheaper prices, the Fern can provide a nice change of scenery along with an enjoyable meal of green curry and fern salad at around 200 Baht.

fern salad
Tasty fern salad

green curry
Green curry

northern curry ginger chicken with mushrooms
Two dishes not to order: northern curry and ginger chicken with mushrooms

Fern Restauran
Khunlum Praphat, across from the library
Mae Hong Son, Thailand

Daily: 10:30AM-midnight (Lunch, Dinner)

The Next Six Weeks

We have only 10 days left in Thailand. I know it will be extremely difficult to leave. On the one hand, I do feel a bit ready to move on from our small town. It is lovely, but after three months I certainly feel like I’ve seen what it has to offer. On the other hand, it will be very hard to leave my volunteer assignment. Not that I didn’t accomplish my goals – on the contrary, the staff and I have accomplished a lot more than we expected. I just know that I will miss them horribly and I want to continue helping them work for democracy in Burma. The separation will also be a poignant reminder that while I’ve been here helping them voluntarily, this cause is their life and they can’t just leave. In fact, they can’t really go anywhere.

Here is our plan for the next six weeks. As usual, it’s ridiculous and it involves a lot of flights:

  • Thailand: We have one more week volunteering in Mae Hong Son, then we head to New York (via Chiang Mai, Taipei, and San Francisco).
  • New York: We’ll be in New York for about a week for Kenny’s sister’s wedding. We have a bunch of errands to run — AJWS post-mortem at their office, get new India visas, get yellow fever shots for Uganda, etc. — but we’ll also get to spend time with family and friends while we’re there. My parents are also coming to the wedding. I’m excited to see my Dad again so soon, and I’ve promised to take my Mom on the Jewish tour of New York (Lower East Side, Brooklyn, etc.).
  • Boston: We will have four days in Boston to visit our dear friends Julie and Damian, and their newest addition, Sophie. A few friends from Seattle will be joining us.
  • London: On our way to India for Sean and Archana’s wedding, we arranged for a four-day "layover" in London. Kenny has never been to Stonehenge, so we will probably try to squeeze that in too. It will be a weird, very first-world tourist experience in the middle of this year of Global South adventures, but hopefully New York and Boston will help with the transition. I expect that we’ll spend more money during four days in London than we typically spend in four weeks here in Thailand.
  • Delhi: Delhi always seems to be our gateway to India. Gio is meeting us, and we’ll spend a couple of days showing him the sights (and we need to take him for a celebratory meal at Indian Accent). Then we plan to make a day trip to Agra, since we promised ourselves we’d see the Taj Mahal this time. It’s going to be HOT, but I suppose it can’t be much worse than April in Northern Thailand
  • Bangalore: The main event for us in India is Sean and Archana’s wedding in Bangalore, which promises to be an all-out traditional Tam-Bram affair. After the wedding, we’re all heading to a Jungle Retreat in the Nilgiris for a few days.
  • Kampala: On June 11, we’ll fly from Bangalore to Dubai to Addis Ababa to Entebbe, in order to start our next volunteer assignment, which is a technology for agriculture project, based in Kampala.